Perhaps, given yesterday’s events, I should stay away from politics for awhile. At any rate, today’s topic is non-political.
“These people, it’s no mystery where they come from. You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire. You build egos the size of cathedrals. Fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse. Grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green gold-plated fantasies until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god. Where can you go from there?” — “John Milton,” from the movie The Devil’s Advocate
I’ve received some plaintive email recently, specifically inquiring why I haven’t been posting anything about matters of faith and the spirit, as I semi-regularly did at Eternity Road. The “Sunday Ruminations” there were apparently a more popular feature than I’d thought. In perfect honesty, I didn’t write them because I felt they’d be popular; I wrote them because I needed to do so. Their primary audience was myself.
(Hey, just because you don’t write hortatory essays to yourself doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the practice.)
Of course, not everyone was pleased with those pieces. Some readers were actually offended by them. I remember, from back when I started the process, one note of particular import, from an old friend who thought he knew me better than he really did. Boiled down to essentials, it said: How can you, Fran, possessor of a genius-plus IQ and a string of intellectual achievements the length of your arm, possibly believe in this completely implausible religious crap?
I wish I’d saved that email. It was a perfect demonstration of the difference between self-awareness and egotism. If its author had possessed more self-awareness, he would have penetrated to the fallacy behind it without any need for assistance. But all things in their proper course.
I’ve loved the “John Milton” quote at the top of this essay ever since I first heard it. It perfectly captures the malady that paralyzes millions of minds: those who preen themselves about being “too smart” to allow that there might be a God, that there might be actual historical truth to the New Testament, and that gratitude to God for the gift of life is a sensible and appropriate emotion. I had a brushing encounter with one such person in the pages of Eternity Road. Here’s what I wrote:
There are some smart folks in the Blogosphere, but intelligence is no substitute for either perspective or judgment, and no one is uniformly knowledgeable about all things. Nope, not even your Curmudgeon.
Hearken to Eric Raymond, supposedly a smart fellow, as he goes wildly wrong about a subject on which he’s badly misinformed:
“Surely, at worst,” they will argue, “only some kinds of faith are toxic; conveniently for us, the wrong kinds.” Harris neatly scotches that argument by quoting the Book of Deuteronomy. There is no doubt that Christian scripture tells its adherents to kill those who turn away from faith, even members of their own families. There is no doubt that Christians have behaved that way in the past; there is no doubt that Christianity only refrains from this now because most Christians have agreed to ignore inconveniently harsh passages from the Bible; and, given that the fastest-growing Christian denominations profess Biblical literalism, there is every reason to suspect that agreement is fragile and temporary. [Emphasis added by your Curmudgeon.]
This is slanderously incorrect. The Book of Deuteronomy is Old Testament, and has no relevance to the Christian New Covenant; the same applies to the bloody commands of the Book of Leviticus. The New Testament contains not one exhortation of the sort Raymond claims to exist there. More, the Founder of Christianity explicitly told His followers to love their enemies, and to do good to their persecutors. So what’s going on here?
The charitable assumption is that Raymond hasn’t read the New Testament, and in making his claim has relied solely on the statements of others as hostile to Christianity as he is. The uncharitable assumption…well, your Curmudgeon, being a Christian, is loath to make it.
And here’s what Eric S. Raymond, to whom the above refers, commented in reply:
Sorry to burst your bubble, Curmudgeon, but Harris also cites New Testament authority for the proposition that Christians are required to kill unbelievers and apostates. Gospel of John, I think; I’d report the chapter and verse Harris quotes, but I lent my copy of “The End of Faith” to a friend yesterday….
The harder you cling to your ignorance now, the stupider you’re going to look when I get my copy of “The End Of Faith” back and drop the correct cite on you.
Clue: you already look pretty stupid. I mean nothing personal in that remark, religious faith has made idiots out of better men than either of us. That’s Sam Harris’s point.
Ta ta for now. Think I’ll call my buddy Scratch and tell him I need that book back pronto…
I have no idea where Mr. Raymond got the notion that a secondary source such as Sam Harris’s The End Of Faith, itself extremely tendentious and filled with false interpretations and equivalences, constitutes evidence of anything. But one who possesses “an ego the size of a cathedral” isn’t likely to be sufficiently self-aware — or self-critical — to take note of such a thing. Nor has Mr. Raymond grown in self-awareness in the years since that exchange:
You say “natural rights flow from our Creator”?
Oh, good. Now you’ve made my liberty dependent on widespread acceptance of religious belief, which is to say delusional insanity that fails to be recognized as such only out of historical habit.
You are not doing the cause of liberty any favors with this maneuver.
Eric S. Raymond’s principal notoriety seems to arise from an essay he wrote, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” that extols the virtues of open-source software. I know of nothing else he’s done or achieved. Whatever the case, he obviously thinks himself “too smart” for religious belief…or for allowing others to maintain their “delusional” religious beliefs without whacking them across the chops for it.
Pure egotism, and a corresponding deficit in self-awareness.
Incidentally, this essay isn’t about religion, faith, atheism, or any immediate consequence of any of them. It’s about the prerequisites for being and living as a decent human being.
Foremost among the most persistent aspects of human consciousness is its centrality. That is: each of us, by nature, sees himself as the center of reality. Needless to say, that’s a personal perspective, which cannot be maintained as an objective fact, especially in the face of someone else’s assertion that he stands at the center of reality. All the same, each of us sits at the focal point of his own universe. All roads lead to us, and from us as well. Breaking free of that perspective and seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint, one of the mileposts in the attainment of maturity, is quite difficult. Ask any teenager.
Now, no one would want to spend every waking moment of his life seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint. However, the ability to do so at need is critical to living successfully in society. By successfully, I mean living happily, in a reasonable degree of contentment, and at peace with those around us. For he who cannot or will not see from the viewpoint of another will be continuously susceptible to some of the very worst faults a man can have:
- He will be militant about his opinions and priorities, and will see others as deficient — stupid, deluded, insane, or evil — for not sharing them.
- He will be tempted to meddle in others’ affairs “for their own good”…sometimes coercively, always destructively.
- He will be vulnerable to flights of envy, the most corrosive of emotions.
The swollen-ego behavior of such a person renders his society uncongenial to humbler and more tolerant persons. He will find himself a victim of “Gresham’s Law of Human Relationships:” Bad company drives out good company when the two are valued equally. Presently, the only persons willing to associate with him will be those with equally swollen egos, who have all the same opinions and priorities and are equally militant about them. This is a recipe for intellectual and emotional stasis, not to mention quite a bit of strife.
I speak from personal experience.
If there’s anything about which I am perfectly certain, it’s human limitations.
We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” to be sure, but we are not omniscient nor omnipotent. No matter how far we advance science and technology, there will always be things we do not know, and things we cannot do. Indeed, the heart of the scientific outlook, as Jonathan Rauch once put it, is that there are no final answers and no unquestionable authorities.
(That banging you hear in the distance is Epictetus demanding to be let in. The old coot has been screaming himself hoarse at me about the hazards of being certain about uncertainty. Apparently he made a similar mistake back when, and hates to see it repeated.)
A proper appreciation of our limitations is critical to human advancement. In particular, we must accept that, no matter how lofty an intellectual achievement appears at the time, it is forever capable of being surpassed. Imagine for a moment that in 1905 Albert Einstein, at that time merely a twenty-six-year-old postal worker, had assumed that classical mechanics should be deemed unquestionable — that his notions about relativity were inappropriate, given the disdain for such fantasies among older, respected physicists with chairs at prestigious universities. Would he have continued on to his even more consequential discoveries in thermodynamics and quantum physics?
So also with opinions about anything, including propositions for which there can never be irrefutable proof or disproof: the demesne of religion. Inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of Mankind, past and present, holds to some religious beliefs, getting along in society demands that one be amiable about differences of opinion in such matters. Pressing one’s own opinions on others as irrefutable, and insisting that their failure to accept them is proof of some intellectual or emotional deficiency, is not recommended.
Steven Goldberg, a terrific writer on a very contentious subject — the biologically determined characteristics of the two sexes of Man, and why men prevail over women in certain domains — was once asked by a lecture hall audience whether he would consider seriously any finding of evidence that contradicts his thesis. His response was immediate and positive; indeed, he called it the first obligation of an honest man of science to confront and evaluate evidence that contradicts his beliefs, and to do it at once.
Goldberg’s statement was the epitome of genuine intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, the sentiment is not universal; many, perhaps most of us take it ill when we must confront evidence that we’ve been wrong. We take it as a diminution of self: an act of vandalism against the cathedrals of our egos.
Yet the grand partition remains as it was:
- Propositions which can be definitively proved: Mathematics.
- Propositions that can be disproved but not proved: Science.
- Propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved: Religion.
For best happiness and widest social acceptance, it’s best to confine one’s certainties, and one’s militancy about them, to statements in Category 1. All else is subject to change without notice…and having written and reviewed these sentiments, perhaps they have some application to politics, after all.