Today in New York, I paid a visit by the Beliefnet mothership, and said hi to some of the great people who bring you this here blog. I’ll admit, it surprised me that they have upended bottles of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame in the office water coolers, and it was pretty startling to see our editrix Ju-Don Roberts being carried around the office on a sedan chair manned by interns, scattering vintage Cognac upon the sweaty brows of the laborers with her platinum aspergillum. But that’s life in the big city, I guess.
Tonight Templeton sponsored a small dinner in honor of Rebecca Goldstein and her new novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” Her husband Steven Pinker was there, as were other luminaries. I’m not going to tell you how the book ends, of course, but it took me by surprise, and was, I think, about as good an argument for the value of the religious life as your going to get out of an atheist philosopher. That sounds uncharitable, maybe, and I don’t mean it to be; I actually mean it as a compliment. I was struck by listening to Goldstein talk tonight how much sympathy she seems to have for the religious mode of existence, even if she doesn’t share religious belief.
At one point in the group discussion, I mentioned anthropologist Wade Davis’s contention that the disappearance of indigenous cultures and their beliefs and ways of seeing the world impoverishes humanity, and asked her if she thought it would be a loss or a gain to humanity if everyone in the world who professed religious faith became an atheist. She said that the answer to that question “torments” her (and she didn’t answer the question). If you think about it, it’s a very hard question to answer, but an illuminating question for that reason. (The Christian version of that question would be: would it be a loss or a gain if everyone in the world who didn’t profess Christianity accepted Christ?).
In both the atheist and Christian version of the question, the obvious answer would be: the world would be better off, because it is better to live in truth than by an untruth. But is it not possible that people who live according to foundational beliefs that are not in fact true are able to see, or at least to embody, truths that elude those who hold objectively true beliefs. In other words, does the shaman’s religious beliefs and practices in some way give him insight into truth that eludes the atheist scientist? Could it be (from a Christian perspective) that the Orthodox Jew who denies that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah nevertheless embodies a vision that, however distorted by error, somehow refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way, such that it would be a loss to humankind if it disappeared.
I guess what I’m asking has something to do with whether or not the world would be a poorer and more benighted place if people stopped telling stories and spoke only in non-fictional phrases.
Anyway, the concusion of “36 Arguments” suggests that in certain instances, it can be more noble to live what you believe to be a lie if it serves the greater good of one’s community. That propositional truths aren’t the only truths. At one point toward the end of the discussion, Kierkegaard’s argument that “truth is subjectivity” came up — the idea that the deeper truths that make life worth living cannot be apprehended objectively, but had to be taken into one’s heart and lived out to have force and meaning. The fellow sitting on my left said that was preposterous, that no truth that cannot be stated propositionally, and argued for in that way, deserves to be taken seriously. I think I see where he’s coming from, but how do you argue propositionally for the truth of a father’s love for his son? You can’t; it can only be known experientially. It’s that way with God too. As one of the dinner guests, an observant Jew and a friend of mine, put it playfuly tonight, proofs for the existence of God are “goyishe naches” — things that delight Gentiles. Funny, that.