As an appropriate intellectual exercise for the Christmas season, an agnostic virtual friend of mine recently asked on his Facebook forum how we would like to see religion develop and what the ideal religion might be like. This generated a rather lively discussion that I didn’t bother to dive into right away, but which relates directly enough to my personal and professional identity where I feel I should make some effort to explain my perspectives on the matter.
If I start by summarizing the first couple hundred responses or so that this generated among the less than 120 participants on the board in question, most seem to feel that above all an ideal religion should be somewhat provable, or at the very least open to having its precepts tested and revised as factual evidence is discovered. At a minimum it should not place traditional dogma ahead of a spirit of investigation and discovery. Beyond that religion should increase a feeling of connection and solidarity, not only among its believers, but between its believers and the rest of the world –– human and otherwise. It should provide us with a sense of belonging and importance, and motivate us to be decent to each other. Anything else would be a bit of a bonus.
There was somewhat of a mixed response on the matter of ritual. Clearly ritual has its own role in religion, providing a sense of safety and predictability in the midst of life’s uncertainty for many people. Yet from a philosophical perspective ritual also has its negative aspects, appealing directly to the irrational and emotional side of the mind. Thus at its most benign ritual provides a substitute for thinking about deep, existential questions; at its worst ritual can cause a form of hypnosis which convinces believers of the truth of some very dubious metaphysical claims. Yet overall ritual is not seen as so sinister; it merely adds a certain rhyme and rhythm to life, sometimes quite literally.
Other issues that were raised have to do with the healthy effects of following religious teachings of various sorts in terms of making people feel like they are capable of higher physical and emotional function through following the practices of their religion. This involves a wide range of regulations and practices, perhaps the most easily defendable of which is focused meditation.
Overall there is nothing in the above which I would disagree with in principle. I suppose if anything I would object to a certain undercurrent which implies that religious faith is by and large a bad thing, but it is quite easy to see where people might get that impression from. And I must admit that there is ample room for improvement within both the teachings and the practice of every religion I have yet to be come across, which in itself gives rise to a rather complex and perhaps problematic set of value standards. Hopefully I can unpack some of that for you.
Yet in offering my perspectives and critiques on religious practices I want to make two points extremely clear: First, I do not believe that all religions are fundamentally the same or somehow equal, or that they all need to be blended together. And above all I what do not wish to do is to appoint myself as the prophet of a new religion claiming to be better than all its predecessors. I’ve seen too many flakes try it; no thanks.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating these matters over the past couple of weeks (in part explaining my failure to post a blog last week) so let me see if I can now make some coherent sense out of the ideas which have come to my mind about the matter. What I hope to do is give a perspective by which followers of different faiths (including atheism) can look deeply into their own hearts and critically examine their own beliefs as well as the next guy’s, and hopefully come away with just a bit deeper mutual respect in the process.
To start with I think we really need to address the issue of “the God of the gaps”. Especially among Europeans religion has quite often been a means of trying to explain things that we can’t get our heads around otherwise. The gaps between what the ancients could observe with wonder and that which they could understand were filled with the all purpose explanation that “God did it.” Most famously this relates to the idea that St. Thomas Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle –– via Muslim scholars –– saying that the intricate design of nature makes it necessary for nature to have a designer. People couldn’t figure out how the world they lived in got to be so awesome, so they just concluded that there must be a massively powerful God which made it that way.
The problem with that though is when scientists came up with other data about how old the world is, how it took shape and how various species might be related to each other in ways that contradicted the religious explanation for such things, it caused a huge outcry from the religious leaders (and masses) because it effectively closed some of the major gaps in which their idea of God dwelled. It took away much of their God-idea’s basic reason for existence. This put religion at odds with scientific investigation and discovery. That created a huge problem unto itself. How can we keep believing in a God whose function was to explain things we couldn’t explain otherwise when we start finding entirely non-religious explanations for the phenomena in question?
I should explain that I have no problem with using religious thinking to fill gaps in what is currently knowable. I have written elsewhere that for me one significant matter that falls into this knowledge gap category is what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness”. I won’t reiterate that essay beyond saying that since the question of consciousness is so vastly complex in so many different ways, I can’t see a scientific materialist answer on the matter as being in any way likely, and thus I am more comfortable talking about the issue using “religious language”. I do not, however, take this to be a final “proof” that God must exist; it is merely one example of how I find it easier to relate to the world around me in terms of a faith in God. If scientists do, however, succeed in mapping out the neurological structure of the human brain in such a way that explains the phenomena of conscious experience, limitations in volitional decision making, ethical responsibilities and how we go about choosing a purpose in life, I’d be very surprised, but not really threatened. I’m happy to have those particular gaps filled if someone can fill them. I don’t need them left open to save space for my idea of God. If there really is an almighty God is really out there, it stands to reason that He doesn’t need to be protected from such scholarship. For God to be God he must be far more than just a means of filling our conceptual gaps. And even if that is one of our major means of relating to God, we have no reason to be threatened about scholarship leaving no room for God. There is an adage that holds quite true: “The more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know.” Thus even if God were nothing but a gap filler, there is no real risk of us ever running out of gaps; they will just continue to be ever different ones.
There’s another aspect of the idea of the “gap filler God” that I’m not comfortable with though: the whole matter of trying to scientifically prove God’s existence. To me this is just one more example of our human tendencies to try to make up gods to meet our own needs rather than honestly looking for the Truth that is “out there.”
People have this need to believe that there is something stable and immovable to hold onto, even when the very bedrock under our feet suddenly shifts and mountains explode. As if storms and volcanoes and earthquakes weren’t enough of a challenge to our sense of security, we now have to deal with the idea of our planet being a tiny, temporary and otherwise unremarkable little ball of rock in an obscure corner of a very basic galaxy. This goes far beyond the sort of anxiety people felt and Copernicus’ ideas about the earth being in non-central and in constant motion, which the Vatican had so many problems with at the time. So people turn to science, mathematics and theology with hopes of finding something that is absolutely sure never to change and always to remain the same. Sometimes that is nothing more than a conviction that two plus two will always equal four. Most of the time they need much more than that to trust in. Thus it has been said that a religion which claims absolute certainty in a message directly from God is far more likely to attract followers than one which says that they are working on understanding things the best they can, even when the latter is far more honest about things.
Let’s face it: if an almighty God wanted to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that he definitely existed and that there was a particular organization that he has appointed as his official representatives on earth, there are plenty of ways in which he could have made that more obvious to everyone –– seekers and skeptics alike. The lack of such evidence can be interpreted in two different ways: either there is no such god, or he (or she, or it, if the gender is a big issue for you) is not interested in providing people with absolute certainty and granting endorsements. Either way that would indicate that those searching for absolute certainty, flawlessness and exclusive divine endorsement for their beliefs are doing so for their own personal and political satisfaction, not because the almighty told them they needed absolute intellectual certainty about such matters. Thus if there is a God out there (and I personally strongly believe that there is) it would seem that he has left things rather vague on purpose.
So if we can get used to the idea that God isn’t out to provide us with certainty about all of the mysteries of the universe –– himself included –– where do we go from there? What should we be looking for in our faith? What, if not certainty about great mysteries, should it be providing us with? Well, here’s one set of goals I’ve set for my own faith that I toss out for your consideration:
1) Enabling people to accept themselves for what they are, while still striving to improve on their most noble qualities. Finding a balance between merciful self-acceptance and ambitious self-improvement as the fruit of “God’s work in the believer’s life” is a perpetual challenge to all faiths. Ideally we should have a generous measure of both. This core element of “virtue ethics” is something that religion should be able to give people.
2) Building wider circles of trust, peace and cooperation between people, even those with serious differences. If believers are more prone to hate-mongering and war-mongering than non-believers, there is definitely a problem. Worshipping a god of violent destruction ultimately leads the destruction of many of the things most worth caring about. If we are not to be hypocritical then in worshipping a merciful and peace-loving God we need to become more merciful and peace loving as a result of our faith.
3) Enforcing a concept of the dignity and value of all human life. Whether or not any particular religion believes literally in man being formed (male and female) “in the image of God”, it should still encourage a respect for people as people, including avoiding killing other people, showing hospitality to others and believing that they have certain rights just because they are human. If people are treated as cheap and disposable in a particular culture, that’s a good sign their religion and/or ethical systems are not working. Some would say this sort of respect should apply to all sentient life; I would say that that might not be a bad thing, but application to all human life should be our minimum standard.
4) Building a sustainable basis for the continuation of human life, in harmony with the rest of life on this planet. Whether or not a religion believes in some particular formula by which “God created the heavens and the earth,” we should certainly hope its followers would not burn up, poison and explode this earth and sky beyond the point of their being able to sustain life for our descendents. It’s worth remembering that even if our world is not going to last forever, once it’s gone all the rest of our efforts here cease to make any difference. Thus preventing ourselves from destroying our planet has to figure in among our top religious priorities.
5) Providing people with what Kierkegaard called, “a purpose worth living and dying for.” To be more than a slave to our circumstances and our passions –– to truly be happy in life –– we have to be able to make our lives mean something. We have to honestly be able to believe that this world is somehow a better place because we are in it.
So here’s my radical thought: What if those things are more important to God than answering all our questions about life’s great mysteries and empowering us to subdue each other? Could we actually achieve such goals without understanding all of the stuff we so want to understand? Probably. How much do we need to be able to dominate each other to bring these sorts of things about? Probably not as much as we think.
To what extent are these principles already embedded in our various forms of religious heritage? More than we tend to realize –– both from inside and outside perspectives –– once we stop and take a careful look.
This is far from all I have to say about the subject, but perhaps I should leave it at that for this entry. Hopefully it gives both religious and non-religious folks something to chew on over New Year’s (or whenever you all happen to read this). Here’s hoping that as we give ourselves yet another fresh start, we do so in a way that makes us all happier, more virtuous, more stable and more caring people.
To be continued…