Interview with Owen Flanagan on The Prosblogion: Philosophy of Religion Blog

Owen Flanagan at our 2016 Summer Seminar “Virtue & Happiness”. Photo by Valerie Wallace.

This interview by Helen De Cruz is with Owen Flanagan, James B Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and faculty member for our first Summer Seminar, “Virtue & Happiness”. It originally appears in the blog The Prosblogion.

Helen De Cruz: Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

Owen Flanagan: I am James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University in Durham NC, where I am Co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and still have that Catholic boy inside me.  I received a fantastic education from nuns, most of whom had never been to anything that we would call college. I get Catholicism.  It is in my blood and bones. It is familiar.  In Rome last year, my wife and I visited Saint Peter’s, many other churches, went to vespers at a convent, and I was consistently moved, engaged. But I haven’t practiced since I was a young teenager.  I was bothered by hell, specifically the idea that a good God would have such a place, by the emphasis on sexual sins, and by a sincere worry that although Jesus might be understood as a prophet, as he is in the Koran, but was simply nowhere good enough to be God.

So, I am a certain kind of atheist, a philosophical one, who has never heard a substantive conception of God, the sort that is presented in creedal religions (I believe in god the Father almighty…) that I thought the weight of reasons supported belief in. The reasons always seem to weigh against actually believing in THAT God.  This philosophical orientation goes well with a certain resistance to epistemic over-confidence that is needed to speak confidently about the existence or nature of one’s God or gods.

In part, I have been too impressed, in a good way I think, by my interest and study of other great world religions to be confident about the creedal parts of the Catholicism I was raised in, which I was told was the one true religion. Confucianism, which treads lightly on the divinity stuff, and Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism, are beautiful without being theistic in the familiar senses. Some say Buddhism is atheistic, which is true as far as a creator God goes. But Buddhism, like almost every spiritual tradition seems committed to ideas, which are hard to take literally from the perspective of the scientific image such as rebirth and karma. These ideas can however easily be taken poetically and embodied in rituals without literal commitment.

That said, I get the religious impulse, embrace the feelings of mystery, awe, and existential anxiety about the meaning and significance of life that most every religion responds to.  I love the part of most religious traditions that enact, express, and acknowledge the mystery of things.  In fact I preferred the old pre-Vatican 2 masses in Latin with more dramatic music, incense, mystery, drama.

In The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007), I make the distinction between assertive theism, where one asserts certain supernatural claims as true, and expressive theism, where one expresses various extra-mundane impulses, feelings, emotions, and expansive not-humanly-possible love.  I prefer the latter to the former.

You might think this makes me a familiar type: spiritual but not religious.  Maybe. But I am pretty allergic to New Age style religions because they seem self-indulgent, egoistic, and in addition often assert empirically irresponsible stuff such as one hears in homeopathy.  So to make things maximally confusing and to conclude this part of our interview: When people ask about my religion, I sometimes say I am Catholic.  I say it in the same spirit many of my Jewish friends say and mean they are Jewish.  Catholicism is part of me.  It is like when I go home to Westchester County, New York where I was raised.  The dirt smells right, the way dirt is supposed to smell, the sky, the trees look right; it is familiar, comforting, and grounding.  But in both cases, I don’t live there anymore.

HD: As you describe yourself as spiritual but not religious, and not having practiced Catholicism since you were a teenager, I was wondering if there are any religious practices you have engaged in apart from the Catholic practices you mention. For example, you describe mindfulness and meditation in your book The Bodhisattva’s Brain, you describe meditation and mindfulness not as standalone practices, but as part of something that helps Buddhists to achieve eudaimonia. Do you think this is true of religious practices in general?

OF: Thanks for these new questions. First, a clarification. I won’t quite admit to being spiritual but not religious. There are some familiar forms of contemporary spirituality that are very self-indulgent, and have almost no aim of binding a community (as the word “religion” intends), nor even are they aimed at personal ethical improvement or self-cultivation, only some kind of personal hygiene. I can do without those forms of spirituality, and, on the other hand, I think communal practices and rituals that affirm an ethical vision are beautiful and important, and probably not best done privately.  So, this brings me to your second question.  I say the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi most days.  It feels right, and expresses the best moral intentions of the Catholic tradition in which I was raised. As for Buddhist meditation, there are a few things to say: much meditation is designed for insight into such truths as that everything is impermanent and that I am impermanent too (no-self), which are central pieces of Buddhist wisdom.  Getting this wisdom, the metaphysics, according to the tradition, might make me less selfish, grasping, if anything will. This is the way, as you suggest, that Buddhist meditation works holistically as a practice internal to Buddhism. I have practiced these kinds of meditation; but they are not things I do much because I already accepted that I am impermanent.  Also there is a big question inside and outside Buddhism as to why exactly recognizing that I am impermanent motivates selflessness versus hedonism.  That aside, it seems to me that most adaptations of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness are bourgeois — with at most an accidental moral purpose.  Accidental in the sense that relaxed people are on average nicer than stressed out people.  I know many of these practices, and use them to good effect. But I think they have almost zero (except for the accidental side effects) with what religion and spirituality typically aim at. There is a kind of meditation, called metta meditation that aims to recognize selfishness, and work to be less selfish.  I do this, sometimes.  It is a kind of meditation that is ethically useful, but it is not normally remotely what we would call religious.


HD: What, if any, do you think is the relationship between the ability of religions to bind a community and affirming/cultivating an ethical vision? Do you think communal religious practices would be better at this than individualised ones?

OF: Religions do bind. When they bind around a noble ethical vision, they can be great sources of good; when they bind to mark an ideology that defines in-group and out-group, they can be forces of evil, chauvinism, defensiveness, and hate. It is complicated because even in the defining “our people” mode, religions, and other ideologies, political ones as well, typically endorse “love and compassion” among us, among people of our kind.

There is another factor that pertains to whether theology or ethics is given pride of place. Here is an example: In the Roman Catholic church I grew up in I got both a heavy dose of theology (Trinity, Immaculate conception, and so on) and ethics. In my college years at Fordham University in NYC, a Jesuit University, I understood Catholicism to be mostly a social justice tradition, and the theology as optional. Jesus was a socialist. Liberation theology of the South American sort was the future. I am still impressed by how much American Jesuit universities such as Fordham and University of San Francisco still speak in that social justice voice. But there are other Catholic universities, I just visited a famous one (not Jesuit) in the Midwest, which according to faculty I spoke with there leans more towards encouraging theological conviction than Christian ethics or Christian social justice. This puts no pressure at all the neoliberal moral and political order because, well, Christian theology as opposed to Christian ethics is relatively unopinionated about economic inequality.

Now back to the issue of moral education. It is pretty clear that religions have served as sources for expressions of high moral ideals. For reasons, just given, whether they reliably inculcate these ideals depends on whether the high-minded ethics is being emphasized and taught in any particular moral ecology. There was almost perfect coordination between the ethics I learned in my family and the one I learned from the nuns in elementary school. There were even grades on my report card for cooperation and courtesy along side my grades in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In America, there is a big problem about moral education in public schools. Because Americans are so used to religion as the moral source (thus the skepticism that atheists and agnostics can be trusted) and because we believe that there must be neutrality on matters of religion in public institutions (separation of church and state), the result is essentially that schools are not allowed to teach morals. As far as schools go you can’t have sex in school, bring guns or dope to school, or cheat on tests. These school-side mores are justified prudentially. As for the rest of your moral beliefs, virtues, and values, we hope you get them elsewhere, at home, in church, synagogue, or mosque. This is a disaster.

It is not entirely false to say that the combined forces of secularism, liberalism, and multiculturalism have caused the vacuum in teaching ethics in schools because they share the same worry about privileging one comprehensive and substantive vision of the good life, especially because of the suspicion that it will sneak in or actually be a particular religion.

What to do? Here are two ideas I have thought about and write about some in my forthcoming book, The Geography of Morals:

  1. Identify values, virtues, and moral beliefs that are shared across great world spiritual and secular traditions, and teach them in schools. This will get you some substantive values — what Charles Taylor calls an “unforced consensus” — love your neighbor, be compassionate, be attuned to suffering, be charitable in interpretation, be courteous, kind, respectful, be honest, beware in-group chauvinism, work to mitigate bad luck. There are also shared beliefs across most traditions: selfish people are rarely happy. Teach all this.
  2. Work to undermine the belief, or perhaps just let time have its way, in undermining the — what I take to be — false belief that ethics requires a religious foundation and thus that teaching any ethics always involves sneaking a religion in.

This still leaves us with this worry (plus a billion others), about how we establish communal rituals to affirm our common moral beliefs? This is Robert Putnam’s worry about what he chillingly refers to as “bowling alone.” Religions bind around campfires, taking ayahuasca together, in frenetic ceremonial dances, at Mass, when we prayer towards Mecca five times a day. Secular societies have no places to perform communal affirmations of value. PTA meetings hardly seem like the right places to get the juices going in the way say, the Latin mass used to get my juices going. Those of us, like myself, who lean secular humanist, spiritual but not religious, or in liberal ironist directions ought to honestly admit this problem, and work hard to do something about it.


HD: How we build communities with shared (moral) values without religious rituals, or what rituals should replace religious ones is a difficult question. Some anthropologists and cognitive scientists (e.g, Rich Sosis) think that religious rituals are unique because they are supported by belief in invisible agents. People are more motivated to stick to those rituals, because they think there’s a point to it (e.g., you can sing unto the Lord, but what’s the point if there is no Lord?) There’s some movement about atheist churches, fictionalist religiosity, or religiosity without metaphysical assumptions (e.g., Wettstein). What do you think about such initiatives? Do you think atheist spirituality (or something in that ballpark) could work at a group level?

OF: That’s a lot of really complicated questions embedded in one!  A few things:

First, on the issue of building communities with shared moral values:  I think we are better off here than we might think.  I believe that there is in fact an “unforced consensus” at a fairly deep level about the things that a good person is like and ought never to do.  In my work I find that although different traditions, secular and sacred, differ some about the most important virtues, e.g., justice has pride of place in the North Atlantic, whereas compassion is emphasized more in East, South and Southeast Asia, you will almost never find that what one community or tradition thinks is a virtue is a vice somewhere else.  Virtues, basic commandments, do’s and don’ts show convergence.  So you might wonder why isn’t there more direct instruction in schools about this unforced moral consensus.  One reason in America, as I said in an answer to a previous question, is that we confuse anything that looks like moral instruction with sectarian religious instruction. The unforced consensus says that one ought never to kill an innocent, to love one’s neighbor, that one ought to never be mean, angry, cruel, a bully, one should be attentive to those down on their luck, be grateful for the gifts in one’s life, do not lie, cheat, or steal, and never, ever treat another as less worthy based on their gender, skin color, or looks.  But we resist teaching the kids these things in schools.  Why?  We worry that someone will give a liberal interpretation of down-on-their-luck, or will sneak in a religious view of abortion as involving innocents.  So we cut off our nose to spite our face.  In any case, the unforced moral consensus makes me hopeful that we could, even in very plural, multicultural, cosmopolitan worlds find ways to affirm our common values, which I claim are there.

Now, one might point out that the unforced moral consensus I speak of also existed in post 1517 Europe, but Protestants and Catholics were still at each other’s throats.  True.  And we see it again today in the awful internecine conflicts among members of the three Abrahamic religions.  So a simple minded question would be: Why do people who agree about morality at a fairly deep level, kill each other?  Here I think we should believe the social scientists who tell us that typically fights for land, economic resources, social justice, and so on, are the root causes.  Sometimes, of course, theological differences are in play.  Recently I spent a couple of weeks at a wonderful small Lutheran college in Minnesota.  I’d walk to a coffee shop most afternoons and pass three churches at a single intersection.  I assumed they were different Christian churches, maybe Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist. But then one day I noticed that all three were Lutheran!  So in this one tiny, all-American town, the Lutherans were not even able to get along.  I asked around and was told that the disputes were theological, but at least one was theological-ethical about whether gay marriage was acceptable.

The only point is that affirming a community of shared values is hard for both secular and sacred communities.  Now one might think here that there are certain kind of pressures that pertain to size and scale of ideal communities.  Robin Dunbar proposes that an ideal group is between 100-250 people.  At such size, most individuals can know and be known to each other, reputations and relations tracked, everyone can be heard, and so on.  I was once an elected member of Town Meeting in Wellesley, Massachusetts in the 1990’s.  That was our size, and it worked.  We were also a homogeneous community of mostly well-off, educated white people.

Now the problem for secular humanist, agnostics, and atheists is that we are a church-less people.  There is no place for 250 of us to get together.  Or even if there is a place, there is no obvious reason. Remember in the movie Alice’s Restaurant starring Arlo Guthrie, the hippies take over a decrepit church for a commune.   Unitarians try to do something like a secular religion.  I have tried these churches. These are good people.  But the songs and sermons seemed spiritually empty. There is this joke:

Q: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness?

A: Someone who shows up at your house on Sunday morning with nothing to say.

This brings me to the part of your question about religious rituals that affirm relations to supernatural agents.  I am not surprised that this works to both create community and possibly also to release certain fears, express certain hopes, and so on. It fits with my attraction to expressive theism, the sort that is ritualistically robust, magical, but ontologically cagey outside the performance.  By the last, ontological cageyness, I simply mean, you don’t come home from the frenzy and preach a theology.  Invite me to experience what you did.  That’s fine, likely fun, and meaningful, possibly it binds us more closely.  But resist the temptation to corral what is going on into a body of creedal beliefs that would warrant conversion, and solidification of a new or larger in-group of true believers.  That is assertive theism, and its history and its epistemic foundations worry me.

So what to do: Well, the atheists are churchless and have no place to affirm common values with each other.  The spiritual folk have their churches, synagogues, mosques, sweat lodges, communal adult circumcisions, and ayahuasca ceremonies. The latter definitely bind a people.  But as much as they bind around shared spiritual and ethical values, which they do, they also sometimes mark boundaries between a community that is made up by us the right mind people, and those outside, them.  And this can be costly.

An upbeat end:  The unforced moral consensus allows a certain hopefulness.  We could, if we were clear-headed and not so confused by ideas of liberal restraint, insist that there is lots of substantive agreement about moral values, the virtues, the structure of good character, right and wrong, even about thick moral concepts, a courageous person stands up to bullies.  And we could, we should, then insist that both families and schools ought to teach the moral unforced consensus.  As for religious communities:  they can be— they often already are — further sources for moral education.  They are also places where humans have since time immemorial been allowed to explore deep mystery, express great hope, and commune with that which is much greater.  Whereof one cannot speak, one ought remain silent.  Unless that is, one needs to pray, and sing, chant, and speak magical words.  This is a good thing, a worthy thing.  Some atheists think it a bad thing.  But usually they misunderstand religion and think that most of what goes on is affirmation of a creedal theology, a kind of assertive theism, that then divides people.  But there is too much else going on in religious practice to buy this narrow view.  The question arises, can secular humanists, various kinds of naturalists, agnostics, and atheists find ways to acknowledge the normal existential fears, hopes, uncertainties that come with life, without finding communal practices to acknowledge these.  If I were a betting man I’d bet this:  such types, my types, will return (they already are) to places of worship but in the expressive, not the assertive, mood.

As for myself, I must sign off.  That you for this, Helen.  I am off to find a Latin Mass.