Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Did the Novel Kill Religion?

Thanks to Steven Pinker we are all having a national conversation about the Enlightenment. We are being persuaded that replacing religious dogma with reason was just the thing that Western Civilization needed… to awaken from its slumber and become dynamic and democratic.

I have already offered extensive commentary on Pinker’s errors. I will not repeat it all here. I am not alone in pointing out that Pinker does not understand the Enlightenment and that his efforts to promote atheism defy belief. After all, many nations around the world tried to overthrow religion and to replace it with cultures based on atheism. They called it Communism, and even fascism. They failed miserably. If Pinker et al. wanted to engage their rational faculties on the question of what atheism has done for us, they would show some honesty and consider that the efforts to create atheistic cultures have consistently failed… catastrophically so.

To be fair, Pinker and his fellow atheists will never accept that Stalin and Mao enacted the atheist agenda. And yet, discarding experimental results that do not fulfill the terms of your ideology does not bespeak science or rationality. It exposes the project as a polemical exercise designed to persuade people to believe something that makes no sense.

Of course, the defenders of atheism will quickly retort that Communism failed because it did not affirm the basic Enlightenment value of empathy. You see, to Enlightened thinkers and to most of our therapy culture, empathy is the basis for all human morality. Feeling someone else’s feelings makes you kind and gentle. Better yet, said capacity for empathy is hard-wired in the organism. If you lack it you are a perverted psychopath… and not an embodiment of Enlightenment values.

As it happens, this is all wrong. Serious Enlightenment thinkers knew better than to believe that we could generate moral principles through neuroscience or any form of science.

David Hume, a leading figure in the British Enlightenment, ignored by Pinker, famously asserted that science is about “is” while ethics is about “should.” You cannot get from the one to the other. Naturally, our new atheists ignore Hume… because his inconvenient thought would sink their project.

I offer this background as an introduction to an essay written by one M. M. Owen about famed British novelist and new atheist Ian McEwan. I have not read McEwan, certainly a more-than-capable novelist, for some time, so will refrain from commenting on Owen’s analysis of his fiction. If Owen is correct and McEwan is trying to sell his enlightened atheism in his fiction, this would count against him.

Art ought not to be preaching to us. It ought not to be telling us what to think or what to do. If I may, art dramatizes moral dilemmas. It shows possible outcomes. It shows possible approaches to the problems. It is an adjunct to religious texts, but does not destroy them.

Examine Owen’s opening gambit:

Three hundred years ago, reading novels (as opposed to the classics, or Shakespeare) was widely seen as vulgar, indicative of a deficient mind. So was not believing in a divine creator. Today, at least among the sort of people who tend to read literary magazines, both these thing are more likely to be regarded as signs of intellectual and moral refinement. For the critic James Wood, this is no coincidence: the novel is “the slayer of religions,” a form that swept away Biblical certitudes and replaced them with fictional narratives that move “in the shadow of doubt,” asking readers for a belief that is fundamentally and irreligiously metaphorical.

He continues:

One author who would agree wholeheartedly with Wood is England’s Ian McEwan, who asserted in 2013 that the novel is a product of the Enlightenment that “has always been a secular and skeptical form.” McEwan is a committed nonbeliever, so committed that he qualifies as a junior member of the intellectual movement-cum-publishing-ploy known as New Atheism, which emerged in the wake of 9/11.

Religious texts contain stories. But they propose to set down a series of moral principles and rules for conducting life in community. Religion—the word means, in its Latin root: to bind together—teaches you the rules that will allow yourself to conduct yourself as a functioning member of a social group. To teach those rules, it offers dramatic instances-- call them parables, if you like-- that show the rules in action.

Since you cannot have a community unless everyone is playing by the same rules, religion must present an authority that is beyond that of a mere mortal. It may be communicated through Moses taking dictation from God or through Jesus Christ, as Son of God, but everyday human beings accept and follow the rules that define a culture because they believe that these rules were laid down by a higher authority, that is, that they were not invented to advantage or disadvantage any group of human beings or any individual human being.

Since the new atheists seem to have no use for such rules, they want to replace them all with empathy. And they imagine that novels teach people to feel empathy for other people. One notes, because one is something of a curmudgeon, that novels contain literary characters, even fictional characters, and if the best you can do is to pretend that people learn how to feel for their other humans by imagining that fictional characters are human, you have a problem.

The new atheists notwithstanding, novels create alternative worlds, what the philosophers call possible worlds. They show characters whose actions fulfill the terms of a narrative… according to the narrative’s internal logic. They might resemble human beings, but their actions are governed by the narrative and are shown to produce an inevitable outcome. If people are playing a game, and not pretending to be fictional characters, the outcome of their actions is not predetermined. Whatever moves you make in a game, however you move the pieces on the chessboard, you are not creating a fiction. You are playing a game. YOu are not living a narrative fiction.

Owen explains McEwan’s misguided journey into philosophy:

McEwan aligns strongly with the New Atheism through his celebration and exaltation of capital-R Reason. In the New Atheist framing, post-Enlightenment science embodies the apogee of the human capacity for reason, while religion constitutes a troublesome soup of everything that is unreason. McEwan’s literary vocation coalesces with his scientific rationalism via the moral role he proclaims for the novel—a role he frames in explicitly neuroscientific terms. As he describes it, “we are innately moral beings, at the most basic, wired-in neurological level.” This morality stems from the fact that “our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else” (psychologists call this Theory of Mind). From this, McEwan says, it follows that fiction is “a deeply moral form, in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another.”

He continues:

Within the history of English letters, McEwan’s vision of the novel as a “deeply moral form” and force for social good recalls George Eliot and Iris Murdoch—with the special quality of its being underpinned and animated by all the things contemporary rationalists and atheists love: evolution, neuroscience and a morality rooted in our selfish genes, rather than in God. To listen to only McEwan’s interviews, it all seems very straightforward: novels make us nicer people. Good novels can ultimately achieve the same thing as antibiotics, vaccines, nitrogen fertilizer or any other other scientific success—they can aid the species.

The issue is going to be: are we naturally moral beings and do we merely need to overthrow religion in order to allow our own neurons to lead us to do the right thing. By this reasoning, the right thing will feel good while the wrong thing will feel bad.

Aside from the fact that David Hume would have laughed as such pretension, the truth is that, to take an obvious example, we are all born with the capacity to learn language. And yet, unless someone teaches us language… by talking to us… we will never speak a word. A capacity is one thing. The rules are something else. We are not born with brains filled with moral rules, any more than our neurons contain words and phrases.

And of course, the new atheists tell us that we just need empathy. One might respond that we really need to learn how to get along with other people, to function within groups, to form social organizations. Empathy might contribute to that function, but, in any of itself, it will not give us the rules and principles that we must all follow if we are to function within a social organization.

Owen continues:

Around this time, he also begins to be explicit about his moral conception of the novel: Homo sapiens are primates that, over millennia, evolved deep-set pro-social features, including the capacity for empathy. Empathy is fundamentally an act of imagination (we imagine our way into the mind of another), and an act of imagination on the scale of a good novel can send a tsunami of it washing through the brain. Novel-reading (and writing) can be a form of moral education.

As it happens, and as we have known since the time of the Enlightenment, empathy is not intrinsically moral. It can promote sadism and psychopathy. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith-- another great Enlightenment thinker-- argued persuasively that if we see someone getting beaten up, and if we put ourselves in his shoes, via imagination, and choose to avenge the mistreatment he has received. And to avenge him against whomever comes along. Yale professor Paul Bloom argued the point in his book, Against Empathy. Empathy can make you a very nasty piece of work.


Sam L. said...

Pretend-people are wonderful exemplars of morality. And religion. Ummmmmmmm-hmmmmmmmmmm!

Anonymous said...

Our streets need repaving and no one has the empathy to do it. We need to hand out novels to the city and get stuff done around here.

David Foster said...

Empathy.....there's an interesting passage in Remarque's excellent but neglected novel The Road Back.

The First World War has ended, and the protagonist, Ernst, is making his way home. On the way, he passes a gas hospital...fellow German soldiers, bad cases who cannot be moved. They have not long to live.

Ernst cannot reconcile the joy that he feels at his own imminent return home with the pain and despair he has just observed: "It is peace, yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed--and that is odd.

Because none can wholly feel what another suffers--is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?"

When I first read this passage, I thought the Ernst's answer was incomplete, and I still think so. Actually, misdirected empathy (misdirected altruism, in Koestler's formulation) probably has as much to do with the origin of wars as does inability to feel what others suffer.

Anonymous said...

Empathy is hardly sufficient - after all, a sadist feels your pain: and enjoys it!

Gibson Block said...

Are you advocating on behalf of any and all religions as a better thing that atheism or are you endorsing a specific few or one in particular?