The rational, and quite reasonable, skepticism regarding religious belief is also in its way discouraging. As we try to imagine a human culture that is devoid of religion, we are also envisioning a human culture that is devoid of something essential to the preservation of the very culture we hope to prolong. That essential something is the irrational.
As a skeptic and rationalist myself, I am often embarrassed to have to admit that I spend considerable time cultivating those irrational aspects of myself, aspects that might look on the outside very much like religion. But this cultivation has revealed to me that what we call religion these days is just as responsible for putting the kibosh on the irrational as is the rationalists and empiricists in our midst. Both rationalists and the religious see religion as what Tim Dean in his recent post featured here calls “prescriptive,” unable to ask “why” as deeply as science. Faith trumps why, the religious might say, and whatever I cannot glean from holy texts I will chalk up to God and all his works as a mystery to behold. (Sadly and disappointingly the final episode of Battlestar Galactica opted for this very solution. It seems fiction is often more likely to find a God in the machine than even the most evangelical religious believers.)
The kind of religion that Dean finds problematic is not irrational at all, however. For the believer, the human personhood of the embryo is wholly rational, resting on the immutable, divine law. This kind of spiritual belief is only one small aspect of the religious imagination, a broad palette that at its root is not rational, and should not be critiqued with the same tools we use to judge those who believe in creationism and saddle-wearing triceratops. We cannot lump convictions about personhood with mythological cosmogonies.
Truth is, I blame religion for this confusion.
In almost every religious tradition there exists some aspect that is beyond the merely moral and legal. Perennialists like Aldous Huxley, and later people like Huston Smith, understood this to be some core mystical element. The mystical elements are often hard to come by, either because they are too esoteric and reserved for the most learned of the community, or because the hierarchy has deemed the mystical teachings to be dangerous or even heretical. Nevertheless, in almost all religious narrative, it’s the mystical that stands out far and above as the most human experiences.
Even many of the early naturalists and scientists saw their task more like that of a mystic, to uncover the secrets the divine will using a rational and exact examination of nature and natural phenomenon. Species of animals and plants, fossils and shells, could be classified and ordered in a way that showed an ordered relationship between all things, a unity that existed below (or above as it were) the empirical. They saw this relationship as a manifestation of God’s mind. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was himself a devout believer. His system of taxonomy (kingdom, class, order, genus, species) are still used today, but his religious beliefs are discarded as quaint and simply a condition of his time.
As the rift between faith and science became more divisive — particularly with advent of Darwin and Freud — religionists developed various defensive strategies. One strategy, religious fundamentalism, can thus be seen as a result of the scientific revolution, as the religion scholar Karen Armstrong suggests. Religious thought, particularly in the Protestant sects, started to use the language of science and scientific methods to “prove” religious ideas. Mysticism became even less visible as the religious tried to appear more positivist.
On the other side, the scientific community became more and more embarrassed by religious sentiment in its own home, blaming the new literalism of religion as distorting scientific language. One of the more telling examples is to be found in Audubon early writings about birds, which were filled with what one might call religious or spiritual sentiments. Contemporary bird guides are dull and static by comparison, as if any sense of awe or wonder had been stripped clean, like the feathers off of a bird.
While science is certainly guilty of stripping away religious feelings from our relationship with the natural world, religion also made it more difficult to encounter our world with reverence and awe. The new creationism and Intelligent Design theories (as well as almost all literal readings of the bible) bleed religious thought of its mythological origins. Metaphor, the muscular heart of religious thought, was replaced with an unshakable stone edifice.
The physicist David Bohm intuited this important distinction. In his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm recognizes that the kind of imagination that makes scientific and technological innovation possible is more than a linear function of the rational brain. For the quantum physicists each level of knowledge is just a ripple on the surface of another stream, never reaching the “true” nature of things. At some point, the only possible way to imagine this eternally reducible rational model, is to enter into a stream of irrational reflection.
Whether we are comfortable with it or not, this irrational reflection is what has made possible some of the most important contributions to human culture; from the Bhagavad Gita to Shakespeare, from the Sphinx to Bach. This encounter with what the theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendem is what so much of our civilization is built on. To suggest we could simply remove it would be to disregard not only its value, but how it might teach us something about humility and, yes, maybe even a little morality.
For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the law is a late-comer to the story. First there are strange encounters in the desert, and only then do the ancient Hebrews begin to hammer out a ethic that can support the magnitude of their plight. This is the formidable power of the religious imagination, its ability to provide metaphor in the way of song, liturgy, and most importantly, story.
I am sympathetic to Dean’s position. I often find myself arguing a similar line. But to imagine a scientific future devoid of the irrational, devoid of mythmaking and ritual, looks too much like the kind of technocracy that technoprogressives would do well to argue against.