Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can Philosophy Serve as an Alternative to Religion?

3/6/2011—In China, the major religions, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, were known as the “Three Teachings”. Religion was thought of as a source of wisdom about life and the universe and different traditions might have different messages to teach us at different times in our lives. It seems to me that “faith” meant something different in this society than it does for Americans and the West today. I don’t think most Chinese thought that one of the Three Teachings was true and the other two false.

This Chinese approach to religion is more philosophical than ours. When I speak of philosophy, I am not referring to any narrow definition of “reason” but to the love of wisdom (philo—loving and Sophia, wisdom). Philosophy in this sense is not the enemy of religion. Proverbs in the Old Testament, for example, is often referred to as “Wisdom Literature”. The question is whether philosophy can serve as an alternative to religion for those of us who are not dogmatically religious for one reason or another.

This is a time of ferment in secularism, in America certainly and I suspect more widely. This week I received an email from a new group called the Institute for Science and Human Values that

“wants to address in particular how secularism ‘operates’ in ordinary life and decision making, ranging from how individuals who self-identify as secular make ethical choices, weigh political options, or choose to become involved or dissociate from activist movements. The working assumption of the forum is that secularism describes a way of looking at society that is not explained by more targeted idioms (like Atheism) or more general usages (like Humanism). The Forum also hopes to renew interest in secularism as a topic for public discourse across a broad range of issues, ranging from human rights to moral wrongs.”

Well, I’m all for this of course, but it seems operational rather than thoughtful. In contrast, I just saw the first lecture from “Skeptics and Believers”, a Teaching Company Course, by Grinnell College Professor Tyler Roberts. He ends the first lecture, quoting the French philosopher Michel Foucault, suggesting that philosophy is a way of understanding the world that teaches a moral discipline (my term)—the moral discipline of throwing into question our usual ways of thinking. Philosophy, rather than emphasizing a critique of religion as opposed to reason, would ask us to think the world religiously to see what we can learn. Philosophy is thus a radical and disciplined openness. Roberts calls it a spiritual exercise.

Maybe philosophy is the future of secularism.

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