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My Problem With Religion

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I’m going to start this post with something of a warning.

I am, today, in a very odd frame of mind.  My husband died, some years ago, of a very rare form of cancer–so rare that the cases of it in the US in any one year are in single digits, and there are no known risk factors for it.

Two and a half years ago, his older sister was diagnosed with the same thing, the only case in all the medical literature where there have been two cases in a single family. 

My mother in law is in her eighties, and if the doctors know what they’re talking about–and  I’m not sure they do, I never am sure–she will have lost three of her four children young–Bill and Joann to this odd cancer, and a son, named Andrew, in infancy, from a congenital heart defect we now correct without a second thought.

(And, in the kind of coincidence that makes my head hurt, the new technique that rendered that congenital heart problem no longer a big deal was the subject of the first in-class educational film I ever remember seeing.)

Anyway, the other weird coincidence is the fact that this particular sequence of events dovetails so perfectly with what I have been thinking about for weeks now, so let’s get on to that.

Yesterday, or the day before, I said that I was thinking of two poems, “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, and “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens.

The two poems share a single thee, in spite of having been written many years apart:  what is to become of us–what does life mean, and how are we to live it–in a world without God?

One of the things I want to stress here, is that neither Arnold nor Stevens was one of our “new atheists.”  Neither was even a freethinkiner in the nineteenth century use of the term. 

These were not men who spent a lot of time reasoning and thinking and coming up with a grand Eureka!  God is dead!

These are men who didn”t believe because,well, they just didn’t.   They started out believing, and then they woke up one morning and the belief was gone, and there was nothing they could do to get it back.

This is, I think, the condition of quite a few people at the beginning of the twenty-first century, at least in the West.

There are, of course, deliberate atheists and agnostics, but in a way they’re more like religious people than Arnold or Stevens were–they’re always thinking about agendas, and dogmas, and grand philosophical  prescriptions for this, that and the other thing.

The deliberate atheists and agnostics tend to be very highly educated and also significantly urban.   The accidental atheist–there’s the title for something–can be anywhere, and is increasingly everywhere.  

And the accidental atheist lives in a world with significant problems, if he wants to recognize them–and not all accidental atheists do.  Quite a few, in fact, simply decide to make their nonbelief a nonissue and go on thinking and acting as they did when they still saw the world as beheld by God.

But accidental atheism causes more problems for the individual and the culture at large than deliberate atheism does.   Deliberate atheism is a philosophy waiting to happen, intent on recreating meaning in the world on its own terms.  Accidental atheism is day after day with the experience of randomness and the lack of an anchor.

Robert sent me an e-mail in which he outlined the problem well, I think, so I’m going to quote it here:

>>>we’re breaking down morality. No, not sex, though that’s part of it. But there’s been a relentless assault on tradition as a source of morality. The brutal truth is, tradition is the only alternative to a religion-based morality, which is also under attack. The result is what I think of as a “don’t look down” agenda. We have to provide for the poor because—well, not because Christ told us to do so. That would be imposing our religious morality on others. Not because of tradition: that’s a bunch of dead white males. So why, exactly? We must be good stewards of the earth because—it was entrusted to us? No. Our grandchildren will curse us? But WE won’t be there. Why, then?

Virtually the entire liberal—or for that matter Marxist—domestic agenda has its roots in the injunctions of a religion they no longer believe. It’s only a matter of time before a secular opposed to capital punishment starts asking why human life should be sacred. It’s not as though he believes in the sacred, after all. My mother’s mother was a rock-ribbed Methodist and an old school FDR/LBJ progressive. This had little scope for human freedom, but you could make it work as a consistent program. Without either tradition or religion, you just can’t.


Yes, I know you think a morality can be arrived at from philosophical first principles. Doesn’t matter even if you’re right. The important thing is that you’re not unanimous. Jefferson, Rand and Marx thought the same thing, after all. What percentage of the population would go through such an exercise? Ten percent? More likely five, if that. The rest walk through a program someone else has laid out, and the diversity of philosophical opinion makes any action defensible.  If the basis of morality is philosophy, and you can find a philosopher to justify anything, how long before someone does the intelligent thing and doesn’t bother to consult the philosophers at all? And why shouldn’t he?


I don’t think we’ll go all the way to a Hobbesian state. People—except possibly philosophers—are brighter than that. But before the next tightening up, in which a morality is taught and enforced, the body count and property damage could be considerable.  And by “we” I mean basically portions of the suburbs. The Hobbesian state is only about 20 miles from me as I write. The kids currently shooting themselves in DC turf wars don’t suffer from an absence of philosophy, but from a surfeit. Take away religion, take away tradition, and there is only predator and prey. We’ll be a long time getting out of this hole. Perhaps we should stop digging.<<<<<<<


I want to leave this here, for a moment, as the statement of the problem.  I think it does state the problem pretty well for people like Arnold and Stevens, each of whom came up with a different “solution” to the difficulty.


But morality is actually the problem’s step two, not its step one, and I want to go back to that, too.


So I’ll go running off to do what I have to do today, and get back to this tomorrow.


The poems are worth reading.

Written by janeh

August 6th, 2009 at 6:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion'

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  1. Being one of the diminishing number of “devoutly religious”, I’ve obviously been aware of what’s happening to religion in this world. England declares that only 6% of her population attends church regularly. Germany . . . the heart of the Reformation . . . has become apathetic, turning churches into athletic venues. Of course, what’s happening in the US is following suit. The place where Christianity is growing “like Topsy” is Africa.

    I don’t believe that people wake up one day and don’t believe, anymore than I was able to make the decision to believe. I was raised by devout parents who did everything possible to enact my Christian upbringing. My church (Lutheran/Missouri Synod) was stable, strong, and solid (wish it still was). The liturgy was traditional; the hymns were Scripture-based. Catechism instruction was intense, and we were held responsible. It would be impossible for me to wake up one morning and decide I didn’t believe anymore. My beliefs have been as much a part of my life as my arms and legs.

    So, where do these “accidental Atheists” come from? (BTW, I like that term.) I blame our church bodies and religious leaders who abandoned confessional beliefs and ancient, time-proved traditions in favor of the modern, new, and senseless. Vatican II did this world a vast disservice in dumping so much of the proven “old” in favor of the untried “new.” Now we have people who go to church because: their friends are all there; they like the pastor; the video stuff is awesome; it’s close to home; the lawns are always cared for . . . ad nauseum . . . but they have no idea and little interest in the doctrines of that church. “Hey, if it’s a church, then we must be worshiping god, right?” When our church bodies abandoned solid doctrine in favor of the outward show, when the structure began to crumble, they began to lose people. When the people became more important than the Word of God, all was lost.

    I don’t know if I’m communicating this well, because it is something that’s so close to me. It makes sense to me, but when I encounter another “Christian” who tells me that she believes parts of Holy Scripture but not others, there doesn’t seem to be an understanding. “Toss out the old; bring in the new” doesn’t necessarily mean the new is good.

    Morality is not a problem; it’s a symptom.


    6 Aug 09 at 7:48 am

  2. I can’t really identify with either the deliberate or accidental atheists, mostly because I never was one. Not that I’ve always been religious, either. I spent most of my adult life sort of drifting, not committing to anything, really, but never quite convinced that there was no God, for some definition of ‘God’.

    I think Robert understates the problem. I think the splintering of belief (philosophical, moral, religious) has already reached the point where a sizeable minority believe that human life is not sacred – worse, that there are situations in which human life should and must be destroyed. This applies to the abortion debate, of course, but even more obviously in the debate over euthanasia/assisted suicide, especially in the UK, especially involving a recent court case, a high-profile couple who joined others in their final pilgrimage to Switzerland, and Terry Pratchett.

    Human life is believed to be less sacred than the personal right to choose, which includes the idea that enshrining in law my right to choose – not to suicide – to have my relatives or doctor kill me free of criminal charges is more important than reducing the legal protections against murder for everyone. In addition, whatever value human life has lasts only until the human concerned is suffering or disabled or depdendant. These people have no way of dealing with suffering, and don’t seem to want to acknowledge that suffering – which includes watching people you love go through their final illnesses – is part of being human. Humans get sick, suffer and die.

    I’ve gotten on a bit of a rant; I’ll try to get back on topic.

    So, with no conviction that there is a God, how can anyone argue that human life has value? The only arguments I ever heard that made sense was some versions of the utilitarian ones – and those generally don’t have any space for the old, the weak, the sick or the dying. There’s a very good probabilty (barring a fatal accident) that I’ll be in all three categories eventually, and without the traditional beliefs, I won’t have any claim to be treated as a human being – it’s enough of a battle to get decent human treatment in a traditional society for the helpless. You can’t do it in a society in which the reaction to suffering is to kill the person doing the suffering, or the sight of whose suffering causes others to suffer.

    Religion’s not dead yet, but it’s pretty battered, and is already – again – operating in societies in which the legal structures are being changed to accommodate the right of individual self-determination over the right of individuals not to be legally killed (except by the state where prescribed by law).

    I think Robert is being insufficiently pessimistic.


    6 Aug 09 at 7:58 am

  3. I hope this post doesn’t come across as a long boring lecture.

    I must say that Robert has stated the problem very well. I spent some years in my 40s studying

    Almost all philosophers agree that there is no convincing evidence for a “Christian type of God. That is, one that pays attention to prayer or controls events in the sense of “not a sparrow falls.” There might be what is called “a clockwork God”, who created the universe and physical laws and then just let things happen. But why pray to such a God?

    So what are modern philosophers trying to use as a basis of morality? There seem to be 3 answers. Justice, equality, and utilitarianism.

    The justice type of philosopher says “Justice requires that we do X.” But what is Justice? I noticed that almost all the arguments against God also apply to Justice. Thee does not seem to be anything in the universe corresponding to it. I accept that God seems to be a human invention but Justice also seems to be a human invention. So that doesn’t strike me as a basis for morality.

    Equality runs into the problem that human beings are unequal. If you treat them equally with regard to one aspect of life, you end up treating them unequally with regard to another aspect.

    For example, 2 students have the same math textbook and the same teacher and the same lectures. We all know that its possible for one to do well and the other to do poorly. That is equality of opportuntiy.

    A response is to spend a lot of teaching effort on the poor student in hopes of getting equality of results. But that treats the two unequally with regard to the teacher’s time.

    There is also a problem of defining equal. Two identical apartments, same size, same number of rooms, same air conditioning and electricity and water and sewers. One has a beautiful view of a beach and the ocean. The other has a view of the building across the street. Are they equal?

    Equality seems to depend on arbitrary choice of what features of life you consider important. It seems just as much a human invention as God and Justice.

    Utilitarianism is “the greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number.” That runs into the problem of defining good or happiness. There is some truth to it. We are social animals and have to have rules that make it possible for large numbers of us to live in groups.

    We can’t have supermarkets if anyone going to the market can be hit over the head, dragged into an alley and robbed. But that leads to rules that try to minimize or control violence. The people worrying about morality want rules that eliminate violence.

    They also want minority rights to override the majority. Which isn’t consistent with utilitarianism.

    My conclusion after 4 or 5 years of study was that philosophy of justice or equality or rights or utility ends up depending on arbitrary preferences of the philosopher.

    So what can we use as a base for morality? I don’t know. Nothing I’ve tried satisfies all my preferences for how we should live.


    6 Aug 09 at 6:20 pm

  4. Just to note that I have never before been regarded as insufficiently pessimistic. Perhsps I’m mellowing in my age?


    6 Aug 09 at 8:11 pm

  5. There is a type of neuron in the brain called a “mirror neuron.” They have been identified individually only in monkeys so far–there are serious difficulties in observing them in a living human brain–but what observations the neurologists have been able to make suggest that we have them, too. Very basically, a mirror neuron is activated not only when the neuron’s owner does something, but when he sees someone else do the same thing. That includes not only physical actions, but emotions. Among other things, the researchers believe these neurons may be the biological source of empathy. Because the same neurons activate when you are grieving, for example, and when you observe someone else grieve, the two experiences may feel qualitatively very similar to you, both unpleasant. And that may lead, in a normal person, to refrain from behavior which might trigger grieving or other negative emotions in others.

    Of course, not everybody’s “normal,” and conditioning may change you.

    Perhaps empathy, since it’s apparently hard-wired into the average human (and monkey, for that matter!) could be the basis for morality jd is looking for.

    Research has been studying this since the 1980s, but because of the difficulties of observing inside the brain, it’s going slowly. For a good book on the subject, try “Mirroring people : the new science of how we connect with others” by Iacoboni. The Wikipedia article has a pretty good summary, which, judging from the discussion, has been written & rewritten by a series of neurologists.

    Lee B

    6 Aug 09 at 10:18 pm

  6. Well, Robert, it might just be that I’m even more pessimistic!


    7 Aug 09 at 6:06 am

  7. Oh heck, I’ll argue the other way. Not to be the devil’s advocate, but because when I read the first long post and the following ones, I thought: This is all wrong. I’m afraid my skills and knowledge aren’t up to par, but here’s my take:

    Part of my protest is against the “we’re so bad” tone. I live in a truly non-religious, non-democratic, dog-eat-dog country. You folks might complain about the significant drop in church attendance and teen gangs, but honestly – the US is a bastion of morality and religious piety compared to Russia these days. The USSR destroyed religion; now there are a few true believers and millions of superstitious occasional church-goers (ie, people who light a candle in a church before an exam). We’ve got skin-heads who beat up and kill dark-skinned foreigners. We’ve got contract killings, repression of free speech, and state-sponsored ethnic and religious hatred. And Russia isn’t the only country like this in the world. There are dozens of truly terrible countries. The US is really not so bad.

    The other protest is against the unconscious “it used to be good and now it’s bad.” There is no question that some things have gotten worse – like education, public decorum, the dumbing down of the news, and to some extent the central place of religion. But the good old days weren’t so good. Think of the lawlessness that was the norm in the colonies and early US states. Think of the persecution of racial, ethnic and religious minorities (not only against blacks and Asians, how about No Irish Need Apply). Think of the corruption (Tammany Hall politics). Church attendance is falling, but think of all the new agers. Yes, a lot of new age stuff is ridiculous, but some of it isn’t – and it has appeared as people who couldn’t accept some aspects of “organized religion” sought a different way to experience God.

    I don’t believe that without religion and its moral strictures and without tempering philosophies we’ll all descend into murderous masses. The reason is simple: societies need to have some kind of justice and some kind of moral code. If they don’t, they are destroyed either from within or from without. Not right away. If they are powerful militarily and if they control their people through fear, and punishment, and by keeping them ignorant, they can survive a long time. But then they fall apart. The people eventually rebel. They collapse economically. They are attacked and the people side with the attackers. One way or another, they will disappear from the earth, because people can’t live together without rules. Whether they call them God-given or man-given, they need them to be able to live without fear and uncertainty.

    I just don’t believe that “we’re breaking down morality.” Yes, people sleep around, and get divorced, and cheat on their taxes, and pay their executives billions while workers lose their jobs, and fight in gangs, and I don’t know what else. But there is a counter-movement. Not just a religious counter-movement. I think the attempt (who knows how it will end) to mandate insurance for all is a huge moral step. The underpinning is: I’m not just going to fight for my own job perks, I’m going to vote and pay for a system that gives everyone access to health care. Think of the movement for green energy and conservation — people’s willingness to pay more and experience some inconveniences in order to lessen their carbon footprint. Those are two examples in which people are putting the common good above their own immediate interests. That’s really pretty amazing.

    So I’m not pessimistic, not in the long run. In the short run — it’s going to be a struggle.


    7 Aug 09 at 7:00 am

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