October 23, 2006

Cooperating with the Contemptuous

Justin Katz

I submitted my response to URI student Gabriel Lugo's hostile musings on American religion to the student paper of his school, The Good 5¢ Cigar, and Lugo (enlisting the help of a cowriter) replied a couple of weeks ago. Herewith, my further response.

Cigar readers will have to forgive me; as a humbled father of three who must work eighty-hour weeks to afford the king's ransom of a Rhode Island mortgage, I haven't the time that Gabriel Lugo has (much less he and a partner) to pore over research journals. Nonetheless, perhaps mere reason will suffice to make response.

I will take Mr. Lugo at his word that he has achieved hatelessness. (I, myself, cannot honestly claim to have managed such a state of grace, although I'm working on it.) Be that as it may, to the extent that Lugo is not hateful, he is certainly callous. He may have rationalized a moral imperative from humans' natural "propensity toward cooperation within a group," but his hostile language, mocking a majority of his fellow citizens (recall "the herd mentality" of those who believe in "invisible alpha males"), does not instill hope for that imperative's practice when it comes to cooperation between groups. Imagine the form of that same impulse in a person who has not conquered hate.

This is what I continue to find distressing: that Lugo fails to acknowledge the sheer diversity of the human race. If everybody would simply be and believe like me, he seems to suggest, then we could do without all those silly theistic faiths. But citing the mild behavior of members of the National Academy of Sciences is no proof at all, because not everybody can or will be made scientists. What is to be done with those who will not — or cannot — be "ingenious at improving [their] ethics"?

Nor does it "support the hypothesis that a religious society does not equate to a moral one" to note that the United Nations thinks "highly secular societies such as Norway and Sweden" are swell places to live. Apart from the inherent subjectivity of such lists, the populations of those nations are drastically less diverse, and their health, as Lugo describes it, may be transitory. According to the CIA World Factbook, in Sweden, there are more people over 64 than under 15; there are more people dying than being born. The country's meager population growth derives entirely from immigration, and some quick research from the Statistics Sweden government agency confirms that a sizable percentage of immigrants do not hail from "highly secular societies."

A similar, albeit less dramatic, analysis can be performed within the United States, with secular states and segments of society leaning toward the Scandinavian predicament. Moreover, intra-U.S. comparisons highlight a correlation that arguably precedes the one between religion and "dysfunction" on which Lugo relies: the correlations between religion and "dysfunction" separately with lower income. The question that Lugo and his cowriter (or at least their sources) suppress is whether religion improves lives within groups that are, for other reasons, more prone to dysfunction.

Discussion of these matters becomes quickly mired in fundamental differences of worldview, but the particular markers of dysfunction that Lugo notes, such as divorce, abortion, and the repercussions of sexual license, merit consideration of their source. Which segment of society has been pushing for liberalization in these areas? In contrast, which segment has been resisting the codification of libertinism in the law? In this respect, the correlations that Lugo cites may prove nothing more than that the detrimental consequences of secularization disproportionately affect those outside of the elite that initiates the changes.

Those elites may be inclined to scoff that religion correlates with poverty and ignorance, but such scoffing would elide an important realization: Among those who lack the capacity for or interest in an intellectual construction of beliefs, morality will necessarily be conveyed in religious terms — in terms of faith — even if those terms derive from a science book. How will Lugo's logicomorality compare with traditional religion when people inclined toward less considered behavior take it as their creed?

Moreover, how will its adherents address a world in which, despite the narrowly conclusive logic, fellow citizens say, "Fair enough, but we still want the Ten Commandments in the park and an opposite-sex definition of marriage"? We've evidence of the mechanism that they'll employ: forcing their beliefs through the courts, trampling what remains of democracy in our nation. And we've reason to fear that, if one as unhateful and considered as Mr. Lugo is inclined to lapse into hostile language, then there will be others inclined to lapse into hostilities of a more visceral sort.

Happily, as an intellectually inclined convert to Christianity, I believe theism to be internally rational (not to mention true) if only one has answered "yes" to the basic question of God's existence, for which either possible answer ultimately relies on faith. As I suggested in my previous letter, the relevant arguments are laid out plentifully in Western literature for those intellectuals able to leave aside their irrational biases sufficiently to read with a willingness to understand.

Mr. Lugo, in particular, might find it edifying to adopt a frame of mind that accepts that, as with civilization, so with religion. That "primitive people," as he fashions them, misunderstood and misapplied revelation means only that they represented a stage of development of, not the full expression of, religion. Their religion must be seen in context of what they would have been — and more importantly, would have become — without it. The fact that with religion they became us should minimize intellectuals' stigma against sharing a worldview with the less sophisticated of our day.

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Bravo! I applaud Mr. Katz's rational arguement in defense of religion. Sometimes, I think we fall into the sea of our reality in life and lose sight of God. But when you slow down and look for God, the signs of his presence are everywhere. It seems to me that there is more "faith" involved in believing that the universe's beginning had no divine intervention and more "reason" in believing that a God was involved.

Posted by: Sean at October 23, 2006 7:59 PM

Well argued, Justin. And you're right - hate only emanates from the right side of the spectrum ...

There is one thing I must ask. Do you believe that morals can only be inspired by religion? And that atheists cannot conduct their life in a moral way?

Posted by: SusanD at October 26, 2006 9:48 PM

Rephrase - the prior questions should not have targeted Justin: can morals only be inspired by religion? Can't atheists conduct their life in a moral way?

Posted by: SusanD at October 27, 2006 9:40 PM

Sorry, Susan. I have intended to reply, but time has been short.

Of course atheists can conduct their lives in a moral way. However, I believe morality, in sensibility and in impetus, is inherently supralogical. In other words, at some level, acknowledged or not, there must be a belief that transcends the pure field of calculations that atheism implies.

I have also come to believe that we currently live in an era that is coasting on the moral sensibilities of our Christian past. Thinking we can construct our morality without a religious guide, we're gradually becoming corrupted in our basic sense of what is right and what is wrong.

So I guess the bottom line is that, yes, an individual can be a moral atheist, but that a society cannot long be the same.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 27, 2006 10:57 PM