Three letters relating to religion:
[The following excerpt is from a letter Dwight Murphey wrote to a friend dated
January 8, 1987.]
I am struck, as you are, by the mysteries of life. When our daughter was three, she asked me, with all of the profundity of children facing life fresh at that age, “isn’t it strange to be alive?” Your sense of the mysteries, and hers, and mine, remind me of Whittaker Chambers’ having been so struck by the beautiful complexities of his baby daughter’s ear. Existence, and eventual mortality, are indeed very real wonders! We hardly understand existence, or know our place in it.
An awareness of those mysteries, however, doesn’t in my case lead me to affirm the truth of any particular postulate that seeks to explain them. I am strongly agnostic in light of my recognition of the mysteries, but tend toward an atheistic opposition to the various claimants to cosmic comprehension. Why? Because men can go seriously astray even as they pursue knowledge based on evidence; there is no end to the absurdities and lost motion, all intellectually beyond the pale of resolution and many tending toward the most serious divisions among people, that result from speculation that is separated from a devotion to evidence. As meager, in many ways, as the results of reasoning-upon-evidence may be, I am willing to take it for what it is. It offers such comprehension as is possible, even though its refusal to enter areas where evidence is not available necessarily puts much actual cosmic truth off limits.
Those who see all of this as “secular humanism” seem to me to make an enormous mistake when they say that “if you don’t believe in God, there is nothing by way of morality to restrain you from doing whatever you want.” Nietzsche gave this line of thinking a lot of unnecessary ammunition. But Nietzsche was wrong. There is as much reason for an agnostic to want the benefits of an ordered civilization as there is for anyone else to. It does not require theistic or metaphysical justifications to see that a code of civilized conduct benefits the great run of men, making both freedom and order possible where otherwise they would not be.
The difficulty is not in how to justify a morality, but in how to get people to adhere to one. This is where religion has its great advantage, since many people demand a divine sanction or at least a claimed metaphysical necessity (such as “the wave of the future”) as a reason for their commitment to basic principles. It remains to be seen whether a society could premise itself satisfactorily on a merely prudential ethic over a long period of time. (The Communist countries don’t offer an instance. They abjure religion, but certainly not a sweeping metaphysic.) …………
[The following letter was part of Dwight Murphey’s years-long correspondence with an old friend who was a professor of philosophy. The friend’s name isn’t given, out of respect for the privacy of his views as reflected in Murphey’s responses.]
May 14, 1996
Your suggestion that a new religion might be the constructive answer to trends in the world today strikes a chord that was important to me 35 years ago. A small group of us from with the Universalist church in
started a new religion, and even held an impressive ceremony at the Iliff School of Theology (though without any connection with that school) to ordain a minister for it. It was to be based on something close to Ayn Rand’s philosophy; and I read a passage from my book Emergent Denver Unfortunately, the group fell apart almost immediately. One reason was that the young fellow who was to be the minister decided he wanted to be “respectable” with family and friends, with the result that he began to talk in terms of “God” despite our general desire to become candidly agnostic or even atheist (an openness the Unitarians and Universalists had not allowed themselves). The second reason had to do with money; I didn’t want to spend a lot of money before we had raised it, while the other two leading members did. So something that I have long thought central never got off the ground, hung up on some very mundane entanglements. Every time I attend a funeral and hear all the nonsense that is spoken there, I think back with sadness to my experience a few years ago. An honest and rational religion is much needed, not just for the ceremonial occasions, but as a primary force for uplift. Man.
Robespierre tried one, and it is hard to see Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will without realizing that Nazism as also a secular religion. Each of these precedents underscores not only the great difficulty but even more so the dangers. Movements of that sort arise out of stress, not out of comfort; but great social stress does not lend itself to the humaneness and love that are Christianity’s best features, when Christianity is best conceived. The fact that stress does not lend itself to those qualities lies at the core of my concern about how to harness militancy.
You argue that white consciousness does not lead to something monstrous, but to civilized behavior. That isn’t consistent with my experience among our contemporaries, and I wonder whether it is with your own. Most of the leftist fanatics you and I both opposed [several years ago] were white, ******* ******** being an example. In virtually no organization with which I have been associated have the ideals been matched by the real spirit, which has been preponderantly venal, shallow, self-serving, and obsequiously conformist (albeit to the “liberal” nostrums that have been respectable to the group as a whole). I have little confidence in the indwelling sense of justice among the people of our own time, and here I’m speaking primarily of white Americans. Among other things, they are unable to think anything out for themselves and to make even the most elementary distinctions. They think in half-truths and double standards, fed to them by others. All the while, they are smugly comfortable with what they are. Are these the people in whom you have abiding confidence, ********? If they ever decide to assert themselves, will they do so in a way that either you or I would applaud?
Was it otherwise in
under Hitler? I can’t really say as to the qualities of the average person, but I do believe there is great truth in Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” My reason for having always favored an individualistic society rather than a Gemeinshaft is that I have no faith in the benign effects of subordinating individuals to any powerful authority. And yet, it was the point of Emergent Man that individuals in a free society need to live with an elevated spiritual sense of life. Perhaps these are opposites, never to meet. I have thought that it is possible for them to do so if a free society could develop something like John Stuart Mill’s “clerisy” (a word he borrowed from Coleridge)—an intellectual culture “appropriate to a free society” that simultaneously embraces both individual freedom (with its limits on government and all power centers) and an elevated aesthetic and reverential sense of life. Germany
Maybe the rise of this “new intellectual” (a term
Randemployed) is very much the same thing as your suggestion of a possible new religion. As you and I both know, “intellectual” in the best sense hasn’t much to do with what we call “the intellectual.”
You’ll notice that here we are talking ideas and spiritual forces without regard to racial or historical or cultural continuity. If
Europeand are to become peopled by mixtures from all parts of the world, the hope will have to lie in ideas and spiritual forces. Many “free market libertarians” think in these terms, without worrying about underlying roots. I hope they are right. But there is much reason to doubt whether those particular ideas and spiritual forces will resonate within the multiethnic cauldron. If the cauldron is inevitable, do we have any choice but to appeal to those ideas and spiritual forces in the hope that they will in fact resonate, even though we harbor great doubts about whether they will? If we become deculturated and deracinated, what choice do we have? America
Your idea of the perpetuation of a way of life within secret societies makes sense to me only to the extent that it would cause the cauldron ultimately to embrace, itself, that way of life. Otherwise, what do a few secret societies, perpetuating “while consciousness,” amount to in a world of 10 to 15 billion people, virtually all non-white? What would be the point of keeping a way of life alive for centuries without such a hope that the whole would embrace the ideas thus kept alive? (A serious question, too, is how such a white diaspora, maintaining a powerful sense of self-identity while “in the wilderness,” is even possible. You yourself say that “our own people no longer give those traditions credence.” Since they don’t, are they the ones who can in any meaningful way go underground?)
If nothing can be done, and I don’t see how it can be, what we are left with is that the world will simply go its own way, for whatever good and bad that brings. The things we cherish will pass off and new things will take their place. We can’t really tell where the world is going, and things may play out much better than we think in our foreboding. Or much worse. One nice thing, ******, is that it will be for future generations to worry about, not us.
I’ve been continuing my reading on
’s place in world trade, now and in the foreseeable future. That’s a big subject, but at least it is more finite than what we’ve been discussing. America
[The follow excerpt is from a letter Dwight Murphey wrote to a friend, an evangelical Christian, dated
August 11, 1977.]
Certainly if anyone can make Christianity appealing, you and my grandmother can. You emphasize the attribute of love; my grandmother emphasizes the promise of eternal life.
You indicated at the last dinner, though, that you were once a skeptic. If so, you can understand my own inability to believe Christian doctrine. There was a time when I was a pantheist, until I realized that a reverence for nature is not the same thing as belief in a teleological God. I still thrill to the beauties of the Kansas sky or to the lush majesty of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado (in which we spent a couple of days last weekend), but I no longer think of my love of those things as love for a God. So far as a teleological God is concerned, I just have to say that I don’t know. I wouldn’t say definitely there isn’t one, since the infinite is so vast and our understanding so small. But neither would I say there is one; belief for me is impossible unless my mind is convinced, too, from the evidence. If there is a God, He has created too wide an epistemological gulf.
Of course, there is a difference between believing in a God and believing in Christianity as such. You and my grandmother make Christianity an exalting faith, a source of meaning, promise and love. But you probably realize yourself that you do this by a process of selectivity. There is much in Christianity that is debasing, and there are so many forms of Christianity that there is great ambiguity in using the generic term “Christianity” without qualification. You see real value in it, but Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth show the other side of it.
One of the last things I would want to do is to argue against your faith. I realize that in the absence of such a faith there is a real question of life’s meaning. We are frail reeds, and I wouldn’t want the responsibility of taking a sense of cosmic connectedness away from you. But for myself, I see no choice but to value life and beauty for their own sakes, without more. You mentioned the undependability of this—as if my wife and children were taken from me. But that is the reality of it. They can be, just as the niece of a lady down the street was paralyzed from the neck down by a fall from her “jungle gym” the other day. By pure accident, that little girl’s life has been changed to one of years of misery. I would change such a reality if I could—but I can’t. Both for good and for bad, we are reality-bound. And the good deserves emphasizing; our reality shouldn’t be thought of entirely in terms of pathos. The little girl’s broken life isn’t the whole story, even if it is a terrible part of it. Perhaps the greatest part of man’s dignity is the ability to live despite mortality and tragedy.
What a pleasure it is knowing you! I count that as one of the meaning-giving features of my life.