Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.
Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.
My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.
The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.
Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.
But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).
I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.
There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.
My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.
Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.
Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.
But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.
(This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives, and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)