The Anticlerical Prophet

Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007)

Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007)

I have perhaps with this address attempted to bite off more than I can chew. But I’m sure you’ll all keep up with me. Today I am thinking about the American philosopher Richard Rorty, the father of Neopragmatism, a school of thought which arose in the 1970s, but draws its influence from people like John Dewey, William James, and to lesser extent Emerson and Thoreau. Neopragmatism is basically this: one knows things, which is the same as saying one believes things. We cannot know things in any ultimate sense, in any foundational sense, but regardless we act as agents in the world. Our humanity is all about our agency – our doing, believing, thinking, and saying. Deeper questions, like what is the nature of reality, or what is Truth, are meaningless questions, because to answer them requires, as it were, climbing out of our own heads. Questions which require us to climb out of our own heads to answer, are questions which should not be asked.

When it comes to the subject of religion, Richard Rorty makes a very good conversation partner. He helps to clarify a lot of things we might like to say about religion, or more specifically, the way we understand religion within our own Unitarian context. And on that, we start with word ‘Atheist’. Rorty was pretty anxious about describing himself as an Atheist, because the word atheist is understood in so many different ways. Take for example the most famous atheist today, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argues that a modern objective understanding of science does away with God. Richard Rorty died before he was able to respond to Dawkins’ brand of atheism, but I can tell you he would have taken a very dim view.

In Neopragmatism knowing things in any ultimate objective sense is impossible. On the basis of empirical evidence one cannot affirm or deny the existence of God; in this sense atheism is just as much of a faith claim as theism is. When Richard Rorty did describe himself as an atheist, he did so not making an assertion about the nature of reality, but rather, as a synonym for anticlericalism. Richard Rorty just didn’t think religion was a very positive force in the world. He though it endangered the health of democratic society. Our humanity according to Rorty is all about our agency in the world. Human beings in the West, according to Rorty, have pretty much discovered how life is supposed to be lived, with as much individual freedom as possible, under as democratic a system of governance as possible. If humanity feels beholden to some nonhuman force, be that God, or Nature, or some other sense of transcendence, it dilutes human responsibility and freedom.

This word ‘transcendence’ is an interesting one. I think we often use words not fully knowing even what we ourselves mean by them. In our own context it seems ‘transcendence’ acts less as a word with a specific meaning, but rather a place holder for some kind of inexplicable spiritual experience. For Rorty, he sees any openness to the notion of transcendence as potential deference to nonhuman authority, which undermines human dignity. That is an argument that makes logical sense to me, despite the fact that I feel it cuts quite hard against Unitarian spirituality. Within Unitarian circles there tends to be a tacit approval of some transcendent other – perhaps not a traditional notion of God, but nature with a capital N or the notion of a Jungian collective unconscious.

To quote Richard Rorty directly he says, ‘As I see it, the whole point of pragmatism is to insist that we human beings are answerable only to one another. We are answerable only to those who answer to us – our conversational partners. We are not responsible either to the atoms or to God, at least not until they start conversing with us’. So Rorty believes two things when it comes to religion: A Western desire for transcendence has encouraged us to shrink from our own responsibility, and furthermore it has blocked human openness to the new and to the strange. For Rorty the responsibility of taking up our own freedom is wrapped up in our willingness to explore the new - new theories, and new cultural languages. How awful it would be if we were imprisoned by normality. The underlying frustration for Rorty is that religion be allowed to act as a conversation stopper. Conversations must be allowed to flourish. They must be allowed to digress and move in unorthodox and in abnormal directions. Appeals to transcendence or one’s personal sense of the sacred in order to stifle conversation should be resisted.

Now we might wonder if any of this really has much of a bearing upon us. After all, Richard Rorty is decrying religion within his American context, in which the dominant expression of religion is Conservative Evangelicalism. And in that context when we’re talking about religion stifling conversation, we’re talking about something very explicit, like Leviticus being quoted in the public arena in defence of a traditional understanding of marriage. Of course, Richard Rorty sees this kind of religiosity as far more detrimental to society than liberal religion, but ultimately he wants humanity to pursue a long-term strategy of militant secularism, and that entails the demise of all expressions of religion. I do still wonder though if Unitarianism might be an exception, compatible with a Rortian secularist utopian democracy. Is there something intrinsic to Unitarian identity which shackles it to its religious classification? Can one envision a wholly secular Unitarianism, which has shelved all notions of metaphysical transcendence, or even Emerson’s divine soul of the universe? I have no answer to that, but it’s an interesting thought experiment I think.

Richard Rorty is the secularist prophet pointing the way towards the kind of world of the future he wants to see, summed up in this final quote. “I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me – in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats – ‘hold reality and justice in a single vision’. By reality I mean, more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville …, I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I mean what… Trosky stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I want a way to be an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity – a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice.”



Source: ‘The Anticlerical Prophet’ In Kuipers, A. Ronald, Richard Rorty, 2013.