Review of Eric Reitan's "Is God a delusion?"
Thanks to the local Catholic library, I got the opportunity to read philosopher Eric Reitan's book, Is God a Delusion? (a reply to religion's cultured despisers). Finely written and extremely temperate and sincere in its impulses, it marshals a variety of arguments against Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and its ilk. (In fairness, I'll note that of these new atheist books, I have read only Dennett's, and didn't like it much.) I apologize for the length of this review, but the book was remarkably pleasant to read and interesting to engage with, in marked contrast to other books in the field. I recommend it highly, while disagreeing with it extensively.
Chapter one takes us through the obligatory "What, me?!" defense. If I may paraphrase... Dawkins's target is not recognizable as my religion or my God. My religion is very liberal, even mystical. God is good and has nothing to do with hell. Indeed, here in Oklahoma, I have to drive my family an hour just to get to a church I like (take that, God's creation!). Thus, not only is Dawkins completely wrong, but most Christians in America are wrong too. I'd even say they aren't truly religious! (Take that, fundamentalist heretics!)
(Me again...) What this demonstrates most directly is that, going by the numbers, Dawkins hits the nail of popular religion far better than does Reitan. It also is a fine example of how no one really knows what they are talking about when they talk about God. Which might lead a skeptic to a very simple conclusion- that it doesn't exist.
Chapter two extends the discussion of what God is. Dawkins is apparently mistaken in positing that God is complex. Anselm told us that God is simple. Thus for Reitan God is simple, despite his creating the universe and all the creatures, being all-seeing and all-knowing, listening to all our prayers, contacting us through schizoid experiences, and blogging on the side through more or less exemplary prophets. Now Reitan disavows most of these properties imputed to God (though his God remains personal by mystical contact), but he is not clear which ones. Does he believe the Bible to be completely human in origin, or semi-inspired? Being against inerrantism (as he is, vociferously) is all very well, but then what, if any, of scripture is sound or reflective of God at all? This utterly arbitrary theological approach to God simply reinforces the theme of Chapter one, indicating that no one knows the least thing about it, once again leading the skeptical observer to the hypothesis that ... it may very well not exist.
In this chapter (and continuing on through chapter three), Reitan also arrives at his own definition: "'God' names that which, in our intuitions and numinous visions, suggests that our ethico-religious hope is not in vain." As a specimen of wishful thinking, one could hardly do better. There is nothing objective even proffered. Whatever we think is good, there is God. Whatever we think not so good, (like much of the Old Testament), there God is not. This turns God into a totem of liberal do-goodism and feel-goodism, which as an atheist I entirely understand and applaud, but which surely must make serious religious believers feel rather adrift, if not hostile.
So why is God believable when there is no serious evidence, a complete lack of knowledge, an extremely tenuous definition at variance with common belief, and psychological clues aplenty to its very human origin? Chapter four delves into the unique scope of the God hypothesis- that since it presumes to run the whole universe and exist outside and prior to it (i.e. it is transcendant), it is more believable than your garden-variety undisprovable celestial teapot and its many mocking colleagues. In big lie parlance, the very size of the lie should inspire respect, if not awe and belief. (I'll treat transcendence more directly below.)
This chapter also offers a minor God-in-the-gaps argument from chance events like quantum indeterminacy- that possibly the transcendent realm may interface with ours through non-random twiddles, applicable both to our souls, through brain effects, and perhaps to other worldly effects. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, when physicists say "random", they mean it. Really random, not pseudorandom. If random events, such as matter spontaneously coming out of the vacuum and going back in, were twiddled by God, it would leave traces of lack of conservation of energy/mass/information, which have not been observed. Much like the other gap arguments that occupy the rest of the book, this one is not strong, and is also susceptible to progressive gap closure by way of continuing observation and study. Reitan even spends a paragraph on why it is not a gap argument, because it accepts current science rather than exploiting a gap in understanding. Yet current science not only finds quantum indeterminacy, but also deals with its predictably random consequences, expressed quantitatively in probability distributions rather than in, say, occasional biasses towards prayed-for outcomes.
Chapter five really gets Reitan's blood going, impeaching Dawkins for not reading Aquinas's Summa Theologica. But Reitan himself devotes only a few pages to the issue, and does not have very good things to say about its arguments either (aside from the basic cosmological argument, dealt with below), so it is unclear why the supporting material would be terribly helpful. He is certainly right that Dawkins misunderstood Aquinas, (using web resources to do so!), but if his many later sympathetic interpreters thought so little (or could make so little) of Aquinas's arguments, then it is not clear why Dawkins needs to go the extra mile here. Biologists are not against reading Darwin, for instance, but we strongly recommend the profusion of more modern treatments first, since they both present the arguments more efficiently, and benefit from later developments in data and theory. Doesn't theology progress in similar fashion?
Reitan's core arguments (chapters 6, 7, 8) boil down to two, which are first the cosmological argument, and second, the argument from mysticism. To put it extremely briefly, these are both God-in-the-gaps arguments, offering the possibility, or "hope", of God in what currently remain as the two prime mysteries of our universe. But these mysteries are mysterious to quite different degrees.
The bare cosmological argument says that the origin of our universe has no good explanation as yet, and might as well be due to some super-being creator as to a multiverse, an odd vacuum fluctuation, or the super-string tango of more regular speculative physics. That we really don't know is hardly in dispute. This classic deism, very common among the founders of the United States, has no terribly strong arguments against it, positing a clockwork universe that was set in motion by this marvelous Being, continuing unmolested to the present day. While such a system may be benevolent in the most distant and ultimate sense, it is hardly a source of personal hope to wish upon.
It has no terribly strong arguments for it either, of course, since as Hume pointed out most trenchantly, the origin of this deity would be itself a mystery to be solved, it being simply unacceptable to wave it away with the classic theological mantras of the uncreated creator, the unmoved mover, the self-sufficient being, and so forth. At any rate, if evidence (better than the so-called "proofs" of Anselm and Aquinas) crops up on the matter, I'll be the first to pay attention.
Deism also offers no support for the florid fixations of popular religion, such as hell, the answering of prayers, the enjoyment of sacrifices, and the twiddling with evolution, tribal politics, international relations, the weather, and so forth (which Reitan decries with some passion as well, going so far as to state a preference for the astringent nullity of atheism over the absurd elaborations of fundamentalism and of orthodox theology more generally). One can't even responsibly call this originating cause a "Being" to invoke anthropomorphic shades, as Reitan habitually does- it might be something like the electron, or other ur-particle or force field. One look through a telescope indicates the extreme improbability that we humans have any special place in this deity's massive work, unless that deity be embarrassingly inefficient, slow, and wasteful, as it has been all over again in the wantonly brutal process of evolution here on earth. Deism appears to be the thinnest of theological gruel.
The other great mystery of the universe is that of the human mind and particularly the personal mystical experience. Here Reitan really hangs his hat, drawing on Simone Weil, William James, and Friedrich Schleiermacher for support. However, as gaps go, this one is narrow and getting narrower all the time. Already in James's time, he concluded that there really was no way to intellectually defend religion- that it arises from feelings first, with intellectual theology added for ornamentation. And secondly, various mystical experiences, while not routinely explicable, were close enough to the common run of mental deviations and defects that these also were scant grounds for belief, whether citing the experiences of others or one's own.
James ended up with a wan and labored decision, eked out with little conviction, that he could in some good conscience hold to an unjustified and uncompelled "over-belief" in Christian theism to keep himself sane and happy (and in his academic and social positions, one might add).
Schleiermacher, a hundred years before James, similarly founded theism on the bare religious feeling, which Reitan agrees with and likens to the Einsteinian position of simple awe and wonder. However, Schleiermacher had fewer doubts that this all somehow adds up to Christianity, even in the teeth of his own generation of atheist "despisers" and the perennial problems of the very same impulse finding expression the world over in fundamentally different theologies and Gods. Reitan's hope rests here, in the end, that these experiences, the fundament of religious feeling, mean what we think they mean, instead of being bare emotions, conveniently interpreted through the lenses of indoctrination.
In our time, the brain is a highly contested space, poked and prodded with some disregard for its sacredness, not to say for propriety. Its operations are fundamentally bounded by materialistic theory as far as the scientists involved in its study are concerned, and thus it is an ever more unlikely source of transgressive and revelatory contact with the "other side", transcendent reality, or God. That is not to say that it can't feel that way- who hasn't done a few too many mushrooms from time to time? But no objective sign has yet emerged that the mystical experience connects with anything other than our internal psychological depths.
But Reitan sticks with Schleiermacher, and claims:
"At the root of our experience, in our awareness of our own existence, there is a seminal awareness of a transcendent reality upon which our entire being depends.
when we do, [notice it], why should we doubt its veridicality any more than we doubt our other feelings? When we don't doubt it and focus our attention on its object, a rich vista of insight opens up as surely as when a scientist trusts her senses and begins to explore the empirical world."
Where to start? Whether most people experience a seminal awareness is open to question, but that it reflects a transcendent "reality" (rather than just seems that way) is even more open to question. To go with Descartes, I think therefore I am. Thus if I no longer think, I no longer am, implying directly that my ability to think lies at the heart of my being. Whether my ability to think is mechanical or partakes of the divine, the dependence is the same, and thus for me as a thinking being, whatever founds my ability to think and experience will seem/feel equally transcendent, however mundane its actual workings.
This is the crux of the issue- that the feeling of transcendence can not say anything about the nature of that transcendence. As I view current cognitive science, which is hastening to complete the anti-narcissist revolutions of the enlightenment which removed humans successively from the center of the solar system, from their divine pedestal above biology, from the center of the universe, and even from the sovereignty of our own minds, the workings of the mind give every (objective) evidence of being astounding, remarkable, and incredibly intricate, but also entirely material.
There is also every reason to directly doubt the veridicality of spiritual feelings and their content. Not that they don't exist or feel powerful, but that they imply the reality of culturally entrained concepts such as Christ, God, Allah, the creator of the universe, Bodhisattvas, or other such notions. Human history is littered with claims of great "insights", even seminal insights, that descended on recipients of such experiences. At best such insights amount to love, which is ever in short supply, but not a novel idea. Other examples include such horrors as the Book of Revelations, which we can all be thankful was far, far, far from veridical. No instance has granted insights that could not have come from the dreams and thoughts of the subject. Personally, I see great artistry in such visions, like those of Hildegard, and we should give their originators their due as creative geniuses, whether willing or unwilling. But as does all art, they plumb the inner psychological depths of humanity, not the parameters of the universe.
Lastly from the quote above, if focusing on such mystical objects leads as surely to insight as does engagement with the empirical world, then why has their objective return been so paltry (as opposed to their artistic return)? The simplest reason is that Reitan's claim is incorrect. Indeed, it is slandering scientists to liken their "trusting of her senses" to faith in spiritual impressions from religious experiences. Scientists do not trust their senses- they calibrate them, they double-check them, they invent new ones to take the place of our built-in unreliable and limited ones. They critique relentlessly, based on evidence coming from all possible calibrated senses. Whatever the scientific method is, it is first and foremost a matter of psychological insight, about our gullibility and suggestibility. Trust gets science nowhere, and nowhere is trust less merited than in issues of "faith" and mystical emotion.
There is fascinating formal relation in this book, and in theism generally, between the transcendence invoked for brain functions and the transcendence invoked for the cosmos as a whole. Each are systems which theoretically must arise from external causes which can not be perceived by inside observers, leading to the label of "transcendent". (This follows, as Reitan explains, from the principle of sufficient reason, PSR, which I mostly agree with.)
In the case of the mind, glimmers of transcendent feeling are, to a naturalist and brain scientist, clearly the sense of, as Schleiermacher would put it, "absolute dependence", on the brain substrate, especially when whacked out of its nomal rut by hallucinogens or meditation, etc. Subjectively, minds are dependent on their substrate and can know nothing about that substrate from their internal perspective. In this case, however, there are two escape hatches- our senses are pointed outside the mind system, allowing some amount of external, self-observing perspective, and we live in a world of other brains which observe each other in increasing scientific detail. So this kind of transcendence is now not at all mysterious in principle, even if all its internal feelings (i.e. consciousness, mysticism) have not yet been fully demarcated from the outside perspective.
Likewise, the universe as a whole including energy, mass, space, and time itself, originated at a point, and thus has some cause of which we as yet know nothing, and about which it may well be impossible to know anything from our entirely inside vantage point. (Note that in the absence of time, the idea of causality itself may be problematic, which may have some impact on PSR, if one wants to be highly speculative.) Labelling this cause 'God' hardly does us much good. If we lived in a multiverse society of other universes which we could see and converse with, we might be able to figure out exactly what was going on, just as in the case of brains. But alas, that is not the case, and we probably have to settle for not knowing at all, whether we label that state ignorance or deism.
Reitan does not claim to argue for theism conclusively, but only to open a space for the philosophical acceptability of theistic belief, in view of the cosmic unknowns and the mystical experiences of life. If one wishes to stake one's beliefs on things unknown instead of known, then this is a theology with some attraction. But as the domain of the unknown dwindles, slowly but steadily over the years, it would seem to be an increasingly barren and isolated outpost.
The underlying project of the book, of course, is to preserve a sense of hope, religion being in the words of Marx, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". Hope and meaning are the inner resource by which we live, and atheists, with their smug intellect and heedless destruction of all that others hold sacred, are thus, even if right, enemies of humanity in this sense. (Unless religion is not, after all, our only hope.) Marx hoped that his worldly revolution would redeem us:
"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower."
Unfortunately, communism failed utterly to cast off the chain of capitalist struggle and mundane existence, so our choice may well be between bearing the chain without flowers and bearing it with flowers. Philosophers should probably choose the former.
Chapter nine transitions to the "sell" part of the book, where the imagination tools (as the new agers here in Marin like to put it) get revved up in service of the Christian message. No longer is belief just putative or reasonable in the face of uncertainty. It is probable. And not only that, it is the only thing that stands between a horribly, unimaginably abused and destroyed person (Reitan provides grisly scenarios), and total despair.
Now, it escapes me why, just when the world has kicked a person in the teeth, Reitan would like to tell her that the world is, by his philosophy, intrinsically good and looking out for them. That would seem palid, even insulting. Perhaps this is a matter of temperament, or it may presume cultural indoctrination that also has little to do with truth or philosophy. At any rate, I would think that the hope we live by should have solid foundations- in us, as hoping beings doing good- not fantastical ones, pulled out of tenuous theological arguments. Reitan admits that theodicy- the resolution of evil- is not theology's strong point, yet by his narration it is also its main point, providing essential hope and sustenance against the evils that abound. In short, we end up where we began, swirling within an enormous exercise in wishful thinking.
Chapter ten makes a plea for the worth of organized religion as the leading way to integrate positive spiritual emotions with the negative ingroup-outgroup dynamic inherent in human nature and human communities. I agree fully both that divisiveness and xenophobia is perhaps humanity's leading defect, and that the spiritual/pan-empathic emotion is humanity's best and opposite emotion. It is ironic that Reitan is happy to trot out an evolutionary explanation for the former (with which I agree), but not for the latter, which Chimpanzees apparently experience as well. Since he takes the intuitive appearance of experience seriously for positive mysticism (as being "veridical"), then he should also accept reports in the vein of "the devil made me do it" for less positive emotions. But that would admit a dark deity, which is contrary to Reitan's wish/definition of God as all-good. Such imbalances pervade the book, despite its extremely sincere efforts to leaven its apologetics with an understanding and appreciation of the other side of the argument.
And not to put too fine a point on it, it is theology that transmutes the better emotions of love/agape into the worse emotions of group identity and competition, by devising fabulistic group-specific narratives and interpretations that harden into "truths", which one group "knows", and others don't, based on celebrity prophets and their lineages of interpreters. Reitan is well aware of this dynamic and offers only the most brief and personal endorsement of the Christian story with Jesus as its star as the best of all elaborations of the pan-empathic impulse (as did James and Schleiermacher before him). But why indulge in such preferences at all?
We feel drawn to symbols of the unseen and dimly understood inner life, and rightly treasure communal and artistic expressions of these deep currents, of which the spiritual/pan-empathic emotion is the very best. Reitan is correct to put prime emphasis in his theology on its source in dreams, visions, and mystical experiences- the personal transcendant function (or more simply, the unconscious). But it is mistaken to equate this with the cosmic transcendent function, firstly because we know nothing whatsoever about cosmic origins or of any remotely plausible connection between the two phenomena. And secondly because such vastly inflated and inflating claims feed the logically unbounded, grandiose, and divisive aspects of religion.
There was a time I used to reject those who where not of my faith. Now,my heart has grown capable of taking on all forms.A pasture for a gazelles, a convent for Christians.A temple for idols, a Kaba for the pilgrim.A table for the Torah, a book of the Koran.My religion is love. Whichever the route love'scaravan shall take, that path shall be the path of my faith.-Ibn Arabi
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