May 22, 2015

Rational Humanism

One important dynamic of change during the 20th century was the decline of religious institutions and the rise of secular humanistic philosophy. Rational humanism is the proper basis of civil societies, but innate human tendencies prefer the dogmatic and irrational.

Joseph Campbell celebrated the rational humanism that emerged about 2500 years ago in three manifestations – the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, and the poets and philosophers who emerged in the Greek civilization that shaped the culture of Rome, then Europe, and then the colonies in the Americas. These three traditions “generally realized local myths for what they were --versions of universal imagery.

Campbell epitomized the three approaches to rational humanism : The realization that an adult human being is autonomous and capable of self-government. The proper aim of education is not the imposition of rules or dogma from without but the opening of each person to knowledge from within his own genius, whether as an independent mind (Prometheus), the expression of an inborn nature (Confucius), or as enlightenment (the Buddha.) With the ascent of China in the 20th century, Confucius has returned as an important architect of civil society. Confucius lived in China from 551 to 479 BC. He was a philosopher and a sociologist, a practical man who advocated a civil society based on the understanding and discipline of citizens who sought social harmony. Ideas associated with Confucius were written by disciplines and then scholars over many centuries, representing a Chinese view of proper human conduct (virtue). Mencius in the 4th century BC, for example suggested that innate goodness is a source of the ethical intuitions that lead humans to YƬ (right conduct). Others insisted that morality required adherence to tradition, education and discipline.

Campbell regretted the “the emphasis on local forms over and against all others…the cardinal dogma of Judaism, Christianity and Islam… Such calcification of the local masking means that archetypes  become locked and elementary ideas become ethnic. All the passion that might become illumination is short-circuited into inflating programs for the world. There is no sense of humor with regard to one’s own myths. Mistaken for natural and historic facts, they are especially vulnerable to science and when the light of day has dissolved them like a dream, there is no supporting ground to one’s life. This is a pity because the time has come when everyone of the world’s ethnic systems is dissolving. There are no more locally fixed horizons within which ethnocentric bigotry can be maintained.”

Campbell may have been overly optimistic about the disappearance of the divisive aspects of old myths and ethnic dogma. Old myths do look obsolete, but old myths continue to function as story-boundaries that support the tendency to form exclusive groups with special privileges. New religious groups often co-opt old stories with little or no understanding of the origins and significance of the original stories. In the 20th century USA, for example, the Bible  was co-opted by hundreds of small groups that use old biblical stories to support divergent points of view – some fanatical and most at odds with the large religious institutions that once regarded themselves as owners of the Bible. At the same time, old myths from many cultures have been revised and promoted by groups with motives that range from personal interest and inspiration, to inventing new religions to commercial exploitation of the gullible.

The commerce in old religious myths is something like the weight loss industry; the same old stuff is packaged and repackaged, apparently with no end in sight. Myths are packaged with renewed enthusiasm for superstitions and rituals that should be recognized as obsolete, but instead, have renewed currency in the marketplace. Lester suggested: “The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion. Inconveniently, however, the world is today as awash in religious novelty, flux, and dynamism as it has ever been—and religious change is, if anything, likely to intensify in the coming decades. The spectacular emergence of militant Islamist movements during the twentieth century is surely only a first indication of how quickly, and with what profound implications, change can occur. It's tempting to conceive of the religious world—particularly when there is so much talk of clashing civilizations—as being made up primarily of a few well-delineated and static religious blocs: Christians, Jews, Muslims and so on. But that's dangerously simplistic. It assumes stability in the religious landscape that is completely at odds with reality.”

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

May 7, 2015

Problems Created by Religion

Any discussion of religion invites misunderstanding and conflict. No discussion of religion will make sense until the importance of group identity is understood. Humans may sometimes look like individuals, but the truth is that all humans are members of local groups that determine what they know, how they communicate and how they treat other humans. Each local group develops stories, beliefs and rules. Collections of local groups with special beliefs into larger organizations are often described as “religion.” Members of local groups are described as “religious” if they recite group slogans, attend meetings and celebrations.

"Religions" often claim special privileges for their members so that the term “religious” is used to claim advantages and superior moral authority where none actually exists. The idea of large multinational organizations called “religions” is misleading. At best, the idea of religion is a fuzzy category that implies more coherence than can be found in the real world. Religion is a convenient fiction.

There are several problems with strict religious orthodoxy. The first problem is that humans must learn to live in a complex world that includes people of diverse beliefs and different affiliations. The challenge is to become adapted to a larger society while maintaining loyalty to a local group. Often religious groups claim special privileges and moral superiority. While these claims are spurious, the idea that religious beliefs can be equated with superior morals is stubbornly held and must be refuted. Inside a religious container, you are consumed by the specific language and beliefs of the religion, its symbols, assumptions and claims.

There is a voluminous literature that describes, explains and advocates affiliation with one or other of the religions. In the worst case, if you live inside a theological construct you are committed to fixed beliefs that persist beyond any reasonable currency, resist revision and review. To others who live outside your container, your beliefs are false. Membership in a religious organization limits freedom and expression of thought and often disables friendly, intelligent interaction with other groups. Strict religious orthodoxies in many countries retain political control and leave little or no room for personal freedom, nor democracy. Orthodoxy also creates belligerence. The penalty for opposing strict religious authority is death.

For idealists who assumed that progress toward free, rational and secular societies would be a natural evolution, the re-emergence of belligerent Christianity in the US and belligerent Islam in many parts of the world has been alarming.

Lilla stated: “For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists (in the USA), we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong…Even the most stable and successful democracies, with the most high-minded and civilized believers, have proved vulnerable to political messianism and its theological justification. "

You may enjoy social benefits when the family belongs to a religious organization affiliation with other members, regular meetings, picnics, rituals and assistance coping with three key events of a human life- birth, marriage and death. Religious affiliation in many countries is essential to obtain social status and economic privileges. However, the social and political benefits of belonging to a religious organization override any inclination to self-determination and freedom.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

(Lilla, M. The Politics of God. NYT August 19, 2007 (adapted from his book) The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West.)