Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Do Atrocities Occur in the Name of God?

Why have atrocities been associated with religion—even having been committed under religious auspices? Four Crusades were fought, for example, by popes whose God is love—whose god-man extolls love of enemies and turning the other cheek rather than hitting back. In the modern era, Christianity has been tame, but terrorist acts have been committed in the name of God by people who presume that they cannot possibly be wrong in their beliefs. If Feuerbach is correct, the underlying problem inheres in the belief in God's very existence. This represents, I submit, a deeper and more subtle problem facing the monotheist—a vulnerability or susceptibility that is typically overlooked or glossed over.
Feuerbach lays out the problem as follows: “If the existence of God, taken by itself, had not rooted itself as a religious truth in minds, there would never have been those infamous, senseless, horrible ideas of God which stigmatise the history of religion and theology.”[1] Senseless ideas of God stigmatize the history of religion. Senseless people carried those ideas into practice, stigmatizing human history. Feuerbach’s surprise is that the belief in the existence of God—this belief in itself—may have a sordid byproduct or be inherently problematic.
“The belief in the existence of God is the belief in a special existence, separate from the existence of man and Nature.”[2] Feuerbach rejects the special existence precisely because it is external. This belief is sheer artifice, he argues, because God represents the best of our human nature—without its limitations: perfect love, all powerful, the highest good, infinite knowledge, and present everywhere. This is the origin of religious consciousness, which has been replaced by the conceptualization of the divine as an external object whose existence is portrayed as separate. To Feuerbach, that object is simply a product of the human imagination.
The content of revelation is human. Revelation “must not be regarded as outside the nature of man.”[3] By nature, Feuerbach is referring to an instinctual urge. “There is within [man] an inward necessity which impels him to present moral and philosophical doctrines in the form of narratives and fables, and an equal necessity to represent that impulse as a revelation.”[4] This is not to say that religion reduces to morality; rather, what we take to be objective religious truth comes from within. The human imagination plays a vital role. “Man, by means of the imagination, involuntarily contemplates his inner nature; he represents it as out of himself,” as God.[5] As such, God “is an inward, spiritual being.”[6] Denied here is the transcendence of God, which I submit is vital, and, which interestingly does not require the conceptualization of God as an intelligent being or object; the important thing is that the reference point of the religious consciousness lies beyond the limits of human conception and perception.
To Feuerbach, God is rightly understood experience of mankind’s inner nature. At least it is not the actual inner nature that furnishes the divine content. Revelation comes “from the ideal nature of man to the phenomenal man, from the species to the individual.”[7] Even so, “between the divine revelation and the so-called human reason or nature, there is no other than an illusory distinction;--the contents of the divine revelation are of human origin, for they have proceeded not from God as God, but from God as determined by human reason, human wants, that is, directly from human reason and human wants.”[8] Rather than an external object willowing its revelation of itself to fit within human understanding, the source of divine revelation is the human imagination acting on the instinctual wish that our limitations be dissolved. “The imagination is, in general, the true place of an existence which is absent, not present to the senses, though nevertheless sensational in its essence.”[9] God loves and gets angry—vengeance is mine, saith the Lord—but these emotions are cut off from their source as manifesting in a quantitatively less way in human beings as soon as the divine is rendered as an external object whose existence transcends Creation.
As artificial as the cleavage or division is, the certainty of the severed, limitless sensibilities in an external object—not to mention that such an object exists—is perhaps even worse. “The religious mind . . . has the immediate certainty that all its involuntary, spontaneous affections are impressions from without, manifestations of another being.”[10] Such certainty is tantamount to factual knowledge, even though the being transcends the limits of human cognition (and perception). In fact, “a God who gives me a knowledge of himself through his own act is alone of a God who truly exists, who proves himself to exist,--an objective God.”[11] So the knowledge of an objective, externalized God is known to reveal itself as though a fact. Put another way, the belief in the existence of God as an external object carries with it the presumptuousness of belief rendering itself as factual knowledge.
Of course, the presumptuousness is limited to extant beliefs qua facts. “Were not the gods of Olympus also facts, self-attesting existences? Were not the ludicrous miracles of paganism regarded as facts?”[12] Yet in a later age the divine narratives are labeled as myths devised by the human mind. The “religious consciousness itself admits, in relation to past times, the essentially human quality of revelation. The religious consciousness of a later age is no longer satisfied with a Jehovah who is from head to foot a man, and does not shrink from becoming visible as such. It recognizes that those were merely images in which God accommodated himself to the comprehension of men in that age, that is, merely human images. But it does not apply this mode of interpretation to ideas accepted as revelation in the present age, because it is yet itself steeped in those ideas.”[13] Every religionist takes their own religious beliefs as facts of reason yet while insisting on faith, which implies belief rather than knowledge.
Clearly, religious “facts” are problematic. To Feuerbach, a religious “fact is every wish that projects itself on reality: in short, it is everything that is not doubted simply because it is not—must not be—doubted.”[14] To block doubt is not to establish a fact. Hence the wish for unlimited sensibilities impressed on reality in the form of a separate entity is not a fact; such an instinctual urge ought not glorify itself as a fact of reason.
It is important to isolate as problematic the human presumption to immediate certainty that revelation is indeed revelation. “The belief in revelation exhibits in the clearest manner the characteristic illusion of the religious consciousness. The general premiss of this belief is: man can of himself know nothing of God; all his knowledge is merely vain, earthly, human.”[15] We cannot know beyond the limits of our cognition and perception. In fact, what knowledge we do have is tainted. Feuerbach does not go with the obvious conclusion that even if an external intelligent being reveals itself to us we can’t know this. Rather, he claims that God reveals itself to us in terms that we can understand. “God is a superhuman being; God is known only by himself. Thus we know nothing of God beyond what he reveals to us. The knowledge imparted by God is alone divine, superhuman, supernatural knowledge. . . . But nevertheless the divine revelation is determined by the human nature. God speaks not to brutes or angels, but to men; hence he uses human speech and human conceptions.”[16] God’s revelation makes it into our realm through the dark window because the all-powerful knowledge can fit within human terms. “In the scheme of his revelation God must have reference not to himself, but to man’s power of comprehension.”[17] To reach us, God’s revelation of the divine nature must fit within our cognitive limits. Even so, given those limits, we cannot be certain that what we take to be revelation really is from an external intelligent being. Hence we cannot be certain even that such a being exists and yet we assume to have such certainty anyway.
From our presumptuous entitlement to infallibility concerning the sheer existence of God as an external object follows immediate certainty regarding the religiously sourced morality of our actions, which we deem as righteous because the very existence of the external law-giver cannot even be doubted. “Moral rules are indeed observed, but they are severed from the inward disposition, the heart, by being represented as the commandments of an external lawgiver. . . . What is done is done not because it is good and right, but because it is commanded by God. The inherent quality of the deed is indifferent; whatever God commands is right.”[18] The severing is dependent on the belief in God’s existence as an external object or being. To be sure, Feuerbach seems to have missed Paul’s dictum, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[19] Yet a willing heart may embolden the moral certainty that is all too permissive of the sort of blind-spot that can seek in an atrocity or two. Even if God is taken as idealized, unlimited human feeling as Feuerbach urges, such a conception of God can be subject to the sort of religious rationalizations that can twist moral systems into accommodating atrocities under religious auspices.

1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 202.
2. Ibid., 203.
3. Ibid., 208.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 226.
7. Ibid., 207.
8. Ibid., 207.
9. Ibid., 202.
10. Ibid., 206.
11. Ibid., 204.
12. Ibid., 205.
13. Ibid., 207.
14. Ibid., 206.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., 207.
18. Ibid., 209.
19. 2 Cor. 9:7.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Spirituality as Distinctively Religious

While it may be alluring in the business world to conceptualize spiritual leadership as being essentially ethical leadership, this convenient tact would not do justice to the distinctly religious sphere in which spirituality is based. The same error would be entailed in treating evil as though it were merely bad. Therefore, rather than foisting spiritual from its native domain and redefining it to fit within a secular context in order to apply the concept to leadership in business, we can relate the religious and secular concepts to each other with due deference to their respective natures.[1] 

Gilbert Fairholm’s descriptions of spirituality can lapse into reducing the concept to morality, yet other aspects in the descriptions can be useful in approaching spirituality as distinct. As “being true to one’s beliefs, one’s internal values and ethics,” spirituality is effectively secularized as a sort of ethical authenticity.[2] Similarly, Fairholm claims that spirituality “is the side of us that is searching for meaning, values, ethics, and life purposes.”[3] In this regard, spirituality is “a relationship with something intangible, beyond the self.”[4] In other words, “Spirituality is the process of living out a set of deeply held personal values, of honoring forces greater than the self.”[5]  The values are oriented to ethics and life purposes, so the something beyond the self is merely the world—spirituality referring to “an inner awareness that makes integration of the self and world possible.”[6] None of this is transcendent, and thus religious in nature. Put another way, a humanist would be content with this secular depiction of spirituality.

Yet from Fairholm’s characterization a distinctly religious tint can be gleamed. Pivoting from life purpose to life-force, for example, Fairholm points to a transcendent depth of inwardness. Spirituality “primarily has to do with our inner or private being, our ‘life-force.”[7] Ethical conduct and life-values are presumably not primary. The purpose in spirituality goes beyond that of life in the world. Spirituality enlarges our soul and gives it purpose.”[8]  The term soul is distinctively religious. It is not simply being ethical or valuing life. Soul is that of a person which yearns for beyondness. Spirituality thus “partakes of the transcendent. It is acting out in thought and deeds the experience of the transcendent in human life.”[9] The transcendent can have the sense of an inward-depth within a person and/or manifest as a wholly-other “out there” (e.g., God as an intelligent being beyond Creation). The soul is the aspect of a person that yearns for the transcendent in one or both of these senses.

1. By analogy, the notion that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine—a theory coined at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.—involves taking the human as human and the divine as divine rather than reconfiguring one term to suit the other. Just as one essence, or ousia, has a human element and a divine element, spiritual leadership can be reckoned as having a religious and a secular element. One essence can contain a notion of spirituality that is religious in nature and a theory of leadership that is been derived in a secular context.
2. Gilbert W. Fairholm, Perspectives on Leadership: From the Science of Management to Its Spiritual Heart (Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1998): 121.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 131.
6. Ibid., p. 120.
7. Ibid., p. 119.
8. Ibid., p. 131.
9. Ibid., p. 121.

Monday, April 3, 2017

On the Impact of the Mind’s Infallible Assumptions in Declarations of Religious Belief

In religious affairs, we don’t typically notice the sheer declarativeness in the assertions of belief. In passing, we don’t isolate the underpinning assumptions. We are all human beings relative to the divine, and yet distinctions within our ranks are asserted or declared to be so, even if implicitly. All too often, the human mind overreaches with impunity. Rarely are the leaps themselves the subject of attention and thus subject to critique. Much more commonly, the substance of the religious belief is noticed and debated. I submit that the assumptions typically involved in making religious statements—even the very nature of the declarative assertion—are more worthy of note on account of the human mind’s vulnerabilities that are rarely noticed, much less subject to rebuke.

Visiting a Hari Krishna temple, I found myself speechless when the preacher reminded me after his talk that my religious beliefs could be wrong, whereas his own could not be. Fully aware beforehand that my beliefs about anything can be wrong, I was more struck by the man’s assumption regarding his own beliefs—that they have the status of knowledge. This man’s mind vanquished the gap between belief and knowledge on account of another assumption: that his religious view is (based on) truth. The direct, unfiltered access to truth is the underlying assumption that relegates the point that the divine source is beyond the limits of human perception and cognition, and thus cannot be known. It is the nature of the religious mind’s assumptions and the supportive cognitive and emotional defense mechanisms that can be said to be in need of transparency.

Regarding the defense mechanisms, the man’s lack of awareness concerning his own behavior and the nature of his assumptions was striking. The insult at my expense—in that only my beliefs could be wrong—seemed to elude the religious man, such that his veneer of kindness, present nonetheless, had a rather strange quality. He also seemed unaware that his ad hominem attacks were insulting, not to mention unbecoming of a cleric. Regarding his cognitive assumptions, such as that he has direct access to truth whose source is transcendent, he lacked the basic awareness of self-contradiction. In particular, it is a self-contradiction to assert that human knowledge is beyond the limits of human cognition.

The lack of basic self-awareness in religious matters can easily enable hypocrisy. The Christian Crusades provide a good illustration of how a lack of awareness can take on a life of its own, occasioning grave sin under the rubric of salvation. The four Roman Catholic popes in the Crusades lured Christian men in Western Europe to fight the enemy by promising salvation. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] That Jesus of the Gospels preaches love of enemies, even those who persecute Christians, was somehow lost on those pontiffs who were promising salvation for doing the opposite. If the popes regarded the Muslims as having stolen the Holy Land, the Christian response would arguably have been to give them additional properties, for “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”[2] Fighting the enemy to take back the shirt is clearly anti-Christian, and yet four popes promised salvation to those Christian men willing to do the task. It is the pontiffs’ lack of awareness, cognitively speaking, of this rather basic hypocrisy that suggests that the human mind is actually rather vulnerable to cognitive lapses in the religious domain.

Given the severity of the lapses, presuming unfettered access to transcendent truth can be seen as yet another indication of the mind’s vulnerability. To use a loose analogy, consider the man who can barely see a nearby tree and yet insists not only that he can see the farmhouse in the distance but cannot be wrong about the color of the exterior paint! The rather basic fault in this man’s claim is somehow invisible in the religious domain, and yet is not salvation more important?

I submit that the human mind has great trouble grasping and holding onto the inherent mysteriousness in the religious transcendent—the divine object (e.g., a deity). Without being aware of itself in so doing, the mind leaps over the mystery in assuming inerrancy concerning that which goes beyond the limits of cognition and perception. It is much easier to be wrong about such an object than the color of a distant farmhouse, and yet the human mind tends to assume the opposite is the case. Strangely, no one calls out the mind, least of all the mind itself.

1. Matt 5:44. NIV.
2. Matt. 5:40. NIV.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Life in Prison For Killing a Cow: Law and Religion in Gujarat

At the end of March, 2017, the state of Gujarat in India extended the punishment for slaughtering cows from seven years in prison to life-imprisonment. The penalty for transporting beef was also raised to a maximum of 10 years, from three. The severity hinges on religious assumptions presumed to be beyond questioning or reproof.

Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Gujarat, provided an explanation. “To Indians, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider.”[1] So the cow stands for not only all animals that live on Earth, but also the planet itself. To kill such a symbol is tantamount, I suppose, to killing that which nourishes us. Of course, were every cow alive killed, the other creatures of the world would go on, as would our planet, so the emphasis here is on a symbol. Interestingly, the viability of the symbol is thought to save “the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation,” Rupani added.[2] From a rational standpoint, the claim that people would lead immoral lives in India were cows not protected suffers a lack of causation. Empirically speaking, whether people are ethical, such as at Enron, Authur Andersen, Wells Fargo, and Uber, bears little or no relation to whether one food-source is used or protected.
A person who slaughters a cow for food could spend the rest of his or her life in prison. Prime facie, the punishment can readily seem so excessive that a disrespect for human life may be implied. Even adding in the matter of a living symbol does not alter this point. In fact, the implication is that a symbol is more important than the quality of a human life. For a symbol to take on a life of its own at the expense of actual human beings suggests that the very notion of a symbol has been misunderstood. The mistaken assumption of causality between the protection of cows and the lack of moral and spiritual degradation can be taken as an indication that the very notion of symbol has been warped.
If I am correct in my assertion that the religious and moral assumptions are tenuous (i.e., too extreme), then this case illustrates the danger of superimposing law on top of religious belief. The danger springs from the vulnerability of the latter to a false sense of infallibility. Even the perception of excess can be blocked, and the excessiveness in the law is similarly not caught. Put more generally, the human mind is vulnerable when it comes to religious assumptions, and this fault-line can run through public policy resulting in much harm. It is precisely the allowance for radically disproportioned harm to other human beings that should be the red flag indicating that something has gone very wrong. That this criterion is not the criterion is, I submit, the fault of us all.

1. Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj, “Indian State Expands Penalty for Killing a Cow to Life in Prison,” The New York Times, March 31 2017.
2. Ibid.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Religious Stockholder-Test for Wells Fargo: Confronting Mediocre Accountability

Orienting executive compensation to accountability is easier said than done. For example, it might be supposed that the cause of accountability was aptly served by John Stumpf’s forfeit of $41 million in unvested stock when he resigned under pressure as Wells Fargo’s CEO because of the bank’s systemic overzealousness in signing customers up for unwanted services. Unfortunately, he “realized pretax earnings of more than $83 million by exercising vested stock options, amassed over his 34 years at the bank, and receiving payouts on certain stock awards.”[1] In other words, the man who presided over unethical business practices at the expense of customers received double that which he was forfeiting. How can accountability have any meaning against $83 million? This figure connotes reward rather than punishment. Tim Sloan, who succeeded Stumpf as the bank’s CEO, received compensation in 2016 of $13, up from the $11 million in 2015. Interestingly, it may have been religion to the rescue.

[1] Stacy Cowley, “Wells Fargo Leaders Reaped Lavish Pay Even as Account Scandal Unfolded,” The New York Times, March 16, 2017.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On the Vatican’s Conflict of Interest Regarding Accountability on Sex-Abuse

Integrity is arguably essential to the credibility of religious functionaries—even and especially those with considerable organizational power. So it was significant that Marie Collins, whom Pope Francis had appointed to the Vatican’s commission on sexual abuse by clergy and herself had been a victim of such abuse, resigned on March 1, 2017 due to “fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”[1] Notably, the commission suspended Peter Saunders a year before, “after he accused the panel of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and accountability” even including recommendations that the Pope had approved.[2] What is the basis of the problem? I submit that the conflict of interest that is inherent in having the clergy of a religious organization hold each other accountable is, much like industry self-regulation, culpable in this case.
For example, “a tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable recommended by the commission and approved by the Pope in June 2015 was never implemented,” Marie Collins said in March, 2017.[3] She had no idea whether guidelines issued by the Pope to discipline bishops who had covered up abuse were in force. The Vatican also refused to give the commission an office and staff, and a “Vatican department was refusing to cooperate with a recommendation that all correspondence from victims of clerical abuse receive a response.”[4] The abuse could sadly have been too widespread, in which case the roadblocks in the Vatican are particularly damning.
The integrity and related credibility of the Roman Catholic Church was on the line. “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!,” she said. Moreover, the “reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable,” she added.[5] The Pope himself had lessened punishments for some pedophile priests—one of whom would be convicted by an Italian court for “sex crimes against children as young as 12.”[6]
To be sure, Marie Collins did admit, “The pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.”[7] Yet that administrative clergy at the Vatican were ignoring his decisions on recommendations points to an institutional problem—that of a conflict of interest in having clergy police themselves. That the sexual abuse could become so widespread as to compromise the very credibility of the Roman Catholic Church suggests that the Vatican’s Curia, or government, was not in an intra-clergy accountability mode. In other words, we cannot expect a tight-knit club to self-regulate. In this case, the sense of brotherhood among the clergy is too strong; hierarchical distinctions and the related power differential is no match.
The implication is that the governments of countries should take more of a role in policing priests. Rather than viewing them as organizational functionaries tied to a Roman jurisdiction, they should be viewed as residents of the country in which they live. Society should not expect the Vatican to come down on its own. Moreover, no religious organization can realistically meet this expectation. In other words, the world has been asking too much of the Vatican. That Bishop Law of Boston, for example, was given a plush appointment in the Vatican after being forced out of his bishopric in disgrace is just one indication that the sort of accountability that Marie Collins and Peter Saunders would not happen inside the Vatican—the clergy's own answer, in other words, was no. It is unrealistic to force people in power to do something they simply refuse to do; external means are needed in such a case. Actions speak louder than words, and through its non-actions the Vatican itself had spoken. This is not to say that it cannot or should not be blamed. In fact, we should expect that its integrity and thus credibility rightfully take a hit, but unfortunately what is right often does not materialize, even from the pews.

[1] Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani, “Abuse Victim Quits Vatican Commission, Citing ‘Resistance’,” The New York Times, March 1, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Biblically-Based Investment Funds: A Matter of Priorities

Is it biblical to say a Christian can serve both God and money? In the Gospels, Jesus speaks to this point directly; it is not possible. In early 2017, Inspire Investing established two new exchange-traded funds having a “biblically responsible” approach to investing—meaning that they would avoid buying shares in companies that have “any degree of participation in activities that do not align with biblical values.”[1] That such activities include even tolerance for gay employees raises the question of just how practical an evangelical investment strategy is after the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in all of the 50 republics making up the U.S.

The full essay is at "Biblically-Based Investment Funds."

1. Liz Moyer, “Alongside Faith in Investing, Funds Offer Investment Rooted in Faith,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.