I’ve been thinking about something that crops up every now and then in discussions about religious traditions.
The atheists, arguing that religious traditions are not needed, state that every rational individual can figure ethics and philosophy on their own, without need for belonging to an organized religion.
The members of organized religions state that nobody can expect to attain salvation without accepting revelation from above, by which they invariably mean their respective religious systems and/or organizations.
I am quite annoyed by both statements.
To respond to the atheist argument first, if figuring out correct ethics is so easy and intuitive, how do they explain the vast difference between the customary ethics of the ancient Rome, and Christian ethics? What, there was a lack of rational people in the Roman empire? I assure you, there were lots of people trying to figure things out, and they were quite smart, and nobody managed to come up with Christian ethics. However, today some atheist like Dawkins or Molyneux thinks he can just pull ethics from the hat, because it’s so intuitive? It’s intuitive to them because they’ve been surrounded by Christians from an early age and everything they’ve experienced had the Christian ethical system beneath it. The problem is, they don’t understand the sources of their ethical feelings and thoughts, they think it’s “reasonable”. Reason has nothing to do with it; they are just stating the basic premises of their upbringing. It’s interesting how they don’t find Buddhist premises intuitive and think anyone could follow pure reason and come up with them. Ibn Tufail thought Islam was so intuitive, you could put a child on a desert island and have it brought up by animals, and it would follow pure reason and end up with mystical Islam. It’s also interesting how atheists think that anyone could come up with a their worldview if only they followed reason and evidence, when they themselves can’t do it – they just copy each other’s stupid arguments, including logical errors and illustrative examples. Diversity of thought among atheists is about the same as in any crazy cult, they just parrot their authorities and no significant thinking is either demonstrated or required. It is obvious that original thinkers, who are capable of creating entire philosophies that are actually innovative and revolutionary, are exceedingly rare, to the point where you can only expect to find a handful of them in a millennium. The expectation that one can follow reason and evidence and come up with a valuable and mature philosophy is therefore incredibly naive. Even the great thinkers usually produced derivative work, with few actual innovations. Jesus, for instance, introduced no significant original ideas; his thoughts were recognized as very much like those of the contemporary scholars, only spoken with the authority of direct knowledge and power. Sankaracarya introduced very little in terms of original thought; for the most part, he isolated the core thought from the Upanisads and made it into a succinct and powerful argument. Teachings of Ramanuja, Madhva and Caitanya essentially elaborate on the Puranas, Upanisads and the Bhagavad-gita. Even the Bhagavata-purana is highly derivative, for the most part explaining the teaching of Vedanta through many different stories, repeating the core thought ad nauseam. How is it, then, that everybody keeps stating that their own religious, ethical or philosophical system is intuitive to the point where every rational individual could discover it anew, if only they followed reason and evidence, when it is obvious that religious philosophies exist as separate and distinct islands of thought, where you have highly derivative thinking on each respective island, and huge and insurmountable differences between the islands? If atheism is so intuitive, how come there were no significant thinkers in the history of the world who were atheists, up until very recently, and now all of the sudden it became some sort of a fashionable “meme”? If humanistic ethics are so intuitive, how come owning slaves and working them to death was the ethical norm throughout the world, across all history? Nobody really figured out Christian ethics before Christianity, that’s why it’s one of the few original ideas in history. Believing that anyone could figure it out now without being exposed to an entire civilization that was built upon it, is just arrogant and stupid. Atheists who keep their Christian ethics but state that you don’t need God for that, are but fools. Of course you do, it’s just that they are too stupid and arrogant to understand where they got it all from. It suffices to see how many things the Christians got right, and how few of those belong to the category of trivial intuitive things anyone would get right; whenever Marxists or some other atheist bunch tried something they considered “reasonable”, “modern” or “obvious”, they produced a disaster. Their disdain for the sanctity of human spirit produced the slaughterhouses of modernity. Their “progressive” ideas about sexuality or human equality resulted in the nightmare that is today’s society. Every time they thought they will make “progress” by opposing the traditional Christianity, they produced a hellish dystopia. Apparently, getting ethics right isn’t something a rational intellectual can reliably do, and there’s a significant difference between thinking you can do something, and actually pulling it off.
As for the opposing argument from the religious circles, where they argue that it would be dangerous to think independently because of the vast probability of error, stating that it’s much safer to just espouse their respective traditional worldview, what annoys me is the arrogance of assumption that they have the good stuff. Oh really? You are safe from doctrinal error? You are ethically pure, and only the others are in peril? You have God by the balls, so to speak? You have the truth that was revealed from above, and then kept, refined and explained by the tradition of saints? Why, then, if you have it so good, is the light of your truth so incredibly dim? Why is your “truth” always formulated the same way, in almost the same words, if God is the wellspring of creativity and intelligence? When I see most priests, they look stale and boring, like trained actors who fake “inner peace”, “confidence” and “balance”, they try to speak calmly and softly because they know that will make an impression on the impressionable, but anyone who actually experienced something from the direction of God will immediately understand them as poor imitation of a poorly understood phenomenon. Basically, you can’t even fake it properly, because you don’t have even the indirect knowledge of the phenomenon that would help you fake it. Every religious organization I can think of is oozing scandals of the basest kind – scandals that indicate profound spiritual depravity. Don’t you dare talk about ethical purity or safety from ideological error, you conceited buffoons.
What do I recommend then, since those two obviously fallacious alternatives seem to split the world between them? If I argue against trusting yourself and your intellect, and I also argue against putting trust in religious or philosophical traditions, what else is there?
First of all, you need to stop fearing error, as if it were somehow avoidable and, consequently, those committing it are somehow disreputable. The first thing you need to understand is that error is unavoidable, and the second thing is that error can either be a part of the learning process, or something you get stuck in, something akin to getting caught in orbit of a black hole. Error is something that exists as context of every single thought, word and action, where you are either in error, or you just missed it by a hair and you’re on trajectory to overshoot into error on the other side, because “too much” is as bad as “not enough”. There is error in form of insecurity, and error in form of arrogance, and there is the right path somewhere, in missing both Scilla and Charybdis. God is not something you choose once and you’re safe. God is something that has to be found again, and again, when formulating each thought, when you’re trying to linearize thoughts into words, and navigate proper action. That’s probably why Jesus was speaking of the “living God”, because if you’re not in touch with God as a living force of rightness and fullness, you are in error, by default. There’s never a safe haven of infallibility anywhere, regardless of how holy you are. Even if you are so firmly in God that you appear to be perfect and infallible, it means only that you are correcting every deviation from the proper path so quickly, that they are imperceptible by others. In essence, error is nothing to be feared, because the feeling of error allows you to quickly correct yourself until you are back where your inner spiritual compass points back at God.
The next important thing is to trust holy scriptures, persons and traditions, but only to a point. At some point you will have to deviate from traditions and figures of authority and carve your own path, but that won’t be soon, or all at once. I am a very original thinker, if such a thing exists at all, and I followed the recommendations of saints and holy traditions with diligent obedience, until I reached a point where I had to go my own way, which I never did lightly or without profound consideration. Spiritual traditions usually contain wisdom that is far greater than anything a smart, intelligent and educated individual could figure out on their own; in fact, they usually contain wisdom that is beyond what a great saint could do on his/her own. However, there is excess on both ends: in either arrogant assumption that you can do better, or in fear of carving your own path once your personal revelation had matured to the point where it actually exceeds collective historical revelation of others, and either breaks away from it altogether, or merely adds to it. There is a middle path between sinful arrogance and sinful humility, and finding that path is all but easy. If you think you are walking that path of rightness merely by virtue of belonging to a church, you obviously didn’t think about those things enough. There isn’t a trick that can give you safety from the naked blade of reality on which you have to make a choice. Correctness of choice exists only in the state of spirit where God is not only your singular point of focus, but also the way in which you do things. God needs to be the way, truth and life, and you need to be there, in way, truth and life, walking the sharp blade of rightness that separates two wrongs, fearing no error, because in darshan of God, you are that blade. Failing that, everything is error.