Sunday, March 31, 2013

A.C. Grayling's False Dichotomies

Last week a writer friend tried halfheartedly to convert me to atheism by sending me a link to a 2011 talk by British philosopher AC Grayling. The friend in question is not so much strongly anti-religious as incredulous that Christianity or any particular religion can address the complexity of the universe.

Grayling spoke in Sydney to promote his compendium of secular wisdom The Good Book. I'd willingly read into Grayling's book, but was not much impressed by the talk. It's the old "new Atheist" tendency to set up straw men. I replied to my friend:

[for the Grayling talk, search YouTube "A.C. Grayling the Good Book 2011". LeCaNANDian posted it]

Dear ----:

I watched the Grayling talk, and found him obviously very learned and eloquent, but didn't come away much changed by anything he said. For one, I feel he posits too strong a divide being between traditions that are "secular" and those that are "religious." This is something I find true of most figures in the "New Atheism" movement: they assume a strict divide where often there isn't one. Here the issue becomes more salient because Grayling is concerned to valorize ancient thinkers like Aristotle or Socrates as against the "religious tradition."

The problem is that one can't set up a clear border between religious/secular and then put Socrates on one side and, say, ancient "religious" thinkers on the other. Yes, there is a real thing called philosophy, and Socrates fits the definition: "thinking for oneself," weighing and sifting and proceeding by dialectic, etc. But still the Greek philosophers had a very strong sense of the divine--Socrates had his daimon, and Plato certainly conceived the realm of Pure Forms as both transcendent and existent--while much of the ancient Christian tradition, even books in the biblical canon, engage in dialectics similar to those we find in the Greeks. Not to mention what happens when we reach the third and fourth century (cf. Augustine). So, on the one hand, the biblical canon contains masterpieces of skeptical reason (Ecclesiastes, for one); on the other, the Greek and Roman philosophical writers contain religious enthusiasm (as the Platonic tradition develops, for instance). A similar kind of overlap can be seen in the Renaissance and Enlightenment--though it's true that a stronger secular tradition breaks away in the latter period.

Grayling posited another suspect dichotomy when he addressed how we create ethical systems. So: Either 1) the ethical is a response to a requirement from some transcendent source, or 2) it is developed from human reason based on human experience. Again, talking of ethics, I don't think the dichotomy holds up. Or: It holds up only at a very "popular" level, such as when you put a Texas fundamentalist with scant education face to face with a young atheist with scant education. In this kind of debate thinking is scarcely approached by either side. Thinking, so prized by Grayling, only begins once discourse develops beyond a certain level (particularly: once discourse begins to put itself in question). When that happens, the two kinds of ethical "ground," as Grayling might say, often start overlapping. Secular ethics begins positing metaphysical entities that can't be proven to exist, while, in return, religious ethics begins talking about human experience.

Grayling remarked about Buddhism that it was originally a philosophical movement, not a religion: "The Buddha didn't intend to be a god." This is certainly correct, and it led me to think again of a very interesting Christian tradition, namely that represented by the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient Christian text only recently rediscovered during the last century. I'm sure you've heard of Thomas, but don't know if you've read into it (read the text, I mean, or read any commentary). The Thomas tradition does not present Jesus as a god, but more as a charismatic teacher seeking to lead disciples to an awareness of "the kingdom," which is understood as present already but unrealized. The true disciple in this tradition isn't saved by Jesus, as by some divine being of a different essence, but rather awakened by him, whose "twin" he or she is called to become. In Thomas' understanding of Jesus (as is also often true for writers in the Gnostic tradition) you get a kind of deconstruction of Grayling's ethical dichotomy. Because the point for the Thomas tradition is that the "divine source" from which we might get ethical insight is already part of us: it is inside us to be discovered and developed. I.e., to use Grayling's terms, we see in Thomas a "religious ethics" which also depends on a keen awareness and study of the true nature of the "human self in the world." But this latter, according to Grayling's dichotomy, is precisely what a "secular ethics" is supposed to do; it is precisely not what a "religious" ethics does. Does this make Thomas less "religious" and more "humanistic" than the canonical gospels? One might argue so. But my point here should be clear: the divide Grayling seems to want to hold up proves unstable once one gets closer to actual religious, or indeed ancient "secular," traditions.

Further, I believe Grayling's "secular" ethical systems, those created mainly by human reason, are liable to the same kinds of gross superstition and abuse we find in the "religious" ethical systems. Look what happened with Marxism in the last century. And look how our own secular liberalism has become merely a kind of catechism upholding the religion of consumerism and unregulated capitalism. I find similar kinds of fetishization and superstition in popular medieval Christianity as I find in Stalinism. Certainly each had its priesthood and its Inquisition. We in neoliberal society fall prey to like kinds of fetishization, only being lucky in that our own Inquisition hasn't quite developed yet (although I note various trends that way).

I'd really be interested to know your reaction to some of the Thomas-related writing out there. I don't agree with Ron Miller on much as regards his theology, but his book on Thomas is quite good; he gets at an authentic core in Thomas. What's more, you might agree with him:

Ron Miller: The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice



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