Every year I take off the month of July to try to finish a book I have been working on for twenty years. The project sounds deceptively easy. I am trying to put together a simple and readable handbook on healthy religion. My primary rule is “no smoke and mirrors” which means I cannot hide behind the jargon and magical thinking that would make such a book both simple to write, and unhealthy to read.
When I use the word “religion” I don’t refer to any particular faith. I don’t mean whether someone believes in God or goes to religious services. By “religion” I mean that sense of wonder that drove Einstein to do his science. By “religion” I mean those tortured longings behind the brush of Van Gogh. By “religion” I mean whatever it was that called Gandhi to serve humankind even at the risk of his own life. By “religion” I mean how communities share the whole circle of life together with meaningful rituals and a vocabulary where meaning can be shared. In this sense, religion can be healthy or unhealthy, but it is something that everyone does.
As I have tried to work on this project I have been tortured by the silence of my intended audience. How can I choose one word that will not insult either the atheist or the religious conservative? Are we who seek meaning consigned to live in silos with only those who share our viewpoint? Is there any way to seek out a conversation that does not write off most of our species before we even begin? Can we each shape our own piece of the puzzle where we know it will fit with every other loving approach to life?
Our first problem, and it is a big one, is to define the term “religion.” Can believers step out of their groups long enough to consider what our language and practice mean to outsiders? Can those who do not believe step out of their (often justified) rejection of organized religion long enough to find what they are doing in common just with a different name? I have been amazed that of all the bestselling books by the “new atheists,” I have only found one that actually defines the term “religion.” It is easy to spend one’s life laughing at the foolish religion of others, but isn’t the question for atheists how to form loving atheistic communities where members actually celebrate life together and do not spend all their time refuting the foolishness of others?
Then we must ask “why we need religion in the first place?” Many religious people just assume we need it, and use circular arguments from within their own faith. On the other hand, many of the bestselling books by atheists dismiss religion as a biological relic from our earlier evolution. That may very well be true but, at that point, we need one further bit of advice. How do you grow a new brainstem?
Next question, “how do we know religion isn’t all made up?” Again the conversation is haunted with unstated assumptions all sides must lay bare. Can we develop an understanding and appreciation of symbols that leaves room for art and science?
Finally, we must ask how we can all live together without adopting an ethics of indifference? Can believer and non-believer alike ask, “what is the duty of every human being to the earth and to our species?”
In this blog we have formed a wonderful community. We have professional theologians and lifelong atheists. The subject matter of how we share meaning may be beyond anyone’s comfort zone but think of the gift it will be to develop and understanding that does not lead us to superstition on the one hand, or to a disengaged cynicism on the other.