Thursday, February 5, 2015

David Brooks doesn't get it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks secularists are disadvantaged compared to Christian and Jewish believers. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:
Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

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. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.
This is nonsense. First of all, there is a deep history of understanding justice and morality that is not connected to Judeo-Christian practice -- all ancient cultures had a set of rules and the commonality of those rules indicates that they speak to something clearly deeply human. He goes on,
The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. 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.
What complete rubbish. People who don't know how to take up burdens...as if we have to re-invent a moral and ethical framework from scratch?  That's clearly wrong.

 Daniel Maguire also takes him on, arguing in a twist that Christian ethics don't require a belief in God--rather, they can be viewed as a cultural inheritance that many of us share.
That epic moral vision that was birthed in ancient Israel and echoed into Christianity doesn’t require deity or afterlife beliefs

Indeed many professing Christians might be dogmatically orthodox moral heretics. They take the dogmatic legends literally and fervidly but are less enthused about the moral demands of the tradition. Thus they would smite you for not taking literally such metaphors as Exodus, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection but will not join Isaiah in saying that the only route to peace is through the absolute elimination of poverty. (Isaiah 32;17). Nor are they, as was Jesus, “good news for the poor” or “peacemakers.” (Luke 4:18: Matt. 5:9)

In a splendid irony, secularists who walk the walk on these ideals might be more “Christian” than the “dogmatically” pure.

For Brooks, to be religious you have to believe in “God,” which is way off the mark. Religion is a response to the sacred—whether the sacred is understood theistically or not.
Paul Kowalewski at the Desert Retreat House disagrees with Brooks as well, particularly over his binary of "you believe in God or you don't":
From my perspective, "God" is essentially a Great Riddle, an unknowable mystery, an Abiding Presence at the core of everting that is. From time to time, in the thin places of life, I experience that Holy Presence, but I can never explain it and I never think of God as some sort of separated superior super person. In that sense atheists and I both don't believe in the same imaginary being.

When it comes to religion, I find great value in being connected with my ancestors in a tradition of faith carried on over the ages. I also believe that being in relationship with other persons of faith strengthens me. ....

And yes, I do love the stories in the Bible and yes I think they are mostly legends and myths filled with metaphor and poetry - but that's the kind of language that is always used whenever we try to talk about great mysteries. So, while my beliefs may appear to be paradoxical, I do not at all think that they contradict one another- that's what "both-and" thinking is all about.
And finally, I like this quote from Karen Armstrong:
Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.”   The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness 
The idea of the value of religion being less about faith per se and more about a shared cultural community of myth and meaning resonates with me, as I continue my own journey. 
 

9 comments:

JCF said...

Hmmm (that's all I got right now).

James Pratt said...

Brooks misses the mark entirely. There is a long line of legal scholars who have talked about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the scriptures of an American "civic religion", and especially in terms of the common ethical values which are part of American culture, which replaced the state religions of the Old World. Here in Quebec (the most secular society in North America) we are headed for another round of debate about a Charter of Quebec Values. Whether religious or secular, all societies have some foundational ethical values; people don't have to go making them up out of nothing.

As usual, Karen Armstrong has much wisdom. Religion (from the Latin "ligere", to bind) is not about faith but about practice, binding oneself to a particular community, its practices and its values as a way of life.

If any are adrift, it is perhaps the "spiritual but not religious", who may have faith (even deep faith), but do not have a framework in which to live it. But even these, I find, have a good sense of ethics, drawn from the culture and general human values, and can be more Christian than many churchgoers.

Kevin K said...

I think Brooks is on to important points The criticisms overstate his points. Brooks is not saying secularist cannot be moral, he is pointing out that secularists lack many of the societal support for a moral framework provided by religion and its generally well established practices.

However a secular morality always seems to me to founder on the existence of absolute moral principles. Secularist seem to have adopted being on the right side or history in the way religious people use doing or being obedient to God (or gods).

In the absence of God it seems to me that "inalienable rights" are logical absurdity. Such rights are social constructs created by political majorities or power elite able to enforce their beliefs. The idea that people can not vote on the rights of minorities absent a source of rights outside of the human community would be absurd.

8thday said...

I had the same reaction as you when I read this. (see I don’t always disagree : )

“Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies.”

I inherited my parents moral philosophy, also evolved over centuries.

“Secular individuals have to build their own communities.”

I had a neighborhood and a school to form my community. Later I also had work and volunteer organizations,

“Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.”

I agree with this however, I view it as a negative. Religions force people into communal beliefs whether they agree/believe in them or not.

“Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths.”

I do not have to have a set time or place for my spiritual practice. I only need to go outside. I have often found it odd that religious folk would rather worship God in a man made building than to go out into His creation.

“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.

My parents fashioned my moral motivation and believe me, it was more than enough motivation.

“Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.”

I am motivated by my love of living creatures and I do not feel “compelled” to sacrifice and serve. It just brings me joy. I am told that God loves a cheerful giver. How cheerful can you be if you are “compelled” to do good.

I think about that quote - Character is doing the right thing when no one is watching. What does it say about a person if they are only doing the right thing because they think God is watching?


I am interested though in your last line - The idea of the value of religion being less about faith per se and more about a shared cultural community of myth and meaning resonates with me, as I continue my own journey.” reinforces my thinking that religion is really basically just another private club.

JCF said...

Whatever your belief-system, I believe the dialectical pull between

Individual <----> Community

remains.

[Even at a website as predominantly atheistic as JoeMyGod, if someone's atheism isn't anti-theistic enough, they may hear it from the other True Believers. The Community has ruled! ;-/ ]

I confess to be as ambivalent about Individual/Community as the next person. My innate introversion often *seriously* makes me wish for the "eremitical" (hermit) life, spiritually.

But then again, I *literally* love singing in the choir! And liturgically/theologically, I'm a High enough catholic to believe in "where 2 or 3 are gathered" (there goes my hermitage, Sigh)

Beyond that, I still don't have strong feelings about Brooks, or critiques thereof. I guess the debate feels kind of abstract to me.

IT said...

Kevin K,no secularist (or non-believer) has to reconstruct their morality from scratch. Ever. We are creatures of our heritage.

8th day, isn't EVERY form community at some level "a private club"? Work, volunteer organizations, school, church....

Kevin K said...

Dear IT,

I did not say that secularist have to "reconstruct their morality from scratch." What I said was that religion provides support systems and a shared community.

My point was that, while a secularist may firmly hold to certain moral beliefs, it becomes difficult, in the absence of a "higher" system than our heritage, to impose those higher beliefs on others.

The reason why the Declaration of Independence founds inalienable rights as flowing from a creator is precisely for this reason.

8thday said...

Well, no, I don't think so. Work, volunteer organizations and schools don't have "members", you don't pay a kind of dues to belong, do not have an initiation ritual, nor are most community organizations privately funded.

If you go to most religion's website you will find a section called "What We Believe. You have shared many posts about being an atheist and other writers talking about non-believers in the pews. So if a religion is not about shared beliefs and worshiping their god, what is it? It seems to me that religion is moving much more to shared social, economic and political beliefs than religious beliefs.

In response to Kevin's comment - I have no desire "to impose those (my)higher beliefs on others." Nor do I want others imposing their beliefs on me.

Kevin K said...

The higher beliefs I was referring to were not the existence or nature of God. I was referring to principles such as human dignity and freedom.