Is religion obsolete?

20131111-165422.jpgI would like to take a moment to respond to today’s Wikiquote of the day:

"A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends." ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut implies that religion has two main components: stories and lessons. He believes that science has undone the stories but that the ethical lessons remain unscathed. Maybe so, but to then conclude that religion is therefore up-to-date and as important as ever is to misunderstand the history of religion, at least in the West.

According to Bart Ehrman (website, blog), to understand the roots of Judaism and Christianity (and, I assume, Islam), we need to understand the dominant pagan cultures that surrounded them. As I wrote in in my blog post "gimme that old-time religion," Ehrman explains that religion in the pagan world was not about ethics. To the classical pagans,

ethics belonged to the discipline of philosophy, not religion. To religion belonged the practical undertaking of a quid pro quo with the myriad deities. The gods could punish or reward, so religion was the very businesslike pursuit of keeping on the good side of the relevant gods. It had nothing to do with faith, creed, or doctrine, and certainly had nothing to do with fidelity to any particular god. Best to think of it as a metaphysical form of customer relations — or maybe political lobbying captures it better.

When Christianity (and later Islam) expanded in influence and territory, religion came to subsume both roles: the connection between humanity and the divine, and the question of what behavior counted as good or evil. It seems to me that Vonnegut’s sense of religion’s stories are about the former, while (what he believes to be) religion’s lessons are about the latter. When he acknowledges that science has displaced the stories, he’s conceding that the entire scope of ancient religion is now obsolete. And when he claims that the lessons are as relevant and true as ever, he’s really advocating a focus on ethical concerns that weren’t part of ancient religions in the first place. If we understand that history correctly, then Vonnegut’s distinction leads to a very different conclusion: religion is obsolete, while philosophy is as necessary as ever.

I’m not making any such claim, by the way. I don’t mean this to be an anti-religious diatribe, just a deconstruction of Kurt Vonnegut’s assumptions.

I also want to emphasize that we’re talking about Western religion (which, in this case, includes the Ancient Near East). The religions of the Far East seem to be a different story. On the one hand, we see ethics explored in the very non-theistic philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. On the other hand, I seem to recall the Dalai Lama expressing some confusion on Westerners’ insistence that there is a distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Whether or not Buddhism is theistic (and it seems that some varieties are and some aren’t), most people would call it a religion, and Buddhism is clearly as much or more concerned with right thinking and right behavior as with any ritual connection with the divine.

But because Vonnegut specifically mentions Adam and Eve, and Jonah and the whale, I take him to be speaking within the context of the Western tradition, where one might argue that science has taken us back to our pagan roots. (Whether or not that’s a positive development is an entirely different conversation.)

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One Response to Is religion obsolete?

  1. Hil says:

    I used to think of the “old time religion” as mankind’s way of replicating the family in universal terms, so that we could be sure we’d be “taken care of ” forever. I sort of thought of Buddhism as a kind of acceptance of things as they are (“it is what it is”) and felt comfortable with that approach.

    Sent from my iPad

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