In the first half of the 17th century, Rene Descartes put forth a new method of philosophy, inaugurating what would come to be called the modern age. His philosophy was driven largely by skepticism about the reigning religious and philosophical traditions of his day, and his method was geared toward weakening their influence. Over the last four centuries, Decartes’s work has become deeply embedded in Western culture. As a result, we are increasingly alienated from the places, stories, and traditions through which our ancestors made sense of the world.
Descartes’s philosophy has a surprisingly contemporary feel in the 21st century. A recent re-reading of his work gave me the sense that he might feel right at home with those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (or simply, the “nones”). Like many nones today, Descartes likely saw the senseless devastation that was done in the name of religion. (He was, after all, born less than a century after the dawn of the Reformation and undoubtedly knew the religious violence that saturated Europe in the early 17th century.) Today, we still see our share of religious violence and inconsistent or abusive behavior by prominent religious leaders, which rightly makes us shudder, if not roil with anger.
David Dark is sympathetic to all these anti-religious emotions, and yet in his new book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, he suggests that try as we might, we cannot completely sever ourselves from religion. Branding someone as “religious” in public discourse, he observes, often becomes a surefire way to dismiss what that person is saying. Dark wants to drain the stigma from “religion,” restoring its status as a meaningful term for the relationships and connections by which we all make sense of the world. Our English word religion, he reminds us, comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind again.” “For my money,” he says, “religion is the farthest-reaching readily available concept for looking hard and honestly at our own lives, for really leveling with ourselves and for abandoning our dysfunctional ideas for better ones, truer, livelier, more sustainable ways of negotiating our existence.”
Religion, as Dark describes it, points us toward not only a richer and more meaningful life as individuals, but also toward a life more deeply embedded with that of others and with that of the creation as a whole. “The stories and songs that give us life,” he writes, “that render us more attentive to the lives we’re living—what are they if not religious?”
Born Again and Again
The sort of religion that Dark proposes—with more questions than it has answers—is hardly the sort of neat and tidy faith that is common in many corners of evangelicalism. Even so, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is a deeply evangelical book, stirring our imaginations with a poignant vision of God and creation that is decidedly good news. Just as God is trinity, three beings in one interdependent community, so we too have been created to flourish within the inescapable “network of mutuality that makes our eating and breathing and welfare possible.”