I don’t need God!!

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).

1. THE INTRO

I don't need youLast week, one of my pupils said something what countless others already said before him, and what countless others will repeat after him – it’s a cultural thing foremost, in our so-called secularized Belgian society:

“I don’t need any theological speculation. I’m an atheist. I don’t need God! I don’t need to go any further than psychology and the social sciences…”

In the same week, on Monday (April 15th, 2013), I read an article in the newspaper about a young professor who had tampered with data and search results (read the article here, in Dutch; for more information in English click here). He allegedly committed large-scale fraud, investigating the causes of epilepsy.

One might ask what one observation has to do with the other. Well, for one, it’s clear that the young scientist was especially interested in the things he needed to promote his career. His desire for recognition and for prestige became more important than science itself. He used scientific research as a means to another end, to satisfy his pride. In the end, he accomplished exactly what he was trying to avoid. Instead of promoting his career and his own future in academia, he ruined it. Jesus points to the tragic nature of attempts like these:

It is a strange desire... (Francis Bacon)For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).

But there’s more. According to Christian tradition, whenever we are guided by pride we not only tend to ruin ourselves. We also tend to ruin our surroundings. Indeed, the young ambitious scientist violated the scientific truth in order to protect his self-image, next to endangering the career of his co-workers. Once again, the Christian tradition is spot-on: the person who cannot love himself, and seeks comfort in the creation of an admirable image, cannot truly love others, for he is primarily interested in others insofar as they are useful for developing and recognizing that image. Our desire for mutual, social recognition – understood as the ultimate goal of our efforts, which is vanity – often gets in the way of our capacity to perceive what is actually happening. This truth is retold in a magnificent way by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Precisely because we very often approach reality from the perspective of its eventual usefulness, and from the question whether we need it or not, we remain blind for a fuller understanding of reality. This one’s for my pupils:

THE TRUTH DOES NOT PRIMARILY HAVE TO BE USEFUL

(ALTHOUGH IT CAN BE), THE TRUTH HAS TO BE TRUE!

For instance, if we only focus on the aspects of another person that seem useful to us, we might miss out on other aspects that can actually turn out to be more fundamental than the ones we’re focusing on. More generally, we might get a better picture of reality if we not only focus on purely scientific questions and explanations, but also deal with more philosophical issues and questions.

Rationality should not be restricted to scientific rationality. Actually, we never do this on a day-to-day basis. For instance, scientific rationality might explain why we become jealous sometimes, but we need the more philosophical rationality of ethics to discuss whether or not and to what degree jealousy is a good thing.

Ian Hutchinson on ScientismAnother example: scientific rationality might explain how the universe came into being, but we need philosophical rationality to deal with the question whether or not there is an ultimate purpose of “all that is”, whether or not there will be some “perfection” of the universe. Scientifically speaking, there is none, but it’s logically very debatable that the scientific answer is the only meaningful or true answer to this question. The belief that only scientific claims are true or meaningful is known as scientism, which is problematic. From The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.”

Again, in order to understand reality more fully – in its ethical, aesthetic, and mysterious (non-manipulable) aspects -, we might have to go beyond merely scientific concerns, and also go beyond our immediate “needs”. We might even have to pose theological questions. Moreover, it’s not because we can scientifically explain why we pose certain questions that these questions themselves can be answered by science. To “understand” reality is to contemplate it in all its aspects.

Science is but an image of the truth (Francis Bacon)It is no coincidence that, from a Christian point of view, there are prayers like the one ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, containing the words:

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand…”

Although some consider it to be a sign of freedom to be able to approach reality from the perspective of their supposedly very own needs, desires and interests, this is actually a sign of enslavement…

FOR THE THINGS YOU NEED OR LEARNED TO NEED

ARE THINGS YOU ARE DEPENDENT UPON

(OTHERWISE YOU WOULDN’T NEED THEM)

2. THE MIDDLE

“Need” is a complicated affair when it comes to humans.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) became famous for mapping our needs in a veritable Hierarchy of Needs – a five-stage model, originally. Once physiological and basic survival needs are met, other needs come to the fore. It is interesting to notice that Maslow characterizes the stages we normally associate with “human freedom” as “needs”. Although we might have the impression that we are free to choose whom we want to belong to, we didn’t choose the need to belong to a group or a person. The same goes for the two highest stages of human needs. We can seemingly choose the things that bring us self-esteem, status or prestige, but we can’t escape the desire for these matters. The biggest paradox, of course, is Maslow’s characterization of self-actualization as a need: we are bound to be free. In other words, reminiscing the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and other existentialist philosophers, we face the command to develop ourselves.

Several questions arise here, namely, how do we know who we are, who we want to be, how to gain prestige and self-esteem? René Girard’s answer is quite simple: we imitate others in modeling our desires, ambitions, and sense of self. More specifically those others we’ve (mimetically, i.e. imitatively) learned to appreciate and whose appreciation we’ve (again, mimetically) learned to desire.

As Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) pointed out time and again, we tend to approach reality as a whole and fellow human beings in particular from the perspective of our needs. We’re often interested in other people basically because they are experienced as “useful” one way or the other (as friends, as suppliers of security and/or happiness, as financial support, etc.). In fact, we tend to reduce others to their “usefulness”, and to apply this as a criterion to decide whether or not someone or something is valuable. Utilitarian ethics are actually an attempt to found morality on the tendency to focus on our needs. For instance, we should help the poor, not necessarily because we love them, but because not helping them could ultimately cause problems to ourselves. We “need” to help them because we – or the majority of human beings – benefit from it. On a collective level, helping the poor could be one of the roads to a more secure and safer world. On an individual level it could perhaps be a way to gain some status or prestige as “hero”.

Levinas fundamentally criticizes the utilitarian approach to reality. The Other, our fellow human being, our “neighbor”, transcends our needs and desires. If we reduce the Other to the question how he can be useful to us, we will never get to “know” anything about the Other. Moreover, before we can reduce the Other to his usefulness, the Other is simply there, and he might in no way answer to the demands of our actual needs and desires. On the contrary, the Other might reveal himself as a burden or even an enemy to our interests.

The same applies to reality as a whole. It is even said that “reality hits us” whenever we are confronted with aspects of it that we don’t need at all! Reality often reveals itself in shapes we failed to foresee or manipulate according to our needs.

The search for truth therefore begins with the question whether or not we can free ourselves partially from our immediate needs, and from the tendency to control our environment. Are we able to honestly face reality in all its fearful as well as promising possibilities? This is especially challenging in encountering the reality of other persons. For only if we become relatively free from our own needs, anxieties, interests, and prejudices, can we allow the other to freely approach us as “Other” – meaning that we don’t mold him according to the contours of our self-image and our desire for recognition.

3. THE OUTRO

It’s important to notice that, although Christianity reveals the pitfalls of our desire for recognition, it is not about sacrificing this desire. It’s about giving it the right place. I often explain this to my pupils by describing two basic types of students:

  • Student A is basically motivated by the desire to get good grades, because he believes these are his “ticket to paradise” (i.e. recognition by his parents and teachers, and all kinds of “rewards”). In other words, student A is only interested in his courses insofar as he can use them to gain an admirable self-image – which is his ultimate goal. He is guided by his pride. He has lost the capacity to enjoy many of the things he is doing, and that’s why he generally needs to be compensated for what he’s done. Kneeling to the idol of an admirable self-image, student A is no longer capable of loving himself, let alone love others (it’s the kind of student that will pay his teachers some respect because he expects some reward, but who will also tend to get angry if the reward is not granted – which means that his self-image is stained). He finds solace in the recognition for his good grades. However, while focusing on “getting to paradise” (or, in other words, while focusing on the desire to “save his life” and “get into heaven”), he’ll find himself less and less able to study properly, and his grades will go down (he’ll “lose his life” and “get into hell”).

G.K. ChestertonIn the words of the great and late Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the situation of student A can be characterized as follows:

“The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated whether it be self-educated or merely state-educated. Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centered entirely on himself. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realize the stars.”

  • Student B is basically motivated by the desire to know and understand his courses. As a consequence, he’ll often get good grades (“get into heaven”), but this never was his primary goal. Precisely because he considers his courses as ends in themselves, he’ll eventually get and enjoy recognition. Of course, being proud of an achievement is not a crime. It becomes malicious, though, when it is the goal and not the consequence of one’s actions.

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven or hell in the Gospels, he presents them as possible consequences of one’s actions and not as goals. He even says that we shouldn’t do good and help our neighbor in order to gain some kind of heavenly reward and to avoid hell, but that we should help our neighbor because of our neighbor (as end in himself). Then we’ll get “heaven” as a quite unexpected reward, as a logical consequence. The same reasoning applies to his approach of reality as a whole.

gun lobbyFalse prophets or false messiahs (in religion, politics, health care, etc.) are people who try to tell us what we need to get to paradise (a nice house, a good career, a healthy body, a safe but entertaining life etc.), and also scare us with the evil dangers that could send us to hell. They are doctors who constantly produce the disease they supposedly liberate us from. But, of course, they never really liberate us, for they are dependent on the disease to be able to manifest themselves as “liberators” or “messiahs”. They produce one self-fulfilling prophecy after the other. For instance, the more a gun lobby convinces us that we should protect ourselves with weapons to keep safe in an “evil, ugly world”, the more people will get killed because of gun fire, the more we will feel unsafe, the more the gun lobby will be able to convince us of “the unsafe world”, the more we buy guns, etc.

Jesus, on the other hand, points out that “Satan cannot cast out Satan”. We cannot free ourselves and the world if the means we use to make this world a better place actually (and tragically) continue the diseases we try to cure the world from. Contrary to all kinds of false prophets, he advises us – as a fundamental attitude towards life – “not to be afraid” and “not to worry” too much.

I guess he is right, also in the case of the two types of students.

In short,

  • Student A becomes a SLAVE of an ambition he has learned to aspire for himself. The system of “getting good grades” is more important to him than anything else in class. Everything, including himself, is subjected to this GOAL. Student A might become a scientific investigator who uses scientific research to promote his career and thereby satisfy his pride.
  • Student B remains FREE. The system of “getting good grades” is not important in itself. It is a means to check whether or not the studied courses are sufficiently understood. Student B might become a scientific investigator who really gets a better scientific understanding of reality, and therefore gets his academic career going as a logical CONSEQUENCE.

Student B imitates Jesus’ approach to all kinds of laws and regulations (more specifically the Mosaic Law in the case of Jesus). Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the Law just like that, but that he came to fulfill it, meaning that rules should always be relative to the end they help to accomplish. A system of rules and laws should never be an end in itself. It should be considered a means to another end. What counts for Jesus is love for one’s neighbor, and if rules become obstacles in accomplishing this goal, they should be adapted or even suspended.

Student B uses the grade system to get more information on his knowledge of the courses he’s presented with, because he tries to respect what the courses are saying (without, however, automatically agreeing with their statements). This indeed is analogous to Jesus’ approach of the Mosaic Law. Jesus tries to create mutual respect between fellow human beings, thereby constantly evaluating if regulations allow others to live fully. Jesus criticizes any use of the Mosaic Law that justifies the sacrifice of others to satisfy one’s (or a group’s) pride or self-image.

Mark 2:23-27 puts it this way – and I’ll leave it at that:

Jesus Lord of Sabbath (grainfield)One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Atheism: A Lack of Unbelief?

A while ago I had a conversation with two atheist colleagues of mine at the school where I’m teaching religion. I asked them the following question:

“Do you believe that things become valuable only if people accord them some value, and, on the other hand, that they no longer possess any value once people stop according them value?”

My colleagues answered: “Yes, we do…”

I went further: “So, if no one grants an individual any respect at all, including the individual himself, that individual actually doesn’t have any value? He’s worth nothing because no human being acknowledges him?”

They said: “Yes, of course…”

I’m sorry, but I cannot believe this. I cannot believe that the weight of what’s valuable and what’s not in the universe rests on our tiny, petty little shoulders. It’s too heavy a burden to be carried by mere mortals, who appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. I don’t believe that someone is worth nothing if he’s considered worthless by the human community, including himself. In short, I don’t believe, unlike the old Greek philosopher Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things” in these matters.

Sir Thomas Browne on judging people

A person’s worth cannot be determined solely by human perception and judgment. Man is not simply the child of a “social other”, i.e. the product of a man-made social environment in which he gains or loses a sense of (self-) worth. He’s also, following the thoughts of people like James Alison and Emmanuel Levinas, a child of “the other Other”, and we should postpone any final judgment on other people and ourselves.

Theologically speaking, this kind of “eschatological reservation” is quite liberating, not just for ourselves, but also for our neighbors. The lurking alternative seems human totalitarianism, meaning the aspiration of man – on an individual or collective level – to have total control in determining what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless. I’d say we better accept the limitedness of our existence, and leave the perfection of the world to “the Infinite One”, you know, “God”.

Unlike my atheist colleagues, I don’t believe we should try to occupy His kind of place. This unbelief makes me a believer, I believe… And indeed: “Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928). Right on, Max!

don't judge

Questions for Stephen Hawking

In 2010, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made a statement in his book The Grand Design (co-written by Leonard Mlodinow), which raised quite a few eyebrows:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Of course Richard Dawkins was among the first to welcome this statement, proving once again that his emotionally driven campaign against religion sometimes gets in the way of more rational judgments. Despite the overwhelming availability of objections, I’m still confronted with this issue from time to time, and with some misconceptions surrounding it. So I decided to summarize what I consider the main problems with Hawking’s statement, problems which someone like Dawkins doesn’t seem to consider.

Hawking’s statement implies that we don’t need anything else than a scientific explanation to present our world ‘as it is’. Moreover, it implies that a scientific explanation is the only valuable explanation, the only ‘true’ explanation so to speak.

Problems:

1. The claim that reality is presented ‘as it is’ only in a scientific explanation can never be proven.

2. If we can never prove that science presents the world ‘as it is’, then the statement that ‘we don’t need God to explain the universe as it is’, cannot be proven either.

Hawking seems to forget that his variation of scientism concerning the origin of our universe is a philosophical position and not a scientific one. One can believe that science eventually reveals the complete and true nature of reality, but this metaphysical claim can never be proven. Moreover:

Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Maybe an analogy can broaden the discussion.

Applied to the phenomenon of sex, the implicit principle of scientism used by Stephen Hawking might raise the following questions:

1. Does a scientific explanation of sex present you sex ‘as it is’?

2. If so, why don’t we experience the same thrill of sexual intercourse during biology class?

3. Can it be proven that the only ‘real’ and ‘true’ goal of sexual intercourse is the one that’s scientifically revealed by biology?

4. Actually, we know that some things cannot be proven scientifically (e.g. the statement that science eventually tells you all there is to know). Doesn’t this fact show that there’s more to know than science can reveal? Applied to the phenomenon of sex: isn’t there anything more to ‘know’ about sex than what a scientific description can teach us – or any other description for that matter? Isn’t reality ‘as it is’ far more than what we can say about it, scientifically or otherwise? A mystery which transcends us, anywhere, anytime?

No explanation, scientific or otherwise, can ever resolve the mysterious fact “that there is something rather than nothing”, or “that there is something which came to be in such and such a way”.

AN AFTERTHOUGHT

I can imagine not needing God to practice science… I don’t need God to explain or describe the world (and its origin) scientifically. It’s like I don’t need my brothers to work at school, or to go to bed, or to enjoy a song one of them recorded, or to tie my shoelaces, or to breathe… But if I wanted to love them – specifically them -, I’d need them. By the way, I do, you guys… And if I desired life for a child who died at a very young age, because I experience this as something unjust, I couldn’t count on myself or any other human being to fulfill this desire. I’d need something or someone beyond our human capacities. Well, all I’ve got is a bag of hope, with some other matters of the heart

For more on the relationship between “faith” and “modern science” as distinguishable spheres, I recommend some articles by Joseph R. Laracy, mainly focusing on Georges Lemaître, a well-known astrophysicist and a Catholic priest who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis. Lemaître refused to mix “matters of science” with “matters of faith” and claimed he could not say anything about “God as creator (or not)” from a scientific point of view.

TO READ THE ARTICLES BY JOSEPH R. LARACY, CLICK THE FOLLOWING:

Priestly Contributions to Modern Science: The Case of Monsignor Georges Lemaître (pdf) 

Christianity and Science: Confronting Challenges to Faith and Reason in the Histrory of Philosophy and Theology

The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître

Religulous Atheism

“You’d think if you were one of Christ’s biographers, [the virgin birth] would be sort of an important thing not to leave out. Oh, God, he was also born of a virgin. They don’t notice the virgin birth. You know, I think that is something if you were any sort of reporter you’d put into the story. What editor looks at the facts and goes, ‘Yeah, but take out the thing about the virgin birth. That’s not interesting.’”

This is one of Bill Maher’s quotes in the docu/mockumentary Religulous. I already mentioned this film in a previous post (Religulous in Barcelona), but I wanted to examine it a bit further. So I made a video compilation that tries to reveal some of its prejudices on religion and religious people.

Click the following to watch the movie A closer look at Religulous:

(for a transcript of the video, including dialogues – click here;

voor een Nederlandstalige transcriptie van de video zonder de dialogen, klik hier)

CLICK TO WATCH:

One of the main prejudices is the idea that the way biblical stories are written, is comparable to the way we write history in modern times. Hence Bill Maher’s above mentioned remark on the birth of Jesus. He clearly expects the two stories about the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) to contain historical ‘facts’ in the modern sense, or at least he believes that’s what they claim. In that sense he imitates his religious counterparts – who are fundamentalists –, and he reads the Bible like they do. He just comes to different conclusions.

Moreover, in trying to differ himself from his adversaries, Bill Maher seems to resemble them more and more. The ‘final solution’ he proposes to solve the problem of violent religious groups says it all: “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.” He makes religion (and religious people?) overall an enemy to mankind, and considers it as the source of all evil. He believes that getting rid of that source (sacrificing religion) will ‘save’ us and will lead us to a better, ‘paradisiac’ future (remember John Lennon and his song Imagine, with the line ‘and no religion too’?). Well, ‘getting rid of it’ is exactly what some of his religious counterparts believe must happen to ‘secularism’ and ‘infidels’. History shows that the battle for the so-called ‘ultimate Truth’, for ‘Paradise’ and ‘Peace’, be it claimed by religionists or secularists, always ends in bloodshed… An atheist like Stalin, who violently oppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union, really is a ‘mimetic double’ (as René Girard would call it) to some of his dictatorial religious predecessors. Indeed his actions are a mimesis (i.e. imitation) of the so-called evil enemy he’s trying to destroy, and by doing so he regenerates this evil. He maintains violence, because he tries to destroy the possibility of violence by violent means…

The question is whether there’s a way out of the dilemma created by the opposition between ‘radical secularism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’. I think there is. I think we need to educate ourselves in becoming ‘spiritually literate’. E.g. concerning the question how to read the Bible, more specifically the stories about the birth of Jesus, I’d like Bill Maher and his religious counterparts to consider the following observations.

The two stories about the birth of Jesus don’t ‘match’. Matthew’s story is very different from the one by Luke. For example, the story in the Gospel of Matthew begins in Bethlehem and ends in Nazareth, while the story in the Gospel of Luke begins in Nazareth and ends in Bethlehem. If the compilers of the New Testament would have considered these stories conveying historical facts as we understand them, then they probably would have chosen one of the two and not both of them. Disparate reports on the birth of the Jesus you’re trying to ‘sell’ to the outside world just don’t add to the credibility of your story… Unless, of course, those disparate reports are not historical in the modern sense of the word. I do believe the stories on the birth of Jesus try to express something about the historical experience of people with Jesus, but the stories themselves are not ‘historical’. They are comparable to ‘poetic’ expressions. For example, Jesus was experienced as a liberator by many people, in one way or another. He freed people from oppression, social exclusion, anxieties, … As said, I believe this personal experience of the ones who knew Jesus is real, is historical. However, to express this experience, people turned to well-known mythological images and stories, ‘formulas’ one could say. Hence Matthew and Luke portray Jesus in typical stories which their audience understands as conveying the personal, experiential and historical truth that Jesus is a savior and liberator, comparable – in some ways at least – to the prophet Moses, or to king David.

Sometimes the poetic and mythological images used to express a certain experience will contradict each other, but this doesn’t mean that they exclude each other. They may simply refer to other experiences, or to different aspects of the same experience. A contemporary example may clarify this. Many songs in the English speaking world make use of ‘the car’ or ‘the road’, and everything associated with them, as metaphors to express different (aspects of) life experiences. In the song It’s my life Bon Jovi sings “It’s my life, my heart is like the open highway…” to express he feels free, or that he desires to be free. His heart is, of course, not literally a highway. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, expresses the longing for freedom slightly differently, in his song Objects in the rear view mirror, may appear closer than they are: “And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…” It’s no use asking who is ‘correct’, Bon Jovi or Meat Loaf. It’s no use asking: “Well, now, is the heart a highway, or is life a highway?” We understand these somewhat conflicting images and the common experience they refer to, because we are part of the culture which uses them… Both the experience of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf is true and historical, albeit personal. And the image of the road or the highway is omnipresent. James Hetfield, of heavy metal band Metallica, sings “And the road becomes my bride…” in the song Wherever I may roam… Once again, not to be taken literally, but we normally understand what he’s referring to.

It’s a bit more difficult to understand the images used two thousand years ago, so we might need to study to get there. Considering the ‘false’, but often vehement conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ I described above, it might be a necessary study though. Karen Armstrong traces the origins of this conflict back to the period of the Enlightenment. According to her, a confusion arose around that time in the western world concerning mythology. Mythology was considered a primitive form of science by many intellectuals of the modernist era. Hence an opposition arose between those who held on to a ‘mythological truth presented as historical fact’ and those who embraced modern science as carrying the keys to the ultimate truths about life. Research, however, points out that the modernist assumption about mythology (and science for that matter) is false. Mythology and ‘poetic images’ never functioned in the way modern science functions, even to this day…

The distinction between mythology and modern science is actually quite simple: mythology tries to express and to ‘mold’ human experiences and offer different perspectives on them, while science tries to explain human experiences. The example I give in the film to make this distinction clear, is about the mythological story of Cain and Abel. This fictitious story reveals an existential truth about our existence: sometimes we are all too heavily consumed by envy. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what to do with these envious tendencies – where we should direct them, if it belongs to our ultimate goal to be guided by envy… These are questions which science cannot answer. Science can maybe explain how we become jealous, and that jealousy is a natural tendency in man, but it cannot answer the question whether jealousy is a good or a bad thing. This last question is an existential one, more specifically a moral one.

So, in short, there should be no conflict between modern science and mythology because they try to answer different questions. Once you realize that religion belongs to this mythological, poetic, indeed ‘spiritual’ realm which deals with existential questions, it becomes a genuine, reasonable and sensible force that undermines the certainties of every ‘ideology’ – be it religious fundamentalism or the radical atheism which opposes it, indeed ‘doubles’ it. Understood as poetic and spiritual images, religious texts open up dialogue and different perspectives on a Reality which, ultimately, is ‘not in our control’. A Reality, in other words, which ‘transcends’ us – as we didn’t create the world we inhabit.

There’s a lot more to discover on the distinction between scientific and existential questions. For example in the works of philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who makes a distinction between ‘problems’ that can be solved technically, ‘scientifically’, and the mysteries we are confronted with which are ultimately unsolvable (they allow for different ‘attitudes’).

To read a paper by Karen Armstrong on

FUNDAMENTALISM AS A TYPICALLY MODERN MOVEMENT, CLICK HERE (PDF)

Enjoy exploring!

Religulous in Barcelona

I’ve put the word ‘religulous’ in this post’s title after a documentary, or should I say ‘mockumentary’ of the same name by director Larry Charles. In it, Bill Maher goes around the US primarily to investigate certain people’s religious beliefs and comes to the conclusion these beliefs are ‘ridiculous’ – hence the title: Religulous.

Bill Maher is right to point out some absurdities in certain people’s convictions, although stylistically spoken he could have done it a little less ad hominem. It’s a pity, however, that he limits his investigation to people who say they believe in ‘God’. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had shown how the psychological and sociological mechanisms that produce certain convictions are also hugely conditioning people who claim they don’t believe in ‘God’. Maybe he would have called his documentary Anthropologulous then. Whether we do or do not believe in God, we’re susceptible, as human beings, to some very strange convictions and behavior.

In fact, what I’ve learned from René Girard (among others) is that ‘belief in God’ is not ‘the real problem’. Atheists are no less capable of the kind of ‘religious’ behavior Bill Maher calls ‘ridiculous’. Similar to the rituals surrounding the deities of traditional religion are, for example, pop festivals or the ceremonies honoring dictatorial leaders of atheistic regimes (such as some of the annual festivities held in North Korea). So the question should not be ‘do you believe in God’? Maybe we should rather reflect on the social and psychological mechanisms, the desires and deeper motivations which shape our life.

To me, German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) seems to summarize the ‘real’ dilemma when he claims “Man has either a God or an idol”. Or, to put it differently, the question isn’t so much ‘do you believe in God’ as it is ‘what (kind of) God do you believe in?’ So it’s not only a pity that Bill Maher doesn’t reveal the parallels between potentially ridiculous behavior of both ‘theists’ and ‘atheists’, it’s also a shame he doesn’t interview more people who try to develop their faith in a constant and frank dialogue with the natural and social sciences. Too bad he doesn’t get into the rich philosophical and theological traditions of Christianity. Actually, the way he reads the Bible is none other than the way his adversaries read it – he just comes to a different conclusion. In this sense he imitates his adversaries and becomes somewhat of a ‘mimetic rival’. Bill Maher is oblivious to the basic hermeneutical principles that were used by educated theologians throughout the ages (and from the get-go, meaning these principles were also used by the biblical writers themselves!).

Nevertheless, all these remarks on content and style aside, it must be said I did enjoy quite a few hilarious moments in this documentary. I thought about it when I recently visited Barcelona together with my wife to celebrate her birthday [Was she happy? Yes, she was!]. We were there when Barca, the unmatched and world-famous soccer team that is, had to play the Champions League final at Wembley against Manchester United. So we were confronted with exuberant Barcelona soccer fans the night their team won this important match. At the same time we witnessed a leftist manifestation that went on for a few days at the Plaça de Catalunya. Mostly young people were gathered there to demand governmental and economic reform that should result, among other things, in job creation, since unemployment is on the rise in Spain. In both instances we witnessed what Bill Maher would call ‘religulous’ behavior.

I don’t want to imply that supporting a soccer team is ridiculous as such. It is, however, a social phenomenon that is susceptible to extreme and bizarre behavior, as it tends to produce processes of idolatry. The picture on the left indeed shows that Lionel Messi is treated like a god by some of his fans. I neither want to imply that the unemployment claims made by the Spanish youth at the large square in central Barcelona should not be taken seriously. I just wanted to record how people sometimes ‘strangely’ behave when they’re united against a ‘common enemy’ (in this case ‘the system’).

Amidst all of this social upheaval and turmoil both my wife and I were driven by yet another herd of people towards the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), especially his Basilica Church La Sagrada Família. Never to be completed during the architect’s lifetime, this amazing monument is now finished on the inside and, perhaps needless to say, visiting it opened my senses and heart to another kind of religious, even ‘spiritual’ experience. It was like walking into the spatial mind of a genius who devoted his life to the creation of a sphere where people could ‘reconnect’ with themselves, each other, nature and, ultimately ‘God’. As is known, Gaudí was a devoted Catholic who put all of his talents as a scientist, mathematician and artist at the service of ‘The Holy Family’. His work displays a deep awareness of the interconnectedness, indeed ‘familiarity’ of all that is. Moreover, Gaudí was convinced people could only ‘find’ them‘selves’ if they discovered there was no ‘self’ apart from a ‘being’ that ‘is’ always already ‘in relationships’. What and who we are is first and foremost ‘given’ – it is not something we autonomously create. To deny this, is to surrender to what René Girard would call a ‘romantic deception’.

The following quotes of Gaudí show how he considered any artist’s creativity as something that doesn’t spring from a purely ‘original’ mind. Rather, his view on ‘originality’ is closely connected to the discovery of a creation that always precedes the work of the artist:

“Originality consists in returning to the origin.”

“Man does not create… he discovers.”

Artists like Gaudí consider themselves ‘co-creators’ or ‘collaborators’, only relatively ‘free’ as ‘imitators’ of Nature:

“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”

“Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.”

Gaudí seems to distinguish between two kinds of imitation, ‘blindly copying’ and ‘creatively mimicking’:

“Copiers do not collaborate.”

From the point of view of Girard’s theory on imitation (his ‘mimetic’ theory) blindly copying exactly occurs when people feel they are not imitating at all. On the other hand, people who realize they are dependent on others will develop a creative kind of imitation, allowing ‘originality’. By consciously imitating something or someone other you’re indeed saying two things: that there is a likeness between yourself and that other and that there’s also a ‘distance’ (otherwise imitation would not be possible). One could even say that imitation somehow creates this distance, a kind of ‘space’ where men each become ‘others’ towards… others.

As said, the Sagrada Família, as a building that so closely resembles the ‘mathematical’ mystique of natural forms, precisely produces a realm wherein people are not swallowed by the unifying yet destructive powers of ‘wild’ crowd mechanisms, but a ‘breathing’ sphere where people really become aware of each other in the ‘space’ surrounding them. To Christians like Gaudí and Girard this kind of awareness allows for the experience of a divine Love which creates us. From the contrasting situations in Barcelona I start to see what they’re getting at…

Lorenzi Marcella Giulia and Francaviglia Mauro wrote a very interesting article on Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in the Journal of Applied Mathematics (click on the title to read it): Art & Mathematics in Antoni Gaudí’s architecture: “La Sagrada Família”. I especially recommend it to those mathematicians who want to taste something of Gaudí’s peculiar spiritual take on science.

Of course there are other ways to enjoy the swarming life in God’s grace – “His ways are manifold”.

Try for example the Hard Rock Cafe in Barcelona, and discover “God is my Co-Pilot”, celebrating that good old rock ‘n’ roll music!

Cheers!