As a great songwriter once prompted us, imagine a world without organized religion and its tenets. For a number of outspoken atheists in the young 21st century, such an absence of religion would be the assumed starting point of a far better world than we have now. Scientists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and the comedian Bill Maher are among the most assertive figures who are propounding the case for a secular worldview and the abandonment of faith-based systems. These critics of organized religion have framed the debate in terms of observable facts and logic, and in view of how human knowledge has changed so profoundly in recent centuries, religion certainly cannot be above analysis or satire. However, since our lives involve highly personal impressions and experiences and not simply a litany of indisputably factual recognitions, human beings will probably have some degree of spiritual orientation for as long as we live. One challenge is how to balance our human yearnings, insecurities, and imaginations with the always growing scientific knowledge that our species is constantly developing.
A Long-standing Debate
Atheists typically have argued that if in fact all of the world’s religious texts are solely of human authorship—i.e. “made up,” then people should abandon religion altogether. After all, if both the morality and the scientific worldview conveyed in the scriptures are highly flawed, then it makes little sense to follow religion as a guide for belief or action. When the prominent historical religions of the East and West are examined in terms of their scriptures and traditions, it is fairly clear that the emphasis is on moral truths and rituals but not verifiable facts. These ancient systems of belief were not built to stand up to an objective scrutiny. They addressed something deeper—the human need for meaning and moral structure, and they did it mainly through stories and rules.
These stories and rules reflect human imagination, but they also reflect the personal insecurities and cultural assumptions of a more primitive human existence. For just one example, the Hebrew Scriptures have a plethora of gender-biased retribution, fear of menstruation, and open allowance of violence and slavery in books such as Numbers and Leviticus. The modern world is increasingly becoming a place where traditional assumptions are challenged and irrational fears and insecurities are rejected as a basis for laws or actions. What we have left is imagination and the human instinct for storytelling, which is a more enduring and arguably relevant feature of religions and mythological systems.
The Wheel of Storytelling
Stories are a uniquely human invention. They are products of human inspiration and craftsmanship whether they are fictional or strongly grounded in facts. The growth and advancement of human civilization can be traced in conjunction with the growth of our ability to create and disseminate stories of all kinds and genres about ourselves. Well-told stories have the power to entertain, but they can do something more: stories educate us by providing a sense of parallelism between the reader and the subject of the story even when there may be a great disparity of experience between these two. If we can acknowledge the mythical components of all religions in the same way that most modern people view the Greek and Roman myths, then we can move on to a more important issue, which is not a clash of truths, but a rewarding survey in the library of human ingenuity. Whether a person reads from the Torah, the Qur’an, stories of Athena, Zen parables, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, it is possible to gain wisdom from all or none of these books—it depends on how they are read. Purportedly religious texts are neither superior nor inferior to other works of literature and art. If we can enjoy and be inspired by fiction and legends, why would it be unfavorable to categorize religious texts as some of the richest and most sociologically instructive works of fiction, tradition and legend ever written? Many great religious teachers past and present have taken this view.
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religions are impractical, fallacious, and unnecessary systems of thought. While I endorse most of Dawkins’s criticisms of organized religions, I would invite the examination of specific aspects of religion and especially religious texts. The work of the author Joseph Campbell greatly illuminated the storytelling component of the world’s religions and myths and showed that disparate cultures that had had no contact with each other fashioned mythical stories with uncanny similarities and shared patterns. These stories helped to organize and give empowering direction to our distant ancestors. Earlier this year, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari published his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which he comments on the important role of storytelling for our species over thousands of years. As I acknowledged earlier, much of the rules and cultural mores of ancient religions are clearly flawed, but to this day the stories—even when viewed with no lens of holiness—teach us much about human motivation, society, and character.
Eastern religions have made some very practical contributions to civilization in the form of yoga and mindfulness meditation, both of which are associated with substantial health benefits. In the late 1980s, a group of western neuroscientists began a series of conversations with scholars and monks of Tibetan Buddhism that went on to include the current Dalai Lama. These meetings officially became the Mind and Life Institute, and it has generated fruitful exchanges of ideas involving scientists such as Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman with highly trained Buddhist meditation practitioners. In May of 2001, the Institute’s work involved the use of functional MRI’s and other laboratory research to verify and analyze how a highly trained Buddhist monk can alter his bodily functions and physiological responses to stimuli. By use of breathing techniques and varieties of meditation developed over centuries, this monk was able to restrain his natural startle reflex and demonstrate peak levels of focus, calmness, and observation in various experiments. The Mind and Life Institute considers its mission to advance knowledge and improve the lives of sentient beings, and the Dalai Lama has played a key role in this work as both an enthusiast of scientific discovery and a spiritual leader.
Examining Traditions and Navigating the Present
These kinds of exchanges and developments don’t necessarily point to the idea that everyone ought to be practicing Buddhism or doing yoga or joining a church. Instead, these exchanges show that we should examine beliefs and traditions and find what can be genuinely productive. Sometimes the value is subtle and tucked away. I may not be a proponent of prayer, but instead of seeing prayers as foolish attempts at wish fulfillment, I like to think about what people’s prayers say about themselves and how they may be an intangible part of a bigger story. Religious scriptures are certainly not science textbooks nor are they unassailable legislative guides. We can read the book of Job for insight into suffering, and we can turn to Newton, Galileo, and Einstein for information about the structure and tendencies of our universe. And as most modern societies have done, when we require laws and standards of conduct, we engage in the effort to write them and progressively improve them instead of relying on the laws of the ancients. Many people correctly point out that the communal aspect of organized religion serves a valuable role. For nonbelievers, ethical humanist societies and organizations provide an important vehicle for discussion and social functions such as weddings that would ordinarily be handled by a church or other religious institution. When religious ceremony or tradition doesn’t meet the needs of an individual then it is time for her to establish new practices and communities as an increasing number of people are doing.
Conversation or Conflict?
One challenge for fair-minded nonbelievers is the light in which society views them. In a series of studies that were published in December 2011, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that participants judged atheists to be less trustworthy human beings than Muslims, Christians, gay men, Jewish people, and feminists. The only category of people in the study who were distrusted at a similar rate to atheists was that of rapists. In 2014, the New York Times reported that seven states in the U.S. still have state constitutions with language barring an atheist from serving as an elected official. For example, Mississippi’s constitution states that “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” Despite the increase in people claiming no religious affiliation, perception of self-described atheists is still negatively clouded even if it is not really founded on any legitimate standard or assumption.
It was partly because of this vague hostility to atheism that the March 2012 Rally for Reason was held in Washington, D.C., gathering together an enthusiastic group of more than 20,000 atheists, secular humanists, and general non-believers. At this event, Richard Dawkins humorously opined that it was quite a remarkable predicament that reason and rationality would need to be defended in the 21st century. All joking aside, it is fairly clear that many people of faith have short-changed their evaluations of atheists and secular humanists in the same way that some atheists are insulting and dismissive toward religious people. In the spring of 2007, neuroscientist Sam Harris debated Pastor Rick Warren on the topic of religious belief. At one point in the debate Warren asserted, “I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t angry.” This is the kind of attempt to marginalize non-religious people that is going to lose its effectiveness gradually as more people openly ask authentic questions about religious doctrines.
A number of talented scientists and thinkers have made robust contributions to this overall debate in recent years. Sam Harris has done some very perceptive writing in his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. He engages in an inquiry about life, experience, and consciousness in order to reclaim the idea of spirituality from a strictly religious context—which I consider to be a worthwhile pursuit. While I agree with Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on some issues, I think their approaches can occasionally be reductive and vitriolic. For a more even-handed approach, take a look at the writings and statements of the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has done some impressive work in the conversation on science and in efforts to understand the essential nature of existence. I appreciate Krause and Neil DeGrasse Tyson because they are nonbelievers who display a contagious enthusiasm for debating and sharing ideas, and they often bring up scintillating possibilities and leave open the questions for which they don’t have sufficient data.
The Challenge of the Many Paths
The inability of people to think critically about religious ideas and traditions is a significant problem in our world. We often worry about the danger of loose nuclear weapons, but we have a danger in loose metaphors and parables that are misread to be facts. When religions are viewed and practiced as if they are fundamentally and literally true, many practitioners end up with a series of unquestionable but flawed answers to questions that they never actually asked. None of this is to say that it is wrong to believe in some form of life after death or to believe in important principles. We live for a relatively short time with the backdrop of the stunningly vast and ancient canvas of the universe (or multi-verse) with all of its amazing substances and energies. We are still learning to understand aspects of the atom. Who is to say what forms of life will emerge over millions of years just as we have emerged? Maybe we will live again in a new way.
We should invite people to analyze the old scriptures and dogmas to understand the limitations of these documents. Science, experience, and inquiry are always producing new material that we can shape into new myths and accounts that will add to the store of inspired literature and meaningful narratives that push us forward toward progress, knowledge, and moments of happiness. Rather than seeing people abandon religion, I would prefer to see religious leaders and institutions emphasize the human creativity and myth-making at their foundation. If human beings can see clearly our capacity for both ingenuity and error, we are likely to be wiser travelers on our many paths.