Monday, May 4, 2009

What religion doesn't do

Annoying little essay from Stanley Fish, in the form of a review of a book by Terry Eagleton, poking fun at atheists for being shallow. Atheists are shallow because they don't consider really deep questions, have a pseudo-faith in progress and science, and don't understand the beauty of the New Testament.
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.
I might quibble with the notion that items two and three on that list are not susceptible to scientific analysis, because people try all the time, but I grant that nobody has succeeded in giving a rational answer to any of them. The thing is, religion doesn't answer them, either. "The universe exists because God made it" does not answer any questions, it just changes the question to, "Why is there God and why did he make the universe?" I don't see how anything is gained by that. The substitution of one mystery for another is not understanding.

I agree with Fish and Eagleton that some atheists have a shallow faith in reason and science. But that, I say, is not a fair criticism of reason or science, but simply follows from the fact that most people are shallow. Certainly science by itself does not make a better world, just one with better medicines and bigger bombs. But Fish and Eagleton seem to have an equally peculiar faith in the transformative power of religion:
Religion, Eagleton is saying, is . . . after something else. After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Whoa. Now, I grant you, modern liberal thought has moved back from trying to create paradise. Yes, we deal in partial ameliorations of the pain and injustice of life, not a transformation that would end them. That is because we deal in reality, not fantasy. The kingdom of God is a nice fantasy, but it isn't coming. We made it up, and it will never exist outside our own heads. The point of human thought and effort ought to be, it seems to me, to deal with the world as it is, not the world we imagine. To Eagleton, we reject the possibility of a perfect kingdom because we are distracted by false idols of progress and materialism. I think we reject such a possibility because it is in fact impossible.

Eagleton's annoyance with atheists is crystalized by his view of Christ's sacrifice. To Eagleton, atheists are blind to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” I don't know, I always found Jesus very interesting and his story quite moving. But if you want to talk about transformation, I don't see it. Before the eighteenth century the world trundled along pretty much as it had since the invention of agriculture, with very little in the way of fundamental change. Since 1700 the world has been transformed by science, technology, capitalism and bureaucracy. Maybe not for the better, but it has actually changed a great deal. I fail to see how religion ever changed much of anything.

But the reason I wanted to write about this essay was the question of hubris. Believers and atheists are always accusing each other of excessive pride, and I think the dispute is an interesting one. Here is Eagleton, via Fish:
“The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value. And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”
So atheists are proud because they think they can solve all the worlds problems without divine aid, that they can understand the mysteries of the universe using their own minds, and that they can make up their own sources of value and meaning as they go along. But a secular humanist might respond that it is the religious who are proud, because they think that God made them in his image, giving them some special status in the scheme of the universe; that that they will live forever; that they already know the secrets of the universe, since the explanation of everything is written down in their scriptures. Setting aside the ways most people of all sorts fall short of the moral demands of their creeds, I think that what both ask is somewhat similar. Religion asks that we humble ourselves before God. And does not science, properly understood, ask us to humble ourselves before the unquestionable reality of all that is?

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