Thursday, January 28, 2010

Science, Religion, and Globalization

St Elie A Perdu Son Epée
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:
  1. A building-block of group identity.
  2. A source of personal ethics.
  3. A source of meaning, transcendence, and growth.
  4. A source of public morality.
  5. An explanatory framework for the workings of society and the cosmos.
The reason we're seeing all the polemic around religion is that changes in our social and intellectual landscape have usurped its functions 4 and 5. Globalization and the breakdown of the (always largely imaginary) monoethnic, monocultural nation-state with one dominant religion have made it impossible to use any given religion as a source of public morality, and the progress of scientific understanding about how stuff works has obsoleted them as explanatory frameworks for the cosmos. "Because God says so" and "Thunder is Thor riding in the clouds in his iron chariot" don't quite have the effect they used to.

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.


The biggest single influence on my ideas about religion and its place in the human landscape has been Karen Armstrong. She's a former Roman Catholic nun who suddenly realized that she doesn't believe in God, left the convent, and started writing about the history of religions instead. She's written a quite a lot, and I've read most of it. Her scholarship isn't perfect, which is hardly surprising considering the enormous breadth of ground that she covers, but her underlying vision of what religion really is about is something else. I would particularly recommend The Great Transformation, The History of God, and The Battle for God.


  1. "Meaning is fundamentally internal, personal, experiential, and subjective, whereas rationalistic philosophies deal in the objective, intersubjective, describable, quantifiable, and testable."

    Very true. A lot of times people get caught up in finding some intrinsic meaning in everything. But to find meaning means to ultimately find a creator of sorts, isn't it? But in Zen we learn, while everything may not have a definitive meaning, everything has a reason....and that reason is dependent arising.

    And like you, Zen fills that whole in for me. That is why I don't really care for those who, while they may be scientifically correct, try to 'pull the rug' out from those who get some comfort in life from believing in a God creator.

  2. Nothing explains meaning.

    Some try to promote religion by saying science can't answer the why questions, but fails to mention that religion can't either. People within religion tend to like to discuss science and the limitations of it, but why? What does science really have to do with anything? Why do non-religious people so rarely have to discuss science when talking about their identity?

    As you mention, meaning and identity is created in a social context. You mention several group identities, and you mention that they can go bad. But you never actually support your argument; that religions aren't obsolete.

    You mention that religions offer 1-3.

    They offer 1, but like you said, there are plenty of alternatives. Is a mobile phone better because there are others? Not really.
    Traditionally identities are formed not by submitting to a belief system, taking a label, putting trust in authority etc, no, all you have to do is to be within a group of any random people. If you are with people of whom you have mutual conscent, mutual respect etc, it's already as good as it gets. So religion isn't needed for 1. Humans really offers what religion does, simply by existing. In fact, it's the other followers within the religion that offers you the identity, not the religion itself, isn't it?

    Religion offer you 2, personal ethics, you say, but do religions ever offer "personal" ethics? To be personal, don't you have to develop your own? When you do personal research and grow in experience you also grow in awareness. What about allowing your ethics to continue to evolve, get challenged, get rebuilt again, improving each time into something more stable? Religion might offer advice, but wouldn't it be equally useful to be openminded to any source? Philosophy from all around the world, all forms of cultures and scientific disciplines, advice from friends, taking a day helping the homeless to gain your own experience etc.

    Does religion really offer 3, meaning, transcendence and growth? What if you cannot believe in it's statements, can it still offer all this? Or is it the only way around, that as long as you feel meaning, transcendence and growth you can keep it as long as you stay in the religion? If you build your meaning on a shaky foundation like this, you run the risk of running into a wall.

    We all need something is a statement I heard from drug addicts that needed something from someone, usually because they couldn't build it themselves.

    You only need a filler if you are empty. As long as you have a sense of full, you won't ask for more. If you believe everything is built, you will not build anything more. If you think you know all that is needed, you will not try to learn more.

    There are no simple answers to the greatest questions of humanity. But as long as you continue to walk your journey, the more you will see. Religions are, incidently, a rest stop.

  3. You know, that could be a dharma talk. The Zen view of Zen is that it's a raft that you should discard once you've reached the other shore.

    I do need a filler, because I am empty. If you're not, more power to you. The reason I like Zen is precisely that it makes no demands whatsoever regarding metaphysical beliefs. They're as irrelevant to Zen as quantum physics are to karate.

  4. Quote from my book in social anthropology... (from mind):
    If we determine a "better" culture by how advanced it is, Zen is the best there is when it comes to meditation.

  5. That, too, is somebody's opinion (although I like it, heh).

    Both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism have some pretty badass meditation techniques that aren't used in Zen (much or at all). I have it on good authority that vipassana and metta-bhavana can be highly effective, for example.