Letting Go of God

Jeff Noonan

Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists and the Undecided, by Ronald Aronson (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008, ISBN 1593761600) 288 pp. Cloth $25.00.

In Declining World Order, Richard Falk claims that “only inclusivist religion, with a sense of the sacredness of every human being, can provide the political foundation in this global setting for a humane global governance”(p. 159). Without intending to, Falk provides the critical foil against which the philosophical and political importance of Ronald Aronson’s Living Without God can be appreciated. Falk’s claim expresses the pervasive political assumption of contemporary America that Aronson contests. Arguing synthetically on experiential, philosophical, and political grounds, Aronson provides secular grounds for hope that humanity can solve the problems of injustice and inequality that continue to plague us.

Aronson begins his argument by establishing experientially that a life without God is not a life without meaning. Here and throughout, Aronson develops rich examples from his own life that illustrate the philosophical principles clearly. His opening argument concerns the problem of gratitude in a world without God. In order to explain how we can be thankful to be alive even though there is no divine being to thank, Aronson asks us to consider the contexts in which we feel joy at being alive. We will always discover, he contends, a sense of connection to life-support systems that are not our own work but the evolved result of natural development or the collective result of social cooperation. In our gratitude for being alive, healthy, and linked in mutually affirming chains of social interaction, the self opens beyond its egocentric self-enclosure to value the world of natural and social life upon which its individual life depends.

Hence, the religious belief that only a creator god can ground gratitude is undermined by the simple act of paying attention to the real bonds of natural dependence and social interdependence that keep us alive. Aronson concludes that “an entirely secular way of giving thanks is possible and necessary. . . . In stumbling to do so, we’ll notice . . . that reverence for the forces beyond ourselves . . . is no less deep for finding its actual sources, and our bond with each other need not be weakened” (p. 63).

This secular conception of gratitude is foundational for the entire text. The general philosophical claim of the book derives from it. That central claim might be expressed as the principle that if humanity is alone in the universe, it need not be lonely for an absent parent-god that ensures us that everything will be all right. Aronson is influenced on this point by Sartre and Camus. What is critical is whether existentialism’s sense of aloneness can coherently ground a motivation to live well, not only for oneself but equally for others with whom one shares a neighborhood, a city, a country, and a world.

Aronson makes the case that it can in three central chapters concerning individual responsibility for the injustices of the world, for oneself, and for availing oneself of the knowledge available for combating our problems. The arguments developed in these chapters, though articulated in terms accessible to the nonspecialist, are still too complex to be examined in precise detail. I will focus on the essential principle that Aronson defends: a proper understanding of responsibility and its source and limits must be neither religious nor natural-scientific but grounded in the uniqueness of human beings.

Religion cannot ground responsibility because, especially in its other-worldly forms (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it attributes causal primacy for the world to God. True, individuals might be held responsible before God as sinners, but they do not hold themselves responsible as agents for contributing to the world as it is. Against Falk, therefore, Aronson contends that if an other-world deity exists, then our sense of responsibility for our world and ourselves is weakened.

A strictly natural-scientific account of humankind cannot do the job either. If we argue in a reductionist way that humans are their material constituents, and the material constituents have no meaning and value, then, consistently interpreted, the natural sciences, even the life sciences, have nothing to say about our duty to ourselves and each other. Nature knows no oughts but only uncaring processes and probabilities. The “larger” natural scientific argument, according to Aronson, concludes that “in a universe governed by physical . . . processes, human beings, as physical . . . are no less determined than anything else by prior physical causes” (p. 97).

Aronson’s solution is to follow the middle path first hewn by Sartre. The solution focuses on the irreducibility of human consciousness. Whatever the natural-evolutionary history of humanity is, and whatever the material conditions of consciousness are, it is also a fact that we are conscious, and thus everything that we do as human beings we do not as a consequence of blind determinism but only after reflecting on the alternatives. Aronson does not, however, treat agents as isolated monads. Although everyone is responsible as agent for what he or she does, we are not responsible for the background conditions in which we act. Hence, there is a question of greater and lesser responsibility—the more the material contexts of action support greater power of action, the more responsible people are, both for themselves and for others whose less propitious conditions of life make them proportionally less able to change their situation. Full individual responsibility thus ultimately depends upon a collective project “to bring under our control as much of our world as possible. . .[which entails] combating practices, values, ideologies, individuals, and forces that continue to make us unfree”(p. 116).

It is unlikely that Aronson’s arguments will convince bottom-line physicalists who will ask how it is that this force called “consciousness” is able to escape the causal links that enmesh everything else. Perhaps they will suspect that something like a religious affirmation of a transcendent reality has snuck into the argument. Aronson does, it is true, abstract from the philosophical and scientific complexities in order to communicate his political and ethical claims to as wide an audience as possible. His dialectical account, however, need grant no quarter to abstract physicalist determinism. For one need not treat consciousness as the “ghost in the machine,” in Gilbert Ryle’s phrase, but rather as a unique emergent property of the human organism that violates no physical laws even though it is not mechanically determined by them in its actions. As the neurologist Terrence W. Deacon shows in The Symbolic Species, the evolution of the human brain cannot be understood apart from the role that linguistic symbolization has played. It was the development of language, according to Deacon, that spurred the unique pattern of brain development in humans. Humans literally live their lives through the symbolizations our brains produce in different natural and social environments. We are, therefore, a “symbolic species” that acts on the basis of our socially and cognitively mediated interpretations. The socio-natural development of the brain—a material process—thus explains how it is that humans can act freely on the basis of conscious evaluations that have no analogue in the nature from which the brain evolved.

In other words, human natural history explains the grounds for the emergence of human social, cultural, and political history. Aronson’s primary concern is with the latter, and it
is with this concern that the book begins and ends. Aronson begins the text with a lament, not just for the marginalization of secular political thought in America but also for the decrepitude of the Enlightenment project that he and millions of others have served for the last forty years. He concludes by trying to reestablish secular grounds for hope in a world in which the metanarrative of progress can no longer be sustained. Aronson’s argument in the final section draws on much of the research he has compiled over decades as a historian of ideas. In a concise statement, the source of hope is the reality of knowledge about the natural and social causes of human suffering and the partial success that communities of resistance have had in overcoming them. Rather than despair, Aronson concludes with a defiant celebration of human understanding and struggle. We know how to cure diseases and how to discover new cures; we know that slavery, racism, sexism, and homophobia are wrong because they worsen the life-conditions of other human beings; we know that there are sufficient resources to cure the social cancers of poverty and the meaningless routinization of life the ruling economy imposes upon the majority; and we know, most important of all, that human beings were the ones who grasped the problems and worked out the solutions. “When humans freely plan, cooperate, and work together, such activities evoke a sense of fulfilling ourselves individually in a community of mutual respect and self-determination”(p. 198). The ultimate source of hope is the fact that there is work enough to engage the energies of all in the individually meaningful and socially valuable project of better understanding our real conditions of life and working to improve them for each and all, not because a god commands us but because we have decided that that this project is what our humanity requires of us.

Jeff Noonan

Jeff Noonan is associate professor of philosophy and head of the department at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists and the Undecided, by Ronald Aronson (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008, ISBN 1593761600) 288 pp. Cloth $25.00. In Declining World Order, Richard Falk claims that “only inclusivist religion, with a sense of the sacredness of every human being, can provide the political foundation in this global setting for …

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