Monday, October 17, 2011

A Religion for Atheists?

In my last post, I quoted Brian Barrington, an Irish atheist, who admitted that secularized humanity is in danger of losing much that seems essential to human nature.  He argued (perhaps with tongue partly in cheek) for a synthetic religion that joins the best of each tradition, as Hinduism (he claims) does for India. 

Let's take the idea seriously, though.  First, I'll explore his suggestions in a bit more depth, challenging some. 

I'd then like to offer a counter-proposal that may seem a bit predictable, coming from me, but that I think possesses simplicity and power that I hope will make it worth considering, even for an atheist. 

What good is religion? 

Brian suggested that people benefit in many ways from an "officially sanctioned spiritual and religious community with shared rituals, customs and beliefs."  Such a structure of belief gives meaning to life, a sense of belonging, and a meaning to death.  Modern cities seem to lack soul, compared to their older counterparts:

"The people who lived in these cities were part of real communities; but the people who live in our fractured and fragmented modern cities are not part of genuine communities – they are isolated atoms, at best clinging together in small, degraded cults."  

As someone who cares a lot about architecture (I just about wilt in Tokyo), I see Brian's point.  In traditional Chinese cities, temples anchored a neighborhood: indeed, markets in Taiwan often still gather around Buddhist temples.  Old European towns also gain character and "soul" from their cathedrals and church graveyards. 

But society was not always so unified as a result in ancient world.  Gibbon points out that in Roman Empire, the common people took all religions as equally true, philosophers took them as equally false, and politicians saw them as equally useful.   The same contrast can be drawn between Brahmin and lower castes in India, the neo-Confucian literati and the secret societies and popular temples filled with spooky black gods in China. The quasi-totalitarian temple religions of Egypt, Sumer and Meso-America displayed an even more austere bias towards the "Haves," against the "Have Nots." 

Then as now, sects also competed, sometimes violently.  A young man from Fukian Province told me how gangs from different temples fought one another.  In Taiwan, criminal gangs often associate with temples.  Medieval monosteries in Europe and in Japan sometimes waged war on one another. 

Like our ancestors, we need to find truth that can both be believed, and can unify classes, creeds, and tribes.

Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have not come to abolish, but fulfill." 

I don't think Jesus was just talking about the Old Testament, when he said that.  In effect, I believe he was talking about all human cultures.  Furthermore, part of what the gospels mean by "fulfill" is to synthesize different strands of truth.  Jesus is described in the gospels not only as the "Messiah," but as "Son of David," "Suffering Servant," "Passover Lamb," and other Jewish stories and types.  Like a seed planted in the soil that sends out roots and draws up nourishment from all directions, the Gospel thus draws on different sources to create a tree that spreads its branches, in which the birds come and nest. (To use one of Jesus' own metaphors.)   

This is, indeed, one function Christianity served in the Greco-Roman world.  Clement, an intellectual leader of Alexandrian Christians, compared truth to the body of Pentheus, who was been torn asunder by the women of Thebes in one of Euripedes' plays.  Truth, which should be one, had likewise broken into fragments, each school being "illumined by the Dawn of Light," which for Clement was Christ.  And indeed, Europe found unity in those sheltering branches. 

For a while.

Brian is a big fan of the Enlightenment, and believes (with some reason) that in the wake of that movement, it is harder for European intellectuals to see the Gospel as the unifying theme of world civilization any longer.  Marxists then denied that Christianity worked for the poor and working class. 

In the long run, perhaps those were useful challenges.  Christianity had grown too corrupt, and too easily taken for granted.  As it gained power in the West, and as the West gained power in the world, the old synthesis broke down.  We are now aware of the world.  Christians, as well as skeptics, now need to reformulate our beliefs in light of all the human race. 

Brian recognizes the need for a unifying ideology:

"If every individual goes off and finds the cult that he likes best, then how can that provide a shared space where Communities and Families can act as one and experience being a unity? The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

One cannot accuse North Korea or Saudi Arabia of loosing anarchy.  I presume that as a "liberal" Brian does not like the alternatives they offer.  He seems to recognize the difficult of finding a good balance between chaos and control:

"The traditional organised religions are now dead or implausible to many – their rigid and dated doctrines often no longer suffice. There is no returning to their special, privileged status at the heart of the city, especially in our diverse, globalised, scientific societies. A multiplicity of established religions in different countries with competing claims also sets up lethal tribal and religious conflicts between various peoples which we can no longer afford. There is no going back. But trying to replace the old religions with “new religions” works even worse – such manufactured cults are contrived and ridiculous (at best, they are the religious equivalent of Esperanto) and have even less claim to be at the heart of the city. So what to do?"

Christianity does not, as a practical political fact, unify modern cities like London or Los Angeles.  Millions of immigrants practice other religions, Islam being prominent in London, Chinese religions in parts of LA.  And many Anglos and Jews in such cosmopolitans centers are secular.  Brian is also right in doubting that even minority religion that are established for the purpose of unifying can really do the trick.  Can one really get everyone to join the Unification Church, or Bahai? 

What's wrong with diversity and pluralism?  One might question Brian's assumption that a multitude of competing creeds need lead to violence.  Where is the rioting in Singapore?  Do the Buddhists in Monterey Park often burn down churches in Pasadena?  When has America ever had a pogrom? 

Following Adam Smith, Rodney Stark argues, to the contrary, that monopoly religions most easily become oppressive. 

But let us braken that big question.  Certainly there has been some conflict in London and LA, Beirut and Bombay, including riots and murders, often with a racial and religious justification.

This is nothing new, of course.  Clement's Alexandria was a seething maelstrom of rampaging mobs. 

The Search for Synthesis: Will Hindu Work?

Brian then suggests that "the established, officially-sanctioned religion of modern society" should be "based on tradition, not invented from scratch," and should include:

"The teachings of all the greatest and most influential prophets of human history.  If this was done correctly it would not be superficial or artificial. The Scripture of this religion would be a compendium of the teachings and stories of the greatest prophets and educators of human history – Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, Mahavira, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad and perhaps some others. Think what a wonderful book that would be! The most wonderful book in the world, containing the best of all that has been thought and said by the wisest most influential figures of human history . . . a system of thought and stories with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, atheism, agnosticism, gnosticism and others."

I like this idea, and I think Brian is quite right to hope that the result not be "artificial."  He compares his amalgram to "Hinduism."  I don't think that will work, though. 
Brian holds some serious misconceptions about Hinduism, I think:

"Hinduism IS such a religion, and it works, and its tradition is older and more enduring than that of any of the other existing great religions."

This is untrue on several counts. 

A temple in Xin Dian,
Taiwan, with a similarly
snycretistic blend
First, the term "Hinduism" is a modern invention, because the religion itself is largely a modern invention.  Tomoko Masuzawa, in The Invention of World Religions, notes:

"Brahmanism (ie, Hinduism) . . . the religion of India, supposedly, despite the empirical fact that multiple, often contending and always polymorphous cultic communities had existed in the Indian subcontinent for milliennia . . . ever since Europeans learned to read Sanskrit, the spiritual genius of the Indian nation has been claimed to reside above all in the Vedas . . . "(133)

Second, why was this alleged "religion of India" once called "Brahmanism?"  Because it was, in fact, the philosophy of the upper-caste Brahmins, not of "India" as a whole. 

The difference is clear when you read Gandhi's disgusted reaction to the cultic sacrifice of lambs in a "Hindu" temple.  That was popular Hinduism, and Gandhi didn't like it one bit. 

Third, what religion is really most ancient in India?  The religion of sacrifice.  That's the central theme of the oldest "Hindu" Scriptures, the Rig Veda.  It's also the theme against which the Brahmins reacted.  What we call "Hinduism" is the upper-caste philosophy of the rebels, who went off into the woods to torture themselves until they found enlightenment within.  (I use the word "torture" advisedly: these people would have found waterboarding child's play.) 

Finally, did "Hinduism" really "work" in India?  My visit to New Delhi, in 1984, was interrupted by religious riots that killed thousands of people.  If you say, this sectarian violence is a modern phenomena, prompted by Islamic and Christian invasions, well so is "Hinduism."

So it it not quite true to say what we call "Hinduism" has been the dominant faith of India, that the cults of India are unified, or that there is any real unity between the philosophy of the gurus and popular Hindu practice.  One cannot carve a face on a loose pile of sand. 

Furthermore, the upper castes oppressed the lower and outcastes badly.  The shadow of an outcaste should not so much as fall on a Brahmin, or he could be beaten severely.  They were not allowed to drink from the same wells.

Women were also terribly oppressed in Brahmanism, as authorized in the Law of Manu.  Women were commanded to treat their husbands as gods.  They were confined indoors.  Girls were forced to marry older men, then often "invited" to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, when he died.  To go on living was to show an impiety that merited abuse. 

True, every tradition has its problems. But in what sense did Hinduism "work," except for upper caste men?
"In point of fact, all the great “traditional” religions are syntheses of other religions that evolved over time - they built on the best of the past and modified it as necessary."

This is true to a point.  But there is a difference between a synthesis, in which the parts fit together to make a coherent whole, and a monster with arms and legs tacked on all over, without rhyme or reason.   

The Missing Sage

Perhaps we should start, instead, at the ground floor, and build up our ideal, universal belief system, from the best in what we find in each tradition. 

(1) It should preserve the Hindu concept of sacrifice.  It might even preserves the ancient Hindu idea that the Supreme God somehow sacrifices Himself for all humanity.  Yet it should not require us to actually kill humans or animals. 

(2) It should allow us to celebrate Yuletide, as Brian insists.  It should not, however, demand that we, say, sacrifice children to the gods, or drunken orgies, of which modern cities have enough, already.  (Perhaps it should encourage, instead, a nakedness of the soul before God.)

(3) We cannot, of course, include Islam, or many native African, Australian, or Asian religions, or the great Greek philosophers, without a strong concept of the Supreme God, who speaks to mankind through messengers. 

Putting God in our amalgamated religion might, it is true, make the Buddhists feel left out.  But this will allow serious Buddhists to meditate on the paradox of unity within difference.  A lot of marginal Buddhists believe in God, anyway. 

(4) Let us learn from the priesthood abuse scandal.  Synthesis must be critical to be helpful.  Good medicine gets rid of quacks.  Good religion gets rid of abusers.  To build a world community, let us also insist that religious messengers be genuinely holy men and women who have something of value to say.  It does not help to praise murderers, torturers, child molestors, or war-mongers, even if they carry a "prophet" or "Master" before their names.

(5) Lao Zi teaches us to value the weak, who overcome the strong by their humility.  Let us take that as a principle by which to evaluate gurus, demigods, and great teachers.  Let the true, ultimate sage, be one who comes in weakness and humility. 

Let us in the West learn from Lao Zi, or more proximate teachers, the wisdom of humility.  Maybe it's a good thing that the Church has lost its power.  We found, in the communist era, that Christ is often strongest in our weakness.

(6) Zhuang Zi shows that one can say serious things and make people laugh, at the same time.  He also speaks of a Creator.  I'm with Brian, if he wants to include the two great founding texts of Taoism, in his expanded canon.  They have much to teach us. 

(7) Confucius described himself as "eager to learn."  His humility showed itself in obedience to God (天), concern for poor students, intellectual curiosity, and awareness both of his own limits, and of God's calling on his life.  His central teachings were kindness, and respect for authority. 

Let us include these teachings, and this example, in the expanded human canon.  Let us also look for someone who exhibits these characteristics, the "Sage" Confucius, Mencius and Lao Zi all sought, who would benefit all the world, even sacrifice himself for it.  Mencius expected another great sage about 500 years after the time of Confucius.   

(8) Strangely enough, some Buddhist texts also predict the sum of the bodhisattvas and Buddhas about 500 years after the time of Buddha.  (Who, like Confucius, lived around 500 BC.)  Let us also respect their wishes, and see if such an unlikely vision might somehow be fulfilled in our synthesized system.

(9) Of course, we should also include Buddha's compassion.  Only, as the Dalai Lama admitted, Buddhist compassion has often proven too theoretical: let us look for a way of incarnating it in a human model of compassion, who teaches, heals, feeds the hungry, stills storms, and gives hope at the time of death.

(10) Let us also include the Pure Land Buddhist hope for life after death.  We might also recognize, with Pure Land Buddhists, that we need help to find salvation.

(11) Nor should Judaism be neglected.  Let us pray that our Sage also fulfill the key tropes of Hebrew tradition.

(12) Our hypothetical common religion should also include the greatest moral teachers of the ancient world, the Jewish prophets.  Bottle their fire, passion, poetry, and their loud and ringing call to look out for the poor and helpless against their oppressors, and sell it to the world.   

(13) Socrates was the great hero of the Greco-Roman world.  Let us include a figure like Socrates, who goes to his death nobly, "drinking the cup" for the good of his city, or more than his city.

(14)  Also let us include the moral teachings of the Stoics, after the Jews perhaps the noblest moralists.  They are so refreshing an alternative to modern omnipresent cant: make school children read a chapter from Epictetus on a weekly basis.

(15) Nor should we neglect the teachings of the great modern schools.  Let's include whatever ideology actually inspired the birth of modern science.  (Which, it turns out, shared a creationist theism with the ideology that inspired the birth of ancient, Greek science.) 

(16) We need a teacher who rebukes his own followers, not only when they become lazy, but also when they grow fanatical, and want to call down fire on unbelievers.  The Enlightenment recognized that need, and let us try to canonize that recognition, as well. 

And then, if we follow Brian's prescription, we need to find some way of weaving all these threads together.

It would be nice, also, if after all is said and done, there were some reason to believe the synthesized belief system were actually true.  Maybe this wouldn't be necessary for government work, but it would help ordinary people, even give us an extra reason for dancing at Christmas.

(Note: I'm heading to Asia tomorrow, but wanted to post this first.  It's still a bit of a rough draft, though, and may need to come back and do some revision later.  I recognize  plausible objections to the trend of my argument, here, and may come back and address them.  -- DM)

1 comment:

Brian Barrington said...

Thanks for your remarks David. I'll have a think about them and hopefully respond.