an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘faith

the strange concept of faith and the basic concept of morality

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when did Jesus become so Western European?

The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory.

Sam Harris, The end of faith

Canto: Writing about religion and atheism, belief and unbelief, appears to have become unfashionable recently, after a spate of atheist tomes in the early-mid 2000s, which certainly had an impact. Christianity continues to decline, and we try to ignore the other religions as best we can. But with the current kerfuffle about Amy Coney Barrett, a woman described as being ‘of deep faith’ possibly being raised to the US Supreme Court, it seems to me that religion still has the power to shape the law in some countries that we would hope should know better.

Jacinta: Yes, we’ve long expressed the view that this term ‘faith’ has a strange cachet about it that doesn’t really stand up well to scrutiny – to put it mildly. Just considering the judeo-christian version, the claims, as Sam Harris wrote, are extravagant indeed. That the world – rarely very clearly defined  – was made by a single god, of whose essence and world-creating abilities we can have no understanding. We can only speculate, haplessly and hopelessly, as to why he created this world (he isn’t really male but we have to use some pronoun after all), and what his purpose is for us, though there are supposedly clues in a collection of writings over many centuries, which are said to have been inspired by him. Apparently, though, we are his special creation, ordered to go forth, multiply and subdue the earth and all that crawls upon it, presumably for our needs and purposes (Genesis 1:28). This set of beliefs, and of course there are many more, though they may vary between individuals, doesn’t fit well with what we know about the formation of this planet, its relation to the universe, and the story of human evolution, so thoroughly verified by genetics, which we learned about as a result of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection from random variation. 

Canto: Yes, the story of this creator-god and the creation story supposedly written by the god’s human agents some 2,600 years ago or so, is in no way compatible with what we’ve learned about the 3 billion-plus years of life on this planet and the few hundred thousand years of existence of our Homo sapiens ancestors. And yet belief in the existence of this creator-god still persists in the minds of otherwise highly intelligent people, including many of our primary makers and interpreters of law.

Jacinta: Especially in the USA – exceptional, as we’ve often complained, only in its religiosity and its jingoism. Which brings us back to Amy Coney Barrett, who is a ‘devout Catholic’. I think the word ‘devout’, like ‘faith’ and ‘sacred’, deserves scrutiny. An article in The Nation about her carries this sub-heading: ‘Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.’ This raises my ire. I know nothing of this fringe right-wing sect but I know plenty about Catholicism. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church is, in its hierarchy, the most profoundly patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic organisation in the ‘western world’ – the world outside Islam and Hinduism. 

Canto: Well this fringe sect might be even worse, but granted the Catholic church has far greater reach. And Barrett will be the fifth Catholic on the court if promoted. Catholics represent about 22% of the US population. Interestingly, according to recent Pew Research, some 65% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, down from 77% only ten years ago, so we’re seeing big changes in our lifetime, though the political and judicial powers are at least a generation behind the trend. 

Jacinta: So let’s talk about faith and its untouchable nature. In some respects it’s like loyalty, as in keeping faith with the church, or our ancestors. The first type of religion was undoubtedly a form of animism – the wind, the sun, the rain, the ocean, these were moving, changeable elements which moved in mysterious ways, sometimes destructively, sometimes beneficially for humans. In our need to control our world we decided we needed to be on the side of these forces, to be loyal to them, bestowing gifts, sacrifices, bowing down. And when the sun shone mildly upon us, when the rain nourished our crops, it was because we were keeping faith with these godlike forces. But perhaps other less visible forces were operating, spreading sicknesses, killing our newborns – and so we created more abstract deities or forces, perhaps associated with places of danger or disease – the forest, the mountains, perhaps a particular lake or swamp. 

Canto: Yes, you’re talking about a pre-scientific era. Gods or supernatural entities – sprites or goblins – a thousand different terms used in a thousand different languages – these were explanations for unforeseen and unexpected events. And so you had to keep in with them, keep faith with them, through obeisance, sacrifices and the like. 

Jacinta: Gods and spirits as explanations – bad explanations. I believe that was what David Deutsch was on about in The beginning of infinity. I also like the idea of gods as memes. For example, I was sent to Sunday School at about 7 or 8 where I learned about the judeo-christian god from a guy in a Salvation Army uniform. He stood out the front and passed this story, this version of a god – a meme, essentially – to me and others. I was hearing it for the first time, and of course it passed, like any other meme, though my ‘interpretive apparatus’, my 7-year-old brain, and that’s how religion spreads, it seems to me. A universal message of sorts, individually interpreted, like many memes. But when this meme of a single god who made the world specially for us, etc etc, starts to fall apart as an explanation of anything – and this has been happening since the spread of far better explanations from at least the 17th century’s scientific enlightenment – the importance of faith has been emphasised to keep it all together. I think you’ll find that ‘faith’ was a very rare term in the millenium or so of medieval Christendom. It wasn’t faith, then, it was just the truth. Faith is like an enfeebled offspring of that truth. 

Canto: And what about ‘deep faith’, is that just more enfeebled? 

Jacinta: Stubbornly enfeebled perhaps. Actually, it’s probably more recent than the 17th or 18th centuries – it’s more of a 20th century concept, and it has gathered around it a kind of sacred aura, almost as a bulwark against the scientific age – which of course is ‘spiritually empty’. 

Canto: Thank god. But I think that even believers are cognisant that ‘faith’ has a dodginess about it. I recall years ago John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, expressing uneasiness with the word, and suggesting maybe ‘hope’ should be substituted. I suspect he regretted saying that – it surely weakens the religious position quite a bit. Then again, it seems more honest. 

Jacinta: Yes, and somehow more human. Many of us have hoped that this earthly existence isn’t all there is – this brief candle. And some, like the late George Harrison, have been entirely matter-of-fact about death being part of the eternal journey, though whether this was bravado or not we’ll never know.

Canto: We can also put our faith in the multiverse – an infinite series of universes in which we live longer, have better sex, make far more money…

Jacinta: Or die of an excruciatingly painful wasting disease… I’m not convinced by that one, whatever the maths says. Though it certainly is fascinating where current problems in physical theory can lead us. But to return to faith – it is what religion is about. The faith, or hope, that human life is special, that we are being looked after, watched over, judged. Gods are, I believe, integral to religion. It could be one, or many. They could be omnipotent, or fallible. They could be benevolent, or vindictive. But they must be interested, even obsessed, by us. That’s why I don’t think ancient philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism are religions, however ‘spiritual’ their teachings seem to be. Religions are unthinkable without gods. 

Canto: Yes, and religion doesn’t deal with the moral sphere, as Stephen Jay Gould used to think. Or rather, it might be moral, but it’s really about the morality of the god, or gods, and trying to second-guess it. Why have we been punished by bad weather? Because the god disapproves of something we’ve done. We need to change our behaviour as well as heaping praise upon the god for telling us about our wrong-doing and trying to correct us. So we obsess over the gods’ obsession with us, and round and round it goes, never getting to an answer about these inscrutable beings. Meanwhile real morality is about how we can thrive as the most socially complex, socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and we’ve been engaging in that quest and that process since our beginnings. Trying to shed these imaginary gods and our notion of our specialness in their eyes is an important part of the process, I think. Science has discovered, really quite recently, our relatedness to every other species on the planet – and even more recently, how our behaviour is threatening so many of those species, as well as the less lucky members of our own species. That’s where we should be focussing our moral lens.  

Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2020 at 9:15 pm

why is the after-life so appealing?

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You could say that the question this post poses is both rhetorical and not. Why wouldn’t living forever, whether through cycles of reincarnation, or as a disembodied ‘ancestor spirit’, or in heaven, jannah, elysium or wherever, be appealing? And what could possibly be appealing about the finality of death?

But it’s worth exploring this question more deeply, as I believe it’s a major key to understanding many aspects of religion and ‘spirituality’. I’ve written about this subject before in the context of children and the origins of religious and magical thinking, but this time I want to focus on the afterlife in more detail.

I like to focus on childhood because it’s fertile ground for thinking beyond the bounds and the limits of our mortality and our physical constraints. Shapeshifting, super-powers, magic, and the absolutes of good and evil, they come very easily to young children, and immortality is just another element of that thinking. I want to emphasise this because I object to claims made by some atheists that a lot of this thinking, about magic and absolutes and immortality, is irrational. I don’t think that’s a useful term in this instance.

I’ve given the example, which I’ll repeat here, of kids playing life-and-death games like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, goodies and baddies. When a kid’s shot dead, he accepts it reluctantly, lies down for a few seconds, then declares he’s ‘alive again’, and this encapsulates time-honoured attitudes towards mortality.

Because death is literally unimaginable, and kids, with their vivid and unrestrained imaginations, don’t need much time to work that one out. What’s more, even playing dead is boring. Not moving, holding your breath, trying to get your brain to shut down its thinking and imagining, it’s all hard and unnatural work.

On the other hand thinking about the afterlife can bear rich fruit. To give just one of hundreds of literary examples, Dante’s Divine Comedy divides the afterlife, from which no-one can escape, into 3 realms, hell, purgatory and heaven, with each realm being divided into nine, or actually 10. Nine descending circles of the inferno, with Lucifer lurking at the bottom as number 10, nine rings around Mount Purgatory, with the garden of Eden at its summit representing number 10, and nine celestial bodies of heaven, with the tenth at the top, representing the Empyrean, filled with the essence of god. And their are various other divinely numerical schemes operating throughout the work. Another very interesting depiction of the afterlife occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier, Er, brought from the battlefield as a corpse, reveals himself after a number of days not to be dead but unconscious, and on recovering consciousness tells a richly detailed tale of the afterlife, which he’s been privileged to witness, and also to recall, as he was excused from the requirement of drinking from the river Lethe’s ‘waters of forgetfulness’.

The two points to be drawn from these afterlife descriptions is, first, that they offer great scope for the imagination, but second, they’re constrained by the particular time and space of their own culture, not unlike current descriptions of UFOs and alien abductions. So the Divine Comedy is a large-canvas imaginative rendering of Christian revelation and eschatology as experienced, at least by one atypical individual, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy, while Er’s tale reveals much of how Greeks living not far away but nearly 2000 years earlier might have imagined the life to come.

Interestingly, while there are many cultural peculiarities to these descriptions, they have one key feature in common – the afterlife constitutes a punishment or reward for the life lived on earth. It’s a theme repeated in many religions, as well as in beliefs in reincarnation which aren’t strictly religious. There are those who manage to believe that, even though there’s no deity pulling the strings, we get reincarnated into something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ depending on how we behaved in the life just completed. How this happens, without some conscious being making judicial decisions, is not a question that seems to bother their brains. But what interests me more is that this kind of thinking goes back a long long way. It appears to have a very powerful appeal, one that, as I’ve said, is way too prevalent to be dismissed as irrational.

So I want to explore not only why the afterlife is so appealing, but why a particular kind of afterlife, based on perfect justice, is so appealing. I prefer ‘perfect justice’ to ‘divine justice’, as it takes away the religious trappings while preserving the most important ideal of many religions – the ideal hope that nobody will evade proper justice in the end.

Again I turn to early childhood, a period when rationality and logic mean little, to look for clues to this appeal. I suspect that one of the great events of childhood, or it might be a series of events, is the experience that your parents or your guardians are not the all-protecting beings that you’d more or less unconsciously assumed them to be. I think this experience is made much of in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory, and I associate it with the name of Jacques Lacan, but I have a very limited acquaintance with his views or theories.

In talking of all-protecting beings, I’m really thinking of them in god-like terms. Beings who protect us from harm caused by dangerous objects or predators, but also from harm caused by our own ignorance or folly, by correcting us and guiding us. Our early survival is, of course, entirely dependent on being nurtured by these all-protecting entities, so that it’s all the more shocking when, at some stage in our development, we actually see these entities, even if only for brief moments, as actually threatening our existence. I’m not sure when this may happen. It could be at a very early stage, when, say, a mother refuses the breast to her child, resulting in a screaming fit, and perhaps a great sense of inner trauma and crisis. Or it could be later, when the child has developed an independent sense of justice and realises, or at least strongly feels, that her parent is punishing her unjustly, and quickly infers from this that the parent could be a real threat to her freedom and even her life.

I see an obvious association between this very real experience, which may be near-universal in humans, and the garden of eden story, though the fact that in the eden story it’s the humans who have ‘fallen’, rather than the gods, is well worth pondering. It seems to me that monotheistic religions, by creating a perfect deity or parent, shift the focus of the world’s obvious injustices from that parent to the children, which has at least the advantage of avoiding what could become a problem for children who ‘see through’ their parents – the problem of blame-shifting. Not that this has always stopped  irate believers from berating their perfect Dad for their sufferings.

Of course the more developed way of seeing the parent-child relation is as one between two faulty, all-too-human entities, but face it, the seemingly utterly powerless child and the seemingly all-powerful parent are neither likely to possess such equipoise, at least not for long. Both are profoundly frustrated, the child at not being able to get the parent to see the justice of her situation, or at least at not being able to penetrate the imperviousness and the mystery of the parent’s judgment, and the parent at not having the power to transform the child by his judicious punishment. Frustration leads to idealist fantasies, in which everyone understands each other, everyone judges and measures each other in perfect understanding and harmony. Of course this never happens in this world, bitter experience reveals this, especially in the harsh and often desperate environments out of which so many religions have been born.

It all happens in another life, in another world, another place, a world that doesn’t bear too much thinking about it, but a world that can absorb all the hope aimed at it, all the dreams of the ‘faithful’. In absorbing all these hopes and dreams and cries for justice it just keeps expanding, like a balloon, ever more diaphanous, amorphous, enticing. Who’d want to be the prick that bursts it?

Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm