Being in Uncertainty

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?

 

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24 Comments.

  1. “Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection?”

    One of our speakers at the 2009 SkeptiCamp Phoenix defended such a view–arguing that religion was useful even if assumed to be false. Scott Atran’s work could perhaps lend some credence to the view, though it is unclear to me that the stance can be consistently maintained.

    I’ve seen similar defenses of practices of divination such as astrology and I Ching, as systems of interpretation plus an element of randomness designed to help the user break out of a fixed perspective and re-analyze a situation. But if the system of interpretation is fixed, the element of randomness may not be sufficient to really bring a new perspective. Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas of “guerilla ontology” and trying out alternative “reality tunnels” (Timothy Leary’s term) seem more likely to be useful in that regard.

  2. These are great questions, well motivated, and I’m sure can generate a rich discussion!

    Are religious claims concerned with truth? It depends.

    There are, I suppose, various ways in which a claim might be concerned with truth. An overly ambitious atheist might say that all religious sentences are non-cognitive, or lack truth-conditions. But this view assumes that ‘religious sentences’ have context-invariant meaning. But, in fact, very few (if any) sentences have context-invariant meaning. So it wouldn’t be right to arrive at a verdict about what is intended when uttering such sentences.

    A less ambitious critic of religion would say that all religious assertions are destined to have a direct influence upon the way that people draw inferences, and hence, upon the truth and falsity of propositions. I think this might be what some folks have in mind when they reject Steven Jay Gould’s NOMA thesis (that is, the doctrine of ‘non-overlapping magesteria’). The idea is that, even if we said (for the sake of argument) that religious sentences had no truth-conditions, nevertheless these sentences would have a reliable impact upon the kind and quantity of inferences that a religious person would be able to make without suffering cognitive dissonance.

  3. Angels play a central role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are many references to Angels throughout the O.T.and the N.T., the words of the Hail Mary are the words of the Angel Gabriel. The Angel Gabriel was the revealer to Mohammed of the Koran. In Hinduism there are beings that play a similar role, devas, asuras, gandaharvas. In Tibetan Buddhism you have dakinis and other guardian and tutelary spirits.

    The rest of what you say may be evidence of a vestigial religious sense or a symptom, I shall have to think about it.

  4. “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.”

    For me it’s almost the contrary, since so much of the teachings/texts of the divine relate to arbitrary restrictions on experiencing life. Indeed it’s almost as if to explore this strangeness, beauty and peril is seen as a blasphemy.

    The essential uncertainty of religion is the uncertainty of a mind in comprehending “otherness”, whether it is the collective of other people, or the unmanaged other of the universe. This is animism as a failure of the mind to allow for life and time to proceed without direction by a comprehensible mind.

  5. Growing up, I attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Not only are the three questions you pose possible, they are what seemed normal when I was a kid and thinking about religion. It was when I was 11 or 12, when our congregation started teaching us about other religions, that it even occurred to me that other people thought that religion provided truth. I still can’t shake the belief that the question of whether or not there is a god is neither important nor intereting.

  6. “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?”

    Absolutely, it’s well underway and known as religious naturalism. Naturalists are perhaps at an advantage in confronting existential questions that might not admit of factual answers but instead point to mystery. After all, we don’t attempt to construe existence as being *for* anything, since there’s no evidence for natural teleology. Existence, being, is fundamentally inscrutable; it transcends the meaningful/meaningless distinction we’re tempted to impose upon it. This realization works well as the cognitive context and inspiration for experiences we can legitimately call religious or spiritual, even though nothing supernatural is invoked, http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm

  7. I don’t like atheists because they have little or no humbleness in the face of the strength of belief that others might have. Why don’t you just say to the believer ‘The idea of a divine being does not work for me, but I defend your right to be joyful in your religious community and your deeply felt private feelings’? The brute socio-psychological fact is that religion is a powerful political and emotional force in society and for countless individuals. Which reminds me that the democrats of classical Athens executed Socrates lest he arouse the wrath of the gods to bugger Athens even more than democracy had just done. Aren’t you glad that believers have mellowed?

  8. Why don’t you just say to the believer ‘The idea of a divine being does not work for me, but I defend your right to be joyful in your religious community and your deeply felt private feelings’?

    There are a great many reasons, but here is a short and very simplified argument:

    1. Trust between relative strangers is impossible without the presumption of common ground.
    2. The presumption of common ground is impossible without the presumption of common recognition of facts.
    3. To the extent that religion impedes common recognition of facts, it reduces common ground.
    4. Therefore, so long as religion impedes the common recognition of facts, it reduces trust.
    5. The sense of social obligation is not possible without trust.
    6. Therefore, to the extent that religion reduces trust, it undermines the sense of social obligation.

    The upshot being that, to the extent that religion fails to keep up with science, it colludes with the disintegration of the society.

  9. @Boreas “The brute socio-psychological fact is that religion is a powerful political and emotional force in society and for countless individuals.”

    And the brute fact is that for countless such individuals, they believe that gives them the right to set the life agenda for non- or different believers.

    Going all “humble” in the face of that is simply allowing yourself to be enslaved by their beliefs.

  10. @BLS Nelson: science is not some monolith like the Roman Catholic Church. It’s much more like Protestantism with hundreds of related groups with different gospels and rituals; e.g. geology, petroleum engineering and resource industry economics. Or is economics not a science? I don’t think it is; but they give a Nobel Prize for it, so maybe it is.

    Now what’s this about “Religion colludes with the disintegration of the society”. Nonsense. Science colludes with the rich and powerful; go figure. As for humanizing society, churchmen have done more and better than any group of scientists. What scientist ever said “Slavery is wrong”?

  11. ” As for humanizing society, churchmen have done more and better than any group of scientists.”

    If your idea of making people more human is to stigmatise different sectors of the community, or to call on God’s aid in the battlefield, and to raise the tolerance towards torture, then you’re right.

    What science has done is to raise the standard of living of most of the planet above subsistence level and give people the opportunity to exercise those abilities which distinguish them from other creatures, allowing them to fulfil themselves in ways that centuries of churchmen would never condone, especially if they were women, homosexual, or nonwhite.

  12. Boreas, a few things:

    It is true that scientists do not arrive at wide consensus on all research. But when they do arrive at consensus (evolution, global warming), and it is ignored or displaced, then that certainly corrodes common ground. That’s really part of what contributes to the stark division between two large pools of the American population. It’s pretty strikingly implausible to think that Creationism does not contribute to the Manichean state of contemporary American politics, but that’s effectively what you’d have to argue if you really want to disagree with the argument I presented.

    A small point: there is no Nobel Prize for economics. There is a prize in honor of Nobel. It’s not quite the same, but is different enough that some people go out of their way to call it the “Nobel Honor prize” or suchlike.

    There is a large consensus around certain matters in economics. The ‘law’ of marginal utility, for instance, enjoys wide recognition. I do not know what point you’re trying to make on this.

    A substantial number of academics do indeed collude with the rich and powerful, and part of the system of academia is explicitly tilted towards power. That is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the marginalization of science contributes to the erosion of norms, and hence, the deterioration of American society.

    I am tempted to agree that some churches do indeed humanize the society. But again, that is irrelevant to the proposal. You can argue that scientists have an obligation to recognize values introduced by religion, for instance, and that would be consistent with the argument presented above.

  13. @Mike Williams: I agree that believers have done a lot to perfect torture — doubtless their persecutors need to practice their art. But spare me your anecdotal knock-down evidence. Would you be so kind as to point the way to the atheists’ operated food-bank and homeless shelter?

  14. @Boreas: In reference to torture, I’m referring to studies that show that more religious groups/cultures are far more likely to subscribe to the need for torture.

    Could we have more than anecdotes and argument-dodging rhetoric from you? Or are you of the believers that hasn’t mellowed?

    BTW Have you noticed that groups like the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders and many others operate without any religious overtones. There is no call for atheists per se to provide any service “as atheists”, any more than providing social services requires a layering on of religious proselytising.

  15. Claire Creffield

    Thanks for all the comments so far. Some very interesting pointers to follow up on. Especially BHS Nelson’s first post and information about Unitarianism and “religious naturalism”.

    I think it is valuable to keep in mind a distinction between how people of faith (and atheists/secularists) have as a matter of fact behaved and thought on the one hand and what thoughts and behaviour a religious stance actually entails. Think about how problematic it would be to try to reflect on the rules of a football match by considering the behaviour of football supporters in the stadium. Some of the supporters are furthering social and family bonds by sharing in a community activity. Some of them are racists and violent thugs whose loyalty to a team is a vehicle for hate. None of that crowd behaviour can illuminate the off-side rule.

    The (no doubt very crude) perception I have as an outsider to American society is that Christian faith is quite deeply implicated in social conservatism and in some cases with crude anti-science. But that is incidental to faith: for example the Christians I know best in my community are Quakers — typically left-of-centre, activists for gay marriage and peace and social justice, and enthusiastic proponents of scientific explanation. Religious belief isn’t in a vacuum. Religion is a pretext for social attitudes and loyalties, and vice versa. But it makes sense to extricate from all the psychological, sociological, etc., adjuncts of faith to think about what counts as a coherent religious stance in and of itself.

    And it might also be useful to keep in mind point (3) in my piece above: I was trying to think about what it might be coherent for an avowedly religious person to say about certain characteristics of a religious stance, even if that coherent position was profoundly different from the actual religious beliefs of most religious people.

  16. Claire Creffield

    I guess that the football analogy in my last comment was flawed because the off-side rule would be analogous to theology rather than to the philosophy of religion — the former being concerned with religious beliefs themselves and the latter with such questions as the status of those beliefs. But I think the point still stands: philosophical reflection on the status of the off-side rule probably wouldn’t be informed by football hooliganism!

  17. Even if religious people are more likely to help the homeless than atheists, when did charity become the chief test of virtue, if there is one, which I doubt?

    I would suspect that atheists are more likely to defend a gay person from discrimination, to march against unjust wars, to stand up for a victim of racial prejudice, to incorporate non-sexist values into their personal life, etc.

    It says something about contemporary society when charity work or charity giving become the principle socially recognized signs of virtue.

    You can be charitable without any costs, besides a bit of time or a check, while speaking out against injustice takes a bit of parrhesia and courage.

    I’d rather see Bertrand Russell than Mother Theresa as my model of a virtuous person.

  18. Being in Uncertainty - pingback on October 25, 2012 at 8:19 am
  19. I like Creffield’s comments a lot; especially the football analogy. I suss a deeper issue in all this. Does society exist to heighten the glory of its brightest and best? Or should all citizens be required to serve a greater good of the community. Athenian radical democracy was very much ‘glory to the great man’. In the Republic and Laws, Plato comes down on the other extreme: citizens must serve the polis so that the community will endure. In the Laws, he enshrines Zeus and Athena in his constitution. So, for Plato, religion strengthens the social fabric. Indeed, unlike science, religion does not have to make sense to do good.

  20. Benjamin Nelson wrote:
    3. To the extent that religion impedes common recognition of facts, it reduces common ground.
    4. Therefore, so long as religion impedes the common recognition of facts, it reduces trust.
    5. The sense of social obligation is not possible without trust.
    6. Therefore, to the extent that religion reduces trust, it undermines the sense of social obligation.
    The upshot being that, to the extent that religion fails to keep up with science, it colludes with the disintegration of the society.

    B.L.S. Nelson:
    Just today I was reading this strangely prophetic lecture:

    “But for Athanasius, but for Augustine, but for Aquinas, the world would have had its Bacons and its Newtons, its Lavoisiers, its Cuviers, its Watts, and its Adam Smiths, centuries upon centuries ago. And now, when at length the true philosophy has struggled into existence, and is making its way, what is left for its champion but to make an eager desperate attack upon Christian theology, the scabbard flung away, and no quarter given? and what will be the issue but the triumph of the stronger,—the overthrow of an old error and an odious tyranny, and a reign of the beautiful Truth?” Thus he thinks, and he sits dreaming over the inspiring thought, and longs for that approaching, that inevitable day.

    Such were the words of Cardinal Newman representing for his ironic consideration the attitude of ‘sola scientia’ of the day in ,Idea of a University/1852,1858. In philosophy it is difficult to be original even in ones errors.

  21. On the other hand, it is not difficult to formulate a direct refutation of a syllogism, if you think one is available. And this would probably be a more felicitous rejoinder than pulling out some irrelevant bon mots from the long dead.

  22. I see no syllogism merely the mirroring of Victorian scientism and prejudice which was refuted by the massive explosion of scientific know in the late 19th and 20th. centuries. I fully expect it to continue to be refuted.
    Is that abduction? An inference to the best explanation? i.e. that what was nonsense in the 1850‘s continues to be nonsense without a sound empirical basis.

  23. Well, it depends how hard you look at it. It’s true that the presentation above was not a strict or formal syllogism, because formal syllogisms are often much more stilted and make for awkward reading. Rather, the above argument has all the markers that make it something you can rephrase syllogistically if you really cared about it.

    Anyway, if this really is a sincere worry, I’ll rewrite the chain of reasoning so that it satisfies at least some of the most obvious traditional formal requirements. I won’t go too far with it, because as you’ll see below, it is not easy on the eyes.

    1. It is always the case that if there is trust between relative strangers, then there is a presumption of common ground.
    2. It is always the case that if there is a presumption of common ground, then there is a presumption of common recognition of facts.
    C1. It is always the case that if there is trust between strangers, then there is a presumption of common recognition of facts. (Hypothetical syllogism, 1,2)

    3. It is always the case that if there is any trust between strangers, then there is a presumption of common recognition of facts. (Repeat of C1)
    4. Some associations exist, such that they are religious, and such that they effectively impede the common recognition of facts.
    C2. Therefore, some associations which are religious are also effective at impeding trust between strangers. (Modus tollens, 3,4)

    5. Some associations which are religious are effective at impeding trust between strangers. (Repeat of C2)
    6. It is always the case that if there is a normal sense of societal obligation, then there is no effective impediment to trust between strangers.
    C3. Therefore, for all associations which are religious and which are effective at impeding trust between strangers, those associations effectively impede a normal sense of social obligation. (Modus tollens, 5,6)

    7. For those associations which are religious and which are effective at impeding trust between strangers, those associations effectively impede a normal sense of social obligation. (Repeat of C3)
    8. It is always the case that any associations which are effective in contributing to a functioning society must not effectively impede a normal sense of social obligation.
    C4. Therefore, for all those associations which are religious and which are effective at impeding trust between strangers, those associations are not effective in contributing to a functioning society. (Modus tollens 7, 8)

    [Edit: note that "no effective impediment" can be read as a double-negation. So 'No effective impediment to trust' means 'there is trust', at least for the purposes of this example.]

    As I said above in reply to Boreas, this argument is actually consistent with a defence of religion of a certain kind: namely, those that allege that secularists and scientists who ignore or downplay the importance of religious values are guilty of reducing trust in the society. But that’s not an implication that an advocate of scientism would accept. The advocate of scientism will say: the only people you should trust are the scientific experts.

    An attentive reader will notice that no claim like this ever appears in the argument I gave.

    There’s a reason for that. From the outset, I wanted to produce an argument from social conservatism. The social conservative cares about the effective functioning of society; they’ll use arguments from trust as a basis for the critique of science. The funny thing that I’m pointing out is that the argument from social conservatism cuts both ways. Social conservatives can’t reject commonly recognized facts without abusing the society they live in. The protests of Creationists, etc., make the social world more uncertain, more terrifying, less stable.

  24. Being in Uncertainty — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen - pingback on June 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm

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