The Great Religion Debate: How We’ve Got it all Wrong

As an adolescent, I had a very strong disdain for all things religious. My bet was always on science, and as far as I was concerned, that meant that life had no place for religion. Evolution was my creation story; the primordial sea was my Garden of Eden. And God? Well, let’s just say I was a critic.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I would have my first spiritual experience. It changed me, as did others that followed. Years later, when I studied spirituality as part of my Master’s degree in psychology, I would finally gain an intellectual appreciation for the important distinction between the religious and the spiritual. Although often related, each can exist altogether independently of the other. Religion is based on preconceived ideas and a prescribed set of practices. It also tends to be more socially driven. Spirituality is far more implicit, driven freely by the desire to connect with something beyond one’s material existence, whether that be nature/the-universe, some divinity, or a deeper and more authentic version of oneself. It is comparable to William James’ (1902) conception of personal religion, or “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.” As I suggested in my Master’s thesis, the two concepts are also linked in their evolution. Religious stories and symbols evolved, in part, out of the need for clearer mental representations of the products of spirituality.

Today, the anti-religion movement is quite strong, and understandably so. I’m still a critic myself – I always will be. We should all be critics of fantastical ideas that are adopted in haste and so easily transformed into action, without so much as thought or study. Furthermore, we should all take issue with beliefs that so readily deny human rights and mandate the judgment of others (either in principle or in practice).

That said, we’re getting the debate all wrong. Rather than recognizing the fundamental human needs and motives underlying religion (including, most notably, the need for meaning), we’re dismissing religion entirely. Much as we have become divided over politics, so too have we become increasingly divided over science and religion. The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham, leader of the Kentucky Creationist Museum, illustrates the extent of this division. But by focusing on creationism, for instance, a more important point is overlooked, such that we remain distracted by the superficial – never daring to probe deeper, never daring to ask why. What is being missed is so inextricably simple – and so fundamentally human – that its bypass is a reflection of our collective ignorance on the matter, not our intelligence.

The problem is perhaps most pronounced in academia and science, where even in behavioural disciplines religion and spirituality are often relegated to the fringe. And I get it – most aspects of religion are altogether incompatible with science. Given our current understanding of how the world works, we should rightly have no place for such absurdities as immaculate conceptions, white bearded men residing in clouds, and seven-day creationist myths. These things cannot fit into an intellectual mind – and not just because they can’t be seen or understood, but because they require a devolution of human knowledge, a retraction of our collective wisdom. They are the symbols and stories of a now-irrelevant ‘flat Earth’ generation of human beings. The problem, however, is not in the dismissal of specific symbols and stories that are clearly outdated. Rather, the problem is in the dismissal of all things religious and spiritual, whether by intention or by consequence. Although I consider myself a highly progressive liberal, I find the outright dismissal of anything remotely belief-oriented and faith-based disturbing. What is being dismissed by the anti-religion movement exceeds mere scripture and artifact. What is being dismissed is one of the most fundamental components of human existence.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl referred to it as the will to meaning. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, William James described “the existence in our mental machinery of a sense of present reality more diffused and general than that which our special senses yield.” Abraham Maslow further discussed such natural human experiences as oneness, peak experiences, and self-actualization. What is being missed by the anti-religion movement is our fundamental human need for meaning, and implicated here are the needs for purpose, connection, and a deeper understanding of self that transcends objective study. To dismiss religion and spirituality outright, without consideration for their underlying motives, is to dismiss much of what defines us as human beings. What leads to war, discrimination, and judgement, however, is not the search for meaning, but rather the traditionalism and conservatism that often accompany religion. I believe it is these qualities of religion that are especially problematic. Fear of change and closed-mindedness, broader traits frequently reinforced by religious doctrine, are more sound explanations for white supremacy, homophobia, and other such historical religious folly.

Ultimately, both sides have it wrong. The primary mistake of science is the all-too-frequent denial of the universal human need for meaning, purpose, and self-discovery. (Even within psychology this facet of human behaviour is too often neglected.) Indeed, without such things we cannot function optimally, a conclusion realized by some of the greatest minds in human history. Here, I encourage a search for scientific knowledge that unfolds parallel to the search for inner knowledge. For this to be possible on a large scale, science must accept the universality of Frankl’s will to meaning and the like, and it must abandon its dismissal of the spiritual more broadly. Science must also recognize that despite its shortcomings, religion has evolved for valid reasons, some of which remain today. This stuff of meaning and purpose is hard to put into words. Religions reflect our earliest attempts to make sense of it all, and to find order in the abstract. If we were more accepting of such natural human pursuits today, some of us might be less inclined to interpret and adopt religion so literally. A world that fosters more accessible and tangible opportunities for meaning and purpose has less need for religious institutions. The motive is always going to be there – what matters is the constitution of its fulfillment.

I do not intend to suggest that science is ultimately to blame here; to the contrary, the intellectual backlash against religion is reasonable (and warranted). What I am suggesting, quite simply, is that the needs and motives underlying religion are not going anywhere. In order to successfully move forward, we must offer new opportunities for their expression rather than suppress them further and risk their sublimation into less desirable forms.

All things considered, however, I believe the onus weighs more heavily on the anti-science end of the debate – and on religion itself.

The first mistake of religion is the unnatural commitment to stories and symbols of past, and to ideas that are inconsistent with our current understanding of the world. Yet an even greater mistake of religion lies in the denial of spirituality in nature itself; the suggestion that one must look beyond our earthly lives in order to find beauty, meaning, and transcendence, when indeed it is all around us. The recent detection of primordial gravitational waves by astrophysicists is a testament to this. To catch a glimpse of the Big Bang itself, and to be afforded a perspective on true genesis, is perhaps the most spiritual thing one can imagine. As we may find meaning in the stars, so too may we find meaning in the complexity and beauty of nature; and as we delve into the depths of ourselves, we create opportunities to transcend our everyday experiences. Notably, such outcomes are possible without story, symbol, or ritual, and they are possible without God (or the like). As Albert Einstein wrote, “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.” And so I also encourage a search for meaning, purpose, and self-transcendence that runs parallel to the search for scientific understanding. To accomplish this latter goal, traditionalism and conservatism must be abandoned in favor of more progressive and liberal spiritual pursuits. Should this dictate the abandonment of religion itself, then so be it, but let it not be to the detriment of spirituality more generally, or to the inhibition of the underlying search for meaning.

On both ends of the debate, an evolution of thought is required that is far more inclusive. Within scientific pursuits exist opportunities for self-discovery; within pursuits of meaning exist opportunities for reverence of the natural world and of science itself. Should we continue pursuing more divergent goals, we risk suppressing one of the most fundamental qualities of our humanity; indeed, we risk losing ourselves. On whatever side of the debate you fall, whether it be one of anti-religion or anti-science, I implore you to consider the possibility that a truly authentic human existence requires discovery of both kinds.

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