Friday, March 18, 2011

Religion and Science, and What People Really Believe

Religion and science gave me much of what I treasure in my life. Religion gave me a meditation practice, within a frame of cultivating clarity and compassion. Science -- broadly speaking, including history, held to scientific standards of truth -- gave me information, and ways of evaluating information, which I use all the time. And to me they are simply the inner and outer versions of the same thing: the discipline of seeing, not what I want to see, not what I expect to see, not what I've been told to see -- but seeing what's there, whether I like it or not; and testing what I think I know by experiment.

More. In my own life, religion and science are correctives to each other. There are errors of the mind and heart that are characteristic of religious people, which science corrects. We're given to all the variations of the pathetic fallacy. We perceive persons where there are no persons, intentions where there are no intentions. We want to make the world into a mandala, an outward emblem of our inner life. We rework the outer world, not as we want it to be (that's a slander on religious people which has never been true) -- but as it makes emotional sense to us. Science rescues us from this.

Likewise, there are errors of the mind and heart that are characteristic of scientific people, which meditation and comtemplation correct. We tend to hide our motivations from ourselves; we tend to take our thoughts at face value. We tend to put our energy into answering external questions, and to forget the very first, fundamental question, the question before the question: why are we asking? There is always a reason why we ask any question. Often enough it's not a very pretty one, but we had better know what it is. That's where the techniques of rigorous introspection -- which have been worked out in various religious traditions, through struggles just as difficult as Gallileo's and Newton's -- are indispensable. If you haven't learned them and practiced them, I can pretty much guarantee that you are deeply deceived about how your mind works and why it asks the questions it asks.

I said something like, “There are tens of thousands of religions, and very few of them make a big deal of subscribing to a laundry list of assertions about cosmological reality,” and he answered, “I think almost all of them do.”

It wasn't answerable in the space of a Facebook thread, so I dropped it, but I understand why we were talking past each other a bit. Some of the difficulty is just in how you count. One way to think about religions -- the way I was thinking -- was to take each one as of equal weight. So a shaman practicing way up the Amazon counts for one, and Catholicism, with its hundreds of millions of adherents, also counts as (only) one. Moreover, historical religions, which we know about but which are no longer practiced, also count in this census. Most religions, counting this way, are animistic or shamanic: they are not organized, and have no power, even if they had the wish, to enforce subscription to articles of belief. You might call this the Senate of religions. But you can also think proportional representation -- a House of religions. In that case, Catholicism, say, ranks as a sort of California. There are *lots* of Catholics, and they have a lot of weight to throw around.

But there's still difficulty with the definition of “religion.” There's a lot of different ways of thinking about what Catholicism is. You can ask the Pope what it is, and get one answer, and that's the basic approach that someone writing a Wikipedia article would take. And so go read the article, and you'll find out exactly what Catholics believe: all about God the creator, the trinity, transubstantiation, and so forth.

The problem with this top-down approach is that it gives you a wildly inaccurate idea of what most Catholics, most of the time, believe. Most of the French, for example, identify as Catholic. A large proportion of them also identify as atheist. There is a huge disconnect between the official position of the church and what its members actually think and do. You can airily dismiss the Catholicism of these atheists, and say that they're not really religious -- and in fact my interlocutor took this route, and averred that I was not religious, even though my religious convictions and practice are the center of my life, and give it such meaning as it has -- but that doesn't really answer any questions. What is an atheist doing in church, then, and why does he do it? If it's not out of religious motives that I prostrate in front of a little wooden Buddha statue in the morning, then what exactly do you call those motives? A definition of religion that excludes such a large proportion of what most people think of as religious activity may not be a very useful one.

When Christian missionaries encountered a new religion, they investigated what they thought was important about a religion. The first thing they asked is: what do you believe? Who made the universe? What happens to people when they die? How does one become saved or damned? Because those are important questions to Christians, at least to the sort of Christians who become missionaries. But what they didn't ask were questions such as, “how important is the creation of universe to you?” or “How much do you care about what happens to souls after death?” A Buddhist, for example can come up with a creation myth -- with several, in fact -- but these myths are trivial in Buddhism: they're superstitious bric-a-brac. The Buddha explicitly and emphatically declined even to entertain such questions. Buddhism is simply not interested in the origin of the universe: a common phrase in Buddhist liturgies is “since beginningless time...” But look at a Western encyclopedia about Buddhism and you'll probably find one of these creation myths trotted out as if it was a core belief. I was mildly surprised to be told recently, that since I am a Tibetan Buddhist I believe that the center of the world is a vast mountain, Mount Meru, ten times higher than the Himalayas. Of course I've heard of Mount Meru, I know prayers that mention it, mandalas represent it all the time. But as far as believing it? There may be monks in very remote monasteries who believe it, but I've never met anyone who did. You want to be careful when you're told that people of some foreign faith “believe” this or that.

And still more. If you have an argument with a zealous Christian or Muslim, they will present as sublimely confident and secure in their belief. Of course they will: they're on their mettle. But they're lying through their teeth. If you think they don't sometimes wake up at three in the morning, feeling utterly alone and sure that they're going to die dead as a doornail, then you're much more naïve and credulous than they are. The atheist nightmare of hordes of happy untroubled true believers, who never asked a question or had a doubt in their lives, has nothing to do with reality.


Murr Brewster said...

Well this is all very interesting. I had been thinking that one huge difference between a certain fundamentalist, young-earth Christian friend of mine and me is our tolerance of uncertainty. He seems to have none, and mine is so high that mostly I don't even ask the questions I'm told we all ask. I don't have a meditative practice, myself, but I have a regular habit of allowing things to Hit Eyeballs: Enter Heart.

Dale said...

There are some advantages to formal meditation practices, but a practice of "allowing things to Hit Eyeballs: Enter Heart" sums up what they aim at pretty well :-)

Kat said...

Mmm, love it. It reminds me a little of a post my friend Dave just wrote about the interaction of Zen and science (and some other stuff).

Laura Allen said...

Under religion on my FB profile, I say "Spiritual and tolerant. Christian Buddhist Pagan, or whatever order you'd like to put that in."

There are many days when I don't know exactly what I believe, but I always believe in something that's bigger than I am. The universe, and whatever perception I have of a higher power are one and the same to me.

I believe the difference in prayer and meditation, as I have heard a wise man say, is that prayer is when you are talking to God and asking for something, and meditation is when you are sitting quietly listening to what he has to say.

Dave said...

Good post, Dale. It warms my heart to read these arguments, in fact, because they're the very sort of arguments I used to advance myself, before I got tired of arguing with people who prefer to stereotype the religious. Your point about the way the scientific and religious perspectives act as correctives for each other is especially well put.

Peter said...

How we understand and write about others' faith, as you say, is tricky because we don't share the same priorities or questions. I love stories in which missionaries are the ones who get changed -- I Heard the Owl Call My Name is perhaps my favorite.

Alexandra said...

I especially love this part: "they are simply the inner and outer versions of the same thing: the discipline of seeing...."

I know a very staunch Catholic who has an essentially scientific mind. She can't help but believe in evolution and the way she so easily incorporates it into her religious beliefs is astounding to me.