Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is Religious Literalism Dying?

When it comes to religion, I'm a pretty extreme non-literalist. I pretty much take nothing in our sacred texts literally. I certainly don't see the story of Creation as scientifically, historically accurate, for example. In fact, I've often said that if there is a single accurate historical fact in the Torah, it's by accident. From what I've learned, the Hebrew Bible starts in with semi-reliable history somewhere in the book of Kings (somewhere around Kings David and Solomon).

This non-literalism extends to God, as well. I certainly don't believe, in any literal way, in the God presented by the Torah — I don't think that there is a being "out there" with whom we can have conversations and arguments. I don't even believe in most of the not-quite-as-literal images of God I read about, such as "God as energy." Most people, if they heard me talk about what I do believe, would pretty much write me off off as an atheist (it happens all the time when I bother to get involved in on-line discussions). I'm not an atheist, but I certainly don't believe in anything like what almost everyone means when they use the word, "God."

I've made this comment before, but I've long wondered how unusual I am, when it comes to this. I know that I am far from unique — there are many people in religious life who believe, and disbelieve, much as I do (have you heard about Art Green and his book Radical Judaism? It might be worth a read…). But, I don't have any sense about how widespread this kind of religious thinking is. Am I part of an insignificant, fringe movement with no real impact on the wider religious world? Or, do I represent a significant minority? And, more importantly, and more interestingly, do I perhaps represent a growing minority? Whatever the numbers are currently, is this worldview becoming more prevalent? Does this kind of non-literal spirituality represent a future, or the future, of religion?

Daniel Dennett seems to think so. In a recent article in Religion Dispatches, he discusses the future of religion in the Internet Age, and believes that there's just no way that religions and religious people will be able to continue to hold to anything like biblical literalism when the scientific counter-truths are so readily available:
I don’t see how the traditional credal models of religion are going to be able to withstand this sort of epistemological pressure. I think that we see trends even in traditional evangelical churches that are moving away from doctrine and more into allegiance and ceremony and letting people be more relaxed about what they actually believe.
Dennett isn't writing off religion completely. We still have a lot to offer, so long as we remember that our job isn't to be bad science. But, I especially love that he points out (which I may have mentioned once or twice in my time, as well) that, in some ways, science can beat religion at its own game:
To the extent that religions are very much engaged in enriching lives with meaning, with ceremony, and even with a sense of mystery and awe, that’s all good. I think the problem comes when they think that they have to put their awe-inspiring myths in competition with the equally – or I would say more – awe-inspiring discoveries of science.
I mean, if religion is in the Awe business, then which of these is actually more Awesome (in the original, religious sense of being awe-inspiring)?

  1. An all powerful Being who can, by definition, do anything, created us one Friday morning with full intelligence and consciousness, or
  2. A bunch of molecules randomly got together and, over time, figured out how to recombine in ways that allowed for intelligence and consciousness to emerge, which would then be used to try to figure out that process that led to their creation?
I dunno. I can understand that first one. But, the second? It blows my mind, just trying to think about it. It's pretty damn awe-inspiring! Science doesn't have to lead to less religion. If we believe in the power of awe, then it can actually lead to more!

But, that's an aside (albeit one that I love). The real question is whether we are at the start of a revolution in religious thought. Can old orthodoxies long survive in a world with effectively unlimited access to information? Or, are the ultra-fundamentalisms that are so prevalent today nothing more than rear-guard desperation moves, doomed for failure, sooner rather than later (as a certain Art Green describes them)?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer. But, I'd love to hear your opinions. And, more to the point, I'm going to enjoy watching the actual answer unfold!

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