In response to some of the comments on my post on the Founding Fathers and religion in America:
The biggest contradiction in American religious attitudes is how differently the religious and non-religious interpret whatâ€™s going on in the culture. The fundamentalist Christians look around and see a world in which values are forgotten, faith is ridiculed, self-control denigrated, and more and more people are foresaking their traditional churches. They see it as the beginning of the end of the world. Any moment the forces of secularism, consumerism, and greed will overwhelm the culture and religions will be wiped out.
Meanwhile, the atheists see a world in which having the correct religious beliefs are still a litmus test for holding public office. (Last night I saw Karl Rove on CNN give his analysis of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary results, and he made it clear that Obama is paying dearly for having claimed that people in small towns â€œcling to religion and gunsâ€ out of â€œbitterness.â€) â€œIntelligent designâ€ is being taught in schools right next to evolutionary theory. Even in modern times, increasingly dangerous wars are being fought primarily along religious lines for religious reasons. They see a world in which Reason could be drowned out at any moment by the religious.
So . . . whoâ€™s right? Both sides seem to think that the other is winning.
When I said that religion is a â€œradioactiveâ€ topic in academia and politics, I didnâ€™t men that it was never talked about. I meant that it is dangerous to talk about it. It can be referenced, but not openly discussed. Politicians will play a game of nodding their heads, implying that they generally believe what everyone else believes, without actually asserting a belief in anything in particular. Academics play the opposite game, pretending that they have no personal beliefs whatsoever, lest someone think their objectivity has been marred by moral convictions. In both cases, nothing substantive is happening.
Why do we have this bifurcation in the American mindset? Yesterday I saw a show on the History Channel about the Scopes â€œMonkeyâ€ trial, in which historians discussed exactly this issue of American attitudes towards religion. One explanation they offered was that America was originally populated by two kinds of immigrants: the religious sects looking for freedom to practice their particular faith, and the practical-minded pragmatists looking for an opportunity at a better life. Those two strands of culture, they suggest, have continued along side by side in America for the last few centuries, and a culture has evolved to accommodate the two mind-sets without ever completely resolving their differences.
That explanation makes sense, but I think itâ€™s more than just an age-old divide. I suspect we are at a point where our culture is struggling to unify its worldview, and yet is unable to give up the other side of the coin. We look to religion to provide values and purpose that transcends reason, but we chafe at the logical inconsistencies of dogmatic superstition. We want a primarily rational worldview, but also recognize that reason can cannot create values. Neither a dogmatic religious view nor a starkly atheistic one can provide us what we seek, and so we grope around for a middle way.
The statement that "reason cannot provide values" should not go unchallenged. I can think of many reasons to treat others kindly and graciously. It usually takes the form of the Golden Rule. This idea is as instinctual as they come; reason is what takes it from the instinctual and makes it our formal code of laws and ethics.
In your Glenmary sisters response, you use the term spirituality and morality as if they are interchangeable. I think this idea is an amazing hoax pulled over on us by the religious establishment and is the conventional wisdom of our day. As if morality was an invention by the spiritual or religious!
Your statement that academics are loathe to hold (or display) moral convictions is patently false. Many academics and intellectuals are at the vanguard of anti-war, anti-disease, anti-poverty, anti-capital punishment, and many other social initiatives. Maybe, as a whole, they hold different moral convictions than the ones you hold, but to claim they lack moral conviction is unfounded prejudice. It's true that many academics do not write in the language of the mystical or spiritual; however, that is no reason to question the sincerity or moral clarity of their positions.
Lastly, we may live in a bifurcated world, but it is hardly an even split. Theists constitute a dominant and very powerful majority in this country.
I agree with Justin that believers outnumber nonbelievers, and also that many academics adhere to a very strict moral code.
But...the statement "reason cannot provide values" cannot possibly be challenged in a serious way. Why be nice to others? Why do unto others as you would have others do unto you? Why feed the birds (Mary Poppins) instead of poisoning the pigeons (Tom Lehrer)? Secular morality tends to be based on the assumption that "happy better than sad"; not a bad premise as premises go, but certainly not defensible in any logical way.
Here is some logic to consider: imagine our human ancestors many thousands of years removed, and consider an optimal strategy for them to survive and flourish. It would likely be one that encouraged some competition, but also a lot of cooperation and often deeds of altruism and generosity. Now imagine these forces operating over many thousands of years, becoming more refined and honed as social interactions developed, grew, and evolved. As our capacity to read, write, and reason developed, we were able to codify these instinctual survival mechanisms into laws and codes of ethics. This is an extremely abbreviated form, but it provides the general pattern.
Game theorists, economists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists - many have advanced this thought experiment in various ways. It is not a proof, but it surely is plausible and gives good reason to believe that our ability to cooperate has been very advantageous to our species. And "reason" is instrumental, for it has elevated these instinctual habits and made them the coherent value system we have today. It has even given us a word -- morality. It has also allowed us to transcend (or at least recognize) many of our less distinguished modes of ancestral behavior.
The "happy better than sad" characterization of secular ethics is about as correct as the "do good or be smited by a vengeful god" for non-secular ethics. Secular ethics is identical to the non-secular - minus the supernatural. Wikipedia actually has a reasonable description of "secular ethics". By disentangling from the supernatural, secular ethics makes morality simple, clear, obvious, intuitive, and potentially, universal. Compare this to religious or mystical morality, which is often characterized as elusive, hard to discern, shrouded in mystery, and only understood after much struggle, sacrifice, and contemplation. Or in the case of some of our more popular religions, decreed on high by supernatural beings.
Now, I turn this question to you? What logical, defensible basis for morality (values) can you provide?