Religion ain’t what they say it is

What secular fundamentalists don’t really seem to get is that religions are just systems of thought — like political ideologies and scientific rationalism. Although the claims of scientific rationalism to objectivity seem overwhelmingly convincing for those of us steeped in this milieu, so too did the claims of Catholicism for people in 1400, of Calvinism in 17th century Geneva, etc.

William Blake’s Ancient of Days, an image that somehow fuses the divine and the rational. (Was Blake just a good illustrator?)

We might redefine religion as a system of thought that dominates the worldview of an individual or community.

So, for example, the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee described the three great religions of the 20th century as being communism, nationalism and the belief in the inevitability of progress through the application of technology. Note that he did not list even one of the theistic faiths that pre-occupy our newly energised atheists.

It’s when we forget that all these paradigms are simply metaphors, or systems of metaphors, that we seem to get confused or confrontational. In some ways, Richard Dawkins and his allies are re-running a debate that for some was settled over a hundred years ago. Many Victorian scientists, like many (rather quiet) contemporary scientists, concluded that Darwin’s theory best explained the evolution of species, but continued to find great meaning in Christianity — because it does hold great meaning. They were broad-minded enough to find ways of reconciling the differences, broad-minded in ways that seem to escape participants in our renewed debates on the matter.

Different metaphor systems are good at different things. The Judaeo-Christian religions at their best build community, develop individual ethics, and connect people to the living world as a place to be deeply grateful for (and not as a dull source of raw materials to be ruthlessly exploited to the point of bringing us to the brink of multiple disasters). For all its ability to accurately describe and predict the nature of physical reality, scientific rationalism fails dismally in most of these respects (though hearteningly, with research into happiness and indivisible ecologies, for example, this is starting to shift).

I happen to agree that the claims of science to deep understanding of the make-up of the world are pretty strong compared to some of these earlier philosophies. Few can question the explanatory power of science — but it is right to question what is done with the understanding it gives us. There science loses its grasp. Its ethics where they exist are ad hoc, not deeply rooted. They are also more influenced by the religions of Abraham than scientists may like to think; biblical dominion over birds and beasts has arguably found its way into the laboratory ethic, where the human right to conduct experiments on animals is considered normative.

I probably blame science too much for the effects of uncultivated human nature and expanding populations. But there’s the rub — science holds no coherent vision for the cultivation of our humanity. Other philosophies, whatever their flaws, are better at this. One thing’s increasingly certain — to ensure our survival on this planet, we’re going to have to dramatically change our behaviour, and that’s very difficult without first changing thought. There’s no compelling scientific answer to this quandary of changing thought without compulsion — science has hardly even formulated the problem, still focusing ineptly on behaviour. Hence the acknowledgement of many climate scientists that they themselves continue to be part of the problem, as their personal behaviour is contributing to global warming.

Why does science fail to capture the imagination of human beings? I think the anwer is quite simple — science does not tell a story that grips the human heart. Oh, it grips the intellect all right — it’s fascinating and compelling at that level. But by its very nature, it cannot put human beings at the centre of the narrative, and so leaves us behind. Others will retort that putting human beings at the centre of the narrative has had ill effects — again, the notion, for example, that we have ‘dominion’ over the natural world would seem to have been most destructive. I would heartily agree with such objections. I am pointing to a marketing problem for scientific rationalism, not offering a solution.

It’s true that institutionalised religion has been responsible for dreadful evils. But this superficial impression ignores the underlying truth that in all societies nasty exploitative psychopaths (I mention no names) frequently find their way to power, and dress themselves as far as possible in the most respectable intellectual or spiritual garb of the day. That this so often happens, though, is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the faiths being hijacked, and ignores quiet goodness in favour of noisy evil.

This post started out as a comment on the Guardian’s CIF site.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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