Last week I wrote a pretty critical review of Rod Dreher’s book-length articulation of his proposed course of action for the world in which we all live– The Benedict Option. I had many issues with Dreher’s conservative reaction to the modern world and the way in which he thought one must act to preserve a “true Christianity” in the midst of what he sees as a deluge of things that would pervert and subvert it.
However, in a wonderful bit of serendipity, I have been provided with an opportunity to push back the other way as the Times Literary Supplement has published an article on its website that swings entirely too far the other way and fundamentally misunderstands religion.
Religious beliefs are supposed to be “special” in a way that demands special respect. They are not special; they are just plain false. And as Clifford shows, but we seem unable to learn, they deserve no more respect, or funding, than the contrived absurdities – for which there is quite as much basis in observable fact – of the “birthers”, the “truthers” and the Elvis revivalists.
Ahmed, a member of the philosophy faculty at Cambridge, draws upon a statement by British philosopher W.K. Clifford that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Using this as his starting point, Ahmed argues for the immorality and injustice of religion because it is something that cannot be proven in an “objective” or “scientific” way. Comparing religious belief to conspiracy theories and climate change denial, Ahmed writes of how one might “deny that men walked on the moon because the evidence that they did, overwhelming if treated in the ‘ordinary’ way, is simply irrelevant if taken in some special way that happens to suit you. How is religion different?” as “The evidence is all on the side of unbelief.” It is because of this, because it cannot be proven in this “objective” and “evidence-based” way that religion and religious belief should be thrown on the ash heap as something that is immoral and wrong.
What Ahmed gets wrong is apparent from the start, something that so many who argue in this sweeping and overly generalized way against religious belief get wrong as well. Ahmed does not fully grasp what religion is, what it addresses, and what it tries to answer. I do not aim to speak on behalf of all religious beliefs so I will be focusing mostly on Catholic/Christian belief as it is what I am most familiar with as a (very bad) Catholic. But these things apply to most-to-all forms of religious belief.
Ahmed describes religious belief as though it needed to be a scientific method and process when it is something that has to be taken on faith and, almost by definition, cannot be proven in the same way as a scientific theory. One of the great philosophers, particularly of the Christian variety, Soren Kierkegaard addresses this notion throughout his writings. I won’t aim to put together a comprehensive selection of all the points where the Danish philosopher discusses these things, but I will call to mind selections from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. In that, Kierkegaard writes:
“It is Christianity itself that attaches an enormous importance to the individual subject; it wants to be involved with him, him alone, and thus with each one individually […] It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence […] Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.”
What Kierkegaard references here (and what recurs throughout his writing) is this emphasis on the individual (a hallmark of existentialism) but particularly in matters of religion and religious belief. The faith of Kierkegaard is one that cannot be arrived at through a rational or logical process but rather comes from revelation and personal experience. In short, what Ahmed wants religious belief to be or to do is simply what it cannot do. Religious faith, particularly Judeo-Christian faith, is something that cannot be arrived at through scientific processes and validated through evidence as other things might.
Another idea that Kierkegaard refers to throughout his philosophy is the idea of the paradox being at the heart of religious belief (with the biggest example being Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in Fear and Trembling). It is the paradox, the state of exception, that defines religious belief (particularly as it’s depicted by Kierkegaard). The core tenet of Christianity, that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins to give him eternal life and to defeat death, overturns the established and natural order. This doesn’t address what Ahmed would require out of religious belief but it shows how what Ahmed wants is not something that religion will provide and that it would not suppose to provide. That is not the question that religion is answering.
It also makes sense for me to refer to Walker Percy here because his thinking about religion is particularly apropos, given that he was a man with a background in medicine and science and one who had the utmost respect for the logical and scientific in matters where they were apropos. When Percy was asked in an interview for The Paris Review, he described his Catholicism (one steeped in existential philosophy as well) as “a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding—all of which he is, but not entirely.” The idea being that in addition to all these different ways that man can be understood (as a biological organism, as a member of an economic system), there is something more to him. Man cannot be reduced to simply one thing. Again, I cannot speak authoritatively about the many belief systems but what persists throughout the many Christian denominations (and throughout the religions of the Abrahamic faith) is this view of the individual. Rather than oppressing man, as Ahmed and others might argue organized religion does, it liberates man by accepting man as something special and unique. While science can and does offer explanations and answers for many things, it does not provide the answer for everything. What is not answered by the scientific, these things that go beyond what can be defined in such concrete ways, is addressed by religion. The inability or unwillingness to understand this dynamic is what hinders Arif Ahmed’s article and that leaves it as a polemic against a two-dimensional conception of religious belief rather than what religion actually and truly is.
Terry Eagleton, in his wonderful review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for the London Review of Books, makes an excellent point:
For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.
This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.
Ahmed, (not surprisingly) like Dawkins, requires the evidence of the “chain of cause and effect” to show between God and the world for religious belief to be justified. But what many, dare I say most, religious believers and thinkers know is that is not what God is and not the purview of religion. While the rational and scientific do have their place, it is the realm of religion that deals in this decidedly irrational and superfluous act of love that is creation and existence. This is what is at the heart of religious belief (particularly the Judeo-Christian belief) and it is also that which Ahmed so conspicuously overlooks.
Given the title of this blog, my existential proclivities are probably not much of a surprise. As I’ve learned more and more about the philosophy itself (though, admittedly, I’m a novice and autodidact when it comes to these things and thus have a long way to go), I’ve realized how much of it I agree with or that I’ve been thinking these things for a while but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these things, I didn’t know there was a philosophy that was right for me. Though I come at things more from the theistic (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) existential approach (as Walker Percy was my entry point into this field) I’m still interested in those authors and philosophers who fall outside of that track, which would include Albert Camus. It is in that spirit that I read Robert Zaretsky’s book on the philosopher entitled Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
What I thought the book did best and where I thought it was most useful was in the way it helped me to better understand Camus’ life and biography, filling in the gaps in my knowledge regarding his background (which, I confess, are fairly substantial). In 2016, I read Sarah Bakewell’s book At The Existentialist Cafe, which focused on the intertwining lives of Martin Heideigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus (amongst others) and focused on their lives as they developed existential philosophy (or the existentialism that was dominant in and around western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century). What Bakewell did was to map out the lives of these major figures and show how they bother developed this philosophy as well as what was occurring in their lives that influenced them. I bring this up because it is doing some of what Zaretsky’s book is doing though in a much more focused (on the one author) and straight forward way (Bakewell’s book can be a bit on the less serious-side, which is not a bad thing by any means but it does reflect the ways in which they are very different kinds of books in their execution). Zaretsky does not provide a full and compete biography of the French Algerian writer and philosopher, but instead points to major moments and events in his life that shaped him and led to the development of his own iteration of existentialism. My knowledge of Camus’ life outside of his writing was fairly limited so it was certainly an eye-opening and revealing read for me and helped me to contextualize Camus and his philosophy both in terms of what was going on in the world around him as well as relative to the things happening in his own life. It is a book that packs a lot of information in and thus has a density to it while also moving along pretty quickly by not getting too bogged down in certain spots. Certain sections were of greater interest to me than others (I personally found the sections on Camus’ life in and around World War II as well as after and thus getting into his relationship with Sartre and de Beauvoir were amongst the most interesting) but Zaretsky kept me interested throughout and compelled to read on.
But beyond helping to enrich my impressions of Camus and who he was, Elements of a Life reflects what, in my opinion, makes existentialism the best philosophy (also, I feel like saying something is “the best philosophy” is profoundly reductive, but you know what I mean). It is that it, unlike maybe of the other philosophical systems that dominate discourse, meets the individual on their level and in their own life. It is not overly theorized to the point of being abstract while also not being so ruthlessly pragmatic and analytical that is does not allow for anything beyond that. It’s not an original thing to note how existentialism is a philosophical system that is able to move outside of the academy and the ivory towers but it is a true thing and thus worth noting in this context. Along those lines, understanding the lives of those who developed and articulated this philosophy helps to reveal that philosophy in a way that it might not for other schools and movements in philosophy. It’s why you see books like this and Zaretsky’s other book on Camus (A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning) or Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan or Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe or Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley or, going all the way back, Irrational Man by William Barrett, being so popular and prevalent. Just as these men and women developed a philosophy that was focused on the individual’s life and experience while eschewing reductive and overarching theories that would diminish that experience, so too did their lives affect and influence the ideas they espoused to such a degree that a better understanding of those lives helps us to better understand the philosophy. This is why Robert Zaretsky’s book is useful and worth reading for anyone who wants to understand existentialism, twentieth century philosophy, or French thought and culture in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Even to one who is not as steeped in Camus’ writings and philosophy as he could be (like myself), Elements of a Life is definitely illuminating and worth reading.