Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Summary – Personal Postscript. Part 16, Chapter 15
by Erv Taylor
By Ervin Taylor
Submitted September 23, 2013
This is the concluding segment of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summaries have been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. My own comments on this concluding segment will follow in regular type.
There is no wealth but life.
John Ruskin, Unto This Last
The Necessity of Ideology
To function in the world we need goals and values and we like to have an explanation for our goals and values. This explanation may be thought of as our personal ideology. For the last few thousand years a religion has been the most common way of providing this ideology. For most people religious indoctrination comes through their family and culture and is largely set in place while they are very young and impressionable; usually less than ten years old. For the majority this is then set for life.
Varieties of Need for Religious Belief
Some have thought that the most important benefit of religion is to re-enforce our natural optimism in the face of uncertainty or catastrophe. People do vary greatly in their need for and appreciation of religious support. There will probably never be a universal ideology or religious program that satisfies all human needs. The most desirable human society may be one that nurtures and protects a wide variety of ideologies without letting any one of them become dominant and controlling. Intolerance would be that society’s great “sin.”
Emotion and Reason
Religious loyalties are usually enmeshed with powerful emotions. They do not spring from some rational analysis of the world. The religious claim that reason and faith are both ways to knowledge but faith is clearly used to support a variety of conflicting religious claims while rational analysis only supports one system of scientific understanding. Theology attempts rational explanations for specific religious traditions but is probably irrelevant for the majority of lay members.
The Price of Refuge
The religious refuge has many kinds of costs. The financial cost includes at least that of clergy, missions, schools and memorial architecture. An emotional cost for some religious people is that of separating from an evil world: losing friends and family who won’t share their belief system. There also may be the cost of guilt over breaking victimless rules.
Nihilism about the world may mean giving up on attempts to find happiness in this world as one urgently seeks salvation in another world. Seeking escape through a monastic life may also lead to an emotional life impoverished by the absence of the struggles and rewards of sexuality and family.
She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist.
Jean Paul Sartre, The Words
Ideological beliefs that are held with confidence or certainty contain within that confidence a demand to control others, so as to make them do what is in their own best long-term interest. Such certainties have justified innumerable human evils. Our only certainty should probably be that our understandings are conditional and evolving.
Religious history itself is a long argument against religious certainty. Some religions however depend on confident claims that they know the mind of God, to justify their calls for contributions and control of the believer’s life.
Belief in some form of alternate reality or supernatural realm seems common to all religions. None offers a description of a method for a living human to use in validating this belief. Alternatively we have no method of disproving the existence of this realm. Over many years one may look at the day-to-day operation of the world and find there no evidence that any supernatural power is concerned with human experiences of good or evil.
Confident claims about ultimate origins are most reasonably judged to be faith statements, whether they are religious or scientific. The Intelligent Design movement has offered some interesting talking points but none seems as compelling as the success of evolutionary models in helping us understand the relationships in the living world. We will never have enough information to be sure of every detail of everything that happened in the past.
Religion as a Political and Practical Tool
Religions may be seen as practical ideological tools useable to encourage or discourage various behaviors that leaders find useful. With confident belief one can justify persecution or destruction of the enemies of the faith or of God, especially when those are thought identical. Religion may also be used to encourage charity and concern for the weak and downtrodden. In any durable and important conflict, religion is usually found on both sides—see, for instance, the American Civil War and Nazi Germany.
Thoughts for Life Regardless of Religion
These are a few thoughts about a satisfying life with or without religion.
Happiness is now.
Respect all life.
One route to happiness is to make another life happy.
There is much beauty, if you look.
Most people are doing the best they can.
The most rewarding thing is to create.
Life has the meaning we give it.
Humor about our life brings perspective and humility.
A better God than those offered is imaginable.
Beware of those who serve an angry God.
I wanted to express my appreciation to Dr. Wilbur for providing this series of summaries of a book which, in my view, contains an array of topics that could be used as the basis of many hours, days, months, and years of fruitful discussion.
After reading the many comments responding to how Dr. Wilbur has approached the “power and illusion” of religion, it is clear, at least to this reader, that his approach to how what we understand as the religious impulse of the human species at this stage of our biological and cultural evolution would not meet the needs of the vast majority of those whose religious identification is grounded and defined in terms of the current traditional Adventist world view, which is now significantly shared by a percentage of those who follow the traditions of evangelical Protestantism.
Dr. Wilbur’s approach is especially not helpful to the personality types that are attracted to what classical Adventism offers to its adherents—total and complete certainly about what is going to happen in the future and total and complete confidence in what one has to do to make sure that they end up on the “right side” at the end which is coming, they believe, very, very soon.
Dr. Wilbur’s vision of the how and why religion functions is a totally rational and realistic one that strips away the ethos of mysticism and Biblicism that traditional Adventism still retains from its origins. His clear-eyed understanding of how religion functions in the real world of the 21st Century might have to await the coming of the 22nd or 23rd Century for it to be widely appreciated by adherents of a future Adventism.