ON THE NEED TO BE A MORAL AGENT
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Once in a great while, I find my general optimism about the human condition validated.
Two evenings ago, in a Berkeley bookstore, I was in a large “gathering of the decent”, a diverse group who had convened to hear Professor Jacob Needleman talk about his new book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” [It was just released – Penguin 2007.]
Dr. Needleman (a self described “Jewish boy”) was by far the “oldest” soul in the standing-room-only book talk area, but he quietly and lucidly demonstrated the supple mind of someone four decades younger.
It was refreshing, to say the very least, to encounter a professional philosopher (Dr. Needleman still teaches at San Francisco State) for whom the grand old subject represents the integration of real life lessons. His was the kind of discourse in which one hears insights from Plato, Socrates, the Stoics, Meister Eckhart, Paul the Apostle, and Hillel the Elder.
And more deeply impressive still, was his transparent moral authenticity. When Dr. Needleman talked about conscience as a faculty, as something far deeper and more important than Freud’s “superego”, he was sharing a secret lost on the post-modern culture, and he was revealing his own life journey.
Here is a brief excerpt from the book, to give you a flavor:
“Twist and turn as we may, explain it or deconstruct it as we may, we know that though we may be animals, we are ethical animals. In everyone, in every place, in every occasion of our lives and culture we see that we are failing what we are meant to be – and we suffer from that, we run from one answer to another – religion, relativism, psychology, medical drugs, psychotropic drugs, mass movements, charismatic leaders, fundamentalisms of all kinds from the religious to the atheistic to the scientistic; we run here and there looking for our moral power, trying to exercise it even though all evidence screams out to us that we do not have this power, that we cannot be the moral beings we know, down deep, that we are meant to be.” (244)
MARCH 24, 2007
IS THERE A DEEPER WORLD VIEW THAT UNDERLIES THE TRADITIONAL WORLD RELIGIONS?
LET’S NOT FORGET OUR SPECIES’ CORE HUMAN DISCOVERY
WHY ASK THE QUESTION?
The moral order does not automatically self-perpetuate itself. If you doubt this, I invite you to reread the bloody history of the 20th century during which otherwise morally intelligent populations in Europe and Asia succumbed to three mass bloody movements that ran on quasi-religious, but profoundly warped ideologies (Nazi, Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianism). During this terrible period, thousands of religious leaders were imprisoned and millions of ordinary people murdered, while other intelligent and well meaning people stood by stupefied. I am reminded by Dostoevsky, speaking though his character Ivan Karamazov, that “without God, everything is permitted”. More accurately, without a well supported moral order, things quickly go to hell.
As the 21st century dawns, we still rely on the intergenerational transmission belt to maintain the moral order. That belt is broken in many places in urban America, and the “broken belt” problem is growing among our comfortable intelligentsia among whom all religions tend to be disparaged as retrograde fundamentalism or as mindlessly anti-scientific, or both.
The means by which we preserve and transmit our species’ collective moral memory constitutes the social capital of the moral order. That social capital is made up of a core underlying belief system and a cadre of adults who are committed to its perpetuation in the culture.
All parents are at least minimally responsible to prepare their children for the challenges of the world. As part of that preparation, the parent generation needs to impart a robust moral code to those who follow. That crucial intergenerational moral transfer is not taking place in the post-modern family setting because of the decline of religious observance among our most educated populations. These are the people who otherwise would be our cultural, political and commercial leaders. I am not making an apology for any particular religion or pattern of observance. I am issuing an invitation for the intelligent, but spiritually disconnected among us to look deeper.
There is a deeper metaphysical model that underlies the great religious traditions. I call it the Core Human Discovery. It is not my goal to simplify this world view in order to make it directly accessible to children. That task has already been accomplished in large part by the orthodox religions, many of which have incorporated its main elements or been grown and nurtured on its broad morphological features, without always understanding that they are standing on deep inter-religious common ground.
When I say the orthodox religions are built on the Core Human Discovery and that its common morphological features are visible, say, in Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism, I mean “common morphology” in the following sense: Fish, dolphins and sea lions are different species that share a common morphology, a shared engineering solution to the problem of moving smoothly and efficiently while submerged in water. That streamlined, tear-shaped form and those tails and fins are close to the optimum transportation solution for each species, given its travel medium. Buddhists, Jews and Christians may not swim in the same sea, but they all swim somewhere in the larger ocean of humanity; and they all share a common spiritual-ethical morphology that includes similar models of exemplary moral behavior and several common moral prohibitions. In each tradition, we find the same injunctions against murder, theft and mendacity, and that these moral precepts are anchored on deeper terrain than the shifting sands of fashion. They are part of a “norm set” that is close to the optimum group survival solution for all who swim among other humans.
A WORD ABOUT CIVILIZATION
Civilization is the critically necessary social technology by which the human species has managed to achieve planetary dominance (recalling that in the beginning we were weak and lived in constant fear of other predators); and civilization represents the sole social technology capable of sustaining our species over long spans of time. Civilization crucially depends on the widespread acceptance of and general adherence to a set of norms. This norm set constitutes the normative architecture of civilization.
To flourish, our children need to inherit a robust, liberty friendly creative civilization. Our legacy to them must include the inculcation of the essential values and operating principles upon which such a civilization depends, and to instill in them a willingness to fight for its preservation. This latter point takes us beyond mere utility; we need to access the deeper motivations.
THE UTILITARIAN PREMISE AND ITS LIMITS
Part of any child’s preparation for adulthood is the transmission, teaching or encouragement of the suite of faculties, skills and knowledge needed to function successfully in a then exchange milieu that constitutes modern life. But the child needs that which the civilization also requires: A moral anchor.
All the purely utilitarian arguments in favor of moral behavior can go only so far. This is not to disparage the wisdom of the utilitarian concerns, but it does suggest a caution for those who try to relay on utility alone. I am reminded of the British men and women who shed “blood, sweat and tears” against the Nazi onslaught. Clearly they were motivated by something more than the “greatest good for the greatest number”. That ethos, brainchild of the British utilitarian moral philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), rings hollow when heroic resistance is called for.
I’ll return to this point soon, noting that a traditional anchor can prevent drift but it cannot drive a boat through troubled waters.
Any civilization worthy of the name requires modalities of social control aimed at restraining predators and otherwise supporting an expectation of rational predictability in all dealings. For this system to work at all (let alone well), the modalities of social control need to be linked to a normative architecture that is crafted to enable, support and protect the interactions of peaceful civil exchange.
For the modalities of social control to enjoy wide support within a civilization, the moral precepts and principles upon which they are based must be generally understood to have an objective authority, i.e., they need to be understood as more than mere tribal constructs, but as derived from the very fundamental normative underpinnings of the human enterprise itself. Ideally the moral structure of a civilization will be understood to represent the application of a few, well understood principles.
AN ANCHOR THAT MOVES THE BOAT –
THE SEARCH FOR RELEVANT TRANSCENDENCE
The successful intergenerational transmission of our species normative architecture over more than two or three generations requires an anchor outside social convention, secure from the whims and currents of fashion. But – and this is where my seagoing metaphor breaks down – the anchor (as it operates in each mind) must not only rectify, reassure and reveal the moral realm, it must motivate us to act. For reasons that should be evident as this discussion progresses, I believe we are necessarily talking about a transcendental anchor, located in effect beyond our immediate reach, but tethered to our deepest longings and motivations. To date, only the religions in some form or other have provided that transcendent moral anchor on a sufficiently large scale to be effective.
The decline of religious affiliation and adherence among the Western intelligentsia is a troublesome development for this very reason.
The post-modern condition has given rise to outbreaks of spiritual hedonism. These are part of the “crystals and aroma” New Age ethos that flourishes because it feeds the need for spiritual reassurance and comfort while it starves the equally strong need for connection to a robust and occasionally demanding moral order. We enjoy transcendence but we need morally relevant transcendence.
Relevant transcendence, in the sense used here, means an accessible non-mundane, non-transitory reality such that the transcendent connection exists and is potentially available to every thinking, potentially moral agent, and has at least these three properties:
Relevance to the imperatives and demands of the moral life.
So, moral relevance is the key. To be relevant, any transcendent moral anchor must have authority. Its credibility must be internal as well as external.
Our species’ religions have succeeded in helping sustain civilization the last few millennia because they have provided a linkage (however imperfect) between one’s own internal evaluative/value-assigning faculty and that to which transcendence points: the ultimate common source of all value.
Relevant transcendence must continue to provide our primary value-supporting connection, one that opens up our access to a universal repository of value.
By necessary implication, this calls for or implies a relationship with ultimate personality. Whether ultimate personality is seen concretely, virtually, or symbolically, the ultimate relationship that is implied by moral transcendence leads us to a common center of caring. The capacity for caring is so central to personhood that, frankly, it is impossible to imagine caring as a disconnected, disembodied, impersonal force. I believe that this holds true even for Buddhism in the sense that there are really no impersonal values. We may from time to time be propelled by inertia, discipline, or external authority into obedience to a moral precept, but the underlying values that give that precept life are driven by caring. Put another way, the transcendent moral anchor is and must remain the primary authority for our “post-mortal caring”. Think about it carefully: The question, “Why should I care about the world or any part of it after I’m gone?” can be answered with real authority only via access to the experience of moral transcendence.”
“THE CORE HUMAN DISCOVERY IN OUTLINE
(1) Transcendence is a common human experience, more often than not accompanied by a life altering moral insight.
(2) There is a common moral realm, whether seen as universal conscience, natural moral law, or a core set of universal moral precepts derived from transcendent moral values.
(3) Exemplary moral individuals arise (as a gift to us) who personify or incarnate (1) and (2), and whose lives generate, validate and give force to our ongoing moral traditions.
(4) The moral Truths of the Core Human Discovery are Truths with a capital “T’; they transcend and stand over the mundane truths (with a lower case “t’) of day-to-day reality (including the theories and experimental outcomes of science).
Our species’ mainline orthodox religions have operated effectively in deploying the Core Human Discovery on four levels:
(1) Top down literalism, something akin to the simple, but effective strategies of a good dog trainer;
(2) Sophisticated allusion using metaphor and allegory;
(3) Teaching by moral example;
(4) Employing liturgy, ritual and the disciplines of meditation and prayer to facilitate individual reconnections with the Core Human Discovery
I believe that these four strategies have worked over the centuries because the Core Human Discovery is actually true, and because religions in general have been (and may remain) the single most effective means for the intergenerational transmission of the moral knowledge that we humans need to sustain our working civilizations.
The competing model is materialistic scientism. This model denies the possibility of transcendence altogether and by extension it denies the Core Human Discovery.
EMERGENT PURPOSE = SOFT TELEOLOGY
Assume for the sake of this discussion that the eventual development of civilization is “programmed” into the sub-architecture that governs development paths in this universe. This is not a great stretch for science because most practicing scientists are willing to seriously entertain – even adopt as a working model – the general idea that this universe was so constructed that the eventual emergence of life was virtually assured. A plurality of working scientists would also concede that the emergence of intelligence within a robust ecology of living creatures is almost inevitable, given sufficient time for natural selection to operate, because of the competitive advantage reason confers.
The logic that leads us to expect the emergence of intelligence whenever local conditions in the universe permit also leads us to expect to foresee the self-organization of intelligent beings into social modalities that foster group survival. These modalities are forms of “civilization.”
The Core Human Discovery continues to integrate all these insights, including the many reported experiences of transcendence as discovery (as opposed to illusion). Through the Core Human Discovery we humans have found and continue to find purpose in this universe instead of meaningless accident.
The Core Human Discovery therefore is teleological (because it tells us how the world is imbued with purpose and direction) but I hasten to add the recent implications drawn of chaos theory and quantum physics: The course of the world is not fully pre-deterministic. This is why I used the term virtually assured above.
Purpose and value make their appearance in the physical universe gradually but almost inevitably because they are inherent design features of the robust, fecund life-forms that emerge opportunistically through “natural” selection, but become dominant through “self assertion”.
Our starting point is the growing realization that the eventual development of civilization is virtually programmed into the sub-architecture of the natural world; that the rules, regularities and conditions that tend to govern development paths in this universe, combined with random chance and the passage of time, virtually assure civilization’s eventual appearance. Once that happens, creative intelligence (as it operates in the service of the life forms that gave it a platform) is amplified greatly within the interactive context of a civilization.
Think of civilization’s educational institutions, the communities of thinkers, the creative teams, the inventors at the head (or at the service) of supportive organizations, the dramatic creative synergies in Silicone Valley, and the creative surge in the arts in Renaissance Florence. Human intelligence becomes a creative force on its own when supported by civilization; it becomes a force that works much faster than the gradual evolutionary processes that, by giving an ecological venue for early humans, provided us with that “first chance”. Consider that it took mammals several million years through the slow mechanisms of natural selection to achieve the rudimentary technology of flight but that it took human civilization only a few thousand years to get human from treetops the to the lunar surface using creative intelligence.
We can also allow ourselves to realize (as should by now be obvious) that several key norms are necessary for the emergence and continuity of civilizations because the social arrangements of civilization need to support peaceful exchange relationships among semi-autonomous intelligent actors. We can even expect that, over time, these norms would have become “soft-wired” via natural selection into the sub-architecture of volitional consciousness itself. Therefore we should not have been surprised by the recent findings that, within proto-intelligent animals capable of at least minimal social cooperation, there are early signs of the emergence of social norms. [Certain proto-ethical behaviors among the great apes have been detected. Whether and to what extent these are inherited weak tendencies combined with learned behaviors, or something more, is a pending issue.]
Life does benefit from intelligence and intelligence benefits from civilization; and the social technology of civilization actually requires a robust moral (or normative) architecture. So here is the takeaway point: Not all individuals are perfect; not all moral systems work perfectly; and not all civilizations are equally well constructed; but, over time, things gradually improve. This is because both the so called “blind” evolutionary processes (I note that natural selection operates as if it were a proto-intelligence at work) and actual thinking beings (working both individually and collectively) tend to learn from their mistakes: The better planners and adapters in this universe enjoy a survival advantage. Therefore, there is a very long term tendency toward improvement. It is more clearly visible at a remove. It operates because intelligence and creative innovation, and yes, a moral context for these attributes, collectively confer a marginal survival advantage. Of course, success is never guaranteed.
STRICT MATERIALISM AND ITS LIMITATIONS
Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are members of the anti- religious, anti-transcendence intelligentsia. [See Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett (Penguin) and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin) and the review by Michael Novak referenced below.]
These and the other God-hostile intellectuals must necessarily work overtime to avoid the teleological implications of the general pro-life, pro-intelligence, pro-creative adaptation tendencies that nature has exhibited over the last several billion years. I suspect that teleology must be strongly denied by these authors because to admit that a pervasive purpose is at work in the universe implies that there is a meta-being somewhere in the mix with the capacity for purpose and a will to exercise it in favor of living creative moral beings.
The ultimate metaphysical ground upon which scientism rests is the doctrine of strict materialism, the strikingly arrogant claim that the primary subject of the physical sciences, the realm of matter and energy, represents all that is and ever was real. This view empowers the arch-materialists’ claims that purpose is nothing more than a human invention; that God cannot exist because there is no experimentally verifiable evidence for a deity having “caused” any event; and that everything is “explained” by purely physical/material processes. In other words, the scientific study of mere “stuff” – matter and energy in all its forms – provides our species with all the guidance it will ever need. Scientism claims to hold the sole explanation of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
The Core Human Discovery is durable for a reason. An embedded “soft” teleology is clearly at work in the universe. As we begin the 21st century, this is as the heart of the Core Human Discovery:
The tendency/soft teleology that has become increasingly evident in this universe is civilization-friendly. This simple fact strongly implies the central presence of deity as the core animating, organizing principle of development.
Why speak of a Caring Deity instead of some impersonal “force”?
(1) Because consciousness and conscience cannot be separated in the real world;
(2) Because conscience cannot be divorced from caring;
(3) Because the tendencies for the emergence of consciousness and conscience are encoded in the warp and woof of the universe;
(4) Because the Ur-source of consciousness and conscience cannot be adequately apprehended or described as a purely impersonal mechanism.
I propose that esthetics, empathy, ethics and the experience of transcendence are all deeply linked to each other in that they are aspects of a common faculty (or bundle of faculties) enjoyed by healthy conscious intelligence. They are part of a suite of special cognitive abilities that include our capacity to recognize other thinking, feeling beings as real persons, and to grasp in a meaningful way what is actually going on his or her “head and heart”.
The striking inability of Dr. Dennett to “explain” consciousness (“Consciousness Explained” Little, Brown & Co. 1991) except within the impoverished context of arch-materialism should have been a clue to the bankruptcy of scientism as the grand explanation of all significance.
Recently, I was struck by the revelation that the last century’s most famous atheist, Sigmund Freud (1836-1939), hated music. I wonder whether Dr. Dennett and the other materialist atheists might accept the description of Bach’s “B Minor Mass” or Beethoven’s “Eroica”, or Johnny Cash’s “Walk The Line”, or Dave Brubeck”s “Elementals’, or Duke Ellington’s “Take The A train” as fluctuations of air pressure that produce characteristic electrical activity in the brain? In a special sense, the exercise of rigorous materialism by those who profess the faux religion of scientism has a disturbing resemblance to the mindset of the autistic.
I am personally persuaded that the saints, bodhisattvas, seers, mavens and mystics who have been able to record their intimate and awesome experience of the Presence of an ultimate, caring Being (sometimes reported as a “beingness” or simply as an encounter with the numinous – a truly life-changing experience when not denied) were telling the Truth. And I am personally persuaded that they were employing the same suite of cognitive abilities that all healthy humans can potentially access. Through this suite of abilities we humans are gifted to be able to recognize, know and love each other and to enjoy and be moved by art, music and humor. In this sense what we sometimes call faith is nothing less than self-confidence in the veracity of our apperception of the numinous. The sense that a “great veil has been stripped away” to reveal that which is a wonder to behold” is so common in human history and has so often been coupled with great moral insight that to deny its reality and significance seems to me to hint of pathology. In this sense, the intense work of an intellectual, like Dr. Dennett who purports to “explain” (read “explain away’) consciousness, resembles the remarkable feats of memory and mathematical calculations of an autistic savant who cannot stand to be touched.
Of course Daniel Dennett is by all accounts a normal, civilized fellow. I suspect therefore that the strict materialism upon which most of his work is based is more of a rhetorical construct than an operating life principle. Then there is the possibility that he is living in genteel denial. Like the other great doubters (I think of the billiard playing David Hume – 1711-1776), the comfortable, prosperous, well protected atheists of our era have taken the blessings of civilization for granted and seem to think that drawing room civility is an exportable product in its own right.
I want you to think of Dennett and Hume occupying an elegantly decorated, large elevator, equipped with the comforts of a study room at Oxford. Then consider the two “elevator thought experiments” first posed by Albert Einstein. Someone is isolated from the rest of the world and is set up in a pressurized elevator. In (a), the elevator is being towed in space at a steady acceleration of one gravity. In (b), the elevator is being allowed to fall from a great height. The observer in each is not able to tell the difference between: being situated safely on the earth (a) or being safely adrift near some earth satellite in orbit (b). Note that Einstein stops the story here to make his famous point about inertial frames of reference, but each observer faces a possible disastrous reckoning. In Hume’s and Dennett’s case, that reckoning is to be visited on a future generation.
Each atheistic “parent” who cannot communicate the elements of the Core Human Discovery has to rely on the power of imitation without the power of renewal. This kind of cultural transmission belt is subject to decay over time just as in the whispered message in a parlor game where a sentence is quietly told ear-to-ear around the table, only to end up garbled at the end.
I wrote about some of these issues in my early twenties. The following image (captured in old handwritten notes) seems to capture the plight of the “children” of the elevator people:
I see the falling away of the underpinnings of common morality as a result of the structural damage done by a pathological extension of skepticism. I imagine the whole body of human ethical principles, precepts and core beliefs as body of water held together by a bucket which represents the religious underpinnings of morality.
That is frame one.
In frame two, the bucket is removed, revealing the temporarily bucket-shaped glistening contents hanging in the air.
In frame three, without any support, the contents become a quivering blob. And in frame four, gravity takes over.
Our “modern” culture hovers between frames two and four….
THE UNIVERSE THAT NEEDS TO THINK:
THE BIG BANG AS ILLUMINATION.
The Core Human Discovery has developed in tandem with the scientific world view (as distinguished from scientism), and is not inherently hostile to science. I believe that the “CHD” can easily support a newly discovered core principle: The self-organizing universe is also the proto-thinking universe. A universe that exhibits a trend towards the emergence of thinking is a universe that wants to think and eventually (though us) will think.
Because we are the only self-aware thinking elements of the universe about which we have any direct knowledge, the follow-on question is ours alone to ask: Why?
That simple question: “Why are intelligence, purpose and conscience emerging within this universe?” is the one that we will be called on (in varying degrees of simplicity) to answer for our children. I propose (consistent with the “CHD’) an answer: The emergence of intelligence, purpose and conscience in the universe was foreordained by an Ur-intelligence that cared for and therefore wished for that outcome. A logical chain of reasoning and a well known bit of ancient scripture coincide here. “God said: Bear fruit and be many and fill the earth and subdue it!” Genesis 1:28 (Everett Fox, “The Five Books of Moses”)
Any strict materialist must also address the cosmological/physical issues surrounding the scientistic trump card of the last century. The present universe began about 14-6 billion years ago from the Big Bang.
What came before the Big Bang?
An almost perfect consensus of physical scientists hold that all of space-time as we know it was once held compressed in a tiny entity of such density and infinitesimal “size” (a term that may not even apply) that none of the physical laws with which science is familiar can describe it.
It is called the pre-big Bang “Singularity”.
Was all the creative information, all the plans, designs, laws, forms that were later to emerge contained in this impossibly perfect “hard drive”? I’m tempted to think of infinite information storage in a point. Is this really plausible in a perfectly materialistic model of reality? Plato would have had not problem with the notion that form (and by extension information) occupies a different realm that the merely physical. But Plato has no standing among the arch-materialists. The fact that none of our physical laws and none of our mathematics can adequately describe what goes on “inside” the Pre-big bang Singularity is what people in my profession call a clue. Either all of the information that was later to emerge and define the contours, development principles and very space-time architecture of this universe were resident in the Pre Big Bang Singularity, or they were resident elsewhere (using the term “where’ loosely, of course).
Any serious materialist must therefore consider and address:
(1) The “regression-of-creative information problem” (running the big Bang movie backwards) – in effect asking, “Where did all the creative information go?” or conversely
(2) The progressive “unfolding-of-creative information in space-time to the present problem” (running the big Bang movie on fast forward) – in effect asking, “Where did all this come from?”
And more to the point: “Where did we come from?”
The final nail in the coffin of the strict materialist world view of scientism is that the very architecture of space-time in this (or any universe) is necessarily prefigured outside of that framework.
I strongly suspect that in most of the academy, strict materialism is a pose adopted as a convenient platform – the pulpit of scientism – from which to attack the supposed evils of religious fundamentalism. But there is a crack in the materialist wall large enough to accommodate a creator that operates from the very beginning and in the present moment though the propagation of creative information as design.
I came away from this kind of exercise (and I’ve mercifully condensed a several years of thought and reflection here) with the notion that, information qua information (see my article links below) were precedent at the Beginning as creative potential. The question of “where” and “when” that creative potential resides is strictly “non sense”. After all, these are time and space questions about something outside time and space.
But there is a shorthand answer. I find it deeply explanatory and intellectually and personally satisfying. It encodes an entire metaphysical outlook. I believe it is the very essence of the Core Human Discovery. It is the only comprehensive reality model that has yet been posited that actually integrates all we really know about “Life, the Universe and Everything” without excluding our deeper selves from the universe.
The shorthand answer to where and when the potential for all space time and the resultant universes resides is this:
They reside in the God Mind.
A Critique of Dennett, Et Al. “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village” By Michael Novak (reviewing Dennett, Harris and Hawkins latest books: http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.25770/pub_detail.asp
Note that Novak writes more sympathetically of atheists than Dennett, Harris & Hawkins do of theists:
“… in my own early work was centered upon the dialogue between believers and unbelievers, the intellectual horizon of the Absurd (as Camus, Sartre, and so many others called it) and that of Biblical faith — in such books as Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, for instance. For that reason, I really wanted to like these new books on atheism. I have learned a lot about atheists and believers from Jürgen Habermas, possibly the best-known atheist in Europe. Habermas writes of believers with respect and as equal partners in an important dialogue. A respectful regard for mutual dignity is, Habermas holds, essential to the practice of rationality among human beings. Recently, I had the honor of a long series of exchanges with a very smart American atheist, Heather Mac Donald, and these were a pleasure to conduct, with mutual regard, patience, and candor on both sides.
“Alas, it is extremely difficult to engage on the same level with Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. All of them think that religion is so great a menace that they do not have much disposition for dialogue. The battle flags they put into the wind are Voltaire’s Ecrasez l’infâme! Meanwhile, all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” Yet in these books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism. Self-questioning about their own scholarly indifference to their subject; about the horrific brutalities committed in the name of “scientific atheism” during the 20th century; about the restless and mercurial dissatisfactions in atheist and secular movements during the past hundred years; and about the demographic weaknesses thereof — all such questions are notable by their absence. Moreover, although an atheist zeitgeist dominates university campuses in America, it has not proved persuasive to huge numbers of students, who hold their noses and put up with it. Why does atheism persuade so few? Our authors never ask.”
To Some of Jay B. Gaskill’s ESSAYS AND ARTICLES
The Purpose of the Universe
2Be or not: The Designs of Intelligence http://www.jaygaskill.com/Designofintelligence.htm
The Matter of Reality
To See the Invisible
Reflections on the Stages of Awareness of Being
The dialogic imperative
A Theology for the 21st Century
More Articles on The Policy Think Site
The Human Conspiracy Blog
AN ADDENDUM TO “Let’s Not Forget Our Species’ Core Human Discovery”
WHAT ABOUT ISLAM?
Not all religious leaders are aware that their respective religions are based on a universal gift that they share in common with all other authentic religions. Not all religious leaders are aware that such a gift always carries a concomitant obligation.
Islam went unmentioned in the last posting for a reason: The jury of history is still out; the verdict is still pending; and the outcome is still very much in doubt.
When the canon of scripture and its accepted interpretations are closed; when the circle of belonging has been virtually locked to outsiders, then our species’ universal source of creation and moral guidance has also been banned from the circle.
In my shorthand, this is a defining characteristic of a sect.
When any religion no longer is producing saints, seers, mavens, bodhisattvas and other enlightened leaders whose exemplary moral lives continue to illumine and enliven the original faith, spiritual entropy is afoot. Institutional death will soon follow.
When a religious body or its leaders advocate or condone or passively allow the forcible conversion of the non-faithful, then our species’ coral moral injunctions against assault and murder are abrogated. That brutal phase passed for Christianity hundreds of years ago (after all, the Roman Church’s Inquisition no longer defines Roman Catholicism) but that phase has lingered at the heart of institutional Islam for more than a millennium.
In my shorthand, this is a defining characteristic of an ideology.
Yes, vital elements of the Core Human Discovery are alive within Islam. But this hopeful leaven neither dominates nor defines that faith, at least not for the majority of its most visible leaders.
Institutional Islam has yet to be rescued from its demons.
Posted March 28, 2007
THE FLIGHT FROM MEANING
In my earlier post, I cited an article by Michael Novak, “The Lonely Atheists of The Global Village,” in which he discusses recent books by three prominent atheists.
His piece begins….
“Time magazine, ever the vigilant trend spotter, has celebrated a recent wave of books by atheists — among them, these three by Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of Biblical faith, especially in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups for them.”
Michael Novak’s full article is available on line at —
Here is the key excerpt:
“The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives — and why these inner silences ring to those who share them so true, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life — our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical,” they might come closer to walking for a tentative while in the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying — less self-contradictory, less alienating from their own nature — than atheism.”
Mr. Novak is the George Frederick Jewett scholar of religion, philosophy, and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
For my own part, I think we must undertake the task of climbing out of that arid desert of the soul — that imagined realm where there exists no good, no evil, and no loving Creator – as a matter of survival. Finding the way up and out is a matter of attaining the appropriate scale perspective and a willingness to take in the deep implications.
We have a hint of that process from that nominal atheist, Carl Sagan, who wrote:
“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Excerpted from the famous commencement address delivered by the late Carl Sagan on May 11, 1996
Without necessarily being able to explain how, human intelligence is able to proceed from the awe-at-creation narrative to an ethic of kindness and compassion.
Awe is the beginning of wisdom. I return to this idea below.
THE POST-TRAUMA ATHEISTS
I suspect that naïve atheism, the kind that remains open to new insights about the topic, is simply the natural and health product of a reasonable mind when exposed only to the explanatory power of science and the narrow irrationalities of strict fundamentalism. God loves these atheists because they are seeking the truth.
But this naïve view tends to harden into flinty, cold doctrine. This is a withdrawal from all meaningful dialogue. The hardening takes place, I suspect, because of the pervasive propaganda that tells “all thinking people” that the mainstream religions are unsophisticated versions of the original fundamentalist perspective, protecting the ghettos of intolerance and the rigid, Taliban-like authority that inhabit their core.
I also strongly suspect that some of the most militant atheists are revealing signs of an early trauma, the lingering pain of their sharply bruised expectations.
I can imagine an adult version of Santa Claus betrayal that goes something like: “I no longer buy the notion that there is a loving God. There never was a loving God. I was lied to!”
This becomes betrayal so painful that any hopeful view of things based on the existence of a benign higher being or power must be a fraud. Once jilted, the wounded personality is never again led to trust: “I hereafter refuse to believe in fairy tales.”
In the wounded soul, all claims about the ultimate power and authority of the good become mere arbitrary assertions. The bleak implication is that all “good premises” about ultimate reality are demoted to arbitrary assertions. All moral authority is arbitrary and therefore all moral “truth’ is reversible.
SEEING FARTHER AND WISER
I have come to fully accept the world view that God communicates to intelligent life in many different ways. One of these ways is via the meta-scale morphologies of the Life, the Universe and Everything, confident that sufficient intelligence will emerge that humans will be able to tease out the profound implications that are encoded in the seemingly simple.
The universe is embedded with Meaning. The large scale form of the timeline of our making is a message in itself. There is a compelling narrative arc(h) from Big Bang to the appearance of morally founded civilizations. This narrative makes its deepest sense only when the outcome is understood as having been prefigured in the Beginning. This is a narrative of foreordained births – of the eventual arrival of meaning, value and significance in the World coupled with the foreordained arrival of thinking beings who are able to glean the embedded meaning, value and purpose. This is a comprehensively integrated view of reality that neatly transcends the arch-materialist claims of procedural Darwinism and value-free physics because it accepts the world yet folds in our own esthetic, empathetic and creative capabilities.
Religionists of many stripes, especially Christians, Jews and Buddhists, can quibble over the exact nature of the Great Intentionality that hovered over and sparked that Beginning.
But one aspect of the first Event is beyond reasonable question: It was an act of benign caring; put another way, it was an act of love.
To arrive at that simple assessment, we need only accomplish two mental feats:
(1) We must recover from the self-imposed faux autism of the scientistic mindset that would deny our own interior knowledge of the good, the beautiful and of Beloved Other.
(2) We must be able to do writ large that which we naturally tend to do writ small among our friends: Recognize love when it is manifestly demonstrated, and return it when it is wanted.
Carl Sagan of blessed memory was using secular language but he was decoding a divine message: “…our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
March 29, 2007
A REFLECTION ON TOY BUMPER CARS
FLOGGING THE GODCICLES
Jay B. Gaskill
The term atheist is overused. Early Christians were “atheists” from the point of view of the multi-deity Roman Pagans of the first century.
A full-on atheist in the modern sense has adopted a faith stance that mirrors that of the fundamentalists that she/he so passionately opposes. That mindset boils down to something like this:
“Because I reject the (“brutal” or infantile” or ….choose an epithet here) God you espouse, and because I see no concrete evidence of that entity’s existence in the real world, I firmly believe that there is no God whatsoever (deity by that or any similar name). We humans are completely alone in the universe and that is all there is to it. Deal with it”
The 21st century’s version of this full-on atheist mindset is founded on a strict arch-materialist (or “physicalist”) view of things. This is the general notion that everything is completely accounted for and explained by the elements of a purely physical reality, i.e., that only matter and energy in its various forms and manifestations constitute all there was, is or ever can be.
It is a short jump from this mindset to the position that everything inside our minds and “hearts” (taken metaphorically of course) is nothing more than a complex of electro-chemical reactions. I personally am persuaded that the next step (and this is the reason that I keep flogging my arch-materialist friends) is the inevitable loss of our species’ deep moral connections.
These are the Doctrinaire Defensive Atheists (you’ll know the “DDA’s” by their uncompromising rhetoric and the rejection of a meaningful dialogue). The “DDA’s” should be distinguished from all of the spiritually aware “nominal” atheists who are on that quest for the same deeper meanings that the rest of the thoughtful people share. This second group is filled with the “noetic explorers” whose questions and insights keep the rest of open to the great undiscovered Truths.
But the former are so obsessed with reacting against the rigid, literalist-authoritarian religious constructs that they miss the bigger quest altogether. The “DDA’s” remind me of those self powered, mechanically obsessed toy bumper cars that bump up against the wall, over and over again, until they run down or are redirected. I choose to call the archaic religious constructs that have set them off, the simplistic and concrete God models if you will, our species’ “godcicles”.
A few of our atheist friends have got themselves caught in a loop: They just can’t stop flogging the dead godcicles.
A self described “atheist” (whom I know to be a thoughtful and morally centered man), wrote me recently. He made a number of points. A key excerpt:
“I am an atheist because anything more concrete than that makes me uneasy; that the word God has been used to manipulate, intimidate, and kill…
“If you think of Love as the prime mover of the universe–fine with me. Again, anything more definitive is coercive distortion.
“Organized religion ruins good spirituality.”
His last line is a keeper. To that trenchant observation, I can only say: amen. To his first line, I might add a quibble: We get to name ourselves, but in my universe he has described something other than atheism; clearly his is the path of a fellow spiritual seeker. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post: God loves these atheists because they are seeking the Truth.