Like millions of people I watched Felix Baumgartner’s space jump last Sunday. He leapt from a tiny capsule pulled 24 miles into the sky by a helium balloon. He fell to the ground from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier, and several records, in the process.
I found his achievement moving and compelling. And this surprised me because quite often I find extreme feats of this sort rather sterile, and perhaps a little bullet-headed. When someone walks across the Antarctic, or climbs Everest without oxygen, it seems to involve a chest-beating determination to assert oneself against nature. The self-assertion makes it seem a small inward-looking response to the largeness and awesomeness of the world. It reminds me of the character in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin who takes huge pride in surviving against the odds on a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean, staving his hunger with vile rock-dwelling creatures and sheltering himself by squeezing into a tiny jagged hole. The astonishing twist in that story shows his pride in that narrow victory to be the very same thing as his failure to see and appreciate something much larger and more beautiful than his deluded and debased survival.
Golding’s novel has a belief in God at its centre. So as an atheist, I read it at arm’s length. I can’t share its central vision. Some or all of Baumgartner’s jump team are atheists too. That’s the message I took from mission control’s reassurance to Baumgartner that “his guardian angel” was with him. The notion of a guardian angel is so kitsch, so primitive and so not a part of most religious people’s experience of faith that it seemed to me that these colleagues of Baumgartner were stating their atheism at the same time as they indulged an (entirely understandable) need to supplicate (someone, something) for their friend’s survival.
That these scientists felt drawn to this playful but clumsy invocation of a supernatural entity in which they probably disbelieved gives me a clue about why I found Baumgartner’s jump so moving.
There is an atheist’s plight, I think. Not for all atheists, but for some atheists most of the time, and perhaps even for most atheists some of the time. The plight is this: there is no God, but sometimes invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives.
An atheist invoking God in response to peril can easily be seen as a momentary weakness, a panicked irrationality, so it is not terribly interesting. More interesting is the way an atheist might feel when contemplating the strange empty infinity and complexity of the universe and the sheer oddness of being a conscious presence within it. We might not be at all tempted to say that the idea of God needs to be invoked to explain the universe. But the idea that God exists and that we humans are in a state of separation from that God can seem like a very vivid way of experiencing our awe in the face of a not-yet-fully-explained universe and also of capturing some central philosophical problems. The idea of a God from whom we are separated and whom we strive to rejoin (the idea of a fall followed by redemption) has in the past lent philosophy some of its fundamental structure. Hegel’s self-positing spirit, for example, is a version of God coming to self-knowledge through a process which involves first the generation and then the overcoming of separateness. And even if we eschew Hegelian ways of thinking, the idea of a God that we must strive to rejoin feels like a rich metaphor for the traditional philosophical project of characterising reality in a manner which makes it both independent of us and yet within our knowledge. The truth (if it is a truth) of the atheist’s claim that there is no God sometimes seems like poor compensation for the loss of the religious worldview – because that worldview is a very beautiful and metaphorically fertile orientation to the strange condition of being conscious in the world.
So, just as Baumgartner’s colleagues summoned the idea of a guardian angel to fill the space left by their disbelief in God, I too look around for metaphors to fill the space left by my own disbelief in God. And Baumgartner’s endeavour at the physical margins of our world, the point where it joins the universe, seemed to fit the bill. Where Pincher Martin, in Golding’s novel, squeezes himself into a small hole on a small rock and feels big, Baumgartner took himself to the edge of the largest possible space to (in his own words) “see how small he was.” It was (corny expressions seem unavoidable here) an encounter with the infinite. The symbolism of falling also has poignancy. It speaks of a chosen passivity, a surrender, very different from the assertive striving of a Pincher Martin, and very resonant with Christian mythology. Finally the sheer pointlessness of jumping from space seems a rather heroic defiance of the meaninglessness that threatens to engulf us when we look at a vast universe empty of mind: it embraces meaninglessness joyfully and colonises it with purpose.
I don’t want to spend too long teasing out the symbolism of the jump. Instead I want to ask a question. It seems from the above that we (or many of us) have a need for what might be called aids to reflection, aids to the contemplation of certain fundamental features of our presence in the world. If a belief in God is not available to us as a supplier of such aids, we look for it elsewhere. What I want to ask is this: Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection? If we reject every distinctively religious claim (that there is a god, that there is a soul, or an afterlife, or reincarnation …), if we say that religion offers us no truths of its own but only resources for the contemplation of the truths of science and philosophy, and if we say that religion is not even the only supplier of such resources because art and literature and jumping men are also resources, might it still be possible to be religious? Note that I’m not asking a question about the value of religion, considered from outside the religious perspective. I’m asking whether the religious perspective itself can survive a certain view of its status. In a review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists John Gray quotes Keats to suggest that “the heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” But can a religious person really and wholeheartedly subscribe to such a view?
I think that this question translates into (at least) three more specific questions (only very roughly formulated here):
(1) Is it really true that a religious practitioner can give an entirely “non-creedal” account of religion, one that does not claim there to be any distinctively religious truths and states that religion is simply not about belief? Quakerism, for example, advises us to “remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.” But is it, in fact, possible for a religious person consistently to sustain this religious non-cognitivism?
(2) If religion turns its back on the notion of religious beliefs, can it still maintain a distinctive territory for itself, or does it simply become a part of art and literature? If we contemplate God without asserting his existence, and derive very important lessons from the contemplation, what – if anything – makes this different from contemplating, say, Achilles, or Hamlet, or Dorothea Brooke?
(3) A version of religion which denied the existence of God, and of every single other supernatural phenomenon, would be a very profoundly revisionist one. It might be one that almost every single religious practitioner rejected. Is such extreme religious innovation coherent? Or does religion have to be defined in terms of (certain very general) widely shared features of people’s actual religious practice?
Perhaps these questions seem unmotivated: if one rejects religious belief, why struggle to find common ground with religion? That might very well be a good question. But the extremity of the current antipathy between atheism and faith seems to call for an exploration of different, happier and more mutually enriching forms of interaction between them. So I’d be grateful for any comments that considered the three questions above. If John Gray and Keats are right, and religion is, not about belief but about “being in uncertainty,” are those questions the right ones for the project of making sense of religion so-conceived? How could they be better formulated? What further questions are there for that project? What direction might the answers take?