Without God

Stephen Weinberg says

Occasionally I have found myself talking with friends, who identify themselves with some organized religion, about what they think of life after death, or of the nature of God, or of sin. Most often I've been told that they do not know, and that the important thing is not what you believe, but how you live. I've heard this even from a Catholic priest. I applaud the sentiment, but it's quite a retreat from religious belief.

Weinberg allows that the religious life might be a little more than just belief.

I have been emphasizing religious belief here, the belief in facts about God or the afterlife, though I am well aware that this is only one aspect of the religious life, and for many not the most important part. Perhaps I emphasize belief because as a physicist I am professionally concerned with finding out what is true, not what makes us happy or good. For many people, the important thing about their religion is not a set of beliefs but a host of other things: a set of moral principles; rules about sexual behavior, diet, observance of holy days, and so on; rituals of marriage and mourning; and the comfort of affiliation with fellow believers, which in extreme cases allows the pleasure of killing those who have different religious affiliations.

Then there is a different kind of religion that he says he does not understand: "For some there is also a sort of spirituality that Emerson wrote about, and which I don't understand, often described as a sense of union with nature or with all humanity, that doesn't involve any specific beliefs about the supernatural.

He equates this with some Buddhist beliefs, but I think that some Christians are in this area also. Despite his recognition that religion does not just equate, or that it need equate at all in some anti scientific belief, Weinberg does not seem able to see that this non believing religion, as he might call it, is really anything valid.

The various uses of religion may keep it going for a few centuries even after the disappearance of belief in anything supernatural, but I wonder how long religion can last without a core of belief in the supernatural, when it isn't about anything external to human beings.

It is perhaps here that Weinberg needs to find out more about supernatural, vs scientific, vs belief, vs real. But he is absolutely correct about substitues for religion:

We had better beware of substitutes. It has often been noted that the greatest horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated by regimes-Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China-that while rejecting some or all of the teachings of religion, copied characteristics of religion at its worst: infallible leaders, sacred writings, mass rituals, the execution of apostates, and a sense of community that justified exterminating those outside the community.

Weinberg concludes that

Living without God isn't easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation-that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking-with good humor, but without God.

In coming to this grim conclusion, he has allowed that humour helps us live in this grim world, as do "the ordinary pleasures of life," and appreciation of the "high arts." But then he says

The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved.

I think that only a relatively immature, or at least unreflectivereligious faith, is based around the hope of afterlife. Afterlife is not the issue at all. Life is about now. But for Weinberg this seems to mean a life where all the joy counts for nothing, where it " isn't about anything external to human beings." He says in one place, "I'm not going to say that it's easy to live without God, that science is all you need," which is honest and much more insightful than some of the mechanistic reductionists I read. He goes on to say,

For a physicist, it is indeed a great joy to learn how we can use beautiful mathematics to understand the real world. We struggle to understand nature, building a great chain of research institutes, from the Museum of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to today's CERN and Fermilab. But we know that we will never get to the bottom of things, because whatever theory unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other theory.

This seems to me to be at the crux of the religious life. That unknowability, and the joy, can never be a proof of anything. To assume a proof is to retreat to the God of the Gaps. But one could choose to live seeking the joy, and enjoying the simple pleasures as things that have value, or one could live in the grim un-enjoyment. It almost seems to be where he is going, and it's where I part company with him. Permanent Link on a church (re)Wired here. The article is here at The New York Review of Books.

Andrew Prior


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