We were discussing religion over a curry, as one does. The one I discuss religion with (and have curries with, for that matter) expressed the view that religion is incompatible with science. He is reading Dawkins at the moment. NLPer that I am, I started challenging the generalisations: “All religions?” “Entirely incompatible in every way?”
What bugs me about evangelical atheists, and I’ve drunk wine and broken bread with a few in my time (secularly of course) is that they assume that all religions are based on The Book and slag them off accordingly. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheisms and in that direction – if you ask me – madness lies. The problem with monotheisms is the dualities they set up: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell, Sheep and Goats, God and the Devil. Someone once said to Abraham Lincoln “I am so glad that God is on our side” to which he replied “I don’t set my sights that high, Ma’am. All I hope is that we are on God’s side”. Bush and Blair and Bin Laden all know god is on their side, and so they have far more in common than they have differences. I’ll stop wandering off in that direction now, before get so enraged I forget to breathe.
I know very little about Hinduism which seems polytheistic (though the one I was having curry with knows a bit about it). I know barely more about Buddhism and Taoism, which are atheistic. Isn’t that a thought to conjure with? An atheistic religion. A religion without a god. Roll it around your mind’s tongue. Taste it, savour it, find out what you think.
If you strip god out of religion you are left with a whole load of other stuff which (because it is my post and I can do what I like with it) I am going to put broadly into four categories:
Ceremonial / Rites of Passage / Social glue / Social contribution / Ritual
Creation myth / Higher purpose / Why bad things happen / Why are we here
Spiritual practice / The shamanic / Good luck charms
Ethical precepts / Moral guidance / Greater cause
The one that interested me the most, as we were discussing it over our curry, was the Shamanic. This is all mixed up with ritual, energy, altered states of being, sexual power and the power of the personality. In the 60s and 70s Rock stars were our shamans; in the 80s there was even a band which took the name. I’m not sure who our shamans are now, but I am pretty sure that the popularity of fantasy films appeals to our need for the shamanic. Looking at that list of nouns again – ritual / energy / altered states / power – maybe terrorists view themselves as shamans. I dunno. Which reminds me. The obvious thing that that is missing off that list is Sacrifice, which is common to so many religions. I’m not sure where it fits though.
It is interesting to see what is happening now to those areas of human life.
The societal stuff (ceremony, rights of passage, social contribution) is pretty hollow without religion. Don’t get me wrong, it is all much better done with integrity by atheists than with hypocrisy by those who claim to be religious, but I am not sure how well atheists do it. I’d rate the ceremonial of a Russian Orthodox Eucharist over the Oscars any day of the week. Mind you, I prefer my schools, hospitals, orphanages and childrens’ homes to be run by the state, so maybe I am arguing myself out of that one after all.
Structures and explanations. This is the scary one. This is the one that gets Dawkins’ blood boiling. “Where is the evidence?” the atheists cry. And they are right of course. There is no evidence that the world is the result of Egyptian gods masturbating or of great cows licking the ice, and plenty that it isn’t. Sane Christians yield this ground gracefully admitting that the world is not flat and does in fact go round the sun. Insane ones promote something which is neither intelligent nor design and call it science. (Breathe, Aphra, remember to breathe). Unfortunately these follies lead evangelical atheists to throw the baby of spiritual practice out with the bathwater of creationism. Or something like that.
The supernatural. This one is trickier than it looks. It’s a mixture of stuff which has quite clearly demonstrable effects such as meditation, and other stuff which is just wishful thinking. Add in the human need to seek patterns, mix it with the human inability to estimate odds, and sprinkle with the human responsiveness to spontaneous hypnotic suggestion, and you end up with all sorts of nonsense like numerology, astrology, Bach flower remedies and (goddess help us all) spiritual channelling. Scientists can now see the parts of the brain which fire off when someone is having a spiritual experience. The question is, of course, whether the brain is responding to an external stimulus analogous to its response to sounds, or whether the sparks are flying at random or for some electro-magnetic or chemical reason. The fact that stuff like meditation works doesn’t make it spiritual any more than the fact that the world exists proves that it was hatched out of a giant egg.
Social control. This is the one where religion leaves the biggest gap behind it. Ethical precepts just aren’t the same if they aren’t backed up with violent weather, rugged mountain scenery, Charlton Heston and the threat of everlasting damnation. (This is the place where I point out that I rather like the idea of terrorists achieving martyrdom and waking in Paradise to find that their sherbet will be delivered by 70 Ann Widdicombes). We’ve lost our moral compass and don’t appear to be able to adopt irreligious ethics in the way the Greeks did. They took pantheistic shamanism to blood-thirsty extremes, but came over all rational and philosophical when considering ethics. The Norse gods couldn’t be bothered with all that Good and Evil stuff either so far as I can make out. Monotheism makes me spit.
I rather like the idea of a Schroedinger Deity; a god comprising the sum of an increasingly complex and sophisticated life force, evolving in power and sophistication in the way that the chemical richness of our world is based on elements which evolved from hydrogen and that all living things have evolved from random amino-acids losing their randomness and forming RNA. This would be a god who may or may not exist, whose existence will only become apparent at the end of the universe at which point in time (and space) it will turn out has existed all along. Or not, as the case may be.
Sorry to whitter on for so long. It was a good curry. Thank you for asking.