“Of Superstition” by Francis Bacon
IT WERE better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion, as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal, men should say, there was no such man at all, as Plutarch, than that they should say, that there was one Plutarch, that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn. And as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men. Therefore theism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Caesar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition, is the people; and in all superstition, wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order. It was gravely said by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrine of the Schoolmen bare great sway, that the Schoolmen were like astronomers, which did feign eccentrics and epicycles, and such engines of orbs, to save the phenomena; though they knew there were no such things; and in like manner, that the Schoolmen had framed a number of subtle and intricate axioms, and theorems, to save the practice of the church. The causes of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; overgreat reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church; the stratagems of prelates, for their own ambition and lucre; the favoring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters, by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations: and, lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters. Superstition, without a veil, is a deformed thing; for, as it addeth deformity to an ape, to be so like a man, so the similitude of superstition to religion, makes it the more deformed. And as wholesome meat corrupteth to little worms, so good forms and orders corrupt, into a number of petty observances. There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done, when the people is the reformer.
Jonathan Sacks’s The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning is getting a hardback release in the US from Random House (it’s been out in the UK for a while now). RH’s blurb:
An impassioned, erudite, thoroughly researched, and beautifully reasoned book from one of the most admired religious thinkers of our time that argues not only that science and religion are compatible, but that they complement each other—and that the world needs both.
“Atheism deserves better than the new atheists,” states Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”
Rabbi Sacks’s counterargument is that religion and science are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. Science teaches us where we come from. Religion explains to us why we are here. Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. We need scientific explanation to understand nature. We need meaning to understand human behavior. There have been times when religion tried to dominate science. And there have been times, including our own, when it is believed that we can learn all we need to know about meaning and relationships through biochemistry, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. In this fascinating look at the interdependence of religion and science, Rabbi Sacks explains why both views are tragically wrong.
Look, I’ll be frank—I’m hardly a fan of the so-called “new atheists,” but that’s not what this book is really about. It’s really about trying to restore an anchoring metaphysical center—a god, namely, Sacks’s god—despite the progress made by science and philosophy. What I find repellent about Sacks’s book is the idea that only religion can provide a logical, meaningful answer to “why we are here.” I have no problem with the coexistence of religion and science, but that’s not what Sacks wants. He wants religion to dominate. Anyway, clearly I’m not enthusiastic, but if you’re interested, here’s a proper review.
Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.
– From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).
I’m slightly familiar with Alain de Botton’s work, and I’ve taken something of an interest in the so-called “New Atheist” movement — Hitchens, Dawkins, et al — so when a review copy of Religion for Atheists showed up a few weeks ago, it piqued my interest. I found its cover playfully annoying—a hole in the holy book—and its subtitle—A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion—downright obnoxious. Still, I gotta give props to the design team at Pantheon for the book that’s under the horrid jacket:
Unfortunately, an attractive hardback design sans jacket is the best this book has to offer.
By way of explication (and my own laziness and indifference on this volume) here’s some copy on the book from de Botton’s website:
What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved on by Alain’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world.
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:
- build a sense of community
- make our relationships last
- overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
- escape the twenty-four hour media
- go travelling
- get more out of art, architecture and music
- and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.
For too long non-believers have faced a stark choice between either swallowing lots of peculiar doctrines or doing away with a range of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. At last, in Religion for Atheists, Alain has fashioned a far more interesting and truly helpful alternative.
The tone of the copy gives one a sense of the utter glibness of de Botton’s pamphlet. The book smacks of crude self-helpery, a hodgepodge of faux-intellectual poses for those who can smugly dismiss the history of philosophy. It’s like The Purpose Driven Life for atheists. There is a picture or graphic on every other page; de Botton seems to include these in lieu of, say, providing verbal imagery, or meaningful context, or simply trusting the intellect of his audience.
I suppose that I am fundamentally at odds with de Botton. I agree that religion has done much to initiate and facilitate (and in fairness, perhaps at times mitigate) atrocity; I agree that many (if not most) of the Big Problems in the world stem from the herd-mentality that organized religions impose on the people they indoctrinate. But de Botton would like to replace one herd with another.
Here is the Swiss writer suggesting that the academy (which he too-readily identifies as a bastion of atheist mores) follow the practices of black Southern Baptist churches:
The contrast with the typical lecture in the humanities could hardly be more damning. And unnecessary. What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after every sentence. How much longer might Rousseau’s philosophical truths linger in our consciousness if they were structured around rhythmical verses of call-and-response. Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.
What we see here is a romanticization and idealization of a particular part of a culture that I think de Botton in no way understands. What’s even more disturbing here is his elevation of groupthink and indoctrination practices (I hear, “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children” humming in the background). We see here the same teleological thinking that marks much of religious dogma, the sense that truth has been attained; the search is over—we just need to repeat it rhythmically enough, soak our young in it, until they think just like we do. This position strikes me as potentially dangerous as any organized religion’s attempts at indoctrination.
Religion for Atheists is full of sloppy logic gussied up in rushed anecdotes and glossed over with barely-connected pictures and silly graphs. Look at the following example, a visual non sequitur masquerading as meaningful information:
Are we supposed to be horrified that the British spend more on potato chips than poetry books? Apples and oranges, bro. But what’s really ridiculous is the stinky pious claim that “Only religions have been able to turn the needs of the soul into large quantities of money.” This claim is plain silly, or at least predicated on a too-singular definition for “needs of the soul.”
Religion for Atheists seems to miss the point that many (if not most) atheists and agnostics are at heart free thinkers. De Botton romanticizes the mystery, awe, and grace of religion, even as he suggests that there is no metaphysical center from which these attributes emanate. His most basic argument really boils down to something like, “Hey, there is no God, no spirit, but religion does a good job of consoling people and keeping them in moral order, so, instead of TV and junk food, we should use the aesthetics of religion as consolation.” There is nothing revolutionary about this idea.
Religion for Atheists is a smug little tract, the sort of book that a supermarket would sell along with Chicken Soup for the Soul if supermarkets had the guts to sell self-help books for atheists. Readers should not be duped into thinking that de Botton has taken any real stance or said anything new here. Instead, hiding behind the pasteboard mask of utility, he offers a crass dodge away from meaningful inquiry. Get thee to Nietzsche instead.