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What Good is Religion?

An atheist's case for the value of religious diversity.

Dmitri Tymoczko

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 whole field.

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 life.

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), p. 8.

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.

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review



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