Daily Apotheosis
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Daily Apotheosis

Why Not Atheism?

What, if anything, do we lose by rejecting religion entirely?

I have two sons, an almost-four year old and a two and-a-half year old. We’ve taken them to church a handful of times. Both were Baptized. And yet I wonder — what would happen if we raised them entirely without religion?

By no religion, I mean no Christianity, and also no Buddhism, the two religions I’ve been most drawn to as an adult. And, I suppose, I also mean no Judaism — although I’ve never been to Temple myself, never read the Torah, never celebrated a Jewish holiday, and know nothing about the religion even though I am considered to be “Jewish” by 23andme.

What would my sons’ lives be like with no religion at all? To clarify the proposition, we first have to assume that they would be exposed to religion somewhat in school, at least by Middle School, when they learn about world history and therefore skim some of the textbook platitudes about the world’s ‘great religions.’ Regardless, I doubt these religious ideas would leave much of an imprint — they certainly didn’t for me, and I’m an incredibly religiously-inclined person.

Outside of school, they’d be exposed to religion tacitly through holidays, and even if we didn’t celebrate them inside our home they’d still know about Christmas from the culture, as well as perhaps a few other popular Jewish or Christian holidays like Passover or Easter, and they might even celebrate a holiday or two with friends — but let’s assume that these experiences imbue them with no more sense of life-altering wonder than me visiting a mosque for the first time. It may be novel and interesting, sure, but I’ll forget about any deeper portent the moment I check my Instagram feed again.

So, beyond school and holidays/friends, let’s assume my wife and I never take our kids to church, tell them anything about any religion, read them any religious books, etc. What, then, remains? What traces of religion permeate our culture, in such ways that they are hard to identify and stamp out?

First, my kids would see displays of prayer and odes to “God” or “Jesus” while watching basketball, which none of us are giving up — so that stays. They would also learn about how religion inspired certain great figures throughout history, such as Martin Luther King or Gandhi — so that, even if they didn’t take an interest in religion per se in school, they would inevitably infer that religion played an important role in shaping the worldviews of famous people they looked up to. Be that as it may, that still leaves religion as a relic, an interesting antecedent to some important modern socio-political ideas and movements, and little more. It would not yet be a living and breathing force informing their day-to-day lives.

So, how would religious ideas creep in to their development? First, I think of morality. I use the word loosely, to mean simply all human behavior, and the attendant consideration of how your behavior affects others, or affects the earth, or even yourself. Perhaps the simplest and broadest description of morality is “the consideration of how your behavior affects.” And yet, would we say that physics is a moral study? No — so we have to expand the definition to: “the consideration of how your behavior affects subjective experience.” That’s still highly imperfect, because now it allows us to separate out ‘the earth’ from our considerations of morality, unless we posit that the earth has subjective experience.

So here’s where we have to pull back and ask ourselves if perhaps there’s a deeper layer of our lives where religious ideas creep in than morality, and that is in the positing of subjectivity itself, aka Theory of Mind. Psychology and cognitive science/neuroscience have taken on much, if not most, of the investigative aspects of lived experience that ‘religion’ used to, but that doesn’t inherently mean that the concepts are not bound up in religious ideas, simply because the label that we used to refer to their study changed. Perhaps we will have to define exactly what we mean by “religious” — but, here, we risk getting into circular reasoning. So I’ll defer that, and return to it (or not) later.

In the meantime, we still have to unpack Theory of Mind. Infants lack a stable “I” concept (we believe). And so on and so forth. Eventually, it seems, (most) people develop an “I” and “You” concept, as well as the attendant belief that those “Yous” also have minds like their own. This is Theory of Mind — the belief that, somewhere ‘inside’ those other bodies that you are seeing, is a thought- and feeling-stream, a stream of experience (“qualia”), that looks and feels similar to yours in its general shape and scope, even if its contents differ. It’s like, you might be Netflix and they might be Disney+, but it’s really the same general framework, with infinite permutations of the type of content experienced (experienceable) within it.

Is this — Theory of Mind — a religious idea? Is this perhaps the birth of religion? Could we have arrived at this idea without religion? Or did we arrive at religion based on our prior human experience of Theory of Mind? And, regardless, even if religion had a psycho-historical role to play in the development of Theory of Mind (either arising before, after, or in concert with it), does that mean that we still need religious ideas to fully understand or ‘have’ Theory of Mind, or that Theory of Mind ‘naturally’ leads to religious ideas? If so, then we may have no way of getting rid of religious ideas entirely, because people will just re-invent religion over and over simply because of Theory of Mind.

It’s worth considering more deeply. Children exposed to no (or minimal) explicitly religious ideas, even not taught ‘right from wrong,’ will develop Theory of Mind — I think. They will somehow intuitively understand, simply from their own natural biological/neurological/psychological development, that other people have minds just like their own. Right? Isn’t it an evolutionary given? Or do children have to be taught this, via the mirrors we provide them of empathy, kindness, and compassion? Do children who are abused, or grow up in orphanages, develop Theory of Mind?

In other words, we can surmise that Theory of Mind will develop in a child before any religious ideas are installed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Theory of Mind can arise without the background influence of religious ideas — because, what if Theory of Mind only arises in children who are treated kindly?

But humans would (and did) treat children kindly before religion, did they not? Or was there never a “before religion” in human history, until recently? Is now the first time our species has ever actively tried to not have religion? Was it simply a de facto state until now? Similarly, if humans ‘always’ had religion, did it still count as religion if there was a time before they actively tried to have it? That is, if early humans just were religious, in the same way an animal just is a certain way or does certain things, does that count as religion? Or does religion have to be a conscious, intentionally-chosen pursuit? If so, doesn’t that mean free will comes before religion?

Do primates have religion?

These are all interesting questions, but I don’t want to skirt the main point here. Regardless of the evolutionary/historical birth of “religion,” or even a perfect definition of it that allows us to say when it ‘started,’ we can still see clearly that almost all children at some point seem to develop an understanding of others’ minds. Perhaps they even have it at birth?

It is this understanding that others have minds, and also experience pain and pleasure, that I want to untangle. Because, as soon as a human has this knowledge, they have morality. That doesn’t mean they use it to do good things, or even listen to its nagging voice — it just means they ‘have’ it. Like, a little light inside, a potentiality, turns on, and it can never be turned off — unless they have brain damage, or die.

Since Theory of Mind, then, is the birth of the moral system within humans, might that be the forerunner to ‘religion’? Because, what is religion other than a system to improve one’s morality — to better leverage their pre-existing Theory of Mind to help themselves and others be ‘happier’?

We can talk about esoteric aspects of Buddhism or whatnot, but the point is that even the most extreme monastic Buddhist practices — even those developed by ascetics who have ‘renounced the world’ and do not plan to see people ever again — are installed on top of that pre-existing childhood Theory of Mind. In fact, can a person without Theory of Mind even have religion? What would that religion be?

I’ve oversimplified, above, by making it sound like Theory of Mind starts with a person understanding that they have a mind and then understanding that others do, too. In reality, it doesn’t work like that. It is a dialectic, synonymous process, an emergent property, a “dependent arising” in Buddhist terms. “Self” and “other” do not arise one before the other but in parallel, like two boats being dredged from the sea simultaneously. Increased clarity of one is increased clarity of the other, and so forth. They are entangled particles.

What does this mean for Theory of Mind? It means that there is only one ultimate ‘process’ — that of understanding mind itself (since awareness of ‘my mind’ and ‘your mind’ arise simultaneously, and any insight into one automatically gives insight into the other). Mustn’t this be true? How can someone truly ‘know him/herself’ better without thereby knowing (or, at least, being capable of knowing) ‘others’ just as well? And, similarly, how can one truly know ‘others’ without simultaneously increasing their own self-understanding?

I use the term “truly” here to qualify the knowing of self and other, because many religious/spiritual/meditative/psychological practices may seem to increase one’s self-knowledge, but if that increase of self-knowledge doesn’t immediately and automatically result in a better knowledge of others, then it wasn’t real self-knowledge but delusion. Weirdly, the inverse is also true: any seeming ‘insight’ into another that doesn’t immediately give you direct and automatic deeper insight into yourself is not a true insight into others. This is a fact of Theory of Mind, baked into its workings just as E=MC(2). It is the mechanics of consciousness, and I would argue that it is more a physical principle than a psychological or religious assertion.

Then again, isn’t that exactly how religion (and psychology) work, seeking out seeming principles of consciousness and then asserting that they are physical truths, like gravity? If so, then perhaps Theory of Mind is not only the foundation of religious experience, but is the first religious experience. If this is true, then there is no way out. Because, as human beings, we seem incapable of not knowing that we have a mind and that others therefore have minds too, or, perhaps said inverted, that others have minds and that we, therefore, have minds too, and since we cannot forget or ‘unlearn’ this (there is no going back, neither in our personal lives nor as a species), this means that the foundation of our consciousnesses, the very bedrock of what makes us human, itself might be a “religious” experience. In which case, Theory of Mind and religion co-arose, just like “self” and “other.”

It might be simpler, then, to say that religion is the formal working out and systemic ‘practice’ of Theory of Mind, which means that religion, ultimately, differs only from psychology when psychology becomes academic — in which case, academic psychology is more similar to theology, which is not religion. Religion is not theory itself, but rather theories in practice. Psychology often is too. Is it this ‘active’, practical sense of the terms I am after, not the passive ‘academic’ connotation. In ‘active’ religion and psychology, then, the nexus of both is actual Theory of Mind (the known subjective experience of mind that arises in childhood, I mean, and not the adult ‘study’ of Theory of Mind).

Since children cannot avoid experiencing actual Theory of Mind, they cannot avoid the psychological foundations of religion. Humans can never outrun it. But, then, since religion is a psychological instrument, can we simply supplant religion with psychology? Do we need religion in a world with psychology?

First, we cannot say that there could have arisen such a thing as psychology without religion, because that would be a counterfactual. That being said, again, just because something was necessary for the etiology of some later thing doesn’t mean that former thing is still necessary. Just because we needed religion as an evolutionary stepping-stone to get to psychology doesn’t mean we have to keep it. So let’s weigh the pros and cons of keeping religion around.

First, if we abandon it, we abandon a great set of myths and stories. Fine. There are many modern myths and stories that, again, were inspired by religion but are not explicitly religious. That is to say, if religion died out entirely, its influence would leave an eternal impact on the human species (as long as we existed), even if our descendants knew nothing about it whatsoever. Like the vapors of a chemical in homeopathy, religion would always haunt our species. We just wouldn’t know about it.

So, I want to clarify: I am not asserting that religious influence can be killed outright — it never can. It’s too late for that. The baby is out of the bathwater, the genie is out of the bottle. And perhaps that’s because there was never a time historically/psychologically ‘before’ religion, so there will not be a time historically/psychologically ‘after’. It is simply a constant factor in the human experience, even by its explicit absence. But that’s besides the point. My real question is not about the downstream vagaries of religious influence, but rather the necessity of explicitly religious practices, ideas, and conversations. Have we outgrown religion? Can we just… stop?

Setting aside the semantic difficulties of distinguishing Theory of Mind from religion, I want to focus on what, if anything, we lose if we abandon all explicit teachings and exposures to religion. In this case, I suppose I should clarify that I mean “formal” religion — obviously, if a kid climbs a mountain and has a “holy” experience, she can keep it. She just wouldn’t know the word “God” to utter “Oh my God.” Similarly, we could still keep meditation without religion — we would just entirely remove it from its Buddhist or ‘Eastern’ framework, simply telling kids that it was a good way of helping them get to know themselves better. Is that an inherently religious claim? I don’t think so. Even though the aim of religion (and psychology) in many ways is to get to know yourself better, I don’t think that getting to know yourself better is an inherently “religious” activity — I think it’s just a ‘human’ thing. (Unless all human things are religious things, but, in that case, if they are synonymous, there’s really no conversation to be had.)

So, with no exposure to formal religion, kids will still naturally develop Theory of Mind, and therefore a moral compass. Morality is clearly primarily genetic, so any concern that, without religion, people will just murder each other like rabid apes is just… silly and anachronistic. Let’s move beyond that. Instead of focusing on what we would still have in a world without religion, I want to instead try to figure out what, if anything, we wouldn’t or couldn’t have…

We could have meditation, but not on anything “religious,” since we could not teach those concepts — “God,” “Buddha,” etc. We could still have dreams, and kids would still ask us of their import. What would we say? We would still hear voices in our heads — the voices of our parents, or ancestors, or selves, or whoever (or whatever) we hear speaking to us from somewhere ‘inside.’ But we would not call any of those voices “God.” Again, though — might we not just reinvent some form of religion to explain the voices? As Julian Jaynes might attest — Is it possible that religion is just a path to unify unconscious, subconscious, and conscious thinking?

In a world where people still have dreams and hear voices, and where kids have invisible friends and play with stuffed animals as if they are ‘real,’ I find it hard to believe that people will ever move ‘beyond’ religious questions outright. Because, if the primary question of religion is “whose voice is this?” (aka “Who am I?”), and the primary function of religion is to know yourself and others, religion, then, is just the pursuit of ontological identity, which people will need (and search for) regardless of whether they are told to, or taught how to.

Think of it this way. A child knows their name, who their parents are, etc. They have a dream. They hear voices. They have an imaginary friend. They ask, “Whose voice is that?” We tell them, “It’s just a figment of your imagination.” They keep asking. We keep telling them the same thing — “It’s not real. It’s just a dream.” They grow up. They know their name, who their parents are, etc. They have morality. Do they still have any questions about ‘who they are’?

No? Perhaps there is a way to have no questions — perhaps that’s why, in Tibetan Buddhism, the last ‘path’ of the practice is called “The Path of No More Learning.” Aka ‘the path of no more questions.’ Aka what Freud might call ‘the path of no more neurosis.’ No more recursion, no more anxiety. This doesn’t necessarily mean no more wonder — in fact, this state might be more like a return to the ecstatic joy of childhood, writ even more blissful by its elimination of any sense of nightmare or powerlessness — but, instead, no more wondering. Perhaps it’s not no more questions, but all questions. A Socratic enlightenment. What I mean is, if you only think in questions, at a fundamental level, you have also transcended suffering, because you have uprooted any fixed conclusions that held you back. The distinctions between “questions” and “answers” are arbitrary. Regardless, what I am getting it is that a Buddha’s mind has transcended the dialectic process that we normally call thinking. There is either no more thoughts, or no more “thinker,” as the Mark Epstein book title suggests. Or, even more realistically, there are thoughts, but no recursiveness. The voices inside your head have imploded down into one, which means none, because one voice cannot hear its own echo and therefore has no self-awareness and therefore is neither lonely nor scared, since it is both everything and nothing. When there is one voice, you will know it but not be able to converse with it, because you won’t be able to conjure the other voices. You can imitate them, surely, as a historical re-enactment of your past ‘selves,’ but the voices will all be your voice, like an Australian actor doing a bad American accept — and it will be comical, to you, in a comforting way. There will be no more “God” concept, and no more religion. Enlightenment is pure and total atheism, the end of religion.

So, then, if the goal of religion is the end of religion, can’t we just end religion now and accomplish the same goal? Perhaps. This is a question of ends vs. means. If we know the ends — ‘waking up,’ whatever that means to you — then we can re-assess (and even use ‘science’ to help us determine) which practices to focus on.

That being said, my definition of the “goal” of religion above is very Buddhist. Other religions would not necessarily agree with that goal. And, even though all religions beg the question with their teleological soteriology, we get into circular reasoning when we start to tell them that they are wrong, because they get to decide what their own goals are. So, perhaps, when it’s all said and done, religion is simply goal-setting.

What is your goal? That is your religion.

And that’s as simple an answer as any.

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