January 29, 2006

A Dim Among the Brights

I have learned through experience over the years that it avails one very, very little to get in arguments with Chomskyists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Objectivists, vegans, postmodernists, Maoists, Scientologists, LaRouchies, Deadheads, Foucault dependents, and crusading atheists. (I'd add Catholics to the list, except that with them you usually get something to drink in the bargain: I mean, it avails you that, at any rate.)

I've already mentioned the edifying spectacle of a young contrarian arguing with an older one over whether or not St. Paul was a "wanker." Natalie Solent's colloquy on Religion vs. Science and the Norm Geras/Ophelia Benson discussion are certainly more learned, urbane, witty, and interesting for the viewer than the "wanker" one was. But these arguments, where one person's philosophical, customary and aesthetic preferences about what it's reasonable to believe do rhetorical battle with those of another, always have more or less the same denouement, which is that they degenerate into a contest of who is more adept at associating the other's worldview with that of Hitler or Pol Pot. How many millions have died, and upon whose pretensions can we pin it? If only the world were free of people like you and Stalin! Oh, you're so naive, how typical, both say at the same time, how dare you! Snap!

(The rest of this post is after the jump for those who are interested. I don't necessarily recommend it - I doubt it's anything you haven't heard before.)

Now to my mind, "faith is a moral failing" is roughly on a par with "there is no spoon" as a contribution to human understanding. But someone over at Butterflies and Wheels recently came up with this bumper sticker-y formulation, to great acclaim and high fiving all around. Stewart can't wait to use it in the coming theist-atheist rumble. Imagine their reaction! "Faith is a moral failing." They'll never be able to "get around" that!

I'm not at all qualified to address the complexities of the relationship of faith to reason, though this line of inquiry does suggest other undesirable things we might want to consider doing away with (e.g., love and hope.) We'll have to see who wins the rumble. In the meantime, Ophelia's position is that Religion has, on balance, caused more evil than good and thus is "not worth the price." It is a facile answer to a vacuous question, as I see it, but she takes it very seriously, so you have to wonder: what remedy does she have in mind? Since she can't be proposing a project where we go back in time and try to undo the whole of human history up to this point and then do it over leaving the "religion" out, we must be content to eradicate the Evil from here on. (Even if we could, would it really be wise? With the Butterfly Effect and all, I mean? I've played enough Civilization III to know that you have no hope of getting the Cure for Cancer unless you've already discovered Monotheism, which you can't get without developing Polytheism, which you can't get without Ceremonial Burial. So if we try to skip Monotheism, would we still be stuck with horsemen without stirrups and only 2 attack points who lose a movement point every time they try to cross a river? In fact, maybe, just to be on the safe side, we should wait till our wise men actually do develop the Cure for Cancer before we rule out the Sistine Chapel, because I'd hate to miss out on that: it's arguably the best Wonder in the endgame.)

Yet even now, as much as in the past and like it or not, religious experience remains a feature of human experience and disentangling it from those experiences explored through philosophy, politics, culture, and art, and indeed disentangling those things from natural science itself, would be a bigger task than my, admittedly modest, powers of imagination can fathom. In fact, even if I thought it desirable, I really doubt it could be done; and quite honestly I doubt the "brights" really think so either. It is fun to think about though, in a "wouldn't it be neat if it rained martinis" sort of way.

But what if you have had an experience of transcendence, a brush with something unquantifiable? If you have actually come face to face with the terror of the absolute whatchamacallit, or merely felt that you have caught a glimpse of the deelybob beyond material reality or tasted the ineffable flavor of divine what's-it, or something of the kind? And if in groping for means to understand and communicate the experience you feel you must resort to the symbols, rhetoric, tropes, and traditions of those who have explored and examined such experiences before you? Well, don't tell Ophelia and Stewart. They don't want to know.

Or maybe they do want to know, as long as you clean up your language. Ophelia's comments on this blog reflect an interest in the topic, but an aversion to some of the fašons de parler that people resort to when discussing it. "Modest speculation" on the Thing that Must Not be Named is all right, but "truth claims" about it send her into a tizzy. You can, presumably, avert the tizzy by choosing your words carefully. You can give it a shot, anyway.

Maybe the Brights are right and there is nothing there, and the very idea that there might be something to speculate upon is a lie or delusion, like that weird orbiting teapot they're always going on about. I mean, come on, who'd believe something like that? What nonsense! (What, am I using their straw man as my straw man? Sorry... Well, that's just the sort of thinking that led to the Holocaust. I know, I said I was sorry.) If that's what the Brights think, then I encourage the Brights to go right on thinking it.

But it does appear that much of it boils down to an aesthetic objection: "God talk" offends Bright sensibilities. I have a different aesthetic myself. Life is more than weights and measures, or rather, there are things in this world of ours that cannot be weighed and measured; and, for me, these tend to turn out to be among the most interesting things. So in fact, though I am a pretty modern guy, I'm not offended by "God talk." In fact, I quite like it. I love my Odyssey, my Heraclitus, my Plato, my Augustine, my Beowulf, my Dante, my 17th Century English translation of my Yahwist, Psalmist, and Evangelists; my Blake, my El Greco, my Bach, my Chesterton, my Narnia, my Hank Williams, my Pete Townshend; you get the idea. But of course, as I readily admit, I am one of those sloppy, soppy, floppy, emotional artistic types, at least, I am for the purposes of this post, and not any sort of hard-headed radical rationalist who will eat you for breakfast. Ophelia professes to love poetry as well, and I'm sure the profession is absolutely sincere. Can you love something, yet also burn with a desire to stomp out that which has inspired it? I guess you can. Life is full of contradictions. ("So if we skip Monotheism, can we still have the Psalms and Country Music?" "Oh, that's just a typical theist ploy!" "What, did you learn to say that from your friend Stalin?" "Your mother learned it from Stalin...")

Well, to each his own. Hanging out in a roomful of scolding "brights" is my idea of Hell, frankly, but they and Stalin and Pol Pot and Hitler are certainly welcome to whatever floats their boat.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 29, 2006 09:43 PM | TrackBack

I totally agree. When making "God talk" you have to learn to speak different languages if you wish to come to any concensus of opinion. It reminds me of the time I spent talking to Mormon missionairies (on the request of my Mormon girlfriend's parents). At first I went in thinking we would be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but once we unraveled each other's language (which admittedly took 5 or 6 different hour long sessions) we found there was a tremendous amount of agreement. That's not to say I'm down for wearing the sacred underwear (mostly due to the sacred skidmarks I would leave in such clothing), but it definitely showed me that there is more concensus on religious issues than meets the eye.

Posted by: Chuck at January 30, 2006 01:02 AM

I just think it is weird how they often use "God" as a proper name in a sentence without capitalizing it. I mean, disbelieve whatever you like, but it seems silly to decapitalize a proper name just because you dislike the person who bears it (regardless of how fictitous he may or may not be).

Posted by: Eric at January 30, 2006 02:08 AM

It's amazing that an ambiguous God should get so much reverence and money.In My town of Bangor Maine my share of the real estate tax burden is heavier because the churches are all tax exempt.

So i rate the religions according to what they give back to the community in humanitarian assistance.Nearly all the churches except the Jehovah's Witnesses have abundant charities (soup kitchens,food pantrys) -Danny Haszard

Posted by: Danny Haszard at January 30, 2006 05:23 AM

"Can you love something, yet also burn with a desire to stomp out that which has inspired it? I guess you can. Life is full of contradictions."

Sheesh and you're bothered by their rhetoric? Would their be poetry if religion had never existed? Maybe maybe not. Maybe there would be something even better than poetry. Who knows? Are you really trying to use that to mean that religion or God is the reason for poetry? If that kind of logic is allowed, then the atheists are right that religion is the cause of the holocaust and the great Chinese famine. If your saying that atheists can't believe in beauty, well that's just silly too. It's not difficult to hypothesize a mechanistic biological/sociological theory of beauty.

Posted by: josh at January 30, 2006 02:29 PM

Josh, I don't think you can say Religion is the cause of any specific thing, good, bad or neutral; at least not in such a direct, reductive way. It's too big a category, and it runs throughout human culture and always has. It's part of culture because the experiences described and expressed through it are real human experiences. "Religion" won't wither away and can't be abolished because people will continue to have the experiences.

As for loving the artistic expression of something you wish to eradicate from the face of the earth, it happens all the time. Some people have judged poetry itself not to be "worth the price."

I do think there's something weird/ironic about glorying in the sublime expression of somebody's transcendent experience, while at the same time scolding everyone else for holding the view (or hope, or suspicion) that transcendence might be possible. Of course not all art reflects spiritual experience or even transcendent experience but a lot of it does and that's the art I'm talking about.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 30, 2006 03:38 PM

I guess I misunderstood. I didn't realize you were talking about spiritually inspired poetry in particular.

Posted by: josh at January 30, 2006 04:14 PM

Always go after Hoover Dam as soon as you hit the Industrial Age. It counts as a clean power plant in all your cities whereas normal power plants take a long time to build, are expensive to maintain, and cause mass pollution which is a huge pain in the a** to clean up.

Posted by: buckeye bill at January 30, 2006 10:17 PM

Right, Bill, but I think you'll find that if there's still a competitive civilization at the later stages, it can be pretty difficult to take full advantage of that industrial capacity and wage protractted wars without the Cure for Cancer. Though, obviously, it can be done.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 31, 2006 02:34 PM

wow, that Civilization II bit was one of the funniest things I've read in recent memory. I am an atheist myself, but I'm not anti-religion. I think it's odd how up-in-arms some people get about the whole deal. It smacks of a certain insecurity about their own beliefs that they are so offended by others. Sure it's a pain in the ass to be preached too, but the majority of religious people are pretty low-key about the whole thing. The human fascination with god(s) has been responsible for some of the greatest stories, music, art, etc. and that has to count for something.

Posted by: mike c. at February 2, 2006 04:29 AM