Saturday, August 30, 2014

Religion without God (2)

Continuing the previous post on Religion without God, a very short book (30,000 words or so) by the late philosopher and legal expert, Ronald Dworkin.

The first phrase that caught my attention was on page 7, "In less violent places like America they fight mainly in politics... The fiercest battles are not between different sects of godly religion but between zealous believers and those atheists they regard as immoral heathens ..."

Well, I was taken aback by the offhand phrase, less violent places like America! My response to this one phrase is a post in itself.

I wonder how he was measuring violence. But it appears that physically violent crime rates have declined since the 1990's and are about the same as in the 1960's. Equally, despite the highest rate of gun ownership, and that we hear more news of gun crimes in the US, the rate is lower than many other countries. So let's allow this unsubstantiated phrase and consider the impact of the gridlock in congress these last 6 years over health care and other budgetary items like the debt ceiling and protecting the banks from collapse by quantitative easing and so on. These are the fiercest battles, as he calls them. They reveal to me a pent-up violence from the right wing, a wing often associated with conservative, religious, 'godly', values.

This battle was not between believer and atheist, but between believer and believer. But then, some who say they believe haven't done much listening. They say "if God cares for the widow and orphan, good then, I don't have to".  And they say to the government worker, "Come now, your job is not that important, give it up for 8 weeks and join our fight against this and that." The difficulty over this is that politics in America is not actually about God but all about money and how it should be spent and accumulated. This power is ultimately what the battle is about and it affects both domestic and foreign policy in left and right wing governments.

Of all the things that characterize humanity, violence in the defense of self-interest is perhaps the most obvious. It is much more obvious than "ethical independence". Many of us can make use of the controlled violence of constraint through the application of law via the police, but even this is violence, though limited. The nine original principles of western police forces are here. They are remarkably different from and far less violent than what one might expect. Externally, many of us must also depend on the violence that protects American interests abroad. Something is amiss here - and I am complicit, like it or not. I am complicit also in the capital accumulation issue. I profit from the stock market. I am a businessman, a corporate owner, whether directly or by proxy. I am not ethically independent here. I have delegated my portfolio to an expert. Though I hope that my benefits are not on the backs of others, it is possible that my son who struggles with home payments pays banking fees that show up in my dividends. At least he will inherit some day!

Where is the place of non-violence? Where is the place of innocence? How can we be innocent of this 'abundant transgression'? (Psalm 19 directly connects the numinous of the created order, the Torah, and our complicity in trouble.) How can we deal with the domestic and foreign fears we are all subject to? Can 'religion' do the job, or can the notion of ethical independence?  One has to ask also if God can do the job. Or faith in God, whatever that means.

Let me suggest that we live in the sixth day when God said - let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind. We have not yet entered the seventh day when God rested. (See Psalm 95 and the interpretation in the letter to the Hebrews.) And we are the work in progress that God is creating after God's own image and likeness. So we see what we are to be, and it is not what we are. We are violent and self-protective. We say, you are my refuge, but we take refuge in guns and bank accounts and the social contract that excludes many who are not in our self-image and likeness. Could we do otherwise?

There is no immediate positive answer to this question, but it reveals our knowledge of good and evil. There are some negative answers. Our tools: economics and military might, and the coercion that accompanies them cannot provide our ultimate deliverance. They create and magnify the very evil we seek to manage. Abuse begets abuse. Capital for all its benefits lures the unwary into creating scams and bubbles. And killing terrorists begets more terrorists whose interests require a strong motivation to fight against our interests, which, of course, are not theirs. Our latest tools in worldwide communications at least raise our awareness, but by themselves, they are still subject to our will as we get more and more subtle with software.

Dworkin wanted to find solutions in all his difficult legal work. But what is the story that will support a solution and that will really gift us with a spirit of power - yes we have real capacity, and love - to see and care for the other, and the self-control that comes from a sound mind?

It will not do simply to be 'less violent'.