religion (I)

religion

I.

 For me, the point of The Mystery of Matter was to update the traditional metaphysics that I was formed in. That has meant, effectively, to make a philosophical attempt at plumbing the nature of reality.  Ambitious?  Believe me, this was not my choice, and I was reluctant to take it on.  But I was driven by a tradition that had filled my brain not just with religious beliefs, but with a philosophical vision of the very nature of reality that supported those beliefsIf I was going to re-evaluate my tradition, I would have to do it on all fronts. That meant, like it or not, dealing with the questions traditional scholastic metaphysics proposed to answerYou may not agree with my conclusions, but, if you are from my tradition, I’ll wager that you understand what prompted these efforts.

 What came of all that? The study has concluded that existence is a ho­mo­geneous material energy whose self-embrace and communitarian ela­bo­ra­tions have grown into ev­ery­thing there is, like an immense tree.  The religion in which I was educated, however, was synchro­nized to a high degree with traditional greco-mediaeval essentialist dualism which was associated with a scientific view of material reality that is obsolete and discarded.  I have described essentialism ad nauseam in these pages.  This epilogue will explore the impact the shift to the process cosmo-ontology presented here will have on the “religion” essentialism was conjured to support.  

 religion and “the other world”

 Traditional philosophy assigned religion a commanding role in human life based on norms established in another world — a world of “spirit.”  Our new understanding is that there is no such other world populated by entities not made of material energy.  What does that mean for religion? Partial answers to that question have appeared scattered throughout the book and I want to try to pull them together in this epilogue. 

 First, there’s a starting point: Human life is permeated by what I have been calling a “sense of the sacred” — religion’s perennial source. Religion has declared this human feeling to be implanted by “God,” and therefore its exclusive domain. As a matter of observable fact, however, the sense of the sacred is found everywhere, directed at a variety of revered objects and practices that have almost nothing in common with one another except the dynamism itself. It is also important to emphasize that much of what is considered “sacred” is not directly connected with “God” or religion. But the phenomenon, even though it is virtually universal, remains unexplained.  Any proposal that there is an obvious objective numinous source for this sense of the sacred is routinely denied by analysts, even religious ones:

Let us first of all delimit the significance of the term “sacred.” … the experience of the sacred bears upon a zone that is intermediate between God and the profane in the everyday sense.  The sacred is that which an individual experiences as being in the depths of his or her own existence ...[1]

 The position taken in this study is that “the sense of the sacred” is the human resonance of the conatus sese conservandi; it is an echo of the urge to self preservation which is the constitutive self embrace of existence.  Here’s how I see that connection: The irrepressible urge to survive is necessarily accompanied by (identical with, inseparable from) an intense love of one’s own existence. The conatus is innate in us, and by all evidence all animal life as well.  The “existent self” is the source and primary sacred object … and then, in varying degrees of intensity, the term is later applied to all those things — people, forces, substances, practices, social constructions — that are perceived to protect and promote, directly or indirectly, that existence.  There is no “God” immediately evoked by these feelings. 

 As a direct corollary, the “drive to survive” in humans elicits a connatural cooperative disposition called “altruism” by Darwin and other evolutionists.  It is also found among the animals and it only appears to run counter to the self-pre­ser­ving dynamism of an individualist conatus, for the individual can only survive in community. Community is necessary for survival. Love of the community — making the community “sacred” — is simply the recognition of that necessity.

 The self-embrace of existence achieves its goal, survival, by collectivizing. This communitarian strategy, constitutive of even the most primitive elements of matter, was repeated on every occasion that material energy produced a new emergent form.  This existential self-embrace through cumulative collectivization is the fundamental dynamic in all constructions of ma­­­terial energy.  It was selected because it makes survival possible. It accounts for cooperation in living organisms — and cooperation is the sine qua non condition for the formation of human society beyond the instinctive bonds of family and clan.       

Humans have a long period of infant and youth dependency; that means we are reared in a context where the inability of the individual to survive on his/her own is foundational for an originating psychological self-identi­fication. Even after the achievement of maturity, the essential role of the community in human survival remains paramount and serves to confirm its continued centrality in human life. 

 The community, religion and “God”

 The human community takes the individuals’ conatus and its “sense of the sacred” and generates religion as the metaphorical (symbolic) vehicle of group survival. Human society, the ultimate guarantor of individual survival, and therefore a necessary locus of the sense of the sacred, projects its needs as sacred responsibilities onto its individual members through religion. In our tradition, ethical and ritual de­mands are promulgated to the members in the form of commandments given by a “God” who is imagined as a human person. Religion, consistent with its origin in the conatus, is the attribution of existential significance to particular myths, rituals and moral codes that elicit behavior of believed expediency to the survival community, and in so doing creates an implied vision of the connectedness of all reality. In this regard religions are similar the world over. The relationships are expressed in symbol, myth.  In the West, religion’s central “myth” is a personal “God.”     

What does the study we have been making tell us about “God”?  The first problem has to do with words — specifically the word “God.”  If I ask, “is there a “God”? just by using the word “God,” I have already pre­defined what I am looking for, because in our culture that word comes loaded with imagery and associated ideas.  That imagery is from “the Book,” the narratives and poetry of an ancient pre-scientific people, and is completely anthropomorphic.

 It was precisely to avoid the pre-emptions lurking in the term, that I have chosen to begin with the commonly observed phenomenon of the “sense of the sacred” and work backward to the source “necessary and suffi­cient” to explain it, whatever it may be.  Whether that source should have the word “God” applied to it involves assessing the distorting effects derived from its origins in “the Book.” That identification is moot and requires further discussion. Any other procedure, to my mind, risks begging the question.

 In The Mystery of Matter we concluded that the sense of the sacred derives from our impulse for self-preservation which in turn springs from the very nature of the material elements of which we are constructed.  I be­lieve that is as far as we can go scientifically and philosophically.  Matter’s energy, the homogeneous substrate of the entire universe, that “stuff” from which all forces, energies, valences, properties, particles, as well as their composite structures, however complicated and “spiritual,” have sprung, is existence.  It can be validly de­scribed as that in which we live and move and have our being.

 I am aware that particular phrase is not neutral.  It was used by Paul in his speech on the “Unknown God” at the Areópagus in Athens.[2]  Be that as it may, the description, according to this study, is scientifically valid.  I may personally decide that I will accept the identity with Paul’s traditional description that it implies.  But that is my choice.  For the semantic reasons already mentioned, this study will not say that material energy is “God.”  But it does recognize a certain compatibility with traditional philosophical conceptualizations:   Material energy is (1) neither created nor destroyed; (2) it is the creative source of every construction and organism in the universe; (3) it is the matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being;” (4) we can relate to it in trust and (5) it is the exclusive source, proximate and remote, of the sense of the sacredThe free decision to conflate material energy with the traditional language surrounding “God,” while theoretically compatible with the vision of MM, is a choice, not a conclusion. 

 The problems surrounding the term, which we have mentioned, mean that such a choice will entail some caveats. Our traditional “doctrines” are imbued with the archaic scientific world-view in which they were born.  That world-view is scientifically false and philosophically untenable. I limit myself to saying that the traditional poetic descrip­tors may validly be applied to matter’s energy as metaphor if done with due regard to the controlling data.  The fundamental facts, however, must always rule: I am related to matter’s energy as to the source of my existence, my conatus, and from there my sense of the sacred.   Any contrary vision embedded in the religious poetry traditionally used to evoke it, if it is retained, must be adjusted accordingly.

 There is no problem with religion as poetic metaphor.  In fact I believe the kind of poetry we call “religion” is essential if our sense of the sacred is to have its full creative human effect.  The problem is that religion generally does not project its constructions as poetic metaphor but rather as scientific fact.  Such an insistence is destructive not only of science, but also of the power of religious expression.  A religion that calls its mythic constructions “fact” stifles thought and opens itself — rightly — to ridicule and rejection. It simultaneously robs “myth” of its power to bring light and life. The combination in our “modern” era of an arrogant reductionist scientism and a religion that offers a set of parallel “facts” whose existence it pontificates by pure groundless fiat, has been fatal.  We in the west live in a state of spiritual impoverishment in part because, except for rare exceptions, religion refuses to apply its sacred song to the real world.

 That there is a personal “God”-entity who designed and created the universe and all its forms and features by rational choice, is not a fact.  That there was an “Original Sin” responsible for humankind’s universal enmity with “God,” human “concupiscence” and the loss of a natural immortality, is not a fact.  That the man Jesus was the “God”-entity defined by traditional western notions, biblical imagery and perennial philosophy, is not a fact.  To claim anything else, in my opinion, is to disregard the solid discoveries of science and history, embrace the ideological components of an ancient imperial theocracy, feed disdain for the human organism, promote ethnic self-aggran­dize­ment, religious bigotry and a world where religion is used to justify genocide.

I contend that religion has no “facts.”  What it has (and can lose) is the poetic power to make richly human our relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being,” — creative reality as uncovered and articulated by the science of our times.


[1] Antoine Vergote, In Search of a Philosophical Anthropology, tr Muldoon, Louvain, Louvain U. Press 1996, p. 206.

[2] Acts 17:28.  The Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, Doubleday, 1966, fn “t” on page 231 of the NT in referring to that particular phrase says: “Expression suggested by the poet Epimenides of Cnossos (6th c. BC).” The origin of the phrase is not “christian.”

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4 comments on “religion (I)

  1. Thank you for this, Tony. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalments. So far I’m jumping all the same fences right behind you.

    I had a strange experience the other night which was the result of my own scientific conclusions, but was also clarified by much of what you have written. I was thinking about my dying, and realized how different the prospect feels in the context of my view that there is no other spiritual world to which I am going. Nor are any of us going to evaporate into sheer nothingness. Whatever happens, we all remain, in some unknown way, a permanent part of this permanent universe (or universes, if, as some scientists suspect, is the case).

    I’m also grateful that you are beginning to translate the Latin phrases you use. My own Latin is well over half a century old, and despite the fact that I have now read both An Unknown God and the Mystery of Matter, translating words like conatus sese conservandi with which you are so totally at home is still a distraction for plebs like me.

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry,
      I’m glad you have caught the central idea of what grounds our sense of belonging. Many feel that by questioning the factuality of “heaven” that I am also opting for an impersonal nihilism embraced by a hard-nosed stoicism. To the contrary, I take “heaven” as a metaphor, part of a human narrative, that can be used to help guide our affect toward an appreciation of the permanent community of matter’s energy to which we will always joyfully belong. If we can identify with “what we are” rather than taking our metaphors as literal reality, we realize we are, as the mystics have always and everywhere said, already in “heaven.”

      Tony

  2. Gerry says:

    Tony: Your essay on religion is most insightful and in stark contrast with a recent poll where 52% of Republicans believe in strict creationism per the biblical Genesis story. I especially appreciated your assignment of religion as poetic metaphor and your recognition of the factual void in traditional Christian religions. You must have had a difficult time in Marty Healy’s classes or did your awakening come later, as in my case.

    • tonyequale says:

      Gerry,

      You’re right. It was only years later that I came to these realizations. I still remember well Marty Healy’s response to the “atheist” argument that all the alleged “facts” of christianity … like the “virgin birth,” the “divinity of the savior” who “rose from the dead,” etc., had been anticipated by myths that were already ancient in origen and common to many cultures. He claimed there was nothing to prevent God from having things actually and factually occur in accordance with these “myths” that were adumbrations designed to prepare the way and make acceptance of the “truth” easier. As a “true believer” I lapped it up. Of course, at that point, in second or third theology, I was roaring toward the finish line. No way I would have been deterred by any argument no matter how rational and obvious.

      But I see these same myths in a different light now. Following Dennett’s premises about narrative and culture, if not his conclusions, I see religion, even christianity, as a human narrative driven by the conatus … which opens to an existential energy of such depth and transcendent power that we generate these awesome tales to communicate our experience and gratitude. Our awe is perfectly understandable; this energy, after all, is us.

      Tony

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