Progress?

March 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm (Humanism, morality, society)

I read this interesting interview with Terry Eagleton, of whom I am becoming a bit of a fan. Here is an extract which particularly interested me.

“Dawkins,” [Eagleton] contends, “has a Panglossian vision of progress. A view from North Oxford. Indeed for all his self-conscious modernity he turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Hegelian believing in a Zeitgeist (his own word) involving every increasing moral progress with just the occasional ‘reversal’. History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming tambourine-banging evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?”

(When I confronted Dawkins in 2007 with his description of the Holocaust as “a temporary setback”, he at first insisted that it was still appropriate to believe in general moral progress. He thought that the idea of such progress was “plausible” but agreed that my scepticism deserved attention. It was, he finally said, “a fair cop”.)

It is Dawkins’s stated belief in the inevitability of progress that, according to Eagleton, marks him out as a particular kind of humanist.

“Dawkins deeply believes in the flourishing of the free human spirit which makes him a liberal humanist rather than a tragic humanist. He believes that if only those terrible guys out there would stop stifling and shackling us, then our creative capacities would flourish. I don’t believe that. As a Marxist I reject that simple liberationism. I’m not against humanism. I’m for a humanism which recognises the price of liberation. And that’s what I call tragic humanism. The only idea of emancipation worth having is one that starts from looking at the worst, that starts from Swift’s race of odious little vermin. If you’re the kind of humanist who can understand what Socrates meant when he said it would been far better if man had never been born, you’re on. A humanism like Dawkins’s and possibly that held by Hitchens isn’t worth all that much. It’s too easy.”

Any thoughts? Personally I felt like applauding at this.

I can see progress in terms of science, medicine, technology etc. I can see moral progress in the abolition of slavery for example. But I can also see how western progress has come at the expense of other parts of the world; how the wealth distribution across the world is far less equal than it has ever been; how we are most likely destroying our climate as a side effect of our progress and even though we know this is probably the case, we aren’t doing anything much about it.

Hm. 😯

I do not think salvation of the human race lies in liberty and reason alone, although I am in favour of those things. “Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have” (Harry Emerson Fosdick). I think controlling systems produce general conformity but do not produce any exceptional goodness. Liberty, on the other hand, is a high-risk high-gain strategy. Freedom of conscience and action gives people the opportunity to reach the kind of sincerity which I think leads naturally to empathy and goodness… but a bad side effect is that a fair number of people will probably abuse that freedom and use it to do bad things. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about that.

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God and morality

February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm (absolute goodness, Christianity, God, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, philosophy, suffering)

I guess what I’m thinking is that God doesn’t dictate morality. God may have created us with morality, but certainly did not write the moral code on the back of our hands so we’d know what to do. He wrote it in our hearts perhaps. In other words… gave us the ability to work out how best to live, and it’s up to us whether we do that.

As for what God thinks of our behaviour, or what God wants of us, I’m going with “I don’t know”. 😀 I don’t feel good about thinking that God wants to reward or punish our behaviour like some sort of cosmic adjudicator. The effects of that belief can be so ugly. I’d rather be motivated to do good based on understanding why it’s good and wise and beneficial. And we all say God wants us to question and to understand and not just follow things blindly… so why should I assume God wants any particular behaviour?

If you think that God wants you to behave a certain way, then you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter. Even though that makes no sense. Because the fear of hell does that to people.

The thing about grace and mercy is, it takes away the need to please God. I think this is why Christians have a much less elaborate set of rules than some other religions.

And yet, there is still the belief in Christianity that God hates sin and loves righteousness, so sin is still bad, and there is the expectation that a believer will bear good fruit, and there is still the need to struggle against sin – not to earn salvation but presumably to please God… even though this is not supposed to be necessary. Which can lead to some of those ugly effects again: guilt, shame, hiding, denial, dishonesty, keeping up appearances, shallow moral thinking…

What would it be like if we didn’t believe that God was displeased by our wrongdoing? Taking grace even further so that not only is sin forgiven (and/or atoned for), but it’s not even offensive to God any more?

People who are very into judgment-based religions would say, all hell would break loose. But there are plenty of atheists with good morals… do we really need to believe that doing bad displeases God? Or can we be good without that motivation? (Does that motivation even help at all? I think we’ve all met immoral religious people…)

Honestly, I don’t know. I think the way I am going to answer that is by studying the really great people of the world and working out what motivated them. I suspect spiritual beliefs have led us to make great insights, but whether it was all motivated by pleasing God I don’t know.

Sin is behaviour which hurts somebody. If God hates sin, why did God create and put us in a world that hurts us (disasters, disease, etc)? And why is it that sometimes things that hurt us seem to do us good? Why is it that the same natural processes give rise to life and take life away? This does not seem like a fallen world. It seems like a world full of paradox. I have a horrible feeling there is no meaning behind it. I want to believe that to God, it is all good, in some way that we can only glimpse at occasionally.

Sometimes I think the world is so amazingly good, and especially humanity. But sometimes it all looks a terrible mess that we’ll never be able to fix. The world is not heaven and it is not hell, but it is both all mixed up together.

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Reason or blind following – which is more arrogant?

January 2, 2010 at 7:56 pm (God, Islam, morality)

I have now read chapter 5 on Islam, and chapter 6 on the philosophers. Next up is a chapter on the mystics which I am looking forward to but my brain has packed up and gone home for today 🙂

Towards the end of the Islam chapter, she discusses the differences between the Traditionists and the Mutazilites. The Traditionists believed in imitating Muhammad, and believed revelation from God was needed in order for us to know right and wrong. They took things like God sitting on a throne to be literally true but “without [knowing] how” (bila kayf). They believed the Quran was uncreated (shirk much? :P) They believed in predestination rather than God’s will. On the other hand, the Mutazilities were concerned with applying reason and rationality to understand the things of God. They believed in free will and a created Quran.

I don’t think it’ll be any shock to regular readers to know that I would side with the Mutazilites here. But what took me by surprise was that Karen Armstrong seemed to be making a link between the Greek Christian thought – which in my previous post I explained appealed to me a lot – and the Traditionists. I think what she is saying is that the Traditionists let God be beyond human understanding, beyond a mere projection of human values. They revered God to the extent of mystifying everything in the religion including the Quran itself, not claiming that anything could really be understood. The rationalists could be seen as somewhat arrogant in contrast to that respect and awe for God, and I get the impression traditionalists today who follow the rules derived by scholars do see rationalists that way.

So where do I really stand on the use of reason and its limitations? I don’t know! I’m confused now.

I think in terms of morality, blind imitation is always dangerous. I cannot see any way of determining what is genuine revelation – in terms of moral injunctions – other than by applying our own reasoning. To accept moral values uncritically is just brainwashing. And sure, we all have different ideas about morality – but collectively we can spur each other towards the truth. Like when we banned slavery. That decision was not inspired by any “revelation”, but by our collective conscience.

I’d say morality is mostly relative, with perhaps some general universal principles, like “love your neighbour as yourself”. The main part that changes has to do with who our neighbour is. I feel we are necessarily moving towards viewing all of humanity as our neighbours, as Rowan Williams was saying on TV last night. That’s why we cannot tolerate conventional slavery any more. Arguably a more subtle economic slavery is still alive and well and we need to wake up and start thinking about that.

I think the nature of God may be paradoxical and beyond reason, but that is no excuse to blindly follow a religious moral code thinking that you can’t possibly understand it. Part of knowing that you don’t fully understand God surely has to be, knowing that you can’t be sure of God’s will. So yes, you shouldn’t ascribe your own moral values to God himself. That is dangerous. But equally dangerous is disengaging your brain and assuming that some religious source has accurately provided you with the answer.

Isn’t it possible for a sense of the limitations of our understanding about God to become a rigid idea in itself? Isn’t this what has happened when the Quran is viewed as uncreated and its meaning is deemed to be beyond comprehension, so that people learn to recite it reverently but not understand it, and instead exercise their powers of understanding only on hadiths – and even then, only to follow them unquestioningly? Isn’t that just as arrogant an approach as a reliance on reason?

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Suffering – a question

October 2, 2009 at 9:06 am (God, morality, philosophy, suffering)

Here’s a question for you all, since I don’t have time to think for myself at the moment (major work challenge going on)…

How do you understand suffering? Is the function of morality that it helps to avert harm and suffering, do you think? If that is the case, why did God put us in a world with natural disasters and other things that cause suffering? Why do we have to get ill and die?

Is suffering redemptive? Does it build character? Does it test us? If so, then why does morality seem to demand that we try to limit the suffering in the world? If not, then why did God put it into the world?

Would an ideal world be a world without suffering? Or not?

OK, that was more than one question 😛

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“How to Read the Bible”

August 16, 2009 at 10:53 pm (Christianity, God, moral issues, morality)

I have finished reading “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has given me lots of scholarly insights that I didn’t know, as well as some of the author’s own interesting thoughts. His writing style is very readable – it’s as formal as it needs to be, with the freshness of well-placed informalities lifting the tone. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Bible – it’s very short and easy to read. And don’t be put off by him questioning the existence of God quite early on – it’s not written with an atheist agenda. 🙂

There are 5 “topics” that have come out of it for me and I think I’ll squeeze them all into one post:

  1. Idolatry
  2. Suffering in God’s cause
  3. Writing theology into history
  4. Morality in religion
  5. Psychology of Paul

1. Idolatry

“Jerusalem… became God’s greatest rival [for the affection of the Jews].” This brings back memories. Loving God’s gifts more than God himself is a danger that I was taught to be concerned about. In my church, worship just meant adoration, and so anyone or anything that we had a strong liking for became a potential idol. I put away a Lauryn Hill CD for the 40 days of Lent, for this reason. It seems like there could be other definitions of worship, though. I would love to hear yours, readers (if I still have any!)

The book describes Jesus as preaching a strict monotheism, which is a defining feature of Judaism and Islam (and arguably Christianity too). In Islam it is known as tawheed. I am interested in what violates it – to Christians, the Trinity (a 3-persons-in-1 view of God) does not, but to Muslims, it does. I think there is a difference between saying that Jesus was a human incarnation of God, and saying that there is more than one God. Even polytheism can bear some resemblance to monotheism when, like in Hinduism, there is one ultimate overarching reality known as God above all lesser deities. But all of these are categorically wrong from the points of view of Judaism and Islam, where God is utterly transcendent and nothing may be compared to him. I suppose what it boils down to in Islam and Judaism is that the worship of created things – nature, people, blessings, heaven, human creations – instead of the Creator offends God greatly. But again, it begs the question of what worship actually is.

2. Suffering in God’s cause

The book discusses the problem suffering poses to all faiths, which is beyond the scope of this post. I just wanted to note that it occurred to me lately that one of the huge obstacles to my submission to God, namely, fear that it will require me to suffer in some way beyond what I can deal with, makes a lot of sense in the face of a belief that even God’s own perfect son had to die for the sins of the world. Muslims say that God does not test us beyond what we can bear, but I don’t think I dare believe that. I know my own weakness too well.

3. Writing theology into history

The book discusses the aim or thesis of each of the gospel writers, and how this influenced their story-telling at the expense of historical accuracy in some cases. Christian theology as we know it today didn’t emerge until Paul converted, and it was then worked into the gospel stories retrospectively when they came to be written down. This sounds very dishonest, but I don’t get the impression from this book or from Idris Tawfiq the other day that it was intentional. It makes me wonder how easy it is to be faithful to history when we have a well-developed retrospective understanding of it. What might this say about hadiths for example?

4. Morality in religion

The link between God and goodness happened around the 8th century BCE. It was not always obvious that God cared about ethics. Previously people just made animal sacrifices to win the favour of God. But eventually an ethic of compassion emerged, which Holloway says Jesus later emphasised as the “universal human ethic”. In other words, our selfish side is bad and our altruistic side is good.

“Though he probably wasn’t a Marxist, God was certainly a socialist who wanted more mutuality and less competition in society.”

I think this is worth some more thought. Another post maybe.

The message of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Holloway says, is not some naive platitude but a subversive reversal of the existing brutal order of things. Jesus congratulates and values the destitute, the utterly powerless, those outside the “system”, and proclaims that they are innocent precisely because they are not implicated in a system of power which victimises people. They can turn the other cheek and so on because they have no need to react as those who have something to protect. That is still a hugely subversive message today, and something of an antidote to the Darwinian capitalistic mindset that has pervaded our societies.

In regard to religious moral codes and law, Jesus has a “general but not unconditional acceptance” of the temple cult. He is not a letter-of-the-law type. He is criticised for his relaxed approach to observing the Sabbath, for example. Holloway clearly approves:

“It is true that we need moral and religious systems to protect us from the chaos of our passions; but if we give them transcendent and unchanging authority they become a greater danger to us than the unfettered passions they are supposed to curb. An unalterable code can close us against ordinary pity for our fellows, and cause us to treat them not as humans, but as abstractions, as things.”

5. Psychology of Paul

A complex psychology lay behind Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. What interested me was the idea that, as a zealous Jew with a strong and tortured sense of his own weakness and failure to live perfectly by the religious law that he so revered, he projected his self-hatred onto those who didn’t even try to live up to the letter of the law – i.e. the followers of Jesus. I can actually see something of myself in that. Paul could not be moderate about anything, and was clearly a perfectionist, which are tendencies I can relate to. I can also relate to the frustrated sense of failure and weakness, and so I can understand the projection of that self-loathing onto others who have similar failings or even worse, yet don’t seem to care.

Of course Paul then converted, and arrived at a solution for his angst in the idea that Jesus had fulfilled the law for him, something he could not do for himself. In taking Christianity outside of Judaism, Paul divorced the ritual from the moral, leaving the ritual behind, so that the “law” for Christians consists of moral exhortations only. This goes some way towards explaining why Christians regard themselves as “not under law” but at the same time make huge efforts to live up to a moral standard.

This 5-posts-in-1 has become pretty long, so I’ll stop there! I may repost this on my other blog at some point, so for anyone that reads that, apologies in advance for cross-posting.

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Morality and religion

March 2, 2009 at 12:15 am (morality, society)

I find it interesting that when apparently sensible moral codes are applied in an extreme way across society, it simply does not make people “better” even by the standards of that moral code (let alone in an absolute sense). There have been comments on Lisa’s blog about how prevalent homosexuality is in the Arab world, linking this to the strict gender segregation that is enforced in these societies. You might think you could make people chaste by separating the genders, but it seems not. Another example is how much more dangerous it is for a woman to travel around North Africa alone compared to sub-Saharan Africa, even though the religious mentality is supposed to promote respect and dignity for women. I’ve travelled alone in the latter part of the world, even across national borders, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that in the former. In Cairo, women are sexually harrassed in the street, which is puzzling when you consider that wearing of hijab has become widespread there in the last few decades – the intended effect being the exact opposite.

I seriously doubt whether any society or culture is really more moral than another. The majority of people are probably pretty self-serving, even in a culture with a strong religious component. Different cultures have different emphases. My own – western Europe – emphasises fairness and equality and tolerance, and it falls down on this too of course, but this emphasis has shaped our cultural mentality. I think it’s possible for different cultures to equally view each other as being less moral than themselves.

Do our own efforts – for example, religion – make any difference? I think there’s room for free will, in the same way that there’s room for individual earthquakes’ sizes to be dynamically determined despite their following a well-defined distribution overall. I think that religion can be a tool to lead someone towards being a better person. At the very least it can inspire you to think about acting selflessly. But does being religious automatically lead to this? – no. Religions do not have a monopoly on morality either.

It’s usually taken for granted, but actually quite interesting if you think about it, that religion takes morality and spirituality and yokes them together. Why should that be? Why should it be that God (or gods) is about goodness? Why is that so universal a concept?

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