Monday, February 15, 2010

On Seeing the Point

"Our blindness to the point of primitive modes of life is a corollary of the pointlessness of much of our own life."
     -- Peter Winch, "Understanding a Primitive Society" (1972)

This line comes in response to some arguments made by Alasdair MacIntrye, in a paper called, "Is Understanding Religion Compatible with Believing?" MacIntrye's ultimate answer appears to be: No. But he takes a long way round to this answer, via the attempts of sociologists and anthropologists to understand primitive (read: non-Western) cultures. Upshot: primitive belief in witchcraft is empty because the discourse can only be made intelligible (i.e. non-contradictory, rational) if the "theory" of witchcraft is rendered unfalsifiable. (This is roughly the story MacIntryre tells.) Ditto for Christianity in the eyes of the skeptic, viz. it's empty, pointless (read: explains nothing).

Winch doesn't take up MacIntyre's discussion of (Western) religion, but focuses on what he sees as M's minsinterpretation of his own views about understanding primitive cultures. But I can see a version of what Winch says being exactly the sort of thing a religious person might say to a skeptic...

(Something that puzzled me about the MacIntyre paper is that while he argues that religion has lost its context (read: point) in the West overall, he is resistant to what he sees as a Kierkegaardian embrace of the apparent paradoxes of religious views, and the internalization of religion, as "too easy." I don't know much about MacIntryre, but the description of a Kierkegaardian approach to religion as "too easy" strikes me as something someone could only say as a result of not reading Kierkegaard very I missing something?)


  1. Matt,
    I don't think you're missing something. From what you've said, it sounds like AM is working off of the fairly widespread reading of Kierkegaard which takes him to be a fideist. From my reading of the secondary literature, Kierkegaard believes that reason has a role to play, but it is less of a role than it plays for someone like Aquinas (via natural theology). The absurd in Kierkegaard is not the irrational sort, but rather the expectation of the unexpected which is sometimes miraculous. Any reading of Kierkegaard which states that religion is "too easy" is not a correct reading, as you say.

  2. Hi Mike,
    I thought, charitably, that AM might be talking not so much about Kierkegaard but rather a cartoon (or "popular") version of SK--people who talk as if it's easy to take that leap of faith, etc. (Sometimes I hear students do this--"you've got to have faith in something..." and then they expose the relative shallowness of the conception of faith they're working with by saying something like: "I have faith that my keys will start my car." Yes, if that's faith, that's too easy.)

    But still, I guess it's easy to say such things, but if AM thinks that these phrases are often employed superficially, then I don't think SK would disagree...

  3. I think skeptics and atheists can understand or "get the point" of the religious -- not, however, by means of merely understanding the discursive contents of the particular variety of piety at issue, but primarily by being receptive to the pathos of the need the piety addresses: namely, for some kind of ultimate meaning to life. Unfortunately, I think most skeptics and atheists don't "get the point", but get things backwards: they regard the need for ultimate meaning as an artifact of the religion they reject, and so tend to glibly dismiss the need as something that expires with the rejection. But I think religion is a response to the need, and that many skeptics and atheists are prevented, by the way in which their opposition to religion is structured, from recognizing how they too are burdened by the need. One litmus test might be the opening sentences of the "Tribute to Abraham" chapter of Fear and Trembling: if you are aren't moved at your core by them, then indeed you probably don't "get the point" of religion.

    Some of this, I think, tallies with what Wittgenstein is up to in his critique of Frazer, which I think is highly relevant to this topic.

  4. That's interesting, Rob. I've been thinking about Freud's response to the "oceanic" feeling, which he describes at the start of Civilization and its Discontents. (This feeling was described to him by Romain Rolland; F claims not to have experienced it himself.) I've been wondering whether this variability in experience has something to do with the mistake you describe above...

  5. Oh yeah, I love how Freud develops his reductive response to the phenomenon of the oceanic feeling in that chapter, and how he gets at the core of its ideational content, such as it is, with the invocation of that passage from Grabbe's Hannibal, akin to the sentiment Plantinga describes near the end of this video.