Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Religion Dying Out

Hard to accept but religion is dying out--slowly, lingering in the Third World and among the poor, but inevitably dying.

I don't understand why people are pleased about that. The death of religion means a duller, deader, more prosaic world--without rituals and myths. I prowl the blogs and read the comments, and I'm baffled why there is virtually no one who has my take on religion.

I love religion. I wish I lived in a world where religiousity was all pervasive, where there were innumerable churches and little shrines where people stopped to mumble the quick prayer, where every other day was a holy day honoring a saint, a dogma, or the translation of some holy bones, with processions in the street, where people engaged in 1000 little rituals, swore by Saint Loy and went on pilgrimages.

It's a fantasy, a dream. I just don't understand why it doesn't appeal to other people in the way it appeals to me.


JS Cambridge, MA said...

HE: I can see the appeal for you of religion's rituals. For me it is religion's music -- particularly Bach. The B Minor Mass and the Cantatas! But I still don't get your Christianity. Help me understand it. What is this "God" you believe in? Is it the one that allows unspeakable suffering to go on every moment of every day? I get that you like religion -- like other people like French food or snorkling -- but deep down, how can it possibly make sense for you?

H. E. said...

Theological claims are metaphysical propositions--and metaphysics (see is speculative. It deals with lots of questions that seem weird--are the Platonic forms? Possible worlds? Are ordinary objects best understood as three-dimensional things or 4-dimensional things that have temporal parts? Etc. There are arguments every which way, though nothing conclusive, in response to a range of puzzles.

Theological claims are more of the same. And like all metaphysical propositions they have no empirical import. Of course religions have plenty of empirical claims on the books—creation myths, stories about the exploits of gods and heroes. But educated religious believers don’t take their claims seriously. If you don’t believe me, take any college class in Biblical Studies.

Right now there is certainly a highly visible, audible minority of Christians—Evangelicals—who do believe ridiculous, stupid things about cosmology, about the origin of species, and about ancient Middle Eastern history, and moreover are promoting a horrid social and political agenda. But they’re a minority. And for the most part they aren’t well-educated and they don’t care for Bach.

JS Cambridge, MA said...

I am not interested in Truth with a capital T. And I am not confusing you with fake Christian assholes. I get that part. And I can relate to the seductive nature of religion; who wouldn't want there to be transcendent meaning to life? Rituals are fun -- and comforting in their repetitive reassurance.

But this notion of God, or god, or gods -- first of all, ...seriously? And second of all, you have to admit there is no Goodness with a capital G out there. I'd be more inclined to believe there's Evil with a capital E out there.

Yes, we all want to believe. We want heroes, we want saviors, we want meaning, we want we want oh so much. But it just ain't there Harriet, no matter how much fun it is to say you're an Episcopalian and enjoy the shock and awe in your wake.

You may say the B Minor Mass is proof of the existence of God. I say it's proof that man/persons are capable of great things, transcendent things, it gives one hope that this little weak evil mutation we call homosapien might still have the capacity to do more good than harm in the few thousand years we have still left on the planet.

H. E. said...

Looks like you know me, because I don’t give out my first name. And, if so, you know that I don’t care for upper case abstracta—including Goodness.

I might make an exception for Beauty, but I didn’t say the Bach B Minor Mass was proof for the existence of God. Though Peter Kivy, an atheist, said that IF anything that were to convince him it would be that—or words to that effect. Oboists know. I stand on my minimalist version of Pascal’s Wager: no harm comes from believing in post-mortem survival; no benefit in not believing—if you’re right, you’ll never have the satisfaction of finding out you were.

I have no interest in heroes or saviors, and I don’t find talk about “Meaning” interesting—or intelligible. But, if I succeed in pumping up belief in an afterlife by the time I get old, I’m going to feel a whole lot better. Religion in addition will provide me with all the rituals and aesthetics I enjoy—which provide an additional frisson if one is a religious believer. Since I’ve never taken “Christian ethics” seriously or allowed religion to cramp my style in any way there are no costs. I’m maximizing my utility here.

So what am I if not a rational self-interested chooser? I’ve never claimed to be interested in Truth.

JS Cambridge, MA said...

So it's just post-mortem survival, an afterlife, that you've kept...after stripping away everything else, Goodness, Meaning, heroes, saviors, ethics, maybe even God, ...that's what you're left with: some mod version of "heaven"?

And all these years of professing to be a Christian is just the result of a Pascalian coin toss? Come on! His assertion that loss and gain are equal, that there is no benefit in not believing, is simply wrong.

So-called Benefits of believing may include fun rituals, great art and pretty music -- and a relief from the humdrum details of daily drudgery -- but they also include (and it's NOT FAIR to pick and choose my dear) Focus on the Family, The Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, The Taliban, etc. etc. you know the drill.

The great disadvantage of atheism is how lonely it is. But frankly, the thought of an afterlife or post-mortem survival is frightening enough to chase those occasional blues away!

Besides, you think we basically flawed human creeps (last night a couple of them tied 3 dogs to a railroad track for instance) are going to freaking live forever? All of them, or just the "saved" ones, or the believers or the good ones? The bastards who tied the dogs to the track right along side Mother Theresa?

Do the dogs have some afterlife, too? And what about my beloved hermit crab? And my equally beloved asparagus fern? Where do we draw the Pascalian line?

I suppose there might be some big compost heap in the sky onto which we are all unceremoniously thrown. Over time perhaps the decomposition feeds the growth of something else...But there ain't too much inspiration in that dungheap!

And then we get to being an Episcopalian. All that mumbo jumbo and swinging of incense, oy vey.

It's a pretty far cry from an undifferentiated compost heap if you ask me.

And I do think it does the rest of the world a disservice when thoughtful vibrant people like yourself capitulate and take the "what the heck" route because the mumbo jumbo provides an "additional frisson."

I am not struggling with my own doubts. I have for decades wondered out loud how it is that so many thinking people can truck with this shit. And no, I don't know you from Adam (or Eve!) -- I saw a well written comment on some NYT article a couple of days ago and googled you. And I am loving this dialogue -- so keep it coming HE!!

H. E. said...

But how is my selective syncretism “unfair,” and to whom? Cafeteria Christianity is the industry standard: Hardly surprising since Christianity descends from Hellenistic paganism. I don’t see why I should be obliged to take Torquemada and the Taliban along with the incense and mumbo-jumbo.

I’m still not clear how I’m doing either myself or anyone else a disservice. For myself I get:

(1) The Pascalian bet on post-mortem survival

(2) The whole cultural package—music, art, poetry, architecture, ceremony, which give more aesthetically when integrated in a religious setting than when they’re reduced to mere art and put on the shelf or confined to the concert hall. More than that, my identity and location in history—admittedly a je ne sais quoi, a sentimentality, but palpable when I been to the buildings that knocked me out: St. Paul’s, San Marco, San Vitale and the Hagia Sophia. People get into geneology because they don’t have a sense of themselves in history, just as they get besotted with Nature because they haven’t developed an appreciation of Art.

(3) Theology. I don’t know how far you googled, but I do philosophical theology, and published most recently on the Trinity and the Eucharist—the logic puzzles. It’s my job, and I love it. Maybe when it comes to ordering my reasons this comes first and the Pascalian bet last. I just totally plain love metaphysics and, in particular, these identity puzzles in philosophical theology!

And what does anyone else lose from my religious commitment, such as it is? Religion hasn’t made me any worse—or any better. Historically, as a matter of empirical fact, that seems true of people in the aggregate: it’s a wash when it comes to whether religion is a good or a bad thing. So the blame game is pointless: “I see you Gallileo and the Inquisition and raise you Nazism, Stalin and Pol Pot.” Ho-hum.

Funny, but I prod neo-pagans: why aren’t you a cynical, syncretic Episcopalians? Why this meager, made up fantasy when you can have the buildings and ceremonies on the ground and believe whatever you please? They get all huffy, assert that they really do believe Zeus is sitting up on Mount Olympus or that Thor is hurling thunderbolts from Valhalla, and demand to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY DAMMIT. I don’t.

JS Cambridge, MA said...

Well, this has been fun but I don't think it's particularly constructive. From here it seems you wear religion like a sparkly red party dress -- twirling around happily and enjoying that pleasurable sensation -- plus there's a 50% chance the dress possesses magical powers...granting the wearer post-mortem survival (whatever that is).

But I don't see any evidence that what you are talking about is religion...certainly not Christianity...and absolutely not Episcopalianism. You're simply mad for rituals -- there's no shame in that! -- but to think you can be an Episcopalian and yet believe whatever you please is disingenuous. You are a welcome visitor on the planet Episcopalia, but not a bona fide citizen. After all, to the basic question, "Do you believe in God the Father?" can you honestly answer "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth."? Nor can you honestly recite the Apostle's Creed. So what's left?

H. E. said...

I can honestly recite the Nicene Creed with the exception of the Filioque Clause (which I conscientiously don’t utter). I do believe in God the Father Almighty and the whole business—just not with any high degree of conviction. But then I don’t believe much of anything with any high degree of conviction—certainly not any controversial metaphysical claims. I’m not even sure about tables and chairs.

People assume, wrongly, that to be authentically religious one must accept a doctrinal package whole, and believe every bit with a high degree of conviction. By these criteria authentic religious believers would be either fools or knaves. No one but a fool would believe theological claims or any metaphysical propositions with a high degree of conviction, much less take the creation myths and legends in the Bible literally.

Most liberal clergy are knaves: assuming that supernaturalism is just plain stupid (see Bishop Spong’s 12 Theses) they reinterpret religious claims that are ostensibly about supernatural beings or states of affairs as something quite different. So “I believe in God” becomes “I am committed to an agapistic way of life” and “the life of the world to come” as (I’m quoting a priest verbatim) “Not pie in the sky when we die but life in depth and fullness here and now.” And of course there’s knavery in excelcis—the Sea of Faith Network ( in the CofE for priests who are atheists. Far from being a mere tourist in Episcopalia, by Anglican standards I am a paragon of orthodoxy.

Y’know you got me at a good time because I’m right now putting together a proposal for a book on the Trinity, which has got me thinking—what do I believe? I believe, though not with a high degree of conviction, that there may be some supernatural being or state of affairs. There’s a lot of speculation about what this supernatural whatever is like—lots of theologies. I’m interested in exploring some of these theologies, in particular, doctrines of the Trinity, heterodox as well as orthodox—in monkeying around with them, seeing if one can solve the logic puzzles, which is what analytic philosophers writing on the Trinity do. If there’s one thing of which I am convinced though it’s that God, if there is a God, doesn’t care whether we get the theology right.

Anyway, many thanks for this discussion, which has been a kick. But make no mistake: however flip I may sound, however skeptical I may be—I’ve done the leap of faith. I’m not playing games or twirling around sparkly red dress: I’m serious and I’m committed. Thanks again, and all best.

JS Cambridge, MA said...

Thanks, HE -- glad that google led me to you, and a good old fashioned romp it provided for us both! Good luck with the book...and the Book...and best wishes from the Hub of the Universe! JS

amfortas the hippie said...

First, let me assert that I consider myself an Agnostic. I take Socratic Perplexity to something of an extreme. Our collective Bubble of Understanding of the Universe is constantly Expanding…but is still made of , ultimately, Provisional Knowledge.
However, I also lean towards Mysticism....that is, a Direct Experience of, as Huxley put it, th “Divine Ground of Being”…that “Thing Behind Things”….”Wherefrom words turn back, together with the Mind, not having attained”(Campbell).
The Numinous, etc.
The Problem with Religion , today…is Dogmatism.
It is stuck in a time warp…whether it’s the Bronze Age, or the Gilded….no matter…it’s lodged in the Past, and in the Past’s Understandings.
The aforementioned Bubble was a lot smaller, back then.
Too, I think our current specie of Religion have become more about Power, and Politics, than about any promised Relationship to the Divine.
When talking to Religious folks about this topic, I find much Incredulity that one can improve, let alone

Replace, the current offerings. I reckon this is what is necessary…not just a “New Religion”, based on the same , tired old forms…but a million New Religions, encompassing our larger, and growing, Understanding of the Universe in which we find ourselves.

H. E. said...

OK, Amfortas. Sounds good to me—at least you’re not Chinese spam, which now seems to clog my blog.

“The problem with religion is Dogmatism”—why not just ignore it? Power, Politics? Why concern yourself? Religion provides buildings and rituals—that’s what it’s all about. And they can’t make you buy into their theological dogmas or politics as a price for participating. And, of course, I mean proper religion—not white trash Evangelicalism. I mean real churches that have stone buildings and do “classical” music.

I don’t understand the problem. Why don’t you just go to church, enjoy the ceremonies and the music, and ignore the stupid crap?

amfortas the hippie said...

I'll finish my Thought, first:
To my Understanding, and after long study, it seems that Mormonism, then Scientology, even unto “TM”(Trancendental Meditation”)….all of these, and many more, are pointing to one, singular thing: The Gullibility of Humans.
That Gullibility, in it’s Turn, says a lot about our Hungers.
What we Need…whether we can put a finger(or a word) on it, or no…
It also says a lot about the growing inadequacy of the current menu of religiosity…the Traditional Fare.
I desire a Religion that leaves the END Open.
That doesn’t childishly Pretend to have All of the Answers….merely a Celebration of the Mystery of the Universe
(go out, at night, look up; or, observe, closely, a patch of Grass, for an hour)
Perhaps not as comforting as a disembodied Uncle Walt on one’s shoulder, but Inclusive of that pesky , expanding Bubble…..that seems to so confound the various millenarian Religions.
Do not mistake what’s lacking as “Novelty”…
I knew the River, Intimately…
But never tired of floating “my” section of it.
It was Church!
…and no novelty, at all, after the first few expeditions.
The Point is that we, each of Us , Get Something Intangible from whatever Experience, and however Contrived. “Religion”, as we know it, is failing that test…plain and simple.
We no longer Belong….the old stories no longer Connect with Us and our lives…

Tribalism is , likely, encoded in our DNA.
The Need, Deepseated, to Belong….to Something.

In Extremis,(where we’re at), we’ll take what we can get…Dem/Rep, Xian/Islamic/Buddhist….Cowboys/Steelers….White/Blue-collar….even the numerous, and exclusive, Academic Departments at your University.*
We’re Club Goers
Us Humans.

H. E. said...

Amfortas, I still don't understand your problem. Believe what you want, behave as you choose. Religion just provides the buildings and ceremonies, and no one is stopping you from enjoying them whatever you believe or however you behave. What on earth is your issue? Why pay any attention to what the trained monkeys who do the magic act jabber about?

amfortas the hippie said...

You:"why not just ignore it? Power, Politics? Why concern yourself? Religion provides buildings and rituals—that’s what it’s all about. And they can’t make you buy into their theological dogmas or politics as a price for participating. And, of course, I mean proper religion—not white trash Evangelicalism. I mean real churches that have stone buildings and do “classical” music."
That's hardly what they're selling, in the most generous sense.
That Is, like you, what I get out of it.
I love Cathedrals, and such...See: San Antonio, Texas, Mission Trail!
The Buildings and Rituals, and Traditions, and the little crackers, aren't what Folks are going to Church for, though.
Those can be thought of more as the Tools, through which, it is Promised...Implicitly, and Explicitly....that one can come into Communion with the Divine.
As far as White Trash Evangelism, I consider that peculiar Phenomenon to be an expression of Desperation...due to many things...from changing Demographics, to the increasing Multiculturalism,that comes with it...and, not least, to our continuing Expansion of the Bubble(of Understanding).

H. E. said...

That's PRECISELY what the Episcopal Church is selling: "Buildings and Rituals and Traditions and little crackers." And good music. Maybe the Folk don't go for that--but so much the worse for the Folk--the lower class stinking shit.

amfortas the hippie said...

I can suggest many works(archaomythology, an it’s nexus with philosophy/history/politico-economy…is my Thing!)
If I had to pick one, it’s Campbell’s “Power of Myth”.
It’s a Real Thing, and should be studied, in an attempt to Understand.
(see, also:Graves,”White Goddess”,Elead,”Sacred/Profane”, Eisler,”Chalice….”, and, for good measure, smoke a Joint(world without end), and re-read Zarathustra.)

amfortas the hippie said...

Why does a “Blue Note” move us ?
What, exactly, is it about Mozart’s Requiem, etc, that grabs us?
What is it that is “Stirred”?
Does it have substance, in some way?
The Effect is Obviously …Real.
.but How?
What is the Mechanism?
I like the Idea of a Nous-Sphere.
per;Dean Radin and the Princeton Gang of Wild Eyed Random Number Generators….

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NaiseiTatsu said...

There was an era when religion was all-pervasive. We call it the Dark-Ages. Or you could live in the middle east. They are very religious. There is a reason religion is dying out. People are learning.

NaiseiTatsu said...

I completely understand how hard it is to give up on religion. You live most of your life with it. It makes you feel good. It gives you a sense of purpose and place in the world. I was religious once. I loved it so much that I devoted all my energy to studying it. And what I've learned is it all boils down to psychological masturbation. The fact that it is baseless BS aside, it is as practical as a drug addition. If you want to feel good, belong in a group of like-minded people, and have metaphorical experiences, you could just buy an ouch of pot and call up a few friends. You'll get the same benefits, and you won't have to wear a funny hat. (Unless you want to.) Belief harms no one. But people who believe have a nasty habit of harming those who don't.