What Good is Religion?
An atheist's case for the value of religious diversity.
Toleration, the first virtue of American citizenship, is when you get right
down to it an embarrassing subject. It is easy enough to pay lip service to
the principle, easy to say that an open-minded and charitable attitude toward
difference is essential in a society as diverse as ours. But once you start
to reflect on the varieties of human behavior this genteel liberalism is likely
to disappear. Mention any of a number of controversial issues--abortion, homosexuality,
militias, religion--and you quickly discover that the waters of toleration
run shallow. Indeed, it often seems that we are tolerant, if we are, in only
the most pragmatic sense. We do not feel comfortable imposing our ideas and
practices on others and are particularly skittish about using the State to
inculateconformity on fellow citizens. Yet at some fundamental level, we still
hope that everyone will, in their own and without too much prodding, come
around to our way of thinking. Tolerance is for many of us a temporary and
remedial virtue, which we expect will become unnecessary once people manage
to agree about what is right and true.
But perhaps toleration requires a deeper, more principled foundation. If
our society is to be more than a mere association of mutually suspicious groups,
each hoping the others will either convert or disappear, then we need to find
our way to a robust acceptance of our various differences. Minimally, we could
adopt a relaxed, live-and-let-live attitude, treating ideological disagreements
the way we now treat disagreements of taste. We could feel that there is room
for a multiplicity of values and views, that other religious, political, or
philosophical opinions do not in any way threaten our own. More substantially,
we could embrace pluralism as a positive good, coming to believe, with John
Stuart Mill, that "it is good there should be differences."1
One can imagine, for example, feeling about ideological pluralism the way
we feel about the division of labor--that a diversity of beliefs and values,
like occupational diversity, is crucial to the overall functioning of our
society. Here we approach a level of endorsement deeper than "toleration,"
as conventionally understood. It is a vision of a pluralist society whose
diverse subcultures complement rather than undermine one another, a divided
society which can nevertheless be thought of as a single, unified Whole.
There are several obstacles to appreciating human diversity in this way.
First, and most obviously, our differences are quite severe. Some of us like
modernist poetry, while others like professional wrestling; some of us believe
in quantum mechanics, while others believe in alien abductions; some of us
think that sodomy is good clean fun, while others believe it to be hateful
to God. Pluralists often argue that all this difference contributes to the
overall health of society, but it is by no means clear why this should be
so. The most common suggestion, which has been made by John Stuart Mill, William
James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others, is that diversity and toleration
are preconditions for moral and intellectual progress. (It is, on this account,
only through the free competition of diverse views that the Truth can emerge.)
But there seems to be more diversity than these theories can account for.
Many beliefs -- belief in astrology, for example -- are so patently wrong
that it is hard to imagine them serving any useful function.
A second difficulty is that any discussion of the merits of pluralism will
likely begin from premises that are highly controversial within our political
community. Why is there such a range of opinions and practices among human
beings, and what is the prognosis for the future of intellectual diversity?
Is diversity an intrinsically desirable feature of human societies,
or would conformity in the realm of ethical or scientific life be better (putting
to one side the costs of establishing it)? To answer these questions is to
abandon the aspiration to speak on behalf of society as a whole. Religious
fundamentalists, dialectical materialists, Kantian rationalists, and Nietzschean
skeptics will each offer different accounts of the origin and benefits of
ideological pluralism; and in adjudicating among these various explanations,
or developing alternatives to them, one therefore becomes involved in the
substantial disagreements that divide our culture. Thus the paradox: the deeper
the defense of toleration, the less acceptable it is to the community at large.
We can explain in great detail why those who agree with us should tolerate
those who do not, but we can only speak in very general terms about why those
who do not agree with us should tolerate those who do.
Yet despite these real difficulties, I think it is important for us to try
to explain why we should embrace pluralism as a substantial good. Something
needs to be said about what pluralism is and where it comes from, about why
contemporary American society is riven by such fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable
divisions, and about the benefits that this sometimes painful diversity can
bring. This is nowhere more true than in the case of religious belief. Here,
I think, we can give a genuine explanation of the benefits of ideological
difference, an account of the importance of religion which proceeds along
partisan--indeed, atheistic--lines. The aim of such an explanation is not
to persuade believers to be atheists, nor to provide them with reasons for
toleration. Instead it is to help nonbelievers to see why religion--which
has given us, in recent years, fatwas, abortion-clinic murders, poison-gas
attacks, and mass suicide--is not only worthy of toleration, but also often
admirable, well worth the special protection it has been given in the first
amendment to our country's Constitution.
Bright Future of an Illusion
What might be called the Enlightenment View--that religion will simply wither
and die as science progresses--is now scarcely credible. With religion still
occupying a prominent place in contemporary culture, and our best data showing
no trend toward disbelief, the hypothesis that religion is disappearing--however
slowly, gradually, or circuitously--seems entirely unjustified.2
Yet the opposite view--that one particular religion will gradually attain
universal acceptance because it happens to be the truth (we might call
it the Fundamentalist View)--is equally problematic. Religious and secular
perspectives show every sign of being dual points of equilibrium--attractive,
livable world-views, neither of which has the intellectual resources to overwhelm
the other. If this is right, then we need some new ways of thinking about
long-term ideological conflict. Specifically, we need to explain why both
secular and religious attitudes should display such striking permanence, and
to adjust our attitudes in light of the explanation.
I think the answer is to be found in the idea that religious beliefs are
what contemporary psychologists call positive illusions: false beliefs
that are nevertheless beneficial to those who have them. The survival of religion,
on this (avowedly partisan) view, results from the incompatibility between
two fundamental human values: truth and emotional fulfillment. Science, with
all its attendant skepticism toward traditional wisdom and unverifiable claims,
is our best method for discovering truths about the world. But the truths
it discovers are in some respects deeply disturbing: our universe has no moral
fabric, provides little basis for belief in personal immortality, and contains
striking divergences between desert and reward. Thus we might wonder whether
religion survives precisely because it provides a more comforting alternative.
Might it be that the truths of science, though they are truths, are
not compelling enough to command universal assent, even in the long run? Could
religious belief be a sort of illusion we will never fully overcome?
To ask these questions is to broach the thought that, though there may be
a single objective Truth, there may not be a single optimal set of beliefs.
Certain false beliefs may provide direct benefits to those who hold them.
Belief in the afterlife, for instance, or in the existence of an omnipotent
and benevolent Creator, may provide believers with comforting answers to some
of life's most painful questions, answers which furthermore do not interfere
in any fundamental way with the pursuit of their more practical aims. In addition,
such beliefs may have indirect payoffs, for instance by facilitating the development
of certain kinds of communities. Atheism, to be sure, has benefits of its
own--indeed, the kind of skeptical self-criticism that leads people to religious
disbelief may be internal to the scientific enterprise. Still, the virtues
associated with these two different world-views may be about evenly matched,
in the sense that one will never overcome the other.
If so, then secular appreciation of religious belief should involve the thought
that atheism and religion are both reasonable responses to a basic human dilemma.
If the scientific world-view is humanly disappointing, then atheists have
reason to be slightly ambivalent about their atheism, not because they should
doubt their doubts, but because of the emotional costs of their disbelief.
One could imagine atheists who particularly enjoy the company of religious
people, taking a sort of vicarious pleasure in their faith. In the way a musically
talented physicist views a concert pianist, these atheists might view believers
as people who have been able to develop capabilities which they themselves
possess but have not been able to cultivate. Tolerance, as they understood
it, would involve not merely respect for the autonomy of others, nor simply
a set of prudential concerns about the costs of allowing governments to dictate
what others should and should not think, but also a deep and substantive appreciation
for the actual content of religious belief, an almost aesthetic appreciation
for the quality of religious lives.3
The advantage of this more substantive, content-based approach to religious
toleration is that it creates a strong bond between atheists and believers.
For it is not as if the two groups accidentally happen to find themselves
participating in a single society. Instead, religion and atheism are seen
as parts of a complete, well-rounded community--as two sides of a coin rather
than two sides of a dispute. Again, the analogy to individual specialization
is useful. We would not want to live in a world composed only of physicists,
or doctors, or concert pianists, or businessmen. Understanding that no single
human can do everything, we easily accept the fact that people must limit
themselves to a small area, becoming fractions of a larger whole. Broad-minded
atheists might see the choice between religion and atheism as essentially
similar. Recognizing the unique benefits of both atheism and religious belief,
they could acknowledge that both are permanent and essential human options.
Some will naturally be drawn to the world of scientific truth, others to the
world of religious belief. But neither choice would, ultimately, command the
Strategies of Evasion
This rather commonsensical approach to religious belief has been defended
only rarely by philosophers and social theorists. One finds it, when one does,
in its more elitist and cynical variants -- according to which religion offers
comforts to the masses that stronger, more enlightened spirits are able to
forego. (By contrast, my view is that religious belief can be beneficial to
even the most admirable and intelligent people.) One is more likely, however,
to find philosophers dismissing outright the possibility that religious belief
might be both false and useful. On one side, there are those who, convinced
of the falsity of religious belief, refuse to entertain questions about its
value. On the other are those who, out of sympathy for religious believers,
refuse to tackle the question of its truth.
An extreme manifestation of this tendency is the Kantian idea that science
as such has nothing to say on the subject of religious belief. The
anthropologist Clifford Geertz has argued for this position: questions about
the truth of religion, he writes, "cannot even be asked, much less answered,
within the self-imposed limitations of the scientific perspective."4
In one sense, the point is uncontroversial. It is indeed hard to imagine that
any scientist could definitively prove that, for instance, Moses did not
encounter a burning bush, or that Jesus did not rise from the dead,
or that Joe Smith did not communicate with God in western New York
State in the early nineteenth century. But science can cast an aura of suspicion
over claims of this general sort. Absent regular, verifiable contact with
superhuman beings, and knowing what we do know about our species' fondness
for wishful thinking, we can--and should--be suspicious about whether these
things actually happened. Perhaps we will never know with absolute certainty
that they did not occur. But science gives us methods for deciding which among
competing explanations is the more probable. And in the case of religious
belief, I believe that it delivers a fairly unequivocal answer.5
A second, more promising way to evade the thought that religious beliefs
are false is to interpret them as meaning something other than what they seem
to mean. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, and sociologists such as Durkheim,
have tried to show that religious language can be translated into unobjectionable
secular statements--statements, for instance, about morality (Kant), metaphysics
(Hegel), or society (Durkheim). Recently, the philosopher Hilary Putnam has
inverted this line of argument. Instead of showing how religious statements
can be translated into secular truth, he has claimed that religious belief
cannot be translated at all--even into secular falsehoods.6
By thus changing the reference of religious language (or by denying,
with Putnam, that religious language refers in any uncomplicated way) these
philosophers can avoid the tempting but politically awkward conclusion that
religious views are false. Religion in their view only seems to be
false: in fact, it is just a strange kind of language that can be translated
into truths, or which conveniently defies translation altogether.
There is something attractive about this view. The link between professed
and actual belief is not at all clear, and one may legitimately wonder to
what extent religious people actually believe what they say. Consider, for
example, the following account by Tanya H. Luhrman, an anthropologist who
has studied witchcraft in contemporary London.
The ideas and theories of magical practice are for magicians both
assertions about the real world and `let's pretend' fantasies about strange
powers, wizards, even dragons. Magicians treat these ideas and theories sometimes
as factual assertions, sometimes as fantasy, without necessarily defining
to themselves where they stand. It is as if they were playing with belief--and
yet they take themselves seriously, act on the results of their divinations,
talk about the implications of their ideas.7
Clearly, it is misleading to describe such people as "believing" or "not
believing." It is almost as if Luhrman's magicians operate with two independent
belief-sets, one of which ("it's all just metaphor") is uncontroversial, the
other of which ("magic really works") is false. Their faith exists only as
an unstable mixture of these two incompatible alternatives: if the magicians
were forced to define themselves once and for all, their belief would collapse
into empty metaphor or ridiculous literalism.
Likewise, in heated debate with an atheist, the believer may retreat--not
just rhetorically, but even in his or her own mind--to the position that religious
belief is "something like metaphor," or is about morality, or even that it
is false-but-valuable. (A religious acquaintance once said to me: "I'd prefer
to keep my faith even if it should turn out to be false, and this keeps me
from exploring skepticism too deeply.") Among co-religionaries, however, or
during worship, the religious belief may take on a more literal cast. Doubtless
many people, sensitive to these subtleties, have been led to protest against
the mischaracterization of religious belief as unalloyed conviction. But in
stripping religion of all literal content they commit the opposite mistake.
For though some people are quite delicate and subtle when it comes to their
religion, many others are not. Everyone, I suspect, has had some experience
with that vast population of believers whose faith is completely straightforward.
Religion for them expresses truths that are as well-established as any truths
of science--and they tend to become quite offended if any well-meaning philosopher
tries to tell them what religion is really about. Furthermore, many
of even the most sophisticated believers occasionally flirt, as Luhrman's
magicians do, with actual, literal conviction. Absent such flirtation, one
is tempted to ask whether there is any religion present at all. Perhaps the
fundamentalists are right in suggesting that those for whom religion is purely
metaphor are religious only in name.
Some recent data suggest that it is important to take religious beliefs at
face value. Roughly half of all Americans believe that Heaven is something
"up there"; and about a third think it contains harps.8 (Slightly less than
a third think it also contains halos.) About 40 percent of Americans believe
that the Bible is God's word and "all it says is true."9 And, most surprisingly, a full 40 percent of American scientists,
a segment of the population that can be presumed to be unusually skeptical,
claim to believe in "a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving
an answer."10 Faced with such widespread literalism, it
is hard to take seriously any strategy of semantic reinterpretation that treats
religion as if it were just about ethics or social relations, or as if the
language of religious belief were somehow "incommensurable" with that of ordinary
discourse. Religion may be importantly metaphorical or non-literal; but it
is surely not exclusively or even predominantly so.
There are a variety of other objections commonly raised against the view
that religious belief is both false and beneficial. Religion, skeptics observe,
has real costs, both for non-believers, who may be subject to various forms
of oppression at the hands of religious zealots, and for believers themselves.
(Though Christians may take comfort in the promise of Heaven, they will, as
Kierkegaard vividly described, experience some anxiety over the prospect of
eternal damnation.) Another worry is that religious belief might bring benefits,
but not to believers themselves. Religion has often been explained as a tool
by which one part of society controls another: for Nietzsche, it is how Weak
control the Strong; for Marxists, it is one of the ways in which the Rich
control the Poor; while for Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, it is how the
Smart, somewhat benignly, control the Stupid. Yet a third objection concerns
the causes of religion's survival: admitting for the sake of argument that
religion brings noteworthy comforts to believers, one may yet wonder whether
those particular comforts are what account for its longevity. Perhaps religion
exists simply because of institutional inertia, or because human beings are
just plain irrational, or for some other reason unrelated to the comforts
religion can bring.
These are important points, and I am not sure that anyone really knows how
to answer them. We do not have much hard evidence--though we have some--about
the psychological effects of religious belief. We cannot say, definitively,
that religion does not function primarily as a means of social control. Nor
do we know why, contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment, both religion
and atheism continue to flourish. Yet despite our considerable ignorance,
I do think we can set these alternate explanations provisionally aside. This
is, first, because we have an intellectual duty to choose the simplest possible
explanation that accounts for the facts in question. Surely it is simpler
to view religion as a kind of beneficial false belief than as a harmful superstition
or vast ideological plot. (If religion were one of these things, then
it is hard to see why it should continue to flourish. How, one wonders, is
the trick or superstition or harmful belief sustained?) Second, we may have
a moral duty to avoid those explanations that make religious people look unnecessarily
foolish. We perhaps should feel about these views the way we feel about theories
of racially-based differences in intelligence. Let us be prepared to consider
them, but only once we have been offered unusually compelling evidence. Until
such time, we can discount any theory that shows signs of having originated
in unreflective prejudice.
Varieties of Extravagance
This, then, is the course of reflection I am proposing. First, the atheist
notices the burdens of secularism--burdens which, although they do not mandate
a decisive rejection of that world-view, nevertheless represent a real cause
for complaint. Second, the atheist notices that religious believers seem to
be free of some of these burdens; that their lives are admirable on the whole,
and in some specifiable ways made better or more fulfilling by their faith.
Third, the atheist comes to acknowledge religious belief as one of her unrealized
possibilities. She recognizes, in other words, that with a different sort
of upbringing, she might herself have become religious. Furthermore, she accepts
and endorses this alternate life-history, much as the musically talented physicist
accepts and endorses his hypothetical career as a musician. (Mere recognition
of possibility is not enough. It is conceivable that, with a different upbringing,
I might have turned out to be a serial killer, but this doesn't in any way
mean I must approve of the behavior.) Finally, she reflects that she is glad
to be living in a country that shelters religion, a country whose basic governmental
structures are designed to protect and even encourage religious association.
For the atheist comes to see her religious compatriots as embodying her own
alternative life-histories, and pluralistic society as providing the best
opportunity for the development of all the various, incompatible capabilities
she was born with.11
It is important to note that religious belief does not present the only opportunity
for this sort of reflection. The conflict between the pursuit of truth and
the pursuit of happiness is quite general, and cuts across the boundary between
religious and secular. Many non-religious people possess deeply unrealistic
views of the world: some harbor extravagant hopes, for instance that they
will win the lottery or write the next Great Work of philosophy; others spend
their lives devoted to marginal pursuits that have, for them, the deepest
possible significance--painting single stripes on canvasses, trying to bring
down the System of Industrial Capitalism, or lobbying for spelling reform.
Again, we may admire such individuals without endorsing the views that are
at the center of their lives. These eccentrics, revolutionaries, and would-be
geniuses might be thought to present the problem of religious belief in a
disorganized and eclectic form. Though their beliefs may not force us to ask
any serious political questions--we do not, for example, require a
Constitutional amendment protecting eccentric metaphysicians--we may still
confront in them the familiar dilemma about the role of illusion in the good
Take the following cases, drawn from the history of philosophy, of what can
be described as hypertrophic self-confidence.
I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, but I know
that I understand the true one (Spinoza).12
To speak frankly, I find it quite impossible to believe that Your Excellency
should not have realized the correctness of my theory: for I know that through
me truth has spokenãnow in this small matter as it will one day in a major
one (Schopenhauer, writing to Goethe).13
One day my name will be associated with something tremendousãa crisis without
equal on earth . . . . I am no man; I am dynamite . . . . It is my fate that
I have to be the first decent human being; that I know myself to stand in
opposition to the mendaciousness of millennia (Nietzsche).114
Veneration for Wittgenstein was so incontinent that mentions, for example,
my mentions, of any other philosopher were greeted with jeers. . . . This
contempt for thoughts other than Wittgenstein¼s seemed to me pedagogically
disastrous for the students and unhealthy for Wittgenstein himself.15
One can imagine that the committed realist might feel himself drawn to people
with this sort of self-confidence. For the desire to live a life of the deepest
possible significance, to discover great truths and be somehow exemplary,
is one that many young realists know. Like the longing for immortality, this
desire often leaves behind residual traces--traces that can cause us to look
favorably on those who manage to sustain it throughout their adult lives.
There is an important distinction to be made here. On the one hand, you can
admire someone's false beliefs because they yield an unambiguous payoff in
the real world. You might say that Nietzsche's works are valuable because
his intellectual overconfidence led him to discover important truths. This
would be roughly analogous to admiring a religious believer because of what
her beliefs allow her to accomplish, or because one admired the kind of mutual
concern which religious communities often display. In such cases, we admire
not the belief itself, but rather the belief considered as an essential
ingredient of some other accomplishment. On the other hand, one can also
admire the belief directly, as something which is itself valuable. For instance,
one can, as Alexander Nehamas has pointed out, enjoy Nietzsche as a kind of
real-world literary character, as an outrageous, fascinating, and--in some
peculiar way--exemplary person.16 Likewise, one might
admire the religious believer because one found her beliefs themselves
to be compelling, because one felt they provided an interesting and valuable
alternative to one's own secular sensibilities. Where on the former model
we might wish we could have the effects of the belief without the belief itself,
on the latter model it is the belief that we admire.
The second type of situation is primarily what interests me. I personally
have a taste for intellectual extravagance in many of its forms. For me, the
history of philosophy is less a history of great intellectual achievement
than a history of fascinating intellectual error. I enjoy the writings of
Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, not because I think they
made important discoveries about the world, but because I enjoy exploring
their strange inner lives. (This, as it happens, is a reason for my spectacular
lack of success as a philosophy Ph.D. student.) Similarly, I enjoy John Cage's
musical compositions not because I find them beautiful in themselves, but
because I appreciate the idiosyncratic personality that created them. The
same is even true on the personal level: I am often drawn to people who refuse
to walk the straight and narrow path of reasonable ideas, moderate ambition,
and realistic goals.
No doubt this is, in part, because I recognize in myself certain extravagant
desires: I would like to discover great truths; I would like intellectual
fame; and I would like to be revered and respected by others, much as I would
like to live again after I die, or to live in a world where attainment and
desert were perfectly proportioned. No doubt it is also because I have, as
a simple fact of my personal history, spent a good deal of time in close proximity
to this sort of person: from my paternal grandparents, with their profound
but literal faith, to my very sophisticated religious friends; from the sublimely
self-confident artists I have known, to the (books of the) great philosophers
of the past. For me it is simply not an option to write this all off, to confine
my admiration to that smaller portion of the species whose beliefs I can endorse.
Nor, ultimately, would I want to. I occasionally find reasonable people, myself
included, a little boring, and in the company of more extravagant minds, I
feel I can experience--perhaps only vicariously, and perhaps only temporarily--a
sense of what it would be like to be freed of the burdens of that realism.
To be sure, this requires a curious combination of emotional openness and
intellectual decisiveness: openness, that is, to questions about the belief's
value, and decisiveness with regard to its truth. But though it is a little
unusual, this combination is by no means unknown. It can be found, for example,
in each of the following remarkable quotations.
Most reckless things are beautiful in some way and recklessness
is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful
because of the strong possibility they are founded on nothing.17
As it happens I am comfortable with . . . those who live outside rather than
in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme
and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate
the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate
all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and
heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.18
[B]ut then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled
after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because
the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad
to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones
who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous
yellow roman candles [ . . . ]9
This near-contradictory language here signals the attitude that I have described
as sympathetic atheism. John Ashbery finds recklessness beautiful. Joan Didion
is comfortable with and appreciates the "doomed" commitments of others. Jack
Kerouac thinks that people can be both mad and interesting. Each, in short,
acknowledges that the most reasonable lives are not always the most admirable
ones, that there is, as I have been putting it, a significant conflict between
realism--or intellectual responsibility--and emotional fulfillment.
Division of Cognitive Labor
The physicist Steven Weinberg is an atheist who does not shy away from expressing
disappointment with the scientific world-view. In a recent book, he describes
himself as "nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory
of God." He says he feels "sad" that the laws of nature do not reveal the
existence of a divine Creator that has some special concern for human beings.
And he admits that he does not "for a minute think that science will ever
provide the consolations that have been offered by religion in facing death."
Briefly considering the idea that these disappointments might justify the
continued adherence to the false-but-comforting doctrines of traditional religion,
he ultimately rejects this suggestion in favor of pull-up-your-socks stoicism.
He says it is a "point of honor" not to give in to wishful thinking. "The
honor of resisting this temptation," he concedes, "is only a thin substitute
for the consolations of religion, but it is not entirely without satisfactions
of its own."20
Now I admire Weinberg's honesty and the strength of his commitment to the
truth. Truth is, indeed, a wonderful thing, and we should be prepared to sacrifice
a certain amount of happiness in order to know the world as it is. But I think
Weinberg underestimates the human complexity of his dilemma. Truth does not
automatically trump all other values. Nor is the choice between truth
and falsity a single, once-and-for-all problem that we should all solve in
the same way. Instead, it is one we face repeatedly, in many different contexts,
and one that we each answer differently. To take an obvious example, in dreams
people often experience brief periods of delusion, moments in which
our desires can catapult us into a pleasing fantasy world of wish-fulfillment.
I wonder: would Weinberg consider it a "point of honor" to resist wishful
thinking even on this level? If he could, would he take a drug that ensured
that he never believed his dreams?
William James, to provide a second example, used drugs to make himself dream.21
Drugs gave James a degree of voluntary control over his own beliefs: sober,
he inclined toward realism and even skepticism; under the influence, he had
vivid experiences that he felt were religious in character. (As he put it
in The Varieties of Religious Experience, "the drunken consciousness
is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find
its place in our opinion of that larger whole."22) This,
then, is another way in which one might mediate between the competing claims
of truth and emotional fulfillment. If James is to be believed, in using drugs
we can isolate our false beliefs, confining them like our dreams to specific
time-periods. Again, I wonder whether our "ethical" obligation to the truth--the
obligation on which Weinberg bases his atheism--extends to this case as well.
Granted, most people would not take a pill that removed the delusion from
one's dreams. But what about those celebrated pills that make one's waking
consciousness more delusory?
Pluralism in effect represents a third approach to the conflict between
truth and happiness. Here, pleasing illusions are not--as in dreaming and
intoxication--confined to brief temporal periods. Instead, they are present
only in a portion of the larger society. Thus, rather than a weekend-and-workweek
solution to the problem of positive illusions, we have a division-of-labor
approach, wherein different elements of society embody different and incompatible
values. I suggest that this is what contemporary America is like. Divided,
segregated into conflicted ideological communities, we nevertheless manage
as a single society to transcend our individual incompleteness, to represent
as a community a wider spectrum of human possibility. Atheists, rather than
wanting their atheism to be universal, should be glad of this, learning to
take pleasure in the religious beliefs of others. Religious believers, you
might say, are society's dreamers. We should cherish them much as we cherish
our own individual dreams.
1 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson,
1947), p. 74.
1 Religious belief has remained remarkably constant over the
last century. See Andrew Greeley, Religious Change in America (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); also Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham,
"Scientists are still keeping the faith," Nature 386 (1997): 435-36.
3 Michael Walzer briefly mentions views of this sort in his
On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 11.
4 Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological
Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton (London: Tavistock,
1966), p. 40.
5 John Rawls's political philosophy provides a more sophisticated
example of this same tendency. Committed to speaking the language of "public
reason"--a language equally acceptable to atheists and religious believers--he
refuses to make substantive judgments about the truth or falsity of religious
belief. This restrictive view of what is "public" can be unsatisfying, mutatis
mutandis, in much the same way as Geertz's restrictive view of science.
6 Religious believers and secular atheists speak, in Putnam's
view, two different and "incommensurable" languages, so that "when the religious
person says `I believe in God' and the atheist says `I don't believe in God'
they do not affirm and deny the same thing." See Putnam, Renewing Philosophy
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 143.
7 Tanya H. Luhrman, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 11.
8 Time, 24 March 1997.
9 Greeley, Religious Change in America, p. 17.
10 The survey question continued, "By `answer' I mean more
than the subjective, psychological effects of prayer." Larson and Witham,
"Scientists are still keeping the faith," p. 436.
11 This idea is related to John Rawls¼s notion of a „social
union.¾ See A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1971), p. 79 and especially pp. 522-25.
12 Quoted in Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza (New York:
Penguin, 1972), p. 11.
13 Quoted in R¸diger Safranski, Schopenhauer and the Wild
Years of Philosophy, trans. Ewald Osers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1990), p. 189.
14 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann
(New York: Vantage, 1969), p. 326.
15 Gilbert Ryle, describing the scene at the Moral Sciences
Club, in Ryle, ed. Oscar P. Wood and George Pitcher (New York: Macmillan,
1971), p. 11.
16 Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).
17 John Ashbery, "The Invisible Avant Garde," in Reported
Sightings, ed. David Bergman (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 391.
18 Joan Didion, "Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)," in Slouching
Toward Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), p. 63.
19 Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Viking, 1957),
20 Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York:
Pantheon, 1992), pp. 256, 260, 261.
21 See Dmitri Tymoczko, "The Nitrous-Oxide Philosopher," The
Atlantic Monthly (May 1996), pp. 93-101.
22 William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
(New York: Collier, 1961), p. 305.