Church viewed from The Pub, Kandy
Sociologist Robert Bellah says that religion may be like play. The rules don’t make sense in the abstract, but they can create meaning and better people if you just play along.
I’ve been in enough religious debates to conclude that God is not in the details. It’s like having an extended argument about how logical an LBW is and claiming that this refutes the game of cricket. But it doesn’t. These somewhat abstract rule based systems can lead to higher level awesomeness, but viewed in isolation, the rules may not make much sense. Like Java.
I’ve also have extended debates about, say, how English is a better language than Sinhala. These invariably get down to comparing specific features (English has more words) which is simply a retarded way to debate rule based systems. Any rule based system combines a few basic principles to produce nearly infinite variability. We then interpret these features with infinitely variable brains. Comparing languages or sports is like nailing jello to the wall. There are way too many possible variables to even begin to compare. At a very philosophical level, you either like or you don’t. You can’t say one language or sport is better than another any more than you can say apples empirically taste better than oranges.
Dialogue Not Debate
What I dig about Bellah’s interview on The Roots Of Religion is that he seems to be staking out a middle ground in the Science/Religion debate by reframing the debate. Namely, by saying that is may not be a debate with two sides playing by the same rules at all. It can be a dialogue, if you dig a bit deeper than the details, get to the Gestalt and, therein, mutual understanding.
I have found that the very mention of the words “religion” and “evolution” sets off a kind of reflex reaction among some, but fortunately not all, contemporary Americans. Among both religious fundamentalists and what might be called atheistic fundamentalists these terms set off a war to the death, with abusive language directed toward the supposed opposition. In that kind of atmosphere any rational discussion becomes impossible.
What unites these two groups is the idea that religion and science are essentially the same thing: sets of propositional truths that can be judged in terms of argument and evidence. What surprised me when I began to read the work of leading scientists in the fields of cosmology and evolution is how many of them rejected this idea and argued instead that science and religion are really two different spheres that may at points overlap but that operate in accordance with different logics…
Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof. Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its “proof” is the kind of person the religious way of life produces.
Religion As A Way Of Life
One reason people (and I) rarely attack religion head-on is because people will get really pissed off and possibly kill you. That is bad, but there is kernel of truth behind the idea that religion is personal, and that an attack on religion is an attack on people. If people start questioning the LBW rule in cricket, it would be madness. You would have trouble playing a unified form of cricket, and life is (a bit) more serious than that. People build their lives on religion, and attacking it based on specific verses or ‘silly’ rituals is largely missing the point. To paraphrase Bellah, the proof is in the pudding.
If you evaluate religion according to scientific logic, it will come up short, but so would any sport, hobby or almost any organized activity that gives human life meaning. As per:
As I have indicated before, I am nervous about thinking of religion primarily in terms of “truth claims,” which seems closer to what is appropriate in science. Religion provides answers to such questions as “How shall I live?” and “What is the meaning of the universe?” that science has no capacity to answer. But because answers to such questions are incapable of empirical testing by scientific methodology, how can we evaluate the answers that various religions give? As I have said above, the truth of religious beliefs can be seen in the lives of people who live by those truths. And if we see remarkable individuals in other traditions than our own we can accept that they have some kind of truth even if it is not completely the same as ours. When Martin Luther King, Jr. found in Mahatma Gandhi a role model for his non-violent protest he was recognizing the truth that Gandhi always claimed to stand for.
Hence, there is both a positive and a pluralistic role religion can play, though that may not necessarily be in the literal scriptures, especially if you pick and choose. I think that is, however, one emergent property among many, but I’ve seen it a lot. In University I was quite deeply Buddhist but, in Montreal, I found myself hanging out at Jewish shul during prayers, with a devoutly Muslim Iraqi friend and volunteering for the Christian school chaplain. We each had our own faiths, but we were operating on a similar level of chill. It’s like PHP and Ruby On Rails developers. No beef. Perhaps a little sporting fun.
Why, perhaps because religion has its roots in the original safe space, play.
Religion As Play
Every religion has safe spaces – temples, churches, kovils – where it is both rare and extremely uncouth to practice violence. These are all places with seemingly random rules (take off your shoes, walk clockwise, bow in this direction) which can lead to great meaning if you get into them. To Bellah, the evolutionary substrate of this may be the mammalian propensity to play:
Play is found only among animals that require parental, usually maternal, care, and especially among mammals that emerged over 200 million years ago. That is, mammals are born helpless and unless they are taken care of — fed, kept warm and safe — they will die. Play occurs in what biologists call a “relaxed field,” which means that evolutionary selectionist pressures are minimal. It is only because young animals are protected from such pressures that they can play, an activity whose good is intrinsic to the activity and has no other purpose.
If one believes, as I do, that the earliest form of religion was ritual, one might see how play among humans with cultural capacities might develop into ritual. Ritual has many of the features of play: it has no obvious function, it is an end in itself, it enacts events, but symbolically, as in pretend play, and it takes place in a relaxed field, where hunger, predators and procreation are kept at bay. For example, in the perpetually warring Greek states during the great festivals, such as the Olympic festival to Zeus of which the games were only a part, a universal truce was proclaimed. It is among humans that play processes have exfoliated so extravagantly, and ritual is one of the things to which they led.
Mmmm, extravagant exfoliation. Where was I? Oh. Moving on.
All of this of course, could just be my interpretation of religion, leaving out all the jihadis, persecutions, abuse and general suck. Indeed, many axioms of religion – ranging from death penalties to women’s rights – are far more serious than an LBW. I, however, think that religion is an evolving system, an extremely interesting one and, personally, an enriching part of life. While we may not agree on what religion is, we can at least agree that it is and have an interesting, non-threatening discuss.
Bellah’s book, however, seems pretty robustly researched and seems to come to similar conclusions. I won’t put too many of my words in his mouth, but I think we’d agree that science and religion are not inherently hostile to each other, it’s just that they’re not the same. I think he’d also agree that a religion is more than the sum of its parts, that the system that emerges from the rules is more important than the rules themselves. Specifically, that religions can’t be analyzed or attacked without looking at their actual practice and the changes they can affect on human brains and hearts.
Which is, yeah, interesting. Think I’ll buy the book. Till then, the interview is worth a read.