Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

Modern philosopher rejects Orthodoxy -> Christianity -> all religion as incompatible with philosophy:

“For these reasons I have come to regard religious commitment as incompatible with philosophy. The lover of wisdom, the philos-sophos, is one who never ceases searching and questioning, even if they become – like Socrates, the “gadfly of Athens” – irritating and infuriating, and are ostracised or condemned by their society. The life of the mind as practiced by Socrates is not well suited to church membership, or any religious affiliation for that matter other than perhaps liberal groups like Ikon. Institutional forms of religion, at least, will sooner or later put a stop to questions and demand answers, since it is the answers that define the boundary and identity of the group. For the philosopher, however, answers are always fluid and provisional; the only constants are the questions, and therefore the path to wisdom must be a solitary one.”

Lengthy, but worth a quick read. I can sympathise with some of it, but the ultimate objections seem strangely facile.  The author, Nick Trakakis, is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University where I was temporarily a PhD student.  I never met him, but had some brief interaction in an administrative context.

The comments are well worth reading. A sound reply comes in one of the early comments:

“(1) Weren’t all the “logical” problems with Christianity evident from the start? What makes them become at some point a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity? What suddenly gives the principle of non-contradiction (so narrowly understood!) priority over the source of being and the apophatic way? What is the source and grounding of this logic and what are its scope and limitations? (2) Isn’t this rejection of Orthodoxy and Christianity and “commitment” for questioning inevitably a kind of exclusivism of its own? And doesn’t this exclusivism arise from a too logical-intellectual understanding of the very complicated ways our belonging to any religion or tradition is made up of practical commitments and systematic doubt and communitarian loyalties and more?”

More pithily:

“I understand your position, but do you? I am unsure as to how one reconciles the argument outlined in your paper, with your position as “Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University”.”

Okay, the comments are quite enjoyable:

“As for His Eminence or Blessedness or whatever-title-he-goes-by, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose picture has started appearing in Theology and Religious Studies Department almost by magic!): He is no LESS exclusivist than Timothy Ware in his outlook . . . which is why he’s a Zen Buddhist monk and not a monk of the Rule of St. Basil the Great. Please, read the work of inter-religious and ecumenical scholar Gavin D’Costa, who has already carefully demolished the myth that somehow pluralist views of religious truth are in some way not exclusivistic. They are — except, they’re couched in “pluralistic”-sounding jargon.

As for the conception of what Dialogue ought to be. Well, what a very EXCLUSIVIST definition. People come at dialogue from many different angles and with different motives . . . or, shouldn’t they? Not every person and group would accept that Dialogue is some kind of search for truths that each one’s religion doesn’t have. Why? Because some religions are based on the claim of an ultimate revelation (Christianity, Islam) or a special choice (Judaism) or of just having been around forever and from the beginning (Hinduism). Trakakis might know a lot about Orthodoxy; apparently, he doesn’t know so much about other religious belief systems . . . or, at least, he wants to collapse and crush them down into his pluralistic, open-ended view of Dialogue.”


“To sum: A philosopher on the payroll of a Catholic Institution publicly repudiates the Christian religion in particular for being intolerant towards the “true” (read – materialist) search for truth. He then, unsurprisingly, calls for a V2 ‘renewal’ within the Orthodox Church – all the while forgetting it is the traditional churches that are indeed regaining numbers (e.g. Latin mass communities). The author then styles himself as a lover of wisdom and compares himself to Russell and Socrates (an awkward cliche). All the while pushing a left-learning social philosophy. It’s just all so… typical.”

There are two very good replies on the site arguing that philosophy is not at all incompatible with religion, or rather, that Trakakis’ depiction of the interplay between religion and philosophy is by no means definitive:

I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t use “philosophy” as an excuse for ceasing to be religious. But perhaps there is something in philosophy that attracts people who are ambivalent about religion?

I can sympathise with this as someone who is and has been attracted to philosophy, or something in or about philosophy, and yet experiences great ambivalence about religion. I’d hate to end up a cliche of pluralism, and I’m yet to see depictions of possible pluralist principles that don’t make me cringe on some level. I hope it is not in vain to swear that I will never ever describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”.

Philosophy has given me a way of entering into religion, but it is not the common way. Indeed the “common way” is a stumbling block, and many of us attracted to philosophy are already quite uncommon by definition.  In some religions the peculiarities of a philosopher would find a welcome home. Variegation of spiritual practice and depth of understanding would be assumed from the outset. But in other religions, including Christianity, the merit of the philosopher’s approach is held in check by the assurance that God’s grace will flow not even to the humble and the poor, but primarily to them.

Christianity depreciates elitism. It specifically eschews great depth of understanding in favour of simplicity, because the work of salvation is not accomplished through human merits. In other words, the philosopher’s temptation to look down on the common folk with their obviously flawed ways of worship and prayer and theology is already marked out and condemned in the Christian tradition.

Which is not to say that there is no room for philosophy and theology and intellectual work in Christianity, just that it is as much an “extra-curricular” activity as sport, engineering, music, and mathematics.  “Philosophers are deeply holy people” said no one, ever.

There’s a famous letter written by a Zen master to a Samurai, in which the Zen master describes the deeper significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon – a kind of Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy” – who is sometimes represented as having a thousand arms and a thousand eyes:

The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and its thousand eyes. The man of half baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.

All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.

The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.

Philosophers are not “ordinary men”, but I think it is a mistake to take “extraordinary” to mean superior, and, à la Trakakis’ non-exclusivist yearnings, it is a mistake to think that the philosophically-minded among us are implicitly further along some unnamed path than the hoi polloi who just live their lives all unexamined.

We cannot generalise about the inner lives of religious believers. While not philosophically, at least psychologically: what is “true” for me is not “true” for others. If liturgy or doctrine or devotion means nothing to you, isn’t it more befitting a philosopher to wonder why this is the case, how it could be different, to reconcile or at least comprehend the conflict between one’s own beliefs, desires, and sensibilities and those of others, rather than assert one’s own ambivalence, conflict, and doubt under the guise of some noble search for truth?

At risk of disappearing down a relativist rabbit-hole, I’ll extend this principle to Trakakis’ confession: I don’t know what’s going on with him, but personally I would feel it a cop-out to tell myself that I’m giving up on religion because the noble, questioning spirit of philosophy cannot bear the limitations of “creeds” and “faith” and the “exclusivism” implicit in believing something rather than doubting everything.

Maybe there is a place for people who for whatever reason cannot reconcile themselves with “organised religion”? But finding a place does not presuppose or require asserting one’s personal difficulties as objective reality. Being interested in philosophy does not demonstrate that one is closer to objective reality; it could mean one is simply more rigorously, more self-assuredly deluded.

Being a philosopher is not a sign of psychological health or good judgement. Feeling that one’s personal and professional interest is intellectually laudable can be a cover for an imbalanced and dysfunctional inner life, something that our religious traditions warn against.

My failures as a philosopher have at least the good fortune of keeping open the idea that my interest in philosophy, my thinking style, and my inexhaustible search for certain truths, are rooted more in negative personality traits than in “love of wisdom”.

But even this tentative position may be temperamentally determined. How typical for a melancholic philosopher to worry that their whole identity might be a feel-good facade to distract from profound personal failings. A choleric philosopher might have an easier time believing that their own peculiarities indict the rest of the world.

3 thoughts on “Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

  1. the etymology of the word philosophy … love of wisdom
    .where knowledge might be distinguished from wisdom
    with wisdom as the proper application of knowledge…
    the serpent in spiritual thought as knowledge
    and in yoga as what one lifts up thru one seeking of wisdom in meditation
    which fits in well with what jesus says in the gospel of john
    Joh 3:14  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 
    in romans the presence of the eternal power of god is as
    Rom 1:20  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 
    and then in ecclesiastes it speaks of what became of the original estate of humankind
    Ecc 7:28  (7:29) Which yet my soul seeketh, and I have not found it. One man among a thousand I have found, a woman among them all I have not found. 
    Ecc 7:29  (7:30) Only this I have found, that God made man right, and he hath entangled himself with an infinity of questions. Who is as the wise man? and who hath known the resolution of the word? 
    now what happened to entangle the mind in questions that do not find a real answer to one’s questions
    and how might one find wisdom thru philosophy
    Col 2:8  Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy and vain deceit: according to the tradition of men according to the elements of the world and not according to Christ. 
    as to what the bible says happened
    Rom 1:21  Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God or given thanks: but became vain in their thoughts. And their foolish heart was darkened. 
    now here comes tho where many Christians of the issue of human becoming sinners
    goes astray I think
    Rom 5:12  So here is the comparison: As through one man sin came into the world, and death as the consequence of sin, and death spread to all men; because all men sinned.
    the issue of what happened thru adam’s sin spoken of here terms of it having having death become a consequence of sin and if that is when humankind became sinners of rather that It can mean it was an added consequence to the sinful state that humanity was already in…
    taking that humankind came into being before the adam of adam and eve…
    granted it might seem odd that the bible doesn’t seem to do much to clarify the issue , but there could be a reason for this such as suggested in
    Pro 25:2  It is the glory of God to conceal the word, and the glory of kings to search out the speech. 
    now in romans 5:12 the greek verb tense for both verbs is aorist
    which is not always best translated as something consequentially following from
    the sin of adam that all humanity then became sinners
    it could and does mean rather I thing that as a further consequence for those who were already sinners death was added by way of making sin to abound to bring death rather than allowing sin in humankind to continue in a fashion where without sin abounding to bring death than grace would not be so enabled to superabound thru jesus
    Rom 5:20  Now the law entered in that sin might abound. And where sin abounded, grace did more abound. 
    tho another verse in most English translations seems to say
    Rom 5:19  For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners: so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just. 
    where once again looking at the original language it shows the bias I think of distorted Christian doctrines about humankind become sinners thru the sin of one man adam
    the word MADE is better translated as some do as ..became constituted as sinners..
    to set down as, constitute, to declare, show to be

    hmmm the many shall be shown to be that they are sinners
    now saying when they became sinners but many will come to see that
    and according to the early church father origen eventually all human kind will
    be convicted of their guilt and repent and be redeemed thru the shed blood of jesus

    hmmm which brings up another point that origen teaches and most Christians reject..
    reincarnation but which I think all believers who have moved from the renewed heart
    to the fully matured renewed mind would know
    ..not not saying I have such ..and I haven’t met anybody who I am sure is thus matured…

    thus I think then comes a fuller understanding of the last verse of chapter 5 of romans
    Rom 5:21  That as sin hath reigned to death: so also grace might reign by justice unto life everlasting, through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

    errr enuf said 🙂 ?

    • Not really sure what you’re getting at. The “through Adam” and “through Christ” elements are confusing – the breach of grace that constitutes original sin hardly seems fair if it all comes from one man. But likewise salvation through one man would be equally unjustified.
      I tend to be pragmatic about it: the fact is that we do not currently enjoy eternal happiness in our present lives, and that is hard to reconcile with the existence of God.
      Actually, every religious/spiritual system has this problem…by the time we understand salvation or redemption, it’s then hard to understand why sin or delusion exist in the first place. Even the “positive thinking” stuff struggles to explain why we “choose” to be negative instead of positive, how to fit the problem of ignorance and delusion into their metaphysics.
      This paradox is most evident in Zen Buddhism I think, where everyone is deluded and striving for enlightenment, and yet the enlightened look back and see that there’s no difference between deluded and enlightened. So the deluded struggle to comprehend enlightenment and the enlightened struggle to comprehend delusion…
      But still the enlightened point of view is superior. Like Julian of Norwich “It is necessary that sin should exist, but all will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing shall be well.”

  2. Ok..
    More about all humans became winner a la the Edgar Cayce material..
    The souls trapped all in the greatest degree
    We’re encuntered by a group of souls who were not fallen

    There was so e debate if to not bother with them then
    But some in the group convinced the rest to start a plan


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