Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Religion and Rhetoric, part 2

My last post, Religion and Rhetoric, generated a number of comments, and I'd like to follow up on them. I'm glad to get some discussion going on this blog! I won't be able to get to everything that was brought up in the comments, but I'll try to address the main points.

Before I do so, though, I need to clarify some things I think about religion. First, I don't think it's just like science. The main difference I see is that science concerns "objective" reality—the world as we see it—whereas religion concerns "subjective" reality—the glasses we wear to see the world. Given the same facts of reality, people can interpret the situation differently. You can face the same challenges of life either grudingly and despairingly, or with equipoise and confidence. I think the purpose of religion is to move us from the first category to the second.

Second, I see religion in purely instrumental terms. Like the pole valuter who uses the pole to cross the high bar, we use religion as a prop to help us over this mental "bar" that we can't surpass without. But once the pole valuter crosses the bar (i.e. come to realize God, become completely purified, etc.) then he has to let go of the pole, otherwise he'll come crashing down. Likewise, at that point, when religion has no more practical use, then we should not rigidly hold on to the habits that religion inculcates. I think we should think of religion (defined as the rituals, practices, commandments associated with spirituality) as an instrument to realize the truths that spirituality (aka religious theory) talks of.

Third, I think we have to separate the wheat from the chaff in religious doctrine. You don't have to believe all parts of a religious doctrine to subscribe to that religion. Because religions are meant to cater to a mass audience, they contain within them various levels of explanations, which vary in logical rigor depending on the mental capacity of the devotee. More simple-minded people won't be interested in deep, rigorous philsophical debates; they find supernatural explanations/appeal to a personal god/etc. more appealling, and it's for those people that these reasons are crafted. [This is why religions offer what I called "child" answers in my original post.] But if you want logical rigor, then you can find that too—in Hinduism we have the Upanishads, which are incredibly difficult to parse but read just like philosophical treatises, and base their explanations on pure logic and natural laws.

Think of the distinction between "high" and "low" explantations in terms of math. Only few mathematicians dedicate themselves to rigorously proving mathematics; the rest of us take their results for granted and just use it. Example: engineers use calculus all the time without having to learn the measure theory and real analysis that supports the validity of their results. We even use shortcuts that aren't perfectly rigorous. Example: we treat (dy/dx) as a fraction sometimes even though there's handwaving there.

Now, an example for religion. I'll talk about Hinduism since that's what I know best. In Hinduism have elaborate rituals, called yagnas. People are told growing up that if they do these yagnas then they will get good merits that will allow them to go to heaven (or get a favorable next birth). This supernatural explanation is, of course, not logically satisfying. For people who press, swamis will explain that the whole affair is 1) practice in self-less activity and 2) a visual symbol and reminder of the process of purification. First, to put a yagna together requires the coordination and cooperation of a lot of people. People are supposed to contribute what they have to the effort (labor, resources, energy) in order to pull it off, and they're supposed to give selflessly and willingly so that the yagna is a success. When we a do a yagna, then, we get a reminder to work in this "yagna-spirit" in all aspects of our life. Second, the yagna itself is an elaborate symbol. I'm not knowledgeable enough to go into the full details, but basically the idea is that we are burning our ignorance in the fire of knowledge.

So, in answer to Derek's question, yes, I do think you can choose to disbelieve certain (supernatural) aspects of the religion and still proclaim yourself a believer. The reason is that those explanations were not meant for you. And I don't think this damages the credibility of the religion itself because the supernatural parts of religion are secondary and periphery, and the core tenets don't (shouldn't) rely on these explanations anyway. I realize this isn't the way religion often presents itself. Christians, for example, will say believing in the resurrection is an essential component of Christianity—that it's what validates their beliefs. But I think if religion wants to serve the needs of a modern, scientific society, then it should adapt itself in this direction.

What then makes a believer? I don't think of belief as a static, binary state (either you believe or you don't), but rather as a grey-scale continuum. Religion is a prescribed path of study, and though you can start out a skeptic, or a disbeliever of the whole thing, your beliefs can change over time as you come (maybe) to embrace it. What matters whether you're a believer or not is, I think, whether you're applying yourself to that study.

Both of the commenters questioned my equating faith in science with faith in religion. To be honest, I don't think they're exactly the same, but I wanted to make a point that religion doesn't require blind faith in hocus-pocus. That's because I come from the "high"/"low" explanations school of thought, so when I'm dialoging with religion at my own level, then I find that faith in religion is not illogical. I believe that there are deep explanations for why we do the things we do in religion if we know where to look. Plus, not believing in supernatural stuff doesn't mean I don't have faith in my religion.

The difference I see between faith in science and faith in religion is this: because religion deals with a subjective, not objective, reality, its truths are not externally demonstratable. Even if these religious techniques make me fundamentally happy and satisfied, no one will be able to know the full extent of this inner change except for myself. That's the point where religion requires more faith than science.

I'll stop there for now. As a final mark, I'd suggest that people curious in religious philosophy should become well-versed in a non-Semetic religions. I think seeing an entirely new conceptualization of religion gives a better sense of what religion is really about, and what parts about it are important and which ones are not. Plus, there is actually a lot of overlap (in what's important) between Eastern and Semetic traditions—at least that's what Christians have told me when I try to explain what Hinduism is about.

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