I started writing this blog while I was teaching at Stonehill College, which hired me for a one-year visiting position and took me on shortly after that. A Catholic school, Stonehill requires all its students to take an introductory course in religion, and a third-year course in “moral inquiry”; faculty learn rapidly that these are the bread and butter of their teaching. In my time at Stonehill I taught one elective in Hindu tradition; the other eleven course sections were all the religion requirements.
Teaching students who did not want to be there was not always a joy. The wonderful advantage of teaching Stonehill’s required courses, though, was that there was almost no restriction on content. My love of big cross-cultural questions does not play well with the specialization taught in grad school and encouraged in academic publishing, where one must learn one thing and nothing else. But I could design these courses the way I wanted. The religion department had decided it wanted one common reference point that upper-year students could turn back to, and it had decided on the book of Exodus. But as long as you taught Exodus, the rest of the course was all up to you.
And so one semester I decided I wanted to learn more about Western monotheisms, and entitled my intro religion course “God in the West.” All that Buddhism and “Hinduism” I’d studied in grad school – never mind that. Because that was stuff I already knew pretty well. One of the things I hoped to impart to my students was a love of learning; and so I decided I would teach them a subject I wanted to learn about myself.
And learn I did. The course gave me a chance to really think with the monotheisms, especially Christianity – and in so doing I moved considerably closer to atheism. For I’d wanted to challenge my students’ complacent, mellow, liberal moralistic-therapeutic deism by showing it criticized from both sides: both the severe conservatism of an Augustine, calling for more Christian piety, and the problem of suffering, which effectively calls for less.
Until I taught that course, I had never really paid much attention to the problem of suffering. I thought it didn’t really matter, since I didn’t believe in an omnipotent omnibenevolent God in the first place; I hadn’t been raised with such a belief and never saw a reason to adopt it. But in teaching Christianity I attempted to think with it, in its terms, and I saw just how serious a problem this is. Until that point I had seen myself as vaguely theist; I believed in a capital-T Truth like the Platonic Good, a universal which seemed a lot like God. But as I saw my students grapple with theodicy, it hit home for me that this “philosopher’s God” really has little to do with what most people understand God to be. For them, God is there actively moving the universe along; things are the way they are because God wants them to be. But given the vast and terrible suffering in the universe – including all the suffering that has nothing to do with human free will – it seems like a cruel joke to describe such a God as omnibenevolent, universally good. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God was really nowhere even close to anything I believed in.
I tried to teach a few theologians who would defend God, but their justifications seemed enormously unsatisfying. The best I could find was Richard Swinburne‘s case for a “half-finished universe,” extending the free-will defence so that it is our job to perfect the world and end suffering. Putting aside the question of whether this is even possible (as with similar questions one could ask of Buddhists), it still hardly seems an adequate resolution. How can this be fair to all the people whose lives are cruelly, brutally sacrificed in pursuit of this perfection? They don’t get to see the perfect world to come. Swinburne seems to advocate an oddly Maoist God, who can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; this celestial utopian scarcely seems better than the earthly utopians like Mao and Stalin, whom we rightly judge today as murderers.
In some respects my students’ answer seemed better than Swinburne’s: it could all be made worthwhile and redeemed by the ultimate promise of an afterlife in heaven. Within the system that seems more consistent to me; but one still would need to find evidence for the existence of this heavenly afterlife, and I’ve never heard of any.
In short, having attempted to take the Christian God seriously for the length of a course, I came out much more predisposed against him. I would be reluctant to say, though, that teaching the course made me an atheist. For the word “atheist” is usually claimed today by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, sneering know-nothings who thrive on contempt and disdain for anything alien to their worldview. It’s an attitude I already disliked, and if anything I came out of the very same course disliking it more.
For while I ended up thinking less of God, I also ended up thinking more of that much-maligned text attributed to him, the Hebrew Bible. Though I do think it’s ultimately philosophically inconsistent, I came to admire the book of Ecclesiastes not only for its poetic beauty, but also its attempt to reflect on the harsh world we live in, in which the righteous so often suffer and the wicked thrive. Ecclesiastes is an admirable early attempt to face this world with open eyes.
Perhaps more importantly, I also had my students read A.J. Jacobs’s highly enjoyable The Year of Living Biblically, which is exactly what it sounds like. Jacobs, a secular New York Jew, decided he’d one-up all the fundamentalists by trying his best to follow all the Bible’s commandments to the best of his ability. The original idea was to remind people how ridiculous the Bible commandments really are. And yet Jacobs found his life improving by following several of the commands – and not just the popular ones like loving your neighbour. Obeying the injunction to wear only white, he found himself becoming more cheerful, having a sunny disposition; refusing to use swear words, he found himself watching his emotions and avoiding trivial anger. These turned out not to be ridiculous after all – even when he didn’t have to do so for his book, Jacobs continued wearing white and saying prayers of thanksgiving.
Biblical commands, like the injunctions in dharmaśāstra, are not ethics; they are not philosophy. There is little reasoning or argument given there; one is merely ordered to do this and not do that. And yet Jacobs’s experience helps remind us that someone wrote those texts, and put those commands in there for a reason. Many of those reasons may have lost their force today; but some of them haven’t. Following those commands worked for a lot of people for a long time; it would take a truly heroic leap of cynicism to believe millions of people followed them for thousands of years entirely out of stupidity or gullibility. We cannot and should not swallow the ideas and practices of history’s traditions in their entirety; but we ignore or casually dismiss them at our peril.