This last episode of “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featured what sounds like a great book on secularism. The main point for everyone from atheists to Christian fundamentalists is that secularism is in place to protect religious freedom, not to stifle it. It does this by protecting against state-level establishment of a particular religion. Interestingly, the author, Berlinerbau, also points out that an absolute separation of religion and state is also not desirable. He points to the Soviet Union as an example of the type of state it would take to attempt such absolutism. Because, at least in the interview (I haven’t read the book), he provides a balanced approach, his work seems worth checking out for those interested in matters of “church and state.”
Category Archives: Academic Interest
For those interested in the study of religion … a place where academics of religion grapple and engage in “the world”
Although, sometimes, especially as a non-religious person, I wonder why I am studying at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), every now and then it becomes clear. Yesterday was a perfect example of why I chose to pursue my doctorate there.
Sometimes I like to study at the Pacific School of Religion’s (PSR) D’Autremont Dining Hall. When I arrived yesterday for some coffee and to read, Michael Lerner’s Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls along with Occupy Bay Area Jewish Contingent were finishing up their veggie potluck after Rosh Hashanah services. After eating they walked to downtown Berkeley to Occupy Wells Fargo.
So together in one hall, on this Protestant campus, we have Jews holding services and celebrating the High Holidays, and partaking in the local activist culture of Berkeley. It’s fascinating to see the coming together and vibrancy of such cultural flows.
Later that night, I attended the “Between Militarism and Extremism: The Excluded Middle” panel discussion held at Zaytuna College. The GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies and Zaytuna College (the first Muslim Liberal Arts College in America) held discussions on violence in the Middle-East in reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film. The meeting was held in Zaytuna’s new location, formerly a Christian church (University Christian Church), now the home of an Islamic institution of higher education. The panel consisted of Dr. Hatem Bazian, Zaid Shakir and Hamza Yusuf, (Zaytuna College Co-founders), President James A. Donahue (Graduate Theological Union), Dr. Munir Jiwa (Graduate Theological Union), and Sandy Tolan (University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Journalism).
The short presentations given by the panelists along with the question and answer moderated by Tolan was informative, inspiring, and even challenging. The discussion’s major topics centered on respect for multiple religions, free speech, hate speech, ethics and the internet, and the call for a civil rights-style coming together of multiple religions to advocate for respect across and between all religions.
It was an impressive meeting attended by a few hundred people with around 4,000 people watching online. Very impressive considering it was organized less than a week earlier.
Yesterday’s events–the interaction, overlap, and neighborly-ness of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism– showcased GTU’s approach to religion as exemplary. This all happened with GTU’s 50th anniversary (albeit some member colleges are much older) as a backdrop. In the last 50 years, GTU’s graduate program has grown into one of the largest religious studies programs (including theology, biblical studies, ethics, arts, social sciences, and more) in the U.S. Yesterday’s events showcased the importance and vibrancy of the GTU.
From the abstract:
Recent research in cognitive science has shown that humans innately prefer teleological explanations. Children even go so far as to hypothesize the existence of a deity in order to justify teleological explanations. Aristotle also believed in the importance of teleology for human psychology. This paper investigates the convergence of ideas from the cognitive science of teleology with the Aristotelian understanding of teleology visible in the virtues of techne and wisdom. I argue that Aristotelian psychology and ethics is gaining empirical support, and that this could have important implications for science, philosophy, and theology.
So cut to the chase – what’s the point? Humans evolved to pick up teleology – the purposes of other humans, of tools, and of skilled behaviors. This same sensitivity allows us to ponder the purpose of our own existence and the purpose of the universe as a whole, as well as hypothesize a creator. In other words, this is a major part of what makes us capax Dei – capable of relating to God.
From a theistic perspective this is great – science has shown us part of the religious architecture of our minds, as aspect of what makes us homo religiosus. And equally, from an atheistic perspective this is great; theistically-inclined humans are just misapplying an otherwise perfectly useful cognitive bias – one used to figure out what another human is doing, their purpose, or the purpose of an object – to try to figure out something purposeless, the universe. But notice that the first move is a metaphysical one – the declaration that the universe is purposeful or purposeless. No scientific experiment can tell you the answer to that, it is an assumption, not a conclusion. The data can go either way, depending on the framework it is placed in.
I have to say, I really like this paper. I worked on it a long time. The peer reviewers said nice things about it. I could easily spend more time investigating this sort of work, and at some point I most likely will.
But, alas, one of my committee members always counsels me “Go for the deeper problem!” And so the deeper problem from the cognitive science of the virtues, at least from the standpoint of naturalistic ethics, is how to relate science and ethics – or, in more Humean terms, how to get “ought’ from “is.” So that is what I am doing now.
And then the deeper problem after that is how to let that knowledge make a positive difference in the world, both for the individual and everyone. Currently some of my applications are towards environmental ethics, bioethics and technological ethics more generally, and the ethics of space exploration.
All of this is because I want to know how humans ought to relate to technology. Technology is absolutely essential to our humanity. We lack hair (we need clothes) and our digestive systems are inadequate to eat many foods (we need to prepare and cook it). And yet technology can also be extremely dangerous. Human technology has now reached the point where it can begin to alter human nature itself.
To know what to do, we must first know who we are. Identity creates action. And then action creates identity. Transhumanists will argue that our nature is to transcend humanity. And bioconservatives will argue that that is impossible – that no matter what we may become we will always remain human. Natural law yields virtue and vice. What we think humans are will dictate what we think humans should do. We are manipulating creatures – what will we do when we finally come to target ourselves? In this century, we will find out.
For more info, see my Academia.edu page.
Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective. Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about.
I doubt that Immanuel Kant will be able to convince any of my conservative Catholic friends that the HHS mandate with the Hawaii exception is a workable compromise for an imperfect system.* (Well, maybe Kant himself could, but my use of Kant probably won’t convince anyone). At the same time, I am teaching Kant this week in my intro Ethics course and so I have the categorical imperative on my mind as the HHS mandate question rages on. Thus, I thought it might be helpful to apply Kant to this conundrum and see if there was not something to learn from the 18th Century German philosopher. I am by no means a Kantian, but I do think his emphasis on the universality of moral law is something we need to always keep in mind, and this case is a perfect example.
For those not familiar with Kant’s work, here is a quick and dirty summary: Kant said that ethics boils down to one’s duty to do uphold what he called the categorical imperative. That’s just a fancy way of saying a universal duty – a duty that applies to everyone, always. There is only one categorical imperative for Kant: that we should never do any action that we wouldn’t want everyone else to do. It’s a modification of the golden rule. So Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if we lie when “it is necessary” then we would have to allow everyone to lie when necessary. If we allow everyone to lie when necessary, the we would never know if someone was telling the truth or lying out of necessity, and the whole institution of trust would break down. In short, our actions are only morally legitimate if we can say that we would want everyone else to do the same action.
So lets think about Kant in terms of the health care mandate. What is the maxim that is at stake here?
An interesting interview with Robert Bellah on incorporating biological and evolutionary sciences into the social sciences. Also a few interesting remarks on the discipline of sociology and biases against religion in the academy:
Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church: a website dedicated to promoting a global Catholic conversation. Sign up for their newsletter to hear from ethicists from around the world.
GTU trustee emerita Jane Newhall has died, at the beautiful age of 97. I received one of the GTU teaching fellowships that bear her name, and the course I designed and taught on anthropology and ethics (together with another student) with that award has been a high point of my GTU academic career. God rest her soul.
Seven immoral science experiments that could each us so much if only they weren’t so wrong. Interesting premise for a science article.
Marc Hauser, popular Harvard psychology professor involved in scientific misconduct, resigns.
The morality of the (still hypothetical) morality pill.
Patrica Churchland: Aristotelian-Humean-biological-ethicist.
Amazonian deforestation is revealing ancient human-made structures. Fascinating to discover the ruins of ancient civilizations, depressing that it has to come because of destroying the forest. The only bright side I see other than the knowledge gained of our past is that it shows that the rainforest has recovered from humans once before.
A Swedish man is apprehended trying to split atoms at home. He said it was his hobby, and he did ask (somewhat belatedly) the Swedish Radiation Authority if it was okay. It wasn’t. They arrested him. Besides being extremely unusual, this was very stupid, basically risking turning his kitchen into a nuclear waste site. He was in possession of radium, americium, and uranium.
The Onion has made it official: the nation is down to its very last few grown-ups. Luckily they’ve left us an envelope for when they are finally extinct with some money (“only for an emergency”) and instructions for how to re-light the pilot light in the water heater should it happen to go out.
Speaking of grown-ups, some of the people we might like to think of as grown-ups had a discussion on the Discovery channel Sunday night about Stephen Hawking’s show Curiosity: The Questions of Life Episode 1: Did God Create the Universe? Now I can’t say I was terribly interested in the show (there’s not much suspense for Hawking’s answer), though the discussion afterwards was interesting, consisting of atheist physicist Sean Carroll, Catholic theologian John Haught, and physicist Paul Davies who is something like a deist. Here are the two parts of the video.
Check out my Tikkun Daily posting on Michelle Alexander’s lecture on mass incarceration as the “moral equivalent to Jim Crow” and faith-based consciousness-raising.