Four interesting articles

Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies, 1848....

How important was Christianity's role in bringing about the abolition of slavery? Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently read four interesting articles online.

  • In Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me, UCC Minister Lillian Daniel takes aim at those who reject traditional religious affiliation but who retain a sense of themselves as “spiritual” beings. She sees such a position as shallow and narcissistic, and suggests that such persons find themselves more “fascinating” than ancient religions, but in truth such self-centered thinking is ultimately “bland.”
  • In response, Religious Studies professor Kate Blanchard wrote Spiritual But Not Religious? Come Talk to Me, in which she assails traditional Sunday-morning religion for being, well, boring. She understands that S.B.N.R. persons often must show great courage to disaffiliate from patriarchal, abusive, or otherwise controlling forms of religious communities, and basically implies that “bland” liberal churches need to do something more than just criticize those who identify as S.B.N.R. if they want to win them over.

So what do you think, dear readers? Are spiritual-but-not-religious people bland, or is it the churches they left behind that are truly bland?

Now for the second set of articles I’ve recently read:

  • In Confessions of an Ex-Moralist, atheist philosopher Joel Marks argues that too much atheist thinking about morality and ethics remains influenced by religious and metaphysical thinking, and that a truly secular ethics needs to be free of any appeal to some sort of transcendental principle like “goodness” or “rightness.” Instead, Marks declares that what drives the moral and ethical views of most people is nothing more than their own preferences and desires.
  • Catholic apologist Mark Shea responses to Marks in his article Fool Says in His Heart There is No God. Shea gives Marks props for taking his atheist beliefs to their logical conclusion, but then insists that any kind of ethical or moral system totally divorced from religion or belief in God will eventually devolve into “might makes right,” with the desires of the stronger inevitably trumping the wants of the weaker. Shea insists that, for example, only belief in God led to the abolition of slavery — implying that, in a fully secular society, sooner or later slavery will make a comeback.

Even though I am hardly a secularist, I don’t think Shea makes a very convincing argument, and this is because I know that Christian thinkers have for most of the church’s history defended slavery as much as they’ve attacked it — just as, even today, some Christians vigorously support the death penalty while others oppose it. So Shea’s argument seems to be pretty much a straw man. But what do you think? Is a truly secular ethics possible? Or is it doomed to collapse under the inherent injustice of what Christians call “fallen human nature”?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Mark Mitchell

    I think that Carl McColman’s Tofu Theory applies here. If I am trying to have “spirituality” divorced from any religious tradition, it will be pretty bland. Plus, we need the guidance of the religious traditions. Whether I am praying as a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or Whatever, the guidance of those who have gone down the path before will be very helpful. “Do it yourself religion” really doesn’t work.

    By the same token, “Do It Yourself” morality doesn’t work either. Rejection of transcendental values is already getting our culture into a real mess. For instance, before no fault divorces when it was assumed by everybody, including the State, that marriage should be forever, marriages and families were much more stable. Now days everybody pretty much assumes that their marriage is disposable.

    Of course, Christians are sinners and have justified things like slavery that should have been condemned. I believe that to a certain extent we are all hypocrites. As Paul said, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.”

    I think that Shea is correct. A world where nobody believes in anything except “if it feels good do it,” will soon be very corrupt. It appears that the only moral value in this valueless society is “Tolerance.” Soon society may be so “Tolerant” that all of us members of “Hate Groups,” like the Roman Catholic Church, will be sent away to be re-educated. If we refuse to be re-educated we must be punished. I agree with Shea that “secular ethics” will result, ultimately, in the Gulag and the Gas Chamber.

    • Shine

      I am always pained to hear of people leaving the Church to pursue their “spirituality”. Even though her words seem harsh, I do think she has a point –– pursuing our spirituality over submitting to the laws of the Church is prideful and rather narcissistic. It says “my way” is better than the Church’s way. I hear those who argue that the Church is wrapped up in power, and they have issue with that; but religion is how imperfect humans attempt to relate to a perfect God. You will always be able to find flaws with any faith if you live it and look into it deeply enough. It is not our place to judge –– that is God’s place. If the leaders in the Church are corrupt, they will have to answer to God for that. But I think leaving the faith is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If someone is “bored” at church, what is the lesson there? How can you renew your spirit? I was always taught that you only “get out of” Mass what you bring to it. If there is an obstacle to your fully investing yourself in the service, remove that, not your commitment to the faith.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    I’d much rather be bland and boring than condescending and self-righteous, which is how Lillian Daniel comes across in her article. I would hate to have her as my pastor. Or even as a Facebook friend. Yes, tradition is important (I love tradition, and I attend a parish with a very traditional liturgy) – but also important is kindness toward others who have had experiences of God outside the narrow walls of a church.

    • Carl McColman

      I think the Rev. Daniel may have thought she was being prophetic, but she does come across as whiny and self-involved. Mainline Protestant churches are dying, in at least some measure due to the fact that young people find them boring and irrelevant. Rather than attacking those young people as narcissists, I think Daniel and her ilk would be better off looking in a mirror and asking what they could be doing differently. And as the old saying goes, it’s easier to attract flies with honey than with vinegar…

    • Nancy

      Darrell, I was one of the ones who feel as you do. Condescending, very much so. Also, ‘mean-spiritedness’ comes to mind which is not a trait one would associate normally with a Christian.

  • Joe Gunter

    That’s an easy one.
    “… fully secular society, sooner or later slavery will make a comeback.”
    Of course it would make a comeback. The only people who don’t think along these lines are the same people who think a bull will not charge you because you’re so nice.

    • Carl McColman

      And actually, when we consider how prevalent human trafficking is even today, to say “slavery would make a comeback” is a bit off the mark. It’s never really left.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    I agree, Carl. One thing to do differently might be to help the SBNR see what is beautiful about the traditions they’ve rejected, while acknowledging the problems they may have with those traditions. That’s what I love about the Emergent conversation: It’s OK to express doubt, to ask questions, without fear of being treated with derision or condescension. And the Emergent movement is also about reclaiming those elements of tradition that still “work” for many people.

  • Ron Krumpos

    You do not have to be religious to be a mystic either. I was introduced to mysticism by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist, when we privately met at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.

    He was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest creation.” I have studied the mystical traditions of the five major religions while writing my ebook. Many of their most prominent mystics often felt that their institutional religion “imprisoned” them, its faithful and itself with a long list of dogmas, doctrines, prohibitions, and rules, and let them know it.

  • Mary Leinhos

    Two wonderful discussion topics! I read Blanchard’s essay this morning before I read your post, Carl, and I found it heartening. In my recent efforts to give Christianity a genuine re-examination in my life, I have continued to find the traditional church format boring, passionless, lonely, and largely meaningless. I have found the most genuine, compelling, meaningful “Christian” gatherings by participating in our weekly Christian meditation group, in meetings and discussions within the Emergent Church stream, and in interfaith gatherings.where people have the courage to grapple with questions, uncertainties, and big concepts like justice. I am inclined to agree with John O’Donohue that faith is not a set of beliefs but an attraction to the divine. For me, church is not where two or more are gathered together to affirm beliefs, it is where two or more are gathered together to celebrate their attraction to the divine and reflect on how the divine manifests.

  • Nancy

    There was actually quite a bit of conversation following the article by Lillian Daniel. It had the character of a ‘war story’ told amongst colleagues, not really available to us humble lay folks. In any event, many thought her remarks were ‘snarky’. I am not clear on her true purpose, but unintentionally or not, she turns off alot of people. You can include me in that group.
    I know many SBNR people, most of my family included. I love them all whether they commit to Sunday mornings, Bible study or not. I know God does too. I DO believe they miss out a little on the community sense that many churches nurture. What they are not lacking is compassion, mercy and charity.
    I won’t comment on the blandness of some churches….we can’t and shouldn’t be competing with Dancing with the Stars and Survivor. If one is seeking entertainment, then please, don’t come to my church, you will be disappointed. If you are seeking a connectedness that ONLY comes from the sharing at the table, that sustains one for a lifetime of sorrows and joys, that reminds us each time that we are all one body, then, yes please come.

  • Carl McColman

    You’re right, Nancy, church is not entertainment, and it’s sad when churches forget this. Living as we do in a distracted society, I can see why many congregations have gone the “rock music” route, but sometimes Sunday mornings at those churches feel like nothing more than a concert with a motivational speech! I like a lot of contemporary Christian music (but a lot of it I find, ironically, bland), but I’ll take Thomas Tallis or Vaughan Williams over Third Day and David Crowder any day, at least as far as worship is concerned. I think churches need to regain a sense of mystery and contemplation in their worship. Then the silence would not be boring so much as an invitation to the mysteries. Nobody thinks a Zen center is boring — so there’s no reason why a deeply silent Anglican or Catholic Church should be anything other than profoundly spiritually moving.

  • Mary Leinhos

    As for the secular ethics question, while mysticism is not the same thing as ethics, Ron K. makes a good point that mysticism does not require a religious foundation. Mysticism and ethics do require one to relate to something larger than ego/self, and to overcome dualism (at least to a limited degree in the case of ethics, far more so for mysticism).

    One useful set of contributions that the “secular” realm makes to ethics includes scientific viewpoints on human behavior, decision making, and the evolution of ethics. I could go on at great length about these topics, but suffice for here to say that we ignore how our physical and psychological nature shape our behavior and choices at the peril of ethics. We need to understand the limitations of our basic nuts and bolts in order to be effective moral and ethical beings.

    For example, recent studies (as well as our own personal experiences) suggest that we have a finite amount of “will power” for any given period of time. So, as we use up our will power over the course of a day, it becomes harder and harder for us to make difficult decisions effectively, and we are more likley to select the default/easy option, even if it is not the optimal or morally correct option. I don’t believe this state of affairs constitutes “fallen human nature,” but rather just tiredness from reaching our decision saturation for the day. It does become mor or less of a moral failure if we explicitly acknowledge the fact of our limited will power and yet fail to use that information, as best we are able, to make important decisions when our will power is fueled up from rest.

    On the more positive side, there is probably also an evolutionary explanation for why an act of being generous increases our sense of well being, and being happy increases the likelihood that we will act generously. Why is it that when we discuss ethics and secularism, the conversation tends towards negative rather than positive human behavior? Both good and bad are evident in everyday individual and group behavior, much of which does not occur in a reigious context. Perhaps we are too cynical, and secular ethics is possible?

  • Dave

    Slavery has never left us. The disctinctions of who is legitimately enslaveable have become slightly less narrow, that is all. It is still forced upon billions sentient beings with the same capacity for suffering, and the same longing for freedom, as human beings: namely, the cows, pigs and chickens, along with the rats, mice, dogs, cats, chimpanzees and rabbits who are kept as exploitable property in laboratories. This slavery receives the blessing of both the religious and the secular worlds, in large part, so I don’t think either group can claim to be living by anything other than a ‘Might makes Right’ ethos.

    Mark Shea is of course right. If we insist on denying any transcendent aspect of morality, the whole concept of morality starts to look pretty fictional and arbitrary. We can all paint the moral spectrum any way we like, and act however we like in accordance with that spectrum. Stalinists, Nazis and serial killers are obvious examples of where this can lead when taken to extremes (though really, in a subjective moral world, there are no extremes), as are the owners, operators and beneficiaries of factory farms.

    Though the supporters of religion should be very hesitant before claiming that their position is any better. After all, so many of the world’s atrocities have come through the channels of religion, by people who ignore or distort the moral teachings of their faiths, or – in particularly ugly circumstances – by those who follow them to the letter.

    What’s sad about this though is that people like Joel Marks have to be so simplistically black-and-white about things: “Oh look, I have found a trace of religion in our modern morality – quick! throw it out! Everything that has any association with religion must be exterminated! Erase the history and start again!” This is a very fundamentalist approach, and is one of the reasons why people find fundamentalist Christians so sickening. Why can’t people learn from one another, even from groups they don’t generally see eye-to-eye with?

    Religions do a lot of stuff wrong, but they also do a few things well. Morality is arguably one of them. They laid much of the moral framework for our societies, and the fact that there is so much overlap between the moral cores of all of the world’s religions shows that they have hit upon some things that are are quite universal, and have an easily apparent benefit to humanity. (Of course religious people have had a habit of being abysmally hypocritical when actually applying these moral principles, but that’s a different story). They did this a lot earlier than the secularists ever did, and in many cases the religious traditions have explored this territory deeper than the secular ones have.

    I’m not saying that atheists should forever defer to religion as a reference for their moral thinking, but they should recognise the legacy that they have inherited from religion, and they should recognise that not all of that legacy is without value. Surely this is the only mature way forward for any group, whereas an all-or-nothing attitude just smacks of insecurity.

    After all, we don’t have to agree with Ancient Roman political values to appreciate the advances they made in engineering or law. We don’t have to agree with the slavery of America’s past, or the war-mongering of its, to appreciate the various good social or political principles that Americans can nevertheless teach us. Similarly, if atheists like Marks expect to have their contribution to the world taken seriously and fairly, they’d do well to lead by example, and take seriously the contributions of others.

  • Jeff

    The ethics without God experiment has already been run repeatedly in communist countries. The result a number killed that far surpasses what Christianity accomplished in its efforts to enforce the faith. Even Nazism was left in the dust! After the fall of communism in the early 1990′s the Russian public educational system had the Association of Christian Schools International run a program to train Russian educators in how to place ethics in students! Decades of atheism had left a moral vacuum.