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We are dependent rational (religious) animals

09.05.06 | 3 Comments

I can’t say enough good things about the just-published article “Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11” by Doug Muder of Free and Responsible Search. My thanks go out to him, Philocrites, and the UU World crew for making it happen.

Doug’s article is a review of recent books by pop secularists Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). He is following up on his UU World article with some more posts on his blog:

I found myself leaving a long comment, so I’ve turned that into a post here.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that we humans are “dependent rational animals.” One reviewer of MacIntyre’s book of the same name (Good review and summary available here.)

If we ignore any of those three key words—dependent, rational, or animal—our understanding of humanity goes askew.

Dennett and Harris (and Richard Dawkins, we could add) ignore at least two of the three. Their individualism—homo economicus, as Doug calls it—imagines humans as hyper-independent billiard balls each trying to find their own way into the pocket—or to keep from falling into it—-a very limited sort of rationality, in either case.

Further, our pop secularists ignore our radical dependence on other humans. For MacIntyre, this is a literal dependence. There is little talk of the likes of our abstract “interdependent web of all existence.” We are, very literally, dependent on others for our own survival from the moment we are born. As we grow, our dependence deepens into the cultural arenas (like language) that are the very basis of our being human. We never escape our dependence, though we learn to more rationally negotiate and contribute to it.

And then there is our animal nature. In Beast and Man Mary Midgley points out the caricature we’ve allowed our view of animals to become. They are not, studies show, “red in tooth and claw.” Violence is only a last resort, and most displays of aggression are merely that—displays. Our ethics would certainly improve if we were more like our animal cousins. “Neither Beasts Without nor Beasts Within are as beastly as they have been painted,” she says.

But our pop secularists prefer a seventeenth-century caricature, all while upbraiding religious folks for being old fashioned. The pop secularists would have us be afraid of our animal nature and urge us to somehow “rise above” it, as though that would be desirable if it were even possible. It is as though we humans are a collection of disembodied brains in a vat, threatened with interference from our discarded bodies as we pursue our atomistic “billiard ball rationality.”

It’s little wonder, then, that the pop secularists, with their caricature of humanity, rely on a caricature of religion. They selectively winnow out of religion everything that does not fit their polemical purposes. There is no room in their view of religion for rational spirituality, for constructive human dependence, for the healthy embrace of human animality.

Our pop secularists leave us only with the Religion of Terrorists and their Petulant Little Sky God. Our pop secularists take a seven-year-old Sunday Schooler’s understanding of god and parade it around in shackles, asking to be treated as public heroes for its capture. “These people! These gods! They’re the bad ones! If only you would all become atheist sociobiologists, human evil would disappear! Now, all of you, quit being so ignorant!”

As Midgley sarcastically notes in Beast and Man, “The solution to the problem of evil is always simple; if you cannot blame the enemy, blame the gods.” Our pop secularists, it would seem, blame everyone but themselves.

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