Scientists can make discoveries, or they can fail to do so. The scientific method is what it is, and no one argues that the scientific method itself is what makes bad scientists. Yet in the case of religion, it’s very often argued that religion itself is what creates ignorance.
In practice, of course, it’s not a level playing-field. It’s accepted that to do good science you must be capable of a certain level of understanding, but the same is sadly not applied to religion. It is supposed that in the field of religion any idiot’s opinion is as valid as any other’s.
So let us reflect on religious idiocy…
In general, the biggest idiots of any persuasion tend to turn nasty over little things: a football team losing, or someone’s pint getting spilled. This reflects a primitive level of engagement with the world: namely, that certain things are ‘mine’ and these should be defended. Primitive it may be, but in primitive contexts it’s effective at safeguarding survival.
It’s not difficult to imagine how geniuses of this calibre behave when they come into contact with religious traditions: they identify with one tradition above all others and defend it by any means against the rest. This is the root of tribal and sectarian conflict, which has nothing to do with the doctrinal contents of any religion, but everything to do with how frightened animals react when their identity feels threatened.
But it truly is stupid, because although it works fine as long as we’re kicking someone else around, eventually someone bigger comes along and kicks our arse. ‘Hang on a minute,’ someone will declare, ‘this isn’t much fun any more. Wouldn’t the world be better if someone put their foot down and exerted a little authority?’
And – lo! A slightly less moronic structure springs from the daftness of the first: the appeal to authority. When this makes contact with religious traditions, now we encounter the idea that holy books are ‘the Word of God’; that every sentence is a literal truth to be obeyed to the letter. So the Earth is only a few thousand years old, because that’s what the Bible says. Indeed, whatever old book we borrow our morality from, well, it has to be applicable to the present day – otherwise, that would just plunge us back into chaos, wouldn’t it?
Ultimately, this structure collapses also under the weight of its own crappy assumptions (for those brave enough to allow it). To illustrate, I had a conversation recently with someone in this mindset, who told me how his obedience to God was so absolute, he would willingly kill his kids if God told him to.
Rather than notifying social services, I convinced myself this probably wasn’t going to happen. It’s rarely fruitful to argue with those in this mindset, because the very purpose of it is to safeguard its own authority; the less it accommodates, the better (from its point of view). But if I’d wanted to argue, I would’ve reminded him of a recent tragedy, in which a guy drove his children into the woods and killed them. ‘So would you agree,’ I would’ve said, ‘that if this man told us God had commanded him to kill his kids, then he’d committed no crime?’
The ‘authority’ mindset fails because religious experience is subjective. If someone hears the voice of God, does that mean other people have to jump to attention? Religious experience is a shoddy, useless arbiter of human affairs. Any book can say what it likes, but if what it says is contradicted by our own experience, which should we stick with? If it’s authority you crave, then stick with the Book of Rules. But if it’s knowledge, you have to follow where experience leads, even though it can be difficult and scary.
Thus we arrive at the next structure of understanding, which is the point where scientific reason becomes possible, because here we accept direct experience as the only reliable guide.
When this mindset comes into contact with religion, often it turns away in disgust. There is a general falling-off of religious practice in cultures (like our own) where this view has become fairly dominant. But religion can survive contact with it. Meeting people who seem to inhabit this perspective, I sometimes get an odd feeling that in one sense they’re not really ‘religious’ at all.
Scripture, for them, tends to be a guide rather than the rule, interpreted according to individual conscience. The everyday experience of everyday people is important to those in this structure, which can call down upon them, from less sophisticated cohorts, accusations that rather than ministering to spiritual concerns they are dabbling in politics. In fact, they are simply remaining faithful to experience of the world as it is, to the here-and-now.
It’s striking how similar (in some senses) the discourse of liberal religion is to contemporary scepticism. Like liberal clerics, sceptics are often passionately and genuinely concerned with exposing and combating injustice, abuse, and shining light onto cruelties.
Blessings upon both their houses! But even this mindset crumbles, because if my experience is the arbiter of what is real for me, then the same is true for you, and for the next man, and for the next woman, and so on for everyone. Every view – it begins to seem – is as valid and equal as any other. Even science is just a ‘discourse’.
Oh dear. We seem to have fallen into what commonly passes for post-modernism!
When this mindset engages with religion, we get The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Believe in whatever you like, as long as it makes you happy and you gain from it what you intend. Some forms of New Age belief fall into this perspective (but only some, mind you), and certain branches of modern occultism. Also, quite a few of those who have consciously chosen a non-local religious tradition: western Buddhists, Kundalini yoginis, and suchlike. And why not? We’re all on the same journey, right? All following different paths toward our own equally valid notions of truth.
But, guess what? This viewpoint fails too – once it becomes apparent that although every person’s experience is indeed as valid as anyone else’s, this is only true in the experiential sense. In other words, our experience is of equal worth, but what about our understanding of that experience?
And so we end up right here, the place we’re looking from right now, which is the view that the understanding that informs our experience varies wildly from person to person. Some views are less stupid and intolerant than others. Hence the view that is most comprehensive (which here is also the criteria for ‘most true’) is the view that can include and yet discriminate between the widest range of other views.
When this mindset connects with religion, we arrive at the spiritual investigator, who engages with a number of traditions, or perhaps with a number of practices within a tradition. He or she arrives at the following observation, gained directly from his or her experience: that although some of these traditions and practices lead us to the same destination, many do not.
Dianetics – for instance – leads to a different set of experiences from those arrived at through Zen, which leads to something comparable with (say) Ramana Maharshi self-enquiry, but which is different again entirely from what a Jehovah’s Witness experiences when they succeed in luring you to your front-door.
To anyone acquainted with spiral dynamics or integral theory, I’ve not said here anything very original or new. I’ve simply tried emphasise how religion, like scientific method, is something people can fail to understand or apply. Science does not produce ignorance; our misunderstanding takes care of that. The function of science is always to produce knowledge.
The function of religion, on the other hand, is to produce direct experience of what has been variously called ‘the Absolute’, ‘Emptiness’, or (perhaps its most widely abused and misunderstood term) ‘God’. This is not conceptual knowledge of the kind that science reliably supplies, but where it is motivated by actual engagement with the nature of experience, neither is it a form of stupidity.
Religion works, just as the scientific method works. But whereas people are more inclined to admit their ignorance in the face of science, unfortunately there are religious morons aplenty with utterly no clue, who still believe they’re qualified to tell you the Meaning of Life or what God thinks. They may indeed be stupid, but that doesn’t mean religion is.
All you need to do is ask them how they know. The answer that they give will probably point to which mindset they currently inhabit.
(If it’s the first or second, you may need to run away.)