Huston Smith died Friday at 97. He authored what became the standard comparative religions textbook (it sold about three million copies), The Religions of Man. He was born to Methodist missionaries and died a Methodist even while studying, and then incorporating, practices from Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.
I think it was Bill Moyers who asked him how he could be so accepting of other faiths and yet still be a Methodist. I don't remember his precise answer but essentially he said, "If I studied languages I would - at the end of the day - still come home and speak English with my wife. We can acknowledge the fact that people communicate in other languages but we still have to choose one language to speak." Another way to put this is that it makes sense that people make sense of their lives in other ways but we have to make sense of things in a way that still makes sense to us. If that makes sense.
In the UK, their wonderful health care system has made huge progress in the battle against a variety of diseases and health conditions. It's led to a curious situation. Now, the leading cause of death among men under 49 is suicide. Having protected their population from outside attacks, they find themselves vulnerable to attacks from within.
There are a number of reasons one might commit suicide but surely a chief one is a crisis of meaning.
Here is the funny thing about the meaning of words. Look up the definition of a word and what do you find? Other words. The meaning of one word is expressed through other words. It would be a really bad dictionary if you looked up the meaning of, say, car and it said, "A car is a car. That's just what it is."
We find meaning outside ourselves, in other lives, in broader goals and tasks, in some arc of history. Religion was perhaps the first way that people made sense of the human experience.
Religion also made the world bigger. Robert Wright in his Evolution of God argues that as kin began to trade outside of their group their god(s) had to become bigger than the tribe. How do you make an enemy a trading partner or even a fellow citizen? You expand your beliefs to make those former strangers friends. You love your enemy. Money, contracts, employment and trade are all well and good but outside of the context of trust they're ineffectual. The prelude to a global economy is a God of all humanity or at least people who see all of humanity as deserving of trust.
Speaking of trade, money is just made up. The fact that a 20 dollar bill is worth 20 dollars is not a fact inherent in a piece of paper that size and shape. It's only worth 20 dollars because we all agree that is worth 20 dollars. Money is completely made up and it is completely real.
Social invention - agreeing to the rules of a school or bank, agreeing that we will shake hands when we greet or kiss one another on the cheek or bow - is both made up and completely real. Religion falls into that same category. It is just made up that we should love our neighbor or forgive a brother. Such things are made up but their consequences are very real. Living with shame is so very different than living with forgiveness. Living life selfishly is so very different than living life selflessly. (And in truth it is hard to imagine a life that doesn't always have some element of shame and forgiveness, selfish perspective and empathy, but a life can be made very different simply by moving more in one direction than another.)
I agree with my agnostic friends that religion is just made up. I also agree with my religious friends that religion is quite real. Caught up in determinism and what that suggested about us simply being the products of past causes and present conditions, William James struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. What if nothing he did or believed really made a difference, he wondered. One day he declared, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." From that point on his life was largely different; he was mostly productive and happy. (James wrote the first psychology textbook and was one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism, among other things.) Did William James actually have free will or did he just make that up? Yes and yes, it seems to me.
Going back to Huston Smith, at the end of the day we have to speak in some one language in order to make meaning and to understand others, to understand and to be understood. Religions are deeply flawed and they are just made up but they certainly can provide meaning. Life is more than the logistics of work and sleep, food and recreation, or a winning score in a bank account. Realizing that if you had grown up in Indonesia you would likely be Muslim or that if you grew up in Nepal you'd likely be Buddhist or that if you grew up in Iowa you'd likely be Christian and realizing that this is arbitrary doesn't mean that it is meaningless anymore than it is meaningless to realize that if you grew up in China you'd grow up speaking Chinese. Meaning is fragile when we try to make sense of our own lives via a reductionist method that looks at us in isolation. Meaning can be robust when it sweeps out to include others, family, friends, and strangers, and the story of a life as part of some larger arc of history, part of a bigger set of forces that include our own words and actions. Meaning is never self-referential; it comes from the relationship of one word to other words or of one life to other lives. Religion surely isn't the only way to create meaning but it is a way that works for billions. And while you can just make up a language rather than rely on the ones around you, a language that isn't shared isn't much of a language. Religion has its flaws but one big advantage is that it is "spoken" by quite a few people around you. You can say something novel in a very old language. And maybe that's the challenge of a any religion: go beyond rote memorization of what others said to a statement that comes out of a common tradition into your own unique life and time, something that Huston Smith seemed to have done quite beautifully.