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Friday, 3 July 2009

Is religeous belief a matter of practical commitment?

Within Philosophy of Religion there are two quite distinct strands of thought concerning religious belief. There are those who assert that God’s existence can be demonstrated decisively, and rationally, with appeal to reasoned argument (such as ontological, cosmological or teleological arguments). Alternately there are those who see such arguments as flawed, unsatisfactory or symptomatic of an overly simplistic conception of the divine, and opt instead for an account of God that goes beyond what can be empirically verified, favouring practical experience over mere discourse.

I would like to argue that whilst both of these approaches attempt to provide some basis for faith, in both cases authentic religious belief is grounded upon religious experience; no number of logical arguments can sustain us spiritually in the same way as we are nourished by those moments in which we directly experience something divine and transcendent. I intend to show that practical commitment is an essential basis for this kind of religious experience.

Furthermore, it would be pertinent to consider the possibility that practical commitment to strongly held beliefs may be a two-edged sword, capable of as much harm as it is good. I hope to suggest a way in which one can distinguish the kind of beliefs that harm and those that heal. I wish to suggest that where religious beliefs are forced onto people, such activity is at worst harmful and at best futile, but where belief is turned inwards it has great power to transform the believer in many positive ways and this has immense value; especially when addressing many of our human problems. It is practical commitment that makes this transformation is possible.

It is my intent to show a clear distinction between those religious beliefs that have real practical value and so-called religious belief that are charged with responsibility for so much harm in the world today. Where critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins exploit the short-comings of rational theology (such as creationism) and cases of extremist fundamentalism to justify their attacks on religion as a whole, it is my contention that they fail to distinguish properly between religious beliefs, and pseudo-religious beliefs whose real aims are political or worldly. Practical commitments to these pseudo-religious beliefs do not yield the same results because they are invariably motivated at least in part, by entirely different concerns and either mendaciously or ignorantly mistaken for, or misrepresented as, religious beliefs.

What is it about religious experience, or any other kind of experience, that demands practical commitment? Two examples illustrate this point quite adequately:

One can describe “lemon meringue pie” in infinite detail. Its chemical composition can be analysed and precisely detailed and yet no amount of description comes close to the actual experience of tasting it. Similarly God’s existence and good qualities can be argued for and described but none of this can come close to actually experiencing God, or the merits of religious belief, for ones self and this depends upon practical commitment in much the same way as one must commit to eating the lemon meringue pie for ones self.

How could belief in a doctor’s ability to heal you be of any benefit if you never commit to attending an appointment? Furthermore, if you do commit to attend the appointment, your belief in the doctor is strengthened by your experience (assuming the doctor is really as good as everyone says) and becomes not simply an intellectual opinion but an experiential understanding of the doctor’s good qualities.

Of course there is some inclination to distinguish beliefs about doctor’s and lemon meringue pie from beliefs about the divine (perhaps, depending upon ones priorities) and indeed to distinguish ordinary experiences from religious ones; however the point that this is supposed to illustrate is that purely rational theology does not yield more than an intellectual opinion. On its own it is insufficient to create the conducive conditions for religious experience that give rise to strong well founded belief. Such conditions are the natural result of practical commitment.

It should be noted that different beliefs motivate us differently and give rise to different experiences. Belief in a doctor’s aptitude, for example, directs a person very differently to their belief in the doctor’s incompetence. One belief, if it is to be meaningful, impels you to visit the doctor whereas the other, if it is to be meaningful urges you to stay away. These differing beliefs give rise to different experiences that will challenge or justify your initial beliefs. The question then is, what kind of practical commitment does religion require?

Examples of practical commitment to religious beliefs are widespread and differ tremendously; at one end of the scale is the family who commit to going to church on Sunday, or perhaps just for baptisms, weddings and funerals. At the other, those who chose to dedicate their entire lives in service of their beliefs. Ascetics such as the sadhu holy men of India, the celibate monastic communities of so many faiths, missionaries who travel the globe, organisations such as the Red Cross and a vast range in between.

Simone Weil is a writer who I feel captures, rather well, the type of practical commitment that a truly spiritual outlook should instil. In Gravity and Grace, the reader is presented with a concept of Human Mechanics; a dynamic in which humans, from fear of affliction and suffering, communicate their suffering to others or are forced to endure it. She compares this to a force like gravity.

Simone Weil was writing in a time when the horrors of human mechanics were all too clear. The Nazis were committing genocide with all the efficiency of a machine and the Second World War raged. She saw ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’ at what was arguably some of its worst. She observed a dynamic at play, which she described in the following terms:

“Human Mechanics. Whoever suffers tries to communicate his suffering (either by ill-treating someone or calling forth their pity) in order to reduce it, and he really does reduce it in this way. In the case of a man in the uttermost depths, whom no one pities, who is without power to ill-treat anyone (if he has no child or being who loves him), the suffering remains within and poisons him.
This is imperative, like gravity. How can one gain deliverance? How gain deliverance from a force which is like gravity?” (Weil, 1967, p.5)

She describes suffering as leaving a void within us, which we find unbearable and are driven to fill. We try to fill this void by seeking pity. In doing so we succeed in filling that void with a sense of our own importance, but we leave the other person with an equivalent void; they suffer, so that we don’t have to. Alternately we try to dominate others; again filling the void in ourself with feelings of power or importance whilst leaving our victim with a void of their own to contend with, arisen from the feelings of helplessness engendered by our actions. Human mechanics is a system wherein suffering increases. Everyone seeks to avoid suffering and therefore inflicts it on those around them. Whilst this may seem to be an overly negative assessment of human relationships it seems hard to deny especially in the context of the world as she witnessed it.

What Simone Weil envisages as an alternative is unexpected, profound, challenging and shows great heroism of spirit. It has parallels in many of the great mystical traditions such as Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Gnostic traditions (as well as with notable contemporaries of hers such as Kahlil Gibran) whose aims are diametrically opposed to those of the materialism so prevalent in current thought. In Human mechanics one seeks rewards, be they material, imaginary or otherwise; where the desired reward is not obtained, one feels a void within oneself. Rather than endure this, one is ordinarily driven to harm others.

Where Simone Weil and the mystics differ from human mechanics and materialism is in seeking happiness and fulfilment from a different source. For materialists the reward is to be found in material gain. For those who seek power and to dominate others, high status or sense of importance is the reward they seek. For those following a spiritual path, the reward is not to be found within the world as we know it.

Instead of spending our lives struggling to maintain balance and transferring our afflictions to others, she offers a radical alternate possibility. Rather than seeking what we feel we need, we reassess what it is that we need in the first place. The results of this can be surprising:

“If we go down into ourselves we find that we possess exactly what we desire” (Weil, 1967, p.20)

When a smoker wants a cigarette what they desire is to stop craving a cigarette. The short-term solution is to smoke a cigarette; alternately they could put time and effort into overcoming their desire to smoke thus stopping the craving permanently. This example illustrates the view of the mystic and that which they seek. The smoker who quits has found the cigarette that actually works, the one that stops the craving permanently! Likewise the rewards that the mystic seeks are not the short lived imperfect ones of the material world they are the supernatural rewards of divine grace; perfect happiness rather than temporary imperfect rewards:

“The necessity for a reward…if, doing violence to this necessity, we leave a vacuum, as it were a suction of air is produced and a supernatural reward results.” (Weil, 1967, p.10)

This outlook is the very antithesis of our materialistic world and the human mechanics thereof. Someone who has the capacity to endure the void and find meaning within it will find that they already have what they desire within them, and no longer have need to fill that void with the suffering or pity of others. As the Buddha famously said “Who has contentment has the greatest wealth of all for with it he has all that his heart desires.” The human mechanics are replaced with ‘superhuman’ mechanics, which rather than being factors for social stability in a world with great social problems, are a solution to so much discontent and greed.

What she also shows is that religion should direct us in a very different way than we are familiar with behaving. What differs is that the latter emphasises short term worldly gain, whereas the former aims away from such hollow victories, seeking spiritual rewards instead. The religious worldview takes into account something bigger than our one short life and the happiness that we experience therein. It teaches us to aim beyond this fleeting existence towards a higher goal be it heaven (or at least avoiding hell), coming to know god, or achieving nirvana. What happiness one achieves in this world through religious pursuits, is a happy consequence but is not supposed to be an end in itself. In superhuman mechanics, rather than avoiding problems and hardship, the mystic finds meaning in such things. The refusal to pass on suffering coupled with the acceptance of it, entails a practical commitment to harm no-one that is to be found amongst the core beliefs of all religion.

In accepting our suffering rather than avoiding it or pushing it onto someone else, we experience it in a deeper more meaningful way. It opens our hearts and minds to the suffering of others. Human mechanics finds its very antithesis in the desire to take from others all their sorrow and give them all of ones happiness; this compassionate view similarly elicits a practical commitment from anyone who shares it. Compassion is a common theme in religion yet something that is frequently overlooked in favour of more esoteric topics of discussion (such as those of rational theology) yet it is absolutely essential to any religious view. A view of the divine that is grounded in experience, shows one that which is divine in others, and elicits non-harmfulness in a way that no rational theological argument can. Perhaps for this reason, the most important practical commitment of all, is that of doing no harm.

A religion that forgives you, teaches you to forgive others. Political leaders who seek revenge teach vengeance. It is lamentable that so often the two become confused; a situation barely helped by those with political aims who use peoples faith in religion cynically, or exploit oversimplistic accounts of religious belief to achieve worldly ends. It is hard to deny that the suicide bombers of 9/11 were practically committed to their beliefs, and while these beliefs contained religious terminology, such as the name of Allah and the language of martyrdom; it seems to me that the human mechanics motivating these acts were all too apparent. The introspection, willingness to endure hardship, and basic compassion that so characterise practical religiosity, were considered to be of less significance that sending a message that was intended to achieve worldly aims – the very antithesis of religion and spirituality’s aims. This led many without personal experience of religious faith to conclude that religion itself was responsible:

‘Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!’ (Dawkins, 2001)

This attack on religion has become a call to arms for many atheists in recent years. The danger of strong practical commitment to ones belief is undoubtedly dangerous but just as atheists were quick to condemn the attacks as immoral, so were those with religious belief. Dawkins as an evolutionary biologist is someone who was not persuaded by the arguments of rational theology. His field of study faces great difficulties in addressing a very particular brand of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism whose interpretation of religion is relatively primitive and simplistic. The more evolved views of practical theology and mysticism escape many of the criticisms that Dawkins levels.

Whilst what Dawkins attacks is strong practical commitment to beliefs, he fails to distinguish between ordinary worldly beliefs or ideals, and religious ones. Where one differentiates the two along lines such as human/superhuman mechanics, a clearer picture emerges of the motivating beliefs. The beliefs that Dawkins attacks are not religious; not all faith is revealed, religion puts barriers in place to prevent killing, politics removes them; where religion teaches fellowship and togetherness, or altruism, politics teaches partiality. I heartily agree with him that whatever makes people behave in such ways, is reprehensible in the extreme but where I differ is that I do not consider the motivating beliefs to be religious ones, because they are not based on practical experience of religious truths.


Dawkins, R.(2001) Has the world Changed?, The Guardian, available from ,
date accessed 16/05/2009

Weil, S. (1967) Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London (ed)

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