The Jesus Prospect

The indefinite suspension of the Jesus Project by its original sponsor, the Center for Inquiry, was a serious blow to an effort that had reached a critical point and was in need of an infusion of trust and money.

Funding such a project appears to have been a factor in its “relative” demise. It’s also true, however, that certain organizations suffer from a kind of chronic indecisiveness about the core premises of their existence and hence the causes they want to support. The Jesus Project in my view was simply an illustration of where a messy mission statement and messier programming gets you. The JP was naturally suspect in the press and among biblical professionals of having an axe to grind because its providing organization ground axes, usually for the purpose of cutting the heads off religious truth claims.

In the long run, no harm done. Groundbreaking (and who doesn’t hate that word) scholarship is actually more common without the razzmatazz of conferences and media hits–through the normal and often isolated networking habits we develop as scholars and critics. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Jesus Project was trending (like the Jesus Seminar before it) to produce not a conclusion but Jesus Vishnu, a god with multiple faces, disguises, incarnations and questionable plausibility.

I was once asked why the Jesus Seminar was so much more visible than the Project and my answer, which was halting, was that the Seminar, while Robert Funk lived, had a better press agent. A little like Paul was to Jesus.

As a matter of fact, online, offline, in a series of articles for the popular web-journal Bible and Interpretation, and in ordinary conversation, I spent more time defending the Project than developing it.

However Jesus would have come out of this inquisition, it would have been the equivalent of a new scourging and crowning with thorns, if not an outright crucifixion. The sensationalist clatter that greeted the announcement of the project in 2007-“What if the Most Significant Man in Human History Never Existed?“–was enough to send chills up the spines of thoughtful men and women who reasoned that scientific investigation began with an accumulation of evidence and not with conclusions in search of support. We have seen bibliosensationalism for decades now, and it seems to be getting worse each year. It’s about selling newspapers and the Christmas week edition of Time, not scholarship.

Felix culpa, then, that the suspension of the Project has worked out well for those of us who felt CFI was simply not “scholarly” enough, not academically credible enough, and not neutral enough to sponsor such an inquiry. This is not to say that what they do they do not do well. But biblical research and historical inquiry, even in their most radical, secular and revisionist forms belongs in a different circle. Ideally it begins in the seminar room, not a marketing session and is driven by the desire to know or discover something, not the opportunity to get flakes and nutters on the same platform with dues-paying scholars.

That is what most of those associated with the project thought before the freeze, what the freeze confirmed, and what set many of us looking for alternatives more suited to the currents and trends in New Testament studies. That is where the Jesus Prospect comes in.

The name reflects the state of the question that the Jesus Project was trying to address: it is an historical issue. It is not a question that was going to be answered by men and women whose minds were made up, some of them laying out new documentary hypotheses, some of them assuming the essential historicity of the gospel story, and some of them fundamentally committed to the doctrine of a mythical Jesus. Here there be monsters. Or more precisely, here there be three different games being played, each with its own set of rules, but using the same all-purpose ball.

I am happy to be working with New Testament scholar Stephanie Fisher in re-writing the script and continuing the work we had begun. We will be making an announcement of consultation members very soon. This space should be watched for who is in and who is not (Matthew 22.14). But unlike the Jesus Project, we want to avoid any impression that results are dictated by foregone (or are they forlorn?) conclusions or that an earth-shattering result is at hand.

D F Strauss, an original myther of sorts

At a speech in Berkeley given by Richard Dawkins last year, the papal atheist was asked why he didn’t debate creationists. He smiled like the cat who knows the canary cage is wide open and that a bird sits tremulously on its perch inside. “For the same reason a geneticist wouldn’t debate a believer in the stork theory,” he announced to the approval of the audience.

That is why the Jesus Prospect must be restated and restarted as an evaluation of evidence, not bullish hypotheses that have been held by their postulators with the same zeal Catholics propose local saints for the calendar.

In fact, there is a good prospect that Jesus of Nazareth existed. It is the most efficient explanation for the gospels, the writings of Paul and the formation of gospels and the church. There is a possibility he did not. The thin possibility cannot be supported by sweeping away the gospels like so much Palestinian debris that occludes a master-theory, anymore than the uncertainty of who the Scythians were proves that Herodotus made them up. I am of one mind with April DeConick when I assay the work of the “mythers”–the born again pre-committed–a term I don’t like very much, but in an odd way one that points to the hollowness of many of the non-historicity arguments.

Jesus Christ or a Jesus Impersonator?

And let me reiterate what I have said, and what’s been blogged about far too much. I don’t know what really happened, the Archimedean point at which Christianity “began.” I think I could construct a perfectly plausible if not indefeasible argument for the non-existence of Jesus. I can do this by ignoring the bare story of the gospels and concentrating instead on the political and literary needs and the quiver-ful of analogous myths of the early church, the door through which Christ entered as savior. But the savior the mythers begin with is not the historical Jesus, and perhaps the Jesus of the gospels has already achieved that status. Everyone (almost) agrees that most of Jesus is a myth of the church, and even the church trades on the mythical power of a name that is basically unhistorical. We don’t need to convince scholars of that. They know it already, and rather wonder why it’s such a big deal to mythers. It’s really a question of knowing where to begin.

Methodologically (if I can be brave) there are two problems. Despite considerable changes to this pattern in the last century (namely an awareness after Walter Bauer that Christianity was not one thing but many, virtually from its cultic origin) there are those scholars who focus too much on the New Testament as a self-authenticating corpus of evidence waiting to be explained through context and various forms of criticism. And there are those, although still a minority, who use context to explain almost everything, particularly the arousal of the religious interests that lead to the New Testament (and the literature of other groups, such as the gnostics). The Jesus assumed to exist as an historical figure exists in the canon of the former. The Jesus of the mythers and pangnosticists exists in penumbra of the latter.

The Jesus Prospect is essentially, in the French sense, an essay–a try–at developing a middle way where the obvious influence of Judaic and Hellenistic belief and the myths that enfold it do not totally suffocate the prospect of an historical Jesus, and the primacy of canon does not totally obliterate the prospect of a savior god who became historicized as a matter of religious evolution, from cult to church.

The headline “Jesus never existed” is not the end-game of this process. But an insistence on the importance of a hearing and verdict on the best available evidence is. And while you are keeping things in mind, keep this in mind: it is almost inevitably true that the result of such an investigation will not pay big dividends. No one will ever be able to render a “scientific” conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was made up. It is waste of time to try. The proof of this axiom is its opposite: No one–at least no one interested in doing this kind of work or addressing this kind of question–has been convinced by the discovery of the “tombs” of the Jesus dynasty or the Nazareth domiciles. No reputable scholar feels that the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is any more historical than the canonical Jesus (and perhaps vice versa) or the Jesus of Nag Hammadi.

Increasingly, scholars are returning to question whether the existence of “Q” is more a quest for the grail than a quest for a real document. I count among my friends many who have memorized two, four, and twelve source theories with the enthusiasm ordinarily reserved for a good bottle of wine. But in my opinion, the search for Q ended with Austin Farrer; its reconstructions have been fanciful. And they have been the greatest distraction in New Testament studies for almost a century.

Negative as these tendencies are, they are very healthy tendencies because they show that skepticism is not dead, that a will to find out more is still alive It shows that quick-fix radical, and quick-fix apologetic faith-engendering and overly speculative studies may not win the day, even in the study of the Bible. What hath Schweitzer wrought?

Information about the Prospect and its literary program can be obtained by writing to me, The remains of the Jesus Project are collected in a volume to be published by Prometheus Books in August 2010, The Sources of the Jesus Tradition.


Is there a God? Swinburne v. Hoffmann

The following is a transcript of the first portion (prepared statements) of a debate between me and Professor Richard Swinburne, emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University, held at Florida State University in 2006. Further portions will be posted as I decipher my own handwriting.

I thank the sponsors of this event for bringing me all the way from early winter in Buffalo to late fall in Tallahassee for this discussion. This is homecoming for me, since I graduated from a certain local illustrious university, in the last century, before moving on to Harvard Divinity School and later to Oxford.

I don’t know whether this makes me a black sheep or a favorite son, but whatever the case it is nice to be back. It is also nice to share space with Professor Swinburne. While I have FSU in common with many of you, I have the Oxford theological tradition (if there is only one) in common with him.

Let me say at the outset that you should put aside any assumptions you may have about this being a debate between an atheist and a believer. It is a debate about what we can know and meaningfully say about God.

I maintain that there is no difference between a God who does not exist and a God about whom nothing can be known. That being so, what we know and “where” we know it from becomes immeasurably important. I’ll come back to that in a couple of minutes.

The theme of this debate is posed as a question, Is there a God? rather than as a proposition such as God Exists. I am going to say that there is no God, and I am going to make this case using the following premises: As I do so, please keep in mind that argumentation is not the exclusive property of philosophers. I was trained as an historical theologian, and historical argument figures heavily in what I want to say. Moreover, the problem of God is too important to be left to philosophers.

Duns Scotus

First: All existence is historical and the existence of persons is historical. (Hic Rhodus hic salta.)

All real existence is historical and we do not know things outside history. By historical I do not mean merely temporal. Temporal means literally existing in time and refers to duration. It means a measurement, so that my temporal span upon earth might be 90 years or 60 years. Relatively speaking, I favor 90. But my temporal life is pretty boring and flat. Historical existence supplies the content; it’s literally the story of my life as a person—an individual with drives, and habits, and the ability to act more or less freely.

My personal life—my life as a person–is more than temporal. It can be told as a story with a beginning, middle and end. I can tell it, or someone else can tell it. But the requirement for telling it is my historical existence.

I can also lie about things to do with this historical existence. I can tell my biographer than I won a Pulitzer prize, when I didn’t, had seven children when I had none, loved to kayak when I have never been near the water, and enjoy opera when I only listen to country music. If I am the author of my history, I will know what is true and what is not (as Abraham did when he lied about his relationship with Sarah in Egypt). If my biographer is a good historian, there are ways in which he can find out whether I am lying.

In short, historical existence means the ability to test what we say about historical persons. And all real existence, even the existence of the universe, is historical in that, more or less, its story can be told.

Second: Not all stories are the stories of real persons. By design or through error, writers of history can also invent false persons, not just false bits of true histories as we find, for example, in Herodotus. When this is done innocently, for explanatory purpose—say in trying to explain floods, diseases, or the origins of the universe or the origin of different languages, things which have not always been explainable in scientific terms—we call the story myth.

Myths are not always understood by their hearers as false stories. They are often written down, regarded with reverence because time invests them with authority. They are thought to be true, in the sense they possess meaning and value.

And myths are not only very old but are set in ages before the ages began—not just once upon a time but “In the Beginning,” or “When on High.” Myths alone can tell stories about primordial time because history relies on knowledge gleaned from records, preferably records contemporary with the events described. No records of the beginning of time exist, except in mythology.

Even if myths are regarded as true, or sacred, by the believers in a religious community, they are false in the sense that they are populated by false persons and events. That is why very devout Christians will ordinarily reject the assertion that the Genesis creation story is a myth: because they accept the idea that myths are false with respect to actual persons and events.

False persons come in different shapes and sizes. Santa Claus is a false person, and not only that but one whose existence you are encouraged to reject at age six. If you still believe in him at age forty, your mother will have a talk with you. Probably the psychiatrist and the parish priest too. You may argue that you know his story by heart, the names of his reindeer, that you have always received presents at Christmas, and that you can sing seven different songs about him being jolly and fat. But the psychiatrist will say “You are wrong.” There is no such person. There is just a story.

Rumplestiltskin is a false person. The six-foot rabbit called Harvey that Elwood P. Dowd talks to is a false person. We say they are false because the prima facie evidence for their existence, their story, is false. Mind you, it has temporal existence—it has lasted—but the story itself is false. I might also mention that some false persons, like Odysseus and Abraham, are so vivid that we want them to be true, and that others like the biblical God are so entrenched in psyche and society that we wish them to be true.

The degree of enthusiasm for wanting false persons to be true persons has no bearing on their existence.

Harvey and Dowd

Once you have given up Santa Claus and six-foot rabbits, you will hardly be distressed to know that the gods are false.

Prometheus did not spoil Zeus’s plan for a tranquil world of immortal bliss. He is a false person. Leda was not really ravished by Zeus in swan form because both are false persons. With a little practice, you will have no difficulty in rejecting out of hand the creation stories of the Mixtex Indians, the story of Pangu creating the world from his body or the perfecting of the first world by Nuwo, all of Norse mythology, and the story of the flood in the Gilgamesh.

You will reject the gods and heroes as false persons who nevertheless are enshrined in stories that were believed widely and tenaciously in their time and culture. What caused their rejection is a better and more compelling story that made better sense of the information at hand. The innate skepticism that characterizes homo curiosus led to better and more adequate explanations of how things came to exist and we came to exist as a species on this planet.

Historically speaking, explanation of all events moves away from god and the gods, not towards a singular omni-purpose god as the explanation of all events.

At some point, a skeptical professor of religion will say to you (maybe even an Oxford theologian) that the Bible also “contains” myths, and that the core myth is the myth of a god named Yahweh, molded from the gods of Hebrew tribal lore, who made the world, established the stars in their orbit, destroys it out of frustration at human sin, promises to redeem it, after destroying it yet again, sometime (but not next week), and in the meantime watches unslumberingly over Israel.

He might also say, depending on how brave he is and where he teaches, that many—not all—of the biblical heroes are false persons, like the false persons of other mythologies.

He may stop at the acknowledgment of particular falsities, or he may go further.

To go further is to say that the god of the Bible is a false person, like the gods of other mythological narratives with their odd blend of real place names, plausible battles, lovely poetry, ritual and law.

Yahweh, like the procession of gods before and around him, is a false person embedded in a story about his dealing with the world, the raqia (firmament) he is said to have created. I am not sure Professor Swinburne would put it quite this way, but it is clear to many people and quietly agreeable to many more that the God of the Bible is a false person. He has never existed historically, temporally, or supertemporally. His story, of course, does exist. It is a myth made by human hands. It did not exist even four thousand years ago.

Let me put this another way. True persons are persons whose story is more than imaginary, persons whose reality, actions, attributes, and identity can be established using the normal laws of historical evidence. Put bluntly, they have an existence outside their story, just as any story about me or Charlemagne is an expression, a snapshot, not the same thing as me or Charlemagne. There are billions of real persons who have really existed outside any story about them. But there are only millions who have existed both in story and in fact. And there are many thousands of stories about persons who have never existed, whose stories are so improbable that they disprove rather than support their historical reality. If Adam and Eve really existed, their story would not be the same as their actual existence. If they did not exist, then they are false persons, the same as Zeus and Pangu. But it is, in fact, their story that establishes their falsity.

God evicting Adam and Eve

Third: If the God of Christian theism is a false person his existence is a conceptual existence, an imaginary existence. The idea, which evolves, of supreme or maximal greatness attached to this being (by theologians like Anselm, for instance) must also be false. Moreover his falseness can be demonstrated using simple if seemingly superficial tests: He is not heard of apart from his story. He shares his attributes and parts of his story with his neighbor gods whose stories are equally improbable. His story, in keeping with the pattern of false stories generally, is inconsistent and contradictory, even in terms of describing him.

But I acknowledge that even if I could get agreement that the god of the Bible is a false person, I would not have proved that there is not a god, just that there is not this god, the Lord god of armies (hosts), whose name is Mighty.

Fourth: The God of theology and the God of the philosophers is a rewritten myth, but forms part of the same account of God.

Early Christian theology borrowed certain philosophical ideas from classical thought, so that the whole project became an attempt to construct a philosophically plausible god from the frustratingly deficient god of story and Hebrew myth.

For example, using the so called Omni-properties of God that date back to the Greek idea of Zeus the all-seeing, Christian theologians preferred using the so called via eminentiae to describe their remodeled god: God is omnipotent. They do this with the aid of biblical texts. Doesn’t St. Matthew say With God all things are possible? Yes, But doesn’t the book of Judges say that “the Lord was with Judah” but was “unable to drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron”—Yahweh, not yet having developed his powers of omniscience, defeated in battle by armies with superior technology and espionage? Again, yes.

The theologians claimed that God is omniscient, though a core biblical myth records that he changed his mind about what to do with mankind and was “sorry he ever decided to create men upon the earth” (Gen. 6.7)–not only not omniscient, but not far-sighted.

Noah's ark, complete with chimney

The medieval Church insisted that, like Plato’s Good, the God of revelation is immutable, unchanging, but then drove its theologians to distraction trying to show how god could be ontologically changeless, yet go from being fatherless to a father, satisfied to angry, creator to destroyer, punishing judge to redeemer.

I am not going to go into the inconsistencies of the biblical text–the biblical contradictions–with the glee of a nineteenth century village atheist because this is precisely the kind of thing one expects in stories about false persons–that is to say, what we expect of mythology. Christianity offered to solve this problem by closing the book and breaking God into three persons and then gluing him back together in the trinity as a union in “essence”—father/creator-son/redeemer-holy spirit—well who knows really. But three has been a nice number for philosophy since antiquity.

The “classical” way of thinking about God as timeless and changeless—eternal and immutable if you like theological terms–comes from Plato in part and partly, a bit later, from Aristotle–especially those bits that imagine god as a being known from effects and identifiable with causes.

Many believers have no interest at all in this God because he is too abstract or intellectual, too “ideal,” not the robust God of hymn, war and Bible story. And yet, from an early period, Christian theology tried to fuse ideas from classical philosophy to sacred scripture—to its particular revelation, taking the untidy remnants of the religious past and repackaging them as “teaching.”

Much—most–of theology is the history of that effort. Mind you, the “person” we get at the end is still the false person we started with. But it is a story now being told by (chiefly) men with changed interests, people for whom the god of the Bible was no longer enough to explain the complexities of the theology they had invented for themselves, the theological tasks they had set for themselves—in short, inconsistent with their project.

The god of the bible, if not an inconvenience or a metaphor, was (at least) inconvenient and slightly embarrassing.

Conclusion: I extend the notion of false personhood, therefore, to any attempt, however distant to the biblical God it may stand, to identify a personal god possessed of attributes, maxi or mini, or to claim for this being individuality, agency, purpose, and action, however direct, however indirect.

Because I include theology as part of his story, I claim that the falseness of his story undermines and defeats the possibility of there being an equivalent or similar person resembling him: that is, the demonstrable false personhood of the God of Christian theism offers significant reason to think there is no other god corresponding in attributes to this God.

Not coincidentally, since we define monotheism as the reduction of the belief in many specialized gods to the belief in one supreme all-purpose god, such as the God of the Bible, establishing that this God does not exist is really the same as establishing that no God exists.

This is true whether we simply acknowledge that there is no position less than monotheism that would leave us a god to believe in (what whole number is less than 1?) or whether we say that most–virtually all—debates about the existence of God in the philosophy of religion and theology have really been debates about this god and not some other god.

But this claim is not radical. It is simply a matter of common sense suffocated by the pretext that a specious philosophical god can out- last the discussion of historicity.

Think back to Santa Claus, who is “kind of” omniscient, knowing who’s naughty and nice, but not really (maybe he has spies under your bed) or perhaps he just knows. If I say to you, as a matter of conscience: “Okay, Santa doesn’t live at the north pole, doesn’t have reindeer that fly, doesn’t squeeze down three billion chimneys between sunrise in Australia and sundown in Topeka, but that’s no reason not to believe in a thin man in a blazer in Miami who supports the Christian Children’s Fund with generous donations and it is precisely the same guy,” you will say—“No, it’s not: that’s not Santa Claus.”

Similarly, if I say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who spoke to Moses in a fiery bush, parted the Red Sea waters, spoke through the prophets, destroyed Sodom and sent his only son into the world as the expiation for sin doesn’t exist, but can I interest you in a god who is 52% probable (Richard Swinburne’s better-than-even-chance estimate of God’s real existence) to explain the orderliness of the universe, our intelligent perception of it, human life on this planet, and some other stuff as well, you would be right to be skeptical. It’s not the same thing.

The difference between a God who has none of the attributes of his myth and a God who does not exist is 0.

The god of Christian theism is fatally vulnerable to this assessment.

The history of God does not permit us to think of God at a discounted rate, as a person whose existence explains everything and who acts in such and such a way in relation to balance, proportion and logic, such that everything works out the way it does. This God cannot be used as the explanation of anything-–let alone everything–because he is himself completely unexplained—indeed, more unexplained than the biblical god who was assigned the personality of a temperamental king, a petty tyrant who played favorites and enjoyed arbitrary displays of power.

Yahweh on his chariot (coin)

That kind of god, even if preposterous when projected onto the global screen of philosophy and science, is at least more comprehensible than a God who is nothing more than the sum total of solutions to the problems his existence entails. Swinburne’s god, who is said to explain “everything there is and not just some narrow range of data” is that kind of god.

To summarize: God is a false person whose story runs from the purely mythological to pseudo-philosophical attempts to restate and revise the primitive data. The suggestion that God is a false person is not based on classical atheist objections to the existence of God but on historical judgment that weighs heavily against the view that God exists.

Bertrand Russell Interviews St. Anselm of Canterbury

BR: Thank you for being here, Bishop.

Anselm: Glad to be here. Glad to be anywhere after all this time.

BR: Just a few preliminaries: You are the author of this treatise, called Proslogion?

Anselm: Why yes. It’s my best work. Proslogium, please. And I never liked Professor Kant calling my argument “ontological”—it was never called that in my day.

BR: Oh, and what was in called in your day?

Anselm: Anselm’s Argument.

BR: I see. And in this treatise you propose what you call an air-tight and foolproof argument for the existence of God?

Anselm: Well, air-tight is your word. I said fool- proof. I had to deal with Guanilo you see, a real fool, albeit a Benedictine. There was not such a thing as air tight in my day. Things were draughty.

BR: My impression is that your case for God is a bit draughty as well, but for the record, could you state what your argument is, exactly?

Anselm: Yes, of course. God exists.

BR: That’s not an argument, that’s a statement.

Anselm: No it’s a proof, strictly speaking.

BR: How is it a proof?

Anselm: Well, where do you think I got the word God from?

BR: From your head.

Anselm: Exactly, and how do you think it got there?

BR: You thought it. You made it up.

Anselm: No. You see, I couldn’t: because when I say God I mean the highest possible thing, si quid digne dici potest as we used to say.

BR: But how do you know it’s the “highest possible thing.”

Anselm: The highest possible thing one can conceive.

BR: Conceive where? In one’s head? There’re other places you can conceive things.

Anselm: No, dear boy, if it’s only in my head it isn’t very high is it? I’m only about five feet tall myself. A little taller when I wear my bishop hat.

BR: So, it’s in your head because he put it there?

Anselm: Who?

BR: God.

Anselm: You see, it’s in your head too. It couldn’t very well be in both our heads unless we could think it. Could it? I mean I can think unicorn and you can think balderdash there ain’t no bleeding unicorn, and one of us would be right.

BR: Which one?

Anselm: Why the one who says there isn’t of course

BR: And why not the other? You see, I have always thought your argument favoured unicorns and lost islands.

Anselm: Because neither of us has seen such things?

BR: Because no one has seen God either—that’s just my point.

Anselm: Well of course. But God isn’t a unicorn is he?

BR: No I never said he was—I mean if he existed he wouldn’t be. In fact, I don’t know what he would be because I have an idea of what a unicorn looks like and I know what a paradise island looks like–it looks like Tahiti–but I can’t say I have any such notion of this greater-than-anything being of yours.

Anselm: Well, theoretically you could see a unicorn if they existed. But God is very much bigger. Takes up all my thinking space, really.

BR: Exactly How much bigger than a non-existent unicorn is God?

Anselm: Ah! That’s where my argument comes in. Infinitely greater, greater than anything else you can think. Greater than my bishop hat, greater than anything that is or ever can be.

BR: You said bigger a moment ago and highest before that. What is it? Trees can be big and birds can fly high. Is God bigger than the biggest tree? Does he fly higher than a soaring eagle?

Anselm: I’m quite sure I didn’t. You are mincing my words. I meant greater. God is not an infinitely big thing but a being that is greater than anything you can think of. Is the picture forming for you now?

BR: You know bishop, this is all gas formed into words but it still comes out vapour. It doesn’t really matter whether you say “bigger” or “greater” if you can’t see this God and have no idea what an infinitely great being would be. I think he has crowded logic and reason right out of your head. You have no idea of such a being.

Anselm: Of course I do; I do have an idea of it. It’s amazing.

BR: But you are using a comparative degree, bishop—“greater than” as in 5 > 4? What in the realm of being are you referring to, either in your head or out of your head—popes > donkeys, though I shouldn’t be too sure of that last analogy.

Anselm: Ah, that’s’ the beauty of my argument: I don’t need analogy or examples or instances at all. Begins here, in my noggin. That than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought. If that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, it exists in reality, so that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality.

BR: You are still talking about popes and donkeys in my view. You have to start somewhere—why not with amoebae—and go upwards with it and end up saying, Well, that’s just about it: can’t think of anything higher than the sky—whoops–just did. I thought higher than the sky. So that’s greater and it must exist too.

Anselm: No, you’re leaving out my exceedingly clever use of “greater,” because when I say “greater” I really mean perfection and for something to be great in the sense of perfection it would need to exist, wouldn’t it? I can add on other things later, like goodness and knowledge and changelessness, because perfection, I mean absolute greatness, needs those attributes too.

BR: No, not if it didn’t exist in the first place. Or exists only in the head of some episcopal gasbag who needs his hat refitted to restore circulation to his brain. What you’ve created is a divine-attribute-generating machine in the sky who exists in the same way a sausage-generating machine exists to make sausages. Except the universe isn’t a sausage. And you can’t see your machine.

Anselm: I didn’t say sky, you did. And I haven’t even got to the universe yet. Allow me now to examine God’s impassibility, timelessness, and simplicity…

BR: It’s all very…obscure, isn’t it?

Anselm: You think this is obscure? Thank God we’ll both be dead when Rowan Williams sits in my chair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Being and Atheism

God: Plato’s good, Israel’s Lord, the Christian’s redemption, Porphyry’s (and St John’s and Augustine’s) Perfect Love, Anselm’s supreme being, Aquinas’ Cause, Paley’s watch, Newton’s great mechanical, the unseen Intelligence and Designer. Etc.

I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe a singular unseen x stands behind any of these formulations. I don’t deny their importance as intellectual events in human understanding. They are simply ideas. They are expressions of how thinkers have thought about their world. I think that their interest or importance cannot depend on their rightness, because they are, as far as I can tell, mistaken views.

I do not need an unseen lover to experience love, or a super-dad to experience security, anxiety, a need for approval, a sense of falling short.

Satan, sin and death

I do not need to boil things down to a “singularity that explains complexity” in order to comprehend the workings of my world or my feelings about it. Thales was wrong. Aristotle was wrong. The Hebrew writer of Genesis was wrong. The Rig Veda was wrong.

Human things, finite things, physical things, historical things cannot be adequately understood through lumping them together as the work of an unseen power. When I say there is no God, what I reject is the shallow and sometimes cynical attempt to simplify cause, meaning, and experience: to reduce it to an unseen indissoluble essence.

It’s true of course that not all causes are apparent to the naked eye, but it is not correct to say that these causes can serve as analogies for the existence of a supernatural cause: the wind that blows the branches off trees in a hurricane in Kingston can be clocked. DNA can be mapped. The velocity of a hydrogen atom can be tracked. Science, as a form of inquiry, suggests that as we learn more about the universe it will be on the same terms as the way in which science has progressed in the past—on the basis of falsifiability.

The only revelations therefore are revelations achieved through hard work and discovery using the methods appropriate to investigating the world around us, the universe beyond us. Religion and theology are not suitable to that investigation. They are not grounded in science, they do not conform to science. They are grounded in myth, namely the myths of the human past.

There is nothing wrong with myth. But it is not science, and whether we are speaking of the Bible or of the Koran, or any book thought to come to us through revelation, the accidental insights of myth do not constitute a science.

True, we tell our students that god is not falsifiable because the basic criteria for falsifiability are missing. But what we really should be telling them is that the criteria for God are missing, the need to resort to an invisible explanation of the visible world is missing. It is a fool’s dilemma to fall back on axioms of ancient logic, which in any event don’t work here.

It may be the case that the vague God of the Philosophers cannot be negated because his defining properties have receded to an Archimedean dot; but it is not true that the God of the Bible cannot be disproved. History disproves him in the same way it disproves Marduk, Isis, the Monster Humbaba, and Vishnu.

If god is a being who is only worth knowing as a postulate to explain why the universe arises to look the way it looks, then he is not a god that we need to concern ourselves with–because he wears none of the clothes history dressed him in and has none of the attributes of the god of classical theism. “God the postulate” cannot be a god of the Bible or any other scripture: he cannot love, ask to be loved, be offended, forgive us our trespasses, save from sin, or create the situation whereby people would need to be saved from it in the first place,

That ancient God, the God of the Bible, is a god from whom I ask to be saved intellectually and possibly also morally.

The Dilemma and the Definition:

“Either God caused the universe or something else did.” Apologists in freshly pressed white shirts love to begin “discussions” and debates that way. It is a variation on the Jesus was “mad, bad or God” bear-trap they sometimes set for unimaginably stupid sophomores.

They go on to say that while they know what caused things to come out the way they did, the atheist cannot know because the atheist has no more proof than they do. (My cause has no personality; theirs lives in a book.) I have tried saying “Look around you: that’s my argument.” (I haven’t had much success with that one.) So, it is easiest to say confidently, “Something else did.”

And like the mad, bad, god MCQ, this is a false dilemma, since in most formulations theologians merge God with this something else: X=X by any other name. They begin by eliminating the god of Genesis and all later attempts to domesticate the tribal and biblical gods and the gods of early Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) theology.

What you are left with is a god from whom all defining characteristics (perhaps Aristotle would have called them accidents, substrates?) have been removed. A decerebrated God whose will, moods, and mobility have been stripped away by the surgeons who were trying to save him.

I have no trouble imagining a god who is not great, or kind, or merciful or compassionate or steady of purpose, or immutable. And I won’t go into the absurdities of arguing a “philosophical god” who is changeless and a biblical god who changes his mind rather often (it is like the Eddie Izzard “Cake or Death” shtick, except it’s God holding a shamrock and saying “Redeem or damn, damn or redeem?”).

But I think most Christians—especially those in freshly pressed white shirts-would not be satisfied with a god who has been emptied of attributes, the All-Nothingness, the Eternal Absolute (I’ll take my math with tea, please, not incense) and I consider it dishonest to go on calling this being or axiom or hypothetical something god, just as I would have trouble calling a horse a horse if you forbid me to use ears, tail, hooves, mammal, four legs and oats as part of my definition.

In any meaningful definition that is not pure nonsense—and here the scholastics had a great deal to tell us—we need a genus, we need what they called differentiae. But what is the genus of God? God? Supreme being? All-Knowers, Creators, Flood-senders?

No good; there are no other members of this class, and as we found out from Anselm, supreme being is to god as boy is to young male. It doesn’t define it; it restates it. So I ask again, What are god’s differentiae?

The defining attributes of the God Christians are interested in knowing, loving and serving are all historical, time-bound: anger, wrath, mercy, compassion, punishment, salvation, forgiveness, knowledge, pure awesomeness. And did we mention, good at making universes? They will not worship a God who is, did or does none of these things. Why should they? They will not die for a postulate or march for the right to life in honor of a God who does not create individual souls.

In this case there is no baby to toss out with the baptismal water, no dead body that points to atheists as murderers. Theologians in ages gone by used to talk about god using certain modes: the via positiva—god the all-knowing, for example—or the via negativa—God as impassible (devoid of passion and emotion)—or the via eminentia, God as higher than our highest concept of god–whatever that means, but surely a shut down strategy for rational debate.

But as every first-year divinity student knows, the study of theology is the study of the problems theology created for itself: a god who cannot feel passion and is changeless cannot easily be the same God who so loved the world that he took pity on the world and sent his son to save it. The jealous and angry God of the Old Testament cannot be the same God who went from a solo act to playing in a threesome.

My argument is this: the God of Christian theism, Islamic theology, and Jewish scripture does not exist, and the God who is left over when that theology is scrubbed–as postulate, variable or merely “unknown”– is so useless as (in John Wisdom’s great phrase) to amount to the same thing—useless to move, love, inspire, create.

I have no reason to imagine such a being, neither as a piece of intelligent cosmic protoplasm filling the interstices of what we call space, a flying spaghetti monster, or a vastness beyond the vastness. There is no way to disconfirm any unobservable absurdity, and hence there is no reason to believe in it.

Notice I say no reason to believe it. Theologians have given us no reason to believe, and to be blunt, their affirmation of science and willingness to sacrifice the god of history for the god of guesses should alert everyone to the nature of their profession. There is more reality in any exhibition of Hollywood special effects than there is in theology.

To the theologians who have rejected the God of the books. To the theologians who have created the false dilemma of asking us to choose between X and X–a God who is not the God of revelation, but is a God in some irrelevant sense–who requires neither prayer nor sacrifice nor petition nor good behavior. To the theologians who in conscience must know that they are dabblers in unreality and illusion. To the theologians who have created a god less real than the God of the Bible, who for a couple of millennia had, at least, time and faith on his side. To the theologians who have lost faith like Bo Peep lost her sheep, but talk on and on.

The New Oxonian

None of That

Dear Faithful or Discreet Reader:

The moniker above is chosen to reflect the fact that I am opening the site-door to short essays, reviews and opinion pieces other than my own short essays, reviews and opinion pieces. I will also consider poetry, if it is better than mine, and not-more-than 1500-word short stories, if they remind me of Guy de Maupassant.

Naturally, this is a happy day for everyone.

However, I still intend to dominate content and space, and your views must be so harmoniously akin to my own or so unalterably opposed as to merit my sharing the blanket.

Please send your work to me and, if approved, I’ll try to have it up in 72 hours, or let you know why it isn’t.

The theme of this site is “religion and culture,” which includes a lot but not everything. I am especially interested in pieces about humanism, atheism, religious trust-busting, good books, bad books (about religion) and books that need to be written. Imbecility is a frequent theme on these pages. I’m against it.

No human interest stories, paeans to favorite birds, and nothing strictly political or about Paris Hilton. In general, nothing that appears here should make people feel better about themselves. Jesus saves but the truth hurts.

Unreasonable Belief by Sol Schimmel

By Solomon Schimmel*

Solomon Schimmel in Action

In addition to the philosophical critique of evidentialism, there is another ground for questioning the priority of reason in deciding what we should believe and how we should live our lives. The human capacity to use reason is, after all, nothing but an evolutionary adaptation that enables our species to survive. Moreover, human reason is far from perfect. We make all kinds of logical errors in a variety of contexts.

Reasoning skills do not come naturally, but require disciplined training, often of many years’ duration, and for numerous people they never come at all. Most human beings believe things that do not meet the criteria of logical deduction or scientific induction, or even plausibility.

We frequently make inferences about events of the past, or predictions about the future, which on strictly logical or probabilistic grounds do not make much sense, and we act in accordance with these erroneous assessments or expectations.

Ancient and medieval philosophers pointed to the deficiencies of human reasoning in ascertaining “truth,” and modern experimental psychologists have demonstrated these deficiencies in numerous contexts. Simply put, human “reasoning” doesn’t live up to all that its devotees have claimed for it. It is nothing but a flawed, imperfect evolutionary tool that has been conducive to our survival as a species until now. There is no guarantee that it will continue to serve this function in the years ahead (just as our affinity for sugar helped us survive in the past but might not be conducive to our health today). Indeed, some of the most impressive products of human reason, such as nuclear physics—one of the pinnacles of reason’s achievements—may yet prove to be the instrument for the destruction, rather than the survival, of humanity.

Consequently, if at times non rational, intuitive, experiential, emotional, or even irrational beliefs and behaviors are more effective than “reason” for a particular individual or group in enabling them to survive, physically or culturally, then “reason” has no a priori claim on how they should lead their lives.

Reason is only an instrument to be used when it is the best instrument available. If falsehood, self-deception, and psychological mechanisms of denial are better for certain purposes, so be it. “Reason” is not divine; it is not more or less “human” than are emotions, or self-deception. If self-deception, or denial, or faulty reasoning, or deliberate lying can, for example, make an individual less depressed, happier, more fulfilled, and even more humane, whereas reason would lead to nihilism, despair, depression, or inhumanity, then we need not assume that one should blindly follow reason and logic and empiricism to wherever they might lead.

Why not take a Jamesian pragmatic approach to the “truth” or to religious experience and apply them to beliefs and doctrines as well? Whichever worldview bears better fruits is the one that we should, or at least can defensibly, adopt as “truer.” An argument can be made that in some circumstances and for some people, for some of the time, the “objectively false” myths and assertions of religions serve mankind better than do the fruits of “critical thinking.”

There is no reason, therefore, that the presumed “truths” discovered by “objective reasoning” should have a favored status in guiding our lives. Naturally, because reason has evolved as a survival mechanism, it probably is in our interest to use it frequently, when it is shown to be advantageous to do so.

Most religious fundamentalists are not averse to using modern technology and modern medicine, the fruits of reason and science.

However, it is not appropriate to challenge the desirability or the utility of religious beliefs simply because they may be implausible or irrational. One would have to demonstrate that such beliefs are in the long run detrimental to human welfare, relative to the human welfare that would result by following only well-established “facts” and indisputable “reasons.”

So, by acknowledging the limitations of reason, have I conceded defeat to the fundamentalists who are anti rationalists or limited rationalists? No. The issue is not whether reason, scholarship, and science are flawless tools for understanding and interpreting reality, and for living in and controlling reality for human benefit. It is rather whether, all things considered, they are preferable to a non rational or irrational fundamentalist religious approach to life and reality.

One must make a cost-benefit analysis comparing the effects on human welfare of maintaining a non-rational, or a-rational, or implausible religious worldview, with the costs and benefits of maintaining a non-fundamentalist worldview, whether religious or secular, in which reason and empirical evidence are given priority over other alleged sources of knowledge and insight.

The rationalist need not claim that reason and empiricism are the only sources of valuable human knowledge and insight. Art, music, poetry, fiction, and religious myth — much of which are not generated by, and do not appeal to, reason or to the empirical for their value to humanity — can be deeply appreciated by the rationalist for the richness they endow on human experience and the emotional and psychological insights and wisdom that they often convey. Imagination is a natural human faculty no less than is reason. Only when the humanities, including religions, make assertions about human nature, or about reality, in a propositional form, which can be subjected to rational analysis or empirical test, and those assertions fail to withstand that analysis or to meet that test, does the rationalist give reason and science epistemological priority over the humanities and religion.

We need to ask, does a particular fundamentalist religious worldview enhance the welfare of the individual believer or of the believing group? What is its impact on the welfare of people who do not subscribe to it? The same questions would have to be asked of the “rationalist,” empiricist worldview. There are no single or simple answers to these questions.

Solomon Schimmel is professor of psychology at Hebrew College and the author of The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth” (Oxford University Press, 2008 from which this excerpt is taken by the author.

Skepticism as a Human Value

Snow en route

Skepticism is a funny thing, even among the Greeks – especially among the Greeks. The “original” skepticism would have been completely palatable to modern religionists, because it challenged pre-Socratic efforts to attain a true picture of the world and stoic claims to have the map to true knowledge. To the early practitioners of skepticism Thales’ notions just didn’t hold water, and if Heracleites was right today, he might well be wrong tomorrow. “‘What I may think after dinner is one thing,’ returns Mr. Jobling, ‘my dear Guppy, and what I think before dinner is quite another thing.’”

A little healthy skepticism never hurt anyone, except those with fixed and final positions, those who claim to possess the whole and unvarnished truth, or the careless throng who pride themselves on leading an unexamined life. The Greek word skepsis has about a dozen definitions in the big Oxford Greek Dictionary, the most common being “examination,” or “inquiry,” though it can also mean “doubt,” and “revision,” – as to revise an opinion – like Mr. Jobling at dinner time, but for cause, not whim or indecision. It always implies a certain restlessness or impatience with answers and “positions.” According to an unreliable tradition (and most ancient traditions are) it was Plato’s nephew and “successor” Arcesilaus who revised (Diogenes says “meddled with”) the teacher’s system by stressing the importance of arguing both sides of a case, giving weight to evidence and argument. How this was “new” is not clear from the reports; the sophists did it; Socrates did it.

Even Arcesilausian “skepticism” seems to have come from Uncle, who had said that “nothing can be known with certainty, by the sense or by the mind,” a conclusion which taken to its limit means that the conclusion cannot be known with certainty. So there we are. Skepticism always lands you in the solipsistic mud and solipsistic mud exists only outside the mind, and hence cannot get you muddy. But in paving the way for what academics like to call Academic skepticism, Arcesilaus paved the way for an important development. Take those arrogant troglodytes, the stoics. The followers of Zeno were the reductivists of the ancient world. This means they only believed in mud puddles. Sensory impressions or rather katalêpsis – a mental grasping of a sense impression) – guarantees the truth of what is grasped, or in this case, fallen into. If one assents to the proposition associated with a kataleptic impression, i.e. if one experiences katalêpsis, then the associated proposition cannot fail to be true. To put it simply: for any sense-impression S, received by some observer A, of some existing object O, and which is a precise representation of O, we can imagine circumstances in which there is another sense-impression S’, which comes either (i) from something other than O, or (ii) from something non-existent, and which is such that S’ is indistinguishable from S to A. Questions?

So the definition of truth, which Plato had made an Idea (call it I if you want), fell on the knife of the stoics’ claim that only kataleptic experiences are true and that the true stoic wise-man (who was seen to be a more perfectly developed type of humanity—a bit like Aristotle’s megalopsuchos except taller) is capable of infallibility.

For Arcesilaus, this is folly: first because we can be mistaken about sense impressions (as the Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali noted centuries later), and second because the world and life-in-it that we experience is more complex than our senses can grasp, and also because our sense experience fails to de-code the world of value that is also an essential part of human perception — lived experience. It is all, as a teacher of mine used to say, about our epistemic limits — a nice way of saying that to some people a palm tree is a cycad within the genera palma and to others a meeting place for an evening rendezvous on a deserted beach. Not either – or, of course, but when – then.

Why all this about skepticism and a nephew of Plato, barely visible in the footnotes? There is a confused idea that modern science has vindicated the stoic view of the world by refining and redefining what constitutes a kataleptic experience. True, the skeptics were correct to suggest trickery, hallucination, error, and deceit weighed heavily against the infallibility of the senses. But hasn’t modern science improved the thoroughgoing empirical model espoused by the stoics, to the extent that the skeptical caveats now count for much less? Freud deciphered the dream state; Einstein the continuum of time and space. –Jews since Moses have been busy wondering what was so promising about the Promised Land.

Even if the media insist that there are two sides to every story, isn’t it really the case that there is only one — the kataleptic one? And didn’t we all learn to be self-effacing about this when we learned the scientific method? The motto of false self-effacing irony. Science deals with facts, not truth; probability—(heaven forbid) not certainty. After all, a thousand bits of experimental corroboration can be falsified by one patchwork-colored elephant. In the treasury of scientific knowledge, the holy grail is the principle that the limit of the epistemic quest is the possibility a fact can be un-facted. (“Not bloody likely,” is not to be said out loud, especially by Nobel laureates). In this way skepticism has been deflated and subsumed into scientific method. Research professors have given it its own room at the back of the house, like a troublesome grandparent, and invite it to dinner every time a new discovery is announced. C.P. Snow and Karl Popper may quibble with these metaphors. But a true reductivist will bristle. A true reductivist will say that an essential element of the modern outlook — a condition of being modern, indeed — is to enshrine the scientific as the only appropriate way of viewing the world we see. The cultures of those who know a little and those who know better–the “two cultures” debate of the 1950’s–has reemerged as the “Brights| vs. “Dims” scientism of the twenty-first century.

Snow touched on this in his 1959 Rede lecture recalling a group of Cambridge dons (“educated men”), who were speaking contemptuously of the illiteracy of scientists. He comments, “… if I had asked [them]…What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.” The Snows of the twentieth century insisted they had not forsaken the verities; goodness, truth and beauty were alive and well, and living in the apartment next to a reprogrammed skepticism. But now the good was grounded in the goodness of a particular “way” of knowing particular kinds of things; truth, the basic axioms we need to refine that knowledge, and beauty the beauty of the cosmos – in its deciphered and intelligible form. But this is not a postmodernist screed against science. It is a question looking for an answer, and not just in the scientific arena. Has skepticism no separate voice in the understanding of the world? If it does, is it limited to stabs at religious dogma, debunking miracles and visions, looking for Chiye-Tanka’s poo in the Oregon woods or space debris in New Mexico? –The kind of skepticism that (it seems to me) gives back to credulity as much as it takes away.

The humanist intellectual tradition was shaped by a healthy respect for epistemic limits — not derived from a particular stance toward the infallibility of method and experience. The biblical God (which is not to say “God”) fell to skepticism (not science) only a few centuries after Anselm announced His discovery. Biblical infallibility did not fall to Darwin but to Erasmus and to Luther’s German successors in theology. Church authority began to tumble when Lorenzo Valla went to work on the claims of Pope Stephen II in 1440, not when Galileo was proved right. None of the perpetrators of these designs had any notion of the scientific method; what they did have was a healthy sense of the disconnect between what was claimed to be known (or true) and what a liberal application of skepticism discovered to be the case. Later on, biblical scholars would call this the hermeneutics of suspicion. It’s a phrase worth remembering.

And in the world of human values? Skepticism has done yeoman’s service in a non-scientific sort of way in freeing us from the taboos and stereotypes of tradition. If we point to the “achievements” everyone agrees are politically salutary—civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, you name it, we ordinarily hear in the background the voices of skeptics who doubted the prevailing orthodoxy and the way a social world was interpreted. Is this the same as demythologizing the cosmos? Yes and no, but mainly no. It’s not just that social worlds are made by fools like us, but only Process can make a tree. It is that social worlds are provisional in a way the physical world is not, and to the extent “laws” operate in both nature and society, they are different sorts of laws. Doubtless, ideas whose time has come, come—but not without nursemaids. Skeptics have undeniably been good nursemaids for every liberation movement of the last three centuries: only a Bible rendered politically ineffective by the growth of democratic secularism could be non-instrumental in maintaining the slave trade. Only a secular government could keep in check and (mainly) out of power those who want a Christian America, or for that matter a talibanized Pakistan. with all that might imply for social justice, conscience, and the environment.

If skepticism is defined as a kind of heresy, heresy applied to repressive, cruel or dogmatic social orthodoxies, then it has done a pretty good job in those areas where it has been able to do its work. Skepticism has been less good, however, where it might do the most good. Arcesilaus taught that no intellectual position can be fixed and final. This was not a statement about truth, directly, but about the infallibility of knowing. The two-sides dialectic was not a doctrine about giving equal time to opposing viewpoints—that is an American media obsession not Greek philosophy. What skepticism entailed was the obligation to test good arguments against each other—“The fire of argument is the test of gold.”

The real crisis of skepticism is reflected in a skeptical deference to those who feel that science can provide answers to all questions of value, serve as its own guide in questions of ethics, and is ultimately compatible with a species of Truth completely different from the lowercase truth one arrives at in other enterprises. Sometimes, as Snow recognized, humanists abjure the sciences out of ignorance—a real, persistent, and inexcusable ignorance. Sometimes they abjure the sciences because they see through the false modesty to the methodological conceit that locates both the nature of the universe and the meaning of life in the house that the stoics built. Whatever the anatomy of the problem the two cultures still exist, much the same as in 1959, complicated in America, at least, by the fact that outside the circle of educated men and women who cannot define acceleration and energy, there is a subculture of yahoos who defend such ignorance on religious grounds and reductivist humanists who define the epistemic limits as what science can teach us.

A consistent skepticism, like a good sense of humour, includes the ability to turn a critical eye on your own assumptions about the sources of knowledge and truth. It is far easier– as Mr Jobling knew–to be able to define exactly what you mean and to regard everything else as nonsense. Changing your mind after dinner, as long as it doesn’t happen every day, isn’t such a bad thing.

Teach Yourself Humanism

By Mark Vernon*

Humanism is not a specific doctrine or a unified system of thought. Rather it is a tradition that starts in the Renaissance, gathers momentum during the Enlightenment, and becomes a key feature of the modern world. During this development it embraces a range of possible meanings, principles and practices. It is fundamentally an attitude or spirit that values learning, curiosity and imagination aimed at engaging with the questions of life – personal and political – that human beings face and indeed that make us human. There are therefore many flavours of humanism, many philosophers that can be used to underpin it.

The Renaissance is an inspiration, though not because it was a period in which human beings supposedly awoke from a dark age: the medieval period was one of extraordinary invention and accomplishment. Rather, it is because the Renaissance humanists were able to make something wonderful of their times – in their joy of discovery, embrace of the new, cultivation of character, political reform, critical questioning, passion and potential. This still speaks to us, half a millennium later.

Then came the Enlightenment, and it is the intellectual giants, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who impress me most. For Hume, scepticism was the natural position for the Enlightenment thinker – scepticism about religion for sure, but scepticism about the fundamentals of science too. Hume was also sceptical about what he called enthusiasm, defined as ‘presumption arising from success’. That could apply to triumphalist rationalism and scientism as much as religion.


Mark Vernon

Kant found Hume’s scepticism profoundly unsettling. He wanted to put things on a firmer foundation. And he did so, but only by writing Critiques. In these Critiques, the key issue was understanding the limits of human knowledge. When Kant said that Enlightenment was maturity this is what he meant, being able to live with this finitude and not reach out for false certainty. So we have Enlightenment humanism as scepticism and grappling with the reality of human knowledge and experience.

This I would actually relate to a tradition within religion, though it is one lamentably in decline today. It is called the ‘apophatic’, meaning ‘negative way’. It stands in marked contrast to the ‘cataphatic’, meaning ‘positive way’, the strident assertions of indisputable religious dogma and divine truth.

The apophatic is a way of approaching what is ultimately unknown by identifying what that unknown cannot be. In religion it says God is not mortal (immortal), not visible (invisible) – note, saying nothing positive about God. Its spirit is captured in the biblical story of Moses climbing the mountain. As he went up and symbolically got nearer to God, he did not ascend into greater light and clarity, but deeper cloud and unknowing. Thus, at its core is a sense of the sacred – that which is far greater than you and so takes you out of yourself and into the unknown.

In a way what the apophatic theologians explored was similar to what the sceptical Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Kant articulated: both identify limits and seek intuitions of what lies beyond. It was called ‘learned ignorance’ by the first Renaissance humanist philosopher, Nicolas of Cusa, and he got the idea from Socrates. Socrates annoyed his fellow citizens in ancient Athens because he showed that the key to wisdom is not how much you know but is understanding the limits of what you know. This dimension reaches back right to the antecedent origins of humanism. It runs right through any honest study of what it is to be human.

It is also this dimension that to my mind is needed to combat contemporary fundamentalisms – religious and scientific – particularly if you want to avoid becoming a humanist fundamentalist in response. It is a kind of committed agnosticism – a juxtaposition of words that only sounds strange, if it does, today.

Echoing the same spirit, the last word can come from a famous humanist and agnostic, the anti-Christian though never quite atheist, Bertrand Russell. Towards the end of his History of Western Philosophy, he reflects on how human beings across the centuries have related to their potential and powers. Sometimes, he believes, they have been too humble. In other periods, too hubristic. And today? He worries that we are at risk of thinking of ourselves as gods.

‘In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check on pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness – the intoxication with power… to which modern man, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.’

This ‘cosmic impiety’, the greatest danger of his time, shows no sign of passing. Humanists must ensure that they help mitigate it.


The Problem with Humanism

The incoherence of contemporary humanism is usually ascribed to its free thought origins. Not so. Contemporary humanism is a mess because it doesn’t know what it believes, so much so that it doesn’t know what “it” stands for. Humanism has become the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules. It has ignored or rejected its renaissance origins (too religious?) in favor of a free-base approach to whatever grabs its attention on a given day: a Vatican blunder; an ignorant school board’s pronouncement on creation; a victimized child asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance; a pro-life television ad; an evangelical minister’s excoriation of atheists, and in the broadest sense (think Yul Brynner as the King of Siam) et cetera. It is betimes conservative, libertarian, progressive, socialist, apolitical, pro-gay, latitudinarian, anti-war and anti-Muslim,thus sometimes pro-war, 98% atheistic and 100% philosophically messy.

In part its recent history explains its lack of a following.

The American form of secular humanism evolved out of disparate sources and position-papers, now dubbed statements but in the grandiose social language of the 1930’s and 1970s once called manifestos.

They weren’t altogether bad as marching orders for a motley crew of liberal ministers and dissident academics who refused to walk in a straight line. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) was a modest document, chiefly concerned with redefining religion, rejecting the supernatural, and inviting men and women to look for fulfillment and emotional satisfaction in life rather than in some mythical hereafter.

Its “theology” was the Boston Unitarianism of 1911, already a bit yellow when it was implemented in the 1933 format, and probably unread south of the Mason Dixon line or West of the Mississippi (not counting California).

For example:

Seventh. Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation-all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.

Eighth: Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.

Ninth: In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a co-operative effort to promote social well-being.

Tenth: It follows that there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.

Eleventh: Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability. Reasonable and manly attitudes will be fostered by education and supported by custom. We assume that humanism will take the path of social and mental hygiene and discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.

For all its breadth, it was an eloquent, underwritten–or spare–and important statement of what a very few people, at the time, believed to be true, but felt they had a right to say. Its authors, Roy Wood Sellars–whose philosophical position was termed critical realism–and Raymond Bragg, a Unitarian divine, were primarily interested in containing the frontier extravagance that was suffusing most of American culture during and after the Great Depression. No matter how religiously backward religion in America looks in 2010, it was immeasurably more backward when these brave voices issued their call to a kind of commonsense idealism. One way for the necessary change to happen, Sellars believed, was to call America out of its isolationist, woodsy stupor and money-worship to an awareness of society, the world, other people’s problems (and beliefs), and the need for global cooperation. Some of the highest ideals of the gospel, the authors believed, but did not state in the document, called for the same moral compassion.

The second Humanist Manifesto (HM-II,1973), penned by philosopher Paul Kurtz and Edwin Wilson was designed to correct and supplement the earlier document. In several ways it was reflective of changes already percolating in American society, either as controversies or proposals: women’s rights, birth control, abortion, human rights and an international court of justice are endorsed; the primacy of secular education over religion-based dogma and ethics is asserted.

More problematically, for religious onlookers, the manifesto had a profoundly un-neutral stance toward religion. Where the first manifesto saw elements of religion as benignly relevant to social and moral improvement, the word used repeatedly in reference to religion in HM-II is “harmful.” Where the original Humanist Manifesto took an almost indifferent position toward religion, the 1973 document went after religion and religious adherents with crusading zeal–not coincidentally at a time when the first Christian tel-evangelists were showing up on television screens from Biloxi to San Francisco. The Preface laid down the challenge in an unmistakable way:

“Traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.”

Asserting that “no deity will save us from the perils of the modern world,” the authors went on,

“We believe…that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so. Even at this late date in human history, certain elementary facts based upon the critical use of scientific reason have to be restated. We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural [order]; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race. As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”

HM-II focused its attention largely on two worthy objects: the pocked and deteriorating intellectual landscape of American society, which had come to believe (and propagate the absurd idea) that education and enlightenment made no claims against how you viewed the world, lived your life, or understood the universe. And the belief that this toxic state of affairs would right itself through the magic of religion and democratic process in happy concert. HM-I had been an idealistic paean to common sense and high morality; HM-II was grittier, more engaged with the enemies of reason, wordier to be sure, but a battle cry for a more progressive stance and a deeper understanding of what humanism compels the citizen-thinker to do in an Empire of Unreason.

But there was a dark side to the second Humanist Manifesto. While HM-I did not (perhaps could not) go far enough in describing religious excess, HM-II contained sections that were merely reactionary, overblown and rhetorical. The second clause under the rubric “Religion” is a case in point:

Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices. Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our lives have influenced others in our culture.

In sections like this, a reductivist impulse takes hold of the document (“the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context”) and tosses out not just God and religion, but the higher self that would make any humanist program defensible and worthwhile. If HM-I was fuzzy, HM-II was didactic, at times dogmatic, and artificially pugnacious.

In its march toward the brave new world of science and reason, it clumsily trampled over the strong and sinewy root between religious developments that were socially and scientifically dictated by real changes in the global context and the beginnings of humanist thinking. It failed to see religion as a rapidly changing force whose historical record showed its ability to adapt itself to change and influence and thus change more quickly than unbelief and secularism could manage to do. Religion had changed through a mechanism of self-criticism; humanism, at least of the atheistic variety, regarded religion as a sufficient end for criticism and failed to develop its own methods for correction. Religion in the twentieth century had become introspective and discontent; humanism, extrospective and self-satisfied. HM-II confidently looked to a religionless future without glancing back at the religious past and rapidly changing present.

In short, HM-II told it like it was, or seemed to be in 1973, and in doing so put itself in a perpetually defensive position: Locked into defending claims it thought to be true, article by article, unable to acknowledge that its adversaries could sometimes be right, insightful, or forward-seeing. It did not shy away from using the word non-theists, code for those who believed in evolution and rejected supernatural as natural allies of this form of humanism. But it did not succeed (and did not perhaps envision) forms of “faith”, “belief” or religion that were equally scathing about the supernatural and equally dedicated to the ethics of commonsense and reason without God, Jesus or Muhammad at its center.

Like all critiques, HM-II had the immediate value of identifying problems and adversaries. Like all critiques, it gave those problems and adversaries a notional status which history had the power to alter or rescind. It was zealous, time-bound, and needed at the time.

But we have to ask whether we are living in a post-Manifesto world, where a truly progressive humanism will not provide–either in articles or in outline–a statement of what humanism is, or what humanists believe or should do.

Progressive humanism resides in exploration rather than definitions and statements.

I reject them in the same way Luther rejected the pope’s authority and Galileo (at least mumbled) his rejection of the Inquisition’s findings. Both humanists, according to the broadest definition, anyway–both opponents of tradition and authority.

Ultimately a progressive humanism will be the freeman’s and free woman’s dissatisfaction with the answers you are given and any suggestion that a problem (moral or mathematical) that you cannot solve can be solved by someone who knows “better,” even if they do not know more, or how, or why.

It is confidence in the self, informed by learning and imagination, that makes you a humanist. It is not an easy thing to achieve, but insofar as religion is involved in the calculation, the humanist also knows this: God will not get you there.