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Coffee & Wisdom 02.84: The Common Task Part 5

David Breeden is speaking all week about the common task.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom, when we try to think about where religion and philosophy has been and where it is and where it might be going. This week we’ve been looking at something I’m calling the Common Task. That’s been looking at some ideas about what will happen when the Western world goes into secularity, when most people become secular. There has been a lot of angst and discussion around those questions. And so I’ve been trying to think this through a little bit. Just as a quick recap, yesterday I brought up the idea from Alec Ryrie, who is a professor with the ideas of Protestantism, probably the greatest scholar in the world at the moment on Protestantism anyway. His latest book is called Unbelievers, an Emotional History of Doubt, in which he says, “In light of all this history, the secular surge of our own times does not represent any kind of intellectual breakthrough. Instead, in the wake of two world wars and social revolutions which followed, our society no longer measures its morals by the old religious yardsticks.” Now, in his book Protestants, and in this book, he does trace the ideas of agnosticism and atheism all the way back into the Middle Ages and says, wait a minute, this is not really an intellectual movement so much as it is a movement of people rethinking how their morality and ethics comport with ideas that are in Christian religion. “Most of us,” he says, “…from the Middle Ages to the present, have always made the great choices— about our beliefs, values, identities and purposes— intuitively and emotionally with our whole selves. That applies to religious faith, which, as we all know, is often chosen for instinctive, inarticulate, intuitive reasons, but it is just as true of unbelief.” Again, undercutting the idea that unbelief or secularity is about making choices that are in some way rational, that are reading books on atheism and that kind of thing. No, probably not so much, because those books didn’t even exist when this movement began in the Western world that he traces. Yesterday, I asked some questions based on these ideas. Is religious thinking a different way of thinking from other ways of thinking? If so, how is it different? And if not, what is it like in other forms? And also I mentioned yesterday one of the central philosophers of secularity and religion, Charles Taylor, a Roman Catholic Canadian philosopher who talks about the “social imaginary,” which by which he means it’s “a matrix or web of stated and unstated assumptions that create the illusion of a particular society.” When we talk about “American society,” it is the social imaginary of American society that we are discussing. Yes, that varies among individuals. But there are certain strands that we pull together and say this is what American society is like. So my question: Are religious and secular imaginaries fundamentally different? superficially different? Or not actually different, but expressed in very different ways? I think this is a very central question. As a humanist myself, I really don’t see a huge difference between religious and secular thinking in terms of moral and ethical terms. So how does this happen? Well, my answers are that religious thinking is intuitive and emotional. Alec Ryrie, the professor, said this, and I think he’s absolutely right. But I also think what we call reason and rationality are also intuitive and emotional thinking. In addition, religious is, in fact much older than any human religion that now exists. So when we say the word religious, this is religious. What we’re really expressing is something that is not about Christianity, not about Islam, not even about the oldest known human religions of shamanism or Daoism and that kind of thing. And also to that question are religious and secular. imaginaries fundamentally different, superficially different, not actually different, but expressed in different ways. Well, maybe it is only a difference in vocabulary in the way people talk. Well. A recent article by an opinion columnist for The New York Times that I’ve mentioned several times of Coffee and Wisdom, Russ Douthat, who is a Roman Catholic and middle-of-the-road conservative, I would say, on April 10th, as part of his Easter meditation, he said, “Can the Meritocracy Find God? The secularization of America probably won’t reverse unless the intelligentsia gets religion.” He says, well, is that going to happen? Well, he says, “Even if there is a resilience in American religion— especially in evangelical Christianity…” (which, as we’ve seen in Coffee and Wisdom, isn’t going down in numbers as fast as the more liberal religions, but it is going down, but) “…still the most numerically robust form of faith— it doesn’t alter institutional faith’s general weakness, its limited influence, its subordinate position to other personal affiliations, from partisanship to ethnic identity to sports or superhero fandom.” So Comic-Con may be actually a new religion and maybe vastly more popular than most of the religious items on offer in our consumer market today. It is a very good argument because we know numerically now less than 50% of Americans go to any kind of religious or belong to any kind of religious institution. He goes on to say, “A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia— meaning not just would-be intellectuals, but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.” So no, religion is not all that popular among the more educated people. “But,” he goes on, “The obstacles are considerable. One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life.” So to repeat that, “…deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty—especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.” Now, some of the language that he’s using here tells me that, yes, he’s been reading our philosopher Charles Taylor on the ideas of secularity. But you do see how his argument is going. Well. Yes, if I were a committed Roman Catholic, I might be worried about the future of institutional religion in North America. But I do want to refer to some recent research that may go against this general idea. The Conversation. I would recommend it to you, it’s a very fun online site. It calls itself academic rigor with journalistic flair and very interesting stories that you can pick up. And one of those is Religion does not Determine Your Morality. This is written by Jim Davies, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University. So a cognitive scientist, he says this, “Experimental evidence suggests that people’s opinion of what God thinks is right or wrong tracks what they believe is right or wrong, not the other way around. Social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues surveyed religious believers about their moral beliefs and their moral beliefs of God. Not surprisingly, what people thought was right and wrong matched up pretty well with what they felt God’s morality was like. Then Epley and his fellow researchers attempted to manipulate their participants’ moral beliefs with persuasive essays. If convinced their moral opinions should then be different from God’s, right? Wrong. When respondents were asked again what God thought, people reported that God agreed with their new opinion.” And as I’ve mentioned several times in Coffee and Wisdom, this is one of the problems with saying, “What God wants is….” God seems to always want exactly what the person who is speaking has to say, politically, morally, ethically, etc,, and research does indicate that this is the case. Going on, from Jim Davies. “If people are getting their morals from their conception of God, you’d think that contemplating God’s opinion might be more like thinking from someone else’s beliefs than thinking about your own.” Remember, by the way, that Davis is a cognitive scientist. So he’s going to look at this from a scientific viewpoint. He goes on to say, “But this isn’t the case. The same study also found that when you think about God’s beliefs, the part of your brain active when thinking about your own beliefs is more active than the part of your brain that is active when thinking about other people’s beliefs. In other words, when thinking about God’s beliefs, you are (subconsciously) accessing your own beliefs.” So, yeah, we already knew that, we skeptics among us, but it is good to see some evidence going in that direction. And I would say that Paul Tillich all those years ago was in some ways very right about these things. Paul Tillich’s, definition of religion was a “manifestation of the depth dimension.” A manifestation of the depth dimension. In other words, our subconscious in which he says, “…that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional and man’s spiritual life.” That’s the depth dimension. And indeed it is our subconscious, most likely. Another nice thing that he had to say that I think is fairly indicative of what Tillich was thinking, “Neurosis is the way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being.” Very 50s in its psychological and Freudian aspects, but not a bad way of thinking about how we do neuroses, perhaps If you’re interested in the work of Jim Davies, the professor, he has just come out with a book Riveted, the Science of Why Jokes Make US Laugh, Movies make us cry and Religion Makes us Feel One with the Universe.” Jim Davies, a brand new book that I haven’t read yet, but I’m interested since I’ve read some of his articles online about religion. If you want to research this, you can find serious research on the Web. This one, for example, the Origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product.” We’ve seen the name Marc Hauser before on Coffee and Wisdom. Here’s an abstract from this particular study: “Considerable debate has surrounded the question of the origins and evolution of religion. One proposal views religion as an adaptation for cooperation, whereas an alternative proposal views religion as a by-product of evolved non-religious cognitive functions. We critically evaluate each approach, explore the link between religion and morality in particular, and argue that recent empirical work in moral psychology provides stronger support for the by-product approach. Specifically, despite differences in religious background, individuals show no difference in the pattern of their moral judgments for unfamiliar moral scenarios. These findings suggest that religion evolved from preexisting cognitive functions, but that it may then have been subject to selection, creating an adaptively designed system for solving the problem of cooperation.” As you know, I do lean toward evolutionary discussions of what religion is and what’s pro sociality is from a human past of cooperation and sociology and the cooperation that would have helped such a kind of weak species survive over time. So how could this be? You’re saying you mean that religions actually don’t have much effect on human morality. That is what the studies are saying, actually. Now, you’re not learning a whole lot at church or synagogue or etc.. So the question, will America ever return to God? Well, of course, the answer is that America never left God, it’s just a whole bunch of different people’s ideas of God, if they believe in God. This headline, and I again recommend this website,, “Oxford anthropologist identifies seven universal rules of morality.” So these anthropologists went around talking to people about what they thought in terms of morality. Seven moral rules seen in every culture studied ultimately come down to: One, family values. Two, group loyalty. Three, reciprocity. Four, bravery. Five, respect. Then fairness. Then property rights. So these seem to be basic human moral stances, family values, group loyalty, reciprocity, bravery, respect, fairness and property rights. Now you see that all of these have to do with, yes, survival, but also survival in social situations of tribal units. So it seems that these are very, very old in terms of our human evolution. And, yes, there’s a good reason for that, when we stop to think about it. I have here a picture that says prehistory and then history, and the history portion is much longer than the prehistory portion in terms of space taken up. But yes, it starts with the invention of writing in 3000 before the Common Era about five thousand years ago. But guess what? The human emotions have been evolving since 2.5 million years ago. So which is going to win out? Human writing, the ancient scriptures being not all that ancient actually, or human ancient wiring that goes back for millions of years? Hmm. I think I know the answer, if we consider religion to be about intuition and about emotion, about the body being involved and about pro social behavior. And, yes, that’s probably the answer that we ultimately get. Sleeping in church? Well, actually, it appears everyone’s been sleeping in church for a few thousand years now because we don’t appear to have learned very much from religion at all. Very interesting research out there. It is new research in terms of cognitive studies. But as we learn more and more about evolution, we learn that, well, yeah, maybe all of those ideas about how we have to have religion to act morally in culture probably are not true because we already developed them anyway. Who knows? But it’s interesting research. Thanks a lot for listening this week. This is the last full week for the summer of Coffee and Wisdom. Starting next week will go on a Tuesday/Thursday live schedule. And next week, Mystery and the Inner Sanctum. I’ll be thinking about opening that door and the people who have tried to open that door into the great mysteries of religion. And Sunday, 10:30 a.m. I’ll be talking about Burying the Lead, the Power of May Day and its many stories of freedom. Thanks a lot for listening this week. And I’ll see you Sunday or next Tuesday. Thank you.

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