Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jan/09

22

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

It all comes from you, it all belongs to you.

(Pastor Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer.)

The Christian world-view holds that all human virtues are a loan from God.  The secularist responds: “Quite the opposite.”  Compassion, love, and mercy are human predicates; we confer them on God. Human beings are the sole source of meaning in the world; history is our story, not God’s story, as Rick Warren has it. 

Many believers assume that this human-centric sense of life must lead to nihilism.  “Secular humanism  . . . founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life,” writes Michael Novak in No One Sees God.  I’m puzzled by this stance.  The world is awash in meaning, more than anyone can possibly take in.  I don’t need God to be slain by the exquisiteness of Don Giovanni or a Chopin nocturne.  If life’s beauties, conflict, and cooperation leave believers looking elsewhere for significance, it is they, not skeptics, who live in an empty world.

But Warren’s speech reminded me of one important power of religious rhetoric that is not easily replicated in a secular setting: divine petition. 

“Give to our new president Barack Obama the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity,” Warren said.

Such public pronouncements are not mere empty gestures.  We cannot take the continued strength of our values for granted; they need to be reinforced in public as well as private settings.  Invoking God as the external source of those values is rhetorically and grammatically efficient; we can direct our wish towards someone with the power to grant it.  One could rewrite Warren’s optative to remove its purported target—“May our new president Barack Obama possess the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity”—and perhaps that does the trick.  The rewrite, which is a common enough form, does raise the question, however, who we think will fulfill our hope.  In truth, it is the president himself who alone possesses the power to act with humility, integrity, and generosity, but saying so directly in such a setting is a bit awkward.  Maybe it is enough to simply express the hope for such noble behavior in a general way, thus putting the stamp of  public approval on the values being affirmed. 

But there is another problem.  Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings?  Can one public official do so for another?  We have decided that preachers carry the moral authority to speak for the whole; it’s not obvious to me who stands in their place without the concept of God.  These are social problems, not theological ones.  But I find them puzzling.

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28 comments

  • Polichinello · January 22, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Great post! It raises serious questions.

  • Prof Frink · January 22, 2009 at 10:06 am

    It is a puzzle. When I got married last year, as a non-believer, I really didn’t know who I wanted to officiate the ceremony. I opted for a high school friend who had gone to seminary and become a pastor. A logical choice in that it allowed me to honor my friend, but what would I have done otherwise?

  • Dan · January 22, 2009 at 10:09 am

    What about Humanist Celebrant? They are humanist pastor-type people, certified by the American Humanist Association. Might just be a way for them to raise money, of course…

  • Paul · January 22, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Why can’t we just skip the prayer and start eating?

  • Katrin · January 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

    What is missing from most humancentric descriptions of meaning is that our meaning is not a choice. It is the result of millions of years of evolution. To ignore it is folly. To use wisdom to dampen the wilder impulses made obsolete by our more rapidly evolving social and technical world is a choice. Of course, that capability of thinking and choosing has evolved too.

  • Grant Canyon · January 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

    “But there is another problem. Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings? Can one public official do so for another? We have decided that preachers carry the moral authority to speak for the whole; it’s not obvious to me who stands in their place without the concept of God. These are social problems, not theological ones. But I find them puzzling.”

    Intersting, but I’ve always found the flip side puzzling: what makes pastors/preachers, etc. qualified to carry moral authority? I think that some do, of course, by dint of their wholly-human wisdom and character, but not simply because they’re preachers or have studied the bible.

  • Kevin · January 22, 2009 at 10:59 am

    May I put in a quick plug for Ceremonial Deism?

    “Ceremonial deism is a legal term used in the United States for nominally religious statements and practices deemed to be merely ritual and non-religious through long customary usage.”
    http://www.ceremonialdeists.com/

    The God of ceremonial deism is flexible enough to represent whatever you want it to represent – 3000 years tradition, humanity, self-evident truths, society’s hopes and dreams, a bearded man on a cloud, nothingness. Direct your oaths at him.

  • Ben A. · January 22, 2009 at 10:59 am

    One social role of deistic religion is to ascribe socially beneficial wishes to an idealized agent. “God hopes you don’t botch this,” is more compelling than, “I hope you don’t botch this,” because the former invokes social authority.

    Religion is a way of discussing morality on the object level, instead of in the abstract. This leads to many seeming logical contradictions that are cleared up when all religion is viewed as social signaling. By personalizing the human relationship to the moral dynamic, religion makes possible sentences such as, “God bless you,” that carry more emotional gravitas than, “I approve of your sacrificial altruism.”

  • Caledonian · January 22, 2009 at 11:27 am

    “I’m puzzled by this stance.”

    Why? Most religious leaders recognize that if they don’t keep their flocks convinced that rejecting their religion requires abandoning themselves to hopelessness and despair they’d have no flocks at all.

  • Daniel Dare · January 22, 2009 at 11:50 am

    “Many believers assume that this human-centric sense of life must lead to nihilism.”

    A Darwinian Agent is driven by the necessity to survive and reproduce. That alone invalidates the hypothesis that we are nihilistic. Do they mean nihilistic other than the need to survive and reproduce? In which case Yeah, perhaps I agree:

    At some deep level life is purposeless (other than its 3 billion year epic struggle to survive and reproduce in the face of constant danger and excitement). So?

  • Daniel Dare · January 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I mean it’s like saying,

    It was a boring afternoon. Other than the Library of Congress, and the Internet, there was nothing to read.

    If we hadn’t been floating in the middle of the city reservoir, at the time the beer ran out, we would have died of thirst.

  • Ivan Karamazov · January 22, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    A couple of thoughts.

    Schopenhauer said that religion was metaphysics for the common man ( who I guess was either not interested in or capable of, actual metaphysics ).

    Further, the raison d’etre of religion is the hope/promise of immortality, “reasoning” something along these lines:

    1. I want to/must go on after death
    2. If such a thing is possible, a God-like thing would have to exist to enable/ensure it
    3. Therefore, God has to exist, else how do I get #1

    If secular reasoning is to compete with this, science is going to have to produce a narrative/speculation/hypothesis under which continued existence can be imagined. If it can’t, then only those who can accept not having #1 above, will be at peace.

  • Polichinello · January 22, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings?

    The Archcommunity Songster, of course.

  • Ron Guhname · January 22, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    “I don’t need God to be slain by the exquisiteness of Don Giovanni or a Chopin nocturne.”

    Like you, I treasure Don Giovanni and Chopin. The problem is that I am a moron. I would never want to subscribe to a taste or an ethic that I invented. It might simply be a psychological hangup, but anything short of an objective, transcendent goodness leaves me very dissatisfied.

  • charlie · January 22, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    @Ron Guhname
    By ” objective, transcendent goodness” you mean God? I would use the Christian word Grace to describe how I feel about it. Music, love, the moral sentiments- things that make a good life possible are available to me without my having done anything to deserve them. I pay homage to the source of these good things, whatever it is. That’s transendent enough for me. And if you invented music, thanks.

  • Daniel Dare · January 22, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Ivan,

    “If secular reasoning is to compete with this, science is going to have to produce a narrative/speculation/hypothesis under which continued existence can be imagined”.

    Transhumanism

    Other than that, yes, part of rationality is we understand that the ego is not infinite.

    There is nothing to stop me accepting reality, though, which I would argue is to accept that the genes are the true core of my identity, and they are the part that goes on.

    This suggests that the ideal philosophy for a Darwinian Agent might be less egocentric, more family/species centric.

    Western hyper-individualism does seem to be dying out for this reason, because of our low birthrate in Europe and elsewhere. We need to put survival of the family ahead of ourselves in the long run.

    I say good riddance. If you’re not smart enough to breed at 2.1 per female then you deserve to have Darwin’s law eliminate you.

  • Daniel Dare · January 22, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I should say,

    we should put survival of the family/tribe/nation/species ahead of ourselves in the long run.

    Because any of those strategies would work, only hyperindividualism fails in a Darwinian world.

  • Nihilism Means Nothing to the Dancing Peasants « Buttle’s World · January 22, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    […] Nothing to the Dancing Peasants Filed under: Posts — buttle @ 22:25 Heather MacDonald articulates well something I’ve tried to say before. The Christian world-view holds that all human virtues are a loan […]

  • mnuez · January 23, 2009 at 6:47 am

    Cool thread. And allow me to add my voice to those who think that atheist evangelists are very very funny to watch. If there’s no God and no “intent” that created us then really there IS NO real meaning to life but whatever you might make it up to be. You feel like being selfless? Good on you. You feel like being a serial rapist? Good on you too. I wish that there WAS a God and an afterlife and all of the other wonderful things that religion’s opiate offers because really nihilism sucks. It diminishes the value of your own life, of everyone else’s and of every possible pleasure or pain in existence. As for “self help”, Ha! Attempting to lift yourself by your own bootstraps has never been better defined.

    Look, I’m ALL FOR “creating your own meaning” and whatnot but really, there’s absolutely nothing objective about that meaning and I think that society is likely a whole lot better off with folk believing in God than not.

    Yeah – lots more to say on the subject (and I’m tempted to say it lest these sparse comments be wildly misunderstood) but the task of saying all that there is to say on this subject would be too great and the pay is too poor.

  • Tulse · January 23, 2009 at 8:28 am

    “If there’s no God and no “intent” that created us then really there IS NO real meaning to life but whatever you might make it up to be.”

    And how does having God help — by telling you what the meaning is (which seems to be all about Him, anyway)? How is that different from slavery?

  • mnuez · January 23, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Then there’s an intent that created you for a purpose. You’re a part of something eternal, as in EVERLASTING. Human beings would then have objective value because … okay, look, everything I’m saying here is true but it’s all dependant on an anthropomorphic God, which can’t actually exist so I’m sort of constructing logical points that are built on impossible premises. So at the end of the day your point seems to be ultimately valid. Anyhow, the truest way to explain it would probably be to simply accept the reality of human psychology as it is and to …. eh, I think I’m gonna have to leave this comment stillborn. To really do the subject justice in a forum such as this one where so many of us come from different places (though we’ve all arrived at nearby locations) would take a lot more writing than I can justifiably donate to it at the time. I realize that’s a cop out so in the interest of Galileon expediency I’m willing to recant my earlier comment for anyone who doesn’t “get it” straight away.

  • Tulse · January 23, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Then there’s an intent that created you for a purpose.

    If your parents wanted you to be a doctor, would you feel obligated to oblige them? If it turned out that hyper-intelligent aliens actually created humans as feedstock, would you be content that the “meaning” of your life was to be peopleburgers?

    See, I’m not convinced that even if we accept the religious point of view at face value it somehow solves the problem of meaning. Sure, God might very well have a meaning for us, but why should that be our meaning?

  • Caledonian · January 23, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Let’s presume that our meaning is derived from the purpose for which we were created, and that we were created by ‘God’ for a purpose.

    God is supposedly not created. What is God’s meaning? What is God’s purpose?

    If God has no meaning, what consequences does that have for our meaning, if our meaning is relationally derived from something that has no meaning?

  • Ergo Ratio · January 23, 2009 at 10:13 am

    I often say that God’s existence is contingent upon the notion that morality is dictated by religious authority.

  • Daniel Dare · January 23, 2009 at 10:32 am

    mnuez,

    I don’t know what people mean by “an objective purpose of life”. The whole idea is insane.

    Darwinian agents act purposefully. Teleonomically. You should watch a bird build a nest sometime if you don’t think so. Or watch a plant grow towards light.

    If they have complex nervous systems, they experience teleonomic drives, emotional imperative states. They have the effect of inducing behaviour that facilitates survival and reproduction of their genes.

    Any mutation that doesn’t add to this is eliminated by natural selection.

    We don’t “choose” any of this. Our genes direct the building of our bodies and our brains, and exert significant influence on their states.

    And WTF is “a meaning”? Languages have meaning. Symbols have “meaning”. They stand for something else, and that is their “meaning”.

  • Kevembuangga · January 23, 2009 at 10:59 am

    The right question is probably “Why are some people yearning for a meaning much more so than some others?”
    Possibly one more evolutionary evolved drive favoring action, though when combined with the “agency paranoia” of religiousness it may result in a very counterproductive strategy in the long run (eschatology…)

  • Daniel Dare · January 23, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Kevembuangga,
    you mean they are interpreting their lives as some sort of narrative.

    Like reading a story into tarot cards or something. Seeing a pattern in the sequence of events? And they’re saying there is a metapattern behind the causal relations?

    Like if a bolt of lightning hits you, it’s not just Maxwells laws of electromagnetism, it’s Zeus got pissed off and threw a thunderbolt.

    It’s an animistic philosophy then. The world is full of spooks and hidden wills and intelligences. Like Homer’s Illiad; the Gods are always at your side deflecting the arrow that hits you.

    But that contradicts what he said about an “objective” purpose, because the meaning of “objective” to me is “directly measurable or observable”.

    And how can there be an “objective” purpose? Even MY intents are not objective, they’re subjective. You could perhaps infer them from my behaviour, as a theory, I suppose. But the theory is an idea, only the behaviour is objective.

  • A-Bax · January 23, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Prof Frink :

    Prof Frink
    It is a puzzle. When I got married last year, as a non-believer, I really didn’t know who I wanted to officiate the ceremony. I opted for a high school friend who had gone to seminary and become a pastor. A logical choice in that it allowed me to honor my friend, but what would I have done otherwise?

    When I got married (as an unbeliever) we simply found an “officiant” on the Web who could do the job. My fiancé and I met with a few candidates, and selected a guy based on the vibe we got from him, etc. It would have been nice to have someone who we personally knew preside over the ceremony, but as it was a civil ceremony (and that was a big hurdle for my RC father, believe me) we just wanted to make sure it was legal and legit.

    It’s interesting…marriage ceremonies are full of verbiage that’s meaningful due to the promises/vows/oaths that husband and wife are making to one another, and filled with poetic flourishes. But in our wedding, and in a number of other civil weddings witnessed, the sense of “moment” wasn’t any lesser as a result of the lack of verbiage about the supernatural and/or invisible beings.

    Love, beauty, honor, duty, and even a sense of “the sacred” are just as ultimately ineffable to one who purports to have knowledge of a supernatural realm as to one who admits there is no real basis for any such claims. These ideas and sentiments are just as intuitively well-understood by those who are modest in their epistemological claims as those who extravagantly overreach.

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