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Religion in a Dignitarian World

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Just as religion finds itself challenging science when it identifies with particular nature models, so, too, when it enters the realm of values and politics, must it expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social or political model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because intangible personal preferences play a much larger role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the "facts" cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.

Like nature models, political and social models are shaped by human experience, and as experience accumulates, models by necessity change. Religious models could, in principle, keep pace, but generally they tend to lag behind the emerging social consensus. Why? Because the morals espoused by religion have usually proven their worth over very long periods of time. Hence, the first impulse is to insist that behaviors that contradict these ethical models be forced into conformity with them.

This conservative stance not only avoids risk but also affirms the power of the presiding authorities, just as the church's opposition to the Copernican model did.

The fact that tradition is often, but not infallibly, right goes to the essence of the eternal wrangling that has long divided empirical and ecclesiastical teachings. Resolving this schism will close an open wound that must be healed in order to firmly ground a dignitarian society. What is now traditional was not always so. To see inherited values as absolute truths handed down from on high fails to recognize that they earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. It's important to acknowledge that millions of lives were sacrificed to establish the values we now live by. The bloodiest wars, however horrible, often played a part in forging our human identity and its many cultural variations.

In this view the term "moral" does not gain its legitimacy as "received wisdom" set forth in holy writ or passed down from divine to human hands. Rather, it is a prescriptive model based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao-tzu, Mo-tzu, Jesus, Muhammad, Sankara, and others are seen as extraordinarily perceptive philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view (in particular, for discerning behaviors that foster long-term social equilibrium). Then and now, moral precepts can be understood to be grounded in an empirical knowledge of cause and effect.

Take, for example, the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It is not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge murders concluded that "not killing" was the way to avoid deadly multi-generational feuds and that someone--in this case, Moses--enshrined this realization for others and posterity. From a model-building perspective, it's plausible that all the Ten Commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of a number of people.

Drawing on the oral and written history of past and present generations and bearing close witness to their own psychodynamics, they realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability or group solidarity, leaving oneself or one's community vulnerable to exploitation and domination. They labeled these practices "immoral," anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social, and political forces would bring about either their elimination or the decline and disappearance of individuals or groups who countenanced them.

These nuggets of moral genius, and many others of comparable significance, are recorded in the world's holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the ethical foundation of society. If somehow they were to disappear and we had to start over,we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover them from scratch (think of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies). They are neither arbitrary nor is it mandatory to attribute them to revelation, though one is perfectly free to do so if one wishes.But we may equally suspect they were unearthed in the same way we discover everything else--through an arduous process of inquiry and testing. Having demonstrated their worth, they were then elevated to special status in a process similar to that which results in the formulation and promulgation of scientific models.

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Understanding morality as evidence-based amounts to tracing general behavioral guidelines back to a complex set of empirical observations. Once we have done so, a given moral precept can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that lies underneath. The ethical formulations of religion represent an accumulation of such proverbial phrases, which function as reminders and guides. As with all models, these are not infallible. Further scrutiny can lead to their modification. More often, however, additional experience validates them. Exceptions have long been allowed to "Thou shalt not kill"--for example, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the twenty-first century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable and the pressure to eliminate war is mounting. It's not even out of the question that someday--as we develop alternative sources of protein--we'll decide that this ancient commandment applies not only to our fellow human beings but to the animal kingdom as well.

Religion is the chief repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, the preeminent teacher of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can stifle progress by strangling in the crib inklings of a better world. While the heavy hand of custom saves us from our worst, it too often seems to keep us from our best.

Together, tradition and precedent, sometimes fortified with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the twentieth-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues like race, gender, marriage, divorce, and sex. Only after decades of debate and strife did new values displace older ones. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying it much attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in much of Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly looked not to their church, synagogue, or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics.

As the distillation of centuries of learning, religion has much to offer the modern world. But when it attaches itself rigidly to certain social or political models it eventually loses relevance in those domains because models of any stripe that are not allowed to evolve are invariably abandoned. To summarize, McLaughlin's prediction that religion will lose out to science by century's end is right in the trivial sense--already recognized by many religious leaders--that science typically espouses newer, better nature models than does religion.

Similarly, when religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine--no matter if it's left or right--it weds itself to the values of a particular time. That is what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked their religious beliefs to further the state's nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda. It is what religious supporters of segregation did in the American South. And it is what defenders of genital cutting are doing today. Political models and cultural values are evolving rapidly, and whenever religion aligns itself with partisan social models it can't expect to retain its hold over the young, on whom the weight of tradition falls far more lightly. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with it when it sinks.

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What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about same-sex marriage? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much in the way the disagreements over slavery, and a century later, over segregation,were decided.As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned, and instead, religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.

On the other hand, if either science or politics believes it will succeed in marginalizing religion, it is mistaken. Religion is vulnerable when it encroaches on others' turf, but not when it sticks to its home ground, which is the self and its transformation.

Religion and the Self

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Do all religions converge on the notion of human d... by Robert Fuller on Tuesday, Nov 26, 2013 at 6:28:18 PM
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