Sunday, October 17, 2010

We are religious creatures: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

So are the new atheists right?  Are we at the twilight of religion?

Prior to the age of reason in the West there was no separating of religion as some other thing, it was infused into everyday life. When missionaries arrived in Japan they found there was no word for religion in the native language, even though we would by our standard tend to include Shinto and Buddhism as religions. For many cultures, while there may be some dichotomy between worlds, or between the sacred and profane, none of these elements were optional and all were interrelated. One of the defining (if not the defining) aspect of modern Homo sapiens is that we are story-tellers, and culture is our collective narrative. As Gary Eberle suggested in his book "Dangerous Words", our common societal narrative and its supporting myths and rituals (here myth doesn't mean story that is historically false but one containing a timeless truth) form an outline for how to live a meaningful and successful life.

There are scholars who compare the myths of religion and the theories of science, the way in which knowledge is legitimized in religion and science, etc, so it isn't a strange idea at all. This does not mean science and religion are considered to be identical, but that they are drive and shaped by similar needs and capacities.  I myself have referred to "belief" or lack thereof in (abstractions and models of) God as an orientation to existence. Cultural anthropologists have long studied the key symbols, metaphors, and stories of societies and how they are used to filter, interpret, and give meaning to their experiences. My own shorthand for this is the cultural lens (because then I can also add other forms such as methodological lens, metaphysical lens, etc).

I sometimes give a lecture in which I talk about how the same observations (fossil beds in which similar forms persist, then disappear and are replaced with new forms, only to occasionally re-appear later) are seen through the lens of Cuvier (a brilliant paleontologist living prior to the rise of evolutionary theory whose only mechanisms were Biblical -- series of creations interspersed with catastrophic floods), Darwin (a gradualist), early saltationists like Huxely and Mivart (who were evolutionists like Darwin but who also were clueless about heredity), later Darwinians like G.G. Simpson and saltationists like Otto Schindewolfe (soon after population genetics had come into ascendancy in evolution after the Synthesis), and then more recent scholars of evolution promoting gradualism and saltationism with newer models of heredity and development. This doesn't mean all these interpretations are accurate or equally valid, but it does force one to be firmly grounded in their epistemological principles.

As many others have suggested over the years, even if we "got rid" of all music, art and religion and all ritual too, we would reinvent them in a new form. It is who and what we are. Even now in the US people pray in the temples of Capitalism and genuflect before the images of Democracy before going home to be mesmerized by Media, a fickle deity that is not strictly aligned with any group of gods but is sought to be controlled by all. And of course we hate the gods of the enemy, which we tend to lump together and even conflate from time to time, such as Totalitarianism, Socialism, Communism, etc. We loath and fear them so much that even to utter their names with anything other than derision can be considered blasphemy and label you as a likely heretic if not an outright heathen. So long as we are faithful to our gods and spurn the false gods of our enemies, we are promised our nation will prosper. And when bad things happen anyway, we accuse our rulers and chief priests of either not being true to the faith or perhaps of not using the proper ceremonies to please the gods. But we of course are oh so modern and nothing like those poor Norse, Greek, Roman, Babylonian or Egyptian peoples of ancient times and their primitive beliefs!

It's ironic then that while when people "do religion" they may be professing Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, etc, but in their hearts and everyday lives many in the US truly worship these other gods, so that in the end many Christians and atheists do in fact share a common faith. That silly Olde God, who has had many names and faces throughout history and all over the world and who was consistently proclaimed to be Love; well, his symbols and status can be appropriated or annexed because few people really believe in him anymore. After all, people have been appropriating him or his symbols for tribal and nationalistic purposes (especially for conquest and enforcing conformity) for thousands of years anyway. Surely he faded away eons ago, if he ever existed at all.

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