Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How exactly does God fit into all of this?

NGC 7293, The Helix Nebula, a planetary nebula...Image via WikipediaThis is the third part of a long essay. Parts one and two and four are also available.
So far I have kept a common convention in contemporary Western culture which conflates God and religion. So what is the link there? And what can it tell us about why belief in God might possibly matter to a nonbeliever?

One could spend a lifetime in sociological, anthropological and historical study trying to answer the questions just posed, but let's make all kinds of assumptions and give them a go. Religion is not just a collection of myths or rituals, nor interwoven forms of philosophical inquiry, artistic/humanistic expression, social identity, group history, social control.

Yes, what those following the conventions of modern Western society tend to think of as religions often have those things. That does not mean a strict reduction to those elements is justified. For our purposes here religion is taken to be the formalized expression of a shared spirituality.

In turn, spirituality is a fundamental orientation towards existence, an orientation towards how we understand and experience our lives as meaningful events. Now technically, a social scientist could rightly point out that we can define culture as a formalized expression of how we understand and experience our lives, a shared way of living and of knowing how to live. (Of course, culture tends to be implicit in daily life and gets formalized when someone tries to study it, but that's a different topic.)

Yet religion isn't strictly synonymous with culture any more than religion is synonymous with God. Instead, religion involves those elements of culture that emphasize the existential dilemmas such as: Why does reality exist? Who am I? Why do I exist? What is my purpose? What is life (or death)? What happens when I die?

Let us look at religion more closely before homing in on God.

The form(s) of religion--the externals--with the priests, the shamans, the monks, the altars, the chants and singing, the formal processions, the symbols, and the like, are not unimportant, but neither are they the end all and be all of religion. They are the spaces, objects and actors which embody and enact these deeper concerns. They reflect how a particular cultural group connects and participates in these questions.

This is not to say that religious structure and content cannot be and has not been used in ways that are discriminatory, controlling, or anti-progressive, as already described. Nor is it to say that some self-professed religious people reduce their own understanding of and participation in religion to an obligatory routine, a political agenda, or a collection of psychologically comforting superstitions.

It is to say that to really understand the nature and depth of religion and the God question they cannot be dismissed as alien relics from another time or a fog of ignorance of the past hanging over modern societies.

Organized religions and associated individuals may become obsessed over their own symbolic forms and institutions, giving the perpetuation of these things primacy over all else, but the heart of religion is still connected to a common human spirituality, even if in many cases the hearts of particular divisions, schools, sects, or denominations have become hardened and atrophied. It is not uncommon to associate such self-serving, narrow-minded groups with "traditional" religion and by following that train of thought to conflate "traditional" with "authentic" religion.

This is not a trivial (lack of) distinction.

The conservative nature of religion as previously noted links it to older norms, values, social structures and the like, so it is easy to make an equivalence between religion and social conservatism. The abundance of highly vocal and sometimes obnoxious public figures who affirm or promote such an equivalence provides readily available anecdotal evidence for its veracity and applicability (cue some waving a Bible and warning against the evils of evolutionary theory or the homosexual agenda). That in turn makes it harder to see religion as having qualities which can be described as liberal or as liberating.

It also means that when the aspects of religion which are not tied to social conservatism are recognized or discussed, they are described as being less authentic. If in a rough mental calculus religion, social conservatism, academic ignorance, and being closed minded all marinate together in a single cultural sauce, then it becomes natural to view any aspect of religion or the outlook of religious individuals that is socially progressive, intellectually informed and sophisticated, or open-minded as a case of watering down religion.

That is to say, in such a view genuine religion doesn't allow for change, for mediation between the received wisdom of tradition and new insights, or for any real growth other than in power and membership. Genuine religion takes (nearly) everything literally from sacred texts, and in any case always interprets these texts along with associated commentaries, rituals, and other religious forms in a way that is rigid, patriarchal, racist, homophobic and controlling.

Many nonbelievers recognize that this is a gross exaggeration, yet something like it easily creeps into ones mind, even among those who subscribe to religion or belief in God. There is ample literature available, particularly from historians, demonstrating the flaws in this view of religion, so its influence will be noted but the topic itself will be set aside here and left to you to pursue at your own discretion.

If we look at religion beyond the caricatures and stereotypes of ignorance and intolerance, acknowledging that these are based on very vocal and visible religious institutions and individuals, then we can admit that these are part of what religion can become without assuming that this is the truest or most revealing part of what religion is. (We might also see that prophets and other religious figures were generally combating this tendency toward religious fanaticism, but again, let's leave that for your own investigation.)

We can look at the communally artistic way that religion or the religious aspects of culture deal with the most profound existential dilemmas facing our curiously sentient species and ask what value there may be in exploring these questions by weaving them into a shared tapestry of meaning and social affiliation.

We can speculate about the human (or at least the Western) tendency to organize our perception and behavior (and thus our explanations and cultural constructions) along an axis with freedom, ambiguity and uncertainty on one end and structure control and clarity on the other. Might this also apply to our notions of spirituality and religion when it comes to the aspects of our cultural systems that deal with major existential questions?

We can allow for the possibility that the questions and concerns driving nonbeliever and the irreligious are not so different from those who seek God or engage in religious activities. Or even that there may be a useful dialogue, if not a degree of synthesis, available to such seemingly divergent perspectives.

And still we can ask, how exactly does God fit into all of this?
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1 comment:

  1. This is great. It has a fine promise of being a good essay. I like the subject matter. I agree that religious is not reducible to just sociological qualia. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

    I hope you clarify how to distinguish bewteen the cultural constructs and myths and actual religion.


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