Posts Tagged ‘John Toland’

The religion of humanity, for extra credit

April 2, 2012

It’s another exam day in CoPhi. The most interesting question is for extra credit:

What do you think of English Deist John Toland‘s version of pantheism, defined as “belief in no other eternal being but the universe,” and involving a “civic religion with meetings, community rituals, and a secularist liturgy”? Would YOU ever join such a “community of doubters”? Why or why not?

The question barks up the same tree we’ve been discussing all semester in A&P. I’ve finished Alain de Botton’s controversial Religion for Atheists, which proposes something very similar to Toland’s civic religion and draws directly on Auguste Comte‘s “religion of humanity.” But

Comte’s greatest conceptual error was to label his scheme a religion. Those who have given up on faith rarely feel indulgent towards this emotive word, nor are most adult independent-minded atheists much attracted to the idea of joining a cult.

They don’t want priests or temples. It’s ironic for de Botton to be pointing that out, his critics are sure he’s every bit as insensitive to such secular sensibilities as he says Comte was. And yet, he insists, secular society needs its own institutions to “take the place of religions.” But they say religion’s place needs simply to be eliminated.

And so the debate continues, and the sensibilities of this humanistic pluralist remain conflicted. For extra credit: resolve your professor’s ambivalence on this matter.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

March 22, 2011

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist, holding that god is present in all of nature instead of transcending and creating it. English Deist John Toland may have coined the term originally. [JMH]

We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Voltaire’s Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden, maybe? Asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religion… Sagan’s hero…]

I could go on, but Marcel Marceau was right: “It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Next time, STUDENTS: read to PW 88.