It’s one of the pop culture/media clichés about religious discussion that’s emerged of late. Them durn gnu atheists, they just won’t talk about religion seriously, maturely…
I take some issue with this notion.
See, I think the truth is most of those so complaining don’t really want that.
Not at all. What they really want is a return to traditional boundaries and conventions around discussion of doctrine. Let us bow, humbly, and make confused and mollifying noises about non-overlapping magisteria, should we go within a thousand yards of what anyone else believes about gods, angels, and devils. Let us make near-solipsistic and generally deceptive appeals to the theoretical limits of knowledge, the moment any dominant religious group’s traditional pieties are within view… Let us pretend that, somehow, the gods might indeed be there, in the same sense that Russell’s teapot could, technically–if you get rather foolishly doctrinaire about epistemology. Yea, let us pontificate how it might now somehow peaceably ply the skies, way out there in some remote solar orbit, and hope those listening take this as somehow comforting.
For this has long been the peculiar social arrangement around religious doctrine. Things not said, things assumed, things taken as given. Boundaries are set. And for easily understood reasons.
You might call them part of religions’ outer defense, these notions, these conventions. When all else fails, let’s demand obfuscation, and let’s demand people talk sideways, and let’s demand far more charity for the plausibility of our cosmologies than any reasonable thinker not under such social pressure would ever offer them otherwise.
And all these deceptive noises about gods that might be, when they clearly aren’t, these are, in fact, noises made, I think, to distract from the real meat of the matter…
‘Mature’ discussion, in fact, wouldn’t respect these boundaries. At all. Mature, serious discussion of religion, in my ever so humble opinion, would, in fact, be far beyond bothering…
Mature, serious discussion would treat doctrine roughly the way we take the characters and plots of fairy tales. That is to say: yes, quite seriously, but as what they actually are: as ‘seriously’ socially and historically significant fictions.
You want ‘mature’ discussion of religion? Fine, let’s talk about doctrine ‘seriously’…
Indeed, let’s talk about its social place, its psychological and social underpinnings, its origins, its impacts in the world over the centuries, and its impacts today.
For the gods aren’t there. A discussion that takes the notion that they genuinely might be seriously is about as ‘mature’ a discussion as would be a discussion of the film Peter Pan that takes seriously the notion one can fly with an appropriate application of fairy dust.
You can talk about Peter Pan maturely, sure. But if you do, you’re not going to imagine the airline industry should perhaps be seriously considering this means of locomotion, as opposed to airfoils and kerosene-fired turbines. You would ask, rather: why does that fantasy appeal to whom it does? You can ask about this notion of never growing up, this dream of flying, this notion of escaping society and fighting battles in which good and evil seem comparatively clearly delineated. There are dimensions in that tale, as in many, worth working over, sure.
‘Mature’ discussion of religion, in my view, would have similar qualities. Let’s stop this inane mumbling about ghosts that simply aren’t there and talk, rather, about what religious groups are and have been historically. Talk about group dynamics and social psychology. Talk about the indoctrination of children, talk about the seduction into such groups of vulnerable adults. Talk about the corrosion of reason for the protection of doctrine, talk about the currents of authoritarianism that underly so much of so many religious cosmologies.
Noises made in this direction–for ‘serious’ discussion–too often, are really appeals for kid gloves. Excuses we can make, for how religions really do have their uses…
‘Mature’ discussion, ‘serious’ discussion, methinks, should have no place for any such kid gloves. Or, rather, more precisely: it’s not at all helpful, in talking seriously about religions’ historical social roles, also to muddy up simple matters of who knew what, when. The best explanations of the various so-called ‘prophets’ of history are not going to introduce actual angels genuinely and stubbornly asking illiterates to take dictation; they’re going to talk about prophets and charismatics as social and psychological phenomena. Why do we know Mohammed’s name, why do we know Jesus’, why do we know Joseph Smith’s, how did L. Ron Hubbard build his empire? All these are questions you can and should answer by talking about how people work, how groups work, how legends grow.
Talk about cosmologies and myths and creeds as what they are: rites and badges of belonging; the things you shall swear you believe if you are to be accepted as one of the group. And talk about how it shapes a human mind, when such groups are joined, and such creeds sworn to. Talk about how membership in a group shapes even human perception.
Talk about the history of religions, their roles within power structures that have emerged throughout human history and late prehistory, from the very emergence of sedentary civilizations, with permanent settlements, to now.
That’s mature discussion. But I have to wonder: would it really make those claiming to ask for the same happy?