One of the major challenges for philosophical thinkers is to determine whether or not religious thinking is worth bothering with. At the same time, one of the major challenges for religious thinkers is to determine whether or not philosophical thinking is worth bothering with. Given their debt to each other in terms of the historical and substantive development of each, it is hard to say which dilemma is more ironic. Needless to say, for those who know me, by education and by inclination I am inclined to see a certain value in both, and part of my personal sense of purpose in life involves building a sense of mutual respect between those in each field, whether or not those on either side can be convinced to delve into the other’s area of interest.
The history of the relationship between philosophy and religious thought is rather complex, to say at the least. There are a number of open questions as to when the former properly began and where exactly the line can be drawn between the two. Are Confucius and Lao Tse, for example, better classified as religious thinkers or ancient Chinese philosophers? It could be argued that the less a particular form of thought relied on purely physical explanations for how everything works in its search for the ultimate truths about the origins and meanings of life, the universe and all that, the more likely it was to later be qualified as a religion rather than a philosophy. The rigor of the investigation involved, the level of submission to accepted authority structures and presumed supernatural powers and the assumptions of final justice occurring in the after-life have all been secondary considerations in drawing the border between these fields. In the end, as the Finnish idiom says, it is a line drawn in the water.
For some philosophical thinking is what they do when religious thinking fails to satisfy them; when they see that their prayers have not been answered in a way that makes it worth praying, or when they see that the answers offered by their priests, imams, rabbis and gurus don’t really help in their processes of trying to make sense of life as they experience it. Thus they start looking for less religious and more rationally defensible answers to the basic causes and effects they witness. From a religious viewpoint though, that is lazy thinking. It is setting aside the great quest for meaning, purpose and value in life. It is a refusal to think through the really challenging and yet really important matters of what we should ultimately give a damn about and why.
For some religious thinking is what people do when their rational, scientific perspectives fail them. This is sometimes referred to as “the God of the gaps”. When we come up against something too grand and too mysterious to get our head around, that sense of mystery and awe makes us feel religious. We then invent supernatural explanations for what cannot be naturally explained (yet). Thus religious thinking becomes an excuse to stop thinking through the really difficult questions we are faced with about where everything comes from and how it actually works.
In all fairness there are plenty of anecdotal justifications for both of the above perspectives, but there is also an element of unfairness in the reciprocal accusations of lazy thinking. There are many sincere seekers for truth who have diligently applied a considerable level of intellectual talent to looking for answers that apply to their own field and that still relate to the opposite one. There are philosophers who do focus on how we can find meaning and purpose in life –– questions religious thinkers specialize in –– without turning to supernatural explanations. In all fairness none of them have been particularly successful in developing anything that stirs the heart of mankind and ultimately satisfies our need for meaning, but there have been sincere efforts make and plausible answers put forward. Likewise when it comes to religious, non-material explanations of how the universe functions, it’s not all about random superstitious practices and beliefs. Within religion there are many aspects of profound investigation into the human condition and the ever changing circumstances that we find ourselves in, relying far more on honest consideration of empirical and phenomenological data than on ancient dogma. In all fairness they have yet to find a workable system for insuring even national peace, freedom and tranquility in practice –– and compared to medical science, the health benefits they have been able to achieve are quite modest at best –– but there have been sincere efforts, and practical suggestions put forward by religious thinkers that are of use to non-believers as well.
But beyond rejecting the stereotypes about lazy thinking, there are is the matter of labeling each other as dangerous or harmful. Here the anecdotal evidence of abuse on both sides carries more weight. It is hard do deny the damage done in inquisitions and “holy wars”, or the evil of some regimes based on “scientific thinking” such as Nazism or Stalinism. Of course those on each side can turn to such examples of evil within their own camp and say, “Yes but that’s obviously unfair. Those people really misrepresent what our side stands for.” And of course they’re right. But what good does that do when it comes to the practical need to control such abuses?
The ultimate issue here, however, is really not the means, but the corrupting final end: ultimate power. Both scientific thought and religious though –– together with economic calculations, educational systems and a host of other technologies –– have been used as means of usurping control over other people. Not that control is always bad, or that anarchy is the answer, but when power becomes a purpose above all others for those who get a taste of it, things can get very bad very fast. So in order to find hope for humanity the issue becomes in part setting up a system of checks and balances that enable people to have control over their own lives, while at the same time keeping them from enslaving, belittling and abusing others. But beyond that another aspect of having hope that we might live beyond our power struggles is finding some sense of shared purpose that is more important to us than our power struggles.
Neither materialistic, pragmatic technology-based philosophies nor partnership-with-the-ultimate-power-of-the-universe-based theologies like to admit that their systems have inherent human limitations. Indeed, both systems have impressive track records of going beyond what has previously been considered possible in terms of the power they have managed to exercise in modern society, and in the various eras of history leading to where we are now. Neither takes particularly kindly to those on the other side trying to limit their exercise of power. Religious authorities have a long history of anathematizing, interdicting and issuing fatwas against those they resent. Philosophers of various non-religious traditions have demonstrated an irritating tendency to declare anything they can’t critically conceptualize to be necessarily imaginary.
Thus living beyond the power struggle seems like a rather utopian ideal, but it isn’t entirely hopeless. There can be greater purposes in life, and greater fulfillments, than just proving to everyone else that you can do whatever you want, and you can get others to do what you want them to. The trick is to find these purposes, goals and fulfillments in a way that they are authentically your own; not the result of your being manipulated by someone else’s power trip.
Religious thought, at its best, is about finding a connection with people around us, the natural world we find ourselves in and the ultimate cause(s) of the universe. Of course there are ways that this turns into a business, where those who claim to be able to give people these connections charge handsomely for the service. Or this can also turn into a crude form of autocracy, where the “spiritual father” figure demands absolute loyalty in exchange for his blessings in enabling people to find the connections they need. But it can also give people exactly what they need in terms of a sense that they are important, cared for, and part of something bigger than themselves, that ultimately really matters. Other businesses and organizations have attempted to imitate this dynamic, but with limited success thus far.
Non-religious pragmatic thought, at its best, enables us to discover and invent new ways to accomplish our basic tasks with more ease and greater flexibility, reliability and safety. It helps us to live longer, and with a bit less pain. Yes, the technology this involves can sometimes become a cruel master rather than a servant. Yes, sometimes we pay for convenience with a loss of freedom and sense of purpose in life. But overall the improvements brought about in life by materialistic, scientific, technological approaches in life are rather hard to deny.
In my opinion then, we need both spirituality and sensibility. We need to be able to think both religiously and pragmatically, not putting absolute trust in the received wisdom of either tradition, but respecting the contributions and accomplishments of both. I’m inclined to believe that materialistic pragmatic philosophies have more to offer in terms of establishing systems of checks and balances to limit the abuse of power; and that religious systems of thought have more to offer in terms of possibilities of finding a deeper meaning in life than our power struggles with each other. Neither is in a particularly strong place to attempt to fully replace the other.
But if you felt threatened by the power of one or the other, and you want to insist on withdrawing from either the spiritual world or the technological world because of that, I can easily understand where you wouldn’t find these arguments convincing. I think your life will be poorer for it, but you are free to go your own way. It is still possible to be free from either paradigm. Yet it is also possible to explore both ways of thinking, to be enriched by both, and to carefully live at peace with each.