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« Meeting Toni Bentley | Main | How Modern Painting Became A Secular Religion »

May 08, 2004

Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em?

Dear Friedrich --

I realized this morning that I walk around with a small and perhaps unjustifiable theory. Well, I walk around with a lot of them, to be honest -- they help me get by. This one, though, I'm eager to compare notes about.

Here it is, if in babble form: it's that 99% of how people have screwed up in the last 150ish years is a function of people not knowing what to do with their religious feelings.

Everyone has needs, energies, and hopes that we might as well call religious. For example: many people seem to have a conviction that there's a Final Explanation out there that can be unearthed, as well as some some Ultimate Reality that can be made contact with. Nothing wrong with these feelings, IMHO -- I've got 'em too. As a friend of mine likes to say, we all seem to be born with a gene for religion.

Too bad that traditional religion ain't doing it for a lot of people any longer. Hungry and needy anyway, many people either buy into quasi-religions (cults, new-age-ish things), or they turn otherwise-useful and down-to-earth fields into quasi-religions: science, politics, economics, and art, for instance.

But these energies seem to wreak havoc when poured into systems or fields that can't support them. Turned to with religious fervor, economics stops being a tool for understanding (or just making a little sense of) certain aspects of social life, and becomes instead That Which Explains Everything and Gives Us Final Guidance, whether from a loony-libertarian or a mad-Marxist p-o-v. Politics stops being a set of tools and traditions by which we organize certain aspects of social life and becomes instead The System By Which We Shall Achieve Perfection.

Modernism refuses to take its place as a nice addition to the cultural menu, and instead becomes The Art To Which All History Has Led -- The One and Only True Art. It ain't a coincidence, IMHO, that the American modernist acting school was no mere school for performers; no, it was "The Method."

My impression these days is that it's "diversity" that has hardened into redemptive dogma. It's a safe bet that once we've burned up all that "diversity" has to offer, we'll take these restless, needy feelings and project them onto some other unsuspecting field or value, so that we can once again have a cause we can get all charged up about. Could it be that what we're looking for isn't the specific cause but instead that all-charged-up feeling? We do this even though we know perfectly well what happens when we chase feelings; we make 'em even more slippery and elusive than they're otherwise prone to be. Oopsie. Got away from us again.

This line of speculation has me admiring traditional religions more than I used to, if from a utlitarian, evo-bio-ish point of view. The usual left-oid thing is to condemn traditional religions for the destruction and misery they've caused. The Crusades, the witch-burning, etc., are so horrifying that we'd do best to chuck traditional religion entirely. After all, isn't freedom what it's all about? So let's set ourselves free. But it's pretty hard to match the horrors of the secular-wannabe 20th century. Try looking at the 20th century as a big experiment: "How well does Man do when cut off from traditional religion?" Seems to me that the inescapable answer is, "a whole lot worse than when he's buying into traditional religion." Maybe the better comparison isn't between Imperfect Freedom and Perfect Freedom; maybe it's between "Flawed" (Christianity, Hinduism) and "Disastrous" (Communism, Fascism).

Trad religion seems to deliver semi-satisfying and productive experiences; whatever its shortcomings, it does seem to pay off in helpful ways. And what occurs to dimwit me now is that maybe one of the really basic services trad religions deliver is this: they give people a useful outlet (to be disrespectful) for our inescapable religious needs. We seem born with these feelings; it seems impossible to suppress them. So what to do with them? People able to buy into a traditional religion seem to turn back to the rest of life with a bit of perspective. Reasonably satisfied on the cosmic/transcendental level, they seem less likely than wannabe-secular people to turn politics, or science, or art into a religion-substitute.

Art-wise, I'm often struck by the way non-modernist art, however great, doesn't force the religious-esque experience. You may have a transporting experience in the presence of traditional art or you may not -- that's cool. It's art; it isn't religion per se (although there always seems to be a connection between art and religion). And as art it may or may not work for you. Too bad if it doesn't; how cool if it does. Modernist-and-beyond art, on the other hand, really does seem to attempt to be an outright religion-substitute. Whether a given modernist-and-beyond artifact works for you or not seems to depend entirely on whether it delivers a religious experience; unlike non-modernist art, it's of no interest at all otherwise. I guess that's kinda touching and understandable, although it also seems to me to have had many unhappy consequences in the cultural sphere.

Do you buy this line of thinking or not? And please: easy on the facts. I wouldn't want too many facts -- yuck, patooie -- interfering with my pretty theory.



UPDATE: Razib supplies a lot of info and thinking here.

posted by Michael at May 8, 2004


Modernist-and-beyond art, on the other hand, really does seem to attempt to be an outright religion-substitute

I'm not sure the concept of art as surrogate religion is something you can pin on Modernism, though. Strikes me that you can find the roots of it in the 19th century Romantics (cf. Wagner and his little opera house in Bayreuth).

Posted by: James Russell on May 8, 2004 11:28 AM

True, and Wagner's a key figure: "the Tristan chord" is seen by some as the moment when Romanticism gave birth to modernism. Would you buy it if we said that Romanticism represents the urge, and Modernism became the church? Hmm.

Material for another posting: modernism as a form of Romanticism.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2004 11:31 AM

I'm one of those people with no religious impulse that I can make out. The word God tastes like ashes in my mouth.
On the other hand:
1) I am not anti- traditional religion; and in fact see that (in the Judeo-Christian tradition at least) the concept that man was made in the image of God and is therefore sacred, has acted historically as a considerable brake against men treating other men like things.
2) As a failed artist (sorry for the too personal note) I now see that my longheld belief, during the years I was trying to make it, that if ever I could pull-off THE picture -- that time would stop (deranged, but there you are); that that was a religious conviction.
Which leaves me where? God only knows.

Posted by: ricpic on May 8, 2004 12:29 PM

Michael - As always, great, provocative post. I wonder, though, if you don't set up a false dichotomy. Is the alternative to organized really Stalin and Hitler? Can the harms of organized religion be summed up so neatly as the Crusades and witch burning?

I'm not sure how you define religion, but when I think of organized religion, I think of organizations that, through centuries and millinea, have developed into marketing and reproducing machines. With apologies to GWB, their pre-Madison Avenue thinkers dreamed up the oft copied: "you're either with us, or you're in Hell." And once they have one scared into joining, they tell them that they can't use birth control.... And they take 10% or more of income to build lavish temples (or pay court fees). And those that are not satisfied with marketing efforts resort to wars. How many of the current or recent conflicts have had something to do with religion?

But I think of the main problems of organized religion, particularly as practiced in the US, as much more subtle and insidious. The example that comes to mind is the assault on science, from disinformation regarding condoms and AIDS, to removing evolution from high school textbooks to disinformation on stem cell research.

I agree with your thought that we are all born with a need. You describe it as a religion gene. Is it instead a gene that creates a need for us to feel purpose? Religion is an easy answer, but is it the answer?

Certainly there are many people who tell me that I can't live a good life without religion. I suspect that I need their particular religion to live this good life. What's wrong with the golden rule (with origins that predate any current western religions)? In terms of the many great things in the modern world, do we have religion to thank? Did people create these things because of their religiosity? I suspect that much of this was created to fill a void that much of organized religion was not fulfilling.

AJ Colyer

Posted by: AJ Colyer on May 8, 2004 1:15 PM


Regarding modernism as a form of Romanticism, I think you are dead on the money. There's a very interesting book called "Romanticism" that analyzes Romantic paintings in light of the formal concerns of Modern Art (rediscovery of the picture plane, liberation of color, etc., etc.) What it shows is that if you can look past the persistence of mimesis (i.e., representationalism) in Romantic painting, Romantic and Modern painting are a sort of seamless whole.

Looking at this book, of course, made me wonder at the mental solipsism of Modern Art theory; in many respects, it seems as if it might make better sense to interpret Modern Art in Romantic terms than it does to interpret Romantic Art in modernist terms. After all, in many respects the Romantic tradition is a lot better articulated, and, well, just plain richer.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 8, 2004 1:46 PM

I agree that we have a "purpose" gene and, I also think, "ritual" gene---most notably expressed I think in the Jewish, Muslim and Cathlolic religions---which give their followers many things to "do"---don't eat before mass, make the sign of the crucifix, read the same parts of the Torah every week, bow to the East six (or seven? of four?) times a day, whatever---rather than simply things to "believe", which is always a bit slippery and un-noursihing. I don't think it is an accident that the most powerful and entrenched religions give their members many "rituals."

I am unsure thought that you can say the world is "better" with traditional religion than without; I mean, there is a sort of value judgement in that. The Crusades and witch-burning and WTC torching did, in fact, all happen due to the, um, "credit" of some people's interpretation of religion. And air-conditioning was invented due to science.

Posted by: annette on May 8, 2004 1:55 PM

Whew. Too large

Define spirituality as the individual emotional (mysticism,ritual) or intellectual (theology,philosophy) attempt to connect with the source of legitimacy or authority. Historically based upon received ideas.

Define religion as a community of shared spirituality. Accept "organized religion" is a redundancy.

Add Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Marx.

View modernism as the statement that received ideas are no longer available, that we must create our own legitimacy, ad hoc and contingent religions.

View post-modernism as the statement that we can no longer view any ideas in a non-instrumental way.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 8, 2004 2:52 PM

Ricpic -- Art as a religion and The Great Picture as redemptive, that's a great subject. I been there myself, just itching and waiting for that One Great Thing to happen, whatever the hell it was supposed to be. What could I have been thinking of?

AJ -- Thanks for the thoughtful comment. "False dichotomy," though??? Hey, here at 2Blowhards we thrive on false dichotomies.

Note to self for possible future blog posting: "The evolutionary utility of false-dichotomy reasoning."

Let me see if I've got any intelligent, or even remotely plausible response to your musings. Hmm. I like your word "purpose." How and why do we get through the day? What are we reaching for, or hoping for?

I'm tempted to tweak the term a bit and wonder if maybe "a deep set of convictions" might not work well, or at least be useful. I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't seem to have a deep set of convictions (which does seem to incorporate a sense of purpose, doesn't it? but maybe also a sense of what it's all based in too). Otherwise: why bother? Yet even if you abandon everything, the body keeps pumping, the breath keeps coming. Even the suicide, to be gruesome for a sec, could be said to have a deep conviction -- that what he's looking for will be attained via suicide. Relief -- deliverance, redemption, peace, whatever -- will come, and can be had.

I should obviously 'fess up to my own deep convictions at some point if I expect others to do the same. Later ...

So we have these "what's it all about, and why do we even bother" urges, these convictions, these feelings, the yearnings, etc. I'm happy calling them religious, though I don't mind if others disagree. What do we do about 'em? Especially granted that we seem able to turn anything into a kind of fanaticism? Well, for one thing, do we have to do anything about them at all? On the other hand, they do seem to run away from us if we don't pay 'em a little attention.

It seems that the semi-kinda things that people settle on when they come up with "purpose" on their own can range from harmless-and-sweet (celebrity, success, riches) to incredibly destructive (Fascism, Communism). But typing that I find myself thinking, "Nah. No one goes about, left entirely to his own devices, everything in a moderate, harmless, productive way. We all run off the rails and cause havoc without correctives of some sort." Where do we find these correctives? And how did they arise? Out of what set of convictions?

I don't mean to be arguing for traditional religion, BTW, so much as expressing admiration for how it serves certain needs that seem inescapable. And wondering out loud, of course, about whether secular religion-surrogates can ever be anything but destructive. If organized religion does a lot of dumb things -- well, even skipping over Fascism and Communism, perhaps "scientism" (the belief that science has the final answer) or "economism" (the belief that economics explains it all) do too. It occurs to me, looking at the morning's paper, which is full of pieces about Brown vs. Board of Ed and affirmative action and such, that perhaps "egalitarianism" has caused some hell too.

Let me see if I can manage a response this way: if religious feelings are unavoidable, then perhaps religions (organized or not) are too. If we aren't given organized, based-in-history forms to channel our religious feelings into, then they're going to head out and invent forms for their own gratification, or turn existing non-religion forms into pseudo-religions. And chances are good that these invented-or-converted pseudo-religions are going to backfire on us.

You raise the good point that there may be a sensible and secular middle-way. I wonder: doesn't it too have to be based in something? Some ideas (or convictions) about what "sensible" and "balanced" are? I mean, according to what do we judge these things? I don't see any way out of this, though I'm happy to admit that someone else may. Eager to hear more such thinking, of course.

FvB -- What a wicked idea, to think about Modernist art in Romantic terms! Rock out, dude. The thing about Romanticism by comparison to Modernism is that Romanticism is still working with the old, handed-down language; Modernism does its best to make a clean break. (Wagner's "Tristan" chord was an unresolved chord that, for the first time in Western art-music history, didn't resolve. It just left you out there in indefinite space.) You can see Romanticism as "a lot of personal expression and artistic grandiosity taking place in the context of western art history generally." You can even see early modernism in those terms. But certainly by the mid-20th century, modernism seems to have established its own separate universe apart from western tradition. I often think of modernism as analogous to an attempt to replace English (messy and mucky, evolving, colloquial, irregular, full of overtones, hard to explain in purely-rational terms) with Esperanto (rational, regular, "universal," no overtones whatsoever). How do you respond to Romanticism generally? I've got a funny split response. I rather enjoy a lot of Romantic art so long as it's not of the moving-thru-time variety -- paintings, short poems. But as soon as I have to sit thru a Romantic something, I start nodding off really fast. No idea why this is so -- something about the Romantic approach to time, apprently, but there it is.

Annette -- That's really smart: give 'em something to do, keep 'em busy, and thereby keep 'em more or less out of too much trouble. Rather impressive just as ways to keep loads of people behaving within tolerable boundaries. And impressive too in being able to make this experience tolerable (and maybe even rewarding) for the many of the people whose behavior is being guided. There's no denying the horrors that religion has been at least partly responsible for. But do you think they compare to the secularly-generated horrors (Communism, Fascism, etc) of the 20th century? I wouldn't argue one way or the other, being nothing but a guy on the street who does too much musing. But I do wonder about it. And I wonder too how much there exists in the way of alternatives. Is a life without religion -- or if that rubs anyone the wrong way, a life that doesn't entail to some extent contending with our religious feelings, energies and needs -- even possible? If so, how? If not, then what to do with them?

Bob - What a brilliant and concise way of putting it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2004 3:02 PM

Some years ago (hmmm, at least 8 thinking back) I developed my own personal taxonomy for classifying various such urges, leanings and institutions.

Our religious tendencies are those that express themselves through devotional practice. Whether it's devotion to personally derived rituals, group religous worship, or an unflagging adherence to Marx or Global Warming. They revolve around the desire for certainty in this uncertain world.

The spiritual is all of those yearnings for connection with the Divine, the search for inner truth, regardless of the beliefs of Men. It's typical expression tends to be religious in some way, however.

Now, the troubles all seem to come in when the 2 impules get together, and organized into groups. How to spot a destructive religion or pseudo religion? The clearest marker is any and all forms of 'one true way-ism'. That's the surest sign that a group has fallen into the corrupting ways of power and control over the quest for truth and connection.

As some wag once put it, the spiritually useful shelf life of organized religions seems to be about 200 years after it's founder's death. After that dogma, tithes and using it as a tool of social control (one true way-ism) seem to take over from any worthwhile spiritual aspects, at least insofar as the leadership is concerned.

Leninism and Maoism seem to be the 2 most destructive secular pseudo religions yet, with well over 100 million dead: they make Hitler look like a piker, but as they killed mostly their own people, no one really gave much of a damn (well, at least judging by the number of apologists the Communists still have on American campuses).

Channeling the devotional impulse in a non-destructive way is indeed the catch. Most people seem to genuinely not want to have to think about what's right and what's true, and as buying into someone else's pre-packaged version of that is ALWAYS going to be easier than working it out for one's self, I think this issue will always be with us.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 8, 2004 5:39 PM

couple of thoughts...

1) the engineer in me says that we can solve this in a few decades time by removing the "god-module" in the brain and replacing it with, say, a wireless ethernet connection, a few petabytes of RAM, and an artificial pleasure center. (Google "god module" and neurotheology - I'm feeling link-lazy). Of course, that might have side-effects and whatnot, but it's an empirical question.

2) the pragmatist says that some religious-type feelings are better than others. Basically, people want to believe in something bigger than themselves to fill the God-sized hole in their brain. For me, that hole is filled 80% by science and 20% by nationalism. Others will find different mixes.

3) I agree with much of what David Mercer said. The main problem is one-true-way-ism. I would add that an auxiliary problem are those whose ideology *prevents* you from stopping one-true-way ideologies (like those on the fundamentalist/Communist-sympathetic left today)

Posted by: gc_emeritus on May 8, 2004 6:08 PM

David -- That's an interesting and helpful distinction, thanks. Plus you've got me running to the dictionary.

FWIW, here's what the one on my shelf says under "Religion."

1. Beliefs and worship: people's beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life. 2. Relig: A particular institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine. 3. Personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values and atittudes that somebody lives by ...

Hmm. Let's see what's under "spiritual."

1. Of the soul: relating to the soul or spirit, usually in contrast to material things. 2. Of religion: relating to religious or sacred things rather than worldly things. 3. Temperamentally or intellectually akin: connected by an affinity of the mind, spirit or temperament. 4. Refined: showing great refinement and concern with the higher things in life.

Well, interesting anyway, if less helpful than your taxonomy. I guess maybe another way of slicing and dicing the phenomenon might be 1) the set of urges/feelings/needs/hopes; 2) the ways they find expression; and 3) the institutions that take shape in response to and as a consequence of these feelings ...

I like "refined" myself. Chicks go for that one bigtime.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2004 6:12 PM

GC -- Just to be mischievous here, and to respond to yours ...

What if ....

Well, hmm. Hard to put into words. OK, science, math, philosophy, etc -- they all presume that everything can be explained. And I have yet to run across anything neuro-whatever that persuades me that it's dodged the old "who's the observer" problem. It's infinite-regress-time ad infinitum, no matter what direction you look in. My own idiotic impression is that science/math/philosophy at a certain point need to shift from "explain" mode into "describe" or maybe "model" mode. But then they aren't explaining anything anymore;they're providing models. Which is a fine thing to do, but still.

Anyway, you can keep backing up and refocusing, taking in ever bigger pictures, and maybe that's what progress in these fields is. But you can also at a certain point notice that, hey, we keep backing up and refocusing -- there's a pattern here.

Maybe what the "religious feeling" (or maybe intimation) is, or can be thought of as being, is simply saying, well, shit, it really is all necessarily bigger than any mind can encompass, or than any explanation can account for. There's nothing behind it (ie., an explanation, an equation, whatever) because that itself has to be part of the whole too. In other words, maybe the "religious intimation" can't itself be explained, because all it is is an acknowledgment that this "life" thing is all finally mighty big and incomprehensible and mysterious and why not bow down before it a few times every now and then in acknowledgment of that fact? (I think this is what religious people may mean by "submission" and "humility", at least in a general sense.)

And if you were to go looking for an explanation for this, wouldn't that be evidence that you've got a religious (or at least quasi-religious) belief in the efficacy of explanation? I mean, where is all this explaining finally going to lead you? What's it getting at?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2004 6:38 PM

"Heavy" thread, but interesting. I think Colyer's negative take is a bit narrow in that humans seems to be able to turn almost any belief system into tyranny once followers reach a critical mass of some contextual sort. See Eric Hoffer's The True Believer for one perspective. This seems to be what Mercer said regarding the 200-year rule.

But let me retreat in my cowardly way to a less-deep level.

One way of looking at religion in America in recent decades is "success", in terms of recruiting new adherents, related to how the religion presents itself. From what I read, Pentacostal and other fundamentalist religions and sects are scooping up new members while "mainline" religions are losing worshipers.

This probably isn't the whole answer, but one distinction between the two is that mainline religions either have little mysticism in the first place (Presbyterians, for example) or have lost a lot of what they used to have. An example is the Episcopal church booting out the old Book of Common Prayer for a substitute that is common beyond belief. More apt is the vernacular mass of the Roman Catholic Church. The Latin mass had mystery and its replacement is as commonplace as what the Episcopalians have done.

All this is a marketing effort to try to get in synch with potential worshipers. Witness the "folk mass" (with strumming guitars) that appeared around the end of the Sixties and might still be with us (I don't know). In Seattle, a downtown church has a mid-week jazz service even. But this marketing plan ("outreach", in polite circles) zapped mystery and awe from ritual, when in fact mystery, as a means of creating a leap of faith, sells.

Okay. Back to art.

I have a sore tooth and can't focus as well as usual (which isn't saying much at best), but this seems to bring us to Romanticism and the Modern, in the Blowhards' posts above.

Certainly Modernism is dogmatic--or the movement and its fellow-travelers were when riding high in the Fifties. And there was/is MYSTERY to the stuff: What in the world am I looking at??...I must have strong faith indeed to believe this cr*p is Art!! (Yes I know there really is some outstandingly good Modern.)

But this "mystery" is really more of a "puzzle" than something transcendent. It seems to me that the viewer (I'm thinking of paintings now) needs to "connect" in some way with what he sees before he can have experience what might be a sense of awe or religiosity or whatever. Michael, in the main posting, seems to think traditional art fails to do this, if I read him right. As I said, Modern probably can't do this, but traditional art at least has the potential to do so. To cite a nationalist--rather than religious--example, consider the series of huge paintings with Slavic scenes done by Alphonse Mucha in the later part of his career: I'm not Slavic, but I am impressed.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 8, 2004 6:52 PM

when comparing religion and totalitarianism, i think it is important to note that different religions seem to be differently inclined toward "totalitarianism." eg; roman catholicism seems to less prone than say some of the protestant sects that arose after the reformation (calvin's geneva is the most famous, but there were several utopias in england and northern germany that broke down in chaos). of course, more fundamentalist forms of islam also seem rather totalitarian in inclination. by "totalitarian," i mean that religion does not become part-of-life, because everything is made into a religious act. this, when interpreted as a mystical metaphor may be uplifting, but when given into the hands of levitical priests, gets way out of hand....

Posted by: razib on May 8, 2004 7:08 PM

Ow. My head... I should know better then to read this blog when I've a bit of a hangover.

Speaking on behalf of the smelly plebs, I would venture that the passion that many people have for their sports teams could also be an expression of the religious impulse. I don't follow the US sporting scene that much, but I do keep an eye on the English football, and there are many people there that are truly fanatical about the sides that they follow. I'd never thought of it as an expression of what you could describe as the 'religious' impulse.

While this does sometimes result in some very unsavoury behavior and hooliganism, I guess this way of expressing the religious impulse is harmless compared to getting involved in political extremism or the like.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on May 8, 2004 11:17 PM

I think that Scott brings up a good point in that one of the key functions of religion is that it provides a unifying shared emotional center that can bind a community together. This function can also be filled by rock music, sport, or political ideology (and these, like religion, might fulfill the purpose in either a constructive or destructive way).

I think it is possible to have the emotional side of religion without buying into the associated intellectual dogma. At least it is possible for me as a cynical middle-aged cultist-turned-atheist, but as a father I question whether it is truly possible for the average young person to embrace life with vigor and hope while maintaining total skepticism toward all religious claims.

Part of me says that life was so harsh in the past that people had to have a religious belief system in order to have the strength to bother, but that that dark era has now passed, but on the other hand, can we really expect our children to be as inspired by the assertion that there ain't nothing there as they would be by the promise of a paradise for the worthy?

Posted by: Graham Lester on May 8, 2004 11:53 PM

I think religion is an inevitability. In fact, possibly a biological necessity. We all need to feel as if there is some order or structure to our lives. This religion provides. It gives people a place in the cosmos. We have something to focus our attentions on.

Anything can be a religion though. It just depends on the person. Think of the cult of Elvis. Or the cult of Kurt Cobain. The cult of nature. Communism, etc. And any of these when taken to an extreme can become totalitarian.

Has anyone else ever wondered why, for a country as religious as the United States, we've produced so little religious art?

Donald Pittinger, how do you insert mysticism into mainstream religions? Also, do you have a link to Alphonse Mucha's work?

Posted by: lindenen on May 8, 2004 11:58 PM

"Part of me says that life was so harsh in the past that people had to have a religious belief system in order to have the strength to bother, but that that dark era has now passed, but on the other hand, can we really expect our children to be as inspired by the assertion that there ain't nothing there as they would be by the promise of a paradise for the worthy?"

I don't know if that time has passed. Especially for people in the Third World. Think about what would happen if a nuke went off in a major city in the US. Dark dark dark era. We're not out of the woods yet.

I've often thought that the morality imposed by religion in a state of nature was essential to survival. Religion in that way is utilitarian. Think of the bans against theft, lying, cheating, killing. What would humans do if people felt no shame in killing their neighbors for a cup of sugar? What would happen to society if everyone lied, cheat and stole? Aarchy, poverty, crime. It's not pretty. Think Thomas Hobbes. It's possible that religion rescued us from the war of all against all.

The most important part of religion is probably its regulation of sex. In a state of nature without condoms, birth control, abortion, health care, welfare, charity, and family (all dead from disease), but with sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy (and the possible death from child birth and other complications), as well as the other billion and five complications of sex, the regulation on premarital and extramarital sex makes more sense. It's interesting that they pop up in more than one culture. I'm reminded of the links between illegitimacy and crime, poverty, and a host of other social ills in the United States. I've read that illegitimacy and divorce are the number one and two causes of poverty among women and children in the US. When seeing the effects of very high illegitimacy rates, shotgun weddings seem more logical.

Marriage itself seems more logical as well since the physically weaker mother and child would need some form of protection in this relative state of nature. And it's not like there was daycare back then. Who would go hunting? Hunting is difficult with a baby in your arms.

If we had had no way of protecting ourselves from AIDS, would the Sexual Revolution have killed us all? We'd have had to put it in reverse and hit the breaks.

Hmmmm... Religion? Evolutionary adaptation?

Posted by: lindenen on May 9, 2004 12:25 AM

I think that Scott brings up a good point in that one of the key functions of religion is that it provides a unifying shared emotional center that can bind a community together. This function can also be filled by rock music, sport, or political ideology (and these, like religion, might fulfill the purpose in either a constructive or destructive way).

do you know anyone who would die for their team? perhaps die for their political beliefs. but it seems much more plausible that people would die for their faith, indicative perhaps how much more easily religion fits into that slot.

I think it is possible to have the emotional side of religion without buying into the associated intellectual dogma.

from my reading, most sociologists & evolutionary psychologists would assert that for 95% of the people the "intellectual dogma" is irrelevant and most incomprehensible (ask someone on the street about the athanasian doctrine on trinity which almost all christians adhere to). as you have noted though, collective feeling is important, an emotional attachment to others, and one's place in the universe, etc. etc.

I've often thought that the morality imposed by religion in a state of nature was essential to survival. Religion in that way is utilitarian. Think of the bans against theft, lying, cheating, killing. What would humans do if people felt no shame in killing their neighbors for a cup of sugar? What would happen to society if everyone lied, cheat and stole? Aarchy, poverty, crime. It's not pretty. Think Thomas Hobbes. It's possible that religion rescued us from the war of all against all.

this is jared diamond's hypothesis that religion (organized) evolved as a way for societies to regulate morality beyond the "environment of evolutionary adaptiveness". that is, in the ur-society humans existed in bands of 10-100, and you knew everyone personally, so it wasn't that hard to ostracize, exclude, etc. those who acted immoral. everyone that you wronged would probably be related to you, either by blood, or fictively. once city-states and larger villages came about, religions might have been a way to expand that fictive kinship system using supernatural agents as father figures. but evolutionary psychologists would assert that these constructed systems would still have to fit within the prior religious pyschological mind-set.

Posted by: razib on May 9, 2004 12:42 AM

Good stuff, a lot of that. Some seems a little overwrought, some seems a little overthought.

I wonder if religion is just a tad bit less than most of what I've just read, and a bit more of a natural need to sit down weekly with people one knows to catch a breath, to listen to the stories of our ancestors and to think of the questions posed and the answers posited. We live better communally than singly, we eat better communally than singly and we work better communally than singly, so why shouldn't we have learned over the eons that we rest better and think better when we can share an hour or so of peace in a meaningful gathering place, shared by friends and acquaintances with a communally agreed upon concept?

Posted by: Michael on May 9, 2004 1:37 AM


the concept that man was made in the image of God and is therefore sacred, has acted historically as a considerable brake against men treating other men like things

Explain slavery, then.

Posted by: James Russell on May 9, 2004 4:16 AM

Where is Universality in your discussion ?

I tend to agree with the initial post of Friedrich.
I also tend to agree with other things everybody is saying.

But there is something missing in your talks.

Religion can be appreciated from different points of view; and from each of them, you can compare it to something that looks similar (to football fans and britney spears fans for the "shared emotions" aspect; to communism for the "humanity purpose" aspect; to politics for the "ruling society" aspect; to philosophy for the "questionning and reasoning " aspect; to science, to art, etc.

The discussion here is like an empirical data supporting the thesis of Fiedrich saying that today "diversity" is The thing in wich we put what i prefer to call our "tendency to the universal".

"Diversity" lacks hierarchy; it is putting everything at the same level, like in this discussion: the utilitarian point of view, the moral point of view, the social point of view, the mystic point of view, the theological point of view, etc. are all mixed up.

When you ask yourself the question of universality, the hierarchy happens "naturally": some things are more universal (less individual, more whole) than others; some points of view are more universal than others.

Traditional religions are the unique "things" that can be regarded from all point of views; you won't find any "philosophy" in britney's concerts; you won't find any "collective emotions" in reading Plato, etc. You can give the Bible or the Coran to a child, an artist, a philosopher, etc; you can read it lonely, with your family, with people, etc.
You cannot find any point of view from which these religions offer nothing interesting or worth aprreciating.
This is why they are more universal than all the things you can compare it to.

These religions are "one-way-ism" not because they forbid diversity but because they guide humans "tendency to the universal" to the true universal. And the universal is one or it cannot be. It is one and it is the principle of diversity. This is why religions, if they guide to the universal, cannot be "a part of life" because putting your "tendency to the universal" (wich is unlimited by definition) into "a part of life"(which is limited by definition) obviously means destroying it. This is why finaly you cannot compare the religious emotional feelings to those of football fans.

What we call "Religious extremists" are not extremist from the religious point of view (they do not tend to the universal in an extremist way); they may be extremist from the political, the social or any other particular (non-universal) point of view.

Posted by: Paul on May 9, 2004 5:10 AM

I may have missed it but I didn't notice anyone mentioning how evolutionary "theory" has become a religion. The version commonly believed and taught in schools is horribly outmoded but the several versions currently fighting it out all agree that the known-to-be-false version should still be given lip service. It fits the definitions from the dictionary I've stolen from above:

1. Beliefs and worship: people's beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life. 2. Relig: A particular institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine. 3. Personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values and atittudes that somebody lives by.

I might also add that when taken apart from Darwinism, Communism and Nazism and the other socialist permutations don't seem much like religions. "Official" Nazism was Darwinist, but many of the principals were mystics or neo-pagans, and so earn the title of a religion more easily. Darwinism (or any more recent strain) doesn't make a whole religion on its own, but Evolutionary theory + Political theory = totalitarian religion. Evolutionary theory supplies: Beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature and (lack of) worship of a deity or deities, while the political theory provides: divine (revolutionary vanguard etc) involvement in the universe and human life. Redemption is future glory, the next step in the evolution of the human race etc. In practice (and I believe behind closed doors) it really is just a means of gaining power which really makes it look like religion. I don't mean to tar all evolutionists as Nazis or Communists because they clearly are not so; nonetheless evolution played a significant role in all of the totalitarian movements of the last century. It even had a major influence on the current crop of Islamofascists since their little terrorist clubs were almost all created or trained by the KGB.
Personally I am agnostic on the various competing evolutionary theories. I don't believe any of them, but I also don't disbelieve them. I don't really care, either way won't alter my religious outlook in the slightest. I would like to know for certain, but mainly for curiosity's sake.
Agnosticism on religious matters is something I can respect, but atheism is a bad joke. The assumption of many of the posts here is that there isn't and cannot be a deity of any kind. To have faith that there isn't any form of god is certainly no stronger a position than to have faith that there is. To discover the truth behind the universal impulse towards the divine one must allow for the possibility that there is something divine to yearn towards. Closing off an avenue of inquiry for faith's sake isn't very scientific.

Posted by: Renaissance Nerd on May 9, 2004 6:56 AM

Has anyone else ever wondered why, for a country as religious as the United States, we've produced so little religious art?

I'm not an authority on religion, the United States, or art, but as a wild guess, I would assume that the Protestant hostility to 'graven images' would be behind this.

It's not just a US thing, it's all the Protestant countries have no tradition of religious artwork.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on May 9, 2004 7:11 AM

very interesting thread. One aspect of your original arguement that I suspect is a big part in this phenomena is 'That Which Explains Everything and Gives Us Final Guidance'. The more complex the world becomes the greater the need for something that allows the individual to interpert the world. Religion always served this function of providing explanation. So when an individual finds an ideology that resonates they attach to it as a focus for explaining and defining the world.

Posted by: Banquo's Ghost on May 9, 2004 7:13 AM

RN, on agnosticism: An acquaintance of mine, when asked his religious beliefs, always answers "I'm a militant agnostic" in a mild voice, like it's a normal response. Everyone always says, "what's that?" to which he screams "I'm not sure, AND NEITHER ARE YOU!!" Then he smiles warmly. And that's all he'll say on the topic :-)

Paul: very good to bring up Universality. Looking back on history, it seems to be fairly universally agreed, from the mists of time to the present, secular, religious, whatever, that initiating violence, commiting property crime, incest and dishonesty are universally condemned.

WHY can't we all just agree on that, agree to disagree on damn near everything else, and not engage the machinery of Church and State in telling us how to live our lives otherwise?

Oh right, the human quest for power in the face of the uncertainty of personal survival...ok, that makes me want to rant about pluralism and the need to avoid theocracy at all costs, which will drift me right off into politics. Ack. It all mixes at some level, no? :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 9, 2004 7:34 AM

Maybe fear of death instigates religious needs or spirituality. Believing there is some kind of paradise on the other side of kicking the bucket is calming. Bodies just sitting there rotting in a coffins with no where to go is freaky. Many folks want either a big party or peaceful bliss in heaven, and heaven can only be believable if you got faith, and you can only get to heaven if you do right (as per your religious group). Whatever, my head is about ready to explode. I don't think I'm intellectual enough to wrap my head around global religious need.

But what I completely don't get is that to understand modern art, one needs to have religious faith of modernism first to appreciate or have discourse with it. Is this about formalism? De Kooning and Greenberg kind of stuff? I'm totally lost on that - perhaps we should make a trip over to MOMA or The Whitney and you can explain it to me in front of the art. Things change when your standing in front of a piece, and from what I know so far - no religion is required (just the desire to deconstruct a little art theory if it's heavily conceptual - and please, most museums are so dumbed-down these days that the explanation is sitting there next to the piece in kindergarten language).

Posted by: Turbokitty on May 9, 2004 10:32 AM

Hah! Who says that "hot" topics like politics, sex and religion can't be talked about in civil, fun, and enlightening ways?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2004 10:55 AM

James Russell - The fact that slavery continued in our country, a Christian country, into the middle of the nineteenth century did not discredit the Christian doctrine that we are all, slaves included, "Brothers in Christ." It simply attested to the tremendous sway of - to cite another Christian tenet - our fallen nature.
I think it would be hard to deny that the engine that drove the passionate desire to end slavery was religious: if we are all children of God, how long will we find it tolerable that one be master and one be slave?

Posted by: ricpic on May 9, 2004 2:11 PM

I was struck this week by the prison abuse photos from Iraq and it got me thinking about control versus accountability. I think the emphasis on control that people use when discussing religion is misguided. If you're talking good behavior versus bad behavior your are likely discussing (sometimes dangerous) control fantasies. Accountability is what Christianity contributes to lives, cultures. It's not that bad things happen, whether you or I will do bad things, it's how we respond to those bad things, are we accountable? This accountability is a very personal choice and I don't think it is a natural expression of DNA. It is natural to try and escape consequences and control events. Ultimately it is the acknowledgment of God which makes accountability possible. At moments when I reach a state of humility that allows accountability it feels right, you could say natural, probably because there is a Big Guy in the Sky. But those moments are fleeting and I wouldn't say biologically inevitable like eating or sex.

Posted by: Mr Chips on May 9, 2004 2:18 PM

Michael - Regarding your last post about what religion may be -- i.e., a communal activity where we sit down weekly to reflect, etc. -- what are your thoughts regarding what the perfect "religion" might look like if we could start fresh, without the baggage of thousands of years. Would it look anything like what we have today?

To digress a bit, the question reminds me of another pondering, that I'll share given the Blowhard's interest in planning, and that is what would transportation look like if we could start anew? Would we have any asphalt or concrete pavements? Would 21st century technology include cars? For another discussion. But the topics are a bit related in the need to fix something that is fundamnetally flawed with or without reference to what exists.

Posted by: AJ Colyer on May 9, 2004 2:54 PM

Random thoughts:

1. If the 20th century was an experiment about the lack of religion, it wasn't a very tightly controlled one. We got rid of religion, but we also got rid of property, individualism, the rule of law, and the ideal of rationality at the same time. The loss of these may have had more to do with the ensuing kerfuffle than the loss of religion did.

2. Not everyone has the religion gene. I don't. So that leads me to think it's less a gene and more a character flaw. Some people like being told what to do, how to think; they need meaning and can't get it from their sparse personal accomplishments and ill-thought ideas. They get it from religion, but if that goes by the wayside they'll find a replacement. Chesterton famously said "If a man stops believing in God, he doesn't believe in nothing; he'll believe in anything." I'd change that to "If a certain type of man...". We'd be more fecund studying this personality type and its causes than going back to Sunday School.

3. Donald's note on extreme religions having more appeal than bland ones is, I think, a marketing problem. Marketing says "focus on your Unique Selling Proposition, differentiate your product line, and you'll expand your customer base". Religion's USP is mystery and trancendence; the hardliners deliver. But the bland churches with their religion-as-community are competing with coffee shops and becoming generic. Like any other kind of generic there isn't much upside.

Posted by: Brian on May 9, 2004 5:52 PM

Great post! Just a comment: the need for purpose and meaning is somehow tied to the need for community: we don't want to be the only person in the universe to understand it all, but dream of somehow being able to share the experience, and thus escape the sense that we are alone. At least I detect that connection in my own makeup. I like Gregory's phrase, " a unifying shared emotional center that can bind a community together."

As for the accomplishments of organized religion, I would point to capitalism and liberal democracy in the West as the fruit of the Judeo-Christian tradition. True, that tradition accepted slavery in the beginning -- did it really have a choice? -- but in the long-run it also delivered us from servitude. It is no accident that only the West is free. But, mission accomplished, we now feel bereft -- sort of like what happened to Armstrong when he got back from the moon. What do you do now?

Posted by: Luke Lea on May 9, 2004 10:52 PM

I haven't had time to go through the 33 replies before posting, and am writing this before rushing off to an appointment this morning. So apologies if I repeat what someone has already said. I will read all those tonight.

In the early 19th century, Unitarianism and Universalism sprang up because many were dissatisfied with what organized religion was giving them. As an oversimplification, Unitarianism was in the northeast US, and Universalism elsewhwere (The Horace Greeley exhorting young men to Go West was a Universalist). A Universalist preacher summed up the difference as, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”

In the early 2oth century, Rudolf Steiner founded another Christian church incorporating elements not found in the older churches. It is as dead today as Unitarianism and Universalism.

I grew up in the Episcopalian church, and tend to agree with Episcopalian turned Marxist turned Catholic monk Thomas Merton, who wrote, 'I met an Episcopalian priest the other day. Surprisingly, he had a faint religious aspect. They so rarely do.'

In other words, I think many of us are ready for a new church. There is a strong cross-faith movement going on today, but personally, I am interested in a Christian church that seems less mired in the 19th century. The sale of the Christian Science Church on the corner of Central Park West and 96th Street designed by Carrere & Hastings would have been perfect for New York.

Posted by: John Massengale on May 10, 2004 8:53 AM

PS: I disagree with the standard 20th century materialist notion of the "religious gene."

The materialist wants to put everything in the body and talk about "hard-wiring" and genes. But that explanation is inadequate.

We are spiritual beings in the bodies of evolved apes. It is the soul, not the body, that accounts for our religious understanding.

Posted by: John Massengale on May 10, 2004 8:55 AM

I can hope that people have figured out how to defang the worst of secular religious impulses. At least, there don't seem to be anything currently building up that could compete with communism and nazism for destructiveness.

On the other hand, it seems as though nationalism is still substituting for religion and ethnicism, at least as a something that offers a transcendent nucleus for people to organize their lives around and provide an excuse for killing..

In the count against religion, it's worth counting religious wars as well as internal atrocities.

Whether people would die for their religion is important, but whether they will give substantial help to their co-religionists may be at least as important.

It's not just Protestantism vs. religious art--white Americans have produced rather little in the way of notable religious music, and American Catholics aren't famous for their visual art.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on May 10, 2004 9:34 AM

I was just writing about Teleology the other day in response to denBeste's argument about the three forces in geopolitical conflict today. This was extending an argument I had made against the anti-theism of Christopher Hitchens. In both, I assert the fact of the soul and the need for humanity to search for and understand the mind of god as a pre-requisite for the scale of civilization we wish to maintain.

I look at religion as a way of knowing. It retains the potential for a kind of multidisciplinary education and the more ways it touches life, the more meaningful it becomes. As an Episcopalian, I'm afraid of Muslims because perhaps like Merton in the context of his criticism of Episcopalians as irreligious, I understand that Islam cannot be so easily compartmentalized. So what I find most appealing about the evolved religions is the richness of rituals and sacraments. You eat, you drink, you embrace, you stand, you kneel, you sing, you walk slowly, you sit in silence. If it were all about sermons and arguments about the nature of god, it could be compartmentalized, abstracted and lost in the crowded mediasphere.

I say that people are looking for what 'reality tv' gives them, an opportunity (if only vicariously) to undergo an 'extreme makeover' to be taken out of the matrix and physically challenged in a kind of rituality. Our bourgie lives demand it.

The church that only makes us sit and listen quietly will die. Our souls may transcend our bodies, but how does our inspiration move our bodies? The intersections are sparse in contemporary American life, and I think part of the stirrings we feel have to do with the disconnectedness of our physical activities with any philosophical purity. We bemoan the corruption of sport because in participating in sport we gain the experience of embuing a physical memory with the discipline of following strict rules. Knowing that Sport is owned and the rules of money overcome the sphere in which sportsmanship rules is very painful. For traditional sports in many ways it is a fait accompli, which is why I believe youth are drawn to the anti-corporatism of extreme sports, skateboarding and triathalon for example.

The urge towards religion engages the spirit, the soul. So does sport at its purest. In many ways, a graver physical sort of sacrament, especially a rite of passage, could make a tremendous difference in how central religion could be in American life or any life. Into the void, the work of the body will become the work of the devil, thus Crusades are around the corner.

Posted by: Cobb on May 10, 2004 1:40 PM

Michael, where does "theocracy" fit into your continuum of Flawed-to-Disastrous polities? It sounds as though you're placing it more in the category of "flawed," while I'd place it under "disastrous" (cf. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban-led Afghanistan).

In the modern Western world, representative democracy is a highly secularized form of government: It allows people to possess religion but doesn't make a big deal out of which one(s) they choose, and it doesn't make any necessary claims for the truth of one religion over another. That's why the Framers made such a big fuss over religious freedom -- and that's why Justice Scalia keeps speaking out against it.

Given that representative democracy has functioned uninterrupted in the US for about two hundred fifteen years, I think we can safely say that it's a stable, effective system of government. But since it abdicates Ultimate Truth in favor of the rule of law (and of the people), it belongs neither to Christianity nor to any other religion.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 10, 2004 8:35 PM

"That's why the Framers made such a big fuss over religious freedom -- and that's why Justice Scalia keeps speaking out against it."

First off, that's a common misperception about the original meaning of the 1st amendment. The amendment prohibited Congress from making any law "respecting the extablishment of religion" - i.e., not only could they not establish a national church, they could not force the roughly half of the original colonies that already had established churches to "unestablish" them. It was not, in fact, the general defense of "religious freedom" it later became under the 14th amendment's "incorporation" interpretation. It was a merely a check on the new federal govenment's ability to mess with the existing state religious institutions, which in many cases were state supported. I am not saying that the founders attitude on this subject was the "correct" one, mind you (I happen to agree with the modern concept, although not to the extent that we must prohibit any and all displays of faith on public land)- only that invoking them as defenders of the modern concept of "freedom of conscience" is anachronisic. (Although for the most part even those from colonies with established chuches tended to be on the tolerant side - you could be any kind of protestant you wanted. Jews and Papists, of course, could go to hell.)

And second, what have you been snacking on at night that gives you these fevered dreams of Justice Scalia speaking against religious freedom? I suggest a few spoonfuls of pepto before bed. And of course the implication is that even that is not his REAL project - no, what he seeks is the destruction of democracy itself! To be replaced, presumably, with a theocracy run on orders from the Pope and Opus Dei!

Hmmm. I take it back - maybe you DO have a lot common with the founders, after all...

Posted by: jimbo on May 10, 2004 11:59 PM

I always groan inwardly when I happen across a post dealing with religion penned (or pecked) by someone not religious, even when it's the illustrious Blowhards. It usually becomes an unintentional litany of all the things the author doesn't understand about it, really. Happily, this post doesn't make that mistake and really does make some good points, which in my opinion are valid. Particularly the main one, which is people often try to fill that "God-shaped hole" by things other than God, and it never works and often goes awry.

My only quibble is the common misunderstanding that a religious person is someone who is "able to buy into a traditional religion" as if s/he were acquiescing to something out of ignorance, or merely to have an outlet for that religious urge (as this posts suggests), or just to get it to leave her/him alone (or because of a freakin' "character flaw" as one cretin put it in these comments).

It's understandable why those who feel they've escaped the intellectual blunder of religion (as they see it) feel that way, because, as Knopfler said in his great Dire Straits song, "Two men say they're Jesus, one of'em must be wrong." (Bad) logic dictates that if someone believes in a religion that is patently wrong, then by extension, everyone who believes in any religion could be wrong. "What if I pick the wrong religion?" is the lament. Further, most belief systems are mutually exclusive of one another, except for Unitarians of course, and so require that you take a stand if you are going to part of it. To put the cherry on top, the meme (sorry Andrew) spread by atheists about the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, and fairies is pretty effective. No one wants to appear misinformed or childish, and in these final days of post-modernism, actually taking a stand on something is frowned upon.

That's why (I think) the non-religious simply can't view the religious through any other filter than "all religious people believe in a falsehood," even though it's unfair and as unreasoned as they assume the believer's beliefs to be. And since religious people typically view their religion as truth, it's hard for them to accept that the non-religious typically view them as slightly daft. It would serve both groups if they kept in mind that (for most) belief or non-belief is NOT a function of intelligence or knowledge.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 12, 2004 6:14 PM

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