Andrew Taggart just wrote this post about the (non)purpose of religion, which is closely connected to a discussion about the (non)purpose of art, education, philosophy, and ultimately the (non)purpose of being human.
When we question the purpose of something, we often don’t realize how much prejudice is conveyed in our question. Questioning the purpose of X, the utility of X, is a question about whether and how X fits within our existing purposes. “What is the purpose of…?”, is a question about whether X can offer us a short-cut (to a pre-determined destination), a “life hack”, a cheat code (in the “game of life”), a competitive edge in a world of scarcities.
“The religious quest is not ever for the smug at heart”, writes Andrew. The smugness of a heart, I think, comes from leaving certain default assumptions (about the game of life) unquestioned. The question about the purpose of religion should give way to a deeper line of questioning, having to do with the (non)purpose of being human.
Let’s consider the possibility that the purpose of religion, if there is one, has to do with enabling paths toward freedom. This would mean, among other things, a freedom from smugness of the heart. The freedom I have in mind is antithetical to any functional analysis. Consider the following questions and responses:
“How do I get to the train station?”
“You don’t have to go to the train station.”
“Where is the city center?”
“There is no city center.”
“How do I run faster, get more work done, and write better?”
“You don’t have to run faster, work more, and write better.”
Can we say that the response in each case is, in some sense, liberating? Can we also say that the responses are disorienting? Perhaps I can still go to the train station, even without having to go there. Perhaps there is a city center, but people call it something else… (?) Reading Andrew’s post, I see how the next line in each dialogue has to come from within the questioner, “from within the person” who, in each case, asked the first question.
What happens to me if/once my most important questions are taken away? What remains of me without my desire to serve established purposes that subsist outside of me and independently of me (e.g., doing more and better work)?
I remember Alva Noë’s thought, which I wrote about a year ago, on the possibility of pornographic art: “… if there is a pornographic art, whatever else is true of it, it will not be good for masturbating.” Pornographic art, in other words, would refuse to be in service of pre-determined purposes associated with pornography.
Religion, art, education, … examined from an outsider’s perspective, judged with objective (pre-determined) criteria, would seem to refuse–in a spirit of indifference–to be useful and even purposeful.