An Overview of Religion

From Principles to Practice


Over the course of the 20th century, religion was turned over in a ditch and was never towed back on the road.

It isn't hard to see why: those interested in religion conceived it as being at odds with science, mathematics, and philosophy (which together comprise the chief elements of rationalism), and therefore as a matter of "faith".

But religion, properly conceived, is not in any way at odds with science, mathematics, or philosophy, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with "faith".

But What About God?

The popular positions where God is concerned are: fundamentalism (the unthinking acceptance of everything in one scripture or another as the literal truth), atheism (disbelief in one or more Gods), and agnosticism (the position that the evidence is currently insufficient to reach any firm conclusion one way or another). There are, of course, compromise positions: for example, tentative acceptance of a God or Gods, pending fuller disclosure.

But all questions concerning God, and all positions with regard to the existence and nature of God, are vexed at the outset for a simple and fundamental reason: we don't have an agreed-upon conception of what is meant by 'God'. Lacking that, all positions concerning the existence of God are necessarily confused.

Moreoever, we haven't addressed other essential preliminaries: for example, we badly need a dialectic of religion. What is a dialectic? The discipline of dialectics is concerned with identifying and clearly describing all of the various positions that have been put forward concerning any branch of philosophy. In the case we're currently concerned with, a dialectic would survey the various positions concerning the nature and existence of God that have been put forward, and then state clearly what each of these positions are. A dialectics is ideologically neutral with respect to whatever subject matter comes before its purview: it is concerned solely with sorting out all of the relevant issues. So, at Everything Progressive, our position concerning God is this: let's first sort out what we mean by the term (and by all means, let's bring forward every reasonable conception); and let's also sort out what the respective positions actually have to say about the various conceptions of God. And then let's have a more reasoned discussion, making use of the tools of good philosophical discourse.

This is an undertaking, of course, that requires a study of the religions of the world, an undertaking we commend to our readers, and which we have attempted to facilitate in our Religion - Main Page.

First Approximations to Rational Religion: Humanism and Confucianism

Historically, some variant of Humanism has developed in all human cultures; however, being grounded in rationalism, Humanism is harder to understand and is much more lacking in immediate emotional appeal than pre-scientific religions. (Humanists also object to the use of fear as a tool of psychological manipulation, and therefore have a disdain for "fire and brimstone".) And its insistence upon good evidence for beliefs has brought Humanism and Humanists into conflict with the advocates of authoritarian religions, which typically appeal instead to some sort of scripture nominally promulgated by one or more (often fearful) supernatural beings. The deeper roots of all of religions of this kind have much to do with animism — the investment of natural phenomena with the influence of unseen supernatural spirits, the most powerful of which are typically referred to as "gods". (The need to defend the authority of "gods" of this kind has, at times, exceeded even greed as a root of evil.)

Animism as an explanatory framework is now greatly weakened, and will probably eventually be abandoned altogether. But dismay with animism and authoritarianism has led many to overlook the need for a coherent value system in the conduct of one's life. "Common sense" isn't especially common, nor does it supply any sort of methodology for arriving at justifiable values. Like atheism and agnosticism, common sense alone can't, and doesn't, provide a fully developed value system. Neither science, which is purely descriptive, nor mathematics, which deals exclusively with the quantitative, can provide us with good values, either.

And this is where Humanism comes in. Or at least could.

Since the most familiar of the world's religions usually invoke animistic conceptions, the claim that Humanism is a religion has stirred much controversy. But not all religions have invoked animism: Taoism and Confucianism come to mind, as does Buddhism. And all religions have at least this much in common: they provide a belief system which includes at least some elements of morality and life purpose. Confucianism went farther still, in providing an ideal of human character, and a foundation for politics and economics, all grounded in values (as opposed to animism). So, it could be argued that it is Humanism, and not the animistic religions, that most truly embodies what religion should be. If some prefer the use of some other term to describe non-animistic belief systems, this makes little practical difference. Nevertheless, it's worth trying to offer a little additional clarity here. For example, for all of its importance and relevance, the term "philosophy" doesn't supply a satisfactory replacement for the term "religion": philosophy, in its etymology, refers to a love of wisdom, but doesn't, of itself, imply any commitment to an optimally meaningful way of life.

The relationship between philosophy and religion is much like the relationship between science and engineering. Engineers take abstract scientific principles and develop practical applications from them. Similarly, it falls to rational religion to take the abstract principles of moral philosophy, concepts of life purpose, and ideals of human character and work out how these can most optimally provide the foundations of a way of life, and of a society in a community of like-minded individuals working for the common good.

Beyond Humanism

For all of its many advantages relative to animistic religion, twentieth century Humanism was, in many ways, both flawed and incomplete. It was incomplete because, in at least some of its incarnations, it failed to advance a credible morality (instead falling back upon an incoherent and pernicious moral relativism), had little or nothing to say about life purpose, and did nothing at all to advance an ideal of human character. Neither did it do enough to build upon these foundations to advocate for a more Humanistic economics and politics. Many of the flaws derived from the difficulty of understanding the nature and place of values in a universe construed as being comprised entirely, and exclusively, of matter in itself utterly devoid of values. In such a universe, values seemed to amount to little more than some sort of an illusion, or willful delusion. If values didn't exist in the properties of tiny bits of matter, many thought, where could they exist?

Most of this confusion can be attributed rather less to any well-established scientific principles, and rather more to a not-so-scientific dogma known programmatically as "reductionism", which was characteristic of the scientific program as conceived by Logical Positivism. According to the reductionist, everything that can be explained must be explained solely in terms of the properties and causation of the tiniest bits of matter, initially thought to be atoms, but now posited to be fermions and bosons (though there is now some reason to think that these may, in turn, be comprised of still tinier bits). Such causation is typically conceived of as being entirely "bottom up" (from the tiniest bits of stuff up to the larger varieties of physical furniture), the reasoning being that everything is made up of this stuff. Moreover, the properties of these tiny bits, the reductionist believes, are the only properties that there are.

We can't rehearse the many problems with this view here. (We strongly recommend The Sacred Emergence of Nature by Ursula Goodenough and Terence W. Deacon in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science.) However, it can be said that it is definitely, and unquestionably, wrong. There is nothing in physics that rules out the possibility, or reality, of values. In particular, the central dogma here, that the properties of the tiniest bits of matter comprise all of the properties that may legitimately be said to exist or have causal effect, is now known, beyond any doubt, to be false. Once this dogma is firmly rejected, much follows. Among other things, what is now needed for a better Humanism is a closer look at what human reality actually shows us to be the case, and to work backward from those realities to principles of physics that are are at least compatible with values, if not in themselves particularly explanatory of them. To bridge the two realities, it would initially be helpful to give greater consideration to the biological sciences, where concepts such as structure, function, information and system cannot sensibly be dispensed with.

The most direct challenge of all to the central dogma has been offered by a school of thought known as 'emergentism', though the advocates of emergentism haven't yet sufficiently clearly and persuastively stated their case. Both sides in the debate here are often lacking in much understanding of contemporary science, and in particular of physical chemistry, where the concept of, for example, isomers, is decisive with respect to the facts of the matter. (For a concise general introduction to physical chemistry, see Physical Chemistry: a Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins.)

Further Reading

We'll be posting an essay examining the central dogmas of pseudo-science here in the future. We'll also have a look at the implications of a rejection of pseudo-science for Humanism. In the meantime, interested readers can consult Stuart A. Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred. Though Kauffman's book doesn't do an especially good job of making the case for emergentism, it does at least introduce the subject in the context of its relevance to values.

More Concerning Religion at Everything Progressive

While we'll be expanding the material devoted to rational religion, for now the most developed resource at Everything Progressive may be found here.


The Editor / Everything Progressive