Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is God Happy?: Leszek Kolakowski on Religion, Politics and Atheism

Book cover of Leszek Kolakowsi's selected essays on religion and communism

As promised, here is the second part of my book review of Kolakowski's Is God Happy?, which happens to be two-parted itself. There was such a wealth of information, knowledge and ideas that a review to do the book full justice would have had to be as long as (or longer than) its collected essays.

In fact, it has been harder here to come up with a unified position since the writings span a lifetime of thought, reflection and experience, and the enemies are not communist authorities, but something that hits much closer to home: organized religion, politics, and atheism.

Defining God and the Position of the Church

When it comes to communism, Kolakowski is as clear as day in his convictions and pronouncements; when he is writing about religion the lines become obscure and ambivalent. My overall impression is that he has some sympathy for religious beliefs and spirituality, but that he is highly critical of the Church as the head of religious institutions.

One of the main caveats of religion is a lack of a clear definition when it comes to its supreme head, the God deity itself. It is generally good scientific practice to first define something before one starts making any sort of assumptions or even evaluations on the matter.

And we are immediately at an impasse. How do we effectively describe the indescribable? If we say God cannot be defined in words or nature, then the conversation immediately comes to a halt. There seems to be no clear consensus or understanding on the issue.

If I claim to believe in God, the very same notion is so emotionally and conceptually charged that we will, more likely than not, end up talking about two completely different entities. Throw in the variables of Jesus, the Old versus the New Testament, Catholics versus Protestants, and our conversation will be endless and essentially pointless, in the sense of not leading to any specific point or direction.

Yet God has been traditionally shelved under the omni-umbrella characteristics, the trio of omnipotent, omni-benevolent, omniscient. And already the philosopher will shout out: Well, what about the problem of evil? I have given different possible answers to this issue in my post Three Unusual Solutions to the Problem of Evil, but Kolakowski gives the simplest one yet.

According to this Polish intellectual, it is possible for such a God to create a physical world that may be considered, to re-instate the much criticized image of Leibniz, the “best of possible worlds.” Since we expect God not to do things in haphazard fashion, and he presumably created the world at his leisure in seven days (the time unit “days” refers to the heavenly or eternal realms, meaning a rather very long time), then we can safely assume that the world is (in fact, it is said so explicitly) created according to his liking.

Therefore, since God has made the rules, there is no reason to expect him to break them himself soon or anytime at all. In other words, God could be either unable (willingly shutting himself out of the process) or unwilling to break physical laws, and hence his perceived lack of interference (which is often equated with indifference). If he interferes to change the laws he has created in the first place, he would break what he had deemed his own approved laws, and hence give the impression that his laws are actually fallible, i.e. not perfect to begin with.

And to continue this logical chain, if God has created something fallible (we are leaving any mention of nemesis out of the equation), then he would be contradicting himself both in the act of creation and the act of interference; he would be seriously undermining the definition we have agreed upon to be worthy of God. We might even say that the physical laws themselves are the miracle but breaking them would only create a tautological mess, a miracle upon a miracle. (Do two miracles make an ordinary event?)

But enough of definitions and speculations about his characteristics, and let us look at what God asks us to do. God expects us to worship him, to follow his commandments and to trust and love him. In the Old Testament, the jealous God has and insists on a monopoly of worship. There is only one God and all his people are given explicit rules in the form of commandments. Straying from them would mean not only alienating themselves from God but also deserving punishment and God's anger.

Religion, in this view, is a type of business contract with God; his subjects must accept the terms and conditions and may, in return, expect certain kinds of rewards and privileges from the deity. In other words, strictly sticking to the laws will not elicit punishment, whereas breaking this contract would lead to one's dismissal of this sought-after and auspicious religious circle. The Catholic Church has taken over this power and position of gatekeepers, and its authorities are believed to ensure, through rituals and actions, that a given member of the flock is and continues to be deserving of God's acceptance.

But according to the Renaissance humanist version, influenced strongly by Erasmus and built upon the writings of St. Paul, there is another dimension to religion, namely the personal relation of love, based on trust and faith instead of control and the fulfillment of obligations. Such a personal relationship would undermine the position of the Church as an authorized intermediary.

In fact, Erasmus turned to previous writers and thinkers to shed more light on his ideas of Christianity. Seeing human nature not as mere vessels or agents of sin but rather as capable of achieving moral and intellectual achievements, Erasmus saw little distinction between believers and so-called pagans. In fact, we owe many modern concepts of Christianity to him; he was the one who further christianized the writings of Plato and turned Socrates into the prototype of the Christian martyr.

Erasmus was different from St. Paul and Calvin in his more positive, optimistic and embracing depiction of and attitude towards humans. Yet he also differed from the ideas of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther because Erasmus believed in a Christianity without dogma or rituals. Although Luther rebelled against the corruption of the Catholic Church, he ended up creating his own stifling version of religion since it included a similar integrated structure. In other words, the Reformation was replacing one church with another leading to the similar set of problems that organized religion is fraught with. A church is a church nonetheless and needs dogma to validate and propagate itself.

The Stagnation of the Church and the Unhappy Atheist

One of the main concerns of Kolakowski's writing on religion includes the idea of living in a godless world that is still obsessed with religion, even when denying it. This modern world also lacks the means and methods to replace God or the Absolute with anything of equal or similar value.

In fact, since God's death sentence, so sternly and unequivocally pronounced by Nietzsche, the atheist lacks a moral compass or purpose. There is little to hold onto in a world that has killed God. It has changed the general outlook and philosophy and has made most people gloomier and more pessimistic. One can compare the godless world imagined by Diderot with the one envisioned by Camus or Sartre, or the nihilistic world of Kafka, and one sees that there is an even stronger sense of alienation both within oneself and one's relationship with the world.

These fluctuations in outlook may also be the product of a changing society that has altered dramatically since the industrialization. These large scale changes have progressively led us towards our modern conception of fear and dread, and the threat of mass destruction and annihilation. Yet one of the main problems of the Catholic Church has been its lack of ability to address these concerns and social problems. While the world around us has changed drastically, the Church has not managed to successfully accommodate those changes into its fabric or philosophy.

For example, in times where science has been codified and accepted as a main source of knowledge, rituals and actions like prayers may be interpreted as counterproductive since they elicit and encourage superstitious behaviors. In a world that is built on and around the foundations of science and of cause and effect, it seems odd that using a supposedly right technique to ask an imaginary deity for help could lead to a desired outcome.

In fact, I find it abhorrent that certain people would shun modern medicine and rely on prayers only to cure diseases. Although Kolakowski is more critical of prayer and has somewhat differing ideas from what constitutes superstitious behavior, in my opinion, it is most helpful to have a combination of both approaches.

But he has a point in claiming that scientific theology is the worst kind of mistake regarding religion. The moment the Church tries to imitate science, it loses not only its foothold and power, but it also becomes nonsensical and shoots itself in the foot. This leads to instances of pseudo-science; creationism would be its illustriously infamous shining example, the beacon of absurd knowledge.

In fact, the Church should have stuck to its own guns (to continue the metaphor of foot-shooting) and insisted on faith instead of its futile attacks on science and its desperate attempts to gain ground in the fields of science. This is an unevenly configured battle because religion can never surpass science or scientific theories.

What is worse is the Church's preoccupation and involvement with political matters. A Church founded on principles and concerns of the eternal realms should not identify or align itself with politics, since those matters are “profane” and of the world of the senses; they are not of God's jurisdiction. As Jesus clearly made the distinction, one ought to render unto Caesar what belongs to him and to God what is important to his realm. Politics should stay out of religion and vice versa.

Whenever this is not the case, God becomes transformed into a tool or empty mouthpiece, an object of human manipulation towards temporal and non-eternal realms. As a result, the Church and Christian communities would turn into a political party with God as its recruiting instrument. That is a situation that Kolakowski aptly describes as “godlessness in disguise.”

But as we can see, the modern world is obsessed with the lack of God. Even churches and religions feel a certain void and try to replace it with more involvement in things that are unrelated to church matters. On the other side of the spectrum, we have a growing number of unhappy atheists, people with a general lack of faith trying to desperately replace religion with humanism, rationalism, science or what-have-you.

This leads to caricatures of worship. The monopoly of the Old Testament may have ended but now we worship practically anything to reach momentary satisfaction. We adore and worship everything from money, sports, to movie stars to fill this gap of faith, this void within our modern selves.

But it is difficult, not to say impossible, to replace the Absolute with something that is finite and limited. All those temporary solutions will fade away leaving us emptier and hungrier for more. It becomes a vicious cycle that keeps undermining and eroding our own sense of identity leading to a fabricated and insubstantial sense of self. 

The power of religion cannot be forgotten or fully erased, and since we cannot forget God, whether we created him or not in the first place, he will be always present in the back of our minds, even - or especially when - we try to reject or forget him.


Vincent said...

It's clear to me from reading your post that the God being referred to is nothing more than a reflection in the mirror. That's why each person sees something different, according to their understanding.

This makes the topic impossible to discuss in the terms you indicate. I can only talk about my God. I could criticize or ridicule yours, but i prefer to refrain and give you the benefit of the doubt.

And when I see foolishness being discussed, I can join in, to try and raise the tone; or I can keep quiet, to avoid lowering my own tone. Which may seem selfish, but to me seems wisest.

Arashmania said...

Thank you for your non-comment, Vincent! I respect your decision to go fifth on me regarding the subject, while I would gladly raise not the tone but a glass of wine to foolish wisdom!