God,  how do we know what we know is true,  meaning of life,  religion,  the ethical life

in pursuit of an academic religion

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I’ve been thinking about religion again. I think about the good things, like the way it can support a person’s ability to acknowledge their mistakes or the inspiration to care for others. Yet I’m also think about the problems with religion, particularily of finding a religious interpretation that can be a source of healthy challenge neither constructed to meet one’s own wants or to justify one’s oppressive situation.

Inspiring me to write this post is, partly, a post titled Can reason and secularism protect kids from anti-science rhetoric (and build a better society)? over at a blog called Boreal Citizen. The post speaks about Democratic anti-science rhetoric being centered around unsupported fears for health and environment (like obsessions with cell phones causing cancer) while Republican anti-science rhetoric being used to justify a lack of regulation over anything but the female reproductive system. The author writes about how the Republican anti-science attitude is more scary:

For example, an unfounded belief in astrology or homeopathic medicine – common among progressives — is rather innocuous compared to the anti-science rhetoric coming from corporations whose profits are threatened by environmental regulation. Nevertheless, they share the same seed: a desire to believe what we want to believe, rather than engage in scientific inquiry and rational discourse.

I’m not entirely sure whether I agree that the unfounded belief in astrology or homeopathic medicine is truly more innocuous or whether having true believers in them in positions of power would make those beliefs just as dangerous. I also see an overlap between Republicans and purveyors of woo. There are many extremely right-wing religious groups that view modern medicine as unnecessary, and the unscientific health-fears lead many otherwise progressive people to embrace the language of deregulation for food and medicine.

But the line that sticks out at me is that question of wanting to believe what we want to believe rather than scientific inquiry and rational discourse. That is where I personally come into trouble with religion. I want to turn to religion. I want to seek comfort and challenge in religion. Yet I struggle with the idea that whatever religious ideas I embrace would simply be me believing what I want to believe.

The author at Boreal Citizen goes on to suggest that there is an overlap in religiosity and a susceptibility to anti-science rhetoric:

Perhaps the willingness to believe that religious texts are the “true word of God” simply “because the books themselves say so” (and because religious leaders declare it so) also predisposes one to believe other unsubstantiated claims from authority figures. And, as Harris writes, “epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world”.

I don’t believe religion was revealed by a higher power. I don’t trust a particular religious leader or authority figure. So somehow reading this post I find myself thinking again about the question of whether it is possible to have a religion without believing what we want to believe, or what we’re told to believe or what we feel we have to believe.

Could there be a scientific religion? I know some people would say yes, and speak of how their beliefs are backed up by science. (Theology was once the queen of the sciences, after all.) But I’m not interested just in having science back up what one already wants to believe, but a faith that is willing to be confronted and changed and altered by sciences. What I’m thinking of is an academic religion. Religious traditions that involve intense debate and self-examination. I think within all religions there’s probably groups that do practice religion academically.

One of the authors I like is John Dominic Crossan. His writings are filled with methodology, looking at how oral writings were transmitted or what the archeology of the time meant. He tries to tease out the questions of who Jesus actually was and what his followers were actually saying about him. I should pull out some of his books again to read.

There’s another line in the Boreal Citizen post that I find thought provoking:

Even many agnostic parents answer their children’s questions about what happens after death, for example, with references to an afterlife (i.e., heaven) simply because they are more palatable than the truth (which, for the record is: nobody really knows).

To me this is the reminder why science and religion don’t go along side by side. For some people religion is going to be about a comprehensive mythology embracing all sorts of unscientific things like what happens after you die. For other people religion is going to be almost exclusively about a sort of moral code or wisdom teachings. If the mythology is not necessary for the moral code the moral code is more a philosophy. If the moral code is missing then there’s not much point in the mythology, is there? Yet is there a mythology that doesn’t at some level reject science?

Or for me, the question is, is there a Christian mythology that doesn’t at some level reject science? Does Christianity become reduced to a few platitudes about loving one’s neighbour as one loves oneself or is there a depth that goes beyond that? I think there is the depth. There’s the history, the stories of people trying to understand how to remain a people not totally subsumed by the foreign empires that conquered them. There’s the questions of justice and of how people lived through huge changes.

I would not turn to religion to tell me what happens after we die, but to tell me how others dealt with finding meaning in the face of death.

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One Comment

  • Beth

    Great blog. I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking about these things! You really hit the nail on the head when you talk about wanting to seek comfort in religion. When I ask my religious friends why they beleive in God, a common answer is: “because it gives me comfort”. However, this is not really an answer. It’s a bit like answering the question, “why is the sky blue?” with, “because blue is beautiful”. Some claim to hear God speaking to them, or feel a divine presence of some sort, yet in any other context we generally consider people who hear voices / feel a supernatural force to be lunatics (it would seem that religion is a sort of socially acceptable mass delusion). As for morality, we most certainly do not need to draw on religious texts to teach morals. I would argue that the societies that are the least religious (Sweden, for example) tend to behave the most ethically (not many Swedes are stoning infidels, for example). Furthermore, religious texts like the Bible and Koran are full of violence, hatred and contradictions; reasonable people must carefully pick and choose what to internalize from these books since, if taken in their entirety, we’d still be living in the dark ages.

    When you ask whether there is a mythology that doesn’t reject science, I would have to say no. That is the very definition of mythology. We don’t view the polytheistic religion of Ancient Greece (Zeus and whatnot) as anything more than a collection of interesting stories, and there is no reason to treat the Bible/Koran any differently.

    While it is tempting to turn to the supernatural to explain things we don’t understand (like death), I think it’s a very dishonest thing to teach children, and probably predisposes them to believe in other ideas without proper inquiry or evidence. What happens after death is not “unscientific,” we just haven’t figured it out yet.

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