Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function.

—George Santayana

This little passage contains multitudes. Santayana’s attitude towards religion is refreshingly balanced. An atheist himself, he nevertheless finds much to value in religion. He has the admirable ability—so rare, apparently—to balance an awareness of religion’s irrationality with its nobler impulses.

I am tempted to agree with Santayana in dismissing those who “plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion,” ridiculing their dogmas and disproving their tenets, such as the so-called New Atheists do. For one, it is very easy. Every shred of evidence and convincing argument is on the side of the naturalistic, scientific worldview. Indeed, no thinking person could fail to note the huge part played by hopeful emotion, unchecked by the cold light of reason, in religious belief. As Santayana goes on to say:

The only truth of religion comes from its interpretation of life, from its symbolic rendering of that aspiration which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate. Its falsehood comes from the insidious misunderstanding which clings to it, to the effect that these poetic conceptions are not merely poetical, but are literal information about experience or reality elsewhere—an experience and reality which, strangely enough, supply just the defects betrayed by reality and experience here.

The last remark of this passage is key to my skepticism of all religious belief. For it always seems that the promises of belief—blessings, good fortune, an afterlife—all coincidentally compensate precisely for the defects we find in our lives here and now. In other words, it is almost naked wishful thinking, thinly disguised as a supernatural promise.

In any case, the lack of logical cogency of supernatural beliefs, combined with the obvious emotional motivation of such beliefs, would seem to render it superfluous to argue with or disprove them. They fail every test of reasonable belief, and thus do not merit reasonable rejoinder. Nevertheless, the huge prevalence of such supernatural beliefs—present in the majority of our species, their absurdity apparently not “something which the blindest half can see”—and their concomitant influence on human behavior, would seem to make it necessary to lay out the case against religious belief.

Of course, such a rejoinder need not be done with vituperation and bitterness—qualities guaranteed to make any listeners unreceptive. And, in any case, explaining why religious belief is unreasonable leaves untouched the far more mysterious question: If it is manifestly unreasonable, why do so many people believe?

Theories abound. James Frazer thought that superstition and religious belief were just proto-science. Sigmund Freud thought religion an illusion motivated by psychological drives, and Emile Durkheim thought religion a tool of social cohesion. Daniel Dennett put forward the idea that religion was a kind of mental virus. Jonathan Haidt largely agrees with Durkheim, though he puts his own Darwinian twist on the idea. And this is only a small sampling.

All of these theories may have their grain of truth. But I think any explanation will be incomplete if it does not take into account what Santayana was so acutely aware of: religion’s poetry. Indeed, for Santayana religion was itself a kind of poetry:

Thus religion has the same original relation to life that poetry has . . . The poetic value of religion would initially be greater than that of poetry itself, because religion deals with higher and more vital themes, with sides of life which are in greater need of some imaginative touch and ideal interpretation than are those pleasant or pompous things which ordinary poetry dwells upon. But this initial advance is neutralised in party by the abuse to which religion is subject, whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth.

Poetry allows us to dwell on the too often overlooked beauty of life, to savor the ironies and tragedies of the day, to pinpoint and express fleeting emotions. Religion does this, too, but on an altogether grander scale. Rather than imbuing life with a personal aesthetic sensibility, the aesthetics of a religion are impersonal, belonging to a whole community. Not only that, but the subjects that religions concern themselves with—birth, marriage, suffering, death—belong to nobody and everybody, being the most universal and critical of the human condition.

The beneficent social role that such communal poetry can play should not be underestimated. Religions allow us to see the meaning of times of crisis, prompts us to feel the significance of life’s transitions, and gives us a common emotional language that binds us together. Like any sublime poetry, religion can raise our eyes above humdrum concerns, and point our gaze to things of lasting importance.

From this description I hope you can see that I am not wholly insensitive to the value of religion. Believe me, the trivial pursuits of modern life, with all its squalid materialism and narrow selfishness, make me all the more acutely aware of the role that religion can play in a society. The prosaic world of today is in desperate need of poetry.

The problem, as Santayana points out, is that religions insist that their poetry be taken literally. And in the process, the poetry is destroyed. Religion then ceases to be a sublime poetry and becomes a vulgar superstition. And the more that these traditional beliefs clash with our scientific understanding of the world, the more it drives a wedge into the fabric of society, forcing people to choose between faith and reason. Indeed, in such circumstances religions can lose their moral superiority completely, becoming just as worldly as the rest of the world.

Is it possible to maintain the benefits of religious belief—its ability to guide us through times of crisis, its source of common values and a common language, its ability to remove us from vulgar materialism—with the benefits of rationalism? Can we have a communal poetry that we acknowledge to be poetry—not truth? Looking around the world, the answer seems to be no.

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