A Mathematician’s Religion

One could say that the famous British mathematician A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) was a true skeptic and no mere scoffing agnostic like so many of his peers. According to David J. Theroux, Whitehead argued in his book, Science and the Modern World, “that science arose only because the dualism of Christian theistic beliefs of medieval European scientists led them to consider the universe to be a systematic realm of objective reality, and that non-Christian beliefs hindered or prevented science.” Similarly in his 1926 Lowell Lectures at Harvard he offers some very perceptive reflections on the history of religion.

The chief thesis of his book is that higher spirituality is “what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Of course, there are other developments which precede this activity, as seen among the early Greeks and Hebrews. Societies start with ritual. These activities mark the beginnings of a transcendent awareness of reality not directly related to the human struggle for survival. Ritual not only stimulates the emotions, it also disciplines and channels them. Yet these remain primarily collective pursuits. Whitehead argues that a religion truly matures with the emergence of great solitary figures, like the Old Testament prophets, who speak directly to our existential condition and of a growing awareness of divinity as something more than elemental forces beyond our control. The “new… concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God.”

Focused less on the priorities of the tribal group, belief  becomes “universal” in its outlook and “individualistic” in its sense of responsibilities.

A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended. In the long run your character and conduct of life depend upon your intimate convictions.

It is interesting that, like many traditional Christian thinkers, the mathematician turned philosopher distinguishes religion from “magic” and superstition. The former is potentially “progressive” and “rational,” especially as it develops through dogma and metaphysics, whereas the latter is actually unspiritual, obsessed as it with controlling earthly things for egotistical purposes.

While I do not agree with all of the author’s assertions, he nevertheless ventures thoughts which are counter-intuitive to contemporary prejudices. To take just one: “dogmatic expression is necessary. For whatever has objective validity is capable of partial expression in terms of abstract concepts.” And while for Whitehead (as for the Christian believer) the chief aim of religion is that of individual beatitude, with dogma being a means to this end, not an end in itself; nevertheless, it is intellectually formulated doctrine which prevents our spirituality from becoming subjective in its outlook.

A final quote from Whitehead, in which he intuits God’s existence, seems fitting:

The order of the world is no accident. There is nothing actual which could be actual without some measure of order. The religious insight is the grasp of this truth.

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