I tend to encounter two general views of religion in my life. Most people consider religion an important – if not ultimately important – part of their lives and/or the world. In fact, one philosopher has suggested that we should define religion as the quest for ultimacy or ultimate values. This first group contains many of the people with whom I am most directly connected, such as my wife and most of my extended family.
The other less common view is that religion is an outdated legacy of our irrational past. In our scientific era it is claimed that we can do without grand mythologies and deities. Everything is reducible to natural causes and processes. While I have deep sympathies and respect for this viewpoint, my extensive intimate connections with people devoted to religion rules out any sort of complete rejection of the importance of religion.
Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion. The Age of Love’s Communism will embrace all the authentic passions of Jesus, Marxism, Anarchism, Buddhism, Allah, and the Goddess. “Do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes.”
A Marxist friend of mine posted the following pointed comment (directed no doubt in part at me) on his Facebook wall:
“….something that bothers me about two friends I know who call for liberation theology: both of them admit that they think that a non-natural vision of G-d is incoherent or at least has no evidence for it. Yet they think we should encourage a socialism based on religious convictions. This seems problematic to me because I think people should be told the truth as we know it, and if there is no supernatural anymore, then the entire framework of liberation theology must be different. Otherwise this seems much more cynical than they see it. I for one am not necessarily interested in the masses raising up for something untrue-so if there is a theological turn necessary, it’s got to be justified in more than pragmatism or the failure of prior social forms. Both notions of “progress”–the technocrat one and the religious one seem just as based in a notion of teleos of which we have little evidence and of which we must exclude opportunity costs.”
For Communists to redefine our movement as the fulfillment of humanity’s authentic aspirations we need to change how we understand religion and include religious persons within our movement and organizations. Religions are the product of centuries of the evolving articulation of ultimate values and Communists have no choice but to work with religious people in creating the revolution. The old Leninist strategy (which owes something also to Marx himself) of making Atheism the de facto ideology of the movement has decisively failed. Communism cannot be reborn without religious expressions of its goals and values.
This doesn’t mean that we all have to become Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Pagan Communists. The model for the way forward has been demonstrated by the many interreligious dialogues held over the past two centuries. A signal event in world dialogue was the first “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. The PWR event set off a sequence of dialogues between scholars and religious leaders around the world to work on mutual understanding and conflict resolution. As global communications in the 21st century bring ever more interaction across the boundaries of religion, opportunities for fruitful collaboration and risks for deepening hostility must be faced with a higher consciousness of the ultimate unity of humanity in view, transcending historical boundaries of exclusion, whether religious or secular.
A flat-footed atheism is profoundly out of place in our post-secular world. While science has succeeded in demonstrating that the natural world operates according to regular laws of cause and effect, the hardest problem remaining is the very nature of human consciousness. If evolution has given us superior brains for problem-solving, why did it take millenia for a purely naturalistic worldview to emerge? It would seem that the emergence of religion served some sort of functional cultural adaptation in human history. Religion, regardless of the specific mythology deployed is principally aimed at creating a cultural and social unity that binds together men, women, and children in communities that can survive external threats and internal strife.
Atheists tend to focus on the “supernatural” claims of miracles, invisible conscious beings (deities), and view of the afterlife. In pre-modern times, these mythological features were not considered “super” to nature, but to be part of the world as experienced by everyone. When a calamity befell a community, an evil spirit was at work, since natural explanations were often impossible to obtain. By the same token, when forture blessed a community, a beneficent deity was at work. These spirits and deities weren’t in some non-physical dimension orthogonal to the world of ordinary experience, but rather the Greek gods lived on Olympus, a mountain visible throughout Greece. The Greek gods were also directly assigned characteristics that represented the values of the Greek culture, such as power, beauty, and wisdom. It was only as Greek philosophy under Plato began to confront the problems of mythological incoherences – which is what one expects from a tradition that was constructed over generations of storytelling – that the gods began to be consigned to a non-physical realm of ideas and virtues.
Religion therefore wasn’t the guardian of the supernatural world separable from the natural world, but rather the integrative cultural deposit of all the truths a society depended on for its operation from art to agriculture. The naturalistic aspects of theism were included indivisibly within the supernatural conceptions of theistic religion. Such aspects included the psychological benefits of an ultimate ethical commitment, humility towards the non-human forces of nature, the transcendent importance of human emotional values (most supremely that of love), the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence (including epistemic modesty), a trans-historic sense of human oneness via cultural legacies, and the sense that at bottom the universe isn’t malicious.
Classical religions also include non-natural aspects that were the organic result of pre-scientific understanding of the world. The progress of science at experimentally revising humanity’s world-picture under conditions of capitalism, androcracy, white supremacy, and authoritarianism mean that most human beings are denied the education and emotional health to perceive the world in naturalistic terms, so the emotional appeal of supernaturalism wins popular assent.
Overturning the conditions of oppression, repression, domination, and exploitation requires mass struggle and so the natural religious inclination of humanity must be transformed by struggles on multiple fronts. This means enlisting the narratives of Jesus, Buddha, goddesses, and Allah for the global project of human emancipation by means of pan-religious alliances. Social struggle will transform incrementally and sometimes rapidly the gestalt of the masses as they struggle towards more worldly goals. The disappearance of supernaturalism will happen as a by-product of cultural revolution.
Such cultural transformation will come from within the same social struggles for more freedom as all other emancipatory gains. Under the present social systems the gains are always tenuous and incomplete. As humanity unites to fight for freedom from oppressive authority, literalistic religion will be challenged for its own arbitrary authority. As human beings are complex, emotional creatures the transition from supernatural to natural thought will be uneven and occasionally regressive. The literalism that treats sacred texts as perfect truths will over time be replaced by more critical and revolutionary approaches to religious tradition.
In many ways this is already happening even in societies like the US where religious identification is strongly prevalent. Surveys that go beyond simply asking if one believes in God to asking people to choose from multiple definitions of God find that many people understand theism in ways that are not considered orthodox. 26% of Americans consider God to be an impersonal force rather than a personal being. Roman Catholics have an even higher percentage of impersonal theists, 29%. In a denomination that prides itself on its long history of theological orthodoxy, this finding is quite significant. Religion does not have a fixed for all time meaning, but is evolving with the rest of human civilization. The religion of the future will likely still have Jesus and Buddha as characters within its dramatic narrative, but they won’t be the same Jesus and Buddha as our ancestors.