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Religion in a Dignitarian World

This is the seventeenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


If there is no God, Not everything is permitted to Man. He is still his brother’s keeper And he is not permitted to sadden his brother, By saying that there is no God. –Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel laureate in literature

This century will be defined by a debate that will run through the remainder of its decades: religion versus science. Religion will lose. –John McLaughlin, American talk show host

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. –Meister Eckhart, thirteenth-century German mystic

Religion is at once humanity’s consolation and its divider. As individuals, we turn to religion for solace. The concept of the soul invests our existence with a kind of transcendence and helps us cope with the harsh reality that, as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life is often “nasty, brutish, and short.” The idea of God not only serves as a repository for all we do not yet understand–and there will always be plenty of that–but also provides us with a certain dignity. For that reason alone, religion cannot be omitted in discussing a dignitarian world.

Religion: Dignifier of Humankind

Religions the world over teach the sanctity of human dignity. Theistic religions go further and proclaim the existence of a personal, caring God. Given the supreme importance of dignity and our own spotty record when it comes to according it to each other, it’s the rare person who, when all worldly options seemed exhausted, has not wished for divine intervention. In extremis, even skeptics are apt to question, if not suspend, their disbelief. Under dire circumstances, they, too, are prone to hope, if not pray, for some sort of suprahuman or supernatural source of respect. As the “dignifier of last resort,” God comforts us through all the stages on life’s way.

But despite, or perhaps because of, its place of privilege in the human heart, religion has also been the root of much conflict. It has divided individuals, groups, and entire cultures one from another, and has been invoked as a rationale for violence and war.

These diametrically opposed uses of religion–to confirm the dignity of those who share the faith while sanctioning indignity toward people of a different faith or no faith at all–have led to a polarization of attitudes regarding its role in society. Its potential to trigger debate and sow discord–not only between religion and science but more significantly among the various religions–has a long history that continues into the present. Some observers are even warning that religious conflict may escalate into a “clash of civilizations.”

It is impossible to picture a dignitarian world in which these divisive struggles are not resolved. The model-building perspective illuminates the complementarities of the conservative and progressive positions in politics. On the international front, it suggests a better game than war. How might it help assuage the contentiousness that has for so long been associated with religion?

Religion and Science

In previous chapters I’ve used quotations as pithy summaries of complex ideas. The McLaughlin epigraph at the head of this chapter serves a different purpose. Like much punditry, it’s a provocation. Sorting out what’s right and what’s wrong about the prediction of this onetime Jesuit priest will help us identify the vital role that religion has to play in a dignitarian society.

When religion embraces a particular nature model, it usually does so fixedly. As a consequence, when science moves on to a new model, as it invariably does, religion is left advocating outdated beliefs. That’s the position in which the Catholic Church found itself in 1600 in defending Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of the solar system against the sun-centered Copernican one. It’s the situation in which supporters of creationism–and its offspring, intelligent design–find themselves today.

Religion is not likely to win an argument with contemporary science by championing an earlier science model. Many religious leaders know this and cheerfully cede the business of modeling nature to scientists. Neither they nor the scientists who study these matters, many of whom are themselves people of faith, see any contradiction between the perennial wisdom embodied in the world’s religions and, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the geological theory of plate tectonics, or the Big Bang theory of the cosmos. For example, Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

That any of the scientific theories mentioned just above could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by the scientific world even though, as of today, there is no evidence that contradicts them unambiguously. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Newton’s laws of motion, and quantum theory are, of course, “just theories.”But each of them is an extremely useful and accurate one. Applied within their domains of validity, they all work well. No society can fully avail itself of modern technology without the guidance provided by these models.

As long as religion doesn’t take positions on nature models, it can avoid ending up stranded with a set of obsolete convictions, and find itself defending an old nature model against a new, improved one. If that’s what McLaughlin meant, he’s right, but he isn’t telling us anything Galileo didn’t know.

Religion and Values

Just as religion finds itself challenging science when it identifies with particular nature models, so, too, when it enters the realm of values and politics, must it expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social or political model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because intangible personal preferences play a much larger role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the “facts” cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.

Like nature models, political and social models are shaped by human experience, and as experience accumulates, models by necessity change. Religious models could, in principle, keep pace, but generally they tend to lag behind the emerging social consensus. Why? Because the morals espoused by religion have usually proven their worth over very long periods of time. Hence, the first impulse is to insist that behaviors that contradict these ethical models be forced into conformity with them.

This conservative stance not only avoids risk but also affirms the power of the presiding authorities, just as the church’s opposition to the Copernican model did.

The fact that tradition is often, but not infallibly, right goes to the essence of the eternal wrangling that has long divided empirical and ecclesiastical teachings. Resolving this schism will close an open wound that must be healed in order to firmly ground a dignitarian society. What is now traditional was not always so. To see inherited values as absolute truths handed down from on high fails to recognize that they earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. It’s important to acknowledge that millions of lives were sacrificed to establish the values we now live by. The bloodiest wars, however horrible, often played a part in forging our human identity and its many cultural variations.

In this view the term “moral” does not gain its legitimacy as “received wisdom” set forth in holy writ or passed down from divine to human hands. Rather, it is a prescriptive model based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao-tzu, Mo-tzu, Jesus, Muhammad, Sankara, and others are seen as extraordinarily perceptive philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view (in particular, for discerning behaviors that foster long-term social equilibrium). Then and now, moral precepts can be understood to be grounded in an empirical knowledge of cause and effect.

Take, for example, the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It is not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge murders concluded that “not killing” was the way to avoid deadly multi-generational feuds and that someone–in this case, Moses–enshrined this realization for others and posterity. From a model-building perspective, it’s plausible that all the Ten Commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of a number of people.

Drawing on the oral and written history of past and present generations and bearing close witness to their own psychodynamics, they realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability or group solidarity, leaving oneself or one’s community vulnerable to exploitation and domination. They labeled these practices “immoral,” anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social, and political forces would bring about either their elimination or the decline and disappearance of individuals or groups who countenanced them.

These nuggets of moral genius, and many others of comparable significance, are recorded in the world’s holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the ethical foundation of society. If somehow they were to disappear and we had to start over,we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover them from scratch (think of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies). They are neither arbitrary nor is it mandatory to attribute them to revelation, though one is perfectly free to do so if one wishes.But we may equally suspect they were unearthed in the same way we discover everything else–through an arduous process of inquiry and testing. Having demonstrated their worth, they were then elevated to special status in a process similar to that which results in the formulation and promulgation of scientific models.

Understanding morality as evidence-based amounts to tracing general behavioral guidelines back to a complex set of empirical observations. Once we have done so, a given moral precept can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that lies underneath. The ethical formulations of religion represent an accumulation of such proverbial phrases, which function as reminders and guides. As with all models, these are not infallible. Further scrutiny can lead to their modification. More often, however, additional experience validates them. Exceptions have long been allowed to “Thou shalt not kill”–for example, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the twenty-first century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable and the pressure to eliminate war is mounting. It’s not even out of the question that someday–as we develop alternative sources of protein–we’ll decide that this ancient commandment applies not only to our fellow human beings but to the animal kingdom as well.

Religion is the chief repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, the preeminent teacher of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can stifle progress by strangling in the crib inklings of a better world. While the heavy hand of custom saves us from our worst, it too often seems to keep us from our best.

Together, tradition and precedent, sometimes fortified with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the twentieth-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues like race, gender, marriage, divorce, and sex. Only after decades of debate and strife did new values displace older ones. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying it much attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in much of Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly looked not to their church, synagogue, or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics.

As the distillation of centuries of learning, religion has much to offer the modern world. But when it attaches itself rigidly to certain social or political models it eventually loses relevance in those domains because models of any stripe that are not allowed to evolve are invariably abandoned. To summarize, McLaughlin’s prediction that religion will lose out to science by century’s end is right in the trivial sense–already recognized by many religious leaders–that science typically espouses newer, better nature models than does religion.

Similarly, when religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine–no matter if it’s left or right–it weds itself to the values of a particular time. That is what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked their religious beliefs to further the state’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda. It is what religious supporters of segregation did in the American South. And it is what defenders of genital cutting are doing today. Political models and cultural values are evolving rapidly, and whenever religion aligns itself with partisan social models it can’t expect to retain its hold over the young, on whom the weight of tradition falls far more lightly. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with it when it sinks.

What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about same-sex marriage? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much in the way the disagreements over slavery, and a century later, over segregation,were decided.As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned, and instead, religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.

On the other hand, if either science or politics believes it will succeed in marginalizing religion, it is mistaken. Religion is vulnerable when it encroaches on others’ turf, but not when it sticks to its home ground, which is the self and its transformation.

Religion and the Self

It would be a mistake to conclude that a drop in church attendance means that interest in spiritual matters is diminishing.Despite the public’s lack of fidelity to various nature and social models embraced by religion, it still holds a very special place in a great many hearts. Why is this?

When it comes to knowing the self and mapping its transformations, nothing holds a candle to religious models. The only competitors in the Western canon are to be found in literary classics such as those by Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, and Dostoevsky, whose works serve as handmaidens to the world’s holy books.

Examples of religious insight into the nature of the self and of the creative model-building process can be found in all the religious traditions. I’ll cite just two here, drawn from Christianity and Hinduism, respectively–the doctrines of “resurrection” and “reincarnation.” As applied to the physical body, these tenets are arguable. Nonbelievers reject them outright and even some believers take them metaphorically, not literally. But as applied to the model-building process, they are profound and powerful.

Models must “die to be reborn,” none more dramatically than our self models. We who live by them, identify with them, and sometimes cannot separate our persona from a particular, familiar one, may well experience the disintegration of a self model as a kind of death. The struggle to come to terms with the loss of a partner or child, or with a sudden change in our status or health, can feel like what St. John of the Cross described as a “dark night of the soul.”

From the model-building perspective, resurrection and reincarnation are evocative descriptions of the metamorphoses of identity that most of us experience over the course of a lifetime. Yes, the process occurs within one’s lifetime rather than connecting one life span to another. But where can we find more luminous and consoling guidance for making life’s most hazardous journeys than in the Bible, Talmud, Koran, Upanishads, and Sutras? That the core teachings in these books provide the most accurate guide to inner transformation is the reason they are deemed holy.

During those perilous passages wherein one self dissolves and another crystallizes in its place, we are at maximum vulnerability, like a crab molting its shell. When an old self begins to disappear, our defenses are down, and our dignity at high risk. At times the community we normally depend on to shore up our self-respect, even the fellowship of friends and family, can fail us, and we may find ourselves utterly alone.

When others deny our dignity, religion upholds it. For many, the idea of a personal god assures them that even in the darkest of times, when they may feel bereft of human support, they are valued, respected, and loved. This accounts for the relatively greater commitment to religion among peoples whose survival is precarious as well as for the common phenomenon of conversion during a life crisis.

Granted, individual priests, rabbis, roshis, and mullahs have sometimes failed to respect the dignity of those to whom they minister, adherents to other faiths, or of nonbelievers. But in their essential teachings, every religion testifies to the inviolable, sacred dignity of humankind, at all times and under all circumstances.

Religion is the tool of tools when it comes to becoming a new somebody. It combines art, literature, and theater in the context of communal fellowship to effectively transmit truths about the self and its transformation that are vital to maintaining our balance and creativity. No other body of knowledge offers more relevant and resonant teachings on what is one of humanity’s most precious faculties–the intimate, intricate process of building models of ourselves. For this reason, the role of religion in a dignitarian culture is secure.

The Eye of God

Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and soon found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I spy on the cosmos.

On cold winter nights I sometimes imagine that I’ve drifted out the aperture and am floating in the near-absolute zero temperatures of empty space. In that subarctic infinitude, the earth is an igloo and we are all Eskimos. If other beings exist, we seem beyond their reach and they beyond ours. In any case, my thoughts go not to aliens but to the stars and the lifeless emptiness holding them.

Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anyone out there care?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. The universe seems uncaring, the cosmic indifference of infinite space a blow to my dignity.

But then the old saying that “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does indeed have a heart–in fact, it has lots of them. They are beating in our breasts.

Any inventory of the cosmos that omits human beings is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument of self-understanding and empathy. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If we believe the universe is heartless, it’s because we do not love.

But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between that time and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for Homo sapiens. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated model-building skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes–those of our own making as well as hurtling asteroids with our names on them.

The passage to a dignitarian world will take time, and it will not always be smooth. We have yet to lift a billion people out of poverty, social injustices still abound, and each year millions of children die from malnutrition and preventable diseases. But despair is unwarranted.

The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart–our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and model builders, the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

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Robert W Fuller

Robert W Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of "Somebodies & Nobodies", the book that identified the malady of rankism and "All Rise", which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it. His most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship" and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".