To say I’m a lapsed Catholic would be an understatement. I haven’t set foot in a church in years, other than for a couple of weddings. I’ve never cared for parts of the official doctrine, and I think they blew it when they made Giblets Pope. In terms of general attitude toward religion, I’m sort of an apathetic agnostic– I don’t know if there’s a God, and I don’t much care.
And yet, I make at least some effort to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. I don’t do all that well, because I’m a little absent-minded (I usually forget it’s Friday until I’m halfway through a cheeseeburger), but I do make an effort in that direction. My reasons for this aren’t entirely rational, but I’ll offer an explanation of sorts after the cut, along with some armchair sociology that will serve as my comment on the religion in politics thing (alternate post title: “Why I’ll Never Get a Tenth of PZ’s Traffic”). This will probably be somewhat scattered, and not entirely coherent, but it’s a blog post, not a philosophical monograph.
The way I see it, there are basically three things that get lumped together under the heading of “religion” these days. There’s a bit of mythology, a bit of moral philosophy, and a whole bunch of cultural and social stuff.
The mythology part is the “just-so stories” that go along with the faith in question– creation stories, past miracles, present miracles. This is where most of the conflicts with science arise, because most of the mythology associated with various religions is frankly impossible, and the remainder is highly improbable.
The moral philosophy part is the set of instructions about how to treat other people, and what you can and cannot do. There are parts of this that overlap with the mythology, such as the Almighty’s implacable hatred of crustaceans (or various more serious issues that I’m not going to talk about now– one flamewar at a time), but most of it is fairly unobjectionable, at least on paper. You get about the same results, ethics-wise, from following religious precepts that you do from trying to behave in accordance with the ethical principles of your favorite philosopher (which isn’t terribly surprising, as most of it is common-sense stuff).
The cultural and social stuff is, well, everything else. It’s all the accretion of human activity around the various religions. The charitable organizations, and bake sales, and sports leagues, along with the various traditions and rituals. It’s where and how often people go to worship, and what they do when they’re there, and what they do or don’t eat and when. They’re all things that the congregation does as a group.
In my view, this is where most of the good things happen, and cultural and social factors account for most religious people’s attachment to their religion. There are some people out there who are wired a little funny, and pursue religion as an entirely or primarily solitary experience, but for the most part, people belong to a church the way they belong to any other group, and the cultural and social traditions of that church are what hold the group together.
This is all identity stuff, and that’s what I’m honoring when I go out of my way on Friday to find edible seafood, rather than just eating the leftover chicken in the fridge. It’s a cultural thing, a tribute to my parents and grandparents, the same as the oplatek ritual at Christmas Eve dinner, or (for a wholly secular example), saying “Na zdrowie” as a toast rather than “cheers.” My family background is a big part of who I am, and eating more fish than usual in early spring is a nod in that direction.
The social aspect is also, in my opinion, where most atheists run into a wall when dealing with religious people– they misunderstand what people get out of the whole deal. People aren’t religious, by and large, because they need a crutch for their moral sense, or because they derive some existential comfort from the creation story of their particular faith. They’re in it for the benefits of belonging to the group– the bake sales and pancake breakfasts, the charitable organizations and sports leagues, the weekly gathering with friends and neighbors. They get rituals to mark important moments, and a whole community to celebrate births and weddings and other liminal moments, and a whole community to mourn with them over the passing of loved ones.
This is also why aggressive atheism is so radioactive politically. Atheists mostly get worked up about the mythological aspects of religion, but what religious people hear is an attack on the cultural and social aspects of their identity. You may think you’re only denouncing belief in the supernatural, but they think you’re denouncing the church socials and youth organizations, and people coming around the house to visit after a relative dies. And that’s political suicide.
The number of people for whom the literal truth of Genesis is a make-or-break proposition is relatively small, and there are large and successful denominations that happily accept the Bible account as a metaphor. The number of people for whom the existence of church-run social events is a make-or-break proposition is vastly larger. And when you start ranting about the need to expunge all traces of religion from public life, they recoil, not because they’re worried about the mythology or moral philosophy, but because they fear the loss of the social aspects of religion, and there’s nothing on offer to replace them. And that fear can easily be exploited by religious demagogues for political gain.
How do you separate those elements, to make atheism more acceptable, and reduce the influence of the really pernicious sorts of religion in politics? I have no idea. Atheist society picnics and bowling leagues?
I’m pretty sure that the answer isn’t to scream louder and stamp your feet harder, though. Whatever the correct approach turns out to be, it will require some recognition of and respect for the role that the social and cultural aspects of religion plays in determining the identity of the religious. I don’t see a lot of that around at the moment, which is why I find most on-line debates about how liberals should approach religion so incredibly depressing (Dave Munger offers a rare exception). Which, in turn, is why I don’t talk about it much– much as I would like to draw more traffic here, I’ve got enough stress without the attacks that follow any call for moderation.
(Note: this was actually written before Sean Carroll’s recent post, which says some very sensible things. I’m solidly in the “strategist” category of his classification system, and while I have a slight quibble with the use of “intellectual” as the name for the other category (real intellectual engagement precludes contempt), he’s got the split right. This reminds me that I really ought to post something about the student panel discussion on atheism that I went to a couple of weeks back. Maybe later, when typing isn’t likely to screw up my shoulder.)