I don’t know who I’d be apologizing to if I apologized for lack of content over the past couple months - most likely just the couple people who I already know look at this blog. Instead, here is an expansion on the religious project I’ve outlined in previous posts.
The central elements of religion can be broken down in many different ways, because religion is a fluid category that defies attempts to exclusively nail down what it is and isn’t. However, most systems recognized as religious at some point attempt to answer the question “What should I do?” To break this down a little further, we can consider several aspects:
- What is the world, and how should I understand my place in it?
- How should I conduct myself with other people?
- What, practically, should I do to flourish in life?
The more familiar and widespread religious traditions attempt to address all three of these questions to one degree or another. Some may address aspects not mentioned here, some may focus on fewer. For now, we can take it as an axiom that all three of these aspects are at least worth our time.
Much of the debate as to the continued relevance of religion in modern life focuses on the first of these questions, as it relates to modern science and its importance in answering questions about the world. Surely as more phenomena become observable, the role of science must overtake religion in answering what exactly makes the world tick. There are several problems with this assumption. Scientific methods are designed specifically to measure phenomena that are, or can be made to be, consistent and testable, and there are limits, some harder than others, on what can be made consistent and testable, within real practical and economic constraints. Particle colliders, for example, cannot increase to arbitrary sizes in the real world without drastic expense, and therefore tests about certain as-yet theoretical subatomic particles simply cannot be conducted within current human capabilities. Other aspects are thornier - for example, the recent so-called “replicability crisis” in psychology has overturned several supposedly tried and tested assumptions that had been in my textbooks for years. The roots of this crisis are multiple, and at least one component seems to be social and financial - i.e. replication studies aren’t the ones that get funding for your program, despite being necessary for producing good reliable science.
None of this is intended to throw doubt on the actual validity of scientific processes in producing accurate findings - it is enough simply to say that as scientific methods are employed to investigate more socially contingent phenomena, we are likely to run up against its practical limitations. Conversely, I’m skeptical of new age adjacent ideas that suggest science will eventually prove certain spiritual beliefs objectively correct. Quantum physics is strange, but its implications are not uniquely magical. Indeed, the idea that all true phenomena will eventually be validated as scientific seems to lend unnecessary credence to the sciences as ultimate arbiters of reality, rather than simply a group of methods that usually produces qualifiedly reliable results.
The second question, that of interpersonal morality, seems obvious on the surface but becomes murkier as we look closer. Traditionally, when presented with a moral problem, people might turn to religious or legal authorities, family, or friends. While all these still play major roles, the development of modern media - first as print books and vernacular Bibles, then as mass media in the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally social media within the last 10 years - has altered and increasingly individualized the process of establishing moral authority. Conservative theorists tend to label these as moral decline, whereas liberals generally view these as positive and progressive developments. Most left-wing approaches, and mine, are more ambivalent. As the actual locus of moral decisions is ostensibly left to the individual, the power of mass media over those decisions grows. If the “marketplace of ideas” were really as pluralistic as it’s presented, this might not be so bad, but in practice the bulk of moral messages are generally propagated by states, religious publishing houses, and branches of various megacorporations, the class interests of which tend to generally align even if there are changes in the specifics. I would hardly say that the complexity and restriction of our moral codes has decreased since more theocratic times - indeed, often the severity of the content has intensified. It has simply become more sophisticated, complex, and more reflective of the diverse stakeholders in our lives.
Social media seems to democratize this process by giving virtually everyone (the poorest of the poor excluded) access to a personal platform. However, moral authorities and megacorps in particular still exert significant power over moral discourse, in two main ways. First, everyone who has established a platform on social media has grown up in the aforementioned social climate, and social media, by generating revenue through engagement and clicks, actively encourages social discipline of moral outsiders (processes often referred to as “dogpiling” or sometimes “cancel culture.”) This is not always as bad as it sounds, as the most overtly disgusting reactionaries are often the first to call attention to themselves and receive comeuppance. In combination with the second mode of influence, though, the process becomes more sinister. This second mode of influence is how corporations approach the problem of moderation. In order for a form of social media to prosper financially, there must be enough divergence of opinion to generate argument and the accompanying social discipline, but enough conformity with the opinions of the powerful to allow all the rich and famous their say. Moderation policies - who gets to speak, and who does not - are structured around this latter principle. Twitter denizens may well wonder why Donald Trump et al are allowed to spew bullshit with impunity, but the class interests of the corporations that govern social media ensure that he always will, even after his fall from the presidency. The broader reach a social media platform has, the less willing its institutional base is to introduce or accomodate moral change.
Does the religious mode of discourse offer a remedy here, and if so how? While conservatives and fascists call for a return to traditional moral authorities, the double truth of it is that leaving moral authority solely up to a priest class was never a great idea in the first place and, even if it was, that ship has sailed. What’s more worth striving for is religion as an alternative mode of community, allowing purchase on each other’s worlds outside of corporate and academic discursive spaces. The hope here is that by allowing each other to set the bounds of discussion, we can discuss what it means to treat each other well in a genuinely more democratic way.
This leads to the third question - how, practically, should we live in order to become the best versions of ourselves? Increasingly answers to this question, from the self-help industry in particular, are as driven by laser-focused ideology as any moral debate. Over the last 200 years or so, in Europe and America especially, the ruling classes have laid out a set of often unachievable ideals to the ruled class as the way to achieve personal happiness. Those who are able to achieve and emulate these ideals are often labeled as the “middle class.” In reality, people rarely gain any additional power over themselves or others by achieving a middle class standard of living, which seems to indicate it is not as much of a class difference as a lifestyle difference. Indeed, it rarely seems to result in personal happiness either, given that a comfortable suburban life is usually achieved by accumulating mountains of debt and following unfulfilling careers to pay off that debt, which leaves little time for enjoying consumerist trappings. Even the ultra-modern “minimalist” style of middle class living seems often to be the pursuit of just that, a style, rather than friendships, relationships or a life worth living in and of itself.
The middle-class style of existence virtually ignores the socially contingent nature of human happiness. Those middle class people who do achieve personal happiness often do so through membership in something - a cause, a church, a political group. Religion is a classic answer to the question of how to achieve meaning in life, but this is often under the modern individualistic guise of a “personal relationship with the divine,” rather than the more basic concept of social belonging. While relationships with the divine may be a crucial element of many (not all) religious traditions, relationships with each other form the core of what actually brings people happiness. People want reassurance that we are loved and that what we care about is important, and religion provides us an opportunity to exercise this kind of community.
None of this lengthy essay, you’ll notice, attempts to actually answer the central questions posed at the beginning. It’s my hope that writing this out provides the general shape of how I think these questions can be answered by ordinary people working together in the context of something greater than themselves. The specifics of how this can be achieved are still sketchy in my mind, and I’ll need help from others in order to get the details right, but this piece is my justification for trying.