Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 June 2012

Looking for God in a Godless World

[Note to commenters: I’ve been traveling and am a bit behind in responding to comments. I’ll get to them in the next few days.]

What is “God”? That question may seem remote from our cares du jour—what’s going to happen in Europe and how it will affect our presidential election. But I think the question and its consequences have legs far longer than most people believe. Read on.

For agnostics like me, the question is much more interesting than whether God exists. People have been trying to prove or disprove that for as long as human history. No one has yet won that battle decisively, and probably no one ever will. So I don’t devote much time to thinking or reading about it, let alone trying to answer it. I much prefer to think about, “if God exists, what is God”? What is his/her/its essence?

To me, God is the personification of human morality. It’s what we do for each other and our species, rather than for our individual selves. It’s what motivates soldiers to die for their country, whistle blowers to call Citbank and its legions of lawyers out for institutional policies that foster and reward liars’ loans, and Cory Booker to rush into a burning building to save a potential victim. It’s something that we believe in that’s bigger than ourselves, our families, and our human institutions.

You might think that this form of God contradicts our essential, selfish, individual nature. To an indefinable extent, that’s true. But which is the bigger and better part of our nature? Individually, we are weaker than many chimps, smaller than a horse or rhinoceros, and far more vulnerable than any big cat. Yet collectively, we are the top of the food chain and the dominant species on our planet.

So if “God” is what motivates us to work together, and occasionally to sacrifice our individual selves to the common good, it’s a big part of our evolution, our species and even our individual genetic identity. In that sense, God is built into our DNA.

But there, too, lies a paradox. Individually, we are weak, small and stupid. Collectively, we are strong, intelligent and masters of our small planet. So if God is to prevail among us, it must rely upon human institutions, too. It can’t depend entirely upon extraordinary people like Jesus, who come along only once every couple of millennia.

Hence the Catholic Church.

But, aye, there’s the rub. Any outsider who looks at the Catholic Church today—not to mention many Catholics—has to be full of doubt.

After murder, pedophilia may be our most repugnant crime. To use children’s immature, innocent and pristine bodies, against their will, to satisfy adults’ sexual cravings is a crime in any society. There can be no excuse of expediency, since most children cannot bear children, let alone from homosexual abuse.

So how could the Church, which has stood—often alone—for human morality for large parts of two millennia, institutionally countenance and conceal such repugnant crimes to protect its own?

That’s the significance of the trial now before a jury in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for the Monseigneur caught in the middle (after his Cardinal’s convenient death), the trial is not really about him. It’s about a human institution that protected criminals, under any moral code, for far too long.

But it’s even more than that. Religion itself is on trial. Religion requires human institutions to propagate and maintain itself. Run by humans, those institutions are inevitably fallible, whatever their divine pretensions. And their recent record is not particularly good, even as compared to much-maligned secular governments.

So it is that secular governments are prosecuting Catholic pedophiles, and the tide of prosecutions will only wax larger. Civil suits are like to follow, with large damage awards. If successful, they might do what centuries of wars with Protestants could not. They could give the coup de grace to the mightiest religious institution in human history.

The Catholic Church is not the only failing religious institution. Islam is failing, too. Many of its practitioners can’t see the writing on the wall, but it is there to see.

Islam suffers from the exact opposite of the Catholic disease, which is too much centralization in Rome. In contrast, Islam is dispersed. Not only does it have various sects, including Sunni, Shiites, Wahhabis, and Sufis. Even within each sect, it has no universally recognized religious authority. How else could the late Obama bin Laden, a Saudi renegade with absolutely no religious training or authority, purport to issue a “fatwa” (religious decree) ordering Muslims to kill innocent Americans and Westerners wherever they may be found?

If a Catholic assumed religious authority in like manner, he/she would be excommunicated in short order. But Islam is decentralized, and that is both a blessing and a curse. It is still waiting for its Martin Luther to set individual consciences free to see God in their own individual way. Yet while it waits, it is vulnerable to false pretenders like bin Laden and al-Awlaki, and their self-evident evil stains its legacy and promotes Islamophobia.

So what have believers of various stripes today? The two great proselytizing religions—Catholic Christianity and Islam—are on the ropes. Karol Józef Wojtyła, known to Catholics as Pope John Paul II, was one of the last millennium’s greatest Catholic leaders. But he is dead. His successor is nothing more than a religious accountant or lawyer. He is an anally retentive scholar without a soul, ignorant of all the great social movements of our time, opposed to women’s ordination and justice for homosexuals.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq appears to have the intellect but not the leadership. While mimicking our doctrine of separation of church and state, his brand of “quietism” keeps him from mimicking Pope John Paul II. Into the vacuum of leadership that he and others left strode the late bin Laden, Murderer of Innocents.

So as people outside China and India look for moral sustenance, where can they turn? There is no easy answer.

That’s why I continue to believe in the President. More than any other current leader, he seems to understand an essential truth about our species. Individually, we are nothing. We are individual animals brighter than birds and monkeys, nothing more.

But collectively, we can remake ourselves in God’s image. We can make a Paradise for ourselves, right here on this Earth, if we cooperate and love our enemies and our neighbors as Jesus taught. Or we can make our Earth a Hell, by fighting each other and ignoring the clear and present danger of global warming.

More than any politician in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Karol Józef Wojtyła, the President understands this essential truth about our species. Time after time, he has sought compromise over confrontation, often to his political disadvantage. In 2008, I thought he could attract some evangelicals and other believers to his side. I think he still can. (Or at least he could convince them to stay home on election day.)

The major theme of this election is of course the economy. But an important minor theme is the search for God, in the form of much-neglected human morality.

It’s there in the search for a way to keep Iran from becoming a belligerent nuclear power without starting a murderous war. It’s there in evangelicals’ quest for absolute truth in the Bible. It’s there in their misguided hope for an apocalyptic “Rapture,” which would likely take the form of nuclear Armageddon or runaway climate change. It’s there in the anguish of so many Catholics, who are trying to decide whether to leave the Church that has nurtured them from birth but has also coddled pedophiles.

There is no way that Mitt Romney can tap into this angst. He’s a Mormon—a member of an outlying religion misunderstood and distrusted by the vast majority of Americans. For largely good reasons, neither he nor the President wants to introduce Romney’s religion into the campaign. More important, he has lied far too often—even about his successes, such as health-care mandates in Massachusetts—to claim the mantle of moral leader. Who can believe in a man who changes his views with every poll?

The President can exploit this moral angst. At his core, he is a moral man, a Man of God, if you will. Again and again, he has turned his cheek and tried to cooperate with his sworn enemies, just as Jesus advised. He has tried honestly to find common ground with adversaries as varied as the Tea Party and Iran. And while (for good reasons) he has broken some campaign promises, he has always tried to tell the truth, concealing only actionable intelligence.

So I cannot understand why neither he nor his campaign has yet introduced this attractive facet of his persona into the campaign, as subtly as they feel necessary.

In a Godless world, believers and even unbelievers are looking for something to believe in, just as they were in 2008. Obama has it in him, but he has to bring it out. It will take some of his superb political understanding, not just quoting scripture, to do it in a way that modern people, both religious and secular, can understand.

But he can do it. Doing so might give him victory, no matter what happens in Europe. And even if he loses, he can leave a moral legacy he can be proud of. After two millennia, who remembers Caesar more than Jesus? And whom does Obama resemble more?

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  • At Sun Jun 03, 10:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This the previous post simply proofread to removed types:

    Dear Jay, I'm somewhat surprised to hear you say that you are even as close to believing in a god as being an agnostic!

    After understanding 4.5 billion years of evolution on earth, much, more evolution in the universe, the nearly continuious discovery of planets the past 10 years with several being rather earthlike, the last 10,000 years of human evolution based on stone artifacts and finally writing the past 4000 years, there is in my mind NO evidence of any god in any of that history. Billions or at least 100s of millions of years of us mammals evolving has engrained in our premittive brain (the brain stem/Cerebellum) at the top of our spinnal cord to automatically and chemically often offer/sacrifice our lives for the greater cause, often our children. That is not a requirement of a god or religion, but a most basic evelutionary reaction programmed in us from the dinosour ages or earlier to sacrifice our lives for the betterment of our children or species. I believe it was Carl Segan's Book "Broca's Brain" for convincing me of some of that thinking back in high school and the rest of my life experiences and amature learning of history confirming it.

    Jay, I think most people, maybe even you greatly discount our 100s of millions and billions of years of history of preprogramming of emmotions into our brain stem/cerebellum that are chemically very strong and very, very influentual in our species every day actions. Love, hate, jelousy, fear, panic and pain all reside there and are extremely hard to overcome even with our much larger and logical cerebrum.

    Just think about it. For the past 4000 years nations, Roman empires, Spanish empires, English Empires, America, and in the future China will all repeat history do to the brain stem/cerebellum overiding the pure logic of the cerebrum. We humans have billions or for sure hundreds fo millions of years of emotions (preprogrammed actions) implanted ito our brain stem/creebellum that "force" us to act in ways contraray to what our logical cerebrum says is "right". This plays out nearly every day in the stock market where locig plays second fiddle to emotion.

    John Lennon was right, the sooner we immagin Imagine there's no heaven
    It's easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people living for today

    Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people living life in peace

    You, you may say
    I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
    I hope some day you'll join us
    And the world will be as one

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people sharing all the world

    You, you may say
    I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one I hope some day you'll join us
    And the world will live as one

    Yes this is a tall task to ask of average men, but it all starts with a total logical learning of teh past 4.5 billion years of earth history and evolution and maybe even earlier history of the universe. However, John Lennon likely didn't understand much algebra or physics so how could he get it so right?

    I have a lot more to say about god/Jesus and a lot of related topics but I'm going to end here for now. Or life here on this fragile planet is extremely lucky and precious but does not involve any god, just the laws of physics...helpfully understood by math and science.

    Best Regards, RH

  • At Tue Jun 12, 01:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear R.H.,

    Sorry it took me so long to get around to reading, posting and answering your comment. I’ve been taking Voltaire’s advice and tending my garden, in this case veggie plots. There’s nothing like trying to make things grow to help you understand what’s important.

    I sense in your comment three themes on which I’d like to reply. The first is the notion that God is a construct of Man, not vice versa. The second is a degree of astonishment at my professed agnosticism, apparently because you think I’m “close to believing in a god.” The third lies in the rest of your comment , especially the long quote from John Lennon, implying that we’d all be better of without one. I’ll reply to each theme as briefly as I can.

    The first point is easy to answer. I agree with it. In the post above, I wrote “To me, God is the personification of human morality." So who does the personifying? People. You might say that Man created God, but it’s probably more accurate to say that belief in a god, or the supernatural, is built into most but not all of us.

    Your second point is the crucial one: your astonishment that a rationalist like me could come “close to believing in a god.” But I don’t believe in the way that most believers believe.

    I believe in the type of God that exists in many people’s minds, gives them solace, motivates them to do extraordinary things (both good and bad), and has provided inspiration for some of the most beautiful architecture and music in human history. In other words, I believe God exists in the sense that other people believe God exists, and that that belief influences their thinking, creativity and actions in the real word.

    So even if there is no objective evidence of God’s existence in the real world, belief in God has just as real consequences as any other belief that large numbers of people hold, including the odd notion [search for “epithet”] that the President is simultaneously a “socialist” and a “fascist.”

    God exists as a construct in many people’s minds, influences their thoughts, feelings and actions, and has done so throughout history (if you include multi-theistic societies like the ancient Greeks and Romans). Therefore, whether or not you or I believe in God the same way others do is irrelevant to history (including possible future history). What is important is that we understand the consequences of a belief in God (which is very real and pervasive) and try to maximize the good ones and minimize the bad ones.

    (Reply continues below.)

  • At Tue Jun 12, 01:41:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Reply to R.H. continues:

    To do that, I think it’s better to seek common ground than to start off contradicting or attempting to disprove others’ most cherished beliefs.

    The former approach has had some success. During the last presidential election cycle, key thinkers in the evangelical Christian movement began to support [search for “betrayed”] environmentalism. They did so because: (1) the Bible describes our species as “stewards” of the Earth, and it’s hardly good stewardship to kill off other species and eventually your own; and (2) they don’t want their children and grandchildren to have to live in an environment resembling Hell any more than anyone else.

    In this election, a lot may depend on the votes of evangelicals and other believers. Although we have an African-American in the White House, we’re still a long way from realizing Dr. King’s dream. Yet if voters compare the content of the President’s character with that of Newt Gingrich, Sanctimonious Sanctorum, Rick Perry and even Mitt Romney, I think they will make the right choice. (The pain of that comparison may be part of what made Republicans take so long to make up their minds.)

    Anyway, that’s my hope. Its chances of realization may be slim. But they’re a lot fatter than the chance of convincing true believers that what they believe is false and that they’d better study science.




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