Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From the Conclusion of For the Establishment of Religion

11/11/2008--In her science fiction classic, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin describes the trip of a physicist from an anarchist planet to a more Earth-like planet. On the trip, the physicist, Shevek, asks the ship’s doctor why a crew member seems to dislike him.

“[I[t’s religious bigotry”, replies the doctor. The crew member belongs to a religious group and consider Shevek a “dangerous atheist” because “there’s no religion,” that is, “established religion—churches, creeds” on Shevek’s planet.

Shevek is surprised. “No religion? Are we stones… ?”

But Shevek figures it out. “You admit no religion outside the churches, just as you accept no morality outside the laws.” Shevek says there is religion on his planet. The Fourth Mode—religion—is one of the “Categories”. Few people practice all the Modes. “But the Modes are built of the natural capacities of the mind, you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity? How could we do physics while we were cut off from the profoundest relationship man has with the cosmos?”

In America, and indeed much of the West, we make the same mistake the crew member made. We imagine that secularists are without “religion” just because they are without churches. Our law of church and state is even based on this strange idea. That is why we say government must be neutral about “religion” when we should mean merely that government should be neutral about the different churches.

But in America, unlike Shevek, even the secularists imagine they are outside the religious sphere. There are even atheist voices that argue against “religion” and fail to distinguish good religion from bad.

One cannot be without religion—or at least a lot of suppression is needed to try. And as Shevek explains, religion as a category is not anti-science.

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