How does Miguel de Unamuno force his readers to question their religious faith vis-a-vis advances in education, politics and science?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A Spanish philosopher of indeterminate denomination and uncertain intellectual conviction, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was less concerned with the conflict between science and religion, or between religion and politics, than with the efforts that people should make to question each, and to reject simplistic or stereotypical categorizations. Unamuno was not an atheist; nor was he a Catholic in the strictest definition prevalent in a deeply religious Catholic country.  He categorically rejected being placed in a “box” by others who sought to fully understand his views on religion and society.  A deeply spiritual man, Unamuno was nevertheless equally disdainful of those who aspired to scientific understanding absent any higher spirituality. With respect to his religious, he dedicated one of his essays, “My Religion,” to addressing speculation among others regarding the precise category into which he should be placed. As he wrote in that essay in response to questions regarding his religious views and affiliations,

“So then, they will say to me: “What is your religion?” And I will respond: my religion is to look for truth in life and life in truth, even knowing that I may never find them while I am alive. My religion is to struggle constantly and tirelessly with mystery; my religion is to wrestle with God from the break of day until the close of night, like they say that Jacob struggled with Him. I can never accept the concept of the Unknown—or the Unknowable, as some pedantic writers say—and I will also not accept any affirmationthat says: “from here you can go no farther.” I reject the eternal ignorabimus. And at any rate, I want to reach for the inaccessible.”

Furthermore, Unamuno professed to be a Christian, but without the easy categorizations that result in discussions of denominations:

“It is true that with my feelings, with my heart and my emotions, I have a strong inclination toward Christianity, without trusting in the special dogmas of this or that particular Christian denomination. For me, a Christian is anyone who invokes the name of Christ with respect and love . . .” 

So, that should put to rest any notion of Unamuno as an atheist, or even an agnostic.  He should not be looked upon as one who rejected spirituality and faith in a divine presence in favor of scientifically-derived knowledge.  His priority was to encourage critical thinking without judgment and without arrogance. The nexus between religion and science, to Unamuno, was a natural convergence predicated upon openness to information and rejection of conclusions.  Unamuno famously declared that “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith,” a comment no doubt inspired by the Biblical passage (Matthew 21:21) in which Jesus states that “truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.” [New American Standard Bible]  Similarly, when he wrote that “science is a cemetery of bad ideas,” he was only criticizing those who look upon science as the sole determinant of knowledge and wisdom. As he also noted, “True science teaches, above all, to doubt and to be ignorant.”

In The Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno takes issue with those who reject spirituality, writing:

“There are, in fact, people who appear to think only with the brain, or with whatever may be the specific thinking organ; while others think with all the body and allthe soul, with the blood, with the marrow of the bones, with the heart, with the lungs, with the belly, with the life.  And the people who think only with the brain develop into definition-mongers; they become the professionals of thought.”

With respect to the world of politics, one should consider the context in which Unamuno wrote: the rise of fascism in Spain and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, one of the seminal events of the 20th Century. To Unamuno, the use of religion by the fascists to advance their political agenda marked the ultimate calumny. Addressing this situation, he wrote in The Tragic Sense of Life regarding the expression “if there were not a God it would be necessary to invent Him”:

“It is the expression of the unclean skepticism of those conservatives who look upon religion merely as a means of government . . .”

If science played an important role in Unamuno’s philosophy of life, then politics was, for lack of a better phrase, ‘the devil incarnate.’  Politics was the means by which the fascists usurped religion for their unrighteous cause.

Miguel de Unamuno was a firm believer in the pursuit of knowledge for its own purpose.  He rejected political and religious dogma from both ends of the spectrum, and sought to find the proper balance between faith and science. 

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