Religion has no facts
In the short preface to his first book, known as the Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein states: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” He suggests that what lies on the other side of the limits of clear speech is “nonsense.” What kind of “speech” is religion? Is it something other than knowledge altogether? Does it fall beyond the limits of clear speech?
A friend recently confronted me with an objection that I have heard before. “You claim to be against Catholic absolutes,” she said, “but if you were able actually to get the changes you are after, you would have to propose that they were ‘necessary,’ and doesn’t that imply ‘absolute’? Wouldn’t you simply be substituting one set of absolutes for another? If you don’t, you’ll end up like the Protestants … is that what you want”?
Aside from pushing the instant recoil button for a Catholic at the mention of the word “Protestant,” the objection hovers somewhere in the vicinity of the traditional argument that truth is absolute. Protestant rejection of Catholic absolutism was traditionally derided as “relativism” in Catholic circles. Relativism is not an option, according to this viewpoint, for it would mean that everything is up for grabs. If people can believe anything they want, they can do anything they want and morality goes down the tubes. Morality must be derived from absolute principles clearly discernible in nature or deducible from the revealed facts of “supernature.”
The unstated assumption that underlays this way of looking at things is that religious belief corresponds to religious facts, real things, accurately represented in propositions — articulated statements and descriptions that can be codified, to which assent and compliance are evaluated and verified. “Truth” in this view is based on realities — definite identifiable “things” like the spiritual soul, the divinity of Christ, or sanctifying grace — which can be reliably established and accurately expressed. “Truth” is precisely the correlation between the “thing” as it exists in the real world (whether natural or supernatural), and the proposition that is used to refer to it. The full complement of those propositions accumulates to a world-view that may be called a doctrine or a philosophy or a religion.
A different view
But I am proposing something entirely different. I am not promoting a new series of propositions whose “truth” is better than the old ones, or a new set of moral and ritual practices that are more in sync with this “better truth.” Religion for me is not “truth” because religion has nothing to do with “things,” or facts, therefore it is not about the correlation between “things” and the propositions that define them. Religion is rather an active and interactive relationship — an activity — not objects or substances or places or even “persons.” Religion does not speak to what the things are that are out there in the real world; that’s science’s job. Religion speaks about how we as human beings are related to what science knows. And since all relationships are virtual realities not “things,” the language religion uses for all its propositions is metaphorical not “factual.”
Metaphor is the natural language of relationship because the content and subject matter of all relationships is freely chosen by the inter-relating subjects for purposes that have to do with the relationship alone. The content of relationships — the transactional material that sustains them — are interactive subjective recognitions, acknowledgements, stances, commitments, attitudes, affections, communications, valences, choices, which are all actions and activities. Relationship is an entirely inter-subjective phenomenon; it does not deal with “things” outside the relating subjects, like objects, places, persons — facts. The meaning of religion is entirely exhausted in relationship; there is no remainder.
Religion has no facts.
The only facts that religion relates to are as commonly known and as science describes them. Science’s descriptions, however, are limited to the terms its measuring instruments will allow. Religion goes further than science because it speaks about how those very same facts actively impact us as human beings — how they relate to us — and how we, in turn, relate to them. The facts are openly known and accessible to all; nothing is hidden. Religion does not have any new facts of its own. What religion does is interpret the relational dimensions of commonly known facts in two areas of deep concern to us: (1) the source and matrix in which we “live and move and have our being,” and (2) human community and collaboration for collective survival. Science describes those facts in the language of its tools: its probes, its experiments, and its mathematics; religion, on the other hand, describes our relationship to those very same facts in the language of the human conatus: i.e., what those facts mean to us — from the ecstatic gratitude we feel for our own existence, through human anxiety about death and annihilation, to human love and group survival. The categories on that short list are real but they are not things. They are matters of ultimate concern to human beings. They are the stuff of our significant relationships.
Religion has no facts. There are no places which religion alone knows about: no other world, no heaven or hell, purgatory or limbo; this world is all there is … there are no “things” or persons or entities that only religion knows about: no sanctifying grace, no soul, no sacramental character, no humanoid “God,” no saints or angels. What we see and science may discover and measure is what there is. There is nothing else. But how it all relates to the deep concerns of human beings and how we in turn relate to it are questions science does not address. Religion speaks to the human condition, human existential dependency, cooperative communal survival, human relationships, human demands for justice, fidelity, love. Existence is the same for all. But science doesn’t care how obsessively attached you are to it, or to those whom you may have lost … what you may be willing to betray to hold onto it … or how you may use others’ vulnerability to its loss to enhance your own temporary grasp of it. Science doesn’t care if you think existence cannot be trusted, or that you would just as soon be dead. Science may describe and measure moral fall-out but doesn’t really care whether justice, love and peace prevail among humankind, or what happens to us when it doesn’t. Science wants nothing; it simply describes what is there. It is we who need and want. Religion is the “science” of human need, human desire, and human choice for human values and ultimate concerns.
How does this play out? Let’s start with the notion of “God.” It is assumed that it is part of religion’s job to assert that there is such a “thing” as “God.” (It is also assumed we “know” what we mean by “God.”) Since, according to this tradition, “God” exists as an independent entity, it follows that that entity can be described fairly accurately by distinguishing it over against other “things” that are not “God.” The description supposedly mirrors the structure of reality. The propositions that contain those descriptions are judged by the accuracy of their correspondence to that structure.
But this theoretical correspondence between word and reality cannot be assessed and verified, because there is no identifiable “God” available for comparison. Religion cannot guarantee it speaks the truth about “God” because it has no source for that “fact” outside of its own declarations. “God” cannot be clearly pointed to, seen, heard, identified, measured, explored, questioned or tested, hence there is nothing for the word to be compared with. The only thing religion has to go on are the claims it has received from past generations of believers — earlier propositions. When those propositions are examined, it becomes clear that they were a pre-scientific set of conjectures commonly accepted to explain phenomena that are now understood by science to have natural explanations. “God” was imagined as a cosmological entity that effected cosmological change.
Once we let science inform us about what we now know cannot be attributed to this putative “God,” we find that it includes the rational design and intentional creation of the universe of things and ourselves in it. The “thing” called “God” as traditionally understood, in other words, does not exist.
After you shake down what remains, the only “factual” thing left is the human perplexity over existence itself: our “sense of the Sacred” (awe at the universe and its myriad forms) and our existential human anguish which widens to include aspirations for immortality and human communitarian justice. Traditionally we have always referred such questions to “God.” The intriguing thing is that today science can concretely identify the real “factual” source of those feelings. And that means that it is the source of those feelings that was, all along, the real ground of religion, for it is precisely whatever drives our addiction to existence which drove us into the arms of “God.”
These feelings are what I call, following Spinoza, expressions of the conatus: the intense, ineradicable, insuppressible, human attachment to existence … life … in the form of this organic configuration, the human body. The conatus, the human “drive to survive,” explains everything we are and everything we are driven to do. It is an observable, measurable fact at every level. It is the engine of human life. Our traditional notion of “God” — erroneously built on a false ancient “science” — corresponds with perfect symmetry to our necessary addictive connection to existence. The existential needs religion answers are organically embedded in our human flesh. They are not arbitrary; they are not optional; they are not fictions; they are not fantasies or illusions. We have no choice. Even when our minds tell us we do not need or want to exist any longer, our very bodies trump all else and prevent us from self-annihilating. The conatus — the urge to self-preservation — is an intrinsic feature of our organic make-up, just as it is for every other living thing that we have ever encountered on the face of the earth, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest animals. It is so ubiquitous and homogeneous in character that we have every right to suppose that it is an embedded feature of the very particles of matter of which all organisms are made.
What we have been calling “God” is precisely that which we have traditionally claimed corresponds to those deepest most inescapable needs as human beings. “God” is what we have always meant as the source and wellspring, the matrix, the guarantor and protector of existence. And it is “God” that establishes the paradigm of benevolence and self-donation whose imitation, since time immemorial, is thought to provide ultimate human well being. To live morally was to be “like God.” It was to dwell at the very fountainhead of being itself. It would heal us … make us whole … and totally happy.
“God” is not other
I claim that religion cannot declare “God” to be anything other than the source and matrix of existence for that is what generates the conatus. But what is this source, and what do we know about it? These are not “religious” questions; they are scientific. The existence we actually experience is not any kind of separate entity at all, as we used to claim for “God,” but rather an existential potential — an energy, a power (potentia) — that all things intrinsically possess and actualize (and we humans can experience, observe and measure) by continuing to exist from moment to moment. Existence is not a “thing,” it is an empirical activity which everything exercises each to its own degree. If this power, this material energy, is the wellspring and matrix of the continuously self-extruding existence of all things — the energy by which and in which everything exists and does what it does — then it is a universal process, and not a separately identifiable describable object or item or entity or “person” of any kind. If material energy is taken to be “God,” then “God” is not an entity or a “person;” “God” is a universal energy in process.
Existence is a universally shared energy which, in my case I would be justified in calling “mine.” It is something I am in touch with intimately, interiorly, but not something I can identify as over against myself. It is my very own act of “being here.” It is not-other than me. There is no way such a reality could fall under the category of a “thing” that I could know. Since existence is equally mine and everything else’s, what I am “knowing” is the source of a universal self-identity that does not permit me to form a “subject-object” relationship which is the fundamental structure of “knowledge.” For what I am claiming to “know” as object is the very subject which is doing the “knowing” — me. We are in the realm of metaphysical tautology here.
I am aware of myself. I experience my own self-awareness. So I understand intimately — from inside — what it means to exist. I am related to my existence, but not as to another, which is the structure of all normal relationships between two separate independent beings. I am related to existence as to that self-constituting activity which I myself do from moment to moment. Exactly how I am able to do this, I do not know. The propositions with which I describe this phenomenon use conventional words and therefore appear similar to those used for normal “knowledge,” but they are not. And the reason is that the phenomenon is an activity that is simultaneously proper to me and to all things. So I understand existence because of my intimate relationship to it. I understand it connaturally — as the cognitive side of my conatus — but in that moment I am simultaneously understanding what all things do, because we all do the same thing. This understanding is what Wittgenstein would call “pointing to” or “showing.” It is not really “knowing” for it is not saying anything. It makes “no sense,” in his terms, because it is not valid propositional knowledge. It is what he impishly calls “senseless” and “nonsense;” it cannot be credentialed as knowledge because it is a tautology. And since it is not knowledge it cannot be judged as to its “truth” in the normal sense of the word … i.e., by objective verification.
How would I possibly verify the statement “I exist?” I would have to be able to contrast it with “non-existence” and by way of some stated comparison conclude, “ … I exist,” But I do not know “non-existence” either, because there is nothing to know. I cannot even describe it, because I would have to do so in terms of the existence I am trying to “point to.” It would be a vicious circle. Existence cannot be distinguished from anything, therefore it cannot be defined. So it cannot be known or validly said … but it can be “pointed to,” “shown” and looked at for it is really there and I experience it and I am intimately familiar with it. It is a tautology that is self-evident and self-explanatory. All that can be said about existence is that it is what all things are doing all the time. I feel it is entirely appropriate to say that existence is “that in which all things live and move and have their being.”
All things insofar as they exist are doing something that is so similar that, despite their obvious differences as “things,” we are talking about the same activity in each. It’s not an activity proper to any one thing idiosyncratically. It is not part of any one thing’s exclusive activity and so it cannot be claimed that it is already contained in and derives from the definition of that thing. No “thing” contains within its definition that it has to exist or that it alone exists.
The background and cosmo-ontology: existence is matter’s energy
Where does “God” fit into all this? The only real “fact” out there is the common existence that all things activate and their connatural relationship to it. The Jewish Bible’s “God” was imagined by an ancient pre-scientific people to be a rational “person” who created all things and who made the sun shine and the rains fall. But we have known for a long time now how things are really formed and why weather phenomena occur, and it has nothing whatever to do with the will or action of any “god-person.” Things come into being through the energy of existence evolving new organisms through the struggle to survive … and all natural events have natural causes — they happen because they have to happen; there is no one making them happen and there’s no one who can stop them from happening. The cosmological “God” of the bible that ran all natural phenomena by fiat does not exist … and we know now it never did.
The Greek philosophers many centuries before the time of Jesus began to associate existence with “God.” It was they who first floated the hypothesis that “God” was the “being” in which all things were immersed and by which they themselves existed. The two traditions merged. The Mediaevals who inherited that merged tradition, following Plato, thought of “being” as an idea and “God” as a Subsistent Idea (“being,” esse in se subsistens), a Mind full of ideas. Ideas and minds were spiritual “things” — incorporeal, immaterial, interpenetrable — but “things” nonetheless that existed on their own. They thought of all of reality as “participating” in the idea of existence, which they defined as a self-subsistent entity and called it “God.” All other things resided in that “God”-idea-entity as in a matrix.
In the 14th century, when Ockham and other logicians demolished the Platonic assumptions about subsistent ideas, the west was left without a definition of “idea” which would allow for metaphysical “participation.” Ideas, he said, following Aristotle, existed only in the mind. The “divine immanence” characteristic of the Platonic universe was no longer possible because it had no metaphysical ground to support it. “God,” therefore, conceived as that “idea-thing” “in which all things live and move and have their being,” disappeared … and, for the last 800 years, all things, including “God,” have been conceived as having their own separate existence. “God” was one discrete entity among many.
But in place of the idealist mediaeval conflation, I am proposing a cosmo-ontology in which we look at the phenomenon of space-time and the variety of material forms that populate the universe as the product of an existential energy that is the constitutive essence of matter. Matter is not an inert “substance;” matter is energy. Matter is the very energy to exist.
Energy is not a “thing.” It is power — a potential for activity that may take any number of shapes, forms, and be observable and measurable by a great variety of methods. But whatever form it takes — and some forms, like dark energy, may be undetectable with current instruments — it is still material energy. There is no “spirit” as a separate genre of being. There is no other world ruled by reason and peopled by minds with ideas. There is only material energy. Whatever “God” there is, is part of this one material universe. Material energy is existence. The energy of matter is the energy to exist. They are one and the same thing.
Matter’s existential energy, therefore is responsible for the form of every structure, property, force and particle in the universe. Our organic human conatus, which we have identified as the source of our existential awe, addiction and vulnerability, is in fact a highly developed example of the material energy of the universe. The human organism is simply one of the forms that material energy has evolved in its quest to continue to exist and survive. Human organisms, insofar as they have conscious self-awareness, directly experience the existential energy of matter as their conatus. The human love of life and quest for immortality, the drive to survive and the anxiety over its loss, the communitarian instinct and thirst for justice, is the human expression of matter’s existential energy. These feelings are not optional; they are not repressible; they are not fantasies and they cannot be dismissed or expunged as illusions. They are the very nature of the material reality that makes up our bodies. It is what makes us what we are, and it is what drives us to do what we do.
Since religion claims to respond to these very same human feelings, drives and desires, it would seem that “God” and matter’s existential energy are each used to explain the same phenomena even though expressed in entirely different ways. Traditional pre-scientific religion has projected the imagery of a personal humanoid source of human existence. This “God” has traditionally been the focus of the human gratitude for life, aspirations for immortality and the struggle for a community of justice. But what we really owe everything to, as a matter of indisputable fact, is the existential energy of matter. Is “God” a metaphor for that? (Or is it a metaphor for “God”?) Whatever. It is matter’s energy that is responsible for every form and feature of the human being and that includes our peculiar “sense of the Sacred.“ Everything that was claimed to have originated in the benevolent self-donation of a supernatural “creator-person” is now known to be the product of matter’s existential energy.
Some say that they must be one and the same thing. I am inclined to agree. But the ways they are described are vastly different. For traditional Religion, “God” is an individual personal entity, an independent rational mind separate from other things. But matter’s energy is not different from anything. In a manner that is reminiscent of the “participation” of Plato’s subsistent ideas, it is not a separate entity. But make no mistake. Matter’s energy is not an idea, and it is not spirit. There is only one “thing” in existence, and it is matter.
“Person” and subjectivity
Humans cannot be neutral or detached about their existence. This is not a moral choice or aesthetic preference. It is part of our material organism. The conatus virtually guarantees that people will try to relate to whatever gave them existence and “designed” their human nature. These worshipful feelings have given rise to the image of a “parent-God” who becomes the object of human affections. But there’s a roadblock preventing the identification of material energy with religion’s “God.” It is that material energy is considered an utterly impersonal random phenomenon devoid of reason, intention, choice and benevolence. It is imagined as it appears in its most primitive forms — at the level of sub-atomic particles. Humans cannot relate to non-persons. It is probably the most serious practical objection people have to this whole approach.
At the heart of the problem, in my opinion, is the equation of subjectivity with human personality. They are not the same thing, and, on background, people subconsciously acknowledge it. Let me explain: people relate to animals (their pets, for instance) whom they do not hesitate to describe as having a “lot of personality,” or some such other term, while still denying they are “persons.” Clearly in these cases they have encountered something that they recognize as a subjectivity to which they can relate and very often with deep affectivity. In the case of these animals, the possibility of relationship does not devolve upon some abstract definition of “person” requiring the presence of our human level of rationality, but rather an interactive interpersonal experience whose metaphysical basis we do not question. The key is intersubjectivity, or in the terms that we use for such matters, a relationship with what are not “persons.”
The mystics provide the best evidence that material energy is such a subjectivity because they insist they have a relationship with the source of their own selves that is grounded not in abstract propositions about a clearly defined supernatural “something,” but rather an intersubjective experience that transcends all conceptual categories and is rooted in the experience of their own existence. The mystics categorize the relationship, without apology or hesitation, as one of “love.” But they never insist that it is rational. It corroborates the ancient claims of an unlimited wellspring of generous self-donation from which all things have emanated … and a vast unbounded matrix “in which all things live and move and have their being” … a matrix in which the mystics made a most profound and unexpected contact with their own selves. Their descriptions remain always undefined except for the interactive features and so there is no temptation to take them as propositions that define a separate independent entity. While many of them professed belief in the traditional western “God,” others from other traditions did not. But in all cases they had recourse to terminology that expressed their experience in shocking, image-shattering metaphors that clearly eschew any suggestion of specificity or humanoid personality: “cloud of unknowing,” “darkness,” “gentle breeze,” “emptiness,” a lover who is like “an army set in battle array,” and who visits “on a dark night.” These characterizations are hardly objective descriptors, and are rather obviously designed to evoke an exotic relationship.
Once we enter the realm of love, all categorical definitions recede into the background and are superseded by the dynamics and metaphors of relationship. “Knowledge” itself takes on a different meaning altogether in this context. To “know” someone … whether it’s a friend or an enemy, a pet or farm animal, or for that matter, even oneself … is not scientific “knowledge.” It is a recognition that is not dependent on its categorical component. In the iconoclastic words of Wittgenstein, it is “nonsense” because it is not saying anything “sayable.” The only “truth” to be had and verified is totally contained within and limited to what is “known” in the relationship and through the mutual recognition of the “subjects” involved. They alone know what they mean when they speak of “knowing” one another. There is no other data or evidence available. No “third-party” verification is possible. What is known from within a relationship cannot be known outside the relationship. A quasi-scientific description of the dynamics operative in relationships, as I might be accused of attempting here, is not the content I am speaking about, nor is some psychological profile or even an informal gossipy characterization. The “knowledge” is not “what” we know but rather the direct, unmediated encounter-based recognition of this individual — unique and knowable only in mutual subjective interaction.
It simply cannot be assumed that “God,” for those mystics who use the word, is the same as the “God” of western religion. I would argue that, with all due respect to their institutional loyalties, it is not. But aside from that issue, here I would ask a slightly different question: is the non-calculating self-donating creative generosity of material energy what the mystics were really naming with their poetic metaphors? According to the criteria I am proposing in this sketch, there is no way to know until one begins to relate, because this is the kind of “knowledge” that is only had in relationship. In other words, we will have to find out for ourselves. But it shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, matter’s energy is that “in which we live and move and have our being.” We are “matter’s energy” doing what it does. Does the “senseless” creative generosity we experience in our own improbable existence — this “amazing, mysterious stroke of luck” — correspond to our inner identity and deepest aspirations? Nothing could be more familiar or easier to check. Taste and see.