Human Language and Artificial Neural Networks

The recent developments in AI are quite impressive. If someone had told me a couple years ago about the capabilities of something like ChatGPT I wouldn’t have believed them. AI certainly has enormous practical benefit. But since artificial neural networks were inspired by biological neural networks they can also be useful models for them. In this episode I share some recent studies investigating the behavior of the brain using AI models and evaluating their possible underlying computational similarities.

This is a follow-up to some things discussed in our last group episode on artificial intelligence. Since that conversation I’ve been digging more into the subject and wanted to share some ideas about it. I’ve been interested in artificial intelligence for a number of years. Part of that interest is because of its practical usefulness, which we’re really seeing explode now, with ChatGPT in particular. But I’m also interested in artificial intelligence as a model that could give us insights about human intelligence.

I have to say that the performance of these most recent models, like ChatGPT-3 and especially ChatGPT-4, is something that has really surprised me. If someone had told me a couple years ago that in 2022 & 2023 a deep learning model would be able to perform as well as these do I wouldn’t have believed it. I’m typically predisposed to doubt or at least be very critical about the capabilities of artificial intelligence. But in this case I think I was wrong and I’m happy to have been wrong about that. I don’t mean to swing too far to the other extreme and get too exuberant about it and overstate the capabilities of these models. But just a little bit of excess excitement might be excusable for the moment.

One claim that would be too extreme would be that these deep learning models are actually self-conscious already. Now I have no philosophical reason to suppose that an artificial device could not be self-conscious. I just don’t think we’re there yet. Another, less extreme claim, but one that would still go too far would be that deep learning models actually replicate the way human speech is produced in the brain. I think the implementations are still distinct. But that being said, I think there are enough similarities to be useful and interesting.

For comparison, there are insights we can gain into sight and hearing from cameras and audio recorders. Obviously they are not the same as our own sense organs but there are some similar principles that can help us think about how our senses work. The comparisons work both at the level of physical mechanisms and at the level of data processing. For example, I think there are some interesting insights about human senses from perceptual coding. Perceptual coding is a method used in digital signal processing that leverages the limitations and characteristics of the human sensory systems (auditory and visual) to provide data compression. For example, in audio, certain sounds are inaudible if they’re masked by louder sounds at a similar frequency. Similarly, in an image, subtle color differences in areas with high spatial detail are less noticeable than in smooth areas. Perceptual coding takes advantage of this by selectively removing the less noticeable information to reduce the data size, without significantly impacting perceived quality. This is done with MP3s and JPEGs. Extending this comparison to large language models, I’d propose that models like ChatGPT might be to human language production what cameras, JPEGs, audio recorders, and MP3s are to sight and sound. They aren’t the same but there are some parallels. ChatGPT is not the same as a human brain any more than a camera is an eye or an audio recorder is an ear. But, more modestly, ChatGPT may have some interesting similarities to human language production.

The most significant developments in this technology are so recent that the most useful reading material I’ve had to go to on the subject is peer-reviewed literature from the past year. Even there a lot of the research was done with GPT-2, which was a much less advanced model than we have available today. So it will be interesting to see what studies come out in the next year and beyond. The papers I want to focus on are 3 research papers from 2022 that present the results of experiments and 2 (just slightly older) perspective papers that offer some broad reflections and theoretical considerations.

In what follows, I’ll proceed in three parts: (1) philosophical background, (2) an overview of neural networks: biological and artificial, and (3) recent scientific literature.

Philosophical Background

Most of the philosophy I’d like to discuss is from the 20th century, in which there was considerable philosophical interest in language in what has been called the “linguistic turn”. But first something from the 18th century.

Something that stood out to me in all the research articles was the issue of interpretability. Artificial neural networks have been shown to have remarkable parallels to brain patterns in human brain production. That’s nice because the brain is so complex and little understood. The only problem is that ANNs themselves are also extremely complex and opaque to human comprehension. This challenges a notion going back to the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico: the Verum factum principle.

The phrase “verum factum” means “the true is the made,” which refers to the notion that truth is verified through creation or invention. In other words, we can only know with certainty that which we have created ourselves, because we understand its origins, structure, and purpose. Vico developed this principle as a critique of the Cartesian method of knowing, which, in Vico’s view, emphasized the abstract and ignored the concrete, humanistic dimensions of knowledge. By asserting that true knowledge comes from what humans create, Vico highlighted the role of human agency, creativity, and historical development in the creation of knowledge.

However, applying the verum factum principle to complex human creations like modern industrial economies, social organizations, big data, and artificial neural networks poses some interesting challenges. These creations certainly reflect human ingenuity and creativity, but they also possess a complexity that can make them difficult to fully comprehend, even for those directly involved in their creation. Artificial neural networks are inspired by our understanding of the human brain, but their function, especially in deep learning models, can be incredibly complex. It’s often said that these networks function as “black boxes,” as the pathway to a certain output given a certain input can be labyrinthine and largely inexplicable to humans, including their creators. So, while the verum factum principle encapsulates the role of human agency and creativity in the construction of knowledge, artificial neural networks illustrate that our creations can reach a level of complexity that challenges our ability to fully comprehend them.

Now turning to the 20th century I think four philosophers are especially relevant to the subject. These are Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Hubert Dreyfus. Of these four Hubert Dreyfus was the one who most directly commented on artificial intelligence. But Dreyfus was also using ideas from Heidegger in his analysis of AI.

Let’s start with Dreyfus and Heidegger. Dreyfus’s main arguments were outlined in his influential 1972 book, What Computers Can’t Do. The core of his critique lies in what he sees as AI’s misguided reliance on formal symbolic reasoning and the assumption that all knowledge can be explicitly encoded. Dreyfus argued that human intelligence and understanding aren’t primarily about manipulating symbolic representations, as early AI research assumed. Instead, he believed that much of human knowledge is tacit, implicit, and tied to our embodied experience of “being in the world”, an important Heideggerian concept. These are aspects that computers, at least during that time, couldn’t easily replicate.

Dreyfus drew heavily on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to make his arguments. Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, as expressed in his 1927 book Being and Time describes human existence (“Dasein”) as being-in-the-world—a complex, pre-reflective involvement with our surroundings. This contrasts with the traditional view of humans as subjects who perceive and act upon separate objects. According to Heidegger, we don’t usually encounter things in the world by intellectually representing them to ourselves; instead, we deal with them more directly.

Dreyfus related this to AI by arguing that human expertise often works in a similar way. When we become skilled at something, we don’t typically follow explicit rules or representations—we just act. This aligns with Heidegger’s notion of ‘ready-to-hand’—the way we normally deal with tools or equipment, not by observing them as separate objects (‘present-at-hand’), but by using them directly and transparently in our activities.

Another philosopher relevant to this topic is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He is considered to have had two major phases that were quite different from each other.  His early work, primarily represented in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposed that language is a logical structure that represents the structure of reality. But in his later work, chiefly Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein advanced a very different view.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduces the concept of language as a form of social activity, what he called “language games.” He argues that language does not have a single, universal function (as he had previously believed) but is instead used in many different ways for many different purposes.

Language, Wittgenstein claims, should be seen as a myriad of language games embedded in what he called ‘forms of life’, which are shared human practices or cultural activities. Different language games have different rules, and they can vary widely from commands, to questions, to descriptions, to expressions of feelings, and more. These language games are not separate from our life but constitute our life.

Wittgenstein also introduced the idea of ‘family resemblances’ to discuss the way words and concepts gain their meanings not from having one thing in common, but from a series of overlapping similarities, just like members of a family might resemble each other.

He also challenged the idea that every word needs to have a corresponding object in the world. He argued that trying to find a definitive reference for each word leads to philosophical confusions and that words acquire meaning through their use in specific language games, not through a one-to-one correspondence with objects in the world. So, for Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is not something that is attached to it, like an object to a label. Instead, the meaning of a word is its use within the language game. This was a notion similar to a theory of language called structuralism. 

The leading figure of structuralism was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. His ideas laid the groundwork for much of the development in linguistics in the 20th century and provided the basis for structuralism. In his course in general linguistics, compiled from notes taken by his students, Saussure proposed a radical shift in the understanding of language. He proposed that language should be studied synchronically (as a whole system at a particular point in time) rather than diachronically (as a historical or evolutionary development). According to Saussure, language is a system of signs, each sign being a combination of a concept (the ‘signified’) and a sound-image (the ‘signifier’). Importantly, he emphasized that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary – there is no inherent or natural reason why a particular sound-image should relate to a particular concept.

Regarding the creation of meaning, Saussure proposed that signs do not derive their meaning from a connection to a real object or idea in the world. Instead, the meaning of a sign comes from its place within the overall system of language and its differences from other signs; It’s within the structure of the language. That is, signs are defined not positively, by their content, but negatively, by their relations with other signs. For example, the word “cat” doesn’t mean what it does because of some inherent ‘cat-ness’ of the sound. Instead, it gains meaning because it’s different from “bat,” “cap,” “car,” etc. Moreover, it signifies a particular type of animal, different from a “dog” or a “rat”. Thus, a sign’s meaning is not about a direct link to a thing in the world but is about differential relations within the language system.

Saussure’s ideas about language and the generation of meaning can be interestingly compared to the techniques used in modern natural language processing (NLP) models, such as word2vec and to cosine similarity. For example, in word2vec, an algorithm developed by researchers at Google, words are understood in relation to other words.

Word2vec is a neural network model that learns to represent words as high-dimensional vectors (hence “word to vector”) based on their usage in large amounts of text data. Each word is assigned a position in a multi-dimensional space such that words used in similar contexts are positioned closer together. This spatial arrangement creates ‘semantic’ relationships: words with similar meanings are located near each other, and the differences between word vectors can capture meaningful relationships.

A measure of the similarity between two vectors is called cosine similarity. In the context of NLP, it’s often used to measure the semantic similarity between two words (or word vectors). If the word vectors are close in the multi-dimensional space (meaning the angle between them is small), their cosine similarity will be high, indicating that the words are used in similar contexts and likely have similar meanings. There are some interesting parallels between Saussure’s linguistics and AI language models. Both approaches stress that words do not have meaning in isolation but gain their meaning through their relations to other words within the system; language for Saussure and the trained model for word2vec.

Neural Networks: Biological and Artificial

Recall Hubert Dreyfus’s critique of formal symbolic reasoning in artificial intelligence and the assumption that all knowledge can be explicitly encoded. His critique is most relevant to traditional programming in which explicit program instructions are given. In machine learning, however, and in artificial neural networks program rules are developed in response to data. To whatever degree this is similar to the human mind, biology is at least the inspiration for artificial neural networks.

What is the structure of biological neural networks (BNNs)? In the brain connections between neurons are called synapses. Synapses are the tiny gaps at the junctions between neurons  in the brain where communication occurs. They play a vital role in the transmission of information in the brain. Each neuron can be connected to many others through synapses, forming a complex network of communicating cells.

Neurons communicate across the synapse using chemicals called neurotransmitters. When an electrical signal (an action potential) reaches the end of a neuron (the presynaptic neuron), it triggers the release of neurotransmitters into the synapse. These chemicals cross the synapse and bind to receptors on the receiving neuron (the postsynaptic neuron), which can result in a new electrical signal in that neuron. This is how neurons interact with each other and transmit information around the brain.

Synapses form during development and continue to form throughout life as part of learning and memory processes. The creation of new synapses is called synaptogenesis. This happens when a neuron extends a structure called an axon toward another neuron. When the axon of one neuron comes into close enough proximity with the dendrite of another neuron, a synapse can be formed.

The strength of synapses in the brain can change, a phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity. This is thought to be the basis of learning and memory. When two neurons are activated together frequently, the synapse between them can become stronger, a concept known as long-term potentiation (LTP). This is often summarized by the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

On the other hand, if two neurons aren’t activated together for a while, or the activation is uncorrelated, the synapse between them can become weaker, a process known as long-term depression (LTD).

Multiple factors contribute to these changes in synaptic strength, including the amount of neurotransmitter released, the sensitivity of the postsynaptic neuron, and structural changes such as the growth or retraction of synaptic connections. By adjusting the strength of synaptic connections, the brain can adapt to new experiences, form new memories, and continually rewire itself. This is a dynamic and ongoing process that underlies the brain’s remarkable plasticity.

How then do biological neural networks compare to artificial neural networks? In an artificial neural network, each connection between artificial neurons (also called nodes or units) has an associated weight. These weights play a role somewhat analogous to the strength of synaptic connections in a biological brain. A weight in an ANN determines the influence or importance of an input to the artificial neuron. When the network is being trained, these weights are iteratively adjusted in response to the input the network receives and the error in the network’s output. The goal of the training is to minimize this error, usually defined by a loss function.

The process of adjusting weights in an ANN is a bit like the changes in synaptic strength observed in biological neurons through processes like long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD). In both cases, the changes are driven by the activity in the network (biological or artificial) and serve to improve the network’s performance – either in terms of survival and behavior for a biological organism, or in terms of prediction or classification accuracy for an ANN.

Of courses there are still multiple differences between biological neural networks and artificial neural networks. ANNs usually involve much simpler learning rules and lack many of the complex dynamics found in biological brains, such as the various types of neurons and synapses, detailed temporal dynamics, and biochemical processes. The biological synaptic plasticity is a much richer and more complex process than the adjustment of weights in an ANN. Also, in most ANNs, once training is complete, the weights remain static, while in biological brains, synaptic strength is continually adapting throughout an organism’s life. Biological and artificial neural networks share computational principles but they certainly don’t implement these computations in the same way.  Brains and computers are simply very different physical things, right down to the materials that compose them.

Artificial neural networks have been in development for several decades. But it is in very recent years that we’ve seen some especially remarkable advances, to which we’ll turn now.

Recent Scientific Literature

I’d like to share 5 papers that I’ve found useful on this subject. Three are research papers with experimental data and two are perspective papers that offer some broad reflections and theoretical considerations.

The 3 research papers are:

“Brains and algorithms partially converge in natural language processing”, published in Communications Biology in 2022 by Caucheteux & King.

“Shared computational principles for language processing in humans and deep language models”, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2022 by Goldstein et al.

“Explaining neural activity in human listeners with deep learning via natural language processing of narrative text”, published in Scientific Reports in 2022 by Russo et al.

And the 2 perspective articles are:

“Direct Fit to Nature: An Evolutionary Perspective on Biological and Artificial Neural Networks”, published in Neuron in 2020 by Hasson et al.

“A deep learning framework for neuroscience”, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2019 by Richards et al.

In each of the three research papers human participants read or listened to certain passages while their brain signals for specific brain regions were measured. Deep learning models were trained on this data to predict the brain signals that would result from the text. Researchers looked for instances of high correlation between actual brain patterns and the brain patterns predicted by the model and mapped where in the brain these signals occurred at various points in time before and after word onset. In particular, they noted whether the brain regions activated corresponded to those regions that would be expected from neuroscience to activate in the various stages of language processing.

In the first article, “Brains and algorithms partially converge in natural language processing”, published in Communications Biology in 2022 by Caucheteux & King the researchers used deep learning models to predict brain responses to certain sentences. Then the actual brain responses of human subjects were used as training data for the models. They used a variety of models that they classified as visual, lexical, and compositional. Then they evaluated how well these different types of models matched brain responses in different brain regions. The brain responses in the human subjects were measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Regarding the 3 different types of models:

Visual models are deep learning models that are primarily used for tasks involving images or videos. They are trained to recognize patterns in visual data, which can then be used to perform tasks such as image classification, object detection, image generation, and more. The most common types of visual deep learning models are convolutional neural networks (CNNs). CNNs are specifically designed to process pixel data and have their architecture inspired by the human visual cortex. 

Lexical models are models that focus on the processing of words or “lexemes” in a language. They work with individual words or groups of words (n-grams), treating them as atomic units. Lexical models can learn word representations (often called “embeddings”) that capture the semantic meanings of words, and their relationships with each other. They are often used in natural language processing (NLP) tasks such as text classification, sentiment analysis, and named entity recognition. Examples of lexical models include traditional word2vec or GloVe models, which map words into a high-dimensional vector space.

Compositional models, also called “sequential” or “recurrent” models, handle sequences of data where the order of the data points is important, such as sentences, time-series data, etc. They are designed to process one part of the sequence at a time and maintain a kind of memory (in the form of hidden states) of what has been seen so far. This allows them to capture patterns over time and use this information to make predictions about future data points in the sequence. Examples include causal language transformers (CLTs) like GPT.

Interestingly enough, the accuracy of the different types of models was observed to vary with time from the word onset. And the moments of high correlation of each model type corresponded with the activation of certain brain regions.

In early visual responses – less than 150 ms, when subjects would first see a word – brain activations were in the primary visual cortex and correlated best with activations in visual models, convolutional neural networks (CNNs).

At around 200 ms these brain activations were conveyed to the posterior fusiform gyrus. At the same time lexical models like Word2Vec started to correlate better than CNNs. This tracks with the hypothesis that the fusiform gyrus is responsible for orthographic and morphemic computations.

Around 400 ms brain activations were present in a broad fronto-temporo-parietal network that peaked in the left temporal gyrus. At this point lexical models like Word2Vec also correlated with the entire language network. These word representations were then sustained for several seconds, suggesting a widespread distribution of meaning in the brain.

Around 500-600 ms there were complex recurrent dynamics dominated by both visual and lexical representations.

After 800 ms, brain activations were present in the prefrontal, parietal, and temporal lobes. At the same time compositional models like causal language transformers (CLTs) correlated better than lexical models. The team speculated that these late responses might be due to the complexity of the sentences used in this study, potentially delaying compositional computations.

The researchers concluded from their experiment that the results show that deep learning algorithms partially converge toward brain-like solutions.

In “Shared computational principles for language processing in humans and deep language models”, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2022 by Goldstein et al. the researchers compared the responses of human participants and autoregressive deep language models (DLMs) to the text of a 30-minute podcast.

The authors note that human language has traditionally been explained by psycholinguistic approaches using interpretable models that combine symbolic elements, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with rule-based operations. This is similar to the kind of traditional programming that Hubert Dreyfus argued would not be viable for AI. In contrast, autoregressive Deep Language Models (DLMs) learn language from real-world textual examples, with minimal or no explicit prior knowledge about language structure. They do not parse words into parts of speech or apply explicit syntactic transformations. Instead, these models learn to encode a sequence of words into a numerical vector, termed a contextual embedding, from which the model decodes the next word. Autoregressive DLMs, such as GPT-2, have demonstrated effectiveness in capturing the structure of language. But the open question is whether the core computational principles of these models relate to how the human brain processes language. The authors present their experimental findings as evidence that human brains process incoming speech in a manner similar to an autoregressive DLM.

In the first experimental setup, participants proceeded word by word through a 30-minute transcribed podcast, providing a prediction of each upcoming word. Both the human participants and GPT-2 were able to predict words well above chance. And there was high overlap in the accuracy of the predictions of human subjects and GPT-2 for individual words, i.e. words that human subjects predicted well GPT-2 also predicted well. This experiment was determined to demonstrate that listeners can accurately predict upcoming words when explicitly instructed to do so, and that human predictions and autoregressive DLM predictions are matched in this context. Next the researchers wanted to determine if the human brain, like an autoregressive DLM, is continuously engaged in spontaneous next-word prediction without such explicit instruction. And whether neural signals actually contain information about the words being predicted.

In the next experimental setup, the researchers used electrocorticography (ECoG) to measure neural responses of human participants before and after word-onset. Subjects engaged in free listening, without being given any explicit instruction to predict upcoming words. The goal was to see if our brains engage in such prediction all the time as simply a natural part of language comprehension.

The results from human subjects in this experiment were also compared to models. The first model used was a static word embedding model, GloVe. The model was used to localize electrodes containing reliable responses to single words in the narrative. The words were aligned with neural signals and then the model would be trained to predict neural signals from word embeddings. A series of coefficients corresponding to features of the word embedding was learned using linear regression to predict the neural signal across words from the assigned embeddings. “The model was evaluated by computing the correlation between the reconstructed signal and the actual signal” for the word.

In the results of this experiment there was indeed found to be a neural signal before word onset. But what the model also enabled the researchers to do was ascertain some kind of semantic content from that signal, since the model had been trained to predict certain neural signals for given words. What was observed was that “the neural responses before word onset contained information about human predictions regarding the identity of the next word. Crucially, the encoding was high for both correct and incorrect predictions. This demonstrated that pre-word-onset neural activity contains information about what listeners actually predicted, irrespective of what they subsequently perceived.” Of course, sometimes the subject’s predictions were wrong. So what happened in those cases? “The neural responses after word onset contained information about the words that were actually perceived.” So “the encoding before word onset was aligned with the content of the predicted words” and “ the encoding after word onset was aligned with the content of the perceived words.” This all aligns with what we would expect under a predictive processing (PP) model of the brain.

The next level of analysis was to replace the static embedding model (GloVe) with a contextual embedding model (GPT-2) to determine if this would improve the ability to predict the neural signals to each word. It did; an indication that contextual embedding is a closer approximation to the computational principles underlying human language. And the improved correlation from contextual embedding was found to be localized to specific brain regions. “Encoding based on contextual embeddings resulted in statistically significant correlations” in electrodes that “were not significantly predicted by static embedding. The additional electrodes revealed by contextual embedding were mainly located in higher-order language areas with long processing timescales along the inferior frontal gyrus, temporal pole, posterior superior temporal gyrus, parietal lobe and angular gyrus.” The authors concluded from this that “the brain is coding for the semantic relationship among words contained in static embeddings while also being tuned to the unique contextual relationship between the specific word and the preceding words in the sequence.”

The authors submit that DLMs provide a new modeling framework that drastically departs from classical psycholinguistic models. They are not designed to learn a concise set of interpretable syntactic rules to be implemented in novel situations, nor do they rely on part of speech concepts or other linguistic terms. Instead, they learn from surface-level linguistic behavior to predict and generate the contextually appropriate linguistic outputs. And they propose that their experiments provide compelling behavioral and neural evidence for shared computational principles between the way the human brain and autoregressive DLMs process natural language.

In “Explaining neural activity in human listeners with deep learning via natural language processing of narrative text”, published in Scientific Reports in 2022 by Russo et al. human participants listened to a short story, both forward and backward. Their brain responses were measured by functional MRI. Text versions of the same story were tokenized and submitted to GPT-2. Both the brain signal data and GPT-2 outputs were fed into a general linear model to encode the fMRI signals.

The 2 outputs researchers looked at from GPT-2 were surprisal and saliency. Surprisal is a measure of the information content associated with an event, in terms of its unexpectedness or rarity. The more unlikely an event, the higher its surprisal. It is defined mathematically as the negative logarithm of the probability of the event. Saliency refers to the quality by which an object stands out relative to its neighbors. In a text it’s the importance or prominence of certain words, phrases, or topics, a measure of how much a particular text element stands out relative to others in the same context.

What they found in their results was that the surprisal from GPT-2 correlated with the neural signals in the superior and middle temporal gyri, in the anterior and posterior cingulate cortices, and in the left prefrontal cortex. Saliency from GPT-2 correlated with the neural signals for longer segments in the left superior and middle temporal gyri.

The authors proposed that their results corroborated the idea that word-level prediction is accurately indexed by the surprisal metric and that the neural activation observed from the saliency scores suggests the co-occurrence of a weighing mechanism operating on the context words. This was something previously hypothesized as necessary to language comprehension.

The involvement of areas in the middle and the superior temporal gyrus aligns with previous studies supporting that core aspects of language comprehension, such as maintaining intermediate representations active in working memory and predicting upcoming words, do not necessarily engage areas in the executive control network but are instead performed by language-selective brain areas that, in this case, are the ones relatively early in the processing hierarchy.

I found the following comment in the discussion section of the paper quite interesting: “In general, considering that the architecture of artificial neural networks was originally inspired by the same principles of biological neural networks, it might be not at all surprising that some specific dynamics observed in the former are somehow reflected in the functioning of the latter.” I think that’s an interesting point. The whole idea of artificial neural networks came from biological neural networks. We were basically trying to do something similar to what neurons do. We don’t know exhaustively how biological neural networks work but we do know that they work very well. When we are finally able to make artificial networks that work quite well it’s perhaps to be expected that they would have similar characteristics as biological neural networks.

The other two papers were perspective papers. These didn’t present the results of experiments but discussed what I thought were some interesting ideas relating to the whole interchange between language processing in the human brain and in deep learning models.

In “Direct Fit to Nature: An Evolutionary Perspective on Biological and Artificial Neural Networks”, published in Neuron in 2020 by Hasson et al. the authors covered several topics. One thing they addressed that I found interesting was a challenge to three basic assumptions of cognitive psychology. These assumptions are:

1. The brain’s computational resources are limited and the underlying neural code must be optimized for particular functions. They attribute this to Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

2. The brain’s inputs are ambiguous and too impoverished for learning without built-in knowledge. They attribute this to Noam Chomsky.

3. Shallow, externally supervised and self-supervised methods are not sufficient for learning. They attribute this to Steven Pinker.

In response to the first assumption the authors argue that the brain’s computational resources are actually not scarce. “Each cubic millimeter of cortex contains hundreds of thousands of neurons with millions of adjustable synaptic weights, and BNNs utilize complex circuit motifs hierarchically organized across many poorly understood cortical areas. Thus, relative to BNNs, ANNs are simplistic and minuscule.” Artificial neural networks are indeed trained on huge amounts of data. GPT-4 is essentially trained on the whole internet. Human children don’t learn to talk by reading the whole internet; that’s true. But the human brain is also a lot more complex than even the most sophisticated artificial neural networks; so far at least. So if GPT-4 is able to perform so impressively with a structure that’s less sophisticated than the human brain we can expect that the human brain’s computational resources are hardly scarce.

In response to the second assumption the authors argue that the brain’s input is not impoverished. Noam Chomsky, arguably the most important linguist of the 20th century, argued for what he called the “poverty of the stimulus,” meaning that the linguistic input children receive is often incomplete, ungrammatical, or otherwise imperfect. But they still manage to learn their native language effectively. How? Chomsky proposed that there is a “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD) within the human brain. This hypothetical module is thought to be equipped with knowledge of a “Universal Grammar,” which encapsulates the structural rules common to all human languages. But Hasson et al. argue that there is no poverty of the stimulus because deep learning models can produce direct fit with reliable interpretations using dense and broad sampling for the parameter space. The model is casting a very wide net. They state: “One of our main insights is that dense sampling changes the nature of the problem and exposes the power of direct-fit interpolation-based learning… The unexpected power of ANNs to discover unintuitive structure in the world suggests that our attempts to intuitively quantify the statistical structure in the world may fall short. How confident are we that multimodal inputs are in fact not so rich?” By the way, I was sharing a draft of this with a friend who shared another recent paper with me by UC Berkeley professor Steven Piantadosi, titled “Modern language models refute Chomsky’s approach to language”. I’m not going to get into that now but just thought I’d mention it.

In response to the third assumption the authors argue that shallow self-supervision and external-supervision are sufficient for learning. The authors cite Pinker’s book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language as an example of the view that they are challenging. Pinker’s views are very similar to Chomsky’s. Pinker argues that language learning is not just about imitation or conditioning. Instead, he believes that the human brain has an inherent structure for understanding language, which is why children are able to learn languages so rapidly and effortlessly, often making grammatical leaps that aren’t explicitly taught or present in their environment. But Hasson et al. argue that humans have a great deal of external supervision from our environment, both social and physical. They refer to the importance of embodiment to predictive processing, referring to the ideas of Andy Clark and Karl Friston, among others.

Another subject the authors address is the issue of interpretability. This goes back to the Verum factum principle from Vico. Scientific models, including those in neuroscience, are often evaluated based on two desirable features: (1) interpretability and (2) generalization. We want explanations to have good predictive power but we also want to be able to understand them. Not just verify that they work. If it’s an equation we like to be able to look at an equation and be able to intuit how it works. And this means that the equation can’t be too long or have too many parameters. However, interpretability and generalization are often in conflict. Models with good interpretability may have strong explanatory appeal but poor predictive power, and vice versa.

The authors suggest that the brain is an exceptionally over-parameterized modeling organ. Interpretability in the brain is intractable for the same reason interpretability of deep learning models is intractable. They work with a huge number of parameters. There’s quantification occurring but it’s not like a concise equation that you can look at in grasp intellectually. The authors propose that neural computation relies on brute-force direct fitting, which uses over-parameterized optimization algorithms to enhance predictive power, i.e. generalization, without explicitly modeling the underlying generative structure of the world.

One thing that’s really nice about this paper (and I highly recommend it by the way, it’s a delightful read) is its 3 “boxes” that touch on some key concepts. One box covers the biomimicry of biological neural networks by artificial neural networks. The authors state that artificial neural networks (ANNs) are learning models that draw inspiration from the biological neural networks (BNNs) present in living brains, but that ANNs are a highly abstracted version of BNNs. Some biological nervous systems include functional specialized system-level components like the hippocampus, striatum, thalamus, and hypothalamus, elements not included in contemporary ANNs. ANNs are also disembodied and do not closely interact with the environment in a closed-loop manner. While the authors concede that ANNs are indeed highly simplified models of BNNs, they propose that there exist some essential similarities: they both belong to the same group of over-parameterized, direct-fit models that depend on dense sampling for learning task-relevant structures in data. And, crucially, ANNs are currently the only models that achieve human-like behavioral performance in many domains and can offer unanticipated insights into both the strengths and limitations of the direct-fit approach. Like BNNs, ANNs are founded on a collection of connected nodes known as artificial neurons or units that loosely resemble neurons in a biological nervous system. Each connection, akin to synapses in BNNs, links one artificial neuron to another, and the strength of these connections can be adjusted through learning. The connections between artificial neurons have weights that are adjusted during the learning process based on supervised feedback or reward signals. The weight amplifies or reduces the strength of a connection. And much like BNNs, ANNs are sometimes organized into layers.

Another “box” addresses embodiment. This is something the philosopher Andy Clark has addressed a lot in his work. Not to mention, going further back, the philosopher Maruice Merleau-Ponty. At present, ANNs are disembodied and unable to actively sample or modify their world. The brain does not operate with strictly defined training and test regimes as found in machine learning. Objective functions in BNNs must satisfy certain body-imposed constraints to behave adaptively when interacting with the world. The authors suggest that adding a body to current ANNs, capable of actively sampling and interacting with the world, along with ways to directly interact with other networks, could increase the network’s learning capacity and reduce the gaps between BNNs and ANNs. Interestingly enough, they cite Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” when addressing the way social others direct our learning processes.

One other topic in the paper that I found interesting was a discussion of “System 1” and “System 2”. This model was made most famous by Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. The authors cite Jonathan St B. T. Evans’s 1984 paper “Heuristic and analytic processes in reasoning”. And there are earlier precedents for the general idea going back further in history. System 1 represents fast, automatic, and intuitive thinking, what Evans called heuristic processes. And System 2 represents slow, effortful, and deliberate thinking, what Evans called analytic processes. Hasson et al. propose that we can understand System 1 to be a kind of substrate from which System 2 can arise. System 2 is where things get really interesting. That’s where we find some of the most impressive capacities of the human mind. But they maintain that we have to start with System 1 and build from there. They state: “Although the human mind inspires us to touch the stars, it is grounded in the mindless billions of direct-fit parameters of System 1.” They see artificial neural networks as having the most relevance toward explaining System 1 processes. And the thing is we seem to be continually finding that System 1 includes more than we might have thought. “Every day, new ANN architectures are developed using direct-fit procedures to learn and perform more complex cognitive functions, such as driving, translating languages, learning calculus, or making a restaurant reservation–functions that were historically assumed to be under the jurisdiction of System 2.” 

In “A deep learning framework for neuroscience”, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2019 by Richards et al. the authors focus on three key features of artificial neural network design – (1) objective functions, (2) learning rules, and (3) architectures – and address how these design components can impact neuroscience.

The authors observe that when the traditional framework for systems neuroscience was formulated, they could only collect data from a small selection of neurons. Under this framework, a scientist observes neural activity, formulates a theory of what individual neurons compute, and then constructs a circuit-level theory of how these neurons integrate their operations. However, the question arises as to whether this traditional framework can scale up to accommodate recordings from thousands of neurons and all of the behaviors that one might want to explain. It’s arguable that the classical approach hasn’t seen as much success when applied to large neural circuits that perform a variety of functions, such as the neocortex or hippocampus. These limitations of the classical framework suggest that new methodologies are necessary to capitalize on experimental advancements.

At their fundamental level, ANNs model neural computation using simplified units that loosely emulate the integration and activation properties of real neurons. The specific computations performed by ANNs are not designed but learned. When setting up ANNs, scientists don’t shape the specific computations performed by the network. Instead, they establish the three components mentioned previously: objective functions, learning rules, and architecture. Objective functions measure the network’s performance on a task, and learning involves finding synaptic weights that maximize or minimize this objective function. These are often referred to as ‘loss’ or ‘cost’ functions. Learning rules offer a guide for updating the synaptic weights. And architectures dictate the arrangement of units in the network and determine the flow of information, as well as the computations the network can or cannot learn.

Richards et al. make an observation about interpretability similar to that made by Hasson et al. The computations that emerge in large-scale ANNs trained on high-dimensional datasets can be hard to interpret. An ANN can be constructed with a few lines of code, and for each unit in an ANN, the equations determining their responses to stimuli or relationships to behavior can be specified. But after training, a network is characterized by millions of weights that collectively encode what the network has learned, and it is difficult to envision how such a system could be described with only a few parameters, let alone in words. They suggest that we think about this in the following way. Theories can have a compact explanation that can be expressed in relatively few words that can then be used to develop more complex, non-compact models. They give the theory of evolution by natural selection as a comparative example. The underlying principle is fairly simple and comprehensible, even if the actual mechanics that emerge from it are very complex. For systems neuroscience we can start with these three relatively simple and comprehensible principles: objective functions, learning rules, and architecture. Then even though the system that emerges from that is too complex to comprehend at least the underlying principles are comprehensible and give some degree of intuitive understanding.


Something that I find exciting about all this is that it’s an interesting interface between philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and programming. I think that some of the most interesting problems out there are philosophical problems. Even many scientific problems transition into philosophical problems eventually. But our philosophy needs periodic grounding in the world of empirical observations. What we might call armchair philosophy runs the danger of getting untethered from reality. In the philosophy of mind we can speculate about a lot of things that don’t work out very well in neuroscience. That’s not to say that philosophy of mind has to be entirely bounded by neuroscience. Just because human minds work in a certain way doesn’t mean that minds of any kind would have to be constrained in the same way. There could be many different ways for minds to work. But if we’re theorizing about ways other types of minds might work we don’t, at present, have ways to verify that they actually would work. With theories about human minds we can at least try to verify them. Even that’s kind of challenging though because the brain is so complex and difficult to observe directly at high resolution.

Still, there’s a lot about our brains that we do know that we can take into account in our theories of the mind. We know that our brains have neurons and that neurons make synaptic connections. And we know that those synaptic connections can strengthen or weaken. We can at least account for that in our theories. Artificial neural networks patterned after biological neural networks are useful tools to model our brains. We can’t go into every synaptic cleft in the brain to sample its flux of neurotransmitters. Or record the firing frequency of every neuron in the brain. That would be great but we just don’t have that capability. With artificial neural networks, as imperfect approximations as they are, we at least have recorded information for billions of parameters, even if their sheer quantity defies comprehension. And we can try out different configurations to see how well they work.

Another subtopic that’s interested me for a while is the possibility of what I call a general theory of mind. “General” in the sense of applying beyond just the special case of human minds, a theory of the human mind being a “special” theory of mind. What other kinds of minds might there be? What are all the different ways that a mind can work? AI might give us the ability to simulate and test more general and exotic possibilities and to extract the general principles they all hold in common.

I think the recent success of these large language models is quite exciting. Maybe a little bit frightening. But I’m mostly excited to see what we can learn.

The AI Revolution

Jared, Mike, and Todd talk about ChatGPT and the AI revolution, particularly the remarkable developments of the last year and 6 months (2022-2023). We talk briefly about how neural networks and large language models work. Then we get into the possible social, economic, aesthetic, and even existential implications for humanity. We talk about the possibility of this being a major positive breakthrough of the first order, with revolutionary implications for human prosperity and standard of living. But we also talk about the risks, ranging from an eclipsing of human distinctiveness and creativity to a threat to humanity’s very survival. Overall, we have a hunch that something big is happening and we want to talk about it!

The Practice of Prayer

There is a condition of looking for something without knowing what we are looking for, or even that we are looking for anything at all. Augustine called it restlessness. Jesus described it as a thing that we would ask for if we knew to ask for it. It is a thirst for living water that will quench all thirst. All religions give witness to this act of reaching out. Jesus taught us to reach out by calling upon God in prayer. Prayer is not just one act among many. It works directly on that essential thirst that can only be satisfied in God.

With this episode I’d like to talk about some things I’ve been studying about prayer. This may be one of the most practical topics I’ve ever gotten into since it’s essentially about a practice, something that you do. We can talk about it and reflect on it, which is what I’ll be doing here. But prayer is ultimately a spiritual practice. Theology can certainly be theoretical and intellectual. And that’s something that I really like about it. But I always try to remember something that Evagrius Ponticus (345 – 399) said about theology: “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

I try to live my life in imitation of Christ and one thing that stands out to me in the scriptures is that Jesus prayed. And I think this is very significant. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Again and again the Gospels note that Jesus withdrew ‘to the mountain’ to spend nights in prayer ‘alone’ with his Father. These short passages are fundamental for our understanding of Jesus; they lift the veil of mystery just a little; they give us a glimpse into Jesus’ filial existence, into the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang. This ‘praying’ of Jesus is the Son conversing with the Father; Jesus’ human consciousness and will, his human soul, is taken up into that exchange, and in this way human ‘praying’ is able to become a participation in this filial communion with the Father.” (7)

As is typical with Benedict, he packs a lot into very condensed passages. Three points stand out to me here about Jesus’ practice of prayer.

1. It is fundamental for our understanding of him.

2. It is the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang.

3. Our prayer is a way of participating in the communion that Jesus has with the Father.

That prayer was something fundamental to Jesus’ behavior and identity was apparently something that his disciples noticed as well. On one occasion after he returned from prayer they asked him to instruct them.

“And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” (John 11:1, KJV)

And we have many examples in the Gospels of Jesus teaching about prayer and how to pray, especially in Luke.

As I’ve reflected on prayer I keep sensing its great importance. It’s such a simple thing. And we even tend to dismiss it as insignificant. Like many things, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is politicized and maybe that’s an apt indicator of our attitudes about prayer, that it’s something empty and ineffectual. And it’s certainly true that prayer can be empty and vain. Jesus even said as much (Matthew 6:5-8). But I actually believe that sincere prayer, far from being empty and ineffectual, is actually the most important thing that we can do. If we want to change the world, starting especially with changing ourselves, we must pray.

Prayer touches on the fundamental issues of who we are and what we exist for. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said to God in his Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself.” Why do we exist? We exist for God. That’s not what most of us think. We may think we exist for any number of other things, or nothing at all. We could say, as Jesus said to Martha, that we “are worried and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41, NKJV). Ultimately all of these things, all our desires, interests, projects, and concerns are imperfect reflections of the most fundamental and innate desire for our creator and sustainer. But we often don’t know that that’s what we’re looking for, or even that we’re looking for anything at all.

Each of us is, in many ways, the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus said:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NKJV)

What an interesting hypothetical. You would be asking for something. You’re not asking for it now. But you would ask for it if you knew about it. It’s this fascinating situation where we’re looking for something without knowing what we are looking for or even that we are looking for anything at all.

I think this is an apt description of the human condition generally. There’s this kind of generalized discontent and incompleteness to our existence. Augustine called it restlessness.

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 

I think a scripturally appropriate term would be thirst. Jesus described the object of this thirst as “living water”:

“Whoever drinks of this water [meaning literal, physical water] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14, NKJV)

This living water is both our source and purpose. It’s the culmination of all our longing but we know, both from scripture and just from experience, that the challenges of finding it are significant. Paul said we seek in the hope that we might grope for and find the Unknown God, even “though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27, NKJV)  Paul also acknowledged that prayer itself is difficult: “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

In my conversations with fellow Christians we’ve shared this experience that prayer can be difficult. We don’t feel like we’re doing it right or that we’re making that spiritual connection with God. That’s a common experience and has been from the beginning. But we have help. Paul said:

“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

It seems appropriate and perfect to me that the Spirit would intercede for our nondescript, generalized restlessness for the Unknown God with unutterable groanings. Even if we don’t know what we’re looking for or that we’re looking for anything at all the Spirit can intercede and act on this most vague longing with groanings which cannot be uttered.

Something that I’ve found helpful in the practice of prayer is making use of the different forms of prayer from the Christian tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies three major expressions of the life of prayer in the Christian tradition (2699, 2721):

Vocal Prayer


Contemplative Prayer

I find that one or the other of these three expressions of prayer is often most suitable at certain times. I think that sometimes we find prayer difficult because we only know of one form. And even though that one form may be very suitable in many situations it might not be most suitable in others. I’ve found it helpful to weave these three forms together in my practice of prayer.

I tend to think of these three expressions of prayer as sitting on a spectrum of expressibility and expressive content. Vocal prayer is most characterized by expressible content in the sentences that we speak. Contemplative prayer mostly transcends anything that can be expressed in words. And meditation, centering mostly in the words scripture and the life of Christ, sits between vocal prayer and contemplative prayer in its degree of expressibility.

The first major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is vocal prayer. There are a couple things that strike me about Jesus’s teachings about vocal prayer. And I think they’re related. The first is that in our petitions we must have faith. The second is that we should be relentless in our petitions. I think those two things are related. And they strike me because I don’t feel like I live in an age and culture where we really believe in miracles, especially not to a degree that we would pursue them relentlessly in our prayers. Part of that may be our secularism. And part of it may be a concern that relentlessness would be irreverently presumptuous. But Jesus seemed to have precious little concern about presumptuousness. Consider the following parable:

“Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, Get justice for me from my adversary. And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. Then the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, NKJV)

Jesus was insistent that God is the most disposed to grant petitions for those who seek after them.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-12, NKJV)

I’m struck by the directness and complete lack of qualification in these teachings. But if you’re like me you have doubts that it can really be so straightforward. Why? Because we’ve all had the experience that Jesus’s disciples had, where we pursued a miracle that didn’t come:

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it [the demon] out? So Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:19-21, NKJV)

We’ve all had this experience. We pray for something and we don’t get it. I’ve even considered this an important spiritual developmental step, moving from a more naive conception of God to one that’s more sophisticated, where we can appreciate the various reasons that our petitions in prayer might not be granted. But I’m coming around to question that. I wonder if we’re too quick in our sophistication to enable underdeveloped faith.

This is why I think prayer, far from being vain and ineffectual, is the most important thing we can do. We need, as individuals and as societies and nations, things that we cannot produce on our own. We need God to intervene. There are societies and sub-cultures where these things do happen, where people expect, pursue, and receive miracles. God knows how to give good gifts to his children.

The second major expression of prayer in Christian tradition is meditation. Meditation might not be something we popularly associate with Christianity but it’s definitely part of the tradition. It’s often facilitated by texts of scripture and devotional writings. Also visual arts like icons. Lectio divina is one venerable practice of reading scripture for the special purpose of focusing and meditating on it in prayer. I often use one of the Psalms for this purpose. Events from the life of Christ are also very powerful. 

The Rosary is a classic example of a practice of prayer that is focused on events from the life of Christ. Each cycle of the Rosary goes through five “Mysteries” from the life of Christ.

The Joyful Mysteries are:

  • The Annunciation
  • The Visitation
  • The Nativity
  • The Presentation in the Temple
  • The Finding in the Temple

The Sorrowful Mysteries are

  • The Agony in the Garden
  • The Scourging at the Pillar
  • The Crowning with Thorns
  • The Carrying of the Cross
  • The Crucifixion and Death

The Glorious Mysteries are

  • The Resurrection
  • The Ascension
  • The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  • The Assumption
  • The Coronation of Mary

The Luminous Mysteries are

  • The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan
  • The Wedding Feast at Cana
  • Jesus’ Proclamation of the Coming of the Kingdom of God
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Institution of the Eucharist

We can read the accounts of these events in scripture and learn about their contents. But in meditative prayer we can go deeper into them to be moved and edified by them. As an example, concerning the mystery of the Carrying of the Cross, Bishop Robert Barron remarked that, “Carrying the cross must become the very structure of the Christian life.” This idea has had a profound impact on me as I’ve meditated on it.

Something I enjoy about scripture is that it’s very intellectually challenging and stimulating. And interdisciplinary. It involves topics of history, philosophy, and linguistics. I think that’s wonderful. But I think there’s sometimes a temptation to compete over who can be the most knowledgeable about the content of scripture. I don’t think that serves the purposes of scripture at all. In The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis (1380 – 1471) warned: “If you wish to derive profit from your reading of Scripture, do it with humility, simplicity, and faith; at no time use it to gain a reputation for being one who is learned.” (Book I, Chapter V) Rather, Thomas said: “Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.” (Book I, Chapter I)

In addition to meditation of the life of Christ I cannot speak highly enough about the edifying influence of the Psalms. I’ve said at times, and I still think it’s true, that the fastest way to learn about the narrative arc of the Old Testament is to read 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. And of course those four books are books of holy scripture, so well worth reading. But I think now that the most direct path into the spiritual world of the Old Testament is in the Psalms. I admit that I didn’t always appreciate them and couldn’t get into them. Maybe I wasn’t ready for them. But I really appreciate them now. Sometimes if I find it difficult to get into prayer the Psalms are a great way to get started, to get into the right frame of mind.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes (3:1), there is a Psalm for every season.

Psalms of joy:

“O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97, KJV)

“How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119: 103, KJV)

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:103, KJV)

“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.” (Psalm 150:6, KJV)

Psalms of grief and frustration:

“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” (Psalm 13:1, KJV)

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

And Psalms of reflection:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, KJV)

“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:1, KJV)

In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Psalms are words that the Holy Spirit has given to men; they are God’s Spirit become word.” (131) Speaking about the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer he remarks that certain formulaic prayers like these can help us to get started in prayer and in approaching God.

“Our prayer can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church… In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a ‘school of prayer’ that transforms and opens up our life… Normally, thought precedes word; it seems to formulate the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way around: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not ‘know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26) – we  are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.” (130-131)

The third major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is contemplative prayer. This is the form of prayer that I think of as being the furthest on the spectrum away from expressibility and expressive content. In the Eastern Christian tradition it’s sometimes called “hesychasm”, derived from the Greek hesychia (ἡσυχία), meaning “stillness, rest, quiet, or silence”. Another descriptive term is “apophatic”, from the Greek apophēmi (ἀπόφημι), meaning “to deny”, which is characterized by negative content rather than positive content. I sometimes think of it as empty space into which the Spirit can freely enter. 

Perhaps appropriately some of the greatest spiritual writers in this tradition are anonymous (or pseudonymous). One lived sometime in the 5th or 6th century, writing under the pseudonym Dionysius, whose major work was On The Divine Names. Another was an English writer living sometime in the 14th century, whose major work was The Cloud of Unknowing.

Contemplative prayer is the most unexpressible form of prayer, but it often still involves single words or phases, similar to a mantra in Indian religious traditions. In The Cloud of Unknowing the author instructs that we should use one word of just one syllable in which to enfold our intent:

“If you like, you can have this reaching out, wrapped up and enfolded in a single word. So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two; for the shorter it is the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word ‘God’ or the word ‘love.’ Choose which one you prefer, or any other according to your liking – the word of one syllable that you like the best. Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness about you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting.” (Chapter VII, James Walsh edition)

Other contemplatives haven’t necessarily restricted themselves to one word alone but have also used phrases. The most notable example, especially in Eastern Christianity, is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is this:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The scriptural roots of this prayer are in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (NKJV)

Paul, in his first letter to the Thassolonians, counseled to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Jesus Prayer is traditionally thought to be a prayer that a person can eventually learn to pray continually at every moment. In the 19th century Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim learns to pray without ceasing by incorporating the Jesus Prayer into his very breath.

“Begin bringing the whole prayer of Jesus into and out of your heart in time with your breathing, as the Fathers taught. Thus, as you draw your breath in, say, or imagine yourself saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and as you breathe again, ‘have mercy on me.’ Do this as often and as much as you can, and in a short space of time you will feel a slight and not unpleasant pain in your heart, followed by a warmth. Thus by God’s help you will get the joy of self-acting inward prayer of the heart.”

I have found the Jesus Prayer to be the most powerful prayer for my practice of contemplation.

The Cloud of Unknowing invites what I interpret to be an inversion in perspective and attitude toward the experience of unknowing. Usually we want to know things but when we approach God in his infinity we find ourselves unable to comprehend him because he exceeds our comprehension. But this very experience of unknowability is itself a form of knowledge. It is in this cloud of unknowing that we must dwell.

“This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness. So if you labour at it with all your attention as I bid you, I trust, in his mercy, that you will reach this point.” (Chapter III)

In scripture the cloud is often where we find and hear the voice of God.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud.” (Matthew 17:5, NKJV)

“Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain.” (Exodus 24:16-18, NKJV)

The cloud is not an easy place to be. It requires practice and conditioning. As the author says, “So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can”.

The author also counsels that such contemplation is the one act that it is not possible to pursue to excess.

“If you ask me the further question, how you are to apply discretion in this exercise, I answer and say, ‘none at all!’ In all your other activities you are to have discretion, in eating and drinking, in sleeping, and in protecting your body from the extremes of heat and cold, in the length of time you give to prayer or reading or to conversation with your fellow-Christians. In all these things you are to observe moderation, avoiding excess and defect. But in this exercise there is no question of moderation; I would prefer that you should never leave off as long as you live.” (Chapter 41)

Not only is excess of contemplation not a possibility or a problem. Unrestrained indulgence in contemplation also rightly orders the soul in regards to all other things, such that they are not taken to excess, but in proper measure.

“Now perhaps you will ask how you shall observe prudence in eating and sleeping and everything else. My answer to this is brief enough: ‘Understand it as best you can.’ Work at this exercise without ceasing and without moderation, and you will know where to begin and to end all your other activities with great discretion. I cannot believe that a soul who perseveres in this exercise night and day without moderation should ever make a mistake in any of his external activities.” (Chapter 42)

Why might this be? The Catechism says, “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus.” (2715) With a gaze fixed on Christ all other things become rightly ordered and proportioned. As Jesus said:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, KJV)

I think this coheres with what I said earlier about how I believe prayer is the most important thing we can do. Because prayer, especially prayer of contemplation focuses our gaze singly on Christ. Jesus said to Martha: “You are worried and troubled about many things.” (Luke 10:41, NKJV) That’s all of us. The Greek word merimnao (μεριμνάω), to be anxious, is a word I always pay close attention to in the New Testament when I see it. It occurs a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: me merimnate (μὴ μεριμνᾶτε), do not worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on… For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25; 32-33, NKJV) As Jesus said to Martha: “One thing is needed.” (Luke 10:42, NKJV) That one thing is the gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus in prayer.

A Brief History of Secular Thought

A brief history of secular thought from the Enlightenment to the present, looking at how it has been shaped by culture and events. We start in the Enlightenment with Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine. Moving into the nineteenth century we look at literary influences like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Carlyle, then social critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. Charles Darwin takes a central position in the nineteenth century, followed by expositors like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. And we conclude the nineteenth century with Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God. We start the twentieth century with Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell and look at satirical writers at the turn of the century like like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. We conclude the twentieth century with Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan and start off the twenty-first century with the New Atheists.

I’ve titled this episode “A Brief History of Secular Thought”, which is kind of funny because it’s one of the longest episodes I’ve done. But it’s brief relative to the potential scope of the subject matter. For example, Charles Taylor’s book on the subject, A Secular Age, is 896 pages. Tyler Roberts’ Teaching Company course, Skeptics and Believers, is 18.5 hours in length. So by comparison the following will be a brief history of secular thought.

Why study secular thought? Well for one thing it’s just interesting. But it’s also important for both secular and religious people to be familiar with it in order to understand the history of the ideas that they hold and respond to. One of the thinkers discussed in what follows, Friedrich Nietzsche, would employ in his philosophy what he called a “genealogy” of ideas. This kind of genealogy explores the history of certain ideas in order to see how they have been dependent on events and cultural conditions of that history. Genealogy reveals how ideas are not absolute but rather contingent; they have a history and could have developed differently than they did. In what follows one of the aims is to situate and contextualize secular thought.

In Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age he introduced a number of terms and concepts that he used to study the development of secular thought. One of these concepts is the “subtraction story”. James K.A. Smith, in his commentary on Taylor’s book, defined subtraction stories as: “Accounts that explain ‘the secular’ as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition.” (How (Not) To Be Secular) In a subtraction story secular thought is decontextualized and we lose sight of its contingency as a cultural construct. In Taylor’s words subtraction stories are:

“Stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.” (A Secular Age, 21)

A subtraction story of the secular might be something of this form: Humans used to have all kinds of superstitious beliefs because we didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand how things really work. But with the rise of modern science we don’t need those superstitions anymore. We used to use religion to help us cope with the hardships of life. But our increased scientific knowledge has brought about technology that has made us wealthier and healthier in ways that religion never could. Now we can cast religion aside and see things as they really are and always were.

As an alternative to this Taylor spends his book arguing that the secular is constructed. It’s a cultural construct shaped by a contingent history of development.

“Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” (ibid. 21)

By looking at secular thought as a cultural construct I think we’re doing something much more interesting than just a simple deconstruction or takedown of it. Sort of in the way people say that atheism is just another religion, which always strikes me as a bit of an unintentional self-own; I don’t like to use “religion” as a pejorative because I think religion is a good thing. I don’t think that seeing secular thought as a construct rather than in terms of a subtraction story discredits it. Instead I think it gives a fuller and more accurate picture of it. If secular thought as we have it today has been shaped by the contingent events of history we can go back through history and see those decisive points where the ideas we take for granted today started to develop. We can certainly do the same with religious thought, which is basically historical theology, and that is also a valuable exercise.

In what follows I’d like to discuss some of the major figures who shaped the development of secular thought. Two important questions leading into that are: (1) where to start and (2) who to include? Christopher Hitchens edited a volume called The Portable Atheist with writings from many such key figures. And I think his list was pretty good. His first selection is from Lucretius (99 BC – 55 BC). That’s definitely a solid pick but I’m going to narrow my focus to modernity, starting with the Enlightenment. On who to include I’ve focused on: (1) people who are generally considered important in this kind of history, (2) people whose ideas are still in the air today, even if we don’t always name them, and (3) people who were highly influential and popular in their day, who were bestsellers. I think this last point is important because cultural construction of a worldview, or what Taylor calls a “social imaginary”, is about more than just who can make the most logical or academically respectable argument. It’s also about influence. Who were people talking about in parlors and taverns? Today, who are people discussing in book clubs and on social media? Those are the people who are major culture shapers, regardless of their credentials.

It will help to do a quick overview first to see where all of this is going. So here’s a brief summary of the trajectory. Our starting point will be in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. Any starting point is arbitrary and there were definitely developments that led into this period. For example, there were important ideas from people like Spinoza, Bacon, and Hobbes. So it’s worth mentioning them in passing. Starting in the eighteenth century Voltaire and Denis Diderot were two important intellectuals, or philosophes, with a secularizing influence in France. In the English-speaking world important Enlightenment figures included David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine is especially interesting because he had transnational influence in America, Great Britain, and France. All these men were quite characteristic of the eighteenth century. They tended to embrace deism which, while still technically theist, was moving far from orthodox Christian theism.

In the nineteenth century important intellectual and cultural developments included Romanticism, higher Biblical criticism, Hegelianism, socialism, and evolution. All of these had secularizing influences. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet and essayist who went beyond deism and promoted atheism in the strongest sense, both explicitly and figuratively, in his writing. Many nineteenth century thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche also embraced this strong form of atheism. Others like Thomas Carlyle represented and wrote for many in the nineteenth century who continued to hold on to some form of symbolic and experiential theism, even to Christianity if sufficiently reinterpreted. Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx each gave accounts for religious belief grounded in naturalistic explanations. Naturalism then gained considerable support with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Other thinkers following Darwin often referred to his work in support of their own ideas. Two prominent examples of this were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Spencer not only promoted and popularized Darwin’s theories but also integrated them into a more comprehensive and total philosophy of progress that dominated the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Friedrich Nietzsche took some of the boldest and most irreverent positions on atheism and Christianity, declaring the death of God and criticizing Christian morality itself.

In the early twentieth century secular thought and intellectual life more generally was dominated by the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Like Feuerbach and Marx, Freud developed fully naturalistic theories for the origins of religious belief. Freud’s psychoanalytic thought would be foundational in the development of continental philosophy. Around the same time another line of thought was developing in analytic philosophy, led by Bertrand Russell. Russell was a prolific writer and influential both among his technical and academic colleagues as well in the wider public. Public opinion was also heavily influenced by novelists and journalists like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Where scientists and philosophers undermined religious foundations literary figures like Twain and Mencken were able to make it look ridiculous, perhaps an even more significant accomplishment. In the later twentieth century some of the most influential secular thinkers were scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

At the start of the twenty-first century the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought new attention to the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked a strong response among a group of writers known as the New Atheists. These included Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

That’s the overview. Now let’s go through all that again in more detail.

Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Paine were all men of the Enlightenment. All were critical of religion. But none was an atheist either, at least not in his own self understanding. They were Deists and proponents of “natural religion”. This natural religion is theistic but in a deistic conception God is remote and doesn’t intervene in human affairs with miracles and revelations. A deistic God is very different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They admired Jesus, or at least Jesus as they understood him. Jesus was an ancient teacher of natural religion but his teachings had been overlaid with superstitious doctrinal accretions that became Christianity, something quite different from the real Jesus of history. An evocative illustration of this idea is Thomas Jefferson’s editing of the Bible in which he kept Jesus’ ethical teachings but cut out the miracles that later followers ascribed to him.

The stage had been set for the Enlightenment by many events including the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion, like the great Thirty Years War. Religion, in the eyes of many, was becoming more of a problem than an unquestioned way of life. Another cataclysmic event that rocked Europe was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Europe reacted viscerally to the devastation of this earthquake and traditional religious answers started to be unsatisfying. Philosopher Susan Neiman in her book Evil In Modern Thought argued that the Lisbon Earthquake was a foundational event in modern thought upon which many of the great developments of the next century would build. It was the kind of event after which nothing could ever be the same again, like the Holocaust in the twentieth, but maybe even more so in Neiman’s view.

Well reasoned religious explanations were not lacking. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had developed an argument justifying God in light of the natural and human evils. Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus and with a mind honed to think in terms of functions and optimizations, reasoned that the world that actually exists is the world that, out of all possible worlds, has the greatest amount of good over evil: the best of all possible worlds. Any other world that lacked some particular evil that we might want not to exist would, for various reasons unknown to us but known to God, have lower net good overall. And we’ve all probably read enough stories and seen enough movies to imagine how that might work, where something bad is later seen to have been somehow instrumental to the greater good in the long run. It’s a clever argument. But after Lisbon a lot of people weren’t convinced.

One man who was especially not convinced was Voltaire. Voltaire was a master of the pen and wildly popular. In Voltaire’s hand Leibniz became the foolish character Pangloss in the novel Candide. In the face of war, rape, murder, natural disasters, and other forms of suffering and injustice Pangloss always insists that such things happen for a reason, unlike the title character Candide who comes to see that the world often really is just cruel and arbitrary. For deists like Voltaire God is not expected to intervene in harsh realities of the world. God is more of a mathematician and physicist who sets things up with their initial conditions and then just lets the system evolve. If the system happens to have disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake, those aren’t part of any meaningful plan. They’re just meaningless outputs of the system.

Revelation had no place in natural theology. Instead the best way to understand God would be through the sciences. This was an age of massive scholarly studies. Denis Diderot launched his Encyclopédie, a great encyclopedia of all knowledge. Edward Gibbon produced his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And Hume produced his Treatise of Human Nature and later the more refined and digestible Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were daring to know, to use the words of another Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant. They were amassing knowledge in all fields.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall covered the history of Rome from 180 AD with Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Gibbon’s project was to identify the cause of Rome’s decline and fall. And he proposed as an explanation that Rome had fallen because of Christianity. This was actually an argument that many pagans had made at the time of the fall of the Western empire in the 400s AD, which prompted Augustine of Hippo to write his City of God as a response. But unlike Augustine’s pagan opponents who attributed Rome’s misfortunes to abandonment by their gods Gibbon’s explanation was naturalistic and quite characteristic of modern history. Christianity had led to the decline of the Roman Empire because it weakened the traditional Roman social order and values. Christianity interrupted or ended important Roman economic institutions like slavery and trade. Roman soldiers lost their martial virtues and became more preoccupied with religious matters. And preoccupation with religious matters diverted Rome’s citizens from other intellectual and cultural pursuits. As with the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic barbarians, we might see in Gibbons’ writings about the Romans a critique of the society of his own day. If Christianity caused the decline and fall of Rome how might it be holding us back in our day?

Where Gibbon concerned himself with history David Hume worked in the space of ideas. Hume is one of my favorite philosophers and I really recommend reading his work, especially his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I think most of the problems of the philosophy of science that we’re still grappling with all go back to Hume, in particular his problem of induction. He was the kind of thinker who would pause over the things we take for granted and ask, “Now how do we really know that?” And then after leaving us all sufficiently perplexed he’d go play a game of backgammon and not worry about it for several hours. On religion Hume was maybe the closest to an atheist among this group of Enlightenment thinkers since he criticized even the idea the universe had been set in motion at all by an intelligent being. His most important work on the subject is his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here, in the mouths of his fictional characters, Hume pokes fun at the notion of a deistic God of supernatural intelligence, proposing instead some much less attractive possibilities.

“This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.”

This is all delightfully sacrilegious and though Hume was naturally criticized by many people he also faced no real consequences and his wit and irreverence were no doubt celebrated by many other Enlightenment readers.

No treatment of the Enlightenment is complete in my opinion without touching on one of its most popular and towering figures across the Atlantic: the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine. His Common Sense is still read by school children today and was immensely influential among the American colonists. Just listen to these classic lines:

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”

Paine was a hero not only to Americans but also to the French, having the distinction of being an influential pamphleteer in two great revolutions. Paine’s The Rights of Man was exceptionally popular among the French.

Relevant to our topic here, another of Paine’s great works was The Age of Reason. It’s something of a deist manifesto. It’s favorable to natural religion and a deistic understanding of God but very critical of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some key passages:

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike… No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it… When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.”

This is very direct and bold stuff. And it’s characteristic of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason as Paine called it.

As we move into the eighteenth century the spirit of age starts to look different. On the one hand there was a reaction to the heady rationalism of the Enlightenment, a response that came to be known as Romanticism. And in some ways this constituted a return to spirituality of a sort. But it was very different from that of orthodox Christianity. Something more pantheistic like Hegel’s Geist, a spirit or mind present in the events of history. But secularism also started to become more blatant and atheistic.

Percy Bysshe Shelly was an interesting combination of the Romantic poet and blatant atheist. He was kicked out of Oxford after writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”. No deism here anymore. Shelly, one of the greatest poets in history, said that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (A Defense of Poetry) This is an important theme that I’d like to stress and return to in this episode. I think Shelly was right on the money. Philosophers are maybe more acknowledged. But we sometimes forget about the influence of the poets, artists, comedians, and other entertainers. They have a lot of influence on how we think. Probably more than the academics. I think Shelly is also a good example of an important trend in the development of secular thought, and that is the self-image of a secular person. For Shelly to be an atheist was to be among an elite group of people who were more reflective and intelligent than most others. Consider the following passage from his essay “A Refutation of Deism”:

“That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not universal) should be any argument in its

favour, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among

men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an

hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected. How small is the proportion of those who really believe in God, to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing a serious thought upon the subject.”

Shelly has plenty of arguments in the essay but I think this passage, while not one of the arguments, is actually more effective than any of them.

Not everyone was as radical and celebratory as Shelley. Another literary figure significant in the development of secular thought was the essayist Thomas Carlyle. Charles Taylor, in his book chapter on nineteenth-century trajectories, used Carlyle as a representative for much of the social imaginary of that century. Taylor characterized the nineteenth century as one of a “cross-pressure” between the unviability of religion on the one hand and the seemingly unbearable emptiness of the void it left behind. People could not believe but neither could they bear the implications of unbelief.

“Thus for many whatever in the traditional faith went beyond or contradicted the notion of impersonal order was no longer believable; but at the same time, their sense of the weaknesses, ugliness, or evils of their age forbade them to accept the more reductive, scientistic or Utilitarian modes of order.” (A Secular Age, 377-378)

And to explore this he chose to look at Carlyle:

“A good reason for looking at the advance of unbelief in these terms is the influence and impact of Carlyle… In the 1830s and 40s, he was immensely popular. When I speak here of a vector of the advance of unbelief, I mean that Carlyle’s solution to cross-pressures which he was responding to provided the bridge by which many members of the elite public could distance themselves from their ancestral faith.”

“In giving Carlyle such a central role, I am deviating from what is often seen as the standard story of the Victorians’ loss of faith. Somewhat oversimplifying, this is thought to have been caused by the impact of Darwinian evolution, which is held so directly to have refuted the Bible. This created an agonizing conflict for many people of devout religious upbringing, which was in the end resolved by many, often with a poignant sense of loss, by the abandonment of their faith. There is some truth in this story, especially about the agonizing, and sense of loss (which seems to have been felt by Darwin himself). But it leaves out something crucial: that evolutionary theory didn’t emerge in a world where almost everyone still took the Bible story simply and literally; that among other things, this world was already strongly marked by the ideas of impersonal order, not to speak of the dark abyss of time; and that an influential formulation had already been given to the displacement of Christianity by a cosmic vision of impersonal order, that of Carlyle.” (ibid)

Carlyle himself said, “This is not a Religious age,” (Signs of the Times) but he was hardly pleased with that fact:

“To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one huge, dead, im-measureable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb. O the vast, Gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death.” (Sartor Resartus)

The machine was an important idea for Carlyle, one he saw as the biggest threat. He said in “Signs of the Times”:

“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age.”

Carlyle bemoaned this fact but believed that most of his contemporaries viewed it with indifference.

“The singular conclusions at which Hume, setting out from their admitted premises, was arriving, brought this school into being; they let loose Instinct, as an undiscriminating ban-dog, to guard them against these conclusions; — they tugged lustily at the logical chain by which Hume was so coldly towing them and the world into bottomless abysses of Atheism and Fatalism. But the chain somehow snapped between them; and the issue has been that nobody now cares about either.” (Signs of the Times)

Nevertheless the influence and popularity of his writings would suggest that this was not entirely true and that he was giving voice to a general reaction that was anything but indifferent. Rather the toppling of traditional religion was a huge problem that needed to be solved. For Carlyle this looked something like an impersonal order. There was a need to “embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live”. (Sartor Resartus) In Taylor’s view this kind of “not purely human spiritual force” had two important effects. One was to serve as a bridge by which people could “be both against Christianity and for it”. The other was to accustom people to start thinking in terms of impersonal order rather than personal order. Carlyle was not alone in this even if he is representative. Hegel would certainly be another important proponent of this notion, albeit in more complicated terms that were not so clearly impersonal.

The notion of impersonal general order is important because the nineteenth century gave rise to three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Hegel’s Geist, Marx’s dialectical materialism, and Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. Secular thought in the nineteenth century moved away from deism but it did not jump straight to positivism; that idea from Auguste Comte would have to wait until the next century. Reality still had order and, significantly, direction. But it was impersonal.

I made an episode a couple years ago about how Hegel is much bigger and more interesting than the compressed picture we get through Marx. His Phenomenology of Geist is, in my interpretation, an epic-scale general study on how the mind comes to understand things. Nevertheless for present purposes of the history of secular thought it makes some sense to do violence to his work and view it through Marxism. The idea of Hegel’s that was most relevant to Marx was his theory of history which, far from being just one damned thing after another, was a rational progression. History and ideas develop together in a rational way such that, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” Marx took this notion but then stood Hegel on his head so to speak. Whereas for Hegel the progress of history took place through ideas, for Marx history was emphatically material and especially economic. He took the notion of a dialectic – which would normally be something like a conversation, a dialogue, an exchange of ideas – and made it operate in economics. Later Marxists called this “dialectical materialism”.

For Marx economics was what really mattered. Everything else was “superstructure”. In Marx’s model society was composed of two major parts: base and superstructure. The base was all the modes of production and the superstructure was everything else like law, politics, art, philosophy, and religion. As he laid out in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness… The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Note Marx’s comment that “one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself”. This is an extremely important idea and something we will also see in Nietzsche and Freud. Paul Ricoeur proposed that these three engaged in a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. This is a way of analyzing how the reasons that you think you have for believing something may not be your real reasons for it. For Marx if you are religious the reasons you have for being religious are not the reasons that you think they are. You are not religious for spiritual reasons but for economic reasons. The economic reasons for religion are, most importantly, the desperate conditions of poverty. Marx explained this in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

“The opium of the people” is probably Marx’s most famous statement about religion. And it’s a good symbol summarizing his thoughts on the subject. Why do people need such an opium? Because of the suffering produced by their economic conditions. Religion gives an illusory reprieve but it doesn’t resolve the underlying conditions, which are economic. Religion is a problem for Marx precisely because it masks the underlying conditions. It needs to be swept away so that people can see their economic problems clearly and then act on them

Marx critiqued the ideas of many of contemporaries, taking resources from their ideas where he found use for them and pointing out where he thought they did not go far enough. One such thinker was Ludwig Feuerbach. I also did an episode on Feuerbach and his fascinating book The Essence of Christianity. One of Marx’s significant works is his brief Theses on Feuerbach, with eleven theses on Feuerbach’s thought. The eleventh and most important of these theses is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx and Feuerbach were both atheists and so Marx essentially agreed with that aspect of Feuerbach’s work. But he criticized Feuerbach for extending his analysis of Christianity only to its ideas rather than to its underlying material causes and for neglecting to promote any kind of action or response to it.

Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity is fascinating for all the reasons Marx disagreed with it. When reading Feuerbach I get the sense that he was someone who really understood Christianity well and thought seriously about it, even while rejecting it. Topics he addresses in his book include: sacred immanence, providence, metaethics, spiritual existence, the elevation of anthropology to theology, religious process, God the Father as understanding, Trinity as relation and self-consciousness, Christ as mediator, the Son as Word, the Son as Love, and the Incarnation as manifestation of God in man. These are all great theological topics but Marx wanted nothing of all that since these are matters of ideas rather than material realities. But there was one idea from Feuerbach that stood out and would have the most significance in the development of secular thought and this was Feuerbach’s concept of projection. This is the idea that humans project their own attributes onto God, basically creating God in their own image. He wrote:

“Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities drawn from his own nature—qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself.”

We take the human attributes that we most admire and project them onto this being that we call God. Feuerbach finds this problematic and calls for people to stop doing it and instead to re-internalize the qualities that we project onto God and find them in ourselves. For one thing projection diminishes our self-regard: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.” And Feuerbach also thinks that our projected regard for God is completely misplaced: “All those dispositions which ought to be devoted to life, to man— all the best powers of humanity, are lavished on the being who wants nothing.”

There are two important ideas here in Feuerbach. The first is a secular account of the origin of God. And this is the process of projection, creating God in our image. The second is more of an ethical stance, that we ought not to be distracted by concern for supernatural matters in Heaven from the important issues of material and social realities. We should be thinking more about making the world a better place rather than thinking about God.

All this set the stage and prepared the intellectual environment for the most important of the three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s work is principally scientific but that’s not the main aspect to look at for present purposes. For the subject of the development of secular thought the main issue is the intellectual implications of evolution by natural selection. What sorts of secondary ideas developed from the scientific work? Darwin himself was non-religious and his own scientific work did contribute to that. He wrote in a letter to Asa Gray:

“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

Part of Darwin’s development of the theory included the study of Thomas Malthus, an economist who had observed that while population increases geometrically, food production increases only arithmetically (or at least it did at that time). The dismal conclusion from this is that there would always be unavoidable periodic famine and population reduction through starvation. With limited resources populations are necessarily limited. Some members of the population will survive and others will perish. And this brings up an important question: is the question of who will survive and who will perish random or are there factors that make the survival of some individuals more likely than others? And Darwin determined that it would not be random; that certain traits would be comparatively advantageous to survival. Thus natural selection depends on two important facts: (1) populations being limited and (2) diversity of traits within a species. 

The most careful expositors of Darwinian theory are diligent to remember that the process of natural selection is completely non-directional. Species are not evolving toward anything, to become stronger, faster, or more intelligent. Those things may happen but it’s not because of any teleology. There’s no right or wrong direction for evolution to go. And humans are no more evolved than bacteria. That’s when we’re being careful. But we’re often not. And it’s been very common in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species to think of evolution in terms of progress. And this was the mindset that dominated the intellectual environment of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Two of the most important expositors of Darwin and evolution were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was a biologist who was a very public debater on behalf of Darwin’s theory. He came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. His debating opponents included prominent religious figures, like bishops and archbishops. One of his most famous debates was with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. In the course of the debate Wilberforce asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey to which Huxley responded that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, scientist, and social reformer and one of the most famous intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Spencer took the science of Darwinism into new areas of social theory and politics. It was Herbert Spencer who first used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This idea came to be understood not only as a description of natural processes but as a prescription for how things ought to be. Spencer had a comprehensive, “synthetic” philosophy that incorporated science and sociology into one great system. Characteristic of this synthesis were progress and perfection. He saw things progressing toward “the perfect man in the perfect society”. In his book Social Statics he advocated for laissez-faire policies and a kind of Larmarkian evolutionary idea that only by placing humans in strenuous laissez-faire conditions would they be able to adapt to those conditions and eventually reduce the need for government:

The philosophy of progress was extremely compelling and fashionable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seemed that man truly had the means to bend nature and direct his own destiny. One manifestation of this was a view known as “Social Darwinism”, though it should be noted that neither Darwin nor Spencer called themselves social Darwinists. Social Darwinism was the idea that humanity could be improved through free competition and survival of the fittest. In particular it rejected the idea that charity and assistance to the impoverished are virtuous. Under social Darwinism such charity is actually harmful because it preserves habits and traits that prevent humanity from progressing. Instead the survival and growth of inferior persons and populations should not be enabled. They should be allowed to die out and diminish according to the natural course of things. Social Darwinism and Spencer’s writings were especially popular in the United States. This was also the age of large-scale colonization, which expanded the ideas of survival of the fittest to nations and races. Eugenics also naturally followed from all this as another project for the improvement of humanity.

In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics were all intellectually respectable and reputable ideas. Eugenics especially was considered consummately scientific and progressive. Because of certain contingent historical circumstances and events these ideas happened to be associated with secular thought. Richard Hofstadter commented in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought about the unusual secular character of this kind of conservatism in America:

“Social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. But it lacked many of the signal characteristics of conservatism as it is usually found. A conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion.” (Hofstadter, 7)

This association wasn’t absolute but there was a pattern. Things changed dramatically following World War II and these ideas quickly fell out of favor. Secular thought persisted and continued to develop, shedding its former associations with social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics. So the association of these ideas with secular thought was certainly nonessential. It was contingent and ultimately dispensable.

We can see an example of this older association in the 1914 textbook Civic Biology, written by George William Hunter. This was a widely used biology textbook in the early twentieth century and was the one famously used by John Scopes to teach evolution, for which he was prosecuted in the 1925 Scopes trial. Civic Biology divided humans up into five races and taught that “it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.” It included the following passages:

“Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”

“The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.” (Civic Biology, 263)

I don’t share these troubling passages to propose that evolution and secularism are of necessity linked to these kinds of views. Quite the opposite actually. They were associated at the time but these sorts of views have fallen out of favor even as secular thought persists, demonstrating that they are most certainly not inseparable. The Scopes trial was a watershed event in the development of public opinion toward evolution. That effect persisted even as the other troubling views in the text of Civic Biology were abandoned.

Another atheistic perspective in the later part of the nineteenth century was that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s contributions to the development of secular thought take a few forms. Most famously he proclaimed that “God is dead”. But in the context of his writing this proclamation was more cautionary than celebratory. Nietzsche was absolutely an atheist. But he didn’t expect that the death of God was unproblematic. The “God is dead” line comes from the following passage in The Gay Science:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

“’How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’”

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet.’”

You can get a sense here of Nietzsche’s wonderful writing style, which is both entertaining and provocative. The first thing I’d like to point out with this passage is the character of the crowd. They already didn’t believe in God. You can imagine this is how Nietzsche sees Europe. By saying “God is dead” Nietzsche wasn’t saying anything new. The people of Europe already no longer believed in God. The madman wasn’t announcing the fact that God was dead. What he was trying to get across to the people was that they had not yet comprehended what that meant. That the earth had been unchained from its sun. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about a certain stage along the development of secular thought. There’s the propositional assent to atheism. But that doesn’t necessarily include a full comprehension of what that means existentially. And Nietzsche is often considered one of the early precursors to twentieth century existentialism.

What else do we get from Nietzsche? He also has a very interesting critique of Christian morality. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality he characterizes Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality”. In an older form of morality before Judaism and Christianity, among the aristocrats, the most important value distinctions were “good” and “bad”. Strength, power, and excellence were good. Weakness and failure were bad. In this aristocratic understanding of value, people who were weak and failures were not evil, they were just not the kinds of people you would want to be. You would want to be strong and successful. But eventually the weak were able to create a morality that reversed things. In a perversion of healthy values domination and strength came to be understood not just as bad but evil. And a person should feel guilty for them. It was better to be meek and humble. And here we see how Christian morality would figure into Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. Christianity corrupted value by making excellence, what was actually good, seem evil. Furthermore Christianity esteemed attributes of human failure. As with Feuerbach we might say that Nietzsche got Christianity pretty much right. David Bentley Hart remarked that Nietzsche “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was… on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased.” (Atheist Delusions, 6)

Along with Marx and Freud, Paul Ricoeur saw in Nietzsche a certain hermeneutic of suspicion and included him among the three great “masters of suspicion”. Nietzsche challenged conventional accounts of morality through his process of “genealogy”. Michel Foucault would later apply this kind of “genealogy” to ideas in the twentieth century. One of the effects of such a genealogy is to expose, similarly to other hermeneutics of suspicion, that the reasons you think you have for thinking a certain way are not the real reasons. A genealogy contextualizes our ideas in the process of history and exposes how they are contingent and might have been otherwise. And so they are not as self-evident and products of pure reasoning as we might have supposed.

The third of Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion was Sigmund Freud. And with Freud we move into the twentieth century. Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion occurs in psychoanalysis in which a patient (or any person) has behaviors, fears, desires, or other impulses for reasons hidden to that person. They are hidden in the unconscious mind and need to be retrieved by the psychoanalyst to be properly treated. So again, the reasons you think you have for your ideas are not the real reasons for them. Freud’s psychology addressed the unconscious roots of many tendencies and impulses, including religious impulses. Freud addressed religion in his books: Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and The Future of an Illusion.

In Totem and Taboo Freud theorized about the origins of religion in its most primitive social setting, in what he called the “primal horde”. Freud understood his own work as scientific and he based his theories on work of the anthropologists of his day, particularly studies indigenous Australians. He saw his own work as continuous with Darwin. A totem for Freud was a symbolic object or animal that is revered by a group. He understood the totem to be representative of the group’s primal father figure.

“Psychoanalysis has revealed to us that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex in our children and so often continues into adult life also extended to the father substitute of the totem animal. But if we associate the translation of the totem as given by psychoanalysis, with the totem feast and the Darwinian hypothesis about the primal state of human society, a deeper understanding becomes possible and a hypothesis is offered which may seem fantastic but which has the advantage of establishing an unexpected unity among a series of hitherto separated phenomena.”

One thing to point out here, important to all of Freud’s works, is the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus Complex is a complex of emotions associated with a boy’s sexual desire for his mother and resentment toward his father. Oedipus, in Greek mythology and tragedy, killed his own father and married his mother. Hence the name. This is the “ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex… extended to the father substitute of the totem animal.” Freud then asserted the following origin story of such a totem that would have taken place, perhaps in multiple occasions and places, among a primordial horde ruled over by an authoritarian father father figure:

“There is only a violent, jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away the growing sons… One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly… Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”

The sons killed and ate their father and took the females, their mothers; acts of murder, cannibalism, and incest. But after this act of patricide they felt intense guilt which worked itself out in the forms of rituals and taboos. Religion for Freud is itself a neurosis and he sees religious rituals as the same in essence as nervous tics and other compulsive habits associated with neurotic disorders. And in Freud’s psychology these are generally associated with some kind of repressed guilt or trauma. He sees religion as basically a large, group manifestation of the same thing. This primordial horde would have developed the trappings of religion as a way to deal with their simultaneous triumph and guilt:

“In order to find these results acceptable, quite aside from our supposition, we need only assume that the group of brothers banded together were dominated by the same contradictory feelings towards the father which we can demonstrate as the content of ambivalence of the father complex in all our children and in neurotics. They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him. After they had satisfied their hate by his removal and had carried out their wish for identification with him, the suppressed tender impulses had to assert themselves. This took place in the form of remorse, a sense of guilt was formed which coincided here with the remorse generally felt. The dead now became stronger than the living had been, even as we observe it to-day in the destinies of men. What the fathers’ presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited in the psychic situation of ‘subsequent obedience’, which we know so well from psychoanalysis. They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women. Thus they created the two fundamental taboos of totemism out of the sense of guilt of the son, and for this very reason these had to correspond with the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever disobeyed became guilty of the two only crimes which troubled primitive society.”

Thus murder and incest became taboo and the primal father figure a totem, an object of worship.

Freud follows a similar path in Moses and Monotheism but this time with reference specifically to Israelite religion. Freud asserted that Moses was actually an Egyptian, originally a devotee of the Egyptian monotheistic religious experiment of Akhenaten. Moses led a revolt and liberated a band of fellow rebels whom he led out of Egypt. Moses was their political and religious leader but his religious rule was so demanding that the group revolted and killed him. So here we have another father figure as in Totem and Taboo and another instance of the Oedipus complex. The people felt remorse for what they had done and developed a system of belief in which Moses was the founder of their religion.

For us today Freud’s supposedly “historical” accounts seem rather fanciful. I don’t think anyone believes them even if Freud did. But what remains relevant are not the details but the overall interpretation of religion as neurosis and an instance of some kind of Oedipus complex. Today we might refer instead to something like religious scrupulosity. We still understand people to have motivations for religious practice and ritual that are rooted in psychologically unhealthy sources.

In The Future of an Illusion Freud looks forward to how religion might develop into the future as humanity becomes more advanced and, as he sees it, outgrows its need for religion. As in his subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud recognized that the aggregation of human beings, with all our destructive impulses, into the close quarters of a society requires repression of those impulses, which is also a source of frustration or discontent. Frustrating but necessary. For premodern, primitive humanity religion serves an important function, helping us deal with the discontent and guilt of social life by providing the illusion of a strong and loving protector and father figure. The father figure in The Future of an Illusion is much more exclusively positive than in his other two books on religion. The father is an object of love. We crave the comfort and security that a father could provide in childhood. The illusion of religion is that our wish for this father figure is actually true. Although Freud understands religion to have played an important role in humanity’s pre-modern immaturity he thinks that it is time to grow out of it.

“Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization. On the contrary! Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.”

I think this is an idea that persists in secular thought. We don’t necessarily disparage our ancestors for their religious beliefs. Of course they needed them and didn’t know any better. But in our scientific and technological age we ought to move beyond religion.

Two important intellectual trends in the twentieth century were in continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. Freud’s influence has continued more in continental philosophy than in his own field of psychology. Prominent Freudians include Jacque Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler. One of the founders of analytic philosophy was Bertrand Russell. Where Freud worked in the unobservable phenomena of the mind and relied on the narrative accounts of dreams and culture the analytic school valued empiricism and precision. One early form of this was Russell’s logical atomism, which aimed to break concepts down into their most basic components for the purposes of analysis.

Bertrand Russell was one of the most important and prolific philosophers of the early twentieth century and he wrote on a number of subjects, including religion. Through logical atomism he sought to eliminate ambiguity and the potential for obfuscation. Naturally when it came to religion Russell found its scriptures, doctrines, and rituals nonsensical. Later analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayer in the school of logical positivism would similarly call them “meaningless”. Like Freud, Russell believed that religion was something humanity had outgrown:

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

This passage is from the conclusion of Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian. In the same text he argued against the merit of Jesus as a moral exemplar. To us today some of the most compelling arguments from this essay are likely the moral ones. For example, many have advanced a similar argument as the following:

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world… There are a great many ways in which at the present moment the Church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. ‘What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.’”

There are of course arguments against Russell’s point here but it certainly carries force. It also resonates with some of the most prominent religious-secular conflicts of the twenty-first century in which progressive secular values and traditional Christian values really are just contradictory, as with issues of abortion, sexuality, and gender.

One of Russell’s most famous illustrations is his teapot analogy. This comes from his article “Is There a God?” In this article Russell makes the case that the philosophic burden of proof rests on religious people who are making empirically unfalsifiable claims. He writes:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

This analogy has been highly influential and the basic idea has taken on other forms. For example a common version today is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sometimes seen as a car decal. The Flying Spaghetti Monster originated from a satirical open letter in 2005 demanding that science classrooms give equal time to the Flying Spaghetti Monster alongside intelligent design and evolution. Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster play an important role in the development of secular thought, which is to make religious belief seem ridiculous.

Making things look ridiculous has a celebrated history and there are a couple American examples worth mentioning from this time period in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.

The novelist Mark Twain was especially well known for his wit, satire, and irreverent sense of humor. He had a number of memorable one-liners. For example: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

The most important example of a critique of religion in his fiction is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deciding whether or not to turn in his traveling companion Jim, who is also a runaway slave. What’s important to the story is that Huck thinks that he’s supposed to turn in a runaway slave and that it’s what God wants him to do. (He wasn’t aware that Deuteronomy 23:15 says exactly the opposite). In fact Huck thinks that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t do it. So in his mind all the weight of religious authority is pushing him to betray his friend. But in an act of heroic defiance he refuses to do so and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”.

Twain also wrote essays criticizing religion. In his essay “Fables of Man” he invited readers to think how they would feel if anyone other than God created the world in the way that it is. He used the example the fly, if anyone other than God were to create a pest like the fly:

“Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if they wanted to, and–the majority of them–poor dumb things not even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just–upon the unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.”

Twain’s problem here with the state of nature is quite similar to Darwin’s problem with the Ichneumonidæ feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. In Europe and Elsewhere he pointed out many instances in which the Bible has been the cause of evil and how humans have only progressed morally in cases where they have rejected it. He says:

“The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes… The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitating poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.”

Twain admits that there is much in the Bible that is good. But people seem to know the difference between the good and the bad independently of the Bible. In fact, people are able to discern the difference between the good and the bad that is in the Bible. And happily, it has been by and large only the bad parts, so Twain believed, that people rejected as they have progressed morally:

“Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”

Twain accused the churches of following rather than leading moral progress, usually after some period of opposing it. But then have the audacity to take credit for it:

“In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers… So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession–and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.”

I include Twain in this history of secular thought precisely because he was not a philosopher or an academic but, like Shelley, an unacknowledged legislator who shaped the character of a nation through literature. Another man I’d include in this class is H.L. Mencken, a wildly popular journalist, essayist, and critic. Mencken had an acerbic wit that would be pitiful to fall victim to. Like Twain, he was also a master of turns of phrase. One of my favorites is: “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” Another classic, this one on the subject of religion is: “Puritanism – The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 624) 

In his essay “Memorial Service” Mencken paid mocking memorial to the numerous gods of ages past who are no longer worshiped:

“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest.” 

Mencken then gave a long list of two columns with many other such deceased gods and concluded:

“Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”

Richard Dawkins would later make a similar point to Mencken that, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (The God Delusion)

One event of particular importance where Mencken played a role was the Scopes Trial of 1925. As mentioned earlier, John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in school. It was arguably the trial of the century, a total media spectacle, and very public. In a sense there were two courts: the actual legal court and, more significantly, the court of public opinion. In the actual court of law Scopes was convicted for violating the law. But in the court of public opinion creationism suffered a disastrous defeat. And Mencken, writing at the time for the Baltimore Sun, played no small role in that. He delighted in lampooning the southern Christian fundamentalists of this Tennessee town. He famously quipped: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States.” He was especially merciless in his accounts of the prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes trial reinforced an important perceived division between religion and science. One was legitimized at the expense of the other. And many of the scientists who were most well-known to the public reinforced this idea. In the later twentieth century two important publications that brought the latest developments of physics and cosmology to household libraries and television screens were Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time. Sagan and Hawking were both scientists at the top of their fields but they were also public figures and household names. The combination of their legitimate expertise and communications skills meant that their opinions carried weight, not just in their scientific fields but in many subjects, including their views on religion.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a major bestseller, especially for a science book. When I was a kid a number of my friends and I had that book on our shelves. Hawking was a major role model. Religion didn’t feature heavily in that book other than the comment, “What need for a creator?” In the 2011 television series Curiosity he expressed quite genially that “We are each free to believe what we want” but also acknowledged, “It is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” Like Freud, he thought that belief in God made sense for premodern peoples but that it was something we can now move beyond: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Hawking suffered from a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease and death was a constant prospect for him. Remaking on this he said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian: “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first… I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Although he was upfront and open about his atheism it was not a major topic for Hawking.

It was more of a topic for Sagan. Sagan was especially interested in critical thinking and the harms that follow from believing things without justification. Not just religion but all sorts of popular pseudoscience. This was the topic of his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he assembled what he called a “baloney detection kit”. In that book Sagan adapted Russell’s teapot with his own story of a dragon in the garage. Someone tries to convince you that there’s a dragon in the garage but when you go to look at it you don’t see it. So they say it’s an invisible dragon. So you might spread flour on the floor to see its footprints. But the dragon floats in the air. What about an infrared camera to see the invisible fire? But the fire is heatless. Every proposal has some reason for why it will not work. Sagan concludes: “Now what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

Sagan was also invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford lectures in 1985 in Glasgow. The lectures were later published as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The Gifford lectures are annual lectures on the topic of science and religion and this is Sagan’s most comprehensive treatment of the subject. Sagan’s lectures were very respectful but also pulled no punches. While reviewing a number of arguments for the existence of God he said the following on arguments from religious experiences:

“People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences that are had worldwide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. Now, what about this? Well, I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods?… Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality… Every culture has things of this sort. That doesn’t mean that they all exist; it doesn’t mean that any of them exist.”

On the argument from design he made the following remark, quite similar to Hume’s:

“Why in any case is it necessary for God to intervene in human history, in human affairs, as almost every religion assumes happens? That God or the gods come down and tell humans, ‘No, don’t do that, do this, don’t forget this, don’t pray in this way, don’t worship anybody else, mutilate children as follow.’ Why is there such a long list of things that God tells people to do? Why didn’t God do it right in the first place? You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all the future consequences of your present action. You want a certain desired end. Why don’t you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence.”

Although Hawking and Sagan were prominent faces of atheism at the end of the twentieth century neither made atheism a primary focus of their public engagement. This would not be the case for the new public faces of irreligion at the start of the twenty-first century. One of the most significant events in the development of secular thought in recent times was the catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The religious motivations for this attack provoked a strong secular response that came to be known as New Atheism. Four members of this movement were known as the “The Four Horsemen”: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. With the possible exception of Dennett the atheism of The Four Horsemen was front and center to their public engagement.

Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith shortly after the September 11th attacks. His other major book on the topic of religion was Letter to a Christian Nation. The September 11th attacks were an occasion to point out the violence that religious fundamentalism can provoke and is just one example in a long list of historical cases of such religiously inspired violence and atrocities. Harris made particular note of the complicity of religious moderates in all this. Far from excusing moderates or recommending a conversion from fundamentalism to more moderate forms of religion Harris argued that religious moderates, by taking certain texts and beliefs selectively or metaphorically, grant legitimacy to those texts and beliefs and enable those who take them literally and to extremist ends. Harris also criticized religion generally as fundamentally irrational and lacking in evidence. Science is a much more solid basis for our understanding of reality and even for moral decision making, as he argued in The Moral Landscape.

Biologist Richard Dawkins was already a popular writer on the topic of evolutionary biology prior to the New Atheist movement, having written books like The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale. As a writer on evolutionary biology his books naturally addressed creationism and intelligent design ideas, especially in books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. But he really became a major face for New Atheism with the 2006 publication of The God Delusion. The God Delusion was a major bestseller and attracted widespread response and discussion. In it Dawkins explained why, in his view, there is almost certainly no God. He included arguments from his field in evolutionary biology but also discussed religious violence and intolerance.

Christopher Hitchens was a prolific journalist and essayist, a staunch free-speech advocate, and opponent of religion. Hitchens called himself not only an atheist but an “antitheist”. He not only did not believe in God but thought that it would be a horrible thing if God actually did exist. He compared a universe with God to a cosmic North Korea. His major book on the topic and contribution to the New Atheist movement was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens said that religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”. In the book he criticized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also Eastern religions like Buddhism. As with Mencken, to be on the receiving end of Hitchens’s attacks was brutal. Some of his targets were predictable, like Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. More surprising was his excoriating criticism of Mother Teresa.

Daniel Dennett was also numbered among the Four Horsemen but of the four he was probably the least like the others. Dennett is one world’s most prominent philosophers in the philosophy of mind. He’s certainly an atheist but it’s not as front and center to his work. In his book-length contribution to the New Atheist movement, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he even called for world religions to be taught in school. Dennett is perhaps best known for his philosophical work on qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. In Consciousness Explained he develops a number of arguments to demonstrate how the way our minds work must be quite different from the way it seems to us. Dennett’s philosophy of mind, given its subject, naturally impinges on religious ideas of the soul. In Breaking the Spell Dennett proposed that religion should be thought of as a natural phenomenon and studied by scientists just as any other natural phenomenon.

Dennett and Dawkins have made frequent reference to each other’s work. Dennett has made philosophical use of Dawkins’s concept of memes, as developed in The Selfish Gene and Dawkins has praised Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in particular his metaphor of skyhooks and cranes. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is perhaps the most interesting and detailed study on the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work. Dennett refers to the concept of natural selection as a kind of “universal acid” that eats through everything it touches. He uses the metaphor of a skyhook for any kind of apparent intelligent design that seems to be suspended from the heavens, but that in fact is held up by a crane or series of cranes, and anchored securely to the ground. The core of Darwin’s dangerous idea, according to Dennett, is the algorithm; an automatic process that requires no intelligent direction. Dennett then shows instances where Darwinian algorithms dissolve apparent skyhooks in biology, mind, meaning, mathematics, and morality.

I remember that New Atheism was in full bloom when I was in my twenties. It also coincided with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which enabled its diffusion. It seems to have tapered off somewhat since then for whatever reason. All of the Four Horsemen get a mention in this survey because, being quite recent, their influence on the development of secular thought still persists. My guess is that in a similar survey fifty years from now Dennett will be the only one discussed even though he was probably the least prominent of the New Atheists in its heyday. But I’d say his ideas are the most uniquely interesting and instrumentally useful in the service of secular thought.

So what do we make of all this? In going through this brief history I haven’t stopped to challenge any of these thinkers and their ideas. I’ve tried to present their ideas fairly and doing that properly means making it apparent why these ideas have been appealing and persuasive. That’s challenging because I don’t find their ideas personally persuasive. But I do find them interesting and important.

This is admittedly something of an exercise in genealogy, in the style of Nietzsche and Foucault, to show how secular ideas are not absolute but contingent, how they have been dependent on historical events and trends, and how things could have been otherwise. For example, secular thought today is usually aligned with progressive ideals of antiracism, protection of people with disabilities, and the interests of sexual minorities. But before World War II and the Nuremberg Trials the most secular and scientifically-educated people in society were moving in quite a different direction. I think Charles Taylor is correct that secular thought as we have it today is not merely what is left over when we chip away religion. Secular thought is a construct that has been created over time by people and events.

In a certain sense something being a social construct doesn’t really matter. Technology is a construct or a collection of very many constructs. But our devices still work. The scientific principles underlying our technologies are also constructs. And they still work. So does it matter? I think it does. Thomas Kuhn, with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did some excellent work situating and contextualizing scientific developments, showing how they also come about in very circuitous paths with many discarded theories that were once the best theories available. It’s good to know about all that when we think about the future of science and technology. It will likely go in some very unpredicted directions.

Still, with religion and secular thought there are some big either-or questions. Does God exist or not? Was Jesus resurrected or not? At the end of the day between Christians and atheists someone is right and someone is wrong. A genealogy of secular thought doesn’t resolve such questions. But one thing it can do is reveal how certain perspectives can seem more or less compelling because of contingent historical developments. In other words, if certain religious positions seem more problematic and certain secular positions seem stronger than they otherwise would, that’s useful to understand. It helps us to think what is usually unthought. Charles Taylor borrows the term “unthought” from Foucault to refer to all the presuppositions underlying our understanding of religion and secularization that we aren’t even aware that we hold. By bringing the unthought into our conscious thought we should be able to think about things more comprehensively and reflectively.

With this in mind consider two issues that are seemingly problematic for religion: science and religion and the problem of evil.

In Western modernity Judaism and Christianity have been thought to be in conflict with the sciences. And the sciences are so manifestly successful that religion would be at a clear disadvantage. At best, religion could hold to some kind of “God of the gaps” whose domain progressively shrinks as science explains away more and more religious ideas. Natural phenomena like earthquakes and lightning no longer need divine explanations. And our creation myths don’t stand up to geological and fossil evidence. But is this apparent conflict essential or accidental? It’s quite fascinating and often surprising to read premodern Jewish and Christian texts. The authors of the Talmud and the Early Church Fathers were not at all unfamiliar with the internal tensions of the sacred texts or of passages that they could not take literally. They were quite aware of them and wrote extensively about them. Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) and Origen of Alexandria (Christian) are two of the most famous expositors of allegorical interpretation in antiquity. Additionally, in modernity where we make a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, with God operating as something separate from nature, in the Middle Ages educated Christians like Thomas Aquinas understood that distinction to be much less absolute. In their understanding the supernatural always already infuses the natural world, as has been written about by Fergus Kerr (After Aquinas, 2002) and Tyler Roberts (Skeptics and Believers, 2009). Both the premodern comfort with allegorical interpretation and the metaphysical understanding of the natural being infused with the supernatural would make the relationship between science and religion look quite different than the relationship that developed between the two in modernity. David Bentley Hart has even suggested that: “In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds… It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” (The Experience God, 62) It was by no means inevitable or necessary that the developments of geology and evolutionary biology would come into conflict with religious beliefs. It just happened to work out that way given the particular intellectual and religious milieux of the time. That’s useful to think about, both for secular and religious people. As Christians we would do well to familiarize ourselves with early thinkers in our tradition to find perspectives that are surprisingly much more unproblematically accommodating to modern science.

The problem of evil is an even more interesting one I think. And if Susan Neiman is correct this is the most salient issue in modernity and for the whole human condition really. How are we to come to terms with God if his creation has so much evil and suffering? The Lisbon Earthquake and the Holocaust are the two major examples of disruptive disasters in modernity. With the problem of evil I actually don’t think there’s ever been any historical period where such disasters would be religiously unproblematic. Disasters of a certain scale and degree always induce religious disruption and crisis. But what’s interesting is that in the case of Judaism especially, and in Christianity by extension, response to this kind of disruption is actually part of the religion. One of the most important events in the Bible is the conquest of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Judeans by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This dramatically transformed the Judeans as a people. Judaism took another dramatic turn again after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, leading to what would become Rabbinic Judaism. And the Holocaust itself induced major reflection and changes in Judaism, as in the work of people like Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Elie Weisel, Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Borowitz. The Hebrew Bible also contains responses and laments to the problems of evil. Most obvious is the Book of Job. Much of the Bible’s Wisdom literature as found in Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, is testament to the troubled yet creative religious response to suffering. It doesn’t seem like there’s any expectation from God in scripture that we are to be unmoved and untroubled by the evil present in his creation.

Both secular thought and the religions of Judaism and Christianity are part of history and Western heritage. It’s valuable to be familiar with all of it. The history of all these traditions could have taken different paths. But regardless, the traditions as we have them make up who we are and how we think.