RELIGION, LANGUAGE, NARRATIVE AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTIONAs I write this, at the beginning of the Year of Our Lord 2009, there are 800 buses trundling through Britain bearing the slogan: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' This advertisement is sponsored by the British Humanist Association, but the Methodist Church has thanked them for encouraging a continued interest in God. A spokeswoman for the Church said that the campaign would be a good thing if it got people thinking about the deep issues in life, and that Christianity was for people who were not afraid to think about life and meaning. Theos, a 'theology think tank', takes a similar view. In a largely secular society like that of Britain today, the religious seem to be following the maxim that any publicity is good publicity.
Some atheists found the wording over-tentative. The 'probably' was apparently put in to keep the Advertising Standards Authority happy (though they have received a complaint anyway). Richard Dawkins said he would have preferred 'almost certainly', though he has now come round to the present wording. But whatever you may think of the first sentence, isn't the second sentence a non sequitur? If there is no God, does that mean we have nothing to worry about? If, as we are often told is the case, religion is a principal incentive to moral behaviour (God is watching you so you had better conform, or else), a widespread disbelief in God might promote lawlessness and anarchy, which would surely be something to worry about. Plenty of people think that this is just what is happening in Britain today -- a general abandonment of religion leading to social breakdown. So perhaps, if disbelief in God becomes more widespread, there will be more to worry about, not less.
Anyway, I question whether worry is a principal consequence of believing in God. The idea of the bus campaign came from Ariane Sherine, a comedian, who was concerned in the previous year when she found Christian sources telling people that if they didn't sign up they would go to hell. But while that is one Christian view, it is probably not the mainstream message today -- I doubt if Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, would endorse it -- and there are probably far more Christians who find their religion a comfort than who think it a threat to their peace of mind. 'Comfort', in fact, is too weak a word; religion is what gives their lives meaning. And if your life ceases to have meaning for you there is certainly something to worry about.
The bus advertisement is intended to nudge people gently towards atheism, but not all forms of disbelief are the same. There are at least two kinds of atheist. Some are like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jonathan Miller. If you are in this category you either had no religious upbringing at all or, if you did, you ceased to believe in religion at an early age and never looked back. People like this are what I would call untroubled atheists. But there are also troubled atheists, who may have had a religious upbringing, and who in any case experience the reality of the questions that religion is supposed to answer.1 In this category I would include Marghanita Laski, Iris Murdoch, Taner Edis, Ursula Goodenough, and Robert Sapolsky. All these regard religion as important even though they are nonbelievers. Goodenough even participates regularly in services and sings in the choir although she is not a believer.
Laski described herself as an atheist but she wrote extensively about religion; her book Ecstasy: A Study of some Secular and Religious Experiences2 is the best discussion of mysticism from a secular viewpoint that I know. Murdoch said: 'God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured.' And Sapolsky, who was brought up as an observing Jew before becoming an atheist, has said in an interview on YouTube that he constantly thinks about religion and even wishes he could still believe because of the comfort faith brings to those who have it. (Still, he is ambivalent, because he has also said that he might continue to believe there is no God, even if it were proved that there is one!) In the interview he makes the same distinction as I do, between two types of atheist. Some, he says, never had a religious upbringing and find that there is no need to think about religious questions at all because they are self-evidently absurd, and others began from a religious position and renounced it only with pain and difficulty. That is his situation.
Why should anyone regret disbelieving something they are sure is untrue? Sapolsky points to the large number of psychological studies which apparently show that people who believe in God and go to church regularly are happier and healthier than those who don't do these things. Well, perhaps, but even if it's true -- and it is still possible to pick holes in the research -- what follows? Are we supposed to believe just for the sake of our health? Belief is not ours to command. It often arises from levels of mental functioning that are not accessible to consciousness, and the reasons we give for our beliefs are not always the real ones. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are often confabulations, stories we tell ourselves that have little or no relation to the real state of affairs. First we have the belief, then the reasons for the belief. As in the trial in Alice in Wonderland, the verdict comes before the evidence.
Most of us inherit our religious beliefs from our parents and from the society in which we grow up. Even if we arrive at them later in life, as a result of conversion, this is seldom a primarily intellectual process. It is then more like falling in love, and indeed conversion and falling in love may have more in common than is often recognised. We can offer reasons why we love someone, perhaps, but these are arrived at after the event, and the same is generally true of religious conversion.
In any case, even if the research showing that those who attend church regularly derive benefit from doing so is correct, it does not follow that the content of their beliefs is what has that effect. It could be due to many other things -- a healthier way of living or membership of a like-minded group, for example. And it could also be due to something that I shall have a lot to say about in the course of the book: religion gives your life a sense of meaning. If any generalisation about us humans are possible, it is, I think, that we dread any suspicion that we are cast adrift in an indifferent universe. Those who wish to do away with religion often say that science will provide this sense of meaning in the future, but though it does do this for some, they are very much in the minority. Ours is probably the first culture in which the reality of the supernatural has been openly questioned by so many. And even when people do say they are not religious, their unconscious attitudes to such questions are sometimes different from what they profess.
The content of religious beliefs seems strange to outsiders. If ever we succeed in making contact with an alien civilisation (unlikely but not totally impossible), what would most surprise them about us? Pretty high on the list, I imagine, would be the fact that that the vast majority of our species, past and present, have always believed in the existence of invisible beings who are profoundly interested in our activities and interfere with our lives in all kinds of ways. And one of the things that we would want to know about the aliens in our turn is whether they had comparable beliefs, because, either way, that would tell us something very important about our own psychology. If they did, it would suggest that beliefs about spirits were a pretty inevitable accompaniment of advanced intelligence. If they did not, it might follow that we are suffering from some kind of collective mental aberration.
Some secularists have concluded something of the sort. There seem to be few advantages and many disadvantages in holding such beliefs. The spirits are not always friendly, require often costly propitiation (sometimes even involving human sacrifice or self-mutilation), have minds of their own and intentions which may not coincide with ours, can be jealous of attention paid to other spirits, and so on. So why imagine them, if they don't exist?
Many explanations have been advanced by sceptics. Perhaps religion explains natural phenomena and the origin of the world. Perhaps it offers consolation in the face of suffering, illness, and bereavement. Perhaps it provides the promise of an afterlife. Perhaps it is a basis for morality. Perhaps it helps to bind society together and ensure its stability. Each of these suggestions seems to explain some features of religion and, taken together, they may even explain most of them. But critics complain that they do not account for the precise features of religious belief -- why it takes certain forms and not others, or why anyone should have thought of such crazy-sounding ideas in the first place. There is now a popular view among some psychologists and anthropologists that the attempt to find benefits in religion, either for individuals or for society as a whole, is misconceived. Perhaps, they say, religion has no function but is simply a mistake, a by-product of the way our minds operate in everyday life. I look at this idea in the next chapter, but first I need to try to say what it is I am actually talking about. Unfortunately, this is not too easy to do.
A definition of religion?Part of the reason that there is so much disagreement about why religion exists is that there does not appear to be much agreement about what the subject matter is. There is no generally accepted definition of religion. Attempts at one often include belief in supernatural beings with whom it is possible to communicate by prayer or in other ways, moral rules and instructions, more or less mythical accounts of the origin of the universe and human beings, ritual and ceremony, and feelings of mystery and awe (what Rudolf Otto called the sense of the numinous). There may be other components as well, such as a conviction that the world has a purpose into which human life fits, and there is also a social aspect which binds the members of the religion together. But while these things do characterise many religions, they are not always all present.
In his book on the origin of religion, Religion Explained,3 the anthropologist Pascal Boyer does not offer any definition of religion. The nearest he comes to it is to say that 'religion is a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents like Gods'. This would exclude Theravada Buddhism, which has no belief in a creator god, though it does have rituals. Daniel Dennett is rather less evasive. In his book about religion, Breaking the Spell, he acknowledges the difficulty of defining what he is talking about, but eventually he does take the plunge and defines religions as 'social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought'.4 Once again, this seems to exclude Buddhism.
Dennett makes a distinction between 'religion' and 'spirituality'. He explicitly parts company at this point with William James, who defined religion in his great classic The Varieties of Religious Experience as 'the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, in so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine'.5 Dennett is prepared to allow such people to be spiritual but he does not call them religious. But 'spirituality' is even more difficult to define than 'religion'.
A slightly eccentric Church of England vicar, who is currently presenting a television series in which he travels round the world with a film crew exploring different faiths, has commented that the USA was the most religious and least spiritual country he visited (in case you were wondering, the most spiritual was India). Here we are back with Dennett's distinction again, and I don't think it is useful. Unlike Dennett, I shall not distinguish between religion and spirituality. In so far as there is a difference, I should say that religion is extrovert, spirituality introvert. They are different faces of the same phenomenon. Which of them you attach more importance to is largely a reflection of your personality.
For Christians, critics such as Boyer who write from an anthropological perspective include a lot of things as religious which the believers would prefer were left out. Witchcraft, magic, and similar activities are usually rejected by Christians as irrelevant or positively evil. Yet new religions such as Wicca are explicitly concerned with them. Although they are not my main interest, I shall have no hesitation in citing them when necessary. So perhaps Boyer was right not to offer a definition of religion, and I shall not do so here. We do generally think we know a religion when we see one, and that is the principle I shall follow. I shall be covering quite a lot of territory, so here is an overview of the main topics I shall write about and how I think they are inter-related.
An outline of the bookI start, in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, by looking at a number of explanations for religion, all of which provide elements of the answer though none is fully satisfactory as it stands.
Chapter 2 is about a currently fashionable approach, inspired by psychology, sociology, and anthropology, which is essentially dismissive of religion. Religion, on this view, is an unfortunate accident of the way our brains work, a kind of evolutionary mistake -- inevitable, perhaps, for minds like ours, but regrettable none the less. Currently there are at least three research groups looking at religion from this perspective, according to Jesse Bering, one of the members. Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran are examples of scientists who have written extensively from this standpoint and whose ideas are attracting a lot of attention just now. The strength of this approach is that it quotes scientific research to support its views. The weakness, as an article in The Economist pointed out,6 is that pretty well all those who do this kind of work are (untroubled) atheists and therefore broadly unsympathetic to any kind of truth claims that might be made for religion. This may limit the ways they look at the subject.
Such ideas contrast strongly with the older psychological view I discuss in Chapter 3, which regards religion as probably the most important element in human consciousness! If this ideas is right, religious experience is not an evolutionary mistake at all; on the contrary, it affords glimpses of an ultimate reality that underlies the everyday world. C.G. Jung was prominent in shaping this way of thinking though his ideas have been taken up by many others. This is what might be called an aristocratic version of religion, because it sees religious ideas as being produced by very exceptional people -- mystics and visionaries.
A prominent advocate of the aristocratic view of religion was the scholar Mircea Eliade, who, largely single-handedly, popularised the notion that the key to understanding the origin of religion is shamanism. Although that idea is not much favoured by scholars today, there have been recent attempts by archaeologists to explain some of the art of the Upper Palaeolithic as evidence for the existence of shamanism at that period. If this is correct, we may be able to trace the origin of religion remarkably far back in time. It may also tell us that there are inbuilt tendencies in the mind to produce the kinds of experience that are described as shamanic -- trances, visions, encounters with spirits and the like. I discuss shamanism in Chapter 4, with particular reference to the Upper Palaeolithic; I return to the subject of altered states of consciousness in Chapter 7.
All the ideas I have mentioned so far are valuable, I believe, but I don't think they really explain what is most important about religion. In the remainder of the book, therefore, I try to develop another way of thinking about the basic questions. I want to say that what lies at the heart of religion is language and narrative.
In Chapter 5 I begin by exploring the connection between religion and language. Both probably arose together at much the same time in human evolution. This has often been pointed out before, but what has not been so much emphasised is the similarity between the ways in which language and religion are acquired by children. Terrence Deacon has made a strong case for the view that languages have evolved to be easily learnt by children, and that it is legitimate to treat languages as semi- living systems analogous in many ways to parasites, or perhaps to symbionts. I take up this idea and apply it to religion, which I think can also be considered as a parasite or symbiont that is particularly adapted to be taken up by children. Perhaps, by now, religion is so deeply infused in the human brain as to be practically ineradicable.
The importance of stories for religion has been remarked on by many, but critics of religion often seem to forget this, preferring to focus on the seeming illogicality or absurdity of religious beliefs. In Chapter 6 I suggest that religion begins, not with belief, but with narrative. Human beings are story- telling animals and that is how they generally encounter religion as children. Even for adults, religion is more a matter of story than of doctrine. Belief is a secondary elaboration that arises only when religion is challenged by outsiders. It is better to think of religion as a collection of stories rather than as a system of beliefs.
Chapter 7 is about altered states of consciousness: near-death experiences and the like. The reductionists whom I discuss in Chapter 2 mostly downplay or neglect the role of such experiences in religion, but I think they are wrong to do so. Dreams, visions, and 'mystical' experiences have probably characterised our species for as long as we have been fully human, and I find it incredible that they would not have influenced our religious beliefs in all kinds of ways. In particular, they would have helped to shape our ideas of death and the afterlife. In any case, they are certainly important in how we think about religion today.
In Chapter 8 I look at the implications of these ideas for the future of religion, and conclude that attempts to argue religion out of existence on rationalist or scientific grounds are unlikely to succeed. The reason is that human beings nearly always find a lack of meaning in their lives to be intolerable. Death is the ultimate negation of meaning, and religions offer us a way of coming to terms with that and accommodating it in our consciousness. Religions exist because they tell us stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, and the human mind will always tend to generate narratives of this kind.
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