Thursday, June 5, 2008

Room for a Moral View

I've been re-reading Mary Doria Russell's splendid science fiction novel, The Sparrow (Fawcett Columbine 1996), about Jesuits in space (well, it's much more complex than that, but there are Jesuits involved), and the following bit of conversation began to resonate beyond the evening's reading:

You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they're religious. I do what I do . . . without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much.

It's spoken by a woman my age (Anne Edwards), responding to a Jesuit priest (Emilio Sandoz) who has noted the fact that even though she professes not to believe in god, she nonetheless behaves morally.

One reason for the resonance is the fact that Beloved Spouse and I are in the process of re-visiting our rather massive DVD collection (we buy DVDs instead of going to movies; it's usually cheaper and we don't have to listen to cheesy music and watch interminable ads before the show) because there's so little worth watching on television these days, and last night we chose the Merchant/Ivory production of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View. Not long ago the PBS "Masterpiece" series aired a new production of the story (rather disappointing, and with a dopey ending), so we were in the mood to compare the two versions. I was hankering for more Forster anyway, since I recently revisited his only science fiction story, "The Machine Stops," which I used to teach in my technology and utopia class, and had been thinking about re-reading Howard's End. At any rate, we watched some of the "extras" on the DVD, which included a quotation from his essay "What I Believe" from Two Cheers for Democracy. A quick search of the web pulled up the essay itself, which begins thus:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot.

This was written in 1938, as the National Socialist Party was tightening its grip on Germany, and on the eve of the second World War. But in the current war-infused atmosphere, it strikes a chord of recognition and sympathy. Those of us who do not find particular comfort in the idea of a transcendent deity, and especially one with whom we are supposed to have a personal relationship in order to be rewarded with eternal life, are often asked to explain how morality could possibly exist without religion. Those who ask this question usually have a particular religion in mind, and in my part of the country, that particular religion is either Southern Baptist or some notion of "non-denominational" Christianity.

The snitty answer is, of course, that non-believers don't need the threat of damnation in order to behave ourselves. Religious formulas like the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) or its Jewish counterpart, Hillel's Law (what is hateful to you, do not unto others) are essentially similar to Kant's Categorical Imperative: behave as if your actions were universal law and everyone else behaved that way too. All of these boil down to an identity between being and doing: we are what we do. If we say one thing and do another, we're liars and/or hypocrites.

What does all this, you might reasonably ask, have to do with utopia? I didn't really mean for this post to turn into a rant against organized religion (although I have been known to go off on the topic when tweaked), because there are many aspects of many religions that I find admirable--as I'm sure I've mentioned before. But the recent spate of vindictive pronouncements about God's anger at various groups (Gays, Liberals, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists) and the assumption that adopting more expansive views of topics like "family" and "marriage" and "traditional values" will ensure the fall of Western civilization, have prompted me to wonder how it is that religion (or is it Religion?) has managed to become the sole arbiter of morality.

In my weekly romps through the Blog-o-sphere, I ferreted out a rather lovely post in Aardvarchaeolgy's archives, called US Politics Have No Left Wing. The author, a witty and erudite Swedish archaeologist, makes some excellent points, but what struck me most was the lack believership (is that a word?) among the Swedes. Now these guys aren't out killing folk in other countries as far as I know, and they've got traditions like taking care of old people and providing universal health care, and so I don't see much evidence of their sliding into cultural oblivion. Although not a perfect society (I'm not sure what that would look like anyway), Sweden has much to offer its citizens, and doesn't seem much like a bastion of iniquity. Sweden's Christian heritage is for the most part Lutheran, and that might explain the tradition of social responsibility and community that must underlie the tax burden these people elect to assume. Still, modern Swedes are less religious than they once were, and have so far managed not to become a country of immoral reprobates.

It's becoming fairly clear that nature and nurture interact in very complex ways to engender the wide range of human responses to the situations in which they find themselves, or which they themselves generate (e.g. life and death dilemmas like when to pull the plug, or in artificial constructs like war). For example, in a discussion in the current issue of The Seed, Marc Hauser (an evolutionary psychologist/biologist) and Errol Morris (the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker who made Gates of Heaven and The Fog of War) consider genetic components of moral behavior, and the discussion itself opens up several cans of worms--including Abu Ghraib.

We have plenty of such examples of how badly we've acted in the past. We truly need now to look back at these events as lessons about possibility, and then reject them out of hand, not because we'll be punished by God if we do, but because we can choose not to sanction genocide, torture, slavery, or any other of the sins to which our flesh is heir. If we do these things, we become them. And this is what many of our politicians seem to have forgotten.

What's interesting to me is that even though we don't seem to be programmed to behave "morally" (i.e. according to some particular fundamental code), we do seem to have a predisposition toward behaving in ways that help our communities survive. Behaving well toward one another--helping and nurturing, for example--enhances the survival possibilities of a group, and co-operation among different groups seems to produce better results than conflict. Short-term advantages can always seem to be won by feeding extra sheep on the commons, but in the end the folks who voluntarily (i.e. by choice) keep their sheep populations in hand have a better chance of maintaining not only the quantity of food, but the quality of life: bigger gene pools, better trading opportunities, better environments, etc.

Years ago, Gregory Bateson (psychologist and anthropologist, once married to Margaret Mead) held a conference on The Role of Conscious Purpose in Human Adaptation. The book his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, wrote about what transpired is called Our Own Metaphor. It's a true gem, and has played an enormous part in my intellectual development since I first read it in 1980. (It was reissued by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991.) Not only does it explore the human proclivity for seeing everything through our own personal (and cultural) lenses, but it suggests fairly convincingly that we can direct our own cultural evolution.

This is the very notion that got me to wondering about how we might live (one of Morris's fundamental questions), and led me to write More News From Nowhere. In her afterword to the new edition, Bateson notes that "Religion does offer unifying metaphors, but it is difficult to imagine any particular religion serving as a basis for a world-wide consensus on human responsibility to the planet" (316). And herein, I suspect, lies the rub.

Because of the variety of moral viewpoints they reflect, religious institutions impose a number of highly divisive doctrines that put the planet's inhabitants on conflicting paths, often with disastrous results. Like capitalism in economics, religion seems to work fine as a moral framework in small, face-to-face communities. It may well have been a necessary component in human cultural evolution, and the ability to imagine god may even be an essential ingredient in being human. But as globalization increases (and it seems unstoppable at this point), religion seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Mindfulness, cultural awareness, compassion, tolerance for the beliefs and lifeways of others, and wisdom (derived through thinking, listening, and learning) all seem to offer constructive paths toward world-healing. Even a healthy skepticism and a dose of cynicism could help, but I mean cynicism in the original sense of the word (dog-like): the ability to recognize true friendship, and to be suspicious enough not to embrace every half-baked idea that comes down the pike. Conscious purpose, rather than some ethereal notion of transcendental purpose, should become the foundation of change; but that purpose should be informed by all of the other moral components I've mentioned and undergirded by practical concerns about implementation.

If we are to be motivated by fear, I suggest, let it be fear of what we are leaving our children and grandchildren, rather than fear of being consigned to somebody else's idea of hell. The overarching concept of sustainability needs desperately not to become a buzzword or a brand name, co-opted by the corporate interests that have played such a large part in confusing our perceptions of need vs. want. We need to heal the world. But we need to do so not because we're afraid of punishment imposed by god, but because if we don't, we're punishing the future.

Photo credit: view of the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) taken by Bob Tubbs from the Arcetri astronomical observatory in Florence. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The photo brings together several of the themes mentioned in this post, including religion (Catholicism) and science; and the view of the Duomo is similar to that seen at the end of A Room with a View.


Martin said...

Thank you for your kind words!

Owlfarmer said...

Note: Martin is the aforementioned witty and erudite archaeologist. Visit his blog at