Influential Prose

Kevin McLeod's Portfolio

Building Better Humans

In response to David Brook’s column at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html

“Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”

Indeed. And those creeds were not created with their self-interest in mind.

“Secular individuals have to build their own communities.”

Yes. We’re doing exactly that. Quite a few of them. They’re growing.

“Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”

If you regard being terrified of a nonexistent hell and an all-too-real tendency to main, torture and kill people who reject the rituals and the sacred practices as something that “binds people together”, then sure.

“Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.”

Yep. Doing that. And we don’t need special practices to make our lives and communities meaningful, because when you realize this is the only life we get, every single day is meaningful.

“Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths.”

Mine is sleeping in on Sunday morning. Perfect bliss.

“Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.”

“Spiritual” matters? And that would be? I get plenty of inspiration from a clear night sky, from a field covered with snow, from a stroll on a beach, from an evening of laughter with friends. Everyone gets theirs where they find it.

“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well.”

I find the Golden Rule to be all the motivation I need. Maybe folks without any empathy at all need more. I’m certain many people of faith need more as well, because an awful lot of them don’t seem to be sufficiently motivated to stop behaving badly.

“Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

If you find moral motivation in subservience to a being that doesn’t even exist, knock yourself out. But don’t look too surprised when the earthly representatives of your Supreme Being take advantage of you.

“The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. “

Burdens? I’m sorry, as a secular person I don’t find living a healthy life of mutual respect and cooperation a burden. Oh, you mean you find THINKING a burden? Figuring things out for yourself is too much work? Well, you have a choice. You can fulfill a scripted role as subservient children of a silent, unknowable deity, or you can get off your knees, stand tall, use the mind and body you were endowed with at birth and LIVE.

“People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

Oh, ok, so secular folks are aimless drifters. Got it. So that would include some 90% of the National Academy of Sciences membership. I don’t think many of them feel a loss of meaning or suffer from an unconscious boredom. Maybe you’re projecting here?

“We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.”

Here we can agree somewhat. I can’t recall now who said it, maybe Heinlein, but the phrase is, “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”. And I would agree that for many, what effort they put toward thought often goes toward rationalizing behavior they don’t understand and sometimes don’t control very well.

But maybe if they were taught that they CAN manage their own behavior, that they’re not broken, not inherently flawed due to a long-ago mistake, they’d do a better job of moderating their darker impulses – which, by the way, make a LOT more sense when viewed from the prism of evolution. But religious creeds don’t embrace evolution fully yet, not even in 2015. While our behavior is influenced by many things, we CAN be in the driver’s seat. But people need to know that. Faiths keep telling them they’re not.

“Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.”

No. Secularism encourages a balance of healthy emotion and reason. Religion focuses on emotion and treats reason as a redheaded stepchild at best, or actively hunts it down and murders it when it conflicts with faith. And it ENCOURAGES this behavior. The only reason that behavior has moderated in the Western world is because reason had a little party in the 17th century call the Rennaissance. Islamic regions didn’t participate in that party, fell behind in the sciences, and as for aggression…check the latest headlines for the headless body count.

“Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love.”

Got news for you; you don’t have to be selfless and sacrificial to be good. Expanding human capacity for mutual cooperation would accomplish MUCH more. And secular people have something of a head start there, because they don’t waste time trying to appease someone, somewhere in the Great Beyond. Secular people are solving social problems by taking into account our strengths and weakness and engineering social arrangements that work through trial and error. All of modern medicine attests to our capacity to do right by each other. (Quite apart from the business entities that exploit our medical systems for profit.)

“Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Somehow I don’t get the feeling that conservative people of faith agree that Obama is worthy of the highest dignity because he radiates divine light. There seems to be some dissonance between your lofty rhetoric and actual behavior.

“The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.”

Funny how you left reason out of the mix there. Emotional relations are important, certainly. The confused teens who fumble through their early sexual experiences because they were denied accurate sex ed; the newly pregnant woman who must decide if she’s ready for a child or if the small collection of blastocysts should be aborted; the civilians trapped on a mountain and surrounded by religously motivated warriors; the parents faced with a dead child because their faith taught them that God would provide when they should have seen a doctor; the young girl who is sold to a man who uses and treats her as a sex slave, or the wife, in a situation not much different from the young girl, who is encouraged to be submissive to her husband.

Those are emotions that need addressing, and we can accomplish that by teaching people early and often that they can make rational choices and develop personal autonomy. Yes, we address emotion; we also teach reason, and the need to balance emotion and reason.

“I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

I suspect that religion will ultimately collapse from its own confused, inner contradictions, but it’s possible humanity will suffer another spasm of misguided faith and endure a few centuries of needless pain, fighting and repression. We’ve seen plenty of it in Western history. We see it now in the Middle East.

Maybe it’s time we tried something new.

Written by Influential Prose

February 3, 2015 at 12:43 pm

%d bloggers like this: