The Unfinishable Scroll
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Sat, 01 May 2010
Some readers of my writings might wonder whether I am defending religion or attacking it. I can see how someone might be unsure about this.
On the one hand, I have argued that the cosmos has a spiritual aspect - an aspect that is real, not merely imaginary. On the other hand, I am doubtful about anything labeled "supernatural."
On the one hand, I have criticized several common religious beliefs, and I rely on reason instead of faith to support my opinions. On the other hand, I have said that the essential truths of religion are valid and should be preserved.On the one hand, I have argued that there is an ultimate being that can sensibly be called "God." On the other hand, I have said that I don't fit the definition of a "theist."
So, which am I - a defender of religion, or a critic?
The answer is that I am a defender of what is true and sensible in all religions, but a critic of the mistakes made in the name of religion. Religion, like all human institutions, is full of errors that result from human folly. Some of what passes for "religion" today is half true at best, sheer superstition at worst. However, that doesn't mean that religion itself is bad, or that religion can't change for the better. I disagree fervently with fundamentalism. I even disagree with some of the ideas of more moderate forms of religion. But I am not going to deny probable truth where I find it. And often I find it in the world's religious teachings.
Here are a few of the points where religion gets it right.
Human beings are more than just blobs of matter. Our existence is something more than the existence of a material body. We have characteristics that give us worth and dignity. We even have some characteristics that pass beyond what's normally called the "physical." I disagree with many religious sects in that I don't think any of this is "supernatural." However, the religions are perfectly right when they claim that we are more than just our bodies. And the fact that our minds are products of our brains doesn't change this in the least.
The physical universe is full of meaning. It might not have a prearranged purpose imposed from outside - but still it has real meaning that is not just a product of our imaginations. The meaning of existence is much more than the imaginary, illusory "meaning" that existentialists and hardcore atheists pretend to "find" in things. When a child is saved from cancer, that event really is meaningful. It really matters. It doesn't only matter to you, and it doesn't only matter to me - it really does matter, period. Some things really matter and really are meaningful. They seem meaningful to us, but they are objectively meaningful too. Meaning is much more than a matter of opinion.
Goodness is objectively real. There are events and acts that really are good, and other events and acts that really are bad. An act of genocide is bad; an act of saving a child from cancer is good. These acts are not just good or bad in your opinion or in my opinion. They really are good or bad. Their value or disvalue is objective. What is more, the ideas of good and bad are more than just resultants of our evolutionary history. Some modern authors have claimed we have evolved a social tendency to be nice or to cooperate. Our tendency to behave morally may well have come from such sources. (After all, it must have come from somewhere - and we did arise from evolution.) However, that is not all there is to morality. There also are objective facts about what is moral. Perhaps morality was not passed down to us from above, as many religions say it was. Perhaps it comes from within us instead. Even objective moral values can be natural. But regardless of these details, there are objective moral facts.
Beauty, like goodness, is objectively real. It might seem strange to think of beauty as a religious topic. Some religions don't bother much about beauty, and some don't even seem to like it. Of course, many other religions do appreciate beauty, and religious art pervades many faiths. Beauty is relevant to all religions because it is an important part of the meaning of existence - and because some of the more interesting poets and artists found spiritual insight in it. Beauty is a notoriously personal phenomenon ("in the eye of the beholder" as the saying goes), but that is only because you have to be in the right state of mind to behold it. The beauty is really there; it's not just an illusion. When poets sing the glories of the dawn, the beloved, or the starlight, they are not merely expressing illusory private feelings. They are not merely creating an enjoyable combination of words. Instead, they are actually revealing new knowledge - penetrating into reality in ways that only a poetically opened human mind can do. The knowledge they gain is, at very least, knowledge about the felt features of the world, and about other ways of seeing the world that may be just as "true" as the usual, everyday ways. Nothing in this special knowledge contradicts science or reason - but poetry and the other arts can reveal knowledge that science, with its objective methods, cannot reach.
Beauty, goodness and meaning are real spiritual features of things and of the world. The universe, though perhaps made only of physical substance, is not only physical; it also has these spiritual features. Behind these features is another, deeper stratum: something that could be called the supreme spiritual reality. This is not a being outside of nature, but an all-encompassing whole, containing natural things, relationships, and values, that is the summit of goodness and beauty. It is not just a poetical name for the physical universe. You might think of it as the best and finest aspect of the physical/spiritual cosmos in which we live. It is the kind of entity in which the poet's consciousness can find its long-sought ideal.
It is this entity that I, in my previous writings, have called "God." Some believers (and atheists also) might not be happy with my use of this term. This God is not much like the picture of a crudely humanoid God that some religions hold and that atheists love to deny. Some of the God-figures of religions are unkind and all too fallible. They don't even come close to being ideally good and beautiful. But setting aside those erroneous God-images, we find that the supreme spiritual reality has the most important features of the God worshipped by good-hearted believers. The religions are right when they claim that an ideal, perfect being exists. They are only wrong about the details of that being - including their assumption that God can only be supernatural.
Human beings are more than just bodies. Existence has real meaning and contains real values. There is a supreme spiritual reality that exemplifies those values. These three ideas are among the most essential concepts of religion. As I have argued in my previous writings, these ideas have rational support. You can find them believable on rational grounds, without the use of faith. It is these ideas that I want to defend - along with anything else true and rationally defensible that can be found in the teachings of religion.
I am not the first to propose that some basic spiritual ideas are rational. In the history of thought there have been many spiritual-minded rationalists. Many noted philosophers, ranging from Leibniz and Spinoza of earlier times to the last century's Howison and Royce, knew that spiritual thought could be placed on a rational basis. One of the causes of the conflict between science and religion is the widespread ignorance of philosophy among today's scientists and believers. If religion would abandon blind faith and embrace rational exploration, and if scientists would realize that reason includes philosophy as well as science, then the degrading and unnecessary "war" between science and the human spirit might come to an end.
Religion today may consist largely of unjustified assumptions and guesswork, but essential truths still can be found among the doctrines. In its ideas of the soul, objective morality, and God, religion presents us with hints of these truths. The real ideas have been covered over by humanly invented dogmas, but the real ideas still remain true. And no matter what you've heard from ranting fundamentalists or angry atheists, the basic ideas of real religion are fully compatible with reason.
For lengthier discussions of these topics, read the following documents of mine:
posted at: 01:49 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry
There is a hidden tension within most religious believers' idea of God. Most believers hold two different concepts of God without realizing it. On the one hand, they believe that God is the creator of the universe. ("Our Maker" is one of the most common designations for God.) On the other hand, they think that God is the supremely good being - a being who is worthy of our highest love, and who, in some sense, loves us. Both of these ideas of God perform functions in the believer's life. When you ask believers who God is, they will likely say "the creator of the world." However, in times of personal crisis, they find solace and strength in the idea of a God who is good - a God who is lovable and who somehow represents love itself.
If you asked an average, good-hearted believer which of these is his or her idea of God, he or she would tell you that God is both of these things. There's no need to decide between the two, because both of them are the same being - God. But what if the believer found out that these two beings - the creator and the supremely good being - were not the same? Which one of them would the believer consider to be "God"?
By asking this question, we pinpoint the tension within the idea of God. The common idea of God is not one idea, but two. And which idea is more fundamental? If the creator and the supremely good being were not the same (or if one or the other did not exist), which one should we call "God"?
We can approach the answer by thinking about the role of God in people's lives at times of crisis. We find that the supremely good being is the more important of the two ideas of God. A soldier who derives strength and comfort from his faith is relying on a supremely good being for emotional support. At the moment of danger, the question of how the universe started really doesn't matter to him. In fact, he probably couldn't care less how the universe started. The important thing is that the thought of a supremely loving God is giving him inner strength. He might also be praying to God for a miracle - suggesting an idea of God closer to the miraculous creator. However, if he experiences a seeming "miracle," it won't really matter to him whether the miracle had natural or supernatural causes. He will see the "hand" of God in it - a sign or reminder of God's goodness - even if a natural explanation is found later on.
This soldier's idea of God is a mixture of creator and supremely good being. However, it is the thought of a supremely good being that ultimately keeps the soldier going. The same can be said for other situations in which belief in God is a help. A parent praying for a sick child couldn't really care less how the universe started. (String theory? Quantum vacuum? Intelligent act? That was a long time ago - what difference does it make right now?) Instead, it is the idea of a supremely good being that gives the parent strength. And although the ability to pray to God for a good outcome is comforting, this comfort doesn't depend on God's ability to violate natural laws. The important thing is that the required "miracle" might happen, either through God's action or with the help of the inner strength and determination that prayer can provide. To pray to God is either to ask for a suspension of natural laws, or to focus one's mind on working for the good outcome that natural laws allow - or both. Either way, prayer is a comforting and potentially beneficial act.
What is it in the idea of God that really matters to people? The idea of a creator is familiar, but it is not as important as it seems. It is the idea of God as a supremely good being that makes all the difference in a caring believer's life.
If it turned out that no one made the universe, would humanity still be able to believe in God? Yes - provided we remembered that the important part of the idea of God is not the creator, but the Supremely Good Being.
If you think there is such a being, then that being can be the focus of your spiritual thoughts and feelings no matter what caused the universe. A believer can see the reflection of that goodness - the metaphorical "hand" of God - in all that is good, regardless of whether life's "miracles" are exceptions to the laws of nature or expressions of them.
posted at: 01:46 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry
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