Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Basis of Religion?

I have recently read pieces by Richard Rohr, a franciscan, and A.C. Grayling, a well known atheist, about the basis of religion.  Grayling argues in his recent book "The God Argument" that religion should be abolished for the good of humanity.  As a secular humanist, he says he holds to the guiding principle that we should do no harm to others.  Since religion, he argues, has done and continues to do much harm, it should be abolished.

On the other hand, Richard Rohr argues that religion at its best is a way of becoming mature and learning to deny the self and love others.  He says this is found in all of the world's religions in their best form.  Love, he says, is a commitment to what is real.  As we become mature we recognize that many of the things we valued in our youth are unreal and passing.  All things change, he says, and therefore we should act towards others in a way that affirms what is real.

What stood out to me is that A.C. Grayling's secular humanism counts as a form of religion in Rohr's definition.  Grayling's target in his book is religion as superstition and fantasy that hinders people from maturity and acting in a loving ways towards their neighbor.  As far as his argument goes I find myself in agreement with him.  Humans should overcome superstition and fantasy.  Indeed, I agree with Rohr that love must be based on what is real.  So where is the disagreement?

What both of these authors are missing is that their own religion, and the many religions of the world, have competing claims about what is real.  Rohr likes to juxtapose sayings of Jesus with sayings of the Buddha.  However, if we contextualize the sayings of Jesus in the theism of Judaism and Christianity we would understand that they are very distinct from the Buddha's claim that "all is change."  Similarly, Grayling presupposes the materialism of secular humanism, and destroys straw men forms of religious belief, but he never argues for why we should believe that only matter is real.  Between these two authors we are given three answers to what is real: God the Creator, change, and matter.  These cannot all be true, and in each case these will shape what counts as "love."

If it is true that all of the world's religions teach (in their best form) teach "love," and it is also true that love is a commitment to what is real, then it follows that where these religions teach competing versions of what is real they are also teaching competing version of what it means to love.  The conclusion is that while we might be able to say the basis of religion is a teaching about what is real, all this does is uncover divisions about what is real.  At their basic level, the world's religions differ precisely because they are giving us different teachings about what is real and all of them cannot be correct.  We can learn from Grayling's encouragement to overcome uncritically held beliefs, but we must also apply this to his secular humanism.