Teach Me To Walk in The Light – Thoughts on the Purposes of Religions
Instead of giving much thought at all to Thanksgiving (or the anniversary of this blog, which is sometime around this time, I think?), I have thought about religion. But more specifically, what makes religion work for the majority of its adherents? What makes religion attractive for the majority of its adherents?
And, in contrast, what makes religion fail to work for those who do not believe and/or those who do not practice? What makes religion repulsive?
In thinking about this, I can’t help but use Mormonism as a framework. I have a friend, Jared Anderson, who often says that his ideal for religion is that it might become so good it doesn’t need to be true. What does this mean, though?
In the context of Mormonism, I can say that it doesn’t seem likely that the Pandora’s box of anthropology, Egyptology, or population genetics is going to close up. (Not that these are super pressing matters to me, but still.) To put it in another way, it seems unlikely to me that I’m going to become persuaded to believing the Book of Mormon because I think of it as a literal history, or the Book of Abraham because I think it is a conventional translation. At the same time, I recognize that for many religious adherents, religious truth is more than (or perhaps, separate from) a discussion about what stuff exists in a physical sense.
Still, at the end of the day, even if I try to discuss Mormonism apart from what stuff exists in a physical sense (did a person name “Nephi” ever travel from ancient Israel to the Americas?), I’m not so sure if, for me, the truth claims that are “more than” or “separate from” those things persuade me either.
The basic problem is this: In addition to not finding Mormonism (or other religions) to be factual, I don’t typically find religions to be relevant to me.
It doesn’t help that I don’t think (for me) that many religions (but particular conservative ones like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) fit Jared Anderson’s “goodness over truth” concept, so the discussion fails to get off the ground there. What I’m thinking about instead is…what would religious “goodness” look like, as separated from “truth”?
I am not a saint, so the question I ask is: what’s in it for me? And that colors my answer to the question: what I look for in a theoretical religion is something that can improve and teach me. In the same way a school teaches me in various academic fields and a gym improves my physical performance, I see the theoretical goal of a religion as improving its adherents.
For a religion to make sense (or at least, to continue to make sense in an increasingly secularized society where its raison d’etre cannot be taken for granted), its body of knowledge — what it teaches or what it improves — must differ from other institutions. In other words, it can’t just be a school, because then, we could just have schools. It can’t just be a gym, because then, we could just have gyms.
So, what could the religious niche be?
Borrowing based on what I understand religions seek to do now, I would say that religions should try to improve us in intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions. In other words, I understand that one of my weaknesses is that when I’m angry, I Hulk SMASH things. From a theoretical perspective, I understand that it is not good to Hulk SMASH things. It’s not good for others; it’s not good for my relationships with others, but it is also not good for me (without taking into account the relationship dangers.)
Yet, here I am, still prone to these things.
So, when I think about the intrapersonal, I am saying: what makes me prone to that? What causes it? What are the triggers? And how can I avert that? How can I avoid or defuse that?
School typically doesn’t teach one how to do this. Even if you are in a psychology or sociology program, you typically don’t learn how to do that — even if you study around it intellectually (although I guess if you’re becoming a clinical psychologist or therapist or something like that, you will gain certain awarenesses of interventions that can be effective — but then you have to pay to see a therapist and the sessions are a transactional sort of service.)
In my mind, that would be one area that is prime for the religious picking. My basic issue is that even though religions basically say these things too (it’s not good to Hulk SMASH, that is…”patience,” “long-suffering,” “charity” etc., are better)…at least for me, there’s not an effective way to practice these things. If you say, “Be patient,” that tells me the goal, not an effective strategy to reach the goal.
As for the interpersonal, I recognize that I am not an island. I live in relationships to others, whether they be close (family), intermediate (friends), far (wider community, other communities). So, I could see that religions stretch us in our interpersonal skills — how can we be better husbands, wives, parents, friends? How can we stretch by interacting with the folks who typically wouldn’t be in our circle (move out of just family or just friends?)
I actually think that religions do a decent job in many aspects of this part, by sacralizing various relationships (e.g., motherhood and fatherhood are divine) and by requiring engagement outside of comfort zones (e.g., for Mormonism, home teaching, service work, etc.,)
I just think the criticisms are that at some point, religions become limited. There is still an “us vs them” that colors how we interact with people. That person doesn’t believe the same way — they must be converted (or, if that fails, shunned)!
I find that talking with people with radically different views from me is often very frustrating. I’d like an arena that teaches me how to do this better. I think that geographic (rather than ideological or interest-based) communities, such as LDS wards, are a good arena for this…but again, there’s not much about how to achieve this. It’s more of a battle royale situation, where you are placed in arena with very different people, and maybe you figure out a way to get past the hostility…or maybe people start going for the jugular. This is why I have written (most recently here) that I can see how attending church as a fringey Mormon might be a good opportunity to practice being silent…but I can’t really see how attending church as a fringey Mormon will convert me to the idea that being silent in the face of perceived injustice or perceived absurdity is actually noble or desirable. Again, I can see how theoretically, from a personal and interpersonal level, these things might be good…but I can also make a case otherwise.
However, on the interpersonal dimension, I’d go one step further. I’ve harped on this before, but in creating “us” vs “them,” most religions typically can’t help “them.” In other words, Mormonism can teach the value of a traditional family — and I think Mormonism can be very relevant, valuable, and effective for someone who can fit the traditional family mold…but as soon as you start not fitting that, Mormonism has less and less (if not nothing) to offer.
If I, as a gay dude, want to learn how to be a better partner, I am hosed in a church that can’t see beyond the “gay dude dating” part. Heck, if I, as a gay dude, want to learn how to live a fulfilling life as a singleton, I am also hosed in a church that really is designed for a life plan of childbearing and childrearing in marriage.
So, my theoretical ideal religion, whether Mormon or otherwise, would address these questions in some way. To be more expansive of who it provides guidance for, and more varied in the approaches or options it offers.
And yet…so good it doesn’t have to be true? The selling point of religions (especially Mormonism) is the idea of its truth. So, even if you don’t like it, you stick with it because it’s how things are. In this instance, I wonder how much of the value of religion is tied to the seriousness of the claims. I understand that plenty of people can live religion in a metaphorical, allegorical way, but (perhaps because of my religious background), I can’t help but doubt the strength and vitality of this approach. Can I do what’s good for me without thinking that there is some overarching (true) narrative behind it all? If not, what makes those overarching narratives seem true?