If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.
Maurice Sendak died on 8 May 2012. Thanks to Arni at I Think I Believe for bringing this to my attention
“To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, [Simone Weil] teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than the kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego.”
–Leslie Fielder, from his introduction to Simone Weil’s Waiting for God
My favorite goat herder: the constellation Auriga, copyright Sergey Mikhaylov. Auriga is usually called the Charioteer, but he’s almost always pictured as a goatherd on celestial maps. For those of us at mid-northern latitudes, he’s high overhead for most of these long winter nights. Image source: Bigstock
Note: This is a reworked version of a post published back in 2011. If all goes well, this version will be showing up at Huffpost later this week.
Imagine we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would even embarrass a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.
There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago — while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate — or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.
Thus writes Sam Harris in his 2004 book The End of Faith. This passage shows up in a section about religious peoples’ insistence on clinging to tradition. The idea being, only in religion would the thoughts of a fourteenth-century person still be considered authoritative.
Harris’ words are indicative of a profoundly anti-intellectual conceit that holds an alarming amount of influence within contemporary scientifically-motivated atheism. In his 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins used the disparaging phrase “Bronze Age desert tribesmen” to describe the source of and intended audience for the biblical book of Genesis, and this phrase has been transformed in the mouths of lesser atheists into “Bronze Age goat herders.” As in, “The Bible was written by a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders” (lifted from the JREF forum).
What’s so wrong with goat herders, I don’t know.
Harris mentions neither the Bronze Age nor goats, but it does not matter. He demonstrates the selfsame conceit.
The conceit probably originated with with Kant but has since fallen far. Its contemporary expression might go like this: Way back a long time ago we weren’t so hot at science. We were babies then, so in the face of an unpredictable world we clung to our religion like mama’s skirt. Now we’re growing up and must put away childish things: all religion must go.
Zooming out: We are at a critical point in history, and the sooner we slough off the old religious crap the sooner we’ll be able to get on with the business of saving ourselves. Because “God” is clearly not going to do it.
So on one hand we have our Bronze Age goat herders; on the other, our contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What came between these endpoints of intellectual evolution? I mean, besides our medieval ignoramus?
Sir William Herschel, that’s who. He was the greatest astronomer of his time, which was approximately the late 18th-early 19th centuries. He discovered Uranus (make up your own jokes) and infrared radiation, discovered that coral was an animal and not a plant, discovered a couple moons of Saturn and Uranus, was the first to realize that the Solar System is moving as a unit through space, and coined the term “asteroid.” Plus: He’s the namesake of the big crater on Mimas, the “Death Star” moon of Saturn. Most importantly, though, Herschel is largely responsible for introducing the concept of evolutionary change over long time scales into astronomy. He was a real scientist with a lot going on.
But he wasn’t free of the old God baloney. In fact, he was plumb full of crazy religious-y ideas, like what we call today “cosmic pluralism.” This is the belief that there is lots of intelligent life out among the far-off twinkly lights. Some people believe this on semi-scientific grounds today, but Herschel’s arguments were not scientific at all. Instead, they were based on analogy and a belief in a God of abundance who would not waste perfectly good worlds.
Alasdair Wilkins published a nice piece some time ago at io9. Entitled “Cosmic Pluralism: How Christianity Briefly Conquered the Solar System,” it addresses Herschel’s belief that outer space is a full house. Wilkins writes:
By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?
To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly.
So under the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, Herschel lived at a time just before the smart people came to disbelieve in everything but science. We had not yet seen clear through our biblical fairly tales, but we were undoubtedly approaching our majority.
We now have four points on a curve: (1) The Bronze Age infants who wrote the fairy tales for the goat herders in the first place; (2) our educated but unenlightened medieval fairy-tale expert; (3) the almost-grown-up but still somewhat silly Herschel, and (4) our brightest and most clear-thinking contemporary persons, who are of course all atheists.
It’s too simple to be wrong.
(Click on image for a large version.)
When you look at it like this, you don’t have to do any work; the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit simply saunters into your mind and sets up house. It is self-evident. One is compelled to ask, How could the world be otherwise?
Which is the point. The Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit is anti-intellectual, yes, but is it wrong? I think so, but for my present purpose it doesn’t matter. The point I’m working towards is that, right or wrong, any theory goes down nice and easy if (1) you want to believe it, and (2) you’re not interested in doing your homework.
Next up: I will complete this article by suggesting an off-the-cuff and just-as-believable theory to compete with the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. I was going to propose it in this post but I got a little carried away with the chart.
I for one am glad to see the calendar change. When I was younger I was indifferent to the changing years, but here at midlife I have come to experience, despite all the cynicism I can muster, which is a lot, a kind of strange hope when 1 January rolls around.
My hope for 2013 is twofold: fewer distractions and a more deliberate life.
My search for stable employment continues. My approach in 2012 was to push hard on every door and wait breathlessly to see what would happen. When nothing did I’d push again and again hold my breath. A few cycles like this exhausted me. My professional expectations have been nothing but anxiety-provoking and they have diverted my attention from actual life, which holds for no one.
Case in point: In September my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma. He has gone through chemotherapy continuously since then. Later this month he will undergo a stem cell transplant. His prognosis is good, but this is a major procedure. Its effects on his immune system will be severe and will last for months.
All this has left me a bit unhinged.
But there’s truth in the cliché that crises can wake us up. These circumstances and others have led me to conclude that too much of my life has been centered on trivia. My constant tracking of certain news-blog-Facebook-tweet cycles is just one of several examples I might mention. It’s on my laptop, my office computer, the iPad, my phone, my TV. It’s hyperactive and nonstop. And it goes exactly nowhere. Over the last few months I’ve become aware of how badly FOMO (fear of missing out) has jangled my nerves. It has left me unable to pay attention to any one idea, and to any one person.
So this year I hope to relearn how to pay attention.
Perhaps that’s why I have recently re-read a certain pair of short books: Isaac Newton by James Gleick and Waiting for God by Simone Weil. Newton and Weil make an interesting pair: One a genius of science, the other of the spirit. You would want neither at your dinner party: Newton wouldn’t say a word — in fact, he would probably hide somewhere — and Weil would spend the evening matter-of-factly challenging everyone’s assumptions about everything (not out of a desire to upset people; it’s who she was). Neither sought fame: Newton was only pulled out of his shell by larger circumstances and Weil was an unknown quantity until shortly after her death in 1943. They focused on different aspects of reality: Newton on mathematics and the mystery of motion; Weil on the lives and sufferings of her fellows.
But they focused, and that’s the point. They had the capacity to filter out noise and pay attention.
Newton would pay attention to a single idea for long periods of time: days, weeks, months, years. Writes Gleick,
Newton’s patience was limitless. Truth, he said much later, was the “offspring of silence and meditation.” And he said: “I keep the subject constantly before me and wait ’till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
He did one thing at a time, whether it was physics, alchemy, or theology. Whatever it was he was doing, he was attending to it.
Weil’s idea of attention is subtle and theologically oriented. She writes that paying true attention to anything — even a problem of physics, say — develops the capacity to see and know others (and God too, but that’s for another day). The idea is to hold the object of one’s attention at a (short) distance from other thoughts that threaten to crowd it out:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
This is true whether the object of attention is a proposition in physics or a homeless man by the off-ramp.
In other words, when encountering any idea or person, I might try to resist my powerful urge to classify, contextualize, and connect: “Oh, that’s a statement of momentum conservation”; “He should get a job.” No: what I have here is that equation; what I have here is that human being. Suppress for a moment the interpretive reflex. That way I might at least see something real and keep it from being lost in the hyperactivity and nonsense that so threatens my peace of mind.
There is no promise of employment; nor do I have any control over my dad’s health. But maybe I can wake up a little.
My prayer for 2013 is that I will learn to think and act deliberately; that is, with attention. This means saying no: not reaching for my phone to assuage my anxiety, not spending time reading blogs and news sites that only frustrate me, not googling when I could just wonder, not fantasizing about professional “success.”
The truth is, my family and I have a promising year ahead of us. We have lots of new challenges and opportunities. And I’m grateful for that, just as I am grateful for each of you, dear readers.
Dalai Lama, London, 1996. Photograph by Steve Pyke. Used with permission of the photographer
Back in early September, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shared the following via Facebook:
All the world’s religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
This is the thesis of HHDL’s book, Beyond Religion, published a year ago. Yet this Facebook status — months later — set off a small storm of blog posts, tweets, and opinions that is still rumbling about the religion sector of the blogosphere. And my own informal survey indicates no one has really paid close attention to the profound irony of a global religious leader calling for the relativizing of religion.
It is an incongruity: The Dalai Lama, a product of religion if ever there was one, saying that we must get beyond religion. He acknowledges as much in the Introduction to BR:
This [call to go beyond religion] may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and to those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.
This is admirable in its simplicity and lack of offensiveness. I suspect many people from varied faith traditions would agree with it (although they may not use the phrase, “sentient beings”). Reaching out to others is good and well. But how many of these would go so far as to advocate for religion-free ethics? And why is HHDL doing this?
I think it’s because religion sometimes produces individuals who outgrow religion.
Let me clarify: I do not mean that the Dalai Lama has no use for religion. Or that he thinks religion is silly. But many people use religious organizations and ideas primarily as a means of belonging. Often one’s religious identity is little more than self-protection in a strange and sometimes scary world. The social and intellectual defenses provided by religion can be formidable and highly effective.
But for some people religion has the opposite result. In these individuals a religion may have the counterintuitive effect of deconstructing itself. That is, it deconstructs the social and intellectual barriers that define the religion in the first place, barriers that may turn out in the end to be the most serious threats to humanity’s common well-being.
This seems to be the case with HHDL. He has been grounded in a particular tradition, trained in its philosophy, and disciplined in its practice. But he no longer needs its community or its philosophy to distinguish himself from the rest of humanity. In him his religion has accomplished its finest goal: a human being who sees himself first and most clearly as a human being among other human (not to mention sentient) beings. Robes, Buddhism, and Tibet may define him for us, but they do not define him for himself.
But, and here’s the thing: He’s a Tibetan Buddhist, the real deal. He meditates every morning. He wears his robes. He still describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk.” And while he may not always use the language and images of Buddhism in his broader addresses, he does when he addresses his monks and nuns. To them he speaks fluent Buddhish.
This must be one of the most obvious cases of what James Fowler called the “ironic imagination — the capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” The ironic practice of religion: I suspect it happens for lots of people, not just HHDL and not just Buddhists.
It must be rather freeing to practice one’s religion while seeing it for what it is: A vessel for the universal and not the universal. It seems that such freedom would allow religion to be taken seriously but not too seriously. Such freedom might produce humility. Perhaps it is this freedom that gives HHDL his energy, his focus, and his incredible lightness of being.
On the 18th of this month I will begin teaching at Agnes Scott College. I will have one introductory physics course-lab combination (electricity & magnetism) and one upper-level optics course. I’ve never taught optics before, so I get to learn some new stuff — exciting! I will also be exploring the possibility of teaching a science & religion course there during the summer. I’m looking forward to teaching again!
Because of this upcoming demand on my time, the frequency of posts here at psnt.net will be essentially zero over the coming months. I will continue to write at Religion Dispatches and the Huffington Post and will send out emails and tweets every time a new piece goes up. So if you’ve “liked” psnt.net on Facebook or if you’re on the mailing list or if you follow on Twitter, you’ll be informed (and if you haven’t and aren’t and don’t, and want to stay informed, please like or join or follow). I’ll keep the domain and email address. But I just can’t blog at three different websites. AND teach classes. AND meet the needs of my family. AND stay balanced.
This hurts because I love this little site. I will miss the community that has grown up around it. To Jack and Tom and Curtis and Barbara and Mike and Ruth and Todd and Brent and Steve and Andrew and Jessica and Phil and absolutely everyone else who contributed to the conversation: Thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts. To those faithful who remained silent: Thanks for reading. To those who ventured over here from FreeThoughtBlogs just long enough to flame me: Thanks for your clichés and the white-hot intensity with which they were delivered.
I will miss the visual side of psnt.net, which IMO would not translate well to other sites. I could put up one of Pia‘s gorgeous images on HP, but it would be ruined by the hysterical WATCH banners and animated U-Verse ads. It may work on RD, however, which is as visually calm as magazine sites get (“just easy on the eye,” restless photographer and favorite deep guy Michael Bailey says). I’ll think about that.
Be that as it may, things are slowing down around here. This is not to say that there will be nothing new on psnt.net any more, ever, world without end, amen. But I have a busy time ahead. Some things must be (at least temporarily) shelved.
So, knowing how way leads on to way, but also that we so often arrive where we started, I sign off,
That’s the question I’m asking after reading physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s post published last week at 13.7. Pointing to the problems with creationism and the fact that that belief in evolution decreases as church attendance increases, he asks, “Why do so many have trouble believing in evolution?”
But that question can be turned around: Why do so many have trouble believing in God? It’s a fair question, you know, and the answer is not obvious.
But one thing is: God, it seems, is slipping through our fingers. You can’t spend a day in the religion sector of the blogosphere without hearing about newly-minted atheists, deeply ambivalent leavers of church, apatheists who can’t bring themselves to care, and even de-baptisms. The ranks of unbelievers seem to increase every month.
QUIZ: Why do so many people have trouble believing in God?
1. Because science has proven that God is ontologically equivalent to the tooth fairy. Duh.
2. There is no trouble. The blogosphere is not the real world.
3. Because the self-appointed representatives of God who say hateful things or drive Bentleys are more conspicuous than religious people who don’t, and sensible people don’t want to be associated with those clowns in any way whatsoever.
4. Because it’s simpler to say that, good or bad, God is just a Feuerbachian projection of human nature. Christians like MLK and Dorothy Day notwithstanding, God is a head game that needs to be shut down, and the sooner the better.
5. Because your average person would rather be god herself. And, as Walker Percy observed, if there is anything more offensive than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods.
6. Because Hobbes’ vision of humanity’s natural condition is right: life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Any God worth the name wouldn’t let things be this way.
7. Because even asking the God question adds to suffering. Everyone should follow Buddha’s lead and get on with problems — like suffering itself — that can actually be solved.
8. Because we are coming of age as a species. We’re not Bronze-Age goat herders anymore, sure, but old habits die hard. The letting-go of religion is as necessary as the letting-go of mama’s skirt, and more painful. So you can expect people to let go of God, and for some to make a lot of noise as they do.
9. Because the end of the world is near, and that’s when unbelief spikes.
10. Because Barth was right: God in Christ is the great question mark that is set against us. The sparks fly upward at the mere mention of God. This is a rule.
11. Because it’s a lot easier to worry about my mortgage and Georgia Tech’s miserable season than to get mired in all that God nonsense. Besides, science has pretty much disproved God, right? I mean, hasn’t it?
I’ve a new piece up today at the Huffington Post. It is the reworking of an essay I wrote a few years ago about Johannes Kepler and Intelligent Design. Here’s a teaser:
Kepler reminds us that religious people do not need to shrink from science and its naturalistic methods, because they more than others have a rich tradition in which to locate these things, a context that allows them to take science seriously but not too seriously, and a strong bulwark against the lull of materialism.
For a person of faith, ID is not just an unnecessary choice; it is a harmful one. It reduces God to a kind of holy tinkerer. It locates the divine in places of ignorance and obscurity. And this gives it a defensive and fearful spirit that is out of place in Christian faith and theology.