On the philosophy of the anthropology of religion…

Seeing as things have been pretty slow here at PhilPer, and seeing as some readers still hope to hear an achey-breaky “But I’m not dead yet!” I decided to kick up some dust here… sort of… by linking to several posts at my own blog, FideCogitActio (which all this time has been unobtrusively linked in the sidebar). You can comment here, of course, but why not give my blog a whirl?

Stars on bellies or bellies under stars?


We’re all in this together, asunder together…


No such animal…

If there is no such thing as a straight line, there is no such thing as a crooked line.

Likewise, if there is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as lying.

If no one is ever absolutely right, no one is ever absolutely wrong, and therefore no one is ever absolutely guilty of deceit.

If all truth claims can be “reappraised” from countless “possible” angles that undermine their status as “truly true,” then likewise any lie can be “reinterpreted” so as to be “true in some sense,” and therefore not truly deceitful.

Not hurting anyone, that I could see…

In our day it is a common claim that morality is about enhancing other people’s (as well as animals’) pleasure, while wrongdoing consists in causing people needless pain. Let us call this principle hedonistic utilitarianism. It is the ethos often invoked to defend homosexuality and pornography. “Hey, you might not like them yourself,” hedonistic utilitarians argue, “but gay sex between consenting adults and watching porn don’t harm anybody. So there’s nothing wrong with them. Plus, they make the people who do them happy. So it’s actually good to allow people this kind of happiness. As long as what they do doesn’t harm anyone else and helps them be content citizens, it is well within their rights to practice gay sex and lose themselves in porn.”

If, however, the norm for morality vs. immorality and right vs. wrong is the impact (i.e., pleasant or harmful) our actions have on people in our so to speak causal ambit, then what makes spying on people immoral?

Insofar as a (skilled) peeping Tom, by definition, does no harm to the people he spies on, then there is nothing wrong with voyeurism. That is, of course, if wrongdoing consists in hurting, frightening, endangering, etc. people, as hedonistic utilitarianism claims. Indeed, we could even imagine a peeping Tom who sprayed a mild hallucinogenic (or whatever), free of harmful side effects, into the rooms of the women he spies on. Then those women would enjoy a few hours of careless bliss (thus, you see, letting their guard, if not their panties, down that much more easily). In which case, our peeping Tom’s voyeurism would not only not be wrong, since it causes women no needless pain, but would also be virtuous, since it gives them gratuitous pleasure.

“Hey, you might not like it yourself,” argues the peeping Tom, “but watching women undress, or just go about their ho-hum business at home, doesn’t harm anybody. So there’s nothing wrong with it. Plus, the drugs I administer makes them happier than would be without them. So peeping on them like I do is virtuous. As long as what I do doesn’t harm anyone else and helps me be content a citizen, it is well within my rights to enjoy the lives of others.”

Thus we see once more that the “philosophical” endorsement of “private” perversion is itself a form of social perversion.

Foregone forgiveness and guaranteed gifts…

AXIOM: If everything is necessary, nothing is gratuitous.

POSTULATE: Forgiveness and gift-giving are intrinsically gratuitous.

SUB-POSTULATE 1: A non-gratuitous gift is a contradiction in terms, just as ineluctable forgiveness is morally incoherent.

EXAMPLE 1: If I force you to bring about a “forgiveness event” on John’s behalf then I have simply forced you to act in such and such a manner without actually forgiving John.

SUB-POSTULATE 2: If a gift is a guaranteed outcome of prior conditions in a relationship, and if forgiveness is a forced result of conditions pertaining to the offense, then neither the gift-giving nor the act of forgiveness has any intrinsic merit or moral significance.

CONCLUSION: If everything is necessary, there is no such thing as forgiveness and gift-giving.

REJOINDERS: Even on a compatibilistic reading, in which strict determinism is compatible with an agent’s own intrinsic actions, determinism still renders the forgiveness and gifting events necessary, whereby they are not truly acts of forgiveness and gifting. Even if a determinist can say that nothing “extrinsic to” the agent’s (determined) nature, dispositions, knowledge, etc. “forced” him to forgive someone (or give a gift to someone), he still must acknowledge that the entire event qua the-agent’s-forgiving-somebody (or the-agent’s-giving-of-a-gift), were inevitable, absolutely necessary outcomes of prior conditions. Thus, while the agent may “feel” he himself is forgiving his offender, and while this feeling may be as fully compatible with his own (determined) nature as his (determined) sense of outrage at the offense is, yet, in the larger moral framework in which the event is actually recognized as an act of forgiveness, there is nothing gratuitous or magnanimous about the act of forgiveness itself. For, if determinism is true, the agent’s magnanimity followed from the offender’s wrongdoing as necessarily as did the agent’s being upset. The same holds for the act of gift-giving. If it is a strict necessity that I will give a beggar some money for dinner, or that I will surprise my wife with a bouquet, then those acts are not in the least gratuitous. It may be true that nothing within the event-structure itself “forces” me, against my own (determined) nature, to be generous or romantic, yet the events themselves are necessary, and therefore lack anything of the gratuitous nature of acts of generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, sacrifice, etc.

MUSINGS: It seems that determinism’s only criterion for good and evil is whether an act ends up being forgiven or ends up remaining unforgiven. If it is ineluctably determined that a man’s murdering another man’s wife will result in the husband’s forgiveness of the murderer, then it seems there was, ultimately, nothing truly wrong with his act of murder. After all, it resulted in a virtuous act and was pardoned from the murderer’s record (at least vis-Ã -vis the husband). Likewise, it seems that the only deterministic criterion for generosity is whether someone ends up being generous or not. If a man’s deliberation to give a gift or not necessarily results in, say, generosity, then the act of deliberation itself is morally inseparable from the (necessarily eventual) virtue of actually being generous. Conversely, if some other man’s deliberation over an act of generosity ultimately and necessarily results in his being miserly, then his act of deliberation is morally inseparable from his non-virtuous niggardliness. Therefore, if determinism is true, the moral worth of your deliberation to be virtuous or vicious is actually determined to be virtuous or vicious by whatever actually is already determined to come about.

Free to be determined…

“It is a repressive, medieval myth that homosexuality is a perversion of human nature. There is no such thing as an ‘essential human nature’. Homosexuals ought to be able to marry each other; to demand otherwise is a violation of their basic human rights. Homosexuality is as essential a part of human nature as heterosexuality is. Homosexuals are free to do whatever they like, sexually, since they are genetically determined to be gay. They are just trying to be who they are by nature.”

Just so many luscious theories to deflower…

“There is still so much in this life to learn,” he uttered, with the hint of tears in his eyes. “Don’t stop at one point and stay there,” he counseled his disciples.

Then, alas, Leopold rose his hand and slid his hood back past his ears. “Is there any thing to learn that we should not unlearn?” he asked the master.

“Pardon me,” replied the master.

“Well,” he coughed, “learning seems to imply right and wrong answers, and a final test, and a teacher. I….”

“Seems to imply,” whispered the master, scanning the palm of his hand.

“Master,” Leopold ventured further, “couldn’t I say something like this:….” And here he paused to allow the master to correct the countless errors he must have already made.

The Master looked at him from beneath raised eyebrows. “Well? Go on.”

Leopold straightened his spine and wiped the sides of his mouth with his fingertips. “Couldn’t I say, ‘There are still so many women in this life to love; don’t stop with one relationship and stay there?'”

The master chuckled. “But we are celibate in this community, Leopold.” An unseen cloud of chuckles rose from the patch of maroon hoods surrounding Leopold. He gave a weak smile.

“Yes, Master, we are,” Leopold replied, “but I am, I am talking about people in the larger world. About husbands and wives. People trying to live upright, honest lives. Have you not taught that virtue, free from deceit, is one of life ‘s highest aims?”

“Well said, Leopold. I take your point, then, to be…,” the master answered, and brought his fingertips together, giving Leopold the floor.

“All I mean to say, Master, or ask, really, is, doesn’t there at some point need to be an ultimate commitment?”

“But Leopold,” the master answered, “you do have that kind of commitment here, in this community. You need to put thoughts of marriage out of your mind, or, that is, admit this community is not where you belong.”

Leopold noticed all the hoods turn in his direction, but he could see none of the faces beneath them. “No, Master, I mean, I understand what you mean about this community. I was simply trying to say, well, my analogy of an ultimate, faithful commitment between a husband and a wife is an analogy for our, our cognitive world. It seems like we have to place ultimate trust in something. Don’t we have to stop somewhere?”

The master inhaled sharply and looked up to the rafters. “Leopold,” he began, “let me try to summarize your point for you.”

Leopold’s brow unfurrowed and his shoulders dropped with relief. “Yes, Master, by all means!”

“I have been teaching this morning about remaining ever open to truth as it unfolds.” The patch of hoods bobbed in slow affirmation. “About never sticking with one narrow view, never getting stuck in one dogmatic belief system. And you, young Leopold, are trying to say that this… this spiritual agnosticism is intellectual hedonism, the life of spiritual rakes. If I may put it so bluntly.”

Leopold stared for a moment. The hoods wobbled in many directions, apparently unsure where to direct their unseen gaze. Then Leopold’s eyes widened and he repeated, “Intellectual hedonism. The life of spiritual rakes. Keeping your options open. Not getting trapped. Staying safe. You mean… getting the best out of every viewpoint without being tied down to any one system?”

“That’s how I would put your… point, yes, Leopold,” answered the master. “At last you are seeing the value of this community, Leopold. We have the freedom of the sons of light, Leopold, freedom that the small-minded outside these walls can barely imagine, stuck as they are in their narrow beds of sure truth and unequivocal goods.” The master smiled and opened his hands like a father welcoming his son back.

Leopold rose to his feet and pulled hood off his head onto his neck. The hoods rose slightly, maroon sunflowers arching blindly under an eclipsed sun. “But, Master, I didn’t make a commitment to this community to be a spiritual rake, to be an intellectual hedonist. That’s a bunch of bullshit.” And with that Leopold turned to walk through the heavy oak doors into the cool dusk of a new life.


There is a “religious side” to every human like there is a “food side” to everyone. Our species is the homo religiosus. Humans are inherently religious. We should not find this any more odd than the oddity of putting various objects into our mouths and finding life in them. Metaphorically, then, atheism is a form of bulimia, a problem not with the menu or the chef, but with food in general. Agnosticism, in turn, is a form of anorexia.

Atheists spend countless hours poring over religious documents, analyzing religious arguments, engaging religious believers, and the like, only to vomit it all back out and say, “Now that is what is making me, us, all of mankind, sick!”

Agnostics by contrast just walk through the mall, window shopping, tsk-tsking at every possible treat, turning each of them down, lest they become bloated and weighed down by anything they actually eat. Far too unsightly to binge and vomit like atheists, but also far beneath them to become fat and happy like the gullible, well-fed believers on the lawn outside.

Atheists claim there is nothing to religion, that is is sheer bunkum, and that is disgusts or bores them, and yet they are, when being most atheistical, as obsessed with it as any of the faithful, and probably more so because, whereas an average Christian is chiefly concerned with One Lord, the average atheist is concerned with the sprawling mass of “religion in general.” Otherwise they are “polite” and trim agnostics, not too fat too be a nuisance on the airplane of life, nor too raucous like the atheists on board.

Kurt Gödel ended up dying of starvation because he had a paranoia that all his food was poisoned. He was just being careful, a gustatory skeptic. He lacked absolutely iron-clad proof that his food was not dangerous nor had been tampered with. An agnostic literally means without-knowledge-one. A truly awesome self-description. I can at least respect my stepdad’s militant atheism for “having a pair,” but most of the time I admit I have as little taste for agnostics as I do for lukewarm Christians. As G. K. Chesterton said, the point of an open mind is like the point of an open mouth: to bite down on something real and good.

When it comes to our food, we are agnostic in the true sense of the word, but we are nonetheless largely rational for getting over our lack of “certain knowledge” and living and eating. We can’t be sure this or that food will give us cancer, or that it isn’t contaminated, but at the end of the day, we all gotta eat. This or that particular menu item is subject to rational evidence and reappraisal, but food itself is inescapable. So it is with God. This or that argument can be not to our liking, but we face everyday the insatiable need for the divine, and, like people driven to eats dirt and pine cones in the wild, will find ways to stave off the hunger, for better or worse.

We have to make a choice to live for some ultimate end. But based on what evidence? If we are rational, not to say rationalist, what reasons do we have to be rational, not to mention purely rational? Don’t we have to first will to be rational, and then follow reason where it leads? How can we follow reason if we don’t value rationality in the first place? You can’t convince someone to be rational. It is simply a great good which a person must will to accept, as a gift, to honor as a master and to cultivate as a child. Reason, then, is taken on faith or it is not taken at all.

But only if you first recognize that you have a nature, that your nature has intrinsic ends and proper goods, and that there is a way for that nature to be best used–– only then will you desire to take reason seriously as a natural human good. Nature is not intrinsically rational (just ask Stephen Crane, Jack London, Gerhart Hauptmann, or Cormac McCarthy, for starters). We “impose” rationality on it for the sake of an intrinsic good that is proper to human nature, namely, truth.

All that Catholicism claims is that God is the source of these intrinsic goods and the proper object of them hence He is worthy of our devotion, our “orienting our natural powers towards the good to be found in Him.”