In the last post, I talked about the “Practical Approach” to religious claims. In this concluding post, I expand on this further and talk about adopting a reasonable approach to religion.
Toward Reasonable Religion
When you follow the practical approach, you accept that no matter what church you belong to, it is important to update your religious views to be fully compatible with our modern understandings of the world – to move toward more reasonable religion. Reasonable religion integrates the wisdom of the ages about morality, spirituality, and enlightenment with our modern scientific understanding of the universe and reality. It means adopting a reasonable approach to religion within whatever religion you practice. We should never be afraid to change our beliefs in the face of new evidence. We should never be afraid to reject religious teachings that are contradicted by new discoveries and better information.
At the same time, even in our modern age, we need not limit religion to an empirically based, scientific undertaking. Questions of feelings and finding beauty and meaning in life are important too. One of the main values of religion is cultivating a sense of wonder and peace, an understanding of our human frailties and imperfections, and a respect for the mysteries of the universe. Human reason and rationality are responsible for the amazing advances in our culture, knowledge, and standards of living. But our brains are finite and surprisingly predisposed to irrationality. What this means is that all of us – even the smartest and most rational among us – have hidden biases and predispositions that we cannot perceive. This human trait affects both the brains of the religious and the atheists. Reasonable religion means trying to clarify our thinking and act more rationally, but it also means having some humility about our conclusions and beliefs and not losing sight of the importance of feelings and human relationships.
Reasonable religion acknowledges at least the possibility of a higher power and the unseen world, but it even more enthusiastically encourages man’s attempts to further understand unseen forces and unknown domains by using our rational understanding. Reasonable religion lauds the benefits of rationality, but acknowledges that we as humans are incapable of perfect understanding. Our ability to perceive is limited, as is our capacity to understand. Reasonable religion is not concerned with the unprovable, such as the existence of God or with questions about life after death. Instead, it is a tool that we use to make things better here and now.
Whether or not the supernatural claims of religions are true (and based on their track record of being wrong about the things that we can prove, it is not unreasonable to treat them with some skepticism), religious teachings about morality and spiritual practice can lead us to concrete benefits apart from their supernatural teachings. Yoga is a good example of this. Yoga has become so popular in the United States that it is considered a completely mainstream activity. But yoga was originally a Hindu religious practice. Many western yoga practitioners derive significant benefits from their practice and many, if not most, of them consider yoga to be little more than a form of exercise. Few of them accept many (if any) of the supernatural teachings of Hinduism. Meditation is another example of a religious practice that has become accepted for its practical benefits by many people who reject the original supernatural reasons for the practice.
The archeological evidence shows that religion has co-evolved with us since even before behaviorally modern humans emerged 50,000 years ago. Most scientists agree that our tendency for religious behavior evolved early in our history. There are two explanations for how religion evolved. The first is that religion itself serves an adaptive purpose that confers a selective advantage and that it thus arose through natural selection. The second view is that religious behavior is merely a byproduct of other adaptive traits, such as agent detection, theory of mind, and understanding causation.1 Based on the ubiquity of religion in every human culture, and the many cross-cultural similarities in religious belief and practice, I think that the first explanation is probably correct: religion evolved through natural selection because it conferred selective advantages.
Religion probably evolved because it serves three important practical purposes:
- Serenity: to assist people attain enlightenment, which means achieving sustained periods of emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude;
- Morality: to provide a moral code and framework for our interactions with each other and the world and provide outlets to exercise moral goodness towards others;
- Sociality: to encourage group cohesiveness and provide a social outlet for people to interact, become acquainted, learn from each other, and support one another in their lives and beliefs.
Just like almost every human trait, our religious tendencies can become unhinged, turn maladaptive, and lead to negative outcomes. And just like any human trait, each person’s natural religious tendencies vary in the same way that every human trait varies. Some people are more naturally angry or happy than others and some people are naturally more religious than others and some people are naturally areligious (although they seem to be a small percentage of the population). But because religion is an evolved part of human nature, for most of us it is nearly impossible to completely remove our natural religious inclinations. It is easy to see innate human religious tendencies even among the ostensibly non-religious. In our modern Western societies, many secular people who have eschewed religion unknowingly adopt quasi-religious attitudes about the norms and beliefs of their peers and surrounding social groups. Two obvious examples are 1) the strident self-righteous piety of the New Atheists2 and 2) the concern for ritual purity of environmentalists.3 I don’t mean this as an attack on atheism or environmentalism; both movements have strong arguments to support their positions. The point is that for psychologically healthy and normal human beings, it is difficult for us to escape religion, no matter what church we do or don’t go to. Whenever a social group coalesces around strongly held beliefs or ideas, their religious natures usually emerge, whether it be around Christianity, sports, or Star Trek.4.
Reasonable religion recognizes our innate religious nature and seeks use it to our benefit. The three purposes of religion can be fulfilled by taking the useful and reasonable parts of religion and jettisoning the unreasonable and cosmologically suspect parts. Everyone, even the religious fundamentalist, does this. It is impossible to believe in most major religions without picking and choosing which parts to believe in and practice (indeed, sacred works like the Bible are filled with contradictions5 which make it impossible to literally believe everything they contain). Rarely, though, do we do this consciously and systematically.
Determining our religious beliefs in a casual and ad hoc fashion frequently leads to suboptimal results. Without thinking deeply and carefully, too often we end up keeping the bad parts and jettisoning the good ones. We end up with suboptimal and inconsistent belief systems that do not maximize the potential benefits our religion can bring to ourselves and others. We should each consider our religion (whether it is an explicit denomination or merely the core practices and ideals we have adopted from our peers and social groups) and jettison the bad parts, keep the good parts, and study the religions of others so that we can co-opt their useful parts and practice them ourselves. This should be an ongoing process – it is easy to fall into a rut and develop bad habits and rely on our past conclusions; reasonable religion is a lifelong approach of continual reevaluation, a never-ending accretion of positive religious practices and outlooks. Religion evolved because it conferred real benefits. Reasonable religion means thinking carefully and acting wisely to maximize those benefits.
So what is the best way to practice reasonable religion? Study the wisdom of the ages; compare, think, and explore; integrate what you find with modern scientific knowledge. Make the effort to discover and synthesize truth. Different, valuable approaches and perspectives often develop outside of your “group” that often end up being better than what you find within your normal range of experience. If you only ever look within your own tradition and social groups, insularity and groupthink will often lead you astray into false beliefs and conclusions. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber: read and experience teachings and traditions outside your occupation, your field of study, or your religious tradition – you will find new insights and knowledge unattainable without venturing outside. Keep the good you already have, and look for more wherever you can get it.
3 Environmentalists’ concerns for ritual impurity and achieving ritual cleanliness merely trades religious objects for a new set of secular objects. Their quasi-religious concern for avoiding “ungreen” products and using ritually pure objects often comes without rationally evaluating their behavior to figure out how they can actually make the most impact. The important thing to them becomes the ritual purity, and only secondarily achieving the most environmentally positive outcome. For example, animal loving environmentalists hold SUV drivers in contempt for their unclean gas-gizzling behavior even though many of those same environmentalists keep pet dogs and cats that have a greater adverse environmental impact than the SUV (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/pet-dogs-damaging-environment-suvs/story?id=9402234). Their attitudes are more shaped by a reverential awe for “nature” than for actually minimizing their environmental impact. Another example is environmentally conscious drivers who gain ritual purity by driving their Prius, even though the energy used to build and operate a Prius may make it worse for the environment other simple gasoline-powered options like the Scion xB ( http://cnwmr.com/nss-folder/automotiveenergy/DUST%20PDF%20VERSION.pdf (PDF)). Many in the environmental movement also display ascetic tendencies that in previous years might have led them to a monastic life: the act itself of sacrificing is what they value most, rather than rationally evaluating the evidence and making the optimal choice. Their environmentalism becomes an excuse to display their innate religious tendencies.