The Big Questions

So you might remember my earlier post contra to Dr. Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't. In that post, I raised some objections to Prothero's claim that "religion matters," including that it's a case of special pleading, and that a lot of the time, religion is somewhat incidental to the salient points of history.

Well, on 15 November I attended a lecture here at Western by Dr. Prothero, mostly about his newest book, God Is Not One. In that book, he examines the world's eight greatest religions—in mostly-descending order, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Confucianism, Judaism, and Taoism—and especially their differences. In his lecture he explained that, far from being "eight roads up the same mountain" as some people claim, there are actually different mountains entirely. They ask and attempt to answer different "Big Questions." For example, Christianity asks "how do we become saved from sin?" whereas Buddhism asks "how do we transcend suffering?" In answering these questions, each specific religion emphasizes the different components (as categorized by religious-studies scholars) of religion-in-general. Christianity emphasizes doctrine, Confucianism emphasizes education, Buddhism emphasizes experience, and so on.

Also, I got to talk with Dr. Prothero at a reception afterward, which was awesome.

I still think he has some wrong ideas, though. So here I will ask him some Big Questions of my own.

 Are religions really that different?

I ask this question in a scientific or statistical sense. For example, it is rarely the case that all members of one species are identical (even if the members reproduce asexually... mutations and such). Yet we can test the relationship of an individual to a species by DNA evidence, if we can't use other measures of species-relation (for example, reproductive viability).

So what kind of "genes" make up the DNA of religion? Prothero claims that religions share the following seven elements, but emphasize some over others to the extent that each is genuinely different.
  1. Practice and ritual
  2. Experience and emotions
  3. Narrative and mythology
  4. Doctrine and philosophy
  5. Ethics and laws
  6. Society and institutions
  7. Materials
Sure. These seem like good choices. However, I'm suspicious as to the mutual independence of these things. There is no question that different religions place different weights on the seven elements, but is it even possible to completely drop one or more of them? No, by definition! (Keep this in mind; I'll come back to this.)

I'd argue that in fact, religion is generated only by elements 2, 3, and 4 on the list... basically in that order, if I can presume a natural progression of religious thought in a given society.

The growth of religion

It's natural to start with experience, namely, the transcendental experience. It's a hallmark of religious or "spiritual" people to claim transcendental or numinous experience, or some fancier term like "becoming one with the Universe" or "touching the mind of God" or whatever.

These experiences do happen. And they happen independent of specific religion (or any religion at all). We all know what it means to experience a wonder, and perhaps "fear and trembling," at great beauty, majesty, etc. Try to contemplate the utter vastness of outer space for a moment. Gotcha.

So this provides a good origin of religion. Let's move forward: people having various experiences (highly linked to their environment, I should guess) construct narratives to explain them. This is a natural human inclination. We tell stories almost pathologically. We hate the feeling of the unexplained.

From there, these narratives become codified along with society, and we get doctrine. We go from "is" to "ought." From there the doctrine provides a natural prescription for ritual, laws, institutions, and materials. That's where we fall short.

Doctrine: The weakest link

That last bit might have waxed a bit Hegelian, so I apologize. I make no claims to its absolute truth, but I do think we see the first three steps emerge from the historical record, and are well-represented in the world's mythologies. Also, it's all been a setup to discuss the problem of doctrine.

Prothero, both in his talk and in the reception, criticized the outspoken "New Atheists" (among them, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, P.Z. Meyers, and others) for focusing exclusively on doctrine when not all religions emphasize it. To this I respond that the real argument from the New Atheists is rather that dogma and appeals to authority should not allow religions to claim special treatment in our society, especially when they claim certain things as being "true" or "good" without being able to show why. In fact, New Atheism is just as tough on homeopathy and New Age esoterica as it is on the world's established religions. (This stems from the common worldview of skepticism that informs an atheist position on whether or not a God exists.)

I lost some respect for Dr. Prothero when he took cheap shots at "my" side. Pointing out that many Buddhist sects are atheistic (that is, they worship no gods) as an attempt to wave away atheist critics doesn't hide the fact that most Buddhist sects are highly dogmatic. Neither is invoking the "angry atheist" myth, and claiming that atheists are mad at religion or at God (the second being very silly; one can't be mad at something that doesn't exist!) when it is a blatant straw man argument verging on a personal attack.

And here's the crux: if doctrine is an inseparable part of religion, we ought to ask whether that doctrine is beneficial or true. A lot of religions claim exclusive knowledge of the Truth, or maybe that their way is the best (if not only) way to resolve the problems of the world. Well, are they correct? We should be able to find out. And religion certainly should not be exempt from criticism just because it has been around a long time or whatever.

Sine qua non

Prothero also claimed that there are good bits to every religion. To which I say: sure! The easy example is meditation. There have been neurological studies done on Zen masters, showing different levels of brain activity even when not actively meditating. In general, the concept of "mindfulness" certainly sounds appealing, and even like a Good Thing regardless of society.

But then I wonder (and here's a Big Question): why keep everything separate? Why not take all the good, and throw away the bad? If the world's religions have genuinely good things to offer us, we would be really amiss if we ignored them. Far be it from me to dismiss meditation as nothing more than superstitious bunk. It's not, and there's evidence to show that.

Now we come to another Big Question: what happens to religion if we do this? Or rather, to what extent should we insist on "brand-name" religions or even the concept of religion? If we took this "all good, no bad" syncretic approach, all religions would be one.

Moreover, what is "good" and what is "bad" would necessarily be decided by a method independent of all religions.

Yet Dr. Prothero admitted (and I agree) that religions thrive on exclusivity. He cited a theory of religious sociology where a religious sect would increase in popularity, be folded into the mainstream, and splinter off reactionary sects that wanted that old-time exclusivity. According to this theory, we're on the upswing of the reactionary part, and it's hard to disagree. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise, although hardly because religion is "under attack."

So we have a dilemma. How can we truly arrive at the highest good if the bearers of some of that good insist on exclusive rights to it? Why do they do that?

The myth of diverse coexistence

Prothero claimed that religions should embrace their differences instead of pretending to sameness. I'm with him on the last part: relativism can be a dangerous road. But I fail to understand how he could call for "embracing difference" while admitting the violent conflicts over differences that have occurred all over the world. At the heart of these conflicts is not necessarily religion, but always dogma. Even nationalism and racism, favorite "atheistic" bogeymen for conservatives, are rooted in irrational ideology—namely, that one's nation or race (both rather unscientific concepts) is better than another, and deserves special privileges up to and possibly including wholesale enslavement or slaughter of the inferior. No amount of "evidence" cooked up by nationalists or racists will ever make their propositions true.

All religions start off assuming the same thing: the world is worse than it should have been. The exact nature of this problem is of course a matter of difference between religions, but I think it reduces to this.

Now, if you believe that the world's problems come from, say, sin, how might you respond to someone who says the world's problems come from disorder, and that sin doesn't exist? Each of you would, if you cared about the world's problems, try to convince the other, and help them better understand the Truth.

Well, that's a best case scenario. If the situation got desperate, it's not too far out there to consider the use of force. After all, consider a child fiddling with a gas stove. Maybe the child is having fun. You might have other ideas, and would probably yank the child away. Similarly if two adults locked in a room were arguing over which color wire would deactivate a bomb's timer. If one was utterly convinced that the red wire needed cutting, and the other was completely confident that it was the blue, things might come to blows.

False idols

I'm not one of "those" atheists who wants to tear religion away from culture and never speak of it again. We shouldn't burn all the Bibles and Qurans and Vedas. Indeed, we've kept a lot of old stories and are richer for them: think of Native American myths, Greco-Roman epics, Norse sagas, folk tales, fairy tales, and all those other fictions. They inspire us to works of art and educate us about the human experience. The current "living" religions have their own gems to offer, even if those gems are too often buried under a heap of muck. But stories and iconography do not inspire people to do wrong.

And understanding does not necessitate acceptance.