Can Spirituality Survive Religion?

In an 1876 speech, “The Great AgnosticRobert G. Ingersoll said, “Religion should have the influence upon mankind that its goodness, that its morality, its justice, its charity, its reason, and its argument give it, and no more.” (Ingersoll, 14). In many ways, Dr. George E. Vaillant makes the same argument in his Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that today’s religions have survived, and will continue to survive, because of their emphasis on the positive emotions – which, according to Vaillant, are faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. But, in today’s world, are religions, especially Christianity, which is the most dominant tradition in America, a significant enough source of positive emotions to justify their flaws?

To be clear, Vaillant does separate ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ While generally defensive, if not fully sympathetic to religions, he does admit that “intolerant dogma … [and] religious beliefs have provided cultural justification for some of the most heinous and selfish human behavior ever committed” (Vaillant, 11). In his argument promoting spirituality, he addresses (but, as I will try to explain later, does not adequately answer) the question of why individuals seeking spiritual unity seem to so often lead to brutal institutions; he writes, “Sometimes in a quest for unity rather than community, religions forget to love their neighbors as themselves” (Vaillant, 79). He explains, “On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experiences of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religion helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of the foreigner as valuable too” (Vaillant, 188). While “cults and religions tend to be authoritarian and imposed from without,” Vaillant argues, “[S]pirituality is more likely to be democratic and arise from within” (Vaillant, 189). While he clearly differentiates between the two, he notes that they often go hand-in-hand: “[T]he survival of the world’s greatest religions, relatively unchanged, for the last two thousand years has been due as much to their ritual emphasis on the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion as to “guns, germs, and steel” or cancerlike memes” (Vaillant, 186).

Clearly, Vaillant recognizes that, for all the positive emotions that come with religion, religion also brings a significant amount of problems as well. So how do we tell the difference? Here’s where I find Vaillant’s argument problematic: “[T]he way to distinguish such unshakeable beliefs is to ask whether they are empathetic or paranoid” (Vaillant, 75). But, outside of his clear examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler, the difference is rarely clear. Admittedly, he acknowledges, “The danger is that the line between self-soothing trust and self-soothing delusion is unclear” (Vaillant, 75).

Specifically regarding Christianity, Vaillant contrasts the “belief in religious dogma that led to the Spanish Inquisition” with the “faith in a man [Jesus] who spoke of what was in his heart and lived his message” (Vaillant, 66). But that idea is inherently flawed. If we truly take Jesus and his message seriously, it almost certainly leads to conflict. As professor Crane Brinton told Vaillant, “If you don’t believe your religion is the only religion, you have no religion” (Vaillant, 190). Sure, in many ways, Jesus and his followers, like most religions, have provided many benefits to the world, as Vaillant notes. But that doesn’t change the problematic fact that Christianity rests upon having the one true belief system. Jesus himself, in John 14:6, says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Vaillant argues “[T]he danger is the lack of empathy and the false beliefs of those who profess faith,” but immediately before that he argues that “Faith … is not the danger.” (Vaillant, 79). But if your faith inherently suggests that, for example, Jesus is the only way to ‘the Father,’ it’s almost guaranteed that a lack of empathy will follow.

Especially problematic is how Vaillant defines faith, which, to him, “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists” (Vaillant, 73). Not only is faith, as defined by Vaillant, possible without any blatantly anti-scientific and/or supernatural beliefs, but faith, in the more common sense, is defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which often requires quite a different worldview. Indeed, many Christians believe in Hell, which is generally considered a place of suffering. According to many Christians, Jesus – and only Jesus – is the only way to be ‘saved’ from Hell. The belief that many people will suffer for all eternity for not accepting Jesus is hard to justify with the idea that spirituality is only about positive emotions. Furthermore, the belief that your religion – and only your religion – has the ‘Truth’ leads to more intolerance, making Vaillant’s argument especially unhelpful in today’s world. If you believe that someone you know is bound for eternal hell unless they convert to your religion, you obviously should want to help them get into heaven. Is that empathetic? After all, making people uncomfortable or even suffer – as is the case with the Spanish Inquisition – for a short time could arguably be justified if that short-term pain could save them for eternity. Clearly, the line between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is almost never as clear as Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. While I have my reservations about Freud, his idea of religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis” seems especially useful, considering how arbitrary Vaillant’s distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is (Pals, 65).

In his support of spirituality, Vaillant writes, “[S]pirituality refers to the psychological experiences of religiosity/spirituality that relate to an individual’s sense of connection with something transcendent (be it a defined deity, truth, beauty, or anything else considered to be greater than self) and are manifested by the emotions of awe, gratitude, love, compassion, and forgiveness.” (Vaillant, 187). While in general I agree with his statement, I would argue that, again, “a defined deity,” in practice, is often incompatible with real tolerance and love. Oscar Wilde famously quipped in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “To define is to limit” (Wilde). This is especially true with defining deities – which, arguably, is what led to what we call religion today. Religion, according to Robert Bellah’s definition, “is a system of belief and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Bellah, 3). Additionally, Durkheim, as noted by Bellah, defined “the sacred as something set apart or forbidden” (Bellah, 3). Similarly to how “writing created dogma as well as technological advance,” making certain ideas sacred – set apart or forbidden – inherently limits humanity’s pursuit of knowledge (Vaillant, 51). As Vaillant pointed out, a “major reason that many prefer science to religion is that the former is more ready to admit error,” since we think for ourselves rather than accepting something as the unquestionable truth of God (Vaillant, 205).

In the end, religion must be ruled out. Instead, we should embrace, as we already do, social play, which “is firmly based on a foundation of fairness” and seems to have helped humans develop a sort of justice, according to Marc Bekoff and Jessice Pierce (Bellah, 80-81). Not only do social bonds, especially parental care, provide us with our needs and safety, they also help us develop culture, history, morality, science, and literature (Bellah, 90). Play has reduced divisions and conflicts, while religion, which sprang from play, has often promoted divisions and conflicts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bellah, Robert N. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ingersoll, Robert Green, and Tim Page. What’s God Got to Do with It?: Robert G. Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2005. Print.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Vaillant, George E. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

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The Art of Rhetoric: Directing the World, One Soul at a Time

Ideas are powerful. But without words, ideas are limited. As Jarod Kintz wrote, “Ideas are like legs: what good are they if you can’t run with them, or spread them?” (The Days of Yay are Here! Wake Me Up When They’re Over).Clearly, words are important. Playing on Rene Descartes, the greatest orators are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues. At its best, rhetoric has been, and can be, used to inform, enlighten, and empower people and spread virtue – for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At its worst, rhetoric has been, and can be, used to mislead, manipulate, and oppress people and spread vice – for example, Adolf Hitler, who noted in his Mein Kampf, “I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.” Because rhetoric is so immensely powerful, it’s important to examine. In this essay, drawing upon some of history’s greatest orators as well as some of Plato’s dialogues, I will examine the art of rhetoric – which I define, as Socrates did, as a way of directing the soul by speech.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates considers rhetoric to be the true psychagogia, the techne of directing the soul by means of speech (261a). Additionally, Socrates notes, in the form of a question, that rhetoric “leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages, but in private companies as well” and that it’s “the same when concerned with small things as with great, and, properly speaking, no more to be esteemed in important than in trifling matters” (261a-b). Rhetoric, generally speaking, is merely a tool for expression and, if done effectively, a tool for persuasion – but a tool that’s important in all aspects of life. The rhetorical skills that enabled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire countless people to embrace equality also enabled Hitler’s rise to power. Still, those skills are the same skills that enable people to debate over what to have for dinner, to discuss which sports team is the best, and to ponder countless other trivial arguments.

While I agree with many, if not most, of Socrates’ points on rhetoric, I agree with Phaedrus’ view that “one who is to be an orator does not need to know what is really just, but what would seem just to the multitude who are to pass judgment, and not what is really good or noble, but what will seem to be so; for they say that persuasion comes from what seems to be true, not from the truth” (260a). In other words, one could say that the aim of rhetoric is to convince others of something, and not to find the unquestionable truth. In response, Socrates presents a thought experiment. If Socrates praised “the ass, which I called a horse,” as “a most valuable possession at home and in war,” it would be ridiculous – he praised the ass as if it were a horse – which it wasn’t (260). Therefore, according to Socrates, in the same way that it would be ridiculous to praise the ass under the name of a horse, it would be ridiculous (and lead to “no very good harvest”) to praise evil under the name of good (260). Of course, it can be ridiculous and quite possibly dangerous to mislead people through rhetoric. But rhetoric, as Socrates noted, is a way of directing the soul – not necessarily directing the soul in the most virtuous way. If the speaker’s goal is to convince the city to get horses, but his words direct the city to get donkeys instead, he has failed to achieve his goal. However, if the speaker’s goal is to convince the city to get donkeys – even if it’s not the best idea – and his words succeed in directing the city to get donkeys, then the speaker has succeeded in directing the soul in the direction that he intended to direct them – regardless of how wise of a decision it was. Furthermore, even if the speaker’s goal was to deceive his audience – rather than simply trying, in good will, to convince them to get donkeys – I don’t think the speaker has to have completely thorough knowledge of donkeys or completely thorough knowledge of what is right and what is wrong; as long as he can convince his audience that he knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t matter if he truly knows what he’s talking about or not.

Building upon this point, I reject the Spartan quote stated by Socrates: “There is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of the truth, and there never will be” (260e). First of all, I think Socrates’ discussion seems to suggest that “the truth” is something that’s clear, something that’s black-and-white. But as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Socrates himself understood that all he really knew is that he knew nothing. And for some things that seem to be nearly universally recognized as the truth, few, if any, rhetorical skills are needed to make that clear. I’ve never heard anyone give a speech making the point that the sky is blue. If one looks at the sky, it’s blue. Formal rhetoric, especially in today’s world, is arguably most commonly seen in matters of politics and/or religion – two of the most complex, diverse, and subjective topics. I have never heard a politician or preacher or anyone else using rhetorical skills to persuade someone that two plus two is four. Politicians, preachers, and most orators that I’ve heard typically discuss controversial topics, unclear topics, complex topics – topics over which the audience needs to be persuaded one way or the other.

With that understood, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rhetoric should be judged, not by its truth, but by its effectiveness – its ability to persuade others. Furthermore, on many topics, it’s impossible to accurately judge the ‘truth’ of something in the first place. Religious leaders, throughout history, often make (generally speaking) some of the best speakers. But considering that faith, by its very nature, often deals with topics that are impossible to definitively prove, it would be impossible, as well as unnecessary, to claim that the “genuine art of speaking” requires “a grasp of the truth.” Additionally, often even when the truth is relatively clear, the truth is limited without rhetorical skills to spread the truth. Is it true that God created the world in seven days, as some Christians believe? Most scientists would agree that that’s extremely unlikely, if not blatantly false. Popular opinion is also divided on other issues on which scientists are in almost universal agreement, such as climate change and evolution. While many parts of the Bible are debatable, such as the idea of a literal seven-day creation, it’s indubitable that the Bible, with the help of orators preaching from it, has been one of the most influential works of all time. To be clear, I agree with Socrates that rhetoric without truth often leads to bad results. While it’s better than having rhetorical skills without truth, having the truth without rhetorical skills lacks power. Especially with global issues such as climate change, it’s not enough for most scientists to understand the truth – scientists alone cannot use that knowledge to solve the problems associated with it. In order to most effectively utilize the truth, the truth first needs to be spread – which requires rhetorical skills.

So what’s most important for successful rhetoric? While I disagree with Socrates about the importance of truth in rhetoric, I do agree with his argument that an effective rhetorician “must know the various forms of soul” (271d). I don’t think that the importance of understanding one’s audience can be overstated. For example, I think most people, especially in today’s world, would agree that Hitler was arguably as evil as a human being could possibly be. And many of the ideas that he preached and promoted and enforced were not the truth. But if anything, Hitler’s extraordinary rise to power was far more dependent upon effective rhetoric than truthful rhetoric.

In Phaedrus, as I’ve noted, Socrates seems to advocate a different view of rhetoric than what I’ve proposed. However, Socrates’ discussion of rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias aligns more closely with my point of view. Socrates argues that, “for the orator and his rhetoric: there is no need to know the truth of actual matters, but one merely needs to have discovered some device of persuasion which will make one appear to those who do not know to know better than those who know” (459b-c). As Socrates also argued in Gorgias, rhetoric relies largely upon presentation, rather than substance. To be clear, for some people, rhetoric can undoubtedly be a “noble” endeavor “to make the citizens’ souls as good as possible, and the persistent effort to say what is best, whether it prove more or less pleasant to one’s hearers”; still, for others, rhetoric is nothing more than “flattery and a base mob-oratory” (502-503a).

In conclusion, rhetoric – the art of directing the soul by means of speech – can be used for both good and bad purposes. The view of rhetoric that I’ve presented allows us to understand the dual nature of rhetoric. Thus, we can recognize that it’s simply not enough to find the truth; we must actively and effectively spread the truth, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did. If we refuse to grasp the art of rhetoric, our ability to spread the truth will be outmatched by the people who have grasped the art of rhetoric, without grasping the truth – like Adolf Hitler. It’s important to understand the truth, as the truth will set us free. But unless we understand the art of rhetoric, we can’t effectively set the truth free.