It is beyond doubt that the great civilisations were religious in some form or another, and this did not impede scientific development. It is also beyond doubt that ideologies and dogmatism impede scientific development, whether they are religious or scientific.
Materialism has a cranky intolerance of religion in general. Its aversion to religious dogma is frequently well-founded but unbalanced and mostly ill-informed. It is at best an ideology driven by unaddressed personal issues. And we also have fundamentalist religious dogmas that are irrationally intolerant of science.
We have extreme aversions. Each camp presumes it is right and the other is wrong. Atheists debate fundamentalist Christians in pointless performances that pander only to their own. They are not debates seeking to resolve an issue. Neither camp has depth knowledge of the other. This is what happens when combative ideologies engage in ritual combat.
Science and religion are essentially fairly modern ideas – especially as contestants. We need to understand this. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on religion quotes Paul Griffiths (a theologian I think) as saying: hardly anyone has any idea what they are talking about—or, perhaps more accurately, that there are so many different ideas in play about what religion is that conversations in which the term figures significantly make the difficulties in communication at the Tower of Babel seem minor and easily dealt with. I recommend reading the full article.
I think it was the American philosopher John Dewey who denied there was Science, only sciences and scientists. We often talk of Science as if it is a settled body of knowledges and beliefs rather than a method of inquiry. But capital ‘s’ Science isn’t really a rational thing. It’s a convention or habit (and a bad one at that). Scientists can be deeply dogmatic and cruel to those with whom they disagree, as well as dishonest.
In essence, while there might be ideals fairly associated with science and religion, they cannot be applied universally. We may have to offer only finely nuanced descriptions of what we intend to convey if we want to avoid being misunderstood. Indeed, maybe we should come up with new ideas and words about both.
A personal position
I grew up with a passion for science and an aversion to the Christianity of my parents. I wasn’t anti-religious, just anti bullshit. By the time I turned 15 I had been hammered by an array of non-ordinary experiences that left me unable to turn to either science or religion for guidance. That’s still pretty much the picture today.
Between the two was a strange zone which offered succour through what is variously ‘pseudo-science’ (a term I detest) or sundry ‘New Age’ beliefs. It was often attractive – if one’s intent was to discover a comforting dogma to indulge in. But the absence of intellectual integrity was always a danger signal to me.
To be clear, I don’t disparage the discovery of a comforting dogma. Sometimes that’s an achievement – if the root of the comfort has integrity. Shelter from the storm of doubt has its appeal. But it’s just not something I am into. I had to resolve my non-ordinary experiences into some kind of theory that satisfies my personal needs.
So, I grew up with a hunger that was not assuaged by the offerings I found, though I drank eagerly from cups offered by both science and religion. However, they were more like hospitality to a pilgrim rather than temptations to dwell. We all have our own path to walk.
I read extensively in the sciences and in religion/spirituality. I was a sci-fi and fantasy devotee for a few decades. I have read only 2 fiction books in the past 25 years. I have been tracking my audiobooks since Dec 2018 and I have been getting through 4.5 a month on average. This doesn’t include podcasts and Kindle. I mention this to emphasise that I am a serious inquirer.
What kicked of my audiobook list keeping in December 2018 was the discovery of Donald Trump’s extraordinary impact on the US. This became a deep fascination for me because it triggered an intense curiosity about the nature of belief. My Trump book category has 59 inhabitants. The largest group is political history – 60. I needed a refresh so I could make sense of Trump’s environment in a non-naïve way. Allied to this need are the 36 social commentary books. My religion/spirituality group also has 59 occupants, including quite a few on American expressions of religion. There are also 12 books on metaphysics and 2 on mythology.
I have had an enduring parallel interest in how workplaces have been evolving. I have a category called professional development with 58 books on organisational psychology, management and diversity, equity, and inclusion. This has been supplemented by 22 books on psychology.
Apart from the 1 fiction book, there is 1 book on writing, 2 on economics, 4 autobiographies, 9 on indigenous culture and history, 11 on ET/UFOs, 15 on science, 16 on philosophy, and finally 16 books on history (including 6 on ‘pseudo history’).
I have tried to explore the world I live in using contemporary knowledge to discover something of the human drama and how we are responding. Trump represents a profound existential crisis at a cultural level. It’s not just the US – it’s just way better examined and documented there. My professional development and psychology books have explored the individual in social and organisational settings with an emphasis on moral dimensions.
The UFO/ET books have driven home the drama of our opening awareness to other lives and dimensions. This has been reinforced by the books on metaphysics and science. This drama accompanies expressions of religions of course, but it’s a common human heritage that should be as much a part of our shared secular discourse as any other theme.
Trump represents an appeal to tyranny – a purely human effort to resist the evolutionary forces that are transforming our experience of being human. The past 30 years or so in particular have utterly transformed living in ‘advanced western’ countries. I have no doubt this is true for other countries – I just don’t have the lived experience to assert it is so without qualification.
We are change resistant creatures in a maelstrom of transformation. Exhaustion and resistance are normal. It is easier to articulate resistance concretely and harken back to the known than it is to voice confidence in an unpredictable future. Resistance may be futile, but at least it seems comprehensible.
The present as a balance between past and future
The balance is important to me. Reliance on texts from pre-modern agrarian cultures strikes me as crazy. For example, the Bible no doubt aspired to contain the best wisdom and insights of its time of creation, but valid ancient ‘wisdom’ will be validated by modern wisdom – eventually. So many foundational insights of ancient wisdom are affirmed by contemporary human sciences. On the other hand the messy struggles to make sense of new spiritual ideas will not ensure unless they become baked into ideologies demanding compliance and faith rather than reason and discernment.
The mystical nature of Jesus, the core of Christianity as a dogma, cannot be validated. It remains a personal election as an essentially unimportant matter. This unimportance is a profoundly contentious matter for believers. Atheists have gone beyond it, as have those who have adopted alternative paths. The ability to discern between wisdom and dogma is developed only through discernment and struggle.
There’s much our sciences won’t explore or validate, but what they have is of immense value as affirmed enduring truths – rather than metaphysical guesses and acts of faith and belief that deny any obligation to seek the adjudication of educated reason.
Modernity is a celebration of intellectual passion – for good or ill – and refusing to be a part of it is to profoundly misunderstand the wisdom of the past in favour of dogmas that dull minds and stifle imagination. A god wants this to be the preferred way?
We are on the cusp of profound changes. The technologies that facilitate our aspirations may not be wisely husbanded, but they will continue to change how we experience our lives. Regardless of the cause, climate change will oblige us to adapt to unwelcome extremes. Our engagement with other sentient agents will become more overt and intense.
Every now and then I tune into popular culture to see what’s trending. Movies can be a remarkable barometer. A few years ago, when I started looking at lists of top grossing movies, I was astonished to see a mere handful of ‘normal life’ movies in the top 100. The most were sci fi and fantasy. Oddly Titanic, one of the few ‘normal life’ movies was #1 back then.
It seemed our spiritual and religious passions were being catered for via sci fi and fantasy. Our imaginations were way beyond the iron age agrarian settings of our foundational spiritual sources.
Time to seriously rethink.
About 2,000 years ago a small movement generated by a Jewish spiritual teacher became a world transforming force. It would be unrealistic to say this movement caused the transformation, but it certainly was the carrier of a great evolutionary impulse – and came to symbolise it. It was not the exclusive carrier, just the dominant one. That impulse has flowed on, and the carrier has waned in power and significance.
Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is the most compelling exploration of this idea. It is little read by folks interested in religion because nothing about the books suggests it has anything to do with the theme. Even the subtitle – The Origins Of Western Liberalism – hints not at all that the book is on the impact of Christianity.
Through Jeff Kripal who taught me to see religion in a secular context, I came across Luke Lafitte’s Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm – Spiritual Freedom and the Re-animation of Matter. Lafitte’s book was no easy read and I am not sure I read it the way he intended. I wrote him a thank you note but he didn’t reply. But it pushed me to understand that we must see our spirituality in our own context – for most this is urban and high tech. It’s not agrarian and iron age. There’s no reason why our next ‘saviour’ may not be ET or a cyborg.
Incidentally, in looking up Jeff Kripal on Amazon I discovered he’s finally got a new book out (see the hyperlink above). Even the Kindle version is priced as an academic text. But he’s one of my favourite, and most provocative, authors – so no audiobook. I bought the Kindle version. The title, The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities, hints of another fascinating adventure. The website blurb proclaims – A bold challenge to rethink the humanities as intimately connected to the superhuman and to “decolonize reality itself.”
Reality isn’t terra nullius. This is a difficult concept to grasp at first, because we create our experience of it. But in so doing we impose our preconceptions, our conditioning, our habits of thought. We can shut out what is there by imposing ideologies and dogmas that flood our consciousnesses with asserted ‘truths’. These ‘truths’ include our faith traditions, materialistic ideologies and other beliefs and opinions. This also includes concepts baked into our cultural norms – religion and science are good examples.
This kind of thinking might be unfamiliar to the reader steeped in the standard fare on spirituality and religion. It could even be unsettling. The familiar spiritual and religious discourses carry a sense of the known, even if we don’t know much about them. They are established. But they are also backward looking – and there’s something of value in that – especially if the spirit of the past is absent in the present. However, looking backwards doesn’t help in the current age – unless our goal is to return to the simple low-tech agrarian life.
Thomas Campbell’s My Big TOE opens up and entirely different landscape – one that straddles the physical and the metaphysical. Campbell is associated with the Monroe Institute, established by Robert Monroe, as is Frank DeMarco, an author whose works have fascinated me.
These are not the only source of different ways of engaging with spiritual an religious ideas, but they are forward thinking and the direction we need to be heading, backed by contemporary sciences. We have new territory to expand into – as explorers, not colonisers. The inhabitants of the deeper reality aren’t into us trying that stuff.
My grandson is turning 18 in a week as I write this. His spirituality is not steeped in old lore. Rather it is grounded in Star Wars and the Marvel universe. A few years back he asked his grandmother if there was a god and she said there was in a most unhelpful way. She was eager to affirm her belief and so lost the chance to ask an essential question, “What do you mean by ‘god’?” He has had no motivation to reopen the question. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it seemed to me to be a lost opportunity to initiate a calm discourse blessed with subtlety and insight.
Old lore has its values if approached in a fortunate way. I grew up steeped in Theosophy, ritual magic, and Wicca, but not always in helpful ways. I had to struggle with credulous associates who were believers rather than seekers. But I got a good grounding in a decent idea of human spiritual anatomy. Nobody would expect a doctor to practice medicine with no understanding of physical anatomy. That is tangible and measurable in concrete ways. But no such requirement is imposed upon practitioners of spiritual or religious traditions. We are content with traditional dogma and commentary. That’s what killed so many people when medicine was a gentleman’s pursuit rather than a science.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, in How Emotions are Made, argues that our theory of emotions is all wrong. We don’t have an accurate anatomy of emotions. Our penchant for religious ideology has infected our capacity for scientific thought and perpetuated an affection for dogma disguised as reasoned truth.
There’s a lot about the past we must jettison. Yes, more transformation/change fatigue – especially if we get it wrong out of sloppiness, laziness, or ideological hubris. And the odds of that are high.
My grandson is a child of the 21st century. He is inner urban, high tech. His spiritually can’t look back – behind him there’s only a fog of ideology and ignorance far denser than what surrounds him now.
When I discovered the idea of animism, I knew quite quickly it was anachronistic, but I didn’t have good alternative to convey what it meant to me. Unlike others who took to the word I wasn’t in need of something to articulate a sentiment. I was looking for an explanation for lived experience. I am seeing now that religion and even science are words that are better scraped from our minds into the dustbin of redundant notions. But we can’t be too hasty. We must have at least made a down payment on what will replace them – and we are a long way from doing that.
If my grandson came to me and asked, “Is there a god?” I’d like to say, “That’s an interesting question. Tell me why you want to know.” Then we might have a conversation about our future, not our past.