The End of Religion? - A Response to Christopher Hitchens & Company
By David E. McClean I saw Christopher Hitchens on the Daily Show the other night. He was talking with John Stewart about his new book, God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, a title that is a snide reply to the Arab-Islamic formulation Allahu Akbar (“God is Great”). Hitchens was trashing religious faith in general, partly on the grounds that the cardinal virtue of religion, i.e. faith, really isn’t such a virtue at all, but rather a pleasant word used to conceal dangerous irrationality (echoing Bill Maher, another anti-religion hysteric).
His book comes on the heels of similar anti-religion writings by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am a religious person, but I am, like Dennett, a philosopher and I have to admit that all of these books make a lot of good points. If traditional religions are going to survive and thrive in the future, they are going to have to take a hard look at themselves or continue to suffer the kinds of blistering critiques that books like these offer up. Otherwise, in America as in Europe, religion will be in retreat (or at least on a constant defensive footing). Unlike these authors, I think that would be a serious loss to culture.
What is at the heart of religion are not its various fantastic stories – stories about virgin births and giants and gods with elephant heads. The heart of religion can be summed-up rather well in a passage from Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. In this passage, one of the main characters, Casaubon, reflects on the sense of wholeness and inter-connectedness he felt as a child:
Along the Bricco’s slopes are rows and rows of vines. . . . I have seen similar rows in my day. No doctrine of numbers can say if they are in ascending or descending order. In the midst of the rows—but you have to walk barefoot, with your heels callused, from childhood—there are peach trees. Yellow peaches that grow only between rows of vines. You can split a peach with the pressure of your thumb; the pit comes out almost whole, as clean as if it had been chemically treated. . . . When you eat the peach, the velvet of the skin makes shudders run from your tongue to your groin. Dinosaurs once grazed here. Then another surface covered theirs. And . . . . when I bit into the peach I understood the Kingdom and was one with it. The rest is only cleverness. Invent; invent the Plan, Casaubon. That’s what everyone has done, to explain the dinosaurs and the peaches.
Most of my fellow philosophers agree with Hitchens & company’s notion that religion tends to be dogmatic and irrational – the antithesis of critical inquiry and willingness to shed bad ideas for better ones. I couldn’t agree more, and this is not news. It is the criticism of religion from time immemorial, even in cultures awash in it, even before the Enlightenment. Yet religion uses a language that is better than any other at expressing our yearnings and ultimate concerns. In doing so, it sometimes sins in its excesses, in its efforts to synthesize a world in response to the sin of analyzing it into tiny, pointless, pieces. It prefers to argue in favor of the thought that we are better understood as sons and daughters of God, rather than in favor of the thought that we are better understood as sacks of nucleotide sequences. Hitchens & company are having their cyclical moment in the sun. I think such moments can be useful, even if rancorous, just as their display of their shallow understanding of religion and the religious impulse are useful. That impulse is not best understood by pointing to an irrational need to feel purpose where there is none, but to the ubiquitous need to feel that we are, at last, at home in the world. This is the need that is celebrated in the above passage from Eco’s book, though Eco's book is also a critique of gothic religious metaphysics of a type that I personally abjure. William James sometimes referred to religion as, simply, “more” - the sense, given the totality of lived experience, that there is more than meets the blinkered eye, more than our secular philosophies or our science can capture with their limited vocabularies. Even a unified theory of everything in the realm of physics will not do very much to speak to the wonder and magnificence of the very experience of walking down the street, mindfully. (Mindfulness cannot be explained; it must be experienced.) The "more" is found in such mindfulness. If we understood the essence of religion in this way, the old wars between religion and philosophy, between the traditional and modernity, would cease. We would no longer need to argue about angels, or try to explain the transfiguration, or worry about whose eschatology is the right one. We would no longer need to consider ontological arguments for the existence of God or various efforts to prove that Darwinian descent through modification undermines itself. Such would be, to borrow from Thoreau, mere dissipation. We would focus, instead, on feeling the shudder of our inter-connectedness. And when we come together to celebrate that shudder we are doing religion just as well as at a Mass or Friday evening prayers. Philosophers and scientists tend to want to engage religious belief from the perspective of the truth of religious propositions. They think they win on that front, and they are usually right. Religions, of course, continue to accommodate them with bad propositions, and wind up pulling back bloody nubs when they enter the fray. Religionists’ habit of offering up purportedly true propositions about the nature of the world is a bad one that should be broken. Yet, many of those who express "belief" in such things, in their adherence to their religions' institutions and confessions, know better, and they govern their lives with little or no actual reference to them. The expression is a mere shibboleth, required to gain them access to that which they are really seeking. It is unfortunate that the psychological and spiritual nourishment that is so widely sought must come packaged in untenable, and unneeded, propositions. Religious belief, if understood by reference to the Latin term credo, need not be about bad propositions, not about asserting of the world “It is the case that X . . .” but, when considering the etymology of that word, credo, can be more akin to “that to which I give my heart” or “that to which I devote myself.” (In my case, I devote myself to seeing the connections between the peaches and me and the God who made us/it all. The word "God" can be replaced by any other word that helps capture this notion of transcendence, awe, humility and dependence.) Religion, of course, will always offer up propositional fare. But “I give my heart to X” is not a proposition about what the world really is, but a statement about what the speaker intends. There is no "irrationality" in it. The real action in the religious life is in the breast and head of the religious person. Too often, that is forgotten. Religions are inhabited by language users, just as departments of philosophy and evolutionary biology are. When we screw up the idea we are trying to formulate in language, we can start down paths that are fraught with troubles, as Hitchens & company are happy to point out. But perhaps something like this can be the form of the religious "proposition" of the future: “It is better to be able to think and feel that one is at one with the Kingdom by eating the peaches that grow on the trees that stand in rows on the Briccos where dinosaurs once grazed, than not being able to do so. It is better to be able to think and feel, and to take the time to think and feel, the relationship between the peaches and the dinosaurs, and between the dinosaurs and your daughters and sons, and between your daughters and sons and the stars and galaxies, and between the stars and galaxies and their going out, and your going out, and that which started it all, if it ever started, than not. It is better to feel at home in the universe than to feel oneself a stranger in it, because it is home, after all.” Here are some "propositions" that can be defended much more easily than “On the third day He rose again.”
There will always be room for a minimalist faith, and minimalist faith need not suggest a faith that is tepid. There is nothing tepid about my faith. This is, perhaps, the answer to Hitchens & company, but it is also an answer to Gothic religious metaphysics. It also suggests that traditional religions will need to give up what it does not need for what it does, and exchange bad religious propositions for more useful ones. I have faith that such a transformation is possible. Time will tell whether it is probable other than among a minority of religious believers.