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July 2, 2006

Religion and the Quest for Certainty

At the heart of the (alleged) religious revival is a hunger-- in a relativistic, postmodern age -- for hard truths. That hunger revealed itself (stripped of religious vocabulary) in a recent education law passed by the Florida Legislature, which proclaims:

"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

Sure. The law is skillfully deconstructed by Mary Beth Norton in the New York Times.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at July 2, 2006 9:30 AM


It would seem that 40 years of post-structuralist debate and discussion, particularly across the human sciences and humanities, together with the impact of postmodern-ism across the cultural landscape, have trickled down to even those people who have never heard of deconstruction. It has made people realize that 'absolute truths' and certainty about what is 'real' are subjects of debate and interpretation, not givens falling out of the sky -- not even from 'god.' Amen to that.

But what comes of it, seems to be the point of this post and all the E.O. Wilson posts. To embrace 'scientific humanism' without further discussing what we mean by that difficult second term is, to me at least, to embrace a position or world-view however 'new' it seems, without letting go of the constructs that got us to this point in the first place. Are there alternatives to both theism and humanism? something that doesn't posit 'scientism' as the new dogma? can we live without dogmas, finally ?

'Inter-regnum' is the appropriate term for the mess we see at present, I think: over liberals' frustration with Sen. Obama's recent statements (politically expedient perhaps but also 'right' in the sense that the GOP has surely gained power because of its willingness to acknowledge--and pander to--the importance of faith in most Americans' lives); over Wilson's attempt to steer a 'third way'; over the extremism and violence everywhere on the planet in the name of some god/dogma/absolute truth; over various legislatures' efforts (most recently but not only in Florida) to discredit the adoption of new teaching standards that have been influenced by post-structuralist theory in education and history textbooks. (The SUNY Board of Trustees' efforts a few years ago to manipulate general education in ways that would privilege US history, western civ and discredit multi-disciplinary studies, another example.)

The challenge as I see it is to find *positive* ways to embrace uncertainty and to help those who fear it to see the positive potentialities that such thinking can enable. I'm thinking of Mitch's book as a very important part of that process...

Posted by: JM at July 2, 2006 12:57 PM

We should not forget that our system of law is based on the same assumption of objective reality. And the assumption that we all, in a normal state of mind, see the same things and ignoring, in a very real sense, that all evidence is hearsay.

JM, I see your quest for the center of non-belief and unlimited possibility (uncertainty) as very Buddha-like. It is probably the best course for attaining moments of "enlightenment". One must be willing to accept many moments of Quixotic flailing at windmills, but hey, when you let the chaos reveal itself with as little preconception as possible, it is always awesome but can be filled with anomie. Not in the realm of possibilities for most fear-based creatures.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 3, 2006 9:09 AM

JayS: I appreciate that very kind compliment though I do spend most of my days flailing at windmills. Completely agree: this nation is perhaps the best example of Enlightenment thinking (and not of the buddhist variety, either).

Which is why the idea of the 'inter-regnum' resonates so strongly for me, I think: we must give up this version of the state, and this version of 'representative democracy' and 'objective reality' and appeals to absolute truth -- and part of that process is indeed coming to terms w/ a world 'without gods.' All those threads need to be thought together... or genuine change won't happen, at any level, at least as I understand it.

Posted by: JM at July 3, 2006 12:46 PM

fascinating comment, JM. thanks. I agree that developing a "positive uncertainty" is a huge challenge, probably the challenge of our time. I am capable of flattering myself by thinking this elusive notion of a "positive atheism" -- the pursuit of which is the major intellectual task I have set myself in this book -- could be of some use, however small, in that ("sacred") quest.

Posted by: mitch at July 3, 2006 12:55 PM

You think you can just slide that "("sacred")" by without a fight? If (BIG if) it is possible to change the course of human events through education, AND our objective is to offer a way without Gods, then we'd better stop using a religious vocabulary, no matter how right it feels. Holy moly!

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 3, 2006 2:40 PM

I just realized, without Gods nothing's sacred.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 3, 2006 3:20 PM

JayS, you're right, of course. But perhaps Mitch is trying out what might happen if religious frameworks were disabled: must we jettison a concept such as 'veneration' or 'sacred' simply because of its prior association? or could we reimagine alternative ways of conceptualizing such language? my comment isn't meant to be pedantic; I really question how we are to come out from under the burden of religious thinking and not feel pressured to completely dismantle language. I am not sure how to even contemplate that. thus, how to recast these signifiers with alternative signifieds? daunting task... but M's use of 'sacred' in that moment of positive uncertainty seems somehow appropriate, esp in parenthesis, in-between these two moments of conceptualization....

BUT I continue to question why the insistence, M, on 'atheism' however positive? using it will always (already) invoke 'theism,' of course....which is meaningless unless it is opposed to some-thing else--is that humanism? which takes me back to the point about Wilson's 'scientific humanism'...... how might we redefine what that second term means in a world without these points of reference as the anchors--dead weights--of our attempts to create meaning about ourselves and the world? how to recreate and reimagine different relations between such signifiers?

Posted by: JM at July 3, 2006 3:46 PM

Creating meaning in a meaningless world can only be done with belief. Seems to me you want it both ways, you want system of belief without beliefs.

NO, we do not need to use words that are religious in origin. There are plenty of words already, but that does not mean we cannot create new ones, like truthiness. Truthiness is exactly what we need when discussing superstition!o:)

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 3, 2006 5:47 PM

I always want it both ways :) why not?

seriously, I think you may be right: belief *is* necessary--but not a *system of beliefs*. The problem with religion as I see it is precisely that it codifies beliefs into a system, an institution that then becomes hegemonic; hardens what is transitory and situational and meant to serve for a limited moment into something dogmatic and 'eternal', one-size-fits-all, forever and ever, amen. In need of father-in-the-sky, fear and violence just to make sure people don't forget it. But the institutional structure that's been built upon it takes its place in the political, economic, social, cultural world and asserts all that systematic belief--dominion--*everwhere.*

Posted by: JM at July 4, 2006 10:57 AM

duh, everYwhere

Posted by: JM at July 4, 2006 10:59 AM

You want to change the nature of humans by using your head and other like-minded fellows to change culture. Problem being, the number of people who have the nature to see things that way is and will remain statistically marginal.

Emil Durkheim, considered the father of modern sociology, explored the roots of religion in a study that took him around the world, ironically at the expense of the Catholic Church, in "The Elements of Religious Life".

"In this book he examines the origins of religion. He explains that religion develops from the collective feelings of security we gain from living in a group, and these feelings are very powerful and important to us. However, early tribes passed these feelings onto whichever object they were close to at the time of experiencing the emotions, or the most frequent object in their area. The object could include a plant, vegetable or an animal, which would then be represented in a carving of stone or wood and then worshipped. This for Durkheim is the beginning of totemism, the first religion.
He follows on to discuss how our first religion gave us an understanding of the world around us, our conception of space and time. For Durkheim 'the framework of our intelligence' is made up of the concepts of space, time, numbers and our existence, and they were born 'in religion'." Amazon review.

Durkheim was one of the first to view culture as the natural state of our species.

It is human nature to build culture. We can cooperate in large groups only with the use of culture, which allows us to personally deal with a small subset of the larger group.

Culture has a predictable pattern. It creates a sacred and a profane. It institutionalizes meaning. You are looking for a way out, a cultureless existence.

The only way out is the way we got in, more powerful minds. We have reached the end of the line; our machines will destroy the world unless our minds can understand things better. The old survival mechanisms work against us; the old natural groupthink that once protected us now is the source of our most dire problems.

Reaching into our biology and engineering higher intelligence, less reptilian fear and more compassion is where our nature is taking us. It is not something that is going to happen, it is happening.

I just watched a show about soldiers who have lost both legs, running and jumping on carbon fiber springs that was awesome.

Scientists have already developed muscles hundreds of times more powerful than what we have. So far those artificial muscles are work too slowly, but they claim that will not be hard to overcome. Can you say 250mph fastball?

The amount of knowledge and research done on the brain and consciousness is, pun intended, mind blowing. We are not the end of evolution and would be much happier in our short existences if we accepted the nature of nature.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 4, 2006 11:55 AM

JayS: thank you for the thoughtful response(s). We seem to share many points of arrival and departure in these conversations, even as we dance in these very interesting in-between spaces.

Lots of admiration for Durkheim. My frustration with sociology--& all the human sciences, birthed as they are in the era of Enlightenment humanism--is that fundamental reliance on some constant, like 'human nature,' as the 'center' holding us in a particular (hegemonic) pattern of meaning (and meaning-making). It's the 'center' that 'god' once occupied (this is a blatant steal from Heidegger, Derrida, others' thinking...) prior to the Enlightenment and birth of secularism. ... just goes by a different name. I'm extremely skeptical, then...(sorry to keep doing violence to that poor horse).

*Mind-blowing compassion*...gosh, where can i get some ?

Posted by: JM at July 4, 2006 1:37 PM

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant! (Exceptin Alice)

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 4, 2006 4:47 PM

All that silly 60s optimism ;)

Seriously, JayS: your post and that concept, particularly, had an extremely strong and empowering resonance for me yesterday. (maybe i was hanging out w/ Alice and didn't even realize it!)

Posted by: JM at July 5, 2006 1:29 PM

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