On natural theology


Philalethes. That is certainly the strong point of religion. If it is a fraud, it is a pious fraud; that is undeniable. But this makes priests something between deceivers and teachers of morality; they daren’t teach the real truth, as you have quite rightly explained, even if they knew it, which is not the case. A true philosophy, then, can always exist, but not a true religion; true, I mean, in the proper understanding of the word, not merely in that flowery or allegorical sense which you have described; a sense in which all religions would be true, only in various degrees. It is quite in keeping with the inextricable mixture of weal and woe, honesty and deceit, good and evil, nobility and baseness, which is the average characteristic of the world everywhere, that the most important, the most lofty, the most sacred truths can make their appearance only in combination with a lie, can even borrow strength from a lie as from something that works more powerfully on mankind; and, as revelation, must be ushered in by a lie. This might, indeed, be regarded as the cachet of the moral world. However, we won’t give up the hope that mankind will eventually reach a point of maturity and education at which it can on the one side produce, and on the other receive, the true philosophy. Simplex sigillum veri: the naked truth must be so simple and intelligible that it can be imparted to all in its true form, without any admixture of myth and fable, without disguising it in the form of religion.

Demopheles. You’ve no notion how stupid most people are.  [ emphasis by me]

Arthur Schopenhauer

John asked in the open thread one of the challenging questions. The silliness of natural religion. To talk about natural religion, I will have to tell you what it is  and while at it tell you also about its associate revealed theology.

Natural theology  is the program for inquiring by the light of natural reason alone into whatever truths of natural reason human beings might be able to find about God.

Revealed theology on the other hand is the program for inquiring by the light of faith into what one believes by faith to be truths beyond reason that are revealed by God, that is, based on scripture.

Now that you know what we are talking about, in answer to John’s question, I would say simply that natural theology/ religion developed later as a means to give belief in god some rational or intellectual basis. It should be noted that natural theology predates the Abrahamic religions and whereas there have been theologians and pseudo philosophers who have tried to justify their belief in god, it is not possible, without a leap of faith to come from the god of philosophy to the god of scripture.

The first people who conceived of a god, I contend did not arrive at their god through dialectics. Our ancestors were practical people and whether the belief in god arose out of fear, dreams or animism or tribal leaders being deified, the thesis is not affected in any bit. They conceived of their gods for their utility.

They had gods for rain, good health, death and what not. It was what these gods would do.

And if I digress a bit, even the god of the Jews, Yahweh is conceived for its utility, a god of war, a conquering god. It is the utility of gods that primitive man was concerned with and not with dialectics. Dialectics arose because human beings could no longer, with the development of knowledge, continue to believe in such gods of revelation.

Arguments such as the Ontological argument, teleological argument or even Aristotle’s theory of motion  can all be shown to be invalid. That at the very least they do not bring us any closer to knowing why god is necessary, what god is not it’s nature and that the gods they argue for cannot in any rational way be reconciled by god of scripture which it is their function to show exists or that it is reasonable for intelligent people to believe in.

For those interested in reading more on natural religion, Hume wrote a dialogue with the same title and which I wrote a review sometime back.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

20 thoughts on “On natural theology

  1. john zande says:

    Spot on. It was an attempt made by late 18th, 19th century theologians to put some rationalism into belief. As you said, it failed… But it did produce some stunningly brilliant lines of pure ignorance. Here’s how I’ve handled two from Paley

    “A bee amongst the flowers in spring is one of the most cheerful objects that can be looked upon,” observed Paley in another wild flight of blinded fantasy. “Its life appears to be all enjoyment; so busy, and so pleased.” Under the microscope, the bee’s outer body is however found to be infested with the ferocious varroa mite, their airways riddled with impatiently greedy acarine (tracheal) mites, their intestines ravaged by the veracious nosema apis, and their hives, where some degree of safety should at least be expected, is instead crowded with gluttonous bacillus larvae and the hideous Brood Disease.

    Unwilling, or perhaps simply unable to grasp the depth of these horrors, Paley remarked that “we have no reason to suppose that their [prey animal] happiness is much molested by their fears. Their danger exists continually, but it is only when the attack is actually made upon them that they appear to suffer from it.” Such a fiercely uneducated statement demonstrates to the Impartial Observer an unforgivable illiteracy on the part of the theologian concerning the psychological realities of the natural world. Compounding the already harrowing texture of biological existence, the permanent presence of predation excites in organisms an appalling storm of psychological lacerations which run far deeper than just the momentary physiological and emotional stresses of being chased, and perhaps injured.

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    • makagutu says:

      Actually the 18th and 19th centuries was a revival of the ideas of natural theology. In the middle ages when monks reigned supreme their focus was on how they could experience god while natural theology was and is directed towards knowing the nature of god through human reason without deterrence to scripture.

      That take is excellent

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      • john zande says:

        True, I stand corrected. In fact, it goes back even further, to the Greeks and Hesiod. More than likely, even further back than that. The Aboriginal “Dreaming” is, after all, nothing really but a huge example of natural theology.

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  2. Superb and very informative post. Well said, my friend.

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  3. Tish Farrell says:

    A v.interesting post, sir.Talking of natural religion, in the good old Upper Paleolithic some 30,000 plus years ago, the general object of reverence seemed to be the so-called Venus Figurine:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines
    Variously interpreted as a fertility symbol or mother goddess. Or it could be that hunters out on a mammoth hunt, liked to have the touch of a voluptuous female form under their skin wraps.
    Anyway, it looks as if in the beginning god was a very pregnant woman.

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    • makagutu says:

      Interesting link Tish and thanks.
      I think the earlier gods must have been female or a combination of both but not monotheistic

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      • Tish Farrell says:

        I have a theory that in the past our ancient forebears were a touch more sophisticated in their apprehension of iconography etc. That is, they knew it was a metaphor, an object to think by and so secure good outcomes for the community. Most humans do seem to need a dose of ritual psycho-drama to keep them on track, behaviour-wise. The problem comes when people start believing in the props of the psycho-drama, rather than in the messages of good behaviour that the drama was meant to impart.

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        • makagutu says:

          I agree with you Tish and add that it took great imagination to conceive many gods than it took to come up with one. The Greek tragedies with the different gods in conflict tell a richer story of man’s struggles than a tyrant and jealous god

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          • Tish Farrell says:

            There is of course more potential for political control and manipulation with only one god. Talking of Greek mythology though, I gather the earliest myths are matriarchal in character in the Pre-Hellenic period. Then when society became patriarchal the myths were reworked to reflect a masculine view. The Persephone story is a case in point. The patriarchal story has her seized and ravished by the God of the Underworld. In the earlier version Persephone goes to the underworld of her own volition, in response to unhappy souls whom she hears crying there. She dies and is crucified upside down on the world tree that grows there, and returned to life by the kind ministrations of the underworld god. Interesting imagery isn’t it – that seems to have been hijacked in later times. So much of this – myth, religion etc is all about the human dilemma of (NOT)coming to terms with death.

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          • makagutu says:

            You are right on all accounts. A single god is an excellent excuse for tyranny.
            Yes, the earliest myths were matriarchal and story got changed later to have males being the giver of life like in the case of Adam. It’s a kind of overthrow of the goddesses.
            And yes, fear and ignorance gave birth to gods

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          • “A single god is an excellent excuse for tyranny.” Good thing the Romans never figured that out. Jeebus knows where we’d be if one of their emperors ever decided to……Oh, never mind.

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          • makagutu says:

            Until Constantine made christianity the state religion and you know the rest

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          • “By this sign, you shall conquer.” “OK, boys! Let’s paint this on our shields and KICK SOME HEATHEN ASS!!”

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          • makagutu says:

            You catch on quite fast!

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          • You know, Constantine wasn’t officially baptized christian until he was pretty much on his death bed? A good christian, after all, doesn’t go around slaughtering people in Jesus’ name. First we slaughter, THEN we become christian and are forgiven for it. 🙂

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          • makagutu says:

            Very clever chap.

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  4. A Guy Without Boxers says:

    The offenses of religion are forgiven? By whom? And what empowers their right to offer pardon?

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