Saturday, October 1, 2016

And Don't Slam the Door

When I saw the teaser for Jack Miles's December 2014 (though I just now happened on it) essay at the Atlantic, "Why God Will Not Die," my first thought was, "Well, he's undead -- of course he won't die."  I've always been baffled by the "God Is Dead" trope, since a non-existent being can't die; but it can't live either.

The piece concludes:
But when life refuses to wait any longer and the great game begins whether you have suited up or not, then a demand arises that religion—or some expedient no more fully rational than religion—must meet. You’re going to go with something. Whatever it is, however rigorous it may claim to be as either science or religion, you’re going to know that you have no perfect warrant for it. Yet, whatever you call it, you’re going to go with it anyway, aren’t you? Pluralism at its deepest calls on you to allow others the closure that you yourself cannot avoid.

Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.
That is one of the most stunning non sequiturs I have ever seen.  It may be that Miles meant that we should resist the craving for closure, which is at odds with pluralism, but he's so incoherent that I can't be sure.

The comments are not impressive either.  Here's a bit of the first one:
If one is religious, that religion ought to provide, if not answers, at least a path which one can follow to work toward answers. If one is not religious and has no supernatural belief which suggests a life after death existence, why spend time on this stuff? This isn't, I hope, a completely nihilistic viewpoint. I think it is possible to live within and by a moral code without believing such a life to be in the service of some deity. To put it another way, one can be a good person, a moral person, a person all of us would be happy to have as a neighbor, without any idea that it means anything beyond being a good neighbor on a day to day basis.
This is a remarkable, though not very tasty, salad of cliches.  That first sentence, for example, about what religion "ought" to do, would I think have surprised many devoutly religious people over the millennia.  Religion has never been satisfactorily defined or delimited, but it's remarkable when the kind of people who insist that you don't have to have a religion to be a good person then turn around and equate religion with being a good person.  If you look at the history of religion, it is as much about rites and rituals, maintaining purity, communicating with spirits through prayer and sacrifice, and so on, quite separate from any interest in morality.  You couldn't actually separate out morality from this conglomeration like a yolk from the rest of the egg, of course, because "religion" covered all of life, but that's exactly the point.  Morality is no more the essence of religion than ritual is, but different religions (and the same religion at different times) emphasizes this or that element and de-emphasizes others.

Then there's that word "supernatural," another one of those words that people keep using, I do not think it means what they think it means -- or that they have any idea what it means.  Suppose for the sake of argument that human beings have a component that is separable from the body, that survives after the body dies.  There's no reason to call that survival "supernatural," not least because we have no idea whatever what it would be; we know nothing about it, and so we can't classify it.  It would presumably be as "natural" as the life we know.  If we ever do learn that such survival is a fact, and are able to investigate it and describe it, it will be as a "natural," not a "supernatural" phenomenon. 

If you read the Christian Bible on its own terms, rather than through the lenses of much later reinterpretation, you'll see that it regards "heaven" as a place, far above the earth and separated from it by the great dome that God built to separate the waters above from the waters below in Genesis 1.  Mountains were considered holy and therefore dangerous places because they were spatially closer to heaven.  But you could be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by a chariot and horses of fire.  When the resurrected Jesus left his disciples, he rose into the heavens.  And so on; the writers were inconsistent about it, because they didn't really know anything, and the conception became metaphorized, much as other important concepts (like "spirit") did.  But even in twentieth-century America, there were people who believed that astronauts would end up in the Christian heaven if they went high enough.  There was nothing "supernatural" about that belief; they regarded heaven as a place like the earth.  "Supernatural", as Merriam-Webster puts it, means "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially :  of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil" -- but these are all vague boundaries.  What do "visible" and "observable" mean, for example?  Were germs and electrons "supernatural" before they became "observable"?  What is the "natural" that the "supernatural" is beyond?  Notice that the spatial metaphor is built into the word itself, but what is the literal truth behind the metaphor?

Then there's the little matter of "being a good person."  There is some broad, and vague, consensus about what that might mean, but all the qualities involved are subject to a lot of interpretation.  A good person would, among other traits, be truthful -- except when not telling the truth was preferable.  (Immanuel Kant rejected the idea that it could ever be preferable to lie under any circumstances.  Susan Neiman went over his reasons at length in her excellent book Evil in Modern Thought [Princeton, 2002], but I'm going to dodge discussing them because most people don't agree with Kant; his position is avowedly at odds with the broad, vague consensus I'm referring to here.  Similarly, a good person won't kill -- unless in self-defense, or unless the State orders him to.  Vengeance is bad, but also a duty.  And so on -- what it means to be a good person in specific cases is disputed, not as an ivory-tower exercise but very hotly as a practical everyday matter.  Religion doesn't give any definite answers, or even "a path which one can follow to work toward answers."  But there is no single path toward answers outside of religion either, wherever "outside" might be.  This might even be, contrary to the commenter's assertion, a nihilistic conclusion.

Is it possible to be "a moral person ... without any idea that it means anything beyond being a good neighbor on a day to day basis"?  Not for human beings, but then "a moral person" and "a good neighbor" are abstractions, not observable realities.  Other animals have impulses and reactions, and they police each other's behavior, but they don't have morality.  When we start using words, and as human beings we are condemned to do so, we move beyond the "day to day" and try to link our wishes and aversions to the Universe, to find what we want built into its structure.  Atheists who try to construct morality from "reason" or "science" are not in principle doing anything different than religious moralists: if they don't believe that a Robin Redbreast in a cage puts all Heaven in a rage, they still talk as though Reason has an opinion on the matter.  It doesn't.  One of the reasons why "God won't die" is that although the religious don't possess Truth, and indeed can make no real sense of the universe, no one else can either.  Meanwhile, the rites and rituals, the myths and stories, have the comfort of familiarity, and they're actually more malleable than many people (religious or not) believe.  I happen to agree that it is possible to get through life (notice I don't say "be a good person") without making grand claims about the means by which one does so, or what long-term end will be gained by it.  I think that morality is a severely local, human-scale matter that not only can be left open, it is left open, even when people claim otherwise.  But I also think that not many people are happy to leave it there, which may well be something we can't change.  I also think we can learn to be more humble about the limitations of our knowledge, but it isn't easy, and is a project that must be done day to day.  On the other hand, I don't think it matters in any larger-than-human sense, or how we'd know if it did.

So, back to religious pluralism.  Is it a higher good?  No.  Jack Miles, I think, was trying in his own incoherent way to make the point I'm making here.  It's not a transcendent value; it's a gritty practical conclusion based on experience; it's a truce.  As I understand it, the idea of religious tolerance became widely accepted, not because people really understood its value in the abstract, but because they got tired of being arrested, tortured, and killed by others, and realized they had to give up the pleasures of persecuting others in order to avoid being persecuted themselves.  The same is true of freedom of speech.  But I don't think most people, religious or not, have ever really been happy with the compromise.