Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ben Carson was Right (But Not for the Reason He Thinks)

by Michael S. Russo

Much to my own surprise I find myself in agreement with a position made by Republican presidential contender Ben Carson. Last week, Carson got into a heap of trouble when he stated, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Expanding upon his remarks, Carson later said a Muslim should not be president because his or her faith would be inconsistent with the Constitution, but suggested that his opposition would apply to any religion that had tenets which would interfere with a president’s abilities to carry out his constitutional duties. 

The firestorm that erupted because of these remarks in the media was predictable. On the surface what Carson seemed to be advocating was blatant religious discrimination. In fact, Article VI of the US Constitution specifically states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

So how on earth can anyone—and in particular a self-professed progressive like myself—possibly support a position that seems so morally problematic? 

My agreement with Carson’s statements is based upon my understanding that the founding fathers of our nation were products of the Enlightenment and established a government grounded in what they considered rational principles. First and foremost, they believed in the idea of the basic political and economic equality of human beings—a principle that our nation would expanded upon in the 20th century by recognizing the equal rights of women and minorities. They believed that tolerance for diverse viewpoints was essential to functioning democracy and thus emphasized freedom of speech and press. Having liberated themselves from the control of a snooping, intrusive government, our founders also advocated the right to privacy, which means that people have the right to live any way they so choose provided that they don’t interfere with other people’s rights to do the same. Finally, they established an unequivocal right for people to practice the religion of their choice without interference and rejected the idea of any state religion. 

These are not religious principles: they don’t exist in any sacred text that I know of. They’re rational principles—fundamental tenets of political life that our founders thought were absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of any political community. They are also principles that arose out of the Enlightenment, a period in which human beings rejected blind ideology and looked to reason and rationality as tools for organizing government. For products of the Enlightenment like our Founding Fathers, truth was not found in sacred texts or in the pronouncements of religious authority, but in the rational mind’s ability to uncover these truths logically and scientifically.

Unlike Ben Carson and other conservatives who view the Constitution as a sacred document inspired by God, I have no trouble with a president who doesn’t agree with everything in the Constitution (the Second or the Fourteenth Amendments, for example). But I would have problems with anyone running for President who doesn’t understand the basic Enlightenment principles which are the cornerstone of modern Western political philosophy. I would also never support any candidate who thinks that whatever “sacred book” he or she follows should be the foundation upon which to organize political and social life in this country and who takes the words in that sacred book literally. 

With the exception of the Pali Canon—the “bible” of Buddhists—I know of no sacred text of any of the world’s major religions that does not have some crazy talk about the subordination of women, the killing of gays, the support of slavery, and the persecution of non-believers. It’s fundamentalism, therefore, that would seem to be the disqualifier for running for President, not rigid devotion to the Constitution (which is itself another form of literalism and fundamentalism). If it’s true, as some scholars of religion suggest, that Islam by its very nature is a fundamentalist religion—in other words, that it views the Koran literally as the word of God as dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed—then how indeed could one be a President and a Muslim without rejecting many of the guiding principles of the sacred text of Islam? 

But this same principle would apply to any other fundamentalist religions as well, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Mormanism, and Scientology. Adherents of all these sects reject the basic principles of the Enlightenment upon which the United States was founded and are forced to accept many of the toxic, antidemocratic ideas within their sacred texts as literal truth. If a Muslim shouldn’t be President, then neither, I’m afraid, should any current Republican candidate, because they are all religious fundamentalists to one degree or another.

Please note that I didn’t say that one couldn’t be a religious believer and be president. Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants and Jews, and many Buddhists, do not necessarily have literalist interpretations of their sacred texts. They accept that their scriptures must be read historically, and that the truths contained within them can be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically. They also have no problem using reason, logic, and scientific evidence as bases for organizing society. There seems to be no incompatibility, therefore, between the practice of these religions and the holding of high office in a country like the United States. 

So, I’m all for Bernie Sanders (a non-practicing Jew) being our next President, but Ben Carson (Seventh-Day Adventist fundamentalist), I’m afraid, just won’t cut it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Debate on Religion from True Detective

by Michael S. Russo
Molloy College

I’ve begun watching the first season of the HBO series True Detective and I have to confess that I’m greatly enjoying the compelling story lines and complex characters in the series.  But even more than that, I’m really intrigued by the fabulous dialogue, written by Nic Pizzolatto.  It certainly came as no surprise to me to discover, as I did recently, that Pizzolatto was a former philosophy major at Louisiana State University, because the series, perhaps more than any other I’ve seen in a long time, is chock full of philosophical ideas at every turn. 

The third episode in particular blew my mind with its fairly sophisticated treatment of theism and organized religion (see the clip below).  To set the scene up, two detectives, Rust Cohle (played by Mattew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) are investigating a ritual murder that leads them to an outdoor evangelical service.  As they listen to the preacher give his sermon, Rust, an atheist and skeptic, shares his cynical views about the nature of religious belief to his fairly devout colleague, Martin, who feels compelled to offer a defense of religion.   As the scene plays out, we see these same characters later on as they continue to reflect on the debate that occurred between them a decade earlier.  

From Rust’s perspective, those who believe in the existence of a supreme being are basically pathetic, irrational suckers who are so fearful of life that they are willing to accept ridiculous fairy tales as truth.  Martin, on the other hand, sees religion as a positive element in society, without which we couldn’t survive as a species. 

Rust’s position is basically a contemporary spin on the psychological critiques of religious belief developed by the great 19th century “Masters of Suspicion”—Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.  Although their positions on religion differ slightly, all three see the origins of religious belief in fear of the sufferings of this world and anxiety over the inevitability of death.  Because we are basically cowardly, weak and childish, we create the illusion of a benevolent father figure (God), who loves us unequivocally and who offers us the soothing balm of eternal life with him after death.  True maturity, these thinkers argue, demands that we learn to accept the world as it truly is—full of pain and suffering, Godless, and terminal—and start taking our lives here and now much more seriously.

Martin response is more sociological in nature than theological.  Notice he never argues directly for the existence of God or the truth of religious belief, but instead makes the claim that we need religion for three reasons: (1) It’s a binding force, enabling some semblance of community to exist among individualistic human beings; (2) It keeps us from acting on our more vicious natural instincts by instilling in us the fear of divine punishment; (3) It helps us to function in everyday life, by enabling us to overcome the existential fear that all human beings—even atheists—possess and which otherwise would cripple us.

What is missing in this debate is a truly theological or philosophical defense of religion of the kind that we find in great theistic thinkers like Anselm, Aquinas, or even Dostoyevsky.  The only remotely theistic argument in the scene is the one made by the preacher, who seems to appeal to exactly the kinds of fearful, narcissistic longings that Rust criticizes so well.   So we’re left in the end with two very cynical options:  (1) religion is basically a con game that needs to be rejected outright, though there may be nothing positive in the end to take its place (Rust’s position) or (2) Religion needs to be embraced, not because it’s necessarily grounded in anything true, but because a world without it would be too horrible to contemplate (Martin’s position).    

Perhaps the absence of a strong theistic defense of religion in the series is intentional.  I don’t know what Nic Pizzolatto’s own views on theistic matters are, but it could be that he gets the religious zeitgeist of the times pretty well.  In the end, we don’t really give a damn whether something (i.e., God, the afterlife, original sin, etc.) is true or not.  The only legitimate question for us seems to be “does it work for me?”  If I feel better about my life by believing in a Supreme Being, then  I’ll believe in one.  If I think that it’s necessary for society to be grounded in religious institutions in order to function effectively, then  I’ll support organized religion.  But when religion suddenly starts to seem like something bogus to me, or when it no longer seems to fulfill its pragmatic function in society, then I’m going to ditch it like a handful of smelly dung. 

So maybe, like the characters in True Detective, we don’t really care about religious issues at all.  All we really care about is feeling good.  And if religion makes us feel good about ourselves, then it automatically is valid; and if it makes us feel badly about ourselves then it is just as assuredly invalid.  But, if this is all that religion really represents to the theists and non-theists alike, it seems to me a fairly silly, superficial thing….a kind of spiritual pop psychology for those who lack the ability to think critically and rationally about the human condition.

Or am I, like the main characters in True Detective, missing some important piece of evidence here?