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I take the title question from The Economist (http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/592), but think it implies a false dichotomy, that religion either is, or is not, a force for good. The truth, fairly obviously, is that in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Making some assessment of net value (whether religion is on balance a force for good) is fraught with difficulties. But exploring the issue reveals valuable insights into which elements of religion, found both within religion and without, contribute to or obstruct the greater human enterprise.

The title question, furthermore, begs the questions of what constitutes “good”, and what constitutes “religion”, issues trickier and more elusive than they might appear to be at first glance, issues whose on-going clarification is among the universe of “good” to be produced or obstructed by better or worse cognitive tools. And it brushes by the issue of whether it makes sense to discuss “religion” as some monolithic institution that can be, or not be, evaluated en masse in any meaningful way. But, despite these complexities, it raises a fundamental question, with broader implications than are immediately obvious.

In reality, religion is at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “good”, and at some times and in some ways, on balance, a force for “evil”, assuming some intuitive definition of these two terms. As a generator of, and focal point for, the “emotional energy” (to use sociologist Randall Collins’ phrase) around which societies coalesce, it may be a fundamental form of the cohesive social force which binds us into functioning collectivities. Just as attendees at rock concerts and sporting events, by sharing an intense emotional experience, feel bonded into something larger than themselves, so too (and to a much greater extent) belonging to a religious order creates a constant undercurrent of that same socially binding emotional energy. This is most evident in religious ceremonies that are designed to excite that emotional energy, sometimes ostentatiously, sometimes in a more subdued form.

One can argue, conversely, that while that was religion’s historical role, essential to the primative formation of both tribal socieities and larger civilizations (almost always defined by a shared religion), it is one which is no longer needed in our modern, decentralized, organically coherent social institutional order. After all, there’s no reason to believe that our modern governments, markets, and plethora of functioning secular social institutions would simply evaporate if religion were suddenly removed from the mix. Religion, arguably, is an archaic remnant of an ancient past, persisting due both to its hold over human imaginations and the vested interests that actively perpetuate it, but no longer either a functional necessity or the most useful of available social institutional tools.

But some religions clearly do some things which most would say contribute to the public good. Leaving aside the question of religion’s value in the lives of individual adherents, there is no denying the “good works” that are performed by religious orders. Soup kitchens, charitable activities, and even community social functions all must be tallied on the positive side of the ledger.

These activities are not always unambiguously good, however. Radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories, at least to some extent definable as religious or religion-based orders, do good works in part in order to gain popular support and recruit people to their cause, a cause steeped in violence. Similarly, Israeli right-wing extremists are often also religious extremists, believing that, since the land was given to them by God, they owe the non-Jewish people who were and are living on it no respect or accommodation. Undoubtedly, their good works among themselves reinforce their solidarity in opposition to others.

This is a fundamental paradox about socially consolidating forces: They increase solidarity within a group, which is beneficial for that group, but also increase the emotional strength of the boundaries between groups, which is detrimental to the ability of those groups to cooperate in order to confront intergroup challenges and opportunities. Like tribalism, nationalism, and even racism, religious solidarity tends to foster interreligious antagonism.

We are served best by vertically (and horizontally) non-exclusive, mutually reinforcing social solidarities, in which belonging at one level facilitates rather than obstructs belonging at superordinate and subordinate levels. While some (far from all) modern religious orders make some (far from comprehensive) effort to move in this more functional direction, it is an effort that swims against the historical current of, at least, the three monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). 

This mutual exclusivity has implications for how “good” is defined. To some, “a force for good” is a force which ensures that their own dogma prevails. In such a belief system, it would be the implacable missionary and jihadist zeal that would be considered a force for good, and the move toward tolerance and mutual accommodation a force for evil. In far too many debates with right-wingers, I am quickly cast as a moral and ontological relativist for not accepting that their moral and ontological assumptions are absolute and irrefutable truths.

Those doing so confuse recognition of fallability for relativism, and ethnocentric chauvinism for mere recognition of a an objectively discernible reality. The more subtle and useful perspective is to recognize that there may be moral and ontological absolutes, but that our ability to discern what they are is imperfect. Therefore, we should not confuse failure of others to adhere to our own convictions with a failure to acknowledge the existence of objective reality.

But even leaving aside this war of competing dogmas (with, for instance, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists being remarkably similar and yet completely incapable of peacefully coexisting), discerning what is “good” is somewhat similar to discerning what “quality” means, a topic which Robert Pirsig intriguingly explored in his cult classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a theme I discussed, in reference to moral absolutism, in The Elusive Truth ). Is it better, for instance, to maximize aggregate wealth, or to minimize “the gini coefficient” (the statistical measure of the inequality in the distribution of wealth)? Most (though certainly not all) would probably agree that the maximum good lies in some balance of these two values, though the range of belief of what that balance should be fill the spectrum, with extremists happily ensconced at either pole.

Or, more apropos of religion: Is a greater good served by protecting zygotes from destruction or by helping to expedite the discovery of effective treatments for crippling diseases through embryonic stem cell research? Is a greater good served by preserving the rights of women over their own bodies, or by protecting fetuses from elective abortions? Is a greater good served by ending the discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, or by “preserving the sanctity” of heterosexual marriage? We each may strongly believe we know the answers to these questions, but there is no consensus, and there is no final arbiter to which to turn for the answers as a matter of ontological and moral certainty (though there may be to find the legal resolutions of these disagreements).

Not only is the object (“a force for good”) ambiguous and elusive, so too is the subject. What is “religion”? Most people would say that the defining characteristic is some reference to the divine, by which definition Buddhism is not technically a religion (and Taoism may not be either). But aren’t all-encompassing world views members of some shared category, one which is dominated by religions? Wouldn’t that definition, rather than the reference to the divine, be at least as reasonable a definition? And might that not include most comprehensive political ideologies, including, perhaps, whatever political ideologies you or I consider to be the best and worst, respectively? In which case, some religions, broadly defined, are forces for good, and some for bad, but we’re stuck duking out which is which, not unlike fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Furthermore, how broad is “the divine” (if we choose to cling to that more traditional definition)? Does it include all that is supernatural or mystical in nature, such as a belief in ghosts, or in ouija boards, or in New Age fads such as the cosmic-energy-focusing power of tin-foil pyramids on one’s head? If not, why not?

As with many things, our traditional categories are less useful for addressing fundamental, underlying questions than we at first assume them to be. We need to break the world down into more essential conceptual elements, ones that do not have such unstable boundaries. And we need to understand those elemental concepts in terms of continua of variation rather than as dichotomous or mutually exclusive categories. So, for instance, beliefs can be more or less dogmatic, or more or less analytical. It does not really matter whether they are religious or not; it matters whether they serve more to liberate our individual and collective genius, or serve more to imprison it.

While there are similarities that are too often overlooked (such as in their shared foundation in a sense of awe), religious and scientific thought in some ways embody this distinction, in that the former is based on “Faith” (the unquestioning and unquestionable certainty of a proposition) and the latter on “scepticism” (the assumption that nothing should be taken to be the truth until it has been demonstrated to be the truth, and even then, only tentatively so, always subject to new evidence and argumentation). And scientific thought has clearly been a very robust generator of useful knowledge. But the distinction can be exaggerated, and the similarities ignored.

Science, like religion, has immutable precepts at its base, such as the belief in an objectively discernible reality, in our ability to discern it, in the validity of the scientific method as a means of doing so, and in the culturally and subjectively independent validity of its products. Or the belief that reality can be reduced to its constituent parts, without biasing the worldview thus created.

And science, like religion, is based in awe, which may be the real essence of Faith. I have faith that there is some coherent, enormous, systemic reality of which I am a part, far beyond my powers of comprehension, but overwhelmingly compelling in its beauty and complexity and subtlety. That is what I call “pure Faith,” a faith that has no object, no icon, no reductionism on which to hang it, though a recognition that, as in science, various reductionisms can be useful tools in examining it. What we call “religions” are to me part of the huge and gorgeous corpus of world mythology, brilliant, subtle, complex metaphors reaching into the heart of that wondrous suchness and rendering it into stories and forms and rituals that make it accessible.

A scientific understanding of the world divorced from that ecstatic, imaginative ”faith-based” one would be dry and incomplete. One can analyze a river, its constituent elements and molecules, the dynamics of flow, but still be missing some appreciation of its essence that is captured in seeing that river as mischievous nymphs singing and dancing their way to the sea. Poetry and fiction are not science, but they are a part of our appreciation and celebration of the world in which we live. Religion is the original context of poetry and stories, one whose essence, at least, should certainly be retained in order to continue to generate such expressions of our passion and wonder.

My dad was a devout atheist, and I saw in him the very same error that had so passionately led him to the absolute rejection of the validity of religious belief: Implacable dogmatic certainty. The problem with such certainty isn’t that it sometimes embraces a good idea, and sometimes a bad one, but rather that it always reduces an infinitely complex reality to some oversimplification or another which then becomes impervious to refinement. We can’t help but to reduce reality to manageable conceptualizations, but we can avoid fortifying those conceptualizations against the lathe of new information and insight.

And that is the crux of the matter. The more strongly one adheres to dogmatic substantive certainties, the more their belief system, whether religious or secular, is a force for bad, by crippling our ability to use our most vital resource, our human mind. And the more one subjugates substantive understandings to a combination of an essentially religious humility with procedural methodologies designed to best allow reason to prevail, to best allow the lathe of new information and new insight to continue to carve our substantive understandings, the more that conceptual framework is a force for good.

Even the substantive beliefs about the procedural methodology have to be subjected to that methodology, so that the methodology itself can evolve. In short, we need to be systematically and imaginatively uncertain, in a way which does not increase certainty, but rather increases understanding.

It is not religion, but rather dogma which is the counterproductive force we must seek to transcend. Secular dogmas are as dangerous and destructive as religious ones, and religious channeling of our wonder and compassion is as productive and useful as any other channeling of such qualities.

The Tea Party, though strongly overlapping with Right-wing Christian fundamentalism, is based on a secular dogma of its own, one which includes what has aptly been called “Constitutional Idolatry”, signalling its quasi-religious nature. But what makes it quasi-religious is its dogmatic reductionism, its reliance on oversimplistic platitudes, not some aspect that is overtly religious.

Even dogma in science is counterproductive, and not in short supply. The premature closing of the mind, the embrace of certainties that are not certain, and are not subtle enough to encompass the complexity they claim to definitively capture, is what we must avoid and oppose, in all contexts.

The best force for good is the best blend of the most useful cognitive material from all sectors of thought and action. Religious recognition of the sublime nature of the universe, our imagination and sometimes ecstatic artistic perceptions, our emotional connection to other people and other creatures, our recognition that in a world of competing factual and theoretical claims all of them must be subjected to an impartial procedures for separating the arbitrary from the well-founded and selecting among competing views, are all components of that cognitive concoction which most effectively liberates the genius within us, and thus best serves our long-term collective welfare.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

  • Steve,

    Are you getting paid by the word? :) I got an email about your post today about religion that linked to this one. I just don’t have time. Life is too short. So I only scanned your two long posts about religion. But you’d wanted feedback so here it is.

    If I have a serious medical problem, I go to a medical doctor. Same with religion. I’ve been fortunate to find people who have really been helpful to me. But does that mean that I expect the world to conform to my beliefs? No.

    Everything I do is the result of my religious beliefs, they are foundational for me. From time to time I try to help people who are interested understand my orientation, but the sessions aren’t a debate. See http://meetup.com/CommunityRoomCollege. I suggest anyone who has questions about the church talk with a priest or pastor.

    PBS had a show that looked at various religions, I’ll never forget the segment on Buddism. The Buddist monk said to the interviewer, “I’ve answered all your questions. Now let me ask you a question. Why do you do this? In my religious tradition, we find you get more water drilling one well 40 feet deep than 4 wells only 10 feet deep. Practice your own religion.”

  • I’ve always thought of religions as meta-languages, conceptual frameworks whose object is, arguably, the most abstract, the least reducible to that range of sensory experience which is most “translatable”. We reach with our minds and hearts to conceptualize something which both demands and defies conceptualization, and create poetic, poignant, powerful metaphors (as all conceptualization ultimately is) which satisfies a need so deep that their own ignites passions that can be both creative and destructive, compassionate and brutal.

    And a comment on its length: This one was unusually long, even by my standards. But one thing about long posts and a short life: If we have confidense in the quality of the writing, it’s not an issue. Many of us read books, each and every one of which is many times longer than this post. I write things that are very dense with information, analysis, and perspective, which is the same thing many of us are looking for when we read certain kinds of books and articles. The main difference, to someone deciding on which written works to spend some portion of their short life reading, is that there was no institutional gatekeeper certifying that this is worth the investment of time and effort and that every effort was made to make it no longer than it really needs to be. I have only readers’ individual experience and word-of-virtual-mouth to make the case, that, despite these real deficiencies (lack of publisher and editor), it’s worth the investment of time for those who like to read things that feed the mind.

  • Interestingly, I later discovered that John Wren’s relationship to religion was such that he found in it a justification for advocating the continued denial of equal rights to marriage or civil unions, and the bundle of legal rights associated with it, to same sex couples (even so far as to applaud the “courage” of Colorado State House Speaker McNulty for fillibustering a civil unions bill on the last day of the session that would have passed a full vote of the Republican controlled house, and which the majority of Coloradans supported). That revelation puts his comments above in a different light.

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