Religion is For “Smart” People
Give me a good old Christian or Muslim fundamentalist any day. I think this is why atheists are often accused of being the mirror of fundamentalists, because we actually want religious people to believe in something rather than constantly abusing language, abusing text, and moving the goal posts. No wait, moving the goal posts doesn’t quite describe what religious people do, they change stadiums and start playing a different game with different equipment.
David Brooks has a column on “faith” in the NYT Op-Ed section today that simply redefines “faith” and “religion” into something that can sit well with his modern sensibilities. It’s what Karen Armstrong does and it’s what all the woo-peddlers out there do. Don’t like the meaning of a word? Don’t like what your holy book has to say? That’s okay, words can mean whatever you want them to mean both individually and as a collective. Translation: “You stupid atheists, you’ll never understand the ineffable and numinous because you’re so inflexible and don’t realize that words can mean anything we want them to mean. The sooner you learn that, then, well… GOD!” I think they are simply being precious, and religion and faith allows them to wall off their sacred notions of sacred.
David Brooks starts the column right away by redefining faith in quite a circular way:
It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?”
Who buys this stuff? If you feel overwhelmed or inadequate by life experiences this equates to religion? It is so obnoxious to have someone redefine the term religious to include everyday life experiences, and then tell the non-religious that if they have ever experienced anything whatsoever, then they are by definition religious. How does David Brooks and Christian Wiman put forth such an argument with a straight face? He continues:
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.
What he says in this paragraph is a key difference between believers and non-believers: once you take out the silly word “magical” from above, he is not describing anything outside normal human experience, and yet he wants to claim for religion (and faith) absolutely everything that doesn’t belong to religion, it belongs to humanity.
It’s all very solipsistic on the part of the believer to think the range of human experience and emotion simply belong to religion — but it’s actually worse than that: David Brooks (and Wiman) are claiming these experiences, can only be the domain of the religious. They put aside human experience into this little “other” category which they dub “religious” and stake claim to it as solely something experienced and appreciated by believers. It doesn’t make such experiences any more special, I think it actually cheapens them. Most believers cannot see outside their own head and realize that nothing described above (again, except magic) cannot be fully experienced and appreciated by a non-believer. I would dare to argue that such experiences are enriched by non-believers, as these experiences are seen as a beautiful part of the human condition in this world; they are experiences that we can share together and not just sprinkled onto us by a magical fairy-dusting.
He goes on about religion in faith in a completely incoherent manner:
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
Leave it to the religious to think they are so special because they are gifted with internal magical powers. Yet they think humans are not special for the reasons we are actually special: humans have ideals, dreams, emotions, senses, consciousness, etc. Notice again how he uses “faith” in a way that is unrecognizable. Faith in this paragraph is a longing. What? He not only redefines “faith” yet again, but also extends the definition and makes it more vague by saying “it’s also not a single emotion, it encompasses many emotions”. So now “faith” has been redefined, the definition has been extended to encompass multiple emotions, and it’s vague and opaque. He’s not done, it’s also a “state of motivation”, a desire associated with moral beauty, and also the act of incorporating all this gobbledygook into life. Congratulations David Brooks, you have just rendered the word faith utterly meaningless.
Up to this point I just considered this another horrible column on faith. Let them have religion, I say, I think it’s silly, but if they want to do it, let them have their toys. But then David Brooks has to go and do something really stupid as he starts the ridiculous attempt (it’s always ridiculous) to reconcile his weird definitions of faith and religion with reason. Yes reason.
Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason…
In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”
Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”
I should have known there couldn’t be a religious article without having it both ways. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. Neither of these premises is true, reason does not indeed need faith, and faith vanishes with reason. Don’t try and tack your religion on to reason and scientific method. Seriously, scientific method??? I cannot for the life of me comprehend how any religious definition of faith has anything to do with the scientific method. It’s simply another way for people like Brooks to feel better about that nasty little word “faith” and be able to live with himself and accept reason and science also. One needs to go and I’m glad he recognizes that it can’t be reason or science, so he has abandoned faith without knowing it. It has been obliterated by Brooks and any discernible definition of the word is lost in his re-branding — and it most certainly doesn’t coincide with reason. Why not drop it altogether? Religious people are so clingy about words like faith, they are willing to rob them of all meaning before they will stop using them.
But he’s not done. That little 5 letter word still has some stretch left in it, so he will go to the well yet again to slap another definition onto faith. “All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day.” Again, living attentively every day is not magical, nor spiritual, nor religious and it certainly isn’t faith or “the business of faith”. Living attentively does just fine as a human endeavor. More unnecessary mysticism where real life is more than sufficient to speak in these terms.
I love the way he ends the column too. The column insults my sensibilities as a non-believer, who I thought his piece was addressing, but he ends it with a dig to his fellow believers:
Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”
So, according to Brooks, non-religious people are actually religious if they simply have emotions. Also, believers are facile and aren’t doing religion correctly. Way to start the column off by condescending to non-believers and end it by condescending to your fellow faith-heads. David Brooks wins the gold for condescension. Good job!