Monday, October 17, 2005

Deus Ex Machina

I said in a previous post that I would like to believe in God. I should clarify this. I do not crave ritual (I have plenty of that), or organized religion. I don't want to worship God. I just want Him to exist. It would make the world unimaginably different to see it in the divine light.

My sense of the God I want there to be is captured by an anecdote about my wedding. We had trouble finding an officiant. The first person we asked turned out to be an evangelical talk radio host (long story...). He did not want to do anything "pagan". The parting was mostly amicable, and entirely mutual. Cautioned by this, we began to search for someone with both gravity and flexibility. We found Bob Epps, who used to be the campus minister at IU. Our meeting with him was reassuring. He voiced a willingness to do almost anything, with minimal provisos: no livestock or drugs during the ceremony. While disappointed, we were prepared to compromise. At last we reached the sticking point: what should be the text?
"We are thinking about the Book of Common Prayer," I said, "but I don't want 'God' to be there."

"Whether you mention Him or not," he replied, "God is going to be there."
That seems right.


Blogger Erhan Demircioglu said...

The notion of "wanting to believe" is very interesting, I think. It shows that "wanting" by itself is not enough to believe. ("I want to believe but I do not" is not contradictory, at least in the sense of the term applicable to "It is true but I do not believe".) The possibility of such a notion seems to provide an argument against the idea that belief can be voluntary, or so I think.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Kingmob said...

It's also interesting to note that religion is probably in most minds the ultimate belief system. This to me means that it requires the most strident belief in the unknown, but your post seems to suggest that even it is beyond the simple desire to believe. People who are fervent believers don't require such things because they claim to already be in possession of it or a witness to it.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Zena said...

There's something a little funny about your perspective here, in particular on the independence of belief from religion. Let me see if I can get at it, but I might over-speculate and miss the mark.

I wonder whether your conception of how one relates to God is individualistic. You want to experience the world as belief in God makes it look—that is something *for you*. But it is interesting that belief in God usually (though not always) goes in groups. Orthodox Jews are required to live in communities; they use different prayers for when they are fewer than ten. I asked a Catholic recently why communion took place in groups, why the priest couldn't just carry it out to individuals, as they do to the sick. The impression I came away with is that communion is not primarily a relation between an individual and God, but a relation between the church—a group of individuals, a gathering of the faithful—and God.

Aristotle thought that morality required groups of people, parents and children, teachers and students at the least, if not an entire political community. Morality isn't the sort of thing that one can develop or understand all by oneself. I wonder whether wanting belief without religion isn't like wanting there to be a morality, without wanting to know how to act or how to live. "I want to know that there really is a right and wrong, I don't want to practice it, or be around other people who do, and so on." To believe that there is such a thing as morality seems closely tied with an understanding of moral people and what they do; to want to believe in it seems closely tied with wanting to be moral. Religion might be the same way. Or is that an illegitimate comparison?

I had a really stunning experience with my (mostly religious) students the other day. The author under discussion was a critic of the 'sanctity of life' thesis, Jonathan Glover. Glover argues that life alone can't be what makes life valuable for us, since we probably prefer death to mere (unconscious) life. Likewise, it can't be conscious life that is valuable for us, since we might well prefer death to mere consciousness. I had a devil of a time explaining these arguments to my students. Finally one of them said, "Why would you think that your life mattered because of what it did *for you*?" In other words, the purposes of one's life are not one's own. There are moralities that don't take this perspective, but I don't know offhand of any religions that don't.

Maybe my thought is a) that it's as hard to have religious belief by oneself as moral belief; b) belief in God might be the sort of belief, like belief in morality or belief in true love, that is interconnected with a certain way of acting c) you seem interested in what belief in God might do for you, but this might be the wrong question.

Apologies for the lengthy comment, I'm not even sure it's to the point.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Zena: your comment is definitely to the point. (And as a philosopher once said to me "It is wrong to apologize for a refutation.")

What I meant to say was that I want God to exist, but that I don't much care whether I believe in him. I want atheism to be false; I don't object to being an atheist. The remark about "seeing things in the divine light" was therefore badly put. It's not that religious faith would do something for me, but that when I think of God looking over us, I want it to be so.

This is the reply to your point (c). And it was an intended moral of the anecdote about Bob Epps. He was right not to care whether God was mentioned, an issue that seems trivial beside the fact of His presence. (Another moral was that God shouldn't care either.)

Points (a) and (b) are more difficult. I admit that I don't have much feel for religious practice, which for all I know is essentially communal. When I think of God what I have in mind is the "God of the philosophers". (Spinoza would do.)

Still, there is a view in the vicinity of (b) that I do reject, namely that faith is fundamentally a way of life. This finds its sharpest and most extreme expression in the "non-cognitivist" interpretation of religious conviction (which is sometimes traced to Wittgenstein). I don't mean to ascribe this view to you. (What you said was much milder). But the view is worth resisting. Belief in God may require a certain way of acting, and of feeling, but that is not what it is.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

OK, I accept your points on (c) and agree with you about the non-cognitivism question. But I am worried about your claim that the God you want to exist is the 'God of the philosophers'. I don't know anything about Spinoza's God, but if he is anything like the Gods of the philosophers I know, he doesn't go to weddings.

The existence of the God of the philosophers seems to just be a metaphysical question like any other. In that sense belief in it wouldn't imply much of anything about action or practice, so my other worries wouldn't count. However, I find it hard to imagine getting exercised about his existence, even harder in fact than getting exercised about other metaphysical questions, the existence of wholes or mathematical objects, etc. Are you sure that this is the God that you want to exist? It's the loving personal God of the great religions that Bob Ebbs was talking about, I'll warrant.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I think you're right that the "God of the philosophers" is not a perfect phrase for what I had in mind. I used it mainly for contrast with the kind of God who cares about whether we worship and believe in Him, for instance by having a religious community.

I do want God to be at my wedding. But I'm not sure that He has to be loving, exactly, so long as He makes sure that everything will turn out as it should. The God I have in mind doesn't go to weddings, but He's always there.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I wouldn't want God at my wedding; I don't even know Her.

But seriously, I don't see the appeal of the divine light. My wedding would still be my wedding and genocide in Darfur would still be genocide. Everything would be as it is with the sole difference that I would feel uncomfortable in intimate situations, like I was being watched.

12:02 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A connection I've been meaning to remark upon: something like the picture of God I was defending by anecdote is defended by argument towards the end of Plato's Euthyphro – not in the so-called "Euthyphro argument" but in what I hereby dub the "Groucho Marx argument" that it is not worth worshipping any God who would benefit in being worshipped by us.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say I don't understand this "wanting to believe" business, unless it's meant to mean "I'd like it to be true".

If God exists, that is factual matter. It's simply irrelevant whether we like the facts; they are as they are, that's the nature of objective fact. If you want to change them then you need to act on those facts, and that means giving them your fullest attention. The language of like and dislike, in contrast, is for sorting out what you will attend to and what you will ignore.

But "liking it to be true" and "wanting to believe" both have the sound of misfire about them, like bluffing or feinting at factual belief. It's seems to be part of a pattern of talking about "religious belief" that comes preloaded with the assumption that it is an exercise in make-believe. It is distinctively modern way of talking about the subject.

I think a similar preloading goes on when moral beliefs are referred to as "values", but there is a strong current to swim against there. (JN)

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure Wittgenstein is arguing for a non-cognitivist view of religious belief, so much as pointing out the foundational, frame-setting nature of those beliefs. It's similar to the ground covered in On Certainty.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

JN: I didn't express myself well in this one. What I want is for God to exist, not to have a certain state of mind; and I agree that God's existence would have to be an objective matter. (See my response to Zena in the comments above.)

About LW: the interpretation of his remarks about religious belief is tricky, and probably underdetermined by the brief text we have. I may come back to it again, or perhaps to his equally opaque remarks on aesthetics...

6:31 AM  

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