Moral decisions about eating, pt. 2

A distinction that I’ve found provocative when thinking about moral decisions about eating is the three-way distinction between those decisions give priority to other human beings, those decisions that are most concerned with one’s own self, and those decisions that give priority to non-human beings. For example, one can distinguish between three types of strict vegetarians:

  1. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat and animal products because they are concerned that animal food products can use up to 16 pounds of grain per pound of animal, which could mean that raising animal products could take food out of the mouths of starving people;
  2. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that meats may adversely affect their health;
  3. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that raising and slaughtering animals for food leads to unnecessary pain and poor lives for the animals.

In reality, of course, many strict vegetarians use all three types of moral reasoning; but even so, usually one of these three types of moral reasoning generally will feel most important to any one person.

The first type of moral reasoning above is likely to be acceptable to nearly all religious liberals. Even though we will argue about the specifics, we commonly hold an ethical standard that we should act in such a way that we minimize harm to other people. Thus, if we all agreed that eating meat is really going to take food out of the mouths of starving people, causing them serious harm, we would generally agree that we should stop eating meat. (Of course, we don’t all agree that eating meat is going to harm others; the devil in moral reasoning is often in the details.)

The second type of moral reasoning above is least likely to be given much weight by religious liberals. While most of us would agree that it’s important to take care of oneself and to refrain from damaging oneself, nevertheless we are not particularly concerned with treating our body as a sort of holy temple; we’d place a much higher priority on making the world a better place for all persons. (I’d even say the reason many religious liberals take care of their health is to have more energy to make the world a better place for all.)

The third type of moral reasoning above remains under contention among religious liberals. While every religious liberal that I know feels that taking care of the entire ecosystem is a moral imperative, some religious liberals want to do this because we humans depend on the health of the ecosystem for our own health; that is, not harming the ecosystem is of secondary importance to not harming human beings — whereas other religious liberals want to take care of the ecosystem because they feel it is more important than human beings. (This latter position is sometimes referred to as Deep Ecology, or being “deep green” rather than merely “green.”)

If we let it, this conversation can take us to some interesting questions:— What’s most important in the universe: humanity, or something else? — and what do we name that something else? —God? —creation? (which begs the question, created by what or whom?) —earth? —the universe?

And those interesting questions, and others like them, can lead us to examine the roots of our theologies. Thus, one of the reasons I can’t call myself a humanist is that I can’t place utmost importance on human beings; I would call myself a Transcendentalist where my understanding of the universe tells me there’s something that transcends humanity, something before which I and all humanity must feel very small and insignificant; and this leads me towards some kind of Deep Ecology. By contrast, many of the liberal Christians I know are humanists; that is, even though they are committed to protecting God’s creation, they would consider human beings to be of utmost importance. (Here I’m using “humanist” in the broader sense of the word that goes back at least to Erasmus; I’m not using “humanist” in the new, reductive sense of the word that merely means “rejecting God”.)

From what I’ve seen, there’s an almost unresolvable difference between those who place humanity at the center of the universe, and those who place something else at the center of the universe. And in the latter group we can also find some unresolvable differences; there are those like me who place something hugely and transcendentally larger than humans (the ecosystem? God? Gaia?) at the center of universe; there are others who are more concrete and specific about what’s placed in the center of the universe (animals including perhaps human animals, etc.). All these nearly unresolvable differences help explain why our moral arguments about eating don’t often seem to get very far — we are often arguing from very different frames of reference.

Moral decisions about eating, pt. 1

Yesterday’s “Science” section in the New York Times has an essay by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on the morality of eating meat as compared to the morality of eating plants. During a period when she was a vegetarian, Yoon said she struggled with the question of why she thought it was moral to eat plants, but not animals:

…I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.

Surely, I’d thought, science can defend the obvious, that slaughterhouse carnage is wrong in a way that harvesting a field of lettuces [sic] or, say, mowing the lawn is not. But instead, it began to seem that formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.

“No Face, but Plants Like Life Too,” Carol Kaesuk Yoon, New York Times, 15 March 2011, p. D4.

This is a classic moral problem, and it has been resolved a number of different ways. At an extreme, there are fruitarians, those humans who will eat only ripe fruits, nuts, and seeds that can be used without killing plants; and some fruitarians won’t even eat seeds or nuts since they destroy potential life. Following that, different groups of humans may draw the line in different places. A rough list of moral stands on eating various organisms, in decreasing order of strictness, would look something like this:

  1. Fruitarian — eat only fruits whose harvest won’t damage plants
  2. Vegan — eat no animal products at all (incl. no milk, honey, etc.)
  3. Strict vegetarian — eat no animal flesh or eggs (may eat milk)
  4. Ovo-lacto-vegetarian — eat no animal flesh (eggs and milk OK)
  5. Non-strict vegetarian — “eat nothing with a face”
  6. Omnivore

The above list is based on moral stands against taking life. There are, of course, other moral considerations that may affect food choices. The list below has some of these other moral stands, listed in no particular order:

  • Self-sufficiency — eat as much food raised by self as possible
  • Locavore — eat local foods as much as possible
  • Sustainable foods — eat foods raised organically, biodynamically, or under some other criteria for sustainable production
  • Global food security — eat foods that maximize yield per acre (e.g., Diet for a Small Planet, etc.)
  • Healthful foods — eat so as to maintain the health of one’s own body (e.g., no refined sugar, etc.) (Thanks to Steven.)
  • Unprocessed foods — eat foods that have been processed as little as possible
  • Non-corporate foods — eat foods not produced by the handful of major food processing corporations (i.e., Nestle, Kraft, etc.)

Obviously, being able to take any of the above moral stands presupposes that you are in a position to make decisions about what food you eat — i.e., you have enough income to be able to make choices, you live in a place where you have food choices, etc.

I’d love to hear from you about whether you take any of these moral stands. And let me know if I’ve missed any important moral stands on food. Then in later posts, I’ll look at some moral stands on food more closely.

“Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”

Carol and I have finally been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the 2000 bestseller that gave a popular account of some scientific research in epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. Like Dr. Johnson, neither one of us has wanted to read the whole book all the way through*, so it lives in the bathroom, and we read bits of it when we’re not looking through the catalogs and magazines that also live there.

But while I haven’t actually read the book, I have been reading the end notes, which are really more informative than the book. In these endnotes I finally came across a reference I have wanted for some time: a reference to the scientific work that helps explain why human organizations with less than about 150 members are qualitatively different than human organizations with more than 150 members. The reference is: Robin I. M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution, 1992, vol. 20, pp. 469-493.

And why should we care about the size of primate neocortexes? The neocortex is the part of the brain through which primates keep track of relationships; the larger the neocortex, the more relationships a given species of primate can keep track of; thus the large size of the Homo sapiens neocortex allows us humans to keep track of all the relationships in a group of up to about 150 members. When, however, human organizations are larger than 150 members, individuals can no longer keep track of all the relationships, and the group therefore feels qualitatively different.

This helps explain why congregations often stop growing when their active membership (measured as the average weekly attendance of adults and children) becomes larger than 150. My guess is that because our neocortex can’t handle any more relationships within that group, we literally cannot relate to any newcomers who may arrive. And if the newcomers can’t make connections with the other primates in the congregation, they’re not going to stick around — we primates are social critters who want to make connections with others of our species. This also helps explain why something like three-quarters of all U.S. congregations have an average attendance of fewer than 200 adults and children — we’re just more comfortable in groups with 150 or fewer humans. 

Whether a congregation is growing or not may thus have less to do with the attractiveness of the congregation’s theology than with the neocortex size of the primates who make up that congregation.

* “Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’” — Boswell, Life of Johnson, Monday 19 April 1773.

Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….

There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….

The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.

Reluctantly re-examining personal sin

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.

I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.

What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Just to state the obvious

When confronted with a twelve year old girl who had just died, the story about that radical rabble-rouser and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth does not have him saying: “Your daughter is in heaven now because God needed another angel”; nor is he reported as saying, “I know just how you feel, but your daughter is in a better place now.” Nope, the way the story runs is that Jesus walks into where the girl is lying, takes her hand, and says, “Girl, get up!” and she does. (For you Bible geeks, this is in Mark 5.35-43.)

Mind you, I’m not someone who believes in the literal factual truth of the stories in the Bible, nor do I believe in the literal truth of the stories told by Shakespeare, and in fact I have a limited amount of trust in the literal factual truth of stories in the New York Times or on Fox News. Stories have their own narrative logic that is different from, but no less true than, literal factual truth.

So reading this story is not going to make me go out and try to do some faith healing — no more than reading King Lear is going to make me say to my sweetheart, “I love you according to my bond; no more nor less.” (For you Shakespeare geeks, that’s act 1, scene 1, lines 94-95.) However, reading this story in the Jesus saga is going to make me think twice before uttering platitudes to the parents of a dead child. Jesus did not try to placate them by saying, “Your twelve year old is one of God’s angels now.” Instead, he showed up. He didn’t weep and wail. He was matter-of-fact. He paid attention to the parents, and paid attention to what they really wanted.

Just to state the obvious, this story is not a literal story about a dead girl that came back to life, but it is about a different kind of miracle: showing up, not freaking out, and paying attention to someone who needs it.

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To make you feel humble

NASA is celebrating the one year anniversary of its Solar Dynamics Observatory, and they’ve been featuring this photo on their Web site: a photo of a March 30, 2010, solar eruptive prominence, taken in the extreme ultraviolet range. NASA has superimposed a photo of the Earth to provide a sense of scale.

Damn, are we tiny:

This reminds me of the extended monologue by Yhwh in the book of Job (ch. 38 ff.). Though framed in the cultural referents of the Ancient Near East, Yhwh’s monologue has the same effect on me as does this photo — both make me realize that we humans are insignificant when considered in terms of the vastness of the universe. Our essential insignificance seems to bother some people, but to be honest I find it comforting — I’m often not very impressed with humans, and it’s good to know that there is something out there which is much bigger and grander, and more permanent, than we are.

Notes from a week of study leave, pt. 1

I’m re-reading the Gospel of Mark, in preparation for developing some curriculum materials for upper elementary school. When I can break away from the over-familiarity of the text, it seems like a strange and alien book to my postmodern sensibilities. If I try to read Mark as nonfiction or history I expect plot and rich characterizations; but there is little in the way of a coherent narrative, and the characters are often flat and not entirely believable. If I try to read Mark as a book of religion, that doesn’t work either, because I have come to expect religious books to read like platitude-filled self-help books; but Mark does not sound in the least like Eckhardt Tolle, or the Dalai Lama. If I try to read Mark as a book of theology, I’m also baffled, because I’ve become accustomed to theology written in boring academic prose with lots of footnotes and bizarre quasi-Germanic grammar. So I’m trying to let go of my preconceptions (or at least not cling so tightly to my preconceptions), accept the strangeness of the book, and decide what might be appropriate to present to fourth and fifth graders.

For example, do I want to tell them the story of the dead girl and the sick woman (Mark 5.21-43)? — Jesus is prevailed upon by some grieving parents to restore their dead daughter to life; on his way to see the dead girl, a woman who has been bleeding for fourteen years touches his robe and is healed; Jesus feels the power going out of him when she touches him, and turns around to confront her; then they eventually get to see the dead girl, and she comes back to life.

On the scale of supernatural occurences, this is no stranger than Grimm’s fairy tales and Harry Potter. Certainly it would be great fun to present this story to upper elementary children, compare it to fantastic stories with which they’re familiar, and then decide in what way the story is true. Upper elementary children are still concrete thinkers, but they are able to understand the difference between journalism, myth, fantastic fiction, and other types of stories. Children in this age group would also be able to understand that the moral or message in this story is not simple: the story wants to show us that Jesus is a miracle worker, but then Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith, not him, that has healed her. There’s a purpose behind these miracles, and today’s orthodox Christians will tell us that the purpose is to prove God’s existence to an unbelieving populace, but I think children could also understand that these stories are telling us something about the nature of subjectivity. I’m not sure how the parents of the children I teach would react to this story; many of them understand religion to be something that exists entirely in a plane of objective reality that can be proved or disproved scientifically; explorations of the subjective side of religion can be very touchy in Unitarian Universalist circles.

The story of the rich man (Mark 10.17-31) offers a critique of materialism; in today’s world, it can be understood as a critique of consumer capitalism. The rich man says that he keeps all of the ethical commandments, and asks Jesus what else he needs to do. Jesus replies that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and then he will have “treasure in heaven.” I would love to present this story to children in the context of an interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in which the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “Web of Life” (this is Bernard Loomer’s interpretation in his booklet Unfoldings); if you are well-to-do, you are doing damage to the interdependent web of all life (human and non-human life), because you are taking more than your share. But this could get uncomfortable if I were to take the next step, which would be to point out that most Americans are rich by world standards; we are not going to have “treasure in heaven,” that is, we are currently doing damage to the Web of Life, simply by being rich by world standards.

In short, Mark is a very challenging book. To present it honestly, so that I’m not doing violence to the text, might be more than I want to do with upper elementary children. That being the case, do I simply say that I’m not going to present stories from Mark to upper elementary children? Or do I present a watered-down version that removes the most challenging bits of the book?

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

All the prophets seem to get sanitized. Take, for example, the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, whom I have recently been re-reading. It was Amos, of course, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech:— “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos looked around at his society and saw that those in power trod upon the poor, and took from them “burdens of wheat”; he heard wailing in the streets; and he made violent-sounding protests against the injustice he witnessed.

Amos gets sanitized just like Martin Luther King, Jr. Orthodox Christians manage to turn Amos’s prophecies into some kind of call for personal salvation; atheists mock him for his belief in God but don’t go any further than that; and religious liberals simply ignore him. All these groups seem to ignore the fact that Amos was writing powerful protest literature that was designed to make us feel horribly uncomfortable about the way we treat other people, especially those who have less power than we do.

It’s not too far-fetched to think of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a sort of lesser Amos: someone who set out to afflict the comfortable, a troublemaker who wanted true justice for all persons, a somewhat cantankerous and definitely edgy kind of a guy. And like Amos, King gets bowdlerized: used to promote self-esteem or to keep kids from fighting; mocked for his very real character flaws; or simply ignored. In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth quoting some more of that famous quotation from Amos, to learn how it is that Amos thinks his God will make justice roll down like waters:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!
   to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord
   is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met
   him; or went into the house, and leaned his
   hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and
   not light? even very dark, and no brightness
   in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not
   smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your
   meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither
   will I regard the peace offerings of your fat
   beasts.
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs;
   for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and
   righteousness as a mighty stream.
   — Amos 5.18-24, KJV

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King, Jr.:— a preacher, a prophet, someone who took Amos’s God very seriously.