Religion and the Human Prospect

God Using Geometry (Blake)

 

 

 

 

 

“The gods must die so that humanity might live.”  (The Buddha)

 

Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world.  Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle.  Many people who regard themselves as religious  believe it as well. The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.

The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and  technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it.  To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support.

Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water.  The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion.  Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any.  Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor.  We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world.   As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our promethean effort to understand.

There is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule.  The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history.

Unfortunately this is the narrow view often assumed by people who believe religion has nothing to teach us–when of course what they may be saying is that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created.  The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.

Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now.  But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago.    Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history.  Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.”  A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error.  Yet that is what religion once required of us.

For these reasons the human prospect will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route.  But it will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of our moral intelligence.  The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82).  The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.”  That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.

 

 

15 thoughts on “Religion and the Human Prospect

  1. Ethics is a nebulous construct at best, relatively modern I suspect. The word crudelis (cruel) apparently did not exist with that meaning at the time of Christ, e.g.

    Historically, ethics was most often rooted in expediency a la Machiavelli, or justified via a larger good (Mill) or, when claimed via religion, took the form of idiotic forays such as WWI&II by mutually ‘Christian’ counterparts. Ergo the God Is Dead movement of the 20’s onward.

    You don’t see much mention of a transition yet, but look for ethics to answer more to practicality and the needs of the planet, our species and lives in future.

    Greed will still be greed, perfidy will still be lies, but they will be seen as damaging and outre to our collective prospects, more than “wrong”. Such actions will become “inadvisable” and “hooliganism” with an appeal to our intellect instead, akin to common sense Confucianism.

  2. Excellent article with which I very much or largely agree, notably this:

    As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our promethean effort to understand.

    While Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion argues that the Bible “includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right [and it] needs to be part of our education [because it] is a major source book for literary culture” – at least suggesting some genuflection towards that “promethean effort”, I would say that the stance of the new atheists is – at best – less an issue of “anti-religion and God-bashing” simply for its own sake and more along the line, as you suggested, of saying to religion – with more than “Catonic pertinacity, Delenda est”, that “the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created.” And if ridicule is the weapon of choice in that battle, a figurative two-by-four up alongside the ears – just to get the attention of the religious, of course, particularly since razing their cities and plowing their lands with salt is, generally speaking, no longer considered civilized, then I hardly think that that detracts at all from the still useful benefits to be derived from either a scientific or historical study of religion itself or at all hinders their acquisition. As you said:

    The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.

    Or as the historian Barbara Tuchman said, or quoted, “To study history is to be blind in one eye. But not to is to be blind in both.” Although I tend to think that historical studies of the Bible and the Quran have an additional impediment or hurdle to deal with that may be virtually insurmountable – short of having a time-machine. While historical revisionism is, apparently, a common facet of political objectives and motivations, when it is “immortal souls” that are hanging in the balance there seems to be more of an incentive to tailor history to dogma. And faced with that type of Gordian Knot of lies holding humanity in bondage it seems that the most effective method of cutting through them – particularly with dogmatic literalists – is not to quibble with “Erigugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltman on hope”, but to point out with some asperity if not ridicule that the premise or hypothesis – the literal existence of the deities in question – on which such lucubrations are based is very much of an open question at best if not an outright delusion.

  3. Very good, very succinct: the scientific study of religion is essential for all the reasons you’ve made clear. Just a typo – “The formulation is Buddhism is more severe”, should be “in Buddhism”.

  4. Reminds me of Nietzsche, there aren’t any gods but what are we going to replace the gods with? This still remains the modern dilemma and will likely remain a dilemma for quite some time.

    • Good point, an excellent one even. Considering, in the light of the history of those gods, that nothing seems to have engaged humanity’s interest and passion quite as much as a desire for personal immortality – whether that really qualifies as “puerile egotism” or not, one might suggest that we could, potentially anyway, attempt to become as gods ourselves. Although immortality, even a reasonable facsimile thereof, might turn out to be more than we bargain for. As they say, “against boredom the gods themselves struggle in vain”.

      But it seems that more than a few people are leaning in that direction if a book such as How to Live Forever or Die Trying is any indication of even a tip of a small iceberg. In addition there’s the view of a Dr. John Hartung who, in his paper Prospects for Existence: Morality and Genetic Engineering, argues that “we teeter on the cusp of purposely directing evolution” to an end that might even include functional if not true immortality. And a view which is buttressed by reference to the somewhat durable mythology of Genesis 3 which echoes that of Prometheus:

      And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

      Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

      So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

      Considering that that has been an age-old dream, if an inchoate one and one which Genesis 3 suggests that mankind has expressed some apprehension at the presumption of it, one might reasonably argue that it would be somewhat boorish and piker-ish, if not betraying a failure of nerve and vision, to not make a try for that brass ring. Particularly since the means to that end might actually now be finally within our grasp.

      • Dwight Jones said,

        Genesis 3:24 can’t be wrong, as a defence of cloning. Time to take each other’s DNA into our keeping, and ask the Jesuits for a new business plan?

        Exactement!

        Who’s to say that each of our souls, the “divine” spark in each of us, is not some fragment of our individual DNA that provides the keystone in the overarching phenomenon of our individual consciousness? And, with enough cloning over a sufficient number of generations, that we might each attain that Holy Grail?

        Possibly enough incentive to transform the Jesuits into well behaved Bene Gesserits? So to speak ….

  5. “Who’s to say that each of our souls, the “divine” spark in each of us, is not some fragment of our individual DNA that provides the keystone in the overarching phenomenon of our individual consciousness?”

    Forsooth, and very well said – the course may already be set.

    (From Biology 101). Our DNA is our genotype, and our phenotype is the particular body we inhabit in each succeeding generation (if cloned).

    Just one more thing is needed – Faith.

    The first is that each phenotype is you, and there will be few objections emanating from the graveyard, no arguments from the living. We can at least fool ourselves, as the Christians did.

    The second is faith in your fellow man, and nothing else – as the Jesuits bonded around dei gloria.

    From there we become angels of Life, fish leaving an ocean of death for a virgin Universe.

    • We can at least fool ourselves, as the Christians did.

      I would agree that it is to fool oneself to assert dogmatically that such and such a course of action or set of beliefs is a guarantee of a place in some heaven hobnobbing it with Jesus or Muhammad; an entirely different kettle of fish, I think, to assert that there might be some possibility of getting there, or to a reasonable facsimile thereof, on our own steam. As they say, God helps those who help themselves.

      Although I’m not really sure that the language and concepts of probability are really adequate in such cases. One wants to be able to say something like “The chances of a literal Jehovah or Allah are 1 in a googolplex whereas the chances of a functional immortality achieved as a consequence of humanity’s own efforts are in the order of 1 in 10^100” – still a very long shot, but many orders of magnitude better than wan hopes. However, measures of probability seem to be only applicable after one has already done a significant number of trials or samples and pertains only to the likelihood of a particular outcome in the next trial. Not all that helpful when we’re only comparing hypotheticals. But the language as metaphor does at least suggest that a proactive approach is more likely than sitting on one’s hands to yield the desired outcome. Reminds me of a joke:

      A man is in desperate financial straits and prays to God to save him by letting him win the lottery. Days go by, then weeks, and the man fails to win a single lottery. Finally, in misery, he cries out to God, “You tell us, ‘Knock and it shall be opened to you. Seek and you shall find.’ I’m going down the tubes here, and I still haven’t won the lottery!”

      A voice from above answers, “You’ve got to meet me half way, bubbeleh! Buy a ticket!”

      [Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes; Cathcart & Klein; pg 106]

      But, as mentioned, there is still the question as to what at least some of us would do with the extra time. As Mark Twain said, those apparently most desirous of immortality are those who seem most at a loss in deciding what to do with a rainy Sunday afternoon. Although maybe some of that problem might be laid at the doorsteps of our “dear leaders” – eternally singing hosannas with Jesus or deflowering virgins with Muhammad seems like it would pale after awhile – and apart from the fact that the latter at least seems rather juvenile at best and decidedly pathological at worst. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” In the parishes.

      The second is faith in your fellow man, and nothing else – as the Jesuits bonded around dei gloria. From there we become angels of Life, fish leaving an ocean of death for a virgin Universe.

      Per aspera ad astra.

  6. “…an entirely different kettle of fish, I think, to assert that there might be some possibility of getting there, or to a reasonable facsimile thereof, on our own steam.”

    Yes, and then we use our best efforts to close that probability, one of them being an examination of necessary differences.

    A prime objection will be that two identical twins, being de facto clones of each other, are not the same person, so the proposition fails. But digging deeper, we see that their genotypes remain intact, even with changes wrought by epigenetics and differing phenotypes, which are partial expressions of their full genetic complement.

    This variation is indeed necessary, and welcome; one can surmise that each generation will value it as such and stop crying about being rebooted and losing their internal memories, which are not necessary.

    “But, as mentioned, there is still the question as to what at least some of us would do with the extra time.”

    The same difficulty one would face after winning the lottery you cited, with or without the ticket. How delicious if we successfully counterfeit one!😉

    If death is a feature of the biological model, and indeed a needed construct thereof, it is not an indelible part of Per Aspera, which is ours alone, as the species/parish vision. We are a parish among Life’s fauna, and Heaven is a glint in every living eye, presumed to be there.

    Nature does not quibble about how we choose to reproduce, or remain on the field, but does place practical limits on how many tries we get at it, before extinction.

    In our compact with the Jesuits (the Covenant) we must include the clause that “Time is of the essence”.

    “Wake me when it’s over.” – Ernie Kovacs

    • A prime objection will be that two identical twins, being de facto clones of each other, are not the same person, so the proposition fails.

      Good point: definitely more than a few flies in that ointment; all sorts of problematic aspects; all sorts of dystopian scenarios à la Blade Runner. I periodically wonder about the apprehension I might feel if I were the clone of another “person” [even the definition of several words might require some serious modification], notably the possibility that my organs might be “harvested” to maintain the life of my “parent”.

      But regardless of how we might get from here to “there”, assuming that “there” can be adequately defined, there is still the fact that we do seem to have those “intimations of immortality” – the “glint in the eye presumed to be there” that you referred to – so the possibility at least seems to exist that it is a real and attainable goal.

      Although I suppose there’s always the possibility that it might simply be technically beyond us. Which, considering the astounding complexity of the “genomic ecosystem” and that we have yet to even come up with a cure for the common cold, much less HIV and cancer, might well be the case. And that is even apart from physics itself which is anything but a “done deal”; as Stephen Hawking said, “I know how the universe works, but I still don’t know why”. Not to mention the sway that irrationalism, in the guise of dogmatic, barbaric and literalist religion, generally has over the public mind and purse. Definitely a few hurdles between the start and finish lines.

      But one has a sense of obligation – ably portrayed in Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, a sense of indebtedness to civilization itself, to those who were part of or who led the way in the “long, tortured, uphill climb” to it. A debt that can be at least partially redeemed or discharged by honoring the underlying vision, even if it is only seen “through a glass, darkly”.

      • “…I suppose there’s always the possibility that it might simply be technically beyond us. Which, considering the astounding complexity of the “genomic ecosystem” …might well be the case.”

        The parallels with conventional religion are there – we need never know everything, just believe and have faith. Our phenotype (..this is my body) are an expressed subset of your genotype (your personal Christ, a superset within you). Your cloning (crucifixion) is preceded by 40 days in the wilderness (Millinocket or Monte Carlo, depending on how the Jesuits have consolidated your estate.🙂

        Ritual will interlock with faith – your are in a humanist church, and your baptism and confirmation/mitzva (successful cloning) affirms that before the congregation. You review the facts of your previous incarnations to reinforce your faith (Sunday school) in the transmogrification (Calvinism) etc. and methinks you would take quite some interest in that process. All a prep school for heaven on Earth, Venus and beyond.

        “But one has a sense of obligation – ably portrayed in Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, a sense of indebtedness to civilization itself, to those who were part of or who led the way in the “long, tortured, uphill climb” to it. A debt that can be at least partially redeemed or discharged by honoring the underlying vision, even if it is only seen “through a glass, darkly”.

        I totally concur with that, Bronowski has been missed. The schisms within religion/atheism/evolution today seem to require the separation of the intellect into independent partitions, when Jacob tried to show us how they interlock, and are mutually supportive, and did so marvellously.

        Maybe we can marry religion back into the human family, into a coat of many colours that can be worn around the globe for our next thousand summers – recycle it as a template that validates those who have brought us to this point.

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