Copyright 2001 by Jeffrey Stueber, all rights reserved
The best place to start a review of Dolan' book is the Hindu poem he mentions to land a severe blow to religion. In the poem, six blind men went to see (well, not really see) an elephant. Hoping to find the elephant's true shape, they felt it and, to no surprise, each discovered he had a different opinion of what the elephant was like. One, upon feeling the elephant's tail, thought the elephant was like a rope. Another, feeling the elephant's side, thought it was a wall. On and on it went, none knowing the elephant's true shape. Dolan uses this poem to explain the religious never saw, or see, the substance of what they believe in and so they, as a blind man, feel about with futility, making dogma as they go.
Upon reading this book, I am left with the impression religion is that great elephant and this time it is Dolan who is the blind man feeling about trying to discover religion's true shape. As he feels about, he thinks the elephant of religion is dominated by blind faith, intolerance, ambivalence to reason, extreme asceticism paying no attention to fun desires, missionary zeal directed at those who have little need to change their faith, and the opinion religion actually makes a difference in how moral a person is. It would seem Dolan feels religion is of little importance and, even though he stresses skepticism of religious claims in a disclaimer on the back of the book, he doesn't have much hope for those religions that have already risen.
Well, a scathing critique of religion deserves an equally scathing reply. This is not to say Dolan has nothing important to contribute. Who can doubt there are instances of blind faith, lack of reason, and intolerance in religion - not to mention the bigotry inherent in the false Christianity of the KKK. I simply can't dismiss Dolan's story of an evangelist in Ecuador who gave Dolan the answer "God did it" to Dolan's question of why that country has not progressed as fast as the United States. This sort of mechanization attributed to divine/human interaction makes me cringe as much as it does Dolan.
Now we proceed to the subject of how Dolan sees part of the elephant and thinks the elephant is whatever he sees. On the issue of morality, Dolan states there is no necessary correlation between the morality of the religious and the morality of the irreligious. Nobody can doubt there are instances of atheists outperforming Christians as far as proper morality and frequently I am reminded of the atheist who treats others well because he feels this life is all there is and therefore one ought to do good to make this life more enjoyable. Yet, this is only one side of the elephant. Dolan should be looking at other sides of his subject for research, and if he did he would have discovered a vast gulf between the morality of the religious and the irreligious.
I can start with my own life. When I was dating, I avoided sex with my girlfriend, now my wife, mostly because of my religious upbringing. It was simply something that was not to be done. That was that. It may be granted that I am, perhaps, more disciplined in my behavior than others, but this does nothing to spoil the fact that my sexual behavior was modified by me because of my religious beliefs. My wife, who was more an agnostic than Christian, was less tempered in her sexual attitudes before we married as were her agnostic friends, and so I obviously have good reason to conclude religion has a great deal of influence on behavior.
Of course I would not be as bold to suggest I am the sole template by which conservatives or Christians are measured regarding moral behavior. Nor do I suggest Dolan should have spoken to me before writing his book. I therefore cite others, starting with no better subject than the Pope. A few may be aware of the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI which loudly condemned casual sex and abortion. Harold Brown remarks "the Pope threw a bomb . . . to social engineers of Planned Parenthood and the hedonistic practitioners of the Playboy philosophy. Humanae Vitae reiterated the traditional Roman Catholic (and general Christian) conviction that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage and that artificial means must not be used to prevent conception." (1) The Pope's fear is that contraception, by separating the sexual act from procreation, makes sex recreational and thus divorces it from its natural function. This was in 1968 and only a few years later Jack Wyrtzen, host of radio and television ministry shows, published an opus which condemned premarital sex and issued a stern rebuke.
The world talks about free-love . . . about freedom to use profane and vulgar language . . . about the freedom for a boy and a girl to enter into a relationship in the back seat of a car. That's not free love, that's fornication! Free love is not free. The price in ruined lives is high. It is not love. Love cares for the well-being of the one loved. Free love is lust and all it can lead to is bondage, not freedom. (2)
Wyrtzen reproduces a letter by an 18-year-old who began a promiscuous life of fornication at 14 and is now a married man's mistress. She seeks forgiveness in the presence of a fear of telling her pastor. What's to be learned from reading Pope Paul and Wyrtzen is the extent that their attitudes toward sex, abortion, and contraception flow naturally from their belief system. To them, it's quite natural to suppose sex is for the purpose of reproduction and enjoyment in marriage just as it is second nature for the humanists Wyrtzen quotes to believe sex is recreational. The Pope's attitudes toward sex and contraception have been criticized among conservatives, but his overall conservatism toward sex falls in line with that of his intellectual kin.
On the flip side of this attitude toward sex and abortion exists humanists who have quite a different story to tell. In the sixth affirmation of Humanist Manifesto II, they write "in the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized. . . . Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their life-styles as they desire." (3) There's a range of differences between the conservative and humanist views and one should know these sexually-accommodating views in Humanist Manifesto II are not an isolated occurrence but part of a pervasive libertarian view. Guenter Lewy, who has studied many humanist writings, issues this summary judgement:
Critics from the ranks of the religious right have accused secular humanists of subscribing to all kinds of immorality that threaten the moral health of the country. In his book Listen, America! Jerry Falwell decries secular humanists' embrace of situation ethics, which, he says, means "freedom from any restraint." Such criticisms are often couched in somewhat shrill language, but an examination of the literature published by the secular humanist movement reveals that these denunciations are not very far off the mark. The authors of articles in The Humanist and Free Inquiry clearly speak only for themselves; there is no official secular humanist doctrine. Nevertheless, the frequency with which certain positions are voiced in these journals indicates that the editors do not consider these positions to be unacceptable. They reflect what Humanist Manifesto II called toleration of different lifestyles. (4)
Lewy goes on to say that occasionally a humanist will voice some mild disagreement with the "movement's dedication to individual fulfillment." Overall, as Lewy says, the majority of humanist articles "expound the superiority of self-gratification and accept the motto `if it feels good, do it.'" (5) Humanist attitudes toward sex flow naturally from their philosophy and bias as do the feelings of the two Christians I previously cited. It's true religions have had large effects on sexual activity, as in the ascetics of Buddhism or the mystical emphasis on sex in the Indian religions. (6) Elizabeth Draper has correctly stated
There can be little doubt that religion is one of the most important forces controlling the urge towards physical union and the use of birth control. It is a slow, but powerful, mover, seeking not only to influence the present, but to explain and to insure for the hereafter, transforming the burdens of this life into paving stones to eventual rewards, but changing the rewards into increased burdens to be suffered even in perpetuity if those in life are not adequately supported. . . . Hope, solace, a purpose, and a way of life have been the great gifts of religion. Fear, retribution, and man's need to belong have been its weapon. (7)
There are numerous examples I could bring up which demonstrate how philosophy influences one's morality. There is a difference in conservative and liberal positions on sexual ethics, something known by liberals, and that is why they oppose conservatives on so many social issues. They oppose conservative parents when they object to the sexually explicit books on school libraries. (Liberals call such objections "censorship.") Conservatives certainly protest when tax money goes to fund art which they find offensive while liberals tend to find such art worthwhile. The debate between Edwin Meese and Nadine Strossen demonstrates the conservative tendency toward censorship to small degrees while Strossen demonstrates the opposite tendency. (8) Certainly reliance on condoms betray the liberal tendency to seek "band-aid" approaches while eschewing abstinence while conservatives see abstinence as the first course to follow to prevent sexual disease and pregnancy. I could go on, but the point is clear. There are differences.
Of course the obvious question is how I might explain those Christians who don't take chastity to the extremes the Pope and Wyrtzen do. I think what may explain what is going on is my supposition that the moderately or liberally religious may find many of the religious tenets (no sex outside of marriage, and so forth) uninviting and not worth heeding although they may accept broad tenets (god exists, and so forth). Believers that think more deeply about their faith, especially theologians and philosophers who get routinely published, probably take what they believe more seriously because they spend more time thinking about it. I also accept an explanation brought forth by Lewy who says what makes a difference is the moral or immoral environment one occupies. This would explain why atheists and Christians can both agree murder is wrong because of the net effect of murder but disagree on sexual practices. Since our secularized culture has a liberal attitude toward sex, liberalized Christians will look with disfavor toward murder but favor toward premarital sex and adultery because, frankly speaking, it's sometimes easy to do.
Of course the critic of my position will ask, "What about murder?" Are there no differences between the religious or irreligious as far as a view of the right to life? Obviously many Americans, atheist or Christian, condemn murder, but this is not to say there are no differences between the two as far as beginning-of-life or end-of-life decisions. I won't even bother ruminating on the obvious differences between theist and atheist as far as abortion, but will instead focus on findings about Hollanders attitudes toward end-of-life decisions. I found out that euthanasia has gained acceptance in Holland to the point some who do not and have not given their consent to be euthanized are put to death. Herbert Hendin and Wesley Smith give the same reasons for the growth of euthanasia: an overtly secular culture with doctors who favor euthanasia and with those who don't favor it but are afraid to criticize other practitioners. Hendin says, "Dutch physicians are . . . comfortable believing that all opposition to euthanasia is religious in nature," while Wesley Smith remarks, "Many Dutch accept euthanasia so as not to be perceived as overly religious." The Dutch pride themselves on being nonjudgemental and believe they are above having a society that could degrade into one with innocent people being killed. (Proponents of euthanasia call putting others to death "conduct to end life" or something similar.) It is true that a major segment of our population is religious in nature and its objections originate on religious grounds but, as Wesley Smith shows, not all objections are religious and from the religious. This will not dissuade people from linking objections to euthanasia with religion and further send us down the slippery slope of death. Hendin sees the growing euthanasia movement as a symptom of a growing narcissistic culture that values the self above society. (9) Ironically, so does humanism, per Lewy's critique.
Conservatives are right to worry about the problems these ideas create, yet the debate continues to be characterized as a battle between religion and free choice. which indicates humanists know well that religious beliefs make a difference. Take the debate in Oregon over a right-to-die movement that favors doctor-assisted suicide. An ad backed by the right-to-die side says, among other things, "They want to impose their views on the rest of us." A tag line on the ad reads: "Paid for by Don't Let Them Shove Their Religion Down Your Throat Committee." The "They" referred to in the ad are those who are against allowing assisted-suicide in that state, especially the Roman Catholic Church which spent about $2.3 million to help repeal a law allowing assisted-suicide. (10) The religious object to euthanasia and assisted suicide because, I would surmise, the timing of death is not of one's choosing or life is too sacred to urge, or coerce, one to cease living. Liberals see the right to end life as a issue of "rights" where the necessary push is needed to make them choose (that is, exercise their "right") such options as euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Dolan is likewise one-sided in his discussion of faith.
Faith, as the theologians and other mystics use the term, is the capacity to accept as "true" declarations that have no predictive content. It is their way of asking us to believe something for no other reason than because they say it is so, not because there has ever been the slightest evidence to demonstrate that it is so.
Who can disagree that there have been those who believed out of blind faith without asking the hard question, "How can I know what I believe is true?" Dolan has more in mind than blindly taking someone's word when he refers to believing just because someone says it is so. We take the word of scientists all the time when referring to their works when we produce commentary. Dolan has in mind people who do not frame their belief systems or world views in a way as to test whether they are true and no counter arguments or counter evidence can count against them. I think here the Judeo-Christian world view does well although few Christians may be able to say how. The atheistic world view adopts the following propositions: life originated by chance; miracles cannot happen; miracles never happened; there are no central religious truth claims that are true: there is no heaven or Nirvana or reincarnation (and so forth). The Judeo-Christian world view states as its claims that life could not originate by chance, that miracles can and did happen, that Jesus or God did act in the course of history, and so forth. These are testable assumptions which can be debated and have been. Religious tenets set up a series of propositions that would be true if the world view were true and are different than atheists' propositions, but propositions nevertheless.
When discussing reason, which Dolan defines as "the thinking power of the intellect by which we seek truth and knowledge," Dolan quotes Luther as saying it [reason] is the friend of the Devil and later states "our orthodox religions" depend on perpetuating a state of affairs where members do not use their faculties of reason. Rather, these religions encourage their members to follow along blindly. Certainly there are members who don't use their mental faculties (I have met numerous ones) but this is not to say this attitude dominates religious belief. We have, for instance, Tom Snyder refuting the theology of New Ager Joseph Campbell by applying logic and reason to Campbell's theology. (11)
James Sire has also used logic to refute the philosophy of the New Age movement, naturalism, and so forth. (12) Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas and Hans Kung have also written a great deal on the philosophical issues of Christian belief and disbelief, as have many of the philosophers who contribute to the Christian forums on the internet.
Dolan's feelings for how religionists use reason mirror his ideas about how they deal with science.
The prepossessions of the religionist, on the other hand, impose no restraints on him, no necessity to prove his doctrines and dogmas - and instead dispose him to defend his pronouncements blindly against all opposition. The good scientist will suspend judgement until his theories are supported by well-founded facts. The religionist has been trained to believe that it is perfectly natural to make judgements without the slightest need for facts.
Dolan's caricature of scientists is obviously utopian. Granted, science proceeds by making predictions and testing them or making predictions about a paradigm and testing existing reality to see whether it fits into the paradigm. To see reality as a dichotomy between religionists and scientists is to terribly skew reality. I don't need to lecture anyone how often scientists and science, because of philosophical motives, have defended poor theories born of poor facts. I think Dolan needs to see reality as an enterprise both the religious and nonreligious engage in successfully, at times, and sometimes not so successfully. He also needs to see religion as a set of differing paradigms that contradict each other but can be mapped onto reality. Religionists don't believe without evidence although at times some do believe without evidence. In general, religionists tell stories they believe history, philosophy, and science can be mapped onto to give a coherent picture of reality. In this way they create testable theories because one can test reality to see if it can be mapped onto their religious beliefs.
This is the one-sided commentary running all through Dolan's book which makes his criticisms applicable to only a select few of the religious. Dolan probably finds his elephant distasteful, but that is a commentary on what part of the elephant he looks at. He may not be physically blind, just intellectually blind, and this may characterize others like him who purport to be objective in their analysis of religion and its impact on society. Perhaps if he could widen his view, he might find the elephant welling up with more interesting features than he could ever realize.
1. First Things, (Dec. 1998)
2. Jack Wyrtzen, Sex is Not Sinful?, 1970, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, p. 23
3. Paul Kurtz ed., Humanist Manifestos I and II, 1973, Prometheus Books
4. Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and Its Discontents, 1996, William Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, p. 31-32
5. Ibid, p. 35
6. Geoffrey Parrinder, Sexual Morality in the World's Religions, 1980, 1996, Oneworld Pub., England
7. Elizabeth Draper, Birth Control in the Modern World, 1965, Pelican Books: England, p. 143
8. See my review at www.globaldialog.com/~jstueber/aclu.htm
9. Wesley, Smith, Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder, Random House: New York; Herbert Hendin, Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and the Dutch Cure, 1997, Norton: New York, NY
10. Art Levine, "In Oregon, a political campaign to die for," U.S. News & World Report," (November 10, 1997)
11. Tom Snyder, Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age, 1995, Baker House Books: Grand Rapids, MI
12. James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 1988, Intervarsity Press: Downer's Grove, IL