Sunday, June 17, 2018

20 - Rational Religion

Throughout the postings of this blog, I have taken a position that Religion is here to stay, both in its structured and its individualist form. This is not because people are running around eager to find new gods or because they want to start a new religion in order to live off the dues payments of its members. It’s because Religion is a fundamental element of the human species as it has evolved. (This was touched on Post 9.) Science would not have emerged had not Religion started the process by asking fundamental questions of what and why and how. And, although the various fields of human inquiry have long since split off and specialized, and Religion has ceded the understanding of the material Kosmos to Science, Religion remains the best method we have of searching for the fundamental truths that affect our lives.

Back in Post 9, I referred to this search and suggested a set of “primary concerns.” A list of those concerns appears below. This is by no means the only formulation of such concerns, but it is probably reasonably representative.

  1. Are there some universal standards of good and evil?
  2. What is my motivation to do good and not evil?
  3. Is there anything I can do to prevent bad things from happening to me?
  4. Is there some purpose for my existence, some meaning to my life?
  5. How much control and individual choice do I have in the way I lead my life?
  6. What will make me and my family happy?
  7. What, if any, form of existence will I have after I die? Is there anything beyond life? Does anything I do now affect me after I die?
  8. What, if anything, do I owe to anyone or anything outside of me and my family?

While I believe that Religion is the proper tool for addressing these concerns, I think it must evolve and become more rational before it can be effective in doing so.

Sadly, we appear to live in an era when rationality is not particularly popular (most particularly not in the world of politics). Yet a rational approach to understanding our purpose and our place in the Kosmos is necessary if the human species is to learn to tame chaos and evil, use the information and tools that Science produces, and fulfill its purpose. To my mind, this means we need a rational religion.

A rational approach to religion starts with understanding the difference between faith and belief. With very rare exceptions, every religion offers in its sacred writings a core of ideas and values, as well as a lot of speculation about the makeup of our Universe and how it got that way. The speculation serves as place-holders in our understanding of reality, until we learn more, usually through Science. My religion (Judaism) has faith, for example, that there is a rational intelligence behind, in, or that is itself the Universe, that we were created (through evolutionary processes) for a purpose, and that it is our job to learn (through Science and Religion) that purpose. My religion once believed that our world was flat, and that the Universe rotated around it, and that we were created by fiat. My religion once believed that women were not equal to men and belonged with the kids and in the kitchen. While the faith remains firm, the beliefs have changed as human knowledge has matured.

A rational religion, regardless of its other beliefs, takes on faith that its god is rational. To quote Richard Dawkins, a brilliant atheist who has not come to terms with the reality and nature of rational religion:
Even if you believe a creator god invented the laws of physics, would you so insult him as to suggest that he might capriciously and arbitrarily violate them in order to walk on water, or turn water into wine as a cheap party trick at a wedding? 
Rational Religion can assume two things about its scriptures. One is that they were written by humans, not god, which makes them much more important. The other is that they were written to teach, to share speculation and to amuse, not to provide power to some at the expense of others. Humans, endowed by evolution with spiritual genes, have produced what is truly, in every religion that created a “Bible,” a milestone of evolution.

Scriptures largely include a bundle of wisdom collected over centuries: values, analysis of the human character, and what we understand today to be myth and legend. Rational Religion does not try to sell myths and legends as truth, but as stories to learn from. Rational Religion understands that there are usually lessons far deeper than our forefathers understood buried in the myths. Was there a God who actually spoke to Abraham or Moses? Who cares? That is a matter of belief. Rational Religion can have faith that the authors of the scriptures discovered important truths from the experiences and dialogues they had, whether those experiences were imagined, real, or fictionalized.

Why have many institutionalized religions been losing adherents? Obviously, there have been many changes in society since the Enlightenment. The problems facing many churches, mosques and synagogues have much to do with the failures of their theology to keep up with Science, and their failure to commit to rational Religion.

The largest issues have to do with religious education. When we fail to teach our children the differences between myth/legend and truth, they feel cheated and deceived, and will quickly abandon Religion as early as they can. From the beginning, they must be taught faith rather than obsolete beliefs. When we teach them about the nature of a god and its place in nature, we must make it clear that these are our beliefs, and that these beliefs have changed over time as Science and experience have solidified our faith and altered our beliefs. There is no longer room for kindergarten theology, even in kindergarten. It makes no sense to promise children an all-powerful and “good” god when it's inevitable that history books and news will teach them differently. In other words, don't wait for disillusioned adulthood, but from the very beginning, teach children rational theology within rational religion and encourage them to think for themselves.

Prayer, too, should be updated to reflect what is rational. We must insist that people understand that prayer doesn’t exist to make a god happy, or to lead it, or to bargain with it, but is a means for us to listen to, affirm and re-affirm the orderliness of our universe and to be thankful for it.

Rational Religion is where I wanted to arrive with this blog. Now that I've gotten there, I am finished with the blog and starting on a book that will treat the various subjects that the blog introduced, but in more detail. I hope that I live long enough to complete it, and that I can get it published and that you will buy it, read it, and enjoy it.

Meanwhile, I will keep the blog open in case any of my readers want to offer additional comments or suggestions, or in case I come up with some other cockamamie thing I want to say while the book is being completed. The book will benefit tremendously from the input of those who reacted with this blog, for which I thank many of you. I must particularly thank Bill McCormack, who has most faithfully interacted with this blog and provided me with lots to think about that I hadn’t been thinking about. May every blogger have a Bill McCormack.


  1. An excellent summation of a very enriching thread. Best of luck on the book!

    One short comment I'd like to make on this final post. It's true that special pleading (for divine intercession) is a crude recuperation of the idea of prayer. However, in Bible, it could be said to go back to Deuteronomy and the Second Book of Samuel, where the Covenant for release from bondage, in Egypt, is based on a bargain, that the Israelites carry the faith as a bond against bondage. This is persistent and perhaps worth revisiting. Second, the links between tribal identity and religion are not only still in force, but being exploited and accelerating to the detriment of both faith and humanity. So tribalism is a religious issue too. Finally, in terms of 'beliefs' about women's place, consider who is the believer and how they actually live. Women in some Jewish Orthodox sects are privileged by their ability to have an education, while the men are forced to labor at low wages and low literacy, in what's essentially a religious commune (some excellent recent films on the topic, by the way). The generalized position of women is a vestige of earlier codes of ethics that were not patriarchal but mere survival. Once survival depends upon releasing women from subservience -- so they can work -- subservience is cast away with great haste. Also, don't take the myth of 'patriarchy' at face value. I recall seeing a recent documentary on some lost Innu (or similar) tribe, where the documentarian deplored the fact that the husband in any couple "always had the last word," and the documentarian's mission was to bring European Enlightenment to the wife. There was only one problem with that; if it was true that husband's word was Law, it was only because the family was nomadic and under threat of flash blizzards and polar bears, and needed to mobilize at any moment, and it took a strict hierarchy to survive. The men were simply the logical choice to bark orders. All revisions of all creeds and faiths need to be thorough, disinterested, and honest.
    -Walter Bruno

  2. •The eight Primary Concerns are fundamental to moral humanity whether you are an Atheist, Theist or Other Fools.
    •I think that all religions with their Scriptures attempt to answer these primary concerns. Perhaps these ancient writings should be combined with in depth interpretation as to lessons pertaining to the primary concerns of humanity, acknowledging that some writings are myth/fiction while others are historical accounts. In order to rationalize the Scriptures, existing scientific knowledge would combine with religion to make it believable. There are many books on this subject however they should incorporate in a concise way to arrive at a rationalized religion. Unfortunately there are too many divergent opinions.
    •I agree with your paragraph: “Rational Religion can assume two things about its scriptures… a milestone of human evolution.”
    •I wonder in humanity’s evolution over unknown millennia, if there will emerge one Universal religion which combined with science will become the basis for answering the primary concerns. The material Kosmos and science may eventually evolve to reveal yotzer and only then answer the primary concerns. In the meantime we can only rely on religion, our faith and our beliefs.
    •Religious education and prayer should be based upon a rational religion which is more believable and progressive rather than threatening, with moral lessons for living and understanding the primary concerns in a contemporary manner.
    •I have read with interest your Posts and they have challenged me to think outside of the box as I opened my thinking to other concepts. I look forward to your completion of Atheists, Theists and Other Fools.


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