Reflections on philosophy and culture

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Religion, Ethics, Cosmology

Below is the text of a presentation I did last night for the AU Philosophy Club's occasional public forum, Philosophy at the Gnu's Room.  It consists in a few rough thoughts in response to Thomas Nagel's wonderful essay, "Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament," whose themes I'd like to write about more formally in the near future.

I want to talk a little bit about common ground between secular and religious points of view.  Now, when I talk about common ground, I don’t mean touchy-feely can’t-we-all-get-along let’s-celebrate-our-similarities-rather-than-our-differences common ground, but something much more like the kind of common ground that two armies have to share in order to do battle with each other.  That is, I want to pose the question: what kinds of intellectual ambitions do religious and secular thought have in common?  What are the spoils of war, so to speak, over which religious and secular thought are in competition?

Two obvious candidates are cosmology and ethics.  When I talk about cosmology here, I mean, roughly: views about the structure and history of the world around us.  When I talk about ethics, I mean, roughly: views about how one should live.  These are both subject matters in which religious and secular thinkers offer sometimes competing views.

First, cosmology.  One common feature of religious doctrines is of course that they include cosmological claims – claims about what there is in the world, how the world hangs together, how it came into being, and so on.  And of course, there is a form of cosmology that operates quite happily independently from any sort of theology – namely, natural science.  None of us needs to be reminded of the fact that cosmology is a serious battleground on which religious and secular thinkers do battle with one another: we live in a country where, for example, a well-funded, politically powerful minority has managed to fool a lot of people into thinking there’s a real scientific controversy over whether biological evolution occurs, and where heavy-duty political battles take place over how to educate children about the history of the universe.

And, for similar reasons, none of us in the United States needs to be reminded of the fact that there are serious conflicts between folks of religious and secular points of view over ethical matters: in the last 30 years or so, the lines between opposing stances on abortion and the proper interpretation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – just to cite the most obvious examples – are often cast as lines separating religious and secular points of view.

But when we consider religious thought, it seems to me that it’s a bit inadequate to say that bodies of religious doctrine often contain both views in cosmology and views in ethics - i.e., as if religion treated of these things separately.  Rather, in religious thought, views in cosmology and ethics are often closely intertwined.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition with which I assume most of us are most likely to be acquainted, for example, the creation story found in the book of Genesis isn’t simply embraced by the believer as a correct account of the history of the universe – modulo, of course, the proper interpretation of the story.  Rather, the vision of everything and how it all hangs together we find in Genesis itself probably has some ethical import for her.  For example, believers often take God’s creation of the heavens and the earth – and us along the way – to ground ethically significant attitudes of awe, respect and gratitude towards God that they think should anchor our way of life.  Or, they often take God’s creation of human beings in his own image and likeness to give shape to the basic practical predicament in which we humans find ourselves – created beings completely dependent on God for what we are like the rock, the tree and the sun; and yet imbued with something divine, so that we are paradoxically also self-determining beings, creators of ourselves and so answerable for what we are and what we do.  These are just a couple of examples of what I take to be a much more widespread phenomenon.  That is, religious cosmology is often not simply – and often, not even primarily – addressed to the sort of theoretical curiosity that drives, for example, natural science.  Rather, such cosmology is frequently addressed to a certain sort of ethical longing – a longing to understand how to live.

This leads me to the target I wanted to hit on: one of my favorite essays in philosophy, by a contemporary American philosopher named Thomas Nagel, entitled “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament.”  The fascinating thing about this essay is that in it, Nagel, a resolute atheist, mounts a defense of religion – and, not because he’s ambivalent at all about his atheism.  It’s a defense of religion that even a resolute atheist can consistently accept. This is because he defends, not the truth of any religious doctrine, but rather the coherence and distinctiveness of a particular question to which religious cosmology tries to propose answers - what he calls the cosmic question. By Nagel's lights, secular philosophy in the so-called analytic tradition has neglected this question, and through this neglect has, to its own detriment, failed to take seriously a deep human longing.  To be sure, Nagel is again an atheist, and his essay is devoted to reflecting on whether secular philosophy can offer any answers to the cosmic question in place of religious ones. However, he distances himself from the kind of dismissive atheism that refuses to see in religious thought any distinctive, intellectually respectable subject matter over and above ones – like cosmology and ethics, considered separately – that secular philosophy and science don’t already do a better job of tackling.  Instead, although he stands squarely in the camp of the secular, he outlines an inquiry that the religious and the non-religious alike can share in.

So, the cosmic question as Nagel calls it is this: "How can one bring into one's individual life a full recognition of one's relation to the universe as a whole, whatever that relation is?" This is an ethical question - a particular way of asking 'How to live?' However, it is not, Nagel suggests, one that is reducible to the ethical questions with which secular philosophers typically deal. The question of how to achieve happiness, for example, concerns my life as lived from my own point of view. The question of how to live a virtuous life expands this view - it asks what practical demands might be made on me, not just by my own interests, well-being and/or nature but also by those of other persons. However, the cosmic question expands this view even further. To ask it is to wonder whether there are practical demands I can understand only from the point of view of the universe as a whole and my place in it. Nagel expresses this idea in a striking and vivid way:

"Having, amazingly, burst into existence, one is a representative of existence itself – of the whole of it – not just because one is part of it but because it is present to one’s consciousness. In each of us, the universe has come to consciousness, and therefore our existence is not merely our own....The extra-human world...has a claim on us – a claim to be made part of our life....Outrageous as it sounds, the religious temperament regards a merely human life as insufficient, as a partial blindness to or rejection of the terms of our existence. It asks for something more encompassing, without knowing what that might be."

-Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008, p. 6

To be gripped by the cosmic question is to have what Nagel calls a religious temperament. I find Nagel's discussion of it because, like him, I’m a resolute atheist who nevertheless feels the grip of the question. But having a religious temperament is not yet to have a religious outlook. That is, it is not yet to be convinced by any religious answer to the cosmic question. After all, one reply to the question is that there is no way of living one's life in recognition of one's relation to the world as a whole because there simply aren't any facts about that relation which could give us practical guidance of the relevant sort. However, one of Nagel's deepest insights is that even someone who replies in this way can have a religious temperament. For example, the existentialist notion that a special kind of courage (what Nagel calls 'existentialist defiance') is required to live life in steely-eyed acknowledgment of cosmic absurdity only makes sense for someone with a religious temperament. Only someone gripped by cosmic question could feel that the absence of a cosmic order that places practical demands on us is so frightening that it takes defiant courage to face as such. This is why it is precisely people who are coping with the traumatic loss of religious faith who are often most likely to embrace existentialist defiance (at least, such has been my experience).

However, true as that may be, it is still unclear whether any answer to the cosmic question could fail to be a religious one. We don't need to have any general definition of religion to see this: we only need to know that belief in the existence of a deity is sufficient for having a religious outlook. For it is unclear how we could make sense of the extra-human (or extra-personal) world's having a claim on us other than by thinking that this claim is grounded in the claims of some person whose interests can encompass the world as a whole. This is why, one might think, religious answers to the cosmic question are intelligible as such. After all, it is religions that posit the existence of special persons whose creation of the world makes them something like stewards or owners of it, so that their claims upon us can strike us as being claims of the world as such. Or, it is religions who posit a person who is simply identical to the world as a whole - a world-soul or some such whose practical demands are identical to those of the world as such.

If we cannot get past such suspicions, those of us saddled with a religious temperament but who feel no attraction to a religious outlook will at best end up with existentialist defiance. At worst, we will end up in utter confusion about the coherence of our commitments - left to be gripped by a question we think has no possible answer.  Neither, it seems to me, is an enviable position in which to end up.


  1. I didn't get a chance to tell you how much I enjoyed your talk. I'm not sure Nagel does as much for me as for you, but I thought it was a nicely chosen topic, very nicely presented. Thanks!

  2. Thanks! The fact that I love this paper so much probably has to do with the fact I'm not familiar with discussions of philosophy of religion on related topics. But, I also think it's because Nagel's discussion seems pitched at someone just like: an atheist who nevertheless feels like I lost something I haven't quite managed to find in a non-religious form when I lost my faith...

  3. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a completely different perspective on this topic, beginning with a profound essay on metaphysics - Reality & The Middle via:

    Einstein & Jesus

    The Truth About Human Life

    The Universal Scientism

    Why Be Blinded by Scientism

  4. Thanks Mandel. I enjoyed your essay very much. I suspect that I am in much the same boat.

  5. Thanks! I didn't imagine anyone was reading this damn, rarely-updated blog. I imagine I'll come back to it...but probably only when I land a tenure-track job!