Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Moral clarity"

When fundamentalists claimed they voted for George W. Bush because he offered “moral clarity,” the rest of us were thrown into amazed thoughtfulness.

A situation in Brazil shows what that kind of “moral clarity” gets us. A 9-year-old girl weighing about 66 pounds, who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather since she was 6 years old, was pregnant with twins. In Brazil abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or danger to the life of the mother. For protecting the life of the girl by choosing abortion, the mother and her doctors were publicly excommunicated by the Catholic archbishop, who declared abortion is "a crime in the eyes of the church" and that human laws cannot override the laws of God.

This conflating and confusing of God with Church rules was common in Christendom during the Middle Ages, and it lingers in ultra conservative circles, even among educated and intelligent Catholics in the U.S. The situation in Brazil illustrates in an extreme way how a spiritual principle such as respect for human life can degenerate into rigid, reflexive opposition to something. Instead of moral clarity we see simplistic rules. In some instances, abortion or condoms or euthanasia may not be the worst choice.

I give one Vatican official credit for having the grace to be appropriately embarrassed. The president of the Academy for Life criticized the Brazilian archbishop’s declaration, saying it was “insensitive, incomprehensible and devoid of mercy.” You’ll find story details at Hasty excommunication.

Stories like this give evidence of shifting religious awareness. More such comes from the latest PEW survey on religion in America, which reveals that profound changes are happening in religious affiliation Change or drop religion. Christian denominations are losing numbers quickly—only non-denominational churches show more growth than losses.

Of particular interest to me is the growing number of “unaffiliated” (now at 16.1%), which includes atheist (1.6%), agnostic (2.4%) and "nothing in particular." Most interesting is that these people are not hostile to religion but leave the one in which they were raised, apparently because particular beliefs and practices don’t matter to them, while spirituality does.

The survey didn’t touch on the difference between spirituality and religion, but I think the results of this and other surveys show that Americans increasingly distinguish between them. Percentages vary in polls and terms for spiritual reality vary, but an overwhelming majority of Americans—from 92 to 95 percent—say they believe in “God” or “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit” Believe in spiritual. So say even atheists as well as people who move from one church to another, or to no church. And some people raised in no religion at all develop a spiritual orientation.

Paradoxically, in this American cauldron of diversity, which has more religious variety than any other nation, religious absolutism still flourishes. Those who can’t tolerate ambiguity cling to familiar interpretations of morality, to familiar conceptions of what we call God and familiar ways to relate to It. In fact, I attribute the growth of religious fundamentalism during the ‘80s and ‘90s to people’s uneasiness about changes they couldn’t avoid seeing. They’d like a return to simpler times when answers came in well-worn religious phrases, when deciding between right and wrong didn’t pose a puzzle.

As we move through the century, I expect the yearning for old-time religion to decrease and diversity of spiritual practice to increase. At this stage in the evolution of human consciousness we have the task of replacing simplistic religious formulas with authentic moral clarity.

6 comments:

Florian said...

You say, "respect for human life, can degenerate into rigid opposition to something, abortion or condoms or euthanasia. Instead of moral clarity we see simplistic rules."

No, we always have more moral clarity with simplistic rules. The only question is whether the simplistic rules are good rules.

What if we said, "Respect for human life, can degenerate into rigid opposition to something: murder or theft or adultery. Instead of moral clarity we see simplistic rules."? Are you going to tell me that you don't like those simplistic rules either?

Ironically, it is you and other liberals that have the biggest problem of over-simplify rules to the point of rigid opposition to something. Opposition to poverty leads to a rigid opposition to riches. Opposition to killing leads to rigid opposition to war and capital punishment, even in cases when it is just. Opposition to sexual discrimination leads to rigid opposition to church teachings about male-only priesthood and male-only persons in the Godhead.

First, I want to see you liberals acknowledge the morally gray areas of other issues before we talk about the morally gray areas of the abortion, contraception, and euthanasia issues.

Florian said...

You say, "For respecting the life of the girl by choosing abortion, the mother and her doctors were publicly excommunicated by the Catholic archbishop..." How is choosing abortion showing respect for the life of the girl? Or for that matter, how is prohibiting abortion showing disrespect for the life of girl? The life of the girl is not what is at risk for being disrespected. It is the new life in the girl's womb which is at risk. It is at risk of being KILLED! By contrast, prohibiting abortion does not put pregnant women at risk of being killed.

Jeanette said...

Longtime readers of my blog will recognize the name Florian as the person whose long tirades I used to publish. Last year sometime I quit publishing them because they'd gotten repetitive and didn't present arguments that I hadn't already answered.
I decided to publish these for readers who are amused by harangues against liberals.

Kathleen said...

Yes, Florian does amuse! He makes many assumptions about “liberals”, although I’m sure he has great respect for the Original Liberal, Jesus.

Florian seems to know more than a physician about what to do with a nine year old’s uterus, even if it is not developmentally ready to carry a full term baby. That’s because of his respect for life.

It is then incongruous that he argues in favor of capital punishment because it “is just.”
What about the 125 death row inmates who were released because they were found innocent? Obviously, their sentences were not “just.” Courts make mistakes and the church does too.

Jeanette said...

"the Original Liberal, Jesus"
Well said. It may be the biggest thing that got him killed.

Florian said...

Looking back at these comments again... Jeanette and Kathleen shrug off my comment, calling it "amusing" when I actually made a good point that never received a response.

The point was that liberals are in a terrible position to criticize pro-lifers for rigidly opposing an evil like abortion when liberals rigidly oppose what they think as evil all the time, and they do so with simplistic rules.

Take, for example, Jeanette's pre-election post "Obama on abortion", in which she said:

"Pro-life opposes killing. John McCain supports Bush’s war in Iraq, despite all the evidence that Iraq never was a threat to Americans. Warrior McCain’s only criticism of the war is that we should have killed more effectively."

Notice the very stark, blunt, statement, "Pro-life opposes killing." The liberal opposition to war boils down to a very emotional, knee-jerk revulsion to killing. The emotionalism interferes with the liberals' judgment, making them almost incapable of comprehending the idea that there are times when a war is just. The just-war idea is applied so strictly, and therefore rigidly, by liberals that there is almost no case when a war is just; and there is practically no room in the liberal view for those with authority to declare war to make their prudential judgments. And so it is no wonder why we find so many pacifists among liberals.

I am here not condemning this attitude towards war of the political left. As an attitude, at least, it is very commendable. The just-war theory should be applied very carefully, strictly, and rigidly. Human life is at stake in war. We should be diligent in protecting human life.

Jeanette said, "respect for human life can degenerate into rigid opposition to something." Well, yes. It SHOULD involve rigid opposition to whatever endangers human life, since human life is so valuable. That is why we find people so rigidly opposed to war, especially in cases when it appears to be so poorly justified (e.g. the Iraq War). What is so perplexing though is that some of these same people are so lukewarm in their opposition to something like abortion, and are so quick to find fault in those who are rigidly opposed to abortion.

Well, what are pro-lifers supposed
to do? Be lax in their opposition to abortion? Abortion laws were relaxed after Roe v. Wade, and the federal judiciary routinely interferes with the efforts of the states to make their abortion laws more strict. This has resulted in the deaths of many unborn human beings who would have otherwise been saved under stricter laws. Clearly, the problem is that opposition to abortion is not rigid enough.

"Pro-life opposes killing," said Jeanette. (Thank heavens we have Jeanette around to tell us the obvious!) But the church does not apply this principle rigidly or simplistically. Of course, it is liberals who apply it rigidly, simplistically, and indiscriminately.

Take Kathleen's comment: "It is then incongruous that [Florian] argues in favor of capital punishment because it is just [after Florian had argued against abortion]" (Actually, I never said I was in favor of capital punishment.) Kathleen's opinion here exemplifies the liberals tendency to think of abortion and capital punishment as morally equivalent issues, probably because both involve killing. But they are not equivalent, because one involves the killing of the innocent and the other the killing of the guilty. Yet the one with only gut-level emotional reactions against killing has no patience to sit down and discuss these distinctions. Such a person just rigidly applies the simple rule: "Stop killing!"