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Without God’: An Exchange

In response to:

Without God from the September 25, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

It’s depressing to see a misunderstanding of the eleventh- and early-twelfth-century Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali play such a prominent role in Professor Steven Weinberg’s essay “Without God” [NYR, September 25]. The quoted discussion of cotton burning occurs in Problem XVII of al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali simply makes the same point as Hume in explaining that there is no logical necessity to, or “demonstrative proof” of, causality. According to al-Ghazali, even God has no power over the “Impossible” (e.g., the affirmation of something and its denial), but “what is not impossible is within power.” We do not normally think that Hume’s reflections on the foundations for our “presupposition” of causation in any way undermined science. I’m not aware of anything in al-Ghazali, any more than in Hume, that suggested we approach the world without that “presupposition.”

Contrary to Professor Weinberg’s understanding, al-Ghazali did believe that “laws of nature could [be] reconciled with Islam.” In the same Incoherence of the Philosophers al-Ghazali writes (in Preface Two of the 1963 English translation by S.A. Kamali): “If you tell a man who has studied these things [natural laws]…that these things are contrary to religion, your assertion will shake his belief in religion, not in these things.” Just before that, al-Ghazali explains, “He who thinks that it is his religious duty to disbelieve such things is really unjust to religion, and weakens its cause.”

As he explained in his Alchemy of Happiness, al-Ghazali viewed the physicist as “like an ant who, crawling on a sheet of paper and observing black letters spreading over it, should refer the cause to the pen alone.” Because al-Ghazali believed there was a God behind the laws of nature did not mean he denied the existence of those laws, nor in any way discouraged their exploration, any more than he would deny there was writing on the sheet of paper traversed by the ant.

Readers interested in al-Ghazali’s views on causality can find a useful article, with citations to al-Ghazali’s writings, at plato.stanford.edu/entries/al-ghazali.

Bob Lockner

Chicago, Illinois

To the Editors:

Professor Weinberg’s belief, based on his own anecdotal evidence, is that religion has become significantly less important in the lives of Americans, and that science has played a significant part in this change. I would like to suggest that he review statistical studies of this phenomenon (e.g., those summarized in Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide by Professors Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of Michigan). These studies, which are designed to eliminate public opinion bias, show rather convincingly that although religion has become relatively less important in the lives of people in Western Europe and Eastern Asia, religion is of increasing importance to Americans.

Americans are very different in their beliefs from most in the postindustrial world but compare most closely with the citizens of countries in South America and the Middle East (see Fig. 10.2, p. 226, in Sacred and Secular ). The importance of these cultural differences between peoples around the world is substantial, including, as Weinberg mentions, the potential for great harm between those of different beliefs. In 2009 at the University of Michigan, a graduate fellowship in sociology will begin with its focus being the study of such social phenomena.

Norman Bodine

Founder Bodine Graduate Fellowship in Sociology University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Michigan

To the Editors:

…Professor Weinberg’s peroration is a stoic account, self-aggrandizing as all such accounts must be, about the great struggles and trials that must be borne by we happy few, we band of brothers, who have learned to live without God. (Friedrich Nietzsche, that great theologian malgr lui, knew better: the so-called death of God is a much more cataclysmic event than we have yet come to understand.)

He includes a greatly exaggerated report of the demise of religious poetry, buttressed by the wholly unsubstantiated claim that “little English-language poetry written in the past few decades owes anything to belief in God.” In addition to sweeping away many fine poets (Geoffrey Hill, David Middleton, Janet Morley, Micheal O’Siadhail, Rowan Williams), this time frame insulates itself from critique; since when is twenty years long enough to determine which poetry is “great”? Moreover, science was already well in the ascendancy before Eliot, Auden, and R.S. Thomas came along, yet somehow they managed to soldier on.

The final straw is Weinberg’s truly laughable claim that “none of [Shakespeare’s] work seems to me to show the slightest hint of serious religious inspiration”—a notion that would provoke derision from even the most ardently secular Shakespeare scholar. Apparently, Professor Weinberg’s wholesale lack of serious engagement with theology has blinded him not only to the biblical allusions that dominate the plays, but also to their consistent focus on intensely theological themes such as the quality of mercy, the hollowness of revenge, and the absolute necessity of forgiveness—all filtered through a specifically Christian lens.

But at least Weinberg counsels the use of humor, so I will add that my own thoughtful essay on “The Phoolishness of Physics” will surely appear in these pages shortly.

David S. Cunningham

Professor of Religion Hope College Holland, Michigan

To the Editors:

When Steven Weinberg speaks of a “widespread weakening of religious belief” he seems to focus on belief in the supernatural. While such traditional religious belief exists today, I appreciate his admission that “for some there is also a sort of spirituality that Emerson wrote about,” which Weinberg himself claims not to understand. Albeit that acknowledgment, he still wonders “how long religion can last without a core belief in the supernatural.”

What needs to be affirmed is that there is a basic and ongoing quest of the human spirit, directed beyond itself, that is not weakening, let alone dying out. Reinhold Niebuhr alluded to it when he wrote that “the essential homelessness of the human spirit is the ground of all religion.”1 Augustine of Hippo referred to it in The Confessions when he acknowledged that “the heart of man is restless until it finds rest in Thee.”

Rather than emphasizing a diminishing of belief in the facts about God, as does Weinberg, I would stress, out of my long-term experience as a pastor, that for many people today, within and outside our churches, the ongoing searching nature of the human spirit continues to be vital and strong. Indeed, it frequently involves the discovery that there is something deeply personal at the heart of existence, a realm of the spirit that is gracious. I believe William James was alluding to this realm of the spirit when he wrote: “Beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him, there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.”2

Edward Castner

Presbyterian Minister (retired)

Wallingford, Connecticut

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg’s stirring article—“Without God —may provide the clue to what I have been searching for and he wishes to sponsor: how to live without God, and without despair or cynicism.

His arguments about the usual objections to atheism—unexplained phenomena, human exceptionalism, Islamic rejection of laws that limit God, and the nature of authority—are thoughtful and, by my lights, sound. He ends his piece by calling on human beings to buoy their courage and face the reality that there is nothing after death, which, writes Weinberg, “…makes cowards of us all.”

Does it? Must it? As an aging Episcopal priest, who has led worship and suffered many slings and arrows for questioning ancient authority, I not only do not fear the nothing of death, but largely, I think, thanks to being immersed in ancient texts and rituals that, as many now understand, were not about facts, nor about an alternative reality, but about the wonder of finding ourselves in this unlikely existence, have become satisfied, even grateful, for being here for this rich moment in cosmic history.

There was an infinity before these cells came together to offer this consciousness a ride nearly seventy years ago, and soon entropy will provide for them to disassemble this consciousness for at least another eternity.

Sadness? Yes. I find just about every major shift in my reality can evoke sadness. Would I wish this consciousness would go on forever? I don’t think so. I am grateful to have grown from infancy to childhood, childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, adulthood to old age. Like most I hope I may die before my consciousness succumbs to a senescence that robs me of my enthusiasm for all this.

Religion has had as much as anything to do with the grotesque human sense that we are different, not a part of everything else, not subject to the same forces. Once I understood myself as an odds-against result of a chance encounter between a madly swimming sperm and an egg, the rest has seemed like footnote.

The most religious I can imagine is the gratitude (Eucharist) I feel for this lucky happening. My religion has become learning to pay attention to the endless details as they unfold, and to try, best I can, to show in my life how thrilled I am to have been here. And, as Mary Oliver put it, “…when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Reverend Blayney Colmore

Jacksonville, Vermont

Steven Weinberg replies:

I am grateful to the many readers who sent letters commenting on my article, either to these pages or directly to me.

I don’t agree with Mr. Lockner about the role of the Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali in the history of Islamic science. For one thing, the points regarding causality made by al-Ghazali and David Hume were very different. Al-Ghazali’s argument in refuting “he who would assert that fire is the agent of burning: or bread is the agent of the satisfaction of hunger: or medicine is the agent of health”3 was that it is God on each occasion who causes burning or satisfies hunger or bestows health, and God could just as well on any occasion cause a miracle: burning without fire, or fire without burning, and so on. Hume did not believe in miracles; he simply argued that it was not possible to prove the relation between cause and effect. Further, when al-Ghazali said that “these things” studied by philosophers were compatible with religion, he was not referring to general natural laws, but to specific astronomical predictions.

Of course, I agree that al-Ghazali did not think that there was no relation at all between cause and effect; I can’t imagine that he went around putting his hand in fires. But al-Ghazali did not think that exploring these relations was a good thing. He compared astronomy and mathematics to wine. Wine strengthens the body, but is nevertheless forbidden; similarly, astronomy and mathematics strengthen the mind, but “we nevertheless fear that one might be attracted through them to doctrines that are dangerous.”4 This leaves the question, to which I did not claim to know the answer, whether al-Ghazali’s influence worked significantly against the survival of science in the world of Islam. Certainly many Muslim scholars have thought so, from Ibn Rushd in the twelfth century to Syed Ameer Ali and Pervez Hoodbhoy in the twentieth.

Mr. Bodine is incorrect in saying that in my article I argued that religion has become significantly less important in the lives of Americans. Indeed, I acknowledged that many Americans fervently believe that religion is a good thing, and get quite angry when it is criticized. My point was that even among those who feel this way, many Americans do not seem to have definite beliefs about the supernatural: God, the afterlife, and so on. Following Mr. Bodine’s suggestion, I have reviewed the statistical studies of secularization summarized in the book by Norris and Inglehart. They rely on surveys that ask whether the respondent believes in God, or heaven, or hell, or life after death, or that people have a soul. As I said in my article, I don’t trust such surveys, because I think that many nominally religious people think it is a pious duty to say that they believe these things, whether they believe them or not. I also think many of them have not examined what they believe, because what they seek in religion is not belief, but affiliation, ceremony, moral guidance, and spiritual uplift.

I did not claim any scientific evidence for my opinions, but now some indirect evidence has turned up. The surveys cited by Norris and Inglehart also ask about church attendance, and here (unlike questions about belief) the answers can be checked, by actually counting the participants at church services. Studies show that “the self-reported figures are subject to systematic and consistent exaggeration, due to a social desirability bias concerning churchgoing in American culture.”5 If such problems arise in judging something tangible like church attendance, how much more are they likely to intrude on surveys of belief? Incidentally, Norris and Inglehart also report that “secular tendencies may have strengthened in America, at least during the last decade.”6

Among the poets cited by Professor Cunningham, Geoffrey Hill is certainly a significant contemporary poet, some of whose poems deal with religion. But Hill’s interest in religion seems mostly to arise from its relevance to the history of England. I don’t get any feeling from his poems that they are inspired by religious belief, of the sort that inspired Vaughn, Herbert, and Hopkins. I was not familiar with the poetry of the others named by Professor Cunningham (although of course I have heard of Rowan Williams as the current archbishop of Canterbury). I borrowed a book by David Middleton, and I have to admit that his poetry does show religious inspiration, and that I liked it. Unfortunately our central library at the University of Texas (one of the largest university libraries in the country) does not have books of the others’ poetry, and I couldn’t find their poetry on the Internet, so I can’t comment on them.

About Shakespeare, Professor Cunningham doesn’t indicate what authorities would disagree with me, so I have to rely on my own reading of Shakespeare’s work. He of course wrote in a religious time, and about religious times, so churchmen necessarily appear as characters in Shakespeare’s plays and his language naturally draws on many words and ideas from Christian traditions. But I note that his clergy are generally worldly schemers, like Winchester in Henry VI or Canterbury and Ely in Henry V or Wolsey in Henry VIII, or they are marplots, like Friar Lawrence, or prigs, like the priest who refuses to bury Ophelia in hallowed ground. More significant, few if any of his characters are motivated by religious belief. It’s true that Hamlet tells himself that he would commit suicide if the Almighty had not fixed His canon against self-slaughter, and that he would kill Claudius if the king were not at his prayers, but aren’t these just more of his excuses for delay? Where Hamlet seems most sincere, as in his meditation on the skull of Yorick, he is least Christian. Shakespeare does write about revenge and forgiveness and mercy, but when he brings in supernatural characters, they are fairies and sorcerers, not saints or angels.

Mr. Castner is right that I focus in my article on belief in the supernatural. I can’t help but care whether the “larger power” of which William James wrote has an independent existence, outside humanity, or is something we have created or like to imagine. It’s just a guess that in the long run there will be enough people who care about what is real that the decline of religious belief will lead to a decline in the other trappings of religion.

The Reverend Blayney Colmore acknowledges that the ancient texts and rituals in which he has been immersed as an Episcopal priest were not about facts but about the wonder of finding ourselves in this unlikely existence. I share his sense of wonder, and I hope that he will not be offended if I cite his remark as an example of what I mean by the decline of religious belief. I have to add that, perhaps through his life in his church, Reverend Colmore has evidently gained a courage and a sweetness of temper that I can only envy and admire.

Two corrections: As a reader points out, Will Herberg was a theologian and a religious figure, but not a rabbi. Also, I should not have included Lisieux along with Paris and Oxford as a site of scientific advance in the fourteenth century. I was thinking of Nicole Oresme, bishop of Lisieux, but as another reader informs me, Oresme lived in Lisieux for only two years, and his scientific work was done in Paris.

  1. 1

    Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), p. 14.

  2. 2

    The Varieties of Religious Experience (Modern Library, 1902), p. 515.

  3. 3

    Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut al-Falasifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers), translated by Sabih Ahmad Kamali (Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963), p. 187.

  4. 4

    Fatihat al-‘Ulafum, translated and quoted by I. Goldziher, inStudies on Islam, edited by Merlin L. Swartz (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 195.

  5. 5

    Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 91.

  6. 6

    Sacred and Secular, p. 94.

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