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.


Rhonda Byrne’s The Power: Is The Packaging The Problem?

A common reason people attack The Secret (and now, Rhonda Byrne's sequel, The Power) is that it promotes a self-centered and "consumerist" attitude.  Byrne, critics say, encourages us to focus on "manifesting" luxury cars, expensive shoes, and so on, rather than on helping others.

It's true that the Law of Attraction is often packaged as something we can use to improve our own lives, rather than those of others.  The publisher's description of The Power, for example, proclaims that "perfect health, incredible relationships, a career you love, a life filled with happiness, and the money you need to be, do, and have everything you want, all come from The Power."

On the other hand, we can certainly imagine people using the Law of Attraction (assuming, for the moment, that it works) to serve others.  Perhaps we might visualize a sick relative getting better, hungry people receiving food, or a dangerous tropical storm abating -- just as Buddhists pray for the wellness of all beings in Metta, or loving kindness, meditation.

So, I suspect many critics' real gripe with the Law of Attraction has to do with the "self-centered" way they think it's marketed, rather than the concept itself.

The "Opportunity Cost" of Spirituality

To be sure, some critics recognize that the Law of Attraction -- again, assuming it works -- can potentially be used to help others.  The real problem, they say, is that it obviously doesn't work.  Wishing a tropical storm won't devastate a town simply won't have any effect.

Even if this critique is right, I think it's open to the objection "so what?"  People do all kinds of pointless activities, such as (in my opinion) watching reality TV and tweeting about what they ate for breakfast.  Even assuming it accomplishes nothing, why is visualizing the improvement of others' lives more problematic?

This is where some charge that trying to "manifest" what we want isn't just a waste of time -- it's socially harmful, because every minute we spend visualizing is a minute we could have used taking concrete action to help somebody.

Interestingly, this is the same objection we often see critics of "mainstream religion" making.  People who pray to God to relieve suffering in the world are misguided, the critics say, because there is no God.  But more importantly, churchgoers are squandering time they could be spending on real charitable work.  (This is the sort of thing we often hear from "New Atheist" Sam Harris.)

Religious People Give More

If this argument is right, we should expect religious people to do less charitable giving than unbelievers.  While believers are uselessly propitiating their imaginary sky-god, atheists are down in the trenches, solving real people's problems -- right?

Actually, much evidence suggests the opposite:  religious people tend to be more generous than unbelievers.  In Who Really Cares, a study of charitable donation, economist Arthur C. Brooks found that religious belief was the strongest predictor of giving to charity among the factors he looked at -- more so than any political orientation, age group or race.

So, while it may be true that believers spend time in worship that nonbelievers don't, it seems religious people nonetheless find the time to do more giving.  But why?

One plausible explanation I've heard is that religious people are happier.  They feel more secure, and grateful, living in a universe they see as orderly and benevolent.  And psychological studies have found that happier people tend to give more generously.

In any case, all this suggests that we shouldn't be too quick to conclude that adherents of the Law of Attraction are less likely to be charitable, simply because they believe their thoughts can affect reality.  Of course, because the ideas in The Secret are different in many ways from traditional religion, we shouldn't necessarily assume The Secret's followers are more giving either.

We'll explore this issue in more depth soon.


Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 3: Compassion And Justice

We've been talking about the claim, commonly made by critics of personal growth, that self-development techniques are "selfish" because they only benefit the person using them.  As I noted earlier, there's a good deal of evidence that effective personal growth practices actually help us develop more compassion and generosity toward others.  So, it seems to me, personal development can actually serve as a source of positive social change.

Why don't the critics see it this way?  Why do they often treat personal development as, in fact, an obstacle to "social justice"?  My sense is that they, like much of Western political philosophy, think of justice as a set of abstract rules to follow.  Our society, in this view, will be good and just once it starts complying with the right set of rules.

For people who are usually called conservatives, these rules are mostly concerned with preventing forms of violence like killing and theft.  A just society, from this perspective, is one where that conduct is minimized.  For those who tend to be called liberals, the rules are more about how resources are distributed -- to them, a just society is one where the right distribution of money, medical care, and so on exists.

Justice:  Just A Philosophical Abstraction?

For all their differences, these models of justice have at least one thing in common, which is that they treat the way people feel about each other as irrelevant.  Even if citizens of a given society don't care one whit about each other, that society is nonetheless just if it follows the correct rules -- whether through preventing violence, equitably parceling out resources, or something else.

Given these typical ways of thinking, it's no surprise that critics of personal growth see self-development practices as basically irrelevant to achieving justice.  Meditating, for example, may well make people more compassionate, but that emotion alone does nothing to further the cause of a just society.  If anything, practices like meditation waste time that could be better spent fighting real-world injustice.  As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in Bright-Sided, "why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"

At best, if meditation causes people to be kinder, people may do more charitable giving, and thus advance the goal of equitably dividing resources.  But that's hardly the most efficient path to a fair distribution of wealth.  Why not simply have the government take some people's property and give it to others?  Meditation, from this perspective, is an inadequate and unnecessary solution to the problem of inequality.

Abstract Justice In A Non-Abstract World

In the real world, we can see this mentality in communist countries' approach to achieving justice.  To Marxist thinkers, practices for finding inner peace do nothing but distract people from the quest for equality.  Thus, Marxist regimes banned religious and spiritual institutions and practices, from the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union to the Falun Gong movement in China.

These countries' history, I think, illustrates the danger of seeing justice as nothing more than a set of rules for preventing coercion or distributing wealth.  These regimes treated abstract concepts of justice as more important than the lives of actual people, and killed and imprisoned millions they saw as standing in the way of their ideal society.  I think this history shows that, when compassion our inner experience is taken as irrelevant to justice, justice itself becomes a monstrosity.

Compassion Is Critical To Justice

It's important to realize, I think, that compassion is not only relevant to justice -- it's actually the foundation of justice.  Our rules of right and wrong stem from our instinctual concern and respect for each other.  The reason people want a society without killing and stealing, or with a certain distribution of wealth, is because they see such a society as the best vehicle for relieving human suffering.

Of course, as human beings, we are not always in touch with our sense of compassion.  We're also aggressive, competitive, and survival-oriented creatures.  When those drives completely take over, we're unconcerned with others' suffering, and we think only of our own survival and power.

When we're under the sway of these instincts, no abstract principles will keep us from harming others.  Reminding a mugger of the Golden Rule, for example, probably won't stop him from taking your money.  What's more, as in the communist regimes I described, concepts of justice themselves can be used as a weapon, justifying mass murder in the name of "equality" and "fairness."

How Personal Growth Can Help

This is why, I think, merely following the right set of abstract principles isn't enough to create a just society.  As legal scholar Robin West puts it in Caring For Justice, it's important to recognize the "injustice -- not the justice -- of divorcing the pursuit of justice from natural inclination, from the sentient, felt bonds of friendship, and from the moral dictates incident to the pull of fellow feeling."

Instead, we must experience -- firsthand, viscerally, in the body -- the emotions and instincts at the root of those principles.  We must actually feel compassion for one another -- not simply make and follow a logically consistent set of rules.

At their best, I think, personal growth practices help us genuinely experience concern for each other.  Techniques like meditation and yoga work to accomplish this goal at a level deeper than the rational mind, which is why intellectuals are often wary of them.  But I think they're worth taking seriously if we truly want a more peaceful world.

Other Posts In This Series: