Friday, April 19, 2013

The God Question

This paper discusses three of the most celebrated essays in the philosophy of religion, namely, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, JAT Robinson’s Can a Contemporary Person not be an Atheist?, and Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. I seek to amplify the logic and rationale behind these works while intending to initiate the reader to the basic assumptions of the authors. I will begin with some preliminary remarks on the philosophers, and specific commentaries on the essays will follow. I will attempt to provide a common ground and my counter-argument to the three positions on the God question in the conclusion.

On Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach writes in The Essence of Christianity that every aspect we speak of God is an attribute that we find in man. For Feuerbach, no concept in religion comes from a transcendental source. Religion simply manifests what man is in terms of his less than ideal nature. There is no God, it can be argued following Feuerbach, but there are those who act as if they are gods!

God, ergo, is the idealized form of the human being. Religion does not make the human divine; rather, it is man himself, Feuerbach asserts, who creates the divine. Feuerbach says that, "a God who is not benevolent, not just, nor wise, is no God" (Feuerbach, in Fernandez and Maboloc, 2013). Again, benevolence, justice, and wisdom manifest human attributes. We define these categories of meaning out of our experiences.

For Feuerbach, God "is the principle of man's salvation, of man's good dispositions and actions, consequently man's own good principle and nature" (Ibid.). Man must assign these qualities to God for without them God would be nothing but a mere object. For instance, people in the earliest advent of human civilization worship many ‘gods’. The ‘gods’ represent particular human needs.

Feuerbach subscribes to the point that the worship of divinities is no more than a projection of human insecurity. Religion speaks of what humans do not have. Men in early times lacked the power of reason. Men had no answer for the wrath of nature. As a response to this, Feuerbach asserts that God's only action is, “the moral and eternal salvation of man: thus man has in fact no other aim than himself.”

Treating God in terms of being “a God of love”, “a moral God” or “an understanding God” exhibit human consciousness in terms of its object. When man contemplates about God in this regard, he is actually contemplating about himself.

Hence, Feuerbach claims that when people remove all the good qualities from God, "God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being". This shows that God simply is the externalization of the human essence. As such, the essence of religion is human. Man simply invents God. Thus, Feuerbach claims, "If man is to find contentment in God," then, "he must find himself in God." (Ibid.)

Commentary on “The Essence of Religion”

Feuerbach starts with a thesis that the essence of religion is human. The concept of God is one that comes forth because man conceives of himself as imperfect and so he has to design some supernatural power that projects his desire for perfection.

The Essence of Religion is Man

Feuerbach argues in The Essence of Christianity that God simply is man externalized. God is the ideal of the human self. Thus, Feuerbach claims that, “consciousness of God is self-consciousness; knowledge of God is self-knowledge. By his God thou know man, and by man his God; the two are identical.”

Religion, for Feuerbach, is an anomaly that alienates man for worship of the divine is “the child-like condition of humanity”. Man makes God the object of his salvation, but more than anything else, this idealization merely speaks of man’s immaturity, of man’s desire to grow and make sense out of his very self. Religion manifests an objective life out there for man. The point, however, is that this worship of the divine, in essence, indicate that man has to relate to himself to discover his true nature, his “subjective nature”. Thus, “the divine attributes are human attributes. In other words, God is the projection of the human moral idea. He is what the moral person would like to be, free from all his or her limitations.” (Bautista, 147)

Feuerbach thinks that the attributes we attach to the divine are ultimately human attributes. We understand these attributes to be transcendental for man gives these adjectives some divine or metaphysical connotation. Man knows love and so he attaches “absolute” love to divine love. Man possesses knowledge albeit in a limited way so he thinks of God as an all-knowing being. Man can sympathize with the predicament of those who suffer and so he sees the value of charity. God’s benevolence implies the nature, limits and character of the human will, but it is only because materialism ties man to his self-serving whims when he gives.

Thus, Feuerbach says, “therefore God is an existent, real being, on the very same ground that he is a particular, definite being; for the qualities of God are nothing else than the essential qualities of man himself, and a particular man is that he is, has his existence, his reality, only in his particular conditions.” (Feuerbach, 11) Bautista writes: “Religion was born when man began to be conscious of his own essential greatness. He projected his own essence and power to an imaginary heaven”. (Bautista, 146) Religion, in this regard, is nothing but "impractical idealism".

Beauty, for instance, is a human attribute and so saying that God’s temple or heaven is beautiful only manifests “the value which man attaches to what is beautiful.” In truth, religious truths are nothing but human, or the projection of what we humans do not have. We imagine God to be perfect for we are imperfect; Heaven is glory for we suffer in the life in which we live.

To enrich “God” man must become poor

The problem however is that religion or any of God’s minions cannot liberate man. When man puts his very life and the values he dearly nurtures, then he diminishes life no end, for so that “God may be all, man must be nothing”. For Feuerbach, religion represents the status quo. God is the symbol of the oppression of the feudal lords. Religious sacrifice, ergo, is the servility of serfdom. By emphasizing the virtue of obedience, our colonizers, who brought with them Christianity, easily subjugated the natives after they were baptized because to love God is to obey him. People were not obeying God - they were obeying their new masters, their new lords who took away from them their lands!

The idea hence is that man’s surrender to God in a metaphorical way is man’s subjugation in the hands of the powerful bourgeois. Man cannot realize his being through religion for religion represents its repression. While man carries with him the potential to develop the full potential of his humanity, the exercise of faith can negate this. Religion is no more than a delusion of an ideal of humanity that he dreams of actualizing.

What religion brings forth unto man, hence, is alienation. Bautista says, “upon creating God by means of an outward projection of his own essence, man has separated himself from himself; he has become a stranger to himself; he has attributed to God a power and control over nature and over himself which, in fact, belong properly to him”. (Bautista, 146-147)

What then is the meaning of all these? For Bautista, “we comprehend that the ontological properties attributed to God are proportional to the properties of which man has been impoverished”, which means that ultimately, “a poor man has a rich God”, and where life on earth signify a lack, the glory offered in the after-life represent liberation from misery and exploitation.

In religion, man alienates himself by submitting himself to the will of God. This submission is symbolic of man kneeling in front of his feudal oppressors. While he views God as his liberation, in truth, the promise of heaven is as empty as the promise of freedom from his masters. Thus, religious worship simply alienates man from his true essence.

On JAT Robinson

John Arthur Thomas Robinson’s “Can a truly Contemporary Person not be an Atheist? provides us with a picture that depicts the tension between the secular and the sacred. In this article, he puts forward the arguments of atheists, and carefully elaborates on their solemn commitment to a ‘world without God’.

Religion, according to Dr. Romulo Bautista in his foreword to Enemies of God, “refers to those beliefs, behaviors, and social institutions that have something to do with speculations on any, and all, of the following: the origin, end, and significance of the universe.” (Bautista 2011)

Religion, Bautista adds, also involves that aspect of human reality that concerns “what happens after death; the existence and wishes of powerful, non-human beings such as spirits, ancestors, angels, demons and gods; and the manner in which all of this shapes human behaviors.”

We can divide Robinson’s discussion into three: the relationship or lack thereof between science and faith, the humanistic approach to atheism, and the moral problem of belief. The themes revolve around the concept of truth (science), freedom and responsibility (humanism), and the problem of evil (human suffering).

First, we can state that science and religion are worlds apart. Blaise Pascal points out that there exists an infinite distance between the known and the unknown. It is safe to say that science does not have an answer for every question. Isaac Newton declares, for instance, that, “we are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” (Newton 2003)

Second, humanistic atheists’ rejection of religion in favor of the secular world means that man does not find any salvation in his belief in a transcendent being. Humanism means there is faith in the powers of man but none in the abilities of the divine. The value of human life depends absolutely on human freedom. The exercise of free will defines who we are and what becomes of human life. Religion, as argued in the article, simply makes man immature.

Third, the problem of evil reveals that ultimately we do question how an all-powerful being could have allowed his children to suffer. Atheists argue that a God who “causes” or “allows” suffering is not a God at all for it controverts the very notion of love and compassion often associated with the transcendent.

Commentary on “Can a Truly Contemporary Person not be an Atheist?”

JAT Robinson’s discussion on contemporary atheism rests upon three thrusts or themes, namely, that God is intellectually superfluous, that God is emotionally dispensable, and that God is morally intolerable.

God is intellectual superfluous

The first thrust rests on the idea that God is not connected to the modern ways of man, notably in the advances made by science. Robinson says that atheists argue against the idea of a God in a world where science seems to command so much in terms of the progress of human civilization. Thus, he notes, “to bring in God to fill the gaps in our science or to deal with life at the point at which things get beyond human explanation or control is intellectual laziness or practical superstition.” (Robinson, 64)

Control of human reality by means of knowledge suggests that man is almost there in closing the gap between the known universe and the unknown world. The secular world, a world defined by the acts of the human will without input from a transcendent, is advancing the cause of modernity. This manifests man’s faith in science, and that science will ultimately win in the end.

The world is veering away from the influence of religion. Contemporary atheism considers religion as obsolete. Thus, Robinson says that the feeling of atheists is such that “when we use the word ‘God’ we are talking about something which no longer connects with anything in most people’s life, except with whatever happens to be left over when all the vital connections have been made”. (Ibid, 65)

In addition, according to Bautista: “The riddles of the universe only reveal themselves slowly to our enquiry, to many questions science can as yet give no answer; but scientific work is our only way to knowledge of external reality.” (Bautista, 26)

God is emotionally dispensable

The second thrust of atheism rests upon the nature of human responsibility. That man is free seems to suggest that he must also be free from religion and its influence. In the absence of religion, man is empowered to freely think and hence, act more intelligently. Robinson writes:

“Man is discovering that he no longer needs God or religion. He finds he can stand on his own feet without having to refer constantly to Daddy in the background or to run to Mommy’s apron-strings.” (Robinson, 65)

Echoing the idea of Freud, many atheists think that God is a useless proposition, for the idea of a transcendent being does not allow man to exercise his freedom of choice. Robinson notes that the idea of God being emotionally dispensable means that God “is a dangerous illusion which can prevent men from facing reality and shouldering responsibility”, which imply that for atheists, “God and the gods are a projection of man’s fears, insecurities and longings”.

The accusation is that religion makes man inutile and overly dependent on the powers of the divine. Religion makes man weak and immature. Thus, religious ideas “act as a debilitating crutch which men can have the courage to discard if they are to grow up and shake up and shake off the sense of helplessness which religion both induces and sanctions”. (Ibid) Religion debilitates man not because he possesses no power, but because he fails to exercise his power. Religion tells man to put his faith in God, and so he no longer feels the great burden of anguish.

Indeed, a “God who does take over” is one that takes away from man the “burden of responsibility”. A God who assumes the responsibility that man must carry is a God who does not allow man to grow. He does not allow man to actualize his potentials. There is a terrible failure of our humanity if we think that our happiness is something that is up to God.

Bautista notes that “the God is dead movement has brought the sudden realization that humanism or man-centered philosophy has been far more influential upon the mainstream of religion in contemporary life than has been imagined”. (Bautista, 143-144)

God is morally intolerable

The third thrust rejects the notion of a God because this God does nothing to solve injustice in the world. The position of people in the world begins unequally, and so it is up to them to design institutions that put them on equal putting. God seems to be absent in the equation. Robinson says that “to say that God is a “blood sucker” is to suggest that power put men in a position to exploit or take advantage of others, and that it is up to man to change or reform this great injustice”. (Robinson, in Fernandez and Maboloc, 2013)

Without human resolve, no one would have stopped Adolf Hitler or Milosevic. Hegemonic relations of power cause the great problems of inequality in the world. Religion offers no help for religion too advocates hierarchic hegemony.

We therefore bring forth the point of an old dilemma: “It is either God is impotent for while he is willing, he cannot prevent the suffering of people or possibly, that God is cruel, for while he has the power to prevent evil, he refuses to prevent evil”. (Ibid.) Hence, the idea of “a God who allows or causes the suffering of a single child is morally intolerable”. (Robinson, 67) This God has no place in this world.

The kind of God that people need is one who has compassion for the poor and the downtrodden, not a mere spectator who rejoices in the pain and agony of men. Man, in this regard, loses faith in the divine, including faith to his fellow men. Machiavelli captures it all: “If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them (Machiavelli 2003, in Perry et al, 15).

Robinson’s response to the critiques

Robinson, who is a bishop, does not really intend to reject God in this essay. Instead, he offers reasons why people do think that God ought to be rejected, all of which he dismisses at the end of the essay. His point is simple – one needs to understand the phenomenon of contemporary atheism, be critical about his faith, and emerge as more mature in the end.

First, Robinson asserts that God need not be in the system. He writes that, “in the first place, God remains intellectually superfluous, in the sense that he does not need to be ‘brought in’. There is no place for him in the system – or for that matter on its edge.” (Robinson, in Fernandez and Maboloc, 2013).

Secondly, that a God who “takes over” is not a good God and must therefore be rejected. Thus, Robinson says that, “God continues to be emotionally dispensable. The returning Lord does not come as a compensation for the gap left by the God of the gaps. There is no solace to restore the old relationships. The crutches are broken, and it remains ‘good’ for you that I go, away.” (Ibid.)

Lastly, that a God who is not merciful is a God who must die, for the real response of a true God to the problem of evil is one of love. In a theological way, Robinson notes that, “yet the Christian, as he looks back on the cross from the other side of the resurrection, sees not a world without God at its borders but a world with God at its center.” (Ibid.)

Ultimately, it can be said that verily, "God is love", for, Robinson concludes, “what it means to believe in love as the final reality is to be discerned not the absentee controller who allows the suffering but in the crucified transfiguring figure that bears it.” (Ibid.)

On Bertrand Russell

In Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell explains why he is not a believer in Christ or in Christianity, and he does so by explaining why he rejects both God and immortality. To reject God means to reject any notion of the after-life, for it is only by means of the divine that eternity can exist.

Russell also, and we believe arbitrarily, reasons out why he thinks Christ cannot be the greatest and wisest of men. He cites texts from the Gospels, and goes on to explicate why the teachings of Christ, e.g. loving your enemy or the second coming, are all absurd given the circumstances with which any man is to act.

In the article, Russell considers – "the first cause argument," "the natural law argument," "the argument from design," "the moral arguments for deity," and "the argument for the remedying of injustice", and finds all of them, following a very strict line of logical reasoning, inadequate in proving the existence of God.

Russell also thinks that the main reason why people believe in God is because of the fact that our parents teach us who God is. In addition, he argues that one motive for religion is man’s fear of the unknown, i.e. fear of death.

Russell finds as useless some of the teachings of Christ, though admirable, for instance, "Resist not evil," "Judge not, lest ye be judged," and "Go and sell what thou hast, and give the proceeds to the poor," because many self-professed Christians do not actually live these values in their lives.

At the very end, Russell argues that Christianity has retarded progress, as evidenced by the actuations of the Church against science (Galileo) or the Inquisition, which have given the Church a bad reputation in the past.

Finally, he notes that it is only by means of human intelligence that man can truly conquer the world. He emphasizes that religion does nothing in enabling man to take on new frontiers and challenges. For instance, the quest for justice in the life in which we live is something that we must take through human resolve.

Commentary on “Why I am not a Christian”

Russell’s rejection of Christianity in the essay “Why I am not a Christian” indicates that he has full faith in reason and logic. He begins his paper by defining what it means for someone to be a Christian. For him, the central point is that Christianity, just like any other religion, means believing in some form of deity. Russell recognizes that the essential aspect of any religion is belief in a metaphysical being one calls “God”.

Critique of the Rational Proofs

Russell’s criticism of that idea that “Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men,” border on the arbitrary, and so we simply say that he is entitled to that opinion. Thus, we must put emphasis instead on his attack on causality, his dismissal of the argument from design, and his rejection of the moral argument for the existence of God.

Firstly, Russell rejects the first cause argument because it offers no proof. From the point of view St. Thomas, the principle of causality suggests that God created the universe. God, in this regard, is the source of all reality. However, Russell thinks that this argument holds no concrete or valid logical foundation. He argues that if it is possible for God to be uncaused, then he says it is possible for the world to be without any beginning or any ultimate cause. Hence, he claims, “that there is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed”, for, he contends further, that “there is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all.” (Russell, 31)

Secondly, his next argument against the existence of God is his ranting against the argument from design. He dismisses the idea of a great grand design for the simple reason that we live in an imperfect world. The world in which we live, he argues, is defective and so imperfect that it could not have come from a perfect or an all-powerful being.  Indeed, that man has been able to survive the planet with all its deficiencies, is simply due to man’s ability to adapt to his environment. Following Charles Darwin, he thinks that, it is not like “the environment was made to be suitable to creatures”, but that, he says, “they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation”, and ultimately saying, hence, that, “there is no evidence of design about it.”

Thirdly, Russell offers is his rejection of the moral arguments for the existence of the deity. He sets aside as nonsense the idea that God is needed for man to be good. Right and wrong cannot depend on God. Russell writes, for instance, “that one form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation asking, Russell says, “Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?” (Ibid, 35)

If God exists, then right and wrong would not matter, for God is the sole determinant of what we are to choose. In addition, if we are free and willing creatures, then God matters not in the equation, for right and wrong ultimately depended upon our intention. However, God could not have chosen for us, for doing so would violate the very nature of God. Thus, it can be that, as a matter of fact, “this world as we now was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking”. (Ibid)

Religion as an Institution

Russell’s criticisms on the character of Christ or his critique against the teachings of Christ can be easily disputed as misplaced and a failure or refusal to understand the nature and value of theology. We can instead focus on his criticism on the Church as an institution.

Russell argues that the churches have retarded progress and that church leaders have failed to respond to the advances made by science in favor of sacral concerns for the articles of faith. For instance, that any inexperienced girl cannot divorce or use pills in making love to a syphilitic husband because marriage is an indissoluble sacrament or that because artificial birth control is against the natural law.

Against this, he argues for moral sentimentality, suggesting that “nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma, or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain that it is right and proper that the state of things should continue”. (Ibid, 41) This problem is a matter of principle, for if we relate this to the problem of poverty, while it can be that we have to be simply practical or pragmatic about things, the point is that we have to change the way we see things. So we must open our eyes to the reality of the inured existence of abandoned children and many homeless families.

We are not progressing, says Russell, because of fear. It is because there are things that we are quite unsure that we have not advanced in the scheme of things. Man has not taken the cudgels unto himself and for this reason he has not matured. The ills of politics, for instance, are because of the fact that we have not fully developed systems that would address our deepest and most urgent concerns. God has nothing to do with politics. Wars are decided by a few men; the death to millions merely seen as an inconsequential ramification.

While the Church has encouraged us to take on new frontiers and embrace the value of science, some dogma seem to constrain us thereby disabling men and women from making proper choices. There are hard choices to make in life. It makes no sense, for instance, to value marriage when it is not working. However, because “what God has put together no man must put asunder,” many people suffer from the infamy of a false fairytale. 

Russell’s Humanism

Russell was not only a brilliant thinker, but he was also an ardent humanist and an active human rights advocate. He has campaigned against nuclear proliferation and has promoted the cause of human civilization. Ultimately, we can say that he was a believer in the power of human intelligence, and that, basically all human injustice can be addressed by means of human power. The objective of his humanism is this: “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.” (Ibid, 42)

My Position: Beyond Faith is a Loving God

It should come as no surprise that the human condition is the common ground in all three essays. This theme puts forward the problem of religion as an existential problem. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it, “Realism, indeed, Dmitri. I am for realism. I’ve seen too much miracles.” (Dostoyevsky 1957, 359) We have to keep our feet on the ground in understanding these things, for otherwise, faith would have no meaning if man does not find it fully grounded. Thus, the essays focus on the human side of the story, and all criticisms against God simply indicate the lack of recognition of the role of religion as a special domain in human affairs. Paul Tillich, obviously, comes to mind here, for he argues that religion is that special dimension in human life that is irreducible to any of the human categories expressed above.

The essays also exhibit the distinction between negative and positive atheism. Negative atheism rejects the idea of God outright, with no intention to elaborate on the role of human reason in coming to terms with the foundations of our faith. Positive atheism, on the one hand, tries to justify the importance and value of some religious principles, although these maxims all point to the triumph of man in meaningfully finding the essence of his faith. While negative atheism distorts human freedom as a positive attribute, positive atheism acknowledges its value.

Indeed, it is difficult to see God in a world entrenched in evil, greed and manipulation. It is highly unthinkable how a good father can allow His children to suffer when in fact He should be protecting them instead. Such also raises the question on the role and value of human freedom. While it is possible that man is simply free – free to decide which values he must create for himself, what kind of life he must live or how he desires to pursue the meaning of life, a good God in the background offers no danger to his freedom. The idea of a just and loving God is not ultimately incompatible with human freedom, for this loving God decides, rather than dictates, that happiness is without meaning if it does not proceed from the will of each person.

Faith is about believing in something that goes beyond science. Precisely, no proof or evidence links man and God, and so the only viable rational thing to say is that belief in God is a matter of faith. To suggest that it is stupidity to have faith in something that one has no evidence of existence suggests that there is only one way of looking at the world. Following this point of view means that we can only see the world in an empirical and scientific way. Human intelligence dictates that it is by means of a careful and methodical study that things come into light. Martin Buber, in I and Thou, explicates this:

What has been said earlier of love is ever more clearly true at this point: feelings merely accompany the fact of the relationship after which all is established not in the soul but in an I and a You. (Buber 1998, in Palmer, et al, 665)

There are things that come into light although there is no proof that suggests their ontological status. For instance, we can say that a father is only doing his moral obligation by paying for the education of his daughter. We can also say that not all parents feel that way, and in fact, not all parents believe that such moral obligation exists. However, there are parents who send their kids to school not because they feel obliged to, but because they find joy and fulfillment in doing so.

Some transcendent value comes with the effort of having done something for someone. We call this many things, but nothing explains the fact that it is something special and something that you do not simply do for the sake of doing it. It comes directly from the wonder of our humanity, from the power of our person. As Abdala the Saracen says, “There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man” (Perry, et al, 2003, 10). We can also take as an example the case of a Good Samaritan who does something to a stranger. There are no rules and any individual who goes beyond himself does something not in view of some interest but simply because there is joy in extending oneself and reaching out to others who are in need. The point is that this act proceeds from an inner feeling and its practical good effects we cannot consider as its evidence. People feel its power and it moves people into doing what is good for others.

Thus, while we walk upon this earth and might not find God in any of the things we see, still, there is that element in us that makes us transcend ourselves, realizing that there are values that are greater than us, moments that take us further in terms of understanding what it means to live. The poverty of the human imagination should not be an excuse for refusing to acknowledge the divine in as much as the power of the human mind cannot be justification for the rejection of that inner force that operates within us. Precisely, God is nowhere out there, not even in outer space. We find God when we search within us the inner strengths of our soul, of our humanity.

Beyond faith, the true nature of human transcendence is that one goes beyond the mere practicalities of human existence. While a poor mind sees only bats and owls in the night, an open mind sees stars and the future of our children shining in the deep and dark sky. This is what authentic freedom is. It is not based on a doctrine or some abstract moral principle. Beyond belief, there's the truth of a loving God in a world that is actually free.

It does not really matter whether or not the glass is half-full or half-empty. What matters really is for people to believe we live to fill in the glass. Rising above self tells us that one lives for something greater, for some cause that is bigger. This is what faith is all about. It is beyond you. Martin Luther writes, “This faith can only rule in the inner man” (Perry et al, 10). For instance, to suggest that the death of someone is the merely end of an earthly existence is a poor judgment. Precisely, death diminishes us in a huge way for each human life is a huge treasure that is irreducible to any practical end – unique and irreplaceable.