Monday, May 5, 2014

The question, part 2

A review of The Question of God, continued.
Chapter 2: The Creator; Is There an Intelligence Beyond the Universe?

Freud argued that as people became more educated they would forsake the “fairy tale of religion.” He wrote that the various religions “bear the imprint of the times in which they arose,” and that the notion that “the universe was created by a being resembling a man…reflects the gross ignorance of primitive people.”
As for Christianity, he wrote that the precepts of Jesus are “psychologically impossible and useless for our lives.” (Maybe that’s why few people have ever followed them.)
C. S. Lewis agreed with Freud up until, at about the age of 30, he underwent a radical conversion. He declared in the preface to his Mere Christianity that “There is one God…and Jesus Christ is His only Son.” He said that “God made the world…space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables…” and that there is “a Dark Power in the universe…created by God, and who was good when he was created, and went wrong.”
Oy vey! Where did I go wrong?
What went wrong with Lewis? The author of this book, Armand Nicholi, contends that Lewis was converted by the reading of certain authors and discussions with faculty members at Oxford, where he was teaching. You could just as well account for it by some sort of delusion or hallucination, for from this point on Lewis hardly ever made much sense, in my opinion.
Lewis often trotted out the heartwarming old story about free will, to explain why a good God could make a bad world. Because of our precious free will, which is, in Lewis’s words, “the only thing that makes possible any love or joy worth having,” we ourselves have botched things, but God, who “left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong,” wants us to put things back together.
It might occur to any reasonable person thinking on such matters: why didn’t God just make us—and the world—different from what we are? What’s so terrific and vital about free will? But no, Lewis turns out to be as blinkered a believer as he was an atheist.
Freud wrote, “It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and (is) a benevolent providence…but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote of “The derivation of (religion) from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father…”and in The Future of an Illusion he asserted that the believer creates a God for himself, “whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless trusts with his own protection.”
Lewis criticized Freud’s characterization of religion based on one’s ambivalence towards one’s parents, saying that the negative side of ambivalence would indicate a wish that God would not exist. But wishing that something didn’t exist isn’t the same as believing that it doesn’t.
Lewis, instead of acknowledging this, takes another tack. He says that wishing for something may be all the evidence we need for its existence. Because he had experienced throughout his life episodes of “longing” – brought on by gazing at some beautiful stretch of countryside, for example – he concludes that these “desires” were evidence of a Creator.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” he wrote, ignoring the question of which came first, the desire or the object of it; he then proceeds willy-nilly to this conclusion: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation (italics mine) is that I was made for another world.”
Of course, an equally “probable” explanation of such indefinable feelings is that they are vague wishes brought on by boredom, dissatisfaction or despair, and cannot properly be called “longings,” as every desire, indeed, must have an object. But this is the Lewis method – the blithe and breezy assumption of highly dubious premises, as a scaffold for erecting a theology that must be true.
(To be continued…)


Saturday, May 3, 2014

The question is moot

A review of The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. 

Sigmund Freud, here fondling his cigar
   Sigmund Freud never met C. S. Lewis, but the author of this book imagines a debate between the two on the subject of God (and some corollary topics). He also teaches a course at Harvard contrasting the two men’s “worldviews.”
   Nicholi calls Freud “the atheist’s touchstone,” and refers to Lewis as “perhaps the twentieth century’s most popular proponent of faith based on reason.” Lewis himself was an atheist for the first half of his adulthood, and Freud, indeed, was one of his touchstones. When he became a Christian he often challenged the ideas of Freud’s that he had earlier embraced. Or as Nicholi puts it in his prologue: “In subsequent writings, he (Lewis) provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments…”—thus indicating early on where his own sympathies lie.
     Freud called religion “the universal obsessional neurosis,” and was a lifelong atheist, although as the author suggests he may have wavered in his disbelief from time to time. (In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Science of all things seems to demand the existence of God…”) Freud thought that one’s early, ambivalent attitude toward one’s parents formed the basis for one’s “deep-seated wish for God.”
   Freud’s atheistic underpinnings came largely from his reading of Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher who, in his The Essence of Christianity, asserted that religion is just a projection of human need. “Divine wisdom is human wisdom…the secret of theology is anthropology…the absolute mind is the so-called finite subjective mind,” Feuerbach wrote.
   Lewis, like Freud, grew into an atheist as a teenager. His mother died horribly at home when he was 7, and Lewis recalled that his earliest “religious experience” was praying in vain for her life. He was sent to a miserable boarding school where, he said, he read his Bible, “lived in hope,” and “attempted to obey my conscience.” When the school closed he was sent to another, whose matron took him under her wing and shared her growing unbelief with him. Under her influence, and that of his reading in the classics, his faith began to collapse. Another teacher, William Kirkpatrick, helped drive the final nail in the coffin, although the corpse would be resurrected years later.

   (To be continued…)      

Saturday, April 12, 2014

An old flame

Barbara Ehrenreich, you could say, is a reality-based writer. Her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking and sometimes harrowing account of her first-hand experiences of how the other half lives, and in 2009 she took on the cancer-survivor industry (as a cancer survivor), in the lively “Bright-Sided.” She is also a hard-core atheist.
Her unbelief is an inherited trait, she says. So it was “profoundly unsettling” to her when, at age 17 (this was in 1959), she had a mystical experience. She walked out into the street in Lone Pine, California, “sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic,” and “saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.”
Says Ehrenreich: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.  
She said nothing to anyone, and chalked up the incident to a mental breakdown. It took her a long time to acknowledge that her experience was not all that uncommon, and need not bring her non-belief into question.
“Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience,” she says. “Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris.”
All visions are not created equal: It is the descriptions of, and justifications for, these episodes that differentiate them. Ehrenreich characterizes her own as something akin to what the 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolph Otto concluded after studying the accounts of mostly Christian mystics, in that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good’.” 
It was more like a ‘consuming fire,’ he wrote, and ‘must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy’.”
As Ehrenreich says, the divine needn’t enter into it at all. She urges scientists not to dismiss mystical experiences out of hand, and to think about adding the search for the source of these experiences to their search for those other elusive substances that make up the universe.
Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe, “she says. “There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Belief on the back burner

Can you deny that there are supernatural beings and not be an atheist?
The New York Times ran the transcript of an interview conducted for “The Stone” by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, with Howard Wettstein, his counterpart at the University of California. Wettstein is a practicing Jew who prays regularly, and he is proof, I suppose, that one can have a rich religious life without necessarily believing in God – or, in his words, taking “a theoretical stance on God’s existence.” As Wettstein sees it (I think), belief is irrelevant to faith, and even irrelevant altogether. To paraphrase another philosopher with a similar name (Wittgenstein), what we can’t put into words we must pass over in silence.
Wettstein takes an unhelpful detour at the beginning, comparing theorizing about God to theorizing about numbers. “Even an advanced and creative mathematician,” he says, “need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers.” He cites the physicist Richard Feynman, who was supposed to have said about himself that he “lived among the numbers,” but who was unconcerned with whether they “actually” existed. But when we think about numbers we are able to describe how they work, in the form of proofs.  No such thinking can be done about God to yield results that are anything but highly subjective and abstract.
Wettstein talks about a rabbi friend of his who held that “God’s reality went without saying,” but that “God’s reality as a supernatural being was quite another thing.” (Wettstein’s words.) To watch his friend praying was to be overwhelmed, he says, by the intimacy of the pray-er and the pray-ee: “God was almost tangible.”
Gutting asks, quite reasonably, how one can pray to something that doesn’t exist. Wettstein says that “’existence’ is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.”    
“My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world,” Wettstein says. “And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.”
In other words, we can’t talk about whether God exists, we can only talk about what His existence means to us. An argument like this gives sophistry a good name.
“So what is the real question?” Gutting asks, a little wearily it seems.
“The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life,” Wettstein answers. These aren’t questions, they are sidestepping the question.