Quick disclaimer so I don’t look like a complete idiot: In this post I discuss secularism and atheism sometimes interchangeably because this is how they’re often discussed – and perhaps I should not have done that because it contributes to the confusion that arises when people fail to acknowledge that there is in fact an important distinction between the two. I may return at a later date and clean up this language. My apologies.
In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.
My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.
I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.
Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?
Michael Shermer writes:
Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.
What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?
Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.
The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular or atheist mind – and is necessarily absent in religious people – is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. I’ve seem many people take the Western liberal commitment to secularism to extremes with the result of dismissing the legitimate experiences of many people; this tendency continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide particularly in a passive way, including among self-professed liberals who, if they were being consistent progressive, would reject rhetoric of this kind. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.
I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.
We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.
Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.
While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:
An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.
I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.
Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?
In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:
Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]
You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.
I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.
Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?
Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.
Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.
Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.
Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.
Have we loved enough?
The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.
– Dalai Lama