My current approach to religion

I don’t have religious beliefs any more, but I still have religious sentiments. I still find religious expression moving – gospel music for example. Maybe it’s habit, or maybe it speaks to something deep and visceral that is fundamental to being human – “singing the joy of living”.

Religion is not about truth, to me; I have science for that; religion is about meaning. I evaluate religious ideas not on the basis of whether I think they’re true – I can never know if they are true, although I can certainly be convinced they are not true in some cases – but rather, on the basis of how helpful they are, how meaningful they are to me, whether they express something that resonates with my experience of life as a human, and whether they encourage me to live a “good” life – all entirely subjective. I use religious or philosophical ideas as paradigms or languages to articulate my sense of meaning. I can do that without having to believe in them as “truth”. Of course this means that my paradigms are completely open to being updated or even discarded if experience renders them less meaningful.

I’m undecided whether this is pure genius, or just an elaborate form of hypocrisy. 😀

I guess it’s not that different from how we use language in general. I can say, “the sun’s gone behind a cloud” (not uncommon here in Scotland 🙂 ) even though I know that’s not what literally happened. It would be weird or overly pedantic to say “a cloud has come in between the sun and me”. Our expressions arise from the immediacy of experience: the light and warmth is experienced to fade; where did it go? Oh – behind a cloud. They express something of the human experience rather than the mechanical truth. And that is how I see religion.

The Unitarian community I have recently become a part of represents a diverse range of beliefs, and I am seemingly at the more Humanist end of the spectrum. I don’t know if I will be a lifelong Unitarian, but it is liberal and non-dogmatic so mostly painless, and I enjoy the services as a time for reflection as well as being part of a community. I also think it has helped me avoid becoming too anti-religion as I left beliefs behind. Perhaps my interest in religion is a mere hobby, a habit I’ve developed while wrestling my way out of the dogmatic maze, and perhaps eventually I will have had enough of it… who knows.

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10 Responses to My current approach to religion

  1. Julian Adkins says:

    Hi Sarah,

    On religious ideas as a source of meaning rather than literal truth…

    I must confess this is the first time I have posted a comment on a blog, so am not sure what to expect. Does it just go to you, or does it get posted in a way that others can read it and respond, like on the Facebook wall? Well I guess posting something is a good way to find out. You already know of my slight hesitation for self-disclosure on the internet, despite the fact that I wear my heart on my sleeve and probably speak too much and too freely in the real world! This is easy for me to respond to though, as I was thinking about just this issue the other day in the context of maybe communicating with a wider audience. I have tentatively offered to give a talk to the Humanist Society of Scotland (Edinburgh local group) about possible Humanist approaches to spirituality, using my own exploration of Buddhism as an example. Before getting into that in the main body of a talk, I think the introduction would have to start by making a case for the acknowledgement of spirituality as a meaningful concept at all, for someone who signs up to Humanistic conventions. Almost all the dictionary definitions of ‘spirituality’ or ‘spirit’ that I have come across, more or less explicitly, assume a mind-body dualism. However, my contention is that spiritual phenomena / experiences were historically considered to be immaterial or otherworldly, not because a particular world view demanded it, but because they are of special human importance. That is to say that spiritual things were considered in a class apart from temporal things because they are of special human importance. They were not considered of special human importance because they were immaterial, non-physical or supernatural. It was the other way around. We can therefore drop the dualistic assumptions without rejecting all the language, metaphors and phenomenology. Much of it may be unhelpful or irrelevant anyway, but to assume it all is may be a bit hasty. I really like your attitude and would definitely class it as a stroke of genius rather than hypocrisy 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Julian, thanks for being my first commenter here! If you want me to remove your surname or even remove the comment, I’d be happy to do that. The blog is not accessible to search engines at the moment but I may decide to change that in the future.

      That’s a really interesting point of view. I definitely can see how easy it is for the mind to start thinking metaphysically about things that are particularly beautiful or moving. Great music, for example, blows my mind so much that I find it hard on an emotional level to believe it was composed by a human and easier to imagine it as somehow “divine”. The poetic beauty of the Qur’an in Arabic convinces some of its divine origins. So yes, I think you might be on to something there. And it has been a revelation to me (no pun intended!) that it is possible to accept this tendency of the mind to transcendentalise things through its imagination, and enjoy this effect anyway, without believing it.

      • Julian Adkins says:

        Hi Sarah,

        I’m quite happy to have my reply here after all, surname and all. Perhaps I’ll even write some more now I have dipped my toe in the waters of the blogosphere 😉

  2. susanne430 says:

    “Perhaps my interest in religion is a mere hobby, a habit I’ve developed while wrestling my way out of the dogmatic maze, and perhaps eventually I will have had enough of it… who knows.”

    It’s been interesting to follow you the last several months. Thanks for inviting me to your new blog. 🙂

  3. sanil says:

    I really liked the points about language, and think that is a fantastic way to look at religion. I will have to remember that for when this topic comes up in discussion both in school and just in general. It’s a different kind of truth. I can’t imagine anyone being offended at hearing that the sun doesn’t really go behind the clouds (as long as it’s not done in a jerky, corrective way), and it seems strange when you look at it this way that anyone should be offended at the idea that their religion isn’t really the whole literal reality. That’s a much clearer way of phrasing it than I have thought of using before, thanks for sharing that perspective!

    • Sarah says:

      I’m glad it makes sense to you Sanil, and I think it’s often pride that makes these notions offensive. Over the centuries we have always believed too literally and rigidly in all of the ideas we’ve held about reality, both religious and non-religious ideas. Scientific paradigm shifts have always been difficult. We have been too proud to accept that our planet is not the centre of the universe, and too proud to accept our humble evolutionary origins. Or maybe it’s just the fear of everything we think we know dissolving before our eyes. I certainly know about that fear.

  4. Dawn says:

    Yippee, a new blog!

    “I’m undecided whether this is pure genius, or just an elaborate form of hypocrisy.”

    I’m voting for genius, as it is my own stance as well.

    “Perhaps my interest in religion is a mere hobby, a habit I’ve developed while wrestling my way out of the dogmatic maze, and perhaps eventually I will have had enough of it… who knows.”

    I don’t know. Here I am, some twenty years on, and my obsession with religion and the “God question” seems to go on unabated, even as my own belief system has evolved (or would that be devolved?) to a big question mark.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Dawn 🙂 The philosophical questions are just so interesting! Having started to think about all this in the past year it’s only become more interesting to me. So yes… maybe it could be a lifelong interest, who knows!

  5. Marahm says:

    “Religion is not about truth, to me; I have science for that; religion is about meaning.”

    This is so beautifully said! I love it.

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