Is Religion Necessary? [UPDATED!]

May 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm (By Amba) (, )

As previously quoted, Nassim Nicholas Taleb seems to think so[bold = emphasis added]

[B]eyond the current mess, I see no way out of this ecological problem, except through that tacit, unexplainable, seasoned, thoughtful, and aged thing crystalized by traditions & religions —we can’t live without charts and we need to rely on the ones we’ve used for millennia. Le 21e siecle sera religieux, ou ne sera pas!

And so, in similar terms but more words, does Gagdad Bob:

So it seems that we must seek a proper balance between letter and spirit. Many people reject religion because of an early experience of too much letter, not enough spirit. But then they might get involved in some new age nonsense, which is all spirit and no letter. However, spirit itself, like any other energy, is neutral; if it isn’t guided by a nonlocal structure of unchanging truth, it can just as easily lead down as up. You can find yourself on a slippery slope that leads all the way down to a slippery dope such as Deepak Chopra, who embodies the paradox of pure “slime without substance.”

Put this way, organized religion itself is a “necessary evil,” as it were. While necessary, we must not confuse it with that to which it points, or else we are simply engaging in idolatry by another name.

*   *   *

[T]he other day, I was having a conversation with a friend who is a dyed-in-the-wool-over-his-own-eyes atheist — one of those people who is just completely tone deaf when it comes to religion. I mentioned how I had long since abandoned philosophy for theology, and he asked why — what do you get out of it?

Of course, I had no way to explain it in his earthly terms, i.e., to somehow fit it into his little world, which obviously excludes the realm of spirit. I mean, there is surely spirituality there, as there is in any normal person’s life, but he doesn’t see it as an autonomous realm, just a derivative one.

Oddly, this is obviously the real world in which humans live — it is the quintessentially human world — and yet, this type of person rejects the human world for a lower one, while still trying to maintain their humanness. I suppose this can work for a generation or two, but at some point, the thread that links us to our civilizational source will be snapped, and that will be the end. Then it will just be a matter of waiting for the Islamists to finish the job, as in Europe.

Anyway, this friend asked me what I “get out of theology,” and I tried to answer. I pointed out that, first of all, the whole thing is an ongoing surprise to me, and that it is not even as if I chose it; rather, it has chosen me. I said that it was like entering this huge, magnificent intellectual cathedral that was perfectly adapted to the human psyche. . . .

*    *    *

As you know, Mrs G has converted to Catholicism. Not only that, but quite a few of my readers have either returned to Christianity or undergone formal conversion, and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful. But what about you, Bob? What are you? And what are you waiting for?

I am not a Christian, in the commonly understood sense of the term. I have to acknowledge that up front. Now, some of you are no doubt thinking to yourself, “Ha ha. Yes you are. Stop kidding yourself. You just haven’t realized it yet.” I won’t argue with that, but please indulge me. The point I would like to make is that, while not Christian per se, I am surely on a Christian adventure. An extraordinarily deep one, I might add. It has been ongoing for the past, I don’t know, eight or nine years, and just keeps getting more compelling.

In a way, I feel like the earliest Christians, who, after all, were not “Christians.” Rather, they were simply people having a Christian experience that later came to be known as “Christianity.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling it that myself. But the point is, this is what makes these early writings all the more compelling. No one was telling them the “correct” way to think. They did not “believe” in religion, but were undergoing religion.

And yet, I hold back. Why?

*    *    *

[W]hat you are seeing is a purely spontaneous production chronicling the encounter between me and Christian truth, which I believe, in a certain way, gives it more weight than it might have if I were simply reciting dogma as an “insider.” While some of what I say might sound dogmatic or authoritarian, I must again emphasize that I am not in my right mind when I’m saying it. Rather, I not only try to write about what I know, but what I don’t know. That is, I try to “write beyond myself,” so to spook, so that I am as genuinely surprised as anyone else at what comes out. Boo!

It is very important to me that I reach people who aren’t religious, but still have an impulse to be — especially people with the “Jesus willies.” I think that I would be less convincing if I were simply coming from a Christian perspective. In other words, perhaps I can be analogous to the disinterested scientist who explains how global warming or reductionistic Darwinism are bogus. People get enough of the normal evangelizing, and, as often as not, it backfires. But when a disinterested person with no vested interest is doing the selling, it may be more effective.

What I hear both these provocative minds saying is that at least for now and the foreseeable future, we don’t have any adequate alternative to traditional religion to keep us on track, connected to our nonmaterial source of raison d’être and perspective and guidance.  So even though we may have outgrown the cosmology, we still need the counsel and the consolation.  Break the old vessels, spill the wine.

It’s a funny feeling, though.  Whatever-it-is spoke to humanity in childlike terms humanity could understand.  Now that science has shattered the medium, what happens to the message?  And how do we accept that we’re growing up intellectually faster than we are emotionally?

UPDATE:  We’re not the only ones talking about just this, just now.  Stanley Fish writes in the NY Times (and gets 655, count ’em, high-level comments to date):

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions . . .

In a phrase I suspect is destined to be oft quoted, Eagleton says, “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

Read the whole thing.  This is shaping up to a verdict, or a consensus:  we could shed religion now, but we’d better choose not to.  It’s strange to make a conscious choice to believe the no longer believable (the Biblical cosmos is to the actual cosmos we are discovering as a small child’s drawing is to the Sistine ceiling); maybe related to what Jack Whelan of After the Future calls “second naiveté.”

We cannot live as the ancestors lived, but the rationalist prejudices of the moderns caused much that our premodern ancestors valued to be discredited and lost. Our job now is to retrieve the lost gifts, and to adapt it to our life now lived in circumstances unimaginable to the premoderns. [ . . .]

We no longer can maintain a “first naivete”, which is the state of the believer before critical consciousness. We must search out what has been forgotten or lost with a second naivete, which is the attitude toward the superrational that is childlike in its receptivity, but, because we must travel lightly, shrewd in its judgments about what is necessary and what superfluous.

Read that whole thing, too.

(P.S. Agnosticism — admitting we don’t know shit — still seems more honest and more reverent to my temperament.  But like Cal in the comments, I’m not sorry to be surrounded by people who aren’t like me.  Being in the gaseous state myself, I’m glad some people are solid.)


  1. Sissy Willis said,

    Silly girl. We are Darwinianly wired for religion. He knows if you’ve been bad or good.

  2. Icepick said,

    Why, I do believe you and I were discussing something similar recently. This is a bit more coherent, which is a definite plus.

  3. amba12 said,

    Indeed we were!

  4. Maxwell said,

    I would characterize traditional religion as unavoidable, which is not exactly the same as necessary.

    Somewhat OT – inspired by you, I’ve been reading The Black Swan, and will be ready to review it in a week or so. My preview critique is that he has overly mythologized the complexity of the modern world, and that many of his insights fall a little flat as a result. His comments on religion strike me as a perfect example of that tendency.

  5. amba12 said,

    I’m glad you’re reading it ’cause I don’t have time to read anything!

  6. Rod said,



    So many of us are confounded by the enigma of our ultimate purpose. It is so hard to grasp thousands of years of civilization unraveling the code, only to find it means . . . nothing. A cosmic joke without a joker. It seems we can neither prove nor disprove the punch line.

    One way or another, we find ourselves impelled towards belief or disbelief. We look at the same tangle of threads. Whether we want to or not, some of us see a the hint of a tapestry, others just see a random tangle.

    Some on both sides of the line see the other side through stereotypes: fears manipulated by churchmen, or materialism as an excuse for hedonism or selfishness. But some of us get stranded in the No Mans Land between faith and disbelief. When we find ourselves there, we keep our heads down and crawl towards the trenches, one way or the other. We do so not so much from fear or from a desire for licentiousness, as from the need to depart inhospitable terrain.

  7. amba12 said,

    Unbearable as it may be to stay here, however, the truth of our current condition lies precisely in that DMZ. The more we find out, the less we know.

  8. Icepick said,

    It is so hard to grasp thousands of years of civilization unraveling the code, only to find it means . . . nothing. A cosmic joke without a joker. It seems we can neither prove nor disprove the punch line.

    Thousands of years? That barely qualifies as the blink of an eye….

  9. jason said,

    I was once an atheist. Then I realized atheism is a faith just like religion. So I became agnostic.

    I don’t need a god or gods to guide me to do what’s right; I do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. In fact, I do more right than most religious (or faithful) people, and I do it on a monthly basis: I support cancer and AIDS research, I support transitioning to renewable and sustainable energy and food sources, I support organizations that help nature (e.g. wildlife rehabilitation and care), and I support organizations that help the discarded animals we humans toss by the wayside on a regular basis (e.g. no-kill shelters and adoption agencies). Oh, and I support them financially every month. All without the threat of hell hanging over my head.

    I do it because it’s right. I do it because I’m humane. I do it because I care.

    Organized religion is not a prerequisite to civilization. On the contrary, more and more people are moving away from religion to a more personal faith-based existence–at least for those who need to believe in such things.

    And why must there be purpose outside ourselves? This part of the religious dogma–and it is religious dogma–confuses me to no end. I think the universe is profound and intriguing all on its own, that we as a form of life represent something the cosmos can do without a great power, that feeling for other life is a normal function of our evolution (i.e. elephants respect life other than their own, otherwise why do they show deference and respect for human remains–just as they do the remains of other elephants?), and that religion is historically proven to be destructive (inquisition, recent Catholic declaration that condoms make AIDS worse, the Holocaust, faith-based warfare between various faiths and various factions within single faiths, etc.).

    None of this is deniable or even arguable. What is questionable, however, is why do so many submit to the control of elders and church leaders, why do so many give so much money that never helps anyone except a pastor or religious organization, and why do they do these things under the guise of “doing good”? It’s because humans are weak and deceived, and they believe because they can’t get through life without screaming too much at the truth if there’s no religion there to salve the wounds and empty the pockets in the name of one or more gods.

    No, this is all wrong, and it’s all wrong because people, like all animals, have to react to predation. And death is like any other predator, except it’s one we see coming and want to do something about–like every other animal reacting to every other predator. So we create an eternal soul–which might or might no exist–then people in power create rules on how to save that soul, how to protect yourself against the predator we all know is coming. Fish swim away from dolphins and birds fly away from cats, but we have no way to escape death except to create an afterlife. Think about it…

  10. mileslascaux said,

    I keep coming back to my uncomfortable position as a free-rider in a Christian culture. That is, as an atheist who is delighted that so many of the people around me, both individually and in corporation, struggle to fit their lives to the moral strictures of that faith.

    So uncomfortable that I hesitate to even admit it.

    I am more or less an atheist, that is I live as one, but I am not like those atheists who rail at Christianity and the faithful (a common practice in journalism circles). In my positive moments, I say I respect the difficulty of curbing the natural urges and surges of human life to keep on the straight path of religious teaching.

    But the truth is, I am, like Voltaire, delighted that so many people are forced into good behavior — that is, behavior that suits me — by a religion I choose to have no part in, whose teachings I don’t bind myself to.

    There is a fundamental dishonesty in that. Sort of like not getting that painful flu shot because you know everyone around you is going to get one and thus your chance of contagation is very low.

    Such as I would not be tolerated in many other traditions.

  11. amba12 said,

    That’s the sort of confession that can almost only be confessed pseudonymously.

    Liberals tend to think of hypocrisy as the worst sin, but conservatives love to quote Voltaire’s “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” In this case it is also the tribute freethinking pays to orthodoxy.

  12. amba12 said,

    Of course it is commonly said by atheists (and us agnostics, as witness Jason also) that one doesn’t need a belief in God to behave decently. I wonder whether a belief in God was the mold in which decency was cast (the ancient Greeks and the Confucians might have a thing or two to say about that) and if so, how long and well it will hold its shape if the mold is broken. I’m curious (and surprisingly ill-informed) about how well non-Judaeo-Christian cultures did/do at promoting civility and compassion.

  13. callimachus said,

    From a historical atheist perspective, I suppose, the original purpose of religion might not have been social decency — which requires already a stable and secure environment (paradise) — but group cohesion, empowerment, and aggressive concerted struggle against a rough world and hostile neighbors.

    Odd: In the literal Christian view you do begin with paradise: God’s laws and rules and guides are the order book to keep a placid creation working. But it’s set in a human history book, the Old Testament, that vividly portrays the other model: a small tribe with God on its side in eternal war with rivals large and small and a harsh environment.

    Roman and to a lesser extent Greek religions had a strong civic component. Honoring the gods was patriotic and the gods took care of the city or the farm. It was a mutual deal (we scratch this god’s back, he scratches ours), and it merged the two trans-familial loyalties nicely. I think you can still see some of that in the recent American Christian/patriot movement.

    It encouraged a civic identity which no doubt fostered civility and compassion within the larger group. But the worshippers of Athena at Athens would hardly have felt identity with her cult at Sparta, which was hardly recognizable as the same goddess.

    It also made the Greeks and Romans rather intolerant of atheists, real or suspected, who denied or discouraged this civic duty (Socrates, the early Christians). This is sometimes overlooked in our admiration for their religious broad-mindedness.

    In India, I think, a worshipper primarily devoted to one or the other of the gods is likely to recognize his fellows everywhere the faith spreads. And as people will do devotions to many gods in their lifetimes, I suspect this gives them a transcending identification with their fellow religionists across the faith.

    I don’t know much about buddhism, but it seems to be the religion in some of the most volatile societies. The monks in some places seem to be pillars of social stability and public good behavior, and in other places hell-raisers and rabble-rousers. Though this may be a matter of situation not religion.

    Probably every religion that leads a follower to transcend the self will tend as a side-effect to make people more civil and patient and longsuffering. But it has an equal power to turn them into Jeremiahs and sword-swinging Osamas.

    The situation in old Europe was peculiar in that these many peoples — Celts, Germans, Romans, Greeks, Slavs — all had a common ancestry, though this had been forgotten by historical times. They also, it seems, had a common original religion. So when they encountered one another, they seemed to recognize one another’s gods and pantheons and myths.

  14. callimachus said,

    Individuals of great character, or raised in ethical atheist ways, or after long and painful practice in self-control, or with the leisure to contemplate every decision without fear or want, may live their entire lives decently without reference to god. I think such people are rare enough to qualify as secular saints — George Washington was one, in my opinion. I do not think any human group larger than about 5 people has that capacity.

    In this the atheists seem to be getting well ahead of the species, as they often do. Their stumbling block here is not religion, their supposed enemy, but biological evolution and the plain hardwiring of the last 2 million years or so of human subsistence in the hostile, dog-eat-dog, Late Pleistocene world. Which is why I say Darwin is more of a problem for secularists than he is for people of faith. Darwin is the challenge, not God.

  15. amba12 said,

    Cal: So then, to say we’re Darwinianly wired for religion is tentatively to conclude that it’s more about tribal cohesion and empowerment in competition than anything. Group selection? (This is controversial.) The tribe that’s tightest with the most kick-ass God has, as it were, the highest confidence and “self-esteem,” fears death the least, and kicks the most ass. Before religion was about war (if there was ever a “before war,” as some do claim), it was probably about disease. It’s an antidote to fear. Meaning is an antidote to fear; meaning is order, and therefore understanding, and therefore a modicum of control. The Big Questions spring from a combination of fear and curiosity; curiosity (a primate trait) is allied to courage. If you can quell your fear of something enough to investigate and understand it, you can gain some more control of it. Note how science is taking over this function, hence its cockiness. But there will always be things to fear; in fact, science is inventing new ones. We have nothing to fear but ourselves.

    Note that this is just rambling speculation. I’m not coming down on the side of God or no God.

  16. amba12 said,

    Darwin is more of a problem for secularists than he is for people of faith. That fits with my recent observation of the paradox that it is the people who scorn Darwin who behave in the most Darwinianly adaptive ways — have lots of children in intact families, e.g.

  17. Maxwell said,

    I describe myself as an atheist too, but I use the term perhaps a little more literally than others. I think of it as without/gods, and to me there’s something of a meditative challenge in that notion. Living without gods is not always easy, because the tendency to create gods out of the things we cherish or fear is very overpowering at times. For the very Darwinian reasons others here have mentioned, of course. Yet I’ve also found that my own internal sense of serenity – my spiritual path, if you will – has been greatly improved by this practice.

    I suppose I see it as more akin to skepticism, classical skepticism, than the sort of evangelical atheism one usually sees on comment boards and in the press.

  18. Maxwell said,

    the paradox that it is the people who scorn Darwin who behave in the most Darwinianly adaptive ways — have lots of children in intact families

    Even if this were true – and I’m skeptical, based on both data and personal experience – I think we’re at a stage of human history where identifying the “most Darwinianly adaptive” ways of living is growing more difficult. The genes (and perhaps more importantly, memes) that persist are increasingly likely to pass on through means other than standard procreation.

  19. amba12 said,

    I think it’s Darwinianly adaptive in the crude or traditional sense. However, under unprecedented conditions of an unevenly beneficent global civilization on a crowded globe, you’re probably right that all bets are off. Those who reproduce most short-term may not be the ones whose genes become most widespread and durable long-term.

  20. amba12 said,

    Confirming something a couple of comments up: from Max Lucado’s Twitter feed: “The healthy church is where fears go to die.”

  21. Callimachus said,

    I wouldn’t say we’re hardwired for religion. We’re hardwired for ass-kicking and fucking. Religion might be a byproduct of that.

  22. amba12 said,

    And fear. And, curiously, curiosity.

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