Religion and Trust

“New atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, calls the components of culture, “memes” in an analogy with “genes.” But unlike biological traits, memes exist only because we create them.  And yet they are not illusions.  They are the most important things we deal with throughout our lives; they are as necessary as food, clothing and shelter … as real as life and death.  It’s not surprising that sometimes we are willing to die — or kill — rather than see certain memes change or disappear.  But at the same time, we have to realize that it is we who create them.  And because we create them we can change them.

Religion is our primary defense against the potentially immobilizing and humanly mutilating effect of the void whose symbol is death.  That makes religion in some form indispensable.  But the form that it was given in the West in a pre-scientific age is not immutable.  Religion’s man­date to neutralize the sting of death must be allowed to function in terms that speak to us in our time as we have become, with the knowledge that modern science has given us.   Who we think we are has changedObeisance to a sacred past has no validity here.  We need religion. Religion exists for human­kind, not the other way around.  “The Sabbath was made for man …”

But applying the formula is not that easy.  Those ersatz “facts” — those particular traditional religious beliefs, like the immortal soul or an intervening humanoid “God” — were all we ever had.  How do we confront the void without them … in practice and in detail?  Can we have faith, in other words, trust, without our tradition­al beliefs?  These beliefs, we have to remind ourselves, are claimed to be “facts” about reality that religion insists are literally true.

Unfortunately, our traditional religion has always denied any distinction between faith and its “revealed” beliefs about an invisible world.  That insistence, in my opinion, is one of the things that drives the new atheists to question whether religion should exist at all.  Both sides in the religion debate are completely convinced that what they are fighting for is a matter of life and death.  Since culture “saves” us from the corrosive power of death, we cling to our religion because we think that without its beliefs — its “facts” — we cannot accomplish the task; and religion’s antagonists think that clinging to them as facts is the very thing that keeps us from an adult adjustment to reality that will alone grant us peace of mind.

Our pluralistic society tolerates more than one religion … as well as none.  Does this tell us something?  Is there a core insight at the heart of all these various positions that explains and justifies this tolerance?  This gives rise to the question we started with at the beginning of this prologue: Can religion move past its traditional literalism and allow itself to be re-set in another “factual” context?  In other words, can religion evolve?   Right now, in the Christian west, for those trapped by the “infallible” beliefs provided by either their Pope or their Scriptures (or both), the answer is No.  Theo­cracy and the literal facts that nourish it, is as much an ominous possibility as it ever was.  That in itself would be enough to explain the intensity of the reaction against it.

Religion? … doesn’t that mean “God”?

What is this core insight?  For organisms as complex as ourselves, shaped as we are by the inter­­sub­jectivities and virtualities of human society, the question cannot be answered without appreciating what existence means to our poor frightened species, the only animal that has to live suspended over the abyss.  I believe the core insight that drives all versions of religion is that at the heart and source of all things there exists a living dynamism that is life-giving, benevolent and trustworthy.

“Benevolence” is not “known” (provable) because there are no unambigu­ously objective facts that com­pel its accep­tance as a logical proposition.  But it responds to a different kind of logic, anyway, because it, and the “trust” it evokes in us “persons,” are not definable in any terms other than their own.  From our point of view, it’s a “person” thing.  It’s the way we are. I claim benevolence is connaturally understood in a cognitive embrace of mater­ial ener­gy in its most palpable and undeniable form: the conatus our indomitable drive to survive, the source of our love of life.  We understand intimately what matter’s energy is, in both its potential and actual forms, in ourselves.  For we are what matter is.

So, is this transcendent dynamism, “matter’s energy,” a “separate person”?   I say No, and emphati­cally.  It is not a separate entity of any kind outside of its functioning in our human organisms; there is nothing I can point to that acts like what we mean by “person.”  And we are in a posi­tion to know, because we, persons, live immersed in it every day, both inside and out­side of ourselves.  But it is something that has permitted itself to be “kneaded” into even the most minute element of this uni­verse of which I am a part, and that evokes in me the presence of a massive subjectivity of some kind, too big and too devoid of “self” to be called a “person,” that must contain within itself the potential to become me, because I AM THAT.  This is the key. Without an appreciation of the significance of the universal presence of matter’s existential energy the conatus in every life-form we know, matter is reduced to inert random  mech­an­ism, the religious project ceases to be poetry and Dennett’s robots rule the earth.  The em­brace of existence that the abyss seemed to evoke, will never materialize.  But that would mean supposing there were no human beings.

If what Dennett claims about matter is true and we are no longer human, then why do WE LOVE being ourselves and being here with our people … as does every living thing?  Even after we hear Dennett’s “truth” about ourselves, why is the spell not broken, why do we still refuse to disown as illusion this exis­tence that we love so passionately, so poetically, so mystically?  Ex­plain­ing — celebrating — this stubborn obsessive love of existence, is the poetry that is religion.

Yes, absolutely, I am talking about love.  But it’s a tough love that embraces the void.  This will entail a broad, reality-grounded un­der­standing of “bene­vo­lence” that challenges the infantile fantasies, extracted from tradi­tional reli­gion’s narratives, that up to now have been the sole descriptors for both sides of the debate.  What the “religionists” insist is literal fact and the “anti-religionists” reject, is the same impossible fairy-tale: an anthropo­morphic — humanoid — “God” of the book who “chose” evolution to do his creating for him, micro-manages the uni­verse from day to day incomprehensibly “permitting” holocausts and home foreclosures, and rewards or punishes each individual in the afterlife.

Once the book’s spirit-”God” and “his” physical interventions both before and after death are clearly under­stood to be metaphors, then the poetry of the stories, which are the epic chronicle of our people’s attempts through the millennia to relate to the void of existence, can be explored and allowed to evolve.  But until then, the “book” and its literalist promo­ters remain the primary reasons for the well-deserved rejection of religion.

If this literalism can be abandoned, we will actually begin to lay the foun­da­tions for a religion that we need to have exist … because the two end-posts of this dialog, life-fact and death-fact,  the limits where knowing ends and the void reveals itself, are the brackets within which our destiny unfolds.  Denying either pole will not be possible.  Right now, that is not true, because in the West in the name of revelation, “religion” denies death … and “atheism,” in the name of a reductionist science, denies the reality and significance of life.

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2 comments on “Religion and Trust

  1. Leon Krier says:

    Tony,

    Re: “The Energy to Exist”

    The lively exchange in response to this blog has been both provocative and enlightening. I especially appreciate the comments you and Bob made clarifying and expanding on Christina’s analysis. I was very much in agreement with Bob and your empathetic comments to both Bob and Christina were clarifying. The discussion regarding “science” will be ongoing. However, Christina’s comment about “poetry” as “the best form of art” does stir this reflection. Peter Greenaway has commented that western society is a text-oriented culture. Consequently, we are very attached to the written word and have developed rather sophisticated skills in this regard. Greenaway goes on to say that our culture is “visually illiterate.” To become “visually eloquent” is, indeed, a major challenge. So, yes, praise to eloquent words… but the brush and chisel can hold their own with the quill and pen.

    Re: “Religion and Trust”

    I have read and reread this May 5th blog. Thus, the comments I make below will need your critique to set me straight on this long and winding road.

    Keeping in mind the blog “The Energy to Exist” and its follow up comments, you have further highlighted your philosophical and theological endeavor: “New Theology,” “New Philosophy,” “New God,” “New Religion.” For a long time I thought the primary focus was on a “New Philosophy” based upon science that would give philosophy a credible role to play in today’s world. One might say to counter Steven Hawking’s comment “Philosophy is dead!!!” However, the “new philosophy” is ground work and facilitator for the ultimate endeavor of a “New God,” “New Religion,” and “New Theology.” This has been an exciting adventure… and I’m grateful to be on the road with you and others. For me, personally, I’m more into the “New Philosophy.”

    What keeps me going over sections of the May 5th blog is that with all this “newness” there is still the same old problem of “evil” … whether it’s the multifarious expressions of our inhumanity or the blind fury unleashed against humanity by nature. The “Old Stuff” couldn’t handle the issue of “evil” with its anthropomorphic and infantile explanations. The “New Stuff” is needing to take on the challenge… maybe this is in the forthcoming book or I’ve just missed the point along the way.

    1) Referencing conatus as “benevolent,” “loving,” just doesn’t seem to reconcile with the thrust of evolution. Natural selection is anything but “loving” and “benevolent.” To exist is to kill, destroy, consume. Any single expression of life is based upon a thousand deaths. I do accept the conatus as you have presented it, the drive to exist, but I do not accept it as having a “moral character,” i.e., “loving, benevolent.” Even though you are speaking metaphorically, metaphor still requires a correspondence and accountability to reality. One of the aspects of “growing up” is to accept that existence is without an inherent, ontological purpose, meaning, or fulfillment… it simply exists and seeks to exist. The “moral character” of our human existence is an existential achievement as we float above the abyss. You might be responding right now that this existential achievement is what (connaturally grasped) gives evidence of it being ontological. This leads into my second point.

    2) Making the leap to “benevolence” through connaturality is a bridge too far. One could argue that I know connaturally that my existence has a meaning, purpose and ultimate fulfillment. If I know this connaturally, then I would be able to argue that the universe, existence itself, is meaningful, purposeful and has an ultimate fulfillment. But, as I have already mentioned, the “facts” simply don’t bear this out… maybe sometime in the future they will… but not at this point. There is “newness” in the universe. The elements to create this “newness” are consistent and continuous… at least since a few seconds/minutes after the Big Bang. However, this doesn’t mean that any specific “newness” can be imputed to conatus… otherwise there would be nothing new under the sun and “newness” would be an illusion. For example, the ability for humans to be self-conscious, self-reflective, communicate with words is unique to humans (again, subject to revision if new facts emerge). Given this unique emergence and knowing this “newness” both reflectively and innately, doesn’t allow for attributing meaning, purpose, fulfillment (the products of self conscious reflection) to the conatus. It is, indeed, “new.” It is what humans do to survive and flourish.

    To sum up, have we stumbled into the “strong and weak anthropic principles?”

    Well, Tony, as I said above, set me straight.

    • tonyequale says:

      Leon, thanks
      (the “+” sign indicates a separate point).

      + “Art” and “poetry” in a philosophical or socio-anthropological discussion, in my mind, tend to be synonymous and refer to a plane of experience — the aesthetic — that is non-rational (not irrational). “Religion” for me also functions in that dimension and in its long and rich history has expressed itself in words, graphic art, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, drama, ritual … virtually every “art” form imaginable. I would be inclined to assume the discussants are tacitly “using the part to represent the whole” — a figure of speech — when they say “art” or “poetry;” they are not referring to a particular modality.

      + You seem to accept certain categories as “stand alone” items. You refer to “philosophy” as if you could stop there and live out your life within those horizons and ignore the next question … the question of relationship. Philosophy, as I conceive it, reaches an impasse, the void. What do you do with that? The “you” here is not meant as you, Leon, who actually can choose to stop the enquiry anytime you like. The “you” is the impersonal “you,” the demon of enquiry who must enquire and enquire until the issue is exhausted and there really is no further to go.

      + There is a long discussion on “evil” in the forthcoming book. It proposes to understand “evil” in a “spinozist” key that is thoroughly consistent with MM. I recommend it. It will be out shortly.

      + You have misunderstood me. I never said anywhere that the conatus is benevolent. I have always said the conatus is blind, directionless and potentially violent because it has only one “purpose”: survival. It is completely a-moral. It is Spinoza’s device and in his system it requires reason for its control. The conatus rather functions as a hermeneutic link — when you click on it, it opens to the vast world of material energy with its 5 or 6 “divine” characteristics … only one of which even comes close to being moral, and that is its apparently limitless penchant for self-donation.

      Where does the benevolence come in? The “benevolence” becomes undeniable because even the most miserable of us loves to exist. That’s the rub. If I “love” existing, I have no choice but to consider existence a “gift,” whether “someone” decided to “give” it to me or not. Even if it were simply a “fantastic stroke of luck” I have no choice but to be grateful to whatever force “gave” it to me. I am forced to celebrate my existence because I cannot help it. It is the irreducible bedrock of the human condition. I am ecstatically and uncontrllably happy to be alive … that is the echo of the conatus and one of its fundamental functions in human life. It is that aspect that gives rise to the “sense of the sacred” and thence, religion. That is the autere “benevolence” that I am referring to — the donation of existence itself — a benevolence which “goes beyond the metaphorical narratives of our tradition” which if taken literally describe an infantile benevolence.

      The point is no one knows the source of existence. There is no “new God” because there is no “God.” What there is is my personal, relational ecstasy at being-here. Religion does not derive from “God,” “God” is a derivative of religion. Religion is the more fundamental; it has to do with me and my sense of the sacred which derives as a corollary from my innate, materially embedded conatus. The conatus is not holy, but it gives rise to an inescapable sense of the sacred because of its joy at being-here. All the rest is extrapolation … that doesn’t make it invalid, but it does take it out of the realm of what is logically and rationally compelling. Religion, like all “art,” is a work of the imagination. The “truths” it speaks of are “relational truths” and they are expressed in metaphor. They are not logically compelling, just as my love relationships, to which I bind myself with hoops of steel, are not scientifically or logically compelling. I am not compelled to love anyone, no matter how “perfect” they are. And I am not compelled to be repelled by anyone no matter how broken.

      + You speak of “meaning,” “purpose.” Please do not impute that to me. MM clearly concluded that as far as cosmo-ontology can tell, there is no “purpose” in the universe except the blind, paroxysmal drive to exist. The purpose of existence is to exist. Any other “meaning” or “purpose” or goal is the product of human imagination — CULTURE — a virtual world created and imposed by us to fill the void. Religion is the ur-product of human culture, the virtual door we use to shut out the howling winds that come from the barren waste of “just being-here,” the virtual eagle’s wings that bear us up over the abyss. Religion is what we do with these heads of ours to survive in a random universe. So with all this emptiness, you may ask, why call existence “benevolent”? There is only one reason, only one: I CAN’T HELP IT! I LOVE IT! IT’S TO DIE FOR!

      Tony

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