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My Problem With Religion, 5

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A couple of people have e-mailed me to tell me they really, really, really want to know how I see the Trekkies developing into an alternative religion.  And  I do mean to get to that a bit towards the end of all this.

But right now,  I’d like to take note of Roger’s comment that Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism at the end of his life–I’d never heard of that before, but if it’s true it speaks directly to where this is going.  In fact, it’s nearly perfect.  So I’m really grateful for the information.

“Sunday Morning,” however, is a very early poem, and it is both definitely hedonist (in the sense of “life is about the pleasure you get out of it”) and atheist, and that brings us to today.

There are, as I’ve pointed out, largely unconscious accidental atheists, who do not really know they’re atheists, because they haven’t thought about it much.   But people do think about it, or osme people do.

Christianity provided a framework for living that encompassed things–morality, meaning, narrative–that were scattered among different aspects of the ancient world.  It still does, for people who believe.

People who do not believe, however, aren’t always capable of changing that by an act of will, and don’t always want to.  They still need all the things–morality, meaning, narrative–Christianity provided.

Robert protested that Matthew Arnold didn’t set out to reproduce the Christian framework, because what he produced was not Christian.

But I didn’t say Arnold was trying to reproduce Christianity.  Only that he was trying to reproduce the framework Christianity provided that he could no longer accept because he could no longer believe. 

That is, Arnold needed to come up with a system that would provide morality, meaning and narrative of some kind that would make it possible for him to go on living a coherent life.

Between Arnold and today there have been a number of attempts to provide such a framework, the most mind-numbingly obvious (and destructive) being the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, from the Soviet Union to Hitler to  Mao to Kim il Jong.

But there are also been more organized and somewhat more thoughtful attempts, usually represented by the “humanist” organizations in the Anglophone West.  I put “humanist” in quotes because I deal mostly with a period in which th word Humanist means “somebody who works in the Humanities by profession,” and that’s not what we’re going for here.

In the United States, the major Humanist organizations began with the American Humanist Association, started by a number of now-famous people, including John Dewey, to provide a focal point for what they called “religious humanism.”

By “religious humanism” they did not mean, say, Leonardo da Vinci, but rather a non-theist and anti-supernaturalist system that would exhibit what they considered to be the best aspects of religion, including a sense of awe and wonder that would be expended on the natural world instead of on God.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, there got to be a set of splinter movements awafrom Humanism, resulting eventually in the founding of what is now called the Council for Secular Humanism by a professor of philosophy from SUNY Buffalo named Paul Kurtz.

I’m eliding the history here a lot, but I don’t mean to outline that history.  You can always go look up the web sites for both these organizations, which still exist, in force, and see what they have to say.

A little digging will lead to a number of embarrassments, like Corliss Lamont, one of the bright lights of the original AHA, who was also a committed Stalinist.  But Christianity has its Torquemadas and its decadent Popes, so I’m not sure that sort of thing speaks against Humanism without resulting in our declaring every movement of every kind that has ever existed to be beyond the pale.

The first thing I want you to notice about the framework promoted by both the AHA and the CSH is that it is analytical, abstract and “reasoned.” 

That is, it is essentially a philosophy, and not a narrative.  One of the reasons Christianity is as successful as it is–not only among believers, but among lots of people who think they don’t believe at all–is that it is a very powerful narrative, aspects of which touch every important question in human life. 

And, as I said very early in this blog, the vast majority of human beings think in narratives.   Very few of us approach life, death, love, hate, meaning or anything else important in an analytical way.  Lots of people can’t approach taking out the garbage in an analytical way. 

And, when we get right down to it, even self-proclaimed “secular humanists” can’t approach life in an entirely analytical way.  The problem is that the only narrative they’ve come up with is partial, situational, and likey to become obsolete when they most need it.

From its earliest days, Anglo-American humanism portrayed itself as an example of Prometheus Bound.  Here is the great man, the great intellect, persucuted and hated because he opposes the forces of darkness and strives to bring goodness and enlightenment to men.

I wrote a really long RAM post–or series of posts–on this once that I called the Atheist Narrative, and I’m not going to go through all that here.  Suffice it to say that the narrative was tenable in the early days of twentieth century humanism.

That was an era, after all, when a public university, the City  University of New York, was forced to withdraw a job offer to Bertrand Russell because of public outrage over Russell’s public atheism.  Less famous people risked job loss and ostracism if it became known that they did not believe. 

But that was then, and this is now.  In spite of hysterical declarations by numbers of people in the movement that any atheist sticking his head above water in the Bible belt would be physically attacked and in danger of his life, Christopher Hitchens did a very well publicized book tour for his God is Not Great through that same Bible belt and spoke night after night to rooms packed with enthusiastic crowds.  His book, as well as atheist books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, spent week after week on the best seller lists.

In fact, in at least some areas of life in the United States today, and throughout Western Europe in general, being a Christian believer is far more damaging to your career and financial health than being an atheist.  Entire professions–social work, psychology, social services–have become untenable for believers who are sincere and faithful to their beliefs, or pushed them to alternative provider frameworks like self-consciously Christian charities and foundations.

In the face of this change in the culture, it would seem obvious that the narrative of Prometheus Bound would not work to provide meaning for people looking for it–and, in fact, it doesn’t.  

Even among consciously atheist people, joining, or even identifying, with one of the organized humanist associations is a minority position.  Part of that is politics–the organizations tend to run liberal or left, atheists come in the full spectrum of political belief–but part of it is just exasperation and confusion.

The atheist narrative doesn’t work for most atheists today, and the movement doesn’t seem to be providing any new narrative that might make sense of life as a whole. 

That’s why I said that Trekkies had a better chance of evolving into a new religious commitment–or a new commitment that could plausibly replace religion.  They do provide a narrative, and a holistic one that supports and necessitates a moral code. 

The atheist/humanist organizations are definitely trying to derive a moral code, but they’re having trouble with it–and part of the reason they’re having trouble with it is that they lack a narrative framework for it. 

But there are other problems, and I’ll get too that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

August 10th, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 5'

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  1. Some people find the meaning of life in fairly small scale things, like family or some charitable endeavour, rather than big overarching schema. You can get narrative in there, too, and some moral issues.

    I always found such approaches rather limited. It’s nice to have and contribute to your family history and narrative, or the one about the fight against cancer or for the preservation of endangered animals, but things like that never seemed quite enough to base an entire worldview on.

    For one thing, eventually the human race and the snail darter alike will reach extinction, and any contribution to one’s genetic line may well be likely to be irrelevant in an astonishingly short time. There’s been some fascinating stuff done on human genetics and how entire categories of humans didn’t get to contribute to the current gene pool – eg men in parts of the UK before the Anglo-Saxon invasions and women in Iceland before all those Irish women got brought back from Ireland.


    10 Aug 09 at 12:26 pm

  2. Well, I don’t share your more sanguine notion of the religious right, but maybe they’re not as bad as I fear. Nor do I think abortion is as easy and accessible as you present it; I also had experience with the restrictions on US-funded family planning programs abroad during the Bush years, and that was a real mess. But that’s a long, boring post.

    Actually, I don’t claim to know what morality is or where it comes from/could come from. Nor do I know exactly what conscience is. I agree with Robert that most of my moral decisions are not cut and dried and easy. What I was talking about was basic things, like “don’t kill someone to get their $56 mln company.” Or “don’t steal your neighbor’s house.” People didn’t grow up here with the Christian narrative or morality. They didn’t grow up with a more or less normal legal system (by that I mean that there were laws against, say, anti-Soviet agitation, ie complaining to your neighbor about the housing board; or laws against private enterprise of any kind). There were constant deficits of everything. If you have one chance in your lifetime to get an apartment — so you don’t share a 2 room apt with your parents, wife and 2 children — and you can do that if you write a denunciation of the person above you in line — it turns into one of those moral conundrums. I do the right thing but doom my family to misery. Anyway, all that stuff that accidental Christians and accidental atheists more or less accept because that’s the way they grew up — well, people here missed that.

    They are kind of like a test group for you: what kind of moral code and narrative would they accept? What would be a meaning of life that they could accept?

    Right now it’s simple: grab what you can, the hell with everyone else and the hell with the future. I think that that is a recipe for disaster — human beings can’t exist long with that narrative, meaning and morality.


    10 Aug 09 at 2:41 pm

  3. As a side note, but relevant to where I think this discussion is going – I’ve got a few too many books that I’m currently reading, and I’d almost forgotten ‘The Ethical Imagination’ by Margaret Somerville until I picked it up this morning. I got the book at some point because I’d heard her talk on radio, and found her interesting. She’s an academic at McGill, in Montreal, although I have a vague idea that she’s originally from Australia.

    So I picked this up and started reading where I’d left off some time ago. She appears to be addressing the problem of developing a common ethics, and I re-opened the book at the point at which she lists the concepts she’s going to argue can be used to guide our ‘ethical imaginations’. They are: the secular sacred, a basic presumption in favour of the natural; whether truth is a friend or foe in finding a shared ethics; respect for all life, in particular, human life; respect for intrinsic human dignity; respect for the human spirit.

    I don’t know where she stands on the atheist/believer debate, and I can’t remember her previous work in much detail, although I think she often takes controversial viewpoints on medical ethics – oh, yes, there was a fuss over her views on same sex marriage, too.


    11 Aug 09 at 6:00 am

  4. Yes, she is an Australian.


    11 Aug 09 at 9:13 am

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