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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ‘em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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Only if you believe centuries of propaganda. For nearly two thousand years, the belief in only one god—monotheism—has had a monopoly on western civilization. That means that monotheists have been teaching about religion from a monotheist perspective, which is naturally biased in favor of monotheism. Monotheism’s triumph in the west was not due to its inherent superiority, its fundamental reasonable-ness, or its unique appeal to human beings. Monotheism triumphed over polytheism because of economics, war and politics. To modern western people, monotheism seems like the only reasonable option because monotheists have been saying it is for ages. It seems like the only reasonable option because for most people it has been the only practical option. But none of this has anything to do with whether it is actually a better option. If you say “polytheism is ridiculous” over and over again, people will believe it is true because they have heard it, they are used to hearing it, and more importantly, because nobody has been able to present the opposing viewpoint. There have been basically no polytheists around to counter monotheism’s distorted caricature of polytheism, so people have naturally accepted the only point of view that they have heard. Eventually, it has become something we all just assume to be true. But it is not.

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The other day, my little boy brought me a clay pot that he had planted a seed in awhile ago and he was concerned that nothing had ever grown in it (it had, but unfortunately we have a mischievous cat that likes to pick at and eat young growing things). I realized that we had a bunch of pots and seeds that we had never used, so he and I decided to just go ahead and plant everything.

So we took down a handful of red clay pots, got out our half-full bag of potting mix, and our packets of seeds, and just kind of started planting. We’re moving soon, so it is not certain that these seeds are going to amount to anything–even if we manage to take them with us, they won’t necessarily survive the trip. But it was an intense reminder of how much I long to be connected to the cycles of life and death and nature and growing things.

I’m not much of a gardener, but for at least a couple of years I have had the unshakable instinct that I need to be. Something inside of me desperately craves a connection to the living world, even if I’m a big-city-lawyer. If I do not get it, I am certain that I will go insane.

It;s not practical for me (for us) to just run away to the backwoods and become self-sufficient subsistence farmers, even though I fantasize about it all the time. I have a mountain of debt from law school that’s only going to get paid off by slaving away in the Biglaw Law Mines. And I’m not unhappy about it, to be honest with you–I am fortunate in that I have found an area of the law to practice that I genuinely enjoy. But I am intensely aware that I am going to need to be connected to nature and to growing things, even as a busy urban professional.

I have big dreams for our new place in Chicago–I’ve been poring over my book (a christmas gift last year from my beautiful and sexy wife) The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City and getting all kinds of ideas for projects, depending on how much space and how much access we have to the outside we wind up having when we get to Chicago. But I can’t wait that long: even if planting now is a fool’s errand, it was something I had to do (and it was an awesomely fun way to spend the morning with my three-year-old as well). So we have pots of spinach, rosemary, and sage sitting on our windowsill, where the little monster-cat hopefully can’t get at more than one of them.

We’ll see how it turns out, but in any case, this is definitely a taste of things to come.

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Pluralism in a normative sense (as opposed to pluralism as a matter of description which is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion) means valuing subjectivity over objectivity by declaring all cultural viewpoints (including religious viewpoints as a facet of culture) equally and fundamentally valid. The problems with this popular viewpoint-framework include first, that pluralism is itself a value that undermines all other values, and second, that it generally fails to be subject to its own scrutiny.

The value of pluralism is not somehow self-evident, regardless of whether it is treated as such. Even if it can be justified by rhetoric or evidence, pluralism is itself a value. The problem is that it is a value that undermines all other values. If I ascribe to pluralism, I cannot at the same time hold any other values, because that would be an assertion that those values were somehow true or the best or the most valid, which is inconsistent with pluralism. In fact, under the rubric of pluralism, there is no need to hold any other values at all: if all values are equally valid then no value supersedes another, and all values are thus also equally invalid. Pluralism, in its admirable desire for fairness and equity, swallows up everything else.

Furthermore, in practice, pluralism generally fails to live up to its own mandate. Most pluralists reject exclusivist or fundamentalist viewpoints. In other words, to the pluralist, all viewpoints are equally valid except for when they undermine pluralism itself. Thus all viewpoints actually aren’t equally valid because no viewpoint other than pluralism can ever be valid, since any statement of value necessarily implies the non-validity of contradictory values. Thus, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid because all values other than pluralism denigrate other values by not recognizing their equal worth and validity. But that is not even true: in fact, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid at all, not even pluralism, because rejecting say, Fundamentalist Christianity in the name of pluralism means recognizing that the pluralism is more valid than Fundamentalist Christianity, a situation that is impossible under pluralism.

Thus pluralism is undesirable as a stance because it not only undermines all other values, but in practice, pluralism even undermines itself. It is subjectivity taken to the logical, but absurd end. This end means the inability to make moral judgments of any kind, because it results in the rejection of all Ought principles. Even if not taken to the extreme, pluralism undermines strong Ought principles conceptually and thus undermines all moral imperatives, i.e., all statements of Should.

This lies at the heart of my unease with liberalism, at least liberalism as commonly articulated in America today. Liberalism is all passion but no principle. Certainly liberals have articulated a significant number of values couched in moral terms, and many liberals are extremely passionate about these values. But the problem is that liberalism includes and embraces pluralism as not just a value, but as a fundamental premise, and so liberalism fails to be able to articulate reasons for its values without rejecting a premise that it is unwilling to reject.

American conservatives, by contrast, get the force for their Ought statements from their belief in Christianity, pragmatism, or market economics. I may not agree with their Ought statements, or even acknowledge the validity of their sources, but they are articulating policies based on principles that are at least alleged to be objective. If you acknowledge even the possible validity of the source and the derivation of the Ought, then their Should-conclusions have a great deal of moral force. I’m not entirely sure about the source of libertarians’ Ought-principles.

Now, to be fair, many people are proponents of the same causes as liberals without being liberals in the sense that I am using it. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury is socially progressive but theologically conservative. His Ought-principles, whether they are true or misguided, come from a set of objective moral standards. Ditto for my friend Bryant: as a faithful Mormon, he believes in absolute morality and objective values, but he concludes that those values—that set of Ought-principles—lead him basically to the same Should-imperatives that liberals advocate.

However, people like Bryant occupy a perilous place in the American left. Because their moral reasoning is based on objective standards, by definition they reject full cultural pluralism, which means they are treated with suspicion by fellow-liberals. It’s not always easy being both religious and a Democrat in the United States: conservatives think that your Progressive politics is a betrayal of your religion (because you derive a different set of Ought-principles from what is ostensibly the same source), and too many liberals think that your objective values are the antithesis of pluralism and thus inherently invalid (and since pluralism is fundamental to liberalism, your objective values are the antithesis of liberalism even if you advocate the same set of policy goals; the feeling is that you happen by lucky coincidence to advocate the same policy goals in one particular instance, but since you reject pluralism you can’t really be counted on).

Yes, I know that political reality means that Democratic candidates have to use religious talk to get elected. But it is also true that they suffer derision and scorn from liberals when they do. This is because for the kind of liberal I am talking about, anything that even potentially undermines pluralism is the mark of the enemy.

Next: Religious Choices And Their Values

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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