Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Spiritual but not religious" and rigid truth claims

We have all heard someone claim that they are "spiritual but not religious." I cry inside every time I hear it. At Faithful Democrats, one blogger, Wilson Thomas Payne - interestingly, an Obama Field Organizer - believes this Spiritualism is "detrimental to the future of Christianity." Rebelling against "societal thinking," Spiritualists resist the stigmatism and dogmatism of both organized religion and political ideology. Because of these characteristics, the younger generations are moving away from Christianity and towards spiritualism. Payne concludes that Christianity, in order to sustain and re-grow its membership, must move away from rigid dogmatism and take ownership of scriptural ambivalence, where scripture can be/has been used to argue both sides of a moral issue.

Payne might be on to something here, even though his presentation is both alarmist and anecdotal (show me some stats, please). I, however, don't want to belabor that point. I think that his point about ambivalence is spot on (i.e., the biblical justification for and against slavery), but his point about rigid truth claims provides a soapbox that I cannot pass up.

Deep breath. Begin rant.

Every religion (and non-religion) has truth claims, without which religion (and non-religion) could not provide a coherent existential worldview (a necessity for individual and communal identity formation and a necessity to function, behave, and relate within the world). Whether Christianity, Islam, athiesm, or secular humanism - to name just a few - these worldviews have an organized epistemological framework in which to interpret reality. Truth claims are foundational in this framework; truth claims are necessary and good.

The problem comes when these truth claims are absolutized and held with non-negotiable certainty. Truth then divides the world into right and wrong, and logically, good and evil; those who disagree with the truth claim are wrong, and depending their tenacity, evil. Rigid truth claims transcend the realm of human discussion and argumentation, a retreating and entrenchment from dialogue. This creates a high potential to marginalize dissenters and outsiders. The trampling of human diginity (my definition of violence), on one level or another, is inevitable. Said again, rigid truth claims then increase the likelihood that a religion (or non-religion) will become violent.

Assume for the sake of argument that you could hold Truth in your hand. You have to be very careful, it is fragile. The harder and harder you try to grasp at truth, the more broken and incomprehensible it becomes. As such, you lose Truth when you clinch your fist at an unbeliever. (h/t Tripp Fuller)

So not only does Christianity increase the likelihood of violence when it adheres to rigid truth claims, but it possibly loses membership to the growing "Spiritual but not religious" phenomenon. Sounds lose-lose to me.


Joel McDonald said...

I don't get it. I understand your thinking on truth claims and how the absolution of those claims is dangerous, but I'm not quite understanding why you're against "spiritual but not religious" or why organized religion is really needed. Your argument is that cultures and government would collapse without religion?

Shouldn't reality be interpreted as reality, and not something caused by some unseen force; or, even worse, some unseen forced defined by an institution and then used to push forward the agenda of that institution "in the name" of that unseen force?

Drew said...


I guess in my haste to get to my rant on rigid truth claims, I wasn't exactly clear. Although I am personally bothered by "spiritual but not religious" people, for my own reasons, I am not against them or their understanding of reality. I really just used the "spiritual, but not religious" article to move into my soapbox rant, perhaps irresponsibly.

I was very hasty in saying that every human being needs to have an organized epistemological framework to understand reality. We have to make sense of the environment (and universe) around us and how we fit in. We need to have certain existential questions answered: who are we? where did we come from? were are we going? what is our purpose? is there life after death?

All religions answer these questions. Even non-religions answer these questions with their own data set. An athiest would say that we are evolutionarily complex animals made up of elements from previously exploded stars; there is no over-arching purpose to our lives and there is no life after death. All valid and respectable answers.

The set of answers that we posit to these existential questions provides us with a framework to interpret reality and then a worldview in which we navigate our environment and relate to those around us. As an athiest, I would relate to you differently then as a Christian (sure, the actions might be the same, but the underlying thought process would be different). As a Muslim, I would understand the world around me differently than as a Buddhist. These frameworks and worldviews are necessary for each human being.

So interpreting "reality as reality" or believing in "some unseen force" are certain respects the same thing, a necessary organized epistemological framework.

Organizing a community of like-minded people is human nature; birds of a feather flock together. Institutionalizing these communal beliefs and creating rigid dogma, perhaps, is also inevitable, but it is potentially dangerous.

Does all of that even make sense?

Drew said...

p.s. Joel, your Virginia Beach Progressives website is absolutely gorgeous. Everyone involved in VA politics needs to check it out.

Joel McDonald said...

Ah. I'm getting a better sense of what you're discussing here. Sorry about the misinterpretation.

As a former Latter-day Saint, and someone who went through a very difficult period of weeding through my faith and making a break with what I "knew" to be true, I agree with you on the purpose of religion and the danger of absolute dogmas created by some.

I equated these absolutes with axioms programed into the though processes of people. Truths whereby all encountered is interpreted. I wrote about this in a couple of posts on my personal blog. Challenging Axioms & Guilty Axioms. I also touch on this in Religion & Rational Thought.

Thanks for your comments about Virginia Beach Progressives. I'm still tweaking and adding to it, but I like what's come together so far.

Matt F. said...

Sorry guys, gotta call bullshit. Loved your conversation, and you did well by each other. But Drew has done the same thing he always does:
All religions answer these questions. Even non-religions answer these questions with their own data set. An athiest would say that we are evolutionarily complex animals made up of elements from previously exploded stars; there is no over-arching purpose to our lives and there is no life after death. All valid and respectable answers.
I call bullshit because there is only one valid and repectable answer, that is to say the true answer. There were simple organisms that gradually over a process of millions of years evolved into us. We know what we know as humans (if you read the scientific research), the rest is just guess work. I can, however, assure you that the answers are not in a book written thousands of years ago by a group of illiterate bronze age sheep herders.
It is in this sense that I evaluate "truth claims", i.e, things that are actually true.