Sunday, March 10, 2013

Excerpt from "Moral Believing Animals" Part Two

Part II, Excerpt from Moral Believing Animals
From Chapter Five: “On Religion”

           Religion for us concerns a “superempirical order,” an ordered reality that is not normally observable with the five human senses. Religion affirms that such an order is real and consequential, even thought it normally cannot be directly seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. Second, this approach intentionally emphasized the “superempirical” rather than the more commonly referenced “supernatural.” This is because supernatural implies that the unseen order, the “spiritual,” is not a part of nature, and that nature consists only of physical matter.  Yet some religions understand the unseen order is very much a part of nature, a reality inhering in the world or cosmos; some religions also understand nature, the world, the cosmos to be a whole reality comprising both the empirical and the superempirical together. Third, distinguishing the empirical from the superempirical in this way does not mean that the empirical cannot represent or communicate about the superempirical. The distinction is not absolute nor unbridgeable. Indeed, humans, as embodied, sensory animals, normally come to learn about and relate to superempirical orders at least in part precisely through empirical means – through text read, narratives heard, chants sung, bread and wine tasted, icons beheld, water and ashes touched, suffering endured, and so on. Furthermore, most if not all religions hold that in particular circumstances the superempirical may be physically seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or felt – through epiphanies, visions, angelic appearances, miracles, incarnations, ecstatic experiences, demonic possessions, and so on – which many people historically and alive today profess to have witnessed. Fourth the approach here emphasizes the decidedly normative concern of religion. Religion is not simply about providing humans with information or knowledge but also, viewed sociologically, about the proper organization and right guidance of life. Religion tells people not only what is real but also, viewed sociologically, about the proper organization and right guidance of life. Religion tells people not only what is real but also consequently what are good, right, true, wise, and worthy desires, thoughts, feelings, values, practices, actions, and interactions. Religion tells us what for us ought to be, in light of the superempirical reality that is […]

If this is what religion is to us, then what is nonreligious or secular? These may mean the conscious denials of any superempirical order actually exists – the corollary to the positive affirmation that the only and total reality that actually exist is that which humans can empirically observe on a regular basis ( “There is no God; existence is nothing but the natural operation of energy and matter”). Or these may mean that people simply have never seriously considered whether or not a superempirical reality exists, because they have been socialized in an areligious or anti-religious context (such as parts of communist China or Soviet Russia). Or these may mean a passive belief that a superempirical reality may exist but a fundamental indifference to the normative claims that the superempirical order makes about the proper organization and guidance of life […]

Note, however, that to be nonreligious or secular does not mean that one is not a believer, that one does not continually place one's faith in premises, assumptions, and suppositions that cannot be objectively substantiated or justify without recourse to other believed-in premises, as assumptions and presuppositions. Everyone – the secularist and nonreligious included – is a believing animal, ultimately a person of faith… Indeed, the belief that only and total reality that actually exists is of that which humans can empirically observed is itself a statement of faith whether or not its adherents recognize and admit it as such.… Everyone – religious and secular alike – is a moral animal, is constituted, motivated, and governed by moral order(s) existing inside and outside of themselves… What distinguishes religious people from nonreligious  and secular people, therefore, is not that the former are moral, believing animals while the latter are not. What distinguishes them is that the former significantly believed in and are governed by moral order(s) grounded in some superempirical reality while the latter believe in and are governed by moral order(s) grounded in some ordering reality that is not superempirical but imminent (or at least they presume it to be so). All humans are thus, at bottom, really quite similar in most of these respects. Where they differ tremendously is in the particular cultural moral orders to which they commit their lives. (pp 98-100)

Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals (2003, Oxford University Press)

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