To be unenlightened is to believe in superstitions [it is not the same as ignorance or stupidity]. And a superstition is a belief which cannot survive a critical investigation. World religions fall into the category of superstitions. So why do they survive?
There are several reasons.
But before I get to these reasons, a distinction has to be made between at least three categories of religious people. The first category I will call the “nominal religious.” This is the vast majority of people who pay “lip service” to the religion. They are simply members of a club. The second group are the “religious practitioners.” They are the priests, rabbis, gurus, monks, etc. The third group are the theologians. This last group are the philosophers of the religion. They know the dogmas and they formulate arguments for their defense.
My concern will be only with those who are “nominally religious” — those whose knowledge of the religion is superficial.
For example, as a nominal Christian I may only know that I am to say that I believe in God. But if I am asked about the nature of God, I may be stymied, and I may even not know that as a Christian I am supposed to say that I believe in the Trinity. [Since belief cannot be a matter of choice, the better formulation is that as a Christian I am obligated to profess, to announce … And profession or announcing of a belief is not the same as actually having a belief.]
Another example. As a nominal Muslim, I may learn to say [i.e., to profess or announce] that there is but one God, Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet. If probed, I may be stymied.
So, the question is why do nominally religious people remain members of a religion?
The first is that people treat religions as sacred cows. Cows (in India) must be allowed to roam as they see fit.
The second is that people do not see religions as a set of beliefs — but as social institutions which bring people together — just as if they were celebratory parties.
The third reason is that people crave communities. That is why people form gangs, join clubs and associations, participate in parades and large gatherings such as sports events and music concerts, and identify with their races and ethnic groups.
The fourth reason is that they rationalize religions as modes of satisfying their emotional needs and hopes.
The fifth reason is that people — as social beings — are reluctant to criticize. They are especially not interested in criticizing a religion.
Criticism would alienate them from their religious community. They would be ostracised — or, as with the Amish, they would be shunned.
The sixth reason is that — even if they had the desire to criticize — they do not know how to criticize.
So, in a nut-shell, people do not want to criticize (they have no interest in criticism), and they don’t know how to criticize.
And similar things could be said about membership or identification with political parties and other associations.
There was, of course mathematical and some astronomical science, some technical knowledge, common sense, the principle of contradiction, and lots of religion and superstition.
With the scientific discoveries, there occured a challenge to religion and superstitions. Those who embraced logic and science became “enlightened.” Those who resisted logic and science remained “unenlightened.” Enlightenment — as I see it — implies secularism (irreligion or non-religion). [There is an organization called “Brights.” It could just as well also be called “Enlightened.”]
So, who are the unenlightened? For starters, all those who embrace a religion. So, using the results of the 2015 PEW poll, 84% of the world is probably unenlightened, and there probably are some in the remaining 16% who are unaffiliated with any religion, who are also unenlightened for embracing some other form of superstition.
I find myself viewing his performances from different perspectives.
First, he claims as his agenda to promote public discourse on the common good. On this he is deluded. There are countless writings on moral issues. But very few read them. Then there are the speeches of eminent public speakers, such as Chomsky, Hedges, Hitchens, Zinn, Kinzer, Vidal, Pilger; and such programs as Democracy Now, Real News, and all sorts of Progressive publications. But who is aware of any of this? And who will listen to and take note of what Sandel is doing?
Second, he claims to be providing an example of what public discourse should look like. So what is his example? It is to introduce controversial questions, and offer the audience (or students) an opportunity to express their opinions with a reason. This is followed by Sandel’s own (sometimes prepared) commentary — not necessarily to adjudicate from his own perspective. One is left with the questions unresolved.
Third, his approach does not question our political institutions, but raises questions as a way of prescribing what the government should do. He does not seem to realize that our prescriptions to the government are otiose. As an example, in the U.S. preparation for an attack on Iraq in 2003, there were huge protests against this action both in the United States and the world. The result? Iraq was attacked.
The conclusion I draw is that public (democratic) opinion in the U.S. and in most other countries does not much matter.
Fourth, the issue he should be discussing is whether our political institutions function to promote the common good. Apparently, Sandel himself thinks that they do not. But he offers no guidance as to how to improve them.
Fifth, I have fundamental disagreements with him about his discourse on justice. Let me do this by saying something about the four cardinal virtues: moderation (or temperance), fortitude (or courage), prudence (or wisdom), and justice.
Virtues are habits or dispositions. The first three virtues can be exercised by a solitary individual like Robinson Crusoe on an island. The fourth virtue — justice — concerns behavior towards others; let us say of Crusoe towards Friday. And if justice is a habit or disposition, what is this disposition? My simple answer is that it is a disposition to abide by agreements.
And what will be the agreements which Crusoe and Friday make?
Their common concern is to stay alive: self-preservation. And to do this they have to have a free access to the land and water for food and shelter — in short, the necessities for sustaining life. So, they will agree on some equal division of land or on some equal mode of access to the necessities for life. They will also agree not to harm each other nor to interfere with their pursuit of these necessities. But I think they would also agree to an exception clause, namely, that these agreements are not binding if they threaten self-preservation.
Justice or morality is the disposition to sincerely abide by these agreements. And injustice or immorality is to act counter to these agreements. That is all.
I know that the usual view of justice has to do with something like an equal application of the law. Well, if, let us say, Crusoe and Friday agree to have a judge or arbitrator — call him Joe, then Joe will agree to use an impartial rule to decide cases. And if Joe abides by such an agreement, Joe will act justly as a judge; otherwise, he will act unjustly by not abiding by the agreement to act impartially.
My sixth and last comment, is that a discussion of justice has to take into consideration history and sociology; specifically, we have to take into account the fact that, as argued by Franz Oppenheimer, in his book The State, states have arisen through conquest, and have morphed from slave empires, to feudal kingdoms, to constitutional democracies and dictatorships. In all cases states have been resilient to moral considerations, and have supported various forms of plutocracy and capitalism.
Objection 1: Your proposal to give each person a right to free subsistence land is a retrogressive proposal.
Response to 1: My insistence on giving each person the right to free subsistence land is threefold: (1) to provide the theoretical contradictory of capitalism, since the very definition of capitalism requires the existence of a proletariat; (2) to provide for those who do not wish to participate in a social undertaking — e.g., those who wish to be hermits; (3) throughout the world there are indigenous people who already live by agriculture or herding — their right to do so has to be secured.
It is, of course, more efficient to live in a cooperative manner. But this should be a matter of choice — a choice which reasonable people will make. As Kropotkin pointed out, a single tractor can do the work of 100 men. I am for using all the technology available. I am not for retrogression. Organizing an agrarian village seems simple by comparison to organizing a large city. In Ukraine [1918-21], the anarchist Nestor Makhno had no problem with villages, but cities baffled him. But, on the other hand, some crisis — like the loss of the electric grid — may force people to a more primitive way of living.
Objection 2: Overpopulation is not a problem. Malthus and the Ehrichs were wrong.
Response 2: They cannot be faulted for the general claim (1) that no living species can continue to expand beyond the resources of food. The other claim is: (2) food resources are limited. And the conclusion, then, is: (3) the population will stop expanding.
I don’t know of any way to dispute (1). However, (2) could be disputed by claiming that technology could make an unlimited amount of food. Presently, I do not see this in the offing. As to (3), there is a choice — either limit population growth through some kind of human intervention, or natural disasters will dwindle the populations in their own ways.
Objection 3: Switzerland should not be held up as a model for anarchists.
Response 3: I do not use Switzerland as a model for anarchism. I simply claim that it is the most democratic State in the world. The best feature is the seven-member Federal Council as contrasted with one-man rule of a President or a Prime Minister. It is also superior to the election of a President through Macro Democracy. And like the United States, it is a federal system with three layers of government: national, cantonal, and municipal — unlike the unitary or “integral” government as in Ukraine. Switzerland also has national and cantonal initiatives and referendums, which act as public controls on the government.
Below is the printed portion which Hitchens reads:
Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long
life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so
far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched
in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen
the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great
nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of
bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition
increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where
praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogey regrettably
surviving from a bygone age. All this is depressing, but gloom is a useless
emotion. In order to escape from it, I have been driven to study the past with
more attention than I had formerly given to it, and have found, as Erasmus
found, that folly is perennial and yet the human race has survived. The
follies of our own times are easier to bear when they are seen against the
background of past follies. In what follows I shall mix the sillinesses of our
day with those of former centuries. Perhaps the result may help in seeing our
own times in perspective, and as not much worse than other ages that our
ancestors lived through without ultimate disaster.
Aristotle, so far as I know, was the first man to proclaim explicitly that
man is a rational animal. His reason for this view was one which does not now
seem very impressive; it was, that some people can do sums. He thought that
there are three kinds of soul: the vegetable soul, possessed by all living
things, both plants and animals, and concerned only with nourishment and
growth; the animal soul, concerned with locomotion, and shared by man with the
lower animals; and finally the rational soul, or intellect, which is the
Divine mind, but in which men participate to a greater or less degree in
proportion to their wisdom. It is in virtue of the intellect that man is a
rational animal. The intellect is shown in various ways, but most emphatically
by mastery of arithmetic. The Greek system of numerals was very bad, so that
the multiplication table was quite difficult, and complicated calculations
could only be made by very clever people. Nowadays, however, calculating
machines do sums better than even the cleverest people, yet no one contends
that these useful instruments are immortal, or work by divine inspiration. As
arithmetic has grown easier, it has come to be less respected. The consequence
is that, though many philosophers continue to tell us what fine fellows we
are, it is no longer on account of our arithmetical skill that they praise us.
Since the fashion of the age no longer allows us to point to calculating
boys as evidence that man is rational and the soul, at least in part,
immortal, let us look elsewhere. Where shall we look first? Shall we look
among eminent statesmen, who have so triumphantly guided the world into its
present condition? Or shall we choose the men of letters? Or the philosophers?
All these have their claims, but 1 think we should begin with those whom all
right thinking people acknowledge to be the wisest as well as the best of men,
namely the clergy. If they fail to be rational, what hope is there for
us lesser mortals? And alas — though I say it with all due respect — there have
been times when their wisdom has not been very obvious, and, strange to say,
these were especially the times when the power of the clergy was greatest.
The Ages of Faith, which are praised by our neo-scholastics, were the time
when the clergy had things all their own way. Daily life was full of miracles
wrought by saints and wizardry perpetrated by devils and necromancers. Many
thousands of witches were burnt at the stake. Men’s sins were punished by
pestilence and famine, by earthquake, flood, and fire. And yet, strange to
say, they were even more sinful than they are nowadays. Very little was
known scientifically about the world. A few learned men remembered Greek
proofs that the earth is round, but most people made fun of the notion that
there are antipodes. To suppose that there are human beings at the antipodes
was heresy. It was generally held (though modem Catholics take a milder view)
that the immense majority of mankind are damned. Dangers were held to lurk at
every turn. Devils would settle on the food that monks were about to eat, and
would take possession of the bodies of incautious feeders who omitted to make
the sign of the Cross before each mouthful. Old-fashioned people still say
“bless you” when one sneezes, but they have forgotten the reason for the
custom. The reason was that people were thought to sneeze out their souls, and
before their souls could get back lurking demons were apt to enter the
unsouled body; but if any one said “God bless you,” the demons were frightened
Throughout the last 400 years, during which the growth of science had
gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery
over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science,
in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology
and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After
being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of
geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they
fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage,
they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that
their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. Let us note a
few instances of irrationality among the clergy since the rise of science, and
then inquire whether the rest of mankind are any better.
When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, the clergy, both in
England and America, with the enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it
as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. For, as all right-thinking
people were aware, lightning is sent by God to punish impiety or some other
grave sin — the virtuous are never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants
to strike any one, Benjamin Franklin ought not to defeat His design; indeed,
to do so is helping criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if
we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston.
Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the “iron points invented by the
sagacious Dr. Franklin,” Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr.
Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the “iron points.” In a sermon on
the subject he said, “In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New
England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no
getting out of the mighty hand of God.” Apparently, however, Providence gave
up all hope of curing Boston of its wickedness, for, though lightning rods
became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare.
Nevertheless, Dr. Price’s point of view, or something very like it, is still
held by one of the most influential of living men. When, at one time, there
were several bad earthquakes in India, Mahatma Gandhi solemnly warned his
compatriots that these disasters had been sent as a punishment for their sins.
Even in my own native island this point of view still exists. During the
last war, the British Government did much to stimulate the production of food
at home. In 1916, when things were not going well, a Scottish clergyman wrote
to the newspapers to say that military failure was due to the fact that, with
government sanction, potatoes had been planted on the Sabbath. However,
disaster was averted, owing to the fact that the Germans disobeyed all the Ten
Commandments, and not only one of them.
Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God’s mercies are curiously
selective. Toplady, the author of Rock of Ages, moved from one vicarage to
another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt
down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but
what the new vicar did is not known. Borrow, in his “Bible in Spain,” records
how without mishap he crossed a mountain pass infested by bandits. The next
party to cross, however, were set upon, robbed, and some of them murdered;
when Borrow heard of this, he, like Toplady, thanked God.
Although we are taught the Copernican astronomy in our textbooks, it has
not yet penetrated to our religion or our morals, and has not even succeeded
in destroying belief in astrology. People still think that the Divine Plan has
special reference to human beings, and that a special Providence not only
looks after the good, but also punishes the wicked. I am sometimes shocked by
the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious — for instance, the nuns who
never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why,
since no man can see them, they reply: “Oh, but you forget the good God.”
Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence
enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes.
This view strikes me as curious.
The whole conception of “Sin” is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless
owing to my sinful nature. If “Sin” consisted in causing needless suffering, I
could understand; but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless
suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was
introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease.
The patient’s consent was to be necessary, as well as several medical
certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the
patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official
expert on Sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s
consent turns euthanasia into suicide, and suicide is sin. Their Lordships
listened to the voice of authority, and rejected the bill. Consequently, to
please the Archbishop — and his God, if he reports truly — victims of cancer still
have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses
are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the
conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures; and if
there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think
Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.
I am equally puzzled by the things that are sin and by the things that are
not. When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asked the pope
for his support, he refused it, on the ground that human beings owe no duty to
the lower animals, and that ill — treating animals is not sinful. This is
because animals have no souls. On the other hand, it is wicked to marry your
deceased wife’s sister — so at least the Church teaches — however much you and she
may wish to marry. This is not because of any unhappiness that might result,
but because of certain texts in the Bible.
The resurrection of the body, which is an article of the Apostles’ Creed,
is a dogma which has various curious consequences. There was an author not
very many years ago, who had an ingenious method of calculating the date of
the end of the world. He argued that there must be enough of the necessary
ingredients of a human body to provide everybody with the requisites at the
Last Day. By carefully calculating the available raw material, he decided that
it would all have been used up by a certain date. When that date comes, the
world must end, since otherwise the resurrection of the body would become
impossible. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the date was, but I believe it
is not very distant.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church,
discussed lengthily and seriously a very grave problem, which, I fear, modern
theologians unduly neglect. He imagines a cannibal who has never eaten
anything but human flesh, and whose father and mother before him had like
propensities. Every particle of his body belongs rightfully to someone else.
We cannot suppose that those who have been eaten by cannibals are to go short
through all eternity. But, if not, what is left for the cannibal? How is he to
be properly roasted in hell, if all his body is restored to its original
owners? This is a puzzling question, as the Saint rightly perceives.
In this connection the orthodox have a curious objection to cremation,
which seems to show an insufficient realization of God’s omnipotence. It is
thought that a body which has been burnt will be more difficult for Him to
collect together again than one which has been put underground and transformed
into worms. No doubt collecting the particles from the air and undoing the
chemical work of combustion would be somewhat laborious, but it is surely
blasphemous to suppose such a work impossible for the Deity. I conclude that
the objection to cremation implies grave heresy. But I doubt whether my
opinion will carry much weight with the orthodox.
It was only very slowly and reluctantly that the Church sanctioned the
dissection of corpses in connection with the study of medicine. The pioneer in
dissection was Vesalius, who was Court physician to the Emperor Charles V. His
medical skill led the emperor to protect him, but after the emperor was dead
he got into trouble. A corpse which he was dissecting was said to have shown
signs of life under the knife, and he was accused of murder. The Inquisition
was induced by King Phillip II to take a lenient view, and only sentenced him
to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way home he was shipwrecked and died
of exhaustion. For centuries after this time, medical students at the Papal
University in Rome were only allowed to operate on lay figures, from which the
sexual parts were omitted.
The sacredness of corpses is a widespread belief. It was carried furthest
by the Egyptians, among whom it led to the practice of mummification. It still
exists in full force in China. A French surgeon, who was employed by the
Chinese to teach Western medicine, relates that his demand for corpses to
dissect was received with horror, but he was assured that he could have
instead an unlimited supply of live criminals. His objection to this
alternative was totally unintelligible to his Chinese employers.
Although there are many kinds of sin, seven of which are deadly, the most
fruitful field for Satan’s wiles is sex. The orthodox Catholic doctrine on
this subject is to be found in St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas
Aquinas. It is best to be celibate, but those who have not the gift of
continence may marry. Intercourse in marriage is not sin, provided it is
motivated by desire for offspring. All intercourse outside marriage is sin,
and so is intercourse within marriage if any measures are adopted to prevent
conception. Interruption of pregnancy is sin, even if, in medical opinion, it
is the only way of saving the mother’s life; for medical opinion is fallible,
and God can always save a life by miracle if He sees fit. (This view is
embodied in the law of Connecticut.) Venereal disease is God’s punishment for
sin. It is true that, through a guilty husband, this punishment may fall on an
innocent woman and her children, but this is a mysterious dispensation of
Providence, which it would be impious to question. We must also not inquire
why venereal disease was not divinely instituted until the time of Columbus.
Since it is the appointed penalty for sin, all measures for its avoidance are
also sin — except, of course, a virtuous life. Marriage is nominally
indissoluble, but many people who seem to be married are not. In the case of
influential Catholics, some ground for nullity can often be found, but for the
poor there is no such outlet, except perhaps in cases of impotence. Persons
who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery in the sight of God.
The phrase “in the sight of God” puzzles me. One would suppose that God
sees everything, but apparently this is a mistake. He does not see Reno, for
you cannot be divorced in the sight of God. Registry offices are a doubtful
point. I notice that respectable people, who would not call on anybody who
lives in open sin, are quite willing to call on people who have had only a
civil marriage; so apparently God does see registry offices.
Some eminent men think even the doctrine of the Catholic Church deplorably
lax where sex is concerned. Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, in their old age, laid
it down that all sexual intercourse is wicked, even in marriage and
with a view to offspring. The Manicheans thought likewise, relying upon men’s
native sinfulness to supply them with a continually fresh crop of disciples.
This doctrine, however, is heretical, though it is equally heretical to
maintain that marriage is as praiseworthy as celibacy. Tolstoy thinks tobacco
almost as bad as sex; in one of his novels, a man who is contemplating murder
smokes a cigarette first in order to generate the necessary homicidal fury.
Tobacco, however, is not prohibited in the Scriptures, though, as Samuel
Butler points at, St. Paul would no doubt have denounced it if he had known of
It is odd that neither the Church nor modern public opinion condemns
petting, provided it stops short at a certain point. At what point sin begins
is a matter as to which casuists differ. One eminently orthodox Catholic
divine laid it down that a confessor may fondle a nun’s breasts, provided he
does it without evil intent. But I doubt whether modern authorities would
agree with him on this point.
Modern morals are a mixture of two elements: on the one hand, rational
precepta as to how to live together peaceably in a society, and on the other
hand traditional taboos derived originally from some ancient superstition, but
proximately from sacred books, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist. To
some extent the two agree; the prohibition of murder and theft, for instance,
is supported both by human reason and by Divine command. But the prohibition
of pork or beef has only scriptural authority, and that only in certain
religions. It is odd that modern men, who are aware of what science has done
in the way of bringing new knowledge and altering the conditions of social
life, should still be willing to accept the authority of texts embodying the
outlook of very ancient and very ignorant pastoral or agricultural tribes. It
is discouraging that many of the precepts whose sacred character is thus
uncritically acknowledged should be such as to inflict much wholly unnecessary
misery. If men’s kindly impulses were stronger, they would find some way of
explaining that these precepts are not to be taken literally, any more than
the command to “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.”
There are logical difficulties in the notion of Sin. We are told that Sin
consists in disobedience to God’s commands, but we are also told that God is
omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when
the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen. St.
Augustine boldly accepts this view, and asserts that men are led to sin by a
blindness with which God afflicts them. But most theologians, in modern times,
have felt that, if God causes men to sin, it is not fair to send them to hell
for what they cannot help. We are told that sin consists in acting contrary to God’s will. This, however, does not get rid of the difficulty. Those who, like Spinoza, take God’s omnipotence seriously, deduce that there can be no such
thing as sin. This leads to frightful results. What! said Spinoza’s contemporaries, was it not wicked of Nero to murder his mother? Was it not wicked of Adam to eat the apple? Is one action just as good as another? Spinoza wriggles, but does not find any satisfactory answer. If everything happens in accordance with God’s will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore, since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape.
On the other hand, those who are in earnest in thinking that sin is disobedience to God are compelled to say that God is not omnipotent. This gets out of all the logical puzzles, and is the view adopted by a certain school of liberal theologians. It has, however, its own difficulties. How are we to know what really is God’s will? If the forces of evil have a certain share of power, they may deceive us into accepting as Scripture what is really their work. This was the view of the Gnostics, who thought that the Old Testament was the work of an evil spirit.
As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the
most influential text in the Bible was: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Nowadays, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as
truth whatever suits our own prejudices. No Catholic, for instance, takes seriously the text which says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife.
People’s beliefs have various causes. One is that there is some evidence for the belief in question. We apply this to matters of fact, such as “what is so-and-so’s telephone number?” or “who won the World Series?” But as soon as it comes to anything more debatable, the causes of belief become less defensible. We believe, first and foremost, what makes us feel that we are
fine fellows. Mr. Homo, if he has a good digestion and a sound income, thinks to himself how much more sensible he is than his neighbor so-and-so, who married a flighty wife and is always losing money. He thinks how superior his city is to the one 50 miles away: it has a bigger Chamber of Commerce and a more enterprising Rotary Club, and its mayor has never been in prison. He
thinks how immeasurably his country surpasses all others. If he is an Englishman, he thinks of Shakespeare and Milton, or of Newton and Darwin, or of Nelson and Wellington, according to his temperament. If he is a Frenchman, he congratulates himself on the fact that for centuries France has led the world in culture, fashions, and cookery. If he is a Russian, he reflects that
he belongs to the only nation which is truly international. If he is a Yugoslav, he boasts of his nation’s pigs; if a native of the Principality of Monaco, he boasts of leading the world in the matter of gambling.
But these are not the only matters on which he has to congratulate himself. For is he not an individual of the species homo sapiens? Alone among animals he has an immortal soul, and is rational; he knows the difference between good and evil, and has learnt the multiplication table. Did not God make him in His own image? And was not everything created for man’s convenience? The sun was made to light the day, and the moon to light the night — though the moon, by some oversight, only shines during half the nocturnal hours. The raw fruits of the earth were made for human sustenance. Even the white tails of rabbits, according to some theologians, have a purpose, namely to make it easier for sportsmen to shoot them. There are, it is true, some inconveniences: lions and tigers are too fierce, the summer is too hot, and the winter too cold. But these things only began after Adam ate the apple; before that, all animals were vegetarians, and the season was always spring. If only Adam had been content with peaches and nectarines, grapes and pears and pineapples, these blessings would still be ours.
Self-importance, individual or generic, is the source of most of our religious beliefs. Even sin is a conception derived from self-importance. Borrow relates how he met a Welsh preacher who was always melancholy. By sympathetic questioning he was brought to confess the source of his sorrow: that at the age of seven he had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. “My dear fellow,” said Borrow, “don’t let that trouble you; I know dozens of people in like case. Do not imagine yourself cut off from the rest of mankind by this occurrence; if you inquire, you will find multitudes who suffer from the same misfortune.” From that moment, the man was cured. He had enjoyed feeling singular, but there was no pleasure in being one of a herd of sinners. Most sinners are rather less egotistical; but theologians undoubtedly enjoy the feeling that Man is the special object of God’s wrath, as well as of His love. After the Fall, so Milton assures us —
Had first his precept so to move, so shine,
As might affect the Earth with cold and heat
Scarce tolerable, and from the North to call
Decrepit Winter, from the South to bring
Solstitial summer’s heat.
However disagreeable the results may have been, Adam could hardly help feeling flattered that such vast astronomical phenomena should be brought about to teach him a lesson. The whole of theology, in regard to hell no less than to heaven, takes it for granted that Man is what is of most importance in the Universe of created beings. Since all theologians are men, this postulate
has met with little opposition.
Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my
part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, and certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence. And if God is indeed omnipotent, why could He not have produced the glorious result without such a long and tedious prologue?
I offer below an incomplete sketch of my approach to morality. It agrees with much of what Gilbert Harman has written.
Writings on ethics tend to treat two different questions under the title of “ethics.” One is a question of prudent behavior; the other is a question of moral behavior. But, I must admit, that some contexts are such as to raise the perplexing question as to which has priority.
To distinguish the question of prudence from that of morality, let us consider the case of a solitary individual cast away on an island — call him Crusoe. His primary problem is one of survival. Given his desire for survival, he will have to follow, what Kant called, hypothetical imperatives. There are things he ought to do in order to survive. If he has tools, there will be right and wrong ways of using them. Again, if he is interested in efficiency, he must do things in certain ways. Will certain dispositions and habits — call them virtues — serve him well? Certainly. He can strive for happiness, which will be a function of leisure time. But I make no claims about what constitutes happiness. Whatever it is, it will be a matter of satisfying his interests. And since interests vary, so will the ways for reaching happiness. What I want to claim is that the question of moral behavior does not make sense for a solitary individual — unless he lives in a mythical world with another person — a god or spirit.
Let us now introduce another person to the island — call him Friday. I will call core morality the behavior which both of them agree to regarding each other. This will be expressed by rules. And these rules can be negative or positive, depending on what they forbid to be done to each other, or required to be done to each other. Justice will consist of abiding by the freely made agreements. (Agreements may be complicated because of tacit assumptions.)
However, there is also the most important question of trust. Can Crusoe trust Friday, and vice versa? Assuming that both are sincere, this does not settle the question of trust. Whether each is trustworthy is in part determined by their character, or, to put it another way, by their possession of virtues.
They can also agree on how to behave towards plants, animals, and the rest of their environment. Such rules I will call marginal morality.
If we introduce a third person on the island — call him Tarzan, with whom we do not interact, then Crusoe’s agreement with Friday in regard to Tarzan can be called peripheral morality. Peripheral morality may allow us to kill, rob, torture, sacrifice, or enslave Tarzan.
Theories of normative morality have been either teleological or deontological, i.e., based on consequences or based on rules. If I were Crusoe entering into an agreement with Friday, I would agree to the rule:
Neither of us will harm the other, except for self-preservation.
This is the element of egoism that is presupposed in normal core morality. But there is also, what I will call abnormal core morality, which takes place in sports in which the requirement of not harming each other, and the exception of self-preservation are suspended, and what is done is done strictly by the rules regardless of consequences.
This code of honor, as it way be called, requires a strict obedience to the rules with no exceptions for self-preservation. In extreme cases, it has the form: I will do X, even if it kills me; and if I do not do X, I will kill myself. Such was the code of the kamikazi and the samurai.
In making rules, one can also agree to punishments for breach of rules, and also for allowable excuses. Given that we have prudential considerations, sometimes one has to make a judgment call about how to act. Or, as C. D. Broad would say: What is the most fitting way to act under the circumstances?
Below is George Carlin’s reading of the preface to his book Brain Droppings, 1997. Further below is the transcript. At the bottom, Carlin reads his whole book.
For a long time my stand up material has drawn from three sources. The first is the English language. You know, words, phrases, sayings — and the ways we speak. The second source — as with most comedians — has been what I think of as the “little world,” those things we all experience every day: driving, food, pets, relationships, and idle thoughts. The third area is, what I call, the “big world”: war, politics, race, death — the social issues.
So, without actually having measured, I would say this book reflects the balance rather closely. Now the first two areas in the book will speak for themselves. But concerning the big world, let me say a few things.
I’m happy to tell you that there’s little in this world that I believe in. Listening to the comedians who comment on political, social, and cultural issues, I notice that most of their material reflects kind of an underlying belief that somehow things were better once, and with just a little effort we could set them right again. They’re looking for solutions and rooting for particular results, and I think that limits the tone and substance of what they say. They’re talented and funny people but they’re really nothing more than cheerleaders attached to a specific wished-for outcome.
I don’t feel so confined.
I frankly don’t give a fuck how it all turns out in this country or anywhere else for that matter. I think the human game was up a long time ago when the high priests and traders took over, and now we’re just playing out the string. And that is, of course, precisely what I find so amusing! The slow circling of the drain by a once promising species and the sappy ever more desperate belief in this country that there is actually some sort of an ‘American Dream’ which has merely been misplaced.
The decay and disintegration of this culture is astonishingly amusing if you’re emotionally detached from it. And I’ve always viewed it from a safe distance, knowing I don’t belong. Doesn’t include me, it never has. No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group, planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood-improvement committee. I have no interest in any of it.
I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.
So if you hear something in this book that sounds like advocacy of a particular political point of view, please reject the notion. My interest in issues is merely to point out how badly we’re doing, not to suggest a way we might do better.
Don’t confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they ought to be. And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there’s a solution, you’re part of the problem.
My motto: Fuck Hope.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, personally I’m a joyful individual, I had a long happy marriage and a close and loving family, my career has turned out better than I ever dreamed, and it continues to expand. I’m a personal optimist, but a skeptic about all else. What may sound to some like anger, is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don’t confuse my point of view with cynicism–the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be all right.
And P.P.S., by the way, if by some chance you folks do manage to straighten things out and make everything better, I still don’t wish to be included.
The “Four Horsemen” Clockwise from top left: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. According to Richard Dawkins, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006.
Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007.
Daniel Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2004.