St. Elijah Lost His Sword, Kesrouan, Lebanon, 2005
Some dead horses just have to keep being beaten. The science "versus" religion debate is a real vampire of a horse: no matter how many stakes are driven through its heart, it keeps coming back from the grave. I'm happy to announce that we can finally put all that to rest, because I've got it figured out.
I wish. But here goes anyway.
Historically, religion has had a number of distinct functions. The most important are:
- A building-block of group identity.
- A source of personal ethics.
- A source of meaning, transcendence, and growth.
- A source of public morality.
- An explanatory framework for the workings of society and the cosmos.
We now know enough about the cosmos that stories like Noah's flood, the Moon as a paradise where Shri Krishna cavorts with people who have accumulated enough good karma to be reincarnated there, or the idea that the world was created wholesale six-thousand-something years ago simply don't wash. To believe in them, you have to actively ignore a huge body of argument and evidence to the contrary. Scientific rationalism is simply much more powerful at explaining stuff about how the cosmos works. Similarly, religious arguments about public morality won't wash, because the public has very diverse ideas about religion. In its place, we've come up with stuff like the democratic legislative process, freedom of expression, public debate in the press, people who think they're pretty smart writing stuff on blogs, and that sort of thing.
Consequently, religions have been squeezed out of these areas. Regional differences are still great, to be sure, running the gamut from Saudi Arabia and Iran at one extreme and the Scandinavian countries at the other. Yet very Catholic Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and I hear that few Iranians attend prayers at the mosque regularly while stripping for webcams is a popular pastime among Saudi women. Conversely, most of the most successful -- richest, most stable, most peaceful, freest -- societies are highly secular in nature, both when it comes to public morality and to, for example, school curricula -- even if some of them have official state churches, and all of them play host to a variety of vibrant religious communities.
Yet I don't think religion itself is obsolete, because it still retains the first three functions in the above list.
Group identities are inherently problematic, yet they're fundamental to us as a species of social primate. Pretty much anything can serve as a rallying point for a group identity -- a flag, a leader, a language, a physical feature such as skin color, a sports team, a school, a village, a clan, an ideology, or a religion. All of these identities can be either constructive and positive, or they can turn destructive. Generally, the larger the number of people sharing the identity, the greater the potential both for good and for bad. Clan or village identity can provide an emotional, social, and physical support network, but can turn into vendettas or mass fights. Supporting a sports team can provide a social context, meaning, and excitement, but can lead to riots and fights with supporters of opposing teams, or economic exploitation of the fans by the people running the teams. Identities based on nationality or religion can make for stable, peaceful, secure, just, and prosperous societies, or lead to wars, oppression, exploitation, and even genocide.
The difference between public morality and personal ethics is a somewhat subtle but very important one. Public morality is what we expect of others. Personal ethics is what we expect of ourselves. Public morality defines the ground rules by which society operates. They need to be negotiated and agreed upon -- explicitly or implicitly -- by the people that make up society. Personal ethics are additional ethical imperatives that we attempt to live by, for whatever reason.
There is no external imperative for anyone to have a stricter set of personal ethics to live by than whatever constitutes public morality, yet many people choose to do so anyway, for any of a number of reasons. Public morality may consider meat-eating perfectly OK, but someone who feels very strongly about animal rights may choose not to eat meat on ethical grounds. A Buddhist might want to choose not to get drunk and not to lie, because getting drunk and lying screws up his practice, even if public morality thinks drinking and lying are perfectly OK, at least within certain constraints. None of this is a problem. It's not even a problem for the vegan or the Buddhist to try to bring other people around to their way of seeing things through open debate and discussion. It only becomes a problem if the vegan or the Buddhist attempt to forcibly turn their personal ethics into public morality.
Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, there's the search for meaning, transcendence, and growth. As with all of the other points, religious practice is not indispensable for this purpose: people have sought and found these things elsewhere -- music, the arts, science, nature, and so on. Yet for many, these things don't quite cut it. I, personally, have sought meaning and transcendence in all of these things, yet have failed to find it. I do not have the artistic talent, the capacity to appreciate music, or the determination to pursue the sciences to a sufficient degree. Yet Zen practice fills this hole in my life. I believe that I find in it what my wife finds when she lights a taper to St. Francis. I, personally, need ritual and practice for this purpose, and I am certainly not alone in this.
A purely rationalistic philosophy -- even Popper's critical rationalist one, which is a fundamental building block of my worldview -- cannot answer fundamental problems about existing as a human being, because it does not try to. Rationalistic philosophies -- among them scientific rationalism -- are incredibly good at discovering and explaining how things are, but they're incapable of even describing, let alone addressing, what they mean. Meaning is fundamentally internal, personal, experiential, and subjective, whereas rationalistic philosophies deal in the objective, intersubjective, describable, quantifiable, and testable. Rationalistic philosophies cannot even ask the questions "What is the meaning of life?" or "How do I rid myself of dissatisfaction?" because even asking the questions -- really asking them -- is a fundamentally subjective, experiential matter, not something that you can solve like an equation and then write down the answer. Words can provide pointers and suggestions, but not the solution itself.
Rationalistic philosophies are by nature discriminating and dualistic, and therefore have no words to express the nondiscriminating and nondualistic. Yet the nondiscriminating and nondualistic -- direct experience -- is fundamental to what and who we are. The rational approach can describe it, but in the end the best it can do is produce a beautifully detailed painting of a rice cake -- a description that includes everything about the experience except the experience itself. Some of us can find our real rice cakes in music, nature, or the very activity of scientific research. Many others need ways to structure, cultivate, and make sense of it. I believe that religion -- any religion -- can thrive in today's world by filling this gap.
Not everybody needs religion for any of these purposes, any more than everybody needs football teams, pieces of music, art, countries, or political parties. However, all -- or at least the vast majority -- of us need something, whatever it may be. Because we're a very diverse species, that something cannot be the same thing for everybody: I could not enjoy the benefits of football fandom because I don't care for competitive sports, while your average football fan might not get a great deal out of hanging out at a zendo while wearing a Jedi robe. This is not a problem as long as we have both Zen and football, and music, and art, and Christianity, and Islam, and good food, all of the rest of the stuff that makes life worth living. We only run into problems when religions attempt to impose their ethics into the public sphere, or, even more stupidly, to fight science on its own ground. There is nothing wrong about religion, nor the public practice of religion, nor the lack of religion. In this, religion is no different from, and should be treated no differently than, music or football. It only becomes wrong when it slides into coercion or fanaticism -- and these dangers are just as real for nonreligious identities as they are for religious ones.