12/19/14

No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.

07/24/14

They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.

09/15/13

Human Nature: The Good, the Bad…and the Neutral?

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I’m teaching a course on ethics to college sophomores this semester, and it has been an intriguing experience so far. I set the stage the first day by explaining my background in the study of religion and thus my proclivity to discuss the influence of religion on ethical behavior. I also told students they would not only need to articulate what they believe about a given scenario, but why they believe it, and if the “why” adequately justifies the “what.” Standard fare, but especially important in an ethics course.

Our first foray into exploring these issues was a discussion on our moral valuation of human nature. I instructed students to stand and physically place themselves in a line according to whether they thought human nature was good, neutral, bad, or somewhere in between. The point of the exercise is to indicate that the way we view the nature of humanity (or whether we believe such a thing exists) affects how we understand our capacity for ethics and our ethical decision-making processes.

In both my sections of the course, about three-quarters of students put themselves somewhere in the middle between the extremes of good and bad. The remaining quarter thought human nature lay in one extreme or the other. Only a few thought that humanity was by nature good (although this is certainly as defensible as saying it is bad), and even fewer of those could articulate their response. They primarily defended their positions with the (acknowledge) idealistic hope that humanity should be good, despite fears that it is not.

On the other side, those who explained their justification best were those who think our nature is “bad.” One student gave a short testimony when I asked, responding that because she is a Christian, she believes that humanity is bad unless it is saved by Jesus Christ. Another student responded that although she was not religious, she also thought humanity was bad when left to its own devices, but is tamed through constructive social influence. Both of these positions are informed by a Western Christian cultural influence, the first more obviously, and the second, by a Hobbesian perspective suggesting that without a “social contract” we would all being clubbing each other over the head at the slightest provocation.

The exercise served its purpose well, as many students reflected that their minds were changed when they heard justifications from other students and had to think how to defend their beliefs. I was reminded, though, of how much more difficult a task it is to explore other ethical possibilities when we have a dogmatic view of the world, and a decision on the morality of human nature is one of the most fundamentally dogmatic of all.

If I had participated in the experience myself, I would have placed myself directly in the middle, not because I think human nature is both good and bad, as some students commented, but because I doubt that there is such a thing we can productively label as human nature. There are multiple problems with assigning a moral value to our nature as humans. I can certainly not rule out genetic or biological predispositions and adaptations that encourage us to act in particular ways, but it makes little sense to give them a moral valuation on the natural level. It is the product of lazy thinking.

One could try to justify the badness of human nature by the many terrible tragedies that have taken place in the course of human history, but those on the other side of the spectrum could also amass a great number of advancements and improvements that point to the innate goodness of humanity. While perhaps the most emotionally appealing, this is not the most decisive forum for discussion. Those approaching the problem from a cherry-picking historical perspective are informed not by the state of nature itself, but by their situated-ness that appears to them as the natural state of human affairs, which in turn is used to interpret and judge all new stimuli.

But the larger point is that it is self-defeating to place a moral value on the nature of humanity. If indeed there are commonalities to be observed among us, their very existence suggests a futility to our approval or disapproval of them. They simply are. The stigmatization of our nature is responsible for a long history of self-revulsion in Western Christian thought, and serves to keep the institution in a position of authority, just as a state of “terror” makes the business of war much more manageable. Certainly if our notions of good and bad are actually divinely influenced, there is conceivable justification for labeling attitudes, dispositions, and even things as good or bad, but there can be little evidence for a divine origin other than the historical and social manifestations of the labeling process, which cannot be definitely linked to an a priori state of humankind. It is a theological, and not a philosophical or historical argument. Even if such a link could be made between our notions of morality and divine ones, it would in any case indict the Divine for capriciousness in intentionally imbuing humanity with moral deficiency. To do otherwise would be to break the divine moral code.

This is not to say that the actions or even thoughts of humanity cannot be morally labeled. They can and often should be. However, the explanatory value of judging an ethical situation on the basis of the badness of human nature is deceptive and weak. It is a poor substitute for the difficult ethical work of evaluating the intricacies of the entanglements we find ourselves in. “That’s just human nature” has never solved an ethical dilemma; it has merely exempted us from the dirty work of wrestling with it.

08/5/13

Is science the key to morality?

81vhPlG1sNL._SL1500_The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.

After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).

First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.

The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”

My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.

The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.

At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.

However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.

This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.

The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.

As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.

In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.

06/26/13

Anti-Christian Bias in Academia is Responsible for Religious Bigotry. Part Two…

I posted recently about Rebecca Hamilton’s blog commentary on George Yancey’s research about anti-Christian bias among the well-educated. Hamilton’s concluded that anti-Christianity is widespread in the higher education system and that this is responsible for increasing religious bigotry. Although her reaction is inflammatory, her sentiment that there is a connection between higher education and loss of religious belief seems accurate. I disagree, however, with her suggestion that the higher education system is responsible for religious bigotry.

Speaking anecdotally, I would most likely still be a practicing Christian had I not gone back to school to earn a graduate degree. I don’t think that I once experienced any sort of unjustified intolerance toward Christianity from any professor. My experience of deconversion, insofar as education was a part of it, came largely from wrestling with texts that challenged the historical and ideological viability of the Christian tradition. Since I studied religion directly, it would be difficult for me to comment on how much anti-Christian bias a student in the sciences, for example, might absorb. There is a fine line for some between being challenged and being unfairly discriminated against. One of my main goals as a teacher is to encourage students to question their long-held world views and expose inconsistencies in thought and practice. Usually just exposing students to a variety of other world views and teaching them to think critically is sufficient to provoke crises. For a Christian (as well as most other students), college can thus be a complex existential experience. Many make it through relatively unscathed, but a sufficient enough number do not that it is a common practice to go a Christian school to avoid the conflict.

But why would there be, or seem to be, anti-Christian bias in the academy? For the same reason that there would seem to be an anti-educational bias in Christianity. The ideals of Christianity conflict with the ideals of humanistic or scientific inquiry. Christianity gives an answer to the question of life and living—God—that other forms of inquiry cannot neither accept or ignore. To be certain there are many individuals who live out their lives maintaining a balance between sometimes contradictory world views, but they do so by compromising in one or more areas. The extent to which these institutions—Christianity and (public) higher education—mix is the extent to which one or the other cedes ground. And that is not a bad thing. But its effect is negated if one or both parties must pretend that either position is neutral or irrelevant. In other words, discrimination and self-bias are inbuilt in both higher education and Christianity. These self-protective aspects cannot be removed without compromising the integrity of their structures.

What this means to me is that we should not lament that these systems conflict or attempt to neutralize their clashes. Rather, if we are searching for answers, the best way forward, a better society, etc., we should highlight points of conflict as points of leverage toward common truths. I realize that sounds platitudinous, but it is surely a better step forward than the wary pluralism of much liberal doctrine.

We must make a distinction between the ethical treatment of those who espouse world views different from our own and challenging those world views. They are not the same thing, yet very few can resist eliding one into the other. In our rush toward fixity, toward systematization, we deny the instances to better understand ourselves and our world. These instances will necessarily involve giving and receiving offense, but their rewards, I have decided, exceed the discomfort they cause.