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The renewal of religion

The new religious sensibility I’ve sketched out here in several posts already, and will be discussing in more detail as we proceed, has implications that go well beyond the sphere assigned to religion in most contemporary industrial societies. One of the most significant of those implications is precisely the idea that religion, in any sense, will have an important impact on the future in the first place.

One of the standard tropes of the contemporary faith in progress, after all, insists that religion is an outworn relic sure to be tipped into history’s compost heap sometime very soon. By “religion,” of course, those who make this claim inevitably mean “theist religion,” or more precisely “any religion other than mine”—the civil religion of progress is of course supposed to be exempt from that fate, since its believers insist that it’s not a religion at all.

This sort of insistence is actually quite common in religious life. C.S. Lewis notes in one of his books that really devout people rarely talk about religion as such; instead, they talk about God. To ordinary, sincere, unreflective believers, “religion” means the odd things that other people believe; in their eyes, their own beliefs are simply the truth, obvious to anyone with plain common sense. It’s for this reason that many languages have no word for religion as such, even though they’re fully stocked with terms for deities, prayers, rituals, temples, and the other paraphernalia of what we in the West call religion; it’s by and large only those societies that have had to confront religious pluralism repeatedly in its most challenging forms that have, or need, a label for the overall category to which these things belong.

The imminent disappearance of all (other) religion that has featured so heavily in rationalist rhetoric for the last century and a half or so thus fills roughly the same role in their faith as the Second Coming in Christianity: the point at which the Church Militant morphs into the Church Triumphant. So far, at least to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the atheist scene has yet proclaimed the date by which Reason will triumph over Superstition—the initial capitals, again, tell you when an abstraction has turned into a mythic figure—but it’s probably just a matter of time before some rationalist equivalent of Harold Camping gladdens the heart of the faithful by giving them a date on which to pin their hopes.

If the evidence of history is anything to go by, though, those hopes are misplaced. As discussed in an earlier post, the rationalist revolt against religion that’s been so large a factor in Western culture over the last few centuries is far less unique than its publicists like to think. Some such movement rises in every literate civilization in which the art of writing escapes from the control of the priesthood, and a significant secular literate class emerges. In ancient Egypt, that started around 1500 BCE, in China, around 750 BCE; in India and Greece alike, around 600 BCE; in what Spengler called the Magian culture, the cauldron of competing Middle Eastern monotheisms that finally came under the rule of Islam, about 900 CE. The equivalent point in the history of the West was reached around 1650.

If you know your way around the history of Western rationalism from 1650 to the present, furthermore, you can track the same patterns straight through these other eras. Each movement began with attempts at constructive criticism of religious traditions no one dreamed of rejecting entirely, and moved step by step toward an absolute rejection of the traditional faith in one way or another: by replacing it with a rationalized creed stripped of traditional symbolism and theology, as Akhenaten and the Buddha did; by dismissing religion as a habit appropriate to the uneducated, as Confucius and Aristotle did; by denouncing it as evil, as Lucretius did and today’s “angry atheists” do—there aren’t that many changes available, and the rationalist movements of the past have rung them all at one time or another.

Each rationalist movement found an audience early on by offering conclusive answers to questions that had perplexed earlier thinkers, and blossomed in its middle years by combining practical successes in whatever fields mattered most to their society, with a coherent and reasonable worldview that many people found more appealing than the traditional faith. It’s the aftermath, though, that’s relevant here. Down through the centuries, only a minority of people have ever found rationalism satisfactory as a working philosophy of life; the majority can sometimes be bullied or shamed into accepting it for a time, but such tactics don’t have a long shelf life, and commonly backfire on those who use them.

Thus the rationalist war against traditional religion in ancient Greek and Roman society succeeded in crippling the old faith in the gods of Olympus, only to leave the field wide open to religions that were less vulnerable to the favorite arguments of classical rationalism: first the mystery cults, then a flurry of imported religions from the East, among which Christianity and Islam eventually triumphed. That’s one of the two most common ways for an era of rationalism to terminate itself with extreme prejudice. The other is the straightforward transformation of a rationalist movement into a religion—consider the way that Buddhism, which started off as a rational protest against the riotous complexity of traditional Hindu religion, ended up replacing Hinduism’s crores of gods with an equally numerous collection of bodhisattvas, to whom offerings, mantras, prayers, and so on were thereafter directed.

The Age of Reason currently moving into its twilight years, in other words, is not quite as unique as its contemporary publicists like to think. Rather, it’s one example of a recurring feature in the history of human civilization. Ages of Reason usually begin as literate civilizations finish the drawn-out process of emerging from their feudal stage, last varying lengths of time, and then wind down. Again, the examples cited earlier are worth recalling: the rationalist movement of the Egyptian New Kingdom ended in 1340 BCE with the restoration of the traditional faith under Horemheb; that of China ended with the coming of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE; that of India faded out amid a renewal of religious philosophy well before 500 CE; that of Greece and Rome ceased to be a living force around the beginning of the Christian era; that of the Muslim world ended around 1200 CE.

In each case, what followed was what Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity—a renewal of religion fostered by an alliance between intellectuals convinced that rationalism had failed, and the masses that had never really accepted rationalism in the first place. The coming of the Second Religiosity doesn’t always mean the end of rationalism itself, though this can happen if the backlash is savage enough. What it means is that rationalism is no longer the dominant cultural force it normally is during an Age of Reason, and settles down to become one intellectual option among many others.

What forms a Second Religiosity might take in the contemporary Western world is a fascinating issue, and one that deserves (and will get) a post of its own. The point I’d like to explore this week is that the idea of a rebirth of religion focusing on an ecological sensibility is not original to me. It actually came in for quite a bit of discussion in the late 1970s, in the circle of green intellectuals that formed around Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, and The Whole Earth Catalog. The idea was that the only thing that would really galvanize people into making changes for the sake of an ecologically sane and survivable future was the emergence of an eco-religion that would call forth from its believers the commitment, and indeed the fanaticism, that the transformation would require.

Nor was this just empty talk. I know of several attempts to launch such a religion, and at least one effort to provide it with a set of sacred scriptures. All of them fizzled, and for a very good reason.

To make sense of that reason, a bit of a tangent will be useful here, and so I’d like to glance at a somewhat different attempt to borrow the rhetoric and imagery of religion for secular ends, the Charter for Compassion launched by pop-religion author Karen Armstrong a few years back, which is being marketed by the TED Foundation just now under the slogan “The best idea humanity has ever had.” Those of my readers who know their way around today’s yuppie culture will doubtless not be surprised by the self-satisfied tone of the slogan, but it’s the dubious thinking that follows that I want to point up here.

Armstrong starts by claiming that “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” which is quite simply not true. All religions? There are many in which compassion falls in the middling or minor rank of virtues, and quite a few that don’t value compassion at all. All ethical traditions? Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, widely considered the most influential work on ethics in the Western tradition, doesn’t even mention the concept, and many other ancient, medieval, and modern ethical systems give it less than central billing. All spiritual traditions? That vague and mightily misused word “spirituality” stands for a great many things, many of which have nothing to do with compassion or any other moral virtue.

An earlier post in this sequence talked about the monumental confusions that pop up when values get confused with facts, and this is a good example. Armstrong pretty clearly wants to insist that everyone should put compassion at the center of their religious, ethical, and spiritual lives, but in a society that disparages values, it’s easier to push such an argument using claims of fact—even when, as here, those claims don’t happen to be true. Mind you, Armstrong’s charter also finesses the inevitable conflict between the virtue she favors and other virtues that have at least as good a claim to central status, but that’s a subject for another day.

The deeper falsification I want to address here is contained in the passage already cited, though it pops up elsewhere in the Charter as well: “We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion” is another example. What’s being said here, in so many words, is that a moral virtue either is, or ought to be, at the core of religion: that religion, in other words, is basically a system of ethics dressed up in some set of more or less ornate mythological drag. That’s a very popular view these days, especially among the liberal intelligentsia from which Armstrong and the TED Foundation draw most of their audiences, and some form of it nearly always becomes a commonplace in ages of rationalism, but it’s still a falsification.

It so happens that a large minority of human beings—up to a third, depending on the survey—report having at least one experience, at some point in their lives, that appears to involve contact with a disembodied intelligent being. Many of these experiences are spontaneous; others seem to be fostered by religious practices such as prayer, meditation, and ritual. Any number of causes have been proposed for these experiences, but I’d like to ask my readers to set aside the issue of causation for the moment and pay attention to the raw data of experience. There’s a crucial difference between the question “Does x happen?” and the question “Why does x happen?”—a difference of basic logical categories—and it’s a fruitful source of confusion and error to confuse them.

Whether they are caused by autohypnosis, undiagnosed schizophrenia, archetypes of the collective unconscious, the real existence of gods and spirits, or something else, these experiences happen to a great many people, they have done so as far back as records go, and religion is the traditional human response to them. If nobody had ever had the experience of encountering a god, an angel, a saint, an ancestor, a totem spirit, or what have you, it’s probably safe to say that we would not have religions. Human beings under ordinary conditions encounter two kinds or, if you will, worlds of experience: one that’s composed of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, which we might as well call the biosphere, and one composed of things that can be thought, felt, willed, and imagined, which we can call the noosphere (from Greek nous, “mind”). The core theory held by religions everywhere is that there is a third world, which we can call the theosphere, and that this is what breaks through into human consciousness in religious experience.

It’s important not to make this very broad concept more precise than the data permit, or to assume more agreement among religious traditions than actually exists. The idea of a theosphere—a kind, mode, or world of human experience that appears to be inhabited by disembodied intelligences—is very nearly the only common ground you’ll find, and attempts to hammer the wildly diverse religious experiences of different individuals and cultures into a common tradition inevitably tell you more about the person or people doing the hammering than they do about the raw material being hammered. In particular, the role played by moral virtue in human relationships with the theosphere and its apparent denizens varies drastically from one tradition to another. There are plenty of religious traditions in which ethics play no role at all, and moral thought is assigned to some other sphere of life, while even among those religions that do include moral teaching, there’s no consensus on which virtues are central. In any case, it’s the relationship to the theosphere that matters, and the moral dimension is there to support the relationship.

This is pretty much the explanation you can expect to get, by the way, if you ask ordinary, sincere, unreflective believers in a theist religion what their religious life is about. They’ll normally use the standard terminology of their tradition—your ordinary churchgoing American Protestant, for example, will likely tell you that it’s about getting right with Jesus, your ordinary Shinto parishioner in Japan will explain that it’s about a proper relationship with the kami, and so on through the diversity of the world’s faiths—but the principle is the same. If morals come into the discussion, the role assigned to them is a subordinate one: the Protestant, for example, will likely explain that following the moral teachings of the Bible is one part of getting right with Jesus, not the other way around.

That’s the thing that rationalist attempts to construct or manipulate religion for some secular purpose always miss, and it explains why such attempts reliably fail. The atheists who point out that it’s not necessary to worship a deity to lead an ethical life, even a life of heroic virtue, are quite correct; the religious person whose object of reverence expects moral behavior may have an additional incentive to ethical living, but no doubt the atheists can come up with an additional incentive or two of their own. It’s religious experience, the personal sense of contact with a realm of being that transcends the ordinary affairs of material and mental life, that’s the missing element; without it, you’re left with yet another set of moral preachments that appeal only to those who already agree with them.

This is what guarantees that Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion will presently slide into oblivion, following a trajectory marked out well in advance by dozens of equally well-meant and equally ineffectual efforts. How many people even remember these days, for example, that nearly all of the world’s major powers actually sat down in 1928 and signed a treaty to end war forever? The Kellogg-Briand Pact failed because the nations that needed to be restrained by it weren’t willing to accept its strictures, while the nations that were enthusiastic about it weren’t planning to invade anybody in the first place. In the same way, the people who sign the Charter for Compassion, if they really intend to guide their behavior by its precepts, are exactly the ones who don’t need it in the first place, while people who see no value in compassion either won’t sign or won’t let a signature on a document restrain them from doing exactly what they want, however uncompassionate that happens to be.

That’s also what happened to the efforts of green thinkers in the 1970s either to manufacture a green religion, or to manipulate existing religions into following a green agenda. The only people who were interested were those who didn’t need it—those who were already trying to follow ecologically sound lifestyles for other reasons. The theosphere wasn’t brought into the project, or even consulted about it, and so the only source of passionate commitment that could have made the project more than a daydream of Sausalito intellectuals went by the boards. So, in due time, did the project.

What makes the involvement of what I’ve called the theosphere essential to any such program is that the emotional and intellectual energies set in motion by religious experience very often trump all other human motivations. When people step outside the ordinary limits of human behavior in any direction, for good or ill, if love or hate toward another person isn’t the motivating factor, very often what drives them is religious in nature—not ethical, mind you, but the nonrational commitment of the whole self toward an ideal that comes out of religious experience. Every rationalist movement throughout history has embraced the theory that all this can be dispensed with, and should be dispensed with, in order to make a society that makes rational sense; every rationalist movement finally collapsed in frustration and disarray when it turned out that the theory doesn’t work, and a society that makes rational sense won’t function in the real world because, ultimately, human beings don’t make rational sense.

The collapse of the rationalist agenda is thus one of the forces that launches the Second Religiosity. Another is the simple fact that most people never do accept the rationalist agenda, and as polemics against traditional religion from rationalist sources become more extreme, the backlash mentioned earlier becomes a potent and ultimately unstoppable force. Still, there may be more to it than that.

Without getting into the various arguments, religious and antireligious, about just exactly what reality might lie behind what I’ve called the theosphere, it’s probably fair to say that this reality isn’t a passive screen onto which individuals or societies can project whatever fantasies they happen to prefer. What comes out of the theosphere, in the modest religious experiences of ordinary believers as well as the world-shaking visions of great prophets, changes from one era to another according to a logic (or illogic) all its own, and such changes correspond closely to what I’ve described in earlier posts as shifts in religious sensibility. In the weeks to come, we’ll talk about what that might imply.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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