DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Circumcision Ban And The New Atheism

You've probably heard about a recent campaign in San Francisco, California to put a measure on the ballot banning circumcision.  I think this campaign illustrates some of the troubling assumptions people are increasingly making about spirituality in our culture, and I'm going to look at some of those assumptions in this post.

Lloyd Schofield, who started the campaign, explains the ban by saying that "it's a man's body, and his body doesn't belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents."  Thus, according to Schofield, forcibly removing a male baby's foreskin is immoral.

Religion Isn't Like A Nose Job

This argument may sound good on the surface, but if we examine it more closely, we can see that it proves too much.  What about situations where surgery is required to save an infant's life?  Should such operations be banned because "it's the infant's body" and no one has the right to invade it?  I think most people would say no.

But this, I'm sure Schofield would respond, doesn't undermine the ban, because circumcision is never (as far as I know) needed to save babies' lives.  Instead, he has said, it's more like "cosmetic surgery." No one should be forced to get a facelift, the argument goes, and the same principle applies here.

The trouble with this argument is that, for many, if not most, of the people who choose to have their babies circumcised, the procedure is not akin to cosmetic surgery at all.  It's a religious requirement.  If you believed, as these people do, that God exists, He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, and He wants you to circumcise your child, I don't think you'd see it as a trivial matter.

In other words, when we unpack the rationale for the circumcision ban a bit, we can see that it's based on an idea hostile to religion:  that religious practices are just as frivolous and unnecessary as cosmetic surgery.

If we want to have an honest debate about this law, I think we need to acknowledge that it's based on anti-religious assumptions of the sort we often see in the writings of "New Atheists" like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and ask the ban's proponents to justify those assumptions.

The False "Religion Vs. Morality" Distinction

But there's a deeper, and more problematic, assumption behind the ban -- the notion that the ban is justified by moral principles that are separate from, and superior to, religious beliefs.  "People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else's body," says Schofield.

Again, this sounds convincing at first, but let's take a closer look.  Where do the ban's defenders get the moral rule that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body?"

Did they learn this through scientific observation?  No.  As philosophers have often pointed out, moral principles are different from laws of nature like the law of gravity -- we can't learn what's right and wrong by conducting experiments.

Some might argue that Schofield is expressing moral values most people share.  However, even assuming most people buy the principle that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body," that doesn't make the principle true.  To use a timeworn argumentum ad Hitlerum, a majority of the German people may have supported Hitler's rise to power, but I think you'd agree that doesn't mean it was a good thing.

My point is:  it's far from obvious that the principle "your religious practice ends with someone else's body" is somehow more valid than the religious view "God commands me to circumcise my child."  Neither principle is more "neutral" than the other, and there's no good reason to dismiss the second one just because it contains the word "God."

I suspect we'll see more and more legislation influenced by "New Atheist" ideas being proposed, and I think we need to understand those ideas and the role they're playing if we want to have a fully informed discussion about these laws.


Can Politics And Science Cure All Ills?

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled, but I was inspired to write here again after my recent review, on my other blog, of Robert Augustus MastersSpiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters.

Spiritual Bypassing is about how we tend to use spiritual practice to escape from, rather than confront, our psychological wounds.  One thing that particularly struck me in the book was Masters’ statement that, ideally, spiritual practice is about releasing everything in our lives from the “obligation to make us feel better.”

The point is that spirituality is certainly far from the only thing people use to “take the edge off” their pain.  Drugs are another obvious example, but there are subtler and more “socially acceptable” examples as well.  I regularly notice instances of what I’d call “political bypassing” and “scientific bypassing” in our culture.

To illustrate the former, some people I know came close to hailing Obama as a messiah when he was elected — looking, for the next few days, like they were in a spiritually-inspired state of bliss, and their personal tribulations were healed or at least put out of their minds.  (Ironically, the same people usually scoff at the mere mention of spirituality, associating it with evangelical Christians and/or Republicans.)

Most importantly for our purposes, we can also see the embrace of political and scientific “bypassing” among critics of personal growth and spirituality.

Political Bypassing and Personal Growth

I’ve commented before on personal growth critics who basically claim — much like Marx — that the main source of discontent among human beings is economic inequality.  Personal development distracts people from this issue, by encouraging them to focus on their private achievements and relationships.  Thus, self-development is not only ineffective — it retards social progress.

These critics’ vitriol often obscures the wide-eyed idealism of their basic assumption:  that, if everybody only had equal material resources, nobody would suffer again.  No more loneliness, depression, or alienation for the human race, ever.

If the notion that spirituality can address all our “issues” is unrealistic, I think, the same can surely be said of the utopian notion that state-mandated “equality” will cure all human ills.

Scientific Bypassing and Spirituality

As for scientific bypassing, I think we can see this in the “New Atheist” critiques of religion that have been so popular over the last few years, by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  These critics say that spirituality and science/reason are in irreconcilable conflict, and we’d have a much better world if we only discarded the former and embraced the latter.

One problem these critics face is that science seems incapable of answering moral questions.  Some have no problem with this, and simply deny the existence of objective morality, because “there’s no scientific evidence for it.”  But this answer is instinctively unsatisfying for many people — to use a timeworn example, can we really accept the idea that Nazi medical experiments on prisoners weren’t objectively wrong?

Others respond that science can, at least, tell us what actions and policies will advance “human flourishing” — how to eat nutritiously, for example.  However, these critics need to explain why our actions should serve the goal of human flourishing at all — why shouldn’t kangaroo or algae flourishing be our priority?  Science can’t tell us why we ought to prefer the well-being of one species to that of another.

My point is that I think it’s important to be wary of “bypassing” — relying on one particular practice or institution to “make us feel better” — in all areas of human life.  The realm of spirituality and personal development certainly isn’t the only place where this happens.