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Oct 30, 2015

Has Religion Reached its Apogee?

Sometimes I wonder how history would be different if medicine and religion had switched places.
"Back of Hand Map", digital collage by Tim Holmes
The rigorous study of the medical field would be tightly constrained, with fierce competition between various sects of dogma, tradition and ritual. Practitioners of effective medicine would've long gone underground and the formed small groups that stayed under the radar of massive medical institutions which wield the power of life and death. The major ancient schools of medical technology would be split into factions, each at each other's throats– Anatomy versus Pharmacology versus Obstetrics–while people died by the thousands for lack of simple handwashing, surgical procedures or antibiotics. National conflicts would rage over 3000-year-old edicts while factious armies slaughtered each other in the name of good health! One could be forgiven for thinking the solution for humanity would be to rid the world of medicine and let each one take their chances.

Meanwhile, religion would be carried out in a generally universal way across the globe for the benefit of all. New revelations would be published and instantly accessed by priests and nuns across the globe. One particularly powerful prayer would be shared by all everywhere. Conferences and journals would flourish. Pastors Without Borders would rush to trouble areas to care for the victims of every catastrophe regardless of identity or orientation of the victim. Care of the soul would be universally available for free to every person in most every developed nation (and, in the US, for those who could afford it). 

This fantasy gives us an idea of how bizarre the reality is. We hear scientists and agnostics routinely condemn the worst aspects of religious zealots, which only reveals a very archaic and drastically unsophisticated understanding of religion. This creates a frustrating situation not unlike if a scientist today were to converse with one from the 15th century. Without a basic shared understanding of fundamental facts it's very very hard to have a straightforward conversation. It seems to me that religion actually serves a number of functions but perhaps two of the most important are akin to the parallel tracks in evolution: the individual and the social. So too in religion there is an individual aspect (that part which grounds a person to their universe), and the social aspect (that part which leads human beings to cooperation.) We confuse the two at our peril. 
I find it odd that many today see science and religion as incompatible. Perhaps this springs from a natural reaction to the extremely primitive religions that make spectacular headlines. For many non-believers this kind of religion is the only one they know, leading to rejection of religion as a whole. But to view religion as nothing more is to ignore centuries of progress. That's like assuming that medicine today is no more advanced than bloodletting. If that's the only level of medicine one is familiar with it's very hard to have a reasonable discussion about medical affairs. As with science, in order to carry on an intelligent discussion of religion what is needed isn't so much spiritual sophistication (also helpful), but simply an education in the realities of the current scope of the discipline. But non-believers don't care to study religion because it's all seen as passé hooey. (Just as we'd see no point in studying primitive medicine if we thought there's been no progress since then.)

One of the most important aspects of religion has nothing to do with individual orientation or belief, but with social cohesion. One unique purpose for religion is creating a higher social order beyond that which mere individual desire can create, "eusociality", to use the biological term. Here we have a great advantage over our ancestors. The values of universal human rights are now ever so slowly spreading around the world. Those values sprung out of religion (of many kinds) and are grounded in religious principles like the golden rule. But having achieved that plateau, perhaps now the source can be forgotten. At this point in history humanity can actually embrace the higher social order thus created without buying into those religious roots which were responsible for its inception. In other words, the source of much of social cooperative enterprise is moral and moral language and lore comes from religion and not politics or economics or any other place where we swear we can see it now. But having now arrived at this place, that function of religion can now be taken over by secular entities that more easily translate from one culture to another.

I am very hopeful that more and more people will begin to see religion like language, not as a universal truth but as a kind of extremely helpful medium to orient oneself to the world and one's home community. Just as with language, though to us only ONE feels true and right, nevertheless what is true is not the word used to indicate an object but the object itself. This is a pretty simple concept and yet, in terms of religion, seems to be beyond understanding for most nonbelievers (not to mention, unfortunately, an astonishing number of believers!), who confuse the metaphor with the reality it points to.

I'm beginning to think that maybe religion as a social institution– as useful as it has been for constructing a cooperative model of society out of that of tribal isolation, as crucial as that has been for the human story, as wonderful as it as it has been for developing culture and aesthetics, as great as it is as a language for talking about deep meaning– is now nearing the end of its social usefulness. Humanity must understand that religion is never universal and cannot be imposed on another (just as a language cannot) but must be chosen by each individual. Now that we have social institutions that embody religious truths, like for instance the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we needn't depend on the religious principles that formulated that declaration. Much as we will always need heroes and saints like Gandhi and Martin Luther King to show us what higher humanity looks like, we can let go of the idea of there being some kind of secret key that religious belief imparts. But having said that, this is only true of the social aspect of religion, where only the relational dimension is socially helpful. It is not true of the personal aspect, where and individual's facility and understanding is only deepened and enlarged by religious participation.

Those of us who believe wholeheartedly in the value of religion to the human spirit might have to concede that currently the influence of religion in the social arena presents a greater threat than the urges to a higher calling provided by that religion, urges which can now be served by other legal and moral institutions. The gay rights movement is a perfect example of this. Groups motivated by religion can be found on both sides of this contest, but it could be said that now it would be better for the future of humanity if all religion suddenly vanished from debate so it could be discussed in terms of pure human rights.

I have to say that as much as I think faith enlarges life, when I see ludicrous religious wars I wonder if a sudden disappearance of religion from the earth wouldn't be a great boon to humanity. Of course this will never, the best we can hope for perhaps is a broader education in the structure and meaning of those complexities so that we all can more broadly recognize the differences between 21st and 15th century religion–like medicine– and thus be able to discourse about those issues with dispassionate intelligence and an open heart.

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I'm a sculptor/filmmaker living in Montana, USA. I am using art to move the evolution of humanity forward into an increasingly responsive, inclusive and interactive culture. As globalization flattens peoples into a capitalist monoculture I hope to use my art to celebrate historical cultural differences and imagine how we can co-create a rich future together.

I see myself as an artist/philosopher laboring deep in the mines of joy. I've had a good long career of exhibiting work around the world and working on international outreach projects, most notably being the first American to be invited to present a one-person exhibit in the Hermitage Museum. Recently I have turned my attention from simply making metal sculpture to creating films and workshops for engaging communities directly, tinkering with the very ideas and mechanisms behind cultural transformation. I feel that as we face tragic world crises, if the human species favors our imaginative and creative capacities we can cultivate a rich world to enjoy.

For me the deepest satisfaction in making art comes in engaging people's real life concerns rather than providing simple entertainment or decoration. Areas of conflict or tension are particularly ripe for the kind of transformative power that art uniquely carries. I invite any kind of challenge that serves people on a deep level.