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Putting Religion in Its Place 3 July 2006

Posted 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.



1. Meg - 3 July 2006

“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.”

I’m not sure if I see this in the same way. I fully agree that religeous explanations for how we came to be don’t work scientifically. The way I view the problem is that religions hang on to the literalness, or scientific truth, of its stories. I think the stories have much to offer if viewed as metaphor. I’m not sure the _meaning_ is obsolete, but I agree that the truth claim certainly is.

I’m not sure if I can see religion as an “art” per se, because I don’t think of the arts as a comprehensive meaning-making system. I think it might be more akin to a philosophical world view than a work of art.

I loved that quote from Bishop Spong, particularly “Heaven is not our home. This planet earth is.” And I loved your wording “earth-bound, embodied, mortal lives.” A message of religion that I hate is that we should suffer now for reward in heaven. I will not give up my now for some pipe dream of heaven.

2. mattblack - 3 July 2006

“I suppose the trick will be convincing the faithful adherents that their belief-systems are merely works of art, and bad ones at that.”

I’d like to see someone pull that off. There’s a supply/demand dynamic here. People are choosing the fundementalist stuff precisely because it gives them what you’re saying it shouldn’t (thus the rise in membership of evangelicals and the fall in liberal sects). Vast numbers of people want the hard stuff. They want Truth with a capial T. Nothing your proposing is compelling enough to pull them off of it.

3. J. Todd Ormsbee - 3 July 2006


I completely agree that many religious stories may still have value if viewed as metaphor. This is one of the things that I mean by viewing religion as one of the “humanities”, where it can be interpreted and played with as a meaningful human production. I don’t think religion is collapsible into Art–it’s a difficulty of trying to illustrate why I think that it should be viewed as a humanities instead of its own thing–but I do think that it actually functions, or rather should function as art, sculpture, literature, poetry, philosophy, etc. And I think that you’re right on in comparing it to philosophy, where in many ways it is most akin. However, I think it is broader than just philosophy, as it is saturated with other forms of humanistic expression, visual images, music, etc.

Although I agree with you that art isn’t necessarily as comprehensive meaning-making, in that it is not as sytematic nor as institutionalized as religion is, I would also argue that meaning-making is exactly what art (and all the humanities) actually *do*, empirically. They are ways of taking the elements of lived experience and organizing them in a meaningful way so as to create a consumatory experience in the consumer of the piece. That is also what religion does. I would also caution that you don’t see religion as somehow independent or unsystematic, as art’s production and consumption are bound up in large, society-wide institutions, ranging from education to a Hollywood studio. It may be more comprehensive than you think.

I think that one of the most powerful aspects of Bishop Spong’s rejection of heaven as a literal place is that it brings the worshipper back to the here-and-now. This presentness, groundedness, is one of the things that I most love about my experience studying Buddhism. As the old political cartoon said, “Jesus is coming!” “Buddha here now!” Of course, buddhism has its own issues to work out (sexism, classism, tendency to detach from politics and real-world events, etc.).

4. J. Todd Ormsbee - 3 July 2006

I couldn’t agree with you more. What I’m proposing here is a normative, how religion *should* be viewed. I have no idea how to make that case to believers other than, perhaps, doing what people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins and Bishop Spong are doing: By showing piece by piece the great damage that can arise from communities believing in ideas that are simply wrong or wrong-headed; in other words, by showing the bloody, immoral consequences of religious beliefs as they are constituted.

This may not be satisfactory answer to your point, but I do think that at least partially democracy provides the social context wherein those kinds of discussions can occur, especially a pluralistic democracy where people have to listen to each other without killing each other. In many ways, I see the world since about 1850 as inching us along toward a complete reformulation of religion, at least in the industrialized, democratic nations of the world. The problem is that only about 20% of the population live in societies that are working on maintaining secular, pluralistic democracies, and where the dialogues are actually occuring. Some people argue that the retrenchment into fundamentalism is actually evidence of the death throes of old style religion. I can only say that I hope they’re right. But as a cultural sociologist, I have to warn that historically speaking, major world-view changes can take a long time, sometimes generations; the exceptions to this are a sort of “punctuated equilibrium” where some kind of catastrophic environmental change literally requires the wholesame cultural change to accompany it. I think, actually, that the pluralism of the globalized world we live in is, although not catastrophic, at least a big enough and fast enough change that it is pushing people toward reformulation of culture. If that is the case, then fundamentalism in all its forms is indeed a reaction against modernity, and evidence of the power of modernity, not the power of fundamentalist religions.


5. Meg - 4 July 2006


You have some very interesting thoughts. I think that when I put religion in its place in my mind, it’s a smaller place than you give it. I see the arts more of a reflection of meaning than a meaning-maker. I think the great arts reflect the social, political, religious thought and consciousness of the times and often help us see it in a new way, but the meaning is already there and is the well from which the arts draw.

It seems to me that when people want religion, they are looking for codes of conduct, how to be “good”. Many want a checklist of things they can do to be assured that they are okay (or saved or enlightened or whatever it is). That way they can put aside their existential anxiety and go on with life.

If you could give a short definition of religion in this framework where you think it should be, that might be helpful to the discussion. The word and concept of religion carry so much baggage for me, that I want to see it shrink, and it seems to me that you are giving it a very broad place.


6. Meg - 4 July 2006

I’d also add that it takes a complex and nuanced order of thinking to be able to step back from religion and view it as a system in relation to other systems and to the self. Some studies suggest that maybe only half of adults (in industrialized society) ever get to that order of thinking. It’s like in the book “Flatland” where the square can only percieve a sphere as a circle, because it exists in two dimensions.

People who hold on to fundamentalist religion may only be able to percieve the circle while you are looking at a sphere, so nothing you can say would really make sense to them. Therien lies the difficulty!

7. mukola pauline - 1 August 2006

it was interesting reading your argument, but what evidence does science have about the origin of life? and life after death.how come many of the things written in the Bible and especially in the New Testament are happening? i have gone through the many scientific theories but they make no sense to me, especially on the point of missing links in the evolution theory.

8. Todd - 1 August 2006

Hi MP, thanks for stopping by. Here is my take on the issues of prophecy and evolution.

“Prophecies” of the bible are comparable to a Nostradamus hoax or astrology: they are vague and metaphorical, so anyone can apply them to anything. That’s how charlatans get you to pay them money, or religions get you to shut off your brain and pledge to them allegiance. Every generation has taken the “prophecies” of the bible and interpreted them to match their own situations. Every generation of Christian and Jew has had their own interpretation of “end times” or of “messiah”, and seen it in their world. This is like an astrologer who can say basically anything and the believer will interpret it to fit their life.

Human beings live in a complex circuit between their beliefs and their environments; as long as their beliefs/meaning-systems work to explain their experiences, they’re happy. But when things start going awry and their beliefs no longer “work” or when their environment has changed so much that the beliefs no longer make sense, people freak out. Because they want the stability afforded them when everything in their environment matched their beliefs, they fight tooth and nail to maintain their beliefs, even in the face of counter-evidence. Because they’re really smart, humans also will actively seek to change their environments (e.g., to change facts or to make something real that isn’t), even if it means shedding blood, in order to keep their beliefs in harmony with their environment. Evolutionarily, this is quite adaptive, as it allows human beings to control their environment. But socially and culturally, it is devastating, and has led to hundreds of millions of deaths over the centuries.

In Christianty, for example, there is a belief in a great last war in the land where Israel/lebannon/palestine is. And so Christians when they see conflict there, perceive and interpret the conflict through their belief system. Then they seek to support or enable the bloodshed (e.g., fundamentalist christians have donated millions of dollars to fund the illegal and immoral colonization of the West Bank). This is how our beliefs first shape our perceptions of the world and thend second guide our actions int he world to make our beliefs come true.

The only way out of this kind of dangerous thinking is to learn the habits of mind of skepticism and evidentiation, naturalism and rationality. The alternative is irrationality leading to mass murder and ecological devastation.

Per evolution, your comment about “missing links” basically indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how evolutionary science works. It isn’t practical here on a blog to go into a long discussion about the basics of evolutionary theory (in the scientific sense of theory, which is, confirmed hypothesis), but let me simply say two things that may put you on the road to better understanding.

First, biological evolution is a fact. The evidence for it comes from two great fields of research, one is the fossil record and the second is through molecular ‘clocks’ (there are many different varieties and methods for the second). Either one alone is so overwhelming in its scope as to confirm evolution; but we have both. So to understand what you call “missing links”, you would need to better understand how scientists pull together and interpret the molecular and fossil data and especially how biological taxonomy works (and the three different kinds of taxonomies commonly used).

Second, so I would recommend that you curl up with a good book. For a primer on the basics, written for a general audience, I would suggest Richard Dawkins’ recent book, Ancestors’ Tale; and for a more in-depth and technical introduction to the intellectual backgrounds of evolution, I would point you to Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The Dawkins’ book is a breezy read, and fascinating; it will guide you through each of the primary areas of evolutionary theory as we now understand it. The Dennet book is difficult, I’ll be honest; I really struggled with it; but it was very worth the effort!

Good luck in thinking through your own relationship with religion and understanding evolution!


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