Warning – lengthy but profound reflection on a subject where angels fear to tread – the problem with religion and atheism.
Religion isn’t going away and progressives who continue to attack religion do themselves no favours. In fact their attacks simply fuel the “persecuted victim” narrative that Trump and the religious Right have so skillfully exploited.
What I hope my progressive friends could understand is that the problem isn’t religion – it’s bad religion. Yes, people of faith have committed many wrongs – but so have atheists. And people of faith have also done many great things – and so have atheists. Letting a person’s religious or non-religious allegiance be a major factor in how we judge them will seriously cloud our moral judgement. For many US Christians it meant turning a blind eye to Trump’s obvious moral weaknesses. For atheists it means viewing with suspicion and alienating people who could be potential allies on progressive causes.
I agree with a recent Rebel Wisdom commentator on the storming of the US Capitol, that the striking image of the Q-anon self-proclaimed “shaman” with his horned helmet and tattoos of pagan gods symbolises a resurgence of the irrational from the peripheral into the centre.
Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a whole and separate debate. The point is, it’s happening and there was always a certain inevitability about it. The human animal is not a machine that can thrive on a diet of pure logic.
Ironically, what I call “bad religion” shares a core underlying error with its atheist critics. The error of operating as if religion was a matter of propositional knowledge.
A proposition is a statement such as “the sky is blue”, or “the chair is made of wood”, or “humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor”. Propositional knowledge is language based (and is therefore limited to what we have words for, and the range of shared meanings we put on those words). It forms the core of our education system and dominates our culture to the point where we forget that other types of knowledge exist. And yet riding a bicycle is not about propositional knowledge. No book of propositional statements can give you the abilities needed to ride a bike, or appreciate a Beethoven symphony, or maintain a healthy long-term intimate relationship.
Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke describes four types of knowledge – “the 4 P’s” – procedural, perspectival, propositional and participatory knowledge.
Procedural knowledge is the embodied knowledge of sequences of movements (in a feedback loop with what we observe through our senses) to enact a procedure, such as catching a ball or tying a shoe lace.
Here I will quote from an article in Medium by Alexander Beiner: Lost Ways of Knowing:
The next ways of knowing are closer to what we feel when we close our eyes in the woods. When we take a risk and stop trying to run, but instead listen to what’s around us. The voices, the growls, the creak of wood and leaf.
When we do this, we’re tapping into our perspectival knowing. It is your situation awareness, your sense of being ‘here and now’. This way of knowing is relative to the state of mind you’re in. It doesn’t feel the same to be lost in the woods when you’re drunk or tired or in love. Your cognition in this state is geared toward what is relevant, or salient, in your world right now. Vervaeke points out that this perspectival knowing happens when your relevance realisation machinery is coming into our online working memory. The result is a ‘dynamic pattern of salience’ — a whole map of perception mediated by what you’re paying attention to.
As we listen deeply, we might notice something else. The world can hear us, too. Owls watch us from the trees. Beasts smell us as they prowl the mist. We are embedded within these woods.
Coming deeply into this awareness brings us into a participatory knowing. It is the hardest to define, because it straddles our subjective experience and objective reality — leading to an experiential back and forth that Vervaeke calls the transjective.
When we are engaged in participatory knowing, we make identities for the world that are ‘co-relevant’ to us. To the shaman, the owl may not be an owl, but a living embodiment of a spirit that has something to teach her. This way of knowing is related to our full sense of being connected and in a dialogue with reality. It is the fundamental attunement between you and the world, and it is this very attunement that makes your perspectival knowing possible, which in turn makes your procedural knowing possible, which in turn informs your propositional knowing.
Our most meaningful ways of knowing do not spring from ‘knowing that’. Rather, the propositional knowing we use to build our maps springs from the embodied experience of being an active agent in the world, from a deep sense of attunement with our environment. Vervaeke points out that it’s by its absence that realise we need this way of knowing; often it is when we lose our freedom, or when our agency in the world is disrupted that we feel a sense of being disconnected. “Often we don’t notice it until we’re lonely,” Vervaeke says, “or far from home.” Or, perhaps, lost in the woods.(https://medium.com/rebe…/lost-ways-of-knowing-2180a80987d8)
To go back to my earlier point about “good or bad” religion. It should be clear by now that “good” religion has very little to do with propositional knowledge and much more to do with perspectival and participatory knowledge. And when religion does fall into our modern Western trap of only operating from propositional knowledge, it falls into the trap of focusing on, and defending, literal interpretations of the sacred texts. Or to put it another way, “bad religion” is narrowly focused on questions like “Does God exist?”; “Is Jesus the Son of God?”; and “What does God say in the sacred texts?” On the other hand “good” religion is more focused on having an embodied experience which changes our perspective of our place in the universe and how we relate to everything, including ourselves.
Vervaeke outlines how religions include sets of practices, which he calls “psycho-technologies”, designed to bring about “enlightenment” – a state which is marked by enhanced “Relevance Realisation” (ability to discern what is most important in any situation as well as in the bigger picture).
Enlightenment exists within a deeper context of embodied awareness that “I belong” (I am in relationship with myself and my environment), and a mature sovereign sense of self which is distinct from personas (the masks/roles we put on), or sub-personalities, or our wounded inner-children.
Some of the psycho-technologies which lead us towards enlightenment include altered states of consciousness (though prayer, meditation, music and ceremony), the profound experience of “awe”, and the practice of Agape (Christ-like love) which witnesses the other with total acceptance (of the person, if not their actions) and reflects back with kindness. Note: Agape is not so far removed from good psychotherapy! (See the lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis🙂
When religion loses that experiential focus it tends to focus instead on the sacred texts and gets into literal interpretations which are uninformed by these transformative experiences.
Religion is much more than just knowledge or even psycho-technologies. Perhaps above all it is culture. For most of human history religion and culture were inseparable. One way to think about figures like Gautama/Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad is that they were enlightened beings who taught within the cultures of their time. What survives in the writings that have been handed down is a portrait not only of these teachers, but also the culture of their times. Those cultures may have included slavery, torture, capital punishment, oppression of women and homosexuals etc.
An enlightened way to read these texts, therefore, would be to look at where these teachers differed from their cultures. What did they emphasise and what did they not emphasise. How did Jesus treat women compared to the standards of his time? How did he treat people who broke the sexual codes of the time? What seemed most important to him?
A more enlightened way to read the Old Testament would be to view it as a journey from an older world-view populated by tribal “war-gods” where the victory of one tribe over another meant that their tribal god was more powerful – to a worldview where there is only one god of all humanity; a journey from a worldview where gods have to be appeased by blood sacrifices to a worldview where god is more concerned with justice, rule of law, and how we treat the widow and the orphan.
The problem with religion where propositional knowledge is the only game in town, is that it becomes all about the words in the text, which have to be taken literally. For example: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. So then we get the absurd situation where creationists have to deny science in order to defend texts which say that God created the earth in seven days. This narrow focus on the literal meaning of the texts (by both believers and atheists) misses the symbolic, archetypal and mytho-poetic nature of these writings. It is like the difference between hearing the music and seeing the notes.
And when you completely miss the music behind the notes the danger is that you emphasise the words which confirm your cultural and personal prejudices. This is particularly true of the Protestant churches (and perhaps Wahhabist Muslims) where so much falls on the authority of individual preachers and their interpretation of the texts. So we pick out the sentences from ancient and archaic cultures which appear to uphold our own beliefs and prejudices – for examples verses condoning slavery or condemning homosexuals or which say that women shouldn’t lead – and we conveniently ignore the rest (for example wearing mixed-fabric clothing) – and above all miss the deeper music of compassion.
But the problems lie just as much in the failings of mainstream secular culture. So many people feel adrift and alone. Without rituals and traditions for “adulting” (such as initiation) so many people remain developmentally like children looking for a father figure to rescue them. Without processes for moral development and dealing with moral complexity, people crave the certainties of a clear and strict moral code.
Without a sense of meaning in life beyond making money, people crave communities and codes that will fill that gap. In a capitalist society, where there is a human need there is a gap in the market, and the market is filling those needs in a variety of different ways. Some are cults, some are MLM marketing companies, and some look like traditional religious communities but are really cults whose deeper purpose is the pursuit of money and power. (See How To Spot A Cult)
Bad religion is bad for all of us – whether believers or non-believers – it leads to division, denial of science and can be manipulated by political forces as we saw with Q-anon and recent events in Washington. On the other hand good religion is good for all of us – it produces people with depth wisdom and compassion who serve all people, not just their own religious communities. So lets stop the religion bashing, or the atheist bashing, and focus on how we repair all that is broken in our culture