February/March 2012 Vol 32, No. 2 pp. 39-40.
A Caution from the Epistemology of Ethics
Words are also
like people; they can get kidnapped. Religion is one of those words.
Professor of Ethics, Marquette University
In our part
of the world, right wing conservatives have commandeered the words
religion, faith, and belief to mean that these words bind you
to the idea of a personal deity who talks and even writes books
and thus acts as a surrogate for reason and free inquiry. This
usage has further creedal demands; it insists that we go on living
after dying and, if we behave, we will meet the deity in happy
circumstances in an afterlife, with unhappy post-mortem punishment
the fate of miscreants.
don't accept this imaginative construction are not "people
of faith," and therefore "faithless" with all the
negative codings therein contained. They are practitioners of
"unbelief," also very negatively coded in our culture.
Truly, there is much in the various constructions of religion
that reasonable people can choke on and deny.
Religion in the Dock
Let all admit
that under the banner of "religion," there is a clear
veer toward the weird. No area of literature produces the fantastical
images that "religious" literature does. We go from
lofty Jupiter to Kali the enigmatic Hindu Goddess to Jesus the
non-violent revolutionary who was gradually divinized; we move
from sexy Gods who create with masturbation or intercourse to
Gods who create chastely with a simple word. There are the extravagant
Gods of Sumer and the rambunctiously misbehaving Gods of Olympus.
There are specialized Gods who focus on agriculture, fertility,
or war. The dramatis personae divinae are endless. The Gods grew
with us. When we learned to write, they did too, writing on blocks
of stone at Sinai or by sending angels with names like Gabriel
and Moroni to write books or to uncover hidden tablets filled
with script.. On top of that there are divinized planets, mountains,
and rivers, as well as angels, virgin births, resurrections from
the dead and ascensions straight into the heavens without ever
going into orbit.
see religion as the mind gone mad have plenty of grist for their
But that is
not the whole story...
and evolving cultural upheavals we call the world religions have
also purveyed some of the foundational moral convictions of modern
secular culture. Not all God-talk is mischievous. Religion is
a mixed bag. Those who pride themselves on secular purity would
blush to know the moral intelligence that proceeded from religious
traditions and became common ethical and democratic currency.
When the early Hebrews de-divinized royalty they sowed seeds for
democratic Bills of Right. Hannah Arendt said that with all the
serious modern criticism of traditional beliefs and concepts,
"the modern world never even thought of challenging the fundamental
reversal" on human rights which Judaism and Christianity
has brought into "the dying ancient world."1 Friedrich
Engels wrote that before Christianity became the state religion
and lost its subversive power, it undermined "all the foundations
of the state" and the presuppositions of empire.2
yield of those traditions still fill modern "secular"
minds, dominate their assumptions, and guide their ethics. The
secular humanists who called themselves "Atheists for Niebuhr,"
did understand this. Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian and a seminary
professor training students for church ministry. However, his
insights into human behavior and political dynamics transcended
his own religious interpretations.and metaphors. Atheists for
Jesus, or Athesits for the Buddhai would make good sense since
both Jesus and the Buddha (or those who constructed their literary
identities) were moral geniuses who pioneered, among other things,
the idea of nonviolent resistance as ultimately more efficacious
than kill-power, an insight that has never been more relevant
as scientifically developed kill-power has become ever more unmanageable
and Faith are not Dirty Words....Neither is Atheism
in order to disassociate itself with certain religious holdings
suffers losses in understanding homo moralis. My book Ethics:
A Complete Method for Moral Choice is not written for theists
or non-theists as such; it is written for human beings seeking
to plumb the meaning and possibilities of life in this privileged
corner of the universe. As such it speaks to Thomas Aquinas as
much as to Jean Paul Sartre.3
atheist credentials are in good order. A story is told of him
late in his career. He met two former students with their three
month old baby. At this point in his life, Sartre's work was being
read in almost any language with print. That had to be more than
satisfying. Yet when he took the smiling baby into his arms he
felt that if you took all his work and weighed it against the
value of the preciousness he was holding in his arms, his work
would weigh almost as nothing in comparison. The term 'sanctity
of life," a term that is the basis of all law, comes to mind.
is the highest complement in our lexicon, it is the superlative
of precious.. It describes experiences where preciousness reaches
into ineffability and the peaking of awe. Medievals called this
kind of knowledge "mystical," Secular humanists need
not be skittish about the word. It has the same Greek root as
mystery, from mueo, to lie hidden. It referred to out deepest
loves and most profound value experiences. It relates to what
I define as "religion."
Religion, I submit, is a response to the sacred, however that
experience is explained. It need not be explained by positing
a personal deity as the necessary grounding of that valuation.
Nor does not entail by its nature the notion that when you are
dead, you are, contrary to all appearances, still quite alive.
Sartre's experience was, in this sense, religious. It was also-brace
yourselves-an act of belief, that form of knowledge which Aquinas
said exists in genere affectionis, in the realm of affection.
Sartre's ecstatic appreciation of the signal beauty of that child
was not the result of a syllogism or the product of a dry reasoning
process. It was a clear example of what the mediaevals called
cognitio affectiva, affective knowledge. It was something he knew
believingly, and that is no oxymoron. Pace the Founding Fathers,
the truths they proclaimed were not "self-evident,"
or all the geniuses of prior history wold not have missed out
is awareness and much of our awareness is affectively experienced
even before it can be voiced in words. Moral knowledge is particularly
situated in the affections before it moves on to logic and debate,
which indeed it must. John Dewey, no raving theist, put it this
way: "Affection, from intense love to mild favor, is an ingredient
in all operative knowledge, all full apprehension of the good."4
It is the animating mold, he said, of all moral knowing.
I am not
alone in my usage of terms like "religion," "faith,"
and the "sacred." These terms are not everywhere demeaned
or sidelined. (In fact, there is no one who considers nothing
sacred.) As historian Daniel Pals says, religious ideas, usually
not understood as such, "affect our literature, philosophy,
history, politics, and psychology, and indeed almost every realm
of modern thought."5
social theory cannot ignore power and the fact is that nothing
so stirs the human will, for good or for ill, as the tincture
of the sacred.. As John Henry Newman said people will die for
a dogma who will not stir for a conclusion. Small wonder then
that thirty-four renowned scientists led by Carl Sagan and Hans
Bethe, in their "Open Letter to the Religious community,"
urged religions to attend to the plight of the planet. "Efforts
to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with
a vision of the sacred....Problems of such magnitude, and solutions
demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset
as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension."6
in divorcing themselves from fundamentalist religious excesses,
marry into a false ethical methodology. Forget deities and afterlife
and the fundamentalist pursuit of oracular magical knowledge,
knowledge that can with no evidence refute Darwin and trump the
rest of science. Forget all that for a moment, and think ethics,
ethics which Schopenhauer called the supreme challenge to the
human mind. And ethics involves belief, and yes, faith in human
perception of the good; it involves mystically deep cognitive
encounters with human and terrestrial good. Ethics is born where
poetry is born and secular humanists don't want to leave that
behind. As Schopenhauer put it; "The metaphysics of nature,
the metaphysics of morals, and the metaphysics of the beautiful
mutually presuppose each other, and only when taken as connected
together do they complete the explanation of things as they really
are, and of existence in general."7
many meanings of belief, faith, and religion that do not fall
prey to the hypothetical assumptions and verbal piracy of conservative
religionists. Professor of Chinese religions Chun-Fang Yu states
that in the Chinese religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism,
"there is no God transcendent and separate from the world
and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human
beings would want to go for refuge."8 As professor Hsiao-Lan
Hu notes, the Chinese languages do not even have a word that parallels
the English word religion.9 What Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism
do have, however, is a profound experience of the sacred, and
an ethical payload that that experience spawns. They are not examples
of 'unbelief;"they are classics in the art of cherishing
life and examples of belief in life's stunning possibilities.
"What's in a name? " (or in a word), asks Shakespeare,
in Romeo and Juliet. A lot. An Encyclopedia of Unbelief is at
a disadvantage. It defines itself negatively. It cries out for
a subtitle because omnis negatio in affirmatione fundatur,
every negation is rooted in some affirmation. It is important
to know what you are for in order to know what you are against.
To assume an identity as an unbeliever is to allow yourself to
be defined by your adversaries, those idiosyncratic religionists.
who may have a better claim to being the "silent majority"
might be more successful in their causes if their positive beliefs,
their faiths were more in evidence. Secular humanism has the advantage
of honesty. It does not pretend that an hypothesis is a fact but
it stumbles over its own purity if it banishes a crucial aspect
of human moral intelligence.
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