Monday, April 20, 2009

The necessity of idolatry?

[In one of those mundanely complex blog-crawls I think we all know too well by now, I ended up on the blog of a fellow that goes by the moniker Volker the Fiddler. I think he is the closest thing to an "atheist me" that I have ever met. For instance, he studied German in college, is at times a fastidious weaver of prose, maintains traditional written etiquette even in email, tosses out random fables and parables, and has a synthetic "big picture" approach to (arcane) discussions. In any case, a post of his about the inherent idolatry of personal faith in God led me to ply him with a few questions, which in turn led Volker to answer me in a longer post, which has now, but of course, led me to reply with an even longer post. I am posting it here just for form's sake.]

Your first point, concerning the historicity of Jesus, is a dodge, unwitting I'm sure, since the issue is not strictly whether Catholicism has a sound historical basis for its treatment of the poor and its positive role in society, but whether the latter treatment and role exist in fact. Even if, deridicule, Jesus of Nazareth were non-existent and the records we have of his life are sheer fictions, we are, in this discussion, still only addressing the historical fallout, as it were, of that fiction.

Having said that, however, I should point out that I'm tempted (with despair) to end the discussion right now if you are actually a Jesus-myther. I mean, once you start your case with that kind of historical nonsense as your standard for sound history, why should I bother debating any other part of history with you? Why should I rehearse the guy debating the meaning of "I love you" with his girlfriend when she denies the existence of love per se? You shouldn't be so dismissive of someone like Jesus and then go on to make grandiose claims about "religion as such" based on a smattering of historical allusions. It's mighty lopsided of you.

In any case, I want to note that your first post and then your second one in reply to my comments, actually comprise two distinct arguments. Your first argument, about the inevitability of idolatry, is a stab at a deductive argument against theology on psychological and philosophical grounds. The claim driving your anti-theological quasi-deductive challenge is, I hope to show, not simply invalid but also unparsimoniously incoherent, and intellectually dangerous.

Your second claim is more of a stab at a "historicalesque" argument, but I also think it is unfounded and gratuitous. I will address it first, since it is more fun than the philosophical refutation.

In order to clear the air, let me say that one kind of argument you are not making is a biblical one, since, as I say, even if the Bible were a pure collage of myths, its constant emphasis on justice for the poor, detraction against the oppression of the rich, the moral equality of the faithful before God and, especially, in Christ, etc., need to be addressed as historical realities. You may be cynical about how the biblical witness to justice plays out in actual historical and sociological fact, but that gives you no reason to denounce that religious witness in principle. The abuse of truth, as St. Augustine often noted, is no argument against truth. This asymmetry harks back to what I meant about your antecedent Jesus-mythism: even if it were untrue, the pattern which the Gospels have endorsed is that of Christ, that of God's victory coming precisely in the weakness of the weakest, life giving itself to us in the ignominy of death itself, redemption in the spoliation of victory itself. The Cross of Christ, even if it were taken as a myth, radically challenges your cynical view that all religion is intrinsically victor-oriented.

In principle, that is enough to dismiss your cynicism, but, fear not, your anti-religious cynicism also disintegrates once it enters the light of concrete history. For every case of the victors deploying God as a cover for their decadence, there is a case (or more) of the losers rallying together in the name of the oppressors' God to overthrow them. Look at the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian enslavement. Look at the role of religion in keeping ancient Australian clans and Eskimo clans intact. Look at the victory of the Maccabees from under the heel of Titus Andronicus. Look at the perseverance of the Jews under Babylonian captivity. Look at the death of gladiatorial slavery in Rome via Christian populism. Look at the indigenizing, proto-solidarity movement among early medieval Saxons against the Franks by way of such lay spirituality as is found in the The Dream of the Rood and The Heliand. Look at the origin of private property, constitutionalism, international law, and global human rights at the hands of medieval theologians. Look at the origin of universities for public education from the rootbed of Islamic mullahs and Christian monks. Look at the birth of centralized public health care facilities from Europe's monasteries. Look at the immediate denunciations of New World slavery by Catholic popes ( ), and the Church's age-old defense of liberty in a once slave-driven market-world ( ). Look at the destruction of global slave trade spearheaded by William Wilberforce. Look at Gandhi's Christ-inspired revolution in India, and, in conjunction, look at the vital role of Christian missionaries in the demolition of the Hindu caste system. Look at "Saint" Teresita Urrea's role in Mexico's democratization. Look at the role of missionaries and basically Christian foreigners in Nanjing during the Japanese massacre there in 1937. Look at the explicit denunciations of Nazism as pagan fascism by both the Catholic papacy and Lutheran ministers. Look at the role of Catholic Guadalupean lay spirituality in the social restructuring of early- and mid-C20 Mexico. Look at the explicitly religious nature of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Look at the vital role of Catholicism in Poland's Solidarinosc movement against Communism and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's prophetic role in awakening the world to the evils of Soviet Communism against human dignity. Look at Oscar Romero's role, and Jesuit theologians in general, in South America's ragged progress towards democracy.

In other words, look at the facts. A typical Nietzschean, you are trying to defy the facts of history with eloquent abstractions, the will to power scraping futilely as always against the quiet power of truth. (Nietzsche, we recall, once "explained" the religious "spirit" India by saying the diet there consisted more of rice than meat.) Your point fails even if you object that the above benefits of religion, and many others, were not exclusively Christian, since I am defending the fundamental legitimacy of religion as an intrinsic social good. (Nonetheless, the role of Hinduism as a repressive caste-force in India, and its subversion by Christian witness, as well as the centuries-old, and still current, role of Muslim societies in the global slave trade, and its eventual subversion by Christian witness, do show that not all religions are simply equal.) There has never been a non-religious society, and if there ever has been, it was a nation-sized, doomed lab rat while active, and a curious, or even horrifying, museum piece now that it's defunct. The astounding suicide, depression, drug addiction, and population attrition rates in most post-Soviet countries are one wing of the museum. The nightmare of Enlightenment France is another.

If you want some perspective from where I am writing, I urge you to read a few of Rodney Stark's books on the rise and impact of religion, and Christianity's role in cultural history; read Christopher Dawson on the role of religion and Christianity in the same arena; read Stanley Jaki's Science and Creation and The Road of Science; read Thomas Woods's How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

It does no good to qualify your anti-religious "historical" objection by saying religion is fine and good when practiced by the lowly, deluded lay people, but a real danger when "manipulated" by "the priests." Using a definite article, however, implies you can state definitely who "the priests" are. Who are these priests of yore that rigged the system so that, wonder of wonders, every society in history has valued religion as the ordering and inspiring matrix for the rest of its energies? Who are the guilty parties exactly? Surely not the lowly faithful, since it is precisely they who are being deluded. I suspect you will reiterate your point that the benefits religion offers the poor and lowly are "not surprising" since religion is just about controlling them in the first place. But at that point the game is over: for if the very means by which countless people have, historically, found social order and personal dignity, despite poverty and social ignominy, are themselves dismissed as the tools of the oppressors, well, I'm not sure social good and evil have any meaning anymore. Odd tool of the oppressors, if it works in case after case to destabilize the oppressors. Indeed, it is precisely with the trundling secularization of Brazil that its fair-skinned elites have remounted the horse of supremacy they nearly lost hold of during those annoying Catholic centuries. (And by "the Catholic inquisition," I suspect you are mistakenly blending the massive, deadly inquisition led by the Spanish throne with the much tinier, much more humane ecclesiastical inquisition that ran, at times as an explicit form of asylum from the larger inquisition, for a small portion of the former's duration. )

The more basic ideological problem is that you are unwittingly arguing against humanity in the name of humanism. Since it is undeniable that the human species is religious as far as back as archeology can peer, you must find some explanation for man's beguilement. The priests! The inherent stupidity of the masses! If we are to take seriously only what humans taker seriously, despite what the gods say, we should, paradoxically, take seriously humankind's obsession with what the gods say. Because priests helped societies and citizens "keep it all together," so to speak, therefore religion is false. That is an extremely odd argument, to put it politely. It is one thing to say that despite its falsity, religion nevertheless produces some good from time to time, and quite something else to say that precisely because religion produces ample, evident social benefits, it is therefore false. Are you honestly suggesting that the essence of religion as such is a mass-scale agreement in all societies to entrust their uncertainty to a hierarchy just so they can be told obvious untruths and, thus, keep their chin up long enough to contribute some good to their society? To denounce religion is to denounce a central dimension of human existence. To be a humanist, in other words, is to be anti-humanist.

That is, after all, the thrust of your obiter dictum that altruism is not, biologically speaking, unique to humans: there is nothing especially human about being humane. But again, if a traditional form of theological argumentation––namely, the analogy of being after the pattern of the Triune Creator––is invoked to dismiss the Triune Creator, I don't know what actually counts as a good argument in your book. It is a traditional claim that nature "images" various attributes of God on all levels, arranged in an analogically ascending way, and therefore man is responsible to God as the designer of nature at all levels. It would actually weigh more heavily against Catholic anthropology if only humans displayed altruistic behavior, since Catholic anthropology asserts that man has a social nature, and that nature itself depicts the social triunity of God Himself ( ). Natural law has long stressed the idea that altruism is a natural obligation for man––just look at the birds of the field and, for that matter, the beavers of the dam. Religion is, then, seen as a continuation, a perfection, of basic natural goods, like social harmony, a literal "re-tying" (re-ligio) of all of nature's natural goods to their One Good Source. If man truly were a detached moral free agent, he would have no nature to honor and perfect. But seeing as he is biologically continuous with nature itself, he does have a nature which he must perfect in as humble and tireless a fashion as beavers build their dams and birds build their nests. It just so happens that some of what man's nature entails, or imposes, for him, is the good of rational excellence (aka, truth) and the good cosmic harmony (aka, redemption).

I have written before about the role of theism in psychological health and anthropological integrity: and and .

Now, to address your philosophical point, which was the heart of your initial post about idolatry. I think you state your claim most precisely, thus:

"…I also argue that no man possesses in himself the same conception of god as his fellow…. This god who dwells in each individual's mind is of a necessity in idol, being, as it is, only a simulacrum of the attributes he believes his god possesses; man is, after all, incapable of fathoming infinities—infinity being a characteristic oft attributed to gods and in particular 'God', i.e. omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc."

Let me tackle the second point first, concerning infinity. You say humans cannot fathom what? Cannot fathom infinities? What are those? What is infinity? If I can't fathom such a thing, how can you fathom it? Moreover, if you cannot fathom it, how do you know I cannot? You are grossly confusing imaginability with conceivability. Just because we cannot visualize infinity does not mean we cannot conceive of it, grasp it intellectually. Presumably, you mean that, because there is no handy exhibit of "an infinity" lying on the ground, or growing on trees, in nature, humans cannot "fathom" infinity. But you might as well say the human mind cannot grasp zero, since there are no floating pure voids, no utter-lack fruit trees, in nature. Far from not fathoming zero and infinity, the human mind invented them as operational realities (which, even then, does not address the matter of their existence as formal entities). Denying that humans can fathom what they cannot imagine is the death not only of theology, but also of all modern advanced sciences, insofar as, e.g., quantum mechanics, holography, general relativity, chaos theory, etc. all involve unimaginable but actual realities.

Now, to tackle your first, and I would say, core claim: The only thing I can give it, is its bluntness. Normally people are much more subtle about making "the worst argument ever", but, to your credit, you come right out and say it (in the interests of time, no doubt). As you might ascertain from the link I just provided, the worst argument ever, according to David Stove, is of the same form as your stab at a deductive anti-theological argument, to wit:

"We can know things only as they are related to us, under our forms of perception and understanding, insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves."

You are saying the same, but replacing "things in themselves" with "God in Himself". Now let's try it with another form of the argument that Stove provides:

"We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten. Therefore, we cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves."

Your argument, which I will call "the argument from noetic skepticism", is, I am afraid, of the same lamentable quality as Stove's example about oysters. Not only does the alleged "necessity" of theology's incoherence not follow from the fact that it is humans doing theology (which is what you assert), but your argument is unparsimoniously invalid. If you were a consistent noetic skeptic, I would take your argument more seriously. As it stands, however, you are employing a double standard against theology, meanwhile leaving your favorite other disciplines unscathed. If it is a necessity that each person is an idolator (i.e., his thoughts about God are necessarily idiosyncratic and inaccessible to others thinking about 'God'), then it is likewise a necessity that each person is a solipsist about science, language, love, and all the rest. If 'God' is meaningless, since it is but a strange word shattered in a billion human mouths, then so is every other word.

You are basically trying to mount a "gavagai argument" against theology, but, oddly enough, Quine still kept writing, even after he had "proved" words are naturally indeterminate. His argument, like yours, is performatively incoherent. In the very act of asserting all language is indeterminate and radically idiosyncratic, he was presuming enough linguistic determinacy and communal coherence to get that point across, and for it to mean something to his readers. In a similar way, you are asserting that 'God' is meaningless, but only after presuming 'God' is meaningful enough to be discussed and dismissed. If you are right, and every instance of 'God' is radically unique, then I literally have no idea what you are talking about (since, to follow your logic, I cannot have your thoughts for you). But then, why on earth should I heed your argument at all? As soon as I think you might be on to something important weighing against my faith in God, I can just shake my head vigorously, blink myself out of it, shrug my shoulders, and recall that you are talking about 'God' whereas I believe in 'God'. Like I said, if you denied the coherence of all language and intersubjective thought, I would be impressed: maybe as a complete worldview your view would defeat my theism. But as a single move in your atheistic waltz, it is clumsy and intellectually dishonest. Why does '2' mean the same thing to us, but 'God' cannot? Why does 'addition' mean the same thing in every case but 'God' cannot? I will know you are being consistent with your noetic skepticism if you don't reply to me; I'll take it as a signal that, since there is no common meaning of 'God' for us to debate, nor is there any common meaning of 'integrity' to respect. Suffice to say your attempts to argue against religion by identifying its essence is highly comical in conjunction with your denial of any hopy of knowing the essence of 'God'.

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