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When Tides of Thought Meet
by Grant Bartley
Like the wider world, Philosophy Now has devoted a fair amount of attention to the arguments between theists and atheists. This tends to highlight the divide between religion and secularism. In this issue, by contrast, our theme is more about observing the religious and irreligious worldviews as they move towards each other, or where they each struggle in their own way with the same concerns within society. (This time we’re not just focusing on Atheists v. Christians, either.) So the articles here look at the overlaps and commonalities between religious and secular thinking, as well as differences between them, and their role in society. Doing this, we can see just the sorts of mental and cultural exchanges that have taken place throughout history when contrasting tides of thought flow through culture. These ones though are happening right now, in real time as it were, so we can learn a lot from them about what happens when worldviews meet (or not quite meet, we might say).
How should we characterise this? Like a clash of battling armies, ideas flow at each other, through each other, around each other, over each other, changing the shapes of both cultures in the process and leaving chaos in their wake? As a dynamic unceasing process like continents of ideas colliding; or like water channels rushing into each other; or perhaps like pink or gold-hued banks of cloud slowly passing through each other? One metaphor I personally like for the meeting of opposing worldviews is magnetic fields interacting – except that unlike magnets, here opposites don’t attract each other. Rather, opposed ideas resist each other more strongly the closer you push them together. I think this can be seen in Rick Aaron’s article on Christianity and homosexuality, for instance, where he looks at what happens when you try to squeeze those two perspectives together. Against the natural pressure, we’re trying to get the religious and secular perspectives to touch, maybe even for mutual communication to flow between them.
Our theme also explores how the secular world is handling two core aspects of life in society that were once firmly in religion’s in-tray: meaning and ethics. Ken Hines considers the attempted corporate takeover of meaning, and Robert Griffiths examines the foundations of humanist ethics. In different ways, both Kines and Griffiths find that secularism needs to lay down deeper foundations for core ideas. In fact Griffiths argues that there is a huge glaring hole right in the centre of humanist ethics. Ripe for the unwary thinker to fall through; or preferably, for moral philosophers to mine. It’s a good thing to shine a light on such holes. It’s the best way of finding where the theory needs to be filled in. Griffiths’ analysis at least reveals mysteries that could bear exploring; for instance, concerning what precisely justifies goodness for the godless. But let’s be fair: atheistic, naturalistic secularism as an organised social and ethical movement is still comparatively young. By contrast, philosophical analysis and religion go way back together. Indeed, a good case can be made that in the West, with the Greeks, philosophy was born out of intellectual separation from a religious and personal explanation of natural phenomena – involving the gods and their passions – to a mechanistic or impersonal explanation of what we see and hear and feel. Thus we became atoms falling through the void.
Also in our theme section, Ian Church looks at how culture affects our perception of evil; and Ronald Pies sets up a dialogue between a scientifically informed Chief Rabbi and a metaphysically interested Chief Scientist (Einstein). Finally, Peter Abbs provides a case study of the flow of a worldview into and through a culture, describing Buddhism’s journey into the West over the last couple of centuries. He reveals ripples of interest that grow into waves of transformation in thought.
It’s intriguing to see how both Western thought and Buddhism in the West are being transformed by this process of cultural adoption. In the process Buddhism has shape-shifted to the extent that a naturalistic and humanistic version is on the point of being delivered into the world by Western Buddhist midwives of ideas. This means a Buddhism without karma, or reincarnation, or gods, leaving only the practice of the Middle Way. Perhaps this Buddhist bud will survive the buffeting of the tides of thought, to thrive.
Not in our themed section, but buttressing it, as it were, we see how John Locke’s philosophical development was influenced by the religious and political upheavals of his day. And in our Philosophical Haiku column, Terence Green claims that René Descartes’ founding of modern philosophical rationalism was motivated by the religious mysticism of St Teresa of Avila!
With the world currently in lockdown, this issue also has three articles reflecting some of the philosophical fallout from COVID-19. Dylan Daniel draws some lessons from the famous novel The Plague by the existentialist Albert Camus. J.R. Davis learns from Henry David Thoreau’s experience of social distancing, deep in the woods by Walden Pond. Lastly, Raymond Tallis reflects on handwashing, which is suddenly so vital in keeping us alive.
This issue then reflects not just religion and secularism but how they provide meaning in individual lives, especially in a society in deep crisis. Hey, humanists, religion isn’t going away any time soon. Hey, believers, despite recent crises the world isn’t going to end any time soon (probably). We all remain in a pluralistic world. I hope the articles here help bridge the divide, perhaps even encouraging understanding between theists and atheists. Who knows?