Religion is a sin

Galen Strawson

  • Saving God: Religion after Idolatry by Mark Johnston
    Princeton, 198 pp, £16.95, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 14394 1
  • Surviving Death by Mark Johnston
    Princeton, 393 pp, £24.95, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 13012 5

Saving God and Surviving Death: Mark Johnston has gone for the double, and I’m tempted to think he has succeeded, on his own terms, many of which seem about as good as terms get in this strange part of the park. I don’t, however, agree with his reasons or share his motive for attempting to explain how we can survive death, and I doubt the necessity of some of the matériel in his admittedly fabulous argumentative armamentarium. I’ll be jiggered if I survive death on Johnston’s terms; I don’t know whether he holds out much hope for himself. And his success won’t please anyone who believes in anything supernatural. Any conception of God as essentially a supernatural being is idolatry in Johnston’s book. All regular adherents of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are therefore idolaters. And they go further: they want a ‘personal’ God, a ‘Cosmic Intervener who might confer special worldly advantages on his favourites’. They should be ashamed of themselves, at least if they’ve had any education; they’re moral babies.

Here Johnston seems close to Iris Murdoch, who asserted that there is no ‘responsive superthou’. It’s this kind of conception of God that moves Thomas Nagel to say: ‘It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God … It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ In Murdoch and Nagel I think we find the genuine spiritual impulse or religious temperament, which never invests in supernatural entities. It finds that the natural is enough, and simply asks, in Nagel’s words: ‘How can one bring into one’s individual life a recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole, whatever that relation is? … Is there a way to live in harmony with the universe, and not just in it?’

Nagel says he’s ‘using the term “religious temperament” in a way that may seem illegitimate to those who are genuinely religious’, but it won’t seem illegitimate to those engaged in what Johnston calls the ‘truly religious … life’, only to most of those who are ordinarily thought of as religious, those who are counted as religious by sociologists and by themselves. You don’t have to go all that far in these matters, although you have to go farther than most sociological believers, to realise that it’s impossible – no exceptions – for the genuine spiritual or religious impulse to achieve full expression in religions that mandate belief in a supernatural personal God. There have been genuinely religious Abrahamists, but only because they’ve somehow maintained the forms of personal-God religions while having in fact abandoned any such belief. Some people think that men like St Paul and St Augustine are exemplary instances of what it is to possess the religious temperament. It’s easy enough to see why they have this reputation as long as we stick to the sociological understanding of religion: both were brilliant monsters of egotism, and almost all religious belief, considered as a sociological phenomenon, is about self.

This connects to a phenomenon that at first glance seems curious. If we take the term ‘morally worse’ as purely descriptive, denoting people whose characters generally appear to be morally worse than average, and if we restrict our attention to those who have had some non-negligible degree of education, we find that people who have religious convictions are on the whole morally worse than people who lack them. Are the religious worse because they’re religious, or are they religious because they’re worse? The first direction of causation is well known, but it’s the second that is more prominent in everyday life. The religious (sociologically speaking) tend to be religious because religious belief provides them with a framework in which they can handle certain unattractive elements in themselves. In converts – those who take up religion without having been brought up in it, or without having previously taken it seriously – the correlation between religious belief and relative moral badness in the strictly descriptive sense (which is not incompatible with charm) is particularly striking.

Johnston ticks off ‘undergraduate atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have doubtless noticed this correlation, and scolds them for their errors about Spinoza, but I find Dawkins and Hitchens (and Sam Harris) companionable, as I find Johnston himself, and feel no resultant stress. Johnston gives ground to no one in his disdain for the idolaters – all ordinary believers – and there’s a great deal to be said from his perspective that can be read as complementing the ‘undergraduates’. He agrees with them on Lucretius’ point – the extraordinary power of the all too human institution of religion to lead people into evil (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum) – and to such external criticisms adds many ferocious internal ones.

Johnston has, in fact, the genuine spiritual impulse. The consequence is that Saving God and Surviving Death are a slap in the face for many who may be attracted by their titles: regular believers, supernaturalists, are likely to feel suckered rather than succoured. But really it’s the other way round. They’ve already been suckered; the question is whether they can be succoured. The titles aren’t false advertising, even if the books might also have been called Saving Death and Surviving God. In the present state of our knowledge, Johnston holds, a truly religious (hence non-whingeing) person who is properly aware of the options is bound to start from ‘ontological naturalism’, ‘the view that the domain of the natural sciences is complete on its own terms’; that ‘every causal transaction ultimately consists in some utterly natural process, for example, mass-energy transfer.’ Such a person should in any case hope that this naturalism – which has nothing to do with ‘scientism’ – is true, because it provides ‘a complete defence against the supernatural powers and principalities that could otherwise exploit our tendency to servile idolatry’. The natural is already extraordinary enough: read any issue of the New Scientist. The overall nature of the physical is little understood, in spite of all the achievements of physics. To appreciate this, consider how strange the truth about physical reality must be, given that consciousness is itself a wholly physical phenomenon.

Spinoza’s God is simply nature, i.e. the universe, and since the universe certainly exists, God certainly exists. Johnston has affinities with Spinoza (‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’, as Russell said), but he rejects simple Spinozan pantheism, which identifies God with the universe, in favour of ‘panentheism’. Drawing on a familiar philosophical distinction between the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of constitution, he claims that God is not simply identical with, but is rather wholly constituted by, the natural realm. In Aristotelian or ‘hylomorphist’ mode, he takes nature to be the matter of which God is the form. In Hegelian mode, he finds the universe engaged in a process of increasingly adequate self-disclosure, of which a fundamental engine is the evolution by natural selection of creatures like ourselves. In Heideggerian mode, he characterises panentheism as ‘the outpouring of Being by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the sake of the self-disclosure of Being’. ‘I was a hidden treasure and desired to be known,’ as God says to the prophet David according to the Islamic hadith. Stitched in with these themes is a difficult doctrine of the nature of presence that is bound up with Johnston’s striking views on the nature of perception.

One thing that may weigh with Johnston, when he rejects Spinozan pantheism, is the idea that the simple identification of God with nature or the universe entails that the natural sciences can say everything there is to say about reality. But we can put this point aside by noting the fundamental sense in which physics, with its equations, only ever gives abstract structural descriptions of reality. It never tells us anything about the intrinsic nature of matter, in so far as its intrinsic nature is more than its structure. Eddington and then Russell developed this point well in the early 20th century: ‘Physics is mathematical,’ Russell wrote, ‘not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover. For the rest, our knowledge is negative.’ He went further, observing that ‘as regards the world in general, both physical and mental, everything that we know of its intrinsic character is derived from the mental side’ and – again, many years later – that ‘we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.’

This leads to a further point about the limits on science. For although conscious experience is wholly part of the natural order, basic principles of scientific method exclude the possibility that it can receive strict and comprehensive scientific treatment (it isn’t possible to satisfy the requirements of public observability and experimental repeatability). This doesn’t put any limit on naturalism, only on scientifically codifiable knowledge. But we can put this point aside, for even if the natural sciences could say everything there is to say about reality, a thoroughgoing comprehension of what that ‘everything’ amounted to, when considered as a whole, would remain something that couldn’t be codified in any way within the natural sciences. There would, for example, be the experience about which Wittgenstein said that ‘the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world.’ (Never mind that Wittgenstein went on to say that the italicised sentence was ‘nonsense’ – a word he greatly overused – and to give a bad reason for doing so.)

Does this point about comprehension answer Johnston’s worry when he says that if the natural realm were all that existed, ‘the natural sciences would reveal not only the ultimate constitution of the world but also its overarching form’? I’m not sure. I believe such comprehension lies in what Johnston calls ‘the realm of sense’, ‘the realm we need to explore in order to work our way inside a serious panentheism’, and which is distinct from the natural realm. But here I feel out of my depth, given that Johnston ties this realm to the notion of ‘modes of presentation’, the way things present themselves, and proposes that the Divine Mind may be construed as ‘the totality of fully adequate and complete modes of presentation of reality’.

I hope Johnston will write more about these ideas. For the moment, I’m inclined to hang on to the idea that Spinozan pantheism may not be in such bad shape, even if there are other good reasons for preferring panentheism. It’s arguable, furthermore, that pantheism and panentheism can fall in step, and the distinction between form and matter fade away, if no universe other than the existing one is possible, and if it couldn’t have failed to exist. Both these possibilities are, I think, very real. Perhaps ‘the cunning of reason’ is, at bottom, the cunning of matter – or the cunning of space-time, which some take to be an object, indeed the only object there is.

But why speak of God at all in this case, rather than just the universe? Spinoza was widely held to be an atheist (he inspired Shelley to write ‘The Necessity of Atheism’). To ask is probably to have misunderstood, but Johnston also has this answer: because the universe is a place in which it makes sense to speak of salvation or redemption. Surely the idea of personal salvation is specifically Christian, and also in any case childish? No to both questions. Johnston has a particular interest in Christianity, and regularly uses its distinctive idioms, but any religion that offers different final outcomes for the good and the bad operates with a notion of salvation, and that includes Islam and many versions of Judaism, in spite of the latter’s agreeable vagueness about the afterlife. Hinduism and Buddhism also have an account of salvation, a good final outcome for the good.

As for the second question, about whether the idea of salvation is childish, nothing could be further from the truth on Johnston’s wholly naturalistic and rigorously non-idolatrous terms. Salvation, in his book, is an extraordinarily difficult thing. It’s a matter of genuinely ‘overcoming the centripetal force of self-involvement, in order to orient one’s life around reality and the real needs of human beings as such’. It requires achieving a certain kind of radical selflessness, a state for which Johnston uses the Buddhist term anatta (‘no-self’). One needs to work one’s way to an understanding of the claim that there is no persisting self, a claim for which Johnston, in a controlled fusion of Buddhism, Christian morals (not dogma) and Socrates, produces a long and markedly original argument. He concludes that ‘the doctrine of anatta can be seen to pave the way for the command of agape … the command to love the arbitrary other as oneself.’

Isn’t this intolerably demanding? No, demandingness isn’t really an issue, because ‘the command of agape is extensionally equivalent to the command that we respond to the actual structure of the practical reasons that there are. In that sense it is reason’s own command.’ That is, we’re being asked to do only what we do in fact have most reason to do (and anyway, we can only ever be asked to do our best). Anatta-agape is, furthermore, the only way in which we can survive death, on Johnston’s terms. Survival doesn’t have anything to do with possessing an immortal and immaterial soul: that’s supernaturalism again, ethically irresponsible supernaturalism, religious defilement. ‘If there is a sin against life,’ Camus says, ‘it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.’ That sin, it may be said, is a religious sin – the sin of ordinary religion.

Actually, soul-supernaturalism isn’t as widespread as one might suppose, for although ordinary (sociological) believers ‘have no formal principles of infidelity, yet they are really infidels in their hearts’, as Hume observed, ‘and have nothing like what we can call a belief of the eternal duration of their souls … I ask, if these people really believe what is inculcated on them, and what they pretend to affirm; and the answer is obviously in the negative’ – because they couldn’t possibly act as they do if they really believed it. They themselves protest their belief, in the 21st century as in the 18th, but actions speak louder than words.

Which is all to the good, as far as it goes, for Camus’s reason if for no other. But it doesn’t undo the deep harm – the irreligiousness relative to true religion – of subscribing to belief in the immortal soul in one’s speech and everyday thought, while having no such belief in one’s heart. Nor, more importantly for Johnston (not to mention the ‘mortalist’ Milton), does it mitigate the offensiveness of any religion that demands belief in such an entity as a condition of faith. It is at best an empirical and unsettled question whether there are such things as non-material souls, and in demanding belief in their existence, Johnston says, religions ‘move illegitimately beyond faith; they make faith hostage to empirical (and philosophical) fortune, and in that sense they place a millstone around the neck of the faithful, especially those with a genuine intellectual curiosity.’

Here Johnston speaks from experience. A Catholic upbringing lay behind his decision to join the Columbans, having previously left school in his final year for a more taxing if more informal academy – Walter Lindrum’s Billiard Centre in Melbourne. His reasonable aim at that time was to become the world snooker champion, and he got as far as becoming the amateur champion of the state of Victoria before intellectual curiosity unmastered him, snookerwise, and propelled him into the Columban Mission in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase, Sydney – a group that he has described as the missionary equivalent of the Navy Seals. He was only 15 when he joined the Columbans, having skipped three grades in school before moving to Lindrum’s, but a growing sense of the millstone eventually forced him to move again. He left for Melbourne University, where he did degrees in philosophy and psychology simultaneously. From there he went to Princeton, where he teaches today.

So what are the genuinely religious to do? Stripped now of idolatry and millstone-free, alienated by conscience from any existing supernaturalist faith, they must face up to the ‘large-scale structural defects in human life’:

arbitrary and meaningless suffering, the decay of ageing, untimely death, our profound ignorance of our condition, the destructiveness produced by our tendency to demand premium treatment for ourselves, and the vulnerability of everything we cherish to chance and to the massed power of states and other institutions. A truly religious or redeemed life is one in which these large-scale defects are somehow finally healed or addressed or overcome or rendered irrelevant.

These defects are not overcome by theodicy, an unsurpassably disgusting practice which seeks to show that everything is ultimately for the best. Genuine belief in an omniscient, wholly benevolent and omnipotent God is, in my judgment, profoundly immoral: it shows contempt for the reality of human suffering, or indeed any intense suffering. ‘There are things so horrible and tragic,’ Johnston says, ‘that nothing that subsequently happens can diminish the tragedy or the horror … the attempt to put an otherworldly frame around such things, so they seem not to be the tragedies or the horrors that they manifestly are, borders on the childish and the obscene.’ The large-scale structural defects are overcome, rather, by salvation:

Salvation is not making it all better; it is the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you … Salvation, understood as the goal of religious or spiritual life, is a new orientation that authentically addresses the large-scale defects of human life, and thereby provides a reservoir of energy otherwise dissipated in denial of, and resistance to, necessary suffering.

Faith in the importance of goodness is central. Here Johnston makes what is perhaps his most important move, arguing that faith in the importance of goodness requires the idea that the good – those who have or have acquired a ‘good will’ – may be rewarded in a life after their biological death. He has Socrates and Kant on his team. Socrates doesn’t just hope that ‘there is something for us in death,’ but also that there is ‘something better for the good than there is for the bad’. Kant argues (in Johnston’s words) that we are ‘as rational beings … obliged to hope for another life that makes moral sense of things’. What are we to do, otherwise, when we consider ‘the professional torturer who dies calmly in his sleep at a ripe old age surrounded by his adoring family, and the nurse who, for her whole adult life, cared for the dying only to herself die young and alone from a horribly painful and degrading illness’? If biological death is final, as it seems to be, ‘if the good and the bad alike go down into oblivion, if there is nothing about reality itself that shores up this basic moral difference between their lives, say by providing what the good deserve, then the distinction between the good and the bad is less important. So goodness is less important.’

To stave off this threat, Johnston needs a wholly naturalistic account of how a person can become good – acquire a good will – and survive death. The details of the account are finely complicated and involve three different tribes: the ‘Hibernators’, the ‘Teletransporters’ and the ‘Human Beings’. The root idea is simple, however, and it’s one on which Johnston finds ‘massive consensus, across the major religions’, which harbour correct ethical ideas in spite of their endemic idolatry. Acquiring a good will is a matter of anatta as above – complete dissolution of the selfish local self. A good will is ‘a disposition to absorb the legitimate interests of any present or future individual personality into one’s present practical outlook, so that those interests count as much as one’s own’. If you do this, if you acquire a truly good will, you will live on in future people who have legitimate interests. You will live on in what John Stuart Mill called ‘the onward rush’ of humanity. It may be objected that really you’re expanding your self in this case, rather than dissolving it. But to do the former is to do the latter, given the practical human situation, and Johnston gives a central role to reason and argument. You make progress on this road by coming to see that there is no persisting local self worth caring about. We’re a long way from St Paul, for whom surviving death is personal payback for belief: ‘If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (1 Corinthians 15:32).

Russell thought the best way to overcome fear of death was to ‘make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.’ It’s an old idea. But Russell didn’t think that the outcome would be personal survival, only that the process would ease a man’s fear of death, ‘since the things he cares for will continue.’ Johnston runs it differently. It’s not just metaphorically true that you can live on, given his account of personal identity, it’s literally true. For, briefly, your actual, lived conception of what it is for you to survive determines what it is for you to survive. This being so, you, the very person that you are now, can live on – so long as you have come to conceive things in such a way that others’ legitimate interests have truly become your own. In this way the genuinely good, those who have a truly good will, survive death. The bad don’t, and that is their punishment. The afterlife may not be eternal, but it’s a very great deal better than nothing, and it meets at least some of the demands of justice. Those who get to be ‘good enough’ without being truly good won’t live on, but there are Russellian consolations for them, and more: they’re ‘better placed to face death down, to see through it to a pleasing future in which individual personalities flourish’. ‘For those who are good enough, death will appear differently. To the extent they are good they will find that death, although it obliterates their individual personalities, leaves much that is fundamentally important behind. In that case there remains, even in the face of death, something to rejoice in.’

Those like myself who can be classified as atheists relative to all non-Spinozan theistic religions may find it hard at times not to choke on the conventional religious – and in particular Christian – language in Saving God (Surviving Death is easier), but they shouldn’t be put off. There is a huge amount to learn in these two books. Philosophy for Johnston is a profoundly concrete, sensual activity; he’s someone for whom ideas seem tangible, with specific savours, emotional tones, curves, surfaces, insides, hidden places, dark passages, shining corners. Taken as a whole, his theory is quite a stretch; but it’s enormously suggestive, a mine, a fertile organism.

I don’t, however, agree that death threatens the importance of goodness. I don’t think we need the apparatus of an afterlife – not even Johnston’s naturalised version. The intrinsic importance of goodness survives the injustice of the torturer’s and the nurse’s fates, even when the injustice is eternal. It survives monstrous tragedy undiminished. That is itself a tragedy, perhaps. If so, it’s just one more tragedy that the importance of goodness survives undiminished. Reasons for doing the right thing remain untouched. If someone demands (not unreasonably) an external metaphysical account of how or why this is so, I think the best thing to say is that good acts, good states of mind, are part of the history of the universe for ever, whatever the nature of time, and that this is vastly important. Robert Frost comes a long way with Johnston, but is, in the end, even more strict: ‘There is no future life to defer to. I see all salvation limited to here and now.’

It makes the heart sink most strangely to consider those who do nothing but good in life, experience nothing but intolerable suffering – to the point that they are unable to have any sense of their value – and are then extinguished for eternity. This sinking feeling can seem like a proof: a proof that the importance of goodness is, as Johnston says, at risk from the insult of unmitigated death. Certainly many people who want there to be an afterlife care more about the idea that it will allow for justice to be done than they do for their own personal survival. Others simply want there to be a space where those who have suffered intolerably can know something else, and this is all too understandable. The fact remains that goodness isn’t a hostage to fortune; pay-offs and balancings are irrelevant. Goodness isn’t threatened by the fact that absence of hope can be appropriate, and hope a vice (Camus again: ‘L’espoir, au contraire de ce qu’on croit, équivaut à la résignation. Et vivre, c’est ne pas se résigner.’) Johnston may be right in his account of how we can survive death, but the bar is very high. It seems that few of those who have suffered intolerably will clear it. To that extent it’s fortunate that we don’t need such an account to keep faith with the importance of goodness. We are, however, left to face the fact that tragedy is absolute.