Thursday, October 7, 2010

Religion: Metaphor or Fog?

Daniel Dennett responds to the Pew survey that finds that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religions than even the religions' own adherents.
After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.

So with the increase of scientific understanding and textual criticism undermining the major religions' key tenets, what's a religion to do?
There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed - not even your own.

Plan B has been the choice of most religions and denominations, and the result, not surprisingly, is that most religiously affiliated people have no firm knowledge or even opinions about the finer points of any religion, including their own.

In a nutshell, the more you know, the less you need to believe by faith, and thus, the less you actually do believe by faith.

1 comment:

cafephilos said...

Dennett has an interesting take on why believers know less than non-believers, but I'm not sure his is the full story. I think it might be one factor among a few.

Most non-believers grew up in a religion. It's just that they left the religion while others -- while believers -- stayed in the religion.

So let me suggest that non-believers might be people who are more concerned with beliefs, dogmas, and ideas than the average believer.

On the other hand, I think the average believer -- the average person who sticks with a religion -- might be more concerned with friends, community, and companionship than the average non-believer.

Churches these days are bankrupt in theology, but they still create communities of friends and associates. People for whom it matters that their church provides them with friends might not care that much what the church's theology and history are. And people for whom it matters what the church's theology and history are might not care that much for the friendships the church offers.

I would guess the above is a factor, perhaps one factor of a few, that influences whether believers or non-believers know more about a religion.