Low Ceiling

Our previous post — a link, with excerpts and brief commentary, to an essay by Dennis Prager on how leftism and statism step in to fill the void left by religion — seems to have left some readers puzzled. Here are some further thoughts of my own:

The religious impulse, the need for sacred objects, and the hunger for salvation will always find some form of social expression. (This is because what makes religion adaptive in the first place is its effect on group cohesion.)

Religion wants a “skyhook”: something above us upon which we can depend, and with which we can make a kind of contract. In return for our faith, and for a promise of effort and self-sacrifice in the required virtuous forms, we are given protection, or even salvation.

As children, we trust in the protection of our fathers and mothers, and we submit to their authority in return. But even as adults, the world around us is still chaotic and merciless, and to have so many things beyond our control is frightening and stressful. We know that as adults we must make our way somehow in the material world — but we are finite, and we know in our bones that the mysterium tremendum is not. Dwarfed by this infinitude, we seek to attach ourselves to something transcendent; salvation in God is our warrant against that great chaos.

When the supernatural basis for all of this is removed — when God dies — we’ve lost our skyhook; the warranty is void. But we are no less overborne by the chaos and mystery we face. We continue to seek the transcendent, but the sky is now empty, and the heavens have lowered. Having sliced off the apex of the sacred pyramid — the unifying presence of God — we are left with a truncated, frustrated hierarchy. God had been the Absolute from which both the natural world, and all human agency, emanated, but now the roots of both Nature and the soul of Man are exposed and disconnected.

We have not, however, lost our sense of awe, and of transcendent beauty and mystery, when we contemplate the natural world — and so in our new, sawed-off religion, we preserve Nature as a sacred object. (Indeed, with God now departed, many of us now promote Nature to fill his place.) And having lost God as the agent and guarantor of our protection and salvation, we must set our sights, and pin our hopes, upon the only thing we can still discern above us: the State.

The State! It is a low and shabby God, but it’s all that’s left. Needs must, when the Devil drives.


  1. And when He is not driving, He lurks in the details of the State. Hence, HRC was perfectly positioned as SOS.

    Posted April 9, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    “Religion wants a ‘skyhook’: something above us upon which we can depend, and with which we can make a kind of contract. In return for our faith, and for a promise of effort and self-sacrifice in the required virtuous forms, we are given protection, or even salvation.”

    I think this is a good descriptor for theistic religion, but not so good for something like Theravada Buddhism, which stresses empiricism and self-effort: no one can save you from your suffering but yourself. (Folkloric types of Mahayana do view the Buddha as a sort of gift-giving divinity—I see this in Korea all the time—so I’m not including Mahayana here.)

    Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans is also good for theistic religions, but not so good for either philosophical Taoism or the more sere strains of Zen Buddhism, both of which steer the adherent way from “divine drama” in favor of an appreciation of the ordinariness of ultimate reality. You’re not supposed to “Wow!” the Tao: it’s enough just to know and to follow your situation.

    Posted April 9, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Yes, I thought about that as I was writing this post. (I thought about you at the same time, as you have a sophisticated understanding of the sacred and the soteriological aspects of the great religions, and I thought you might raise this point.)

    How to square the Buddhist religious impulse with the others? I think it’s that Buddhism does indeed rely on a skyhook, but one that takes a different form (and, as compared to the for-public-consumption versions of the other great religions, a more esoteric one): the skyhook in Buddhism is erected by lowering the self. The vector pointing from the believer to the sacred is a matter of relative position; while most religions have the practitioner stand where he is and build a ladder to something above him, Buddhism sees the sacred already at hand, and the great work is to remove the obstruction of the petitioning Self. But the relative status of the self and the sacred — with the self, properly understood and properly positioned, being a negative infinity in relation to the sacred — is the same.

    My two cents. What do you think?

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  4. Kevin Kim says

    Interesting thoughts.

    Mahayana Buddhism’s central insight is that nirvana is samsara, i.e., the ordinary phenomenal world is ultimate reality—there is no separation, thus no vector pointing from believer to sacred because the two are not-two. Zen’s “finger pointing to the moon” image is, I think, a direct denial of any skyhook, at least as Buddhism reckons things.

    I’m not sure what to make of the phrase “lowering the self.” There is a no-self doctrine in Buddhism, called anatman in Sanskrit (“no-soul”) and wu-wo (無我) in Chinese (“no I”), but what this means is not that “there is no self,” tout court, but rather that the self exists yet has no fundamental reality because it is “dependently co-arisen,” i.e., it is the confluence of convergent and contingent circumstances. Buddhism is said to strike a middle way between eternalism on the one hand (a permanent, unchangeable self imbued with aseity) and nihilism on the other (no self at all).

    If, by “lowering the self,” you’re referring to a sort of de-emphasis of the self/ego in Eastern thought as compared to the affirmation/elevation of the same in certain strains of Western thought, then I think you’re on solid ground. I also don’t think that anything I’ve written here really detracts from the point you’re trying to make since you’re making it from a Western perspective. Religiously speaking, the story of the West is the story of theisms (and even when the Europeans reached the New World, they encountered natives who were also theistic in their own way), so “skyhook” language may not be inappropriate.

    Just to be even more pedantic, I should note that certain Westerners, in considering Buddhism some sort of special case among world religions, often mistakenly claim “Buddhism isn’t theistic.” There may be a sense in which that’s true, but it’s true only to the extent that we strip Buddhism of its religious elements and see it purely as a philosophical system—and then strip it even further so that we consider only the metaphysics taught by the Buddha himself.

    Buddhism, taken as a living, evolving tradition, however, has plenty of theism in it: many lay Buddhists view the Buddha and his bodhisattvas as divinities to which one can offer petitionary prayers that are little different from the prayers offered by lay Catholics to the saints and the Blessed Virgin. In traveling outside of India and settling into other lands, Buddhism has always taken on the local religious color, adopting the local deities and making them part of Buddhist cosmology (with the understanding that those deities are not above the laws of karma or the Three Marks of Existence: no-self, impermance, and suffering). So again, to that extent, even Buddhism may be said to have its skyhooks.

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  5. colinhutton says

    The central thesis of Prager’s essay appears to be that “…the only solution to many — perhaps most — of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian faith.” (Whatever that is supposed to mean – ‘an eye for an eye’?, ‘turn the other cheek’?, Nietzsche’s “slave morality”?, …..)

    He expresses boundless admiration for *secular* (distinguishing from, for example, Bill Vallicella?) conservative thinkers but suggests they should recognize, and presumably promote, the necessity for a “religious revival”, notwithstanding that “faith” (seen by the religious as a virtue) is anathema to any serious thinker.

    On my (Australian) interpretation, the word “secular”, in his essay, would be indistinguishable, to all intents and purposes, from atheist (allowing for the fact that identifying as such can be a bad career move in the US). But, on that meaning of the word, Prager’s criticism of secular conservatives is totally incoherent.

    This post of yours seems to interpret “secular” as I do. I remain as puzzled as others you speak of.

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Whoops. I wrote at the end of the first paragraph:

    “…at least as Buddhism reckons things.”

    That should read “Zen Buddhism.” Without the word “Zen” in there, the rest of my response reads as if I’m contradicting myself. Apple polly loggies.

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says


    Well, I’m a conservative unbeliever who thinks religion is important nevertheless, for exactly the reasons Mr. Prager enumerates (and some others besides).

    …“faith” (seen by the religious as a virtue) is anathema to any serious thinker.

    I’d hate to have to break that to Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Newton, John Paul II, Edward Feser, etc…

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  8. colinhutton says


    “faith” : belief absent evidence, or despite contrary evidence.

    I am not arguing that religion is unimportant. And your post of a few years ago with its conclusion that non-belief is maladaptive (at a society/culture level of Darwinian selection)is a truly excellent exposition of my own thinking on the whole issue. You do not propose a solution to the dilemma, however, nor am I able to suggest one myself.

    What I *am* arguing is that Prager’s ‘solution’ is incoherent; nonsensical even. Pandora’s box …. .

    The first four of the serious thinkers you mention pre-date 1859 (see : Darwin). They could point to the natural world around them as evidence for a supreme being.

    The last two are simply deluded fathists – for ‘reasons’ outlined in your above post. Nothing they have to say is therefore of any relevance or interest. Any more than would a contemporary physicist be of interest if she belived in the existence of luminiferous aether.

    Posted April 10, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  9. Eric says

    @colinhutton –

    I suppose that Donald Knuth is also deluded. Oh well; time to throw out all the CS textbooks….

    Posted April 11, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    The last two are simply deluded fathists – for ‘reasons’ outlined in your above post. Nothing they have to say is therefore of any relevance or interest.

    A tad harsh, no? Are you really quite certain that you are right and they are wrong? Have you read Feser, and John Paul? Does your own worldview take nothing on faith?

    Have you actually, and for the ages, refuted the possible existence of God? Most impressive, if so.

    Posted April 11, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  11. Have you actually, and for the ages, refuted the possible existence of God?

    I am not aware of any proof that the God of the Abrahamic religions does not exist. Moreover, according to QM, anything is possible except certainty. So it is a bit unfair to ask Colin Hutton the quoted question.

    One may, however, be very confident via one’s own adult knowledge and intuition that the existence of God is as likely as the existence of Santa Claus, which undoubtedly is/was believed by most young Christian children, perhaps even by Colin Hutten.

    Posted April 11, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  12. colinhutton says


    “Harsh?”. I have examined my conscience and have nothing to confess. If from that you infer that I was brought up RC, you would be correct. (Educated by Jesuits, but never abused!)

    As to Feser. I have followed links to his blog on numerous occasions and have occasionally then lurked there. Prodigious output, impeccable grammar and syntax. A clever man. The undiluted vitriol of his attacks on new atheists and others can even be amusing at times. However, they consistently amount to no more than straw manning and ad hominems. Unworthy of a ‘philosopher’. (A recent attack on Krause is a good example). Hence, not interesting. I dismiss his Thomistic metaphysics based on natural law, while attempting to finesse Darwin, as ‘faithism’. And, for example, convoluted arguments as to whether or not animals (or was it only dogs?) have souls – words fail me. I have no intention of reading any of his books. Life is too short.

    As to JP2. No, I have not read any of his encyclicals; or whatever. Now that he has been canonized, I will be sure to do so.

    As to my worldview. Follow Nietzsche and you end up peering into the void. You can remain immobilised, go insane, or, as most of us do, retreat. That requires taking some things on ‘faith’, if you wish to call it that, and putting up with the pain of the resulting cognitive dissonance. I try to minimize that pain by adopting minimalist positions. I also find that some self-referential irony is a useful balm. (A dash of self-indulgent sarcasm in the course of argument can also help!).

    Thanks for the above BH. However, I took it that MP was being just a tad sarcastic. Or does he not do sarcasm? Malcolm? But; since you ask. Depending on which eternal, omnipotent, etc. god you are speaking of, I rate the likelihood of his non-existence at somewhere between 96.72% and 98.84%. (That is before allowing for any quantum uncertainty – the maths for doing so defeats me).

    Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  13. colinhutton says

    @ Eric

    So; I took the bait and googled/Wiki’d ‘Donald Knuth’. None the wiser for doing so. Way too subtle for me. You win.

    Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says


    Ah, you are a lapsed Catholic. (I’ve noticed before that Catholicism, when discharged, often seems to pack a lot of recoil.)

    I wouldn’t characterize Feser’s work as you do, but I’m not going to mount a defense here; as you say, life is short, and the man can take care of himself.

    I’ve peered rather extensively into the void you mention, and like you, I have retreated. Life must be lived, and I’ve never really seen any point in nihilism. (Yes, since you asked, I do sarcasm now and then.)

    Perhaps I have retreated a little farther than you. I remain an unbeliever in God, and I am at least sympathetic to Thomas Nagel’s remark that “I don’t want the universe to be like that.” I’d rate my own estimate of the unlikeliness of God’s existence somewhere right up there with yours; in the nineties, anyway.

    I used to be quite ruthlessly atheistic. As a younger man I would cruelly sport with unsophisticated and unreflective believers. I knew all the weaknesses in their simple defenses, and could shuck them like an oyster. Of course, I had nothing to offer in return but the abyss.

    In other words, I was being a major-league asshole. Eventually I came to realize this.

    Other things began to soften my atheism: I began to understand the importance of religion as an adaptive advantage, and to see how corrosive group-level secularism can be; conversations with philosophically sophisticated theists persuaded me that there truly was no knock-down argument on either side; I saw that fully to grasp the Darwinian/naturalist nettle meant accepting limitations on human reason.

    Also, I realized how much we had no answer for on a naturalistic view: what consciousness is; why the laws and constants of Nature are so fine-tuned for our existence (for which we must take on faith some sort of “multiverse” account), why in fact there really is anything at all; how life really began, and so on. Also, for all the power of Darwin’s idea, and even with the time it’s had to operate, I have to admit that we must ask it to account for some very remarkable things.

    After all of that, I remain a godless Darwinist, but rather a more diffident one. I don’t disagree with you in principle, but I think I am a good deal less confident than you.

    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  15. I would hope that my previous comment clearly indicated that I am confident the existence of God is quite unlikely, though I see no need to place a numerical value on “quite”. Let’s just say it is quite “enough for government work” (a facetious expression we tossed around at LANL for grins).

    Nevertheless, I do believe that Voltaire was right in saying, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. And I strongly believe that Moses (or the person on whom the biblical Moses was based) was that inventor of Judaism’s God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is reasonable for me to assume that Moses did this during his 40-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, where he himself chiseled the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets (an omnipotent God would not require that much time to chisel the tablets).

    What the historical Moses accomplished (in my view) was a blessing for humanity. For not only did he present to his mob of ignorant followers a prescription for living an ethical life, he sparked a hope for a brighter future by inventing the “weekend” via the Commandment for observing a Sabbath day of rest.

    That’s my faith, and I’m sticking to it.

    Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  16. colinhutton says


    Your reply is a nice addendum to your ‘maladaptive post’. In truth, we have no substantive disagreements to argue over.

    Some random observations follow, as an addendum to me previous comment. Not arguments.

    Life is short. In my case what remains,is, actuarially, 10 years shorter than yours. The battle against impatience becomes harder. So too, resisting the sarcastic cheap-shot.

    Lapsed catholics particularly prone to recoil. I’m inclined to disagree, but I’ll think about it– attempting to be objective. I *do* think they are particularly prone to adopt the leftist’s ‘alternative religion’ of defeatist self-hatred.

    Nietzsche. I provoked a laugh from my 40-yr old son recently, when I remarked that N should be prohibited reading for anyone under 60; but thereafter compulsory. Perhaps he will appreciate 20 yrs from now that I was not being entirely facetious. One’s pathetic hopes for some approximation to immortality!

    Feser and philosophically sophisticated theists. *One* of the reasons I enjoy BV’s blog is that his theism is not marred by the epistemic certainty which pervades Feser’s thinking. I can enjoy wrestling with BV’s metaphysics as an intellectual learning exercise, while these pander to my ‘dis-confirmation’ bias.

    Accepting limitations on human reasoning. Painful, but probably true. However, perhaps I am more optimistic than you, believing that although homo sapiens is no more than a Darwinian experiment, we are not yet anywhere near the absolute limit of the understandings open to our reason.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  17. colinhutton says


    I like the Voltaire quote, although in my proseletizing youth I had more use for Stendhal’s “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist”.

    Your faith sounds to be lean enough to keep an admirably strict rein on cognitive dissonance. I myself resort to the minimalism of Epicurus.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 7:31 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says


    Life is short. In my case what remains,is, actuarially, 10 years shorter than yours.

    As it happens, I am 60 today. I’m afraid I got to Nietzsche fairly early on, though.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  19. colinhutton says


    Many happy returns – for *yesterday*. My time rules supreme. And so to bed.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  20. Colin,

    I like the Stendhal quote too. It would be most appropriate in connection with an evil like the Holocaust was. But the likely response from the faithful would be, “God works in mysterious ways.” I have always felt that to be insultingly facile and a tad disingenuous. I think what’s really mysterious is how anyone suffering a tragedy could possibly take comfort from it.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  21. colinhutton says


    If ancient memories serve, even C S Lewis reduces to that.

    I don’t remember its being baldly tried on me – but if so it would have provoked biting sarcasm. Nowadays I might resort to a milder form – instant disengagement. “Take comfort’ ? – well; it surpasseth understanding.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  22. Colin,

    I am making an effort to rein in my own tendency for “biting sarcasm” in these pages, due to numerous unpleasantries from it in the past. So “take comfort from” is my euphemism for “suppress outrage to”.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  23. colinhutton says

    BH Thanks for the verb sap. After lurking for several months I had registered there were some cross-currents; yet to be charted by me. I have enjoyed watching some of the eddies when OEM sticks his oar in, however, and did not expect an entirely smooth (boring!) passage when I barged in. At my advanced age a biologically thin skin is inevitable. Metaphorically so? – that would border on the obscene.

    Posted April 16, 2016 at 4:30 am | Permalink

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