Revision-proof religion is revolting.
In my day job as a science fiction and fantasy writer, I get to ponder subjects for days, weeks, months and even years that most people can only processs in drive-thru fashion. A lot of my thoughts, since a very young age, have centered on religion. During my pontifications and perusals of historical records, I’ve encountered some thought-provoking and eye-opening examples of how humans interface with their religious institutions. From Thomas Jefferson’s treatise on how to encourage ideological reformations within religion, to Machiavelli’s ultra-pragmatic thoughts on how a ruler and his subjects should regard their home-grown religious institutions, we find commentary from the best and brightest of our species’ history on this all-important subject.
From Ancient Egypt’s glorious polytheistic take on divinity all the way through the American Secular Reformation and its enduring imprint on Christianity; we have a record of how religious institutions impact their respective societies. From the Cradle of Civilization with the birth of the so-called Abrahamic Religions, across the Asian continent to witness the inexorable march from Taosim, to Confucianism, to Buddhism, and back to Europe where Christianity played a pivotal role in the creation of modern Western Civilization–the far-reaching impact of religion on the way we think, speak, live, love, and learn cannot be underestimated.
I’m not a learned scholar, and I’ve never been published in the theological arena. I’m an amateur with an inquisitive mind and an openness to new ideas. As a young kid growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, my skepticism with religion was fairly obvious even at the age of nine. Today, I would best describe my relationship with religion by borrowing a phrase from the great Freeman Dyson (of eponymous Dyson Sphere fame, which if you’re a sci-fi nut like I am you already know how bright this guy’s light bulbs are). He said “I am a practicing Christian–I am not a believing Christian.” I take it even more broadly and expand upon that statement: “I support religion, specifically Christianity, as an empiricist and a humanist–and I don’t need to believe any of the outlandish claims made therein in order to justify that support.”
Let me be perfectly clear: I’ve got four beautiful children, and we’ve never gone to church. I’ve attended funerals during my time here in the Philippines, and many of those begin in churches, but I’ve never–not once–attended a church occasion in the last decade that wasn’t somehow associated with beginning- or end-of-life ritual ceremonies that are more or less social occasions conducted in a church. Total number of these types of events I’ve attended? Less than ten in a decade.
So don’t write me off just yet 😉 As far as my place on the atheism spectrum, I’d slot myself in shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomas Jefferson.
And so it should come as no surprise that I find Thomas Jefferson’s writings on religion to be about as dead-on as anyone’s that I’ve read. His ultimate idea was simply to make religions stand on their own feet in the court of public opinion—and to do so without co-opting government authority or corporal power in order to move hearts and minds. If the ideas being presented and preached by a church’s clergy were apparently sound, and the populace accepted them (along with their baggage) as superior to available alternatives, Jefferson appeared to think that was all the progress we needed to root out the stupidity and unwanted aspects of religion. Not instantaneously, mind you, but both he and Machiavelli (who many refer to as the ‘ultimate pragmatist’) displayed marked temperance on the issue of religion. Neither was religious by any stretch, but both of them recognized the immense culturally-stabilizing effect that religious institutions generate for their native populations. This effect cannot be ignored in any reasoned discourse on the issue of religion and its current or future roles in human affairs.
Christianity has a violent a bloody history, and *much* of that blood was shed during Christianity’s myriad Great Reformations. Whether it was the schism with the Eastern Orthodoxy (the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Rome’s State Religion which departed from mainstream Christianity mostly in terms of decentralizing authority more than its Western counterpart), Martin Luther’s heresy (which allowed any who wished to do so the ability to read the Bible in their own time, in their own language, and in the privacy of their own homes), Henry VIII’s break with Holy Mother Church by founding the Church of England, or the American Secular Reformation, the history of Christianity is littered with the bones of ongoing ideological warfare within the religion itself–to say nothing of its ongoing feud with Islam for the last thirteen hundred years!
Thomas Jefferson wanted something different for our future. He looked back and saw all of the Great Reformations and recognized the price we paid in blood and treasure to move the ball forward a few inches. To him, as a secular humanist, that price was simply unacceptable. And so he and his contemporaries devised an ingenious, unprecedented mechanism: the Separation of Church & State. His hope was that the Great Reformations would be a thing of the past, and that replacing them would be an Ongoing Reformation with no battles, little bloodshed, and–most importantly of all–they would have no respite. In Jefferson’s mind, each reformation or revision of religious practice and dogma gives a chance to take down one more piece of the ‘artificial scaffolding’ that he talked about in his February 27, 1821 letter to Timothy Pickering. That’s primarily what the Separation of Church & State was about: the whittling away of the undesirable components to lay bare the human truths which resonate with a religion’s adherents. Sometimes (usually?) it’s three steps forward and two steps back, but on long timescales–and when left uninterrupted–meaningful progress does indeed occur.
All religion is inherently authoritarian in nature. “Because *I* said so” becomes “Because God said so,” and it’s pretty difficult to argue with an all-powerful deity. But anyone versed in the scientific method knows that the whole concept of Ultimate Truth certainly breaks down in the face of empirical evidence. Ultimate Truth was just a mechanism by which the psycho-social practices ensconced in religious dogma and tradition could be imposed more effectively than via simple suggestion and group consensus. Humans, as animals well-versed in (and well-suited to) a hierarchical social structure, generally respond better to authority than to reason. That dependence on authority should change over time (especially now that the sum total of human experience is now available on our smartphones), but it’s who we’ve always been as a species and it’s who we still are today. Ignoring that reality is foolish and self-destructive (or ‘regressive’ as people like Dave Rubin refer to the phenomenon generally).
So it becomes clear that revision is essential when it comes to religion, and any religion that disallows it isn’t worth following—and humans seem to agree with this thesis, demonstrated by the many Great Reformations, followed by the early American cottage industry of dime-a-dozen tent-pole ministries, each of which bore decreasing similarity to existing churches. And each new ‘church’ attempted to appeal to a different slice of the population pie with not only their doctrinal interpretations, but their emphasis and de-emphasis on certain passages contained within the primary doctrinal sources. That’s what peaceful religious reformation looks like, and like any other transaction in the marketplace of ideas it was best facilitated in the early USA.
Accepting that religion requires revision to remain relevant and compatible with modernity negates the vast majority of the problems anti-religious people have with religion as a human institution (the most common and sigh-inducing refrain being: “the Bible is historically inaccurate and based on superstition, THEREFORE *none* of it is worthwhile and it should *all* be ignored.” There’s a saying about babies and bathwater that applies here…). Personally, I think Thomas Jefferson hit this subject right between the eyes every time he put pen to paper on it. And a big part of why he was right has to do with his firm belief that a de-centralized decision-making apparatus, operated by everyday people living ordinary lives, is inherently superior to a centralized one with levers pulled on the highest floors of ivory towers. Cognitive dissonance plays a key role in validating his opinion of this de-centralized process’s advantages–and cognitive dissonance is especially important when it comes to religion.
Sam Harris, a cognitive neuro-scientist and philosopher of our time, does a good job discussing how cognitive dissonance plays a part in increasing the ‘rationality’ quotient of a population. Basically, the more contradictions there are in a given constellation of doctrinal sources, the more opportunities an adherent has to use his or her own judgment to determine a course of action—conflicting directives give us the opportunity to *choose* which directive we would prefer to employ, and the large-scale impact of this cannot be overstated.
In general, people (even horrifyingly bad ones) want to live in a ‘good’ world where people are courteous, trusting, and compassionate toward each other. So when we’re allowed to question a point of dogma in the manner described a few sentences up from this one, it’s an opportunity to *make* the world we want to live in without abandoning the world we were born into (a world largely defined by ensconced traditions). And that ongoing improvement is, in the end, what most all of us want—not only for our neighbors or for ourselves, but for generations yet to come. Breaking the decision-making down to the individual level, and functionally *empowering* people to make their own decision as to which doctrinal sources/passages should be more or less emphasized, is a *perfect* example of de-centralized (or distributed) decision-making superseding a centralized decision-making apparatus. Some funny conclusions can be drawn from this line of reasoning, including the seemingly bizarre one that supports the *intentional* introduction of contradictions *specifically* in order to stimulate free thought. I don’t *think* that’s what the authors and editors of the world’s holy texts were consciously trying to do when they collected the various works which comprise the world’s primary doctrinal sources, but I honestly wouldn’t put it past at least some of them. After all, we’re no *smarter* today than we were a thousand years ago. We’ve just got access to orders of magnitude more information, and we have significantly more time as individuals to ponder that information.
I obviously have more to say on this subject, and I might even write a whole book on the issue at some point, but for now I think I’ll close with the following axiom from Ancient China, along with what that means in the context of this essay:
“To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable–but to be certain is to be ridiculous.”
AnyTHING that is claimed to be perfect is necessarily immune to the process of revision, and anyONE who claims to have perfect knowledge is behaving ridiculously–and, more importantly, they are behaving regressively.