December 13, 2011
Religion as belief vs practice
Sophisticated apologists for religion will discount almost all the supernatural beliefs of religions because they are incredible and so embarrassing that no one with any pretensions of rational thought can sign on to them. Talking snakes? People dying and coming back to life? Rebirth? Books dictated by god? A supernatural entity who overrides the laws of nature because an individual requests it?
This has led some to try to identify religion with a set of rituals and practices that provide people with a way of viewing the world that does not contradict science and thus can form the basis of common ground between religion and science. In discussions with colleagues, especially in the religious studies department, I am often told that my view of religion is too distorted by fundamentalist Christianity and that most religious people do not concern themselves much with the idea of god at all.
Is that possible? Via Jerry Coyne, I heard of the valiant effort by Julian Baggini in The Guardian to seek the minimal definition of religion would make "religion intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists." Here are what he calls the four articles of 21st century faith that he has come up with as a result of his search:
Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion "really" is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.
- To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.
- Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.
- Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.
- Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.
He points out, quite correctly, that one cannot be ambivalent about the choice of accepting or rejecting them. If you cannot sign on to any one of them, it means that you agree with its contradiction. He says:
So let us be plain that to reject these articles of faith would mean to maintain their contradictions, namely:
- Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.
- Religious belief requires the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.
- Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.
- Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.
The next task he set himself was to see whether atheists and religious people would sign up to them. While I would have no problem with religion as described by his four articles, I was frankly skeptical that religious people would agree. Most ordinary religious people would reject them outright because they rule out the supernatural while the sophisticated religious would be uncomfortable with being forced into accepting any concrete formulation since they like to live in a world of ambiguity where they never actually come out and say what the believe.
And sure enough, Baggini later reported general failure. A very few of the more sophisticated religious apologists were reluctant to reject his articles but were wary because of the absence of anything that could be described as transcendental. Some religious people, including those who are thought of as 'radicals', rejected them outright. As Baggini says:
If the articles of faith are to provide any hope of establishing the existence of the kind of reasonable faith I think should be possible, we need to get support for them from people who are actually actively and self-consciously religious.
So far, that has not been forthcoming. Theo Hobson, for example, a self-described "liberal" theologian, says: "I'm afraid I don't really sympathise with this. Christianity can't be reformed by the neat excision of the 'irrational'/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the 'creed' side is an expression of this."
Nick Spencer, research director at the eminently reasonable public theology thinktank Theos, was even clearer in his rejection, saying, for instance: "Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn't mean they can't be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine … I don't see what's left of the Abrahamics if you do take this out of the equation in this way". Spencer also provides little hope of finding too many other supporters out there, adding that "there would be precious few Christians I know … who could sign up to all your points. To take just the most obvious example: according to mainstream Christian thought, Christianity is founded on a belief in the physical resurrection."
Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts. If that is indeed the case then DiscoveredJoys is right that when it comes to belief: the middle ground is virtual deserted.
Religious people, however sophisticated, are unable to break the grip of wanting to believe in some form of the supernatural, some ineffable mystical presence that transcends the material world. This is why there can be no accommodation between science and religion, and in that conflict religion will lose because there is no evidence that such a presence exists.