Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

The end of “Doubt”

November 28, 2011

We wrap up JMH’s Doubt today in CoPhi. [Remember, STUDENTS, final report presentations begin Wednesday and Thursday.] She says we’d all be a lot clearer if we’d just

avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.

Lots of different views are out there, along with the world they more-or-less accurately engage. But we should resist labeling them, or ourselves, even with better labels like sectarian, “one-of-many,” meaning and science spiritualist, Skeptic, perplexed, ritualist, science secularist, doubter.

Note, though, that to doubt is not necessarily to repudiate or excoriate. It’s simply to remain open to a new thought when it comes. But all labels aside, it seems clear enough after nearly 500 pages of Doubt that what we are is a species that has always had its doubters. Some of us embrace uncertainty, some shrink from it, all benefit in the long run from an honest and collaborative exchange of views. What’s out there is a big cosmos, and we’re in it. There’s room in it for all kinds, so long as we’re willing to share the space. But labels probably do serve more often to reinforce our worst exclusionary and judgmental tendencies, than to elicit a more expansive cosmopolitanism.

A story in yesterday’s Times about black atheists (which doesn’t quote Hubert Harrison) quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson echoing the point:

Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.

Right. But labels can be constructively clarifying and instigating, too. It’s easy to conform to a pattern to which you didn’t know there was an alternative. That’s why we’ve been reading JMH, to disabuse ourselves of that common error. Dozens of undeservedly obscure names (like Hubert Harrison’s) crop up again and again in the history of doubt, challenging the easy faith of those who entirely exclude the spirit of skepticism from their radar simply because they never read or heard a word about it.

According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population.

Believing anything “with absolute certainty” just looks a lot shakier when you come to realize that thoughtful humans have always doubted and always will. How can it possibly be considered more acceptable to be a church-going drug dealer than to be an atheist? Only by not really being considered at all.

Consider a recent Tyson tweet:

Thanksgiving dinner, a few years ago, each in turn thanked God for food. I thanked scientists for improved farming. Got booed.

An appropriate response by Tyson at that moment, in the face of such uncomprehending  intolerance, might very well have included a bit of explanatory self-labeling. He wasn’t just being obtuse, he was representing a proud and ancient human tradition of alternative belief.

Wittgenstein might have reminded Tyson’s obdurate, intransigent cousins (and mine) that “reality does exist and limits the kinds of games that can be played.” The gratitude game “bewitches the intelligence” of those who won’t acknowledge its real sources in our shared experience. But he would also remind Tyson that science is not “the only approach to investigating the world,” and that “doubting, by its nature, is done within the realm of believing something.” Again, there’s room at the feast for all kinds.
“We inhabit a world of belief and cannot see out of it.” We cannot really doubt that we’re awake, when we think we are. That’s mostly a good thing, “belief is one of the best human muscles” (because it moves us to act) but it’s also the explanation of our intolerance. We need to work on that, but  is it really “crazy” for theists and non-theists alike to challenge one another’s arguments? We have to try harder to “see out of” our respective belief-bubbles and even to pop them when they prevent mutual understanding. If it’s true that “we can speak of the world only in our language game,” we need to develop a more inclusive language. The language of doubt, perhaps?
Sartre again. “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” That still just strikes me as a premature judgment, even for atheists. Why can’t the “blueprint” of our nature(s) be a work perpetually in progress? Why can’t human nature be fluid? And why, if you agreed with Sartre, would you also acknowledge “an intense command upon us to be moral”? An intense feeling of responsibility, sure. But is a feeling a command? Not usually.
So, by “hell is other people” maybe he means the others who don’t respond to the same felt “commands” we do. But in Sartre’s own terms isn’t there a whiff of “bad faith” here, if we objectify our mutual responsibilities as externally imposed commands rather than choices we’re always at risk of neglecting? Too bad we can’t cross the channel to settle that with the man himself.
Sartre said he settled the God question to his own satisfaction at age 12. His partner Simone de Beauvoir was 14 when she (with Balzac’s assistance) declared her own independence. Were they precocious, or premature? His command was her need: “in a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral.” (The Second Sex 25 years later)
Albert Camus‘s great theme was the absurdity of living in a world of repetitive meaninglessness, only then to die. That’s Woody Allen‘s theme too. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children. I want to achieve it by not dying”…Prof. LevyNot dying is precisely the Sisyphean task Camus said should make us happy. “Acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition is what saves us, and ‘one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.'” Or at least produce novels, plays, and films. “It’s our ballgame.”
For many of us, life was most emphatically shown to be in our hands by the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel‘s cri de coeur for the nocturnal silence of the death camps sums it up.
 …after another hanging, Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.
Viktor Frankl‘s amazing story and the message of his life was nicely summarized by a student once as both Nietzschean and Beatle-esque: we need meaning, and for that we need love. (quotes)
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in  the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
The Cold War and Joe McCarthy put god on our currency and in our pledge in the 1950s. That mindset, the falsehood that “an atheist American is a contradiction in terms” and the preposterous proposal that “atheists should not be considered citizens or patriots” (Bush Sr.) is light-years removed from the transcendent Gaian sensibility of poet/statesman/Velvet revolutionary Vaclav Havel. More respect, for one another and for the “miracle of the universe,” is still (we may hope) the history of the future.
Is the evangelical atheism of the so-called New Atheists “harsh” and “coarse”? Or is it an inevitable backlash against religious bigotry? The vaunted Four Horsemen are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens*, and Dan Dennett. But there are many more riders in their posse, some of whom have delivered riveting TED Talks. Don’t miss Julia Sweeney, my favorite New Atheist. (If you’re a Deepak Chopra fan, you might not like this.)
(Sweeney transcript… *Hitchens-Blair transcript)
So, to be clear: the end of Doubt, the point of doubting, is to live. Its purpose is to summon as much freedom and dignity as befits a questioning, questing, aspiring social species. “The only thing such doubters really need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Point taken. May the conversation continue.

WJ bio – 11

November 20, 2009

It’s the turn of the (19th to the 20th) century, James is cultivating his friendly philosophical antagonism and personal friendship with Josiah Royce

who said: “I teach at Harvard that the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real, you see.”

In this photo James has just goaded Royce with the taunt: “Look out, Royce. Damn the Absolute, I say!” (The Absolute was Royce’s and the other Idealists’ name for, for lack of a better name, God.)

…and he ‘s still hiking too much. He’s working on, and fretting about, the impending Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland that will eventually become Varieties of Religious Experience. But a collapse in December ’99 necessitates their postponement.

“The problem I have set myself is a hard one; 1st to defend against all the prejudices of my [profession], ‘experience’ against ‘philosophy’ as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life… and second, to make the hearer or reader believe what I myself invincibly do believe, that although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories) yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

We’ve already noted that, for James, the religious impulse is less motivated by questions about God than by the universal urge for better, richer, more meaningful life. Experience, including religious experience, is to be taken seriously whenever it aspires to serve that purpose. Much philosophical discourse about religion is logically and technically correct, but fails to grasp the life-affirming motivation that made James a friend (if not a practitioner) of religious faith.  (And then there’s the Nietzschean critique, according to which religion is intrinsically life-negating. James was more cognizant of religion’s naturalistic roots and fruits.)

James really means what he says.  Religious creeds and theories are absurd, and he has no interest in “your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be  Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition…”

James’s interest was more in what we might call ” spirituality,” with a lot of qualification. There remains much confusion about this term, with some assuming that it excludes a naturalistic orientation– it does not– or that it’s simply an alternative, non-sectarian name for “religious”— which it defiantly is not.  “We must make search for the original experiences which were [and are] the pattern-setters,” rather than sinking back into comfortable religious conformism. “Life” demands it.

John Dewey made a similar point, when in A Common Faith he called for the reclamation and emancipation of “religious” as a term of description applicable to generic, non-denominational experience. He didn’t want to surrender the word, but whatever you call it– spiritual, transcendental, “consummatory” etc.– the experience is very much of this world. It’s natural for human beings to seek and find meaningful patterns in life as it is lived, and not to postpone it for an after-life that for all we can possibly know may never arrive.

The so-called religion of healthy-mindedness, or mind-cure, or (more broadly) positive thinking, had James’s strong endorsement. Richardson: “When a person feels better because he thinks he has been given a cure, we call it, with complacent condescension, the placebo effect. For James, however, the same effect is simply a cure.”

Religion never had a more sympathetic defender among philosophers than William James, but as the Edinburgh lectures drew to a close he wrote to a Christian friend: “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian system of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” But he’d not have had much sympathy for Richard Dawkins’ atheistic version of evolutionism. He’s too supportive of the life impulse to deny its religious manifestations in just about any form, but he’s also too drawn to the evolutionary hypothesis to exclude religionists from its tent.

Richardson reports a scene that may surprise Jamesians like me who were  aware that he’d rebuffed former student Morris Cohen’s proposal to regard baseball as a “moral equivalent of war,” which James had said “we now need to discover in the social realm… something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved incompatible” :

Friends of son Francis (“Aleck”), who managed the baseball team at his Cambridge school,  “remembered seeing William James sitting by himself in the stands in raw weather, watching his son’s team and taking a lively interest in the new idea of sliding into base headfirst.”

A headfirst slide is a good metaphor for William James’s view of life in general, at age 60. As he said in his last Edinburgh lecture in 1902: “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.” And to take serious risk of personal and professional injury doing it, evidently.

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?


July 12, 2009


But seriously, Jesus and Mo, and Atheist Barmaid, are you ok with naturalized spirituality? I understand being impatient with equivocal agnostics and ecumenical Unitarians and pseudo-scientific superstition mongers and would-be Red Sea-parting miracle workers, but can’t we acknowledge the reality of geist and still fully affirm our commitment to “the scientific image”?

Can’t we still admire the rainbow, as Dawkins has said, even after we’ve learned something about light spectra and the visual  cortex?

Can’t we admit our own materiality while yet treasuring its human instantiation? William James: “To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

“To any one who has
ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact
that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought
to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation
was among matter’s possibilities.”

More on this soon…

“Atheism then and now”

May 24, 2009

The first to teach an atheism course? Surely not. But if so, I guess I’ll be a pioneer too. I belayed plans for “Atheism Old & New” in the Fall, to make room for “Happiness.” But it’s still on the books for next Spring. I agree with Professor Coleman: Atheism “offers young people new ways of thinking about the physical world, human society, morality and the meanings of their lives.”

What are atheists for? Many subscribe to the “bright” worldview (while despising the moniker as needlessly provocative), affirming naturalism, rationalism, and secularism.  They’re for standing on our own feet, leaning on one another for strength and support, not waiting for a cosmic bail-out. They tend to value what leads to happiness in this world: prosperity, peace, tolerance, a healthy environment, independent thought and freedom of expression.

And they’re among the most misunderstood and villified minorities in America. Thank goodness for academic freedom.

Don’t fear the reaper

May 15, 2009

You might not expect The Book of Dead Philosophers to be funny and amusing and inspiring, but that’s what Simon Critchley has accomplished in this compendium of how “190 or so dead philosophers” got that way. I’ll save a recounting of some of the more startling and less well-known shufflings-off for another day, though I am especially and sympathetically struck by poor Montaigne‘s loss of speech at the end, he who had written that the most horrible death would be to die without the power of speech. (Nowadays, no doubt, many of us would say the worst would be to die without Internet access.)

But for now I simply note and endorse Critchley’s conclusion: accepting our mortality is the condition for courage and endurance in place of the despair that so many seekers of immortality (either in an imagined heaven or on a bio-technologically transformed Earth) must suffer. Most, including most Christians, “are actually leading quietly desperate atheist lives bounded by a desire for longevity and a terror of annihilation.” It is possible to lead an open and affirming atheist life, but only after looking the reaper square in the eyes and not flinching. I’m working on it. (Monty Python helps.)

“It is only in relation to the acceptance of self-loss that there might be a self to gain.”

woody and reaperI don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or through my children, said Woody Allen, but through not dying.  That’s desperation.

Transcendent joy

May 13, 2009

“Transcendence” is an elusive notion, closely related to happiness. I prefer novelist Peter  Ackroyd’s hyphenated definition: “Trans-end-dance: the ability to move beyond the end, otherwise called the dance of death.”

There are many ways to perform this dance, though “Jesus & Mo” don’t seem to know it…

jesus and mo transcendence