Thursday, 21 January 2016

Secular Atheology

Religion, whether you like it or not, has been around for a very long time. If you believe in a particular religion (whatever that might mean) then you probably believe that your particular religion gets a lot of things right because of some sort of divine or supernatural assistance. Some deity may have revealed elements of that religion or inspired a prophet to speak authoritatively. But even if you do not believe any religion to have this special status of truth, I contend you should still believe in religion.

Religion, as an old artifact, has managed to amass in itself a large amount of time-tested wisdom; so much so, in fact, that it has stood the test of time. Religion has stood the test of time - but not all particular religions have. Why did the ones that have survived from ancient civilisations endured to this day? What has made Abrahamic religions, for instance, or Hinduism, so successful? These are religions that have managed to thrive across hundreds or even thousands of years and so, I contend, they must have something to them.

This argument is basically evolutionary: let us assume that it is, for whatever reason, a natural inclination of human beings to be religious. That seems fairly obvious from the global nature of religiosity. What makes one religion more successful than another? The first point to note - the crucial one, in fact, for the non-religious - is that the natural selection of ideas relates to behaviours and perspectives. If some religion were to assert without any knowledge of the content of the statement that "God is asdfghjk", then (without the enterprising theories of theologians that might say that God is fundamentally randomness on a keyboard or a mystery of technology - both of which were entirely unintended by my gibberish) it seems like that would have no actual practical content. That dogma would not have stood the test of time because of what those religionists believe or did as a consequence of it.

Take, on the other hand, the command to evangelise in Christianity. This is clearly a doctrine with important consequences for the lives of Christians. Or the need requirement to abstain from particular foods, or pray in a certain way at a certain time, or go on pilgrimages, or observe sacred periods in a prescribed manner - these are clearly doctrines with practical consequences.

The question about why religions thrive has to do with what flows from its dogmas and doctrines, not necessarily (or directly) from the dogmas themselves. Religions could be seen in this light as intellectual organisms of a sort with complex interweavings of orthodoxy and orthopraxis which evolve, thrive or die out in the intellectual space of human beings.

What makes a particular religion thrive? Part of it must have to do with its capacity to propagate. For some religions, creating a very strong sense of inside community within an ethnicity may prove a vital element of a religion's survival. For others, the fundamentality of spreading the religion may be its lifesource. The study of these different models might be very interesting for those wanting to work in marketing, for instance - time tested ideas for how to propagate a product and create consumer loyalty to it.

And yet, there is more to a religion than the fact of its transmission in time. I believe that part of why religion is such a worldwide phenomenon is that it helped in our own evolutionary past to aid the survival of human groups. Religions, it can be seen from basic sociology of religion, produce communities that operate in particular ways: church communities run differently in Catholicism and Protestant denominations, and Christian communities are different to Hindu communities. What elements of Christian thought and practice lead to successful communities? What elements of Hindu ones lead to their success? Focussing more on individuals, what is the role and benefits of personal religious practices?

The contention I am making is that religions have wealths of wisdom derived from their organic growth over time. There is no need to think of religions as fundamentally true to derive some kind of value from its practices and beliefs, and the traditional wisdom of communities may well provide a sort of cheat sheet for avoiding mistakes that have been costly for communities and individuals in the past. This does not mean that even a highly successful religion even has largely useful practices independent of that religion. Much like in biological evolution, it may well be that religions have largely obsolete, vestigial practices and survive mostly because of their enormous social capital. But I think much knowledge can be derived from religions to be secularised to suit our own needs and aims, and in the coming weeks I will write about many of the practices and beliefs - from prayer and yoga through to Trinitarian theology - which I think are worth our time to adapt. That adaptation of theology to secularity is secular atheology.

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