Thursday, March 22, 2012

Untangling Scientific and Philosophical Atheism

New Atheism is riven by a seldom-discussed split between scientific and philosophical atheists, which reveals some surprising relationships between scientistic atheism, Socratic philosophical skepticism, and theism. In particular, each should be understood as a response to the mystical perception that the reality behind the apparent natural world is far from ideal for us. Western philosophers and Eastern mystics wrestle with this harsh truth and its implications, sacrificing their capacity for happiness in the process. Scientistic atheists pretend to reject all religions even as they belittle philosophical atheism to purify the membership of their science-centered cult. Scientism and literalistic, exoteric theism each represents a flight from the tragic implications of mysticism, and this is the chief weakness of each of these ideologies, according to the philosophical atheist who, unmoved by pragmatic social conventions, shares with the Eastern mystic the burden of suffering from a confrontation with the horrible truth of our existential predicament. In what follows, I explore these ideas with a view to clarifying the differences between scientific and philosophical atheism.

Some Recent Historical Context

The New Atheist movement began as a counterattack against Muslim fundamentalists who took the longstanding war between white American and European oligarchs, on the one hand, and the Muslim world, on the other, into the open with their 911 terrorism. (Moderate Muslims object that there’s nothing Islamic about the members of al Qaeda, but since theology isn’t a science, there’s no non-question-begging criterion for distinguishing between genuine and phony Muslims. The terrorist cherry-picks some passages from Muslim scriptures, taking them out of context, while the moderate, secularized or reformist Muslim does the same with other scriptures.) The war between secular civilizations and the Muslim hordes has been waged for decades via the secular oligarchs’ proxies, that is, by the West-friendly dictators who have--until the recent Arab Spring uprisings--kept a lid on the nationalist aspirations of the Muslim majorities in the Middle East. Secularists hardly need to enter an intellectual war of ideas with the still-medieval Islamic religion since, as Hitchens was fond of saying, the secularists already humiliate Middle Eastern Muslims daily by ruling them via the US military and its proxies. Still, New Atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens took up the call for overkill, launching verbal assaults on theism with their books and in-person debates.

Again, these verbal assaults satisfied an emotional need to deal with the trauma inflicted by the highly successful 911 terrorist attacks. The Western secularist’s presupposition is that Muslims are subhumans who deserve to be ruled by brutal puppet regimes. The terrorists’ miraculous PSYOP of 911 undermined this narrative, and many New Atheists mean to reestablish the prejudice against true-believing Muslims with a media campaign, featuring something as dastardly as an uncompromising tone on the part of atheist intellectuals who had for the most part hitherto declined to speak out on any social issue, being postmodern, nihilistic liberals. (See Liberalism vs Libertarianism.) Moderate religious folk, or what atheists like Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers like to call “accommodationists”, object to the “strident” tone of the New Atheistic case, as though intellectual New Atheism weren’t a superfluous rubbing of the Middle Eastern Muslim’s nose into the excrement of his or her premodern state of affairs. Strident words are as kisses by a spring breeze compared to the secularist’s direct or indirect military rule of the Muslim world. (This reminds me of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who reflexively reacts to any effective use of rhetoric on the part of his interviewee by calling the results “strong words.” Someone should inform Blitzer that all words are comparatively very weak.)
Criticizing New Atheists’ harsh tone is absurd for numerous other reasons, such as the fact that the Muslim world is hypersensitive, owing to its living under military oppression by Western secular powers, and so those Muslims are wont to riot at the drop of a hat or the sketching of a satirical cartoon, demonstrating both a double standard for harsh rhetoric (their vitriol against Jews is legendary) and a very low threshold for what they deem inappropriate rhetoric against them. Moreover, focusing on the tone of New Atheism is boring and thus aesthetically off-putting, since as has been clear since at least Nietzsche, the implications of atheism are rather earth-shattering.

Scientific Atheism

To paraphrase Nietzsche and to come to the point at issue, the scientific atheist believes that science is the primary if not the only weapon that kills God, that theistic belief is rendered irrational as a result of a wealth of modern scientific discoveries. Science presents us with a natural world in which there’s no room for God, and so traditional theistic religions are now backward and anachronistic. Moreover, scientific methods of rationality amount to rationality as such, and thus religious faith is a piece of irrationality.

Much of this is accurate, in my view, but scientific atheism is to philosophical atheism as is literalistic religion to the esoteric, mystical kind. Scientific atheism is philosophically primitive, and this is hardly an accident since the science-centered atheist typically pretends to reject philosophy along with theology. And while some religious beliefs are indeed fairly addressed by institutional science, the deepest ones are left untouched because they’re philosophical in nature. The scientific atheist suffers from a massive blind spot, which is the extent to which the case for atheism must be philosophical and not just scientific. Take, for example, the truth that scientists explain the universe’s natural processes. Does the existence of the natural cosmos entail that there’s no god? Of course not, since God is esoterically if not exoterically defined as the supernatural Creator of that cosmos, as a transcendent, immaterial mind or spirit that transcends our ken. How could a scientific experiment show that there’s no such being? Scientists actually presuppose methodological naturalism, according to which anything studied should be assumed to be natural and thus scientifically explainable, for the study’s sake. This pragmatic optimism about the scope of scientific methods is justifiable as far as it goes in science, but the methodological naturalist only thereby ignores the question of theism.

Moreover, whereas the practice of science may indeed be quintessentially rational, the scientist and the scientific atheist tend, as human animals, to invest their ultimate emotional stock somewhere, and as the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the theologian Paul Tillich said, that ultimate object of faith will serve as their god, the sacred center of their universe. But whereas philosophical atheists like Nietzsche are free to address this threat against the atheist's humanism, the scientific atheist tends to be blind to this problem. Although there’s plenty of empirical evidence that humans are inherently tribal and idolatrous, the scientific atheist prefers to ignore the normative questions of which idol should replace the traditional God or of whether a repudiation of any sort of myth or religious faith would be wise even were this possible.     

By construing the question of God’s existence as decisively scientific, scientific atheists play to the greatest strength of secular society, which is the power of technoscience. But in so doing, this sort of atheist demonstrates the same warped single-mindedness as that of the warmonger who thinks there’s a military solution to every sociopolitical problem or of the proverbial hammer-lover who sees everything else as a nail. There are indeed facets of religion that are susceptible to scientific testing and thus falsification; for example, the Darwinian revolution in biology directly challenges literalistic interpretations of monotheistic scriptures. These literalists typically do themselves the disservice of following Thomas Aquinas in assuming that the best way to combat heathenism is to wield the heathen’s weapon of Reason. Thus, literalists treat their scriptures as though they were concerned primarily with empirical rather than with normative truth, despite the fact that outside of ancient Greece and perhaps India, the ancients had no conception of an absolute division between fact and value. Whereas today it’s commonplace to speak of what’s factually the case regardless of whether we approve or even know about the matter, the ancient worldviews that gave rise to the current monotheistic religions were anthropocentric or animistic. The natural world was assumed to depend on divine people just as the local artificial world depends on mortal humans. Natural facts, then, were assumed to be artificial, which is to say that everything from the movement of the sun to the ocean’s waves were thought to be directly intended by some deity, in which case any question of empirical fact was inextricable from some psychological question of the deity’s purpose or from the social question of whether some group of humans properly worships the deity to steer the course of nature.

In short, the scientific atheist’s error is as gross as the literalistic theist’s. Science conflicts with religion only when a religious creed is reduced to a scientific theory or when values are reduced to facts, and prescriptions to descriptions. Granted, even if religions deal primarily with practical questions of how we should live in the face of death, religious statements are easily interpreted as having empirical implications. Certainly, the theist is committed to the notions that God designed the universe to sustain life and that God interacts with the natural order, responds to prayer, and performs miracles--especially those miracles which are crucial to monotheistic narratives. But refuting these notions on purely empirical grounds, amassing scientific data to demonstrate that there’s no such interaction is a fool’s errand, since the theist is always free to reinterpret her scripture or to rework her understanding of God’s relationship with us.

This is largely why theology isn’t a science in the first place, because the theist assumes that matter is everywhere dependent on some mind and not the other way around, and that since God’s mind is much greater than ours, we have only a flawed understanding of God’s plan. Even folk psychological interpretation of our own intentions is endless and inexact, because our beliefs and desires all bear on each other in a vast network of ever-changing mental states that corresponds somehow to the brain’s architecture, so that there’s always the possibility of explaining someone’s behaviour by emphasizing some other relation between her beliefs and desires. But the theologian obviously has even less reason to be fixated on a single interpretation of God’s state of mind, since God’s mind would transcend our comprehension and so we could never be certain we understand what God’s doing. On top of this, as I said, a mind is concerned with normative questions of how we ought to live, which are never answered solely by pointing to some empirical fact and which scientific methods therefore don’t address. In this way, theism is subjective rather than objective, because theism is distinguished by the positing of a great mind. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper said, theology and (Freudian) psychiatry are both nonscientific in that their statements are unfalsifiable.

Scientism’s Ironic Vindication of Philosophy

Now, the scientific atheist typically regards the unfalsifiability of theological statements as a disastrous defect that renders religion worthless and pitiful. But this is because the scientific atheist is plainly and quite ironically beholden to the religion I’ve called Scientism, which is equivalent roughly to a combination of positivism and Enlightenment humanism. Specifically, this atheist tends to reach the conclusion that scientific methods are the sole providers of knowledge, and that any belief that would fail on scientific grounds is worthless. This positivism is epistemologically primitive and otherwise embarrassingly clueless. First of all, humans are animals, not robots, and so we’re seldom interested just in knowledge for its own sake. Obviously, we have many other interests, including political, personal, and aesthetic ones. When the positivistic New Atheist pretends to be hyperrational, like a Vulcan from Star Trek, sneering at the theist for her ancient superstitions, wishful thinking, and other emotional weaknesses, just ask the atheist about her sex life: request a cold-hearted computation of the range of her sexual positions, a dissection of her perverted fantasies, and visual records of her sexual practices. See whether that superficially hyperrational atheist lives up to her religion’s calling as a posthuman, abiding on a higher plane than that of our primitive ancestors, or whether instead she succumbs to responding like the animal she actually is and retreats to an emotional defense of her embarrassingly primitive private life. (See Sex is Violent.)

Second, because we’re animals and not robots in the classic SF sense, our knowledge is value-laden, which is to say that our beliefs are intertwined with our interests so that knowledge isn’t just a set of propositions that corresponds to some facts, with a theory in tow that predicts and explains the evidence of why that correspondence should obtain; in addition to that strictly rational business, there’s the need for our beliefs to cohere with each other and with our desires and emotions. (See Hyperrationality.) While as a matter of fact the Earth may be approximately 12,700 km in diameter, knowing about that fact involves assimilating the belief into a larger worldview which is informed not just by scientific methods of evidence-gathering and testing, but by our practical concerns. A machine can merely record a representation of the Earth’s physical characteristics, but a person knows those characteristics by understanding their relevance, given a wider, partly normative perspective. That perspective is always informed by disciplines other than institutional scientific ones, even for a wannabe hyperrational atheist.

Scientism in the wider sense accounts for the ongoing phenomenon of positivism in science-centered culture, and thus for scientism in the narrow sense. (For clarity, I’ll now capitalize my references to the former sort of scientism.) In the narrow sense, scientism is just the view that all knowledge is obtained by scientific methods and that nonscientific academic disciplines are therefore of much less importance, if not wholly useless. In the wider sense, I define Scientism as science-centered religion that covertly substitutes for a more traditional one and that depends on a severe lack of self-awareness on its practitioner’s part. In particular, a Scientistic atheist notoriously pretends that philosophy is effectively as worthless and as counterproductive as theology, even though this atheist’s case against theism is always fundamentally philosophical.

For example, in this blog entry, the scientific New Atheist Jerry Coyne cites Stephen Hawking’s appeal to the pragmatic principle that science is superior to philosophy because “science works.” Theology and philosophy fail to progress, on this view, because theologians and philosophers fail to achieve consensus on answers to their intellectual questions, and in any case their disciplines are fruitless in that they don’t help us control natural forces to enhance our standard of living. Again, this positivistic, antiphilosophical philosophy is as embarrassingly juvenile as a libertarian’s worship of Ayn Rand. For no more than a moment of thought is needed to appreciate that pragmatic hostility to philosophy is perfectly self-destructive. Just run through the key terms in my above summary of pragmatism in the present paragraph and ask whether their use is scientifically or philosophically justified. Science “works” in that science enables us to control natural processes by means of determining their causes. In that respect, technoscience is indeed highly useful, but is it accurate to say that neither philosophy nor theology works in its own way? Of course, to say that philosophy needs to work exactly like science is just to beg the question in favour of scientism. No, philosophy and theology work as cognitive disciplines that attend to the normative and wider coherence dimensions of knowledge. Philosophy works by engendering skepticism with regard to social conventions, while exoteric theology works by unifying tribes around emotionally-satisfying totems or other idols.

And just as philosophy and theology nevertheless have their great weaknesses (philosophy causes angst and alienation, while mainstream theology thrives on gullibility, ignorance, and authoritarian impulses), technoscience clearly has its drawbacks as well. To quote Erik Davis, in Techgnosis,
Any serious observer must find herself questioning the sustainability of our extractive, industrial, and agricultural practices, our levels of consumption, and our myopic insults to the biosphere. All the cool commodities in the world cannot compensate for a future that promises a massive extinction of plants and creatures, the devastating loss of topsoil and rain forest, a cornucopia of pesticide-laden monocrops and lab-engineered Frankenfoods, and the climatic instabilities of global warming. And while globalization may thrust some social groups and regions into relative affluence, such prosperity could prove to be an ecological time bomb if the exuberant consumption patterns of the West are simply replicated on a global scale. (314)
Science isn’t solely to blame for these dangers, but science nevertheless is the chief enabler of globalization, and to the extent that globalization has a dark side, science doesn’t simply work. But to appreciate the normative aspect of the pragmatic lauding of science is already to enter into at least a philosophical (ethical or aesthetic) comparison of science with other disciplines.

Likewise, to say that philosophy doesn’t progress is to issue a normative judgment that no series of scientific tests in the world can suffice to justify. This is because what counts as social progress depends on our interests, and institutional science can’t prove what we should want. Is consensus or unanimity necessarily the mark of progress or of a working rather than a dysfunctional discipline? What strictly scientific method could demonstrate this as an empirical fact? Perhaps disagreement on largely subjective matters has the social advantage of fostering variety and thus greater human adaptability. Perhaps there’s more disagreement in philosophy and in religion, because normative, highly general, and emotionally crucial questions are harder to answer than empirically testable ones. More likely, though, perhaps answering them decisively isn’t the point, because grappling with a philosophical question is a way of shaping a personal outlook or a culture, without the benefit of presuppositions, whereas scientists are free to presuppose methodological naturalism, pragmatism, platonism, or some other philosophical stance without neglecting their duties as scientists.

Scientific, allegedly hyperrational atheism, though, is actually a philosophical position, and despite this atheist’s superficial hostility to philosophy as the baby in the bathwater of theology, the oblivious worshipper of science inevitably vindicates philosophy and at least the need for theology, albeit not any outmoded religion. The mental compartmentalization needed by a modern monotheist to maintain a coherent worldview despite the conflicts between any such religion and a modern mindset, is comparable to that needed by the Scientistic atheist who perceives the world through science-tinted lenses, leaving the blind spot of the philosophical and theological frame that holds those lenses in front of her eyes.

Indeed, Coyne is wont to equate science with rationality in general, to conceal the absurdity of his antiphilosophical philosophy and his underlying religious faith in science. (See, for example, this blog entry of his in which he says, “As for me, I maintain that if you define science broadly as I have above, then yes, plumbing is a form of science, for it uses empirical investigation and reason to do things like locate and fix leaks.”) That is, instead of maintaining that all knowledge issues from institutional science, Coyne and likeminded scientific atheists draw the line between atheism and theism at the point of general rationality. But because they equate rationality with science, by way of mere stipulation, they feel entitled to award science and not, say, philosophy, with the credit for atheism, thus satisfying by way of equivocation their religious and highly reductive preference for science in the narrower sense.

By all means, let the scientific atheist tout the glories of technoscience, which are many and awesome! But when the hubristic atheist ventures into the religious fundamentalist’s territory, having been mesmerized by those glories so that the atheist sees nothing of cognitive value outside of science, the scientific atheist creates a self-destroying worldview, abandoning her philosophical allies for the sake of religious purity.

Philosophical Atheism and Mystical Pessimism

By contrast, the philosophical atheist regards the question of theism as philosophical. But how does this atheist preserve philosophy while rejecting theology? After all, as the scientific atheist likes to point out, philosophy has more in common with theology than does science. Well, on the surface, the philosophical atheist proceeds by building an a priori case against the so-called god of the philosophers, an abstraction that’s rationally reconstructed from religious myths. For example, a philosopher is free to deconstruct a definition of God, reducing the definition to absurdity by deriving contradictions from the reconstruction of the theist’s assumptions. This is mostly a futile endeavour, since there’s always a gap between the rational reconstruction and the God that religious people actually worship, what with philosophy not being theology. Thus, the theist is free to say that the god of the philosophers is a red herring, that the rational definition of “God” would need to be altered to represent the deity figuring in a particular religion, and that there’s no end to the needed alteration since ultimately mysticism trumps literalism. As I’ll show in a moment, this theistic retreat to mysticism isn’t just an escape hatch to evade criticism, but points to the crucial difference between philosophy and theology. There are other philosophical arguments an atheist can deploy, though, in building a nonscientific but rational case against theism, some of which I summarize in Theism. Of course, a philosopher can criticize the theist’s a priori proofs of God’s existence and in general can show that theism is fallacious. In other words, the philosopher can construe her atheism as a moderate version of the science-centered variety, much as American Democrats can sell themselves as moderate Republicans.

But this doesn’t reveal what’s actually at stake in the conflict between philosophical atheists and theists. As suggested above, rational or so-called natural theology is something of a political strategy adopted by the likes of Catholics and Muslims to convert certain unbelievers. The idea is to show that all sacred paths lead to God, that science and reason generally pose no challenge to religion. But this raises the question of whether reason and science are sacred rather than profane, or God-favoured rather than demonic. Clearly, from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic perspective, secular powers don’t fit well within those religious narratives, assuming the narratives haven’t been secularized. After all, reason is a skill we’ve evolved in our “fallen” state to survive in what the monotheist regards as our mere temporary home, while technoscience is an elaboration on reason that enables us to re-engineer the world God would still have created for us, forging our own path by our own intelligence and power. Clearly, the monotheist requires no leap of imagination to label rationalism a mark of sinful arrogance--literally a following in Satan’s path, Satan or Prometheus being the archetypal rebel who creates his own world rather than serving as a slave to God’s plan. Paul of Tarsus said that natural as opposed to spiritual wisdom is folly to God, while the New Testament has Jesus say that you can gain the whole natural world but lose yourself on Judgment Day. Some monotheists try to co-opt secular instruments, but in so doing they inevitably corrupt their religion. As I say in Christian Chutzpah, the most appalling current case of this is the revolting spectacle of American so-called conservative Christianity in which the religion functions purely as a political weapon wielded by Republican demagogues, having absolutely nothing to do with the original Christian principles.

True, in Genesis God commands that we “subdue the whole world,” but as Jack Miles shows in God: A Biography, the character of God in the biblical narrative evolves as he discovers his preferences by interacting with his favourite creatures, having apparently no prior history to determine his character. Thus, God commands us to be fruitful and to multiply only to discover later that he doesn’t really approve of that commandment, since it has the unintended consequence that we become too powerful, and so God has to destroy us and start again. That initial commandment to the creatures made in his image represents only God’s most na├»ve conception of his purpose for us, reflecting in turn his most superficial understanding of himself, and thus would hardly still be in-effect. What the Bible shows God discovering along with his creatures is that the pride needed for us to rule the world leads to wars between us and thus to the breaking of God’s later proscription of killing, and to a demonic rebellion against God. Not content with ruling the world, humans build the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens, and so God has to weaken his creatures by impeding our ability to communicate. In fact, the literalistic reading of the Bible as inerrant betrays an underlying hostility to the Bible, a resentment that the Bible is so difficult to understand, and a confession that the literalist lacks the patience to read the text with the eyes of a literary critic. Memorizing and mindlessly repeating cherished quotations as relevant equally throughout all time and space, in their most superficial guise with no need for interpretation or understanding of historical and literary contexts, is just lazy and disrespectful to the authors and editors.

To return to the point, though, the canonical arguments in Western philosophy of religion are mostly unimportant, which is one reason that that philosophical field is so marginalized even in the US despite the abundance of American interest in religion. The rationalism implicit in the theistic proofs and secular counterarguments betrays a mere exoteric understanding of God, and thus leaves aside the distinction between literalism and mysticism. What theology represents is actually a call for our ultimate humility, given faith or nonrational knowledge (direct perception) that there’s something much greater than ourselves to which we owe our lives. Theistic religion is primarily a check on our pride; at least, that’s an implication of the mystical heart of that sort of religion. But the problem is that most religious people get caught up in the oversimplified conception of God as a person--as a creator, designer, warlord, father, son, or provider of gifts. The god of exoteric, literalistic theism may be easier to understand and to affirm, but the drawback is that this god becomes one of us instead of a transcendent being that renders our pride foolish. Indeed, the literalist’s analogy between God and a human secularizes her religion, by implicitly deifying human nature. Literalistic theism justifies humanism, whereas mystical theism condemns our nature as illusory or as nothing compared to the transcendent oneness of ultimate reality.

Even an argument like the so-called cosmological one, that God is the First Cause, reduces God to a natural being for the sake of our rational understanding, and thus misses the point of mysticism that is essential to theism. So as I said above, a theist’s appeal to mysticism is no retreat from the need for rigorous philosophizing; rather, academic Western philosophy of religion is a study mainly of red herrings. That philosophy is naturalistic and thus science-centered and humanistic, whereas for thousands of years theistic religions have challenged those who are tempted to assume that they can find their own happiness. Nonsecularized religious belief always rests on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of experience rather than on science or logic, which renders the belief nonrational (subjective and emotional). The theist feels convinced by her experience that however great our knowledge and power, there are much greater forms that humble ours; she suspects, therefore, that our pride in ourselves is a vice, a result of short-sightedness. The mystical theist grapples with the challenge this intuition poses to the now-treasured secular faith in the autonomy of the human individual, in her rights and dignity as a godlike being who subdues nature with technoscience. Meanwhile, the literalistic theist loses sight of the intuition and becomes an unknowing pawn of secular powers, as she embraces religious metaphors that covertly deify human nature.  

What, then, divides Western mystical theism from philosophical atheism? That’s the deeper question. My answer is that the former is comedic whereas the latter is tragic. Western mysticism is so marginalized compared to the West’s interest in exoteric monotheism, that the Western mystic’s lesson is tainted by the exoteric metaphors. That is, even the sophisticated Westerner’s God becomes all-too-human, and so Western theism loses its potential to challenge secular humanism. Even the sophisticated liberal Christian who professes to reject the literal meaning of most biblical passages nevertheless identifies God with something as insipid as love or perhaps with a quasi-natural force like the platonic Good that steers everything towards its happy destiny. Western theism is comedic in that it’s highly optimistic about human beings. Jews, Christians, and Muslims currently don’t fear God, because they’ve humanized him, failing to grasp the meaning of mystical insight. Theistic humanism, in turn, is a force for secularization. (Granted, Islam gives the appearance of being an exception, but this is because the current dire circumstances of most Muslims compel them to latch onto the warlord metaphor which happens to be scarier than, say, the Christian’s metaphor of God the Father or Son.)

Now, Eastern mysticism has much more vitality and immunity from exoteric contamination. But for just this reason, Eastern theism is revealingly regarded by Westerners as more philosophical than religious, despite the fact that Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Taoists are much more concerned with practice than with creeds. And this brings me to the important difference between philosophical atheism and theism: theists flee from the destructive implications of mysticism, whereas philosophers courageously (or foolishly?) grapple with those implications. Western theists flee to the comfort of simplistic metaphors, whereas Easterners tend to depart from theism itself, honouring the philosophical confrontation with mysticism and thus effectively embracing atheism. Granted, many Hindus worship various gods and many Buddhists worship various gurus, but mysticism is much more central to those religions than it is to current Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Again, by “mysticism” I mean the denunciation of natural appearances as the causes of ignorance and thus of suffering, and the renunciation of pleasures and rational powers that distract from that anti-natural realization. This mysticism began with Hinduism and filtered to the West after Alexander the Great opened channels of communication between the ends of the Old World. Eastern religions are tragic in that they regard the spirit’s liberation as an escape from the prison of nature and thus from human personality: we win in the end only by grasping that we’re nothing, that the notion of bliss in a personal heaven on some ethereal plane is just a fantasy. By contrast, Western religions are comedic: showing no mystical turning from the apparent world, and revealing the extent of their exoteric individualism, Jews, Christians, and Muslims envision heaven as life in a resurrected body, with Muslims even emphasizing heaven’s physical perfection. In Western religions, our wildest dreams are ultimately fulfilled, including the dream of perfect justice for the wicked in hell, whereas in Eastern religions those dreams are rejected precisely as such and replaced with detachment from the world that looks a lot like the existentialist’s alienation and angst. (See Buddhism.) 

And this brings me to philosophical mysticism, that is, to the Socratic philosopher’s hostility to social conventions, which is central to the Western philosophical tradition even if many Western philosophers aren’t Socratic. Whereas the Western mystical theist slides into exoteric happy-talk, rendering her monotheism comedic and thus contrary to mystical hostility to natural (samsaric) inclinations, the Socratic philosopher shares the Eastern mystical view that the beloved wisdom destroys the ego and society at large by undermining optimistic or pragmatic opinions, what Plato called “noble lies.” This is why Socrates was executed. He recognized that his sole piece of wisdom was that he knew nothing, which ironically made him the wisest person in Greece; he knew nothing in that he stubbornly lacked faith in tradition or authority. Socratic philosophy is self-destructive, since this sort of philosopher is compelled to reject what society values, which naturally alienates her. The parallels between the Socratic philosopher and the Eastern mystic should be clear.

Now, the updated version of Socrates’ trenchant skepticism is informed, of course, by modern science which undermines the theist’s faith that history will end in our favour. On the contrary, implies the scientist, no one survives bodily death and since we’re evolving animals, we’ll become extinct like any other species. No deus ex machina for us (unless the transhumanist’s hopes for technological apotheosis are realized). But again, the rational case against theism misses the mystical point, which is that our reason, our power, our love, and everything else we do or possess are of no consequence in the greater scheme. The mystic perceives miraculous potential in this scheme--mainly the interconnectedness of everything that appears independent. What the Socratic philosopher finds distasteful in theism, then, is the cowardly backsliding into optimistic, humanistic, and thus secularized literalism. By contrast, the philosophical version of mysticism looks like a synthesis of existentialism and cosmicism. Instead of trusting that we’re each saved by a divine Son, that divine Love conquers all, that our personal spirit is eternal, or that God is good and in control of the universe, the philosophical mystic, or hyper-skeptic, is preoccupied with horror: horror for the absurdity of our self-centered delusions, horror for the universe’s palpable inhumanity which we still find ways to deny, horror that every society depends on fraud and vice, horror that nature evolved self-aware beings who are forced to live as degraded beasts or to torture themselves with grim knowledge.

To see this in dramatic terms, recall that the exoteric theist demonizes the character of Satan for daring to defy God by rejecting his place in the divine plan and acting as god in a world of his own creation, called hell. Again, on this account of the myth, secular humanism (Scientism) becomes Satanic. But the mystical, Gnostic Christian reinterprets the myth, casting Satan as the wise hero who escapes from the tyranny of a false God. The literalist’s god is indeed false, a projection of her self-centeredness, motivated by her fear of facing the horrible truths of our existential predicament that modern science now makes clear for all educated people. (See Happiness.) Like the Eastern mystic and the Gnostic’s Satan, the Socratic philosopher “falls from grace,” meaning that she’s socially ostracized for her boundless skepticism; indeed, this is the underlying reason for academic philosophy’s wider unpopularity. As Satan was flung from a false heaven, from participation in the Matrix of illusions which is the natural plane, the Eastern mystic hopes to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth, to be extinguished so that her suffering and her embarrassing incarnation as a clever ape can end. And as Satan suffers in hell, so too the philosopher and the mystic are angst-ridden, jarringly dislocated as they perceive irony and folly everywhere, drawn to the transcendent mystery in all things while condemning every rational or optimistic solution. 

In short, Socratic philosophy and Eastern mysticism both interpret the world as a monstrous tragedy and as absurdly ironic. The philosopher should reject exoteric theism not because this theist’s arguments are fallacious, which of course they are, but because theistic literalism betrays the mysticism to which theists and atheists alike are entitled. When the theist dresses up God to look human with anthropocentric metaphors, she tastelessly showcases her narcissism and opts for the pragmatic, secular humanistic lifestyle of pleasing herself with delusions. For the Socratic philosopher, most cases of theism are insufficiently mystical (Lovecraftian or existential), and the problem with scientific atheism is likewise that this atheist’s Scientism amounts to another comedic, humanistic faith. The exoteric theist and the scientific atheist both fail to appreciate the mystical, utterly tragic upshot of modern science, of Socratic hyper-skepticism, or of Eastern traditions of enlightenment. So while the scientific atheist properly rejects literalistic theism as fit for children, this atheist nevertheless swears allegiance to the wrong faith, to Scientism or positivistic humanism, which itself is preposterously anti-philosophical. In my view, the religious faith needed in a postmodern, highly technoscientific culture looks rather like some combination of existentialism, cosmicism, Eastern mysticism, and science fiction. (See Postmodern Religion.)


  1. Hi Ben,

    Just wanted to stop by and leave my first comment.

    I really enjoy your blog. Since someone linked me to your post on "Christian Chutzpah" I have been reading pretty much everything you post. It's generally great stuff, and always makes me think. I was hooked when you pointed out that Pauline theology generally allows Jesus' sacrificial death to supersede his radical ethical teachings. I have tried to word that before, but it was unclear to me exactly what I was thinking until you said it so well in that post.

    As great as your blog is, I have managed to come up with just a couple suggestions you might consider :)

    First, your writing style is extremely dense. You sometimes present huge ideas and thoughts very skillfully condensed into a single sentence. I think this is a great skill to have, and I think it is preferred to other writing styles. However, for a post that is as lengthy as this one it makes reading a single post a bit of a chore. Not in a bad way per se, it's just that I can hardly digest 1/10th of what you have said here in a reasonable amount of time. I have come back to this post about 3 times today, and there is so much in it, that I have barely dug into what you are saying. Maybe this just proves I lack the brain power necessary, but I wonder if breaking up larger posts like this into a series of posts would make them easier to digest, allowing the readers subconscious to process what they have read between posts. I could be way off here, and I am by no means a professional blog reader or blogger or whatever the relevant expert would be here, and it is very possible I am the only reader who feels this way, so please keep this also in consideration along with the suggestion.

    Second, I have tried to comment a couple of times, but I do all my commenting with Disqus. Just wondering if you have considered it as a comment engine? I feel like most the blogs I read use it, and it seems to work pretty well. I have a google account, but I am in a bad place to have it linked with my atheist type worldview, and posting on sites like this using it could have some consequences for me in my current situation. I guess just about everybody has a google account, so again maybe this suggestion is one to take with some skepticism :)

    That's all for my suggestions, but after reading this post, I was wondering if you had read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape? I have heard Sam and others talk about it at length, but have not yet myself gotten around to reading it. You seem to indicate in the post that science can't be applied to everything, especially some parts of philosophy (correct me if I am misreading you), but I wonder if you agree with Sam's conclusion that Science can be applied to determine morality?

    Thanks Ben!


  2. Ben,

    Thanks very much for trying out DISQUS! Hopefully your experience with it is good. I understand about the post-length, and I was really unsure about even suggesting it. After further reflection, I think what would really solve my gripe about the length would be Google reader remembering my place when I close an entry before completing it.

    I do intend to come back to this post, I am a little more than half way through, but it is a very interesting subject, and makes me reconsider a number of things. Some ideas that I used to hold solidly in my mind are a little less sure, and I think that's a good thing.

    Going back to the morality issue, I think Harris would argue (I have heard him use this analogy) that science can't show that humans ought to desire to be healthy anymore than they could show that humans ought to desire to be happy, yet we make a science out of medicine. 

    I believe his whole argument hinges on whether or not Morality is really about well-being. If it is, then I don't see why there could not be a science that determines the morality of actions based on their promotion or destruction of well-being. I am not sure if I could conclude morality is really about well-being. I think a case could be made for it based on the fact that if the very concept of morality developed as we evolved from individuals into more social species, then the morality of an action would be at least partly determined by how it affected the well-being of the members of the social group.

    It is possible what I am saying is non-sense :) I am not a philosopher, but I find philosophy particularly interesting.

    If interested, Sam talks far more in-depth, and has a QnA regarding this topic here:

    It is lengthy, with about 45 minutes of lecture and another 30-45 of QnA, but he does at least attempt to respond to objections similar to ones your making.

    Hopefully this subject matter is close enough to the content of the post to be appropriate...

    Thanks for replying,


  3. Jkx,

    Thanks for the link. Instead of replying to what you say about Harris' argument here in the comments section, I decided to blog my critique of his book, most of which I've since read. If you're interested, check out my March 30 blog entry, "Sam Harris' Science of Morality."

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  5. Replies
    1. Thanks very much, Evan. I think you have a good eye, even if I do say so myself. Rereading this article, I think the distinctions in it are pretty important. In fact, I think next week I'll come back to the connection between scientific atheism and New Atheism. I see at the end, too, I anticipated what I wrote later in "Is the Devil a Hero?"

      It's very important for atheists to be aware of the different strengths and weaknesses that science and philosophy bring to the conflict with religion. The problem at the moment is that science-centered atheists go after what they call "religion" whereas their target is really theism and more specifically exoteric theism.

    2. I think the distinctions in it are pretty important

      Of course they are; "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms" as Plato has Socrates saying.

      The problem at the moment...

      True. Granted, this kind of exoteric religion is more prevalent in the US, but that brings us to the other problem of the so-called New Atheism: it's too... I was gonna say US-centric, but that's wrong it's too protestant-centric.

      For instance, it's easy to spot a huge gap in the atheist discussion about christian and muslim mysticism; not surprising, since monasticism is all but non-existent in protestant denominations (unlike countries with an orthodox of catholic majority).

      Second, it's obvious that New Atheism is obsessed with results. I have several atheist groups on my Facebook and I see daily the question "In 2012 science brought us these things; what did religion do" as if the question even coherent (and I've heard theories that this is a direct product of protestant thought). And this trend is contaminating atheist thought in all western countries. For instance (and speaking of monasticism) I see discussions about the monastic tradition in Greece degrade into the incoherence of "what useful things do the monks produce for us?".

      And this is not surprising at all, since New Atheism relied too much on appeal to consequences to attract followers early on, the "religion flies you into buildings" being the most emotionally manipulative of all in this category. The anti-religious social justice agenda often floats dangerously close to this fallacy as well (when it doesn't blatantly cross it, that is).

    3. Certainly, Protestantism would be more influential in the US than in most parts of Europe, but if New Atheists are pragmatic, I think the greater influence now would be technoscience. "Science is true true because it works," is the slogan, meaning that science can be usefully applied in the invention of technologies that raise the standard of living.