Friday, October 05, 2007

Rant: Why Priests?

You've probably heard this rant before, from lots of other people. A lot of the time I bump into "Non-Overlapping Magisteria," someone says something that almost sounds reasonable: Leave science (what is) up to the scientists to figure out. Leave ethics (what should be) to other people. The big problem comes at the end of the sentence, when they assign a rather bizarre group to be the "other people."

Why are priests, ministers, clerics, clergy, witch doctors, and those guys with the e-meters considered experts on morality? I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that they're more moral than the average person, and often evidence that strongly suggests the opposite. Of course, some fundie'll cry out at this point that they're more 'in touch' with whatever deity, in which case, they're moving into science: If deities exist and have effects, it's a scientific question.

About the only positive experience I can recall right now involving a minister was one that included Star Trek in his sermon, talking about the nature of sacrifice: That of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Real sacrifice, not the fake, planned kind. Of course, Spock came back through unplanned use of phlebotinum, but no one was expecting it. I'm glad he didn't make a comparison, because Spock is much cooler than Jesus. Even if Jesus could allegedly do ninja water walking.

Anyway, back to the point: I see nothing connecting superstition authorities with morality. If I had to pick an authority, I'd go for someone who had to take a lot of college courses about the various ethical theories out there. If some conundrum came up, he'd at least be able to talk about details, rather than just say 'God said that's a no-no.'

Moving onto my perceptions of priests and such: I think I trust used car salesmen more. The only place I ever see admirable preachers is on television. The fictional kind of television, that is, not news programs. On the news, they're the villains with strangely good PR as the anchors will often suck up to them or parrot apologia for their actions without putting those actions back into the real context they typically provided less than a week before.

I'm again glad I watch The Daily Show. They're willing to replay original clips and engage in actual criticism.

Put simply, I've seen enough nasty preachers and too few good ones that I viscerally place preachers lower than the average human, unless I have prior information about their individual character.


Anonymous said...

What can I say except I agree.

Regarding the Daily Show, there's a reason more people watch it to get their news than probably should. It actually does more "newsy" stuff than "real news" a lot of the time. Sure they do the fake stuff a lot, but generally that's pretty easy to detect (for example, I'm skeptical of pretty much all their funny interviews being real). HOWEVER, most of what they actually do involves literally just playing back exactly what's been happening on the news and commenting on it.

I recall some presidetial candidate saying "if you believe what you hear on the daily show you'll believe anything" which was an odd comment since what he was talking about was basically direct news reports and films of what HE HIMSELF was doing and saying. The Daily Show just showed it all back to back in hilarious relief against itself, as it often does.

I was very impressed by that interview Jon gave with Chris Matthew there (generally I tend to skip interviews with the "movie of the week" actor/promoters, as I find those boring). It was like for the first time I was watching a real interview. Jon Stewert has done that before but really sometimes he seems to back down from providing an actual challenge. I'd like him to keep this example of an edge and become even more hated by the rest of the media. He actually seemed to ask real questions.

Now there's also those other guys who "grill" everyone they get on their shows, but they just use these ridiculous and insulting tactics to create controversy for controversy's sake and then advertise themselves as "playing hardball" or whatever the most hardcore expression is. So yeah, the Daily Show of all things actually does some stuff that "real news" should do more of. If someone directly contradicts what they said two weeks ago, call them on it and play back that old clip!

And now I've taken a small blurb of your's and responded entirely to that, as is the way of the internet. On actual topic, yes that whole non-overlap thing seems like an interesting defense that they just came up with to come up with a reason why tribal elders should be left alone. Yeah, I've yet to see any sensible method they employ, some sort of "ethical method" they use to come up with results like the scientific method does. Nope, rather they seem as hopeless as the woo "scientists" that use no method but blind conjecture.

Well, there's philosophy, but a lot of the time people in that field just start with a few obvious axioms and just sort of go randomly off in weird directions to come up with a moral system which seems inflexible and totally absolute, even if I find weird exceptions that don't make it work. Welcome to Rapture.

This non-overlap thing is also used a lot for the "question of god" and a billion other "spiritual" matters, and again, even if it applied why are the white mages more qualified than anyone else? Because they say so? Scientists can actually show why they are more qualified in answering questions about things like why are shadows.

Anonymous said...

I don't think one can effectively argue that Spock's sacrifice was entirely unplanned. Sure, an hour or two before it happened he probably thought he'd be doing something else that day, but when the time came he made quick arrangements. We see him mind-meld with Dr. McCoy near the end of that movie and, in the next one, it becomes clear that this let Spock prepare for his return. Of course, he had to do some quick figuring banking on what he knew of the Genesis device, rather than having some ancient prophecy (possibly retconned together from existing sources) to specify the plan.

And when it comes to miracles, Jesus could walk on water, but Spock had rocket boots. When you can not fly over a body of water, who needs to walk? It's unclear if Jesus would have been able to yank Kirk to a stop at the start of Star Trek V without harming him, so I count that as one point where Spock does Jesus one better. (Then again, Biblical authors have a better excuse than modern ones for ignoring the effects of force, so probably Jesus could similarly discount physics if needed.)

Oh, this is supposed to be about morality rather than Spock vs. Jesus. As Dinosaur Comics reminded us recently, there is a distinction between ethics and morals. Since we seem to be talking about why regular people claim that preachers have moral authority, trying to make that distinction precise is pointless. As far as I can tell, the common usage holds that morals are about "right and wrong" from an intuitive or emotional perspective, rather than as a logical consequence of an ethical theory.

Sadly, in practice individuals seem to be labeled as "moral" based principally on how well their hangups match those of the one judging. Much of the time the word "moral" seems to default to referring to sexual practices, as if other conduct isn't particularly important. Worse yet, all too often "moral" character seems to be ascribed merely for being part of the right team. See recent American politics and compare the harsh criticism some Republicans still level against Bill Clinton to what they say when prominent members of their own party commit comparable or worse misdeeds.

See also the "debate" about FDA approval for HPV vaccination, where apparently some considered it better that women should be at risk of cancer later in life than that they might feel slightly less inhibited from sex by being vaccinated. Of course, exactly why someone thoughtful enough to be concerned about HPV would, when vaccinated, not worry about anything else that can be transmitted sexually was not explained.

Anyway, I think it's pretty clear that people are deeply confused about morality. I suspect that, for many of them, deferring to the preachers is tempting both because by now it's traditional and because people want simple answers. A skeptic offers honest assessments of confidence in ideas, while one rooted in dogma offers firm truths, unassailable unless for some reason we wanted to start thinking and challenging our assumptions. Why do that when we can cling to "certainty"? Rock of ages, save me from the examined life.

Furthermore, who's more likely to be right: someone who unhesitatingly offers a simple, direct answer, or someone who pauses to think before making a tentative, qualified statement? I'm afraid most people are deeply confused about the right answer to that question, as well.

I know a preacher or two who are decent sorts, but then my relatives tend toward what in America would be called more "liberal" churches, where the Bible and its multiple contradictory accounts are not all taken as literal truth, and where people and issues in the real world still have some importance. It particularly helps that they seem to be aware of broader perspectives than just their own beliefs. With my chaste, teetotaling lifestyle I wonder if I might have ended up as some sort of monk (unless mathematician counts), had I ever really found their stories convincing. I wouldn't be surprised if many working in religion came into it because they believed it's a moral occupation in which they could do good. Sadly, all too many see it as a way to promote hateful "moral" ideology or to take advantage of others.