Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Supersition and the Curved Cosmos

Over the last year or two, a cultural shift toward anti-religion has become pretty prominent in popular media. My profession is the printed word, and in the Religion category in various publishing digests, you'll now see prominent discussion of best-selling books condemning religion and touting atheism. Five years ago, it was Christian fiction dominating these categories.

In blog land, it's much the same. Recently I have come across some extremely intelligent, articulate, and skillful blogs that exist almost exclusively to torpedo religious extremist views, or religion in general. A couple of the better ones, in fact, can be seen if you browse my list of recommmended blogs shown in the left column.

Researching this blog trend shows that some blogs like to puncture one religion alone. There are a lot of blogs that seem intent on skewering Islam, as well as lots of them that want to set the world free of Christian extremism. A number of the more compelling ones are written by former evangelicals who have escaped that world. Other blogs are multi-denominational, and will point out the ridiculous and bigoted aspects of any faith. Still other blogs celebrate science as its own religion, and argue that science alone offers the road to truth.

I am fascinated by this trend, as well as awed by the skill of many of these bloggers. And I do think its justifiable to point out the lunacy inherent in much religious dogma—that's why I read these blogs. How can you not roll your eyes in disbelief when you listen to strict Christians ignore the evidence of biological evolution; or when you hear of Muslims trying to force toy stores to stop selling piggy banks because swine are unclean animals?

But I also sometimes fear that we want to throw out the baby with the bathwater during this anti-religion jihad. Is there room, I wonder, for denouncing the silliness of religion while still holding a space in our hearts for what William James called the "Religious Experience."? (See his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.")

The God depicted in the Christian/Judaic bible, the Quran, is a quaint mythological representation of something inexpressible. And I agree that it's not only silly, but dangerous, to insist that such an entity exists in literal form, and that he has graced you and your friends with his favor.

But I will also insist on my right to believe in the spiritual impulse behind it all, and I'll also express my strong intuition that there is a spiritual and evolutionary goal that causes us to seek an enlightened state of mind.

That's all God really represents, after all: our desire for a peaceful existence.

And I also think that some apologists for "science" are just as deluded as any snake-handling hillbilly Christian in the mountains of Tennessee. Elevating science to a religion is complete folly—a fact that all the true geniuses of science have acknowledged. Scientific theories are always just theories, and the history of reason shows that these paradigms are nothing more than useful fictions, which can be discarded and replaced as circumstances require.

Do you think, for example, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? Then you haven't been reading your modern astro-physics, which now suggests that the cosmos is a curved phenomenon.

Any science and any religion is equally silly and dangerous at the point where it begins insisting that it owns the keys to certainty. This is the principle human folly, in fact—to insist on certainty, and I'd argue that it is the impulse behind most everything we think of as evil.

But what other option is there? I've heard people ask. Our job as rational humans is to find the truth, the certainty. That's what we do. Isn't it?

That's what most people do, I'll grant you, which may explain the condition of the human world. It's not the only way, though. The other way to live, the path less taken, is the one described by Irish song-writer Van Morrison, among many others:

Let go, into the mystery.

11 comments:

Glamourpuss said...

Religion is ideology, and thus must compete against other ideologies for our belief. In an age of rampant materialism, capitalism is the ideology that captures the hearts and minds of most. Why? Largely because it promises happiness through little real effort. We all know it's bollocks but we still buy into it, and thus, we live in increasingly secular times and those who do possess religious faith come to look like nutcases.

Personally, I have always differentiated between religion and spirituality. Most people are spiritually bereft these days, and thus have no experience nor understanding of the experience you term 'religious experience'. That is a sad matter.

Puss

the chaplain said...

Elevating science to a religion is complete folly.

Agree. Elevating any single dimension of our humanity above the others is ultimately dehumanizing. Balance is always good.

Brian said...

Even as an atheist I agree with a lot of what you say Mercurious. You seem to see god as a metaphor for some nebulous inner spirituality rather than as a literal being.

But I think the problem is that such a concept is too subtle for the masses to appreciate. The spititual impulse always seems to veer off into either religious orthodoxy and dogma or in the other direction into crazy New Age Woo.

Very few seem to be able to maintain the philosophical stance you have.

Stacy said...

I can't really say what our purpose is as human beings but listening to the recording of Van Morrison play Carnegie Hall gives me a feeling of being very close to god , whatever god is.

August said...

"Any science and any religion is equally silly and dangerous at the point where it begins insisting that it owns the keys to certainty. This is the principle human folly, in fact—to insist on certainty,..."

Brilliantly stated. I can't agree more.

The Varieties of Religious Experience marked a turning point in my angry adolescence. It remains close to my heart.

August

athinkingman said...

You write:
"The God depicted in the Christian/Judaic bible, the Quran, is a quaint mythological representation of something inexpressible. And I agree that it's not only silly, but dangerous, to insist that such an entity exists in literal form, and that he has graced you and your friends with his favor.

But I will also insist on my right to believe in the spiritual impulse behind it all, and I'll also express my strong intuition that there is a spiritual and evolutionary goal that causes us to seek an enlightened state of mind.

That's all God really represents, after all: our desire for a peaceful existence."

In one sense, I don't have a problem with that. People can believe whatever they want to. However, on another level, you have created your own god. If god is not the person revealed to us, but one we have invented to suit our modern sensibilities, then:
1) What authority do you have for your idea of god other than your imagination?
2) It feels very much like the religion you have created has a lot less substance than say, the science which you helpfully point out needs to be treated with some skeptism.

My own view is that the god of the revealed texts are as created as the ones that suit modern sensibilities and that the latter is no better than the former. Despite it's weaknesses, science does, at least, have some substance.

Mercurious said...

Thinking man:

And I's also say this: "spirituality, despite it's shortcomings, does have have a reason for being."

grumpylion said...

"Scientific theories are always just theories, and the history of reason shows that these paradigms are nothing more than useful fictions, which can be discarded and replaced as circumstances require."

Good post, but I disagree with your characterization of theories as fictions, which suggests they lack truth. I think of them as constructs which explain the natural world in terms of current knowledge, and open to change when that knowledge changes.

If you haven't seen Bronowski's clip, which I think relates quite powerfully to what you are saying, it's here, with the text: at The Lion's den.

Shimmerrings said...

Hmmm... so much rhetoric... it's in the mind, it's in the Heart... shake it up and pop it out, and there's the soul of it... if you can, sense it... if you can, see it... the mystery, it feels good, doesn't it.

Lirone said...

Good post. I think there are definitely some babies to be found... but a hell of a lot of mucky bathwater to wade through!

For me one of the most important principles I try to use in approaching the world is being willing to accept that I may be wrong, and trying to set aside what my ego wants me to believe, in order to find out what the truth is.

I think much of the strength of science is that it encourages this attitude - or at least has systems built in to promote it. But many of the weaknesses and dangers of religion come from discouraging questioning.

I think our goal is not to seek certainty, but to ask important questions. As one of Tom Stoppard's characters says in Arcadia:

"Comparing what we're looking for misses the point - it's wanting to know that makes us matter. If the answers are in the back of the book [i.e. in an afterlife] I can wait, but what a drag!"

AphroditeRising said...

You are a fascinating person, Mercurious. Interesting points you made. Keep it up!