To Bind Again.
A viewpoint or attitude periodically expressed in the Humanist is that religion is bad for you and therefore humanity would be better off without it. This position is particularly strong among those who term themselves secular humanists--people who may also take exception to the very idea of humanism itself being viewed, treated as, or spoken of as any kind of religion. (An alternative to religion, maybe, but never an alternative religion.)
Ethical Culturist Larry A. Gray takes exception to this outlook and here sets forth his reasons why humanists should embrace the religious impulse, the better to evolve it.
IN THE CONVERSATION of some of my fellow Ethical Culturists, I've noticed that the word religion is often used pejoratively, despite the fact that the nontheistic Ethical Culture Society was founded with the intention of being a religious organization. In the writings of Pique, the newsletter of the Secular Humanist Society of New York (which I read largely approvingly), religion is invariably referred to disparagingly. Some years ago, I subscribed to the American Rationalist, a magazine whose raison d'etre, it seemed, was to make fun of various religious beliefs, mostly Christian. My quarrel here is not with those who would level ridicule at certain aspects of particular religions but with those who seem to argue that religion per se is something to be looked at askance or even abolished--as if the latter were desirable or even possible.
It's my conviction that, notwithstanding the character of many religious traditions and institutions historically and currently, religion is not synonymous with superstition and inhumaneness. Religion was not invented by the Aztecs in their craven propitiation of the bloodthirsty Quetzalcoatl, nor by the Hebrews whose scripture instructs that they not allow witches to live and that they enslave or destroy pagans. Furthermore, it wasn't contrived by Pat Robertson, who seems to think Jehovah wants the United States to be atomically prepared to defend Christianity.
These are examples of how religious impulses, basically healthy in their origins, become grotesquely and perversely twisted, giving religion a bad name. Indeed, doesn't the same thing happen regarding sex? Instead of being an expression of love or at least an innocuous recreation, it sometimes turns into an instrument of hate and degradation. Yet, as terribly cruel as the uses of sex can become, does anyone, with the exception of those with the most extreme puritanical mentality, advocate the prohibition of sex?
When I consider the etymology of religion it seems unwarranted that anyone should employ the word as though it were defined as organized superstition or authoritarian dogmatism. The Latin word ligare simply means "to bind" (from which, incidentally, ligament is derived). And re means "again" or "anew."
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, religion's purpose is to rebind mortals with Jehovah, since, according to the Hebrew myth, man and woman lost their close company with their creator when they were exiled from Eden. And then there is the binding going on in the sense that the believer binds and rebinds her- or himself with a creed and with rituals and with an entire community of fellow theists.
However, there seems no reason why one cannot, with equal energy and regularity, bind oneself to naturalistic ethics and with other principled nontheists. I don't think terribly complicated conditions are necessarily required before one can find "religious" behavior; whenever any person--including an atheist, freethinker, or secular humanist--seeks and enjoys the company and fellowship of others who share similar ethical sentiments and concerns, there is a fundamental and basically healthy religiosity going on. It's quite simple: religion exists because people need one another to reinforce or test their convictions and, more importantly, to offer each other emotional comfort and support.
Of course, one can be religious while being socially isolated. Perhaps being alone for awhile can help one to self-connect--to rebind oneself with one's deepest and truest thoughts and feelings, which may be more difficult to do if distracted and pressured by the expectations of others. At the same time, one might be more liable to recognize one's kinship with and indebtedness to the nonhuman world. By attempting to stand a little outside of humanity's world it may be possible to gain a more poignant perspective and insight into humankind's diminutive place in the grander scheme of nature.
In short, I think religion is just as natural and beneficial to the anthropic species as romance, the ability to fabricate, or dreaming. That dreaming occasionally produces nightmares doesn't negate the overall benefit of sleeping and dreaming.
The typical rationalist's antipathy toward religion, like the misologist's resentment of intellectualism, is born of a misconception based on models and definitions that have given an incomplete picture at best or have been caricatures and travesties. Many people despise the mainstream news media, but is it journalism they hate or the pseudo-journalistic gossipmongers and axe-grinders?
Contrary to an anti-religious and ultra-rationalist view, the hallmark of religion is not an intellectually oppressive dogmatism and a superstitiously slavish conformity to rules and rituals. These are characteristics as readily found in secular environments--for example, corporate cultures and military organizations. It's just that, when a religious institution is involved in suppressing intellectual inquiry or moral innovation or initiative, it causes more of a sensation and sharp cynicism (and rightly so) simply because it is a miscarriage of religion--which in fact should be the search for and conservation of truth, especially moral truth.
A common denominator of many religions is not the belief in one or more gods or other supernatural powers but in the praiseworthy ideals and qualities that the gods personify. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates tries to ascertain the meaning of holiness and asks a religious expert, "Is something holy because the gods approve of it, or do the gods approve of it because it is holy?"
Because of my personal conviction, I hold that the humanistically religious--such as Ethical Culturists--will help to eventually make it more widely evident that theism's dominating model of religion need not be, and has not been, the only one. At least since the time of such ancient systems as Epicureanism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, organized religion has demonstrated its viability outside of theism (if not, as in Buddhism's case, entirely outside of a nontheistic kind of supernaturalism). At any rate, one should expect and desire religion to continue to evolve, not become extinct.
With all due respect to theists, whose religions have done so much to advance and stabilize past and present civilizations and will undoubtedly continue to do so far into the distant future, I suggest the reason for the decline in faith--or in faith's expression--isn't because some have too small of an idea of deity (as Christian cleric and writer J. B. Phillips argues in his book Your God Is Too Small) but because they have too small of an idea of religion.
At the risk of disgusting ultra-rationalists and antagonizing supernaturalists, I must say that I would be acutely disappointed if everybody stopped being theistic or supernaturalistic in some way. After all, one of the things that makes humanity so stimulating is the number of extant and marvelously eccentric beliefs to which people so ardently profess. (For example, I recently read about the Asatru Folk Assembly in Washington State, whose members still worship Odin and Thor. My excitement over this is perhaps analogous to that of the scientists who discovered a coelacanth in 1938, a weird fish formerly thought to have become extinct around the time of the dinosaurs.)
What an lamentably dull and religiously emaciated species we'd be if everyone were like me: a mere materialist with some mundane morals. Since the rationalist in me won't permit me to worship trees or the sun, I must vicariously live to some degree through those who can.
Sometimes I feel I'm among those excoriated and mocked by Nietzsche when he said:
"Real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition." Thus you stick out your chests--but alas, they are hollow! Indeed, how should you be capable of any belief being so dappled and motley--you who are paintings of all that men have ever believed?
Am I a little like Nietzsche's metaphorical skeleton that "beckoned lovingly" to "the Land of Education" and of whom he says "even the underworldly are plumper and fuller"? I admit that I have mixed and ambivalent feelings toward the rich and robust persistence of irrationalism in the world. It inspires within me an attraction-repulsion complex.
Similar to religion, the words politics, political, and politician have also suffered deformities relative to what is best about their meanings. I think it's edifying to remind ourselves that to be political doesn't primarily mean to be amorally opportunistic or shortsightedly and self-servingly scheming. Rather it means to be purposefully, maybe even passionately, involved in one's world. It is the very opposite of apathetic.
Politics is derived from the Greek word polites--the antonym of idiotes, which means to live in one's own world and from which we derive the English word idiot. The whole big idea of a democratic republic is that in it all citizens--not just the professional bums we so often choose to represent us--are entitled and encouraged to become politicians. From the ancient Greek we also get our word polite, which one can only be if one is a social and political creature.
When humanists or even extreme atheists disclaim they have a religious nature or inclination, they are being as preposterous as a political candidate who claims not to be a politician or a fundamentalist Christian who insists that humans are not animals.
Curiously and ironically, some fundamentalist Christians have claimed that they don't want to be considered "religious" because religion is human-made, a mere tradition and attribute. I can see how this makes excellent sense to them. However, being a humanist, I believe that I should feel free to embrace religion for exactly that reason: that it is a human tradition, humanly inspired and mortally powered. Thus, there is no need to apologize or pretend to be free of religion; it is, after all, more than just an artificial contrivance. Clothes are artificial but what they communicate or the purposes they serve--such as modesty, dignity, self-aggrandizement, self-deprecation, protection from the sun or lack thereof--are hardly emotions or needs one can jettison simply by becoming a nudist.
Aristotle declared in his Metaphysics: "It was through the feeling of wonder that men now and at first began to philosophize." Although he deemed reason to be the highest and truest part of the human self (too wishfully and not entirely reasonably, I think), he nonetheless gave credit to "the feeling of wonder" for prompting humans to exercise their rationality to begin with. Furthermore, one could almost substitute be religious for philosophize, as there is a fine line between the two. We know, for example, that in India there is traditionally little or no distinction. Maybe it's fair then to say that Aristotle's philosophy and religion were one and the same. It hardly occurs to one to explain the value of his tool, his language, or an article of clothing; using it, speaking it, or wearing it explains it.
Religion is the more primitive component in the religio-philosophical complex. With a minimum of benefit of systematic knowledge it has facilitated basic survival by enacting rules on how people should live among themselves and in the midst of a nonhuman world. The English poet Walter S. Landor called religion "the elder sister of philosophy."
While it certainly can't be said that rationality is overly developed in most of us, the notion that any part of the cure is to attack religion is itself a fearful kind of irrationality. Personally, I want to be rational, not rationalistic. It is rationalism, not rationality, that may want to make itself the enemy of religion and vainly imagine that it can purify itself by doing so. I don't want to be a person of reason; I want to be reasonable. That rationalism, which would make war on religion, might just as soon make war on romance, humor, art, or culture as a whole and sunder itself from all those unpremeditated, whimsical, illogical, and intuitively wise things that make life splendid and boundlessly full of surprises--the sorts of things that, though sometimes causing pain, always enrich and enliven our souls.
"All things in moderation," Aristotle once said. Including, I hasten to add, rationalism.
Someone once tried to impress Confucius by claiming to always think three times before making a decision or taking some action. Confucius replied, "Twice is enough."
In various ways different groups may try to elevate themselves above others by self-deceivingly disavowing something about themselves and by resorting to quasi-hallucinatory means if necessary. The irony--and sometimes tragedy--is that that something could actually be what neither they nor anyone else could live without. Yet they see it as standing between them and some insanely false sense of sufficiency with which they possibly torture themselves and outsiders.
It's not religion humanity needs to rid itself of--or sex or politics. Rather, if only we could we should do away with all our foolish, crucifying, and achromatic concepts of perfection.
Larry A. Gray is a legal secretary. He holds a B.A. from Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey.
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|Title Annotation:||humanist ideals in religious thought and doctrines|
|Author:||Gray, Larry A.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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