Politeness in Intellectual Discourse

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.
reverence -- a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.
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.

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.

-- CAV

Updates

9-29-07
: Corrected some typos.

13 comments:

Rational Jenn said...

That was an amazing post, Gus. Well done, and thank you for reminding me about that quotation from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jenn!

Jim May said...

Here's your chance to apply these principles in action: Kay Hymowitz is speaking about her "Freedom Fetishists" article over here, in a place where you can leave comments:

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/contentions/index.php/hymowitz/979#comment-30979

Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

Well done. Brava! This fledgling has much to learn about debate and discourse, but I believe your blog is setting a great example to follow. Thank you for your efforts and for sharing. Outstanding post.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the link, Jim. I haven't decided whether posting there is the best use of my time (or if so, what), but off the cuff, it seems worthwhile to at least broach the subject she seems to have taken pains to avoid: her deliberate smear of Ayn Rand.

Notice that Hymowitz cites only libertarians, but no "Randians". Since she regards us as Libertarians and we answered her attacks on Rand, it is very revealing that we have gone completely unmentioned.

Gus Van Horn said...

Well, I replied, but it is awaiting moderation. Here is what I said after linking to my rebuttal.

---


Your article struck me as grossly misinformed at best and unfair at worst to one person you incorrectly described as a "libertarian": Ayn Rand, who repeatedly denounced libertarianism in her lifetime and who, unlike libertarians, had quite a bit to say about morality, as discussed at the above link and excerpted here:

"[I]f one is going to call Rand a libertarian, one ought to show some modicum of surprise that this is one 'libertarian' whose view of morality is uncharacteristically fastidious. Rand understood that one must grasp morality before formulating a theory of politics. This goes unmentioned, along with the fact that her ethics is just as far from the Christian morality espoused by conservatives as it is from the hedonism of hippies."

If setting the record straight qualifies my commentary as "cranky", then I am guilty as charged.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Doc. Your comment showed up in the moderation queue much later than you made it, hence the delay.

Mike said...

What if one's religion is the pursuit of truth through reason? Would religion still be the evil?

Not that I think any religion has it right, of course... but, well, you already know I'm going to be biased on that so I make no pretense not to be. I refuse to bear the mantle of guilt unearned, but I see the signs of the light of reason seeping in at every level, and I sometimes wonder what it will take for the others to see it.

To borrow a bit from Dream Theater, I'm willing to turn to the light AND not be frightened of the shadow it creates. The one thing that always prevented me from buying into religion wholesale was that every church I ever encountered presupposed that one must do both; i.e. accept the mysticism that takes away from the morality.

Gus Van Horn said...

"What if one's religion is the pursuit of truth through reason? Would religion still be the evil?"

Your first sentence, although it could be a creative way to describe the nontraditional path to reverence of Objectivism, confuses the issue in this context.

The fundamental error in religion (in its normal sense) is the acceptance of something as knowledge absent evidence or an integration by logic with the rest of what one knows.

In this sense, reason and religion (again, in the normal sense of a body of belief accepted on faith) are incompatible, various historical Christian attempts to "reconcile" the two approaches notwithstanding.

On the other hand, if your first sentence is a description of a cafeteria-like adoption of some things from religion and others from secular philosophy, then the chances are very good that a ruthless and consistent further application of reason will eventually unearth either that you are still taking some things on faith or mis-attributing certain things to religion (as many people do WRT feelings of reverence).

Burgess Laughlin said...

I would like to suggest a clarification on one point in respect to religion: Contrasting reason to religion is an error in method. It is like contrasting apples, as fruit, to orange trees, the whole of which fruit is a part.

Religion is one type of worldview (the genus). The other main type of worldview is philosophy. (See "Religion," The Ayn Rand Lexicon,, for five pages of comments on religion by Ayn Rand.)

The most basic branches of philosophy are, in order: ontology (metaphysics), epistemology, and ethics.

Religion, as a worldview, also has an ontology (primarily God, as the cause of all, including the two worlds, at least in monotheistic religions).

Religion likewise has an epistemology (typically based ultimately on feeling in some form, but often faith initially). Other elements include the voice of tradition, the voice of inspiration (annointed priests, for example), miracles as "evidence," direct revelation, and "instrumental reason," that is, the tiny spark of Divine Reason which man has maintained despite the corruption from his immoral behavior, a spark which allows man to figure out the detailed applications of Divine Laws.

Religion also, in the monotheistic forms, has an ethics of personal behavior, much of which is altruistic, although there are sometimes egoistic elements (getting into Heaven for one's own soul).

The proper, commensurate comparison then is reason vs. faith or philosophy vs. religion, not reason vs. religion.

Gus Van Horn said...

That was a very helpful clarification. Thank you for taking the time to point that out.

Joe at Forces blog said...

My understanding (including my understanding of what AR wrote in the passages in the Ayn Rand Lexicon referred to above) is that religion is that a type of philosopy (an early, primitive type), and that "worldview" is a simply a colloquial synonym for philosophy.

Gus Van Horn said...

Rand indeed describes religion as "an early form of philosophy" in the excerpt from her interview with Playboy magazine which appears in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

My discussion here concerns religion in the usual sense of its having faith as its fundamental epistemological method and, by extension, the serious real-world consequences of taking things on faith.