“Thoughts on Various Subjects” by Jonathan Swift (From The Battle of the Books)
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.
A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and inexperienced person.
Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?
I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been there.
No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before.
When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds run wholly on the bad ones.
In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the passions, that the mind may not languish.
Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.
All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year’s revenue.
The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
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).
Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Facile Self-Help Book that Entirely Misses the Point of Free Thinking
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.
“I Think Life Is Full of Anxieties and Fears and Tears. It Has a Lot of Grief in It, and It Can Be Very Grim” — Charles Schulz on Religion
Lots of great quotes from Charles M. Schulz on religion (and more) via Biblioklept reader JESCIE. Sample—
I don’t know the meaning of life. I don’t know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.”
All citations are from Charles M. Schulz: Conversations, which I now want to read.
From Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, which should be required reading for any thinking person—
We know that a human child cannot successfully complete its development to the civilized stage without passing through a phase of neurosis sometimes of greater and sometimes of less distinctness. This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable cannot be suppressed by the rational operation of the child‘s intellect but have to be tamed by acts of repression, behind which, as a rule, lies the motive of anxiety. Most of these infantile neuroses are overcome spontaneously in the cause of growing up, and this is especially true of the obsessional neuroses of childhood. The remainder can be cleared up later still by psycho-analytic treatment. In just the same way, one might assume, humanity as a whole, in its development through the ages, fell into states analogous to the neuroses,‘ and for the same reasons – namely because in the times of its ignorance and intellectual weakness the instinctual renunciations indispensable for man‘s communal existence had only been achieved by it by means of purely affective forces. The precipitates of these processes resembling repression which took place in prehistoric times still remained attached to civilization for long periods. Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development.