The Influence of Christianity on Western Culture, Part Two: Religion and Culture

In my previous post, I addressed the debate between Christians and secular rationalists on the origins of the modern Western idea of human rights, with Christians attributing these rights to Christianity, whereas secular rationalists credited human reason. While acknowledging the crimes committed by the Christian churches in history, I also expressed skepticism about the ability of reason alone to provide a firm foundation for human rights.

In the second part of this essay, I would like to explore the idea that religion has a deep, partly subconscious, influence on culture and that this influence maintains itself even when people stop going to religious services, stop reading religious texts, and even stop believing in God. (Note: Much of what I am about to say next has been inspired by the works of the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who has covered this issue in his books, The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Self and the Dramas of History.)

___________________________

What exactly is religion, and why does it have a deep impact on our culture and thinking? Nearly all of today’s major existing religions date back from 1300 to 4000 years ago. In some respects, these religions have changed, but in most of their fundamentals, they have not. As such, there are unattractive elements in all of these religions, originating in primitive beliefs held at a time when there was hardly any truly scientific inquiry. As a guide to history, religious texts from this era are extremely unreliable; as a guide to scientific knowledge of the natural world, these religions are close to useless. So why, then, does religion continue to exercise a hold on the minds of human beings today?

I maintain that religion should be thought of primarily as a Theory of the Good. It is a way of thinking that does not (necessarily) result in truthful journalism and history, does not create accurate theories of causation, and ultimately, cares less about what things are really like and more about what things should be like.

As Robert Pirsig has noted, all life forms seek the Good, if only for themselves. They search for food, shelter, warmth, and opportunities for reproduction. More advanced life forms pursue all these and also may seek long-term companionship, a better location, and a more varied diet. If life forms can fly, they may choose to fly for the joy of it; if they can run fast, they may run for the joy of it.

Human beings have all these qualities, but also one more: with our minds, we can imagine an infinite variety of goods in infinite amounts; this is the source of our endless desires. In addition, our more advanced brains also give us the ability to imagine broadened sympathies beyond immediate family and friends, to nations and to humankind as a whole; this is the source of civilization. Finally, we also gain a curiosity about the origin of the world and ourselves and what our ultimate destiny is, or should be; this is the source of myths and faith. It is these imagined, transcendent goods that are the material for religion. And as a religion develops, it creates the basic concepts and categories by which we interpret the world.

There are many similarities among all the world’s religions in what is designated good and what is designated evil. But there are important differences as well, that have resulted in cultural clashes, sometimes leading to mild disagreements and sometimes escalating into the most vicious of wars. For the purpose of this essay, I am going to avoid the similarities among religions and discuss the differences.

Warning: Adequately covering all of the world’s major religions in a short essay is a hazardous enterprise. My depth of knowledge on this subject is not that great, and I will have to grossly simplify in many cases. I merely ask the reader for tolerance and patience; if you have a criticism, I welcome comments.

The most important difference between the major religions revolves around what is considered to be the highest good. This highest good seems to constitute a fundamental dividing line between the religions that is difficult to bridge. To make it simple, let’s summarize the highest good of each religion in one word:

Judaism – Covenant

Christianity – Love

Islam – Submission (to God)

Buddhism – Nirvana

Hinduism – Moksha

Jainism – Nonviolence (ahimsa)

Confucianism – Ren (Humanity)

Taoism – Wu Wei (inaction)

How does this perception of the highest good affect the nature of a religion?

Judaism: With only about 15 million adherents today, Judaism might appear to be a minor religion — but in fact, it is widely known throughout the world because of its huge influence on Christianity and Islam, which have billions of followers and have borrowed greatly from Judaism. Fundamental to Judaism is the idea of a covenant between God and His people, in which His people would follow the commandments of God, and God in return would bless His people with protection and abundance. This sort of faith faced many challenges over the centuries, as natural disasters and defeat in war were not always closely correlated with moral failings or a breach of the covenant. Nevertheless, the idea that moral behavior brings blessings has sustained the Jews and made them successful in many occupations for thousands of years. The chief disadvantage of Judaism has been its exclusive ties to a particular nation/ethnic group, which has limited its appeal to the rest of the world.

Christianity: Originating in Judaism, Christianity made a decisive break with Judaism under Jesus, and later, St. Paul. This break consisted primarily in recognizing that the laws of the Jews were somehow inadequate in making people good, because it was possible for someone to follow the letter of the law while remaining a very flawed or even terrible human being. Jesus’ denunciations of legalists and hypocrites in the New Testament are frequent and scathing. The way forward out of this, according to Jesus, was to simply love others, without making distinctions of rank, ethnicity, or religion. This original message of Jesus, and his self-sacrifice, inspired many Jews and non-Jews and led to the gradual, but steadily accelerating, growth of this minor sect. The chief flaw in Christianity became apparent hundreds of years after the crucifixion, when this minority sect became socially and politically powerful, and Christians used their new power to violently oppress others. This stark hypocrisy has discredited Christianity in the eyes of many.

Islam: A relatively young monotheistic religion, Islam grew out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century AD. It’s prophet, Muhammad, clearly borrowed from Judaism and Christianity, but rejected the exclusivity of Judaism and the status of Jesus as the son of God. The word “Islam” means submission, but contrary to some commentators, it means submission to God, not to Islam or Muslims, which would be blasphemous. The requirements of Islam are fairly rigorous, requiring prayers five times a day; there is also an extensive body of Islamic law that is relatively strict, though implemented unevenly in Islamic countries today, with Iran and Saudi Arabia being among the strictest. There is no denying that the birth of Islam sparked the growth of a great empire that supported an advanced civilization. In the words of Bernard Lewis, “For many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” (What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, p. 3) Today, the Islamic world lags behind the rest of the world in many respects, perhaps because its strict social rules and tradition inhibit innovation in the modern world.

Confucianism. Founded by the scholar and government official Confucius in the 6th century B.C., Confucianism can be regarded as a system of morals based on the concept of Ren, or humanity. Confucius emphasized duty to the family, honesty in government, and espoused a version of the Golden Rule. There is a great deal of debate over whether Confucianism is actually a religion or mainly a philosophy and system of ethics. In fact, Confucius was a practical man, who did not discuss God or the afterlife, and never proclaimed an ability to perform miracles. But his impact on Chinese civilization, and Asian civilization generally, was tremendous, and the values of Confucius are deeply embedded in Chinese and other Asian societies to this day.

Buddhism. Founded by Gautama Buddha in the 6th century B.C., Buddhism addressed the problem of human suffering. In the view of the Buddha, our suffering arises from desire; because we cannot always get what we want, and what we want is never permanent, the human condition is one of perpetual dissatisfaction. When we die, we a born into another body, to suffer again. The Buddha argued that this cycle of suffering and rebirth could be ended by following the “eightfold path” – right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Following this path could lead one to nirvana, which is the extinguishing of the self and the end of the cycle of rebirth and suffering. While not entirely pacifistic, there are strong elements of pacifism in Buddhism and a large number of Buddhists are vegetarian. Many non-Buddhists, however, would dispute the premise that life is suffering and that the dissolving of the self is a solution to suffering.

Hinduism. The third largest religion in the world, Hinduism is also considered to be the world’s oldest religion, with roots stretching back more than 4000 years. However, Hinduism also consists of different schools with diverse beliefs; there are multiple written texts in the Hindu tradition, but no single unifying text, such as the Bible or the Quran. A Hindu can believe in multiple gods or one God, and the Hindu conception of God/s can also vary. There is even a Hindu school of thought that is atheistic; this school goes back thousands of years. There is a strong tradition of nonviolence (ahimsa) in Hinduism, which obviously inspired Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance against British colonial rule in the early twentieth century. The chief goal of Hindu practices is moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth — roughly similar to the concept of nirvana.

Jainism. Originating in India around 2500 years ago, the Jain religion posits ahimsa, or nonviolence, as the highest good and goal of life. Jains practice a strict vegetarianism, which even extends to certain dairy products which may harm animals and any vegetable that may harm insects if harvested. The other principles of Jainism include anekāntavāda (non-absolutism) and aparigraha (non-attachment). The principle of non-absolutism recognizes that the truth is “many-sided” and impossible to fully express in language, while non-attachment refers to the necessity of avoiding the pursuit of property, taking and keeping only what is necessary.

Taosim. Developed in the 4th century B.C., Taoism is one of the major religions in China, along with Confucianism and Buddhism. “Tao” can be translated as “the Way,” or “the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. . . the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.” Pursuit of the “Way” is not meant to be difficult or arduous or require sacrifice, as in other religions. Rather, the follower must practice wu wei, or effortless action. The idea is that one must act in accord with the cosmos, not fight or struggle against it. Taoism values naturalness, spontaneity, and detachment from desires.

Now, all these religions, including many I have not listed, have value. The monotheism of Judaism and its strict moralism was a stark contrast to the ancient pagan religions, which saw the gods as conflictual, cruel, and prone to immoral behavior. The moral disciplines of Islam invigorated a culture and created a civilization more advanced than the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism have placed strong emphasis on overcoming self-centeredness and rejecting violence. Confucianism has instilled the values of respect for elders, love of family, and love of learning throughout East Asia. Taoism’s emphasis on harmony puts a break on human tendencies to dominate and control.

What I would like to focus on now are the particular contributions Christianity has made to Western civilization and how Christianity has shaped the culture of the West in ways we may not even recognize, contrasting the influence of Christianity with the influence of the other major religions.

__________________________

Christianity has provided four main concepts that have shaped Western culture, concepts that retain their influence today, even among atheists.

(1) The idea of a transcendent good, above and beyond nature and society.

(2) An emphasis on the worth of the individual, above society, government, and nature.

(3) Separation of religion and government.

(4) The idea of a meaningful history, that is, an unfolding story that ends with a conclusion, not a series of random events or cycles.

Let’s examine each of these in detail.

(1) Transcendent Good. I have written in some detail about the concept of transcendence elsewhere. In brief, transcendence refers to “the action of transcending, surmounting, or rising above . . . excelling.” To seek the transcendent is to aspire to something higher than reality. The difficulty with transcendence is that it’s not easily subject to empirical examination:

[B]ecause it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach.

Transcendent religions differ from pantheistic and panentheistic religions by insisting on the greater value or goal of an ideal state of being above and beyond the reality we experience. Since this ideal state is not subject to empirical proof, transcendent religions appear irrational and superstitious to many. Moreover, the dreamy idealism of transcendent religions often results in a fanaticism that leads to intolerance and religious wars. For these reasons, philosophers and scientists in the West usually prefer pantheistic interpretations of God (see Spinoza and Einstein).

The religions of India — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism — have strong tendencies toward pantheism or panentheism, in which all existence is bound by a universal spirit, and our duty is to become one with this spirit. There is not a sharp distinction between this universal spirit and the universe or reality itself.

In China, Taoism rejects a personal God, while Confucianism is regarded by most as a philosophy or moral code than a religion. (The rational pragmatism of Chinese religion is probably why China had no major religious wars until a Chinese Christian in the 19th century led a rebellion on behalf of his “Heavenly Kingdom” that lasted 14 years and led to the deaths of tens of millions.)

And yet, there is a disadvantage in the rational pragmatism of Chinese religions — without a dreamy idealism, a culture can stagnate and become too accepting of evils. Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, who is an atheist, has remarked:

In China, the development of religion is the best lens through which to view the health of a society. Every religion, when it is imported to China is secularized. The Chinese are profoundly pragmatic. . . . What is absent in Chinese civilization, what we’ve always lacked, is a sense of the sacred. There is no room for higher principles when we live so firmly in the concrete. The possibility of hope and the aspiration to higher ideals are too abstract and therefore get obliterated in our dark, fierce realism.” (“Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China,” The New Yorker, 8 Oct 2018)

Now, Christianity is not alone in positing a transcendent good — Judaism and Islam also do this. But there are other particular qualities of Christianity that we must look to as well.

(2) Individual Worth.

To some extent, all religions value the individual human being. Yet, individual worth is central to Christianity in a way that is not found in other religions. The religions of India certainly value human life, and there are strong elements of pacifism in these religions. But these religions also tend to devalue individuality, in the sense that the ultimate goal is to overcome selfhood and merge with a larger spirit. Confucianism emphasizes moral duty, from the lowest members of society to the highest; individual worth is recognized, but the individual is still part of a hierarchy, and serves that hierarchy. In Taoism, the individual submits to the Way. In Islam, the individual submits to God. In Judaism, the idea of a Chosen People elevates one particular group over others (although this group also falls under the severe judgment of God).

Only under Christianity was the individual human being, whatever that person’s background, elevated to the highest worth. Jesus’ teachings on love and forgiveness, regardless of a person’s status and background, became central to Western civilization — though frequently violated in practice. Jesus’s vision of the afterlife emphasized not a merger with a universal spirit, but a continuance of individual life, free of suffering, in heaven.

3. Separation of religion and government.

Throughout history, the relation between religious institutions and government have varied. In some states, religion and government were unified, as in the Islamic caliphate. In most other cases, political authorities were not religious leaders, but priests were part of the ruling class that assisted the rulers. In China, Confucianism played a major role in the administrative bureaucracy, but Confucianism was a mild and rational religion that had no interest in pursuing and punishing heretics. In Judaism, rabbis often had some actual political power, depending on the historical period and location, but their power was never absolute.

Christianity originated with the martyrdom of a powerless man at the hands of an oppressive government and an intolerant society. In subsequent years, this minor sect was persecuted by the Roman empire. This persecution lasted for several hundred years; at no time during this period did Christianity receive the support, approval, or even tolerance of the imperial government.

Few other religions have originated in such an oppressive atmosphere and survived. China absorbed Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism without wars and extensive persecution campaigns. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism grew out of the same roots and largely tolerated each other. Islam had its enemies in its early years, but quickly triumphed in a series of military campaigns that built a great empire. Even the Jews, one of the most persecuted groups in history, were able to practice their religion in their own state(s) for hundreds of years before military defeat and diaspora; in 1948, the Jews again regained a state.

Now, it is true that in the 4th century A.D., Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman empire, and the Christian persecution of pagan worshippers began. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church exercised enormous influence over the culture, economy, and politics of Europe. But by the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of a strict separation between church and state became widely popular, first in America, then in Europe. While Christian churches fought this reduction in Christian political power and influence, the separation of Church and state was at least compatible with the origins of Christianity in persecution and martyrdom, and did not violate the core beliefs of Christianity.

4. A meaningful history.

The idea that history consists of a progressive movement toward an ideal end is not common to all cultures. Ancient Greeks and Romans saw history as a long decline from an original “Golden Age,” or they saw history as essentially cyclical, consisting of a never-ending rise and decline of various civilizations. The historical views of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were also cyclical.

It was Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that interpreted history as progressing toward an ideal end, a kingdom of heaven. But as a result of the Renaissance in the West, and then the Enlightenment, the idea of an otherworldly kingdom was dumped, and the ideal end of history became secularized. The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) interpreted history as a dialectic clash of ideas, moving toward its ultimate end, which was human freedom. (An early enthusiast for the French Revolution, Hegel once referred to Napoleon as the “world soul” on horseback.) Karl Marx took Hegel’s vision one step further, removing Hegel’s idealism and positing a “dialectical materialism” based on class conflict. This class conflict, according to Marx, would one day end in a final, bloody clash that would end class distinctions and bring about the full equality of human beings under communism.

Alas, these dreams of earthly utopia did not come to pass. Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804 and went to work creating a new dynasty and aristocracy with which to rule Europe. In the twentieth century, Communist regimes were extraordinarily oppressive everywhere they arose, killing tens of millions of people. Certainly, the idea of human equality was attractive, and political movements arose and took power based on these ideas. Yet the results were bloodshed and tyranny. Even so, when Soviet communism collapsed, the idea of a secular “end of history,” based on the thought of Hegel, became popular again.

According to the American Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the visions of Hegel and Marx were merely secular versions of Christianity, which failed because, while ostensibly dedicated to the principles of individual worth, equality, and historical progress, they could not overcome the essential fact of human sinfulness. In Christianity, this sinfulness was the basis for the prophecies in the Book of Revelation which foresaw a final battle between good and evil, requiring the intervention of God in order to achieve a final triumph of good.

According to Niebuhr, the fundamental error of all secular ideologies of historical progress was to suppose that the ability of human beings to reason could conquer tendencies to sinfulness in the same way that advances in science could conquer nature. This did not work, in Niebuhr’s view, because reason could be a tool of self-aggrandizement as well as selflessness, and was therefore insufficient to support universal brotherhood. The fundamental truth about human nature, that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment neglected, was that man is an unbreakable organic unity of mind, body, and spirit. Man’s increasing capacity to use reason resulted in new technologies and wealth but did not — and could not — overcome human tendencies to seek power. For this reason, human history was the story of the growth of both good and evil and not the triumph of good over evil. Only the intervention of God, through Christ, could bring the final fulfillment of history. Certainly, belief in this ultimate fulfillment requires a leap of faith — but whether or not one believes the Book of Revelation, it is hard to deny that human dreams of earthly utopia have been frustrated time and time again.

Perhaps at this point, you may agree with my general assessment of Christian ideas, and even find some similarities between Christian ideas and contemporary secular liberalism. Nevertheless, you may also conclude that the causal linkage between Christianity and modern liberalism has not been established. After all, the first modern liberal democracies did not emerge until nearly 1800 years after Christ. Why so long? Why did the Christian churches have such a long record of intolerance and contempt for liberal ideas? Why did the Catholic Church so often ally with monarchs, defend feudalism, and oppose liberal revolutions? Why did various Christian churches tolerate and approve of slavery for hundreds of years? I will address these issues in Part Three.

The Influence of Christianity on Western Culture, Part One: Liberty, Equality, and Human Rights

Does religion have a deep influence on the minds of those living in a largely secular culture, shaping the subconscious beliefs and assumptions of even staunch atheists? Such is the argument of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argues that the contemporary secular liberalism of America and Europe is rooted in the principles of Christianity, and that our civilization suffers when it borrows selectively from Christianity while rejecting the religion as a whole.

Douthat’s provocative claim was challenged by liberal commentators Will Saletan and Julian Sanchez, and if you have time, you can review the three-sided debate here, here, here, here, and here. In brief, Douthat argues the following:

When I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that. In Bad Religion, I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole. And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals.

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ ‘render unto Caesar’ and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel. . . .

And the more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual ‘skyhooks,’ suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. 

Julian Sanchez, a scholar with the Cato Institute, responds to Douthat by noting that societies don’t need to agree on God and religion to support human rights, only to agree that human rights are good. According to Sanchez, invoking God as the source of goodness doesn’t really solve any problems; at best, it provides one prudential reasons to behave well (i.e., to obtain rewards and avoid punishment in the afterlife). If we believe human rights are good and need to be preserved, the idea of God adds nothing to the belief: “The notion seems to be that someone not (yet) convinced of Christian doctrine would have strong reasons—strong humanistic reasons—to hope for a world in which human dignity and individual rights are respected. But then why aren’t these reasons enough to do the job on their own?” Furthermore, Sanchez argues that morals can be regarded as “normative properties” that are already part of reality, and that secular moralists can appeal to this reality just as easily as believers appeal to God, only normative properties don’t require beliefs about implausible deities and “Middle Eastern folklore.”

Both Douthat and Sanchez make some good arguments, but there are some weaknesses in both sides’ claims that I wish to explore in this extended essay. My view, in brief, is this: Christianity, or any other religion, does not have to be a package deal. Religious claims about various miracles that seem to violate the patterns of nature established by science or the empirical findings of history and archeology should be subject to scrutiny and skepticism like any other claim. Traditional morals that have long-standing religious justifications, from child marriage to slavery, should be subject to the same scrutiny, and rejected when necessary.

And yet, it is difficult to deny the influence of religion on our perceptions — and conceptions — of what is good. I find existing attempts to base human morality and rights solely on reason and science to be unpersuasive; morals are not like the patterns of nature, nor can they be proved by the deductive methods of reason without accepting premises that cannot be proved. While rooted in reality, morals seem to point to something higher than our current reality. And human freedom to choose defies our attempts to prove the existence of morals in the same way that we can prove the deterministic patterns of gravity, chemical reactions, and nuclear fission.

____________________________

Let us consider one such attempt to establish human rights through science and reason by Michael Shermer, director of the The Skeptics Society and founder of Skeptic magazine. In an article for Theology and Science, Shermer attempts to found human rights on reason and science, relying exclusively on “nature and nature’s laws.”

Mr. Shermer begins his essay by noting the many people in Europe that were put to death for the crime of “witchcraft” in the 15th through 17th centuries, and how this witch-hunting hysteria was endorsed by the Catholic Church. Fortunately, notes Mr. Shermer, “scientific naturalism,” the “principle that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood” and “Enlightenment humanism” arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, destroying the old superstitions of religion. Shermer cites Steven Pinker to explain how the application of scientific naturalism to human affairs provided the principles on which human societies made moral progress:

When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback form the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases . . . we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics.

Shermer argues that morals follow logically from reason and observation, and proposes a Principle of Moral Good: “Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).”

Unfortunately, this principle, allegedly founded on reason and science, appears to be simply another version of the “Golden Rule,” which has been in existence for over two thousand years, and is found in nearly all the major religions. (The West knows the Golden Rule mainly through Christianity.) None of the religions discovered this rule through science or formal logical deduction. Human rights are not subject to empirical proof like the laws of physics and they don’t follow logically from deductive arguments, unless one begins with premises that support — or even presuppose — the conclusion.

Human rights are a cultural creation. They don’t exist in nature, at least not in a way that we can observe them. To the extent human rights exist, they exist in social practices and laws — sometimes only among a handful of people, sometimes only for certain categories of persons, sometimes widely in society. People can choose to honor and respect human rights, or violate such rights, and do so with impunity.

For this reason, I regard human rights as a transcendent value, something that does not exist in nature, but that many of us regard as worth aspiring to. In a previous essay on transcendence, I noted:

The odd thing about transcendence is that because it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach. . . . We worship the transcendent not because we can prove it exists, but because the transcendent is always drawing us to a higher life, one that excels or supersedes who we already are.

The evils that have human beings have afflicted on other human beings throughout history cannot all be attributed to superstitions and mistaken beliefs, whether about witchcraft or the alleged inferiority of certain races. Far more people have been killed in wars for territory, natural resources, control of trade routes, and for the power to rule than have been killed by accusations of witchcraft. And why not? Is it not compatible with reason to desire wealth and power? The entire basis of economics is that people are going to seek to maximize their wealth. And the basis of modern liberal-democracy is the idea that checks and balances are needed to block excessive power-seeking, that reason itself is insufficient. Historians don’t ask why princes seek to be kings, and why nations seek to expand their territory — it is taken for granted that these desires are inherent to human beings and compatible with reason. As for slavery, it may have been justified by the reference to certain races as inferior, but the pursuit of wealth was the main motivation of slave owners, with the justifications tacked on for appearance’s sake. After all, the fact that states in the American south felt compelled to pass laws forbidding the teaching of blacks indicates that southerners did in fact see blacks as human beings capable of reasoning.

The problem with relying on reason as a basis for human rights is that reason in itself is unable to bridge the gap between desiring one’s own good and desiring the same good for others. It is a highly useful premise in economics and political science that human beings are going to act to maximize their own good. From this premise, many important and useful theories have been developed. Acting for the good of others, on the other hand, particularly when it involves a high degree of self-sacrifice, is extremely variable. It takes place within families, to a limited extent it results in charitable contributions to strangers, and in some cases, soldiers and emergency rescue workers give their lives to save others. But it’s not reason that’s the motivating factor here — it’s love and sympathy and a sense of duty. Reason, on the other hand, is the tool that tells you how much you can give to others without going broke.

Still, it’s one thing to criticize reason as the basis of human rights; it is quite another to provide credit to Christianity for human rights. The historical record of Christianity with regard to human rights is not one that inspires. Nearly all of the Christian churches have been guilty of instigating, endorsing, or tolerating slavery, feudalism, despotism, wars, and torture, for hundreds of years. The record is long and damning.

Still, is it possible that Christianity provided the cultural assumptions, categories, and framework for the eventual flourishing of human rights? After all, neither the American Revolution nor the French Revolution were successful at first in fully implementing human rights. America fought a civil war before slavery was ended, did not allow women to vote until 1920, and did not grant most blacks a consistently recognized right to vote until the 1960s. The French Revolution of 1789 degenerated into terror, dictatorship, and wars of conquest; it took many decades for France to attain a reasonably stable republic. The pursuit of human rights even under secular liberalism was a long, hard struggle, in which ideals only very gradually became fully realized.

This long struggle to implement liberal ideals raises the question: Is it possible that Christianity had a long-term impact on the development of the West that we don’t recognize because we had already absorbed Christian assumptions and premises in our reason and did not question them? This is the question that will be addressed in subsequent posts.

Einstein’s Judeo-Quaker Pantheism

I recently came across a fascinating website, Einstein: Science and Religion, which I hope you will find time to peruse.  The website, edited by Arnold Lesikar, Professor Emeritus in the  Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Engineering Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, contains a collection of Einstein’s various comments on religion, God, and the relationship between science and religion.

Einstein’s views on religion have been frequently publicized and commented on, but it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive assessment of Einstein’s actual views on religion because of the tendency of both believers and atheists to cherry-pick particular quotations or to quote out of context. Einstein’s actual views on religion are complex and multifaceted, and one is apt to get the wrong impression by focusing on just one or several of Einstein’s comments.

One should begin by noting that Einstein did not accept the notion of a personal God, an omnipotent superbeing who listens to our prayers and intervenes in the operations of the laws of the universe. Einstein repeatedly rejected this notion of God throughout his life, from his adolescence to old age. He also believed that many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible were untrue.

The God Einstein did believe in was the God of the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza conceived of God as being nothing more than the natural order underlying this universe — this order was fundamentally an intelligent order, but it was a mistake to conceive of God as having a personality or caring about man. Spinoza’s view was known as pantheism, and Einstein explicitly stated that he was a proponent of Spinoza and of pantheism. Einstein also argued that ethical systems were a purely human concern, with no superhuman authority figure behind them, and there was no afterlife in which humans could be rewarded or punished. In fact, Einstein believed that immortality was undesirable anyway. Finally, Einstein sometimes expressed derogatory views of religious institutions and leaders, believing them responsible for superstition and bigotry among the masses.

However, it should also be noted that Einstein’s skepticism and love of truth was too deep to result in a rigid and dogmatic atheism. Einstein described himself variously as an agnostic or pantheist and disliked the arrogant certainty of atheists. He even refused to definitively reject the idea of a personal God, believing that there were too many mysteries behind the universe to come to any final conclusions about God. He also wrote that he did not want to destroy the idea of a personal God in the minds of the masses, because even a primitive metaphysics was better than no metaphysics at all.

Even while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein described God as a spirit, a spirit with the attribute of thought or intelligence: “[E]very one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” In an interview, Einstein expressed a similar view:

If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.

Distinguishing between the religious feeling of the “naïve man” and the religious feeling of the scientist, Einstein argued:  “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

While skeptical and often critical of religious institutions, Einstein also believed that religion played a valuable and necessary role for civilization in creating “superpersonal goals” for human beings, goals above and beyond self-interest, that could not be established by pure reason.  Reason could provide us with the facts of existence, said Einstein, but the question of how we should live our lives necessarily required going beyond reason. According to Einstein:

[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. . . . Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. . . .

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.

Einstein even argued that the establishment of moral goals by religious prophets was one of the most important accomplishments of humanity, eclipsing even scientific accomplishment:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

Einstein’s views of Jesus are particularly intriguing. Einstein never rejected his Jewish identity and refused all attempts by others to convert him to Christianity. Einstein also refused to believe the stories of Jesus’s alleged supernatural powers. But Einstein also believed the historical existence of Jesus was a fact, and Einstein regarded Jesus as one the greatest — if not the greatest — of religious prophets:

As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus. . . .No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein, while remaining Jewish, expressed great admiration for the Christian sect known as the Quakers. Einstein stated that the “Society of Friends,” as the Quakers referred to themselves as, had the “highest moral standards” and their influence was “very beneficial.” Einstein even declared “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Now Einstein’s various pronouncements on religion are scattered in multiple sources, so it is not surprising that people may get the wrong impression from examining just a few quotes. Sometimes stories of Einstein’s religious views are simply made up, implying that Einstein was a traditional believer. Other times, atheists will emphasize Einstein’s rejection of a personal God, while completely overlooking Einstein’s views on the limits of reason, the necessity of religion in providing superpersonal goals, and the value of the religious prophets.

For some people, a religion without a personal God is not a true religion. But historically, a number of major religions do not hold belief in a personal God as central to their belief system, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, many theologians in monotheistic faiths describe God in impersonal terms, or stress that the attributes of God may be represented symbolically as personal, but that God himself cannot be adequately described as a person. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argued that although God had been described allegorically and imperfectly by the prophets as having the attributes of a personal being, God did not actually have human thoughts and emotions. The twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich argued that God was not “a being” but the “Ground of Being” or the “Power of Being” existing in all things.

However, it is somewhat odd is that while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein saw God as a spirit that seemingly possessed an intelligence far greater than that of human beings. In that, Einstein was similar to Spinoza, who believed God had the attribute of “thought” and that the human mind was but part of the “infinite intellect of God.”  But is not intelligence a quality of personal beings? In everyday life, we don’t think of orbiting planets or stars or rocks or water as possessing intelligence, and even if we attribute intelligence to lower forms of life such as bacteria and plants, we recognize that this sort of intelligence is primitive. If you ask people what concrete, existing things best possess the quality of intelligence, they will point to humans — personal beings! Yet, both Spinoza and Einstein attribute vast, or even infinite, intelligence to God, while denying that God is a personal being!

I am not arguing that Spinoza and Einstein were wrong or somehow deluding themselves when they argued that God was not a personal being. I am simply pointing out how difficult it is to adequately and accurately describe God. I think Spinoza and Einstein were correct in seeking to modify the traditional concept of God as a type of omnipotent superperson with human thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, it can be difficult to describe God in a way that does not use attributes that are commonly thought of as belonging to personal beings. At best, we can use analogies from everyday experience to indirectly describe God, while acknowledging that all analogies fall short.

 

Christopher Hitchens: An Excess of Errors

I recently finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

In some parts, the book is delightful, and I admire the author’s courage.  Although the social penalties for atheism are much less in contemporary democratic societies than in other societies, past and present, there is also personal courage in facing up to the possibility that there is no God and no afterlife, which can be a distressing and demoralizing experience for many.  The author’s main points about the inaccuracy or falsity of religious beliefs about cosmology and history, as well as the persistent use of religion historically to rationalize evil behavior (such as the trading or keeping of slaves) have been made by others, but the author’s arguments are not entirely unoriginal, and I definitely learned some new things.

Having said that, I also need to say this: god is not Great is filled with many errors — in many cases, obvious, egregious errors that should not have gotten past the editor’s desk.  (Do publishing houses even bother editing and fact-checking any more?)  Now, it is not unusual for even great scholarly books to have some errors of fact.  But when the errors are so numerous, and so significant, it can greatly undermine the case the author is making.  Frankly, I think Hitchens understands religion about as well as a fundamentalist understands evolution.  In a few cases, Hitchens does not even understand some basic facts of science.

Let us review the errors.  (Page numbers are from the paperback edition, which appear to be similar to page numbers in the hardcover edition, except for the afterword that was added to the paperback).

p. 5  – “We [atheists] do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed and violence than the faithful.  (In fact, if a proper statistical query could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way).”  – Actually, according to The Handbook of Crime Correlates (pp. 108-113), while there is some variation in studies, the majority of social science statistical studies have concluded that religious believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  This is by no means a slam-dunk, as a minority of studies point the other way, but I find it remarkable that Hitchens thought that nobody even bothered to study this issue.  Although the Handbook came out after Hitchens’ book was published, the studies cited in the Handbook go back decades.

pp. 7, 63  – Hitchens acknowledges the intelligence and scholarship of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman, but argues “there are no more of them today and . . . there will be no more of them tomorrow.”  The reason for this, he writes, is that “Faith of that sort — the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason — is now plainly impossible.”  Actually, there are numerous intelligent and accomplished modern theologians who have incorporated faith and reason into their world views, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth.  Pope John Paul II pursued graduate study in philosophy and incorporated insights from the philosophy of phenomenology into his doctoral dissertation.  Did Hitchens ever hear of these people and their works?  A quick Google search confirms that Hitchens did know of Niebuhr, which indicates to me that Hitchens was being dishonest.

p. 7 – “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was far from being a nebulous humanist.  In fact, Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas were fairly conservative and Bonhoeffer insisted on the need for total devotion to God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer once wrote.  Also, Bonhoeffer was not hanged for simply refusing to collude with the Nazis, but for actively opposing the Nazis and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.

pp. 12-13 – “there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it.  I would be quite content to go their children’s bar mitzvahs to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.  And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone.  But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.”  Let’s leave aside the curious claim that Hitchens has religious friends who all happen to be grossly intolerant (unlucky him).  What is the evidence that religion in general is hopelessly intolerant, including the Jain religion?  Jainism, which Hitchens doesn’t bother discussing in any detail, places nonviolence at the very center of its beliefs.  Jains are so nonviolent that they practice vegetarianism and go to great lengths to avoid killing insects; some Jains even refuse to eat certain plants.  Jainism influenced Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, which in turn influenced Martin Luther King Jr.s’ own nonviolence campaign.  Yet somehow those Jains just can’t leave Hitchens alone.  What a bizarre persecution complex.

pp. 25, 68 – Hitchens argues that the ancient works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost under Christianity because “the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”  Actually, the works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost for centuries in Western Europe, primarily because of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, which negatively affected education, scholarship, libraries, and book-making in general.  In the east, the Byzantine empire, though a Christian state, preserved the works of Aristotle and incorporated Aristotle’s thoughts into Byzantine philosophiesMonasteries in the Byzantine empire played an important role in preserving and copying books of the ancient Greeks.  Attitudes of Christians in Western Europe toward the philosophies of ancient Greece were mixed, with some condemning and suppressing Greek works, and others incorporating Greek works into their scholarship.

pp. 46-47 – “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  Historically, medicine was not an alternative to prayer and devotion to God but a supplement to it.  The earliest hospitals were established in religious temples devoted to gods of healing.  While medical knowledge was primitive compared to today, even the ancients had some practical knowledge of surgery and anesthesia.  Many modern-day medications, such as aspirin, quinine, and ephedrine, have their roots in plants that the ancients used for healing.  The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, is famously known for his oath to the gods of healing, which calls for adherence to ethical rules in the practice of medicine.  And historically, both Christianity and Islam played major roles in the founding of hospitals and the study of medical science.

p. 68 – “[E]ven the religious will speak with embarrassment of the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity: measuring the length of angels’ wings, for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin.”  The notion that theologians debated about how many angels danced on the head of a pin was actually an invention of post-medieval satirists who wanted to criticize theology.  Historically, theologians generally held that angels were incorporeal, or purely spiritual beings, and as such did not have “wings.”

p. 144 – While discussing persons who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials, Hitchens argues, “travel from Alpha Centauri . . . would involve some bending of the laws of physics.”  Actually, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own, a little over 4 light years away.  While I think it is most unlikely that extraterrestrials have visited earth, travel to or from Alpha Centauri would not require any bending of the laws of physics, only some incremental improvements in existing technologies based on the current laws of physics.  The travel would probably take decades, but would not be impossible.  Either Hitchens is arguing that interstellar travel is inherently impossible or he is claiming that advances in technology require “bending” the laws of physics.  Whatever he believed, it doesn’t make sense.

p. 181 – “As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran.”  Among the countries ranked highest in modern-day slavery are several Islamic counties, but also China, Russia, Thailand, and Haiti.  It would be odd if these countries cited the Koran as a justification for slavery.

p. 192 – Pointing to the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens argues, “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.  The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be.”  Among the worst practitioners of genocide in the past hundred years were atheists, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot.  It is not clear whether Hitler was an atheist or a deist, but he was certainly not “devout.”  Finally, the majority of social science studies have shown that those with orthodox religious beliefs are less inclined to commit crime.

p. 232. – Hitchens attempts to argue that atheist totalitarian regimes are actually religious in nature: “[T]he object of perfecting the species — which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse — is in essence a religious one.”  Actually, a major point of most religions is that perfection on earth is not possible, that perfection is only found in an other-worldly place called heaven or nirvana.  The communist critique of religion is precisely that it makes people satisfied with their lot on earth, waiting and longing for a world that never comes.

p. 279 – Hitchens makes a reference to “Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission.”  The correct terminology is “nuclear fission,” not “thermonuclear fission.”  “Thermonuclear” refers to the use of very high temperatures to cause the fusion of atomic nuclei, not fission.  It is possible to use a thermonuclear process involving hydrogen and boron to cause the fission of boron atoms, but this is not what Iran is currently doing.

p. 283 – “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”  After dismissing religious stories as fictional, Hitchens argues that we can obtain ethical guidance from . . . the fictions of literature and poetry.  Never mind that religious texts are also powerful sources of literature and poetry, that Jesus used parables to illustrate ethics, and that Church Fathers often interpreted the myths of the Bible allegorically.  Only secular sources of fiction, in Hitchens’ view, can be used as a guide to ethics.  Why is not clear.

Well, that’s it.  Reading Hitchens’ book was occasionally enjoyable, but more often exhausting.  There’s only so many blatant falsehoods a person can handle without wanting to flee.

 

Two Types of Religion

Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.

In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion.  These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.

“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.”  The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well.  Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions.  However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.

Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers.  The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea.  These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.

There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.

Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God.  Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.  (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)

Faith is central to revealed religion.  Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology.  Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.

The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion.  (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.)  Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars.  It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.

Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue.  In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity.  In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions.  In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything.  In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.

As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions.  Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems.  It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions.  And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.

The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions.  Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system.  For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given.  The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason.  Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings.  The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being.  Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.

There are many virtues to philosophical religion.  While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions.  Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.

However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions.  The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side.  But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here).  One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness.  Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living.  When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.

Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity.  I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living.  At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy.  I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science.  I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.

Omnipotence and Human Freedom

Prayson Daniel writes about Christian author C. S. Lewis’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil here and here.  Lewis, who suffered tragic loss at an early age, became an atheist when young, but later converted to Christianity.  Lewis directly addressed the challenge of the atheists’ argument — why would an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil to exist? — in his books The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

Central to Lewis’s argument is the notion that the freedom to do good or evil is essential to being human.  If human beings were always compelled to do good, they would not be free, and thus would be unable to attain genuine happiness.

One way to illustrate the necessity of freedom is to imagine a world in which human beings were unable to commit evil — no violence, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no betrayal.  At first, such a world might appear to be a paradise.  But the price would be this: essentially we would all be nothing but robots.  Without the ability to commit evil, doing good would have no meaning.  We would do good simply because we were programmed or compelled to do nothing but good.  There would be no choices because there would be no alternatives.  Love and altruism would have no meaning because it wouldn’t be freely chosen.

Let us imagine a slightly different world, a world in which freedom is allowed, but God always intervenes to reward the good and punish the guilty.  No good people ever suffer.  Earthquakes, fires, disease, and other natural disasters injure and kill only those who are guilty of evil.  Those who do good are rewarded with good health, riches, and happiness.  This world seems only slightly better than the world in which we are robots.  In this second world, we are mere zoo animals or pets.  We would be trained by our master to expect treats when we behave and punishment when we misbehave.  Again, doing good would have no meaning in this world — we would simply be advancing our self-interest, under constant, inescapable surveillance and threat of punishment.  In some ways, life in this world would be almost as regimented and monotonous as in the world in which we are compelled to do good.

For these reasons, I find the “free will” argument for the existence of evil largely persuasive when it comes to explaining the existence of evil committed by human beings.  I can even see God as having so much respect for our freedom that he would stand aside even in the face of an enormous crime such as genocide.

However, I think that the free will argument is less persuasive when it comes to accounting for evils committed against human beings by natural forces — earthquakes, fires, floods, disease, etc.  Natural forces don’t have free will in the same sense that human beings do, so why doesn’t God intervene when natural forces threaten life?  Granted, it would be asking too much to expect that natural disasters happen only to the guilty.  But the evils resulting from natural forces seem to be too frequent, too immense, and too random to be attributed to the necessity of freedom.  Why does freedom require the occasional suffering and death of even small children?  It’s hard to believe that small children have even had enough time to live in order to exercise their free will in a meaningful way.

Overall, the scale of divine indifference in cases of natural disaster is too great for me to think that it is part of a larger gift of free will.  For this reason, I am inclined to think that there are limits on God’s power to make a perfect world, even if the freedom accorded to human beings is indeed a gift of God.

God as Love

The Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote that the universe was characterized by conflict between two cosmic forces, Love and Strife.  In his view, the universe originally existed in a state of perfect love and unity, with no distinct elements or separate life forms.  However, the force of Strife emerged and began to destroy this unity; separate parts broke off from the whole, forming the elements of matter.  The attractive force of Love exerted its remaining influence by bringing the elements together in different combinations, creating animals and humans.  But these beings were mortal, as the force of Strife gradually pulled the elements apart again, leading to disintegration and death.

There are obviously fascinating parallels between Empedocles’ philosophy and Christianity in terms of the centrality of love, though in contrast to Christianity, Empedocles viewed cosmic history as cyclic.  But whether we accept Greek philosophy or Christianity, or both, is it helpful in understanding the order of the universe If we think of God as Love?

From a purely scientific standpoint, the notion that particles come together to form larger structures, including life forms, because of love sounds ridiculous.  Do hydrogen atoms really come together with oxygen atoms to form water because of love?  It makes no sense, many would argue, to anthropomorphize mindless matter and attribute human desire and emotion to particles.  However, I would argue that it makes sense to think of love as a broader phenomenon of attraction, with attraction between humans being a highly complex and sophisticated type of love, attraction between animals being a less complex type of love, and attraction between particles being a very primitive type of love, but love nevertheless.

Although it used to be thought that animals had no real emotions, we now know that animals do have emotions, that they are capable of love between their own kind and love of those from other species.  The question of whether insects have emotions is less settled, though some scientists who study the issue argue that at least some insects have primitive emotional responses originating in rudimentary brain structures.

It seems unlikely that there would be emotions in lower life forms, such as cells and bacteria.  However, even though we can’t know exactly how lower life forms “feel,” scientific studies have demonstrated forces of attraction and repulsion even in these lower life forms.  Paramecium will swim away from unfavorable environments (such as cold water), but remain in favorable environments (containing warm temperatures and/or the presence of food).  Egg cells in both humans and animals will exercise choice in determining which sperm cells with which to join, weeding out bad sperm cells from good.  In fact, the human body itself has been described as a cooperative “society of cells.”

Given that forces of attraction and repulsion exist in even the lowest life forms, is it really absurd to posit such forces as affecting even atomic and subatomic particles?  I believe that the general principle is the same, if love is defined simply as an attractive force that brings separate entities together to form a greater whole.  The only difference is that the principle is expressed in a very primitive form among lower forms of order and in a more sophisticated form among higher forms of order, such as animals and humans.

Faith and Truth

The American philosopher William James argued in his essay “The Will to Believe”  that there were circumstances under which it was not only permissible to respond to the problem of uncertainty by making a leap of faith, it was necessary to do so lest one lose the truth by not making a decision.

Most scientific questions, James argued, were not the sort of momentous issues that required an immediate decision.  One could step back, evaluate numerous hypotheses, engage in lengthy testing of such hypotheses, and make tentative, uncertain conclusions that would ultimately be subject to additional testing.  However, outside the laboratory, real-world issues often required decisions to be made on the spot despite a high degree of uncertainty, and not making a decisional commitment ran the same risk of losing the truth as making an erroneous decision.  Discovering truth, wrote James, is not the same as avoiding error, and one who is devoted wholeheartedly to the latter will be apt to make little progress in gaining the truth.

In James’s view, we live in a dynamic universe, not a static universe, and our decisions in themselves affect the likelihood of certain events becoming true.  In matters of love, friendship, career, and morals, the person who holds back from making a decision for fear of being wrong will lose opportunities for affecting the future in a positive fashion.  Anyone who looks back honestly on one’s life can surely admit to lost opportunities of this type.  As James wrote, “[f]aith in a fact can help create the fact.”

Now of course there are many counterexamples of people who have suffered serious loss, injury, and death because they made an unjustified leap of faith.  So one has to carefully consider the possible consequences of being wrong.  But many times, the most negative consequences of making a leap of faith are merely the same type of rejection or failure that would occur if one did not make a decisional commitment at all.

There is a role for skepticism in reason, a very large role, but there are circumstances in which excessive skepticism can lead to a paralysis of the will, leading to certain loss.  Skepticism and faith have to be held in balance, with skepticism applied primarily to low-impact issues not requiring an immediate decision.