K is for… Knowledge

One group of questions about knowledge might be called the sceptical: do we really know anything? if we do, how do we obtain that knowledge? how does ‘knowledge’ relate to the real world, and what goes wrong when we think we know something which turns out to be untrue?

This post is not about those questions, because this is my blog not one of my undergraduate philosophy essays. If they fascinate you, you could read about Gettier problems for starters.

Some of the sceptical questions have religious counterparts – the most obvious is probably: do we know that God exists, and if so, how?

This post is not about those questions either. They are interesting, and worth asking in some contexts, but it’s not always useful to debate them – especially on the internet. Anyway, there’s a much more interesting question about the role of knowledge which I want to ask today.

What do we need to know in order to participate in a religious practice – such as a Quaker meeting, a Pagan ritual, or a Buddhist meditation?

I don’t think that we need to know that the metaphysical claims made by the religion are true. It might be nice to feel that we do, we might want that reassurance before we fully commit ourselves to a particular religious path, but in order to begin, in order to participate, we don’t need to know about the truth of the claims. You can sit in Meeting and doubt the reality of God, and sit in meditation and doubt the reality of nirvana. I know, I’ve tried!

I admit that these doubts can change some things about the experience; in particular, if you’re having those kinds of doubts you might wonder why you’re bothering to practice at all, which changes your experience of the practice itself. However, if the practice has other tangible benefits which are not tied to the metaphysical claims – it calms you down, it cheers you up, it’s a social occasion – I find it relatively easy to get past this, and participate wholeheartedly despite my metaphysical questions.

I’m not even sure that you need to know what all the metaphysical claims are. The first time I sat in Buddhist meditation – in a Quaker meeting house, so it goes – I knew almost nothing about Buddhism as a religion. I knew a bit about Buddhist artwork (this is the result of self-educating using mainly the British Museum!), and I assumed that nirvana was the same as moksha (I’d studied Hinduism at A-level). That was about it, really. These days, I’m hardly an expert but I know rather more, and I don’t think that changes much about my experience of, for example, chanting the Green Tara mantra. Even writing a PhD about Quakerism doesn’t seem to be changing what I do in Meeting for Worship, except inasmuch as sometimes I think about my PhD – but before I started, I thought about being on the dole.

Obviously, you do need some knowledge in order to engage in any of these practices – you need to know what to do! To join a Quaker meeting, you need to know where and when to find one, and when you get there, someone is likely to make sure that you are expecting silent worship, ministry as led, and a handshake at the end. Beyond that, though, you’re often left to your own devices.

Some forms of practice, being more complicated, require more information before participation is possible – but being handed a photocopied liturgy is only ‘obtaining knowledge’ in a very broad sense of the word! Perhaps, if knowledge is not so important, what we need is something more like wisdom.


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