The Ancient of Days, aka God
William Blake, 1794
(–“What do you mean, William Blake?”
–“I mean William Blake!”)
Chapter Three is the God chapter, but of course this topic– like the last one, the Meaning of Life– is just too sprawling for a single chapter, book, or course. It may be too big for a human lifetime.
For those drawn to it not merely as an interesting object of study but as the sacred source and center of life itself, we need to catch our breaths before we begin. And let us remind ourselves: not everyone thinks about God (or “God,” “Allah,” “Yahweh,” “Jehovah,” “Bhagwan,” “Ahura Mazda,” et al) the same way you or I do. Humans have nominated many alleged supreme supernatural beings through the centuries. They have advanced many claims and fewer arguments in the names thereof. Non-believers have ignored, studied, disputed, and sometimes ridiculed those claims.
Philosophers have attempted to identify, examine, and critique those arguments (or argument place-holders), as they should: it’s in the job description. Pious non-philosophers have often protested this activity.
The next caution for us all: we are not obliged to respect a view just because those who espouse it call it their religion. We are not obliged to bite our tongues and refrain from saying that we find a particular religious view unworthy of respect. I’ll say it right now: I do not respect the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. OK, you say, but that’s not a serious religion. Further up the mainstream, then: I do not respect Scientology. Its founder is on record as saying that if you want to get rich, start your own religion. He was a charlatan, and the tenets of his faith as I have examined them are just laughable.
Yes, laughable in my opinion. But in philosophical conversation we don’t just swap opinions. If the subject comes up in the classroom, or the agora, or in an online exchange hosted by a conscientious and self-respecting philosophy blogger, reasons will need to be provided if the exchange is to bear fruit. And if any of the defenders of any of those religions comes up with a good case for God, I’ll try to be among the first to say so.
I’m not just picking on L.Ron Hubbard. I could swim further up the mainstream, discovering more cause for derisive laughter. I have, I will. So have others. But one must be sensitive to time and place and circumstance.
And in fact, there are considerations of social civility, politeness, and prudence that make full disclosure of anyone’s view of someone else’s creed inappropriate in many social settings, and that I don’t deny. But in the classroom, in books and other printed matter, in the streets and on the Internet, I’m particularly wary about laying down strict ground rules or prohibitions that would have the effect of stifling anyone’s first amendment rights or, as the American philosopher Charles Peirce said, “blocking the road of inquiry.”
And so I just advise: distinguish belief from believer, and accord everyone– classmates included– presumptive respect as human beings. Remember the ad hominem fallacy, among others, and don’t attack others’ character or impugn their motives. Ask for their reasons. Offer your own. Let them speak, one at a time, and speak in turn when they’ve finished.
But all, heed: “that’s just how I was raised,” or “that’s what we believe in my faith,” are not good philosophical reasons. You can’t win or even begin an argument with such statements. Presumably those who raised you and taught your Sunday School had reasons. Specify them, and defend them rationally, if you’re going to bring them into the conversation at all.
I count close friends among the representatives of most major religions and faith traditions. We agree to disagree on matters of spirituality and religion. They understand that my rejection of their faith is not personal.
Another very important distinction, in a free and secular society: church and state. Not sharing a friend’s faith, not respecting a neighbor’s religion, not having a recognized religion or believing in God yourself at all, are well within your constitutionally protected rights as a citizen of the American republic. They do not make you unpatriotic. They might not make you popular; but studying Socrates brought us to a pithy rejoinder on that point: so what?
But after saying all this, it remains to acknowledge: some will be made uncomfortable by the fact that we’re discussing this topic at all, in the public space of a university classroom. (Others are made uncomfortable by the discussion’s being online; but of course they can re-direct their browsers.) To that I say, again: philosophy exists for the very purpose of making all who enter its ambit uncomfortable. Discomfort is a positive sign of thinking-going-on. Now, if you’d rather not think at all, I don’t suppose there’s much else I can say that will change your mind.
The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan (aka Matthew Harrison Brady, in “Inherit the Wind”), told his legal nemesis Clarence Darrow at Dayton, Tennessee in 1926: “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow replied: “Do you think about things you do “think” about?” I know what he was asking, but there really wasn’t anywhere for that conversation to go.
Still, there’s one form of faith we must all evince, all who’ve consented to participate in this class: faith in philosophical reason to ameliorate your discomfort, one way or another. Even an irrationalist like Kierkegaard must invoke reasons for rejecting reasons. Why the passionate “leap of faith”? No reason at all? Surely not.
Enough preliminaries, for now. Let’s begin by thinking about the survey in our text. “How Do [You] Think About Religion?” Which boxes did you check under “I believe what I do about religion because __,” “When I go to a religious service I feel __”? What does “spirituality” mean to you? What’s your view of organized religion in general?
William James is quoted in this chapter, sounding very much like the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, exploring his feeling that the universe is not a mere It to us but a Thou.
James said many other interesting things about what he called “the varieties of religious experience.” He sympathized with others’ beliefs, because he thought they all reflected a universal human impulse for life. “Not God, but more life,” said James, is the most natural human impulse , the ultimate source of religious variety, and the real point of religion. And he was very open to alternative approaches. The religious, for him, meant anything that brought home for people the reality of whatever they considered “divine.”
And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”
James would probably understand where Karen Armstrong is coming from in her new book, The Case for God. But he’d probably rather discuss Robert Wright’s: The Evolution of God.
James filled out a “God & religion” questionnaire himself once:
Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.'” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”
Some have read in these responses a Jamesian tilt toward supernaturalism, but I am more inclined to view them as a nod of sympathetic recognition and moral support, an instance of neutral distancing and what’s been called James’s belief in (others’) believing. In any case, his use of the term salvation in the present context is neutral with respect to any supernatural implications. It means something like “deliverance from evil,” where ‘evil’ is not taken necessarily to imply a malevolent supernatural agency at work in the world, and where it is hoped and supposed that natural human powers are equal to the task of resisting it successfully, not always but often, at least in the long run.
As for the “problem of evil”: it was a problem, to James. “I cannot bring myself, as so many seem able to do, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over,” James wrote to his brother as a young man in 1870. “It’s as real as the good, and if it is denied, good must be denied too. It must be hated and resisted while there’s breath in our bodies.” And sixteen years later: “There is no full consolation. Evil is evil and pain is pain.” James biographer R. B. Perry: “He was too sensitive to ignore evil, too moral to tolerate it, and too ardent to accept it as inevitable. Optimism was as impossible for him as pessimism. No philosophy could possibly suit him that did not candidly recognize the dubious fortunes of mankind, and encourage him as a moral individual to buckle on his armor and go forth to battle.”
And yet, he also believed wholeheartedly in “moral holidays.” Holidays are celebratory times, and James never forgets the celebratory elements of experience, most especially the moments of “transcendence.” They are the saving elements that “make life worth living.”
But that’s another story, another song. If you’re interested, check out chapter four in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: the Porpoise Driven Life… the chapter called “License to Chill.” (BTW: Jimmy Buffett’s full name is James William Buffett.) Suffice here to say: Buffett’s God, and James’s, would want you to enjoy your life. Fall Break is coming; but have a little fun today too. And find some “evil” to resist while you’re at it. That’s a divine agenda.
“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.” -William James.
“Well it’s only up to you, no one else can tell you to Go out and have some fun… And take a Holiday. You need a Holiday…” -Jimmy Buffett
human impulse80 and the ultimate source of religious variety.
And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of
life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as
the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be
(probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian
scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously
evolutionary mode of thought.”