Rational Religion

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On Resentment About Being Mammalian


It is an irony, but no great grounds for astonishment, that most of the people who are most intellectually and emotionally akin to our knuckle-dragging ancestors so vehemently deny that they are related.


They are simplistic thinkers, these; superstitious and inclined to paranoia.  They are given much to prating about liberty but they have no idea what to do with it if they happen to possess it.


Their concept of freedom is being able to think and behave pretty much the way most of the people around them do, without having their serene jingoism disturbed by- and god forbid their children being exposed to - more creative ideas and lifestyles.


They are not immune to beauty and imagination; they just define them so narrowly and circumscribe them so rigidly that their spirits are confined and stunted, like flowers growing in a pot.


The best of them are admirable custodians of the gene pool; salt-of-the earth folks whose own limited values and experiences do not prevent them from granting lebensraum to those whose lives and ambitions are different.


The worst are literate, suit-wearing caricatures of what our pre-sapiens forebears must have been like:  aggressive, exploitive, self-centered and self-justifying.  They are suspicious of anyone who does not believe, or look, pretty much as they do.  They are openly contemptuous of others who, for reasons of inability or choice, do not compete as well as they do.


  Unfortunately, they are often extremely intelligent, though not at all intellectual.  The brightest among them can appear to be intellectual by sheer exercise of their brain power, just as they can appear to be moral by spouting all the right platitudes; but they eventually reveal themselves in the formulaic patterns of their thought, and the ultimate savagery of their actions. 


They are often brilliant debaters - successful argument owing more to the organization of information, seasoned with an opponent-denigrating wit, than it does to original thinking.


A lot of these people - the bright ones - who still call themselves conservatives, are pretty contemptuous of the liberal ideals of altruism and social responsibility.  They think we are simply soft-headed when we suggest that people ought to behave towards one another with compassion and respect.


"People aren't like that!"  "It's a competitive world!"  "Eat or be eaten."


I beg your pardon.  A lot of people are like that.  With a few it's even innate.  Most of the rest can be trained.  If we can find the right techniques, and start early enough, the human brain responds to reason.


The human hormones and the instincts left over from our pre-humanity often overwhelm our reason, even with the best of training, but if the matrix is there, and well defined, it becomes a center to return to from our strayings.


Religions endure because they understand this.


There must be an ideal, a perfectibility towards which we strive.  We may suspect that it is beyond our personal reach, but we must believe that it is approachable. 


The religions reassure us by providing dramatic examples of people - ordinary people like us - who have made the grade.  Catholics have saints; Buddhists have bodhisattvas.  Never mind that these exalted creatures are largely mythological (They have usually been dead a long time before the hierarchy decides they were divine. Everybody who can remember their human failings is dead, too.).  They are necessary; to demonstrate to the rest of us that perfectibility is possible.


And the example must always be there; of what the best of us can be; so the rest of us can shoot for it, and feel bad about it when we fall short. 


The Ayn Rand disciples whose morality derives from the weird premise that having power and money gives them the authority to define ethical behavior look down upon the great un-funded mass of humanity and see them - us - as lower animals.


It's the ancient rationale for colonialism, discredited over the last three centuries by the overwhelming evidence that the rich and powerful and "civilized" behave just as badly as the unwashed natives.


With much more far-reaching consequences. 


An unruly Amazonian Indian runs amok and blow-darts a few settlers.  The settlers, "only trying to make a living," cut down the jungle and not only eradicate all the Indians, but destroy an entire ecosystem, making a significant contribution to the desertification of the globe.


Whether they realize it or not, the "hard-headed,"  "Eat or be eaten" crowd represent the most primitive mind-set of our species.


We are not spouting any unknown verities, here. 


It is perfectly obvious that we are an imperfectly-evolved mammal, much given to selfish, thoughtless, self-centered behavior.  The concept of moderation is difficult for us.  We tend to go overboard in everything, and megalomania is evidently coded into our genes. 


But is this what makes us human?  Or is it what stands in the way of our humanity?    At any rate, it is certainly nothing to celebrate; or to try to perpetuate.


If we happen to notice that we are stronger than our neighbors; or faster; or smarter, we tend to feel that we are entitled to more of the community's resources?


If we need an example - countless examples - of the folly of this short-sighted ethical system, we need only to look at the familiar "BMOC" syndrome. 


In our high school years, as we are just emerging from the powerlessness of childhood, there are individuals among us who physically mature faster than the rest.  If they also have athletic skills which enable them to excel at the games of youth, they are likely to enjoy a few years of royalty, with all the perks and privileges attendant; popularity, adulation of the opposite sex, even the benefit of the doubt in the classroom.


It's seductive stuff, and it demands a special effort of education to help these unfortunate temporary princes and princesses realize that the world circumscribed by their campus and its athletic facilities does not translate well into the world of adult responsibility and real economics.


  Sadly, the needed educational diligence is too often absent...or rejected by the subject, so intoxicated by being  a large frog in the puddle that he or she cannot feature that it will ever dry up.


What happens to these campus heroes (and these days, heroines) who let it all go to their heads is such a familiar cliche that we only see it dramatized in television sit-coms.  It isn't even the stuff of tragedy any more.


(In Death of a Salesman son Biff is just such a degraded high school hero.  But the tragedy isn't his.  He is simply part of the evidence of his father's failed illusions.  We take him for granted; he is a symbol.)