Arguing Belief and Unbelief: A Symposium – Session One

Faith, Doubt, Atheism, Obedience

*This is the edited transcript of a conference that took place at the Francis Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: What we know now about reality includes any number of things that are hard to conceive of: quantum indeterminacy, quantum entanglement, dark energy. It has not been proved or disproved, but our universe is a hologram—three-dimensional information encoded on a two-dimensional surface, but the thought is eminently respectable, scientifically speaking. In other words, the small model of tangible, testable reality that is invoked by the atheists of the moment is an understandable error, like the geocentric universe. In absolute terms, metaphysically, no issue is resolved by the fact that reality is infinitely stranger than our senses can tell us—far more volatile and complex, startlingly aloof from our expectations. But the claim to sophistication and enlightenment that is so much of the power of the anti-theistic argument is shown by contemporary science to be unpinnable. That argument is itself unscientific, therefore unsophisticated. Because the conversation on both sides—the religious and science sides—is fundamentally naïve (these terms are imprecisely used), our creationists and atheists are fighting endlessly over the same ground. This is true because they share a cultural legend of disillusionment which tells us the heavens can be or have been emptied by science and reason. This legend defines the world for both of them. Religion is rejected on one side, science on the other. These words have for the partisans the meanings their opposites give them. All religion is to be understood as the defensive recoil from the Scopes trial, plaster dinosaurs and apocalyptic dread. All science is earnest about itself, still capitalizing on the high-ground won for it by the Scopes trial. These supposed adversaries are shackled together by shared assumptions, and their struggles are fierce and noisy, but of little moment to the rest of us.

We are, however, sharers in the dominant cultural myth even if we feel no reason to join in an angry faction in response to it. What we have long been educated to call modern culture has been based on the notion that, at last, we have the means to understand and explain the phenomena that awed and bewildered our ancestors. We have supposedly learned that the world is essentially simple—its apparent complexity only the compound of simplicities—and a construct that could be disassembled and read back to its origins. In fact, simplicity is nowhere to be found: not even in the smallest particles to which science has given inquiry any degree of access. Be that as it may, for some reason, the assumption of this unlimited capacity in humankind for understanding reality was to be felt, by us, as disillusionment and loss. The Renaissance gave us grounds for celebration in this voracious capacity for knowing. And yet the modernist interpretation was not, by any means, inevitable. Oddly, yet inevitably, when these same reductionist models that made our knowledge of reality a dull curse were brought to bear, they exposed an inner primitive with a snake’s brain.

This declension is often treated as the consequence of the great modern wars, but it predated them by decades and might, therefore, be more reasonably seen as cause than as effect. In any case, something dreadful has always been afoot among humankind, and something magnificent, as well. Of course, the same is true for us. But we have added an element of dullness and shrunken expectations, and in the face of all this, somehow, a posture of heroism was settled on—a heroism better dressed than most, but ready to bear the full weight of emptiness on its elegant shoulders. Of course, the whole construct is wrong. If there is one thing science has not done, it is dispel mystery. It has shown our thinking to be startlingly parochial, precisely in its assuming that by mere extrapolation—by leveraging what we thought we knew against what remained to be known—we would achieve an exhaustive understanding. We could have learned better—from Descartes, or Newton, or Locke—but the metaphysical elements in their thought are purged away in our reading of them, as if this most prescient and pregnant aspect of it were merely an odd convention. In fact, deep reality is of another mind than ours, just as these thinkers assumed it was. And we have known this for more than a hundred years—that is, for almost as long as we have been modern.

If there were a genuine interest, on the part of the new missionaries of atheism, in enhancing the public understanding of science, they would say that there is a deep, vast, fluent complexity in reality that precludes nothing at all—neither unexpressed dimensions nor multiple or parallel universes. It is by no means a closed system, nor can it be recruited to the support of any final statement about the nature of things. My own faith is inductive and intuitive, I suppose; in any case, it has been consistent through the whole of my life, poured into the cultural vessel of a particular religious and intellectual tradition which has engaged me for years and satisfied me very deeply. And this is no proof of anything. I do not recommend that anyone do more than follow whatever inkling she or he might have that existence would be a better experience minus this curious nostalgia for an old, illusory disillusionment. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Cioran, the schoolroom poets of disillusion, should be left to retire into their centuries as Pope and Dryden did into theirs.

It is amazing, considering the vastness of the cosmos, that the places where our understanding has not reached have been called “gaps.” There is an astonishing anthropocentricity in the assumption that everything there is to be known is accessible to our ways of knowing. This notion starts very oddly with reductionist accounts of us as simply and essentially genes looking to self-replicate. No matter what types of achievement these genes may be imagined to drive us to, the lock and key relationship they assume between all there is to be known on one hand, and the human intellect on the other, hardly seems to square with this view of things. Such harmony between the selfish gene and the secrets of the cosmos would merit the venerable adjective miraculous. The anomaly no doubt owes its survival to the radically occluded vision of this school of thought, intent as it is on genes and means and algorithms and mole rats and cost-benefit analysis to the neglect of physics or history. It is characteristic of people who call themselves rationalists that they did not examine their own reasoning. Still, an age more given to reflection than ours might wonder what this harmony could mean because, as Einstein remarked, “the strangest thing about the universe may well be the degree to which we find it comprehensible.”

Of course, Renaissance thinkers did wonder about this, and they tended to conclude that a human being is a microcosm and like an angel, like a god. This high opinion of the species is generally agreed to have served them well, but no doubt in part because we can no longer employ such similes, and because philosophy has ceased to be metaphysics. The meaning of meaning has been radically curtailed in the modern period. A given of modern thought has been that we are made aliens in the universe by our understanding of it. To me, this makes no sense at all. Even granting us, for the sake of argument, a kind of understanding that we don’t and can’t have. With all respect to science, our situation is as Einstein said it was: we are “children playing on the edge of a limitless sea.” This atheist worldview is a pastiche—an agglomeration of responses to a variety of questions, the credibility of theism being at the center of them all. The reputation of the idea of the holy is framed in a language of merely, only, simply. The religious have merely projected their fears, hopes, and puzzlements on a vacant sky. Humankind are only the creatures of biology and evolution. Science simply precludes the naïve forms of wonder as its light falls into the dark corners that remain.

Biology has somehow, in its blindness, conjured an animal capable of making true statements about the ultimate nature and origin of things, though not about its own motives—simple and few as we are to believe they are. The creature has this capability, though its sense of the nature of existence is, in the great generality of cases, profoundly wrong. For those to whom the story as presently told seems plausible, there is perhaps no refutation, or there are no terms in which refutations can be attempted. Its advocates who consider themselves disabused clearly consider themselves cases in point: wholly competent anthropoids. For those to whom the sense of the sacred is profoundly present, the reductionism this kind of thinking involves is meager, determinist, and trivializing. I speak of the atheism of that vocal clutch of thinkers who have launched cannonades of books lately, plastering their tenets on the sides of buses. I know there are quiet atheisms based on the observed absence of justice in the world, or on a painful experience of religion, or on an effective ignorance of it except, perhaps, of the cruder outer forms of it, of which none of us can avoid being aware. There is an atheism that is a direct consequence of the failures of the churches and the hypocrisies of people who claim to be religious.

But there is another part to all of this, which is the tendency of sincere and well-meaning people who make drastic and painful concessions to these doctrinaire atheists, who are never sufficient to condemn them of course, but much more than sufficient to make Christianity—the only tradition I can speak for—bland, and narrow, and almost trivial. They picked up the phrase “God is dead”—this is Luther’s phrase—, a radical statement of the high divinity of Christ, and in Christ, the pure humanity of God. Unlike anything, made perfect in the process of crucifixion. Nietzsche, the pastor’s son and grandson, would have known this, but those clergy and theologians, among whom the phrase has had currency, did not know it, or, in any case, do not teach it. Instead, they have taken its apparent meaning most seriously. They have seen in it the handwriting on the wall. And what does it mean? In common parlance, the phrase restates the ground of that nostalgia I mentioned earlier. God was the creation of the credulous ages, but now science, or war, or consumerism has disrupted or dispelled that good old dream and we are left lost and bewildered. This is just a sentimentalized version of atheism, an atheism with holidays. In its name, the churches secularized themselves—threw out pews and organs, intent on being ahead of the curve even though it would turn out to be the steep downward curve of their own decline. Where there is no theism, atheism is simply a default.

I am religious not because I find rationalist refutations of religion to be illogical, uninformed, and ill-considered—though I do. I am religious not because in sharing a tradition of learning and belief, specifically in the mystery and grandeur of things known and unknown, I am helped to an understanding of thinkers like Descartes, Newton, and Locke, and writers like Milton, Melville, and Dickinson. I am religious not because I fear a cold and disorienting godlessness which I cannot, in fact, imagine, and cannot credit enough to fear. I’m not even religious because the drama of human life on this planet holds meaning far beyond any suggested by the species’ long march towards its own disillusionment. Nor am I religious because theology allows me to integrate human dignity and brilliance with human crime and error, the turbulent cosmos with an unspoken thought, beauty with meaning, life in every form with the impetus of a sacred intent. I am religious and all these things follow. At the same time, the way of the mind through the world is a great and holy mystery, and I am entirely ready to respect an atheism that does not come armored in hackneyed and implausible argument.

BARRY GOLDENSOHN: I just want to mention that for many of the world’s religions, the identification of religion with theism is a parochial assumption. Even in some versions of Christianity, it’s a parochial assumption. So, the debate defending religion against atheism, for a good part of the world, is irrelevant.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: To which I would reply that I’m talking to the part of the world in which it is not irrelevant..
REGINA JANES: The account of the mystery of things that you gave us—Lucretius would have loved that. That’s the perfect statement of the mystery that atheists find in the universe, and I can’t imagine a better statement by any atheist about what the world is.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Lucretius dedicates his poem to a goddess.
JACKSON LEARS: I’m struck by the way that the warfare between science and religion has resurged in the last several decades. I think that there was a truce in the warfare between science and religion from roughly the 1930s to the 1970s, during which thoughtful people on both sides—secular, religious, atheists, theists, people who wanted to acknowledge a certain element of mystery and darkness, inexplicability and perversity in human behavior—found common ground. I’m thinking of people like Lionel Trilling, for example, for whom psychoanalysis became—I don’t want to be glib about this—something of a way of coming to terms with what, in another idiom, would be called sin. I’m also thinking of people like Perry Miller, the great atheist historian of Puritanism who was nevertheless deeply and sympathetically engaged with Puritan tradition. I think that those kinds of thinkers were active and influential in this period. What is so disheartening about the discourse of the last three or four decades is the way that it has come to reinstate the kind of dualistic opposition between science and religion that John W. Draper, Andrew Dixon White and other positivists of the late 19th century observed. It seems to me that we could talk about how this revival of positivism has occurred, as well as its relation to the rise of religious fundamentalisms in roughly the same period. We might also look at its relationship to the transformation of the political economy: the move towards a kind of technocratic neo-liberalism, insistent instrumentalism, a deep utilitarianism, which divorces itself from, and marginalizes, all larger questions of common good, as well as any ultimate questions about our fate and its meaning. There is an impoverishment of debate, and I do blame the so-called New Atheists for a lot of it, but I don’t blame them exclusively for that impoverishment. I think that their work is a symptom of that impoverishment as much as it is a reinforcement of it. We might think about how previous generations have sought common ground here to talk about these issues in varying idioms.
AKEEL BILGRAMI: When I read the New Atheists, I can’t figure out whether what they’re saying is banal or false. Sometimes, I get the impression that they say that one shouldn’t give unscientific answers to science’s questions, such as how the universe came to exist; the view that it came to exist through the act of creation over six days a few thousand years ago is an unscientific answer to a question in science. That seems so obviously right that it’s hardly interesting. On the other hand, they sometimes seem to say something quite different, which is that there are no questions that aren’t science’s questions—and I think that that is so obviously false. In particular, there are questions about nature which are, in fact, not science’s questions. The New Atheists sometimes seem to neglect that they are saying something highly controversial and actually false.
JAMES MILLER: First of all: I was very moved listening to Marilynne just now because of the rhetoric of her profession of faith, which is a pretty rare thing in a public context like this. Marilynne and I have known each other as colleagues for almost twenty-five years now. In her novels, there is a certain spirit of generosity that’s almost magical, and there was definitely some of that in what was said here. But I also felt what I felt in reading a number of the essays we were assigned in preparation for this meeting, that in a way, Marilynne, you’re giving way too much credit to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. They bring down the level of the discourse, and it’s for some of the reasons that Akeel just mentioned, in that there’s something banal and false in what Dawkins and Hitchens have to say. I’m just going to tell a little anecdote: when I was editing Daedalus, I assembled a special issue on secularism and fundamentalism. I invited Akeel to contribute an essay, and I also invited Christopher Hitchens to contribute one. He contributed it; the essay actually became the seed of his book, God is Not Great. At first, I was not going to publish the essay. I called him up, and it turned out that Hitchens never did rewrites; he never revised anything. I said, “Christopher, you’ve written an essay where you essentially say that anybody who believes in religion is a fool or a scoundrel, and is subject to superstition, and if that’s what you truly believe, why don’t you come down on the side of Robespierre, Atatürk, and Stalin, and start shutting down the churches?” And he said, “Well, that would not be sensible.” And I said, “Why not?” One of the people he attacked was James Carroll, one of our speakers at this conference, and I said, “James Carroll is a pluralist—he’s on your side. He doesn’t want closed mindedness. Why are you going after him?” And he said, “Because he’s a scoundrel and superstitious.” So, I said, “Okay, Christopher, you’re saying that what these people believe is dangerous folly, but in fact, you don’t have the courage of your own convictions. It sounds like, at the end of the day, you used to be a Trotskyite and now you’re a liberal.” I actually think that Hitchens’s position is completely incoherent. I watched him and Dawkins play tag team in a couple of conferences; they resurrected a kind of late-Victorian piece of theater in which they got to kick around a very unsophisticated version of religious faith and to resurrect a kind of post-Darwinian form of positivism—both false and banal, to return to Akeel’s comment. So, I would hate to see us in this conference spend much more time on them, because I think it’s not where the real predicaments of faith and belief in our time really lie.
MARY GORDON: I am a person of faith, and whenever I hear the words “Christopher Hitchens” I try to get a Claritin as quickly as I can—so automatic is my allergy. Having said that, I think we have to think very much about, as you said, the historical context in which he (and writers like him) were writing. When people were more comfortable with religion, it was when they thought religion was losing power. If you think about the writing in the forties and fifties, people like Henry Steele Commager were saying, “Religion is over. We don’t really need to worry about it.” Then, suddenly, we became aware of fundamentalists—many of them people from another part of the world—who started doing very dangerous things. The notion that religion was dead turned out to be false. Religious voices were fomenting violence, and in some cases pushing for changes in school curricula and prohibiting circulation of certain books. Religion became politicized in a way that nobody would have predicted in 1955. Although I loathe the New Atheists and couldn’t agree more with you, Jim, they were responding to a moment in which religion seemed newly dangerous and newly destructive in a way that it hadn’t seemed before. I think that they were responding to something real: that somehow the more progressive forms of religion seemed to be losing sway to more fundamentalist forms of religion. They were right about this; they weren’t making it up. But I also want to give scientists a little bit more credit than I believe Marilynne gave them. I think that many very great scientists now are really coming to terms with the mystery of the world. I also want to say that it is possible to have a sense of the sacred. A religious sensibility is not required for a sense of the sacred or a sense of the beauty of the world. Just so, it is possible to be a perfectly ethical person without having a religious sensibility. The question is, what does religion provide that nothing else can provide? That seems to me to be both a very small and a very large question.
JACKSON LEARS: I agree with everything you just said, except that I think there’s been a resurgence of positivist reductionism in the popularized version of science in the past forty years. It predates fundamentalism in many ways; I don’t think it’s strictly a response to fundamentalism. I think it has an origin and life of its own. That is also a question of belief, and it may not have anything to do with religion. But it certainly does have to do with reductionism.
SEYLA BENHABIB: I want to begin by endorsing some of what my colleagues just said and, in particular, the relationship between belief in the mystery of the universe and religious doctrine. I don’t see that the one leads to the other. But I want also to go back to something that Barry said a minute or two ago. The conflict between theism and science is, in fact, the foundation of Western philosophy and Western Christianity. Think of Spinoza. Why did Spinoza not accept the offer of the Jewish community that said to him, “Believe whatever you may about the nature of the universe, but you’re still a son of the Jewish community. Because that is doctrine. If you’re born of a Jewish mother, you are a member.” Spinoza said, “No, no, I cannot do that.” And that’s a very interesting point, because what was in fact offered to Spinoza by the community is a characteristically modernist way in which we split our identities. What I’m not seeing in this wonderful, eloquent speech that Marilynne gave is this provocative relationship which demonstrates that religion is not simply the acknowledgement of mystery and awe. If you are a Muslim, you believe that Mohammad is the last prophet after Moses and Jesus; you believe that the Qur’an is written in his language. If you are a Jew, you believe that we are the chosen people; you believe that there are certain contractual obligations that we have. If you are a Christian, you believe that Jesus is the son of God; you believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. If I may say so, I feel that thus far we are not really getting to the question of the essential conflict. I have no problems agreeing that science—contemporary science, in particular—is very different from the positivistic picture that is often given to us. There are a lot of mysteries, a lot of unknowns, and it’s not the mechanistic universe of Descartes. But that picture of the universe of quarks and unpredictables doesn’t say enough to me about religion which, at its heart, is also about doctrine, about faith, about a very particularistic set of beliefs. I think that that’s why a discussion on belief and unbelief is going to also be about conflict. I want to say that the coexistence many of us would like to think possible is a little bit more difficult than it may seem at first.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: First of all, I just want to say, very unambiguously, that I do not criticize contemporary science. I think it’s magnificent. I think it is the cathedral building of our age. I couldn’t admire it more. I’m not talking about wonder, or mystery, or awe, or anything like that. I’m talking about the objective information that there is a brilliant complexity that pervades reality, that is discoverable in atomic particles insofar as we have access to what they are. What I’m trying to do is actually to say that what we can know—which is itself amazing, and a great privilege—does not align at all with the false oppositions that are routinely made. Many people are immunized, not only against religion but against science. I know this from my own students. The way that science tends to be represented in public discourse is so unattractive that I can’t get my students to pick up Scientific America, though they’d all be better writers if they actually had some real exposure to what the universe is without any historical issue about how we’ve represented it to ourselves.

I want also to say that Kant was coming out of a specific religious tradition, and so was Hegel. If you read them and you know what the theologies behind them are, you can see that they are extending theological thinking into a secular vocabulary. It’s not like we can say that this person is a secular thinker and that one is not. If you look at the way that religious thought proceeds, the people that are carrying it forward are almost always seen by the tradition as being outside of the tradition. This is how that kind of thinking evolves.

One of the things that I think is characteristic of religion—and I’m not talking about any local variety of it—is that in architecture, or music, or chant, or poetry, religion creates another language for expressing this intuition that we have of (is there a word for it?) the spectacular quality of being beyond what we can express or articulate within the terms of ordinary language. The world is full of all the variety of expressions of this kind of intuition that we would not have access to in the same way if people had not built their temples and cathedrals, and written their music, and so on. If you lop off what religion has contributed to the world—again, I’m not talking about any local religion—it would be an almost unthinkable impoverishment; this is part of what the Islamic State is doing. In other words, if you are the student of a particular religious tradition, there’s a way in which you know more about any other tradition than you would if you had not explored the phenomenon of religious thought seriously itself. But, of course, one is always speaking from the perspective of a particular tradition, just as you speak from a particular philosophic tradition. But you’re not speaking to the exclusion of the legitimacy of the very much larger, very much more diverse, kinds of religious intuitions that are active in the world. One of the things that you can say about human beings is that they have a tendency to go off the rails. It’s opportunistic to associate it with one religious culture. It’s the history of the world. Read about what happened in Congo during World War I; there was no religion involved there. And it was Europeans, of course, who wanted rubber—and that’s about the worst thing that has happened in the history of the world. We have to accept the fact that human beings are scary creatures who become inexplicably irrational under certain circumstances that we can’t describe or anticipate. Having a sort of “this, therefore that” association with cause and effect—as if religion were the exclusive cause of particular unwanted developments—is simply convenient retrospect. We don’t know when the next unwanted thing will happen, which is a cautionary word for us all as we go to Wal-Mart to buy our weapons.

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: In my experience, Marilynne’s writing—her novels, especially—makes those of us who don’t believe really wish to, or hope to. I felt this same way when I read Niebuhr, or Perry Miller. But I don’t know where that leaves us. For those of us who don’t have faith, that experience, through reading, has real limits. Who is a contemporary theologian who secular people read in the way they used to read Niebuhr? That’s part of the problem, too. Can anyone think of a writer today who has that kind of standing?
ROBERT BOYERS: My own candidate, of course, is Marilynne, precisely because of the extraordinary range of her readership. There are large numbers of people who are themselves not at all religious, who do not go to church, nor to temple, but have read Marilynne’s novels and feel that they have access to something which they’ve never really acknowledged or felt before. That’s very compelling. And yet much of the talk inspired by a thinker like Marilynne manages not to talk about what religion itself actually is. Religion, for people who think of themselves as religious, tends to involve a set of practices and, in many cases, a set of beliefs associated with those practices. Exalted, ordinary, mystical, practical: those beliefs need to be engaged, don’t they?
PHILLIP LOPATE: I don’t think I’m going to be answering your question, or your provocation. I’d like to put in a word for the unspectacular and the diminished, since nobody else is speaking up for them. I think that there is a glamour to our discovery of smallness. I am neither religious nor unreligious, not being deep enough for either position. My guy is Montaigne. Montaigne was criticized for not being enough of a Christian, and he was, of course, very much an advocate of ignorance, of uncertainty, of doubt, of skepticism, of thinking against himself. A lot of the essays that have come down through the ages after Montaigne have been celebrations of the quotidian, of the unspectacular, of the small. I have a resistant response to this blackmail that I should feel that we’re living in such a diminished and unspectacular universe. Give me the small.
HONOR MOORE: There’s a kind of spiritual life or longing that human beings have that is independent of religious practice or belief. Temperament no doubt determines whether or not one seeks the vessel of a particular system of belief and practice. Phillip prefers the small, and why not? Even modest routines can have a quality of ritual and provide modest exaltation. But making your coffee on a Sunday morning isn’t religion, and I don’t confuse that with religion.
PHILIP GLOTZBACH: I think the real distinction at work here has to do with how one holds beliefs. In other words, if you take a religious spectrum, you have people at one end who are quite fundamentalist and who are willing to eradicate everybody else who doesn’t believe in what they believe, which is to say those at the other end of the spectrum. Pope Francis is receiving enormous attention right now because of his humanity and the message he’s bringing. He is also someone who projects a sort of openness, not just to the world, but presumably to other kinds of beliefs. And yet his church was the church of the inquisition a few centuries ago. On the other, scientific side, someone like Dawkins seems to insist that there is only one way to explain the universe, and if you don’t accept this, you’re simply stupid, or benighted. On the other hand, there were people like Einstein—a pretty good scientist—who seemed open to other sorts of experiences. The point is that one finds oneself committed to a particular way of holding doctrines, and that one way seeks to explain everything in such a way that everything else is false and must be eradicated. On the contrary, others believe their religious doctrines and see them as viable ways of explaining the world, but they also understand, or accept, that there exist people who believe other religious doctrines, and are willing to tolerate that. I think that this orientation projects a certain openness, not just to alternative belief frameworks, but to certain kinds of experience. At bottom, I suppose that we want even devout believers to acknowledge the possibility that perhaps their view doesn’t encompass all of reality.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I’d just like to say something from the point of view of religious doctrine. I know I come from a very Puritan tradition, but there are religious doctrines that are enormously important to me, for example that a human being is an image of God. And that is an unconditional formula for reverence towards human beings. This is a discipline; it is a difficult conception to try to be in any way adequate to. But at the same time, it is not constraining. It is not narrowing. It only implies that, this reality being granted, you owe to any human being the courtesy that you think would be appropriate. This is, for me, the center of my theology. It implies that whomever you encounter is a splendor, is one of the most complex creatures to exist in the universe, which is absolutely true of any human being. Instead of finding myself narrowed by the doctrines that are encouraged, I find myself enormously disciplined and broadened by them. I think that this happens to be the form in which it comes to me. I think other religions do the same sort of thing in other terms; they supply a counterintuitive vocabulary to reshape behavior around statements of value, and I think this is extraordinarily important.

On the other hand, we are confronted by doctrines, or forms of religious behavior, that raise questions. Aberrances, perhaps. Is this, we ask, an expression of Islam or a failure of Islam? Is it Christianity that is buying the Kalashnikovs, or is it a failure of Christianity? Should a Muslim be president? Well, it looks to me like a good Muslim would be a great president. Should a Christian be president? Well, a good Christian would be a great president. Any religion, so far as I know, makes demands through doctrinal statements that create responsibility in the individual and, at the same time, liberate them by stipulating obligations that pit them against the grain of the world.

DAVID STEINER: It’s interesting that Marilynne alone has perhaps had the courage to personalize at some depth the question of belief. At the same time, I keep hearing a kind of liberal aesthetic getting valorized around the table. That is, if the consequence of your belief or unbelief has a kind of aesthetic beauty—if it is opening, and deepening, and if humility is part of it, and resists exclusionary or inquisitorial judgments, then it is somehow more attractive. I can’t tell whether the politics or the aesthetics comes first. I remember Lucretius, too. I remember reading it as a young person, and getting to the extraordinary point where Lucretius talks about life after one dies. There’s this image of a mirror pointing in two directions: two infinities. I remember being completely terrified by reading that passage. There was no aesthetic, no politics. I had no idea whether I was being diminished or affirmed. I had no clue as to what was going on except I was scared shitless. I think that at some level, if we really want to talk about this kind of issue, we run the risk of cheap psychologizing. But I don’t think that’s a greater risk than imposing our historical, political, sociological or aesthetic judgments on the act of belief or unbelief. I suspect that, for most people in front of us, and maybe for some of us, this question comes down to a moment, or set of moments, that we couldn’t negotiate at all—moments onto which we could not impose either attractive or unattractive judgments of any kind.
JAMES MILLER: Well said. One of the things I wanted to go back to—I saw Seyla circling around this—is that religion isn’t just a set of mere beliefs. I think when Marilynne followed up, talking about doctrines that make demands, that impose discipline, we started getting closer to it. When I was rereading the pages assigned to us from the work of Philip Rieff, I was struck by his insistence on presenting religion as cultic, so that, for him, it’s not simply a web of beliefs. He insists that, more importantly, religion is a set of practices embodied in rituals, liturgies, and so on. He argues that belief is not as sociologically important as one might think. We have been talking about how we hold beliefs, and I think that Marilynne was right when she said that doctrines make demands on somebody who is within a community of belief that’s organized doctrinally. Rieff talks about the need for “willing obedience.” The problem, I think, for some of us who take seriously Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as escape from self-imposed tutelage, is that an awful lot of doctrinal subordination amounts precisely to self-imposed tutelage. It’s incompatible, in fact, with open-minded freethinking. It’s hard to square that circle, I think. If you’re trying to make obedience/faith the basis of belief, then limits have been imposed on inquiry and on imagination.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: I am going to be outrageously sociological. But I’ll begin by citing a famous phrase from one of our founders, Émile Durkheim, who himself was actually quite a religious person, but who could also say that religion, in the final analysis, is society worshipping itself. The older I get, the more I am drawn to the wisdom of that. A few years ago, after having abandoned the church for many years, I started going back to church. The motivation was partly Durkheimian, but partly, too, derived from the fact that there are different ways of approaching belief. One is a cognitive approach, and I can say honestly that cognitively I don’t believe a word of the doctrine, but I understand what’s going on, and I understand its power and its significance for others. There are two distinctions that become important: not accepting something cognitively, but somehow experiencing it existentially; not accepting it individually, but accepting it as a member of a collective.

In my encounter with others, I do find this experience through the rituals, through the sense of community, and through the friendship and fellowship. I never experience this with my colleagues. They are friends, and I experience with them a different sort of bond, but religious people—at least the ones that I associate myself with—talk a lot about fellowship. It is important and meaningful, and one can experience this fellowship ritually. It is very odd. The language of ritual is, in a sense, a non-cognitive mode of communication, which can be quite powerful. I find that, cognitively, the Christian Eucharist is really strange—drinking the blood, eating the body, and all that. And yet, it is a very powerful ritual. One can experience that sort of fellowship with others in a way that is, existentially, very meaningful. Meaningful also, socially, is the experience I share with my own family members, when very powerful emotions and feelings of the numinous are felt, moments when we all get the sense of something beyond ourselves, and the two hours we spend together—once a month or so—in that sort of fellowship do seem enriching and necessary.

PEG BOYERS: I’m attracted to “small,” and to “doubt,” and I think I hear in Orlando’s statement an expression of his having agreed to a pact that we have to make: to take that leap, not necessarily of faith, but of practice, which can accommodate doubt. This doubt is not just the little cog in the wheel of our faith—it may even be constitutive of a robust faith. There’s a tradition for that, a very lively Christian tradition; here I am certainly thinking of Saint John of the Cross, of Simone Weil, of Saint Theresa. These were not happy doubters—not any one of them. But there was a big payoff for them in their struggle. I envy their faith, though I can’t get there myself. If only, if only: to have that kind of robust faith that is actually smart enough to have doubt. If I could find my way to a religious belief I’d want it represented by Marilynne, though I’m still not sure where doubt fits into it all, Marilynne, and if you acknowledge that doubt is, in fact, or can be, constitutive of a kind of strong faith.
BARRY GOLDENSOHN: It’s there in the novels.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I think about faith associated with obedience, for example: the idea that you’re giving yourself over to rigidity and regiment, that you’re leaving your brain at the door, and all the other clichés—and again, I can only speak for my own religious tradition. Nonetheless, the assumption is that the world is a great question presented to you, that you are given this amazing capacity to know that you are being addressed by the splendors of reality, that you construe reality—sort of like Henry Adams—that you understand that your construction is hypothetical, that when a hypothesis fails, you construe reality again, so that you’re continuously in the process of understanding the complexity of what is addressed to you by the fact of your continuous failure of understanding. Right? I mean, that’s the greater truth: when you have a conception of the holy, and then you run against experience or thought that so radically questions the assumptions that you have that you’ll have to abandon them. This is when you proceed to a better understanding of reality. But in the moment of the crash, you are very likely to experience religious doubt. Doubt really means doubt of your own capacity to understand what you’re being presented with—the proper object of your understanding. I think that you can see this as a philosophic pattern in Hegel, for example. But the idea of it is that you are not entrenched. In my religion—in my tradition—it is considered idolatry when you feel that you absolutely know something without dispute. There is supposed to be an absence of knowledge, an acceptance of the failure of understanding. That’s the thrill. And from that point of view, which I don’t think is an eccentric point of view theologically speaking, it simply opens you to the most scrupulous understanding of anything that you see that you are capable of. If it doesn’t close you down, it opens you up.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Wouldn’t you say that one of the great things about Christianity is that it provides, precisely, this element of doubt in what is perhaps the most formative moment of Jesus on the cross, saying, “God, why have you forsaken me?”
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Absolutely it is. And there is the fact that the crucifixion itself is the great crash of expectations, as far as the apostles were concerned. People looking at religion from the outside who accept these caricatured, cartoonish ideas of it—no wonder they can’t understand religion! It’s a lot deeper than that, but one of the things that I enjoy about it is that you really are tapping into something that human beings have been doing, ideas they’ve been entertaining, for thousands of years. It’s in Genesis that we get humankind as the image of God. Taking communion, or taking part in any of these rituals, may seem strange and ancient, but it is precisely this strangeness which legitimizes them. In so doing, you are putting yourself back among this human tradition that has been compelling and opening stimuli for so long, and creates beauty around it. That’s just a fact.

JIM SLEEPER: I just wanted to make a few modest and marginal Americanist footnotes to this, none of which contest anything that anyone has said—just an observation or two. The American Society, the Republic, is felt to be unraveling, loosening, or fraying, and I am wondering about how that informs, or drives, a discussion like this. I don’t know how many panels or discussions like this are being held, for example, in Europe. But I think there’s a reason—a very American reason—to explain why we are having this discussion. We all know that the Puritans regarded their settlement in New England as an instantiation of the Christian gamble at its most extreme—being in the wilderness, leaving behind everything they’ve known, sometimes being driven to hysteria—as well as an instantiation of the Exodus, of the Biblical typology. That was very foundational, very central, to the American republic’s conception of itself—not for nothing that G.K. Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church,” for better or worse. There was a sense in which these threads were central to an American—even a pluralist—expectation of faith, even without an imposition of doctrine. This somehow survived in the American republic’s understanding of itself, at least through the time in which I was growing up, with the remnant examples of a Puritan tradition in New England in the 1950s, and also with a less than superficial Jewish education. I have these things in me.

There is a wonderful Tocqueville passage in Democracy that I especially like. After observing this American republic in the 1830s, he said, “Well, if the religion of a people gets destroyed, they lose their bearings, and their orientation, and each man becomes confused about the large subjects and he ignobly submits to think no more about them.” That kind of lapse snaps the strings of the will, leaving people to surrender themselves to some kind of strong man. Tocqueville was warning us of this. He saw it—the inherent tyranny of democracy—and he said that if this happens, people choose some other bastard. He ends by saying that if a person wants to be free, he must believe, and if he can’t recover his faith, he must be subject. Now, I don’t actually believe this, but I see the logic. He also called the American an idealist working on matter. He felt that the Republic could continue to cohere only through the persistence of faith and doctrine.

LORRIE GOLDENSOHN: I’m thinking back to some of the deepest and most probing conversations about religion I’ve ever had in my life with a man who was an Episcopalian minister. His name was George Whitman Ladd. I’m briefly going to pay tribute to what I experienced as his deep, profound, Christian humility. We had these conversations when we were both in our twenties and in our thirties. I’m well past that now, but I was so impressed with the persistent and probing nature of his questioning and his acceptance. For me, he was a really wonderful model of Christian belief in the way that he responded to Northwest Indians. He was also a great ethical model. As I come to this conference, I’m looking at those two words: belief and unbelief. Thinking of my conversations with Whit, I’d like to know what belief is good for. I think that the best use that I have for belief is probably the extent to which it is connected to ethical questions. Somebody earlier used the phrase, “spiritual life.” I think this is enormously important, and we seem to be splitting in different directions. Orlando is speaking of the value of churchgoing affirmation and community ritual. Marilynne is speaking of what it’s like to be within a tradition and the sorts of positive values that that can provide. But it most resonated with me when I heard Seyla say, “Yes, but these religions are all very different, and they have very specific and different doctrines.” And when I want to put together my questions about how to live an ethical life, I don’t necessarily find wisdom articulated from within each specific religion. If I want answers for ethical questions, it seems to me that I don’t pay attention to whether the person is a believer or an unbeliever. Marilynne, when you mention Emily Dickinson or Herman Melville, I think about their profound wrestling with questions. I don’t think of those as necessarily Christian questions; I think of them, rather, as very deep questions about the nature of evil, about how we are to find purpose in our lives, about how we are to behave to other human beings. Those questions do not seem to house themselves readily within religious discussion. When I move to other people in a largely secular world and want to have serious, adult conversation about such things, belief seems to be profoundly irrelevant, other than to say, “Well, I believe it will be alright ultimately. I believe in a redemptionist narrative, and it’s all going to turn out well.” I think that this is what I should end with: I’d be more interested in hearing not necessarily about the value of belief as it structures our social lives, but instead about belief and its connection to ethical practices because, as a practicing unbeliever, that is what is most important to me.
DAVID STEINER: Levinas seems to answer your question. He is someone who’s speaking out of a Talmudic and Jewish tradition, but who takes us back to that ontological moment when you confront the gaze of another person, no matter who you are. You are drawn into something about which you feel helpless, discomforted, even agonized, by a sense of unelected responsibility because you can’t name the force that has drawn you into that ethical relationship. I think that sense of the thing is very powerful because it speaks to that moment that can’t be defined. How is it that the calling to the ethical instinct seems to prefigure everything else—every other relationship, be it social or political? I think that this is why, for many, Levinas was the first serious Jewish theologian to stand with folks like Heidegger, because it’s about as philosophically sophisticated as a theologian gets. I think it’s very powerful precisely because it comes before the practice, it comes before the aesthetic, it comes before the socialization. It prefigures all of them.
MARYILYNNE ROBINSON: I would just like to say that the reason I talk about the Atheist argument that I invoke is because there’s not another one. I said at the end of my opening remarks that I would be very happy to hear the good Atheist position articulated, and I don’t hear it. I know good people who are atheists; we all know many; we all know that this is true. I would simply like to see an articulation of the worldview. In the absence of a sophisticated one, I talk about the one that there is, the one that is in conversation—and it’s very naïve and crude. What can you say? I cannot engage with an atheism that does not express itself.
MARY GORDON: One question I’m interested in is this: What does religion provide that nothing else provides? I really don’t think that one requires religion for an ethical perspective. I’m glad that you invoked Levinas, David, and his notion of the face meeting the face. I think one could, by simply having a human imagination, perceive that all human beings are similar: “I can imagine that because I suffer, others suffer.” I think you could get to that without religion. I always laugh when people say “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” In bookshops, there are now sections called “Spirituality,” which can include everything from wheatgrass to crystals. I want to talk about religion as part of a lived life. What does the religious lived life enable that other sorts of lived lives don’t? I don’t know the answer, but I think Seyla’s input is extremely well taken: that the difference between religion and spirituality is that, with religion, you sign up for a certain number of beliefs which then make impossible other sorts of belief, so that, for example, if you think Jesus is the Messiah, you can’t be a Jew. If you think that there are certain notions about the nature of the world that are Hindu, that probably precludes being Christian. If you are religious you sign up for a certain number of beliefs. I’m Catholic, and I don’t sign up for the beliefs that John Paul II signed up for. I have struggled for many years with wanting to be a Jew because my father was Jewish, but I could not give up the centrality of Jesus. I simply couldn’t be a Jew and believe what I believe. I think that there are some things that distinguish the religious from the spiritual. They’re partly doctrinal; they’re partly a matter of praxis. If you believe in the Eucharist, whatever you think it is, and you want that, you’re not going to be Unitarian.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: For the vast majority of mankind—excluding the haters—religion has been the way to arrive at and think about profound, moral issues, including issues that go way beyond the specifics of any creed. Intellectuals have found other ways to come at these issues, to think about evil, and kindness, and reciprocity, without the framework provided by religion. Others here have said as much.
AKEEL BILGRAMI: In Rowan Williams’s book on Dostoyevski he grapples with the issue raised earlier by Peg when she asked if doubt can be a constitutive aspect of belief. Williams has much to say about the most interesting doubter in all of literature, who is Ivan Karamazov. But when we think about the large effects that religions have had it isn’t clear that doubt has played a primary role. The fading away of slavery in the ancient world was partly a product of the rise and spread of Christianity. But would anyone argue that doubt was an important aspect in that process?
JACKSON LEARS: I just wanted to go back to the question which I think has been a connecting thread here, albeit at the risk of cheap psychologizing: What difference does religion make in one’s life? My own experience is this: the son of a divorced Catholic father who remarried a Protestant mother, herself the granddaughter of Presbyterian missionaries. My father, even though he was officially going to fry, was still attached to the church, so he sent my brother and me to parochial school for twelve years. I have to say, I recoiled from those specific beliefs that Seyla referred to—the kinds of things that do stick ultimately in the craw of so many of us (wherever that may be). Yes, I recoiled from those beliefs, particularly the obsession with eternal damnation: the notion that my father was, in fact, going to fry, that my mother was never going to make it inside the pearly gates, and that I was going to fry because of my impure thoughts and deeds. Even though I welcome the coming of John XXIII, the second Vatican council, the aggiornamento (some of those perverse reactions as the church became more liberal, as the guitars and the vernacular began to appear), it began to seem less aesthetically appealing—profoundly limp, in fact, by comparison to the grandeur of the Latin mass and the Latin hymns. And yet I still felt, as I was coming of age and grappling with ethical as well as intellectual questions, that there was something there in Christian tradition—the tradition with which I was most familiar—that I didn’t want to altogether lose touch with. This is very difficult in the American academy, because it is one of the most relentlessly secular environments in the contemporary world. Now I come back to the reason I was so attracted to William James, even though he came from a very different and largely Victorian, Protestant tradition. The third lecture in The Varieties of Religious Experience is about the reality of the unseen, which seems to get at that vague word “spirituality” that I, too, find frustratingly vague. And yet there’s something about it that, in James’s formulation at least, does capture what religious beliefs and religious traditions provide for individual life, which has an aesthetic dimension—a sense that there is more and that not everything is reducible to the measurable, the quantifiable, the observable. There is something more, and he spends a good five hundred pages trying to provide examples and experiences of it. Everything is, for James, about personal experience. However, in the end, I think what he says in The Will to Believe (a Protestant reworking of Pascal’s Wager, which he wrote several years before the lectures in Varieties) is that we have a right to believe—to take the risk to believe—because it provides gravitas to life. It provides meaning and purpose in a way that mechanistic materialism, which was the chief alternative on offer to him at the time, did not. It seems to me that there is a kind of liberal aestheticism there—if I may be permitted that term— and it can be compelling and powerful.
JAMES MILLER: Two observations. One: I was in Europe for a month this year and I think that part of the current crisis of the European Union is very much a crisis of their self-understanding as being Christian nations. Although this conference may be very specifically American in some of what we are talking about, I actually think that the questions of “What is it that makes a people a people? What is it that makes democracy possible?” are in play in Europe today. I also wanted to comment on the question, “What does religion do that you can’t get from anything else?” My second son married a woman who was born in China, and for the wedding, a number of Chinese came over. It’s a reminder that China is actually, and has been for about sixty years, an atheist country. I’ve been privy to discussions with my son and his wife about whether or not their children should be raised religiously. My son is Jewish by birth and upbringing. His father is, by default, an atheist—that’s me. The rest of the Chinese family is atheist in a way that isn’t even argued for. It’s fascinating. When the family members came over from China, I had no doubt that there was a dense web of rituals, community, and fellowship. I still remember when, about three years ago, we were driving the car and I said, “When you have kids, what are you going to do?” And my son said, “Well, of course a child should be raised religiously because otherwise he wouldn’t have any ethics.” His girlfriend was in the backseat, and I said, “Wait a minute. You think I’m not ethical because I’m atheist?” And then his girlfriend said, “Yeah, Mike.” It was this really wonderful moment. So much of the discussion in the United States has been based on a set of really unexamined assumptions about religion and cultic practices being the glue that holds society together. I’m just not sure that’s actually true. The people I meet don’t strike me as nihilist, nor as devoid of community fellowship and interesting webs of cultural belief. We do have examples of societies that are out there that really don’t depend at all on anything like religion or monotheism.
JIM SLEEPER: This is a very American discussion, then.
ROBERT BOYERS: I wanted to come back to a term, an idea, which has been referred to in passing just a couple of times, which apparently—and not very surprisingly—we don’t find easy to talk about. The term is obedience, and I think it’s related to another term sometimes equated with it, which is obligation. It always seemed to me that when I thought about things religious, I thought about them as at least having something to do with obedience. Originally, when I thought about obedience in a religious context, I thought about it as obedience to a doctrine, to a set of practices. On the days after my Bar-Mitzvah, I was supposed to put on tefillin, to tie them on my arms in a particular way, to say certain prayers. That was obedience to a certain tradition I had learned, and had been taught by my rabbinical grandfather. Of course, I did it, which I took to be a mark of my own willingness to obey something that was legitimate. Then, when I could no longer do those things, I began to ask myself whether there wasn’t, within the framework of spirituality, a spirituality apart from religious practice, which didn’t also entail a very serious sense of obedience and obligation. I began to wonder about something which I’ve thought about all of my adult life: What are the things to which I am obedient? I discovered that there are many such things, even though I am not a religious person at all—insofar as doctrine and religious practice are concerned. I began to wonder, thinking about everything we’ve been saying here, whether or not we can find some way to speak about obedience. Phillip Rieff, among many others, was much more invested in the idea of obedience and obligation than in any notion of actual orthodox doctrinal practice. And so he did, very much, believe that it’s difficult to have a culture without most human beings in it operating with a sense that they are obedient to something. It’s difficult to say exactly what the something would be, but each one of us can probably identify what that something is. For example, within my marriage there are obligations and expectations to which I am obedient, things that are as forbidden to me as if I were a religious person.
PEG BOYERS: And don’t you forget it.
ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: But Bob, why do you call it “obedience,” rather than “fidelity” or “faithfulness?”
ROBERT BOYERS: It’s not something that’s easy to respond to or think about because, when you think about obedience, you think about the next question: obedient to what? —to what law, to what doctrine, to what authority? That becomes much more difficult outside the framework of an established practice. I can only think of it as obedient within the framework of a tradition in which there are certain things which are, to invoke Philip Rieff’s language, simply not to be done. Who authorizes those things, who enforces them—I don’t know. But it seems to me that this sense of obedience is within the experience of most human beings who take themselves to have a spiritual life.
HONOR MOORE: Are you talking about obedience to a tradition or to the shared values of a community?
ROBERT BOYERS: It might be the shared values of a community; it might be a tradition; it might be the sense of the fellowship that Orlando was describing. If I say that the obedience I invoke has to do with a sense of the sacred that informs my own idea of marriage—my own idea of my own marriage, at any rate—then perhaps I draw closer to what “obedience” seems to me to entail.
SEYLA BENHABIB: I hope I’m not changing the topic—I don’t intend to. Because a lot of people have talked in the first person about their religious experiences or where they’re coming from, I’ll just say that I’m a Sephardic Jew who grew up in Turkey. I’m not observant, but I’ve always gone to the synagogue in some capacity or other. What strikes me is the competing and interdependent narratives of the three monotheistic religions about which we know very little. In fact, we know very little about each other. Most of us accept the necessity, the validity, and the fecundity of some form of faith or spirituality for human life. Nobody around this table is a militant atheist. On the other hand, the question that we are not asking is, how do we deal with the rivalries and multiplicities of faith? I think the question of obedience really doesn’t get at this. Phillip noted that most of us today live with a recognition of the inevitable and, perhaps, the legitimate multiplicity of faiths and orientations. But the dominant orientation around the table seems to be liberal aestheticism. I think we do live like liberal aesthetes—there’s a lot of inter-marriage, we decide what we can pick and choose—but there must be something else for a society to survive. Rousseau spoke of civic religion, others of toleration as a philosophic virtue. Obedience, yes—but we have to complicate the question of obedience at a time when most of us negotiate many forms of obedience.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: As a sociologist, I find it odd that people consider the notion of obedience problematic, because society has so much to do with obeying certain fundamental norms. Norms only exist because we obey them. There is some kind of basic set of norms which, as Americans, we all accept and obey. In some cases, if we don’t obey them, we find ourselves in prison. In other cases, we are ostracized. This is elementary sociology, and all of us know this. Religion enforces these norms and expectations. In fact, for most of history, people obeyed because they’d go to hell, or prison, if they didn’t. The great thing about America—the thing which I find so wonderfully puzzling—is that the system works so well. It works very well because we are a very obedient people to some of the fundamental norms that make society possible. This is largely an extension of religious obedience. Perhaps we no longer need religion to obey, but then the question is, how then is obedience possible? That’s a question which a lot of us spend a lot of nights worrying about, because it is not immediately obvious why it is that we obey.
TERENCE DIGGORY: I would agree with what Orlando just said about American’s being an obedient people from a sociological perspective, but there’s also the American myth of individual autonomy. This myth at least complicates our sense of ourselves as obedient. Further complication emerges when we consider the term freedom, which Orlando has taught us so much about. I think that the modernism Marilynne refers to assumes the primacy of radical freedom and views the obedience that religion demands as a kind of threat to one’s autonomy. In the tradition from which Marilynne speaks (with which I also identify), the conviction is that what religion has to offer is liberation: freedom from a state of un-freedom, which Calvinists call sin. Words that we often hear without source identification are “The truth shall make you free.” Those are words from the Bible, recorded as the saying of Jesus. I think that what he was saying is that there must be obligation to the truth but, paradoxically, that obligation is the only means to achieve freedom. The two are not necessarily opposite.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: It seems to me that this conversation confirms a long-held prejudice of mine, as all the best conversations do. The prejudice is that religion as a word isn’t going to help us very much in these conversations. Theology is a good word—that’s a serious business. Ethics, religious practice, ritual—serious business. There are other things we might talk about as well, such as the sense of community, and Durkheim’s claim that religion involves a church. All of these notions are so differently related in the very different traditions around the world that generalization is not going to be very helpful. I grew up in a place where there were people who had something that anthropologists called a “religious life,” which involved belief in ancestors, cult spirits, witchcraft and all kinds of things. And I would have said that their relation to practice was very much dominated by fear. People tried to organize the world in such a way as to manage their fears; a large part of what they were doing was making sure that they were safe from the dangers produced by ritual pollution. If you asked them, they would have said they believed in a high God, but he wasn’t much part of the conversation. Alongside this, there were lots of Christians and Muslims who did mention the high God quite regularly, though, in my experience, they didn’t behave very differently than the people who didn’t. In other words, there was an underlying set of moral practices in the culture that was spoken about differently by people in other so-called religions. What was going on was actually the same in many of these families, even though the religions disagreed profoundly at the level of doctrine. I think that part of the reason why that didn’t matter—why there was a kind of toleration which is very specific to this kind of society—was that people could see that, with these very different views, you could nevertheless agree about how to behave over a wide range of contexts.

I had a Muslim uncle who is married to a Christian, and that worked perfectly well on all the matters of practical life, everyday life, and ethical life. They agreed with one another. Neither of them wanted the other to convert. They raised the children to know about both religions. The fact that their respective doctrines were very different—and they knew that they were very different—didn’t concern them very much. They certainly didn’t turn around thinking that the other one was going to hell. Though my aunt went to a church where others in the congregation probably thought, officially, that they both were going to hell.

I think somebody said something about particularizing these things. This arrangement that I’m talking about doesn’t exist anymore. The story I’m telling you is a story about the fifties and the sixties, in a particular place, in a particular time. Practice, ethics, theology, the things people say, the things people think are important to believe, the things that people actually use in order to explain the world to themselves, the things that happened in my Christian aunt’s life when she was praying: These were all packaged in a particular way in a particular place. I think that religion is the wrong level on which to make generalizations. If we want to understand what’s going on in the things we call religion, we’re going to have to understand them in particular places, and we’re going to have to understand our religious context. Religions are so diverse that I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere if we make vast generalizations about them. But belief is a good word.

BARRY GOLDENSOHN: Does that explain, Anthony, why God never enters the discussion in your Sunday ethical debate in The New York Times?
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Well, God would enter the discussion if any of our questioners ever asked us about God. And really, if you don’t know what religious tradition and what theology your interlocutor comes out of, it’s not going to be very easy to say anything else about how God relates to what they should do. I think that since I was raised with a very particular kind of view, I understand that. I know what it’s like to experience the sense of God’s presence when you kneel beside your bed at night and say your prayers. But there are lots of Americans who may or may not use the word God, many Americans for whom their religious life is not like that. Since I don’t know enough about it, I can’t really help them. We only have a thousand words.
MARY GORDON: I think that we’ve been giving religion too good a name, and one of the things that hasn’t really come up in the discussion is all the harm that religion has done in the world. I think that if you are a religious person, one of the griefs that you have to live with is that in the name of the very god, or church, or system of belief that you love, horrible things have been done. Many millions of people have been killed for not being the right particular stripe of Christian, or Muslim. I think it is very important to live with the paradox that this very system of thought—itself meant to embody the highest, the most noble, the most generous of human phenomena—has, in practice, a lot of blood on its hands. All religious traditions, I think, are ideally about the golden rule, but I can’t think of any religious tradition that has not shed blood. I think that if one is a religious person of faith, one has to also witness the dark side of one’s religious tradition; one has to deal with the murderous acts that these theoretically beautiful systems have been responsible for. I have a great sympathy and respect for people who say, “I will give up the consolations of religion. I will give up the beauty of religion. I will give up the sense of meaning that religion gives because I will not stand with a system of being human that has been so murderous.”
AKEEL BILGRAMI: And accept the compulsive pacifism of the modern, secular state?
MARY GORDON: No—I’m just saying that it is part of the religious question that hasn’t been raised here.
AKEEL BILGRAMI: True, but the point is that this kind of violence is everywhere. The dark side is just original sin.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: I wouldn’t go there. I would say that all beliefs have the possibility of a dark side.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: This is one of the places where it’s not helpful to associate darkness with something called religion. It’s different in different cases. Religion generates identity, and identities create conflict. Some religions are very preoccupied with creedal matters and then they get into fights about that. On the other hand, some religions don’t care much about creed and therefore never fight about it, but they do fight about identities. Some identities, which we wouldn’t, under any plausible construction, call religious, are incredibly violent, too.
TOM LEWIS: This is actually directed to Marilynne: I wonder if you would like to get in on this conversation about the dark side, if you will, of religion, because I think you have addressed it so eloquently in your work.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I’ve been warned against this. I certainly subscribe to the view that humanity itself has a dark side. It’s very hard to look at the history of any culture, that has any duration of history, without finding appalling behavior. First of all, we have to realize that the dark possibilities we see in history and in other places are also potential in ourselves. People always look back on these catastrophes—Pol Pot, for example—and they create narratives that would seem to explain them. But then, when the same kind of destructiveness occurs in a completely different cultural setting, instead of saying, “Oh there’s humanity acting up again,” they create another causal narrative as if these events are isolated. In fact, it’s a grievously strong predisposition in human nature we’re considering here. When people ask the question, “What is religion good for?”, the conversation often spins at a certain level, whether it’s around social utility or comfort. To me, this is sort of like asking, “What is mathematics good for?”: describing reality. Why do we want to know how the moon was constructed, to know the very materials that ultimately became this lovely thing that follows us around our orbit? If you accept certain statements about reality—for example, if you accept that human beings are sacred, that the drama of the universe is ultimately focused on the sanctity of the human presence—you’re making a radical statement about the nature of reality in the same way that you would be if you said, as Thales did, that all reality is made of water. What you’re attempting is a statement that is an attempt at truth, and one always has to understand the failures, the shortfall, the fact that we would have no idea what truth looked like if we saw it. Nevertheless, it’s radically different whether you think that human beings are, in a high sense, sacred, or if you think that they are unaccountable elaborations of biological possibility. You can’t get into issues about how this expresses itself in individual personalities any more than you can talk about the commitment to truth as an idea, or truth as being something that is manifested within individual behavior. I’m sure that there are physicists who have a much more beautifully elaborated sense of what is meant by the word “true” in their context than I can even imagine, but I know what it is to attempt truth. I know what it is to assume that if truth were to be discovered, it would have the character of sacred intent. Those are the terms within which I perceive, granting all fallibility.
JACKSON LEARS: I just wanted to return to this dreaded word: obedience. It seems to me that there’s a tendency, certainly in the academy, to assume that obedience is something to be associated primarily with religious belief, and is usually accompanied by adjectives like “blind.” But we ought to know that there are all sorts of secular belief systems that most of us obey and are forced (or encouraged) to obey. Here I refer—to cite but one example—to the neoliberal religion of the market and the fact that kids, nowadays, are wandering around worrying about their credit scores the way that Calvinists worried about the state of their souls. I think, if we’re talking about belief and unbelief, we have to talk about rival secular belief systems and the false enchantments that they put forward, and the great dangers and destructions and dark sides of secular beliefs as well.
AKEEL BILGRAMI: You know, Bob, the question of obedience is more than one question. There are habits of conformity. There is the discipline of conformity. There are traditions that mandate conformity. Ayatollah Khomeini once said that modernity is so pernicious that it’s going to affect us in Iran, including us ayatollahs. We should tie ourselves to the mast—this is not his vocabulary—and entrench Islam, and Islamic values, so deeply in our society that even if we weaken with this burden of modernity, we will still be living by Islamic values. That is obedience of a very impressively deliberate sort—it’s not just habits, or the disposition to obey—and you know, Ulysses knew that. He knew he would be weakened by the sounds of the Sirens, so he tied himself to the mast. What’s interesting is that one might think that this is irrational. After all, if one changes one’s thoughts and beliefs and desires, one should live by the new beliefs and desires. But our modern liberal values are like that, too. Think of how we elevate certain values into rights—free speech, for example. What does it mean to say that it’s not your value, it’s a fundamental value? This is precisely to say that if, tomorrow, there are some neo-Nazis on campus and you want to censor them, we would not be allowed to censor them because we’ve tied ourselves to the mast by making this free speech value something which is a constitutional right. This notion of obedience, which is much more self-consciously deliberate, is very different from the obedience of conformity. I think a lot of religious commitment operates in much the same way, but one shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Don’t you think that the way we are bringing up our children is tying them to the mast of bourgeois society? Is the terror of a middle-class parent that their child may fail a greater terror than a religious one? It’s very similar.
AKEEL BILGRAMI: That is my point: that it’s not just restricted to religion.
DAVID STEINER: A quick last thought: I have grandparents who were Orthodox and I don’t think that they would have recognized the word “obedience” at all. Their lived practice became almost unconscious—that is, it would not have occurred to them to think of following the 613 commandments as some kind of obedience they were sworn to as adults. It was a way of living. I take the point that one should be very cautious about generalizing, but I was also at prayers the other night, and I was struck by the enormous presence of death in the Jewish texts. It strikes me as very strange that during this whole evening of talking about religion, I’ve mentioned fear, and now I’ve mentioned death, and I think that those two issues are fundamental to—and I’m generalizing—religious questions. It’s very interesting that a group of academics and intellectuals has managed to speak for two and a half hours about religion and occlude the confrontation with infinite nothingness, or infinite salvation or, in the case of Judaism, infinite ambiguity, which is possibly the most difficult thing to imagine (which is perhaps why the Jewish texts constantly come back to it). I just want to go back to a very naïve sense that unless we wrestle with the human experience of extinction, we surely aren’t speaking of religion. In the Jewish tradition, the power of habitual practice is one response to that sense of what would otherwise be a paralyzing fear—the fear that Lucretius evoked in a young man, which is the fear of infinite nothingness. I think that all of the efforts of this panel to put these topics into different contexts—liberal, spiritual, constitutional, civic, aesthetic, individual—are obviously legitimate. But I don’t think that we should end this first conversation about belief and unbelief without what must be the most formative experience behind religious sensibility.
BARRY GOLDENSOHN: I, too, was at a religious service the other night; I was lured there by a friend. It was a Reform Jewish Congregation—and of course there was no talk of death. Afterwards, when asked what I thought of the service, I said, “Speaking as someone immersed in the history of Jews in the 20th century, reading the texts about God’s care for his people and God’s love makes me crazy.”
JIM SLEEPER: I don’t know if this parable is about the inevitable fissuring of religion, or whether it’s about the ineluctable dark side of individuals: a Jewish man is stranded on a desert island, and he keeps sending out a message in a bottle, hoping for a ship to find it. Finally, after fifteen years, a ship finds the message, and the man is found. The captain comes, and the man says, “Captain, I’m so glad that you’re here to save me, but first let me show you what I’ve done for myself around here.” He shows the captain his house, his garden, and a synagogue he’s built for himself out of logs. And then he takes the captain to the other end of the island to show him another synagogue that he’s built out of stone. And the captain says, “Well, I’m extremely impressed. You’ve done a lot for yourself here, but let’s make sure I have this straight: you’ve been all alone here for fifteen years, right?” And the man says, “Right.” The captain then asks, “How come you have two synagogues?” The man replies, “Oh, because I would never set foot in that synagogue.”