The Other I

October 24, 2009


I would be interested to know if it has hit the media in the U.S. the way it has here.  Here in Britain, every major paper and magazine in the country seems to be carrying front-page headlines about what The Economist is calling “the pope’s power grab.”

In case you missed it, the pope, without discussing it with the archbishop of Canterbury who is the head of the world-wide Anglican Church, has set up a special “ordinariate” for any married or unmarried Anglican priest or bishop who wants to come over to the Roman Catholic Church.  Up until now, married Anglican priests have not been able to convert to Roman Catholicism and continue to work within their parish, but now the pope is inviting them to be re-ordained as Catholic priests and to bring their parishes or even entire dioceses with them.

The Anglican Church has been trying to find a way to resolve what seem to be unresolvable conflicts over the ordination of women and homosexuals.  Whether the Roman Catholic Church exacerbates its own conflicts about married priests as a result of this move is unclear.

Somehow this doesn’t look like Christian love to me.  It looks much more like politics.


  1. Indeed. Could of course be simple economics. I should imagine the Catholic Church’s PR disaster on the child abuse cover-up has dented their income stream a tad. The brand will be desperate for new markets. Or was your title a deliberate allusion?

    It baffles me how anyone can still see organised religion as a source of ethics rather than one of its battlegrounds…


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — October 25, 2009 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

    • Oh, I wish I’d been so clever as to intend the double ententre you suggest! Because I do certainly fear that it may be appropriate. But I do take delight in your pointing out the possibilities.

      I have struggled for years over the question of whether society as a whole needs some kind of agreed religious view. I read W. H. Auden last night who converted to Anglicanism as an adult who felt that we do. Clearly individuals do not need God to live by moral principles, but the question I ask myself is the degree to which the values I hold now grew out of my religious upbringing. I no longer believe the articles of faith which I was taught. And I am convinced that it is possible to raise children with moral and ethical values without buttressing them with God or other religious beliefs. But so many parents I talk to haven’t any idea how to do that.

      Is that because so many of us have been raised initially within a religious world view, and most people, while often giving up their beliefs, have not been able to replace the foundations of their values with something else? I think I will trawl Amazon to find out if any one has written a parenting book on raising moral children without religion. I know parents who have done it. But not many. More often parents resort to using religious concepts they no longer believe themselves to teach their children not to lie or steal, to be kind and polite and loving.


      Comment by theotheri — October 25, 2009 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

      • This is a hugely important issue for today’s world. It is hugely relevant for social cohesion at local, national & international levels. But it is also key because although atheism or humanism have been practically possible for a few hundred years, it is only relatively recently that they have become available choices on a grand scale, such that significant proportions of populations can be the offspring of non-believers.

        (I think there is also an important thread here which is about the – also relatively recent – perceived failure of totalising political alternatives to religion, of which socialism is perhaps the most obvious example.)

        In one sense the ‘answer’ is simple. As far as content is concerned, the Golden Rule is broad-based enough, universal enough, understandable enough, practical enough, teachable enough & demonstrable enough to work as a basis for much of ethical life.

        But traditional religions typically don’t only supply content. They also supply sanction. The Golden Rule itself provides no sanction of the ‘God won’t like it’ kind. But in a parenting context it does have a ‘spirit’ which turns ‘Don’t do that’ into ‘How would you like it if that happened to you?’

        I wonder if part of the problem is that religions are still so much ‘in our faces’ that we see the Golden Rule as a narrow religious artefact rather than as the powerful and practical universal principle it can be?


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — October 25, 2009 @ 6:16 pm | Reply

  2. I agree that the presence of religion is a hugely important issue for the world today. Historically it has been part of most people’s sense of worth as well as personal and social identities. But historically it has been based on what the majority at least have believed to be true. Today religious beliefs are perceived by many as interesting cultural artifacts, but not true. So teaching our children religious beliefs that we no longer believe ourselves is based on a falsehood. And so I think that religion as it has been traditionally understood is bound ultimately to fail, because its foundations are no longer firm.

    The Golden Rule is indeed Gold. Because it’s so simple, I think many of us underestimate how much selflessness it takes to truly live by it.

    But as I see it, the Golden Rule has two significant limitations. The first is that what I want done to me isn’t always what everybody else wants done to them, and vice versa. Sometimes the differences are small. For example, what you may consider polite interest I might consider prying. But sometimes differences could matter a great deal. Suppose, for instance, I think it’s perfectly all right for you to sleep with my spouse. But you very well may not think it is perfectly all right for me to sleep with yours. Etc.

    The second limitation is that although the Golden Rule is a guide to moral behavior, it doesn’t provide any reason for following it. Most religions do. And sometimes, one must admit, it has been a source of strength that is beyond anything I myself can imagine demonstrating. Why should one, for instance, fight against injustice, or child abuse, or animal cruelty or even environmental pollution?

    I think all these things are intrinsically rewarding, and one of my big quarrels with most religions that supply sanctions is that they miss this central point altogether. Loving is simply more rewarding, more fulfilling, than indifference, for instance. One doesn’t need the promise of heaven or threat of hell to prefer one over the other.

    You thought about the demise of universal religious belief followed by the failure of universal political theories seems to the point. Something similar has happened in science as well, don’t you think? 400 years ago, we thought once we had the empirical evidence to support it, a theory provided us with permanent facts. But with the theory of relativity and the collapse of the absolute laws of gravity — indeed of space and time — along with principles of indeterminancy, we know now that science is not absolutely permanently unquestionably right. (The difference between religion and science, of course, is that science is not intrinsically threatened by new evidence that undermines old assumptions.)

    So itt seems to me that the modern condition is to live in uncertainty. Not in darkness, but not bright light either. More like early dawn, perhaps.

    What do you think?


    Comment by theotheri — October 25, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

    • Ahah – The ‘hugely important issue’ I was actually referring to was not the presence of religion per se but moral education of children (& indeed adults!) in the absence of religion.

      I have a hunch your two limitations to the Golden Rule could be more apparent than real. The classic objection that what I want done to me isn’t necessarily what everyone else wants done to them (and vice versa) can I think be countered by insisting that the Golden Rule is inherently reflexive – ie it is in the spirit of the Golden Rule that it should be applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule. Otherwise it is open to being manipulated for personal benefit. (See Precious metal rules OK?.)

      Your second limitation, that the Golden Rule doesn’t provide any reason for following it, whereas religions do, is an interesting one. I think I would say that any heteronomous reason supplied by religion for moral behaviour would ultimately turn morality into a branch of prudence. (Essentially Kant’s argument.) You should love your neighbour because you should love your neighbour, not because it gets you a passport to paradise.

      I’m not sure your ‘loving’ and what I would call ‘practical compassion in the spirit of the Golden Rule’ are ultimately very different. It would be hard to practise both real practical compassion and indifference at the same time.

      The important thing for me about the Golden Rule is the immense implications of making the commitment to apply it. Part of that commitment is the realisation that it is more an orientation than a formula, and that therefore to need a reason for applying it (even, & in particular, any extrinsic reason any religion could come up with) is to hold back from that commitment.


      Comment by Chris Lawrence — October 25, 2009 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

      • Well, I think we do agree about the ‘hugely important issue.’ I said it was religion, but I was actually referring to the problem of filling the gap if religion is taken out of the equation.

        The Golden Rule: I agree that my first suggested limitation is not fundamental. Now that I think about it, if it is inherently reflexive, then it takes our individual differences into account more than most religious rules which tend to be a one-size-fits-all approach. That approach, of course, at least creates a level playing field among all the adherents of that particular religion, but it does not allow for individual differences.

        Yes, I think what I mean byy ‘loving’ is comparable to what you call ‘practical compassion.’

        I still think, though, that we are not saying the same thing when it comes to “why.” We both recoil at the extrinsic rewards & punishments posited by various religious persuasions. But in all honesty, I cannot say that I was taught that way. The emphasis was much more on “God is love” and so loving is of itself good.

        But what I was primarily thinking about is that religion has a vast array of motivating rituals – music, rituals, art, poetry — all the things that Karen Armstrong includes under “mythos.” And which nations invariably try to hijack, especially in times of war, to motivate its people.

        It’s not that I’m against mythos. I’m not. I love poetry and music and it would be a terrible terrible loss to be without it. And it does not have to operate within the confines of institutionalized religion. But what I’m saying is that religious institutions already possess this armoury and “The Golden Rule” in itself does not. On a practical level, therefore, I think religion is going to be with us for a long time – perhaps forever.

        Actually, I’m not against religious belief per se. I am against inflexibility, against imposing ones personal certainty onto others, against the inability to recognize that none of us can possibly possess the full truth. And I cannot swallow the concepts of God espoused by most institutionalized religions, especially a god based on a dualist view – that there is this natural world and then there’s the supernatural world where God is.

        As usual, I find myself wanting to know what you think. Your answers inevitably broaden my own perspective.


        Comment by theotheri — October 26, 2009 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks again. Yes I think we’re very close. I agree that on a practical level religion may well be with us for a long time. I’m also happy about mythos, & that we can’t do without it.

    I think my qualm is the armoury of mythos which religions possess and deploy, while pretending it was something else – something with divine authority &/or ethical value. The fact that the Golden Rule does not possess an equivalent armoury is a strength, not a weakness.

    And I’m not sure I agree that the Golden Rule ‘does not allow for individual differences’. If I had an individual difference which didn’t harm anyone else, would I want others to make allowance for it? Yes – so I should make allowance for other people’s individual differences.

    This conversation makes me think, & I’ve realised that The Case for God is the first of St Karen’s books which has disappointed me. I think it is because she has lapsed back into what I see as a dangerous assumption that somewhere, deep down inside the core of religion there must be something good. Why? Because all these manifold traditions have made cosmic careers out of convincing successive populations that there must be something good somewhere deep down inside.

    I do not have a knee-jerk antipathy to religion. But I may have something like a knee-jerk antipathy to the assumption that religions as bodies of people and learning and mythos have something of net value to say about ethics. Yes there is ethical value in religion. But not a huge amount, and what there is is very simple. (I don’t mean simplistic – I mean beautifully simple, like the Sermon on the Mount.) But there is so much clutter. A lot of that clutter is art and mythos, and may be very very moving. But ethically speaking it is still clutter.

    St Karen seems to have lapsed back into that clutter, and seems to be saying that the sheer difficulty of navigating through it is part of the ethical core of religion. I’m not convinced. She seems to have lost the purity of eg The Great Transformation and I don’t quite understand why – it is as if she wants to get back into the club.

    It is possible of course that she sees greater value in working inside the club, bringing her own learning and intellect to bear on the immensely important work of religious toleration in the aftermath of 9/11 etc. If so, I can’t fault her for that. But I just don’t find myself agreeing with her as much as I used to, & I miss that.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — October 26, 2009 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

    • I should be closing down my computer for the day, but I don’t want to wait a whole half day before replying to your comment. First, what I was saying in my comment above about the Golden Rule is that it does leave a lot more room for considering individual differences than most religious laws do. Not the other way around. In fact, the more I think about it, the more room the Golden Rule makes room for the individual in a way that most religions do not.

      My own response to The Case for God is the same as yours. And for the same reasons. You were not born and raised as a Catholic. I was. And for all her insights and erudition and obvious respect for the views of others, I’ve found myself thinking that she’s still thinking like a Catholic. Again and again as I read The Case for God, I found myself saying “No, you haven’t gone far enough. No, you still accept a whole lot more of the RC basic assumptions and world view than I do.” I guess that’s what you mean when you say it’s as if she wants to get back into the club.

      On another note, it has never occurred to me that perhaps religion does not have something relevant to say about ethics. I’ve just always assumed that I disagreed with various religious ethical standards. But I can see your point: perhaps religion has merely adopted various ethical strictures as a source of social control. As I gradually gave up my religious beliefs, my ethical standards broadened but I never really felt on shaky ground. It was as if they existed and developed independently of religious belief.

      On the other hand, without religion, the meaning of existence has bewitched me: What are we doing here? Religion for the first 30 years of my life was the foundation of my metaphysics – that gave some kind of meaning to the existence of the universe and my small place in it. It seems to me that this might be the most significant thing people seek from religion – some assurance that life is not absurd, maybe even that it lasts beyond death. The answers of religion no longer satisfy me, but I still think about the question.

      But that we live in mystery, in uncertainty, is the only answer that satisfies me.

      Your comments so often offer me a new perspective. Thank you again for sharing them.


      Comment by theotheri — October 26, 2009 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks – apologies – now I see how I misread your second paragraph, beginning: ‘The Golden Rule: I agree…’


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — October 27, 2009 @ 7:11 pm | Reply

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