In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

Religions and their atheisms

Ernest Renan, as one of his contemporaries saw him

In his essay on Ernest Renan, Irving Babbitt wrote:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

Lest we think Renan’s tongue was entirely in his cheek as he wrote this last excerpt, Babbitt elaborates:

Renan thus has a special gift for surrounding science with an atmosphere of religious devotion… In other words all the terms of the old idealism are to be retained, but by a system of subtle equivocation they are to receive new meanings.  Thus a great deal is said about the “soul,” but, as used by Renan, it has come to be a sort of function of the brain.  “Those will understand me who have once breathed the air of the other world and tasted the nectar of the ideal.”  When this is taken in connection with the whole passage where it occurs, we discover that “tasting the nectar of the ideal” does not signify much more than reading a certain number of German monographs.  Men, he tells us, are immortal- that is, “in their works” or “in the memory of those who have loved them,” or “in the memory of God.”  Elsewhere we learn that by God he means merely “the category of the ideal.”*

As Babbitt reads him, Renan has rejected all of the characteristic doctrines of Christianity and certainly of its Roman Catholic variety.  He could fairly be called an atheist.  Yet he is a distinctly Roman Catholic atheist.  It is the God preached in the church he attended as a boy in the town of Tréguier in the 1820s and 1830s in whom Renan disbelieves, not any other god; it is according to the imaginative categories that he learned there that he thinks of the world.  This much is hardly surprising.  Renan was of course a man of great erudition, but his earliest and most intensive learning was of his childhood social environment and the ideas that prevailed there.

What brings this to mind is an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education a week ago.  Author Stephen Asma is, like Irving Babbitt before him, an American scholar of no religious affiliation who has studied Buddhism deeply and with sympathy.  Also like Babbitt, Asma is aware of the ways in which the religions we grow up in and around can shape our basic assumptions about the world even when we think we are rejecting them.  Asma’s essay discusses the leading figures of the “New Atheism,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the movement.  Asma argues that when these men argue against “religion,” they are in fact arguing against only those forms of monotheism with which they personally are most familiar:

As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men’s cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, “I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble.” I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould’s pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of “nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a” (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they’re wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the “mo­ral­ity job” to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Asma goes on to discuss animism at length, pointing out that if we classify the belief that nature is inhabited by spirits who influence our lives and require our worship as a single religion, it is easily the world’s most popular.  Yet animists rarely offer explanations of natural phenomena that compete with scientific explanations, and they do not ground ethical codes in divine commandments.  Westerners who focus on the rituals animists perform and the stories they tell to explain these rituals often dismiss animism as a childish notion, and to believe that “an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will ‘evolve’ (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent).”  If those Westerners side with the New Atheists, they may expect to see a further step in this ‘evolution’:

And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no “in­ten­tions” be­hind them. The view of na­ture as “law­ful” and “pre­dict­a­ble” has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

Yet this view of animism, Asma argues, is hopelessly distorted.  It leaves out the key insight at the root of animism: “An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.”  When I tell my classes about ancient Greek and Roman medicine before the time of Hippocrates, I often say something similar to this definition Asma offers here.  The ancients, I say, believed that the health of the body reflected the person’s social environment.  They expected a person whose relationships with others were loving and secure to be healthy, and they expected a person whose relationships with others were hostile or uncertain to be unhealthy.  These expectations are not at all unreasonable; more often than not, we do find exactly this.  When they saw that a person whose relationships with the people they could see were loving and secure, but that the person’s physical health was poor, it was by no means irrational of them to assume that there must be other persons whom they could not see with whom the person’s relationships were not so good.

Asma sums his argument up thus:

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris’s new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

I suspect that there are at least as many atheisms as there are religions.  As Renan retained the mental habits of Catholicism even after he renounced the Roman Catholic Church and the God it preached, so too the “Four Horsemen” and company cannot help but reject the specific religions which have been important to them.  That’s why it won’t do, for example, for John Wilks to say that “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.”  A person who was raised in a culture where Vishnu and Thor are simply names in stories that no one believes and who does not set out to adopt a belief in them is not doing remotely the same thing as is the person who, raised in a culture where virtually everyone pays cult to the gods of the Hindu pantheon or those of the Norse pantheon, declares that those gods are unreal and that their worshipers are wasting their time.  At the beginning of his or her journey away from belief in the gods, the latter person will certainly share most of the beliefs and the mental habits that go with the worship of those gods.  And it is entirely possible that s/he will still share them to the end of the road.  If so learned a man as Ernest Renan remained readily recognizable a Roman Catholic decades after he came to the conclusion that there was no God, it is clear that the simple act of rejecting a religious doctrine, however important that doctrine may be to the followers of the religion, does not by itself remove the influence of that religion from the person’s mind.

This much may seem obvious.  The forms of atheism that people develop as they leave a religion should be seen as phases of that religion.  Renan’s Roman Catholic atheism is a phase of Roman Catholicism, as Richard Dawkins’ atheism is a phase of Low Church Anglicanism, Sam Harris’ atheism is a phase of Judaism, ibn Warraq’s atheism is a phase of Islam, and so on.  Yet it is not obvious, as witness John Wilks’ comment identifying himself as a “Thor-atheist.”  What keeps it from being obvious is, I would say, the influence of fundamentalism.

Today, “fundamentalist” is often used as an empty term of abuse, suggesting angry people who are impatient with disagreement.  Yet it began with a definite meaning, a meaning which people who identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians still use.  “Fundamentalist” began as a name for people who agreed with the doctrines laid out in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  Those tracts identify certain interpretations of particular passages of the Bible as essential to Christianity and argue that one will be saved from damnation if and only if one believes that those passages, under those interpretations, are true.  Fundamentalists regard those passages, under the prescribed interpretations, as the great truths of Christianity.  They expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of these great truths, and they expect society to be transformed upon the triumph of the Christian movement.

To what sort of atheism does fundamentalist Christianity characteristically give rise?  I myself know many atheists who were raised by self-described fundamentalists.  Some have gone through complex intellectual and spiritual journeys since leaving their earlier faith.  Upon others, however, the marks of fundamentalist thinking are still writ large.  For example, one friend expressed amazement that a professor in a psychology course at the fundamentalist Bible college she attended could avow belief in fundamentalist doctrines.  When I asked her why she was surprised, she said that she expected his practice as a scientist to show him that there was no place for supernatural ideas.  She said that he must have “compartmentalized” his mind so as to keep his scientific thinking separate from his religious beliefs.  While psychologists do sometimes use the word “compartmentalization” to refer to an attempt to protect a cherished belief by creating a separate mental space into which one may confine dangerous knowledge, the currency the word has in this sense among atheists raised as fundamentalist Christians goes far beyond its actual prominence as a scientific concept.  The readiest explanation for its popularity among ex-fundamentalist Christians is that they still believe that once a person accepts the great truths, that person will naturally attain the virtue that marks the movement.  The content of the great truths may be different (“There is no God” rather than “There is a God,” “Science is the sole path to understanding nature” rather than “Faith is the sole path to understanding eternal things,” etc,) and the movement has a different name and a different liturgy, but the followers of each movement expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of the great truths and society to be transformed upon the triumph of the movement.  The expression “fundamentalist atheist” rankles nonbelievers, understandably so given the word’s pejorative uses.  Yet mental habits of the affirming phase of fundamentalism transfer so readily to its atheist phase that one can hardly expect the expression to die out.

*pages 259-261 in The Masters of Modern French Criticism (Boston, 1912)