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]

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Non-esoteric religious communities as a solution to the intrinsic defects of the nuclear family

I believe that there are certain fundamental and intrinsic defects in the institution of the nuclear family that give rise to child abuse and mistreatment; but I also believe that the institution of the “non-esoteric religious community” or “practical philosophical community” would be able to help address and overcome those intrinsic defects.  And, importantly, it would do so by complementing the nuclear family, rather than destroying or replacing it, or swallowing it up.

Let me say at the outset that, as a general matter, I do not want the state to be involved in trying to solve the sorts of family problems that I will be discussing (although I do think there may be a role for the state, at least for the time being, when child abuse takes less subtle forms of physical and sexual abuse, making it necessary for the child to be removed from the home).  I also do not want to see any “Brave New World” scenario come about in which parents no longer play a central role in the upbringing of their children, and in which this job is given over to some irresponsible bureaucratic “collective.”

However, I believe that hysterical fear about the emergence of any such “Brave New World” scenario has actually been whipped up for the purpose of distracting people’s attention away from the fact that the nuclear family—when left on its own—is far from ideal.  I do not believe that people should be content to assume that so long as parents are just “left alone to raise their children” without any outside interference from anyone, then everything will be all right—as many now believe, since “everyone knows” (because it’s said so very often) that parents love their children ever so much and would do anything for them.

So I realize that I’m going to meet with a lot of resistance when I offer the suggestion that the nuclear family—considered by itself, in a socially isolated state—is really not such a great thing after all.  In fact, I restate my belief that considered by itself it is a fundamentally dysfunctional and intrinsically defective institution that cannot be relied upon to attend to the needs of children.  And that is the reason why I believe it is absolutely essential that voluntary, non-esoteric religious communities be brought into existence in order to complement and give support to nuclear families, and help to compensate for their inherent weaknesses and limitations.

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