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Wednesday, June 22, 2016


A year ago, as I reported at length, I taught an advanced course in the UNC Philosophy Department on the thought of Karl Marx.  The liveliest and one or the most interesting students in the class was a first year doctoral student named Matthew Duvalier McCauley.  At the end of the semester, Matthew told me that he would be forced to suspend his doctoral studies to return home to California to get a job and help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him while he was withdrawn from formal study, and when he was settled at home and working for Whole Foods, we began our work together.  I arranged for to deliver to him copies of the Meditations, the Mondadology, the Treatise of Human Nature, and the First Critique.  As he read through the first three of these works, he wrote papers on them which I read and commented on.  [He will read the Critique and write the weekly summaries in conjunction with my videoed lectures]  During this time, Matthew applied to a number of doctoral programs on the West Coast and will continue his studies at Berkeley in the Fall semester.  Although his principal interest is in formal logic and the philosophy of mathematics, he has enthusiastically embraced the plan of reading all twenty-five of the Great Works that I put on a list of “must read” classics.

When Matthew completed his study of the Treatise, I suggested he go on to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, inasmuch as he has several times expressed great interest in religion.  He replied that he had just read them, and asked whether I wanted him to write a paper about them.  I said that perhaps he could write a paper on his own personal engagement with religion, a suggestion he enthusiastically embraced.  With his permission, I am reproducing here the short paper he wrote, after which I will write some comments on it.

                                                  On Religion   by Matthew Duvalier McCauley

I try not to make unwarranted generalizations. But if I may be permitted a slight exaggeration, I would say that the distinctive cultural ethos of black-American families is to be religious. This is not to say that all black Americans are Christian, or even that they all believe in God. What I am saying is that you will never have a conversation with the head of a black household without hearing an “Amen” or a “thank you Jesus” or a “praise God”, nor will you listen to a family voicemail that is shorter than ten minutes and absent of Christian-themed background music and in which you do not receive a number of blessings.

            But not all black Americans are religious. Some of them arrived at the conclusion that they are too intelligent for religion – immediately after an evening of YouTube-ing such philosophical heavyweights as Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, of course. Those black Americans are the enlightened ones. I suspect that their attitude is not new and is instead an artifact of the tradition of, after every human achievement, rejecting belief in God as childish and obsolete. After the discovery of the Higgs Boson, we became too intelligent for religion; after writing the Origin of Species, we became too intelligent for religion; after the creation of the printing press, God became a childish fiction; after the invention of the chariot wheel, we became enlightened. Probably some precocious caveman fancied himself too intelligent to believe in gods when he discovered fire.

            Now, my immediate family – me, Mom, and cat – was never really that religious. I went to church a few times as a small child, but I pretty much stopped going when I was eleven. I don’t think we had any particular reason for no longer going to church. I certainly believed that there was a God. And I’m sure my mom did, too, although nowadays I have no idea what she believes. Honestly, I just think she didn’t think questions about seeking God were all that important, and so she stopped taking me to church.[1]

            Freshman year of college is when I began taking religion seriously. After having what some would call a mystical or religious experience, God became the most important thing in my life. Theology[2] became so important that I directed, to (I think) the best of my ability, everything toward the end of seeking or serving God. That was five years ago. I am going to have to skip over a lot because so much has happened since then that I do not know what to focus on.

            Nowadays, theology is still the most important thing to me, and, in certain respects, even more important than before. But my views have changed. Then, it was as obvious as anything that there was a God and that Christianity was true. Now, I’m not so sure that there is a God. My lack of confidence is not due to any philosophical objections to the idea of God or the truth of Christianity.[3] 
           I think I believe that there is a God. But my confidence in that belief is so low that I do not know whether I should call myself a doubting theist or a very religious agnostic. All I know is that, if there is a God, I want to know him and know how to think rightly about him. That is the most important thing, and the issues surrounding it are so fundamental that I try not to philosophize about anything else until I am more clear on where I stand theologically. MY thoughts about God inform my thoughts about everything else.

            Now, I cannot end this paper without acknowledging a very curious brand of theism that I encounter from time to time. More often than not I meet these theists who believe that there is a God who intervenes in world affairs – a God who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies – but do not find theology[4] interesting enough to study it. I cannot understand that. I cannot understand a mind that is 1) convinced of the existence of a God who cares about humans, and 2) not devoted to theology. This is the mind of the nominal Christian or the cultural Muslim or one of those oppressively liberal New Age harpies who characterize themselves with such vacuous descriptions as “spiritual but not religious”. They who believe in the power of God and yet do not study theology are like those sick individuals who see the necessity of a certain vaccine and yet do not take it.

            The questions of theology are either the most important questions or a waste of time – a complete waste of time, on the order of speculating about the sociology of Atlantis. I see no middle ground; the nature of the discipline implies that if it is not the most important subject, it is not important at all.

[1] Interestingly, this seems to be the attitude of nearly everyone I’ve ever met in my extended family: both my biological father and his wife, most of my aunts and uncles, and nearly all of my cousins seem to find the question of seeking God unimportant. I guess, in a way, my family is an exception to my armchair statistic about all black American families being religious.

2 I loosely define theology as the discipline concerning right thinking and relation to God. So, theology, in this sense, includes prayer and holiness, as well as reading and thinking.

3 I’ve heard very many of those arguments against God’s existence. Frankly, they just strike me as childish puzzles that people who do not have an existential foot in the question of God’s existence throw together. The brainchildren of the Saints of counterfeit charity, who feign an air of horror at the idea of hell, but can’t wait to see their own enemies destroyed; who demand God to do something about all this evil, but who would love nothing more than the opportunity to do what they know is wrong. The last thing these people want to know is the truth, and indeed, I suspect that they are all too happy that the world is exactly as God created it. Jesus had an exchange with these disingenuous fellows in John 8.

4 See my loose definition in Footnote 2.


Let me say, first of all, that is an authentic, charming, and thoughtful paper.  This and Matthew’s other papers strike me as the work of someone with a genuinely philosophical turn of mind.  And about religious faith, I think he has it exactly right.  To be religious is not to believe that certain propositions are true, or that certain entities exist.  It is to experience the world in a certain manner, one that is utterly incompatible with a non-religious experience of the world.  There cannot be disagreements between two persons, one of whom is truly religious and other of whom is genuinely not.  They may agree to coexist, and they may engage together in certain common projects, but they cannot possibly communicate.  I myself am thoroughly secular, though as should be obvious from this blog I have very great emotional sympathy with the religious experience of the world.  But it would be utterly pointless for me to argue with a believer about such things as heaven and hell or faith or election or, it goes without saying, the existence of God.

I look forward with great anticipation t Matthew’s Kant summaries.


Jared Rodriguez said...

Great paper! What was on the list of “must read” classics?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jared, see my post on january 8, 2015.

s. wallerstein said...

the list:

Tom Cathcart said...

Matthew's comments remind me of my struggles when I was a student. The book I found most helpful then was Paul Tillich's "The Courage to Be," which situates Christianity as an existential stance rather than a matter of doctrine. It's still in print.

howie berman said...

I have friends, one in particular comes to mind, who are quite religious. My sense is they are in touch with something I'll never be myself, though I participate in that form of life through them, and even joke sympathetically and deeply (if you ask, there are myriads of ways to bring heaven or Jesus into your everyday conversation.)
Perhaps Shakespeare with his negative capacity really empathized with the religious outlook. (though as a child he may have had faith jhimself) Bloom regards him as a nihilist.
My point being that if you equate listening with a third ear with Weber's religious musicality, you can imagine what it's like to be religious even if you're not
Just like Freud regarded us all as neurotic and religion as a collective neurosis the trick is to imagine that neurosis
I think it involves to step outside yourself, to bracket your ego and just listen, hear how that other person speaks inside you