Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Mon, 02 Mar 2009

The Guts of Religion

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether science and religion are compatible. Atheists often claim that science and religion are incompatible, and that everyone should give up religion. Fundamentalist religious believers typically are much like the atheists - they think science and religion don't mix. However, they want to give up part or all of science (especially evolution) instead of religion. Liberal religious thinkers often think science and religion are compatible - that you can hold some religious beliefs and still believe everything that science has discovered.

I am going to argue that the most important ideas of religion are fully compatible with science. You can believe in the most important ideas of religion, and also believe in science. There is no conflict at all between the basic ideas of religion and our scientific knowledge of the world. What is more, it's possible to build a system of spiritual belief based on reason instead of dogmatic faith.

Before getting started, I should clarify what I mean by "religion." I won't try to define "religion" precisely. I'll just say that religion is not the same as dogmatic belief or as membership in a religious sect. These are not religion, but are only particular forms of religion. There can be other forms.

Three ideas are basic to a truly religious attitude.

The first idea is that the universe is meaningful. There are things that really matter and that really have value. By "value" I don't just mean moral values, like goodness. I also mean the value of beauty in all its forms - like the beauty of nature. These values are real. They are not just illusions of the mind. They are not just reactions and preferences of ours. At least some values are objectively real. Some happenings really are good. Some things really are beautiful. Some things really matter. It's not just that we think they matter - it's that they really do matter.

The second basic idea of religion is that there is a supreme being or supreme reality of some sort. There are many different ideas about this supreme reality. The idea of God taught in Christian churches is not the only possible idea of a supreme being or reality. Different religions and philosophies teach different ideas about this topic. Some Eastern religions have ideas of an ultimate root of things quite different from the usual Western ideas of God. But the important point is that there is a supreme being or reality of some kind. This is not just the source of all things (as matter might be for an atheist), but a being, entity, or reality that is of supreme significance for our spiritual and ethical lives.

The third basic idea of religion is that we are not just our bodies. A human being is not just matter, but is something more than that. A human being is something capable of having rights, dignity and worth. This implies that a human being must be the kind of thing that can have rights, dignity and worth - which means not just a simple blob of matter, but something more. Different religions and philosophies have different ideas about what this "something more" is. Many religions teach that there is a soul inhabiting the body. The soul is supposed to be sort of an invisible, ghostly thing that lives in the body. Other religions have a more subtle idea of the soul. Buddhism, for example, traditionally teaches that there is no permanent soul, but that personal identity or consciousness can pass from an earlier body to a later one. According to this belief, the "something more" is not a supernatural soul, but an ongoing process that extends beyond our present bodies. No matter how we think of the "something more," the important point is that there is something more to us than the matter of our bodies. A human being is more than just a lump of matter - and because of that, a human being can have spiritual qualities that no mere heap of chemicals can possess. (By mentioning human beings here, I am not ruling out similar beliefs about other organisms.)

These are the three most important ideas of religion: that existence is meaningful, that there is a supreme reality, and that we are more than our bodies.

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