Monday, December 27, 2010

Christianity vs. "The World"

It has now been more than a decade since I gave up my identity as a Christian. Over that time, the number of Christmas cards I receive has dropped exponentially as friends and family learned about my current views on the subject of the existence of a deity and apparently became uncomfortable with them. Ironically, I still celebrate Christmas as a holiday, but without the religious overtones.

I was reminded of one of the potential reasons for their discomfort when watching an interview with a newly-minted Catholic cardinal: the conflation of secularism (living with the absence of religion) with hedonism (seeking pleasure, as a moral imperative). Both secularism and hedonism are natural enemies of Christianity, whose worldview is that we are all born evil, and to become good we must rely on guidance from those who have communicated with the creator of the Universe (the founders and leaders of the religion). While a Catholic, and then a Lutheran, I was taught that Christianity was the only thing standing between civilization and total anarchy (the natural state of the world, or just “the world”), where people would pursue personal gratification at any cost, including the suffering and death of others. Wanting to be a “good person” and “do the right thing,” I embraced this line of thought until I became convinced that those who claim to communicate with God are either lying, delusional, or – as I was – not self-aware enough to recognize where their “received wisdom” really comes from. I took the transitional step of joining the Unitarian Universalists, who try to facilitate every person's personal pursuit of spirituality, but I was still buying into the idea that social cohesion depends on some form of religion.

It took me several years to test and tease apart the threads of reasoning and evidence that tied religion to the definition and enforcement of “good behavior.” The bottom line, for this discussion, is that values are a human invention whose main purpose is to enable us to survive and thrive as social beings with an intelligence that can just as easily kill us. Each of us has a different way of learning, maintaining, developing, and using those values, and religion is one of the most successful cultural tools for doing all of that with the most people. It does so by telling simple stories (related together as parts of a myth) that can be easily remembered and connect its values to an understanding of the world that people can identify with. The relationships between people are key to the narrative, because coordinating their behavior is the means to the ends. Mutual respect enables adherents to be happy without interfering too much with the happiness of others, and maximizing population growth is critical to assuring that the “chosen people” ultimately dominate the world.

It is an unavoidable fact that we know a lot more about how the world works than the people who crafted the stories of millennia ago. To the extent that our values derive from an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, those values will inevitably become open to question. The alternatives, unacceptable in my view, are to either enforce ignorance (as religious fundamentalists would like to do), reinterpret the new facts to preserve the values as much as possible (as “apologists” attempt to do), or argue that reality is simply another belief system (which threatens to undermine everyone's survival). That isn't to say that it's unreasonable to fear that some people will jettison their values when confronted with the flawed nature of their derivation, especially since many of our shared values keep us from harming each other. I suspect that the emergence of law-based governments was partly in response to the need for minimizing such harm as free inquiry and access to powerful technologies became more pervasive.

Another result of more (and more accurate) knowledge is the awareness that we are all animals whose biology provides pleasure and pain based on what enables us to live long enough to procreate and assure that our species will survive into the future. As far as we can objectively (that is, collectively) verify, we are not independent of Nature; we are not perfect beings trapped in imperfect bodies as our old narratives would have us believe. Any values we create must take these facts into account if they are to be at all useful and not self-destructive. Consequently, the pursuit of pleasure should not be construed as “bad” if it doesn't interfere with meeting the need to survive (note that this is a lesson of another of our myths, the Siren's song from the Odyssey).

If, as I postulated earlier, values are tools for assuring a certain outcome, then why not make the attainment of that outcome our principal value? I have explored this option extensively in my other writing, arguing that the outcome should be the maximizing of both the life satisfaction (“happiness”) of the largest number of individuals over the longest period of time; this includes, by extension, the family of organisms that we are part of, and that is part of us. Many other values may ultimately be derived from how to achieve that outcome, based on our evolving understanding; and the acceptance of other values may, in part, be determined by how much they contribute to it. Choosing this approach has the additional advantage of directly addressing the ultimate test of any value system we may create: if people do not perceive their lives getting “better” (however they individually define it) as a result of using a system, they are unlikely to voluntarily subscribe to it; and if a system results in the death of everyone, there will be no one left to use it.

I and others have argued at length that our dominant values – the ones resulting in the largest-scale consequences – are causing one of the largest mass extinctions in our planet's history, and may soon result in the demise of our own species. Simplistically, the situation amounts to maximizing the happiness of a decreasing fraction of our population (instead of the entire population), without concern for the longevity of our (or any other) species.  Our present crisis is largely due to the fact that our technology has made us so powerful that we are rapidly approaching physical limits to our planet's ability to meet our desires. In this sense, Christians may be right about the evils of “the world.”

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