Monday, 24 November 2008

Project Civilisation

What kind of person do you consider yourself to be? Decent? Responsible? Kind? What kind of life do you wish to lead? To make good use of your existence, to find rewarding and enjoyable employment? To cultivate deep and valuable friendships? To find love? To raise a family? Furthermore, what kind of society do you wish to live or raise your family in? Do you desire to see your children grow up to be happy and well adjusted and well-informed? To do well in school and to treat other’s with respect and dignity, to live in a society that is fair, equal and tolerant? One that elects smart, responsible leaders who serve well informed voters on ethical, political, and environmental issues? All of the thoughtful and mature among us recognise, that this is the project of living that we are all engaged in. It is upon the realisation of these many aspirations and hopes that will determine the well-being and future of our societies and of ourselves.(1)

There are many people who believe that such endeavours can only be realised, via one or more of our faiths. There are many who claim that enlightenment values- political liberalism, tolerance, human rights, were birthed by Judeo-Christian values. (2)(3). There is no doubt that the moral identity that people draw from religious beliefs or otherwise are important(4) But in today’s truly global community, divisive and mutually competing identities, such as Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, is archaic and in need of changing. We should simply act as responsible and decent human beings-we do not need to separate ourselves or give ourselves a name in order to accomplish this.

We are in a strange time regarding our beliefs. Religion as practiced by the vast majority of people in the first world, is bereft of intellectual content and has been for quite some time.(5)(6). Its status, as guardians of the moral law and champions of human dignity hasn’t been admittedly- fully vitiated as its factual claims- it has however been thoroughly criticised and found deeply unpersuasive(7).

These facts, omit a dreamy reality though. For rather than pulling back from the precipice of religious unreason, we are seemingly still hurtling ourselves towards it.(8) If good people of all persuasions are to embark upon and realize our common goals, then we all will have to omit of our delusions about our current situation.

The crucial point that religious moderates need to realise- that the recurrence of religious criticism has not taken place in a vacuum nor has it come about arbitrarily. It is a principled push-back against the consequences that various religious beliefs and practices have wrought upon society.(I invite the reader to a long footnote as to why this is such, if they are unconvinced and in need of persuasion on this point.(9)

It has become apparent to me that there is a substantial number of atheists though that are in principle opposed to anything that has a tincture of religion in it. This is a sad confusion that all sides are guilty of. Mistaking the numinous for the transcendent, the super for the supernatural, the spiritual for new age quackery. There is an impulse in all religions, faint in many but nonetheless present-a groping for the profound a need of the sacred. The crucial point is that what many get out of community, charity, hymns, prayer or contemplation is interpreted as confirmatory of their beliefs.(10)They are of value in and off themselves-not what they purport to be for. Many atheists though seem incapable of seeing the value of these things.

This is not an excuse however for people to utter the most egregious claims concerning- meaning, morality, values or otherwise. The punch line, is that there is activities of value that are practised by religious people but can be understood in a totally secular way. The solution to our problem is neither eradicating religion or promoting good religion but promoting good people to lead decent, honest and thoughtful lives.

Surprisingly Karl Marx had it right when he said-

“(Religion)-is the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people….Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower….the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (11)

Though upbringing, ignorance and the limits and traps of our psychology play a role (12).What ultimately I believe so convinces people, once identified with a religion who remain so- is the positive social and psychological emotions they garner from it.(13). So we need to locate, isolate and extract what is of value in our religions and transport it to anyone--who wishes it. It is hard to find a word or words that express this succinctly. A good place to begin, is with meaning, morality, values and community or explanation, exhortation, inspiration and consolation.(14) Marx’s “spiritless” age meanwhile has not gone away despite the “flowers” of consumerist culture(15).

What we need is a national project, a grass roots development of a centre, where people can undertake and fulfil the needs that are met through religious affiliations. Connection, intimacy, a sense of being valued, a sense of the scared or reflective without the intrusion of the ridiculous or the commercial. Creative workshops, clubs and societies, lectures and talks from both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, on various public interest matters. Opportunities for young people to socialise and enjoy themselves free from both drink, drugs and mischief. Community arts projects. Charity work, sports……

Every town could have a centre or at least hold events at schools, libraries, leisure centres or even churches. Larger towns or cities would naturally have more resources to deploy. It could be a government funded, charity based foundation. We could call it Hope or Project Civilisation or the Eudemonia Project- the Greek word for human flourishing. Although I do not have space to fill out what the exact details of what such a project could do, I will sketch in what such a project may hope to achieve with two areas of central importance-meaning and community.

On the question of meaning, its not about providing a single, one size fits all message, its about allowing people to explore the question and implications of meaning, values and morality, both inner-personally and inter-personally. Asking questions, rather than providing answers, searching rather than arriving at a fixed conclusion. The imparting of information relating to questions, such as how should I live my life? What should I value? What inspires me? Specifically, we may have speakers or part time co-ordinators from a range of different backgrounds and expertise. It need not be strangers though, local men and women may choose to share their own perspectives. Semi-conferences may be organised, workshops set up and personal projects embarked upon. It does not have to take a “discursive” approach though. Some might choose to take up guitar lessons or cookery lessons, or organise a local choir or enter the town into competitions and so forth. Local people may find fulfilling, moral and social identities, by attending or helping to organise events or helping to run classes for other members of the community.

The above paragraph related meaning, very closely to community and in a sense that’s the heart of the project. To re-capture the sense of community and social intimacy that would have been around thirty or forty years ago. Something that for a variety of reasons (not all of which is lamentable) has been lost. The project is not some romantic pine for the sunny days of yore. Strong communities of the past may have been desirable for their intimacy and support but they were also and still are raciest, sexist and insular. A priority would be learning about other cultures, perhaps sponsoring and supporting some less well off town, in a third world state. A citizen exchange program may be a fun and exciting extension of the opportunity that some schools give pupils. I have already mentioned many community programs that could unite people--let me give a few more, especially for young people. Sports is highly important not just for health or a sense of identity but for making connections and learning self-discipline, co-operation and endurance. For children with other aspirations--drama clubs, music clubs, computer game dens. Alcohol and drug free, Saturday night discos or mid week trips to the cinema along with possible weekend residentials, to learn team-work and leadership skills.

There is a real need I believe, to offer ways of marking births, marriages and deaths in ways that are not exclusively through church. The project could also help promote special community events such as the towns birthday or celebrating an important person who came from the area. Summer barbecues, Halloween discos and Christmas parties could be another possibility. Other projects would be-a town newspaper-or Ezine (electronic magazines emailed out) frequent town hall debates over issues that effect the community, mother and toddler groups, child day care, or even speed dating events.

Rather than unnecessarily explaining the reasons of why such things are psychologically, socially and spiritually important or their useful contributions to informed citizenship, I will look at possible difficulties and pit-falls that such a project might face.

Funding is obviously a challenge. Governments would argue that similar organisations and activities exist anyway. Setting it up as charity, making it tax-exempt with some government support is one possible route to go. Getting rich, high-profile philanthropists to kick start the project may be another one. With one of the above methods along with grass roots community support and desire to see such a thing would be the best way, to surmount the financial challenge.

The point that many or all of these activities exist anyway misses the point. Either all of the above is entirely provided by religious groups, therefore alienating everyone else or is through other exclusive bodies or organisations. The obvious attraction would be that it is open to all and all the diverse activities is brought under the aegis of one, big tent project. Also the message of community, co-operation and tolerance would be expressed explicitly and implicitly.(16)

Would it make a difference? We would never know for sure until such an enterprise was up and running. Clearly there is a need for many of the things I have outlined. However, three foes that such a project would attempt to eliminate would be- ignorance, tribalism and dogmatism. It would obviously be unsuccessful if it failed to redress such things or even if it contributed to them. The world is getting smaller and social demographics are changing. A gated, insular, racially/religiously separated community is a recipe for social dysfunction. As a resident of Northern Ireland, I know only full well what the consequences are of such maladies. A high profile and popular, inclusive organisation with one of its aims being to tackle these ills would surely make a difference.

I cannot think of a better way of putting my case or signalling the gravity of attempting to realise such an endeavour by quoting the last lines of Samuel Harris’s End of Faith.

“No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbours, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much on how soon we realize this.”(17) (italics my emphasis)

Best and be well.

Michael Faulkner.

1 The stark conclusion is from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse How Societies Choose To Fail or Survive. It is not just problems such as environmental damage, overpopulation and climate change but actually convincing public figures and the public at large of them. Even if this has been met, there is still the consensus building and implementation that needs to be carried out, in order to stave off disaster. Various self interests yet collectively destructive factors, the weakness of human perception and political/religious differing identities are surely an obstacle to global co-operation. Furthermore, a recent global trends review by National Security Council reports that American leadership in the world will be on the wane by 2025 as the world becomes more bi-polarised “"No single outcome seems preordained: the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism, for example, which many assumed to be inevitable, may lose its lustre – at least in the medium term," the report warns” From The Guardian UK agency

2 An example of this view is found by conservative author Dinesh D’ Souza in his book What’s So Great About Christianity. Philosopher John Gray although irreligious, has attacked secularism and “utopian” thinking as a descendent of Christianity. He has also attacked “New Atheism” Black Mass by John Gray. Straw Dogs by John Gray.

3 For an opposite narrative on the Enlightenment and what it means and where its inspirations draw from-AC Grayling- Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. Grayling himself has offered a rebuttal of Gray’s Black Mass here on

4 The importance of moral identity and what it means for our ethical considerations towards others is discussed by Jonathan Glover throughout his book Humanity a Moral History of The 20th century.

5 Theologians have not came up with a convincing case against the arguments concerning the truth claims of Religion. Alistair McGrath who appears to set himself up as the chief opponent of Richard Dawkins makes a coded concession that religious belief is detached from normal evidence thinking or that the evidence is or ought to be emotional rather than factual. This can be seen somewhere in this fascinating exchange between himself and Dawkins.
Rabbi David Wolpe, who has debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, a published author, states that “Belief in God is not a propositional claim but an orientation towards life”. One final example would come from another theologian. Theo Hobson-the resident apologist for Christianity on the Guardian. “My response is: let's leave aside the question of the truth or falsity of religious belief… because the rationalist rejection of belief can't be the definitive answer it thinks it is. . And my response is also to say: let's focus on the second part of the atheist objection, the harmfulness.” This is from an exchange with Julian Baggini, Hobson position I gather is to evade questions on the truth or falsity and focus on harm or what’s good that religion does or could do. A fair summary of his position would be this “The core of Christianity is thinking that this man Jesus is uniquely important, on another level from any other human ever, worthy of worship. This belief can't be rationally justified.
So I can't really claim there's a gulf, or even a ditch, between me and the simple-minded devout, because that would imply I believed in a rationally defensible version of religion. That's why I'm so keen to park the truth question, and stick to the harm question”
Julian Baggini points out as would many that this is not the sort of belief that characterises the many millions who describe themselves as religious. In my opinion, Theology can be best thought of as a form of literary criticism. The problem is that much of it is impossible to falsify, its operates on equivocation , ambiguity and other sophistry.

6 Richard Dawkins is of the opinion that it was not possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist” until Darwin’s discovery. It is the chief reason he claims why he is an atheist. It is rarely pointed out though especially by Dawkins himself which is generally disappointing-that Darwin, never, ever, set out to destroy Christianity or rubbish the genesis myth. Indeed he believed that his amateurish specimen collections would be additional evidence of Gods creation. Darwin has been described at one point as a unreflective fellow who considered becoming a country parson, who stumbled upon the discovery of evolution by natural selection. Darwin sat on his discovery for many years and only published his work when Wallace, another independent discoverer of the theory was intending to publish his findings. This aspect to Darwin should be presented more, for although he indirectly created the sliver bullet to slay Yahweh it was Dawkins who fired the shot with his 747 gambit. Darwin is far from the bogey man and arch enemy of religion that he is understood by many unreflecting religious people. I say this only to show that Darwin was no polemists nor did he have a vested interest in seeing God “murdered”- to use his heartfelt expression of what he discovered. However this is not to say that his discoveries has nothing at all to speak to on either the inerrancy of the Bible, the nature of Man, or the existence of God himself. The discovery is utterly corrosive to religious belief and especially to the God hypothesis.. Dawkins’s 747 argument, found in The God Delusion has generally gone unnoticed by religious apologists and bizarrely by many atheists themselves. I believe this represents the best case that can be made scientifically as to why there “almost certainly is no God”.

7 see- showing correlations between widespread theistic belief and societal dysfunction. Also-- Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations can tell us About Contentment (New York University Press, 2008). Demonstrates positive levels of societal well-being and other indications of a well-functioning societal that are irreligious such as the Northern European countries. For a concise, effective repudiation of Christian ethics and its consequences see Letter To a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.

8 Even though the sell of New Atheist books has done well, it only amounts to a few million copies. It is too early to tell if the attacks not only on Religion but on the idea that faith is a virtue will have an effect.
See for a article on the possibility that Religious families will have more offspring than secular ones, especially descendents of Muslim immigrants and how this will change the secular character of Western Europe.
Despite defeating several attempts to get Creationism/Intelligent Design into the classrooms it shows no sign of going away.-- There is also concern over the number of children in British Schools from Evangelical and Islamic backgrounds brought up to believe in Creationism, faith schools has no doubt added to the problem.

9 The End of Faith, which is the first in the so called New Atheist books is one that is more expressly political and social rather than rehearsing the arguments on the existence of God. Harris was moved to write the book the day after 9/11 after studying religion for fifteen years. It would appear that many of his concerns were already shaped before the September attack. What did however influence him was the explaining away of Jihad within Islam as either not religious or aberrant along with the retreat into religious obfuscation that America embraced after the attack. It was clear to him that whatever else was going to be said, religion and faith would not be held to account for its consequences. In chief, his concerns are that the failure to hold religious belief to the same standards of other rational discourse, has been disastrous for social, economic, political and scientific progress. Indeed even rational discussion of them. His follow up, Letter to a Christian Nation is not an attack on the foundations of Christian ethics, or its bloody history nor is it a extended argument against the truth claims of it but-- largely on the consequences of specific beliefs and practices and the ignorance, unreason and dogmatism that propels them.
Richard Dawkins is self-admittedly less interested in the various consequences of religious belief. However his prime concern is the subversion of science, in particular, evolution. In an interview with Lawrence Kruss he stated that his motivation is to get people to accept evolution and the scientific method, his strategy of achieving this is to attack religious superstition--namely God hence-The God Delusion. It is likely though that Dawkins would have wrote a book concerning God at some point in his career, but I feel that the tone of the book would have been vastly different if the rise of creationism in both the US and UK, along with 9/11 had not have taken place.
Daniel Dennett’s approach is more measured than Dawkins or Harris et all--he wishes to see the spread of “a-virulence” that is-that people are protected from being inculcated with the most dangerous and retrograde belief systems. Religious apologists have for, perhaps understandable reasons, especially in the Muslim world- not conceded the point that these criticisms are fundamentally about consequences. Putting it bluntly, if it was not for Jihads, terrorism, honor killings, genital mutilation, undermining of abortion rights, the lies over contraception. Demonizing homosexuals, the murder of artists and beheading of journalists and the inculcation of children with fairy stories, the New Atheist movement would be largely bereft of content. If such dreadful consequences were remedied, debates over virgin births, inerrancy of certain books and the resurrection of certain people would be merely “academic”.

10 Sam Harris has been the most eloquent in his view of this. It can be found in his two books, along with various talks, debates and essays.

11 Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Right by Karl Marx.

12 Daniel Dennett--Good reasons for believing in belief in God His talk begins around the 17 minute mark.

13 and this for a larger overview of the issue which seems to confirm my thesis

14. I believe that it was Richard Dawkins in a debate who coined these terms in relation to the good life.

15 For an excellent literary insight into this I would suggest the work of JG Ballard in particular, Millennium People, Kingdom Come and Super-cannes. Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer provides the soundtrack to modern malaise along with the film and book Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuk. The work of Bret Easton Ellis which at times hilarious and brilliant also shows the “soullessness” of modern culture. For literary work which extols the luminous without the transcendent I cannot not recommend the work of Ian McEwan in particular Saturday-surely one of the best novels of the last few decades. There is perhaps no finer modern poet in showing that there is “grandeur in this view of life” than McEwan--which is to say the humanist naturalist outlook.
There is obviously disagreement whether we are less spiritually or psychologically contented than say, our ancestors recent or ancient. The founding of professional health care and the institution of psychology along with the relaxing of taboos over mental health, has no doubt revealed people with problems where in by-gone times they would have suffered in silence. As to our physical and material welfare there can be no doubt of the improvement of this index. It may well be an existentialist problem. Once the basic needs of life has been secured, alongside the freedoms that western liberal democracy brings and the availability of choices, the reflective individual is inundated with possibility. It is this search for meaning, value and inspiration that is for the humanist, one of life’s pleasures and rewards. However for many, such long and exploratory processes may be unfeasible and undesirable. Conventional religion perhaps can be thought of-disparagingly- like fast food, quick, easy and superficially satisfying. Modernity has raised problems for sure but we cannot turn the clock back. It seems that we need to rethink politics-- as a continuation of ethics, which is to secure the well-fare or well-being of each individual, to arrange social and economic situations to maximise the ability of everyone, everywhere to flourish.

16 It could not take place in competition with other, similar groups.

17. From-The End of Faith. Sam Harris.

1 comment:

Adam said...

The feasibility of undertaking the 'civilising' project, held different ideas about the civilisation that was the objective of their efforts, and about the means that should be employed to achieve their goal.


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