May 25, 2007

Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes

From two recent reviews of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great.

"The tangled diversity of faith is, in the event, no obstacle for Hitchens. He knows exactly which varieties of religion need attacking; namely, the whole lot. And if he has left anyone out he would probably like to hear about it so that he can rectify the omission." —The New Yorker

"Yet one person is conspicuously absent from Hitchens's list of religious evil-doers: George W. Bush. Yes, the man who said Jesus is his favorite philosopher "because he changed my heart" and, as governor of Texas, proclaimed June 10 as "Jesus Day," goes unmentioned. How can this be? The explanation has to do with Hitchens's subtitle. If "religion poisons everything," then it must be responsible for most of the evil in the world, since belief of this sort is currently so widespread and pervasive. If a political leader is religious, he or she must be bad, and if he or she is bad, he or she must be religious. This is why Saddam gets slammed for his cynical exploitation of Islam and why Bush, author of the Global War on Terror and the war on Iraq, both of which Hitchens supports, gets a free pass. If he is to be believed, our faith-based President is defending rationalism against religious intolerance. " —The Nation

At the end of the Nation review, Daniel Lazare brings up a new book by Terry Eagleton called The Meaning of Life, that I'm now eager to read. Although Eagleton is a theist, his philosophy, as paraphrased by Lazare, seems to articulate my own beliefs as a secular humanist.

If believers, according to Bishop Berkeley, believe that God invested the universe with meaning through the act of creating it, then nonbelievers can believe that people can invest life with meaning through a similar act of creating a mode of living that allows people to realize their full potential.

This supposes that meaning is not something that one discovers "out there," by, say, sitting on a lonely mountaintop and contemplating the heavens. Rather, it supposes that one discovers it "in here," that is, in society and through it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins notes that people might fill the gap left by religious belief in any number of ways but adds that "my way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world." The words "my way" are a giveaway, since they suggest that meaning is something we arrive at individually. Eagleton, by contrast, contends that individual meaning is a solipsism, because any statement about oneself--such as "I am handsomer than Adonis" or "I am the greatest composer since Beethoven"--is meaningful only to the degree it is recognized by others. Hence, "my life is meaningful" is itself meaningful only to the degree that other people view it as such and see their own lives the same way. Hence, meaning can be achieved only via a collective act of self-creation in which humanity creates new conditions for itself so that humanity as a whole can flourish. As a corollary, Eagleton adds that "since there can be no true reciprocity except among equals, oppression and inequality are in the long run self-thwarting as well." Freedom and equality are necessary for humanity to create a meaningful existence for itself.

In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence.

I'm blanking on the common philosophical term for (roughly) "meaning/values derived naturally from within a closed system" as opposed to "meaning/values imposed supernaturally by an outside arbiter (i.e., God)" Can anyone help me?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


This actually reminds me of Wittgenstein! Meaning (of language) is relative to how language is used; similarly, meaning (of life) is relative to how life is lived. Something like that. (Maybe pertinent to note that Wittgenstein was very spiritual, essentially a mystic in his personal beliefs.) I know very little of W., though, so I could be off.

Confused about this bit, though: In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence. ...Solipsism can't be "as big as all existence" and still be solipsism, can it? And humanity creates "meaning for itself" not just by liberating itself -- though that's probably a noble goal (why shouldn't it be? This isn't really in question, the question is what "liberation" is and how it should be achieved, right?) -- but more simply by interacting with itself. By being, with infinite meanings possible in infinite contexts (but always dependent on that context, hence "essential" concepts and categories are problematic).

One thing religion can be used for, as can secular belief systems, is to try to create an ideal or "frictionless" landscape in which terms and ideas must be inadequately expressed in everyday life, moving toward their perfect philosophical "ideal." But Wittgenstein dismisses this, and claims that meaning can ONLY be found in how (specifically) language is created and used in the world.

Your question breaks my gladly lapsed philosphy terminology centers. All I can think of is Divine Command Theory but that ain't right and has no obvious organic self-generating mirror.

He uses "solipsism" in an unusual way even when he is talking about individuals. A solipsist wouldn't/couldn't say "I am the greatest composer since Beethoven."

"Meaning can be achieved only via a collective act of self-creation in which humanity creates new conditions for itself so that humanity as a whole can flourish" sounds to me like Thrasymachus with "so that humanity as a whole can flourish" grocery-listed (or shoe-horned) onto the end for Progress' sake.

TG - I was thinking of something much more basic than that. Essentially, the word you'd use to describe a philosophy such as naturalism. Contingent isn't quite right.

hmmm... well though I do agree overall with the sentiments expressed in this "humanism," I can't agree with the statement that our lives only have meaning when others validate them. Can't an environmentalist whose life is dedicated to protecting nature be meaningful on it's own terms? Can't an artist whose work is never shared nonetheless come to understandings that are worthwhile removed from their impact on society?

I personally feel while secular humanism is 90% on target and 99% appropriate for our day and age, there is still something within us that drives us to do good.

kind of off topic, maybe not, but Daniel have you ever read "a canticle of leibowitz?" A sci-fi classic I somehow missed that has awakened me to the possibility that religion might actually have a place in society (or at least a post-apocolyptic one). I'm on to the sequel now, written 40 years latter and also quite good.

and what of the nation's take on Chris's great blind spot for our president? Isn't the truth this book is just more canon fodder for the west's war on the middle-east?

of course in the blog world this secular humanism stuff does work, I mean, I know my comments have no meaning unless someone else reads them! mostly i post just to see me name up on the big board in bright lights!

Jake - I wouldn't read this description of humanism in such a narrow fashion. Since all people are connected, the required validation (for lack of a better word) doesn't need to be anything as crass as a pat on the back. And I'd definitely expand it to include interactions with the entire natural world, since humans are part of nature.

Never read Leibowitz, but of course I've been hearing a lot about it over the last year. Many people consider it the best Christian popular (as opposed to "literary") novel ever. Not that there's much competition.

Constructed v. Received? But those don't quite tingle my Spidey-sense.

SOLIPSISM - the theory that nothing but the self exists. The epistemological theory that the self can only know its present state and not its past or future. cf. REALISM; APPERCEPTIONISM

Wikipedia's aricle on naturalism does mention Epicurus, to which I might add:

"Philodemus in De pietate tells us that in book 12 of On Nature, Epicurus says that the first humans knew that the gods existed, but that their ideas were later corrupted by prayers, sacrifices, processions, and poetic performances. For the original mistake, which led to the beginnings of religious error, we may compare DRN 5.1160-94: the first humans had a naturally arising form of true piety, they could see the gods as well as we can today, and knew that they were eternal and unchanging. It was only when they began to speculate about the order and regularity of the heavens that they mistakenly attributed control of the universe to the gods, thinking that such a regular system must be controlled in some way, and assuming that the gods, clearly the greatest of beings, must be the controllers." -- GORDON CAMPBELL, LUCRETIUS AND THE MEMES OF PREHISTORY

I have read "A Canticle for Leibowitz", by Walter M. Miller. From it I remember that, "all things born alive suffer the right to live".

I would argue that Hitchen's notable omission of George Bush in his execrations is not a "great blind spot for our president", but rather carefully considered self-censorship in order for self-preservation.

That Hitchens doesn't include President George Bush into the mix is quite telling. It is likely that his calculations for survival indicated that had he included Bush, his chances for survival would have more closely resembled those of Madalyn Murray O'Hare or Salman Rushdie. We know that Hitchens has courage, as when he single-handedly stood up aganst Henry Kissinger, (although when no one else got on board with him on that, he immediately veered hard right, presumably for his own survival).

It is also quite doubtful that Hitchens would or could have done this in a different time or place, such as during the Spanish Inquisition.

The more apt analogy is if someone were to take on defending pedophilia. Challenging that orthodoxy against pedophilia is presently considered genuine heresy, and which we know the modern-day Inquisition against, is almost entirely based upon religious mores and mythical numbers,(such as the many hours broadcast of the message on CNN HEADLINE PRIME: KIDS SNATCHED FROM PARENTS, NEVER SEEN AGAIN! 2,185 CHILDREN ON AVERAGE ARE REPORTED MISSING EVERYDAY!

Speaking of myth, Beowulf is frequently considered a paradigm of the heroic story. That story continues to resonate.

Ronald Reagan was never one to let truth or facts get in the way of telling a good story in order to make some point.

The more salient question should probably be, "do the many religions continue to serve the purpose of the myth in the Hero’s Journey"?

wow, dude.

also, Daniel, I wouldn't call Canticle a christian novel, but I guess they could claim it if they wanted to.

re: Leibowitz -- I've read that the book was originally turned down by some publishers for being "too Catholic."

I love it -- it's one of my favorites, and I reread it every few years.

(I guess you could call me a "ex-Catholic," though, thankfully, not one of the bitter ones.)


Post a comment

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2