Who Needs Saving?

It is disappointing to see a supposedly sophisticated voice of religion still so literalistic.

In  It’s Not God Who Needs Saving – It’s Us (in Standpoint magazine) John Cottingham concludes with:

We need the humility to accept that we cannot create our own values, or pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral sensibilities have sprung. Instead of embarking on the project of “saving God” by replacing him with the naturally and humanly shaped world, it is perhaps time, even at this late stage, to acknowledge that it is we ourselves who need saving, and that the salvation cannot be entirely of our own making.

Of course we don’t choose our values; we inherit them through a combination of genes and culture, and religion may provide a useful metaphor for thinking and communicating about them. On the other hand it may do more harm than good. For me the jury is still out on that but others are less hesitant.

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who, despite Cottingham’s gratuitously borrowed introductory slur, are not “undergraduate atheists”,  have concluded that the evidence is strongly towards the harm end of the spectrum, but they are not actually what he wants to talk about after all.

Cottingham’s target is actually two authors who do see value in the religious tradition and would like to salvage whatever they can from the fact that its basis really is, at best, only a metaphor.

Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston and French author André Comte-Sponville have both written books seeking to reconcile what is valuable from the religious tradition with what is “known” about the universe, but Cottingham will have none of it.

Apparently Johnston is committed to “ontological naturalism” — the idea that there are no supernatural entities or forces [1].  But in his book ‘Saving God’ , according to Cottingham, he argues that this does not preclude acknowledgement of the resonant insights of Scripture’s  authentic moral message (presumably what’s left after  filtering out all the inauthentic immoral bits), and even strengthens it by preventing the  inauthentic “spiritual materialism” of placating gods to get what we want. Apparently he also claims that using the language of religion is not harmful if it is properly understood and that the “holiness” often identified with “God” resides “just in the sheer givenness of the world — that is, in its existence and disclosure”

Cottingham responds that “it is surely wishful thinking to suppose that this power can be retained while bracketing off, or deleting, the traditional faith in a loving creator God”, for “the natural process, understood as nothing more than a natural process, is manifestly not holy”.  And then he trots out his own remarkably incomplete and unsophisticated understanding of “modern physicalist cosmology” to empahsise the mundanity (in the traditional aesthetic/moral sense) of the mundain. But anyone who has obtained more than a minimum level of understanding of even our current limited ideas of how the mundain world works in all its magnitude, complexity, uncertainty and beauty cannot fail to find it as transcendently moving and  holy as any scriptural or theological attempt to explain the concept of ‘God the Creator’. So it’s not the holiness that’s lacking in this view.

But the loving may be harder to come by.

André Comte-Sponville’s L’esprit de l’athéisme also adopts the view that nature is the “totality of reality” and that the supernatural “does not exist”[2] but also that “renouncing a God who has met his…demise…does not compel us to renounce the moral, cultural and spiritual values that have been formulated in his name.”

To this Cottingham responds “But if the natural process is all there is, and social and moral norms are simply conventions devised by humans as part of that process, then what provides morality with its authority — that sense of an imperative that exerts a call on us whether we like it or not?”  Now I don’t know if Comte-Sponville actually says anything like “moral norms are simply conventions devised by humans”, but that is not implied by anything Cottingham quoted. And it is very far from what I would expect from anyone with the slightest idea of how our mental processes evolved and work, so I expect it comes from Cottingham himself.  Of course naturalism does not preclude the existence of “an imperative that exerts a call on us whether we like it or not”. In fact it almost demands it. After all, the naturalistic explanation of our origins has it that we evolved from totally instinct-bound animals.  So the claim that absolute ethics are an illusory projection of  “what only exists within ourselves” does not empower us to reject their guidance – at least not without the risk of future mental anguish which we might well fear will overpower us in our final moment . . . unless we are “saved” by reaching out for and accepting “forgiveness” from that part of our conscience which is beyond our conscious control.

Johnston sees the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, and resurrection (regardless of whether true or false in historical terms) as helping us towards “the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you” and I can attest that it certainly does that for me.

But in fact, although I am not a slave to logic [3], logic does demand that if we define the natural universe as encompassing everything that exists then the “supernatural” does not exist. And nothing besides the utility for our ancestors of a superstitious fear of rustling leaves demands that everything (including the universe as a whole) has any “cause” at all – much less a conscious agent.

So, when Cottingham says “it is surely wishful thinking to suppose that this power can be retained while bracketing off, or deleting, the traditional faith in a loving creator God”, he’d better be wrong, because to anyone whose eyes are open that supposition is probably all we’ve got![4]


[1]. Cottingham’s interpretation of Johnston goes on to say that basic science explains all there is: ie that it provides a “causally complete model of reality”, but if that is what Johnston said it is unfortunate as  (i) our current science certainly does not explain all there is, (ii) there is no guarantee that we will ever achieve a “causally complete model of reality”, and (iii) there no good reason why we should expect one to exist.

[2]By the way, the fact that this is essentially a tautology does not make it false – rather the oposite in fact. So those who don’t like it had better just get over it

[3]. Because I see no reason why the rules that govern our recently evolved thought processes should more than approximately accord with “reality”.

[4]. Unfortunately, Cottingham’s rigid literalism about those aspects of the scripture that he thinks valuable gives support to those who want to be literalistic about its more reprehensible bits. Ironically, in the light of his opening gloat that the “undergraduate atheists” are alienating potential converts, he is doing exactly the same by forcing those who reject literalism in religion to reject all of it.

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