A Casual Argument for a Virtue
Several common observations today poise some unique problems for people of religious faith in the 21st century. First, the data suggest that collectively, more and more people are either not identifying with an organized religion, as agnostics, or as atheists, particularly in so-called “Western” countries like those in the European Union and in the United States. There are a variety of reasons that’s happening: increased access to economic opportunity, education, sociopolitical participation, and overall stability has, in many places, rendered the structuring force of religion in public life irrelevant (and to a large degree, the separation of religion from public life is the point of European-originated secularism). One could also talk about the changing shape of education, as STEAM has grown in importance and the humanities have declined in funding and profitability, and have sometimes undergone deconstruction in light of certain baked-in prejudices.
Second, our advanced command of the natural sciences means that we can now see and comprehend more of the physical universe than we ever have been able to in our history, the source of a cosmology that seems empirically authentic even if certain details are likely to change the more we learn: that the universe is incredibly, unimaginably old; that it is impossibly large; that all of its matter and energy are held in common, meaning that all physical, chemical, and biological entities in the universe share a common origin, history, and destiny together, from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch or the Big Freeze or whatever other end awaits the universe; that while it is possible within this universe that we are the only creatures like ourselves, it seems more likely, given what we know about its size, its antiquity, and the conditions necessary for life’s origins, that we live in a universe teeming with life, analogous to that of our own world, from microbes to plants to animals to sentient species that can be stratified by their scale of energy use or the sophistication of their civilization’s culture, meaning that many of the things we currently find special about ourselves are potentially quite well represented among the observable universe’s trillions upon trillions of galaxies in other comparable species, and that the traits we collectively identify with “humanity” are really evidence of evolutionary convergence rather than something unique to Homo sapiens; and that, if this wasn’t enough to relativize the anthropocentric and geocentric cosmologies of premodern religions, it might well be that ours is one among an infinite number of universes, further qualifying our religious language about reality.
Third, and equally deconstructive, our secular, scientific, and increasingly globalized society is confronted by a plurality of religious narratives about reality, some of which are comfortable and competent with that very pluralism, others of which are fundamentalist and reactionary against it, and all of which only a thoroughgoing humanism which treats religion as a human phenomenon before considering other kinds of claims about it can provide an equal playing ground. We are all well aware of what happens when religious narratives fail to broaden to be minimally inclusive of and maximally pluralistic by design in their relation to other religious narratives, from the more benign imbecility of the Scopes Monkey Trial, to the the tragically violent ends of various 20th century cults of personality tied to spiritual and religious interests both traditional and new, to the emergent threat to global peace that is the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putinian desire to resurrect the Russian Empire, with the full support of the Moscow Patriarchate. Many contemporary people see the problems that religion can cause for creating a more scientific, tolerant, reciprocal, and peaceful world, and wonder if we are not better off without the whole thing.
As a narrative, of course, the forthcoming death of religion has been around for awhile. European and American secularists, and some of their heirs in the East and Global South, have been hoping that religion would disappear as an unnecessary, vestigial element of premodern human societies. Some of the earliest architects of religious studies as a discipline—E.B. Tylor, James Frazer, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and so forth, European modernists all—are the same sources for several of these narratives: that religion once performed an explanatory function for the world’s logical coherence that is no longer necessary in light of science or that relegates the divine purely to a deistic otherworld (rather than, I suppose, a gnostic one); that religion’s functions in providing comfort to those economically disenfranchised by agricultural, imperial, and industrial pursuits, social cohesion through the deification of community, and rationalization of psychological becoming will all eventually be outmoded by more cool, cold, purely rational ideas about the world when economic, social, and psychological circumstances for all people have been rectified; that religion and science are in fact perennial enemies, obstacles to one another, sparring partners, etc. It has flooded the popular culture resources most meaningful to me from an early period, particularly science fiction and fantasy: the original Star Trek (1966-1969) series, for example, was masterminded by Gene Roddenberry as taking place in a futuristic society that had outgrown the need for religion, where the gods of myth and ancient religion are either fictions of the mind or misunderstood aliens. (It is not insignificant that simultaneously, the UFO phenomenon had picked up as an aspect of popular culture in the United States, and its origins in Western esoterica had taken on a space age character, producing pseudoscientific and theological enterprises like, for example, the “ancient astronaut theory”). Of course, fantasy—including space fantasy—has always had more use for divine beings, entities, and magic than has straight science fiction, but in a cultural context often of protest against the dominant religious culture and organized religion generally. That Dungeons and Dragons should have arisen as a phenomenon largely due to The Lord of the Rings, one of the most Catholic novels there has ever been, and become a key part of the “Satanic panic” of the American ‘80s is a feat of such profound irony as to be almost artisanal. The same might be said for the frequent use of mythology and religion in classic rock songs from the mid-60s through the late-80s, especially in hair, heavy, and death metal and in the genre of the rock ballad or opera, despite the superficial antithesis between the culture around rock music and traditional religious culture advanced from both sides. The original Star Wars trilogy is, on the one hand, about the resurgence of a religious order in the face of a materialistic, brutalistic, and scientistic empire led by a death cult, but the broader Star Wars saga is, on the other hand, a critique of organized religion itself, as the Jedi commitment to their arbitrary standards is as much the thing that keeps undoing them as is their compromise of those standards (as is visible in both Prequel and Sequel trilogies and several generations of Expanded Universe material). But Star Wars, unlike Star Trek, has a god, and that god is the Force, the World Soul tensed between light and darkness, good and evil, possessed of intellect, will, and numen in a reciprocal relationship with individuals and with the whole of the physical universe. Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the other majorly successful franchise in American popular culture of the last forty years is, of course, an extended attempt to reinsert the gods, the divine, and the enchanted in the contemporary world, the world as we know it through science as well as the pluralistic, multicultural, globalized world in which we now live. Its vision of reality is thoroughly Neoplatonic (as Austin Freeman has argued), showcasing a cosmic and even multiversal pantheon of gods of ever-increasing knowledge, power, quality of life, and distance from the mundane and the human, encosmic and hypercosmic entities all beneath the presidency of the One Above All. Through the reception of special powers, by birth, by accident, by virtue, by technology, by magic, by cosmic ascent, whatever, individual humans or humanlike beings in this world can become divine, godlike beings or gods themselves, and at some level even the evil and darkness of this world is reflective of the goodness of infinite divine creativity.
Popular culture often takes the temperature of what ordinary people care about in a way that more elite forms of art do not; there is something significant for our cultural psyche, for instance, that even in a world where more and more people are moving away from an interest or identity in organized religion, 300 million people click on a trailer for Thor: Love and Thunder, adapting Jason Aaron’s Thor comics about a cosmic war between the gods and Gorr the God Butcher and cancer patient Jane Foster becoming a goddess by picking up Mjolnir, in a single day. It’s about more than entertainment alone that so many people were so divided over the structure and ending of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, that these mythologies are so significant for people’s sense of personal and cosmic well-being. It is partially because these narratives are doing for people what religious narratives once did for everyone—imagining what reality might really be like and about on a scale that makes sense to us—while at the same time doing so precisely through the reuse of religious narratives that an increasing number of ordinary people no longer profess to actually believe. And that strongly implies that the problem with religion in the contemporary period might have less to do with what religion claims and more to do with how religion functions in a changing, evolving society: people still hunger for the same ideas, experiences, and sense of belonging that religion provides, even when they find religion itself an unsuitable avenue for experiencing them.
It is here worth pausing to observe that not all religious non-belonging or non-identification is equivocal with atheism as a doctrinal idea, a positive assertion that there is no God, and likewise, the question of God and gods (two separate questions, really, but let’s treat them together here for convenience) and the question of the appropriateness of religion in general or the validity of a specific religion in particular are all separate issues. It is logically consistent to hold, as some do, that God—as the infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss, to make use of the classical triad of qualities asserted in Neoplatonic and Vedantic monotheism—is the foundation of reality, and even that the universe is full of gods, and at the same time to feel no compulsion of any particular ritualized behavior or communal belonging in response to those facts. It is fully possible to believe in God and/or gods while critiquing public cults to each as irrational or insufficient or unnecessary, as have a variety of ancient and modern philosophers; it is fully possible to hold that humanity’s gods, while real, are too cosmically provincial to be appropriate objects of universal adoration either within the human sphere or beyond it, and that God in the ultimate sense neither desires nor needs worship, being in equal measures intimate and distant from the finitude of human existence. In point of fact, the universe’s antiquity, size, diversity, pluralism, and so forth should genuinely jar us, but they do not threaten what classical theists mean when they talk about God; they may, however, licitly raise questions about God’s investment in specifically human life, if by “human life” we have a restricted sense of Homo sapiens (who have been on this planet somewhere between 200 and 300,000 years and who can only rely on a fairly unreliable historical record that stretches back only around 5,000 of those years).
There are arguments that can reinvest humanity with cosmic dignity at the far end of the kind of deconstruction I’m proposing here, particularly when one faces honestly the hard problem of consciousness and realizes that conscious awareness (citta) must in fact be fundamental, and matter secondary, in reality in order to be real at all, which it must also be lest the very science that causes us to doubt our own significance be undermined. We end up in a dilemma that can only be resolved, really, one way: either the human mind is completely unique in a dead and mindless material universe, in which case it is the most interesting thing there is to consider or study by virtue of its sheer, unprecedented arbitrariness, or else it is the product of a reality that is fundamentally noetic and mental and only secondarily aesthetic and material, such that there is both analogy and reciprocity between the universe and humankind, and humans are therefore capable of a specialized act of consciousness and participation in cosmic reality towards which the whole universe has been progressively moving from its beginning. The first side of the dilemma would be a justification for humanism, albeit an imperfect because irrational one, an act of defiance towards life’s absurdity by choosing to value human life and experience, and yet still a more truthful position to hold than the idea of humanity’s insignificance by virtue of how anomalous humanity would be in such a world; but the second side of the dilemma is the only position which simultaneously justifies our culture’s interests in more than purely practical science as well as our investment in human life as something cosmically significant.
Classical theism and idealist panpsychism of the sort I describe here are necessary but not sufficient conditions for religious believing and belonging, at least in the major premodern traditions on offer today; and there is always a more contingent, pragmatic kind of religion which is fundamentally a technology of spiritual and/or physical protection, maintenance, and advancement independent of the more abstract questions that motivate philosophers and theologians. The argument that I have advanced several times in this newsletter, building on the best of contemporary scholars and theologians who qtr much smarter than me, that God is the only rational ground and destiny of all reality, might justify belief that there is an infinite God in which all reality subsists, but it does not necessarily lead to one doing something about it in the form of religion. And, in point of fact, there may be greater wisdom in making room for atheists, agnostics, and nones as participants also in the mystery of God, whether they would admit that this is what they’re doing or not, then there is in trying to bridge the gap between religious affiliation and the nones. The religiously disaffiliated and disinclined can often shed a light on the shortcomings of religious viewpoints, individuals, communities, societies, and practices that are not infrequently lost on the religious; they provide an important counterbalance, a living witness to religion’s capacity for small-minded, petty, villainous thinking and activity when left unchallenged, the propensity of the religious and the potency of the virtue of religion itself to make bad, wide-ranging decisions with ruinous effects for ordinary religious people, nonreligious people, and the nonhuman world as well. Nones who admit the existence of God and of gods might even go further in providing an essential service of skepticism against the gods: does an ancient, powerful, superhuman person, creature, figure, entity, thing, whatever necessarily have our best interests in mind? Is service to them/it necessarily good for us? People have often worshiped gods, whether of their own mental creation or of metaphysical substance or both, whose evil has been obvious and wide-ranging, like, for example, Calvin’s god. This kind of gnostic impulse, not against God but to “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1), is difficult to inculcate among the overly pious.
And yet it is obviously the case that people still desire the access to the divine that religion provides; we would not find stories about the gods entertaining if we did not on some level get something out of them that we don’t get from other kinds of stories. If we did not feed something in ourselves by telling those stories, then the potential damage of the gods to us as a species psychologically and socially would render such entertainment illicit in ways we are otherwise mindful of. We do not tolerate human bigotry, still less dangerous pseudoscience, in our mainstream popular culture, at least unchallenged; what makes religion appropriate if not the fact that the kinds of questions and realities religion deals in are still relevant to us, even when we find religion itself a social force with which many of us want nothing further to do?
People continue to have big, complicated questions about self, world, and God that are best answered in the media of philosophy or theology, and that are only truly sated by ritual practice of some sort. Where explicitly religious ritual disappears some mimesis takes its place, but the experience of which seems designed to effect the same sort of altered consciousness that religion exists to engender (consider, e.g., Gotham Chopra’s Religion of Sports, or the experience of surfing). And even for the traditionally religious, these ritualized, transcendentalist practices of everyday life and activities, hobbies, sports, interests, etc. often form a kind of secondary religious ritual, just the same way that myths both ancient and modern often form one’s secondary literary canon of religious meaning. Peter Kreeft is a very different sort of philosopher than Aaron James, but he’d agree with him about surfing, I wager; no less a theologian than Stratford Caldecott loved Marvel movies; David Bentley Hart talks about baseball like it is a religious experience. The Inklings habitually invested a kind of sacramental significance in the drinking and pipe smoking they were fond of doing in company and alone; a good friend of mine takes a positively ecstatic, charismatic joy in the specificities of whisky culture, while I’ve never seen anyone look quite so alive as another does when talking about Bob Dylan (and he’s a cleric in his tradition, no less).
Each of these things at their apex might well succeed in providing us with instances of profound meaning and utmost spiritual sense, but it is in exactly that moment that they will point us back to the more explicitly cosmic and hypercosmic interests of traditional religion, public and mystical. Why do I feel that there is something eternal about the music of the Beatles, that there is something sublime or transcendent to listening to Dylan and Hendrix and The Who and The Kinks? It must be because there’s something eternal, minimally—that in some sense they participate in an eternity none of them fully disclose. The same insight will prove true if we turn away from our cultural fads and favorites and towards the larger scapes of our modern scientific interest. Why do we care to find the universe so large and to ascertain whether it is so populated? Why would it matter, anymore than it matters that we are here? Why moreover does it matter that there are so many distinct human cultures, such that their traditional lifeways and art and yes religion ought to be remembered and preserved where possible? Only if they and we, and the world entire, share in a mystery that is infinitely and reciprocally replicated in us all—the kind of mystery that cannot help but spill over into all of us and everything, and so to show up in the things that we best love, even when they are loved improperly or destructively.
Religion is our best human means of grappling with the mysteries of reality at the ultimate level, in both the immensity of their reach as well as the intimacy of the small things in which they are made present to us. Religion is the activity of a human mind that is alive to the aporiai of the world and surrenders in learned ignorance to its mystery, a mystery that beyond conception must simply be lived, and can only be lived ritually, and through love. And it is our best tool for shaping consciousness from participation through withdrawal and into reciprocity with kosmos and God, as we learn to find the divine beyond ourselves, in ourselves, and reflected both within and without, all the while becoming more and more that which we know; and this is a virtue or habit of being, as Hart has put it in several places in his corpus, rather than an individual, discrete collection of beliefs, practices, or communal identities (per Hart again, the ordo cognoscendi is the inversion of the ordo essendi).
For many of the nones, the issue is not that they have lost interest in religion, religious questions, religious practices, or even religious belonging, but that their communities, institutions, and inherited restrictions do not make the existential sense to them that they did to their forbears. In the Christian world, I have been fairly vocal that this is especially true around Christian divisions: schism decided by a religious and political elite in the distant historical past cannot and do not mean very much for contemporary Christians still struggling to remember and return to Christianity’s origins and fundaments to envision its new future in the wake of Christendom’s collapse. Analogous realities describe contemporary Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism in America, too. Religion will survive long after individual religions or religious iterations have died off through failure to evolve.
So why, finally, religion? Not merely because the reasons for our cultural drift from it are poorly thought out, nor because religion stands in no real conflict with the forces it is typically pitted against; nor, too, simply because God is true by virtue of what “God” names, as though religion followed logically from God; but because religion offers that wealth of meaning to our lives by giving us a chance to participate in God, and to collect our other interests and pursuits into a common quest of being and becoming.