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Jan. 23rd, 2005 | 05:58 pm
posted by: mendaciloquent in casual_order

Hi. I’m new to the group. If you want to know more about who I am and why I’m here, ...

My religious background is not unordinary. I was raised Catholic but left the church at the age of 11 or 12. I did not have strong religious beliefs before that time and I don’t think I ever did believe in God, at least not in any remotely adult sense. I did take a great interest in science, however, and though this interest did not conflict with my religious upbringing at first, I found many of the ideas I had been taught (or had simply assumed) becoming obsolete in light of the products of science and rationality. As a teenager I was an adamant atheist, enjoyed engaging religious people in debates, and came to hold very strong Marxist political views.

As I began to study philosophy in college, most of my hard-line views toward religion faded. It should first be mentioned that most philosophy departments in the United States and Britain are dominated more or less by a sophisticated version of the materialistic, rational thinking I had found so appealing as a teenager, and ideologically-speaking, I was quite at home there. At least at first. As I continued my work, I became increasingly aware of the limitations of this way of understanding reality. Rational materialism seemed fairly good at offering plausible theories about concrete scientific questions, e.g., “why is the sky blue?”, “where did people come from?”, but when it came to understanding and explaining things like “what is right?” or “what is beauty?”, as well as accounting for the nature of human thought and experience, I came to find this approach stifling and its proponents to be rather dogmatic.

This kind of rational materialist approach to the question of “what does it mean to be human?”, for example, might try to answer it by exploring our evolutionary past or by examining the human genome. But assuming that we could know everything about these things, would it really give us a satisfactory answer to that question? I don’t think it would, or could.

All of this came to give me a new appreciation for, although not a genuine belief in, religion and spirituality as an important part of human experience. I now find the typical philosophical approach to religion to be wholly inadequate. Most philosophers, when they evaluate religion, evaluate it as if it were a rational philosophical system itself. But to treat religion as a purely intellectual system, much less a rational one, is to miss (at least I think) the entire point of religion itself. Religion is not simply a belief system, but a network of symbols, practices, activities and experiences which tie into and give meaning to the whole of human existence, or at least a much greater part of it than isolated intellectual activity does. It includes a broad range of activities, emotions, experiences and social relationships which go beyond what other explanatory systems (say, physics) do. Comparing physics to religion as “belief systems” is comparing apples and oranges.

Unfortunately it’s not just philosophers or secularists who make this blunder. Religious people do it too and often embarrass themselves badly in the process. Those trying to “defend” religion from evolution or genetics or modern cosmology are in the process ignoring those very strengths which set religion apart from the sciences, but they also sweep aside the legitimate wonders of science at the same time, leaving only a void of ignorance. The loudest voices in religious life, at least to my ears, are the ones who seem to care the least about what religion really has to offer.

I would like to know what those strengths really are. At the same time, I’m not interested in becoming religious, but at the same time I recognize that the products of secular Western thinking are unable to speak to the full range of human experiences and potentials. Atheists (and others) hold as a truism this odd notion that religion is a way of “explaining things”, and that once science came along, it was no longer necessary, because it could explain things better. This I think is complete misreading of the history of religion. Religions aren’t ways of explaining life. Religions are ways of living life, and I think that is an art which has been left by the wayside of modern culture. Modernity has forgotten what it means to live a “good life”, or to be more accurate, it has forgotten what it means to ask what a “good life” is.

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from: amequo
date: May. 23rd, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC)

Hello and welcome. I apologize for not replying earlier, in fact, I'm pretty embarrassed about it.
You brought up some very interesting points, particularly in your last paragraph. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on how modernity can remember what it means to ask what a "good life" is.

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