Religion after atheism

After atheism can religion be rebuilt?

For philosopher Paul Ricoeur, religion after atheism must be built on the hermeneutics of suspicion, that is to say, it is concerned with the suspicion that enables ‘doing away with idols’ but also the hope that comes from  ‘paying attention to symbols’.

Of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whom he regarded as the ‘masters of suspicion’, Ricoeur said:

“All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a ‘destructive’ critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting.” (Ricoeur 1970:33)

Suspicion is not cynicism. Neither is it scepticism, because it operates in he hope that there is some truth to be found beyond demystification. Suspicion is not an end in itself. It is a method of approaching truth in ‘critical openness’.

Of Freud, Ricoeur says:

‘One should not be in a hurry to correct this reductive hermeneutics bur rather should stay with it, for it will not be suppressed but retained in a more comprehensive hermeneutics’  (1970: 447)

In this new art of interpreting, this ‘more comprehensive hermeneutics’,  Ricoeur is looking for a ‘metaphor-faith beyond demythologization’, ‘a second naivete beyond iconoclasm’ (Ricoeur 1977, quoted in White 1995: 91)

He says ‘An idol must die so a symbol of being may begin to speak’ (Ricoeur 1974: 467).

Applying the hermeneutics of suspicion to Ricoeur

The question begged by Ricoeur’s approach is: if we stop interpreting literally (the idols) and start interpreting symbolically (the symbols), what is the symbolism symbolic of? What are the metaphors of his ‘metaphor-faith’ metaphors of? Symbolic and metaphorical interpretation imply that meaning is perpetually deferred. And yet Ricoeur writes of a symbol of being, as though the meaning of the symbolism can in fact be pinned down.  So which is it to be? Here it can be seen how it is possible, perhaps necessary, to go beyond Ricoeur, as did Derrida, his sometime assistant, and see the metaphorical as going all the way down.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1984 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects eds. G. Shapiro and A. Sica. Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Roy J. Howard, 1982 Three Faces of Hermeneutics Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kearney, Richard, 2004. On Paul Ricœur: The Owl of Minerva. London: Ashgate.

Grant R. Osborne, 1991The Hermeneutical Spiral Downers Grove: IVP.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” Philosophy Today 17.

Paul Ricoeur, 1967 The Symbol of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan, New York: Harper & Row.

Paul Ricoeur, 1977 The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning trans. R. Czerny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1975 “Biblical Hermeneutics” Semeia 4 (1975): 33.

Paul Ricoeur, 1978 “Explanation and Understanding: On Some Remarkable Connections Among the Theory of the Text, Theory of Action, and Theory of History” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. C. Reagen and D. Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 149-166.

Paul Ricoeur, 1970 Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “Ethics and Culture: Habermas and Gadamer in Dialogue,” Philosophy Today 17 : 153-165.

Paul Ricoeur, 1974 [1969] The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics ed. D. Ihde Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1995 “Philosophy and Religious Language,” in Figuring the Sacred, Mark I. Wallace ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

David Stewart, 1989 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Journal of Literature and Theology 3: 296-307.

Anthony Thisleton, 1992 New Horizons in Hermeneutics Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Erin White, 1991 “Between Suspicion and Hope: Paul Ricoeur’s Vital Hermeneutic,” Journal of Literature and Theology 5: 311-321.

White, Erin, 1995 Religion and the Hermeneutics of Gender: An Examination of the Work of Paul Ricoeur. Chapter 3 of Ursula King, ed, Religion and Gender, Oxford: Blackwell, 77-99.

Rowan Williams, 1988 “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer” in The Grammar of the Heart: New Essays in Moral Philosophy and Theology, ed. R. H. Bell, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

God after atheism – what the word ‘God’ fails to mean

‘The word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept….
Even if one is tempted to say…that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth.
To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations that issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon that escapes from the closure of discourse….
The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these various discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.’
Paul Ricoeur, 1995:45-6.

I’d be interested to know what people reading this think it means. It’s a quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Leave a comment below. Thanks!

Exit Reality – linking virtual worlds?

I really want the 3D web to work. My dream, and I suspect I’m hardly alone, is for the entire web to be browsable as though it was all Second Life.  In a recent post I wrote:

Eventually, the many virtual environments out there (in there) will begin to connect and coalesce. Like the door at the back of the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, there will soon be portals from and to Second Life and Google and, crucially into which the standard text-based experience of will be embedded.

‘An example of how this could work is given by Australian company, ‘ExitReality’. Of the virtual environments so far established, theirs has most fully grasped the concept of integrating the 3D web with the 2D web. The aim is to make virtual environments like Second Life integrate seamlessly with text-based social web environments such as Facebook. In stitching up the web in this way the potential of both the book metaphor and the world metaphor is greatly enhanced. The 2D web becomes attractive at last; the 3D web finally becomes useful.’

So I was excited when Exit Reality finally went live. I tried it. It looked a bit like Second Life. I turned my blog into a lage 3D hall and walked around it a bit. Cool. Well it would have been if it hadn’t been so slow to render and if it hadn’t crashed my browser twice.

If that hasn’t put you off, you can try it here.

I don’t mean it to put you off. I really want the 3D web to work. I really want Exit Reality to work, and I’m sure it will, because it’s just too good an idea to fail.

But I’m still dreaming.

Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron

The last few years have seen a deep questioning of the central tenets of the theory of secularisation. Far from growing less religious, as the prophets of the post-war period supposed to be our destiny, the world has become more infused with religious attitudes than ever. It is now intellectually respectable, if not yet fully intelligible,  to talk and write about a ‘post-secular’ age. At the same time it is possible to re-examine the high points of the supposedly nonreligious era we have now passed beyond, and see it anew as the site and source of an intense and distinctive spirituality.  It is strange for an art collection like the Methodist Church’s Collection of Modern Christian Art to have almost no abstract works in the collection, as though properly religious art could only ever be representational. Yet until recently abstract art was regarded by many religious people as at the vanguard of a world without form, without meaning, and  – ultimately – without God. If non-representational art was somehow non-traditional then it was also, so it was feared, non-religious. It is possible now, however to reappraise this view.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Patrick Heron produced a large number of canvases and silkscreen prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes. As though to forestall the possibility of overlooking the artist’s obsession with colour, they had titles such as ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’.
The following reflections were inspired by a screenprint of Patrick Heron’s at the Tate, which is typical of his work at that time. Perhaps to emphasise its abstract qualities it is titled January 1973:14.

Patrick Heron, ‘January 1973: 14’ 1973

Continue reading “Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron”

Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century

I find it amazing that the words of Prof Michael Reiss, taken out of context and wilfully misunderstood by people who ought to know better (Richard Roberts and Harry Kroto) have resulted in his resignation as Director of Education at the Royal Society.

It seems he resigned in spite of the fact he was doing no more than stating Royal Society and Government policy.

The letter sent by Roberts and Kroto is substantively little more than an accusation that Reiss is a member of the clergy.

This amounts to a witch hunt of the utmost intolerance. It is not reasonable or helpful for people to behave as though the best way to teach science is to avoid talking about certain issues. This approach will clearly only lend fuel to creationists who will no doubt say “see, their arguments don’t stack up so they just won’t talk about it!”

Much better is the approach supported by the Royal Society itself and restated by Michael Reiss, which is, as I understand it, to use student questions about creationism as an oportunity to discuss the science underlying current views of the origins of the universe.

“If a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Lord Winston, who said:

“This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

Continue reading “Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century”

How to teach science and religion in schools

Michael Reiss, clergyman and director of education at the Royal Society, a leading science organisation, has been misquoted as saying creationism should be taught in schools. This is what he actually said .

Audio of Prof Michael Reiss

His main point seems to be that creationism is not really a simple error that can be corrected in a 50 minute science lesson. Rather, it’s part of a bigger worldview that can only really be challenged by being engaged with.

The closest Reiss comes to suggesting creationism should be taught is the following:
‘If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.’

In other words, he’s really not advocating the teaching of creationism, but discussing it rather than ignoring it.
Continue reading “How to teach science and religion in schools”

God-like Google?

Nick Carr posted a piece about the ‘Omnigoogle’, accusing it of being messianic in tone. People seem confused about the status of Google. it can be clarified thus.

  1. Although Google’s working mantra is supposedly ‘don’t be evil’, evil is exactly what it has been doing in relation to Chinese censorship. This makes it a lot like a number of other US based companies who will do anything the Chinese government wants as long as there is money to be made. Google is no different from American business generally in this regard. It’s the same old same old. Compare US business attitudes to pre-war Germany.
  2. If there was ever an organisation with deep connections to the CIA, Google is it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It’s just obvious that if the CIA isn’t deeply involved they’ve missed the best opportunity in the history of intelligence-gathering.

These two factors suggest a strong case for improved regulation. It’s as though the technology has moved so fast and scaled so quickly that the citizens not only haven’t protected themselves yet – they mostly haven’t even worked out they need protecting. This seems a dangerous moment. But it’s difficult because with the hand we can see, Google seems to be offering us greater freedom. This is exactly the freedom it’s busy taking away with the other hand out of sight under the table. Neat trick if you can pull it off. The end result is that we’re made ambivalent about curtailing Google’s powers.

So what would clean Google up? Less censorship of content overseas, and less ownership of data at home. I think a revamp of law is required to make the data I generate online mine, not some company’s to do what it likes with. Oh, and if a few more people said “what if Google supports/ is supported by the CIA?” perhaps someone would start investigating it, instead of assuming that ‘don’t be evil’ means what it says.

By the way, the religious stuff – messianic, god-like and all – is a red herring.

What have you ever learned by heart and was it worth it?

I came across a recent blog post lamenting the loss of rote learning of the Catechism in the Episcopalian Church. It seemed a fairly nostalgic piece but It got me thinking: how good was rote learning? What was the point? And so I made a quick mental list of the things I can remember remembering by heart.

  • Book 4 of Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek
  • Mark’s Gospel in Greek
  • Aristophanes’ The Frogs
  • Various Shakespeare speeches
  • Keats’ Ode to Autumn
  • The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (highlights)
  • Sketches by Monty Python (by mistake)
  • the lyrics of scores of pop songs, but never the second verse
  • various orders of worship, Christian and Buddhist
  • some Psalms

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Most of these I’ve forgotten (The Frogs, for instance). Some I can’t forget (Python is a kind of brain curse). I won a prize for Keats and passed a Greek exam wih Xenophon. Some I learnt deliberately, others I just memorised without noticing – like plays I performed in , Richard II, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance and so on.

These days kids learn things by heart because they want to. Last week I asked my daughter’s friends if they could say how many chapters there are in all seven volumes of Harry Potter. I thought that would stump them. Instead they worked it out, then recited the chapter names. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the first sentence of each chapter. You could tell they were winging it a bit, but on the whole it was pretty impressive.

The last chapter of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 has haunted me since I read it. The hero, Montag, whose job has been to burn books, is on the run when he comes across a small group of outlaws who are preserving the culture through this new Dark Age. How do they do it? They have memorised small chunks of literature. Montag is told there are many such people and when they get together a whole book will coalesce in the retelling.

Me, I feel this underestimates the value of a purely oral culture, at the same time as praising a partially oral culture. But all the same, it’s a poignant scene.

So here’s my question:

what have you learnt by heart, and do you feel it has been ‘worthwhile’ (as defined by you)?

Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?

A recent article about business responses to global warming highlights the extent to which hierarchical thinking can respond adequately to rapid changes in the climate. 

And it neatly illustrates the preoccupations of a hierarchical world-view, as understood by grid-group cultural theory.

The article, written by Leon Gettler, centres on the increasing role of ‘Chief Carbon Officer’ in businesses. 

‘The job of the future will be the chief carbon officer, or CCO. That’s because global warming is no longer an environmental issue.’

The author sees not only the CCO, but also new job titles like Director of Sustainability Strategy as ‘just the beginning’.

According to grid-group cultural theory, first established by anthropologist Mary Douglas, and expanded by numerous writers in several different disciplines, there are four fundamental world-views, related to social group strength and rule maintenance. The hierarchist position is ‘strong grid, strong group’. In other words it is both highly group-orientated and highly regulated. For this way of thinking, the crisis (any crisis) is less about external factors and more about who is in charge, and how the social structure is to be maintained. Continue reading “Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?”