“Religion lays down in advance what is to be believed, and thus represents a betrayal of the intellect. Science, on the other hand, starts from a position of ignorance and gradually builds a secure network of interlocking ideas.” – Mark Vernon, on the letters page of the December issue of New Scientist.
Normally I stay away from the whole science vs. religion thing because I think the “vs.” in that formula is usually contrived for political reasons that have nothing to do with either science or religion. I’m still going to stay away from it, even though the particular spate of letters from which I drew the opening quote deals with exactly that topic. I’m more interested in the description of religion which Vernon offers. It immediately made me think, “Is that so? Does my religion do that?” It seems like an important question for self-examination. I’m going to leave aside the question of whether Vernon’s descriptions of the activities of science and religion are accurate – I don’t think that they actually are, to be honest, but it’s still a worthwhile question. I find the whole subject of belief fairly sticky, as I think I’ve mentioned here before. I don’t think I understand what people usually mean when they talk about “belief.” It seems to mean “an absolute conviction of the truth of a proposition regardless of the evidence.” I don’t think I have that in regard to anything. I don’t understand why people attach such importance to believing in things.
I don’t think I understand people much at all, but that’s another topic. Sometimes I think I should have been a cat.
Here’s another quote from a great religious teacher on the same subject:
“Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.” – the Buddha
That’s closer to what I consider my own starting point, which is more like Vernon’s description of science than of religion at least as concerns the origins of beliefs. The difference, of course, is that science is not concerned with being “kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings.” Then again, to be honest, neither am I. I like the idea of being kind and good and working for the welfare of all beings in a fuzzy abstract kind of way, but it’s not a top priority for me. I’m not much of a saint, I guess. Polite is about as much as I can manage, and that’s more of a goal than a daily reality. I’m more interested in understanding myself and understanding the world around me.
So, if I’m starting from a position of ignorance (I’m not sure this is possible, but we’ll go with it) and building up a belief system based on my own observations, do I still get to call this religion? I identify with Druidry because it sits the nearest to my own experiences and observations about the world and it allows me to freely explore those experiences. The only reason I bother identifying with a tradition at all is that I value the community that goes along with it. If there was no community to fit my personal belief system, I’d be off on my own doing my own thing, though the forms would no doubt be different and I’d have to work much harder to figure out what to do.
It would also make it harder to understand that guy with the flaming spear or the old lady with the cauldron. Because of those who have gone before me, I get to call them Llew and Cerridwen and learn stories about them. By accepting these stories, am I accepting something that has been laid down in advance for me? Yes, absolutely. Is this a betrayal of the intellect? There are other stories I could accept. My Llew could be interpreted as St. Michael without stretching very far. Yet, I’m not a Catholic. Why not? I do actually feel a connection to certain representations of St. Michael – I see his images and connect with them as though they were images of my patron – yet I don’t accept the Catholic story of his identity.
Why not? Is it as simple as the fact that I wasn’t raised Catholic (or any other flavour of Christian) that I don’t find that set of symbols compelling? I wasn’t raised Druid, either, after all. My family doesn’t identify with any of the Celtic cultures. I have a whisper of Irish in my family tree, but the biggest chunk of my ancestry is Acadian, who are pretty much Catholic. None of this figured in any way in my upbringing. My conclusions about the spiritual nature of the world are almost completely my own. I don’t recall getting any instructions on the matter at all as a child. It all came from my own experiences and my own self-guided research. I started thinking of myself as a pagan as soon as I learned what the word meant within the modern subculture, which would have been when I was about twelve. It felt correct, and has continued to feel correct since then with no sign of changing.
I flirted with Tibetan Buddhism for a time maybe ten years ago or so. I went to a local Buddhist center and learned some great meditation practices there. I loved the practices and the philosophy and the art of the Tibetans, and yet I never felt like it was “mine.” The gods, though beautiful and compelling, never came alive for me the way the old European gods do. The practices, though rich and satisfying, never gave me the sense of deep awe and connection that I felt in working with more Western forms. I know how Dion Fortune would have explained this – I knew going into it – but at the time I dismissed this aspect of her teaching as part of the simple racism that was so endemic to her time. She would have said that a Western mind cannot find truth in Eastern ways, though those ways may be entirely valid for an Eastern mind. I don’t believe that (there’s that word again) but it seemed to be true for me. It didn’t hold the mystique for me that Western paganism and occultism does.
That’s what is seems to come down to for me. Llew could be St. Michael if I was Catholic or Manjushri if I was Buddhist, but he’s not and I’m not. The only answer I can find to the question of the source of my religion is that this is who I am. It’s not much of an answer, though. Maybe this is why people turn to concepts like “belief” – it would be much easier for me to say that I truly believe that my religion is the explanation for the world, and that I see the gods the way I do because they are Truly That Way. It would be the easy way out, but I can’t accept it because it makes a whole bunch of people completely wrong in their interpretation of their experiences, yet we share the same sort of basis for our conclusions. I can’t be so privileged. There has to be something else going on here.
Belief seems like a very shallow basis for a much deeper activity. This is something I know about religion – it’s deep. It goes down to the root of who we are as individuals. And if it doesn’t, it won’t feel right, just as Buddhism didn’t feel right to me. Not because it laid down in advance what was to be believed, but because it didn’t register with my own religious sense.