Many religious believers are pluralists; they hold deep convictions about God or the Universe, and yet still allow that believers of other religions may hold contradicting beliefs which are no less ‘correct.’ Their acceptance of other religions is not boundless, but liberal and respectful of other religious beliefs so long as they are ‘reasonable’. In a second camp, there are religious exclusivists; those who hold religious beliefs which specifically exclude contradicting ideas. I will consider these two camps along with a third, described as “apatheism” by Jonathan Rauch in an Atlantic Monthly essay, “Let It Be.”
In order to make sense of the disagreement between pluralists, exclusivists, and apatheists, a few important distinctions and clarifications must be made. Collectively, all of a given believer’s religious beliefs compose what I will call their ‘belief set’. It is useful to view the beliefs in this belief set as being composed of beliefs from these two categories:
1) “substantial beliefs”; beliefs about God, life, morality, etc.
(e.g., ‘It is wrong to murder because human life is precious.’ ‘Adultery is wrong.’ ‘God created the universe.’)
2) “self-referential tenets”; religious (or even non-religious) beliefs about religion itself
(e.g.,‘Islam is the only path to God.’ or,
‘There are several paths to the same Truth.’)
The first category of beliefs focuses primarily on a system valuing ‘goodness’ and distinguishing right from wrong. It is my contention that holding beliefs in this category is all that is required to constitute a ‘religion’. I contend that religion is, in its essence, the expression, clarification, and organization of the believer’s value system. Overt discussion of God is optional in religion. In all cases, virtues are valued as a Higher Power, even though virtue is defined differently in each religion, and even though the terms “Higher Power”, “God”, or “morality”, might cause members of some religious traditions to bristle. Even Buddhism, which seems to avoid dealing in morality and a sentient Higher Power, still subscribes to the notion of valuing peace and enlightenment. That counts; it is an expression of one’s values in life. What is consistent in all religions is the inclusion of some notion that “these things over here are valuable, or good,” and “those things over there are to be avoided, or are evil.” The stories and beliefs in this category which are not specifically about ‘right and wrong’ (morality) serve as a supporting framework for the beliefs which do deal with morality.
Take, for example, the Judeo-Christian story of Job, in which Job, who is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1), but yet still suffers endlessly, seems to be punished by God for reasons Job does not understand. Yet Job still remains patient, faithful and focused on doing what was right, even though he did not always succeed. At the end of the story, it is revealed that God allowed this suffering to take place so that Job would know humility. Job is rewarded by God for his suffering. Whether the story of Job is taken as literally true or not, it serves to support the values of humility, patience, and virtuous behavior in the face of difficult situations. This story, like so many other religious stories in Judeo-Christianity and other religious traditions, serves to express and define the value system of the believer.
Nothing demonstrates as well as Unitarian Universalism (UU) the point that religion is a socialized expression of a value system. I found UU to be composed of a system valuing love and human life. In a pamphlet I obtained at a UU congregation I attended, the church identifies as its principles that it
“affirm[s] and promote[s]:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships . . .
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,”
among other similar principles. A few lengthy discussions with congregants revealed that ‘God’ is not a central figure in the UU church, and belief in God is neither endorsed nor prohibited by UU tenets. God, a Unitarian Universalist might say, is not the point of this religion. The central idea in UU is that people have “inherent worth”, and that this inherent worth warrants the expression of genuine love and acceptance of one another. UU contends that by doing what is right and loving, one can put oneself into the spiritually desirable situation of personal peace.
To the UU who does believe in God (yes, such people do exist), God expresses Himself on Earth through good and evil forces. By espousing and valuing the good, and shunning the evil, a person can connect with God. To those UU’s who do not believe in God, connecting to what their conscience tells them is a virtuous value system brings the same connection to an external Higher-Force-of-Good nonetheless. Explicit belief in God is not necessary for spiritual peace, but it is one way to accomplish it.
The second category of beliefs is of an entirely different flavor from the first. It deals not with a believer’s value system, but with beliefs about that value system. Exclusivism and pluralism are (in themselves) beliefs which fall into this category. These beliefs can be justifiably treated differently because they are, in a sense, self-referential: they are beliefs in a belief set which refer to the very belief set in which they reside. Much like other instances of self-reference (such as the Liar paradox, a.k.a. Epimenides' Paradox, for example, in which a sentence makes a claim about itself, as in, “This sentence is false”), these ideas present a special case. The self-referential nature of beliefs in this second category makes them so different that a Christian may justifiably reject traditions of his religion which would require him to consider Christianity to be an exclusive truth, while still embracing the value system and supporting framework of the rest of Christian tradition. In this way, it is even possible for a person to consider himself both Christian and UU – I have met a few such people.
Since they are both so religiously liberal, pluralism and apatheism might at first seem to be closely-related approaches to the subject of religion. But in fact, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of religious thought. Pluralism allows that religious traditions other than one’s own can have value – pluralism values substantial religious ideas (i.e., religious beliefs from the first category). On the other hand, apatheism, as discussed by Jonathan Rauche, considers religious beliefs to be basically worthless.
Rauche does not overtly make the claim that religious belief is worthless, but this is the inevitable conclusion we must reach if we are to take seriously the claim that he does make, which is that apatheists neither care about God Himself, the subject of God, nor the beliefs others have about God. In apatheism, religion is viewed as an unfortunate reality of a stagnant civilization. True enlightenment, the apatheist would claim, is the realization that religious belief is unimportant.
Apatheism does not consider itself to be a religious belief system (indeed, it strongly considers itself not to be) – but it is.
Religious beliefs are those which either embody a value system (the first category), or are beliefs about those first sorts of beliefs (the second category). Apatheism includes beliefs in both categories:
In the first category, apatheism values tolerance and dispassion in matters of religion, indifference to the veracity of religious beliefs, refraining from expression of such beliefs, and “master[y] of the spiritual passions” . It may seem erroneous to place these beliefs in the first category (substantial) rather than the second (self-referential), but I wish to give the most generous case for apatheism, so I will assume that these beliefs are not self-referential; they refer to all ‘religions’ (including atheism) but not apatheism. If I were to have considered these beliefs to refer to apatheism, then belief in apatheism would practically defeat itself immediately, since it would then become indifferent to its own truth, and value its own non-expression! Indeed, apatheism is problematic, as I will argue, but not because of indifference to itself.
In the second category (self-referential beliefs), apatheism contains beliefs that claim apatheism as superior to other religious expressions-–Rauch refers to apatheism as an “achievement,”-—and clearly dismisses passionate belief in God as incompatible with apatheism. For this reason, I note with irony that apatheism is actually a form of exclusivism!
This brings to mind a confusing question: what is a religious belief anyway, and how is it different from other kinds of beliefs?
I contend that it is difficult to determine for sure which beliefs are religious and which are not religious because this distinction is artificial. Socially constructed. Beliefs are beliefs – it is only when beliefs refer to beliefs that they become truly “religious”. Religion is therefore merely a form of self-referential belief!
People encounter as many passionate differences and diversity of perspective in secular moral thought as in religious thought (and political thought, for that matter). But would anyone seriously argue (once they have thoroughly considered it) that they have, or aspire to have no opinions on moral matters, or that they avoid consideration of the moral issues which affect them? Would they go so far as to say that there is a problem with declaring one’s values (morals) publicly? Is this not one of the fundamental purposes of government – to declare and enforce a system of values?
It seems to me that societies are actually built upon the expression of moral (and therefore religious) beliefs, not avoidance of it.
The best way to view religious diversity, then, might be analogous to the best way to view political diversity: find value in the opposing viewpoint, realize that no outlook has proven itself to be so overwhelmingly perfect that there is no room for disagreement, and keep an open mind. Most of all, recognize that one can appreciate and value the substantial beliefs of a tradition (‘Love thy neighbor’, or ‘Provide assistance to those who cannot help themselves,’) while dismissing the self-referential beliefs of the same tradition (the Christian belief that ‘Christ is the only path to salvation’, or the Democratic Party’s belief that ‘The Democratic Party is the party most capable of fair government’). Religious beliefs are most valuable when expressed passionately, while moderated by respect for (but not necessarily adoption of) differing religious beliefs.