Sunday, February 12, 2012

Religion is an ineradicable aspect of human nature

I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. …

I don’t think his point is to say that everything is religion so much as to argue that religion is an ineradicable aspect of human nature. We are animals that ritually orient ourselves to the transcendent through symbolism of different kinds. We are embedded in story and narrative at every turn, and “theory,” rather than a radical break out of story into the clear light of truth, is more like a form of “mythospeculation,” a way of telling the story of stories.
Bellah spent most of his talk trying to walk the tightrope between cosmic optimism (e.g., Teilhard, Berry, etc.) and cosmic pessimism (Monod, Dawkins, etc.). The optimists, he says, read too much Christian providentialism into the cosmos, while the pessimists see the cosmos only in terms of the fall. The bit about carbon being Christ-like is not a comparison Bellah made–he went to great pains to respect the difference between theoretical science and the various sorts of religious and/or symbolic responses we might have to it (“the universe is cold and indifferent and only human have a chance to rebel against it!” -Dawkins; “The human is a creative flowering of the dynamics of the universe itself, and so all our culture and religion should be universe-referent” -Berry).
Flat? I’m not sure. I think part of what he is trying to do with his new book is challenge the secularist assumption that religion is just bad science, that is it primarily a set of theoretical claims that one believes or disbelieves. He wants to root religion in something deeper than belief. He roots it in practices, in play and ritual, especially those rituals that are widespread socially. This makes it seem like something inescapable, though of course we might not want to say that Super Bowl Sunday, just because it is highly ritualized, is therefore a religious event. Or would we?
Bellah wasn’t equating cosmic pessimism with science. Brian Swimme’s cosmology (also in attendance at the lecture) is an example of how the scientific evidence can be read in a different way, not exactly secular, but not religious, either.
As for turning religious categories into arche-concepts, I would probably want to argue that this is an appropriate move in some cases. The death-rebirth mystery, for example, seems to be a widespread motif present in all the world’s religious and indigenous traditions. It seems to be a fundamental concept in all religions. Such religious expressions have their roots deep in human nature, reflecting real aspects of our existential situation, so its no surprise that, despite claims of secularity and modernity, we see the same arche-concepts cropping up again and again.
Dawkins is probably not the best example to use to argue that not everyone needs Christian narratives. Here is the systems biologist Brian Goodwin writing about Dawkins:
“To give a very brief summary of the way he presents neo-Darwinism in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, let me mention four points he makes: (1) Organisms are constructed by groups of genes, whose goal is to leave more copies of themselves; (2) this gives rise to the metaphor of the hereditary material being basically selfish; (3) this intrinsically selfish quality of the hereditary material is reflected in competitive interactions between organisms, which result in survival of fitter variants generated by the more successful genes. (4) Then you get the point that organisms are constantly trying to get better, fitter, and — in a mathematical, geometrical metaphor — always trying to climb peaks in fitness landscapes.
The most interesting point emerged at the end of The Selfish Gene, where Richard said that human beings, alone amongst all the species, can escape from their selfish inheritance and become genuinely altruistic, through educational effort. I suddenly realized that this set of four points was a transformation of four very familiar principles of Christian fundamentalism, which go like this; (1) Humanity is born in sin; (2) we have a selfish inheritance; (3) humanity is therefore condemned to a life of conflict and perpetual toil; (4) but there is salvation.
What Richard has done is to make absolutely clear that Darwinism is a kind of transformation of Christian theology. It is a heresy, because Darwin puts the vital force for evolution into matter, but everything else remains much as it was. I suspect that Richard was at one stage fairly religious, and that he then underwent a kind of conversion to Darwinism, and he feels fervently that people ought to embrace this as a way of life.”
Yes you’re right to point to Bellah’s insistance on different but overlapping realities. I think the word “power” is perhaps misleading. I think of Christ’s power not in terms of creative force or might, but in terms of love. Eros (which can be both attractive and repulsive, both creative and destructive) is operative at all levels, from microcosmic electromagnetism, to macrocosmic gravitation, to mesocosmic human compassion. But it seems that the symbolism surrounding Christ is trying to point to an outpouring of love unmatched at any other level.

Obviously every rule has an exception. There is a frog in Australia which delivers its babies through its mouth. Nature goes with what(ever) works. But still,

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