Putting Religion in Its Place 3 July 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Culture, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
Religion should be seen as one of the humanities, akin to an art. Religion is a “meaning-maker” that for thousands of years has been mis-apprehended as a “truth-spring”, a source of empirical truth. The problem with religion and science over the past 500 years is that our human understanding of knowledgecraft, that is, how we know, has progressed to what we commonly call the “scientific method,” leaving religious truth-claims in the dust. Truth-seeking guided by the assumptions of scientific method produces a radically different kind of knowledge than that produced by religion (or philosophy or music or art or literature), one anchored in embodied experience, observation, deductive reasoning and generalizing inference from experimental data. Religion produces meaning through tradition, story, theorizing from foreknown assumptions, and affective experience or feelings. The conflict arises when religion is mistaken as the truth-spring, the source of our knowledge of the natural world, rather than a meaning-maker.
Religion is exponentially more powerful than art, literature, music or philosophy, primarily because of how deeply social it is. Surely, the other humanities are also social as both their production and their consumption require that we be “fluent” in a cultural symbol-system in order to both aprehend and experience them in their full, meaningfulness. Religion, however, is active and all-encompassing in its meaning-making: it is communal and institutional, participatory and regulated. Through it’s particular truth claims and through communal rituals and practices, religion attaches to the feeling-experiences of participants and the keepers of the religion such that it infuses their life and world view. Further, the meaning ermerging from religion is nearly all-encompasing. An individual work of art or novel may address aspects of life or particular emotions or feelings, but religion is structured so as to answer all questions.
The nature of religion gives it a great power, a power which we all know can be highly destructive in the world. It is a power that sees itself as necessarily intervening in political, economic, and social realms, which may have been perfectly normal in the Medieval world, but which is highly problematic in modern pluralistic democracies. Religion continues to make ridiculous truth claims about the origins of life and the function of the earth and even about the organization of society and the purposes of morality.
And so it is socially and intellectually necessary to engage religion and challenge its faulty claims. One of Daniel Dennett’s main arguments in his latest book is that religious truth claims must be subject to scrutiny — we must examine the meanings created by religion, just as we should of any other of the humanities, and test them and examine them. John Dewey’s particular version of Naturalism sees human meaning production, that is, the humanities, as a biological function. Our brains are set up to produce meaning. And George Herbert Mead argued that, psychologically, despite our formal knowledge systems in modern societies, at its root, meaning arises in interaction with the world. That is, our brains produce meaning through interaction and experience. We know what something means but, crassly put, using it. Thus, meaning production is embodied and social, by nature.
Combining these two positions, if we reject religion’s claim as a truth-spring, and see it instead as a meaning-maker, as one of the humanities, then it puts it into the realm where we can address it with more equanimity and comprehension. Whereas if we accept religion’s own claim that it can make truth-claims, then our only recourse is to jetisson it altogether; by seeing it as one of the humanities, and addressing its process of meaning-making and engaging it in the meanings it makes, we can save what it most powerful and beautiful about religion.
Social-scientifically, if you stand back and watch religion function in the world and study human interactions, you see that religion is in reality, objectively, a uniquely powerful system of meaning-making. Religious meanings are human efforts to understand life experiences, to make sense of the range of life-feelings, from pain to joy. As such, scientific-mindset and meaning-making can be brought together in the way suggested by Dennett and Dewey: Religion can be evaluated on its merits, and its meanings can be apprehended as aesthetic and moral and normative positions, rather than as empirical claims. Such an evaluation is not merely scientific (e.g., comparing a creation story to evolution), but it is also about rationality and rigorous argument. We would demand of religion’s moral and cultural claims that they answer the question “Why”? Why should we believe that? Why should we live our lives in that particular way as espoused by your religion? In other words, religion must give reasons for its positions and practices, just what we would expect from any other moral, aesthetic, or normative philosophical claim.
Further, this would allow us to remove religion from its roots in tradition and ethnic identity — two of the primary reasons religious adherents are so intensely resistant to critical engagement with their own religion — and from its hidebound clinging to old meanings from thousands of years ago which no longer make sense in the world within which we live. That is to say, religion is problematic in our world not because it is religious per se, but because it no longer works. It is a broken meaning-maker that no longer addresses the world as it is experiences now with the knowledge we have now. If religion is to remain a part of human existence, it must account for the world as we know it in the present, including scientific and social-scientific knowledge that renders much of religions’ meanings obsolete and useless in the real world.
At the same time, I do think there is something to religion that is worth saving. The communal, ritual, active aspects of religious consummatory experience are powerfully and deeply human. Religion has produced some of the most deeply moving pieces of art, music, and literature that human beings have ever produced. Perhaps we can get rid of the bathwater without killing the baby, by seeing religion as an Art, open to criticism and scrutiny as we would any work of art, removing from it the power to make truth-claims for which it is an inferior method of truth-seeking, and exploding its moral grasp on democratic culture by insisting that religious moral positions be backed by rational argument and reasons.
Although some might argue that this shift from truth-spring to meaning-maker is the ultimate disenchantment of religion, removing from it all its power, I would argue that it actually works and brings religion into alignment with the actual state of human experience, making religion again relevant and useful for human life. Two examples of this come to mind. One is the Dalai Lama’s continual exploration of truth in the modern world and his adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to the world of science and reason. Another example is in American liberal protestantism, where since the mid-19th century, Christianity has been adapting and transforming parallel to the ignorant retrenchment of conservative and fundamentalist religions. Here’s an example of what religion can become when taken as a meaning-maker instead of a truth-seeker:
Are not these [theistic] divine definitions little more than the pitiful pleas of human being swho prefer to live in a world of make-believe, human beings who want never to grow up? Is there some hidden hope, deep inside us, that manifests itself in our attempt to define God theistically, so we might not have to alter our lives dramatically to save our [world]? … Christian evangelicals like to use the term ‘born again.’ It is an interesting choice of words, for when one is ‘born again,’ one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be ‘born again,’ but to grow up and become mature adults. … Heaven is not our home. This planet earth is. That is the first realization we must embrace when theism dies. … When theism dies, God does not die, but a human definition of God dies. … Our job is not to recreate God but to seek a more adequate, new definition of our experience of God.
— Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal a God of Love (2005), pp. 62-3
Perhaps in moving religion out of its own category and placing it among the other humanities, in exploding its truth-making power, we can frees religious communities up to explore the depth of religion’s meaning-making power and bring religious belief and practice down to earth where we can effectively interact with it, modify it, and use it in interaction with other humanities, with the advances and methods of science, and with the changes over time, the historicalness, that make up our earth-bound, embodied, mortal lives.
I suppose the trick will be convincing the faithful adherents that their belief-systems are merely works of art, and bad ones at that.