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My Problem With Religion, 4

with 5 comments

Well, I definitely think that new religions will arise to take the place of old ones, and that there are a number of movements today that function like religions for the people who adopt them. 

But if I had to opt for a popular movement capable of resulting in a new actual religion, it wouldn’t be the things Robert and Cheryl brought up, but the Trekkies.

And having brought up that provocative little bit, let me get back to my point.

Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens had a few things in common in their poems about the loss of belief.

The first is that they both looked on it as inevitable.  In both “Dover Beach” and “Sunday Morning,” the loss of faith doesn’t come as a decision, but as a fact.   There is something about the modern world that makes belief in the old verities of known religions–the only verities either of these men accepts as valid–impossible.

Both Arnold and Stevens would believe if they could, but they can’t.  They are unable to effect even what fiction requires, a willing suspension of disbelief.  Faced with the Christian narrative, they hit a brick wall of incredulity, and they can’t get passed it.

The second thing Arnold and Stevens have in common is the fact that they think this is a problem, and in neither case do they think that the principle problem has to do with morality.

It’s interesting to read the comments here–and no, Mab, yours about Russia are not boring, they’re fascinating–because most of the people who post seem to assume that the only, or the most important, problem in a sexularized world would be how to foundand enforce a moral code.

You all also tend to assume that you already know what morality is.  I liked John’s comment that he’d rejected utilitarianism and other secular bases for morality because none of them supported his moral preferences.   Try to think of yourself approaching, say, physics that way–no, I don’t accept the theory of special relativity, with that one I couldn’t have magic unicorns.

But for  Arnold and Stevens, the major problem with the loss of faith was the loss of meaning–the necessity of facing death as the end, of living in a world without an overall purpose.

I said a couple of posts back that it is not only seculariztion that is important, but what a society is securlarizing from.  There was significant secularization at the end of the Greek and Roman empires, but in both cases those were societies that took not only much of their morality, but their definitions of being human and their understanding of the “meaning of life” from already secular philosophy.

Christianity provided a one-stop shop for all these kinds of existential questions–yes, it provided a moral code, but most of all it provided a definition of what it meant to be human, and a franework within which all the events of human life fit.

And non-human life.  And non life.

It was the loss of this, of the ability to know that it all means something, that Arnold and Stevens found hardest to bear.  The imagery in “Dover Beach” is stark and pitiless–the two lovers, alone and unprotected in a vast indifferent universe, on the shore where the waves come crashing in, threatening to anihilate them in an instant, with nothing to believe in and look forward to, wile “ignorant armies clash by night.”

What went with this loss of meaning was any way to define what it meant to be specifically and uniquely human. 

I want to stress, again, that there is no reason why these questions must be religious.  The Greeks and the  Romans had a very clear idea of what made human beings specifically and uniquely human, and Christianity adapted some of that definition as its own.

But in Western Civilization, the rise of Christianity meant the rise of an underlying civilizational rationale that was explicitly religious, and that grounded its statemens about the human condition in the assumption not only of the existence of God, but of the existence of a particular kind of God with a particular history of His relationship to human beings.

I don’t think it would be possible to overestimate the extent to which Christianity defined Western Civilization, and still defines it.  Virtually all the theoretically anti-religious political religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been Christian heresies.  The morality that we all assume we know is itself Christian in origin. 

Even the conflict now in the conception of the defnition of the human that seems to be one between believers and unbelievers is actually a conflict between two paradoxical (and maybe contradictory) Christian ideas, one of which has now been adopted by anti-Christians.  

Lucifer rebels, Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, because he discovered that God had provided more gloriously for mankind than for the angels–that he regarded man as not another beast of the field, but as the created creature closest to Himself. 

In the middle ages, and right through the reformation, there was conflict between this concept of mankind and the one where man is so lowly, so vile, so unworthy that he had nothing to do but beg forgiveness and hope for mercy.

Actually, those two are paradoxical, not contradictory, and I even know how to work them out, but for the moment here I want to notice that in the twenty-first century the “lower than a worm” definition has largely been taken up by green and atheist organizations.

Conservative writers like to say that the West is running on its Christian capital–that the reason why France, Germany, Britain and the US are not like Mab’s Russia is that we still hold, albeit unconsciously, Christian assumptions about ethics and morality.

I think that statement is less telling than it seems to be.  I thin it’s true, mind you–but the fact is that societies always run on the assumptions of their pasts.  They can’t help it. 

Christianity, however, provided a total package, and in doing so took over the functions that had been carried out in classical cultures by secular (not atheist) professions.   Attempts, starting in the Renaissance, to return philosophy to the centrality and function it had had with Aristotle resulted mostly in one version after another of a secularized Christian story.

Sometimes it didn’t even do that.   Hegel presented a Christian heresy, as did all the Hegelians who followed him, and especially  Karl Marx, but Kant never really did more than try to find a secular rationale for thoroughly Christian moral ideas. 

Which, by the way, is what Matthew Arnold did.   His response to a world where belief was impssible–and that was the way he would have put it, that belief ws impossible, which it may have been, for him–was to attempt to recreate the Christian framework on the basis of hat he would have called “art” and we would have called “the huanities.”  I don’t know if he was satisfied with the result.

Stevens has a different answer to the problem, and that is to look at death as a good thing–by making love and art and joy fragile, it makes them more intense and therefore more meaningful–and to dedicate himself to experiencing happiness as the meaning of life.  That this approach has its limitations should be obvious, but it’s one that has been enthusiastically advocated by people on all sides of the political divide in the last century, from Paul Kurtz to Ayn Rand.

For the accidental atheist of today, however, thees things are often not an issue.  They know “right” and “wrong” as whatever they were taught it was when they were children.   They don’t question it, or ask themselves what the basis of the definitions might be.  

They don’t ask themeaning of life, either, because–well, because they don’t.  Many of them don’t see any need to.   Life is life.  Whatever.

As to the vision of man, the definit9on of what it mens to be human–accidental atheists tend to have sort of fuzzy ideas that run “well, people are more important than animals,” but the ideas have no context o rationale.  Say what you will about the Christian concetion of man, being “made in the image of God” is not just a description, it’s a demand.   It’s something that has to be lived up to.  

The accidental atheist does not see his humanity as somethign he must live up to, and he accepts his morality as smethingiven and obvious.  That’s why he’s so susceptible to moral panics, and sometimes truly insane ones.  Since he has no foundation for what he believes to be right and wrong, and no way even to articulate the questions that might give him such a foundation, when one of those ideas seems to slip, he gets hysterical. 

What he doesn’t do is adopt one of the ethical systems being advocated by today’s deliberate atheists, and for good reason.

But that will h ave to wait until tomorrow.

However, A NOTE:  I need to pint out, given Mab’s comment, that in spite of the endless nonsense that gets thrown around about the “religious right” in the US, they actually have very little power and only relatively minor effects in most places at most times.

In particular, US women have fewer restrictions on their obtaining an abortion than any other women in the world, anywhere.   When I was living in England, a woman who wanted an abortion had to go before a panel of doctors, explain why, and get permission.   Some reasons–sex selection, say–were unacceptible, and her request could be denied.

In the US, women who want an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy need only to get the money together (and it’s cheap, about $250 most places), march down to the clinic and have one, no questions asked.  If they live in a state with few aborton providers, they may have to travel a ways–women in South Dakato tend to go to Minnesota or Illinois, for instance–but that’s about it. They don’t have to inform their husbands or the biological father of the child.  They don’t have to have a reason.  There’s no required hospital stay. 

And, in most places in the country, there are no protestors, either. 

The rules are a little more like the European ones for abortions in the second and third trimesters, but they’re certainly no more onerous, and in most states they’re less so.

The closest thing to an actual restriction for first trimester abortions in the US is that, in SOME states,  girls sixteen and under must notify their parents–just notify them, they do not have to get their permission–or get a judge to sign off on why they shouldn’t have to.   

I often think that the religious right looms a lot larger in Europe than it does in the US.  They’re a great big voting bloc, and a disciplined one, but they’re a minority nonetheless.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2009 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 4'

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  1. OK, I still object to calling movements which reject the divinity and even the existence of Christ as Christian heresies. We’ve covered that before.

    But “recreating the Christian framework” is precisely what Arnold did NOT do. He felt that Christian morality could be superceded–indeed, surpassed–by a “morality” based purely on aesthetic principles. I keep seeing neat, orderly lines to the gas chambers, with all the deformed in line, of course, and the Marquis de Sade performing to rave reviews. (With a little work, you can bring in utilitarianism: the torturer inflicts painful death on only a few, and brings pleasure to so many in the home audience.)

    And if anyone think I wrong the man, let him read CULTURE AND ANARCHY and see the contempt with which Arnold refers to those “philistines” who are fighting the slave trade, promoting freedom and reforming British democracy, but do not share his artistic tastes.

    At the end of Arnold’s path are the eloi.


    9 Aug 09 at 10:50 am

  2. slight correction: Jane wrote “I liked John’s comment that he’d rejected utilitarianism and other secular bases for morality because none of them supported his moral preferences.”

    That is not my reason for rejecting utilitarianism.It is a common reason given by philosophers who believe in rules such as “It can never be right to deliberately convict an innocent person.” They argue that if the choice is between convicting an innocent person and a riot that will kill hundreds, the utiliatarian will choose to convict. They (the anti-util people) say “let justice be done even if the sky falls.”

    The util people respond “The sky falling is proof that your rule is wrong.”

    Jane’s remark about physics is interesting. As a physicist I accept conservation of energy. That means I accept that if a jumbo jet runs out of fuel half way between Sydney and Los Angeles, then 400 people will die.

    The philosophers who believe in rules are acting the same way, the rule must be obeyed no matter what the consequences. The utilitarians are rejecting that approach – they believe consequences matter.


    9 Aug 09 at 2:30 pm

  3. A lot of people believe that the loss of faith is inevitable, although they don’t usually write poems about it. I think it’s natural when someone loses belief – whether reluctantly or with a sense of celebration – for that person to consider the process inevitable, especially in this day and age when so many people – especially the educated and professional people – do not believe. The standard sources of meaning in life still exist – children, causes. I’m surprised a bit that while some people struck with a lingering and fatal illness and therefore with the question of the purpose of their lives still choose as a cause to give their living and dying meaning the attempt to find a cure for the disease, others now choose to fight for the ability to have others kill them without being charged with murder.

    And I’d have thought the availability of abortion in the US was a proof of the weakness of believers, not their strength. Of course, not all believers are opposed to all abortion, but even the ones I know who are willing to consider abortion as morally acceptable in some cases aren’t really happy with abortion on request.

    As for Russia, I like hearing about distant places. I know less than I’d like about the eastern churches, and I’ve been wondering about the connection between them and nationalism, since they all seem to be closely associated with particular nations/ethnic groups.


    9 Aug 09 at 3:52 pm

  4. Wallace Stevens is known to have received baptism into the Catholic faith before dying, his daughter’s denial notwithstanding.

    roger schmeeckle

    9 Aug 09 at 5:59 pm

  5. Some thoughts on Philosophy, Religion and Morality.

    I thought this would be too long for a comment and sent it to Jane as an email. She asked me to post it. Its copy and paste from my draft email so hope for the best on formatting!

    Very broadly speaking, philosophy is about logical analysis. Philosophy of Religion looks at the arguments for various religions and asks if any are logically compelling. For example, Aquinas tried to prove the existence of God. Was he successful? If not, why don’t we have to accept his “proofs”. The philosophers are not asking “Does God Exist”, instead they are asking “Can we prove that God exists”. Or, given a specific “proof”, does it work, does the conclusion follow from the premises, is there any reason why we should accept the premises?

    There is a philosophical field called Ethics. It is concerned with what is the difference between a legal code, custom and an ethical or moral code? Is there some way we can label a rule as an ethical rule? Are various proposed moral codes logically consistent?

    One result of the studies is that it is useful to divide moral codes into those based on rules and those which consider consequences. (I’ve forgotten the long Latin names for these divisions.)

    The 10 commandants are an example of rule based morality. They illustrate the difficulties of talking about moral laws.

    The term “moral law” suggests “physical law”. But physical laws never conflict – one does not have to choose between conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. They both ALWAYS hold. And they hold no matter what the consequences.

    Now consider the commandments “honor thy mother and father” and “Thou shall not steal”. Your mother and father are starving. The only way you can get food for them is to steal it. Which commandment should you follow? Moral rules can conflict and you need another rule to establish a hierarchy to decide what to do in case of conflict.

    Another problem is that moral rules can be broken. If you try to follow a rule which other people break, the result can be disastrous.

    Some years ago, I saw a newspaper article about a small group of people from the US who had a rule that violence was always wrong. They set up an isolated village deep in the jungle of Central America. But there were men who used that jungle to hunt for rare exotic birds and animals. The men discovered that they could rape the village women without anyone attempting to stop them. So the village was abandoned and they moved back to the US.

    This sort of problem leads to a moral code based on consequences. An action is permitted provided the consequences are good. But what defines good? And what if all the possible actions have bad consequences?

    Some years ago, there was a media uproar because a young mother with several small children was months behind in her rent and was about to be evicted. Headlines of HEARTLESS LANDLORD! But then it was discovered that the landlord was an elderly widow with no children who had invested her savings in rental housing. She needed that rent because it was her income. Now what? Which concsequence do you favor, the homeless mother or the starving widow?

    One can try and combine theories. Use rules but allow exceptions if the consequences are bad. Of course, this requires a rule to define bad consequences and that rule can lead to “bad” consequences and …

    Moving to a practical topic, consider abortion. The Catholic Church is at least trying to be consistent by saying

    It is wrong to deliberately kill an innocent human being.
    A fetus is an innocent human being.
    Therefore abortion is wrong.

    That is met by the cry “What about a 14 year old girl pregnant as a result of gang rape?”

    A response might be “What about a healthy and well off married woman pregnant by her husband who wants an abortion so she can go skiing in Switzerland?”

    And around we go in an endless battle of claims and counter-claims.

    The result of giving up rules seems to be a morass of conflicting beliefs about consequences and how to evaluate and rank them.


    9 Aug 09 at 7:12 pm

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