Thursday, December 11, 2014

Religion without God

Howard Wettstein's review of a new book by Ronald Dworkin is worth reading. Here's a taste:
In "Chapter 2: The Universe,"[3] Dworkin turns from the religious values that "fill the lives of ordinary people" to "the religious value of celestial beauty that intoxicated Einstein" (p. 47). He makes the point that evolution and the
grand universe it has created is itself a source of beauty. This thought is not available to a naturalist. Only those parts of the universe that produce pleasure in our sight can be, for him, beautiful. He finds the universe as a whole an incalculably vast accident of gas and energy. Religion finds it, on the contrary, a deep complex order shining with beauty . . . . Theists find it obvious why the universe is sublime: it was created to be sublime. (p. 48)
Dworkin's naturalist denies -- why need she deny this? -- the existence of "a complex order shining with beauty," and his theist seems strangely logically inept.
Dworkin seems to have missed the beauty of the idea of the universe as "an incalculably vast accident of gas and energy." The "incalculably vast" part is at least impressive, and the thought that everything we see, care about, and understand is part of this huge accident is mind-boggling. In the case of things we like the accident is happy as well as vast. If anything inclines me to religion it's that, not the Apollonian thought of "order shining with beauty." There is a kind of order in nature, of course. Enough for science to be possible. But there's enough chaos to keep things interesting too.    

32 comments:

  1. kantians aside don't see much of a role for the Sublime in the vast majority of religious peoples (organized/institutionalized and otherwise) I know of.
    -dmf

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    1. I don't know enough religious people to be able to say. The sublime is not a big part of what the loudest religious people say, but a) they might not represent the majority of religious people, and b) they could be regarded as so-called religious rather than genuinely religious. Distinguishing between the two (the so-called and the genuine) is something best done when no one is listening, of course.

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    2. either way seems like most of these "debates" between peoples' of different faith-commitments (religious and otherwise) are of the dead-end/spade-turned sort, maybe they serve to bond/organize the faithful on either side but I don't see a 3rd (logic or such) that they can both see/accept/employ as authoritative.

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    3. ps what would "genuine" mean in such matters other than not lying?

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    4. https://www.google.com/search?q=%22an+awesome+god%22&oq=%22an+awesome+god%22&gs_l=serp.3..0i7i30l10.13385.15434.0.15812.12.7.1.0.0.1.124.530.2j3.5.0.msedr...0...1c.1.60.serp..7.5.422.79MpFPfiH_0

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    5. Right, debates between people of different faith-commitments are likely to be dead-ends, which is why they're best conducted without anyone listening. But if you have some kind of faith you might want to think about what you should believe. And questions of genuineness might come into such thinking, being roughly equivalent to questions of goodness and consistency, as well as not lying. The non-genuine is phony, plastic, bullshit, etc.

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  2. A case could no doubt be made that "Awesome God" is an example of non-genuine religion.

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    1. hmm one would have to edit most hymn books...

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    2. Also waiting for most Western altarpieces to be revised – in light of forensic anthropology showing that Christ was not tall and light-skinned with a spindly face and hippie hair, but a short shout olive-coloured man with a grunge beard.

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  3. We're in "Grand Inquisitor" territory here, aren't we? The problem, I think, is that the concept of God has been personified in the everyday language known to all Christians, while church theologians have always recognised that presenting God a person is a deeply flawed form of expression. Talk of God as a "father", smiting people with his right hand, etc, is at best figurative language which is accepted in lieu of anything better. But if you lose sight of its figurative status then it's easy to end up simply believing in a kind of "super-wizard" - and that's a form of idolatry.

    So there is a kind of split between the way many (though not all) "grassroots" believers tend to conceive of God and the church's far more sophisticated "official" version. The church itself (in western Europe from the 13th C onwards) has facilitated this split by gradually allowing the dominance of a rational, or propositional, approach to religion and playing down its mystical elements. So the mess is largely one of the church's own making.

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    1. There's a problem concerning the relationship between ourselves or our lives and the words we use, I think. It's possible to read the Bible, sing the hymns, say the prayers, recite the creed, etc. and not really think very much about what it all means. Or, at least, to think about what it means in terms of what we are asked to do much more than in terms of theology or philosophy. Some grassroots believers presumably don't go in for metaphysics very much. This could be because they aren't the intellectual type, or because they sense that asking too many questions (or the wrong questions) might cause problems for their faith, or because they defer to others, e.g. priests, on such matters. Others do get into metaphysical questions, of course, and some of these people end up in (what we would call) idolatrous positions. These are not considered idolatrous by many protestants in the US, and these are some of the most evangelical people around. So the super-wizard kind of view spreads partly through intellectual error and partly through a deliberate campaign by those who take this view. I don't know enough about church history to say more than this about who is to blame. It seems to be a modern problem, but then what were the medieval witch-burners who pictured the dead rising from their graves thinking? Did they think of God as a super-wizard? I'm not sure whether it even makes sense to ask the question.

      To go back to my earlier thought briefly, I don't mean that asking what religious language means is a mistake, or bound to lead to atheism or agnosticism. But it is philosophy, which is hard, and a little philosophy can be a dangerous thing.

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    2. I'd certainly agree that religion (whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim), has some bridges to build in terms of its theology..

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  4. It's a matter of grammar isn't it?

    You say earlier in reply to dmf that, yes, one would have to edit most hymn books. I'm not sure that is right, or if it is then maybe I haven't read the hymn books you both have in mind. Isn't it more a question of knowing one's way about, i.e. knowing the grammar? And if so whether one is a sophisticated believer or a mere "grassroots" version isn't where the difference lies, precisely because it is possible for the intellectual believer (priest, pope, philosopher, etc.) to misunderstand the grammar of, say, God, in just the same way a grassroots believer does. Of course the intellectual might do more harm than the grassroots believer because he has an entire arsenal of metaphysical vocabulary he can theorise his misunderstanding into. A lot of philosophy can as well be a dangerous thing.

    Analogously an intellectual as well as a grassrotts believer may not ask questions or engage in too much talk about God not, as you say, out of fear for their faith but because they feel words do not do justice, i.e. that they would be bumping their heads against the limits of language, or that e.g. the Psalms or St Augustine or Bach or Father Zossima did a much better job of it.

    As for the part about what you call "Awesome God", there is truth to it, but there is also the use of "Awesome God" in the sense of "more than words can express" or "wonder" or "greater than can be conceived" which again is just a way of setting a limit to too much talk.

    Of course all of this would be so much easier if grassroots primitives would just submit and say they believed in the flying spaghetti monster their sophisticated and intellectually superior detractors know they do.

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    1. Agree. Let me tell you a story: my next-door neighbour, Alma, is a God-fearing 91-year-old woman who probably emigrated to England from the West Indies in the 1950s. She has raised her family here (they pop buy every now and then) and lived what must've been a pretty tough life. And her religion has been a central support in her life. I wouldn't dream of looking down upon her because of that. How dare I? (And whenever the likes of Dawkins belittle religion it is on behalf of splendid people like Alma that I feel indignant.)

      But now: what account of her God do you suppose she could give? I don't know, but I'd guess this: on the one hand she'd talk about him in a very personified way, yet if you were to say (eg) "So he's a sky-fairy" she'd object strongly: "no, that doesn't capture the important thing at all". But if you asked what the important thing was, she'd be at a loss - not because she didn't understand it, but because she lacked the intellectual training (and probably the intellectual ability) to even try to put such elusive things into words.

      I may be totally wrong about Alma, but I suspect I'm not. I'd be fascinated to see a more rigorous study into what "God" meant to grassroots believers.

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    2. She might, I imagine, say "God is love" and on being pressed on the question of what that meant fall silent, not understanding the question, or even not understanding how someone could ask such a question when she had just given as clear an answer as any she could give. Were I to say what her belief meant I would point to her life, not a set of propositions or her attitude towards them, or such rot.

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    3. Re: "what account of her God do you suppose she could give?" Is it not possible to imagine that to someone like Alma religion is not being able to give an account of God (whatever that means) but of living right, or loving one's neighbor... which is a bit harder to do. I'm reminded of the fact that W never talked about doing good or giving an account of it but e.g. said to Drury he should cherish the opportunity his job provided him to simply say goodnight to the people in his care.

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    4. Yes, absolutely, to both comments.

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    5. Or, at least, I'd hope so. But it might be that she'd feel pressured to come up with some kind of reasoning for the basic, decent attitude you described. And whatever she came up with would be awkward and a bit hopeless (as would be the case if I tried it too). But that would just be a sign that she'd been tempted into going beyond what she really knew. The pressure of expectation had screwed a silly theory out of her. And not a theory to which she genuinely held fast - but something she felt obliged to say. And now the Dawkins of the world would seize upon that faltering, inadequate response and sneer. They're so much better than she is.

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    6. There might also be people (not, I suspect, Alma) who had become hardened to the attacks of scepticism, and as a result delighted in the offence which their replies provoked. Indeed, over time that offence became a criterion of correctness so that the greater the offence the truer the statement which caused it.

      Imagine how a theology would develop under such circumstances. Actually, you don't have to imagine it at all.

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    7. I'd be fascinated to see a more rigorous study into what "God" meant to grassroots believers.

      You can say that again. And again and again.

      I have an autobiographical story that complements yours very nicely. The day after my mother died after a long illness, my sister phoned me, and after giving me the banal details she said: But none of that matters, she's now with Aunt X and Uncle Y and Uncle Z etc. etc. (She was the last but one of six siblings, who had been very close.) Then later when we probated the estate, there were some funny-sad developments to which my sister said: Too bad Mum'll never be able to see all this for herself!

      But why not – wasn't Mum supposed only recently to be in some kind of disembodied afterlife, such as is popularly associated with Christianity? Looking down on us as we spoke, in all likelihood?

      The irony is that my sister is probably the most unintellectual person I know. (By which I mean neither "unintelligent" nor "anti-intellectual".) And yet the standard criticism against philosophies of religion that see no problem with this kind of ostensible "contradiction" is that such philosophies are merely a kind of arch parlour game played by a tiny minority of desiccated academics – such as Wittgenstein and his followers. The "grassroots believer" by contrast is supposed firmly to believe in some kind of transcendent reality in which there either is an afterlife or not, like in empirical reality you are physically either alive or dead. Anything else is only a kind of cowardly flinching from the power of the thought of, as you put it, "the Dawkinses of this world".

      This at the latest immunised me for life against taking seriously the said Dawkinses, or even extending to them the benefit of doubt (or the principle of charity), which I'd sometimes still been inclined to do until then.

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    8. Yes, the Dawkinses don't seem to understand religion well at all.

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    9. That's a good story, Tommi. I suspect that one reason it's tough to get a clear view of religious concepts is that talking about it involves so many seemingly straightforward phrases which shouldn't be taken at face value. Yet, at the same time, there's no obvious literal interpretation of those phrases either.

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  5. Re-reading Kant at the moment and in the preface Guyer and Wood mention that Kant "thought that in regard to some insoluble metaphysical questions, indeed the most important of them, we can defend a kind of commonsense belief -- in God, freedom, and immortality -- because our moral outlook has an inescapable stake in them". I can imagine a student reading that at wondering whether Kant really was that stupid? Or was he just unfortunate in having never read Dawkins or Dennett´?

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    1. It's impossible to regard someone who's never read Dawkins or Dennett as "unfortunate". :P

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  6. When I talk about "Awesome God" and editing the hymn book I mean specifically the song "Awesome God." It celebrates "our God" (as opposed to...?) and says that he "ain't just puttin' on the Ritz." This is not (my idea of) serious or genuine religion.

    I don't (think I) look down on grassroots believers. My mother was one. But I don't want to romanticize them either. Some ordinary believers, at least where I live, are basically just the Republican Party at prayer. Some are the Democratic Party at prayer. There are all sorts of mixtures of politics, ethics, metaphysics, culture, ethnicity, and so on. When people shop around for a church (as for instance happens when a church-goer moves to a new town) getting the right mix of the right ingredients is part of what they look for. Some grassroots believers are Alma. Some are not. And some might be ambiguous.

    A little philosophy is a dangerous thing in the sense that bad philosophy is a dangerous thing. It is certainly possible to have a lot of bad philosophy. Arguably that's the norm among philosophers and philosophically-inclined intellectuals.

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  7. Sorry if you mistook what I'm saying for a criticism of what you're saying. Wasn't meant that way. I don't think you look down on grassroots believers at all. I was just trying to place what we're talking about here in the context of how these things are spoken of in general. And, as I had an inkling of, I did in fact not know what hymns you were talking about, or that there was a hymn called "Awesome God" which sounds terrible. I think what I was trying to get at is that the misunderstandings go both ways, but most often are spoken of as going one way in the sense that the "unsophisticated" don't know what the "sophisticated" are talking about whereas the latter know everything there is to know about the former.

    Agree with the final paragraph in full.

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    1. I wasn't sure whether you were criticizing what I said or not, so I wanted to clarify just in case. Misunderstandings certainly go both ways, I agree.

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  8. apologetics/taste aside not sure why there would be any qualifiers about
    true/real religious commitments/states other than not consciously making things up (ya know lying and all), the rest seems more like theology than philosophy to me.
    http://dailynous.com/2014/12/14/creativity-hierarchy-and-authenticity-in-professional-philosophy/

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    1. seems more like theology than philosophy to me.

      That seems fair enough.

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