If Not Religion, What?

August 31, 2007


In a variety of arenas, from politics to high schools, from colleges to the military, Americans argue as though the proper face-to-face discussion in our society ought to be between religion and science. This is a misunderstanding of the taxonomy of thought. Religion and science are in different families on different tracks: science deals with is vs. isn’t and religion, to the extent that it relates to daily life, deals with should vs. shouldn’t.

These are fundamentally different trains. They may hoot at each other in passing, and many people attempt to switch them onto the same track (mainly in order to damage science), but this is an act of the desperate, not the thoughtful.

It is true that a portion of religious hooting has to do with is vs. isn’t questions, in the arena of creationism and its ancillary arguments. However, this set of arguments, important as it might be for some religious people, is not important to a great many (especially outside certain Protestant variants), while the moral goals and effects of religious belief are a far more common and widespread concern among many faiths. I was raised in Quaker meeting, where we had a saying: Be too busy following the good example of Jesus to argue about his metaphysical nature.

Until recently, most scientists didn’t bother trying to fight with religion; for the most part they ignored it or practiced their own faiths. However, in recent years Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have decided to enter the ring and fight religion face to face. The results have been mixed. I have read books by all of these authors on this subject, as well as the interesting 2007 blog exchange between Harris and Andrew Sullivan, one of the best writers active today and a practicing Catholic, and it is clear that a great deal of energy is being expended firing heavy ordnance into black holes with no likelihood of much effect.

The problem that the scientific horsemen face is that theirs is the language of is/isn’t. Their opponents (mostly Christians but by implication observant Jews and Muslims as well) don’t use the word “is” to mean the same thing. To a religious person, God is and that’s where the discussion begins. To a nonreligious scientist, God may or may not be, and that is where the discussion begins.

The two sides, postulating only two for the moment, are each on spiral staircases, but the stairs wind around each other and never connect: this is the DNA of unmeeting thoughts. Only shouting across the gap happens, and the filters of meaning are not aligned. That is why I don’t put much faith, you’ll pardon the expression, in this flying wedge of scientific lancers to change very many minds.

Dennett’s approach is quite different from the others at a basic level; he views religious people as lab rats and wants to study why they squeak the way they do. That way of looking at the issue seems insulting at first but is more honest and practical in that it doesn’t really try to change minds that are not likely to change.

But these arguments are the wrong ones at a very basic level, especially for our schools and the colleges that train our teachers. The contrapuntal force to religion, that force which is in the same family, if a different genus, speaks the same language in different patterns regarding the same issues. It is not science, it is philosophy. That is what our teachers need to understand, and this distinction is the one in which education colleges should train them.

Those of us who acknowledge the factual world of science as genuine and reject the idea of basing moral and “should” questions in the teachings of religion are left seeking an alternate source for sound guidance. Our own judgment based in experience is a strong basic source. The most likely source, the ‘respectable’ source with sound academic underpinnings that can refine, inform and burnish our judgment, is philosophy in its more formal sense.

The word “philosophy” conjures in many minds the image of dense, dismal texts written by oil lamp with made-up words in foreign languages, and far beyond mortal ken. In fact, many writers on philosophy are quite capable of writing like human beings; some of their books are noted below.

When we introduce more religious studies into our K-12 schools, as we must if people are ever to understand each other’s lives, the family of learning into which they must go also contains philosophy. It is this conversation, between the varieties of religious outlooks and their moral conclusions, and the same questions discussed by major philosophers, that needs to happen.

Philosophy is not all a dense, opaque slurry of incomprehensible language. Some excellent basic books are available that any reasonably willing reader can comprehend and enjoy. Simon Blackburn’s Think, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins’ A Passion for Wisdom and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe are some recent examples.

An older text providing a readable commentary on related issues is John Jay Chapman’s Religion and Letters, still in print in his Collected Works but hard to find in the original, single volume . Chapman wrote of changes in our school system that:

“It is familiarity with greatness that we need—an early and first-hand acquaintance with the thinkers of the world, whether their mode of thought was music or marble or canvas or language. Their meaning is not easy to come at, but in so far as it reaches us it will transform us. A strange thing has occurred in America. I am not sure that it has ever occurred before. The teachers wish to make learning easy. They desire to prepare and peptonize and sweeten the food. Their little books are soft biscuits for weak teeth, easy reading on great subjects, but these books are filled with a pervading error: they contain a subtle perversion of education. Learning is not easy, but hard: culture is severe.”

This, published in 1910, is remarkably relevant to education at all levels today. The idea that philosophy is too hard for high school students, which I doubt, simply means that we need to expect more of students all through K-12. Many of them would thank us.

Paul Kurtz’s Affirmations and my brother John Contreras’s Gathering Joy are interesting “guidebooks” that in effect apply philosophical themes in an informal way to people’s real lives. There are also somewhat more academic books that integrate what amount to philosophical views into daily life such as Michael Lynch’s True to Life: Why Truth Matters, physicist Alan Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious and the theologian John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

Some of these are denser than others and not all are suited for public schools, but the ideas they discuss are often the same ideas discussed in the context of religions, and sometimes with similar language. It is this great weave of concepts that our students should be exposed to, the continuum of philosophical thought blended with the best that different religions have to offer.

The shoulds and shouldn’ts that are most important to the future of our society need to be discussed in colleges, schools and homes, and the way to accomplish this is to bring religions and philosophies back to life as the yin and yang of right and wrong. That is the great conversation that we are not having.


Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at http://oregonreview.blogspot.com.

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