Religion without God: Our post-Kantian moment

Ours is a post-Kantian moment. We can neither do without the idea of transcendence but nor can we embrace it as a substantial presence coursing throughout our lived experiences. For the Kant of the First Critique, reason aspires to travel beyond the bounds of human understanding but, when it does so and when it seeks to make certain claims, it gets caught in any number of entanglements (or antinomies).

One strategy for overcoming reason’s predicament would be to ‘tame’ reason’s aspiration, to ‘domesticate’ its yearning; quite another would be to become  agnostic about matters metaphysical and be done with it all. Domestication would be a fine thing were it not that the total loss of metaphysical aspiration would–notwithstanding existentialists’ nonsensical clamoring that each of us ‘create’ meaning–terminate in nihilism. The second, agnosticism, is like sex without teeth: lukewarm, bloodless, enervating, the proffered condom proving unnecessary.

Should you rightly resist the temptation to go back to the pre-Kantian moment when transcendence was woven into immanence, then the hunger to make some sense of ‘religion without God’ will never be far from mind. As I have set the terms, going back is cowardly and going forward seemingly impossible.

Unless, of course, one discerns a ‘religion without God,’ an apt coinage of the late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. Without working through his argument (which is quite interesting in its own right), I would like to let the title resonate as something of a call to think seriously: how would one find religion without God? Let us cast the search in terms of a puzzle.

To begin with, one may not wish to invoke the name of ‘spirituality’ since, despite some of its positive connotations, the term too often leads to solipsism. An individual’s journey, beginning in the rejection of certain religious dogmas, tends to lack rigor or logical consistency and typically ends with the ‘dear self’ propping itself up. Spiritual experience collapses into subjective experience and thus one ends more or less where one began.

However, one could, with good reason, think it quite sensible to reject a set of doctrines, dogmas, or received ideas on the basis of their failing to pass the test of rational consideration. But the danger in doing so is that–long after Philip Larkin wrote, in ‘Church Going,’ of the ‘ignorable silence’ of abandoned churches–one could too quickly sign up for ‘atheist churches,’ the kinds initially introduced by Comte in the nineteenth century and currently seeing a revival in England. But ‘atheist churches’ are rather like chants without commitments: one repeats them because they are beautiful, because the guy beside you is chanting, not, it seems, because the chant ‘leans on’ or is ‘answerable to’ something else. Ignoring the belief in God in a chant that is ostensibly about God or the gods is about as a la carte as one can get. ‘Atheistic churches’ thereby take the same high-stakes risk as hipsterism and trendspotting: they make the whole thing look hip and cool, transforming it into the latest thing to do. (A precursor to all this is Ethical Culture, which has long, and boringly, bowed at the altar of Social Justice.)

On the one hand, it is not unreasonable to believe, pace many New Atheists, that human beings could deem very desirable the idea of ritual and ceremony as well as the need for the kind of community that is convoked through ceremony and ritual. On the other hand, ritual without some kind of metaphysical belief is empty, as empty as Burning Man.

As a guide, I do no more than bring us to the provisional point of arrival. A religion not anchored to a personal God would have to be ‘anchored in,’ ‘tethered to,’ ‘leaning on,’ or ‘answerable to’ something that transcends perceptual experience but does not go beyond the bounds of immanent transcendence. In all of this, one will have to have at least some ‘weak’ metaphysical beliefs. For this reason, I am drawn to the philosophical side of Daoism because the Dao is, among other things, the name we give to the mystery of worldly existence, the force that brings into being all that is but is not, for all that, ‘behind’ beings. But yet the Dao, though invoking a sense of mystery at a certain order of existence, does not require, nor does it imply, the idea of a benevolently created world nor does it need, so far as I can gather, a providential being. I am not sure that I have come farther in my thinking, except to say that the sun is luminous this morning, ‘numinous’ in a preferred metaphor.