Caught in the Pulpit, pgs 192-193

Nov 29, 2016

“Are these reflections on religion offensive? They concern topics that many people would rather leave examined, but unlike most earlier criticisms of religion they do not point a finger of blame. It doesn’t take conniving priests to invent these cultural contraptions, an more than it took a devious social engineer to create the Japanese tea ceremony or debutante cotillions, no matter how resentful and trapped some of the participants in those superannuated traditions may feel. Just as there is no Intelligent Designer to be the proper recipient of our gratitude for the magnificent biosphere we live in, there need be no intelligent designers to be the proper targets of our anger when we find ourselves victimized by “social cells,” like the church. There are, to be sure, plenty of greedy and deceitful people who tend to rise to power in any of these organizations, but if we concentrate on hunting the villains down, we misdirect our energies. The structures themselves can arise innocently, out of good intentions, and gradually evolve into social mechanisms that perpetuate themselves quite independently of the intentions and values of their constituent parts, the agents who bustle about inside them executing the tasks that keep the institution going. Some of those agents, the clergy who must confront the deluge of information and attendant curiosity on a daily basis, are showing signs of strain, suggesting that the task facing religions everywhere is only going to become more difficult.”

–Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit, pgs 192-193


Discuss!

10 comments on “Caught in the Pulpit, pgs 192-193

  • This makes a lot of sense to me. I spend 35+ years as a Christian and while I feel angry at what I was stuck in before, I still find it hard to find many people that deserve to have fingers pointed at them. It’s the culture. And the people in it often genuinely care and believe they are doing what is right and helpful for others. I know that’s what I thought.



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  • It doesn’t take conniving priests to invent … cultural contraptions …

    In the widest possible sense this is true. Cultural structures, strictures and liberties are frequently invented or promulgated by non-priests, and even by non-religious people (one thinks of ‘political correctness’) – but then the religious do not have a monopoly on dogmatism.

    [It did not take] a devious social engineer to create the Japanese Tea Ceremony

    Given the Tea Ceremony’s Zen Buddhist roots, count me a skeptic: The Tea Ceremony is designed as a means of judging the participants in terms of Zen and Japanese social values: good manners, simplicity, respect, appreciation of tradition, discipline (the choreography is comparable to ballet) and humbleness. It looks like social engineering to me.

    Just as there is no Intelligent Designer [for the World] … there need be no intelligent designers to be the proper targets of our anger when we find ourselves victimized by “social cells,” like the Church

    Setting aside my above objection: I disagree.

    Even if it could be shown that a non-dogmatic, unselfish, social engineer was responsible for creating the “cultural contraptions” that legitimize, or otherwise support, a social cell that is harmful – individual, family, social, economic, health, environment, etc. – does that let dogmatic social engineers off the hook?

    No.

    This is a false equivalence: Two wrongs don’t make a right – two wrongs are still wrong.

    If we follow this argument to its conclusion we must, surely, conclude that people are not responsible for their own actions.

    The social engineers may be long dead but the social cell continues to oppress – and I can still get angry at the living members of that cell, for not seeking change, for not measuring their actions, for not contemplating their underlying philosophy or dogma, for not questioning and revising their cell’s approach under the bright lights of discovery – discoveries which, in the World in which we live, happen every day.

    I will not grant a license of any such kind to a social cell that sets its face against change. I wish to see secular people link-up with like-minded citizens who’s mental strategies stand astride the religion and non-religion divide, but such a prescription is a step too far. There must be tolerance for views based on traditions, for goodness sake I cherish traditions of my own, but to say that I must overlook a tradition that is clearly harmful, that avoids or ignores opportunities to be better social actors and not speak up? No.

    The structures themselves can arise innocently, out of good intentions …

    What is this meant to convey – the authors appear to say that longevity is to be revered and, therefore, there’s a get-out clause in the social contract for those who blindly follow tradition. No, no, no!

    Such a philosophy is not to be borne. This is a complete abrogation of our moral obligation to wider society. This is non-sense, and demonstrably so.

    Each and every citizen must be trained and entreated to examine the evidence for the quality of the outcomes of their actions – and even more so, to use that faculty of imagining future consequences and the positions of others that makes us human. Is this not the normal way throughout the World? Please reassure me that it is.

    [social cells may] gradually evolve into social mechanisms that perpetuate themselves quite independently of the intentions and values of their constituent parts …

    This sub-paragraph says, plainly, that a group has a separate existence to the constituent individuals that make up that group – no argument here.

    Then it goes on to say that the social mechanism (its norms, traditions, rules and customs) also have a separate existence. Oh really.

    I join a club … say: the Homebrew Computer Club (HCC). I am part of the HCC. Later, I leave the HCC. The HCC continues. While in the group I must pay my membership fee, I must attend at least every other (bi-weekly) meeting or my membership is automatically cancelled and it is the custom (but not a rule) that I should, daily, greet every other HCC member on first meeting them with “Steve Wozniak!” and a high-five.

    Do these HCC rules and customs have a separate existence to the HCC. Can the members of the HCC change these rules and customs. If the rule of everyone meeting at least twice a month is violated by every member because of summer holidays does the HCC cease to exist. If saying “Steve Wozniak” is proved to cause autism in member’s children are the members of the HCC morally obliged to change this custom. Is the HCC prevented from discontinuing their customary greeting or membership meeting rule by the separate existence of these social mechanisms.

    Note the lack of questions. None of this is difficult, or nuanced, because these are rhetorical facts of the most banal kind. There are also moral ideals being swept aside here, which is a grave concern.

    If social mechanisms are created by social cells they are morally obliged, are they not to review them regularly and to change them and not to bleat about those mechanisms having taken on a life of their own.

    Cell F creates the mechanism of breaking the social ‘ice’ by randomly kissing babies – and this became the wider social norm. 1,000 years later it is shown that randomly kissing babies is spreading rabies. Cell F claim a defense: They say that the kissing of babies is now beyond their ken – that randomly kissing babies is a social mechanism that perpetuates itself and is beyond their control.

    Can anyone in Cell F, we are forced to ask, spell: Moral Failure?

    Cell F still have a responsibility, at the very least, for creating change and not randomly kissing babies themselves while also reminding people which cell, which group, it was that kissed randomly first and to point to their own example, of rejection of tradition, in the face of a changed World.

    And what of the leaders of Cell F? Do they not, as a social imperative, shoulder an even greater burden? Is it not just and proper that we ask them to lead change where change is indicated? And don’t they also have a greater moral burden to the extent that we can, and should, and do, expect them to step down if their leadership fails? Isn’t, in the final analysis, the Leader leaving the group that refuses, immorally, to change the righteous thing to do – and a reasonable expectation from the rest of society? I certainly hope so.

    … their constituent parts, the agents who bustle about inside them executing the tasks that keep the institution going

    Is being a busy member of the HCC, or Cell F, a reason to be awarded immunity from social responsibility? Bill Gates, according to legend, worked 16 hours a day for most of the 1980s and 1990s. The Department of Justice still prosecuted Microsoft under the Sherman Act. As I remember it; even Microsoft’s attorneys did not attempt so callous a move as to defend their client on the basis that they were ‘too busy at the time’.

    Some of those agents, the clergy who must confront the deluge of information and attendant curiosity on a daily basis, are showing signs of strain, suggesting that the task facing religions everywhere is only going to become more difficult

    We should weep for the leading agents of cells – cells which, by their very nature, create social mechanisms?

    And we should feel sorry for them because they’re busy?

    And we should feel sorry for these agents even though the evidence we have suggests that they cling to tradition in a changing World, at a direct cost to us?

    And we should feel sorry for these agents because they delight in owning up to social mechanisms that function, but disown their own work when they have to be the agents of change where their work is widely adopted in society, and harmful?

    And we should feel sorry for the leading agents when they fail to step down, to protest, or even to disown and leave the cell when it demonstrates a lack of moral fiber – or worse, a penchant, a tendency, for continuing to support an immoral social mechanism in order to support what end? … and I’ll finish there for fear, dear reader, of straying too far into the realm of unsavoury, ugly and unconscionable – and undefended … nay, indefensible – history.

    Please.

    This simply cannot be entertained in any way by a thinking person.

    As a matter of fact I do feel sorry, very sorry indeed, for those agents of stagnation and social decomposition. Trapped against the bank that holds in the inexorable river of advancing humanity they’re in eddy pools that are also sucking them down into the oblivion of history that is forgotten. It’s all they can do to keep their heads high enough to breath the air that makes them human.

    Change happens: Live it, ride the wave, or it will drown you. Above all: Embrace personal change. I left the HCC, and so can you.

    Peace.



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  • It’s the “categorical imperative” in disguise. Most people (everyone except sociopaths) understand the “golden rule” and mainly try to follow it, but not so many are aware of the “categorical imperative”.

    Take littering, … a victimless crime. If you’re the only one littering, no big deal; if everyone does it, we’ll be up to our necks in litter.

    So it is with “executing the tasks that keep the institution going”. Your individual contribution is small, and of itself harmless, so you convince yourself there’s no reason not to do it. But as every one thinks that way, the institution keeps going … and bad things happen.

    You know deep down that it’s wrong to keep working there, or keep supporting them; and the right thing to do would be to reject them and walk away, even though your personal contribution is miniscule.

    But just think what would happen if everyone did the right thing.



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  • Hi MadEnglishman [#3],

    Excellent comment, you said it so much better than the authors.

    You know deep down that it’s wrong to keep working there, or keep supporting them; and the right thing to do would be to reject them and walk away, even though your personal contribution is miniscule

    The fact that this has to be spelled out speaks of a great social ill. Why do so many people feel so powerless – even within the context of their own lives? One would think that if there is one thing of which we are sovereign it is our own thoughts, values and ambitions.

    As one who has been systematically controlled, and at other times thrust along by factors beyond my control, I look back and I see how we devalue, even dismiss, our vulnerabilities far too easily. Then we are exploited, or tested, and we find ourselves surprised at our own unpreparedness, our own lack of inner support and even our own weaknesses.

    One reason is change. Not the kind of change I discussed in Comment #2 – personal change. We all change. Look at a photograph of yourself from ten years ago. Project yourself back into that person’s character. How different you were then, how little you knew, how small was your understanding. Now imagine what might change about you ten years hence – and you know from looking back that you can, yes you really can, let your imagination take wing …

    One of the most common and pernicious changes is love. Not love itself, but the vulnerabilities it brings in its wake. Supporting our families and friends through thin times can be a great burden and we’re open to having our desire to keep that support in place abused, to the extent that life itself can seem worthless in comparison – many people are driven even to suicide by people in senior positions who are exploitative and ambitious. The sociopathic tendency and extreme levels of narcissism, in my personal experience, are greatly underestimated diagnoses as a proportion of the population.

    Another reason we too often miss our own vulnerabilities is a reason I know too well: Persistence. Valued as a strength most of the time, it is a python that can seem an embrace of warmth, a shield against small defeats – right up to the point it squeezes the very breath of life out of you. I have learned the value of reflection the hard way.

    Another reason we too often miss our own vulnerabilities is the nobility of labor. Hard work is praised to the rooftops by every hierarchy. But if they really believed what they said, they would pay. I have never, ever been rewarded for hard work. But we insist on internalizing this trope and patting ourselves on the back for long hours and late nights and missing family time and for adding that little detail and for making the presentation perfect.

    Any good manager will tell you that all these things are worthless to the hierarchy and that the only real measure is results: how effective are you, and how efficient are you? Hard work that doesn’t help you achieve those goals is worthless, and worse – its self-destructive. Not only does hard work tend to undermine effective and efficient teamwork, working harder is working against yourself and against your need for time to reflect.

    For those who are self-aware, hard work can even become a form of self denial, keeping themselves busy is keeping them from thinking about the hard things, and they know that those hard things are there.

    It is also important to learn to act on reflection. Our natural bias is towards confirmation of what we believe and here is one difficulty we need to confront head on: How good is my thinking?

    No, really, stop and think to yourself: How do I know that what I tell myself I know is true? Yes, ME, I hear you when you say we’ve been over this but I want to start again at the beginning. I want to do this because today I’m a different person to the person I was yesterday – so shut up, ME, and take notes. Here is one root problem that leads us to see persistence as a strength. Questioning what we believe, and what we can support – about ourselves as well as about the World – is too often overlooked as an activity of real, lasting, positive, change.

    But just think what would happen if everyone did the right thing

    Oh, I do. Indeed I can sometimes find it hard to tear myself away from such a dream.

    My bugbear, as regular readers of these pages will know, is that getting other people to reflect is not as easy as it seems – and confirmation bias is not the only culprit. Systematic, usually overt – though that doesn’t mean it’s easy to recognize – and conniving manipulation by the unscrupulous is everywhere. Others manipulation of us is even, in some cases, unconscious – as we are frequently reminded by minorities who tell us that their oppression continues.

    We are all a work in progress. Now, back to work.

    Peace.



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  • One would think that if there is one thing of which we are sovereign it is our own thoughts, values and ambitions.

    Really? Why on earth would anyone believe that?



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  • Stephen of Wimbledon #8
    Dec 1, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Nothing left to lose; isn’t that the whine of the defeated – beaten and tamed?

    That’s not in my definition of freedom.

    Or the song of the down and out!

    http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/kriskristofferson/meandbobbymcgee.html

    CHORUS
    Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
    And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,
    Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
    And buddy, that was good enough for me,
    Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.




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