Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is there moral atheism?

Caveat - I was intrigued by what Mad Priest posted today so just jotted down some thoughts off the top of my head. I may soon decide I spoke too soon. But rather than clog up space at MP's, I will put it here for now and maybe later see what I can pull from it. Pardon my self-indulgence, if you will, and desire to catch the last of the afternoon rays of sunshine.
Mad Priest said:

Is there moral atheism?

In morality that is based on a religion, good and bad is objectively defined by a transcendent being dictating the behaviour of its adherents and/or the promise of reward or punishment within the context of a life that does not cease at earthly death. But why should an atheist do anything?

there is no goodness without god because there is no reason for goodness without god because without god there is no reason for anything

this doesn't mean an atheist cannot act in a moral way based on (for example) utilitarian avoidance of pain but there is no reason for an atheist to do so because there is no reason for anything without a god to give everything a reason

I'm not saying there is a god

but if it is proved that there is no god I would not consider myself a moral being. If I acted in a "good" way it would be purely out of self-interest and/or because I liked the feeling it gave me.

IT said:

Far better philosophers than I have explained how morality can be grounded in humanist values that do not need to invoke a supernatural God. If you like I will find some quotes for you since they generally say it much better than I.

Tobias' comments fit with MP's, who basically are saying the only reason that I, the atheist, am a (moral) person is that your concept of God ensures that I am. Frankly I find that condescending. But I recognize you are not trying to insult me personally, and that's what I get for hanging around a religious site.

Mad Priest said:

I am truly interested in being given an objective definition of morality based on an existence without the transcendent. I have been studying humanist ethics for years (I rarely read books on Christian ethics). The person who has been most influential on my own ethical thinking is Peter Singer (an atheist). Yet, so far, I have not come across one good reason from atheists for living life in a particular way that is based on something that isn't just an arbitrary choice. For example, the continuation of the human race. Sounds good, but if we exist for no reason then why bother. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow there is nothing.
This entire discussion makes my head spin. What does defining good and bad “objectively” have to do with a transcendent being or power (or whatever), let alone why would should be some kind of prerequisite for doing so? Any rules or structured system of morality are articulated by human beings based on human conceptions of right and wrong, whether they are based on social mores, historical traditions, civil or religious laws, or observation of how the physical universe and the creatures therein seem to operate. To tag something as coming from God – whether based on direct divine revelation, Scripture, church authorities, tradition, with or without some measure of what we call human reason – does not make it objective in the sense of being either empirically verifiable or, in religious or philosophical terms, eternally true. Assuming God exists, humans know of God and good and evil through their own human understandings and experiences.

That means any of what we think comes from God, or not, can be wrong or right, eternally false or true. The whole business of the authority of Scripture, the “responsibility” of bishops or popes or priests to tell everyone what God wants or intends is premised on the notion that certain writings and persons have the inside track. One does not even have to reach the issues of whether God exists, who or what God is, and how God operates in the world to hold in suspension any certainty as to who may speak for God and how, even assuming God is, indeed, the reason for it all.

What drives me crazy about some of the conevs, is how they rail on and on about how the evil, degenerate liberals base everything they think and do on what “feels good.” Yet here is MP, basically making the same protest, distinguishing between what God really wants and what we want based on the notion that if it “feels good” then that means we are hopelessly lost, self-centered, pleasure-seeking, truly Godless creatures who are going to do only what pleases us and nothing that pleases God (except maybe by accident, when, as MP suggests, so-called utilitarian concerns point us in the right direction). And, there’s dear Tobias as well, who reportedly shares the concern of the ++ABC and the Pope that Western civilization is riding the coattails of Christianity and that the greater our distance in time and numbers from Christianity, the further and further we will wander from both knowledge and practice of what is eternally good and right.

I’m sorry. I guess it’s time to throw in whatever claim I have to orthodox thinking, if not beliefs. I simply do not buy all of that. I do not trust the church or religion to get it right, although I do think that concerted effort to do so may, at times, bring some greater measure of knowledge and wisdom, through God’s grace, than that generally held by those who do not bother to try (but I’m not certain even of that). While I do not trust my own gut feelings or anyone else’s either, I do not think it is necessarily any more unreliable than what is “taught” by some people as Christian (or any other kind of morality). The whole uproar about homosexuality suggests to me that sometimes one’s gut is the better guide – harkening back to Huck Finn’s musings on slavery and his decision “to go to hell” rather than disregard what his gut (or heart) was telling him.

So, while I know, believe, and experience God’s presence and guidance in my life, while I respect and seriously consider what the church and others who care about morality and ethics have to say about them, what drives me to try do and be good is not because of what God may or may not do for me, on account of my faith, my works, or his grace, or because it makes me “feel good” in any kind of warm, fuzzy or pleasureful way, but because, well, God draws me to what is right, makes me feel like crap when I stray, chastises me when I am misled by my own thoughts and desires, and, whether I’m thinking or trying or not, infuses all of Creation with his order, design, and intent, even though none of us can even begin to comprehend it all.

Bottomline is that morality is based on what we subjectively feel is right for us and based on what we think is appropriate for us and others in our society – no matter how much we may talk and read and go into all sorts of gymnastics, mental, spiritual and emotional, over which ideas, rules, or systems are better, whether we think they’re from God or a wise philosopher or anyone else. We rely on our guts, what others have taught us, and what we have learned from experience, whether we call us believers or non-believers, liberals or conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindi, or atheists.

And when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure if it is not just as well to try to all agree to follow the Golden Rule or something of that nature and let the rest flow from there, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof. For Christians we have the two great commandments, and while I “believe” the first, loving God’s with one’s whole heart is essential, I don’t know what that really means for everyone. Although no doubt both Grace and IT would have a cow over it, I can imagine that even a professed atheist could satisfy the first one if they knew on some level of something greater than themselves (even conceived in purely human terms of morality and ethics without express reference to God) and/or had some kind of basic humility. Personally, I find Christianity to be something that I not only need to embrace and live the best I can but also (although the jury is still out on this), something that I want to support and encourage others to embrace as well because I do believe in working toward building God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, or whatever he wills in this regard. But my ideas or beliefs about this seems to be rather beside the point. What counts is not what I think but what I do.

I guess I don’t understand how anyone builds their life around what God may or may not do for them, why they need the hope and promise of some kind of reward to do his will, or, for some, the knowledge of his mercy if they follow what they think are his rules and thereby avoid his divine wrath. Whether one believes in a loving God, and judging and punishing one, or a complex or mysterious being or power that encompasses these and other qualities, I just don’t see how a conviction as to what he will or will not do sustains anyone because I don’t see how anyone can be certain. To me, striving for what is good and right and just is what it – life – is all about. I think and feel that the closer I am to what God wants, in the long run I will know it, if I pray and reflect and be self-critical and try to be as humble as I can. While it would be so much easier if there were a simple and detailed rulebook to follow, I look at those who treat the Bible or the Magisterium’s products in that way and my heart and soul and gut tell me, no, no, NO, they cannot be trusted to know eternal truth any more (or less) than what I can discern on my own.

That being said, where and how should any of us develop our sense or codes of morality and ethics? I don’t dispute that religious tradition is a good place to look, if only because most human cultures have looked to the religious side of things for inspiration and wisdom, although in many and perhaps most, there is no Western divide between the secular and religious. I also would look to biology, psychology, philosophy and law have to say on the matter.

While traditional “natural law” is distorted, I think, by religion and the religious thinkers who have espoused it, I think we do need to especially consider science and what it tells us about human nature and behavior. Although the evidence is still spotty and questionable, it looks like there may be elements of our physiology that lead us to altruistic behaviors and thinking in terms of causation and responsibility. Thus, there may be many “natural” tendencies in humans towards what we think as moral behavior, although learning and modeling are required as well. I think we need to stop thinking in terms of being either “naturally” deprave or even amoral and only, through the exercise of human agency and free will, becoming or trying to become “good.” It’s as though many of us cannot conceive God as anything but a being, separate and apart from us and all Creation, who dictates or directs, judges, and otherwise acts in a way we can understand as a separate, distinct entity. It may be helpful to think of him in those terms, but it seems so narrow and unnecessary to assume that we humans, supposedly made in his image, are so different from the rest of Creation because of our consciousness and ability to make far greater choices than other creatures (i.e. free will) that we do not have aspects of goodness or elements of godliness of any kind without our acting upon them in conscious devotion to God, and that we and/or other creatures are inherently self-centered and self-interested, that it life for all is some kind of horrific, toothsome, Spenglerian battle for the preservation of self, even though science tells us that it is not that simple at all, that we, like other creatures have some biological dispositions towards preserving the greater social good, loving and caring for our mates and offspring, etc.

This is meandering quite a bit. I hesitate to post my meanderings. I want to go outdoors while I still can and someday I want to seriously take up the idea of “natural law” and what that has to do, or not do, with science and morality and religious truth.

But I guess what I meant to get to was the basic question of whether we need religion for morality, to determine what is “objectively” good or bad, right or wrong? I think religion can be helpful, indeed long has, but it is not necessarily the best or only way to develop morality – in fact, in some places religion has developed such a bad name that maybe everyone would be better off focusing on civil law and international standards of human rights. It’s not that there is all there is to morality or all that God calls us to do in that regard, but I think given the evident unGodliness of much of religion, that one must consider working both within and without religious institutions and beliefs.

As usual, I’ve spilled way too many words when I want to get to something simple. I was struck by something I read in Newsweek the other day about the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it said that the people who hid others from the killers were mostly “peasants” and not the well-educated or even religious members of society. I wonder if there may be some truth in that for all of us in the sense that those who simply care for others, exercise both compassion and commonsense as something basic and not terribly complicated or thought provoking, who just live their daily lives as good friends, neighbors, and family members, are far more likely to be closer to God and his will then all of us who talk and think and theologize and get involved in religious politics. I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it is often better to shut up and let God be God, and stop arguing about what he wants and just work and pray and do the best we can.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

John Adams

John Adams (courtesy U.S. Senate)

Some years ago I read David McCullough's biography of John Adams. As much as I enjoyed watching the HBO mini-series , the seven episodes seemed to hardly scratch the surface of his long life and complex character. I wish the series could have delved even deeper.

Long before I ever dreamed of becoming a lawyer, I was drawn to the story of how he defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. I first learned of it on one of those sleepy afternoons in history class when the teacher had us watch episodes of the t.v. series "Profiles in Courage" based on John F. Kennedy's book. Although it seemed odd that John Adams was played by someone who bore no physical resemblance to the historical figure (David McCallum, who by then was unimaginable as anyone but Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the drama soon drew me in. I could not imagine anyone being so brave and idealistic to have defended the despised British soldiers.

What did not occur to me then, however, was to wonder about the religious beliefs or practices of John Adams. The HBO series did not really address the topic, but when Fr. Jones mentioned his Unitarianism over at The Daily Episcopalian, I started digging around. Although I could not locate my copy of the McCullough biography (which I seemed to recall having described Adams as a faithful, churchgoing Congregationalist, at least during the times he resided in Massachusetts), I found enough online to realize that first, Adams was, like many of his time, witness to the tension and divisions that arose among the Congregationalists as many resisted strict Calvinism. Many were accused of heresy, and some eventually emerged on the other side of Calvinism as either Arminians or Christian Unitarians.

Both John and Abigal Adams (the latter the daughter of an Arminian minister) were liberal in their views and, I take it, weary of the bitter disputes that arose among congregations during those times. On January 3, 1818, writing to her daughter-in-law, Louisa, Abigail wondered "when will Mankind be convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests?"

More colorfully, John Adams wrote in an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
Now, my friend, can Prophecies, or miracles convince You, or Me, that infinite Benevolence, Wisdom and Power, created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable, forever, for his own Glory? Wretch! What is his Glory? Is he ambitious? does he want promotion? Is he vain? tickled with Adulation? Exulting and tryumphing in his Power and the Sweetness of his Vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these Aweful Questions. My answer to them is always ready: I believe in no such Things. My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exaltation in my own existence, tho' but an Atom, a molecule Organique, in the Universe, are my religion. Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word.
What I did not quite realize before was how, at least in New England, religion and revolutionary politics were at times intertwined. John Adams was greatly influenced by Jonathan Mayhew's 1750 sermon, "Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers." Rev. Mayhew, pastor of the West Church, was the first openly Arminian minister in New England and a strong supporter of freedom of thought and civil liberties.

It was in this context that the younger John Adams wrote his blistering A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. Here is a taste of his double-barreled attack on both secular and religious tyranny, which flows from description of the early religious settlers of New England:
But they saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity, a great and detestable system of fraud, violence, and usurpation. Their greatest concern seems to have been to establish a government of the church more consistent with the Scriptures, and a government of the state more agreeable to the dignity of human nature, than any they had seen in Europe, and to transmit such a government down to their posterity, with the means of securing and preserving it forever. To render the popular power in their new government as great and wise as their principles of theory, that is, as human nature and the Christian religion require it should be, they endeavored to remove from it as many of the feudal inequalities and dependencies as could be spared, consistently with the preservation of a mild limited monarchy. And in this they discovered the depth of their wisdom and the warmth of their friendship to human nature. But the first place is due to religion.

They saw clearly, that of all the nonsense and delusion which had ever passed through the mind of man, none had ever been more extravagant than the notions of absolutions, indelible characters, uninterrupted successions, and the rest of those fantastical ideas, derived from the canon law, which had thrown such a glare of mystery, sanctity, reverence, and right reverend eminence and holiness, around the idea of a priest, as no mortal could deserve, and as always must, from the constitution of human nature, be dangerous in society. For this reason, they demolished the whole system of diocesan episcopacy; and, deriding, as all reasonable and impartial men must do, the ridiculous fancies of sanctified effluvia from Episcopal fingers, they established sacerdotal ordination on the foundation of the Bible and common sense. This conduct at once imposed an obligation on the whole body of the clergy to industry, virtue, piety, and learning, and rendered that whole body infinitely more independent on the civil powers, in all respects, than they could be where they were formed into a scale of subordination, from a pope down to priests and friars and confessors, — necessarily and essentially a sordid, stupid, and wretched herd, — or than they could be in any other country, where an archbishop held the place of a universal bishop, and the vicars and curates that of the ignorant, dependent, miserable rabble aforesaid, — and infinitely more sensible and learned than they could be in either.
The question of whether the Church of England should send a bishop or bishops to the British colonies was a hot issue for both political and religious reasons. Sanford Cobb's The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History, Chapter VIII: Colonial Bishops (available in its entirety online as part of the Classics of American Colonial History series) provides an excellent account of how complicated and difficult the issue was for both the colonists and the C of E. On the one hand, Anglicans very much needed bishops, but on the other hand, it was nearly impossible to conceive of bishops not being part of the political structure, with seats in Parliament, taxes, lands, and power like they had in England -- for either the church authorities or the soon-to-be revolutionaries in the Colonies.

Yet later, after the Revolution,
Adams, who had heartily opposed in the past, now, as minister of the United States in London, as heartily urged that bishops should be sent, though the urgency, of course, was only in his personal capacity. The difficulty in England arose from a sulky resentment which could not reconcile itself to the separation from the colonies. For three years Seabury, White, and Prevoost waited in England till the bishops of the English Church could recover magnanimity enough to ordain them. Finally Seabury’s patience was exhausted, and he obtained ordination at the hands of the non-juring bishop of Aberdeen. This was something of an object lesson, and the archbishop of Canterbury, seeing that the American brethren could not be excluded from ordination, at last consented with an ill grace to consecrate White and Prevoost.
Sanford Cobb,The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History, p. 480.

So, even a terrible heretic like John Adams turned out to be of service to the Anglicans who founded the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Would that we would not forget his passion and devotion to the cause of liberty and justice for all.

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Tuesday I had the opportunity of hearing the Dalai Lama speak at Colgate University on The Art of Happiness. The full lecture is available here and a brief news clip here.

We only were able to get tickets at the last minute so only my daughter and I could go. It was a beautiful sunny, spring day for driving the back roads to Hamilton and walking through town to get to the Field House, where the lecture was held. It seemed odd to end up in the place where, more than a year and half ago, I stood for so long waiting to see my son run in an indoor track meet on a bitterly cold mid-winter day.

It was an even longer wait to hear the Dalai Lama. We arrived in the Field House at about 12:30 p.m. to get our seats. Security was very tight and no phones, cameras, or bags were allowed inside. I'm able to let my mind wander freely for quite some time without ever getting bored, but it was something of a challenge for my teenaged daughter to be without cell phone or computer or company other than dear old mom for such a long time. The lecture did not begin until 3:00 p.m., but everyone had to be inside and seated by 2:30.

Protesters were lined up across the street outside the entrance. Although we could not hear them inside, they were quite vocal both when we entered and when it was all over. I read a news report later that there were some Chinese protesters, but the ones we saw were all proponents of Dorje Shugden. We had no idea what the protest was about (only gathered it had to do with religious differences within Buddhism and the protestors' claims of discrimination).

Afterwards we took one of their booklets -- well-made and bound, with glossy paper and color photographs -- and my daughter started reading it to me as we drove home. It was odd -- she kept reading and reading about how evil the Dalai Lama was, how one could tell by just looking at him and hearing him speak a few words, how terribly he had treated those who want to practice Dorje Shugden, what a tyrant and despot he was, etc., but she could find nothing that explained who they were, what they believed, what their differences were with the Dalai Lama, and what exactly he had done to them. It was uncanny how much it sounded like the so-called Anglicans and their tirades against Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Only later when I returned home did I discover that the protesters most likely were connected with the New Kadampa Tradition - International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU), which can be described as a group of fundamentalist Buddhists who view themselves as the protectors of the "pure" religious tradition (even though Dorje Shugden supposedly never was part of mainstream Buddhism until it began to be used to promote this particular kind of fundamentalism). I know next to nothing about Buddhism and nothing about NKT or Dorje Shudgen other than what I read at Wiki yet, accurate or not, I had to pause when I read the following:
Kay writes that, "the determination of Geshe Kelsang and the Priory Group to separate from the parent organisation was uncompromising, and this was a position that only hardened during the following years." He goes on to describe the split from the Gelug school and FPMT as follows:

“ "Geshe Kelsang's perception of himself and his centres vis-á-vis the contemporary Gelug sect changed dramatically, and he came to believe that he could only uphold the tradition of Tsongkhapa purely by separating from the degenerate world of Tibetan, and specifically Gelug, Buddhism."[18]

According to Kay, Geshe Kelsang was gravely concerned that the purity of Tsongkhapa's tradition was being undermined by the lingering inclusivism of his Western students, something he had been outspoken for some years, "but he now acted more forcefully in his opposition to it by discouraging his students both from receiving guidance from teachers of other traditions and from reading their books."[24] Kay states that another result of these "radically exclusive policies" was that after the foundation of NKT the Manjushri Institute Library, with over 3000 books,[25] was removed.[26] Kay goes on to state that, "this began with non-Gelug books being removed, but as Geshe Kelsang's vision crystallised, even books by Gelug teachers became unacceptable to him and the library disappeared altogether. He thus became convinced that the Tibetan Gelug tradition as a whole no longer embodied Tsongkhapa's pure teachings and that he and his disciples must therefore separate from it. From this point onwards, Tibetan Gelug lamas would no longer be invited to teach within his network. This perceived degeneration extended to include its highest-level lamas, and so even veneration for the Dalai Lama was now actively discouraged."[26] The pictures of the Dalai Lama were removed from the gompas and shrines of Geshe Kelsang's centres.[26] In 1990 Geshe Kelsang became also outspoken against the Geshe Studies Programme[24], and "made the pursuit of his new programmes compulsory."[24] According to Kay "As it was no longer possible for students to follow the programmes of both Geshes, the basis of Geshe Konchog's teaching programme at the Institute was undermined, and in 1991 he retired to Gyuto Monastery in Assam, India."[24]
from, referring to David N. Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation.

While I do not begin to know enough to have an opinion as to whether the protestors' grievances are legitimate, nevertheless, the tone and the language sounds so much like others who preach the exclusivity of their beliefs and intolerance for others and yet, at the same time, cry that they are being persecuted.

In hindsight, I wish I had stopped to talk to the protesters to hear what they had to say for themselves. Although they were quite vocal and persistent in their chants about the Dalai Lama lying, I cannot say that any were rude or unrestrained. My daughter had never been in a position like that, feeling a bit as though we were crossing a picket line when we went in over their protests. I pointed out to her that if it had been President Bush, the protesters would have been relegated to a back alley somewhere blocks, if not miles, away, and the whole point of having the right to protest is to be seen and heard by those who might be discomfited by it. She agreed, remembering she had heard about the so-called "Free Speech Zones" for protests against Bush and Cheney.

I guess the protest is still on my mind, since that is what we took with us as we left and I have been reading some about it since. I'm not sure what to say about the Dalai Lama's lecture. It was simple and a bit disjointed. Compassion and inner peace were at the heart of it all. Good ideas, profound and important if followed, but nothing more than a passing glance at the essential elements of Buddhism. I would like to take the time to hear it again with the webcast, but I do not expect to get much more out of it. I take very seriously the notion that negative ideas, emotions, etc. cause much havoc both in individuals and society. I sometimes think that some kinds of Buddhist meditation or discipline and/or the ideas and practices advocated by Eckert Tolle (The Power of Now) would be of great help to someone like myself who thinks and worries way too much about many things. But beyond the discipline, I do not find much that draws me in.

In fact, having now heard the Dalai Lama, I do not quite understand why everyone flocks to hear him. Perhaps for many, like me, it may simply be a mixture of curiosity and respect for his life and work as both a spiritual and political leader. I just did a lot of people-watching in the Field House and a bit of eavesdropping and it seemed that many were looking for some kind of spiritual or ethical guide or inspiration, something, anything but Religion as they knew it. Lots of graying Baby Boomers there in the faculty/staff section; earnest young people elsewhere, both college and high school students. One man, who looked to me to be in his late 50's or early 60's, walking out of the building at the end chuckled about the crowd and said something like "This must be what it's like to be in one of those mega-churches! ..... except they didn't pass the plate around."

What was perhaps most remarkable was the crowd's reaction to the Dalai Lama's response to what I think was the last question posed -- something about how should believers "share their spirituality" with non-believers. He basically said, don't do it, be an example, and if you are and someone asks you to teach them, then you can talk to them about it. But the crowd burst into a loud, spontaneous cheer when he said it -- I don't quite recall the words, exactly -- but I think there were two different moments when there was a strong reaction against trying to convert others, even family members or friends.

Interestingly, my daughter really liked the lecture -- she who was so impatient for the first hour or so of waiting with nothing to do. She wouldn't elaborate (please, she IS a teenager), but she clearly was glad she went. She thought the Dalai Lama was "cute" -- and she meant that in a respectful, affectionate way, warming to ... well, the Dalai Lama bits, the giggles, the jokes, the self-deprecation, etc. And who but the most hard-hearted, neo-Calvinist-Anglican would quarrel with the notion that compassion for others is the key to Happiness?