By All Means, Discuss Religion—But Think Before You Speak

I wonder if you have that “yes… but” feeling in discussions about religious faith as much as I do.  A certain discomfort with unqualified assertions has afflicted me throughout my adult life whenever this particular area of inquiry opens its wide vistas.

Take a column published by Dennis Prager yesterday.  I like Dennis Prager, but… but is the “goodness” or “evil” in human nature really just an “either/or” proposition?  It seems so here:

With the increasing secularization of society, less and less wisdom has been conveyed to young people. One particularly obvious example is most secular people, especially on the left, believe human beings are basically good. It is difficult to overstate the foolishness of this belief. And a belief it is: There is no evidence to support it, and there is overwhelming evidence—like virtually all of human history—to refute it.

Now… where to begin?  If humans are not basically good—i.e., are basically evil—then whence do they draw the knowledge (or wisdom) to denounce their own essential wickedness?  Common answer: from a basis in revealed truth, such as a sacred text.  Excellent… but there’s a problem.  Around the world and throughout human history, several tablets, parchments, oral poems, and other “documents” have claimed to carry word of right and wrong into our midst from on high.  The various messages thus assembled are, unfortunately, irreconcilable: some of them must be false.  The Aztec apparently believed themselves commanded by their sun god to tear the living hearts out of prisoners and children in sacrifice.  The Germanic and Celtic peoples of northwestern Europe were also practicing human sacrifice at the behest (so they supposed) of some deity.  We continue to excavate the remains of their unhappy (or perhaps ecstatic) emissaries to the Beyond from peat bogs.  The Koran encourages the slaying of infidels after Ramadan, as well as polygamy, wife-beating, and strategic mendacity to non-believers.  Mr. Prager’s tradition itself is not above suspicion.  Deuteronomy 21:18-21 exhorts parents and neighbors to join in stoning a disobedient son to death.

How do we know which sacred texts truly channel the voice of God, which are utterly false, and which garble the message?  If we ourselves are invincibly corrupt of understanding, what hope have we of ever deciphering the truth?  Do we—each tribe of us—simply cling to our inheritance and trust that it has been bequeathed to us by the true God?  So maybe we’re right and maybe we’re wrong… is that how it works?  Roll for Seven and pray not to get Snake Eyes?

Obviously not; obviously, something guides us in our interpretation of scriptural tradition and other metaphysical claims.  In fact, as civilized beings, we will not accept the mutilating of young girls on the grounds that the practice stems from religious tradition; our assumption (and I contend that it is a correct assumption) is that even those raised in such a tradition should nevertheless hear the voice of the true God clearly enough to be repelled by Female Genital Mutilation (not to mention cutting girls’ hearts out).  In such matters, God speaks to us personally even when not through our culture’s revered texts.  The defense from cultural conditioning offers a mitigating factor, at best. Our judges didn’t accept the Nazi “just obeying orders” defense at Nuremburg, and they were right not to do so.

This isn’t to say that we are “basically good”.  Aye-aye-aye.  Define “good” and “basic”, for starters; and while you’re at it, define “we”—define your self, your soul, as a coherent and integral reality.  For the soul is divided against itself: Mr. Prager and I can certainly agree about that.  But if one side (which he associates with feeling or impulse, calling it “brain”) bears the ruinous seed of animal behavior, the other side (which Prager styles “mind”) must be the source of our benign inspiration.  Which is more “basic”?  And why is feeling matched against reason in this neo-Platonic dichotomy?  Moral inspiration is almost always a “feeling”, whereas “reason” (as any honest academic can tell you) has authored at least as much wickedness on earth as blind lust or vengefulness.  Indeed, inasmuch as a crime approved by deliberation engages more of the criminal’s will than does a destructive burst of passion, “reasonable villains” are the worst in the world.

We expect people to have that special inner light illuminating their behavior: we consider it basic.  I think I know what Mr. Prager means to say.  Yes… but….

And then I happened to read another column by Robert Knight within minutes of Prager’s. Mr. Knight cites a Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who cites… well, here it is (idiosyncratic use of quotations and all):

Mr. Douthat explains the clash of worldviews presented in a new book by Steven D. Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac”:

“What is that conception [of divinity advanced by paganism]?  Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent.”

I’m squirming again… as I imagine Dennis Prager would be at this point.  A “leap toward the transcendent” could describe the motivation behind many a progressive program of ethnic cleansing or genetic modification.  What if I wish to fuse humans with robots so as to create a disease-resistant creature who (which?) can live for millennia?  That certainly doesn’t seem very natural… but my visionary leap encourages me to boldly go where no man has gone before (and to split infinitives that have never been split before, as one wag volunteered a while back).  A sense of natural order should dissuade me from being rash in this enterprise.  Maybe—just maybe—my “transcendent” trajectory is hubris rather than prophecy.  Nature teaches me that corporal life and death are inextricably bound; and, as a person of faith, I must believe that God has made them so by design.  For what would spur us to transcend our selfish desires and believe in higher dimensions if we did not know that our mortal clock might tick four score years, at most?  How would we learn compassion for others—the “tears of things”—if we humans were not all bound together by the miseries of sickness and aging, and of the loss of those who have sickened or died?

I cannot think of a cruder definition of paganism than this slapdash suggestion that it includes anyone who admires a sunrise or the Grand Canyon.  I appreciate what these authors are attempting to say—perhaps better than they do.  As a university professor until half a year ago, I was increasingly having to field comments from students whose bizarrely cultic beliefs were trying to spread their mauled wings in the open air of objective discourse.  One young woman, for instance, argued incessantly that her parents promoted a Satanist billboard only to make Christians see how intolerant their religion was.  Yeah… and I can hear an Aztec priest making the same argument if the twenty-first century should burst in upon him as he sharpens his knife.

The truth is that pagan witchcraft (which seems to be the practice most squarely in this article’s crosshairs) does not revere natural cycle at all: it seeks to disrupt nature, precisely—to make the moon stand still, to make trees uproot themselves and walk.  Historically, witchcraft occupied the same orientation to nature as does applied science today: both seek to make events behave contrarily to their natural programming.  To the sincere Christian, I venture to say that God is very much in nature, not sprawled back in His celestial recliner from the outside watching His wind-up gismo run itself.  That conception belongs, indeed, to the Darwinist (as well as to the ancient Epicurean, by the way).

Where do such “defenses of the faith” come from?  Sometimes I want to say, “With friends like these, what need has faith of enemies?”  A single notion seems to obsess an author here and there in search of a book topic, and… off we go.  Everything is X.  Were it not for X, we could return to the Garden.

Well… don’t stop reading—but don’t stop thinking as you read.