Quakerism: A Useful Delusion?
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.” So writes Richard Dawkins, the noted evolutionary biologist. And he may be right. But if religion is a delusion, Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler argue that it is a useful delusion.
In the last chapter of their book, Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, Vedantam and Mesler describe several benefits of religion, even if it’s assumed to be false. (1) Religion helps us cope with the fear of death, (2) it reinforces the idea of morality, and (3) it fosters better physical and mental health.
Quakerism is a type of religion. So, it should have the three benefits listed above. (1) Coping with the fear of death is, however, a little problematic for Friends like me. I feel certain that God exists but not at all sure that we have a soul or spirit surviving after the death of our physical bodies. The phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences gives me some hope of an afterlife as does the Christian teaching about Heaven and Resurrection. The terror of death I feel is at least somewhat mitigated by these factors, but I envy those Christians and Quakers who have the same view as that expressed by Emily Dickinson:
I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet now I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
There are, of course, those Friends whose Quakerism has helped them to see death as a natural stage of life and something to be accepted without fear. I greatly admire their detachment, what I might even call their wisdom. Still, Quakerism clearly does not do as good a job at banishing the fear of death as do some of the Christian Evangelical denominations.
(2) Religion is obviously not necessary for leading a moral, ethical life, but religion may have originated as a guarantee of morality. When humankind existed in small, hunter-gatherer bands, everyone in the group knew everyone else. It was known who could be trusted and who was devious. As society evolved into larger agricultural communities and communities began to trade among themselves, strangers had to be dealt with. If a stranger worshiped the same god or gods, it was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that he could be trusted to do his share of community work or not to cheat in a business deal with someone from a different tribe.
Quakerism comes out rather well as a guarantee of morality. Early Quakers had a central testimony of integrity in life. Integrity meant following the commands of a just God—for example, never lying or even misleading others. Early Friends who owned businesses soon abandoned the common custom of setting high prices and haggling for an actual selling price. They placed fixed, reasonable prices on goods and acquired a general reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. This reputation led to success in business and banking for Quaker families like the Cadburys, Rowntrees, and Frys. It also explains modern business using the Quaker name to market oats and oil.
(3) Finally, there is the matter of religious people being healthier and living longer than their more skeptical counterparts. For example, in a 2018 study entitled “Does Religion Stave Off the Grave,” Laura Wallace and her fellow researchers analyzed obituaries, classifying the deceased as religious if the obituary revealed the person’s attendance at a church or synagogue. After allowing for the effects of gender and marital status, one sample showed religious subjects living 6.48 years longer than non-religious subjects. Another sample showed a difference of 3.82 years. Let’s just say you live four years longer by going to church, synagogue, or Quaker meeting.
Why? Well, there are numerous factors. Religious people tend to have a sense of purpose and order in life. That decreases the stress that contributes to cardiac and other disease. Better mental health leads to better physical health (mind and body are not separate).
Also, religious groups tend to discourage unhealthy habits like drinking alcohol or smoking. For example, Query 8 of NYYM’s Faith and Practice asks,
Have we confronted our own decisions about our use of alcohol,
tobacco, and other drugs, and do we encourage others to do like-
wise? Have we considered the cost in human suffering that might
result from such use?
Notably, religious groups encourage the socializing and the relationships that are fundamental to good health. Having friends is at least as important as exercise and sleep. Weak social connections correlate with increased depression, cognitive decline, and decreased life expectancy. Moreover, one study indicates that membership in a religious organization is more beneficial than volunteering or playing sports (see the Medical Daily).
I conclude that Quakerism is indeed a useful delusion. But wait! What if religion and Quakerism aren’t delusions? What if—as early Friends were fond of saying—Quakerism is Truth. I personally believe our Society to be very realistic indeed, both in its process of discernment and in its original form as a type of Christianity. Richard Dawkins is wrong, maybe even deluded.
~ Richard Russell
The Paradox of Prayer
Prayer is a common occurrence. Public prayers are offered before sports events and governmental meetings; liturgical prayers are offered in churches; private prayers of the “Dear God, please…” variety escape our lips in traffic jams and grocery lines.
However, Paul Tillich, in a sermon from The New Being, questions whether true prayer is even possible. After all, we are attempting to talk to the Creator of the Universe, who—presumably—already knows our needs and wants before we even enunciate them. Isn’t a kind of prayerless resignation more logical than asking for God’s help or even thanking God. Surely God is not so small as to need our thanks; and if God was going to help us anyway, why bother asking? And if God wasn’t going to help, again—why bother?
The Apostle Paul tackles the problem in Romans 8:26-27:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know
what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us
through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows
the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people
in accordance with the will of God.
Paul’s solution is not so easy to understand. To begin with, what is Spirit? In a Christian context, Spirit is simply God’s felt presence. So, despite our inability to pray except in wordless groans, God himself helps us. God himself intercedes for us. But to whom is Spirit/God interceding? Well, that’s “he who searches our hearts.” And that’s—God himself. God is praying to God for us—we could say through us. We ourselves cannot speak to God. We can only groan in the Divine Presence, the Spirit, and “…he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit.”
In Quaker terms, that of God in every person wordlessly tells God what we need. That is why we may profit from a meeting in which the silence is not broken by a message. The Spirit silently does its work anyway.
~ Richard Russell
How Religious Are You?
After all, you’re a part of The Religious Society of Friends. I’ve discovered an online quiz that purports to measure religiosity on a scale of one to ten. Although such quizzes are mainly for fun and not to be taken too seriously, this offering seems to be well-designed. My score was seven. The explanation of a “seven” is as follows:
Religion is a central aspect of your life. Your beliefs guide your
decision making, your mental outlook, and your political per-
spective. But, you may miss a religious service if you need to
sleep in or take a walk in the woods instead. Your religious beliefs
and practices are very important to you, but you also balance
them with other values and needs.
The quiz is entitled Can We Guess How Religious You Are, on a scale of
1—10 and may be found HERE.
~ Richard Russell
Requiem for a Dog
I was surprised and shocked. After my mother’s death, my brother had her dog euthanized. He reasoned that Taz had become over-protective of her and over-aggressive toward other people. Without Mom’s presence, Taz refused to eat and wandered around the house—actions perhaps indicating an inability to adjust to the changed situation. Moreover, Taz was old and suffered from a bad back.
Still, he walked normally; and his grief was not necessarily permanent. By identifying what triggered his aggression (i.e., being lifted onto the bed) and re-training him, he might have had two or three years more of life. Of course, he may have been incorrigible.
I just thought we should have tried to save him. My brother disagreed; and after caring for our mother several years, my brother had earned a very real moral authority. That didn’t keep me from criticizing his decision. The result was an old-fashioned family fight which—fortunately—will have no long-term effect on the relationship between my brother and myself.
Gary L. Francione argues that the world can be divided into “persons” and “things.” Things are property, to be used as the owner desires. At one time, slaves were property according to the rationalizations offered by Southern plantation owners. Today, we obviously consider pigs and cows to be property. After all, we acknowledge no freedom or even “right to life” for these animals. We butcher and eat them. We don’t usually eat our dogs, however. In fact, we grant canines a limited personhood.
Research backs up our intuition about dogs. Either through actual genetic change from their wolf ancestors or through sensitization of genes already present in wolves, dogs can function in human society. Dogs can respond to human gestures and speech. They follow our gaze and our pointing fingers. They can infer our moods from facial expressions (although they apparently don’t identify people by looking at faces). They don’t understand conversations, but they respond to spoken commands. They understand that humans have a different perspective on the world. Thus, dogs will commit a forbidden act in darkness even in our presence. They know we don’t see well in the dark.
And dogs are master manipulators. My dachshund, Annie, has learned to steal socks and trade them for treats. She’ll even keep the sock if the treat is not exactly what she wanted. And if no sock is available, she’ll steal something else that she thinks is of value to me. She also makes it a point to walk past me so I see the stolen goods.
Because of their abilities, I believe it’s wrong to euthanize dogs unless they are in pain and terminally ill. In fact, I’d argue that it’s also wrong to kill other animals. Pigs, for example, are more intelligent than dogs and capable of playing video games with chimps. (They move a joystick with their snouts.) They are good at remembering the location of objects. They display empathy and compassion, play with other pigs, and are extremely sociable.
Moreover, even if an animal is not very smart or sociable, its life deserves respect. I agree with Albert Schweitzer, the doctor and theologian. He writes, “Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” With one sentence, Schweitzer takes away my ham and bacon.
Although vegetarianism is the logical result of Schweitzer’s philosophy, the great man himself was never a complete vegetarian except, perhaps, in the last years of his life. Nevertheless, with my feelings about animals, I should stop eating meat. I don’t know whether I can do that or not. If anyone in Old Chatham Meeting can reason me out of this quandary, I’d be grateful.
~ Richard Russell
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