I would say nothing. I think that empiricism and reason are the best that we can do.
So then why, as an agnostic, am I defending (in a previous post) Francis Collins’s explicitly theological gestures?
Here’s why: I think that, with regards to the ontological mystery and ultimate questions, we hit an impasse where empiricism cannot go (either because we lack evidence or because certain questions result in question-begging regardless of what answer you might give—such as whether matter precedes mind or mind precedes matter at the beginning of the universe). From my vantage, everyone should therefore be an agnostic and simply say that “we don’t know” what we’re embedded in. But obviously we are “overgoing” people, never content with stalled answers. Max Weber once spoke of the human “inner compulsion to understand the world as a meaningful cosmos and to take up a position towards it.”
I thus think of theology, philosophy, atheism, dance, religion, prayer, music, poetry, yoga, meditation, candle lighting, vows of silence, literature, art, zen koans, and song as very human responses to the “ontological mystery” (to use the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s phrase). I think that these are all different ways of “talking” to (and about) the mystery of being and this weird, absurd, and contingent “thing” that we find ourselves embedded in. A lot of this “talk” functions to bring the mystery under illusory control, to frame or cage the universe in such a way as to tame its strangeness.
We all know the kinds of moves that theists make. But what about atheists and agnostics? Here’s the the type of moves that atheists and agnostics tend to make: We might build, akin to theology, philosophical ways of talking about the world. We might, for example, speak about the world in the language of Derrida, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer. We might read the novels of Camus and meditate on the universe’s absurdity and decide to rebel against the indifferent void, embracing “the myth of Sisyphus.” We might become Buddhists who explore the mind via Vipasana meditation. We might become Stoics or Epicureans who read Roman “therapeutic” and philosophical texts like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, or Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, or the essays of Seneca. We might obliterate our despair in drugs or alcohol. We might read Nietzsche. We might join the environmental movement, or become Marxists or Objectivists.
Like atheists, religionists—including scientists who are religious—need “meaning” outlets too.
I just think that if we treat religious gestures (such as theology) toward the ontological mystery with literalness, rather than as just another form of language making—a placeholder—a poem—set before the “mystery”—then we are committing a category mistake. The genre of theology is poetry—it’s not science. It’s a form of beer drinking and dance. Perhaps to get overworked about it is akin to getting worked up over the atheist who reads Nietzsche instead of just science textbooks. Francis Collins, for example, is a moderate Christian, not a fanatic. I won’t say he’s an ironist about his Christianity, but he’s pretty calm about it. It is simply not a characteristic of wisdom to start fights with religious people like Collins—especially if their theology—as Collins’s is—is Kantian-like in nature. In other words, if the theology does not touch upon the empirical world in any practical sense, and if it doesn’t interfere with scientific practice or funding, maybe we should just shrug and let it be. Most atheists and agnostics do this with astrological charts sold in grocery stores. It’s irrational, it’s a stupidity, but it’s relatively harmless. Why not treat moderate and liberal brands of religion and theology with similar calm?
The forms of theology that we worry about (or should worry about) are those that inspire fundamentalist violence or the restriction of freedom. (Just as we would worry about a philosopher advocating terrorism or the restriction of freedom). But so long as the philosopher or theologian or poet or novelist keeps his/her “art” over “here” and sequestered in the form of a peculiar myth-making language—and science over “here”—we’ve got little (in my view) to worry about. We ought to take theology of the sort that Collins does for what it is: harmless poetry; another way of speaking to—and taming the psyche before—the mystery. Even if Collins himself doesn’t take it ironically, we should. Human beings, afterall, are always going to have eccentric outlets for addressing the ontological mystery. The key is to make all this eccentricity “harmless” and kept out of the way of the progress of academic and scientific empiricisms. We can have both, in my view, without getting all bent out of shape when we see non-empirical and culturally contingent languages at work among us.
I admit that I’m ambivalent about what I’m saying here. It may be that I should be more Manichean about irrationalism in society because it sets the mind into unhealthy habits that makes it susceptible to more malignant forms of bullshit (when it comes along). That’s certainly true. It’s a hard call. When to fight. When to let it go. There’s a part of me that cheers the rhetorically “militant” atheists who caustically take after religions. But only a part.