Kyoto Cosmos Club: Sub-Page Three
RELIGIONS ARE TRUE!
Robert Bellah, besides developing the first major picture of religious evolution, went on to argue that in fact—as linguistic philosophers from Wittgenstein to Heidegger to Derrida and beyond agree—even the most empirically grounded and rationally defensible forms of scientific truth all remain always open to falsification. Newton’s notions of space and time were falsified by subsequent discoveries and new paradigms of reality—as physics and cosmology have amply shown in recent decades.
Religious truth is of course a special kind of truth: it is not grounded on reason alone, and is not even claimed to be rationally or logically provable—but we know in our gut—by “Grace” or the “Perfume of Enlightenment” wafting within the ignorance of the unenlightened mind—that it is true. And so we commit ourselves in faith. This faith-commitment is built upon symbolic myths of origin (even the Buddha’s Fourfold Truths and Eightfold Path are such a symbolic story of origin) and upon rites (meditation is in a broad sense also a rite) and on the conviction that a corresponding set of time-tested moral values and norms follow directly out of these symbolic teachings about the ultimate Ground of things and confirm them. When agreed upon by large groups of people who form a closely-knit community, the resulting religious system can indeed be said to be “true,” argues Bellah.
RELIGIONS ARE TRUE! To many, perhaps to most, it seems patently absurd to declare that religions—each one chock full of doctrines, taboos and worldviews that wildly contradict one another—are all “truth.” So what did the Harvard (later, Berkeley) Sociologist of Religion Robert N. Bellah mean when he made this very declaration at Harvard in a plenary session of joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion?
If we define religion as that symbol system that serves to evoke what Herbert Richardson calls the “felt whole,” that is, the totality that includes subject and object and provides the context in which life and action finally have meaning, then I am prepared to claim that, as Durkheim said of society, religion is a reality sui generis. To put it bluntly, religion is true. This is not to say that every religious symbol is equally valid any more than every scientific theory is equally valid. But it does mean that since religious symbolization and the religious experiences are inherent in the structure of human existence, all reductionism must be abandoned.
Here we hope to show not just what Bellah meant, but why—in our opinion—his statement, taken in its proper context, is itself also an important truth. In order to begin to understand his now famous opinion about religion it would be helpful to return to a statement made above in Geertz’s article. Geertz had declared that he felt that, all too often, previous social scientific definitions and descriptions of religion were too reductionistic. He pointed out that many if not most of social scientific and philosophical notions of religion saw religion as simply an epiphenomenon rather than as an irreducible social phenomenon in its own right. Bellah takes up this point of religious reductionism where Geertz (who is Bellah’s old friend and fellow doctoral candidate in the Harvard student days), had left off. He takes several steps, however that Geertz does not take. Bellah, like Geertz, is a first rate social scientist—but the former is also an acknowledged religious believer; the latter is not. It is interesting to note that Bellah came back to religious faith “the hard way,” as it were: from growing up a believer, to atheism and Communism, and back to his original Protestant faith through the influence of the great theologian, Paul Tillich.
Such a split among capable scientists is seen today in every one of the many hard, and well as in the softer, or social, sciences. Hard science today does not of itself nudge one into either religious disbelief or belief. Nevertheless, the climate among scientists as regards religious belief or disbelief has altered immensely during—and since—the period between Darwin and Heisenberg. Darwin who reportedly abandoned his faith and died an agnostic, was a son of the Enlightenment belief that reason and proof are the criteria of all truth. Heisenburg, faced already with Einstein’s theory (still a “theory” in Heisenburg’s day) of the relativity of space and time and his own discovery that it was impossible to even speak exactly of space and time in the sub-atomic world except in terms of probabilities. Heisenburg’s “Principle of Uncertainty” created a revolution both in science and in the notion of truth itself.
Bellah and Geertz spoke at a time when the scholarly world had had more than three decades to ponder on these new conundrums. Both were sufficiently sophisticated in psychology, the literary arts and philosophy to take into account the value of Freud’s insights into the unconscious and the phenomenological investigations of Husserl and his student, Schutz (their professor in grad-school days). They are able to apply the insights of both in order to realize that the world seen by human beings was, first, a world of “multiple realities,” where people can and do move from the Primary Reality of “the everyday world” to special realities involving the unconscious both in dreams and in other states. Beyond dreams, however there are the realities of music, the theater and also the special ecstatic modes of consciousness out of which religions seem to take much of their origin and being. Secondly, the vaunted world of unquestionable, falsifiable, scientific truth as the eternal foundation of science was itself coming loose at its seams. What had been the sacred truths of Newton’s physics had been proved simply wrong, in more ways than one.
Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, gave a name to this topsy-turvy new world of truth: “paradigms of reality.” Even empirical, hard-nosed scientific truth—the shebboleth of the Enlightenment and scientific world it gave birth to—suffered revolutions in which its most basic truths were overturned or simply proven to be false. Bellah, in declaring that religion itself was a valid form of truth, was fitting his ideas into this new framework. But we are ahead of ourselves. Let’s now go back and trace Bellah’s argument carefully to see what he is and is not saying.
The center of Bellah’s paper—only later published in his book of essays, Beyond Belief-- is that Marx’s, Freud’s and Emile Durkheim’s views of the basic nature of religion as a social phenomenon had been reducing religion to something more “real” and less superstitious or supernatural. Bellah argued that religion was an irreducible human phenomenon. Marx reduced religion to an illusory opium of suffering people; Freud, building on his notions of the unconscious mind and the Oedipus complex, reduced religion to a projection of a father figure. Durkheim reduced religion to an “effervescent” portrayal or enactment of society itself. Bellah, like his friend Geertz, sees the need to go deeper, to allow for the elements of truth in all these previous thinkers but to recognize religion as an irreducible social reality in its own right. It is not just a false projection. It cannot be reduced to anything else; it is as unique a social phenomenon as military or governmental systems of any society.
The key to understanding religion, says Bellah, is neither the sub-conscious mind nor the injustice of the bourgeois class nor a projection of one’s own society and its values. Instead, the key to understanding religion is to understand the symbolic nature of all human knowledge. Symbols—even basic words like “fire”—are not simply true. As new paradigms of reality come into being “fire” is a form of rapid oxidation, and—with the maturation of the superstring theory—who knows what it will be in the future. So Bellah goes on to try to get a firm grasp on the nature of those special religious bundles of symbols and the actions, moods, and motivations that always go with them. By means of these special types of symbol religion give meaning to the whole of human reality. “God,” like ”fire,” only touches the linguistic “surface” of the divine. Like ”fire,” “God” assigns not just a meaning but a value, and like “fire” it does not stand alone but is useful only when a whole system of similar symbols make up a whole language or religion. But taken as an irreducible phenomenon is this manner religion anchors whole societies (or whole communities within a larger society) with notions both of ultimate meaning and with the major ethical pillars of any people’s ethos. These religious symbols are not empty stories or objects; they arise out of already existing deep feelings, loves and hatreds that have already proved their usefulness through generations, centuries, even millennia, of social and personal experience.
Bellah begins his argument by pointing out something that in the decades that followed would become more and more clear to scientists of all kinds: The Enlightenment notion that only things clear, rational and provable are true is itself a myth! Bellah points out that Freud himself disproved the Enlightenment’s central thesis with his discovery of the existence and importance of unconscious elements of the human mind and heart. Emil Durkheim also helped disprove the over-simplistic Enlightenment ideal even while embracing it, with his idea that powerful national or societal expressions of “collective effervescence” like the dancings of the Australian Aborigenes or even the whole phenomenon of the French Revolution. Neither were either fully rational or fully conscious actions, either by the individuals nor by the whole collectives that participated.
So clearly, the notion that reason and empirical evidence are the only criteria for truth is itself a myth. It is not that such truth is unreal; it is rather that there are multiple realities—and that unless the role of symbol in all of them is understood then human truth itself will not be properly understood. Bellah goes on to evoke the testimony of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman in their rather epochal work on the sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality. These scholars begin with the symbolic role of language as the solid ground on which every bit of human knowledge itself depends. Although subsequent phenomenologists from Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida sometimes went to the extreme of reducing all truth to simple power and its manipulations, today linguistic philosophers and phenomenologists have come to tread a more middle-of-the-road path as regards both language and truth itself. They confirm the notion that all human truth depends on the symbols of language, and that a society’s people must accept each verbally expressed truth and teach it as truth to their children before it enters solidly as an accepted part of human knowledge.
Bellah’s point in all this is of course, not that this or that religion, or even all of them together can claim a place in Schultz’s Primary Realty of the alltaglichkeit or “everyday world.” Neither can poetry, literature, money, or the rights guaranteed in a Constitution. But just as we do not want to get along without dollars, Euros or yen, we should not want to try to get along with the vital role that religion plays in every society—even today. These separate realities or different packages of truths do not exist is isolation from one another. It seems perfectly alright—even perhaps ideal—to allow individuals in a democratic society to carry around various kinds of money, have various kinds of political convictions, and have faith that Allah exists or faith that he does not exist. Like String theory, Yahwey may be only a theory or a salve to stop the hurting of the certainty of our own death, but to short-circuit religion in the manner of orthodox Freudianism or Marxism as simply false is no longer a very smart thing to do.
Religion’s stutterings to give a name to the feelings aroused by a glorious starry night, the first buds of spring or the birth of a child still should be honored as legitimate—even irreplaceable—precious forms of human truth.