How Religions Can Embody and Preserve Valuable Ways of Life
I love diversity. And my opposition to theism is based on a love of diversity, not on being uncomfortable with it. I find cultural variations fascinating. I think it’s great that there is a multitude of cultures and religions around the world that have cultivated any number of rich traditions. I see how rituals and meditative practices can be psychologically powerful to people and think it is great to see how they can take so many varieties in so many idiosyncratic idioms. The creativity, imagination, and concretized philosophical insights in myths and religious practices can be profound, provocative, and pregnant with clues for psychological and philosophical investigation.
Multiplying (or preserving) a wide variety of beautiful, rich, and successful ways of human life is good for the whole species, and people cling to their cultures and religions in no small part because of what seems to me like an instinctual appreciation for the fact that the traditions they’ve inherited must have gotten something right or else they’d have been wiped out long ago.
I appreciate that for millennia, in periods in which there was little or no literacy and few ways of preserving cultural discoveries and transmitting them to the next generations through technological means, human beings took full recourse to the powers of myth and ritual and an enormous panoply of other resources now associated with “religion” in order to impress upon future generations what they needed to know to preserve their way of life that was helping them survive. Cultures learned how to profoundly manipulate a wide array of human beings’ internal psychological and social resources and were able to shape them into people who could retain, for hundreds or thousands of years, the vital and hard won lessons of the past.
Historically, I would venture to say we owe the very existence of civilization in no small part to the technological innovations for making socially and inter-generationally bound human groups. And what we now call “religious” practices and ways of thinking were an inextricable and integral part of that. Learning what insights were stored within the myths and the practices and the obsessions of religions is a valuable historical exercise. And where doing this opens up psychological, social, or philosophical truths that are not outdated, they can become a chance to learn from an era that doesn’t share the blinders of our own preoccupations. In engaging with what the enduring ancient religions preserve, they provide a chance to reinvigorate our modern perspectives through a form of time traveling, through our participation in them.
How My Atheism Counters Religious Stifling
But for all of this value, one of the reasons I identify as an atheist and a humanist rather than with any ancient or supernaturalistic religion is precisely because I find religious partiality too stifling. When religions sacralize this text and/or these practices and/or these beliefs the danger is that they tempt people away from finding what is equally rich and exciting in a wide range of other cultural sources and other religions. Being an atheist makes me omnivorous and voracious. I don’t tie myself down by thinking that truth about how to live well uniquely, divinely, or authoritatively can be found in this one source in a way that trumps all others. I don’t draw such hard boundaries or create such hierarchies in my mind. Atheism represents to me this openness. When I watch a movie or read a story from a foreign religion or learn about new findings in the natural or social sciences, I don’t feel anxiety about having to run this by Jesus or by the Bible or by the Church to make sure it fits and is acceptable with my religion.
Of course, I have some intellectual and moral commitments that I will compare what I’m thinking to to see if they fit. We all have perspectives. And of course in the domain of empirical truths it is foolhardy to contradict science since science has far and away the most powerfully devised set of tools for working out empirical truths. Science is not one dogmatic tradition against others, it’s the space in which distinctively scientific disagreements and perspectives can be fought out by scientists who konw what they’re doing and using empirical means. Being open to religions having insights into some things does not mean thinking that their methods must be equivalent to scientific means for answering empirical questions. It is consistent with a commitment to diversity to understand what tools are best for exploring what questions. Similarly, religious traditions are like literary traditions in that they may be plundered for philosophical insights without being confused for being, themselves, technical philosophy of the most rigorous sort. This is a matter of understanding genres, one consistent with appreciation of diversity.
And my intellectual commitments are, in principle, different in character than traditional religious ones would be. They’re not the kinds of commitments where I feel like I would be committing some act of betrayal of my gods, of my identity, of my community, or of a fixed Morality itself were I to change my mind. Religions very often inculcate that kind of demanding allegiance to themselves. They risk being totalizing. They risk conflating themselves with god itself, with one’s own self, with one’s community itself, or with morality itself. “Deviate in the wrong way from the religion’s teachings, or at least its core, and you betray all you hold dear” is the deep belief that irrationally and counterproductively breeds, exploits, or exacerbates people’s fears of change, doubt, and difference.
So, while I don’t think the world would be inherently better with no religions, I at least want the stranglehold they have over so many people’s hearts to be drastically loosened, so that people can look at evidence with autonomous consciences rather than their communal loyalties determining what they think, and they can be more open to being changed by what they encounter when there’s something of value there–whatever its source.
The Inadequacy of Liberal Religious Solutions
Liberal variants within religions are better at this and so are less objectionable to me for this reason. My primary concern with them becomes simply a matter of overemphasis. Sure, they are open to other sources of culture, but do they over-prioritize their own religious culture? Do they pore endlessly over their Scriptures for diminishing returns when there are brimming libraries and a whole globe filled with fresh perspectives that might take them new places than the ones they spiritually grew up in? It’s not that people have orienting traditions that is so troubling to me so much as these traditions’ potential for making people myopic and for leading them to give disproportionate amounts of attention to what they’re attached to religiously. Even in liberal people, this can be so petty and parochial and self-limiting.
How Religions Become Suffocating
This is what I find so suffocating about reading Christians of any stripe when they’re writing religiously. It’s not that there is nothing of interest in Christian symbology or that there are no wise or insightful Christians. It’s just the lack of imagination when everything goes back to Jesus, back to the same few vacuities about God, back to a reaffirmation of their religious identity and worldview. There’s this lack of adventure, narrowness of horizons, claustrophobia in their thinking that I find so wearisome. I much prefer when religiously unfettered artists or thinkers play with the old Christian symbols, i.e., when they treat them without that characteristic religious reverence or without making a Religiously Or Morally Edifying Point but take an interest in their open-ended possibilities.
The Paradox of Religious Art and Thinking: It’s Better When It’s Less “Religious”
Such free play is relatively rare when people are under religious restraints, advancing an agenda. This is why politics and religion make for bad art and bad thinking. People’s ends are so rigid that the artistic and intellectual contours are all artificially bent towards serving the demands of the party or the faith. Messiness, complexity, ambiguity, dialectic, uncertainty–all these things go away when the author or the artist is primarily concerned to make sure no one can possibly get the wrong conclusion or deviate from the party or the faith from what is being written or created. (And, yes, atheists who write like this bore me too. This is why in all these philosophy of religion posts I do on this blog, I am constantly trying to reconceive everything I talk about, constantly trying to add new textures, new nuances, new new reversals, new complications, and new dialectical advances to what I have said before.)
This is why I find it ironic when people accuse atheists of being obtuse to the value of the literary, the metaphorical, and the symbolic simply because we oppose theism and bad forms of religiosity. I don’t have a problem with countless literary and philosophical appropriations of the rich store of religious materials, but what I see constantly is that creativity is stifled when those religious materials are actually treated religiously. It’s those who are precisely irreverent or unconventional with religious materials who make the old religious sources provocative again. Either because they are irreverent towards received religious interpretations because of their freethinking approach to God or because they are irreverent even of God himself, showing no concern for orthodoxy, no concern for whether it leads anyone astray, and no concern for whether anyone gets The Right Religious Message, the people willing to play honestly and creatively with religious materials are the ones who do the most interesting and challenging work. It’s those willing to be (or be confused with) heretics and syncretists and blasphemers and atheists when using religious materials in service of the true, the good, and the beautiful who are interesting. Not those who bind them to ecclesiastical allegiances or to God where these would make the true, the good, and the beautiful casualties.
The paradox is that while I wholeheartedly appreciate that religions have cultivated veritable storehouses filled with stories and symbols and ideas that can be thrown into the exciting mix of contemporary intellectual and artistic endeavors, it remains the case that the more actually religious, the more actually reverential, the more bound up by faith that people become, the more that all that value gets smothered by the religious themselves. The drive to ban (or burn) books and ideas and works of art, including religious ones “of the wrong kind”, is a well-known religious temptation (and reality).
Maybe there’s place in the overall “spiritual economy” for this. The devout and dogmatic keep their religions in “pure” concentrated forms alive and provide a cultural resource to the more secularized and the more willfully heretical or syncretic who can actually do creative artistic and intellectual thinking that scandalizes the devout but enriches the mainstream.
I am just uncomfortable with just how much unchallenged exposure to pseudophilosophy and pseudoscience that the average person gets when a significant source of their primary exposure to explicit discourse about metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics is conservatively religious. On these most fundamental questions, they are inundated with the regressive, stagnant, reactionary, and irrationalistic traditionalism of the unduly reverential guardians of the faith. Proportionally they get so much less exposure to the kinds of philosophers and natural and social scientists who produce truer, richer, more creative, mind-expanding, and rationally plausible insights into these realities. Philosophical and, specifically, ethical issues can be treated rationally. These are the issues that we arguably should be the most rationally scrupulous about and yet they are among the areas of life most often conceded to the illegitimate “magisterium” of slavishly traditionalistic and irrational faith.
The Religions I Could Support
I wouldn’t put my energies into preserving and puffing up the reactionary keepers of supernaturalistic religions’ flames. While they may serve a function that has some accidental benefits, I would discourage people away from being those people if I could. I think it is better that we simply create new religions that are structurally anti-dogmatic in the first place and that revere openness rather than absolutism, if humans constitutionally must revere something.
I want to see multiple flexible, rationalistic, thoughtful, endlessly revisable practices and rituals devised by diverse and creative communities built around different shades of morally defensible values and outlooks on the world. I would like to see such communities constantly in dialectic conversations with each other, rather than opposed to each other. When they are working out their rituals and practices and ideas and setting the content for their gatherings, I would like to see such communities play freely with the full range of human resources, from art and literature to philosophy to science to traditional religions.
I would like to see them eschew all knowably false beliefs, all literally believed in supernaturalism, all attachments to pseudoscience as the dead ends they are and be guided by what is rationally more plausible to be true and good wherever possible. But that shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) be the end of myth making. As Western culture has secularized it has proliferated its myths. Those unworried about offending their religion are unbounded in how many stories they can fantasize and play act (whether in cosplay or games or fan fiction, etc.). Not believing in any gods or other mythical figures can mean enjoying more gods and mythical figures and with fewer unintended disastrous consequences from false beliefs or outdated values.
Some such religions as I’ve sketched here already exist, are being created, or are evolving within lines of existing religions. My hope is not for the eradication of religion altogether but for its eventual evolution into something as modernly improved and open to improvement as all the “secular” spheres of life have become in the last few centuries. I would like religions to catch up far faster to the sciences, to the social sciences, to the arts, to politics, to philosophy, etc., and be a worthy complement to all those other endeavors. Religious institutions should be ones that integrate all these rich and hard won discoveries of modern humanity into average people’s minds coherently. They should help people implement ever improved practices that are informed and reinformed perpetually by our constantly advancing resources. They should draw upon the full range of artistic resources and be spurs for boundary breaking in creating better ones.
In short, I don’t want religions to go away. I want them to once again be wellsprings of human culture and creativity, rather than the havens of reactionaries and those who revere long refuted errors.
If you benefitted from this post and would like to read more from me on themes within it, I recommend these any of these seven of my favorite posts for your consideration:
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