Jack Kerouac quit the mortal coil 45 years ago today, securing his release from the wheel of the quivering meat conception, and the granting of his wish:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead. (Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus).
The Last Interview, 12 October 1969. "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." "I just sneak into church now, at dusk, at vespers. But yeah, as you get older you get more … genealogical."
As much of a screw-up and sinner as he was, as irresponsible, self-indulgent, and self-destructive, Kerouac was a deeply religious man. He went through a Buddhist phase, but at the end he came home to Catholicism.
I have been accused, on a forum, of being a second-class Christian because I have stated that I cannot understand Trinitarian doctrine [as presented in the Athanasian creed]. I have stated that I do accept the Apostles' Creed, but that is not seemingly good enough. So I have asked for clarification from forumites as to why they believe not only that the doctrine is true, but that believing it is a must for 'full fellowship'.
My reader goes on to say that the responses of his fellow forum members were unsatisfactory. His main question is: "What practical difference does a belief or non-belief in the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity make?" My reader accepts and tries to live by the the Apostles' Creed, but doesn't understand the Athanasian Creed. As well as he might not, given the logical difficulties of the doctrine.
To answer the reader's question: no practical difference to speak of.
The underlying problem, as it seems to me, is that of the relative importance of doctrine and practice. In every religion there is both. Are they of equal importance? Or is one more important that the other? I suggest that, while both are important,
1. Practice is more important than doctrine;
2. Theological doctrines are necessary makeshifts, feeble human attempts at conceptualizing what by its very nature must remain in the main beyond the human conceptual horizon in this life;
3. Doctrinal disputes can and often do lead to acrimonious controversies that are the exact opposite of conducive unto salvation.
The two central precepts of Christianity are: Love God with your whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. What exactly is enjoined by these two absolutely central precepts may be reasonably discussed, and ought to be. But we know more or less what they mean and require of us. And we know more or less what would be incompatible with their practical realization.
To love God is not to love one's ideas about God. For then one is loving, not God, but products of one's own ego. A theologian in love with his own pet formulations is arguably a high-level idolater. And analogously for the doctrinal formulations of one's church or sect.
And it would seem that bitter, rationally unresolvable dispute about exceedingly abstruse questions is not at all conducive to love of neighbor, and is in fact in many cases incompatible with such love. Consider some such theological nicety as the filioque clause. The question is whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son -- filioque means 'and the Son' -- or from the Father directly. Quite apart from the question of what practical difference this could make in the life of a believer, does the question have a sense clear enough to permit a rational solution?
The Athanasian Creed, quite unlike the Apostles' Creed, makes subscription to verbally precise Trinitarian and Christological doctrines a necessary condition of salvation. Their verbal precision, however, has not prevented centuries of debate as to their exact meaning and coherence. To hurl an anathema at anyone who fails to accept them on pain of damnation strikes me as nothing more than an expression of the human-all-too-human need for doxastic security. People have a terribly strong need to be secure in their beliefs even when the beliefs in question are plainly open to serious doubt.
Doubt is to be deployed against the complacency of unbelief as much as against the complacency of belief.
A vital faith is never entirely free of purifying doubt which in some persons, at some times, extends to the brink of despair. Christ on the cross experienced the deepest depth of Incarnation in the feeling of being forsaken and abandoned by God. Can a Christian then expect his faith to be free of doubt?
A fruitful doubt is not a sterile skepticism but a questioning attitude that holds open the possibility that its questions be answered. If you cannot believe, then you cannot. The matter can't be forced. But the unbeliever oughtn't rest in the complacency of unbelief any more than the believer in the complacency of belief. Seek, and you may or may not find. But seek.
Sam Harris is a liberal I respect and admire. He has not succumbed to the PeeCee delusion and he actively combats it. Although Harris is a contemporary, he is not a 'contemporary liberal' as I use that phrase: he is a classical or old-time or paleo or respectable liberal. But on religion and some philosophical topics he is out beyond his depth.
And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out.
Why does Harris think that the idea of divine (scriptural) revelation is intellectual, ethical, and political poison? Perhaps his reasoning is along the following lines.
1. In every extant scripture there are morally offensive prescriptions and proscriptions which, if followed, would be detrimental to human flourishing, and in that sense 'poisonous.' 2. If one believes that a given scripture is the Word of God, then one believes that everything in that scripture carries divine sanction (approbation): it proceeds from the ultimate moral authority in the universe. 3. If one believes that everything in a given scripture carries divine sanction, then one believes that one has an obligation to commit some morally offensive actions, namely, those enjoined in the scripture in question, actions detrimental to human flourishing. (from 1+ 2) 4. Actions detrimental to human flourishing are 'poison.' Therefore 5. The idea of divine revelation, if accepted, is 'poison.' (from 3 + 4)
I have just imputed to Harris an argument the reasoning of which is correct. Please recall the Logic 101 distinction between correctness/incorrectness of reasoning and truth/falsity of premises and conclusions. (If this argument, or something very similar, is not the argument at the back of Harris's assertion, then I have no idea what that argument would be).
But no defender of divine revelation need be troubled by the above argument. For such a defender may simply deny premise # 2. If a given scripture is the inspired Word of God, that doesn't change the fact that it is written down by men -- and we know what they are like: fallible, sometimes foolish, liable to embellish and distort, biased, limited in ever so many ways.
To put it very simply, I can accept a scripture as divinely inspired while rejecting parts of it as merely human accretions. Why not? There are things that St. Paul says, for example, that are pretty obviously nothing but reflections of his own personal preferences and biases, or else those of his time and place.
Notice that Harris is attacking the very idea of divine revelation: the acceptance of that idea is 'poison.' But he has given us no good reason to accept this wild claim. Of course, if there is no God, then there cannot be divine revelation. But the existence of God is not at issue here. The above argument is logically independent of the existence/nonexistence of God. Indeed, a theist could deploy the above argument.
And the issue is not whether particular portions of some scripture are credible or not. The issue concerns divine revelation as such and in general.
Harris may be assuming that anyone who accepts scriptural revelation must be a fundamentalist in the sense of someone who believes that everything in the Christian Bible, say, wears its meaning on its 'sleeve' and is literally true. But obviously, not everyone who accepts scriptural revelation need be a fundamentalist!
So much for the second of the two bolded sentences above.
The first sentence reads: But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. This sentence encapsulates an inference which, unfortunately for Harris, is a non sequitur. If one respects the idea of divine scriptural revelation, how is it supposed to follow that one is vulnerable to literalism? It obvously doesn't follow. And what exactly is literalism?
Harris ought to read Augustine on the interpretation of Genesis. Here is a sampler of some of the issues that arise.
As I said, Harris is way out of his depth when he enters these theological waters.
I would like to believe that James V. Schall, S. J. has a better understanding of Catholicism than I do, but I just now read the following from his otherwise very good On Revelation:
Catholicism is a revelation, not a religion. The word “religion” refers to a virtue by which we know what we can about God by our own human rational powers, “unaided,” as they say. Revelation means that, in addition to all we know by our own powers, another source of knowledge and life exists that can address itself to us, can make itself known to us.
The first sentence in this paragraph is the conjunction of two claims. The first is that Catholicism is a revelation. The second is that Catholicism is not a religion. The second claim is plainly false. If Catholicism is not a religion, what is it? It is not a branch of mathematics or a natural science. It is not one of the Geisteswissenschaften. It is not philosophy or a branch of philosophy such as natural theology.
Schall is of course right to tie religion to human beings: God has no religion. But it doesn't follow that Catholicism is not a religion. It is a religion based on divine revelation. God reveals himself to man, and man appropriates that revelation as best he can using the limited postlapsarian resources of intellect and will and emotion at his disposal.
Schall may be confusing the genus with one of its species, religion with natural religion the Merriam-Webster definition of which is accurate:
a religion validated on the basis of human reason and experience apart from miraculous or supernatural revelation; specifically: a religion that is universally discernible by all men through the use of human reason apart from any special revelation — compare revealed religion.
Catholicism is a revealed religion and therefore a religion. Or will you argue that 'revealed' in 'revealed religion' functions as an alienans adjective? I hope not.
Now what about the first claim, namely, that Catholicism is a revelation? That's a lame way of putting it in my humble opinion. If Catholicism is a religion based on revelation, then, since religion is a human enterprise as Schall rightly notes, it involves an interaction between God and man. So it cannot be a pure revelation which is what Catholicism would have to be if it is not a religion.
Compare the Bible. It is the word of God. But that is only half of the story. The Bible is the word of God written down by men. Similarly, Catholicism is divine revelation appropriated by men. It is therefore neither purely divine nor purely human.
I could be wrong, but I don't think what I have just written is too far from Catholicism's own self-understanding.
"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
As usual, the mainstream media is all wrong about Islam. In FrontPage Magazine, Daniel Greenfield points out that “looting was the core of Muhammad’s conquests.” And it came with Allah’s seal of approval. Numerous passages in the Koran and in the biography of Muhammad attest to the legitimacy of booty as the proper reward of fighting. Islam has no trouble with looting, says Greenfield, because it is “innately a gang religion”:
The gang … finds meaning in the ethos of the fight and in the comradeship of fellow gang members. That is why jihad is so central to Islam … Jihad is the gang culture of Islam. Its bonding rituals are central to Islam, whose original elements derive mainly from the raids of Mohammed and his companions…
Young men don’t join gangs just for the booty, but also for the sense of brotherhood the gang confers, and, perhaps primarily, for proof of masculinity. Psychologists and sociologists have known for a long time that gangs are particularly appealing to fatherless boys because boys who lack the guidance of fathers are most likely to feel insecure about their masculine identity, and thus most likely to seek confirmation of it in the ultra-masculine activities of gangs. Social scientists were hardly the first to discover this basic fact of male psychology. From the earliest times, almost all societies developed special rites of initiation for males to assist them in the passage from boyhood to manhood, and to channel them away from anti-social activities.
When boys grow up in communities without the guidance of fathers and elders and without established rites of initiation and confirmation, they tend to create their own initiation groups and rituals of passage. This is why modern urban areas with high concentrations of fatherless boys are the places where gang formation is highest.
The epidemic of fatherless boys is a worldwide phenomenon and it spells more recruits for the Islamic jihad. The reason the jihad doesn’t have a recruitment problem is that it appeals to basic masculine psychology. It promises action, male bonding, legitimate looting, a cause to fight for, subservient females in this world, and dozens more in the next. It’s the reason Muslims have been extremely successful in recruiting prisoners to Islam both in Europe and America. As I noted in Christianity, Islam, and Atheism:
In the United States, roughly 80 percent of inmates who find faith during their incarceration choose Islam. Many of these men are in prison in the first place because they were attracted to the masculine world of gangs. Now they’re being offered the chance to join the biggest, most powerful “gang” in the world. We’re seeing the beginning of a trend in the West: fatherless boys joining gangs, then ending up in prison, then coming out of prison as converts to Islam and the jihad. (p. 169)
There seems to be no shortage of young men willing to join up with the warrior culture of Islamic jihad. How about our own warrior culture—the U.S. military? The military still produces warriors, but the military culture is changing in ways that may make it less attractive to potential future warriors. Traditionally, the military has served, among other things, as an initiation into manhood. Past Marine recruiting campaigns, for example, were built around themes such as “The Marines Make Men” or “A Few Good Men.”
I posted on Armstrong's naturalism yesterday, and that got me to thinking whether he ever said anything anywhere about religion. A little searching turned up the following 2002 interview of Armstrong by Andrew Chrucky. Here is an excerpt that touches upon Armstrong's view of religion:
Chrucky: Let me move on to something else. What I would want to know from a philosopher if I were an ordinary person. Probably the first things I would want to know is: Are you religious in any way? Armstrong: No. I'm not.
Chrucky: What is your take on religion? Armstrong: I have the greatest respect for it. I think it may be the thing that many people need, and it enshrines many truths about life. But I do not think it is actually true.
Chrucky: So, it expresses truth in some metaphorical way? Armstrong: In some metaphorical and symbolic way, I think it grasps at truth. And I think it gives hope and comfort to many.
Chrucky: I am not much into religion as a subject, but perhaps someone like Bultmann who was demythologizing religion is someone you would find favor with? Armstrong: I am quite happy with religion going on the way it is. I don't want to alter the religions. That's not my interest. But I suppose that if you are considering what is the truth behind religion then it would have to be demythologized.
Chrucky: How do you view the state of the world? Right now there seems to be a rise in fundamentalism all over. Armstrong: Yes.
Chrucky: You know Iran became a theocracy, and there seems to be a Christian-Islamic confrontation going on. How does one resolve this? Is there a philosophical way of looking at it? Armstrong: No. I don't think so.
Chrucky: Is there a need for dialogue? . . . so that religions confront one another, or is this hopeless? Armstrong: I don't really know. I really don't have any views on this point. I think of myself as in the Christian and Jewish tradition, and in the tradition of Greece. Matthew Arnold thought of Hebraism and Hellenism as the twin poles of Western culture. I see myself as a person in the stream within that culture, and I think it may perhaps be the best tradition of thought and life that has so far been evolved. Certainly I don't think we should be apologetic about it.
This interview confirms what I suspected was Armstrong's attitude toward religion. As a naturalist, he cannot consider any of the characteristic claims of religion to be literally true. But as a conservative, he has "the greatest respect for it" and he appreciates the important and beneficial role it plays in the lives of many people. While not true in its characteristic claims, religion "enshrines many truths about life." Armstrong endorses the notion that Hebraism and Hellenism are the twin poles of Western culture, the tradition of which is the best that has so far been evolved. Armstrong sees himself in that tradition. One might wonder, however, whether his work in philosophy has had or will have the effect of undermining it.
He is clearly a traditionalist who takes the great problems of philosophy seriously and unabashedly uses phrases like 'great problems.' He respects the tradition even while diverging from it. I cannot imagine him writing a book like David Stove's The Plato Cult. His approach in philosophy is direct, realistic, ontological, nonlinguistic. He is also traditional in that he sees an important role for philosophy. He is far from scientism as I tried to make clear in my earlier post.
A final observation. Armstrong's is a disinterested search for truth. He is like Aristotle in that regard. One cannot imagine his naturalism becoming a substitute religion for him.
You blogged that doing philosophy has great value in itself; even if philosophy is aporetic. But how often, or how long per day or month, should one devote to it? Doing philosophy seems (to me at least) to have diminishing returns, if philosophy is aporetic. Or has your experience been different?
My approach to philosophy could be called radically aporetic. Thus I hold not only that philosophy is best approached aporetically, via its problems, but also that its central problems are insoluble. Thus I tend, tentatively and on the basis of inductive evidence, to the view that the central problems of philosophy, while genuine and thus not amenable to Wittgensteinian or other dissolution, are true aporiai, impasses. It is clear that one could take a broadly aporetic approach without subscribing to the insolubility thesis. But I go 'whole hog.' Hence radically aporetic.
I won't explain this any further, having done so elsewhere, but proceed to V.'s question.
I take our friend to be asking the following. How much time ought one devote to philosophy if philosophy is its problems and they are insoluble? But there is a deeper and logically prior question lurking in the background: Why do philosophy at all if its problems are insoluble? What good is philosophy aporetically pursued?
1. It is good in that it conduces to intellectual humility, to an appreciation of our actual predicament in this life, which is one of profound ignorance concerning what would be most worth knowing if we could know it. The aporetic philosopher is a Socratic philosopher, one who knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. The aporetic philosopher is a debunker of epistemic pretense. One sort of epistemic pretense is that of the positive scientists who, succumbing to the temptation to wax philosophical, overstep the bounds of their competence, proposing bogus solutions to philosophical problems, and making incoherent assertions. They often philosophize without knowing it, and they do it incompetently, without self-awareness and self-criticism. I have given many examples of this in these pages. Thus philosophy as I conceive it is an important antidote to scientism. Scientism is an enemy of the humanities and I am a defender of the humanities.
There is also the threat emanating from political ideologies such as communism and leftism and Islamism and their various offshoots. The critique of these and other pernicious worldviews is a task for philosophy. And who is better suited for debunking operations than the aporetician?
2. Beyond its important debunking use, philosophy aporetically pursued has a spiritual point and purpose. If there are indeed absolutely insoluble problems, they mark the boundary of the discursive intellect and point beyond it. Immersion in philosophical problems brings the discursive mind to an appreciation of its limits and raises the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the limits and how one may gain access to it.
I take the old-fashioned view that the ultimate purpose of human life, a purpose to which all others must be subordinated, is to search for, and if possible, participate in the Absolute. There are several approaches to the Absolute, the main ones being philosophy, religion, and mysticism.
The radical aporetician in philosophy goes as far as he can with philosophy, but hits a dead-end, and is intellectually hnest enough to admit that he is at his wit's end. This motivates him to explore other paths to the Absolute, paths via faith/revelation and mystical intuition. The denigration of the latter by most contemporary philosophers merely shows how spiritually benighted and shallow they are, how historically uniformed, and in some cases, how willfully stupid.
But once a philosopher always a philosopher. So the radical aporetician does not cease philosophizing while exploring the other paths; he uses philosophy to chasten the excess of those other paths. And so he denigrates reason as little as he denigrates faith/revelation and mystical intuition. He merely assigns to reason its proper place.
Now to V.'s actual question. How much time for philosophy? A good chunk of every day. Just how much depending on the particular circumstances of one's particular life. But time must also be set aside for prayer and meditation, the reading of the great scriptures, and other religious/ mystical practices.
For one ought to be a truth-seeker above else. But if one is serious about seeking truth, then one cannot thoughtlessly assume that the only access to ultimate truth is via philosophy. A person who refuses to explore other paths is like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. They 'knew' that Aristotle had 'proven' the 'quintessential' perfection of celestial bodies, a perfection that would disallow any such 'blemishes' as craters. So they refused to look and see.
One of my correspondents is a retired philosophy of professor and a Buddhist. He maintains that one ought to spend as much time meditating as one spends on philosophy. So if one philosophizes for five hours per day, then one ought to meditate for five hours per day! A hard saying indeed!
There is much depth in your short post on religion and reason from 6 May. Here are two points I often ponder about this topic:
First, I appreciate the difficulty of solving philosophical problems, but I wonder about the claim that they are insoluble (I suppose “insoluble” means “insoluble by humans alone”). If the problems are beyond mere human knowledge, how could we know this? One may inductively suspect insolubility by reflecting upon his experience of practicing philosophy, but how could he know the unknowable? If we can’t solve philosophical problems by philosophizing, then it seems we can’t conclude insolubility by philosophizing because this very conclusion would be a philosophical conclusion.
BV: I hold that the central problems of philosophy are most of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but all of them insoluble. And you are right, by 'insoluble' I mean insoluble by us or by beings of a similar cognitive architecture, ectypal intellects in Kant's jargon. Furthermore, pace Nicholas Rescher, I don't count a 'solution' that is relative to some set of background assumptions and cognitive values as a solution. Of course there are solutions in this sense. Nominalists solve the problem of univerals in one way, realists in another, conceptualists in a third, etc. But those are merely intramural solutions. What is wanted are solutions acceptable to all, solutions that hold ouside the walls of self-reinforcing enclaves of the like-minded.
You ask a very important question: How could one know that the central philosophical problems are insoluble? You yourself supplied the clue: by induction from philosophical experience. The best and the brightest have been at this game for thousands of years but not one single problem has been solved during this period, solved to the satisfaction of all competent practitioners. Everything is up for grabs, even the most elementary and picayune topics. Take a look at what is going one as we speak in the thread on logical form. Philosophers can't even agree on the most basic concepts of deductive logic. There is controversy everywhere. This is a plain fact.
The strife of systems and the ubiquity and longevity of controversy need explaining and I offer the insolubility thesis as the best explanation. Why haven't the problems been solved? Because they are insoluble. I agree with Benson Mates on this point. Of course, the following is an invalid argument form: Such-and-such has hitherto not been accomplished; ergo, such-and-such will never be accomplished. But then every inductive argument is invalid. Some inductive arguments, however, do quite reasonably support their conclusions.
But you can and should press your objection. If I maintain that the problems of philosophy are insoluble, then, given that the metaphilosophical problem of whether or not philosophical problems are soluble is a philosophical problem, it follows that the metaphilosophical problem is insoluble. Is this a difficult for my position? Not obviously. I simply 'bite the bullet' as they say. I accept that the meta problem is also insoluble.
In fact, the insolubility of the meta problem is further evidence of my thesis.
In other words, I am not dogmatizing. I am not claiming to know with certainty that the problems of philosophy are insoluble. I am not claiming to have solved the meta problem. I am merely claiming that the insolubility thesis is very reasonably maintained. Not every truth is such that we can know it to be true. With some truths the most we can expect here below is reasonable belief.
Compare God and the soul. I do not claim to know with certainty whether either exists. I claim merely that it it is reasonable to affirm both.
Second, I agree that it’s wise to intelligently practice religion and mysticism -- which, by the way, rules out superstition and group-think! Take religion: religious practice does not exclude reason, as Mates’ quote implies. It is a false dilemma to say “One can seek truth either by reason or religion, but not both.” Why not both? If I try to lift a stone and realize I can’t manage alone, this would not entail that I can or should stop lifting. If a stronger person assists me, and I trust his assistance, I can still lift. He may request my help. He may even require that I give it my all, and I may grow from the effort. Likewise, intelligent religion requires reason.
Consider Christianity: The biblical conception of faith is “trust based on good reasons”. This point is clear in passages such as Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Peter 3:15. In the Gospels, Jesus himself reasons and encourages others to do the same. Christian faith calls for the whole self: heart, mind, soul, and strength.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on reason and intelligent religion.
BV: I basically agree with you. Reason in the end must confess its own infirmity. It cannot deliver on its promises. The truth-seeker must explore other avenues. Religion is one, mysticism is another.
Over at the The Philosopher's Stone, Robert Paul Wolff waxes enthusiastic over a quotation from Hobbes:
"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."
Just think what Hobbes accomplishes in these eighteen words! The only distinction between religion and superstition is whether the tales that provoke our fear of things invisible are allowed or not allowed. It is the law, the will of the sovereign, that constitutes the difference betwixt the two. I think that single sentence may be the most powerful argument against religion faith ever written.
There, now I can face another evening of bloviating pundits.
I grant that the Hobbes quotation is a stylistically dazzling English sentence. But I find no non-question-begging argument in it, just a series of assertions:
1. The object of religious belief is an invisible power. 2. This object evokes fear. 3. The fear-evoking object of religion is imaginary, hence nonexistent. 4. Religious and superstitious belief have the same object. 5. There is no intrinsic difference between religion and supersition; the only difference is a relational one. Belief in an imaginary, fear-evoking invisible power is religion if the sovereign allows it. Otherwise it is superstition.
If this is the best the anti-religionists can do, they are in sad shape.
Meanwhile over at Oxford University, Vince Vitale maintains that God or rather God-belief is not dead. Watch the video. My old atheist friend Quentin Smith is quoted. (Note that 'old friend' does not imply that the friend is old; but Quentin is.)
Jime Sayaka interviews philosopher of religion Michael Sudduth on the topic of postmortem survival. (HT: Dave Lull) Excerpt:
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge. Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival. That’s my thesis.
Our friend Sudduth a couple of years ago made the journey to the East (to allude to a Hermann Hesse title). Thus he states elsewhere in the interview, "I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness." I would have appreciated some clarification and elaboration on this point. I would guess that Michael now no longer believes in the survival of an individuated, personal consciousness, but believes instead in the survival of a pre-personal or impersonal consciousness common to all of us. But I am only guessing. I am aware, though, that one can be a Vedantin without being an Advaitin.
Albert Camus, one of the luminaries of French existentialism, died on this day in 1960, in a car crash. He was 46. Had he lived, he might have become a Christian. Or so it seems from Howard Mumma, Conversations with Camus. This second-hand report is worth considering, although it must be consumed cum grano salis. See also Camus the Christian?
Csezlaw Milosz also draws attention to Camus' religious disposition.
Czeslaw Milosz, "The Importance of Simone Weil" in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (University of California Press, 1977), p. 91:
Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, ['Cathar' from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of "Judge not and ye shall not be judged: gives the advice "Judge, and ye shall not be judged," could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Here’s fodder for a follow-up MP post, if you care to pursue it. I do not endorse the following objection, but I wonder how you’d reply.
In “David Lewis on Religion” you say: "To be a good philosopher of X one ought to know both philosophy and X from the inside, by practice." But there is some prima facie tension between this claim and your insistence that arguments don’t have testicles (or skin color).
Objector: “You, Maverick Philosopher, can never know *from the inside* the relevant experiences of women (or racial minorities), so your arguments are not to be taken seriously.” Why not let Lewis’s arguments stand or fall on their merits? And if his arguments *are* defective in some way Lewis cannot see due to his irreligiousity, then mustn't you allow the same charge against your political/cultural arguments mutatis mutandis?
"Arguments don't have testicles" is my preferred response to women (and men) who claim that men have no right to an opinion about the morality of abortion due to their inability to become pregnant. An argument for or against abortion is good or bad regardless of the sex of the person giving the argument. And similarly for race. One doesn't have to be black to have a well-founded opinion about the causes and effects of black-on-black crime. The point holds in general in all objective subject areas. For purposes of logical appraisal, arguments can and must be detached from their producers.
It is also clear that one can be a competent gynecologist without being a woman, and a competent specialist in male urology without being a man. Only a fool would discount the advice of a female urologist on the treatment of erectile dysfunction on the ground that the good doctor is incapable of having an erection. "You don't know what it's like, doc, you don't have a penis!" In objective matters like these, the 'what it's like' is not relevant. One needn't know what it's like to have morning sickness to be able to prescribe an effective palliative. I know what it is like to be a man 'from the inside,' but my literal (spatial) insides can be better known by certain women.
But in other subject areas, the 'what it is like' is relevant indeed. Consider Mary, a character in a rather well known piece of philosophy-of-mind boilerplate.
Mary is a brilliant neuroscientist who has spent her entire life in a visually impoverished state. Pent up in a room from birth and sheltered from colors, her visual experience is restricted to black and white and shades of gray. You are to imagine that she has come to know everything there is to know about the brain and its visual system. Her access to the outer world is via black-and-white TV. The neuroscience texts over which she so assiduously pores have beeen expurgated by the dreaded Color Censor.
Mary knows every third-person, objective fact about the physics of colors and the neurophysiology of color perception. But there is plenty she dos not know: what it is like to see a red rose or a blue sky. That sort of thing. In Chisholm-speak, she does not know what it is like to be appeared-to redly.
So let's say Mary knows everything there is to know about colors from the outside, but nothing about them from the inside. She has no first-person, experiential, knowledge of colors. Do you think she would be in a position to write about the phenomenology of color? Obviously not.
Analogously, a philosopher of religion who has never had a religious experience, and indeed lacks a religious sensibility or disposition such as would incline one to have such experiences, is in no position to write about religion. And this, even if he knows every objective fact about every religion. Thus our imagined philosopher of religion knows the history of religions and their sociology, and can rattle off every doctrine of every religion. He knows all about the Christological heresies and the filioque clause and the anatta doctrine, etc. He is like Mary who knows all about colors from the outside but nothing about them from the inside. He knows the externals and trappings, but not the living essence.
He literally does not know, from the inside, what he is talking about just as Mary literally does not know, from the inside, what she is talking about.
Now no analogy is perfect (else it wouldn't be an analogy) but the foregoing analogy supports the following response to the above objection. The objection is that one cannot consistently maintain both that
(i) some claims and arguments are such that their logical appraisal (their evaluation in terms of truth, validity, soundness, relevance etc.) can and must be conducted independently of inquiries into the natures and capacities and environments of the persons who advance the claims and arguments
(ii) some claims and arguments are such that their logical appraisal can legitimately involve inquiry into the nature, capacities, and environments of the persons who advance the claims and arguments.
My response is that one can, with no breach of logical propriety, maintain both (i) and (ii). It depends on whether the subject matter is wholly objective or also necessarily involves elements of subjectivity. If we are talking about the morality of abortion, then the arguments are good or bad independently of who is making them. They are neither male nor female. But if we are talking about the phenomenology of colors, then a person such as Mary is disqualified by her lack of experience should she advance the claim that there are no phenomenal colors or color qualia or that the whole reality of color perception is exhausted by the neurophysiology of such perception.
Can a man know what it is like to be a woman, or more specifically, what it is like to be a woman in philosophy? (There is an entire website devoted to this variation on Nagel's question.) Some women complain bitterly about their experiences as women in the male-dominated field of philosophy. (And some of these women have legitimate grievances.) Can a man know what it is like to be mocked or ridiculed or made to feel stupid? Of course. Who has never been mocked or ridiculed or made to feel stupid? The point here is that men and women have the same types of experiences. I can't feel your pain, only Bill Cinton with his special powers can do that. But I feel pain and so I know what it is like for you to feel pain, whether you are male of female, human or feline. Since I know what it is like to be ridiculed, I know what it is like for a woman to be ridiculed. But an irreligious person does not know what it is like to have a religious experience for the simple reasons that he does not have them.
I know fear and so does my cat. But he has never experienced Heideggerian Angst. So if he were, per impossibile, to say something about it, having read, per impossibile, the relevant sections of Sein und Zeit, we would be justified in ignoring his opinions. Go take a car nap! The irreligious person is like my cat: he lacks a certain range of experiences.
I am not saying that if one has religious experiences, then one will necessarily reject the view that religion is buncombe. For it is possible to have a certain range of experiences and yet decide that they are non-veridical. What I am saying is that religious experiences are a sine qua non for anyone who expects to be taken with full seriousness when he talks or writes about religion. So given that David Lewis did not have a religious bone in his body, as his wife stated, that gives me an excellent reason not to take with full seriousness his asseverations on religion. He literally does not know what he is talking about.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, by contrast, was clearly a religious man. So I take his writings on religion with utmost seriousness, which is not to say that I endorse his philosophy of religion.
Jim Slagle points me this morning to a post of his that links to four papers by David Lewis on religion from Andrew Bailey's Lewis page. (Occasional MavPhil commenter Bailey deserves high praise for making available online papers by van Inwagen and Lewis.) Slagle goes on to make some criticisms of Lewis with which I agree.
Since Lewis "didn't have a religious bone in his body" as I recall his wife Stephanie reporting in an A. P. A. obituary, a serious question arises: if you don't know a subject-matter from the inside, and indeed by sympathetic practice of that subject-matter, how seriously should we take what you have to say about that subject-matter?
For example, how seriously ought one take a philosopher of law who has never practiced law or who doesn't even have a law degree? How seriously ought one take a philosopher of physics who has never done physics? Such a philosopher does not know the subject from the inside by practice. Equally, how seriously should one take a physicist such as the benighted Lawrence Krauss who does not know philosophy from the inside, by practice, yet pontificates about philosophical questions? In the case of Krauss, though not in the case of all such physicists, we should not take him seriously at all.
To be a good philosopher of X one ought to know both philosophy and X from the inside, by practice.
Why should it be any different for the philosophy of religion? I incline to the view that one should not take too seriously what a philosopher says about religion unless he knows religion from the inside by the sincere and sympathetic practice of a particular religion. David Lewis, without a doubt, was one of the best philosophical practitioners of his generation. And yet he understood nothing of religion from the inside.
I am not saying that we should dismiss what Lewis says about religion. I am saying that we should not take it too seriously. He literally doesn't know (by sympathetic practice, from the inside) what he is talking about.
It cuts the other way too. What many if not most religionists says about philosophy is stupid and pointless because it 'betrays' no understanding of philosophy from the inside by sympathetic practice.
Yesterday I argued that atheism is not a religion. Well, theism is not a religion either, but for different reasons. Atheism is not a religion because it amounts to the rejection of the central commitment of anything that could legitimately be called a religion. (So if atheism were a religion, it would amount to a rejection of itself.) This core commitment is the affirmation of the existence of a transcendent reality, whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose of human existence.
Theism is not a religion for at least two reasons.
First, there is no religion in general, only particular religions, and theism is not a particular religion. Theism is merely a proposition common to many different (monotheistic and polytheistic) religions. It is the proposition that God or gods exist. As such, it is simply the negation of the characteristic atheist proposition. No extant religion consists of the theist's bare metaphysical asseveration, and no possible religion could consist of it alone.
Second, both doctrine and practice are essential to a religion, but a theist needn't engage in any specifically theistic practice to be a theist. He need only uphold the theoretical proposition that there is such a being or such beings as God or gods.
If theism is not a religion, then, as Tully Borland suggested to me, it is difficult to see how a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance could be construed as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The clause reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."
"One nation under God" from the Pledge is at most an affirmation of theism. But theism is not a religion. So the occurrence of the word 'God' in the pledge does nothing to establsh any religion as the state religion. Understandably, atheists don't like that word in the Pledge, but the Establishment Clause gives them no ground for removing it.
Similarly with "In God We Trust" on our currency. This is more than a bare affirmation (or presupposition) of the existence of God; it brings in the further notion of trusting God, a notion that is admittedly religious. But which religion is established by "In God We Trust"? Judaism? Christianity? Islam? All three Abrahamic religions have monotheism in common. Obviously, if Congress were to establish a state religion it would have to be some one particular religion. But no particular religion has proprietary rights in "In God We Trust." So why should we think that the phrase violates the Establishment Clause.
And the same goes for the Ten Commandments as I maintained years ago when I first took to the 'sphere. The Decalogue is common to the three Abrahamic religions. So if a judge posts them in his chambers, which religion is he establishing by so doing?
Once again we see what extremists contemporary iberals are. The plain sense of the Establishment Clause is that there shall be no state religion. One has to torture the Clause to extract from it justification to remove all references to God and every last vestige of religion from the public sphere, a sphere that ever expands under liberal fascism while the private sphere contracts.
In an earlier post I commented with some trenchancy on Ronald Dworkin's views about religion in Religion Without God as these views were represented by Peter Berkowitz in a recent article. Although I was careful to point out that my remarks presupposed the accuracy of Berkowitz's representation, I was a bit uneasy about my comments, not having consulted Dworkin's book. I am therefore happy to reproduce the following missive from a Columbia University graduate student, Luke MacInnis, to balance out the picture.
I enjoy your blog, and especially your excellent running commentary on Tom Nagel. I wanted to comment on your recent post on Peter Berkowitz's review of Ronald Dworkin's Religion Without God. Berkowitz's comments center exclusively on, and misrepresent, a very short passage toward the start of the book, which you suggest amounts to a "miserable leftist substitute for religion" that "leaves out what is absolutely central to religion, namely, the conviction that there is a transcendent dimension, an "unseen order." But in fact Dworkin does not say that religion "consists in" those two central judgments. Immediately (the next page) after describing these judgments, he adds "For many people religion includes much more than those two values", approvingly quotes William James' view that religion "adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else", and then himself adds that this "enchantment is the discovery of transcendental value in what seems otherwise transient or dead." He provides important, though brief, discussions of Rudolph Otto's views on religion's numinous character, and emphasizes his own rejection of naturalist metaphysics (a long-running theme in all of Dworkin's work, but most explicit and developed in Justice for Hedgehogs).
So he does not deny religion's transcendent, unseen dimension. Nor does he offer any definitions that offend ordinary language (he provides many examples to make this point. Berkowitz mentions none of them). Dworkin describes the "two judgments" as a manifestation of a particular kind of religious attitude (or temperament, to use Nagel's term) that some (though not all) atheists might be said to have, and which does not include a belief in a supreme, intelligent creator. Dworkin's general account of religion is broad because he aims at ecumenism. That hardly makes it a "miserable leftist substitute". It is an attempt to find common ground between atheists and theists in a more basic reverence toward the "unseen" both share but cash out in inconsistent metaphysics.
Regarding your final question ("if it is wrong for the State to impose religion on its citizens, why isn't it also wrong for the State to impose leftist ideology on its citizens as it is now doing here in the USA?), you might be interested in Dworkin's answer in Chapter 3 of RWG, where he concedes the symmetry between theistic and scientific explanations of the origin of conscious life ("if relying on one judgment to mandate a curriculum is an unconstitutional establishment of religious belief, then so is relying on the other." (128)), recognizes that liberalism to this point has no adequate response to this problem, and offers what is indeed a "radical" argument that involves eliminating specific rights to religious freedom altogether.
Berkowitz ignores all of this, and I wish others would not comment so decisively on the book based on such an inadequate review (notwithstanding your brief "if this is what Dworkin maintains" qualification). I find this is particularly common with Dworkin's work, and it is unfortunate because it usually obscures the complexity and value of his contribution.
Why is religious belief so hard to accept? Herewith, some notes toward a list of the impedimenta, the stumbling blocks, that litter and lie in the path of the would-be believer. Whether the following ought to be impediments is a further question, a normative question. The following taxonomy is merely descriptive. And not in order of stopping power. And perhaps incomplete. This is a blog. This is only a blog.
1. The obtrusiveness and constancy and coherence of the deliverances of the senses, outer and inner. The "unseen order" (William James), if such there be, is no match for the 'seen order.' The massive assault upon the sense organs has never been greater than at the present time given the high technology of distraction: radio, TV, portable telephony, the Internet . . . and Twitter, the ultimate weapon of mass distraction. Here is some advice on how to avoid God from C. S. Lewis, "The Seeing Eye" in Christian Reflections (Eeerdmans, 1967), pp. 168-167:
Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you'd be safer to stick to the papers. You'll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal.
If Lewis could only see us now.
2. The fact that there are many competing systems of religious belief and practice. They overlap, but they also contradict. The extant contradictory systems cannot all be true, though they could all be false. The fact that one's own system is contradicted by others doesn't make it false, but it does raise reasonable doubts as to whether it is true. For a thinking person, this is a stumbling block to the naive and unthinking acceptance of the religion in which one has been brought up.
3. The specificity of religious belief systems and their excessively detailed dogmatic contents. One is put off by the presumptuousness of those who claim to know what they cannot, or are not likely, to know. For example, overconfident assurances as to the natures of heaven, hell, and purgatory together with asseverations as to who went where. Stalin in hell? How do you know? How do you even know that there is a place of everlasting punishment as opposed to such other options as simple annihilation of unrepentant miscreants?
The presumptuousness of those who fancy that they understand the economics of salvation to such a degree that they can condifently assert that so many Hail Mary's will remove so many years in purgatory. For many, such presumptuousness is an abomination, though not as bad as the sale of indulgences.
4. The fact that the religions of the world, over millenia, haven't done much to improve us individually or collectively. Even if one sets aside the intemperate fulminations of the New Atheists, that benighted crew uniquely blind to the good religion has done, there is the fact that religious belief and practice, even if protracted and sincere, do little toward the moral improvement of people. To some this is an impediment to acceptance of a religion.
Related point: the corruption of the churches.
Again, my task here is merely descriptive. I am not claiming that one ought to be dissuaded from religion by its failure to improve people much or to maintain itself in institutional form without corruption.
5. The putative conflict between science and religion. Competing magisteria each with a loud claim to be the proper guide to life. Thinking people are bothered by this.
6. The tension between Athens (philosophy) and Jerusalem (religion).
7. The weight of concupiscence. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so largely unable to control our drives. The thrust of desire makes most real the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Is it any surprise that the atheist Russell, even in old age, refused to be faithful to his wife? It is reasonable to conjecture that his lust and his pride -- intellectuals tend to be very proud with outsized egos-- blinded him to spirtual realities.
8. Suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously.
For Dworkin, the meaning of religion consists in “two central judgments about value” that he believes religious people -- theists and some atheists -- regard as objectively true. First, “each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.” Second, “what we call ‘nature’ -- the universe as a whole and in all its parts -- is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.”
If this is what Dworkin maintains, then his characterization of religion leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. This is obviously NOT what the meaning of religion consists in on any adequate understanding of religion. Religion cannot be reduced to axiology. True, the religious will accept that there are objective values and disvalues. But such acceptance, even if necessary for being religious, is not sufficient.
All or most of the following are beliefs essential to anything that can be legitimately called a religion:
The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order."
(Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute
reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their
instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or
introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents.
So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via
mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be
ruled out in the form of revelation.
The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good
lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order."
(Varieties, p. 53)
The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes
our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the
moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral
corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by
our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral
The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring
about this purification and adjustment.
The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or
value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a
manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
In a word, Dworkin's characterization leaves out Transcendence; it leaves out what is absolutely central to religion, namely, the conviction that there is a transcendent dimension, an "unseen order," (see #1 supra) and that adjustment to this order is essential to human flourishing (see #2 supra).
What Dworkin has delivered is a miserable leftist substitute for religion. Being a leftist, he of course cannot value or perhaps even understand the genuine article; but he at least could have had the intellectual honesty not to try to redefine something whose definition is tolerably clear. Berkowitz has it right:
. . . Dworkin redefines religion to conform to his progressive sensibilities. What he presents as the offering of an olive branch to believers may seem to a person of faith, with justice, as a hostile takeover attempt. The steps by which Dworkin appropriates the religious label for his own left-liberal and atheistic outlook provide a case study in how the progressive mind, under the guise of conciliation, seeks to command the moral high ground exclusively and discredit that which differs from it.
"Hostile takeover" is right. Berkowitz also perceptively notes that
Dworkin also overlooks a formidable problem latent in his sanctification of the progressive perspective. If progressivism counts as a religion, then enacting the left-liberal policy agenda would seem to represent an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment.
But of course progressivism is not a religion, but an anti-religious political ideology. Nevertheless, one can and must ask: if it is wrong for the State to impose religion on its citizens, why isn't it also wrong for the State to impose leftist ideology on its citizens as it now doing here in the USA?
Details here. What follows is an excerpt from a 2010 post:
Religions: Problems, Solutions, Techniques
Simplifying a four-part
schema employed by Stephen Prothero in his God Is Not One (Harper,
2010, p. 14), I propose, in agreement with Prothero, that each religion can be
usefully seen as addressing itself to a problem; offering a
solution to the problem, a solution that also constitutes the
religion's goal; and proposing a technique for solving the problem and
achieving the goal.
This post will consider five
religions and how the simplified Prothero schema applies to them.
For Christianity, the problem
is sin, the solution or goal is salvation, and the technique is some combination
of faith and good works. (14) For Buddhism, the problem is suffering, the
solution or goal is nirvana, and the technique for achieving nirvana is the
Noble Eightfold Path. (14) Prothero's main purpose in his book is to stress the
differences between religions. That is the point of the silly title, "God is
Not One." Obviously, God is one by definition; it is the conceptions of God
that are various. It is also a bad title because Prothero's topic is religion,
not theism. Buddhism, after all, is not a theistic religion. But let that
pass. I can't fault the man for wanting to attract buyers with a catchy title,
one reminiscent of Hitchens' God Is Not Great. The schema makes clear
the differences between these two great religions:
Are Buddhists trying to
achieve salvation? Of course not, since they do not even believe in sin. Are
Christians trying to achieve nirvana? No, since for them suffering isn't
something that must be overcome. (15)
If salvation is
salvation from sin, then of course Prothero is right. Sin is an offence against
God, and in a religion with no God there can be no sin. Nevertheless, I am a
bit uneasy with the starkness of Prothero's contrast. The Buddhist too aims at
a sort of salvation, salvation from all-pervasive suffering. To use 'salvation'
so narrowly that it applies only to the Christian's religious goal obscures the
commonality between the two great religions. I should think that some
soteriology or other is essential to every religion. A religion must show a
way out of our unsatisfactory predicament, and one is not religious unless one
perceives our life in this world as indeed a predicament, and one that is deeply
and fundamentally unsatisfactory, whatever the exact nature of the
I met with S. N. in Tempe yesterday for philosophy and chess. While we were talking about overbelief, it occurred to me that Romans 1: 18-20 is another good example of overbelief. Now there is an issue that the budding theologian S. N. made me aware of, an issue that the philosopher in me desires to set aside, namely, the question whether St. Paul is speaking in his own voice in the passage in question. That is indeed an interesting question, but my concern is with the argment that the passage embodies, regardless of who is making it. I will write as if Paul is speaking in his own voice. If you disagree, substitute 'pseudo-Paul' for 'Paul.'
I will first give my reading of the passage, and then explain how it connects with William James' notion of overbelief. (I understand that the term 'overbelief' surfaces first in Matthew Arnold who supposedly derives it from Goethe's use of Aberglaube. My concern is solely with James' use of the word.)
The Pauline Passage
Rather than quote the whole of the Pauline passage at Romans 1: 18-20, I'll summarize it. Men are godless and wicked and suppress the truth. What may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Human beings have no excuse for their unbelief. "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . . ."
Paul's claim here is that the existence and nature of God are evident from creation and that unbelief is a result of a willful turning away from the truth. There is no excuse for unbelief because it is a plain fact that the natural world is divine handiwork. Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is planted firmly in Athens. And so I must point out that to characterize the natural world as 'made' or 'created' begs the question in favor of theism. As begging the question, the Pauline claim about the evidentness of the world's being created offers no support for theism. It is an analytic proposition that there is no creation without a creator. So if the heavens and the earth are a creation, then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.
But is the world a divine creation? This is the question, and the answer is not obvious. That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason. Of course, one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world. I have done it myself. But those who reject theistic arguments, and construct anti-theistic arguments, have their reasons too, and it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is simply not evident to the senses that the natural world is a divine artifact.
I may be moved to marvel at "the starry skies above me." This was one of two things that filled Kant with wonder, the other being "the moral law within me." But seeing is not seeing as. If you see the starry skies as divine handiwork, then this is an interpretation from within a theistic framework. But the datum seen can just as easily be given a nontheistic interpretation.
If the atheism of some has its origin in pride, stubborness and a willful refusal to recognize any power or authority beyond oneself, or beyond the human, as is plainly the case with many, it does not follow that the atheism of all has this origin.
It is all-too-human to suspect in our opponents moral depravity when we cannot convince them. The Pauline passage smacks of that all-too-humanity. There are sincere and decent atheists, and they have plenty of excuse for their unbelief. The best of them, if wrong in the end, are excusably wrong.
Overbelief in the Pauline Passage
Here is my working definition of 'overbelief' based on my reading of William James: an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it.
We experience the world as existent, as beautiful, and as orderly. But we don't experience the world as divine handiwork any more than we experience it as the work of Satan contrived to fool us into taking it to be real when it is not, and seduce us with its beauty and order. That the world is divine handiwork is therefore, by the above definition, an overbelief.
That is not to say that it is false. It is to say, as S. N. pointed out yesterday, that the belief is undetermined by the experience. Overbeliefs are undetermined by what we actually and literally experience. (Admittedly, it is a tricky question what exactly we literally experience: do I see my car, or only the front of my car? Do I touch my cat, or only the fur of my cat? I see a green tree, but do I see that a tree is green? Do I even see a green tree? I see an instance of greenness and an instance of treeness, but do I see that the two property-instances are compresent?)
That the world is divine handiwork is an overbelief. That doesn't make it false or even unreasonable. Indeed, overbeliefs are unavoidable. As James writes,
These ideas [overbeliefs] will thus be essential to that individual's religion; -- which is as much as to say that over-beliefs in various directions are absolutely indispensable, and that we should treat them with tenderness and tolerance so long as they are not intolerant themselves. As I have elsewhere written, the most interesting and valuable things about a man are usually his over-beliefs. (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin 1982, p. 515, orig. publ. 1902)
One day, well over 30 years ago, I was deeply tormented by a swarm of negative thoughts and feelings that had arisen because of a dispute with a certain person. Pacing around my apartment, I suddenly, without any forethought, raised my hands toward the ceiling and said, "Release me!" It was a wholly spontaneous cri du coeur, a prayer if you will, but not intended as such. I emphasize that it was wholly unpremeditated. As soon as I had said the words and made the gesture, a wonderful peace descended upon my mind and the flood of negativity vanished. I became as calm as a Stoic sage.
That is an example of what I am calling an unusual experience. Only some of us have such experiences, and those who do, only rarely. I never had such an experience before or since, though I have had a wide variety of other types of unusual experiences of a religious, mystical and paranormal nature.
A second very memorable experience occurred while in deep formal meditation. I had the strong sense that I was the object of a very powerful love. I suddenly had the feeling that I was being loved by someone. Unfortunately, my analytic mind went to work on the experience and it soon subsided. This is why, when the gifts of meditation arrive, one must surrender to them in utter passivity, something that intellectual types will find it very hard to do.
The typical intellectual suffers from hypertrophy of the critical faculty, and in consequence, he suffers the blockage of the channels of intuition. He hones his intellect on the whetstone of discursivity, and if he is not careful, he may hone it away to nothing, or else perfect the power of slicing while losing the power of splicing.
Now suppose one were to interpret an experience such as the first one described as a reception of divine grace or as the answering of a prayer by a divine or angelic agent. Such an interpretation would involve what William James calls overbelief. Although the genial James uses the term several times in Varieties of Religious Experience and elsewhere, I don't believe he ever defines the term. But I think it is is keeping with his use of the term to say that an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it.
Similarly, if I came to believe that what I experienced in the second experience was the love of Christ (subjective genitive), that would be an overbelief. The experience could not be doubted while I was having it, and now, a few years after having the experience, I have no practical doubts about it either: I have the testimony of my journal account which was written right after the experience, testimony that is corroborated by my present memories.
Unfortunately, experiences do not bear within themselves certificates of veridicality. There are two questions that an experience qua experience leaves open. First, is it of something real? Second, even if it is of something real, is it of the particular thing the overbelief says it is of?
Suppose a skeptic pipes up: "What you experienced was not the love of Christ, you gullible fool, but a random electro-chemical discharge in your brain." But of course, that would be wrong, indeed absurd. The experience was certainly not of that. The experience had a definite and describable phenomenological content, a content not describable in electro-chemical or neural terms.
Indeed, it is arguable that the skeptic is trading in underbelief, a word I just now coined. [Correction, 11 July: James uses 'under-belief' on p. 515 of The Varieties of Religious Experience.] If an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it, then an underbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience less than is contained within it, or reading into it what manifestly is not contained within it.
Pounding on such a boneheaded skeptic, however, does not get the length of a proof of the veridicality of my experience.
We are on the point of becoming entangled in a thicket of thorny questions. Are there perceptual beliefs? If yes, are they not overbeliefs? I see a bobcat sitting outside my study and I form the belief that there is a bobcat five feet from me. But surely that existential claim goes beyond what the experience vouchsafes. The existence of the cat cannot be read off from the experience . . . .
Or is it rather underbelief if I refuse to grant that seeing a bobcat in normal conditions (good light, etc.) is proof that it exists in reality beyond my visual perception?
Should we perhaps define 'overbelief' and 'underbelief' in such a way that they pertain only to non-empirical matters?
Furthermore, is an overbelief a belief? Might 'over' function here as an alienans adjective? Beliefs are either true or false. Perhaps overbeliefs are neither, being merely matters of attitude, merely subjective additions to experiences. I think James would reject this. For him, overbeliefs are genuine beliefs. I'll dig up some passages later.
Sam Harris, you may remember, holds that the nonexistence of the self is something that one can learn from meditation. But he too, I should think, is involved in overbelief. One cannot observe the nonexistence of the self. Harris' belief goes well beyond anything that meditation discloses. The self does not turn up among the objects of experience as a separate object. Granted. It doesn't follow, however, that there is no self. To get to that conclusion overbelief is necessary, along the lines of: Only that which can be singled out as an object of experience exists or is real. How justify that on the basis of a close inspection of experience? It is sometimes called the Principle of Acquaintance. Are we acquainted with it?
The irony shouldn't be missed. Harris, the febrile religion-basher, embraces a religious overbelief in his Buddhist rejection of the self. Buddhism is a religion.
The following is reproduced from Keith Burgess-Jackson's weblog:
[W]hen persons without religious experience regard themselves as being on that ground superior to those who have it, their attitude must be treated as merely silly and offensive. Similarly, any theories about religious experience constructed by persons who have little or none of their own should be regarded with grave suspicion. (For that reason it would be unwise to attach very much weight to anything that the present writer may say on this subject.)
(C. D. Broad, "Arguments for the Existence of God, II," The Journal of Theological Studies 40 [April 1939]: 156-67, at 159 [italics in original])
London Karl brings to my attention an article by Sam Harris touching upon themes dear to my heart. Harris is an impressive fellow, an excellent public speaker, a crusader of sorts who has some important and true things to say, but who is sometimes out beyond his depth, like many public intellectuals who make bold to speak about philosophical topics. (But Harris is surely right clearly and courageously to point out that, among the ideologies extant at the present time, radical Islam is the most dangerous.)
In Rational Mysticism, Harris responds to critic Tom Flynn and in doing so offers characterizations of secularism, religion, and rational mysticism:
I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.
As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.
The above can be distilled into three propositions:
1. Secularism is wholly defined by what it opposes, religion.
2. Religion is irrational, anti-science, and anti-civilization.
3. It would be a mistake to dismiss mysticism because of its traditional association with religious practice.
The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
To continue with the distillation:
4. Meditation, defined as careful attention to conscious experience, is the only basis for sustainable claims about subjectivity. There is nothing irrational about it.
5. Deep meditation gives rise to unusual, and sometimes personally transformative, experiences or "insights."
6. One such "insight" is that the "sense of self" or the "feeling called 'I'" can disappear when carefully searched for.
7. The sense of "self" is a cognitive illusion, and can be seen to be such by empirical observation: it is not a proposition to be accepted on faith.
There is much to agree with here. Indeed, I wholeheartedly accept propositions (1), (3), (4), and (5). Of course, I don't accept (2), but that is not what I want to discuss. My present concerns are (6) and (7).
Let me say first that, for me, 'insight' is a noun of success, and in this regard it is like 'knowledge.' There cannot be false knowledge; there cannot be false insights. Now does deep meditation disclose that there is, in truth, no self, no ego, no I, no subject of experience? Harris does not say flat-out that the self is an illusion; he says that the "sense of self" is an illusion. But I don't think he means that there is a self but that there is no sense of it in deep meditation. I take him to be saying something quite familiar from (the religion?) Pali Buddhism, namely, that there is no self, period. Anatta, you will recall, is one of the pillars of Pali and later Buddhism, along with anicca and dukkha.
So I will assume that Harris means to deny the the existence of the self as the subject of experience and to deny it on empirical grounds: there is no self because no self is encountered when we carefully examine, in deep meditation, our conscious experience.
It seems to me, however, that the nonexistence of what I fail to find does not logically follow from my failing to find it.
It may be that the self is the sort of thing that cannot turn up as an object of experience precisely because it is the subject of experience.
Here is an analogy. An absent-minded old man went in search of his eyeglasses. He searched high and low, from morning til night. Failing to find them after such a protracted effort, he concluded that he never had any in the first place. His search, however, was made possible by the glasses sitting upon his nose!
The analogy works with the eyes as well. From the fact that my eyes do not appear in my visual field (apart from mirrors), it does not follow that I have no eyes. My eyes are a necessary condition of my having a visual field in the first place. Their nonappearance in said field is no argument against them.
It could be something like that (though not exactly like that) with the self. It could be that the self cannot, by its very nature, turn up as an object of experience, for the simple reason that it is the subject of experience, that which is experiencing.
It is simply false to say what Harris says in (7), namely that one empirically observes that there is no self. That is not an observation but an inference from the failure to encounter the self as an object of experience. It is an inference that is valid only in the presence of an auxiliary premise:
Only that which can be experienced as an object exists. The self cannot be experienced as an object. Therefore The self does not exist.
This argument is valid, but is it sound? The second premise is empirical: nothing we encounter in experience (inner or outer) counts as the subject of experience. True for the standard Humean and Buddhist reasons. But we cannot validly move from the second premise to the conclusion. We need the help of the auxiliary premise, which is not empirical. How then do we know that it is true? Must we take it on faith? Whose faith? Harris's?
My point, then, is that (7) is false and that Harris is operating with a dogmatic, non-empirical assumption, the just-mentioned auxiliary premise.
Harris needs to be careful that in his war against "absurd religious certainties" he does not rely on absurd dogmatic certainties of his own.
I would like to return to the practice of the religion of my youth, I really would. Nothing of the usual sort holds me back: not the sex monkey, not illicit loves or addictions, not worldly ambition or the demands of career, not the thoughtlessness of the worldling mesmerized by the play of transient phenomena, not the Luciferian pride of a Russell or a Sartre or a Hitchens, not the opposition of a wife: mine is a good old-fashioned Catholic girl who attends mass on Sundays, ministers to the sick, and embodies the old-time virtues.
Philosophical and theological questions and doubts are the main impediments to my return.
. . . in the Novus Ordo rite of Mass the Liturgy has been effeminized. There is a famous passage in Caesar’s De bello Gallico where he explains why the Belgae tribe were such good soldiers. He attributes this to their lack of contact with the centers of culture like the cities. Caesar believed that such contact contributes ad effeminandos animos, to the effeminizing of their spirits.
[. . .]
In its Novus Ordo form . . . the Liturgy has been devirilized. One must recall the meaning of the word, vir, in Latin. Both vir and homo mean “man”, but it is vir alone that has the connotation of the man-hero and is the word that is often used for “husband”. The Aeneid begins with the famous words: arma virumque cano. (“ I sing of arms and the man-hero.”) What Cardinal Heenan presciently and correctly saw in 1967 was the virtual elimination of the virile nature of the Liturgy, the replacement of masculine objectivity, necessary for the public worship of the Church, with softness, sentimentality and personalization centered on the motherly person of the priest.
But not only the Liturgy has been devirilized; the priests have been too. The priests of my youth were manly men. But this soon changed in ways that are well known.
There was something profoundly stupid about the Vatican II 'reforms' even if we view matters from a purely immanent 'sociological' point of view. Suppose Roman Catholicism is, metaphysically, buncombe to its core, nothing but an elaborate human construction in the face of a meaningless universe, a construction kept going by human needs and desires noble and base. Suppose there is no God, no soul, no post-mortem reward or punishment, no moral world order. Suppose we are nothing but a species of clever land mammal thrown up on the shores of life by blind evolutionary processes, and that everything that makes us normatively human and thus persons (consciousness, self-consciousness, conscience, reason, and the rest) are nothing but cosmic accidents. Suppose all that.
Still, religion has its immanent life-enhancing role to play, whether true or false, and one would have to be as superficial and ignorant of the human heart as a New Atheist to think it will ever wither away: it inspires and guides, comforts and consoles; it provides our noble impulses with an outlet while giving suffering a meaning. Suffering can be borne, Nietzsche says somewhere, if it has a meaning; what is unbearable is meaningless suffering. Now the deep meaning that the Roman church provides is tied to its profundity, mystery, and reference to the Transcendent. Anything that degrades it into a namby-pamby secular humanism, just another brand of liberal feel-goodism and do-goodism, destroys it, making of it just another piece of dubious cultural junk. Degrading factors: switching from Latin to the vernacular; the introduction of sappy pseudo-folk music sung by pimply-faced adolescents strumming gut-stringed guitars; leftist politics and political correctness; the priest facing the congregation; the '60s obsession with 'relevance.'
People who take religion seriously tend to be conservatives and traditionalists; they are not change-for-the-sake-of-change leftist utopians. The stupidity of the Vatican II 'reforms,' therefore, consists in estranging its very clienetele, the conservatives and traditionalists. The church should be a liberal-free zone.
Religion is for old women, children, and womanish men. Without this clientele it would wither away. It is for the weak. The strong are able to face life without its false comforts and childish superstitions. It is used by priests and other religious professionals to exploit the gullible. It is a form of social control, an opiate that renders people accepting of their lot and subservient to the rulers of this world. It is indistinguishable from superstition and an enemy of science and enlightenment.
It would be an interesting exercise to write similarly onesided paragraphs about government, science, philosophy, poetry, chess, evangelical atheists, and so on.
People come to philosophy from various 'places.' Some come from religion, others from mathematics and the natural sciences, still others from literature and the arts. There are other termini a quis as well. In this post I am concerned only with the move from religion to philosophy. What are the main types of reasons for those who are concerned with religion to take up the serious study of philosophy? I count five main types of motive.
1. The Apologetic Motive. Some look to philosophy for apologetic tools. Their concern is to clarify and defend the tenets of their religious faith, tenets they do not question, or do not question in the main, against those who do question them, or even attack them. For someone whose central motive is apologetic, the aim is not to seek a truth they do not possess, but to articulate and defend a truth, the "deposit of faith," that they already possess, if not in fullness, at least in outline.
2. The Critical Motive. Someone who is animated by the Critical Motive seeks to understand religion and evaluate its claim to truth, while taking it seriously. To criticize is not to oppose, but to sift, evaluate, assay, separate the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable. The critic is not out to defend or attack but to understand and evaluate. Open to the claims of religion, his question is: But is it true?
3. The Debunking Motive. If the apologist presupposes the truth of his religion, or some religion, the debunker presupposes the falsehood of a particular religion or of every religion. He takes the doctrines and institutions of religion seriously as things worth attacking, exposing, debunking, unmasking, refuting.
The apologist, the critic, and the debunker all take religion seriously as something worth defending, worth evaluating, or worth attacking using the tools of philosophy. For all three, philosophy is a tool, not an end in itself.
The apologist moves to philosophy without leaving religion. If he succeeds in defending his faith with the weapons of philosophy, well and good; if he fails, it doesn't really matter. He has all the essential truth he needs from his religion. His inability to mount an intellectually respectable defense of it is a secondary matter.
The critic moves to philosophy with the option of leaving religion behind. Whether or not he leaves it behind depends on the outcome of his critique. Neither staying nor leaving is a foregone cnclusion.
The debunker either never had a living faith, or else he had one but lost it. As a debunker, his decision has been made and his Rubicon crossed: religion is buncombe from start to finish, dangerous buncombe that needs to be unmasked and opposed. Strictly speaking, only the debunker who once had a living faith moves from it to philosophy. You cannot move away from a place where you never were.
4. The Transcensive Motive. The transcender aims to find in philosophy something that completes and transcends religion while preserving its truth. One way to flesh this out would be in Hegelian terms: religion and philosophy both aim to express the Absolute, but only philosophy does so adequately. Religion is an inadequate 'pictorial' (vortstellende) representation of the Absolute. On this sort of approach all that is good in religion is aufgehoben in philosophy, simultaneously cancelled and preserved, roughly in the way the bud is both cancelled and preserved in the flower.
5. The Substitutional Motive. The substitutionalist aims to find in philosophy a substitute for religion. Religion, when taken seriously, makes a total claim on its adherents' higher energies. A person who, for any reason, becomes disenchanted with religion, but is not prepared to allow himself to degenerate to the level of the worldling, may look to invest his energies elsewhere in some other lofty pursuit. Some will turn to social or political activism. And of course there are other termini ad quos on the road from religion. The substitutionalist abandons religion for philosophy. In a sense, philosophy becomes his religion. It is in her precincts that he seeks his highest meaning and an outlet for his noblest impulses.
A. What is my motive? (2). Certainly not (1): I seem to be constitutionally incapable of taking the religion of my upbringing , or any religion, as simply true without examination. I can't suppress the questions that naturally arise. We have it on high authority that "The unexamined life is not worth living." That examination, of course, extends to everything, including religion, and indeed also to this very examining. Note that I am not appealing to the authority of Socrates/Plato since their authority can be validated rationally and autonomously.
Certainly not (3): I am not a debunker. Not (4) or (5) either. Hegel is right: both religion and philosophy treat of the Absolute. Hegel is wrong, however, in thinking that religion is somehow completed by or culminates in philosophy. I incline to the view that Athens and Jersualem are at odds with each other, that there is a tension between them, indeed a fruitful, productive tension, one that accounts in part for the vitality of the West as over against the inanition of the Islamic world. To put it starkly, it it is the tension between the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of obedient faith (cf. Leo Strauss). Jerusalem is not a suburb of Athens.
Nor do I aim to substitute philosophy for religion. Philosophy, with its "bloodless ballet of categories," is not my religion. Man does not live by the discursive intellect alone.
My view is that there are four main paths to the Absolute, philosophy, religion, mysticism, and morality. They are separate and somehow all must be trod. No one of them has proprietary rights in the Absolute. How integrate them? Integration may not be possible here below. The best we can do is tack back and forth among them. So we think, we pray, we meditate and we live under the aegis of moral demands taken as absolute.
Man's greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own. (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)
"What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man." That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don't think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such. The very notion of wretchedness is religious. If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature. If, and only if.
Man's wretchedness is 'structural': man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we "must have fallen from some better state." That is not obvious. But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
How do we know that? From thousands of years of collective experience.
There is more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. They, however, are informed and guided by certain constitutive beliefs. So the importance of the latter cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. It is not a mere form of life or language game. It rests, pace Wittgenstein, on claims about the nature of reality, claims which, if false, render bogus the practices resting upon them. In this post I present some characteristic beliefs/convictions that provide the scaffolding for what I take to be religion. As scaffolding they are necessarily abstract so as to cover a variety of different religions.
Anything that does not fit this schema I am not inclined to call a religion in any serious sense. I may be willing to negotiate on (4) and (6). (If Buddhism is a religion, it is a religion of self-help, at least in its purest forms.)
1. The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Exerience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53)
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
Dawkins has taken flak for characterizing religious indoctrination of children as “child abuse.” Well, look at this picture and deny it. [The picture depicts a young child holding a sign that reads: Behead all those who insult the Prophet.] True, it’s not the same as beating or sexually molesting one’s child, but the brain of this boy is being warped and twisted by vicious Muslim ideology. What hope does he have when he grows up?
This also shows how crazy it is to characterize Islam as “the religion of peace.”
Somehow—and this will never happen, of course—it should be illegal to indoctrinate children with religious belief.
This is pretty feeble stuff for someone who supposedly can think. First of all, Coyne speaks of religious indoctrination and belief as such and in general, without qualification, making no distinctions among different religions or different beliefs within a given religion. Suppose a child is made to memorize the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. That surely counts as religious indoctrination. But is it child abuse? Obviously not.
A second point is that Coyne and his New Atheist ilk make no distinction between religious ideology and nonreligious ideology. Radical Islam, if not Islam itself, is a murderous religious ideology, and Coyne is quite right to protest its characterization as the "religion of peace." But Nazism and godless communism are also murderous ideologies whose doctrines justify mass murder. According to the Black Book of Communism, communists murdered approximately 100 million people in the 20th century.
Think of all the 'red diaper babies.' I wonder if Coyne and his ilk would protest their indoctrination as child abuse. If not, why not? Why is indoctrination in radical Islam worse than indoctrination in Naziism or communism? Why the selective outrage? If the genus extremist ideology is the problem, why attack only one of its species?
I admit that there is something unseemly about criticizing a man like Coyne. It's uncomfortably like rolling a drunk or beating up a cripple. Nasty work, but somebody has to do it. Here is further evidence of what a fool this man is.
But even worse than Coyne and Dawkins on the topic of religion as child abuse is the noxious A. C. Grayling.
We can be happy that the New Atheism has lost its mojo and is on the way out if not already dead.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne, vol. II (Dover, 1966), p. 162. This is from Chapter XVII, "On Man's Need for Metaphysics" (emphases added and a paragraph break):
Temples and churches, pagodas and mosques, in all countries and ages, in their splendour and spaciousness, testify to man's need for metaphysics, a need strong and ineradicable, which follows close on the physical. The man of a satirical frame of mind could of course add that this need for metaphysics is a modest fellow content with meagre fare. Sometimes it lets itself be satisfied with clumsy fables and absurd fairy-tales. If only they are imprinted early enough, they are for man adequate explanations of his existence and supports for his morality.
Consider the Koran, for example; this wretched book was sufficient to start a world-religion, to satisfy the metaphysical need for countless millions for twelve hundred years, to become the basis of their morality and of a remarkable contempt for death, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and the most extensive conquests. In this book we find the saddest and poorest form of theism. Much may be lost in translation, but I have not been able to discover in it one single idea of value. Such things show that the capacity for metaphysics does not go hand in hand with the need for it . . . .
"Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris. This warning, from the Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday, is based on Genesis 3, 19: In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.
How real can we and this world be if in a little while we all will be nothing but dust and ashes?
The typical secularist is a reality denier who hides from the unalterable facts of death and impermanence. This is shown by his self-deceptive behavior: he lives as if he will live forever and as if his projects are meaningful even though he knows that he won't and that they aren't. If he were to face reality he would have to be a nihilist. That he isn't shows that he is fooling himself.
The positive law codifies moral judgments the chief vehicle of which is religion. Attacks on religion therefore tend to undermine morality, and with it, the rule of law and respect for the rule of law. Is this thesis supportable?
Religion could be kept private and out of the public square. Many think that it should be. But law can't: the whole point of law is to set forth prescriptions and proscriptions for the behavior of citizens, especially in their relations to one another. The suggestion that religion be relegated to the private sphere is not incoherent. The suggestion that law be so relegated surely is.
Law, however, presupposes morality: the positive law is largely a codification of our moral judgments as to the permissible, the impermissible, and the obligatory. We have laws against drunk driving, for example, because of our antecedent conviction that it is morally wrong to act in ways that needlessly endanger ourselves and others. The legal rests on the moral: legal normativity is grounded in moral normativity. If a law is genuinely normative, then it derives that normativity from a sound moral basis; otherwise the law is merely the say-so of legislators and not deserving of respect, though it might be something to fear. But while the legal rests on the moral, it must not be conflated with it. One proof of this is that laws can be morally evaluated. Morally sane people have no trouble pronouncing certain laws immoral. One thinks of the Nuremberg Laws of the Third Reich. It would be no defense of these laws to insist that they were legal and enacted according to all the relevant protocols of the judicial system then and there in effect. 'Illegal law' is a contradition in terms. 'Immoral law' is not. The positive law is subject to moral evaluation.
Now the chief vehicle of morality for most people is and has been for centuries religion. The Ten Commandments, for example, are to be found in the Old Testament, and are at the ethical center of both Judaism and Christianity. There is much more to both religions than their respective ethical teachings, and there is much more to their ethical teachings than the Decalogue; but the latter is surely at the center of the ethical doctrine of both religions.
Attacks on religion, therefore, are indirect attacks on the morality of which religion is the vehicle, as well as indirect attacks on the law that codifies the morality.
Consider drunk driving again. It is illegal. And it ought to be: its legal impermissibility is morally defensible. To mount a moral defense of the law you have to argue from some moral principle or principles. Ultimately you will be arguing from "Thou shalt not kill," one of the Ten Commandments. Because we judge it immoral to take innocent human life, we also judge it immoral (thought not as immoral) to recklessly endanger human life as drunk drivers do.
"But couldn't one keep the moral prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, etc. as a basis of public policy while relegating the religious 'packaging' to the private sphere?"
There are two questions here. The deeper one concerns the foundation of morality. To put it graphically, can the normativity of Judeo-Christian ethics survive the death of God? That may not be the best way to frame the question, but it conveys its flavor. My present concern, however, is with a less deep question: Does it make sense to attack the main means for the majority of people to acquire moral formation and guidance?
Once you have removed every vestige of religion from the public square,what will you put in its place? The dogmas of the 'religion' of leftism? You want church-state separation, but you make an exception for the 'church' of leftism? Double standard!
When the possibility of converting to Catholicism became a real one, it was the immensity of the whole package that daunted me, rather than specific teachings. I therefore spent little time agonizing over the Assumption of Mary, justification by works as well as faith, the reverencing of statues, and other such concepts that traditionally irk the non-Catholic mind.
Rather, such anguish as I felt came from entirely the other direction. However dimly and inadequately, I had learnt enough Catholic history and Catholic dogma to know that either Catholicism was the greatest racket in human history, or it was what it said itself that it was. Such studying burned the phrase "By what authority?" into my mind like acid. If the papacy was just an imposture, or an exercise in power mania, then how was doctrine to be transmitted from generation to generation? If the whole Catholic enchilada was a swindle, then why should its enemies have bestirred themselves to hate it so much? Why do they do so still?
This reminds me of the famous 'trilemma' popularized by C. S. Lewis: Jesus is either the Son of God, or he is a lunatic, or he is the devil. This trilemma is also sometimes put as a three-way choice among lord, lunatic, or liar. I quote Lewis and offer my critical remarks here.
Just as I cannot accept the Lewis 'trilemma' -- which is not strictly a trilemma inasmuch as not all three prongs are unacceptable -- I cannot accept the Stovian 'dilemma' which strikes me as a text-book case of the informal fallacy of False Alternative. ". . . either Catholicism was the greatest racket in human history, or it was what it said itself that it was." Why are these the only two alternatives? The Roman Catholic church claims to be the one, true, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic church. One possibility is that the Roman church was all of these things before various linguistic, political, and theological tensions eventuated in the Great Schism of 1054 such that after that date the one, true, etc. church was the Orthodox church of the East. After all, both can and do trace their lineage back to Peter, the 'rock' upon whom Christ founded his church. That is at least a possibility. If it is actual, then the present Roman church would be neither a racket nor what it claims to be. It would be a church with many excellences that unfortunately diverged from the authentic Christian tradition.
Or it could be that that true church is not the Roman church but some Protestant denomination, or maybe no church is the true church: some are better than others, but none of the extant churches has 'cornered the market' on all religiously relevant truth. It might even be that it is impossible that any church be the true church and final repository of all religous truth.
I get the impression that Stove has a burning desire to belong to a community of Christian believers, is attracted to the Roman church for a variety of reasons, some of them good, and then concocts an worthless argument to lend a veneer of rationality to his choice. That is not so say his choice was not a good one. Better a Catholic than a benighted positivist like his father.
My point is a purely logical one: his alternative is a false alternative. I am not taking sides in any theological controversy. Not in this post anyway.
I recently presented an alternative to the conceit shared by both atheists and immature religionists that religion is static, a closed system of doctrines and practices insusceptible of development and correction and refinement. The following is a bit of evidence for the alternative.
The ancients sacrificed animals outside them on the altar of divine worship. Progress was made when more spiritually advanced individuals realized that it is the animal in them that needs sacrificing. Slaughtering a prized animal such as a lamb and offering it up is crude and external and superstitious. What needs to be offered up is our base nature which is grounded in our animality but is a perversion of it.
Christopher Hitchens has been dead for over a year now. He will be joined by Dennett and Dawkins, Grayling and Harris, and the rest of the militant atheists.
Religion, like philosophy, always buries its undertakers.
It was Etienne Gilson who famously remarked that "Philosophy always buries its undertakers." That is the first of his "laws of philosophical experience." (The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Scribners, 1937, p. 306) As a metaphilosophical pronunciamento it is hard to beat. It is equally true that philosophy always resurrects its dead. Let that be my first law. The history of natural science is littered with corpses, none of which is an actual or potential Lazarus. Not so in philosophy.
The following is from an interview with A. C. Grayling who is speaking of the open mind and open inquiry:
It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”
It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.”
A. C. Grayling, like many if not most militant atheists, sees the difference between religion and science in the difference between pre-packaged dogmas thoughtlessly and uncritically accepted from some authority and open-ended free inquiry.
That is not the way I see it. For me, mature religion is more quest than conclusions. It too is open-ended and ongoing, subject to revision and correction. It benefits from abrasion with such competing sectors of culture as philosophy and science. By abrasion the pearl is formed.
All genuine religion involves a quest since God must remain largely unknown, and this by his very nature. He must remain latens Deitas in Aquinas' phrase:
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas; Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit, Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore, Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more, See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
But as religion becomes established in the world in the form of churches, sects, and denominations with worldly interests, it becomes less of a quest and more of a worldly hustle. Dogmatics displaces inquiry, and fund-raising faith. The once alive becomes ossified. All human institutions are corruptible, and are eventually corrupted.
Mature religion must be more quest than conclusions. It is vastly more a seeking than a finding. More a cleansing of windows and a polishing of mirrors than a glimpsing. And certainly more a glimpsing than a comfortable resting upon dogmas. When philosophy and religion and mysticism and science are viewed as quests they complement one another. And this despite the tensions among Athens, Jerusalem, Benares, and Alexandria.
The critic of religion wants to pin it down, reducing it to dogmatic contents, so as to attack it where it is weakest. Paradoxically, the atheist 'knows' more about God than the sophisticated theist -- he knows so much that he knows no such thing could exist. He 'knows' the divine nature and knows that it is incompatible with the existence of evil -- to mention one line of attack. What he 'knows,' of course, is only the concept he himself has fabricated and projected. Aquinas, by contrast, held that the existence of God is far better known than God's nature -- which remains shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.
The (immature) religionist also wants religion pinned down and dogmatically spelled out for purposes of self-definition, doxastic security, other-exclusion, worldly promotion, and political leverage. This is a reason why reformers like Jesus are met with a cold shoulder -- or worse.
How is it that someone as intelligent as Grayling could have such a cartoonish understanding of religion? The answer is that he and his brethren utterly lack the religious sensibility. They lack it in the same way many scientists lack the philosophical sensibility, many prosaic folk the poetic sensibility, and so on.
This is why debates with militant atheists are a waste of time. To get a taste of the febrile militancy of Grayling's atheism, see here.
I am at the moment listening to Dennis Prager interview Dr. Eben Alexander. Prager asked him whether he now maintains, after his paranormal experiences, that consciousness is independent of the brain. Alexander made a striking reply: "We are conscious in spite of our brains." And then he made some remarks to the effect that the brain is a "reducing filter" or something like that.
That is to say much more than that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. For the latter would be true if consciousness existed in an attenuated form after the dissolution of the body and brain. Alexander is saying that embodiment severely limits our awareness.
Well, why couldn't that be true? Why is it less plausible than a form of materialism that views consciousness as somehow dependent on brain functioning and impossible without it?
Let us assume you are not a dogmatist: you don't uncritically adhere to the unprovable materialist framework assumption according to which consciousness just has to be brain-based. And let us assume that you don't have a quasi-religious faith that future science has wonderful revelations in store that will vindicate materialism/physicalism once and for all. By the way, I have always found it passing strange that people would "pin their hopes on future science." You mean to tell me that you hope you can be shown to be nothing more than a complex physical system slated for utter extinction!? That's what you hope for? It may in the end be true, but I for one cannot relate to the mentality of someone who would hope for such a thing. "I hope I am just a bag of chemicals to be punctured in a few years. Wouldn't it be awful if I had an higher destiny and that life actually had a meaning?"
But I digress. Let's assume you are not a dogmatist and not a quasi-religious believer in future science. Let's assume you are an open-minded inquirer like me. You are skeptical in the best sense: inquisitive but critical. Then I put the question to you: Can you show that the Alexander claim is less plausible that the materialist one?
I don't believe that there can be talk of proof either way, assuming you use 'proof' strictly. You have to decide what you will believe and how you will live. In the shadowlands of this life there is light enough and darkness enough to lend support to either answer, that of the mortalist and that of his opposite number.
So I advance to the consideration that for me clinches the matter. Bring the theoretical question back down to your Existenz. How will you live, starting right now and for the rest of your days? Will you live as if you will be utterly extinguished in a few years or will you live as if what you do and leave undone right now matters, really matters? Will you live as if life is serious, or will you live as if it is some sort of cosmic joke? Will you live as if something is at stake in this life, however dimly descried, or will you live as if nothing is ultimately at stake? It is your life. You decide.
Now suppose that when Drs. Mary Neal and Eben Alexander die the body's death, they become nothing. Suppose that their phenomenologically vivid paranormal experiences were revelatory of nothing real, that their experiences were just the imaginings of malfunctioning brains at the outer limits of biological life. What will they have lost by believing as they did?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You could of course say that they were wrong and were living in illusion. But no one will ever know one way or the other. And if the body's death is the last word then nothing ultimately matters, and so it can't matter that they were wrong if turns out that they were.
If they were right, however, then the moral transformation that their taking seriously of their experiences has wrought in them can be expected to redound to their benefit when they pass from this sphere.
Ego is at the root of sin, but also at the root of obsessive preoccupation with one's sinfulness. If the goal is to weaken the ego, then too much fretting over one's sins in the manner of a Wittgenstein is contraindicated.
There is such a thing as excessive moral scrupulosity.
Though Wittgenstein's ego drove him to scruple inordinately, he was a better man than Russell. Russell worried about logic. Wittgenstein worried about logic and his sins.
Bill O'Reilly does a lot of good, but he made a fool of himself last night on his O'Reilly Factor. It was painful to watch. In the course of a heated exchange with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, O'Reilly claimed that Christianity is not a religion, but a philosophy. At first I thought I had misheard, but Mr. Bill repeated the ridiculous assertion.
And yet O'Reilly was right to oppose the extremism of Silverman and the zealots who seek to remove every vestige of religion from the public square, though they seem to be rather less zealous when it comes to the 'religion of peace.'
O'Reilly's bizarre assertion shows that he has no understanding of the differences among philosophy, religion, and Christianity. For part of my views on the differences between philosophy and religion, see here. There is room for disagreement on the exact definition of 'religion,' but if anything is clear, it is that Christianity is a religion. O'Reilly only dug his hole deeper when he claimed that while Christianity is a philosophy, Methodism is a religion!
I am reminded of the inarticulate George W. Bush. He once claimed that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. That silly assertion showed that Bush understood neither philosophy nor Jesus. Jesus claimed not only to know the truth, but to be the truth. "I am the way, the truth, and the life . . . ." That is a claim that no philosopher qua philosopher can make. A philosopher is a mere seeker of truth, not a possessor of it, let alone truth's very incarnation. A philosopher is a person who is ignorant, knows that he is, and seeks to remedy his deficiency.
Neither God nor Christ are philosophers. And we can thank God for that!
I've continued to think on one of our old disagreements, the one about religion and zealotry, and I'd like to continue the discussion. Previously, I'd put forward the argument attempting to show that religious belief is rationally unacceptable. Now, I'm thinking it might be profitable to repackage the argument for a more modest conclusion. I want to say something like, "Given other epistemic commitments that I have and, on reflection, find myself unable to give up, I find that I am rationally unable to accept religious belief of the sort in question." Since I take these commitments to be closely related to the conservative disposition which you and I share, perhaps you will find that you, too are committed to abandoning religious belief." This is, to use a phrase from Robert Nozick, non-coercive philosophy, and I am growing increasingly inclined to think that herein all real persuasion lies.
BV: I suggest we divide persuasion into nonrational and rational, and then subdivide rational persuasion into coercive and noncoercive. Noncoercive rational persuasion, I take it, would be rational persuasion that makes use only of propositions already accepted by the person to be persuaded in an attempt to get him to accept a proposition to which he is logically committed by what he already accepts but does not yet accept. I agree that in the vast majority of cases only noncoercive rational persuasion has a chance at success.
Let me now re-frame the argument that I have presented earlier, with the hope that I can improve on my earlier formulations. When I was a soldier in Afghanistan, I attended a ceremony for a fallen comrade. Nobody I knew. In main sermon, the chaplain said, "Sgt. So-and-so got a big promotion that day," referring to the day an IED [improvised explosive device] ended the life of this unfortunate soldier. His reasoning is that now this soldier was enjoying the loving embrace of Jesus. Whatever suffering this caused him or his family is comparatively small.
I found the chaplain's speech off-putting because his account robbed this soldier's death of its tragedy. He went well beyond consoling the survivors to telling us that we should be positively happy that this event occurred. What disturbed me more, though, is that the chaplain arrived at this conclusion very reasonably from very widely held set of religious beliefs. If one believes, as a majority of the people of the world do, that an eternity of happiness of a much higher grade than any that exists on earth awaits the righteous after death, then one is left to draw this, and other unpalatable conclusions. For instance, if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it.
I too am put off by the chaplain's speech but for a different reason. What I find offensive is his presumption to know that the unfortunate soldier is now in a far better state. No one can legitimately claim to know that God exists, or that we survive our bodily deaths as individuals, or that Jesus is the son of God, or that a given person is in heaven as opposed to the other place, etc. (Nor can one legitimately claim to know the negations of any of these propositions.) People can and do believe these things, and some have good reasons for (some of) their beliefs. Since no one can know about these things, the chaplain had no right to offer the kind of ringing assurance he offered or to make the claim that one should be positively happy that the soldier was blown to bits.
So I would say that the chaplain was doubly presumptuous. He presumed to know what no one can know, and he presumed to make a comforting assurance that he was not entitled to make. But had he said something tentative and in keeping with our actual doxastic predicament, then I wouldn't have been offended. Suppose he had said this: "Our faith teaches us that death is not the end and that this life is but a prelude to a better life to come. We hope and pray that Sgt So-and-So is now sharing in that higher life." I would not be put off by such a speech. Consolation without presumption.
What you are offended by is something different, the very content of the Christian message. But suppose it is true. Then there is nothing ultimately "tragic" about the soldier's death. (I also think you are misusing 'tragic.' Was hubris displayed by the soldier prior to his death?) He has left this vale of tears and has gone to a better 'place.' You see, if Christianity is true, then death does not have the 'sting' that it has for an atheist (assuming the atheist values life in this world). Are you then just assuming that Christianity is false? If it is false, then Nietzsche is right and it is a slander upon this life, the only life there is. But is it false? You can't just assume that it is.
Distinguish the question whether Christianity is true from the question whether it can be known to be true (by anyone here below). I claim that it cannot be known to be true, using 'know' in a strict and intellectually responsible way.
Now one of the "unpalatable consequences" you mention is this: "if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it." But this is not a consequence of Christian belief, but at best a consequence of the fanatical and dogmatic belief that one knows that Christianity is true. Suppose I did know that Christianity -- or rather some fire-and- brimstone variant of Christianity-- is true, then why wouldn't I be justified in torturing someone until he accepts the saving truth, the truth without which he will spend all eternity in hell? What's worse, a day of torture or an eternity of it? Besides, if I really care about you, wouldn't I want you to have an eternity of bliss?
What you are giving us, I think, is an argument against religious fanaticism, not an argument against religion. Religion is a matter of faith, not knowledge. More precisely, genuine religion is a matter of a faith that understands that it is faith and not knowledge. Once that is understood your "unpalatable consequences" do not ensue. For if I understand that my faith transcends what I can legitimately claim to know, then this understanding will prevent me from torturing someone into acceptance of my creed. For surely it is clearer that one ought not torture people into the acceptance of metaphysical propositions than that said propositions are true.
Now, as our previous discussions have shown, one is not compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook, as I have done, because of these considerations. One is only compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook if one also accepts the idea that earthly goods are not negligible in terms of the reasons they provide. To be clear, I mean things like: the pleasures of laughter, friendship, sex, families, etc., as well as achieving important life goals (including the goal of living a philosophical life in a tumultuous world.) I accept that these things are non-negligible and I feel confident that any theory of the Good Life must afford them a central place. I don't think I can provide a further justification for why I believe this, other than I find the thought compelling. If an interlocutor is happy to accept that these are all axiological ciphers because they are nothing when compared with the goodness of God in the next world, then I must part ways with him. I would, however, be surprised for a conservative to take that view, since conservatives, more than progressives, tend to value the familiar.
I am not sure I follow this last paragraph, but I take you to be saying that there are certain non-negligible goods that this life provides (friendship, etc.) and that anyone who accepts that there are must adopt a non-religious outlook. Your argument can perhaps be put as follows:
1. If a religion such as Christianity is true, then the good things of this world are relatively unimportant as compared with the good things of the world to come.
2. But it is not the case that the good things of this world are relatively unimportant: they are absolutely important.
3. Someone of conservative bent, someone who is capable of appreciating what actually and presently exists, ought to reject a religion such as Christianity.
I would respond to this by saying that the goods of this world are certainly not absolutely important, but they are not "axiological ciphers" either. A theist will say that what exists in this world is good because it comes from the source of all goodness, God. So the conservative theist has plenty of reason to appreciate what actually and presently exists, but he is also in a position to evaluate the goodness of finite goods properly and without idolatry because he appreciates that they are other than that which is wholly good. The goods of this world are neither negligible nor absolute, neither illusory nor absolutely real.
I would further argue that atheists typically succumb to axiological illusion: they take what is relatively valuable for absolutely valuable.
Can one reason from secular premises to a theistic conclusion? Or is any argument that concludes to God's existence non-secular by nature?
The reader liked yesterday's abortion post in which I used non-religious (and in that sense secular) premises to support a conclusion which, though not religious, would be accepted by most religionists and rejected by most secularists.
To answer the reader's question, yes, one can reason from secular premises to a theistic conclusion. Indeed, the traditional arguments do precisely that. For example, cosmological arguments proceed a contingentia mundi, from the contingency of the world, and they attempt to show that there must be a necessary being responsible for the world's existence. That the universe exists and that it exists contingently are secular starting points -- in one of its meanings saecula just means 'world' -- and not deliverances of revelation or churchly doctrines to be taken on faith.
Now the same goes for the rest of the theistic arguments, the ontological, the teleological, the moral, and indeed for all of the twenty or so arguments that Plantinga lists.
The reader has a second question. Can a person sincerely pray in a secular way? Suppose a person comes to believe by some combination of the arguments mentioned that there must be a being, external to the universe, on which it depends for its existence and nature. Suppose the person prays to this God. Is the person engaged in a secular act?
No. Prayer is a specifically religious act. The theistic arguments operate on the discursive plane to satisfy a theoretical need. Indeed they are often denigrated on the ground that the God they prove is a mere 'God of the philosophers' and not 'the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Even the great Pascal makes this mistake. See Pascal and Buber on the God of the Philosophers.
There can't be two or more gods, but there can be two or more ways of approaching one and the same God. I count four: philosophy (reason), religion (faith), mysticism (intellectual intuition), and morality (conscience).
To sum up. From secular starting points one can reason to something 'out of this world.' But to come into relation with this Something requires religious and mystical and moral practices that cannot be called secular.
The abortion question is almost always raised in the context of religion. The Vice-Presidential debate provides a good recent example. The moderator introduced the topic with these words: “We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.” Why didn't the moderator just ask the candidates to state their positions on abortion? Why did she bring up religion? And why the phrase "personal views"? Are views on foreign policy and the economy also personal views? Below the surface lies the suggestion that opposition to abortion can only rest on antecedent religious commitments of a personal nature that have no place in the public square.
A question that never gets asked, however, is the one I raise in this post: What does the abortion issue have to do with religion? But I need to make the question more precise. Is the abortion question tied to religion in such a way that opposition to abortion can be based only on religious premises? Or are there good reasons to oppose abortion that are nor religiously based, reasons that secularists could accept? The answer to the last question is plainly in the affirmative. The following argument contains no religious premises.
1. Infanticide is morally wrong. 2. There is no morally relevant difference between (late-term) abortion and infancticide. Therefore 3. (Late-term) abortion is morally wrong.
Whether one accepts this argument or not, it clearly invokes no religious premise. It is therefore manifestly incorrect to say or imply that all opposition to abortion must be religiously-based. Theists and atheists alike could make use of the above argument.
But on abortion, Obama is an extremist. He has opposed the Supreme Court decision that finally upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act against that form of infanticide. Most startlingly, for a professed humanist, Obama -- in the Illinois Senate -- also voted against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. I have reported on several of those cases when, before the abortion was completed, an alive infant was suddenly in the room. It was disposed of as a horrified nurse who was not necessarily pro-life followed the doctors' orders to put the baby in a pail or otherwise get rid of the child.
Return to the above argument. Suppose someone demands to know why one should accept the first premise. Present this argument:
4. Killing innocent human beings is morally wrong. 5. Infanticide is the killing of innocent human beings. Therefore 1. Infanticide is morally wrong.
This second argument, like the first, invokes no specifically religious premise. Admittedly, the general prohibition of homicide -- general in the sense that it admits of exceptions -- comes from the Ten Commandments. But if you take that as showing that (4) is religious, then the generally accepted views that theft and lying are morally wrong would have to be adjudged religious as well.
But I don't want to digress onto the topic of the sources of our secular moral convictions, convictions that are then codified in the positive law. My main point is that one can oppose abortion on secular grounds. A second point is that the two arguments I gave are very powerful. If you are not convinced by them, you need to ask yourself why.
Some will reply by saying that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body. This is The Woman's Body Argument:
1. The fetus is a part of a woman's body. 2. A woman has the right to do whatever she wants with any part of her body. Therefore 3. A woman has the right to do whatever she wants with the fetus, including having it killed.
For this argument to be valid, 'part' must be used in the very same sense in both premises. Otherwise, the argument equivocates on a key term. There are two possibilities. 'Part' can be taken in a wide sense that includes the fetus, or in a narrow sense that excludes it.
If 'part' is taken in a wide sense, then (1) is true. Surely there is a wide sense of 'part' according to which the fetus is part of its mother's body. But then (2) is reasonably rejected. Abortion is not relevantly like liposuction. Granted, a woman has a right to remove unwanted fat from her body via liposuction. Such fat is uncontroversially part of her body. But the fetus growing within her is not a part in the same sense: it is a separate individual life. The argument, then, is not compelling. Premise (2) is more reasonably rejected than accepted.
If, on the other hand, 'part' is taken in a narrow sense that excludes the fetus, then perhaps (2) is acceptable, but (1) is surely false: the fetus is plainly not a part of the woman's body in the narrow sense of 'part.'
I wrote "perhaps (2) is acceptable" because it is arguable that (2) is not acceptable. For a woman's body is an improper part of her body; hence if a woman has a right to do anything she wishes with her body, then she has a right to kill her body by blowing it up, say. One who has good reason to reject suicide, however, has good reason to reject (2) even when 'part' is construed narrowly. And even if we substitute 'proper part' for 'part' in the original argument, it is still not the case that a woman has a right to do whatever she wishes with any proper narrow part of her body. Arguably, she has no right to cut out her own heart, since that would lead to her death.
I am making two points about the Woman's Body Argument. The first is that my rejection of it does not rely on any religious premises. The second is that the argument is unsound.
Standing on solid, secular ground one has good reason to oppose abortion as immoral in the second and third trimesters (with some exceptions, e.g., threat to the life of the mother). Now not everything immoral should be illegal. But in this case the objective immorality of abortion entails that it ought to be illegal for the same reason that the objective immorality of the wanton killing of innocent adults requires that it be illegal.
Of course it follows that you should not vote for the abortion party, a.k.a. the Dems. And if you are a Catholic who votes Democratic then you are as foolish and confused as the benighted Joe Biden.
One aspect of contemporary scientism is the notion that great insights are to be gleaned from neuroscience about the mind and its operations. If you want my opinion, the pickin's are slim indeed and confusions are rife. This is your brain on prayer:
A test subject is injected with a dye that allows the researcher to study brain activity while the subject is deep in prayer/meditation. The red in the language center and frontal lobe areas indicates greater brain activity when the subject is praying or meditating as compared to the baseline when he is not. But when atheists "contemplate God" -- which presumably means when they think about the concept of God, a concept that they, as atheists, consider to be uninstantiated -- "Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people."
Dr. Newberg concludes that all religions create neurological experiences, and while God is unimaginable for atheists, for religious people, God is as real as the physical world. "So it helps us to understand that at least when they [religious people] are describing it to us, they are really having this kind of experience... This experience is at least neurologically real."
First of all, why do we need a complicated and expensive study to learn this? It is well-known that serious and sincere practioners of religions will typically have various experiences as a result of prayer and meditation. (Of course most prayer and meditation time is 'dry' -- but experiences eventually come.) The reality of these experiences as experiences cannot be doubted from the first-person point of view of the person who has them. There is no need to find a neural correlate in the brain to establish the reality of the experience qua experience. The experiences are real whether or not neural correlates can be isolated, and indeed whether or not there are any.
Suppose no difference in brain activity is found as between the religionists and the atheists when the former do their thing and the latter merely think about the God concept. (To call the latter "contemplating God" is an absurd misuse of terminology.) What would that show? Would it show that there is no difference between the religionists' experiences and the atheists'? Of course not. The difference is phenomenologically manifest, and, as I said, there is no need to establish the "neurological reality" of the experiences to show that they really occur.
Now I list some possible confusions into which one might fall when discussing a topic like this.
Confusion #1: Conflating the phenomenological reality of a religious experience as experienced with its so-called "neurological reality." They are obviously different as I've already explained.
Confusion #2: Conflating the religious experience with its neural correlate, the process in the brain or CNS on which the experience causally depends. Epistemically, they cannot be the same since they are known in different ways. The experience qua experience is known with certainty from the first-person point of view. The neural correlate is not. One cannot experience, from the first-person point of view, one's own brain states as brain states. Ontically, they cannot be the same either, and this for two sorts of reasons. First, the qualitative features of the experiences cannot be denied, but they also cannot be identified with anything physical. This is the qualia problem. Second, religious/mystical experiences typically exhibit that of-ness or aboutness, that directedness-to-an-object, that philosophers call intentionality. No physical states have this property.
Confusion #3: Conflating a religious entity with its concept, e.g., confusing God with the concept of God. This is why it is slovenly and confused to speak of "contemplating God" when one is merely thinking about the concept of God. The journalist and/or the neuroscientist seem to be succumbing to this confusion.
Confusion #4: Conflating an experience (an episode or act of experiencing) with its intentional object. Suppose one feels the presence of God. Then the object is God. But God is not identical to the experience. For one thing, numerically different experiences can be of the same object. The object is distinct from the act, and the act from the object. The holds even if the intentional object does not exist. Suppose St Theresa has an experience of the third person of the Trinity, but there is no such person. That doesn't affect the act-object structure of the experience. After all, the act does not lose its intentional directedness because the object does not exist.
Confusion #5: Conflating the question whether an experience 'takes an object' with the question whether the object exists.
Confusion #6: Conflating reality with reality-for. There is no harm is saying that God is real for theists, but not real for atheists if all one means is that theists believe that God is real while atheists do not. Now if one believes that p, it does not follow that p is true. Likewise, if God is real for a person it doesn't follow that God is real, period. One falls into confusion if one thinks that the reality of God for a person shows that God is real, period.
We find this confusion at the end of the video clip. "And if God only exists in our brains, that does not mean that God is not real. Our brains are where reality crystallizes for us."
This is confused nonsense. First of all God cannot exist in our brains. Could the creator of the universe be inside my skull? Second, it would also be nonsense to say that the experience of God is in our brains for the reasons give in #2 above. Third, if "God exists only in our brains" means that the experience of God is phenomenologically real for those who have it, but that the intentional object of this experience does not exist, then it DOES mean that God is not real.
Confusion #7: Conflating the real with the imaginable. We are told that "God is unimaginable for atheists." But that is true of theists as well: God, as a purely spiritual being, can be conceived but not imagined. To say that God is not real is not to say that God is unimaginable, and to say that something (a flying horse, e.g.) is imaginable is not to say that it is real.
What I am objecting to is not neuroscience, which is a wonderful subject worth pursuing to the hilt. What I am objecting is scientism, in the present case neuroscientism, the silly notion that learning more and more about a hunk of meat is going to give us real insight into the mind and is operations and is going to solve the philosophical problems in the vicinity.
What did we learn from the article cited? Nothing. We don't need complicated empirical studies to know that religious experiences are real. What the article does is sow seeds of confusion. One of the confusions the article sows is that the question of the veridicality of religious experiences can be settled by showing their "neurological reality." Neither the phenomenological nor the neurological reality of the experience qua experience entails the reality of the object of the experience.
Genuine science cannot rest on conceptual foundations that are thoroughly confused.
I was reading your post on Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It and was struck by a statement you made at the end regarding "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences." By this you seem to confirm a developing series of thoughts I have had for a few years. As a benefit of my modernist education my categories of thought roughly corresponded to natural and supernatural. It seems to me that this type of thinking is wrong and there have been a lot of things crammed into the "supernatural" category by moderns just because they are not "natural." It would be interesting to see how you break these things out and why they are different. Specifically as someone who has the religious inclination.
The reader is right: a lot of rather different things have been lumped together under the rubric 'supernatural' just because they are beyond the natural. But distinctions need to be made. Now this is a huge topic, and I am not up to doing it justice.
Corresponding to the phrase the reader quoted, "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences," I will say a little about mysticism, religion, and occultism. Some of this is excerpted from a much longer post that discusses the relations among philosophy, mysticism, religion, and wisdom.
Turning now to mysticism, we may define it as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition.
Religion (from L. religere, to bind) is not fundamentally a collection of rites, rituals, and dogmas, but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to live in the truth, as opposed to know it objectively in propositional guise, seeks to establish a personal bond with the Absolute. Whereas philosophy operates with concepts, judgments, arguments and theories, religion proceeds by way of faith, trust, devotion, and love. It is bhaktic rather than jnanic, devotional rather than discriminative.The philosophical project, predicated on the autonomy of reason, is one of relentless and thus endless inquiry in which nothing is immune from examination before reason’s bench. But the engine of inquiry is doubt, which sets philosophy at odds with religion with its appeal to revealed truth. If the occupational hazard of the philospher is a life-inhibiting scepticism, the corresponding hazard for the religionist is a dogmatic certainty that can easily turn murderous. For a relatively recent example, consider the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (This is why such zealots of the New Atheism as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, et al. are not completely mistaken.)
The philosopher objects to the religionist: "You believe things for which you have no proof!" The religionist replies to the philosopher: "You sew without a knot in your thread!" I am not engaging in Zen mondo, but alluding to Kierkegaard’s point that to philosophize without dogma is like sewing without a knot in one’s thread. The philosopher will of course reply that to philosophize with dogma is not to philosophize at all. Here we glimpse one form of the conflict beween philosophy and religion as routes to the Absolute. If the philosopher fails to attain the Absolute because discursive reason dissolves in scepticism, the religionist often attains what can only be called a pseudo-Absolute, an idol.
The Difference Between Mysticism and Religion
Roughly, mysticism is monistic while religion is dualistic, presupposing the ineliminability of what Martin Buber calls the 'I-Thou relation.' Here is a passage from his I and Thou:
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . . All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself -- the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man - between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit. ( pp.140-141 / part 3 : Tr.Kaufmann, Ed: T&T Clark Edinburgh 1970)
The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some quickly composed thoughts on this stretch of text.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (Buddhism with its doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God. Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more suggestive translation might be 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation. But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. Spirit is thus actualized in the relation of man to man, man to world, man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intradivine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which I think is etymologically related to the German sammeln) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory nondual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crapstorm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life -affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
Stay away from this stuff! Everything reputable that I have read warns against it. The occult region is a sort of borderland between the natural and the properly supernatural which is the sphere of religion and mysticism. One who meditates deeply and long enough will probably encounter 'items' from this region such as photisms and unearthly voices. Certain paranormal powers may be released, the siddhis of the Hindus, such as pre-cognition. Don't get hung up on this and maintain a skeptical attitude. What's real will be able to withstand skepsis & scrutiny. If you are trying to plumb the depths of the self, these are just more objects of consciousness, not consciousness itself in its innermost essence. Hearing a sound, or seeing a light, inquire: who hears this sound, who sees this light? Who is the subject for whom these strange appearances are objects? That being said, photisms and such are signs that you are attaining meditative depth. There may also be, for all you know, Horatio, angels and demons and disembodied souls hanging around in this border region, and some of these 'entities' you don't want to mess with. Some of them are stronger than you are. So you might begin your session on the black mat by asking for the assistance of any guardians you think there might be.
In any case, meditation is not a hunt for weird experiences or for paranormal powers. The pursuit of the latter is a corruption of meditation just as crass petitionary prayer is a corruption of genuine prayer. Grades of Prayer fills this out a bit.