The Varieties of Religious Experience

varieties

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910). James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”.

Varieties comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Soon after its publication, Varieties entered the Western canon of psychology and philosophy and has remained in print for over a century.

James later developed his philosophy of pragmatism. There are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. Religion is a man’s total reaction upon life.

James was most interested in direct religious experiences. Theology and the organizational aspects of religion were of secondary interest. He believed that religious experiences were simply human experiences: “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance.”

He believed that religious experiences can have “morbid origins” in brain pathology and can be irrational but nevertheless are largely positive. Unlike the bad ideas that people have under the influence of a high fever, after a religious experience, the ideas and insights usually remain and are often valued for the rest of the person’s life.

Under James’ pragmatism, the effectiveness of religious experiences proves their truth, whether they stem from religious practices or from drugs: “Nitrous oxide … stimulate[s] the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.”

James had relatively little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experiences. Further, despite James’ examples being almost exclusively drawn from Christianity, he did not mean to limit his ideas to any single religion. Religious experiences are something that people sometimes have under certain conditions. In James’ description, these conditions are likely to be psychological or pharmaceutical rather than cultural.

Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill.

James believed that the origins of a religion shed little light upon its value. There is a distinction between an existential judgment (a judgment on “constitution, origin, and history”) and a proposition of value (a judgment on “importance, meaning, or significance”).

For example, if the founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, had been a hereditary degenerate, the Quaker religion could yet be “a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.”

Furthermore, the potentially dubious psychological origins of religious beliefs apply just as well to non-religious beliefs:

Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. Science… has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view.

James criticized scientists for ignoring unseen aspects of the universe. Science studies some of reality, but not all of it:

Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the rationalistic system…. Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists … we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account of is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words … Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

James saw “healthy-mindedness” as America’s main contribution to religion. This is the religious experience of optimism and positive thinking which James sees running from the transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. At the extreme, the “healthy-minded” see sickness and evil as an illusion. James considered belief in the “mind cure” to be reasonable when compared to medicine as practiced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The “sick souls” (“morbid-mindedness” / the “twice-born”) are merely those who hit bottom before their religious experience; those whose redemption gives relief from the pains they suffered beforehand. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” deny the need for such preparatory pain or suffering. James believes that “morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience” and that while healthy-mindedness is a surprisingly effective “religious solution”,

healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

James sees the two types as being a mere matter of temperament: the healthy minded having a “constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering”; the morbid-minded being those prone to “religious melancholia”.

The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system.

For James, a saintly character is one where “spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy.” James states that saintliness includes:

1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction … of the existence of an Ideal Power.

2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.

3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.

4. A shifting of the emotional Centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.

For James, the practical consequences of saintliness are asceticism (pleasure in sacrifice), strength of soul (a “blissful equanimity” free from anxieties), purity (a withdrawal from the material world), and charity (tenderness to those most would naturally disdain).

James identified two main features to a mystical experience:

Ineffability —”No adequate report of its contents can be given in words. … its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. … mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”

Noetic quality —”Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

He also identified two subsidiary features that are often, but not always, found with mystical experiences:

Transiency —”Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.”

Passivity —”The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”


The only thing that religious experience, as we have studied it, unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.

Read Now: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (PDF)

Is Religion a Universal in Human Culture or an Academic Invention?

People give names to persons and things, and then suppose that if they know the names, they know that which the names refer to.

– Keiji Nishitani

diogenes-photo

Brett Colasacco | Aeon Ideas

If anything seems self-evident in human culture, it’s the widespread presence of religion. People do ‘religious’ stuff all the time; a commitment to gods, myths and rituals has been present in all societies. These practices and beliefs are diverse, to be sure, from Aztec human sacrifice to Christian baptism, but they appear to share a common essence. So what could compel the late Jonathan Zittell Smith, arguably the most influential scholar of religion of the past half-century, to declare in his book Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982) that ‘religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study’, and that it has ‘no independent existence apart from the academy’?

Smith wanted to dislodge the assumption that the phenomenon of religion needs no definition. He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison.

When Smith entered the field in the late 1960s, the academic study of religion was still quite young. In the United States, the discipline had been significantly shaped by the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, who, from 1957 until his death in 1986, taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School. There, Eliade trained a generation of scholars in the approach to religious studies that he had already developed in Europe.

What characterised religion, for Eliade, was ‘the sacred’ – the ultimate source of all reality. Simply put, the sacred was ‘the opposite of the profane’. Yet the sacred could ‘irrupt’ into profane existence in a number of predictable ways across archaic cultures and histories. Sky and earth deities were ubiquitous, for example; the Sun and Moon served as representations of rational power and cyclicality; certain stones were regarded as sacred; and water was seen as a source of potentiality and regeneration.

Eliade also developed the concepts of ‘sacred time’ and ‘sacred space’. According to Eliade, archaic man, or Homo religiosus, always told stories of what the gods did ‘in the beginning’. They consecrated time through repetitions of these cosmogonic myths, and dedicated sacred spaces according to their relationship to the ‘symbolism of the Centre’. This included the ‘sacred mountain’ or axis mundi – the archetypal point of intersection between the sacred and the profane – but also holy cities, palaces and temples. The exact myths, rituals and places were culturally and historically specific, of course, but Eliade saw them as examples of a universal pattern.

Smith was profoundly influenced by Eliade. As a graduate student, he set out to read nearly every work cited in the bibliographies of Eliade’s magnum opus, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958). Smith’s move to join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1968-69, he admitted, was motivated in part by a desire to work alongside his ‘master’. However, he soon began to set out his own intellectual agenda, which put him at odds with Eliade’s paradigm.

First, Smith challenged whether the Eliadean constructions of sacred time and sacred space were truly universal. He did not deny that these constructs mapped onto some archaic cultures quite well. But in his early essay ‘The Wobbling Pivot’ (1972), Smith noted that some cultures aspired to explode or escape from space and time, rather than revere or reify them. (Think of the various schools of Gnosticism that thrived during the first two centuries CE, which held that the material world was the work of a flawed, even malevolent spirit known as the demiurge, who was inferior to the true, hidden god.) Smith distinguished these ‘utopian’ patterns, which seek the sacred outside the prevailing natural and social order, from the ‘locative’ ones described by Eliade, which reinforce it – a move that undercut Eliade’s universalist vocabulary.

Second, Smith introduced a new self-awareness and humility to the study of religion. In the essayAdde Parvum Parvo Magnus Acervus Erit’ (1971) – the title a quotation from Ovid, meaning ‘add a little to a little and there will be a great heap’ – Smith showed how comparisons of ‘religious’ data are laced with political and ideological values. What Smith identified as ‘Right-wing’ approaches, such as Eliade’s, strive for organic wholeness and unity; intertwined with this longing, he said, is a commitment to traditional social structures and authority. ‘Left-wing’ approaches, on the other hand, incline toward analysis and critique, which upset the established order and make possible alternative visions of society. By situating Eliade’s approach to religion on the conservative end of the spectrum, Smith did not necessarily intend to disparage it. Instead, he sought to distinguish these approaches so as to prevent scholars from carelessly combining them.

Behind Smith’s work was the motivating thesis that no theory or method for studying religion can be purely objective. Rather, the classifying devices we apply to decide whether something is ‘religious’ or not always rely on pre-existing norms. The selective taxonomy of ‘religious’ data from across cultures, histories and societies, Smith argued, is therefore a result of the scholar’s ‘imaginative acts of comparison and generalisation’. Where once we had the self-evident, universal phenomenon of religion, all that is left is a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences.

A vast number of traditions have existed over time that one could conceivably categorise as religions. But in order to decide one way or the other, an observer first has to formulate a definition according to which some traditions can be included and others excluded. As Smith wrote in the introduction to Imagining Religion: ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterised in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion’. There might be evidence for various expressions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so forth. But these become ‘religions’ only through second-order, scholarly reflection. A scholar’s definition could even lead her to categorise some things as religions that are not conventionally thought of as such (Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance), while excluding others that are (certain strains of Buddhism).

Provocative and initially puzzling, Smith’s claim that religion ‘is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes’ is now widely accepted in the academy. Still, Smith reaffirmed his own critical appreciation for Eliade’s work in two of his last publications before his death in December 2017, and one of the final courses he taught at Chicago was a close reading of Patterns. Smith’s aim was never to exorcise Eliade from the field. His intention was instead to dispense with the temptations of self-evidence, to teach scholars of religion, whatever their preferred methods or political-ideological leanings, to be clear about the powers and limits of the decisions that they need to make. The student of religion, Smith said, must be self-conscious above all: ‘Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Brett Colasacco

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

What makes People distrust Science?

square-stationary-earth

A Map of the Square and Stationary Earth by Professor Orlando Ferguson, South Dakota, 1893. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Bastiaan T Rutjens | Aeon Ideas

Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science. How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population? Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, there is more to science skepticism than just political ideology.

The same research that has observed the effects of political ideology on attitudes towards climate change has also found that political ideology is not that predictive of skepticism about other controversial research topics. Work by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, observed no relation between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification. Lewandowsky also found no clear relation between political conservatism and vaccine skepticism.

So there is more that underlies science skepticism than just political conservatism. But what? It is important to systematically map which factors do and do not contribute to science skepticism and science (dis)trust in order to provide more precise explanations for why a growing number of individuals reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or believe that vaccines cause autism.

My colleagues and I recently published a set of studies that investigated science trust and science skepticism. One of the take-home messages of our research is that it is crucial not to lump various forms of science skepticism together. And although we were certainly not the first to look beyond political ideology, we did note two important lacunae in the literature. First, religiosity has so far been curiously under-researched as a precursor to science skepticism, perhaps because political ideology commanded so much attention. Second, current research lacks a systematic investigation into various forms of skepticism, alongside more general measures of trust in science. We attempted to correct both oversights.

People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). We identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.

So, we investigated the heterogeneity of science skepticism among samples of North American participants (a large-scale cross-national study of science skepticism in Europe and beyond will follow). We provided participants with statements about climate change (eg, ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change’), genetic modification (eg, ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology’), and vaccination (eg, ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. We also measured participants’ general faith in science, and included a task in which they could indicate how much federal money should be spent on science, compared with various other domains. We assessed the impact of political ideology, religiosity, moral concerns and science knowledge (measured with a science literacy test, consisting of true or false items such as ‘All radioactivity is made by humans’, and ‘The centre of the Earth is very hot’) on participants’ responses to these various measures.

Political ideology did not play a meaningful role when it came to most of our measures. The only form of science skepticism that was consistently more pronounced among the politically conservative respondents in our studies was, not surprisingly, climate-change skepticism. But what about the other forms of skepticism, or skepticism of science generally?

Skepticism about genetic modification was not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, though it did correlate with science knowledge: the worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology, but it was strongest among religious participants, with a particular relation to moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

Moving beyond domain-specific skepticism, what did we observe about a general trust in science, and the willingness to support science more broadly? The results were quite clear: trust in science was by far the lowest among the religious. In particular, religious orthodoxy was a strong negative predictor of faith in science and the orthodox participants were also the least positive about investing federal money in science. But notice here again political ideology did not contribute any meaningful variance over and beyond religiosity.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven. Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. The impact of scientific literacy on science skepticism, trust in science, and willingness to support science was minor, save for the case of genetic modification. Some people are reluctant to accept particular scientific findings, for various reasons. When the aim is to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that science skepticism comes in many forms.Aeon counter – do not remove

Bastiaan T Rutjens

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

The Problem of Atheism

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

Illustration by artist Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by mathematician Lillian Lieber


Excerpts from Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (Appendix)

Marxist Humanism

As is commonly known, Marxism looks on religion as a way for those unable to come to terms with the frustrations of life to find satisfaction at the ideal level by imagining a world beyond. In so doing, the argument goes, they nullify the self and transpose the essence of their humanity into the image of “God” in the other world. In this act of religious “self-alienation” both nature and humanity become nonessential, void, and without substance. Atheism consists in the negation of this nonessentiality. By denying God it affirms the essence of the human. This emancipation of the human in turn is of a single root with human freedom.

This variety of atheism is connected with Marx’s characterization of the essence of the human individual as worker: humanity is achieved by remaking the world through work. The process of self-creation by which one gradually makes oneself human through work is what constitutes history. Seen from such a perspective, atheism is unavoidable. For since the source of religious self-alienation lies in economic self-alienation (the condition of being deprived of one’s humanity economically), once the latter is overcome, the former will fall away as a matter of course. According to Marx, then, atheism is a humanism wrought through the negation of religion.

Now insofar as Marx’s atheistic humanism is a humanism that has become self-conscious dialectically – its affirmation rests on the negation of religion – it clearly strikes at the very heart of religion. In it we find a clear and pointed expression of the general indifference, if not outright antagonism, to religion in the modern mind. From its very beginning, modern humanism has combined the two facets of maintaining ties to religion and gradually breaking away from it. In a sense, the history of modern philosophy can be read as a struggle among approaches to humanism based on one or the other of these aspects. At present the debate over humanism – what it is that constitutes the essence of the human – has become completely polarized. The responses provided by the various religious traditions show no signs of being able to allay the situation. Questions such as freedom, history, and labor, in the sense in which Marx discusses them in relation to the essence of humanity, paint a picture of the modern individual that had until recently escaped the notice of religion. To come to grips with such questions, religion will have to open up a new horizon.

Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.

Or again, we might say that the issue of “the non-self nature of all dharmas” refers to “the nonessentiality of nature and humanity,” but this does not mean that we can reduce the claim to a self-alienating gesture of projecting the essence of our humanity on to “God.” It refers to the essential way that all things in the world are: depending on each other and existing only in interdependency. It is meant to point to the essential “non-essentiality” of all beings, and hence to a domain that no society can alter, however far it may progress. It is, in short, the very domain of religion that remains untouched by Marx’s critique. Marx argues emphatically that through work human beings conquer nature, change the world, and give the self its human face. But deep in the recesses behind the world of work lies a world whose depth and vastness are beyond our ken, a world in which everything arises only by depending on everything else, in which no single thing exists through the power of a “self” (or what is called “self-power”). This is the world of human beings who exist as “being-in-the-world.”

As for religion itself, whose maxim all along has been “all is suffering,” the idea that this has to do with “historical” suffering has not often come to the fore. (In this regard, Christianity represents an exception.) The idea of “karma” is supposed to relate concretely to the historicity of human existence, but even this viewpoint has not been forthcoming. The human activities of producing and using various things through “self-power,” of changing nature and society and creating a “human” self – in short, the emancipation of the human and the freedom of the human individual – would seem to be the most concrete “karma” of humanity and therefore profoundly connected with modern atheism. But none of these ideas has been forthcoming from the traditional religions. Even though for Christianity the fact that we must labor by the sweat of our brows is related to original sin, the germ of this idea has not, to my knowledge, been developed anywhere in modern theology.


Sartrean Existentialism

Modern atheism also appears in the form of existentialism. The same sharp and total opposition that separates existentialism and Marxism in general applies also to their respective forms of atheism. Unlike Marxism, which understands the human being as an essentially social being, existentialism thinks of the human being essentially as an individual; that is, it defines the human as a way of being in which each individual relates to itself. Marx’s critique of religion begins from the self-alienation of human beings in religion, redefines it as an economic self-alienation, and then deals with religion in terms of its social functions. In contrast, the existentialist Sartre, for example, understands the relationship between God and humanity as a problem of each individual’s relating to the essence of “self”-being itself. In other words, he begins from something like an ontological self-alienation implied in seeing human beings as creatures of God. For all the differences between the standpoints, they share the basic tenet that it is only by denying God that we can regain our own humanity. As is the case with Marx’s socialist individual, for Sartre’s existentialist individual humanism is viable only as an atheism – which is the force of Sartre’s referring to existentialism as a humanism.

According to Sartre, if God existed and had indeed created us, there would be basically no human freedom. If human existence derived from God and the essence of human existence consisted in this derivation, the individual’s every action and situation would be determined by this essential fact. In traditional terms, “essential being” precedes “actual being” and continually determines it. This means that the whole of actual human being is essentially contained within the “Providence” of God and is necessarily predetermined by God’s will. Such predestination amounts to a radical negation of human freedom. If we grant the existence of God we must admit God’s creation; and if we grant God’s creation, we must also allow for God’s predestination – in other words, we are forced to deny that there is any such thing as human freedom. If human freedom is to be affirmed, the existence of God must be denied.

Human “existence” (a temporal and “phenomenal” way of being) does not have behind it any essential being (a supratemporal and “noumenal” way of being) that would constitute its ground. There is nothing at all at the ground of existence. And it is from this ground of “nothing” where there is simply nothing at all that existence must continually determine itself. We must create ourselves anew ever and again out of nothing. Only in this way can one secure the being of a self – and exist. To be a human being is to humanize the self constantly, to create, indeed to have no choice other than to create, a “human being.” This self-being as continued self-creation out of nothing is what Sartre calls freedom. Insofar as one actually creates the self as human, actual existence precedes essence in the human being. In essence, the human individual is existence itself. This way of being human is “Existence,” and Existence can stand only on an atheism.

Of late we are beginning to see a turn in the standpoint of Heidegger, in that he no longer refers to his thought as an “existentialism.” Still, it seems important to point out what his thinking up until now has shared in common with the existentialism of Sartre. That human beings continually create themselves out of nothing is meant to supplant the Christian notion of God’s creatio ex nihilo. To this extent it is not the standpoint of “self-power” in the ordinary sense. Self-creation out of nothing is not brought about simply by the inner power of a being called human and hence is not a power contained within the framework of human being. This “being” is continually stepping beyond the framework of “being.” Nothingness means transcendence, but since this transcendence does not mean that there is some transcendent “other” apart from self-being, it implies a standpoint of “self-power,” not of “other-power.” In contrast to Christianity, it is a view in which nothingness becomes the ground of the subject and thereby becomes subjective nothing – a self-power based on nothing. Here the consciousness of freedom in the modern mind finds a powerful expression and amounts to what is, at least in the West, an entirely new standpoint. It seems doubtful that this standpoint can be confronted from within the traditional horizons that have defined Christianity so far. It is quite different with Buddhism.

From the perspective of Buddhism, Sartre’s notion of Existence, according to which one must create oneself continually in order to maintain oneself within nothing, remains a standpoint of attachment to the self – indeed, the most profound form of this attachment – and as such is caught in the self-contradiction this implies. It is not simply a question here of a standpoint of ordinary self-love in which the self is willfully attached to itself. It is rather a question of the self being compelled to be attached to itself willfully. To step out of the framework of being and into nothing is only to enter into a new framework of being once again. This self-contradiction constitutes a way of being in which the self is its own “prison,” which amounts to a form of karma. Self-creation, or freedom, may be self-aware, but only because, as Sartre himself says, we are “condemned to be free.” Such a freedom is not true freedom. Again, it may represent an exhaustive account of what we normally take freedom to be, but this only means that our usual idea of freedom is basically a kind of karma. Karma manifests itself in the way modern men and women ground themselves on an absolute affirmation of their freedom. As Sartre himself says, his standpoint of Existence is a radical carrying out of the cogito, ergo sum of Descartes, for the Cartesian ego shows us what the modern mode of being is.

That Sartre’s “Existence” retains a sense of attachment to the self implies, if we can get behind the idea, that the “nothingness” of which he speaks remains a nothingness to which the self is attached. It was remarked earlier that in existentialism nothingness became subjective nothingness, which means that, as in the case of Greek philosophy or Christianity, it is still bound to the human individual. Again looked at from behind, we find that human subjectivity is bound up inextricably with nothingness and that at the ground of human existence there is nothing, albeit a nothing of which there is still consciousness at the ground of the self. No matter how “pre-reflective” this consciousness is, it is not the point at which the being of the self is transformed existentially into absolute nothingness. Sartre’s nothingness is unable to make the being of the self (Existence) sufficiently “ek-static,” and to this extent it differs radically from Buddhist “emptiness.” The standpoint of emptiness appears when Sartrean Existence is overturned one more time. The question is whether Buddhism, in its traditional form, is equal to the confrontation with existentialism.

Sartre thinks that to be a human being is to “human-ize” the self continually and to create the self as human out of nothing. Pushing this idea to the extreme, and speaking from the standpoint of emptiness in Buddhism, it is a matter of continually assuming human form from a point where this form has been left behind and absolutely negated. It is, as it were, a matter of continued creative “accommodation,” a never-ending “return” to being a new “human.” Taken in the context of Buddhist thought as a whole, there is some question as to whether this idea of “accommodation” really carries such an actual and existential sense. Does it really, as Sartre’s idea of continual humanization does, have to do with our actual being at each moment?

When Sartre speaks of ceaseless self-creation out of nothing, he refers to an Existence that is temporal through and through. It does not admit of any separate realm of being, such as a supratemporal (or “eternal”) essence, but is simply based on “nothing.” But for Sartre Existence is self-created within a socio-historical situation, which demonstrates his profound appreciation of the social and historical dimensions of the human way of being. In the case of the standpoint of Buddhist emptiness, in which human being is understood as arising out of emptiness and existing in emptiness, we need to ask how far the actual Existence of the human being at each moment is included. How much of the Existence within the actual socio-historical situation, and completely temporalized in this actuality, is comprehended? To the extent that the comprehension is inadequate, the standpoint of Buddhism has become detached from our actuality, and that means that we have failed to take the standpoint of emptiness seriously enough and to make it existential. In this case, talk of “accommodation” is merely a kind of mythologizing.


Atheism in the World of Today

A crisis is taking place in the contemporary world in a variety of forms, cutting across the realms of culture, ethics, politics, and so forth. At the ground of these problems is that fact that the essence of being human has turned into a question mark for humanity itself. This means that a crisis has also struck in the field of religion, and that this crisis is the root of the problems that have arisen in other areas. We see evidence of this state of affairs in the fact that the most recent trends of thought in contemporary philosophy which are having a great influence – directly and indirectly – on culture, ethics, politics, and so on, are all based on a standpoint of atheism. This applies not only to Marxism and existentialism, especially as represented by Sartre, but also to logical positivism and numerous other currents of thought.

Involved in the problem of the essence of human being are the questions, “What is a human being?” and “By what values should one live?” These are questions that need to be thought through in terms of the totality of beings, the “myriad things” of which human beings are only one part. It is a question, too, of the place of human beings in the order of the totality of beings, and of how to accommodate to this position (that is, how to be truly human). For the order of being implies a ranking of values.

For example, even if “man” is said to be the lord of creation, this places him in a certain “locus” within the totality of things, and therefore refers to how one ought to live as a human being. In the Western tradition the locus of human being has been defined in relation to God. While we are said to have been created from nothing, our soul contains the imago dei. This divine image was shattered through original sin, to be restored only through the atonement of God’s Son, Jesus, and our faith in him as the Christ. Here the locus of human beings in the order of being and ranking of value takes a different form from the straightforward characterization of man as lord of creation, a form consisting of a complex interplay of negation and affirmation. This locus of human being is well expressed in Augustine’s saying: “Oh God, you have created us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Needless to say, the basic dynamism behind the forming of this locus came from Greek philosophy and Christianity.

Modern atheism, Marxism, and existentialism share in common the attempt to repudiate this traditional location of the human in order to restore human nature and freedom. The seriousness of this new humanism is that such a restoration is possible only through a denial of God. At the same time, the new humanism harbors a schism in its ranks between the standpoints of Marxism and existentialism. The axis of the existentialist standpoint is a subjectivity in which the self becomes truly itself, while Marxism, for all its talk of human beings as subjects of praxis, does not go beyond a view of the human being as an objective factor in the objective world of nature or society. Each of them comprehends human being from a locus different from the other.

In the Western tradition the objective world and subjective being – the natural and social orders on the one hand, the “soul” with its innate orientation to God on the other – were united within a single system. The two main currents in modern atheism correspond respectively to these two coordinates, the soul and the world, but there is little hope of their uniting given the current confrontation. There is no way for modern men and women simply to return to the old locus, and the new atheism offers only a locus split into two. Confusion reigns in today’s world at the most basic level concerning what human beings are and how they are to live.

Each of these two standpoints seeks to ground itself from start to finish in actual being. This is related to the denial of God, in that full engagement of the self in actual being requires a denial of having already been determined within the world-order established by God, as well as a denial of having been fitted out in advance with an orientation to God in one’s very soul. Both standpoints stress the importance of not becoming detached from the locus in which one “actually” is, of remaining firmly grounded in one’s actual socio-historical situation, or more fundamentally, in actual “time” and “space.” But do these standpoints really engage actual being to the full?

Earlier on I suggested that as long as Marxism and existentialism continue to hold to the standpoint of the “human,” they will never be able to give a full account of actual human being. These new forms of humanism try to restore human beings to actual being by eliminating from the world and the soul the element of divine “predetermination.” The result is that they leave a gaping void at the foundations, as is evidenced by the lack of a locus from which to address the problem of life and death. Since the human mode of being consists in life and death, we must pass beyond the human standpoint to face the problem of life and death squarely. But to overcome the human standpoint does not necessarily mean that one merely returns to the “predetermination” of God, nor that one simply extinguishes freedom or actual being. It is rather a matter of opening up the horizon in which the question can be engaged truly and to its outermost limits.

Earlier I also proposed consideration of the locus of Buddhist “emptiness” in this regard. In the locus of emptiness, beyond the human standpoint, a world of “dependent origination” is opened up in which everything is related to everything else. Seen in this light there is nothing in the world that arises from “self-power” and yet all “self-powered” workings arise from the world. Existence at each instant, Sartre’s self-creation as “human,” the humanization in which the self becomes human – all these can be said to arise ceaselessly as new accommodations from a locus of emptiness that absolutely negates the human standpoint. From the standpoint of emptiness, it is at least possible to see the actuality of human being in its socio-historical situation in such a way that one does not take leave of “actual” time and space. In the words of the Zen master Musō:

When acting apprehend the place of acting, when sitting apprehend the place of sitting, when lying apprehend the place of lying, when seeing and hearing apprehend the place of seeing and hearing, and when experiencing and knowing apprehend the place of experiencing and knowing.


Further Reading

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

The Kyoto School (SEP)

Seven Types of Atheism

But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. —But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)


seven-types-atheism


From the provocative author of Straw Dogs comes an incisive, surprising intervention in the political and scientific debate over religion and atheism. A meditation on the importance of atheism in the modern world – and its inadequacies and contradictions – by one of Britain’s leading philosophers.

When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions―secular or religious―are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thought.

For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often vaguely understood “science.” John Gray’s stimulating and enjoyable new book, Seven Types of Atheism, describes the complex, dynamic world of older atheisms, a tradition that is, he writes, in many ways intertwined with and as rich as religion itself.

Along a spectrum that ranges from the convictions of “God-haters” like the Marquis de Sade to the mysticism of Arthur Schopenhauer, from Bertrand Russell’s search for truth in mathematics to secular political religions like Jacobinism and Nazism, Gray explores the various ways great minds have attempted to understand the questions of salvation, purpose, progress, and evil. The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary light on what it is to be human.


“In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God—today one indicates how the belief that there is a God arose and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous.—When in former times one had refuted the ‘proofs of the existence of God’ put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak (1881)


See also: VICE Interviews John Gray about Seven Types of Atheism

The Dynamics of Faith

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith.

– Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (1957)

Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 – October 22, 1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.

Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence … If [a situation or concern] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim … it demands that all other concerns … be sacrificed.

Among the general public, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. In academic theology, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63) in which he developed his “method of correlation”, an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis.

Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. It is not a movement of a special section or a special function of man’s total being. They all are united in the act of faith. But faith is not the sum total of their impacts. It transcends every special impact as well as the totality of them and it has itself a decisive impact on each of them.

Two of Tillich’s works, The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), were read widely, including by people who would not normally read religious books. In The Courage to Be, he lists three basic anxieties: anxiety about our biological finitude, i.e. that arising from the knowledge that we will eventually die; anxiety about our moral finitude, linked to guilt; and anxiety about our existential finitude, a sense of aimlessness in life. Tillich related these to three different historical eras: the early centuries of the Christian era; the Reformation; and the 20th century. Tillich’s popular works have influenced psychology as well as theology, having had an influence on Rollo May, whose “The Courage to Create” was inspired by “The Courage to Be”.

[The God of theological theism] deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications.

Today, Tillich’s most observable legacy may well be that of a spiritually-oriented public intellectual and teacher with a broad and continuing range of influence. Tillich‘s chapel sermons (especially at Union) were enthusiastically received (Tillich was known as the only faculty member of his day at Union willing to attend the revivals of Billy Graham) Tillich’s students have commented on Tillich’s approachability as a lecturer and his need for interaction with his audience. When Tillich was University Professor at Harvard, he was chosen as keynote speaker from among an auspicious gathering of many who had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine during its first four decades. Tillich along with his student, psychologist Rollo May, was an early leader at the Esalen Institute. Contemporary New Age catchphrases describing God (spatially) as the “Ground of Being” and (temporally) as the “Eternal Now,” in tandem with the view that God is not an entity among entities but rather is “Being-Itself”—notions which Eckhart Tolle, for example, has invoked repeatedly throughout his career—were paradigmatically renovated by Tillich, although of course these ideas derive from Christian mystical sources as well as from ancient and medieval theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion.

The introductory philosophy course taught by the person Tillich considered to be his best student, John Edwin Smith, “probably turned more undergraduates to the study of philosophy at Yale than all the other philosophy courses put together. His courses in philosophy of religion and American philosophy defined those fields for many years. Perhaps most important of all, he has educated a younger generation in the importance of the public life in philosophy and in how to practice philosophy publicly.” In the 1980s and 1990s the Boston University Institute for Philosophy and Religion, a leading forum dedicated to the revival of the American public tradition of philosophy and religion, flourished under the leadership of Tillich’s student and expositor Leroy S. Rouner.

[Faith] transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious…the ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.

Martin Buber criticized Tillich’s “transtheistic position” as a reduction of God to the impersonal “necessary being” of Thomas Aquinas.

Tillich has been criticized from the Barthian wing of Protestantism for what is alleged to be correlation theory’s tendency to reduce God and his relationship to man to anthropocentric terms. Tillich counters that Barth’s approach to theology denies the “possibility of understanding God’s relation to man in any other way than heteronomously or extrinsically”. Defenders of Tillich claim that critics misunderstand the distinction Tillich makes between God’s essence as the unconditional (“das unbedingte”) “Ground of Being” which is unknowable, and how God reveals himself to mankind in existence. Tillich establishes the distinction in the first chapter of his Systematic Theology Volume One: “But though God in his abysmal nature [footnote: ‘Calvin: in his essence’ ] is in no way dependent on man, God in his self manifestation to man is dependent on the way man receives his manifestation.”

Faith as the state of being ultimately concerned implies love, namely, the desire and urge toward the reunion of the separated.

Some conservative strains of Evangelical Christianity believe Tillich’s thought is too unorthodox to qualify as Christianity at all, but rather as a form of pantheism or atheism. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states, “At best Tillich was a pantheist, but his thought borders on atheism.”

In such a state the God of both religious and theological language disappears. But something remains, namely, the seriousness of that doubt in which meaning within meaninglessness is affirmed. The source of this affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness, of certitude within doubt, is not the God of traditional theism but the “God above God,” the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name God.


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Why Our Declining Biblical Literacy Matters

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Songwriters such as Nick Cave (pictured) and the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have often drawn on the scriptures in their work.
Paul Bergen/EPA


Meredith Lake, University of Sydney

Biblical literacy is likely lower in Australia today than at any point since the convict era. General levels of familiarity with the Christian scriptures are difficult to plot precisely, but studies of Bible reading habits, and data on various forms of Christian socialisation, indicate a significant decline in Australians’ exposure to the Bible over the last half century.

A 1960 study found that nine in ten Australians had a Bible at home. It was rivalled only by a cookery book and a dictionary, and far outstripped works by Shakespeare. Sixty one per cent of Bible-owning Australians picked it up at least once a year. Thirty eight per cent had read it within the previous two weeks. (Mind you, it seems that apart from the most regular churchgoers, most people read the Bible in a cursory manner if at all.)


Read more: Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters


A 2002 survey found that 29% of Australian adults still read the Bible at least once a year, with 8% reading it frequently. In 2010, around 10% of Australian secondary students read the Bible weekly or more, and a further 15 to 20% browsed it occasionally.

Overall, though, since 1960 the proportion of annual Bible readers has dropped by half, and regular readers by three-quarters. In less than two generations, the proportion of Australians who never pick up a Bible for themselves has leapt to seven out of ten. The rising use of online Bibles and Bible apps may modify this picture, but 2013 data indicates that Australians read less of the Bible online than their counterparts in the UK or the US.

A working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful in a secular society.
shutterstock

In parallel with declining Bible reading, fewer Australians identify as Christian at the census. Similarly, the proportion of people attending church at least once a month has fallen from 36% in 1972 to 15% in 2014. So fewer Australians have been exposed to the public reading and preaching of the Bible, and to its inculcation through liturgy and hymnody.


Read more: Friday essay: who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute


Does it matter if Australians are becoming less familiar with the Christian scriptures? I would argue that, even aside from matters of faith, a working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful.

Firstly, the world is still an overwhelmingly religious place.

While Christianity has declined in its former European strongholds, and in related societies like New Zealand and Australia, it has spread widely in the global south. In 2018, it remains the most practised faith in the world. Effective global citizenship can only benefit from a working knowledge of its key text.

Shaping Our Culture

Secondly, biblical literacy is worthwhile because of the Bible’s dynamic role in creative culture.

Shakespeare’s plays contain many biblical references.
First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (and used for three subsequent issues). Published in 1623. Wikimedia Commons

The foundational role of the Bible in shaping English language and literature is well attested. Common phrases such as “the powers that be”, “from strength to strength”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “escaped by the skin of my teeth” all come from English translations of the Bible.

Classic texts from Shakespeare’s plays to T. S. Eliot’s poems to the speeches of Martin Luther King assume some knowledge of biblical stories, images and ideas.

Among Australian creatives, too, literary lights such as Patrick White, Elizabeth Jolley, Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas all make powerful use of biblical narratives and imagery. Songwriters from Nick Cave to the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have drawn on the scriptures in their lyrics.

Biblical stories and symbols have also inspired visual artists such as Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Boyd and Margaret Preston. Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, “Australian Jesus”, offers a subversive take on the gospels.

Each of these Australians has found the Bible an enlarging influence on the imagination. Audiences can easily miss key elements of their work without a degree of biblical literacy

Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, ‘Australian Jesus’, offers a subversive take on the gospels.
Paul Miller/AAP

A Colonial Legacy

Thirdly, the Bible is a substantial – and unresolved – part of Australia’s European cultural baggage.

It loomed especially large in the process of colonising Aboriginal land and forging settler societies. The legal fiction of terra nullius, for example, drew on a particular interpretation of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it”.

Most British colonists assumed that European agriculture was the proper means of fulfilling this divine command. Failing to recognise Indigenous forms of land use, they deemed the land “waste”, belonging to no one, and ripe for the taking.

At the same time, a minority of colonists drew on verses like Acts 17:26 – “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” – to affirm the common humanity of Aboriginal people, and to denounce settler greed and violence.

Crucially, as Indigenous Australians interpreted the Bible for themselves, they used it to demand just treatment and to assert their unique relationship to country. As the Mabo case made its way through the courts, for instance, plaintiff Dave Passi liked to quote from the Old Testament: “Do not move an everlasting boundary stone, set up by your ancestors” (Proverbs 22:28).

The ConversationIn all these ways, the Bible has been bound up with the Australian experience of colonialism. As such, a robust biblical literacy can aid understanding of the past and contribute to present day reconciliation.

Meredith Lake, Honorary Associate, Department of History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Religion is not Going Away and Science will not Destroy It

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At the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Photo by Guillen Perez/Flickr

Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas


In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To be sure, this failure is not unqualified. Many Western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent census data released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in western Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis, has seen a rise in unbelief. The percentage of atheists in the US now sits at an all-time high (if ‘high’ is the right word) of around 3 per cent. Yet, for all that, globally, the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth. But this isn’t the only failure of the secularisation thesis.

Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation – that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods. A social safety net might be correlated with scientific advances but only loosely, and again the case of the US is instructive. The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies. As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in The Future of Christianity (2011): ‘There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.’

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation. ‘There is only one-way traffic in Time,’ he declared. But as the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism adequately attests, Nehru was wrong. Moreover, the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism.

Turkey provides an even more revealing case. Like most pioneering nationalists, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a committed secularist. Atatürk believed that science was destined to displace religion. In order to make sure that Turkey was on the right side of history, he gave science, in particular evolutionary biology, a central place in the state education system of the fledgling Turkish republic. As a result, evolution came to be associated with Atatürk’s entire political programme, including secularism. Islamist parties in Turkey, seeking to counter the secularist ideals of the nation’s founders, have also attacked the teaching of evolution. For them, evolution is associated with secular materialism. This sentiment culminated in the decision this June to remove the teaching of evolution from the high-school classroom. Again, science has become a victim of guilt by association.

The US represents a different cultural context, where it might seem that the key issue is a conflict between literal readings of Genesis and key features of evolutionary history. But in fact, much of the creationist discourse centres on moral values. In the US case too, we see anti-evolutionism motivated at least in part by the assumption that evolutionary theory is a stalking horse for secular materialism and its attendant moral commitments. As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?

Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First, 19th-century progressivist conceptions of history, particularly associated with the French philosopher Auguste Comte, held to a theory of history in which societies pass through three stages – religious, metaphysical and scientific (or ‘positive’). Comte coined the term ‘sociology’ and he wanted to diminish the social influence of religion and replace it with a new science of society. Comte’s influence extended to the ‘young Turks’ and Atatürk.

The 19th century also witnessed the inception of the ‘conflict model’ of science and religion. This was the view that history can be understood in terms of a ‘conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought – the theological and the scientific’. This description comes from Andrew Dickson White’s influential A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), the title of which nicely encapsulates its author’s general theory. White’s work, as well as John William Draper’s earlier History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), firmly established the conflict thesis as the default way of thinking about the historical relations between science and religion. Both works were translated into multiple languages. Draper’s History went through more than 50 printings in the US alone, was translated into 20 languages and, notably, became a bestseller in the late Ottoman empire, where it informed Atatürk’s understanding that progress meant science superseding religion.

Today, people are less confident that history moves through a series of set stages toward a single destination. Nor, despite its popular persistence, do most historians of science support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

I Believe Because it is Absurd

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-1602), by Caravaggio, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany. Courtesy Wikipedia

Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas


Religious belief is often thought to evince a precarious kind of commitment, in which the degree of conviction is inversely proportional to correspondence with the facts. Exhibit A for this common characterisation of religious belief is the maxim of the third-century Christian writer Tertullian, who is credited with the saying ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ This paradoxical expression makes a routine appearance in philosophical evaluations of the rationality of religious belief, in contemporary polemics addressed to an imagined opposition between science and religion, and in virtually every reputable dictionary of quotations.

Scholars of early Christianity have long known that Tertullian never wrote those words. What he originally said and meant poses intriguing questions, but equally interesting is the story of how the invented expression came to be attributed to him in the first place, what its invention tells us about changing conceptions of ‘faith’, and why, in spite of attempts to correct the record, it stubbornly persists as an irradicable meme about the irrationality of religious commitment.

On the face of it, being committed to something because it is absurd is an unpromising foundation for a belief system. It should not come as a complete surprise, then, that Tertullian did not advocate this principle. He did, however, make this observation, with specific reference to the death and resurrection of Christ: ‘it is entirely credible, because it is unfitting … it is certain, because it is impossible’ (For Latinists out there: prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est … certum est, quia impossibile). This might seem to be within striking distance of the fideistic phrase commonly attributed to him. Puzzlingly, though, even this original formulation does not fit with Tertullian’s generally positive view of reason and rational justification. Elsewhere, he insists that Christians ‘should believe nothing but that nothing should be rashly believed’. For Tertullian, God is ‘author of Reason’, the natural order of the world is ‘ordained by reason’, and everything is to be ‘understood by reason’.

One likely explanation for this apparent incongruence is that, in his paradoxical juxtaposition of impossibility and certainty, Tertullian is drawing upon a principle set out in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Addressing himself to the credibility of highly improbable events, Aristotle observes: ‘We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true. And that they are more likely to be true because they are incredible.’ His point seems to be that the apparent incredibility of a reported claim can actually provide a reason for believing it, since a witness seeking to perpetuate a false story would most likely have come up with something that at least seemed plausible. If this connection is on the right track, Tertullian, who almost certainly knew Aristotle’s Rhetoric, is not advocating belief without justification, but suggesting that we sometimes have good reasons to believe the highly improbable.

This leaves us with the question of how Tertullian came to be attributed with authorship of the rather different expression: ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ For this, we need to look to two decisive moments in the early modern period.

In the middle of the 17th century, the physician and polymath Thomas Browne drew attention to Tertullian’s original remarks in his bestselling Religio Medici (1643), or The Religion of a Physician. Crucially, not only did Browne introduce numerous readers to this relatively unnoticed passage in Tertullian, but he lent it an entirely new interpretation, proposing as a general principle that the strength of one’s faith is inversely proportional to the probability of what is believed: ‘Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.’ Before long, numerous sources were quoting Tertullian, albeit disapprovingly, as having said: ‘I believe, because it is impossible’. The philosopher John Locke thus makes reference to this new version of the paradox in his classic An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), summing up the view of most of his contemporaries that this was a ‘very ill Rule for Men to chuse their Opinions, or Religion by’.

A key element of the background to this development was the rise of sectarian disputes in the wake of the Reformation. Protestants chastised Catholics for their overcredulous ‘implicit faith’ – the giving of assent to doctrines promulgated by the Church but without a full comprehension of what was being assented to. A prime case was the doctrine of transubstantiation – a theory, based on Aristotle’s philosophy, of how during the Mass the elements of bread and wine could become the body and blood of Christ. For many Protestants, this was an emblematic instance of believing something that was literally impossible. The maxim ‘I believe because it is impossible’ thus first gained currency because of its deployment in anti-Catholic polemic.

The second phase in the transformation of Tertullian’s original remarks came when the French philosopher Voltaire introduced the ‘absurdity’ condition. In the entry for ‘Faith’ in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), Voltaire concludes a characteristically entertaining account of the exploits of the notoriously promiscuous Pope Alexander VI by defining faith as ‘believing things because they are impossible’. The first appearance of the phrase ‘I believe because it is absurd’ comes subsequently in one of Voltaire’s 1767 publications, in which Voltaire attributes to the church father Augustine (rather than to Tertullian), the maxim: ‘I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.’

Thereafter, ‘I believe because it is absurd’ became the standard form of the credo, and it was increasingly applied indiscriminately to all religious belief. Lending the phrase greater authenticity was its circulation in Latin as credo quia absurdum – a reverse-engineered version of Voltaire’s je le crois parce que cela est absurd. The misattribution of the saying to Augustine serves as a helpful marker of Voltaire’s influence, and for many years Augustine was regarded as the author of the paradox. While attributions to Augustine are rare today, Voltaire’s subtle insinuation of ‘absurdity’ into the new ‘I believe’ version of the paradox has persisted.

Since Voltaire’s time, the maxim ‘I believe because it is absurd’ has continued to serve the purpose intended by its Enlightenment originator – a gesture towards the inherent irrationality of religious belief. Thus in 1928, Sigmund Freud cited the motto as evidence of the infantile nature of religion, which he characterised as always attempting to shield its beliefs from rational scrutiny. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer similarly maintained that the maxim typified a particular religious psychology that attended both the birth of religion and its regrettable contemporary manifestations: ‘The motto “I believe because it is absurd” exhibits its old force here and everywhere,’ he complained in 1951. Reference works, though generally less partisan, often convey similar sentiments. Typical is the offering in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (1996), where the entry on credo quia absurdum est reads: ‘Also known as Tertullian’s dictum or paradox. Literally (Latin), I believe because it is absurd: that is, the very impossibility of a proposition becomes (mostly in theology) a kind of motivation for belief in it.’

One of the more conspicuous sites for the contemporary deployment of the maxim has been unflattering comparisons of fanciful religious belief with the ‘facts’ of science. In his lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’ (1917), Max Weber invented for himself an even more extreme Latin variant of Tertullian’s saying (Credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est – ‘I believe nothing except that which is absurd’, which Weber attributes to Augustine) in order to illustrate what he thought was an intrinsic tension between science and religion. Contemporary science vs religion warriors such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have predictably followed suit, pointing to Tertullian as a personification of the irrationality of religious belief.

Much could be said about the differences and similarities between religious and scientific commitment, but it is worth observing, in brief, that the contemporary sciences afford conspicuous instances of justified belief in both the impossible (quantum mechanics) and the staggeringly improbable (Big Bang cosmology). This brings us back to the original context of Tertullian’s remarks, which were not about belief motivated by the absurdity of its object, but whether is it ever warranted to believe in things we consider to be impossible or extremely improbable. Clearly, that remains a live question.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Commentary

This reminds me of Kierkegaard. I wonder why he wasn’t mentioned:

Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.


When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he related himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.


When subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, then truth, objectively defined, is a paradox; and that truth is objectively a paradox shows precisely that subjectivity is truth, since the objectivity does indeed thrust away, and the objectivity’s repulsion, or the expression for the objectivity’s repulsion, is the resilience and dynamometer of inwardness. The paradox is the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness that is truth. So much for the Socratic. The eternal, essential truth, that is, the truth that is related essentially to the existing person by pertaining essentially to what it means to exist (viewed Socratically, all other knowledge is accidental, its degree and scope indifferent), is a paradox. Nevertheless the eternal, essential truth is itself not at all a paradox, but it is a paradox by being related to an existing person… The Socratic inwardness in existing is an analogue to faith, except that the inwardness of faith, corresponding not to the repulsion exerted by ignorance but to the repulsion exerted by the absurd, is infinitely deeper.

–  Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846)

The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories

15-Part Lecture series by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

The Bible is a series of books written, edited and assembled over thousands of years. It contains the most influential stories of mankind. Knowledge of those stories is essential to a deep understanding of Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health (as human beings are cultural animals) and societal stability. These stories are neither history, as we commonly conceive it, nor empirical science. Instead, they are investigations into the structure of Being itself and calls to action within that Being. They have deep psychological significance. This lecture series, starting with the very first book, will constitute an analysis of that significance.

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