A guest post by Peter Lupu with some comments in blue by Bill Vallicella.
[This essay is dedicated to the memory of Ann Freitag, my significant other, who passed away on April 17, 2010, 11:30am. She gave me two priceless gifts: Herself and a deep understanding that the love of life is not a mere gesture, but a way of loving every living being.]
The title of this essay expresses what it is like for me to experience an ever ascending spiral of theistic aspirations inhibited by atheist inclinations, and vice versa. My predicament is both intellectual as well as existential. It is a blending of the two that fuels a restless existence, one which propels me to journey on this ascending spiral of unfamiliar territory towards an unknown destination.
I. Why I am not an Atheist
Let me begin with atheism. Atheism is first and foremost a rejection of theism. However, the rejection of theism itself springs from several often misunderstood sources. A deep and personal disappointment with a particular religion frequently converts into a fervent rejection of theism and all that it means. A second source may begin with a genuine delight in the achievements of science which now and then, and quite unnoticeably, spills over into a materialistic metaphysics. The latter, in turn, bluntly opposes theism’s commitment to a transcendent reality. Thus, what starts as a delight in the potential of inquiry to unlock the mysteries of the physical universe migrates into an impatient and often mocking rejection of anything non-physical. Theism is a casualty of such a sentiment.
A third source of atheism springs from the optimistic promises of the 17th and 18th centuries with the Enlightenment and its humanistic values. Modern Enlightenment promised to liberate humanity from the shackles of unreflective traditions, dogmatic values, and unrelenting demands to submit to an external authority. It encouraged replacing traditions, dogmas, and submissiveness with a bright path to a world in which individuals are free to mutually cultivate their autonomy guided only by the light of reason.
Modern Enlightenment shares with its Greek counterpart confidence in the authority and potential of reason to guide humanity to the truth, to a more harmonious social existence, and to a more enlightened personal life. But in order for reason to be able to do so its authority must be recognized and accepted. Modern Enlightenment uncovered the missing link in Greek thought. This missing link can be stated in the form of the following question: What compels a being to recognize and accept the authority of reason? Greek thinking was not quite able to supply a satisfactory answer to this question. Modern Enlightenment did.
Modern Enlightenment goes beyond its Greek counterpart by pointing out that the recognition of authority must start at home with our individual autonomy. Autonomy essentially involves a nature that is self-governing. Self-governing in turn is a process of self-reflection that confers a law upon one’s thoughts and conduct. Acceptance of the law springs from the recognition that it was bestowed by one’s own autonomous nature. Hence, its compelling force. But accepting the compelling force of such a law, its authority over us, is accepting the compelling force of reason itself as it springs from one’s own autonomy. And since a law is universal by nature, accepting the universal character of reason is accepting the authority of a universal rationality.
This account of the authority of reason and its origins was then applied by some modern Enlightenment thinkers to the pursuit of truth, social harmony, and personal enlightenment. Sadly this bright world which modern Enlightenment promised has been gradually distorted to a mere shadow of itself. The distortion occurred due to a tragic misunderstanding by many thinkers of the fundamental message of the Enlightenment: i.e., the message that the recognition of any authority and the acceptance of its compelling force start at home with the contours of our individual autonomous nature.
The mistake depends on the following reasoning. The Enlightenment taught us that the concept of authority itself ultimately rests with the individual. Therefore, claims of authority make sense only if relativized to the beliefs, inclinations, customs, and preferences of this or that individual and this or that group. And this mistaken understanding of the fundamental message of modern Enlightenment gradually gave birth to the spread of conceptual-relativism, moral relativism, and self-centered egoism.
The mistake of the above reasoning already appears in the first sentence. The insight of modern Enlightenment was definitely not that the concept of authority rests on just any aspect of individuals. The insight is rather that the concept of authority makes sense only in the context of a self-governing autonomous agency. And this is a radically different proposition. The above distortion of the fundamental insight of modern Enlightenment and the ensuing movements that sprung from this distortion deserve the label ‘pseudo-enlightenment.’
[You seem to be assuming that when individuals exercise autonomous agency they will come to universally binding conclusions. But that is not what happens. When people set aside external authority and think for themselves they end up espousing a plethora of conflicting positions. Protestantism may serve as an example. Rejecting the central authority of Rome, which laid down the law on matters of doctrine and practice, Luther and others put the emphasis on the individual. The result was a proliferation of Protestant sects.
Your treatment here is very weak. You need to give good reasons for believing that the Enlightenment project does not bear within itself the seeds of the relativism and egoism you reject. It is easy to reject blind submission to authority, as we both do. But what justifies your faith that people will arrive at rational consensus once they throw off the fetters of external authority? People love to dress up their dogmatic pronouncements as the dictates of Reason, the Randians being a prime example of this.]
As a direct consequence of this mistake several pseudo-enlightenment movements emerged. The light of reason has given way to a form of conceptual-relativism which detests anything universal and objective, including the universal force of reason, the very reason that made modern Enlightenment so attractive. This form of conceptual-relativism champions instead the supremacy of “my or our opinion”. The value and legitimacy of autonomy has been gradually replaced with a form of egoism or a self-centered attitude that celebrates the unchecked force of “my desires and interests” merely on the grounds that they are “mine”. And the promise to liberate humanity from all forms of illegitimate authority, including the authority of antiquated norms and customs, has been all too frequently reduced to a mere anything-goes moral relativism.
[Again, it is easy to reject relativism, but how do you know that this is not the necessary consequence of individuals relying on their own reason and autonomy after having thrown off external authority?]
I cannot condone any of these forms of pseudo-enlightenment despite their valiant efforts to justify their conclusions based upon the empirical study of cultures and their diverse customs, belief systems, and ways of life. The adherents of pseudo-enlightenment will undoubtedly defend their position by arguing that the empirical study of different cultures, and by extension different individual human lives, forces us to appreciate the rich diversity which human life may take. Reflection upon this diversity in turn engenders a healthy disposition to adopt as a general guiding principle a tolerant attitude toward the other. This defense alleges that a pseudo-enlightenment attitude encourages tolerance and, hence, it has some beneficial consequences.
A discriminating reader should at this point notice that the empirical facts of diversity on their own do not entail nor compel a tolerant attitude. A tolerant attitude can be derived only once a self-governing autonomous agent reflects upon these facts and acknowledges that since other autonomous agents have chosen to lead a different form of life, the authority of these autonomous choices confers a measure of legitimacy upon these forms of life. We respect and tolerate an alternative form of life only because and to the extent that we recognize in them the embodiment of autonomous, and hence authoritative, choices of self-governing agents other than ourselves. The delicate structure of the concept of tolerance tragically escapes the champions of pseudo-enlightenment.
Moreover, we ought to acknowledge that diversity is not valuable for its own sake and not every way of life is valuable merely because it is different from others. A form of life is valuable only insofar as it enables human beings to flourish and cultivate their autonomy and a different form of life is valuable only if it is a valuable form of life that displays a novel way in which humans undertake to flourish and cultivate their autonomy. Once we appreciate these thoughts, we can see that the linkage forged by various pseudo-enlightenment movements to the empirical study of diverse human lives is artificial. This linkage is contrived for the purpose of appropriating the prominence of an empirical field, a prominence which pseudo-enlightenment has no hope of earning on its own merit.
On the other hand, I do respect and sympathize with those who found atheism a welcome sanctuary from the deep and personal disappointment with the ignorance, corruption, intolerance, and lack of understanding habitually exhibited by some religious institutions. I share their discontent with these and other excesses of religious institutions which too often place their own survival above their spiritual mission. Nevertheless, I find these grounds insufficient to join in a wholesale rejection of the deeper significance of theism merely on the grounds that human institutions tend to corrupt its ultimate mission and meaning.
The above summarizes the considerations that prevent me from considering myself a full-fledged atheist. One might wonder at this point why I do not find theism a more fitting affiliation. I will now turn to this question.
II. Why I am not a Theist
Anyone who on occasion sincerely reflects upon their own inner being cannot help but encounter there his conscious self radiating with meaning, purpose, and normative force. And since reflection is an inescapable condition for us humans, we are all familiar to one degree or another with this experience. Yet some of us may wonder whether the meaning and normative force glowing so majestically within the confines of our conscious self may be nothing but a chimera akin to an optical illusion or whether it is firmly grounded in some general aspect of reality itself. Theism, as I see it, expresses our deepest aspirations for a transcendent order that guarantees the existence and integrity of morality, meaning, and our conscious self. In its most sincere and prescient form, theism expresses the human aspiration to explore and understand such a transcendent order.
Traditional theism in its purest form is an attempt to understand this transcendent reality in terms of the existence of a deity and its place in our world. Yet despite the fact that I consider the task of exploring the nature of a transcendent reality of vital importance to the human condition, I cannot join traditional theism. My inability to be affiliated with traditional theism, however, has very little to do with doubts about whether a divine being of the sort posited by theism exists. I would have been unable to join traditional theism even if I would have whole-heartedly believed that a transcendent reality is constituted by a deity. For I find the traditional theistic conception of such a deity and humanity’s relationship to this deity to be based upon an entirely flawed foundation. And this flaw is so fundamental that it cannot be patched up in a piecemeal fashion. It must be eradicated at its very core, if theism should ever be able to serve its professed mission. The origins of this colossal mistake can be traced to the very beginning with the traditional interpretation of Genesis. I shall now explain what I mean. In order to facilitate a clear narrative I shall occasionally speak below in a theistic voice.
Despite significant differences between the three Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they all share two central theological doctrines: i.e., the Sin-Doctrine and the Submission-Doctrine. The Sin-Doctrine is that the concept of sin plays a deep, indispensable, and fundamental theological role in explaining the human condition and our relationship to God. This doctrine features three tenets: The Original Sin, The Fall, and the Inheritance of Sin by all the descendants of the original human sinners; namely, Adam and Eve. The Submission-Doctrine in turn maintains that the only remedy for sin is submission. I shall call these two doctrines jointly the ‘Sin and Submission Doctrines’.
The cosmic importance of the Original Sin tenet within this theological picture cannot be overstated. It is the story that objectifies the existence of sin and evil in the world and places full responsibility for introducing them into God’s world upon the shoulders of the first humans. It also explains how sin and evil are possible within a world that was originally created by God as entirely good. Only a being that has evil at his core can corrupt a world that is wholly good. Here we have in a nutshell the duality of good and evil. God represents that which is wholly good; humanity embodies evil.
[This needs qualification. It is not as if God is the good principle and humanity the evil principle. Humans are capable of both good and evil, and according to the traditional account there was no necessity that man sin. Moreover, rebellion against God antedates the creation of the material world. Satan, who tempts Eve in the garden of Eden in the form of a serpent, is a fallen angel.]
The Doctrine of the Fall draws the inevitable consequences from a horrendous deed of cosmic proportions; namely, the corruption of creation. The unavoidable consequence is the Fall of Man which narrates the inevitable gulf that was created between the first humans and God due to the original sin. And finally the Inheritance Doctrine completes the picture by advocating the thesis that the intrinsically sinful nature of the first humans is inherited by all their subsequent descendants. And, therefore, so is the gulf between each human being individually and God.
Is it possible to bridge the cosmic gulf between God and Man? Is it possible to bridge the ultimate gap between Good and Evil? It is at this juncture that the Submission-Doctrine enters the theological scene. In order to bridge the gulf between God and Man (good and evil) an extraordinary effort of cosmic proportions is required. This effort involves two extraordinary components: human will to submit and divine will to forgive.
[OK, except for your false equation of man and evil.]
The Abrahamic religions can be ordered according to three ascending degrees of submission. Judaism requires human willingness to submit to God’s Laws as set forth by the covenant at Mount Sinai. Submitting to God’s Laws is both necessary and sufficient in order to fulfill humanity’s contribution to bridging the gulf between Man and God. The rest is up to the will of God. In all other respects human beings are free to choose their own path in life.
Christianity demands from human beings an act that shows their willingness to submit to Jesus, the personification of God’s own Son, as their savior. Regardless of whatever else one does or thinks, as long as one is willing to genuinely and without limit submit to Jesus as one’s savior, one completes one’s contribution to the effort to bridge the gulf between God and Man.
[Jesus is not the personification of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, for the simple reason that the Son of God is already a person. Jesus is better described as the unique human Incarnation of God the Son. Christianity demands that human beings accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. But it is not true that such acceptance suffices for salvation, unless one is a Lutheran (sola fide). Works are also required. Your formulation has a Protestant bias.]
Islam goes even further and requires an all-inclusive and unconditional submission of our very humanity to God. The required submissiveness is all-inclusive in the sense that it must be practiced in every facet of one’s private as well as social life. And it is unconditional in the sense that any doubt, reservation, or questioning is forbidden. One must submit to God in body and soul, deed and thought.
Excellent. And now I will quote from an earlier post of mine that references Prothero's God is Not One:
For Islam, the problem is neither sin nor suffering but self-sufficiency,"the hubris of acting as if you can get along without God, who alone is self-sufficient." (32) The solution or goal is "a soul at peace" (Koran 89: 27) in submission to Allah. The technique that takes the believer from self-sufficiency to Paradise is to 'perform the religion." (42: 13) Orthopraxy counts for more than orthodoxy. The profession of faith is relatively simple, to the effect that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God. That is the First Pillar of Islam. The other four concern practice: prayer (salat), charity (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj).
The Sin and Submission pair of doctrines appeals to a basic yet primal human sentiment. One who harmed another must stand with a measure of humility proportional to the wrongdoing when facing the injured party. Since humanity committed a cosmic sin against God, the only acceptable remedy is submission. Thus, when one hears sin, submission comes to mind as the only possible remedy.
Yet despite their primal appeal, the Sin and Submission Doctrines rest on a fundamental mistake. The origin of the mistake springs from the thought that the story of Adam and Eve narrates the emergence of sin in the world. While God created Adam and Eve in innocence; i.e., in the absence of sin, it is their disobedience that introduced sin in the world. And, as noted above, the mention of sin invokes the expectation of submission as the only means to eradicate the gulf created by sin. It is not surprising, therefore, that once the original sin conception governs our understanding of creation, we expect the rest of the biblical narrative to delineate the terms of our submission as the only appropriate remedy.
But the story of Adam and Eve cannot narrate the emergence of sin into the world. While we may grant that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, this act of disobedience cannot be conceived as a sinful act, if the latter means a moral wrongdoing. For a moral wrongdoing can be committed only by a being who understands the concept of right and wrong and possesses the resources required to distinguish between them. And by the terms of the story itself, prior to their act of disobedience, Adam and Eve lacked the moral concepts required to recognize that disobeying God is morally wrong. And since we must assume that God was aware of all of these circumstances, God could not have viewed Adam and Eve’s disobedience as a sin, original or otherwise.
Your point, and a very interesting one it is, is that before Adam and Even ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were without any understanding of good and evil, so that their act of disobedience was not a moral wrongdoing, and therefore not a sin. But consider that God according to Genesis creates man in his own image and likeness. This of course is a spiritual image and likeness. So we ought to infer that God creates man from the outset as possessing free will and an appreciation of moral distinctions. So even before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were moral beings. In light of this, the traditional theist can perhaps interpret the bit about the tree in a way that is consistent with the original parents being aware of moral distinctions before eating its fruit.
You may also be wrongly assuming that the traditional theist is committed to fundamentalism. I myself deny that there were original human parents, a serpent, a garden, a tree, etc. while still believing in Original Sin as a sort of fundamental structural flaw in human nature that cannot be overcome by human effort alone whether individual or collective. There is no need to take the Genesis story literally. The atheist Schopenhauer also believed in Original Sin appropriately interpreted.
Now, if I am right and Adam and Eve could not have committed a sin by disobeying God, then the Sin and Submission Doctrines have no basis. First goes the original-sin component of these doctrines. Since Adam and Eve could not have committed a sin, there is no original sin. Second, if there is no original sin, then there is no Fall. Moreover, if there is no original sin and there is no Fall, then the descendents of Adam and Eve; namely all of us, could not have inherited a sinful nature and the conditions of the Fall. And, of course, if the Sin Doctrine collapses, then so does the Submission Doctrine: if there is no sin, submission is not required.
Again, you seem to be assuming that a Bible-based approach to religion must be some sort of fundamentalism/literalism Why? What justifies your thinking of original sin as original in a temporal sense, as referring to a first event in 'moral time' if you will? That's not obvious. And then you think of the Fall in the same way, as an event after the original sin. Why? And why opt for the crass inheritance conception of the transmission of original sin, as if it is passed on in human seed? You appear to be writing in ignorance of the theology of Original Sin, theology which is not derivable from Bible stories alone.
Perhaps submission is not required; but is it possible? I maintain that submission to God or any of his surrogates such as God’s Law or his Son is not possible. Submission is not possible as it is conceived by traditional theism. Let me explain.
The traditional theistic picture is correct about one important thing. The story of Adam and Eve does narrate the appearance of a rupture between God and Man. However, unlike the traditional theistic conception which explains the rupture in terms of sin, I maintain that the rupture was caused by the emergence of Adam and Eve as autonomous agents. Moreover, given the usual assumptions about God, the emergence of Adam and Eve as autonomous agents was orchestrated by God himself who created the circumstances that enabled this to happen.
I will not take the time to justify this last claim. Let us suppose that I am right and the story of Adam and Eve is about the emergence of autonomous agency intended by God. Let us further suppose that God conferred upon this newly emergent autonomous being a dominion over the material world, in the sense that it may employ it for its own survival.
According to the present account, we now have two autonomous beings: God and Man. And as I have articulated in section I, autonomy is required in order to recognize authority. However, unlike Man’s autonomy, God’s autonomy is absolute. Therefore, unlike Man’s authority, God’s authority is also absolute. And absolute authority cannot be reconciled with any measure of autonomy possessed by another being. If this is right, then one cannot willingly submit to an absolute authority without thereby utterly voiding one’s own autonomy. But it is impossible under any circumstances to autonomously will to completely eradicate one’s own autonomy. Therefore, no autonomous agent can possibly submit to God’s absolute authority without thereby annihilating its own autonomy. But doing so autonomously is not possible. Hence, only in death can one possibly submit to God’s absolute authority.
[Suppose I do what God commands, not because he commands it, but because I see by my own lights that it is obligatory. Would there then not be a coincidence between God's absolute moral authority and man's moral autonomy? Of course you are assuming that human beings as a matter of fact are autonomous. But is this true? Or is human autonomy an ideal largely unrealized?]
If the above reasoning is correct, then God is fully aware of its conclusion. And so it is inconceivable that God should be interested in the emergence of an autonomous agent only to demand from it to do that which would destroy its autonomy. The only solution that is available to God is to exit the scene and thus allow the newly created agent to flourish by cultivating the gift of autonomy within a world which God provided. God’s unavoidable departure from the world over which now Man has dominion created the rupture between God and Man, a rupture of such a scale that nothing but death can possibly bridge.
[God withdraws so that man can develop and exercise his autonomy. What appears to be God's abandonment and forsaking of man is necessary for man to develop himself fully.]
I cannot submit to God’s absolute authority without completely giving up my own as Islam requires. But perhaps I can submit to the authority of one of God’s surrogates. Perhaps it is not impossible that I should submit to the authority of God’s Law as required by Judaism or to the authority of God’s Son, personified by Jesus, as required by Christianity. Unfortunately submission to the authority of these surrogates, as such submission must be understood, is not a viable option.
Consider first the option of submitting to the authority of God’s Laws. As explained in the first section, I cannot even recognize an authority, let alone submit to it, without first seeing that authority as emanating from some autonomous agency. Since Laws by their very nature are not themselves agents, but only the products of an autonomous agent, their authority must be derived from a source that is itself an autonomous agent. God cannot be the source of the authority of these Laws, because then submitting to the Laws would be tantamount to submitting to God’s authority, which I have argued is not possible. Therefore, I cannot submit to the authority of God’s Laws unless I conceive of their authority as derivable from my own autonomous agency. And the only way that I can see their authority as derivable from my own autonomous agency is if they are the product of the exercise of my autonomy. Therefore, the requirement to submit to God’s Laws cannot mean anything other than the obligation to employ my autonomy in order to discover the moral law. Only subsequent to such inquiry can I recognize the authority of such laws and submit to them. And that I can do.
Consider next submitting to the authority of Jesus as required by Christianity. I cannot submit to the authority of Jesus unless I recognize Jesus as an autonomous agent. If Jesus is a person like the rest of us, then I can submit to his authority only within certain limits. But Christianity requires an unlimited submission. And that I cannot give to any human person. On the other hand, if Jesus is a personification of God’s Son, then his authority is absolute, since God’s Son is equal to God and, therefore, has the same absolute authority. And that as I have argued is impossible for me to do.
But perhaps there is another way of viewing the Jesus’ story. Consider again the question of submitting to the authority of God’s Laws. As I have argued above, I can submit to the authority of God’s Laws only if I view this authority as derivable from my own autonomy. That is, if they are the product of my own autonomous will. But what guarantee do I have that my autonomous will is a reliable guide to the right moral laws; i.e., to God’s Laws? The only guarantee that is possible here is to assume that my will is essentially; i.e., at least in principle even if not invariably, good. But how do I know that my will is essentially good? I suggest thinking of the person of Jesus as providing such a guarantee. Jesus can be seen as personifying a divine guarantee that human will is essentially good. It is not a guarantee that it is always good, for then it is not an autonomous will. Rather it is a guarantee that our efforts to cultivate our autonomy will result in a will that can be a reliable guide to inquire and discover the right moral laws.
On the one hand, I cannot be an atheist because I cannot accept materialism and pseudo-enlightenment. I cannot accept the former because, like theists, I believe there is a transcendent reality. And I cannot accept pseudo-enlightenment because it is a corruption of the nature and importance of autonomy, the central message of modern Enlightenment.
On the other hand, I cannot be a theist because the heart and soul of all the traditional monotheistic religions are the twin doctrines of Sin and Submission. However, I cannot accept the Sin Doctrine because in my opinion it rests upon a fundamental flaw in the understanding of the creation story of Adam and Eve. And I cannot accept the Submission Doctrine because I do not think that it is possible for me to autonomously submit to God’s absolute authority without thereby eradicating the very autonomy that tells me to so submit. Since submission is impossible, the Submission Doctrine must also be false.
Thus, the only option that is left for me is to be a quasi-something: an atheist or theist, it does not really matter. For the ‘quasi’ prefix simply expresses the recognition of my autonomous and self-governing agency. For if I was a theist, then I would have to see my autonomy as God’s will, a will that resulted in the inevitable rupture between myself as an autonomous agent and God. And if I was a full-fledged atheist, then I would have to see my autonomy as part of my nature, the only thing that can guide me to discover the nature of morality and thus the transcendent reality. And so it does not really matter whether I am an atheist or a theist as long as I recognize that above all else I am an autonomous moral agent.
I suspect that others experience from time to time some of the thoughts I have expressed in this essay. I hope that the things I have said here will help others to clarify these shared experiences.
[I agree with the critique of Submission. Islam, as a religion of submission to the will of Allah, conceived of as absolute willfullness unconstrained by reason, is an abomination. But Christianity in its non-Protestant forms may have resources that elude your critique. In Eastern Orthodoxy the goal of life in Christ is the deification (theosis) of man. Your reading of Christianity is too Protestant and perhaps even Calvinist.]
(*) Kant’s influence upon my thoughts on the centrality of autonomy should be obvious. Perhaps less obvious is the influence of Kristine Korsgaard’s Book “The Sources of Normativity” which I have read recently. I also must acknowledge the contributions of several friends who influenced throughout the years my thinking on this subject. Among them are Bill Vallicella, Mike Valle, Steven Nemes, and David Bassine. Bill Vallicella and I have spent countless hours discussing these and other issues. I cannot understate the impact these talks had on me and my thinking about the subject. I wish once again to highlight the deep influence upon my life and attitude towards it that Annie, my significant other, made.