Humans are infinitely concerned about the infinity to which they belong, from which they are separated, and for which they are longing. –Paul Tillich (Paraphrase)
I recently listened to Ryan Bell’s enjoyable interview with LeRon Shults. I really like listening to both Ryan and LeRon converse; they’re both super smart and interesting people and I’m looking forward to their spin-off podcast. Both Ryan and LeRon are self-proclaimed atheists, which is fine because, although I wouldn’t claim the title myself, they’re particular brand of atheism is the kind I like; it’s thoughtful, intelligent, doesn’t want to get caught up in fruitless debates about “proving” empirically the existence of any god/gods/God, and they both try hard not to dismiss, reduce or denigrate religion as if it were some monolithic thing that could even be attacked in that way. Come to think of it now, I might consider myself a Derridian type of atheist, actually, in the sense that according to most people’s understanding of “God,” I would quite rightly pass for one.
All that being said, one thing that came up in the conversation between LeRon and Ryan (which I’ve heard before from non-theists and which has also been applied to the ((mostly young)) “nones” in the U.S., and other similar people in heavily secularized nations) is this notion that at the end of the day, to many people (pragmatically speaking), the idea of God, or belief in God, or the practice of religion, doesn’t really matter to them. All of this God stuff seems very irrelevant to their everyday lives. These sorts of people, according to Ryan and Leron, get along fine without religious beliefs and/or practice and can find meaning in life, work out problems, and get through their days just fine without contemplating or relying on the existence of any god/gods/God.
OK. Fair enough.
I do have a couple concerns.
The first concern is specifically geared toward those who would put forth a pragmatic argument against religious practice and/or reflection on god/gods/God. The second concern is related but—all pragmatist arguments aside—seeks to address those non-philosophical folks who would say they’re just not interested in religious life or in talking or thinking about god/gods/God.
I love pragmatism as much as the next person; in fact I probably like it more than most people. As a process-relational thinker, William James, John Dewey, Charles Peirce et al, have been HUGE influences on me. This notion that beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths should be used as tools to address life problems is fantastic. For instance, one reason I like the pragmatist approach so much is because it can be a great way to settle metaphysical disputes that are otherwise limitless, i.e. pragmatism is wonderful for disambiguating problems (or showing that they’re not necessarily there at all!). Thinking of beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths as practical tools is also helpful in the sense that it may allow one to maintain a certain type of skeptical detachment which, when compared to say an entrenched, fundamental, ideological perspective, is preferred.
Conversely, however, there are problems with treating beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths etc. as mere expediency.
Very simply (and generally), pragmatism is the claim that truth should be defined on the basis of its producing desirable results. In other words, it’s true if it works. William James, for example (according to some interpretations of his work anyway), made the pragmatic effects the very meaning or essence of truth. James famously argued in favor of religious belief from a pragmatist perspective claiming that “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word work, it is true.” In other words, if belief in god/gods/God has beneficial effects for the believer, why couldn’t it be thought of as true? Further, why couldn’t multiple religious claims be true for multiple types of religious believers who are all making religious truth-claims at the same time? Obviously this leads to a very pluralistic metaphysic (one that I sort of adhere to myself), but it’s worth noting Bertrand Russel’s pushback here.
Bertrand Russel, of logical positivism fame (who I’m not necessarily a huge fan of), heavily criticized Williams James’s pragmatism from a number of angles. One of those criticisms (which I find to be the most compelling, along with the basic observations that a pragmatic view of truth requires one to know what is “good” and what the effects of this or that belief must be ahead of time) was to suggest the possibility that there could indeed be something true but not, necessarily, useful. For example consider the following statements:
– The number of breaths I took on June 8, 1998.
– The number of hairs on my head at noon on February 19, 1979.
Now, if truth is defined by the desirable results it produces, the two statements above would probably be false from a pragmatist perspective, considering the truth of these two statements could hardly be found useful in any substantive way. Any possible use in believing either of the two statements above is incidental to their truth; it would not define them as true.
Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating for a foundationalist epistemology here, or any type of narrow reductionistic, materialist, scientific realist perspective, or even indicating that the pragmatist approach is all wrong. Quite the contrary, as I have said, I admire the pragmatist approach quite a bit, BUT it does have it’s limits/problems. Some things may not be “useful” in a strictly utilitarian, capitalistic, kill or be killed, survival of the fittest sort of way, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful and/or truthful. Art and play are two other things that could very well fit into this category of being completely useless. I could get by in life just fine without playing games or looking at/enjoying any sort of art.
Additionally, it should be said that holding too closely to this notion of something only being “true” if it works might come up short in the face of injustice or oppression. Here is Casey Nelson Blake discussing this:
“On the left, starting with the years 1910–19, and particularly during World War I, a reaction against pragmatism set in among some of its most ardent believers, who felt that the doctrine came up short at moments of great political and international military crisis. This is not the time to talk about the debate surrounding World War I, a debate in which Dewey figured so prominently, but it’s fair to say that his student and follower, Randolph Bourne, the brilliant cultural critic and Columbia graduate who had studied with Dewey, was the first of a whole series of radical critics of pragmatism who argued that pragmatists, in their insistence that what is true is what works, had essentially paralyzed the imagination; they had disabled the creativity of human beings in the face of an unjust order. Sometimes, Bourne and other leftist critics argued, what is true is what doesn’t work, what stands at odds with the existing state of affairs, and one must stay loyal to that truth in the face of a hostile environment.”
I find this criticism particularly important. It’s critical to note that for keeping the status quo in order, pragmatism works really well, and thus can be very dangerous.
On Those Who Aren’t Interested
Now I’d like to very briefly reflect on what the famous Pew Research Center has called the “nones.” When I hear about this research, and the dramatic increase in people who claim to have no religious affiliation, I naturally ask myself two questions:
1) Are these “nones” actually very sophisticated, nuanced, existential, post-modern philosophers/thinkers who don’t want to be labeled and negated (in the Kierkegaardian sense), or categorized and associated with a flavor of religion that they don’t necessarily jibe with for well thought out metaphysical reasons?
2) Are these “nones” so comfortable and secure in their modern, post-industrial, oppressive, secular society that they simply have no interest or need to think about deep questions and issues of ultimate concern?
As much as I would love to think that most of these “nones” fall into the first category, I’m sad to say that my doubts are high. If it’s true that most “nones” fall into the second category, I see this as being MUCH more problematic than thoughtful, intelligent atheists/non-theists making pragmatist arguments; at least they’ve thought about these things and examined them a bit for crying out loud!!
Going along with my assumption that most “nones” fall into the second category, this might shed some light on why voter turnout in my city last Tuesday for a local election was embarrassingly low (28.7% turnout).
Here is what I mean.
I am inclined to think that some conception of God (even an atheistic, non-theistic, or post-theistic one) is as vital to being human as is some concept of “the real.” And look, if one doesn’t care about, or have any interest in what is “real” then why should one care about anything at all? Going back to the leftist criticism of pragmatism for a second, if one is satisfied with the status quo, if it is “working” for you, why should one waste time even thinking about it? It’s pointless. Is this not an example, as Bourne points out, of the human imagination becoming paralyzed?
One of the ways I have tended to think about religion is that it is the result of the intrinsic human proclivity to make something an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.
I would suggest that (and I’m obviously not the first) the “nones” are anything but irreligious. To the contrary, they’re deeply, deeply religious because, as Marx and others have pointed out, secularism is indeed a religion like all others. Carl Schmitt makes this very clear:
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.”
Politics, like it or not, is a matter of ultimate concern, much akin to religion; in fact it seems to me that theology/philosophy/politics are intimately intertwined. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as interest in religion and religious participation goes down, so too does interest in politics and political participation go down.
To go further with this criticism of the “nones,” I’d be willing to bet that when taking this religious affiliation survey, most of these (I’m assuming younger people) have no clue (or a very superficial understanding) about how the various denominations in Protestant Christianity came about or how their various theological doctrines differ from one another, let alone any type of historical account of Judaism and it’s wide array of beliefs/doctrines. It doesn’t matter to them. They’re not “religious” and therefore are not interested. Adam Kotsko says what I want to say here very succinctly when he writes that “The use for theology in a secular society is to understand our cultural heritage and diagnose its often unexpected influence.”
Ultimately, it’s understandable that we would want to run from our past, and claim to be “religiously unaffiliated,” but unfortunately we can’t hide from what we are. Attempting to do so is the equivalent, in my opinion, of ignorantly burying our heads in the sand. I hope I’m wrong about all of this, though. I hope that most of these “nones” do fall into my first category, and are more like Ryan and LeRon: thoughtful, intelligent people who understand that thinking deeply about matters of ultimate concern is something that we must never stop doing.
Painting above by Donna McGee