Author Archives: Davidson
Chapter Six: The Ugly — Our Moral Gullibility
The Germans have a saying, “Ein Mensch ist kein Mensch.” It’s their version of the ancient Greek original, and means “One person is no person.” We are not a solitary species. Alone, we’re incomplete. Unless we have interactions with and emotional investments in other people, we’re little more than hermits. The fuss over teaching curricula and bibliographies at all levels comes from the sure knowledge that it matters what we are taught, and how we are taught it.
This has a bright and a dark aspect. The bright side is obvious: good teachers and materials produce well-educated, adjusted and presumably humane and happy people. The dark side is its mirror image: bad or deranged teachers, angry or vicious teachings and associations with the wrong kind of people must help mold us into very unattractive and dangerous citizens. But how to know? Teachers believe in what they are teaching, and the most charismatic of them could sell it to a parking meter. The very sensitivities to the feelings and wishes of others that equip us for empathy, compassion and understanding also equip us for following charismatic leaders, bad groups, unwise policies and destructive institutional agendas.… Read the rest
Chapter Five: The Bad — “Original Sin”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our nature is our natural blindness to it. According to some evolutionary psychologists, we are “designed” by natural selection to conceal selfish motives from ourselves–indeed, to unconsciously build elaborate moral rationales for our selfish behavior. Thus do wars routinely feature two sides convinced that they are in the right. Lots of animals are violent, treacherous and nasty, but only one convinces itself that God approves. (Robert Wright, “Science and Original Sin,” TIME, 4 November 1996.)
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.… Read the rest
Chapter 4: The Good — Evolutionary Origins of Empathy and Compassion
Far from being a figment of the imagination, our morality is a product of the same selection process that shaped our competitive and aggressive side.
“Morality … is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another….
“Animals not only have a sense of justice, but also a sense of empathy, forgiveness, trust, reciprocity, and much more as well. Fairness is also an important part of social life of animals….
Religion’s Language Problem
We want to find a story that validates and empowers us, while developing within us a sense of ethical connection to our larger world. For growing numbers of people, religious language — “God-talk” — can no longer do this.
This doesn’t apply in the same way to Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, because they ground their language in fields we would identify as psychology, sociology, and nature.
But biblical religions have an implicit supernatural dimension grounded in an ancient worldview that we no longer share. Through this, Biblical theism and Christianity inherited a time bomb they have not been able to defuse.… Read the rest
Chapter Two: The Acids of Modernity
“Our morality is a product of the same selection process that shaped our competitive and aggressive side.”
Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immediately the parallels between animal dominance behavior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other. They would point out that the most elaborate rites of obeisance are directed at the gods, the hyperdominant if invisible members of the human group. And they would conclude, correctly, that in baseline social behavior, not just in anatomy, Homo sapiens has only recently diverged in evolution from a nonhuman primate stock.… Read the rest
This chapter title is a metaphor created by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He imagined being in the control room of a train, facing a wall filled with knobs, levers, dials and buttons, all ostensibly related to running the train in some way. Before giving up learning how each and every control works, he notices a big red knob up in the right corner. Even without knowing anything about running a train, it seems obvious that this knob plays a special and very important role, so he pushes it. Nothing happens. He pushes it again, but finally realizes that the knob, in spite of its bright red attention-getting color, has no connection at all to how the train runs: it is, it turns out, merely an ornament.
The Legitimate Heir to Religion: A Sketch
“There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”
“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”
“All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”
This is not an angry book.… Read the rest
This is at least the third time in twenty years that I’ve written a sermon inspired by a famous line from Anais Nin. She said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat. “Who are you?” a Voice said to her.