“(De)Construction down the Rabbit Hole”

Jared Anderson

“What next?” is one of the most important questions when it comes to the future of religion. Unprecedented access to information via the internet especially erodes traditional belief systems and transforms social and relational systems. This presentation will explore how to rebuild systems of meaning after differing levels of deconstruction. But here is the problem: Critical inquiry can only demolish, not restore worldviews. Questioning is a factor of personality, not intelligence. Reconstruction is a factor of skills and gifts rather than either of those factors. I used to think years ago that anyone “smart enough” to get themselves into trouble as far as critical thinking and deconstructing their worldviews go should be “smart enough” to get themselves out. That is before I realized that once again, deconstructing a worldview is a factor of critical inquiry and various methodologies, whereas reconstruction is, in a nutshell, art. I suggest that creative endeavors hold the most promise for meaningful rebuilding of worldviews. Theology, aesthetics, art, new myths—these can rebuild new cities of the mind and soul where previous beliefs have crumbled. But one problem with building these new cities and these new myths is that we are so very attached to the ruins and rubble of the Iron Age as preserved in world scripture. I will contrast three approaches that restore meaning after differing levels of worldview crisis: Apologetics: This approach can provide limited protection against faith crisis, but does so in a way that leaves the believer vulnerable to new information (or Google). Apologetics chooses a point along the history of interpretation to do battle, defending the current interpretation, ironically often without awareness (or at least acknowledgment) of the history of that interpretation. Apologetics fights for beliefs not because they are true, but because they are familiar. So even though apologetics allows room to feel better about one’s (usually inherited) beliefs, it most often does so not by presenting more compelling alternatives, but simply by deconstructing and delegitimizing challenges to that belief system, including those from established specialized fields. No disconfirming data are allowed to penetrate the believers’ assumptions, thanks to what could be called a chastity belt of the mind. I acknowledge that some apologists do more responsible and quality work than others, but the approach as a whole remains limited. The apologist interprets new data in light of what he or she already “knows” to be true. And thus armed with apologetic arguments and explanations, believers resist new and challenging information, assured that God or even science will someday vindicate those beliefs. I call this the “all the evidence we don’t have

agrees with us” argument. Perhaps many of you were raised with these explanations as I was: We don’t have evidence for evolution, and dinosaur bones result from the pieces of other planets used to form the earth. There is also what I call the “very small elephant” approach, where you reduce traditional beliefs to claims so small that they cannot be challenged. If you have reasons to hold to your beliefs, it is reassuring that someone very smart and trained has thought through a given topic and can offer some sort of solution. At the same time, it is worth remembering that you can make an argument for anything—the measure of persuasiveness is how hard to you needed to work and even strain to do so. The scientific and academic method involves coming up with an explanation that most naturally and logically explains all available evidence, rather than selectively interpreting the evidence so it fits predetermined conclusions. Apologetics on the other hand grasps scientific openness to correction as an excuse to prefer the “certainty” of Sunday School beliefs. Confirmation bias creates both the strength and weakness to apologetics, however. As long as you firmly believe only one option to be possible your faith remains impenetrable, but as soon as you consider other options, they become copious and compelling. Thus fundamentalist views can survive only in a quarantined mind. Selective Emphasis: This approach has considerable potential to rebuild meaning after moderate questioning and deconstruction. It does so through selective emphasis on the most beneficial aspects of a religious tradition and acknowledgement, then reform of harmful elements. We can begin with Robert Wright’s Evolution of God astute observation that all religions contain a multiplicity of traditions from which believers can draw to create narratives and justify approaches to their faith. Through selective emphasize we get beautiful and compelling articulations of any particular denomination, which also address flaws and harm as needed. Ideally, this approach allows religion to be articulated in a way where literal believers recognize and claim it as their own, and people who do not believe the details of the worldview still see it as valuable and useful. I propose an exercise that would result in a superior form of every denomination: take two dear friends who care about each other, one an open minded, literal believer and the other a sympathetic atheist former member. Then require them to agree on (mediation style) the details of their religion. Just as a divorcing mother and father need to come up with agreements “for the sake of the children”, so too could such friends decide what form of their denomination they could be ok with. The believer would keep the denomination recognizable; the atheist would keep the denomination defensible beyond the limits of truth claims. I believe this approach produces the most promising activism that can be done from within a faith tradition. It can also be approach from outside religion to reclaim beneficial aspects of religion, as Alain de Botton and Greg Epstein advocate. Complete Reconstruction: Apologetics can create room for faith if we simply need to know that some intelligent, informed people are aware of the problems and have come up with solutions. The selective emphasis approach bears tremendous promise and can result in the best articulations of a particular faith tradition.

But what do we do when critical inquiry razes the specifics of our spiritual worldview, leaving only the foundation of spirituality and possible belief in God? What if the rabbit hole goes all the way down? In these instances, I think we need new myths and systems of meaning. And this is where humanism and transhumanism shine—not only shine, but illuminate and glorify. Here are a few approaches to engagement with religion that I feel thrive even after the most thorough deconstruction: 1. Theology and Myth. Myth including theology taps into our deepest needs. We can reignite the value of our theology and narratives as we break them open and reconnect to the meaning and descriptions of internal reality these stories evoke. Works by Campbell, Jung, Tillich and others demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. 2. Art. Religion motivates more universally than any other source, but art comes close. I speak of art broadly defined—visual art, literature, music, film and documentaries. I call artists the prophets of humanism because the best art can inspire and motivate us. A good book instills an aching appreciation for our own lives; films and documentaries move us to tears and action. 3. Relationships. Chances are, no matter how much we distance ourselves from former worldviews, people we love and care for still dwell within them. As Jesus and others taught, love trumps any other detail of religion. Our worldviews and actions influence those close to us, and that impact can temper the way we share and engage. When former worldviews are no longer important to us, we can remember they remain important to loved ones. 4. Heritage.The beliefs and sacrifices, mistakes and lessons of parents and ancestors is something that we can never replace. There is something incomparably precious to feeling linked not only to a community, but to those who have gone before, to family members and people without whom we would not exist. That link can motivate us to remain connected to our roots even when we have grown beyond them. 5. Syncretism. With unprecedented pluralism and access to information, we can pick and choose from cultural cornucopiae that which most inspires us. This approach fits particularly well into the idea that Mormonism claims all goodness and truth as its own. 6. Utilitarianism. We can use the principles that “truth is what works” and evaluation of “fruits” to engage with religion and community. Stripping teaching and actions down to their consequences facilitates effective engagement without getting caught up in lesson consequential details. Consider the following analogy: A friend says, “I have had such a great month! Smurfs appeared from under my bed and started talking to me.” At this point many would want to stop their friend and admit them for psychiatric evaluation. It is their duty to disabuse them of this fantasy! But the friend continues “Ever since the smurfs have been talking to me, every aspect of my life has improved. I am performing better at my job. I am a better spouse and parent. I have been making healthier life choices, reading better books. These are really wise Smurfs!” So it is with religion. We too often get caught up in

superficial details; engaging primarily with the results allows for productive interactions with literal believers in our faith community (of course, utilitarianism requires we remind our friend to hold the Smurfs ethically accountable). 7. Activism. When the standard myths and explanations fail us, we can rise to fill the void. We can be the change we wish to see in the world, and live our religion not as it is, but as it could be. In this way both the positives and negatives of our religion inspire us, motivate us to emphasize that which is good and speak out against that which is harmful. I would like to conclude by sharing my four working models of God. As an agnostic theist, I do not know there is a God though I think probability tips in favor of divinity. Constructive debates about God’s existence focus on 1) Which conceptions of God current evidence allows for and 2) the benefits of different conceptions of God. All of these conceptions pass both criteria and could be expressed in emotionally engaging, motivating ways. 1. God as the personification of our highest ideals. Even though technically an atheist position, this framework does the work of God. As a reviewer of Wright’s Evolution of God stated, “God can save the world even if he doesn’t actually exist.” A being perfect and powerful, loving and all knowing, and yet concerned with us can motivate us more than any rulebook. We can have a relationship with God, whether or not God exists. And thus with this articulation of divinity we can approach God--even if God does not (yet) literally exist. 2. Humanism. Humans already function as gods. As an example of low transhumanism, we can point out that if someone traveled from the past and saw how we can extend life, heal the sick, raise the (recently) dead, travel the world, and access an incomprehensible amount of information in nanoseconds, we would be hailed as gods. There are powerful implications of humans-as-gods arguments. For example, I suggest we accept this power and responsibility and turn the accusations of theodicy back on ourselves. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why doesn’t He DO something about it? Well, why do we? Why do WE allow so much suffering? Why do we perpetuate it? Why do we humans, godlike in our ability to do good and literally answer prayers, instead squander that potential by sacrificing others and even the planet upon the altars of apathy, greed, and selfishness? 3. Transhumanism. I find transhumanism to be more plausible than any other religious narrative. It makes sense that if we are a few centuries away from “inventing God”--either through improving ourselves, machines gaining sentience, or a combination of the two, that such an invention already exists elsewhere. 4. An alien. Which is actually what Mormons believe. Also Superman. It is possible that there exists out there somewhere a being so powerful and evolved that they would fit the definition of God. That being doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of us. 5. Oversoul. An analogy I am most hopeful about is perhaps God is to consciousness as consciousness is to neurons. We are made up of trillions of cells (and ten times as many microbes, which makes us hybrids). These cells are not aware of us, but we can influence them. We care for them. If God represents a totality of all things, God could still be

conscious and caring. At the same time, our present limitations and the state of reality would limit that God. We would therefore bear responsibility for the divine work as literal parts of the divine soul. (And if you want or need any of these gods to create the universe, just add a turtle to the theory) I dream of religion so good it does not need to be true, but these approaches to reconstruction takes a significant step further—we can articulate new myths, construct new systems of meaning that both conform to our best understanding of the world and at the same time motivate us to make that world better.