Religion and globality

I was banging along with my thoughts about the new global changes (I really need a new term for this; “the coming revolutions”? … “new world order” (barf)? … “Philosophy 2.0”? That I like!), and I asked myself, “Self, what role will religion play throughout these massive changes?” And Self answered, “Religion will play the same role as nation states. It’s just that the associative bond is creedal instead of geographical.”

What did Self mean? Well, nation states nowadays need to choose between connectivity and insularity. If they choose to connect with other states, economically and politically and epistemologically, then they will reap the deep rewards of cooperation. But their cultures will also be infiltrated by outside ideas, from Pepsi to disco to women’s rights. They will have to learn how to tolerate outside influences and tolerate differences in opinions among their citizenry. In the end, learning such toleration is a good thing for everyone.

On the other hand, if nation states choose insularity, they will in all likelihood degenerate to the point that the rest of us have to invade and co-opt them, either because we need their resources, or they’re getting violent, or we can’t stand by and watch what they’re doing to their own citizens.

Same for religion. Some religions, or sects within religions, are open to outside ideas and influences. The Protestant tradition I was raised in was always asking how to read the Gospel in the light of our experience gained through science, literature, politics, or other religions. It wasn’t a matter of cleverly combining some literalist reading of, say, Genesis with Darwin; rather, it was a matter of taking seriously what we learn through our secular studies and using that as a way of opening up new insight into our own religion. So it was very open to connection with all sorts of new ideas and lines of thought.

The religions which typically grab the headlines, though, are closed. They stubbornly insist on their own traditions and visions and resort to warfare talk whenever threatened by an idea that challenges their own accepted dogmas (beating their plowshares back into swords). They are the Irans of the ideological community. Indeed, the creationist fanatics in Texas are commonly referred to as the Texas Taliban. Many of these people homeschool their children because they don’t want them to come into contact with “corrupting” ideas – thus shoving them into an educational burka of sorts. Their mindset is, “We’ve got the truth! Now don’t disturb us with any new ideas, or we might lose track of it!” It’s exactly the same mindset as insular nation states.

This is not just an analogy, of course. The two phenomena are connected. Most insular nation states use some dogmatic and conservative religion to maintain their powerbase, which typically involves denying a large segment of the population any opportunity to earn money or get involved in politics. And many insular religions would love nothing more than to set up a compound or restricted community to as to geographically isolate themselves from the outside world.

My secular humanist dream is that insular religious states will become simply impossible as ideas and economic opportunities spread – especially as they spread to women. Tom Barnett, in Blueprint for the Future, convincingly makes the connection between the oppression of women and the back-asswardness of nation states. The general rule is true: if women are educated and given the same political and economic opportunities as men, you’ve got a developed nation on your hands. (And, no, I will not accept any garbage that sounds like “In my religion, women have a very special status – just one that is different from that of men.” That ultimately is code for “We keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant.”)

If knowledge and commerce get shared, insular religion goes out (inshallah). But if a religion is interested in exploring new ideas, and furthering itself by co-opting new ideas, then it really can play a role, and a welcome one. Because in addition to arguing over whether this strategy or that one is the best, we need to also be arguing over the goals we are trying to achieve. Arguing over goal-setting means arguing over big pictures, and that is exactly where open religions – and not closed ones! – need to be speaking loud and clear. Religion can orient efforts and strategies, if their believers are at the same time listening and learning as well from the world outside their own creeds. The same goes for traditional cultures. And for each and every one of us.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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17 Responses to Religion and globality

  1. Pingback: Religion and globality

  2. Kleiner says:

    Interesting post, this “Self” of yours seems like an interesting fellow.

    Roman Catholicism has perhaps the longest history of trying to walk this tight-rope between identity and openness. The Church has not always walked this fine line well, and she continues to struggle. The Catholic university system is perhaps a microcosm of this global shift – how to balance a distinctive [Catholic] identity (which we don’t want to water down) while also taking seriously and being open to science and other “secular studies”. The trick is to do this while remaining whole and integrated. Some traditions that have often been open (I have in mind some lines of the the Protestant tradition) have sometimes allowed themselves to get “compartmentalized” (with “religion and morality over here and politics, science, etc over there).

    Pope B16 did a nice job, I think, of articulating the role of religion in the public square during his recent trip. The Church (religion) should:
    (a) Be a voice for human rights and the inherent dignity of the person, pushing back against both military might and capitalist consumerism when those systems dispossess populations. She should serve as a reminder that “progress” sometimes has costs and that we have an obligation to serve the welfare of others.
    (b) Be a voice for “eternal truths”. While there are new and important ideas which religious persons should not hide from (and in fact, should support), there are also moral absolutes (“ancient wisdom”) which need to determine our overall trajectory/goals. What is the happy and best life, and what absolutes shape that trajectory? In light of that, what limits should be set on certain scientific inquiries (genetic research, cloning, etc). So religion in the public square can, perhaps, function a the “world’s conscience”. At the very least, she can be a stalwart against the rising tide of relativism (which inevitably hurts humankind rather than helps it).


  3. Kleiner says:

    That smiley face was inadvertent. I was not joking about “ancient wisdom”.


  4. Mike says:

    Religion can orient efforts and strategies, if their believers are at the same time listening and learning as well from the world outside their own creeds. The same goes for traditional cultures. And for each and every one of us.

    The implicit question here is how do we get people “listening and learning as well from the world”? The answer is as simple as requiring them to volunteer at CAPSA for 3-6 months or some such similar public service (I think the key ingredient here is something that requires them to face the world. I can’t guarantee results but I’ve seen it work a couple times with CAPSA.). This TED talk by Patrick Awuah gets at the not so subtle nuances involved in training leaders. When I was at USU I learned as much from working with CAPSA and multicultural student services as I did in conversations with you (Charlie) and Nate. Don’t get me started about what was being taught in the classroom! 🙂 (With the obvious highlights being the hybrid class with Emil Kramer and that one sweet contemporary ethical theory class with Wilcox and Paul O’Neil. The CS department was living in the past though I wish I would/could have taken a class on software design patterns.)


  5. Kleiner says:

    Surprise, I disagree with Mike.

    The evidence overwhelmingly shows that religious persons do far more charitable and public service work than non-religious persons. So I don’t think the problem is that religious persons don’t “face the world” enough (haven’t we put that Nzian caricature to bed yet?!). If anything, it is non-religious persons who do not seem to “face the world” enough since all the evidence shows they do not volunteer as much of their time or give as generously. (This is no argument against CAPSA or other very worthwhile non-religious service organizations, my wife is a psychologist and works with many of these organizations).

    More exposure to multicultural student organizations would be a good idea (especially in homogenous communities like USU). Inter-religious dialogue is important (though, as B16 reminded us this last trip, we should remember that the purpose of dialogue is truth, it is not just tolerant nodding).

    But let’s be careful to not assume that the secular world is “value-neutral”, as if they will get exposure to the “outside world” by leaving their religions. No “world-view” is value-neutral. In fact, the whole point is that the way in which we “face the world” (volunteer and give) needs to be informed by a value system. I am not anti-science in any way at all – but science sucks at morality. The way we engage the scientific “new world” needs to be informed by values that come from “ancient wisdom” (moral absolutes). I think this is the positive role for religion in the public square in the 21st century.


  6. Mike says:

    I’m not sure where I said “religious people don’t face the world enough”. Feel free to go at it! 🙂

    I wish these problems were as simple as something like religious conversion or deconversion.


  7. Kleiner says:

    Well, you said
    “requiring them to volunteer at CAPSA for 3-6 months or some such similar public service (I think the key ingredient here is something that requires them to face the world.”

    and I presumed that they “them” referred to religious people since the context was religious people needing to “listen and learn as well from the world”. But if there is no disagreement, then good.

    My point is this: the “listening and learning” is not a one-way street. I quite agree that it is a mistake for religious communities to get “talibanized” and cut themselves off from science, progress, and the contemporary world. But it is equally a mistake for scientists to cut themselves off from the “ancient wisdom” (absolute moral norms) that guide humanity in a sane and compassionate ordering of society toward the authentic ends of man.

    Both science and religion contribute to a developing view of the human condition. But isn’t there an implicit bias in arguing that religions need to be more open to science without at the same time arguing that science needs to be more open to the ancient moral wisdom of religions? I hear plenty about the former, but hardly anything about the latter. In fact, you get blasted as “anti-science” if you suggest that science must conform to moral norms (see the embryonic stem cell debate).


  8. Mike says:

    I included in charlie’s quote “And for each and every one of us” and I said “people” and not “religious people”. This wasn’t a mistake.

    I agree that listening in this context needs to be a two way street but some forms don’t lend themselves to deep listening. These forms are found both inside and outside of religions. (“forms” here meaning patterns in thought — epistemic humility, moral fallibilism, etc.)

    I think that’s similar to the distinction Charlie is making with open and closed religions. Humanisms that don’t call themselves religion can also be “closed religions”, that’s basically how I think of Communism as it’s been often practiced (caveat: I’ve only read a few books on the subject, one by Richard Pipes).


  9. Payne says:

    “I am not anti-science in any way at all – but science sucks at morality. The way we engage the scientific “new world” needs to be informed by values that come from “ancient wisdom” (moral absolutes). I think this is the positive role for religion in the public square in the 21st century.”

    If you intended to treat of science as nothing more than word implies – a material, mechanistic, empirical view as opposed to the mystical, teleological, dogmatic – I would agree, although I go further, to say that science not only “sucks at morality”, but that it is oblivious of it! Science does not treat of morality.

    Indeed, any “moral science” or notion of “moral absolutes” is utterly subjective and represents the most laughable, shameless contortion of reason man is capable of. They do not exist. They can be enforced, though.

    A problem with the enforcing of moral absolutes and ancient wisdom, especially the sort to be found in much religious dogma is that its dominating power and self-proclaimed infallibility is just such – infallible – knowledge not open to critical review. Just as a species not subject to selection will succumb to mutation and degradation, so too with knowledge. Infallible knowledge is often the most fallible, though it may not have the heart to admit it, being “infallible” and all…

    Morality does not need religion necessarily to survive, but it needs something similar. This is one of the great problems of the modern world (and I recognize “modernity” as we know it has not arrived everywhere) at the heart of much of existentialism. So goes the oft-wrongly-attributed Ivan Karamazov “quote”: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” What exactly it is that permits the existence of secular ethics in the absence of God, I do not know, though there is no doubt that secular ethics exist nonetheless.

    For many, the idol of God has been sounded out with a hammer and shattered, being now hollow and weak. Many of us, as much as we’d like to believe in God, and as much as we may recognize a force which fills the same role as God in regards to morality is lacking and needed, cannot honestly believe in him. This is the case with many religious people, even! It is not enough to say that one believes in a God, some karmic force, some posthumous weighing of the soul a lá Ancient Egypt, etc… One must TRULY believe. For the growing majority, this is not honestly possible. God is no longer that force, and must be replaced. I agree with you there.

    No amount of science can give us a moral sense, as no amount of research into the natural world can give rise to conclusions regarding the way man ought to behave, and thankfully, it is not trying (for the most part)!

    Maybe we do need a myth, though the necessity for that myth is precipitated by the death of God, and thus cannot be him! It is not enough to resurrect him; we may need to name a successor.


  10. Kleiner says:

    “Indeed, any “moral science” or notion of “moral absolutes” is utterly subjective and represents the most laughable, shameless contortion of reason man is capable of. They do not exist. They can be enforced, though.” – Payne

    I strenuously object to this point of view. Rather, I think it is moral subjectivism / relativism that is the most laughable contortion of reason. Do you have an argument for your claim here? An argument that can stand up to scrutiny? Forgive the bluntness here, but I think the “doctrine” of moral relativism is one of the most obviously false things out there.

    I do not think we need religion in order to be moral. If that were so, then how are Socrates and Aristotle such profound moral sages? What is it that permits us to ahve a “secular ethics”? I say natural reason. How else to explain that atheists, agnostics, and religious persons of all stripes have, basically, the same moral codes?

    Aside: Even if I think (which I do) that God is the ultimate cause of everything (including moral absolutes), insofar as our access to those moral truths is grounded in right reason, we can know the effect without knowing the cause. So I agree with Ivan Karamazov in an ultimate sense, but not in a proximate sense.


  11. How is it that ‘natural reason’ is not relative? Doesn’t this mean that for us human beings we share a ‘natural’ state that predisposes us to sharing certain values? This does not make these shared morals objective… instead to me it makes more sense to call them subjective, for they are based on what it is we are as human beings?

    What argument exists to prove that there is a ‘right reason’ that demonstrates the existence of moral absolutes? Even if there are shared feelings about right and wrong, good and bad, it does not follow there are some that are true by virtue of reason and some that are false, and even those that can be identified as held in common can not easily be called objective. For even those held in common are relative to what we are?


  12. Kleiner says:

    Two things:
    1) I suppose we need to define our terms. By “subjective” I thought you meant (and please correct me if I am wrong” something more than “discoverable by subjects”. I assumed you meant something like “relative”, radically contingent and not universal. If moral values are seated (provisionally or ultimately) in human nature, I think that is enough for most people to call them “objective” or “universal”.

    2) I think the onus is on you, not me here. Since 99.9% of humans throughout the course of human history have thought moral values were objective – and since we all, including you, live as if they are – it seems to me the onus is on the relativist to prove that they are not.
    Still, if you want what I think is a good argument, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (especially Book I.7).
    Or here is, in a nutshell, Pojman’s argument (found in a lot of intro to ethics textbooks):
    Pojman’s Argument:
    1) There is a universal human nature.
    2) Moral principles are aimed at providing for the interests of rational beings such as humans
    3) Some moral principles will promote the interests of humans better than others.
    4) Those principles that optimally promote human interests are objectively valid moral principles.
    5) Therefore, since there is a common human nature, there are moral principles applicable to all of humanity.

    Peter Kreeft (the one living man who was more than a teacher for me, I consider him my “master”) gives a nice review of the main arguments for relativism, the errors in those arguments, along with arguments for abolutism. You can either listen to the audio, or there is a long summary text below the audio links.


  13. To be honest I have been trying to work out whether what I ramble on about should more accurately be called naturalistic rather then relativistic. I think my actual opinion stands somewhere in the middle (a naturalized relativism?).

    The truth is (and ain’t that a funny way for a ‘type’ of relativist to begin) I am usually sceptical about claims made about Objective Truth and I think that this is a healthy way to be. I am a staunch opponent of epistemic arrogance and think that we humans would probably be kinder to one another if we stopped making so many claims about what we think IS the case – for perhaps we would be more tolerant etc if we remembered that what we think is speculative (and please note that this doesn’t mean that we are not able to put forth our opinion/theory with no conviction… or faith… for how else are to we to develop rigorous ideas?)

    For starters, even if we share predispositions that could be called ‘universal’ it doesn’t follow that we are easily able to identify them accurately using logic, reason and words and it could be the case that these dispositions are general rather then specific. When we identify values to qualify the way we feel there could be room for variation in our interpretations, for as sure as we can see similarities between values between different cultures we can also see a plethora of differences.

    There may well be a universal human nature (and I’d accept this for it would help to explain how translation between different cultures becomes possible) yet it could be a universal nature ‘well lost’ (Nelson Goodman) given that we are not necessarily able to know/qualify/define that nature. Does not the world exist separately from our attempts to define and categorize it? Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that this thing called human nature is able to be defined. We might argue that we can identify certain traits/attributes that form the scaffolding of that which we are yet these do not give a strict definition of our nature and perhaps our nature doesn’t need a strict definition… In fact, if we considered our nature to be a verb (a becoming) rather then a noun (a being) then the nature of our nature could change as would our moral principles (especially if the time frame is long enough and evolutionary development is accepted)?

    Yet, none of this means that some values aren’t necessarily ‘better’ then others (at promoting human interests)… yet why they are considered to be better is not necessarily because they are strictly speaking True while others are strictly False. It is interesting to note at this point that some might even argue that moral principles are not about what promotes human interests for instead they might insist that the truth of a moral principle exists in some way prior to human interests (perhaps by virtue of a concept akin to God). So even in our understanding of what constitutes a moral principle there seems to be room for different interpretations?

    Certainly, I would agree that the fact that some values are more useful then others suggests that they in some sense ‘fit’ better, yet the reason why they fit better is because of the nature of how, who, what and where we are…

    So in many ways I agree with your position yet I am inclined to call the truth of moral principles subjective rather then objective for I believe that we do see the world from within our own perspective and it is a human one that we share and yet which is open to interpretation…

    I agree that we share a universal nature yet I do not agree that this means that we share the same opinions/ideas/values and interpretation of that which we are.

    Hmm… isn’t it funny that I can say something similar agreeing with you that we share certain kinds of values by virtue of our humanity yet without positing that our principles are objective?

    I guess when it comes down to it I do not have as much faith in reason to illuminate absolute Truth. Furthermore acknowledging that we are fallible seems to be a noble value that in many ways promotes empathy and understanding. Accepting that we understand the world from the limits of what we are seems to be a good thing.

    To say that a certain truth is relative is to suggest that it is dependent on the conditions that make it true. It is true for x. How could truth be defined in isolation from that by virtue of which it is true?

    Not sure if this is all that well put… I should be working rather then arguing philosophical concepts… yet its good to do so for its been a while. Thanks for helping me to use my noggin! 🙂

    Oh… and I haven’t as yet taken a look at the sources you mentioned but am interested in doing so.


  14. Kleiner says:

    Very well stated, I think. I am, on the whole, epistemically “optimistic”, though I don’t think I am epistemically “arrogant” (but my optimism might be what you call arrogance!). I agree, we should be humble and should recognize our limitations.

    But I don’t think our differences in epistemic optimism or pessimism need come into play here. I guess I don’ really care what you call these shared moral values (objective, subjective). If they are “relative to human nature (even a nature that is temporalized”), I am willing to call that “universal” since human nature is universally shared.

    When it comes to ethics, I prefer to start from what I think most take to be obvious. At the end of every class I teach, I always leave my students (who, because of the intensity of difference in positions throughout the course, might be inclined to think you can “argue for anything”) with a very basic truth: “Remember, if you come into a room and see $5 on the floor, leave it there – it is not yours.”

    I don’t think we need to have an incredibly robust view of our own nature in order to know that certain moral principles “fit” and others don’t. That said, I quite agree with you that these moral principles are subject to some interpretation. The situation, the character of the individual involved, etc, will all play a role in determining how a general principle (“don’t steal”) manifests itself. The ability to make that determination is itself a moral quality (Aristotle calls it phronresis).

    I think you will appreciate Kreeft’s outline of the issues.


  15. Kleiner says:

    Sorry for the inadvertent smiley faces.


  16. Huenemann says:

    First, on the little issue of relativism and human nature: I think Primate’s skepticism is a good thing, and it fits in with what I’ve been finding in my Nietzsche studies. Nietzsche urged us to remember that all attempts at knowledge are coming from a human being, and may be distorted, flavored, and skewed by that being. That’s why he thought we need a good psychological understanding of human beings before we can know what to make of what all the other scientists, artists, etc. are doing. we need to facotr out the “all too human” contributions we bring to the knowing experience.

    But this thought makes some people despair of ever having any knowledge, since factoring out your human distortions seems impossible (you being a human being, and all). But Nz actually thought that, with diligence, you can do it. But you need to be constantly on guard, experimenting, and questioning. And whatever conclusions you come to must remain tentative.

    I can’t see that Kleiner or Aristotle (“Kleinertotle”?) would object here at all. It might be that human psychology is more complicated than Aristotle believed (well, yeah), but he’d certainly agree that the state of mind of the observer affects the observation.

    I’m broadly sympathetic to Aristotle’s project of figuring out what the good human life is on the basis of a scientific understanding of human nature. It’s just that I think the specifics, once you factor in Darwin and materialism, lead to some important differences.

    Second, on the bigger issue: if you use single quotes instead of double quotes, you won’t make the damn smiley faces.


  17. Kleiner says:

    Here is the mistake that I think is often made: Just because the subject is radically involved, we make the move to the claim that ‘everything is subjective’. Put another way: just because we recognize that we are in a ‘hermeneutic condition’ where ‘everything is interpreted’ (Nz, Heidegger, postmodernity) does not entail that ‘all interpretations are equal’ and that there is no reason to think that some interpretations are better than others.

    So I think Primate’s attitude is a good one, though I would not call it ‘skepticism’. Instead, I just call it intellectual prudence. Because of our hermeneutic condition, we must be careful. I am reminded always of Lonergan’s ‘transcendental precepts’:
    Be attentive
    Be intelligent
    Be reasonable
    Be responsible

    If that is what Huenemann and Primate mean by being ‘skeptical’, then I guess I am a ‘skeptic’ too!

    For those that find reflection on our “hermeneutic situation” interesting, I would highly recommend reading Jean Grondin’s excellent little book: ‘Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics’. It is accessible to philosophy major level readers, and gives an excellent overview of the landscape (the chapters on Heidegger and Gadamer are especially good).


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