About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Resting on the ever-doubting arms

I have long struggled with my strong sense that both atheism AND religious belief are -- what? -- untenable?  Hubristic?  Existentially lazy?

But if I think that, then is there a 3rd thing, or a synthesis of some kind?  My instincts lead me to believe that that ambiguous middle ground is all there is, and that refusing to take this on board reflects a fundamental lack of seriousness about our mortality.  And our limits.

So what is that third thing, since it seems to saturate the way I live in the world?

And then I ran across this last night, while reading Magee's wonderful book. He nails my view precisely:
"Not being religious myself, yet believing that most of reality is likely to be permanently unknowable to human beings, I see a compelling need for the demystification of the unknowable. It seems to me that most people tend either to believe that all reality is in principle knowable or to believe that there is a religious dimension to things.
A third alternative—that we can know very little but have equally little ground for religious belief—receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies. Simple though it is, people have difficulty getting their minds round it. In practice I find that rationalistic humanists often think of me as someone with soft-centered crypto-religious longings while religious people tend to see me as making token acknowledgement of the transcendental while being actually still far too rationalistic.
What that means is that each sees me as a fellow-traveller of the other—when in fact I occupy a third position which neither of them seems to see the possibility of, and which repudiates both. What I want very much to see are two mass migrations, one out of the shallows of rationalistic humanism to an appreciation of the mystery of things, the other out of religious faith to a true appreciation of our ignorance."
—Brian Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper
I first read Magee's book a few years ago, and was just leafing through it last night. Lo and behold, the 2007 version of Mark underlined that passage above. In the crazy Venn diagram that graphically depicts my intellectual and spiritual wanderings, some things appear to consistently overlap -- beginning with the theological introspections sparked by my Bar-Mitzvah, continuing through my interest in existentialism in my 20s (which seems to be re-emerging), confronting religious calls for social justice while teaching at Jesuit institutions in my 30s, and my mid-40s efforts to grapple with mortality (my own, and my wife Shana's).

Is Hope really the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson teaches us?  Or is it Doubt?  Or are doubt and hope two sides of the same coin?  Surely one cannot "perch in the soul" without the other.

Until just a few years ago, I signed all of my emails off with the following quote, which expresses an approach to the world which I still embrace:
"Skepticism, contrary to widespread error, makes everything possible again: ethics, morality, knowledge, faith, society, and criticism, but differently - a few sizes smaller, more tentative, more revisable and more capable of learning and thus more curious, more open to the unexpected." Ulrich Beck, Democracy Without Enemies (1998)
Of course, one argument that religious people bring up all the time in response to this is the possibility of morality. How can we make judgments about moral action, in the absence of the certainty that faith provides? I suppose the 'rationalistic humanists' of which Magee writes would offer a variation of the same objection.

This is of course a huge topic, and I have too much grading to do to go into it at too much length. So I will let UMass-Amherst philosopher Louise Antony do most of the work for me, here.

The key points in her inspiring thought-piece follow below. To me, they echo the same life-affirming acceptance of doubt, existential humility and human mortality that one finds in Albert Camus and Walt Whitman -- my two favorite thinkers [emphasis added]:
"I gather that many people believe that atheism implies nihilism — that rejecting God means rejecting morality. A person who denies God, they reason, must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong. After all, doesn’t the dictionary list “wicked” as a synonym for “godless?” And isn’t it true, as Dostoevsky said, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted”? Well, actually — no, it’s not. (And for the record, Dostoevsky never said it was.) Atheism does not entail that anything goes...
We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket.  Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others..."
This of course echoes Whitman in "Song of Myself," albeit without the Buddhist-inflected wager on reincarnation about which the bard of Brooklyn chants:
“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he. 
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children? 
They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. 
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, 
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” 
Surely one doesn't have to live in the world long to notice that self-described 'religious' people have no monopoly on moral action.  Indeed, as a historian, I think the burden of proof is on the faithful here, not the doubters.  But Antony has more important points to make here.  She argues that even the faithful must accept that morality can and does stand apart from a divine being:
"It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship.  It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands. 
Let me explain why. First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God. Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:
• It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
• It is wrong to enslave people.
• It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
• Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required to try to stop it.

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?"
Of course, none of us actually knows whether God exists -- not the believer, and not the atheist either.  To me, this is why agnosticism (and the existential humility that follows from it) is the only serious moral stance for mortal beings to take in this world.

Antony concludes, with what I find to be an affirming argument about the importance of human choices [emphasis added]:
"So what about atheism? What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs. The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms. You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.
 I want to close by conceding that there are things one loses in giving up God, and they are not insignificant. Most importantly, you lose the guarantee of redemption. Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you. I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought that would that bring enormous comfort and relief. You cannot have that if you are an atheist. In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.  
Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant. I think just the opposite — they would become surpassingly important."
So how was that for a holiday post, eh?