Religion's Gordian Knot

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

There is a rather lengthy and thought-provoking article over at City Journal by Theodore Dalrymple, himself a nonbeliever, against the various "new atheists" who have gotten so much press lately for their writings against religion.

Although there are quite a few points I disagree with, the article touches on many other points I have made here off and on, including the nihilism and the condescending tone emanating from many of these critics of religion. Perhaps most interesting, though, is what Dalrymple also says about the benefits he regards as unique to religion:

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies. [bold added]
First of all, this paragraph is, come to think of it, quite representative of the whole essay, warts and all. Some interesting points that leap out are: The common conservative notion (to which I do not subscribe) that one should avoid ideological consistency (or "extremism"); the notion that purpose necessarily comes from something "greater" than man; and the common idea that decency and something Dalrymple calls "gratitude" must necessarily come from religion. (I read "gratitude" as something like a love of being alive and a taking of joy from existence -- given that Dalrymple is also a nonbeliever.)

Thus you have some very bad and some very good stuff here tied up into a huge knot, and for all Dalrymple's praise of the religious heritage of the West, it is within this knot that is the best of our religious heritage! (The fact that this is bound up in a knot is not a good thing!) But until we consider the ideas of another major atheist intellectual -- whom Dalrymple completely misses -- we are doomed to stare at this knot in confusion. And that is a shame for reasons I'll return to later. But back to Dalrymple....

As with so many others who have focused on the so-called "new atheists", Dalrymple misses one atheist, Ayn Rand, who takes a completely different tone with respect to the higher ideals that receive short shrift by modern intellectuals, and who also, unlike the moderns, understands that religion, for its fundamental flaws (e.g., its basis in faith), is in fact an attempt to satisfy some of man's needs. For example, in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1964, here is a how she answered a question about religion:
PLAYBOY: Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?

RAND: Qua religion, no -- in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very -- how should I say it? -- dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.
And this is just one example of the thoughtful exploration of religion that Rand conducted over the course of her intellectual life. Here are just two others from the same page of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, which has just recently been published to the Internet:
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy. ("The Chickens' Homecoming," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 46)

Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy -- an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality -- many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. ("Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, 25.)
I will add, although it will seem repetitive to my regular readers, that Ayn Rand also extensively discusses the question of man's purpose in life. The answer, which she arrives at through reason, is both exalted and this-worldly, and it is within the grasp of any man.

And that is why it is a shame to leave Ayn Rand out of any discussion about atheism (or religion, for that matter). For Dalrymple, however imperfectly, is making some good points against the emptiness of modern philosophy here, but he never can quite break free of the faith-forged chains of ignorance, which are, by the way, one of the many negative aspects of the religious heritage of the West. He and others like him are doomed to consider reason, man's means of living a happy life on this earth, as impotent for that very task!

If I may use some of my own thinking as an example of how considering Ayn Rand's ideas can clarify the kinds of discussions the new atheists are causing, I will point to a few examples of my own writings on topics that Dalrymple considers or alludes to in his essay, for which I have found Ayn Rand's ideas particularly helpful: (1) how to politely discuss intellectual matters, (2) whether atheism is enough to formulate a worldview or an identity (It isn't.), and (3) how best to promote religious tolerance.

In the current cultural debate over religion, the new atheists err in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they dismiss or show contempt for certain legitimate emotions and concepts that are traditionally associated with religion. But too often, when those who -- like Dalrymple -- realize this mistake reply, they make the same error he makes, which is to assume that there is no secular basis for the good things religion is an attempt to do. In doing so, such intellectuals permit our highest aspirations to remain hostage to those who would have us destroy our minds and our lives with blind faith.

-- CAV

PS: It occurs to me that the mixed legacy of religion lends surface credibility to the idea that one should not adopt an ideology consistently. The implicit idea most people seem to have is to accept the "good parts" of religion while ignoring the "bad parts", the various commands that would make it hard to live a pleasant or productive life (or worse). But this papers over the fact that faith and the constructive ideals a religion may have to offer are ultimately incompatible.

Updates

Today
: (1) Added PS. (2) Minor edits.
11-8-07: Corrected URL for Ayn Rand Lexicon.

14 comments:

Gideon said...

Excellent essay! I especially love the phrase "faith-forged chains of ignorance"!

Gideon

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, sir!

And I liked that one myself!

Jim May said...

The implicit idea most people seem to have is to accept the "good parts" of religion while ignoring the "bad parts", the various commands that would make it hard to live a pleasant or productive life (or worse).

This reminds me of something that struck me in the aftermath of 9/11, when there were many who, seeing that the attacks were perpetrated by religious killers, sought to justify their own continued adherence to religion by explaining that they "don't go to extremes" -- that is, they would point to the burning towers and say that "well, that's just crazy, that's taking religion too far. My faith does not go that far."

We all know that religion has no built-in restraints; what God says today he may change tomorrow, and accordingly, religion's history is caked with dried blood.

No, they are constraining their faith by an outside standard. What do you suppose is the standard by which they draw that line? If you ask them, their answers will essentially boil down to "common sense". "I don't approve of the crazy stuff" etc.

If you stop and think about it, such people are reversing Kant -- i.e. they are using reason in the form of "common sense" to morally constrain their faith!

It is within such subtle, weak echoes that the Enlightenment hangs on by its fingernails to this day.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[S]uch people are reversing Kant."

That is a very interesting observation, and very well put.

Inspector said...

Great article, Gus! And a very good one to have up for the hopefully increased outside traffic from the awards. This is the kind of thing that needs to be seen and considered by the mainstream.

Well done!

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks. I just hope that one day, people will wonder why you once had to dig around on blogs to find someone saying something like this....

Anonymous said...

"No, they are constraining their faith by an outside standard. What do you suppose is the standard by which they draw that line?"

Actually Jim the Conservative anti-Islam commentators I've read don't rely on an outside (ie rational) standard. They argue that Islam is more inherently evil than Judaism or Christianity. Robert Spencer is the biggest example of this. His latest book is titled "Religion of Peace, Why Christianity Is and Islam Is Not." His main argument is that structurally (as relates to main doctrines) Jihad warfare is essential to Islam whereas there is no such overarching themes to New Testament Christianity.

Also, according to Spencer, Christianity preaches universality whereas Islam is a Supremacist ideology. Now whether these arguments are true or false is one thing. But Spencer and the majority of anti-Islam Conservatives I've read all make the same arguments. They really are differentiating the religions based on religious doctrines.

Incidentally, this is a trend which I think is very dangerous. The war against Islam is not being seen as a war against religion but a war against a violent religion, ie Islam. Religion is still seen as essentially good by these Conservatives (and with few exceptions - such as Hitchens - the only anti-Islam commentators today are Conservatives).

Add to that the fact that the Left (who they associate with atheists) are appeasers and enablers of Islamic Jihad and the Conservatives are developing an even greater dislike for atheists than existed before. In fact, I'm sensing a severe potential blowback against atheists in the making. That also is not good.

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...

John,

Not to take anything away from your very perceptive comments, but I think the conservatives do a little of both.

In the way they lead (most of) their lives, they smuggle in various degrees of rational behavior.

This also just happens to lend surface credibility to their contention that Christianity is less violent than Islam.

The point about Islam having some more dangerous doctrines (as it is preached now) than Christianity is trickier. This is true, but ultimately, there is no reason in a primacy-of-consciousness universe with a commandment-based morality not to wipe out infidels. I am sure Christianity would become much more like Islam in a very short time without the remainder of the Enlightenment around.

Religion is essentially irrational. THIS is its inherent danger and any doctrinal difference between religions that makes the average practitioner of one less dangerous than the practitioners of another is no more than a lucky break.

Gus

Inspector said...

"Actually Jim the Conservative anti-Islam commentators I've read don't rely on an outside (ie rational) standard. They argue that Islam is more inherently evil than Judaism or Christianity."

Ah, but "inherantly" evil by what standard? I think Gus' point stands here, even with the extra layer added on.

Joseph Kellard said...

Gus writes:

“In the current cultural debate over religion, the new atheists err in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they dismiss or show contempt for certain legitimate emotions and concepts that are traditionally associated with religion. But too often, when those who -- like Dalrymple -- realize this mistake reply, they make the same error he makes, which is to assume that there is no secular basis for the good things religion is an attempt to do. …”

This is a good insight that I had not paralleled before: the essential similarities between atheists, such as Hitchens, who say religion is the cause of all the world’s ills, and the religionists who say atheism deserves all to blame. I never made this parallel before because I don’t believe I’ve ever come across atheists who blame all the major negatives in our world on religion.

Of course, I’ve experienced my fare share of religionists who have faith that all evil evolves from non-believers. If God created the universe and is the giver of all moral laws, then to discard or not fear Him is to discard all morality; hence the existence of evil.

So what is it, then, that drives Hitchens and his atheistic ilk to regard religion as thoroughly rotten? If religion is, as Ayn Rand said, a primitive form of philosophy, then is that perhaps Hitchens target? In seeing nothing of value in religion, Hitchens does see that religion does provide a moral code, even if are wrong one, based on God-fearing commandments and faith? But at least it provides an ethics. What does Hitchens offer? While he has (supposedly) renounced socialism, seeing its history of economic bankruptcy and mass death, he can nevertheless not get away from advocating its ethics of altruism-collectivism.

I haven’t thought this issue through, nor have I read Hitchens book God Is Not Great, so I don’t think I can give an educated answer. Why do some atheists regard religion as having no value whatsoever, and see it as the cause of all the world’s ills? I hazard to speculate that it is because, like D’Souza and other religionists, they fail to see, nor want to see, the same fundamental that rule both of their philosophies, their altruistic ethics (each with a different end: God or “society”) and the faith-based grounds for their beliefs.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hmmm. Self-hatred, by one side of the coin for the other!

Quip aside, that's also a good insight.

Jim May said...

John: I am aware of conservatives' selectivity in targetting Islam; the best they can do, given that they DON'T recognize any standard above faith, is to take issue with particular religions, *never* religion as such -- even if religion as such is the source of the problem.

I wasn't talking about conservatives per se; I was talking about moderate religious people. That process of confining faith by common sense is the remnant of the mechanism by which the Enlightenment tamed Christianity -- and THAT has been the SOLE reason why Christianity of late has been more respectable than Islam. Islam never had an Enlightenment (but they still fear that possibility something fierce).

One need merely look here for a reminder of how even this sort of person is ultimately still no obstacle to the spread of religious power. They would call the erection of a Christian crucifix in Iraq a hopeful sign. I don't.

Ron said...

Strange that with a blog doing so well in the poll, none of your readers have informed you that the link to The Ayn Rand Lexicon contains a typo, missing the H in http.

Guess it takes a first time reader. O_o

Gus Van Horn said...

Fixed.

Thanks, Ron.