The Secular Bible

April 14, 2011

Recently, CNN’s “Belief Blog” published a story about A.C. Grayling’s newly compiled work “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,” which collects writing from history’s non-religious voices: philosophers, scientists, poets. Grayling presents this work as a “what-if” alternative guide to history: what if our moral guidance and worldviews had been shaped by scientists, rationalists, and other “voices of reason” rather than prophets and preachers?

Jessica Ravitz, who wrote the piece for CNN, states that Grayling has been called “the acceptable face of atheism,” at least when compared to his rabid contemporaries like Richard Dawkins. Such a product certainly rings of a more balanced and measured approach than the polemical works like “God is Not Good,” by Christopher Hitchens. Any work that compiles Aristotle, Newton, Confucius and Baudelaire is worth the time of any intellectual, seeker, or student. Yet Grayling is building this product off of a false premise and making a lot of questionable and out-dated presuppositions.

The problem with such a work, at least as it is marketed in this manner, is that the author is overlooking a lot of factors–for one, assuming that the world would be drastically different if we revered Aristotle and Confucius, because Western civilization has certainly revered Aristotle and historically so has religion–Aristotle’s ideas center strongly in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Theology (through the work of Aquinas, Maimonides, and al-Ghazali, respectively). Theology in the Middle Ages was built on the work of Aristotle, and the ideas and concepts crafted from such a philosophical-religious merge are still being worked out, critiqued, and attempted to be dissambled today (prior Christian theology did the same thing with Plato). As for Confucius, his work is the basis for Confucianism, which while Western thinkers who attempt to squeeze religion into a tiny definable box may think otherwise, is a valid religion that underpins much of modern Eastern and Asian society to this day.

The idea for the “Humanist Bible”  is based on the false and outdated premise that we in Western society are constantly in a state of progress, particularly scientific progress, and that ultimately if we all buy into this myth of progress we will fix everything with our human reason and live in a peaceful world. Grayling begins his compilation with his own “Genesis” (even using that title), in which the story begins with Newton and his apple, the birth of modern Western science. The problem with this premise is that it has proven itself wrong–rather than build ourselves towards peace, sustainability, and real progress, the sort o f just, equality-based non-violent progress that can truly liberate society, we’ve instead far too often used science to build bombs, nuclear reactors, factories that pollute the environment to the point of irreperable harm; instead of supplying a center and a grounding to those in pain and in search of truth, we use science to promote new avenues of consumption and advertisement, selling things that people don’t need to them by convinicing them they do need it.  Grayling’s work is heavily layered with out-dated Western myths that see our classical liberalism as the end-all be-all of life, holding up Western philosophy as the pinnacle of spiritual search and science as the ultimate solution to everything. Coincidentally, Grayling continually refers to “mankind” in the CNN interview, causing us to assume that unlike the modern religious arena, the debate for gender-inclusivity is not in the domain of modern secular humanism–“humankind” as a word doesn’t present enough of a point to require consideration, likely, considering that the canon of thought we are supposed to affirm as ultimate truth merely goes to prop up capitalism, nationalism, and patriarchy. For all of its criticism, religion in many of its corners, despite being grounded in scriptures and stories, rituals and practices that are ancient, that were products of their time with all the -isms and difficulties posed by that, religion rather continues to evolve and to truly progress, not in a material but in a spritual manner, searching for ways to imlement these scriptures and holy myths in the modern world, to use them to bring about true spiritual fulfillment and peaceful progress for all, knowing that we likely never will fully accomplish such heady goals yet striving to nonetheless.

Okay. I realize the above contrast paints Grayling too negative and modern religion too positive in broad brush strokes, so I would like to temper both. Grayling presents his secular “ten commandments’ that all conscious modern religious believers should and most likely would affirm as well: kindess, reason, respect for nature, thoughtfulness, etc. Grayling’s attempt to prove that ethical reasoning and moral grounding is possible for the non-religious is worthwhile and totally accurate–one need not be religious to be moral or ethical. Grayson’s book is welcome, and I’d place it on my shelf with my other religious texts if I had a copy (though I have many of the selections he draws from already).  Conversely, not all modern religious adherents are on-board with the “progress” I mentioned above–some might even consider such modern evolutions unacceptable. That is okay, and not everyone who thinks as such is failing in their job to reach particular people and provide life-changing potential for those people. On the extreme end, we all know that there are those who use their religion to justify hate, violence, and prejudice–such people would be better off as peaceful secular humanists (though there are violent humanists who advocate violence for secular and political causes as well).  Also, science is not bad; scientific progress has indeed benefited the world in ways no rational person would want to un-do in areas of medicine, technology, communication, entertainment, culture, transportation, etc. Yet scientism is bad–the idea that all that is can be objectively measured under a microscope is a shallow and materialistic philosophy. Science is and can only be one sphere of knowledge, the scientific world can only be one level of existence. Grayling may not be an “atheist fundamentalist” like Dawkins, but he seems to make the same mistake that Dawkins and many atheists have–that faced with the tension of stereotypical and traditional concepts of “God,” the entire foundation and concept is thrown out; Modern, progressive Religion expands the view of God in light of new knowledge–every time a tension results in a doubt, the view of God can expand to fit that, because there is no such thing as a God “too big.” Each stab at questioning and wrestling with divine truth brings us, as believers, closer to catching true glimpses at the force that is God, the ground of all being that undergirds and gives life to all. We can never get a full view of God, but each glimpse we can catch aids us in living into peace and truth and can inspire us to more selflessly love and work for real justice tempered with overflowing mercy. Perhaps Grayling has found that in Western philosophy and science; perhaps he has assembled a top-notch work that can serve other humanists to find the type of peace that those who are believers also seek, and I have no doubt that issues of justice and service can overlap greatly between these two communties–simply from the Christian field, I once heard a wonderful sermon on “Jesus the Humanist.” Yet this whole polemical battlefield between religious and irreligious seekers is too often missing the point, THE point as well as each other’s point. I take issue with Grayson’s premise and his presuppositons, and I have great doubt that a material and scientific world-view alone can lead great portions of people to truth and justice. Yet I do not take issue with humanism itself; I simply find that it works best when undergirded with a something else, something that sees a “more” whether within or without, written or felt, experienced or inherited that lifts up this material value with deeper hues of truth.

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Putting Our Blinders On

April 11, 2011

The other night I saw a very funny comedian at an improv club. One comment he made near the end of his set though was that although he critiques America, he would never live anywhere else. Noting that “everything is relative” to something else, he mentioned that our problems as Americans when compared with other countries are minuscule. The countries he used in his comparison, though, were Libya and Egypt. When I got home that evening (last Friday), I flipped on the news; CNN was recounting the events that led up to the temporary decision made in Washington to avoid the government shutdown that was very close, as it was just shy of Midnight.

I note these two examples because they caused the seed that I’m working with here, that of our blinders. How often do we put blinders when looking out at the world or an issue? How many of those blinders are subconscious? How many of those blinders in fact make our life easier and (at least on the surface) “better?” Of course America’s problems (on the surface at least) appear “easy” when compared with Libya or Egypt at the moment. As the audience clapped in agreement with the comedians statement, I couldn’t help but wonder–how many people clapping, comedian included, actually have spent enough time out of the states and have enough knowledge about the systems of government and social policy of other countries to actually know that the US has it “better?” Certainly we could point a finger at particular African or Middle-eastern countries which have suffered through long-scale, seemingly never-ending wars, genocides, famines, and oppressive governments and rightly be thankful we have been more fortunate (but such a thought should result in our anger that our other neighbors do not have it better when we have it in our power as a nation to make it somewhat better, it should make us want to do something to help but it usually does not). Yet can we point at Canada, France, Switzerland, and England and unilaterally say everything about living here is better than living there in terms of quality of life, system of government, and personal liberties?  On a bigger scale, do not some of our US problems (and “solutions?”) actually serve as blinders or balms in themselves to make our short term lives seem easier when actually they are or will cause more long-term problems for us and everyone else?

Which brings me to the news when I got home from the club; one of the commentators mentioned that since the “distracting” riders were dropped, republicans and democrats were able to reach a temporary agreement; other commentators were quick to point out that those riders were not dead–they would continue to rear their heads for the foreseeable future as they represented social policy of utter importance to the republicans. What did these riders include? Well, repealing certain air safety and pollution restrictions for corporations; de-funding Planned Parenthood and other women’s health services; taking away PELL grants for low-income students to attend college, etc. Really? The fact that these can be considered valid “social concerns” showcases an enormous amount of people putting their blinders on, both as politicians and as voters who would support such nonsense. They can pretend that global warming and environmental damage is a myth, a dangerous and scary approach that continues to be popular with many conservatives who ignore scientific findings, historical research,  and daily events that prove the disastrous and irrefutable presence of increasing global temperatures and intensifying patterns of weather. By ignoring this and putting on the “Global warming is a lie” blinders, these corporations can continue to degrade and destroy the earth and the atmosphere at alarming and unprecedented rates to maximize their profits while ordinary citizens who buy into such a claim can continue to seek an idealized, though often unattainable, version of the “american dream” full of unchecked and unquestioned consumption and pollution. Buying into the “global warming is a lie” claim is actually easier in the short term and I sometimes wish I could accept such a claim as truth–realizing that the damage we as a world and the US as a nation in particular has done to the environment in the decades since WWII is tough because it makes us aware of the tragedy that can occur if we do not change our ways, a tragedy that even those in power who know the truth of global warming do little about because of the massive amount of money and lobbyists that would have things kept as is. Restructuring how and where we spend money, how we produce and distribute food, and how we train workers in the energy field is a lot of work–that the same amount of people, likely more, would find work in these new ways of doing things coupled with a better quality of life to boot is irrelevant to the corporations and politicians in power who realize that such a restructuring would limit their unchecked profit and influence to more reasonable amounts. People can put on their blinders that make them see Planned Parenthood and other women health services as abortion drive-thrus while ignoring the millions of lives saved by these clinics through the years as they’ve helped women and families who could not afford basic health-care anywhere else. Heck, people can put on their blinders and convince themselves that if a poor kid wants to go to college all they have to do is pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and go–as if every unfortunate youth can easily escape their sometimes oppressive and bleak environment of poverty and get a job at McDonald’s which will miraculously earn them enough to pay for school–and give them to the time off to make it to class!

Certainly we can be proud of being Americans, be proud of what our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have accomplished, be proud of some of the great figures are country has produced, be proud of our democracy and the rights it gives, the potential it is laden with. But we must be aware that unchecked pride in such a source can lead to dangerous nationalism, that can lead to seeing ourselves as better than “those other people” in other countries. It can lead us to assume that we as a nation have nothing to learn from the way other countries do business, government, and social policy. We can easily fall and put on those blinders, convince ourselves that what is bad is actually good, that we have all freedoms even while those freedoms are taken out from under our noses. I heard a friend the other day commenting on the horrible story of the woman in Libya who was raped and then sought help from the foreign journalists at the embassy–“women’s rights have not come as far in some of the other countries,” he said. No, they haven’t; women in many other countries have a long way to go to reach the rights and the dignity they deserve. But there are loud, popular voices in our own country that are doing their best to take away those rights from women here as well. WE have a long way to go; the rights of the poor, the immigrants, and those of “other” religions are not always secure here either.

So do like the comedian did; critique our country, but then be proud of the rights you do have. But don’t then assume that we are number one in comparison to everyone else either. We still have a long way to go.