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God and liberal modernity

That’s the name of my March column at Catholic World Report.



Christianity and the other great world religions are attempts to bridge the gap between rationality and religious intuition. (Augustine’s City of God , for example, with it’s demolition of polytheism, is, in its own way, a rationalist classic.) So they get it from both sides. It is important to realize that people often dislike the big organized religions for very different and frequently outright incompatible reasons. Some people don’t like Christianity and other organized religions because they aren’t definite enough. It’s all a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo. They are the rationalists and they are mostly in charge. But a certain number of other people tend not to like Christianity and other organized religions because they are way too definite. They want to give their pre-modern intuitions full reign. All that systematizing theology and rationalized ethics takes the fun out of things. The two groups may agree on a few things, not liking restrictions on pre-marital sex, for example, but fundamentally they dislike organized religion for very different reasons. Hence, the dismay of people like Richard Dawkins that, amid the decline of organized religion, so many people, instead of taking to scientific rationality, have taken up astrology, mysticism, pseudo-science etc.

Hunter gatherers tend to take a fairly lax view of premarital sex, are fiercely anti-hierarchical, practice a lot of infanticide, and would doubtless find the suggestion that preventing conception is worse than cheating on you lifelong partner bizarre. But they also tend to be pretty intensely religious.

What’s the gap between rationality and religious intuition? Is it bigger or smaller than the gap between rationality and moral, mathematical, or metaphysical intuition, or between rationality and desire or rationality and sense experience? It seems to me that rationality isn’t about itself but about other things. The point is to do our best to understand the world as a whole and deal with it sensibly, which means (inter alia) that we shouldn’t leave out basic things.

On other points, “It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.” Rationalists as well as new agers fall short in that respect.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Most people’s religious intuitions seem to be more animistic or polytheistic than monotheistic. Neither animism nor polytheism tend to survive much scrutiny, but the need for religion is still there, and so we get more sophisticated religions.

For that matter people’s physical intuitions are geocentric and flat-earth oriented, and the need for some sort of understanding of physical reality means we get more sophisticated understandings on those issues as well.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I guess my point was that not all of the opposition to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular comes from modern irreligious sources.

If you’re referring to the Catholic World Report piece, my point there had to do with the dominant intellectual tradition that guides discussion among educated well-placed people. The tradition is grossly inadequate to the world and human life as a whole, so the project of remaking social life in its image runs into contradictions, never goes to completion, and provokes various side- and counter-eddies.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.