I just posted this in my LJ as the second part of an essay on religion and thought that some people here might find it of interest. It deals with my attitudes toward the negotiation of multiple cognitive frameworks: in this case, science and religion. Enjoy.
As I said in my last entry, my attitude toward religion is situated in a particular view of religion which some people might find unusual. Some, on the other hand, will find it very familiar.
I don't look to religion to tell me about reality, per se. When I consider the world, the universe and the origins of life I generally look to scientific models to explain their origins. I don't believe in the literal existence of a creator or a divine being that is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the universe. I don't believe in the literal existence of spiritual beings. I generally hold a position that falls in the Huxleyian description of agnosticism: I believe that the ability to verify the existence of God(s) in a scientific manner is impossible. But, one can still have faith in the existence of such beings even if they believe it is impossible to verify their existence, hence the existence of both agnostic theists and agnostic atheists: so, from a philosophical position and NOT a religious one, I'm an agnostic atheist.
So, I have this mental concept of a universe where matter and energy are primary guiding forces: a concept based on my admittedly tenuous grasp of basic principle of physics and my greater competency in biology. When it comes to my understanding of material existence, I look to research being performed within the scientific community. But, of course, there is much that scientific research does not address: issues of morals, the meaning of human existence in the broader sense (i.e. beyond evolution), values and so forth. These areas are, quite reasonably, in the area of meta-physics. In other words, they are beyond the realm of inquiry pursued by the natural sciences.
And this, for me, is where my religious beliefs come in. Let's image that my understanding of the universe, derived from empirical models, is a blue print or a diagram on a blackboard. Religious notions, myths, Gods and Goddesses are written and drawn on top of that diagram. They add color and dimension. They add meaning and help shape values. These symbols provide ways of apprehending meaning or, more accurately, of creating meaning.
Let me give an example in the way I look at Gods and Goddesses. Now, as I mentioned, I don't view the Gods as actual spiritual beings. They are, rather, personifications or metaphors. Aphrodite is not really a being who has power over the realm of love, sex and sensuality: She is the personification of these things. She's a face on a complex of subjects that are conceptually abstract. Looking at the stories or myths relating to Aphrodite creates new levels of understanding and of meaning about romance, sex and love. One can study sexual behavior and romantic relationships and identify patterns, but what then? Then you have the question of what these things mean to you: how do I relate to love and sex? What is the place of such things in my life? What do they mean to me? These are addressed through a number of meta-physical lines of thought, not the least of which is the@logy and religion.
Myths, ritual and religious practice flesh out meaning in my world and integrate me conceptually with those things I value. The Gods and Goddesses are convenient ways of thinking about certain elements that affect me on a day-to-day basis. Ritual introduces technologies that aid in self-actualization and allow me to express emotional sentiment toward things that are important to me.
Religion and religious practice are, to me, about creating sacredness rather than simply giving honor to those things which are "objectively" sacred. I think that the world is objectively without meaning. That life is, inherently, without significance. Religion is one way of adding value, of adding sacredness to life. I value the earth and natural processes, and though I know the earth was developed over billions of years through natural phenomenon and is not actually conscious, She, of course, is also a Goddess; a life-giving mother. Conceptualizing the earth as a Goddess is one way of recognizing the earth's value.
This is a very intellectual way of describing religion's place in my life. In the end, religion adds a lot of color, vibrancy and meaning to my life. Religious practice adds new dimensions to my existence, helps me achieve different forms of consciousness, satisfies emotional yearnings and enriches my intellectual life. In other words, it addresses my "spirit" or my "spiritual needs", which I'm using as convenient terms for a complex of emotional and intellectual desires and needs.
Now, of course, meaning and "spiritual" satisfaction can be found in other things. There are many philosophical schools that flesh out meaning, morality and significance without being religious. The ways of adding significance to a world which is, fundamentally, without inherent meaning are endless and operate at both the individual and societal level. Religion tends to differ from philosophy in that it creates sacredness, creates meaning and then also provides tools and practices to integrate oneself with those things. Religion is only one way. It is not necessarily for everyone...but this is what it does for me.
So, essentially, I have these dual (technically more) views: one that provides an understanding of the origins of material/energetic existence and one providing meaning and satisfying a complex of emotional and intellectual needs which I will henceforth refer to as the "spirit".
Now, this view is hardly unique and Stephen Jay Gould wrote about religion and science occupying two separate and disparate spheres in his book, Rock of Ages. From his perspective, religion and science fulfill different needs and answer different questions: they have different areas over which they have authority. And for me, this is definitely the case. For others, though, this ends up being a bit more complicated. I don't believe that the Gods literally exist: I accept them as symbols. So, it's easy to me to let science deal with fact and religion to deal with meaning. But for those that believe in the literal, objective existence of God, a being that can physically interact with the universe, this is not always acceptable.
Now, I'm a Pagan. And we Pagans have a very diverse range of beliefs. Some of us believe the Gods are literal, others symbolic and others somewhere in between. Others would descirbe their attitude toward deity differently. The vast majority of Pagans, even if they accept the literal existence of God/ddess(s), have no problem also accepting scientific accounts of the origins of the universe and life. And many liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims are perfectly happy to accept both scientific and spiritual interpretations of the world, with varying degrees of overlap between these two models. But, in these cases, we still add a component that is not present in mainstream scientific inquiry: beings which can't be detected with scientific instruments, but have some impact on the world. Some Christians, for example, will suggest that evolution did indeed occur, but God was involved on some level or had a part of it. That creation in 6 days was simply symbolic, that it, in fact, took billions of years for God to create the world. And that type of view is a bit different from mine: it involves the negotiation of multiple frameworks into some kind of (more or less) unified whole. And then, even beyond this, there are certain trends in religion, typically incorporating literal interpretations of the Bible and Koran, where the scientific and religious views are irreconcilable: one is right, or the other, but not both. And that's where the notion of dual spheres falls apart completely.
I have no easy resolution for such things, and I don't think an easy resolution is likely to exist. I think that religion and science can be perfectly compatible, but, to me, they deal with entirely different things. And many have a very different understanding of religion than I. So, stay tuned (maybe) for installment III!