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27 February 2008

How to Hang the DJ

Dan Harkin has a near brush with the Quakers, and argues that just because we hear music, it doesn't

By Dan Harkin

Kant was a regular guy. I mean, he wasn’t ordinary. No, not in the least. Just very… regular. And he would be accompanied on his Konigsberg constitutionals by his servant, Lampe. And Lampe was a relatively uncomplicated sort and, the story sort of goes, he needed his God. The thought of Kant’s moral system made him distinctly uneasy. So – Kant went back over his thoughts to see if Lampe could have his God back.

After I gave up on God and then starting drifting away from Marxism, I tottered along to my local Friends Meeting House. Quakers appealed to me because they didn’t talk much about Jesus and the resurrection and they didn’t go in for much organisation (institutional or otherwise). There were no priests or people with specific religious authority; members just sit together once a week for joint enquiry and reflection. The ethical stance of the church seemed to extend to “the Light that shines within” or “that of God in everyone.”

I talked in the first article about how Kant banishes God from the realm of the reasonable and how I felt that morality was up to humans to sort out. For instance, he attacks what we might call the DJ Theory of God, otherwise known as the teleological argument: that because there’s all this beautiful music about the place, there must be a DJ behind it all. In later works, however, he makes clear that he thinks our reasoning still needs God or the “postulate” of God. I’ve always been against this idea: just because there isn’t a DJ doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the music. It seems that every smug theistic response to the atheist or agnostic is that the theist enjoys “spiritual” life and wellbeing that is denied the atheist. Denying there is a DJ doesn’t deny that there’s any music.

But the sort of God – and religion – that Kant has been accused of letting in “by the back door” isn’t one that most theists would recognise. He didn’t really bring back poor old Lampe’s God. What Kant recognised within Christianity was its moral core – and for that reason could be a sort of world religion. However, he sought to dispense with the huge cultural baggage, extraneous laws and historical idiosyncrasies that had built up around that faith. He wanted a religion within the limits of reason alone. He and his Enlightenment ilk, however, probably did more to hang the DJ than Nietzsche and Dawkins ever did.

Kant went about practicing strange theology and argued for an unorganised religion. He reinterpreted the ideas of sin and wickedness and postulated a new shore that we could swim for: an ethical commonwealth, an ideal form of human relationships, reinterpreting his own earlier moral ideas as a mutual relation that individuals have to one another. It is an internal moral order that we should all subscribe to and tied together different strands of Kant’s moral and political theories.

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Did I find this religion of reason in the Quakers? Nearly. As ever, I grew a little dissatisfied and drifted away. I see the kernel of a Kantian ethic in Quakerism and it is not hard to reconstruct concepts of the “Light” and “that of God in everyone” in terms of Kant’s ideas regarding the respect of humanity within ourselves and other people. But every now and then someone would get up and talk about Jesus and I couldn’t but help feel a little alienated. I wanted to hang the DJ and get down to what was really important. So I imagine I’ll keep drifting.

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