I am what many people call a “cradle Catholic.” I was born into the Roman Rite and have never departed. Which is not to say that I’ve always approached religion with a consistent duty of care!
Lord, make me holy — but not yet.
+ St. Augustine of Hippo
As a child, I went through the same motions as the other kids. Apart from a half-year stint at a public school in the first grade, I spent K-12 in the Catholic school system within the Diocese of Grand Rapids. That education prepared me extraordinarily well for college and beyond. But, you know, I was a kid so much of my spiritual training, solid though it was, stuck like Post-It notes in a tornado.
For a few years, in my heady early days as a philosophy undergrad at Western Michigan University, I fell away from religion. This trail-off resulted mostly from the confluence of a few competing pressures:
- The strongly secular, but not explicitly anti-religious, worldview of my philosophy faculty and fellow students. They tended to look at organized religion as a silly, quaint thing best left for children, so they didn’t really acknowledge it, but nor did they spend a lot of time condemning it. (The presence of a few devout Muslims in the graduate program likely helped contain the conversations.)
- Lack of a rich place of worship. The “student parish,” St. Tom’s, was very much a wonderbread-and-sandals kind of church, and the closest alternative was the cathedral, which featured dry, superficial services attended by the desiccated elderly—two postmodern poles representing the full range of aggiornamento.
- A radical disruption of my ordinary routine arising from different work, study, and social schedules.
In my early 20s, a series of self-inflicted negative life experiences brought me back into the fold. Indeed, I even pursued seminary studies for a few years, including living for a semester at the diocesan minor seminary in Grand Rapids—Christopher House—and engaging in service including supporting (now retired) Bishop Hurley as master of ceremonies for certain diocese-wide Masses at the cathedral and volunteering in the diocesan prison and hospital ministries. In addition, I led the liturgy committee at my home parish, St. Anthony of Padua, for several years and served as chief sacristan of the parish for nearly a decade (as well as being a lector, and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, and a parochial master of ceremonies). And atop all that, I administered the biomedical ethics committee at Spectrum Health for four years, in a time in that institution’s pre-Magnet journey when most ethics consults tended to be best resolved by the pastors and rabbis rather than the doctors and nurses.
Although seminary didn’t pan out—for reasons I detail in my essay “A Moment of Clarity,” published in Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church (edited by L. Eve Tushnet, introduced by Elizabeth Scalia, released by Cascade Press in 2018)—my faith didn’t diminish at the time. I remained a volunteer in my parish and my diocese.
An important asterisk on that journey, though: I had gone “back into the fold” in my early 20s not out of authentic religious fervor, but for a sense of emotional stability. I told myself that I believed, and I even mostly believed that I believed, and I convinced myself that the minor-key hum of cognitive dissonance would eventually subside if I just kept at it. Descartes would have been so proud!
And so, stubbornly, I did keep at it. Until I couldn’t any longer. Turns out, the Cartesian strategy isn’t without its vulnerabilities.
Starting in 2008, and stretching into 2010, yet another mishmash of happenstance set things awry:
- Burnout from liturgical service—it wasn’t unusual for me to cover all four weekend Masses as sacristan two or three times per month, in addition to covering almost every Saturday Mass. I literally could not go to Mass without being tapped on the shoulder to do something. And given the Sunday spread at St. Anthony, I had to remain on-premises from when I opened the church at 6:15a until I locked up after the last people left around 1:15p. So seven hours on a Sunday, two or three times a month, isn’t something to sniff at. Given that the sacristans had to ensure that all the liturgical appointments were accounted for, it meant doing my own fair amount of subbing and shoulder-tapping.
- Transition at the cathedral from diocesan priests to the Paulists, which circumscribed lay volunteerism for pontifical liturgies. Roughly contemporaneously, the diocesan Worship office experienced non-trivial personnel changes that greatly diminished its outreach with lay volunteer liturgists.
- A sense of weariness, bordering on acedia, with the superficiality of Catholic preaching—it felt like the same pablum every weekend, offering mild and nonspecific exhortations devoid of any spiritual or intellectual depth. And it seemed like the sacramental life of the community was more an afterthought, something that you could do after you were done doing stewardship with your checkbook.
- Frustration with being the “religious” one at family events randomly tasked spur-of-the-moment with leading a prayer.
- Catch-up, physiologically, with a period of rapid and significant weight loss that led to a different hormonal balance that led, unexpectedly, to a very different view of the world.
- New scheduling pressures that affected my weekend availability and routines, as well as quasi-promotion to a more substantive leadership role at the hospital.
- Four domicile changes in three years.
- A long-running, slow-burn encounter with genuine moral evil. (My degree is in moral philosophy. I don’t use the term moral evil lightly.)
… so I took several years away, wandering in the proverbial desert. The faith of my early 20s succor wasn’t robust enough to survive the whirlwind, so by 2012 I had wiped most of my slate clean of all my former behaviors, habits, and scheduling blocks, and reset from scratch. This reset included walking away from my liturgical duties, which ipso facto meant I had to walk away from my home parish, which ipso facto meant that I was effectively un-churched for a while.
A few years ago, I was approached by a friend to sponsor him into the Catholic Church through the RCIA process. I agreed, and the experience at St. Robert of Newminster proved satisfying. It was a pleasant return to organized religion. My challenge at the time, however, was finding an appropriate home parish. I’ve traveled to several churches, but none proved an adequate fit. Some, like the Cathedral of St. Andrew, have never “felt” like home, despite that I can walk there from my house. Others appear to be a Catholic gloss on moralistic therapeutic deism (“Smile, God loves you, you’re a good person, and don’t forget to tithe!”).
Yet the kernel remained. And so did the faith struggle. It proved difficult for me to reconcile the scientific rationality of modernity with the cultural practices and dogmas that long predate modernity. Unlike the radical atheists, I didn’t reject those cultural practices, but I couldn’t integrate them into a coherent narrative that smoothed away the rough edges of cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t bring myself to reject Catholicism—its long history and inner logic command respect—but nor could I pound the round peg into the square hole. So I lapsed into something like a cultural Catholicism that functioned like fancy-pants agnosticism, because I couldn’t define a harmonious framework for integrating science and faith into a superstructure that felt joyful and authentic.
As the Good Book suggests, eventually the Spirit finds a path. Starting a bit in early 2017, and accelerating into 2018, the tug tightened in ways I couldn’t really articulate. I even built an “Alcove o’ Catholicism” at the back of my living room and started acquiring different Bible translations and collecting artifacts from the liturgy before Vatican II. Then I’d say to myself, “Self, why did I do that? That seems weird.”
What served as the tipping point, ironically, were a handful of video lectures from 2018—nine hours of Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, and Sam Harris, a well-known atheist and intellectual—debating, over three sessions, the social utility of religion. A recent read of The Face of God by Roger Scruton and Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky helped, too. After reflecting on these and other arguments, I eventually coalesced a very-high-level 14-point argument that served as something of an “Aha!” moment for me that got me off the couch and back into the pew.
In the argument that follows, I refer frequently to Harris. Please don’t misconstrue my comments as trolling him; I respect his integrity as an intellectual of high moral standing, through engagement with his podcasts and video lectures. My comments regarding Harris are situated in more of a “I wish Peterson had said that at some point in their conversations” milieu than in using Harris as a straw man.
1. The Birth of the Subject.
Roughly 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evidenced some sort of adaptation that led to a significant expansion of the species’ cognitive function. This “mental explosion” led to advances including more precise faculties for abstract language and for the capability of self-recognition over time—i.e., a sense of the I-You-It distinctions that separates a world of subjects from a world of objects. Anthropologists generally agree that this explosion occurred but not the mechanism for it. It’s difficult to understate relevance of the subject-object divide. In a sense, we’re all objects comprised of water and some minerals and various chemicals. But humans, uniquely, are also subjects; we recognize that we exist, we enjoy privileged knowledge about ourselves, and we situate this “I” in the context of both the passage of time and the interaction of other objects that we honor as being fellow “I”-subjects. That’s why you have an ethical obligation to your neighbor, but not to your neighbor’s mailbox; the former is both subject and object while the latter is an object only.
Of critical significance: Science, in general, does not seem to concede the subject-object divide. Many scientists of a materialist bent assume ab initio that science can adequately describe the totality of the subjective experience. Thus, for example, neurobiologists engineer fMRI scans to detect which parts of the brain activate when people face ethical questions, on the theory that ethics may be inferred mechanistically, as operations of tissue rather than as operations of unfalsifiable value claims. While it’s certainly true that science is necessary to contextualize the world of the subject, it’s not at all obvious that science is sufficient to contextualize it. Historically, religion and ethics have offered that context. The rational atheists—refusing to concede the possibility that science cannot define or fully describe the world of the subject—has led them to deny in practice, if not always in lip service, that the subject indeed exists.
The Hunter & Nedelisky book proves quite useful in describing how attempts by scientists to define the world of the I consistently fail to hit the target.
2. Essential Human Socialization.
Human biology and the tribe-and-band norms that long predate the Stone Age seem to select for certain behaviors that optimize the survival of the group, first, and of the individual, second. Evolutionary biologists and cultural anthropologists have done yeoman’s work in recent years to reveal how this process has unfolded. Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday offers a useful background primer on this point.
Over time, human cultures develop stories that explain and justify these survival behaviors among groups of primates possessed of language; these stories become the myths and legends that serve inter alia as the entry points for organized religion. Put differently, religion spoke to the members of a tribal group as being a community of subjects organized in dominance hierarchies for the benefit of the group as a whole, insofar as these stories gave everyone a role and a purpose that directed their I-You relationships and also provided early explanations for causative relationships in nature. The earliest attempts at science—of offering an objective, causative narrative for why the world functions as it does—sources to these foundational myths and religious practices. Much like Piaget’s explanation of the stages of child development, one can suggest that the species as a whole evolved similarly in how it approaches the world. Inductive thought, common to small children and shamanistic religions, eventually yielded to more mature deductive thought common to monotheistic religions and teenagers.
Humans born and raised without those stories and the social structures that mutually reinforce them generally do not thrive, in part because a lack of these contextual signals undermines effective I-You relationship mapping. It’s not an accident that single-parent children in highly stressed communities, devoid of positive role models and health approaches to adult development, consistently fail to launch and instead crash in too-large numbers into prisons and graveyards.
3. Religion (Peaceably) Overcomes Dunbar’s Number.
Religion provided the only significant supervening worldview that allowed for more complex forms of government to arise that crossed tribal boundaries. It’s generally accepted that human groups of more than 150 members can no longer thrive as peer social networks; the 150 limit seems to be hard-wired into our brains. So the only way we can move beyond it is to create conceptual frameworks for how that other group of 150 people are “us” (friends and neighbors) or “not us” (enemies) and thus to provide strategic intentionality that mitigates our fiercely tribal instincts. Although religion hasn’t been perfect—people die or kill over dogma, which seems to be the point where Harris gives up on the religious enterprise altogether—on balance, without those myths and the cultural bonds they engender, we’d likely still be somewhere in the Iron Age, because we’d never be able to overcome our purely genetic inheritance to cooperate on a larger scale. Yet as a consequence of this scaling-up of human culture, religion also complexified, away from myths and shamans and survival strategies into doctrine and praxis and priesthoods. It became a mechanism for using the subject to overcome genetic determinism and to revise/extend/direct the evolution of the group and its constituent individuals in a manner more precise and intentional than the slow-acting hand of natural selection alone.
It’s a point worth considering more deeply than many do: Without organized religion, we’d almost surely remain in hunter-gatherer tribes in a not-entirely-pleasant state of nature. We dismiss the role of religion to the human identity at our great peril.
4. Religion as Realm of the Subjective.
Somewhere along the way, as the story goes, Moses went up the mountain. He encountered a burning bush. When he inquired of the name of this awesome fiery deity, the deity did not name himself as the deities of other tribes were wont to do. Instead, the deity merely said, “I AM.” In other words, the deity refused to be identified as an object, but as a pure subject only—a subtle fact of significant importance for the Abrahamic faith traditions.
The Judeo-Christian “priesthood of all believers” or the Islamic ummah offered an ultimate accounting for the relative standing of individual subjects and their relationships to other subjects and to the community as a whole, in a way that—at least in theory—contained the worst violent impulses encoded into our violently tribal genes.
As religion gradually ceded its authority over the world of objects (giving way to science, starting in the West with the ancient Greeks and later Scholasticism, but ramping up with the Enlightenment), it latched more firmly to the world of subjects, developing cultural and ethical norms that tie subjects together but which cannot obtain an objective scientific imprimatur. Yet without that early, great “I AM,” religion provided no internal apparatus for disambiguating its belief systems about the subjective from the explanation of the objective.
Put differently: Religion itself, in that long-ago Burning Bush moment, allowed for its own withdrawal to the purely subjective, even if it took a while for the churches to adapt. As, I suppose, Galileo might attest. But it took religion unilaterally agreeing to give up its prescriptive control over explanations of the truths of nature in order for science to meaningfully emerge. This is an important point about the development of the Western Enlightenment, and Liberalism in general, that we ought not overlook blithely.
5. The Limit of Science as a Definer of Ethical Frameworks.
Science can fully explain the world of objects, but science cannot assert binding first principles about the world of subjects particularly in light of Hume’s Law. (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion makes for an interesting concession on this point.)
The subject-object divide in academia tends to fall along humanities-versus-hard-science lines. Although the humanities have recently, and tragically, aped pseudo-scientific approaches to legitimize their funding and their disciplines, the humanities properly understood address people not as objects (watery bags of tissue and bone) but as subjects (a persistent I in dialogue with a persistent You). The hard sciences, because of this calcification of academic departments, is constitutionally incapable of accepting that some domains of experience—like the inner world of subjects and their interrelations—defies necessary-and-sufficient scientific elucidation in purely materialist, empiricist terms. Although, interestingly enough, they mostly remain silent about the flip side of ethics, which is aesthetics.
The problem implied by Hume’s Law may be circumscribed in some clever, targeted attacks, but the consensus is that the law still holds. The rule is this: No fact about the world implies how the world ought to be or how any individual within it ought to behave. The slogan is “no ought from is,” and it’s a powerful barrier separating scientific rationality from ethical rationality. Scientific consensus cannot confer ethical obligation, a truth that many a climate activist bemoans.
Put differently: The “laws of relations among subjects,” otherwise known as ethics, do not source from the laws of nature but rather from a set of axioms from which human behaviors flow. The long-running problem of ethics is in sourcing those axioms; philosophy hasn’t universalized ethics into a single, all-encompassing, only-one-of-these-is-true paradigm. Scientists want to find an objective-seeming set of universal norms that apply in all circumstances regardless of cultural differences. However, when you get to the heart of ethics and distill the common operative paradigms to first principles that are truly foundational (i.e., they cannot be further fractionated), it turns out that some value judgment that does not source to observations about the natural world lies at the heart of it—these frameworks start with the core syllogism relying on some sort of privileged assertion (a “moral claim”) that must be believed rather than proven. There’s something like a Starfleet Prime Directive underlying each major ethical paradigm that generally proves unfalsifiable and resistant to reconstruction in a purely materialist/empiricist framework. And for many scientists, this situation proves intolerable.
The core conceit of modern science is that it can fully and completely explain everything, subject and object alike. To concede to the contrary is to undermine the entire psycho-social construct of modern capital-S Science. Rational atheists pretend that real Science, through empiricism, purged itself of unspoken moral directives, tribal alliances, and foundational myths. The possibility of non-materialist, non-empirical laws outside scientific competence, and which circumscribe science and even authoritatively influence its practitioners, presents a real obstacle to their worldview. I think that some of the most rabid of atheists, the ones who don’t merely dismiss religion but routinely criticize it outright, are reacting to this tension between the pretension of Science and the world as it actually is.
In fact, it’s odd, when you reflect upon it, that we appear to live in a world today where religion freely concedes its lack of jurisdiction over the realm of the object, but science refuses to concede its lack of jurisdiction over the realm of the subject despite possessing no empirical evidence supporting its claims of jurisdiction over the subject.
Because I am firmly grounded in Western civilization, I do not believe I must cross-reference my thoughts to how the world worked in the East, or in Meso-America, or in sub-Saharan Africa. Much benefit accrues from anthropologists looking at those places, but the truth or falsity of my claims situate in the Western tradition. Counterfactuals arising from, say, Confucian China are certainly interesting, and may require contemplation at an abstract level, but a worldview sourced on Athens and Jerusalem need not detour to Peking or Machu-Picchu to remain coherent. My argument must make sense in my Western mindset. The fact that a non-Western mindset may offer different yet equally useful arguments doesn’t undermine my argument or its universalizability, but rather acknowledges that there’s likely more than one path to live an authentically, fully human life. A proposition worth celebrating, not bemoaning!
It’s actually not clear why there must be only one answer, except insofar as science is structurally engineered to seek a grand unified theory of everything. But such bias doesn’t thereby compel the world to obey. Such bias may make total sense for the world of objects, but it’s not clear why it must hold true for a world of subjects. What law of the universe requires a one-to-one transliteration of the “physics” of the objective world into a corresponding “physics” of the subjective world? What experiment offered replicable evidence requiring us to concede that just as there’s only one set of laws of chemistry, that therefore there must be only one set of laws of ethics and one set of principles informing teleology?
In his debates with Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris suggested that because he can stipulate counterfactuals from the East, that Peterson’s arguments about the Logos in the West diminish in their persuasive power. The unspoken premise is that all of ethics and teleology can and should condense to a single set of universal cross-cultural maxims fully explained and justified by empirical evidence. That this “Thunderdome Rules” argument hasn’t generated a single, total victor is considered proof that all of those religion-based paradigms are intrinsically faulty and that science can do better because the mode of construction is scientifically objective.
Yet the radical atheists should tread more lightly on those grounds. Today, in the West, we tend to regard science as objective, but science (like religion and politics) is a function of the worldview of the dominant culture. Even in the West, science is under tremendous pressure to conform to non-rational ends, and it doesn’t always resist this pressure. To take just two examples: Lysenkoism, which condemned millions to starvation behind the Iron Curtain, and the pressure by the radical Left to reject syllogistic logic as a repressive tool of the “white cisheteropatriarchy.” Too often, we let go unchallenged the assertion that science is apolitical and purely rational, walking only where the evidence leads. That fairy tale is just not true. Just ask any psychologist who dares to publish objective research about race and IQ, or any climatologist who questions the received consensus about climate change, or any researcher who questioned the origins of Covid-19. Science is, and always has been, deeply political, and as responsive to Foucaultian power dynamics as any other human system of thought. Assertions to the contrary constitute one of the founding myths of Scientism, which in turn animates much of the rational atheist worldview.
To date, attempts to ground ethics in science, an approach long championed by the rational atheists like Harris and Dennett, consistently fails to produce solid results. Don’t be fooled by rational atheists who repackage the Judeo-Christian ethos with its implicit value judgments as if it were the product of a purely scientific process. Very many post-Enlightenment thinkers still breathe the Western tradition even when they pretend otherwise. It’s not an accident that “rational ethics devoid of religion” just so happens to resemble the postwar European consensus.
The best recent evidence of science about ethics, as steel-manned by Hunter & Nedelisky, nevertheless can’t cross the fact/value divide, and in many of the more celebrated cases (including Joshua Greene’s recent work about dual-source decision-making) are open to very obvious methodological weaknesses that undermine their scientific value. To be sure, it’s helpful for science to seek to understand, but so far, science has remarkably little authoritative to say about the inner world of subjects and their interrelationships.
6. Craving for Faith and Meaning.
Plenty of evidence suggests that at a deep psychological level, people remain hard-wired for belief in supreme supernatural entities that guide human behavior (look at the Princess Alice experiment, for starters), and that deprived of religion, people will find a substitute belief systems that function exactly like a religion (e.g., secular humanism, the New Soviet Man, Juche) complete with some central organizing principle that serves as a surrogate for a god. Peterson takes it a step further and suggests that the deep truths of religious stories regardless of cultural origin tend to converge on a handful of concepts—he calls it the Logos, on purpose—that if taken seriously, present the best combination of behaviors for maximizing human happiness and minimizing human suffering. In fact, we’re substantially better off for having them, than if those stories did not exist at all.
This hard wiring extends in two directions. To one side, you find that it implies telos—a goal-directed conception of the purpose of life, the universe, and everything. To the other side, you find that the constituent elements of this faith serve to situate an I in space-time and to set the outer boundaries of permissible relationship with other I subjects. Or more simply: the search for faith on a psychological level is a search for meaning and ethics, neither of which can be inferred authoritatively from nature alone but rather requires a central organizing principle whose truth cannot be objectively verified.
Of significance: Science cannot intrinsically value an individual human over a group without making a subjective judgment that such valuation is relevant, given the latent bias in science for utilitarian calcului. However, our demand for faith and the stories of the Logos speak specifically to us as subjects, not as objects, and thus with a proper locus in the I as the base unit of computation. Science cannot speak to humans-as-subjects without non-empirical assertions of value that define the relevant relationships and stipulate a purpose for a goal-directed life. Religious doctrines supply those assertions. Every attempt by non-religious theorists to supply them based on scientific rationality alone has ended in disaster, in part because the scientifically rational argument eventually becomes an inviolable doctrine. A brilliant account of how all this plays out sources to Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and in particular, his observations about how Communist true believers rationalized their quasi-random stints in Gulag.
The Enlightenment, which has been around a mere 400 years or so and pretends it’s not still drinking deeply of its long Judeo-Greco-Roman heritage, cannot satisfy the fullness of this million-years-in-the-making psychological need by means of Pure Reason alone. If we crave meaning and interpersonal order, we must retreat to the world of the subject, not the object.
7. The Inadequacy of the Scientific Endpoint.
It turns out that moralistic therapeutic deism isn’t a religion. And the individual and social benefits that accrue from religion in the form of a concrete ethics and a meaningful telos don’t occur at a generic, 50,000-foot level, but at the level of a pew or a synagogue or a prayer rug. “Religion” might be a high-level concept, but a specific faith tradition is concrete. It’s the point where all that biological hardwiring finds its fulfillment. It’s the point where people join in communities and express specific moral truths and behave in specific ways to advance the teachings of that faith tradition.
In other words, a deist doesn’t have religion, he has a philosophy. One may daresay, with appropriate trepidation, that he possesses Pure Reason. And it’s worth noting that the intellectual horsepower necessary to craft a Pure Reason surrogate for religion isn’t exactly small. Rational atheists believe that reason and study can gain them access to scientific truths sufficient for establishing “objective” morality, which is an interesting contemporary gloss on Gnosticism. Although rational atheists can certainly construct a civilization with norms and values that are scientifically calibrated to yield great good and minimal pain—check out the Star Trek universe!—they lack the critical theoretical substructure to justify such a framework at a subject level. Which means that each subject must construct this justification individually, instead of simply outsourcing it to religion.
Given that 20 percent of the population has an IQ of 80 or less and is therefore functionally illiterate, it’s not clear broad swathes of the population are cognitively empowered to engage in this individual telos- and ethics-building activity. You know what you get when you deprive relatively uneducated people of a subjective grounding for their ethical worldview? You get the child soldiers of Rwanda. You get The Lord of the Flies. It’s not obvious that this approach represents a material improvement upon the status quo. Religion has its faults, but one thing it does well among its adherents is minimize the risk of violence among people who are not intellectually equipped to debate the finer points of scientific rationality with Sam Harris.
Harris, in fact, posits what he believes is a first-principles justification for a core ethical framework that does not require God or religion. His argument is a case study: Assume a universe where every living person dwells in the worst possible world. It literally can’t get any worse. Harris asserts that any act that reduces that suffering — even by a little — is a good thing, and we can trace the trajectory of those good things along a continuum toward the best possible world, such that a “morally good” act is one that ultimately reduces the total amount of suffering in the world as aligned with that trajectory.
Peterson and others (notably, William Lane Craig, through a debate shared on YouTube from several years ago) push Harris on the why of his argument. Both men argue that Harris’s first principle actually depends on a deeper ethical norm that Harris assumes but doesn’t acknowledge. Harris responds with a bit of alchemical hand-waving as prelude to changing the subject into a Rodney Dangerfield-esque “That Yhwh, what a murdering, mysoginistic asshole, amirite?” shtick. But the criticism remains. It’s not immediately obvious why any act that mitigates suffering is paramount when one could plausibly assert instead any act that mitigates suffering for everyone. After all, if you’re in hell and you see one person in a lesser state of hell, do you celebrate his ascent, or do you pull him back down to your level?
Harris’s framework cannot explain why the kulaks shouldn’t be liquidated. Doing so requires recourse to a deeper, more foundational value system — one he cannot justify on Pure Reason alone, and therefore he does not try. No matter how mightily he struggles, he cannot get past the problem that every ethical system contains an unfalsifiable value proposition at its core.
8. The Practical Value of Religion.
Peer-reviewed science demonstrates the power of boots-on-the-ground faith in the United States, as distinct from MTD. Studies show that people with vibrant interior lives of faith tend to have better health, longer life and less juvenile delinquency, better social stability and a stronger sense of community. I’m not a fan of the Naturalistic Fallacy, but it’s fairly well-understood that people thrive in the Iron Triangle of success—a stable career, marriage, and childrearing, in that order. Specific churches, synagogues, and mosques offer a real community expression of that Iron Triangle, as well as offering doctrines and practices that reconcile people to their current station (and potential pathway) along various dominance hierarchies.
The sociological evidence in the U.S. is clear that believers fare better, emotionally and socially, than non-believers. Part of that outcome is likely a function that believers hew more closely to their biological wiring, and partly that the non-dogmatic superstructures of most religions support a community in its more grounded, meaningful forms (churches, synagogues, mosques) that offer a tribal identity in a modern world.
9. The Point of Divergence.
So, we arrive at something at least plausible on the scientific merits, of the overall individual and social benefits of a human tendency weakly approaching moralistic therapeutic deism as sourced from the principles of evolutionary psychology and supported by well-accepted anthropological evidence. MTD exists as a phenomenon and scientists can fruitfully debate whether MTD has been an advantageous survival strategy for humans. In fact, it’s hard to argue that the world would be better off without “religion” than with it, given that without it we’d almost surely remain in the Stone Age. That said, now that we’re comfortably ensconced behind the Enlightenment, surely now (the secular atheists suggest, and Harris explicitly asserts) we can set aside that hocus-pocus of specific religious dogmas that have harmed so many over so long a time period of war and superstition. Perhaps, the scientist might concede, MTD and foundational myths got us to the present moment, but now that we’re here, we can put aside infantilizing dogma and organize our societies and our communities along purely scientific principles that are proven to maximize overall happiness and minimize overall pain.
Yet as an amateur historian of the 20th century, I cannot assent to the secular atheist argument. Too many tens of millions of people perished in service to scientific rationality instantiated in ideology that served as a surrogate value system. The chief proponents of these quasi-religious ideologies number among the worst mass murders of all time: Vladimir Lenin. Joseph Stalin. Adolf Hitler. Pol Pot. Hideki Tojo. Idi Amin. Mao Zedong. Kim Il Sung. Xi Jingping. Scientific rationality writ into secular ethical systems has killed far more people in a century than the Crusades or the European wars of religion did over a millennium.
Therefore, I am strongly convinced by science that religion, in the abstract, is a net positive for both individuals and societies and offers the best opportunity for maximizing long-run happiness and minimizing long-run misery in light of the alternative. The next question, though, is whether you stop there and rest in some sort of agnosticism or benign atheism, or whether you take the leap into participating in religion. (I do not see scientific justification for explicitly rejecting religion qua religion given that science has nothing meaningful to say about it that’s not simply Scientism in drag.)
I’m therefore inclined to proceed—to undertake the journey into religion. Science has brought me this far, but it cannot bring me any farther. Now, after two more stage-setting observations, the argument shifts.
10. Religion Works at Ground Level.
“I’m religious because it’s socially useful in the aggregate” is weak sauce, akin to a C&E Catholic saying “I’m Catholic because I was born that way.” If we accept that the science mostly acknowledges the historical value of a weak MTD, and we accept that religious practice is generically useful, then we must accept that authentic religious practice requires specific instantiation. As such, we arrive at a reasonable argument for the value of adherence to a specific faith tradition even if the argument cannot prevail in a purely materialist/empiricist framework.
The benefit of religion, specifically instantiated, accrues not from the assessment of any religion’s objective truth, but in the fact that a well-formed religious tradition offers a subjective grounding that appears to be critical for human flourishing. You only gain that grounding on the ground, in a manner of speaking—in a specific instantiation of religion, and not in religion as a generic cultural artifact.
11. Personal Faith.
One last hurdle: Individual faith.
It’s well and good to accept the academic argument, but where does personal faith come in? Descartes, among others, tried to escape his own method of radical doubt with a “fake it til you make it” approach: If you just go through the motions long enough, eventually they’ll become habit, and the habit will eventually become belief. An application, in a sense, of the ancient lex orandi, lex credendi principle.
You must introduce individual faith to sustain the social utility of the enterprise. The community of believers must be sincere in their commitments, on the whole, lest the community engage in the kind of doublethink that undermines the community’s substructure. Free-ridership is as much a problem for villages as for parishes, as the hollowing of Mainline Protestantism has shown.
For an individual struggling with that commitment to the belief system, it’s not clear that Descartes’ escape hatch leads to anywhere but failure. There’s a world of difference between being a believer versus being a fellow traveler, of being a worshipper rather than being that person in the back row observing the worshippers as if they were gorillas in the mist. Everyone falls away from faith from time to time (q.v., me) but the sincerity of the struggle is the criterion of authenticity. Faith motivates the aspirants as much as the converted; it shapes the sinners as well as the saints.
Funny thing, though. When you shift out of a hard-science worldview and explore religion on its own terms, the whole point of faith is that it can’t be proven scientifically or justified. If the existence of e.g. the Holy Trinity could be proven scientifically, as the atheists require, then by definition, it’s no longer faith. The basic human need for faith wouldn’t vanish, but the objects of that faith would blow away. I cannot imagine a more destructive world wherein the content of faith is removed but the hardwired impulse to believe endures. (Actually, I suppose I can imagine it. Again, read The Gulag Archipelago or explore The Rape of Nanking or take a gander at Mein Kampf.)
Knowing that God exists or non-exists is an order of magnitude more toxic than believing that God exists or non-exists. Humans are, after all, wired to believe, not to know.
12. The Irrational Choice.
We all make a choice to believe something. We can’t help it; it’s a core, pre-rational part of the human condition. But it turns out that in the buffet of religious beliefs, all beliefs are not all created equal.
There might be real cultural value in, e.g., Shintoism, but taken abstractly, I think it’s hard to beat the Judeo-Christian faith tradition as the fullest and deepest expression of a system of belief that leads to the maximization of happiness and the minimization of suffering (crimes of history, committed by the fallible, notwithstanding; for what’s the alternative, in light of the last century?).
So because we choose to believe, faith isn’t a matter of knowledge or a function of some emotive spark you possess, but rather a statement of commitment to a logical superstructure of doctrine and praxis that you cannot justify, but nevertheless elect to honor. And thus, faith is a process, a choice, and not an end in itself or the selection of an endpoint following a rational interrogation of the facts. Faith is not an emotion or the transmogrification of an article of belief into an article of knowledge about the material world. Faith requires sincere commitment and a willingness to sacrifice for the ideals, but not an emotionally charged “personal relationship” with bearded sky gods. (Isn’t anthropomorphizing God in this Calvinist fashion the ultimate act of idolatry in its typical Christian sense?)
Submission to religion, to be meaningful, must be a conscious act of will sustained even (especially?) when it’s inconvenient. Otherwise, in purely theological terms, it’s not faith at all but merely an empty shadow, or even a form of apostasy. Muslims take this precept more seriously than most Christians do.
13. The Fruit of Irrational Choice.
And so you arrive, I think, at a position where the choice of believing serves to complete a person, psychologically and socially, and the choice of what to believe isn’t as relativistically problematic as our comrade academicians insist. This insight, come to think of it, seems embedded in the whole superstructure of religion itself.
So do I choose MTD because it’s intellectually safe, despite being sterile and functionally useless, or do I choose to believe in a specific faith tradition with dogmas and practices that which I cannot scientifically prove, but by engaging in it, brings value to me and to others?
I am convince in light of the foregoing argument that the optimal pathway for flourishing across all dimensions of my “I” requires participation in religion aligned to the Logos. For both cultural and intellectual reasons, I believe that the most authentic, self-consistent and deeply insightful model of faith lies in Roman Catholicism. So I choose it in its totality, freely, and with a certain liberating joy. I no longer, as before, suffer a nagging feeling that because I can’t prove it, it’s therefore it’s all a colossal waste of time. Acceptance of the full panoply of rituals and beliefs, without the demand for external verification, opens rich traditions of prayer and culture and interpersonal fellowship and a well-defined telos that otherwise would remain closed. It means I do not, as the rational atheists must do, struggle daily to preserve a solipsistic understanding of the moral good and the meaning of life. I’m free to be less existentialist in my grounding so as to sample richer intellectual and moral fruits within a stable and affirming community of believers.
That’s a pretty big deal.
14. There and Back Again.
And having so chosen the path of faith, I willingly adopt the doctrines and practices of this specific instantiation of religion. If I don’t, then I’m merely Dian Fossey watching the well-dressed apes perform their superstitious pantomimes every seventh day, among them but not one of them. Lukewarm, destined for spitting out.
And having chosen to accept those doctrines with their implicit logic models, and thus cheerfully subordinating myself to that ancient superstructure, have I not therefore arrived at a destination that offers an escape from the solipsism justifying the start of my journey, that says that I’m doing this for my own psychological well-being, or for the greater social good? Do I not, then, finally earn a share in that higher purpose, in the mysterium fidei, on its own terms? Which is to fully and joyfully live the faith you’ve chosen, recognizing that the fullness of proof of its righteousness comes not from the physical evidence of a bearded sky god, but rather in the fruits of participating in one specific instantiation of that Logos that infuses purpose and direction into the very fabric of life itself.
Here I stand, I can do no other.
I’m aware, of course, of some of the philosophical weaknesses of the foregoing argument. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a work that crossed the tipping point from “Am I sure about all this?”-style drafting to “Yup, I’m sure”-style ongoing refinement. In particular, I’m sensitive to the possibility I haven’t really escaped Descartes but instead have only applied a few layers of lipstick to that pig.
In the summer of 2019, I officially joined Sacred Heart of Jesus in Grand Rapids, and in October, I began a period of Sabbath, wherein I take Sundays and reserve them exclusively for physical downtime (I spend most of the day reading) and prayer (Mass, and private recitation of some of the Divine Office).
- I tend to be conservative with regard to liturgy and translations. I’m a fan of smells and bells and organ music. And Latin! I’m not theologically or culturally tied to the Extraordinary Form, but find that its rhythm and flow better cohere for me than the superficial “you must be made to care” participation demands of the Ordinary Form. In the EF, I know what’s going on and I can meditate in a different way from the Ordinary Form, where my attention is commanded routinely merely for the sake of outwardly appearing to be a community. (That said, although I value and sometimes recite from the 1962-era Brevarium Romanum, some of the contemporary Liturgy of the Hours offers a marked improvement — e.g., the Office of Readings is much richer than Matins ever was. So I’m not the kind of guy who rejects Vatican II, but rather refuses to anathemize pre-conciliar practices.)
- My innate religious disposition, I think, is Medieval contemplative. In other words: I’m more of a thinker about religion than an emotivist; I probably would have made a great Carthusian scribe. You’ll sooner find me engrossed in the books of, say, Benedict XVI than you will see me trotting off to fellowship groups to compare notes about an alleged Marian apparition. I am not the sort of guy who says “God and I talk to each other all the time.” I don’t think it works that way. The “personal relationship to Christ” language so prized by my Calvinist friends has always struck me as naively adolescent — it significantly limits and anthropomorphizes the God of the Logos who is pure subject. I think it’s possible to be a good Catholic faithful in word and in spirit to the teachings of the Church, yet not treat God like Zeus upon a cloud bearing a giant scroll and giving you chits every time you hold the door for an elderly person and removing chits every time you masturbate. That said, a more rationalist/contemplative perspective must take care to not depersonalize God or out-think the disciplinary norms of the Church; the choice to believe implies the obligation to eat the full meal and not just pick from the buffet line. Few sentiments are as spiritually empty as saying that “the rule doesn’t apply to me because I understand its historical evolution in ways that the mere rubes in the pew behind me cannot.” Some meaningful personal sacrifice, even if just of pride in one’s intellect, is a precondition for the Judeo-Christian faith tradition to make much sense.
- I am not much of an evangelical. In other words, I am not inclined to wield the norms of Catholicism as a sword that strikes the breasts of my fellow citizens. Religion is private in the United States. If you’re interested in Catholicism, I’ll happily help lead you home to Rome, but otherwise, I’m not going to alienate you by pointing toward Rome every 10 minutes. Nevertheless, a public polity that coheres with the norms of Christianity is a worthy goal, even if I draw the line at integralism; I’m more of a David Frenchist in that regard, even as I lament the growing populism within my formerly beloved First Things.
- Despite not being particularly Evangelical, I’m a big believer in quiet public witness through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Faith requires a lack of comfort that spurs us to be better and to make the world better. Faith reserved to writing checks on Sunday isn’t worth much.