An earlier version of this essay was published as “Religion, Briefly Considered,” a six-part blog post series (Oct 2014 – Feb 2015).
I. Darwin’s Dog: The Evolution of Religion
II. “When You Wish upon a Star”: The Projection Theory of Religion
III. The Theological Reaction to Feuerbach
IV. Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?
V. From Projecting to Staging Religion
VI. Monotheism and Violence
VII. A Diplomatic Secularism
VIII. Living Without Gods
Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.
Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene ii
In a famous story, someone told Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi would explain the meaning of the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Pivoting as requested, Hillel replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah.”
In the following pages I am going to talk about what I learned about religion after a career in Religious Studies stretching over three decades. Like Hillel, I will try to put religion in a nutshell. My answer differs from the rabbi’s, not only because my precarious sense of balance doesn’t allow me to stand very long on one leg, but because I’m concerned about religion in general and not a specific religion. Also, unlike Hillel, I don’t think that religion, viewed globally, can be reduced to high-minded ethical conduct.
My view of religion has been deeply influenced by the German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Feuerbach’s “projection theory” of religion, combined with my own study of popular religion, politicized fundamentalism, criminal cults and religious terror, has caused me to recently rethink religion. It also forced me out of the Religious Studies establishment.
I am personally drawn to Quakerism, Buddhism and Unitarianism, and am moved by devout individuals who devote themselves to feeding the hungry, healing the sick and engaging in other humanitarian causes. But today institutional religion itself falls under my no-fly zone. So too does “spirituality,” the refuge of religious people determined to maintain their bona fides with the cultured despisers of religion.
Although I don’t believe in gods, I don’t call myself an atheist because (a) it is impossible to prove a priori that gods do not exist and because (b) my life doesn’t revolve around the militant atheist’s futile crusade against religion. I prefer to call myself a secular humanist.
There are times when all of us want to say “stop the world, I want to get off!” But we realize, of course, that we can’t “get off.” Actually, I am not interested in leaving “this world” (to use the New Testament expression implying there is another, better world awaiting us in the future). Earth is my home; the world is where I belong. And so here I am, “without God in the world,” as St. Paul puts it.1
My own research and writing on religion has been guided by history, sociology and anthropology, not theology. Besides my allegiance to these disciplines, I try to keep my own metaphysical commitments to a minimum. I should say at the outset that I do believe
- that there is one fundamental, all-encompassing reality, nature itself
- that humanity, having evolved naturally, is part of nature, and
- that nature is more awe-inspiring than the gods of traditional religion can possibly be—with the possible exception of the manifestation of Krishna’s “universal form” in the Bhagavad-Gita.
Since I am trying to put religion into a nutshell, I won’t try to defend any of these convictions at this time. Besides, as the discerning reader will soon see, I’m not a philosopher.
Religion, with its long, global history, is so complex that it is impossible to put its putative essence in a “nutshell.” Religion itself has no essence. But we can talk about the way we use the word. That’s why Hillel’s effort to state the “long and the short” of the matter is worth the effort, even if one has to stand on two legs to do so. Unlike Hillel, I don’t hope to convert anyone with my little “nutshell.” I will be happy if I can get this straight for myself.
h3(#one)=. I. Darwin’s Dog: The Evolution of Religion
O ye whales…bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him forever.
The idea of whales praising the Lord is a charming notion, but, shall we say, a bit “fishy.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure whales are not religious at all. They may sing and communicate with each other, but no one has ever heard them sing hymns, chant Psalms, or preach the gospel. The reason for this is not that they are atheists or agnostics. They simply can’t talk and therefore can’t carry on about gods, devils, miracles or salvation.
The only animals capable of religion are creatures that can tell stories and “fabulate” about powerful, invisible beings who (they think) can help or harm them. Whales can no more fabulate like this than they can lie or tell the truth. (It’s true that some animals deceive their prey, but I for one have never heard of a whale that told fibs).
On the other hand, we humans are absolutely “polymorphously perverse” when it comes to storytelling. We tell all sorts of tales—stories that are true and untrue, uplifting and destructive, innocent and perverse. Some of the stories we tell are stories about gods.
Some scholars believe that man is religious by nature. Mircea Eliade, one of my teachers at the University of Chicago, dubbed our species homo religiosus, a term that implies that humans have always worshiped the gods and that they will and should always do so. Religion, in other words, is a valid, good and intrinsic human activity.
Nicholas Wade argues, however, that there could have been no religion (and therefore no gods) before humans began to talk.2 If this is true, Eliade’s homo religiosus is not as old as the species itself. But how old is language?
Researchers recently discovered a family in London that was unable to master the English language. Experts from Oxford University found that the family lacks a specific gene, FOXP2, necessary for producing speech. They also found that FOXP2 spread through the human genome as recently as 150,000 to 350,000 years ago.3
A creature that tells stories about gods obviously has to be able to speak. Language therefore predates man’s earliest religions. If language evolved as recently as scientists think it did, religion can only be between 150,000 and 350,000 years old. Before that, there were no gods. Measured against the vast expanse of evolutionary time, the god are therefore very young indeed—mere, metaphysical toddlers, if you will.
Scholars have recently begun to study the evolutionary origins of religion. Charles Darwin prompted this line of research when he noticed that his own dog’s behavior threw light on the origins of animism, i.e., “the tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences.”4 Because, in the 19th century, animism was widely believed to be man’s oldest religion, Darwin’s observation about his dog seemed applicable to the origin and nature of religion itself.
My dog was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and that no stranger had a right to be on his territory.
Evolutionary psychologists today believe that, like Darwin’s dog, we humans have an innate, proactive tendency to detect personal agency in the natural world. Some believe that we developed this primordial “agency detection system” thanks to the aggressiveness of our prehistoric tribal ancestors. Because other people are our worst enemies, we tend to think of all existential threats in anthropomorphic terms.
Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie points out that, because of our tendency to see personality in everything, we “hear a wind-slammed door as an intruder, see AIDS as punishment, or find design in nature.”5 It’s possible that, once man learned to speak, the tendency to see invisible, personal agents at work in impersonal, natural events virtually hard-wired us for religion, at least for animism and theism (the belief in personal gods). The divine Faces people saw in the clouds looked suspiciously like their own.
I believe this is why anthropomorphism, animism and theism have always dominated the annals of the history of religion.6 Even Buddhism, a religion that was originally indifferent to the gods, has become just another example of theism. Throughout South and East Asia, the Buddha has become simply a god to whom believers pray for miracles, good luck, or a quick and easy rebirth in the “Pure Land.”
The evolution of homo sapiens also explains why we think of the gods as the creators and repairmen of the universe. When we humans became bipedal—long before we learned to speak—we no longer needed our hands for “knuckle-walking.” We were now free to use our hand for making tools, iPhones and drones.
It was bipedal Man with hands free and nimble who became homo faber, man the maker. If man was a maker, the same must be true about his gods. To this day, most religious people find it nearly impossible to think of the world simply “becoming,” “arising,” or “coming into existence” on its own, or in a causal chain of natural events. It had to be “made.”
Genesis implies that the god who created the world (deus faber?) was also bipedal. At least we know that he “walked in the garden.” Even Hindu worshippers of the monkey-god Hanuman picture their god walking on human legs, even though he is always depicted with the face and tail of a monkey. (As far as I know, no one has ever worshiped a knuckle-walking god).
Throughout the ancient world, the genes for walking on two feet and having the free, skillful hands of a craftsmen spread through the divine genome, so to speak. One thinks, for example, of the Buddhist divinity Avalokiteshvara who is always ready to help the believer with one of his (or her) thousand hands.
No one knows for sure, but this may be how our ancestors arrived at the nearly universal idea of the gods as the invisible, powerful, bipedal, free-handed makers, helpers and saviors of the world.
h3(#two)=. II. “When You Wish upon a Star”:
The Projection Theory of Religion
Long before scholars began to talk about the evolution of religion, skeptics insisted that the gods didn’t create man, man created them—in his own image. We can use this theory (the projection theory of religion) to supplement modern, evolutionary theories about the origin of religion.
The idea of projection goes back to the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-475 BCE) who argued that “if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, [they] would depict the gods’ shapes similar to the form they themselves have.” Xenophanes, one of the fathers of cultural relativism, noted that “the Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black, the Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.” In other words, the gods look just like the people who “project” or create them.
Remember Jiminy Cricket’s solo in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio — “When you wish upon a star…anything your heart desires will come to you”? Ludwig Feuerbach never heard this song, but he would have been fascinated by its lyrics. In effect, he turned them into an argument about the origin and nature of religion. Although Feuerbach was an atheist, he realized that disproving the traditional arguments for the existence of God (for the zillionth time!) would be a waste of time.
The true atheist does not directly contradict the belief in God. He explains it; he acknowledges the factors that support it. He understands it as an objective, indeed an absolute necessity for the better part of humanity, even though for the atheist this necessity is only subjective.
Feuerbach believed that human beings are dominated by a “happiness drive.” For the most part, we are able to satisfy this drive in a purely natural or secular way—by doing things for ourselves.
When we are hungry we go to the cupboard and grab something to eat. When we are cold, we pull up the quilts. When we are lonely, we snuggle up with our lover or spouse, or visit friends or family members. And when we are sick we go to the doctor. The gods come into the picture only when we can only wish for something, and when our wishes can be satisfied only in in an imaginary way.
Feuerbach argued that God is nothing but wishes-, i.e., a _Wunschwesen.7 He calls the wish that creates the gods a “theogonic wish.” We wish the gods into existence, he says, by “projecting,” “objectifying,” or “reifying” them. In heavy, academic terms borrowed from his teacher, G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Feuerbach says that the gods evolved “dialectically.”
Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself as an object to himself but as the object of an object, of a being other than himself. Thus…man is an object to God.
He compares this creative, theogonic process to the beating of the human heart:
As the action of the arteries drives the blood into the extremities, and the action of the veins brings it back again, so it is in religion. In the religious systole man propels his own nature from himself, he throws himself outward; in the religious diastole he receives the rejected nature into his heart again.
We can picture the creation of the gods this way:
We create divine objects by superimposing various aspects (“predicates”) of human nature such as goodness, anger, love, jealousy, concern, etc. upon nature (especially the sky) and call the result “God.” We also attribute the predicates of nature herself (e.g., power, unity, necessity, inexorability, eternity, and infinity) to the divine object. These predicates come together, congeal, and then take on a life of their own—in our imagination (German: Phantasie).
Once objectified or solidified, religious objects (gods, spirits, etc.) becomes subjects or actors in their own right. As actors, they seem to address and/or act upon the human beings who originally created them. In this way, man becomes an object to the gods. As actors, the gods harbor a wide spectrum of attitudes towards us. When friendly, they help us by fulfilling our frustrated wishes. When we suffer, they whisper “comfortable words” to us in our ear.
They tell us what to do. They impose commandments, weird taboos, customs and rituals on our tribes. They demand that we worship (flatter) and serve them. They reward (“bless”) those who obey them by making them lucky. They curse those who disobey them by making them unlucky.
In the end, the gods do what Jiminy Cricket believed his star would do: they make wishes come true and thereby create the illusion that we have a handle on fate.
For Feuerbach, the problem with religion is not that it’s untrue. The real problem is that religion is a zero-sum game: what God, religion and priests gain, the rest of us lose. The more we invest in the gods, the less we are ourselves. The more sheep we sacrifice on the altar, the fewer we have to eat. The more we give to the witchdoctor, the less we have for our families, friends and neighbors. In short, the more we attribute to Heaven, the less we are ourselves.
What does all of this mean? What was Feuerbach trying to do? He says that the aim of his projection theory of religion was not just to deny the existence of God but to
turn theologians into anthropologists, god-lovers into lovers of man, candidates for eternity into students of this world, and religious and political servants of heavenly and earthly monarchy and aristocracy into free, self-conscious citizens of the Earth.
My goal is therefore not just negative. Rather, I negate only in order to affirm. I negate only the imaginary illusions of theology and religion in order to affirm the real essence of man.
So, are we to assume that there is nothing beyond, behind or above our projections of the gods? Is Being exhausted by the natural universe itself? Is there no larger, unseen mystery that transcends the world? Is there nothing “out there” that gives meaning to our short and often miserable lives?
I think Feuerbach would say that we can dig deeper into nature —and human nature—but we can never go beyond or behind it. The idea of Something or Someplace Beyond Nature is itself a projection of the religious imagination. The Beyond is actually the invisible stage upon which the gods, spirits and demons play their respective roles.
If Feuerbach is right, whatever makes life worth living is not something beyond nature; it must be something or some activity in life itself, something in this world, not beyond it.
h3(#three)=. III. The Theological Reaction to Feuerbach
Feuerbach was a profoundly learned student of religion with an encyclopedic grasp of the subject. But, as a philosopher, he was not always persuasive. His arguments are sometimes driven more by rhetoric and one-liners than by careful argumentation. Sensing this, theologians tend to attack his theory of religion by criticizing its underlying philosophical presuppositions.
Some critics question his distinction between objectivity (reality) and subjectivity (wishes and imagination). Some conclude that his critique—not to mention the whole “enlightenment project” of the 18th and 19th centuries—is dated and brittle. Some base their objections to the projection theory of religion on the inescapable and ubiquitous power of symbols, rhetoric and archetypes in human thought, or on theories of the social construction of reality, post-modernism, hermeneutics or the “linguistic turn” in philosophy.
These theories, each in its own way, suggest that whatever reality is, it is not something that can be isolated, distinguished or siphoned off from subjectivity, language and culture. The objective world, they maintain, is saturated with subjectivity.
In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that reality is known through and structured by space, time and causation, the so-called “categories” of the human mind. In other words, we see the world through the “spectacles” of our own minds.
Today many philosophers believe that we see and know the so-called objective world through language and culture, i.e. “social or cultura categories.” This makes the boundary between the “out there” and the “in here” fuzzy. If so, it is impossible to say that the gods are just subjective projections, or that they are not really “out there.”
Some academic defenders of religion take a laid-back “I’m OK, you’re OK” tack, arguing that god-talk is simply a religious community’s “incommensurable language-game.” “Our community simply happens to use language this way,” they say, “and one language-game is as good as another.” This is often followed by chanting the post-modernist mantra “let us play, and let us play in peace!” –words they think will win some kind of “ontological density” for whatever metaphysical game they happen to be playing.
Theologians who take a “phenomenological” approach to religion say that scholars should aim only at “understanding” and “appreciating” religion. Explaining religion (the way Feuerbach did) is simply beyond the Pale. According to them, explaining religion is based on the outmoded distinction between the objective and the subjective—and the reduction of objective reality to subjectivity.
So, in the “fuzzed up” world of modern, linguistic philosophy—a world in which subjectivity sinks into objectivity like butter into hot toast—the well-read theologian triumphantly crows: “Who’s afraid of Ludwig Feuerbach!”8
h3(#four)=. IV. Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?
The Chinese used to say that the person who carves the Buddha never worships him. Why should he? The carver of Buddha statues knows that the “Fully Enlightened One” is nothing but wood and cheap paint.
Feuerbach tacks in the same direction when he insists that God didn’t make man; man made God. In the end, however, his theory of religion goes much deeper than the aphorism of the Chinese skeptic. For Feuerbach, the gods are not just wood, plaster or stone. As we have seen, they are objective projections of subjective human wishes.
Although our understanding of the role of language, subjectivity and reality is more nuanced than it was in Feuerbach’s day, it is not only possible but necessary to make a practical distinction between what is real and what is merely subjective.
Every day, psychiatrists decide whether to call their patients’ ideas real or unreal, objective or subjective. They are professionally bound to help clients distinguish between what is really “out there” and what is only “in their heads.” The health, safety, and well-being of patients (not to mention society itself!) depend on the physician’s ability to make these critical distinctions.
Both psychiatry and the realistic study of religion rest on making (at least) a practical distinction between the real and the unreal.
While Feuerbach’s philosophical views lack rigor and consistency, I believe he was basically right about the nature and origin of religion. Nevertheless, his theory of religion does have its problems.
First, his critique—especially in The Essence of Christianity (1841)—is, in places, overly abstract. Feuerbach says that “man” created the gods out of his own “human essence.” Karl Marx used Feuerbach’s projection theory as a model for his own critique of capitalism. But he rejected the abstract nature of Feuerbach’s argument. “Human essence is no abstraction,” Marx said. “In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”
Feuerbach actually was more interested in “man” than he was in “social relations.”9 He often ignored the crucial role played by religious leaders. By making “man” the creator of the gods, he overlooked the revelators who dreamed up religion’s myths, the priests who preside over its rituals, and the ecclesiocrats—popes, mullahs, and lamas—who govern its institutions from day to day.
Feuerbach’s wish-based, “demand-side” theory of religion therefore needs to be supplemented by a “supply-side” analysis of the role played by religion’s actual fabulators. I believe a supply-side approach to religion of this sort will show
- that the wishes, aims and interests of religious leaders often differ from those of their followers
- that religious leaders often artificially create and induce religious wishes and needs in their followers
- that the believer’s longing for God is actually not a primordial human need.
Second, in Feuerbach’s theory, anyone and/or anything can become a god. He overlooks the fact that the gods generally modeled on our ancestors, kings and queens, and above all, mothers and fathers. Religion builds on the infantile memories we have of these figures as our primordial protectors and providers. So, while it’s true that anything or anybody can become a divine Wunschwesen, wishes are best satisfied by specific imaginary agents.
Third, Feuerbach’s theory explains why and how we create gods. It doesn’t explain why we feel obliged to hang on to them after they fulfill our wishes. In other words, it doesn’t really focus on the coercive nature of religious obligations. According to Feuerbach, the gods are supposed to make us happy and lucky (glücklich) in this life and the next.10 But why not cast them aside after they make us happy?
Religion, after all, is a costly business. Shamans and preachers are not free. Sacrifices and other rituals require costly livestock, food, money and time. Consequently, some people do abandon the gods after they get what they pray for.
The Japanese even have a saying: “kurushii toki no kami da nomi”—the gods exist only when you’re in trouble. But even the Japanese go back to their temples and shrines year after year—perhaps because, like many of us, they are afraid that if they don’t they will be “cursed,” i.e., made unlucky forever.
When I was a student at Columbia University in New York City, I once saw an old man in a shabby coat crossing 114th Street. As he approached the curb, he repeatedly crossed himself. After crossing the street, he performed the same ritual before crossing Broadway. Apparently the poor fellow felt that he had to make the sign of the cross before he could safely cross the street.
To me, this seemed to be an example of homeopathic magic, or even of Freud’s idea of religion as a compulsive neurosis.11 Because life is dangerous, we can never give up our amulets and magical spells. We are afraid not to believe.
Fourth, we have seen that Feuerbach believed that his projection theory of religion rested on a clear-cut bifurcation between things that are objective and subjective. Unfortunately, he failed to provide a convincing philosophical basis for this distinction. Admittedly, spotting other people’s illusions is easier than philosophically defining reality. But, when a critic says that something is “unreal” he implies that he knows what is real.
As a materialist, Feuerbach believed that “sensuousness” (Sinnlichkeit) was the royal road to reality. In his fight with philosophical Idealism, he not only espoused empiricism; he came close to embracing a theory of “naïve realism.”12
Enough of words. Come down to real things! Show me what you are talking about! To sensuous consciousness it is precisely language that is unreal.
Unlike Feuerbach, today we realize that we can’t perceive or think outside a linguistic grid or conceptual framework. This not only undercuts Feuerbach’s naïve realism, it actually supports Hegel’s idealistic claim that we have no direct, unmediated awareness of something that we can nail down as a “this,” a “here” or a “now.” Most scholars today would say that this is because human thought and action are soaked in language.
But even if perception (or “sensuousness”) is soaked in language, it does not follow that all knowledge is subjective, or that “anything goes.” Religion (like thought in general) may be permeated by language, but not all “language-games” deserve the same respect. Most thoughtful people would agree that there are games that should not be played at all, above all those that are unfair, contradictory, destructive, or even murderous.
What recommends Feuerbach’s theory is its very simplicity.13 Why does every known society have some kind of religion? Because human beings desperately wish for things they cannot have, and for things they cannot achieve on their own.
Why throughout history have there been so many different religions, so many different gods and mythologies? Because religion changes when wishes—the wishes dominating society—change.
Why is the totemism of Australian aborigines in the Outback different from the religions of modern Americans struggling to stay abreast of turbo-capitalism’s “gales of creative destruction?” Feuerbach would say that these differences are not caused by the “progress of civilization”—a widespread idea in the 19th century—but because different societies have different fundamental problems, needs and wishes.
What about Feuerbach’s claim that the more we attribute to the gods the less we invest in ourselves? This often is the case. One thinks, for example, of “prosperity preachers” and other American televangelists who claim that every dollar you give to them will miraculously turn into two new dollars in your bank account. This is not just a scam; it is an example of religion as a zero-sum game. Every dollar that goes to the preacher is one less dollar for you and your family.
On the other hand, there are people whose lives seem to be actually ennobled and enriched by religion. What they invest in the gods makes them more than what they would be without religion. Although it’s hard to prove, they seem to be more generous, more courageous, more honest than they would be if they lived, as the atheist does, “without God in the world.”
Finally, Feuerbach rejected religion as an “imaginary illusion.” Here we must be careful. It’s true that the imagination produces illusions. But, by leaping beyond the known and the familiar, the imagination also produces the world’s literature, art, music and even science.
It would therefore be absurd to say that we should give up something simply because it originated in the imagination. The imagination needs to be reformed, not repressed. It needs to be disciplined by what is and can possibly be known, including what is known to be moral.
If and when this happens, the imagination might eventually cease to be “religious” in the traditional meaning of that word.15
h3(#five)=. V. From Projecting to Staging Religion
Another objection to Feuerbach’s projection theory of religion is its metaphorical nature. To “pro-ject” something literally means “to throw it forward.” Similarly, to “objectify” something—another term Feuerbach uses—means to transform a subjective, imaginary image into an object in the real world. To “reify” something means to “make it a thing (from the Latin res).
Unfortunately, Feuerbach seemed to think that these metaphors actually explain religion. They don’t. He doesn’t really show us how we project or objectify divinity.
Instead of talking about projecting religion, scholars in Europe sometimes talk about how religion is staged. This is not just a verbal or stylistic shift. It forces us to investigate exactly how we go about creating churches, gods and religious values.
Like a good movie, a good (“realistic”) religious production needs to have a compelling “sound track” and a broad palette of special effects. Priests fortify their lofty metaphysical “reifications” by using all sorts of sensuous props—the smell of incense, the sight of awe-inspiring arches bathed in the light of stained glass windows, the miraculous sound of choirs, organs and other musical instruments.
(In Europe, church music at one point became so operatic that it literally stole the show. When this happened, the papacy forced musicians to play music that was more subdued and deferential to the clerical drama. Some churches eventually banned music altogether).
In the so-called “primitive religions,” dance was an essential part of ritual performances. (Dance is marginal or non-existent in ascetic religions that are embarrassed by the human body. A few avant-guard denominations have experimented with modern dance only to drop it after one or two awkward performances). Many societies have used drugs to create a religious “high.”
In traditional church architecture, thick walls and stained glass windows separate the sacred space of the church from the secular world outside. Inside, the audience (congregation) sits in pews while the actors (the clergy) move about, reciting carefully scripted lines on the stage.
Traditional theological architecture calls for stage-sets—for altars, crucifixes, and statues of the saints—that will create the impression that God is really present—perhaps somewhere behind the altar. The farther one moves towards the front of the church—laid out in the form of a cross—the closer one comes to the divine presence.16 Although laypersons were given limited access to the stage for the sacraments, the area surrounding the altar was traditionally off-limits to the unordained.
Changes in theology and philosophy had a revolutionary impact on the religious theater and the clergy’s monopolistic control of sacred space. In East Asia, Mahayana Buddhists who emphasized the “bodhisattva way”  raised radical questions about the traditional bifurcation of the Sangha.18
In the West, the Protestant Reformation radically undermined the traditional way that Christianity was staged. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers called into question the distinction between congregation and clergy (pews and stage). The Calvinists destroyed much of the traditional stage-set, including crucifixes, the stages of the cross, confessional booths, stained-glass windows and the statues of the saints.
Radical sects like the Quakers went even further, removing altars and baptismal fonts and the hallowed performances associated with them. Today, Friends usually meet in a severely plain room with clear windows that look upon the world outside.
This architectural shift turned “the church” into “a meeting.” It created a religious theater in which members of the audience would face one another. Unlike a secular theater-in-the-round, the un-programmed Quaker meeting has no elevated stage or costumed actors reciting scripted lines. What the Quaker sees before him- or herself is not an altar or the backside of a priest, but just another human being.
The Quaker meeting is therefore perfectly designed for humanistic encounters. It is a “stage” that is ideally suited to bring theists and non-theists together in a non-credal, moral community that combines meditation, democratic-humanistic values and compassionate social activism.19
Today, the Quaker movement faces the same in-group/out-group tensions that bedevil all denominations (see Part VI below). Some meetings are receptive to non-theists, others less so. Many Friends now believe that the Light of Quakerism can be thought of either as the Light of God or as the luminescence of a non-theistic enlightenment.
Because it has no “clergy,” whether this moral community thrives or fails, whether the Quaker drama turns out to be convincing or vapid religious theater is the responsibility of each of its actors. Every time someone rises to speak in a meeting, the “believability,” the integrity of the “production” is put to the test.
There was a day when verbal ministry echoed the message of the Christian scriptures. Today, the Quakers’ play is improvised extemporaneously. Although people are supposed to speak as the Spirit moves them, some obviously rehearse their oracles in advance, bringing poems and newspaper clippings to share with the meeting.
As a friend of Friends, I have found that the drama that unfolds often speaks to my own existential needs. On the other hand, there have been times when the Light seemed dim, times when the oracles of the day were platitudinous, pointless or New-Age-ish. And I went home empty.
h3(#six)=. VI. Monotheism and Violence
For over two millennia, areas of the world dominated by monotheism have been periodically rocked by intense religious violence. To understand this, we must step back and take a look at the deep, structural relationship between religion and violence.
The evolution of life (and death) took an ominous turn when living organisms began to feed on each other, i.e. when life became dependent on the death of living, often sentient beings. Our own evolution as a species took place in the aftermath of this primordial “fall” of life into predation. Homo sapiens was a predator—a hunter, a warrior, and sometimes a cannibal—long before he became homo religiosus.
Our ancestors did not give up predation when they began to ruminate about gods, salvation and the Other World. On the contrary, they brought predation with them when they entered the world of religion. They even thought that the gods themselves were predators. At least, they seemed to enjoy savory animal sacrifices, genocide, and wars with outsiders.
Human beings are social creatures who have always lived in tribes, large and small. Whenever a tribe (the ultimate in-group) is formed, out-groups logically and necessarily crop up. Because tribalism is based on the binary logic of inclusion/exclusion, one tribe is, by its very nature, a potential threat to all other tribes. Whenever a religious group is formed, the same thing happens.
What does this have to do with monotheism? As long as a community worships many gods, the differences between in- and out-groups are relatively negotiable. People in polytheistic cultures realize that different people have different gods, and that these gods may have valuable functions.
Polytheists take advantage of the divine division of labor, adopt the gods of outsiders and give them a place in their own pantheon. Scholars call this religious “syncretism.” Unless influenced by nationalism, politics or ethnicity, the polytheist usually has a “live and let live” attitude toward outsiders.
In the second millennium B.C.E., when political and religious leaders in ancient West Asia (the so-called “Middle East”) began to insist that there was only one god, the history of religion took a new, dangerous turn. With the rise of monotheism, the differences between in-groups and out-groups became an unbridgeable chasm between the saved and the damned, the righteous and the infidel. Primitive predation resurfaced, taking the form of holy war and genocide.
To put it in economic terms, monotheism is an in-group monopoly. Monotheism is found whenever the self-appointed representatives of the “One True God” corner the god-market. The monotheistic tribe that believes only its own god is God absolutizes its own will and worldview while condemning the gods of other tribes.
In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argued that there is a fundamental contradiction in Christianity (a trinitarian monotheism) between faith and love. The more the religion emphasizes faith, the less it preaches or practices love, and vice versa. Not all Christians turn the other cheek when someone mocks or rejects their faith. Some respond with anger; some even become violent.
Feuerbach’s analysis of the tension between faith and love (and other humane values) in Christianity can be applied to religion in general. When a religion stresses faith, dogmatism, scriptural literalism, excommunication, persecution and holy war follow in its wake.
Skeptics, heretics, religious minorities and other scapegoats are shunned or subjected to discrimination, violence and even metaphysical murder. On the other hand, when a religion emphasizes love or compassion has less interest in creeds, doctrinal correctness and coercion.
Monotheistic societies are tolerant only when governed by leaders who are religiously lax, by ecclesiocrats who dabble in syncretism, or by politicians who succumb to the blandishments of secular enlightenment—for example the Deists who wrote the (literally) godless Constitution of the United States of America.
German Egyptologist, Jan Assmann, traces holy war, jihad and religious terror back to Ikhnaton, the Egyptian pharaoh who invented monotheism around 1350 BCE.20 Assmann argues that Egyptian monotheism was a violent form of religion that eventually spread to ancient Israel.
After the Israelites adopted monotheism, the priests of the One True God called Yahweh (the “Sons of Levi”) slaughtered 3,000 religious dissidents (see Exodus 32). The religion’s first victims were tribal members, not outsiders. Exodus 32:27 encourages the religious murder of all deviant companions and neighbors. Deuteronomy 13:6 urges the righteous to slaughter “the [religiously deviant] son of your mother, or your son or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul!”
The monotheists also called for genocidal warfare against the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine: “In the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them” (Deuteronomy 20:16). The mullahs and imams of ISIL, Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab couldn’t put it better.
The Bible also sanctioned the warmongering of men like Samson, the Hebrew Hercules. Anyone who has ever attended an American Sunday School knows that Samson killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass “when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.”
Samson is best remembered, however, as a suicidal terrorist who killed himself together with 3,000 Philistines in an attack on the temple of the god Dagon. Even though terrorists killed about the same number of innocent people in America on 9/11, Christians still celebrate the Hebrew beserker as a “man of faith.”21
Does the Bible’s sanctification of land-grabbing, genocide, holy war and terror mean that humanists should not read the book at all? Not at all. The Bible is also a rich source of sound moral values and insight. Some Christians think that the Bible’s positive message is found only in the New Testament and in the Sermon on the Mount.
But alternatives to the religious and ethnic violence of the Bible can be found in the Hebrew Bible (in Christian lingo, The Old Testament) itself. Take the little book written by the prophet Amos of Tekoa (8th century BCE).
Amos raised a ruckus among the priests when he (or rather his God) rejected conventional religion, including the sacrificial cult. Amos has God say to Israel (Amos 5:21-24):
I hate, I despise your feasts,
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your
Burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
And the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos goes on to denounce those who “trample upon the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end.” He rails at tycoons who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” He condemns slavery, gratuitous warfare, bribery, ruthless commercialism, prostitution, violence against women, and the pride and presumptuousness of those who claim to be “chosen.”
“Are you not like the Ethiopians [i.e., Africans—people of color!], O people of Israel?” says the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
In other words, Amos is saying that all of the nations of the earth have a history that is sacred to them. Israel may be “chosen,” but so is everyone else. Amos even believed that Israel and the surrounding nations were bound by a boundary-defying “covenant of brotherhood” —a notion that clearly foreshadows the modern notion of international law. Modern humanists may not believe in Amos’s god, but the values enshrined in his oracles are enough to melt the heart of the most hardened, militant atheist.
h3(#seven)=. VII. A Diplomatic Secularism
There are at least four basic reasons not to be a militant atheist:
- Because religion is the only thing holding some people’s lives together—and humanists, like doctors, are bound by the fundamental rule: do no harm.
- Because we humans are (almost) hard-wired for religion. It is therefore completely understandable that most people are religious. Philosophical, militant atheists forget that lessons learned irrationally in childhood are seldom erased by reason in adulthood.
- Because some religions embody and inculcate humane values. Many religious people live noble lives and devote themselves to charity and community service. As long as they benefit society, the reasonable humanist will say, with Thomas Jefferson, that the absurdity of their metaphysical beliefs “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” There is no reason to believe that the world would be a better place if it were taken over by atheists. (After all, atheism is not a comprehensive way of life). There is no evidence that secularists are better people than believers. The opposite could very well be the case.
- Finally, I reject militant atheism because religious people, especially the zealous monotheist, can become quite nasty and dangerous when crossed. My own brand of secular humanism does not encourage martyrdom of any sort.22
I believe that the secular humanist should engage believers honestly and diplomatically. After wasting countless hours in college arguing religion with fundamentalist roommates, I finally realized that it is futile to tilt against the windmills of theology.
Few believers are converted to humanism or a secular worldview by philosophy or by philosophical critiques of religion. More are driven from religion when their own son or daughter is seduced by a priest, when they themselves are ostracized by the “righteous,” or when they read—nearly everyday! —about the murder of innocents by religious fanatics. No wonder people are leaving their churches!
A survey in 2015 by the Pew Research Center found that “there are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., [about 22% of the population] and that this group is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants. Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to the evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S.” What is more, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to grow.
Opposing religious terror is different from opposing religion itself. Anyone who believes in the dignity of human life has a moral obligation to oppose terrorism. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both been careful to say that Islam itself is not to blame for the terrorism perpetrated in its name. True enough. President Obama has even said that terrorism in the Middle East should not be called “Islamic” because a true religion would never endorse terror.
I’m afraid that here, the President’s reasonableness and good-will have led him astray. His remarks echo the often-heard, superficial claim that since religion itself is something “nice,” only “nice” religions are real religions and that only “nice” believers are really believers. This may be (nice) political rhetoric, but, empirically speaking, it is both untrue and unrealistic. No responsible person would dream of basing the country’s foreign policy or national security on such a (nice) premise.
The truth is that there are real religious movements and real religious texts (including the Bible itself) that do endorse violence and terror. If we want to be realistic about terrorism we need to be realistic about the theology that inspires it. Modifying words like “terrorism” or “fundamentalism” with adjectives like “Islamic,” “Jewish,” or “Hindu” in no way implies that all Muslims, Jews or Hindus are terrorists or fundamentalists.
Much of the religious violence in the world today can be traced back to the incendiary use of theologically untextured texts by pugnacious hoodlums determined to turn scripture into a call to arms. Fortunately, all of the Abrahamic religions have clerics who know how to tone down and overrule bellicose passages of scripture.
Some do this by contextualizing texts calling for violence, even if, historically speaking, the alleged “context” is a stretch of the imagination. Some theologians play one text off against another. Muslim moderates point out that passages in the Qur’an calling for violence against infidels and apostates must be read in light of other passages that say, for example:
“Let there be no compulsion in matters of religion.” (Sûrah Al-Baqarah 256)
“If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed. Would you then compel the people to have them believe?” (Sûrah Yûnus 99)
Let’s come back to Judaism and Christianity. Careful readers of the Bible realize that the New Testament itself is filled with anti-Jewish sentiment. Historically, the books of the New Testament became increasingly critical of Judaism as the early church gradually realized that the Jews were not becoming Christians.
Passages like St. Paul’s statement in I Thessalonians 2:15 that the Jews “killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets” continue to breed anti-Semitism to this day. In the same way, Jewish extremists, believing Yahweh gave all of the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to their Israelite ancestors (Genesis 15:18), pose a threat to all Muslims who stand in their way. And the pot of terrorism continues to boil.
Contrary to the fond hopes of militant atheism, religion is not going to go away. The only realistic way to guard against dangerous or criminal religions in civil society is to engage these groups diplomatically.
Secularists themselves cannot pacify an angry mob of religious zealots. This can be done only by moderate religious insiders who can speak to the faithful from within the tradition, using the words of the tradition. Humanists should therefore encourage and make common cause with religious thinkers who are thoughtful, humane or moderate, who respect modern science, and who believe in human rights and the rule of law.
Finally, we should never forget the monumental achievements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the long tradition of keeping church and state separate have saved us from the religious wars that plagued Europe for centuries. Today they keep us safe from the sectarian violence that bloodies the streets of the Muslim world. Theologians like to say that it was religion that civilized the world. But, when it comes to taming violence, it is our secular Constitution—a product of the 18th Century Enlightenment that never once mentions the deity—that civilized religion.
h3(#eight)=. VIII. Living Without Gods
Unlike the “pagan” religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, monotheism brought religion, ethics and politics together. Rabbis, priests and mullahs claimed to be the only legitimate “life-coaches.” For centuries, they (and the One True God) wrote and monopolized the dictionary that defined the moral code.
Secularism, on the other hand, severs the venerable connection between God, clergy, the state and morality. By doing so, it forces us to deal anew with such pressing, existential questions as:
- How should I live?
- If there are no gods, what is the meaning of life?
- Who can tell me how to live? Where can I find a life-coach?
Since I scarcely know how to live myself, I hesitate to say anything about these things. But since our critique of religion invariably raises these questions, let me briefly share with you a few, random thoughts I have had about these things.
People generally make their lives meaningful in two ways
- by telling stories about it, and
- by acting (“existentially”) in the present moment.
We try to make sense of our lives when we tell others who we are, where we have come from, and where we want to go. Writers of fiction create whole novels this way. Novelists, however, tell stories about lives in this world. Revelators and theologians, on the other hand, try to make life meaningful by telling stories about other worlds or about invisible Beings in those worlds. In other words, life is meaningful to the theologian only when it refers to something beyond itself.
Something similar happens in music. Some musicologists say that the meaning of music lies beyond music. When young musicians are learning a new piece, their teacher will sometimes tell them they should have a specific picture in mind—say, a waterfall, a moonlit evening, or sunlight streaming through the window on a summer day.
What they imply is that the music means that waterfall, that moonlight, or those sunbeams. Some composers famously say that they had specific a landscape or situation in mind when they composed the piece, and that the music is a “program” about these things. That’s what the music means.23
This approach to the meaning of music is (almost) completely wrong. It’s true that the chorus “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” in G. F. Händel’s Messiah creates what sounds like the bleating of hopelessly lost sheep aimlessly wandering across an open field. But music of this sort quickly becomes banal and cartoonish.
Instrumental (i.e., wordless) music is less likely to “represent” things beyond the music itself. Its meaning can’t be captured or conveyed by a story or narrative because it has no words. So what does wordless music mean? It means what it does, or more specifically what it does to you—physiologically as well as psychologically. It causes you to sway, tap your feet and dance. It induces new moods, emotions and thoughts in your heart and mind. That’s what music “means.”
This brings us back to what can be called the existential meaning of life. Life can be made meaningful by telling its story. But, like music, life’s meaning does not depend on fabulation about worlds beyond the world. Like music, life means what life does, and what we do with it. That’s why we try to get friends who are immobilized by depression to just do something. That’s why parents who want their children to have meaningful lives urge them to do something good and important with their lives.
There are innumerable ways to make life meaningful. Humanists who believe in “death after life” believe that life can not be made meaningful by dilating on “life after death.” In general, the more time we devote in this life to activities and relationships that are good in and of themselves, the more meaningful life becomes.
Who can teach us how to live?
Anyone can be a “life-coach.” All that is needed is experience, wisdom and compassion. Because we can learn from anyone, we should look for as many teachers and guides as possible! Throughout the ages, theists have turned to secular, “this-worldly” thinkers to fill in the gaps found in the fabric of revelation. One thinks, for example, of St. Thomas Aquinas who used the writings of the “pagan” philosopher Aristotle to prop up his own Christian theology.
Similarly, the humanist has much to learn from life-coaches like Amos, Jesus, and the Buddha. The Buddha himself—the most secular of all of the founders of the so-called “great religions”—pointed out that a person can’t “attain peace by speculation, tradition, knowledge, ritual or [philosophical] points of view, nor is it attained without the help of any of these things.”24
So that, in a nutshell, is what I know about religion. Putting things as complex as religion in nutshells is bound to be superficial, and to this I plead guilty. But sometimes the simple, proverbial nutshell can bring closure to things that have “bugged” us for a long time and help us get on with things that are more important, like living itself.
1 Ephesians 2:12.
3 FOXP2 is not the only gene controlling language. In a different form it is even carried by mice. For more information on FOXP2, see these sources cited by Wikipedia :
- “The FOXP2 story: A tale of genes, language and human origins,” by Jane Itzhaki (4/28/2003), on The Human Genome (Wellcome Trust)
- “Revisiting FOXP2 and the origins of language,” by Ed Yong (11/11/2009), on ScienceBlogs
5 Guthrie’s theory (Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, 1993) explains the evolutionary roots of the anti-Darwinist theory of “Intelligent Design” itself. Just as Darwin’s dog saw an agent behind the moving parasol, believers in Intelligent Design see a mysterious Face behind nature itself. Indeed, given the power of our innate agency detection systems, it’s hard not to do so. Creationists claim, of course, that Intelligent Design is science. But the Design they see in nature seems to be merely fabulation about the “Face in the Clouds” first seen in Genesis.
6 Since theism is the statistically most significant form of religion, I will equate it with religion itself in this “nutshell” treatment of the subject. I would call most examples of mysticism, meditation and pantheism non-theistic, existential practices or ways of life.
7 Literally, a “wish-being.”
8 See, for example, Garrett Green, “Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Feuerbach: Suspicion and the Religious Imagination,” in Christian Faith Seeking Historical Understanding: Essays in Honor of H. Jack Forstman, ed. Duke and Dunnavant, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the originator of the theory of language games, would have been utterly appalled by the theological twist Green and other religious scholars give to his “linguistic turn.”
9 Feuerbach pioneered in investigating the “I-Thou” relationship that Martin Buber later turned into a broader philosophical position. But “I-Thou” relationships fall short of the “ensemble of social relations” that Marx had in mind.
10 From Feuerbach’s point of view, salvation—a state in which nothing bad ever happens to us again—could be defined as “lucking-out” once and for all.
11 By homeopathic magic, I mean mimicking something to influence something with a similar name or nature—in this case, using “the cross” to “cross” a street.
12 Naïve realism, in effect, says “what you see is what is real.” See Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche (1964).
13 Here I’m putting “Occam’s razor” to work, the so-called “law of parsimony” that says that when confronted with multiple theories, the one with the fewest presuppositions should be chosen.
14 The Pinocchio Test from “Fact Checker: The Truth Behind the Rhetoric,” by Glenn Kessler, in The Washington Post.
15 Theologians argue that without religion there would be no morality, and that the morality of secular humanism is parasitical upon religion. But the Dalai Lama himself has said “I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether” (italics added). The Dalai Lama’s Facebook (September 10, 2012), cited in Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (2015), p. 148.
16 Architects underscored the spatial gradations of holiness by “orienting” cathedrals toward Jerusalem, which, looked at from Europe, was in the East, i.e., the Orient.
17 In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who postpones his own experience of nirvana until he can save all other sentient beings. A bodhisattva can be either a monk or a layman.
18 The sangha refers to the Buddhist “community.”] into monks and lay people.
19 In some meetings, it’s not uncommon to see people meditating on the floor in the zazen posture of Zen Buddhism.
20 Monotheismus und die Sprache der Gewalt (2006).
21 Hebrews 11:32-4 praises Samson together with other warriors who became “mighty in war.”
22 While Americans no longer fear atheism as much as they did during the Cold War (when it was associated with “godless communism”), many still believe that an atheist should not be president. A poll in 1958 asked for whom people would vote as president. 25% said that they would not vote for a Catholic; 28% for a Jew; 53% for a black person; but a whopping 75% said they would not vote for an atheist. Fifty-four years later (in 2012), after a Catholic and an African American had actually been elected president, a Gallup poll showed that the country had become more tolerant. Only 5% of Americans now said they would not vote for a Catholic; 6% for a Jew; and only 4% said they would not vote for someone who was black. But 43% of those polled still said they would not vote for an atheist.
23 The problem with this theory is that if performers don’t have access to the composer’s diary, they will have no idea what the music “means.” Strangely enough, good musicians can play the music in a meaningful way even when they know nothing about the composer’s story about it. The meaning of music clearly does not hang on a narrative that takes us beyond the music itself.
24 Sutta Nipata.
“Creation of Adam,” Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“Hanuman fetches the herb-bearing mountain,” By Ravi Varma Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia.Commons
“Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara,” Guanyin Nunnery, Anhui province, China, by Huihermit (Own work) CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Theogonic Wish,” diagram by the author.
Kanji character for Kami (“god, spirit”).
Diagram of typical cruciform church from “Church Design and the Creation of Sacred Space,” by Helen Lee Turner, Professor of Religion, Furman University.
“Hertford Meeting Room,” by John Hall (2013) Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. This meeting house was built 1670 and is therefore the oldest purpose-built Quaker meeting house in the world. It has been in continuous use since 1686.
“Bentiu, UNMISS Camp,” from the article “The Vexing Question of Tribalism and National Identity in South Sudan,” by PaanLuel Wël, Juba, South Sudan (5/8/2015).
“Samson in the Dagon Temple,” by Gustave Doré (ca. 1860) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“Amos,” by 18 cen. icon painter (Iconostasis of Kizhi Monastery, Russia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.