Thursday, January 21, 2016

Good Without God: A Sufi Response

Recently, I began reading a book entitled: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein who is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. The following discussion constitutes something of a critical review in relation to at least the introduction of that work.

I should begin by saying that the reason for critically engaging Chaplain Epstein’s book is not because I feel threatened by anything that he says concerning a nonreligious approach to life … any more than I would feel threatened by the religious ideas of someone with whom I might disagree.  The purpose of any exercise in critical reflection should be to try to: Explore possibilities, raise questions, probe problems, clarify issues, and enrich discourse.

Moreover, I don’t look at people such as Chaplain Epstein as enemies, evildoers, or individuals who are headed for perdition. I can sincerely say that I have no idea what the future holds – in this world or beyond -- for either Chaplain Epstein or myself.

We both are committed to exploring what it means to be a human being. The fact that we have come up with different perspectives concerning that issue and what, if anything, this means in the grander scheme of things entail considerations that are above my pay grade.

At one point during the introduction to his aforementioned book, Chaplain Epstein notes in passing that according to some opinion polls atheists are among the most reviled groups in America. He might, or might not, take heart to discover that I have come across the results of various opinion polls in which atheists are rated more favorably than Muslims in the United States.

Bragging rights aside concerning the identity of which group resides at the bottom of this or that favorability poll, Chaplain Epstein does say something in the introduction to his book with which I am in agreement. More specifically, he states: “The enemy … is not faith – the enemy … is hate, it is fear, it is ignorance, it is the darker part” that resides in every human being.

According to Chaplain Epstein, among other things, Humanists consider themselves to be “free thinkers, rationalists, skeptics” as well as naturalists. I find this description somewhat mystifying since it seems to imply that in order to be a freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, or naturalist, one must be someone who does not believe in God.

Free thinking, rationalism, skepticism, and naturalism can be rooted in both a nonreligious or religious context. Everything depends on the intentions underlying, and purposes for which, such cognitive activities are being used. 

For example, a naturalist is considered to be someone who believes that everything is a function of some set of natural causes or phenomena and, as well, believes that all references to supernatural and spiritual realities are ill considered if not irrelevant to establishing the truth concerning the nature of existence. Sufis maintain there is no reality but Divinity, and, therefore, such reality constitutes the only sense of naturalism that is possible … a sense in which it is wrong to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural since the natural gives expression to whatever the nature of reality makes possible.

Moreover, under the right sort of circumstances, even some mystics make use of reason just as Humanists do. However, there are differences in understanding between the two groups concerning the nature of reason, its possible limits, and how to apply reason to any given issue.

As far as the quality of being skeptical is concerned, part of the training of a Sufi is to develop a healthy and constructive skepticism concerning the reliability of the ideas, values, purposes, meanings, intentions, desires, and emotions that arise in one’s own consciousness as well as in the phenomenology of other individuals. There are many forces capable of leading one away from the truth – whatever that might turn out to be – and, consequently, one should refine one’s capacity for skeptical engagement of oneself and life in order to try to minimize -- as much as this can be accomplished -- the degree of distortion and error in one’s understanding of things.

If one wishes to adopt a skeptical stance toward life, then, one needs to be prepared to apply such skeptical inclinations to everything … including one’s own ideas, values, beliefs, and behaviors. To question just the religious ideas of other individuals is to invoke a biased and skewed form of skepticism.

One also must be skeptical with respect to nonreligious ideas as well. In fact, one should be prepared to be skeptical toward skepticism itself because, on occasion, we are able to uncover certain truths, and, therefore, being skeptical about what is true is the sort of hobgoblin of consistency that is characteristic of truly narrow minds.

In my opinion, there is no form of skeptical methodology that is more rigorous than the Sufi mystical path. At the same time, Sufi methodology indicates that skepticism is a means, not an end … that is, while adopting a skeptical stance toward much that takes places within the phenomenology of lived life is a very important thing to do, nonetheless, within limits, being able to arrive at a correct understanding concerning certain aspects of Being is, as intimated earlier, still possible.

Chaplain Epstein claims that the central issue is not about whether, or not, it is possible for someone who does not believe in God to be moral, perform good deeds or develop strong character traits. He believes that such possibilities are very real and, furthermore, he believes there are many examples to which one could point in defense of such a perspective.

He feels that the more interesting question is what makes such moral behavior, good deeds, and character possible. In other words, how does someone who does not believe in God go about being moral, or having character, or performing good deeds?

The question that Chaplain Epstein is raising is a good one … perhaps better than he supposes is the case. As a former professor, one of the issues that I had to consider with respect to any given student was whether, or not, the assignments handed in by that individual were his or her own work.

Did the person cheat on a given test? Did that individual plagiarize material from sources that were not properly cited in the notes or bibliography accompanying the main content of the essay or paper?

I didn’t start out with an orientation of suspicion when grading exams or papers. However, during the course of reading through what some students handed in, certain things might trigger such a concern.

I tried my best to get to know the students through interchanges both within and outside of classes. Many of my classes usually consisted of between 35-40 students, and by the end of the term, I knew them all by name as well as had a sense of what they were, and were not, capable of doing within the context of a given course.

Chaplain Epstein claims that he is interested in the question of how people can be good without God. I am interested in that question as well.

We are not necessarily the architects of our own capacities for: Consciousness, language, reason, logic, memory, intellect, creativity, understanding, or emotion. In fact, for a number of years in both Canada and the United States, I taught a variety of courses in psychology – and, consequently, I was able to develop a fairly informed insight into the epistemological status of the understanding of modern sciences – biological or physical – concerning what makes any of the aforementioned capacities possible or how they came into being.

All manner of hypotheses, theories, and models exist concerning such issues. What is missing is conclusive evidence that any of those ideas are correct, and contrary to the claims of some individuals, science is not even close to resolving the many mysteries that permeate our attempts to understand the origin and nature of either human existence or human capabilities.

If someone has doubts about the tenability of the foregoing claim, she or he might like to take a look at several books which I have written – such as Volumes I, II, and III of the Final Jeopardy series or the book: Evolution and the Origin of Life. All of the foregoing books go into considerable detail concerning different facets of particle physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, evolution, and more that are not well-understood by modern science… and I might add in passing that none of the foregoing discussion pits some form of creationism against some form of secular materialism but sticks to just probing science per se.

So, when someone maintains that human beings exhibit moral behavior, good deeds, and/or quality character absent the presence of God, this triggers something in me that is similar to what used to occur when I was grading the test or term paper of some of my students. Namely, I wonder if the individuals who are making claims about what is possible without God might be committing a form of plagiarism in which they are taking credit for something that is not their own work and are failing to cite the proper sources that make their ideas and actions possible.

Where do the ideas come from that end up being expressed through good deeds or which result in moral behavior of this or that kind? What makes the compassion, love, aspiration, courage, patience, perseverance, and so on possible that permits one to understand, for example, the plight of others and, as a result, want to do something about such situations? Where does the will come from to carry through on the original ideas and intentions? Where do the intellect, memory, understanding, reason, and logic come from that helps to shape the realization of the original intention? Where do the means and opportunities come from that permit one to be in a position to help others? What caused the circumstances of someone to be in a condition of need and why?

Individuals who are inclined in either a nonreligious or a religious manner both tend to want to consider themselves to be the source of good deeds, moral behavior, and quality character traits.  However, neither group can prove that they are the primary causal agent for any of the foregoing events … all they can do is to indicate that on a given occasion a certain individual was the locus of manifestation through which such properties were realized.

Chaplain Epstein notes that thousands of innocent lives are ripped away by hurricanes, earthquakes and other “acts of God”. He indicates that an increasing number of people have come to conclude that the world does not have competent moral management and that, consequently, they feel they must become “superintendants” of their own lives and try to resolve the many problems that beset human beings … but they wish to do so in a way that can be considered to be constructive and, therefore, described as being “good”.

To contend that because thousands of allegedly innocent lives are destroyed through so-called “acts of God” and, therefore, suggest that God -- if God exists -- is not a competent moral manager is an arbitrary judgment based on complete ignorance concerning the nature of existence. Simply because one doesn’t understand why things are the way they are doesn’t necessarily mean that what occurs is due to incompetent moral management.

Moreover, one wonders why Chaplain Epstein should limit the “acts of God” to events such as earthquakes and hurricanes. If God exists, then, sooner or later, every human being dies through one or another act of God, and we have no better insight into the nature of our individual demise than we have with respect to the deaths of thousands of people via the way of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, volcanic activity, and other natural disasters.

Someone dies at a very young age. Or, someone dies through no apparent fault of his or her own. Or, someone dies a slow, agonizing death.

What are we to make of any of this? A lot depends on whether, or not, one has the full story concerning such happenings.

Those who believe that the universe is operating through some form of incompetent moral management believe they have all the facts concerning such situations. One wonders how those individuals would go about proving that they are in possession of all relevant information about any given tragedy or death.

Human beings are notorious backseat drivers. We tend to kibitz about the way another person – or God – does things irrespective of whether, or not, we understand what we are talking about. We always tend to give preference to our own take on things and believe that one’s own understanding is the most reliable means for judging life events.

This is the way of the ego. Such an inclination is at the heart of the dark side of being human that Chaplain Epstein warned his readers about in the introduction to his book and about which I voiced my agreement earlier in this commentary.

In addition, implying that God – if God exists – is an incompetent moral manager because thousands of innocent lives are lost through “acts of God” such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the like suggests that Chaplain Epstein knows of some absolute form of moral management which is independent of God and through which the actions of any god that would permit the destruction of innocent lives can be evaluated impartially and objectively. If so, one would like to know what the nature of that absolute form of moral management is and what constitutes its source of authoritativeness.

All we really know is that we are not in control of many, if any, life events, and such knowledge tends to leave us with a sense of helpless frustration. So, there is a tendency within us to adopt the existential stance of most politicians and state: “You know what’s wrong with the world, I’m not in charge.”

There are at least two things that are very evident when it comes to human existence. First, reality has a very stubborn tendency to resist our efforts to make it conform to our likes and dislikes, and, secondly, we are almost completely ignorant about why things are the way they are.

One can be as cynical, skeptical, rationalistic, and freethinking as one likes. Nevertheless, after the dust from all our cognitive activity ends, we tend to be as ignorant about the ultimate nature of reality as we were before engaging in such activities.

Operating out of a condition of ignorance will not shed light on whether, or not, the world is being governed through morally incompetent management. All of our speculations, theories, ideas, models, and conceptual systems concerning how we would do things differently if we were put in charge is so much spitting into the mysterious and unpredictable winds of existence that are buffeting our being.

I am interested in trying to find out what or why a billion nonreligious people believe what they do for the same reason that I am interested in finding out why billions of religious people believe what they do. I am interested in finding out whether someone – or any person -- is right concerning such beliefs, and I consider this to be the number one issue facing a human being … to try to determine – to whatever extent this is possible -- the location and character of whatever truths are accessible to human existence.

I don’t merely want to have an understanding in which to believe and through which to develop a purpose or be able to fashion a morality of some kind or find some sort of meaning concerning life. I want to know – if this is possible -- which purpose, form of morality, and meaning actually reflects the nature of reality.

This is the problem with which we all grapple and for which we all are seeking answers and for which we all – one day – might, or might not, be held accountable. Are the numerous decisions that we have made along the way and that have affected others in different ways … are such decisions ones for which we will have regrets if the truth is ever disclosed to us?

The song “My Way” has the line: “Regrets, I’ve had a few … but, then, again, too few to mention”. These are the words of a person who seems to be looking at life through the filters of his or her own myopic view of the truth of things … some one who is viewing life through the very rose-colored, self-serving glasses through which the ego engages life.

Wisdom begins to appear on the horizons of one’s existence when one is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that “My Way” might not be the best way to engage existence. One must be ready to really listen to what reality might be trying to tell us about its nature rather than imposing our own brand of ignorance on to the problems of life.

According to Chaplain Epstein, Humanism “means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place”. This seems to indicate that he knows what “better” means, and if so, then, it tends to leave unanswered the question of what to do when people disagree about what constitutes the nature of “better”.  The foregoing issue also faces those who believe in religion … all too frequently, they assume they know what “better” means and, consequently, often do not critically reflect on the issue of what to do when two senses of “better” collide.

Chaplain Epstein indicates that Humanism “rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence.” The issue of rejecting dependence on: Faith, the supernatural, divine texts and so on revolves about the problem of determining what is going to count as evidence and how to interpret such evidence.

Rejecting something as evidence, or citing it as evidence, is a meaningless exercise until one looks at the framework through which something is going to be counted as evidence or rejected as such. Furthermore, one has to ask about the degree of arbitrariness present in such a framework of epistemological or hermeneutical evaluation … and this is as true for religious believers as it is for nonreligious believers.

Wikipedia describes “arbitrariness” as the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". However, this leaves a question in the wake of such a definition as the latter makes its way through epistemological waters.

More specifically, one can’t help but raise the following question: How arbitrary is a given person’s notion of “necessity, reason, and principle”? Or, asked in a different way, what is it that makes any given notion of: “necessity, reason, and principle” be something other than arbitrary?

Presumably, the answer to the foregoing questions would be a function of the truth. Any notion of necessity, reason, and principle that does not reflect and is not rooted in the truth is arbitrary. In short, arbitrariness is that which is based on something other than the truth.

Humanists insist that the journey from the womb to the tomb is all that we have … but they have no evidence to demonstrate the truth of their claim. They – like most of the rest of us – have only a deep, pervasive ignorance concerning such matters, and, yet, they appear to want everyone to proceed as if the Humanist understanding of things is the only necessary, reasoned, principled take on life, and, perhaps not so strangely, the Humanist position really is just a variation on the manner in which many, if not most religious people proceed as well.

No one wants to admit that they are ignorant about almost everything that matters. Consequently, no one wants to address the issue of how do we collectively proceed given such ignorance. How do we pursue and make allowances for what we don’t know without getting problematically entangled in each other’s lives?

According to Chaplain Epstein, “humanism is a cohesive world movement based on the creation of good lives and communities, without God.” Irrespective of whether one wishes to exclude God or include God in our lives and communities, the notion of what constitutes “goodness” is a long-standing problem.

Quite frequently, our ideas concerning “the good” merely reduce down to our likes and dislikes. Therefore, such notions tend to be quite independent of necessity, reason, or principle except to the extent that we like to throw such words around as we try to persuade one another that our system of likes and dislikes is better than your system of likes and dislikes.

Chaplain Epstein claims that for most people, “religion is not about belief in an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture, and much more.” First, Chaplain Epstein’s reductionistic depiction of God is quite argumentative and narrow in scope.

More importantly, I am willing to venture that for many people who have a genuine commitment to the idea of God’s existence, their central concern is about a sense of relationship with Divinity via the mind, heart and soul rather than merely being a function of arbitrary images – auditory or visual -- of one kind or another. Even where images are present, I am inclined to feel it is the sense of relationship with Divinity that pervades such images that is of utmost importance rather than the images per se … that is, the images stand for something beyond the images themselves … something ineffable and hard to put in words … it is the dance of one’s phenomenology with a mysterious, unseen – but very much sensed – Partner.

Secondly, even if one were to agree with Chaplain Epstein that for many people religion is much more about family, tradition, ethics, memories, music, art, and architecture than anything else, one still might raise the issue of whether such people have missed the essential point of religion or spirituality. In other words, irrespective of however important family, tradition, memories, and so on might be within a religious context, nonetheless, to restrict spirituality to such considerations tends to obscure the following possibility – namely, that the opportunity for, and the journey toward, realizing one’s essential potential might constitute the primary purpose to which religion and spirituality are seeking to draw our attention.

I am not trying to say that what goes on in the world is unimportant. Rather, in the latter part of the foregoing paragraph, emphasis is being given to the idea that life might be a means to, and occasion for, a process of spiritual development rather than being an end unto itself.

Even if we all engaged the world as a project for pursuing goodness in this life and were successful in agreeing on, and realizing, such a project, if the world turns out to exist for something other than, or is transcendent to, such Earthly interests, then, however good we make the world, we might have missed the purpose for which life on Earth came into being. Living the ‘good life’ – whatever this might mean – has to reflect and be rooted in the truth of reality’s nature … we cannot arbitrarily decide what the meaning and purpose of Earthly life are and expect that everyone should submit to such an approach to things … anymore than we can arbitrarily decide that the purpose and meaning of life should be lived in accordance with some arbitrary theological notion.

Chaplain Epstein claims that we need what can be found or created in a Humanist community – “… a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.” I have no doubt that Humanists can come up with ideas concerning goodness and community that have meaning, value, and purpose for them … but how intellectually honest and defensible any of this might be is another set of issues altogether.

One could agree with the Humanist perspective that the journey from womb to tomb is unique and only comes our way once. However, acknowledging such a perspective does not require one to conclude that: “Family, memory, ethical value, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty without a god.”

Of course, a similar sort of criticism can be leveled at those who find meaning, value, and purpose in this or that theology and, as a result, seek to play their own kind of zero-sum game with anyone who is unwilling to accept their edicts concerning the nature of reality. The commonality that ties all of us together – the people who are committed to some version of religious reality as well as the people who are committed to some nonreligious way of life – is our collective ignorance about so many of the key issues of life … an ignorance that we often do our best to deny, and a denial that tends to come at great cost to ourselves and the people amongst whom we live.

Despite the many accomplishments of modern science, we still have no demonstrable proof concerning how either the universe or life came into being. In addition, we do not know the how and why underlying the origins of consciousness, logic, reason, insight, memory, creativity, talent, language, and emotion. To claim that science offers the best account of the universe and its many mysteries is to arbitrarily inflate the status of the opinions and speculations of a group of very fallible individuals whose primary modus operandi appears to be its capacity to improve upon – within limits -- some of its many previously incorrect theories concerning the nature of the universe, life, and human potential.

This might be a sound strategy if one had an infinite amount of time to wait on some sort of final answer concerning the nature of reality. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in which we find ourselves since irrespective of whether one is inclined in a religious or nonreligious way, the time we have available to try to solve the mysteries of life is very limited … and, for unknown reasons, this constraint is much more severe for some individuals than it is for others.

Chaplain Epstein refers to Humanism through the filters of the European term: “lifestance”, and he claims that this term refers to something that is more than a philosophy but is not a religion.” One wonders in what sense a “lifestance” is more than a philosophy but other than a religion.

Such a statement seems to involve little more than playing around with the ambiguities of language and, thereby, making claims that can’t be spelled out in clear, defensible terms. To contend that Humanism is a lifestance and, therefore, neither a philosophy or a religion tends to ignore an obvious question … namely, if the Humanist lifestance is neither a philosophy nor a religion, then, what is it and from whence does it derive the sort of intellectual and moral authority that would warrant anyone, or everyone, to subscribe to its tenets?

Chaplain Epstein claims that: “Faith in God means believing absolutely in something, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.” To claim that people who have faith in God believe in something with no proof whatsoever is an attempt to reduce to nothingness the life experiences of people who believe ... it is an attempt to claim that because Humanists don’t recognize something as a proof, then, that something has no probative value … it is an attempt by Humanists to set themselves up as the arbiters of what is true and what is not true … and, even more importantly, it is an attempt to try to frame what human experiences have probative value and what human experiences don’t have such probative value. And, unfortunately, many individuals who believe in religion of one sort or another are often guilty of doing the same sort of thing.

Furthermore, one also would like to know just what is meant by the claim that Humanists have faith in humanity despite a great deal of evidence to indicate that such faith is not warranted. Just what is it in human beings that Humanists have faith in and how and where did this something come into being? Can Humanists prove that whatever dimension of being human in which they have faith came into existence and derived its potential from something other than Divinity?

For Humanists to claim that they want to do whatever they do without the idea of God raises a question … and it is a question that must also be asked, as well, of anyone who believes in religion of some kind. To what extent are one’s beliefs delusional in nature … that is, to what extent do one’s beliefs stray from the truth of things … for that is what a delusion is … a belief that is false … a belief that does not accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

We all have our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and moral systems. Yet, we all lack the sort of definitive proof that would permit us to demonstrate to the satisfaction of any other presumably reasonable person that our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and systems of morality accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

If there is no afterlife, then, what someone believes in this life has no causal relation to what transpires after we die. Irrespective of what we believe, we disappear into the abyss of non-existence, and that is the end of the matter.

If there is no God, then, talking about the good life is just an exercise in arbitrariness in which one tries to justify – without having any universally defensible basis for doing so – one’s own lonely, desperate need to have a sense of existential value, purpose, and meaning. This remains true independently of whether our definition of the good life is rooted in a religious or non-religious perspective.

However, if there is an afterlife and if there is a God, then what follows? Actually, nothing automatically or necessarily follows.

What becomes critical is discovering the truth – to whatever extent this can be done -- concerning the nature of the afterlife and the existence of God. Truth is not about having theories, hypotheses, speculations, opinions, beliefs, or a lifestance with respect to such matters … truth is a matter of accurate knowledge and understanding concerning reality.

Unfortunately, most of us are steeped in ignorance when it comes to the truth about the ultimate nature of reality. Even the precision of this or that science or the promises of this or that theology is helpless when it comes to answering what, if anything, existence is all about.

If I wanted to know what energy a certain species of sub-atomic particle might have when it engages in a certain kind of interaction with some other kind of particle, I would ask a quantum physicist. If I wanted to know about the nature of a given religious perspective with which I was unfamiliar, I would ask a theologian who knew about such matters.

However, when it comes to the ultimate nature of existence, scientists, humanists, and theologians are as ignorant as the rest of us are. Yet, depending on how open to a free-flowing dialog a given scientist, humanist, or theologian might be, I would be prepared to constructively explore with them what our collective options might be in the face of such ignorance and uncertainty.