Arts & Letters Daily is back (yay!) and included an interesting review by Jared Diamond that recalled some points from my earlier post. (I said I would give Telford a break, and I have a feeling this will get him going again -- sorry, Telf.) It includes a wild tale from New Guinea that combines elements of the Fall of Man and the Tower of Babel, plus a man with giant testicles (no kidding!). But what it recalls from my own post was my remark that religion "fills a variety of different needs." Diamond asks: what are those needs?
I didn't spell it out at the time, but I figured the needs fell into three basic categories: a) explanation of the natural world; b) social order and community; and c) personal transcendence. Diamond has four categories: explanation, standardized organization, moral rules of good behavior toward in-groups, and rules of bad behavior toward out-groups. On the first one we obviously agree, while his next three I think of as belonging under my heading of "social order." He doesn't consider c) at all, which I think leads him to an erroneous conclusion:
Wilson's thought-provoking book will stimulate each reader to examine his or her personal view of religion's future, and I can't resist doing so either. Personally, I accept purely secular reasons to pay taxes and to refrain from murder and theft, so that societies can promote the happiness of their citizens. I deny a religious need to kill members of out-groups, and I accept a secular need to do so under extreme circumstances, where the alternative would be worse. I remain uneasy about relying on religion to justify morality: today, as in the past, it's too small a step from there to justifying the killing of adherents of other religions. I accept the possibility of scientific explanations for almost every mystery of the natural world—but not for the greatest mystery of all. I still have no scientific answer, and expect there never to be one, to that challenge which Paul Tillich posed to me and my skeptical classmates: "Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?" Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect on the mystery of the First Cause.
Diamond is correct that the needs of explanation and social order can be filled by things other than religion, but he seems to think that all that's left, then, is the First Cause question. But I don't think that's enough to keep religion alive. If First Cause is your only concern, your natural road is Deism; and perhaps some Deists out there will disagree, but I don't think that's different in practice from having no religion. And as the Atlantic Monthly pointed out in a fascinating article a few months back, intellectuals like Diamond keep thinking rationalist belief systems like Deism or Unitarianism or atheism will eventually take over as modernity progresses, and yet the opposite keeps happening.
I think the human desire for transcendence is a large part of that. But I had better explain what I mean by transcendence. I don't mean necessarily something wild and mystical and out-there, although it can certainly include that. (The extraordinary rise of Pentecostalism that the Atlantic mentions attests to the popularity of such things.) What I'm talking about is the idea of release. Religious traditions from around the world have conceived of humans as living in captivity -- to sin, to suffering, to desire, to self -- and have prescribed how to get free, generally by surrendering to some supernatural being or force. In Buddhism and Hinduism the problem is the illusion of the world itself, which can be escaped by overcoming your attachment to it and joining the oneness of everything. Taoism has a similar idea; by freeing yourself of desires, you can be in harmony with the universe. Christians perceive humans as living in a fallen state enslaved by sin, which can be escaped by accepting Christ. It is a different idea from the Eastern mystics', but release is still the central concept.
It's a strange, paradoxical thing, the idea of finding freedom through submission. The usual American idea of freedom is freedom to pursue your desires, not to lose them; to take control, not to give it up. It's also no doubt true that a lot of people don't experience religion as liberation -- far from it. But while I have not experienced it myself, I have become convinced that it exists. For people in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, pursuing desire and taking control leads to another kind of enslavement, which they escape through religious means. And you don't have to be a drug addict to feel enslaved by yourself. So long as people experience that, religion will always have a place.