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October 25, 2006

Religion, Anthropology, Belief, Etc.

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Just because, as blog-proprietor, I can, I'm dolling up and reprinting here a few of the comments I made on our earlier yakfest about Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins, and religion.

* I have a broad conception of religion that I owe to early immersion in anthropology-style thinking. (Nothing impressive: just book-learning and hanging with anthro friends.) It left me with the conviction that everyone is religious, and that every culture has its religion (or religions). After all, we all have hopes, we all take many things on faith, we all have our value systems, and we all have our ways of dealing with scary and glorious Larger Questions. Further, all societies have their myths, dreams, arts, gods, and directives. (Think of the American religion of success, for instance, as well as our fascination with celebrities.)

Whether these folkways, habits, and processes happen to be written down, turned into formulas, and delivered articulately to audiences of well-dressed people for an hour every Sunday is interesting but not crucial. (All those self-help and how-to-succeed bestseller-wannabes? Maybe they're our holy books. All those photo-filled tabloids obsessed with fashions, scandals, Lindsay and Angelina? Maybe they're our religious visual art. Or maybe they are for some people, anyway.) To me -- soaked in anthro -- the religion-thang is as inescapable a human universal as art, music, storytelling, etc. Why fight this fact?

* Here's one hyper-fuctional -- as far as I'm concerned -- way of looking at the "God" and "religion" questions.

There's much that we know. There's also a huge amount that we don't know. We may or may not eventually know it all. (Unlikely, sez I, but what the heck.) And then there's undoubtedly 'way more than all that too. Hey, life is full of surprises! And then there's us. Here we are in the midst of all this churning cosmic bubbly custard, unquestionably part of it yet weirdly able to give it a little thought too. How'd that happen? Where'd the ability come from? And what purpose might it be serving?

Take that whole bundle -- including what's known; we/us ourselves; what we know and don't know; what we don't even know we don't know; our ability to think a bit about it; our thoughts and fantasies and ideas and dreams; the many and often invisible forces animating and moving through It All; etc etc.

OK, now why not give that mooshy, vaster-than-vast, pulsing 10-dimensional bundle a name? Why not ... call it "God"? I mean, you don't have to. But why not? Got a better name for it? I'm down with that too.

Now let's discuss the topic -- the Infinite (Currently Incompletely Knowable) Churning Vastness Of It All, Of Which We're Only a Small Part. After all, just about everyone has some sense of wonder and fear in the face of It-All, and many people even have a few intuitions or flashes of maybe-insight or maybe-delusions about It-All, or maybe just the occasional feeling of connection to It-All.

Let's not pretend It-All isn't real to people. (Why else are we interested in the arts, after all?) Let's be honest. Maybe you feel It-All -- ie., It-All is real to you -- when you fiddle with math, or when you look through a microscope, or when you have sex (hey, that tends to work best for me!), or when you visit a museum, or when you look out over the ocean, or when you gaze into your beloved's eyes, or when you take a warm bath, or when you go to a blues club, or when you hang with your kids, or when you sing Cole Porter songs, or maybe only when someone near to you dies ... But It-All is something that everyone has feelings and thoughts and intuitions and theories about. Can anyone dispute this?

Sometimes people even dare to try to talk about these It-All matters. They use philosophical language, logical procedures, super-hero stories, cartoon parables ... They try to figure things out ... They maybe notice a few patterns through the Infinite Murk that seem to have some regularity ... Casts of fictional-but-they-seem -more-real-than-real characters emerge. Over time maybe some people start to derive rules and regs from what has been noticed and observed, and what has been passed down ... The whole ultra-vague-but-there-it-is discussion as well as the experience of it -- the stories, observations, reasoning -- becomes woven through the fabric of life as it's lived. Often you barely even know it's there. It's just how we live, how we think, how we dream. It's the water we swim in.

Now what do you say we give that discussion -- that mooshy, fading-in / fading-out, semi-invisible, horizontal-vertical, swirling-all-about-us discussion about It-All -- a name? Hmm, what might we call it? ... Hey, why not call it "religion"? Again, we don't have to. But why not? Of course, if you've got a better name for it (mythology, maybe?), or if you want to use a different word for it just because you're that type of person, I'm cool with that too. But is there any reason not to call it something?

So there we have "God" and there we have "religion." Both of them evidently inescapable parts of this krazy thing we call life.

Anyway, such is how I learned to view religion back in my anthro-soaked younger days. I find it conceptually very useful -- dodges the question of belief, avoids sectarian shoot-outs, etc. Opens up both topics as legitimate parts of life, and as legit things to notice and observe and compare notes about, etc.

* A nice quote from Wikipedia's entry on the Anthropology of Religion:

"Although many Westerners (including anthropologists) have rejected religion out of hand as being unscientific, virtually all anthropologists assume that there must be good reasons for the endurance and importance of religion and, by implication, assume that religious beliefs and practices are in some sense reasonable. In order to determine the reasons for the importance of religion, however, anthropologists generally move beyond the literal claims of any religion to look at its metaphorical meaning or latent social functions."

* Some people think you have to "believe" in some childish way in order to get anything out of looking at or thinking about or maybe even assenting to religion. Maybe in some cases and for some people this is true. But how about seeing the myths and stories and directives as interesting, and as fascinating (and maybe sometimes helpful and / or revealing) metaphors? I compare it to the arts. To what extent do you have to "believe" in a movie in the childish sense in order to get something out of the experience? A bit? But maybe not all that much? I've never been a huge "believer" in the childish sense -- it's just not in me. I tend to sit far from the screen; I tend to enjoy the frame around the screen; I like taking note of how it's all done. Yet I'm a huge movie buff anyway. I love the make-believe of it, the game quality, the metaphors and archetypes and structures. I fell more deeply in love with the medium the more I understood that I didn't have to super-ultra believe in its fictions, but could experience them metaphorically instead. That's how they become "real" to me. Others' milage will vary, of course ...



UPDATE: Squub has the wit and sense to muse about "Why There Almost Certainly Is No Richard Dawkins." As far as I'm concerned, Richard Dawkins is just a helpful, it not very poetic, metaphor.

posted by Michael at October 25, 2006


I am with you on your definition of belief, or faith, but have difficulties with what you call 'religion'.

For me, the one thing lacking in books like Dawkins's or Dennett's, is the notion of religion as a power tool; a means of exploitation of the innocents by the less innocents.

Crowd control.

And I haven't found a book yet which explains what makes that belief always gets becomes religion, and thus exploitable.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 25, 2006 1:26 PM

Very nice. Here's a notion:

What if you noticed that (at least as far as you could tell) 50% of people actually DID believe that a movie was real? Let's say 50% of everybody seemed to be acting as if the War of the Worlds was an actual document of something that actually happened/was happening? And these people, believing it to be a real thing, acted in accordance with that belief, running for the hills with their children, stockpiling various earthly viruses in test-tubes so that they could defeat the next onslaught of aliens... Wouldn't you maybe say, "woah, these people might harm somebody." Wouldn't you maybe NOT just consider them movie-buffs, lumping them in the same category as you in regards to movie viewing?

Such is how I've grown to view religion. Categorizing the sense-of-wonder and awe we get from music and art and love and sex and yoga and life in with what's going on in the heads of (some statistically significant number of) big-R Religious folk is dangerous because it obscures some big problems.

Also, those notions of It-All that you're talking about ARE huge and ARE important and to me you're doing THEM a disservice by lumping them in with the way irrational, this-book-is-the-WHOLE-TRUTH, people view the world and the universe.

No harm in seeing God-in-the-gaps, but when you start thinking and acting as if that God is the ultimate authority on what you can and cannot do with your life and what you should do about it when someone else isn't doing what that God says everyone should be doing, then you're in dangerous territory.

Posted by: i, squub on October 25, 2006 1:43 PM

Michael, I just finished Arthur and George by J.Barnes, I think you'll sympathise with Mr.Doyle's view on religion.

Posted by: Tat on October 25, 2006 1:57 PM

I never had a Sociology of Religion course, but I've come across (years ago, so don't hold me to the details) characterizations of religion that get more precise than the anthro angle you mentioned. So someone might hop into Comments here saying "Aha Michael! you didn't deal with" ... proscriptive this-or-that or mention organizational structures -- priesthoods, laity, etc., etc.

But what's a professor to do but dream up taxonomies. Sorta like the scorpion who stung the guy helping it cross the river in the fable.

Like you, I'm not dogmatic on definitions either, though I might shade things a tad less inclusively than you did in the post.

What has annoyed me recently are folks on the "science is all" side of the debate. They do a lot of chest-pounding when a dab of modesty might make their case more convincing.

Science is the one mode of though/action that has made observable progress over time (on net). Religious and philosophical thought (in the traditional sense) have not seemed to have made much progress during the same time frame.

Nevertheless, science still can't (yet?) deal with First Causes. Or that little matter of Infinity you mentioned.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 25, 2006 2:00 PM

Help! I'm overdosing on dashes and capitalization!

Posted by: Peter on October 25, 2006 2:02 PM

As my grandmother would say, "But what does any of this have to do with the Lord Jesus?"

Posted by: Bob Grier on October 25, 2006 3:01 PM

We're all lost in the stars.

But why not leave it at that?

Why do so many have to find a meaning in it all?

Why not simply admit that we're lost in the stars and we'll never be found and that's that?

It's not terrible. To be lost in the stars.

Why the endless agonizing need to posit a God?

Posted by: ricpic on October 25, 2006 3:30 PM

"We're all lost in the stars.

But why not leave it at that?"

If scientists had that viewpoint, there'd be no, well, science. Curiosity about the makings of the universe, whether that leads to religion or science or something else, is hardcoded into the human mind, thankfully.

Beyond that, we're not actually arguing religion here, are we? Because that's pointless.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 25, 2006 3:49 PM

Michael, you make many good points. The problem is, there's nothing new here. You've couched the essentials of religious belief in pseudo-scientific terms, but that doesn't make it any less incredulous. I will, however, take "churning cosmic bubbly custard" as a completely apt description of the universe. :)

Why fight it? Because, despite it's pernicious prevalence, and outward altruism, it's a detriment to mankind. As an example...hooo, I'm gonna get blasted for this one...I personally believe the catholic church is responsible for every death that has occured in the last few hundred years. Roll the eyes back, here it comes...we stand today on the cusp of medical science being able to cure pretty much every ailment that affects mankind. Based on current trends in medical science, the next 100 years are going to take us beyond frontiers that we can't even currently conceive of. And, a child born today has a very good chance of living to be 100 years old and seeing it happen! (We're still not up to the 600+ ages of the old testament, but we're getting there!) How does this involve the church? The dark ages. Thanks to the holy mother church's need to keep science from advancing, our species is 1000 years behind where it should be technologically. Imagine where we'd be right now had there not been a dark ages? Imagine where we'd be right now if we didn't have religion STILL holding us back? Stem cells? AIDS research? How many women died of cervical cancer because funding for research on the human papilloma virus was blocked because it was an STD? I know, it's okay, I'm waiting for the flames. I know my theories can get a little radical, but they're simple extrapolations taken to the extreme. :)

You make the claim that tabloids have become the holy bible of the masses, and you make it in a way to indicate that you have some level of disdain for it. Why is it that particular inebriant is distasteful to you, but you're willing to extoll the virtues of true, organized religion? Okay, perhaps not organized religion, but a spiritual belief in some greater purpose becomes religion once it leaves the lips of the believer. They both have lessons to teach on what not to do, yet they both also distract mankind from its destiny. Neither gives us real answers, but at least tabloidism gives good entertainment! In many regards, how is religion not like drug or alcohol addiction? Both are a way of dealing with a reality to complex to comprehend. A spiritualist or religiist sees the lotto drawing as random because the amount of variables needed to calculate its actual order is beyond the scope of the minds of most people. Others, like me, however, understand that while I can't even list all of the variables let alone calculate them...that doesn't make it random and it certainly doesn't make it "divinely influenced". Perhaps it all comes down to being able to say "I don't know". When I don't understand something or know something, I say "I don't know". A religious person would say "It's god's will and we're not meant to understand". That's a good way of confirming ingnorance while somehow proclaiming a greater wisdom.

In a strictly anthropological manner, your arguement that everyone's religious is somewhat correct. However, like Dawkins, I would argue instead that everyone's an atheist. As he points out, we just believe in one fewer god than you. Your arguments in the first paragraph simply illustrate the point of my last post: there's a difference between religious and spiritual. People who are looking for answers in tabloidism aren't practicing a particular kind of religion, but they are practicing spiritualism. Even the atheism I practice could be considered a form of spiritualism, and I won't deny that. I have faith there is no god, no purpose. But, it's like my faith that I'm not going to fall through the floor when I climb out of bed in the's based on evidence, experience and knowledge. I have something to back my faith up with. Religious faith, on the other hand, has nothing more than myth and tradition to back it up. "Many people believe in god, therefore, god must exist" is the kind of thing a first-day logic student will kick you in the nuts for. :)

I don't look for a purpose to life, the universe or anything. I'm happily content to believe there isn't any. Some would say that detracts from it all, but I would argue that the opposite is true. Saying the universe was created by a snap of the cosmic phalanges completely invalidates the grandeur of it all for me. "Intelligent" design theorists like to ask "if you found a watch, you wouldn't assume it had spontaneously come about, would you?" No, I wouldn't, but how much more amazing that watch would be if it had! A watch is a watch, but one formed by the movement of wind over earth...WOW! Now, take that to a grander scale and tell me the universe isn't more amazing without a creator...

Posted by: Upstate Guy on October 25, 2006 3:50 PM

It all comes down to creation, doesn't it? We're curious as to where it all came from. The fact of the existence of the universe doesn't bother us nearly as much as the nagging conception of what ticked it off in the first place. And if there was a beginning, what happened (or what was there) before that? The contemplation of these concepts is what lies behind the formation of many religions. Gore Vidal wrote one of his best novels based on the concept of a Persian philosopher who was obsessed by the idea of creation. The novel is called "Creation" and the protagonist travels between Greece and China seeking answers and running into personages like Buddha and Confucious. Highly recommended.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 25, 2006 4:58 PM

"Nevertheless, science still can't (yet?) deal with First Causes. Or that little matter of Infinity you mentioned."
Posted by Donald Pittenger at October 25, 2006

Religion doesn't deal with first causes in a satisfactory way, to me. Who created the universe? If you answer God, I ask, who created God, and you become stuck in a paradox of infinite regression. It's not a useful solution.

Science presents an evolving, progressive methodology for explaining natural phenomena. There are phenomena that science cannot currently explain, so scientists merely say we do not yet have a reasonable explanation. They don't ascribe the existence of unexplained phenomena to supernatural forces, deities or magic. Because then you need to explain where the magic comes from. It only makes the task more, not less, difficult.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 26, 2006 1:47 AM

I think religion is, basically, to do with conjecture about the numinous -- that which is beyond human categories of understanding. A hunch, even, that there must be a numinous. Religion, therefore, is a noble, tragic non-sense.

I'm reminded, for some reason, of a quote by a rabbi whose name I can't recall: "If there was nothing instead of something, you'd complain about that."

Posted by: Tim B. on October 26, 2006 1:15 PM

Wired as a good article about the "new atheism" that highlights the irony of fanaticism fighting fanaticism.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 26, 2006 3:43 PM

It is ironic. We're both fighting to "save" the human race. Them by some form of divine grace, us by trying to purge superstition from it.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on October 26, 2006 7:50 PM

In my opinion, no one needs saving from anyone, other than we all need to keep our eyes on fanatics of any stripe.

It's not religion, or atheism, or political bent, or a tendency to wear polyester without appropriate shame - it's the nuts and fanatics that are the problem.

Posted by: yahmdallah on October 27, 2006 1:40 PM

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