Welcome to the new Ordinary Philosophy!

Ordinary Philosophy, Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655, assemblage by Amy Cools 2015Greetings to all,

On this New Year’s Day, which also happens to be my birthday and therefore, personally, doubly a day of new beginnings, I’m looking forward to a more expansive, more energetic future for Ordinary Philosophy!

What is Ordinary Philosophy?

It’s a series of explorations founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so. A citizen philosopher myself, I found that my experiences as an avid reader, an artist, a working person, an entrepreneur, a student, and a writer filled my mind constantly with questions and new ideas, spurring me ever on in the search for answers. As I’ve always been a restless and hungry thinker, I fell in love with philosophy, especially, practical philosophy and the history of ideas.

What is Ordinary Philosophy’s mission?

It’s always been to share this love of philosophy and the history of ideas with you. In my explorations, I’ve encountered the most fascinating, innovative, and beautiful ideas from the curious, thoughtful, questing, and inventive world out there, from academic philosophy to science to history to current events to politics to the arts and so, so much more; so much more, in fact, that I can’t possibly process it all on my own.

So here at O.P.’s new home, I’ve broadened the mission.

While there have been occasional guest posts, there will be much more of an emphasis on providing a forum for many more voices at O.P., representing views from all walks of life. O.P. will also publish many more reviews, recommendations, and links directing readers to the great ideas proliferating out there that may be of special interest to O.P.’s audience.

The Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series will also expand. Each series will become more in-depth, with more detailed explorations of the life and ideas of each subject and more resources for further exploration and study. The podcast will expand in tandem: new audio recordings of longer pieces published in O.P. for those of you on the go who enjoy the ideas found here but don’t always have the time to sit down and read. As time goes by, I plan to expand the podcast as well to include interviews and a series of downloadable travel guides to accompany the History of Ideas series.

To better accomplish this expanded mission, I’ve moved O.P. here to its new platform: easier to read, use, and share. So if you love great ideas and the pieces you encounter here, please support O.P.’s expanded mission by sharing as widely as you can.

Lastly, dear readers, I appeal to you: Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love, and depends entirely on your support. I’m determined to keep O.P. ad-free, but can’t do it without you. All financial contributions will be credited by name (unless anonymity is expressly preferred, of course!) on each project funded by their donations, and welcomed with deepest gratitude. Please support Ordinary Philosophy today!

Yours,

Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably accept paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, nearly choiceless life most women were required to live. However, now that women’s basic moral right to self-determination has become so widely established, most have come to consider a domestic-centric life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill-equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated the latter with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they choose.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is women’s education. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they also need education in order to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she wrote, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a quality, well-rounded education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who was also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She identified herself with the more moderate Girondin political persuasion throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up ultimately succeeding in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually primarily a man of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who frequently failed to keep his word. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in that institution, though they found it expedient at times to pass themselves off as husband and wife. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror, in its most insular stage, were executing many expatriate Britons; Americans, however, were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was considered American as well. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her slowly, in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while struggling to get by as a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was during this period she twice attempted suicide.

Her eventual husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. In Godwin, Wollstonecraft finally found the lasting sort of love she had been looking for. Their attraction was initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right that she was a champion of reason, and I would add, of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974

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/

The Value of a Liberal Education, and Two Risks of an Ideologically Narrow One

I grew up in a large, pretty close-knit extended family. There was a lot of dysfunction, as with many families, but a lot of love too. While I was often frustrated by the choices of some relatives (such as the tendency to enable bad behavior by sheltering the ‘sinner’ from consequences, or pretending it wasn’t happening), I was also secure in the knowledge that I belonged to a large, loving circle of people who would never abandon each other.

We were also a very insular family. We mostly hung out with each other and a few close family friends, pretty much all from church and pretty much all holding similar beliefs. Many of us kids, especially the older ones, had little contact with people outside of family and church. Many of us were (and some still are) home-schooled with a very conservative, fundamentalist Catholic curriculum, and many others attended all or mostly religious schools.

Given the state of much of the public school system, at least in the working class neighborhoods where many of us grew up, a part of me sympathizes with this choice. American public schools often leave much to be desired, to say the least. Since we have such a rotten system in America of funding public schools, with funding determined by the local tax base, we create a classist school system where the kids who need the most help don’t get the funding. So much for the non-aristocratic, egalitarian, freedom-of-opportunity ideal of America! But I digress…

But it seemed that the choice to limit our schooling to a strict Catholicism-centric education was usually based less on the concern with education quality as on a concern with raising children to replicate their parent’s beliefs and lifestyles. This makes sense in a certain way: parents want what’s best for their children, and people generally believe their own beliefs are the best, so, it’s logical parents want their children to believe and live as the parents see fit.

But here’s the way in which that doesn’t make sense: children are not replicants of their parents. They have their own thoughts, their own personalities, and their own sets of experiences. The world is full of different beliefs systems and lifestyles, often incompatible with those of the parents, that fulfill people, that suit them and make them happy. Every child, however they were raised, will inevitably confront that fact, and in today’s world of rapid, comprehensive access to data from all over the world, it will not take long.

Many parents recognize these facts, and are comfortable raising their children in a cosmopolitan fashion.

They want to equip their children with all the information they might require to navigate the world successfully in any community they may end up being a part of. To this end, they want children to truly understand not only their own beliefs, but the beliefs of others. While these parents may explain to their children why they think their own beliefs are better, they know that understanding the alternatives strengthens their capacity for critical thought. These patents also understand that their children should be comfortable interacting with people who believe and behave differently than they do, and familiarity with other faiths and cultures is the best way to accomplish this. Last but not least, these parents have the epistemic humility to admit that there’s a possibility that they are wrong, and they want to afford their children the opportunity to discover for themselves if that’s the case.

Such wise parents would agree, as I do, with Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who promotes the idea that a study of world religions should be a basic part of childhood education. Since religion is so central to both private and public life for most inhabitants of the world, he argues, children require this information to be wise and informed citizens. I think the same applies to science, politics, history, literature, and other disciplines relating to how people go about sharing, navigating, and understanding this world together.

For those parents who insist on providing an ideologically narrow education for their children, I’d ask them to consider this questions: when children grow up and confront different beliefs, customs, and lifestyles for the first time, as they inevitably will, what happens? What happens, for example, to the child of Biblical fundamentalists who finds out that almost all scientists, besides the half-dozen quoted in their textbooks, believe the Earth is billions of years old? Or that prayer doesn’t, statistically, prove to be effective in healing people? Or that people of other belief systems often live as harmonious, happy, fulfilled, ‘blessed’ lives as they do? Or even better? What happens to the barely educated woman, married off in her early teens and taught to be submissive to her husband, when she discovers that other women have the opportunity enjoy a rich intellectual life, a successful career, or a partnership with a spouse that respects her as an independent person?
For some children educated in this narrow way, whether their parents’ intentions were benign or otherwise, they will mostly reject alternative beliefs and ideas they come across out of hand. (‘That can’t be true, Dad would never lie to me.’ ‘I feel deep in my heart I know the truth, so I don’t need to question it.’ ‘Those poor Buddhists, they didn’t learn about Jesus. When they do, then they’ll truly be happy.’ ‘That’s the Devil talking, better not listen or I’ll be tortured in hell.’ ‘Liberals don’t believe in anything, but I do, so they must not have anything of value to say.’ ‘Environmentalists should just trust God instead of the government to protect the earth.’) They will grow up to more or less replicate the lives of their parents, happy in the security of knowing that they know the truth, what life’s really all about.
Others (I think very much a minority, but some) will thoroughly question the beliefs they were raised with in light of new ideas they’ve confronted, and in the end retain their parents’ beliefs because, to them, those beliefs ‘held up’ to the scrutiny. They might make some modifications here and there, but overall, stay convinced. These few are among the happiest of people, even happier than the unquestioning believers, I think, because they enjoy not only a sense of security in their beliefs, but intellectual satisfaction.

Still others will end up with a smorgasbord of beliefs, considering some sacred and unquestionable, discarding others, and adopting new ones. (Conservative Catholics derisively call others ‘cafeteria Catholics’ for engaging in this sort of picking and choosing.)

Many more will engage in ‘doublethink’, holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. To take another example from the religion of my childhood, one might believe that it’s ‘spiritually true’ that the body and blood of Jesus is present in the eucharistic wafer, but also believe it’s scientifically impossible for a thing to have all the qualities of bread while simultaneously being composed of human tissue. (The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, how pervasive it is and the ways we deal with it, is discussed thoroughly and fascinatingly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I highly, highly recommend it.)

But there are two big risks for the hopeful yet, I think, misguided parents who seeks to shelter their children from knowledge that could contradict their own cherished beliefs. And I think parents would do well to consider these risks carefully before embarking on this project of transforming education into something more akin to indoctrination.
Risk #1: Your children might grow up to challenge you on your perceived deception. They will ask: What did you have to hide? Why did you feel you had to shelter me from thinking through these matters in an informed way? If what you taught me was really, evidently true, than why did you go to such lengths to keep me from learning about opposing ideas? And why would you undermine my ability to defend the beliefs you wanted to pass on, by keeping me ignorant of the challenges to those beliefs?
I went through that process myself, resenting my education which as narrow and limited until I took it into my own hands and chose a public college rather then the very conservative one my family would choose for me. Initially, I questioned the motives of my family, and was very angry that I was years behind in many subjects, especially science and history. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it was their tactics, not their motivations, that were at fault. But the damage had been done.

Risk #2: But by fair the largest danger is raising children with the potential to be bigots, even violent ones. While most children brought up to strictly conform to the beliefs of their parents will not turn out that way, of course, too many do. Consider this: what inspires oppression, warfare, and terrorists attacks? They come from the ideologically ‘pure’, from those who think it’s their job to make sure the world conforms to their ideology, from religious dogmatism to racial ideology to political utopianism. And the more isolated people are in their minds from the ideas and beliefs of others, the more sure, the more committed they are, that they are right, so everyone else must be wrong. And if others are wrong, if they are different, they are the enemy.

Since people are rarely convinced to convert to a whole new set of beliefs overnight, the ideologue often resorts to violence as a means of forcibly imposing those beliefs. Ironically, violence, though a popular tool
throughout history for trying to impose change, it’s the least effective, as psychologist Steven Pinker and other researchers reveal. To this day, religiously and politically motivated terror attacks and assassinations continue to make headlines.

Yet despite this, things on that front are getting better all the time. I recently heard Pete Seeger say, pertaining to the environment, that the world will be saved by people working in their communities. I think the world will also be saved by children who grow up in this new era where information about the world is not so easily hidden from them. Despite some parent’s best efforts, children can no longer so easily be sheltered in little bubbles of idealized ignorance, sentimentally dubbed ‘innocence’. Since information flows so freely, children now grow up exposed to media that brings others’ experiences so vividly to life, and are now more comfortable in the presence of people who look and think differently then they do. Familiarity with ‘others’ humanizes them, and communities will come to be determined mostly by shared interests, not by geographic location or ideological isolationism.

So parents, teach your children not only how to be good people, but to be informed citizens of the world. It will be a safer and more wondrous place for them and their progeny, and I bet they’ll thank you for it.