Saturday, October 04, 2014

I'll be bald and nothing to show for it.....

Pascal might have a challenge for that; but we should point out, that may express an ethos,
but it doesn't exactly lead to a morality. 

Somewhere in the 19th century morality became linked to religion; perhaps as a redoubt against the onslaught of Darwinism and the rising success of science to explain it all to you (at least until Godel and others began to prove it couldn't).  I don't really know where it started, but it's hardly a felicitous connection.  The law of Moses became, somehow, both that which the Christ had set aside (how many Christians eat pork and shellfish, or cheeseburgers, for that matter) and at the same time fulfilled.  Christians went through the law with a broom, sweeping away inconvenient injunctions, and keeping the convenient ones (all 10 of them).

I speak too harshly.  The point is, at some point morality became tied to religion, and the argument became that only religion could truly make people moral.  I've never really agreed with that, and I don't now.

There is a case to be made, and Anthony at Thought Criminal makes it very well, that religion is a better motivator of social justice and even sociable behavior than non-religion, but I think that is a byproduct of religious faith, not something available only to the faithful.  That's a distinction worth holding onto.

CJ Werleman is now concerned about the moral posture of atheism.  He thinks atheists (or atheism; the distinction is important, apparently, but Werleman doesn't make it*), needs "to provide a moral narrative for the economic and social realities that ail your everyday American."  A moral narrative.  He doesn't explain what he means by that; apparently he thinks it is self-evident.  But it's an interesting declaration, well set out or not.

The best clue to what Werleman means by "moral narrative" is provided in this paragraph:

Google any combination of the following keywords — “atheists for the environment,” “atheists for economic equality,” “atheists for racial and gender equality,” “atheists for ending poverty,” “atheists for world peace,” “atheists against resource motivated wars,” etc. – and you come up with nothing. In other words, the some 2,000 atheist groups and organizations in this country are almost wholly silent on the moral issues that affect Americans the most.
I don't think of any of those as necessarily "moral" issues, because I think of morality as the problem of individual human behavior in society (you don't have to be moral if you are alone on a desert island).  So the minute I start talking about what is moral, I'm clearly not talking about what Werleman is talking about.  But it is interesting that most of the issues he mentions were taken up by, or promoted widely first by, religious groups.  Maybe that's why Werleman thinks they are "moral issues."

But he insists "that religion is no more moral than the absence of it," so it must just be coincidence, huh?

That is a pretty silly statement, actually.  Aristotle started us formally talking about "ethics" in the West.  In his original tongue "ethics" simply meant "behavior."  His ethics are wholly without what we call morality.  He simply advised finding the most successful person in your society, and doing as that person did.  That, said Aristotle, would make you ethical, because everyone would approve of your behavior.   For Aristotle behavior was guided by the telos of happiness, and happiness was attained by the most admired person in the community (so to this day we think the rich are "successful").  If that behavior included sex with young boys, well, that's fine; noble, even, to the Athenian Greeks at least. But would we today call that moral, or would we decry it as an abuse of power?  And why do we see the humanity of those young boys as significant?  The historical answer is:  because of religion; Christianity, specifically.

Not because Christianity is particularly superior to other religions, but because Christianity dominated and pervaded Western culture from the 4th century on.  The importance of the individual which finally became the cornerstone of Western thought with the Romantic movement, began with Christianity and the truly radical teachings of Paul of Tarsus (the ones we ignore today, and Paul-bashers erase entirely).  The importance of children began with at least the Gospels, and while it took until the Great Depression for a President of the United States to finally get child labor laws passed, the idea of children having any value as persons is rooted in religious morality.  Sadly our morality doesn't control us nearly as much as our economic and other selfish interests do, but whenever the topic of morality comes up people start to imagine all manner of imaginary controls over their behavior which make them anxious and unnerved.

Which is really funny, seeing as morality is more honored in the breach than in the keeping.

Yes, there are Christian pastors who decry and denounce immorality in others; but there is always someone ready to point out the splinter in your eye, which is but a reflection of the log in theirs (especially those virulently anti-gay pastors and anti-adultery pastors who were all found to have secret lovers).  And yes, theoretically, morality is perfectly possible without religion.  But in reality, it has never worked out that way.  All of our moral imperatives in Western culture are based in Christianity.  It may be possible to create a moral society, as we would define it today (no buggering young boys for pleasure and purity, thank you!) without religion, but in fact it has never been that way.  It is an odd thing that atheists who insist so much on empiricism and decry even philosophy as "faith-based," refuse to acknowledge this simple point.

What brought the tribes of Israel together and created their moral system was religious belief.  While the Greeks were telling tales of Zeus raping young maidens in various disguises, the children of Abraham were telling each others stories of justice and fairness to all.  While the Greeks were telling the tale of Medea, the children of Abraham were telling each other the story of Ruth and Elijah and the widow, of feeding the widow and caring for the orphan.  The Hebrews, again, were not morally superior to the Greeks, or even superior in any one way.  But while the Greeks were telling tales of superhuman beings behaving as we would expect superhuman beings to behave (and as Jesus behaves in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Cherry Tree Carol), the Hebrews were telling stories of their history and the involvement of their God in their history.  The Greeks produced "Oedipus Rex" and (I think the more superior moral examination) Antigone.  The Hebrews produced "Job" and "Ecclesiastes."  One can say religion is supposed to be unimportant; but one has a hard time producing evidence that it is.  Medea is almost just in her revenge on the Greeks for treating her as a non-person; the prophets told Israel their problems with Babylon started when they stopped dealing justly with the widow and the orphan and the alien among them.  Their stories, from Abraham's visit by the three angels to Elijah and the widow to Sodom and Gomorrah, are about hospitality to the stranger (or the lack thereof).  Their stories are about living in this world, and the wisdom of God which they ignore as often as they adopt it.  They are much more powerful moral teachings than the Iliad or the Odyssey, or any of the Greek tragedies.

And pretty clearly, it has something to do with being rooted in religion.

So perhaps I am wrong, and the problem of the link between morality and religion isn't that it exists, but that we think it doesn't have to exist.  In theory it seems we could discard it.  In practice, however, it would not yield the world we live in today, and there is no reason, based solely on history, to believe such a separation would yield a better world tomorrow.

To draw on a concrete example, I understand the theory behind John Rawls' Theory of Justice (despite its assumption that utilitarianism must be accommodated rather than rejected), but the key problem "is to show how such principles would be universally adopted."  It is one thing to say "the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others" is of first importance, and further that "social and economic positions are to be (a) to everyone's advantage and (b) open to all."  It is quite a different thing, and yet the same telos, to say all are equal before a just and loving God, and the first of all should be last and servant of all, so that justice is truly done for everyone.  The latter is not necessarily more achievable, but it is certainly easier to show how is would be universally adopted; and besides, it's entirely in keeping with Isaiah's vision of the holy mountain (see Isaiah 11; Isaiah 56; and Isaiah 65.  It's such a powerful vision it appears for all three of the "Isaiahs.")  The purpose of Israel, according to the prophets, was to be a light to all nations, not that they should be converted (the covenant was with Israel, not humankind) but that all humankind should enjoy life into the ages, that they should, in other words, achieve the telos Aristotle set for his ethics.  But do so through a universal application, not an ethos that excluded barbarians who didn't speak Greek and were NOK.  Rawls asks us to give up our privileges in the abstract name of justice, which has to begin with the idea that we have privileges at all (most of us don't think so; it's the other guy who's privileged!).  Religion in Western culture, whether it is based on the vision of Isaiah or the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, compels us with concrete teachings that we are, in fact, our brother's keeper, and only in that keeping of each other are we all kept; only in justice for each other is there justice for all; only in treating everyone as God treats us, do we achieve life into the ages in this life.

Philosophical arguments like Rawls require us all to understand the entire philosophical principle behind them, and to consider the reasonableness of their application.  The concrete religious visions exemplified by Isaiah or the stories in the gospels, make the lesson both more immediate and far easier to grasp (though notably not any easier to follow).  They ask us simply to do good because it is good; because the humble will be invited to the head of the table, because all nations will stream to the glory that would be, could be, Israel.

There are other arguments to be made.  I'm sure, for example, the Niebuhrs made them, and I have only to consider the question and look to find their answers.  This is just off the top of my head, but it's a start.  And I do not end where I began, that's a good thing, too.  Like I said, this is a start....

*Commenters at Salon regularly make much of the disorganized nature of atheists.  They proclaim it the true hallmark of an atheist that the only agreement among them is to deny the reality of a deity.  It's not as much to agree on as they think, but they insist it is all "true" atheists have in common, so whether one can even speak of "atheism" can be up for debate.

And that, by contrast, does lead to a morality, as well as an ethos

1 comment:

  1. I will write more but, for now, I watched this production of Robinson Jeffers' Medea with Zoe Caldwell and Dame Judith Anderson a while back and was absolutely disturbed about its justiposition of pity for the injustice done against Medea and the horror of her Hecate supported evil.