God, poetry and emotion
Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.
I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:
(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) – is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.
But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.
I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:
9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?
9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.
9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.
9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.
9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.
9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.
9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.
You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:
“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”
It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”
And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.
Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).
Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.
I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible – and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.
There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.
But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?
Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.
Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., – in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that?” Why?! The claims just don’t work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.
On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what’s left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).
It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”
Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.