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Religion: 'reactive' rather than 'creative' force?

Discussion in 'Religious Debates' started by Vouthon, Jan 11, 2019.

  1. Vouthon

    Vouthon In varietate concordia
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    In Homo Deus, his 2017 sequel to the world bestseller Sapiens, the Israeli historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari (who is himself an atheist) postulated that, despite their enormous contributions to human civilization and progress in the past (as well as human misery in other instances), traditional religions are becoming - or have long since become - a spent force in terms of creative potential, existing today in a primarily reactive mould.

    Harari describes Communism and revolutionary socialism as a species of "humanist religion" that has also lost much of its creative spark. While describing liberalism as another variant of "humanist religion", he argues that it is still a vital force and the only viable game in town - although one that may undergo serious threat from technological advancement in the future and the rise of "Dataism". His prediction is rather alarmist in this regard, writing: "When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism." (278)

    While "evolutionary humanism" - in his analysis, the third denomination of the humanist religion that arose in the 19th century - has largely, and rightly, been discredited by its extreme articulation in mid-20th century Nazi ideology, he likewise contends that it contains a certain vitalism that could re-emerge to challenge liberal ideas again in the future and that elements of it could become attractive again given the importance of Darwinian, evolutionary thinking to the modern world and the advent of transhumanism (courtesy of artificial 'upgrading' of the human body or DNA modification).

    Here is part of his argument from pages 276-277 of the book:


    Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force.

    Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical idea that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.

    In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations. The Catholic Church established medieval Europe’s most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogues, timetables and other techniques of data processing.

    The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.
    The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.

    Today the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the loyalties and tithes of hundreds of millions of followers. Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas...

    They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity.

    That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to liberalism...
    (277)

    Firstly: do you agree or disagree with his view that religion is now almost entirely 'reactive' and has inherently lost its potential to be a source of creative inspiration for human development, or not, and on what grounds do you agree/disagree?

    Secondly: what do you think about his argument that while remaining, in his estimation, vital and the only real game in town, liberalism - and its emphases on equality, liberty, the rule of law, democratic constitutionalism - could be undermined and even rendered obsolete in the future by genetic engineering and AI?

    Thirdly: do you agree or disagree with his characterization of liberalism, socialism and Nazism as competing denominations of "humanist religion"? (I invite you to read up on why he argues this prior to answering this question, since I didn't have time to go over it in this introduction).
     
    #1 Vouthon, Jan 11, 2019
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  2. Quintessence

    Quintessence Tale Weaver
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    It certainly isn't true within contemporary Paganism. I don't doubt that the Abrahamic religions have their share of bardic creativity as well.

    Might post something more lengthy later, but right now that's what I have time for.
     
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  3. Augustus

    Augustus the Unreasonable

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    One of his points for anyone interested:

    “Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.

    Whereas theism justified traditional agriculture in the name of God, humanism has justified modern industrial farming in the name of Man. Industrial farming sanctifies human needs, whims and wishes, while disregarding everything else. Industrial farming has no real interest in animals, which don’t share the sanctity of human nature. And it has no use for gods, because modern science and technology give humans powers that far exceed those of the ancient gods. Science enables modern firms to subjugate cows, pigs and chickens to more extreme conditions than those prevailing in traditional agricultural societies.”
     
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  4. PureX

    PureX Well-Known Member

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    Religions are collections of ideas, texts, images, rituals, and practices that people use to live according to their chosen theological position. They are essentially proactive by definition and design. How "creative" one is, or one is seen to be while practicing their religion varies greatly depending on who's doing the looking, what they're looking for, and what they're looking at.

    Human organizations, religious or otherwise, are a specific kind of formulation with a specific kind of agenda. They are 'societies' of humans that require various non-religious motives and behaviors to establish and maintain themselves, and that often contradict the ideals of the theological proposition they are supposed to be helping their members live out. Such social organizations tend to pervert and pollute the ideology they claim to represent, and that's true not just within religion, but also within politics, within commerce, within the arts, ... in any endeavor where humans tend to organize themselves into communities for some other purpose than to organize themselves into a cohesive community.
     
    #4 PureX, Jan 11, 2019
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  5. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    It is a very small percent of people who ever
    have had a chance to choose their religion.
     
  6. David T

    David T Well-Known Member
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    Atheism by definition is a reactive to theism thus lacks any real creative insight into anything. So the writer is calling the pot black? So what? Wow original.
     
  7. PureX

    PureX Well-Known Member

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    Everyone has the ability to change their theological position anytime they want, for any reason they want.
     
  8. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    Sort of. The ability of one who knows of no other
    faith, and has been indoctrinated from birth is
    very limited.

    And often enough, for those who attempt
    to break away, torture and death have soon
    followed.
     
  9. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    Excellent OP, Sean. Once again, thank you for raising an issue that is both meaningful and important.

    Please allow me to begin by taking a position that will absolutely bore everyone: Harari's use of "religion" to characterize liberalism, socialism, and Nazism is perhaps better justified than most of the ten thousand daily attempts to characterize non-religious phenomena as religions, but it still fails.

    First, it seems to rely on a number of hidden, but simplistic assumptions, such as that nearly anything that promotes a worldview or a set of values can be properly thought of as a religion.

    Second, it ignores that religions come in some large and significant measure from genetically based human instincts and ways of looking at the world (e.g. agent detection, theory of mind, respect for elders, etc.), but liberalism and socialism certainly are not based on those things in the same ways that religions are, and Nazism is perhaps less based on those things than religions are.

    I could say more on the appalling habit people have of categorizing non-religious things as religious, but it all amounts to a mere boring quibble here. Nevertheless, I like to quibble about such things. So I did. :D

    Now to the meat! Harari's notion that religions have become merely reactionary strikes me as a serious and realistic charge. I would caution, however, that such charges are often made against various fields -- e.g. philosophy, religion, and perhaps even theology -- by outsiders who are not aware of much of the creativity going on within the field. It could easily be possible that some or most of today's religions are undergoing a creative ferment somewhere outside of casual view. Did even those who heard Christ's Sermon on the Mount have an inkling of the creative influence it would have for thousands of years?

    I have an appointment to meet, so I'm going to cut this off here. But I'll be back! That's a threat promise!
     
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  10. PureX

    PureX Well-Known Member

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    There is no such state of being. We can be "trained" to speak and act according to what we're told. But no one can own or control our minds. No one can stop us from doubting and asking questions, seeking alternative views, ... in our minds. And if we choose not to do so, that's on us.
     
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  11. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    Tra lala tweedle dee dee dee

     
  12. Augustus

    Augustus the Unreasonable

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    Not really thought of this, but limitations and restrictions can be a source of great creativity. Go anywhere in the developing world and look at the creativity on display in any poor neighbourhood for an example.

    If traditional religions place limitations on the scope of human behaviour and actions, then it is possible they could be a source of creative inspiration.

    In general though, as the norms have become so thoroughly internalised by society, or replaced by new values, then it certainly has a degree of truth.

    I think the long term future of liberalism is at risk from a failure to recognise its roots. The Idea of Progress is so firmly embedded in the Western psyche that it is hard to imagine people realising this is nothing but an ideological belief resulting from a particular historical development before it is too late.

    Other than ritualistic components, religion is ultimately a grand narrative of how things are/ought to be. It defines the axiomatic principles on which people base their further reasoning about desirable states of affairs.

    These humanistic ideologies perform the function of religions, and serve(d) as the basis for what is rational for adherents to believe. Whether one wants to term them as religions or otherwise, they serve the same functions in underpinning the worldviews of believers.
     
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  13. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    I beg to disagree (since I am a very disagreeable person). Thinking people routinely view religions as primarily a way or manner of thinking about the world, as you have done here. But I would argue that religions are primarily responses to certain features of human psychology -- such as agent detection, theory of mind, respect for elders, a tendency towards etiology, the capacity for mystical experiences, and so forth.

    To regard religions as primarily or even substantially an intellectual exercise of some sort is a mere prejudice of the thinking class. For most people, they are not mostly about thinking about the world in any intellectual sense -- religions are mostly about how they deal with or cope with certain features of their psychology. e.g. a hunch, guess or feeling there must be something "out there".

    Secular ideologies, such as socialism, spring from very different roots than religions. Yes, they can be seen as replacing some of the functions of developed religions -- such as underpinning values (which one finds mostly in the world's largest religions, rather than in much smaller indigenous religions) -- but it's not anything like secular ideologies fully replace or substitute for religions.

    Socialism, for example, is not at all concerned with addressing the sense, feeling, or perception that reality includes something greater than, or beyond what, it merely appears to include. That is why even in officially atheist countries, such as the former Soviet Union, millions of people quietly held religious views while professing atheism. Gorbachev's parents, for instance, had him secretly baptized a Christian.

    Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary -- and probably does, since you are actually inflicted with some sense, a handicap I myself am not encumbered by.
     
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  14. Brickjectivity

    Brickjectivity holy roly poly
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    From what I gather all religions are mostly reactive and always have been, but they can support the small number of active people who try to make things better for all people. Its a small group and individuals who solve the big problems and who try things.

    I think the world is going to start over and liberalism will have to contest with a new reality. We need to trust the future generations. One thing we can do is do things that make them feel like we care about them, so they don't look at History and say "Those people just don't give a darn about us, and we have no connection with them."

    Nazism is a return to Egyptian religion but substitutes a breeding program for the gods and the promise of utopia is its equivalent of the afterlife.
     
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  15. Vouthon

    Vouthon In varietate concordia
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    @Sunstone A fantastic and erudite response to Harari's thesis, many thanks! (I look forward to the promised sequel).

    This is an important factor to consider when reviewing Harari's argument. Many scientists have, indeed, discerned at least a partial evolutionary basis for the emergence of ritualism, belief in the supramundane (agent detection as a survival strategy, perceiving invisible and bodiless intelligences where there aren't any) and shamanism in the Neolithic.

    I agree with you that the Communist assertion (to take one example) that history should be interpreted in light of a material determinism centred around a theory of class, is less capable of being 'innate' or essentially based in our adaptive, evolutionary origins as a species, than perhaps belief in an abstract and imaginary realm of invisible intelligences (which practically every conventional 'religion' posits, whether that be the living souls of primitive animism; the gods of polytheistic creeds; the pantheistic Brahman of Advaita; the devas of Buddhism or the angels and demons of Christianity)

    After all, every human culture that we know about on earth - even causally disconnected ones in the Americas - has ultimately, and at some point, 'assumed' that gods or spirits (disembodied agents interfering in or overseeing human affairs) exist in some form. Every culture has not, by contrast, understood history to be about progressive, teleological class struggle. His understanding of the topic is thus somewhat diminished by this oversight, albeit this is a common one even among academics and perhaps does stem from a certain snobbery in disposition.

    That said, I also concur with @Augustus that Harari's thesis is somewhat more nuanced than the common trope of applying the term religion to any particular worldview or value system. His actual definition of religion is the following: "Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy on human social structures. It legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws." I don't think this is necessarily an intellectual exercise, I would correlate it with instinct and psychology as well, with the intellectual deductions themselves being the result.

    It's less about the specific 'doctrines' themselves, which diverge widely, than it is about the fact that these secular ideologies rely on religious constructs and assumptions (often without acknowledging the source) to advance secularised grand meta-narratives - infused with their own collective group identities, rituals, eschatology (i.e. in the Marxist-Leninist case, dictatorship of proletariat - then classless, moneyless, stateless utopia) - and propositions that, like religious myths, cannot actually be tested or empirically proven but which are supposedly above, and beyond, our control yet legitimate our norms and values because they contextualize them as part of a larger story.

    In some respects, these meta-narrative secular creeds offer a similar 'opium' to religion, in that they fulfil a kindred craving for simplified meaning and identity in a world that often fails to make coherent sense in any meaningful way, especially with the advent of reductionism in the sciences - which his dispelled earlier notions, derived from Aristotle, that the universe operates according to 'goals' i.e. acorns exist in order to grow into oak trees. The universe, as the ancients understood it according to their limited grasp of cosmology, seemed to reflect the human phenomenon of purpose-drivenness, goal-orientation (even if the goal was cyclical in kind, as with most pre-Abrahamic/Zoroastrian cosmologies) and causation.

    In contradiction to these earlier beliefs, that seem to be embedded in human psychology (perhaps due to their capacity to help us survive), we now know the laws of physics in and of themselves admit of no goal-orientation: conservation of momentum demonstrates that things just keep happening, rather than being directed toward an overarching cause. Every man-made philosophy prior to Newton's clockwork universe, including the great Aristotlean system, assumed a basic teleology to the operations of the universe that doesn't exist once you study the universe with advanced instruments. Darwin showed, by contrast, how the infinite plurality of biological life could arise without being in any degree remotely goal-directed or guided, except in this purposeless process resulting in ever greater complexification.

    Yet we humans, as a species, are innately goal-oriented - otherwise we'd never get out of bed in the morning. There is a world of meaning in our little human habitat, from the days when we ventured out of Africa to find new lands in which to hunt and forage, to the construction of the pyramids, the discovery of mathematics and the invention of spaceflight in modernity. We didn't invent this urge - the assumption, however flawed it may or may not be in truth, is in us just like agent detection was. It obviously helped us survive.

    Abrahamic and Zoroastrian theisms hypothesize that we humans are subject to a class of moral laws and a divine order that we neither created for ourselves nor have the ability to change and that we are ultimately at the mercy of, as God's great plan unfolds in the fullness of time. We can either cooperate with or resist this 'plan', according to our freewill, but we can't stop it.

    Liberalism, Communism and Nazism - despite each claiming to be rigorously detached from untestable superstition and guided by scientific rigour alone - do in fact postulate their own 'meta-laws' from which they derive the legitimacy of their respective moral systems, ritual life and eschatology. They are 'goal-oriented', teleological belief systems.

    In the Nazi case, the 'meta-law' was the biologically-based but in fact demonstrably pseudo-scientific principle of competition and struggle for 'living space', within the framework of which Hitler argued all of human history and life on earth was to be understood. This law of nature supposedly transcended human values of evil and good, providing instead an evolutionary imperative for the biologically superior to struggle against, subdue and eventually annihilate the inferior, so as to create a world of perfection and purity - a paradise inhabited by people free of imperfections.

    This was classic utopian eschatology, of the religious kind, disguised as science - taking the 'is' of Darwinian theory and making it into an 'ought' that directed human conduct, societies and our future, when the real science - which also contained no mythical 'races' - didn't imply this at all.

    And for Nazi true believers (the ones who swallowed the kool-aid propaganda), this idea likely fulfilled a deep, psychological need in their psyche - to have the reassurance that there was a "great", invisible, overarching 'goal' out there above human cognition and outside our control, which offered a sense of safety and meaning to life down here. I would argue that it's just agent detection extended to a more abstract and post-scientific revolution form - some great 'other' directing the course of human history and giving it meaning through the National Socialist ideology, just not 'God' or the 'gods'. Hitler referred to it as 'Providence' in his speeches.

    In this sense, I think the Nazis actually did (to quote your very adroit statement) try to provide "the sense, feeling, or perception that reality includes something greater than, or beyond what, it merely appears to include". Their goal - pun intended - was eventually to erode German affiliation with the Christian churches. Not to resurrect some kind of occult mysticism or norse paganism (as some erroneously claim, mistaking Himmler's ravings for Hitler's far more rational ends, Hitler scorned mysticism as a leftover from pre-scientific days) but rather to create a very real substitute for traditional religion, only one founded upon the cult of blood, race and the great law of natural selection, on the part of mythical super-race against the sub-human untermensch.

    Had their horrific ideology persisted as long as Soviet Communism, I suspect they may have proven more successful at it, as well, than the Bolsheviks. In just 12 years of existence, in the aftermath of VE Day, 1945, with millions of Germans dead and their country reduced to ashes and foreign occupation, a majority in the years 1945–49 still stated when polled, "National Socialism was a good idea but badly applied". :(
     
    #15 Vouthon, Jan 11, 2019
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  16. adrian009

    adrian009 Well-Known Member
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    There is some truth in what Harari says though its best to be circumspect. There is no doubt the sacred writings of the world religions remains a source of profound inspiration for their adherents whether the Vedas, Tipitaka, Tanakh, New Testament or Quran. To argue otherwise is to negate the personal experience of many of us who do follow such a path. However modernity has challenged the very foundations of each of these religions. An obvious example is neither the New Testament nor the Quran directly promoted the abolition of slavery, the equality of men and women or democracy to the degree they have become established norms is Western liberal countries today. While Christians have been amonsgt the staunchest human rights advocates the've also been the greatest obstacles to progress. The problem is therefore that each great religion can not entirely free itself of the traditions and worldview from which they emerged.

    I'm starting to read his first book and haven't looked at the second one. Democracy, the rule of law, liberty and equality will be foundational principles of any future regardless of technology IMHO. I've seen many science fiction movies that suggest otherwise but I don't believe we're destined to live in any such dystopia.

    Once again I haven't read the book. Humanism is an ideology based on secular ideals, that has much in common with some aspects of Christianity. That's no suprise given its origins. Fascism and communism have largely been discredited and socialism somewhat tarnished as a result. Notwithstanding liberalism and socialism remain central to meaningful social and political discourse today.
     
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  17. Augustus

    Augustus the Unreasonable

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    You raise some fair points, and I'll reply properly later. In the meantime though:

    Are you aware of any religions that have developed without accompanying narrative traditions which serve as a (partial) ideological foundation?
     
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