Thursday, July 24, 2008

I and thou

In my experience, Christian fundamentalists view themselves as more moral than those who are not religious. In fact, in many cases, it seems that Christian fundamentalists believe that they have adopted a high moral standard and that non-religious people live by no moral standards at all (hence their frequent references to terms such as "anarchy" and "moral relativism"). But here's where it gets interesting -- it seems to me that not only do Christian fundamentalists believe this about themselves -- they believe that other people (i.e. non-religious people) also share this same view (that Christian fundamentalists live by a higher standard and that non-religious people have no moral standards).

I'm here to dissuade them of their smug self-assurance.

In fact, as I showed in my earlier post, "Why Secular Society Makes Better Moral Decisions than Organized Religion" not only does secular society have a moral code, on the three biggest moral issues over the last 200 years -- slavery, equal rights for women, and equal rights for people who are LGBT -- secular society has displayed a HIGHER moral code than traditional fundamentalist religious society. What is more, in my experience when people in secular society look at Christian fundamentalists -- they don't see people adhering to a higher moral code -- rather they see people loudly practicing bigotry, intolerance, and hatred in the name of religion.

To put this in perspective, perhaps it's best to use an analogy from the world of sports. Let's take golf. By analogy if you will, Christian fundamentalists think they are the greatest golfers in the world. And not only that, they think that no one else even plays golf and that the rest of the world admires their golf prowess. This self perception is fueled by the fact that they only read Christian Fundamentalist Golf Digest, only watch the Christian Fundamentalist Golf Channel, and only play against other Christian Fundamentalist golfers. Meanwhile, in reality the world is filled with really great (secular) golfers. Millions and millions of people play it, there is a highly competitive televised pro tour, and the rules of golf are understood well and widely. And when the rest of the world looks at the way Christian fundamentalists play golf they see a bunch of hacks who repeatedly call mulligans, fail to replace their divots, cheat on their scorecard, are boorish in the clubhouse, and are exclusionary in their membership. That's the gap we face as a society.

While it is true that are some truly amoral people in society -- I believe they are a tiny fraction of the population (and represent a pathology rather than the natural state of humanity). Indeed, recent evidence from the world of the animal sciences shows that morality and ethics are likely hardwired into our DNA (see for example Primates & Philosophers by Frans de Waal, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, and The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce). Adherence to some sort of moral code is nearly universal -- atheists, agnostics, soldiers, teachers, hit men, and religious followers of all varieties all operate according to a moral code. The question is not (as Christian fundamentalists would have you believe) moral code or no moral code. Rather, the question is which moral code is truly best for society.

I think it's all well and good that the Democratic Party and the progressive movement in general have made efforts to reach out to evangelicals and other religious conservatives in recent years. But I have a different proposal. Let's not reach out to religious communities simply for the sake of diversity. Rather, I suggest we have a battle of ideas and that we start a conversation about what exactly constitutes a higher moral code and why. I will gladly put my 21st century secular moral code -- developed through thousands of years of religious and philosophical debate, scientific discovery, and social efforts to overcome intolerance and hatred -- up for comparison against a moral code developed by an ancient tribe that was always calling for god to rain genocide down upon neighboring tribes.

4 comments:

Melancholy Korean said...

I will gladly put my 21st century secular moral code -- developed through thousands of years of philosophical debate, scientific discovery, and social efforts to overcome intolerance and hatred -- up for comparison against a moral code developed by an ancient tribe that was always calling for god to rain genocide down upon neighboring tribes.

I wouldn't be so hasty.

Look, there's a lot to dislike about fundamentalist Christians--many of them combine ignorance with arrogance. They don't know anything, many don't read books and they have a suspicion of "elite" education (God forbid people get an education) but they think they know. That's the sure sign of a fool. But that same flaw characterizes many liberals and even plain old public intellectuals like Hitchens when they discuss religion. Their misunderstanding is perhaps understandable, but it's their contempt for religious belief that makes them fools.

This is a big topic, but I want to focus just on one of the assumptions behind the comment I've higlighted above.

through thousands of years of philosophical debate, scientific discovery, and social efforts to overcome intolerance and hatred

Sorry, no. If you want to count Western philosophy starting with Socrates, well, he was put to death in 399 BC by a democractic Athenian mob looking for scapegoats during a time of severe political instability due to Athens' defeat two years earlier in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates' pupils were aristocrats and anti-egalitarians, some of whom tried to overthrow the democracy and establish tyranny and who were sympathetic to the Spartan enemy--these are the men who populate the dialogues that started our philosophical tradition. Do you really want to go there? I mean, while we have a tradition of free speech in our country, I'm sure many, many progressive bloggers would have loved to see Socrates and Plato get the guillotine. Their ideas were radical--radically conservative. Aristotle, who was the opposite of Plato in many ways (Joyce illustrates this beautifully in the National Library scene in Ulysses) wrote that some people were natural born slaves. Speaking of slavery, the greatest abolitionist of them all was William Wilberforce, a born again Christian!

I'm not sure that the Christian philosophy practiced and debated in the West after Justinian closed the Academy in 529 AD bolsters your argument. I'm also not sure how something like the French Revolution, run by "enlightened" thinkers would had contempt for religion and who took "scientific rationalism" to its logical extreme, helps you either. The science of organizational behavior and modern operations theory helped the Nazis murder so many Jews. Killing millions of people on that scale requires an enormous technical apparatus, you need a powerful system to handle this, and it was all helpfully provided by science and early computers.

There's nothing worse than having to listen to someone who seems to be an idiot. You feel this with fundamentalist Christians. Well, I feel this with supposedly "literate," "historically aware," "intelligent" progressives who spout conventional wisdom, echoed by superficial "thinkers" for centuries, but who think they're saying something new. Please.

Toby Rogers said...

Hi Melancholy Korean:

These are insightful and thoughtful comments. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and thank you for taking the time to share your insights and extensive study on the matter.

I share your disdain for Christopher Hitchens' current writings on religion (although I think his earlier book on Mother Theresa had moments of brilliance). I find his current arguments brittle in ways that distract from his point. I haven't read much Richard Dawkins (and I know you didn't mention Dawkins but he and Hitchens are often talked about together these days) but I agree that there is a heavy dose of fundamentalism to the modern crop of atheist/scientific attacks on traditional religion.

In addition, your comments on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the French Revolution, and the Nazi reliance on modern technology (supplied by IBM) are both excellent and fascinating.

(I will point out though that while Nazis used modern technology -- their movement was widely supported by German Christians. And yes the Confessing Church opposed the Nazis but they were in the distinct minority.)

I believe I am making a different argument than those cited in your comment. To be clear: I am not making a Hitchens/Dawkins atheist attack on religion nor am I saying we should rely on ancient western philosophers instead of ancient religious prophets. I am making a variation on a (small "m") modernist argument. I am not advocating modernism for modernism's sake (which can devolve into its own fundamentalism or just randomness and chaos). Rather I am making an argument that modern secular people are free to select the best from any wisdom tradition (and yes that includes traditional religions including Christianity) to assemble a moral code that reflects the best thinking from throughout history. And here's the important point -- the strength of this moral code has to be argued on its merits -- one has to be able to show WHY a particular approach is better for society rather than just appealing to dogma or saying god handed it down on a stone tablet. I'm arguing that aggregating the wisdom of history, selecting the best ideas from any tradition, and showing why they are better for society will be superior to the thinking of a small band of ancient tribespeople or individual prophets.

Melancholy Korean said...

Hi there,

Thanks for taking time to respond to my comment. Of course I'm a child of our times, like you, so I like what you said here:

I am making an argument that modern secular people are free to select the best from any wisdom tradition (and yes that includes traditional religions including Christianity) to assemble a moral code that reflects the best thinking from throughout history. And here's the important point -- the strength of this moral code has to be argued on its merits -- one has to be able to show WHY a particular approach is better for society rather than just appealing to dogma or saying god handed it down on a stone tablet.

If pressed, I would have to admit I certainly live my own life by these principles.

But a traditionalist conservative might argue, and I'm not trying to start one of these kind of arguments, that having to defend morality on rational grounds already misses the point. The Western Canon, the Old Books, the Sacred Texts, the Monarchy (oops... hahaha)--these are things we must not question. Because once we start saying the emperor has no clothes, (he probably doesn't and never did) many other authority figures also appear naked. To change metaphors for a moment, the slope down that way is long and slippery. Ultimately, we have to appeal to something to make a judgment between moral systems. Now, I definitely don't want to go here, but how do we decide which system is better? What standard of morality do we use? What is that "something"?

Anyway, I appreciate the back and forth. I'm a Republican, but I prefer the company of progressives, since they are usually nicer, more civilized, generally cheery, and doers of good. Like the blog.

Toby Rogers said...

Excellent thoughts once again.

I think you've located the heart of the matter exactly when you write:

how do we decide which system is better? What standard of morality do we use? What is that "something"?

I agree that it's challenging but I think the debate could be incredible (and I also believe -- perhaps too idealistically -- that with a robust debate we could probably come up with a rough consensus for our time and place).

For me that "something" is reducing suffering. Suffering happens in the lot of ways in our world -- hunger, disease, war. I think there is a broad consensus that there is too much suffering in the world and reducing suffering is a net good thing.

I don't care how we reduce suffering so long as we can show that we are reducing suffering in measurable ways (and this is where there can sometimes be common ground between Dems and Republicans). If a market-based approach produces more jobs, less pollution, less disease, or better health care I'm open to it (although it seems to me that experience shows that market-based approaches usually need to be tempered with regulation and a mechanism for redistribution to protect the common good).

I think Dems do a good job of focusing on the common good and Republicans often do a good job of focusing on individual agency -- and it probably takes a combination of agency and communion in order to reduce suffering in the world.

Interestingly -- Rawls has done some great work on thinking about these questions (the whole "veil of ignorance" test) and Warren Buffet has become a fan of Rawls and sometimes quotes him in his public speeches these days.

Again thanks for your insightful comments and engaging writing.