Scattered thoughts on religion

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. Each has a perspective in it and both are mine.

Hand one: I take comfort in those who criticize religion thoughtfully, because the criticism reflects the vibrancy and strength of a society of free (albeit well-trodden) thought. Indeed, I think religious claims to authority ought to be vigorously challenged in the public sphere to earn their keep. Moreover, I find the ‘meaning of life’ question more honestly answered by watching the Discovery Channel than by the Summa Theologica or the Tao Te Ching. In epistemology I observe a relatively thick distinction between reasons and evidence, and insist that putatively divine ‘datum’ (revelations, intuitions, insights) do not count as evidentiary.

Hand two: Still, if you call me ‘atheist’, there is some sense in which my introspective life makes you a liar. I pray, and have prayed, as a form of meditation. Increasingly, existentialism has seemed rather point-missing (with the exception of Paul Tillich, who was canny). I think that Alex Rosenberg’s nihilism marks the low water mark of new atheist metaphysics. As far as the ethics of belief is concerned, I think William James had it over W.J. Clifford, owing to the histrionic bombast of the latter (despite some of the feeble arguments of the former). While I think people should generally assert what they know, uptake demands simplification, so knowledge is not a constitutive norm of rational assertion.

I can’t pretend that I’ve always had these views. As a boy, I was pious in the way that boys are, being attracted to the idea of playing a role in a bigger story. But gradually, I realized that the impulse to pray in Western Protestantism is often toxic, based on wish-fulfillment instead of enlightenment — and that felt creepy. Once I realized that culturally fashionable forms of prayer provided me with no moral comfort whatsoever, religion lost most of its appeal. I stopped caring as a matter of principle. As a young man, I preferred the term ‘apatheist’, meaning, constitutively agnostic owing to not giving a shit about the God question. Later, after witnessing the growth of religious lunacy in the US, I preferred ‘quietism’, meaning that I think religious belief is not public business.

The times have pressed me into transcendentalism, which holds that natural cycles are valuable independently of autonomous or collective volition. Transcendentalism fits nicely with my general, uh, shtick. There is certainly quite a lot of virtue in collecting your thoughts away from social media, and in rooting your sense of value in what can be justified independently of pragmatic consequences. The transcendentalist asks the individual to think of nature as a source of value — and this seems to require us to look hard for patterns of behaviors and to revel in them. In this sense it is the philosophy of discovery, of empirical daring-do.

Transcendentalism also has a better account of absurdity than existentialism, in the sense that a lot of life’s absurdity comes from the plain fact that quite a lot of nature is utterly, wonderfully, mechanistically bonkers. Not just because there is a conflict between the internal and external points of view (though there is), but because nature is weird in itself.


I guess this is all on my mind because, a few weeks ago, while enjoying my coffee, I overheard two Protestant evangelicals explain their feelings to each other in terms of apocalyptic death parables. They used code-phrases that were, apparently, quite significant to them; “keep the porch light on” being a favorite. That was followed up with rapturous references to Revelation theology, and the building of the third temple in Jersalem, and, etc. It does not take a master cryptographer to understand their meaning. It only takes an episode of Star Trek:Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. For them, “keep the porch light on” implies, roughly, “let me have something to live for”; and the apocalyptic references imply, “Or else.”

The thing that makes philosophy so difficult, and so valuable, is that it asks us to try to avoid errors in judgment that are associated with certain kinds of analogical conceptual processing. You see, the ways that we categorize our concepts have a direct effect on the ways that we ascribe and detect errors when we go about making inferences from one judgment to another, insofar as our inferences feature those concepts. Philosophy, at its best, asks us to raise our conversational game, to infer according to rules that are more theory-like and less story-like.

For the educated person, the dangers of losing oneself to the story-telling mind are all too clear. For it is possible, and all-too-easy, to find yourself reasoning exclusively by analogy or meme, operating from one dogwhistle to the next. Hearing people talk that way about how they think is absolutely, positively uncanny.

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. In the one, I have the weird — Douglas Adams (of Last Chance to See), Ursula K. LeGuin, and China Mieville; in the other, the transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.

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