SNR Episode 22 - Back to the Beginning
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**Note: The earliest episodes of The Naked Soul are no longer available through the Podbean.com site or iTunes, but you CAN still listen to them on this blog via the mini MP3 player displayed on each entry. The introductory episode appeared on the 24th of August, 2008.
Websites referred to in this podcast:
Website for Agnostic Muslims
for Agnostic Buddhists
Candace Chellew-Hodge, former author of "The Agnostic Christian" blog, now writing for Religion Dispatches"
CBC Radio's "Tapestry" and the interview with former Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor.
The Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic
"We don't know and we don't care"
Hello, and welcome to episode twenty two of The Naked Soul. I’m Heather Gout. In this show we kind of go back to the beginning. I’d like to review the thinking that led me to create this series. That's mainly because, as of next month, The Naked Soul will be two years' old. And with the way most podcast providers work, or at any rate how iTunes and Podbean.com work, it is no longer possible to download the earliest episodes of SNR. If anyone would like to listen to an episode that is no longer offered by those providers, please leave a comment on the website - you'll find that at snrpodcast.livejournal.com, and we’ll work out some way to get an MP3 file to you.
Or you can sit back and take in this show. I should reassure anyone who has been listening from the beginning that this won't be a repeat of the introductory episode, but a different approach to the same questions I raised two years ago when I started podcasting. What do I mean when I talk about being 'spiritual, but not religious?' And why did I think another podcast was needed, because it's not as though there's a shortage of podcasts that fall under the heading of spirituality and religion? And seeing that I go on about agnosticism all the time, how does that fit in? And what if you like being spiritual AND religious AND agnostic?
To answer the first question, what do I mean when I say 'spiritual, not religious', we're going to sneak up on this explanation from behind, so to speak, by taking a journey through history, a brief one. I imagine a lot of my listeners have heard of or read at least one of the New Atheists, either Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. And when they cover the history of religion it's with a view to catalogue the abuses and violence committed in the name of religion. And it's all true, what they say, but their approach is distorted by the times in which they live, because they treat 'religion' as though it has always been distinct and distinguishable from everything else in human society. Modern religion, in many cases, does appear like that. Modern religion in the developed world is more like an interesting aspect of society, or even a society within a society.
But I don’t think that was always the case. I wouldn't use the phrase 'aspect of society’ to describe religion in medieval Europe or the Ancient Near East. I'd say religion then was much bigger than that. Religion in the past was more like the container or vessel that determined the shape of human societies. I'm hoping you can create and hold that metaphorical image in your mind for a moment. All the ideas, customs, approaches to thinking and learning and acting, all these were determined by religion. Think about the number of issues that religion dealt with, the issues for which religion was the only known authority in the pre-modern world.
Firstly, religion provided the explanation for how the world and its systems came to be the way they were. The beginnings of literacy and science were made by religious priesthoods. Religions set measurements and calendars, and decided how the passing of time should be marked.
Pre-modern religion offered strategies to make the world and its systems work in favour of its adherents.
Religion upheld and enforced rules of everyday conduct, everything from business ethics to holiday observances to diet.
In the past, religion usually upheld allegiance to government. In fact, they were often part of the government.
And in addition, religion provided some things it still provides today: a context for personal evaluation, and for determining the relative value and meaning in things or activities. And it also provided a sense of engagement with whatever was considered to be ultimate reality.
Given that scope of coverage, there really wasn't an aspect of life that could be said to exist outside religion, or be beyond its expertise. There probably was no conception of 'outside religion'. Oh, I don't mean that there wasn't the odd Greek philosopher called Socrates or the odd medieval thinker didn't dabble with the idea that there might be another basis for society, if we just did some investigation. What I mean is that for most people, all things were contained in religion and religion permeated all things. And while it's an easy judgement call, now, to dismiss it as a flawed model, in its time it would have been difficult to question the system precisely because people couldn't imagine anything else. There had never been anything else.
Of course, in some places this type of comprehensive religious mind still exists. But in Western Europe, and in nations created by the emigration of Europeans, there was a process of erosion, beginning...well, you could argue exact dates, but for the purposes of this podcast the 15th century will do. The vessel of religion, which held and regulated all aspects of European society, started to develop hair line cracks as finally questions were asked and investigations held and new ideas came into being without the sanction of religion. And these ideas multiplied until, somewhere around the 18th century, during the period called the Enlightenment, you could start to see religion separating out from society. You could see society with structures that had been formed outside the jurisdiction of religion, and did not rely on the input or context of religion.
Looking at the history of religion this way does, I think, make a more sympathetic case for the plight of modern spirituality. If you were able to picture the metaphor I made to illustrate how religion was, how it functioned as the container and shaper of society, what decision do you make as history passes and instead of there being just the single vessel containing all knowledge, there develops out of nowhere all this other source, this other knowledge? Do you stay inside the vessel of religion, or do you leave? If you stay inside, how should you regard the stuff ‘out there’? If you leave, what will you do about the sprawling, unbounded nature of your new knowledge?
Because the mistake made by many of the famous minds who rejected the authority of religion during the Enlightenment was that they took it for granted that their new knowledge, given time, would reveal its own order, settle into its own shape. This is essentially what Rousseau and his contemporaries meant when they used the term ‘natural law’. They were effectively saying to those who were choosing to stay inside that container called religion – “Don’t be afraid to come out. What we have might look like strange and random bits of knowledge at the moment, but there will be a structure to it, as soon as we learn enough. Give us time, and you’ll see another vessel shaping itself, and then it will be easy to compare the container of true knowledge against the false container and simply change your location.”
And if that had been the way the history of knowledge progressed, then I think it would have been highly probable that religious belief in the West would have died, and died peacefully. During the 19th century the pool of knowledge outside religion continued to expand, but instead of finding any grand, unifying structure the pool just carried on getting larger. And this is still the case today. The potential for new knowledge seems limitless, and existing knowledge has expanded so greatly that all we can do is split it into catagories. It is impossible to determine the ‘shape’ of this knowledge, if it has any shape, because it is now impossible to know enough of it. Even in the best case scenario, for argument’s sake let’s invent a person with doctorate degrees in mathematics, physics and chemistry – the sciences are so dense with knowledge that even this superlative person would have specialised, and would only be qualified to speak about a small section of the whole of those three sciences.
And as for ‘natural law’ – well, scientists did discover a lot of laws and structures relating to the behaviour of material and energy and light, and technology is the evidence which proves how well we learned to work with those laws. But we didn’t find any inalienable rules relating to our behaviour, to naturally govern our interactions with each other. We didn’t find indisputable evidence of what humans were meant to be or if they had any meaning, or what should be more or less valuable to them. We had lots of theories, but not the nice, secure discoveries of physical science like Boyle’s Law or the second law of thermodynamics or the law of conservation of matter. Nothing as good as that.
But when I say as good as that, I’m ignoring the strange discoveries of physicists during the 20th century, when they began to observe the parts of an atom. So that now, to be entirely correct, I’d have to qualify the law of conservation of matter, and say that at molecular level, it appears that matter is never created or destroyed, but where atomic particles are concerned, there might be something else going on.
And that just raises more questions. Can anything be considered ‘universal’, such as a universal law or a universal truth, or is everything applicable only in a limited arena of space or time or both? And now it’s becoming apparent that the whole idea of getting knowledge into a shape, of creating a new vessel of knowledge into which we could all curl up inside like an unborn baby with all the answers to everything is impossible.
And surely this must qualify as the greatest psychic shock humanity has experienced since we developed language. We have existed for millennia with simple, comprehensible structures of knowledge and now within a couple of centuries they are gone. Anyone who attacks or disdains religious believers is underestimating the impact of this shock. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment never anticipated the situation we now have to face. It isn’t a case of choosing the true vessel of knowledge over the false, it is choosing whether we can find a way to cope without any vessel at all.
Maybe this qualifies as an evolutionary crisis, one that's going to require adaptation. I could go along with that idea, as long as it’s understood that all things evolutionary take time. I think Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are going to have to practice greater patience. And they should know that successful adaptation can take a variety of forms. However much they want it, religion probably won't go away completely.
But one way it might adapt is by changing the traditional teachings to make them more agnostic. This approach accepts a limited role for religion, and doesn’t expect it to provide the comprehensive knowledge system it did in the past. And in particular with the three monotheisms, where there are sacred writings, to loosen the definition of inspiration so there is room for reinterpreting or ignoring some passages, as well as giving weight to writing from other traditions. I've found a number of churches taking this approach, as I'm sure you have, and I’ve posted some links on snrpodcast.livejournal.com. Personally, I think these places will help some people who find themselves strongly drawn to the symbolism and ritual of one religion, and who find it can still provide that ultimate function I mentioned in the list I gave at the beginning of the show, which is to create a sense of engagement with whatever is ultimate reality.
I felt this podcast would also appeal to those same people. But more than that, I also thought there must exist others who felt no attraction to a particular religion, but who wanted to make a solo attempt to deal with issues over which religion used to have complete authority: issues of morality and meaning and ultimate reality. It really hasn’t been possible for these people to identify themselves, or to easily find others with similar thinking. These people can’t really form a religion, because that would imply, at the very least, some agreement about form or style. For example, you may have heard about the The Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic. I’ve linked their site to the SNR webpage, and they have kindly referred to The Naked Soul on their site, in the Links section under Podcasts. While I really like the idea of an agnostic church, even I can’t fully agree with their motto, “We don’t know and we don’t care.” I just have a gut feeling that, no matter how ignorant I remain between now and the day I die, I will still fall into that bad habit of caring about it.
But that’s my particular take on agnosticism. The Naked Soul wanted to acknowledge that the new way forward wouldn’t be one way but many, and while there might be the possibility of forming small, like-minded groups who wanted to do something about that rare state of agreement, there would also be individuals who wanted to remain individuals, spiritually speaking. Nevertheless, such people would want to interact, if only to sample and consider other ideas, in case they turned out to be useful. That is essentially what the podcast offers, some ideas, and links to ideas. A starting point, really.
I was listening, as I regularly do, to “Tapestry”, the spirituality programme on Canadian public radio. The guest was Barbara Brown Taylor, a progressive Episcopalian priest, and she had something interesting to say about her own spiritual choices.
“when I decided I did want to be ordained....he (that is, the priest who heard her request) he said ‘Are you sure you want to narrow your ministry like that?’ And I was astounded. I thought I was somehow going higher or deeper, but he said ‘No, every step you take into ordained ministry, you’ll be watched more carefully, you’ll be held to more correctness, you will see a smaller and smaller bunch of people, the majority of whom are already convinced of what you’re talking about....and what he suggested....(was) that people who do not work for a living in the religious sphere are really freer to encounter the sacred in creation and in one another and in their lives than people who spend 24/7 in religious settings.”
A link to that episode of Tapestry will be on the website. The reason I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor was to emphasize her last point – that religion can have a narrowing effect on the way we approach spirituality. I wanted The Naked Soul podcast to be as open a forum as possible. It’s true that I often talk in detail about my own, personal quirks, but by choosing the word ‘quirk’ I hope it’s clear that I don’t give them some inflated status of truth or enlightenment. It’s just what I happen to be doing at the moment.
For episode twenty-three, I want to talk about evil. Or no, that isn’t quite it. It might be better to say, I want to talk about some particular evils. You might believe, to a greater or lesser degree, in moral relativity. But when it comes to specific events, you have to make moral decisions and when that happens, what drives those decisions? Is there a biological basis for morality? And how much does that matter given the more obvious biological basis for immorality? I hope you’ll join me for that next time.