Does religion matter anymore?

Does religion matter anymore?

Why does religion matter?  Should we even take it seriously?  The modern scientific worldview doesn’t, so why should we?

Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters is not a defense of Christianity.  It is a defense of the very idea of religion, which he defines as a belief in transcendence: that there is something beyond this material world, and it matters whether you let this other world into your life.

It’s a good book, but Smith gets off to a bad start when he argues for what he calls the traditional worldview (this world is not all there is) by saying that “the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely.” (p 3)  All this shows is that we are needy creatures who want more than there is.  The human desire for transcendence doesn’t prove that something beyond the material world exists, but only that we wish it so.

Myth and truth

Smith gets serious when he argues that belief in the traditional, non-scientific worldview, in which we experience this world, as well as another that transcends it, leads to a better life.  In other words, we fulfill our human nature most fully when we recognize that while the traditional religious stories are myths, the truth beyond words that these myths express allows us to feel at home in the world.  We can feel that we belong here.  The alternative view, that each of us is but a tiny bit of matter in an endless universe, is not only hard to bear.  It makes life less interesting, exciting, and fulfilling.  We are creatures of narrative, and telling stories (myths) is how we make ourselves at home.  The God myth (my term, not his) is a much better story than the story than this is all there is.

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Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?  A fine but flawed book.

A recent (2018) book by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?, has garnered great reviews.   It’s a brave book, telling the story of the death of her six-year-old son from a long illness, and then her husband in a hiking accident, both in the space of about a year.  It’s been almost thirty years since these tragedies, and the reader gets the sense that it took her this long to tell the story.  Or rather, to weave her story of loss together with the place of religion in her life, and our collective lives.

I admire the book, but I have a problem with it.  She seems unaware that people who are not well-off and famous might have a different experience of loss.  She aims to be realistic about the politics of religious belief, but perhaps there is also a politics of loss, or better a political economy of loss.  About this she says not a word. 

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