If God exists and you worship anything in his place, then that thing is a false god and you are an idolater. But if God does not exist, and you worship anything at all, then you are also an idolater. For idolatry entails worshipping something unworthy of worship, and if God does not exist, then nothing is worthy of worship.
Now atheists typically pride themselves on 'going one god further.' Thus they typically say to the Christian,"You reject all gods but the Christian god; we just go one god further." So, consistently with his atheism, an atheist cannot worship anything. If he makes a clean sweep with respect to all gods, then he cannot make a god of sex, power, money, science, the Enlightenment, the state, the withering away of the state, the worker's paradise, the atheist agenda, nature, himself, his mortal beloved, not to mention golf and Eric Clapton.
A consistent atheism may prove to be a difficult row to hoe. The atheist will be sorely tempted to fall into idolatry, making a god of nature, for example, as some environmentalists do, or of science, or of the enlightenment project, or of the 'crusade' against Christianity or religion generally. He must also avoid nihilism, the denial of value to everything. The atheist must find meaning in a world in which nothing is absolute, nothing holy, nothing worthy of total commitment. Nice work if you can get it.
Can one live a meaningful life without God and without idols? Without an Absolute and without illicitly absolutizing anything relative? I don't know. I suspect the atheist will fall into some sort of idolatry and end up worshipping nature or the state or something else obviously unworthy of worship.
Can an atheist live life to the full, keeping up the strenuous mood, falling neither into idolatry nor into nihilism? William James (1842-1910) would, I think, demur. In "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' we read:
The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.
Baggini does not tell us explicitly what he understands by 'superstition,' but the context suggests that he takes the term to apply to any and all supernatural elements in a religion, whether these be beliefs, practices, or posits such as God and the soul. The supernatural, in turn, is anything beyond or 'outside of' the system of space-time-matter, or anything that makes reference to such things. God conceived of as a bodiless person, as in mainstream Western monotheism, would then count as a supernatural being. Accordingly, belief that such a person exists would count as a superstitious belief, and prayer in all its forms (petitionary, intercessory, contemplative, etc.) would count as a superstitious practice.
Supposing (counterfactually) that this is true, one might be tempted to make the journey to the East in quest of a religion free of superstition. One of Baggini's points is that Buddhism as actually practiced by millions is rife with it, as witness motorized prayer wheels, etc. Baggini's main thesis is that a religion stripped of supernatural elements ceases to be a religion. A Buddhism naturalized, a Buddhism disembarrassed of all such elements, is no longer a religion but something acceptable to secularists and atheists, "a set of beliefs and practices to cultivate detachment from the impermanent material world and teach virtues such as compassion and mindfulness."
Baggini's claim is that what is specifically religious about a religion are its superstitious beliefs, practices, and posits. To put it another way, every religion is essentially superstitious. But of course 'superstitious' is an adjective of disapprobation: a superstitious belief is a false or groundless belief; a supersitious practice is one that is ineffectual; a superstitious posit is one that does not exist. So in claiming that religion is essential superstitious, Baggini is claiming that it is essentially false, ineffectual, and devoid of reference to reality.
Of course, I disagree. For one thing, I reject what Baggini assumes: naturalism. But I also disagree because he rides roughshod over a fairly elementary distinction.
There is religion and there is pseudo-religion. Superstition is pseudo-religion. That adherents of religions are often superstitious in their beliefs and practices is undeniable. But to the extent that they are superstitious they are pseudo-religious.
Let's consider an example. A believer places a plastic Jesus icon on the dashboard of her car. It seems clear than anyone who believes that a piece of plastic has the power to ward off automotive danger is superstitious. A hunk of mere matter cannot have such magical properties. Superstition in this first sense seems to involve a failure to understand the causal structure of the world or the laws of probability. A flight attendant who attributes her years of flying without mishap to her wearing of a rabbit's foot or St. Christopher's medal is clearly superstitious in this first sense. Such objects have no causal bearing on an airplane's safety. It is magical thinking to attribute to bits of plastic and metal the powers the superstitious attribute to them.
But no sophisticated believer attributes powers to the icon itself, or to a relic, or to any material thing qua material thing. The sophisticated believer distinguishes between the icon and the spiritual reality or person it represents.
Well, what about the belief that the person represented will ward off danger and protect the believer from physical mishap? That belief too is arguably, though not obviously, superstitious in a second and less crass sense. Why should the Second Person of the Trinity care about one's automotive adventures? Does one really expect, let alone deserve, divine intervention for the sake of one's petty concerns? How can religion, which is about metanoia -- change of mind/heart -- be justifiably hitched to the cart of the mundane ego?
I don't think it can be denied that much petitionary and intercessory prayer is superstitious. Someone who prays to win the lottery is superstitious as is a person who, upon winning, exclaims, 'There is a God after all.' The nauseating egotism of such a remark is antithetical to genuine religion. But suppose I pray for a friend who has contracted a deadly disease. I pray, not for some divine intervention into the course of nature, but that he be granted the courage to endure his treatments, and should they fail, the courage to accept his death with hope and trust and without rancour or bitterness. It is not obvious that such an intercessory prayer (or a similar petitionary prayer should I be the sick man) is superstitious despite its invocation of a transcendent power to grant courage and equanimity. 'May the Lord grant you peace' is a prayer for a spiritual benefit. Unless one assumes naturalism -- which would be question-begging-- there is nothing obviously superstitious or pseudo-religious about that. An even better example would be, 'Let me see my faults as clearly as I see the faults of others.' Such a prayer is a prayer for the weakening of the ego and to that extent not motivated by any crude materialism.
The sophisticated non-superstitious believer is not trying to achieve by magical means what can only be achieved by material means; he is aiming to achieve by spiritual means what cannot be achieved by material means but only by spiritual means. Perhaps we can characterize superstition as pseudo-spiritual materialism.
Getting back to the icon on the dashboard: what if the icon serves to remind the believer of her faith commitment rather than to propitiate or influence a godlike person for egoistic ends? Here we approach a form of religious belief that is not superstitious. The believer is not attributing magical powers to a hunk of plastic or a piece of metal. Nor is she invoking a spiritual reality in an attempt to satisfy petty material needs. Her belief transcends the sphere of egoic concerns.
To sum up. Assuming that religion necessarily involves supernatural elements, religion and naturalism are incompatible. So if naturalism is true, then religion is buncombe, a tissue of superstitions. But there are powerful reasons for rejecting naturalism. In any case, that all of religion is bunk is rather hard to swallow given its prevalence and usefulness. (Here one can mount a pragmatic argument premised on the consensus gentium.) It is a good bet that there is something true and right about a cultural and a symbolic form that has won the adherence of so many distinguished people over all the earth in all the ages. But if we are to make sense of religion as a cultural form that has a core of rightness to it, then we need the distinction between religion and pseudo-religion (superstition) -- the very distinction that Bagini clumisly rides roughshod over. (Can one ride in a clumsy fashion?)
In one of its senses, superstition involves attributing to an object powers it cannot possess. But the same thing is involved in idolatry. Someone who makes an idol of money, for example, attributes to it a power it cannot possess such as the power to confer happiness on those who have it. So we need to work out the relation between superstition and idolatry.
What is idolatry? I suggest that its essence consists in absolutizing the relative and finite. To make an idol is to take something of limited value and relative being and treat it as if it were of unlimited value and absolute being. Practically anything can be idolized including pleasure, money, property, name and fame, another human being, family, friends, country, the Party, the Revolution. There are theologians who idolize their idea of God.
Money, for example, is instrumentally good, and undeniably so. I think it is a plain mistake to consider money evil or the root of evil, as I argue in Radix Omnium Malorum. But its value cannot be absolute since money is relational in its very nature as a means to an end.
To idolize money, to pursue it as if it were a thing of absolute value, is to commit a philosophical mistake -- even if there is no God. For only something absolute is worthy of worship, and money is not absolute. If there is no absolute reality, then nothing is worthy of worship and everything should be treated as relative and finite including one's own life. If there is an absolute reality, God for example, then everything other than this absolute reality should be treated as relative and finite.
If there is no God, then idolatry is a philosophical mistake. If there is a God, then idolatry is both a philosophical and a religious mistake, and as the latter, a sin. Man is both an idol-erector and an idol-smasher. Our setting up of idols is rooted in a deep spiritual need to worship, honor, respect, and glorify. We need to look up to something. But we are limited sense-bound creatures who tend to latch onto foreground objects in the mistaken hope that they can satisfy us. We think a job, a house, a man, a woman, will satisfy us. What we want they can't provide, but failing to realize this we succumb to the illusion of attributing to them powers to satisfy us that they cannot have. What is romantic love if not the illusion that possession of man or a woman could make one completely happy?
Idolatry gives rise to iconoclasm. Idol-positing leads to idol-smashing. What is revealed as hollow and unsatisfactory is destroyed in the name of the truly valuable. Both our tendency to erect idols and to smash them derives from our being oriented to the Absolute, our being unsatisfiable by the merely finite. Idolatry is the mistake of absolutizing the relative, infinitizing the finite. Iconoclasm tries to undo the mistake by destroying the would-be absolutes in the name of the true Absolute. It runs the risk, however, of falling into nihilism. In the twilight of the idols there arises the specter of nihilism, a specter which, despite all his heroic efforts, Nietzsche could not lay.
In Gravity and Grace (Routledge 1995, p. 53), Simone Weil writes:
Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop.
What Weil is saying is that the absolute good is accessible only to inner listenting, inner passivity, an attentive stillness of the mind and heart. But cultivating such attention demands a patience we do not possess. So we create idols to do duty for the transcendent and inaccessible Absolute.
True religion is actually the enemy of idolatry and superstition. One who worships the true God sees the finite as finite and is secure against the illusion that the finite is ultimate. The true religionist is a bit of an iconoclast and indeed an atheist since he denies the God made in man's image. As Weil puts it, "Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other." (p. 103)
I buried my little female cat Caissa at sunrise this morning in a beautiful spot in the Superstition Mountains in the same place where I buried my male cat Zeno in October of 2002. When I buried Zeno, just before leaving the burial site, I prayed, "May we love the perishable as perishable and not idolatrously, as if it were imperishable." I recalled and repeated the thought this morning. I think it is important to reflect on the moral and spiritual dubiousness of any excessive love of the finite and transient, especially if the object of one's love cannot reciprocate it except in a highly attenuated and analogous manner.
Related to the idolatry question is the question of attachment. Attachment breeds suffering. This is not an argument against any and all attachment, but it is an argument against excessive attachment. One must keep within bounds one's attachment to what must perish. A whole-hearted love of what barely exists is surely a mistake. There is such a thing as inordinate attachment. Compare Simone Weil: "The objects of our love barely exist." She's a Platonist, of course, and so if you do not share the Platonic sense of the relative unreality of the transient you are not likely to accept her or my line of thought.
How can attachment to something be inordinate? It is in ordinate when it is out of proportion to the reality/value of the object of attachment. My cat, for example. I would not be grieving now if I were not attached to my cat, and the question arises whether my attachment is within proper bounds. If the attachment is within proper bounds, then the grief will be as well.
To hazard a definition of grief: Grief is a mental state of intense sadness brought about by the death or absence of something, typically animate, to which one has become strongly attached. In typical cases, grief arises from a physical separation, often abrupt, from an object to which one is mentally attached. But if the beloved withdraws her love, while remaining physically near, can the lover be said to experience grief? Or is it a necessary condition of grief that the beloved dies? Can one experience grief at a state of affairs that does not involve the death or destruction of a particular sentient being such as a pet or a child or a spouse? "I am grieved at the transitoriness of things," Nietzsche complained in a letter to Franz Overbeck. Can a fundamental metaphysical structure of the phenomenal world be an object of grief? Yes, insofar as the transitoriness of things entails the death of sentient beings including those sentient beings to which one becomes attached. But something less grand than a fundamental metaphysical structure of the phenomenal world could be the object of grief, e.g., a state of war at a given time and place. So perhaps we should say this:
Grief is a mental state of intense sadness brought about by (i) the death or absence of some particular thing, typically animate, to which one has become strongly attached; or (ii) the unrequiting or withdrawal of the love of the beloved; or (iii) some general circumstance that entails the death or destruction or emotional withdrawal of beings, typically sentient, to which one has become strongly attached.
I began by speaking of attachment to pets and how it ought to be kept within bounds. But attachment to persons must also be kept within bounds. There is an old song by the 'British invasion' artist, Cilla Black, You're My World. "You're my world, you're every move I make; you're my world, you're every breath I take." This is romantic nonsense whether or not God exists. The nonexistence of an infinite good could not possibly justify loving a finite good infinitely. If another human being is your very world, then I say you are succumbing to idolatry even if there is nothing genuinely worthy of worship.
For characterizations of idolatry, see the Idolatry category.
It is true that that to live is is to be attached: there is no (normatively) human life without attachment. There are forms of asceticism which seek to sever the root of all attachment, but such a radical withdrawal from life amounts to a refusal to learn its lessons, lessons it can teach only to those who participate in it. So just as there can be inordinate attachment, there can be inordinate nonattachment. Nevertheless, no one can live wisely who gives free rein to his attachment, investing the loved object with properties it cannot possess.
We try to be satisfied with finite objects, but we cannot be, at least not completely or in the long run. (I should argue that we could not be satisfied even by an unending series of finite goods.) Can we adjust our desire so that it will be satisfied by the finite? Can we learn to accept the finite and not hanker after something more? Can we scale back or moderate desire? Not if it is the nature of desire to desire the infinite. If this is the nature of desire, then it must always and everywhere fall into idolatry in the absence of an infinite object. The only complete solution to the problem of the insatiability of desire by the finite, given the nonexistence or inaccessibility of an infinite object, would then be the extinction of desire. See Buddhism category.
But one could also take the insatiability of desire by the finite as a premise in an Argument from Desire for the existence of God or the Absolute Good. Schematically: (i) The nature of desire as we humans experience it in ourselves is such that, ultimately, nothing finite can satisfy it completely; (ii) even though the fact of a particular desire by X for Y is no guarantee of the availability of Y to X (Stranded Sam's need/desire for water is no guarantee that he will receive the water he needs/desires), the general fact that there are desires of a specified sort is good evidence of the existence and availability of objects what will satisfy the desires. Therefore, (iii) there exists and is available an Object that will satisfy the desire that is insatiable by any finite object.
That desire is ultimately desire for something beyond the finite is indicated by the fact that when a beloved animal or person dies, the void one experiences seems infinite or indefinite: it is not the mere absence of that particular animal or person. It is more than a specific absence one experiences in grief, but an absence that is 'wider' than the absence of a particular cat or woman, a sort of general emptiness. It is the nullity of all things that one experiences in intense grief over the absence of one particular thing. When a parent loses a child, it is not merely the son or daughter that he loses, but the significance and value of everything.
This suggests that love of a finite object is at bottom love a of an Infinite Good, but a love that is not aware of itself as a love of such a good, but misconstrues itself as a love wholly directed to a finite object and satisfiable by such an object. Otherwise, why would the void that is experienced when a finite object is taken away be experienced as a general void as opposed to the specific absence of a particular person, say? One invests a finite object with more reality and importance than it can carry, which fact is made evident when the object is removed: the 'hole in one's soul' that it leaves is much bigger than it.
These ruminations are of course Augustinian in tenor. See his Confessions, Book IV: "For whence had that former grief [the one concerning his friend who had died] so easily reached my inmost soul, but that I had poured out my soul upon the dust, in loving one who must die, as if he would never die?"
The inordinate love of the finite leads to inordinate attachment which then issues in inordinate grief when the object of attachment is removed, as every finite object (including one's own body) must eventually be removed. We fill our inner emptiness by becoming inordinately attached to objects that must pass away. When such an objectof inordinate love is taken away, our inner emptiness is brought out of its concealment. Augustine again: ". . . unjustly is anything loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it." (Pusey tr. 57-58)
We ought to love the finite as finite, without investing it with more reality and importance than it can bear. We ought to love the finite in God, but not as God. Trouble is, the the finite is all too available for our love and soon elicits an illicit and inordinate love, whereas God or the Good is largely absent and all too easy to doubt or deny.
Many environmentalists who reject traditional notions of the Godhead and who regard themselves as agnostics or even atheists nonetheless express feelings tantamount to religious awe when in the presence of wilderness—a fact that testifies to the success of the romantic project. Those who have no difficulty seeing God as the expression of our human dreams and desires nonetheless have trouble recognizing that in a secular age Nature can offer precisely the same sort of mirror.
To put (roughly the same) point with Maverickian aphoristic pithiness: Nature for the idolaters of the earth is just as much an unconscious anthropomorphic projection as the God of the Feuerbachians.
Thus it is that wilderness serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest. The critique of modernity that is one of environmentalism’s most important contributions to the moral and political discourse of our time more often than not appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be.
Despite her infuriating extremism, Simone Weil may well be the purest incarnation of religious sensibility in the twentieth century. "It's not up to us to believe in God, but only not to grant our love to false gods." As Weil understands, essential to genuine religion, though not exhaustive of it, is the realization that nothing here below can satisfy us, and that the things we zealously pursue as if they could satisfy us are false gods. The following statement of Weil's is exactly right:
First, not to believe that the future is a place capable of fulfilling us. The future is made of the same stuff as the present. We well know that what we have that is good, wealth, power, esteem, knowledge, love of those we love, prosperity of those we love, and so on, does not suffice to satisfy us. But we believe that the day when we will have a little more, we will be satisfied. We believe it because we are lying to ourselves. For if we really think about it for a while we know it's false. Or again if we are suffering affliction, we believe that the day when this suffering will cease, we will be satisfied. There again we know it's untrue; as soon as we have gotten used to the cessation of suffering we want something else.
Environmentalism has very little to do with protecting the environment. It is green socialism. Its objective is to achieve what red communism couldn't: the conquest of capitalism. Instead of central planning and a command economy, we would have a highly regulated, highly taxed bureaucratic corporatism that would stifle economic growth and individual initiative.
Beginning in the 19th century, much of the Western intelligentsia lost faith in God. The 20th century saw numerous attempts - Marxism, fascism, national socialism -- to construct a society without God. They failed. Now the West's liberal elites are seeking to infuse the radical secular project with new meaning and purpose -- man's salvation through the worship of Gaea, Mother Earth.
The green movement is a form of pantheism. It hopes to sacrifice prosperity, abundance and wealth at the altar of a false god.
Mr. Obama is its prophet of doom. And America is its victim.
In the weight room one day I made the acquaintance of a man from Alaska. I steered the conversation onto Chris McCandless and others of the wild and crazy crew who seek Something More in the last American frontier. My interlocutor was not familiar with the McCandless story, but he reminded me of the case of Timothy Treadwell, who camped among grizzlies, and whose luck ran out. This piece from Outside magazine tells the tale. And here is his final letter.
In the Outside article, the author, Doug Peacock, reports that Treadwell "told people he would be honored to 'end up in bear scat.'" And in his last letter, Treadwell refers to the grizzly as a "perfect animal." There are here the ummistakable signs of nature idolatry. Man must worship something, and if God be denied, then an idol must take his place, whether it be nature with its flora and fauna, or money, or sex, or the Revolution, or the crotch-grabbing one man melting pot, or some other 'icon.'
Addenda, 19 August:
1. Theists need to consider whether they are worshipping the true God or a theological fabrication. There is the almost irresistible tendency to identify God with one's conception of God. But the two cannot be the same. There are various conceptions of God, some better than others; but God is obviously not a conception. It is easy to succumb to the worship of a product of the human mind, whether it be an individual product, or a collective product such as the conception authorized by a particular cult or church.
2. The knee-jerk use of 'icon' throughout the media is a good indicator of contemporary idolatry. What we need is a new iconoclasm. Memo to self: develop this 'stub.'
What is idolatry? I suggest that the essence of idolatry lies in the illicit absolutizing of the relative. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. But is our desire infinite? That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions -- say a different black-eyed virgin every night as in popular Islam's depiction of paradise — but a satisfaction in which one could finally rest. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." (Augustine) What we really want, though we don't know it, is the absolute good which is goodness itself, namely God. This idea is common to Plato, Augustine, Malebranche, and Simone Weil.