Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doublethink, religion, and the essential moral attitude

Being human means not being materialistic, even though one has to be materialistic from time to time.

One hears it all the time as an atheist: "How can you be moral?". Plenty of replies can assert or show by example how baselessness the accusation is, but still, what is behind it? There is something much deeper than a matter of divine command.. that if one does not accept the ten commandments as divine and absolute, one is utterly lawless. There is something more important going on.

A way into this issue came up for me in George Eliot's Middlemarch, which describes the Victorian hinterlands as almost expecting their doctors to be more or less irreligious, indeed doubting their competence if they flaunt great devotion.
"The Doctor was more than suspected of having no religion, but somehow Middlemarch tolerated this deficiency in him as if he had been a Lord Chancellor; indeed it is probable that his professional weight was the more believed in, the world-old association of cleverness with the evil principle being still potent in the minds even of lady-patients who had the strictest ideas of frilling and sentiment. It was perhaps this negation in the Doctor which made his neighbors call him hard-headed and dry-witted; conditions of texture which were also held favorable to the storing of judgments connected with drugs. At all events, it is certain that if any medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having very definite religious views, of being given to prayer, and of otherwise showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption against his medical skill."
How intriguing! Is there perhaps a spectrum of interest, from the material to the spiritual, over which people of different temperaments are arrayed and in accordance with which they take up their professions and roles in life?

I had a science teacher in school who shocked us by stating that the materials of our bodies, if bought from the chemical supply catalog, would amount to only about $14 dollars worth, mostly in the calcium, I believe.

What is our value as humans? That is the central question of morality. Whether we see value in others, or conversely de-value and de-humanize others, is morally fundamental. Kant expressed this in his categorical imperative, that one should never treat a human as an instrument but rather as an end- a being of intrinsic and high value. The revolutionary ideas of human rights, civil rights, and all men being created equal ... these are not read from the book of nature, but from our sentiments and ideals, properly cultivated.

They also form the essential ground of modern society, where personal dignity, fairness and due process from social structures like corporations and governments are taken for granted (or demanded). One could describe this view of humanity as enchanted, as humanistic, or as religious, depending on one's taste.

Obviously, various professions and lines of work militate against such a well-cultivated view. Medicine comes to mind, as does economics, banking, insurance, business in general, being a dictator, and criminal pursuits more or less psychopathic. Human life has to be put into the scale from time to time and weighed against other, finite considerations. Like money. Insurers deal with the worth of a human life. Economists attempt to value all sorts of pricelss goods, like musical performances, life-saving drugs, food, paintings. Doctors violate our dignity all the time, certainly for higher ends and with practiced discretion, but the tension can be acute.

The enchanted and materialist views are highly incommensurate. So we live double lives, seeing each other, our dreams, and self-expressions as priceless, even as on the other hand these things must be priced out or treated roughly rather frequently.

Religion has been the institution dedicated to the spiritual - the infinite measure of value and connection, elaborating cosmic-scale myths of human value that, at their best, cultivate a virtually infinite regard for others, including, in many traditions, non-human forms of life, even for nature and the cosmos at large.

This is the point on which atheism is found so abhorrent- that it not only disbelieves the myth, but is thought to disbelieve the point behind the myth, which is the painstakingly erected conviction of human value by which societies live or die- the ground of all morals. That is why conventionally religious people tend to worry less which kind of religion one subscribes to, (excepting fanatics completely lost in the haze of their parochial myth), and more that one has a narrative of ultimate and overwhelming meaning to hang on to in the midst of our otherwise often dehumanizing existence.

But there is something lacking in this analysis. Do our feelings of meaning and value arise out of the myths we tell each other, or does it really work the other way around, that these myths express feelings already present, which are activated by a simple smile, or a feather found by the side of the trail? The many scandals of religion say quite clearly that its arts may nudge, but surely don't force its believers into consistently more humanistic practices and values.

We have developed countless ways to share and cultivate pre-existing and natural feelings of value and meaning, from Beethoven's 9th to the Zen Haiku. Religion, traditionally understood, has been one of these arts, and, as any art form, has had its fads, trends, ups, and downs. But it makes the audacious claim above and beyond its cultivation of human value that it also possesses special philosophical truth and scientific, or even more annoyingly, transcendental trans-scientific truth, which to the atheist is its downfall.

The absurdities of god, heaven and hell, regarded not as artistic expressions of our more or less primitive negotiation with existential finality, but as actual, scientifically valid propositions ... well, it is hardly worth talking about, except that people do indeed, in this advanced age, talk about them, write about them ad infinitum, get doctorates for making stuff up about them, and more. Unfortunately, brute insistance on such antiquated notions can do more to suppress true spiritual and humane feeling than any amount of irreligion.

Herewith, an example in poetry from the far-out feminist new age calandar WeMoon.

The Rapture

In the beginning there was relation.
In the end there's fear and separation.
Just the toll our soul takes, it's the shaking away
from the only god there ever was, the MotherGod-Nature
Patriarchy makes us hate her. Declares war on earth,

She birthed us and fed us throughout the green vastness of time.
Ecstasy's wet nurse,
She opened her purse of DNA molecules, fabulous rituals.
For a million seasons she planted a billion reasons for life to live
She was makin' Time

Once upon anti-entropic cycles of biologic time
deathless star breath inhabits every cell, tells us
we are mollusks and chlorophyl, iron and carbon,
we're memories of wilderness and earth- as essential as biology.

Swirling through Time from the first cell floating on the first sea
at the first outbreath of the world, that breath still circles,
chanting Yes! god is a womin who just says Yes!
and we gotta give Life support saying Yes!
And maybe these death throes are really birth pains
And maybe this chaos is labor, not apocalypse
And maybe what we need to do is push! Push through her hips.
Push! Push! Push through. The end of patriarchy is my rapture
And I ain't goin nowhere but Here.

 Oak Chezar, 2006

  • Gazzaniga talks about brains, consciousness, punishment, and free will.
  • People in search of hope.
  • Occupy god!
  • Occupy needs to organize.
  • Cannibalism and rivers of blood- the first crusade.
  • Photo blog on Afghanistan.. considering the history, we are doing pretty well.
  • Just how does one exit the Euro?
  • The squid, driving Europe down the drain. Also .. running for president!
  • Is a second Credit Anstalt collapse coming?
  • Cheating- the dominant strategy in modern finance.
  • "I think our female desire is for emotional connection to transcend that inescapable loneliness of being a human being, and theirs is physical, so they go to these places where someone will touch them."
  • Economics quote of the week, Bill Mitchell, in a post that bears a full reading:
"The entrepreneurs are disappearing in American and being replaced by rapacious wealth shufflers who add nothing to productive capacity or general prosperity."
"Buying a government bond or a share in a listed company is not investing to an economist. Entrepreneurs invest, hedge funds rarely invest."


  1. I know the bot posts are being blocked, but I especially enjoyed the one about spy gum. I love spy gum.

    Do our feelings of meaning and value arise out of the myths we tell each other, or does it really work the other way around, that these myths express feelings already present, which are activated by a simple smile, or a feather found by the side of the trail?
    By the way, I love this. I mean, this is precisely what myth is. It's a way to express deeper truths, truths which preexist the myth. My main concern with the "militant atheism" that tries to tear away at religion's "possess[ing] special philosophical truth and scientific, or even more annoyingly, transcendental trans-scientific truth" replaces it with nothing. It's not something you hear from Dawkins or Stenger or the like - you hear "religion is stupid, you're all stupid for following it, science is reality" - and never "religion has overreached, but there is a truth behind it."

  2. Thanks, Kelly!

    This is the fruit for me of engaging in all these discussions- to see that religionists are addressing something very important, but doing it clumsily, typically with unconscious agendas and obsolete philosophies.

    I hear this all the time, that people describe themselves as "spiritual" but not religious. That seems to be the thinking person's formula these days, saying that the traditional myths are dead, but the impulse remains quite alive and well. I hope to blog soon on the feminist author Mary Daly- a myth maker of a Weird/Wicked sort.

    On the spy gum, what can I say? I wish the spam blocking happened a little earlier in the process, before the bloggerbotoid sends out the comment emails.

  3. I think myths are a teaching tool - the impulse still exists, as "spiritual" people acknowledge, but we need a means to communicate that impulse (especially to our children). This is one reason why I dislike the vehement on either side (uber-religious or uber-scientific): because they neglect, ignore or condemn the communicative power of myth (myth as a general concept). We aren't supposed to read The Little Mermaid and believe it to be factually true, but nor are we meant to completely ignore it as an "artifact" of human invention; we're supposed to read The Little Mermaid and learn that actions can have unintended consequences, and that sometimes deals really are too good to be true.