“Religion” is perhaps the least definable of words. William James spent a good bit of time trying to clarify the concept in his book “Varieties of Religious Experience,” but could find no stereotypes that would span the full range of religious expression.
It is understandable then that most books attacking or defending religion usually do not attempt a clear definition of the topic itself. They mostly seem to take sides on whether religion is good or bad, but both sides in the discussion seem to lack a common understanding of the topic they are discussing.
I certainly understand why anyone would want to leave religion as it is usually practiced, but I would like to go on record as to why I have stayed. I completely understand those who do not wish to associate with religion. As I’ve said before, teaching religion in the present age is like trying to teach baseball to people who have already been beaten with the bats. But I would argue that it is precisely because religious superstition is so disorienting that we must not leave the conversation. It is precisely because religious hierarchy is so deadly that we must not leave the conversation. It is precisely because religious moralism is so cruel that we must not leave the conversation.
Plato once said those who consider themselves too pure for politics will be governed by their inferiors. In other words, just because you or I check out of the business of politics does not mean we have left it, it means we have submitted to the politics of those who stay in the game.
In the same way, it seems to me, that religion is a topic concerning humanity’s struggle to find our ultimate values, purposes and meanings in life. William James discovered there are theistic religions and atheistic religions. There are superstitious religions and those consider science to be the best eyes for religion. There are religions that persecute, and religions predicated on a message of liberation for all people.
Einstein did not believe in God, but he spoke often of our need for mystery. He said famously that science without religion loses sight of what is important, and religion without science loses it footing in the real world.
Carl Sagan was also an atheist who did not leave the conversation. He realized the necessity of singing scientific hymns like his beautiful series “Cosmos.” We can argue whether Einstein or Sagan was “religious” but we cannot deny that they made their contribution to the discussion. It seems obvious to me that Sagan spoke not so much to ridicule religion, as to awaken minds. Awakening was Buddha’s most essential concept of religion.
Gandhi’s commentaries on Hindu scriptures make it clear he did not believe them in any literal sense, but he could not have had the power to liberate India had he not appealed to spiritual ideas of what it means to be a human being, and to lift what seemed to be a hopeless struggle into an almost cosmic revelation of truth’s power over cruelty.
Schweitzer unleashed a devastating attack on any notion of the historical Jesus, but he did so not to destroy Christianity, but to bring mysticism and science together in that religion.
“Occam’s” Razor” is the principle that we should not introduce explanatory agents (like God) into our discussion of causes if it is possible not to. The “razor” is often sited as a reason to ditch religion altogether. What is usually lost in those conversations is the fact that the term “Occam’s Razor” was coined by a Christian monk who saw the destruction of superstition as a religious duty.
Just because you or I leave religion, it does not mean that the culture’s religious conversation ceases. Instead, it means we are letting televangelists and cruel moralists have the last word. If people leave the religious discussion just because they are honest or compassionate, it doesn’t mean religion goes away. It means religion becomes a juggernaut driven by the cruelest most ignorant voices in our culture.
I stay in religion because I refuse to let the religion of Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson be an excuse for not calling people to the religious conversation between people like Gandhi, Schweitzer, Einstein, and Sagan.
Jim, I much appreciate this thoughtful essay on religion. Thanks. 8/22/13, 08:03 CDT
I have a great friend who is a Christian. He reworded the word Religion to Relationship with Jesus and God. I just wanted to share this with you Jim. In other words, you are in a commitment with what you believed in and I admire that a lot. Mind blowing right? Love your blog by the way.
Thank you, Xue, for the kind words.