Religion and Reality

So, I've been mulling over in my mind lately the question of how connected religion is with reality, in the wake of the Mars Hill Dialogue, and also my reading of Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven", which is about a fundamentalist Mormon who murders a few people under supposed direction from God. (You should read that, especially if this post interests you. It's a fascinating case study on religion in general and Mormonism in particular. I've become a bit of a Krakauer Acolyte).

You hear people argue a lot that religion isn't "rational". In my own Western experience anyway, I'd tend to disagree with that. While there are some folks who aren't terribly concerned with whether or not their belief is reasonable, I think for most people the perceived rationality of a religious system is just as important as it's efficacy in providing them with good feelings and a happy life. A religion is, in part, a lens through which we view the world, and if it doesn't make sense in the world we live in, it'll be discarded or altered. Theologians and scribes have, of course, spent thousands of years hammering out the rational structure of our various religious traditions.

What critics are suggesting when they say religion isn't "rational", I think, is that it isn't actually connected with reality. Those are in some ways two different things. What you find in systematic theological studies is that research tends to happen, broadly, in two camps: some work to hash out the internal coherence of a religious system (for example, "How does Jesus' death affect the salvation of humanity?) and others work to hash out the coherence between a religious system and our experienced reality (for example, "how can you reconcile belief in creation with scientific observations about nature?"). Some completely rational religious people, I think, can be sucked in by the "internal coherence" thing, satisfying themselves with the way a religion's doctrines lock together, and virtually ignoring the question of whether their religious system corresponds with experience outside of the system. The guy in "Under the Banner of Heaven" fell into that trap, and so do the young earth creationists.

Most people don't do that though, I'd say. Rather, religion that lasts tends to be internally coherent, AND to correspond with popular perceptions of the nature of reality. That's why religion changes over time with culture, albeit slowly. We've stopped viewing the world as flat, so we no longer (literally) believe that God exists in a realm beyond the sky.

The problem for religious folks, I think, is that they often can't seem to keep up with the overall growth of knowledge, and in fact sometimes seek to impede or deny that growth where it calls their fundamental belief into question. That's why Christians tend to identify as "conservative", and we still have young earth creationists and people who hold a magical worldview, protecting scriptures and beliefs from the prying eyes of history and science. In America, the dominant Evangelical Protestant stream of American Christianity has been extraordinarily successful in resisting the growth of knowledge where it conflicts with the doctrines of religion, and now is a system of belief that's generally internally coherent, but is in many places seriously out of touch with modern (and undeniably true) understandings about reality. Things are changing somewhat though, which helps to explain the success of Rob Bell at the other Mars Hill Church, who is my new favorite Evangelical and the anti-Mark Driscoll in a lot of ways. It's definitely possible to have a system of belief which is Christian, and which corresponds with history, science, and psychology and the other social sciences, but it will look much different than American Evangelical Protestantism.

Those who are fortunate enough to be Anglicans are somewhat ahead of the curve on these things, though we're generally so averse to proselytization that most people don't know it. Scripture, Tradition and Reason (not necessarily in that order) are the pillars of our faith, and that has generally played out to mean that the mind, reason and learning are allowed to constantly re-evaluate our belief system. You hear that there aren't many great Anglican theologians, but I think the truth is that we don't express our theology in the same terms--we don't seek to systematize as much as we seek to formulate and re-formulate. That's why we're frequently out front on theological issues, and often condemned as heretics by those who are more locked in to traditional beliefs. I've developed a lot of faith in the Anglican way of doing things, and am worried that the Communion as a whole might be drifting away from reason with the rest of the world.

The follow-up question is whether religion is a good thing, or whether it would be better to do away with it. That one is tougher, and the American example tends to argue for the latter solution. But then, the American example also tends to suggest that we should do away with government, television, business and Twinkies. Thankfully, you don't have to base your whole view of reality on the American example.