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Reviews What’s God Got to Do with Religion?

A believer and an atheist seek out their antitheses. Do they meet somewhere in the middle, or pass in the murk of half-baked pseudo-syntheses?

Published on June 17, 2014

My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believerby Christian WimanFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 192 pp., $24

Ronald Dworkin - Religion

Religion Without Godby Ronald DworkinHarvard University Press, 2013192 pp., $17.95

These days we seem to have trouble conducting genuine conversations about religious belief. Americans in particular are adept at monologues; we excel at parallel soliloquies expositing our irreconcilable credos, after which we turn away from one another in a dialogical version of post-coital tristesse. But an actual, vulnerable, exchange about divergent fundamental commitments and the epistemic and doxological peregrinations that led us to them? Not so much. Simultaneously politically privatized and culturally ebullient, we are awash in religious speech even amidst a desert of religious conversation.

The most lauded literature out there, at least in English, makes this point. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is a lot about Wieseltier and his father but very little about religion. James Wood, the best of those who explore the condition of ex-fundamentalists (which he, like most fundamentalists, confuses with the condition of being religious), is a master of articulating the alloy of anxious emancipation and preemptively defensive reiterations of skepticism that mark both fundamentalists and their defectors. Marilynne Robinson is a religiously informed novelist, but her novels do not explore belief, so much as what belief does to the believer’s world. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God admits that something wild can indeed happen, but then devotes hundreds of pages to an attempt to domesticate it. Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back tries gently, and condescendingly (to both parties—an impressive feat), to teach secular people how to live alongside the discomfiting believers next door, but it does not talk back to the believers, nor let them talk back to her.

We seem committed to a studied indifference about the part of religion that really matters. Perhaps we’ve decided we cannot handle frank conversation on so intimate a topic. But it’s also the case that our self-images are typically articulated in contrast to some other way of life, and often the contrasting role is played by the most ludicrous depiction of those who differ from us on matters of belief. We know ourselves by knowing we are not like some other people, and often the register of otherness is a religious one. Some secularists deem it the height of philosophical sophistication to view those who take a sacred text seriously as akin to those who take up serpents, and to presume that all who profess faith in a god or commitment to an ancient religious tradition must either be overgrown babies or benighted backwoods ignorami who spend their days field-stripping M-16s just for fun. People like that are presumably never to be found sitting next to you in the coffee shop, sipping a latté and checking their cellphones. A similarly smug knowingness also infects many believers, seducing them into dismissing the challenges skeptics raise just because those challenges are raised by skeptics, and imagining those skeptics to be amoral hedonists seeking to outlaw religion and decency forever. It is so easy for both sides to fall back into the grooves carved out by the protracted culture wars of the past few decades, and devolve into name-calling. We talk about one another all the time, but talking to each other—not so much.

Part of our problem is that the very categories we use to organize our social life and delineate the space we allow for religion—particularly the categories of “religious” versus “secular”—actually hamper our attempts to have such conversations. Scholars from the post-colonial Foucauldian Talal Asad to the Augustinian Christian theologian John Milbank have shown that these categories are the product of the past few centuries of European history and have been shaped by the peculiarities of European religion (especially Protestantism) and politics (especially liberalism). Misshaped, in fact, for our situation: They assume a particular picture of what religion essentially is—mostly, the private encounter of the individual soul with God that takes place in the sublime space of the individual’s most inward and inaccessible subjectivity. In contrast, the “secular” is the outward space, where we negotiate our way amid the material cosmos and our “properly” political concerns—which, by definition, cannot be “properly” religious.

This picture has never made sense as a way to understand the non-Western world, and it ill fits the religious diversity of our society today. It defines religion as a matter more of believing than belonging, and by discounting “outward” practices it creates problems for religious traditions the farther they get from, say, a contemporary liberal Presbyterian church. It distorts, in increasing levels of contortion, sacramental forms of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the several forms of Judaism, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist meditation centers, and Confucian centers. If any of these religion try to “appear” in public (the metaphor itself is telling), they must politely cram themselves into the whalebone corset that is the etiquette of the modern Western public sphere. Religion in the contemporary West has become socially and politically denominationalized and existentially privatized. Many religions can accept such terms only at the cost of self-mutilation. Pretty obviously, this is a situation that doesn’t encourage coherent conversation about belief—more the opposite.

This is a special problem in a liberal society. If the genius of political liberalism is to recognize an inviolable wall around the privacy of the individual, the problem that liberalism faces is that that wall, once established, blocks passage in both directions. If we deem it abhorrent to violate another’s conscience, and so construct the public sphere in such a way as to forbid the public from invading the conscience, it is hard to see how so private a conscience can break out, to interact at all with public affairs. This risks turning the individual’s fortress into a prison; we have secured ourselves from violation only by forbidding ourselves real encounter. Liberalism’s admirable recognition of the unique value of each individual has had the effect of creating a society composed of gilded birds trapped in iron cages.

Not surprisingly, then, from the beginning of “liberal individualism” we have seen a rich series of exploratory efforts by thinkers (novelists, essayists, others) who aim to escape the isolation chambers into which liberalism puts us—so that, “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.” Such efforts are admirable and inevitable. Historians point out that people in other times and places ill fit the categories and concepts within which they believed they had to live, and the same is true of our age: We try to speak, even when the cultural tide runs against us. Some thinkers hope for success. Charles Taylor, the most influential contemporary thinker on the state of belief in late modernity, thinks there is potential “openness to transcendence” in the “immanent frame” of our Secular Age, and that religious participants may well find multiple routes to remind all of us of the contingency of the way we see the world. Religious actors thus become a secular age’s “loyal opposition.” But how much such hope is reasonable?

Two new books provide cases in point, each in their own way, of Taylor’s prophecy. Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a work, I think, of real genius. It is the most powerful memoir of a life re-viewed in the light of religious transformation since Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, and it is more philosophically searching than either of those ancestors. Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, a moving philosophical tract, offers a lovely and thoughtful account of a religious mindset within a broadly liberal picture of the world. It reminds us all, liberals and non-liberals alike, of the profound normative energies coursing through an apparently cool-minded political philosophy.

More than their particular quality, the two together may presage a new stage in our efforts to escape our deprivative privacy. Both would end our captivity to the “naturalness” of privatized belief. Both raise the question of their own local religious convictions (self-consciously so in Wiman’s case) in ways that remain alert to the precariousness of genuine common understanding on these matters. Both speak in idioms flexible and fine-grained enough to express our various religious sensibilities, yet durable enough to sustain vigorous questioning and multiple understandings. In all these ways both books move toward each other; we all could have a healthier conversation if we worked from them, diagnosing their weaknesses while building on their strengths.

But they also differently illustrate the challenges we face today as regards religion. Dworkin still at times fails to transcend the limitations of what Lionel Trilling called “the liberal imagination” (by which he meant the lack of imagination, in a way) and fails to see the parochialism of his own self-proclaimed universalism. Wiman struggles, not entirely successfully, to reach beyond his idiosyncratic self and journey. Dworkin speaks in a confident “we”; Wiman uses a too-chastened “I.” Neither dares to engage, confront, or beseech any “you.” Considering them together lets us see something of the many ways that religious conviction and religious dynamics can enrich and complicate our life together, in all our diversity of faiths and doubts, in our common world.

Ronald Dworkin was undeniably the most influential liberal legal philosopher of the past several decades. And yet he never really amounted to a truly profound or creative thinker, for reasons perhaps related to his enmeshment in two deeply unreflective academic fields, philosophy and law. His earlier attempt at addressing the vexed issues of religion in modern society, Life’s Dominion, was remarkably tone-deaf to religion. One could just imagine that there were banked fires at the back of John Rawls’s work, deep existential wellsprings obscurely driving his writings. With Dworkin, believing that was harder; a relentless, trundling dialectical machine, he seemed arguments all the way down.

That exactly is what makes his last book (Dworkin died in February of last year), Religion Without God, so surprising. Here he does not attempt to devour others’ arguments, but instead to exposit a vision of the world—and a properly religious worldview at that. Here he gifts us with his understanding of how his ethical and political views are rooted in fundamentally religious energies.

Of course, it is “religious” only in a certain way; it is definitely not godly. Religion Without God begins with the effort to differentiate religion from theism. Dworkin’s main objection to theism is a restatement of Plato’s Euthyphro problem: How can the fact of God’s reality ever impinge upon the compellingness of value in our lives? Dworkin asserts there is no “conception of agency from which it follows that its exercise can in and by itself create value.” Value and metaphysics emerge in our lives in different registers.

It is typical but nonetheless disappointing that Dworkin asks his questions, of which this is but one, but does not stay for an answer. He admits as much when he says, somewhat defensively, that “sophisticated theologians will no doubt judge my argument ignorant and puerile.” “Puerile” goes too far, but “ignorant” is fair. Judging from his notes, he read much more thoroughly in recent popular scientific writing than in the history of theology or even philosophical discussions of religion (not an unusual educational imbalance among the secular cognoscenti these days). For all his advocacy of taking religion seriously, he doesn’t have a lot of time for religious thinkers. That’s too bad, because (for example) Robert Merrihew Adams’s contemporary work, Finite and Infinite Goods, articulates an Augustinian-Platonic account that is just on this topic, and explicitly engages Dworkin’s earlier views thereupon. Had Dworkin attended to detailing their disagreements, we might have learned a great deal.

But if he refuses any god, why does he affirm the moniker “religion”? Well, he has a positive and a negative point here. Negatively, affirming religion means refusing reductionist materialist naturalisms. Such reductionisms are often conflated with science, or purported to be organic implications of the scientific method, but they are, Dworkin insists (rightly in my view), merely philosophical interpretations of it. Like William James, Dworkin recoils from any but the most radical empiricism, and so argues that the experiences of awe and wonder which occasionally perforate even the dullest human lives should be explained, not explained away. Positively, his is a religious view because we can see both the human’s objective moral value and the universe’s own intrinsic coherence; both apprehensions provoke in us a certain genuine and irreducible awe. This awe is at the core of the truly religious mindset. In this religion, then, piety, properly understood, trumps deity.

Dworkin’s argument to this effect will be controversial and annoying to some, and we should be grateful for it. The view itself is not novel; when people claim that they are “spiritual but not religious”, for example, they mean something like this. But Dworkin’s argument for it is powerful and interesting. He discusses our apprehension of the integrity and inevitability of certain phenomena—works of art, mathematical proofs (for those who understand them, they apparently seem like works of art), and, for scientists, the universe’s intelligibility as a whole—and concludes with the claim that, “for those of us who think beauty real, the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty.”

There is some mystical apprehension, equally cognitive and affective, about the totality of reality; gripped by it, we feel in our bones a sublime integrity and inevitability pulsing through the cosmos. This apprehension orients and focuses our attention, and energizes and directs our will. “Muss Es sein? Es muss sein!” wrote Beethoven on the score of his final string quartet; Dworkin sees an analogous recognition at the heart of the properly attuned picture of the cosmos.

But how do we cultivate this apprehension, and how can we explain why so many smart people don’t see things this way? For seeing things this way is quite metaphysically optimistic. Despite Dworkin’s refusal of an agential god, he remained convinced that all is finally harmonized. His affirmation of inevitable cosmic integrity suggests a monistic, quasi-Spinozistic cosmic harmony that denies ultimately irreconcilable moral conflict; that is to say, he denies the reality of tragedy. But tragedy at least seems obviously real; as Pierre Bayle famously argued in his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, moral dualism is hard to deny from the bare evidence of our experience. So Dworkin’s denial constitutes an interesting perspective for a liberal theorist to take, for two reasons.

First of all, on this account, necessity comes to function as the final rationale of the system. But when we start worshipping necessity, things get ugly quickly. Across history, the refusal of tragedy typically comes either from religions that have a unified providential divinity and an eschatological promise (so that “whatever is, is right”—or will be made right), or from a fatalist or stoic necessitarianism that reduces our complaints about cosmic injustice to the grumbles of the metaphysically miseducated, which is the route chosen by Seneca, Spinoza, and Stalin. It looks like to refuse tragedy you need either the cathedral or the Gulag. Neither seems very liberal-friendly; which would Dworkin choose?

Second, Dworkin’s vision contradicts other forms of political liberalism, but it is unclear how Dworkin’s view engages them. Consider the most profound of the tragic liberals, Bernard Williams. The integrity and coherence that Dworkin perceived in the universe were not what Williams saw; for him, humans are always at the mercy of moral luck. The arguments between liberals like Dworkin and Williams on the coherence of justice, say, and the ultimate harmonization of individuals’ aims, are as deeply metaphysical as they are ethical or political. In effect, they are arguments between rival theologies: Dworkin’s immanentist monism versus Williams’s immanentist polytheism. As was the case with Adams’s theism, an opportunity is lost here in the silence between them. Dworkin might have articulated how his tradition undertakes the self-conscious sculpting of its adherents’ perception, in order to see the cosmos aright, and to learn that and how a tragic apprehension of the cosmos (such as Williams’s) is a misperception. That seems to be the only way in which the fundamental disputes between the two schools can be engaged.

In other words—and this is a major flaw in Religion Without God —Dworkin does not recognize the necessity, and inevitability, of institutions, of ritual or liturgy. Human beings must cultivate perceptions, must learn to see reality in certain ways; we do not do so automatically. For that we need training in vision, and that training comes through institutions. Dworkin never tells us what proper cultural structures will sculpt the perceptual capacities at the heart of his religious sensibility.

This is, of course, an old worry about liberalism: that a fully mature and refined liberal mind cannot recognize the (often very illiberal) disciplines that brought it itself into being. Nietzsche and Bernard Williams (and John Stuart Mill, in his Autobiography and his essay on Coleridge) press this point, but Dworkin seems unable even to recognize it. He powerfully describes the mature religious disposition he commends, but he doesn’t say how one can cultivate this vision in a world where its development is not inevitable, and where other intelligent people don’t share it. One value of institutional religions today is their self-conscious particularism, their insistence that certain contingent practices, ruthlessly repeated, will craft the dispositions of their adherents. One wishes that one day Dworkinian liberals will see their vision as analogous to a religion at least enough to realize that such a liberalism, as it were, needs a catechesis.

For that to happen, though, it would help them to recognize their most relevant predecessors. Dworkin thinks of himself as a deep follower of Spinoza, but the profounder, formal similarity is with Kant and William James. Both of them insisted that the epistemic basis of religion is analogous to other aspects of our lives, that a kind of “faith” lies at the heart of scientific apperception as well as moral and aesthetic apperception. For both, our smug rationalism must be tutored into humility by an analysis of how we actually comport ourselves in the world, in often embarrassing contrast to the stories we tell ourselves about how we so comport ourselves. And neither, like Dworkin (and also Spinoza), really recognized that moral formation needs institutions dedicated to such formation. Kant and James’s most thoughtful descendants—G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey, respectively—knew this; thus they dedicated much time and energy to exploring the educational and “situated” context of the moral life. (It’s also why the Amsterdam synagogue expelled Spinoza, but that’s another story.) There need to be institutions of moral formation; call them schools, or shuls, or churches, or whatever. Liberal religion, even in its overtly ecclesial forms, rarely gets this point, and Dworkin is a case study of that failure.

Wiman is a well-regarded poet, a onetime editor of Poetry, a fabulously wealthy and influential poetry publication. Raised a hardscrabble Baptist of brittle convictions, he lost his faith only to “return”, haltingly and slowly, to a renewed Christian faith of a quite different sort in his thirties. The return to faith happened when he fell in love with the woman who became his wife; then, soon after, he was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that has stalked him ever since. “Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.” So what starts out as a spiritual memoir then swerves, as has his life, into a theological story of illness that gathers momentum until the trope becomes a landslide. My Bright Abyss is a love story composed of braided interrogations of poetry, faith, and affliction.

Wiman is less argumentative and theoretical than Dworkin, but more forthrightly theological and self-consciously particularist. He details how he discovered a coherent story of his life in a liturgically serious and doctrinally orthodox form of Christian faith—a wounded faith, to be sure, bleeding from its side, but still a recognizably Christian one. He has insightful things to say about the quotidian round of churchgoing, daily prayer, and meditation, the sorts of discrete practices and rituals Dworkin never mentions.

Furthermore, the interplay of questions about art and belief form a dimension of My Bright Abyss that bears at best oblique comparison with Dworkin’s discussions. Here Wiman is especially interesting on the “artlessness” of belief, the way in which belief must of necessity present itself to us as guileless to be accurate. Whereas for Dworkin the point is that aesthetics are present everywhere, for Wiman aesthetics must be kept within their proper sphere, lest they make everything a fit topic for art, and hence too much less than a matter of life and death. Wiman believes that art can focus our attention in good ways, but he knows it can also lure us away from reality, and this is no light matter for him: “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?”

For his world is burning. His affliction reveals his faith to be deep but troubled—non-defensive but still questioning, tentative not strident, earnestly seeking truth, always troubling its temptations toward resolution. For him now, words like “cure”, “faith”, and “God” are “both radiant with, and devoid of, meaning.” He is aware of the poetic temptations inherent in such semantic ambivalence. So it is not triumph but companionship he seeks:

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ . . . I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.

That may be right. Perhaps deep faith must remain troubled in this world. The real seriousness of the book does honor to the issues engaged. Its questions will last longer than any of us. A century hence, others will still ask them, and find a fellow questioner in this book.

But what can the rest of us find herein? The book is composed of fragments, as if a fragile, mirrored statue had fallen off an altar, and we see ourselves reflected in its shards. Wiman tries to build a mosaic out of his epigrammatic fragments, yet his suspicions hinder his aesthetics, so the book’s sententiae seem sometimes more a garage sale than curated museum show. This seems an intentional decision: He recognizes that “the temptation is to make an idol of our own experience”, and one suspects that the splintered prose is meant to snag the inevitable momentum of that process.

All its vibrant, sinuous energy makes My Bright Abyss an exhilaratingly difficult work to read. Out of professional habit I typically fillet a book: I track its arguments and outline its structure in order to summarize and analyze its points. This book resists being so filleted; it rather provokes you to talk back, stimulating a running commentary as you read. The very intimacy of the engagement perhaps disarms the critical intelligence. And yet one is grateful for the chance to follow his journey. At very end Wiman quotes Pascal—“If you are searching for God, then you have found him”—and he clearly is imitating Jacob by wrestling with God.

Anyone who pens a spiritual memoir writes under the overwhelming shadow of Augustine’s Confessions, yet the differences between Augustine and Wiman merit reflection. Wiman seems more Pascalian than Augustinian, more focused on current questions about his wounds than on the route he took to get to those questions, or those wounds. Augustine knew he had been saved; for the bishop, all is foreshadowing, giving birth to, what it will become on the eschatological morning. Wiman is more vexed, perplexed, by his suffering and his life. Augustine’s title suggests self-involvement and Wiman’s implies a vision fixed on something outside the self, yet both works move against those expectations. Augustine turns us to wonder at God and what God hath wrought; Wiman makes us wonder at himself, at the questions he asks and at the courage with which he asks them. But he asks little of the reader beyond that. I am not asking for an altar call, but perhaps some suggestion that a life lived with such intensity and self-awareness may have lessons for our own. Wiman’s prose stops before the foot of the imperative, however, unwilling to climb and address the crowds gathered on the plain.

Is that a failure? Perhaps. We live in a narcissistic and voyeuristic culture, in which we are taught to be more interested in ourselves, and those like us, than in what is not us. More admirably, we are profoundly aware of the diversity of ways of being human that exist in the world—more pluralized, as the sociologists would say—and hence more hesitant to presume that our experience is easily communicable to others, or theirs to us. This is an inheritance of liberal pluralism, and it is both blessing and curse. It makes us humble, but it can at times paralyze. If there is a flaw to My Bright Abyss, it would be this.

Wiman and Dworkin suggest two different visions, two different styles of thinking, about religion in our world, and the substantial accomplishments of both come with telling limitations. Dworkin’s work is remarkably ambitious and philosophically sophisticated, but lazily universalizing; it is limited by his own inability, perhaps derived from the generosity of his liberalism, to recognize the particularity of his own vision. Wiman’s work, as searching as it is, is too humbly particularist, nailed too firmly to the gloriously, tragically, stubbornly idiosyncratic nature of one concrete self in space and time—what Philip Larkin called “one man once, and that one dying.” Both accomplish much, but reveal at least as much in their failures. For as I said earlier, what is interestingly absent in both books is the second person: you. Dworkin speaks with an overconfident “we.” Wiman speaks in an overly humble “I.” But neither says “you.” These are not, that is, directly dialogical, invitational books. We are not spoken to here; we more basically overhear them. They show us much of value, much that is insightful, much that is true, about religion today. But neither recognizes the reader as a partner in a dialogue. Perhaps that is what you and I, dear reader, need next.

Charles Mathewes teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia.
  • Loader2000

    “the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty.” This reminds me of something Charles Darwin actually wrote in a latter to his wife later in life in which he concludes that, despite what appears to be the suffering of innocent lifeforms on this earth, the beauty and majesty and awe that so much of creation inspired in him, and which he thought, had no rational explanation in evolutionary biology, led him to conclude that he must be, in the end, a theist. One can argue that that feeling a beauty, majesty and awe which sometimes fills oneself is merely a mechanism to recognize truth. However, I don’t buy it. It has to wrong flavor to simply be a pattern recognition mechanism, and there are certainly empirical truths that I don’t find necessarily beautiful. In my opinion, it is something more.

  • Andrew Allison

    Speaking for myself, I suggest that the headline should read, “What does religion have to do with God”, and that the answer is: nothing. Given the ubiquity of religion, albeit of many different flavors, it appears to me that there’s something in the human psyche which encourages supernatural explanations for that which we can’t comprehend. The utterly irrational belief that God created the Earth and humankind being just one example.

    • Boritz

      In my experience “the answer is:”…..little. &nbspI say this because there are a whole lot of people who consider themselves religious and attend church, but for them it’s a social club and their mission in attending is not different than it is for the Rotary or Elks.

      “….it appears to me that there’s something in the human psyche which
      encourages supernatural explanations for that which we can’t comprehend.”

      In addition to “that which we can’t comprehend” add the categories of
      realities that are unpleasant or inconvenient or not what we wish they were or are bad for business or impedes my politics. Then again, maybe ‘can’t comprehend’ covers it.

      • Fred

        Consider this: Assume arguendo that everything in the universe has a natural cause. That still leaves one thing that cannot have a natural cause and that is nature itself. After all, a natural cause just is a cause arising from nature. Without a nature already existing, there can be no natural cause. But how can nature arise from a natural cause if nature itself must exist for there to be a natural cause in the first place? Ergo, nature itself must arise from a cause beyond itself, which is by definition a supernatural cause.

        • Andrew Allison

          There’s nothing supernatural about “I don’t know”, For example, while we know quite a lot about what happened after the “Big Bang”, nobody knows what caused it. It’s irrational to invent a supernatural explanation for something we don’t comprehend but doing so innate in homo sapiens, and Gods abound.

          • Robert Davidson

            Another interpretation of “Gods abound” is that most of humanity has some awareness of the divine which is real

          • Andrew Allison

            Well no, what Gods abound means is that humankind has innumerable opinions regarding, among other things, the divinity of rocks, plants, animals, etc., etc.

          • Robert Davidson

            I was offering an alternative interpretation, in which God is real and is perceived with various levels of fuzziness by the vast majority of people, and always has been.

        • david russell

          If everything has to have a cause, then God has to have a cause. If anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be nature. After all we KNOW nature exists.

          • sonneofmanisrael

            Moses asked for a name to say who sent him to the children of Israel. According to Exodus God said tell them I AM sent you. I Am is the cause.

          • david russell

            God doesn’t exist so whoever said “I am the cause” was delusional. Probably no one said it and Moses is the delusional one (or the liar). We’ll never know, as there’s no independent corroboration. If Moses were alive today, and reported his burning bush tale, no one would take him seriously. Indeed, he’d be lucky not to get locked up.

          • sonneofmanisrael

            Well there is no comfort in you. You dismiss my reference to Exodus. I am not locked up, yet. Glad you are not in charge.

          • david russell

            There’s plenty of comfort in me. You don’t know me. One doesn’t have to believe in god to provide comfort (just like one can believe in god and slaughter millions).
            “Being in charge” is a heavy and thankless burden. I’m glad I’m not in charge, too.

          • sonneofmanisrael

            Peace be unto your house.

          • david russell

            That’s a wonderful thought. Same back to you.

    • Fred

      Hardly irrational. Do the names Augustine, Aquinas, Origen, Scotus, Suarez, or Pascal mean anything to you? Scientism is ultimately no more rational than religion. After all, how does one empirically verify that only what is empirically verifiable is true?

      • Andrew Allison

        The point which I was trying to make is that religion is universal, and no particular one has a lock on dogma. The evidence, to which the great minds to which you refer were not privy, for the age of the Earth and evolution is overwhelming. The answer to your second question is: through the scientific method, i.e., verify a hypothesis by gathering reproducible data. I’m not suggesting that a scientist can’t be religious, simply that a scientist can’t take the Bible (or Koran, etc.) as, pardon the pun, gospel.

        • Nathan Zebrowski

          Look carefully at that second question again. Or else please be patient with me and explain how what you have said here addresses it.

          • Andrew Allison

            I did. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. We have, e.g. identified the single gene (determining finger length) which differentiates moles from bats, and the mitochondrial DNA which traces our lineage back 200,000 years. Ditto for the age of the Earth, estimates of which rely upon not just the fossil record (the age of which is established by, among other things, a purely physical process), and numerous other experimentally verified observations. To suggest that all this is an illusion is, with respect, irrational.

          • Nathan Zebrowski

            Sorry–you have missed the point. It’s not about evolution. It’s about scientism. Science is a great way to investigate a certain range of things. It’s tilted toward prediction and control in the way it established truth, and it’s a little blind to things that can’t be investigated that way. This issue with scientism is that it claims that science is the ONLY mode of truth. The “2nd question” was: how does one empirically or experimentally verify that only what is empirically or experimentally verifiable is true? One cannot simply assert a petitio to answer that. It’s a philosophical question about truth.

          • Andrew Allison

            Sorry, but I’m afraid that you did. I pointed out that the scientific method has, e.g., demolished Genesis. You brought up the altogether different point, with which I agree, that scientism is just another belief system (aka religion). WRT the second question, a philosophical discussion about the nature of truth is irrelevant in one about the scientific method, which, in addition to requiring empirical data to support a belief (hypothesis), invites refutation. The latter is it’s fundamental difference with belief systems, which regard a challenge as heresy. Simply put, science simply states that, based on the physical evidence, a given theory is the best currently available explanation for what it describes.

          • Robert Davidson

            Demolished Genesis? Well maybe if you’re a fundie.

          • Andrew Allison

            I take it that you believe that we’re all descended from Adam & Eve, and that the world is 6000 years old?

          • Robert Davidson

            There’s your problem – you take things rather strangely

        • sonneofmanisrael

          Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the books of the Gospel. No pun. The words of Christ are Spirit. To exercise those words is to do the way Christ taught. Rational behavior and thought are the result.

          • Andrew Allison

            Sorry, but logic and the evidence lead to the inescapable conclusion that religion is proof that Homo Sapiens is an oxymoron.

          • Andrew Allison

            At the risk of being repetitious, Christianity is but one of hundreds of religions. It seems a tad, dare I say, irrational to suggest that it is the source of rationality.

          • sonneofmanisrael

            You were talking about religion. I said that doing what Christ said is rational.

  • Anthony

    This review is for whom (what audience). Turgid review though I can agree with assessment that “we seem to have trouble conducting genuine conversations about religious beliefs” and think review references such by cited examples.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s impossible to have conversations about religious beliefs, witness Sunni vs. Shia, AGW, Single-payer health insurance, etc., etc.

  • Daniel Winings

    I find rather dismissive the assertion that Seneca, Spinoza, (let me add Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus among others) = Stalin’s gulags. It represents even less rigor and goodwill than if I were to say Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther, Augustine = Spanish Inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella.

    Indeed, you seem to be attempting to sidestep Godwin’s Law by invoking Stalin rather than Hitler. That is how the argument is usually made, denial of evil = Hitler.

    I would encourage you to take the ideas of stoicism and neo-stoicism with a little more graciousness. There remain ways to speak of humane, wise, or social behavior without reverting to God or evil.

    • Andrew Allison

      The fact that there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between thinking for oneself and totalitarianism has very little to do with the subject of the post. Might I suggest that religion is a belief system immune to self-evident facts (and that AGW is a perfect example).

      • LennyH4747

        Thanks for sharing your religion.

      • Robert Davidson

        Except that AGW is based solidly in facts and evidence – it’s climate change denial which is a much better example of what you’re wanting to illustrate

        • Andrew Allison

          Nope, the believers in AGW demonstrate by their insistence that any challenges are heresy, the it’s a religion, not science. The facts, i.e., the actual data, demonstrate that there’s been no change in extreme weather events during the past 100 years and, despite a one-third increase in atmospheric CO2, no change in smoothed average temperature since 1997. The purported explanations for the latter inconvenient truth are unproven hypothesis.

          • Robert Davidson

            I think I’ll stick with the peer-reviewed science, as I do with all sciences (along with most sane people)

  • FriendlyGoat

    I believe that Jesus found an obscure phrase in the Jewish sacred writings (in a place we now identify as Deut. 19:18 in the Bible.) This is “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. He sought to elevate this idea to one of two “most important” commandments within what Judaism says are 613 commandments. He went so far as to add that “all the law and teachings of the prophets depend on these two”, meaning 1) Love God, and 2) Love your neighbor (with the famous story of the Good Samaritan added in to define who is a neighbor). Full stop.

    The Jews of the time did not like Him much for presuming to simplify their theology with something so elegant and useful. The Muslims of today most certainly don’t accept such simplicity. Unfortunately, only “some” of the self-identified Christians even buy this idea——but more might come to such understanding if they read their Bible more and went to church less. (IMHO, anyway)

    • sonneofmanisrael

      Yea, yea.

    • pbasch

      I would simplify it further by getting rid of #1.

      • sonneofmanisrael

        Nay, nay.

      • memento_mori

        especially if the neighbor is hot….

      • Robert Davidson

        That would allow you to simply be the measure of all things – how convenient.

        • pbasch

          I don’t think that phrase, “measure of all things,” has any meaning. Nothing is the “measure of all things.” Things are their own measure. I am the measure of… me, more or less.
          Just because words can be put in a row does not mean that meaning results.

          • Robert Davidson

            Have you considered the possibility, when something seems to have no meaning, that you might need to work a bit harder at understanding it? You may find Google helpful.

          • pbasch

            Two things – first, according to he who originated the phrase, Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things.” (thanks for that helpful google tip). Like many philosophical statements, I find there’s not as much there as there seems at first. Sure, I’m not a philosopher, but it seems to boil down to “I think man is really, really important.” Okay, that’s a nice opinion. Next!
            second, as far as working harder, I’m with WC Fields: “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… then give up. No use being a damn fool about it.”
            Just because a phrase is inscrutable, doesn’t mean it’s chock full of meaning. It could be inscrutable and also not that interesting or revealing.

          • Robert Davidson

            May I suggest that if you find philosophy lacks meaning, it may not be philosophy’s fault?

          • pbasch

            Well, that’s fair. But… Then I AM the measure of all things, being “man”. So we’re back where we started.

          • Robert Davidson

            Well, again, how convenient.

          • pbasch

            Not sure what you mean, exactly, by “convenient.” In the usual sense, it means “suitable,” or “near at hand.” Your implication seems to be that I aspire to some kind of central importance in the Universe, and that such a position would be satisfying to me. But you brought up the “man is the measure of all things” quote, I didn’t. I don’t find it even interesting. Reading between your lines (always a risky occupation), you seem to have thought the quote should properly be “god is the measure of all things,” and that failing to include a god in one’s worldview places oneself at the center of all things, somehow, and that reveals a kind of egotism.
            Now, I am certainly not immune from the kind of petty human egoism one commonly finds (I think I’m reasonably kind, good, cute-looking, smart, etc.), but I certainly don’t think I, or even humankind, is the “measure of all things.” Like the word “god”, I believe that the quote is not particularly meaningful. There is no thing, I think, which is the “measure of all things,” nor is such an entity(ies) necessary for anything.
            I find the “cosmological principle” to be a pretty elegant description of the way things look, namely that “We do not occupy a preferred place in the Universe (Copernican belief) and further, that at a given time, the Universe appears homogeneous and isotropic to all observers.” I got that definition here: http://goo.gl/Qa7bgF. The phrase, “X is the measure of all things,” seems to imply a preferred point of view in the universe. I certainly don’t know if the Cosmological Principle is true or not, but I do know that theories of physic that are based on it tend to be confirmed over and over.

  • david russell

    From a cost/benefit analysis, religion loses. Let’s put it behind us…. religion and god both.

    • calhou

      ……….and then the State becomes God…….and government is its Church. I think we know how that will turn out………….

      • david russell

        I dunno.
        The state seems to become God pretty much anyway, don’t you think? You have godless communisim and you also have Islamic theocracies. I’m pretty much against both. Some men’s thirst for power and control and order seem the roots to this situation, not God — along with other men’s acquiescence to the same. Don’t you think that man is basically a tribal animal and that means “We (who are human) against them (who are not)?” Thus we have not only the issues of state over reach, but corporate over reach and even family over reach. This willingness to follow even a bad leader seems a human trait independent of religion. Indeed I’d say it exists within religion — the Pope, the mullahs.

  • Robert Landbeck

    ‘What’s God got to do with religion’. . . Nothing! Religion remains an all too human theological construct, founded, as recent discoveries attest upon an incomplete scriptural record. And even within that record are too many unresolved warnings of false teaching, fake interpreters, antichrists, even an ultimate arch deceiver, for the competing claims of existing tradition to be convincing. All that exists in history is a theological counterfeit. And a betrayal of the hope that so many sincere believers hold to. As it is written: all is chasing after wind! http://www.energon.org.uk

    • Robyn Hode

      That construct was a convenient and effective way to create an estate.

      • Robert Landbeck

        And with the first wholly new interpretation, for two thousand years, of the moral teachings of Christ published on the web, I think the ‘estate’ is about to go bankrupt and all come tumbling down?

  • lukelea

    I would be happy if secularist had a sympathetic appreciation of what, and why, their ancestors believed what they did and the positive role these played in our in our history — for instance in the origins of our ideas about political equality and the importance of social justice, the idea of liberty (Before Adam delved and Eve Span, Who was then the gentleman.) I think it was Matthew Arnold who wrote that those who know their history and do not know their Bible, do not know their history. Belief is no longer reuired, only understanding.

    • pbasch

      Then be happy! At least this “secularist” (how is that different from atheist?) understands that, for some better and some worse, the beliefs of people lead to their actions, and their actions lead to the world today. Oh, wait. That’s, if not a tautology, then trivial.

    • Jeffrey G. Johnson

      You’ve touched on a sore point here, and it relates to what I consider to be a dishonest revision of history by wishful thinkers wanting to place Christianity at the center of our political system. It isn’t true that Christianity had a key role in the origins of our notions of individual political and economic liberty. We owe far more to Classical Greek thought than to the Bible. I could not find a quote from Arnold that resembled your paraphrase, but he did say that “the free-thinking of one age is the common sense of the next”, and this I think is true in spite of Christianity’s best attempts to confound it in virtually every age of the Common Era.

      Before the Enlightenment could happen the Reformation had to happen, because prior to and during the Reformation religion brutally oppressed free thought and free expression. Weakening the grip of religion on intellectual life was the necessary step to enable the primary heresies of the Enlightenment, which were that individuals have the right to think for themselves and to live outside of church doctrine and church control, and that reason and empirical observation trumped revelation and ecclesiastical tradition in deciding moral questions and discerning truth.

      What was once called heresy could now be labeled “free-thinking”, and the fact that the freedom of thought we take so for granted today had to be named showed how novel it was for people to be able to step outside of the oppression of totalitarian church control without risking brutal persecution or death.

      This step was necessary to unleash the creativity of the many brilliant Enlightenment thinkers, but the most direct lines from the Enlightenment to the founding of the US and the Constitution probably run through Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu. While Hobbes and Montesquieu had no place for religion in their political thought, it is certainly true to say that Locke’s notions of individual liberty were influenced by Christianity. But it could hardly be otherwise. These men were born at a time when every thought of the origin of existence and life had long been dominated by church doctrine, and they still had no better alternatives. So for any thinker trying to establish that rights were inherent and independent of any temporal contingency, so that no mundane power could erase or alter them, even if you were a deist, there was no choice but to fall back on a divine creation as the primordial event establishing such rights.

      The important question to ask is: what aspect of Christianity is either necessary or sufficient to provide rational grounds for the political and economic reasoning that underlies our system of liberties and our political structure? The answer is none. It was the rediscovery of the Classics that triggered the escape from 14 centuries of intellectual stagnation carefully preserved by the conservative forces of rigid religious ideology. The ideas of Locke could as easily be grounded on the natural creation of life via evolution. The phrase “endowed by their Creator” in the Declaration of Independence are the one point of purchase religion has, and they try hard to read everything into those few words because, not coincidentally, God is entirely absent from the Constitution. But the man who penned those words was a Unitarian who did not accept the divinity of Christ. Instead Thomas Jefferson called Jesus a wise philosopher. And he was also probably a deist or influenced by deism, so the word “Creator” can refer to any creative entity, and there is no logically inherent connection to either the Bible or the Christian deity, merely an accidental historic one.

      I’m not saying Christianity has had zero positive role, just that it has not been a leading role, nor was it a necessary or sufficient role. Certainly there is much in the compassion taught by Jesus that contributes to social justice and a compelling interest in relieving the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, and the sick. This much is clear from reading the Bible. There have been important contributions by Christians to social movements, for example to free slaves, to achieve equality, and to provide charity. But that only goes so far, because at the same time religion has been a lynchpin of the staunchest conservative resistance to those same reforms. Christianity has only been able to play a positive role to the extent that some liberal minded Christians elevate the teachings of Jesus to a level of priority that completely trumps the slavery, vengeful cruelty, husbandry of women as chattel-like property, and other primitive thought that permeates the Old Testament. It was only a few decades ago that a major region of this country, one that considers itself to be the heart of American Christian faith, still used the Bible and their perception of God’s will to justify legally sanctioned racial hatred, violence, physical and psychological torture against an entire class of the US citizenry.

  • ziggourat

    I think the author of this farrago could benefit from reading Spinoza-Baruch not Yael.

  • Ted_Fontenot

    This is the worst piece of writing on the subject I’ve read in quite some time. And considering all the tripe that shows up on a continuing basis, that’s something.

  • bacondoyle

    I don’t see why this is a subject beyond our collective capacity to discuss, but beyond being an interesting way to pass a little time I also don’t see much to be gotten from the discussion. Faith will always trump reason and wouldn’t be worth having if it didn’t. One can lose one’s faith as a result of life experience, but if one has faith it can’t be reasoned or argued away. On the other hand, faith is a gift, either from God or from our genetic past and if one doesn’t have that gift (I don’t) it can’t be gotten from any discussion or explanation or experience that I know about. It isn’t exactly that the many with faith and the few without speak to one another in a different language, but we certainly seem to understand our common languages differently. In the mean time remember the adage – in the interest of polite social interaction, never discuss politics or religion.

  • Nathan Zebrowski

    Thanks for the careful essay on these books. Although I agree in a general way with your judgment on them, I also believe that you underestimate their ability to address us. When one reads the comments here, or the comments triggered in the NYT by any discussion of religion whatsoever, one can’t help but think that a careful reading of these books would have a salutary effect for many.

  • kyushuphil

    Dialogue?

    This author wants more partners from different fields in dialogue?

    Sorry, but corporate academe isn’t built that way. It’s built for the most imaginatively-challenged to retreat into narrowest departmentalism. It’s built for all to shear themselves of the wider literacy they might have, and so better please the mediocrities who cleverly played their careerisms.

    Yes, the world needs more partners in dialogue. Palestinian-Jew. Russian-speaking Ukrainian-pro-western Ukrainian. Sunni-Shia. Japanese-Chinese and Japanese-Korean.
    We could use the Fulbright to up the dialogue — to up the really human and more skillfully essaying. But the U.S. government is committed only to its corporate habits.

    So look forward only to more of the same, dead and deadly status quo.

    • LennyH4747

      Why can I not believe in Adam and Eve while also believing in the big bang? Who decides? American Interest or the pretty girl at Starbucks?

      • Peter Brawley

        Adam and Eve is a story about escape from a totalitarian dystopia, worthy of Kim Il-Sung. It’s internally incoherent, and inconsistent with all the biology we know.

        So why would you want to believe in it?

        • Robert Davidson

          You’re reading it all wrong. Looks like someone has some homework to get a beginner’s knowledge of the Western tradition (and the Eastern tradition for that matter).

          • Peter Brawley

            It’s been a western tradition to ignore the fact that the garden of eden, as described in holy books, was a totalitarian dystopia presided over by a cruel, jealous & vengeful god. You’d like us to continue that tradition?

          • Robert Davidson

            Clearly you have a lot of work ahead of you – start perhaps with Shakespeare and expand from there

          • Peter Brawley

            Do you have an argument, or just evasive rubbish like that?

          • Robert Davidson

            If you are only capable of a literalist reading of Genesis, clearly you know next-to-nothing of the whole canon of Western philosophy and literature. I was simply pointing that out – it’s hardly evasive, simply an observation.

          • Peter Brawley

            That’s not an argument, it’s ad hominem garbage.

          • Robert Davidson

            Think that if it comforts you. Why do you assume Genesis must be read literally, when it has been read in non-literal senses for thousands of years?

          • Peter Brawley

            More ad hominem rubbish. Is that all you have in response to a common criticism of a toxic religious teaching tale?

            Observing authoritarian toxicity in the adam&eve myth has nada to do with comfort, and depends in no way on literally believing the story—if you think otherwise, read some anthropology.

            So far you’ve not responded with reason or evidence to any argument or observation. Let’s try one more time.

            Many christians do indeed read the tale literally. Something like 40% of USAmericans think it’s more literally accurate than evolution. Most folks where I live read it literally. And most child victims of christian indoctrination are first taught the story at an age when their cognitive capacity permits only literal understanding. It takes years to undo such poison. Whether you take the tale metaphorically or imagine it’s literally true, we observe that the tale describes a totalitarian dystopia, masquerading as a utopia, a dystopia whose inhabitants were expelled by its furious god for pursuing proscribed knowledge.

            That toxic lesson has polluted the minds of too many children, its message of control & banishment buried under distracting kitsch interpretations. As psychologists understand, that method of indoctrination is hardest to resist.

            And of course many christians deploy it as an anti-science tool. And not accidentally, the tale also reflects frequent christian abuse of dissenters down through the christian ages where churches could exercise such power.

          • Robert Davidson

            You are very confused if you think that me pointing out that literalist readings betray little knowledge is at all ad hominem. I suggest you get educated before holding forth further.

          • Peter Brawley

            The confusion’s yours. The reading is no more literalist than simple anthropological description of any such folk tale. Anthropologists aren’t literalists. Neither am I.

            “I suggest you get educated before holding forth further” is more ad hominem rubbish—a cheat, and a waste of time.

          • Peter Brawley

            That’s not an argument. It’s ad hominem garbage.

      • Jeffrey G. Johnson

        Who decides the acceleration of gravity? Can you just decide what to believe it is? Of course you can decide to believe what you want. But the best decider of what to believe us what is true.

        Some beliefs, like believing you can fly are extremely dangerous if wrong. Believing that Genesis is literally true is less dangerous probably, but no less wrong. You can believe the moon is made of cream cheese if you don’t mind being wrong. What I try to do is be right, which greatly narrows the scope of things it is possible to believe are true. Nobody can always be right, but we can do work to learn methods that make us less often wrong.

        I have no doubts Adam and Eve can not be literally true. Of course it can contain allegorical meanings that are true statements about human nature, as can Moby Dick. That is squarely in the realm of fiction, a narrative told from the human imagination.

  • W C Harris

    “I am not asking for an altar call . . .” The author might reconsider this assertion. I suspect there is no hope of his ever enjoying a readerly satisfaction in such works absent an altar call.

  • Peter Brawley

    There’s a strong case to be made for religion without gods, but Matthewes has missed it.

    The US is indeed awash in religious speech. In this respect the US resembles Iran more than countries like Canada or Norway.

    A big problem with religious conversation in the US—and in Iran—is the high prevalence of authoritarian, fundamentalist, truly crazy, science-denying religious belief. When a third or more of a couintry’s population is captive to such pathology, denying such basics as evolution and the age of the universe, conversation about religion is going to be difficult. Pretending this isn’t so doesn’t help.

    Matthewes’s definition of religion, “essentially … the private encounter of the individual soul with God”, begs the first question nonbelievers need to raise if they’re to discuss religion with believers—why in the world would a rational, scientifically literate 21st century human believe in such a being? For coherent conversation, believers need to be willing to put such beliefs in brackets, at least for a while. Matthewes himself doesn’t even bother to try.

    And he doesn’t help discussion by reviving the hoary old lie that science too is a form of faith.

    He’s also mistaken about liberal society installing an “inviolable wall” round every individual. As most any lover or marriage partner or close friend can tell him, no such inviolability is required or imposed. Liberalism doesn’t isolate us; it frees us to connect with whomeve we wish.

    The tide against belief in gods isn’t just cultural. It’s scientific and rational. Science pretty much requires us to ask, if there really did exist gods of the kind that ibrahimic religionists believe in, how likely is it that the universe would look the way it does? The unavoidable answer is, not bloody likely.

    Liberals and religionists can agree that choices of religious belief and practice need to be free. If believers want serious, respectful attention from nonbelievers, they might begin by acknowledging that religious indoctrination of children is a form of child abuse, and needs to be curtailed.

    • memento_mori

      I always wandered why on earth, God , the incarnation of good and perfection would create such an imperfect human being having to fight its way through the food chain, eat all kind of atrocious food and other God created creatures , digest it and deject it all into a stinky pile of shit. Couldn’t HE have created some electric receptors all over our skin so we all can live by the sun energy instead?
      Also, no matter how you read the holly books, they are all concerned with sheep, cows, pigs and shepherds, never did I come a cross smth regarding to human beings going to the moon, flying etc. I am confused…

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this review, and I feel motivated to read the books and to reread this review because it contains much food for thought. Just as the author may be ignorant of advanced mathematics to the degree required to truly see in all its glory the beauty in an elegant proof or theorem, or in a surprising identity, I confess to ignorance of much that is discussed in this review. So there is much that I can learn from carefully rereading and pondering this piece.

    For now I will just pick one small inconsequential element to comment on because it strikes me annoyingly as an empty cliche that many who are concerned with deep metaphysical and spiritual insight frequently toss about in a rather careless and insulting manner. I’m referring to the passing reference in the third paragraph to a symmetry in the “smug knowingness” of the religious fundamentalist and the confidently secular materialist naturalist. The easily grasped symmetry is contained in the claim to know the answer to some very difficult to resolve questions.

    But there is an important asymmetry here as well which is too often ignored or lost in the zeal to dig into the deeper mysteries. The asymmetry is that for any sufficiently well defined “big question” such as “is there a God of a particular kind?” or “does human consciousness persist after the death of the body?”, one answer is completely wrong, and the opposing answer is entirely correct. And while I admit that there is no final absolute proof of any answer to these questions that I can conceive of in my finite mental capacity, if we define these questions using the terms in which they are commonly understood, with God as depicted in any human religious text, and with life after death described as human consciousness as we experience it in life persisting after bodily death, it isn’t really so difficult to compile an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that suggests a highly probable answer to these limited forms of the so-called “Big Questions”. So the smug knowingness of those who take pleasure in dismissing people using this apparent symmetry might be less smug if they took more careful notice of this corresponding logically necessary asymmetry.

    Of course I acknowledge the mystery in existence. I don’t mind thinking of “God” as simply a conceptual placeholder for that great known unknown, the source of existence. And just as easily as one can assert that humans require institutions of moral formation, one can assert that humans require narratives to fill the deep void of unknowable mystery that we face. There are two major kinds of narrative we use to fill that void. One is scientific, mathematical, and empirical. The other kind of narrative is deeply human, based on our longings and needs, our values, constructed by us as a repository of our longings and hopes. It also serves as cultural memory to guide our mundane decision making in hopes that we might reduce our folly. I’m talking about religion. Tragedy being what it is, an inescapable eventuality of endeavors designed by the fallible human mind, even our attempts to use religion as a tool to reduce human pain and suffering, from time to time, end up greatly and unnecessarily magnifying it. All the aspects of being human that science can not easily study, how we love, our values, the alleviation of suffering, our sense of awe and longing, which religions claim as proper to their domain, while central and primal to human life and human concern, are likely to be confined to contingent aspects of the human biological brain as evolved here on earth. The larger questions about the origins of the universe and the origins of life, while long claimed by theology, have only yielded to significant progress via the scientific method. We do not find, nor should we expect to find love, values, or tragedy in the exploding of a star (unless it is our sun), or in the collision of galaxies or the plunging of a galaxy into the vortex of a black hole. To project the human ego onto the larger universe, and to imagine it has its origins in some form possessing anthropomorphic qualities such as love or conscious intent, or other mysterious processes that are in some way mirrored in the human brain, thus being graspable by the human mind through mere introspection and analogy to earthbound human experience, seems like more folly.

  • AllanPaul

    Religion is one of the least interesting topics for me. I know that there is no God and that is the end of it. Whenever someone attempts to engage me on matters of religion, I just tell them that religion is a form of ignorance and to leave me alone.

    I wish to have no dialog with the religious, because I do not wish to have a dialog with the ignorant.

    But I am forced to have a dialog; a suspicious and hostile one.

    I do not care what religious people think or do, so long as they keep their religion out of the “public sphere”, which is a disingenuous code word for “government”. It is a sneaky term used by people who want to break down the wall between church and state, but do not want to say so explicitly.

    Unfortunately, too many religious people want to force their religion on me, so I have to care about it. I have to have a dialog.

    Too many believers want the laws of government to be based on their belief in what the laws of god are. For example, the opposition to gay marriage and abortion is mostly the consequence of people believing that god is opposed to such things.

    When it is that almost all believers accept that the god does not exist in a form that government can acknowledge, then I can have the relationship that I want to have with believers. None.

    • Robert Davidson

      You know do you? Well bully for you. Lovely to have such an open mind.

      • AllanPaul

        I do know that god does not exist in a form that it should play any role in law.

  • pbasch

    Reading this article, I am reminded of an article in The New Republic, called “The ‘Best Arguments for God’s Existence’ Are Actually Terrible.” I have been told by sophisticated orthodox Christians that I should really not judge their religion by the rather primitive, simplistic beliefs of (let’s admit it) most people. They bridle at Young Earth Creationism – oh, that’s not REAL theology. Don’t (they say) tar Christianity with those silly beliefs. If you argue against them, you are first, insulting the religion by identifying it with its silliest, basest members, and two, you’re wasting your time because there is a constellation of truly sophisticated theology – the really good arguments for Biblical truths.
    So, alright. But when you ask what to read about that, you get referred to incredibly long abstruse books full of private vocabulary – you basically have to become a doctor of divinity. There are, apparently, not theological popularizers, the way there are science popularizers. Sure, there’s CS Lewis, but his arguments, however beautifully written, are terrible. He seems like such a nice guy, but his arguments are flimsy.
    If I were interested in a basic knowledge of Einstein’s relativity, I wouldn’t need an advanced degree in Physics. There are shelves of books doing a great job (including books by Einstein) of giving a smart layperson a good understanding of the theory. Why is there no equivalent for theology? (I suspect it’s because when you remove the terms of art and neologisms, you’re left with ‘because I say so’… but I could be wrong!)
    I get the feeling that theology is similar to what Theory was in the 80s and 90s. Look up the Alan Sokal affair to see what I mean.

  • bruceamcallister

    Cosmic harmony is the construct of minds shaped by the c

  • bruceamcallister

    osmos. How else could it be, and, by the way, it leaves plenty of room for individual tragedy, the only kind known in the universe.