Sunday, May 9, 2010

Religion = Cosmogony + Morality + ?

An interesting post at Evolving Thoughts asks whether Jesus was a philosopher. It's an interesting question because it gets at the definition of and differences between religion and philosophy. The overlaps or lack thereof are instructive. It seems Pythonesque to imagine bloody clashes between the chanting followers of Hume and Spinoza in the streets of some Old World city, and yet this is exactly what does happen with other "philosophies". What's the difference?

The reason this post jumped out at me is that earlier today I realized I'd missed something in thinking about the usual ideological functions that religion fills or can fill as a form of ideology (apart from its political uses through the ages). Previously I'd argued that religions consist of two parts, not as connected as we've been taught to assume: cosmogony, the story of how we got here, and morality, what we should do now. The key is not to assume that the teachings and texts of religions are anything more than collections of stimuli (some of which are in writing) designed to propagate themselves. (Is a computer virus "true"? Is it even worth arguing about?) Because this is a social and not a rational process, elements of ideology will be exaggerated, linked or omitted as need be, without regard to accuracy or internal consistency.

If you've accepted that there is no supernatural world, then you have to ask what business religion is in, and of course the answer is politics. Consequently, for most religions, cosmogony largely serves as window dressing that props up the credibility of the moral thou-shalt-not rules. That is: (read in Latin, or ancient Hebrew or classical Arabic:) "We know the important awe-inspiring story of how we came to exist, and amazingly, it links directly back to why you should do what we say." This is why Christians and Muslims have such fits when confronted with evidence that the world is old, the world is round, the world is far from the center of reality, and not only were we not created in our present form, we're on a continuum with other animals (who, problematically, appear to have their own morality, yet no one argues that they believe in gods). Showing that a religion's cosmogonies are demonstrably false detracts considerably from its authority to tell you how to live your life, especially if it claims to be absolutely true. But all these origin-stories are sideshows as far as empirical moral behavior is concerned, and yet theists seem quite hung up on them. Looking at the two issues this way, the strange insistence that teaching evolution will lead to drug abuse and sexual deviance starts to make an odd kind of sense.

While it's true that many if not most religions, monotheistic or otherwise, have some definite opinions on how the universe came to be this way, the innovation of linking cosmogony so tightly to morality is largely an Abrahamic one. For example, try talking to hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, as an anthropologist friend of mine does constantly. He informs me that of course they have some stories about where the stars came from, how the forest appeared, and so on - but they don't seem so worried that asking questions about the official account will cause you to go on a killing spree, perhaps because their religion has never moved into an institutionalized, explicitly-designed-to-propagate-itself phase where the Abrahamic innovation is mandated. Indeed, growing up in a predominantly Abrahamic culture is the excuse I'll give you for having missed the third function of religion until now; I was a victim of "the anesthesia of the familiar", as Dawkins puts it.

So what's the third function? This morning I was thinking about Confucianism and where it fell on the religion-philosophy spectrum. Confucius is pretty dry; he was really kind of an ancient management consultant guru-cum-Emily Post, concerned almost entirely with thou-shalt-nots - how people should behave toward each other given their relationships, and how states should be run (practical I guess, but frankly boring and somewhat provincial to time and place). What struck me thinking about Confucius (whose thought is regarded as an ideology but usually not a religion) is that, so far as I know, Confucius was silent on all matters of cosmogony - as well as on epistemology. And there it is. If you're in an established institution, propagating itself and benefiting its leaders materially, why would you ever want people thinking about how we know what's true? Of course, there are exceptions, and not all religions are silent on matters of how we know what we know - in particular among world religions, Buddhism has been active on this question, albeit still dogma-bound by the standards of Enlightenment skepticism. Yes, there is some Christian epistemology, but a) it's post-Enlightenment, b) it has zero to do with the ideology that's being propagated into the future, i.e. you won't find Pentecostals studying epistemology on Sunday morning and c) would it still be Christian epistemology if it were reasoned, or at least from the start considered possible to reason, that in fact the Bible is not a good source, and we have no evidence that the Christian God exists? No. Then it would be Bart Ehrman. And furthermore, this is why a) Jesus and Confucius were not philosophers b) Aristotle and Kant were, and c) strongly suggests that any way of looking at the world without vigorous epistemology is likely to be sterile wheel-spinning and can serve only political and propagative goals.


Teleprompter said...

I can barely tell you how much I enjoyed this post, as well as the other post I just commented on. I read pretty much all of your posts, though I do rarely comment. Still, consistently, good work.

As a philosophy and religion junkie, this is fascinating and will do a lot for my own thinking, I am sure.

Michael Caton said...

Glad you enjoy it, but as a philosophy major it would be great to have more of your thoughts as well!