Sunday, December 07, 2014

Making Things Go

Sam Harris has written another book, this one about spirituality without religion (look it up yourself).  Which leads me directly to the question of whether or not atheism is a religion; because I can't figure out how one can be "spiritual" without being at least metaphysical, and most modern Western philosophy that has rejected religion (the Anglo-American school, basically) has rejected metaphysics, too.

More interesting, actually, is the idea of "spirituality" without religion.  I'm not sure what that looks like, but it sounds like being scientific without science.  So we start with the question:  what is "religion"?

Wikipedia has a useful answer:

A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.  Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Many religions may have organized behaviors, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, holy places, and scriptures. The practice of a religion may also include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration of a deity, gods or goddesses, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religions may also contain mythology.

The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith, belief system or sometimes set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is "something eminently social".
Science, and especially empiricism, are not supposed to be the product of belief; but David Hume thought otherwise, arguing finally that he'd brought philosophy to the point where all that could be discussed were mundane things ("This stone is heavy") and unprovable things ("Red is a pretty color.")  Kant saved Western philosophy, but he's largely regarded today as having thrown religion under the bus in doing so.   But consider:  Richard Dawkins' debunked genetics and evolutionary theories "are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe," and most atheists argue that from atheist "beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, ....laws or a preferred lifestyle."  The last being, of course, a life without religion.  I'm sure the atheists will argue that their empirical ideas are not based on belief, but how many of them have seen an atom, or observed the presence (alleged, still) of the Higgs Boson at Cerne?  How many of them actually understand how a computer works, or the intricacies of biology and genetics?  How many of them know, from their own experience, that every branch of science is true and correct and that, for example, Einstein's theory of relativity is right?  How many of them even understand Einstein's theory as he wrote it, or for that matter can read and understand Godel's theorem of incompleteness?

Yet when the are told about such things, they accept what they are told as true.  If that's not faith, what is?  You say we know it is true because the computer works.  Poppycock.  You could tell me elves and fairies make my automobile engine run, rather than the internal combustion of gasoline.  I've read an engineering text describing at the molecular level what is happening in an internal combustion engine, and the text is little different from an arcane medieval theological text.  Both, in their time, were accepted as true and correct; both are, ultimately, taken on faith, which is to say trust.  I can't possibly challenge the engineering text; I accept it is valid.  I know of few atheists competent to challenge the medieval theological text on its own terms.   Dawkins dismisses it as a discussion of fairies in the garden, and moves on.  Is he more right than the man who dismisses the engineering text as poppycock?  Why?  Because you believe as Dawkins does?

So is atheism a religion?  The narrower definition, one found many places according to Google, comes from the BBC:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
That's usually what people think they mean when they use the word; but then, as Buddhists are wont to point out, that excludes Buddhism, which may be less than a believe in a superhuman agency, but it is more than a set of philosophical principles.  Besides, Buddhism in Chinese culture allows for a separate metaphysical realm of non-human creatures which is both real and unreal, at the same time (see The Dream of the Red Chamber, if you have as much time to devote to a novel as you would to Proust).  No, I think Wikipedia has the better answer, and the best part is that last phrase:  a religion is "eminently social."

Which makes impossible the goal of modern atheists who want to leave religion alone, but want it to leave them alone, too.  Richard Rorty joined the argument for religion being a private matter, perhaps something like reading pornography (not really so new an idea; Alfred Bester imagined it coming true in the future of The Stars My Destination, still one of the best science fiction novels ever written.)  And, of course, if Sam Harris is trying to encourage spirituality while rejecting religion, all he's really doing is trying to replace his perception of religion with a religion of his own.  But like any adolescent, it's a religion imagined by him and controlled by him, allowing in only those people, like a clubhouse for children, or a college fraternity, who are like-minded enough not to annoy Mr. Harris too much.  Because ultimately that's the problem with religion that annoys the atheists so much (the ones who are so annoyed by it):  it means there are too many people in the world who don't think as they do.

It's a liminal issue, in other words; and the limit is the boundary of my identity.  Who am I if there are people who don't believe as I do?  Do I exaggerate Mr. Harris's fundamental thinking?

You believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn't. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6) or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so....

I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ was an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this....So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.

 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 3-5.

His thinking is downright Manichean:  there is right, and there is wrong, and they are locked in eternal struggle, because both cannot exist together in the same universe.  Manichee?  I should have said Zoroastrian.  Either way, he's locked in the Bronze Age so many on-line atheists affect to despise.  It is possible many points of view are right; it is also possible all points of view are, finally, wrong.  It apparently is not possible, in Mr. Harris' mind, that he could be wrong; but that simply makes his mind a very cramped and tiny space indeed.  And it means he is constantly up against his limits, and constantly concerned that his limits are the limits of his very identity.

I am told, for example, that modern computing functions because of the insights provided by quantum mechanics, and who am I to doubt it?  But how do the engineers know?  They know because they tells themselves it is so.  They use their understanding of quantum mechanics to design computers and, when those computers function as designed, they credit their understanding of quantum mechanics as the reason.  But they reason, as Hume pointed out in the 19th century, from effect back to cause.  We can never reason from cause to effect, especially in a new and unique situation.  Will the new computer design work?  If it doesn't, something failed:  theory or execution.  If it does, theory is proven true.  And the theory remains true until changes as fundamental as biological evolution alter circumstances enough that the old theory no longer explains the new functions, and a new theory arises.  Thus did Newtonian physics give way to relativistic theory, the relativistic universe to the quantum universe.  Kuhnian paradigms, in other words.  We cannot escape them by claiming "objectivity" (an impossible stance anyway, as "postmodernism" has taught us; no one, as Kierkegaard observed almost contemporary to Hume, can stand outside the world, or their own existence, and be merely an observer, and not a participant.  This is how Dawkins and Co. can be imperialists while insisting they only espouse "Truth.")  Cause may precede effect in theory, but in reality we reason back from effect to cause.  The murder is never solved before the crime is committed; the cause is never connected to the effect until the effect is examined and we look backwards to find the cause that impelled it.  And our conclusion is always no more than a theory.  It is not immutable truth and, to the extent it is, it is merely the equivalent of the statement "This stone is heavy."  The stone being heavy may make it a good weapon, and our experience of causation may tell us that, as in the past, if we fling the stone, it will damage a building, or kill an enemy.  But that is mere techne, as the Greeks called it; it is knowledge of how to make things go.  But we are not smart because we make things go.  Better we should pursue wisdom, or sophia.

And sophia is as praised and valued in Hebrew teachings, as it is in Hellenistic ones.  You can find that truth in Scriptures; you'll never find it in the squawking of the New Atheists.

We come to the point where Godel's elegant theorem of incompleteness can support, if only informally, the insights of postmodernism:  every system of thought, be it formal and so within the purview of Godel's proof, or less formal and unmapable  on to a formal system (sorry, Russell and Whitehead), creates questions that system cannot answer, and a Kuhnian paradigm shift (in science, at least) is required to answer the new questions.  But it's turtles all the way down; the shifts are never ending.  Which is not to say we know nothing; but what we can know is limited to the conclusion of Wittgenstein's Tractates; and there is a great deal of which we cannot speak, but because we cannot speak of it, we cannot declare it unreal, either.

Exhibit B in my argument about religion would be the establishment of a "humanist chaplain" (I'm thinking an English teacher or a philosophy professor would suffice) and the reductio ad absurdum (at Stanford, no less, where you would expect people to know better) of morality to the Ten Commandments because Cecil B. DeMille made a movie in which God only had time and space to give Moses 10 of the laws that take up Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus.  And they were laws, not expositions on human morality, but hey, no matter!  It makes a good talking point!  And how are ya gonna replace a religion if you don't use another religion, but one that suits the handful of people who like what you have to say?

There's a reason I'm always flattered when somebody tells me they'd want to attend the church I pastored.  It makes me think I should have stayed in parish ministry and fought to "find my place."  On the other hand, when it's all about me and the handful of people who think like me, it's no longer about the church and God at all.  I don't mind the approval; but I try to put it in context.  Religion is, among other things, about self-reflection, self-awareness, and the awareness of others.  It can be used to exclude others as "heretic scum" on the tiniest of differences; but it can also be used to include everyone as a brother or a sister.  My grandparents called everyone in their Primitive Baptist congregation "Brother Madison" or "Sister Lenore."  I came to admire that, years later, especially when I was a pastor in churches where the commonality of interest seemed to be hating me.  I suppose one could replace either term with "Comrade," but it isn't at all the same sentiment.  It may be that religion is just an ideology, but it is a much more useful one than an ideology built only on opposition to other institutions.

This idea that ethics or morality can survive without religion, and yet must use religion as the basis for its establishment, is a curious one.  Aristotle made no appeal to the worship of the Gods on Olympus; Socrates set his more carefully worked out moral code on how people should be treated, not on what Zeus and Apollo taught.  You read the tragedies in vain for a moral compass, even though more often than not the gods are presumptively punishing someone for their actions which violate the ethics of the city state they live in.  Nietzsche tackled this issue in Christian Europe; Kierkegaard railed against it from inside the state church; G.E. Moore tried to establish a Principia Ethica; Sartre recognized the need for a morality without religion, and the burden that created on the free existent individual.  H. Richard Niebuhr struggled with the idea of even establishing a valid Christian ethics, as a theologian; his brother Reinhold decisively cut off morality from state governance.  You look in vain for an awareness of any of this in the work of Sam Harris or the New Atheists, or even among "humanists" who insist morality without religion is perfectly feasible.  Yes,; it is.  Why don't they get to it?  Why is their morality based so much on opposition, and so little on what they have to offer?

It's a liminal issue, still.  It's the issue of what "we" are not, based more on what we establish "them" to be, than on self-examination and self-reflection.  The latter create responsibility; and it was that awful responsibility Sartre put at the center of his existentialist ethics.  Most of what I read on-line about morality without religion is also morality without responsibility.  Sam Harris denies any responsibility for conditions in the Middle East he so fears that he argues a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran would be justified.  His ethic is entirely his self-interest, and nothing more.  It's a fine ethic so long as you agree with Sam Harris; but in the black/white, right/wrong pocket universe he inhabits, it's not a good idea to put him in charge of major decisions, nor to take him as a serious counselor on such decisions.  He's as fundamentalist as the most radical Islamic terrorist he can conjure up in his imagination.

It is, in fact, that plank in his eye which allows him to see the mote in another's.  An ethical insight based on self-reflection, and the idea that what you largely see reflected in the world is, indeed, yourself.  That's why Sartre puts individual responsibility at the heart of his atheist ethic; and why Jesus of Nazareth couched the dangers of blaming others for your sins, in that pithy and powerful metaphor.  Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

So I don't have much use for this idea that religion must disappear, but we can keep the good parts of it, like 'spirituality.'  In my experience, brief though it was, most church members didn't cotton to Christian spirituality because, as someone told me once, "When the Holy Spirit starts moving, the devil gets busy!"  You don't have to believe in a corporeal, or even spiritual, Satan, to agree with the sentiment:  true spirituality is disruptive of the status quo.  It afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.  It works best within a framework, a community, even an institution, where people of unlike mind on so much else, are of like mind on this:  that spirituality, or the movement of the Holy Spirit, are important enough to accept the pains that accompany it.  "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod."  But without God, what peace is there to even struggle with?  Nietzsche wrestled with that; Sartre wrestled with that; even Kierkegaard wrestled with that.

Sam Harris thinks he only needs to wrestle with his enemies.  The problem is, we have met the enemy, and he is us.


  1. I never could love Kant. I've really tried. Categorically.

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  3. "If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself."

    I suppose that depends on which "basic tenets" one is talking about. "Christianity" always seems to mean for these guys a fundamentalism that most fundamentalists, if pressed, would question. There has always been a lively speculation in Christian theology about the fate of the non-Christian who nevertheless leads a life in accord with Christian love. The Fathers often speculated on how Christian Plato and Socrates were. Dante's first circle of hell is much more pleasant than life on earth--not the beatific vision, but hardly a "grim surprise," in fact, much in accord with the expected Elysian Fields. That's not to mention contemporary theologians like Rahner, whose notion of the "anonymous Christian" reaches rather far.

    This idea among atheists that Christians believe that God will torture people eternally for making a good faith mistake is arguably their greatest misfire. But it is necessary, rhetorically, because it makes of Christianity, not something attuned to the subtler rhythms of the cosmos, not an affirmation of God as love, but something made morally monstrous. There must be "grim surprises" for those merely outside of the club.

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