Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Previous posts on Ditching the Raft talked about the doctrine or content of Buddhism and what it offers: a unified theory of self and world that also provides an ethical framework, an understanding suffering and a way to heal that, all based on this unified principle of interdependence. Unlike science, it offers a possibility for compassionate response to the world.
But more than that, a religion offers two other critical functions that science does not: meaning and belonging.
Meaning. It can be argued that the present state of science does offer meaning in the form of an explanation of the universe and our place in it. But does it offer a shared interpersonal meaning? Does it convey a sense of meaning that is not just derived from memory or history, but is continually re-enacted in the present with a community? This might be true for the community of scientists, perhaps, but not for average people. A religion provides shared meanings, collectively generated meanings that are continually reproduced in the present moment, through ritual connection with others. By ritual I mean coming together for a shared purpose, as friends and co-religionists around particular beliefs and practices
Moreover, the meanings generated and conveyed must be simplified; they must be boiled down to broad principles that can be applied flexibly in the various circumstances of people’s lives. By contrast, I’m reading Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which is an argument from science that no god is needed to create and sustain the universe. Carroll integrates science from physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, evolution, maths and statistics, neuroscience, systems theory and networks to make the case for his “Poetic Naturalism”. Now, I have read many of these sciences in different articles and books, but reading them all together in one book, and understanding their inter-connections, is simply mind-boggling. There’s no way that the immensely complex sciences which support his argument could be used by the average person as a guide to their way of life, either personally or collectively. Sean Carroll, genius that he is, might be able to do this, perhaps, but most people could not.
Thus, one of the critical functions of the meaning conveyed by religion is to simplify complex phenomena so as to derive basic principles by which one could live one’s life with others. That’s why we often criticize religions—they seem ‘unscientific’ because they gloss over many difficult details for which science must have an exact explanation. Religions aren’t in the business of supplying exact explanations of phenomena, but of providing basic guidelines for living one’s life and orienting one toward a moral relationship with the world. Simplifying complex ideas into general moral principles is a critical function and feature of religious thinking, not scientific thinking.
Belonging. The other critical function that religion provides, perhaps the most important function, is a sense of belonging. Religions are shared communal experiences of trusting, opening and connecting with others in a manner that is guided by certain ethical rules that ensure the safety of the participants. At least, it’s supposed to be, and that’s why when ethics are violated, such as when community leaders sexually assault or exploit their members, that violation of trust is so crushing and damaging. The innate sense of trust that members placed in the community that allowed them to be open, vulnerable, and feel connected is destroyed.
Science, philosophy and other kinds of intellectual endeavors can provide some sense of belonging to an intellectual community that shares one’s views. For instance, I have a nominal affiliation with the Spiritual Naturalists Society, which is a website that brings together people who think about spirituality along similar lines. However, I don’t know anybody by name except the authors who contribute to the site. I don’t feel personally connected to anyone who communicates through the site and its various comment sections, forums and zoom calls. The primary social function of religions is to provide an interpersonal sense of belonging to a community that not only shares your intellectual views but also offers an invitation to trust, befriend and disclose oneself in a more personal way with other members of the community.
So there’s a lot to give up when one attempts to ‘ditch the raft.’ One must find new ways to connect with others in a community that generates meaning that is simplified into basic principles to guide one’s life with others, and that creates a sense of belonging.