Why everyone is religious…or rather, nobody.
In the course of day-to-day conversation, virtually everyone has heard someone make the statement, “I am not religious,” in order to convey a lack of affiliation with theistic belief systems such as Christianity. But one can only doubt Christianity from the vantage point of another belief system, because everyone needs a belief system in order to make sense of one’s experience. Therefore, one can only be “not religious” from the vantage point of a different religion (or belief system), whether or not one chooses to apply the term religion to one’s belief system.
Defining the term religion is very difficult
And, considering the difficulty of defining just what religion is, the meaning of a statement such as “I am not religious” is unclear. Dean Overman, a Templeton Scholar from Oxford University writes in A Case for the Divinity of Jesus:
Defining what one means by the term “religion” is not an easy task. Keith Ward, former Regius Professor of Divinity and head of the theology department at Oxford University, wrote a highly acclaimed five-volume series on comparative religions. In one of his recent books, The Case for Religion, he notes that defining the term “religion” is not a simple undertaking: “Many colleges in America and Europe have courses on ‘Religion.’ These courses usually start with a lecture entitled ‘What is Religion?’ After running through a few dozen definitions, the lecturer almost invariably concludes that nobody knows what religion is, or is even sure that there is such a thing. The course continues to be called courses on religion, however, because that sounds better than having a course entitled, “I do not know what I am talking about.”
There is no plausible benchmark for deciding when one can or cannot include a given set of beliefs as a religion.
For example, some may try to define religion as “belief systems which include the existence of God.” But this definition would exclude religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism (an ancient religion from India), and certain forms of Satanism, etc. Atheists and agnostics can only portray themselves as “not religious” by first defining religion as belief systems which are theistic. But atheism and agnosticism fit many of the diverse definitions of religion present in religious scholarship.
Everyone has a belief system, whether or not the word religion is applied
And everyone (whether Christian, Hindu, atheist, or agnostic, etc.) has a set of beliefs, or an interpretive framework. This is the case whether or not one chooses to apply the term religion to one’s belief system. K.A. Smith comments in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church:
“We all – whether naturalists, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians – see the world through the grid of an interpretive framework – and ultimately this interpretive framework is religious in nature, even if not allied with a particular institutional religion.”
Even the most hardened atheist needs an interpretive lens, through which to view the world, which is comprised of a set of beliefs. For example, atheism cites unintelligent natural processes of evolution working upon inanimate matter to explain the origin of conscious, intelligent, and personal beings such as ourselves.
Atheism is superstitious, not theism
Outspoken atheists are often fond of portraying theistic interpretive frameworks such as Christianity as superstitious or “woo-woo,” but it is not difficult to see why atheism is clearly the more superstitious worldview: Citing a non-conscious cause for consciousness, an unintelligent cause for intelligence, an impersonal cause for personhood, or a non-rational cause for reason, (etc.) is impossible to philosophically justify because, as Edwar Feser puts it The Last Superstition, “a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give.” Feser skillfully elaborates:
…the cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used.
The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself on fire, but has an inherent power to produce fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give.
Material things such as atoms and rocks do not contain (either formally or eminently) many of the features we as humans possess…such as consciousness, intelligence, personhood, reason, morality, love, etc. Keith Ward, a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, makes the same point as Feser in his book Doubting Dawkins: Why There Almost Certainly is a God.
“…there is force in the classical philosophical axiom that, for a truly explanatory cause to be intelligible, it must contain its effects potentially in itself. As the classical philosophers put it, the cause must contain more reality than its effects.”
The implication of this philosophical axiom cited by Feser and Ward is that the cause of conscious, intelligent, and personal (etc.) beings such as ourselves must necessarily have the effects of consciousness, intelligence and personhood contained potentially in itself. A cigarette lighter contains the effect of fire potentially in itself (even when not being used), but inanimate material things such as atoms and rocks do not contain the effects of consciousness, intelligence, or personhood potentially in themselves. This is why the only logical option is to cite a conscious, personal, and intelligent cause (read: God) for conscious, personal, and intelligent agents such as ourselves.
Did mind produce matter, or did matter produce mind?
Which came first, intelligent mind (read: God’s mind), or matter? Did God’s mind produce matter, or did intelligent mind only first emerge after human brains evolved as a result of unintelligent processes working on mindless matter? Keith Ward continues:
“Is intelligent mind an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality? Indeed, is it the ultimate nature of reality? Or is mind and consciousness an unforeseen and unintended product of basically material processes of evolution?”
“If you look at the history of philosophy, it soon becomes clear that almost all the great classical philosophers took the first of these views. Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel—they all argued that the ultimate reality, often hidden under the appearances of the material world or time and space, is mind or spirit.”
Although it is a mind-bending concept for many people who live in a society with a deeply entrenched tradition of materialism (the philosophical view that matter comes first, and that consciousness is the eventual product of mindless material processes of evolution), it is important to note that modern physics has verified what the classical philosophers long ago concluded: Conscious mind (read: God’s mind) comes first, and matter is a product of conscious mind. As Max Planck, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who founded quantum physics, put it:
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
Planck also said,
“Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.”
Princeton University quantum physicist Freeman Dyson, who is among the most distinguished of living scientists, echoes Planck’s above comments:
“Atoms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe is also weird, with its laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it passes beyond the scale of our comprehension.”
Considering how mind-bending and strange the concept of conscious mind preceding (and producing) matter must seem to the average person raised in a society with deeply seated materialistic assumptions, readers are encouraged to read my essay titled God Is Real…Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism, Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry’s essay The Mental Universe, and University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe for a more thorough exploration of this topic.