Notes from a Postsecular Swede (Me)
by Adam Robbert
In his latest post Matt Segall writes:
“Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy.”
I haven’t dwelled on this aspect of Whitehead’s thinking sufficiently, thanks for bringing it to my attention Matt. I think this is a crucial fact relevant to religious-secular discourses. I can’t see any way that religious experiences or practices can, with any requisite fullness, be explained away by cultural or psychological needs, biologically advantageous structures of belief, sociological or material circumstances, or anthropological studies of religious practices. Of course there are many important insights gained from such studies, and I do not deny the importance of, for example, Feurbach’s, Marx’s, or Nietsczhe’s (my favorite) critiques of religion, and in particular, christianity. However, religious experience whether true, false, manipulative, or constructive, is a fact of human experience that dates back at least 30,000 years (and probably much further), and requires an approach of study befitting its mode of practice. Academia in general may not be up to such a task as it is organized today, and this is something that, as academics, we should be attentive to.
I think the discussion of religion, particularly in such academic contexts, is profoundly impoverished and often reduces religion and religious practice to a question of verifiable truth value. I suspect that this is totally the wrong methodology to approach religion with, if I may even continue to vulgarly use a term that cannot be universalized to every culture. In this sense I am a little hesitant to compare different worldviews and systems of belief under the singular banner of “religion.” Just because a view is not secular in the modern sense of the word does not imply that it is a “religious” view, as though non-secular/post-secular views imply a religious orientation that is somehow flatly comparable to christianity. The same can be said about comparing “buddhism” and “christianity”- a favorite trope of people doing the inter-religious dialogue game. It seems that we miss finer shades of detail in the rush to label something “religious” (is it not true that buddhist-scientist dialogues have to some extent had more to say to one another than buddhist-christian dialogues? Religious taxonomizing can hide these questions).
None of this is what I hear Matt arguing, but in the context of the larger ongoing discussions on naturalism and theology I felt it was important to raise such intercultural and intracultural issues vis-a-vis the question of religion and secularity. I would pose the central question, then, in a different way: what are we not addressing when we juxtapose religion against scientific naturalism? We can’t leave our religious legacies behind, no matter how atheist we become, because we are all immersed within an ecology of ideas. I think Foucault (who would never use the ecological language) has amply demonstrated the perseverance of the christian worldview in the face of secularization, in fact modern western secularization seems to readily spring forth from christianity (as so many philosophers and social scientists have demonstrated). Appeals to naturalism don’t overcome this just because they are stated as such, naturalism is still wedded to the legacies and histories of christianity (which itself is not a closed, pure unity- but thats another story). This is of course different than claiming some variant of christian theism, but it is nevertheless a central consideration.
Again, I am compelled to highlight the problematics of discourses such as these since so many languages, practices, and worldviews are being decimated outright by the militarization of commerce and consumption as we speak. If we construe philosophy as that which is meant to eradicate falsity and reduce complexity so as to heighten understanding (I think this is a slightly barbaric approach to philosophy if taken as its sole aim), then we must also consider the norms within which we approach and judge the multiplicity of claims we call “true” and “false.” Further, from an ecological perspective, ideas and values will always have multiple, contradictory, and emergent effects. Thus I am happy to say that religious thinking can be both “true” and “false” depending on its enaction. In my view, philosophy is thus as much about the construction of new concepts as it is about the eradication of old ones.
Whitehead’s ability to stay with the often marginalized elements of academic discourse such as a religion only adds to my respect for him. Thinking ecologically, for me, means to attend to the factors of experience which are, and not only the ones which are true, since in the context of an ecology of ideas, it matters precious little whether something is true or false, but rather what effects a system of thought has. This is why secularists and theists can both call the other to task for the atrocities committed in the aim of both theism and secularization- all ideas have multiple, recursive effects. In this way questions of truth value are still central and meaningful, but do not provide the sufficient criteria for evaluation.