THE CASE FOR GOD

The Case for God

The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, is intended as a response to the “new atheists.”  These passionate writers derive their energy from the recrudescence of sectarian violence which is such a prominent feature of our times.  They cite science to deny the existence of “God” and then launch a withering critique of religion on the grounds that this “erroneous” belief foments violence. 

 Armstrong says religious violence is due to the false assumption that we can “know” God.  The various systems of “knowledge,” — religions — mutually threaten one another’s claim to truth.  Violence is the result.  To attack religion on factual grounds, as the “new atheists” do, is to fall into the same error.

 “God” cannot be known, she insists, and the religious history of Western humankind illustrates that insight. To prove her point she marshals a huge amount of historical data — battalions of witnesses to show that religion as it should be is “apophatic.”  Apophatic means “ineffable.”  Nothing coherent can be said about “God” and therefore there is nothing to fight about.  Of all ideas, “God” should be the last one to be the source of conflict and violence. She claims God’s unknowability has been the basis of authentic religion for at least 30,000 years.  If there is violence, it’s because that has been forgotten.

 There is no denying the formidable scope of her research.  She covers a vast array of historical events and personages.  The amount of detail forces her, at times, to abbreviate.  Summing up Thomas Aquinas in a few pages, however, or Spinoza in two paragraphs, can make her analysis some­what cursory and her characterizations not entirely accurate.  With Spinoza, for example, she stereotypically labels his vision “atheistic” with no further nuance, leaving completely unexplained how poets like Novalis, Coleridge and Shelly could all have called him a “God-intoxica­ted man” and Goethe referred to him as “theissimus.”  It seems her strategy is to win the day by the sheer volume of evidence, even though any given item may not be all that elucidating or compelling.

 The Case for God is a survey.  She eschews establishing a “position.” Consistent with her thesis, such attempts at identifying a definitive “truth,” she suggests, can be examples of the vain pursuit of a “knowledge” of God that cannot be had.  Disputation undermines the harmony that the appropriate relationship to “God” should engender.

 I agree with elements of her thesis, but I take exception to her approach … and the approach always enters substantially into the vision.  The “survey” genre necessarily involves questions of interpretation that are not indisputable, even though she gives little recognition to differences of opinion.  I believe that claiming to avoid “disputation,” therefore, is something of a camouflage.  She has a position, in other words, and the differences among her sources and possible alternative interpretations are submerged in some “general” agreement over which she alone presides. 

 Secondly, I believe she cannot prove her thesis from history.  Western religion, at least since the beginning of the common era, has been anything but apophatic, harmonious and non-disputational.  Like it or not, if she is going to make her point it means she will have to challenge and criticize this contentious religious history.  That can only be done from outside history, with rational argumentation. 

 Mythos and logos

 She begins by immediately characterizing religion as mythos which she sees as necessarily connected with religious practiceMythos is poetic, non-literal narrative; it is distinguished from logos or speech that pretends to “know” and to say something “literally and rationally true.”  It is when religion mistakenly tries to present itself as logos, she says, that the problems begin. 

 The first chapter starts 30,000 years ago with the cave paintings of Lascaux.  She claims there are two “core principles” to be discovered in the study of the earliest religions: (1) there is no personified “God;” the Sacred is perceived as being, not “a being,” and (2) that myths are not facts that are meant to be taken literally. (p.10ff.). 

 On the first: She fails to acknowledge that such a statement about being is a philosophical-theological interpretation. She seems to be suggesting that the earliest religions were solidly apophatic and that all anthropomorphism was a later development.  But too little is known about ancient people to make such sweeping judgments.  Her interpretation, based on the Hindu Vedas, needs to be substantiated before it can stand as a premise.  Even the scant historical sources that there are do not seem to support the claim that there was ever a period in which no anthropomorphic “gods” existed.

 On the second: To urge that we should not take myth as a literal fact, does not acknowledge that the ancients actually did consider it a fact.  There was no “scientific sense” in those days and so claiming they did not intend it scientifically is a meaningless distinction.  The ancients had an anthropomorphic vision of the “gods” that they thought was an actual fact.  All our current religions originated in pre-scientific times.  What science has subsequently discovered cannot be ignored.  Religion cannot be exempted from incorporating new knowledge and adjusting its God-speech accordingly.  That is what the new atheists criticize — that religion is given the privilege of bypassing reality.

 Logos and philosophy

 For Armstrong, the mythos-logos division is sharp and exhaustive; there is no middle ground.  She does not seem interested in the possibility that there may be a way to work between science and religion using a discipline compatible with each and useful as an interface.  I am convinced that philosophy was once that interface, and could be again.  But for Armstrong, philosophy is just more logos, the enemy of mythos.

 She is not alone in her bi-polarity. There has been a general discreditation of philosophy in our times, and it has not only allowed inept scientists to pontificate wildly outside their area of competence, it has also rendered theology hopelessly inarticulate.  Her position, which seems to defend religious practice without explaining exactly why, I would personally categorize as “inarticulate.”  Without a “literal” way of speaking to the discoveries of science, or clearly defining the “realities” of religion, believers can do little more than hope that their opponents will understand the language of religious metaphor (even while denying any clear understanding of it themselves).  Without philosophy religion has no other words to communicate with but its own, and if they are poetry, only believers will know what they mean. 

 That would also explain why Armstrong’s “argument” is simply an avalanche of stories about religious people, their programs and their practices … not a systematic presentation of what she thinks is true.   By steering clear of reasoned argumentation on principle, however, she has a hard time identifying exactly what she thinks, and how she differs from others (and how they might differ among themselves).  Moreover, without other sources of “proof,” she may be tempted to hear more from her historical witnesses than they are actually saying.  Her treatment of Socrates is a case in point.

 In chapter 2, “Reason,” her tack is to show that Socrates, despite his apparent rationalism, saw his mission not to teach knowledge but rather wisdom, which for her is not to know but to practice.  She is, in effect, trying to nudge early Greek logos toward mythos … and she does it because that is the essence of her argument.  The only valid logos is that which leads the practitioner to mythos.  That Socrates was actually challenging the unquestioned belief in the myths of the Greek gods and their strange antics through the application of reasoned argument, she re-interprets to mean that he was rather, like a mid-wife, trying to help “the mysterious Sacred” emerge from the struggling minds of the youth of Athens. 

 Armstrong says that wisdom, for Socrates, is the unknowing that comes from experience.  Knowledge, book knowledge in particular, is static, and falsifying.  For Armstrong’s Socrates, valid ideas are never fixed or static, as one notional perception engenders another ad infinitum.  Hence “mind” open to mythos is manifest in dialog, but not aimed at resolution.  Mythic thinking is dialog in pursuit of wisdom — which is achieved only through dedication to self-improve­ment, praxis.  Hence it is endless.  There is no term.  Even Plato’s Academy is described in ways that evoke a monastic or therapeutic community not a center of research and learning.

 “Self-improve­ment,” without some logos determination, in my opinion, is open to anything.  I wonder what someone like Adolf Hitler might imagine “self-improvement” to mean.  The “unknowing” approach can be used to justify a dogmatic agnosticism, allowing entrance to destructive ideologies simply because we have no grounds for rejecting them.  It is as if the goal were “not to know,” and as if merely “not knowing” were the same as the unknowing of the mystics.  It is not. 

 Such unwillingness to seek clear answers leads to a kind of intellectual abandonment, where all matters of value remain irresolvable on principle.  Does this sound familiar? To my mind, it is a formula for the maintenance of the status quo.  We are, by these premises, confined to the inertia of the current system.  You cannot challenge premises … that is logos — arrogant self-projecting rationalism — the bane of mythos.  You cannot argue, you can only survey, report … and, I guess, pray. 

 She does not challenge those global religions which even today explicitly claim a literal absolu­tism of the most rigid kind.  I am speaking primarily of Roman Catholicism, which in this regard is one of the great violators of her vision of authentic religion.  But there are many others.  She takes on none of them.  She enunciates “principles” which are vaguely stated, supported by little argumentation, and with no direct explicit recommendations for the real world.  She neither criticizes what she doesn’t like, nor promotes what she approves.  All that is left up to us … and she doesn’t tell us what tools to use in making decisions or how we might go about applying them.

 When she confronts the predilections of the age of reason and modern science (1500 to the present, Part II, p.161ff.), her argument takes a sharper focus.  This was the moment of error, she says, when religion tried to turn itself into logos.  She is out to correlate mythos with mystery and mysticism and oppose them to logos, scientism and literal fact.  Logos is repeatedly accused of being over-weening scientistic rationalism, and she does not discourage us from concluding that atheism is its ultimate product.

 Her earlier treatment of the mediaeval philosophers revealed her preference for Aquinas and Bonaventure over Scotus and Ockham.  The latter she accused of reducing the divine to what human reason can understand, while the former, she says, were true mystics who used philosophy precisely to “jam” human reason.  It is as if they were Zen masters, out to “confound human arrogance” and open to the apophatic.  But in my opinion, if you read Aquinas, that wasn’t his intention at all.

 This claim of hers is a reprise of her interpretation of Socrates’ maieutic method — also supposedly designed to lead not to knowledge but to unknowing.  She implies that in religion there is no truth to be had, or at least no way of expressing it.  Her projection retro-fits all of western history into her own scheme of things and supports her argument.  Actually she uses it in place of argument.  She does not like to argue.  She makes assertions that she does not have to prove or defend but only illustrate, because by her premises there is nothing to say or defend: religion is mythos, not logos

 Religious evolution … or “business as usual”?

I believe the Case for God is a questionable project as presented.  It proposes nothing less than to set religion apart from the rest of the ordinary human business of knowing what we are doing and justifying why we are doing it.  It is not hard to see that it is a self-protective argument that thwarts any critique leveled against it.  But it means no criticisms are ever valid, even those that challenge the most absurd religious beliefs or practices.  Its ultimate effect, if not intention, is to shield the status quo.  “You cannot criticize religion on factual grounds,” she says, “because religion is not that kind of thing.”  What kind of “thing,” then, is it? 

I agree that “God” is unknowable.  But I believe that statement has to be clarified and justified, and those that claim otherwise, refuted.  I also claim that religion is poetry and those that think it is a roster of alternative “facts” about universal and human history are deluded.  In the context of a literalist Roman Church, the claim that religion is mythos will have to be defended against Catholic dogmatism, as well as other fundamentalisms.  That can be done, but it will take argument.  And finally, I believe the current varieties of religious poetry (“doctrine”) must be critiqued in the light of our reasoned understanding of the “Sacred.”   Religion should be encouraged to evolve under the guidance of thoughtful analysis and discussion.  All this is the work of logos.  It’s what we do.  Religion is not exempted from the human project. 

 The conclusions she draws, based on her historical survey, tend to militate against what I consider the necessary steps in religious evolution. 

 First, I believe her approach ironically shields those fundamentalists who consider their beliefs to be literal “facts.”  In effect, her mythos defends all religions even those that are the very essence of logos.  No matter how much she claims that religious doctrines were never meant literally, they have in fact been taken that way by the masses of believers since time immemorial, and are so even today.  But if you are convinced, as I am, that taking doctrine as fact is the source of the horrors, individual and social, perpetrated in the name of religion, then you do not want people to continue in their delusions.  But to accomplish that, you will have to argue. 

 Literalism did not begin with Descartes.  From the days of the earliest apologists, Christianity claimed it was based on historical truth and ridiculed the legends of the gods and their cults as “mere myths.” (Cf the very early Open Letter to Marcus Aurelius by Athenagoras c.175 c.e. and the writings of Clement of Alexandria, c.190.) 

 Even the original NT testimonies presented religious beliefs quite unambiguously as “facts.”  Here’s a prime example from Paul, 1 Cor 15 (RSV), written about 54 ce:

 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died …, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, … he appeared also to me.  . . .   14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise. … 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

There is no way the above passage could possibly be interpreted as anything but an emphatic assertion of literal, historical, factual truth — witnessed and verifiable — of the resurrection of Jesus.  To claim that the resurrection was originally understood and proclaimed as myth is sheer nonsense.  If you want to say those people were deluded, that Jesus did not factually rise, as Armstrong clearly suggests on p.82, … and that religion does not require such a “fact” to be true to what it symbolizes … you have a perfect right to do so.  I do it myself.  But you can’t just ignore Paul of Tarsus. You will have to argue with him and those that believe him.  She, of course, will not do that.  Hence, those who hear in 1 Cor. the unmistakable ring of sincerity and the indisputable evidence of early authenticity, have every right, in the name of reason itself, to claim that the resurrection is a fact and therefore that the definitive answer to the human “problem” is to be found in Christianity alone.  It makes the subsequent history of Christian intolerance that includes pogroms, crusades, inquisitions and conquistas to “spread the faith,” understandable, if not predictable.  The claim that a providential all-seeing “God” could possibly have permitted such a global travesty and suspended the laws of nature to insure its accomplishment, makes traditional Christianity so internally incoherent, that it renders me, for one, utterly speechless. 

In the final analysis, you have to decide whether the resurrection of Jesus was an historical fact or not.  And to resolve this issue and many others, you have to enter the arena of literal, factual truth … on one side or the other.  Her belief that religion is “myth” may very well be right on the money.  I might agree totally.  But you cannot prove it with historical reporting alone without entering into substantive scientific, philosophical discussion and critical historical analyses.  

 Secondly, her approach serves to prevent the real integration of science into the overall religious life of western culture.  It justifies a “two-track” mentality that has come to characterize western thought, i.e., science and religion each inhabit their own domains.  She cites Stephen Jay Gould, apparently with great approval, for this position.  His concept of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) is exactly the kind of formula that supports her real intention: defend current religious practice against the “new atheists” and call for mutual respect and tolerance … business as usual. 

 Such integration as I suggest, however, involves the unambiguous acknowledgement that religious doctrine is not “fact” of any kind, but poetry.   But you can imagine the outcry from the churches.  The reaction will prove that any claim that religion knows itself to be myth is simply wishful thinking.  Armstrong may consider all doctrine mythos, but that can only be established and its meaning clarified by recognizing that religion is ancillary to scientific fact.  That has to be stated, explained, proven and defended — argued.   

 Yes, I believe the issue can be resolved.  But not on the basis of historical illustration alone, nor by avoiding the thoughtful analysis that will inevitably precipitate dispute.  Philosophy and science, reason and facts — logos — must collaborate in determining the role of religion in our lives, and the nature of the Sacred.  Otherwise religion will do what it has always done — mystify us — based on its own dubious sources, premises and methodology.  Religion has an historical track record in this arena that is abominable.  Fail to change the terms of the debate and you are in for more of the same.

            That is the ultimate result, if not intent, of Armstrong’s project: more of the same.

 Tony Equale

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OF CARICATURES AND CURATORS

OF CARICATURES AND CURATORS: Daniel Dennett’s “new atheism” (II)

 1.  The caricature

 In the very beginning of Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett announces that he will limit his “examination” of religion to the ordinary anthropomorphic theism as practiced by the traditional ecclesiastical organizations. For those familiar with other ideas about “God,” it feels like  a caricature, the proverbial “straw man,” easy to burn at the stake.  The tactic exposes him to the accusation that his “study” is really just a replay of the old anti-religious ”attitude”  given fresh demand by the events of 9/11 and the aftermath.  The title itself reveals his thesis: religion has cast a spell on us, and it needs to be broken.  

 The idea of “God,” for many, has evolved beyond its traditional forms.  By professing to ignore what these people think, Dennett is being inconsistent, and it seems, prejudicial.  In his philosophical work he emphasizes the evolution of culture, but when it comes to religion he is strangely not interested in how it may evolve, only its demise.  By the end of Part II, in the Chapter entitled “Belief in Belief” he at least makes an effort at a cursory response to some of these more evolved ideas of “God,” — “refuting” them, of course — including that of Baruch Spinoza, to which he appears somewhat sympathetic but insists on calling “atheism.”  But more of that later.

 On the other hand, caricaturish though it may be from a theological point of view, mainstream religion in fact promotes exactly what Dennett takes aim at: a grossly anthropomorphic, literalist and primitive imagery that is at odds with the conclusions of science and even common sense.  Believers may validly challenge Dennett’s straw man as a caricature of religious possibilities, but they cannot deny that it accurately represents the attitudes and assumptions of 90% of mainstream religion — and I am not talking only about fundamentalism. 

However muted his manner, it’s clear that Dennett is an angry man.  Let’s assume, then, that this means his interest is actually in social reform.  If that is true, then we are in a different tribunal altogether.  It is no longer the “case against God” that we are dealing with, rather it is the case against the current version of religion.  But the institution whose danger to the common good is due to an archaic notion of “God,” does not need to die but to evolve.  If Dennett were to apply himself to that task, however, he leaves his best tools at home if he doesn’t ally himself with the other people who share his goal, and that includes many “theologians.”  After all, it’s not “God” that created religion, but religion that created “God;” and religion must now deal with what it has created in the light of the discoveries of science and the recrudescence of an intolerable sectarian violence.  Atheists are not the only ones who call the traditional anthropomorphic “God” an absurd, untenable and dangerous projection.  What needs to be examined and criticized in this case, are the social-institu­tional factors — the politics and the people as well as the theology they espouse — that are preventing the idea of “God” from evolving. 

 2.  The curators

 The persistence of a traditionalist, and scientifically incompatible religious world-view which Dennett so rightly attacks, is not just tolerated but encouraged and exploited by the authorities of the mainstream religions. It has ever been so. They are like the curators in a museum. Religion for them is the reservoir of (marketable) traditions, not a living instrument of human engagement and creativity.  In my opinion it reveals their inveterate venality.  Religion, whatever else it may be, is a business.  That fact suggests why these corporate managers and their paid consultants refuse to challenge the doctrines of traditional religion no matter how absurd they may be; it is the source of their careers and livelihood. It is almost laughable to hear them dismiss Dennett because he does not take on the more evolved versions of religious thought, when they themselves do nothing to  promote them in the real world.  Elements of their own ancient traditions that in the past offered an alternative were routinely suppressed or marginated.  In fact the common imagery about “God” has not changed much in 2500 years, making the Book of Job, for example, as relevant a read today as it was the day it was written.  In practice, in the real world, more advanced theologies are a minority report — wishful thinking — presented by academics whose efforts are controlled by arch-conserva­tive authorities.  At best these professors may explain and suggest; but generally they challenge nothing, they risk nothing. They are careful always to remain in the good graces of the authorities who make their careers possible.  The few who have stated the truth as they see it despite their opposition to the status quo, like Roger Haight, Charles Curran, Tissa Balasuriya, have paid the price with their careers.  

Dennett et al., in my opinion, are tackling a job that the theologians should have been doing all along.  Since the “new atheists” are not theologians, the way they speak about these matters may leave something to be desired.  But at least they are confronting the issue.  It’s about time somebody did. 

 3.  Religion is poetry

Religion is the translation of the mystery of the material universe and its transcendent creative dynamism into poetic symbol.  The events and facts that religion speaks of are metaphors.  Metaphors are not facts; they are evocative symbols.  Poetry, and hence religion, performs an important function in human life: it concretizes meaning in symbolic form giving it focus and force.  This is the whole story; there is nothing more. 

 The metaphoric dimension in religious doctrine — its significance and motivational potential — has always been its principle feature, even when it was taken as literal fact.  The horrors produced by religion, which the new atheists rightly condemn, are universally attributable to taking doctrine as literal fact.  To define religion as poetry is not really all that revolutionary.  Our best teachers have always encouraged us to look for the significance behind the doctrine; doctrine’s only importance was what it meant for us.

 Poetry plays an essential role in human life, but it does not describe physical, factual, historical reality.  Let me state unequivocally: there was no Intelligent Designer who created the universe by personal fiat, no Eden, no original sin, no loss of original immortality or bodily integrity; Jesus’ death did not “buy us back” from captivity to Satan, nor “save” us  from an insulted “God’s” implacable wrath; “God” did not write the Bible; there was no “virgin birth;” Jesus was not “God” in any usual  sense of the word; he worked wonders but not miracles; his “spirit” lives among his followers, but he did not physically rise from the dead; the wine at mass is not the blood of Christ and the popes are not infallible.  Many of us have already come to terms with these issues and many others. 

Yet all of these “doctrines,” taken poetically and mined for their significance in a culture that has “floated its boat” on them for more than a thousand years, can have a role in our lives as symbols.  But they need not be the only ones, and they need to be re-appraised.  Poetry also evolves,  Let’s explore this.

 Symbols, metaphors, explain, evoke and energize.  They are songs, legends, epics, flags, buttons, banners, war-cries, t-shirts, bumper stickers — they take many forms.  They have deep significance; they speak to realities that are important to human relationships, but they are not factsThey are human works of art, the vehicles of meaning, intentionality.  They are signs that provide an interpretation of what would otherwise be humanly meaningless data, equations, formulas, facts.  They are for use on the plane of interpersonal relationship where human beings struggle to survive, have their families and friendships, commit themselves to life … and prepare themselves to die.  Symbols take the mathe­matics of physics, chemistry, biology and organismic anatomy and put it into human language .  Religion is a narrative layer on a physiological base … a stony planet’s breathable atmosphere in which we survive as humans, with love, commitment and a sense of awe.  It’s not that religion has programmed us to want these things, it is the other way around.  We want these things, and so we have spun for ourselves a narrative that evokes them; we have created religion and a “God” that makes it all work.  Religion and its “God” is our narrative.  It is the product of human culture.  We cannot live without it in some form or another because we do not want to live without love, commitment and awe.  Dennett himself, even as he trashes religion, searches for reasons to justify freedom, responsibility, love, commitment and respect for the earth.  Of course.  He’s as human as the rest of us.  It’s what we do under the sun.

Because they are not facts, religious narratives are rightly called myths.  But since myth refers to something that never happened or never existed, for some people it means simply “fictional” as opposed to factual, and therefore false and not true.  “False” is a recent connotation in the history of this very ancient word.  “Myth came originally from the Greeks who used it to refer to the stories of the gods which explained the meaning of life.  Historia, another Greek word, tells the story of human events: what happened; myth was the story of why.  Myth is not history.  Symbol is not scientific fact.  I include all this under the general category of poetic metaphor. 

 There are different planes of existence.  That is not just a literary observation or poetic insight.  It is a biological fact.  It derives from evolutionary emergence.  Each level of existence builds on the one before it, and incorporates the earlier features even while transcending them all and establishing a new level of function never seen before.  The new level of function then takes the lead; it guides and directs, but it always remains biological.  It assumes a role Dennett calls heuristic.  The human organism is a new thing under the sun.  No other organism can do what it does.  It harnesses its bio-physical substrate to serve its needs, but it drives that substrate in new directions never before imagined.

 4.  Interpersonal relationship

 In the case of humanity, the level of emergence that is specifically human has given rise to a type of relationship among us that we call interpersonal.  Relationship is not unique to human beings, although the “interpersonal” way that we relate is. 

 The biological base on which interpersonal relationships are built is comprised of particles, properties and processes that, in their turn eons and eons earlier, had brought forth from the primitively physical, the chemical and then the biological.  At each macro-level of emergence, new features and functions appeared that had never existed before.  These emergent features in each case were heuristic — they began to guide the process thereafter, but always hand-in-hand with their substrate, immediate and remote.  Emergence is a product of evolution; it is not a new creation ex nihilo.  Later versions emerge from earlier versions the way an oak tree emerges from an acorn.  To an acorn, an oak tree is not something “new.”

 Interpersonal relationship is a feature of human emergence.  It is built on animal sociality and the survival advantages of group living, but it goes far beyond them.  Interpersonal relationship recapitulates the intentional stance which, according to Dennett, is responsible for human consciousness itself.  For humans, the intentional stance includes the recognition of recognition, both in the other and in myself.  Interpersonal relationship is what we humans do.  It is what makes it possible for us to identify ourselves and survive as human beings.  

 Interpersonal.  Can we unpack that word a little?

 We have traditionally distinguished persons from every other kind of organismic individual that we know — plants, animals, insects, fungi, protists.  Even some of the higher animals, with whom we may have intimate and affectionate relationships — our pets and farm animals — who reveal an unmistakable individual quality we call “personality,” we nevertheless are very careful not to call “persons.”  The word “person” we reserve for human beings alone.  Why?

 I will venture an answer.  We call “persons” those living individuals in whom we unmistakably see ourselves.  We see our special way of assuming an intentional stance (recognition) toward other things around us and our unique way of choosing among possible options without the coercions of instinct or necessity.  Animals, even our close friends, don’t seem to be able to do that.  Sometimes we envy them.

 If all we had were relationships with the animals, like Tarzan, we would be perplexed about ourselves indeed.  We would think there was something wrong with us.  “Why am I so unfocused … so drawn to multiple possibilities, so unable to decide?  My friends, the animals, seem to know exactly what to do in every circumstance … and even if it turns out not to be the most effective, they never second guess themselves.  What’s wrong with me?”

 Once in human community, however, our confusion about ourselves evaporates like the morning mist.  We are validated when we encounter other human beings, with a bodies like ours, who also recognize, wait, think, have options, vacillate.  The “other” reinforces my sense of my own reality.  This other is just like meNasco!  I am bornThis is the existential import of interpersonal relationships and the organic foundation of human sociality, and from there the collaborative project we call culture.  The human being is born as human in society.  Society is not a product of the individual; the individual is a product of society. 

 5.  Relationship and religion

Religion, then, in this scheme would be the natural human application of the intentional stance to the broader context of the source of our being and life.  Like all relationships, it is a human narrative.  All these terms and categories, by the way, for those who are not familiar with his work, are Dennett’s.  What seems strange to me is that he doesn’t apply them himself in the case of religion, and instead judges religion from the point of view of a “greedy reductionism” (another term of his) i.e., biological needs that in all other cases of human culture he rejects as non-heuristic.  For Dennett, consciousness, the self, personhood, freedom are all real emergent functions of the human organism produced under the guidance of the intentional stance.  They are created by human narrative: the recognition and protection of recognition.  Religion, I claim, extends that recognition to the “source” of all things.  Why aren’t the projections of religion examples of the intentional stance for Dennett?  Well, they are, he says, on p.109ff., and then characterizes intentionality (uncharacteristically) as primitively biological.  I am baffled.  He can’t seriously think that religion is “explained” by our biological needs?  (In that case, the apes would also have religion.)  And yet it seems that is exactly what he tries to show … as if to explain away religion’s human significance. 

 The evolution of relationships

 Human presence in the world is the product of a long interpersonal relationship of child to parent.  This is necessarily so because the human organism requires many years of protective nurturing before survival independence is possible.  The childhood self-identity that emerges from the relationship to parents creates a spontaneous “parental” assumption about the source of being and life for all things.  That is the “religious narrative” in a nutshell. 

 However, it does not describe what may be functioning at the biological, or chemical-physical level.  If at one time we thought it did, it was an understandable mistake.  Religion resides at the level of the intentional stance, the interpersonal relationship — the plane where we live.  That is the plane of poetic metaphor.  It is what our relationship to our “source” means in human terms — “parent.”  But the original projection that our source is literally a “parent” evolves.

 The evolution of relationships is a process we are quite familiar with.  As we grow out of dependence on parents for survival, we also grow out of the childhood identity — the erstwhile self — that was created and maintained in that family context.  Dependence cedes to an assumption of responsibility that makes our relationship to ourselves and our parents evolve.  The narrative changes.  It turns what was once taken as literal into metaphor.  Parental titles remain as symbols of respect, but these people are “mother” and “father” no longer.

 “Growing up” means accepting responsibility for one’s own survival in society-as-it-is.  Maturity implies submitting to the way our particular economic system functions and finding some way to fit into it.  Our religious narrative must evolve analogously.  The distaste many feel for the “impersonal” dynamics — random variation and natural selection — that characterize evolution, is similar to the resistance of the young adult to leave home and “get a job.”  “Fitting into” a self-evolving material system designed by bio-chemis­try and quantum mechanics is not exactly what 15 or 20 years of childhood in a human family prepared us for.  Bio-chemical physicality is the ground that our human family life emerged from and by which it continues to be sustained.  Cosmic matter is our source and energy.  It does not cease being our “source” nor do we cease being its “offspring” just because our “self” was constructed of a later “parental” narrative.  Christmas doesn’t disappear when we discover there is no Santa Claus … in fact, it does not really become “Christmas,” in the best sense of that word, until Santa disappears and baby Jesus becomes poetry.

 Part of “growing up” involves re-perceiving the role and reality of our parents.  They are no longer our providers.  They can no longer be considered “all-knowing” and tolerate whatever whims may suit our fancy.  For maturity to fully occur, parents must come to be seen as “ordinary human beings,” with their own needs, limits and the same shortsightedness that affects every individual.  We must see that they are no longer “all and only for us.”  But that doesn’t destroy the relationship or create a new one.  Rather the relationship evolves.  Optimally it morphs from co-dependence into friendship.

 Religion must mature in a similar way.  The projections and expectations of “providential” divine protection must come to be re-perceived for what they are: childhood fantasies.  To become adults in our appreciation of the Sacred … to move from pabulum to solid food … is to accept our Sacred Source for what we actually know it to be, not what the infantile fantasies of a primitive pre-scientific people imagined … much less the self-divinizing projections of an omnivorous theocratic empire.  It means adjusting to the facts.  We may not like it, but we have to grow up, or we will forever feel like orphans on the earth, bewildered by a material matrix that seems utterly alien to our human ways, even though it gave us birth.

 It is not accidental that I have used Dennett’s own vocabulary and imagery through­out this meditation.  I find his way of avoiding “greedy reductionism” while describing human realities as an intentional layer created by narrative that “floats” on a sea of bio-chemical physicality, to be extremely helpful in imagining the emergence and reality of conscious­ness, selfhood, interpersonal relationships and individual freedom that we cherish so highly.  In his system these realities are not illusions, even while they are groun­ded solely in the workings of material energy.  He rejects looking for some other factual source — like a spiritual soul — to explain human behavior beyond the bio-chemical physical base that we know is all that is there. 

 And just as he says we have an absolute right to “cherish” and “protect” the realities, like freedom, consciousness and personal responsibility — generated by our evolving narratives — which ultimately came to be “hard-wired” to the human organism, I say we have the right to cherish the narratives we use to express our necessary relationship to the creative source of our organisms and life, the material energy of which we are made.  Why Dennett suddenly abandons his own understanding of narrative intentionality in order to dismiss “religion” in all its forms absolutely bewilders me.  The only explanation for this inconsistency that I can think of is that he unduly limited himself to religion’s current infantile version at the start.  But religion is not necessarily tied to its primitive fantasies of parent-like “gods,” or to the Platonic-Cartesian illusions of an imaginary world of spirit.  He convinced himself that his straw man was all that religion could ever be — a dead man walking — unable to evolve.  You can’t prod this kind of religion to change, it’s a zombie.  He should attack it and we should all join him in the effort.  But we must acknowledge that his “reductionist” approach is inadequate.  The irony is that he has elaborated very creative tools for the interpretation of human realities.  He needs to use those tools to help religion evolve, not clamor for its disappearance (a project of doubtful possibility, at any rate)We are definitely better off without religion the way it is, in my opinion, but we will be severely impoverished if we deny ourselves use of the narratives, the metaphors old and new, that help us live with love, commitment and awe: religion the way it should be.

 We cherish ourselves, and the life we have as humans.  No one can deny us our love of life and the people that fill it, our friends and family, and our way of seeing and cherishing one another.  By the same token no one can deny us the right to cherish the source that we can clearly see made all this possible: the material energy of this astonishing universe … the quarks, gluons, electrons and neutrinos from which everything evolved. 

Dennett notes that Spinoza identified God and Nature, and asks, “was he personifying nature, or depersonalizing God”?[1]  Anyone familiar with Spinoza will know that he imputed no human qualities to God whatsoever.  He had to “depersonalize” God, because the only “persons” we know are human.  And apparently the only “God” that Dennett will permit is the humanoid version.  It follows then, everything else for him is “atheist.”  Pardon me if I find this superficial coming from a “philosopher.”  He seems not to know Spinoza … nor the scholastic categories from which Spinoza drew his austere vision.  Dennett has every right, in my opinion, to challenge the use of the word and concept “God” as hopelessly corrupted by the anthropomorphisms of millennia of benighted believers and venal hierarchies.  But he does not have the right to deny us the use of the poetic symbols and metaphors of our choice to celebrate our relationship to our source: the material energy of this cosmos where we “live and move and have our being.” 

  “The world,” says Dennett, “is sacred.”[2]  Ah yes, he noticed, too.  If so, then he shouldn’t be surprised if someone sings about it.  That’s all religion is … or should be.  Anything else is fantasy.

 Contemplating the stunning sweep of cosmic history which brought us forth as from a seed — our very bodies after all, are nothing but these particles and their irrepressible energy in an evolved form — it is understandable that a cascade of effusive metaphors might spontaneously erupt:  “… Mother …  Father … Almighty Architect … Friend … Brother … Lover … Sustaining Matrix … Eternal Destiny … My Self … My Home!”  

Material energy, after all, is our very self.   Once we realize how intimately we are related, where our very selves and our passion for life comes from … how can we keep from singing … ?

 Tony Equale


[1] Breaking the Spell, p.244.   N.B.  The ninth century Irish mystic theologian John Scotus Eriúgena in a similar fashion called God natura naturans … and the world natura naturata.  He suggested that material energy was itself only a metaphor.  He called it The Mask of God.

[2] Ibid. p.245