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In an episode of the popular television show The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon finds himself in traffic court. Standing before an impatient judge, he says with his customary flourish: “Like a milking stool, my case rests on three legs.” Well, the case for human religious immaturity I’m making in this book also rests on three legs: the previous three chapters. We’ve already spent some time getting those three legs in place. In the first section of this chapter, I complete the account of how they are positioned in relation to each other, and show how this positioning enables them to hold the weight of my claim about our developmental immaturity in religious matters.
You might think it an unfortunate thing that the idea of triple transcendence should receive a new lease on life just when we’re forced, by the same circumstances that provide it, to be agnostic about whether the idea is true. Even if the idea of transcendence gets a new lease on life, religion itself – and here we’re back to talking about robust, transcendence-friendly religion – apparently doesn’t. But notice what you’re assuming. You’re assuming that religion in an age of immaturity should have the same basic attitudes it’s always had. And that seems highly questionable. Sure, religion as we’ve seen it so far is full of detailed conviction and passionate belief. It’s tempting to suppose that this is how things have to be in the religious domain. Call this view believerism. But if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s not to take religion as we’ve seen it so far to be representative of religion, period.
In this provocative work, J. L. Schellenberg addresses those who, influenced by science, take a negative view of religion, thinking of it as outmoded if not decadent. He promotes the view that transcendently oriented religion is developmentally immature, showing the consilience of scientific thinking about deep time with his view. From this unique perspective, he responds to a number of influential cultural factors commonly thought to spell ill for religion, showing the changes - changes favorable to religion - that are now called for in how we understand them and their proper impact. Finally, he provides a defense for a new and attractive religious humanism that benefits from, rather than being hindered by, religious immaturity. In Schellenberg's view, religion can and should become a human project as monumental as science.
Since 2006, a band of merry men, the new atheists, has been rampaging across the science-and-religion landscape. Often these men seem angry, but really, and none too secretly, they enjoy sticking it to religion. Their approach – too impatient and confident to abide much reasoning, at least absent a healthy dollop of sarcasm – is not calculated to win the affection of serious thinkers. But serious thought is not what the new atheism is really about; serious thought is altogether too serious and also too timid for many new atheists. As to timidity, this tends to be what the new atheists suspect of anyone who would rather be called ‘agnostic.’ A term devised to describe himself by Thomas Huxley – Darwin’s bulldog, not exactly a timid type – ‘agnostic’ reeks to many of faltering indecision.
In “Atheism, the computer model,” a recent article in Nautilus, Michael Fitzgerald reports on the latest data-driven studies of how societies become supernaturalist, fall away from supernaturalism, and return to it when the going isn’t good. The article concludes with the thoughts of Boston University’s Wesley Wildman, who ventures the view that supernaturalism isn’t likely to disappear, since people have “a basic propensity – a biological imperative – toward a desire to ascribe actions to an agent, a being, even one we cannot see.” As Wildman puts it: “Every generation is born supernaturalists.”
What I want to show in this chapter is that, given the force of the immaturity view and the imperative represented by the new agnosticism, it isn’t reasonable to believe metaphysical naturalism to be true – at least when it is formulated in such a way as to oppose religious ideas. I’m not saying we should regard the claim as false. For all we know, it may turn out to be true. But in circumstances of religious immaturity it is not the fierce threat and danger to religious ideas of transcendence that, in our culture, it is commonly thought to be.
It’s interesting to think about how ideas we take for granted haven’t always been lodged in someone’s head. They were once in no one’s head and had to emerge, whether among skinny humans, hulking Neanderthals, the tall but less brainy Homo erectus, or someone even further back in our family tree. Some individual or group had to think of using fire to serve human purposes. That was quite possibly erectus. Somebody dreamed up hafting a stone point onto a wooden shaft. That may have happened as far back as Homo heidelbergensis. And someone thought of the wheel. We humans of course were the first to produce a wheel, but whether we were also the first to think of one is anyone’s guess.
When, under the broad influence of science, we ascend to the macro level and in a no-holds-barred manner treat religious inquiry developmentally, we set off a kind of chain reaction. Forced by such a move to consider what stage of development we’re at, we arrive at the surprising conclusion that the religious dimension of human life is still developmentally immature. But if it’s immature, then further surprises follow. For now we have to think in brand new ways about a range of interrelated and culturally important views with a bearing, often negative, on robust religion. The assumption that humanism is best and strongest when secular and the restrictive but seemingly obvious stance of believerism, along with praise of naturalistic belief, derision of religious agnosticism, and a host of popular views about science and religion fostering a negative evaluation of the latter – all these things have to go.
The religion project’s ambitions are huge. Check. A lot of experiencing and growing over a great deal of time could be required to achieve them. Check. So, humans have given a lot of care to this enterprise in the time we’ve had, and great seriousness, rigor, and diligence in religious intellectual investigation have become a conspicuous part of the human religious record, right? Uh, well … no. We can’t put a check mark there. The present chapter explores why.
When people of today, including the Nones, look back over the past life of our culture and ahead to the future, they often think that the perspective to take with us into that future is secular humanism. Secular humanism says religion has had its chance and failed. Or at least that it – secular humanism – can take the good things from religion, combine them with a bunch of other good things, and leave us ahead of the game. But the claims defended in this book show how religion can rise again. And the content of the argument, somewhat unexpectedly, suggests how a new religious humanism might be developed. Among other things, I want to give some attention to how strongly this new humanism challenges secular humanism. Who is best fitted to take us into the deep future? Who passes – or best passes – a 10,000-year test understood in that sense?
Why have I been calling the religion project a big project? In part, certainly, because when thinking about it, we are operating at the macro level, where it’s not just what I think or feel or what’s going on at the synagogue down the road that’s relevant but anything that any human has ever felt or done in relation to the notion of transcendence. The religion project is a human project; it belongs to us all. That makes it big. But, as I’ve already suggested once or twice, the religion project is also big because of its outsize ambitions. Trying to figure out as much as you can about whether there’s something more to reality than just nature – and something benign – or trying to understand the transcendent reality you already believe to be there is not very much like trying to fix your car or outfox a business rival. It’s a bit more complicated.
In Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of one John Playfair, who in 1788 accompanied the great British geologist James Hutton to see an ‘unconformity’ at Siccar Point in Scotland. With the help of this geological visual – an ancient erosion surface dividing two layers of rock, one gently sloping, the other vertically tilted – Hutton explained to Playfair that the Earth is a machine ceaselessly repeating a cycle of erosion, deposition, and uplift. Playfair later wrote: “The impression made will not easily be forgotten … Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective. The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”
Until little more than 200 years ago, almost everyone who contemplated the history of humanity went back only a few thousand years in time. People who entertained thoughts about the future regarded the end of the human story as nearer than the beginning. Those doing science or philosophy or commenting on religion imagined such activities to be nearing – or to have crossed – the finish line. Then came the discovery of deep geological time and evolution … And virtually nothing changed.
This article describes a new type of religious commitment that is activated only if the associated religious propositions are true. The notion of a conditional intention provides the mechanism for understanding how it works, and the justification for forming such an intention in the religious case comes from an awareness of human immaturity combined with a more fundamental and unconditional commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty. The article's argument promises to contribute widely and to supersede certain older arguments, including Pascal's Wager.
Religious epistemology is widely regarded as being in a flourishing condition. It is true that some very sharp analytical work on religion has been produced by philosophers in the past few decades. But this work, for various cultural and historical reasons, has been kept within excessively narrow bounds, and the result is that the appearance of flourishing is to a considerable extent illusory. Here I discuss three important ways in which improvements to this situation might be made.