In Week 1, we watched a video in which Alain de Botton argued that religion serves many good functions in life, many of which may be able to exist apart from belief in the supernatural. For example, religion gives us a connection to something greater than ourselves, which generates community, promotes a sense of awe and wonder for the world, and motivates us to moral goodness. Botton challenges his fellow atheists to invent a secular replacement for religion that is able to accomplish these good things without requiring beliefs that conflict with modern science. In this week’s Required Multimedia, we watched a video in which Karen Armstrong went further, suggesting that even traditional religions can be practiced in a way that does not conflict with modern science, as long as the stories in those religions are treated as mythology instead of as literal history.
You will recall from Week 1 that mythological stories are those stories we accept whether or not they are true. One difference between religion and mythology is that most religious people believe their stories are actually true, whereas myth may or may not be true. If you are religious, you might be one of those who believes the stories in the Bible are literally true, even if they sometimes conflict with modern science. But not everyone is able to believe in religion literally. Yet if Armstrong and Botton are correct, then they are missing out on an important area of human life. Remember that religion is broader than just mythology; in Clifford Geertz’s terms religion is a whole “cultural system” that accomplishes all the things Botton describes.
This journal explores the importance of religion for modern life. Imagine you are debating an atheist who believes we must base our lives only on what can be proven scientifically. (Perhaps you believe this yourself! If so, take up the contrary position for the sake of argument.) Write a two to three-paged debate-style “opening statement” in which you provide reasons to believe that science alone cannot provide everything that necessary for living a good human life, and argue instead that religion (including mythology, art, ritual, etc.) is necessary even for those who do not believe in anything supernatural (e.g., God, the afterlife, miracles, etc.). Even if you disagree with this idea, imagine the perspective of someone who agrees and try to make your argument as convincing as possible. Be sure to explain the difference between science and religion, as you understand it.
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