Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why be religious?


Contrary to the opinions of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hichens, religion arguably provides an edge or religion would not have appeared and then persisted in almost all cultures. Moral psychologist Johnathan Haidt makes that argument very strongly in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).

Haidt's analysis is worth reading. Carefully nuanced and well documented, his position offers a strong counterpoint to scientific reductionism. If religion, as most of the New Atheists, contend is the source of most of the evil in the world and has nothing to contribute to human development, why is some form of religion pervasive throughout the wide diversity of human cultures? Why does religion continue to exist?

Logically, if religion disadvantages its adherents, then natural selection, whether genetically or culturally, should work against religion's continuing existence. (Incidentally, Haidt demonstrates that the emergence of human culture has greatly expedited the speed of genetic evolution, implying that religion, if it contributed nothing to survival, should disappear quickly.)

In brief, Haidt maintains that religion, by creating and sustaining human community, advantages its adherents. In community, kinship altruism broadens to become reciprocal altruism. Communities, especially religious communities, promote loyalty, discourage cheating, and encourage both fairness and caring, all of which advantage religious persons over the non-religious. Haidt's analysis begins with the work of Hume and Durkheim and ends by citing numerous contemporary studies that support his views.

Importantly, Haidt's conclusions do not depend upon theological propositions or particular expressions of religion. Instead, he approaches the issue scientifically, building upon sociological, psychological, and neurological theory and research.

Haidt's work complements that of Harold Koenig at Duke who focuses upon the health benefits of religion. Koenig's work is centered on individuals; Haidt's work centers on communities. Both are functional analyses that seek to determine what role religion plays in human life. Haidt completely ignores the issue of God; Koenig recognizes that although his work is suggestive of God's existence, the best he can demonstrate is correlation between belief and health.

Reading Haidt's book prompted two sets of musings:

  1. Most human behavior is selfish. The New Atheists claim that all human behavior is selfish, i.e., driven by genes attempting to replicate themselves. Richard Dawkins' memorably titled The Selfish Gene, for example, makes this argument. Haidt contends that some human behavior is also groupish, i.e., motivated by loyalty to the group. He delineates cultural and genetic evidence in support of this view. Groupish behavior explains why voters, contrary to widely held expectations, do not always vote in ways that best align with self-interest. Poor rural whites exemplify this incongruity, who tend to support tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and to oppose expanding potentially beneficial government transfer programs. What is wrong with encouraging religious commitment based on the advantages that it confers to members of religious communities? Perhaps Victoria Osteen, wife of the infamous megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, was correct when she suggested that church attendance should be more about what makes the worshipper happy and less about what God wants. Although that appears to fly in the face of conventional theology, God does want what is best for humans; why not be more open and direct about the benefits of religious participation?
  2. How would I systematically describe the benefits of being religious? What's your answer to that question? Here's my first effort at answering: The benefits of being religious are that (1) religion provides a caring, loyal community in which to live; (2) religion correlates with living a longer, healthier life; (3) religion provides one with a set of values (or virtues) that arguably lead to a fuller, richer life with greater prospects of passing those qualities to future generations; and (4) religion offers a framework for making sense of one's life. Haidt maintains that morality is pluralism, i.e., there are shared values but there are also multiple ways to balance those values, none of which is inherently superior to all others. This view coheres well with the proposition, advocated in previous Ethical Musings' posts, that there are many different paths to God. Obviously, the fourth benefit of religion - that it offers a framework for making sense of one's life - raises the questions of whether God exists, how one can experience God (if God does exist), and what that experience means for living.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Bible and Ecology


Reflecting on forty years of preaching, I realized that the content of my sermons has changed in several ways. One of the most important changes is that I talk less about experiencing the divine presence in and through nature and more about human responsibility for the natural world. Four theses influenced my homiletical shift.
First, God created the world and thought it good. This thesis is basic Christian theology. Yet, too often Christians (like me) have only paid it lip service. Scripture, tradition, and reason agree that any creation of a good God would possess an inherent goodness and value. Consequently, all nature—whether alive or not—is both good and valuable.

This thesis complements my prior homiletic emphasis on natural revelation. Emphasizing natural revelation does not preclude highlighting nature's goodness and value, but my earlier thinking, preaching, and teaching seldom explicitly addressed those ideas. Instead, I tended to speak of the earth and cosmos as a means of revelation (that is, an instrumental good) ignoring that they also possessed an inherent goodness in their own right.

Second and a corollary of my first thesis, when God delegated dominion over nature to humans, God appointed humans as God's stewards. God thereby entrusted us to act on God's behalf in caring for and preserving nature. I consciously reject the notion that this delegation of authority justifies the unlimited exploitation, perhaps even destruction, of nature. Polluting rivers so badly that they burn (an obviously unnatural condition that happened with the Cuyahoga River more than a dozen times since 1868), air to become so foul that it causes severe respiratory problems for creatures (including humans) whose very life depends upon breathing, and extirpating species at an unprecedented rate is both sinful and indisputably bad stewardship. Even as a youth, while cherishing Maine's scenic beauty that surrounded my home I keenly felt the irony of living less than half a mile from one of the nation's ten most polluted rivers.

The prevalent first century Palestinian concept of stewardship, the concept of stewardship that Jesus presumably had in mind when he talked about stewards and stewardship, presumed that a steward had a right to draw a living from the assets that the owner had entrusted to the steward's care. In other words, good stewardship is prima facie compatible with the general principle of using nature to sustain and to enrich human life. However, this prerogative does not mean that humans have an unfettered, unlimited, unilateral claim to the earth and all that dwell thereon. A good steward cares for and preserves the assets the owner has entrusted to the steward.

The greater the analytical granularity, the less certain are our moral judgments about what good stewardship requires, permits, and prohibits. For example, Christians divide over whether good stewardship of God's valued creation enjoins, allows, or bans humans from eating animal flesh. Instead of wasting time and energy attempting to transform religious resources into pseudo-scientific sources, or to seek uniformity in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, Christian communities can more profitably anticipate, encourage, and benefit from discussions of diverse opinions about the specifics of stewardship.

Third, the biblical concept of stewardship presumes a covenantal relationship between God and humans. In that covenant, God both delegates responsibility for stewardship of the earth to humans and commits to joining with humans in caring for and preserving nature. I am hopefully optimistic about the earth's future primarily because of God's involvement and secondarily because I think that humans will eventually fulfill their stewardship responsibilities with the requisite wisdom, commitment, and perseverance. Incidentally, covenant engagement with God as earth's stewards constitutes an initial step toward reclaiming an essential ethical principle that the Church too often has marginalized by equating stewardship with giving God gifts of treasure (and sometimes time and talent) in the annual pledge campaign.

Richard Niebuhr's succinct summary of the purpose of the Church and its ministry (to promote the love of God and neighbor) has shaped my ministry. Connecting the purpose of the Church and its ministry to the principle of stewardship begins to identify loving God and neighbor with practical steps. Good stewards of the resources entrusted to their care (time, talent, treasure, and the earth itself) seek to promote the love of God and neighbor in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Efficient denotes using the fewest resources to achieve a specific goal; effective denotes achieving the goals likely to produce the greatest gains. The criteria of efficiency and effectiveness are one of way using human reason, in light of scripture and tradition, to discern God's calling. These criteria advantageously offer more practical, and potentially more reliable, heuristics for discerning God's will than do alternatives such as taking the first opportunity that presents itself, doing what feels right or appears appealing, etc. Efforts count, but so do results.

Finally, I consciously situate this stewardship ethic within the context of ecological science, because science is the only reliable lens for understanding earth's condition and the dynamics that affect it. Unlike religion, science proceeds by articulating a theory, testing the theory's reliability and validity, and then revising the theory as appropriate. For example, science alone provides the best prognostication about the amount of water that humans can annually draw from an aquifer without depleting it. Astrology, crystal balls, and prayer are no help in answering such questions. The Bible, ethics, and theology are completely silent on these topics. Instead, religious and spiritual resources, unlike science, point to the mysterious author of existence (the Creator God), offer value judgments (nature is good), and call/motivate people to be good stewards of this earth, "our fragile island home."

Indeed, ecology's capacity to illuminate potentially efficient and effective ways in which human stewards can best fulfill their covenantal responsibility to care for and preserve the earth is a vital dialectical intersection between science and religion. More broadly, the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence about the earth's deteriorating condition and diminishing capacity to support life underscores the urgency of this dialogue. Additionally, Christian scientists and activists concerned about earth's well-being have repeatedly told me that our political leaders not only welcome, but particularly listen, when people of faith speak out about ways in which we can better care for and preserve the earth.

Thus, I now intentionally and consistently strive to weave these four themes into my ministry:

(1)   God created and values all nature;

(2)   God appointed us stewards of the earth and all that dwell thereon;

(3)   God assists us in fulfilling that stewardship;

(4)   Ecological science identifies ways in which we can be good stewards by most efficiently and effectively caring for and preserving the earth.

These themes have opened the windows of familiar scripture texts in fresh ways, allowing God's light to shine with unexpected intensity and clarity.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The challenges of living in a transitional era


David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column that recorded a conversation with Gail Collins, "Our Reluctant National Security President" (September 9, 2014) argued that recent US presidents were wrong not to have tried to strengthen the nation state system.

What neither Brooks nor Collins notes, however, is that the world is in a transitional era, moving from nation states defined by the Westphalian Peace toward an emerging global identity.

Ideological currents that transcend states (e.g., fascism, communism, religion, etc.) represent one manifestation of that transition, though these currents will probably not be definitive in the long term.

Huge multinational corporations (Apple, Royal Dutch Shell, Alibaba, etc.) that have little loyalty to any one nation and function with an increasing degree of independence from national control are another factor driving the transition.

Obviously, the internet and modern ease of transport (for goods, people, services, and ideas) are another factor driving the transition. The growing demand to protect human life (perhaps all life on earth) by responding to climate change, and perhaps to the spread of difficult to control, devastating diseases such as the Ebola virus, are other potential factors, though neither seems to have yet made much of a difference.

International organizations, (e.g., the UN, EU, OPEC, and NATO) may become another factor.

Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia University professor, argues for the existence of market states of consent (non-geographical organizations to which people voluntarily belong and hold a common value system, e.g., large scale terror groups like al Qaeda and multinational corporations) that represent the leading edge of what will replace sovereign states defined by geographic borders.

Transitional eras are inherently challenging. Old rules are of diminishing utility; new rules are not yet accepted, perhaps not even defined (e.g., in the early stages of a transition).

The same holds true for old approaches to problems. An era of nation states in which hegemonic powers exert their influence to limit evil, reduce threats to the global order, and benefit at least them and their allies is rapidly ending. The US and its allies lack the political will and resources to replicate the influence and control that European colonial powers exercised over the Middle East prior to the middle of the twentieth century.

Living in a transitional era compounds the challenges that groups like ISIS pose, limits options for responding to those challenges, and demand the risk taking inherent in trying new and untested approaches. For example, what would happen if the US and its allies declined to involve themselves in defeating ISIS, insisting that the people and states ISIS directly threatens respond?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Defeating ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a former al Qaeda affiliate that now rules a substantial portion of Iraq and part of Syria. ISIL seeks to establish a Muslim caliphate (a country ruled by Caliph according to Muslim law), combining what is now Iraq and Syria, and potentially expanding to encompass all of the Middle East and perhaps even more territory. ISIL has quickly demonstrated its military prowess against the Iraqi and Syrian militaries. Without the support of US airpower, ISIL would have had achieved and then sustained even greater gains against Kurdish militia, to date the armed force most effective in checking ISIL.

ISIL subscribes to a radicalized Sunni version of Islam. Everyone who lives within an area subject to ISIL' jurisdiction is subject to ISIL' extreme version of Sharia, Islamic law. Muslims who do not practice ISIL' version of Islam are apostates; everyone else is an infidel. According to ISIL' version of Sharia, it is the duty of faithful Muslims to kill both apostates and infidels. ISIL' numerous beheadings reflect these beliefs.

So far, ISIL appears to be a successful insurgency and not a terrorist organization. Terror organizations commit violent attacks against innocent people to achieve political gains. ISIL rarely if ever does this. Their violence is very different from the "performance violence" of a genuine terror group. I have found no public evidence that ISIL has credibly threatened Europeans or US citizens at home. Most importantly, terror organizations do not conquer and then govern territory.

ISIL' heinous acts (e.g., beheading hundreds of people including two American journalists) rarely have demands attached. When ISIL does make demands – whether political or economic – those demands represent a form of extortion or kidnapping, not non-state terrorism as defined by experts like Harvard's Louise Richardson.

Correctly identifying ISIL as an insurgency instead of a terror organization is an essential first step in addressing the problem that ISIL poses. First, recognizing that ISIL is not a terror organization and does not directly threaten Europe or the United States means that immediate action is unnecessary. Precipitously acting to defeat ISIL would require inserting ground troops, conquering territory, and then ruling that area until a new government (or existing ineffectual governments) can assume the tasks of governance. Failure to provide interim governance would lead to a repeat of the chaos that occurred in Afghanistan and then Iraq following the US conquests in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

Second, sending more arms to Iraq is not the answer. Iraq is already one of the most heavily armed states in the world. If Iraq had fewer weapons, ISIL would have had a much more difficult time arming itself.

Third, sending more arms to Syrian rebels is also probably not the answer. The US has provided training and equipment to some of the rebels, but longer-term loyalty of those rebels is always in doubt. Many Syrian rebels hold Islamist views close to, or sympathetic with, ISIL' version of radical Islam. Like ISIL, the rebels are opposed to Assad's regime for political, religious, and other reasons.

Fourth, aiding the Kurds in their battle against ISIL may have long-term unwanted consequences. The Kurds seek their own nation, which would incorporate parts of Iraq, Turkey, etc. Supporting the Kurds in this conflict will better position them to achieve that goal, adversely affecting nations that lose people and area to the new Kurdistan. Supporting the Kurds may also be the death knell of Iraq as a unified country.

Fifth, the underlying issue is that the Middle East now consists of states whose borders European colonial powers and the US established, borders that often have little basis in history, geography, or population. The unraveling of those borders and the continuing struggle of people in that part of the world for self-determination (which is not necessarily synonymous with democracy) is not a problem that the US, NATO, the UN, or any other external coalition can solve.

Sixth, politicians (e.g., President Obama in his speech to the US on 2014 eve of 9/11) find it convenient to describe ISIL as a terrorist organization. The term evokes a visceral response from hearers, a response that condemns the group and calls for action. This usage of the term terrorist organization, by stretching the term to include very different types of threats (insurgency and terror threats) conflates very different types of problems that require very different approaches.

Much resentment toward the West exists throughout the Middle East. The West for almost a century unilaterally exploited and benefited from the Middle East's vast reserves of petroleum and then left a tragic legacy of colonial imperialism. Full of guilt over the Holocaust (which was an inexcusable moral failure by the US and European nations), the US and Western Europe used the umbrella of a nascent United Nations to impose the modern state of Israel on Palestine. Nowhere else in the world would a 2000 year old claim to land based on religious writings and from which the claimants had largely been absent for most of that time, trump people in actual possession of the land.

Consequently, ISIL is not a problem that the US acting alone or in concert with other Western nations can solve. The people, leaders, and states ISIL directly and immediately challenges must take the lead and primary responsibility for fighting against ISIL. Other nations can provide limited military assistance (e.g., some airpower or resupplies of munitions), but the fight must be fought and won by the people that ISIL would rule.

Logically and reasonably, if ISIL can fight mostly with weapons already in the area using mostly local recruits that ISIL trains and leads, then ISIL' more numerous opponents, if equally motivated, should be able to prevail with fighters they recruit, train, equip, and lead. Arguing that ISIL' opponents need Western training, leadership, or assistance reflects both Western hubris and an incorrect disdain for Arabs as inferior warriors and leaders.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What makes beheading so morally outrageous?


Recent beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have attracted considerable media coverage and evoked great public outrage. Yet those two high profile beheadings are just two of the hundreds of beheadings for which ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is responsible.

Why so much outrage in the West over the death of two journalists and not for all of those beheaded? Why so much attention to the beheading of two journalists and widespread media silence about beheadings of convicted criminals in Saudi Arabia (at least 19 in August 2014) and some other countries?

Part of the answer to those questions is that many contemporary Westerners perceive beheading as an especially cruel and barbaric way of killing someone. Beheading presumably causes blood to spurt and then to pour from the deceased's body and head. (I readily confess that I adamantly refuse to watch any video of beheadings, both because I morally object to giving groups like ISIS the publicity they crave by adding to the number of their viewers and spiritually because I do not want ugly images of beheadings in my brain.) Spilling human blood in that fashion feels wrong, triggering an involuntary sense of revulsion.

Beheading is also one of the ways in which humans slaughter domesticated animals for food. Execution by beheading is thus akin to slaughtering animals for food, tacitly reducing the executed to the same status as animals raised for food.

Furthermore, beheadings are reminiscent of Western history, in which beheading was prominent, e.g., the guillotine in France, the execution of Britain's King Charles I, and the Biblical story of Judith beheading an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had been laying siege to her town. This history challenges widely cherished illusions of cultural and ethnic superiority to Muslims and Arabs.

Beheading frequently connotes cruelty. If the executioner is unskilled, bungles the blow, or uses a dull blade, beheading can require several strokes to complete. For example, the executioners each required three blows to decapitate Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. Incidentally, the terms capital punishment and capital crime, have their origin in the practice of decapitating persons guilty of major offenses. Scientific research suggests that a person beheaded with a single, decisive stroke loses consciousness within 2-6 seconds of decapitation. Claiming that beheading, when done efficiently, inflicts more pain or suffering on the executed person than do other forms of execution (e.g., firing squad, hanging, electric chair, or lethal injection) is difficult to justify.

Unlike the days in which an execution occasioned a cheerful crowd gathering to watch, executions in the United States are now done out of public view, with no videos permitted. Many Americans still want certain types of criminals to die, but find the thought of public executions repugnant. Saddam Hussein's execution by hanging, surreptitiously videoed and then promulgated on the internet, ironically evoked outrage for this reason.

In part, the beheading of American journalists was a catalyst for public furor because the West at least nominally esteems the journalistic profession and generally accords journalists a protected status as disinterested observers rather than considering them as active protagonists. ISIS by executing Foley and Sotloff rebuffed their claim to neutrality.

More broadly, ISIS rejects the West and its culture. Westerners find such rejection incomprehensible, outrageous, and immoral. By killing the two journalists, ISIS emphatically rejected Western rules of war, legal standards (ISIS judged Foley and Sotloff guilty of being infidels, apart from anything else), and cultural presumptions (i.e., beheading is cruel and immoral).

Foley and Sotloff's deaths were tragic. The greater tragedy is that self-interest effectively blinds us to the larger problems. ISIS beheading hundreds of people for reasons that have no more merit than ISIS' reasons for executing Foley and Sotloff sadly triggers little moral outrage in the West because those people were unknown and therefore meaningless to most of us. We largely ignore legally sanctioned beheadings in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both because those who die mean little to us and because the oil that those countries sell is important to Western economies. Meanwhile, the US hypocritically persists in the evil of capital punishment.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

When less is just less


As an occasional fan of minimalism, Shiv Malik's article, "Plants in offices increase happiness and productivity," in The Guardian, (August 31, 2014) attracted my attention.

An Exeter University researcher, Dr. Chris Knight, and his colleagues compared workers' productivity in offices devoid of all decoration (this included personal items, posters, plants, etc.) with the productivity of workers in offices with a green plant per square meter. Performance on tests of memory retention and other basic skills improved considerably after the placement of the plants. Knight speculates that other human touches (e.g., photographs or pleasant smells) might also improve performance.

Ironically, companies spend significant sums to achieve an allegedly elegant but bare appearance in modern offices, a look theoretically designed to maximize worker focus and productivity.

Conversely, I have visited offices so filled with clutter that personnel wasted time trying to find items; I strongly suspect that workers' productivity diminishes because the clutter (or excessive display of personal items) sometimes diverts attention from work.

Similarly, I have visited Spartan-like homes and homes clutter impeded moving from room to room, or even within a room.

My guess is that the path to greatest happiness lies in striking an appropriate balance. This means, on the one hand, decorating and equipping rooms we inhabit with items that evoke positive sensory experiences, remind us of those we love, and connect us to the natural world. On the other hand, this means leaving enough space, literally and figuratively, to permit one to focus on what needs doing while having the required resources/items for those tasks and the catalysts requisite for facilitating creativity, self-awareness, and the pondering the transcendent.

Although the theme of moderation is part of many religious traditions (including Christianity), the Confucian tradition especially highlights and emphasizes the practice of moderation. Possessions and décor are means to an end, not ends in themselves.

Are you a minimalist or a pack rat? When is less simply less? When is more also less?

What items in the rooms you utilize both at home and at work give you pleasure? Do you have plants or other items that help you to connect the natural world? Do you have art that inspires creativity and encourages reflection? Do you have items that prompt you to think more clearly, more deeply?

If you are a minimalist, what plants, art, or other items might you add?

If you are a pack rat, what items evoke mental or emotional distress? What items are, if you are honest, simply trash or unwanted or unused clutter?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The path to self discovery


Recently, I read Kenneth Ruge's book, Where Do I Go from Here? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998) Ruge is a psychoanalyst and a minister on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church, the New York City congregation that positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale led for many years.

Ruge presents four steps to help people discover their true self. These steps offer worthwhile fodder for contemplation; some will find value in actually taking these steps:

  • "First, connect with your true self—the deepest parts of yourself—and go on to create a deep sense of inner integrity.
  • "Second, let go of old baggage—old beliefs that limit and define you.
  • "Third, discern and navigate your spiritual path—know when you are on track through spiritual means.
  • "Fourth, gain the courage and clarity to put it all into action. Design a way of life that is honest, vibrant, and yours—a life that is truly yours." (p. 3)

A major effort in much philosophy written and taught during the last hundred years has been to debunk the alleged existence of a homunculus, a non-physical self who is the true person and purported to exist within each human.

First, a human is a whole. That simple statement decisively undercuts historic arguments for the existence of the homunculus. Although concepts of a person's physical, psychological, spiritual, or other aspects may have analytical utility, those concepts are incomplete abstractions that highlight a particular expression of a person's whole being. When the physical body dies, those other aspects cease to exist. Furthermore, a person who is not a well-integrated whole suffers from a lack of integrity at a minimum and severe mental illness at worst. Nor do we have any evidence the existence of an ethereal, non-physical, transcendent soul.

Second, efforts to identify the homunculus with the conscious self quickly run into severe difficulty. Neuropsychological research shows that the brain begins to implement a decision fractions of a second before the conscious mind makes the decision. This implies that the unconscious physical brain is the real locus of mental activity.

Consequently, leading modern and post-modern scholars from several disciplines reject the existence of a homunculus.

A decade ago, I agreed. However, in the last couple of years, I've begun revising my thinking. Human consciousness has persisted, even developed, across generations. We may not understand the evolutionary functions of human consciousness, but the healthy sense of self that is many persons equate with their consciousness clearly performs tasks beneficial to human existence.

The conscious self affords a person an opportunity to stand apart, to seem as if one is viewing oneself as a third person would. Scientists are unaware of any other species that can exercise this degree of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence permits a human to evaluate her/his behavior, options, feelings, ideas, and sensory input. Self-transcendence may enable humans to exercise some degree of limited autonomy and to be more creative than other species.

Cultivating a sense of self that rooted in wholeness that leafs into consciousness may be essential for persons who want to live as fully and abundantly as possible. Ruge's four steps are important because they guide us in that direction.