1. Problems with religious news
Have you heard the latest religious news?
I don’t mean reports on the failings of religious institutions and their representatives. I mean news about the sacred, and its effect on humanity.
No, I’m not talking about the latest apparition on a refrigerator or taco shell. In such cases the news is only that some people interpreted some natural phenomenon as having religious significance. Journalistic fact-checking doesn’t extend to proving or disproving the miracle. Science may not be able to explain it – science can’t explain a lot of things, like why a particular potato resembles Abraham Lincoln. But this does nothing to clarify or validate the religious significance of the event in question.
Take for example the dolphins who helped Elian Gonzalez get to Florida. Peggy Noonan chided then-President Clinton for not seeing their behavior as a sign from God. But aside from reporting on what is known about dolphins and their proclivity for rescuing humans, the journalist can only note the political implications of such religious claims (Noonan didn’t want Elian sent back to Cuba), not their truth or falsity.
It can’t be news that God or Allah chose a side in the latest war, because the primary evidence for His/Her choice is just: which side wins. It might seem more convincing if the winner had been an underdog, but even when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem, hindsight reveals that it’s still part of God’s plan. Prophecies before the fact can’t be distinguished from propaganda; and when the dust settles, winners and losers will each draw their own conclusions.
Nor do things get easier when dealing with individuals, despite the fact that religion is often said to be a personal matter. The journalist has no way of distinguishing the God-intoxicated from the insane. She cannot, for example, assess the validity of religious conversions experienced by criminal defendants or candidates for public office.
The bottom line is that the journalist cannot use religious language, only mention it.
2. News in science and religion
So religion is regarded from a perspective outside religion – a perspective from which news is expected. The way to do this is to look at the connections between religion and science.
One kind of connection involves the scientific assessment of religious beliefs. Here the relationship often appears rather hostile. On the one hand myth, poetry and legend are treated as mere historical reports, and are of course found to be false. On the other hand, the same literal-minded readings lead “believers” to attack science itself, and to demand that it be harmonized with religious literature.
Contemporary archaeology and cosmology notwithstanding, the important “news” here is already a few centuries old:
Moses still didn’t write the Torah
Human beings still didn’t come into existence on the 7th day
Another kind of connection involves looking at the paradoxical aspects of certain scientific theories, giving them a metaphysical interpretation, and then associating this interpretation with religious motifs. Quantum physics and relativity are ideal for this exercise, and have inspired Capra, Zukav and countless others.
But you get only so much edification from seeing how science conflicts with common sense, and this limited epiphany is much the same whether the science concerns the movement of the earth, the microscopic world, quantum non-locality or the nature of fire. (Religion conflicts with common sense in a different way: it wants to change our habitual feelings and behavior.)
And there is meager relevance in focusing on the limits of science. The fact that contemporary physics posits a sort of beginning to the universe causes many a writer, such as Gregg Easterbrook in his recent “The New Convergence”, to rehearse Kant’s paradox, according to which neither a beginning nor a lack of a beginning of the world is ultimately intelligible. Similarly, John Horgan in “Between Science and Spirituality”, claims that modern physics has rediscovered the “miraculousness” of existence. However, to those who are familiar with the history of philosophy, his report only confirms a lack of progress since the 17th century on Leibniz’s question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In both cases the implication is that since contemporary physics hasn’t advanced beyond Kant or Leibniz (we might as well add Plato and Aristotle), the religious doctrine of creation doesn’t look so bad. Science and religion are said to converge in mystic wonder.
Here a lack of news is naively presented as news, and the absence of knowledge is presented as agreement. But at least the headline is encouraging:
A third kind of connection not only evokes an affinity between science and religion, it promises real progress, if not a new age, resulting from their convergence. John Brockman is a recent example of those who imagine a convergence of the arts and sciences, and thus the emergence of a scientific humanism that would succeed where religion has failed. Brockman feels that there is a natural scientific optimism which must overcome the pessimism of academic cultural studies, and he grounds this optimism in the progressive character of science. Humanists, he thinks, need to abandon their utopias and derive their hope from this real, measurable progress. They only need to subject the concepts and experiences of their domains to rigorous analysis and empirical testing, and they too can enjoy progress. This is most exciting when contemplated in connection with the ultimate questions of human value and purpose, which most humans pursue in religious terms.
But is any of this new hope new, or even plausible? I don’t think so.
The attempted reduction of the humanities to science has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years, notwithstanding all the philosophers who see it as reducing apples to oranges. In fact, the famous vacuousness of some late-20th century humanities professors was due, in most cases, from just such attempts – from inappropriately dressing their language in the forms of research programs, methodologies, technical vocabularies and so forth.
The convergence of science and religion finds its most concrete expression in the application of technology to religious experience; but here again the news is not new, only a familiar promise. Drugs, biofeedback, sensory deprivation chambers, and all the technologies of enlightenment invested with such hope in the 1960’s, have so far been great disappointments when it comes to the mass propagation of spiritual understanding. There is no reason to think that bioengineering or information technology can make a fundamental difference. Getting someone to temporarily feel like a saint doesn’t mean she will act like one. Learning to push more buttons in the brain doesn’t tell us what it should mean to be human.
In short, there is no technique for living a valuable life, and spiritual insight is not a kind of information. The headline
Religion to get scientific
just won’t wash.
It isn’t that religion forms a special domain of knowledge that science can’t invade; it’s that religious understanding isn’t knowledge at all, in the sense corresponding to causal explanation. Religion doesn’t talk about God in anything like the way in which physics talks about atoms and gravity. Religious understanding is practical rather than theoretical, and spiritual education is more like the apprenticeship of an artist than the study of math or science.
And that’s why the notion of progress, so essential to science and to the journalistic appetite, doesn’t really apply to religion. Science progresses because every individual achievement, even those requiring great genius, can be passed on almost for free. Neither the engineer who exploits it nor the scientist who builds upon it has to make the same effort as its discoverer. A high school student can absorb thousands of facts and principles, each of which cost someone a lifetime of toil.
But spiritual insight is not transmitted nearly so cheaply. For it involves moral as well as intellectual education – the training of habits and feelings as well as thinking. The years of discipline invested by the teacher can only be inherited by the students through an equal expenditure on their part. Memorizing formulas and learning concepts isn’t enough. It’s about personal priorities and perspective – seeing the Big Picture. It’s about maturity and acceptance of reality. And religious morality makes infinite, open-ended demands which guarantee that their pursuit will be a lifelong process.
This accords with Aristotle’s statement that a truly happy and valuable life can only be judged as such when it is completed. Ultimate value is not a momentary phenomenon, but pertains to processes and journeys, to whole lives and communities. The pursuit of ultimate value is ever-changing, and has unique features for every generation and individual.
Much more than the question of the progress of one life or generation over another, religion is concerned (as the Bible shows over and over) with the tendency of succeeding generations to backslide – to fail to reach the moral heights already achieved. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants as in science, in religion we usually find ourselves clinging to their ankles.
Cultural and political innovations are necessary in religion, precisely because of our tendency to preserve the outward forms (ritual, law and belief) at the expense of the vital insights they were meant to convey. But it’s not what’s new (the forms), it’s what’s old (the insight) that matters.
3. Two Aspects of Religion
Let me stress the point about spiritual insight being something different from factual knowledge. The mistaken assumption is that science and religion are two different ways of explaining or knowing about the world. It is this assumption that lies behind the expectation of religious progress or news, as well as the three ideas discussed above: that science contradicts religion, that science and religion overlap or converge, and that religious goals can be pursued scientifically.
The view of religion as a science of the divine is encouraged by the widespread use of the words “belief” and “faith” to characterize religions, as if to be religious is to hold a certain kind of theory. (The fact that these words also carry other connotations of trust, patience, goodwill, etc., only adds to the confusion.) It is also encouraged by the Bible’s blending of objective history with legend and myth.
Of course someone will always remind us that religion is about a way of living. The question is, how does religious language relate to religious living? Does it say “Do X because Y and Z are true”? Or does it instead do something to affect us directly, like comedy, drama or rhetoric?
I want to say that it is the latter – that religion is about doing and feeling rather than knowing or believing. To the extent that this is true, there can be no further question of overlap, convergence or conflict between religion and science. But anyone who holds such a view has a lot of explaining to do, for there seems to be a lot of evidence for the primacy of belief... People pray and sacrifice because of their belief that this will cause rain to fall or our team to win the game. People risk death because of beliefs about the afterlife. People feel as if everything hangs on a particular miraculous occurrence not being just a story but real – the “good news.”
All this is undeniable, just like the existence of countless thoughts and practices so unsavory or irrational that we don’t know whether to call them religious or just superstitious. We need to distinguish, not exactly between religion and superstition, but between two separate, more or less contrary forces which together constitute religion as we know it. The philosopher Henri Bergson called them its static and dynamic aspects, which he understood as the result of independent evolutionary forces. But his distinction is roughly the same as the traditional notion of public or exoteric and secret or esoteric meanings attaching to the same symbols, which implies a greater interdependence between the two perspectives. This, together with the view of religion as lifelong education, leads me to call them simply the naďve and the mature varieties of religious practice.
Bergson saw “static” religion, with its mythic language and ritual, as serving primarily to unify a community, by creating a group identity as a basis for morality. In contrast, the impulse Bergson terms dynamic religion calls on the individual to shake off habitual conceptions of self, and to identify with a universal society of love. It is the religion of the saints, the mystics and the great moral exemplars – those beacons of love and hope who persuade by their presence. It involves no hypothesis or belief, but a direct intuition of new human possibilities. It is the source of the ideas of egalitarianism and the universal value of human life.
Its proponents inevitably have only disdain for rituals understood as magic, rather than in their social and psychological functions; for prayer as selfish demand rather than cultivated gratitude; or for religion as theory rather than practice and experience. For them the greatest miracle is found in the texture of everyday life itself.
Instead of the dogmatic positive theology of the literalists, they adhere for the most part to a negative theology whose purpose is to reject all objectification of the divine. While in naive religion everything is based on God’s “existence”, the mystics insist that He is beyond existence and nonexistence – which is another way of saying that to use “God” as the name of an object of possible knowledge is hopelessly beside the point.
But in the religion we encounter every day, the two aspects are thoroughly mixed up. The same person can be motivated by the religion of love and entranced by the religion of magic. Mythic language can serve both ends, being taken now literally and now figuratively. The adult who takes it figuratively may yet let her children understand it literally. And the language of justice and universal love is easily adapted to partisanship and warfare.
Nevertheless, for journalistic purposes, the distinction should be observed.
If you’re going to report that science has debunked religion, don’t imply that the rug has been pulled out from under whole traditions, throwing out the saints with the sorcerers. Don’t apply the same standards to children and adults, to fairy tales and moral parables.
If you’re going to report that science and religion have converged in wonder, don’t confuse the mere lack of an explanation with spiritual ecstasy and passion for the world, on the one hand, or with a validation of mythology-as-science on the other. Don’t confuse wonder with unsupported belief.
And if you’re going to report that science is bringing progress to religion by making it into a technical discipline… well, just don’t. You are only continuing the misguided attempt to reduce essential spirituality to its literal-minded shadow.
Like journalists who reduce election campaigns to the least common denominator of dollars raised by each candidate, those who report on religion only in terms of its naďve aspect do a disservice to the actual needs of their readers.
4. No News is Good News
Maimonides maintained that the literal interpretations of religion are pedagogically necessary for most people, like the candy with which one bribes a young child to study. At the same time he considered them to be, for adults, the greatest heresy and impediment to worship, since they lead to the view of God as a thing.
The Christian “good news” has both senses: it is an imperative to love, dressed up as a report of miracles. But love itself is the miracle.
Buddhism says up front that its teachings are a vehicle to be discarded when the destination has been reached. The cynic might call it a bait-and-switch game.
Since the initial news never turns out to be what it seemed, the really good news comes when we understand the irrelevance of the supernatural to the pursuit of ultimate value. From the truly religious viewpoint, no news is good news.
But there is an analogue in mature religion to the desire for news and progress, and a corresponding excitement. For the religious impulse in its purest form is not content with a conversion experience in which one’s outlook is radically changed; it requires not just being “reborn” or “enlightened”, but being enlightened again and again. Its moral demands require such spontaneity, creative energy and compassion that they must always remain an ideal (at least for 99.9% of us). Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell terms this unsatisfiable demand “moral perfectionism”, or the impulse that makes the self in society always aim at a new overcoming of itself, since every achievement is also a compromise. Such a sense of vigilance, and of the uniqueness of the present, is the opposite of mere curiosity that wants to distract itself by jumping from one new thing to the next. The uniqueness of the present, for mature religion, lies not in a novelty of information, but in a new chance at realizing the moral ideal.
I said that the journalist can’t use religious language, only mention it, in the same sense that the journalist supposedly maintains political neutrality. But is neutrality appropriate in this area? When I said that religion is properly practical rather than theoretical, and that God is not an object of knowledge, I was not reporting on how most people use these words. I was taking sides with the mature uses of religious language over the naive. I was trying to change the popular relationship to religious language. If such a change ever came about, it would indeed be news.
To say that God is not an object of knowledge, that only children or the uneducated should understand mythic language literally – and therefore that any further reports of disagreement between science and religion should be ignored – is already to risk political opposition. The exoteric idea that faith in authority is itself a virtue has, naturally, always been favored by authoritarians; whereas mature religion inevitably opposes the exploitation of religion by political power.
At the same time, the news that religion in its essence is immune to scientific criticism is unwelcome to many bright young minds. Being young, they are naturally obsessed with the unique promise of their own generation. They have no time for wisdom that’s thousands of years old, but still requires a lifetime to master. Only with experience might they begin to learn the interdependence of novelty and tradition, and understand that we depend on our cultural history as we depend on our biology and our language.
Nevertheless the autonomy of science and religion is a matter of such consequence that it is worth risking the opposition of both believers and skeptics.
One reason is that the reduction of religious superstition will not be accomplished by attacking religion, but only by making it less superstitious from within.
But the main reason is that dissolving the literal understanding of religious language is itself a religious task. The alleged objectivity which reduces religion to its least common denominator – to “belief” and literalized mythology – actually works against the interest of mature religion, and so is not really neutral. The most objective approach would be to acknowledge the different levels of religious meaning, and the view of religion as a process. But then one still has to choose between the perspectives of the naďve and the mature.
So I’m breaking the news:
Science and religion are in perfect agreement
Apparent contradictions are due to interpretations of religious language stuck at the childish level – and both fundamentalists and skeptical detractors are equally stuck there. The grandeur of religion, which is the grandeur of humanity animated by love, remains untouched by the progress of science. But those who expect real religious news – whether from the sky, from prophets, or from evolutionary psychology and genetics – show that they have not heard its inner message.
 Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1935)