The following entry has been languishing in the queue for years. I just now finished it for what it's worth.
Which is worse, the fundamentalism of a Jerry Falwell or the snarling hatred of religion of a Christopher Hitchens, who, in his anti-Falwell diatribe, shows just how far someone who is a leftist about religion can sink?
Readers of this blog know that I have little patience with fundamentalist forms of religion. But whatever one thinks of Falwell's views, he was a decent human being capable of compassion and forgiveness. (I recall with admiration the kindness and forbearance he displayed when he confronted his tormentor, the pornographer Larry Flynt, on Larry King Live.) Can one say that Hitchens is a decent human being after his unspeakably vicious attack on a dead man while he was still warm? I have in mind the matchbox quotation. In "Faith-Based Fraud," Hitchens wrote:
In the time immediately following the assault by religious fascism on American civil society in September 2001, he [Falwell] used his regular indulgence on the airwaves to commit treason. Entirely exculpating the suicide-murderers, he asserted that their acts were a divine punishment of the United States.
The problem with Falwell's statement was that he was in no position to know that the 9/11 attacks were divine punishment. What is offensive about such statements is the presumption that one is en rapport with the divine plan, that one has some sort of inside dope as to the deity's designs. In his credulousness and self-confidence, Falwell displayed a lack of respect for God's transcendence and unsearchableness. But this is just part of what is wrong with fundamentalism, which is a kind of theological positivism.
It is also offensive to hear some proclaim in tones of certainty that Hitchens is now no longer an atheist. They know that God exists and persons survive bodily death? They know no such thing, any more than Hitchens knew the opposite. Convictions, no matter how strong, do not amount to knowledge. (Here is a quick little proof. Knowledge entails truth. So if A and B have opposite convictions, and convictions amount to knowledge, then one and the same proposition can be both true and not true, which violates the Law of Non-Contradiction.)
But although Falwell's 9/11 statement can be criticized, he can't be criticized for making it. He had as much right to make that statement as Hitchens had for his cocksure proclamation that no God exists, not to mention his assaults on Mother Teresa and who all else. After all, that was Falwell's view, and it makes sense within his system of beliefs. There was certainly nothing treasonous about Falwell's statement, nor did it "entirely exculpate the suicide-murderers." Perhaps Falwell was a theological compatibilist, one who finds no contradiction in people acting freely in accordance with a divine plan.
So while we should certainly not follow Hitchens' nasty example and trash the dead, we should not go to the other extreme and paper over the foul aspects of Hitchens' personality. And we should also give some thought to the extent to which his viciousness is an upshot of his atheism.
For in the end, the atheist has nothing and can be expected to be bitter. This world is a vanishing quantity and he knows it; and beyond this world, he believes, there is nothing. That is not to say it isn't true. But if you are convinced that it is true, then you must live hopelessly unless you fool yourself with such evasions as living for some pie-in-the-future utopia such as Communists and other 'progressives' believe in, or for some such abstraction as literature.
Nobody will be reading Hitchens in a hundred years. He'll be lucky if he is still read in ten years.
Have you ever heard of Joseph McCabe (1867-1955)? Not until now. But he too was a major free-thinker and anti-religion polemicist in his day. Who reads him now?
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), p. 227 in a letter to Maryat Lee dated 28 June 1957:
I doubtless hate pious language worse than you because I believe the realities it hides.
To the unbeliever, pious language is just so much cant and hypocrisy and offensive for these reasons. At funerals for worldly persons one sometimes hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with the Lord. This may prove sickening to the unbeliever. Here is someone who spent his whole life on the make. And now you portray him as eager to meet his Maker? Or a nominal Catholic who never prayed the rosary in his life is set in an open casket with a rosary interlaced between his fingers. Disgusting!
The conventional lukewarm believer, for whom there is a tendency to conflate formulas and usages with the underlying realities, will not be offended. He does not take religion all that seriously in any case. It is a matter of habit and acculturation and respectability together with a vague sense that it might be a good idea to attend services as a sort of insurance lest any of the stuff about heaven and hell turn out to be true.
And then there is the person of genuine faith, for whom faith is not a convenience or a crutch or cheap consolation or an insurance policy or a mere matter of habit or acculturation or respectability. Such a person aims to penetrate through the formulas and usages to the transcendent realities and is offended by conventional piety for the right reason.
Current events warrant this re-post from two years ago. Christian precepts such as "Turn the other cheek" and "Welcome the stranger" make sense and are salutary only within communities of the like-minded and morally decent; they make no sense and are positively harmful in the public sphere, and, a fortiori, in the international sphere. The monastery is not the wide world. What is conducive unto salvation in the former will get you killed in the latter. And we know what totalitarians, whether Communists or Islamists, do when they get power: they destroy the churches, synagogues, monasteries, ashrams, and zendos. And with them are destroyed the means of transmitting the dharma, the kerygma, the law and the prophets.
So my question to Catholic bishops and their fellow travellers is this: Do you have a death wish for you and your flocks and your doctrine?
An important but troubling thought is conveyed in a recent NYT op-ed (emphasis added):
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
The problem as I see it is that (i) the pacific virtues the practice of which makes life worth living within families, between friends, and in such institutions of civil society as churches and fraternal organizations are essentially private and cannot be extended outward as if we are all brothers and sisters belonging to a global community. Talk of global community is blather. The institutions of civil society can survive and flourish only if protected by warriors and statesmen whose virtues are of the manly and martial, not of the womanish and pacific, sort. And yet (ii) if no extension of the pacific virtues is possible then humanity would seem to be doomed in an age of terrorism and WMDs. Besides, it is unsatisfactory that there be two moralities, one private, the other public.
Consider the Christian virtues preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They include humility, meekness, love of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, love of peace and of reconciliation. Everyone who must live uncloistered in the world understands that these pacific and essentially womanish virtues have but limited application there. (I am not using 'womanish' as a derogatory qualifier.) You may love peace, but unless you are prepared to make war upon your enemies and show them no mercy, you may not be long for this world. Turning the other cheek makes sense within a loving family, but no sense in the wider world. (Would the Pope turn the other cheek if the Vatican came under attack by Muslim terrorists or would he call upon the armed might of the Italian state?) This is perfectly obvious in the case of states: they are in the state (condition) of nature with respect to each other. Each state secures by blood and iron a civilized space within which art and music and science and scholarship can flourish and wherein, ideally, blood does not flow; but these states and their civilizations battle each other in the state (condition) of nature red in tooth and claw.
The Allies would not have been long for this world had they not been merciless in their treatment of the Axis Powers.
This is also true of individuals once they move beyond their families and friends and genuine communities and sally forth into the wider world.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular -- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.]
There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen. As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare. This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug smuggler or a human trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order. This order is among the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who confuse private and public morality.
Given that the ubiquity of crosses all across this great land has not yet established Christianity as the state religion, why, as it declines in influence, do the cruciphobic shysters of the ACLU and their ilk agitate still against these harmless and mostly merely historical remnants of a great religion?
A mercifully short (9:17) but very good YouTube video featuring commentary by name figures in the philosophy of religion including Marilyn Adams, William Alston, William Wainwright, and William Lane Craig. Craig recounts the experience that made a theist of him. (HT: Keith Burgess-Jackson)
As Marilyn Adams correctly points out at the start of the presentation, the belief of many theists is not a result of religious experience. It comes from upbringing, tradition, and participation in what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" with its associated "language game." I myself, however, could not take religion seriously if it were not for the variety of religious, mystical, and paranormal experiences I have had, bolstered by philosophical reasoning both negative and positive. Negative, as critique of the usual suspects: materialism, naturalism, scientism, secular humanism, and so on. Positive, the impressive array of theistic arguments and considerations which, while they cannot establish theism as true, make a powerful case for it.
But my need for direct experience reflects my personality and, perhaps, limitations. I am an introvert who looks askance at communal practices such as corporate prayer and church-going and much, if not all, of the externalities that go with it. I am not a social animal. I see socializing as too often levelling and inimical to our ultimate purpose here below: to become individuals. Socializing superficializes. Man in the mass is man degraded. We need to be socialized out of the animal level, of course, but then we need solitude to achieve the truly human goal of individuation. Individuation is not a given, but a task. The social animal is still too much of an animal for my taste.
It is only recently that I have forced myself myself to engage in communal religious activities, but more as a form of self-denial than of anything else. My recent five weeks at a remote monastery were more eremitic than cenobitic, but I did take part in the services. And upon return I began attending mass with my wife. Last Sunday a man sat down next to me, a friendly guy who extended to me his hand, but his breath stank to high heaven. Behind me some guy was coughing his head off. And then there are those who show up for mass in shorts, and I am not talking about kids. The priest is a disaster at public speaking and his sermon is devoid of content. Does he even understand the doctrine he is supposed to teach? And then there are all the lousy liberals who want to reduce religion to a crapload of namby-pamby humanist nonsense. And let's not forget the current clown of a pope who, ignorant of economics and climatology, speaks to us of the evils of capitalism and 'global warming' when he should be speaking of the Last Things. (Could he name them off the top of his head?)
But then I reason with myself as follows. "Look, man, you are always going on about how man is a fallen being in a fallen world. Well, the church and its hierarchy and its members are part of the world and therefore fallen too. So what did you expect? And you know that the greatest sin of the intellectual is pride and that pride blinds the spiritual sight like nothing else. So suck it up, be a man among men, humble yourself. It may do you some good."
I read about your recent experiences with communal
religion. Your self-reflection reminded me of something Rabbi Harold Kushner
writes about in his book WHO NEEDS GOD. He talks about visiting with a young man
who told him, "I hate churches and synagogues, they're full of nothing but
hypocrites and jerks"...Kushner says he had to fight the urge to say, 'yep, and
there is always room for one more'.
For $85 a month, you get discounts on his merchandise, and the chance to meet ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science personalities’. Obviously that’s not enough to meet the man himself. For that you pay $210 a month — or $5,000 a year — for the chance to attend an event where he will speak. . . . But the $85 a month just touches the hem of rationality. After the neophyte passes through the successively more expensive ‘Darwin Circle’ and then the ‘Evolution Circle’, he attains the innermost circle, where for $100,000 a year or more he gets to have a private breakfast or lunch with Richard Dawkins, and a reserved table at an invitation-only circle event with ‘Richard’ as well as ‘all the benefits listed above’, so he still gets a discount on his Richard Dawkins T-shirt saying ‘Religion — together we can find a cure.
The website suggests that donations of up to $500,000 a year will be accepted for the privilege of eating with him once a year: at this level of contribution you become a member of something called ‘The Magic of Reality Circle’. I don’t think any irony is intended.
Just as religion is a hustle for some, anti-religion is for others.
You are free to imagine a world without religion as per the silly ditty of John Lennon, but if Pew Research Center predictions are correct, atheists and leftists need to brace themselves for serious disappointment:
. . . the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population, even though it will increase in absolute number. In 2010, censuses and surveys indicate, there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion.5 By 2050, the unaffiliated population is expected to exceed 1.2 billion. But, as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is 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, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via 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.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
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) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
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 Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from 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, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of 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. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.
Actually, the preceding sentence is ambiguous. The thought is that at least one leftist understands that religion has far deeper roots in human nature than a typical leftist analysis can expose, let alone eradicate. The following quotation borrowed from the weblog of Keith Burgess-Jackson:
The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog [sic]. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests. But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).
(Michael Walzer, "Islamism and the Left," Dissent 62 [winter 2015]: 107-17, at 112-3 [brackets in original])
Although Walzer has a better understanding of human nature than most lefties, he betrays his residual leftism by his use of 'incredibly' in the last sentence above.
Why is it "incredible" that people should have religious faith? Only a benighted leftist, soulless and superficial all the way down, bereft of understanding of human nature, could think that human beings could be satisfied by a merely material life. Religion answers to real needs of real people, the need for meaning, for example. Some meaning can be supplied by non-exploitative, mutually beneficial social interaction. But not ultimate meaning, meaning in the face of death. To put it cryptically, an "existing individual" (Kierkegaard) standing alone before God and eternity is no Marxian Gattungswesen.
Whether any religion can supply ultimate needs for sense and purpose and transcendence is of course a very different question. Suppose that no religion can. It would be a mistake to conclude that the needs are not real. It would be even more of a mistake to conclude that something as paltry as the utopias envisaged by Marxists could satisfy religious needs. Supplying everyone with a overabundance of natural goodies will never sate the human spirit. But it takes spirit to understand this point.
Leftists, and atheists generally, typically have a cartoon-like (mis)understanding of religion.
No higher religion is about providing natural goodies by supernatural means, goodies that cannot be had by natural means. Talk of pie-in-the-sky is but a cartoonish misrepresentation by those materialists who can only think in material terms and only believe in what they can hold in their hands. A religion such as Christianity promises a way out of the unsatisfactory predicament in which we find ourselves in this life. What makes our situation unsatisfactory is not merely our physical and mental weakness and the shortness of our lives. It is primarily our moral defects that make our lives in this world miserable. We lie and slander, steal and cheat, rape and murder. We are ungrateful for what we have and filled with inordinate desire for what we don't have and wouldn't satisfy us even if we had it. We are avaricious, gluttonous, proud, boastful and self-deceived. It is not just that our wills are weak; our wills are perverse. It is not just that our hearts are cold; our hearts are foul. You say none of this applies to you? Very well, you will end up the victim of those to whom these predicates do apply. And then your misery will be, not the misery of the evil-doer, but the misery of the victim and the slave. You may find yourself forlorn and forsaken in a concentration camp. Suffering you can bear, but not meaningless suffering, not injustice and absurdity.
Whether or not the higher religions can deliver what they promise, what they promise first and foremost is deliverance from ignorance and delusion, salvation from meaninglessness and moral evil. No physical technology and no socio-political restructuring can do what religion tries to do. Suppose a technology is developed that actually reverses the processes of aging and keeps us all alive indefinitely. This is pure fantasy, of course, given the manifold contingencies of the world (nuclear and biological warfare, terrorism, natural disasters, etc.); but just suppose. Our spiritual and moral predicament would remain as deeply fouled-up as it has always been and religion would remain in business.
It helps to study history. The Communists slaughtered 100 million 'cows' in the 20th century alone. But where's the beef?
It could be like this. All religions are false; none can deliver what they promise. Naturalism is true: reality is exhausted by the space-time system. You are not unreasonable if you believe this. But I say you are unreasonable if you think that technologies derived from the sciences of nature can deliver what religions have promised, or any socio-political re-arrangement can.
As long as there are human beings there will be religion. The only way I can imagine religion withering away is if humanity allows itself to be gradually replaced by soulless robots. But in that case it will not be that the promises of religion are fulfilled by science; it would be that no one would be around having religious needs.
Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying that nothing is sacred. I now ask what it means to say that nothing is sacred. I think it means something like the following. Nothing, nothing at all, is holy, venerable, worthy of worship; nothing is an appropriate object of reverence. (One cannot appropriately revere one's spouse, 'worship the ground she walks on,' etc.) If nothing is sacred, then nothing is so far above us in reality and value as to require our submission and obedience as the only adequate responses to it.
If nothing is sacred, then man is the measure of all things; he is not measured by a standard external to him. Man is autonomous: he gives the law to himself. Human autonomy is absolute, the absolute. There is nothing beyond the human horizon except matter brute and blind. There is nothing that transcends the human scale. If so, then it makes sense for Hitchens to maintain that the right to free expression is absolute, subject to no restrictions or limitations: "the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression."
The right to mock and deride religious figures such as Muhammad follows. For if nothing is sacred, then there is no God, no Allah, and hence no prophets of God. And of course no Son of God. If nothing is sacred and there is no God, then there is no revelation of God in any form, not in nature, not in a human person such as Jesus of Nazareth, and not in any scripture. If there is no God, then the Koran and the Bible are not the word of God; they are books like any other books, wholly human artifacts, and subject to criticism like any other books. And the same goes for physical objects and places. There are no holy relics and holy sites. Mecca and Jerusalem are not holy because, again, nothing is sacred. If there is nothing that is originally sacred, then there is nothing that is derivatively sacred either.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' position is that it is by no means obvious that there is nothing sacred. I should think that something is originally sacred if and only if God or a suitably similar transcendent Absolute exists. No God, then nothing originally sacred. Atheism rules out the sacred. And if nothing is originally sacred, then nothing is derivatively sacred either. If there is no God, then there are no prophets or saints or holy relics or holy places or holy books. And of course no church of God either: no institution can claim to have a divine charter.
I reject the position of Hitchens. I reject it because I reject his naturalism and atheism. They are reasonably rejected . But I also reject the position of those -- call them fundamentalists -- who think that there are people and books and institutions to which we must unconditionally submit. Here is where things get interesting.
I do not deny the possibility of divine revelation or that the book we call the Bible contains divine revelation; but I insist that it is in large part a human artifact. As such, it is open to rational criticism. While man cannot and must not place himself above God, he can and must evaluate what passes for the revelation of God -- for the latter is in part a human product.
God reveals himself, but he reveals himself to man. If the transmitter is perfect, but the receiver imperfect, then one can expect noise with the signal. Rational critique aims to separate the signal from the noise. To criticize is to separate: the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable, the genuine from the specious.
I insist that religion must submit to rational critique. Religion is our affair, not God's. God has no religion. He doesn't need one. He needs religion as little as he needs philosophy: he is the truth in its paradigm instance; he has no need to seek it. Since religion is our affair, our response to the Transcendent, it is a human product in part and as such limited and defective and a legitimate object of philosophical examination and critique.
It is reasonable to maintain, though it cannot be proven, that there is a transcendent Absolute and that therefore there is something sacred. But this is not to say that what people take to be embodiments of the sacred are sacred. Is Muhammad a divine messenger? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred. Is Jesus God? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred.
My position is a balanced one. I reject the New Atheist extremism of Hitchens & Co. These people are contemptible in a way in which many old atheists were not: their lack of respect for religion, their militant hostility to any and every form of religion, shows a lack of respect for the unquenchable human desire for Transcendence. Religion is one form of our quest for the Absolute. This quest is part of what makes a human. This quest, which will surely outlast the New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes, must not be denigrated just because many of the concrete manifestations of the religious impulse are fanatical, absurd, and harmful.
One ought not mock religion, and not just for the prudential reason that one doesnot want to become the target of murderous Muslim fanatics. One ought not mock religion because religion testifies to man's dignity as a metaphysical animal, as Schopenhauer so well understood. Even Islam, the sorriest and poorest of the great religions, so testifies.
But while I reject the extremism of Hitchens and Co., an extremism that makes an idol of free expression, I agree that what passes for religion, the concrete embodiments of same, must submit to being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be interrogated, often rudely. Reason, in its turn, must be open to what lies beyond it. It must be open to revelation.
The wild diversity of religious doctrines suggests to Kitcher that they are all almost certainly false. Plantinga makes an interesting response:
But even for whole systems: there is certainly wide variety here, but how does it follow that they are all almost certainly false? Or even that any particular one is almost false? Kitcher's book is an exercise in philosophy. The variety of philosophical belief rivals that of religion: there are Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, Thomists, pragmatists, naturalists, theists, continental philosophers, existentialists, analytic philosophers (who also come in many varieties), and many other philosophical positions. Should we conclude that philosophical positions, including Kitcher's low opinion of religious belief, are all almost certainly false? I should think not. But then wouldn't the same be true for religious beliefs? The fact that others hold religious opinions incompatible with mine is not a good reason, just in itself, for supposing my beliefs false. After all, if I were to suppose my views false, I would once more be in the very same position: there would be very many others who held views incompatible with mine.
To put it my own way: a philosopher discrediting religion on the ground of doctrinal diversity is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Philosophers notoriously contradict one another on anything and everything. Everything is up for grabs. What then gives philosophy the right to judge religion?
Reading John Anderson has enhanced my sense of the centrality of the question of levels of reality for those of us who view philosophy as a quest for the Absolute and a project of self-transformation. Of course it was more or less obvious to me all along, Plato's Allegory of the Cave being the richest depiction we have of the two-world theme.
Essential to religion is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order" (Varieties of Religious Experience, 53), a higher order, above or behind the phenomenal order of time and change, doubt and confusion, mendacity and evil.
The unseen order is to be affirmed without the phenomenal order being denied. So there are two levels of reality. How exactly they are related is the problem, or one problem. We will pursue the problem in due course in connection with John Passmore's discussion of the "Two-Worlds Argument" in his Philosophical Reasoning.
Suppose you believe that man has been created in the image and likeness of God. Can you, consistently with that belief, hold that only some possess a religious disposition?
I often say things like the following:
The religious person perceives our present life, or our natural life, as radically deficient, deficient from the root (radix) up, as fundamentally unsatisfactory; he feels it to be, not a mere condition, but a predicament; it strikes him as vain or empty if taken as an end in itself; he sees himself as homo viator, as a wayfarer or pilgrim treading a via dolorosa through a vale that cannot possibly be a final and fitting resting place; he senses or glimpses from time to time the possibility of a Higher Life; he feels himself in danger of missing out on this Higher Life of true happiness. He feels his fellows to be fools endlessly distracted by bagatelles, sunken deep in Pascalian divertissement, as Platonic troglodytes unaware of the Cave as Cave.
I maintain that one in whom this doesn't strike a chord, or sound a plaintive arpeggio, is one who lacks a religious disposition. In some it is simply lacking, and it cannot be helped. I 'write them off' no matter how analytically sharp they are. One cannot discuss religion with them, for it cannot be real to them, any more than one can share one's delight in poetry with the terminally prosaic, or one's pleasure in mathematics with the mathematically anxious. Religion is not, for those who lack the disposition, what William James in "The Will to Believe" calls a "living option," let alone a "forced" or "momentous" one. It can only be something strained and ridiculous, a tissue of fairy tales, something for children and old ladies, an opiate for the weak and dispossesed, a miserable anthropomorphic projection, albeit unconscious, a wish-fulfillment, something cooked up in the musty medieval cellars of priestcraft where unscrupulous manipulators exploit human gullibility for their own advantage.
A perceptive interlocutor raised an objection that I would put as follows. "You say that some lack a religious disposition. I take it you mean that they are utterly bereft of it. But how is that consistent with the imago dei? For if we are made in the divine image, then we are spiritual beings who must, as spiritual beings, possess at least the potentiality of communion with the divine source of the spirit within us, even if this potentiality is to no degree actual. After all, we are not in the image of God as animals, but as spiritual beings, and part of being a spiritual being is having the potentiality to know itself, and thus to know that one is a creature if in fact one is a creature, and in knowing this to know God in some measure."
How might I meet this objection?
One way is by denying that all biologically human beings bear the divine image, or bear the divine image in its fullness. Maybe it is like this. The existence of specimens of the zoological species to which we belong is accounted for by the theory of evolution. God creates the physical universe in which evolution occurs, and in which human animals evolve from lower forms. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is not an account of how human animals came to be that is in competition with the theory of evolution. It is not about human animals at all. Adam is not the first man; there was no first man. Eve is not the first woman; there was no first woman. Adam and Eve are not the first human animals; they are the first human animals that, without ceasing to be animals, became spiritual beings when God bestowed upon them consciousness, self-consciousness, free will, and all their concomitants. But the free divine bestowal was not the same for all: from some he withheld the power to know God and become godlike.
I suspect this is not theologically 'kosher.' But it fits with my experience. I have always felt that some human beings lack depth or spirit or soul or inwardness or whatever you want to call it. It is not that I think of them as zombies as philosophers use this term: I grant that they are conscious and self-conscious. But I sense that there is nothing to them beyond that. The light is on, but no one is there. (In a zombie, the light is off.) There is no depth-dimension: they are surface all the way down.
But it may be that a better line for me is the simpler one of saying that in all there is the religious disposition, but in some it is wholly undeveloped, rather than saying that in some it is not present at all.
UPDATE (12/19): The "perceptive interlocutor" mentioned above responds:
To suppose that some persons lack the religious disposition is certainly not theologically kosher, at least not from the Christian perspective. This is more akin to certain varieties of predestinarian gnosticism to which early Christian theologians (e.g., Origen, Irenaeus, et al.) vehemently objected. These gnostic theories proposed that there were various different classes of human persons, some of whom were structurally determined to realize saving knowledge (gnosis) of Reality whereas others were cruder, baser, and doomed to live unenlightened lives in the body. The difference between classes was not choices they had made or anything of the sort; it was simply their ontological structure to reach enlightenment or not. The early Christians objected to this in two ways: first, it is denial of the freedom of the will of the human person, since some evidently are intrinsically incapable of choosing salvation; second, it is incompatible with God's goodness, since if he is good, he desires the salvation of all and works to accomplish it.
I don't disagree that these are among the theologically orthodox responses to my suggestion above. How good they are, however, is a separate question. First, if God does not grant to some class of persons the religious disposition, that is not a denial to them of freedom of the will. They can be as free as you please; they just lack that particular power. I am not free to fly like a bird, but it doesn't follow that I am not free.
As for the second point, there may be a confusion of damnation with non-knowledge of God. The suggestion above is that only some biologically human persons are disposed to seek God and possibly know God. That is not to say that these persons are predestined to a state in which they are conscious of God's existence but cut off from God.
God desires the ultimate beatitude of all that have the power to achieve it -- but not all have this power on the above suggestion. If God desires the ultimate beatitude of all whether or not they have the power to know God, then God desires the ultimate beatitude of dolphins and apes and cats and dogs.
I suppose these are the two greatest problems for the quasi-gnostic position you consider in that post. Another problem would be that it might ethically justify mistreatment and prejudice against persons deemed to lack a religious disposition. After all, if they cannot sense God's existence and enjoy communion with him, how are they any different from animals? If God himself didn't care to make them such that they could know him, why should theists and those having the religious disposition care for them any more than for a dog?
I don't see any problem here either. Not all human beings have the same powers but people like me and my interlocutor would not dream of using this fact to justify mistreatment of certain classes of people.
The following quotations are from Martin Buber's I and Thou (tr. Walter Kaufmann, Scribner's, 1970, pp. 140-141):
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.
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 (as Buddhism proclaims with its central doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal and universal 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. Perhaps the underlying issue can be put, roughly, like this: in the end, does the One absorb everything and extinguish all finite individuality, or in the end does duality and (transformed) finite individuality remain? In soteriological terms: does salvation in the end consist in a becoming one with the One or is duality and difference preserve even at the highest soteriological levels?
Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more literal translation is '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. (141). I take it he means that spirit is not in an individual man, to be reaized in the depths of his isolated interiority, but between individual human beings and individual humans beings and between individual human beings and what is not human. Spirit is thus actualized only 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 (to gather, collect, concentrate) 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. Samadhi is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
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 and more important 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.
On my definition. "And where did you get it?" From examning the great religions, the greatest of which are Buddhism and Christianity.
UPDATE (12/15). Karl White comments:
I assume Buber and many strains in Judaism would answer that loving God for his own sake and the world for its own sake is the highest form of religiosity. To ask what 'use' is God would be tantamount to idolatry, as it consists in an instrumentalisation of God in order to serve one's own needs or less prosaically, to save one's own sorry ass.
Cf. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Those who would question, indeed those who lost their faith in God as a result of Auschwitz “never believed in God but in God's help… [for] one who believes in God … does not relate this to belief in God's help” (Accepting the Yoke, 21).
This is a very trenchant and very good comment that opens up numerous further cans of theological worms. I am immediately reminded of the the extremism of the jewess Simone Weil. Here is part of what I say in the just-referenced entry:
Although Weilian disinterest may appear morally superior to Pascalian self-interest, I would say that the former is merely an example of a perverse strain in Weil’s thinking. One mistake she makes is to drive a wedge between the question of the good and the question of human happiness, thereby breaking the necessary linkage between the two. This is a mistake because a good out of all relation to the satisfaction of human desire cannot count as a good for us.
What “good” is a good out of all relation to our self-interest? The absolute good must be at least possibly such as to satisfy (purified) human desire. The possibility of such satisfaction is a necessary feature of the absolute good. Otherwise, the absolute good could not be an ideal for us, an object of aspiration or reverence, a norm. But although the absolute good is ideal relative to us, it is real in itself. Once these two aspects (ideal for us, real in itself) are distinguished, it is easy to see how the absoluteness of the absolute good is consistent with its necessary relatedness to the possibility of human happiness. What makes the absolute good absolute is not its being out of all relation to the actual or possible satisfaction of human desire; what makes it absolute is its being self-existent, a reality in itself. The absolute good, existing absolutely (ab solus, a se), is absolute in its existence without prejudice to its being necessarily related to us in its goodness. If God is (agapic) love, then God necessarily bestows His love on any creatures there might be. It is not necessary that there be creatures, but it is necessary that God love the creatures that there are and that they find their final good in Him.
The Leibowitz remark deserves to be mulled over carefully. Part of what Leibowitz suggests is right: Auschwitz is no compelling argument against the existence of God. (Sorry Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno.) But I humbly suggest that it is border-line crazy to suggest, if this is what Leibowitz is suggesting, that belief in God is wholly out of relation to the human desire for ultimate happiness and to belief in God's help in securing such felicity.
There is more to say but I must get on with the day.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 112, Notebook G, Aph. #24:
To make man as religion wants him to be resembles the undertaking of the Stoics: it is only another grade of the impossible.
I agree completely with Herr Lichtenberg that the Stoic ideal is an impossible one.
The Stoic sage would be as impassible as God is impassible. But here's something to think about: Jesus on the cross died in agony like a man, even though, if he was God, he could have realized the Stoic ideal.
What is the lesson? Perhaps that to be impassible is for us impossible, and so no ideal at all.
What Lichtenberg overlooks is that while Stoicism is a self-help therapeutic, religion, or at least Christianity, is not: no Christian who understands his doctrine fancies that he is able by his own power to effect genuine, deep-going, and lasting self-improvement.
What Lichtenberg fails to appreciate is that what is impossible for us, both individually and collectively, is not impossible with divine assistance.
If you deny the possibility of divine assistance, then you ought to abandon the project of ameliorating in any truly fundamental way the human condition: just accept it as it is, else you may end up like the Communists who murdered 100 million in the 20th century alone in quest of their u-topia.
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.