Thursday, July 19th, 2012...4:00 pm
Love, Actually: Chapter Four: “The Intellectual Challenge of Hope”
Continuing my series featuring selections from my new book, Love, Actually, here’s Chapter Four:
The Intellectual Challenge of Hope
All right, then, I’ll go to hell.
-Huckleberry Finn, when he decides not to give Jim up.
Might morality be something that is more organic, more essential to humanity than religion?
In the Bible it is claimed, “God is love,” a crucial connection for a writing that seeks to establish the eminence of God to a people who are naturally inclined to understand the greatness of the loving ideal. And it is an argument that must be made, as the Bible’s god is often vengeful, brutal, and even immoral (by any up-to-date standard of morality.)
Might this be another one of those cases where religious language introduces confusion to create a false sense of mystery?
God is an involved, willful being who is better than us. Love is not a being at all, but some distinct other thing. Love can be a feeling (“How Deep Is Your Love;”) Love can be an idea (“What the World Needs Now Is Love;”) Love can be a verb, too (“Love to Love You, Baby.”) God is none of those things.
And if we were to blur our eyes and accept the confused notion, “God is love,” love would be God, so there would be no need for religion. The concept of a person known as God and all the related scriptures and religious practices would be an unnecessary focus to a loving person.
We are talking about words again. Love is Love. God is God.
To offer the benefit of the doubt, let’s go with a more linguistically intelligible claim: God is perfectly successful in his aspiration to being loving.
How close to perfectly loving are you? Does the closer you get to being perfect get you closer to being as great as God?
Is it possible that others are better than you at being loving? Would that make them greater than you? And if it did, might that be more due to your dysfunctional sinfulness bringing you below them rather than to their good acts? I mean, why are you sinful? Shouldn’t you stop it right away?
Or maybe you are not sinful. Maybe you do not do things you think are bad.
I would hope not.
When I was a teenager, there was a wealthy restaurant owner who attended my church with his family, front pew and center without fail, 10:30 mass every Sunday morning. I thought there must not be a more reverent man in the whole parish, the way he carried himself. (He knelt very straight.) Then, just before graduating high school, I took a job at his restaurant. Turns out, he was a monster. He treated his staff- mostly poor kids who commuted 25 miles to Paoli, Pennsylvania from North Philly- like garbage, hollering and insulting, ordering them about like dogs. He did no work himself, and made every last one work well beyond midnight, though it was clear they were too young to be out of school.
At best, this character acknowledged his sins in the little oaken booth through a screen to a priest who had him say a few prayers to cleanse his soul.
Social constructivism, founded in the early 20th Century by educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, studies the way each of us puts together constructs that we safely follow through the trying experience of living. Constructs are those roles we are taught, those assumptions we are trained to make, those human ideas that we don’t really see as human ideas because we are so used to living them. At times, our constructs desperately need correction.
The concept that the devout restaurant owner likely ascribed to- that he was incapable of becoming a person who does not sin- is an immoral construct, within which he is able to live a life that is moral, but only with reference to the construct.
Inherent sinfulness is a corrupt construct. We can be loving. We must be loving. (Or we need to seek professional help.)
But how loving can we be? Is there any possibility there may be a person somewhere on this Earth who always conducts themselves in a loving, selfless manner? Or is that just unthinkable?
If every person on Earth can aspire to being loving just the same as God- if God and humanity are both on their knees before the altar of Love- then there doesn’t seem to be any point in worshipping God, no matter how loving he is.
And if God were not beholden to the rules of morality, where would our allegiance fall as good, moral people?
Let’s say God appeared in the sky tomorrow, and he proclaimed: “I know how I’ve instructed all of you in the past, but you’ve really taken this morality stuff a bit too far. I never told you that you needed to protect children or outlaw slavery and such. And, hey, when I said to stone a non-virginal bride or a person you find gathering sticks on the Sabbath, I meant it!”
We would just have to change some concept. Maybe some of us would give up the concept of a single god, and figure this one’s an evil one. Maybe we’d decide God is really almighty, but he is morally flawed. But one thing for sure: There would be at the very least a large group of us who would fight that new god to the death- even to eternal damnation.
And we could expect many- a large majority, in fact- to comply with the edicts of the immoral god.
I’ll tell you what makes me think so:
In July, 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments that graphically demonstrated the willingness of the vast majority of people to follow authority into wicked acts. The Milgram Experiment has been reproduced many times- even recently- in many different ways, and always produces similar results.
In the original experiment, 40 individuals were told they were participating in a study of memory and learning. Participants were led to believe a second person they had already met was set up in the next room with electrical contacts attached to their body, and that controls on the desk before the participant would be delivering electric shocks to that other person- we’ll call the other person the victim- if that victim answered memory questions incorrectly. The participants then listened as the questions were asked and were then answered incorrectly by the victim; and then a sober, lab-jacketed authority figure instructed the participants to turn a dial to administer electric shocks. Through the wall, the participants heard faked cries of pain while they turned the dial. This process was repeated, and the authority figure kept telling the participants to increase the electrical voltage, 15 volts at a time. Eventually, in addition to cries of pain, the participants heard banging on the wall, screaming about a “heart condition,” and eventually silence.
The session was ended after the participants reached the 450-volt mark on the “electro-shock” device (well beyond where it seemed to have killed the victim.) However, if a particular participant refused to go on, the authority figure would stop the process, but only after this authoritative succession of verbal prods (in this order) failed to dissuade the participant’s objection:
“The experiment requires that you continue.”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You have no other choice, you must go on.”
The results: 65 percent of the participants went all the way to the 450-volt mark. Only one of the 40 individuals stopped below 300 volts, in fact.
Two subsequent variations on the experiment were particularly interesting: one where electric shocks were actually administered to puppies, so there was no doubt the participants could tell the shocks were real, and one where the shocks were delivered to an obvious computer avatar, so participants could tell the shocks weren’t real. Both variations returned similar results to the original Milgram experiment, demonstrating how consistent is the proportion of us who are able and unable to resist improper authority. Our individual pattern of response to authority dominates what we do, whether or not the situation involves a perceived moral crisis.
The Milgram experiment demonstrates what can be so scary about religious zeal: We become incapable of seeing the flaws in our impressions of the world…
… when we choose obedience to religious authority and neglect the responsibility to judge the morality of our religion;
… if our religious thought is stronger than our intuitive understanding of the loving ideal;
… or, if we piously believe in a God definition, which, by some magical correctness, we are relieved of our responsibility to judge.
The earliest expression of such magical thinking can be found in the concept of purity, a concept basic to religion’s development. What was originally a protective mechanism against health risks, like bodily fluids, diseased corpses, or spoiled or risky food, (carnivores, in fact, are the only animals to express disgust, due to the particularly dangerous threat posed by ingesting rancid meat;) the concept of purity eventually developed into pure superstition or areas where it benefited religious authority as a means of control. People who sin can be impure. Acts can be impure. Competing religions and those who practice them can be impure. Your hand can be impure. Your food can be impure. Things you say can be impure. “Penis,” “vagina,” and “erection” are “dirty” words. To “pollute” the minds of young innocents can make them impure, and it can cause them to do impure, “dirty” things that cause them to be impure.
Popular with some particularly zealous Evangelical Christians is an event they refer to as a “Purity Ball” or “Purity Wedding,” where the father and the teenage daughter go out to an “extravagant” event where they dance and dine, and the father presents the daughter with a diamond ring that she will wear until she gets married and is only then initiated into a sexual life. Sometimes they sign a “covenant,” where the father promises to “protect” the daughter’s purity. This practice involves a father in his teenaged daughter’s sexual life in a charade that can best be described as romantic mimicry.
Of course, considering how vital sexuality is to our existence, holding these religious beliefs up to rational scrutiny reveals that there is maybe no notion so illogical as one that claims sexuality is “impure.” Further, the concept of purity- that there are things that are wholly good beyond the reach of scrutiny- is a primitive, unsophisticated one, as is true with most absolutist doctrines of thought. These are notions that can systematically protect large groups of stupid people, but notions that, inversely, corrupt our progress the more intelligent we become.
Religions provide reasons for turning away from the intellectual effort it takes to renew our constructions of reality, and it is just so easy for an intellectually lazy person to cop out through religion.
The worst result is that a person who is only tethered to morality through obedience (rather than through their own self-concept,) is, though relieved of a burden, bound to fail when the rules are incomplete or when some other impulse stronger than obedience rises from their needs or desires.
Poor faith is the weakness of modern religion, it is true, but not because people don’t know how to wear blinders- that’s not faith. Religion’s weakness is its failure to believe in the power of the loving ideal- then, to remove the blinders, to face whatever may come, armed with nothing but the truth of Love.
In a campaign speech, I heard Barack Obama say, “Hope is believing, and then fighting for things.”
Hope is not optimism, but the clear-eyed pursuit of ideals. It is intelligent. It wraps its arms around everything- the good and the bad, both what proves us right and what shows all our flaws- before it lifts its eyes again to the road ahead.
In a life purposed towards morally idealistic ends, hope’s inspiration is love. Love- not a divine intermediation that leads us to love- needs to be the central inspiration of our moral life. This is a foundational shift of morality away from being religiously inspired to an inspiration that is foundationally secular, a transition many religions have already made, for instance, in the ideals of eating, dress and grooming, lifestyle, art, and law. This correction of the focus of moral idealism does not void religion, and it does not intrude on the concept of spirituality. A monk, living alone in the desert, might call himself spiritual, but he can never fear becoming immoral, as morality necessarily involves contact with some other person. It is not an ethereal sensitivity, but very much engaged in one’s relations with others.
Yet, redefining morality as a secular concern has the power to unify all religions and atheism, too.
 1 John 4:8.
 For source/more info, see: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/atrocity.html
 Deut.22 Verses 13 to 21
 Num.15 Verses 32 to 35
 Sheridan, C.L. and King, K.G. (1972) Obedience to authority with an authentic victim, Proceedings of the 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association 7: 165-6.
 Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, et al. (2006). “A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments”. PLoS ONE 1(1): e39.