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My Problem With Religion, 6

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Every once in a while, something happens that makes me realize that this discussion is not academic, that the ramifications of what I’m talking about here are both stark and dangerous.  This morning, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine about theproposed health care reform bill now in front of Congress.   It wasn’t anything anybody hadn’t said before, and in its panic it wasn’t any worse than the stuff about  Bush intending to declare martial law and become president for life–but it was indicative about the way Americans have come to feel about each other.

This country has been unique in its ability to survive as a plurality of cultures and religions, but that survival depends on–well, on the narrative, the meaning and the morality all pretty much coinciding in different frameworks. 

And right now, we don’t have it.

Let me go back to a couple of things before preceding from yesterday.

The West–meaning the entire West now, not just the US–has been secularizing for decades.  And it’s been de-Christianizing for longer than that.  Western Europe is now largely secular and almost entirely post-Christian.   For all the supposed religiosity of America, our day to day life is thoroughly secularized and our “religious” life is increasingly post-Christian. 

Even when Americans remain within Christian churches, they are often increasingly post-Christian.  They come for the ritual, for the pot luck suppers, for the kids’ activities–but when there’s something they don’t like about doctrine or moral teaching, they just shrug it off as wrong and contnue with whatever they’ve decided is right for themselves.

My guess is that this trend is irreversible, because it is grounded not in intellectual argument, not in reason and decision, but in a fundamental disconnect from the story.  Hearing about the baby in the manger, the water changed into wine at Cana, the Crucifixion–more and more people hear stories, not historical facts, if they even know the stories to begin with.

I  don’t know anybody in the world who knows how to get people to connect to a narrative.  If I ever do find that somebody, I’m going to mine his brain for the information, because it will make me–and any other writer who knows it–rich.  

What this means, though, is that it’s unlikely that what we’re going to see is a revival of  Christianity in a way that can truly take hold of the culture.  The religious right phenomenon was largely a bust–both the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition folded, two states (Vermont and New Hampshire) have seen their legislatures vote in the legalization of gay marriage, mainstream Protestantism is self-destructing, and Catholic use birth control if they want to, thank you very much.

But the simple fact is that it is not possible to live in a vacuum created by the slow retreat of the country’s main cultural framework. 

And the problem is more acute in the United States than it is in most of Western Europe, because the United States, given its history, does not have the option of falling back on ideas about “blood and soil.”  No, we haven’t always been here, and our government is not a tradition, but a construction. 

People do not live well in vaccums, however, and there will either be something moving in to take the place of the old Christian framework, or we will get to a point when each of the factions now existing will be so paranoid and suspicious of the others that we will no longer be able to function.

The most obvious source to look to for a new framework would be those secular organizations and movements that have spent the last hundred years trying to present a non-religious point of view to the public.

They’ve published position papers, books, articles, even “Manifestoes.”  They have–especially lately–public spokesmen and access to lots of mass media. 

And it’s just not working.

Part of the reason it’s not working is what I was talking about yesterday–the lack of a narrative that can engage people once the movement starts winning. 

This is probably the most important reason, because in the end narrative is what compels human beings to belief and to action. 

But the simple fact is that even on the level of analysis and philosophy, the secular movement is coming up empty.

Go take a look at any of the books of self-consciously secular ethics, or any of the articles dealing with morality or meaning in magazines like The Humanist and Free Inquiry.

What you will find is declarations of the “principles of Humanism,” but no explanation whatsoever as to why those things should be the chosen principles.

Aristotle, Ayn Rand and the medieval Catholic Church assumed you could discover true morality in the study of human nature, but modern day humanist organizations don’t even have that. 

Most writers in this field unconsciously accept the Rousseauean belief in an infintiely malleable human nature–in the primacy of nurture, in other words–and they also accept the automatic rightness of a whole slew of moral principles because–well, just because.

Paul Kurtz tells us, in FI, that people should foster the ideals of “goodwill,” including “kindness,” “honesty,” and “caring”–but what’s so special about goodwill?  Why should I value “goodwill”–and especially goodwill universally applied–over justice, or loyalty to my family and tribe? 

In the issue following the one in which Kurtz wrote his editorial about “goodwill,” Peter Singer–he of the “it’s okay to kill the baby up to 28 days old, because before then it doesn’t have any self-consciousness anyway”–presented an op-ed declaring that it was imperative for rich nations to go on giving aid to poor nations even during a financial recession, even if it caused pain or discomfort to their own populations, because–well, because it was.

I have, by now, read quite a bit of Singer’s work, and in none of it can I find an actual rationale for the moral lectures the man is constantly giving the “rich” about the “poor.”

To say that we should give to the poor because otherwise they would suffer, and allowing people to suffer is wrong, is not a rationale, because one has to ask why it is wrong to allow people to suffer. 

Christianity had an answer for this.  Human beings were made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ–redeemed from an eternity of torment in Hell.  They were therefore enjoined to treat all men as they would treat Christ himself.

Okay, that’s a Catholic thing, and may not translate fully into all forms of Protestant Christianity, but you see what  I mean.  Christian moral law, like Jewish moral law, like classical Greece’s secular ethics, was grounded in a definition of what it means to be human and a narrative of the place of those humans in the world.

I’m not complaining that people like Kurtz and Singer have created bad foundations for their morality, I’m complaining that they haven’t created any.  The lack of any objective foundation–or any admitted one–for their ethical precepts leads to some truly bizarre blips in the moral discussion.  Take, for instance, the woman who mused that we might have to take X seriously, since it seemed to be a “shared common value.”  But if all that matters about a moral precept is that it be shared and common–well, the German elected Hitler.  The Nazis had plenty of shared common values.

To the extent that these writers do seem–and I stress the seem–to accept a common understanding of the nature of the human being and her place in the world, they tend to opt for the neoCalvinism of the environmentalist movement. “The God that holds you over the pit of Hell,” Jonathan Edwards said, “abhors you and is dreadfully provoked.”

Edwards thought better of human beings than PETA does, but you don’t have to go as far as PETA to find the attitude I’m talking about.  “Man is just another animal,” these people say.  “he’s no more important than any other animal.  In any conflict between man and the other animals, man’s interests should not utomatically prevail.  In fact, they should almost never prevail at all.”

The extreme irrationality of this position–especially when yoked to fuzsy ideas about “goodwill” to other human beings–is never addressed by any of the people who propound it, for the very good reason that it could not be addressed with a straight face.

Whether we decide to hunt whales to extinction or to leave them free to breed and replenish theirherds, it’s still we doing the deciding.  There is, in the end, no way for human beings to escape the reality of being human beings.  We are what we are, whether we like it or not.

I’ve always thought that this particular stance is mostly the reaction of a guilty conscince–the position of men and women who resent the fact that being human is not just something we are, but something we must live up to.

But whatever this stance is–and Peter Singer definitely holds it–it fits badly with declarations about our moral obligation to feed the poor, never mind exhortations to kindness and honesty.

John wrote at one point that he didn’t see much in the way of consistancy in present-day secular moral codes, and I agree with him–but the position of secular moral philosophy is a lot worse than that.

And I’ll get to that tomorrow, as well as why I think that what’s on offer will neve fom the bsais for a renewed common culture. 

But first, a NOTE:  Yes, Mab, abortion really is as easy to get in the US  as I said it was.  What it is not is government funded, at least in most states.  Rights under the US Constitution are negative–they are restrictions on government power.   So the “right to abortion” means that the government may not interfere with you going out and getting an abortion from a willing abortion provider.  The government is not obliged to pay for that abortion, however, and it can refuse to allow government funds to be used for anything at all.  Your US funded family planning clinic was just that–funded–and Congress can put any restrictions it wants on the use of government money. 

What’s more, Americans tend to dislike the idea of government funding things.   You should see the amount of strenuous opposition there is to the idea of a government funded health care option.  And no, that’s not all coming from insurance companies.  I know several people adamantly opposed to such a government program who are not themselves insured.  They’d rather go on paying for all their health care out of  pocket than let the government do it.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2009 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'My Problem With Religion, 6'

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  1. Jane wrote:
    >I have, by now, read quite a bit of Singer’s work, and in none of it can I find an actual rationale for the moral lectures the man is constantly giving the “rich” about the “poor.”

    That is a weakness in almost every article I’ve read about “equality”. For example, suppose I am hit by a car and am lying in the street with a broken leg. I want an ambulance to take me to the hospital and I want the leg treated. Since I can’t expect the EMTs aand hospitals to know who I am, that requires the same repsonse for everyone. But I don’t care if I end up in a private room or a shared ward and I don’t mind being treated by a 3rd year orthopedic resident.

    “equal treatment” to me means that my broken leg gets treated, it doesn’t mean that all hospitals must be public and all doctors must be government employees.

    And it certainly doesn’t mean that if I live in Australia and pay for treating broken legs in Australia, I must pay for them in Lower Slowbovia.

    But the people arguing “We must treat everyone equally” give no argument for it and seem to take equality as a value in itself for no other reason than that it is equality.


    11 Aug 09 at 5:03 pm

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