Hobbes, Erewhon and Religion


‘Having planted the subversive thought — that forbidding Adam to eat from one tree lest he die, and from another lest he live forever, is absurd and contradictory — Hobbes was forced to imagine alternative scriptures and even alternative punishments and alternative eternities. His point was that people might not obey the rule of men if they were more afraid of divine retribution than of horrible death in the here and now, but he had acknowledged the process whereby people are always free to make up a religion that suits or gratifies or flatters them. Samuel Butler was to adapt this idea in his Erewhon Revisited. In the original Erewhon, Mr. Higgs pays a visit to a remote country from which he eventually makes his escape in a balloon. Returning two decades later, he finds that in his absence he has become a god named the “Sun Child,” worshipped on the day he ascended into heaven. Two high priests arc on hand to celebrate the ascension, and when Higgs threatens to expose them and reveal himself as a mere mortal he is told, “You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound around this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into heaven they will all become wicked.”‘

Hitchens. C. 2007. God Is Not Great London, Great Britain: Atlantic Books (2008) p. 156-157

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Conversations: Civilization


Helena
It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis.

Xanthippe
However, there are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.

Sappho
But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse. Continue reading

Conversations: Eradicating Religion


Helena
I would argue that one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

Sappho
Absolutely. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty! Unfortunately, it is probably true to say that nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

Zoe
Surely, you would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good? Continue reading

Conversations: Interfaith Dialogue


Helena
It is a truism that devout religious people tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with their religion.

Sappho
That is exactly why it seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world through inter-faith dialogue. Devout Muslims are as convinced as Christians are that their religion is perfect and that any deviation leads directly to hell.

Galene
However, it should be noted that representatives of the major religions occasionally meet and agree that there should be peace on earth, or that compassion is the common thread that unites all the world’s faiths.

Sappho
True, but there is no escaping the fact that a person’s religious beliefs uniquely determine what he thinks peace is good for, as well as what he means by a term like “compassion.” For instance, there are millions—maybe hundreds of millions—of Muslims who would be willing to die before they would allow a Christian, Jewish or Hindu version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.

Helena
How can interfaith dialogue, even at the highest level, reconcile worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision? The truth is, it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 27-28)

Conversations: Religions and War


Galene
Billions of people share the belief that the creator of the universe wrote (or dictated) one of our books. There are many books that pretend to divine authorship, and they make incompatible claims about how we all must live. Why should this pose a problem?

Sappho
Competing religious doctrines have shattered our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continual source of human conflict.

Helena
And in response to this situation, many sensible people advocate something called religious tolerance. While religious tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without its problems. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous.

Sappho
It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves—repeatedly and at the highest levels of discourse—about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality. Our competing religious certainties are impeding the emergence of a viable civilization. Religious faith—faith that there is a God who cares what name He is called, faith that Jesus is coming back to earth, faith that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise—is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas.

Helena
Worse still, religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religious faith. Consequently, faith inspires violence. Continue reading

Ahead of Existentialism


‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?’

– John Milton, Paradise Lost (1674) Book X, 743-5

Conversations: Arrogant Scientists?


Helena
As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God?

Galene
The God of most monotheists is believed to be an uncreated entity.

Sappho
To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. The truth is that no one knows how or why the universe came into being. It is not clear that we can even speak coherently about the creation of the universe, given that such an event can be conceived only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the birth of space-time itself.

Helena
The physicist Stephen Hawking, for instance, pictures space-time as a four dimensional, closed manifold, without beginning or end (much like the surface of a sphere). Having said that, any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. Continue reading

On Dismissing Gods


“When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

– Steven H. Roberts