Monthly Archives: October 2018

Religion as Community

Darrell Arnold

Dr. Darrell Arnold, Professor of Philosophy

Note – My last post elicited multiple thoughtful comments from readers but I thought that Dr. Darrell Arnold’s were worth reprinting in their entirety. I have known Dr. Arnold for more than 30 years and he is a careful and conscientious thinker whose thought I highly value. Here is Dr. Arnold’s commentary followed by a brief rejoinder.

Clearly, religion has done and continues to do much harm. And most of the everyday religious dogmas should be taken no more seriously than the idea that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. But beyond providing individual consolation, which you note, religions also provide much more. They often provide the impetus for social justice, provide individuals with a strong sense of belonging, and through spiritual direction offer something akin to analytic counseling.

Major social justice movements of the 20th century and of the present have had strong religious impulses. We can look to the movements of which Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were leaders as examples. In Miami, through obligations associated with the Catholic University where I originally worked, I became involved with a Social Justice organization that works on local (progressive) politics that is comprised almost exclusively of Justice committees of local churches, synagogues, and mosques. These congregations do provide an infrastructure for social coordination at the local (and national) level. And it appears to me that many of the adherents … derive [ a sense of purpose] from that work “being their brother’s keeper” and from the sense of community that the organizations and the collective work provide.

The non-religious often lack the social bonds, outside of family, that religious organizations can provide, and they often lack the organizational infrastructure for collective social justice work. You’re probably familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He reflects on the lack of community in contemporary life and problems of social belonging and so on related to this. We can, of course, join Green Peace or the Sierra Club or various organizations and work together for good purposes. But it appears that there is a bit of a vacuum often left by those who leave their churches.

But these are a couple of the roles that religions also fulfill that can be important for a meaningful life. It was this social function of religion that Durkheim focused on more than the question of individual comfort or of religious experience (such as William James writes about). Those without religion (or those who hope that religion will fade) will likely do well to find other ways to facilitate community. This, I’m sure, is part of what is behind the efforts like Alain Botton’s School of Life, which has meetings in London and other places, or the various Atheist churches. Some of them couple that with some other functions of religion, such as philosophical counseling as a stand-in for spiritual direction.

Mostly what I’m getting at here is that there is more that religion provides people than the individual comfort of a supernatural belief system. Many of those things are vitally needed for many people to have a good life and are benefits of a caring community. Maybe that last phrase should be highlighted since I think that a lot of the appeal of religion comes down to that. For all the sicknesses of any religion I’ve encountered, you can often find in the midst of that elements of a caring community — at least some group of people who are focused on a moral life and who find meaning in acts of kindness toward individuals and in work for social causes greater than themselves.

Brief reply – I agree with everything Dr. Arnold writes here. Religions have done, and motivate believers to do, many good things. Religions also provide a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. I really think that religions are social clubs as much as anything else. It was Kierkegaard I believe who said that when you tell someone what religion you belong to you are basically noting who you hang out with. The social and emotional aspects of religion also explain why rational arguments have so little effect on believers.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

… continued from a previous entry

  1. Western Religions: Are They True?

Western monotheistic religions try to answer both the meaning of life and the meaning in life questions with an overarching worldview. However, religions consist of multifarious beliefs, expressions, and experiences making them difficult to characterize. We could even plausibly say there are as many religions as there are religious practitioners. But western religious answers to questions of meaning typically involve narratives and beliefs about gods, souls, and an afterlife.

Here are two examples from Christianity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question: “What is the chief end of Man?” with “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” The Baltimore Catechism answers, “Why did God make you?” with “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Similar ideas can be found in Judaism and Islam.

But such answers are highly problematic. The philosophical arguments for the existence of a God or Gods are notoriously weak, the concept of soul scientifically irrelevant, the evidence of an afterlife almost nil and contravened by experience. Religious beliefs are often superstitious and implausible, both an affront to the intellect and an insult of our best scientific knowledge. The gods that people believe in are almost certainly imaginary and science convincingly explains our tendency to believe in them. In other words, popular religious beliefs are almost certainly false.

Allegorical and less literal interpretations of religious beliefs are more intellectually palatable, but they are often still tethered to dubious claims about supernatural realities, miraculous divine intervention and the like. Sometimes these more sophisticated interpretations reject supernaturalism, but then they often cease to be what most people mean by religion—pantheism, panentheism, process theology or death of god theology aren’t recognizable to most believers. Such obscure metaphysical speculations might provide insight if grounded in scientific knowledge, but usually, they are not.

Philosophical theologians conversant with and appreciative of modern science often posit a “god of the philosophers” using the word God to mean a cause, reason, explanation, designer, or necessary being. I can’t rehash all the arguments for these various conceptions of gods except to say that the vast majority of contemporary philosophers don’t find those arguments convincing. I count myself among this majority. In my view, defenders of these arguments generally deceive themselves through motivated reasoning. They base their beliefs on what they want to believe, not on what is most likely to be true.

Still, I grant that many persons derive meaning in life from their fervently held, emotionally satisfying religious beliefs, which is fine as long as they don’t try to impose them on others. I understand the desire to believe in truth, beauty, goodness, justice, immortality, and the meaning of life. I realize that religious beliefs provide comfort to some people, and that is probably the best argument for accepting them. Life is hard, tranquility elusive, and living without appeal to gods, souls, and an afterlife takes courage. But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. As for me, I don’t want to believe, I want to know.

  1. Western Religions: Are They Good?

Nonetheless, we pay a hefty price for this religious consolation—theocracy, fanaticism, hatred, war, etc.  Moreover, religious institutions typically are anti-scientific, anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, authoritarian, and medieval. Religion has opposed or still opposes free speech, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It also encourages credulity and blind faith, which stand in opposition to the critical thinking I so fervently revere and which we so desperately need.

Furthermore, many measures of social dysfunction strongly correlate with greater religiosity including homicides, large prison populations, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, political corruption, income inequality, and more. Perhaps all this is worth the comfort religious beliefs provide, or maybe this correlation doesn’t imply causation. But to the extent that religion causes much of this suffering, its consolations probably aren’t worth the price.

Consider that the cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places including the present day. And, if religion causes less harm today than it once did, that’s because its power has been reduced. Were that strength regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm.

Still, I admit religion isn’t the only anti-progressive force in the world—conservatives, plutocrats, and despots hate change too, especially if it affects their wealth and power. And, I should also note, many people evidently derive social and health benefits when surrounded by like-minded believers; religion provides a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where social isolation is rampant. Moreover, religion has promoted good things like education and healthcare for which I commend it. But secularists promote many good things too without relying on supernatural justification. Consider that today the best places to live in the world like the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe are also the least religious, while the worst places to live are generally the most overtly religious. I doubt this is coincidental.

As for me, I believe that western religions are as harmful as they are untrue. We will be better off when we outgrow them. Put simply religion is, in my view, an enemy of a better future.

  1. Western Religions: Do They Reveal Meaning?

Moreover, even if religious claims are literally true it’s not clear how they answer questions about life’s meaning. How does being a part of your God’s plan give your life meaning if being a part of your parent’s or country’s plan doesn’t? How does your God give your life meaning, if you can’t do that yourself? How can your God’s love give your life meaning if other people’s love doesn’t? How does living with your God forever provide meaning if just living forever doesn’t?

I’m not saying the above questions are unanswerable, just that their solutions aren’t obvious. We can imagine that some God makes sense of everything, but this article of faith doesn’t explain anything; it’s just a placeholder for our ignorance. Just as easy to imagine that this God enjoys watching our suffering, laughs at our efforts, and is entertained by our foibles—life may be the cruel joke of an immature, malevolent, or capricious God. Thus, the mere existence of a God or gods doesn’t necessarily make life meaningful.

And, even if your God is real, do you really want to live forever with a being or beings apparently responsible for so much evil? Consider for a moment the innocent who are starving, homeless, incarcerated, and otherwise suffering unimaginably—as you read this now. Consider too what fate has in store for all us. Given all this misery are the machinations of theologians about free will, the devil, or the necessity of soul-building really satisfactory? No, they are not.

Thus Western religious answers to the questions of meaning are suspect because: 1) the supernatural realm is probably imaginary; 2) religion causes much harm; and 3) it isn’t clear how gods make life meaningful. If the truth, usefulness, and relevance of religion are suspect then its answers to questions about life’s meaning are too. For me, Western religious answers to questions about meaning are non-starters; they simply aren’t available. 

  1. Eastern Religions and Meaning in Life

However, other religions concern themselves more with right action than right belief, with humility and compassion instead of creed and dogma. While this emphasis on right action rather than right belief can be found in the West, it is more prevalent in the self-salvation traditions of the East.

Of course, Eastern religions make use of metaphysically dubious notions like reincarnation, karma, lila, samsara, moksha, etc. and their practitioners can be as superstitious and spiteful as Western religious believers. Still, Eastern religions are typically less concerned with literal or historical truth and more accepting of and reconcilable with modern science than Western religions. So our previous criticisms of Western religious beliefs don’t apply straightforwardly to Eastern religions.

Put differently, eastern religions typically focus less the meaning of life and more on finding meaning in life through activities such as searching for truth, being compassionate, reducing desires, or experiencing self-realization, bliss, liberation, or oneness with reality. Even to the extent there is a stated meaning of life—for example escaping the cycle of birth and rebirth in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—the emphasis is on how to achieve this goal. In other words, eastern religions generally place more emphasis on acting to find enlightenment rather than believing that salvation depends on accepting certain propositions.

While all eastern religions largely share these traits, Buddhism is especially anti-dogmatic, anti-metaphysical, and practical. It provides instructions for good living, ending suffering, understanding reality, cultivating compassion and achieving mindfulness. Moreover its central tenets—that reality is radically impermanent and that we lack a core self—are consistent with findings in modern science. To the extent that it can be called a religion, as opposed to a philosophy of life, Buddhism is the best one that humans have created. For insight into finding meaning in life, Eastern wisdom devoid of supernaturalism is often a reasonable guide.

Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

The Presocratics – Heraclitus

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPGHeraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

More than anything, Heraclitus is known as the philosopher of flux. As is famously attributed to him: “One cannot step in the same river twice” (D 91). Or as he similarly notes elsewhere: “As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.”

Though it is important to understand Heraclitus as a great speculative philosopher who exceeds the Ionians in complexity, it is also important to see that he sets out similarly to the Ionians — so it is not without reason that Plato classifies all these early thinkers together as “Heracletians.” As Heraclitus says, indicating his similarity to the Ionians regarding the source of knowledge: “Whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer” (D 55). Yet, seeing and hearing are not enough. To this, as the Ionians also appear to have clearly recognized, one must add understanding. “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for those who have barbarian souls” (D 107).

While reasoning is as important as experience, it is not something that Heraclitus unhinges from experience. Heraclitus does not engage in the same abstract thought as Parmenides, speculating on the basis of an apriori logic. For him, the world around us, where one is born grows old dies, where all things change, serves as the basis of speculation. And that speculation should lead us to see the shifts and changes occur in accord with a law-like substratum. Here he posits a teaching of both logos (of word or mind or principle) and the elements. In this “All things are one.” Yet that unity contains diversity with the process: “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.” Individual objects in the world emerge and fade away out of a relationship of the transformation of elements through time.

Though Heraclitus will refer to the logos as divine, he does not speak of it as an external force acting upon a separate material. The process of the material change of the basic elements (with fire as the most basic) is not imposed by external deities, but is the order of the cosmos itself: “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.” Fire, the fundamental element, which also best symbolizes the transformation of the cosmos, transforms into the other elements in a process of continual change, where difference is fundamental, but difference persists in a process of unity.

One of Heraclitus’ fundamental themes is that this change in cosmos occurs through the balancing of oppositions. As he notes: “What is in opposition is in agreement, and the most beautiful harmony comes out of things in conflict (and all happens according to strife.)” Or more poetically, dismissing those who strive to see all conflict disappear: “They do not comprehend how being at variance it agrees with itself: it is a harmony turning back upon itself like a bow and a lyre.” This conflict between opposites is fundamental to the unfolding of the logos in the cosmos. In contrast to Hesiod who sees this conflict as a curse, Heraclitus posits that strife is not only “the father of all;” “strife is [also] justice.”

Beyond merely seeing how apparent conflicts complement one another, the “divine,” objective view of the cosmos that he stresses strives to rise above the common human-centric vision of reality.   As he notes: “Sea is the most pure and most polluted water. For fish it is drinkable and life-preserving; for people it is undrinkable and deadly.”

Part of Heraclitus project is to reconceive of the divinity. It is now the cosmos as a whole or the logos that permeates it. Specific gods are part of this, but demythologized and viewed as functions of a law-like determinate universe. He notes the tension of his time, as myths are being secularized: “The one and only wise thing is and is not willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”

While this approach to reconceiving the gods is not unique to Heraclitus, he is more radical than most in that he not only rejects the traditional views of the gods, but also the rites and ceremonies honoring them, which he sees as having a corrosive effect on human beings. As he notes of ancient rites to Dionysos: “If it were not in honor of Dionysos that they organize a procession and sing the phallic hymn, what they do would be most shameless: but Hades and Dionysos are one and the same, in whose honor people rave and celebrate the Bacchic revelry.”

It is not the honoring of the gods that determine one’s fate and well-being. Rather: “Mans character is his fate.” The responsibility for what one becomes lies with oneself.  Against this backdrop, Heraclitus notes: “the people should fight on behalf of the law as (they would) for (their) city wall.”

Heraclitus does re-conceive of the divine and of nature. One dovetails into the other. He bases his speculative reasoning on the senses but thinks it takes one beyond them. At least the knowledge that we have of him surpasses that of the Ionians by explicitly taking up not only issues of natural philosophy and metaphysics but also issues of ethics and teaching of the soul. In this, he among the Presocratics is the first to approach the systemic character of the later thought of Plato and Aristotle.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 1 – Life and Meaning

… continued from a previous entry

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and to console [humanity]. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

  1. Two Questions about Life and Meaning

I distinguish between two basic questions concerning life and meaning.

The first is: “What is the meaning of life?” It might also be expressed: “Why does anything exist?” “Does anything matter?” “Does the universe have a purpose?” “What’s it all about?” This is the cosmic dimension of the question. It asks if there is a deep explanation or universal narrative that would make sense of everything, including us.

The second is: “Can I find meaning in life?” It might also be expressed: “What the point of my life?” “Does my life matter?” “What kind of life is meaningful?” “How should I live?” This is the individual dimension of the question. It asks if there is a valuable, significant, or worthwhile way of living that prevents life from being futile, pointless, or absurd.

Thus the often-asked, singular question, “what is the meaning of life?” is really a marker or an amalgam for all the above questions.

Putting our two main questions together leaves four possible answers:

1) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningful;
2) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningless;
3) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningful but we can still live meaningless lives;
4) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningless but we can still live meaningful lives;

        2. What Do We Mean by Meaning?

The cosmos or an individual life is meaningful if it is purposeful, valuable, or significant. Furthermore, a meaningful cosmos contains things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love, while a meaningful life entails flourishing, satisfaction, contentment, and moral goodness. (While happy, moral, and meaningful lives aren’t identical, I believe they mostly overlap. Thus I won’t distinguish between them further.)  

Put differently, both a meaningful cosmos and a meaningful life matter, they are good, and they are long-lasting. The more they matter, the better they are, and the longer they last, the more meaningful they are. In other words, what I call a fully meaningful reality is the best one that can be, and a fully meaningful life is the best one that we can live.

Note too that meaning varies over time. The cosmos may be more or less meaningful now than it will be in the future—it may one day become perfectly meaningful, totally meaningless, or something in between. Individual lives may also become more or less meaningful over time, and their meaning also varies from person to person. In other words, meaning is a gradient good.

However, a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects—developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve disappointment that is often at odds with our momentary happiness. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable, simply that, for now, it often accompanies our attempts to live meaningfully. Still, the maximally meaningful reality that we should seek would be devoid of evil.

  1. Should We Ask About Meaning?

Questions about meaning and life arise because we are big-brained hominids capable of adopting a detached point of view. We can disengage from life and reflect on it. This ability to reflect is made possible, or at least greatly enhanced, if our basic needs are met—i.e., we possess a modicum of wealth, health, and education, don’t fear for our safety, live in a relatively just political order, etc.

Our consciousness of suffering, impermanence, death, and our apparent insignificance in the vastness of space and time especially stimulate questions of meaning. We can’t live long without wondering why life is so hard; we can’t love passionately without asking why we and our loved ones must die; we can’t think deeply without realizing that something about life is amiss. We wonder where it all came from, where it’s all going, and what it’s all about. These questions resonate deeply within us and are hard to silence.

Yet even if we could avoid our deepest questions, we shouldn’t. Our questioning ennobles us and is part of a rich interior life that differentiates us from less conscious beings. We simply don’t fully actualize our powers of thought and reason until we reflect seriously about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The examined life, all other things being equal, is better than its opposite.

Furthermore, good answers to our deepest questions promote our survival and flourishing, as well as aid our descendants in successfully navigating into the future. Without knowing the purpose of our lives we don’t know where we should go or how we should get there. Without an understanding of life and meaning, we are lost, adrift on our cosmic journey without a compass. But where do we look for understanding? One answer is to religion.

Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

The Presocratics – The Ionians

Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 107.jpgThales of Miletus “the first philosoher”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The very first of the Greek thinkers — the Ionians — lived in Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey. They were speculative natural philosophers. Thales, who Aristotle considered the first philosopher, speculated that the various distinct objects of the world all had the same substratum. Underneath the appearance of division in the world, there was a basic material unity: All things were comprised of water. While this is a scientific statement about what comprises reality, it is also a metaphysical statement. It is maintaining a basic unity among diversity.

We do not know precisely why Thales speculated that the common substance of all things was water. Aristotle speculated that it was because water is necessary for all living things. Water could also take the forms of solid (as ice), gas (as steam) and liquid (as water). In any case, what is remarkable about Thales’ view is not really the specific answer that he provides to the question. It is more the approach he initiates to address questions. He is not like the religious poet who comes bearing a message from the gods — his thoughts are not gifts of Hermes. Rather, he is speculating posting natural causes and using natural reason.

What Thales begins, various Ionian philosophers after him continue. Anaximander goes further than Thales, positing views about the origin of the diverse things in the world from a primordial unity. In the beginning was the Apeiron, the boundless or unlimited, a nondifferentiated unity. Out of it, the many things of the world emerge. Decisive here as a break in the explanatory model of the Greek religious-mythical thinkers, the emergence of the world does not occur because of the action of the gods. Neither Zeus nor Prometheus is involved. Rather, it is fundamentally the interaction of two factors — hot and cold — that are at work as the world emerges out of the unlimited. Animals are born from moisture heated by the sun. Humans originate from similar processes — natural and lawlike, even if not so clearly articulated as we might like.

Anaximenes continues reflections on these same issues. He proposes views contrasting with those of both Thales and Anaximander. Not water, he thinks, is the substratum, but air, aether. Following Anaximander, he appears to wonder that if all were comprised of water, how we would account for fire. Yet, in contrast to Anaximander, he posits a clearer mechanism through which the many arise from the original unity. The starting point for the development of the world was not the unbound but was chaos. Out if it, from a primordial breath, the many arise.

One of the main characteristics that we see in these earliest Ionian thinkers is that they do not take the authority of their tradition as a starting point for their reasoning. While they are undoubtedly influenced by that tradition, they set out to reason on the basis of what they experience …