Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

The Crossroads of Logic and Poetry: Toward a Rational Version of Religion

At the beginning of this blog, in a post called "The Guts of Religion," I pointed out three ideas that are basic to a religious outlook:

  • The universe is meaningful.
  • There is a supreme spiritual reality or supreme being of some sort.
  • We are not just our bodies.

In later posts I examined each of these ideas.

In the post called "Introducing a New Version of God," I showed that the existence of a supreme spiritual reality, or supreme being if you prefer those words, is consistent with science and with rational thought. I gave a link to a document titled God: the Next Version, in which I proposed a rational model of such a being. A supreme being or reality of this kind can exist even if there is nothing supernatural. You don't need to have any faith to conclude that this being exists. All you need is a certain understanding of existence and of values.

This supreme spiritual reality is different from the humanlike God concept taught by many religions. However, this "new" version of God is more than a pantheistic name for the physical universe. The supreme being proposed here is not a humanoid god, but it also is not just the sum of all physical objects. This supreme being has mindlike features that make it more like a "someone" than a mere "something." This being also lies at the root of all real values. We can learn about this being by contemplating values like goodness and beauty.

In the posts titled "The New Face of Spirit: Part One" and "The New Face of Spirit: Part Two," I pointed out two ways in which a person transcends the matter of the body. In the first of these posts I showed that the mind and self are more than just the brain, even if these are features of the brain as science suggests they are. In the second post I argued that the human organism is more than just the matter that makes it up - not because of any supernatural add-ons, but because of a general logical fact about material objects and their parts. (I did not address the question of the afterlife in those posts. I did that later on my other blog.)

In the post titled "The Meaning and Beauty of the Universe," I argued that it is more rational to think of the meaning in life as objectively real instead of as merely imaginary or illusory. The universe is a truly meaningful place, regardless of any differences in people's personal feelings about meaning. Also, the universe is a place in which real beauty exists. Beauty is not just in our imaginations; it is an objectively real feature of the world. Among other consequences, the objective reality of beauty implies that the arts can reveal genuine truths about the world.

All three of the religious ideas described in the first post have rational support. We got this result without ever relying on faith. The basic truths of religion are rationally credible. You can accept these basic truths without accepting anything on faith and without believing in anything supernatural. These basic spiritual truths are philosophical rather than scientific, but all of them are compatible with scientific fact and theory. These three spiritual truths can be true in a purely natural universe because they refer, not just to physical objects, but to certain properties and relationships that exist within the natural world.

The ideas I have presented here form a philosophical viewpoint that is both rational and spiritual. Is this viewpoint really religious? Some atheists and theologians might claim that this view is not religious because it does not involve faith or the supernatural. We could just as well label this view "spiritual but not religious." Those who are sensitive to the evils done in the name of religion might prefer to avoid the term "religious" altogether. However, we should remember that religion, no matter how idiotic people sometimes make it, contains a core of sensible spiritual ideas. Thoughtful believers can (and usually do) separate these sensible ideas from all the nonsense that fanatics proclaim in the name of religion. In addition to these true ideas, there are other religious beliefs that are false or questionable if understood simplistically, but true if given a more liberal interpretation. (For examples, see God: the Next Version.) To acknowledge the basic underlying truth of religion, I will continue using the term "religious" for the spiritual viewpoint developed here - though simply calling it "spiritual" might be less controversial.

Compared to familiar forms of religion, this rational approach might seem too dry and intellectual. Does our new viewpoint strip religion of its emotional value? It does not. The new version of religion is not only rational, but also keenly poetical. In God: the Next Version I pointed out that we can know the supreme reality through experiences of transcendent beauty. These incandescent experiences, often inspired by nature or by human love, can lead to awareness of the supreme spiritual reality. Such experiences can reveal the supreme reality to us whether or not we realize that they do. Indeed, the poetically inspired observer who experiences nature or a beloved person as somehow divine may be noticing an authentic fact. Despite the visionary character of these experiences, there is nothing supernatural or antirational about them. (If you find the last two sentences hard to believe, read God: the Next Version carefully.) This type of religion is not short on emotional value! It is a philosophy for poets and scientists alike.

When I started this blog, I planned to present an alternative approach to religion - an approach based on reason instead of faith. Now I have finished that task. The fact that such an approach is possible shows that religion, in and by itself, is not the enemy of reason. Religious sects can be quite antirational; some of them have made a mess of human history. However, this does not change the fact that some of the fundamental ideas of religion are rational.

The specific approach to rational religion presented here might not be the last word or the only possible approach. However, the fact that we can formulate such an approach at all shows that we should not discard all religion as irrational. The dogmatic religions of today contain many errors, but the essence of religion is compatible with reason.

Given the bloody history of many religions, it is clear that the human race needs to be more thoughtful in its attempts to answer the ultimate questions. However, if we abandoned religion entirely (as many noisy atheist authors tell us to do), we would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The human race cannot afford to lose the essential truths behind religion. These truths are important because they support the view that the human individual matters. They point out that human nature has a spiritual side, and that this spiritual side is related to a supreme spiritual reality. The essential truths of religion remind us that a person is more than just a disposable lump of chemicals or an insignificant speck of matter in the universe. That is an important fact to remember in these times of genocide and oppression, when persons often are treated as mere material things. "Scientific" materialism (which actually is not scientific) is much like religious fanaticism; both of these ideologies deny the significance of the person. A truly religious outlook supports the importance and dignity of the person. The modern authors who attack all religion are undermining human dignity. Even if those authors consider themselves humanists, their message is profoundly antihuman.

The right answer to religion's mistakes is not the rejection of religion, but the quest for a rational religious philosophy. We need to cleanse religion of its errors instead of giving up on the human spirit.

This post completes what I wanted to say in this blog. Although I can't absolutely rule out the possibility that I will write more here, I plan to do my future religious blogging on my main blog, The Unfinishable Scroll. I've already written a lot about religion on that blog. If you want more detail on the topics discussed here, The Unfinishable Scroll would be a good place to start your search.

posted at: 01:46 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

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.

posted at: 16:57 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

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