Gods: What Are They Good For?

by Thomas O’Dwyer

“There is no question I love her deeply … I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day with her, our bottle of champagne … She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I.”

The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.
The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.

These romantic diary entries of a middle-aged man smitten with a new love would seem unremarkable, commonplace, but for one thing. The author was a Trappist monk, a priest in one of the most strict Catholic monastic orders, bound by vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and silence. Moreover, he was world famous in his monkishness as the author of best-selling books on spirituality, monastic vocation and contemplation. He was credited with drawing vast numbers of young men into seminaries around the world during the last modern upsurge of religious fervour after World War II. Two years after this tryst, the world’s most famous monk was found dead in a room near a conference centre in Bangkok, Thailand. He was on his back, wearing only shorts, electrocuted by a Hitachi floor-fan lying on his chest. In the tabloids there were dark mutterings of divine retribution, suicide, even a CIA murder conspiracy.

So passed Thomas Merton, who shot to fame in 1948 when he published his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the tale of a journey from a life of “beer, bewilderment, and sorrow” to a seminary in the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. A steady output of books, essays and poems made him one of the best known and loved spiritual writers of his day. It also made millions of dollars for his Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson county, Kentucky. Because of him, droves of demobbed soldiers and marines clamoured to become monks. Read more »

A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

Read more »

On the Gods of Horses

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse 220px-Busto_Jenófanes

The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?

The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:

If horses or oxen or lions had hands

or if they could draw with their hands and

produce works like men,

horses would draw the figures of the gods as

similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,

and they would make the bodies

of the sort which each of them had.

The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:

Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;

Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.

To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?

Read more »

Of Quislings and Science: Reflecting on Mark Vernon, The Templeton Prize and Richard Dawkins

by Tauriq Moosa

Richard_Dawkins_080430103832597_wideweb__300x375 Recently, Sir Martin Rees was awarded the most lucrative science-prize in the world, The Templeton Prize. Notice I said ‘lucrative’; not most respected or prestigious, though some indeed do think it is. This prize is awarded because it, according to its official website, “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” It is given to those “who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality” – a sentence worthy of a tacky Hallmark card.

Sir Martin is in the company of £1,000,000 sterling and Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Indeed, I wonder if that amount is enough to sway anyone, so that he or she is mentioned in the same breath as these fanatics. The point being there is little that is, by definition, about science. The Templeton Foundation and Prize is about promoting notions of the Divine, in whatever loose language you can fathom, using something vaguely non-Divine in approach. If you can anchor your pursuits that effect the world, dealing with sick people (not aiding) like Mother Theresa, or probing the mysteries of the universe with an appreciation for its beauty or possible higher purpose, then you qualify. They’ve melted the solid idea of the theistic god down into liquid form, so it slips through any pretention even when the person awarded the prize is not religious. Like Sir Martin Rees.

If Sir Martin donates it all to Oxfam, I would have little to quarrel with it suppose, except I think any scientist who doesn’t think there’s a conflict between faith and reason or science and religion is wrong. But that’s another discussion. What interests me about this whole episode was not the prize itself but the views that arose concerning the atheist culture wars. I’m interested particularly in ex-Anglican-priest-turned-“agnostic” Mark Vernon’s ever-banal criticisms of Richard Dawkins, as seen here (an ad hominem attack), here (how Dawkins is doing nothing new even though Vernon keeps writing about him), here (when Dawkins praises fellow writer, Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins is promoting hatred), here (Dawkins… groupthink… bus… bad), here (I don’t even know).

I rather enjoyed Dr Vernon’s books 42 and Plato’s Podcasts, so it is disappointing to see this usually clear, clever writer putting on the same performance each time Dawkins is mentioned in an online discussion or in the media. This is especially so when Vernon reflects on Sir Martin’s recent prize and… Richard Dawkins’ stridency. Yes. You obviously made that connection as quickly as I did. Vernon, expert bar none on how Dawkins should conduct himself publicly, has to write something… and it might as well be as Dawkins’ media nanny.

Read more »

Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Atheist-advertising-campa-0011 Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with
accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

In our case, the charge of accommodationism as a failure of critical nerve is misplaced; anyone who actually reads our book will find that we pull no punches. But we also think that, as it is commonly employed in atheist circles, the idea of accommodationism involves a conflation between two kinds of evaluation which should be kept distinct. Some clarification is in order.

Read more »

Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
Read more »