If you’ve been following UC Berkeley Professor Ron Hendel’s excellent course The Bible in Western Culture (feed), you know that he’s been looking at understandings of the Bible, beginning in ancient times and moving through the Middle Ages into modernity. In the last couple of weeks we watched as Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza and Herder grappled with the idea that the Bible is a human rather than a divine creation.
And last week the lectures focused on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, who
each looked into the abyss: a world without revealed truth. Kierkegaard tried the “leap of faith” across the chasm, while Kafka seemed to long to make the leap, but didn’t believe there was anything on the other side. (The lecture on Nietzsche, given by a guest lecturer, wasn’t available on the podcast.)
Both Kierkegaard and Kafka were addressing the existential loneliness that people feel in a world without God. How can we tell good from evil if everything is relative, if all religion is a human creation?
In pondering this, I was reminded of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Happiness Hypothesis (see Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis). Religion, Haidt says, embodies “moral emotions” that are part of our common biological makeup. Haidt argues that the emotions that foster group cohesion, like awe and respect for authority, are part of religious traditions along with ethical ideals like justice and mercy that appeal to our sense of fairness and our empathy for people in need. (Haidt provides a short exposition of these ideas in his paper Planet of the Durkheimians. You can learn more and read some sample chapters of his book at Haidt’s website.)
It begins to make sense that devout people live longer and happier lives. They are living within systems that were adapted to our psychological makeup. So, what’s a modern doubter (like me) to do? I’m not attracted either to Kafka’s ironic existential despair or to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.”
I guess I am comforted by the idea that if religions are so well adapted to the human psyche, we can still appreciate our religions and participate in them even if we no longer believe in a God who wrote the Bible or ordained its laws.
- Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis
- Conservatives are from Mars; Liberals are from Venus
- Dreaming of the Apocalypse