Do We Really Need Religion or Simply Pragmatism?

If I’m anything, I’d like to think I’m practical. To be precise, I like to think that I my life is ” Of, relating to, governed by, or acquired through practice or action, rather than theory, speculation, or ideals” (online dictionary). I also like to think that what follows from this state of being is pragmatism; ” Dealing or concerned with facts or actual occurrences; practical.” (ibid). You see, I love to ponder ideas and toss around theories just as much as the next person. But, I do not see how tossing about of said theories does anyone a whit of good unless it brings about some practical action. This is why politics frustrates me. This is why religion frustrates me. Both are ideals and theories that usually bring about no change at all. Why? Because no one can agree on what these changes are supposed to be AND these theories are not well practiced as a group, only as an individual choice.

I don’t believe that human beings are meant to practice group-think or that whole societies are ever going to be so in tune that they act as one. Some have this ideal, yet I don’t think it will ever happen. Why? Because evolution demands that we are concerned first and foremost with our own survival and all that entails. We are here to find food, find shelter, procreate, and stay alive and that’s about it. All else is icing on the cake, so to speak. I don’t believe in “higher purposes.” I don’t believe that we are here to “love” to “dream” or to “create.” These are merely bi-products of living a leisurely and secure life. When you are in the throes of trying to survive you may employ creativity to distract you from the meanness of life, but we are not born to do these things. Sure, sure, you can provide an example otherwise. Can’t we all? But at its heart, life is about survival. I’ve always thought it so and I’ve always operated on that premise.

So when people argue about politics or religion, they aren’t arguing about practical things. They are arguing about whose ideas are the most IDEAL for society. What should we strive for? What is the point of living. You know, that’s great to perhaps wonder that. But what about food? What about shelter? And what about those who don’t have either? What do we do with the violent of our society? How do we protect our selves, our homes, and our family? That, to me, is more important than anything else. Religion is not about survival. Religion is all about having too much time on our hands to think and ponder about the “whys” and “wherefores” of life already being lived. I think we tend to forget about that when it comes election time or when it comes to passing religion on to the young. What’s the purpose of it? Do we do it to further our life here and now or do we pass along unworkable ideals and thoughts of a life “hereafter?” Rather than be focused on “hot-button” issues that have nothing to do with our own survival and how to keep an ordered and civil society, we should be focused ideas that actually work.

In the wonderful online ‘zine Bad Subjects, John Duncan writes about secular progressives and what they think about politics and religion. He writes:

If we take progressivism, the left, etc., to embody an approach to politics in which human discourse and action are mobilized in order to struggle for social and political conditions more in accord with the legitimate claims of justice — claims which are themselves always being debated, tested, and revised — then progressives have no need for religion. Echoing the eighteenth century enlightenment, we argue that justice requires human struggle for improved conditions in the world — that is, in “this” world — whereas religions strain to find nonexistent metaphysical entities beyond the world.

Religious adherents might argue that our ability to improve conditions in the world depends on our relationship to what transcends it, a position which in the early fourteenth century Dante Alighieri famously symbolized at the end of his Purgatorio by representing the worldly paradise as necessarily empty — only by transcending the worldly as such in order to receive guidance from what lies beyond it can we hope to establish the best possible worldly existence. However, for the faithless this position is both a non-starter and a source of concern. It is a non-starter because we do not believe in metaphysical entities that transcend the world, and so we do not believe they have any bearing on the causes of justice. It is a source of concern because such metaphysical entities constitute the inspirational grounds for fundamental features of the discourse and action of our religious allies, but they are not available for rational evaluation.

One of the core values of an enlightened politics is that all stakeholders be involved in open and rational discussion that leads to policy and its implementation. If the secular progressive believes progressive politics to be a strictly secular affair, whereas the religious progressive claims to have access to extra-worldly insights that both transcend and ground his or her politics, then it is theoretically possible for the religious progressive and the secular progressive to be divided. It seems likely that metaphysical insights will trump the merely political if ever a conflict arises between them, and so we have some trouble understanding those who claim to be in solidarity with us but at the same time are capable of metaphysical suspensions of progressive politics, to borrow very freely from Søren Kierkegaard, who in Fear and Trembling (1843) famously characterized Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s command to kill his son Isaac as a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The possibility of such suspensions is alive wherever religion reaches beyond the merely real world and its struggles. If a choice had to be made between God and worldly justice, our ways could very well part, for we do not believe in God.

And I would say, believing in God does not promote justice; just the opposite. More injustice has been perpetrated in the name of religion than justice has been dispensed by the same religion, and I mean ALL religions. Leave off the argument about which is “true” religion or not. Such arguments only detract from the real issues at hand. Since no one knows what will happen after death, why do so many look forward to it? Why do so many worry about it? I believe it’s because they have no real, practical solution to the problems right now and looking forward to heaven is the perfect way to relieve oneself of the responsibility of action. Prayer is not action at all, because apparently God is not listening. Prayer has not been shown to change anything except perhaps the pray-er. Great, but kids are still starving or are abused.

Look, I don’t claim to be a proponent of the “right” or the “left.” To me extremism is extremism no matter how idealistic their goals; and perhaps that’s why they are extremists. Their goals are TOO idealistic. There is nothing practical or pragmatic to be had in the world of extremist politics and extremist religions and in that respect, both are a huge burden on a society that just wants to survive, take care of loved ones, and just be left alone. Far from being depressing, I find that a practical work to change things here and now to be exciting and hopeful, far more hopeful than a fiery apocalyptic confrontation looked forward to by millions of religionists around the world. It’s truly a “Big Brother” world if Apocalypticism becomes the language of “hope and change.”

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2 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Religion or Simply Pragmatism?

  1. So now we move from tossing around ideas and theories to tossing around ideas and theories about whether it’s worth tossing around ideas and theories. Isn’t that even more of an abstraction? Even more of an anathema to the true pragmatist? A question I leave to those better academically qualified than I.

    I would question your narrow definitions of “survival” and “higher purposes”.

    If you are well nourished and sheltered, your life span will be affected by how contented you are. Ask the average experimental rat in a cage. the rat who is given things to do will live longer than the rat with nothing to occupy the time between meals. The more creative we are, the better we can employ some “higher purpose” to make us feel that the purely Darwinian business of survival has some point to it. The refinement of this into art and civilisation seems to be a uniquely human trait.

    In the realm of politics, political action has led to a vast increase in life expectancy (survival) in affluent societies. the public health reformers of 19th century England were able to drive through their agenda because, in political terms, if the disenfranchised poor were vulnerable to cholera epidemics because of a contaminated water supply, then the powerful and privileged might also be vulnerable.

    Applying this last point to religion, I think religion has had a role in motivating the human conscience. So, beyond wanting to protect their own kids against cholera, the 19th century Christian might have been moved by guilt, or fear of damnation, to act to improve the lot of his fellow man. certainly, many charitable foundations have been started by those who might feel guilty about their lives so far. Whether such charity is moved by conscience, or fear of damnation, surely a positive outcome for humanity in general is all that should matter to the true pragmatist.

  2. Reg,

    Well, I suppose my misanthropy is showing here. What’s the point of discussing ideas and theories if you can’t engage in a little meta-theory or meta-idea now and then? 🙂

    Contented can mean all sorts of things to many different people. Some are content to have their needs met and others leave them alone. Others are not content unless they convince others that their own theories about God are right.

    As for survival, I don’t really see much “purpose” to Darwinian evolution except to survive, and that’s about it. In fact, for many people in the world, this world and its humans have not gone very far at all and each day is a fight to stay alive. It’s only the affluent in a society who have the leisure time to consign meaning to things for the rest of us.

    Sure humans assign all sorts of meaning to their own actions to relieve themselves of existential despair. It would seem that once survival is secured and we have free time on our hands, then creativity and other intellectual pursuits come into play. Some can never quite be still or simply exist; they must do, do, do. And true, there some who are creative in their means of survival, but my point is that assigning a “higher purpose” to ordinary human actions is to invest meaning in order to comfort ourselves.

    Politics were invented to ensure that an individual’s family survived within a larger group of families. Who really cares what the purpose is, unless it’s utilitarian; the most good for the largest number of people, right? Once individual survival was secured then humans deduced that utilitarianism benefited others and therefore themselves. Again, self interest motivates and morphs politics into a form of power-over. Religion too was invented to ease the fear of dying and to give voice to the awe inspired by the strange elements around us. Again, investing meaning in ordinary human action, but in this case, religion morphs into a power play and a means of controlling others.

    Playing devil’s advocate, people can be motivated to do all sorts of things very nicely without politics or religion. A majority of religionists are motivated more by fear of the Divine, a fear of “going to hell” more than they are from concern for fellow human beings. Take away the threat of hell and most would abandon those things that doesn’t further their own self interest.

    I guess all I’m saying is that IF there are acts of true altruism or self-sacrifice out there then they are very rare and extremely anti-evolutionary acts. I’m merely questioning altruism as an end in itself and as a “worthy” goal of some kind. It places an undue burden on all of us; one that we neither asked for nor should be expected to bear. If we were all honest, every single thing we do, we do from self interest alone. I don’t understand why people think the idea of a “purposeless” life, of furthering our own interests, and living relatively quietly without activism is somehow depressing or antithetical to basic human life. I also don’t understand why we are so afraid to face the fact that there is nothing beyond this life but the ordinary cycles of nature.

    But, then of course, my experience is not yours and yours mine. All things are subject. Therefore, are all things relative? You betcha.’

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