Complacency and Excess

January 6, 2012


“Our century is probably more religious than any other. How could it fail to be, with such problems to be solved? The only trouble is that it has not yet found a God it can adore.” Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1959)

“The reach of naturalistic inquiry may be quite limited (Chomsky 1994)

“We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (Chomsky 1988)

THOUGHTFUL response from a reader asked me why I had stopped commenting on the excesses of “religion” and turned my attention to damning the excesses of atheism.

I haven’t. But it’s a good question. I replied that it would be like asking Luther why he stopped momentarily condemning the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and turned his attention to the marauding protestants. For everything nasty Luther had to say about the pope being the anti-Christ and Rome the whore of Babylon, he had equally vicious things to say about the religious militants in a treatise eirenically titled “Against the Thieving and Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Who were these “hordes”?

They were Luther’s supporters in the protestant cause, disillusioned that he haden’t taken his revolution far enough. So others, like Thomas Müntzer, took it for him. Similar (harder to prove) theories have suggested the same dynamic at work in the transition between Jesus and his followers, and a definite comparison can be made in the transition from earliest Christianity to the studious nastiness of some of the Church fathers, the founders of “orthodoxy.”

Polemic–rhetorical sling-shotting–wasn’t born yesterday, or even the day before. It just spreads more quickly now.

I am not anti-atheist. I am anti-excess, and everything about the Dawkins revolution has spelled excess. No matter who tries to persuade me that I am making this excess up in my head, it’s excess. Fueled by the repeated assertion of its promoters that it is (secularly) providential, righteous and true (just as all zealotry convinces itself), it is excess.

Sometimes, as Caspar Melville (editor of the New Humanist) mildy suggested in a Guardian article in 2010, it’s useful to hit the right targets–namely, an aggressive religious fundamentalism–hard, and in that regard “irascible, rhetorically florid, sweeping, intellectually arrogant New Atheism certainly has its place – some arguments are just asking for it.” (Funny, those adjectives remind me of a few things said recently about yours truly: how can it be?).

But I know Caspar to be a smart guy, someone who still sees the humanities in the word humanist, so in reponse to the famous Dawkins dictum (spoken to Laurie Taylor way back in 2007)–that there is no more reason to pay attention to theology than to fairyology– I wasn’t surprised to find Caspar saying this:

Entertainment value aside it is surely false, as well as politically unwise and, well, pretty impolite, to say that “all theology” is irrelevant (some of it is moral reasoning, isn’t it?), still worse to say that “religion poisons everything”, or that without religion there would be no war, or that bringing a child up within a faith is tantamount to child abuse, or that moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists because they prepare the ground for extremism, or that “all” religion is this, or that, or “all” faith is misguided, or to suggest that those who believe in God are basically stupid, or that science, and only science, can answer our questions….The picture of religion that emerges from New Atheism is a caricature and both misrepresents and underestimates its real character.

ET me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.

No one with a semblance of a brain would ever suggest that science can’t do a lot, hasn’t done a lot, and that the world science has explained for us doesn’t leave a lot of room for traditional religious beliefs, stories, and explanations of physical reality. It is a leap into nowhere, however, to say that accepting this as a fair description of the current state of knowledge requires someone to say, “Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all,” as Dawkins does to Taylor.

First of course, we need to find out what the speaker means by “theology.” Then we need to know what he thinks qualifies as “subject matter.” Presumably English literature qualifies because it exists. But so do the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Pali texts, the movements those texts have produced and the cultures and ideologies they have influenced. –Not to mention alphabets that were developed largely for the preservation of sacred writings.

What aspects of those topics, given the facile dismissal of theology, can be recognized as subject matter? Have the revolutionaries acquitted them of all responsibility to subject matter in the denial of the existence of God? Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist? If so, life is simple and the mortgage is paid.

But, if so, equally–if the texts and traditions of the world’s religions are really no different from stories about fairy tales and leprechauns–then attacking and ridiculing them is just as pointless as systematic exploration of their meaning–which is one of the things theology does. Is the ridicule justified because while nobody believes in the story of the Frog King or Thumbelina (does anyone even know those stories any more?) a few do believe that Jonah was swallowed by a ravenous fish and (a few more) that Jesus walked on the sea of Galilee? I’d rather buy Plantinga’s argument for epistemic defeaters than that rationale for why ridicule is justified but explanation isn’t.

Or does “subject matter” mean a certain kind of theology?Or does it mean (I think it often does in new atheist harangues) apologetics–which is unknown in many religious traditions? The analogy to fairies and leprechauns makes it difficult to know. If you say the analogies are all wrong, remember: I didn’t make them.


Predictably, I am going to say that the best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”–are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time. Even many not very good theologians see things this way but pretend it’s none of their business.

The history of religion in the last two hundred years has been a history of religion redefining itself–a bit like Britain when it went from imperially great to little England. Yet religion has done a pretty good job of doing just that: the “war between science and religion” is treated in history-of-culture classes as a topic in nineteenth century studies, especially in the work of Cornell’s first hard-headed, science-first president, Andrew Dickson White. But if you look at the section headings of White’s famous book on the subject, you’ll see that he had a broad and humanistic definition of culture in which science played a magisterial, not an imperial role. He was as impressed with the results of the higher biblical criticism as he was with development in chemistry and medicine.

Andrew Dickson White, Yale ’53

Too many vaguely religious people aren’t aware of the “magisterium issue,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s linguistic stab at declaring a truce. Religion and science are compatible (to the extent it even occurs to ordinary people to wonder) because they don’t know much about either, and because they are encouraged in this superstition by dumb priests and ministers, the self-interest and reflexes of many churches, and the at-best tepid curiosity that characterizes their day to day life–whether in relation to politics, religion, world affairs, or national education policy. (And don’t mention vote-grubbing politicians who try to out-right-to-life their way into office by appealing to the worst instincts of NASCAR America. This may be the year that foetuses are declared citizens of the United States at seven months.)

What is the effect of this dumbness, this complacency? Loud, that’s what. Getting attention for your “message” by forcing people to pay attention to hate ads, grotesquery, libelous caricatures of ideas, and repeated falsehoods–all of it communicated in a kind of pidgin that can only be described as Dumbglish: these aren’t tactics that diminish and cheapen the American spirit. This is the language that American culture seems to require to wake it up. It flows like poison soup in the veins of the internet. This is where the American spirit is.

After some thought, I have to concede that maybe the shouting is necessary. Most people don’t pay attention to much of anything–not what politicians say, or what bishops teach, or what billboards shout at them along the highways.

The failure of the culture to inspire has led to the failure of people to be curious and a general acceptance of the status quo in most things–especially religion. Why should people want to know more about anything when they have a thousand bucks in the bank, an iPhone, and a new MacDonalds opening up down the street? Starbucks is for people with jobs.

American culture is not hardwired to evoke curiosity about science, religion, or anything else. It’s designed to breed complacency. If Theodore Roethke had lived today, he would write about the inexorable sadness of shopping malls and gated communities and universities where nothing happens and a society where conscience dies daily in the onslaught of the latest economic data.

AN indirect proof of that is an unbroken succession of wars, thousands of American dead, a broken Middle East, an Arab spring that looks like winter, and nary a protest movement to remind us that man is a moral animal [sic, or lol] who ought to oppose such things. Bishops made noises and a few liberal protestants and Jews occasionally marched. Atheists, as usual, weren’t quite sure what to do because while many hated George W. Bush they hated Islam more and so–like Christopher Hitchens–they backed the wars. They were, in a phrase, paralyzed and morally invisible. No William Sloane Coffin emerged, no John Howard Yoder, no Elie Wiesel. Complacency.

Rather than say Europe isn’t far behind in this, I’m going to say Europe is far ahead. Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.

The Christianity that Kierkegaard tried to resuscitate in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1843) became the Denmark where only 31% of the population believe in God but 82.1% are members of the Evangelical Lutheran (the State) Church.

How can this be? It can be, according to Richard Norman, because religion ”is a human creation … a mirror which humanity holds up to itself and in which it sees itself reflected….Human beings attribute to their gods all their own human qualities – cruelty revenge and hatred, but also love and compassion and mercy. That’s why you can find a justification for anything, good or bad, in religion.”

It follows as the night the day that Danish religion is not American religion. British religion is not American religion, and I’m loath to say British atheism is therefore not American atheism. This cultural specularity has always been true, as when long ago German Christianity was not Roman Christianity.

HE opposite of complacency is not excess. It is moderation, and if the argument against moderation is that it has nothing to show for itself, the counter- argument is that excess has much, much less.

The classical aphorism, σπεῦδε βραδέως, “make haste slowly” is a good motto for what needs to be done in the conversation between science and religion. It was the motto of the Emperor Augustus who as a military commander deplored rashness. Suetonius says that he would often tell the generals, “Better a safe commander than a bold,” and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”

In the final tally, as long as rashness rules and shouting scores, the atheists worry me at least as much as people who believe in souls. Realizing that he is now a template for what I consider atheist rash, as in red and irritating, consider this of P Z Myers reviewing the conservative philosopher Alvin Plangtinga

I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing.

After a scissors and paste attack on the philosopher punctuated by non sequiturs and hooplah that makes no sense, Myers says simply that it is all “muddled lunacy.” As a matter of fact, I don’t like Plantinga much either. The summary Myers attacks (fortunately for him) appeared as a piece in a religious periodical. But Plantinga deserves much better, even if only because once upon a time academics who despised each other didn’t mistake emotionalism for argument. A vestige of this is that not once in his summary does Plantinga call the proponents of naturalism “stupid.” The legacy of the Dawkins revolution will be to make this completely emotional, unquantifiable term and all of its sisters and cousins and aunts permissible discourse in the defense of science. I know, I know: I have had my lapses in calling screed-writers screed-writers in screeds of my own.

SO let me revert to someone else. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his famous 1997 Natural History article a couple of paragraphs which would have caused his immediate expulsion from the atheist camp as an accommodationist or worse if he had written it in 2007. He died in 2002. With him at the Vatican meeting on NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) in 1984 was Carl Sagan, who had organized the event.

…I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in the occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held such secular power during so much of Western history. When my folks held similar power more briefly in Old Testament times, they committed just as many atrocities with many of the same rationales.)

Stephen Jay Gould

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

I stop what will be described as a tangent, a screed, a hateful assault, another outburst close to tears at Gould’s words. The year he wrote this article (1997) was also the year of Carl Sagan’s death. Sagan perhaps did more to make science magical than any other scientist of the twentieth century, though his primary celebrity was where it belonged and was most needed: in the United States. Gould commenting on Sagan’s death had this to say: “Carl shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship.”

That is the language we need.