Tag-Archive for » Free Congregation «

Morality without Religion?

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a single session of a class held at our congregation (The Free Congregation of Sauk County) where this question was asked by Nick Schweitzer, cheapest the class’ facilitator:

18. When someone asks you how an atheist can be moral, prescription what do you think the underlying question is? (E.g., is he/she asking how you can know what morality is if you don’t believe in God’s rules, or how people can be trusted to behave decently if they’re not afraid of damnation, or how people can be motivated to behave decently if they don’t believe in an eternal reward, etc.?)

What is your answer to the question?

Below is my answer as far as I can articulate in a short time (a partial day’s worth of work). It is bit disjointed and not as well research or worded as my other writings, but this is all I could manage for now:

The Real Question

So, they ask you “How can an Atheist be moral?”. What do you think the underlying question is?  Well, the underlying question they are asking from their limited context really is:

“How can a person who does not believe in:

  • the authority of the Christian God as the sole source of good, and ethics, and morality
  • their interpretation of their version of their sacred text
  • heaven and hell (and, by extension, damnation and salvation)

..still  have a moral system, especially when, in their world view, where the source of morality and good emanates from a reward and punishment system that is a visceral part of their world-view and  moral system, and this “atheist” has the temerity to reject it?”

Unfortunately, it is natural for someone with this limited world-view to ask such a question, and it is seriously asked by those of  conservative denominations, for obvious reasons. Hopefully, some will find my thoughts and considerations below interesting or enlightening.

Evaluating Conservative Psychology and Religion

Now, there are a lot of problems with this question especially when a lot of the impetus for the question is founded in the limited conservative religious world view, and there is a lot to consider and the take into account when trying to understand it. Keep in mind, that all of this below is just my opinion, and it is based on only that which I know, which is not everything, unfortunately. =(

Conservative Psychology

First we will want to take a look at the psychology that underlies conservatives that will help us understand the impetus and phrasing of the question from their mindset. For that we will travel to Moral Psychology land as well as visit Negativity Bias and Other Psychological Factor‘s land:

Moral Psychology

To understand where this question comes from and what they are really asking we really need to delve, at least a little bit, into moral psychology, which can be quite enlightening in subjects such as this. Jonathan Haidt, a famous moral psychologist, and those in his field have distilled the basic moral components that we all have as the basis for morality, and this is even shown in other animals to some extent, as the following:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • In group Loyalty (Tribalism)
  • Authority/Respect
  • Purity/Sanctity

Liberals score high on:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness and Reciprocity

Conservatives score high on the other three:

  • In group Loyalty (Tribalism)
  • Authority/Respect
  • Purity/Sanctity

Now, this can already show why and how conservatives see things and approach morality differently than liberals, at least according to moral psychology. Essentially, conservatives respond to authority (religion and authority figures), tribalism (groups like themselves), Purity/Sanctity (religion) regardless of how it affects others, whereas liberals respond to fairness and taking care of others regardless of the affect on the established institutions. This alone is pretty telling especially when you compare this to liberal and conservative religious and political rhetoric and ideologies.

If we apply the above moral psychology principles to our “question” it may look like this:

“You are not apart of our group, and you do not respect the authority of our group and its institutions and beliefs, then how can you be a good person, since we obviously are good?”

Negativity Bias and Other Conservative Psychological Factors

A recent study has come out that shows that conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments, even to the point of seeking it out or “seeing” threats in places and people, especially when differ from themselves.

Other studies suggest that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity, of which conservative organizations are more than happy to help with. They provide a clear and clean “this is right and this is wrong, and these are our enemies”.

With this being said, this research sort of shows a conservative person as being prone to seeing threats from that which is different than themselves and their beliefs, and even likes to hear those that espouse that there are threats even if there aren’t any, and is bound to see that which is different as a potential “threat”, especially since they do not believe the same, which in some ways feeds into conservative talk radio, and racism, and other forms of rallying against those who are not like themselves regardless of the consequences to those who are different than them.

Conservative Religion as it Caters to Conservative Psychology

So if we combine the psychological factors discussed above into one thing we get a person who:

  • Prefers their group (tribalism)
  • Respects authority, especially within their group
  • Seeks out and prefers to hear those say what the threats are against them, especially when it includes those who are different than them (not a part of their tribal group)
  • Requires certainty and has an intolerance toward ambiguity

Once we have this picture and we add in the influence of, or as a byproduct, resulting in the creation of conservative religion things come into focus very clearly. Conservative religion provides a clear membership identification and is more than happy to tell you who is good and who is bad which caters to adding certainty and removing intolerance to ambiguity, as well as providing authority, a tribal group, and an authority that they can respect. A massive confluence of all of the things that conservative psychology enjoys and thrives under.

Another benefit of conservative religion is that they will have no one to hold them accountable for their interpretation of their sacred texts and their resultant actions when they can say that their interpretation of their religious scripture says they are correct. When they all get together and say ‘yes’ we believe this (even though they may be wrong), their divine entity will not come down and  slap them silly for being stoopid in the head. They get the benefit of defining their version of their religion and their version of their divine entity that caters to their psychological needs and no one can say, in any certainty, that they are right or wrong, even thought they are obviously from a moral and ethical standpoint. It becomes an battle of “our interpretation” vs “your interpretation” which would never sway a conservative since they have a strong respect for their tribal authority (their own) no matter what the consequence to others is. They feel a they have the righteous belief and will not brook any question of the truth of their interpretation or actions since it will bring about dissonance and ambiguity, and jeopardize their belief in their authority figure.

A part of the conservative religious world view is inherently laden with fear, temptation, damnation and sin, original sin, and demons all of which cater to their negativity bias, and, of course, which can also have adverse psychological affects on those who partake of this way of thinking for a long period of time resulting in a life filled with fear, anxiety, and feelings of less-worth. The resultant negative and fearful view towards the world, humanity, and, unfortunately, themselves too inherent in the conservative religious world view is a natural part of their view when around all corners is temptation and demons, fear and anxiety are a natural thing to have.  Now, the convenient part of this is that they invest their trust in the authority of ‘their church’ which propagates these negative emotions and beliefs and it, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When the church says people are bad and inherently sinful and then they seek the church for guidance due to their bias towards their own tribal authority, and their negativity bias which results their own self-inflicted reduction in self-worth, then all good becomes because of their tribe membership and all bad comes from outside of the tribe, since that is what is bad because it is different. To believe otherwise is to invite dissonance and ambiguity which is not allowed in their minds, or by their authoritarian structures. Conservative psychology, by extension, has a self-vested interest in maintaining tribal exceptionalism and the convenience of inerrant scriptural interpretation of their sacred text, since it all feeds into creating certainty (even thought it may not be correct) which provides the benefit of removing ambiguity and promoting their belief in their tribe and its authority, without which will come uncertainty and dissonance.

Revisiting the “Real Question”

From above we said the following:

“How can a person who does not believe in:

  •  the authority of the Christian God as the sole source of good, and ethics, and morality
  • their interpretation of their version of their sacred text
  • heaven and hell (and, by extension, damnation and salvation)

..still  have a moral system, especially when, in their world view, where the source of morality and good emanates from a reward and punishment system that is a visceral part of their world-view and  moral system, and this “atheist” has the temerity to reject it?”

… and that a summary of conservative psychology is:

  • Prefers their group (tribalism)
  • Respects authority, especially within their group
  • Seeks out and prefers to hear those say what the threats are against them, especially when it includes those who are different than them (not a part of their tribal group)
  • do not like certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity

Let us apply the conservative psychological factors to the question so we can understand where they are coming from. This questions calls into question the non-believer’s nontribal membership, caters to their negativity bias and their bias towards authority. Their authority structure has already branded this person as bad and therefore uncertainty has been removed as well, and therefore the unbeliever is bad, so this question really is formed and is reinforced by their psychological world view as described above.

The Liberal Answer

In some ways I have covered a lot of my answer in my previous blog posts from a few years ago, but I will reform my ideas briefly here within context of this question. Of course, most of what I have to say will not convince a conservative since it does not key on their conservative psychological factors and keys on factors outside of their world view, a lot of which challenges their belief structures which is much of why they deny science since it is a considerable threat to what their authoritarian structure teaches, and also imposes external authority structures which invites dissonance and ambiguity, which they do not like.

Limiting one’s perception of the world and decision making to that which their religious tribe says is OK results in a severely limited world view, especially if they are willing to eschew other other authority structures which conflict with their primary and self-assured source of eternal authority. This view lacks an open and informed context of the world (eschewing science, history, empathy and sympathy), especially when their religious world view is limited to a 2000 year old text (at least as far as the New testament is concerned, if we are being generous, or over 5000 years old text if we take into account the Old Testament) that was founded in a culture, history, and context of which we do not share, especially when homosapien is at least 100,000 thousand years old, therefore the most powerful religious denomination in the west has only been around for 5% of human history. An incredible amount has changed in our society due to science and social sciences in the last 100 years, let alone the last 1000 years, and unfortunately conservative religion does not move at the speed of social or scientific progress. The thought of a changing conservative religion is abhorrent to conservatives for many reasons as you could see from up above, although they eventually do change when they are not able to fight against it anymore, or to do so would threaten their existence. This lack of change is due to a threat to the perceived stable and eternal authorith of their belifs which they do not like so they fight it tooth and nail to maintain their beliefs and authority regardless of who is hurt in the process. Sure there is wisdom to be had in their sacred texts, but it must be measured with contemporary social and scientific advances and not be anchored in an ancient world that no longer exists, especially when the beliefs result in harms to other people, the environement, or other creatures.

Singular Mythological or Religious Authority or Something Else?

Let us take a look at the fact that there are over 5000 religions that humanity has utilized over the its short lifespan, and most have many things in common – their laws and ideals at their base teach us good from bad, which is a powerful underpinning found in every religion and society through the history of humanity’s short existence . This alone is a powerful concept which points to something even larger going on that is not limited to one any one religion. A keen example of this is the Golden Rule. The following of the existence of the Golden Rule in many religions is overkill, but it will really help to strongly reinforce this idea that no one religion has corners the market of moral truths:

Bahá’í Faith:

  • “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah
  • “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself.” Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. 1

Brahmanism:

  • “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”. Mahabharata, 5:1517 “

Buddhism:

  • “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
  • “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18

Christianity:

  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
  • “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31, King James Version.
  • “…and don’t do what you hate…”, Gospel of Thomas 6. The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that circulated among the early Christian movement, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

Confucianism:

  • “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23
  • “Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
  • “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” Mencius VII.A.4

Ancient Egyptian:

  • “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110 Translated by R.B. Parkinson. The original dates to circa 1800 BCE and may be the earliest version of the Epic of Reciprocity ever written. 2

Hinduism:

  • This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517

Islam:

  • “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.” 3

Jainism:

  • “Therefore, neither does he [a sage] cause violence to others nor does he make others do so.” Acarangasutra 5.101-2.
  • “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara
  • “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. “Sutrakritanga 1.11.33

Judaism:

  • “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18
  • “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
  • “And what you hate, do not do to any one.” Tobit 4:15 4

Taoism:

  • ““Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
  • “To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus all get to be good.”

Zoroastrianism:

  • “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another        whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5
  • “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29 5

Perhaps you may might state “Well, God has existed before all time and that is where humans get good and evil and motality, so what you are saying is not true. How ’bout them apples, Mr Smartypants? “.

Well, that could easily be claimed by every single religion ever created, therefore such answers are NOT valid. This becomes especially poignant since almost all religions have a creation mythology, and Christianity is no different. You will also find that the mythological stories in the Christian narrative have parallels in the other religions that have come before it and from which its stories draw. The Christian narrative is merely the byproduct of the religions that have come before it as pulled together by the cultural, religious, and political needs and context of the people who created it, as all religion that have ever existed have. Christianity is, in no way, more special than any other religion that has ever existed. It is merely just one of the many religious views that humanity will have throughout its existence, hopefully long existence, assuming our planet does not destroy us first for our hubris.  =)

Evolutionary and Moral Pscychology as Human’s Source For Morality

Naturally evolutionary psychology and moral psychology tends to show us that morality is an integral part of who we are as humans, independent of any particular religion, since we evolved as social creatures as an evolutionary survival adaptation. Those who work together tend to survive longer, but not only that, those who treat others well, tend to survive longer since it breeds greater tribal loyalty, cooperation, and cohesion. Morality is not a thing powered by the gods, it is powered by our evolutionary instincts for survival, without which humans would never have survived long enough to have a need to create its mulitifarious religions, especially in its contemporary forms . I have written that the fundamental essence of all religions is humanism draped in cultural, social, political, and theological trappings of their time. It is a means of passing on moral and human values in a form that is more acceptable to their specific historical and cultural audience. I also venture to say that religions will only survive in the far future if they embrace a humanism as its core, especially as humanity becomes more and more advanced and liberal by extension. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a Catholic priest from the 1500’s who saw a great need within the church and promoted Christian Humanism, and is the contemporary father of this movement.

I may even venture to say that it is easier for liberals to live moral lives without religion since the things that trigger them as identified by moral psychology:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness and Reciprocity

… inherently bring about higher chances of devloping a morally good person or society, whereas it may be more difficult for conservatives to do so since they have a strong negativity bias, dislike for ambiguity, and repond to authoritarian structures regardless of how it affects others.

Read More

My Related Personal Blog Posts

New Examiner Article – “My faith (part VI) – The influence of Unitarian Universalism, Free Thought, and the ULC”

I have posted a new article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “My faith (part VI) – The influence of Unitarian Universalism, denture Free Thought, cheap and the ULC.

Unitarian Universalism (UU)

Assuming you believe in a creator at all, cost we Unitarian Universalists believe that there is only one creator regardless of your polytheistic or monotheistic leanings. We are all praying to the same entity called by different names.

Unitarian Universalism is a non-dogmatic faith that has but one small set of principles with which to pursue your spiritual or aspiritual journey. Outside of that, where you go and what you believe is up to you. We gather together reveling in the different paths that we walk and look forward to learning something from each other. My congregation at the Free Congregation has those of the Buddhist, Zen, humanist, secularist, atheist, Christian, deist, naturalist, and others as well as a token Republican about.

An important tradition in the UU churches is lay led “worship” or discussion within congregations led by the lay person, and this is powerful and empowering tradition that invites congregational wide discourse and participation on topics via our individual (a)spiritual journeys.

Many UU’s are active in the various civil rights movements from gay rights to opposing war actions. A UU minister was the first to hold a legally recognized same-sex marriage. These are all reasons why Unitarian Universalism is important to me and my faith.

Free Thought (German)

In coming to the Free Congregation I knew they were a Unitarian Universalist congregation, but I did not know that they were a German Free Thought congregation as well. I had never even heard of the movement until I started to go there.

The German Free Thought movement, which was crushed in the mid 1800’s in Germany by the Catholic church, promoted critical thought and analysis of spiritual matters as well as relishing its debate and discussion. They value introspection and the individual journey that each person travels while basing individual beliefs on reason, evidence, and logic – dismissing the supernatural for there is no evidence or proof of its existence. Free Thought is a non-dogmatic and more secular and humanist approach to religion or spirituality. The Secular and Humanist movements do find some of their roots in the Free Thought movements.

The key points for me about the Free Thought movement requires evidence based reasoning verses the deciding issues on dogmatic religious stances that are counter to facts and the interests of humanity. The logic and the separation of secular and religious matters are exactly what the doctor ordered.

Universal Life Church (ULC)

Being ordained as minister of the non-denominational Universal Life Church is more of an affirmation of me taking charge of my faith and spirituality. No one can tell me what to believe, because I am responsible for my journey and beliefs. I am more than happy discuss and consider other view points and ideas. I am minister of my own faith and some may choose to listen, and perhaps there might be something to learn from each other. The ULC’s motto ‘Do only that which is right.’ is very appropriate, though highly subjective,  for making a difference in this world.

New Examiner Article “My faith (part I) – The beginning”

I have posted a new article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “My faith (part I) – The beginning

All of the articles in this 7 part series will help to detail the things that are part of my faith and how I came to them in my journey:

I was brought up Methodist, caries but my family stopped going to church when I was probably 8 or 9. Of course, like any child I was happy about not going anymore, because I had better things to do, like play with my G.I. Joes or watch TV, than to sit still while listening to adults talk about stuff that was not interesting or fun. At home we never talked about religion. It was not a topic we avoided or anything, but it was just not a topic of real interest for our family.

For most of my life religion has had not much of a place in my daily life or thoughts. It was not that I actively avoided it, but I just never had any interest or immediate need for it. When I was in the navy on the USS Enterprise and in the middle of the Mediterranean I went to a few non-denominational services, but that was about the extent of my interest in religion until I was in my very, very early 30’s (being that I’m 36 now).

It was not until I became more interested in supporting gay rights in the last 6 or so years that I became interested in religion. The fundamentalist and uber-conservative religions being its most vocal opponents made studying Christianity more of a priority. Once I started to do that I started to question things such as morality, religion, sexuality, evolution, creation, marriage, God, faith, organized religion, our calendar and all sorts of other things. I also came to wonder what exactly it is that I believe about these sorts of things since I had never really thought about it before. I had the default Christian theological and socio-cultural values handed to me by virtue of being an American growing up in the southern Wisconsin. In thinking and reading about all of this I have come to find out that I had a lot of catching up to do.

Finding my way through a self inquisition of my personal beliefs has been a very educational and enlightening experience. Half of my journey has been figuring out what it is I think or believe, and the other half is finding the appropriate label for it. We, as humans, need labels for things, so we know where we stand in reference to others and so we know which group we are similar with and belong too. It is that ‘descriptive word to concept’ need as well as the baser need for tribal membership pushing me ahead. I have come up with the concepts of evolutionary creationism, Age-Day Creationism, and the International Fixed Calendar on my own and found out that someone else had already done the work for me. It was wonderful to know that I was not alone, or off my rocker, as I have many times thought.

In my search for understanding of my beliefs and the world in a moral and/or secular/theological manner I have found a home of like-minded individuals and of a theology that is amenable to my beliefs as I explore them. I have found that home in at Park Hall with the Free Congregation of Sauk County which is a Unitarian Universalist and the German Free Thought congregation.

Secular Humanism??

What is Secular Humanism? I have often wondered that myself. I have heard the term bandied about, rheumatologist and was not sure what it meant. At church today (the Free Congregation of Sauk County) our speaker, Andrew Kerr, spoke eloquently as ever about this topic.

What I learned today resonated greatly with me. I think that this might be the most correct label for what I believe. My impression (and opinion) of a decent definition for what Secular Humanism is, is as follows:

Secular humanism is the patent rejection of “silver platter” answers to your theological/spiritual meaning or revelation. It is taking and accepting responsibility for your journey to meaning and revelation, and your understanding of you humanity and your place in existence. It is to not blindly accept what answers you are spoon fed, but to question everything and to try to understand and find the answers.

Current organized religion is a disease that too much attempts to relive the individual of responsibility for their journey and it tries to hand them the answers for which they have no foundation, experience, or perspective with which to understand or apply the teachings.

Meaning and understanding can only come from questioning and the dogged pursuit of understanding and perspective and not from just being handed the answer. Sheep are created by the dogmatic shepherds who relieve their flock of the responsibility of self-inquisition and thought by handing them an answer for which they are punished if they are questioning or are not following and believing in.

I do not believe Secular Humanism is the patent rejection of religion, but it is the patent rejection of being spoon fed the answer without taking responsibility for your belief and the ramifications of it. Many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion and that is horrible, for in these moments responsibility lays in their zealous belief of what they have been told is ‘the truth’ and they obey.

Just my humble thoughts for now.

Thomas Paine Fest at the Free Congregation

Support For Esperanto

Products in or about Esperanto

Organizations

Online Esperanto Resources

Audio

Text Based

  • Esperanto: Part I, Part II, Part III from Planet Earth, Our Home

    Video

    Software

    Nay Sayers

  • The Free Congregation of Sauk County celebrated what is perhaps the longest running annual celebration in the world of Thomas Paine, adiposity
    one of the most influential men of the revolutionary war. He wrote the inspiring and powerful Common Sense pamphlet which helped to stir the colonists to revolt against Great Britain.

    Atheism II – Cosmos: Suggestions for an Atheistic Religion

    I have published my first article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “Do we have options in the religion verses science debate?“.

    Article

    If a single entity created the stars, gynecologist planets, doctor time, space, and life itself then science is the very study of that wonderful and potentially divine creation. Scientists of all sorts have the job of trying to understand the very things that the hand of the creator has created – from geologists, biologists, and psychologists to geneticists and quantum physicists. For some their scientific  study and exploration can be an awe inspiring and faith affirming exercise. For others it can be a source and angst and internal conflict.

    If science is the study of all that has been divinely created then why is it all too often at odds with religion? Throughout history scientists and visionaries such a s Copernicus and Galileo were afraid to speak their ‘heretical’ idea of (heliocentrism vs the predominant and church accepted geocentrism) or were even demanded to recant their views under threat of being burned at the stake. Even today’s modern evolutionary and geological scientist are under a similar, though less harmful, assault by a religious front.

    Take evolution vs creation as a specific example of a modern science vs religion battleground. Evolutionary sciences has modern humanity (homo sapiens) as being approximately 40 thousand  years old and the earth at several billion years old, while the counter religious movements have both at less than 10 thousand years. This is quite the significant disparity in age between the two views, and, in this enlightened age there is still much bitterness and vehemence in arguments against each other.

    I wonder why this has to be. Why are some religions so afraid of scientific advancement and the furthering our understanding of this wonderful and potentially divine creation that has given us the miracle of life and free will?

    For me, such bridge theories such as evolutionary creationism and biblical to geological correlations via Day-Age Creationism help to make sense of things and to bring science and religion together in a non-aggressive and logical manner.

    Why could not the creator have created all of life with evolution as its impetus for change and existence? What exactly is a biblical day to a potentially omniscient and omnipotent creator who created time and matter itself? Does the creator live by our Earth centric view of time at 24 hours per day, which may be horribly arrogant of and presumptuous of us, or does this entity who created time itself have a more fluid day in the billions or hundreds of millions of years as geological evidence would have us believe? This is for you to decide with evolutionary creationism and Age-Day Creationism as a good middle ground.

    • Topical Wikipedia Links

    • Other Links

    Sauk City Part 1 talk by Andrew Kerr on May 20, info
    2007 at Park Hall

    First I would like to thank all of you for the opportunity to speak to you about such a fascinating topic. The topic is timely as well, order
    and when fascinating topics become timely, information pills
    the effect is quite exciting. My thanks, too, to Michael Whaley for extending the invitation to speak and for giving to me the chance to learn something about your congregation. I respect your commitment to reason and to conversation as sources of insight. It will be these resources that I hope to bring to bear on today’s topic.

    I do not come here as an academic, not intentionally. Philosophy belongs to all of us. It is a human activity.

    The philosophical point that I would like to offer to you today is the thesis that atheism can be religious. I am not saying that it must be. But I am saying that it is reasonable to entertain a religious atheism. It is reasonable, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, religion I warrant is best understood as a question rather than an answer. If so, then atheism can be defined as the family of non-theistic answers to the question of religion. Atheism can be a body of religious thought. Second, some atheistic answers to the question of religion have attributes resembling those of the sometimes more popular answer to the religious question, God. ‘God’ is often a troubled choice of answer to the religious question, when people think about it. But the qualities bound up in the idea of God which make God such a popular answer – qualities such as inclusiveness, persistence in experience, cosmic scope – I believe can also be part of an atheistic answer to the question of religion.

    A commitment to reason demands that I tell to you the assumptions informing my conclusions about atheism. My assumption is that philosophy can adequately understand the topic of atheism, the topic of God, the topic of religion. What do I mean by philosophy? Philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts. Whitehead once wrote that philosophy is the one avocation denied omniscience. Ignoring for the moment the intelligibility of ‘omniscience,’ I agree with Whitehead that humans pursue philosophy because we are fragmentary. We cannot grasp reality all at once, so must learn through inference and exploration. Philosophy is adventure.

    Because the philosophic effort at conceptual clarity requires consistent thinking and fact-checking, it is a rational enterprise. To say ‘rational’ is to say that we must give reasons for our claims, we must appeal to principles rather than personal experience or authority. Philosophy is a rational adventure. Let me say as well that is it impossible for this talk to possess more insight than its assumptions possess. It may, of course, possess less.

    If philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts, then it becomes an approach used in all the arts and sciences. Philosophy is not simply a topic of its own, but a way of pursuing many topics. It is certainly used in physics and biology; examine writings reflecting upon quantum physics or upon the meaning of the term ‘species.’ Philosophy, I warrant, is found in abundance in literature and in the visual arts.

    Because philosophy means the application of reason to the study of ideas generally, it offers a standard of rationality to which all human endeavors must appeal. If so, then each of the several arts and sciences are best understood by the distinct question they ask, and philosophy is one manner of assessing the various proposed answers.

    This conclusion about the relationship between philosophy and the arts and sciences brings us to two relevant conclusions already. First, as we assess together the possibility of a religious atheism, we must now part company with much of the orthodox tradition of the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. For these faiths, religious truth is not assessed philosophically, but through the putative irruption of a superior, supernatural world into our natural world. Religious truth is revealed, is confessed; human reason cannot grasp it completely. But our commitment to philosophy tells us that reason can understand anything possible or actual; for philosophy, there is no supernatural. So whether religion is atheist or theistic, if it is philosophical it will not look like many of the religious traditions we know.

    Second, a thorough commitment to philosophy means that religion, too, is another of the human arts and sciences. It is a question, not an answer. This point is so important, I think. Critics of religion often understand religion as an answer. Of course, they have a right to use the word this way, but rhetorically this usage encourages suspicion of the question. But we should never become suspicious of questions. Easier, I think, to understand religion itself as a question, and to understand the world’s religious traditions as some of the possible answers to the religious question.

    What is the question of religion? Kahil Gibran tells us:

    Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, [a]nd that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?

    (P, 77)

    What this passage tells me, anyway, is that religion points to the thoughts and motivations that inspire us to do anything at all. Religion explores why our lives can be filled with meaning even when ordinary. Whitehead writes:

    “What should emerge from religion is individual worth of character

    (RM, 17)

    But if we are to assess individual worth in a rational way, we must appeal to some principle of worth. So the question religion asks is, what gives to each of us individual worth of character? What gives my life meaning? To what in life do I cast my ultimate loyalties?

    The commitment to philosophy means that we seek answers to religious questions under the banner of logical consistency and fact-checking. Seeking the answer to the question of the meaning life is every bit a rational pursuit as is seeking the answer to the question of the nature of dark matter or of the impacts of global warming. To see religion as a philosophical, rational pursuit is to see religion as an exploratory enterprise. It expresses human curiosity, not supernatural authority. It is pursued in conversation and community, not pronounced by so-called officials. Religion invites all the imagination and wonder we humans have to offer, and when philosophically pursued, provides a rational standard for the democratic assessment of putative religious thoughts and feelings.

    If religion is indeed a question for human reason to answer, we can develop a typology of logically possible answers. To do so is important, I warrant, because typologies make clear positions of agreement and disagreement. A popular type of answer to the question of religion since the Axial Age is ‘theism.’ Here, atheism identifies a set of answers to the religious question including things besides God. ‘Atheism’ is not the denial of God per se, but the offering of different kind of answer. If religion is a question, then atheism is a positive movement of thought, offering a variety of answers.

    But what is wrong religiously with the mere denial of theism? If religion is a question to be pursued philosophically, and theism is one type of answer to this question, thorough philosophical critiques of theism can only help our approach to religious truth. Philosophical critiques of theism have shown that the very concept of God seems troubled. Consider the criticisms of Carneades, a renowned skeptic of the second century BCE. Carneades argued that God cannot exist because the very concept of God – that of a person with unlimited existence – is nonsense, contradictory. How, Carneades asks, can any person in principle be unlimited when all the qualities by which we define personhood – life, sensation, virtue – imply some kind of limit. To my knowledge, the classical tradition of theism upon which is based the theology of all the major theistic faiths have never answered this objection successfully, even with over 2,000 years of effort. So atheism certainly should seem attractive given its success criticizing the fundamental concept of its religious rival.

    But we must remember that Carneades was a skeptic, he belonged to the skeptical school at Athens. So he mostly critiqued other theories. Mere criticism is usually not persuasive; people expect the critic to offer some other commitment to fill the blank. The Romans expelled Carneades from the City once because he argued convincingly for justice, then promptly argued with equal conviction against it. So there you go. The Romans were effective governors, and they knew that skepticism alone ends in chaos.

    Political limitations aside, the philosophical problem with atheism as mere skepticism is that a theistic skeptic can only criticize the theism she knows. Carneades only knew Greek theology. He did not know, for example, the temporal theism begun in Europe by the anti-Trinitarian Socinus and developed extensively in the 20th century by Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Weiman. When the Enlightenment of the 18th century begun the long work, still in progress, of supplanting the habit of authority in western culture with the habit of reason, the West discovered the virtue of tolerance, a habit of mind virtually unknown in much religious expression up to that point. But tolerance does not function, in the last analysis, to defend the opportunity to criticize. Whitehead writes:

    The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future, and to the complexity of accomplished fact which exceeds our stretch of insight

    (AI 52)

    We can’t know everything, so reason demands that we offer something new, something inspired by the abundance of possibility and the complexity of fact. If religion is a question, then skepticism may help us to find the answer, but in itself it is no answer. Free thinkers of any kind, of whatever commitments, must understand free thinking as the responsibility to propose, not simply as the freedom to dispose. We are fragmentary beings called to adventure, adventure in science, in arts, in religion.

    I venture the observation that I have now finished the first movement of today’s talk, to suggest to you all that atheism can be religious in character. It can offer a positive, rational, non-theistic answer to the question of religion, the question of the meaning of one’s individual’s life and life generally considered. The rest of today’s talk, and all of next month’s talk, will be to attempt to do exactly what the rational commitment requires, to suggest reasoned, atheistic answers to the religious question.

    If ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ mutually identify logically exhaustive sets of all possible rational answers to the religious question, then atheism itself, understood as the set of positive, non-theistic answers, can itself be resolved into two, also logically exhaustive sets of possible atheistic answers. The first set identifies answers in which humans in some way create the meaning of life for themselves. In the second, humans find life’s meaning in the nature of things conceived in some non-theistic way.

    Common to both forms of religious atheism is the firm conviction that humans are responsible for discovering the element of meaning in their lives, individually and socially. Humans must do rational work, work of the mind and of the imagination, to acquire a sense of meaning. The final loyalties of our lives are not announced clearly for all time by a supernatural power. Sometimes the term ‘humanism’ refers to this common conviction of human responsibility for religious truth and for any kind of truth. Certainly the religious temperament here is very different than the temperament of the Abrahamic faiths. It is the temperament of engagement rather than the temperament of passivity.

    The two forms of religious atheism, though, also suggest that atheists, when not banding together under the banner of reason and responsibility, might disagree. They might, it is conceivable, develop distinct, independent congregations who gather under the different atheistic answers to the religious question. Perhaps only the overwhelming pressure of theism in our culture inhibits these possible developments. I would like to offer to you all in the time remaining that the first set, the atheistic school, if you like, that says that humans must make their meaning, is not philosophically sound. Therefore, atheists should focus upon the positive options found in the teaching that humans, while responsible for life’s meaning, nevertheless must find it in the nature of things.

    Jean Paul Sartre provides a lucid, honest, and courageous expression of the first atheistic type. It is all there in a wonderful essay he wrote entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” The title of the essays catches the eye because Sartre was often a critic of humanism. And, indeed, he is clear that humanism is absurd when it tries to deny God but then give to humanity God’s religious status. But existentialism is a genuine humanism, Sartre claims, because existentialism genuinely understands what it means to be human in the absence of God. He writes:

    Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position

    (EDS, 369)

    The absence of God, says Sartre, means that humanity can appeal to no essential goodness or essential human nature to decide how to choose. Instead, the act of choice completely creates the individual person. Sartre uses phrases like “man is condemned to be free” or “man is freedom.” The condemnation lies in the fact that no aspect of reality exists to provide guidance for choice. ‘Choice’ for Sartre does not have the meaning of uncertainty as to which particular option best expresses some general goodness or true human nature existing independently. There is no general goodness and there is no human nature.

    Thus, the statement ‘man is freedom’ is an ontological statement; to be human is to create yourself without some ‘given’ element in experience. There is nothing in reality which is universal or necessary and so must exist in any possible choice and helping to determine that choice . “[T]here is no determinism” Sartre tells us, or “we ourselves decide our being.” Likewise, because humans must choose a morality without appeal to any moral essence preceding the choice, humans must create their own morality, their own meaning. Again, Sartre writes:

    Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality

    (EDS, 365)

    Sartre articulates an inspiring and courageous position, demanding that we take complete responsibility for our lives. Freud once observed that religion is infantile. Sartre’s answer, however, to the religious question certainly gives to us a pathway to a religion of adulthood. The problem is that if a philosophical approach to religion demands that putative answers to the religious question be logically consistent, I suggest that Sartre’s proposal fails that test.

    He fails this test because his denial of any universal element in reality, and subsequent affirmation of human freedom, also becomes an affirmation of freedom itself as a universal. Sartre says as much; although he at first seems to want to deny any kind of general morality, he concludes that freedom as an end in itself. He writes:

    I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare that freedom…can have no other end and aim but itself…the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself

    (EDS, 366)

    Note, too, that this moral goal, to maximize freedom, is itself not chosen. Because humanity is free, humanity must pursue this goal to be good. But if humanity must pursue the goal of freedom, then freedom must be a universal, a quality logically prior to any individual human choice. The liberal Christian theologian Shubert Ogden, in an essay critical of Sartre’s atheism, puts the point nicely:

    If man is condemned to be free, then there is one thing, at least, with respect to which he has no freedom whatever; his own distinctively human capacity for free and responsible action

    (RG, 130)

    If so, then Sartre’s own reasoning betrays his conclusions. In fact, humans do not create their own meaning because our freedom to choose our values and our lives implies that freedom is not something humans create, but something established in the nature of things. The religious question, what is the meaning of life, cannot have as an answer, humans must create their own meaning. Existence precedes essence, Sartre writes repeatedly, but his own reasoning discloses freedom as an essence which precedes existence and is expressed in all human existence.

    Ogden, the Christian theologian, concludes that Sartre is an example of “the strange witness of unbelief.” In other words, since Sartre understands his conclusions as logical implications of his atheistic premise, the contradictions of his conclusions imply the failure of his premise. Thus, Ogden concludes, Sartre in effect argues for God’s existence.

    At this point, it becomes explicitly crucial define philosophical terms like ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean anyway, whether true or false? If an atheist denies God’s existence, then the positive meaning of atheism is not clear until we have a clear definition of God. Ogden’s conclusions about Sartre in effect equate the term ‘God’ with the metaphysical notion of ‘necessarily existent’ or ‘universal’ or ‘unconditioned.’ But ‘necessarily existent’ is too broad a definition for ‘God.’ For example and back to Sartre, on Ogden’s use of the term ‘God,’ freedom is God, at least for Sartre. Better, I think, to call freedom simply freedom. ‘God’ I offer generally means a cosmic personality or creature. On this definition, Sartre is no theist, even if his atheism suffers from fatal errors.

    Most important, defining ‘God’ generally as the notion of a cosmic personality opens the mind to the second type of religious atheism I mentioned earlier. This variety of religious atheism agrees with theists, and disagrees with atheistic existentialism, that the answer to the religious question is something ‘given’ in experience. The meaning of life is found by philosophically exploring elements in experience which in fact do influence us, do determine who we are to some extent. Like theism, this second form of religious atheism acknowledges that finding the answer to the religious question requires some movement, mental and emotional, of reception, of dependence, of being given something. Religious atheism of this second kind may embrace, I warrant, some notion of grace.

    I will call this second kind of religious atheism: atheistic natural religion. For if humans cannot create meaning, and God does not exist, then the answer to the question of religion must be found somehow, somewhere, in nature. Humans remain responsible for finding meaning. The traditions held by this congregation tell us that truth is discovered by consulting the book of nature. It is my hope that today’s talk gives greater philosophical warrant to this atheistic approach.

    The book of nature may include answers to the question of religion which are cosmic and mystical. It will be the effort of the next talk to suggest such answers. We will explore the tradition of Buddhism and the writings of John Dewey and Carl Sagan. Thank you very much.

    Sauk City Part 1 talk by Andrew Kerr on May 20, check
    2007 at Park Hall

    First I would like to thank all of you for the opportunity to speak to you about such a fascinating topic. The topic is timely as well, click
    and when fascinating topics become timely, the effect is quite exciting. My thanks, too, to Michael Whaley for extending the invitation to speak and for giving to me the chance to learn something about your congregation. I respect your commitment to reason and to conversation as sources of insight. It will be these resources that I hope to bring to bear on today’s topic.

    I do not come here as an academic, not intentionally. Philosophy belongs to all of us. It is a human activity.

    The philosophical point that I would like to offer to you today is the thesis that atheism can be religious. I am not saying that it must be. But I am saying that it is reasonable to entertain a religious atheism. It is reasonable, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, religion I warrant is best understood as a question rather than an answer. If so, then atheism can be defined as the family of non-theistic answers to the question of religion. Atheism can be a body of religious thought. Second, some atheistic answers to the question of religion have attributes resembling those of the sometimes more popular answer to the religious question, God. ‘God’ is often a troubled choice of answer to the religious question, when people think about it. But the qualities bound up in the idea of God which make God such a popular answer – qualities such as inclusiveness, persistence in experience, cosmic scope – I believe can also be part of an atheistic answer to the question of religion.

    A commitment to reason demands that I tell to you the assumptions informing my conclusions about atheism. My assumption is that philosophy can adequately understand the topic of atheism, the topic of God, the topic of religion. What do I mean by philosophy? Philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts. Whitehead once wrote that philosophy is the one avocation denied omniscience. Ignoring for the moment the intelligibility of ‘omniscience,’ I agree with Whitehead that humans pursue philosophy because we are fragmentary. We cannot grasp reality all at once, so must learn through inference and exploration. Philosophy is adventure.

    Because the philosophic effort at conceptual clarity requires consistent thinking and fact-checking, it is a rational enterprise. To say ‘rational’ is to say that we must give reasons for our claims, we must appeal to principles rather than personal experience or authority. Philosophy is a rational adventure. Let me say as well that is it impossible for this talk to possess more insight than its assumptions possess. It may, of course, possess less.

    If philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts, then it becomes an approach used in all the arts and sciences. Philosophy is not simply a topic of its own, but a way of pursuing many topics. It is certainly used in physics and biology; examine writings reflecting upon quantum physics or upon the meaning of the term ‘species.’ Philosophy, I warrant, is found in abundance in literature and in the visual arts.

    Because philosophy means the application of reason to the study of ideas generally, it offers a standard of rationality to which all human endeavors must appeal. If so, then each of the several arts and sciences are best understood by the distinct question they ask, and philosophy is one manner of assessing the various proposed answers.

    This conclusion about the relationship between philosophy and the arts and sciences brings us to two relevant conclusions already. First, as we assess together the possibility of a religious atheism, we must now part company with much of the orthodox tradition of the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. For these faiths, religious truth is not assessed philosophically, but through the putative irruption of a superior, supernatural world into our natural world. Religious truth is revealed, is confessed; human reason cannot grasp it completely. But our commitment to philosophy tells us that reason can understand anything possible or actual; for philosophy, there is no supernatural. So whether religion is atheist or theistic, if it is philosophical it will not look like many of the religious traditions we know.

    Second, a thorough commitment to philosophy means that religion, too, is another of the human arts and sciences. It is a question, not an answer. This point is so important, I think. Critics of religion often understand religion as an answer. Of course, they have a right to use the word this way, but rhetorically this usage encourages suspicion of the question. But we should never become suspicious of questions. Easier, I think, to understand religion itself as a question, and to understand the world’s religious traditions as some of the possible answers to the religious question.

    What is the question of religion? Kahil Gibran tells us:

    Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, [a]nd that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?

    (P, 77)

    What this passage tells me, anyway, is that religion points to the thoughts and motivations that inspire us to do anything at all. Religion explores why our lives can be filled with meaning even when ordinary. Whitehead writes:

    “What should emerge from religion is individual worth of character

    (RM, 17)

    But if we are to assess individual worth in a rational way, we must appeal to some principle of worth. So the question religion asks is, what gives to each of us individual worth of character? What gives my life meaning? To what in life do I cast my ultimate loyalties?

    The commitment to philosophy means that we seek answers to religious questions under the banner of logical consistency and fact-checking. Seeking the answer to the question of the meaning life is every bit a rational pursuit as is seeking the answer to the question of the nature of dark matter or of the impacts of global warming. To see religion as a philosophical, rational pursuit is to see religion as an exploratory enterprise. It expresses human curiosity, not supernatural authority. It is pursued in conversation and community, not pronounced by so-called officials. Religion invites all the imagination and wonder we humans have to offer, and when philosophically pursued, provides a rational standard for the democratic assessment of putative religious thoughts and feelings.

    If religion is indeed a question for human reason to answer, we can develop a typology of logically possible answers. To do so is important, I warrant, because typologies make clear positions of agreement and disagreement. A popular type of answer to the question of religion since the Axial Age is ‘theism.’ Here, atheism identifies a set of answers to the religious question including things besides God. ‘Atheism’ is not the denial of God per se, but the offering of different kind of answer. If religion is a question, then atheism is a positive movement of thought, offering a variety of answers.

    But what is wrong religiously with the mere denial of theism? If religion is a question to be pursued philosophically, and theism is one type of answer to this question, thorough philosophical critiques of theism can only help our approach to religious truth. Philosophical critiques of theism have shown that the very concept of God seems troubled. Consider the criticisms of Carneades, a renowned skeptic of the second century BCE. Carneades argued that God cannot exist because the very concept of God – that of a person with unlimited existence – is nonsense, contradictory. How, Carneades asks, can any person in principle be unlimited when all the qualities by which we define personhood – life, sensation, virtue – imply some kind of limit. To my knowledge, the classical tradition of theism upon which is based the theology of all the major theistic faiths have never answered this objection successfully, even with over 2,000 years of effort. So atheism certainly should seem attractive given its success criticizing the fundamental concept of its religious rival.

    But we must remember that Carneades was a skeptic, he belonged to the skeptical school at Athens. So he mostly critiqued other theories. Mere criticism is usually not persuasive; people expect the critic to offer some other commitment to fill the blank. The Romans expelled Carneades from the City once because he argued convincingly for justice, then promptly argued with equal conviction against it. So there you go. The Romans were effective governors, and they knew that skepticism alone ends in chaos.

    Political limitations aside, the philosophical problem with atheism as mere skepticism is that a theistic skeptic can only criticize the theism she knows. Carneades only knew Greek theology. He did not know, for example, the temporal theism begun in Europe by the anti-Trinitarian Socinus and developed extensively in the 20th century by Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Weiman. When the Enlightenment of the 18th century begun the long work, still in progress, of supplanting the habit of authority in western culture with the habit of reason, the West discovered the virtue of tolerance, a habit of mind virtually unknown in much religious expression up to that point. But tolerance does not function, in the last analysis, to defend the opportunity to criticize. Whitehead writes:

    The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future, and to the complexity of accomplished fact which exceeds our stretch of insight

    (AI 52)

    We can’t know everything, so reason demands that we offer something new, something inspired by the abundance of possibility and the complexity of fact. If religion is a question, then skepticism may help us to find the answer, but in itself it is no answer. Free thinkers of any kind, of whatever commitments, must understand free thinking as the responsibility to propose, not simply as the freedom to dispose. We are fragmentary beings called to adventure, adventure in science, in arts, in religion.

    I venture the observation that I have now finished the first movement of today’s talk, to suggest to you all that atheism can be religious in character. It can offer a positive, rational, non-theistic answer to the question of religion, the question of the meaning of one’s individual’s life and life generally considered. The rest of today’s talk, and all of next month’s talk, will be to attempt to do exactly what the rational commitment requires, to suggest reasoned, atheistic answers to the religious question.

    If ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ mutually identify logically exhaustive sets of all possible rational answers to the religious question, then atheism itself, understood as the set of positive, non-theistic answers, can itself be resolved into two, also logically exhaustive sets of possible atheistic answers. The first set identifies answers in which humans in some way create the meaning of life for themselves. In the second, humans find life’s meaning in the nature of things conceived in some non-theistic way.

    Common to both forms of religious atheism is the firm conviction that humans are responsible for discovering the element of meaning in their lives, individually and socially. Humans must do rational work, work of the mind and of the imagination, to acquire a sense of meaning. The final loyalties of our lives are not announced clearly for all time by a supernatural power. Sometimes the term ‘humanism’ refers to this common conviction of human responsibility for religious truth and for any kind of truth. Certainly the religious temperament here is very different than the temperament of the Abrahamic faiths. It is the temperament of engagement rather than the temperament of passivity.

    The two forms of religious atheism, though, also suggest that atheists, when not banding together under the banner of reason and responsibility, might disagree. They might, it is conceivable, develop distinct, independent congregations who gather under the different atheistic answers to the religious question. Perhaps only the overwhelming pressure of theism in our culture inhibits these possible developments. I would like to offer to you all in the time remaining that the first set, the atheistic school, if you like, that says that humans must make their meaning, is not philosophically sound. Therefore, atheists should focus upon the positive options found in the teaching that humans, while responsible for life’s meaning, nevertheless must find it in the nature of things.

    Jean Paul Sartre provides a lucid, honest, and courageous expression of the first atheistic type. It is all there in a wonderful essay he wrote entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” The title of the essays catches the eye because Sartre was often a critic of humanism. And, indeed, he is clear that humanism is absurd when it tries to deny God but then give to humanity God’s religious status. But existentialism is a genuine humanism, Sartre claims, because existentialism genuinely understands what it means to be human in the absence of God. He writes:

    Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position

    (EDS, 369)

    The absence of God, says Sartre, means that humanity can appeal to no essential goodness or essential human nature to decide how to choose. Instead, the act of choice completely creates the individual person. Sartre uses phrases like “man is condemned to be free” or “man is freedom.” The condemnation lies in the fact that no aspect of reality exists to provide guidance for choice. ‘Choice’ for Sartre does not have the meaning of uncertainty as to which particular option best expresses some general goodness or true human nature existing independently. There is no general goodness and there is no human nature.

    Thus, the statement ‘man is freedom’ is an ontological statement; to be human is to create yourself without some ‘given’ element in experience. There is nothing in reality which is universal or necessary and so must exist in any possible choice and helping to determine that choice . “[T]here is no determinism” Sartre tells us, or “we ourselves decide our being.” Likewise, because humans must choose a morality without appeal to any moral essence preceding the choice, humans must create their own morality, their own meaning. Again, Sartre writes:

    Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality

    (EDS, 365)

    Sartre articulates an inspiring and courageous position, demanding that we take complete responsibility for our lives. Freud once observed that religion is infantile. Sartre’s answer, however, to the religious question certainly gives to us a pathway to a religion of adulthood. The problem is that if a philosophical approach to religion demands that putative answers to the religious question be logically consistent, I suggest that Sartre’s proposal fails that test.

    He fails this test because his denial of any universal element in reality, and subsequent affirmation of human freedom, also becomes an affirmation of freedom itself as a universal. Sartre says as much; although he at first seems to want to deny any kind of general morality, he concludes that freedom as an end in itself. He writes:

    I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare that freedom…can have no other end and aim but itself…the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself

    (EDS, 366)

    Note, too, that this moral goal, to maximize freedom, is itself not chosen. Because humanity is free, humanity must pursue this goal to be good. But if humanity must pursue the goal of freedom, then freedom must be a universal, a quality logically prior to any individual human choice. The liberal Christian theologian Shubert Ogden, in an essay critical of Sartre’s atheism, puts the point nicely:

    If man is condemned to be free, then there is one thing, at least, with respect to which he has no freedom whatever; his own distinctively human capacity for free and responsible action

    (RG, 130)

    If so, then Sartre’s own reasoning betrays his conclusions. In fact, humans do not create their own meaning because our freedom to choose our values and our lives implies that freedom is not something humans create, but something established in the nature of things. The religious question, what is the meaning of life, cannot have as an answer, humans must create their own meaning. Existence precedes essence, Sartre writes repeatedly, but his own reasoning discloses freedom as an essence which precedes existence and is expressed in all human existence.

    Ogden, the Christian theologian, concludes that Sartre is an example of “the strange witness of unbelief.” In other words, since Sartre understands his conclusions as logical implications of his atheistic premise, the contradictions of his conclusions imply the failure of his premise. Thus, Ogden concludes, Sartre in effect argues for God’s existence.

    At this point, it becomes explicitly crucial define philosophical terms like ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean anyway, whether true or false? If an atheist denies God’s existence, then the positive meaning of atheism is not clear until we have a clear definition of God. Ogden’s conclusions about Sartre in effect equate the term ‘God’ with the metaphysical notion of ‘necessarily existent’ or ‘universal’ or ‘unconditioned.’ But ‘necessarily existent’ is too broad a definition for ‘God.’ For example and back to Sartre, on Ogden’s use of the term ‘God,’ freedom is God, at least for Sartre. Better, I think, to call freedom simply freedom. ‘God’ I offer generally means a cosmic personality or creature. On this definition, Sartre is no theist, even if his atheism suffers from fatal errors.

    Most important, defining ‘God’ generally as the notion of a cosmic personality opens the mind to the second type of religious atheism I mentioned earlier. This variety of religious atheism agrees with theists, and disagrees with atheistic existentialism, that the answer to the religious question is something ‘given’ in experience. The meaning of life is found by philosophically exploring elements in experience which in fact do influence us, do determine who we are to some extent. Like theism, this second form of religious atheism acknowledges that finding the answer to the religious question requires some movement, mental and emotional, of reception, of dependence, of being given something. Religious atheism of this second kind may embrace, I warrant, some notion of grace.

    I will call this second kind of religious atheism: atheistic natural religion. For if humans cannot create meaning, and God does not exist, then the answer to the question of religion must be found somehow, somewhere, in nature. Humans remain responsible for finding meaning. The traditions held by this congregation tell us that truth is discovered by consulting the book of nature. It is my hope that today’s talk gives greater philosophical warrant to this atheistic approach.

    The book of nature may include answers to the question of religion which are cosmic and mystical. It will be the effort of the next talk to suggest such answers. We will explore the tradition of Buddhism and the writings of John Dewey and Carl Sagan. Thank you very much.

    Sauk City Talk, steroids
    Part Two by Andrew Kerr on June 17, pilule 2006 at Park Hall

    First, viagra 100mg
    let me say thank you again for the opportunity to come here and speak to all of you. I give my thanks again to Michael Whaley for inviting me. This congregation’s interest in, and commitment to, philosophy is inspiring. There is the detached consideration of philosophy found in departments of philosophy; certainly a detached approach is important. But to explore philosophy as a way of life, as I sense happening in this congregation, is to experience the transformation of scholarship into adventure.

    Last time I offered the thesis that atheism can be a religious affirmation. Upon the assumption – very important – of a philosophical approach to knowledge, logical consistency, fact-checking, and appeal to principle identify a standard of truth to which all the arts and sciences must appeal. Religion, I argue, is then best understood as a question, the question that asks, “What gives my life meaning?” or “To what do I cast my ultimate loyalties?” Here, atheism identifies a set of positive, non-theistic answers to this question.

    Today I wish to suggest, in general terms, one kind of answer to the question of religion. It is: to serve, deliberately, cosmic joy – the joy that comes just from being anything at all. I say ‘deliberately’ because we humans are intelligent, and have the distinct mission to serve cosmic joy more fully aware of the scale and nature of existence. The human gift, I offer, is intimacy.

    This suggested religious answer discloses three required movements of argument. First, we must establish that a religious answer, whatever the content, is expressed in any possible experience we might have. Second, we must establish that this religious answer is in truth cosmic in scope. Third, we must establish that ‘joy’ has legitimate cosmic meanings.

    The religious answer must express itself in any possible experience because the religious question asks about our ultimate commitments or loyalties, and we exercise these ultimate commitments and loyalties in every experience we have. To speak of an ‘ultimate’ commitment or ‘ultimate’ loyalty is to speak of the logically final principle to which we appeal to explain ourselves, our actions, our choices, and, finally, our experiences. There is the story of the boy who asked the wise man, “What holds up the world?” and the wise man answered, “An elephant.” But the boy, who if not wise was at least precocious, asked, “What holds up the elephant?” The wise man answered, “A turtle.” But the boy sought the answer to a deeper question, and asked “And what holds up the turtle?” The wise man gave an honest answer, “It’s turtles all the way down.” But this answer is not a rational answer; an infinite regress of reasons marks a failed philosophical explanation, for an infinite regress of reasons contradicts the rational commitment to principled explanation. But then there must be a final principle of explanation. In the case of the question of religion, to say that the religious answer expresses our ultimate commitments or loyalties – what we mean by ‘value’ – is to say that it expresses our choice of final principle of explanation. The religious answer is our final turtle.

    Does this final principle of explanation, this religious answer, exist in any possible human experience? I suggest that we consider the religious insights provided by John Dewey in his wonderful book A Common Faith. Dewey distinguishes between ‘religion’ and ‘the religious.’ The ‘religious,’ Dewey claims, identifies the transformative element in experience. When we grasp a possibility which improves both our individual self and our environment, this experience is religious. Dewey writes:

    There are…changes in ourselves in relation to the world ..that are much more inclusive and deep seated. They relate…to our being in its entirety…There is a composing and harmonizing of the various elements of our being such that…these conditions are also arranged, settled, in relation to us. This attitude includes a note of submission. But it is voluntary, not externally imposed.

    (ACF, 16)

    The recognition of a ‘note of submission’ is vital to Dewey’s position. A philosophical approach to a religious atheism requires that we take responsibility for finding the meaning in our lives, but this meaning for which we search is something outside ourselves, something upon which we depend for our sense of worth. Dewey himself recommends nature, broadly put, as the element in experience to which we submit. He writes:

    The self is always directed toward something beyond itself and so its own unification depends upon the idea of the integration of the shifting scenes of the world into that imaginative totality we call the universe

    (ACF, 19)

    How we idealize ourselves, how we imagine ourselves at our most worthy, depends upon what possibilities our environment provides. While we choose among those possibilities, the general character of our freedom depends upon the environment providing the possibilities.

    So any experience is religious when we grasp the best possibilities in our environment, and so choose to improve both ourselves and our environment. This choosing of the best possibilities within the environment – and the concomitant improving of the environment itself – Dewey labels ‘intelligence.’ The answer to the religious question, Dewey suggests, is intelligence. He writes:

    One of the few experiments in the attachment of emotion to ends that mankind has not tried is that of devotion, so intense as to be religious, to intelligence as a force in social action

    (ACF 79)

    By intelligence, Dewey means both a quality within humanity – our ability to choose good ends – and a quality defining the environment, namely, the good possibilities themselves, including those which follow from our own good action. Intelligence is finally an order of nature.

    Two points follow, I believe, from Dewey’s proposal. First, if the answer to the question of religion is intelligence, then the answer expresses an evolving, self-surpassing order of nature. The relation between human choice and nature is symbiotic; each good human choice improves nature itself, and this improved order of nature displays better possibilities for better human choices. This answer to the religious question asks that we re-consider the meaning of perfection. Perfection need not mean a changeless entity containing within itself the realization of all possibilities. This notion of perfection, borrowed from Greek metaphysics, haunts the Abrahamic religions. Instead, a religious atheism may propose that perfection refers to manner of changing. This is so important. A religion that embraces change and articulates a good kind of change may also embrace experimentalism in all human endeavors, rather than condemn it as sacrilegious. A religion that embraces change may look to the future with hope, rather than mark time waiting for God.

    Second, because the religious, as Dewey calls it, is present in every experience we have, the goal of a religious community is not so much to add into experience the answer to the religious question, as to make explicit what is always within us. It is a natural human possibility to experience in every moment the full measure of our worth, including our dependence upon the order of nature for this worth. There is a meaning of salvation here. Salvation needn’t mean the creation of our worth by supernatural fiat, but can mean instead our choice to live in full consciousness of worth we always have. Salvation, for the religious atheism I propose, means to live deliberately.

    I hope I have now offered sufficient reasons to make at least interesting the proposal that a religious atheism must identify something common to all human experiences, that this something refers to an order of nature, and that one thing we already know about this order is that we humans help to make it and that it grows, evolves, is self-surpassing. But is this order of nature truly cosmic in scope? Humans may contribute to it, but human intelligence anyway is certainly not cosmic in scope.

    I want to suggest to you that a cosmic answer to the question of religion is the only possible kind of answer by reasons of logic. The cosmic answer is required by the success of a philosophical insight called the naturalistic fallacy. According to the naturalistic fallacy, no facts or ideals arising from facts can justify claims about worth and value. Define ‘worth’ or ‘value’ any way you please, but if this definition is to possess any claim to truth, you cannot appeal to any factual state of affairs: human nature, civilization, ecosystems, to give some examples. The fallacy follows from the recognition that any factual state of affairs offered as a definition of worth is restricted in scope, or local, and so excludes some aspect of reality. Any effort to include the previously excluded portion of reality requires a new, more inclusive state of affairs now defined as the meaning of worth but, since all states of affairs are local, you have the same problem all over again, and so on. The naturalistic fallacy is really a version of the turtle problem; philosophical claims require a final reason, so it can’t be turtles all the way down and it can’t be factual states of affairs all the way down, either.

    But if the naturalistic fallacy tells us that any religious answer appealing to something local or factual is ultimately irrational, then it also tells us that any religious answer must appeal to something which is universal and necessary. Any principled argument must point to something existing, something existential, as the ground of justification, and if that ground of justification can’t be something which is factually existential, then it must be something existential for which there is no alternative, something universal and necessary, something expressed in the nature of things regardless of the facts. So the religious answer must be cosmic in scope.

    If we combine this conclusion with the earlier conclusion that the religious answer is nature in some sense and is found in any possible human experience, then I suggest that the religious answer is not merely something cosmic, but is the cosmos itself, all things past, present, future, and all things expressing an order of nature in which all things participate, to which all things contribute. The term ‘nature’ means the set of all facts. The term ‘cosmos’ means ‘nature’ as including an order. The cosmos is not an abstraction, but reality in all its concreteness, including the concrete and universal expression of an abstract cosmic order.

    If the cosmos is the answer to the religious question when pursued rationally, then a rational exploration of this answer must include the findings of modern science. The cosmos includes all facts, and science is the rational exploration of the facts. Carl Sagan suggests the cosmos, as described by astronomy and physics in particular, as an atheistic answer to the question of religion. I warrant that Sagan’s writings articulate a prolegomena to a new sort of religion. This religion, Sagan says, will find inspiration in the findings of science, but most important, it will find religious wisdom in the habits of mind and heart that the pursuit of science inculcates. It is worth quoting one entire paragraph from the book Pale Blue Dot:

    In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say “No, no, no! My god is a little god and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge”.

    (PBD, 52)

    But what religious wisdom might we gain from the scientific habit of mind? Sagan suggests that at least two important religious lessons follow from the cultural practice of science. First, the recognition of the vastness of the cosmos serves as irrefutable evidence that humanity is not the center of the universe, or even very important at all. Sagan refers to the period of the last 300 years as the time of ‘The Great Demotions.’ By contrast, the vastness of the universe is the inspiration to learn, to explore, to appreciate, to wonder. We must discover our value and our worth in the life of the cosmos, and we discover that worth not by merely enjoying how reality serves us, but by consciously experiencing the cosmic scale of all things serving one another.

    Second, a religious atheism that includes the findings of science also re-works the meaning of worship. In fact, Sagan defines science as “informed worship” (GL, preface). What he means, I think, is that if religion is an exploratory enterprise, then the effort at understanding becomes the act of worship. Sagan quotes Carlyle as saying that “all religion begins with wonder.” We might define wonder as the emotional response to anything that expands our appreciation and so points to new values, vaguely sensed. We feel value haunting us with enjoyments yet unfelt, and the pull of these unattained enjoyments we feel as wonder. In the Abrahamic tradition, wonder is the appropriate response to supernatural mystery, forever beyond the scope of human reason. But for a rational religion of the cosmos, wonder compels us to grasp fully what is only vaguely felt and understood. Worship no longer expresses respect for everlasting mystery and is instead the work of attaining intimacy with the nature of things. As Sagan tells us, “we are the Cosmos come to know itself.”

    Granted that the cosmos includes all the facts, and thus granted that science must inform our religious explorations, I claim that nevertheless a philosophical approach to religion is not synonymous with accepting a purely scientific description of the cosmos. Science may express worship, but science does not, I warrant, exhaust any rational meaning for worship. Philosophy remains the more inclusive enterprise, and for two reasons.

    First, as the naturalistic fallacy indicates, not all of reality is factual. The cosmos possesses a metaphysical, or logically necessary, existential character, as well as a factual existential character. Existence is a modal term, possessing two aspects of meaning, and science is the study of the kind of existence which is factual, or contingent. The existence of the cosmos itself abides eternally even as the actual state of the cosmos changes from moment to moment with the activities of all particular things. Science, the study of these changing facts, cannot explore the eternal nature of the cosmos. Only philosophy, under the banner of conceptual clarity and logical consistency, can do this religious work.

    Second, science is typically not so much the study of facts conceived fully, but rather is the study of facts insofar as facts are determined by previous facts. To the extent to which any fact causally influences other facts, the circumstances of the past can determine the future. Patterns arise in the emergence of present facts from the past, and prediction is possible. Laws of nature describe the cosmos insofar as the past determines the present, and prediction is possible.

    But the cosmos includes an element not just of necessity, of causal determinism, but also of chance. Science labels types of chance, for example ‘random mutation’ in biological evolutionary law, but it cannot give reasons for chance to the extent to which it adopts the presumption of causal determinism. This metaphysical assumption at the basis of the natural sciences especially has provided great success in understanding the cosmos, but in the end a proper theory of nature must give reasons for the random creativity in fact, however slight in many cases. Philosophical examination of casual determinism discloses an inability to give reasons for the randomness found throughout nature and for the enormous creativity found especially in human activity. A proper understanding of the cosmos requires a metaphysics of partial determinism, the notion that any fact is influenced by previous facts, often tremendously so, but that finally each present fact identifies a creative response to past facts. All fact includes an element, however small, of creativity or subjectivity, or psyche.

    Alfred North Whitehead, whose own metaphysics was panpsychic, describes the final real things as living, individual moments of self-enjoyment. He writes:

    “…life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation.”

    (MT 150)

    Religion asks the question, what makes my life worthwhile, to what do I cast my ultimate loyalties? To say that the cosmos is the answer, the cosmos understood as an eternally evolving community of life or psyche to which we contribute for good or ill, is also to say that the act of appropriating others, of making our experiences out of what others have given, is how we have our very being. To acknowledge the cosmos as the source of meaning and value is to acknowledge both our dependence upon the work of others and that our own worth will depend upon what we give to others. To be anything at all, is to give and to receive. The subjective feeling of this ontological process is joy, the joy of getting to be anything at all because to be anything at all means to do the work of loving all of the world around you. To be anything at all, whether an atom or a human personality, is to possess what the Hindu tradition calls ‘ananda,’ that joy in existence without which the universe would collapse and fall apart. This ‘ananda’ is always with us; it is a part of our being, it exists throughout the cosmos. An atheistic religion of the cosmos brings the message that joy is always possible for us, the joy which constitutes our being.

    If joy is always possible for us, how do we acquire it? Certainly we do not feel joyful all of the time. What does a atheistic religion of the cosmos tell us about how to be a human?

    There is a wonderful story about Siddhartha Guatama, who became the Buddha. After he achieved enlightenment, people would come to him and ask, not ‘who are you?’ for he was too unusual for such a personal reference, but would ask instead ‘what are you’? Siddhartha would answer, “I am awake.” An atheistic religion of the cosmos asks that humans become awake, awake not to the joy of the fulfillment of desire, but the ontological joy of being anything at all.

    Buddhist metaphysics speaks of dukkha, or suffering, which arises because we have desires. These desires, or skandas, cause tanha, the experience of ourselves as solitary, as an isolated ego inhabiting a body. According to Buddhism, the meaning of human fulfillment is to recognize the illusion of the solitary self and to recognize the solidarity of all existence. Sometimes this Buddhist doctrine is called the ‘no-self’ doctrine; Nibbana, the goal of human life, means to ‘blow out’ or to ‘extinguish’ the ego.

    A religion of cosmic contribution agrees that we lose touch with the answer of religion when our experiences include only the hopes and values of the more immediate, personal aspects of our lives. Instead, we must wake up, become fully aware of the reality which surrounds us. Indeed, the capacity for considerable awareness is perhaps the greatest gift of the human species. The gift we have to offer to the cosmos, to all the emerging living things, whether atom or fellow creature, is our intelligence, our capacity to know that the cosmos exists, and to know that all things contribute to it. We might say that the distinctive work of humanity is to learn the full, cosmic value of every item in our experience, and to act fully appreciative of such value. This is the doctrine that the meaning of human existence is intelligence directed toward tenderness or gentleness or intimacy, to give to the world experiences which articulate the full cosmic importance of any thing intelligence encounters.

    We must not extinguish ourselves do so, even in the sense of personal desires. Worship is the act of becoming conscious of the cosmos, the act of paying attention to the ontological, cosmic aspect of who we are, in every experience we have. Such worshipful action will not, I warrant, so much extinguish our ego, it will not stop our suffering, but it will bring the joy of knowing that have been given something even in our pain, it will bring the joy of knowing that we can still give even in our pain, and it will bring the joy of knowing that we can appreciate the cosmic importance of each thing we encounter. We can always take joy in the otherness of things, and of ourselves as giving and receiving, and we act out our conscious joy. There is the image of the ocean which receives the drop; I like better the image of the drop which receives the ocean.

    Granted the general admonition to kindness, to intimacy, what are we humans to do now, on this planet, in these times? Thoreau begins Walden with the statement, “I went to the woods to live deliberately.”

    What we must do, I offer to you all, is to go the woods. For the most part, the community of life we know is the ecological community on our home planet, Earth. To act with tenderness towards the items in the cosmos for us means largely to pursue intimacy with the things of the Earth, with our ecosystems. The human ecological niche is the transmission within Earth’s ecosystems of actions displaying the full cosmic worth of every item in that ecosystem. Such an ecosystem possesses intelligence as one of its species, rather than the primate homo sapiens. Such an ecosystem enjoys the weaving of tenderness into the otherwise pervasive character of reproductive fitness. Civilization becomes an element within such an ecosystem.

    Most religions have a church or temple; for an atheistic religion of the cosmos, the temple is the prairie meadow, the seashore, the rainforest, the woods, the stars at night. It is not the place we must go to live, but it is the place we must go to remember and to feel why we live, to remain religious, that is to say, to remain awake.

    Thank you very much.

    Atheism I – Atheism as a Religious Affirmation

    I have published my first article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “Do we have options in the religion verses science debate?“.

    Article

    If a single entity created the stars, gynecologist planets, doctor time, space, and life itself then science is the very study of that wonderful and potentially divine creation. Scientists of all sorts have the job of trying to understand the very things that the hand of the creator has created – from geologists, biologists, and psychologists to geneticists and quantum physicists. For some their scientific  study and exploration can be an awe inspiring and faith affirming exercise. For others it can be a source and angst and internal conflict.

    If science is the study of all that has been divinely created then why is it all too often at odds with religion? Throughout history scientists and visionaries such a s Copernicus and Galileo were afraid to speak their ‘heretical’ idea of (heliocentrism vs the predominant and church accepted geocentrism) or were even demanded to recant their views under threat of being burned at the stake. Even today’s modern evolutionary and geological scientist are under a similar, though less harmful, assault by a religious front.

    Take evolution vs creation as a specific example of a modern science vs religion battleground. Evolutionary sciences has modern humanity (homo sapiens) as being approximately 40 thousand  years old and the earth at several billion years old, while the counter religious movements have both at less than 10 thousand years. This is quite the significant disparity in age between the two views, and, in this enlightened age there is still much bitterness and vehemence in arguments against each other.

    I wonder why this has to be. Why are some religions so afraid of scientific advancement and the furthering our understanding of this wonderful and potentially divine creation that has given us the miracle of life and free will?

    For me, such bridge theories such as evolutionary creationism and biblical to geological correlations via Day-Age Creationism help to make sense of things and to bring science and religion together in a non-aggressive and logical manner.

    Why could not the creator have created all of life with evolution as its impetus for change and existence? What exactly is a biblical day to a potentially omniscient and omnipotent creator who created time and matter itself? Does the creator live by our Earth centric view of time at 24 hours per day, which may be horribly arrogant of and presumptuous of us, or does this entity who created time itself have a more fluid day in the billions or hundreds of millions of years as geological evidence would have us believe? This is for you to decide with evolutionary creationism and Age-Day Creationism as a good middle ground.

    • Topical Wikipedia Links

    • Other Links

    Sauk City Part 1 talk by Andrew Kerr on May 20, info
    2007 at Park Hall

    First I would like to thank all of you for the opportunity to speak to you about such a fascinating topic. The topic is timely as well, order
    and when fascinating topics become timely, information pills
    the effect is quite exciting. My thanks, too, to Michael Whaley for extending the invitation to speak and for giving to me the chance to learn something about your congregation. I respect your commitment to reason and to conversation as sources of insight. It will be these resources that I hope to bring to bear on today’s topic.

    I do not come here as an academic, not intentionally. Philosophy belongs to all of us. It is a human activity.

    The philosophical point that I would like to offer to you today is the thesis that atheism can be religious. I am not saying that it must be. But I am saying that it is reasonable to entertain a religious atheism. It is reasonable, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, religion I warrant is best understood as a question rather than an answer. If so, then atheism can be defined as the family of non-theistic answers to the question of religion. Atheism can be a body of religious thought. Second, some atheistic answers to the question of religion have attributes resembling those of the sometimes more popular answer to the religious question, God. ‘God’ is often a troubled choice of answer to the religious question, when people think about it. But the qualities bound up in the idea of God which make God such a popular answer – qualities such as inclusiveness, persistence in experience, cosmic scope – I believe can also be part of an atheistic answer to the question of religion.

    A commitment to reason demands that I tell to you the assumptions informing my conclusions about atheism. My assumption is that philosophy can adequately understand the topic of atheism, the topic of God, the topic of religion. What do I mean by philosophy? Philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts. Whitehead once wrote that philosophy is the one avocation denied omniscience. Ignoring for the moment the intelligibility of ‘omniscience,’ I agree with Whitehead that humans pursue philosophy because we are fragmentary. We cannot grasp reality all at once, so must learn through inference and exploration. Philosophy is adventure.

    Because the philosophic effort at conceptual clarity requires consistent thinking and fact-checking, it is a rational enterprise. To say ‘rational’ is to say that we must give reasons for our claims, we must appeal to principles rather than personal experience or authority. Philosophy is a rational adventure. Let me say as well that is it impossible for this talk to possess more insight than its assumptions possess. It may, of course, possess less.

    If philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts, then it becomes an approach used in all the arts and sciences. Philosophy is not simply a topic of its own, but a way of pursuing many topics. It is certainly used in physics and biology; examine writings reflecting upon quantum physics or upon the meaning of the term ‘species.’ Philosophy, I warrant, is found in abundance in literature and in the visual arts.

    Because philosophy means the application of reason to the study of ideas generally, it offers a standard of rationality to which all human endeavors must appeal. If so, then each of the several arts and sciences are best understood by the distinct question they ask, and philosophy is one manner of assessing the various proposed answers.

    This conclusion about the relationship between philosophy and the arts and sciences brings us to two relevant conclusions already. First, as we assess together the possibility of a religious atheism, we must now part company with much of the orthodox tradition of the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. For these faiths, religious truth is not assessed philosophically, but through the putative irruption of a superior, supernatural world into our natural world. Religious truth is revealed, is confessed; human reason cannot grasp it completely. But our commitment to philosophy tells us that reason can understand anything possible or actual; for philosophy, there is no supernatural. So whether religion is atheist or theistic, if it is philosophical it will not look like many of the religious traditions we know.

    Second, a thorough commitment to philosophy means that religion, too, is another of the human arts and sciences. It is a question, not an answer. This point is so important, I think. Critics of religion often understand religion as an answer. Of course, they have a right to use the word this way, but rhetorically this usage encourages suspicion of the question. But we should never become suspicious of questions. Easier, I think, to understand religion itself as a question, and to understand the world’s religious traditions as some of the possible answers to the religious question.

    What is the question of religion? Kahil Gibran tells us:

    Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, [a]nd that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?

    (P, 77)

    What this passage tells me, anyway, is that religion points to the thoughts and motivations that inspire us to do anything at all. Religion explores why our lives can be filled with meaning even when ordinary. Whitehead writes:

    “What should emerge from religion is individual worth of character

    (RM, 17)

    But if we are to assess individual worth in a rational way, we must appeal to some principle of worth. So the question religion asks is, what gives to each of us individual worth of character? What gives my life meaning? To what in life do I cast my ultimate loyalties?

    The commitment to philosophy means that we seek answers to religious questions under the banner of logical consistency and fact-checking. Seeking the answer to the question of the meaning life is every bit a rational pursuit as is seeking the answer to the question of the nature of dark matter or of the impacts of global warming. To see religion as a philosophical, rational pursuit is to see religion as an exploratory enterprise. It expresses human curiosity, not supernatural authority. It is pursued in conversation and community, not pronounced by so-called officials. Religion invites all the imagination and wonder we humans have to offer, and when philosophically pursued, provides a rational standard for the democratic assessment of putative religious thoughts and feelings.

    If religion is indeed a question for human reason to answer, we can develop a typology of logically possible answers. To do so is important, I warrant, because typologies make clear positions of agreement and disagreement. A popular type of answer to the question of religion since the Axial Age is ‘theism.’ Here, atheism identifies a set of answers to the religious question including things besides God. ‘Atheism’ is not the denial of God per se, but the offering of different kind of answer. If religion is a question, then atheism is a positive movement of thought, offering a variety of answers.

    But what is wrong religiously with the mere denial of theism? If religion is a question to be pursued philosophically, and theism is one type of answer to this question, thorough philosophical critiques of theism can only help our approach to religious truth. Philosophical critiques of theism have shown that the very concept of God seems troubled. Consider the criticisms of Carneades, a renowned skeptic of the second century BCE. Carneades argued that God cannot exist because the very concept of God – that of a person with unlimited existence – is nonsense, contradictory. How, Carneades asks, can any person in principle be unlimited when all the qualities by which we define personhood – life, sensation, virtue – imply some kind of limit. To my knowledge, the classical tradition of theism upon which is based the theology of all the major theistic faiths have never answered this objection successfully, even with over 2,000 years of effort. So atheism certainly should seem attractive given its success criticizing the fundamental concept of its religious rival.

    But we must remember that Carneades was a skeptic, he belonged to the skeptical school at Athens. So he mostly critiqued other theories. Mere criticism is usually not persuasive; people expect the critic to offer some other commitment to fill the blank. The Romans expelled Carneades from the City once because he argued convincingly for justice, then promptly argued with equal conviction against it. So there you go. The Romans were effective governors, and they knew that skepticism alone ends in chaos.

    Political limitations aside, the philosophical problem with atheism as mere skepticism is that a theistic skeptic can only criticize the theism she knows. Carneades only knew Greek theology. He did not know, for example, the temporal theism begun in Europe by the anti-Trinitarian Socinus and developed extensively in the 20th century by Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Weiman. When the Enlightenment of the 18th century begun the long work, still in progress, of supplanting the habit of authority in western culture with the habit of reason, the West discovered the virtue of tolerance, a habit of mind virtually unknown in much religious expression up to that point. But tolerance does not function, in the last analysis, to defend the opportunity to criticize. Whitehead writes:

    The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future, and to the complexity of accomplished fact which exceeds our stretch of insight

    (AI 52)

    We can’t know everything, so reason demands that we offer something new, something inspired by the abundance of possibility and the complexity of fact. If religion is a question, then skepticism may help us to find the answer, but in itself it is no answer. Free thinkers of any kind, of whatever commitments, must understand free thinking as the responsibility to propose, not simply as the freedom to dispose. We are fragmentary beings called to adventure, adventure in science, in arts, in religion.

    I venture the observation that I have now finished the first movement of today’s talk, to suggest to you all that atheism can be religious in character. It can offer a positive, rational, non-theistic answer to the question of religion, the question of the meaning of one’s individual’s life and life generally considered. The rest of today’s talk, and all of next month’s talk, will be to attempt to do exactly what the rational commitment requires, to suggest reasoned, atheistic answers to the religious question.

    If ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ mutually identify logically exhaustive sets of all possible rational answers to the religious question, then atheism itself, understood as the set of positive, non-theistic answers, can itself be resolved into two, also logically exhaustive sets of possible atheistic answers. The first set identifies answers in which humans in some way create the meaning of life for themselves. In the second, humans find life’s meaning in the nature of things conceived in some non-theistic way.

    Common to both forms of religious atheism is the firm conviction that humans are responsible for discovering the element of meaning in their lives, individually and socially. Humans must do rational work, work of the mind and of the imagination, to acquire a sense of meaning. The final loyalties of our lives are not announced clearly for all time by a supernatural power. Sometimes the term ‘humanism’ refers to this common conviction of human responsibility for religious truth and for any kind of truth. Certainly the religious temperament here is very different than the temperament of the Abrahamic faiths. It is the temperament of engagement rather than the temperament of passivity.

    The two forms of religious atheism, though, also suggest that atheists, when not banding together under the banner of reason and responsibility, might disagree. They might, it is conceivable, develop distinct, independent congregations who gather under the different atheistic answers to the religious question. Perhaps only the overwhelming pressure of theism in our culture inhibits these possible developments. I would like to offer to you all in the time remaining that the first set, the atheistic school, if you like, that says that humans must make their meaning, is not philosophically sound. Therefore, atheists should focus upon the positive options found in the teaching that humans, while responsible for life’s meaning, nevertheless must find it in the nature of things.

    Jean Paul Sartre provides a lucid, honest, and courageous expression of the first atheistic type. It is all there in a wonderful essay he wrote entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” The title of the essays catches the eye because Sartre was often a critic of humanism. And, indeed, he is clear that humanism is absurd when it tries to deny God but then give to humanity God’s religious status. But existentialism is a genuine humanism, Sartre claims, because existentialism genuinely understands what it means to be human in the absence of God. He writes:

    Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position

    (EDS, 369)

    The absence of God, says Sartre, means that humanity can appeal to no essential goodness or essential human nature to decide how to choose. Instead, the act of choice completely creates the individual person. Sartre uses phrases like “man is condemned to be free” or “man is freedom.” The condemnation lies in the fact that no aspect of reality exists to provide guidance for choice. ‘Choice’ for Sartre does not have the meaning of uncertainty as to which particular option best expresses some general goodness or true human nature existing independently. There is no general goodness and there is no human nature.

    Thus, the statement ‘man is freedom’ is an ontological statement; to be human is to create yourself without some ‘given’ element in experience. There is nothing in reality which is universal or necessary and so must exist in any possible choice and helping to determine that choice . “[T]here is no determinism” Sartre tells us, or “we ourselves decide our being.” Likewise, because humans must choose a morality without appeal to any moral essence preceding the choice, humans must create their own morality, their own meaning. Again, Sartre writes:

    Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality

    (EDS, 365)

    Sartre articulates an inspiring and courageous position, demanding that we take complete responsibility for our lives. Freud once observed that religion is infantile. Sartre’s answer, however, to the religious question certainly gives to us a pathway to a religion of adulthood. The problem is that if a philosophical approach to religion demands that putative answers to the religious question be logically consistent, I suggest that Sartre’s proposal fails that test.

    He fails this test because his denial of any universal element in reality, and subsequent affirmation of human freedom, also becomes an affirmation of freedom itself as a universal. Sartre says as much; although he at first seems to want to deny any kind of general morality, he concludes that freedom as an end in itself. He writes:

    I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare that freedom…can have no other end and aim but itself…the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself

    (EDS, 366)

    Note, too, that this moral goal, to maximize freedom, is itself not chosen. Because humanity is free, humanity must pursue this goal to be good. But if humanity must pursue the goal of freedom, then freedom must be a universal, a quality logically prior to any individual human choice. The liberal Christian theologian Shubert Ogden, in an essay critical of Sartre’s atheism, puts the point nicely:

    If man is condemned to be free, then there is one thing, at least, with respect to which he has no freedom whatever; his own distinctively human capacity for free and responsible action

    (RG, 130)

    If so, then Sartre’s own reasoning betrays his conclusions. In fact, humans do not create their own meaning because our freedom to choose our values and our lives implies that freedom is not something humans create, but something established in the nature of things. The religious question, what is the meaning of life, cannot have as an answer, humans must create their own meaning. Existence precedes essence, Sartre writes repeatedly, but his own reasoning discloses freedom as an essence which precedes existence and is expressed in all human existence.

    Ogden, the Christian theologian, concludes that Sartre is an example of “the strange witness of unbelief.” In other words, since Sartre understands his conclusions as logical implications of his atheistic premise, the contradictions of his conclusions imply the failure of his premise. Thus, Ogden concludes, Sartre in effect argues for God’s existence.

    At this point, it becomes explicitly crucial define philosophical terms like ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean anyway, whether true or false? If an atheist denies God’s existence, then the positive meaning of atheism is not clear until we have a clear definition of God. Ogden’s conclusions about Sartre in effect equate the term ‘God’ with the metaphysical notion of ‘necessarily existent’ or ‘universal’ or ‘unconditioned.’ But ‘necessarily existent’ is too broad a definition for ‘God.’ For example and back to Sartre, on Ogden’s use of the term ‘God,’ freedom is God, at least for Sartre. Better, I think, to call freedom simply freedom. ‘God’ I offer generally means a cosmic personality or creature. On this definition, Sartre is no theist, even if his atheism suffers from fatal errors.

    Most important, defining ‘God’ generally as the notion of a cosmic personality opens the mind to the second type of religious atheism I mentioned earlier. This variety of religious atheism agrees with theists, and disagrees with atheistic existentialism, that the answer to the religious question is something ‘given’ in experience. The meaning of life is found by philosophically exploring elements in experience which in fact do influence us, do determine who we are to some extent. Like theism, this second form of religious atheism acknowledges that finding the answer to the religious question requires some movement, mental and emotional, of reception, of dependence, of being given something. Religious atheism of this second kind may embrace, I warrant, some notion of grace.

    I will call this second kind of religious atheism: atheistic natural religion. For if humans cannot create meaning, and God does not exist, then the answer to the question of religion must be found somehow, somewhere, in nature. Humans remain responsible for finding meaning. The traditions held by this congregation tell us that truth is discovered by consulting the book of nature. It is my hope that today’s talk gives greater philosophical warrant to this atheistic approach.

    The book of nature may include answers to the question of religion which are cosmic and mystical. It will be the effort of the next talk to suggest such answers. We will explore the tradition of Buddhism and the writings of John Dewey and Carl Sagan. Thank you very much.