I have been thinking quite a bit about the humanities lately, and what makes the humanities distinctive from other fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. Why should we care about the humanities at all, since studying humanities' subjects can't create new technology, cure cancer, or build skyscrapers?
There are two things that immediately come to my mind. First the humanities is about history, it is about knowing our past, its impact on our present, and how it will shape our future. The sciences and social sciences are not about our history. It is not that they don't have a history, but the scientific method and most social scientific approaches are about observing our present and recording those observations. While cultural anthropologists might be concerned about recording the past of a particular group under study, this is a very local project. The humanities is about remembering and understanding our past with the distinct desire to apply what we have learned to our present situation, with the hope that we won't make the same mistakes over and over again.
Second the humanities is about knowledge that is "everlasting", rather than progressive knowledge. Science knowledge improves with time. As we learn more about the cosmos, physics changes, sometimes with knowledge that shifts the entire paradigm like the theory of relativity. The same is true of social science, which improves upon itself constantly.
But subjects in humanities don't really get out-dated nor are they improved upon in the same way as scientific knowledge. Shakespeare is Shakespeare. You like him or you don't. I would make the same argument about philosophy which engages, for instance, logic and morality in only so many ways. In this way, the knowledge of the humanities is like art. It is what it is. It tells us about ourselves. It is ancient and modern at the same time. Or timeless, whatever you prefer. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, captures the essence of what I am saying.
To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world…this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.”
Religion fits here. Religion is not about progressing to the best religion. Religions don't really replace each other (although some may suggest this like Christianity did when it advertised itself as Judaism's replacement). While some religious ideas are certainly out-dated, by and large, religions today operate the same way they have since as far back as we can trace.
Even before any sort of complex language, Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead with grave goods in fetal positions, and some people think that they piled up bear bones as religious offerings to powerful spirits. These religious ideas and practices are as valid today as they were in prehistoric times. We still concern ourselves with religious burials, and, while we don't pile bear bones up on altars, we certainly place other offerings there, like the body of Jesus.
So I want to spend some time thinking about religion as an art, as timeless. What aspects have that timeless quality that mirrors our humanity no matter the age? If we can get a grip on them, I think we come a long way to understanding why human beings are religious and why religion is not going away.