I have been hiding in the wilderness of Sooke for the past week camping with some homeschooling families with whom I am very close. Thus I missed the following very interesting set of letters from the National Post from last week.
Give them a close read. Most (except for maybe the first) are fairly coherent presentations of their views. Each give a stable and laudable defense of whether or not religion is a source of good or evil. While there is some elements of truth to the debate and the positions given, I believe there is an underlying presupposition that is fundamentally flawed in those who are either pro or against religion or atheism. This presupposition is that the institution or the “greater universal force” of religion or atheism or any type of ‘ism’ is the source of praise or the blame.
This presupposition is wrong because it seems to imply that some great man-created force exists independently of human activity. The most common example of such an idea comes when people speak of “the market” as if it is some force that governs, limits, and guides human economic activity. There is some validity to such a turn of phrase: the ancient metaphysical principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts surely applies to any collective human activity. However, this whole acts only in the concrete actions of the parts that make up the whole. Thus, to speak of ‘the market’ apart from human participation is like speaking of a play without any actors: it makes no sense.
Yet this turn to the institution as if it is some divine force is so very common to our every day parlance that we find it difficult to look beyond it. I recall a conversation I had with a friend about this in which this friend stated that every corporate institution is a moral evil. I understand where they are coming from: some corporations have it built within them to always look out for themselves to the neglect of others. However, this is not the fault of “Walmart”, “conservativism”, “americanism”, etc. While certain ideas do have an effect, it ultimately comes down to the people in the institutions and corporations that affect the outcomes and corporate actions of the body. Yes, laws, mentalities, ideologies, and cultures are all part of this. But they always need human persons to instantiate these principles. Without people, ideologies, mentalities, laws, cultures, etc, would not exist. The laws and cultures are the result of human activity, not the other way around.
This brings me back to the letters above. You will note that we have one side defending “religion” while the other is defending, for lack of a better word, “atheistic humanism”. Both defend their own ideology by demonstrating how the other ideology, as if it is in and of itself some divine force, is fundamentally the force of all that is wrong in the world. Both are wrong because both are defending an idea rather than the concrete reality of human activity. Simply put, neither position is scientific because it does stand to the test of reality. We all know saintly religious people, we all know, too, virtuous atheists. Why doesn’t “atheism” or “religion” force them to be bad? Because, in the end, it is about human decision and freedom acting upon ideas, worldviews, and the day to day situations people are faced with.
The debate should not be about “atheism” vs. “religion” because it is not about institutions or even ideas. The debate needs to be about what does it mean to be human. Does man have a destiny? Is man oriented to something greater than himself? It is here that the debate must turn and until it does turn towards the problem of transcendence we will continue in the antinomy that is so prevalent in such a debate.
How does this happen? This is where it becomes difficult because many people do not allow for careful, thoughtful reflection. We always want to affirm our own position, and this tends to be done in an antithetical manner against the “opposing side”. This is not helpful. However, those who are truly reasonable about such questions tend to be relegated to the sidelines of intellectual history. For example, in the English speaking world, a man who attempted to change the terms of the debate is largely unknown: Maurice Blondel. He saw this antinomy between the two sides and saw the same problem: we are not dealing with the concrete situation in life.
Ultimately, it is about dealing with the human person, challenging them to think upon the transcendent character of their existence. Only then will the debate become constructive, helpful, and life giving. Until then, it will become a violent exchange of words. Both sides blame the other for such violence. But it is not “religion” or even “atheism” to blame, but rather it is people who are unwilling to give a moral analysis of their lives, to reflect on the transcendent character of human existence.