Archive for the ‘Ernest Becker’ Category

Catholicism: Why the Sheep are Scattering

August 11, 2013
Avenging Angel

Avenging Angel

by Doughlas Remy

Without fear, shame and the concept of hell, the church would pretty much be out of business. Or at least out of the business they’re presently in.   –Dean Hansen

I think Dean Hansen has it exactly right: “Without fear, shame, and the concept of Hell, the [Catholic] Church would pretty much be out of business.”

Conservative Catholics writers and bloggers routinely use the threat of eternal damnation as their ultimate trump card when they feel cornered by demands for change. The threat is usually covert, thinly veiled by references to “judgment,” “pleasing God,” “consequences of sin,” and “being lost.” The avowed purpose of these allusions is to encourage sinners to secure their salvation while there is still time. Their real and obvious purpose, however, is to stoke feelings of existential Angst about death, guilt, and the Final Reckoning. Once believers are “primed” with such thoughts, the institutional Church is positioned to influence their behavior.

However, these fear dynamics are no longer as effective as they were when the Church’s authority on matters of faith and morals went virtually unquestioned. Western Catholics are now, by and large, well-educated and cosmopolitan. They live in pluralistic societies where monotheisms co-mingle more or less comfortably precisely because the hard edges of absolutist faith have been progressively worn down by commerce, communications, and a worldview increasingly informed by science and reason.

The threat of damnation has lost its sting. We are now all Universalists: the idea of an exclusionary heaven loses its appeal once we see people of other faiths—or of no faith—as “like us,” no better and no worse. None of us seriously believes that the Dalai Lama is an evil man deserving of eternal punishment, or that only a select few (i.e., those who espouse our own particular views) will enter that “strait” gate into Paradise. These archaic ideas have been seen for what they are: naive, tribalistic, solipsistic, and profoundly divisive. Their power to leverage Catholics’ behavior and unify the Church has waned. The old sheep dog has lost its teeth, and the sheep are scattering.

Conservative Catholics—those who have held fast to the modalities of fear and shame—sometimes express their bewilderment about the pace of change in the actual beliefs and practices of Catholic laity, a laity that, in the U.S. and several predominantly Catholic countries, has supported same-sex marriage and access to contraception despite the fulminations of the bishops. What they seem not to understand is that the majority of Catholics in these countries have become “father-deaf,” so to speak. They simply ignore what they are instructed to do, without any fear of consequences. They have looked behind the curtain and seen who the wizard really is.

The Uses of Fear

January 21, 2013

by Adam Lee (excerpted from “Notable (and Notorious) Examples of the Christian Right’s Failed Prophecies,” published on Alternet, 1-21/13)

You may notice that, other than the self-serving predictions of their own success, most of the religious right’s prophecies are of disaster and calamity. They almost never forecast greater peace, increased prosperity or the advance of democracy and human rights. There’s a good reason for this.

The religious right as a movement thrives on fear, because it depends on the unthinking obedience of its followers, and fearful people are far easier to shepherd and control. A person who fears the worst will follow anyone who promises security and relief from that fear: it’s not difficult to persuade them to donate money, follow marching orders, or vote as instructed if it will turn back the imaginary evils that menace them.

This has been an effective strategy, but it means that secularists and progressives can win people over if we offer them freedom from fear. And the best way to do that is to point out that the prophets of doom have failed over and over again. Normally their followers are only too happy to count the hits and ignore the misses, but when the evidence is all collected in one place, the conclusion becomes much harder to ignore: the people who claim to be the conduits of God’s will are scam artists, falsely claiming to know things they don’t know. Whether they’re intentionally lying or sincerely deluded makes no difference.

Read the entire article here.

Agree or Disagree? Dangers of Unverifiable Beliefs

October 18, 2011

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. (Voltaire)

From Steven Pinker’s, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: (pp. 139-140)

Human sacrifice and witch burnings are just two examples of the harm that can result from pursuing ends that involve figments of the imagination. Another may be seen in psychotics who kill in pursuit of a delusion, such as Charles Manson’s plan to hasten an apocalyptic race war … But the greatest damage comes from religious beliefs that downgrade the lives of flesh-and-blood people, such as the faith that suffering in this world will be rewarded in the next, or that flying a plane into a skyscraper will earn the pilot 72 virgins in heaven. … The belief that one may escape from an eternity in hell only by accepting Jesus as a savior makes it a moral imperative to coerce people into accepting that belief and to silence anyone who might sow doubt about it.

A broader range of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them—or worse, who credibly rebut them—they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

Heroism in the Immanent Frame

July 9, 2010

This post is a follow-up to the previous one, where I mentioned Charles Taylor’s concept of the “immanent frame”–the secular sphere that hosts and mediates discourse–including discourse about religion–in a democratic and pluralistic society. In that post, I used the writings of Ernest Becker to support my view that discourse about religion, even under the optimal conditions of the immanent frame, may always threaten to break that frame because of the strong emotions that are involved. The following quotation (from Becker’s “Denial of Death”) may help us understand why rational and dispassionate debate is sometimes so difficult to achieve.

It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.

The question that becomes then the most important one that man can put to himself is simply this: how conscious is he of what he is doing to earn his feeling of heroism? I suggested that if everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due—a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations? Only those societies we today call “primitive” provided this feeling for their members. The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically. This is why their insistent claims are so troublesome and upsetting: how do we do such an “unreasonable” thing within the ways in which society is now set up? “They are asking for the impossible” is the way we usually put our bafflement.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Civil Discourse in the “Immanent Frame”

July 6, 2010

Ivan Strenski, in a recent essay entitled “Does the Sacred Need Saving?” (Religion Dispatches, 7/2/10), comments on philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The following excerpt will give some flavor of the essay: 

It is not the sacred known as Nirvana, Yahweh, Atman-Brahman, the Dao and such that Taylor seeks to “save” so much as another which he believes may be said to be a worthy successor to them in “our secular age.” …For present purposes, Taylor seeks to outline the nature of a “minimal religion,” a religion that seeks to be honest to the new order of scientific knowledge upon which our world rests — the “immanent frame” that contains our life and thought — but which also resists the sense of enclosure that comes with “scientism.”

I sent a friend a link to the essay. Here is part of his response: 

Religion, more often than not, is where people of faith believe they are staking their lives and immortal “souls” on an idea. They are deeply invested with it. It’s hard to be egalitarian in the ordering of such values. If they can be made to feel they’re wrong, without replacing the error with something of equal value and gravitas, then their life is placed in serious psychological jeopardy. No one participates in that kind of disorientation willingly or without strong resistance. Therefore, getting them to change their mind through “civil” discourse is an overwhelming challenge to whatever belief they’ve formed. If the conversation becomes coercive, even under the enlightened label of shared ideas, it’s unlikely that anyone, who has devoted the lion’s share of their thought process to what they believe constitutes the central meaning of their lives is going to trade off their own version of reality for someone else’s,  unless they can be rationally conned. As the old saw goes, you can’t be reasoned out of a belief you weren’t reasoned into.  To attempt it is to part from reason. How much civility can you ultimately find in that scenario?

My friend has a point. Clearly, most of us are too invested in our worldviews to engage in the kind of civil discourse that Charles Taylor envisions for what he calls our new “immanent frame”—our secular, open society. Ernest Becker and the Terror Management Theory (TMT) researchers got it right: these worldviews are not just intellectual constructs that we readily revise as new evidence becomes available or superior arguments are presented. Rather, they are our lifeline to a sense of meaning, without which our whole narcissistic enterprise of victory over death may collapse. No threat to them—whether coercive or discursive—can be taken lightly.

Whatever our particular worldview may be, it includes scripts for heroism large and small. These scripts tell us how to make a meaningful contribution—how to achieve something for which we will be remembered, whether it’s dying in battle, faithfully following a body of religious teachings, flawless performing a Mozart sonata, or just getting the kids to soccer practice on time. Our reward for these achievements is self-esteem—a precious and fragile commodity that many of us, alas, value more than life itself. Woe unto anyone who suggests that our sense of self-worth is undeserved, that we screwed up, or that our heroic scripts have led us down the path toward error.

Nor should anyone dare suggest that our worldview, which manages all these scripts and the rewards for following them, is factually or morally flawed. Any challenge—even the mere presence of someone who sees things differently—can imperil our self-esteem and the success of our immortality projects. The more vulnerable we feel, the more fearful, defensive, or even aggressive we may become. So we surround ourselves with people who not only validate our views but reward us for validating theirs. We obsess over ideological “purity” and may stop at nothing to cleanse our cohorts of dissent. “I believe” becomes the password for admission into the fold. Proofs and professions of faith may be required to assure our continued inclusion there.

This vision of the human condition—extreme as it seems in places—will not sound exaggerated to anyone who has moved between open, pluralistic societies and closed ones. It describes all of us, but particularly those who subscribe to dogmatic political or theological schemes that offer “salvation” of whatever sort we require—eternity in paradise or a lasting monument to our significance, a statue in the public square. Never mind that the penalty for apostasy may range from social opprobrium to eternal damnation. The rewards are worth the risks, and all that is required is submission.

I am of course expressing my bias, but I’ll go ahead and own it. Accepting one’s own mortality brings a certain measure of relief from the pressures of immortality projects—all of which entail some level of cognitive dissonance and alienation from reality… because, after all, we will all die and eventually be forgotten. This alienation may be extreme in the case of religious beliefs about resurrections and eternal life, slight where we attempt to cheat death through fame or public service, and slighter still where our only project is to pass on our genes. None of this is necessarily problematic, and much of it contributes to human flourishing. But problems arise when death denial requires elaborate delusional schemes that actually harm our chances for survival. I can think of no clearer example than our current ecological crisis, which continues to be upstaged by religious end-times scenarios that are without any basis in reality. Scientists are warning of civilizational collapse by the end of this century if we do not reverse global warming trends immediately. To look at this event is to look at our own deaths, and so we do not look. Instead, we switch to the Bible Channel for something a little more upbeat—a childish apocalyptic scenario in which we are eternally rewarded and our enemies are eternally damned. And meanwhile, global temperatures continue to rise, the seas become more acidic, and the world’s glaciers recede, creating the conditions for unprecedented water crises in many regions of the world.

One of the reasons I am drawn to the secularist/materialist worldview—besides the fact that it seems rooted in reality—is that it removes eternal life from the equation. Secular humanists do not go chasing after immortality in the literal sense, and if we happen to have understood the nature of secular immortality projects, we may “lighten up” on those as well. All this amounts to what some have called “practice in dying” (not quite like practicing so that we can get to Carnegie Hall…). While such realism offers less “comfort” than religious worldviews, it also removes a very large impediment to seeing the world as it is. Our survival beyond the present century will depend on clear vision above everything else.

“But is it necessary to be so aggressive?” is a question often put to secularists. I can propose two answers. First, characterizing another individual’s behaviors as “aggressive” sometimes reflects a cognitive bias of the type, “I’m thrifty, he’s a tightwad” (where the behaviors are identical). Is the behavior really aggressive, or is it only assertive and self-affirming? In some communities, lesbians who walk down the street holding hands are accused of being “in-your-face” though they are doing nothing that straight couples do not also do. And second, aggressive responses are sometimes appropriate. Some worldviews contribute to human flourishing, while others do not. Some heroic scripts have proven their value and deserve to be propagated, while others are toxic remnants of ancient tribal societies or medieval feudal ones and have no place in a modern pluralistic and democratic society. When Pat Robertson declares that the Haitians are themselves responsible for a powerful hurricane that has devastated their country, he is drawing scripts from ancient tribal beliefs about a vengeful god. These scripts and his decision to use them deserve our strongest censure. When Iranian clerics sentence an adulterous woman to hanging, every civilized person should protest. 

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” said Voltaire.

If you believe selective pruning is possible, then perhaps there’s no need to hack down the whole tree. But many skeptics wonder what would remain of Catholicism or of Islam if all their absurdities and their failed and dangerous practices were eliminated. What would a Catholic any longer “be” without saints, popes, miracles, guilt, homophobia, and bans on contraception? Would he or she look like a Congregationalist or a Unitarian? And would we even recognize Islam if all its odious tribal, patriarchal, and misogynistic elements were removed?


Okay, remain a Catholic, but please support deep reform of church doctrine pertaining to papal authority, clerical secrecy and celibacy, contraception, homosexuality, sex education, and the ordination of women. Your silence and your financial support of the Church are interpreted as assent or indifference.


Okay, be a Muslim, but please speak out against female genital mutilation, forced marriages, stonings, persecutions of homosexuals, fatwas against writers and artists, and promises of virgins in paradise to young men who martyr themselves. Your silence about these horrors is interpreted as assent.


And if either of you claims you can’t do any of these things because God, Allah, tradition, or the Bible forbids, then I have a few remarks about the authority you’re citing.


You see, one begins pruning and soon one is poised to cut down the tree at its base. “One cannot be just a little bit heretical,” says Christopher Hitchens.


Upping the ante to a challenge about bedrock faith is sometimes unavoidable in conversations where someone’s positions about real-world matters are uniquely faith-based, or where personal faith is the fall-back position, the argument of last resort. Dismissing or critiquing another person’s most closely-held personal beliefs has long been considered taboo. However, the strong emotions and sensitivities associated with these beliefs do not constitute an argument; the victims of religious beliefs also have their feelings. “God is not an object of inquiry,” one blogger recently cautioned me, as if to say, “Back off. You’re approaching the Sacred” (which, like the Pope, does not grant interviews). But the stakes are too high to back away. There are too many casualties. The fortress may need to be stormed—discursively, of course, provided the conversants are willing to remain in the conversation.


We have good reason to hope that the secular open society can continue to manage all these tensions as it has done in the past. If civil discourse sometimes seems stretched to its breaking-point in its secular frame, we must at least recognize that it will not flourish for long in any other one.

Abortion is not Genocide

September 16, 2009

by Cheryl Maslow

During the course of an extended blog discussion about a wide range of issues, including abortion (see comments following several posts on Gil Bailie’s blog log, Reflections on Faith and Culture, from July through September 2009), I noticed that several writers in the group were describing abortion as murder or as genocide. This is standard pro-life rhetoric, and it is hyperbolic. Both of these words have straightforward dictionary and legal definitions that make them unsuitable for describing abortion. Then, an exchange between two of the participants, Paul and Athos (following the post of 9/6/09), stirred up my thoughts about a book I read over a year ago: Carolyn Marvin’s “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.” Marvin argues that collective victimage constructs American national identity, and she develops her ideas out of a reading of René Girard and Emil Durkheim. But I sensed that many of her insights have implications for the abortion issue and its weighting against other issues that we discussed on the blog, particularly climate change, income disparity, and health care. Because both Paul and Athos had read René Girard and understood the sacrificial mechanism he illuminates, I decided to spin out my thoughts about abortion as sacrifice and to challenge the notion that abortion is genocide. My motive was less to defend abortion than to develop my intuition that not all sacrifice involves scapegoating. The following paragraphs are a revised and expanded version of a three-part comment that I submitted. A basic familiarity with Girard’s mimetic theory is helpful in reading them.

Athos writes: “When a conventional culture begins to break down, it tries to surcharge its victimary mechanism by either increasing the prestige of its victims or number of victims: regicide or genocide. … We’re in the latter stage, and we’re sacrificing our unborn children.”

The word “genocide” seems misapplied when used to describe abortion. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group, according to Merriam-Webster.) This is not just a quibble over definitions. We have a much better chance of understanding both abortion and genocide as sacrificial phenomena if we make careful distinctions.

Athos was of course correct in describing the pre-born as “defenseless, innocent, and voiceless.” I say “of course” because both the pre-born and infants are universally regarded in this way—squalling infants on buses excepted. This doesn’t prevent their being killed in abortions and wartime bombings or neglected to the point of starvation or disease-related death. I am not the first to point out that caring for the pre-born and the newly-born requires caring for the mothers that are carrying or nursing them, for the fathers that support these mothers financially and emotionally, and even for the broader society and ecology that sustains them all. This means that the abortion issue is also the health care issue and the income disparity issue and the environmental quality issue. And it is a part of a vast web of many other issues as well.

How many millions of the unborn or newly born have suffered and died in the Sahel because of water shortages resulting from mismanagement and over-exploitation of resources? These deaths could have been prevented, but tribes and sovereign nations decided that other matters were more important. This is sacrifice, but it’s not necessarily “victimage” in the Girardian sense. These deaths did not restore harmony to a community in crisis as the victimage mechanism does. Rather, the powerful (the state, multinational corporations, tribal leaders, warlords, etc.) decided that these individuals were expendable, and the cause-effect relationship went missing in time, space, and human memory.


New Orientation, But Still Bent

September 11, 2009

I originally intended this blog to serve as a forum for discussion of gay and lesbian (or more broadly, GLBT) issues. Hence the name, “The Bent Angle.” I started a companion site as a container for discussion of secular humanist issues and called it “The Bright Angle.” The bright angle remained dim from lack of input from me, while this site lit up to a dull glow for a while.

And then it struck me that I have too many “angles” to create a separate blog container for each of them. They have a way of “triangulating” (or rectangulating, pentagulating, etc.) around events and issues that capture my interest. Since the mid-seventies, I’ve read widely in the mimetic theory of René Girard and, more recently, I’ve become interested in Richard Dawkins’s meme theory. And then there’s Ernest Becker, whose writings I came to know through friends at the Ernest Becker Foundation, which holds its annual conferences in my city. But these are just the “angles.” Then there are the events and issues themselves. Recent blog discussions with people whose views are radically different from my own have inspired me to read and think more deeply about climate change and the environment, reproductive rights, health care, human rights abuses, and the clash of cultures. These various strands of angles and issues have a way of becoming interwoven through everything that I write, and I’ve given up trying to keep them separate. Tapestries are more interesting than cloth of a single color.  

So, to abruptly switch metaphors, this site will henceforth be a salad. The ingredients will be fresh, I hope, and they will consist of whatever is in season. I intend to occasionally bring in other writers to vary the menu. Our first guest will be Cheryl Maslow, whose insightful comments I discovered on a blog site dedicated in part to discussions of mimetic theory.