Science is playing a steadily larger and more personal role in helping us tell the difference between what is and what ain’t. In that capacity it has undermined what many of us once expected religion to provide, inspiring an increasingly angry and violent reaction from those who feel their very understanding of reality to be in jeopardy.
It would be wise to develop a more subtle and flexible understanding of the continuing role of religion in a civilization that relies on science to define the natural world. Human beings cannot readily preserve their sanity without some sense of meaning. To jettison religions that have sustained us for hundreds of generations because they fail to accurately record history or reliably describe the natural world would be a monumental mistake, a mistake that both religious fundamentalists and some scientists are pushing us to make. We need religion as much as we ever have, but our religion needs to evolve.
We carry on our lives inside a shell of metaphors. Reality is a model we carry around in our heads, a simulation we use to predict what will result from different courses of action. Those metaphors inform our decision whether to touch that stove or launch that business.
Much of our success or failure in life hinges on the accuracy of our model of reality. None of us is so brilliant as to be capable of assimilating all of the information in the world into a perfectly accurate mental representation. Every day we learn more, refining that model in ways that help us adapt to what we discover in the world around us.
Death cuts off this process incomplete, but our ability to share information with each other not just in the present, but across generations means our lives in some sense carry on. Our work can form the building blocks of future humans’ even more reliable reality, just as those before us improved our own.
The greater the fidelity of our internal reality with the reality we experience on the outside, the better our capacity for making decisions. However, there is always some level of dissonance between that model and the external world. Our ability to cope with those ambiguities is critical to mental health.
That dissonance is larger when we live in dense, complex communities. Farm life allows us to live fairly successfully with a less complete, less dynamic model of reality. Demands of survival and success in an urban, information-driven economy mean living inside a collection of metaphors in constant, dizzying flux.
Gaps or inconsistencies in that model create painful psychological discomfort. For hundreds, even thousands of generations we filled those gaps with myths about the personality of the Sun, or the moods of the Earth. Those myths are no longer very helpful in understanding some aspects of our reality, but they remain essential to wrestling with certain others.
Science is far better than religion at defining what is and is not real, but it still tells us nothing about what our lives mean. Religion as a method of understanding the “what” of reality has been utterly superseded. Religion as a means of understanding the “why” of reality is perhaps more vital than ever. For many people, separating religion’s discredited “why” value from its still-critical “what” value is excruciatingly painful.
From head-lopping jihadists in the chaotic failed states of the Middle East to terrified Christian fundamentalists in the American South, many people cannot find the answers they need in a religion that only exists as metaphor and does not dictate the “what” of our reality. They will oppress, harass, and even kill anyone who threatens to undermine the comforting, comprehensive reality provided by a religious understanding that is already half-dead and decaying around them.
We are living through the long death spasms of a version of religion that claimed to explain everything about life, stripping our lives of uncomfortable dissonance and mystery. Those who still revere that model are losing influence because they face competition from people with far better-refined understandings of the external world. To avoid adopting those more complex, more uncomfortable realities, they are resorting to violence and oppression on an escalating scale.
Civilization will outlast them, but the toll they will exact in misery and premature death remains to be tallied. Most importantly, their valued role in creating a religious understanding that can continue to deliver meaning in a world where the “what” of life is defined by science remains unmet. Science is no closer to telling us why we should get out of bed in the morning than it ever has been. We still need metaphors that help us find love and joy and meaning in our existence. Art, poetry and music help, but without a shared structure around which to build some meaning they fall short. We still need religion, but to serve its mission a religion must remain relevant.
Science, whether intentionally or incidentally, has undermined religion by discrediting it as a means of defining reality. At the other end of the spectrum, fundamentalists are strangling religion by insisting that legitimate, authentic religious faith can only be found by remaining chained to the elements of our religious heritage which science has thoroughly discredited. Trapped in between, too many people are left with the conviction that one can only sustain religious faith through a process of deliberate, forceful self-deception.
The greatest irony of the information age is that the religions it crippled have grown more vital to our future than they have ever been. We must find ways to adapt older religious understandings to a new, sharper vision of reality if we are going to protect our collective sanity in a world of exponentially accelerating complexity.
If we cannot accomplish this feat then some new religious faith(s) will fill the gap. The birth of a new religion is like the birth of a new volcano. It is not something we want to experience. Better to accept some flexibility in our old understandings and adapt rather than letting the ground open up.