June 19, 2004

Here’s a new version of the fifth chapter of my book of aphorisms (I continue to revise this book, chapter by chapter, in the hope of publishing it in Brazil). You’ll notice that the chapter moves from atheism to (qualified) theism. The first aphorism was written in the summer of ’84, when I was in my Nietzsche-Freud phase, the last aphorism was written a couple days ago, and is influenced by Jung and Zen.

1. Religion

A. The Existence of God: A Dialogue
a:Consider the vast emptiness of the universe, the earth’s tiny place in the universe, and the series of chance circumstances that has produced consciousness on earth. If God existed, if there were a Creator of the universe, why would He have made so much inanimate matter and so much unpeopled space? Why would He have left consciousness to evolve so slowly, and by such a circuitous route?
b:The ways of the hidden God are inscrutable to men, and we cannot presume to understand them or to question them. Our job is simply to believe in God and to love God.
a:But why postulate God’s existence in the first place if you don’t have any grounds to do so? If God is totally hidden, shouldn’t we conclude that He doesn’t exist?
b:God isn’t totally hidden; there are some grounds for believing that God exists. Consider, for example, the universe itself. Where did it come from, if not from God? If God doesn’t exist, how can you explain why there is something instead of nothing?
a:Why there is something instead of nothing is a question that is, as the poet would say, beyond the reaches of our souls, or at least beyond the present state of our knowledge. But we can’t allege our own ignorance as a proof of God’s existence. Furthermore, even if we postulate the existence of God, that doesn’t make it any easier to explain how the universe was brought into being — the origin of matter is still a mystery.
b:If God doesn’t exist, why have so many men, and so many great men, in every century and in every country, believed that God exists?
a:Man has a natural tendency to believe in God. But this tendency doesn’t prove that God exists, just as man’s tendency to believe in a golden age doesn’t prove that there ever was a golden age, and man’s tendency to believe in a primordial flood doesn’t prove that there ever was a primordial flood, and man’s tendency to believe in virgin births doesn’t prove that there ever was a virgin birth. The universality of a belief doesn’t prove that belief true; the universality of a belief teaches us something about man, about man’s psyche, but it teaches us nothing about the external world.
b:If God doesn’t exist, how can you account for our innate sense of good and evil?
a:The sense of good and evil is relative, not absolute. Different societies, and different historical epochs, have different moralities. There is no universal morality, no universal sense of good and evil. Thus, morality doesn’t force us to postulate God. Nothing forces us to postulate God except our own wishes and the power of tradition.

B. Biblical Prophecies  Before the birth of Jesus, Jews had long believed that a Messiah would eventually appear. The Old Testament is filled with prophecies about the Messiah; many of these prophecies appear to have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus. For example, the Book of Micah foretells that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem; Isaiah foretells that the Messiah will be born of a virgin; the Psalms foretell that the Messiah will be betrayed by a “familiar friend”; Zechariah even foretells that the Messiah will be betrayed for “thirty pieces of silver.”

Throughout the history of Christianity, the prophecies have been adduced as proofs of the divinity of Christ. Even philosophers like Pascal, who were skeptical of miracles, were impressed by prophecies; “the most weighty proofs of Jesus,” said Pascal, “are the prophecies.”1 But once people began to subject the Bible to close scrutiny, they ceased to regard the prophecies as “weighty proofs.” Biblical prophecies are as dubious as Biblical miracles; the prophecies don’t prove the divinity of Jesus, just as Jesus’ alleged ability to walk on water doesn’t prove his divinity.

Both miracles and prophecies are indications that the life of Christ, as set forth in the New Testament, is filled with fictitious episodes, episodes designed to convince people that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. In order to win converts to their sect, the authors of the New Testament had to make it appear that the life of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies; they had to tailor their life of Jesus to fit the prophecies. Accordingly, they were quick to point out how the prophecies had been fulfilled; for example, in Acts (i, 16), Peter, referring to the betrayal of Jesus, says that the “Scripture must needs have been fulfilled... concerning Judas.” The Scripture must be fulfilled — this was the guiding principle of the authors of the New Testament.

C. Biblical Criticism  Biblical criticism has uncovered a host of contradictions, frauds and forgeries in the Bible. It has shown, for example, that the first five books of the Old Testament, which Judaism and Catholicism ascribe to Moses, were not actually written by Moses. It has also shown that an early reference to the trinity (in the First Epistle of John, v, 7) was actually inserted at a later date. The churches, far from trying to ascertain the truth, have tried to suppress the truth, and have forbidden any questioning of the sacred texts; the Catholic Church, for example, forbade any questioning of the early reference to the trinity.

Some will argue, however, that Biblical criticism can’t touch the heart of Christianity; it can’t deny that Christian morality is lofty; it can’t deny that the Sermon on the Mount is sublime. But Christian morality isn’t original, isn’t unique to Christianity. Like all morality, Christian morality is the product of its time and place, the product of a certain level of civilization, not the product of divine inspiration. There were Jewish thinkers at the time of Christ who preached a morality similar to Christian morality. A few centuries before the time of Christ, thinkers like Socrates, Buddha, Lao-Zi and Confucius also preached a morality similar to Christian morality; in these four thinkers, one encounters such Christian ideas as “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and “resist not evil.”2

D. Which Religion Is True?  Most people who are raised in Christian families and Christian societies become Christians themselves. Only a few people question the beliefs of their environment, and try to discover the truth for themselves. Many in the West think that Christianity must be true because so many people believe it, and have believed it for centuries. How can so many people be wrong? But people in non-Western countries use the same reasoning about their religions; they assume that since Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. have won so many adherents, they must be true. If the popularity and longevity of Christianity were an indication of its truth, then Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, which also enjoy popularity and longevity, are also true. But how can they all be true when they contradict each other?

Some people argue that all religions are false because they contradict each other. Likewise, some people argue that all philosophies are false because they contradict each other, and because they’re all superseded by later philosophies. Hegel, however, argued that all philosophies are true, all philosophies represent a part of the truth. We can say the same thing about religion: all religions are true, all religions represent a part of the truth. Religion springs from man’s psyche, meets man’s psychological needs, and contains psychological truth. The founders of religions embody the thoughts and feelings of their society. Likewise, those who modify a religion are responding to society’s needs.

But religions aren’t satisfied with psychological truth, with partial truth, with temporary truth, with truth for a particular time and place, with the same degree of truth that all other religions possess. They want more; they claim to possess revealed truth, complete truth, eternal truth, truth for all times and places, truth such as no other religion possesses. And in defending this claim, they use dishonest means.

E. Is the Atheist Happy?  Atheism has made man more even-tempered, and less ecstatic, than he used to be. Atheism has freed man from some old torments, such as the fear of hell and the fear of transgressing against God’s will. Atheism has also deprived man of some consolations and comforts, such as trust in Providence and hope for eternal happiness. The atheist has less to hope for than the Christian, and also less to fear. The atheist neither hopes for an eternity of heaven, nor fears an eternity of hell.

F. Atheism and Suicide  According to Christianity, God created the individual in his own image, endowed him with an immortal soul, and watches over him forever. Therefore, according to Christianity, human life per se has value; every human life has infinite importance. Accordingly, Christianity opposed suicide; those who committed suicide were denied Christian burial. Kierkegaard is an example of a Christian thinker who opposed suicide; Kierkegaard called suicide, “a crime against God.”

Unlike Christians, the ancients didn’t consider human life per se valuable. Hence, the ancients had no scruples about suicide. Cicero, for example, recommends suicide for the victims of misfortune. Many famous Greeks and Romans committed suicide, including Cato the Younger, Brutus and Petronius.

Modern atheism is similar, in many ways, to ancient paganism. Since modern atheists, like the ancients, don’t consider human life per se valuable, they too have no scruples about suicide. Nietzsche, for example, said that in certain circumstances, suicide is not only justifiable but praiseworthy.

The Renaissance was akin to paganism and to modern atheism. Montaigne, a product of the Renaissance, agreed with ancient philosophers and with modern atheists on the subject of suicide; “the most voluntary death,” wrote Montaigne, “is the finest.”3

G. Atheism and Eugenics  When people think that human life per se isn’t valuable, they often advocate the development of a certain type of human being, that is, they often advocate eugenics. Hence we find advocates of eugenics among the ancients and among modern atheists. Plato, for example, wrote thus: “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible.” Such modern atheists as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shaw and Wells also advocated eugenics.4

H. Is Human Life Valuable?  Most modern intellectuals have abandoned Christianity, but they’re reluctant to abandon the Christian idea that human life per se is valuable. They’re reluctant to address such questions as, what is the value of human life? Does human life really have any value? Does life contain more happiness than suffering? If you take an individual’s life from him, are you depriving him of happiness or saving him from suffering? If you take an individual’s life, are you helping or hurting society?

Many modern intellectuals embrace some theory that justifies life, some theory that tries to prove — without using the old religious arguments — that human life per se is valuable. Consider Camus, for example: Camus argues that life is a “necessary good” and that therefore we must abstain from the taking of life, that is, abstain from suicide and from homicide. But although Camus calls life a “necessary good,” he rejects the traditional, religious arguments in support of the value of life, and asserts that life is meaningless and absurd. Camus advocates “acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” “Human life is the only necessary good,” Camus says, “since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis.”5 But why should we want this “desperate encounter” to be possible? And why should we want the “absurdist wager” to have a basis?

Even if we assume that life has value for one who believes that it is absurd (strange assumption!), that still doesn’t prove that life has value for the masses of men who either don’t believe that life is absurd or who never reflected about life. Camus justifies life, or tries to justify life, for a handful of intellectuals, then pretends that he has justified life for everyone. The case of Camus shows that people will use any reasoning, however sophistical, to support a belief that they cherish, such as the belief that human life per se has value.

I. The Death of God  The chief philosophical problem of modern times is the death of God, and its implications for our view of the world and our view of man. This problem was first perceived in the late 1800’s; it was perceived independently by Dostoyevsky and by Nietzsche. The death of God means that the world no longer has a plan, a divine order; it also means that human life no longer has absolute value. And since morality — in the West, at any rate — has long been founded on religion, the disintegration of religion entails the disintegration of morality. Hence Nietzsche called himself an “immoralist,” and said that mankind was now “beyond good and evil.”

The death of God is an epoch-making event in human history; it divides history in two, as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche both pointed out. Dostoyevsky depicts an atheist, Kirillov, who “rejects morality itself altogether.” Dostoyevsky’s atheists talk constantly of suicide and genocide. Dostoyevsky seemed to anticipate the worst atrocities of Hitler and Stalin: “There will be an upheaval!,” he wrote; “there’s going to be such an upset as the world has never seen before....The earth will weep for its old gods.”6 Can anyone doubt that there’s a connection between the death of God and Soviet genocide? Between the death of God and Nazi genocide? Between the death of God and Cambodian genocide? The phase of the French Revolution known as “The Terror” was an early form of genocide, just as the atheism of the French Revolutionaries was an early form of nineteenth-century atheism.

Though we may dislike the new universe in which we find ourselves, though we may long for God, though we may want to return to the age of faith, the age of religious and moral certainty, the age of the great cathedrals and Thomas Aquinas, nonetheless we must accept the current situation, and learn to cope with it. The wailing infant may prefer to be back in the womb, but he can’t go back. Just as the infant grows accustomed to living outside the womb, so too it’s possible to develop new approaches to religion and morality. Schopenhauer thought that mankind would outgrow religion, but now the future of religion looks bright. It now seems possible to develop new conceptions of God, new conceptions of religion, and new conceptions of the value of human life.

J. Nietzsche and Nazism  If Nietzsche first spoke of the death of God, and the death of God is connected to Nazi genocide, did Nietzsche cause Nazi genocide? Do thinkers cause historical events? No, Nazi genocide wasn’t caused by Nietzsche; Nietzsche merely popularized the phrase “death of God,” and revealed the full implications of the loss of religious belief. As Dostoyevsky’s work shows, the ideas of atheism and of going “beyond good and evil” were in the air during the late 1800’s; Nietzsche didn’t introduce those ideas, he merely found them and expressed them. To find the ideas of one’s time and express them is the task of a thinker.

K. The Evolution of Religion  During the course of history, man’s individuality and self-respect have advanced. At first, man worshipped what was foreign to himself: trees, rivers, thunder, the sun, etc. Later, man worshipped totem animals and, later still, half-animal, half-human beings, such as centaurs. He also worshipped the king as a divinity; the average man was a nonentity. The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans gradually developed human gods; in worshipping these gods, the Greeks and Romans worshipped beings similar to themselves. But these gods were still separated from men; if men tried to rival them, they would be punished. Thus, the punishment of presumptuous mortals is a common motif in ancient mythology.

The early Christians worshipped a God who was more than similar to themselves; he had actually become a man. The average man was no longer a nonentity; Christ told mankind, “Ye are gods.... The Kingdom of God is within you.” The Protestant Reformation brought man even closer to God than Catholicism. For Protestants, God was not — as He was for Catholics — in relics and in the Holy Land and in the Pope. For Protestants, God was in every individual. But although man, according to the Protestants, had divine attributes, he bore the stain of original sin, he had to repress the base elements in his nature, and he had to obey God’s commands, or suffer for his disobedience.

Modern atheism has advanced man’s individuality and self-respect one step further. God is no longer above man. Man is no longer a poor sinner, abasing himself before God. Man is his own master. Man must set his own goals, devise his own means to reach those goals, and decide for himself what’s right and what’s wrong.

L. Atheism and the Future  As long as people believed in God, their chief concern was doing God’s will. As long as people believed in God, they paid little attention to the future of mankind; they left it to God to take care of mankind. As long as people believed in God, they acted like children who think that if their parents love them, they don’t have anything to worry about, their parents will take care of them. It’s only recently, it’s only since people have lost their belief in God, that people have become preoccupied with the future of mankind, have begun to see themselves as responsible for the future of mankind, and have begun to believe that the future will be as bright or as dark as they make it. One of the greatest benefits that atheism has conferred on mankind is a sense of responsibility, a sense that man is responsible for his own future. Conversely, one of the greatest injuries that religion does to mankind is to make man into an irresponsible child, preoccupied with doing God’s will, unconcerned about his own future.

It is only recently that man has discovered the future, that man has begun to look into the distant future, that man has begun to look ahead not just decades or centuries, but thousands of years, millions of years. It is only recently that man has begun to wonder what will happen to the human race when the sun burns out, two billion years from now.

M. Mill  Writing about 1870, Mill said there was an urgent need for a new religion, a new faith. Mill said that this need was so urgent that any “thinking or writing” that didn’t help to develop a new religion was of dubious value.
When the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion [Mill wrote], or can only believe it with modifications amounting to an essential change of its character, a transitional period commences, of weak convictions, paralyzed intellects, and growing laxity of principle, which cannot terminate until a renovation has been effected in the basis of their belief leading to the elevation of some faith, whether religious or merely human, which they can really believe.7

Mill shows wisdom and modesty by not saying precisely what this new religion should be; he speaks of, “some faith, whether religious or merely human.” Mill says that the old world-view is “discredited in the more intellectual minds”; this is true today, as it was in Mill’s day. (Nietzsche, who writes in a more prophetic, more poetic tone than Mill, expressed the same thought when he said, “God is dead”.) Mill realized that a void had been created by the decline of the old faiths, and that this void would be filled by political schemes, totalitarian schemes. He anticipated the harmful effects of these schemes, and warned against them.

Mill says that the old religions, discredited though they may be, are still a “powerful obstacle to the growing up of any better opinions.” As one reads this, one thinks of Arabs and Israelis, both imprisoned by ancient religions, religions which obstruct the growth of a new religion, a new religion in which “the more intellectual minds.... can really believe.”

N. Jung believed that certain archetypes or images could be found in the unconscious of all mankind, in the “collective unconscious.” The most important of these archetypes, according to Jung, was the archetype of the self. In Jung’s vocabulary, the term “self” means the whole person, the unconscious as well as consciousness. Jung felt that man was prone to identify himself with consciousness, with the ego, with reason, and to neglect and despise the unconscious. In other words, Jung felt that man was prone to lapse into rationalism, and to lose contact with his unconscious, with his soul. In Jung’s view, religion helped man to maintain contact with his unconscious, and to avoid rationalism and ego inflation. Since modern societies were apt to reject religion, they were also apt to lapse into rationalism. Jung regarded Communism as a lapse into rationalism. Communists tried to use reason to control all human activities; they despised tradition, and they despised religion.

Jung felt that God was synonymous with the archetype of the self. Christ on the Cross was a symbol of the self, of the whole person, of the union of opposites, since the Cross was flanked by two thieves, one of whom ascended to heaven, while the other descended to hell. Christ helped man to avoid rationalism and ego inflation, urging people to “become like little children.” The message of Christ resembled the message of Zen, since both Zen and Christ steered man away from rationalism and toward the wholeness of the child.

Jung believed that the archetype of God evolved during the course of history. The violent, amoral, unconscious God of the ancient Hebrews evolved into the loving, moral, conscious God of the time of Christ. The existence and evolution of the God archetype took place independently of man, independently of human reason and human volition. Jung didn’t regard God as an invention of man. Jung believed in God, and his arguments are the strongest arguments against atheism.

Jung regarded Jesus not merely as a carpenter’s son, a Jewish reformer, a genius, but rather as the son of God, as a carrier or embodiment of the son-of-God archetype. Jesus felt himself to embody this archetype, felt himself to be the son of God. Jesus knew that it was his destiny to live this archetype — to die young, etc. Jung believed that archetypes and myths were embodied in history, they didn’t exist only in the mind. Through contact with archetypes, and contact with the unconscious, it’s possible for certain people, including Jesus, to anticipate the future. Napoleon said, “I always had an inner sense of what awaited me....Nothing ever happened to me which I did not foresee, and I alone did not wonder at what I had accomplished.”8 Just before the outbreak of World War I, Jung himself had a prophetic dream of Europe awash in a sea of blood.

O. Hiking Philosophers  If Descartes hiked to the top of a mountain in Africa, and sat down on a rock, and looked at the animals in the valley below, and at the vegetation all around him, he might say, “I alone, in this vast scene of teeming life, have a soul.” And if Kant hiked to the top of the same mountain, he might say, “I alone am an end in myself.” But if Freud hiked to the top of that mountain, he might say, “all these animals and plants have the same basic drives that I have, they all have life- and death-instincts — just like me. Animals and plants are my kin. Man is derived from animals, and animals are derived from plants — we’re all branches of the same family tree, we’re all relatives. Man isn’t fundamentally different from animals and plants — as Western thinkers once supposed.”

And if Jung hiked to the top of that mountain, he might say, “all those animals have the same Energy, the same Essence, the same Spirit, the same Tao, that is in me. And all these plants have that same Energy, too. And this rock that I’m sitting on, this mountain, this earth — all these have that same Energy, too. I’m akin to the animals, the plants, the rocks — I’m akin to everything in the universe. Man is derived from animals, and animals are derived from plants, and plants are derived from inorganic matter. We’re all related! The same universe that produced the rock I’m sitting on also produced Hamlet. Man isn’t fundamentally different from other forms of life, as Descartes and Kant thought, nor is organic life fundamentally different from inorganic matter, as Freud thought. The same Energy/Essence/Spirit/Tao suffuses everything, produces everything.”

Jung’s view is similar to that of Eastern philosophers. This view helps to explain why Eastern painters depicted landscapes long before Western painters did. Western painters like Michelangelo were preoccupied with man, perhaps because the West saw man as distinct from the rest of the universe. The East saw the same Tao in everything.

It has been said that the clearest distinction in nature is the distinction between the organic and the inorganic. This distinction is clearer (so the argument goes) than the distinction between one species and another, and clearer than the distinction between plants and animals. But is it really as clear as it appears to be? Isn’t it conceivable that some enterprising young scientist will someday connect the organic to the inorganic — just as Darwin connected man to animals? Isn’t it conceivable that we’ll someday discover intermediate forms — forms that lie between the organic and the inorganic? After all, isn’t organic life descended from the inorganic? Darwin speculated on how organic life might have originated:
If (and O, what an if!) we could picture some hot little pool in which all manner of ammoniacal and phosphorous salts, light, heat, electricity and so forth were present, and that a protein compound were to be chemically formed in it, ready to undergo even more complicated changes...9

P. Beyond Atheism  The most promising sources of new approaches to religion are:

  1. the unconscious (its wisdom, its power, its tendency to seek psychic harmony);
  2. the existence of occult phenomena, which can’t be explained by rational-scientific thinking; the possibility of life after death;
  3. a feeling of oneness with the universe, and a love of nature;
  4. a belief that there is some sort of energy or force permeating the universe.
Mill said that a new faith could be “religious or merely human.” It didn’t occur to Mill that a new faith could be religious and human. Instead of a religion that is centered on a God who created the world and rules the world, why not a religion that sees the world developing through its own forces, and sees man as participating in these forces, not just subject to them? And if someone wants to use the word “God” for the mysterious forces in the universe and in man, why should we object?

© L. James Hammond 2004
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Footnotes
1. Pensées, §335 back
2. On Biblical criticism, see S. Reinach, Orpheus: A History of Religions, VIII; on Jewish moral thought in the time of Christ, see Orpheus, VII. back
3. See Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, I, 3, Ba, and Montaigne, Essays, “A Custom of the Isle of Cea.” On Cicero’s attitude toward suicide, see Tusculan Disputations, II, 40 and 41; on Nietzsche’s attitude toward suicide, see Human, All-Too-Human, §80, The Wanderer and His Shadow, §185, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of Voluntary Death.” back
4. The Plato quotation is from The Republic, Book V. On Schopenhauer, see The World as Will and Idea, vol. 2, §43; on Nietzsche, see Antichrist, §3 and The Will to Power, §898; on Shaw, see On the Rocks, preface; on Wells, see Anticipations, §9. back
5. The Rebel, Intro. back
6. See The Possessed, I, 3, iv and II, 8. back
7. Autobiography, ch. 7 back
8. Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Napoleon the Man, ch. 9 back
9. Sophie’s World, “Darwin” back