A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Both views, especially at the incompatible end, are heavily influenced by the modern rationalistic view where knowledge of the world (as opposed to understanding or spirituality) is put above everything else, so that even religion is judged by such standards. As such, these stages are not entirely “natural”, rather tied to particular historical circumstances, and in particular they do not represent a development that would have happened over a long time in actual history, as our ancestors apparently did not hold the early-stage views by any means. Nor do they have to match anything in all detail, just to show possibilities. (The naturalist side, B, does fairly closely match my own development, with my having reached stage 3 by the end of adolescence and now edging towards stage 5, though I never rejected ethics in the way of stage 1.)

Simplex, complex and multiplex are terms taken from Samuel R. Delany’s novel Empire Star, which I have found very useful in spelling out why some people just cannot accept certain quite logical ideas. You can read more about them here. They are hard to explain — I am not sure how completely I understand them myself — and probably will not give the reader much, but they helped me structure this very naturally. Shortly put, as I understand it, simplex thinking is incapable of looking at more than one point of view and disvalues others; complex thinking is capable of taking detours outside one point of view to see how others affect it; and multiplex thinking is capable of moving around outside particular points of view and seeing them at once, not troubled by their apparent contradictions because it can see how they really fit together.

Stage 1: “Fundamentalism” (simplex)

1A: Religion is the basis of knowledge and value. Religious stories are true and proven, and science is of no value if it contradicts them. One should believe in God to achieve eternal life, because nothing else would be rational. This world doesn’t matter in comparison to the future eternity. Morality is what God tells you to do and could be nothing otherwise. People disbelieve because they are stupid.

1B: Science is the basis of knowledge and what to think of value. Science tells us how the world is. Morality is subjective and outmoded and human beings are just evolutionary breeding machines. Religion is a very bad attempt at knowing what the world is like and should be abandoned. People believe because they’re stupid.

Stage 2: Toleration (simplex verging on complex)

2A: Religion is the basis of true knowledge and all value. Science can tell us a few things, but it can’t contradict the basic teachings of religion or we’d end up in a world with no morality or salvation. Religion provides spiritual comfort in this world but the eternal reward it offers is the most important thing.

2B: Science tells us how the world is. Religion is a bad attempt at knowing this. However, it can also provide people with comfort, and some people have no way of knowing better. Belief is sort of understandable but still a result of weakness. Morality is not real as people think it is, but we should try to get along.

Stage 3: Acceptance (complex)

3A: Religion tells us how very basic things in life are — God, afterlife — but all its myths are not to be taken literally. Science tells us how the world is, but cannot provide meaning. Morality is rooted in God but embedded in the world around us and based on heeding our fellow beings.

3B: Science tells us how things are. Religion makes mistaken claims about how things are, but it has other functions that are valuable, giving meaning to life. Still, only those who can’t deal with things otherwise need religion, yet they are not to be looked down upon. We need to figure out morality for ourselves, but it’s important, and science can only be a help, religion being both good and bad for one’s morality.

Stage 4: Complementarism (complex verging on multiplex)

4A: Science tells us how things are, though the very basic claims of religion are true. One must look both inward and outward. Morality is based on the world and must be learnt and created, though God represents the supreme moral value. How things are and what value they have are two sides of the same coin.

4B: Science tells us how things are. Spirituality is also vital to give meaning to life. Morality is not inherent in the world, but it is important that it be learnt and created. How things are and what value they have are two sides of the same coin. The claims of religion are strictly false and there is no God, but taken as symbolical they can tell us deep truths in a different sense.

Stage 5: Synthesis (multiplex)

5: Science tells us how things are, spirituality gives meaning to life. Properly understood, there is no sense in the question of whether God exists; it’s not a scientific question about something concrete existing in the world — not even a particularly inscrutable and transcendent something if that something nevertheless is separate from the rest of what there is as revealed by science — but rather, we can understand the world (as revealed by science) in a way that involves a supreme concept of value. Morality, too, does not simply exist, but it is implied by our situation in the world. Things like a concrete afterlife are contrary to evidence — and pointless to believe in if one has the strength of true faith, which does not ask for rewards or assurances. Not being about concrete statements about the world does not diminish religion in any way, quite the contrary. Mythical claims that are not literally true in the sense that science is may still be sensibly made and have meaning. Faith is not belief, it is an attitude that gets us through life. The supernatural is a part of myth, not real in a scientific sense (but not just unreal either because myths can be significant in a different way). Science has no power to refute religion properly conceived, nor vice versa, as they’re not talking about even “different things” but differently about the same thing.

The last stage may sound as if it privileges science over religion. If it does, you are simply still thinking in the modern way in which knowing objective things about the world is more important than living a life of value. Put so directly, it’s probably a lot clearer that this is not so. The last stage privileges science in terms of objective knowledge and spirituality/religion in terms of the meaning of life. It’s true that I’m saying at least modern Western religion is quite confused about what it should be. What it should be and a lot of what it actually is is still of value. Besides, science is also confused; it can acquire knowledge, but too often it either ignores other vital aspects of living, or is used in a simple-minded way to generate answers to such questions that are just stupid. We do need something else, and done right, religion is in the business of being that something else.

In the earlier stages, it is the case that the naturalistic view is relatively more correct. That’s because the kind of religious view that I’m looking at there is a confused one that is pretending to be scientific; it has the flaws of both views without their strengths.


  • Nicholas Maxwell: From Knowledge to Wisdom. A Revolution for Science and the Humanities. Not talking about religion, but argues that while science is the right way to obtain knowledge, there needs (even in science) to be more of a focus on other values as well. There is also mention of a conception of god that fits the synthesis stage above, though this actually involves splitting “god” in two.
  • Karen Armstrong: The Battle for God. Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The main source for this idea; argues that the modern world has forgotten the meaning of mythical thinking and, even in regards to religion, assumes statements can only be of value if they are empirically true, whereas myths were created to have a different, spiritual–psychological–social function.
  • Mary Midgley: The Ethical Primate. Humans, Freedom and Morality. In similar lines as Maxwell, advocates seeing what’s important besides what’s stereotypically scientific.
  • Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. A contrary view; emphasizes the role of the supernatural in the emergence and persistence of religion.

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