May 19, 2014

Reason And Compassion - Hallmarks Of Human Nature

This new journal premiered in March 2014.  It describes its aims and purpose as follows:

Science, Religion, and Culture is an open access interdisciplinary journal focused on bringing together research and theoretical analysis from the physical, biological, and social sciences with ideas from philosophy, theology, and religious studies. It aims at exploring the unique relationship between science, religion, and culture, and it welcomes submissions from all perspectives and religious traditions—including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, secularism, humanism, and naturalism. Given that science and religion are two great manifestations of human culture, special focus is given to the various ways modern science—including the disciplines of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, sociology, and anthropology—support, oppose, inform, or are informed by religious, theological, and cultural perspectives. Additional focus is given to perspectives on science, religion, and culture from different geographical regions, cultures, religions, and historical epochs.

The articles in the first issue include:

Victor Stenger

Massimo Pigliucci

Robert E. Pollack

John Shook

Timothy Helton

The journal’s appearance prompted an online discussion between me and some of my local fellow freethinker friends (secular, freethinking, humanist, atheist/agnostics).  With reference to the first two articles by Victor Stenger and Massimo Pigliucci, one friend said that s/he had a low tolerance for faith-based ideas such as those of the Abrahamic religions and therefore sided with Stenger.  His/her implied assertion was that these religions, and other faith-based belief systems, have not made the world a better place.  Since it is impossible, his/her argument went, to know what the world would have become without the influences of religions, the assertion that the world is a better because of them is a non sequitur.  The following is my response, which I have expanded a bit since the discussion: 

I have much difficulty pointing a disparaging finger at any abjectly poor person anywhere in the world who finds comfort and/or hope in organized religion. At present, this is the plight and relief option most often taken by the vast majority of Humankind. To me, it is reasonable for them to find comfort and support locally, among those who share their language and culture, and from those who can help immediately. Especially when such a persons’ crops fail, their livestock die, and their children become seriously sick, or their nation-state's government and economy fail.

Impoverished American Family, Photo by Dorothea Lange

Haitian Worshipers

The secular humanist freethinker agnostic/atheist (SHFA/A) option has far less appeal to the majority of Humankind than religion because it is not as organized.  It thereby has relatively no institutional capacity to provide mental, emotional, and material relief and assistance compared to organized religion. The greatest challenge faced by SHFA/As today in their effort to supplant organized religion as the repository of Humankind’s most widespread worldview, I think, is to build a comparable and equally if not more capable humanitarian relief capacity. Regrettably, beyond their commendable advocacy efforts at promoting science education and keeping governance secular, ridiculing organized religion as something only for the ignorant and stupid, and dismissing/diminishing the strings-attached help religion gives, have a higher priority for many SHFA/As than building such a capacity.

Benny Hinn and some of his many followers

Pastor Creflo Dollar, purveyor of prosperity theology

As for the middle class and wealthy, worldwide, who rely on religion to maintain and increase their wealth, privilege, and relatively high standard of living, who willfully refuse to exercise critical thinking, and who allow themselves to be manipulated by religious leaders, I have low tolerance. In fact, the approach of many of them to what they consider a life worth living contributes to a life not worth having for many in the world who are less fortunate. I think most such persons are mentally lazy, selfish, or without compassion, or all three, especially the otherwise highly intelligent among them.

Philosophically, I have had little success taking a stand on whether Abrahamic religions have done and do more harm than good.  Or, perhaps a better way to put it is:  Have these religions contributed to making the world and Humankind “better?”  [I ask this despite my friend’s correct assertion that the argument that Abrahamic religions have made the world better is a non sequitur.]

If we want a quantifiable measure, the atrocious deaths of religion-associated wars, pogroms, crusades, inquisitions, fatwas, jihads, Buddhist holy killings, and other religious-based killings are fairly easy to count, estimate, and tally. I don't, however, know how to compare the millions of lives represented by these numbers to the millions of others who have and continue to benefit mentally, emotionally, spiritually, educationally, and medically from their acceptance of organized religion and its worldview. Even if I found a way to analyze such numbers I doubt if such quantification would allow a unequivocal conclusion about the morality, the good or bad, of religion, or whether, overall, religion has made the world and Humankind better.

I remain a SHFA/A who values cultural and religious tolerance and pluralism, the promotion of scientific knowledge and education, and strictly secular forms of governance. The best I can do is help build a global morality and civilization from what the world, in fact, "is" and hope that it might, one day, becomes what I and many others think it "ought" to be. I contribute best when I do so one idea and one person at a time, with reason and compassion.

One of the participants in the discussion also wrote:  "The problem that many non-believers have with religious faith and institutions is worth taking seriously: What if the comfort one takes in faith also happens to be harmful...."  My now expanded reply follows.

I agree.  When religious beliefs, values, behaviors, and/or institutions brutalize, marginalize, and persecute others they become immoral. I take non-believer objections to such acts very seriously.

My problem with the problem many, not all, non-believers (NBs) have with religious faith and institutions is as (one friend) stated earlier, they don't think broadly enough about it.

For many if not most new atheist NBs, the solution to the problem is to call for and angrily participate in a full frontal social, intellectual, ideological, and personal assault on all religious beliefs and institutions. Into their cross hairs also come the religious mainstream and any good that organized religion does for the poor, hapless, and hopeless.

The argument NBs often use to justify this shotgun approach is along the following lines: Despite any and all good done, religious beliefs and institutions and their mainstream followers nevertheless provide a theological foundation or grounding, and sometimes tacit support and succor, knowingly or unknowingly, for the fundamentalist perpetuation of religious perversities and atrocities. Therefore for this reason, NB thinking goes, the whole lot should incur their anger, ridicule, and efforts to turn all people away from all religious beliefs and institutions.

To me this may make for greater clarity of the battle line and a larger more hittable target for the NBs, but it is a less than optimal choice among a variety of possible strategies they could choose.  First, such an ideological blitzkrieg shows a willful ignoring of or inability to acknowledge the good religion does. Doing so is a violation of a major tenet of enlightened critical scientific thinking - do not ignore inconvenient truths among that which one seeks to objectively and truthfully understand, change, or morally judge. Doing so lessens the validity of any overall truth you arrive at and flaws any subsequent rationale you use to justify action.

Second, such a blanket approach shows a lack of fairness, fairness or justness being another hallmark of enlightened thinking.

Third, in ignoring inconvenient truths and being intolerantly unfair and unjust to persons who hold opposing ideas, are not such NBs behaving in the same irrational, prejudiced manner of many of the very believers they revile?

Fourth, the disparaging chuck-the-baby-with-bath strategy of many NBs is less likely to succeed than one that focuses its energy solely on exposing the abuses of religious beliefs and institutions, and positively on secular governance and the education and persuasion of the religious mainstream.

Finally, abusing all religious faith (belief), institutions, and all who are religious as stupid and harmful to humanism and the progress of civilization shows a lack of appreciation for or willful ignoring of the historical contributions the Abrahamic religions have made to the historical emergence of individualism, humanism, and modern science, either directly, indirectly, or as a foil.

We non-believers should choose our targets for social and cultural change with more reasoned specificity, e.g., religious perniciousness.  We should also acknowledge the tangible good that religion does especially in relieving human suffering, and show greater respect for the potential of educating and persuading members of the religious mainstream. When we seek to educate and persuade, with reason, demonstrable evidence, and compassion, we shall occupy a moral and ideological high ground.

It is this higher calling - one based on reason, demonstrable evidence, and compassion - that Humankind has valued and striven for above all others during our brief time in the Cosmos. It emerged in early human evolution and became the necessary goal or ideal of the human life-way, our species’ adaptive strategy.  This was long before the Abrahamic religions emerged.  Bringing about a human condition where thought and behavior are motivated and justified primarily by reason, evidence, and compassion has and continues to be difficult to achieve. Political, economic, and religious forces and their associated killings and wars have and continue to block the way forward. Nevertheless, my bet is this more secular, rational, and compassionate approach will remain the premier hallmark in our cultural evolutionary future.  I think it will either outlast or force significant reforms in the beliefs and behaviors of those who follow Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and in the values and strategies of the politically and economically powerful of the world. However, it likely will never supplant any of their worldviews completely.

The degradation of the biosphere into a habitat unsupportable of life due to religious wars and theological intransigence, or political and economic competition and exploitation, is an outcome that the deep and ancient human mandate of living by reason, evidence, and compassion will not indefinitely abide.  This higher calling of human nature is too deep within us.  One need look no further than the rapid progress that is being made by international institutions, organizations, and forums in bringing about a secular global morality and civilization to find the deep primacy of reason, evidence, and compassion in the long-term human project.  Despite the eye-rolling and shrill cries of the critics of globalism and the current zeitgeist of headline-grabbing Christian and Muslim fundamentalism there is a deeper, more profound force at work.  Global international and multicultural efforts and the primal cultural and moral evolutionary forces they represent and that drive them will persist and, I think, prevail.

Demonization, ridicule, aggression, and attack, from the righteous and the non-believers, show our failure to value and seek that higher ground upon which our species' survival has and continues to depend.  Sometimes a fight is necessary. But overall, in the long term, the fought-for victories that have counted most have been those motivated by moral foundations comprised of reason, supported by demonstrable evidence, and infused with compassion for Humankind.  The journal Science, Reason, and Culture is a very apt and needed forum for discussing, criticizing, and moving this most human and humane of agendas forward.

Many thanks to my freethinker friends who voiced their views on these most important of matters, and who kindly led me to think more deeply and broadly about my own.

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