Training the Self

Training the Self

How personal improvement is the new religion… and the old one too

What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.
It is always the same step, but you have to take it.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (quoted in Rubin, 103)

Pilgrim’s Progress on Steroids

John Buchan wrote The Thirty Nine Steps and many other thrillers set in the era of the Great Game. They are classics of a kind, but very much of their time – xenophobic, colonialist and chauvinistic at their best. I was struck recently by an article claiming that Buchan’s writing exhibited a ‘Christian existentialism’. My understanding of this was that unlike the country house mysteries of Agatha Christie, there is no question of whodunit. Instead the hero of a Buchan novel knows very well that he is running for his life. The question is one of survival. Also, unlike the country house mystery, there is no cosy coterie of neighbours who are all potential suspects. Instead it’s almost always one or two plucky heroes alone against the perilous world. This is an individualist quest for salvation. I found it amusing to imagine the great chases through the Scottish Hills as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress on steroids — and with much higher stakes.

You must change your life

I stood in a bookshop recently for considerably longer than planned, to skim through Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk is a German TV presenter and philosopher who seems in recent years to have taken on the mantle of the greatest living prophet of European philosophy. He seems much more conservative, however, than that other chief contender for the title, Alain Badiou. He is also both a follower of and a challenger of Nietszche.
There is a great deal of interesting stuff in YMCYL, far more than could be accessed in a few minutes standing at a book shelf (see this review, for instance). But the basic idea is that Nietszche’s death of God was perceived as a tragedy, because of the realisation that there is now no-one to tell us how to live our lives. The only thing we have left is the obvious feeling that we could be doing it better, that improvement of the self is not entirely beyond our reach. Between Nietszche’s time and ours, says Sloterdijk, there has been a great proliferation of training regimes, schemes to help us to live better. We look to all sorts of teachers, trainers and gurus to learn the right techniques. He presents a brief typology of these in his book. In fact, he says, we are living in an era of ‘anthropotechnique’, in which we are encouraged to improve systematically.
Actually, though, he claims, we were always doing this. Religion never really existed. Religious leaders were always what we would now call ‘personal trainers’ and religions were never anything but misunderstood training regimes. Unlike Nietszche, Sloterdijk very much approves of Socrates and Jesus in this respect. Indeed the idea of religion as personal training regimen makes some sense. One thinks of the Rule of St Benedict, of the Ignatian Exercises, of the Methodist class. Certainly training the self has been an important strand of Christian piety.

Better than Before

There is a lot to like in Sloterdijk’s approach. Gretchen Rubin has recently published a book called Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives. After reading Sloterdijk it’s hard to avoid seeing such a title as the latest in a long line, not just of self-help books, but of spiritual exercises along the lines of Sloterdijk’s claims.

Where I would take issue with Sloterdijk, however, is with his belief that we are now secular and that our secularity can be projected backwards into the religious past to make sense of it. I don’t believe that religion never existed. Actually, I’d argue the opposite. It’s not that religion never existed. Rather it’s that secularism does not and will never exist. At least, to be less sweeping than Sloterdijk, religion never really seems to go away, does it? It just mutates into something less incredible, more acceptable and self-evidently true to the culture. For example, in John Buchan’s novels, secular heroes in pursuit of secular aims find themselves recapitulating the (existentialist) Christian quest. The age-weary theme of personal salvation mutates into the plot of a best-selling thriller. I do agree with Sloterdijk that these days, personal training, self help, is our common religion. And like all great religions, it only works when we see it as nothing more or less than practical common sense. Whereas Sloterdijk claims it was never religious, so religion can’t be on the return, I would claim it was always religious, so religion was never on the wane.

Permitted to be Mediocre

So why does this matter? If Sloterdijk is right about religion, that it has always been all about training, we should probably be satisfied with our lot. Membership at the local/global gym, lifehacking websites, books like Better than Before are the best we have any right to expect. After all, if God is dead, anything is permitted to be mediocre (to misquote Dostoevsky). This line of thought seems reminiscent of mid-Twentieth Century social democracy – the kind that was content to put up identical rows of cheap concrete tower blocks in place of the great buildings that both sides in the war had bombed – and without a hint of shame to call it progress, the very definition of the word modern. But if I am right, on the other hand, we should expect much more of our contemporary and emerging religion. The old religion included plenty to be critical of but at least it was impressive. If, now, training is all, we should set much higher standards for our present day training regimes. In place of the Ten Commandments, we have accepted seventeen rules for a flatter tummy. This is an aesthetic and moral capitulation. To give up St Peter’s Basilica and trade it in for a Fitness First gym on every corner doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. I’m not saying the Ten Commandments and St Peter’s are presently fit for purpose. I am saying that what has replaced them barely is. Ironically, then, it seems I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. When it comes to the religion of our time, I still believe we can, collectively, be better than before.

Note: I have been testing out Dave Winer’s new blogging platform, and making it an excuse to learn MarkDown. You can check out the result if you like.

Image credit: Illustration for Pilgrim’s Progress, Gertrude Hermes. CC Ross Griff

A typology of disagreement

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry. France...

Image via Wikipedia

How are differences of opinion to be characterised?

That is to say, if there is more than one opinion, what is its status in relation to the others? Are there different types of difference of opinion? It’s hard to write about this matter because as soon as we do so we resort to language that is essentially metaphorical. These metaphors condition our thought and tend to beg the questions. So, for instance, to use the term conflicting opinions or competing opinions or incommensurable opinions is to assume that conflict, competition or incommensurability is a given. Of course, ‘opinion’ itself is a matter of opinion. One person’s opinion is another person’s fact. Even the term difference is somewhat metaphorical. What if it turns out our opinions don’t actually differ, after all? Perhaps by means of  Hegelian synthesis or some such trick, they can be reconciled to one another.

Michael Ruse, author of Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, has written about the ways in which we can characterise the debate between science and religion.  He identifies four approaches, namely:

  • Warfare
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration

The contribution of this post is to suggest that these are not merely choices freely made but are pathways already prescribed by social circumstances. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide that today the relationship between science and religion will be conflictual, and that tomorrow it will be dialogical. The social environment in which the relationship exists conditions to a large extent the way it is characterised. Our pre-existing assumptions and ways of organising make particular lines of reasoning seem ‘natural’ rather than ‘forced’. This point matters because of our tendency to see things as being ‘just the way they are’, without further reflection. If science and religion appear to be in conflict, we tend to jump straight to ontology (‘they just are in conflict – that’s how it really is’), without reflecting on our epistemology (‘how do we know how it really is?’). It is hard to see how the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers could stop being combative, or how the likes of the Catholic Church could stop trying to be all-encompassing. Notice that method and conclusion amount to the same thing.

The relationship between the four approaches identified by Prof Ruse can be clarified by means of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, under which rubric much thought has already gone into the cultural biases, or worldviews which shape our disagreements. Viewed in this context the religion/science debate tells us as much about the institutional framework of the debate as it does about the truth of the matter.

Approach     Metaphor     Typical institution       Cultural Bias

Warfare            Competition    the market                            Individualist

Independence Isolation          courtroom/prison              Fatalist

Dialogue          Consensus       deliberative democracy     Egalitarian

Integration     Nested Truth    bureaucracy                         Hierarchical

The dialogue approach is in the spirit of deliberative democracy, or of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative action.

The Integration approach is in keeping with Donald Davidson’s ideas expressed in his seminal article ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Differences of opinion are subordinated to a hierarchical concept of Truth.

The independence approach is in keeping with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of separate paradigms, or the idea of separate (perhaps overlapping) magisteria.

Finally the warfare approach is closest to an understanding of knowledge as competition, with the survival of the fittest and ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

My suggestion is that these types of disagreement don’t just apply to the science and religion debate, but to all disagreements. Michael Ruse has successfully described the totality of parsimonious ways in which a disagreement may be characterised in any field. These relate closely to the ideal type worldviews or cultural biases of Cultural Theory. An interim conclusion is that while you can have any facts you like, your choice of difference of opinion is strictly limited (Prof Marco Verweij’s ‘constrained relativism‘ perhaps).

Discriminate for a better, fairer world!

Sydney auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous on the virtue of discrimination.

Fourcultures has written on this line of thought before –  only discriminate: four versions of justice

A Hierarchical world view laments the good old days when discrimination was  a virtue not a vice, since discrimination, so it is argued, is the very important act of judging between right and wrong. The problem not acknowledged by the bishop is that there is a difference between holding views on contentious moral issues (perfectly reasonable) and being paid by the government to promote these contentious views in schools and elsewhere (less reasonable).

A previous post noted that the Egalitarian world view tends to see discrimination as the thin end of the wedge, since the kinds of moral clarity and purpose proposed by Heirarchies have subjugated and oppressed people for centuries. Take the Bishop’s words, for example. He has a negative opinion of:

the view that all people, all ideologies and all behaviours have equal merit and, therefore, an equal right to exist. When there is no such thing as basic right and wrong, then any judgement of another becomes negative discrimination.

Egalitarian interpretation of this line would point out that the alternative to all people having “an equal right to exist” would be some people having less right to exist. Just who these people are who have less right to exist, the bishop should make clear, so that they can be told they have less right to exist.

There is something to be said for the recommendation that if you want to hold the moral high ground, if you want to discriminate on the basis of some kind of superior understanding of the Good, you should do so with your own money and not with the tax revenue of people who disagree with you – but the bishop isn’t saying it. Indeed, the bishop shouldn’t say it since it is clearly in the interests of his organisation to use other people’s money for precisely as long as the government will let them get away with it.

Oh for the good old days when we all knew the difference between right and wrong.

Guernica by Picasso (1937) Source: Wikipedia

Is God a blank slate?

chicken egg and hand

Image via Wikipedia

Dan Ariely, behavioural psychologist, reports on research that concludes that we select our view of God’s opinions to fit with our own. It seems that as our own opinions change so does our description of God’s opinions. The conclusion then is that God is a blank slate, onto which we project our opinions.

“Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.”

You can read more at Creating God in our own image.

It’s a great research project, but the trouble with such conclusions is that personal opinions tend to suffer from chicken and egg syndrome. Which came first, the opinion or the opinion-holder?

Methodological individualism tends to isolate the individual from outside influences. On this model the opinion-holder is prior and somehow selects their opinions from some kind of smorgasbord of opinions. The opposite view seems more explanatory of people’s religious views: we are born into communities of opinion and our communities shape us in their image. We can, for sure, dissent, but then we are dissenters.

Americans tend to see religion as a choice, but this is unsurprising since that country has more religions than any other. American culture almost forbids a view of  religious affiliation as determined – and this is one of its determining features.  I don’t just have opinions: I was given them by my environment.The environment given – mandated –  by America is one of religious choice.

But I didn’t just come up with my views on xyz out of thin air. Rather I was educated, raised, trained, tutored. Heck, I even learnt a few things for myself by means of life experience. In other words there’s no such thing as me independently of my God-concept. There is only a me-God nexus and we mutually reinforce one another’s understanding of the world.

The locus of concepts such as God isn’t entirely within the individual but is supra-individual or trans-individual. I don’t deny the import of the research referred to. I recently re-read Anne Lamott’s great line in Bird by Bird:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

However, it’s reasonable to be sceptical of the  assumption that whereas God is supposedly a blank slate, we ourselves are not and never have been. There’s a clue in the title of Prof Ariely’s blog post, creating God in our own image: we collectively (somehow) create God in our own image.

We’re in it together, or as Hilary Clinton never said, it takes a village to raise a deity.

The original research, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, is here.

Excommunicating Women priests

Just about to write something about the recent restatement of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ordination of women – I realised, effectively, I already had.

Add only this: it’s not actually very easy to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Few people have ever met anyone who has been (militant atheists have been trying it recently, with limited success). This is because exclusion is a very uncharacteristic measure for a hierarchical organisation. It sits rather better with Egalitarian organisations which have no other sanctions against persistent dissenters. Indeed, for hierarchies, exclusion makes almost no sense, since one thereby excludes the wrongdoer from punishment. Note that in describing excommunication theological commentators sometimes refer to it as being of medicinal benefit. It supposedly encourages the wrongdoer to realise the seriousness of their offence and thence to repent and return to the fold.

So, far from being another indication of the terrible hierarchy at its terrible worst, as some commentators have suggested, the restatement of the Church’s willingness to excommunicate those attempting the ordination of a woman is really more evidence of just how far Egalitarianism has made inroads into that most hierarchical of hierarchies. Lacking other more coercive sanctions, the Church is reduced to fighting Egalitarianism with its own weapon, exclusion.

But the excluded who won’t repent don’t merely vanish. These days they turn up in America where they take a largely competitive, Individualist approach to religion: if you can’t join them, beat them.  Does it seem unlikely that a small group of women could change the church’s longstanding practice? Perhaps these women and their supporters might take a little encouragement from the story of Mary Mackillop, the Nineteenth century Australian nun who was excommunicated for inciting disobedience. In October 2010 she’ll  be made Australia’s first saint.

Read also: grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches

Only Discriminate – four versions of justice

“We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people.”

These were the words of the Archbishop of Westminster in response to the Pope’s comments on the proposed equality legislation in the UK (reported by the Guardian).

Note the slipperiness of language. In its non-pejorative sense, discrimination does mean distinguishing between people or things, but the more popular usage makes discrimination a thing to be discouraged: distinguishing with the aim of unjustly favouring some over others. I am discriminating in the movies I watch. There is no question of injustice here. The Glenn Miller Story is clearly the greatest movie of all time. But if I discriminate in the people I offer jobs to, it’s reasonable to ask what my criteria are, and whether they are just or unjust.

The problem is that we have four broad versions of justice, not one, and these versions are at odds with one another. In fact they define themselves in relation to the others, so that my version of justice is specifically not yours. Continue reading

Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.