Appealing non-theist insights by Somerset Maugham
Posted by robertpriddy on January 9, 2012
Among the many interesting comments on religion in his once private – later published – notebooks, Somerset Maugham discussed 1) intuitive belief 2) spiritual and sectarian differences.
Here I present some scanned excerpts which deserve further promulgation, making some comments as to why I consider them just as relevant as when he wrote them:-
This, it seems to me, would probably be what most educated persons who also have active, not mainly passive, minds cannot avoid thinking, even though they may admit of natural uncertainty and at times also entertain hopes that there is somehow something better than the condition most experience at the end of their lives, if not also through much of their existence with so many cares, sorrows and travails.
Philosophers have shown the illogicality – invalidity – of every argument for the existence of God that has ever been forwarded. Likewise, one can no more prove that God does not exist than one can prove that the entire universe is run from within a brain of some person hiding in India or elsewhere (though there are plenty who completely believe this latter to be true! The ontological status of the claim that God exists, or Jesus lives is no different from the claim that ‘Elvis lives’, as Sam Harris has so amusingly put the matter. In short, the fact that we die and are not resurrected is one that can only be faced with some courage. That we should be reborn – reincarnation – is equally impossible to prove, and would require the most fantastic funds and methodological advances in science to study empirically. Retribution and reward by God or any entity in any way or future existence etc. are – as far as human ingenuity can discover through all its manifold oceans of knowledge and related resources – merely a figment of speculation, imagination, hope or existential desperation. The entire explanation for the idea of some Divine (or more primitively, some demonic?) retribution obviously arises from the refusal to believe that justice does not eventually rule and bring all evil-doers to book! The same goes surely for rewards – sojourns in heaven and even absorption into the Godhead as some immaterial unprovable and totally brainless consciousness (known variously as nirvana, moksha, liberation from the wheel of life).
Maugham uses the term ‘intuitionism’ to refer to that which moves most people to hold absolute views on right and wrong. Another aspect of it, as Maugham was also aware, is so-called ‘conscience’. Both a person’s intuitions and conscience are formed and developed through prolonged interaction of the physical being with the environment – unquestioningly absorbing the values and precepts of those who bring one up from babyhood onwards. Education invariably sets about inculcating certain values – not least through constant repetitions and lessons that are the accepted form of indoctrination to the mores and acceptable practices of the society involved. Even when bodily maturity is reached, many remain in the figurative ‘intuitive crib’ of their parental surroundings. Those who diverge from their family in views are often simply absorbed into what may be called a regional or national ‘crib’, perhaps adopting one of the accepted religions, or becoming agnostic and going through various changes in ideas of what is right and best, what is wrong or excusable, as influenced by their peers and the many group pressures which apply in specific culture and societies. In short, what conscience and intuition decide in one setting, one society, one religious culture etc., differs very greatly – not only in detail from person to person, but in the broadest sense between cultures which are opposed on many central issue and belief systems.
The many effects of relativity, the fact that there is no absolute knowledge, social structure, religion etc. means that cultural change, increasing knowledge, even shifts in physical environments, upset the certainties once held, often entirely, sometimes by modification large or small. Even since Maugham wrote his notes, the picture of the universe has altered beyond what one then could usually imagine, vastly more detailed and its laws penetrated far more deeply with empirically proven knowledge gained through – to the layman – almost inconceivable perfection of instrumentation and computational facilities. The same goes for the entire globe, and also for the microcosmos, with manipulation even of atoms. Meanwhile nano-technology is weekly creating wonders that show the reliability of the entire new insight into existence at all levels that have been achieved. Nowhere is there a hint of any transcendent ‘spirit’ stuff or immaterial intelligence. This kind of proven, tried, tested and re-constructible understanding is not to be found anywhere in any religion, of course! Though people continue to believe in religions on such a large scale, the globalization of culture and information had brought culture virtually ignorant of one another closer, and so often into conflict. We see the warring between the mainstream ‘faiths’ is intensified at all levels, and not least that between genuine knowledge and beliefs themselves. When the globe is technologised yet more fully, the science on which technology depends will be a sine qua non in most national education systems (if only for reason of economic survival), and this will almost inevitably weaken the religions.
I shall follow this blog with more of Maugham’s mature reflections soon… including on pleasure, hedonism and its suppression as sin.