Karen’s on the case #5
From pre-modern to post-modern, the God question always comes down to ethics.
argued that it was not only intellectually but morally unacceptable to accept any opinion – religious, scientific or moral – without sufficient evidence.
She then summarises his example of the negligent ship owner: for more on this see Clifford’s razor.
She goes on:
Clifford’s book struck an instant chord. By the late 1860s, widespread veneration for science as the only path to truth had made the idea of ‘belief’ without verification offensive, not only intellectually but morally. For the American sociologist Lester Ward, … [o]nce you had accepted the idea that some matter lay beyond human comprehension, you would swallow anything…
I have a lot of time for Clifford’s dictum, which I have discussed on this blog in some depth in The ethics of belief.
Armstrong’s reference to the 19th century veneration for science as the only path to truth is a bit circular. Because the science that was and is venerated is not science as some nerdish activity done in white coats, but science as ‘the way of justified belief’. Which does not imply that everything every scientist believes is 100% properly justified, but that the scientific method – for it to be the scientific method – is all about justification.
Then her take on Lester Ward’s dismissal of ‘superstition’ is almost an inverse caption to her entire book. Her portrayal of religion as mythos is in many ways a defence of the ‘skill’ or ‘knack’ of accepting what lies beyond human comprehension.
What I’m groping towards is something which I think energises both sides of the atheist/believer debate: the atheist thinks there is something unethical about belief (and/or faith), while the believer thinks there is something so ethically special about belief (and/or faith) that to turn away from it deliberately is in itself somehow unethical.
And when the debate gets to this ethical level the mythos/logos distinction, though interesting and informative, does not magically dissolve it.
I lost count of the times I read ‘transcend’, ‘transcending’, ‘transcendent’, ‘transcendence’, ‘transcendental’. Hardly surprising of course in a book called The case for God. But then I realised what was staring me in the face: she seemed to be assuming that ‘transcendence’ was always – and almost by definition – a good thing. This is indeed such a familiar assumption that it seems almost bizarre to question it. But I do want to question it, because I am not convinced it is sound.
Some examples – the emphasis in bold is all my own:
People who acquired this knack [of Daoist self-forgetfulness] discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was not simply an external reality ‘out there’ but was identical with the deepest level of their being.
The Indian Aryans, always in the vanguard of religious change, pioneered this trend [to a more interior spirituality], achieving the ground-breaking discovery that the Brahman, being itself, was also the ground of the human psyche. The transcendent was neither external nor alien to humanity but the two were inextricably connected. This insight would become central to the religious quest in all the major traditions.
[T]he rationalism of classical Greece would not consist of abstract speculation for its own sake. It was rather rooted in a search for transcendence and a dedicated practical life style… [Armstrong then discusses the Eleusinian Mysteries in depth, ending with their effect on the more successful participants:] …Their ekstasis was a kenosis, a self-forgetfulness that enabled them to ‘assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become one with the gods, and experience divine possession’3.
For centuries, symbols such as ‘God’ or ‘providence’ enabled people to look through the ebb and flow of temporal life to glimpse Being itself. This helped them to endure the terror of life and the horror of death, but now, [Paul] Tillich argued, many had forgotten how to interpret the old symbolism and regarded it as purely factual. Hence these symbols had become opaque; transcendence no longer shone through them. When this happened they died and lost their power…
In all cultures [says Bernard Lonergan (1904-84, a Canadian Jesuit], humans have been seized by the same imperatives – to be intelligent, responsible, reasonable and loving, and, if necessary, to change. All this pulls us into the realm of the transcendental, the Real and Unconditioned, which in the Christian world is called ‘God’.
As Tillich pointed out, men and women continually feel drawn to explore levels of truth that go beyond our normal experience. This imperative has inspired the scientific as well as the religious quest. We see what Tillich called an ‘ultimate concern’ that shapes our life and gives it meaning. The ultimate concern of Dawkins and Harris appears to be reason: this has seized and taken possession of them. But their idea of reason is very different from the rationality of Socrates, who used his reasoning powers to bring his dialogue partners into a state of unknowing. For Augustine and Aquinas, reason became intellectus, opening naturally into the divine. Today, for many people, reason no longer subverts itself in this way. But the danger of this secularisation of reason, which denies the possibility of transcendence, is that reason can become an idol that seeks to destroy all rival claimants…
The language is unambiguous. It supports the religious quest for a ‘transcendent dimension of life’ because the transcendent is inextricably linked to our humanity – in fact it is the ‘deepest level of [our] being’. Transcendence is radiant. Without it something important dies. The transcendent is linked to everything that is good (‘intelligent, responsible, reasonable and loving’). To deny it is to be ‘seized and …possess[ed]’ not by just any kind of reason, but a very closed, stunted, ungenerous, dangerous, false and destructive brand of reason.
The next few quotes show an additional spin (again with added emphasis):
[Y]oga also had an ethical dimension. A beginner was not allowed to perform a single yogic exercise until he had completed an intensive moral programme. Top of the list… was ahimsa, ‘harmlessness’. A yogin must not swat a mosquito, make an irritable gesture or speak unkindly to others but should maintain constant affability to all, even the most annoying monk in the community. Until his guru was satisfied that this had become second nature, a yogin could not even sit in the yogic position. A great deal of the aggression, frustration, hostility and rage that mars our peace of mind is the result of thwarted egotism, but when the aspiring yogin became proficient in this selfless equanimity, the texts tell us that he would experience ‘indescribable joy’.
[T]he habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule… demands perpetual kenosis. The constant ‘stepping outside’ of our own preferences, convictions and prejudices is an ekstasis that is not a glamorous rapture, but… is itself the transcendence we seek. … [S]omething indefinable happens to people who involve themselves in these disciplines with commitment and talent … [which] remains opaque, however, to those who do not undergo these disciplines, just as the Eleusinian ‘mystery’ sounded trivial and absurd to somebody who remained obstinately outside the Cult Hall and refused to undergo the initiation.
Religious people… aspired to live generously, large-heartedly and justly and to inhabit every single part of their humanity. … They tried to honour the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that honoured the stranger, the alien, the poor and the oppressed. … [O]verall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.
I do not want to imply that Armstrong sees nothing intrinsically good in behaving generously, compassionately and without aggression. But the passages above give the distinct impression that disciplined and dedicated selflessness is a path to transcendence.
We therefore have a two-way relationship, a virtuous circle: good behaviour leads to transcendence, and transcendence is good in itself. It takes hard work and self-denial, but as a package it is almost too good to be true.
My qualm is this, and it could be the qualm of other atheists: why do we have to seek transcendence? Aren’t goodness and generosity and selflessness enough? The concern is not a puritanical or Kantian insistence that good is only good if it is done out of duty and without expectation of reward. The concern is with the potential price of transcendence, of seeking or attaining a ‘higher, divine or godlike plane’.
We are all imperfect, all to some extent damaged goods. I am very happy that there are selfless people in the world. I am very happy that there are tried and tested techniques of selflessness, structures of support for people who want to become more selfless. I am less happy to hear people telling me that their favoured discipline or practice has put them in touch with the ‘deepest level of their being’ or allowed them to achieve ‘divine possession’. I would worry about the effect of a belief like that on a psyche which was less than perfect. It is not as if we are without experience of the havoc such beliefs can generate.
Armstrong may be right that
[f]rom almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity. They evolved mythologies, rituals and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfil their humanity.
But her history of mythos and logos looks back to a time when the mythos of religious faith was an unavoidable reality of people’s lives, a time when there was no competing logos of verifiable and falsifiable theory. She is no doubt right that pre-modern concepts of God were utterly unlike the metaphysical existence claims of Descartes and Newton.
But we do not live in pre-modern times. Yes we can chip off the barnacles of 17th century Rationalism and Enlightenment Deism, but (phew!) we will not get that pre-modern God back. We might get a thoroughly post-modern God, purged of all existence claims, quivering with différance and unknowing. Nothing Armstrong says convinces me that such a God would make the world a better place.
Or, as I said at the beginning: Yes OK, but you know it cuts both ways?
© Chris Lawrence 2009.