Secret Mojo Dumbs It Down for You

August 18, 2006

Morality precedes religion? Salman Rushdie on Faith & Reason

Filed under: Atheism,books,Fiction,Literature,Politics,Reading,religion,television,writing — secretmojo @ 11:55 pm

Wooohooo! All the author interviews at Bill Moyers’ Faith & Reason are up. I’m saving Margaret Atwood, with her darling little “happy witch” pose, for my own personal finale.

For a week, I denied myself free speech hero Salman Rushdie’s interview (click on “watch the interview online”) because I wanted to savor the anticipation while I enjoyed the others. I finally broke down, though, and clicked the link.

Rushdie, as the President of the PEN American Center, helped initiate the Faith and Reason event; his interview is longer and addresses far more topics in the political, religious, philosophical, and imaginative realms than the others.

The man is brilliant.

But he’s so smooth about it, humble and precise, that the complexity of his mind goes unnoticed. He talked about everything. Far more than I could encapsulate in one post. The Danish cartoons, the transformative power of the artist’s imagination, 9/11 as a hinge moment, how cultures are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to one another, his new-found joy of ordinary life, and much more.

Most interesting was his idea that human morality precedes religion. Religion, he posits, grows from an attempt to codify the moral instinct already built into our DNA. He points out that all art began as sacred art, and from this, implies that art and religion go hand in hand, and that the need for religion may be like language: a natural inclination of the human species, which gets fouled up, revised, politicized, and abused over time.

He also complained that there’s not much secular lingo to describe transcendent experience, and implies that this may contribute to atheists gaining the stigma as men with no moral guidance.

I found the part about morality as antecedent to religion so fascinating, I had to pause the video and mull it over.

It’s hard to argue with Rushdie, but let me try: I agree that religion is the language of morality we’ve developed. It’s rough and simplistic, but one must learn to grunt first, then write in iambic pentameter. One only needs to inspect all the religions out there to realize that, despite what any believer might believe inside his own faith, all religions are at their base, secular. Or at least humanistic. Only the biases of the mind entice one religion to claim absolute arbitration of morality, truth, and behavior.

That is essentially what Rushdie says, but I add this tidbit: we need only recognize that religion is an adopted moral language and lifestyle to get over all our hang-ups about it. Einstein used the word “God” differently than anyone else; he recognized that it was an unfortunate part of the vernacular needed to describe unprovable, yet still worthy, concepts.

And this is where I think many atheists and believers alike fail. The former asserts that fantasy is not real, therefore precariously dangerous; while the latter contends that truth is divine, and must never be challenged.

But I say that religion is a chosen, not given, symbolic language of morality that, in response to uncertainty, fills the gaps where we aren’t bright enough to devise ways of acting ethically.

“Chosen” changes everything. Not only does it implicitly recognize the sheer power (and worth) of imagination, it puts the responsibility square upon the believer to answer for his behavior. He cannot claim “God said so” to win an argument because, in the end, it is he who bought into the belief for one reason or the other, so it is he who must justify it. Therefore, a believer’s ideas of restricting or oppressing other people can be criticized as ideas embraced firstly by him and only subsequently strengthened by his religion.

With religious diversity in mind, Rushdie also warned against moral relativism, faintly echoing Sam Harris’ contempt of religious moderates.

In a nutshell, moral relativism is “live and let live” applied to morality. “They believe in cannibalism, and hey, that’s their religious prerogative.” But Rushdie admits that there is a paucity of language to describe absolute morality within the secular world. We’re just not experienced at it. One must always bring God into it. “Atheists are obsessed with God,” he laughed.

I agree with him here. Relativism is a dangerously slippery slope of self-justified apathy, and I believe people are not philosophical enough nor bright enough to discover the bullshit and oppression hidden within the ideology of “don’t rock the boat.” There needs to be a new lingo to describe what is right and what is wrong without bringing religion into it; too many religions on earth, and certainly too many political abuses of them, make the current religiously tainted moral vernacular (“Infinite Justice”) unacceptable.

Rushie suggested that Democracy was one of the ways to manifest our innate moral sense. With Democracy we can, unlike archaic religions dependent on absolute verity, adjust and improve our morality as we go along — without destroying the idea of Democracy. Slavery might have been wonderful 150 years ago, but is appalling now. We argued about it, killed each other over it, changed it, yet still retain our democracy.

Religions change, too, of course. Rushdie mentioned this, but didn’t give it the time I expected. Christians don’t stone women for adultery today, for example, nor do they beat their wives with a stick no thicker than the thumb.

In my view, these subconscious revisions of religion’s authority are done on the sly, and dysfunctionally ignore their own divine text. Such “adjustments” are entirely subtextual, never become explicit law, as in a Democracy — in other words, there’s no chance to say “Whoops. Sorry.” and move to a higher level. Eventually, divine books will internally contradict, show their age, and yet are kept that way — believers would never countenance an edit by anyone other than God himself.

I’m convinced that today we are on a threshold here, where many minds, like Rushdie’s, have advanced to a state able to articulate and obey a moral code without adopting the entirety of a religious system.

But many minds haven’t. Most people recognize the golden rule as the best piece of moral advice ever given. But with all the evidence of others getting ahead through shrewdness, a person tends to reconsider the value of such an ideal. Some folk still need supernatural help to become less selfish; and I’m okay with that.

But: I say religion as authority figure will fade. Must fade. Because if it grows, it may kill us all.

Like political parties, where a person can both believe in conservation and remain a Republican, religions may adopt a welcoming flexibility. They’ll evolve more explicitly. They won’t lose social influence, just their absolute authority. That’s what my brochure says, anyways.

I doubt this could happen in my lifetime, of course. I need only look at Lebanon — or hell, most of the Middle East — to see how far we have yet to go.

The whole interview is worth a gander. Beats the hell out of American Idol, for sure.


I have two other posts on this series, if you’re interested: The Burden of Belief, and Bill Moyers Delivers again: “Faith & Reason”.

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August 4, 2006

My big mouth gets me tagged.

Filed under: books,Reading — secretmojo @ 2:10 am

Dangit! I first read BlogLily’s meta-meme: a fantasy question & answer session with Terry Gross. I wrote some answers down privately for the heck of it. Then I found Anna’s responses on her blog, and went so far as to click through to TeaBird, who tagged Anna to begin with. All these were sufficient to serve me the “implicit challenge” notice, which I elected to ignore. Until Anna tagged me head on.

All right, then. Here are some answers that would shift like a kaleidoscope if I were asked any sooner or later than I was:

1. One book that changed your life.

The dictionary. Really. It is the entire compendium of books you read that help define your life, and there’s no way I could have gotten through all the books I’ve read without a dictionary. I wore the pages off the sucker reading Richard III, looking up any word that felt suspiciously vague in my brain. Took me about a week to read it. But after that, Shakespeare was both a breeze and a joy.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. I think I’ve put more hours into that book than he had. On second thought, probably not. But I bet he never knew that page 117 is the page you must turn to in The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to re-read the evolution of the number forty-two. (Sorry Anna, this was my private answer well before your post.)

3. One book you’d want on a desert island.

I was going to quip here and say How to Get off a Desert Island, but since some ugly experiences taught me to be skeptical of how-to books, I’ll have to say a large (>800 pp.) compilation of jokes and humorous ditties, because being stranded on a desert island probably sucks.

4. One book that made you laugh.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd. Any book by Jean Shepherd will do, actually.

5. One book that made you cry.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. At the end, a history professor digs through this extremely sensitive woman’s life as if it were some burlesque pastiche, and that upset me greatly. I finished the book on the train, tears in my eyes, which was very embarrassing. It’s not the saddest book out there, but it’s the only one that made me both cry and seem insane to 15 strangers.

6a. One book you wish you had written.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Damn, this book is epically cool.

6b. One book you wish had been written.

I honestly don’t know. I’ll tell you when it comes out. That sounds like a cop-out, but I believe in the generative nature of humanity; there’s no way I could imagine a book without some brilliant chap writing it soon enough, and certainly better than I conceived it to begin with.

7. One book that you wish had never been written.

Perhaps Mein Kampf, but even that documents quite clearly the tendencies of pathological tyranny, so it has some uses, too. Without it, we would have to blindly suffer different holocausts every 50 years, because we’d have a harder time detecting what’s going wrong when it’s going wrong.

8. One book you’re currently reading.

Chicago Noir, edited by Neal Pollack.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.

Sharpe’s Tiger, by Bernard Cromwell. For some reason I just can’t get through that book. I hear it’s fantastic, and I’m afraid I might just be too philistine to make it all the way through.

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