Thursday, April 8, 2010

Religion is a matter of "Why?" (including "Why not?")

Have you ever tried to define religion? Have you done so while trying to be fair to those who consider themselves religious? I have run across many such attempts by philosophers, poets, and social scientists. I've tried it myself, including essays suggesting religion cannot be reduced to magic, superstition or supernaturalism. For a while I was taken with the idea that what many religions had in common was about rituals for passing through life and death and ceremonial structures pointing to meaning. These are not necessarily bad or wrong but they and descriptions/definitions like tend to be too complicated. It's hard to start a conversation when you have to make a long logical argument and define several terms beforehand. So what is it that can bring together indigenous/Earth-centered spirituality, Abrahamic traditions, Dharmic traditions, etc into a meaningful and fruitful frame? They all take seriously the really large question(s) of "Why?"

If whatever traditional or self-styled form of sacred practice, faith, and study you engage in doesn't take this question seriously, it's just window-dressing for an blank screen. And even those who consider themselves irreligious at some point formulate their own way of dealing with "Why?" The trouble is not all everyone is upfront about it.

So what about atheists? Most atheists I've encountered (including those I encountered during my several years among their ranks) tend to be all about "How?" but shun or dismiss "Why?" Part of that is because some have gone down the road to Scientism, whereas others are living in the hills surrounding Scientism but still within Ontological Naturalism County or the State of Reductionism. Science is designed to be all about the "How?" but it is ill-equipped to deal with "Why?" While some may try to substitute "How?" for "Why?" via utilitarianism, that just leads to deeply flawed kind of teleology. The distinction between asking "How?" and asking "Why?" is the heart of Steve Gould's concept of Non-Overlapping Magesteria.

Now if you ask any philosophers or students of science who are worth their salt, they will certainly after reflection admit that science is intentionally myopic, focusing on empirical and repeatable phenomena that can be reduced to a simplified representation such as a model or formula. Further a particularly adept specimen of that breed will acknowledge that it is possible that our brains lack the perceptual and cognitive tools to properly characterize the small portion of the universe to which we have access in terms of "How?" It may be that we have an elaborate, cohesive system that appears from our perspective to be correct but which is nonetheless a shambles. Given how we might now view what previous generations of scientists considered to be an accurate depiction of the world, humility is certainly in order. "But," our fine scholar says, "it is the best system we have for asking 'How?' in terms of being consistent with our experience of reality and it has served us well in improving our lives."

Well said. Yet if someone pursues the question of "Why?" with the same seriousness and commitment, for what good reason should that be frowned upon or ridiculed? What makes us so sure it is any less sensible to pursue "Why?" rather than "How?" That we are somehow imposing more on reality or risking greater error by pursuing one avenue or the other? Perhaps we are better suited to and able to obtain more accurate results asking "Why?" than "How?" No one can say. In some ways "How?" is a little easier to see and manipulate. But since when are easier tasks always the most valuable or rewarding? With the fuss some make about who qualifies as a theist, or what it means to be religious, or to be spiritual, and how to sort such labels, we can make a bit of sense out of what unites them by framing them as people unafraid to pursue "Why?" So what happens when one of these people is asked "Why are you religious?" or "spiritual?" or something else and she gives the same reply as our scholar of science: "It is the best system I have for asking 'Why?' in terms of being consistent with my experience of reality and it has served me well in improving my life." On what basis is this usage less appropriate or insightful?

One tired argument heard in the fracas over (strong/new) atheism is that science has replaced the explanatory power of religion, which is often characterized by those making such an argument as a failed primitive science. Religious and spiritual paths have been adapting to new insights from the world of "How?" for millenia. The difference over the past couple hundred years is the pace of new insights to be considered and assimilated. Yet most religions have made peace with the most influential of these new insights. For example, while a minority of the members of Abrahamic faiths still reject evolution, the rest see it as a new and amazing way to deepen their appreciation of the wonder of God's creation. On the other hand while modernism, riding on the coattails of science, often claims to have a better handle on "How?" than traditional beliefs neither modernism nor atheism have any kind of grip (and the latter seems to want no part of) "Why?" other than a modest, ethereal, unobtrusive and completely subjective whisper. Neither have been able to come to terms with the cultural and spiritual inheritance they have received from traditions who have long studied the issues related to meditating on "Why?", nor can either offer anything original (neither nihilism nor solipsism is new) to address the question.

Oh, and by the way, just because on is open to the question(s) of "Why?" doesn't mean we should be taken in by cheap, easy or overly simplistic answers, especially those with an air of authoritarian finality. Mystery is not always an obstacle to be overcome, but sometimes an invitation and a guidepost to genuine Meaning.

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