Last fall I took a class on philosophy of religion.
I hated it. I’m not sure what I was expecting out of philosophy of religion, but what I got was ten straight weeks of “Can we logically prove the existence or non-existence of a being of infinite power, knowledge, and goodness, which is also the creator of the universe and everything in it?”
Spoiler alert: you can’t!
Part of the issue was the design of the class. I was more interested in the history of the philosophic arguments than in rehashing the arguments themselves, and I was required to write three essays that amounted to little more than re-stating my own personal feelings on the subject. I mean, why not compare and contrast Sartre and Kierkegaard or something? Or explain why the ontological argument is completely unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already accept the premise it is attempting to prove? Or anything besides “this is what I believe, blah blah.” Although I suppose these personal essays would make good jumping off points for future blog posts, so there’s that.
So class design was part of it, but mostly I was just astounded to discover that all we ever talked about was “does god exist?” I had assumed there would be more to the philosophy of religion than that. Maybe there is, but the way it was taught to me, the only thing the entire field ever concerns itself with is trying to prove something which is inherently unprovable. Ultimately, it just felt like a huge waste of time.
There was one thing that made the class worthwhile for me, though: it was in the textbook for that class that I learned about religious realism and its counterpart, religious nonrealism. This was something that suddenly made so many other things make sense. It put so many conflicts into context, and I suddenly understood things in a new way. That was intensely valuable information. Now, realism and nonrealism are technically schools of thought for studying religions, but I believe that they also represent the two basic alignments for individuals in their approach to religion.
The basic, overly-simplified distinction between religious realists and nonrealists is that religious realists believe that what is most important when talking about religion is the matter of its factual truth; nonrealists believe that the factual truth of a religion is kind of beside the point.
Religious realists can be either religious believers or atheists. The important thing is, they think that whether or not a given religion is factually true is the most important thing about it. An atheist who is a religious realist would probably agree with Richard Dawkins that “Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated.” These are the atheists you’ve met who are very concerned that religious people believe something that is false. A religious realist is who also a theist is likewise deeply troubled that so many people have false beliefs, be they atheists or adherents to a false religion.
I suspect, but can’t know for sure (I’m not aware of any studies that account for this factor; if you do, feel free to link up in comments!) that religious realists make up a majority of people, and, further, that the often-discussed conflict between theists and atheists is more specifically a conflict between realists in both groups. Nonrealists tend to get along with each other regardless of religious (non)affiliation and to get enjoyment and pleasure out of religious diversity.
I’m not a religious realist. I never have been! I’m going to attempt to explain my version of religious nonrealism here, but I have a feeling that I won’t really be able to make it explicable to realists. It may be fundamentally too different an approach. But I’ll try my best.
As a nonrealist who is also an atheist, I am tremendously interested in what people believe and why they believe it. I’m also interested in how those beliefs inform their daily lives and change how they interact with the world, especially with other people. I find other people’s religious beliefs fascinating and often beautiful. And I tend to assume that most people have a good reason for believing as they do. I think that even if there isn’t an actual, factual god out there, the things that people believe about god can be valuable and even true. How can something be true if I just said I don’t think it actually exists? That’s a good question, and I’m not exactly sure how to answer it!
See, I think they can be true in the same way that stories can be true. Because they tell us something about ourselves, and the world, and our place in it. Because the stories we tell about ourselves matter. I may not think that the details are totally accurate, but I don’t think that the details are what the stories are really about.
This doesn’t mean that I cheerfully accept every religious belief as perfectly acceptable. In fact, the whole point, really, is that I judge religious beliefs not based on whether or not they are factually true, but on the effect they have on the believer and those around them. Beliefs that encourage the believer to hurt other people are shitty and wrong, and I would still think they were shitty and wrong even if I knew they were factually true because their god appeared to me and personally endorsed them. But beliefs that encourage the believer to be kind, to have empathy, and to ally themselves to the oppressed and the harmed? I’m glad those beliefs are in the world.
(This is, it should be noted, not the same thing as believing that religion is necessary for people to be kind, empathetic, and allies to the oppressed; it merely acknowledges that some religions do encourage those traits, and I’m cool with that and think it’s a good thing.)
I’m not sure whether this was any help at all, and really I ended up talking much more about my own personal take than I did about nonrealism in general. I’m sure there are lots of other nonrealists who have substantially different approaches. Still, I hope it gave you something to think about. If you’re a realist, this may not have made much sense to you, but I assure you, it all makes perfect sense in my head!