This bit of correspondence was a reaction — in conversation with some friends — to an interview in the New York Times with a religiously inclined philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. The title of the interview is “Is Atheism Irrational?”
What is my reaction to this interview?
Well, I must confess:
Personally I harbor an extreme — extreme — dislike for organized religion.
I am utterly allergic to it.
Even organ music gives me the shivers.
At the same time, I see organized religion’s utility (people need stories, the social contract is a fiction, and we require a whole host of fictions, and infinite variety of social contracts, to keep going as a community and as communities, stories to give us identities, individual and collective, we depend on the stories we tell to motivate virtually every action we take, and etc)
And at the same time I have friends who are priests, in some cases very prominent ones, and some of the conversations I most enjoyed in Rome were with Jesuits. Also I have friends who are extremely theistically religious.
Personally, my theology is this: I’m an agnostic in theory; and atheist in practice. I don’t think anybody has the slightest idea about these transcendent things. They surpass our understanding; they are beyond our ken.
And I doubt that anybody, any terrestrial mortal biped, can have any idea about these things.
The Good Professor (Alvin Plantinga) is certainly an artist, though, when it comes to casuistry.
As for what is beyond our ken, the Kantian distinction between phenomena — everything mediated by the senses — and noumena — ‘things in themselves’ always seemed to me a useful first approximation of the limits to our understanding, and also, if I remember correctly, his idea that our minds are so constructed that we project the conceptual apparatus that is designed to deal with the phenomenal world beyond that phenomenal world, which is the world we inhabit, looking for causes beyond the realm of causes and intentions beyond the realm of intentions, thus demonstrating the limits of our reason, or theory-constructing faculty.
We construct theories, castles in the air, and God – aka Yahweh, Allah – is a neat theory, a unifying theory, rather like the elusive one equation that would explain everything, time, space, the universe, us, mosquitoes, cats and dogs and ebola, the existence of the element iron, and why 2 + 2 = 4.
The idea of one subject creating everything has a certain aesthetic appeal. One guy, one universe, one project — problem solved!
Reminds me of a slogan Mussolini was fond of. Only he, in this case, played the role of God.
In any case, the Professor does evoke the fine-tuning argument — that is this universe is designed precisely so that life can exist, that any little error in the fine-tuning and no life would have been possible, and that hence, it is argued implicitly or explicitly, the whole shebang was put together — from the big bang, almost 14,000,000,000 years ago, and also, probably from before the big bang, through eons, with the creation of the elements in the stars, the creation of the earth, and so on, including plate tectonics probably (which it has recently been argued are a pre-condition for life, and plate tectonics depends on a certain vertical distribution of the elements in the crust, mantle and so on, and on), so that we could come into existence, a few million years ago, and so that the Good Professor can give an interview to the New York Times in December of the Year of Our Lord 2015.
Our understanding may be limited but our egos aren’t.
To account for fine-tuning there is the hypothesis of course of parallel universes, and I am sure other ideas will turn up or pop up. The fine-tuning argument it seems to me lies somewhere between ‘we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ and creationism and intelligent design.
It was all made for us, just for us.
It makes the universe cosy. Just like when the earth was, literally in the Aristotelian model, at the center of the universe; and therefore we were at the center of the universe.
As for the ‘problem of evil’ it seems to me that it is not a problem. Why, if there were such a thing, would the Creator of this infinitely large and old universe, and perhaps of an infinity of other universes and cosmic gizmos as well, be interested in why I break a leg or not, or whether the whole human race perishes or not, and why, to steal the analogy, should He, She, or It, be more interested in us, than in say a sparrow or a boa constrictor? Or, for that matter, a piece of quartz?
The solution to the problem of Evil, in Christian theology, is free will — we ourselves fucked it all up, in particular Eve fucked it up, and then God sent His only Son, in some versions Himself, in some versions an aspect of Himself, in some versions participating, in one way or another, in the Substance of Himself, in some versions existing eternally, in some cases with a beginning but no end, in some cases with a beginning, middle, and end, to sort it all out by suffering, dying, being born again, and ‘paying for our sins’.
This whole ridiculous bit of casuistical acrobatics has the logic of a pretzel.
It is also, deeply, profoundly, misogynous, a tool of priestcraft. And we all know the mischief priests get into.
To me the Fall-from-Grace-Original-Sin-Redemption Story looks like a Rube Goldberg machine devised by the Marquis de Sade. Capricious cruelty and onanistic masochism of the worst sort: God created us so we could love Him. To love him we needed freedom of choice. For no love can exist without choice. Then He punished us because we didn’t live up to His expectations.
The idea of original sin is by the way a marvellous device of psychological and political and sexual and sexist repression. Odious.
Not that I am saying humans are perfect, or that we are perfectible; on the contrary, I don’t think we ever were perfect (evolution does not suggest an original state of perfection. but of course the idea of original perfection is a metaphor or an allegory, okay, if it’s only a metaphor or an allegory, then why didn’t you openly say so?), and I don’t think that in any way we could be ‘perfect’, and frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea what ‘perfection’ is or what in human terms it would mean. No conflict? No ambition? No anxiety? No hate? No love? No indifference? No lust? No tenderness? Tenderness, if you think about it, requires fear and trembling for the object of your tenderness – you want to ‘protect’ him or her. Qualities are defined by contraries. Purity by impurity. You can’t have the good without the bad. Perfectibility is a non-starter, an illusion, a will-o’-the-wisp — and dangerous — utopian conceit. This impossible aim does serve to make people feel bad: we’re all guilty, we’re all imperfect. Quick, quick – I need a priest! And, in practical, political, terrestrial terms, the pursuit of utopia invariably ends in the creation of hell, hell-on-earth.
The idea of prelapsarian bliss and perfection, if one is to judge by Genesis, is undifferentiated pre-verbal assexual ignoramus idiocy, Adam and Eve wandering around, without desire (desire implies lack, implies imperfection), and unaware that they have no wardrobe. We were like the beasts of the field, without the fun and trouble (rabbits may not have a concept of original sin, but they have lots of sex, and usually they are terrified of being eaten)
By the way, God seems to have been afraid that in eating from the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve were in danger of becoming like gods, ie., they were setting themselves up to be rivals, to God (God, Yahweh in this context, seems to be to be talking as if addressing fellow gods, and of course Yahweh evolved, historically, out of a family of gods, though like a good Mafioso he quickly eliminated all rivals, including his possible erstwhile wife or companion, the interesting polymath Phoenician goddess Asherah).
A couple of theological queries here: why, if Adam and Eve didn’t have sex, or didn’t procreate before the fall, why, then were they two — man and woman. What is the purpose of man and woman if they are not going to have sex? And procreate? For company? Much better to give Adam a guy to drink beer with than a girl if they are not going to flirt.
Why, also, is Yahweh virtually the only divinity totally uninterested in sex (except when it comes to repressing it)? Why is Yahweh-God-Allah both infinite and a guy? In any case, though the redemption story is ridiculous — in my view — it is also profound and powerful; we all want to be loved, forgiven, known, accepted, we all feel, at one time or another, our own imperfection, our own guilt, our own shame, so our personal, interpersonal, interior and exterior, dramas are here writ large and projected onto the cosmic stage, which makes the myth powerful, cathartic, appealing, poisonously parasitic upon real human emotions, and extremely dangerous — an ultra powerful weapon in the hands of oh-too-human humans, priests, pastors, preachers, Taliban, ISIS recruiters, the Vatican, Evangelicals, you name it, any rascal will use it.
Theism is too powerful a weapon to put in the hands of mere mortals.
The Good Professor has a bit of fun with an apparent contradiction between ‘materialism’, the theory of evolution, and atheism, claiming that if thoughts and ideas only exist because they are useful in an evolutionary sense, then thoughts and ideas have no validity in themselves, nor merit, therefore the idea of atheism has no merit. Ergo, case closed. Briefly, if my own Marxist and post-Marxist studies are not too much out of date, ‘materialism’ is a fairly old-fashioned philosophy, and I am not even sure what it means (usually it is very reductive, all ‘upper’ functions and events are explained by ‘lower’ functions or events or entities, everything comes down to the quark or boson or higgs or whatever lower depth one can plumb, so Miley Cyrus cavorting with a pig is explained by quantum theory or by atoms bouncing around, this goes against the presently fashionable theory ’emergent qualities’ I believe); and his use of the theory of ‘evolution’ exploits, I believe, a very primitive, deterministic, and reductive version of that theory, and thus his argument is full of holes were one inclined to and have enough time and bad taste to poke at them.
The Good Professor makes the point that people believe because they believe, that there is a powerful ‘need’ to believe, and thus theism — implicitly monotheism, implicitly Christian monotheism, implicitly Christian monotheism as manifest in Catholic Theology — is eminently reasonable and logical. Lots of slippery slopes and quick slight-of-hand transitions here. Like going to the country fair in the old days. We are all ‘marks’ or sitting ducks for this sort of prestidigitation.
In truth people have believed in many things. We are storytellers; and our fictions are among our most formidable weapons (belief in the ‘nation’, which is an ‘imaginary community’, allows one to mobilize armies, raise taxes, conquer neighbors, etc, belief in the ‘corporation’, a legal fiction, allows one to raise billions, mobilize thousands, build railways, etc; monkeys don’t have fictions and thus don’t have nations and corporations or real armies of millions — just small gangs). [See the very interesting book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, Israeli historian, brilliantly enlightening.]
So we all believe something.
We all tell stories.
The monotheism of Yahweh, God, Allah is a local, parochial, relatively recent invention, say 3000 years to be generous, much more recent than the invention of agriculture (12,000 years ago circa?).
The need to believe can be met by a plethora of divine offerings, a buffet of belief, a changing fashion in ready-to-wear doctrines and divine personalities.
People have believed in wood spirits, ancestor spirits, tribal spirits, ghosts, nymphs, satyrs, the Great Mother Goddess, a plethora of gods and goddesses, Hera, Zeus, Asherah, Isis, Jupiter, Roman Emperors, Rudolf Valentino, Marilyn Monroe, Augustus Caesar, etc., etc., and people have believed in philosophic concepts (Buddhism does not imply a deity), or in moral principles and ancestral tradition (Confucius), or eclectic collections of nationally rooted beliefs (Shinto beliefs), etc., etc., etc.
Icons and totems multiply and proliferate.
Put blank slate people on a desert island and they’ll invent a mythology, a history, a national and personal and family myth. Without stories the universe is a barren and lonely place. Stories are our home. Stories give our lives a beginning, meaning, and end.
Stories confer power. Tolstoy asked in War and Peace why hundreds of thousands of men — and some women — traveled thousands of miles across Europe, in Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia to kill people they had never met and didn’t know. Because of a story; the story of the Revolution, of Napoleon, of France, the story of the Enlightenment, incarnated in Napoleon, battling Tsarist Obscurantism. Our armies and nations and laws and corporations are fictions which exist because we believe they exist.
So, if one wishes or needs to believe, ‘theism’ is just one of a multitude of possibilities.
And monotheism is one, local, variant of theism.
And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are local variants of monotheism. [Though they have spread like wildfire in certain periods.]
And each of those three has spawned a multitude of warring variants.
Atheism, usually, is just a prod at, and critique of, one version of spirituality — the monotheistic variety — Yahweh, God, Allah.
If you want to believe in the transcendent realm, then the sky is literally the limit (and not even it, there are earth spirits, telluric underground dwellers, the world spirit, abstract entities of various kinds, animism, inhabiting rocks and stones and caves, and of course celestial bodies, such as the sun and the moon or the constellations or various stars, etc.).
“God” is just one of an infinity of possibilities.
As for Yahweh-God-Allah — not only is He a very unsavory character (I am editorializing; I have always found, I remember this discovery from childhood, God a very unpleasant character, self-centered, capricious, violent, cruel, etc, not a gentleman) but in my very, very humble opinion, there is very little likelihood that He exists.
If anything did create the universe, or if anything underwrites it in all its moments of existence, then that creature — if the word ‘creature’ is applicable — would be so far beyond our understanding as to be, well, beyond our understanding and beyond our narratives and stories.
And as to that of which we have no understanding it is best to remain, as one philosopher remarked, silent.
There are people who do believe they understand — and know — what this Creator wants, when to flop down on your knees and pray, what words to recite, who to hate, who to love, how to cut your beard, what ringlets to wear or not, what sort of hat to wear, whether horse and buggy are more holy than an automobile with an internal combustion engine or electric motor, whether to use contraception or a condom or not, the importance of virginity and ‘modesty’, who to kill or rape and how and when…
They are called ISIS and Taliban, among other things.
If you want to know somebody, like, say Yahweh-God-Allah, know Him by the Company He Keeps.
Yes, religion is much too dangerous a weapon for human beings.