The Case For Religion

There’s no coherent way to avoid nihilism without religion, broadly defined.

It’s best to be religious for two reasons. First, religion by its very nature gives us something greater than ourselves to live meaningfully in service of, an alternative to moral relativism and other forms of nihilism. Secondly, and perhaps even more important, being religious in any intelligent sense logically necessitates ambiguity tolerance or, more prosaically, it requires us to admit the limitations in our own knowledge. 

At this point I should point out that I’m not advocating for any religion in particular. Indeed, I agree with Confucius who, when one of his disciples asked which religious practice was best, basically answered “what have you got?” Confucius’ point is that the particulars of your religious belief don’t seem to matter that much but that it is almost always good to believe in something greater than yourself – a god broadly defined – and to believe that at least something violates cause and effect – the supernatural broadly defined.

Starting with the imperative to avoid moral relativism and nihilism, I’d ask you to imagine the following situation. Mike and Jennifer are equal beings, living in a world without any religion, believing in nothing greater than themselves and thus recognizing nothing superior to the individual. Mike decides that he enjoys money more than Jennifer enjoys money. As such, he goes to Jennifer’s house, empties her wallet and uses her money to buy cheese cake. Jennifer discovers this and feels angry. She reasons that the best way to express her anger is to visit Mike’s father’s house, cover the furniture in gasoline and light the entire thing on fire. Such, she feels, will best demonstrate to Mike the depths of her displeasure.

By our conventional moral standards, Mike is a thief. If we are legally-minded, we believe that Mike ought to recognize that property rights are not equal to his desires, they are superior. If we are sentimental, we are offended that Mike has allowed his low, selfish desires to undermine the higher value of supporting a trusting community in general and a trusting Jennifer in particular. If we believe in one of the Abrahamic religions, we declare that he’s broken God’s commandment, “thou shalt not steal.”

Likewise, we judge that Jennifer is an arsonist and potentially a murderer. If we accept the teachings of Confucius, we condemn her actions for lacking benevolence and undermining harmony. If we are Richard Dawkins, we say that Jennifer is bad because her actions don’t treat Mike as a full human being and thus contradict the (utterly unscientific) spirit of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. If we’re in kindergarten, we dislike Jennifer because her reaction to a relatively small unfairness – stealing – was too large and thus unfair in itself.

However, because Mike and Jennifer live in a world without any religion, with perfect equality and belief in nothing greater than themselves, our conventional moral condemnations no longer make sense. The legally minded person cannot refer to the law, because the reference itself assumes that the law is superior to Mike’s desires. The sentimentalist cannot refer to the community, because the community cannot be held higher than Mike.

We must reject the Abrahamic religions because God is always above us; greater than we are by definition. Mike’s and Jennifer’s personal quirks must be considered inferior to Confucian harmony and benevolence if we want to condemn them within a traditional East Asian morality. The “Will of Heaven” doesn’t make sense unless it can overwhelm the petty desires of mere humans. Even Richard Dawkins, who doesn’t understand his own ethics, falls into this trap. If we pretend the Renaissance and Enlightenment were somehow not a combination of Christian and Greco-Roman religious values, he is still claiming that a muddled hodgepodge he mistakenly calls “rationality” is superior to Mike and Jennifer. The kindergarteners, deferring to “fairness,” make more sense with their ideas of fairness and are, in the process, indistinguishable from those who recognize divine law.

Morality of any type, the rules that allow us to live together, simply doesn’t work if there’s no higher will, higher principle, higher God, superior king, divine priest, sacred text etc. to which we can refer. The idea that humans are not inferior to something destroys this and leaves us wandering a relativistic, nihilistic hellscape where there is no superior third party to appeal to, no greater purpose to serve.

At this point, I’d like to clarify that when I speak of religion I do not mean a bearded man in the sky, although that is a possible type of religion. I do not mean hating the theory of evolution, lighting a candle in your Day of the Dead shrine or punishing unbelievers, though those are also possible types of religion. When I describe myself as religious, I am referring to what I consider the two common points shared in every religious tradition I’ve been able to study – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, shamanism, Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and animism.

Firstly, they all insist that humans are inferior to something – God, the Will of Heaven, the fabric of the universe, the spirits, the ancestors, etc. This makes public morality possible and cannot be replaced if we wish to live together. Secondly, and perhaps of more interest to the scientifically-minded, the religions all insist that there is something which violates cause and effect. In other words, they propose creation stories wherein a god or manifestation of the universe, unmoved in itself, moves everything else and starts the universe in motion.

This is an interesting parallel to the Big Bang and solution for the logical impossibility of time, defined as a series of causes and effects, having a starting point in an entropic universe. Explained in laymen’s terms, here’s why the entropic universe requires a violation of cause and effect:

a) It is a fundamental law of physics that entropy increases. That is, things are always getting less ordered in the mathematical sense.
b) If we run this backwards, we come to a time when there was no entropy. The time when there was entropy was the first moment, the very dawn of time.
c) “Before time” is a contradiction in terms. Cause and effect is always in reference to time. Therefore, the beginning of time was necessarily a violation of cause and effect.

However, of greater moral significance, the violation of cause and effect provides the basis for what I consider the second truly universal religious value – ambiguity tolerance. This ambiguity tolerance is probably familiar to you. In Christianity we are reminded that God moves in mysterious ways. In Buddhism, we learn that understanding is an illusion in many (if not most) cases. In Confucianism, we are taught that the Will of Heaven can be approached, but never arrived at. These explanations are all derived from logical necessity and form a core part of making peace with the world as we find it.

Namely, we need to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty because something violated cause and effect. We, so far as we know, live entirely within a cause and effect framework. Therefore, there is something out there – able to violate cause and effect – that is deeply and fundamentally different from us. Since it is fundamentally different from us, the non-causal nature of reality necessitates mystery and ambiguity as part of our human experience, especially when we refer to the god/nature/spirit/universe/etc. that violated cause and effect in the first place.

A failure to recognize and honor ambiguity tolerance is unfortunately both very common and the root of what I’d call bad religion. The South Korean Shincheonji Cult is, fundamentally, a belief that ultimate answers are available to us, a fantasy that we can escape uncertainty. ISIS is fundamentally the same, blasphemously claiming that we might know the will of God exactly so long as we follow the dictates of some narrow creed. Far more dangerous, anti-religious systems combine certainty with the nihilism of equality. Nazism, Bolshevikism, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and the China of the Cultural Revolution all made similar claims, telling their followers that “science” had answered all possible questions. Everything became knowable, everything became inevitable, everything became simple. It is perhaps not surprising anti-religious systems of scientific certainty were the most murderous things in human history.

Religion can be harmful. It can be stupid. It can shrink us down and crush our ability to think and experience reality, but only if we forget that second value. It is also, if you accept my broad definition of religion, the only alternative we have to standing for nothing.

2 comments

  1. Dear Ben,

    It has been quite a long while since you last blogged. I hope that life has been treating you well, and that your PhD research is going according to plan.

    By the way, I would like to point out the ambiguity pertaining to grammatical clarity in the phrase “… logically necessitates ambiguity tolerance or, more prosaically …”. If you actually meant “tolerance of ambiguity” then it would be better to avoid the expression “ambiguity tolerance” in this instance, because initially I thought that there should have been a comma after the word “ambiguity”, since, grammatically speaking, one is more inclined to read the phrase as “… logically necessitates ambiguity, tolerance or, more prosaically …”.

    I have since published many new posts, and even expanded the post entitled “We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology“, which now also contains a new, long and highly thought-provoking multi-paragraph introduction.

    As for religion and religious issues (as well as other salient subject matters), they are discussed in a very detailed and multipronged approach in my academically written post entitled “🏛️⚖️ The Facile and Labile Nature of Law: Beyond the Supreme Court and Its Ruling on Controversial Matters 🗽🗳️🔫🤰🧑‍🤝‍🧑💉“, published at

    https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2022/06/26/the-facile-and-labile-nature-of-law-beyond-the-supreme-court-and-its-ruling-on-controversial-matters/

    Happy mid-October to you and welcome back to the blogosphere, my dear friend!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

    1. Hey, glad to hear from you.

      Ambiguity tolerance is a psychological construct very similar to the idea that “an educated mind can entertain an idea without accepting it.”

      If you’re interested, here’s the wiki.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambiguity_tolerance%E2%80%93intolerance

      I’ll be by to check out your articles soon. 🙂

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