Thu 24 Oct 2013
Revised Notes for the University Of Winnipeg’s Knowles-Woodsworth Lecture October 23, 2013
“Reason, Religion and the Public Good”
By Allan R. Gregg
“A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion” – Gandhi
Last fall, I delivered a lecture at Carleton’s School of Public Affairs entitled “1984 in 2012: The Assault on Reason”.
In it, I documented some troubling trends which demonstrated our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise.
Starting with the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census and continuing through the 2012 Budget and to this day, a clear pattern emerged that indicated a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making – namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.
As a researcher who had dedicated a better part of my life to understanding Canadian culture and the political process, I had also come to believe that our nation’s progress has been advanced by enlightened public policy that marshals our collective resources towards a larger public good … and conversely, that that public good is threaten by regressive public policy. And in the end, it has been reason and scientific evidence that has delineated effective from ineffective policy. And this relationship exists for a very straight-forward reason – namely, that effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve. Evidence, facts and reason, for me, therefore form the sine qua non of not only good policy, but good government.
So I felt I had a personal stake in the game and should speak out. But the more I researched and studied for that lecture, the more it also became clear that there were other larger reasons, beyond the personal, to remind ourselves why we value reason and why we should be very concerned when it comes under assault.
Indeed, since the Enlightenment you can trace the root of meritocracy, democracy, the decline of state-to-state war, international trade and the very notion of “progress” to this rise of reason.
But then I got to thinking about the fundamental premise that got me going on this topic in the first place: “effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve”.
I still have every reason to believe this is fundamentally true, but then I started to ask myself ….”yes, while science and reason are essential to generating solutions to problems, they don’t define – as a society – why we consider something a problem that needs a solution. Evidence, research and reason might tell us what is at the root of poverty; properly deployed, these tools can also be used to identify the most effective means to reduce poverty; but – unto themselves – they do little to determine why poverty is something we care about and – again as a society – something we should be striving to eliminate.
We are not able to define what is a societal problem through science and reason … instead we rely on our sense of morality and use the yardstick of our values to gage both the presence and the magnitude of a problem. In this way, we define poverty as a problem not just because of its measured economic cost to society, but because we believe it is morally wrong for some to have nothing while others have plenty. And we come to this conclusion, not through math or data, but by drawing upon a belief that we are each other’s keeper and have a moral responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
And this got me thinking about the inter-section between reason and morality and wondering whether our tendency to look at one as the antithesis – indeed, for many, the enemy – of the other, might also be responsible for the shrill, callow and uninspirational public discourse that takes place today.
We often hear this lament from religions adherents who want to infuse morality into political debate. One the great religious leaders of modern time, Mahatma Gandhi, went so far as to claim that you could not separate the two … “Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation … that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics, do not know what want religion means.” The great Canadian leaders, Stanley Knowles and J.S. Woodsworth, for whom this lecture is dedicated, believed much the same.
At an abstract level this has to be true and there is little to dispute. If we define what constitutes a societal problem by using moral criteria and if religion by definition (as Gandhi, Knowles and Woodsworth believed) is about morality, then religion must have a place in politics.
But in practice, it also means, for example, that fundamentalist’s ideas of infusing religion into politics would include introducing legislation to limit abortions or banning gay marriage or bringing back prayer into the schools.
So while religious adherents make want to infuse politics more forcefully with (their version of) morality, secularists recoil at this notion and fight it at every turn.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say the root of our modern cultural wars pits science and religion on either side of the battle field; which is interesting considering that science and religion both try to find answers to same cosmic and epistemological questions …”Why is there something rather than nothing?” “How did we get here?” “Is there purpose to life?”
And throughout history, humankind has been consumed with trying to explain these unexplained questions. But for the greatest part of that history, the bulwark against not-knowing was not reason or science but superstition, dogma and orthodoxy. Can’t explain droughts? Blame God’s wrath. Why are we suffering from mysterious diseases? Witchcraft. And of course, economic downturns could be blamed on ethnic minorities. The response to these beliefs has been human sacrifices, burning at the stake and ethnic cleansing. This is the linkage that Voltaire made when he wrote … “those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
And so history has taught us that understanding the world or explaining phenomena through superstition, dogma and orthodoxy – instead of facts and reason – invariably leads to some very ugly and uncivilized behaviour. In fact modern theorists, such as Richard Dawkins, have gone as far as to claim that “all religions are delusions that prevented people from embracing science, secularism and modernity … (and) have been the primary cause of war, genocide, terrorism, racism, homophobia and the oppression of women” (The God Delusion). While many may dispute this absolute linkage, it is pretty clear that religion has been on the wrong side of history for much of the last 2000 years. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – namely, religious beliefs that have been rooted in superstition, dogma and orthodoxy have not been sustainable … sooner or later their veracity was tested by facts and evidence and found to be untrue. Those who needed these beliefs to sustain their interests and power however enforced them at the point of a sword or removed those who might prove them to be untrue, thus making science the enemy of religion and religion the enemy of science.
The post-Enlightenment response of our ever increasing secular world of politics has been to throw up what Jefferson referred to as “a wall of separation between church and state” (Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, 1802). While this separation was initially intended simply to protect religious freedom and to prevent the state from endorsing or “establishing” one religion over all others, over time, the interpretation has grown increasingly hostile, relegating religion to the totally private, with no place in what Richard John Neuhaus referred to “the naked public square”.
This ultra-secular interpretation holds that religion is by definition denominational and therefore sets one part of society apart from another. Against this, the role of the state is to establish a creed that overarches these differences and makes everyone an equal citizen within its jurisdiction. Needless-to-say – no matter how misdirected – this is the justification for state initiatives such as Quebec’s Charter of Values. But in the end, whether you agree or disagree with the public display of religious symbols and practices, what the ultra-secular state is doing is imposing one definition of morality to encourage one type of behaviour and suppressing another definition of morality to discourage another type.
This occurs because, in the same way that science and religion attempt to answer the same questions, religion and politics both attempt to regulate bad behaviour and make co-operation and group cohesion possible. While this may be the purpose of both religion and politics, we know that is very difficult to achieve this goal using either reason or religion, alone. In other words the necessary inducement to reduce bad behaviour requires both a moral obligation to adhere to the rules and acceptance that the restraint is reasonable. And if this is the case, rather than waging a cultural war, perhaps we should ask if there is any common ground where the religious and secularists can agree not on “what is right?” but “what is good?”.
And this may not be as impossible as one may think.
In “The Righteous Mind” the renowned social psychologist , John Haidt begins by stating flatly that “the human mind is designed to “do morality”, just as its designed to do language, sexuality, music and many other things” (p. xii-xiii). The godfather of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud referred to this as “the God instinct”; Herbert Benson, the first to establish the linkage between stress and health has since come to conclude that we are “hardwired to believe”; and faced with the quantum uncertainty principle, Einstein famously said that he doubted it could be right because “God does not play dice with the universe”. Darwin too was both fascinated and troubled by the notion of morality because it was difficult to reconcile with natural selection and competition.
These are not the pronunciations of wild-eyed clerics from the pulpit but the musing of some of the world’s greatest scientific thinkers. And they came to these thoughts not by discovering some all seeing and all knowing God (in fact, Einstein was a self-described atheist), but because they observed a common embracing of “what is good” that cut across geography and time. Why did all human societies believe that a Mother loving her child is “good” and harming the child is “bad”? Why is cheating and cruelty punished, regardless of culture or century? And how could altruism and co-operation endure – and as Pinker documents, grow over time – if evolution only demanded the “survival of the fittest”?
Haidt refers to this as Moral Foundation Theory – a notion that certain traits are “built in” to the human condition and “organized in advance of experience”. Moreover, following certain prescribed rules and “doing the right thing” is the product of “moral reasoning” and a survival technique when in groups or a social world. Basically that “nature provides the first draft of morality and experience makes the revisions, over time”.
Many scientists can’t seem to agree whether this moral foundation is innate, learned or reasoned but that it exists, seems almost beyond dispute.
But if there is a shared sense of morality that can be embraced by the religious and non-religious alike, why can’t we just all get along and work together to create a better world? The depressing answer, of course, is that no matter how much the religious and non-religious have in common, their differences are even greater and set them apart.
So before discussing what can bring us together, it is probably worth our while to look at what sets us at loggerheads.
In his brilliant 2011 Einstein Lecture series (and shortly before his untimely death) Ronald Dworkin did precisely that when he described “Religion Without God”.
Throughout this discussion, I have referred to the religious versus the non-religious or religious versus secularist. Dworkin however identifies the real fault-line where reason and religion collide, as between Theists and Atheists – that is those who believe or and do not believe in God.
On one extreme he pits scientific materialists who believe that which is “real” is only that which can be measured and verified through investigation. At the other extreme, he cited Paul Tillich’s definition of the belief in a literal, anthropomorphic God as “a Being acting in time and space, dwelling in a special place, affecting the course of events; and being effected by them like any other Being in the universe”. Needless-to-say, it is pretty difficult to imagine any middle ground between these two perspectives.
Dworkin however provides a bridge to cross this chasm – perhaps not for those at the extremes but possibly for the vast majority who find themselves in between – with this enlightened understanding of religion… as “a deep, distinct and comprehensive world view: it holds that inherent value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order” (p.1). He then notes that “a belief in God is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that world view”. In other words, because there are atheists who can share this world view with theists, there can also be religion without God. In other words, it is possible to be a religious atheist.
He supports this contention further by reminding us that a literal, anthropomorphic – or as he terms it, a Sistine – God is not the only interpretation of a supreme deity that is accepted by theists. Many view God as a watch maker – or as Dworkin prefers, a Bookmark God – who set up evolution so that “over eons, it would do as it has”. This concept of God basically explains what science has not and cannot; but as Dworkin also notes …”(H)e moves back in the book of knowledge as science writes more pages” (pp. 32-3). For still other theists, God is not a “being” but something that co-exists with nature whose presence is felt by a sense of numinous and “an experience of something non-rational and emotionally deeply moving”. This views holds that the sunset is not simply subjectively beautiful but objectively beautiful and produces a sense of awe that at one in the same time makes us feel small but also part of something that is beyond our comprehension; what Einstein referred to as “knowing what is impenetrable to us, really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
So if both atheists and theists can accept what Dworkin identifies as the “objective truth” of the 2 central judgments of a religious attitude – namely: 1) that human life has objective meaning and importance and as a consequence we have an obligation to live well and ethically; and 2) that nature and the universe is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime and divine – is there sufficient common ground between the two camps to agree on “what is good”?
The problem is that a rationalist will never share a world view with the believers in a personal, literal and anthropomorphic God, even if he or she embraces the 2 fundamental tenets of religiosity that Dworkin lays out. Not only is it impossible for the rationalist to accept the existence of a Creator with a beard who lives in heaven and intervenes in worldly – and even individual – occurrences, but the believer in this personal God almost always sees this deity as a Proprietary God as well. This proprietary God embodies my beliefs and definition of “what is good”, intervenes to advance my interests and when these come in conflict with others, supports me over them. In sum, a proprietary God belongs to me and those who share my belief of “what is good” and, by definition cannot be the God of those who do not believe in these same things. This concept of God therefore not only fails to meet the test of reason but also fractionalizes society into believers and apostates.
So if we are to bring reason and religion together in an attempt to fuse a larger public good, perhaps it is time we relegated a personal, anthropomorphic, proprietary God into the same category as a world that is only 6,000 years old or the notion that any single religious group represents a “chosen people”. And once we do that, it is a short step also to move past sectarianism and start thinking about religion not as a need for identity and a state of belonging, but as a way of viewing life, community and nature.
By now, it would not be unreasonable to ask ….”But if reason deposits the proprietary God into the dustbin of superstition, and relegates sectarianism to the same artificial power structure that has shielded tyrants and Divine Rulers, what is left of religion?”
Well, actually, quite a lot.
First – as Dworkin points out – we are left with a fundamental belief that life has importance and meaning. This translates into a premium being placed on equality, social justice and responsibility. Additionally, there is the view that the order of the universe is divine which leads to a desire to protect and revere nature.
Haidt, in turn, documents five “moral foundations” – or beliefs that certain things are objectively “good” – that he identified throughout world religions; two of which are embraced universally and therefore transcend denominational faith or culture. The first of these is the care/harm foundation which leads us to protect, reduce the suffering and care of those who are in peril; and the second is the fairness/cheating foundation which triggers acts of co-operation and selflessness, as well as expectations of reciprocity.
So, let’s look at all of these together and see what we have: a premium placed on equality, social justice and responsibility; a desire to protect and revere nature; an impulse to protect, reduce the suffering and care of those who are in peril; and a tendency towards co-operation and selflessness. I don’t know about you, but I can worship that religion.
But as I look at that list, I can’t help think that if these are the foundations of moral and religion belief, what do they have to do with calls for smaller governments, or a more robust military, or the banning of gay marriage or the culling “cheaters” off the welfare rolls or many other exhortations by the partisan right that are justified in the name of religious conviction. The answer seems to me is …”nothing”; that in fact these partisans views have been disguised as religiously based but are anything but, and in fact are antithetical to the fundamental tenets of “being religious” as outlined above.
There is no question, that throughout history, much evil has been done in the name of religion. There is equally no doubt that today, religion is being appropriated to advance partisan, ideological agendas that have no basis in moral reasoning.
But let us also not forget that religions values have also been the driving force behind some of the most important movements that have guided us on a path towards a progressively more humane, civilized and prosperous world. The abolition of slavery, the fight against colonialism, the civil rights and peace movements were all inspired by religious values and lead by religious leaders.
And here is Canada, we also owe much of our distinctiveness as a “peaceable kingdom” and a nation of tolerance, to the social gospel movement that forced us to raise our eyes up from our selfish concerns and not just try to “save that man” but “save that society”. It was the likes of J.S. Wordsworth and Stanley Knowles who argued that compassion is a blessing, that greed is a sin and that we are each other’s keeper. It is a great tradition, that we should and can draw on again, and I am honoured to part of it here tonight.