Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

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What is faith?

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I’m concerned that faith is widely misunderstood—particularly by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others that have been dubbed New Atheists. My sense is that they understand faith as a kind of antithesis of scientific knowledge. While scientific conclusions come from logical reasoning based on consistent observations, faith they say is unreasoning belief in something that can’t be observed, belief in an idea just because it’s written in the scriptures of some traditional religion.

Some sort of contrast between faith and knowledge certainly isn’t new to the New Atheists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as:

strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

But taking this definition as a starting point, we still have to ask what this spiritual conviction is. Is it just blind acceptance of the teachings of a religious authority? I say no.

While that could be true in theory for rank-and-file members of a religion, it can’t possibly be true for a religion’s founders. Nor can it be true for any of the later teachers that had a role in developing a religion’s doctrines over time. These people weren’t just accepting pre-existing ideas—they were formulating new ones—so where did their new ideas come from? Inspired by God? From a deep spiritual insight into the nature of reality? But such explanations are rejected out of hand by New Atheists and other people who categorically prefer science to religion. So where do the formative figures in a religion get their ideas?

I don’t think acceptance of authority is a complete explanation even for the faith of a religion’s rank-and-file members. Some societies may be so closed to outside influences that they offer only a single belief system, and everyone is pressured to accept it. But in most societies today, people are exposed to a variety of beliefs, so how do they choose which one they believe?

I guess the path of least resistance is to accept the religion you grew up with. But plenty of people don’t—they give up the religion they grew up with and convert to another one. I can’t imagine they choose their new religion at random, so there must be some other explanation for their faith, besides a blind acceptance of authority.

I’m convinced that the spiritual conviction in the Oxford English Dictionary definition is a kind of intuition that draws from emotions and unconscious cognition and half-formed ideas that can’t quite be put into words. I agree that faith is distinct from reason, insofar as the logic behind a reasoned conclusion can be described step-by-step. But I don’t agree with the New Atheists’ conviction that faith is distinct from empiricism. Faith is empirical, but the observations are introspective rather than sensory. We each make our own evaluation of the teachings of a religion not by looking at the world but by listening to our heart. The truth that a person finds in their religion is present and real to them through their intuitions, even though they can’t justify it with the instruments of reason.

Note that this description of faith says nothing about whether the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true or not. If their metaphysical content is not true, then our “spiritual” intuitions actually tell us something about the human brain, and the deep undercurrents of emotion that it produces in our experience. As Pascal said—the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. But if the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true, then our spiritual intuitions are a channel through which we sense an underlying metaphysical reality. Either way, faith results from experiences that are present to us in our intuitions. The metaphysical ideas and other doctrines of a traditional religion may be taught to us by someone else, but we will only sincerely embrace those doctrines through faith if they resonate with what we feel in our heart. That’s very different from the notion of blind faith that is so common today.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

October 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Eid saeed

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The Islamic month of Ramadan ended Monday, and yesterday was the beginning of the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasts of Ramadan. Thinking about Eid ul-Fitr this morning, I was reminded of one of my first encounters with Islam.

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, and as a teenager I bicycled a lot in and around the city. One day, a friend showed me the Islamic Center of Washington, and I was impressed by the beauty of the mosque and grounds, and by the spiritual atmosphere of the space. Muted light came through latticework, there were lovely columns, and tilework with a beautiful blue-on-white arabesque. It fronted right on Massachusetts Avenue but was quiet and contemplative within.

Some weeks later, I was bicycling near the Islamic Center with another friend and I suggested we stop in. I showed him into the mosque, where we sat on a bench near the back. But even though we were trying to be quiet and respectful, a woman who was in there praying kept shooting us dirty looks. This weirded me out, because the last time I was there the people had struck me as friendly and welcoming.

While we sat there, she had a brief conversation with a man who then came over to speak to us. He welcomed us, and explained that we were wearing short pants and in Islam men did not bare their legs. The moment he said this, I remembered having heard about that and was ashamed for being so stupid. When my other friend first showed me the place, we must have been wearing long pants and it just hadn’t occurred to me this time that shorts would be a problem.

I apologized and said that we would leave right away, but he stopped me and in a tone of kindness said, “No, next time.” Even though we were clearly in the wrong, he didn’t want us to feel we had to leave—he just wanted us to remember how we should dress the next time we came.

His patience and compassion on top of the embarrassment I already felt moved me so much that I almost started to cry. He saw that I was fighting back tears, and I think that made him feel even worse about our being made uncomfortable as a result of our unintentional mistake. I probably attempted some explanation or reassurance, but what I really wanted to do was leave and stop offending people, which we did.

That was some thirty years ago, but thinking about his kindness still brings me almost to tears. It was one of the key experiences of my young life, and it has stuck with me as a model of how I should treat other people in similar circumstances.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in humanity, religion

…and a way to become sane again

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Thousands of generations of Homo sapiens have lived and died on this planet. In that time, there have been countless natural disasters, plagues, droughts, and famines. Civilizations have risen and fallen. Stronger cultures have slaughtered and subjugated weaker ones. The collective suffering that has accrued throughout human history is beyond imagining.

Yet through all this, humanity has endured, and will endure. People have continued to live and feed themselves and look after one another, even as their world has been crumbling around them. Humans have been able to endure so much suffering because we have each other. We assist each other practically and we comfort each other emotionally. A little kindness and consideration brings great relief even in the most trying times. It keeps people from giving up even when they are sorely challenged. Humanity’s great strength is that we are all looking after the people around us, even while we are also looking after ourselves.

Sometimes, too many people have had to fight over too few resources, and the life of one has meant the death of another. But all of the violence piled up through the years is as nothing in comparison to the steady, business-as-usual pursuit of living by people working side-by-side in largely cooperative groups—in clans, villages, towns, and cities. If you were to travel to a random time and place in human history, you would almost always find yourself among people caring for themselves and their families, and generally respecting the rights of their neighbors. Horrific as it is, violence is the froth on the wave of human social existence, which works well far more often than it fails.

Because we are social animals, humanity’s existence is a succession of relationships. We are all products of our culture. That means that our personalities have been built up out of countless interactions we have had with our family, neighbors, friends, enemies, co-workers, and passing strangers. Each generation learns from the generation before it, inheriting its culture and only slowly, collectively adjusting it to fit changing circumstances.

Countless times each day, we brush up against our fellow humans and through our actions add to their accumulated sense of what it means to live a human life. “Little pitchers have big ears”—children learn more from how adults actually act than from how their parents tell them they should act. And the learning continues beyond childhood, throughout each person’s life, and we each contribute to that learning in the people around us far more often than we know.

Yes, we will each die and in time be forgotten, but while we are alive we will touch the lives of our family, neighbors, friends, enemies, co-workers, and passing strangers. Whatever large or small influence we may have on them will affect how they in turn will influence their family, neighbors, friends, enemies, co-workers, and passing strangers. And from them the train of influences will spread out contact-by-contact through and beyond our communities and down through the generations.

We are each just one atom in this vast resonating network of human interactions that is the embodiment of human culture. We probably cannot sway the greater course of human history, but we can at least control what part we ourselves play in it, for that is ultimately our legacy. We could live our lives as means to our own ends, without regard to the effects our actions have on others. Or we can live thoughtfully and with consideration, influencing the people around us in ways that we would want to be remembered for. Our actions may or may not in fact be remembered. But if our influence is good, we will benefit in some small way not only the people we have shared time with, but also other people that they influence down the road, including people who will live long after we are gone. We will have done our small part to nudge the wave of humanity down a path that will be better for everyone.

© Joel Benington, 2011

Written by Joel Benington

July 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Five ways to drive yourself crazy

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Think of the more than 250,000 human beings that die every day, all over the world—babies, elders, and every age in between. Think of the suffering that many of them endured before they died, or the sudden injuries that snuffed out their life without warning. Think of millions of friends and family members, who will suffer emotionally for months or years mourning their loss. Tomorrow more than 250,000 more people will die and millions more loved ones will suffer, and the day after that, and every day of your life. Catastrophes that you hear about in the news are a drop in a bucket compared to the normal, inescapable ending of human life that happens all the time. Death is a constant part of life.

Think of the unfulfilled hopes and desires of billions of living human beings of all ages. Many live year after year in poverty, with monotonous and nutritionally poor food and too little even of that, dirty and crowded housing, unsanitary water, and little or no medical care. They work with little hope of improving their hard and tedious lives or of helping their children to do so. People who are materially more comfortable still suffer anxiety and loneliness, plagued by occasional thoughts of what they have not accomplished. We dream of great success and deep satisfaction, while the vast majority of us lead lives that are at best merely adequate.

Think of the innumerable choices you have made and will make in your own life. Every choice you make is a fork in the road, leading you towards one future and away from others. Leaving the house a minute earlier or later could determine whether or not you get into an accident, or run across an old friend, or meet someone who may become an important part of your life. Every time you decide whether or not to take a job or go to school or get married or start a family, you select one future and reject a great many others. You can never know how your life would have turned out differently had you made other choices. And with every passing year your life becomes more fully determined, as it has been lived one way instead of others, until you die and it is over.

Think of how short the time you will be alive is, compared with the millennia of human existence past and to come. You can read about the past but you can never visit it. Thousands of generations of humans lived and died before you were born. A tiny fraction of them were notable enough to be remembered by history, but all of the rest were remembered only by the few people who knew them, until those people themselves died. Think of all the people long dead, of whom the only relic is a tombstone in an obscure cemetery, with dates of birth and death but little further information; or of the people whose grave markers have long since decayed or been lost, or whose graves were unmarked from the beginning. How many generations of your own ancestors do you know anything about. Can you even name all of your great-grandparents? How many things do you know about them and their lives, which they all surely lived as intently as you do yours? Unless you are exceptional, your life too will eventually fade from memory as the people who have known you age and die. Barring some unthinkable catastrophe, generation after generation of humans will live in a future that you can never know. They will experience changes in human life and human society that we cannot even begin to imagine.

Think of all the things that separate you from the other people in your life. You interact with them, but how fully do you see into their hearts, or even try to? You see the persona that each person presents to the world, and they see yours, but we all know so little of the strange inner lives even of our most intimate companions. Think of the experiences they had before they met you, the experiences they continue to have during all of the times you are not with them. When friends of yours are together without you, what sides of their personalities do they show that you never see, and how are you yourself spoken of in your absence? We make common cause with others, in relationships that may last for many years, but we retain our own separate individuality all the same. Some parts of ourselves we reveal only to a few of our closest companions, while others are known to no one but ourselves, and the same can be said of everyone we know. We share experiences with others, but we also each pursue our own ends and sometimes work at cross purposes. A single household is an unfathomable network of joint and separate perspectives and motivations. We can go for years taking our loved ones partly for granted, leaving important things unsaid, being less to each other than we could be.

© Joel Benington, 2011

Written by Joel Benington

July 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Posted in humanity

Against ethics

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No, I’m not a libertine, but I’m way more comfortable with morality than with ethics. What do I mean by that? Using the Oxford English Dictionary, we have:

morality: principles of right and wrong behaviour

ethics: the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles

As I see it, morality is intuitive and emotional—it’s a matter of felt preferences about how we should treat others. Groups of people feel their way to moral principles that they can agree on, that fit well enough with human nature and with the inner workings of the group. They teach these principles to their children, maybe with some justification but mostly as received wisdom.

Ethics, on the other hand, is knowledge about moral principles. It’s an attempt to think about what in my opinion should remain an intuitive process. Ethics is philosophers trying to rationalize the moral principles they grew up with, or some variation that they arrived at themselves because it feels right for them. Or worse—they don’t merely rationalize an existing moral scheme; carried away by the logic of their reasoning, they hit upon an ethical system they think we should embrace even though it doesn’t feel right intuitively. That sort of system seldom does justice to the splendid irrationality at the heart of human nature.

An example: how should we treat intelligent, non-human animals? In chapter 8 of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt describes his own reactions to reading Peter Singer’s arguments concerning animal rights:

Singer’s clear and compelling arguments convinced me on the spot, and since that day I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed in the first six months after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.

But then [while watching a videotape shot in a slaughterhouse, as part of a research project on disgust with Paul Rozin], I watched in horror as cows, moving down a dripping disassembly line, were bludgeoned, hooked, and sliced up. Afterwards, Rozin and I went to lunch to talk about the project. We both ordered vegetarian meals. For days afterwards, the sight of red meat made me queasy. My visceral feelings now matched the beliefs Singer had given me…For about three weeks. Gradually, as the disgust faded, fish and chicken reentered my diet. Then red meat did, too, although even now, eighteen years later, I still eat less red meat and choose non-factory-farmed meats when they are available.

That experience taught me an important lesson. I think of myself as a fairly rational person. I found Singer’s arguments persuasive. but, to paraphrase Medea’s lament (from chapter 1): I saw the right way and approved it, but followed the wrong, until an emotion came along to provide some force.

If we’re being reasonable about it, Singer’s arguments do make a certain amount of sense. Everything we know about non-human animals tells us that they are aware and they do feel. The same things that cause us pain must also be pretty unpleasant for our domesticated animals, even if they don’t experience self-reflective consciousness like humans do. Humans are animals, and most of the reasoning that justifies our respect for other human beings applies also to many other animals. As Singer argues, we can’t use differences in intelligence to justify being unconcerned about any other animals, while still respecting the rights of humans with severe mental disabilities.

But like Haidt, most of us just don’t feel as much responsibility to other animals as we do to humans. We may not like it that domesticated animals are kept in small enclosures until they are eventually slaughtered for meat, but we don’t in practice react to that with anything remotely like the outrage we would feel if humans  were treated the same way. We’re reasonable, but we don’t listen to our reason. Why is that?

I think it’s a matter of loyalty.  Humans feel the strongest loyalty to other humans, but we do feel some loyalty to other animals too. Most of us feel more loyalty to the warm and furry than to the scaly and slimy. Dogs and cats mean more to us than jackals and cougars, because we live with them, or our friends do, and because we have had friendly interactions with them.

For some people there’s a steep drop-off in loyalty going from humans to other animals, while for others it’s a more gradual decrease. The loyalties of people who feel more strongly about animal welfare embrace more animals to a greater degree. Compassion for the suffering of non-human animals seems so obviously right to them, that other people’s lack of concern must be terribly frustrating. But it’s not that other people are cold and uncaring—the difference is simply in how far their circle of loyalties extends.

But either way, the pattern of a person’s loyalties seldom matches up with the biology or cognitive abilities of different groups of animals. Our loyalties are more intuitive than reasonable. How much do you care about the welfare of crows and ravens? They’re really smart, you know—much smarter than those cute little chickadees.

Basing compassion on intuitively felt loyalties isn’t all good. It’s what lets people do terrible things sometimes to humans of other cultures and ethnicities, other religious and political convictions—even while they are good and decent to the humans who fall within their circle of loyalties. But it is how our species works through moral dilemmas. Trying to impose a structure of reason on something that is fundamentally irrational is not the answer.

If we want people to behave better, we should try instead to extend everyone’s circle of loyalties as widely as possible. At the moment, there are still far too many sub-divisions of loyalties within our own species. From those divisions come war, terrorism, crime, discrimination, and other vices. I light-heartedly call myself a pro-human extremist because I am convinced that we can help build a better world by embracing our common humanity, making that our primary loyalty rather than our nation or our religion. When we have succeeded, we may then be able to follow St. Francis’ example and broaden our love to embrace all living things.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in humanity