Thursday, March 1, 2007

I'm not that kind of atheist (Pt. III)

Agreement with Christianity is almost proof of error and of probable self-deception. "Almost" only because as the saying goes, "even a broken clock is right twice a day." Agreement and even consistency with Christianity are certainly grounds for mistrust and skepticism.





Dawkins is right that the politeness shown towards religion per se perpetrates the prejudice that there is something special about religion. If all the world defers to religion, the thinking goes, then is this not proof that there must be something to religion besides superstition, fear, and soul-numbing conformity? This politeness rests on conformity: one "respects" religion because everyone else "respects" religion. Dawkins reminds his readers that the emperor has no clothes.



Every religion, Western or otherwise, has as core precepts absurd and irrational beliefs about human nature, existence, history, and the physical world. More importantly, as Dawkins points out: more fundamental than religions' absurd teachings is what these absurdies presuppose: unquestioning obedience and unswerving devotion are most highly valued in all religions.



Dawkins is also right to point out that this emphasis on obedience and and soul-numbing conformity however prettily disguised with pomp, incense, and elaborate ritual, is an offense against the virtues we as Westerners also claim to hold dear: autonomy, independence, self-reliance, individual rights and freedoms, intelligence, and compassion.



Dawkins does not make the following argument against tolerating religion, but he would certainly agree with it: there is an implied fear of fanaticism in the special treatment given religion. One makes nice towards religion lest the religious-minded among us will become fierce warriors of God. Impugning the sanctity of religion would presumably inspire no small portion of the populace to do unpredictable & violent things in the name of the God of Love and Peace.



The difficulty with making a clean break with religion is that it has seeped into our bones. Religion, or the specific example of Christianity if preferred, consists of more than regular church attendance and lip-service to a collection of doctrines that few understand. In the Christian traditions, this includes more than belief in the Nicene Creed and membership in one of the major denominations. There are attitudes towards morality, as well as beliefs in the soul and personal immortality, among many others, to be re-considered, re-thought, and if necessary rejected.



Most troubling is the widespread belief that one can give up belief in God and the world to come, and change little if anything in beliefs concerning morality and human nature. Because religion, and Christianity in particular discourages critical refection, morality still means for most people, nominally ex-Christian, or not, Christian morality. Do animals have rights? Do unborn children have rights? Should social policies that would help the poor be part of my agenda? While none of these issues are necessarily "Christian," they all too often inspire an overweening sense of the rightness of one's own cause.



Dawkins goes very far in attacking religion and emphasizing the ethical and moral absurdities that it perpetrates. However, it is as if in giving up the Christian religion, Dawkins needs to show that he adheres nonetheless to a recognizably Christian morality and recognizes the specialness of Christian values even if he no longer believes in the world-view that under girds Christian values and morality.



Dawkins is British. One of the many curious differences between American society and British society is that American society is tormented by groups obsessing over the possibility that unborn children have rights of some kind, while British society is tormented by groups obsessing over the possibility that animals have rights of some kind. The common ground between the two obsessions is the fear of injury to members of a group that are unable to pursue its own rights. There seems to be fear, even guilt over the thought of the possibility of doing harm to the weak and the powerless. A left-over attachment from Christianity remains that one must do good and do this good for the sake of another. The good that one would do for "least of these" is the highest and greatest good.



I mistrust arguments for the welfare and ethical treatment of animals. Not because I believe that one should be cruel, or that animals are for the sole use of human beings, or some other nonsense. My mistrust is not about the animals or fetuses or the putative recipients of moral acts, but the motivations and psychology of moral human beings.



I distrust the propensity of morality to associate feelings pleasurable feelings with the actions morality inspires. There is a conflict of interest in the feelings of pleasure that come with doing a good deed: does one do the good because it is good, or does one do good because it feels good? What is missing in justifications of moral and ethical activities is a sense of caution towards one's own motives: the possibility of a very immoral use of another for the sake of a happy conscience.



In a nutshell: if a moral action gives pleasure it is suspect. This pleasure can be a feeling of certainty, the feeling of significance that comes from "making a difference" or the discovery that one can "make a difference" in the net amount of suffering in the world.





There's a neo-Kantian argument that Dawkins picked up from Singer, I believe. Essentially, certain acts are rational because not to do them would entail self-contradiction. I do not doubt that it can be proven that certain acts entail self-contradiction. My quibble is not with the arguments but I find myself left with the question: the desire for self-consistency, or if preferred lack of self-contradiction, would appear to be not so much desire for consistent rationality as fear of self-contradiction. How am I to know that I had perpetrated a self-contradiction on myself? Easy: I would feel bad. Or as I understand this argument: feelings of guilt are assumed to be so horrendous as to constitute a reason unto themselves to justify moral and ethical actions or at least to require the avoidance of immoral and unethical acts.





What lurks at the bottom of the logical and quasi-metaphysical arguments for rationality and avoiding self-consistency is the Christian belief that feelings of guilt have a reality and significance that transcends the mundane. It is still the Christian egotism that the comings and goings of moods with their ups and downs have a metaphysical significance. That the feelings of dread and uncertainty that a child has for stealing a cookie provide vital and essential clues as to the meaning and sense of human history and what it is to be human.





I doubt that I can convey how bizarre and how scandalous (to use the Apostle Paul's words) the superstitious belief that somehow feelings of guilt are bound up to the essence of existence is. That feelings of guilt offer vital clues to the riddle of existence. Having lost faith in this naive superstition, I find myself perplexed that anyone could be so egotistical, so self-centered, so neurotic as to believe bad moods must command the attention of gods, angels, and even require a gruesome mechanics of redemption.




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