On Nomenclature: Religion, Spirituality, Atheism (TQP0136)
It’s unlikely that I’m going to contribute much to the actual ideas in the New Thought, or whatever it is we’re calling it. But I think we’ll all have a better time talking about it if we can find agreement about what we mean by certain things, and if establishing a consistent nomenclature to the argument is all I’m able to give, then I guess it’s what I’ll have to offer.
So, INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED SCHOLAR of religion and science fiction, Gabe McKee, has this post over at the SFGospel, in which he seems bothered by Grant Morrison’s use of “religion” when what he really means is “church,” and his use of “spirituality” when what he really means is “religion.” I’m not sure I agree with this taxonomy, and I’ll get to why after a brief digression.
Here’s the digression: my friend Ed is a pastor, and he once innocently asked me what my religion was. I told him that I was basically irreligious, thinking that I meant something very specific. Ed responded with a quote from I believe theologian Paul Tillich, who said that because “God is man’s ultimate concern,” then even atheists were religious. I was skeptical of such an argument, but before I could respond, Ed told me, “This isn’t just semantic bullshit!”
In fact, I think that semantic bullshit is exactly what this is. A definition like that, one that fully includes both religion and irreligion, makes the meaning of the word “God” so broad as to be practically irrelevant. Not only can the subject of this ultimate concern be widely varied (from the infinite benevolent force of a committed churchgoer, to the survival of the elephants for an atheistic zookeeper), but the ultimacy of that concern can be equally varied. Is the experience of commitment to God the same for an Islamic dervish as it is for a disaffected teenager who really only cares about getting laid?
Moreover, it’s disingenuous and potentially even dishonest, which gets me back to Gabe’s distinction between “church” and “religion,” and conflation of “spirituality” and “religion.” I’m not saying that Gabe is being dishonest, here; I’m saying that he’s using nomenclature that creates room for dishonesty.
It’s certainly possible that in theological circles, the word “religion” has a specific and unique definition from “spirituality,” and that in this sense, the word represents an element of a technical lexicon that only applies in certain contexts. But in the popular context, words are given meaning not by etymology or even definition, but by popular acclaim. Is it reasonable to suggest that the widespread understanding of “religion” in America is simply “whatever you happen to concern yourself with”? In Grant Morrison’s case, his concern is with the “spirit”–some immortal part of the self that exists and is meant to exist in a sphere beyond the compass of natural law–and so his “spirituality” would just be “religion.” His rejection of religion would be inaccurate, because he’s not really rejecting religion, he’s just rejection all of the religions that don’t jive with his sense of what religion should be.
There’s a problem with this definition, of course, because a definition like this includes “science,” (science, in this case, being “ultimate concern with the functioning of the natural world”) which the definition of “religion” absolutely cannot, MUST NOT include. There is an important reason for this: in the United States, the Establishment Clause protects each individual religious system from government valuation. If science is a kind of religion, then establishing it in public schools amounts to creating a state religion, and is a violation of the First Amendment. This is exactly the kind of thinking that the AFA uses to demand that evolution be taught alongside creationism in schools, and which hinders the government from prosecuting parents that do not teach their children basic scientific literacy with neglecting their education.
I think I can resolve this though. In the first place, we need to establish that there are two kinds of thinking going on here. One is evidentiary or empirical thinking, and one is–whatever the opposite of that is. I guess you could call it “intuitive,” or “revelatory” thinking. The first is when conclusions are drawn as a result of analysis of the natural world, the second is when conclusions are drawn according to the peculiar motivations of the spirit, and does not regard the evidence of the natural world.
Now, I will happily argue about whether or not one is better than the other, whether people need both in order to function in society, whether conscious satisfaction can come from a purely empirical worldview, or any number of other comparative arguments. What I will not entertain is that these two epistemologies are the same thing; they are distinct, and they are by definition irreconcilable.
“Religion” in the public context is a form of the second epistemology, and is probably most consistently understood as a shared orthodoxy regarding truth. This is distinct from science, which makes absolutely no claims to truth at all, but instead concerns itself with precision and accuracy–because, by definition, empirical thinking cannot lead to truth, only to apparent similarity. It is likewise distinct from religious inquiry–a man can inquire into the nature of truth, and can theorize about it with the intent of sharing it, but until someone else takes those ideas and accepts them as truth, he hasn’t actually established religion.
This definition is also what creates the need for the word “spirituality”–the suggestion of such a word being: “individuated beliefs regarding the truth.” Ironically, this is startlingly similar to the American Transcendentalist epistemology, which is one of the first major American theological/philosophical movements. Grant Morrison, when he says that he rejects religion and embraces spirituality, is really only saying that he’s rejecting the need for orthodoxy in favor of heterodoxy; this does not preclude science, believing in transcendence, or even pilfering from past religious thinkers. Because Morrison is arguing for a kind of eclecticism, that certain elements of his beliefs resemble the beliefs of other orthodoxies does not make his system the same as Augustine’s or Swedenborg’s, or whoever’s.
To be perfectly precise, of course, “Spirituality” isn’t simply non-religion; it’s a specific kind of non-religion. Spirituality comes with the attendent assumption of the existence of the spirit–some divine, or immortal, or at least immeasurable aspect of the human–which is not included in the definition of “religion” that I’m using, or even included in the compass of the second epistemology. While believing in things other than the senses does imply the existence of something outside of natural law, it does not necessarily follow that there is an aspect of man that is likewise supernatural.
All of these things are distinct from “Church,” which is a specific organization or institution dedicated to preserving, propagating, and acting from orthodoxy; rightly, church should probably be understood as the orthopraxic subset of a religion. You can have a religion without having a church, and Grant Morrison, while he is also rejecting church, isn’t stopping there: he’s rejecting everything that resembles orthodoxy.
While I’m on the subject, I guess, I want to point out that “atheism” is a wildly misleading term. The morophology of it suggests that it is a kind of religion, and certainly it is possible for there to be a religion of atheism, but atheism is not inherently religious. There are many routes that lead to a non-belief in god–a positivist approach to empirical epistemology does not include the belief in God (at the moment), and so someone whose thinking was purely scientific might rightly be called an atheist, but no thinking that is a product of this epistemology can accurately be called “religion.” At the same time, Grant Morrison’s spirituality can be either theistic or atheistic; I don’t know precisely what kooky things Morrison believes, but I suspect at root they’re theistic, in the same vein as Alan Moore’s.
I think that these are reasonable distinctions to make, and that they are concomitant with both the public opinion–in the US–regarding what religion is, and carry the necessary precision to be effective terms for discussion.
This entry was posted on December 17, 2008 at 10:44 am and is filed under Braak with tags Braak, what the hell am I even saying anymore?. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.