Religious Studies

Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking.  They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s  a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose.  I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it.  During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls.  They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential.  The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all.  Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.

Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history.  Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life.  The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power.  While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory.  They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust.  Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided?  It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking.  While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.

I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important.  Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is.  In fact, the data show exactly the opposite.  The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave.  Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives.  Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were.  To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back.  Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing.  Religion is part of who we are.  Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it. 

Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Camping Season

Summer is the time for camp. I’m not into extreme sports, like sleeping outdoors in the snow, so in my mind, summer is the time for camp. While in college I spent two summers as a counselor for the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference camps: Wesley Woods, Camp Allegheny, and Jumonville. These were formative experiences for me since I’d never camped as a kid (beyond sleeping on the front porch and an ill-fated attempt at Boy Scout camp one winter), and certainly not in a Christian context. My wife recently sent me a story in The Guardian about Jesus Camp. The documentary is a decade old now, and people are wondering if the religious indoctrination of children is child abuse or what. As always in such situations I tell myself the real issue is that you can’t understand Fundamentalism unless you’ve believed it. Really believed it.

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Some psychologists claim children can’t conceptualize God. Many adults can’t either, but for those who try, what they believe is true. The Fundamentalist parent doesn’t attempt to deceive his or her child. The thought of having your own children suffer eternally in Hell is a wrenching, and very real one. A convinced adult is morally, viscerally, and utterly compelled to teach her or his child the truth. Anything less would be monstrous, hideous, and inhumane. Critics from the outside say that such nonsense damages children psychologically. I have to admit that watching Jesus Camp made left me feeling enraged and, in some measure, victimized. The untold reality, however, is that apart from some cases of deep insincerity, most Fundamentalists truly believe what they teach their children. They’re not trying to abuse any more than a parent who teaches their progeny that the stove is hot. They want the best for their kids and life is full of uncomfortable truths.

Richard Dawkins, notably, has argued that teaching children religion is a form of child abuse. The fact is nobody knows the truth about religion. All we can do, scientists included, is believe. Believe for or against or somewhere in the middle. God, by definition, stands outside the reach of empirical evidence. Perhaps it’s just a trick of consciousness, but we have to leave the possibility open. We don’t even understand consciousness yet. Rare aberrations apart, people love and care for their children. They try to give them the best that they can, and that includes their religion or lack thereof. I saw some strange stuff at church camp. It wasn’t in any sense “Jesus Camp,” but it’s safe to say it changed my life. On the brink of fully legal adulthood I was coming to learn that certainty was impossible, and the only honest way to be in the world was to admit that we all, in some form, believe.

Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.

Evolution

The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.

Religion Is Fundamental

One of the books on my shelf growing up was a cheap paperback entitled How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. The idea appealed since having to do all that “religious” stuff seemed kind of like Catholicism or some other formal system of behavior rather than a kind of organic relationship with God. Ironically now, fast forward an indeterminate number of years, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographic is quickly rising. From the secular side. As a sign of this new direction society seems to be turning is the Hart and Crescent Award, designed for Girl and Boy Scouts who are members of a nature religion. Perhaps the most widely recognized religion of this category is Wicca, the modern incarnation of witchcraft, according to some, simple nature religion according to others. The award, according to the website, is open to any young person who completes the requirements to learn about the earth and earth religion.

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Also worthy of note is a story in last week’s Time magazine about atheist churches. Ministers from a number of traditions, disenchanted with belief systems that just don’t match what we know of reality are starting to form congregations of unbelievers. This may distress some materialists who find no reason to be spiritual, but the fact is, people naturally are. The article cites, for example, Bill Maher who stands against the idea. There is security in numbers, and in a society where people find themselves increasingly isolated from others, joining together on a Sunday morning for time with likeminded non-believers may not be such a bad thing.

One aspect of Josh Sanburn’s article has me a little puzzled, however. He notes that Richard Dawkins has torn religion apart in his books, and yet, here it is. Dawkins and Maher and other vocal atheists seem to believe that religion has brought us nothing but evil. How quick we are to forget that civilization itself is typically defined as having a formal concept religion, as well as several other components of what it means not to be “savage” or “barbarian.” That religion may not be Christianity. It may be Wicca. It may be the Houston Oasis and its atheistic system. People need common cause. Reason is great, indeed marvelous as far as it goes. People, however, are not entirely rational. They can be spiritual without being religious. And they can be religious without being believers. If you persist in it, your Scout can even earn an award for caring for the earth. And that should be no cause for complaint.


Born Identity

Richard Dawkins, most famously in The God Delusion, made the claim that children are born without religion. Faith is something we’re taught in the growing up process, and we generally learn it from our parents or guardians. A recent piece in The Guardian (the newspaper, not ersatz parent) by Andrew Brown, stakes a bold, and surely correct, counterclaim: children are not born atheists. This isn’t just wishful thinking. As Brown points out, study after study has shown that people, especially children, are prone to belief. Where Dawkins does have a claim to verisimilitude, however, is that religious branding is not a product of nature. We have to learn what flavor of religion tastes good. As Brown points out in his opinion piece, we also have to learn to be the nationality that everything from our passports to our job applications requires of us. I can’t decide to be Scottish or Canadian. I’ve tried both, and here I am, an American mutt, just as I was assigned at birth.

What should  I believe?

What should I believe?

Like nationality, religion is frequently a matter of where you are born. Take a look at a world map of religions and see. India is the most statistically likely country to be born Hindu. It can happen elsewhere, but it would be unlikely where no Indians live. Life sometimes offers the opportunity to change belief, generally through education or through proselytization, but it is fairly uncommon. Most people don’t think too deeply about their religion. You accept what your parents tell you about what’s poisonous and what’s not, and how to drive a car. Would they steer you wrong on religion? Not willfully, surely.

The tabula rasa myth has been one of the most difficult to eradicate. We’re born with all kinds of things going on inside already. Specific religious belief is not one of them, but the tendency to believe is. We believe because it is human nature to do so. We can learn not to believe, and we can even become wealthy by sharing that outlook vociferously. You can also get a good deal of money by being religious and selling alternatives to science. The Institute for Creation Research is well funded, from what I hear. The one place where there is no money, and where you’re not likely to be noticed, is in the middle. Some of us are born as middle children. We had no choice in the situation, and no matter what we decide to believe, we’re no less Episcopalian than we are atheist, or vice versa.

Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.