If Welcomed to Your World, Would I Enter?

by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

The reality of our differences as individuals and the difficulty required to truly accept and appreciate them – that’s what’s been on my mind this week.

The New Athiest

On Sunday, CBC’s Tapestry, hosted by Mary Hynes, featured the founder of the New Atheist movement, Sam Harris (author: The Moral  Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values).   Among the question posed to him, central and recurring was the concern about what would be the source of a society’s moral values if religion were removed from its traditional core.  Mr. Harris referred a lot to neural or brain science and its growing body of discoveries and new theories.   Included is the evidence that for most people, the pleasures and rewards of behaviour that supports the well-being of others (including animals, interestingly enough) can be observed and measured in the brain’s neural activities.  Kindness releases endorphins. Science thus points the way toward moral behaviour without the need for codes claiming divine authority and censure if violated.  (To hear the broadcast, go to the CBC webpage, Tapestry, July 3, 2011).

It was all very interesting, but I found that he was peculiarly obtuse (just my observation) about why people wouldn’t respond confidently to this news and give up the clinging to religions that might not be the only source of morality, but even contribute to what is immoral – that is, to what is NOT positive to human well-being.  He seemed oblivious to the fact that for deeply religious people the aim of living and the point of how we live isn’t human well-being.  Let alone animal.  It’s about serving God, loving God,  doing God’s will, with humankind’s individual and societal needs as secondary.  God will care for those who do his will.  As determined by the religious teachings of one’s chosen faith.

Steps toward a More Moral Universe

This man seems profoundly committed to helping improve the world, through scientific understanding of that behaviour which works best to further our common and personal well-being.  If he doesn’t have any feel for how very differently millions of others experience things, are we all up the creek?

No!  Because, as difficult as it is, many many others are committed to getting a few things right before they pronounce upon what is necessary for others.

One is the matter of achieving a peaceful soul, appreciative of life and of self and others. 

Another is gaining an ongoing understanding others’ experiences when they are different from what one knows, and respecting the right to that different experience.  And even the possible validity of it. A capacity for Buber’s I-Thou stance would help this one along.

Then, I think, comes the judgement of where a person and/or a society is getting it really right or really wrong –  where well-being is stultified, not encouraged.  The moral sense.  Where we learn that judgement of right and wrong is a complex question, as religious teachers, ethicists, scientists, psychologists demonstrate.  Not as simple as Just Trust Science.

But we do have the responsibility to speak up when we see something we feel in the gut or the heart to be wrong, especially if no one else seems to be seeing or saying.  Just how far we go in accepting the primacy of individual experience and the person’s right to live according to their dictates may depend on who we see being hurt by those dictates.  But speaking out?  It’s the high ground.

A Really Different but Comprehensible Life

I’m getting to the end of Keith Richard’s autobiography: surprised by the first few hundred pages.  There’s a kindness and generousity of spirit in the book as he leads you into his passion for music – that of the old southern American blues players.  He attempts to explain the important things he’s learned and why certain paths were taken.  Parts are very familiar, in human and spiritual terms.  Others aren’t, but  you emerge with the sense you’ve learned something fresh about another kind of life – a privilege to be let in.  And the world seems, to me, a little more comfortable for his effort.

Oh, But Teenagers?!

Teenagers have a terrible time letting us in.  Trust fails on both the parental and the kids’ sides.  So big gaps open up because neither side can really grasp what the other is about.  Inner peace isn’t highest in the teenage years orin middle-aged adults, so we’re approaching the divide handicapped.  And questions of right and wrong are very confused.  Only advice that ever worked at all for me was to trust the child: and trust that what we’d done, in loving and letting our child be herself when they were little, would play out allright.  But really understanding and getting where she was coming from?  So hard.

We’re All In The Same Boat

No lessons to impart. But I have a sense that anybody who reads a blog like this is trying to get to a better understanding of how the world works, of what our Creator would love to see in our actions, and/or what fulfills our human condition best, or how our religious and worldly heroes would live out their love in our circumstances.  Can we support each other in developing more truly inclusive lives and communities where we get to share what we figure out?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “If Welcomed to Your World, Would I Enter?

  1. Hamish Robertson

    I find the current crop of aggressive atheists irritating in the extreme. They appear to have no capacity for introspection whatever.

    Good ole’ Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky spotted the holes in their arguments around 160 years ago. The particular argument Sam Harris seems to be making here, from your brief description of it (I confess to not listening to his broadcast) – ‘Kindness releases endorphins’ – can be paraphrased as “doing good things for people results in better wellbeing for the self doing the good deed” – i.e. that there is, built into the structure of things, a reward system for good behaviour. However the difficulty with his argument is simply that it is a rational argument, where the temptation to do evil is not a rational temptation. The argument that, say, there will be personal consequences for trashing these store windows when 99% of the people around me are waving digital video recorders has no effect on the hooligans who do these things. Evil is not a rational urge. (Though it may employ such urges.) Dostoevsky 101, guys!!* Raskilnikov! ‘The Man from Underground’! Get an inner life, Sam!!

  2. Hamish Robertson

    Oh – and with apologies for bothering you again but I was caught by this quote – “what would be the source of a society’s moral values if religion were removed from its traditional core” – whaddayamean IF??? The huge experiment that is going on all around us in Toronto is precisely about whether a society can continue when it has no central and explicit core of value, no common ceremonial, and increasingly, not even a central mode of communication. What happens to community in these circumstances? Do we simply fragment, and begin a slide into violent rhetoric, divisive politics, and ultimately civil war – the slide that our neighbour to the south appears to be on? Or do we recognise our common humanity and somehow make it work?

    Harris’s argument suffers also from a familiar solipsism – he argues that because nature rewards good behaviour we should behave well. But why does Sam have to exhort us to act well if nature rewards good behaviour? Shouldn’t we already be obeying nature and doing good stuff? Or is there something else in play here, not considered in thy philosophy, Sam?

  3. Do you really believe that without ‘deeply religious’ people our world would fall into chaos?
    My Lord you sound so complacent and self satisfied. BLAH! Am I to use Keith Richards( whatever his ‘espoused’ beliefs), life as an example for my own? I think not. Would you forgive ME for my excess drug taking and rampant fornicating if I wrote a book that touched you? Shall I try? Remember the editor and the lawyer who made sure he didn’t commit any ‘legal’ sins.
    You have chosen religion. I have chosen GOD. My God does not require me to snipe at the non believers. I don’t care what any agnostic or atheist believes. Do you really think that Christianity has much to be proud of.
    The pope has money in pharmaceuticals that make both pills and condoms. He also has money in armaments. Read Peter Hitchens. Do you self satisfied Christians (substitute any religion) think that its ( the Churches, any religions) history is anything but disgusting? Clock the Inquisition. The basement of the Vatican is full of books we can’t read (heresy) thefts from Jews and any art that the church deemed unacceptable. And look how much money they made. Bishops and Cardinals who live a life that we could only dream of. Is those the ‘deeply religious’ people of whom you speak.
    Yah don’t like the programs. Don’t watch. But don’t be self satisfied.
    My God asks me to do the best I can. To help when and where I can. And I do. I don’t go to church cause I haven’t yet met the person who has a right to tell me how to live.
    And as for Dostoevsky, he also wrote about a man who walked the length of the country living on (I would say) ‘the will of heaven’. Rather like a Buddhist monk (non-gender specific). Where the people ‘Christians’, religious, or just kind………….or even afraid of their God’s punishment if they did not give?
    I do not believe that either side is right. I believe, (and would be happy to move if I felt the proof enough) that all humans have good and that as Voltaire said, “If there hadn’t been a God, It would have been necessary to invent one”. HAVE WE? Have you invented a God that fits YOUR image of what a God (a religion) should be. Do you not think that all religions are saying the same thing, but doing the opposite?
    Get off your pulpits people. If your right and he’s wrong, at least he made people question their beliefs. Are YOU afraid that You might be wrong?
    We have a moral universe. We just have a lot of selfish, terrified, egocentric people ( both genders) that hunger for more than their share, and they make the rest of us look bad.
    Deal with it.
    Diana

    • Hamish Robertson

      Dear Diana

      Wow. An indignant Buddhist. A peripatetic oxymoron. I’m still wondering how right your, and pondering you’re idears.

      Deal with it.

      H.

  4. Dan Cooperstock

    I have to admit that I also think basing morality on our religions is a bit scary. There’s a whole lot that seems evil to me in God’s purported actions in especially the Old Testament, and certainly a whole lot of what I consider to be evil is done in the name of at least the “big 3” western religions. (I know much less about the eastern ones.) Buddhism seems to have some excellent moral elements, but traditional Buddhism has no God at all. I find it much more plausible that whatever is good in the morality espoused by religions comes from our basic human goodness, than vice versa.

  5. Mike Gouthro

    The hard wiring of all living things appears to mandate survival, procreation, nurture and community service. I see human behaviour as an elaboration on that wiring. My sense of right and wrong, empathy and altruism are some complex derivatives of the basic stuff.

    Our bonobo ape relatives may well experience strong group emotions akin to evil and revulsion when they witness an aberrant member rampaging and killing the new born of the troop.

  6. I ask your forgiveness for my responses’ tone. It was self satisfied. I did the very thing I didn’t want others to do. Mea culpa.
    I really do believe that we are basically good and that even without a religion per se we would live and do good.
    I was raised by vicious Christians and it was reflected in my response. Again mea culpa.
    I take nothing back though.
    Diana

    • Julie MacLean

      LOL

    • Hamish Robertson

      Dear Diana

      Y’know, I started this in a kinda bantering mood, picking up on the combative tone of your 1st letter. Then I stopped to consider how it was that anybody could believe, in the face of recent history, “that we are basically good and that even without a religion per se we would live and do good”. I felt kind of amazed: that anyone could continue in such innocence: that anyone could have lived a life so free of the cataclysmic human events that shape many of the rest of us that she could retain such a basically groundless, sunny view of human nature. Look up, sister. Look outside the North American continent. Think about the lives of Somalis, Libyans, Tibetans. and GET OVER IT.

      H.

  7. Congratulations Rosemary on an article generating such passionate response! Every blogger’s dream!
    To be ‘welcoming’ is key.
    If we can bless children, such that they are truly welcomed as God welcomes them, we’re more than halfway there to receiving all people as though they belong.
    The personal experience of being forgiven helps, all the more if it so perpetually overwhelms that gratitude to God and humility towards one’s neighbour are ever present.

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