The important conceptual distinction between “meaning” and “belief”

At the heart of the strategy that I propose for replacing esoteric religion with non-esoteric religion lies a crucial conceptual distinction:  the distinction between “meaning” and “belief.”  A “belief” can be thought of as a certain type of “meaning”:  one that a person has accepted for him- or herself as “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy.”  Placing emphasis on this conceptual distinction helps us to imagine a society—unlike the society we now have—in which most of its members who spoke the same language could be expected to assign roughly the same meanings to any given assertive communication of a religious nature—without those people also being required to accept those particular meanings as “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy” for themselves.

In other words, I believe it is possible to imagine a society in which the meanings conveyed by assertive communications of a religious nature would be more or less shared in common by everyone, and in which the commonly and generally agreed-upon determination of meaning would always precede belief in, or agreement with, the meaning that was being asserted.  It would only be after the meaning had been determined with reasonable certainty by society as a whole that it would be considered permissible for the various members of the society to “go their separate ways” in deciding whether or not to accept that meaning as a personal belief.  So it would not be considered permissible for a person to say, “This writing means such-and-such to me, which is why I believe it,” even if the writing did not have roughly that same meaning in the view of most of the other members of the person’s society.  It would also not be considered permissible for a person to say, as esoteric religionists often do, that it is necessary to “believe in” or “have faith in” a religious scripture before it will be possible to determine its meaning with reasonable accuracy.

This would represent a definite departure from the way things currently work with the existing, traditional, esoteric religions.  According to the thinking of esoteric religionists, the particular esoteric writings that they happen to regard as “holy” or “sacred” should always be interpreted in a way that makes the writings “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy” in their own individual minds.  In other words, with an esoteric religion, the reader’s personal belief or wish precedes the determination of the author’s meaning—which is exactly the reverse of how a sane person ought to be thinking.

The mentality found among esoteric religionists is thus essentially the mentality of a spoiled child:  “I wish this writing to mean such-and-such; and so it should mean such-and-such; and so it does mean such-and-such.”  The upshot is that the reader’s own personal desire comes before the meaning that the author actually intended—that is, personally desired—to convey.  So the reader’s desires are always made paramount; and the meaning of an author’s communication is made to conform to the reader’s own idiosyncratic ways of thinking, instead of being allowed to confront the reader on the author’s terms.  The result is that genuine communication between persons is not able to occur.[1]

Continue reading “The important conceptual distinction between “meaning” and “belief””

An overview of “practical philosophical communities” (i.e., “non-esoteric religious communities”)

(The following contains most of the second section of Chapter 6 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.  It provides a conceptual overview of “practical philosophical communities” or “non-esoteric religious communities,” which I believe ought to replace the esoteric, i.e. “traditional,” form of religious community.)

In the type of non-esoteric religious communities that I believe we desperately need, a person would effectively be required to take responsibility for assenting to or rejecting any proposition that claimed authority in that person’s life; but, of course, this could only happen if the person were first allowed to understand what the proposition even was—something that esotericist forms of religion (to the extent, that is, that the beliefs of the religion have their source in esoteric writings) effectively make impossible.  In short, members of non-esoteric religions would be encouraged to think more like philosophers—in the best and widest sense of that word.

However, for a person to truly “assent to” or “reject” the type of proposition that I have in mind, he would have to choose whether or not to integrate it into his life and actions:  I do not consider a person who claims to have “accepted” a certain philosophical proposition, but then fails to live his life in accordance with it, or advocate that his social institutions be designed in accordance with it, to have truly accepted it.  So philosophical or theoretical discussion that did not ultimately and finally result in the putting into practice of the theoretical propositions that had been developed would not involve propositions that had ever actually been “assented to,” since there would have been no positive commitment made with regard to those propositions.  And I consider discussion of philosophical propositions that are not capable of being either “assented to” or “rejected” in this practical sense, to be—at best—a waste of time.

I believe that to establish a society suffused with meaning requires the existence of numerous practical philosophical communities, communities in which the virtues of practical usefulness and honesty would be assigned equally high value:  the type of communities which, amazingly to me, our society does not currently have.  What we now generally find is that academic philosophy and scholarship is not seriously interested in making itself practically useful, and esoteric religion is not seriously interested in honesty and clear thinking.  A split currently exists between two sets of values or goals:  on the one hand, those of scholarship, intellectuality, honesty, clarity and precision of thought and expression, and the desire to seek out truth and knowledge; and, on the other hand, those of practical usefulness, the sharing of a sense of common meaning and purpose, the giving of life guidance, and the giving of mutual support and protection.  This split can no longer be maintained.  In fact, I think there is a close relation between the historical legacy of esotericist religion and the sterility of much of academic philosophy and scholarship in its current state (such that modern-day academicians might well be considered the “secularized” successors of the “holy class” found in traditional religious societies—but if anything, showing even less interest in their work being of practical benefit to the “laity” than their predecessors showed).  The kinds of esotericism found both in traditional religion and in modern academia are expressions of the same basic lack of a spirit of commitment, the same unwillingness to first make a rational and socially useful decision, whether through personal reflection or through discussion with others, and then to take action in conformity with that decision; and both are also expressions of the same fundamental split between the “inner” and the “outer,” between theory and practice—the overcoming of which split I believe constitutes the central concern of the New Testament (albeit one often presented in implicit and obscure form).

Continue reading “An overview of “practical philosophical communities” (i.e., “non-esoteric religious communities”)”