Dan and Me

In this post I'm replying to my colleague (we're both "Philosophical Practitioners" certified by the American Philosophical Practioners Association) and friend, Dan Fincke. I quote parts of Dan's post below. To read the whole of his post, CLICK HERE.
Dan: "When I was a Christian my conception of religious belief was that it was either literally true or it was decisively false."
Yes, beliefs come in the "true," the "false," (and the "maybe," and the "depends") forms. And I know that you came from a tradition in which BELIEVING -- and thus TRUE BELIEVING -- were very important. In that regard, it seems to me, you still share a presumption of your past faith: that religion is about BELIEVING.

It was Paul's innovation to put BELIEVING at the center of the new Christian religion that he invented. Half a millenium later, Mohammed followed Paul's model, so Islam also puts BELIEVING at the center. None of the other world religions, however, are belief-centric.

For the two belief-centric religions, if you don't BELIEVE, then you're out. For most of the other world religions, if you have a hard time believing one of the teachings, they pretty much treat it the way that your math teacher would treat it if you said you didn't believe the Pythagorean theorem.

Suppose in math class, a student says, "I just can't believe that the square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. I acknowledge that it sometimes is, but always? Come on, that's too much!" What's the teacher going to do? She's going to try explaining the theorem in a variety of different ways. If the student remains intractable, at a certain point the teacher will say, "Why don't we just move on. We can return to this later."

For any big area of learning -- whether mathematics or spiritual practice (which I think of as a branch of emotional/psychological self-awareness and regulation) -- there are many doors in. If, for some reason, one door seems temporarily blocked for a given student, the teacher moves to another door. Often, eventually, as the student deepens into the field, the blocked door gets unblocked. Maybe, sometimes, it never does.

The approach that the math teacher would follow is pretty much the approach that a Jewish rabbi, Hindu guru, Daoist master, or Zen roshi would follow. Christian and Muslim leaders (of, at least, the more conservative forms) are a bit different because these traditions are belief-centric. For them, it's all about belief.

For most of the world -- and for all of the world before Paul came along -- religion is not so much about belief. What I teach is that religion is essentially about three things:

(1) It's about how you live. It's about the ethics and values that guide your life. Telling me how you live IS telling me your religion -- in some important ways. (Back when I was on the faculty of a "Religion and Philosophy" department, I was part of the interviewing team for a new hire of a religion teacher. I was fascinated to learn that, apparently, the distinction between academic study of religion and study of sociology is entirely arbitrary and basically nonexistent. How people live IS their religion.)

(2) It's about community. Who do you come together with to participate in congregational life together? With whom do you share in rituals that affirm and strengthen the sense of community connectedness?

(3) It's about experience. It's about those moments that feel "transcendent" (scare quotes because some people don't want to use that word, though they do experience the feeling that I'm referencing) -- those moments of awe, wonder, and beauty.

Congregational life aims to bring those three very different things together in such a way that each one of them reinforces the other two: so that "right living" can help deepen the relationships of community and "friends along the path" -- and both of these help open us up to more frequent and more profound experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder -- which, in turn, call for integration into how we live.

Some congregations -- mostly the Christian and Muslim ones -- make affirming certain beliefs a central part of their practice. But there are alternative ways a congregation can practice that have relatively little to do with asserting beliefs.
Dan: "Coming to terms with the literal falseness of Christianity made me not the least bit interested in even trying to have a religious attachment to things which might be only metaphorically accurate"
I can certainly see how that was a blow. After all, Christianity puts such a premium on "literal truth" that "literal falseness" is a real problem from within that paradigm. It's an unfortunate paradigm -- and, unfortunately, quite a lot of what I see going on in the atheist community retains the paradigm. The atheists have a different set of beliefs, but often (not always) retain the belief-centric paradigm. The alternative paradigm is to see that religion isn't about belief. From the cultural standpoint of a culture deeply in the shadow of Paul, this alternative paradigm is much more radical than atheism. From the standpoint of original Judaism (before it, too, was molded by reaction to Paul's influence) or Eastern religions, this alternative paradigm is not radical at all.

Suppose a centerfielder has a theory about how his brain processes the visual information of a fly ball and tells him where to run to catch it. Suppose his theory is false. Let us suppose that he's a good centerfielder, and he always gets a good jump on running to the spot where the ball will land, but his theory about how his brain does that just happens to be all wrong.

For most religions, it's the practice that matters. The misstep of Paul was to suppose that having the proper belief was central to being able to catch the ball (the "ball," in this case, being a life of wisdom, compassion, joy, connection, inner peace). That was Paul's mistake. Paul's corollary mistake is to imagine that no practice is necessary -- because you just gotta believe. In fact, it takes work to cultivate the habits a good centerfielder needs, and it takes work to develop the habits you need to maintain equanimity amidst the trials of life.
Dan: "So, I never made any stops in the halfway houses of religious liberalism on my way from evangelical literalist Christianity to out and out irreligious disbelieving anti-theism."
Of course, religious liberalism will seem like "halfway" between "evangelical literalist Christianity" and "out and out irreligious disbelieving anti-theism" only if one is still stuck in the belief-centric paradigm. If it's all about believing, then, indeed, either you believe it, or you don't, or you say you don't know, or you try for some sort-of, wishy-washy "halfway house." If it's all about believing, those are the options. But suppose it isn't about believing. Suppose it's about congregational life that seeks to facilitate those "three things that religion is all about" I listed above. Suppose it's about congregational life that employs understandings in that process but is explicitly prepared to let those understandings evolve with experience and evidence. That's not "halfway" -- it is, in fact, much further out from under Paul's shadow. It's not "watered-down belief" -- it's the de-throning of belief as central.
Dan: "I did read liberal and postmodern philosophers of religion once my faith was dead in an attempt to give as fair a hearing to them as I could for the entire winter break and summer after I deconverted. But they didn’t leave a dent on me."
Maybe because you were reading them for what they BELIEVED. Which is certainly natural. Text kinda works that way -- it invites assessment in terms of truth-claims. (So does the text I'm writing here.) When it comes to religious understanding, though, the books, while they do have a place, have a limited place. One has to put down the books and do the practice. Within the context of a regular practice, the books can be helpful in the process of integrating the insights of practice. But without doing the practice, books by themselves are useless for religion. It's like expecting you can become an excellent centerfielder just by reading about it.
Dan: "...the needs a tremendous amount of people obviously feel for an interconnection of philosophy, community, ritual, symbol, “spiritual” exercise, identity, tradition, ecstatic experience, and (most importantly) the moral education of children. We need to meet people’s psychosocial, moral, and philosophical needs for coherent, conscientious identity, values, beliefs, community, and rootedness or people will continue to judge it worth it to shutdown their brains or compromise their commitments to intellectual principle for the sake of these goods they feel as urgent."
Eloquently put, Dan! That's why I became a UU minister: to meet those needs without shutting down intellect.
Dan: "I admit I get irked when I describe my visions for self-consciously atheistic, philosophically robust alternative communities to religions and get told, “We already have the Unitarians.” This might be my ignorance and prejudice but my first response is to recoil and think that settling for Unitarianism is just unbelievably philosophically and spiritually lazy and apathetic about truth. As far as I understand the Unitarians they meet in the spirit of “everyone being essentially right” and they don’t overthrow the traditional symbols and rituals of the traditional religions. They may jettison literalism and water down their notions of gods to the most rationally acceptable deism or to a form of mystical abstraction that is functionally equivalent to nothingness, and they may be so open to freedom of intellectual conscience that they welcome even atheists with open arms, but in theory they have still always sounded to me like people who are trying to cling to the trappings of religions they don’t really believe."
RE: "trappings of religions they don’t really believe." I'd say we aren't trying to have a religion we believe -- since, for us, religion isn't about belief. We do kinda cling to some trappings of practice, though. Some of that is pretty useless to many of our folks, while being near and dear to the hearts of other of our folks. Religious community does mean that we have let go of our own egocentrism for a while, and let other people get their needs met in the way that works for them, while remaining in loving connection with them. The relevant "watering-down" is -- or should be -- diluting with love the ego's conviction that it knows the best way of doing things, including the best way to pursue truth. Bathed in that cleansing water, we become a little better able to open ourselves to new possibilities of meaning-making in the preferred metaphors of others.

RE: "Philosophically and spiritually lazy and apathetic about truth." Yeah, you got me on that one. In my experience of Unitarians, this is often true. We UUs do pride ourselves on intellect, we love to say, "you don't have to turn off your brain at the church door here," and UUs do tend to be fairly bright folks. On the other hand, a UU congregation is not a philosophy seminar. The members tend to have turned the focus of their intellects to nonphilosophical channels. In my earlier years as a minister, this was a source of frustration for me. "These people can't keep up with me," I whined (to myself.) What won out in me was the sense that it's really important to serve human need -- to meet people where they are. Maybe they can't keep up with the way I learned to like to run in philosophy graduate seminars, but perhaps there's a way not to run, but to fly -- and we can find a way to do that together. And, on good days, I help my congregation fly. Sometimes we still do a little jogging on the philosophical track. It's the poetry and narrative, though, that does more of the work of helping people see meaning in their lives.

If you really want a community that works hard at being rigorous about propositional truth, then, no, the Unitarians ain't it. Your best bet is the Academy for that. Congregations that try to put rigor about propositional truth in a central place fall apart when they don't all agree on the propositional truths.
Dan: "I really want atheists to have alternative communities and organizations that can make superstitious, authoritarian, patriarchal, irrationalistic religions obsolete—or which can at least prevent atheists from perversely feeling like those are the only games in town for giving their children roots and a moral education. I really want atheists to have rituals and values discussion that are rooted in sophisticated, critical, well-informed, and thought-provoking philosophy and not in the selective reading and decoding of the tired and idiosyncratic myths and sayings of ancient religions."
I want that, too. More often than not, I don't draw on ancient religious texts at all, and when I do, I aim to offer an interpretation of them that makes them fresh. (Yes, I am highly selective in my use of them.) More often, I draw from more recent findings in psychology, economics, physics -- whatever I can find that nurtures meaning-making, openness to wonder, and commitment to justice.
Dan: "I really want atheists to have groups that are not just dressing up like the traditional religions but which are built on foundations we can actually believe in and which are structured rationalistically from top to bottom."
RE: "Rationalistically from top to bottom." So . . . music? If you have music at your gatherings, you've opened the door for the nonrational. Heck, if the members even like each other (always an iffy proposition when it comes to congregational life), you're in the realm of the nonrational. Music and love aren't rational. The need for religious community is a need to make our peace with -- not simply struggle manfully to suppress -- the nonrationality of our natures.
Dan: "I don’t see the point of religious services that are a tribute to the history of religion rather than an attempt to get in touch with truths as understood using the contemporary state of knowledge in philosophy and science."
Me neither. You and I might (or maybe we wouldn't) disagree about the appropriate place of empathetic appreciation for the efforts of those who came before us -- efforts that constitute "the history of religion" -- but much more of my energy goes into getting "in touch with truths as understood using the contemporary state of knowledge in philosophy and science" -- and the insights of history, poetry, and fiction.

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