thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Karen’s on the case #5

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From pre-modern to post-modern, the God question always comes down to ethics.

Fifth in a series responding to Karen Armstrong’s The case for God: What religion really means 1

See also Karen’s on the case #1; #2; #3; and #4

William Clifford

William Clifford

In her historical survey of Atheism (Chapter 10) Karen Armstrong mentions William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief2, where he

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.

Lester Frank Ward

Lester Frank Ward

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 possession3.

Bust of Paul Johannes Tillich

Bust of Paul Johannes Tillich

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’.

The Sermon on the Mount included Jesuss version of the Golden Rule

The Sermon on the Mount included Jesus's version of the Golden Rule

[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?


1 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

2 William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877.

3 Walter Burkert, Ancient mystery cults, Cambridge Mass. and London, 1986.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

27 September 2009 at 12:30 am

12 Responses

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  1. […] second sentence as ‘But love is also enough – of an imperative’.) Then later, as part of the Case for God exchange, Terry asked me why I thought that. Below is an attempt to expand on my original […]

  2. I’ve come back to reread this post several times trying to get at what it is that feels unresolved in my own thinking that makes me unable to agree wholeheartedly either with you or KA. My problem with KA is the simplest and it is similar to yours. She seems to assume that the experience of transcendence is manifestly an intrinsic good, that it is not a false god.

    But oh my, history certainly shows that it can be. Even when the experience of transcendence is not achieved with the aid of drugs, fasting, or sleep deprivation, even when it seems to the individual to reflect an authentic experience of that which is beyond reason, it might still be vastly dangerous and destructive. I might whip myself up into a real frenzy with the conviction that I am hearing the voice of god. But that does not make it so.

    On the other hand, this same sense of some connection with the transcendent has sometimes motivated individuals and whole peoples to great heights of heroism, generosity, and dedication.

    So my question to KA and other defenders of the elevated specialness of transcendence is how it is validated. How does an individual know if their individual insights achieved in this state are authentic? Personally, I don’t think there is a way to know for certain. It’s why so often the word “faith” is used. Faith – which means it cannot, by definition, be proved. And why I think we must never trust our personal experiences of transcendence unreservedly.

    And yet I cannot dismiss the validity of a sense of transcendence altogether. I’m a psychologist, and I know all the motives that I may harbour unacknowledged for clinging onto it. But the longer I live – and paradoxically, the more I discard the religious doctrines of my youth – the more persistent becomes this sense that there is something more. Not God. At least not God as theologians describe god.

    But some mystery that is greater than the sum total of our scientifically yet-to-be-answered questions. Some dimension, some meaning of existence, that is beyond our human reason to grasp fully.

    Not sure what to make of it. I know many people, several of great intelligence, integrity, and education who do not have it, and others who do.

    As usual, I am grateful for the time you take to post your own thinking. It remains an opportunity I greatly appreciate for me to clarify some of my own thoughts.

    Terry Sissons

    9 November 2009 at 2:33 pm

    • Thanks again Terry!

      You probably know more or less what I’m going to say. I think I agree about the mystery. But I do not think we are justified in seeing anything substantive in that mystery. (It is possible you do?)

      I like the way you put it: some mystery that is greater than the sum total of our scientifically yet-to-be-answered questions. We may not actually need the word scientifically in there, because some of the questions may be philosophical rather than scientific.

      If the mystery is something like the Socratic ‘unknowing’ (with all its ethical implications), then I’m happy. But if there is any suggestion that it is there for a reason (eg to convince us of the limits to our knowledge and understanding), then I would shy away.

      Thanks again.

      Chris Lawrence

      9 November 2009 at 11:54 pm

      • I’ve been pondering your comment above as much to clarify my own thoughts as anything else.

        You ask if I think there is anything substantive in the mystery. Well, yes and no. It is the universe itself where I find the mystery – not added on from another spiritual world. So in that sense it is substantive. It reminds me of Einstein’s description of space “finite but potentially unlimited.” Or Hawking’s view that we will never fully understand the universe but that there is no limit to what we can understand. So the mystery, as I see it, is infinite but not inaccessible.

        But the thing is, the more we learn, the bigger the mystery becomes. This is the old saw – the more we learn, the more questions we have — the bigger the circle of knowledge, the bigger the abyss that surrounds it.

        I find this is true no matter what I look at: the very small world of quantum mechanics, the mega-world of the standard theory, the complex world of living organisms, the many-layered world of a single individual person.

        It’s not that these worlds become more confused. But extraordinary. Mysterious. Incredible. Except that they seem to be real.
        So the mystery isn’t “put there.” It isn’t prescriptive. It just is there.

        But as I have read your blog, I have wondered something else. You said somewhere (perhaps it was a comment on my blog, not yours) “Love is hard enough. But it is also enough.”
        I agree. My question is – on what basis do you reach that conclusion?

        Terry Sissons

        12 November 2009 at 6:49 pm

        • My comment above somehow got posted before I proofed it. More importantly, before I had a chance to say thank you.
          I can at least remedy the latter. Because I always look forward to your thinking.
          Thank you.

          Terry Sissons

          12 November 2009 at 6:53 pm

        • Thanks again Terry.

          I think, or I think I think, that we have no real reason for thinking the ‘mystery’ is something greater than the sum total of our yet-to-be-answered questions (removing the word scientifically). Or that this ‘mystery’ is in any way related to a meaning of existence. But I have no issue with beyond our human reason to grasp fully.

          On ‘Love is hard enough. But it is also enough.’ I probably meant something like this:

          Humans may have evolved to be the entities they are: sentient, social, interdependent, mortal etc. (I say this not because I want it to be true but only because the explanation seems sound, and seems to require less metaphysical baggage &/or wishful thinking than other explanations on offer.) But because humans are the sort of entities they are, they feel emotion, they can use reason, & they can make choices.

          Some of those choices fit inside other choices. Because I have chosen x, then further choices can or need to be made, which only appear because of x. (We do not always choose consciously – we’re not purely algorithmic all the time – but most of us cannot live by unconscious choice alone.) Some of those higher-level choices can be very difficult, both to make and to live by. I think whether to love is one such choice, perhaps the highest-level choice there is.

          But I do not think we have any reason for thinking that this choice (which includes the choice to see it as a choice to be made) comes to us from anything outside us. We have no reason to think there was any reason (in the sense of a teleological intent as opposed to a possible causal explanation) why we evolved to have this choice &/or to be aware we have the choice.

          It is possible that for some, in order to make a choice like this, it is important to believe that the choice comes from something outside, &/or that there is/was a reason (ie teleological intent as opposed to possible causal explanation) why we have evolved to have this choice. But for myself, any belief like that is unjustified, is irrelevant, and ultimately detracts from the choice itself.

          Hope this makes some sort of sense…?

          Thanks again, Chris.

          Chris Lawrence

          14 November 2009 at 5:11 pm

          • Thank you so much for your thoughtful answer.

            As far as our not agreeing on exactly the nature and scope of the “mystery”, it should not be surprising, given that it is indeed a mystery. I suspect our differences represent our psychologies. You are more of a hard-headed realist than I am. I would not (god forfend!) describe myself as a mystic, but I think I’m closer to that end of the spectrum than you are. For myself, I find the differences stimulating. Much better than being surrounded by people who squishily see everything the same way I do.

            But I do have a serious question about your explanation of “Love is hard enough…” It sounds more as if you reached that conclusion and then looked around for a justification. Of course love has evolutionary value. But why not say equally “Getting enough food is enough.” Or, as many do “Procreating is enough.” Or even “Enjoying life is enough.” The list is potentially endless if we are looking at behaviors that are evolutionarily valuable. Why this choice? and what makes it possibly the highest choice we have?

            I agree our choices, our wisdom, our goals, are not offered to us from some outside force (whether we call it god, or mystery or whatever). We must decide for ourselves what is best. We must take responsibility for deciding what is moral, what will give us happiness, what gives us meaning. Which is why I so profoundly agree that “love is hard enough. But it is enough.” It’s what I have experienced.

            It is also why, by the way, I find your search for moral and ethical principles founded outside of religious belief so valuable. Things aren’t right or wrong because they please or displease god. It is we who must decide.

            Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

            Terry Sissons

            19 November 2009 at 6:25 pm

            • Hi Terry,

              I’ve tried to do justice to your questions in a full-length post: A secular imperative to love.

              Please let me know what you think when you have a moment.

              Thanks again, Chris.

              Chris Lawrence

              25 November 2009 at 12:03 am

  3. Good heavens! another one of your thought-provoking questions for left field: what is transcendence? How can I have spent so many years wondering about the concept of “god” without recognizing its close association with the concept of transcendence. In fact, it almost seems, in many cases, to actually be a code word for God.

    You seem to have a radar for picking up the dangers of potentially religious certainty which runs the risk of all the dangers that come with feeling one has got a hold of some superior form of truth. (I think I may have a similar sensitivity but more often applied to science and scientists. Though certainty about anything makes me very nervous.)

    As a result of reading your post above, I’ve begun to wonder if my conclusion that we live in mystery is a stripped down term for god. As far as I know myself, I think not. But I still find myself puzzled by my suspicion that people who are raised as children believing in God have a different psychology from children for whom God was not particularly important or absent altogether when they were growing up. What’s so intriguing is that this difference seems to persist throughout life, even if as adults their views about god are similar.

    Which is one of the reasons why I think I find your blog both so surprising and refreshing.

    Yet I’m still trying to clarify what I think those differences may be. At this point they are no more than hunches or intuitions, and need a little more thought to be elevated even to the stature of hypotheses.

    Terry Sissons

    1 October 2009 at 4:38 pm

    • Thanks again Terry.

      I’m also intrigued by that difference. Sometimes I wonder if in at least some cases it’s just a question of sequence – ie some people (eg brought up to believe) had their paradigms of certainty and doubt introduced in one sequence, while others (eg not brought up to believe) may have been exposed to similar paradigms but in a different sequence?

      What I think I mean is that one person tracking back through all the ‘yes buts’ of certainty & doubt could then get to a different ‘centre’ or ‘home’ or ultimate axiom than another person will get to. But it might not necessarily be a completely different psychology – just a different start point.


      Chris Lawrence

      6 October 2009 at 8:39 pm

  4. That Bernard Shaw quote comes to mind:

    “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”


    27 September 2009 at 4:38 am

    • Indeed – even if the ‘happiness’ in question could be described as ‘ecstasy’ or ‘bliss’ or ‘divine transcendence’.

      The fact that the happiness of intoxication may come at a higher price or is unsustainable in terms of health or survival is ultimately neither here nor there.

      Unless that really is all the difference boils down to – ‘wise’ bliss versus ‘unwise’ bliss..?

      Chris Lawrence

      6 October 2009 at 8:49 pm

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