Don’t Aim At Religion — Look Beyond It
A Response to My Critics
It was recently pointed out to me that I had made a straw-man out of the atheistic predilection for evidence based on a previous post I had written. I should clarify in advance that it was not my intention to suggest that atheists are pretending to have religious faith (by which they mean trust in some invisible sky-master) when relying upon pedestrian faith (or “Bayesian reasoning”) to actualize their goals. I understand very much what kind of “faith” most atheists are attacking in these discussions — namely, any metaphysical proposition unverified by science or unexplained by reason. In the pedestrian sense, I am well aware that atheists generally do not demand proof for hoping that their actions will lead to desired future outcomes. This posture is true even if they call “faith” by different names (motivation, desire, optimism, etc.). In the religious sense, I am also aware that faith is not a very good epistemology, even though what it points us to can provide us with a centering mythology that awakens in us our very best selves. Allow me to unpack these statements with better clarity.
I will begin with the emperor and his nakedness.
I actually thought this was a rather clear analogy used to point out where my argument had been misunderstood. To borrow the language of my critic: “[Atheists are] trying to point out the emperor (religious faith as an epistemology) has no clothes (validity as a reliable epistemology) and your strawman is that we’re demanding a micron electroscope to examine the particles of the emperor’s saddle (day to day activities). Let’s focus on the emperor and his clear nakedness.”
As I have already stated, I am very much aware that there are foundational differences in the faith-claims that atheists are engaging. Drawing attention to the fact that atheists hold many unproven aspirations but do not demand evidence for their realization was simply an ironic way to illustrate how a form of faith is still being used in the very instance of denying it completely. I wouldn’t argue I had built a straw-man, but rather was pointing out how atheists are often unconsciously relying upon a stolen concept in the service of their goals, owing strictly to a difference in our vocabulary. I do not blame them for doing this anymore than I would be blamed for defining faith in pedestrian kinds of ways. It was an attempt to draw a bridge, however humbly that may have been translated in the minds of my readers. I am very much in agreement though that the “emperor and his clear nakedness” needs to be the central focus of this discussion.
Religious faith as an epistemology only fails when you aim at religion itself. For example, there clearly are whole rafts of unfalsifiable events and doctrines in the scriptures, which, if aimed at directly, have potential to distract you from more important concerns. This may sound like subterfuge, artful dodging, or refusal to engage tough questions. I will admit I feel agnostically-atheistic about many of these stories, and believe that many interpretations of them should be criticized. However, the reason I am not preoccupied with them is that I care dramatically less about whether they are historically true and more about whether they are existentially true. This posture has led many of my critics to call me a closet-atheist, a term I have warmly welcomed as a practicing Latter-day Saint. What is meant by existentially true? Dostoevsky captured the power of this question better than anyone I’ve read, and I quote it here because of its inextricable ties to why religion needs to be understood existentially:
“If someone proved to me that Christ were outside the truth, and in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”[i]
At first blush, this statement may seem to disappoint. We should, after all, include truth among our deepest values. Yet, when pursuing truth directly in the abstract, head on, by mere reason alone, and thus amputate truth from its far more pressing, humanistic concerns — “How shall I live this day?” and “How shall I treat others?” — we run the risk of using reason not in support of truth but in support of our emotional attachments. For Dostoevsky, truth was not merely a rolodex of scientific or historical “facts.” Truth gained greater, more enduring meaning in relation to the quality of being a person made manifest. And no person better personified that quality, that good life, said Dostoevsky, than Christ. The prophet Moroni in the Book of Mormon essentially illuminated this same insight of equating the quality of goodness with the concept of truth: “And whatsoever thing is good is just and true.”[ii] In other words, there is something more powerful that gives truth its meaning than mere reason alone, and that “something” may be deemed profoundly existential.
Let me break this down before I’m accused of mincing words.
Aim at religion itself as an epistemology and you will get a whole shelf of dogmatic, irrational trappings that distract you from viewing religion as it might be viewed: An existential mythology beyond itself to enact this quality of being. Like the Buddhist mantra warns, “Do not confuse the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself.” This is a paradox, of course, but it is precisely the kind of paradox that wants atheists to grow beyond seeing “religion [as] merely genuflection to the supernatural.”[iii] Aim now beyond religion, to what religion is pointing at, and you will rightly see religion as an existential vehicle that can point people to enact, embody and mythologically fulfill in themselves a story that describes intelligent humanity learning to put on superintelligent posthumanity.
To see how this works, consider for example the secular-scientific paradigm of New Atheism. Consider the progressive mastery and control with which it seeks over nature, evident in how technology so often “extends, multiplies, and leverages our physical and mental capacities.”[iv] Consider the gaps in the scientific record. Consider how time seals them, making all mysteries and miracles nothing more than a poetic reflection of our own god-like abilities to conquer and fathom our universe. Consider the frequency with which the New Atheism calls human beings to repentance, to wake up, to throw off the primitive superstitions that keep them from enlightenment. In comparable terms, is the New Atheism not revealing the secular moorings of an essentially Mormon mythology?
Let me turn to some telling questions raised by my critic:
“You ignore the fact that the scriptures are rife with examples of theological magic. Why does faith get bolstered by religious history, but not by current events? You also ignore the fact that many religions claim miraculous powers on at least an irregular basis RIGHT NOW. Why can’t they ever seem to pass scientific testing? Why doesn’t God heal amputees?”
These questions aim directly at religion with fundamentalist assumptions I do not share. They’re preoccupied with wanting evidence for things that ignore the religious function of what humans are doing when they seek to heal amputees themselves. They overlook what humanity is doing right now to “miraculously” engineer their own posthumanity, thus working to self-prophetically fulfill (whether knowingly or not) what ancient religious myths and liturgies have always pointed to and provoked about human potential. Again, look beyond the symbols to the mighty realities for which the symbols stand.
To the question why doesn’t God heal amputees, it may be returned, what does it mean to be human if we’re already learning to take control of our evolution through remarkable advances in neurology, genetics, robotics, bioengineering and nano-programming to heal amputees ourselves? What religious nuances are we existentially revealing about ourselves when we assume the responsibility to heal, bless, nurture and develop technologies to relieve, not inflame, the pain and suffering of others? What more is science than a reflection of our own unfinished conquest? Our own embryonic wisdom seeking omniscience? Or in secular terms, seeking “a theory of everything”? Indeed, science is allowing us to rapidly advance that we may very well one day “so radically exceed contemporary capacities that the term “human” may no longer adequately describe [us].”[v]
With such exponentially advancing technologies in place, it is perfectly reasonable to admit, as Timothy Leary believed, “that evolving human intelligence is apparently designed to shape the universe, to navigate the process of evolution, and to fabricate the structure of personal reality.”[vi] It may also mean that our universe is, as New Atheist Sam Harris brought himself to speculate, as “every bit as ridiculous as Joseph Smith said it was.”[vii]
The New Atheists are very much correct then: Science is largely responsible for cultivating within us that adventurous desire to receive yet greater and greater rational knowledge of, and control over, nature. What the New Atheists do not see, or perhaps refuse to see, is when we pursue these endeavors we are giving a body to religious dreams in a very concrete way. This has nothing to do with religion being clairvoyant or necessarily the driving force behind these decisions, but rather that we are enacting, consciously or not, the grand, cosmic narrative of what religion has always told us about ourselves. And what is religion telling us about ourselves? Richard Dawkins, another leading exponent of New Atheism, has already given his musings on such “intriguing possibilities.”[viii]
So has Joseph Smith.
Nothing I have written so far “proves” the existence of some ethereal old-man-in-the-clouds. Rather, it proves that, if we trust in our human potential to become radically more enhanced than what we currently are today, even as we trust we will exceed contemporary capacities to become more benevolent, compassionate and enlightened, then that kind of faith should lead us to reasonably have faith in a particular kind of “God.” Unfortunately, I understand why most atheists feel sensitive about that word. It carries too much baggage for them. And I would agree that egregious mistakes have been made by those who assume the divine role unethically. Naturally then, when discussing human potential (which many atheists I know readily believe in) they will automatically demythologize the divine language used by their opponents by contending we religious folk are merely talking about behavioral science, psychology, neuroscience or maybe even humanism and other secular philosophies.
I would agree with this analysis giving only one caveat: Reason gains no shame by combining “religious titles with secular content.”[ix] We need to learn how to accommodate our terminology, to combine with others for some collective purpose. While descriptions of our future ontology will differ and accommodate many perspectives, we can use religious or secular language to describe the same kinds of concepts, dreams and aspirations shared across varying aesthetic boundaries. As the Mormon Transhumanist Association explains: “What has been expressed in poetic ancient language by untechnical prophets in yesteryear often has a stunning visionary component that can be explained well in technical terms.”[x] This is the essence of cultural atonement, whereby secularists can ironically help spiritualists articulate — and by extension, arguably become — what religions have pointed to since the beginning.
[i] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Complete Letters. 1:195
[ii] Moroni 10:6
[iii] Cannon, Lincoln. “Post-Secularism and the Resurrecting God.” http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2012/06/post-secularism-and-resurrecting-god.html
[iv] Kurzweil, Raymond. The Age of Intelligent Machines. MA: Dai Nippon, 1990. 7.
[v] Members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, in their Sunstone essay, “Transfiguration: Parallels and Compliments Between Mormonism and Transhumanism” http://transfigurism.org/assets/60/transfiguration.pdf
[vi] Leary, Timothy. Your Brain Is God. (USA: Ronin Publishing, Inc.) 48.
[vii] Harris, Sam. “Should We Be Mormons in the Matrix?” http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/is-religion-true-in-the-matrix
[ix] Cannon, Lincoln. West, Joseph A. “Theological Implications of the New God Argument” as quoted in the book, Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought an Engineering Vision (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012). 112.
[x] Ibid 1 — “Parallels in Mormon Thought: Physics and Engineering.”