Virtual Religion
and Imaginary Gods

Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold [σειρὴ χρυσείη], and lay ye hold thereof, all ye gods and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag to earth from out of heaven Zeus the counsellor most high, not though ye laboured sore. But whenso I were minded to draw of a ready heart, then with earth itself should I draw you and with sea withal; and the chain should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space. By so much am I above gods and above men.

Homer, The Iliad, Book VIII:19-26, translated by A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. I, 1924, 1988, pp.338-341, boldface and color added

Demeter, Ephesos Museum, Vienna
ὣς εἰποῦσα θεὰ μέγεθος καὶ εἶδος ἄμειψεν γῆρας ἀπωσαμένη, περί τ᾽ ἀμφί τε κάλλος ἄητο· ὀδμὴ δ᾽ ἱμερόεσσα θυηέντων ἀπὸ πέπλων σκίδνατο, τῆλε δὲ φέγγος ἀπὸ χροὸς ἀθανάτοιο λάμπε θεῆς, ξανθαὶ δὲ κόμαι κατενήνοθεν ὤμους, αὐγῆς δ᾽ ἐπλήσθη πυκινὸς δόμος ἀστεροπῆς ὥς. βῆ δὲ διὲκ μεγάρων,

With these words the goddess [Demeter] changed her form and stature, thrusting old age away; beauty wafted all about her, a lovely fragrance spread from her scented dress, and a radiance shone afar from her immortal body; flaxen locks bestrewed her shoulders, and the sturdy house was filled with a brilliance as of lightning as she went out through the hall.

"To Demeter," Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocryptha, Lives of Homer, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2003, p.54-55.

ὁ ἄναξ οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς
οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.
The lord whose oracle is in Delphi
neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 21, 404 E, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211

Wanaḥnu ʾaqrabu ʾilayhi min ḥabli-l-warîdi.
We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.

ʾal-Qurʾân, Sûrah 50, Verse 16

ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, ἀσπάζομαι μὲν καὶ φιλῶ,
πείσομαι δὲ μᾶλλον τῷ θεῷ ἢ ὑμῖν.
Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend,
but I will obey the god rather than you.

Socrates, Plato's Apology of Socrates, 29d

...aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist,
kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

Out of timber so crooked, as from which man is made,
nothing entirely straight can be built.

Immanuel Kant, "Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht," "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent" [1784, Was ist Aufklärung, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1999, p.10; Perpetual Peace and other essays on Politics, History, and Morals, translated by Ted Humphrey, Hackett Publishing, 1983, p.34; translation based on Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Princeton, 1990, p.v].

καὶ εἶδον, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἵππος χλωρός,
καὶ ὁ καθήμενος ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ ὁ θάνατος,
καὶ ὁ ᾅδης ἠκολούθει μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ·

Et vidi, et ecce equus pallidus,
et qui sedebat desuper nomen illi Mors,
et inferus sequebatur eum.

And I saw, and behold, a pale horse,
and the one seated on it, its name was Death,
and Hell followed after him.

Revelation 6:8; pallida mors

A question here is whether what religions ask us to believe is really all so different from what physics now asks us to believe. A lot of recent physics does have a sort of Alice in Wonderland feel to it, yet the response of many scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals is that good 19th century Democritean materialism stands, not just unchanged, but somehow unchallengeable -- as we see with John Searle's comments about the soul, which are innocent, not just of the sophistication of Kantian philosophy, but of the complications that arise in recent physics.

One of the stranger features of quantum mechanics are "virtual" particles. These are "virtual" because they are not "real." And they are not "real" because they do not have real mass or energy. But if not, what are they and what do they do? They exist, in the manner they do, because of the Uncertainty Principle. They can borrow energy from nothing as long as they only keep it for a length of time proportional to Planck's Constant. Borrow a lot of energy, for a massive particle, and the amount of time is minimal. On the other hand, photons are massless, and no energy need be borrowed, and so virtual photons can exist permanently. So what? What can a virtual photon do? Well, all virtual particles are used in quantum mechanical theory as the means of transmitting and mediating physical forces, including electromagnetism, nuclear forces, and gravity.

This theory is an alternative both to the old Newtonian idea of action at a distance and to Einstein's device of using space itself to mediate forces. Philosophers never liked action at a distance (which Newton thought used the immaterial Will of God), but it is not clear how the newer theories are preferable. To use Einstein, we must allow that space is real, while philosophers tend to prefer the idea that Leibniz refuted Newton over the reality of space -- although it is not obvious that everyone writing about this realizes that space really doesn't exist in Leibniz's metaphysics. They think, perhaps wishfully, that the argument was only about "absolute" space.

Since the quantum approach with virtual particles works for almost all the forces of nature, it long seemed like Einstein's approach would eventually be entirely replaced. Gravity, a force of infinite range, would be mediated by the hypothetical massless and electrically neutral virtual "graviton." However, the quantum approach hasn't worked with gravity, and now decades have passed without a successful "quantum gravity" theory being proposed.

Meanwhile, Einstein's own idea of using space itself was revived, with his theory expanded to the other forces of nature by adding extra dimensions of space. However, there are inherent paradoxes with this, while most of the theories, which have evolved into "string theory," are embarrassed by an abundance of alternative forms that nevertheless make no critical and falsifying predictions (what physicist Peter Woit calls theories that are "Not Even Wrong"). The paradoxes begin with the problem that, if electromagnetic forces involve a curvature of space-time, like gravity, why is it that electrically and magnetically neutral objects do not "see" the space that is involved in the electromagnetic interactions? How can real dimensions of space just be physically non-existent to some forces but not others? An approach to this is that the extra dimensions are "rolled up" in microscopic forms that do not generate the paradox. However, this results in a new paradox, since electrical and magnetic forces, especially the latter, operate over macroscopic, even cosmological, distances, which means that they "see" dimensions of space that are not microscopic. Richard Feynman thought that the whole approach was arbitrary.

So this is all very unsettled, and it means that virtual particles have been given a reprieve. Of course, there is more to it than that. As long as there is Uncertainty, there will be virtual particles. Empty space is awash with them, even when forces are not involved, and all they need are a bit of real energy to pop into real existence. Stephen Hawking used this to explain how Black Holes can evaporate. There has been recent excitement that whole universes could pop into existence this way, although I've never understood where the real energy was going to come from for these things, which seem to involve borrowing cosmic scales of energy out of nothing and then keeping them permanently. This violates a lot of basic physics, even in quantum mechanics. If the idea is that tiny and transient universes would seem large and durable from within, this violates problems of scale about which some physicists, let alone philosophers, may be confused.

Meanwhile, other features of quantum mechanics possess the characteristic of being "under the floor" and unobservable in the phenomenal world. Thus, the Wave Function itself, described by Schrodinger's Equation, collapses into particles under observation. This means that the interference effects of waves also disappear -- not only under direct observation but even if we can just infer where particles are. This is an extraordinary feature of reality, and it precludes the interpretation that quantum Uncertainty is simply a matter of the limitation of human knowledge, or that observation creates quantum effects by disturbing the system. And it turns out that the collapse of the wave function occurs instantaneously, even across cosmological distances, violating restrictions on velocity postulated by Special Relativity -- that nothing, not even information, can go faster than the velocity of light. John Bell, hoping for the opposite, established this effect. At that level of reality, it is as though space doesn't exist.

Because of all this, I have suggested a Kantian interpretation of quantum mechanics, where quantum phenomena, perhaps including virtual particles, exist at an intermediate level of existence between empirical phenomena and things-in-themselves. Kant already had a version of this, since he did not believe that space and time existed among things in themselves, but that they do exist as "pure intuition" independent of phenomenal objects.

This also preserves the Kantian distinction between the determinism of science addressing phenomena and the possibility of freedom and other unconditioned realities among things-in-themselves. In this, the only new feature we are obliged to introduce is the random and probabilistic element that occurs in the collapse of the wave function. While for some time philosophers were excited that quantum randomness would itself allow for freedom, the two are clearly not the same thing, since the rational exercise of freedom is not simply random, but purposeful. See discussion of confusions about this in the Alex Proyas movie Knowing.

The idea of an "intermediate level of existence" has also come up in the discussion of imaginary numbers. This goes back to a solid Kantian foundation, since Kant saw all mathematics as a function of space and time, which, as noted, do not apply to things in themselves. Imaginary numbers are an acute case of this, since there is no real number that, multiplied by itself, results in a negative number. Thus √-1 represents something that cannot be evaluated. This fact is evaded by mathematicians and philosophers by proudly proclaiming that √-1 is i, where this simply assigns an empty letter for something where we cannot supply an answer. If we then ask what i is, and are told that it is √-1, the circularity of the whole procedure is exposed.

For the practice of mathematics, this does not, of course, matter. Imaginary numbers are useful and ubiquitous, with delightful paradoxes such as versions of Euler's Theorem, eiπ = -1 and eix = cos x + i sin x, and the extraordinary result that imaginary powers of the imaginary number can be real numbers. So if imaginary numbers exist at an intermediate level of reality, like virtual particles, this does not prevent them from participating in phenomenal reality. Indeed, the wave function in quantum mechanics has both real and imaginary parts. It is hard to know what the physical effect of that imaginary part would be, except that, if squared, we get real results. But, whatever it is, it's there; and this gives to imaginary numbers, which, after all, are only abstract entities, a connection to physical reality.

If physics and mathematics allow entities that exist at an intermediate level of reality, neither fully empirically real nor absolutely and transcendently real, what else might there be like that? Well, let's consider the Law of Karma. In Indian philosophy, karma, (karman), which means "action," is often said to simply be causality. However, this cannot be the causality of Empiricist billiard balls bouncing around. Billiard balls do not deliver karmic recompense. Instead, karmic causality is moral causality, where right action produces a reward, and wrong action produces punishment, not by natural causation, where we can only account for consequences by natural laws, but by the rules of dharma, , of moral duty.

Kant, who may never have heard of karma or dharma, nevertheless posited moral causality among things in themselves. Like Hegel, Kant believed that "the real is rational." But this worked rather differently in the two philosophers. Kant's phenomenal reality was real and rational in terms of the laws of physics and science. But the empirical world obviously is not bound by the Moral Law, or nothing wrongful would ever happen. We must choose to do what is right, and many do not. Hegel, who denied there were things in themselves, collapsed physical and moral causality together in the unitary Dialectic, producing a judicial positivism, in which justice is the practice of the courts (and the State) becomes right and good in terms of its historically relative existence -- with Hegel's own Prussia, and Hegel himself, at the end of history, achieving absolute righteousness and goodness. Marx, of course, thought that the end of history would be in Communism. In Kant, there can be no end of history, since this world is not morally perfectible. We are the stuff of the "crooked timber of humanity." If this principle remains characteristic of all Kantian philosophy, then Utopianism is precluded. Indeed, attempts at Utopia in the 20th century produced nothing but poverty and millions of deaths.

With the Law of Karma, we would not be talking about just an intermediate level of reality. A Kantian Law of Karma would dominate things in themselves even as the laws of physics dominate the phenomenal world. In the transcendent, as on Judgment Day, you cannot escape the force of retribution. However, in considering this, we have the problem that the very idea of karma is confined to Indian religion and philosophy, while Kant not only never heard of it, but he relied on the justice of God to enforce appropriate moral reward and punishment in the hereafter. The religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and ʾIslâm all rely on the agency of God, certainly at a transcendent level of causality, to qualify the moral indifference of natural law.

In Kantian terms, the corresponding doctrines should not be surprising. The principle of the Critique of Pure Reason is that a consistent theory of transcendent objects is impossible. Speculative metaphysics will generate "dialectical illusion," der dialektische Schein, which will mean contradictions, Antinomies. Kant thought that some of the antinomies could be resolved as "postulates of practical reason," i.e. for moral considerations based on the Categorical Imperative, but his argument for God, as the enforcer of reward and punishment, at the end of the line, is clearly insufficient if he had only been aware of the alternative theory, namely the Law of Karma. If morality alone motivates belief in God, then karma does the job just as well, if not better than the agency of God.

But there is no ground for choice between them. Among things in themselves, the necessity of the Moral Law may be as great as that of physics is among phenomena, but as a theory of transcendent objects, we may allow for contradictory phenomena to exist at the intermediate level of reality. So, along with virtual particles and imaginary numbers, it may be that there is a kind of aesthetic variety of real religious phenomena. Whether one chooses the Law of Karma or the agency of God, morally it may not make that much difference. The good will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. But each of these, of course, generates its own paradoxes. The agency of God leads to the Problem of Evil, which is to ask why the omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God allows evil to exist; and the Law of Karma leads to the problem that all the evils that anyone experiences must be deserved (avoiding the Problem of Evil), which means there are no real victims, even small children and babies. It's their karma. This may seem appalling, especially if it is used to justify systematic oppression (e.g. the Caste System). Attempts can be made to patch up and rationalize such problems, but the effort is hopeless if we accept the Kantian principle that there cannot be consistent theories of transcendent objects.

This does not, of course, matter. As with imaginary numbers, religion does its job even against an incoherent background, as we already see in the "multiplicity of explanations" feature of mythic thought. Nor is it "merely" imaginary. The "intermediate" levels of reality are functions of the relationship between consciousness, which contains empirical phenomena, and things in themselves. This allows that such things can be relatively independent of consciousness, which is no less than what we say about the wave function in physics. A situation rather like that was considered by C.G. Jung, whose own theory of Archetypes in the Collective Unconscious posited something both with a Kantian independence from consciousness but also dependent on interactions with consciousness:

Therefore the question as to whether the process is initiated by consciousness or by the archetype can never be answered; unless, in contradiction to experience, one either robbed the archetype of its autonomy or degraded consciousness to a mere machine. We find ourselves in best agreement with psychological experience if we concede to the archetype a definite measure of independence, and to consciousness a degree of creative freedom proportionate to its scope. There then arises that reciprocal action between two relatively autonomous factors which compels us, when describing and explaining the processes, to present sometimes the one and sometimes the other factor as the acting subject, even when God becomes man. [Answer to Job, Bollingen Foundation, 1958, Princeton University Press, 1969, 1973, p.108, boldface added]

Jung, of course, was interested in the Christian dynamic of the Incarnation of God in Christ, and of the subsequent comparable visitations of the Holy Spirit. His approach, informed by his background in both Kant and Freud, is an extraordinary combination of psychology, metaphysics, and religion. This is a unique business. On the other hand, although he was certainly aware of the tradition, Jung does not consider comparable phenomena in India, which also has a tradition of divine Incarnations, particularly in the theology of Vishnu, and where entire traditions involve the principle of human beings becoming spiritually superior to the gods, even the great devotionistic Gods of Hinduism.

Indeed, two entire religions, Buddhism and Jainism, involve figures of divine achievement, Buddhas and Saints, who are not gods, and are explicitly distinguished from the divine beings of Hindu theology. At the same time, the multiplicity of Hinduism itself contains traditions comparable to the attitudes of Buddhism and Jainism, or that are sometimes even called atheistic (as with the original form of the Yoga School). So Hinduism itself is, after a fashion, a microcosm of the situation with all religions, with the difference that all the disparate elements and sects within Hinduism accept each other as equally Orthodox -- which takes nothing more than accepting the nominal authority of the Vedas. We also get, at least, a hint of the same kind of accommodation in that the four different Orthodox schools of Islamic Law (the , madhâhib; singular , madhhab, a "way," "doctrine," "teaching," etc.) accept each other as equally Orthodox, and that the Orthodox schools were even willing to accept Shi'ism, which in turn remained heterodox through its own rejection of Orthodoxy. Although famous for provisional toleration of Christians and Jews, the limits of Islamic toleration, however, are severe. Polytheism, , shirk, among other things, is punishable by death (see discussion of this root here).

That doesn't leave much space for Greek or Roman religion, or, for that matter, much of Indian or Chinese religion. Indeed, in the West, there is virtually no suriving tradition that would take ancient polytheistic religion seriously; and few people of modern Europe or the Middle East would think the traditional many gods of India or China merit much of a status above cartoons or comedy. Yet those traditions themselves contain the nuance that the many gods, whether Indra, , in India or in China, exist only at a reduced status and level of reality. This also was developing in the West, where Neoplatonism accommodated the gods of Greece and Rome in a larger theology, the Declension of Being. This was also conceived as the Great Chain of Being, going back to a passage of the Iliad, were Zeus speaks of hanging the world and everything in it, including other gods and goddesses, from a golden chain, σειρὴ χρυσείη, such as we have been seeing on this page, held by him, or tied to Mt. Olympus. This theology, however, did not survive the death of ancient religion and its gods, except as radically altered, especially in ʾIslâm and Judaism.

Much the same thing, however, exists in Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed, Buddhism provides the greatest provision for realities that blur the distinction between subjective and objective, phenomenal and transcendent. That is because there are no substances, essences, or independent existence in Buddhist metaphysics. Like Kant, there is a fundamental distinction between conditioned and unconditioned realities, where Samsâra, , the world of suffering, , duhkha, is mutually and thoroughly conditioned, in terms of the doctrines of relative existence and dependent origination. Among the small number of unconditioned realities is Nirvâṇa, , the state of liberation, in which, in phenomenal terms, all has become Emptiness, , Shûnyatâ, which is beyond all distinctions, even that of existence and non-existence.

Nirvâṇa and Emptiness thus qualify for easy inclusion among Kantian things-in-themselves, where unconditioned realities are possible. A connection in this respect may not be an accident. Kantian Antinomies go back to Hellenistic Skepticism, whose own roots are found in Pyrrho of Elis returning from India with a principle that conspicuously echoes the Four-Fold Negation, which in Buddhism falsifies the reality of Samsâra and in Advaita Vedânta does the same thing for Mâya, , the "illusion" of the world. In Buddhism what results is Emptiness, but in Vedanta what results is Brahman, , the Supreme Being.

Both Samsâra and Mâya exist in relation to consciousness. This allows that things that are conceivable can be visualized and then perhaps even realized among phenomena. In Pure Land Buddhism, one can meditate upon and visualize the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitâbha. When the visualization is complete, one might think, "OK, that is where I'm going to be going." But the visualization can mean that you are already there. It is not just a representation, not just something in your mind. Your imagination has actually conjured up the place itself, which, after all, does not have an independent, substantial existence.

The Priestess of Delphi,
by John Collier (1850-1934)
If this is to be taken seriously, then it may give one pause about the vividness of the gods of Homer. They are imaginary, yes. But Isaac Asimov says that imaginary numbers are just as "real" as any other numbers. And in ancient religion there were, after all, official points of contact between us and the gods. When ἡ Πυθία, the Pythia, at Delphi was possessed by the god Apollo, was this just a hallucination? That is the easiest explanation now. There cannot have been an Apollo, the sensible person reflects, so the Pythia simply displayed the frenzy of a drugged and disordered mind. The conniving priests cooked up suitable answers to the weighty questions that were brought to the Oracle.

Mercifully, all that nonsense is gone from our comfortable materialistic world. A world empty of real meaning, of course, as the Existentialists discovered, but then without such demons as used to bedevil humanity. So presumably we are better off.

But then we find that more people were killed by atheists in the 20th century than by anyone else, with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao leading the way (although an "A" for effort must go to the Communists in Cambodia), with numbers that make the Spanish Inquisition look like a slow weekend.

So it is not clear that we are better off -- with the irony now, of course, that ʾIslâm and Jihadism are providing wonderful grist for as many anti-religious screeds as any atheist might want, but then the Left won't take advantage of that, because the alliance of the Jihad and the Left against capitalism and America is too important. So the most appalling of religious Reaction and Mediaevalism cannot even be identified for what it is without committing the political crime of "Islamophobia."

The only exception to this seems to be comedian Bill Maher, who detests religion and is as open about this with ʾIslâm as he is with Christianity -- as we can see in his movie Religulous [2008, i.e. "religion" + "ridiculous"] -- although Indian religion seems to be a bit off his radar. It is intriguing to imagine what would happen should the Left and the Jihadists succeed in overthrowing capitalism, America, Israel, etc. They are not actually going to get along together. It is unlikely that ISIS, or Irân, is allowing for trans-gender bathrooms.

Be that as it may, we do not need to worry about the crimes of atheists, or the religious, if moral and political issues are matters that are really independent of religious problems like salvation and ritual observance. And my interest here is mainly the ontological status of the beings of religion.
Spheres, Gods, & Orders of Angels;
cf. Colossians 1:16, & Dante
God, ,
Primum Mobile,
[Isaiah 6:2]
[Genesis 3:24]
Sun, Apollo,
Sôl Invictus

Moon, Diana
It may seem like too much to think that the gods of Greek and Roman religion actually existed, but, curiously, the place of such gods was preserved in the Mediaeval monotheistic religions by transforming such beings into angels (ἄγγελοι). The Great Chain of Being, mutatis mutandis, is preserved.

And then we have the nice twist that someone like C.S. Lewis seems to think that the Greek gods had always been angels (called "eldils" in his book That Hideous Strength), cutting out the step whereby Christians thought of the gods, if they existed at all, as demons (δαίμονες), and of angels as an entirely separate order of existence. Lewis has his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity; but then, like Jung, this gives us some challenging different perspectives.

These days, people seem to have less trouble believing in angels, which turn up with some regularity in Hollywood movies or on television, than in Greek gods, which also turn up in movies, but without any sense that their existence is commensurable with the monotheistic Deity of Judaism, Christianity, or ʾIslâm. Nor need they be, if we take the idea seriously that our view of the transcendent need not be logically consistent. But then we also do not need to think of gods or angels as entirely independent and autonomous entities.

Is it possible that such beings could be psychological entities, figments of our imagination, and yet have powers that we do not and the sort of relative autonomy that I consistently find in my dreams. Thus, I can think of all sorts of dreams that I would not mind ordering up. But the order never seems to go through. Supposedly some people can do that and have lucid dreams, where they can control what happens; but I think this is very different from common experience.

Dreams are an intriguing case. Freud and Jung tried very hard to break them as some kind of code, with questionable success. The ancients had a simple and straight-forward explanation. Dreams, like all creativity, was caused by the gods (perhaps specificially by Ὕπνος, Hypnos, the god of sleep). The doctrine of the Mâṇḍûkya Upaniṣad is that dreaming is actually more real than waking. Either way, we have another one of our intermediate levels of reality, and one that demonstrates nicely the relative autonomy of some features of the mind, external to consciousness. This did not entirely defeat Jung, since that is precisely what he was willing to accept about dreams, although he may have thought that the symbolism, the dynamics, and the sources (e.g. in the Archetypes) were more comprehensible than they are.

Traditionally, dreams conveyed messages about the future, about the dead, and about the gods. People slept overnight in temples of the Greek god of healing Ἀσκληπιός, Aesculapius, and their dreams diagnosed their illness and indicated the treatment. Priests woke them up during the dreams, so that the dreams could be remembered. News that people had been born in the Pure Land was often conveyed by dreams. Even now, it is not unusual to hear about precognitive dreams, although usually only in trivial matters. This is a curious feature of the business, as though the important thing is just that there are such dreams, not that they involve anything really helpful. It is rather like the feature I have examined about miracles, that even those who believe in them have some difficulty recognizing or remembering them. Miracles, not just in the regard of skeptics, but even in canonical religious texts, tend to conceal themselves in paradoxical ways.

Which brings me to a critical point. Gods and angels do not pay much attention to the laws of nature; and, indeed, it is not enough that they might merely exist. They are expected to do things, which generally are going to involve miraculous interventions in nature. William James, who seems to have personal as well as methodological preferences for internal and psychological events, says:

...and that seems a reason why the coarser religions, revivalistic, orgiastic, with blood and miracles and supernatural operations, may possibly never be displaced. Some constitutions need them too much. [The Varieties of Religious Experience, in William James, Writings 19020-1910, The Library of America, 1987, p.151, boldface added]

Protestants who attend revivals, looking for faith healings and miracles, might be offended to find this characterized as the "coarser" variety of religion, and lumped in with "orgiastic" and "blood" rites, which are generally not found in Protestantism, or Christianity in general. But they might not be surprised to find such regard and combinations voiced by a Northeastern intellectual, who also implies that the prospect that such religion "never be displaced" is discouraging, although understandable with "some constitutions." But then I have already considered elsewhere how James, with an ostensively innocent methodological preference, in fact entertains biases against the form and practice of historical religions.

A great irony and paradox of our time is how trendy philosophers and intellectuals exult in the doubt they can cast on the certainties of science (which, after all, is white, male, Eurocentric oppression), and confusedly think that David Hume demolished the grounds for belief in natural law, or morality, and yet display a naive and complacent comfort with materialism and the impossibility of violations of natural law, while also applying a grotesque moral fundamentalism in their political preferences. At one level, they are persons without any self-awareness, at another they are people who, despite intelligence and education, are unable to detect the incoherence in their own thought.

So a lot of what James regards as "coarser" religion is just garden variety religion. But we might consider what we have if gods, angels, miracles, and the supernatural are entirely banished from our consideration. In the great meaningless Void of the Existential universe, the seculiar, humanistic, atheist sits by the campfire of civilization, in a (presently) comfortable bubble, and the dark emptiness stretching away on all sides. In the face of that Void, Elisabeth Cornwell, an "Evolutionary Psychologist," says that, "Non-believers know that meaning in this world is of their own making and not dictated by a higher being..." So, sitting by the campfire, we make up our own "meaning" and values.

Unfortunately, "meaning in this world" would also then be something of Adolf Hitler's "own making," which raises a difficulty. If the "meaning" of the world involves certain moral terms, it is not clear how Elisabeth Cornwell's "making" is going to be distinguished as superior to Hitler's. Any argument against Hitler must cite reasons why Cornwell's values are not only superior to Hitler's, but why they give her the right, as we might hope, to stop what Hitler may be doing (like genocide), to the point of killing him, and perhaps many others helping him. Hume's subjectivism, indeed, which rejects a rational ground for morality, is not going to be much help -- unless we just assume that we are right and everyone else is wrong, which is not the way philosophers are supposed to do things -- although, of course, this is now standard operating procedure at far too many American colleges and universities.

Be that as it may, a larger question is of concern here. Any kind of objective morality compromises the meaninglessness of the Void out there, as the Existentialists clearly understood. In fact, it falsifies the whole Existentialist principle, and Cornwell's own principle, since there must be some kind of "higher being" out there, even if only the Vedic or Buddha , dharma, which means that meaning is not entirely of Cornwell's "own making." Since Cornwell's atheism, like that of the atheistic Existentialists themselves, sees alternatives only in monotheistic terms, we are properly cautioned that their views are parochial, ethnocentric, or naively uninformed. Understanding the variety of religious belief, practice, and justification, however, renews our own caution about "dialectical illusion" and the goal for a theory to respect the world of individual religions.

So where does that leave us? Are there gods, angels, and miracles? I really don't know. Are they possible? I don't see why not. The form they would take is neither entirely objective nor entirely subjective; and, in Jung's terms, it can even vary and evolve over time. There may be no Greek gods now just because the thread of naive and spontaneous belief has been lost and really cannot be revived just by intellectual means. Nor is religion always safe, kind, just, and benevolent. We might like the idea, with Rudolf Otto, that religion evolves towards greater moral enlightenment; but then historically such a process can denuminize and kill a historical religion, as I think it did with Greek and Roman religion. Jung figures that other forces are in play, and that a failure to accommodate the Unconscious risks a dangerous backlash.

Those mass murdering atheists of the 20th century, after all, were clearly plagued with demonic forces -- the Jungian "Shadow" -- that their ostensibly rationalistic views of the world (the Soviet "scientific socialism") could not control, comprehend, or even acknowledge. We see something of the sort in C.S. Lewis, whose That Hideous Strength concerns a government agency for scientific research, N.I.C.E. (of all things), that has actually been taken over by the "eldil" of Earth, that is, the Fallen Angel Satan. It is not so remarkable to imagine that such genuine substantial evil was behind Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Castro's Cuba, the Khmer Rouge, or the Kardashians. But the same phenomenon obviously can occur within religion, as in the outbursts of murderous savagery and fanaticism that now disfigure ʾIslâm.

But the attitude of intellectuals is always instructive, as today they often wink at Terrorism in ʾIslâm, while waxing eloquent about the "murderous fanaticism" of the Crusades, ignoring the origin of the Crusades in the self-defense of Romania, about which they may well know exactly nothing, and where almost all the features of their attitude appear to reflect a very personal, distorted, bitter, and confused animus for Christianity.

The popularity of Nietzsche seems to work the same way, where Nietzsche's own view that Christianity embodies the ultimate revenge of the Jews on die Herren Rasse, the "Master Race," is conveniently overlooked, lest the intellectuals, often Jews themselves, appear anti-Semitic -- even while their ideological slant towards ʾIslâm, as the laudable enemy of Christianity, America, and the West, makes them generally anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist, again with the scruple that this is not supposed to mean anti-Semitic, but again ignoring Muslim sources, often in quite main-stream venues, whose open anti-Semitism and hatred for the Jews of Israel, who all deserve to be blown up, is usually a whithering blast.

Thus, the general problem of intellectuals is their irrationality -- as already recognized by George Orwell, who said that some things are so absurd that only intellectuals would believe them -- which makes them singularly inappropriate critics of religion. Their own unconscious demons may then be what is on display in the fanaticism and riots by students at American schools in 2017, generally promoted and excused by the weighty knowledge and deep understanding of this generation of college professors. Observant Jews and Christians suddenly seem like paragons of tolerance and enlightenment.

Again, paradoxes abound. Christians who express moral condemnation of homosexuality are driven out of jobs and even out of business, while similar condemnations in ʾIslâm are ignored, despite Muslim countries like Iran actually executing homosexuals, and despite the 2016 massacre at a Florida gay nightclub by a Muslim terrorist. The bien pesants blame the massacre in about equal measure on lack of gun control (although the terrorist was, of all things, a licensed security guard) and on Christian homophobia, which somehow grounded or motivated Muslim homophobia. Thus, no distortion is too much in the pursuit of an anti-Christian, or anti-American, animus -- or even in the program of the Left to disarm citizens for the creation of their totalitarian police state.

But perhaps I digress. My concern here, from the start, is mainly metaphysical, that, contrary to what John Searle says, "purely philosophical or scientific motivations for accepting the existence of immortal mental substances" and the other objects of religion do exist. Searle may be comfortable rejecting philosophical metaphysics before the 20th century (and then ignoring speculative metaphysics in someone like Alfred North Whitehead), but then we might wonder what we make of the paradoxes of subject and object in quantum mechanics, where "motivations" for all sorts of strange things might be found. So we might wonder if Searle himself is subject to the same kind of irrational blindness and bias just noted among trendy intellectuals.

But I am suggesting a lot for anyone to swallow. If gods and angels can be present or absent, and wink in and out of existence, because of the nature of individual religions and their evolution, with a different reality conjured by different religions, this is not a picture of reality with which most people, and certainly not most historical philosophers, would be comfortable. Jung comes about the closest. Philosophers, even Kant, expect logical consistency to rule among things in themselves, and Kant's Antinomies may only be a concession to our own ignorance.

The only religion and system of philosophy where we find a thorough system of contradictions is in Buddhism, where speculative metaphysics is impossible, not just because of our ignorance, but perhaps because ultimate reality, by its very nature, defeats logical consistency. Thus, the Buddha says that, after death, the Saint, who has achieved Nirvâṇa, , neither exists nor does not exist nor both exists and does not exist nor neither exists nor does not exist (the Four-Fold Negation). This tangle means that in Buddhism "annihilationism," that we become nothing, and a doctrine of an Âtman, , a Self or immortal soul, are both heresies. There is nothing quite like this in Western philosophy or religion, and it is not something to which Kant would have agreed; but with his Antinomies Kant comes the closest to it.

With such a bewildering doctrine in hand, we can say that all religions, although not equally true, as Gandhi might have said, nevertheless each possess an element of truth, and not in a way that we are ever going to be able to work out. They are also as subject to moral critique as is anything else in human experience. We can also say that the Pythia was not just raving. Jung himself would have no difficulty affirming that the possession of the Pythia was by something beyond her own conscious and individual existence.

Indeed, the popular idea that the intoxicated priestess was frenzied and screaming, incoherently or otherwise, is contradicted by one of the few Greek images showing her in action, at left, with a calm and even contemplative aspect, even more so than the modern painting featured above. Other images of the Oracle exist, but they generally show Apollo himself on the tripod, as the god by whom the Pythia is possessed. There is no question of him being frenzied or raving.

But the Greeks themselves began to sense the fading of their religion, as detailed by Plutarch, who himself had been a priest at Delphi, and with a Delphic response that may have been to the Emperor Julian, given at the same link. Julian tried to revive the pagan sacrifice that had been banned by Constantine, but no one's heart was in it, and it came to nothing.

What will this all lead to? There is no way of knowing. Jung would say it is up to the Unconscious. This is not the conventional meaning of revelation, but it is comparable. And what comes with it is not just information or dogma, but a transformation of the transcendent itself. We can imagine that would ultimately lead to a unification of all religion, but reasonable expectation at this moment would be for the opposite. But then a general unification could result in something rather like Hinduism, where multiple explanations, entities, and inconsistencies are made mutually acceptable. I see things in something like that way already.

So "virtual reality" religion can mean that, like science, religion is subject to revision and evolution, with this meaning, not just something subjective, but as Jung says a "reciprocal action." This cannot really be planned or intended, since "reciprocal action" means something not entirely under our control, even if it involves our input and reaction. Of course, a lot of people believe that religion sould be sensitive to the most au courant social justice crusades. These tend to be morally dubious, politically offensive, and religiously irrelevant. As such, they serve only to denuminize religion, which is why "liberal" Protestantism shrinks and Fundamentalism grows.

Unfortunately, when Fundamentalist ʾIslâm grows, we soon have examples of how some sort of social justice crusade might not be a bad thing -- however much the Left shrinks from criticism of ʾIslâm. Islamic Law (, Fiqh), which has gotten to be a problem even in "moderate" Muslim communities and countries, is inherently flexible, since all of it can be reinterpreted according to the principles of , ʾijtihâd, or "independent interpretation," which overrules precedent (, taqlîd) on the basis of the Qurʾân, Tradition, and other things, including "Reason."

However, although in the Islamic World , ʾijtihâd has been proposed for more than a century now, it has gained little traction, and the most conservative and intolerant School of Law (, madhhab), the Hanbalî, which previously had only been observed in the center of Arabia, has now become widely popular, as deliberately exported from Sa'udi Arabia. This has fed fanaticism and terrorism, however much apologists want to deny it, and however awkward this is for Sa'udi Arabia itself, which socially and politically is among the most conservative of Islamic states, but as alarmed as any over fanaticism. In all this, some sort of revolution is needed, always with the danger of its making things worse rather than better. But anything less than some sort of charismatic, inspired prophet or reformer likely will be insufficient.

Meanwhile, religion has all but died in Europe, and among American elites. The saying is that the most religious country in the world is India, and the least religious is Sweden, while the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. America has no difficulty throwing up the occasional charismatic religious leader. But the "Swedes" are making steady headway, thanks to the blistering hostility to religion of American "education." Thus, an introductory class in the Religion Department at Princeton University has commonly been called the "Faith Buster"; and the Princeton Theological Seminary, which used to be part of the University, is now heavily attended by Koreans, whose Christianity is evident in Korean language signs at many American churches.

Jung might say that the resurgence of Fundamentalist ʾIslâm is no more than the reaction of the Unconscious against the irreligion of the West -- although the Jihadists themselves like to think they are fighting Christian "Crusaders," rather than actual atheists. This warrants some consideration. Since the secular critique of religion, including, were it pursued, of Fundamentalist ʾIslâm, is not entirely without merit, the question does arise about what religion ought to be in the future. Virtual religion would be a start, but it involves principles that seem to defy, not only religious tradition, but rationality and even common sense. It is hard to see how people can take seriously the recommendation of "imaginary gods," especially if we must appeal to something like Buddhist metaphysics, where merely imagining something can end up making it real. But if we wanted to bring back Apollo and Athena, that would be the only way to do it, with the expectation that at some point the images become autonomous and speak back. When we see something of the sort in fiction, it is usually a matter of horror. So it may be a practice that calls for some care.

But, as even with science, the future will be radically unpredictable. And there is a kind of overlap there. Newton and Einstein cannot be explained without an element of inspiration -- something for which there is no explanation. The ancient explanation, of the gods, opens doors to things beyond scientific theories, poetry, or art. A bright idea is not exactly hearing voices, as Socrates or Muḥammad did, but there is actually a continuum there, as inspiration becomes progressively more vivid. Most of us are at the dull end of that, very far indeed from having the angel Gabriel dictate revelations to us, let alone in aesthetically moving language. But sometimes we may get a hint.

On the Sublime and the Numinous

The Kant-Friesian Theory of Religion and Religious Value

The New Friesian Theory of Religious Value

Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved