On a Positive Note…

I see the Catholics in Ireland are in trouble again. Hot on the trail of the “indecent images” farce, the Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, has been implicated in a cover-up of the details of a prolific paedophile priest. Himself a priest at the time, it has been alleged by at least two of the victims that Brady, outside of the presence of parents, police or professional counsellors, swore them to secrecy and thus allowed the paedophile to continue his activities. Brady also was informed of the details of other potential and actual victims and chose not to pass these details on to civil authorities – he did inform his then boss, who kept it all under wraps as well. His defence is not that he was innocent of these accusations, but that no specific policy for dealing with such issues existed at the time, either church or state-sanctioned. Moreover, at the time he was in a more junior position, with no authority to act against the paedophile, albeit that he accepts that the overarching culture of the church at the time was to protect its own interests. Will these people never learn? The suppression of the truth of some incident for the benefit of some interest becomes the issue itself at least as much as that initial incident upon its discovery, and as a result much worse for the culprits. The recently-departed evangelical Christian, Charles Colson, would have said as much.

Incidents like this, amid countless others, make it seem that the Catholic Church has been and continues to be very much a malign influence. For many years my own thoughts have been that I couldn’t think of a single reason to believe that the church benefited humankind at all. However, I might have been unfair here to some extent. Britain’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has recently been critical of the coalition government’s tax policies, in particular their affect on the rich / poor divide. In a week when it has been revealed that the rich in Britain have, on average, been getting richer while the country as a whole has returned to recession, Cardinal O’Brien’s intervention could be seen as welcome. Of course, the government disputes his analysis, but it does seem completely transparent that the super-rich, at least, have little or no need of the tax reduction given to them via the recent budget. While I don’t intend to comment on the efficacy of government tax policy, it is good that a person of influence like O’Brien, is at least seen to be attempting to protect the interests of the less fortunate among us. One could be cynical and explain his action, again, as an attempt to protect or promote the interests of his organisation. However,he could have quite easily remained silent here.

With issues such as voluntary euthanasia, gay marriage or adoption, we often see prominent Catholic Members of Parliament declaring that their legislative voting intentions will be forced to coincide with their church’s doctrine, as if Catholic doctrine represented some sort of objective standard of rightness. I have yet to see any MP do the same over taxation policy or its supposed divisive effects. However, those of us concerned about the general willingness of the government to address such issues can only welcome O’Brien’s intervention. I finally found something positive to say about a high-ranking Catholic.

Which brings me to the general idea of positivity, later rather than sooner.

The idea of something being “positive” is that it gives us cause for optimism or makes us feel better or coincides with our existing worldview such that we are reassured that we are right about something. Alternatively, we view something as being positive if it gives us the opportunity to develop further thoughts and actions that benefit us or others. Doubtless, O’Brien sees his theistic beliefs as one of the bases that allows him to make such a positive contribution on behalf of the less fortunate.

Although I’m at pains to to emphasise that I’ve told very few people about this blog, and am  largely writing for myself, I recently had a reader in Australia, and that makes it readers from thirteen countries so far. I can’t help having positive thoughts about this. The reason that I’m writing this now is because of a post in the blog Coming of Age. I was directed to the blog I forget how and when, but I did register as a follower, the writer, Keith, reciprocated, and has commented here on a few occasions. I couldn’t recommend his blog highly enough, particularly his longer essays. He has the advantage over me, of course, in that in writing about religion he comes from the perspective of a former believer, and I’ve found that former believers give that understanding that someone like myself is missing, even if it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate how such people were believers in the first place.

Keith has commented here on the positive qualities of naturalism and also here about the positive nature of non-belief insofar as morality is not dependent on revelation or the supernatural. Incidentally, like Keith, I also had a robin’s nest in my garden last year. The baby robins, once they had learned to fly, soon disappeared and I have no idea what happened to them. I also had a turtle dove’s nest in a tree in the garden last year. I watched two baby doves grow up from eggs to chicks to fledglings for a few months, but unfortunately as soon as they grew up enough to venture outside their tree a buzzard came down and took them away. It’s maybe a reflection of my own comfortable life that I think of this as the worst thing that happened to me last year.

Keith speaks of the “positive aspects of the naturalist worldview”. I certainly agree with that sentiment, and did so even before I could articulate that my personal worldview was naturalistic. The realisation that the natural universe is all there is acts as a spur to a discovery of that natural universe, and an appreciation of the real natural and social forces that comprise our existence. It could be argued that Newton and Galileo and many other scientific giants made “God’s creation” a centrepiece of their endeavours (and they certainly have contributed to human knowledge infinitely more than I ever will), but, in a reversal of the typical dichotomy presented by theologians, this approach might answer the “how” but not the “why”.

Adam Lee, some years ago, articulately expressed the positivity of his worldview. He made a mistake, as the comments section makes clear, in attributing to his views to atheism. Atheism, being a negation, isn’t a positive basis for anything – because it’s a description of what someone is not, or what he doesn’t think. The absence of a particular view might preclude some positive thoughts, but leave many more open. Nonetheless, from Lee’s perspective (and mine), the idea that some believe that we are living under a predetermined celestial dictatorship is cause for a lack of positiveness, and he develops his positive worldview somewhat from the opposite of what he sees as a negative one. This is not generally how the theists see things. From their perspective the thoughts that sins not go unpunished, morality is absolute (in the sense of being revealed by an absolute authority) and death is not final gives them cause for hope.

On participating in Christian internet forums I quickly realised that the arguments in favour of the metaphysical existence of God were secondary to the (mostly non-) arguments in favour of the effect belief or non-belief would have on the believer or non-believer. The atheists of the FFF were forever being told not so much that their belief in the existence of God was wrong so much as to where that belief would lead them. Both Jerry Coyne and Eric McDonald have commented recently on Christian arguments informed by what are in effect the theologians’ atheists of choice – Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, in support of their own beliefs, where they somehow miss the point that atheism isn’t the property of those three. In particular, a poster called Stasis Point, who fancied himself much cleverer than he actually was, had an inventory of so-called negative attributes, which I termed the “well-poisoner’s list”, and upon which he wasted much time trying to pin on atheists. I began to realise that it was pointless trying to make the obvious logical inferences that a negation of one view doesn’t clearly define the positive attributes of the person doing the negating, and that’s one reason I don’t hang around there any more. (See here – works as a cure for insomnia).

So Stasis (and just about everybody else there, in fewer words) argued against atheism on the basis that from their perspective it leads to negative values, especially when put alongside their own positive values. But it’s possible to take almost any view and ascribe positive values to it. I don’t think, like some atheists, that objective values don’t exist (that belief itself is another nail in the coffin of the stereotypical theist view), and I don’t think that objectivity and subjectivity are necessarily mutually antagonistic. But all our views are subjective by definition, even if they are also objective or based on facts – which I take to be true states independent of our consciousness. The upshot is that we all (or most of us) are comfortable with the beliefs we have and express this comfort by emphasising the positive consequences of these beliefs. As we don’t share the beliefs of others, we tend to see their beliefs as essentially negative, while sometimes failing to make the connection that this negativity is negativity only in our own terms. Obviously it’s perfectly possible not to be comfortable with one’s own beliefs, and therefore to experience an internal conflict, which would lead to a period of “soul-searching” which is more often that not a transitory phase.

This doesn’t mean that Keith, or myself, or even Stasis Point (albeit his arguments are ludicrous) are wrong. The values that naturalism espouses – accepting that different naturalists have different values -  could well be objectively positive, and for myself, I do believe this and therefore agree more-or-less completely with Keith.

But it seems that arguments for or against the existence of God are more often than not couched in terms of arguments for and against religion, and for and against claims of the positive or detrimental affects of belief. God is not Great, at least, accepts this distinction and argues forcefully against the societal claims of religion. Sadly, theists in general, while more often than not making claims about their religion rather than their god, don’t seem to have thought things out in quite the same way. But this is unsurprising as the claims purporting to the betterment of the natural fate of humankind under belief depend on the existence of the supernatural. While I accept that religious belief systems have historically demonstrated a way that we humans have related to the universe,  without that supernatural component they are nothing and therefore we can’t take their claims of positivity seriously.

One response to “On a Positive Note…

  • Keith

    Thanks for the positive words, it means a lot.

    If my own experience is anything to go by, most believers remain sheltered from the cutting edge of the atheism/theism debate. Indeed, many believers (like the populace in general) may not be particularly well practiced in conducting serious intellectual arguments, regardless of the topic. They may therefore be more likely to reach for whatever is easily within their grasp, for example their emotions, and the details of their particular religious experiences. Perhaps this helps to explain the common conflation between arguments for God and arguments for the benefits of religiosity.

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