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February 22, 2006

Wieseltier' on Dennett II: Religion and Love

Here's something I find hard and interesting to think through. It is an analogy that is never fully made in Leon Wieseltier's surprisingly scatter-shot and shrill attack on Daniel Dennett's new book. The analogy is between religion and love.

cupid.jpgDennett has tried to explain why human societies end up believing in supernatural beings. We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love. (Here I would agree, in other words, with Wieseltier that a merely evolutionary or scientific explanation would fail to capture the whole messy, glorious, infuriating thing.) Do the power, beauty and reality of religion survive, similarly unscathed, attempts to give the causes of religion?

They probably do, don't they? Religion -- as emotion: as piety, awe, humility, sense of the sacred or sublime -- can certainly grip and can certainly be, in its way, lovely. Such responses, even a firm unbeliever would have to acknowledge, are real.

The problem, I think, is that religion wants to be more than just a pretty and deep emotion. It wants to have its view of the universe accepted as fact, just as some lovers insist in trying to persuade us that their beloved really is the most attractive or the only one for them. And here we can rebut with facts: "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Torah since his death is described in them" or "You said the same about your previous lover." Or we might note the factors that have led to the erroneous assertions -- their causes: "False ascriptions of authorship are characteristic of the oral tradition" or "Of course this feels special; you hadn't dated anyone for two years."

Religion also wants to be taken seriously as philosophy. This is what Wieseltier, in his clumsy way, seems to be claiming for it. In which case, we have a right to question biases, premises, groundings, internal consistency, etc. And I fear that by serious philosophic, not poetic, standards the treatises of starry-eyed prophets do not stand up much better than the treatises of starry-eyed lovers.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 22, 2006 1:16 PM


I suppose you can view both love and religion as belief in something intangible, something that you can't prove. And in that context, it makes sense. But 'religion' isn't the emotion. The true believer, the people who personally decide that there is a higher power, and truely believe it, to a certain degree, have the same emotions towards God as they would towards love. But religion itself is, unfortunately, not that belief. Religion is, or has become, an institution, a set of guidelines, rules, conditions, to belief. You cannot constrain emotion, cannot say that you don't have this emotion unless you do this, this, and this. Religion, under the guise of talking for God, have in fact moved away from the true belief in God. I'm not saying that if you are following your religion's rules you don't truely believe in God, but I am saying that vise versa is also true. That belief in God does not require religion . . . my thoughts seem to be a little jumbled but I hope you get my meaning.

Posted by: dan at February 22, 2006 11:29 PM

Mitch writes - "We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love."

This is shamelessly begging the question. The scientific stance would be that is all an illusion, a chemical reaction product of evolution which has been endowed with spurious meaning by the human mind (the courtship ritual and the concept of romantic love, for instance, was invented by bored aristocrats in the 13th century). The power and beauty is an illusion (so says the scientist).

Religion on the other hand, is not only an illusion, a delusion really, but also lacks beauty. In fact is it quite ugly. It is base cowardice in the face of an unknown, capricious world. It is a recourse for facing that world which chooses to invent an answer rather than seek one out. Christianity in particular, as Nietzsche is kind enough to explain, is simply a slave morality empowering the dejected and pathetic, holding weakness as virtue.
Where is the beauty?

The moral is that, unlike love, which, even if illusory has a biological purpose and is otherwise benign, religion is not only an obvious delusion, it is an insidious, destructive, and counter-progressive one.

Posted by: andrey at February 24, 2006 10:44 PM

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