By Justin E. H. Smith
I have been invited today to make some sort of case either for, or against, the existence of God. I would like to explain instead why I believe that to do either would be a huge waste of time.
I think it is most unfortunate that our culture insists on echoing ad nauseam the false dichotomy between the theist and the atheist that Russell and Copleston foisted on us. The latest, mediocre copy of the Russell character is a British biologist named Richard Dawkins, who is having a hell of a time raking in royalties and doing the talk-show circuit for his new book, The God Delusion. To say this is a waste of paper is too soft a review. It would be a waste of electricity were it posted on a blog. I feel as though I am wasting my breath in simply mentioning it. Dawkins’ argument is something like this: religion is irrational, and irrationality has bad effects, like the Inquisition, and September 11. Science is rational, and has good effects, like cures for diseases. Religion is a vestige of the childhood of civilization, and it would behoove us to grow out of it. Dawkins believes there is a positive correlation between belief in a transcendent moral order and doing harm. The empirical evidence however suggests that there is simply no correlation whatsoever. Palestinian suicide bombers tell themselves stories about the paradise that awaits them, true, but Japanese kamikaze pilots wrote Romantic poetry about the oblivion of death. Osama bin Laden believes in God, Pol Pot didn’t, etc. The most cursory review of 20th-century history tells us that to assume that a despot’s ontotheological convictions might shine light on his actions is quite simply arbitrary. We might just as well focus on his preferred brand of toothpaste.
Dawkins is a member of a growing movement that has recently been dubbed ‘fundamentalist humanism’. This movement includes Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and a number of other sharp wits, most of them helped in their cause by their authoritative English accents. These men represent a somewhat more moderate current of the movement that in the Netherlands produced the extreme-right-libertarian politician Pim Fortuyn, and the anti-Muslim filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a jihadist on the streets of Amsterdam. The novelist Michel Houellebecq gives voice to the same discontent in French. Meanwhile, North Americans on both sides of the border are far too sensitive to discuss with any seriousness the suggestion that Enlightenment liberalism might be at odds with Sharia law.
In our sensitivity, we overlook the obvious problem that Jesus Christ is either the son of God, or he is not, that Mohammed is either a prophet, or he is not, etc., and that if you say Mohammed is a prophet, and I say he is not, one of us has to be wrong. If you do not agree with this last point, then the onus is on you to come up with an argument against the principle of non-contradiction, something no one has successfully done since Aristotle made it explicit some millennia ago. You may wish to cop out like the Unitarian Universalists and say that, at bottom, all religious dogmas are in fact saying ‘the same thing’, but I can’t imagine how one could earnestly concede this point and at the same time remain uniquely attached to one’s own particular version of this Same Thing, whatever it is.
Secular humanists often see some salutary moral core in religious dogmas, while taking the fables in which this core is packaged as the product of a naïve and childish, earlier phase of humanity that humanism has finally succeeded in rising out of. Yet it does not take a very sharp critic to see that what the new wave of fundamentalist humanists have in fact done is not to get rid of religion, but instead to simply deify this nebulous ‘Reason’ of theirs. They are in this sense no different from the 18th-century luminaries they idolize: some in the French revolution wished, after all, to transform the Catholic churches themselves into ‘temples of reason’. When I first went to have a look at Lenin's carcass in Moscow, I was shuffled through with elderly pensioners weeping and bowing their heads before what many still described as a miraculously preserved body. I saw more than one make the sign of the cross. In North Korea, flowers and rainbows are thought to come out on the occasion of the Dear Leader’s birthday, taxi drivers in China hang Mao amulets from their rear-view mirrors in order to keep them safe from accidents (though they do not put on their seat-belts), and so on. The tendency for cults of these sorts to spontaneously emerge in officially atheist societies could easily, and rightly, give the impression that there is simply no escape from religion. Religion is not about whether one believes in God or not. It is about what picture of the moral and social order one holds dear, and how this picture motivates one to act.
With this in mind, one might reasonably wonder where religion leaves off, and culture begins. Consider another example: in Southeastern, Christian Europe, as well as in Muslim Anatolia, women have traditionally worn scarves over their heads. In a frenzy of Westernizing secularist nationalism in the 1920s, the Turkish government banned head scarves for women in public places such as schools and government buildings, because to wear these, so the story went, would be a violation of the separation of church and state that Turkey wanted to appropriate from the admirable American and French revolutions. Yet in neighboring Bulgaria, headscarves abound. There, these are said to be merely ‘cultural’, while Turkish headscarves are a feature of ‘religion’. In spite of having read the French government's report on ‘laïcité’, I dare say I still don't really understand the difference, since I'm not sure what religion could be if not a set of arbitrary rules that appears, from the inside, to be grounded in the eternal order of things. A Bulgarian babushka will feel just as naked with her hair exposed as any Turk, and she will probably feel that this nakedness is bad for reasons having to do with the moral order represented by her big-bearded priest and his thick-walled house of worship. That sounds like religion to me.
Let me close with the question: how should we, as scholars, discuss God? We should certainly discuss the role of the first cause in maintaining a fixed quantity of motion in Cartesian physics, say, or the role of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover in maintaining the orbit of the celestial spheres. But we should be doing this in the same terms, with the same critical attitude, in which we might discuss the role of the Tjurunga in Australian aboriginal theories of conception and childbirth. (The Tjurunga is a ritual object of central importance in aboriginal life. It is a wooden tool that, when spun around rapidly in the air, makes a humming noise. It is the most sacred object in a clan; it gives the clan its being, and it, as opposed to intercourse with aboriginal men, is what is held to be responsible for aboriginal babies.) The theory is false, yes, but that is beside the point. Scholars of the human sciences are not supposed to be trying to figure out how well human conceptualizations of their world match up with that world. Leave that to the laboratories. We want to know what it is human minds are capable of, and where the limits of human thought and imagination lie. One of the things human imagination is capable of coming up with is God. This makes God interesting, but not exceptionally so. What is more interesting is the way in which God, or ancestors, or Tjurungas, fit into the sociocosmic scheme that gives meaning and order to the thoughts and actions of a culture-bound individual. Ontotheology is for the most part a side-show of religion, and the sophisticated student of religion will treat it as such.
Whether God exists is, again, not a question I am prepared to discuss. While I in fact think that the probability that Abrahamic monotheism has got it uniquely right is about as high as the probability that Tjurungas can impregnate Australian women at a distance, I do not think, in contrast with Dawkins, that religion itself is stupid and childish. I think it is of supreme interest for anyone who believes with Alexander Pope that one should “seek not God to scan,” but that “the proper study of mankind is man;” I think it includes the worldviews of Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins alike; and I think it is high time we stop taking sides and instead we seek to study religious beliefs in the way Durkheim imagined we could: with no interest whatsoever in either believing them, or judging them.