Category Archives: Book Reviews – Religion

Review of Appleman’s: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life (Part 1)


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet, a Darwin scholar, and Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University. He has recently published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

It is a short book, only about 60 pages, but it is carefully and conscientiously crafted, so I will quote extensively from its beautiful prose. Here are its first sentences:

The simpler the society, the cruder the problems: we can imagine Neanderthals crouching in fear—of the tiger, of the dark, of thunder—but we do not suppose they had the leisure for exquisite neuroses. We have changed all that. Replete with leisure time and creature comforts, but nervously dependent on a network of unfathomable technologies, impatient with our wayward social institutions, repeated betrayed by our spiritual” leaders, and often deceived by our own extravagant hopes, we wander the labyrinth asking ourselves: what went wrong? The answers must begin with our expectations. What is it we want? And why? What kind of people are we? (11)

We are, as Appleman knows, “A beast condemned to be more than a beast: that is the human condition.” We know our lineage, we are brothers of primates, sharing over ninety-eight percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. The legacy of more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific research confirms this central fact—we are modified monkeys who came to dominate other animals because of our large brains. But the brains that created tools also imagined they were the chosen people of the gods, that all other flora and fauna were expendable. This was our true loss of innocence. The notion that “God wills it” serves aggressor nations and species alike. The assault on nature came with the god’s permission but it was an arrogant assumption, dissociated from reality, unstable and self-destructive. “In our fantasies of godlike superiority are the seeds of neurosis, and when they bear their dragon fruit we run for the mind healers.”(14)

God is an invention of our imagination and for many people a seductive idea. (Appleman has in mind the Judeo-Christian God, but this idea would be applicable to other gods as well.) “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” (16) A brain capable of asking questions without answers satisfies itself that some god is the answer, even though this is no answer—the term god only hides our ignorance.

But belief in the gods survives because it is useful. Gods sanction war and, given that they are omnipotent and omniscient, a multitude of evils too. And they receive undeserved praise for saving our lives when, for example, thousands have just died in natural disasters. After all, there must be some reason why we were saved, we think, because our brains see patterns everywhere. In the stars they see Aquarius and Capricorn, in the heavens they see angels and archangels. No wonder religion hates knowledge—the gods depend upon our ignorance.

Learning is hard work; imagining is easy. Given our notorious capacity for indolence, is it any wonder that school is so unpopular, faith so attractive? So we fumble through the labyrinth of our lives, making believe we have heard answers to our questions, even to our prayers. And yet, deep down, we know that something is out of joint, has always been out of joint. (18)

Beginning as infants, selfish and full of desire, we soon realize that growing up means limiting our desires. By contrast theologies offer infinite delight—it’s all so tempting. Of course we can’t be sure we’ll win the eternal prize because that depends on God’s grace, given or withheld according to the capriciousness of the gods. Still most assume we are favored by the gods. Thus religion panders to childish wishes, leaving us unfit to deal with reality. In turns our attention away from this world toward the afterlife, and it often leads to horrific behavior.

Appleman says that the immoral people he has known were mostly believers, whereas his agnostic and atheist friends were quite virtuous. This is because religious people can afford to be immoral, all they need to do is ask forgiveness. “If God exists, as the old saying should go, then anything is permissible. Nonreligious people have no easy way out. Their moral accountability is not to some whimsical spirit in the sky, famous for easy absolutions … They must account to themselves and live with their own conduct…” (23)

Appleman also argues that unbelievers “are less perverted by the antisocial tendencies of religious thinking, including the seductions of fanaticism … To the fanatical mind, the act of pure religion has always been an act of pure violence …” (24-25) He provides numerous examples of religious wars and cruelty to buttress his argument, making his point in powerful prose: “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” (27) Yet we are all supposed to approach religion with deference, despite the fact that in the holy people “we encounter a veritable Chaucerian gallery of rogues and felons.” (27-28) Appleman provides a long list of such characters from just the last few years alone.

The religions of the world don’t wish to be judged by their deeds. They are not interested in their victims but in “the towering cathedral, and soaring rhetoric, and official parades of good intentions.” (29) Appelman attributes this public relations success to the organizational ability of religions. Beginning with visions, prophecies and other subjective experiences the priesthoods became organized. Subsequently, the original vision, whether it was for good or ill, is forgotten:

… and the organization itself becomes the object of self-preservation, aggrandizing itself in monumental buildings, pompous rituals, mazes of rules and regulations, and a relentless grinding toward autocracy. None of the other priesthoods managed all this as successfully as the early Christian clergy … Thus the “Roman” Church created for itself a kind of secular immortality sustained by a tight network of binding regulations, rigid hierarchies, and local fiefdoms, which people are born into, or are coerced or seduced into—and then find that confining maze almost impossible to escape from.” (30-31)

Large religious organizations create great problems—crusades, inquisitions, war, genocide and burning scientists at the stake. Today the Roman Catholic Church, to take one example, has used its power and influence to oppose birth control. Needless to say this policy leads hunger, poverty, disease, death, the degradation of the environment and more. Under the guise of doing good the religious wreck lives. “There is a word for this kind of activity, talking about love while blighting people’s lives: it is hypocrisy.” (32-33)

The result of this fascination with otherworldly concerns manifests itself in our distaste for the satisfactions of this world. If we truly believed in the gods, then we wouldn’t care about art, music, love, sex, money and power. But most people only give lip service to their religion, almost no one sacrifices the things of this world for the afterlife ” … few people are abjuring the world; we are taking the cash and letting the credit go …” (34) Still many can’t let go of worrying about the afterlife or rejecting their native religion. But Appleman counsels us to reject “the bribes of the afterlife” and our childish longing for gods, we can truly find meaning in this world precisely because what’s here is not eternal.

Doomed to extinction, our loves, our work, our friendships, our tastes are all painfully precious. We look about us, on the streets and in the subways, and discover that we are beautiful because we are mortal, priceless because we are so rare in the universe and so fleeting. Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves: that is all we will ever have—and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life. (35)

We are beasts that ponder the meaning of life. We were not designed by gods, there is no design outside of us, only the design we create. From our self-chosen actions we get our happiness, our truth, our freedom, our wisdom, and our meaning. But how can there be meaning if there is death? Our brains provide the reasons. Rejecting the “mumbo-jumbo of theologians,” we search for the truth.

(I will continue with Part 2 tomorrow.)

Reflections on Peter Watson’s, “The Age of Atheists”

In a previous post (“Atheism as Intellectual Snobbery?” Emma Green’s review of Peter Watson’s: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. Since then I have finished reading this magesterial work.

WATSON’S STARTING POINT

It is hard to do justice to this extraordinary piece of scholarship—there are over 500 footnotes—and the depth and breadth of Watson’s knowledge amazes. Yet there is no snobbishness in it. I’d guess that Green can’t relate to atheism or the death of god. Like some of my undergraduates who took my course in existentialism years ago, she doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Why does Kierkegaard think Christianity is irrational, that it takes a leap of faith to be a Christian? Why does Nietzsche think god is dead, that the idea no longer informs culture? Why are questions about meaning, death and freedom such big deals? After all god made the world and if we love and praise him we’ll go to heaven.

Does the previous sentence betray my snobbishness? Maybe. Yet I am just making this observation. If one knows little about the last four centuries of Western culture, then it may seem that not much has changed. But things have changed. The seventeenth century scientific revolution altered the way scientists, philosophers, and theologians see the world. Thus there is a reason that belief in freedom, souls, and gods was once ubiquitous but is now minimal among the intelligentsia—the reason is modern science.

It’s not as if philosophers suddenly decided to ruminate on materialistic theories of mind, the problem of free will, or atheism as idle pursuits. No. These problems arose because of science. It is now a challenge to show how freedom, souls or gods can coexist with science; rather than seeing them as pre-scientific ideas. This is Watson’s cultural milieu, as it is for many in the intelligentsia. The consequences can be seen in the statistics—only 7% of the members of the National Academy of Science,1 and less than 15% of professional philosophers are theists.2 Again, the reason for this is modern science.

THE BOOK

The range of the book is vast covering poets, philosophers, artists, social and natural scientists,  and more. The penultimate chapter surveys those, mostly scientists, who find meaning in the evolutionary or cosmological epics including : Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and E.O. Wilson. The final chapter surveys today’s great thinkers, mostly philosophers, on the question of meaning including: MacIntyre, Gadamer, Grayling, Rorty, Nozick, Dworkin, and Habermas. Both chapters are masterfully researched, impartial and thorough.

The conclusion suggests—remember the book is not a polemic—that the crux of the answer to the question, how to live without gods, demands that we bring forth something from within ourselves; essentially an appreciation of the joy available in this life and an intense observation of life’s experiences. He quotes from Darwin’s notebooks, “the sublime is reached through the commonplace … the slow accretion of facts.” Such thoughts bring Watson back to the happy moments of life, to the butterflies and flowers of this world, not of an imagined afterlife. What we are called upon to do is to keep experiencing, observing, and naming our world. To continue the long and laborious process of understanding with hope for the future. In the end he echoes Wordsworth,

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;

1. http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html

2. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/04/29/what-do-philosophers-believe/

Reflections on Alain de Botton’s, “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion argues that religion is untrue, yet useful. Religious belief may be nonsense, but it’s useful nonsense. 

He begins by claiming that religion was not handed down from on high, miracles are myth, and the gods are illusory. He doesn’t believe that his educated readers could possibly believe in ghosts in the sky. Yet if you expect de Botton to mimic traditional critics of religion—Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach—or modern ones—Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens— you will be disappointed. Instead he finds some value in religious rituals, pedagogy, and traditions, which help people build community, be moral, and endure pain. Secularists would be wise to use these elements of religious traditions to build a secular religion.

We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves … who want to lead the sort of life which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us.

Specific proposals range from restaurants where strangers would share feelings, to museums organized by themes to aid us in contemplating the profound, to university lecturers adopting the style of Pentecostal preachers. Universities, like so many secular institutions, disseminate information but don’t impart wisdom. (In response, De Botton founded the “School of Life.”) http://www.theschooloflife.com/

De Botton is right when he says that religion is false. His claim that it is useful is somewhat true, but it is unclear that this is a good thing. Sure, many people get their morality, community, and comfort from religious practices, but Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan members get theirs from group practices too! Lest one bristles at the comparison, religions have much blood on their hands. The point is that useful is not the same thing as beneficial—alcohol is useful to alcoholics as are guns to psychopaths.

In fairness to de Botton, he believes that some religious practices are beneficial. Of course the same can be said of almost any practice—beating my wife may sometimes be beneficial, perhaps she’ll respond to her beating by saying “thanks I needed that.” The question is whether a practice is generally beneficial, whether it causes more harm than good. Needless to say, many thinkers have found the claim that religious practices cause more harm than good to be false. Count me among them.

There is also the question of whether the rituals and traditions can be adopted by secularists, or whether they will retain their power when stripped of religious superstitions. Now if a religious practice passes the test of scientific respectability, meditation for instance, then by all means employ it. But if gathering in large groups promotes community as well as bigotry and hatred, then I’m not so sure. Applying such tests, the only remnants of religious traditions left will be the few that are scientifically respectable. In that case the best way to proceed in the search for meaning would be continued investigations into the field of positive psychology, happiness studies, and other scientific studies of how people can live happier and more meaningful lives. That de Botton does not discuss this is a gross oversight.

In my view William James offered the best defense of religion with his pragmatic argument in “The Will to Believe.” As long as religious beliefs and practices work for us, why not believe and practice? Ideas, as he said, are to be judged by their “cash value.” The problem is that this allows us to believe and practice whatever we want. The history of religious war, cruelty and torture testify to the problems with doing so. In the end, scientific studies of human nature are the key to understanding what is beneficial to society, and all of us, religious and non-religious alike, would be best served to heed their advice.