Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

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The Right to Be Poor, by Peter Adamson

St Francis of Assisi by Giotto

St Francis of Assisi by Giotto

Peter Adamson just published a most fascinating and insightful essay in Philosophy Now about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing. It’s an important question, especially in this culture of hyper-consumerism and the conviction that property ownership is essential to personal and political freedom. But as a certain innovative and humble friar realized in the early 13th century, property ownership can also be a burden, alienating us from one another and from the unencumbered pursuit of spiritual perfection. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, had a similar insight as St Francis of Assisi and his mendicants when he adapted John Locke’s principle of ‘life, liberty, and property’ as essential human rights as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

Adamson writes:

‘One of my favorite things about the history of philosophy is finding out that ideas we now take for granted originally emerged in surprising ways. I can think of no better example than the notion of a right to own property. Not that we can take it for granted that we have such a right, if we consider the history of communism in the Twentieth Century. Still, it seems such an obvious concept that it must surely always have been with us. But you can make a good case that it was first explicitly articulated in the later Middle Ages. And here’s the surprising part: the thinkers who first explored this notion were actually concerned with their right to own nothing.

They were members of the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans. Following the example of their founder, Francis of Assisi, Franciscans argued that spiritual perfection requires the voluntary embrace of poverty. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, they depended on the kindness of strangers, living on charitable donations. Hence the term ‘mendicant’, meaning, ‘given to begging’. Christ and his Apostles, the Franciscans argued, had shown the way by giving up all their possessions. Furthermore, ownership of property is a consequence of the Fall. In a state of innocence there would be no need for possessions, since by generosity of spirit all things would be shared. However, as well as an individual religious commitment, the embrace of poverty amounted to an implicit and sometimes explicit political critique, since the medieval church as an institution most certainly did not embrace poverty. The mendicants’ very existence was a rebuke to the opulence and worldliness of the papal court and the rest of the ecclesiastical hierarchy….’

Read the full article in Philosophy Now

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New Podcast Episode: A ‘Light’ That Obscures: The Misrepresentation of Secular Thought in Pope Francis’s First Encyclical

foot-washing-255x212Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Like many, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed by many of the sayings and doings of the new Pope. He emphasizes helping the needy and is critical of over-judgmentalism and of hyper-materialism (he practices what he preaches by driving a cheap car and living in a simple apartment). He also goes out of his way to spend time with ordinary people, be it in a correctional facility, in processions, or on the phone. Often dubbed ‘The People’s Pope’, he’s making the most of his promotion, on a mission to do real good in the world. Catholic or not, most people are thrilled that such an influential person is providing such an excellent example of how to live a life of service and of mercy.

But I wasn’t quite as pleased the author of an article in the Huffington Post about Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) co-authored with the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. The author says that the encyclical ‘…reflects Francis’ subtle outreach to nonbelievers’. While I consider myself an atheist, I’m a cultural Catholic, brought up with that religion. Since so many of my loved ones are observant Catholics and the Catholic church is so influential in the world, I’m very interested in what goes on in it. The first encyclical of a new Pope is a big deal, and this encyclical does a good job of promoting Catholic teaching with inspirational language and metaphors. However, the authors also resort to bad arguments to make their point… Read the written essay here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: The Little Way of Goodness

therese-of-lisieuxListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.

Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her “Little Way”, in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost… Read the written piece here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

What Leaving Religion Has Done for Me

I grew up as a member of a large and generally very religious, very conservative Catholic family. As I describe in an earlier piece, both sides of my family are close-knit and traditional, with a tendency to insularity. When I was much younger, I loved it. Religion, especially in its more traditional and fundamentalist forms, has many upsides: a strong sense of community, a feeling of intimate belongingness in a group that shares a creed, a mythology, a history, and an identity. There are things I remember fondly: the warmth that suffuses family faith-based rituals, like putting on a fresh new dress for Easter morning, or the excitement of Christmas midnight mass, with its rich decorations, solemn rituals, and stirring hymns. We would return and light the tree, a luminous and dream-like vision to a child who just woke up from the wee-hours car ride home. There were pancake breakfasts and coffee socials after Mass, Sunday school friends, singing in the choir, and suppression of giggles as my brother, sisters, and I pulled faces at each other during the hour-plus long service.

I also remember that religious fervor, that soaring feeling, that high, that rush of heart-swelling emotion that would come over me sometimes as I sought connection with the divine. In my mid-teens, Jesus was my ‘drug’ of choice. (Not that I did much in the way of drugs later, ahhh-hem.) The Catholic religion has many elements that suit a romantic temperament: prayers and chants, candles and incense, a baroque artistic sense, a preoccupation with death, suffering, and self-sacrifice, and a deep veneration for martyrdom. And no-one is more romantic than a teenager.

But that feeling of belongingness can also lead to insularity, so that you feel removed to some degree from the broader human community and from the wider world of ideas. There was a feeling of loneliness sometimes, of separation from the world. I remember times when my religious compatriots and I would bad-mouth secular people: their music, clothing, slang, history, practices, and beliefs and ideas (I later learned we were mostly wrong about what they actually think and believe). It felt satisfying, in a way, as it made me feel part of some exclusive club, but it felt a bit mean too. We portrayed the rest of the world to ourselves as a lost, sad, evil place compared with what our religion had to offer. We could rest easy, satisfied that we knew the truth and could lead more meaningful, ‘holy’ lives, here on earth and after death. (Though, oddly enough, I feared death terribly in those years, and thought of it often. Try as I might, the always vague promise of the joys of heaven failed to console me. I thought perhaps God was testing me: tests of faith are an important theme in Catholicism.)

As I approached adulthood, and began to meet people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, faith faded and gave way to doubt. I’d always been a curious person, but my youthful shyness and anxiety, combined with my insular upbringing, kept me mostly isolated from the world beyond family and church. It wasn’t until I entered the workforce, and then attended junior college, that I discovered the wider world, one of dazzling variety, and found it suited my personality to a T.

Slowly, I began to emerge from my religious shell. I began to let down my guard, thinking: if my religion is true, my faith will survive running the gauntlet of questions, challenges, and opposing ideas, gaining strength along the way. After all, if integrity and love of knowledge are virtues and God is good, God would prefer even an honest atheist to an intellectually lazy believer. So I opened myself up to discovery, to an enthralling diversity of beliefs, ideas, cultures, and practices, a world with a rich and varied history. Science, literature, philosophy, history, art, culture, religion itself, all became available to me to explore, to consider, and to critique, honestly, in its own terms, and on its own merits. There were no more heresies and dogmas: now, there were facts and theories, truth and falsehood, useful ideas and otherwise. There was no more sin and redemption: now, there were systems of ethics and self-improvement, and considered moral judgments derived from considerations of good and bad, help and harm, beneficence and selfishness, virtue and non-virtue. The supernatural gave way to the natural, certitude to a healthy skepticism, blanket acceptance of creed to understanding, faith to belief ‘wisely apportioned to the evidence’.

I came to value the sense of belonging to humanity as a whole over the sense of belonging to a narrower community of belief. My newfound cosmopolitanism broadened my sense of care for and responsibility to my fellow human beings beyond the scope of any one ideology. The world was no longer divided into ‘Us’ (in my case, Catholics) and ‘Them’, the poor benighted souls wandering this world lost, hopeless, and forlorn. Instead, I came to understand that all of these tools we’ve developed, from morality to literature to government to art to religion, are products of the great quest to better ourselves, to attain the happiness and fulfillment that all humans seek. Religion, like culture, language, and so on, I came to understand as a human creation, and no more or less important, sacred, or immune to change and criticism than any other artifact. Religion lost its magic: since humans made religion, humans can reform or unmake it. I could glean the best of what it has to offer, and explore its history, appreciate its role in moral progress, gain insight from its ethical and metaphysical theories, enjoy the creativity which gave rise to its fables and rituals, and discard the rest.

Likewise, the whole of the great treasure trove of human thought became available to me for study and consideration. There is no list of banned books, no heresies. Instead, there are good ideas and bad ideas: theories that better explain the workings of the universe, and those that do not; beliefs that accord with reality and with reason, and those that do not; ideologies that lead people to do good and to lead better lives, and those that do not; literature and art that arouse the best emotions and enrich understanding in us, and those that do not.

Many religions, including the brand of fundamentalist Catholicism in which I was raised, lead many adherents to restrict the education of their children to a cherry-picked, often distorted or flat-out-wrong, circumscribed array of ideas, scientific theories, and historical accounts that accord with the doctrines of their faith. Many of these children remain ignorant of the wider world of human thought and history until something in their experience or personality compels them to look beyond the teachings of their youth. For example, my own dear grandmother, out of love but misguided by her piety, did a disservice to the education of her grandchildren by attempting, and in some cases succeeding, to restrict our education in this way. Her religious beliefs led to her conviction that a broad, liberal education offered too many temptations to disbelief, so she felt compelled keep us from learning anything other than that which would accord with her fundamentalist Catholic faith. As I later discovered, she was right, not for the reasons she thought. Truth, in my opinion, holds fast in the face of challenges; it does not give way as easily as error does. Each new thing I learned, then, was not a temptation: it was a window of opportunity for growing in understanding, and for replacing bad ideas with better ones. Fortunately, I inherited, and was inspired by, her adventurous side, her love of people. Over time, I encountered and fell in love with the wider world of ideas, through the people I came to meet and the broader education I eventually received.

Now, in place of memorizing and reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I immerse myself in Aristotle and Mill, in Hume and Kant, in Wollstonecraft, Rose, Stanton, Jefferson, and Paine, in Avicenna and Aquinas, in Rawls, Pinker, Newberger Goldstein, and Hitchens. I can immerse myself in the teachings of religious founders as well, including the historical Jesus, endlessly more complex, fascinating, and inspiring than the blonde, haloed icon of the Baltimore Catechism. I have the opportunity to explore what all of these thinkers and reformers have to offer, to seek to understand their ideas on their own terms, putting aside those distorted accounts produced by religious rivalry. I can also, without fear of divine censure, explore the bad ideas people have conceived, from belief in witchcraft and satanic possession to the defense of torture, to racist ideologies, to ‘holy war’ and terrorism to social Darwinism (a sadly misleading term, does a disservice to a great thinker by associating his name with eugenics, a pseudoscientific theory contrary to his own ideas). I can try to enter the minds of those who created these dangerous and immoral ideas, in order to really understand how they came up with them, and to better explain why they are so terrible.

These days, I think of myself as a happier, more morally responsible, more intellectually honest, and more informed person than I would have been if I had remained religious. In that, I speak for myself only. Yet I know that this is true for many others, whose accounts celebrate the benefits of their own religious deconversions. It’s my impression that the most joyful, most passionate, and yes, the most resentful converts from religion are those who were brought up in more restrictive, fundamentalist belief systems. Critics say that such people gave up their religion because it was too hard, so they took the easy way out; or, that they just wanted to be able to ‘sin’ freely. I’ve had these accusations thrown at me many times. In a sense, they’re right, but not for the reasons they think. Many of these religions are too hard because their restrictions and demands are contrary to human nature since they’re based on deeply flawed accounts of it, and much of what they deem ‘sin’ is not wrong after all.

Many people attribute their own best qualities, of character, of behavior, of outlook on life, to religion, whether it’s the one they were brought up with or one they converted to. While I recognize the fact that religion can give a deep sense of fulfillment, the evidence indicates religiosity is not more of a predictor for good behavior than secularism. Study after study, personal account after personal account reveal that religious people commit most crimes at about the same rate, are about as generous, and behave about as morally overall than secular people.

My own observation is that people use religion to justify whatever way they are inclined to behave, good or bad. As the physicist Steven Weinberg points out, good people do good things, and evil people do evil things, regardless of religion. Many of the kindest, wisest, and most wonderful people I know are religious, and credit their religion with their moral successes. I’ve also known plenty of religious people use their beliefs to dodge responsibility for their bad behavior with excuses such as ‘the devil made me do it’ and ‘well, of course, I’m just a sinner’. They use this get-out-of-jail-free-card, such as this particular one available to Catholics (but of course, not necessarily endorsed by all Catholics): ‘I’ll just go to Confession later’. Some are otherwise good people who hold what I think are immoral beliefs, because they were taught to believe this way, and threatened with eternal punishment if they don’t. Others aren’t morally praiseworthy people in any sense of the term, and go through life doing only that which serves their own short-term self-interest. Religion, for these, is a matter of convenience or habit.

All of these things are basically true of the non-religious people I’ve come across, including my secular community of friends, family, and co-workers. Some are kinder than others, some are morally committed to doing good, some have a more nihilistic, selfish, or jaded view of the world. Yet here’s why I generally prefer a secular brand of morality over the religious: secular people generally take goodness more for granted. While this might sound counter-intuitive as an indicator of a better moral character or as a way of habituating oneself to better behavior, I think it’s excellent for both.

For example, when complimented on a good deed, a secular response is generally something along these lines: ‘well, obviously, it’s the right thing to do’, or, ‘it just feels right / good’, or, ‘of course, that’s how decent people behave’. These sorts of responses indicate that they see goodness as the default position, as required by reason, as a basic human instinct, or both. After all, human beings go through day to day life being decent to one another: we pay the asking price for the things we want, we step aside to let others pass on the sidewalk, we obey the rules of traffic, we say please and thank you, we lavish food, money, and medical care on strangers as well as family and friends, we spend huge amounts of our time communicating complex thoughts and ideas, and so on and so on. We take all this for granted, to our credit. When we compare the human species with all others, even to our closest relatives the chimpanzees, we find that our level of cooperation, generosity, and tolerance is quite remarkable. In all other species, some combination of predation, raiding, warfare, murder, infanticide, and/or indifference to suffering and the welfare of anyone besides close kin and allies are par for the course. With humans, however, such behavior makes the news.

Since goodness is the default, it’s badness has to be explained: by mental illness, alcohol or drugs, a bad upbringing, a momentary selfishness that overcame one’s better side, or by faulty ideology or culture. Therefore, most good deeds are not terribly remarkable: they are a natural product of sociability combined with reason. Sociability gives us the instincts to cooperate and help others; reason shows us that the more widely we extend our cooperation and good-naturedness, the better off everyone is in the long run.

Since secular people (as well as many liberal and progressive religious people) tend to believe in the basic goodness of human nature, they tend to be liberal in politics and morality, and broad in their conception of human nature. For example: since it’s everyone’s basic duty to help one another out, it’s right and just that we all pay taxes to create public welfare systems for those less fortunate than ourselves. To not institute public welfare systems is to say that it’s right that people should enjoy the benefits of civilized society, while being permitted to shirk their responsibility to care for those whom it hasn’t benefited. Another example: since most kinds of human behavior are good or at least morally neutral, there’s only a narrow range of behaviors that should be prohibited, namely those that actively harm others. Human nature, with its unique combination of advanced intelligence and strong social instincts, has evolved to include a wide variety of ways of being that are not only valid, but worthy of celebration, as they are indicative of the wonderfully fascinating, complex, endlessly inventive creatures that we are.

It’s no surprise, then, that secularists and adherents of the more liberal religions, which share this belief in basic human goodness and the broadness of human nature, have been on the forefront of reform and civil rights movements throughout history. Abolition of slavery, religious liberty, women’s, worker’s, and gay rights, indeed all of the great movements for reform and freedom, originated with the dissidents, the broad-minded, and the humanists. Religion is made for human beings, not the other way around.

An aside: there are certain leading secularists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who claim that the only ‘true’ religious believers are fundamentalists. They argue that liberal and reformed believers just want to pick and choose the ‘nice’ parts and discard the rest, which constitutes a betrayal of their religion. I think this view is not only historically inaccurate, it’s based on a more basic categorical error. Religions are not, and have never been, eternally ‘fixed’ systems that do, or ‘should’, remain constant over time. They are better understood as belonging to a category of things that include culture and language, all of which come gradually into being from thoughts and practices that are products of human nature, and change over time. Culture, language, and religion evolve as human nature evolves and as the totality of human knowledge and wisdom expands and is applied to current circumstances. It’s no more true to say that the only ‘true’ religion is that which remains wedded to a particular holy book or creed established by a synod, or a particular interpretation of these, than it is to say that the only ‘true’ communicator of English language is one who strictly adheres to the first Webster’s dictionary, or considers the Canturbury Tales or the works of Shakespeare as the eternal exemplar of ‘true’ English grammar and style.

Let’s contrast the more liberal, progressive, humanist views of secularists and moderate believers with the views of some of the more fundamentalist and hierarchical religions, usually descendants of tribal belief systems. This includes the brand of conservative Catholicism I grew up with (which is not reflective of all variants of Catholicism, some of which are quite tolerant and emphasize social justice). In these belief systems, humans are born in sin, ‘fallen’, weak and corrupt, and it’s only through the greatest struggle, and never without divine help, that we can achieve goodness. Their view of human nature is narrow: people are created to fulfill one of a number of comparatively few, narrowly defined roles, and behavior and proclivities that aren’t in accordance with these are sinful. Their view of life is one of spiritual warfare: we are beset on all sides by Satan and his agents as they vie with God for dominance over our souls. The way to redemption, then, is a lifetime of constant prayer, diligence, and suffering, battling one’s way to an eventual union with God that relatively few can achieve.

Secularism and the liberal religions, with their naturalist view of morality, emphasize the ordinariness of human goodness and the value of habitual, systematic, readily achievable goodness. The more rigid, fundamentalist religions, on the other hand, emphasize the difficulty of defeating evil and the value of relatively rare exploits of good deeds through heroic self-denial. While the latter may be more romantic and exciting, I think that the secularist and humanist view of human nature has been more conducive to human flourishing overall. It promotes a greater quantity of goodness in the world by making it understandable and accessible. This is readily apparent when we examine the evidence throughout history and up to the present time. Where we find tolerant governments and secular or progressive religious belief systems, we find less warfare, a higher standard of living, and a system of laws that protect all citizens from oppression, from each other as well as from government itself. Where we find civilizations dominated by religious fundamentalism, rigid ideologies, and aristocratic and ‘ordained’ hierarchies, on the other hand, we find the opposite.

In sum: leaving religion behind, for me, has proved not only emancipatory, but has provided a wonderful opportunity for learning, for critical thought, and for personal growth that I may never had had otherwise. I still have a residual distaste for religion, especially for its more ritualistic trappings, as one has a distaste for imbibing a substance one has overindulged in, or for fire after one has been burned. I shy away from churches, am creeped out by rote prayers, and feel depressed when listening to Gregorian chants and solemn hymns. (I feel very differently about other forms of sacred music, and wouldn’t you know it, I never heard any of them in the church of my youth.) Yet I seek wisdom from any source in which it may be found, and since I know that there is much to be found in religious traditions as there is in any arena of human thought, I look for it there, too, despite the inclinations I sometimes have against it. And one day, when my residual aversion to religion has finally worn away, I’ll be that much less in the sway of the kind of bias that blinds the intellect and blunts the understanding.

*Listen to the podcast version here or here on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow http://darrow.org.uk/2015/04/12/what-leaving-religion-has-done-for-me/

A ‘Light’ That Obscures: The Misrepresentation of Secular Thought in Pope Francis’s First Encyclical

foot-washing-255x212Like many, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed by many of the sayings and doings of the new Pope. He emphasizes helping the needy and is critical of over-judgmentalism and of hyper-materialism (he practices what he preaches by driving a cheap car and living in a simple apartment). He also goes out of his way to spend time with ordinary people, be it in a correctional facility, in processions, or on the phone. Often dubbed ‘The People’s Pope’, he’s making the most of his promotion, on a mission to do real good in the world. Catholic or not, most people are thrilled that such an influential person is providing such an excellent example of how to live a life of service and of mercy. 

But I wasn’t quite as pleased the author of an article in the Huffington Post about Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) co-authored with the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. The author says that the encyclical ‘…reflects Francis’ subtle outreach to nonbelievers’. While I consider myself an atheist, I’m a cultural Catholic, brought up with that religion. Since so many of my loved ones are observant Catholics and the Catholic church is so influential in the world, I’m very interested in what goes on in it. The first encyclical of a new Pope is a big deal, and this encyclical does a good job of promoting Catholic teaching with inspirational language and metaphors. However, the authors also resort to bad arguments to make their point. In many instances, they do so by contrasting their doctrines, for positive effect, against ‘straw man’ versions of non-believers’ views. In others, they set up false dichotomies, where they present Catholic doctrine as the only positive alternative to something bleak. I was disappointed that such educated and influential men, willfully or otherwise, so thoroughly mischaracterized attitudes and beliefs of secular people. 

As I’m sure you know, a ‘straw man’ argument is the logical fallacy of first constructing a caricatured or artificial version of an opponent’s arguments, then attacking the false arguments in place of the real ones. A false dichotomy is a related fallacy, where the argument is presented as offering only two possible choices: the (arguer’s) favored position, or an opposing, usually unattractive or unbelievable one. While often effective in politics, these tactics are recognizable as a sign that the arguer finds themselves in a disadvantage. They might find that they can’t understand the arguments of his opponent, they might find that the opponent’s real arguments are so strong that they can’t find a way to answer them, or they might find that they’re worryingly attractive to others so they wish to obfuscate, misrepresent, or conceal them. The first two are less likely in this case as the authors are educated and articulate men. I think something like the latter is what’s going on here. 

I also found that the encyclical promoted some worrying misconceptions about human beings, our nature and how we actually go about thinking, learning, being good, and finding meaning for ourselves. They describe human nature through the lens of a very narrow Catholic conception, which is to be expected, but they ignore, denigrate, or dismiss the validity of other accounts of human nature, informed by the sciences, the liberal arts, and other belief systems. 

It’s especially clear from sections 2 and 3 that the Popes feel the Catholic Church is under attack by the scientific revolution, where evidence and reason are generally prized over tradition and belief. Perhaps this is the origin of the backlash against secularism and naturalism that’s characteristic of the poor arguments throughout the encyclical. The ways they present secular and atheistic thought is not new or unique to these men; they’re commonly held views, a fact very recently highlighted by Oprah Winfrey’s response to a self-professed ‘spiritual atheist’ interviewee. Yet the Popes could have offered a defense and promotion of their doctrines without the bad arguments, and their work would have been much better for it. It’s too bad that here again, the thoughts, motivations, beliefs, and characters of so many, in this case, naturalist, atheist, agnostic, and otherwise secular people, are misrepresented to such a large audience by influential men who I think should know better.

It’s true that there are some non-believers who are so, or become so, out of lack of interest, out of ignorance, or even simply to get out of following the rules of religion. But in my years of reading and research, I think the majority reject religion for worthy reasons. There are plenty of rational and moral reasons why people don’t believe in gods or a God as any religious tradition has conceived them or It. I think most secular people, from those who are personally believers of some sort but who value a society free of religious coercion, to the most ardent atheists, have done a lot of thinking on the matter, and this essay, I’m talking about these people. I’ll refer to them generally as secular thinkers, and to their musings as secular thought.

Here are some specific instances where I think the Popes got it wrong (there are plenty others). All quotes are from the encyclical ‘The Light of Faith’, in order of the sections they appear in, and my response follows directly after each:

From section 2:

‘Slowly but surely, however, it would become evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately the future remains shadowy… As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light… it is impossible to tell good from evil…’

There are many secular thinkers who feel that reason alone, the deliberative reflection on the nature of reality and what it means for the self and for humankind, is the only way people find truth and meaning. Yet more accept a more nuanced understanding, informed by the findings from more recent research in psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience. When we look closely at how we think and behave, we find that instinct and emotion play a huge role as well, and in fact, that reason is secondary to and cannot function without these. It’s that emotional part of us, where morality originates and the experience of transcending our individual selves takes place, that also leads us to discover truth, in the various ways it’s defined.

peter-paul-rubens-massacre-of-the-innocents-1611-12-photo-by-ken-thompson-at-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsSecular people, too, realize this, and by renouncing religion or never joining one, it does not at all mean that they renounce the search for ‘the great light’ of truth. It’s more often the opposite: secular people make the choice to become or to remain free to search for truth without the often seemingly arbitrary limits of dogma. We can go where the evidence leads us, and we can say ‘what if?’ and ‘I don’t know’ without fear of retribution from an inscrutable God. We can give an account of good and evil based on what we learn about human nature and about the natural world as a whole. It could be argued, against Pope Francis, that if there is an unaccountable, unknowable, and unanswerable supernatural, conscious being force that creates and rules the world, it would be impossible to tell whether it was good or evil since whatever it says goes. In one era God could say it’s good to slaughter the infants of enemies (Ezekial, Isaiah), and in another era he might say it’s evil. This argument, often called divine command ethics, is an ancient one, and philosophers generally agree that a conception of the good must exist prior to determining whether something, God or otherwise, is good. It is, in short, not only possible, but necessary, to tell good from evil outside of the parameters of religion. That’s how you can recognize, in the first place, whether a religion is a good one.

From 8 and 10:

‘Faith opens the way before us and accompanies our steps through time. Hence …we need to follow the route it has taken… Here a unique place belongs to Abraham, our father in faith. Something disturbing takes place in his life: God speaks to him… Abraham is asked to entrust himself to this word.’

The story of Abraham and his son Isaac is a strange one to the secular thinker, and not at all a good example for showing how faith is linked to the search for truth. In this story, God demands Abraham do something considered evil by just about any human being, secular or religious, from Abraham’s time to our own: to murder his son. All the while this God is knowing he doesn’t really mean it! Where’s the love of truth here? The sort of faith this deity demanded was the same sort of faith demanded of the suicide bomber, or the parent who denies life-saving medicine to their child because they belong to a faith-healing sect. It’s the sort of faith, that of the blind worshiper, that is deeply alien to one who seeks to understand what they do before they do it, and why they do it, while simultaneously demanding personal accountability from themselves and others.

It’s the ultimate anti-personal-responsibility fable, and was among the earliest religious tales that alerted me to the problems of faith.

From 13:

‘The history of Israel also shows us the temptation of unbelief to which the people yielded more than once. Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry…Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires… his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants.’

milky-way-by-unsplash-creative-commons-via-pixabay-croppedThis is also a very strange section to a secular thinker. The opposite of faith, the philosopher, the logician, the linguist would say, is non-faith, which precludes worship of anything at all. 13 is a long section of false dichotomies as well as straw man arguments. The thinker who learns from the world itself, through history, biology, psychology, astrophysics, and so on, learns that the universe, humankind, and the self are not a disorienting haze of ‘unconnnected instants’. Things are interconnected and form marvelous patterns throughout the universe, from the forming of stars, elements, galaxies, planets, and solar systems in the cosmos through various forces, to the transition from instinct-only to simpler forms of intelligence to consciousness in the story of human evolution, to the fascinating development over time from simple hunter-gatherers in small groups to complex societies, cultures, beliefs, and knowledge-gathering systems. The history of human thought reveals that human beings, from prehistoric times, throughout history, and up to now, from innocent of religion to pagan to religious believer, have been engrossed with understanding the cosmos, from the blazing sky to the deepest mysteries of their own minds, and all the while have demonstrated rigor and discipline while on their quest for knowledge. Religion is just one of the many human products of that quest.

From 19:

‘…The attitude of those who would consider themselves justified before God on the basis of their own works. Such people …are centred on themselves… Those who live this way, who want to be the source of their own righteousness, find that the latter is soon depleted and that they are unable even to keep the law. They become closed in on themselves and isolated …their lives become futile and their works barren…’

This section is focused on a debate within the larger community of believers, but I include it here because of what it implies about those who look to human nature and to their own instincts to find the impetus for goodness. It implies here that human nature, on its own, is essentially isolationist rather than altruistic. By doing so, it ignores nearly everything we know today about human psychology and behavior, about evolution, neuroscience, economics, and so on. Human beings are essentially social with an individualistic streak, and without deeply rooted instincts toward cooperative, generous behavior, we are weak, nearly defenseless against predators and the forces of nature, and are imprisoned by and even defeated in the pursuit of our own shortsighted needs. Goodness and kindness are accounted for with or without religion.

From 25:

‘In contemporary culture…truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable… But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion… In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth …is no longer relevant.’

This section is problematic to begin with in the way that it seems to work with a definition of Truth narrowly defined within the parameters of Catholic doctrine, and from there proclaiming that people no longer care about Truth, just facts about the world that can lead us to make useful products. But people all over the world of no faith or any religious faith, throughout time, have demonstrated restless curiosity and boundless energy in trying to find out the truth about reality, from the most prosaic little problem in everyday life (how can I save time carrying water from the well?) to the greatest mysteries of the universe (what are the stars made of, and do they move on their own or do the gods push them around?). This is as true today as it ever was, regardless of the fact that some people (and I would agree, too many) are overly concerned about personal comfort at any cost and how much nice stuff they can amass for themselves.

It’s also problematic in that this section appears to imply that placing a high value on ‘what works’ leads people to care nothing about what’s truly enriching. The scientist, the naturalist, indeed anyone who finds the universe an utterly fascinating and meaningful thing on its own terms might find this idea very strange. Applying a test of ‘workability’, in fact, shows a great deal of respect for truth, in that the seeker takes great pains to make sure that personal bias, incomplete or misleading information, too small a sample size, etc. are not a source of error. If a theory or received dogma doesn’t ‘work’, doesn’t adequately account for the facts, doesn’t coherently explain how and why something is as it is, or doesn’t successfully make predictions, then, they know, the search for truth must continue.

From 35:

‘Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith. They strive to act as if God existed, at times because they realize how important he is for finding a sure compass for our life in common or because they experience a desire for light amid darkness, but also because in perceiving life’s grandeur and beauty they intuit that the presence of God would make it all the more beautiful.’

Here, the Popes make the most underhanded move to undermine secular people. They resort to a particularly transparent sort of fallacious argument along the lines of: ‘You’re saying (that), but I know what you’re really thinking, you’re thinking (this), and here’s why (this) is wrong’. This is simply a dishonest argument, and potentially insulting in a most unphilosophical way. The honest philosopher does their best to understand the argument of their opponent, consider it as it if might be true, and then argue against it on its own merits if she disagrees; they do not pretend as if it’s really something else. They do this sneakily, using the phrase ‘those…who’, so that there’s an out: this does not necessarily include the entire class of nonbelievers. But reading carefully, they also set it up so that no one could tell which nonbelievers it includes, since the nonbelievers themselves, ‘without knowing it’, really want to be believers somewhere deep down. So just as easily, they could be referring to all believers, or to none, though presumably they’re referring to some quantity in between. But this doesn’t work. If one is actually a non-believer, it seems incoherent to say that they could also be one who believes that a God is necessary for meaning and beauty. Unless you’re talking about a nihilist of a particular variety. Yet this can’t be so, because they’ve already added the caveat that they are also ‘sincerely open to love’. So either this section is entirely contradictory in its attempt to outline the true nature of believers (at least some), or it’s a veiled attempt to deny that there are really any unbelievers out there. Circular reasoning strikes again.

From 43:

‘Children are not capable of accepting the faith by a free act, nor are they yet able to profess that faith on their own; therefore the faith is professed by their parents and godparents in their name.’

Years back, when my grandfather began to notice that he never saw me at church anymore, he asked me if I was still going. When I said no, he said that that wasn’t acceptable: the promise my parents made for me at my baptism obligated me to go. I said little at the time, being in my late teens and still not comfortable with challenging my grandfather directly. But I was very annoyed at what I thought a most ridiculous notion: that anyone could make this sort of binding promise on another’s behalf.

But that’s not the worst of it: my grandfather was also making the same point the Popes make in this encyclical, that parents can proclaim tenets of faith on behalf of their child. But faith, or belief, is not something that can be simply transferred or put on, like a family heirloom or a piece of clothing. It’s the natural assent of the mind to the matter-of-factness of propositions or circumstances. True, you can ‘fake it ’til you make it’, engaging in a sort of cognitive-behavioral exercise where you decide ahead of time what you want to be true, then make a habit of acting as if it is, then come to believe it. Perhaps the Popes have this sort of thing in mind in this passage, though they don’t describe it that way. But to the secular thinker, this sort of belief-inducement is not an honest one, since it can be used to instill belief in anything at all. Rather, keeping an open mind to the evidence and allowing belief to emerge naturally in response is a much better method if you don’t want to be misled. When the Catholic religion of my early youth no longer offered meaningful, believable answers to so many of my questions, I felt angry at the time, feeling that I had been raised in a bubble, led to assent to all kinds of things without having the relevant information. ‘Faith’ became almost a dirty word for me, as it began to sound more and more as if it really meant something more like indoctrination or even brainwashing. So in the end, raising us to believe only in the strict ‘Truth’ of Catholic teaching without being allowed to question, and without introducing other possible answers, resulted in the opposite of its intended effect.

From 54:

‘Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity. …Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him.’

I don’t know entirely know how the Popes feel justified making this claim. While it’s true that Bible-based religions caused many converts and believers throughout history to behave much better than they did before or might have otherwise, the opposite is also true. Sometimes it inspired the Christians to have mercy on their enemies, sometimes it led them to torture and kill ‘heretics’, slaughter Jews in pogroms, and to enslave and murder black people and Native Americans. Some may say that people who behave this way are not really of the ‘true faith’, but their actions are justifiable according to certain Biblical principles and commandments. In the Old Testament, unbelievers are to be put to death (and what are Jews and Native Americans to Christians if not unbelievers?). In the New Testament, Jesus says that the fate of towns who don’t accept his disciples’ teaching will be like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God put everyone to death (Matthew 10: 13-15, Genesis 19). It seems that, here, the worth of human life is actually often contingent in the Bible, on ‘good behavior’ or on whether they profess the right religion, and not always of value in its own right.

code-of-hammurabai-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsIn antiquity, in fact, there were many cultures and belief systems that did place human life and dignity on as high or even higher a plane than did the ‘faithful’ of the Old and New Testaments. Ancient Egyptian literature, the Code of Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and some philosophies and religions of ancient India and Greece, for example, advocate such principles as non-violence and the worth and dignity of the human person, and place strict limitations on harming and killing other human beings, and indeed, other living things that are not human beings. Many of these ideas and belief systems are religious, but many are not.

Secular thinkers such as myself find no trouble deriving firm principles and morals from the natural world, and in fact find that taking moral responsibility demands rejecting religious dogma in favor of an understanding of how human nature works and what the actual circumstances require. We don’t find ourselves ‘adrift’ since human morality is based on the social instincts, expanded and universalized through reason, and we’re all in this world to sink or swim together, ultimately. We also don’t consider ourselves ‘absolute judges’. Instead, we hold ourselves accountable not only to ourselves but to each other, to democratic principles, to the consideration of the rights of other people, and to the limits and strictures of the universe itself. In fact, it’s unquestioning acceptance of dogma that can look, to the secular thinker, very much like reneging on one’s moral responsibility.

In sum, the authors of this encyclical and secular thinkers find themselves in agreement on many particular issues, and in disagreement on others. (Of course, I don’t speak for all secular thinkers just as the Popes don’t represent every belief of all individual Catholics. Instead, I represent my own views and those I find generally promoted by secular thinkers who write about philosophy, morality, the physical sciences, psychology, political and legal theory, and the humanities.) Respect for individual rights, a commitment to promoting human health and happiness, justice, equality of opportunity, and so on, are universal human concerns, and have been throughout recorded history, from the atheistic to the pious.

Fortunately, in his public speeches and behavior, Pope Francis I publicly emphasizes the best of his humanistic principles with little or no disparagement of those who do not believe in these principles for the same underlying reasons. In this, I think the good example he provides will far outweigh his theological publications when it comes to his broader influence in the world. But it’s worth having the discussion about the nature of inherited faith versus evidenced-based belief, until secular thought is no longer maligned by those who fear and mistrust it because of the kind of misrepresentation this encyclical exemplifies.

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Sources and inspiration: 

Pope Francis I. Lumen Fidei (On The Light of Faith)Encyclical letter, June 29th, 2013

The Fetishization of Suffering

In the art on the walls of my childhood home, the theme of suffering was pervasive: crosses with sculptures of hanging, tortured Christs, Marys with torn and bleeding hearts, saints in various imploring poses, as if pleading for relief from the awful plight of living in this world. Suffering also popped up regularly as key to understanding reality. Why do the good and the innocent suffer as well as the wicked? Well, the wicked suffer because they are being punished, of course, but the good and the innocent suffer because they are loved, because it provides a God-given opportunity to conquer it and become even better in the conquering. So to better our characters, us kids were required to endure some sort of self-inflicted suffering from time to time, however mild: to give up candy during Lent, or or to spend an uncomfortably long time on our knees reciting rosaries. This view of suffering was held by many cultures throughout history (remember the Spartans?), and became common in modern Western societies through Christian influence. Suffering, regarded as both the indicator of and the creator of goodness in the world, and eventually became something to be desired and admired for its own sake. It became fetishized. As I grew and began to puzzle over the matter, this glorification of suffering seemed more and more strange, especially as I observed that, while suffering appears to strengthen and nobilify some, many more people tend to be broken down by it, especially if it’s pervasive in their lives, and rendered more desperate, less empathetic, less hopeful, less dignified, more scarred. I began to wonder if, on the whole, it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.

So why do so many people so often glorify such a seemingly nasty thing as suffering? Well, for one thing, a beloved philosophy professor of mine pointed out once, there’s a distinct difference between suffering of the constructive sort and suffering of the destructive sort. There should be separate terms for different sorts of suffering as there is in ancient Greek. If there was a separate discussion concerning each kind, many of my objections to the fetishization of suffering should be rendered moot. Examples of constructive sorts of suffering is the burning sensation felt in hard exercise and the healing of wounds, the squirming mental misery of trying to finish a paper or book on time and still do quality work, or the tearing pain of bittersweet grief at the loss of a dearly loved one. Destructive suffering, such as the despair of watching children suffer from illness or starvation, the maddening confusion of feeling one’s mental acuity and individuality eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, or the disgust of watching others ruin their own and other’s lives through crime, political machinations, or thoughtlessness, is not so self-evidently beneficial, to say the least. But I don’t remember  this distinction being made clear to me at any point. Any sort of suffering can be explained away as destructive or constructive as conceived in the mysterious, unknowable mind of the creator, for example. This treatment is especially convenient in attempts to resolve the infamous ‘problem of evil’. But for those not satisfied with the ‘mysterian’ explanation and really want to understand the matter, the problem remains: how does one justify the fetishization of suffering via a reliable method of distinguishing between its destructive and constructive forms? 
 
Perhaps the distinction between these forms of suffering exists but is just too hard for individuals to distinguish most of the time because the emotions get in the way. It’s hard to recognize suffering as constructive when you feel compassion for other sufferers, or you feel discouragement or weariness in the face of your own. Or, even more encouragingly for proponents of this view, one type of suffering can be transformed into the other based on the attitude of the sufferer. There is some truth to be found in this characterization of certain experiences of suffering. There does seem to be sorts of suffering that’s unavoidable and necessary given the current state of evolution (or of a fixed human nature, for those who don’t believe in evolution, *sigh*): the helpful warning that pain provides, or the fear of death, strangers, or inexplicable noises that aids in self preservation. But upon reflection, the category of suffering of the entirely beneficial sort is really not very large compared to suffering of the harmful sort or suffering that seems to be some mixture of the two. The pain of exercise and of mental exertion seems to deter far too many people from consistent rigorous physical and intellectual exercise (I’m certainly among these!); the pain of grief leads far too many to resort to such comforting tactics as justifying the injustices of the world with flimsy excuses or to believing in flimsy or patently false metaphysical claims, or to vengeance; and so on. When I consider various sorts of suffering, I’m hard put to find any that most of the time and for most people, the result of experience it is entirely beneficial in the long run.

Perhaps the difference between constructive and destructive suffering is a matter of degree and duration, then, rather than of kind. The kind of suffering experienced in sport or in military training and combat, for example, are experienced in limited blocks of time and have a foreseeable end, allowing hope and the expectation of a better time to come mitigate the potential bad effects of suffering and strengthen the good effects. But this answer isn’t entirely satisfactory either. While it can seem true in some circumstances, it’s not for many others. People can become obsessed with and addicted to suffering, for one thing, as in the case of  over-zealous religious who become sado-masochistically addicted to corporal punishment (sadistic ruler-wielding teaching nuns of yore, anyone?) Or, suffering can burrow deep into a person’s psyche and undermine their entire personality, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by veterans and victims of  sustained bullying. It appears, then, it’s not the degree or duration of the suffering that makes it constructive or destructive: rather, it’s more feasible that the constructiveness or destructiveness is a feature of the effects on the sufferer, not of the suffering itself.
 
I think one of the most important reasons that more kinds of suffering is destructive than not it that it tends to  draw people into themselves and away from others. For example, I’ve noticed this in some athletes: as the pain of exertion accompanies the achievement of higher levels of physical fitness, the pain becomes an addiction, an obsession, and the greater the to suffering, the greater the tendency to self-absorption. This may be an explanation for the behavior of athletes who self-destruct with steroids. I’ve also noticed this, as aforementioned, in some whose religious beliefs hold say that suffering is necessary for redemption, and so attempts to avoid it, for oneself or for others, is fruitless or even evil. Martyrdom is, then, a virtuous state of mind and even the ultimate goal. Yet, I think this tendency to lose oneself in these forms of self-absorption, of attitudes of martyrdom and addiction to suffering, can be antithetical to human flourishing, because human beings are intensely social creatures. Now, it’s true that human beings also have an individualistic side. So some level of self-absorption, some level of obsessive and addictive behavior, is not necessarily negative to the human personality taken as a whole, and when balanced against other personalty traits, can be part of an interesting and dynamic personality. They can even be more sensitive and empathetic. This goes for many creative people, political people, and other idealists. (As a working artist and daydreamer myself, and an enthusiastic fan of the arts, I’m intimately familiar with self-absorption: a certain level of it is necessary for the visions to arise, the ideas to take shape, and the drive to realize them.) It’s also a defining characteristic of “drama queens”, who can be exciting people at some level. But, there’s a real danger that this addiction to suffering, when it starts to dominate, can undermine the social instincts and emotions of a healthy personality. Consider highly neurotic people, for example, whose internal suffering can become so all-absorbing that, after a while, they reach a point where they can’t see much else in the world besides it. Also, consider the aforementioned ‘drama queens’ who sometimes become so addicted to conflict and the suffering that accompanies, it that they end up needing to create conflict and ‘drama’ where none exists. In a very real sense, very neurotic people and other suffering addicts can separate themselves from society, since they eventually find it difficult to identify closely with others, and in fact, end up imposing their need for suffering on others.

So it seems to me that, in the end, the healthiest attitude to have toward suffering is that it’s an evil to be mitigated and avoided if possible, and if neither is possible, it’s the ability to endure it and triumph over it that’s desirable, not the suffering itself. It’s true that suffering accompanies and is even an integral element to many worthy endeavors, such as athletic training, and humanitarian efforts that involve placing oneself in the same horrific surroundings as the sufferers. But it’s best seen as a tool and a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s just too easy to allow the high that sometimes accompanies it to become an addiction that can lead from obsession and self-absorption to alienation from others, and, far worse, to a complacent attitude towards the suffering other people. Human beings are most generous, most expansive, most supportive, when free from suffering because they are happy, they are unburdened with personal cares and so are able to look outside of themselves and possess the energy to give of themselves to others. By contrast, people who have a more sacrificial, suffering-infused world outlook don’t, in the end, do so well when it comes to helping others, even if the feeling of sacrificing oneself makes it seem more difficult and therefore more virtuous than helping out of an easy-going feeling of well-being. (Daniel Gilbert’s work provides an excellent explanation of the current research on emotion and how it effects human behavior). The habit of viewing suffering as an evil and not a good does far more, overall, to help human beings flourish as the social creatures we are, In the end, I do think it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.