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ex nihilo

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

The philosophy of religion is marginalia in contemporary philosophy. There are many explanations for this, but one of them, no doubt, is the modern age’s bedding together of philosophy with the scientific method. In a review in the New York Review (October 9, 2008) of the then newly released English translation of Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers, John Gray writes about this 20th century current in philosophy:

“Scientific inquiry set the standards that must be met by all branches of thought that claim to embody knowledge…. If philosophy had a future it was as an adjunct of science.” (43).

And so, with religion effectively disowned by serious philosophical inquiry, its cousins, ethics and aesthetics, were guilty by association and thus “relegated to the periphery of the subject…” There were counter-movements to this trend, but none too successful, and so religion–and ethics and aesthetics–have suffered a serious inferiority complex since the Vienna Circle.

Leszek Kolakowski, however, who died last year at 81 and was regarded by many as the greatest intellectual historian of the last 50 years, held tenaciously to the unpopular notion that philosophy and religion are ultimately inseparable. For centuries, Plato was viewed as the grandfather of logic. Kolakowski considered him a mystic. Contemporary philosophy has blessed Kolakowski’s view. In fact, Kolakowski considered “Plato and Ockham, Spinoza and Leibniz, Locke and Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche” to be engaged in religious questions, and Gray contends that “these questions have continued to inform the thinking of many philosophers who see themselves as having no interest in religion” (43). Kolakowski essentially argued “for the irreducible presence of religion in intellectual life and society.” Even Marxists, though vehement enemies of religion, nonetheless used categories of thought that were borrowed directly from religion, like the view of history as a narrative. And Kolakowski did not level this claim on Marxism alone. As Gray asserts, Kolakowski believed that any ideologies that presuppose “a teleological view of history that cannot be stated in empirical terms… are religious narratives translated into secular language.”

Herewith, the resurgence of the atheist religion. And the conclusion that Kolakowski reached regarding Marxism (Marx being one of the patron saints of modern atheism), which was the cause célèbre of the American Academy in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, could be equally applied to this new strand of popular philosophy:

“The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage” (43, see footnote 1).

This is what happens when a religious view, theistic or otherwise, dons the hat of scientific materialism. It ends in bondage of one sort or another. That Christianity, then, must bow to the exclusive tribunal of logic, rationality, and science in defense of its positions is a zero-sum game. Kolakowski himself demurred, “Faith is not a series of propositions to which we assent intellectually, not even the proposition that God exists.” Indeed, Gray asks, if philosophy cannot finally resolve the questions of evil or the circular nature of reason (to cite two examples), then philosophy itself seems to necessitate a place for the leap of faith in a final accounting of things.

Rigorous examinations of life must always end in one of two places: that there is no god and we make meaning to suit our situations, thereby making all claims to objective truth irrational; or there is a God who is ultimately inscrutable but who can be partially known through various means, rational and otherwise. Some atheists have good reasons for their beliefs, which not surprisingly are often the result of huge disappointments experienced in the world of religion. Some believers, too, have good reasons for their beliefs, which not surprisingly often come from a primal fear of the Void. In either case, neither side can blame the other for the positions it holds. Nevertheless, a thoughtful debate about the veracity of these competing opinions is a worthwhile endeavor, if only to acknowledge that the truth cannot be proven either way. Nevertheless, the truth remains, one way or the other: either God exists or he doesn’t. It may be instructive, in the meantime, to acknowledge that, regardless of what side you’re on, both faith and reason are necessary epistemic virtues.

We are believers, every one of us. And we all came out of nothing. It’s just whether or not we’re headed there ~ that is the question.

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