July 18, 2008

Transcendance Without Faith: a Reply to Richard Scruton

On RichardDawkins.net, an article by Richard Scruton entitled "The Return of Religion" has been under discussion. Without going into much detail, Scruton’s article is a typical Creationist long-winded rehashing of the same old arguments from personal belief and anthropic fine-tuning. There’s one statement he makes, however, that particularly bothers me. It’s not new, but whenever I see it I can’t help but want to address it.

Scruton states,

…human beings have an innate need to conceptualise their world in terms of the transcendental, and to live out the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This need is rooted in self-consciousness and in the experiences that remind us of our shared and momentous destiny as members of Kant's 'Kingdom of Ends'. Those experiences are the root of human as opposed to merely animal society, and we need to affirm them, self-knowingly to possess them, if we are to be at ease with our kind. Religions satisfy this need. For they provide the social endorsement and the theological infrastructure that will hold the concepts of the transcendental and the sacred in place…
Allow me to explain why a statement like this compels me to make a counterargument.

What Scruton is asserting boils down to the notion that is necessary to posit supernatural causation in order to experience one’s existence as something transcendental. That is, there must be some divine intelligence behind reality that assigns meaning to the vastness of existence in order for we mere mortals to understand that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves that goes on within us and without us. It may be a handy apologetic justification for the supposed necessity of religion, but why should we accept it?

I submit that there is no necessity to imagine a phenomenon beyond nature in order to view one’s existence as transcendent. What we know of nature is more than sufficient, and to understand it in terms of a consistent vision of the universe it is knowledge, and not faith, that is necessary.

Each of us carries within each of the many billions of cells that compose our bodies a history of life. This has been passed down to us by a progression of the ancestors spanning billions of years. It is not, of course, an exact copy of anything that has gone before us or will come after us. These strings of molecules are at once similar to and different from every other living thing that has ever been or ever will be. They have been configured by chance meetings, by intentional machinations, by times of famine and periods of plenty, by gamma rays from distant suns and by the smoke of fires long since extinguished. This infinite network of coincidences that conspired to create each of us as individuals should inspire humility and awe in that it demonstrates how we are little more than the result of a billion billion circumstances that had nothing to do with us. Yet there is nothing supernatural here; this is just how nature works. What could more transcend our apparent individuality? Certainly not the idea that we were planned and so, rather than being free to create meaning for ourselves, have had the significance of existence dictated for us in the first place. That may make us feel special, but it is nothing transcendent. To the contrary, it is in prison with the walls that limit us from the outset and fix us in place and surely as a hammer drives nails into wood.

Still, there is much, much more. At every moment bits of us are flying off, leaving what we like to think of as a constant body, and becoming parts of everything else. Matter that moments ago was a part of me is now a part of the chair in which I sit. That which was a part of this “me” only yesterday is now some building block in the cell wall of a bacterium, or of a crow’s feather, or a tiny bit of the concrete poured for the foundation of a new building nearby. Moreover, the words you are reading now began their journey to your brain as a ray of sunshine a thousand years ago that found its way eventually into a sandwich that I had for lunch yesterday. That energy bound together some tiny bits of matter that I in turn broke apart to release that ancient sunshine which I then incorporated into myself. I stored it in my liver as a bond between glucose molecules and this morning have released it again as the energy that powers my jaw muscles as I speak these words to my computer. My computer captures that ancient sunshine as an electrical charge which it will send off to some other machine. You, having found this archived bit of a sunny day from the previous millennium, turn it into an experience that you will remember for a few minutes, at least, today. This “me,” it turns out, is at this moment nothing more than a vehicle for an electromagnetic wave that began its journey from the heart of the star so long ago to find its way to you. This was not preordained by some creator, it is not supernatural, it is just what happened. More accurately, it is only my interpretation at this moment of what has happened based upon the general knowledge of how energy is captured by the chemistry of living things. It matters not one bit whether I, you, or anyone else believes it to be the case. There’s no faith here, only knowledge.

Is this not transcendence? Is this not a profoundly satisfying vision of myself as one small agglomeration in the great matrix of everything that was, is and will be? Does it not free us all from the constraint of ritual and the fear of displeasing some invisible trans-cosmic surrogate parent inspecting our thoughts and behaviors at every moment and thereby deciding our ultimate destiny for us?

As soon as one hears the words “eternal mysteries,” one can rest assured that nothing of transcendence will be spoken thereafter except to cover the snares of religion, a word rooted in the Latin words re ligare, meaning “a return to bondage.” One cannot be simultaneously bound and experiencing transcendence. Lest this statement be misconstrued as referring solely to Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — let me say clearly that the mystery schools of Hinduism and Buddhism collectively termed Tantra are also included herein. Tan tra translates from the Sanskrit as “a string upon which something depends” quite similar to the Latin root of “religion.” Religious mysteries are precisely the opposite of transcendence. Belief in the supernatural is not transcendence but limitation, the very binding referred to by the words long ago chosen to signify it. Religion imposes duty to the object of belief; transcendence allows us to decide for ourselves to what we shall lend our allegiance. Freedom and mystery are not only incompatible but are diametric opponents.

Richard Scruton’s piece is not only hackneyed but is ultimately incoherent. He has made a case only for the abandonment of the personal responsibility that comes as a necessity with the experience of one’s own existence as transcendent. Pastors, priests and popes and the religious rules they promulgate never have led a single human being to a transcendent vision… and neither has he.

Sphere: Related Content