Stuart Davis recently wrote a blog, “Five Things Religion-Haters Should Know,” where he succinctly points out that, “The ‘answer’ to fundamentalism is not to get rid of Religion, but to get religion to evolve.” I couldn’t agree more. While I’m all for modern writers, scientists and philosophers pointing out the embarrassing trends of religious fundamentalism in the modern world, this doesn’t mean that religion, or spirituality itself can be reduced to that mode of thinking. In other words, spirituality does not equal fundamentalism. Davis mentions a few points. The first? That there are levels to religion. That is to say, as human beings evolve, their religion does too. Many authors have already penned and printed books on this subject: the idea of stages, or steps in human psychological development. As a sociologist, I can attest to this notion. We can and do go through a social evolution, expanding our collective awareness beyond the limited realms of culture, politics, and yes, religion.
So when I hear a scientist, a philosopher, or anybody attack religion for being un-scientific, supernatural, intolerant and “spooky,” they’re right! But, only right about a particular stage of human perception. There are far more developed attitudes, philosophies and attempts “evolve,” human sensibility. For anyone familiar with Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser or even Habermas, there are many attempts to describe a general evolution of human thinking. These go beyond religion and spirituality, but do include them. Wilber describes them briefly as: Magical/Animistic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic and Integrative. Not to go into them too deeply, the general idea is pretty fascinating: when talking about religion, we can actually describe a vertical, evolutionary process of development. This unravels alot of the confusion with so many polarities: science vs. religion, atheism vs. agnosticism. etc. If religion and spirituality develop and change over time, the problems of one lesser “developed” mentality might be solved by a more encompassing one. So then, what are the “new atheists” attacking? What stage of human thinking, or consciousness are they being critical of?
Another interesting observation is that, the higher (or deeper) you go in these stages, the more your religion becomes tolerant and inclusive. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. Each stage has a particular way of interpreting the world, and eventually these modes of perception come across their own limitations and seek to transcend them, adapt. The growth of human understanding seems to never settle in any one plateau, but to rise and expand, challenge and adapt to new confrontations. Eventually, you have religions that seek to transcend differences, seek universal love and compassion and yes, perennial philosophies. To sum it up so far: if religion evolves, we’ll have to do more than criticize one step in a grander processes.
“The answer to low levels of religion is higher levels of religion. The real work ahead of us is religious development, not just embarrassing people into forfeiting their belief system (they will just trade it for an equivalent one anyway). If tomorrow, all the religions in the World magically vanished, we’d face the same dangers of low levels of consciousness in high positions of power.”
The challenge then becomes how to help strengthen the positive aspects of each stage organically, without 1) imposing or forcing ideas down their throats and 2) using degradation and embarrassment as a primary tool. Stuart notes that we can do this by encouraging healthy behavior, based upon what we know about each stage of religious development. For instance, we know that a “mythic” level, one that is rampant in Christian fundamentalism, is healthier when it is doing good works, helping the needy and organizing to help out of love (donations, charity, etc). Sociologically, this “group” is one of the leading donators for foreign aid, particularly in Africa. Yes, there are some limitations to them: imposing religion upon others, missionaries, etc. But for what they are, and who they are, we should not try to force them to simply abandon their ideas and culture. One tool that might also help this is social science. We’ve made an articulate and razor-sharp science of analyzing power relationships, ideology and undermining one culture or idea for another.
It’s important to remember that these stages of human thinking, although very general, aren’t talking specifically about religion. So if someone argues that the way to solve ignorance and superstitious beliefs is to get rid of religion, is this truly a valid argument, or is there a fallacy involved? To me, the problem with this idea is that it is blaming religion as the culprit, which completely ignores the greater problem of a culture’s general perception of the world. In other words, removing a symptom or characteristic of a stage (supernatural thinking, religious fundamentalism) won’t remove religious fundamentalism, or black and white thinking. Those will still exist, and still find ways to pop up in one form or another. It’s like removing the ailments without curing the sickness.
So, all of these ideas are pointing to a general evolution of consciousness. This isn’t a spooky or nebulous idea, not anymore than studying cultures in the social sciences. Consciousness is defined here as merely our attitudes, perceptions, modes of thinking, awareness and sensibilities. This applies to individuals and collectives. Without acknowledging that 1) politics, religion, spirituality, philosophy all are influenced by these general modes of thinking we are situated in, and 2) these general “stages” can evolve, it is difficult to solve many related dilemmas.
So if we see the world and its people as growing through cognitive development, social and individual, let’s not try to “squash” one stage simply because it is limited, but encourage people to grow out of one mode of thinking if it is harming society (ie Creationism, intelligent design etc).
Robert Wright recently came out with “The Evolution of God,” basically arguing that as time has gone on, our religions have slowly become more tolerant and sensitive. God has become less violent, more loving. The morality of ancient religion, for example, was lesser than the morality of modern religion. Tolerance over ethnocentricism, compassion over killing heathens, started to emerge. Although Wright does not necessarily believe in God, he at least acknowledges that human morality, and religion has evolved as people have evolved socially and morally. I’m going to need to finish reading the book, but it does seem like his argument is coinciding with Wilber’s on this point: humans evolve consciously, religion, politics, culture evolve too. I’m glad that this point is breaking through into mainstream discussions.
It’s also important to note that the more developed forms of religious practice becomes more direct and experiential, rather than conceptual and belief-based. Although as Karen Armstrong has noted, religious life was more like an art form, whereby a practitioner must “do” religion before he or she believes, the concepts and interpretations of religious experience have shifted. From “my” God, to “our God,” and then beyond. While it is true that believing in belief is a modern error that both fundamentalists and atheists are guilty of, our ability to translate the practice and experience, to deeper and subtler understandings, evolves.
Also, the more “evolved” religions seem to focus less on adhering to dogma, but attempting to see how spirituality is an active, living process in the world, and a direct experiential thing, rather than an abstract belief or set of practices (Stuart Davis emphasizes this too). We might then see religion as a crystallization of spiritual experiences, a “writing down of” a direct intuition with the divine. So, religion on one hand is a formalized version of direct and universal spiritual experiences. Spirituality is that direct relationship of the divine, from which religions may expressed. I’d love to see more discussion with these ideas in mind, rather than the simplistic “science vs. religoin” debates so rampant.
Religions which posit that this is universal, that “spirit” or “Godhead” or “Brahman” transcends any one religion or ideology, including their own, and that it is accessible universally, are hopefully the religions which will succeed in rekindling the relationship between spirit and body as one. When it comes down to it, whether you believe that the assertions in religious and spiritual practice are true is one thing, but acknowledging that human sensibility and attitudes have evolved to become more world-centric, or global, that is certainly an observable pattern in the world.