The First Mistake

At the end of the last post, I mentioned two opposed errors. The first was to say that the Christian thesis that God is hidden is a mere excuse, one given because someone realizes that his position is basically unsupported. This is not true, because as I indicated even in the last post, the thesis is a basic principle of Christian theology, and always has been, much as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the principles of development, and of interpretation relative to Christ, have always been at work within the Church.

More generally, the idea that God is hidden is a basic principle of any and every religion or theology. In a previous discussion I showed how motivations other than truth affect our beliefs more in matters more remote from the senses, and I included religious beliefs in this area. And this is in fact how the world is. But it is easy enough to imagine a world where religion is not remote from the senses, and where substantial disagreement about religion would not exist. The Garden of Eden as described would be one such world, but it is easy to imagine this in other ways as well. The point is that such a world is evidently not the actual world, and real religions do not posit such a world.

Blaise Pascal discusses this situation:

194. … Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it. If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; and finally, if it endeavours equally to establish these two things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantage can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul, not even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

“As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I will not take the trouble, nor take a step to seek it; and after treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”

Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would choose him out from others to tell him of his affairs? Who would have recourse to him in affliction? And indeed to what use in life could one put him?

In truth, it is the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable; and their opposition to it is so little dangerous that it serves, on the contrary, to establish its truths. For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ. Now I contend that, if these men do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the holiness of their behaviour, they at least serve admirably to show the corruption of nature by sentiments so unnatural.

Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.

There must be a strange confusion in the nature of man, that he should boast of being in that state in which it seems incredible that a single individual should be. However, experience has shown me so great a number of such persons that the fact would be surprising, if we did not know that the greater part of those who trouble themselves about the matter are disingenuous and not, in fact, what they say. They are people who have heard it said that it is the fashion to be thus daring. It is what they call “shaking off the yoke,” and they try to imitate this. But it would not be difficult to make them understand how greatly they deceive themselves in thus seeking esteem. This is not the way to gain it, even I say among those men of the world who take a healthy view of things and who know that the only way to succeed in this life is to make ourselves appear honourable, faithful, judicious, and capable of useful service to a friend; because naturally men love only what may be useful to them. Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?

If they thought of it seriously, they would see that this is so bad a mistake, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to decency, and so removed in every respect from that good breeding which they seek, that they would be more likely to correct than to pervert those who had an inclination to follow them. And, indeed, make them give an account of their opinions, and of the reasons which they have for doubting religion, and they will say to you things so feeble and so petty, that they persuade you of the contrary. The following is what a person one day said to such a one very appositely: “If you continue to talk in this manner, you will really make me religious.” And he was right, for who would not have a horror of holding opinions in which he would have such contemptible persons as companions!

Thus those who only feign these opinions would be very unhappy, if they restrained their natural feelings in order to make themselves the most conceited of men. If, at the bottom of their heart, they are troubled at not having more light, let them not disguise the fact; this avowal will not be shameful. The only shame is to have none. Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, be more replenished with faith than we are, and that, on the other hand, we may fall into the blindness wherein they are, we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take at least some steps in the endeavour to find light. Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much. But as for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have here collected, and in which I have followed somewhat after this order…

195. Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. “I know not,” they say…

Pascal is surely right about the importance of religious truth. He is also right to say that the idea that this truth is somewhat hidden from men is not foreign to religion, but an essential part of every real religion. The argument that “if religion is true, it should be obvious to everyone,” is evidently invalid, because religions not only do not claim this, but explicitly deny it. If a religion were obviously true to everyone, it would be a very different religion from any that exists, and a very different world.

Rather than attacking such a non-existent religion, he says,

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.

But here he is almost certainly going too far. It may be that “they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions,” but only to the degree that they believe that ultimately it is more reasonable to think that religious beliefs are untrue. They would not be attacking the Church’s claims, or at least any claim truly important to the Church, simply by saying that some individual may do his best to seek the truth, and may come to the conclusion that religious truth is not present in the Church.

I touched on this earlier when discussing the suggestion of Leo XIII that it is easy to see that Catholicism is true. If this is taken to apply to the real world in any concrete way, he is mistaken, and this in fact would be the claim that Pascal says is obviously wrong and obviously not the Church’s claim. On a very similar topic, Newman says:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman takes the existing situation to be a strong argument for the doctrine of original sin. This is not as strong an argument as it seems to him; the existing situation is a likely result of the order of the world. In any case, his point is that one way or another, in the real world, it is not easy to come to the conclusion that a religion is true. In fact, he says that the natural tendency is to come to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible and reasonable to say in a sense that human beings in general are dishonest and unreasonable, and that this is the main explanation for why they disagree substantially in such important matters.

But it is quite unreasonable to say, “Human beings are divided into two kinds: the honest and reasonable ones, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones. The honest and reasonable ones are those who agree with me, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones are those who disagree with me.” And this is basically what Pascal asserts when he claims that no one can say that he has made every effort to discover the truth about religion, and has concluded that it is not present in the Church. He says even more: “I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.” Here he says that “no one has ever done so,” that is, no one has even claimed to make such an investigation. He is mistaken in both respects: in whatever sense there exist reasonable people, there are reasonable non-Catholics. And surely some of them have investigated Catholicism, come to the conclusion that it was not true, and said that they have done so.

Gwern Branwen explains the history of his religious opinions:

For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good to be rid of the greatest evil from oneself than to rid someone else of it. I don’t suppose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re discussing right now…

I think religion was the first subject in my life that I took seriously. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “deconversion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remember ever seriously believing – the stories in the Bible or at my Catholic church were interesting, but they were obviously fiction to some degree. I wasn’t going to reject religion out of hand because some of the stories were made-up (any more than I believed George Washington didn’t exist because the story of him chopping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims didn’t seem to be panning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I didn’t see any miracles or intercessions like I expected from a omnipotent loving god

There is a basic flaw in Gwern’s thinking here, and it is basically a naive concept of God, much like that of Richard Dawkins. The result is that he is falling into the error that Pascal condemns. The Church does not expect such things, at least on a regular basis, and if you think that it follows from the concept of an omnipotent loving God, then your concept of that being is not a Christian concept. In this sense, his whole mistake is that he fails to understand the idea that God is hidden. Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that the reason for Gwern’s mistake is that he was dishonest and unreasonable, and it is especially wrong to say that it was because he did not care about religious truth:

So I never believed (although it was obvious enough that there was no point in discussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sitting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the troubling matter of Heaven & Hell: those infinities meant I couldn’t simply dismiss religion and continue reading about dinosaurs or Alcatraz. If I got religion wrong, I would have gotten literally the most important possible thing wrong! Nothing else was as important – if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geographer or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believing in astrology, at worst you waste time and money; if you’re wrong about evolution and biology, at worst you endanger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about religion, wasting your life is about the least of the consequences. And everyone accepts a religion or at least the legitimacy of religious claims, so it would be unspeakably arrogant of a kid to dismiss religion entirely – that sort of evidence is simply not there. (Oddly enough, atheists – who are not immediately shown to be mistaken or fools- are even rarer in books and cartoons than they are in real life.)

Kids actually are kind of skeptical if they have reason to be skeptical, and likewise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was previously trustworthy. This is as it should be! Kids cannot come prewired with 100% correct beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reliable authorities; these strategies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reliable authorities in their lives (their parents) are mistaken about one major set of beliefs. They simply have bad epistemic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from boring to incoherent to disgusting. (I became a fan of the Wisdom literature, however, and still periodically read the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.) That didn’t help much. Well, maybe Christianity was not the right religion? My elementary school library had a rather strange selection of books which included various Eastern texts or anthologies (I remember in particular one anthology on meditation, which was a hodge-podge of religious instruction manuals, essays, and scientific studies on meditation – that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and college that I really became comfortable reading psychology papers). I continued reading in this vein for years, in between all my more normal readings. The Koran was interesting and in general much better than the Bible. Shinto texts were worthless mythologizing. Taoism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in particular) but then bizarrely degenerated into alchemy. Buddhism was strange: I rather liked the general philosophical approach, but there were many populist elements in Mahayana texts that bothered me. Hinduism had a strange beauty, but my reaction was similar to that of the early translators, who condemned it for sloth and lassitude. I also considered the Occult seriously and began reading the Skeptical literature on that and related topics (see the later section).

It is clear from this that he did in fact care about getting the truth about religion, much for the reasons that Pascal says it is important to care about it.

More generally, in the real world there are honest and reasonable people, in the sense in which there are such people at all, belonging to every religion, and some belonging to none. And if we think about it carefully, this is a necessary effect of the thesis of the hidden God. Perhaps, as Pascal says, “God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart.” The purpose might be to distinguish between people who care and those who don’t. And this may succeed to some extent, but the net will inevitably catch some of the wrong people and miss some of the right people: some people who do not care, will believe anyway, and some people who do, will end up not believing.



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