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 ...1
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