Religion and the Sacred

I. False explanations of religion
II. The true nature of religion
III. The sacred as precious
IV. The sacred as awesome
V. The sacred as principle
VI. The sacred as source

In defense of religion I:  Why the sacred cannot be explained away

This essay as a whole will concern the chief claim of all the world’s religions:  the existence of a divine order.  Today, it seems that one must actually be willing to offer a defense, not only for accepting religious claims, but even for being willing to give them serious consideration.  After all, it is said, hasn’t science (meaning psychology, anthropology, or evolutionary biology) already explained why people have religions?  Since these explanations are entirely materialistic, doesn’t this prove that all religions—since they claim to relate to the supernatural—are false?  Why even bother with the philosophical arguments for and against theism?

False explanations of

You’ll notice that I referred to scientific “explanations” not “explanation”, a first indication that the skeptics’ house isn’t entirely in order.  The explanations are many and unrelated.  Let us consider a few.  First, it is claimed that religion is based on infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies.  People who can’t cope with the responsibilities of adulthood imagine that they are protected by some benevolent supernatural power.  People who can’t face death imagine that they will survive in some sort of afterlife.  Second, it is said that religion is a personification of social forces.  Because primitive people can’t refer to abstract concepts like “community”, they attribute the pressures applied to them by their communities to immaterial gods.  They are so impressed by parental or tribal authority that they attribute divinity to ancestors and kings.  Third, it is said that religion is a primitive form of science.  Ignorant savages try to explain things like the weather or the growth of their crops by invoking the agency of imagined gods.  They personify forces and aspects of nature, and even their own inner impulses, by identifying them as gods.  So, for example, there is the god of the sea, the god of love, the god of death, etc.  Fourth, it is said that religion is a scam perpetrated by the clergy.  By persuading the people that the clergy can influence the gods, the shaman and priest have arranged to live off of others without having to work. 

There are other theories, but I think this is a representative sample.  The first thing to ask is how these explanations fare as purely scientific theories.  Do they correctly predict the features of most religions, or at least of most religions among primitive people?  The answer is no, not even remotely.  When we look at primitive religions, the gods are more often capricious than benevolent.  Nor is the promise of a pleasant afterlife a major part of most primitive religions.  The Old Testament hardly mentions life after death.  The original goal of Buddhism was to avoid an afterlife.  When peoples later do develop an idea of life after death, it is often at first imagined to be an unpleasant and shadowy existence like that of Sheol or the Plains of Asphodel.  Later, when the idea of justice is added to the idea of an afterlife, it is hell that receives far more attention than heaven.  Nor do religious people have any trouble distinguishing between the laws of the community and the laws of God, as examples like Antigone and Thomas More make clear.  In fact, most religions do draw a connection between the authority and the gods.  However, it is not the psychological pressure that the community is able to exert on individuals that is considered divine, but the aspect of moral legitimacy—the fact that one is morally obliged to obey one’s father or king whether one feels like it or not.  Moral duty is an entirely different thing from psychological pressure.  (Imagine one loyalist standing alone against a gang of mutineers.)  The former is a spiritual thing, so it is no scandal that religion should be associated with it.  The theory that religion is primitive science also fares poorly when confronted with actual religious experience.  As just mentioned, one aspect of all religions is that they expound moral duties and prohibitions.  They declare not only the existence of the gods, but also our duties towards them.  Now, science itself can never lead to moral imperatives; science limits itself to empirical description.  This in itself proves that religion is addressing more than scientific issues.  Also, one often sees religious people, both primitive and modern, ascribing the same effect to both a natural and a supernatural cause.  Consider a family that offers thanks to God for the food that they have just bought and prepared themselves.  Obviously, the family is attributing causality on different levels to themselves and to God.  Finally, if religion were a clerical scam, we would expect to find primitive religions to be the most clerically organized, but in fact the opposite is true.  Also, the life of the shaman is often hardly enviable.

2 Responses

  1. […] and political authority are sacred.  (I’ve described the quality of being sacred in detail here.)  Profane things are not evil—some of them, such as friendship, money, entertainment, and […]

  2. First, you fail to distinguish between mythology and religion. The former is generally subsumed under the latter as a component of its transmission. However, there are those like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, your apparent mentor, who regard mythology as the broader term, designating a collection of symbolic images and metaphoric narratives that are universal in human experience and intended to awaken consciousness to its meaning and being within its existence.

    It is in this context that Campbell called religion misunderstood mythology. Religion invariably imposes factuality and historicity on an experience of illumination and insight that is instead intended to be dimensionless, not localized either in time or space. Eliade discusses at length the trans-dimensional nature of sacred time and sacred space and the way in which religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, radically altered the concept. The referents of three great world religions are to places and events fixed in historical time and space. Their insistence on this literalness in doctrine, on the “truth” of their contrary and contending interpretations even about their supposedly common divine father, results in the on-going madness of their trying to drop bombs on each other in the name of religion. And it is in this context that Campbell called religion a “defense against the experience of God.”

    In contrast, the referents of mythology are to places and events unfixed from the temporal or spatial and so evocative of the transcendent, and like art, expressive of “not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact.”

    Second, you skate dangerously close to pantheism when you describe the cosmic order “as a manifestation of the divine presence.” The Catholic Church has been very adamant on rejecting this linkage. At any rate, it is a vast leap in faith to conclude that this cosmic order “By its very existence, … reveals the rationality of God.” Looking at nature ravenous in tooth and claw might as easily lead to the opposite conclusion of an order devoid of divinity. In either case, it is a matter of interpretation, not “gospel” truth.  

    Finally your contention that religion without qualification posits a Divinity “that is supremely good, powerful, majestic, beautiful, rational, and just” is utter nonsense. You are, of course, speaking solely in the context of a western Deity, more particularly a Christian one. But religion generally subscribes to no such list of predicates. Islam, for example, firmly rejects any such attributes as merely human qualities whereas Allah is not bound by notions of goodness or justice or rationality but is entirely unconstrained in the exercise of his arbitrary and capricious Will. Even so-called natural laws of cause and effect, those that you assume reflect a Divine rationality at work in the cosmic order, do not apply to Allah and are inoperative in a world entirely dependent on his constant intervention and maintenance.

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