Sorry, John, it’s the same old noise.
The essay by Peter Bebergal has some good points: it’s premise is to deplore biblical literalism because it’s bad theology that is trying to ape science, and it cripples the imagination. That part I can agree with entirely. Biblical literalism is a slavishly stupid way to enshrine an absolutist authority — a false authority — as a source of information beyond question. So I am sympathetic to about half of its message.
However, the other half is the usual nonsense: ‘my version of religious belief is better, nobler, truer, more important, and essential to human health and welfare than their version’. Here’s his rationalization for the virtues of his metaphorical religion over their literal religion.
Religious experience begins with an encounter, which is then given form by the imagination. We then turn this form into texts, prayers, rituals, and of course, myths. Communities gather around these stories and continue to use the religious imagination to keep them relevant. The very notion of being in communion with God, whether through prayer or ritual, in believing that a man died and was resurrected, or in eating unleavened bread for a week, is the least rational of endeavors. But this is where its power lies. If the moments we commemorate through our rituals had simply occurred in history, there would be little possibility of giving them new meaning in the way, for example, the American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation. When ritual is seen as the retelling of a mythological event, then its ability to function as a metaphor is enlivened each time. A purely historical event is static. While it might offer a moral lesson, there is nothing inherently symbolic about it. The mythologizing of events makes them part of our ritual and liturgy and allows us to reimagine them. But the religious imagination has been replaced by a need to rationalize religious faith. The motto of the Creation Museum is “Prepare to Believe,” but revelation is not the intent of the exhibits. The purpose of the museum is to prove that the Bible is truth, and to induce religious stupor it plays on an ignorance of science and what the doing of science really means.
That is disingenuous, not to mention bogus. Bebergal is waving his hands frantically, trying to justify irrationality as a power for human happiness rather than an impediment. There is no true power there. It is definitely the case that the human mind is not a piece of clockwork logic, and there are certainly irrational interpretations of the world that mesh well with our flawed preconceptions, and it can even make us feel good to give in to comforting myths. But this is not good for us. Put rats on a variable reinforcement schedule in a cage with a button that dispenses electric shocks to the pleasure centers of their brain, and they will push that button with passion and energy and even, as near as we can interpret it, joy … but that is a rat that has thrown away its rattiness and has dedicated its life to a shallow, empty abstraction. It is a rat that has found its god.
It is true that communities can accrete around myths; look at the Hajj, or Lourdes, all grand events built up around supposed supernatural events. People find consolation, satisfaction, and even happiness in the supposed virtues of these pilgrimages. I will agree 100% that this is all powerful stuff to the human psyche — even that weekly communal sit-in-a-pew-and-listen-to-boring-sermon stuff taps right into the social centers of the human brain and triggers potent rewards. Push that button, O Happy Rat. Do not question, do not think beyond, do not plan for something greater than call-and-response, the familiar hymn, the liturgy, the patterned dance of ritual. Go here to the small town in the Pyrenean foothills, and you will be healed because you wish to be healed, and because you are a good, wonderful person, never mind that reality often demands struggle and hard work of us, with no guarantees of success. But there is no victory there; there is no improvement. There are only happy lies.
One other word I must criticize in all these defenses of religion: imagination. I often hear that religion is all about using the imagination to see something beyond the literal and mundane, and imagination becomes a virtue in itself that is presented as something special to religion. It is not. It is also overrated. Imagination is essential, don’t get me wrong; we need this kind of cognitive randomizer that pushes our thoughts beyond what we already know. However, one thing science has taught us is that our imagination is pathetic. The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.
Here we sit in our comfortable little spot, snug and reassured that our butts are firmly planted. Imagination is the tool we use to reach out and fumble about and make guesses about our local neighborhood, and religion is the part that enshrines guesses as absolute knowledge and reassures us that the rest of the universe is just like our little niche.
Science is imagination equipped with grappling hooks. We toss them out, we snag new and interesting bits of our environment, and we use them to haul our butts out of those well-worn hollows to something new … and we anchor the lines so others so inclined may follow. Thus does the limited reach of paltry human imagination become a greater endeavor that explores farther and farther still, leaving behind the delusions of those incapable or unwilling to use their imagination as a tool to explore the world, rather than as a masturbation aid.
Bebergal is stuck in a rut where he thinks his imagination, or his rabbi’s imagination, is sufficient and historically adequate, and he has no perception of what science actually does.
Scientists today are loath to admit that religious belief played an important part in their forebears’ impetus to examine and understand the natural world. Any sentiment that has even a scent of religious feeling is greeted with pinched noses, with great skepticism if not outright contempt. This is true even for those religious ideas that one might consider moderate or even liberal. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, himself a student of neuroscience and a staunch atheist, suggests that the religious moderate is just as dangerous as the fundamentalist because the moderate leaves the door open to religious ideas in all their forms, including the damaging literal ones.
Not true. I certainly do know that my ancestors relied on religion, and that virtually all early scientists and even many scientists now found happiness in pushing the big red button of religion. However, the only way any of them made greater progress in understanding the universe was by leaving the smug platitudes of faith behind, questioning what they were taught, and moving away to something new. Yes, I regard the scent of religion with disgust, but not because I lack an appreciation of its historical or sociological significance — it’s because I can detect the odor of corruption and decay, and I can smell failure. It’s not something I want in my house.
I also oppose moderate/liberal religion like Sam Harris, because it opens the door to more pernicious beliefs; reality provides only the coarsest constraint on religious belief, and allows nonsense to flow unchecked. But I also oppose moderate religion in itself, as the kind of smug reassurance of a fallacious perception of reality, as exhibited in the Bebergal essay. Why should we find virtue in the fact that “American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation”? Couldn’t they find motivation in their misery? Were their imaginations so paltry that they could not desire their own freedom? Did reliving the book of Exodus in Sunday church-meetings bring them one step closer to that freedom, or did it falsely reassure them that miracles were on the way? There were no miracles in the American Civil War, or in the long hard path towards civil rights. The religious would love to take credit for the actual steps towards emancipation, or greater understanding, or the advancement of science, but all they can do at best is claim that they were cheerleaders, inspiring our progress. Unfortunately, when we look at the actual history, what we find is that they were cheerleaders for all sides of the struggles, and now opportunistically accept the accolades of the winners, whoever they might be. If we should fall into a new dark age, there will be the priests, happily telling us that they led us into this new appreciation of the mysteries of God. And if scientists should open our minds and cure diseases and reveal new wonders of the universe, there will be the priests, telling us that religion “played an important part”.
It’s time we saw through the con game of these lying leeches, and that goes for the local liberal church as well as the most outrageous televangelist. The moderate church may be bad because it can lead congregants to the vilest exploiters, but it is also definitely bad because it is misleading you right now.