In an 1876 speech, “The Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll said, “Religion should have the influence upon mankind that its goodness, that its morality, its justice, its charity, its reason, and its argument give it, and no more.” (Ingersoll, 14). In many ways, Dr. George E. Vaillant makes the same argument in his Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that today’s religions have survived, and will continue to survive, because of their emphasis on the positive emotions – which, according to Vaillant, are faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. But, in today’s world, are religions, especially Christianity, which is the most dominant tradition in America, a significant enough source of positive emotions to justify their flaws?
To be clear, Vaillant does separate ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ While generally defensive, if not fully sympathetic to religions, he does admit that “intolerant dogma … [and] religious beliefs have provided cultural justification for some of the most heinous and selfish human behavior ever committed” (Vaillant, 11). In his argument promoting spirituality, he addresses (but, as I will try to explain later, does not adequately answer) the question of why individuals seeking spiritual unity seem to so often lead to brutal institutions; he writes, “Sometimes in a quest for unity rather than community, religions forget to love their neighbors as themselves” (Vaillant, 79). He explains, “On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experiences of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religion helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of the foreigner as valuable too” (Vaillant, 188). While “cults and religions tend to be authoritarian and imposed from without,” Vaillant argues, “[S]pirituality is more likely to be democratic and arise from within” (Vaillant, 189). While he clearly differentiates between the two, he notes that they often go hand-in-hand: “[T]he survival of the world’s greatest religions, relatively unchanged, for the last two thousand years has been due as much to their ritual emphasis on the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion as to “guns, germs, and steel” or cancerlike memes” (Vaillant, 186).
Clearly, Vaillant recognizes that, for all the positive emotions that come with religion, religion also brings a significant amount of problems as well. So how do we tell the difference? Here’s where I find Vaillant’s argument problematic: “[T]he way to distinguish such unshakeable beliefs is to ask whether they are empathetic or paranoid” (Vaillant, 75). But, outside of his clear examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler, the difference is rarely clear. Admittedly, he acknowledges, “The danger is that the line between self-soothing trust and self-soothing delusion is unclear” (Vaillant, 75).
Specifically regarding Christianity, Vaillant contrasts the “belief in religious dogma that led to the Spanish Inquisition” with the “faith in a man [Jesus] who spoke of what was in his heart and lived his message” (Vaillant, 66). But that idea is inherently flawed. If we truly take Jesus and his message seriously, it almost certainly leads to conflict. As professor Crane Brinton told Vaillant, “If you don’t believe your religion is the only religion, you have no religion” (Vaillant, 190). Sure, in many ways, Jesus and his followers, like most religions, have provided many benefits to the world, as Vaillant notes. But that doesn’t change the problematic fact that Christianity rests upon having the one true belief system. Jesus himself, in John 14:6, says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Vaillant argues “[T]he danger is the lack of empathy and the false beliefs of those who profess faith,” but immediately before that he argues that “Faith … is not the danger.” (Vaillant, 79). But if your faith inherently suggests that, for example, Jesus is the only way to ‘the Father,’ it’s almost guaranteed that a lack of empathy will follow.
Especially problematic is how Vaillant defines faith, which, to him, “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists” (Vaillant, 73). Not only is faith, as defined by Vaillant, possible without any blatantly anti-scientific and/or supernatural beliefs, but faith, in the more common sense, is defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which often requires quite a different worldview. Indeed, many Christians believe in Hell, which is generally considered a place of suffering. According to many Christians, Jesus – and only Jesus – is the only way to be ‘saved’ from Hell. The belief that many people will suffer for all eternity for not accepting Jesus is hard to justify with the idea that spirituality is only about positive emotions. Furthermore, the belief that your religion – and only your religion – has the ‘Truth’ leads to more intolerance, making Vaillant’s argument especially unhelpful in today’s world. If you believe that someone you know is bound for eternal hell unless they convert to your religion, you obviously should want to help them get into heaven. Is that empathetic? After all, making people uncomfortable or even suffer – as is the case with the Spanish Inquisition – for a short time could arguably be justified if that short-term pain could save them for eternity. Clearly, the line between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is almost never as clear as Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. While I have my reservations about Freud, his idea of religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis” seems especially useful, considering how arbitrary Vaillant’s distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is (Pals, 65).
In his support of spirituality, Vaillant writes, “[S]pirituality refers to the psychological experiences of religiosity/spirituality that relate to an individual’s sense of connection with something transcendent (be it a defined deity, truth, beauty, or anything else considered to be greater than self) and are manifested by the emotions of awe, gratitude, love, compassion, and forgiveness.” (Vaillant, 187). While in general I agree with his statement, I would argue that, again, “a defined deity,” in practice, is often incompatible with real tolerance and love. Oscar Wilde famously quipped in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “To define is to limit” (Wilde). This is especially true with defining deities – which, arguably, is what led to what we call religion today. Religion, according to Robert Bellah’s definition, “is a system of belief and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Bellah, 3). Additionally, Durkheim, as noted by Bellah, defined “the sacred as something set apart or forbidden” (Bellah, 3). Similarly to how “writing created dogma as well as technological advance,” making certain ideas sacred – set apart or forbidden – inherently limits humanity’s pursuit of knowledge (Vaillant, 51). As Vaillant pointed out, a “major reason that many prefer science to religion is that the former is more ready to admit error,” since we think for ourselves rather than accepting something as the unquestionable truth of God (Vaillant, 205).
In the end, religion must be ruled out. Instead, we should embrace, as we already do, social play, which “is firmly based on a foundation of fairness” and seems to have helped humans develop a sort of justice, according to Marc Bekoff and Jessice Pierce (Bellah, 80-81). Not only do social bonds, especially parental care, provide us with our needs and safety, they also help us develop culture, history, morality, science, and literature (Bellah, 90). Play has reduced divisions and conflicts, while religion, which sprang from play, has often promoted divisions and conflicts.
Bellah, Robert N. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
Ingersoll, Robert Green, and Tim Page. What’s God Got to Do with It?: Robert G. Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2005. Print.
Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
Vaillant, George E. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway, 2008. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.