Rush Kidder and the Secular Souls

Recent political arguments over religion have turned light on a welter of anxieties about irreligiousness in the United States. As seen on the stump, Republican presidential hopefuls have taken to upbraiding unbelief, or what Newt Gingrich denounced last month as “the growing culture of radical secularism.” Less incendiary but equally worried assessments have come from even-tempered observers like Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon. She wrote earlier this month in America magazine that the “changing religious landscape in the United States … should set off alarm bells” together with what she considers the current assault on religious liberty. The landscape Glendon fears is one with fewer Americans, notably young people, claiming a religious affiliation.

In moments like this it’s useful to go back to first principles. Why should political leaders be so concerned about the growing presence of the undevout? What would be the compelling public interest in throttling back this trend?

One reasonable answer would be that a good society depends on good people, and organized religion has traditionally been the primary source of public virtue. True enough, but there are other sources as well, secular traditions of moral reasoning reflected in philosophical and common sense ethics (more on that in a moment). In any case, what the worriers fail to appreciate is that the secular souls are among us. They’re here to stay—perhaps in greater numbers than ever. This simple fact would seem to call for a more pastoral approach to the nonreligious, as distinct from demonization or handwringing.

One person who understood this better and earlier than anyone was Rushworth Kidder, writer, ethicist, and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine. Word came last week that this author of such popular books as How Good People Make Tough Choices died of natural causes, at age 67. I chatted with Rush a few times over the years and interviewed him at length for a 2007 book I did with Bob Abernethy. We titled the section including his remarks, “The Good, without God.”

Rush himself was not without religion—he was a Christian Scientist and one-time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor. But he was keenly responsive to the many people who seek the ethical life apart from religion and spirituality; he spent much of his time over many years with them, in seminars he offered for schools, businesses, and other groups. When we spoke, I asked him about those people who do not have religious reasons for wanting to reason morally. Here’s part of his reply.

It’s probably the oldest question in moral philosophy—why be moral? After all, the manifest advantages of the immoral life are lying all around us. If you want something, just steal it. Why bother to be truthful if you could lie?

Probably the oldest answer to that question is—because that’s what God wants. That was, for a long time, the accepted and rather standard answer in the United States….

Here, in the early twenty-first century, it is still a powerful answer for a lot of people…. But it is not and cannot be allowed to be the only answer. We’re not willing to assume that people who don’t have that framework not only aren’t ethical, but can’t be ethical or in some ways don’t deserve to be ethical. There’s too much of a polyglot and varying theology in this country today, and there are too many people who deliberately have no theology for us to rule them out and say, “Yes, we’re assuming that when you don’t have a god, you don’t have ethics.”

… There are three major ways in which individuals resolve ethical dilemmas, and at least two of these come straight out of the largely secular tradition of moral philosophy. When somebody says, “Look, I try to do what’s best for everybody—the greatest good for the greatest number,” that person is drawing on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy. Using a different principle, the teacher who says to a five-year-old kid, “Gosh, Johnny, if I let you do that, I have to let everybody do it,” is actually speaking a fairly pure form of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative—the idea that the only viable moral decision is one which universalizes what you’re doing, so that if you can’t say you’d want everybody in the world to do what you’re about to do, then you’re about to make an unethical decision. Third, there’s the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—which typically comes to us from a religious source but is as commonplace as the Native American adage, “Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”

Just observing the twenty-five thousand people who have gone through our seminars in the past fifteen years, we find them resorting to these three standards again and again. So whether they know it or not, there’s a structure in place, and you’ll notice that nearly everything we’re talking about here has no reference to religion. And we’ve noticed there isn’t any salient distinction between the moral reasoning capacities of people who are religious and those who are not religious.

A Question about the Future

At the end of the interview, Rush added this caveat to his otherwise hopeful assessment of secular moral reasoning:

For me, the question is: Is it possible to lead the ethical life apart from the religious or spiritual life, without simply continuing to drain down the reservoir. In other words, I wonder whether we are, in fact, living off the accumulated moral capital of the past. That capital was largely put into place in a theological context. Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to lead the ethical life now and to help others lead that ethical life. But will we be effective at creating entire cultures of integrity, rather than little pockets of character throughout society, if we try to do it absent a set of theological constructs that posit a divine purpose underlying human ethics? I don’t know the answer to that. …read more

Friending Aristotle

Just in the past week, I’ve spoken at different times with two young people who happened to mention that they’ve deactivated their Facebook pages. “It’s already made me more intentional about relationships,” one Boston College student told me a few days after deciding to log off for good. Acting on one intention, she arranged to have lunch with a friend.

This student is not alone. In December the New York Times ran a piece about Facebook resisters: people who refuse to join or choose to drop out. The prototype for the story was a premed student in Oregon who had a chance encounter with a woman in an elevator. He had never met her, but through Facebook knew that she came from a remote island in Washington State and had recently visited Seattle’s signature tower, the Space Needle. He had also seen family pictures of her older brother.

“I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” the college student told Jenna Wortham of the Times (he and the woman in the elevator had real friends in common). “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.”

These Facebook defectors are grappling with questions both personal and philosophical—questions enlightened by Aristotle more than two millennia ago in his immortal Nicomachean Ethics. What is friendship? Who shall I count among my friends, and why?

At Boston College, political science professor Robert C. Bartlett teaches classes in Aristotle’s Ethics, and he finds that students are most drawn to Books VIII and IX, which deal with numerous aspects of friendship. These days, the question that brews in class is more or less: How many of my 675 friends on Facebook would be considered actual friends by Aristotle? The students can take a good guess at the answer if they’ve kept up with the reading.

Varieties of Friendship

Friends fall into three basic categories, according to Aristotle. There are friendships of utility, based largely on what the friends could do for each other. There are friendships of pleasure, which often bring people together because of a shared hobby or interest. And there are friendships of virtue (Aristotle’s favorite): You like someone because he or she is a good person. You and your friend help each other lead the good, as in ethical, life.

Which of these would best describe some typical Facebook friends, like the kid you ran track with in high school and haven’t heard a lot from since? Bartlett’s sober answer is: none.

Together with University of Houston political science professor Susan D. Collins, Bartlett analyzes Aristotle’s view of friendship in a commentary included in a new and well-received edition of the Ethics, translated by them and published by the University of Chicago Press. (I write about the translation project in the current issue of Boston College Magazine). One of their basic conclusions is that friendship, in Aristotle’s understanding, is active. A friend is a part of your life and has been for some time. As Bartlett and Collins put it, “Friends go through life together.” They wish the best for each other and do things for each other’s sake. (In that sense, all friendships call for virtue, even those based largely on utility and pleasure). And friends “share in sufferings and joys,” the two scholars add.

To the student who wonders about his hundreds of Facebook friends, Bartlett will say they can’t all be real friends; each one can’t be a meaningful part of your life. If that’s true, then what are these friended folks? Simply put, they’re acquaintances (at best), Bartlett submits.

Two Cheers for Acquaintanceships

Many of us would not want to end the conversation right there.

For one thing, acquaintanceships are far from valueless. They can be glimpsed in the rows of parents who unfold their chairs and chat pleasantly on the sidelines at soccer games, and the neighbors who together keep vigilant “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s evocative words. These are not necessarily friends, but they encounter one another along some of life’s familiar pathways. With any luck they help nurture a feeling of civic friendship.

And how should we think about the people with whom we once journeyed more profoundly through life? It’s hard to let go of the belief that our high school or college buddies from long ago are still our friends, even if we know little about their lives today that’s not posted on Facebook. As Bartlett notes, Aristotle assigns the tender feelings we may have for such people to the category of “goodwill,” not friendship. I hear you, Aristotle, but grope for a word richer than “goodwill” to account for the bonds that were, and—in ways not easy to name—continue to be.

All the same, everyone who desires a fuller appreciation of these questions will find a wise and discerning friend in Aristotle. “Without friends,” he writes in the Ethics, “no one would wish to live, even if he possessed all other goods.” …read more

The Man who Discovered Poverty

Michael Harrington

Interviewed by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien last month, Mitt Romney tried to make a point about the struggling middle class, first, by saying he’s not worried about the very rich (so far, so good), and then with this blooper: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” It took the Democratic National Committee all but a day to field an attack ad featuring the CNN spot. Few mentioned that Romney’s fumbled message has been more or less the Democratic Party’s mantra—We’re all about the middle class. You’d have to flip back quite a few pages of American political history to find a president who crisscrossed the country saying, We need to do something for the poor. That president was Lyndon Johnson, though he and many others at the time had a galvanizer—a man and a book.

In March 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States hit the bookstores with slim expectations of sales and influence. Almost instantly it became a publishing phenomenon, and less than two years later Business Week and other outlets were calling it a classic, as the historian Maurice Isserman recounts in the current issue of Dissent magazine. President Kennedy either read the book itself or a lengthy review of it published in the New Yorker in February 1963, and he was inspired to begin shaping a national response. This became, under Johnson, the War on Poverty.

Harrington’s book was a revelation to early-1960s America. It was an exposé of abject poverty in what many fancied as “the affluent society,” the title words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 book. Harrington introduced middle-class Americans to the “invisible land” of the poor, and the operative theme was their invisibility. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen,” he wrote.

The 50th anniversary of The Other America is attracting some attention this month, at a time of preoccupation with the economy but not with the poor. With the noteworthy exception of an upcoming conference at Holy Cross College (Harrington’s alma mater in Worcester, Massachusetts), probably less attention will be paid to Harrington’s moral and religious bearings. But these were the sensibilities that informed him, the sensibilities of a self-described Catholic atheist.

“Forever Backsliding”

Those words—“Catholic atheist”—reveal a taste for paradox that he absorbed from one of his favorite writers, the happy Catholic warrior G.K. Chesterton. Harrington was arguably the last influential American socialist; he died of cancer at age 61 in 1989. In his highly readable and probing biography The Other American (published in 2000), Isserman noted that Harrington could “never shed the influence” of Catholic teachings and habits of thought. It was Catholicism that gave the Marxist “a sense of moral gravity,” Isserman wrote.

Harrington was an only child of devout Irish Catholic parents who prospered in St. Louis (his father was a patent lawyer). As early as kindergarten, he would go hungry by slipping his lunch money into the missionary-donation box at St. Rose’s Parish, according to his biographer. But Catholics are “forever backsliding, de-converting,” Harrington observed in his 1988 autobiography The Long-Distance Runner. And so was he, though not forever.

In the late 1940s he lost his faith while studying literature in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He found it in New York during the early 1950s when he joined the Catholic Worker movement and became a favorite of its saintly founder, Dorothy Day. Harrington practiced voluntary poverty and ladled out soup to the Lower East Side’s homeless for a couple of years, before he concluded once and for all that he could not believe. He became a Marxist of the anticommunist variety, and remained one for the rest of his life.

Good-natured and uncommonly civil in ideological exchanges, Harrington had a lively intellect and a gift for the written and spoken words. He was able to “convey moral seriousness without lapsing into moralism,” Isserman notes in the Dissent piece. But his passions and talents were poorly spent on years of infighting in the terminally fractious socialist movement.

In 1972 he suffered a humiliating setback: a curious, pro-Vietnam War labor faction took over the Socialist Party, which Harrington headed. As Isserman points out, it might have been a good time for him to rethink his socialist commitments and strike out on his own as an independent social critic. Instead he chose to start all over again with a new democratic socialist organization. His explanation was oddly religious: “Protestants can, if need be, worship and serve God on their own; a Catholic needs infrastructure,” said Harrington, who raised two boys with his Jewish wife, Stephanie.

The Mumbling God

In The Long-Distance Runner, Harrington wrote that during his months of radiation treatment in 1985, he would hear an inner voice reciting Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord….” He said the voice even spoke in Latin: Magnificat anima me…. He reexamined his unbelief, but realized again that while he never stopped loving Catholicism and its rituals, he could not believe in God.

Incongruously perhaps, the atheist added that he was not afraid of meeting his Maker. “In case I did encounter God face-to-face,” Harrington recalled telling his cousin, a nun, “I was going to accuse Him (Her?) of mumbling to humankind.”

Revisiting Harrington’s legacy in his engaging Dissent essay, Isserman points out that 50 years after The Other America, “the poor are still among us—and in a testament to the lasting significance of Harrington’s work, not at all invisible.” I could quibble with “not at all,” but Isserman puts a finer point on the matter near the end of his article. “The poor never returned to the invisibility that had been their fate in the 1950s, before the publication of The Other America; but concern over their condition never returned to the list of national priorities, not even”—Isserman rightly specifies—“in years of Democratic political ascendancy.” …read more

Taking the Fight to “Phony Theology”

By artist Adam Zyglis

Campaigning in Ohio recently, Rick Santorum opened a new front in the religious and culture wars by declaring that President Obama espouses a “phony theology.” He explained later on Face the Nation that the theology he neglected to initially name was radical environmentalism. Specifically he attacked “this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth.”

Over at The Christian Century blogs, Steve Thorngate took a little comfort in Santorum’s choice of words. “It’s telling that Santorum—pro-coal, climate-change-denying Rick Santorum—didn’t say that people should ‘subdue’ the earth or ‘have dominion’ over it, language (yes, biblical) that tends to conjure up mindless degradation” of the environment, Thorngate pointed out. At Religion Dispatches, Julie Ingersoll reported that Santorum’s casting of environmentalism as its own religion, inimical to Christianity, is “widespread on the religious right and especially in the Christian right wing of the homeschooling movement of which Santorum is a part.”

If ecological consciousness is a sort of religious outlook (and why would it be any more or less so than, say, supply-side economics?), then its main doctrine, according to Santorum, is that human beings are meant to serve nature rather than the other way around. The presidential hopeful also said people are supposed to “care for the Earth,” which to me evokes the idea of service. But the substance of his argument was really that “radical environmentalists” see the human person as subservient to the rest of creation.

That may be a tendentious view of environmental activism, not to mention Obama’s pragmatic bent on these matters. Santorum’s remarks, however, are not completely beyond the orbit of legitimate questions at stake in debates over religion and the environment. Where do human beings stand, in the hierarchy of the universe? Is there a radical, ontological chasm between human creatures and all other living beings? Is there no essential bond between them?

The biblical and theological sources don’t necessarily offer the predisposed answers that would please Santorum, but they’re illuminating in any case.

It’s all “Very Good”

To start with, it’s fair to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, human beings have a unique place in the divine scheme of things. “You have made him [the human person] little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor,” the Psalmist says in a song of praise to God’s creation. Praise is given to the Lord for “the work of your finger,” the moon and the stars, sheep and oxen, beasts of the field and all manner of things. The Psalmist is awed by creation, but equally amazed that God would give man and woman so lofty a place—only a little below the angels—in the created order (Psalm 8:6).

That said, the mountains and beasts have an inherent value of their own, quite apart from their usefulness to human beings. In Genesis we read that after fashioning the universe, “God looked at everything he made, and he found it very good.” Religious people have often taken this to mean simply that the creation of man and woman was deemed good, but most theologians agree that “everything” refers to a cosmic reality—the whole of the universe. It’s all very good and worthy of respect.

In the same vein, Christians often speak as if Christ’s redemption extends only to humanity. The New Testament, however, states that all of creation was redeemed, that Christ “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the Cross” (Colossians 1:20-21).

As depicted in these and other spiritual sources, there’s a creaturely commonality across the universe. St. Augustine explained that nonhumans and humans alike could sing together, “We did not make ourselves.” The great philosopher also speaks of a natural world that (like its human counterpart) is intended to pay witness to divine reality:

Ask the loveliness of the earth, ask the loveliness of the seas, ask the loveliness of the wide airy spaces … ask the living things which move in the waters, which tarry on the land, which fly in the air…. Ask all these things, and they will answer: Yes, we are lovely. Their loveliness is their confession.

Diving into Dualisms

Let’s give this the Santorum spin. Are human beings “here to serve the Earth,” or does nature exist purely to service human needs and wants? If you’re coming from a theocentric perspective, a good answer would be “no” on both counts. In an enlightened Judeo-Christian reading, nature isn’t there simply to accommodate humans, or vice versa. Its value is intrinsic, not just instrumental. From that perspective, both human beings and the natural world exist to serve a transcendent God, to fulfill divine purposes. And they are mutually interdependent.

People are unique, but they’re still part of creation and share that existential bond with other creatures, according to a broad interreligious consensus today. By that light, our uniqueness is not an invitation to try to stand above the created world, a status that belongs strictly to the Creator. It is, rather, a call to cooperate with God in the care of creation.

But it’s hard to find the right balance when you’re diving headfirst into dualisms, insisting on a stark choice between “man” and “the Earth.” …read more