The Age of Reason; Justice

I think often of Thomas Paine. Don’t we all? Consider this quote from The Age of Reason, his great humanist treatise on religion which often gets overlooked in favor of Common Sense.

If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

The point is that, if Jesus “died for our sins,” then the idea of justice is meaningless. We must be held accountable for our crimes; if we simply substitute some other avatar in for us, we’ve escaped justice. If Jesus is simply inserted between us and a just resolution to our sins, then we’ve avoided the repercussions of those actions. If Jesus has protected us from all consequences then there isn’t any way justice can operate meaningfully.

This was, of course, part of his radical message. The kingdom of heaven supersedes this one, and justice is doled out on a cosmic scale. Even still, if the sacrifice of Jesus truly absolves us of sins in this life and the next, we’re faced with a situation where justice has no meaning, since evil deeds have no consequence.

Our modern justice system recognizes this. Sure, someone might pay “damages” for an injury committed, but this is meant as restitution for real costs incurred as a result of the crime, not necessarily as a replacement for justice. Of course, there is also a long history of the guilty being able to pay their way out of their just rewards by way of expensive lawyers or the bail system, which is an entirely different problem. Ultimately, though, we punish crimes with jail time or some other loss of rights, which no other person can serve on my behalf. We wouldn’t imprison a person on someone else’s behalf because we “cannot take the innocent for the guilty.”

So why does it work for Jesus?

God and the Gay Christian

I consider Matthew Vines’ thoughtful work on biblical exegesis regarding sexual orientation to be seminal. Whenever confronted with the opinion that homosexuality is “unchristian” or “against the Bible,” I refer to this book first and foremost. By opening with quasi-memoir, Vines reveals his own deeply held beliefs, beliefs with closely mirror those of many who would dispute the conclusions of this book, and that gives him an extraordinary authority to be making these conclusions in the first place.

I’ve been somewhat shocked, though, to find that many evangelical literalists don’t find this compelling. They say that Vines uses “loopholes” or misapplies a cultural context to obscure biblical truth. I never imagined that I was biased in support of this book because it affirms my preexisting beliefs; I don’t agree with Vines on most of his theological beliefs in the first place. Still, was I uncritical in reading this book because it provided such a great answer to conservative evangelicals?

It is often hard to take any sort of biblical scholarship on its own terms. For instance, Vines uses some specific translation examples to show how the use of homosexuality in the text carries some connotations which mark it as different than our use of the word today. In fact, homosexuality wasn’t even addressed directly as such in English translations until well into the 60s! This opens a much larger debate about biblical translation and divine inspiration. If the Bible is divinely inspired anyway, then why are there so many translations? Is it only inspired in the original language? If the version of the Bible I’m reading isn’t the inerrant word of God, why should I treat it with such a high view?

The inability of anyone to address these issues directly is why literalists can avoid Vines’ arguments. Instead of engaging with the meat of the argument, they can simply say that they don’t believe in his analysis of the translation, or his reading of cultural context. And what can you say to that? The rules of the debate are fluid, so any dialogue in good faith is stymied. Of course, if anyone knew how to get around this problem, we’d have a much better cultural dialogue between evangelical Christianity and secular belief. As it is, we’re left with trying to engage with literalists on whatever ground they allow us to engage, which isn’t a great way to have a conversation!

I think Vines’ insight that committed same-sex relationships didn’t exist at the time of the writing of the Bible is worldview-changing. You don’t have to know a lot about cultural circumstances 2000 years ago to understand that they would understand homosexuality in some different way than we do today. I mean, you only have to think back 10 years to remember a time when we thought about orientation differently, so of course millennia past would be dramatically different!

I also understand the critique that the Bible should stand on its own, but frankly, it doesn’t. So much of literal interpretation is reliant on a preexisting knowledge of Jewish sacrificial rites, for instance, that we can’t possibly assume that everything within those pages would be timeless and self-contained. It’s why I find critiques of Vines cultural context argument silly; why should we need to know the historical context of Pontius Pilate and regional governance systems, but ignore the cultural systems surrounding same-sex relations?

I’m still going to use this as a touchtone whenever I’m faced with homophobic evangelicalism, of course. And I’ll probably be met with the same resistance I’ve described, of course. But those disagreements are part of a larger pattern of biblical literalists failing to argue in good faith, not a failing of this book’s powerful arguments.

After God

I came to the BBC docu-series The Sea of Faith by way of the Samuel Barber musical setting of the Matthew Arnold poem which its title references. I later discovered it’s author and narrator, Don Cupitt, was a prolific writer and former priest. I’ve been familiar with his work long enough to cherish his contributions to religious thought but I only recently revisited After God, a stunning gem of a book which is made even more remarkable by how prescient it seems nearly 25 years after its publication.

Cupitt’s writing is so unusual because he splits his attention between laypeople and academics yet never fails either. His references to the philosophical canon are deep, yet if you don’t know the citation you’re immediately made aware of its importance without his ever being patronizing. He is fluent in the technical language of Kant but speaks as directly and colloquially as a friend.

His writing, viewed some 25 years later, rarely feels dated. His interest in Derrida, Foucault, and the post-structuralists feels of it’s time: those writers today are relegated to a historical tradition which doesn’t place them much higher than other writers, but much of the writing from the later half of the 20th century feels like a direct response to them. His construction of religion as language feels steeped in Wittgenstein; I don’t think a contemporary writer would try to frame his argument thus nor rely so heavily on the construction of language.

The prescience he demonstrates in his examination of religious history is culminated in his remarks about literalism. He nearly predicts our current climate of intensely divided ideology. He links this dying conservatism to authoritarianism, which is clearly demonstrated in a current day Republican Party which follows no ideology but seeks only power-for-power’s-sake. He presages the continued decline of religion- since he wrote in the 90s, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has probably doubled, or more. What seemed like a crisis in the 90s today is an unabated trend.

And yet there are still believers! I agree with him that, in the future, all philosophy will be naturalistic. Yet we’re still arguing those basic points today! The Sea of Faith has ebbed but not emptied. Its supporters believe it can be refilled, without any major reformation. His writing is unequivocally one of the greatest influences on my own belief in The Catholic Atheist, and yet he, and I, remain somewhat lonely in our crusade to de-mystify religious theology and reform religious life. Why isn’t Cupitt a worldwide sensation? Why hasn’t he changed our world, the way he’s changed mine?

If I knew the answer to this, perhaps I could get my book published. In the meanwhile, it is worth noting that Cupitt’s plea to begin the creation of a worldwide religion has been largely unheeded. What is needed is not a new Catholicism, but a global sense of unity, tolerance, and inclusivity which defines a new world religious sensibility. We can keep our tribal sects, we should embrace our beautiful differences. But the only path forward is one in which religious traditions drop the dogma and embrace pluralism, one where theology is supplanted with self-examination, where absolute truth is replaced with the Blissful Void. “What of all this deserves to survive will survive.” But only if the process of post-modernization doesn’t destroy that which we already value.

The God Argument

The niche of books meant for popular audiences but written in compliance with the strict standards of academic philosophers walks a difficult line between lazily casual or exactingly didactic. When you’re used to reading Hegel, The Secret just doesn’t seem that impressive. But also who wants to read Hegel? A. C. Greyling has written an impressive primer on atheism and humanism which is concise and cutting and just a little too academic to sway casual readers.

It’s always been a problem for atheists: the arguments in support of a traditional concept of God are weak and yet people still believe. In fact, their very belief encourages them to ignore the weakness of the argument! It is circular in logic and frustrating to engage. The thing that seems to persuade people to believe is something about how they feel. Religion makes people feel seen and loved and understood, philosophical arguments do not.

Trade philosophy is even more difficult. A writer has to make an argument casual enough for a general reader while maintaining a rigorous argumentative structure. Its eternally frustrating that even a well made argument will probably fail to be persuasive, but it does afford technical writers the opportunity to make a rhetorical appeal beyond the soundness of their logic.

I’m not sure if its Grayling’s professorial tone or just his Britishness which makes this book stuffy. He’s certainly writing at an approachable level, he doesn’t invoke arcane terms or obscure references. It just feels, at times, formal. Which means that this perfectly concise survey of arguments against God becomes less effective because it doesn’t make us “feel” like the argument is powerful.

It is powerful, though! His step by step examination of the three most significant arguments for God is about as straightforward as you can get. His explanation, defense, and examination of humanism is lovely. But he doesn’t really get to the core of why people stick to their guns when it comes to religion. He doesn’t examine how good it makes people feel.

Of course, he isn’t a specialist in “feel good” religion, he’s a philosopher. He’s a very good philosopher! It will simply take a certain type of person to enjoy this, though, and that certain type of person probably already agrees with his argument in the first place.

Breaking the Spell

When you write a summary and response to a book that is decades old, that’s a book report. When you write a summary and response to a book that’s a few years old, that’s a review. But what is it when you write about a book that is 15 years old?

I read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea ages ago. That is a really good book. As with all really good books, there’s quite a lot of it that I simply don’t understand. I’m not a biologist! Although I was lead to Dennett’s writing back then by other atheists, Darwin’s is not inherently a book about religion. It was puzzling to me at the time that Dennett was heralded as such a figurehead for atheistic thought, and that the book I labored through was almost entirely dedicated to defending a long dead and widely accepted biologist.

Of course, Breaking the Spell is the book I was really looking for, and I have to say that I understand almost all of it! Of course, Dennett wasn’t really writing Darwin’s for me, the armchair philosopher, he explicitly tells us that Breaking is aimed at a different demographic. This had the duel effect of making me pay more attention to his endnotes and appendices while also making me feel really stupid.

I felt stupid right on through to the end, because even as I finished the book’s very manageable 339 pages I wasn’t quite sure I had read his thesis statement. We go from several chapters of Dennett apologizing for writing this book to apologizing to us readers for making us read it, through several well constructed chapters tracking the evolution of religion, right on through to an examination of religion as it effects modern life, right up to… endnotes, appendices, and a bibliography. Was this all preamble to another volume I had failed to purchase? Did I miss a crucial rhetorical turn in some previous chapter? I rifled back through the chapter endings which are helpfully marked with short abstracts about the preceding and following chapters, a writing tool which again made me pay more attention and also feel very stupid.

Perhaps it was this feeling of stupidity that first blinded me to his real conclusion, which is: we should research and write more about religion. In trying to make myself feel smart, I assumed his thesis would be smarter, but it isn’t. It’s pretty simple, and a little stupid. Or at least it is self-evident, because I don’t think there’s a lot of debate generally about whether we should know more or less about things in the world.

Of course, that’s what the title of the book even means: there are those who would argue that we shouldn’t know more, at least not in an empirical way, about the religion we practice. It is simply too mysterious, too important, and too self-evident (from our sacred texts and historical traditions) to mess with in the ways that scientists like to mess with things. They can’t even tell me if butter is good for me or not! How many carbs should I be eating? Science is too unreliable to trust to so insecure a practice.

I’ve never read a book which spends not one, not two, but three chapters apologizing for its own existence. I think most authors assume that readers so generally hostile to their writing wouldn’t pick up the book in the first place, and maybe Dennett is a little foolhardy to think he’s addressing people who need to hear his apologetics. For us skeptics and empiricists, it just reads as wheel spinning, but then so does his entire point. We want to know more about religion! We want to understand it like we understand everything else in the world. These are not controversial statements for materialists. I forget, of course, how many people are not materialists, or empiricists, or skeptics, or atheists, and so maybe Dennett is more inclusive than I. In his way, he’s even compassionate and empathetic to the plight of the believer who might be encountering his words and be truly moved by them. He takes great pains to protect someone reading this book who has their “spell broken,” that is, their theological worldview shattered, from the existential despair that might bring; he repeats several times how this could ultimately lead them to a better life or understanding of the universe. I just can’t buy that anyone who holds such a fragile spell as truth even picked up this book in the first place.

Dennett puts his research where his writing is, so to say, as in his writing with Linda LaScola about doubting clergy leaving the church. That sort of social science is of great value to understanding modern religion, and his pleas to conduct more of that type of research are well made. In fact, as a bibliography alone this book is invaluable, and his synthesis of myriad studies, historical writers, anthropological findings, cultural trends, and the like really belie the simplicity of his thesis. I find the tracking of religion from the meme’s perspective, and his logical and thoughtful tracking of the historical and cultural trends towards religion fascinating and even life changing. Darwin gave us a powerful investigatory tool in the question Cui Bono?, and Dennett’s examination of historical religious trends is truly insightful.

I just wanted a few more chapters maybe? Maybe on topics that Dennett simply writes off as too under-researched to properly address. Or maybe on topics too harrowing for his hypothetical spellbound reader to accept. It is a good problem to want more of a book than what was written and in Dennett’s case he’s proven that there’s more to be said on the topic. I wish there was more of that research available to put into this book, but there isn’t yet, and that’s why his thesis is as simple as it is.