Sometimes when you read a really good book or watch a really good film you end up feeling empty inside. The reason is because you want to live in world of the film or book. Does this happen to you? It happens to me quite a lot, this kind of fantasy-bred withdrawal.
The reason why I’m try to describe that feeling is because I don’t really have a thesis. Or maybe I do. The point I’m trying to make is that religion is like that, and it’s okay. No. I think I have a thesis, and it goes either: This Is Why I Am Religious, or maybe – Why Believing in Religion Is Really Not That Special, If You Kind Of Think About It.
This kind of essaylet ought to begin with caveats, no? Have some caveats:
Caveat 1: There probably aren’t any arguments for God. There may be good reasons to believe that a God exists, but these aren’t arguments. Creationism has been properly fucked over by molecular biology and chirality and irreducible complexity is nonsense because jawless fish are missing a whole bunch of clotting factors and whales are missing factor VII and primitive molecular rotors do serve a function and we do know how the eye evolved (depressions; pinholes; closed chambers; closed chambers with convenient refractive indices & crystallin etc.) and more generally EXAPTATION woot – and the ontological argument is weird not because one can construct absurd analogies to it (which analogies really need not disturb the religious person at all) but because thinking of the existence of an object as a property of an object is super suspicious (Kant) and besides who let you define “great” that way and isn’t it internally incoherent, plus Godel was sloppy and never bothered to define what a “positive property” was (tsk) and if you want to talk about modal logic who actually, really, gives a shit about axiom S5 anyway? (Plantinga, possibly no other respiring being.)
Caveat 2: yes, I’m claiming to invest genuine belief in (some of) the multitudinous and very possibly contradictory claims emanating from the cobbled mythopoeia of a Yawhistic tribe whose beliefs liberally borrow from Mithraic traditions and pagan stuff and Babylonian myth etc., and yes of course some of this mythopoeia reads like a manual for genocide and slavery and the systemic fucking over of women and (possibly on some highly, highly, highly contentious readings of several scattered verses largely in the OT and then largely in Leviticus) sexual minorities. The relevant caveat is that I don’t believe this stuff i.e., I think it is wrong. On this more later.
Caveat 3: I’m not making normative claims. Hmm. Maybe I am, or will end up doing so inadvertently. If you see those treat them as purely incidental to the larger descriptive enterprise of this essaylet.
Caveat 4: I’m not claiming to be representative of religious people in general (because for a start I seriously am not), although I suspect the things I describe about religions are more widely applicable than religious people who might read this will claim.
[Aside: which exactly is the demographic that will find this essaylet in any way persuasive? Conservative Christians or literalists will have fucked off long before reaching this point, moderate Christians will find this entire thing far too self-aware and constructed, somehow, as if the entire argument is too mediated to be genuine, agnostic individuals might give the tiniest smear of a shit, which is only a smear of a shit, atheists of a Dawkinian disposition will be unpersuaded and indeed insulted by the bit on science below, and I suspect human beings in general will find this all too reductive or nihilistic or crude. But hey writing this is fun.]
Caveat 5: I’m not making a defense of organised religion (which I dislike), nor am I making the claim that religion that has made the world a better place. That’s a Big Empirical Question (BEQ) and I don’t like BEQs because they probably require a lifetime of dedicated research to begin to answer in any reasonable form plus what is the relevant counterfactual I’m supposed to access here, eh? and I’m lazy and seriously I’m just trying to write a nice little essay.
Hey those caveats were long. Hm.
Oh yeah obviously I’m talking about Christianity because it’s the thing I’m familiar with.
Let’s talk about fiction.
It’s nice, yes, enjoyable? Okay. Good. Now the reason I am religious is because the Bible is like fiction, except that it’s fiction that (1) is pretty good (2) is made better if you think of it as true.
That the Bible is a piece of pretty good fiction is pretty trivial. It’s a generally deeply fascinating anthology that mushes together wildly differing styles and themes (isn’t it strange how the tone changes so drastically between Nahum and Habakkuk?) and has a ton of fun symbolism whose power is not lost even on committed non-theists.
Probably all this is made better with examples. Have some examples.
This, from Ecclesiastes 12: 4-5:
When the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
Now this is the NIV, which famously sacrifices a lot of poetic power for clarity in translation, and even then this passage evokes stunningly well the what-the-fuck-is-the-point-of-this-anyway ennui/despair that existentialists with dangerous hair later came to grapple with. Replace all the colons with full stops and you can imagine Beckett writing this.
And if you want to talk about fantastic imagery, there’s the mad psychoanalytic free-for-all of Revelations. This is from Revelation 13:
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
It’s so trippy I honestly wish I had written this because damn it would be intense.
But I suppose the Main Thing is that as a piece of fiction the Bible can be seriously unlifting and redemptive. Probably everyone alive in the Judaeo-Christian world has seen 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Now: on one level this is very sappy and overblown and corny. It’s difficult to be a human being living in this generally cynical age and not think that to at least some extent. But on another level – and you get this if you actually read the passage wordwise (especially that second bit), this little thing from Corinthians is outrageously and underservedly beautiful. I suppose part of that is because it does not put itself forward as one person speaking to another in the sense of “Hey, don’t you think love is awesome?”; (I mean, okay yes Paul is writing to someone but you’re reading this without really thinking of that) instead it’s a sort of prophetic no-questions-asked-and-no-responses-solicited declaration, and hence achieves a kind of high poetic almost-but-not-quite aphoristic eloquence that isn’t really around in fiction nowadays. There’s a pulse, there’s some stark contrasts deployed, there’s a nice little (or big) message.
I say isn’t really around. But if you still don’t get what I’m trying to make emerge from these passages read Cormac McCarthy because literally his entire body of work revolves around neo-Biblical rhetorics. Here are some short snatches from The Road, which is his most accessible thing:
“—the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”
“—looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.”
“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”
You kind of get it now? While we’re on this bit about redemptive stuff in the Bible, here are a couple more passages that are Nice in the big-R Redemptive sense:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15)
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night – (Psalm 91:4)
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to gain, And a time to lose… (Ecclesiastes 3:1-6)
Now that’s odd, isn’t it? I began by saying that the literary merit of the Bible was pretty trivial and then wasted a lot of time bamboozling you with quotes. The reason is because I sort of realised that getting a good feel of what some bits of the bible are like is important for part two of this argument, which is that as a piece of fiction the Bible becomes better if you don’t think of it as fiction and take it as true.
Because, obviously, if it says (some) nice things, and it is true, then those nice things are true, plus reading the Bible while actually believing that those things are true is a better experience than reading it just as fiction.
Part of this is because, firstly it is actually possible to believe that Bible is true. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for this, but there are probably only two big ones.
The First Big One is that the Bible, unlike most good fiction (and in common with many other religious texts, probably) actually puts itself forward as true. Like actually does so. It does not begin by saying: “Look at all this stuff: it is true.” It begins on the assumption of its truth and manages to be really quite compelling about it – I mean compelling about its belief in its own truth, not compelling in the form of a logical argument it makes about its truth. So it begins in stark rhythmic minimalist form:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And John 1:1 (incidentally one of the few passages that reads nearly exactly the same in all the different translations) repeats this with a bit more metaphysical flourish:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
And that is a good beginning for a myth, conceptually unoriginal as it is.
Another thing I should mention under the First Big One is that the Bible is totally sincere about itself in a way that modern writing has become quite afraid of (obvious point but – important!) It is not cynical or recursive or iterative or ironic. It is sort of self-aware in that books make reference to each other, but it is not aware in the mediated, I know-I-Am-Putting-Myself-Between-The-Words-And-The-Reader way we have become quite used to with our Pynchons and Wallaces and DeLillos. This opens the Bible up to parody but also creates a odd naïve little space for totally sincere belief.
[Aside: this is actually the problem with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As a deity there’s nothing really wrong about it, except for the fact that it’s such an unpersuasive deity because it’s doing the exact thing that religion cannot be, which is be parodic or self-aware. Now I’m sure atheists will say that’s the point, but – how’s this for recursion – that’s the point.]
So the First Big One really is that the Bible manages to (for some people at least) accomplish something that all good literature tries very hard to do but we rarely believe actually does, or in fact never actually genuinely believe does: which is to be capital-T True. Not just look-at-the-human-condition -wow!-isn’t-it-weird-true, but true in the: these-are-moral-truths-and-metaphysical-truths-and-there-is-meaning-immanent-in-things True.
The Second Big One is that it is easy to believe that the Bible is actually true because there’s lots of people who believe it is true and act on that premise. To be honest I don’t much like the majority of Christians because they seem to me to swing wildly between being platitudinous and incredibly close-minded, but it’s probably a lot easier to believe that a book is True because lots of other people do. Those Christians whom I find to interesting people (read: not literalists), at least, certainly do make it easier for me to believe that the Bible is (partially) true, possibly purely from a social-acceptance standpoint.
Okay: so it’s easy to believe that the Bible is True. The next step in the argument is to realise that this is a very attractive thing to do. This is not so complicated to understand. (1): the nice things the bible says are now true, and (2) reading the (nice bits of the) thing becomes a more-than-fictional-and-really-quite-moving experience. The Main Thing here is that the Bible makes moral claims unlike most fiction, and does it effectively, and then just gives those claims to people. Look at all of Jesus’ stuff involving prostitutes, stones, slapping, etc.
And the thing is it’s all really simple. I mean we all know ethics is bunk, really, don’t we? I mean logically? A Very Clever Friend on facebook (it was a sprawling megathread involving in a non-tangential sense the value of liberty, the evil of coercion, and debaters, so this is quite understandable) referenced “the futile bashing together of incommensurable intuitions carried out via the wholly inadequate vehicle of language.” You can’t really derive moral truths from anywhere, really, and all Parfit does is sort of throw around a couple of examples that he thinks are problematic and then do lots of hand-wavy stuff. If I gave you the three classical laws of logic (identity; excluded middle; non-contradiction) and then gave you access to all the knowledge in the world you still couldn’t derive a moral theory for me because Hume Actually Really Did Fuck Us All Over. And even if you could create a moral theory perfectly consistent with all the moral intuitions of everyone in the universe you’d still need to tell me why moral intuitions are things we ought to give a shit about. Kant is nonsense (but seriously isn’t universalisability just an attempt to sneak in intuitionism and what makes something a means, exactly?), Bentham is nonsense, the Bible is nonsense. The main thing is that the Bible has a story which is quite compelling, and really nice language, isn’t stupidly overcomplex, and, unlike stuff philosophers write – manages to simply assume its truth, and therefore assure of its truth. Which is not to say the Bible is better – I evidently don’t think all of the Bible is correct, and I probably prefer the Kantian over than the Old Testementary approach to genocide – but which should make it obvious why opting for the Bible has easy benefits. It offers some serious moral security; there is a God; moral truths come from it; the God is good and cares for you.
[Aside: isn’t is a little strange that so many philosophers who genuinely believe that they have figured out What Morality Is spend so much time trying to convince other professional philosophers that they are right, rather than resigning their positions and dedicating their lives to trying to convince ordinary people that they ought to act or think in certain ways? Obviously this does not apply to all moral philosophers, but it’s still surprising how un-socially-active they are. Meta-ethical question: Can you see morality as an intellectual puzzle without actually being daily agonised by it and still claim that you are in any true sense interested in the morality of things?]
Now for the Big Problem. What about the nasty bits of the Bible? As it turns out, not a Big Problem at all: the Bible is big enough and contradictory enough to give me enough room to ditch all the nasty stuff on the basis of its being culturally bounded and plain wrong while retaining all the good stuff. In fact the thing about the Bible is that it’s got two halves, and the second half differs so wildly in outlook and tone from the first that the resulting morass of tensions allows for moral wiggling all the way up to the nth dimension. I – and most Protestant Christians, probably – prefer the second half over the first, and the second half thankfully is all about loving and respecting your fellow man and all that jazz which most people are pretty chill with.
What was my thesis again? This Is Why I Am Religious, or maybe – Why Believing in Religion Is Really Not That Special, If You Kind Of Think About It. Ah yes.
Actually further to all that stuff about why believing the Bible to be True has benefits, there is also a thing – and it’s a very me thing, sorry – about music. Which is to say that aside from just the reading of the Bible, being religious opens up a biggish repository of valuable musical experience.
Listen to this. Well, not all of it. The first 9:47, by which I mean seriously waste 10 minutes of your life listening all the way, or at least please don’t stop before the high voices come in.
Now: Bach designed the whole thing to be a religious experience. It was meant for a religious audience. The subject is Matthew 27-28. Actually believing that these things really happened, and knowing the metaphysical significance of these things, makes the entire musical experience so deeply and extraordinary intense it becomes in one good sense quite noumenal. Now obviously a non-religious person can get this music too. But it’s always a comparative appreciative edge to be religious.
I think this is true because before I knew the subject of this music I liked it; after I knew the subject of the music I became positively obsessed with it. It wasn’t even that I was listening in a pensive or prayerful manner – it’s just that knowing what the words meant and being religious meant that they plugged into something that I believed to be true and that made the experience pretty special plus of course the music was fucking unbelievable. And and and Bach’s writing is seriously just fucking replete with religious symbolism. Jesus’ words in the St Matthew, for instance, are given special treatment in the recitatives, you get diminished sevenths for prophecies and the worlds “kill” and “crucify” are highlighted with chromatic melodies. Listen to this chorale (you’ll recognise the tune). Look up the words: Know me, my keeper, My shepherd, take me to thee. By thee, source of all good things, Much good has befallen me. Imagine someone actually believed those words and was listening to this thing – you can imagine what the difference in the experience means.
You see what happened there? I came this close to saying that my belief in Christianity was a aesthetic belief. It’s not, because of all the moral claims that hang on it. It’s a lot more than that – it’s a convenient belief, is what I am saying.
Let’s talk about science.
Science, like ethics, is bunk. As in: induction is rubbish and admits of no non-circular justification and falsificationism does no better. Why should we only care about falsifiable things? Should it matter that we can’t prove some things untrue? How is this inconvenient? Religion cannot be definitively proven to be true. Neither, the falsificationist says, can any scientific theory. The difference is that while a religious claim can never be proven to be definitively false, a scientific theory can. But how is this an advantage? Why can’t we be falsity-avoiding and just punt for God while accepting science on non-falsificationist grounds? The only argument a falsificationist can make is one based on Bayesian-probabilistic grounds, but Bayesian approaches to probabilities themselves presume a consistency in the universe that is totally unjustified. If you ask a sciencey person what their objection to miracles is they will say: they violate well-established scientific theories. But this does not follow. All the scientific method tells us is that at certain points in space and time experiments were carried out that verified certain claims about what those experiments would achieve. That tells us absolutely nothing (but only logically, mind) about every other point in space and time. What is the magic that blows up experimental results into universal-and-presumed-to-be-true-until-proven-otherwise-laws? Why laws rather than just coincidences? Why the assumption of constancy over space and time that fuels the outrage of our Dawkinian types when someone mentions people rising from the dead or walking on water? Theories don’t say anything. They can’t, logically speaking, predict anything either. If that does not make sense I suppose the more blunt way of putting it is: there are no theories.
[Aside: I think some mathematicians actually do kind of get it. It’s all a game, we have no reason to prefer these axioms over those other premises apart from the results they generate, and we are mostly trying to make things either interesting or convenient.]
But all this really misses the point of science. It does not explain the fact that I don’t give a shit about science being logically bunk or the fact that I steadfastly refuse to jump from windows (because gravity) and will bet gazillions on experiments in the future being consistent with, I don’t know, QCD. I believe in science – by which I mean I really seriously in-my-gut think it works despite its logical nothingness – because it’s very convenient, and because the results it generates are things I really really want to believe are true because they’re mindblowing and elegant and are so good at explaining nearly everything (dark matter/energy, turbulence, GUTs, why matter, why time, but otherwise.) I mean yes maybe God made the earth with all its fossils already there and the CMBR is just a deceptive superbig superfaint cosmic lightshow that was put out there to test our faith but that’s stupid not because it’s stupid but it’s stupid because it’s so boring.
Doesn’t everyone more of less treat science this way? No-one can prove it actually works but we don’t really care.
That was an analogy, by the way. With religion.
Which I suppose is the response to people who will observe that my belief in religion can’t be genuine because it’s too self-aware. I’m not sure what that means. I do pray, indeed there are many points when I feel seriously compelled to pray, and I think there is a God. I feel about my beliefs about God the same way I feel about say gluons. They’re all real. One mediates colour charge and one generates moral truth. Well yes all right of course the feelings I have re prayer/reading the Bible are a conditioned construct of the way I was brought up, etc., and I’m happy to recognise that as an entirely accurate diagnosis. But that’s like diagnosing any belief in anything in general. We’re all conditioned, and that’s okay.
[Postscript: I was going to write something alone the lines of how there are no truths out there and it’s all internally generated anyway but that opened up a disgusting can of worms viz. internalism and reliabilism that to be honest I’m nowhere near as familiar with as I ought to be, so I’m running away from this now.]