The paradox of faith

The merriness of the Christmas season contrasts sharply with the anger of several prominent atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who attack the belief in God in their recent bestsellers. Is faith a good thing? Psychology Prof. Jonathan Haidt, himself an atheist, observes that “religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

In Haidt’s view, secular liberals tend to believe in a “contractual” or “individual rights” model of morality, where the highest end is the fair and mutual satisfaction of autonomous individuals. In contrast, religious conservatives tend to subordinate individuals to the group and to a higher or sacred good. They have a pessimistic view of human nature and freedom. For example, they are more likely to believe that without authority, kids will grow into “shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers.” (And they are right.)

Happiness, or at least the sanguine hope of it, goes together with the belief and devotion to a higher and larger whole, and with some greater acceptance of the limitations of human things. In both respects, faith shores up happiness.

Faith may be defined as the belief in a god, in someone (or something) eternal with whom we can hope for connection or union. The more explicit and aware we are of our need for something deathless and transcendent, the more we are reminded of our inability to satisfy that need on our own, and the more likely to see and accept the sharp limitations of our lives here and now. Therefore religious conservatives demonstrate less utopianism about everything from technological progress to political reform to midlife remarriages.

However, that need for something transcendent is potentially explosive and does not always remain satisfied by other-worldly and distant hopes, but can demand to bring the true or perfect justice of heaven down to earth now, as we see with messianism or jihadism. In a similar but much more confused way, atheists sometimes transfer their most extreme and suppressed hopes to their secular missions. We see the curious spectacle of fanatics denouncing fanaticism, and believing that paradise will come to mankind if only mankind will stop believing in paradise. In his campaign against Christianity, Sam Harris has said that science is not in “the business of nurturing useful delusions.” But does that mean it should be in the business of destroying them? It is hard enough for even the most perceptive to see delusions for what they are, let alone to cure them, so that the expectation of a common cure must itself be ranked a great delusion.

Faith exists even among (so-called) atheists, if we consider the extent to which we act, not for the sake of an actual good, but for the sake of deserving an imaginary or hoped for good that we are not able to acquire or pursue (in a direct or explicit way). The power before which and of which we hope to be deserving is that “higher or larger world” that shores up our happiness. It can take many forms—our parents when we were little and they seemed big, or at the other extreme, the “God of our fathers,” or something intermediate and abstract, like History or mankind, or even a field or career.

The question is how we understand our devotion to this higher or larger world, or the group that represents it. We often speak of the “goodness” of those who give to others, and of the “selfishness” of those who pursue their individual interests. But if it really is good to give to others, then those who give to others are the ones being selfish, that is, pursuing their good, and those being “selfish” are actually hurting themselves and so being selfless. There is an unresolved ambiguity when we speak of the “goodness” of justice or morality: good for whom? In what way is it good?

We believe justice is a sacrifice, doing good for others (or putting others first), but we even more profoundly believe that it is good to be just, I mean good for the one who does justice (and so justice is not a sacrifice, but selfish).  For example, parents teach their children to be just because they think it is good for their children and promotes their happiness, not because they want to sacrifice their children.  Still, what impresses about justice, and what supports the belief in its power and goodness, is precisely the self-sacrificial element of it. We would not be inspired or hope for much from a world in which all people acted in a blatantly selfish manner.  Perhaps that would make it too difficult to continue to hope in the selflessness of the higher powers towards us mere mortals, from whom they have little or nothing to expect.

Limits to Locke, or two cheers for Islam

>Our contemporary politics takes place within the parameters defined by liberalism.

–if liberalism is correct.   If not, then it may have those parameters wrong; it may have misunderstood the human situation.  It may not have understood the unchangeable savagery or irrationality or injustice of human needs (e.g., Locke in his work on education greatly underestimates the fundamental cruelty of boys), and the need for restraints and especially for extreme satisfactions, such as a divine ruler and access to absolute law or rightness or eternal glory. 

It’s not just a theoretical question, whether God has been disproven in the abstract, but a practical political question: it’s a question of what thing gives rise to God inside us and how tamable or reformable it is.   Liberalism may have made a grave mistake in believing there could be a beneficial separation of church from state: a mistake both from the point of view of the survival of the regime (can a tired, sterile non-Christian Europe maintain itself against a fertile Islam?  where the exhaustion arises from lack of self-righteousness and lack of confidence in or hope for the future, a future not blessed by eternal powers); and from the point of view of its desirability (don’t democracies become rotten without some check on popular self-indulgence, a law above them that is not their creation).

>The Bible falls short of what its own principles demands

It’s not what the Bible demands, but what we demand of the Bible—what in us forces us to obey the Bible, to believe—that same force may cause us to obey a bible that contradicts itself.  It may be that we could not tolerate what a non-contradictory, intelligible bible would be (i.e. it would not be a bible), any more than we would rest satisfied with a life in which we have no more than what our naked powers already provide us (–suppose that 99.9% of the value of things does not derive from “our labor,” but from our imagination of the place we earn from God by our labor).  It is not enough to be moderate and rational in a formal sense—one must be able to see the source of irrationality operating even in the desire to be rational and to understand (cf. Nietzsche’s masterful explanation of the will to truth as a piety, as a faith).  In subjecting the bible to the test of consistency, one is assuming that consistency is the demand, or really, that the dominion of the bible over us is only as fundamental as our false belief in its consistency—that could be solved by education.  But if the bible has to be inconsistent for it to be a bible, for it to have force, then can that force that inspires the making of bibles be controlled by education, especially an education that does not see the grounds of that force?  Is whatever is replacing the Bible really more consistent, on the fundamental issue, than the Bible? 

What is the genuine demand?  Is the demand for reason or consistency in fact the highest longing in human beings—is it even compatible with this longing?  If the part in us that gives rise to God is not reason, and if this part, which may drive our reasoning, is the true end or solace of life, and if this part is not compatible with reason or not simply compatible, then such a demand would not be resistible on the grounds of reason, even if it allows some scope for reason in life (and reason would at best confirm the grave insufficiency of reason).  In this view, liberalism would not be taking sufficient account that God is a tyrant, God is not just—that we are forced to be tyrants, that we are not just, that we cannot help insisting on what we cannot have and cannot help having a false relation with other beings, and that life, including what rationality and philosophy is possible, is possible only with proper awareness of and so submission to this imperious irrationality and savagery.  In this view, the beginning of wisdom is that we can never be wise, that we are born in darkness and must die in it, and such light or dignity as we are given is a small, frail, fleeting, partial awareness of this darkness, something that we are built in a thousand thousand ways to deny:  god is a terrible, relentless, jealous, watchful force that never gives us rest. 

I wonder whether the problem in Locke is not that he privately overestimates the divergence of reason from revelation; I mean, that reason is such a safe harbor for Locke, or that it has a clear ability to reform our relations, almost like the difference between heaven and hell (First Treatise, I.58). It seems to me that reason, when fully stripped of the hopes given by revelation (if that’s even possible!), is much weaker, much less comforting, and much more doubtful a political guide than he makes out.

From what I’ve read of Locke, I didn’t have the sense that he was aware of the full force of the demand that the world be good, or that there be a magistrate to take care of our souls.   For example, he seems to underestimate the need we have to be “our brother’s keeper” (letter on toleration); I mean our need to have the whole world be in accordance with justice or with the possibility of salvation.  Can life be good for most people without a very strong and very public assurance that such justice or salvation rules?  That might be why he, like Hobbes, does not have a cycle of regimes (or a non-progressive account): he tacitly makes the longing for justice satisfiable in a stable way, and I suspect someone who saw the force of this longing could not believe any political situation would satisfy it or make it stable.  In contrast, the political situations that explicitly provide for the transcendent longings in the form of a religious doctrine, are more aware of those longings, and are better able to provide what reasonable satisfaction there can be.   (A sign of this is that the most politically active or influential atheists, such as Dawkins and Hitchens, are unable to be atheists without a belief that someone who opposes the teaching of evolution is morally wrong and unjust, not just mistaken.  They don’t accept the world as it is, “survival of the fittest” (believing in evolution does not foster reproductive success), but want a world where one should be on the right side, where there is a “right” side, a holy side; they don’t see that they are striving for redemption. )

>I think everything hinges on the distinction between the few who do not need to believe in a bible and the many who do.

The source of the disagreement is this: is it possible to dispense with the “need to believe in a bible,” in the broad sense of a need for an eternal or transcendent good. In the case of “the few,” one sees a sharp awareness of this need and its effects, but does that awareness cure the need?  I agree reason is “the compass” in the sense that even a little of its light can turn one’s life upside down (not always felicitously); however, for Plato our reason provides less hope than for Locke, because reason does NOT cure our imperious need for something impossible for us to have, salvation.  (Plato does not shrink from either side, the need or the lack of a cure.)

(I also don’t believe that Locke guts only the “more [politically] noxious teachings” of Christianity, but also the best parts, but I admit that Christianity is not an easy problem.)

Christianity and careerism: the case of Harriet Miers

It’s a bit rich that Christianity, which spent its whole youth and manhood (womanhood?) fighting charges that it made men slothful and useless and effeminate and disloyal, that it made them disdain their earthly duties to their country and their sovereign for the sake of some utopia yet to arrive, that it roused up the rabble to hysteria and riots with fantastic superstitions, distracting them from a moderating and disciplining toil that is their necessary lot in life, should have its memory disgraced on its very deathbed by the libel that it is a friend of careerism!  A friend of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, yes.  Of Duns Scotus and dim-witted theological abstractions, yes.  Of Augustine and other dissipated men disappointed with their dissipations, yes.  Of Francis and other excitable children who want a world where everything is a friend, yes.  Of the Dominicans and fanatical bloodlusts and infinite hatreds, yes, yes, yes!  But of such a one as St. Harriet Miers, never.  I refuse to have my childhood beliefs polluted with such a filthy and base falsehood.
One problem in [X’s defense of her] is the use of “calling” to signify a career.  A career cannot be a calling.  That seems to be one of those secular corruptions of Christian doctrine.  People are not “called” to serve Caesar.  The only true calling is to serve God–a man cannot have two masters at one time.  The unmarried, celibate state is higher, that is true, but precisely because it allows for direct and undivided devotion to God, as the apostle says:  “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”  That doesn’t mean raising a career above one’s marriage–Christ doesn’t actually do any carpentry (raising the dead, yes; carpentry, no).
Now, that true or divine calling might, as your friend suggests, be understood to involve some “secular” work, if that work is done for the salvation of the souls of men.  But a man must deny his very self, etc., and must never forget his true lord might return at any time, will return soon, and will want an account (the talents are to be put to work for the Master) –to the extent that any work, even a devotion to God, forgets this, it is not a calling (e.g., bureaucratization / professionalization of religion).  The highest examples are all of men who surrender their “careers” to follow Christ.  Christianity was not a bourgeois religion, but a religion of the poor, who reasonably enough were not inclined to see much to hope for from their “work” or from worldly rewards, and who felt a lot better spending their time at late-night, crowded candlelit events in underground caverns where they were inducted by forbidden rites by a fervent young man into a movement turning the whole world upside down by raising them up (“the mighty he has pulled down from their thrones”) etc.  The most middle-class guy you get is the centurion (“Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof / But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”), but he hardly seems a model for careerism–what the heck is he doing tending to his dying slave, when he should be out shopping for a new one if he’s serious about his work.  (Did Saul/Paul just stop reporting for work?  Was the blinding light his excuse to “sick out”?  At any rate, “see the light” does not mean “advance your career.”)
Miers is not an admirable woman–I want the word “admire” to still mean something.  (Some of us may even wonder if she’s still a woman after all these years slaving at such an unwomanly job; or are men still men after years at office jobs?)  There isn’t a single example in the New Testament of a career woman, not even priests or disciples (“Women should be silent in the churches . . . If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home”).  The New Testament gives women womanly “careers” (–mother, nurse, wife, widow, prostitute etc).  Why would it raise mothers so highly, if career women are to be praised?  You have widows and prostitutes, but they’re not shown as doing anything but tending Jesus.  Even the Whore of Babylon is not what we would call a career woman.
Christianity has one central and unique doctrine: anti-careerism.  That’s what the attack on the Pharisees and the money-changers means, the attack on dutifully and narrowly following rules and on the self-satisfied accumulation of respect and status, the attack on the Jewish suffocation of genuine faith and love by 1,001 rules.  That’s what God on the Cross means, and King of Kings born in a manger next to animals, conceived out of wedlock from a Jewess and an unknown father; Sermon on the Mount, etc.–Everything that is successful or powerful or respectable in the world is wrong in the eyes of God (“the wisdom of the world is folly in the eyes of the Lord”)–it’s at best to be tolerated. 
It’s true that Miers has some echo of the secret complacent faith of a Christian that everything will turn out well, but she lacks almost all sense of what our passing pilgrim status on the world should mean about our respect for the world (let alone breaking off an engagement for it!).  When the New Testament says, have no care for tomorrow (be like the birds), it doesn’t mean work like a dog today oblivious of death; on the contrary, it means forget about a career or even clothing, since you can’t do much for yourself compared to what God has done, to concentrate on the joy of God’s creation etc.