A puzzling feature of Irish society is the way in which people who have no time for religion turn to the church for key events – like births, marriages and funerals – while also, in many cases, valuing a Christian education, as though a parent’s duty is to give their child a faith to reject.
A degree of nostalgia may lie behind it. As a lapsed Catholic, I feel that completely disowning the faith of my family is a bit like severing a link with my ancestors.
Being born into a faith has also given me an appreciation of what it’s like to believe in an omnipotent being – something that binds me to the majority of the world’s population. It is only in certain countries, mainly Weird (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) ones, that children grow up without ever having experienced a relationship with god.
That’s not necessarily an argument for rushing back to the church. Rather, it’s an invitation to reflect on what – if anything – has been jettisoned in our transition to secularism.
That invitation takes better shape against the backdrop of a new book by NUI Galway philosopher Felix Ó Murchadha who places our current situation in a centuries-old context.
For most of human history, people understood themselves as products or playthings of the gods. We depended on godly “grace” for happiness, and our ultimate goal was heavenly “salvation”.
Something changed about 500 years ago in the Christian world, Ó Murchadha argues, when sceptical thinkers like Montaigne started to question the relationship between God and individual. Under this new outlook, which – according to Ó Murchadha – reached its apotheosis with Immanuel Kant, “the self transforms from a being directed towards salvation in an afterlife to a being seeking to create itself and in doing so achieve its own salvation”.
From this modern perspective: "Happiness is no longer a return to the divine or to the eternal, but is that which is to come in a new world, a world of human making, moulded from an indifferent nature," Ó Murchadha writes in The Formation of the Modern Self: Reason, Happiness and the Passions from Montaigne to Kant (Bloomsbury).
Crucially, he says, early modern thinkers did their work hand-in-glove with theology. There is a tendency today to depict sceptics like Montaigne as atheists in all but name; however this depends on a “supposition of insincerity in some of the utterances of these philosophers”.
Thinking critically about the possibility of a relationship to a god, or gods, therefore, binds us to a surprisingly rich tradition of philosophy. That said, any worthwhile theoretical exercise must take account of science.
In this regard, Ó Murchadha looks forward as well as back as he considers how the dawn of the Anthropocene – an era in which humans are creating geological change – is giving rise to a new understanding of self.
If humans are now in control of nature to the extent that we can undo creation have we, perversely, made ourselves into gods? And if so who, if anyone, will save us?
Never afraid to ask the deep questions, Unthinkable puts Ó Murchadha in the interview seat this week.
You say Montaigne is “the father of the Modern self”. How so?
“Montaigne was a French author of the 16th century, living in a time of uncertainty, crisis and civil war. Within this context, he withdrew from the world, literally in the sense of stepping back from public life, but also metaphorically in stating that he could not speak with any certainty about anything except his own experience.
“In his essays he tests himself. The French word ‘essai’ means ‘test’ – we owe its present literary sense to Montaigne. He tests himself by exploring what is strange to him – writings from the Ancients to his own day, reports from the Americas of exotic peoples, his experience of others.
“What he discovers through this process is a fragmented, continually changing self, which can make no claims beyond its own experience of the world. All of this marks a shift from an understanding of the self in terms of pre-given social and cosmological hierarchies to understanding everything on the basis of the self’s experience.
“What we find here is a sense of self that escapes categories and structures, a kind of anarchic freedom that remains a powerful force in modernity, even when opposed by the counter-tendency to rational order.”
You say there is a tendency to assume early-modern philosophers were insincere when referencing theological sources but is there not a case for saying that many such philosophers would have been atheists had atheism not been a punishable offence?
“My book begins with Montaigne and ends with Kant, both of whom said that they may not write all they think, but would never write anything they did not think. I see no evidence for doubting their sincerity here, nor indeed the sincerity in this respect of Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Hume or Rousseau.
“We need to be clear, also, that ‘theological’ sources does not necessarily mean ‘theistic’. The very idea, for example, of the self turning within itself to find the truth, is rooted in a theological understanding of the self as finding peace and enlightenment internally, rather than in the world.
“Furthermore, there are many forms of atheism. Spinoza who begins his ethics with a ‘proof’ of existence of God could be accused of atheism because his account of God was not that of the creator of nature, but rather of nature itself. In Spinoza too – and Kant – we find some trace of the later atheism of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, which understands religious belief in terms of an underlying need or desire.
“The attempt to prove the non-existence of God – Dawkins et al – is for the most part a later development. Importantly, with the possible exception of Hume, an account of God remains significant for the thought of the philosophers of this period. What is most contested philosophically in this period is not the existence of God, but the nature of God.”
How is the age of Anthropocene forcing us to reexamine what it means to be human?
“As I understand it, the modern account of the self was formed in response to the crisis of the medieval world, namely the radical breakdown in the European understanding of God/religion, of the cosmos, of geographical space, of politics, of society, of science. We are living through a time of comparable crises with respect to the environment, democracy, economy, gender and many other domains.
“One of the crucial moves of modernity was that the divine was evacuated from nature and the Medieval distinction of creator and created gave way to the modern distinction of human – as self – and nature. This is no longer tenable.
“In the Anthropocene we have to start not from the projection of the self, but from the expressive totality of the natural world. What I mean by that is that we need to think not just of the human as self, but of all things as being or becoming entities which relate to all others as selves.
“The human self in such a context has to find itself as one kind of self among others within nature. This does not mean reducing the human self to a cog in the machine of nature, but rather to rediscover nature as much more than a machine, as the interacting, interlacing relations of multiple centres of self-expression.
“Just as modernity involved a transformation of the understanding of self, nature and divinity which has led to the Anthropocene, our present crises call for a new understanding not alone of the self, but of nature and divinity too.
“The self which emerges from the present crises needs a humility with respect to nature and a receptivity to a sense for its existence which precedes and envelops it, while remaining free of all dogmatic claims.”