a thought, reading Régis Debray

Atheists and secularists will always misunderstand religions, because they assume its purpose is to generate truth. When it fails to do so, or when it generate erronneous beliefs, the suppose that it has failed. But in fact, religions exist to generate heresies, and so long as they do that, and so long as heresy has consequences, they will flourish.

To make sense of this, we need to distinguish between religions and supernaturalism. The definitions of religion favoured by Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and the other theorists of religion as a spandrel make supernaturalism essential to it. But this is entirely to omit the role of doctrine. Doctrine, which is in some senses a technological phenomenon, since it depends on writing, fundamentally changes the relationship between the supernatural and society: it brings our private imagination into the public sphere. Joan of Arc could not have been condemned in a pre-literate society. Before the invention of doctrine, you can distinguish outsiders because they belong to a tribe. Perhaps you can distinguish them because they talk funny (the original meaning of ‘shibboleth’ is relevant here). But after it, you can have more in common with members of a wholly different tribe than of your own. Conversely, your own tribe can be deeply split. This allows for much more creative coalition-building.

What this says about the modern longing for ‘spirituality’ is another question, or another post, at least..

(also sparked by this discusson at Pharyngula)

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4 Responses to a thought, reading Régis Debray

  1. Rupert says:

    But all successful religions were heresies once -are we wandering down the ‘memes exist to create other memes’ world of wonder?

    And surely atheists will only think that religion exist to propagate truth if they believe religion’s PR – which, being atheists, they don’t. if you don’t subscribe to supernaturalism, then you’ll look at religion as a purely human phenomenon: it’s not possible to do that and believe what it publically says, especially about truth. On the other hand, the human side of it is woven through with the thread of community, both the bright side of fellowship across geography and time, and the dark side of exclusivity. So that’s clearly important and true about religion, in a way that the details of the doctrine concerning what colour God’s curtains are, are not – except in the way that the Floral Patternites of 1847 will be eternally daggers drawn with the Thurso Convention Of 1670 (Venetian Blinders). Which is only of minor interest to anyone not involved.

  2. el Patron says:

    But all successful religions were heresies once -are we wandering down the ‘memes exist to create other memes’ world of wonder?

    No we are not. There was a first religion in my schema, probably sometime in Babylon. This first religion was not a heresy any more than the internet was a code fork. Heresy was a possibility that religion brought into being.

  3. Rupert says:

    Um. Perhaps, but before that first religion what did people believe? Does that question even make sense? Was Homo Habilis instinctively atheist?

    The explanation of religion that makes most sense to me is as a synthesis of our primate hierarchical behaviour – which is our heritage from way before Moonwatcher flung that bone at Kubrick’s cameraman – and the curious business of being a self-aware animal among others. Wouldn’t we start to think in religious terms just as soon as we noticed things like death and weather doing stuff to us, just like the boss and the family do stuff to us?

    I suppose a parallel would be with language, where there are clear signs of communication between non-human animals, but heaven alone knows what happened with us.

    Language and religion both make useful shibboleths, but so do football, music, newspapers and what otherwise sane people choose to do with blameless river beasties on a nice sunny day. Can you ever get group behaviour without dissenters? Especially with religion, which nicely mixes power and politics with objectively undecidable doctrines, but I’d call that emergent behaviour rather than primary purpose.

    R (who should be writing something else this afternoon)

  4. Epacris says:

    It sort of seems to me that religion is part of something basic in human psychology/biology.

    Something to do with the drive to narrative & the urge to make stories, maybe coming from a pattern-detecting or pattern-making instinct*, which goes right back to basic animal survival. Also related to the human sense of time, and a consciousness of a self different to others, but realising that others may have a self too.

    You then have to make sense of things remembered & expected, and, like Rupert said, by using the mental analogy-tool start to theorize selves in ‘rocks, and stones, and trees’, and thence much flows over many generations of thought. Well that’s my theory anyway.

    Then there’s something from Phillip K Dick along the lines of “the universe wasn’t born perfect & with love, but it’s working towards it” which does give one a goal.

    [*Just present people with a random selection of pictures, or even words, & they’ll usually make a story from them.]

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