Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Age of Unbelief?

I've been reading a book lately by James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). Turner argues that while atheism has always existed as a philosophical option, and while, throughout recorded history, believers have always wrestled with doubt, atheism has not existed as a life choice for significant numbers of people until modern times. And by modern, in the United States at least, we're talking since 1860.

In France, around the turn of the eighteenth century, there was a vigorous atheist philosophical movement connected to the French revolutionary effort to reconstruct human society and mores along more humanistic lines. And of course, Turner concedes, there have been isolated skeptics throughout history. And we certainly find ample condemnations of "atheism" in the sermons and writings of Christian theologians that go back to the early centuries of the Christian era. But we do not seem to find large numbers of actual atheists. Wrestling with doubt and fear that one might become atheist, yes, that we can find. But in the end, prior to the 1860s, the vast majority of believers who wrestled with doubt ultimately opted for belief. They ultimately felt that belief explained more and provided a more rational, more workable philosophical basis for life than the alternative of unbelief. It is only after the 1860s that we begin to find significant numbers of individuals for whom the reverse proved to be true. It is only in the last century and a half that large numbers of people who wrestled with doubt ultimately came away concluding that only philosophical unbelief could provide a workable philosophical and moral basis for life.

So the question, from Turner's perspective, is why? Why was unbelief virtually impossible to sustain before the 1860s, and why did it all of a sudden take the world by storm after the 1860s? Especially among the educated classes in Western nations, we increasingly see unbelief as the unchallenged norm. Instead of wrestling with doubt, educated Westerners wrestle with faith.

Turner's thesis is intriguing. He goes back to the Enlightenment era, at the dawning of the Newtonian Age, when what might be called the "scientific world view" first began to coalesce. He argues that religious thinkers and leaders consciously adapted religion to the new ideas emanating from scientific inquiry. They sought to make religion more rational, more moralistic and more individualistic. They sought to prove the existence of God scientifically (thus the rise of modern "creationist" or "intelligent design" arguments). They created a faith of intellectual propositions, to which the believer needed to assent, a faith of creeds and dogmas extraordinaire. They did so largely as a way of coming to terms with their own doubts. But it was these religious thinkers and leaders, argues Turner, who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that they could make an iron-clad scientific case for God, who laid the foundations for wide-spread philosophical unbelief in the nineteenth century.

Not all thoughtful religious followed the "rationalizing" trend that the majority seemed to have followed in the Newtonian Age. Some -- mostly what we would describe as mystics and pietists -- insisted that the encounter with God cannot be "rationalized" or "tamed" or made comprehensible in human terms. To make the attempt is ultimately to create a false god, a god-in-the-box that we can pull out to serve our petty personal or political agendas. But it is not the true, living God, whom we can truly encounter only on God's terms. In North America, Jonathan Edwards was one of the leading spokesmen for the anti-rationalizing view (though Edwards himself was a man one would never think to describe as other than eminently rational). But Edwards' preaching of a God who is both perfect Love and perfectly terrifying is largely viewed as a cultural eddy in the larger historical movement toward rationalized faith. By the mid-nineteenth century, Edwards had been forgotten, and America entered the throes of a Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict that in many ways still engulfs us.

Fundamentalism, by the way, far from resisting the rationalizing trend in American religion actually imbibed deeply of it. The opponents of fundamentalists love to mock and parody fundamentalists as irrational rubes. In the 1980s, George Marsden finally put to well-deserved rest the notion that fundamentalism was some sort of irrational atavism, destined to atrophy and die away as the modern age progresses. Fundamentalism is in fact the militant defender of the "modern" Christian view that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It certainly -- to this day -- trots out all the old arguments produced by that age (and not much earlier).

By Turner's account, what happened in the 1860s is that advances in geology, biology and anthropology finally made it possible to explain human origins and the origins of religion and to develop a moral and ethical system in terms that didn't require a God. This alone, argues Turner, wouldn't have necessarily convinced anyone, if religious leaders had not been drilling into the minds of the modern faithful certain rationalistic, moralistic and individualistic values for the previous two centuries.

Turner poses an intriguing question. What if, instead of investing in the God of the rationalists, religious leaders had insisted on a God who can never be known through reason? What if they had insisted on a God the knowledge of whom has always required and will always require an encounter, for which the believer can attempt to prepare him or her self, but the terms of which are never within the control of the believer? Turner suggests that had religious leaders avoided the temptation to rationalize God, had Western civilization turned instead to the God of the pietists and the mystics, science could not possibly undermine such belief.

I would argue that the kind of faith Turner argues would have been immune to scientific skepticism is precisely the faith that could never have been opted for by the religious movers and shakers, the leaders and theologians who were in bed with "The Powers that Be." State and social power has always, from time immemorial, required a god more amenable to empire-building; a god who was OK with war and slavery (so long as it was war and slavery justified for the purpose of spreading civilization and faith); a god who winked at or even blessed our social and cultural and philosophical Towers of Babel. In other words, a god whom we could always create (and recreate) in our own image. That is the god who was always destined to rule our political and social order.

And such a god deserves to be torn down by the same human reason that created it. So I would argue that modern-day atheism has done and is doing a service. It can't lead us to God -- to the true and living God -- any more effectively than any of our other devices. But it can help us see the folly of our idols.

To find the true God, we need to begin by seeing clearly again and for the first time our own inability. We need to recognize that we need help. And we need to ask for help.


JonJon said...

John, this is a really fantastic post. For a while I've felt, but had a hard time articulating, the value that atheism brings to the discussion. I would say though that atheism can lead us to God inasmuch as it helps us tear down our false idols and ideas that prevent us from connecting with and directly experiencing the divine.

J G-W said...

Jon, I've long insisted that atheism is not the "anti-Christ," it is not the bugaboo that many Christian conservatives make it out to be. In fact, to the contrary, I believe atheism to be more morally and ethically correct than many forms of theism. Perhaps it is even the most correct system of belief from a purely human standpoint.

From the perspective of faith based on modern-day revelation, atheism may in fact be the most honest form of belief (i.e., no belief at all). In the absence of personal revelation, atheism may be the most that we are humanly capable of if we are being truly honest.

Original Mohomie said...

I've thought along these lines, about religious thought leaders' attempts to defend their beliefs rationally actually playing into an arena in which that aspect of human experience doesn't belong and will, for most honest truth-seekers, reveal itself as not belonging and be (possibly wrongly) assumed to be false as a result.

Of course, I also have experienced what I used to think of as 'divine' revelations and have come to believe that such experiences, themselves, are not inexplicable without mysticism, and that discovery, for me, through experience and learning of neurological and chemical phenomena or theories (enter 'faith') has been the leap which dissolved the need for theistic explanation, even if deity is still the driver of the mechanisms or set them in motion or simply teaches us what has always been and always will be the principles of the universe and general pattern of happiness for the greatest number of people, blah blah blah. :-)

Your essay is probably more eloquent than what I could write on the matter and is sure to resonate with those who yet believe or long to believe in a literal or even ethereal 'God'. Yet it still seems to carry the assumption that these very inner, personal experiences certain people (myself included) have are from or of deity, an assumption I can no more disprove than you can disprove mine being of subconscious brain activity expressed as powerful emotions or intuitive insights from incredibly subtle, quietly observant and reactive inner brain workings which I can't explain with my conscious, deliberate rationale.

So it is still, either way, a matter of faith in my view. And probably choice. And choosing to believe in a God which is love and light and truth and justice and mercy in one perfect being and communing with masses who share that belief...that's still not wholly unattractive to me. ...But I have to be...'honest'. *sigh* :-)

Gay Mormon said...

I really liked this. When I was struggling with my faith and things seemed to fall apart all around me revealing impossible contradictions, I came to the conclusion that I was agnostic. Meaning, perhaps there is a God, but it is impossible to know it.

After reaching that point and coming to terms with my sexuality, I began to be able to rebuild my faith based on that foundation of agnosticism. Agnostic thinking has stayed with me as I've rebuilt my relationship with God and my testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think belief is more powerful than knowledge because belief leads to actions based on hope. If something is known, their is no need to test it. I will never stand up and say "I know such and such is true," unless that is exactly what I mean.

God and spirituality can't be proven the way science proves things. It is experienced and then interpreted by our own spirit.

Thanks for posting.

J G-W said...

O.M. - You're right. We can explain away spiritual experiences in terms of psychology or brain chemistry, or whatever. Or we can choose to accept them within the framework of faith.

I had startling spiritual experiences in my childhood and through my early twenties -- revelations and even visions. And I went through a period of doubt in my late twenties and thirties, in which I rejected the reality of those experiences.

But I believe there is an objective basis on which to judge such things, and it's found in Alma 32. When you plant a seed, does it grow? Does it produce fruit? Is the fruit good?

If you have a spiritual experience that communicates some profound spiritual truth, if you implement what you've learned, does it lead to greater hope, greater patience, greater love, greater happiness? If so, you know that it is true, at least at that level. As Alma says, "Your knowledge is perfect in this thing."

Trusting in a divine Redeemer, and in an Eternal Father, and in a Holy Spirit has opened up to me a path that has turned despair into hope, darkness into light, anger into patience, and fear into love...

Can I prove the scientifically objective reality of certain tenets of my faith? No. Do I have evidence that satisfies me that my spiritual experiences point to something larger than myself, that they are guiding me into a path of greater truth? Yes, absolutely.

Does my willingness to walk by faith expose me to a certain amount of opprobrium? To the possibility that people will see me as "dishonest" because I'm willing to believe in something they consider to be fantasy or weak-minded wish-fulfillment? Sure.

But at some point, I get to decide what's more important to me: that I've found a spring of life welling up in my soul, or that I be respectably "honest" and hopeless.

J G-W said...

G.M. - Gay Mormons all get to wrestle with doubt in ways that other Mormons simply never have to. I don't know one of us who hasn't. We've all walked through the valley of the shadow of death and many, if not most, of us are still there.

But I think there's value in clearing the slate, so to speak. In letting go of everything we once cherished and admitting broken-heartedly that we're not sure what we believe in any more; that maybe there's nothing we can believe in anymore. And then testing truths one at a time. Keeping what works, and chucking the rest.

But we have to stay at it. We have to keep moving forward, even when things look dark and hopeless. Sometimes we need each other for that.

Original Mohomie said...

J G-W, I appreciate the Alma 32 angle. And I agree that there's something powerful about trusting without having to understand all things, testing the fruits of intuitive (or spiritual) experience, etc. I also think it's a fallacy to assume that positive fruits of acting on such experiences confirm the contextual interpretation around the underlying principles of those experiences, but I also appreciate that if even a doctrinal belief is not harming anyone else, or if it makes a majority of people feel happier and more at peace, I'm not interested in trying to strip them of it to defend my own understanding which isn't provable.

Incidentally, I used to believe understanding 'spiritual' experiences from a psychological or neurological context was 'explaining them away,' but now I find that wording a bit dismissive because it's not that at all to me. It's still wondrous and poetic that we have them, and they're still fascinating and motivating and animating to me when I have them, and I have learned things about myself and my values and beliefs about the way the world is and should be from them. I've wondered if we don't 'explain them away' with God. But I think I remain open to them being truly of a Spirit, of a Heavenly Father.

I think I'll bow out of this conversation lest I assume the role of just another faith-assaulting bitter ex-mo mo. :-)

Trev said...

Wonderful post, and great comments, too!

Ha ha, O.M., those are things I've been thinking about recently, too. I read a book back in the day called *Finding Darwin's God* that talked about how faith cannot be based on a lack of evidence for a natural phenomenon because eventually everything ends up getting explained. It's kind of funny to me because the signals in the brain you talk about are explainable, but if God is communicating with us somehow, it has to be physically manifested, if that makes sense.

Anyway, that's a good part of what keeps me believing, though maybe it sounds kind of silly when I'm sleep deprived and feeling loopy. As long as I'm getting the fruits that I expect and hope for from my spiritual efforts, then I have no reason to believe they do not represent what they claim.

J G-W said...

O.M. and Trev - I think we can talk about this without bitterness creeping in... If we can't, then I suspect there are dynamics going on behind the conversation that we need to examine, that might point to issues one or the other of us needs to work on.

If you want to explain spiritual experiences in terms of neurology or psychology, that's fine... But let's say, for example, that we've decided that human beings have evolved this capacity to have what we call "spiritual" experiences, but that are actually some function of how our brains have evolved. That still begs the question of why our brains evolved that way. Why would nature "trick" us into believing in spirits or gods or in a Great Spirit or in God? And it seems to me that a case could be made from a purely scientific point of view that if we've "evolved" that capacity, it's because it gives us some sort of evolutionary advantage.

So one could argue that even if these things aren't "real," we still need to trust these kinds of intuitions. We need to let them guide us the way nature intended us to let them guide us.

Now looking at it from a more religious or faith-based perspective... The injunction in Alma 32 essentially argues or some kind of validation process. We have other scriptures that call for validation as well. Right? The Apostle Paul points out that not all spirits/not all angels are from God (2 Cor. 11:14). He says, "Prove all things, hold fast that which is good" (1 Thes. 5:21). And he also says that not all spiritual gifts are useful, if they don't contribute to the primary three virtues of faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13).

So from a purely spiritual, faith-based perspective, we can essentially say, Don't run off half cocked every time you have some spiritual experience from the Land of Woo. Validate. Test. See what fruits the spiritual experience produces, and if the fruits are good, stick with them.

When I use the phrase "explain away," I mean those situations where someone tells us we must disregard a spiritual experience because it is a spiritual experience. We must disregard our intuitions because intuitions are poppycock and the only thing we can trust are cold hard facts that can be examined under a microscope or described in a mathematical formula.

I'm not saying just believe everything. We need to observe the results of our actions and our decisions and validate them. But I'm also saying sometimes we have to trust what we don't understand and if we aren't willing to do that from time to time we may miss out on the greatest opportunities for happiness that life has to offer us.

I don't have a problem with scientists wanting to "explain" spiritual phenomena as long as they don't feel the need to "explain away."

But unfortunately, science doesn't give me a very adequate vocabulary to discuss and make sense of the rich and powerful world of spirit. It doesn't enable me to speak in terms that come close to the actual experience of it. In fact, words fail entirely. Though if I had to pick a vocabulary that comes closest to describing what I know, it is the vocabulary of faith.

C. L. Hanson said...

It's possible that that would have an effect on faith and doubt.

However, if you're going to analyze why people abandon religion, I think you need to start by asking why people embrace religion in the first place. One very important point to keep in mind is that religion plays a huge number of different roles in people's lives, and different people value different aspects of it. Some people may find one aspect of religion to be the central point -- others may find that same aspect incidental or even a drawback.

"It explains things I couldn't otherwise explain" has traditionally been a central role of religion for many people. There are many people who -- if they no longer need religion to explain central points of geology, astronomy, biology, etc. -- will no longer see religion as very useful, regardless of how its marketed or presented.

J G-W said...

C.L. - You raise an interesting point in relation to Turner's study. The faith that people were abandoning in 1860 was different than the faith people thought unthinkable to abandon in 1560. Belief means something completely different, I think, when it is the reflexive outcome of interlocking worldviews and social structures that make it impossible not to choose belief.

In a way, religious reformers in the three centuries since Luther and Calvin were striving to create a faith that was freely chosen; they envisioned a faith that could only be meaningful to the extent it was chosen. So -- to the extent we embrace their assumptions -- dismay seems the wrong reaction when we have finally succeeded in creating a world where faith can be freely abandoned.