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75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto” 21 June 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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I picked up a copy of the May/June 2008 issue of The Humanist magazine this week to read a special about the 75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto,” which I have known about vaguely because of my studies of John Dewey. Reading the 1933 document in its entirety, I can somewhat see why it has been called naïve by some, but I read it as a statement of values, not a prediction of the future. The horrors of the 20th century more than anything seem to support the manifesto’s fundamental principle, that old ways of thinking no longer work given what we know, and that something new is in order. Science, technology, and global economics have transformed us far beyond a world where traditional cultural and religious systems can be adequate to explain and guide a meaningful life.

The manifesto sees itself in its 1933 context as creating a new kind of religion, so it calls itself “religious humanism,” but if you read it carefully, you find an amazing set of approaches to religion, that human life in all its diversity and range of good and evil is coextensive with ‘nature’ and that there can no longer be any meaningful division of the sacred from the profane. Human life is all we have and our purpose as humans should be both to seek to fully realize our humanness as our individual consciousnesses lead us and to create and maintain a society that supports all of our realization-processes.

The 15th article of the manifesto resonnates with my most dearly held values:

We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely the few. … Man [sic] is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set his intelligence and will to the task.


Freedom from offense a human right? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[Sorry for the second question-form post title in less than 30 minutes.]

Last month, the UN’s 3rd committee passed a resolution against the ‘defamation’ of religion. Not surprisingly, the resolution was written and sponsored by Organization of the Islamic Conference, and names Islam as a besieged religion. Regardless, the resolution makes the classic illiberal mistake of thinking that freedom of religion means that no one can criticize you; that if you’re offended your rights have been violated; and that you have the right to do whatever you want to without scrutiny as long as you do it in the name of religion. I’ve waxed long and hard against this issue before, so I won’t belabor the point. I will, however, point you to a great rebuttal of the UN resolution from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an international consortium of humanist organizations):

Universality of Human Rights under Attack at the UN

Our Own Providence 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[As I mentioned before, I’m reading a biography of William James this summer, and it’s been more than pleasurable so far, a glimpse into not only the life of a great mind, but into the moment of transformation of American culture into modernity. If you like biography or philosophy, read this book: Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). My first brief post about James is here.]

In his mid-20s, James had a bit of a crisis, emotional and physical. He had hurt his back in a physiology lab and had gone to Germany for recuperation, where he ended up staying for over a year and a half. During that time, he had descended into a depression and, in ways that completely resonate with me, into self-doubt. The biographer notes that James throughout his life used his constant battle with depression as a means to open his thinking and to break down his cherished beliefs. Among those beliefs that had to be dealt with was his very mid-19th century American idea that individuals have utter control of their own fate.

In his life-long struggle against his father’s ofttimes wacky ideas, James spent much time in Germany corresponding with his father about theology, truth, creation, religion, and the meaning of human life. In one letter, he wrote:

Practically, it seems to me that all tendencies must now a days unite in Philanthropy: perhaps an atheistic tendency more than any, for sympathy is now so much developed in the human breast, that misery and undeveloped-ness would all the more powerfully call for correction when coupled with the thought, that from nowhere else than from us could correction possibly come, that we ourselves must be our own providence.

In turning away from religious explanations of life (which he had been doing since he was a teenager), James seeks to understand where that leaves us. Optimistically, he points to the compassion people seem to have for each other and sees in it the possibility of a new source of meaning, which he calls “Philanthropy,” or “love of man”. But what kept echoing in my head was that last line, that this atheistic (perhaps he meant humanistic) belief in human beings means that we must be our own providence. Americans had been speaking of providence since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock, and although it isn’t a concept we deal with much anymore, the idea of a divine hand guiding the fate of the individual and the nation has led both to amazing social goods and brutal nationalism. But James isn’t talking about a new kind of Manifest Destiny, here. He means that we seek and find the divine in our own interactions. We become indeed our own providence.

A couple years later, his first cousin, with whom he was in some senses in love, died of tuberculosis. James was devastated and continued his search for meaning through her death. In his diary shortly after Minnie Temple’s death, he wrote:

Minnie, your death makes me feel the nothingness of our egotistical fury. The inevitable release is sure: wherefore take our turn kindly, whatever it contains. Ascend to some sort of partnership with fate, and since tragedy is at the heart of us, go to meet it, work it to our ends, instead of dodging it all our days, and being run down by it at last. Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning) tat tvam asi.

James sees life as inevitably leading to death, a tragedy at the heart of life, a fact that must be met and accepted. This is a key part of much Buddhist teaching, the acceptance of our own mortality, that this will all end someday. But James isn’t Buddhist here. He turns instead to the Upanishads, to ancient hinduism, and quotes it: Tat tvam asi. That art Thou. That is the Allbeing, or the Beingness of the universe, the oneness of us all with the realities of life. Life and death are the same thing, one in That. And Minnie is That. Richardson argues that Minnie’s death turned James toward a new way of seeing his life, wherein he could face death the way Minnie did, by embracing life in all its complications. Sometimes biography is interpretive art, and I have no idea if that is what happened for James. But again I find a resonance here of the freedom found in facing death and accepting oneself as part of the Being of the universe.

James apparently did not return to the Upanishads or the idea of Being until he wrote his most famous set of lectures, which we know as the Varieties of Religious Experience:

This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition. … ‘That art Thou!’ say the Upanishads, and the vedantists add: ‘Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that Absolute Spirit of the World.’

And so we come back to providence. It is not that we must be our own providence, but indeed that we are providence. James was not making a proclamation about some kind of ultimate truth, but rather he was talking about the experience of religion, in this case, the experience of the mystical oneness with being. It seems to me a great basis for a kind of spirituality that began with James’ atheism and ends with the experience of connection with all life around you.

Catching Up 20 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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Wow, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop, so much has happened, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up. So here’s a roundup of the things that have interested, fascinated, horrified and angered me over the past few weeks (in no particular order, other than how they popped into my head):

1) The Foley Affair: The man is a creep, not a pedophile. The Republicans have no shame, playing on pedophiliphobia (to coin a word) and homophobia for their own spin needs. It appears they have failed, however. I have no sympathy for closeted public officials who use their power and self-hatred to oppress gay people.

2) Outing Closeted Republican Politicians and Staffers: As many elsewhere have noted, there is nothing wrong with the outing of public officials. The only reason you could think outing was wrong is if you accept the premise that being gay is shameful or wrong in some way, which it is not. Although I’m more sympathetic to private individuals, elected officials have no excuses or expectations of privacy on this matter.

3) Legalizing Torture and Creating a “Unitary Executive”: Where were the riots? Where were the protests? My students didn’t know this had happened and didn’t care. Why are Americans asleep on this issue? This is exactly what the anti-Federalists were afraid of back in 1789: An Executive would become a King. Meanwhile, we have become what we used to hate.

4) 650,000 Dead Iraqis: Although I think there may be some problems with the methods of this count, the point isn’t missed: Iraqis are suffering immensely under our efforts to “save” them. We must look at the consequences of our actions as a nation, and rethink them immediately. The solution we tried didn’t work (duh). Time for a new one.

5) Military Coup in Thailand: You cannot defend democracy from a corrupt Prime Minister by overturning the democracy.

6) Nuclear Bomb in North Korea and Bush’s Dissembling Remarks: Why did we attack Iraq? Why was one of the first actions of the Bush administration’s foreign policy machine, early in 2001, to cut off talks and withdraw an agreement with North Korea?

7) Reading, The Working Poor: Shipler’s book, a couple years old now, does an amazing job of painting the complex matrix of circumstances, personal choices, and social institutions that work to keep people on the bottom of our society on the bottom of our society. Without waxing overly sociological, he uses the research and brilliantly conveys the lived experience, the oppressive conditions, the physical and psychological effects of poverty. And he concludes by excoriating the right-wing view of government and it’s effect on tens of millions of people’s ability just to live in the United States.

8 ) Reading, The Trouble with Difference: I’ve been personally struggling with the effects of some kinds of multicultural theory and practice lately, as it seems to me that our focus on “cultural diversity” as an end-in-itself has actually led us to ignore real inequalities around us. Michael Benn Walter’s little book makes this argument eloquently (although sometimes lacking in what my sociologist brain requires: evidence) and powerfully. I’ll do a whole post on this book later this weekend.

9) The Economics of Working in Higher Education, or I Need a Raise: I realized yesterday that because of the funding of my University and the contract for faculty, I would be at this pay scale for 5 more years, with probably no cost-of-living increases (joke) and no merit increases (eliminated from our contract) and only a minimal raise when I get tenure (6%, I believe). That means I’ll be living like a graduate student for the rest of my life. In material terms, I’m starting to question if my 8 year ordeal to get a PhD and secure a tenure track position was really worth it.

10) England’s Total Misunderstanding of the Principle of Free Speech, or How Wrong-Headed Versions of Multiculturalism Will Fuck Us If We’re Not Smarter than the Brits: First, they throw an anti-gay bigot in jail for distributing anti-gay pamphlets; then they throw out a gay police association’s advertisement out because it was “mean to christians”. How could people in the land of John Stuart Mill have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the freedom of speech?

11) Michigan Rejects Intelligent Design: Hooray!

12) Teaching the Evolution of Mind to Freshman Science Majors, or How Can Freshmen in University in California Be So Clueless about Human Evolution?: A guest lecture this week went very well, as I tried to explain in 50 minutes the naturalistic theory of cultural evolution. What I wasn’t prepared for was a group of science majors who had no clue about the basics of evolutionary theory and how scared they were as I talked about “human ancestors” in trees and starting to walk upright and growing big brains. Surreal experience of the inadequate K-12 science education.

13) Nobel Peace Prize for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh: I have always been sharply critical of capitalism in general, because of the social, human costs of an unfettered market. But in my old age, I’ve moderated a bit, to start thinking about how capitalism might be controled and used (I’m adamantly opposed to Market Fundamentalism and Laissez-Faire) to create the wealth necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering. The market is powerful, but not all-mighty. And so I was fascinated by this idea of “microcredit”, giving loans to small entrepreneurs in Bangladesh instead of large donations to often-corrupt governments in the developming world. Building a successful middle-class is a key part of democratization, because you have to have a social base of people who feel they have a stake in the society before they can have a participatory democracy.

14) Why I Have a Crush on Olbermann: Listening to him eloquently and bluntly thrash George W., & co., just makes me horney, baby.

15) Anti-gay Violence: Man Lured to His Death in New York: There seems to be a sudden spurt of anti-gay violence around the country these past few months, and it’s starting to piss me off.

16) The New Virginia Ballot Proposition that Would Ban All Legal Rights for Same-sex Couples: You not only have to outlaw same-sex marriage, but you also have to prevent all same-sex couples from having any legal arrangements or contracts with each other at all? What the fuck is wrong with America?

17) A Series of Rapes in the Castro: The anti-gay violence comes home, as a series of three brutal attacks on gay men in the Castro followed by sexual assault. The press and police keep talking about how baffled they are by a group of straight men raping men. That is just ignorance. Men have been raping each other for thousands of years, because it’s about power and humiliation. This is not a new kind of hate crime against gay men; it’s just that we now live in a society where we can actually talk about it in public. And in England they punish the gay policemen for saying that anti-gay Christians are legitimizing anti-gay violence?

18) Dissension in the Ranks of the ACLU and a Turning Point for What Has Been the Most Important Civil Rights Watchdog Group in American History: The dissenters are right to criticize the current board of the ACLU and to demand the open dialogue and disagreement that has been the hallmark of the organization until recently.

19) Mirror Neurons Are Cool: Don’t have much to say here, as I’m just learning about them. But they are fuckin’ cool.

20) Will Stephen Pinker and George Lakoff Please Stop Pissing All Over Each Other? Yeah, Lakoff is kinda a hack; but Pinker makes claims way beyond what’s warranted by his evidence. I’m just irritated at what seems to have devolved into a pissing match, instead of a constructive argument. This reminds me of some of the more irritating exchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould re: punctuated equilibrium.

21) Rethinking Sam Harris’s Book and Richard Dawkins’ Rationality Meets Salon’s Effort at Being “Provocative”—Dear God, I’m Tired of Religion: At first, I thought Harris’s book was overly simplistic, but as I’ve digested his argument over the past year, I’ve come to agree. Religious moderates must take responsibility for their part in making fundamentalism acceptable. And Dawkins’ interview in salon about his new book made me want to slap the interviewer.

Random Food for Thought at 1 a.m. 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Political Commentary, Pop Culture, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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sam_harris.jpgFrom today’s Salon.com interview with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

It may sound paradoxical but it’s not. I’m advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It’s really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who’s sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation’s boardrooms. And that’s a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.

It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves — specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.

headshotbwpoint-80x120.jpgAnd from Mark Morford, columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is like some sort of virus. It is like some sort of weird and painful rash on your face that makes you embarrassed to walk out the door and so you sit there day after day, waiting for it to go away, slathering on ointment and Bactine and scotch. And yet still it lingers.

Some days the pain is so searing and hot you want to cut off your own head with a nail file. Other days it is numb and pain-free and seemingly OK, to the point where you think it might finally be all gone and you allow yourself a hint of a whisper of a positive feeling, right up until you look in the mirror, and scream.

George W. Bush is just like that.

Can you tell I’m having trouble sleeping? Thank god for reading and blogging.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) 5 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Ethics, Evolution, Judaism, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science, Secular Humanism.
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Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.

First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]

Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.

I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]

Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.

Putting Religion in Its Place 3 July 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Culture, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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Religion should be seen as one of the humanities, akin to an art. Religion is a “meaning-maker” that for thousands of years has been mis-apprehended as a “truth-spring”, a source of empirical truth. The problem with religion and science over the past 500 years is that our human understanding of knowledgecraft, that is, how we know, has progressed to what we commonly call the “scientific method,” leaving religious truth-claims in the dust. Truth-seeking guided by the assumptions of scientific method produces a radically different kind of knowledge than that produced by religion (or philosophy or music or art or literature), one anchored in embodied experience, observation, deductive reasoning and generalizing inference from experimental data. Religion produces meaning through tradition, story, theorizing from foreknown assumptions, and affective experience or feelings. The conflict arises when religion is mistaken as the truth-spring, the source of our knowledge of the natural world, rather than a meaning-maker.

Religion is exponentially more powerful than art, literature, music or philosophy, primarily because of how deeply social it is. Surely, the other humanities are also social as both their production and their consumption require that we be “fluent” in a cultural symbol-system in order to both aprehend and experience them in their full, meaningfulness. Religion, however, is active and all-encompassing in its meaning-making: it is communal and institutional, participatory and regulated. Through it’s particular truth claims and through communal rituals and practices, religion attaches to the feeling-experiences of participants and the keepers of the religion such that it infuses their life and world view. Further, the meaning ermerging from religion is nearly all-encompasing. An individual work of art or novel may address aspects of life or particular emotions or feelings, but religion is structured so as to answer all questions.

The nature of religion gives it a great power, a power which we all know can be highly destructive in the world. It is a power that sees itself as necessarily intervening in political, economic, and social realms, which may have been perfectly normal in the Medieval world, but which is highly problematic in modern pluralistic democracies. Religion continues to make ridiculous truth claims about the origins of life and the function of the earth and even about the organization of society and the purposes of morality.

And so it is socially and intellectually necessary to engage religion and challenge its faulty claims. One of Daniel Dennett’s main arguments in his latest book is that religious truth claims must be subject to scrutiny — we must examine the meanings created by religion, just as we should of any other of the humanities, and test them and examine them. John Dewey’s particular version of Naturalism sees human meaning production, that is, the humanities, as a biological function. Our brains are set up to produce meaning. And George Herbert Mead argued that, psychologically, despite our formal knowledge systems in modern societies, at its root, meaning arises in interaction with the world. That is, our brains produce meaning through interaction and experience. We know what something means but, crassly put, using it. Thus, meaning production is embodied and social, by nature.

Combining these two positions, if we reject religion’s claim as a truth-spring, and see it instead as a meaning-maker, as one of the humanities, then it puts it into the realm where we can address it with more equanimity and comprehension. Whereas if we accept religion’s own claim that it can make truth-claims, then our only recourse is to jetisson it altogether; by seeing it as one of the humanities, and addressing its process of meaning-making and engaging it in the meanings it makes, we can save what it most powerful and beautiful about religion.

Social-scientifically, if you stand back and watch religion function in the world and study human interactions, you see that religion is in reality, objectively, a uniquely powerful system of meaning-making. Religious meanings are human efforts to understand life experiences, to make sense of the range of life-feelings, from pain to joy. As such, scientific-mindset and meaning-making can be brought together in the way suggested by Dennett and Dewey: Religion can be evaluated on its merits, and its meanings can be apprehended as aesthetic and moral and normative positions, rather than as empirical claims. Such an evaluation is not merely scientific (e.g., comparing a creation story to evolution), but it is also about rationality and rigorous argument. We would demand of religion’s moral and cultural claims that they answer the question “Why”? Why should we believe that? Why should we live our lives in that particular way as espoused by your religion? In other words, religion must give reasons for its positions and practices, just what we would expect from any other moral, aesthetic, or normative philosophical claim.

Further, this would allow us to remove religion from its roots in tradition and ethnic identity — two of the primary reasons religious adherents are so intensely resistant to critical engagement with their own religion — and from its hidebound clinging to old meanings from thousands of years ago which no longer make sense in the world within which we live. That is to say, religion is problematic in our world not because it is religious per se, but because it no longer works. It is a broken meaning-maker that no longer addresses the world as it is experiences now with the knowledge we have now. If religion is to remain a part of human existence, it must account for the world as we know it in the present, including scientific and social-scientific knowledge that renders much of religions’ meanings obsolete and useless in the real world.

At the same time, I do think there is something to religion that is worth saving. The communal, ritual, active aspects of religious consummatory experience are powerfully and deeply human. Religion has produced some of the most deeply moving pieces of art, music, and literature that human beings have ever produced. Perhaps we can get rid of the bathwater without killing the baby, by seeing religion as an Art, open to criticism and scrutiny as we would any work of art, removing from it the power to make truth-claims for which it is an inferior method of truth-seeking, and exploding its moral grasp on democratic culture by insisting that religious moral positions be backed by rational argument and reasons.

Although some might argue that this shift from truth-spring to meaning-maker is the ultimate disenchantment of religion, removing from it all its power, I would argue that it actually works and brings religion into alignment with the actual state of human experience, making religion again relevant and useful for human life. Two examples of this come to mind. One is the Dalai Lama’s continual exploration of truth in the modern world and his adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to the world of science and reason. Another example is in American liberal protestantism, where since the mid-19th century, Christianity has been adapting and transforming parallel to the ignorant retrenchment of conservative and fundamentalist religions. Here’s an example of what religion can become when taken as a meaning-maker instead of a truth-seeker:

Are not these [theistic] divine definitions little more than the pitiful pleas of human being swho prefer to live in a world of make-believe, human beings who want never to grow up? Is there some hidden hope, deep inside us, that manifests itself in our attempt to define God theistically, so we might not have to alter our lives dramatically to save our [world]? … Christian evangelicals like to use the term ‘born again.’ It is an interesting choice of words, for when one is ‘born again,’ one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be ‘born again,’ but to grow up and become mature adults. … Heaven is not our home. This planet earth is. That is the first realization we must embrace when theism dies. … When theism dies, God does not die, but a human definition of God dies. … Our job is not to recreate God but to seek a more adequate, new definition of our experience of God.

— Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal a God of Love (2005), pp. 62-3

Perhaps in moving religion out of its own category and placing it among the other humanities, in exploding its truth-making power, we can frees religious communities up to explore the depth of religion’s meaning-making power and bring religious belief and practice down to earth where we can effectively interact with it, modify it, and use it in interaction with other humanities, with the advances and methods of science, and with the changes over time, the historicalness, that make up our earth-bound, embodied, mortal lives.

I suppose the trick will be convincing the faithful adherents that their belief-systems are merely works of art, and bad ones at that.

Karen Armstrong and Religion’s Truth 30 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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An interview with Karen Armstrong appeared in this morning's Salon.com, which provoked some thinking in me about why, as much as I love reading her books, there are moments when I just am dissatisfied with her analyses. I find that even as an agnostic–in the Huxleyan sense of "no knowledge without evidence"–I do find much in religious traditions to admire and that the search for the ineffable can be quite satisfying. I'm a great fan of Armstrong and her books…but also a respectful critic of some of her thinking.

In general, I understand Armstrong's arguments about the relationship of logos and mythos, but I find that the stark divide between the two can be problematic. It's a common division that ends up functioning to excuse religion from intellectual and moral rigor. It also fundamentally misunderstands "meaning," which, in Armstrong's Platonic formula, falls under the purview of mythos. John Dewey and George Herbert Mead argued that meaning is derived from the use of an idea; that is, you know what something (an event, an object, an idea) means by the way you interact with it. Science and Religion aren't two opposing systems giving us different aspects of life; they are two different ways of coming to understand (of interacting) with things. Human beings derive knowledge through interaction, be it scientific or religion knowledge. Religion and Science are different in quality, not in kind; therefore, it is not only legitimate, but essential that we compare them and criticize their relative strengths and weaknesses. In a shrinking world of dramatic cultural pluralism where ethno-religious violence is always bubbling, we can no longer afford Plato's (or more recently Stephen J. Gould's) categorical splitting of religion from science (Gould's "separate magesteria"…blech).

Armstrong's efforts to salvage religion from secular/scientific critique often slide into apology. Justifying the Koran's (or Bible's) brutality by interpreting the passage as a call to peace collapses the complexities of religious text and practice and paralyzes our ability to evaluate them, to produce moral judgments of the usefullness of a particular belief. Armstrong argues that those who say the Koran (or Bible) are violent texts merely misunderstand them. But the fact that millions of people believe and act in their religion counter to Armstrong's "true" interpretation demonstrates that the text means different things to different people in different contexts. Again, the meaning of a religion (or a passage in a religious text) emerges from the way people interact with it and enact it in the world. Meaning is not a fixed, immovable, knowable thing like a Platonic Ideal; the right interpretation isn't a thing that if we all look hard enough we'll all come to the same conclusion, especially not in a world where a single religious tradition is straddling thousands of different cultural, social and economic contexts.

A better tack would be to take the social scientific stance that religions are vastly complex cultural systems–the major traditions are thousands of years old; they encompass millions of diverse people, histories, and languages; their texts, practices, and beliefs are internally inconsistent and contradictory; and they contain both the impetus to violence and the call to peace. This would open religion up to more nuanced and targeted critiques of the immoralities of religious meaning in practice. It would also enable the kinds of critiques that Daniel Dennett calls for in his most recent book, where we can make rational decisions about what needs to be excised from our religious traditions, what no longer "works" in the world as we experience it now, not least of which are those major aspects of Islam and Christianity (not to mention Judaism and Hinduism) which push to tight community isolation and violence to outsiders.