If you’re like me, you learned a patriotic song called “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” And then later you probably learned that the tune is taken from the British anthem “God Save the Queen” (or “God Save the King,” depending on the presence or absence of a Y chromosome in the reigning monarch at any given time). And for some reason thinking about these two songs has helped me clarify some of thoughts about religion that I’ve been struggling to put into words.
In addition to sharing a tune, the songs are very similar in emotional terms. Both arouse and celebrate a sense of national pride, with a very Anglo-American kind of self-congratulatory zeal. Both seek to engage the listener with something intangible, precious and transcendent.
Here’s what struck me as interesting. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” is directed at the nation as an abstract entity, a “sweet land of liberty,” while “God Save the Queen” identifies the nation with an actual person, the reigning monarch. And although this seems like a large difference – between a largely metaphorical construct on one hand and an actual 88-year-old woman with a fondness for Corgis – the fact that Queen Elizabeth II actually exists is not that really that important. The song is not trying to convince the British to love their country because of the personal attributes of any particular monarch. The monarch serves as a focal point for a person’s patriotic (or unpatriotic) feelings, but the song could just as easily be addressed to “Britannia” or some other fictional construct. Indeed, for purposes of the song the Queen is essentially a fictional construct. If the British someday stopped having a monarch, they would not stop having patriotic feelings. They would just have to find different rhetorical devices with which to express them.
Both the “sweet land of liberty” and “the Queen” are simply ways of talking about aspects of a national character that can’t be fully described in concrete terms. And obviously people listening to either of these songs will have different feelings about these abstract concepts, but the difference is not a function of which construct is used. Two British people listening to the exact same rendition of “God Save the Queen” might have diametrically opposed reactions, even though they are using the same focal point to process their patriotic (or unpatriotic) feelings. Conversely, some Americans listening to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” might have feelings very similar to those of their British counterparts, even though the focal point of that song is a fictional construct rather than an actual person. In each case, the identity and attitude of the listener is vastly more important than which rhetorical device they happen to be using.
A similar dynamic seems to apply to religion. I’m not sure that it actually matters that much whether you accept the premise that God exists. And I say that as a fairly committed atheist. But I find whenever I am thinking about the really important intangible questions – things like justice, compassion, equality, and forgiveness – my thought process could easily be described in religious terminology. Roughly speaking, I am trying to imagine how a loving, omniscient intelligence would deal with a particular problem. Or to put it another way, “What would Jesus do?” I view this thought experiment as a hypothetical exercise, but I do not think that really changes the result. If we are going to ponder abstract questions at all, we have to project ourselves into some perspective that transcends our individual experience to some degree. The precise terminology that we use to describe this contemplation is less important than we seem to think.
John Rawls famously employed the image of a “veil of ignorance,” from which a person could make theoretically unbiased choices about how to structure society. Rawls did not really believe that such a thing was possible, but he used it as a way of articulating ideas about fairness and equality. If, centuries from now, a group of people got confused and came to believe that Rawls’ veil of ignorance really existed in the distant past, like the Golden Fleece, would that make any difference to its value as an intellectual tool?
We spend a great deal of time talking about what focal points people are using: Christian, Muslim, secular, and so on. The implication is that the choice of a particular religious or philosophical focal point makes an important difference in the result, but I don’t see any strong evidence for that view. People working within an ostensibly Christian or Muslim worldview have produced staggeringly different approaches to ethical and metaphysical questions, and there does not seem to be any consistent correlation between the religious framework and the result. Strict, authoritarian personalities tend to adopt strict, authoritarian philosophies, whether they find them in the New Testament or the Koran or a purely secular book. Tolerant, liberal personalities tend to find tolerant, liberal philosophies in the same books.
And none of these people are being dishonest. The texts support a wide range of different conclusions, depending on what one chooses to emphasize. Robert Wright wrote an excellent book called The Evolution of God exploring why this is the case. The short version is this: Any religious tradition that survives will go through different periods of war and peace, of scarcity and plenty. Sometimes members must be rallied to defend the group, sometimes the group needs to make peace. These changing conditions end up being reflected in the group’s oral and written traditions, meaning that later generations will have their plenty of material from which to call for either belligerence or conciliation, orthodoxy or tolerance. Just within the Gospel of Matthew you can choose to quote the sentence “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” or to meditate on the words “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Seek and ye shall find. Or, to quote a member of my personal pantheon, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
This does not make religious texts meaningless or unworthy of consideration. These books contain real wisdom about how to live, acquired and refined over centuries by often brave and brilliant people. Dismissing all of that as “superstition” or “fairy tales” is profoundly short-sighted. Whether or not you consider a text to be literally true, you may find guidance and inspiration there. Shakespeare was convinced that people’s personalities were guided by the “humours” in their bodies. That error does not mean that Shakespeare’s thoughts on the human condition should be disregarded.
I started thinking about all of this because of a series of conversations with my older brother Steven. He believes in God, and I do not. And yet we have both been surprised by how little difference that makes to our views on ethical and philosophical questions. Our approaches to these questions is strikingly, almost eerily similar. If the choice between a religious and secular worldview were determinative, we should have much more divergent opinions. What seems to be happening is that we are each picking out a very similar tune, using different instruments. Certain chords resonate no matter how they are produced.
Scott Adams wrote an excellent piece along these lines, describing religion as a form of “user interface” with reality:
Today when I hear people debate the existence of God, it feels exactly like debating whether the software they are using is hosted on Amazon’s servers or Rackspace. From a practical perspective, it probably doesn’t matter to the user one way or the other. All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect.
This pretty much sums up my current attitude toward religion. If someone has a philosophy of compassion, justice and honesty that is derived from a holy book, I will gratefully accept whatever wisdom I can glean from it. The substance is much more important than the source.