(The following is the first half of the introduction to my book, The Triple Path; you can download a current PDF draft of the whole book at TriplePath.org/download)
The West is increasingly giving up on religion. This is a problem.
The United States remains the most religious of the developed countries(1), and even here the percentage of the adult population claiming no religious affiliation has increased significantly—from 3 percent in 1957, to 8.2 percent in 1990, to 24 percent in 2016(2)—and is now the largest single religious group in America. Only 25 percent of Americans attend church regularly(3). The percentage of people who report having grown up with a father who was religiously active decreased from 70 percent for those born before 1900 to 45 percent for those
born after 1970(4). According to one scholar, “every indicator of traditional religiosity is either stable or declining, and there isn’t enough new nontraditional religious practice to balance the decline.”(5)
Religion is an inescapable part of human nature—it is found in all cultures worldwide(6), and appears to have been a constant part of human behavior going back at least many tens of thousands of years. There are different explanations for how religion and our tendency for religious behavior developed: it may have directly evolved through natural selection; it may have come about as a cultural byproduct of mental modules (such as agency detection) that developed for other reasons. It most likely developed through a combination of both factors, with religion initially developing as a cultural byproduct of non-religious mental modules, but with innate, biological religious tendencies then developing and strengthening through gene-culture co-evolution. Regardless of how it developed, religiosity is a part of being human, and it has given us much that is precious.
Over tens of thousands of years, human cultures have accumulated and passed on to future generations much knowledge about morality and right living—about how to create and maintain good relationships and build successful communities. The principles of morality that we have developed within the context of religion have enabled us to live in ever-more complex and prosperous societies. Over the last 10,000 years, humans moved from living in simple hunter-gatherer tribes to agricultural societies of increasing complexity and size. The large and complex societies of the last few thousand years do not function well without moral principles that were developed, honed, and promoted over the generations by religions—principles such as charity, empathy, honesty, industriousness, sexual restraint, and respect for life and personal property. As more people have more fully lived these moral principles, their lives have significantly improved.
Beyond just giving us moral principles, religion guides us on the path to enlightenment and contentment, supporting our search for answers to deep life questions and encouraging our individual personal development. It helps us to make parts of our lives sacred and to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves in a way that is psychologically nourishing and revitalizing. It lets us draw closer to a higher power by helping us feel positive emotions and sustained periods of emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, awe, and gratitude.
Religion also gives us outlets for exercising moral goodness towards others, and thus encourages stable, thriving communities. It gives us rites and ceremonies to provide meaning and mark major life events. It provides us with a sense of fellowship and unity with others. It encourages group cohesiveness and provides a social outlet for people to interact, become acquainted, learn from each other, and support one another in their lives and beliefs. And, it provides a public signaling mechanism about our (and others’) devotion and trustworthiness.
Almost every adaptive human trait—from altruism to anger—can become unbalanced, turn maladaptive, and lead to negative outcomes. Religion is no different. But there is hard evidence that religion, at least in Western society, is a net benefit. Scholars have found, over and over, that religiosity and belief in God are positively related to better physical and mental health, greater life satisfaction, longer lifespan, and pro-social behavior(7).
Even those who formally reject organized religion or belief in God cannot escape their fundamental religious nature—they’re still human beings, after all. Like most human traits, each person’s natural religious tendencies probably vary along a bell curve. Just as some people are naturally angrier or happier than others, some are naturally more religious or areligious. But a trend that happens as swiftly as secularization is happening in the West could only be due to principally cultural forces, because there have not been enough generations for natural selection to have had much effect (and, if anything, is selecting in the long-term for greater innate religiosity, since religiosity is a heritable trait(8) and religious people in the West have higher fertility levels than the nonreligious). Most people who claim no religious affiliation are thus likely doing so because of cultural trends and not because of an innate lack of a religious nature.
It is easy to give up on involvement in organized religion, but it is nearly impossible to get away from all of our natural religious inclinations. Indeed, it is easy to see innate human religious tendencies manifest themselves among the ostensibly non-religious.
The new secularists often end up, usually unconsciously, dedicating their natural religiosity to things that scratch their religious itch, but which do not bring any of the benefits of traditional religion. They devote themselves to things outside the realm of organized religion, but that are still just as strongly religious: new kinds of superstitions and strange new modern secular orthodoxies lacking a basis in reality or tradition, and often with unanticipated harmful effects. It is plain to see that modern secularists have transplanted Calvinist notions of original sin and predestination to modern conceptions of race and gender and transformed religious inclinations about ritual purity into a hypocritical environmentalism of dubious real-world efficacy (such as eschewing SUVs while guiltlessly using air travel for vacations or tut-tutting about the impact of modern industrial farming techniques but saying nothing about catastrophic levels of population growth in the developing world fueling the need for ever-more intensive agriculture).
For psychologically healthy and normal human beings, it is difficult for us to escape religiosity, no matter what church we do or do not go to. Whenever a social group coalesces around strongly held beliefs or ideas, their religious natures usually emerge, whether it be around Christianity, atheism, environmentalism, or politics.
On the other hand, those who have given up on the old, established religions have a point. The major world religions are pre-modern creations with a lot of baggage that is difficult to accept in light of modern scientific understandings of the world around us (not to mention the textual and historical issues that cast significant doubt on the traditional religions’ truthfulness). This is one of the main reasons why religious affiliation and participation is decreasing so significantly in the West.
This book is addressed to those who have lost their faith in traditional religion. I am one of you. If you are like me, you feel like you have lost something valuable that used to bring value and meaning to your life. But what do we replace it with? The replacement I most often see nonbelievers turn to is some form of nihilism or social justice fanaticism, or often both. These are a poor substitute for the power and grandeur and hope and love we get out of religion. This book offers a new religion that stays as faithful as possible to the wisdom of the past while fully embracing modernity and our historical and scientific understanding of the world. It offers a better substitute for the nihilism and empty social justice activism that seem to be growing as replacements for religion. To all my fellow apostates reading: please continue on and see if you don’t find something worth pursuing.
This book is not an attempt to convince the faithful of the error of their ways. There are no detailed, polemical attacks on specific religious beliefs—you can find that in plenty of other places. To the faithful of all religions, I invite you also to read on and see if you don’t see something better and more valuable than what you have right now.
So why can’t we just rely on the religions we have already? The great teachings of the world religions are intertwined with ancient pre-modern cosmologies, or understandings of the universe and humanity’s place in it. They are also intertwined with legendary retellings of history that we now know are, at best, of dubious veraicty, and at worst, outright fabrications. These ancient cosmologies and histories have ever-decreasing relevance as they are contradicted more and more by modern scientific and historical discoveries.
These false cosmologies and histories are part of the world’s major religions because they were founded in pre-modern times by people with radically different understandings from our modern conceptions of the universe. The doctrines, practices, and teachings of the great religions are based on false premises and assumptions about the world that we now know are wrong—false histories and pre-modern cosmologies founded on superstitious beliefs and practices.
For example, when the great religions of the world were founded, many of those religions’ adherents believed that the world was flat and that it was at the center of the universe. The most common cosmology found in the Bible presupposes the Earth is a flat disc floating in water or supported by pillars(9). Other biblical writers say that the Earth is immovable or that the Earth sits at the center of the universe and that everything else, including the Sun, revolves around the Earth(10). For biblical writers, hell was a literal place just below the ground and heaven was a literal place just above the Earth (in different places in the Bible the reason the sky is blue is either because we are seeing a heavenly ocean suspended above the sky, or because the sky is the sapphire floor of heaven)(11).
Many of these types of Bible passages are now interpreted metaphorically, but there is little reason to believe that their writers intended them to be interpreted that way—they almost certainly believed them to be literally true.
It is not hard to notice as you read the Bible that the farther back in time a story was supposed to happen (and thus the more likely the passage was written long after the alleged events happened), the more the stories read like mythology instead of history. It is hard to take literally stories about talking serpents and donkeys or a man emerging unharmed three days after being swallowed by a giant fish; or tales of holy men calling fire from the sky, summoning a bear to kill youths who had mocked his baldness, parting a sea, or stopping the progression of the sun through the sky(12).
The easier it has become to gather evidence about miracles and supernatural events, the more that claims for their occurrence have decreased. As it has become easier to definitively contradict such claims, they are rarely made, and even more rarely taken seriously. We have a good grasp of many of the basic laws that seem to govern the operation of the physical universe, and there are no confirmed accounts of any miracles that violate them. There could be a variety of explanations for this, but the most parsimonious is that ancient accounts of such events were not factually correct.
Look at it this way: there are a number of legendary and mythological accounts from the ancient world that, if true, would appear to confirm the veracity of different extinct religions and beliefs. No one today believes these accounts to be true. Doesn’t it make sense that the legendary and supernatural accounts in the Bible and the holy books of the other religions would be similarly inaccurate?
Because the foundations of the world’s great religions are built on legendary and mythological foundations that have become implausibly difficult to accept, these religions are declining as they are forced to confront modernity.
If Western Civilization needs traditional religion to survive, but traditional religion cannot thrive in the modern world and thus cannot fulfill its important historical role, what are we to do? How should we react when we are confronted with modernity-induced religious doubts?
Let us consider four possible responses: 1) the literal approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the Triple Path.
The literal approach
If history and modern cosmology contradict sacred texts, one approach is to reject history and modern cosmology. This is hard to justify, though, based on a dispassionate weighing of the evidence. Even so, religious believers who take a literal approach sometimes justify this approach by appealing to authority and arguing that their scriptures (or the pronouncements of their religion’s holy men) contain the word of God and are thus the ultimate authority, trumping the pronouncements of fallible humans.
There are several problems with this approach to relying on authority.
Believing in a teacher or a text’s divine authority merely because they claim divine authority is circular: we have no reason to believe in the leader’s or the text’s claims to divine authority unless we already accept their teachings–merely claiming authority offers no external reason to believe in that authority. Believing in a leader’s or a text’s divine authority because of our subjective emotional responses to them is almost equally questionable. Spiritual feelings are subjective. People from wildly different religions–religions with contradictory and mutually exclusive teachings–describe the same sorts of spiritual feelings confirming their belief in these religions(13).
Some followers may instead place their trust in stories about a teacher’s or a leader’s miraculous or supernatural abilities. These stories, if true, possibly could provide some indication of divine authority, but they invariably end up failing objective verification; they are nearly always told second or third hand, or the “miraculous” occurrence ends up being explained by charlatanism; they do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
Things like a religious text’s or leader’s own claim to authority, pleasant feelings, or stories of dubious veracity are thus not enough to validate the claims to authority of religious texts or teachers, especially when some of their claims are directly contradicted by historical or archeological evidence, or by our modern scientific observations of the world.
Furthermore, it is a logical fallacy to believe in a statement’s truth merely because it was uttered by an “authority.” Of course, none of us can know everything. There is nothing wrong with relying on experts. And there is nothing wrong with arguing that a statement made by an authority is true. The problem arises when we argue that something is true because it was uttered by an authority. If something is true, then it is still true no matter who said it, authority or not. You should never believe something said by an authority unless that statement can independently stand up to criticism and independent verification.
No legitimate authority would ever try to stop you from independently verifying his statements. A charlatan will try to keep his followers from consulting outside sources or independently trying to verify his claims. He will vociferously try to silence dissenting voices. He worries about being proven false, because he already knows his statements are wrong, or at least of dubious merit. A legitimate authority who speaks the truth does not fear independent attempts at verification, because such efforts only further confirm what he is saying.
If an authority’s statements are true, they should be consistent with our knowledge of reality. The problem is that questions involving religion and the supernatural are hard to verify. We have no independent means of determining which claims about God are correct, absent a personal direct visitation from God himself. And even then, wihtout physical evidence or some other corroboration of the visitation, there would be a host of alternative explanations (such as hallucinations or mental illness) for any such visitation that would have to be ruled out first. And as I said, most such claims that can be evaluated fail to stand up to scrutiny.
The rejection approach
The rejection approach is to conclude that if verifiable religious claims are usually contradicted by scientific discoveries, then perhaps there is not much reason to believe in any religious teaching or ideal—if the verifiable claims are untrue, then the unverifiable claims and teachings probably are not true or worth following either. A rejectionist might conclude that, if the ancients were wrong about their cosmological claims, we should therefore reject (or be extremely skeptical of) all traditional religious morals and injunctions, unless we can immediately find a good reason to keep them. The general presumption of rejectionists is “guilty until proven innocent”—all aspects of religion are valueless until proven otherwise.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores our own shortsightedness. Often, it is hard to understand the reason for a rule or prohibition until long after the fact. For example, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, it was assumed that there was little justification for traditional sexual norms and that they should be abandoned. It turns out, though, that those sexual norms encourage behaviors that are associated with stable family structures, and thus better outcomes for children in our society (and thus for the future of society itself). For example, research shows that couples who don’t live together before marriage and in which the women was a virgin on her wedding night have much lower risk of divorce(14). Divorce is associated with a host of poor outcomes for children(15); few people would dispute that avoiding divorce is a good thing.
One lifetime is too short a time to figure everything out. That is why we have culture and tradition. Rejecting all of it, or large parts of it, is an unwise course.
The symbolic approach
The symbolic approach is to look at cosmological religious teachings as being symbolic. It focuses on myth, symbolism, and allegory as powerful tools for teaching and helping us to feel moral truths.
The conservative variety of this approach is to reject only the parts of a religion’s teachings that are indefensible, but to retain everything else. You reinterpret as symbolic teachings about cosmology that have been contradicted by modern science, but you continue believing in the teachings that have not yet been challenged by science. You create space for belief out of the gaps that science has not, or cannot, address. For example, you might discount the idea of a creation in six days, but continue believing that God created the Earth using natural processes over millions of years. If heaven is not located directly above the Earth, it is somewhere else, or on another plane of existence.
The problem with this conservative approach is that, as scientific knowledge continues to grow, the space for religious belief continues to shrink, and the foundations of the religion continue to weaken.
The liberal variety of this approach is to reject or ignore any teaching that seems out-of-date or out-of-harmony with the spirit of the times. You reinterpret as symbolic anything you want. The problem with being this liberal is that religious belief becomes volatile and ever-changing. Individuals who are part of groups that apply a liberal approach often have little consistency amongst themselves, and nothing to unite them.
Some people adopt a symbolic approach privately, while maintaining membership in a religion that asserts cosmologically suspect teachings as true. There are cultural and social reasons to do this. For example, if you live in a society or within a group dominated by a certain religion, you may have no choice but to remain affiliated and try to make the best of what you have. But this not a wise or sustainable solution—it is morally degrading to live such a double spiritual life, and is difficult to do so without being dishonest. Furthermore, continuing participation in such religions provides institutional strength to them, which helps them perpetuate false beliefs.
The liberal variety of this approach can also often mean joining a liberal religion that officially endorses the symbolic approach by outright rejection—whether officially or de facto—of the literal truth of the cosmologically suspect teachings of its foundational spiritual beliefs and texts. In theory, this might sound like a promising way forward, but in practice, it is a dead end. Churches generally adopt this approach while still relying on their previous forms of worship and holy texts. Doing this requires a great deal of organizational dishonesty—maintaining an overt devotion to many aspects of the religion that are based on things they have also already partially or completely rejected. Such dishonesty is poison to the moral character of an organization or person.
Applying a “by their fruits you will know them” test shows that the churches that have adopted the liberal symbolic approach are generally failures. Such churches usually do not stop only at rejecting old, false cosmologies, but continue on to also jettison many valuable, foundational moral teachings. They give up not only on the discredited parts of their beliefs, but on tried and true traditions too—often to the point of almost becoming outright rejectionist. And this illustrates the greatest problem with the liberal variety of the symbolic approach: it rejects too much. Ever-declining attendance at such churches is a concrete manifestation of the morally bankrupt, dead husk most of them have become.
By itself, a middle-of-the-road symbolic approach is an important tool for getting the most out of religion. The accumulated mythological and legendary stories that have been passed down to us over generations and through the centuries have survived for so long for a reason. They are powerful stories illustrating profound moral and psychological truths, and the symbolic approach is the best way to approach them. Psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been producing a marvelous lecture series discussing the psychological significance and symbolic meaning of major bible stories(16). These lectures are well worth studying, and are a great example of how the symbolic approach can provide rich meaning and wisdom to our lives.
But the way things are now, applying the symbolic approach to traditional religion is like treating skin cancer with sun block.
Most cosmologically suspect religious teachings were originally put forth as being literally true, even if they also were originally intended to have, or were later re-written to have, multiple, symbolic meanings. (Of course, there are some exceptions: Jesus’s parables are profound and full of meaning, but were never taught as being literally true.)
The legendary and mythological stories of the Bible, and the pre-modern assumption that they were true, formed the traditional foundation of religion in the West. Symbolically reinterpreting them—whether in a conservative or liberal way—cannot avoid the irreparable damage the foundations have already suffered from scientific and historical discoveries indicating that most of them are not factually true.
If churches that accept as true the false cosmologies and history inherent in these stories are facing long-term decline, and if the churches that have rejected the false cosmologies and history have fared even worse, then maybe we need another solution.
We need new, strong religious foundations that do not rely on those stories’ truthfulness. Then, we can continue to draw meaning and learn important lessons from these stories (and all the other parts of traditional religion) without them undermining the foundations of our civilization.
Part 2 of this post tomorrow will explain my solution to the problem: a new religion called The Triple Path, come back tomorrow to read it here, or go to TriplePath.org/download to download a PDF of the latest draft of the book to read the rest right now.
1. Pew Research Center, “Among Wealthy Nations … U.S. Stands Alone In Its Embrace of Religion”, December 19, 2002 http://www.pewglobal.org/2002/12/19/among-wealthy-nations/.
2. Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, May 12, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-chan ging-religious-landscape/; Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) Summary Report, March 2009, p. 5 http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/201 1/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf; Mark Chaves, “The Decline of American Religion?”, The ARDA Guiding Paper Series, p. 2, http://www.t hearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/Chaves.pdf; Daniel Cox, Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity”, Public Religion Research Institute, September 6, 2017, https://www.prri.org/res earch/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/.
3. Mark Chaves at p. 1 (see footnote 2)
4. Same, p. 3.
5. Same, p. 1.
6. Donald Brown, Human Universals, 1991.
7. See Appendix I of the full PDF of The Triple Path book, on page 251 (available for free download at TriplePath.org/download) for a summary of this research.
8. Laura B. Koenig, Matt McGue, Robert F. Krueger, and Thomas J. Bouchard, “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Religiousness: Findings for Retrospective and Current Religiousness Ratings”, Journal of Personality,. 16 February 2005, https://doi.org/10.1177%2 F1043463104046694.
9. “Cosmology and creation” in Adele Berlin and Maxine Grossman, The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 2011, pp. 188-89, http://books.google.com.au/books?id=hKAaJXvUaUoC&pg=PA189; Othmar Keel, The symbolism of the biblical world, 1997, pp. 20-21, http://books.google.com.au/books?id=Fy4B1iMg33YC&pg=PA20; 1 Samuel 2:8; Job 9:6.
10. Joshua 10:12-13; Psalm 93:1, 96:10; Psalm 104:5.
11. J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven, 2002, pp. 54-57, http://books.google.com/books?id=lKvMeMorNBEC&pg=PA54; The Hebrew word for hell was also used to figuratively refer to death, but was often used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a physical place, Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds, 1993, pp. 140-42, http://books.google.com.au/books?id=y8wAdna_YY0C&pg=PA140; Exodus 24:9-10 speaks of the sapphire floor of heaven—God’s throne was also described as being made of sapphire in Ezekiel 1:26.
12. See Genesis 2; Numbers 22; Jonah 1-4; 1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 2; Exodus 14; and Joshua 10.
13. See Appendix II of the full PDF of The Triple Path book, on page 263 (available for free download at TriplePath.org/download) for further explanation and for a discussion on finding truth.
14. Anthony Paik, “Adolescent Sexuality and the Risk of Marital Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 73, No. 2, April 2011, pp. 472–485, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737 .2010.00819.x/full, http://www.unav.es/matrimonioyfamilia/b/top/20 11/Paik_JMM73_Adolescent-sexuality.pdf; Casey E. Copen, Kimberly Daniels, Jonathan Vespa, and William D. Mosher, “First Marriages in the United States: Data From the 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth,” National Health Statistics Reports, No. 49, March 22, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr049.pdf; Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades, “The Timing of Cohabitation and Engagement: Impact on First and Second Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 72, No. 4, August 2010, pp. 906-918, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904561/; Galena K. Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley, and Howard J. Markman, “The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: a replication and extension of previous findings,” Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 23, No. 1, February 2009, pp. 107-11, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ 19203165; see also David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage, A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” The National Marriage Project: The Next Generation Series, http:/ /www.smartmarriages.com/cohabit.html.
15. Thomas G. O’Connor, Avshalom Caspi, John C. DeFries, Robert Plomin, “Are Associations Between Parental Divorce and Children’s Adjustment Genetically Mediated? An Adoption Study,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 4, July 2000, pp. 429-37, http://ww w.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/dev364429.pdf; Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, 2012, Chapters 8 and 15; Brian M. D’Onofrio, Eric Turkheimer, Robert E. Emery, Hermine H. Maes, Judy Silberg, Lindon J. Eaves, “A children of twins study of parental divorce and offspring psychopathology,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 48, No. 7, 2007, pp. 667–675, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC 2990346/, http://people.virginia.edu/~ent3c/papers2/dono frio2.pdf.
16. See https://jordanbpeterson.com/bible-series/.