“Here what we see is the perpetual conflict of different gods with each other. This is how it was in the ancient world, before it was disenchanted with its gods and demons, only in a different sense… Depending on one’s ultimate standpoint, for each individual one is the devil and the other the god; the individual must decide which one is the god for him and which is the devil… The many gods of antiquity, disenchanted and hence assuming the form of impersonal powers, rise up out of their graves, reach out for power over our lives and begin their eternal struggle among themselves again…
“[A]s science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture-rooms to take over his role.”
-Max Weber, Science as a Vocation
I have posted a lot recently about the different sources of legitimacy that we appeal to. Here are a few examples that have had varying popularity at one time or another in Western history: Inheritance, Tradition, Nature, Ideals, Inward experience, Personal preference, Expertise, Reason, Labor, Authorship, Revelation, Ordination, Emancipation, Liberty, Equality, etc. These are all various “trump cards” or mean by which people have justified or legitimized their words and deeds when pressed by others.
Given the various forms that abstract and personal gods have taken across cultures, it should not be any great stretch of the imagination to view these multiple sources of legitimacy as a polytheism of sorts. The degree to which one sees this as a mere metaphor is itself conditioned by their idea of what a god is and is not like. To an ancient Greek, this would not have seemed very metaphorical at all! What makes these sources of legitimation gods is not their anthropomorphic or abstract character, but their being a source of moral obligation/validation rather than a “mere” product of some other source. (I will discuss this a bit more below.)
The extent to which each of these is a god is measured by how effectively it legitimizes or morally justifies some word or deed. “You are morally obligated to allow me to remain possession and control of this trinket because *I* am the one who made it.” “I am a Duke because I was the firstborn son of a Duke.” “You have no right to tell me how I should feel since they come from inside me.” “I decide whether you will remain a member of the church because I was ordained to do so.” “Your opinion is irrelevant to this collective decision because it is irrational.” And so.
Like other gods with which we are more familiar, none of these sources speak for themselves, but instead are expressed within some canon (be it written or oral in nature) that is maintained, reproduced and otherwise wielded by a limited elite. Through appeals to “false consciousness” or “unconscious desires” Marxists and Freudians respectively tell us what we are “really” feeling. Historians and genealogists tell us who descended from who. Natural scientists tell us what natural laws are. Prophets are the speakers of revelation and priests the keepers of holy texts. Darwinian thinking on the one hand and the structuralism on the other undermine the idea of individual authorship. And so on. In order to know what exactly a source/god does and does not legitimate – in other words what moral relevance a source/god has to us – we must always consult these guardians of the canon. Indeed, even if we could consult the source/god directly, it wouldn’t matter one whit unless we could get other people to agree with, and morally validate what we say.
Yet another way in which these are all gods is that they are all threaten by the zombie argument. The zombie argument in an argument that receives some attention in the philosophy of mind and says that we can account for all the observable effects of our minds without any appeals to an inner, private world of qualitative experience. Of course we can mount a phenomenological protest by saying that we know about this world because we ourselves experience it. The obvious response is that the physicalist can account for and explain this belief of yours as well without any appeal to an inner, private world. This is a perfect example of how, absent the proper social response, individual access to a source/god is totally beside the point.
The relevance to this post is that ALL of these sources of authority can individually be undermined in the exact same way by an appeal to alternative, and thus competing source of legitimacy. Just as we can explain the authorship of texts and tables without any appeal to individual authors, so too we can explain the existence of the entire world without any appeal to an Original Author. Anti-foundationalism is a decent word for this state of affair which essentially means that while many of these sources of legitimacy certainly claim to be necessary or non-negotiable, this is simply not true for any of them. Each source/god can potentially be undermined by some other(s).
On the flip side, each source/god will also claim that its own extinction leaves us with nihilism since it believes all other sources/gods to be derivative products of it. While it is the case that each individual source/god can possibly fall prey to the zombie argument, any such attack must itself depend upon some other source/god for its own moral legitimacy. Thus, while each source/god can individually be undermined by some kind of zombie argument, it is impossible to legitimately undermine all sources/gods at the same time. While such a Hobbesian state of nature wherein no two people agree upon any moral legitimacy is possible, the justification for or moral legitimation of such a state is not.
It is in this sense that the ancient battles between the Greek gods – each of whom roughly corresponds to a different source of legitimacy within their culture – continues today. Todays gods try their very best to dismiss all others as “idols” of some kind (think of Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche) that merely have the appearance of legitimacy. In the famous Euthyphro dilemma we see just such a battle at play in that one side insists that a volitional god’s decisions are only just because they follow the universal and therefore more “real” source of legitimacy: the Platonic ideal accessible to reason. The other side insists the exact opposite. One can easily imagine a third party (this would probably be my own position) saying that which side you choose is simply a matter of personal choice – a point at which the same exact argument repeats itself all over again. Other examples would include the constructivists who undermine appeals to nature since they are simply the downstream products of human minds. Feuerbach did the same for an anthropomorphic god, insisting it was a form of self-imposed human alienation. Hardcore physicalists who wield the zombie argument above insist, by contrast, that the human mind is itself a product of natural law. And on and on.
Most people today acknowledge (notice the appeal to common knowledge, popular opinion and/or expertise – an appeal that many anti-democratic conservatives such as Plato and Hegel have found very suspicious) acknowledge that the earliest forms of the Abrahamic tradition were not fully monotheistic in the strictest philosophical or metaphysical sense. Other gods did exist, it’s just that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, was held to be the highest God toward which they had the least negotiable obligations. The God of Abraham was also a jealous God, who did not tolerate the children of Abraham wavering in their loyalty and obedience to Him by chasing after the approval of other gods by way of servitude and obedience. While other people could and did have their gods, to the children of Abraham there was only one true God. (Like any other god, there was nothing necessary, foundational or non-negotiable about their relationship to this God. It was freely entered into by way of covenant.)
My position is that this commandment is still in full effect today for the (adopted) children of Abraham. Other people will serve, proclaim and appeal to other gods and this is completely fine… for them. This is not to say that we are totally forbidden, always and everywhere, from acknowledging or sometimes using those other gods to our own righteous ends. We must always keep in mind, however, that we do not serve or obey them. They are not themselves sources of righteousness. We owe them nothing! Put in terms more familiar to us Mormons, to be familiar with and appeal to the gods of Reason/Expertise (or any other god for that matter) is perfectly fine so long as it does not interfere with our obedience to the one, true god. To the extent that we do have an obligation to some other source of legitimacy, this is because of and only to the extent that the highest God has designated it as such. No more.
When people distance themselves from the church it is often because they have gone chasing other gods: social justice, natural science, individual freedom, etc. Such people have lot’s of moralized words that have become their new gods. Sometimes, by contrast, people have left the church out of an allegiance to the one true God and His personally revealed word. Very often – but not always – it is the case, however, that persons from the first group wrongly think themselves to be part of the second. They do this by mistakenly equating the living, anthropomorphic God of Abraham who sometimes changes His mind, plays favorites, etc. with one of the other gods whose spokespersons and canons only have partial and historically contingent overlap with those of the former.
To be sure, it is very convenient and comfortable when there is more overlap between the words of the prophets and those of some other moral canon than when there is not. We all want there to be more overlap and less conflict between religion and science, progressive social values and/or laissez faire capitalism. Do not be fooled! Whatever overlap there does exist can never be complete or permanent. Those other gods and their spokespersons are no less jealous than is the God of Abraham.