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Review: Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail

Religion Not about GodWhat is religion? Where does religion come from? What function does religion have in human individuals and societies? Can religion survive modernity? What might the future of religion look like? These are five incredibly lofty questions, the likes of which few scholars are prepared to approach. In his refreshingly accessible book Religion Is Not about God (Rutgers University Press, 2005), Loyal Rue attempts to answer all five.

Though he presents an intriguing general, naturalistic theory of religion, Rue seems ultimately motivated by an ardent concern for the future of the planet. He takes his reader on an epic journey through time: beginning with the creation of the universe and the Milky Way galaxy, he continues on through the “spontaneous emergence” of living creatures from the “chemical soup of Planet Earth,” pausing a moment to note the evolution of humans (as “star-born, earth-formed, fitness-maximizing biochemical systems”), and pausing further to detail the complexity of the emergence of human behavior and emotional systems. He then continues on through the development and flourishing of five major world religious traditions.

This brings the reader into the present, which in his estimation is characterized by two crises: the crisis of plausibility facing traditional religious systems, and the environmental crisis facing all creatures on Planet Earth.Rue does not foresee a viable way for humanity to avoid impending doom, and thus prophesys an apocalyptic narrative in which humans “[descend] into hell” and the world experiences a “holocaust” – a worldwide “day of reckoning” (361, 356). However, as the dust settles, he envisions a sense of renewal and hope - a “remnant” of humans will “clamor for ways to make their experience intelligible and restore the conditions for personal wholeness and social coherence”: “From the ashes of global collapse we may expect to see a phoenix arise in the form of a new Nature-centered meta-myth: the Myth of Religious Naturalism” (361-362).

In the midst of his passionate narrative of the past, present, and future of religion, Rue lays out his general naturalistic theory of religion, which is the most helpful aspect of the book from the perspective of the scientific study of religion. His theory is “general” in the sense that it applies to all religious traditions in all times and places, and “naturalistic” in the sense that it “reduces religious experiences and expressions to the status of natural events having natural causes” (2). To this end, he refers to his approach as “consilient scientific materialism”; he seeks to integrate insights from multiple disciplines including biochemistry, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and the social sciences to construct a unified theory of the nature of religion (14).

For Rue, each religion is built upon a root metaphor – a central myth that provides the cultural tradition with a unified vocabulary for both cosmology and morality. By systematically committing the naturalistic fallacy, religions simultaneously provide and fuse together an ultimate explanation for all facts and an ultimate justification for all values. For Rue, myths are “florid and provocative” stories; in order for them to be effective, they must be “entertaining, easy to remember, and broadly appealing to persons of all ages and levels of sophistication” (129). However, for Rue, “religion is not about God,” rather it is about being convinced of (or allowing oneself to feel as if one believes) the mythical narrative and appreciating its effects. The root metaphor – for Abrahamic myths, the concept of God as person and creator; for Hinduism, Dharma; and for Chinese religious, the Tao – and its intrinsic morality function to enhance the personal wholeness of the believer and the social cohesion of the religious community. This, then, is the function of religion: to work toward the “twin teloi” of personal wholeness and social cohesion. In other words, “every tradition provides us with the resources for therapy and politics” (160). Thus, religious people must “[negotiate] mergers between facts and values, between reality operators and valence operators” and must fully internalize the narrative core of the tradition (126). Likewise, communities must construct and employ “ancillary strategies” for maintaining the validity and cultural integration of the root metaphor. Rue describes five categories of strategies: intellectual, aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional. Though various traditions will undoubtedly employ each of the ancillary strategies to different degrees – some relying more heavily on intellectual strategies, others on aesthetic or experiential strategies, for example – every tradition must adopt elements from each ancillary dimension to remain viable.

In Part II, as evidence for his theory, Rue takes a systematic look at five of the most prominent world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. He analyzes the historical context out of which each tradition developed; summarizes the tradition’s central myth, its emotional appeal, and its ancillary strategies; and describes how each religious system functions to engender personal wholeness and social coherence within its unique context.

Part III consists of Rue’s speculations for the future of religion, which I briefly summarized above. However, before diving into his doomsday predictions, Rue describes a sixth root myth that he suggests is currently contributing, along with scientism, to the crisis of plausibility of traditional religious systems: Consumerism. He suggests that the Myth of Market Providence depends on “the idea that the free market has a self-regulating and prudential sovereignty… The market is our savior from want, our path to fulfillment… Happiness will be maximized, and human nature fulfilled, by consuming material goods and services in the marketplace” (331). Instead of bringing out values to the marketplace, he laments, we have begun taking them from the marketplace and submitting ourselves to the deceptive appeal of materialism (339). As with the five religious traditions, he outlines the emotional appeal and ancillary strategies of Consumerism. The danger that Consumerism poses is twofold: not only is it challenging the perceived realism of the traditional myths, it is also “a major force driving us toward an environmental crisis of global proportions” (340).

Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God is essentially a hybrid work, consisting of both a systematic theory of religion and an apologetic for religious naturalism as a viable alternative and corrective response to the failing traditional religions. Rue’s multi-layered work invites considerable conversation, questions, and critiques. In fact, Rue maintains a humble approach throughout the book, admitting that he incorporates much speculation in his theory and predictions, and recognizes that his ideas are vulnerable to correction.

First, although Rue’s theory of religion is plausible, engaging, and makes use of multiple scientific disciplines, the theory itself does not fully qualify as a scientific theory, as it does not lend itself to empirical testing and is not falsifiable. In favor of weaving together philosophical speculation, story-telling, and scientific theory to essentially produce a narrative for religious naturalism, Rue sacrifices a sense of scientific coherence. Thus, though this book contributes engaging ideas and philosophical insights, further articulation of the theory is needed for it to meet the requirements of a scientific theory.

Second, Rue’s theory of religion relies on an extremely positive and invariably pro-social conceptualization of the function of religion. He suggests that “whenever solidarity, cooperation, security, and harmony appear to be decreasing, or whenever social animosity, discrimination, injustice, and conflict appear to be increasing, we may begin to suspect a failure of religious function” (160). However, though a theologian could certainly argue that such negative effects might be a sign of bad theology, such a claim within a theory of religion would require evidentiary support. There are plenty of anecdotal examples wherein injustice, discrimination, and animosity seem to exist rather comfortably alongside thriving religious traditions. Thus, further theorizing to elucidate what can be attributed to the functions and effect of religion is needed.

My third note arises in the form of a question: is religion really not about God? Rue argues that “the entire language of theology is absorbed without a trace into the vocabulary of therapy and politics” (161). The idea of supernatural beings is entirely unnecessary for Rue’s theory of religion, and their arising in religious traditions is incidental. Though I am not prepared to argue that religion is about god or supernatural/disembodied agents, it is worth pointing out how unique this claim is within the scientific study of religion. Can we reduce away the prevalence of supernatural agents in world religions? Is religion only therapy and politics?

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