Rational Religion

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How Many of You Are in There?


One of the more controversial concepts of modern psychological thought is that of the "multiple" or fragmented personality.


A number of popular books and a few television shows and movies explore the idea that some people - because of extremely dissociative experiences in their childhood - are actually several people (of various ages and personalities, some even of the opposite sex), some of whom are entirely separate and unaware of the others, who can "take over" the physical body and do strange or uncharacteristic things.


As I say, this is a controversial syndrome because it is so bloody hard to prove that it exists; or doesn't.  And it is suspect because it makes such a great story; and great stories are too often just that, and no more.


MIT philosopher Sherry Turkle explores the multiplicity of personalities which are within all of us; maintaining that this is not a pathology, but simply the way we are constructed.


In less complex environments it is possible for an individual to be, or convince oneself that one is, a "One;” that is, a consistent, easily identifiable personality with which one confronts all aspects of life.


People with an extremely strong and defined "One" can often shape their immediate environment to the extent that their One becomes pretty nearly indistinguishable from reality, at least for themselves; to a large extent, also, for anyone whose livelihood or mental health depends upon the central One.


If this conjures a mental image of a patriarchal martinet imposing his values upon his family, neighborhood or nation, the impression may be apt.  But much of the culture values the steadfast personality who remains the same in a swirling sea of confusing - possibly corrupting - influences. 


This is the biggest appeal of the religious fundamentalists, from the Christian Right, to Israeli Zionists, to the Taliban.  Even people in their societies who identify them as religious nuts forgive them for their excesses because of their emphasis on "family values" and "timeless virtues."  For the zealots, themselves, there is a double payoff.  They get to convince themselves they are on the side of the angels, AND they manage to avoid most of the angst and anomie of having to live multiple lives in a complex universe.


If confusion is the ultimate enemy of the human mind, there is great seductiveness in being able to pretend that there is Fundamental Truth. 


This gives us a permanent center in which to anchor our lives, no matter how bewildering the swirl of information which besets us as we study in school, try to function in the workplace, or struggle to make sense of the overwhelming evidence that most of the rest of the human race operates by a lot of other codexes.


If, as I suspect, Dr. Turkle is right-- We have no single personality, but a spectrum of personae with which we greet the ever-changing daily environment-- what is to keep us from being swept along like leaves on the wind?   How can we predict where we will come to rest on any issue; and how can we pretend that our decisions, our influence, our lives have any validity at all?


The absolute thinkers have the solution, of course.  Their wisdom is full of dicta like; "If you are not for me, you are against me;" "I can respect an atheist, but not an agnostic;" "If you don't stand for something you'll stand for anything;" "An open mind is like a sieve; everything goes right through it."


About all this attitude does, even for its proponents, is foster a false sense of security and contribute to a crashing overestimate of one's personal significance. 


How about, "I am neither for you nor against you.  You are not in my loop.  You are simply irrelevant."?


But the defining problem remains.  If there is no refugeable rock at the center of our personality, how can we ever make a moral decision?  Why should we even bother to try?


"In a hundred years, it won't make any difference."


The trouble is that our decisions do make a difference in the here and now, and in the immediate future.  Depending upon our individual or collective influence, they may even shape the world of 100 years hence.


Does anyone not understand that "corporate downsizing," the "S & L debacle,"  "The ENRON scandal," “outsourcing,” the growing dichotomy between top and lower levels of the economy, our burgeoning prison population and the growing penchant of our children to shoot each other (and occasionally us) -- the whole socio-economic mess -- is not something which happened all by itself?


It is the result of choices we all made at the polls and in our preferred entertainments and in our demands upon our leadership over the past half-century.  And by now it should be pretty obvious that we have made some really lousy choices.


But we didn't intend to!  Those of us who actually voted, and spoke up and used our influence to shape public policy are among the most appalled at the condition our society is in, at the beginning of the Third Millennium.


We tried!  But it didn't work.  It makes one want to give up trying.


Well, yes; unless one is willing to admit the possibility that what went awry was not the effort, but the insight. 


We simply did a lot of stuff that was wrong.  The trick is to find out what that was, and why, and try to eliminate it from our future efforts.


This is a lot easier to say than to do, of course.  One big hurdle is the human penchant for trying to justify one's mistakes instead of erasing them. 


We hate to admit we were wrong; especially THAT wrong.  And if the mistakes are part of some dogma in which we deeply believe, there is probably no hope of getting rid of them until we die.  Because dogma has a life of its own, there is likewise little hope of expunging the errors from the society.  It boggles the mind.


Look, there's a way out! 


First premise; there has to be a center!  If there is no absolute "One" to anchor your personality, you have to center it in values.


Who you are becomes not a thing, or even a place, but a region.  Its boundaries will shift like the borders of an amoeba, as you encounter the multiplicity of information and influences which affect your life.  Over a period of time, its center of gravity may even migrate some distance.  But at any given moment, during any decade, you must make your decisions and act (or decline to act) upon them according to what you value. 


(If this all sounds analogous to the currently popular scientific concept of "fuzzy logic"...So?)


And how does one decide what is valuable?   You have to go back to the beginning.  Who are we?  What is our purpose?  Do we have a purpose? Does that matter, if there is a logical, apparently ethical way to behave?


Now, I know this is a lot of work, but it may be worth it. The alternative may be the eventual dissolution of society...unless you are prepared to construct a Rational Religion and live by that.


Remember Robert Browning’s dictum, “The prize is in the process!”