Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

On Religious Tolerance

When we are asked to “tolerate” the religious views of others, the assumption is that we harbor no religious views of our own or, at least, that such views do not lay claim to absolute truth.

In other words, calls for religious tolerance (and this includes the “freedom of religion” ensconced in our Bill of Rights) tacitly imply that all religions are equally valid, which is just another way of saying that no one religion is the true religion.

Of course, at least in the case of Christianity and Islam, such an insistence is baked into the religion itself. For this reason, asking Christians to be “tolerant” of (in the sense of neither criticizing, mocking nor lampooning) Islamic doctrine, or vice versa, is tantamount to asking them to disown (or at least relativize) their own creed.

That many believers are in fact willing to do so, thus accepting the relatively modern perspective that one’s religious beliefs are a matter of personal preference, rather than universal obligation, testifies to humanity’s willingness to favor social bonds over dogmatic, doctrinal fidelity. It also suggests that many people understand their religious identity to be as much an accident of birth as their native language or particular ethnicity.

That others are unwilling to do so and, in fact, ready to persecute and attack adherents of rival faiths or be martyred in the name of their own, strikes us as both hopelessly antiquated and, if seen as an act of principled, unwavering devotion, oddly heroic.

Which does not mean, however, that such “heroism” need be tolerated.

God, Theory of Mind, and the Search for Meaning

In the Boston Globe‘s “Ideas” section yesterday, they reprinted a post from Josh Rothman which had originally appeared on the Globes’s “Brainiac” blog entitled, “Is God a Social Illusion?

The jumping-off point for Rothman’s post was Jesse Bering’s assertion that belief in God was an almost inevitable result of our in-born tendency to create a theory of mind which allows us to divine the intentions of others and thus facilitates socialization on many levels. Because we are always looking for intention in others, Bering reasons, it makes sense that we also look for intentions in the otherwise apparently random events in our lives or the universe more broadly.

Bering’s argument reminded me of Nietzsche’s notion that our belief in God stemmed from our reliance on the grammatical convention that every sentence has a subject; we can’t look at the world without thinking, “Who did this?” Thus, at least as a kind of provocation, I appreciated Bering’s sentiment. Rothman, for his part, did not, quipping, “Color me unconvinced.”

Rothman contends that, if we are to find any instinctual basis for the belief in God, than we must look for the “meaning instinct.” As he puts it, “It’s the search for meaning, not the search for other minds, that makes religions part of the fabric of human life.”

Aside from the fact that herewith Rothman seems to miss the point of the theory of mind—we are not looking for other minds as humans, but rather for the meaning of human actions based on the intentions and perspective we assume to lurk behind these actions—I think he (and Bering with him) also misses the connection between religion and God, on the one hand, and religion and humans on the other.

First of all, not every religion has a single God at its center (indeed, the notion of monotheism came along kind of late in the game, human evolution-wise), and, in fact, there are venerable religions like Buddhism in which God plays no real role whatsoever. Second of all, specific religious creeds notwithstanding, religion, in the end, isn’t about belief in God; it’s about a shared set of practices and rituals—and in some cases an elaborate social hierarchy built around a priest-class—that binds a social group together.

Wrestling with belief in God is a fairly modern pursuit dependent as it is on things like literacy, leisure time, and an awareness of other cultures. In the early days of humanity, you were born into a world that was already defined for you first in terms of obligatory behaviors and then in terms of a shared perspective on the world grounded in a shared language. Your “religion” wasn’t a defined set of beliefs so much as “the way things are.”

If you want to understand religion from an evolutionary standpoint, you need to start with its social-organizing aspect and leave things like individual belief in a deity for a later date because, I believe, religion begins with religious practice, not religious conviction.

Image Source: Edenpictures.

Playing It Safe

An old friend accused me of “playing it safe” on my blog. Apparently, writing about death metal, however aesthetically outlandish the music or my love of it may be, is of little consequence, big picture-wise.

Of course, I thought that my post on communism and change was kind of edgy—not to mention my frequent advocacy of atheism and/or nihilism—but apparently such musings neither touch nerves, shatter preconceived notions, nor speak truth to power.

Can it be true that there is nothing dangerous about this blog? Have I remained too scrupulously within the lines of accepted opinion, too conscientiously observed protocols of civility, too gently treated the thoughts and feelings of my contemporaries, even when I found them preposterous, stupid, or atrocious?

I suppose this is possible.

Will I henceforth change my approach?

This, too, is possible.

Am I playing it safe with this post?




God is dead. – Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead. – God

In America, and apparently some parts of the developing world, it can be very shocking when you tell people that you do not believe in God. Indeed, even among America’s educated classes, you’ll rarely hear an expression of outright atheism (though you will encounter a fair amount of agnosticism).

I asked a friend once why this was and he replied, in effect, that people claim to be agnostic mainly because they are cowards. At first I thought he meant that they, like Pascal, were basically hedging their bets. I mean, what if they’re wrong? Better not to commit either way.

Now I believe that he was pointing instead to their fear of communal opprobrium. Agnostics don’t fear God, after all (if they did, they wouldn’t be agnostics). The only thing they have to fear is Believers.

For my part, I’ve tended to be fairly forthright about my atheism. I do not believe that God exists. At the same time, being of a rather philosophical bent, I’m not entirely comfortable with that manner of expressing things. Why? Well, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is.

You see, we humans tend to have a pretty strong physical bias when it comes to “existence.” When we say that something exists in the course of daily conversation, one can safely assume that we mean “physically” exists. And to the extent that we are particular in questions of fact, we have some fairly rigorous and straightforward standards regarding proof of physical existence.

For example, one should be able to supply fairly precise coordinates of an existing entity’s location in space if one wants to definitively claim that it does indeed exist. One should also be able to specify it’s mass, its physical dimensions, and so on. (In the case of those “objects”—electrons, black holes, photons, etc.—for which precise location or exact mass, among other things, may be difficult to establish, we have mathematical models and experimental procedures that provide a great deal of circumstantial evidence from which existence can be reasonably inferred, if not postively demonstrated.)

Unfortunately, the existence of God doesn’t lend itself to such procedures and demonstrations. If it is argued that the reason for this is that God does not exist “physically,” then I must respond, “Well, then, in what sense of the word ‘exist’ does God exist if not in the physical sense?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Man against Nature, Nature against God

2381419316_d1b8241e05_m-1Conservative critic Ross Douthat recently took James Cameron and Hollywood to task for rampant pantheist sympathies writing that pantheism “represents a form of religion that even atheists can support.”

While I believe he is mistaken to equate, as he does, pantheism with “nature worship” – the latter being more akin to polytheism or animism and the former meaning literally that God is too be found in the totality of the All, not “just” nature – I do agree that those who seek solace in natural wonders tend to be fairly selective about those parts of the natural world that they find wonderful, failing, for example, to hear the voice of God in cancer’s fatal malignancy or see the face of God in the blue sky’s indifference to atrocities unfolding ‘neath its broad, azure beams.

Though I sense Douthat’s tacit support of the Christian side of the equation, I appreciate that, in his argument against pantheism, he actually grants atheism a kind of tragic nobility:

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Personally, what fills me with awe is the age-old human struggle to wrest sense from the senseless and to fashion purpose in the raging forge of entropic impermanence. That these efforts have about them the air of inescapable doom does indeed make them tragic.

That they can also result in moments, even epochs, of beauty, wisdom, freedom, and love, is truly divine.

Image Courtesy of Mark Cummins.