“New atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, calls the components of culture, “memes” in an analogy with “genes.” But unlike biological traits, memes exist only because we create them. And yet they are not illusions. They are the most important things we deal with throughout our lives; they are as necessary as food, clothing and shelter … as real as life and death. It’s not surprising that sometimes we are willing to die — or kill — rather than see certain memes change or disappear. But at the same time, we have to realize that it is we who create them. And because we create them we can change them.
Religion is our primary defense against the potentially immobilizing and humanly mutilating effect of the void whose symbol is death. That makes religion in some form indispensable. But the form that it was given in the West in a pre-scientific age is not immutable. Religion’s mandate to neutralize the sting of death must be allowed to function in terms that speak to us in our time as we have become, with the knowledge that modern science has given us. Who we think we are has changed. Obeisance to a sacred past has no validity here. We need religion. Religion exists for humankind, not the other way around. “The Sabbath was made for man …”
But applying the formula is not that easy. Those ersatz “facts” — those particular traditional religious beliefs, like the immortal soul or an intervening humanoid “God” — were all we ever had. How do we confront the void without them … in practice and in detail? Can we have faith, in other words, trust, without our traditional beliefs? These beliefs, we have to remind ourselves, are claimed to be “facts” about reality that religion insists are literally true.
Unfortunately, our traditional religion has always denied any distinction between faith and its “revealed” beliefs about an invisible world. That insistence, in my opinion, is one of the things that drives the new atheists to question whether religion should exist at all. Both sides in the religion debate are completely convinced that what they are fighting for is a matter of life and death. Since culture “saves” us from the corrosive power of death, we cling to our religion because we think that without its beliefs — its “facts” — we cannot accomplish the task; and religion’s antagonists think that clinging to them as facts is the very thing that keeps us from an adult adjustment to reality that will alone grant us peace of mind.
Our pluralistic society tolerates more than one religion … as well as none. Does this tell us something? Is there a core insight at the heart of all these various positions that explains and justifies this tolerance? This gives rise to the question we started with at the beginning of this prologue: Can religion move past its traditional literalism and allow itself to be re-set in another “factual” context? In other words, can religion evolve? Right now, in the Christian west, for those trapped by the “infallible” beliefs provided by either their Pope or their Scriptures (or both), the answer is No. Theocracy and the literal facts that nourish it, is as much an ominous possibility as it ever was. That in itself would be enough to explain the intensity of the reaction against it.
Religion? … doesn’t that mean “God”?
What is this core insight? For organisms as complex as ourselves, shaped as we are by the intersubjectivities and virtualities of human society, the question cannot be answered without appreciating what existence means to our poor frightened species, the only animal that has to live suspended over the abyss. I believe the core insight that drives all versions of religion is that at the heart and source of all things there exists a living dynamism that is life-giving, benevolent and trustworthy.
“Benevolence” is not “known” (provable) because there are no unambiguously objective facts that compel its acceptance as a logical proposition. But it responds to a different kind of logic, anyway, because it, and the “trust” it evokes in us “persons,” are not definable in any terms other than their own. From our point of view, it’s a “person” thing. It’s the way we are. I claim benevolence is connaturally understood in a cognitive embrace of material energy in its most palpable and undeniable form: the conatus — our indomitable drive to survive, the source of our love of life. We understand intimately what matter’s energy is, in both its potential and actual forms, in ourselves. For we are what matter is.
So, is this transcendent dynamism, “matter’s energy,” a “separate person”? I say No, and emphatically. It is not a separate entity of any kind outside of its functioning in our human organisms; there is nothing I can point to that acts like what we mean by “person.” And we are in a position to know, because we, persons, live immersed in it every day, both inside and outside of ourselves. But it is something that has permitted itself to be “kneaded” into even the most minute element of this universe of which I am a part, and that evokes in me the presence of a massive subjectivity of some kind, too big and too devoid of “self” to be called a “person,” that must contain within itself the potential to become me, because I AM THAT. This is the key. Without an appreciation of the significance of the universal presence of matter’s existential energy — the conatus — in every life-form we know, matter is reduced to inert random mechanism, the religious project ceases to be poetry and Dennett’s robots rule the earth. The embrace of existence that the abyss seemed to evoke, will never materialize. But that would mean supposing there were no human beings.
If what Dennett claims about matter is true and we are no longer human, then why do WE LOVE being ourselves and being here with our people … as does every living thing? Even after we hear Dennett’s “truth” about ourselves, why is the spell not broken, why do we still refuse to disown as illusion this existence that we love so passionately, so poetically, so mystically? Explaining — celebrating — this stubborn obsessive love of existence, is the poetry that is religion.
Yes, absolutely, I am talking about love. But it’s a tough love that embraces the void. This will entail a broad, reality-grounded understanding of “benevolence” that challenges the infantile fantasies, extracted from traditional religion’s narratives, that up to now have been the sole descriptors for both sides of the debate. What the “religionists” insist is literal fact and the “anti-religionists” reject, is the same impossible fairy-tale: an anthropomorphic — humanoid — “God” of the book who “chose” evolution to do his creating for him, micro-manages the universe from day to day incomprehensibly “permitting” holocausts and home foreclosures, and rewards or punishes each individual in the afterlife.
Once the book’s spirit-”God” and “his” physical interventions both before and after death are clearly understood to be metaphors, then the poetry of the stories, which are the epic chronicle of our people’s attempts through the millennia to relate to the void of existence, can be explored and allowed to evolve. But until then, the “book” and its literalist promoters remain the primary reasons for the well-deserved rejection of religion.
If this literalism can be abandoned, we will actually begin to lay the foundations for a religion that we need to have exist … because the two end-posts of this dialog, life-fact and death-fact, the limits where knowing ends and the void reveals itself, are the brackets within which our destiny unfolds. Denying either pole will not be possible. Right now, that is not true, because in the West in the name of revelation, “religion” denies death … and “atheism,” in the name of a reductionist science, denies the reality and significance of life.