Thomas Nagel and the Fear of Religion

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A fear of religion?

It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
This striking outcry comes in the last essay in Thomas Nagel's book "The Last Word". And he amplifies the idea in a footnote, saying that whether or not people believe in God, almost everyone wants either a positive or a negative answer to the question of God's existence.

Does the fear really exist?

Is this true? I suspect it is. Probably hardly anyone is truly indifferent to the question, whatever answer they give to it.

Nagel speaks of a "fear of religion", to which he is strongly subject himself. No doubt this is the experience Francis Thompson was describing in his poem "The Hound of Heaven", when he wrote:

I fled him down the nights and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Thompson eventually succumbed to his fear and found God (or God found him, which is the way he puts it in his poem). [But see Note 1 below.] Nagel sounds almost as if he is afraid that something of the kind might happen to him too, though as far as I know it hasn't yet.

The fear of religion that he alludes to is likely to seem incomprehensible to many people. Believers will ask what there is to be afraid of, since they generally regard their religion as the most important thing in their lives. Unbelievers, on the other hand, generally look on religion as rank superstition and nothing to be afraid of except in so far as it may move its adherents to fanaticism and even acts of terrorism.

Established religions may be frequently intolerant, superstitious, oppressive and so on, Nagel remarks, but this is not what he is referring to here. He is speaking of something deeper: a fear that religion may be in some sense true.

The root of the fear according to Nagel

The book in which this essay appears is concerned with the problem of how we, as intelligent apes with minds shaped by evolution to deal with practical matters, can nevertheless have knowledge of mathematical and scientific truths. Where does this knowledge come from? How can our minds encompass it? Nagel does not find that Darwinian evolution can provide the full answer, which raises the uncomfortable suspicion that there may be some Absolute Platonic realm to which we have access.

Uncomfortable, because ideas of this kind are unfashionable today and seem to take us perilously close to religion. Nagel thinks that it is the wish to escape from this way of thinking that underlies much contemporary scientism and "the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind."

Is Nagel right?

I think that he is touching on something important here. It may well be the case that the wish to escape from any suggestion of what he calls a "cosmic authority problem" is what leads to the excesses that he objects to.

In fact, I can see this tendency in myself. It has evolved gradually over the years; when I was younger I used to be one of those who wanted there to be this "spiritual" dimension to life and I spent a lot of time trying to find it. The natural world somehow didn't seem to be enough; there had to be "something more".

Change comes, however. People are said generally to become more religious as they grow older but that has not been my experience; rather the reverse. Now I want a universe without a transcendental dimension.

Nagel says that "the feeling [he has called] the fear of religion may extend far beyond the existence of a personal god, to include any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and non-accidental part." I am sure this is true. It is the wish to find evidence of the role of mind in the universe that motivates many parapsychologists today, just as it did the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in the nineteenth century. It certainly was what stimulated my own interest in parapsychology when I was younger. And rationalist critics of parapsychology, I think, are often motivated by the fear that this research may indeed find, or appear to find, such evidence.

As Nagel goes on to remark, fears of this kind are ridiculous, for "it is just as irrational to be influenced in one's beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist." In any case, he says, the capacity of the universe to produce organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe need not entail frank religious belief; other explanations are equally possible.

How realistic is the fear?

The fear of religion may well exist and may manifest itself, as Nagel says, in some of the more extreme versions of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Many secularists feel, not without reason, that the forces of irrationalism are always threatening to return, and this can lead them to embark on excessively vigorous counter-attacks.

The physicist Leonard Susskind has recently admitted that the present inability of physics to explain the fine tuning of the universe that that is essential for life appears to leave an opening for a Designer.

I have to say that if [string theory fails], as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as [intelligent design].
This is clearly not something he welcomes himself and he says that few physicists will be prepared to go down that route. But it seems to be difficult to escape from faith, even for materialists. As the philosopher Galen Strawson has said, "My faith, like that of many other materialists, consists in a bundle of connected and unverifiable beliefs. ... And yet the illusion persists - the illusion that one can be free of metaphysics."

So materialism, like theism, is a metaphysical position. This is an uncomfortable notion for many naturalists to consider - which is, of course, all the more reason why they should do so. This is why I find that the only honest way I can describe myself is as a metaphysical naturalist.

Notes and references

  1. Actually, I think that Francis Thompson always did believe in God; what he was fleeing was the demands that God made on him. But the poem seems too apposite not to quote here.

  2. See also
    1. Thomas Nagel and the Religious Temperament
    2. The Fine Art of Skepticism
    3. Reflections on the F Word

  3. Galen Strawson, Mental Reality, MIT Press, 1994.

  4. Thomas Nagel, "Evolutionary naturalism and the fear of religion", in The Last Word. Oxford University Press, 1997.

  5. Alan Gauld, The Founders of the Society for Psychical Research, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.