Standardization Pressures: Can Good Humanism Emerge in Institutions?

Standardization Pressures: Can Good Humanism Emerge in Institutions? December 4, 2018

Daniil Kuzelev, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. Last week, a friend posted his relief at having received a perfect grade for a grad-school paper. My problem, upon hearing this? His paper depicted the U.S.-Mexico border crisis–something I knew deeply affected him and his communities, and as such had consequences far beyond the page. Here he’d been, worrying about his ability to perform for a theory class, because of its impact on his ability to improve the world later… when the paper in question involved the need for greater action now. So when I saw his tweet, a floodgate of memories opened from my last term as a post-secondary instructor in Canada. I remembered, in general, the struggle to improve the relevancy of course material to student needs. I remembered, in particular, a moment when standardization pressures came in direct conflict with my humanist practice.

For fairness’s sake, though, I should first mention that I was already pretty burned out when this incident happened. After realizing in Fall 2016 that I’d have to leave my PhD program two dissertation drafts into the process, I had intended to slip out of academia after teaching one last course at another university. However, an opportunity arose to teach at a technical college in May, and even though I was reluctant to continue in post-secondary, I had yet to  envision how I would pay for whatever came next. So how could I say “no” to one more month of income?

…Except that, during the intake process, the institution found me to be an adequately experienced instructor, and encouraged me to take on a fall term contract, too. At the time, still also working at a local bookstore to make rent, I didn’t have enough financial security to say “no” in favour of the void of other job prospects, so I locked myself into another term, rationalizing that I could always withdraw if I found something else.

Nonetheless, if I had started to consider leaving Canada after leaving the PhD… Colombia definitely became my plan in the summer of 2017. So when fall rolled around, I knew it was my last hurdle before the freedom to start over somewhere new.

But even then, what a hurdle! I was already on a diet of beans, rice, lentils, peanut-butter, and eggs to save for the move… and then six weeks into term, the teaching staff ended up on strike. The longest college strike in Ontario history! And when we got back, we were working to finish the term right up until Christmas. I spent New Year’s Eve uploading final marks. Technically, post-strike, the term rolled into the new year, too. I was supposed to be teaching into time I had carefully blocked off, late summer, for an immersion test in Colombia. Since I couldn’t afford the delay and cancellation fees, I was in tears at the thought that, right to the bitter end, my Canadian life would not let me go.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t a fun time.

But in the middle of all that?

After finding a workaround to complete the term before year’s end, I received a final essay from one student that wasn’t an essay at all. This student had been struggling all term to maintain interest in the course: a basic communications course, standardized for consumption by 160 sections of students from every program in the college. When I opened her assignment, though, I realized why she had struggled so much more than even the other second-language students. As it turned out, she hadn’t sent me an essay because her greater concern was completing a letter of appeal. A document requested by her family’s lawyer, to help her overseas father with his own refugee-claim process.

This is what she needed.

This was the sort of praxis a communications course supposedly prepares students for.

And yet, her inability to follow the course rubric should have guaranteed her a “fail”.

When Standardization Helps, and When It Hinders

Now, obviously standardization is supposed to help level the playing field and protect against nepotism. We want to make sure everyone is equal, so we’re creating exactly the same hurdle for everyone to pass!

Except… standardization often yields new forms of preferential treatment. My teaching friends and other workers for government institutions know this well. In the Ontario education system, for instance, job postings need to be public to ensure fairness. However, every administrator knows how to craft a job posting for which only a single internal candidate would actually be viable. And, sure, formalized proceedings with strict, standardized terminology prove useful for running “non-biased” interviews. Except that very same, highly bureaucratic nature of these interview processes often ensures that only candidates familiar with (i.e. coached in) the jargon can pass.

As a friend of mine recently put it, while awaiting a non-probative government interview: the idea is good. Let’s avoid giving certain candidates a “leg up” from the receipt of more personalized questions than other candidates! But the actual bias is not removed. If an interviewer really wants or doesn’t want a candidate, they still have their ways of ensuring the right box does or doesn’t get ticked in the process.

What this process does remove, though, is human value, because this appeal to standardization is itself a profound manifestation of distrust in individual contributions. If you have an administrator who’s been working in a given field for a few years, surely they have institutional knowledge that would make them better judges of who would and would not be a good fit for the organization. But no. Last week, I discussed litigiousness as a major cultural problem, because fixating on worst-case scenarios limits our ability to act humanely. This week, likewise, my argument is simply this:

When we assume that all partiality is intrinsically racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist, ageist… we neither protect against the institutional prejudices that emerge in even the most standardized of systems, nor make space for more positive partialities–towards excellence, towards good character, towards good team players–to emerge instead.

The Loss to Humanist Practice

Our union culture in North America is not much different. Certainly, there are other, possibly healthier employee/employee-rep/employer relationships in the world. (Germany being a particularly striking example of union integration into industry discourse and government policy.) However, North Americans generally operate combatively, with everyone assuming everyone else is not operating with anyone else’s best interests at heart. And how can we not? Who wants to be the first chump to assume good intentions on the part of one’s employer in a financially precarious world?

But when this combative model also arises in standardization practice, it devalues the role of empathy in the formation of communities. In our assumption that anything not standardized risks a lawsuit, we lose the individual distinctions we’re trying to protect.

Empathy is not easy, either, because it involves the acceptance of failure without exiling those who have failed. A system that cannot make mistakes without being condemned in its entirety is one in which individuals are not permitted their share of error, either. Cruelly, such a system rarely even serves those who (rightly) cry out for greater equality and justice. Rather, in its effort to treat every situation as evenhandedly as possible, it operates outside the realm of actual happenstance. It ceases to represent the chaos of the human condition, and so especially fails those enduring the most chaos firsthand.

So What Does One Do?

Technically, I should have made my student resubmit her essay. That was the only form of “kindness” permitted in our standard model–and sure, I understand why. As the rhetoric goes, to pass her without her demonstrating an ability to comply with class instructions would have only ill-prepared her for the next, and the next. Worse yet, I’d be devaluing all the work from students who did comply with instructions. It didn’t matter that the strike had robbed her of half a term’s tutelage. It didn’t matter that the struggles she faced at home literally involved life-and-death scenarios. Everyone has some personal issue impeding progress, right? You can’t make exceptions for them all… can you?

But I didn’t make her resubmit. Instead I sat down with her, and we talked together about measures of good communicative practice as they related to her submission: Who was the audience? What was the message? What rhetorical devices suit the delivery of this message to this audience? And what sources are you drawing upon to support this argument? What kind of sources are they? Are they the right sources for this sort of argument? Have you cited them? And we checked off rubric items together as she demonstrated, verbally and with reference to her submission, an understanding of these core course concepts.

Granted, she didn’t score highly on grammar and spelling–those, I fixed for her after, to help prepare her submission to her lawyer–but she passed. She got through a difficult term with no greater guarantees–not for terms ahead, nor for the outcome of her father’s case. But she survived the battle, and the day, and that was achievement enough.

What Can We All Do?

The problem is, these solutions aren’t scalable. By their very nature, such one-on-one humanistic responses are antithetical to blueprints and official guidelines, and we can’t expect every overworked employee to have the time to reach for them. Indeed, every attempt to impose top-down responses to individual crises invariably leaves new pathways to abuse (by some) and neglect (of others)–because we are not perfect people, and we operate in frequently calcified systems. In post-secondary education in particular, a profound veering from praxis to theory leaves us doing busy-work while the world burns. And none of this will be amended overnight.

As such, I find myself leaning on a quote from The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch. Murdoch emphatically regarded her work as fiction, not philosophy, yet wrote such pointed appeals about human nature as this claim that, after all…

“Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world.”

A difficult task, to be sure, when we are called up daily to work within institutions that change more in response to litigiousness than to genuine calls for humanistic justice.

But whatever else are we to do? We must aspire to act individually with that same empathy we long to see more of in the world. We must meet with caution any claim that an increase in standardization will necessarily yield our desired ends.

But most of all, we must expect that, sometimes, amid the slings and arrows of human happenstance, we will fail to meet external rubrics of success.

And then we must take the biggest risk of all–the risk my student took, ever so much greater than my own:

We must risk asking others in the system to see the human in us when we do.

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  • Brother TC

    No such thing as good humanism.

  • Sophotroph

    Ah, you shall know them by their love!

  • And their compelling arguments! At least leave me with a chewy Bible quote about all our righteous acts being no better than menstrual rags! 🙂

  • TinnyWhistler

    This is bringing to mind something I saw on a reddit thread asking cops about situations where they wished they’d been able to let someone go. The cop was dealing with a homeless shoplifter and wanted to let the guy go but couldn’t because of the body cam he was wearing. Downthread, he says that he believes that body cams do FAR more good than harm and that he’d been able to personally help the guy through the process to make it smoother, which sounds like his version of what you did with your student.

    It can be a tricky line to walk.

  • Once again I have to say you’ve made a great case that humanism is based on empathy rather than skepticism. I also want to thank you for mentioning Iris Murdoch. Though not one of my favorite novelists (The Green Knight was one of the most baffling books I’ve ever read), Murdoch is a writer who continues to inspire philosophers. I’m reading a book about the politics of fear in which Martha Nussbaum quotes Murdoch as lamenting that, “The natural inclination of the human soul is toward the protection of the ego.” In one of the essays in Realism With a Human Face, Hilary Putnam celebrated Murdoch’s demonstration that the is/ought distinction is not as impermeable as philosophers once assumed.

    And not for nothing, but “the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world” is an exquisite image.

  • I think you hit the nail on the head with that last line, TinnyWhistler: it is a process best undergone not by trying to seek definitive solutions (e.g. standardization, bad! individual response, good!) but simply by accepting that it IS a delicate balancing act, a constant give and take between two approaches that have their respective strengths and weaknesses.

    Thanks so much for the link! I am ever and always heartened by the examples you bring to these threads of other people enacting ideas I discuss here.

  • What an interesting idea for another essay, Shem! Negotiating explicitly the roles of empathy and skepticism in humanist practice, and assessing possible tension points therein: I’ll be sure to cite you if I follow through on it!

    Murdoch’s books have quite a range of thought experiment to them, but good heavens, her modern retelling of Arthurian legend is certainly among her more elliptical! Did you ever read The Sea, The Sea? It’s a depiction of a theatre director who has technically retired but cannot for the life of him stop staging drama all about him. Quite a striking indictment of our inability to escape our habituated natures, but also a celebration of the persistence of new adventure wherever breath continues.

    I will look out for the Putnam essay! What’s the name of the book you have on the go? I’m coming out of a period of intense novel prep preceding agent queries in January, and I find I’m ever so hungry to get back to immersive reading practice.

    NB: I did just read David Quammen’s latest, but that’s already with a possible article pitch in mind. I need pleasure reading, darn it!

  • TinnyWhistler

    I appreciate this article a lot because, as with most things, if we lose the nuance needed in the conversation, it just makes it easier for people to jump on “gotchas” to argue that systemic protections are Bad.

  • Brother TC

    I checked my Bible, and there’s nothing in there about loving your neighbor’s worldview. In fact, I found much of scripture condemning humanistic beliefs as prideful and idolatrous.

    I tell you this because I love you, and I want you to know the truth about your error.

  • Brother TC, I highly doubt you wrote on this blog out of love, because a loving corrective is more than a single glib statement that shows no engagement with the subject matter of the original post.

    I don’t know if you’ve read this blog before–and specifically, if you read my post explaining how I approach notions of the Christian god (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anotherwhiteatheistincolombia/2018/10/faces-yahweh-buddy-christ-humanist/) before claiming that there is no value in a worldview that says humans are the cause of human problems and therefore have a responsibility to correct them.

    The funny thing is, if you had read my blog before, you would probably know that I use the term “secular humanist” because I count among my friends and fellow citizens humanists across the spiritual/non-religious spectrum. Christian humanists, Jewish humanists, Muslim humanists–all people who seek, from their relative positions on cosmological affairs, to improve the lot of fellow human beings.

    Now, if you genuinely believe that you are improving the lot of your fellow human beings by trying to bring them closer to your notion of a deity, well, there is integrity in that aspiration, and I wish you the best in it. But… one glib and passing remark on a blog post I doubt you read in full is hardly the way to achieve such aims. Genuine truth-seeking discourse requires more.

    All best wishes during your Advent reflections and celebrations!

  • Brother TC

    My statement was concise, not glib. Thanks for sharing your opinion about it, though.

  • It was glib because it was a brief comment showing no engagement with the subject matter of the original post, as I stated. That sort of shallow response, though common online, is unbecoming of genuine discourse. If you want to demonstrate careful thought concisely, there are ways to do so that actually leave the reader with meaningful food for thought. Seek them out if “love” for your fellow human beings is a genuine motivator for attempts online to illustrate the error of their ways. Have a good night!

  • You’re right, Murdoch’s work is so intellectually rich I’m bound to dive back into it somewhere. The Nussbaum title is The New Religious Intolerance, from 2012. It talks a lot about how we hold others to standards we aren’t interested in applying to ourselves, another of my favorite themes.

    Quammen’s work has always been strongly recommended to me, and I’ll get around to Natural Acts at some point. I’ve found that book reviews scare people away even more effectively than limericks, but nothing inspires me more than great writers like Nussbaum and you.

  • Brother TC

    It’s a statement intended to prompt questions such as,

    “Why do you say that?”

    “On what basis do you judge humanism as not good?”

    “What gives you the right to claim that about a whole belief system?”

    Sadly, sometimes people just scrutinize the messenger rather than the message. Ad hominem is where rational discussion goes to die.

  • Oh, I had to laugh at that–you’re right! We don’t quite have the forum needed for proper book discourse. If it can’t be binged on Netflix, why bother flocking to write articles about it while it’s hot?

    To be fair to ourselves, though, when Dickens’ novels were in publication they were disseminated a few chapters at a time, which gave readers plenty of time to savour and commit to heart the best parts. We do ourselves no favours when we pretend there was ever an era of people wandering about reading huge tomes in one sitting. The best we can do is find like-minded fellow-travellers in our literary and philosophical pursuits, and hope for the best in our conversations. And sometimes, as in our chats, we luck out! So thank you for your reading recommendations, Shem, and your presence. Always splendid food for thought in your contributions here.

  • It can’t prompt questions if it demonstrates no context specificity. It’s a drive-by comment. It would be the same as me going to a religious blog titled, say, “How can I best seek out God?” and replying simply–concisely, but just as glibly for its superficiality!–“There is no such being in the world outside your head.” Technically true to my beliefs! But there is no way that “love” has anything to do with its utterance in that context, because I haven’t addressed the aching quest at the heart of the original poster’s essay. I haven’t acknowledged their context as a starting point for respectful discourse.

    And I never resorted to ad hominem. I never called YOU glib. I articulated that the comment you left gives no sense of your having engaged at all with the subject of the article, or your having familiarized yourself with the blog on whole before commenting. These are not effective strategies for engagement in genuine discourse–and I was fine with leaving it at that, and not engaging in your drive-by comment, until you claimed in response to another comment that you had posted that drive-by comment out of “love”. If love is your reasoning for response, if you *truly* are acting out of the integrity that comes from believing what you believe to be true and wanting to save others with that truth, well, I want you to understand precisely where your drive-by approach to commentary fails in such an effort. That’s all.

  • Brother TC

    Drive-by? As I explained, my comment is intended to provoke conversation — and I said it with the intention of sticking around to elaborate — in love.

    Your criticism is ad hominem because it questions my sincerity and love rather than the subject at hand (humanism, atheism).

    As for relevance, a full 1/3 of my comment quotes the title of your post! (I kid.)

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    No, it’s not ad hominem to comment expressly on your claim of love, and to demonstrate a disconnect between this claim and the manner in which you presented the statement you claimed was made with love. (Either that, or the claim to love you made was itself an ad hominem… in which case we are both nestled squarely in that territory! Oh, the rabbit hole deepens!)

    But let me be clear here, Brother TC, because I don’t take accusations of ad hominem lightly: I didn’t question the sincerity of your beliefs–I said twice that I assume you are acting out of the integrity of believing something and trying to convince others of that truth. That’s why I counselled a different strategy, so as not to appear disingenuous at the outset.

    After all, what on earth in your original comment conveys an intention to stick around? It demonstrates no knowledge of this blog, which is why I didn’t engage with it. If you had shown some knowledge of your intended conversational partner, sure, I would have responded directly. But why respond to a comment that conveys nothing more than a cursory scan of the article’s headline?

    The way such cursory comments on the internet usually work isn’t through rationalism–it’s by trying to provoke a mystified and defensive response. However, I’m fully aware of the Biblical arguments against “works” that anti-humanists employ, and they have no value here. I think if you’d read more of this blog that would have been self-evident to you, too: I am no stranger to the Bible. I simply find no veracity to its claims of a godhead, and tremendous flaws in the character of Christ. So to convince me that the rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists from every faith tradition or lack thereof is not “good” would require either extra-Biblical discourse or a completely different conversation about the Bible as proof of a) a god, and then b) a god worthy of worship.

    Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of writing a piece on Advent in Colombia–a beautiful body of celebrations by people here of faith. (Sorry about the delay in response, by the way: still finding a balance between comment-section discourse and new content.) I find value in these Advent celebrations because *others*, people of faith, find positive, communally and individually constructive value in them. And that’s at the core of compassionate humanism. So anyone who offers a blanket, drive-by statement like “there is no good humanism” is either dismissing the value even of humanism in its most basic form, of being present with our fellow human beings, seeking to make a better world alongside them… or simply trying to beat the tedious Christian horn of “works” not being valuable because the Bible says they are not the path to eternal salvation.

    So perhaps I will ask a question of you instead, because I see from your subsequent comments far more of the sort of conversationalist I am always gladdened to have here:

    What, precisely, is the truth that you wished out of love to share with a random blogger on the internet?

    (P.S. All best wishes to you, wherever this note finds you. It’s the Day of Candles here in Colombia, lighting the way for Mary on her journey to Bethlehem. A joyous occasion all around, so I’d hate to extend any grief to others within it. Cheers!)

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Hi Brother TC! I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from you… and then I discovered that my own response had been listed as “spam” by Disqus. How amusing! So, I’m just going to repost it in full, even though parts are a little out of date. Sorry about that!

    “No, it’s not ad hominem to comment expressly on your claim of love, and to demonstrate a disconnect between this claim and the manner in which you presented the statement you claimed was made with love. (Either that, or the claim to love you made was itself an ad hominem… in which case we are both nestled squarely in that territory! Oh, the rabbit hole deepens!)

    But let me be clear here, Brother TC, because I don’t take accusations of ad hominem lightly: I didn’t question the sincerity of your beliefs–I said twice that I assume you are acting out of the integrity of believing something and trying to convince others of that truth. That’s why I counselled a different strategy, so as not to appear disingenuous at the outset.

    After all, what on earth in your original comment conveys an intention to stick around? It demonstrates no knowledge of this blog, which is why I didn’t engage with it. If you had shown some knowledge of your intended conversational partner, sure, I would have responded directly. But why respond to a comment that conveys nothing more than a cursory scan of the article’s headline?

    The way such cursory comments on the internet usually work isn’t through rationalism–it’s by trying to provoke a mystified and defensive response. However, I’m fully aware of the Biblical arguments against “works” that anti-humanists employ, and they have no value here. I think if you’d read more of this blog that would have been self-evident to you, too: I am no stranger to the Bible. I simply find no veracity to its claims of a godhead, and tremendous flaws in the character of Christ. So to convince me that the rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists from every faith tradition or lack thereof is not “good” would require either extra-Biblical discourse or a completely different conversation about the Bible as proof of a) a god, and then b) a god worthy of worship.

    Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of writing a piece on Advent in Colombia–a beautiful body of celebrations by people here of faith. (Sorry about the delay in response, by the way: still finding a balance between comment-section discourse and new content.) I find value in these Advent celebrations because *others*, people of faith, find positive, communally and individually constructive value in them. And that’s at the core of compassionate humanism. So anyone who offers a blanket, drive-by statement like “there is no good humanism” is either dismissing the value even of humanism in its most basic form, of being present with our fellow human beings, seeking to make a better world alongside them… or simply trying to beat the tedious Christian horn of “works” not being valuable because the Bible says they are not the path to eternal salvation.

    So perhaps I will ask a question of you instead, because I see from your subsequent comments far more of the sort of conversationalist I am always gladdened to have here:

    What, precisely, is the truth that you wished out of love to share with a random blogger on the internet?

    (P.S. All best wishes to you, wherever this note finds you. It’s the Day of Candles here in Colombia, lighting the way for Mary on her journey to Bethlehem. A joyous occasion all around, so I’d hate to extend any grief to others within it. Cheers!)”

  • Brother TC

    I saw your second posting before it got deleted as spam. Thanks for sharing all that. I think the spam filter detects long posts as spam, which begs the question: Why does disqus/patheos even allow comments of that length?

    It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Good works are good.

    While believers are saved by grace through faith alone, good works are the fruit (proof) of living faith (Eph 2:8-9, James 2). As such, faith is made perfect by good works in the process of sanctification.

    Anyone can do good works, though. A serial killer with a guilty conscience might volunteer at the food shelter and donate to Amnesty International, but do those works at all lessen or excuse his crimes? Would you even look at those works as an admirable act by this strange killer-with-a-conscience? Is he a murderous humanist?

    Consider another analogy, this time involving a wealthy family involved in the coal industry. The members of this family regularly do good works for each other — their in-group — as well as for charities that happen to ingratiate them with coal mining families who would otherwise despise them. Do we praise their activities in the coal energy sector because they offset them with good works? Is this a family of coal humanists?

    The problem with the good works illustrated in both of these admittedly extreme cases comes down to the heart. What’s the motivation behind these good works? If the reason for doing the good works is at root a criminal and unloving intent, then the works are at best a happy side-effect, and at worst, deceptive and criminal in themselves. I’ll spare you Isaiah’s mention of filthy rags.

    You may be thinking that you’re not a killer, nor are you involved in coal mining. You’re much better than all that, and so are the humanists you know and love. Good people, right? I disagree, but our sin nature is another subject (Rom 3:10-11,23).

    Empathy is a gift from God and it comes to all of us by common grace. This is the second-greatest commandment — to love your neighbor as yourself — and it’s written on your heart along with all of God’s moral laws (Rom 2:14-15). We all know right from wrong, believers and unbelievers alike, and this is why nobody has any excuse for sinning.

    I mentioned the second-greatest commandment, but I haven’t mentioned the first. According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt 22:34-40). When you put your love for fellow humans before your love for God — whose truth you have manifest within you, but suppress (Rom 1:18-26) — you have a disordered love. In biblical terms, it reduces your love and your works to idolatry and pride. Another word would be “selfish.”

    I’m sure you challenge that assertion, so I ask: Whence comes your desire to do the “rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists,” and are you proud of yourself and others for doing this work? Does your rational explanation have anything to do with evolution, tribal instinct or “selfish genes?”

    One last request: Please describe these “tremendous flaws in the character of Christ.”

  • Brother TC

    Patheos/Disqus may be the most oppressive medium for talking about beliefs. I did see your deleted comment, and I’ll respond with my own highly-edited comment, in hopes that it won’t get deleted again. This may be the most hostile environment for discussion on the internet.

    Empathy is a gift from God and it comes to all of us by common grace. This is the second-greatest commandment — to love your neighbor as yourself — and it’s written on your heart along with all of God’s moral laws (Rom 2:14-15). We all know right from wrong, believers and unbelievers alike, and this is why nobody has any excuse for sinning.

    I’ve mentioned the second-greatest commandment, so now I’ll talk about the first. According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt 22:34-40). When you put your love for fellow humans before your love for God — whose truth you have manifest within you, but suppress (Rom 1:18-26) — you have a disordered love. In biblical terms, it reduces your love and your works to idolatry and pride. Another word would be “selfish.”

    I’m sure you challenge that assertion, so I ask: Whence comes your desire to do the “rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists,” and are you proud of yourself and others for doing this work? Does your rational explanation have anything to do with evolution, tribal instinct or “selfish genes?”

    One last request: Please describe these “tremendous flaws in the character of Christ.”

  • I ask: Whence comes your desire to do the “rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists,” and are you proud of yourself and others for doing this work?

    Well, whence comes your desire to follow God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Are you proud of yourself and others for basing your love for your fellow humans on your obedience to Scripture rather than compassion and empathy?

    I don’t presume to speak for M.L. Clark, but it doesn’t make any difference to me whether someone treats others with respect and understanding for the same exact reasons I do. Why does it make a difference to you?

  • Hi Brother TC! I think you’re on to something with the comments about Disqus: Where on earth has that comment gone /now/? And why is everything else showing up out of order? Good grief, that’s a nuisance of an impediment to coherent discourse.

    Brother TC, we have different faith traditions, and I don’t think your comments reflect experience with my articulation of my own on this blog. I linked you, for instance, to the post in which I discussed the ways I negotiate the Christian god, and in that post I talk about the clear signs that the character of Christ in the gospels is that of a flawed human.

    Here’s one example, which I think we can also use to clarify the terms of your Biblical credulity. Christ is given in three gospels to have a conversation with “demons” inhabiting men on the road: Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-37, Mark 5:1-20.

    Do you believe in demons, Brother TC? I assume you have to, because the Gospel has Christ talking with them… and more to the point, /agreeing/ with their request to be thrown into a herd of pigs, that then drowns itself. Not exactly moral conduct to be emulated, even if a human being had the power to do such things!

    What we now know about disease is profoundly different than what was known when those gospels were written. We didn’t even have germ theory until the mid-19th century! So when I see passages like this, it is plain to me that the anonymous authors of the gospels were describing events in their time with the information they had available, and drawing connections between proximate events. Possibly a street preacher “healed” two sick men. Possibly there were reports of a massive herd loss nearby. (Killing a herd of pigs also fits neatly with the contemporaneous view of pigs as “unclean” beasts–for very good hygienic reasons, before refrigeration!)

    But for a believer in the Bible, this thrice-repeated story /has/ to be taken literally, or else it undermines all else ascribed to Christ’s direct conversations, and the credibility of the anonymous authors reporting on his miracles in general.

    And so you have to believe in demons, and you have to believe in the moral righteousness of a god-among-men agreeing with the request of demons, to do that which would cause harm to other life. Why? From the sheer tautology of “Well, I believe Christ is Lord, and the Lord is always right, so therefore agreeing with the request of demons to cause harm to other life must be right by some higher logic that I simply do not understand.”

    And that is where we part ways as compassionate people… because even if I /ever/ had reason to believe a god exists–and I have never, ever, ever felt any sense of divinity in my life (more on that below)–I would /never/ follow such a rationale for righteousness. It’s unconscionable to suggest that might makes right. But again, I also understand that someone who truly believes a god exists and truly believes in the goodness of that god probably can’t imagine living otherwise. So even if I point to a truly unconscionable Christ narrative in the Bible (and there are many!), I expect you to brush it off as irrelevant. Most religious folk do!

    I’m going to answer another part of your comment in another reply. Hopefully Disqus will be kind!

  • “When you put your love for fellow humans before your love for God — whose truth you have manifest within you, but suppress (Rom 1:18-26) — you have a disordered love. In biblical terms, it reduces your love and your works to idolatry and pride. Another word would be “selfish.”

    So here I’m intrigued by your use of ad hominem, after accusations of the same when you brought up your personal state–your love–as relevant to your original post. You immediately assume I “suppress … truth”–that I am a dishonest broker regarding my statements about personal knowledge of divinity. This is a difficult aspersion to cast when seeking genuine discourse.

    If you’ve read some of this blog, you’ll know I grew up in a secular household and was encouraged to read widely. I never felt a sense of divinity, and I never believed in a god or an afterlife. You might wonder if I’ve ever even tried prayer–I have. When I was eight and my cat died, I was inconsolable, and willing to try anything to ease that pain. On the second night with this grief I went on my knees before my windowsill and asked that, if anything did exist in the cosmos beyond all of this, if it could let me know that everything was okay and as it should be, and that this little creature I loved was at peace. But of course there was no response, no feeling or voice or presence, and I immediately felt very silly, because I knew even at eight that humans pray upwards only because we used to believe that a literal heaven existed above the Earth. We know otherwise now, though, so all I was really doing was talking to the moon. (I also prayed two other times as a child, both at times when my parents’ violent actions threatened the safety of my siblings and I could do nothing directly to intervene… but I don’t tell those stories because my parents are alive and I wish them no harm. Suffice it to say, though, I have never felt anything that contradicts what I know about the world from direct observation and collective scientific study.)

    And you know what? Even /with/ that lack of personal experience, I /still/ availed myself to the possibility of being wrong when my eldest nephew first developed a theory of mind. And I mean THE MOMENT he developed it! We were watching a movie together where a character’s inner thoughts were presented through voice-over, and my 3.5-year-old nephew asked me what the voice was, and where it was coming from. I told him that this was how the movie was expressing the character’s inner thoughts–with the sound of words–and then asked him how he thought: with pictures, with images of words, with sounds of words? And in that moment he gained a sense of self, realizing that he had a voice inside his head that was him. And what a glorious opportunity, right then and there, for an atheist then to test their beliefs! And so I asked him–carefully, very carefully, so as not to coach an answer either way–if he ever felt the presence of anything else within his mind or even close around him, a presence that was near or a part of him even when mum and dad and brother and Aunt Maggie weren’t around. A voice. A feeling. Words that were not his own. Anything.

    And he looked at me, puzzled, then incredulous, and laughed. “No? Maggie, that’s silly. You’re silly.”

    And I laughed and said, well, maybe that’s true. But that could have been a powerful moment! If a god existed, it could have reached two hearts at once with its truth! If my nephew had said otherwise at that juncture–he being a child /not/ raised with adults telling him from the moment he was born about the existence of a god or afterlife–I would /absolutely/ have had reason to pause and reassess my understanding of the nature of the world. So, no, Brother TC, despite your aspersion regarding my honesty… and despite the necessity of that aspersion for many religious folk to make sense of a world with so many atheists, I have not “suppressed” any truth. There has never been any evidence of divinity in my life.

    (Conversely, this is the same reason that the missionary Daniel Everett was de-converted from his Christianity in his efforts to convert the Pirahas, an incredibly happy people with no history beyond what they and their fathers could report firsthand. It’s a fascinating story! Have you heard of it? Here’s a quick taste. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNajfMZGnuo It was his own moment of being an honest broker in light of new evidence.)

    But let me also be clear, because I am well versed in the Bible: I also don’t think it’s necessary for you to assume I’m simply suppressing truth. The other option–the one many Evangelical Christians I know use to make peace with my atheism–is that I’m simply not one of the Chosen, as per Christ’s words in Matthew 13:11-12. And this, quite honestly, is why I have quite a bit of respect for the Evangelical/literalist Christians I encounter… because they /do/ wrangle with the uglier bits of the Old and New Testament, whereas a lot of liberal Christians tend to wave aside all the parts that don’t fit their happy-go-lucky Buddy Christ (also something I talked about in my essay about interpretations of the Christian god). Does this make them natural friends in efforts to help our fellow human beings? Oh, heck no–they’re usually on the side of government policies that do more harm than good–but they do so out of a credulous belief that what matters in this life is not as important as what happens in the next. Props for consistency!

    One last point, because I feel these comments are getting unwieldy, so let’s push one kettle of fish down the pipe with a clarifying question. You write: “I’m sure you challenge that assertion, so I ask: Whence comes your desire to do the “rationalistic, empathetic, and problem-solving work of humanists,” and are you proud of yourself and others for doing this work? Does your rational explanation have anything to do with evolution, tribal instinct or “selfish genes?”

    Quick answer to one part: Proud? No? Why would I be proud? I am /thankful/ when other humanists–again, across the spectrum of belief and disbelief–do the work of helping their fellow human beings. But pride? Pride is complacency–a resting on one’s laurels when there is no end to the work that needs to be done. I will go to my grave before that work is finished, so good grief, when is there time to be _proud_?

    Quick question to the other: Can I assume from your delineation of possible responses into “evolution, tribal instinct, or ‘selfish genes'” that you are a Creationist? And if so, Young-Earth or more broadly ID? I have an aunt who’s a 6000-year-old YEC. Wonderful woman, does tremendous work in her community (and eschews the eating of pig as per Biblical proscription!), so I’m quite familiar with the full range. Would love to know what, in the realm of contemporary science, is acceptable to you as a body of evidence before discussing both the roots of empathy, as well as the clear neurobiological causes for its absence in quite a few human beings.

    Sorry again for the length of these responses. There’s a viciousness to heft, I find, in discourse, but I do enjoy getting into the meat of relevant issues. Hopefully having broken these discourses into two separate threads will help a touch. All best wishes!

  • Brother TC

    Thanks for your questions, Shem! Although it would be kind to answer my questions before turning them back on me, I’ll be happy to answer them. I do understand that my questions were addressed to someone else, but if you’re going to address them, answering first would be the cordial approach.

    I was an atheist for 43 years, and in that time, I felt a strong empathy toward my fellow human beings. While I acted humble, and in fact felt that my humility was one of my laudable attributes, I was quite proud of all the good things I did for the world. I thought I was a good person, and so did all my friends and family.

    I was saved while cynically reading the Bible to gather information for a novel I was writing related to world religions. The Holy Spirit indwelled me and showed me the truth, and I believed in Jesus Christ at that moment. I was convicted, and knew right then that so much of my life had to change immediately. My love for Jesus Christ comes from His capacity for love and the mercy He showed me. I didn’t expect to be saved, I didn’t deserve to be saved, and I certainly wasn’t asking for it in my pride.

    Just as my empathy existed without my understanding of scripture, so came my love for Jesus Christ. I didn’t read about the greatest commandment until weeks later, and like many things in the Bible, I was blown away by its correspondence to reality.

    “Are you proud of yourself and others for basing your love for your fellow humans on your obedience to Scripture rather than compassion and empathy?”

    My compassion and empathy for others hasn’t been reduced or replaced by my love for God — it’s been deepened and intensified. I now love even my enemies, whereas before my love was conditional. I couldn’t do this on my own; it required the power of the Holy Spirit.

    I used to be proud of myself, but now I have no reason to be proud. Whereas before my love for people was ultimately tied to myself, now it’s based on something greater than myself.

  • Brother TC

    Hi! I’m glad you were able to post a comment to your own blog (!).

    Yes, I believe demons exist in the world.

    You’ve made a number of interpretive choices based on your unbelieving presuppositions.

    First, you take offense at Jesus agreeing to send Legion into the swine, but that’s a peculiar reaction. If a man convicted of serial murder asks the judge for capital punishment, is the judge guilty of immoral conduct by granting that request?

    Second, since you don’t believe the Bible is the word of God, you further assume that certain biblical accounts are written in ignorance of germ theory. Then you go on to conjecture a number of other things using words like “possibly.” This is hardly compelling.

    Third, you make a moral judgment regarding “harm to other life.” Do you think a human life is worth anything more than a herd of pigs? Whatever your answer, I’d be interested in knowing how you came to that idea.

    To clarify, I don’t believe God’s word and follow Jesus as a matter of “might makes right.” I believe and I follow because I know God to be righteous, holy and true. If you want to talk about my epistemic claim here, as well as your foundation for knowledge, we can do that.

    “that is where we part ways as compassionate people”

    I was a compassionate person before I was saved, and I’m compassionate now.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Okay, Brother TC, I’ll answer your questions.

    I think people’s level of empathy is a function of personality. I didn’t choose to think that people deserve respect and compassion, it’s just that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t treat them as if they did. I’m not “proud” of this, because I couldn’t imagine thinking any other way.

    I admit I don’t understand what you’re saying when you talk about “being saved” and your “love for Jesus Christ.” But that’s what I meant in my previous post: I don’t have to approve everyone’s rationale for acting in a compassionate and humanistic manner. If a Christian says he’s tolerant and responsible because we’re all God’s children, I think that’s a good thing even if I don’t know exactly what it means.

    However, you don’t seem to feel the same way about people who think differently from you. Your initial post here stated that there’s no such thing as good humanism, as if nonbelievers are somehow precluded from behaving ethically. I hope it comes as no surprise that I consider that as insulting as if I were to say that believers are incapable of ethical behavior because they’re only interested in a reward in the afterlife.

  • Brother TC

    Thanks for answering, Shem!

    “I couldn’t imagine thinking any other way.”

    That’s right. This is God’s moral law written on your heart. You don’t have to believe in or acknowledge God to benefit from this common grace.

    “as if nonbelievers are somehow precluded from behaving ethically.”

    I hope I’ve made it clear that you have the ability to behave ethically. The big problem is, you sometimes behave unethically, and you know it. (If you want to deny this, we’ll press in and see where that leads.)

    “I hope it comes as no surprise that I consider that as insulting”

    No surprise there. The gospel is offensive because it says you’re incapable of being a good person.

    So, if I’ve got your answer right, you’re saying you have no idea where your compassion for people comes from — all you know is that you couldn’t live with yourself without it. Fair enough. If you don’t know, then you don’t know.

    Some unbelievers claim to know, however, and I’ll challenge them on it.

  • So, if I’ve got your answer right, you’re saying you have no idea where your compassion for people comes from

    That’s not what I said.

    Considering your unwillingness to deal with what I wrote, and the condescending tone of your response, this doesn’t seem like much of an opportunity for sincere dialogue. I’m afraid I’m not going to “press in” any further than I already have.

  • Brother TC

    Hi, Shem.

    The fact that I predicated my understanding of your point with “if I’ve got your answer right” makes my statement both provisional and an invitation for you to clear up my confusion. It certainly doesn’t amount to evidence of my “unwillingness to deal with what [you] wrote.”

    But that’s cool. I certainly don’t have the desire for you to participate in a discussion you find condescending.

    If you want to give me another chance, please do answer my question about where your sense of morality comes from. If you know where your moral sense came from, please tell me.

  • If you want to give me another chance, please do answer my question about where your sense of morality comes from. If you know where your moral sense came from, please tell me.

    I don’t think there’s any mystery about that. I get my moral sense from the same place you and everyone else does: from what makes sense to the culture we live in, our communities and families, and the personality we develop. We derive codes of conduct for our social contexts that may differ from those of others, but which resonate in us.

    Ultimately, though, we each have to take ownership of our conduct. It’s bad faith to say that we’re “just obeying God’s word” or “just following the evidence.” Whether we’re radical or quietist, tolerant or judgmental, we need to acknowledge the extent to which we’re filtering a lot of culturally-constructed material through our personal consciousness.

  • Brother TC

    “Ultimately, though, we each have to take ownership of our conduct.”

    Is this an objective, universal truth or a matter of culturally-subjective social conditioning?

  • So let’s see, despite my doubts that you’re willing to engage in sincere dialogue, I answer your question in what I consider a good-faith manner. And what I get in response is a cheap shot containing nothing but com-box sophistry.

    Is that even a controversial point to you, that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior? I think it applies across the board: we can’t say “That’s what the law says” or “That’s what God says” or “That’s what the evidence says.” We’re not acting ethically if we’re transferring responsibility to someone or something external to ourselves and our judgment.

    By all means, explain to me what’s wrong with that.

  • Brother TC

    Please forgive me if that question offended you, but I do appreciate the answer you gave in good faith.

    Your previous comment included some ideas akin to moral relativism, personal subjectivity and intersubjectivity, so I wanted to see how far you take it. Many atheists would answer it in the other way, subscribing to cognitive relativism. I deal with a lot of atheists that will deny that absolute truth can be known by anyone, and it sounds like you’re not one of them. That’s good.

    It’s also good to hear that you not only believe that absolute truth can be known, but that free will exists too. (Again, correct me if I’m wrong. I try to restate your beliefs to put them in concrete, standard philosophical terms so we can more easily discuss them. No offense intended, and I’m certainly willing to listen to any correctives you provide.) Atheists like Dawkins deny the existence of free will, favoring the idea of a fully deterministic universe. Harris, too, would assert that there’s no evidence for free will. For such people, any discussion of ethical choice is ultimately meaningless in a universe where all of our so-called choices are determined by causal chains, although inordinately complex and chaotic ones.

    “Is that even a controversial point to you, that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior?”

    Not to me, no, but other people disagree. And again, I didn’t know if you saw this as an ultimate truth or an ultimate fact of cultural and personal conviction.

    “We’re not acting ethically if we’re transferring responsibility to someone or something external to ourselves and our judgment.”

    I agree with you, but others would disagree. Leaving the determinists like Dawkins and Harris aside, we also have those who would rather blame circumstances than take responsibility for their choices. I’d say we have a rash of this type of behavior in our culture, which begs the question: If you and I both believe it’s absolutely true that people need to take ownership of their ethical behavior, what does that say about the argument for moral relativism? That is, if cultures can mess up so badly and distort the truth with regard to taking responsibility, why can’t it be the case that they distort the truth with regard to absolute and objective morality? This just as easily explains why different cultures exhibit different ethical mores.

    Getting back to the subject of absolute truth, I’d like to pivot to an epistemological point. I hesitate to ask this question because you might get offended. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but my intention with this question is to challenge the rationality of your worldview rather than the existence of your intuitive moral convictions:

    How do you know for an absolute certainty that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior? You’ve already responded with, “explain to me what’s wrong with that,” but that provides no support for your positive claim. I do happen to agree that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior, but I’m sure my epistemic foundation for this certainty (available upon request) is nothing like yours. I’m asking for you to provide your rational basis for making this absolute truth claim.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Shem’s truth is universal to the degree that cultural evolution is universal. It’s objective to the degree that the idea of cultural evolution — tho not individual evolvings of culture, of course — is objective.

    For example, your apparent rejection of Shem’s claims is itself a product of your cultural evolution in matters religious (Catholic, I presume). And, yes, your particular cultural evolution is subjective. The idea of, or existence of, cultural evolution in general, is objective. (Excepting Ye Olde Problem of Induction, of course, which is also, of course, a problem for you just as much as for me. [Divine-command theories of ethics are themselves founded on an inductive basis. The same induction that’s led to religious scriptures etc.])

  • Brother TC

    Please forgive me if that question offended you.

    Your previous comment included some ideas akin to moral relativism, personal subjectivity and intersubjectivity, so I wanted to see how far you take it. Many atheists would answer it in the other way, subscribing to cognitive relativism.

    If you couldn’t tell, I’m pivoting to an epistemological point. I hesitate to ask this question because you might get offended. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but my intention with this question is to challenge the rationality of your worldview rather than the existence of your intuitive moral convictions:

    How do you know for an absolute certainty that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior? You’ve already responded with, “explain to me what’s wrong with that,” but that provides no support for your positive claim. I do happen to agree that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior, but I’m sure my epistemic foundation for this certainty (available upon request) is nothing like yours. I’m asking for you to provide your rational basis for making this absolute truth claim.

  • Brother TC

    “your apparent rejection of Shem’s claims”

    Not sure why that’s apparent, since I don’t reject Shem’s claims.

    “Catholic, I presume”

    Not even close.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I have no problem if I guessed wrong on you being Catholic. For people who appeal to natural law, within believers, I know that not all are Catholics, but I do know that’s a Catholic stance.

    Otherwise, you didn’t answer my actual questions and observations, and you haven’t answered Shem, either, per his latest response to you.

    Please feel free to NOT respond to me unless you do do just that. Otherwise, having read through the thread originally plus, now, new comment … I have to agree with Shem’s observation about you. That’s why I said “feel free to NOT respond to me unless … “

  • How do you know for an absolute certainty that we each need to take ownership of our ethical behavior?

    I’m asking for you to provide your rational basis for making this absolute truth claim.

    How is this an “absolute truth claim,” and not just a normative statement about what should constitute ethical behavior and responsibility?

    I never said anything about “absolute truth,” because—as anyone who has read my posts or my blog articles knows—I don’t find the concept meaningful at all. Where did I ever even imply that I had “absolute certainty” about this or any other matter?

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but my intention with this question is to challenge the rationality of your worldview rather than the existence of your intuitive moral convictions

    I think there’s only one way to take that, and that’s as an insult. I suggest you work on the response you owe to the moderator’s thoughtful post and abandon this increasingly presumptuous and annoying line of questioning.

  • Brother TC

    You asked me “actual questions?”

    If so, please repeat them and I’ll be happy to answer.

  • SocraticGadfly

    It’s all in my first response to you. You can read it and respond, even as I open a semi-loophole to my response of an hour or two ago by offering this much of a reply.

  • Brother TC, I think we’re nearing the end of our conversation, because without receiving answers to… quite a few of my comments… this feels like a game of latching onto (supposedly) weakest links and ignoring arguments in their highest form. I understand that with two other conversational partners on this thread, this might have more to do with context than anything… but I’m not going to invest deeper commentary when it’s not reciprocated. That said, I am pleased to have learned more about your particular background! I enjoy learning about other people’s underlying positions and the paths that led them to their current beliefs.

    Here, then, are a few answers to your queries, but… this is the end of the conversation for me on this thread. (Final word yours, as I will mention again below!)

    1) “First, you take offense at Jesus agreeing to send Legion into the swine, but that’s a peculiar reaction. If a man convicted of serial murder asks the judge for capital punishment, is the judge guilty of immoral conduct by granting that request?”

    Yes, of course. And that’s clearly another place where we differ. Restorative justice is critical to lasting social rehabilitation in the wake of any disruptive action, but restorative justice cannot be pursued effectively if the prisoner alone sets his punishment. I would be surprised that you believe otherwise, except that of course you /have to/, in order to rationalize this very bad story.

    2) “Second, since you don’t believe the Bible is the word of God, you further assume that certain biblical accounts are written in ignorance of germ theory.”

    But… they were. Literally. And this position has /nothing/ to do with belief in a god, because religious people prior to the advent of germ theory were very clear on their perspectives on this accord. I have studied early Christian and medieval saints’ tales, and the linguistic differences between early pre-Christian and post-Christian versions of Abrahamic canon, and a huge body of 19th-century literature /specifically/ written by Christian philosophers, theologians, and scientists, pursuant to my doctoral work on the history of stellar evolution. Disease was treated very differently in /all/ these eras’ texts–treated, that is, as an often centrally moral affliction, tethered in certain historical periods to demonic possession, and only nearer the 19th century to ideas of societal degeneration on whole. Before germ theory, spontaneous generation of everything from a mote in the air to a planet in the cosmos at large was integral to faith in a Creator, and that belief persists, plain as day, in the texts of religious thinkers over the centuries.

    “Then you go on to conjecture a number of other things using words like “possibly.” This is hardly compelling.”

    Compelling in what context? I’m not trying to deconvert you. I outlined that the far more reasonable explanation for this story’s origin is embellishment from mundane and highly probably local narratives. (This is also the reason C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is so dishonest: he claims only three possible positions for the Gospels–liar, lunatic, or lord–but as a writer of fictions himself, he knew darned well that the anonymous writers of the Gospels could also simply have embellished.)

    3) “Third, you make a moral judgment regarding “harm to other life.” Do you think a human life is worth anything more than a herd of pigs? Whatever your answer, I’d be interested in knowing how you came to that idea.”

    This is a deflection, Brother TC. The character of Christ in this story did not have to choose between human life and pig life /at all/. Even if I agreed with you on granting a criminal the choice of his own sentence (which I do not), if that sentence were to be “tie the condemned to a herd of pigs in a way that pains them so much they suicide themselves”… uh, no, I would not endorse that punishment. Are you seriously suggesting you would? Christians always have to bend themselves into morally unsound territory to defend this story… but again, I understand that you /have to/, because abandoning this story would destabilize trust in other stories of Christ and his miracles, too. Here we are simply at a firm remove in our practice of compassion.

    4) “To clarify, I don’t believe God’s word and follow Jesus as a matter of “might makes right.” I believe and I follow because I know God to be righteous, holy and true. If you want to talk about my epistemic claim here, as well as your foundation for knowledge, we can do that.”

    You may know your god to be righteous, holy, and true. I know that a series of 2009 studies joining fMRI scans to one-on-one interviews with Christians revealed that when Christians were asked to think about what their god believes on various subjects, the part of the brain that lit up was the same part as when asked what /they/ thought, personally, about various subjects–a /different/ part of the brain than when asked what other people believed about a given subject. This had huge ramifications in the interview-portion, wherein researchers first asked these Christian subjects to report their beliefs on a set of social issues, as well as their god’s beliefs for the same. Then they entered into conversations in which some of the participants’ beliefs changed… and lo and behold, when individual beliefs changed, the beliefs of their godheads changed, too.

    (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19955414 — the original study)

    Now, put aside whether or not you agree with the science, because I do not know your answers to the questions I asked earlier this week and am loath to bring in scientific references for or against anything before knowing better your familiarity with and level of acceptance of empirical evidence in general.

    My observation, in mentioning this study at all, is simply this: we live in a world where /those results materialized/, and where those results plainly reinforce the secular view that a god exists only in the minds of believers, as a construct tethered to their sense of self. If a /real/ god existed, again, what a simple thing it would be for those results /not/ to exist! And thus, for ever so many secular folks to be staggered into reconsidering their positions about the cosmos on whole! But no.

    And ever was it thus, Brother TC. In my doctoral studies, I read account after account of 19th-century Christians struggling to make sense of new scientific information: about the nature and age of the Earth, about the size and emptiness and formation of the cosmos, about the origins of plants and animals and planets on whole. And I ached right alongside those sincerely questing Christians, and their struggle to make sense of moral obligation in a world with those dawning facts of nature existing alongside so much poverty and disease and waste post-industrialization. What was part of their god’s plan? What was not? Why weren’t there more clear signs of the Creator in the world about them, to make sense of so much that was wrong?

    The Victorian era was not nearly as religious as it’s made out to be now. A staggering number of Christians were, as they are now, deists, not theists, because they recognized that the veil of nature shows precious little in accordance with the Bible. Most held onto their beliefs in a heavenly creator only by hoping that /beyond/ the veil of nature there would come a greater understanding, a greater harmonizing of all this dissenting evidence on Earth with tales from their good book. (Others entered more ritualistic forms of Christianity, Catholicism and Seventh-Day Adventism and the like…or wrote extremely batty but highly popular stories trying to repudiate science by claiming absurdities like the non-existence of the moon. Oh, it was an interesting era for Christianity!)

    Suffice it to say, then, I am well versed in how many Christians throughout recent centuries /also/ recognized empirical knowledge and rationalistic discourse as posing coherent and serious problems for their biblical faith. As such, suggestions that it is merely my atheism informing my reliance on scepticism, empiricism, and compassion when reading the Bible… have zero relevance here. Rather, such comments give the appearance of ignorance /on your part/ of Christianity’s own, rich tapestry of doubt and moral concern over the centuries.

    …And that’s really where I want to draw the line, because this blog is NOT about a secular/spiritual divide. My humanism is a humanism I share with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’i, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, and a host of indigenous faiths the world over. For this reason, I will not give up the value of the work that human beings do /from any faith position/, even yours. The work of humanists is too vital for we creatures with an active limbic system in an indifferent cosmos, and I am thankful–not proud, THANKFUL–for others who apply their cosmology to the service of their fellow human beings.

    Neither, though, did I seek your deconversion in this conversation. If you were proud before, and now are humbled by your faith in the Christian god–good. I hope you do great work with that humility in Christ within your proximate communities, and I wish you all the best in those pursuits. The last word is yours, if you so wish it. Thanks for the chat to this point!

  • Brother TC

    I had to trim a lot out of my original reply because Disqus kept deleting it for length. Why Disqus allows posts of that length, I have no idea. In my original comment, I had this disclaimer:

    “(Again, correct me if I’m wrong. I try to restate your beliefs to put them in concrete terms so we can more easily discuss them. No offense intended, and I’m certainly willing to listen to any correctives you give.)”

    So I do appreciate your clarification.

    We could have a discussion about cognitive relativism, but since you take my challenge to your worldview as an insult, I’m stopping here. To be clear, I don’t find challenges to the Christian worldview to be an insult; I rather see them as opportunities.

    I appreciate the effort you spent talking to me, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

  • Brother TC

    “It’s all in my first response to you.”

    Below is your first response to me, according to Disqus. I see precisely zero questions in it.

    Shem’s truth is universal to the degree that cultural evolution is universal. It’s objective to the degree that the idea of cultural evolution — tho not individual evolvings of culture, of course — is objective.

    For example, your apparent rejection of Shem’s claims is itself a product of your cultural evolution in matters religious (Catholic, I presume). And, yes, your particular cultural evolution is subjective. The idea of, or existence of, cultural evolution in general, is objective. (Excepting Ye Olde Problem of Induction, of course, which is also, of course, a problem for you just as much as for me. [Divine-command theories of ethics are themselves founded on an inductive basis. The same induction that’s led to religious scriptures etc.])

  • Brother TC

    Thanks for chatting. Goodbye — which is a contraction of “God be with you.”

  • SocraticGadfly

    OK, it was actually statements refuting you. Try to prove that I haven’t refuted you.

  • Brother TC

    I have no interest in challenging your beliefs regarding cultural evolution. If I did, I would’ve done that in the first place. If you want to pursue this topic, though, feel free to put it to me as a question and I’ll answer it to the best of my ability.

    I’m interested in challenging something else.

    The fact that you said “Shem’s truth” implies that you don’t believe in absolute, objective, universal truth of any kind. Do I have that right?

    If you find that question insulting, annoying, presumptuous, unloving, a trick, a game or otherwise offensive in any way, feel free to dismiss me and end this conversation. I won’t get offended.

  • Brother TC

    You should know that I hadn’t seen this second comment from you until now. I rely on Disqus notifications for replies, and in this comment you replied to yourself. I was wondering why you said I hadn’t responded to “quite a few” of your comments.

    Anyway, if you want me to respond, let me know. I have answers to all your questions, as well as some observations, clarifications and challenges

    However, you should be aware that I won’t be responding to all of your points. I take the liberty to let certain claims lie, and I won’t give you my frank explanation for that because it could offend. I do try to answer all direct questions, though. If this bothers you, best not to continue.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Actually, I don’t believe that you have no such interest. You’ve already challenged Shem’s understanding of cultural evolution. That is similar to mine.

    You have “the right” to make inferences about what you think I believe — or what I understand based on natural and social sciences.

    I have “the right” to quote Shem:

    I think there’s only one way to take that, and that’s as an insult. I suggest you work on the response you owe to the moderator’s thoughtful post and abandon this increasingly presumptuous and annoying line of questioning.

    And then exit the conversation. And, to insure that I don’t enter it again. And, perhaps, to insure that I can’t be tempted to enter it again.

    Good-bye.

  • Brother TC

    “You’ve already challenged Shem’s understanding of cultural evolution.”

    I dispute that claim. Show me where I’ve done this. Feel free to quote me.

    “inferences about what you think I believe”

    I take your assertions about cultural evolution to indicate your beliefs regarding cultural evolution. I found no need to draw inferences about your beliefs on this subject.

    Goodbye.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I have to say that, as a student of philosophy, a student of philosophy of language, a reader of Wittgenstein and others, as well as a writer, I appreciate and largely accept the idea of everyday language as a game. When the idea of language as game itself is used as a game, or rather, a metagame, I don’t need to participate, any more than I do if I have enough disagreement in usage of language itself as a game.
    And, I’ve seen metagames before.

  • Your responses are a work of art. I learned much from reading them 🙂

  • The big problem is, you sometimes behave unethically, and you know it.

    I assume this is true of you too, as it is of all humans, regardless of their belief systems.