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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A nice pro-religious argument

I came across this, or something similar, the other day. I don't think it's a successful argument in the sense that it should persuade an atheist. Still, it's quite neat. It's deductively valid, and it's not viciously circular, since independent arguments can be put for both P1. and P2.

P1. Certain religious virtues, attitudes, etc., are superior to their secular equivalents.
P2. P1. could be true only if God existed and we were His creatures.
C. God exists and we are His creatures.

It looks to me as there must be some sense in which P2. is true, though I query whether it could be true at the same time as P1. and without equivocation.

I suspect that the godless readers of this blog will want to dismiss P1. pretty quickly, and in the end I'd probably reject it too. But I actually think that a fair bit can be said in its favour.

Note that the conclusion entails only a very minimal belief: God exists and we are His creatures. A very moderate religionist could believe this. If someone is actually persuaded by this argument to retain some kind of minimal religious belief, I won't have too much of a problem with it. I'd even adopt the argument myself if I thought it stood up to analysis, but I don't think it does. The fact that it doesn't might not be entirely welcome, though. Religious attitudes to the world may not, ultimately, be superior to their secular equivalents, but there is something impressive about at least some of them.

Consider this famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Nice, eh? It does appear to me that there is a certain attitude to the world expressed in this poem which it is impossible to have without some kind of minimal religious belief along the lines that God exists and we are His creatures. Hopkins does not see the world merely as awe-inspiring and beautiful; it's more than that. He sees it as charged with the grandeur of a creator-deity to whom we owe obedience. Somehow, we see the world and catch a glimpse of something beyond it, sustaining it and caring for it.

You can't translate the vision of the poem into secular terms without losing something. Hopkins is not seeing nature as just beautiful, fresh and self-renewing, or grand/awesome. For Hopkins, the world somehow conveys to us the greatness of a supernatural being who stands behind it all and whose creatures we are. Somehow - it's not clear how - we have this experience of seeing through the phenomena to a higher or deeper or more noumenal (not to mention numinous) reality.

It's impossible not to be impressed by this, and Hopkins' vision does seem, at least arguably, to be somehow "richer" than any secular equivalent. This may be an illusion - perhaps we are merely socialised to find this kind of sacramental vision of nature's grandeur and beauty especially impressive and moving. Still you can, maybe, see why a religious believer might not want to stop taking this kind of sacramental vision with full seriousness; you can see why someone might want to buy into it unproblematically. We atheists can project ourselves into it imaginatively, perhaps, or we can take a slightly distanced, almost anthropological view of it. But we can't embrace what Hopkins is saying without reservation, and perhaps there is a loss here. It may also be true that holding such a minimalist religious belief does not require giving up much that's of secular value.

(Of course, those parts of the poem that talk about us being sinners - e.g. not recking God's rod, i.e. disobeying him - may seem less palatable. If there is no secular equivalent of this, perhaps it's a good thing.)

All in all, at least some aspects of the poem's vision might impress us in a way that a secular equivalent would not. This seems to make P1. seem more plausible.

Here's a simpler example: the religious believer with at least the minimal belief that I've described can face each morning with an attitude of thankfulness. We atheists can also be "thankful", but only in inverted commas, because there is no person to thank - at most we can "thank" (or perhaps just be happy about) all the good events and so on that have kept us alive until now (we can thank goodness, as Daniel Dennett says, but surely it is an inverted-commas kind of thanking). But this secular equivalent may seem to be missing something. Again P1. is lent some plausibility.

There are many such examples. We could multiply them indefinitely.

At the same time, how could P1. be true unless it really is true that God exists and we are His creatures? So surely, it might be said, we must accept P2. But then, if the arguments for the plausibility of P1. move us, so that we accept both premises, we are forced by the logical entailment to accept C.

As I said, I don't think it's a satisfactory argument - and I'll leave its problems as an exercise for my readers. But it may bring out one way in which someone can be a very moderate and minimalist religious believer, while also being very serious about it (and honestly saying "not my religion" when confronted by attacks on religion by people like Richard Dawkins).

Don't worry, I'm not going soft on religion. I continue to believe that its claims are false, that the argument under discussion is not successful, and that it would be better if the political influence of religion were reduced. But sometimes it's good to think about how things might seem to reasonable people on the other side.



Anonymous said...

Leaving aside any difficulties with defining "superior to" wrt these virtues, I'm still struggling to understand why P1 could only be true if P2 were true. It seems something of a leap to me, to say the least.

Russell Blackford said...

I think some insight might come out of this, so let's pursue it.

I don't think anyone who is at all sceptical need accept P1. and P2. in the same sense at the same time, but isn't there something to be said for P2.? (It also occurs to me that we could make P1. weaker and the argument will still go through, if we're worried about notions of superiority ... but maybe someone else will follow that thought.)

Here's why P2. seems attractive to me. How can Hopkins' attitude (for example) be so great if Hopkins is essentially, not to put too fine a point on it, deluded? This doesn't have to be delusion in any clinical sense, but he seems to "see" God's presence showing forth in nature. If God doesn't even exist, Hopkins is having a kind of illusion. How could that be of any value?

This seems to suggest that P1. (or perhaps even a weaker premise) can be true only if what Hopkins "sees" is veridical. But that's what P2. says.

So why not accept P2.?

John Pieret said...

If P2 isn't true, then religious virtues, attitudes, etc., are secular, i.e. there is nothing to distinguish them from any other set of human virtues and you're left with the conundrum of why they're superior.

Nicely done, Russell. You may return Ken Miller's shoes.

Russell Blackford said...

Does Ken Miller actually argue along these lines? I haven't read his book, but I've heard about the waterfall story, which could (if I have the story straight) be used as another example to try to support P1.

In any event, it shows the problem. Imagine that Miller somehow experienced the waterfall not just as awesome and beautiful but as showing the grandeur of God ... well, I'm going to bite the bullet and say that the experience was not veridical (which does seem to me to cast doubt on whether it was more valuable than, or even as valuable as, a purely secular aesthetic experience). But that's a tough thing to say to him, and a tough thing to expect him to accept.

Blake Stacey said...

There will never be unanimous agreement on transcendent or numinous experiences and what should be done about them. I am in the presence of the numinous, you are being heterodox and he is the infidel. Once you try to put the "religious virtues" of P1 into actual human terms, you find that they create new scarce resources over which people will fight. We have enough scarcity on this planet that we don't need to invent any more, thank you very much — and on top of that, the resources created by religious belief cannot have their value (and often, even their existence) tested by empirical, rational, secular means. I can't help but think that violence resulting from such divisions is even more repugnant than the struggle for verifiable resources, be they oil or opium.

No matter the quality of the poetry written by those who have encountered their own personal transcendence, the experience of human history shows that mixing transcendence with politics is a good way to get an explosion. We have to look at a great deal more than poetry if we even want to begin to establish the truth of P1.

In The Mind's Sky, Timothy Ferris points out that many mystics who have had the "enlightenment experience" come back saying that there's no way to describe "It" in words. This doesn't stop them from advertising the experience at length, and one might like to find irony in that, but still, the idea that true enlightenment requires transcending beyond language is a fairly common one. (Ferris hypothesizes that the enlightenment experience is a derangement of the normal "software architecture" of the mind, in which consciousness — the program running at the highest level — is made to bypass the modules with which it normally interfaces, such as those which process language, and connect directly with lower-level ones. Whether this entertaining argument has any truth to it I wouldn't dare to say.) If the essence of the mystical experience cannot be shared, how can we even begin to estimate its value, and more importantly, how can we expect that the attitudes about life which the followers of any two mystics will derive from those experiences will agree in any meaningful way?

For that matter, why should we assume that the traditional religions represent the extreme form of the virtues and attitudes referenced in P1? I know LSD users who go into raptures trying to describe the expansion of their souls atop the peak and plateau of a drug trip; what's more, they describe with genuine poignancy the loss of that ascension as the next day begins. "Perhaps," they say, "in fifty years, when we find enlightenment the long way round, it'll feel like home." I wonder if the cycle of having Oneness and losing it again might be more complex, more aesthetically nuanced than going about the numinous the old-fashioned way?

"But," one might object, "that's just a drug-induced aberration of brain function!" Very well, but the only reason we don't see "God's Grandeur" in the same way is because we already presume that C is true — that Hopkins's perceptions have a referent in reality.

Larry Hamelin said...

I'm not sure why you like the argument; it seems circular: P2 says (in an oblique way) that if P1 is true then P1 is true.

I think it's easier if we recast the argument in a more straightforward way:

P1: At least one religious virtue is superior to its secular equivalent.
P2: If a religious virtue is superior to its secular equivalent, then God exists, etc.
C: God exists, etc.

Stated in this more straightforward way, it seems obvious that one could accept P1 and reject P2. To find P1 true independently of P2, it's necessary to define "superior to" without dependence on the existence of God. Otherwise, a religious virtue would be superior only in the sense that it recognized the existence of a God.

But if I can find a religious virtue independently superior, then ipso facto it is still superior even if P2 were false. Contrawise, if I can find a religious virtue superior only if it is superior by virtue of P2 being true, then we're simply begging the question.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting to contemplate an (imperfect) mirror image of this argument.

P1': Certain acts of private courage or charity by atheists are morally superior to their religious equivalents.

P2': P1' could only be true if God does not exist.

C': God does not exist.

P1' is arguable, because such acts are done without hope of divine reward, and most people, believers or atheists, can see some merit in the idea that good acts are devalued when they are done in the hope of personal gain. I think P2' is the weakest link here; P1' might work against the existence of a certain kind of God, but it's not that hard to imagine a deity that is compatible with P1'.

But going back to the original argument, I find P1 in the particular case of the arts entirely incontrovertible, but P2 utterly unpersuasive.

What I mean about P1 is that some religiously motivated works of art (whether poetry, painting, architecture or music) have unique (and admirable) features that would vanish entirely from any notion of a "secular equivalent".

But I don't see P2 as holding for religious art; the likelihood that God does not exist does not render the religious impulse intrinsically aesthetically void (or morally void, for that matter). Inasmuch as the religious impulse grows out of many of the best moral and aesthetic impulses, religious art benefits from those roots, rather than the test of God's existence or nonexistence.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Greg, I think P1. is on its strongest ground with the arts, which is why I chose Hopkins. It would be very easy to seem like a philistine if I simply responded to the argument along the lines that, "Hopkins is deluded - so what's so great about this non-veridical experience that he's having?"

The lesson for me about all this isn't that God exists afterall, but that religious impulses permeate our heritage of art and culture in ways that make it no simple matter for strictly secular people to discuss the value of something like a Hopkins poem, and no simple matter to disabuse a sophisticated religionist who is steeped in all this material and is strongly motivated to buy into it unproblematically.

I agree with the analyses that say that even if we can agree that P1. is true of at least some (one or more) religious attitudes or virtues P2. might still be false. In fact, I actually think that if P1. is true in some sense then, holding the same sense constant, P2. will be false. I.e., as barefoot bum said, whatever value this experience has is going to have to be independent of whether God exists. If we can establish value on that basis, so as to satisfy ourselves that P1. is true, then we should think P2. is false.

I do, however, think it's neat that the problem with the argument isn't that we can simply dismiss P1., which I thought might be the first impulse of my fellow atheists.

My feeling about arguments like this is that, although they are never successful as proofs they do serve to generate questions and maybe some insights. Why might someone with a very minimalist religious commitment nonetheless sincerely find value in her religion? Why might he or she somehow connect it with the value of art and culture? What should we say about attitudes to the world (and works of art in which they are expressed) that seem to depend on religious claims that are very likely to be false?

I came across the article in an issue of Ratio when I was looking for something else; I kind of dismissed it (and may even have misrepresented the argument somewhat here), but have found my thoughts returning, ever since, to the issues it seems to raise.

David B. Ellis said...
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David B. Ellis said...

So, basically, religion has deep cultural roots and is aesthetically powerful (having had millenia to refine its aesthetic tools).

I don't think anyone could reasonably disagree with that.

I'm reminded of the differences between the reaction of myself (a skeptic) and my sister to the music and ritual at a nondenominational evangelical church she used to attend.

I wouldn't begin to disagree that the whole thing was powerfully arousing.

A fact she took as confirmation of her religious views....and which I simply found blatantly emotionally manipulative.

Blake Stacey said...

A variation on Greg Egan's variation:

P1'': Certain acts of artistic creation by atheists are aesthetically superior to their religious equivalents.

P2'': P1'' could only be true if God does not exist.

C'': God does not exist.

Again, P1'' is arguable, I think. Artistic creation done without expectation of eternal reward for piety has a certain nobility; literature which is not tied to a particular faith tradition can draw upon more cultures and thereby enrich itself; etc. As with Greg Egan's variation, the second premise appears to be the weak link.

David B. Ellis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B. Ellis said...

Yeah, Greg, I think P1. is on its strongest ground with the arts, which is why I chose Hopkins.

I think part of the problem is the term "secular equivalent". There ARE no secular equivalents for an aesthetic experience that directly involves religious views not shared by nonsupernaturalists.

But equally true is that there are no religious equivalents for aesthetic experiences directly involving a naturalistic worldview.

And, in my experience as an ex-christian who knows what its like to experience art from both sides of the fence, art assuming naturalism to be true is capable of being just as powerful as any art assuming supernaturalism to be true. Maybe others haven't felt the same thing but then art is by its nature a subjective thing.

And, speaking of art by secularists, Greg, I'm looking forward to reading INCANDESCENCE.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"But sometimes it's good to think about how things might seem to reasonable people on the other side."

Hmm, what's the secular equivalent of "Amen"? Aw, heck: Amen to that!

On a different matter ...

The big flaw, IMO, in P1 is that it is ambiguous. What does it mean to say that certain virtues or attitudes are "superior"? Does it mean that they are more effective at inducing certain desirable behaviors, or have more emotional punch, etc. Once it is established what "superior" means in this context, then the truth of P2 can be determined.

Russell Blackford said...

JJ we certainly don't want "superior" to mean something like "more valuable because associated with a veridical experience of the supernatural". If it meant that, P2. would be true, but P1. would be false.

John Pieret said...

Does Ken Miller actually argue along these lines?

I doubt it, if I know my Catholics (it's been a long time since I read Finding Darwin's God and I wasn't interested in the theology). I was just generally talking about your "it's good to think about how things might seem to reasonable people on the other side."

The waterfall was Michael Collins. I haven't read his book but I'm sure he'd consider it veridical.

Russell Blackford said...

Ah, Michael Collins. My mistake, then. Thanks.

Russell Blackford said...

Or Francis Collins?

Anonymous said...

I have less of a problem seeing Hopkins's piece minus religion. He marvels at the resilience of the world, despite the progress of man and attributes the continuing beauty of nature to God; that such beauty can only persist because of God. If Hopkins were an atheist and Darwinian, I belive that he could have produced an equally awe-inspiring work, eliciting an amazement of the world and its myriad intricacies by the very way in which it continues to evolve.
I believe the poem was written in 1877 (please correct me if otherwise), by which time Hopkins would have no doubt heard all about that Darwin fellow.
I don't necessarily agree with the work being 'richer' due to his oft described 'biblical imagery' and that his particular higher plane of perception is any more spectacular than any secular description. There is probably an illusory aspect to it, as you mention; history is strewn with men (mainly) going off somewhere to ponder and reflect, bathed in an aura of solemnity, usually with a soft-focus mountain scene for maximum effect. Nevertheless, it is an impressive piece, and probably continues to inspire those who chose to see it as Hopkins did.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Russell,

This is Bonzai from Rd.net.

I posted the first two paragraph in rd,net and here is a greatly expanded version.

A lot of great art work do owe their existence to religion, but not in the way Ravenhill intended. These works was great because they manage to cleverly subvert the religious stricture for their own end. In the same way many great art works in the former Soviet Union owe their existence to the oppressive system.

As a general point, art often feeds on despair, A lot of great works of art are subliminal expressions of human angst and suffering. Without war and slaughter you wouldn't have the great paintings and sculptures of Goya and kathy kollwitz. But this is hardly an argument for killing and mayhem.

To be fair though, there is something to be said about the relationship between religion and certain kind of art.

In a sense religion itself is a kind of art.

For some people, religion is not so much about truth claims or dogmas, but it is an almost literary short hand that summarizes ambiguous and hard to articulate experience with what one can loosely call "the transcendence", perhaps in the Einsteinian sense. In this capacity religion can be a visualization aid for artists who try to capture some kind of grandeur and other worldly beauty. By comparison, contemporary, secular art tends to be "small", with a focus on human scale emotions and experience. I am not an art expert, this is just an impression. I am not implying that one is better than the other, just pointing out the apparent difference.

Another thing is that "religion" is a collection of folklores, rituals, traditions and symbolism
which serve as a general cultural backdrop and a fertile ground of raw material on which the artists work upon. It is difficult to disentangle, for example, Christianity and its imageries and symbolism from the last two thousand years of European history .

I think some kind of shared mythologies, whether you want to call it religion or other names, is unavoidable in any human civilization. To make an analogy, according to psychology we are only consciously aware of a very small part of our mental processes. A large part of them is deeply concealed in the subconscious level and they are subtly influenced by suggestions but are difficult, if not impossible to unravel. We are "arational" for a lot of what we do. "Irrational" would probably be the wrong word because I am thinking of things that we are not even aware of at the conscious level.

I think societies and civilizations in some ways are similar. There are relatively few things relating to the human experience which are simple and clear cut enough to be amendable to a completely rational and scientific treatment, this is demonstrated by the poverty of the social sciences in general. The rest goes into the collective subconscious of civilizations, in the form of art, myths, taboos and yes, religion.

Blake Stacey said...

And, in my experience as an ex-christian who knows what its like to experience art from both sides of the fence, art assuming naturalism to be true is capable of being just as powerful as any art assuming supernaturalism to be true. Maybe others haven't felt the same thing but then art is by its nature a subjective thing.

Never having had a faith to lose, I appreciate this perspective.

Mike said...


The thing I have the most problem with is "He sees it as charged with the grandeur of a creator-deity to whom we owe obedience." in reference to the poem. That seems to be the only possible way in which this type of relgious ethics could differ from a secular view, but how can obedience to authority help us to answer ethical questions without circularity?

Anonymous said...

The sacramental vision, with its enriched layers, need not be theistic. A lot of outstanding poetry belongs to this genre. From my own tradition alone, Seferis and Elytis (both Nobel prize winners) wrote poetry charged with this sense of belonging to something larger, without the presence of a deity anthropomorphic or otherwise. And we do belong to something larger: to this planet, this universe, with all their awesome glory.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks to all of you. I think that we are, indeed, getting some insight into the relationship between religion and certain kinds of attitudes, virtues, and transcendent experiences. Those things are precious to a lot of people who are not raving fundies who deserve our contempt, but rather educated, cultured, and often liberal, people. In the end, we may have to debunk some of what they say. E.g. the "creaturely" feeling that so many religious folk claim to have actually fills me with loathing ... and even the idea of being literally thankful worries me quite a lot. In the latter case, perhaps it's because my intuitive response is the opposite - although I'm glad to be alive I see a lot of room for improvement to the life and body that I've been "given" and the situation in which I, along with rest of you, find myself.

What is not attractive about the sacramental vision that Hopkins expresses is the almost anti-human idea of the world being damaged by our "smudge" and "smell". While I take the point about environmental damage, seeing this as a matter of sin and disobedience seems to distort the problem in a nasty way.

This may also be why humility is another example that doesn't impress me. (Hume, of course, denied that humility is a virtue.) It may be said that you have to be religious in a certain way to have a certain kind of humility - the kind that sees us as tiny in the face of the all-good and all-powerful God. I actually find that less attractive than its nearest secular equivalents (various kinds of wonder at the universe; various everyday kinds of modesty about our talents and accomplishments, and so on).

You're all making so many good points that it is hard to know where to start in responding, but yes there is probably an Einsteinian religion equivalent of Hopkins' transcendent experience which is very close; and I can see, Athena, how someone could have the kind of vision you describe without any literal God belief. So perhaps, to the extent that there are additional elements in Hopkins' vision, we just do, ultimately want to resist the idea that his vision is superior to its secular equivalents. It may not be translatable, and he may not have been able to write something as good without that element, but maybe close examination of the full range of secular equivalents will eventually lead us to reject P1. on its merits.

I'd be delighted to keep this conversation going. From my viewpoint it's an important topic.

I'd also be pleased if any of my Christian readers wanted to comment. As I hope you know by now, this is blog is meant to be reasonably friendly zone for what I (no doubt tendentiously) call genuinely moderate Christians (and Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, wiccans, etc.).

Anonymous said...

P2 doesn't really make any logical sense.

And I say that as an atheist who is happy to admit that p1 has some merit.

I'm more interested in why p1 could well be true, discounting the clearly fallacious middle point of you argument.