Monday, 27 February 2012

Sunday Sermon: What is Religion?

Good morning! I hope this sermon finds its readers well and happy. My prayer to Everything is that my sermon adds to understanding rather than limits understanding. Questions and debates are always welcome.

As the title implies I am going to talk a bit about the definitions we might use for the word 'religion'. I'll start with a working definition which I find most useful.

'Religion' refers to that part of ideography that deals with personal and collective meaning as contrary to everyday survival.

This is far from the only definition of 'religion'. It is very broad, and many would disapprove of it. For Daniel Dennett, for example, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, the most important aspect of religion is that there is a "supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." He stresses that things such as football or movie star fandom is in no way religion. If there is no superstition, it simply is not a religion for Dennett. For Christopher Hitchens also, in God is Not Great, superstition is a crucial part of the definition of religion. It is a theme among (most) atheist polemicists.

The first problem with Dennett's definition is that it defines an object of critique as wrong before the analysis has begun. If religion must be superstitious, by definition, then of course all religion is superstitious (ie wrong) and the House of Every is not a religion. But the House is attempting to engage precisely the same DNA as religion (perhaps literally, but I mean metaphorically). It looks like a duck, as far as I can see.

It remains whether this project is possible - that is, whether anyone would regularly show up to such repertory community embodiment even without superstitious illusions to enthral them. It may be, as some say, that religious behaviour as I am describing simply could not occur without some superstitious narrative to hold it together, but at this stage I have seen no reason why, at all.

Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that many atheists, pantheists and just non-theists are seeking precisely these sorts of engagements. Alain de Botton's latest book, Religion for Atheists, spells out a lot of possibilities, and it's hit the best seller lists. I didn't get to see him speak in Brisbane on Friday night because both of his sessions sold out. At the same time, the School of Life Botton is attached to sells religious experiences. I don't know how much religion it 'sells', but it's been going for a few years and it appears to be evidence that there is indeed some demand for the experiences.

But there's another problem with the very narrow definition of religion that atheists (Botton aside) tend to insist on. Surely if we are being scientific we want to know what people do, whatever that is, and why.

Here's three scenarios:
1) Singing in a pentecostal church, and in particular the moment when that really good song peaks. In pentecostal language the collective euphoric peak is called 'the anointing of the Holy Spirit'.
2) A football game, and especially the moment when the home team scores the winning goal late in the second half.
3) Roger Waters' The Wall concert, and particularly the bit at the end when everyone sings along, "Tear down the wall, tear down the wall", and the wall on stage comes crashing down.

For Dennett and others, the first is definitely a religious experience, but the others are not. How scientifically useful then is their definition of religion here? Lets note that people coming from all three scenarios may well describe it as religious euphoria. I can't be certain, but neurologically and anthropologically it seems that the three scenarios may be very similar indeed, and worthy of proper research as a category. I'm pretty sure Martians will put them in the same category in their upcoming, "The Society and Culture of Homo sapien on Earth."

What about in our reading? Surely reading a mathematics text occupies ones brain vastly differently than reading the Gospel of John, but is reading Moby Dick so different, in terms of quality and type of mental work we do?

Is a person in prayer or meditation really occupying their brain much differently as a philosopher in deep thought? Maybe, but the point I'm interested in is what people are doing, according to the material basis of the doing, which is the brain, rather than the language that is being spoken or the content of the narratives and actions.

It is just possible that Dennett's definition of religion is not constructed purely in order to rationally analyse social reality, but is influenced by the polemical need to rebuff 'religion'. That 'religion' in our society is bad is kind of established for these guys before they have properly discussed what it is. Maybe it is merely superstition that they are identifying as something we need to rid ourselves of. It is built into their definition of religion, after all.

We will not miss superstition. It has done its damage. But that doesn't mean we don't miss ritual, a central community House of refuge, silence and/or learning, prayer, religious art and, most importantly of all, just repertory embodiment of a community, the universal and timeless answer to alienation.

We find meaning. Yes, some people worship Elvis, some the Earth, some ancestors. Where people fail to find meaning they become less pleasant for those around them, their energy and productivity drops, they are liable to depression, drug addiction and at worst, suicide. (Yes, the most atheist parts of the world also have the highest statistics for these things.) And we must note that not only does 'militant atheism' utterly fail to give any reason why there is a point to life, but when 'no god' really gets considered we are as likely to get sociopathic thinkers like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand (not to mention Stalinism) as social progressives like Hitchens and Botton. I may find the latter pair more palatable, but on the premise that there is no god of any sort the former are more coherent.

I  wonder about atheists who say there is plenty of meaning and purpose for them. I would be interested to see Richard Dawkins, say, tell members of Alcoholics Anonymous that their 'higher force' helping them to recover from their addiction is superstitious nonsense. These atheists take pride in their spiritual autonomy, and remind me a little of 'autonomous' survivalists - young, privileged men generally who feel they can provide all their own needs and hence build a lifestyle based on radical autonomy. These latter forget that once they were helpless babes and eventually they will be deteriorating old people. Just as survivalists really can be fine, for a season, these writers have plenty of meaning - families, tenure, thousands of readers etc. They can easily pretend that everyone else should be able to be as spiritually autonomous as themselves.

It is from Dawkins' God Delusion that I first found this quote from Carl Sagan:
“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Well if religion must be superstitious, then the question answers itself. Otherwise, I can't see why we shouldn't start now.

As a footnote, another philosopher who appears to be asking these sorts of questions, and who I have begun to enjoy keeping up with, is Damon Young from the ABC's The Drum. The voluminous comments on each of his threads are themselves a wonderful perview of the sort of thinking happening around these subjects. I have linked his column, and Botton's School of Life, on the sidebar.

Thank you for reading. To all readers, I hope the week is successful and meaningful. Next week I intend to elaborate a bit about the ekklessia, the actual embodied religious institution, what it is as a phenomena in history, and why it might still be crucial, or at least highly beneficial to us all, in modern society.