I’ve been reading a beautiful new book called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony. It’s a very personal collection of essays, compelling without being confrontational. One particular piece really grabbed me: the kind that links together several small insights into a huge “a-ha!” moment. It’s “Religion and Respect” by the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, and a preliminary draft is available on the web here (in PDF). It’s a long piece that will repay careful reading. Time will tell, but I think it’s going to become part of the “atheist canon”, such as it is.
Let me quote at length on two of the ideas that seized me. First, Blackburn highlights the way in which religion claims respect by trying to hijack the – quite legitimate – respect that we give to emotions:
I have said that holding a false belief does not give anyone a title to respect. Insofar as I cannot share your belief, I have no reason to respect you for holding it â€” quite the reverse, in fact. But the same is not true of emotions. If I happen upon the funeral of a stranger, I cannot feel the same grief as the close relatives and mourners. But I donâ€™t think they are making any kind of mistake, or displaying any kind of fault or flaw or vice. On the contrary, we admire them for giving public expression to their grief, and if they did not show this kind of feeling they would be alien to us, and objects of suspicion. It is fair to say that we ought to respect their grief, and in practice we do. We may withdraw from the scene. Or, we may inconvenience ourselves to let them go ahead (we turn down our radio). Or, we may waive demands that would otherwise be made (we give them time off work). Similarly a birth or wedding is a happy occasion, and it is bad form to intrude on them with trouble and grief (let alone prophesies of such, as in many fairy stories)….
Unfortunately, it is a gross simplification to bring the essence of religion down to emotion. The stances involved are far more often ones of attitude. And it is a fraud to take the space and shelter we rightly offer to emotional difference, and use it to demand respect for any old divergence of attitude. The relevant attitudes are often ones where difference implies disagreement, and then, like belief, we cannot combine any kind of disagreement with substantial respect. Attitudes are public.
Suppose, for example, the journey up the mountain brought back the words that a woman is worth only a fraction of a man, as is held in Islam. This is not directly an expression of an emotion. It is the expression of a practical stance or attitude, that may come out in all sorts of ways. It is not an attitude that commends itself in the egalitarian West. So should we â€˜respectâ€™ it? Not at all.
Blackburn concludes with another important idea: the distinction between the transcendant and the immanent: between believing that “the source of meaning transcends the ordinary mundane world of our bounded lives and bounded visions” and the position that…
… there is another option for meaning, … which is to look only within life itself. This is the immanent option. It is content with the everyday. There is sufficient meaning for human beings in the human world â€“ the world of familiar, and even humdrum doings and experiences. In the immanent option, the smile of the baby, the grace of the dancer, the sound of voices, the movement of a lover, give meaning to life. For some it is activity and achievement: gaining the summit of the mountain, crossing the finishing line first, finding the cure or writing the poem. These things last only their short time, but that does not deny them meaning. A smile does not need to go on forever in order to mean what it does. There is nothing beyond or apart from the processes of life. Furthermore, there is no one goal to which all these processes tend, but we can find something precious, value and meaning, in the processes themselves. There is no such thing as the meaning of life, but there can be many meanings within a life.
After analyzing a beautiful passage from Proust which captures the notion of immanence, Blackburn warns us:
Centuries of propaganda have left many people vaguely guilty about taking the immanent option. It is stigmatized as â€˜materialisticâ€™ or â€˜unspiritualâ€™: the transcendental option uses every device it can to demand respect creep. But one must not allow the transcendent option to monopolize everything good or deep about the notion of spirituality. A piece of music or a great painting may allow us a respite from everyday concerns, or give us the occasion for uses of the imagination that expand our range of sympathy and understanding. They can take us out of ourselves. But they do not do so by taking us anywhere else. The imagination they unlock, or the sentiments and feelings they inspire, still belong to this world. In the best cases, it is this world only now seen less egocentrically, seen without we ourselves being at the centre of it… Such experiences can be called spiritual if we wish, although the word may have suffered so much from its religious captivity that it cannot be said without embarrassment. Fortunately, the phenomenon it describes does not die with it.
Read Blackburn’s essay. And buy the book: in its quiet way, it’s as powerful as anything by Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens – and you know how much I respect their work. ((It also includes Dan Dennett’s beautiful “Thank Goodness”, which I wrote about last November.))