I've got no problem with religious mythology. Many children believe in Santa Claus. Lots of adults here in the Pacific Northwest believe in Bigfoot. Belief systems with little or no foundation in objective reality abound.
So what's the harm in using religion as a mythological art form? None. All of us engage in fantasies of one form or another.
When I played tennis seriously I always believed that the next new racquet I bought would eliminate my nasty double-faulting problem. That never happened, but I continued to have faith in the Perfect Racquet – thereby adding to the profitability of Prince and other manufacturers.
In a recent issue of New Scientist, Amanda Gefter reviews "Dawin's Angel: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion," by John Cornwell (note: this link is to Amazon UK, not Amazon US – where the book isn't listed)
She quotes Cornwell:
You think religion is a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. And yet, for most of those who studied religion down the ages, it is as much a product of the imagination as art, poetry, and music.
Well, yes, absolutely. My sentiments exactly. But we admire the works of Rembrandt, T.S. Eliot, and Beethoven – we don't worship them and found our entire outlook on life around a painting, poem, or symphony.
And few of us expect that other people will share our artistic sentiments, or consider that if they don't, they're deluded.
Thus Gefter is right on the mark when she says that while Cornwell aces his contention that religion satisfies a need that can't be met by cold hard scientific facts, he misses the mark in other respects.
But before celebrating a win he must presumably concede that in this version of religion, no particular set of religious beliefs can be taken as superior to any other. He must allow that "belief" is probably not the right word, and consider using "intuition" or "experience."
And that if a sacred text like the Bible is, as he says, not to be taken literally, then its metaphorical and allegorical insights cannot be held in any higher esteem than those of other great works of literature.
This short New Scientist article, which I'll include in its entirety as a continuation to this post, got me thinking about my personal myths and how they could easily become converted into religious dogma if I came to be seen as a great sage or prophet (unlikely, since I can't even get our dog to reliably bring a ball back to me when I throw it).
My mother had several strokes in her final years. After her last serious one, before I was able to fly from Oregon to the California hospital where she'd been admitted, I sat on a large Douglas fir stump outside my Salem home and came as close to praying as my non-monotheistic soul would allow.
I pretty much believed in karma at the time. Back then I also considered that my guru might be able to manipulate karma in a godlike fashion. So on that stump I talked to him: "Master, I want to give my good karma to my mother. Whatever you can do for her, please do, even if it means that my journey to god-realization takes a significant detour."
At the time I knew that I might be talking to myself. Now I'm almost sure of it. Yet I still cling to this myth.
Even today, before I meditate I often recollect standing by my mother's bedside and holding her hand as she, comatose, died after being taken off of life support (her brain was gone, and my sister and I were more than willing to respect my mother's wishes not to be kept alive artificially in such a circumstance).
At the time I silently wished her soul, Godspeed.
And now, I enjoy imagining that by letting go of my own thoughts, emotions, and other attachments in meditation, I'm helping to propel my mother across some sort of cosmic Truth Portal that she has found her way to, but can't enter without a last push of good karma from her son.
I know, this sounds crazy. And it is. I recognize that myself. However, this myth serves a purpose for me in a way I can't even explain to myself, much less to other people. Like everybody's relation to their parents, mine is so deeply personal it's barely communicable.
Yet this deeply personal myth of mine still could become the core of a shared mythology under the right circumstances. Provide me with an eloquent gift of gab plus a gullible audience, and you might see the seed of a new form of ancestor worship begin to sprout.
In short, a religion. One which could come to believe that it actually is possible to affect the afterlife of a deceased relative by bestowing your good karma upon them, and that it's the divine duty of everyone to do just that.
God forbid that such should ever happen. I've no interest in spreading my personal mythologies beyond the interior of my own mind.
I realize that my fantasy is, as Cornwell argues, a subjective art form that has nothing to do with external objective reality – and that the only critic whose opinion counts to me is myself.
(Here's the entire book review)
Review: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion by John Cornwell
* 22 September 2007
* From New Scientist Print Edition.
* by Amanda Gefter
The debate between science and religion has been brewing since the birth of modern science but its infiltration of popular culture has recently become too noisy to be ignored. With the rise of "new atheism" on the one hand and intelligent design on the other, the debate has been reduced to unseemly bickering back and forth that for the bystander feels like watching a never-ending tennis match.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion. This is the fourth book written in response to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and in this one John Cornwell, the Catholic philosopher of science, addresses Dawkins in the guise of a guardian angel. One can only imagine the inevitable riposte in which Dawkins will perhaps speak through the character of an ape or a swatch of DNA. We can wait until Cornwell resorts to angry devils - or take a step back and ask whether the nature of the debate itself might be flawed.
"You think religion is 'a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence'," Cornwell's angel says to Dawkins. "And yet, for most of those who have studied religion down the ages, it is as much a product of the imagination as art, poetry, and music." He goes on to describe religious activities and rituals as "principally symbolic, appealing to deep levels of folk memory". For Dawkins to oppose this version of religion - a way of organising the cold, hard facts of the world into a meaningful and symbolic internal narrative - denies people the right to unfettered thought and erroneously assumes that science in itself can satisfy our innate, insatiable wonderment at existence.
It's an ace for Cornwell. But before celebrating a win he must presumably concede that in this version of religion, no particular set of religious beliefs can be taken as superior to any other. He must allow that "belief" is probably not the right word, and consider using "intuition" or "experience". And that if a sacred text like the Bible is, as he says, not to be taken literally, then its metaphorical and allegorical insights cannot be held in any higher esteem than those of other great works of literature. Would the average "religious" person concede so much?
In any case, it is clearly not this version of religion that Dawkins is calling "delusional". In The God Delusion, he talks about the supreme wonder some scientists experience at the inner workings of nature - wonder that might be called religious. "I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense," Dawkins writes. "The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."
Cornwell appears guilty of such treason. His image of religion is lovely - after all, it comes from an angel - but it's not the religion that most people who claim to be religious subscribe to. They adhere to a particular set of beliefs not only about what the world means but about how it works - how it began, how it evolved (or didn't evolve) and how it will end. Even Cornwell invokes physical and cosmological arguments for the existence of God, for example, the values of various physical constants that appear designed to ensure the universe is hospitable to life.
This is where the problem lies. Once believers start to claim truths about how the physical world works - those who want to include intelligent design in biology textbooks, for example, or who believe that Jesus walked on water or Moses parted the sea - then they must be willing to debate with scientists based on evidence. Meanwhile, those who take religion to be an art or ethos should refrain from using facts about the world as evidence for their mythological intuitions, or abandoning their artistic post to squabble with scientists.
In turn, scientists should acknowledge that there are many different kinds of religion. A faith that purely seeks to find meaning in the world is presumably just as important, and just as subjective, as art, music, literature and mythology. It is also dangerous, and as Cornwell points out, perhaps even mathematically untenable, for Dawkins and others to assume that science is ultimately capable of explaining everything about the universe. Such an assumption is itself surely based on faith.
If the tennis match is to continue, can we at least settle on the rules of the game?
From issue 2622 of "New Scientist" magazine, 22 September 2007, page 53