Friday, September 28, 2007
In The Chronicle of Higher Education is an interesting article which calls for politeness in intellectual discourse about the sacred texts of various religions. I disagree with several of author Carlin Romano's contentions, but I think that he does bring up a worthwhile point.
First, let me briefly address where I think Romano goes most damagingly wrong. While I fully agree with him that religious texts are worthy of intellectual attention due to their influence on the ideas, literature, and history of civilization, I cannot agree that such influence makes them "sacred".
The next question is thus whether sacred texts are sacred in any other sense than that they're God's handiwork. I say they are. Sacred means not only related to God, but also set apart in a particular way, worthy of uncommon respect, not open to easy violation. Here comes the twist on "Are Sacred Texts Sacred?" How atheists react to sacred texts, I submit, properly belongs as much to the history of etiquette as to that of philosophy or theology. Let me explain. [bold added]Important, yes, but "sacred"? No.
Permit this atheist to consult another text, the dictionary, on this one, and to consider what "sacred" might mean to a nonreligious man. Here are the two most common nonreligious meanings of the term "sacred" according to dictionary.com, followed for obvious reasons by the meaning of the term "reverence":
sacred - - (4) reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object. ... (5) regarded with reverence.I will add that one's feelings arise from how one's most deeply-held ideas affect his evaluation of the facts of reality. One must have some conception of the good to feel such emotions as "awe" and "veneration". I do not have time to discuss why here and now, but I will add that one need not be religious to have a conception of the good or to feel reverence.
reverence -- a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.
Romano, by stripping the concept of the sacred of its moral dimension, commits grave injustices to those who believe in religious texts, the people whose lives they have affected, and to those devoted to the cause of freeing intellectual discourse in the field of philosophy from the tyranny of arbitrary claims. He is also, incidentally -- if not indirectly accepting that common (and arbitrary) charge by the religious that there can be no morality without religion -- committing that sin so common on the left of pretending that there in no such thing as morality.
Religious texts are an important vehicle by which certain philosophical ideas are handed down from one generation to the next, providing people with guidance for how they are to live their lives. In doing this, these works have real-world consequences through the actions they sanction as good and call on the religious to perform.
I trust that I need not recite a litany of atrocities -- justified by religious texts -- committed through human history to raise the question of whether these texts promote good actions on their pages, or the question of whether accepting on faith (i.e., without any investigation or critique) anything, particularly moral precepts, stated anywhere is good to do.
Consider a loved one dying from a prolonged illness whose prognosis nevertheless remains open. His disease has doubtless shaped who he is and to understand the man, one should understand how the circumstances of having his disease have shaped him over the years. Indeed, if one is to save him from his disease, one should study what it is that is killing him. His disease is of vital importance, but it is his life and that which promotes it -- not what it is that endangers it -- that is sacred. I regard the relationship between Western civilization and the Bible, for example, as analogous to this man and his pathogen. This means I regard Western civilization as sacred, but endangered by its longstanding Biblical influence.
Before moving to what I think Romano has gotten right, let me interject a thought about what constitutes the "sacred" by one atheist philosopher who rarely gets mention (and rarer still, her due) in such discussions: Ayn Rand:
I will ask you to project the look on a child's face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph, which is unself-conscious, yet self-assertive, and its radiance seems to spread in two directions: outward, as an illumination of the world -- inward, as the first spark of what is to become the fire of an earned pride. If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that there is such a concept as "sacred" -- meaning: the best, the highest possible to man -- this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone. ["Requiem for Man", Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 303]I regard religion, consistently held, as a systematic attempt to snuff out that spark Ayn Rand described. I regard it thus as thoroughly immoral and profane. My moral judgement does not necessitate that I browbeat others with it all the time, nor does courtesy preclude me stating it openly when appropriate.
And here -- ironically, in the realm of upholding the good -- is where Romano has (seemingly by accident) brought up a good point, albeit ineffectively since he will allude to the inherent tendency of religion to cause its followers to interfere in the lives of others -- and yet not pass explicit moral judgement against those who would do so. This point is best introduced through a quote he brings up about rudeness in the context of our pluralistic, religiously-tolerant culture:
One can, of course, line up the bolstering high-culture quotations on this side too, against the belligerent atheists ...[, including] Eric Hoffer's lovely line that "rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." [bold added]America's tradition of religious tolerance and her Enlightenment heritage of reasoned debate permit people of even diametrically-opposed views to air them for evaluation by others. To the extent that someone respects this tradition and is open to rational debate, one should treat him politely even if one finds that he must express disagreement with his views.
There are times to express moral condemnation, but the opening of an intellectual discussion is not one of them. (If a potential opponent's immorality is widely known, as in the case of the Iranian President, one properly does not entertain him in the pretense of a debate.) For one thing, your interlocutor may hold religion inconsistently or even have serious questions about it. Failing to give him the benefit of the doubt is unjust and can prejudice him against your opinion by making you look unconfident in the merits of your position, and more concerned with "converting" him than with unearthing the truth.
Furthermore, thanks to the prevalence of moral relativism and even outright nihilism among those of the "secular" left, a disrespectful attitude during an intellectual debate can lend surface credibility (as I have alluded to earlier) to the notion that it is religion that is the source of the good. "Why are atheists always so hostile?" someone can quite legitimately wonder.
If one is really concerned with promoting the good and sees the threat that religion poses to the good, one will realize the vital importance of working to help as many people of reason as possible to see this truth to the extent that they are able and willing to do so. This means: (1) understanding (first and foremost for one's own benefit) the ideas that make the good possible, (2) presenting and defending them as lucidly as possible, (3) projecting through a polite and professional demeanor the certainty one holds in his ideas, and (4) politely joining a mutual pursuit of the truth.
For too many centuries, religion has made it its business to impose by force an arbitrary morality of self-sacrifice on mankind. In doing so, it has also perverted intellectual discourse -- transforming it from the trading of ideas for mutual benefit that it naturally is, to the imposition of a preconceived dogma through logical fallacies, rhetorical tricks, moral intimidation, or even threats. To browbeat someone about religion in the name of "debate" is not to promote the good, but to harm it, by emulating the evil in the name of the good.
And this brings up one last point: If not religion, then what is the source of guidance for man's life? This is where atheists, by opposing religion, but not presenting a viable alternative fail most catastrophically. And this is why, although I am an atheist, I do not focus merely on opposing religion, but in offering for consideration what I think is a viable alternative: Objectivism, the rational philosophy of Ayn Rand.
9-29-07: Corrected some typos.