Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Part of Religion That Isn't Poison

I just got finished reading Christopher Hitchen's book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It is a very persuasive polemic against religion that argues simply by pointing-out over and over again examples of practical viciousness in its practice. I have done an enormous amount of research on the subject, which means that there were very few sources that Hitchens quotes that I have not read----and as near as I can tell, he got it all right.

Yet, I still see a role for religion in human society. Why?

Primarily, I have a deep and abiding skepticism about the completeness of the role that reason can play in organizing either an individual human being's life or an entire society. I say this as someone who has a Master's degree in philosophy and who has even taught symbolic logic. I believe that reason is absolutely essential to the good life. Yet I see time and time again that it isn't sufficient to organize human existence. We also need things like art and emotion, not merely to be "complete", but to be anything at all. And religion serves and important role in society as a repository of collective emotional and aesthetic decisions.

The rituals and art of a religion are not "just" epiphenomenon, they are an integral part of what it is all about. Gregorian chant is not just a cool thing that Benedictine monks do, it is the axis that their entire life revolves around. Zen gardening is not just something that grew out of the fusion of Buddhism and Daoism and makes their Temples look really cool, it illustrates, illuminates and exposes a key element of Zen (and Daoism too.) In a more simple, homespun example, the plain, yet elegant functional design of Shaker furniture shows something absolutely essential to the Shaker experience.

This is why religious institutions in all countries and all societies have put enormous energies into building artistic superstructures for their faiths. The European Cathedrals,

the Daoist Temples,

the Islamic Mosques,

the Sikh Gurdwaras,

etc, all embody the unifying principles of the faith. Moreover, the rituals, music and art of these religions are also not mere epiphenomenon but absolutely essential to the way these institutions created a collective aesthetic vision for the people.

If a society doesn't have something like religion to unify people's artistic vision, it ends up being defined by some other force. In totalitarian states, such as the Soviet Union, this inevitably means that the vision flows from the whims of politics. If the "head honcho" likes gingerbread, we end up with buildings that look like giant wedding cakes, as in Stalinist Architecture.

If, contrast, the ideal is to make people feel like ants about to be squashed by the boot-heel of the "master race", we design buildings that are huge and inhuman looking, like in Nazi Germany.

In liberal democracies, where no such unifying force exists, the marketplace ends up in control. That means we end up with the sort of ugly mess that is known as a "strip mall"---Walmarts next to MacDonalds next to Speedy Muffler,

or, miles and miles of vile suburban sprawl.

More to the point, aesthetic visions are mutually exclusive. You simply cannot fuse, for example, Victorian clutter with Zen minimalism. Nor can you mix together Daoism's attempt to fit into and harmonize with nature with Brutalism's use of massive, concrete geometric shapes. Moreover, these types of arts embody very different visions of how to live in the world. People who live in Victorian clutter will always believe that more is better, whereas people with a minimalist mindset will honour the space between things more than the objects themselves. Similarly, Daoists would honour and respect the trees that the brutalist would bulldoze in order to build his concrete slabs.

Aesthetic world-views aren't interchangeable because each embodies specific visions of what is important. For example, Christianity puts the human community first and foremost. For liberals this means social justice. For conservatives, the right to life. In contrast, Daoism put humanity into an environmental context (e.g. the "Dao") and argues that while people are a valued part of both Heaven and Earth, they do not have a place so privileged that they have any right to abuse any other inhabitants. Buddhism posits that mind is the absolutely key element of existence, if for no other reason than all our experience is mediated by it----honour and understand the Buddha-mind and all else becomes easy.

What I am getting at is the idea that morality is ultimately a branch of aesthetics. That is that ultimately the only real reason we pursue a difficult moral path as opposed to simply the line of least resistance is because we find the life lived on moral values to be more beautiful than the one that follows mere expediency. And just as some people have no sense of taste, so some people have a terrible sense of morality. Religions exist to a large extent to codify and perpetuate a specific aesthetic tradition, one that has huge impact on how we order our lives and related both to other people and the greater world around us.

It might be that we can replace religion with something else, but as a practical fact, I simply cannot think of what that might be. If we replace it with politics, we end up with totalitarianism or some sort of Ayn Randesque utopian/dystopian vision of the market. History teaches us that whenever a government has tried to do away with religion, the movement supporting it increasingly takes on the trappings of the religion that it sought to eliminate.

Please note, however, that even though I see an inevitable role for religion in human society, I do not think that its present form is viable. The excesses that Hitchens catalogues in his book simply cannot be ignored and they flow directly from certain key elements in religion as it currently exists. If it is going to continue---and I cannot see how it cannot---it is going to have to change mightily. Perhaps in a future post I will try to identify what religion might look like if it is going to co-exist with the modern world.


Iktomi said...

this is an extremely thoughtful and well-stated piece. i agree 100%. there is more to life than cold hard facts, and religion is a great outlet for creativity and passion.

examples show that once a religion is allowed control beyond what it is entitled to (giving people a personal and collective way to express their spiritual values in a CONSTRUCTIVE way), it tends toward the destructive and amasses a ton of control that it should not have.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks for the support.

I think the problems with religion go deeper than you suggest. I don't know how you can limit a religion to what it is "entitled"---as I see it as embodying ultimate value for people.

As I see it, the issue is one of how you ground those values. For example, if a religion is "revealed" as in the Torah, Bible and Koran, it is inevitably going to be authoritarian in nature. In contrast, if a faith is "experienced" through personal experience---as in Buddhism, Daoism and native American beliefs---I think it is inherently egalitarian.

(As Dharma Jim pointed out in a comment to a previous post, it is more complex than that. There are very significant experiencial currents in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.)

Hopefully I can find the time to write about this sometime in the future.

Jim714 said...

I enjoyed this post. Regarding Hitchen's book, though, I was not as taken with it as you were. In fact, I thought many of his arguments were weak. Without going into a lot of detail, I think that many of his arguments would be equally powerful if directed at science. One could claim that science has unleashed a great deal of destruction (weapons research is one, but only one, example).

The other weakness, it seems to me, is that many of the most violent and destructive regimes in history have not been religious; in fact they have been militant atheist regimes such as Stalin and Pol Pot. I do not conclude from this that atheism is inherently vile and in the same vein I see no reason to conclude that religion is inherently vile due to the negative manifestations of religion in history.

Still, I think the book is worth reading.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I think that it is good to remember that Hitchen's book is a polemic instead of an argument. As I understand the difference, polemics are about appealing to people's emotions instead of their reason. Hitchen doesn't really create good arguments so much as throw evidence under your nose in order to remind you of arguments against religion that almost everyone has heard before.

So when he tossed off an exceptionally thin attack on Eastern religions I was willing to take it for what it is and fill in the gaps with what I've learned by reading people like Brian Victoria and Michael Downing---and the silly way that Zen Masters like Bernie Glassman have dodged and twisted to avoid dealing with the problems that they raise. (I also have first-hand experience of the poisonous way that "lineage" affected the relationship between Moy Lin Shin and the members of the Daoist Tai Chi Association.)

As for the damage caused by Atheist regimes, Hitchens would say that insofar as people gave these regimes the authority to do their crimes, they were treating them like religions. That is why he made reference to the book "The God That Failed". Having been a staunch communist himself, this is quite an admission for Hitchens to make. This is not an isolated insight. I seem to recall reading that a Catholic conclave in the 1950s condemned Communism as a Christian heresy. (The idea is that Western ideals of social justice have grown out of elements expressed by the Jewish and Christian faiths.)

With regard to science, I think it is important to make a distinction between science as an ideal, and science as big business (or big government.) Beyond that, I think that the biggest issue with science is that it purports to be "value free", which has bled into the culture of the scientific community which assumes that it has no responsibility for the consequences of its research. I agree that science should be value free, but I also believe that science should be a regulated profession with a code of conduct that binds scientists to take moral responsibility for the consequences of their research.

Oh well, lots of ideas for future posts---.