Friday, November 07, 2008

William James on Atheism

Probably one of the best and most nuanced articles on faith and atheism ever to appear of CiF from Andrew Brown:

The future may very well be more secular, but it won't be any more rational without a tremendous moral effort – and any collective moral effort will have much of the characteristics of a religion, including a tendency to objectify and later to personify the abstractions by which we orient ourselves in world.

(((FWIW: I think humanism, in the sense of H. J. Blackham's Humanism is the only philosophical system of ethics that is based as much as possible on what we can actually sense (we are alone and this life is all) and what we can reasonably assume (we are responsible for ourselves and for each other, by virtue of our common shared experience of humanity) )))

I still don't for a moment believe in petitionary prayer or an intervening God; as I have said earlier; I don't even think that the existence of God is a very interesting question. What has changed is what I believe about belief.

(((I concur. The issue isn't the belief in God, but rather our attitude to belief itself.)))

The trigger was two-fold. One was reading William James with real attention, but what had provoked that was rereading the Selfish Gene after a prolonged absence while I had been writing about religion. What that book said about biology seemed to me luminous and profound. What it said (in passing) about Christianity was palpable nonsense. I don't mean here the opinion of God. I mean the description of faith, and of the psychology of belief.

(((This is a genuinely interesting point. Society really needs to move away from tribalistic and unhelpful "atheism vs. religion" debates. )))

No matter how often is it repeated that religious faith is uniquely and by definition a matter of assent to propositions for which there is no evidence, this simply won't do as a description. Quite probably some or all forms of religion do involve assent to untrue propositions but so does any programme to change the world. So, for that matter, does belief in memes, or supposing that we, uniquely as a species, can overcome the tyranny of our selfish genes.

(((Not sure what he means here. Certainly there is no reason to suppose all people are inherently equal. We have decided to let it be the case in the eyes of the law for pragmatic and compassionate reasons. I certainly agree that the definition of religion promulgated by Dawkins et al needs some work...)))

The subtle melancholy of Williams James, drifting like a fog into the bright certainties of his Victorian audience and quietly rusting them with doubt, was – and remains – much more realistic. James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience addressed head-on the paradox apparent even 120 years ago, that some people need to have faith to live at all even while everything they know about science suggests it is misplaced or wrong.

(((And here is the core of the problem. I, personally, don't have any particular need to believe. I do know a few people for whom faith and belief in religion are extremely important. I have no place denying them their happiness or security, as long as they do me the same courtesey and don't attempt to force their viewpoint on me.)))

Quoting William James:

The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.
(((Mmm. The thing is that people generally get on with things, even if they do feel shitty. It's part of the human condition.)))

Now Andrew Brown quotes Conrad:

What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victim of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well – but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife – the tragedy begins. We can't return to nature since we can't change our place in it. Our refuge is in stupidity, in drunkenness of all kinds, in lies, in beliefs, in murder, thieving, reforming – in negation, in contempt – each man according to the promptings of his particular devil. There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror, is always but a vain and fleeing appearance.

Both these grim visions are better and more cheerful than the religious prospect of eternal damnation. (I really do not think that anyone sane can contemplate steadily the Calvinist doctrine of eternal conscious torment.) But they are hardly cheerful ones, and they certainly don't make one optimistic about a future of sunlit rationality.


I don't doubt that it is possible to extinguish any particular theology and almost any religious community. But when they are gone, what stands in their place are different mythologies. William James was probably the father of the naturalistic study of religion: the psychology of religious experience is studiedly neutral as to the reality of whatever provoked these psychological experiences.

But when the study of religion has been entirely naturalised, one of the things we can no longer do is to demonise believers. It may be that psychology tells us that we will continue to demonise our enemies whether or not we decently can: the trick has just proved too useful in the past. But in that case we will hardly have moved into a bright new world of rationality.

(((This is the basic problem. I have absolutely no objection to people holding religious beliefs as long as they don't inflict them or their conclusions on everyone else.

The question of "inflicting" religious faith on a child is a contentious one.

My belief is that as long as parents expose their children to dissenting opinions [allow them access to the local library/secular state school/non-religious neighbours and family members] then it doesn't count as abuse to teach them the existence of God etc.)))

(((Anyway it is fairly clear that religions emerge, and superstitions emerge, and are a natural part of being human. Rationality is always the aspiration, rather than the reality.)))

1 comment:

Samuel Skinner said...

"(((Anyway it is fairly clear that religions emerge, and superstitions emerge, and are a natural part of being human. Rationality is always the aspiration, rather than the reality.))) "

So is beating your neighbor to death and taking their stuff (re: human history). We managed to get people to stop doing that, we mostly.