Religion’s Complexity Problem

One of the things that I both love and find incredibly daunting about the study of religion – and the thing that draws me into its web again and again – is that the more questions I ask of it, the more questions I have, the more befuddled I become. You’d think that after seven years of formal academic study and 10-12 years of frequent personal grappling, I’d be able to say, “Oh, religion? I figured that out a long time ago.” Instead, I’ve come to expect that any seemingly neat and tidy religiously-themed inquiry produces a quickly unraveling skein of imaginable possibilities, unimaginable abstract theories, and endless examples of all manner of human behavior. And, every time, I scrape and scramble to keep up and spin it back into a recognizable and simple answer. My inability to do so has gotten me thinking about the utility of the attempt.

This lack of tidiness in the field of religion is what I’m calling “religion’s complexity problem.” To put one aspect of this complexity more simply – it is the persistent paradox of a belief in a transcendent, ineffable reality that is lived out by humans in a temporal, effable, material world. This is a tricky thing to wrap our minds and bodies and souls around. In our attempts to do so, we bend it into all kinds of shapes and forms which fit well for some and not at all for others.

And so the complexity problem of religion is, really, the complexity problem of humanity, if for no other reason than because it is the human expression of religion that we are able to encounter most readily. And oh, the utter, unrelenting complexity. Humanity has the incredible ability to give something a rather nice sounding, straightforward name like “religion” and then proceed to live it out in billions of astonishingly different ways.

I find the complexity itself to be no problem at all. Flawed, oh my yes, but also intriguing, mysterious, the stuff of culture, art, language. What I do find to be a problem is our frequent refusal to acknowledge this complexity, and this active ignoring of it can be a treacherous approach when it comes to the topic of religion.

It is treacherous because religion lends itself to the temptation of simplification. Theology often hinges on absolute Truths. Academic theories about religion often hinge on absolutizing arguments about The Way Things Are. And absolutes rarely, if ever, adequately account for human thought and action.

This tendency to over-simplify is illustrated quite well in Daniel Dennett’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Why the Future of Religion is Bleak, in which he claims that the increasing globalization of information and of a general sense of well-being are behind the rapid increase of religious “Nones” and the rapid decline of religious institutions, particularly in the West. These institutions, he says, “since their founding millennia ago, have managed to keep secrets and to control what their flocks knew about the world, about other religions and about the inner workings of their own religion with relative ease. Today it is next to impossible.”

Religion, in Dennett’s view, seems to be a deeply troubled concept that is adhered to by people who, in their abiding ignorance and repressed fears, seek misguided solace in the blind following of “inerrent truths.” Further, they do this under the thumb of religious leaders and theologians who are scrambling with all their might to grasp onto the “ancient peaks of doctrine” which are quickly slipping through their fingers and, along with them, their desired positions of power and control.

The great decline of religion, Dennett claims, might only be reversed by great disaster which has the potential to cast humanity into such a state of doubt and instability that we would gladly throw aside our rational brains and acquired knowledge in order to find comfort in the absurd. In the meantime, “the [increasing] exposure of all the antique falsehoods of religious doctrine will oblige the theologians to build yet another terrace, lower down the slope. They are running out of rocks.”

And herein lies the complexity problem.

I do not take issue with Dennett’s citing of the decline of religious institutions as this is a documented fact. I do not even take issue with the idea that there are good things about this decline, though I’m willing to guess that there are less-than-good things about it as well. As the title of this article suggests, I take issue with the fact that Dennett does not acknowledge this decline as a complex thing. To this, you might roll your eyes and say, “well, if you can’t ever make claims or have opinions because any conceivable situation is always ‘too complex,’ what’s the point of ever talking about anything??”

Here’s the point:

Dennett is engaging in precisely the kind of absolutizing that he seems to so despise about religious traditions and institutions. He is putting millions of people into a tidy box that he has conveniently labeled “Religious Institutions: Ignorant & Paranoid.” As he continues to pack that box full of evidence that fits his worldview, I would encourage him to reexamine his own example of the Mormon woman who is shaken by the thought that “belief in God might be a life-enhancing illusion, not a rock-solid truth.” As he bolsters his own rock-solid truths about the happy decline of religious institutions, I would encourage him to ask himself about other conceivable possibilities, about the great diversity of religious institutions in our own country, much less across the globe, and about whether there could be an element of harm in their decline or in the increase of global technology. Lastly, I would invite him to consider what his own assumptions may blind him to. Religions – and their institutions – can indeed be dangerous, destructive, and complicit in actively discouraging critical thought. They can also be the exact opposite of these things. They can also be everything in between. To willfully see only one side of any human story is to limit our own knowledge, growth, and potential for understanding.

The phenomenal complexity of religion as it is lived out by a phenomenally complex humanity should not be taken lightly. Obviously, conversation, discussion, scholarship, religious institutions, and most other forms of human engagement, require that we simplify in order to effectively communicate. But in our necessary (if temporary) focus on one aspect of “truth,” we must not forget that there are infinitely many others and we must be willing, at the very least, to consider that we have something to learn from perspectives and experiences outside of our own.

As we are faced with the atrocities of ISIS abroad, with questions of religious freedom that are bubbling furiously here in our own country, with the demonstrated capacity for both greatness and great delusion that humans are susceptible to, we should be wary of any attempt to quickly solve or understand by plastering broad labels onto complex issues. Ripping off one bandaid and replacing it with another won’t heal wounds that run far deeper than any one perspective can fathom. The demands of humanity’s complexity problem demand a radically open mind.


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