Secular Religion - Davidson Loehr

Davidson Loehr

NOTE: I received the following as an email from my friend and colleague, Davidson Loehr, in response to yesterday's post on "The New Atheists Are God's Prophets". He agreed to allow me to post it as a guest blog entry.

Michael; I had some free-associations on your new-theists-as-prophets piece:

A fundamental difference between priests and prophets is that priests are keepers of their community’s status quo—their orthodoxy, rituals, attitudes toward women and homosexuality, etc.  By doing this, they help stabilize their congregation’s way of life.  Prophets don't care about beliefs or rituals; they only care about behavior.  This always pits them against the priests and institutions, since effective prophets only seem to show up when that status quo seems, to the prophet, morally inadequate—like Amos telling the people God didn’t care about their sacrifices, etc.; God only cares about the inadequacy or immorality of their behavior toward others: selling the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of shoes, etc.  Hmmm, this is sounding a lot like what globalization is doing to third world countries.

On the surface, the new atheists are seen as criticizing incoherent belief; I think Bill Maher’s film “Religulous” fits here, as does Brian Flemming’s embarrassing “The God Who Wasn’t There.”   But in Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, I see their anger burning the hottest over the holy wars, persecutions, banning condoms in Africa, valuing an unborn fetus more than they value the mother, etc.  They attack the beliefs because of the behaviors the beliefs have led to.  That’s the sense in which they are functioning like cultural prophets, if not religious ones.

My sense of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures [i.e., the “old” testament] is that they identified themselves as being in the same broad religious tradition, and were calling “the faithful” to higher and more nuanced levels of actualizing their beliefs.  In this sense, I think Bishop Spong is the closest to a prophet today, as Martin Luther King Jr. was one of Christianity’s greatest prophets of the 20th century.

Voltaire’s sharp aphorism comes to mind:  Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.  If we combine it with James Russell Lowell’s pungent “Time makes ancient good uncouth,” I think we’re very close to the soul of a prophet.  Time can make customary beliefs—about women, gays, foreigners, heretics and those holding to all other beliefs—not only wrong or anachronistic, but simply uncouth.  We’re watching most of these statements of “ancient good” become uncouth all over the world, as people react to the world’s growing pluralism and the relativism of all beliefs.  Christians were once persecuted and killed for being atheists.  We’re all atheists regarding the overwhelming majority of gods of history, as Richard Dawkins has wittily put it.

What I see and feel from these four “atheist” writers—though they don’t put it this way—isn’t that God has died, but that God-talk can no longer frame our most important questions, and will almost certainly saddle us with absurdities and prepare us for atrocities because it's grounded in an ancient worldview that never existed—the three-story universe.

For all their differences, most critics from both inside and outside of religion share a remarkable area of agreement.  Their concerns are both this-worldly (secular) and centered on our moral responsibilities and ultimate concerns.  Taken together, they form a 12-point outline of what I’m calling Secular Religion:

  • 1.  They reject supernaturalism, and the 3-story universe in which our religions were born.
    2.  They are clear that healthy religion is about behavior, not belief; it’s about personal transformation, as Origen said eighteen centuries ago.
    3.  Almost all agree that “God” is a symbol, a concept, not a being or a force (other than psychological).  The word is in the same capitalized category as Truth, Justice, Beauty, Goodness, etc.  They don’t agree on whether the word “God” can be cleaned up enough to use for public discourse.
    4.  Many know that religions and gods are used as hand puppets to give power to priests and rulers—as Seneca said a couple thousand years ago.
    5.  Most or all of them agree with the golden rule.
    6.  Their comments indicate that they believe our morality is innate, and can be educated.  
    7.  None believe that God is a Fellow, a Being.  Some could be called “theists” when God is understood as a symbol; others won’t even buy the word “God” as a symbol.  But this is a question about the most useful language, not about a being.
    8.  All would agree that at its best, religion can inspire confidence, compassionate behavior and so on.  They would also agree that at its worst, it’s awful.  They would not agree about whether the word “religion” is any more acceptable than the word “God.”
    9.  The critics do agree on what they’re after: honest language, open to public scrutiny and testing whenever it makes a truth claim.
    10.  They agree that religion—or the legitimate heir to what was once called religion—must be about living wisely and compassionately here and now, not elsewhere and later.
    11.  All believe that we need to feel part of, and guided by, a bigger scheme—a noble and empowering myth, high ideals, at least the golden rule and the pursuit of truth, justice and compassion in our treatment of others.  I’m reminded of a wonderful lecture from a couple decades ago, about the Greek god Atlas, and that image of him holding the world on his shoulders.  The purpose of that picture was not to answer the question “What’s holding the world up?”  The purpose is to give us the security of believing that the forces holding our world up are both strong, and friendly.  That’s what we hope to get from our myths.
    12.  They would agree on why religion does harm—and poisons at least some important things.

I see all this as being about language, a dialect, an idiom of expression that can be both constructive and destructive.  At bottom, religions are hermeneutical tools: symbols, metaphors and stories to help us frame our life atop some strong and friendly shoulders.  It’s important to remember that “hermeneutics” was named after the Greek god Hermes, the messenger between gods and humans.  That can feel reassuring: that hermeneutics can lead us to God’s Own Truth.  But Hermes was one of history’s great Tricksters: neither gods nor mortals could trust him.  With hermeneutics, you can never be sure.

Finally, the flip side of fundamentalist religion is fundamentalist anti-religion (or fundamentalist science).  Both think our framing of life must be supported by cold, hard facts.  Not true.  Facts can let us act with the attitude of Certainty, but stories and myths offer better roles and costumes.  
Davidson Loehr is a former musician, combat photographer and press officer in Vietnam, owner of a photography studio in Ann Arbor, then a carpenter and drunk.  His Ph.D. is in methods of studying religion, theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with an additional focus on language philosophy (The University of Chicago, 1988).  From 1986 to 2009, he served as a Unitarian Universalist minister, and has been a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar since 1992.  He has one book: America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005).  Now retired from the ministry, he is spending this year building a platform to become involved in national discussions of religion, science, values and culture.  He is also working on a second book: The Rise of Secular Religion in America.

NOTE: Davidson is one of Connie's favorite preachers.  Here are some of his sermons that you can freely listen to online.

[Posted June 5, 2010]