Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Conceding Authority, Part 1

Romney's concession speech last night was pretty classy, especially as compared to the rest of his campaign.  I don't like the man much, and I certainly don't have much use for high muckity-muck religious elders that just seem to expect subservience as the natural order of things.  My feelings about him personally aside, what stood out to me as he spoke was this bit:

We look to our teachers and professors, we count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery. We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counselors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built: honesty, charity, integrity and family. We look to our parents, for in the final analysis everything depends on the success of our homes. We look to job creators of all kinds. We’re counting on you to invest, to hire, to step forward. And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.

While I note at least 3 problematic elements, notice what the thrust is of the entire paragraph:  a big, sloppy kiss to authoritarianism in all it's civic forms.  Which is interesting, but not the focus of what I want to talk about today, other than to say it's fascinating that he assumes the strength in our future lies not with us and our choices individually, but in the mid-level authority figures (pastors, priests, teachers, parents and bosses) between us and God making the rest of us better.  The job creators line is also spectacularly amusing, but again not my focus today, except to say it's really amusing to frame this topic entirely in terms of the benevolent authority of job creators, and never mention other vital elements to job creation like, oh say, demand from middle class consumers.

The part I marked in bold is the bit that jumped out at me.  Initially, I thought he was ceding morality entirely to religion, but noticed later he had thrown in "counselors of all kinds" as a sort of catch-all.  But, as this is one of my pet topics, the language still kind of bothered me.  In my experience, at least in the Adventist church, churches do indeed believe that all moral authority stems directly from God him(her/it)self.  That all of us, as beings, are naturally fallen, and require divine intervention to be good.    It naturally follows that the elders, pastors and ministers of a church having presumably studied God's words closely, are best suited to guide you, the lowly individual, in learning how to connect with God more completely and let the goodness flow.  This is why they consider it imperative to convert the non-believers to the fold.  You can't be good without God, you see, therefore you cannot be good without THEM to tell you how to be good.  In some cases, they will graciously concede that the elders of other religions (the imams, the buddhist monks, the popes), all have some connection to God, however imperfect their particular conception of God may be.  Therefore other religious elders can assumed to still be guzzling the good from the gourd of God to one degree or another.  I'm aware that not all Christians think this way, but in Adventism at least, it's a core belief.

I view this entire philosophy as highly problematic for a variety of reasons I have discussed and will discuss another time, but the specific problem with relation to civic authority leaders, is there are many millions of people (19.6% of the country as of 2012) that identify as non-religious.  This seems problematic for a religious community intent on involving itself in politics.  How do you come together and find common ground with people you think are unwitting agents of satan, or morally unguided at best?  Granted, they won't always say this to your face, and guys like Romney dance around it from a political point of view, but having sat in church pews for many years and listening two years of evangelical political rhetoric, I can guarantee that there are a lot of christians out there who think just that.  So the question of "how do Christians relate to 'the fallen', when converting them outright is off the table?" seems interesting to me, but is also not really what I want to focus on.  I have no vested interest in how Christians reconcile this, except to hope that they would follow some of their humbler, quieter, wiser congregations in remembering that if, according to their theology, everyone is sinning and falling short of perfection, including themselves!, then they don't have much justification for a high horse built out of church pews.

The question that DOES interest me, is how is the secular community going to respond to this assertion of de facto moral authority by the religious types?  I honestly don't know, because while I've completely abandoned the idea that I need to submit to religious authority or beg a god for goodness, I haven't considered myself part of the secular community very long, and I'm not sure what particular handy book I would point someone to to assure them that I do indeed have a moral compass.  I am clearly a secular humanist at this point, which was not something I chose, just something I discovered describes my moral views nearly exactly.  But even among the 20% of the non-religious, I'm not sure even a majority of them would describe themselves as secular humanist, whether they fit the definition or not.  My point being, as a Christian, you can point to the Bible as the source of your morality, a book that has been invested with authority, if not by God, then by tradition and endless affirmation of millions and billions of people for 2000 years that it is, indeed, authoritative.  Which is to say, independent of its actual authority, a thing can be seen to be authoritative if enough people assert it is so, for a long enough period of time. And the secular, humanist or otherwise, don't have a similarly revered book to point to.  Indeed, the point of secular humanism is that having a moral compass does not require an authority of any sort to compel their goodness.

So what, then, is the secular answer to "why am I good?"  What can they say that would reassure a christian of any sort, that just because they don't believe in God, it does not mean they are 5 seconds away from stabbing the god-fearing at any given moment?  It seems obvious to me that one doesn't need to fear the gods to see the benefits of being good, to value it as a philosophy, to have a set of principles and then follow them.  But this is a lengthy conversation to have with every single believer I come across.  In the same way it becomes exhausting to re-assure every old friend that I am still an okay person, even though I'm gay, it's exhausting to explain to a whole bunch of people that I'm still good, even though I don't claim religion anymore.  For me, for now, I think the answer is going to simply be, "I'm a secular humanist" and leave it to them to look up exactly what that means.  Of course, I have heard secular humanists defined as some of the modern, deceptive agents of Satan in my time at church, so I'm not sure if that isn't just the start of a whole new exhausting conversation, but at least it's a start.

  So, while I clearly don't know what the exact answer his, I do have a couple of assertions I draw from all of this.  It's vital that certain massive segments of christianity learn to accept that the non-religious have a moral compass and values that have elements in common with Christianity.  More importantly, it's vital that the non-religious refuse to cede moral authority to the churches.  How specifically they go about doing this and how much work it might take, I'm not sure, but we HAVE to stop letting religions get away with saying they are the gatekeepers of morality, when we know that isn't true.  I think we have the edge philosophically, but this does us no good when they have such a huge edge organizationally.  I think as more and more people identify as non-religious, this will happen anyway, someone will eventually write an accessible humanist "bible" or start a non-religious community that people find appealing.  But I wish we'd get started sooner, rather than later.  I think we'll all be a little saner if we can agree that, religious or not, we have a lot in common in terms of moral philosophy.

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