Articles of Faith
Daniel Baird’s “God’s Slow Death” (April) discusses several books that suggest Western liberal democracies ought to eradicate religion “in favour of a more rational form of humanism.” This provocative thesis has certainly sold books. None of the authors, however, grapples with the very real issue of morality in the absence of God.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins reduces the position of God and morality to mere “sucking up, apple polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky.” According to Dawkins, God’s ethical imperative is nothing more than the expression of man’s childish need for an external morality, creating an opportunity for him to be rewarded or, at least, to avoid punishment. But without an absolute morality, as provided by God, what’s wrong, for instance, with engineering human genetics to create a race of super beings or reducing a small number of people to slavery in order to benefit a majority? Dawkins attempts to use Kant to create a purely materialistic ethical imperative; perhaps absolute morality can be found through some calculus of human happiness, but the issue is far from trivial.
All of the authors, especially Sam Harris, do a solid job of outlining how religion has been misused to the detriment of humanity. No credible argument can be made to justify the brutality of the Crusades or 9/11. That said, the fact that God’s name is misused is no argument that God does not exist. If a nation’s armed forces commit war crimes, it does not mean the nation doesn’t exist. Rather, it means the nation’s name has been brought into disrepute. Harris forgets that religion, like every other human activity with potential for good (science, politics, art), can be used for evil. Certainly, in the last century, the greatest evils — and there was a lot of competition — were not committed by people of faith but by faith’s opponents.
Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao were thoroughly anti-religious (although, tellingly, Hitler occasionally covered his rage at Christianity with fig leaves). In fairness, the evil they perpetrated was not most directly a consequence of their materialism, but rather their extremism and lack of humanity. However, it is at least arguable that their extremism and lack of humanity was the result of a morality unconstrained by anything other than materialism — humans and humans alone as the measure of all things. Without some anchoring, morality is subject to drift. While religion is not a perfect harbour for morality to dock in, without it there is a real danger of morality becoming that of the totalitarian state.
In his charming review essay, Daniel Baird reports on French philosopher Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam without commenting much on Onfray’s typically French secularist distortion of the traditions he hates so much. The philosopher, Baird writes, believes that “the three great monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — are equivalent in their deeper origin and structure.” This flat structuralist reading is hopelessly ahistorical and uninformed. Onfray imagines that in the face of death, at the point of “deeper origin” (early Judaism?) “denial takes over and transforms [death] into a beginning . . . . God, heaven and spirits come forth to dispel the pain and violence of death.” As far as Biblical scholarship can tell, earliest Judaism had no happy ending/beginning in an afterlife; the Psalms speak only of Sheol, the pit, a kind of dark repository or dormitory of the dead, somewhat like the Greek limbo.
Most observant Jews I know (and I’ll include myself here) do not believe in pie in the sky, by and by. Onfray’s claim that all three monotheisms share a profound hatred of humanity, intelligence, life, and sexuality is hateful. It’s also utterly wrong as regards Judaism; I won’t speak for the other two, except to note that they have sometimes been guilty of some of these charges but have just as often preached and acted from a profound love of humanity and life. Judaism takes life and the preservation of life as the highest principle, to which all other commandments and principles are subordinate
Onfray cannot understand “the monotheisms” because he knows so little about any of them and because he sees them all through the distorting lens of the first Enlightenment, the root both of secular French society and of the modernist disdain for religion as obscurantist and dishonest. Baird talks about taking his daughter to a Kol Nidre service at a traditional synagogue to savour “the rites of many of her ancestors and . . . a world view that is deep and powerful.” Why not teach her something of the actual facts about Judaism? Had he known them, he might have been in a better position to demonstrate what Onfray’s ideas are: dishonest and obscurantist.
Dr. Andrew Colin Gow
Director, Medieval and Early Modern Institute
University of Alberta
Daniel Baird’s review of three prominent polemics against religion rightly points out the utter failure of Dawkins, Harris, and Onfray to take the full breadth of human experience seriously, preferring instead to traffic in rhetorically striking, yet logically suspect, condemnations of religious belief.
I wonder, however, if all Baird leaves us with is a vaguely defined notion of the “religious impulse,” useful for scratching an itch we can’t explain and, at the same time, resistant to any attempt to explain it away. Baird speaks of the Kol Nidre service he attended with his daughter as “deep and powerful” but stops well short of affirming that it makes any kind of meaningful contact with objective reality. While this benign view of religious belief is certainly to be preferred to the invective of Dawkins and company, I find myself wondering if Baird has taken his own argument seriously enough.
If the impulse to seek meaning and transcendence is indeed as pervasive and persistent as Baird suggests, if “the fear of the abyss of meaninglessness” forces us to posit a creator and redeemer to “honestly read our experience of the world as substantive,” it may be that religious belief represents more than a psychological coping mechanism necessary for dealing with the harshness of reality. We have to ask why it would occur to us that our lives ought to have meaning or that our experience of the world should be substantive. Perhaps religious belief is one important way in which we learn to see the world, and our experience of it, as it really is.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Your Attention, Please
In “Driven to Distraction” (April) John Lorinc advances an effective argument against the persistent misperception that doing many things at once somehow saves us time — a particularly important message for business managers who undermine their own objectives by ignoring the numerous studies that exist on the matter. I would underscore Jeffrey Jones’s point that “you have to have some time when you are unavailable.” YouTube, chat rooms, and the blogosphere don’t, as Lorinc suggests, “suck up time” so much as we give it to them. This distinction is critical to motivating self-guidance.
However, while concentration is crucial for certain kinds of tasks, it is precisely the opposite for creative thinking and thought connecting. Awareness of multiple related and unrelated inputs can provide valuable inspiration and insight in certain situations, especially those already well served by “deep thought.” The wider the selection of sources, the more opportunity there is for cross-pollination. I often tell friends that I’d rather attend a gathering of biologists, musicians, mathematicians, and hat makers than another Internet conference where everyone is regurgitating the same information — only the former actually gets my brain firing.
This barrage of information is hardly wasted, nor is there really a memory conundrum. While we wilfully and rightly discard most of the details of a broad information survey, what of the impressions the data leave behind? These memories are a key form of the intelligence that operates during rapid cognition, helping us to make decisions in a blink.
I grew up with Nintendo 64 and a digital cable box with 800 channels, so it’s no surprise that I don’t have any trouble becoming accustomed to new technology. My parents, however, didn’t grow up with such necessities, and they don’t seem to have any problem becoming friends with technology either.
Despite the fact that most adults, including my parents, can’t find the escape key on their computers, they almost unanimously accept technology. On my morning jogs, I always pass a number of grown-ups who are plugged into their iPods, more interested in their music than in saying a polite “good morning.” It’s as if technology were someone they just met, whom they nevertheless feel they’ve been best friends with forever.
I don’t know how to explain it, but it seems as if our parents are going to continue loving what we invent. That’s fine with me — after all, isn’t one of the reasons we invent new technology to amaze old-timers, who still consider theirs the golden generation?
And yes, for those who were wondering, I do have my mother on msn Messenger. I don’t think it’s weird, just another step forward.
St. John’s, Newfoundland
Patrick White’s “Red Rush” (April) offers an excellent example of one more nail in Canada’s resource-management coffin. By ignoring ecosystem science and asserting short-sighted, narrowminded, and self-serving political agendas, Canadian policy-makers have overseen the destruction of one of the world’s largest fisheries (the northwest Atlantic cod) and are in the process of rapidly depleting the world’s secondlargest oil reserve while contributing to the climate-related destruction of our forests. By failing to protect our natural assets, they are also destroying the community livelihoods so dependent on these riches. Quite a feat, when you think about it.
From what I understand, the BC government is set to replant the forest with more pine-beetle food, and the federal government is helping keep temperatures nice and warm so the rest of our forests can die. This, alongside talk of processing the infested wood and piping it to the tar sands, where it can be used to fuel more oil extraction. Perhaps, in some warped way, this is what they mean by sustainability.
President, Ivey Foundation
In Alberta, we also have a lot of aging, vulnerable pine forest, and it’s now being hit by the mountain pine beetle. Learning from the BC experience, loggers here are colluding with the government to go the same route, ramping up the cutting and going into forests that have been off limits up to now. Our minister of “sustainable development” was on the radio recently, defending plans to let a favourite company clearcut around Bragg Creek, despite the vocal objections of residents, on the grounds that doing so might stop the beetle. It won’t, of course.
As I say on page 455 of my Handbook of the Canadian Rockies,
Something is going to destroy the unnaturally old pine stands of the Canadian Rockies, be it fire or disease . . . . How strange: little insects that selectively and neatly kill only certain tree species, opening up the woods naturally, without removing nutrients or damaging the soil, are used as an excuse by humans to wreck an entire ecosystem.
That was originally written in 1985.
Alison Gillmor (“It’s a Dog’s Life,” April) says doggie author Jon Katz “counsels us to be aware of what we’re asking of dogs and why we’re asking it.” When I ask anything of my dogs (two rescue schnauzers), they’re usually okay with it after I tell them why I am asking. A good explanation goes a lot further than “because I said so.”
Vancouver, British Columbia
Peter MacDonald’s April letter in response to Larry Krotz’s (“Separate and Unequal,” February) awakened in me a memory, dormant for thirty-seven years, that may be germane to the issue of native education.
At the time, I was employed with the new Department of Development in Prince Edward Island, which had a mandate rooted in a federal-provincial agreement on social and economic development. Given the resources then available, I thought there might be an opportunity for me to bring some program assistance to the Mi’kmaq community on pei. I drove to Lennox Island Reserve to meet with a young woman activist, whose name I no longer remember, to discuss means for motivating children to take a greater interest in school.
“Why should native children stay in school? ” she asked. “They begin school with the Dick and Jane readers, learning about white kids doing things that native kids never do, in homes they never get to live in. Readers in the later grades are about white people’s achievements, which may have come at a cost to our own people.
“Then they are asked to learn arithmetic: ‘Find the area of a field,’ the book says, but there are no fields on many reserves. In geography, they must learn about strange countries and their capital cities, but countries and boundaries are not part of our experience. For us, it would be more useful to learn about streams, lakes, and rivers — our travel routes, where the fish are. And the history taught in school is white man’s history, in which our own people are shown as savages. The lessons are about wars among Europeans, about British kings and their generals, lessons even white kids don’t have any interest in.
“Native kids aren’t stupid, Mr. Green. Native kids are smarter than white kids, who stay in school even when the lesson isn’t worth the time spent learning it. That is not where our children want to learn; it is not according to their nature.”
Unfortunately, my role in the Department of Development was too limited for me to address the issues the activist had raised. All I could do was relay the information to education planners, an exercise that was entirely without effect. It is only when native youth have persisted through school and have been elected to positions of leadership within band councils that there has been progress in aboriginal development matters.
J. E. Green
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island