Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999): “Can We Be Good Without God?”

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Murdoch says we can have religion and morality without God – as the Buddhists do. Photo by Janet Cameron, all Rights Reserved.

Must humans move on from their mythical childhood? Should we- or can we- change religion into philosophy? Would this become a threat to our religious culture?

In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch suggests that in these time of change, it might be prudent to discard the old word “God” as it suggests an omniscient spectator and a responsive “Superthou.”

She continues by asserting the obvious truth that religion can and does exist without the Western concept of a personal God. It certainly achieves this already, in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

As Murdoch explains: “…religion involving supernatural belief (as in a literal after-life) was always partly a kind of illusion… we are now being forced by an inevitable sophistication to have a demythologised religion or none at all.”

Changing Religion into Philosophy

Murdoch describes the ways in which Protestants and Catholics view each others’ rituals and procedures with dismay. Instead, she argues for “…a moral philosophy which accommodates the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality.” Murdoch wants moral philosophy to include political philosophy and the morality of political thinking and she believes that art and philosophy “enliven the concept of reality.”

In defining her stance, she says: “Nothing is more important for theology and philosophy than the truth it contains.”

The Connection Between the Good and the Moral

Murdoch falls back on Plato, whose influence has always been part of her philosophical thought. She says, “Plato’s philosophy expounds a fundamental connection between epistemology and ethics; truthful knowledge and virtue are bound together.” For Iris Murdoch, as for Plato himself,  thought, truth and reality are inescapably linked.

Murdoch explains that, according to Plato, good is something distant, ideal and abstract; but it is not the function of, or the outcome of, desire or human will.  Human beings are naturally drawn to good merely by apprehending it. The degree to which we are attracted by the good depends on our own personal morality- we need to be virtuous in order to apprehend it.

Murdoch also recognises the bind we are in, and our reluctance to lose elements of our culture should we move away from theology and metaphysics in order to embrace scientific thought.

So what will happen to human morality if religion is demythologised? What will happen to our concept of God?

The Ontological Proof is Limited

In her Chapter, “The Ontological Proof” in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch examines aspects of the various proofs of God’s existence. Some proofs rely on early concepts, such as cosmic design, or a first cause. Murdoch is swift to dispense with these, for now we have more substantial ways of accounting for the cosmos through science and technology.

With regard to cosmic design, she says the argument is unsound in any case: “Why should swallows have to fly to Africa every year?” and “Why should we venerate a Supreme Being, whose most convincing claim to existence is that of having created an impressive machine? A demon could have created the world.”

Murdoch quotes Arthur Schopenhauer, who called the ontological proof “a charming joke.” She is positive that God does not, and cannot, exist, and examines a number of further “proofs” to confirm her position.

Fatal Flaws in the Ontological Argument

St. Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1033-1109, produced several hypotheses, one of which was that the idea of God exists, therefore, God must exist.  St. Anselm had conceived of the existence of God in his imagination, and he claimed it is much greater to exist in reality than merely in the imagination. He ”reasoned” therefore, that there must be a supreme, perfect being.

Immanuel Kant, in the 18th century, demolished Anselm’s theory and pointed out that his proof was fatally flawed, since existence did not presuppose perfection. In her book, Murdoch discounts several other religious proofs.

The Meaning of God

Murdoch attempts to address the definition of the concept of God: “I think that the confusion arises from attempts to extend the meaning of our word, God, to cover any conception of a spiritual reality. This move, which saves the concept through a sort of liberal vagueness, clouds over the problem without solving it. ‘God’ is the name of a supernatural person. It makes a difference whether we believe in such a person, as it makes a difference whether we believe that Christ rose from the dead.”

However, Murdoch believes that these differences do not actually have any effect on whether or not we are virtuous, although she accepts that relinquishing religious belief may have negative effects on moral thought and action, provided for by church and prayer.

Contemplation of a work of art is a spiritual experience. Photo by Janet Cameron

Contemplation of a work of art is a spiritual experience. Photo by Janet Cameron, all Rights Reserved.

The Spiritual in Art and Beauty

In his article, “Murdoch, an unlikely liberal icon,” in The Guardian, Hywel Williams says: “Murdoch said she hated the ego in all its selfish, sentimental mess and its craving for dominion. Art- especially romantic art- fed the self. But, being human, Murdoch was inconsistent. Her divide between art and philosophy was always breaking down.”

The problem seems to stem from her failure to reconcile her love of life and entertainment, as embodied in her novels, and her conviction of the need to “unself” in her philosophy.

However, in Experiment in the Modern Novel, John Carrington indicates that Murdoch seems not to regard this as a difficulty: “‘Happiness,’ Iris Murdoch wrote, ‘is being busy and lively and unconcerned with self… to be damned is for one’s ordinary, everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting, agonising, preoccupation with self.’”  Clearly, being unconscious of self does not necessarily equate with being miserable and deprived.

Murdoch says the best kind of thinking is perception, and the best of all is contemplative perception, when we look upon something beautiful, a flower, a work of art, or listen to music. This, she says, is “presence.” She quotes from Simone Weil’s Notebooks: “Ontological proof is mysterious because it does not address itself to the intelligence, but to love.”

Dame Iris Murdoch explores the concept of God in western religion in her prolific body of work. Image by Decoded Past

Dame Iris Murdoch explores the concept of God in western religion in her prolific body of work. Image by Decoded Past

The Good is “Above Being”

The definition of God, says Murdoch, is related to the definition of a human being.  “We can think away material objects from human existence, but not the concepts of good, true and real.”

She then asks why the concept of certainty should resonate with such importance.

“It adheres essentially to the conception of being human, and cannot be detached; and we may express this by saying that it is not accidental, does not exist contingently, is above being.”

Murdoch, does, in the end, embrace the concept of the good as spiritual, as suggested by experience. She claims it is  ”… true enough to exhibit as fundamental, our sense of the purely good as, essentially, beyond us… the truth, the light… [it] floats free from contingent detail and is not at the mercy of history.”

It is something “central and mysterious and most real.”

Iris Murdoch’s Life and Work

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parents, and went on lecture at Oxford, and later at the Royal College of Arts, in philosophy. Her literary output was impressive, and her entry in Literature in English says, of her novels: “With their blend of realism and symbolism, they reflect her interest in psychological patterns and myths in human relationships. Their narrative skill and talent for irony has also helped attract a wide readership. “

Murdoch explained that “…the energy of philosophical problem” drove her plots. As Carrington summarises: “an unusual mix of psychological realism, poetic symbolism, mystery and humour.”

© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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