Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Group 3: An Aristotelian Life

In her essay, An Aristotelian Life, Marcia Homiak parallels the benefits of religious belief to Aristotle’s formula for human flourishing. Specifically, religious belief seems to provide her friends and family with five benefits. First, it provides guidance for how to live one's life, how to identify what is important, valuable and worthwhile. Second, it provides the motivation for acts of human decency, generosity and beneficence. Third, it can provide them with the psychological strength to do what is right even when the odds are stacked against them or they are in great peril. Fourth, it ties them together and creates deep social bonds of love, friendship and affection. And fifth, it can provide comfort in times of hardship and distress. While she believes that these are all admirable qualities that can be found among the religious, they are not exclusive to believers. She basically summarizes Aristotle’s view of the good life, and shows that all these positive effects can be realized outside of a religious context. I don’t think that religious people acquire these benefits because of their religious “beliefs”. The community could be advantageous in dealing with grief and provide comfort, but not beliefs and teachings alone. The good parts of a religious persons character is not a credit to the religion, or faith, but man’s innate moral compass. If non religious people can attain these qualities without religion, then there must be a commonality between the believer and nonbeliever that allows them both access to them. Humans have an innate morality. Healthy children that are too young to understand complex moral questions, yet they have a sense of fairness without having to be taught the golden rule. If someone is motivated to act nobly because they were told it was the proper thing to do, rather than doing the same thing for nothing more than knowing that it will positively effect another person. Aristotle also seems to say that we can reach our full potential by being “self-lovers”. This does not mean that we only think about ourselves and disreguard the needs of others. We are social creatures (Aristotle says man is a political creature). Since we have a deep need to share our experiences and helping others can make our lives more fulfilled, we are “self-loving” when we are “other-loving”. This means that we can all be “selfish together” (S. Harris, The End Of Faith).
Back to my point on religious faith getting undue credit for the admirable qualities expressed through its adherents. Either all religions are correct, none of them are correct, or one of them is correct. I can only understand, and make sense of the world if the second option is true. If religion is not necessarily true, but in any case can be beneficial, why not leave people be and let those positive portions of faith flourish? We shouldn’t try to prevent people from practicing their religion; however, we should keep our eye on the ball here. Yes, religion can help people live moral lives, but this watered down, and housebroken faith is a relatively new manifestation. The late Christopher Hitchens summed this up pretty well in this quote I found. “Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”(Hitchens God is not Great)
Fact Q: What was the name of Aristotle’s most famous work on ethics?
A: Nicomachean Ethics


  1. We should remember the barbarism, but shouldn't we also encourage the civilizing trajectory of moderation in the future of religion... perhaps, some of us will hope, the trajectory of a fading tradition.

    I really like the Harris idea of being "selfish together"...

  2. i think you are right. The civilizing trajectory of religion is also a survival mechanism for that belief syetem. some have been more quick than others to leave the more the barborism behind. if religions were not to progress with a secular society itwilkl eventually have diminishing returns, and will not attract so wide an audience. But it seems silly to me that we atheists are supposed to let religions go through their slow,indignified deaththrows that began with the invention of the telescope.

  3. I also think rather that a real historical survey of the various sects and competing beliefs internal to each religion shows that this 'uplifting moral "watered down"' (as it is put) interpretation of each religion is not in fact all that new in many cases. It certainly is new that it is gaining more steam and popularity and moving closer to supplanting what is considered 'orthodox', but I think that speaks as much to our development of a species as it does some evolution of the religion.

    Religions certainly change cultures. But in turn, cultures change religion. And there are many examples in history of a religion being forced to toe a particular (and often unsavory) line, because the guys with the armies said the clerics had better support a certain interpretation of the religion if they knew what was good for them.

  4. notice i said CIVIL society. Give me an example of a society (like America, and western style democracies) where religion has been corrupted in this way. I wont dispute your example of military dictatorships in certain parts of the developing world, and add modern theocracies to the kinds of political climates that pose this problem, but not a secular society. Anticipating the agument that the national socialism and Stalinism were secualr is correct in that they did away with trditional religion; however they were not without analigious components which disqualify them. Communism was a political religion (miracle harvests, political witch hunts, show trials etc), and the nazis replaced traditional beliefs with psuedo- Nordic blood myths and a doctrine of arian superiority. To say that these were part in pracel to western civilization would be flat out dishonest. Look at egypt at the moment for a different veiw on this. Egypt is poised to use democratic elections as a spring board to theocracy. this is not because of the army. it is because their religion claims to be the answer to all person, and societal problems.