Losing Religion II

John Derbyshire, a celebrated columnist for the National Review, and honestly a favorite writer of mine, recently published an essay exploring his apostasy. Raised Anglican, while he finds he might still believe in a remote and unconcerned divinity (perhaps like the watchmaker of the Deists) he can no longer take the tenants of Christianity seriously. He stopped going to church in 2004.

I cannot sum up his views with any justice because I don’t understand them. Read the whole thing.

The article is interesting to me because he and I, of course, are two intellectuals passing each other going opposite directions. I am a recent convert after being a lifelong atheist. He and I did not walk with road with the same level of interest.

By his own admission, he is and always was a Laodicean: he was lukewarm and the Lord spewed him from his mouth.

Now he confesses there is a mystery to the universe, perhaps the remote and disinterested deities of Lucretius or a Deist might deduce: but the existence or nonexistence of the dispassionate Unmoved Mover moves no one to controversy or passion.

On the other hand, I was a zealous and forthright atheist, dedicated and tireless in the cause of uprooting a vile and craven superstition. I was the brightest of the Brights. His approach, both to religion when he was religious and to agnosticism when he is agnostic, seem to be the opposite of mine: not analytical, not curious, not inquiring, not argumentative.

Hence, no one is less qualified to understand and comment upon his reminiscences than I am: if you wish to read informed and insightful thoughts on his essay, read no further. I cannot understand him. I cannot understand how anyone could approach so deep a question with such nonchalance.

Mr. Derbyshire has admitted philosophical speculations bore him. We can see the evidence of this in what he lists as the causes of his departure from the fold.

Now, a word of caution. We are dealing with the public document of a man who is merely reminiscing about certain thoughts and tendencies in his life which accompanied his loss of faith. Since it is public, and we not his confessors, he may or may not be bearing his innermost soul. There may be very large and important things merely left out. He is also not composing an apologia: this is not meant to be a logical argument in favor of Mysterianism or Deism or Let’s-not-be-bothered-ism or whatever shorthand might best serve to name his current nondenonmination.

Rather, this is more like asking a friend why he is divorcing his wife of fifty years marriage. Your friend might talk about this and that specific thing without ever being able to name the root of the problem. He will muse over his a lack of mutual interests with his wife, or how empty the house seems with the kids grown up, or how her bitter problems were making him feel strangled in his life. He would be telling the truth, but he could not really tell you the whole truth. No one of the things he mentioned is something a loving husband would list as a cause of divorce, or even notice as a problem. Only the absence of love, once it has vanished, makes the specific problems into problems. No one knows why people fall in love or fall out of love. Your friend knows what popped into his conscious mind, he remembers the excuses he told himself, and he is trying to put into words countless little judgments and criticisms, things that don’t easily lend themselves to analysis. A man wakes up one day and admits that years ago his affection for his helpmeet turned to dust, and if you ask him why, all he can say is that she squeezes the toothpaste tube in the middle.

So here. Derb cannot really tell us the reasons for his falling away, not good reasons, because people can’t put the inner reasons for the accumulated lifetimes of experience into words.

Nonetheless, having announced that caveat, I must say these are some of the weakest more frivolous reasons I have ever heard for changing one’s mind or the topic of religion or any other topic.

He lists four things, which he sums up under the topic of age, parenthood, biology, and exile.
Age— he says “Anyway, once the end of the show is in sight on the horizon, you get resigned to a lot of things you struggled against before, especially things to do with your own personality. You stop giving a damn about lots of things you used to care about.”

I suppose that depends on the reason why you cared about them. If it was a fad or a fashion, well, yes, youthful enthusiasms do fade with age. If it was a conviction based in the reason and buttressed by experience, reason grows stronger as the clamor of passion gives way to the whispers of wisdom.

There is an old dictum that being hanged wonderfully focuses a man’s mind. As one grows older, and nearer the grave, one is able to see all the vanities and follies of human life on Earth. A time comes when most of your friends are dead, and the world you grew up in is lost forever. Everything you thought was permanent is not. One would think this would concentrate the mind. There are only two real alternatives. Either everything, all life, is vain, and ends in a void of nothingness; or only mortal life is vain, and there is a real life, as different from this life as waking is from fever-dreams, and ends in endless joy. One would think the confrontation of these last things would arrest the attention as a man grows older: it is not the best time to begin collecting stamps.

But Mr. Derbyshire says that religion, like sex, works best if not thought about too much. He himself is proof that thinking religion does not work at all—he is an apostate—because he has not thought the matter through.
Parenthood— “…it pushes genetics right in your face… ”

I cannot puzzle out his meaning here. It seems to be based on a false dichotomy.

If he assumes that it is an article of the Christian faith that all men are born “blank slate”, he is simply wrong about what Christians believe. If he believes that Christian hold that the free will God granted man automatically over-rules any possible humors in the blood, influences in the stars, natural choler in the spleen, or dispositions of genetics, he is simply wrong about what Christians belief.

I mention astrology and the theory of humors and other superstitions in the same breath as the idea  that genetics determines personality traits because that is all it is; a superstition. Clearly some children are born with a more melancholy or cholic humor than others, more aggressive, more retiring, with musical talent or a tin ear or what have you. Unlike eye color, no gene has been identified for these traits. It is merely assumed that whatever is not learned by nurture comes in through genetics. The axiom of this age is that these are the only two doors leading into the construction of character: nature and nurture, also called genetics or environment. Whatever is not genetics is environment; whatever is not environment is genetic.  Such an axiom is not open to scientific proof or disproof: it is an article of faith.

If one were to say, “But they have mapped the human genome!” I say, very good. Which gene or combination of genes makes a man an agnostic? Did Mr. Derbyshire have this gene when he was a Christian? If so, it did not determine his personality in this area.

If one were to say, “But what else can create personality traits, aside from upbringing and genetics?” I would answer: Nostrodamus with all the learning of the Thirteenth Century at his beck and call, and Milton in the Sixteenth, would have asked you, “But what else can create personality traits, aside from upbringing and the influences of his natal stars?” Their theory of astrology did not allow for genetics. They did not even have the tools to realize genes existed. What exists that we lack the tools even to know exist?

Derb also says, “Again, it made me realize how perfectly natural religion is.”

Here I can only conclude that Mr. Derbyshire delights in paradoxes.

Children loving their parents also seems natural to me: this is not an argument in favor of dismissing parental love as an illusion.

The utility and functioning of the eye also seems natural to me: the eye is naturally designed to see and to react to images of light. This does not lend itself to the argument that everything seen by the eye is illusion: quite the opposite. If we were shaped to prosper in a world with no light, we would neither hallucinate light, nor evolve eyes to strain at the unrelieved blackness, because neither our psychology would crave it, nor would our biology be adapted to it. The adaptation of our biology and psychology to spiritual things—no race on earth, no period of history, lacks religious ritual—does not argue that these things are unreal.

Perhaps religion is natural because it is part of our nature. This would seem to indicate that it is true, or, at least, that there is an evolutionary advantage to it.

Now, if it is true, then we are lucky that we have an internal nature that inclines in this direction, or perhaps ‘blessed’ is a better word than ‘lucky’. If it is not true, but it is advantageous to the race, that Mr. Derbyshire is indulging in a disadvantage, that is, he is adopting a Darwinian strategy likely to kill off his offspring or extended family.

In any case, another false dichotomy. The natural and the supernatural are not opposites like black and white, but compliments like brain and mind. If Derb were to say he no longer believed that mind existed because biologist had discovered brains, we would laugh at him: and yet his comment here is about on that level.

One need not believe that Nature was created by some evil demiurge unrelated to the creator to be a Christian: indeed, it is an article of faith with us that one divine hand made both the mind of man and the laws of nature. Indeed and indeed, it is heresy among us, called Gnosticism, to hold the material universe is independent of and antagonistic to the spiritual. So not only do Christians NOT believe what he says we believe, our consciences are bound to affirm the opposite.

We Christians have a reason to believe the human reason is suited and fitted for life in this universe; we also have an explanation as to why man is discontent with it, and why so may believe the world to be false and transitory. Philosophers have yet to find a simpler or clearer explanation of the fit between the material and mental substances of the world, rational thinking and empirical thinking, the state of our reason and the constellation of our natural desires. The Christian answer is elegant: man is fitted to reason in a rational cosmos because a rational creator fitted him by design; the world seems false and transitory to us because it is.
Biology— “This is the big one… I can report that the Creationists are absolutely correct to hate and fear modern biology. Learning this stuff works against your faith….”

I am not sure what he means by “this stuff” since he only cites one example.

I will go out on a limb and guess that the stuff he has not mentioned is the social biology theories currently in fashion among the intelligentsia. You know the kind of thing I mean: studies show an uncle ant saves his nephew ants one-third of the time and his cousins one-sixth of the time, correlating with the percentage of sharing a selfish gene with the relative: altruism is given a Darwinian explanation.

Maybe he is referring to something like this, maybe not. My own experience debating religion with folks is that they often bring up such vaporings first, sometimes with the exhortation that I should look more deeply into the “findings” of “scientists” who have erected a speculation on the matter.

First, if morality were based on Darwinian advantages, what can explain the cases where they are not, such as, for example, kindness and equality-of-rights extended to members of other races, with whom we share few or no genes? Indeed, since all of morality seems to be urging men to impartial justice, not to selfish regard for their own families and clans, the presence of this, presumably counter-darwinian current in the intellectual history of man is quite a riddle. The altruistic religions should not have reproduced, and the family and clan based paganisms should have prospered. Also, if this theory were correct, religious sentiment should be genetic. All Chinamen should be atheists, for example, or all Jews observant. Preacher’s kids should be the most morally upright of beings.

Second, if morality were based on Darwinian advantages, the moral calculations of orphans and priest vowed to celibacy would differ from those of other men: and in general, people would think about spreading their offspring first and foremost as the fountainhead and sanction of moral authority. Whatever increased the generations would be moral; whatever diminished it, immoral. Instead, the two prime moral systems in the West, Christianity and Secularism, are both indifferent to this alleged source and wellspring of moral behavior: Christians praise martyrdom, to uphold a faith, not a family; secularists hold as sacred three things only: abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia, not one of which increases the offspring in the next generation.

Or maybe Mr. Derbyshire ran into other ideas masquerading as science which are really no different from dressed up Freudianism or Behaviorism.

Or perhaps he means that someone has speculated without evidence that there are evolutionary advantages to religion or marriage customs enforced by religion. Or perhaps he means that someone has identified the seat of the religious sentiments as being in the Sylvan Fissure of the neocortex.

A child can see the errors in all such ideas. Freud believes his theory because of sexual frustrations related to his mother. Skinner was a Behaviorist because he was programmed to be one. All bio-mechanical theories to explain man explain everything except one thing: how any man could come to have such a theory.

Show me the birds building cathedrals; show me the apes singings hymns to the Lawgiver of the Apes; and I will believe that religion is a part of nature. Show me next that there is no supernatural world, and that the natural world is antithetical rather than complimentary to it, and I will believe such evolution is not a sign of a divine plan.

If not, you are simply arguing in a circle. Religion must be natural because religion evolved; religion must have evolved because is false; it must be false because it is natural.

I will speculate again that Mr. Derbyshire did not come across a theory or a fact or an experiment that proved anything one way or the other about religion. He can across a mind set, a preference, a flavor. The preference among biologists is to emphasize the similarities of man to other animals, and downplay their immense and categorical differences. This is not science or religion: is it merely a slant. The glass is half empty rather than half full.

Anyone can see the similarities between humans and apes. Apes are just like humans, as both human scientists and ape scientists agree. Ape cathedrals and human cathedrals both use flying buttresses. Ape operas and human operas both use four-point harmony. Apes crap in the woods and so do humans when we cannot find a toilet, and have not taken the time to dig a latrine. The Ape-Pharaoh of Ape City wears a pshent just like Ramses II of Heliopolis.

All this is speculation as to what Mr. Derbyshire might have come across. He only actually gives one example.

“To take a single point at random: The idea that we are made in God’s image implies we are a finished product. We are not, though. It is now indisputable that natural selection has been going on not just through human prehistory, but through recorded history too, and is still going on today, and will go on into the future, presumably to speciation, either natural or artificial. So which human being was made in God’s image: the one of 100,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? 1,000 years ago? The one of today? The species that will descend from us? All of those future post-human species, or just some of them? And so on. The genomes are all different. They are not the same creature. And if they are all made in God’s image somehow, then presumably so are all the other species, and there’s nothing special about us at all”

Again, what he is saying seems so inadequate to the conclusion he would support with it, that I suspect him of being frivolous, or stupid, or too bored with the topic to address it. As if we came across an agnostic who reasoned that God must not exist because children exist.

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

“So which human being was made in God’s image: the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, or… I mean, if God was a Chinaman, he’d be yellow and slanty-eyed, or, if He looked like an Eskimo…”

Puh-leese. My seven year old has a better grasp of theology than this.

Christians believe humans are incomplete, and we will not be completed, not become the prelapsarian man again, until the next world. To cast doubts on religion on the ground that the world of matter is full of change and becoming, a chaos of forms yielding one to the next is to give one of the central arguments in Plato, also part of mainstream Christian thought, as to the existence of a world of forms not so constituted, which, were our reason unaware of it, we could not notice the flux of the world of becoming, having no basis of comparison to notice one thing turning into another. The idea that we are made in God’s image does not imply a finished product; the idea that we know, and we know damned well, that we are not a finished product implies a God. Without a concept of perfect, the concept of imperfect is impossible.

For those of you who don’t read the Bible—and I studied it closely when I was an atheist, as one studies the captured battleplans of the enemy—the passage that mentions Imago Dei reads, in its entirely, thus:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

To me this sounds like the image, the way in which we are like God, is that our reason gives us dominion over beasts, in just the fashion that they do not have over us. We capture them for study or breed them for livestock; they do not do that to us. Surely even a biologist can notice the absense of human-farms where Turkey overlords fatten us for Thanksgiving. But this is just my interpretation.

The Catholic interpretation of this—I use the Catholics, not because they necessarily speak for all Christians, but they have an orderly system of interpretation, reduced to a Catechism, which is easy to look up— says nothing about the need for a species to remain inter-fertile within itself as a badge or emblem of this image of God.

“Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator”… he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. … Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons.”

Got that? The moment Koko the Ape, can, in sign language, express moral abstractions, dignity, self-knowledge, self-possession, communion and free devotion, she will be a human and may God bless her immortal soul. It has nothing to do with species in the biological sense. We are the image of God because we are rational creatures, capable of selfless love, the exact opposite of the self-serving, family-serving, tribal, racist, Darwinian-advantage thing the bio-mechanics say is the root of our spiritual behavior.

For the love of Christ, Christians believe that this whole world is a false and temporary mask, an accident, which the love of Christ will rectify, it is no more real than the walls of a madhouse, a prison cell, which will be left behind as soon as we are sane and forgiven. On what grounds does anyone say anything in the false material world is crucial to our faith and salvation? If homo sapiens were inter-fertile with the Neanderthal, we would not be a species in the biological sense. If we discovered a race of homo sapiens in the antipodes incapable of self-awareness and self-sacrifice, what would that prove? That the book of Genesis is talking about the spiritual life of man, not his genetic make up? I think we knew that already.

Derb concludes his argument by saying, “There is nothing special about us at all.”

Um. Riiiiigggghhhhtttt. There is no difference between your baby and a cat. When it comes time to decide whether to castrate your baby boy or to spay your cat, flip a coin. If you daughter breaks a leg or gets rabid, the best thing to do is shoot her.

Like I said, this is a slant, not a theory: merely a habit of underplaying the vast differences which separate the human race, even at its most primitive, from the highest and brightest of animals, no matter how cleverly trained to mimic human behavior. Talk is over with Dr. Zaius if you don’t believe me.

“Now of course there are ways to finesse that point — intellectuals can cook up an argument for anything, and religious intellectuals, who cut their teeth on justifying some wildly improbable stuff, are especially ingenious — but the cumulative effect of dozens of factlets like this is devastating to the notion that human beings are a special creation…”

Words fail me. Does it take any particular intellectual juggling to notice the difference between the Human Pope and the Pope of the Apes? What’s that? What do you mean there is no ape pope? Surely they have an organized religion and cannon law and… I mean, there is nothing special about us …

Exile— Mr. Derbyshire says he lost interest in religion when it was not the norm in the community around him. Wow. There is a second Polycarp for you.

The point of religion, among other things, is to comfort the faithful with a communion that exists beyond the mere local community in which they find themselves; for that matter, a communion that extends beyond the walls of the world. That is one reason why we still read the writings of Third Century Romans and Sixteenth Century divines with profit, whereas our secular brethren cannot read even things written in their father’s times. Exile is the reason why anyone is a Christian: because none of us belong here, on this world. It is not our home.

Next, Mr. Derbyshire confesses he was not even aware of the differences of doctrine between the Anglicans and the Roman Church. Back when I was an atheist, and hated the Christians, I used to study these things, familiarize myself with every little heresy and dispute I could find, as such bickering tended to heap humiliation on my avowed enemies, the Christians. For him not to have read it is inexcusable.

There is a scene in Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY where the regal Maleficent, queen of the bad fairies discovers her orcish thugs have failed her yet again. She rolls her beautiful eyes in dismay, and her husky voice throbs: “Ah! You are a disgrace to the forces of evil!”

That is the way I feel about Christians who don’t know their own doctrines, who don’t ponder and study the way I, an enemy, once studied. Don’t you know where your battlements and towers are, where are your moats and defenses? Don’t you know that fallen angels wait with immortal patience, their black wings furled, for some fool to wander out beyond the redoubt, and they employ men more devilish than devils, armed with all cunning and expert learning to ensnare the unwary? Don’t you know there is a war on and your immortal soul is at stake? No? Did you just bumble into your atheism the same way you bumbled out of your Christianity, merely because that happened to be the way the wind was blowing at the time?

Speaking as one who was once loyal and great in the armada of Darkness arrayed against the Church, let me just say: “Ah! You are a disgrace to the forces of evil!”


My conclusion:

There are a lot of good reasons to lose one’s faith, reasons I would respect and understand, even if I politely disagreed. The problem of pain, the paradox of free will and foreknowledge, the epistemological uncertainty of faith, the incompatibility of omnipotence in an acting being, the silliness of the mysteries of the incarnation and trinity, the paradox of Euthyphro, the history of the cruelties done in God’s name … I could make rock-solid air-tight perfectly rational arguments to erode the faith of the faithful along these lines. These are sound reasons to lose faith, logical reasons.

But age, biology, parenting, exile… most of these reasons are strong arguments in favor of Christianity, not against it.

I just don’t understand him. I just don’t get it.

He does not even have the comfort, cold comfort that it is, of exchanging a logical and materialistic world-view for his glorious Christian heritage. He is not a real atheist, an honorable and honest thinker who believes in the hard facts of hard reality. Mr. Derb is a Mysteran. He believes in a sort of something that is really a sort of nothing much. He sells his soul and in return he gets … nothing.

Uncle Screwtape would be so pleased.