What is religion: How to completely miss the point

Since we’re coming out of a big ‘religious’ holiday, and since I chat occasionally about religion, I figured it might be interesting to say something briefly about what I use the word ‘religion’ to mean. In particular, I wanted to say how I take it to be different from something else that I’ll call ‘sprituality’. (I’ve kind of done this before in places but whatever.)

To use the most extreme sort of example, contrast what are often called ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences, whatever their cause, with everyday awareness. Common features of the former include a sense of oneness or that boundaries are unreal or superficial, and relatedly, a sense of a meaningfulness, a goodness, and a ‘mine-ness’ that somehow applies to everything. Every event and detail is somehow beautiful and important.

By contrast, everyday life is chracterised by a sense of separation, of the world containing a great number of distinct things, of which some are meaningful and some meaningless, some good and some bad, some ‘mine’ and some alien or ‘other’.

This is related, I think, to the prominence of action in everyday life: when we act, we do so by means of what is ours (starting with our body, of course) as opposed to what is other, and we have to choose what to focus on (and what to ignore as irrelevant) and what to aim to promote (good) or avoid (bad).

So I tend to envisage this thing I call ‘spirituality’ as the tendency towards the former and away from the latter. ‘Mystical experiences’ are the extreme case, but other experiences can approach it to a greater or lesser degree, insofar as they are characterised by this sense of 1) oneness or universal ‘mineness’, and 2) abundant meaning and goodness suffusing that unity.

Ok, that’s the hippy shit out of the way. How do I think ‘religion’ relates to this? Well, while granting the word can be used in different ways, I think that what best characterises the things most commonly called ‘religious’ is something like ‘fetishistic spirituality’.

That is, in ‘religion’ that sense of universal meaningful oneness etc., is attributed exclusively to certain very specific things, usually on an apparently arbitrary basis. All other things are not only excluded from this, but are as a result felt as less important and less valuable.

For example, religions typically

  • identify certain people, and not others, as having the authority to speak on behalf of the transcendental oneness;
  • identify certain texts as being produced by and conveying it, and not others;
  • identify certain sets of ritual actions, certain buildings, certain items, certain sets of words, as having a special connection to it;
  • and of course, very commonly posit that this meaningful oneness (now no longer, of course, really such a thing) is actually a specific entity distinct from the rest of the world, an invisible, fire-breathing, masturbation-policing fundamental reality.

There are exceptions, and qualifications, of course, but why expect there not to be?

So in essence, spirituality is a sort of mindset characterised by a sense of universality and oneness, and activities that aim to cultivate it; religion is the subsuming of this oneness under one side of a division. I think this makes religion not only absurd from the ‘mundane’ perspective (e.g. scientifically wrong) but also absurd from the spiritual perspective that it’s supposed to best represent. It is perhaps the most spectacular way to miss the point.

On the other hand, it’s psychologically very useful – since we can generally live entirely in neither the spiritual or the mundane, action-centred mindset, dividing them into “one is for Churches, Bibles, priests and stained glass, the other is for the rest of life” minimises cognitive dissonance. And, of course, its incredibly politically useful because it allows spirituality, a fairly widespread and normal aspect of human life, to be appropriated – to be controlled by particular groups for their particular purposes.

Anyway, that’s how I use the words, and that’s what I mean when I say I both value spirituality and condemn religion.

A Follow-Up: Religion, Authority, and the Dangers of Optimism

In observing certain conversations sparked by yesterday’s post, I felt stimulated to add some further thoughts, especially in trying to put religion in a broader context.

As I presented it yesterday, the essential process of reasoning that led to “all human beings deserve to be tortured and killed” is something like this:

1) Overall, everything is good.

2) But in cases x, y, z, etc… things are bad.

Therefore, 3) The specific people involved in x, y, z, etc… are bad and have themselves produced what happens to them.

We could put it in more visual terms by saying that because evil has been excluded on principle from the grand over-arching structure of the world, it has to be ‘localised’ as an intrinsic feature of those affected.

But the thing is, this isn’t at all unique to theism. Of course theism has the most extreme possible version of ‘overall, everything is good’. But other less metaphysically extravagant versions are also possible.

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Challenge: Suggest a more evil principle than this one

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to people talk about, and talking about, the ‘argument from evil’. To put it in its simplest possible form, it goes like this:

1) If the creator of the world is good and omnipotent, then the world should contain only good things, and a minimum of evil necessary for greater goods.

2) Have you looked at the world recently?

Therefore 3) There is probably no good, omnipotent, creator, i.e. no God.

This initial atheistic part of the argument is pretty simple (everybody accepts that P implies Q, not-Q, therefore not-P is a logically valid structure), so the bulk of the discussion then becomes a matter of theists arguing that actually, the world’s pretty great, the evil things in it are perfectly justified and necessary, and everything is for the best, and atheists trying to resist that.

I could rehearse the arguments here, and why I think the atheistic side is correct. But I suspect they’d be fairly old. Maybe some other time if people are interested. But there’s something else I get in these sorts of discussions sometimes that’s a bit less intellectual. I think I’ve reached the point where ‘defenses of God’ are not just unpersuasive, but hard to stomach.

That is, I feel not so much like I’m in the presence of a position I disagree with, but a mindset which is hostile to humanity as such. And today this reached a sort of beautiful conclusion, when one of my theistic interlocutors summed up the principle underlying it all. But that principle can be seen as growing out of pretty much every theistic strategy employed here.

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Yes, Religion DOES Need to Conform to (Broadly) Scientific Standards of Evidence

Breaking off from the philosophy of punishment, I wanted to talk about the philosophy of religion. A position that I’ve encountered a lot recently goes something like this:

“Considered by broadly scientific standards, as an explanatory hypothesis, belief in a personal, omnipotent, morally perfect God is irrational and unjustified. But those are the wrong standards to apply: theism is not an explanatory hypothesis, and treating it like a scientific claim misunderstands it.”

Now, I’m conflicted about this position. I think there’s a valuable point here, but I also think it’s presented in the opposite way that I would present it – it’s presented as a defense of religion against rationalistic criticism, whereas I would seek to use it to guide that criticism more effectively.

Because the thing is, I would be quite happy to accept that statements about God are best understood not as positing ‘one more entity’ alongside the other entities in the world, but rather as making some more complex sort of philosophical point. I think such an analysis would often bring out much of what was compelling and relevant in such claims.

For example, you might take the statement “we should all be grateful to God for His creation”, and say: ‘this looks like the same sort of statement as “Brian should be grateful to Sally for her help with revision”, i.e. the application of our standard notion of gratitude to a particular case. But actually, it’s a statement about that notion of gratitude itself, telling us that it needs to be applied in a certain way, that to be consistent we should extend a foundational sense of gratitude to all objects, rather than taking some as requiring gratitude, some as worthless, and some as deserved.’ Or something like that.

Similarly, statements that “God is with your everywhere” become statements about the application of our concept of solitude; “God moves in mysterious ways” becomes a statement about the application of our concept of mystery.

I would be quite happy to interpret claims about God in these kinds of ways. Except for a troublesome fact: this is not how religion usually presents them. Religion habitually and systematically offers these as claims about the existence of a distinct entity. In doing so, IT submits them to broadly scientific standards of evidence. And it has to do so, to remain recognisable as religion.

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Are Christian Ethics something worth preserving? Pride and the Deadly Sins

This is what pride means to us now, according to Google image search

This is what 'pride' means to us now, according to Google image search

A common claim I’ve come across is that, all-in-all, the major religions, and the major non-religious bodies of thought, preach the same ethical message.

That if you push beyond the superficialities, and focus on ethics rather than on metaphysics, we get a very similar message coming from all of them (and, it is suggested, that message is quite a good one that ‘we’ the modern sceptical observers should accept).

In certain senses this is true (i.e., if you select the right sources to make them agree) but in certain senses I often think it’s the opposite of the truth. I want to supply one of the supporting documents for this latter case.

Most people are familiar with ‘the Seven Deadly Sins’, a list of character traits that would lead to damnation, which circulated in various forms for much of Christian history.

A notable feature of this meme is the relative importance it accords to the sins. In almost every version Pride is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise (this parallels the association of pride with Lucifer, from whose actions other sins came).

This isn’t a particular unfortunate action that can be hand-waved away. This is a cultural item that was developed and preserved over centuries and remains widely recognised. It can probably claim more widespread assent than most other non-obvious Christian ethical claims.

That seems to be partly a psychological claim (that when people act wrongly, it usually stems ultimately from an over-high opinion of themselves), and partly an ethical claim (that this is what is most objectionable in a human being).

Note, this is not just the (perfectly reasonable, and obviously correct) awareness that sometimes, and in certain senses, pride is a major failing, a vice, and a source for other vices. It is explicitly an over-all claim: that, all-in-all, esteeming oneself too highly is the single biggest cause of vice, and the single most serious vice.

Is the psychological claim true? I don’t think so; I happen to think it’s the opposite of the truth. Of course there are more than one meanings that one can give to ‘thinking highly of oneself’, but all-in-all I think that wrong acts and personal failings more often stem from a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness. All-in-all I think that people who feel better about themselves are more likely to act rightly, to have strength of will, to make sacrifices for others. I also think that this is the belief of many of the most influential figures in the history of psychology.

Perhaps I’m wrong. But there is at least a substantial difference here.

What about the directly ethical claim: that pride is more objectionable than other vices? Again, I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I see nothing obviously worse about pride than, say, habitual violent anger, cruelty, apathy, wilful ignorance, or other vices.

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Two Concepts of Faith: When is it Rational to Suspend Reason?

In recent discussions centred on religion, the topic of ‘faith’ has come up a number of times, and in particular the move where it serves as a refuge from difficult arguments: even if the rational cards seem stacked against the truth of religious claims, the believer can remain steadfast in the name of faith – faith ‘above’ reason, or at least ‘against’ it.

Now, if someone wants to slap a certain set of noises onto a damn-fool concept, then they have the right to do so, and declare ‘by the word ‘monkey’ I intend to refer to triangles’. But they shouldn’t be allowed to make their use of the word appear more noble than it is by quietly appropriating the associations and positive (or negative) ‘baggage’ of an already-existing word, if their new definition has nothing in common with the existing definition.

So the question I find myself asking is, how does ‘faith’, as the term is used in religion, and in particular as used in this sort of defensive maneuvre, relate to the things we call ‘faith’ that aren’t about religion? Which requires us to ask – outside of religion, and setting the religious uses of the word entirely aside, what do we use the word ‘faith’ for?

What follows is not a systematic review of linguistic habits studied rigorously; it is a somewhat-considered attempt to summarise when this word would seem reasonable to me, when I (an ardent atheist) might find myself using it positively.

I would use it in cases where for some circumstantial reason, something seemed very strongly to be true, but where I had separately reached the opinion that those circumstances made my judgement unreliable. For example, if I were to have periodic episodes of depression, then it might be that at such times, because of changes in my mood, my patterns of attention and memory, my thinking patterns, and the stimuli I get exposed to, it seems overwhelmingly that life is not worth living – that is the only idea that feels real.

But I believe that my depressive brain thinks in a faulty way, and that in fact life is worth living – and I recall this belief during the depression, even while it seems in every way shallow, absurd, and unrealistic, because it cannot connect with how I’m actually able to reason.

To hold on to this belief, this resolution to keep living, takes ‘faith’.

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Modern Art: like the Bible?

Missives from Marx has a post up about how, upon actually reading the ancient holy religious texts, they turn out to be actually fairly childish and mundane. The point essentially is that most of the Rig Veda is about cows, but that “priestly and scholarly interpreters invested those texts with novel sense via creative hermeneutics.” [quote from someone called Bruce Lincoln). That is – the profound meanings aren’t ‘there’ at all – if they exist, they’re in the smart people who have found it necessary or convenient to invent profound meanings and attribute them to “oh mighty cow spirit please make me have many cows”. In which case, y’know, it would make much more sense to just have smart people inventing profound meanings and presenting them as such rather than mystifying their connection to some obscure and enigmatic fetish-object.

What this immediately made me think of though was art. I’m a bit of a philistine in general, but I am especially unimpressed with ‘modern art’. Stuff like this. Or this.  Or this and this. And while I don’t really know anything about it, the following reasoning seems quite strong to me: these items can be interpreted in an endless number of ways. No single interpretation is identifiably the correct one (in the way that, for example, with most written sentences interpretations converge on a fairly limited range of meanings, that give us some confidence about what the speaker meant).

If that’s true, then whatever meaning is found in the work by a viewer is principally the viewer’s own creation: they create whatever meaning is involved by the effort expended in thinking ‘what the hell does this mean?’ The meaning they come up with may be profound, insightful, and important, or it may be banal, stupid, and trivial. But either way, it’s something they came up with. And it’s quite likely that, equipped with the same brain and the same background, they could have come up with a similar meaning independently of the work of art – if they had stopped and stood in front of a lamp-post ‘interpreting’ it, or just staring into space or watching a mouse eat rice.

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