Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bellah 1: The religious atheist

An extended series of reviews of Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution. In this first post, atheists are religious, after all.

Robert Bellah coined the term "civic religion" for the system of rituals, saints, feast days, deities and the like that characterize America's civic (i.e. putatively non-religious, secular) life, and doubtless the life of every cohesive human culture. The founding fathers take on the role of deities, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July make up the major holidays, with minor deities and holidays sprinkled elsewhere in the pantheon and calendar. The president takes on a heavily archetypal role, residing in the symbolic center of the nation, communing with past presidents and protected by phalanxes of soldiers, agents, and wizards of all kinds. We look upon him (or maybe someday her) with awe, as all primates gaze at higher-status individuals. And we participate in the various cycles of election and debate, however hollowed out they may have become by the money power, which so nearly overwhelms every other influence and legitimacy.

His latest book is a magnum opus, turning to the past and taking a broad brush view of the origins and development of religion from the deepest prehistory to the end of the axial age. It is an extremely rich (and long) book, provoking me into several blog entries.

Bellah scoffs at the new atheists, and provides a dry analysis of Steven Weinberg's particular version, which winds up ... "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.":

"However, Weinberg can no more evade the search for meaning than the rest of us can. Like Jaques Monod, he has opted for cosmic pessimism as his meaning.  
Not quite, though. He does find consolation: 'But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself ... The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.' In these closing remarks of his book The First Three Minutes, (scientists frequently allow themselves rhetorical riffs in their final remarks, which are often most revealing), what Weinberg has really done is to move from science as a cultural system to religion as a cultural system, and affirm the practice of science as his religion; fair enough, if it weren't quite so condescending to the rest of us who are left at the level of farce. But then religions are often exclusive."


So, one can be without theism, but one can not be without religion, which Bellah seems to define as some system of meaning, personal and collective, which motivates whatever one does and thinks, beyond the immediate imperatives of survival.

This seems fair enough, despite the commonly interchangeable usage of theism with religion. There really are differences- for instance, Buddhism is a religion but has in some of its "vehicles" virtually no theism.

The way of science (which I will have stand in for the atheist attitude in general) clearly has its rituals and religious aspects. A scientific community typically has its weekly gathering, in the guise of a seminar where some dominant member of the larger community beyond the immediate institution is invited to retell the story of how they battled with intransigent reality to find a precious jewel of knowledge. Afterwards, audience members can step up to battle hand-to-hand, as it were, asking incisive questions of the speaker, to display their own powers and confidence, and perhaps to wrong-foot or even fatally embarrass the speaker.

And science contains an exacting moral system as well, which is perhaps not so well appreciated by theists, who think that without god, all is permitted. Not so! Truth is at the very center of this system, leading to an atmosphere of habitual and pervasive integrity. All results are checked and discussed, and if one has shaded anything, reality will make sure it comes out in the end anyhow, so no one gains from ethical breaches in the long run. It is a bit like working under the eye of a truly, and terrifyingly existing god. But one who is in the end scrupulously fair and mechanically impartial. We are Spinozists, of a sort.

Humanity and charity is less of a virtue here, and indeed one can hardly become a leading scientist without somewhat cavalierly churning through student after student, post-doc after post-doc, few of whom are destined to succeed in the career one is educating them for. It is a competitive system, where one must take with a grain of salt the constant refrain of "we need more science students". We may need more hands in the labs, and we may want plenty of candidates wending and weeding their way through the system, but that is not the same as ending up with more scientists.

The scientific pursuit is also a leading form of shamanism in our time, (competing only with that of economics and the mysteries of money), providing dramatic revelations of occult powers and secret realms beyond all imagining. From nuclear power and E=mc2, to wheeling galaxies and moon landings, the priesthood has shown itself the master of esoteric knowledge and vast powers. The knowledge is true, which presents some difficulty for the narrative-maker, who always seeks to tell a human story, rather than an inhuman story. Nevertheless, it can still be fashioned into a serviceable story, if one revels in the vast scales involved, as a wan substitute for actual drama.

It gives us power and knowledge, but does it give us meaning? As Weinberg says, no it does not. We always have to make up meaning for ourselves. And that is where the religion of science or atheism is deficient. Its project is precisely to drain psychological projections, i.e. meanings, from things so that they can be dispassionately investigated, reduced, and analyzed. After everything is broken down, what is left?

Meanings, then, tend to creep into the community of science from unconscious sources, if they do not arrive through an explicit ideology or mythology. Pride, hubris, greed, tribal identity, ambition- all have their place, as do better motives of helping others and seeking novel and pure truths. These are not amplified by a mythical narrative, which is, in my view, a good thing. But at the same time, they are present implicitly as human nature, and it falls to self-analysis, self-awareness, and mutual criticism to limit their dangers even while they propel the whole enterprise forward.

So, yes- we all have rituals and motivations that lend meaning to our lives and pursuits. Indeed, as above, we can have and typically do have, many gods. But that doesn't make all religions equivalent or equally "true". History is littered with narratives that worked for a time, then failed, succeeded by others and yet others. The axial age, which will come up in future posts, consisted of a growing self-awareness and criticism of these narratives, improving their moral implications while bringing them closer, inch by inch, to something we might call true in an analytical sense.

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