This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
A Fragment of Religious Biography
Nelson T. Potter MC'61
The following essay is written in the first person, but it comes from conversations I
have had over a period of years with a long time friend, whose thoughts are presented in
the first person. My use of the pronoun "he" for this friend in this paragraph
should not be taken to indicate gender. Remarkably my friend has memories of undergraduate
education at a small church-related liberal arts college rather like Monmouth, and he
encountered there a figure remarkably similar to Charles Speel. Hence, the statements my
friend makes about this unnamed mentor are also statements I would and do make about
Charles Speel. After this paragraph the voice you hear, speaking in the first person
singular, is that of my friend, though I am the one who has written out and organized
these comments from memories of conversations with him. Sometimes the choice of words is
my own, but my aim in the remainder of this essay is to describe his views. Occasionally I
have interpolated some comments of my own in brackets. I present the first-person singular
description of the religious consciousness of my friend, as something less than a full
religious consciousness, that has a certain interesting complexity about it, in spite of
the fact that the short description of my friend's relation to religion is that he is an
atheist. I present these views without editorial comment, except this one: Notice how, as
my friend seeks again and again to turn away from religion and the religious, he keeps
finding it again.
Some people describe an inner sense of the presence of God, as a part of their consciousness. For persons who have this mysterious sense, it must be difficult to deny the existence of God. For those who have such a sense, it seems to be thought of as a permanent aspect of one's awareness of the world, though perhaps for some it wanes and waxes, comes and goes. It must be upsetting to one who possesses such a consciousness for it to wane, for the outcome of such a trend might seem likely to be the total cessation of such awareness, somewhat as, it may seem, the shorter and shorter days of the fall might, if we did not understand their mechanism, be believed to lead to less and less light, and finally to the total cessation of sunlight. William James used to have mystical experiences, and used to be able to tell when they were coming on; he knew he would be good for nothing else for their duration, and so he withdrew, and lived through them, and then resumed his life--so I have heard. Most people are not able to separate themselves so well or thoroughly from such absolutely compelling experiences. But, though difficult, it seems, it is not impossible. However, there is probably considerable difference between such intense mystical experiences, and the consciousness I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, the consciousness of presence, as I might call it.
I have never had such an awareness of the presence of a person-like being who is not oneself, and who is not to be identified with any other individual, such as my spouse, child, or father. The universe as a whole has always seemed to me to be quite impersonal in character, as indifferent and as senseless as a rock. I do not think I understand what it would be like for the totality of one's awareness of the world to have an aspect of personhood.
Now when I talk about "person" in such connections, I mean a personal God, or a being or entity that has at least some of the aspects of personhood, and godhood. Short of such a conception I cannot see any point to the distinction between believing in God and not believing in God, at least as a personal, inner religious faith. Such a being might be conceived as immensely powerful, immensely knowing, frequently present, and as having some kind of unity and moral nature. Such characteristics of the objects of personal religious belief fall short of the traditional attributes of God, within western religious traditions, for that God is a being infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and all the rest. But they are about as close as we can get to having some kind of awareness of an infinite God within the limits of human consciousness.
As I said before, I have never had such a special consciousness, and I do not experience that fact as any kind of lack. Since all the proofs of the existence of God are unsatisfactory, and since most of them, even if sound, do not lead to the conclusion of the existence of an entity having any special religious significance, we need not speak any further about such proofs here. It is extremely rare for an individual to be brought into a religious life by the consideration of proofs of God's existence.
I wonder about most people, the majority of whom claim to believe in God, that is, to be theists. How are they different from me? I cannot think of any reason for thinking that one sort of inner consciousness, if that has anything to do with it, is any closer to truth or correctness than the other, any more than being left or right handed, or being homosexual or heterosexual is closer to any kind of correctness than its alternative. However, having one sort of consciousness rather than the other seems to be compelling for personal belief or action. There must surely be many theists who have no inner sense of the presence of God. The sources of that personal belief would be different for such persons, but what would they be? There is also an extremely widespread phenomenon of paying lip-service to religious belief and affirming theistic, and even more specifically perhaps Christian belief, without really appreciating or understanding what one is saying or believing.
Early in my life, as soon as I had collected the inner forthrightness to move beyond thinking as if I merely had doubts about theism, or as if I were a mere agnostic, suspended between acceptance and rejection of such belief, I concluded that I had no tendency whatsoever to believe in the existence of anything like God. Especially in a post-Darwinian era, when we have in outline a purely mechanical explanation, in terms of natural selection, of how organic beings came to be so well adapted to living in such a world, God as an explanatory hypothesis seemed quite unneeded, and if unneeded, then quite out of any essential connection with the world of my experience. That conclusion has been quite settled throughout my adult life, and back into my teenage years, and even now when I have reached middle age, and have an acute awareness of my own mortality, this has no tendency in the slightest to make me move toward changing my views.
In fact, the possibility of my surviving the death of my body seems downright inconceivable and foolish to entertain as a possibility. Like David Hume, I may temporize about the existence of God, but it seems as certain as anything in life ever could become, that it is impossible that my personhood should survive beyond the end of the life of my body. So the ideas of heaven and hell, even more clearly than the idea of God, are and could not possibly be anything more than a pleasant, or unpleasant, myth. As a middle aged person conscious of his mortality, I wish to avoid death for some time, at least for so long as life remains not excruciatingly painful and hopeless, as it might become for someone dying of a dread disease, for example. I feel a certain fear of dying, and all the rest, but still what must be done is that I must philosophically come to terms with the idea of my own death. There are some good moral reasons for not denying the fact and importance of death, because such denial incorrectly underestimates the significance of this present life, and the great significance of present-day, this-life human suffering, poverty, pain, and injustice.
When a religion teacher of mine came to me during my years as a college student, and asked me to consider a Rockefeller Grant designed precisely (as I recall) for a doubting Thomas (like myself) who was willing to consider a career in religion, I did not have yet the inner clarity or forthrightness to say that I would never in a million years be a religious person. But without being able to draw such a conclusion clearly and forthrightly either to myself or to others, I did finally decide not to apply for a Rockefeller, for reasons which make as much personal sense now as they did then. Atheism is for me a natural condition of living, that I expect never to move beyond in my own life.
Of course I do not say such a thing with any sense of superiority--or of inferiority. Could I take Pascal's wager, and believe for the sake of my theological advantage? Such a wager calls for making a deeply hypocritical commitment, and a commitment that no God having a moral nature could demand of anyone: Believe on me, and you shall enter into the kingdom of heaven? Even if we get beyond the fact that I am simply not capable of such a belief, such an insincere belief might help me get elected to office or selected for some other high post in this "Christian" nation, but it is morally inconceivable that the correct wager could confer any further advantage upon me in the eye of God. Surely a moral God would prefer a sincere unbeliever to a hypocritical believer. It has seemed quite clear to me since I was a teen that asking for belief in the absence of its possibility is an invitation to insincerity. Any religion which would demand such a belief is by this very fact itself unworthy. Finally, as a related matter, such a wager presupposes the superiority of the Christian religion, if that is the religion that one is going to wager on. (Otherwise, why not a Zoroastrian wager, for instance?)
An important book for me--I read it as a teenager--was Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902). It made me aware for the first time that religious people were quite different from one another in their feelings, attitudes, experiences. One way it is relevant to mention this is because, as I will explain more fully below, although I do not have within myself the inner compelling awareness of personal presence that many theists have, there are other pieces of religious inner consciousness that are part of my experience, and in addition there are other aspects of religion, that have no obvious connection with inner consciousness at all, such as commitment to the improvement of society and the remedying of injustices, that I am quite at one with.
Though I have been a skeptic about religion for so long as I can remember, I have never been a skeptic in a similar involuntary sense about morality. It has always seemed that human suffering is an evil, human joy a good, and that the joy and sorrow of others should matter to each person. It also seems apparent that humans judge religious beliefs that are proposed to them at least in part in the light of their own moral beliefs. There is nothing sinister or wrong or mistaken about this. For example, if Yahweh in the Old Testament had permitted Abraham to sacrifice his son in accord with his orders, then this would be a reason for judging that the voice that Abraham heard was not the voice of Yahweh after all, for what Yahweh had ordered Abraham to do, had he been made to follow through, would have been a terrible wrong. In Nebraska there is a man sitting on death row for torturing and murdering two or three people, one a child, allegedly on direct orders from Yahweh.
Through the interest of a friend I became interested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant while I was still fairly young. Only later did I come to understand that Kant's views on religion made religion simply an extension of morality. The significance of many traditional religious doctrines, in Kant's view, had either to be reduced to a moral doctrine, or dismissed. Such vulgar and indefensible aspects of Christian belief as the belief in miracles, could be readily dismissed; I am speaking of the scriptural stories of miracles insofar as they are part of a strategy to get people to accept the Christian religion. Kant was quite clearly a theist in his instinctive belief, perhaps simply because he lived before the Darwinian explanation of seemingly purposeful adaptations in terms of natural selection, and no doubt also for the reason he mentions, viz., that we must to make sense of morality suppose the existence of a being powerful and knowing enough to be able to achieve for each responsible person a proper judgment of that person's moral goodness, and then, as conditioned upon the presence or absence of that moral goodness, a bestowal of the proper degree of happiness.
Partly on the persuasion of Kant's understanding of the significance of the church as humans aiding one another in their moral struggles, I have long been a member of a theologically comfortable church, one an atheist could comfortably be a member of, a Unitarian church. My Unitarian church is a fine, active, useful, helpful part of the community, and hence I proudly affirm that I am a member.
In addition, because of my concern with various social causes, especially those connected with imprisonment and the death penalty, I have come into contact with religious people with whom I felt entirely and unreservedly sympathetic. So it seems well to understand their religion from my point of view, entirely in terms of their social commitments, though it seems likely that from their own point of view, there is more to their religion than those visible social commitments.
Additionally there is an aesthetic side to religion that I am in complete sympathy with, and have a seemingly thorough appreciation of. When I was in Rome, visiting the magnificent churches and seeing the great works of art--especially those from the seventeenth century, the period of newly restored confidence, the so-called counter reformation--I said I was ready to become a Catholic on the spot, were it not just for their little matter of the requirement of commitment to creed and doctrine.
I love greatly most of the music that I understand to be, and that others say is, tinged by religious mysticism: the Heinrich Biber mystery sonatas, the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, the B-minor Mass of J. S. Bach, and his passions, and cantatas, most of the music of Olivier Messiaen. I have an affinity for such music, to at least as great an extent as to more purely humanistic music, like that of Ludwig van Beethoven (middle period) or Franz Josef Haydn or George Friedrich Handel. I see Franz Schubert as mostly a humanistic musician, dwelling in the world of human sentiments, sorrows, and struggles, and for all that Schubert is finally my favorite composer.
In painting I yearn for the sublime, which at base some say is a religious aesthetic experience: the paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, or, in a different vein, of Caspar David Friedrich, and some of the American nineteenth-century landscape painters.
I respond to the great beauty sometimes found in nature, especially in that aesthetic area the sublime, in the way that I think a religious person must respond. I have a feeling of nature or parts of it as sacred, in some quasi-religious fashion. Here I feel a point of linkage with the Native American religion, as little as I know of it. I seek out such experiences, and recommend them to others.
Let me now return to James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, the book which was so important to me when I read it as a teen. This book helped me understand that religious people were not all alike, and that there were tremendous differences between them, as I said earlier.
But there is also a deeper level of viewpoint in James, for he showed the possibility of an objective, scholarly, scientific study of the phenomena of religion among human beings. Even phenomena that I heartily dislike, such as fundamentalism, discussed further below, need to be understood and explained; we need to come to terms with the phenomena. One tendency on the part of nonbelievers is to sweep the phenomena of religion under the rug, to disregard and so far as possible to minimize them; but this seems a mistake. So far as I could tell too few are interested in this tolerant way in the many manifestations of religion; one of the things I have admired about Martin Marty, the University of Chicago scholar of fundamentalism, when I have heard him speak, is his fascination, curiosity and respect for such phenomena, combined with, however, no hesitation in finally making a judgment that certain groups have taken wrong turns.1 In a different life, I think to myself, I might have been such a scholar of religion (though not one of the other things that Martin Marty is, a minister), or an economist (but not an ideologue, as some economists are), or a lawyer (but not a CEO or a Republican), or an art historian (but not a connoisseur or an artist). The M.D. does not have to have the disease or condition herself in order to diagnose and understand its operation in others, and in fact it is probably better if she does not. In keeping with this approach, I found the course by my college religion teacher mentioned above in the New Testament fascinating,2 and something I have always told myself I should follow up with further study: a dispassionate, analytical, textual approach to reading the Bible, thereby learning about its sources, and something of its originally intended meanings. I was as receptive to the subject matter of this course as of any college course I took. In the present day it has prepared me to read and enjoy Elaine Pagels, the acclaimed present-day scholar of the Gnostic gospels and of the origin of the idea of Satan. One of the permanent regrets about my college career is that I did not take the companion course on the Old Testament.
In all these ways moral and aesthetic and scholarly I feel myself not at all an outsider to religion, having as I do an endless fascination about the manifestations of religion in human history, culture, and individual life. I also felt a wish to be a fellow crusader with those moving from a religious basis to change and improve society, from Theodore Hesburgh to Malcolm X. Yet it seems quite clear to me that there is no God, and that Jesus was not his son.
I respect religious belief--certainly those elements that are related to the moral and aesthetic parts of life I have just been mentioning. I admire the traditions, and their beauty in many cases. But then I find some who use religious belief to euthanize their reason and finally kill it, who think of religion in terms of the literal and the unreasoned and unexplained command of pure authority. The Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell part of religion, if I can so call it. Such literal minded cruelty and human negativism is always a part of religion and therefore of politics. Its ugliness, its denial of human potential, its character as unimaginative, cruel, and destructive, suggests that religiosity is a neutral human capability, that can be turned either to good or to bad use. The Roman Catholic church can be as hierarchical and as Puritanical as anyone, but the real home of such self-righteous beliefs is Protestantism, which in many versions adds nativism, racism, and sexism to the brew. Again I find myself on the Catholic rather than, e.g., the Lutheran side of things, for the Catholics, in the tradition of Aquinas, pay lip-service to reason, at least. When I say this, you should understand that I was brought up as Lutheran, at least through catechism and confirmation. Even when I went through catechism, I was full of doubts. Were I forced to find a place for myself within Christianity today, it would be as a liberal Catholic.
Religion as it plays itself out around the United States and around the world is a phenomenon as often unattractive and destructive as beneficial and giving of inner peace and understanding. Think of the qualities of soul exhibited by such religious personalities as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and think of the huge numbers of pathetic persons who hang on every word of such manipulators and morally bankrupt persons. Think of the followers of such religions who are just doing what they are told when they try to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, or to introduce organized, officially sanctioned school prayer, or to ban knowledge of sex, or ban broad ranges of literature. Think of Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists both claiming that God demands that they should have their own way, who rule out compromise and negotiation as contrary to the will of God, and who are willing to kill and to terrorize, to accomplish their dark ends. And of course it is not just the crazy and destructive conclusions that are held on to as the word of God; it is also the authoritarian structure of beliefs, arrived at as though it would be thoroughly wrong and contrary to God's will ever to do any thinking through of things for oneself. If such human persons were the most perfect human models, the ideal image of God, then we should have to draw the conclusion that God is worthy of being despised. Just because religion can grow to become such a poison plant, we need church-related institutions like Monmouth College to present an enlightened religiosity as an alternative to authoritarian religious indoctrination that sometimes seems to be the only going option. I regret that so many state universities like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln teach religion through history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines, but have no Religious Studies department. I am not talking about indoctrination, but studying and understanding the phenomena. Religious studies should be much more a part of the curriculum of all colleges. Such studies are not incompatible with the separation of church and state, even when carried forth at a state university, because such studies neither presuppose nor aim to produce any religious commitment or conversion. They fill a vacuum that seems to have been left by the failure of religious education within more moderate, main-line churches.
But I am being drawn off my topic, which ought to be, in the tradition of my undergraduate teacher of religion, mentioned earlier. Religion at its best, not religion at its worst.3 This man made a great impression on me, first in his course on New Testament learning, and then with a suggestion that I consider a certain kind of life, of career. Both presented temptations, directions not taken in this life. I still mull them, I consider them still, and I will consider them for years to come, although in another sense I have obviously long ago chosen other directions.
I might in conclusion think of Socrates, whose ideals and quest professional philosophers tend to endorse, as an alternative to religious commitment. The particular tools of his trade: the question, the elenchus, the assumptionless pursuit of issues in ethics, politics, and other secular matters. When one lays out his methods and procedures, they can seem wholly secular, and wholly detached from the particularities of Greek culture and religion, for example. Yet as one reads Plato's portrait of him, it is abundantly clear that his was a religious quest deeply rooted in Greek piety (even though his effort to get Euthyphro to define piety for him ended in seeming failure).
I have not aspired to Socrates' level of accomplishment, nor have my accomplishments
exceeded my aspirations. But one can note a common theme: that even when you think you are
escaping the religious, what you are really doing is pursuing it more intensely. The
pursuit may be indirect, and the pursuer may not have a full understanding of his own
intentions, but, for good or ill, the religious is nearly inescapable in this human life.
1. Likewise, I have been fascinated with the studies of Hindu fundamentalism on the Indian subcontinent that Doug Spitz of Monmouth's history department has engaged in over the years.
2. I would say the same about Charles Speel.
3. Likewise for me in relation to Charles Speel.
James, William. 1902. Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longmans, Green. Reprint. London: Collier Books, 1962.
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