by Ervin Taylor
Summary of Chapter 1: Introductory Comments and Concerns
“For the believer, when myth and reality meet, myth wins—being dream and hope”.
The above is lifted directly from the opening of the book. The importance of religion is then noted though few need convincing of this. A section is devoted to discussing the difference between public religion and some form of private religion often referred to as spirituality. People who avoid identification with an organized religion and even some atheists may claim an existential connection with the universe or report some deep ultimate concerns that they think of as spiritual. These are not the concerns of this book.
A naturalistic assumption in the study of religion is assumed and defended. Religions themselves do not offer public evidence that allow us to compare claims and apply our reason to observations of the religious world. Rational analysis of what we see and find in our world has proven to be the only universal route to useful truth even though it relies on fallible human reasoning, sometimes at least temporarily failing. The alternative of accepting truth claims based on authority, religious or otherwise, has created diversity and factions; sometimes anger and war.
Some religions have had great success gaining adherents and some people have come to think that this success is in some way an argument for the truth of the belief system offered by that religion. The reality is that this proves the usefulness of that religion’s beliefs in organizing the human world—how it meets human needs—and has nothing to do with claims about truth in terms of a deep understanding of either the natural or supernatural. Conflicting and bizarre claims of various religious groups demonstrate this disconnect.
All religions are treated in this text as a single class each trying to fill largely the same set of human needs in their followers. Some are more sophisticated than others and the older larger ones tend to have many strands the better to serve a range of human emotional and intellectual needs. These belief systems are supported by claims about the supernatural that can never be tested or disproved and this provides a certain continuity that can be claimed regardless of what happens in the real world.
My commentary is limited by being the observations of one man living for a short time in a largely Christian society—but intensely interested in the world around him. My personal religious journey included acculturation to a fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventism followed by gradually increasing skepticism first of that tradition and eventually after much study of all supernatural belief systems. In my old age I heard Yeats’ commentary that “man can embody the truth but he can never know the truth” and I thought that was a wonderful comment that could be directed at religion. I had come to realize that my believing friends were intelligent and sincere and that religion was very important to them. This book is my attempt to understand these observations. Religion remains an ideological tool of power and risk.