Hans Kueng

Recently, Scipio has been very hard on atheism. In a previous post he tried to distinguish between “Wholecloth Atheism” which is a position about religion in the broadest sense (and really the position of the new atheists) and “sentence atheism,” which is simply a position about the possibility of God. He still thinks this distinction is fundamental.

But the profession of wholecloth atheism makes the atheist’s job much tougher: there is more to deny, and hence more to define. I received this in response to a blog posted a few days ago, from a certain Mary Helena Basson, whose thinking on the subject deserves broader exposure than the “Comments” portion of this site permits.

She writes,

” I often think that this atheism verse religion ‘war’ is in large measure a result of a misunderstanding as to the nature of religion. Religion is not theology. Theology is only the superstructure, a replaceable superstructure, to a bedrock foundation that is part of our human existence. Sadly, once theology becomes synonymous, in people’s minds, with religion, it is religion that gets short-changed. Atheists can do battle with theology until kingdom come – but ‘god’ will simply move on…Knocking theology is playground stuff. In the the adult world we have to live with religion. But what is religion if it is not to be equated with theology?

I found this definition many years ago:
Hans Küng: Christianity and the World Religions, vxi:
“Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person …sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially”.

Alongside the tortured history of repression and dogmatism that theology has spawned, religion, in the above sense, has contributed much in the way of compassion for the human predicament. Unfortunately, life does have it’s dark side and it is here that atheism seems unable to put anything on the table. It’s all very well admiring the wonders of the world, looking with awe at the starry skies but when it comes to demonstrating compassion for the sick, the infirm, the handicapped, it has no ready made calling card, no on-tap reservoir of moral conduct. I’m not thinking of simply following rules but more of an inbuilt sense of proper conduct. Granted that such an inherent sense of right and wrong is part of our human nature – and thus we should all be so inclined to do good – it’s just that religions spell it out, spell some version of it out, thereby giving religious people an edge, so to speak, in the compassion department.

The argument that people can be doing good because of the prospect of a heavenly reward is possible – but bottom line is that for the one receiving the compassion, it is the compassion that matters not the possibility of an ulterior motive on the part of the one being compassionate. Quite frankly, to think that religious people are only compassionate because they are obeying some commandment is to knock not just religious people but all people. Working with the sick and dying, working with Aids sufferers, this work requires something that cannot be achieved by people who are only obeying the rule book. It is not religion that engenders such compassion, such empathy – religion can only enable it, give a voice to it and, naturally enough, to give such action a godlike accolade. And atheism? Too often it’s ‘men of the mind’ fail to look downwards, down to the depths of the human experience where the true measure of our humanity is displayed.

What atheists need is more of the attitude of “a deeply religious non-believer” (Dawkins) Such an attitude would do much for atheism! Keep the moral high ground – give no slack to theology – but don’t let go a basic part of our humanity by denying religion it’s right to function. Dawkins, in [The God Delusion], although he differentiates between Einsteinian religion and supernatural religion, good and bad religion?, he, sadly, in his desire to knock supernatural theology, missed the opportunity to give atheists a view of religion that would allow them to retain a measure of respect and acceptance of religion. But then, to be charitable, perhaps its the religious (in the above broad definition) that need to stand up and clearly state what it is they are trying to defend against the atheist hoards….

I agree. But then, who decides? I like Küng’s definition–even at times Küng’s theology–but his definition of religion is a theologian’s definition, designed, I think, to be as spongy as possible to facilitate an ecumenical and pluralistic agenda–spongy in the sense that it is contrived to absorb all competing definitions. It’s a definition almost every liberal theologian can get behind, and one which will leave every conservative Christian scholar and professor of Islamic “philosophy” scratching his (or her) head.

That is the problem with definition. The most specific ones are narrow, helpful and controvertible; the most spacious are embracing, inclusive and virtually useless. Christianity was easy to define when all Christians, more in theory than in fact, embraced the Nicene Creed and (in the west) the spiritual sovereignty of popes. –Less easy to define after the eruption of the protestant challenge that left pieces of doctrine scattered everywhere while new ones were being created. When definitions fail, for reasons ranging from loss of confidence to changes in belief and practice, we resort (a la John Hick) to typologies, because typologies are merely descriptive, not definitive.

John Hick: The Typologist

There is the added problem of who, and by virtue of what kind of training, is qualified to define religion. Richard Dawkins, because he is “scientifically minded,” but with no formal background in the study of religion (a training I am sure he would regard as a handicap, anyway)? Hans Küng, a theologian, with longstanding interest in the phenomenology of religion, but equally a faith-perspective that blindsides him to the undeniable wisdom of atheism?

If you don’t like these options, there is a whole supermarket of choices out there, ranging from the merely interesting to the downright nasty /1/: Religion is “a cultural system” (Geertz), belief in an “unseen order” (William James); “what [the individual] does with his own solitariness” (Whitehead); “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence” (Bellah, and also Geertz).

If you’re addicted to Hegel, religion is (somewhat mystically) “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind.” If you are Fielding’s Parson Thwackum (and many still are), then when you say religion “[you] mean the Christian religion;
and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion;
and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.”

Hogarth's Thwackum

Among skeptical intellectuals, after Marx (“Religion is the cry of the oppressed creature”) there is Mencken’s notion that the sole purpose of religion is to “give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny,…[and] to induce those powers to be friendly to him,” and Freud’s verdict that religions “are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.”

Omitting argumentation completely, we have the flatfooted view of Thomas Edison that “Religion is bunk,” and of Mark Twain, who quipped that “Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.”

From the early twentieth century onward, perhaps climaxing in Bertrand Russell’s paraphrase of Santayana (“Religions are the great fairy tales of conscience”) –which looks like a paraphrase of Mark Twain–there is a consistent effort to key religion to the slightly earlier “anthropological” conviction that religion is nothing more than belief in gods, spirits, and ways of protecting yourself from things that go bump in the night: “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”

Russell as Puck

That is just the lunch menu. A full list of definitions would include the attempts of ethicists, cognitive neuroscientists and pagan priestesses to come to terms with the “nature” of religion. About all anyone can agree on is that religion is not about the ordinary, but it is–in a way still cognizant of James’s piercing and frustratingly maldeveloped assessment–related to the experiential: to the world as we interpret it.

The sheer volume of the menu should cause serious and reflective atheists to question whether short-cutting and categorical freebasing (theology is to religion what wet is to water) is the best way to approach the subject.

Ms. Basson is right when she implies that Richard Dawkins missed a golden opportunity to highlight the complexity of religion and to distinguish between the theological axioms that are really the target of modern atheist critique and the less cooperative subject matter called religion. They are not the same. For wholecloth atheism ever to be a garment someone can wear, it needs to be fashioned carefully, not just fashionable.

Thanks, Mary.

/1/ Props to Dr. Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary for his work in keeping track of definitions.

12 thoughts on “Religion

  1. I thought perhaps you might raise the question re the definition I quoted from Hans Kung. And, yes, it is very broadly based. But, surely, questions re what could be the ‘true’ definition of religion betray a lack of understanding re the whole phenomena. Whatever it is that drives the search for meaning, understanding, spirituality etc can no more be spelled out in precise language than the idea of love. Words are often inadequate vehicles to carry the sort of ‘spiritual’ load that we might want them to. So, in the case of a definition of religion – perhaps there never can be a ‘true’ definition. Perhaps all we need, perhaps at different stages in our lives, is a definition that works at that time. One cannot tie religion down to a neat, one size fits all, definition. A broader definition will, by its nature, allow for more diversity in our desire to comprehend the phenomenon. What is important re any attempt at a definition is that the definition clearly allows for a separation between religion and theology. That is why I found Kung’s definition meaningful at a time when I was questioning theological ideas.

    How would I define religion today?

    Our religious instinct, our need for spiritual values, is the driving force behind our evolutionary intellect. In effect it is the guarantee than we will remain rational thinking entities.

    Only as we have, historically, perused our search for ‘god’, for depth and meaning to our life, only as we have given reflection to our need to worship, to value, has our spirit, our intellect, produced the knowledge enabling us to achieve visible, material, progress. Our religious need for spiritual values – however varied these values maybe – keeps our consciousness in focus, thereby enabling it to evolve, to yield its potential for intellectual growth.

    In other words, the search for ‘god’, the search for values, is the spark-plug of our intellectual evolution. Or, again, the search for ‘god’ is the reference point, the North Star, that enables our consciousness to focus, thereby enabling our intellect to evolve, to yield its potential for intellectual growth.

    Now, all that has no romance about it – it’s just a summation of the mechanics of intellectual evolution. I’ll still take Kung’s definition of religion – a definition that has striven to grasp the unfathomable mystery of it all …

  2. I haven’t made the connection before, but Russell is delightfully elfish. He is cast perfectly as Puck, ‘that merry wanderer of the night’. Ironically today, I ordered Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream complete with Shakespeare’s (English) text. I like Hexham’s paintbox of definitions and I’d be interested in a more multi textured atheism. And I have always been particularly fond of Scipio…

  3. Yes, Russell was often mischievous. I am completely in love with his views on the mediocrity of John Dewey (and American philosophy in general) though the balance has shifted substantially since that debate. Ayer once chastised me brutally for “adopting” Russell’s views uncritically, and someone who tutored both me and Hitchens (!), Anthony Kenny said that Russell’s book on the history of philosophy is a text he will not let students read beyond first year. Snicker.

    • Snicker, scoff. I didn’t even read it in my first year I don’t think – I found it later and still read it. And now that I know he is really Puck, he’s that much more meaningful. Ayer, religious language is meaningless, didn’t know a good Puck. And Hitchens!? How entertaining – at the same time?

  4. Extracts from “The Reality of God” by Schubert M. Ogden.pp 40, 41. He is one of the more significant interpreters of Process Thought in the works of Whitehead and Hartshorne.

    The characteristic deficiency of all nonthestic moral theories is 6hat they leave the final depth of mprality itself utterly unillumined. Although they may well focus our moral action and the immanent standards by which it is governed, they fail to render at all intelligible the uderlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots.
    Often enough, this failure is not lacking in a certain irony. Proponents of nonthestic moral theories typically pride themselves on their right to give a fully rational account of man’s moral exprience. Nothing in this experiece, they contend, is to be left merely at the level of unexamined belief or tradition. but must be raised to the level of complete self-consciousness. Ironically, however, this demand for rationality is not extended to the basic confidence that all our moral experience necessarily presupposes. Hence, for all their vaulted “Humanism” such theories are, in truth, deficiently humanistic. While they may cast a bright light on the foreground of moralit y, they leave what Whitehead calls its “backgroubd” wholly obcsure. They allow the original faith in which all our action is finally based to remain a merely incompleteness, quasi-animal kind of faih.
    More later.

  5. TThanks Joe for the comment but you have jumped a bit ahead of me. That was the first of a two part comment. Writing online ties up my single phone line which restricts posting.
    I make note of the fact that The Reaslity of God is the Ogden prior to nhis change of mind about NT Scripture which occured in 1974. In his article Faith and Freedom (1980) he tell of his decision that he could no longer accept the neo-orthodox understanding of NT Scripture – he now recognizes that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to the HJ. We now must locate this norm not in the writings of the NT but in the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition In my letter to you dated March 24, 2009, I tried to identify this earliest layer, the real source of apostolic witness. I have no question but that Ogden stands today in even stronger conviction of this extract. But that is another discussion. Now I continue with the 2nd part of the extract.

    But this inherent incompleteness is a minor failing compared with that of the second kind of moral outlook, where the rality of God is denied altogether. Hence the essential inadequacy of the position is nothing less than outriht antinomy or self-contradiction. If all our moral thought and action rest on an underlying confidence in the final meaning of life, then we are implicitily affirming such confidence together with its transcendent ground, in all that we think and do. Therefore, it is logically imposible utterly to deny this ground of confidence without explicitly contradicting the implication of morality itself. And so it is that all secularistic or athestic accounts of our moral existence are characteristically caught is an inescapable dilemma. Insofar as they do justice at all to the presuppositions of our moral questions and answers — that same course of action ought alweays to be chosen and that the right source is one meeting the greatest number of relevant needs — they are forced to make affirmations that conflict with their sweeping atheistic denials. On the other hand, to the extent that they press these denils – – deying, say, that there is any ground for the permanent signmificance of our choices or for the authority of moral standards — their accunts lose all touch with our actual moral experience and tend increasingly to become morally nihilistic.
    From this then, one can only conclude that faith in God as the ground of confidence in life’s ultimate meaning is the necessary condition of our existence as selves.

  6. One further extract fron The Reality of God (p59):
    On neoclassical premises God is now conceived as presicely the unique or in all ways perfect instance of creative becoming and so as the one reality which is eminently social and temporal. Instead of being Absolute, which by definition can be really related to nothing, God is in truth related to everything, and that through an immediate sympathetic participation of which our own relation tp our bodies is but an image. Similarily, God is no longer thought of as utterly unchangeable and empty of all temporal distinction [“in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and could do nothing abou it if it did ” (Post on Deficiently Humanistic)]. Rather, he, too, is understood to be continually is process of self-creation, synthesizing in each new moment of his experience the whole of achieved actuality with the plentitude of possibility as yet unrealized.
    (Preface X), The theme of the reality of God is “in the last analysis, the sole theme of all valid Christian theology, even asit is the one essential point to all authentic Christian faith and witnes In this connection, I would simply cite a statement of Charles Hartshorne’s which has seemed to me to attest this point with as much clarity as any theological statement I know: “In its early stags religion means certainty about many things. But we now see that he is most religious who is certain of but one thing, the world-embracing love of God Everything else we can take our chance on; everything else, including man’s relative significance in the world, is mere probability”.

  7. Pingback: Religion (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  8. Pingback: Curiouser and Curiouser « Choice in Dying

  9. Ms. Basson is right when she implies that Richard Dawkins missed a golden opportunity to highlight the complexity of religion and to distinguish between the theological axioms that are really the target of modern atheist critique and the less cooperative subject matter called religion. They are not the same. For wholecloth atheism ever to be a garment someone can wear, it needs to be fashioned carefully, not just fashionable.

    Well phrased ! I shall keep following. (we have both spent time in Lahore!)

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