Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against theology

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.
-William James, 1902

As I have engaged in debates on theism, I have been fascinated by the existence of theology. Believing in religion is bad enough, but to make a career of offering up absurd rationalizations and hairsplittings in its defense, in tomes of unread pablum, is surely worse (Ed note- and who, exactly, do you think reads this blog?). There are many sub-disciplines of theology of varying delusion, ranging from church history, biblical exegesis, and historical criticism, to the apologetics and dogmatics (even pneumatology!) that I focus on here.

My model of religion (following Carl Jung and William James, and consistent with contemporary evidence) is that it expresses vital psychological dynamics generated by the unconscious, which has personal, cultural, and universal components. The unconscious does not need to template itself to reality as the conscious mind does- it fantasizes, wishes, and dreams (and motivates). It is free from constraints of time and space, generating inchoate ideas of the supernatural. Religion is the practice whereby people coordinate their inner worlds into numinous social, philosophical, ethical, artistic, and therapeutic communities, seizing on key symbols to express the inexpressible.

If this were all, it would not be so bad, but the typical practice is to believe that the symbol is not a symbol, but is real- that divinity is not a metaphor but the personal description of a prophet, that the father in heaven is not a symbol of transcendence and life, but an actual ruler, comforter, and judge, and that the world itself, instead of being what it is, is something else, created by the father figure and destined to some apocalyptic end, hopefully imminent, followed by personal immortality. Religions make supernatural phenomena a focus- even a test- of adherence, bonding members by communal dreams. These projections of the unconscious are natural and numinous, but of course have nothing to do with outer reality. Indeed their whole power comes from their disagreement with outer reality- the more preposterous the better, as exemplified by miracles.

This error is carried to great lengths by those who devote their waking moments and mental energies to justifying the dreamscape that is religion, posing putatively rational arguments and sophistry of all kinds to ward off the suspicion that their emperor not only has no clothes, but no reality at all. Since all honest theists acknowledge that the mystery of faith is at its root inexplicable and irrational (gloriously so), it seems odd that there is a class of people employed to find just the opposite. Strange, but humans come in different kinds, and some operate on a more conscious, ego-driven level than others, feeling the mystic impulse, (one hopes), but unwilling to give up reason. They must find ways to rationalize the irrational, to square the circle.

One simple sign of the oddity of theology is its parochial nature. Science, art, and technology are international- one discovery is the world's discovery- universally appreciated, applied, and added to the growing corpus. No special efforts at ecumenical science need be hammered out across fractious borders. Religion, on the other hand, has as its criterion traditions of psychological symbolism that are often recognizable by all, but are also culturally specific, sometimes requiring prodigious feats of indoctrination and credulity. It is all too easy for one tradition to dismiss the absurd beliefs of its rivals, a very modest skepticism being sufficient to render biting, dismissive, and accurate critiques. How odd, then, that the beam in one's own eye should be so invisible!

Yet so it is, and schools of theology of all kinds press on to organize, categorize, and systematize what is inherently artistic and irrational- what should never have been taken literally in the first place.

Incidental links:

A philosophy podcast interviews theologian (or possibly ex-theologian!) and fellow-biophilic Don Cupitt, apropos of this blog entry.

Roger Ebert reviews Ben Stein, ID, and Expelled.

PS: Apropos cartoon

A couple more quotes from William James, from The Varieties of Religious Experience:
I believe, in fact, that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any of the other wider affairs of life, in which our passions our our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it can not now secure it.
The pivot round which the religious live, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in this private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.


  1. You leave out an important dimension of James' thought concerning religion, which is expressed concisely in the following quotation:

    " is logically conceivable that IF THERE BE higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so MIGHT BE our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them. The hubbub of the waking life migth close a door which in the dreamy Subliminal might remain ajar or open."

    This passage is taken from the discussion on conversion experience (in _The Varieties of Religious Experience_) in which James explains conversion experience in terms of the sudden submission of the conscious mind to an alternative world orientation that has been gradually building in the subconscious. It might be viewed as a kind of bone thrown to supernaturalists, but larger themes in James (which emerge in his chapter on Mysticism as well as essays in _The Will to Believe_ collection) suggest otherwise--they suggest that what James expresses here as a POSSIBILITY is in fact what he believes (WITHOUT certainty) on pragmatic grounds.

    Of course, you could dismiss James here as someone who was unwilling to fully relinquish his culturally inherited supernaturalism, and so was struggling to carve out a space (however implausible) in which that inheritance could be reconciled with his psychological insights. But to do so is to ignore the fact that, in fact, nothing in our empirical or psychological experience can rule out the possibility that James here articulates.

    Of course, nothing in our ordinary empirical or psychological experience can establish the truth or even the likelihood of the "supernatural influence on the subconscious mind" hypothesis. But what follows from this? One path is to invoke Ockham's Razor and say that, since religious experiences can be accounted for in terms of the various influences of the subconscious on the conscious mind, we should avoid needless postulates and so dismiss the more complicated hypothesis to which James alludes.

    But this is not the path that James follows, because for James, the pragmatic influence of belief is a more important criterion for assessing the legitimacy of a belief than is the call for simplicity.

    If we read his work carefully, what we get is the following message: Our experience is conceptually ambiguous, and can be interpreted in competing ways that are equally consistent with the empirical facts on the ground; when choosing which interpretation to embrace, we are inevitably going to be motivated, at root, not by reason and evidence but by certain dispositional inclinations; and which inclinations we ought to go with should ultimately be decided based on what it will mean for how we live our lives that we have allowed THIS inclination or THAT inclination to reign supreme.

    An excellent contemporary discussion of how James saw the religious option in relation to naturalistic one is offered by Charles Taylor in his very concise little book, VARIETIES OF RELIGION TODAY.

  2. Firstly, the piling of hypotheticals, is just that- tenuous in the extreme. Secondly, while James was in this work playing devil's advocate (and quite eloquently) for both sides, his final position was one of frankly despairing of making any sense of the religious position, ascribing it to feelings, and accepting it (pretty meekly, really) on those terms for his own personal preference.

    As you should be well aware, the spinning of unprovable and unfalsifiable hypotheticals is a crutch for preconceived commitments, not a mode of argument. While the pragmatism that James subscribes to might, in the end and in his day, justify religious practices of a conventional variety, (Hitchens et al. might differ!), it can not justify theology per se, and I do not think that James claimed that it did so.

    Lastly, I have dipped into Taylor's Book on the Secular Age, and judging from that work it is extremely hard to believe that he is capable of being concise elsewhere, or philosophically sound, for that matter. But if it ever comes to my library, I will check it out. The publisher's copy is not promising...

    "While recognizing James's extraordinary insight into the spiritual needs of the modern world, Taylor makes one major criticism: that James rejected the legitimacy of communal religious experience, i.e., the experience of Church, and concentrated on individual religious experience as paradigmatic."

    What is supposed to be legitimate about the communal experience? One would think that the experience of the 20th century would make one wary of imputing "truth" of any kind to communal experience, however moving.