The Ecumenical Experiment
Our tolerance of religion simply prolongs the agony of an ethical system in crisis and conflict. “Ecumenicalism”, the noted Catholic theologian Dr. Hans Kung states, “is based in a critical attitude about one’s own religious tradition, but also a steadfastness of belief that one’s own religion is the true religion”. This concept is to theocratic survival what Mutually Assured Destruction was to national survival. Instead of attempting to resolve our differences and move forward together, it postulates the formalization of a permanent state of conflict, distrust and enmity which must be tolerated…. because open warfare is worse. Of course it is no surprise that religion doesn’t suggest or act on the obvious solution… redefine ethics in non-theocratic terms. This crisis of ethics, which grows ultimately out of the failure of religious intolerance and now the failure of religious tolerance, gives rise to conflicts like the situation in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that the Jewish Palestinian conflict is now seen in terms of the conflict without a solution… because, like ecumenicalism, it postulates the formalization of contradictory and mutually incompatible realities.
While quantum physics postulates much the same type of simultaneously occurring contradiction, in human affairs it doesn’t work so well, and any good 9th to 18th century leader knew this all too well. But in 1776 there was lots of free space in this new place called America, and coming from centuries of intolerant religious madness in Europe,… tolerance seemed like the only way to a create a peaceful society. From then to now, the world has shrunk, and the temporary convenience of condoning mutually unacceptable and contradictory dogma, even with the introduction of modern ecumenicalism, stretches tolerance and reason past the breaking point.
In their hearts, the Baptist /Moslem /Jew /Catholic/ Mormon /Hindi really believes the others are all pagans and that they alone are right. Period. Religious leaders of the 18th century turned to religious tolerance not because they wanted to… but as usual, because they had to. It is nothing less than what they clearly saw it as… a dilution of their power, and it was not given up easily. And if they in their hearts don’t accept nor tolerate others, why should they be tolerated? This reality is seen in world and national events daily.
By definition, no resolution to the conflict between the competing religions is intended to ever come from the practice of ecumenism. It attempts to treat the symptom of strife, not the disease of inherent contradiction…. and no amount of wax on the hood has ever made a motor run better. Not only is it a defeatist theory that religions had to accept in order to survive, in its earliest incarnation, before “modern” inter-faith ecumenism gained “politically correct” status, it was just the opposite! It was an effort to consolidate power between like groups and gain market share… not an effort to foster understanding and respect among conflictive, contradictory religious faiths. It was an effort by the Christian churches to overlook their small differences and join in a common front the better to face the religious competition.
Because the roots of ecumenicalism are planted in deeply cynical soil, the tree and the fruits of ecumenism are tainted… and it is for these reasons that we can no longer tolerate tolerance of religious belief. It is an attempt to construct a peace where embedded conflict remains, a guardian of the status quo until one side or another gains the upper hand and declares victory. While we espouse “tolerance” of one another’s beliefs, we continue to preach, teach and spread the divisive poison of us versus them… the Middle East being just the most topical example.
So now, today in 2008…what has changed? Why would I argue the seemingly preposterous… that we can no longer tolerate tolerance of religion? How can this possibly be a step forward? Why was tolerance a very good idea in 1776, but a very bad one today? What has changed now is quite simply…. everything. Everything we now understand that we didn’t understand before. Everything we know now that we didn’t know before. Everything we can do now that we couldn’t do before. Every answer we have now that we didn’t have before. Every question we can ask now that we couldn’t have asked before.
What has changed is simply this: for the first time in our 500,000 year human history, we no longer have to be believe…. for we now can either a) know, or b) know what we don’t know. To paraphrase Hawking: “We’re working on it”. If in fact the reason for the creation of the major religions was to provide answers and control for growing and unmanageable populations of newly agrarian societies, we can now state (and what the Vatican readily admits) that the first raison d’être is no longer viable. While we clearly don’t understand (and certainly will never understand) everything, we do understand enough about everything not have to believe religious creation cosmologies any longer, and this is undeniable.
Unfortunately, the reality of this fact has yet to be integrated into our ethical thinking. The second part of the religious imperative, the need to create ethical frameworks for large societies… takes us back to the splitting of the atom. And clones. And stem cell research. And euthanasia. Social and political leaders still make ethical decisions based upon antiquated religious belief systems. While they and their societies struggle to manage the options provided by the sciences which defeated them, they find, not surprisingly, that their belief systems are not up to the task… and that is simply because they were never designed to do so. The questions which face us today are as new as the knowledge which produced them, and therefore it makes as much sense to base the ethics of modern societies on 2,000 year old religious models as it would to ask David with his slingshot to throw his rock to the moon… and bring it back.
The question then becomes more straightforward: what takes religion’s place in the cosmologic and ethical realms? If one can argue that science has displaced the need for religious cosmologies, where is the replacement for the overarching ethical guidance which all societies need… a role historically provided by religions?
It’s a Relative World
From Aristotle to Newton, the concept of “science” was not unlike the concept of the Gods with whom they shared their time. Definitive, omnipresent and immutable powers, absolute and perfect. Albert Einstein turned Newtonian science on its head when he discovered that science, that definitive model, was relative. And then to really make it relative, along came newer theories. Quantum theory, and string theory, theories of small and large force theories… all of them are relative, and all of them are redefining our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
These scientific discoveries, while rocking again and again the boat of science to its gunnels, simply reflected what many social thinkers had intuitively understood for some time: nothing is truly independent, and that all things are defined not by themselves but by their relationships to one another. Music is not a series of notes, but the relationship between the notes. Politics is not the policies, but the relationships created between the peoples. Poetry is not the individual words, but the relationship between them. Love is not the feeling but the relationship between the lovers. Theft is not the movement of the object, but the relationship between the owners when the object is moved. Murder is not the death, but the reasons for it. All of life is context, and therefore any system of ethics cannot be defined as immobile and inflexible, but rather entirely dependent upon the context of the events and the relationships between the actors.
It is for this reason that any religions version of the Ten Commandments can no longer be used as a foundation for any ethical system. “Thou shalt not kill” sounds great… until one is confronted by a psychopath threatening one’s family. What to do? Is the war veteran a vile murderer or a hero? It’s not a question that religiously based ethics can define, because they come from a simpler age…an age before humanity was educationally prepared to deal with the more intellectually mature questions of ethical relativity. In order to successfully build and execute a system of ethical relativity, the levels of both general and specific knowledge within a society must be fairly high… levels not attained within any society on the planet until the 20th century.
While this fact of relativity is at once simple and profound, with one notable exception the various efforts to formulate a system of relative ethics have floundered… and that notable exception is the bulk of Western common law. Something so omnipresent that we take it completely for granted… yet it has only been around for some 400 of the 500,000 years we’ve been on the planet. We don’t recognize the inherent contradictions between our new “relative” ethics system and the old “dogmatic” ethics system until a case like stem cell research comes along. And then it’s all too painfully obvious. It’s the equivalent of calling Newton out of the past to adjudicate an argument among sub-atomic particle physicists. It simply can’t work, as Newton’s version of science makes no account of the relationships between the actors… but because we haven’t yet moved beyond religiously derived ethics, we have no other tools to bring to bear. (But not to be too hard on Newton. As perhaps the greatest mind of the millennia, were such a time travel event to happen, it wouldn’t take him long to get up to 21st century speed!)
The Founding Fathers of the American experiment are often cited for their wisdom, and indeed they were wise. However, from an 18th century pragmatists point of view, if you wanted to design a system of governance that would have even a remote chance of success, there were in fact very few options, and as is often the case, one fundamental decision dictates all those that follow. As I stated above, the warfare generated by centuries of religious intolerance lead to the experiment with religious tolerance, which demanded and then stipulated freedom of religion. Freedom of religion demands, in government, only one possible relationship between church and state… their formal separation (clearly one cannot codify an individuals right to freedom of religion if there is an official state religion). And that separation of the state from an underlying religiously defined code of ethics… which now seems so obvious, but had never in the history of mankind happened before… demanded the creation and the formalization of a secular system of ethics…. otherwise known as common law. The founding fathers fear of religious strife lead inexorably to the creation of the western worlds first codified, highly evolved, and widely accepted system of secular ethics.
Interestingly, not only does this new ethical system examine action, but more importantly it examines in great detail the context in which the action took place… and this is a huge step forwards from religiously based ethical systems. Questions not just of action, but of intent and context are commonly and dealt with… attempting through legal ethics to find answers to questions such as those posed by Dostoyevsky and others. For example, if I am brilliant and starving… and you are rich, fat and stupid, is it still theft if I steal the bread you don’t need anyway? The problem, of course, was that we didn’t have the knowledge necessary to design and build a flexible system of ethics… and we had to rely on simple dogmatic answers to what are often not simple ethical questions, answers which try and take into account all aspects of the relationships involved in the situation.
And so Today…
We find ourselves for the first time in all of human history able to solve through secular means the two problems which men invented the gods to solve… first, the problem of providing general cosmologic answers, and second, the problem of designing satisfactory social controls. Science and law have become our sources for the solutions to these two problems. While they are obviously incomplete models, perfect solutions cannot be made the enemy of partial but workable answers. While we continue to struggle with them as they and we evolve, they are clearly at a far higher level and are systems of knowledge far more satisfactory than the two thousand year old systems that they must replace.
In the final analysis, the following is clear: as the original reasons for the creation of religious dogma no longer exist, and as it is also clear that the ongoing practice of all of the various and highly competitive religious systems in a highly populated world is clearly causing more friction than peace… we have arrived at the point in human history that we must abandon the dogma of the past and embrace the systems which today provide us with answers that work.
There has never been a single war waged over whether two and two is four, or whether two atoms of hydrogen plus one of oxygen make water. These are trans-nation, trans-tribal and trans-cultural realities which join the human race rather than divide it. In fact, during the most recent and, due to the level of the weaponry involved, the most dangerous confrontation ever between human groups, scientists and jurists on both sides of the cold war continually found common ground, and without the presence of a religious conflict, actual warfare was finally and successfully avoided. To the degree that we tolerate divisive religious practices and let them take precedence over our newfound unifying social and empirical structures, we continue to use systems which are not only broken but actually dangerous to use.
And as I said at the beginning, this in not just an irrelevant or irreverent poke at the religious powers that be, for we continue to suffer at the hands of ignorance in very real ways, and it happens each and every day. In the U.S., attitudes towards AIDS, reproductive rights and birth control, fundamental medical research, taxation, sexual preferences and their associated legal rights, life and death themselves are just some of the areas where religiously guided ethics intervene and try to control. Internationally, the age old abuses and exploitation of the ignorant by religious groups and the rise of militant fundamentalism are by far the most important factors in this unending cycle of warfare we find ourselves stuck in.
We are consciously and unconsciously bound to ancient religious archetypes, and suffer directly from their use. Why else would many turn to a (probably) gay male who has never personally experienced any long-term intimate human bond in order to receive marriage counseling? Why else would we listen respectfully to a Billy Graham, and treat him with a deference wholly unearned as he mouths irrelevant platitudes? Why else would we accept the ethical legitimacy of a system of institutionalized slavery such as the caste system? How else can we continue to tolerate, in the name of religious tolerance, a religion which practices physical disfigurement of females as one of its fundamental practices? How else can we continue to express man’s dominion over nature as “god given”, and sacrifice all other forms of life before the needs of humankind? As a society we continue to express respect for and subservience to systems of social and ethical controls which in fact have absolutely no relevance to the huge body of our recently earned knowledge, and enjoy no standing in our courts. To continue to pretend that they do and respect them for it is to accept bigotry, to accept ignorance, to foster warfare, and to halt progress.
The case for intolerance of religion is clear, and to the degree we continue to equate tolerance of religion with maturity and religion with virtue, we hobble our newfound abilities to find real virtue where it may lay, and make real progress in real ways to generate real wellbeing for real people. At this dawn of the 21st century, we can simply no longer tolerate the tolerance of religion.