When Atheists attack or criticise religion they are most often directing their attention to the fundamentalist forms of the religions. Pre-rational, traditional religions which deny science and evolution, and which have a literal interpretation of religious texts and dogma, are fundamentalist. Faith is the cornerstone of their religion, so it is not their concern that these “interpretations” may be varied, inconsistent and flawed, as their faith does not encourage them to look at the fundamentals with any scrutiny. Studies show that there are large numbers of Fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who have not read their Bible, and who accept the interpretations of the various religious leaders of their various denominations. I’m sure that there is a similar situation for other religions. For much of history, the masses were unable to read at all, and there were periods where reading the Bible was considered a heresy for anyone other than the Clergy. In cases where Bible study is encouraged, it is never done critically, but in the inflexible context of whatever interpretation system is in place. All of this combines to create a pre-rational, mythic, premodern relationship to religion, which is regarded by Integral Theory to be the Blue/Amber (depending on the system) level of development.
And yet Integral Theory strongly suggests that, like all other social concepts, religion and spiritual beliefs need to be able to evolve, moving from the pre-rational to the rational and even to the trans-rational. I have had no problem comprehending the kind of trans-rational spiritual beliefs that might be possible, but I’ve always had a problem with rational forms of religion, especially Christianity. Some atheists will argue that religious evolution is neither necessary nor possible, but I will try to explain the need later in this article.
Recently I came across a talk by Michael Dowd, first on the Integral Life site (which I originally thought a little odd) and then another in his Tedx talk found on YouTube. He also lectured at a conference organized by the publishers of Skeptic magazine at CalTech. (The second of these contains much of the information of the first within it, but it is close to 1.5 hrs long. Well worth it though.) You have to give Dowd some time and the benefit of the doubt as being a former evangelical minister, his tone is sometimes one that will easily put off skeptical atheists. But give him a chance. The first inclination is to ask, “Why bother with God at all?” when listening to him reinterpret religious ideas in modernist terms. But there is, I feel, a rational response to that. First, however, one must get the gist of what he is saying.
Dowd claims that religion has always tried to provide people with the best fit for describing reality. Primitive people who saw thunder had limited means to interpret and comprehend that phenomenon, and so came up with a mystical or supernatural explanation. A tribe encountering a huge boulder, seemingly out of place on the landscape, would produce a mythical explanation in the form of a legend. They didn’t know what we know now, so religious and mythical explanations were the best that they could do. That obviously is no longer the case, and yet religions still cling to these mythical and often superstitious beliefs because as traditional institutions, clinging to the past is what they are all about.
Dowd says that this has to be updated. He presents “God” as simply a metaphorical interpretation of Reality. He presents the creation story as evolution. He presents “witnessing” or right relationship with God as a correct relationship with the reality that is presented by science and driven by evidence. He often quotes Carl Sagan’s comment, “Science is, at least in part, informed worship”. The complexity of his world view is not going to be given proper attention and done adequate justice in this article, so I’m going to encourage you to investigate the two video lectures referenced above.
The perspective of each of the Integral levels is determined by the world view. So a religious perspective coming from a Rational, Modernist or “Orange” developmental level has to reflect a relationship to that world view. The Orange world view is based on science, reason and (to some degree) materialism. This may seem to many as a incompatability. Science and religion are seen by many (especially those firmly entrenched in Orange) to be mutually exclusive. But in order for a religious person making a transition from the pre-rational to rational state, they either have to completely abandon their religious inclinations, or there has to be a bridge which allows them to take those religious inclinations and transcend to a higher degree of understanding. If nothing else, Dowd’s approach allows that to happen, and, I believe, expresses the way it has happened for many individuals who consider themselves progressive, liberal, rational people, but who still retain religious convictions. I’ve met many, and they tend to echo, in their own ways, the things said by Dowd. This rational interpretation of religion, seeing God not as a supernatural figure outside the system, but as a representation of reality, and aligning the creation story not with the mythology of an archaic book, but with evidence provided by modern science, all will provide a state of belief to which the pre-rational religious believer can progress. As Wilber says (somewhere), the degree to which we do not provide such a bridge condemns people to remain trapped and paralyzed in their current level of development. If Dowd does nothing else, I believe that he is solving that problem by providing that bridge and presenting a formulation of religion that is consistent with the rational, Orange world view.
In addition Dowd presents a qualification of dealing with the Subjective vs the Objective. He calls it Day and Night Language. Wilber, in Integral Theory, refers to it as the left and right sides of the four quadrants. This is the crux of the correspondence between religion and science, understanding that materialism is a right quadrant world view, completely valid, but limited to the things that it applies to.
But I do think that there are other things about Dowd’s that are valuable.
For my entire life I have struggled to teach a love of the environment. I did so for two reasons. The first reason was that I felt that Nature had a great deal to teach us, if only we could have the right kind of relationship with it. The second reason is that our environment is seriously threatened, and I feel that you can only work to try to save something that you love. In both of these cases, the strength and quality of the relationship is critical. The best cultures at preserving and revering the environment are those where Nature was incorporated in to the religious beliefs. The strength of the relationship with the divine translated into a passion for Nature. I’ve often felt that in order to save the environment it might be best to initiate Environmentalism as a religion-like movement. That’s the kind of passion that it will probably take at this point. (David Suzuki has pretty well thrown in the towel.)
One of the things that works in pre-rational religions is the degree of passion involved in the worshiper’s relationship with their reality, whatever that world view may express. That was at least partially lost during the transition to the Scientific Age, particularly in day to day life. In fact the philosophic responses to the Age of Science, Existentialism or Phenomenology, have basically reduced things to either nothing being true or everything being true. In both cases, it is kind of lacking in passion. Individuals become alienated from reality, not related to it. One of the most extreme products of this modernistic philosophy, Determinism, no only isolates the self from reality (subjectively, at least) but questions the existence of that very “self”. Determinism paralyzes our very ability to make choices.
In Dowd’s presentation he calls for an establishment of that relationship with reality on a level similar to that which is advocated by religions. It has vast implications for understanding ourselves and our environment. In the speech I reference above, he spends a lot of time discussing brain evolution and our much of our behaviour is influenced by instinctual drives. Understanding that science, and using it as a guiding principle for our own behaviour and relationship with reality brings about spectacular benefits. Similarly, with the environment, Dowd makes the following observation:
“Until we see the entire history of the Universe as scripture, and create laws and incentives that align the self-interests of people and organizations with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole, we will continue to
-toxify the air, water and soil,
-drive other species to extinction
-be hounded by political, social, economic and religious crises”
Dowd has a particular interest in Climate Change, pointing out that in a nation like the U.S. where a significant minority of citizens (he claims as much as 40%) believe in an impending “End Of Days”, it is hard to get anyone interested in Climate Change. A proper relationship with a scientific reality would change that, and may provide the passion, not to mention the ethical and moral foundation, to deal with Climate Change.
Meditation often states as one of its goals that it promotes a more healthy, direct and intense relationship with reality. But, as Wilber often points out, that reality is dependent on the dominant world view of the individual. However, at its best, meditation is trying to promote a sense of “here and now” among other things.
This, I feel, opens the door to what religion should be in the trans-rational or even the Intgral levels of development. It certainly has something to do with the quality of the relationship with reality, and that reality moving towards “cosmo-centric” and Integral. Dowd touches on it when he says that evolution is the universe is trying to become conscious of itself. I don’t know whether it is “trying to”, but it certainly has. When you are outside on a clear night looking up at the stars, you are the universe looking at itself, something that is uniquely human, at least at the level of conceptual understanding. This extension of Dowd’s ideas into these other Green or Teal/Yellow is not necessary to appreciate the valuable contributions being made to Rational/Orange level religion. I find that this has really done a lot to clarify this for me.