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THE CHALLENGE OF DIVERSITY
7 December 2004 | For the 2005 Web site

Dear ------,

Here are some thoughts on your diversity project … or rather diversity in general, since I don’t know the specifics of your plan.

It seems to me that anyone trying to promote diversity is in the same boat as I am in regards the main theme of my Web site: promoting diversity depends on making people understand the deep nature of their beliefs.

Diversity committees are usually more specific in their goals than I am, of course. They seek to make people more open-minded in their beliefs “about Catholics,” for example, or “about Jews.” So while I try to go deeper and broader in my exploration of the nature of belief, you might be able to take a more focused approach for your project. But …

I think the focused approach gets you partial diversity, shallow diversity, or what we might call “a non-diverse diversity.” But that’s just my opinion. Maybe one small step in the right direction is all we can expect from people. It obviously can be done in small steps in something of a cosmetic manner … but I don’t think that’s necessarily lasting; when the fad of diversity is over, people may slide back to their old positions unless anchored in something solid.

As Erich Fromm said: “We should not look at our knowledge as a possession, in which we find security and which gives us a sense of identity; we should not be filled with our knowledge or hang on to it, or crave it. Knowledge should not assume the quality of dogma, which enslaves us. Knowledge is nothing but the penetrating activity of thought — without ever becoming an invitation to stand still in order to find certainty.”

LOOKING AT BELIEF

But let me come back and explore the similarities between our projects:

You are trying to get people to look at their beliefs and recognize that the basis for those beliefs does not rest in the “real world” of “facts” as much as it rests in their own life, mind and experience, in their psychology, if you will. And you’re asking them to change those beliefs by becoming more enlightened people. And when you ask that of people you touch on their identity, which people are loath to explore because it spurs confusion, anger, discomfort and insecurity.

In other words, you’re trying to get inside their hearts and minds to adjust their mental and emotional machinery, and that can generate incredible resistance, especially because the people who need to change most are those who have taken the greatest of pains to build up a solid view of the world that makes them feel special and comfortable, and they won’t give it up without a fight. Actually, they won’t give it up at all! Some people would rather lose a friend, a marriage, a job or even their life before they give up the views that make them feel special.

ENTRENCHED IDEAS

But you know all this; and you’ve had many experiences that show the power of entrenched ideas; and I bet you’ve seen just the opposite: some people are just waiting to struggle free of their prejudices.

“The great agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll described his liberation this way: “For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master's frown or threat — no following another's steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.”

This is my new catch-phrase, the thing central to enlightenment but that religion cannot tolerate: that there should be “no prohibited places in all the realms of thought.”

For example, when Joseph Campbell says …

“One might reasonably define mythology as other people’s religion. The definition of religion is equally uncomplicated: it is misunderstood mythology. The misunderstanding consists typically in interpreting mythological symbols as though they were references to historical facts. And this problem is particularly crucial in our tradition in the West, where the whole emphasis has been on the historicity of the events on which our churches are supposed to have been founded.”

… he is uttering an idea prohibited to any true-believing, churchgoing person.

DEGREES OF DIVERSITY?

But do you see the problem Ingersoll introduces? How do you enlighten people only in a certain direction or only to a certain degree? How do you make a congregation, that feels a special connection to a deity through its special ideas, rituals and practices … how do you encourage those people to respect another group’s belief in their a special connection to a deity through their special ideas, rituals and practices?

It would seem to me that religion — at least as it has been presented by the preachers and priests of the West — is all about special knowledge and exclusivity. So, I would be tempted to say that religion and diversity don’t go together in the least. Of course, one can say that “my church welcomes anyone” but that means, “so long as that person — regardless of race or nationality — accepts the doctrine.” You said as much last night. So diversity is fine except doctrine always trumps diversity, so it’s not really diversity after all; it’s just a small step toward tolerance.

WHAT DO WE PUT IN ITS PLACE?

The other problem we each run into in our quests to explore beliefs, mistakenly seen as true because they are supposedly based on facts and historical events, is that we have to offer something else in their place. If we take them away, what will we give in return? In other words, how do you get people to trade certainty for enlightenment? How do you sell open-mindedness as a value that trumps the comfort derived from entrenched beliefs?

We have worked together for about 20 years, yes? We have had so many wonderful conversations that I’ve lost count. I value you as a kind soul and a powerful mind, an enjoyable conversationalist and a forward-thinking person. But being as open to each other as we are, neither one has led the other to a new point of view regarding the existence of a deity. If you can search your heart and find the reason you don’t want to part with the idea of a deity, and if I can search my heart and find the reason I don’t want to accept the idea of a deity, then maybe we’ll get a better grasp of what we’re up against when we try to promote diversity or enlightenment.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think you see your beliefs as factual; I have come to accept that mine are psychological.

THE SEARCH

I have searched myself somewhat on why I don’t want to accept the idea of a deity — not just Christian gods but any gods — and I think it’s because I don’t find it interesting or inspirational. It does not suit me to think and live inside that deity box. I don’t have to prove to myself or others that’s there’s no god; I simply don’t have it in me to believe there is; my happiness and interest expands outward indefinitely if not blocked by some deity and his or her absolute rules. My comfort zone is pretty big.

So I have, for now, found the way to feel inspired, empowered and connected to a tradition — and a pantheon of wonderful role models — without feeling that I need to know the certain truth about anything, which is to say that I have traded the idea of truth for the experience of being interested and inspired, and that sustains me in my life and powers my enthusiasm to live and learn. And we all need to feel enthused and inspired, right? So I have been lucky enough to stumble forward and find the way to satisfy some deep longings of my character and generate inspiration without absolute beliefs in a deity or even in some sort of philosophical absolute such as “reason or logic” or some psychological absolute like “the true self” or any of that.  

In this sense, Emerson has been a valuable role model for me: “There are two objects between which the mind vibrates like a pendulum; one, the desire for Truth; the other, the desire for Repose. He in whom the love of Repose predominates, will accept the first creed he meets — he gets rest and reputation; but he shuts the door on truth. He in whom the love of Truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings and afloat.”

However, I don’t swallow Emerson whole: I think his “love of Truth” idea — as if Truth is a real absolute that exists apart from him — is a bit too “religious” for me.

LUCK

But I’ve been lucky. I don’t see how I could have escaped absolute thinking without a love of reading — and who knows where that came from? How do we enlighten people who don’t like to read or write or think or talk about ideas when it’s hard to enlighten people who do? How do you enlighten non-readers and non-thinkers who need to feel inspired and connected to something bigger than they are, to some tradition bigger than their own limited life, a view of life that gives solace and guidance? I would grudgingly admit that such people are lucky religion exists, that if it didn’t someone would have to invent it as a ready-made container for the souls of those people not inclined to cobble together something on their own.

So, I propose — jokingly — that we write a book on the topic: “Enlightenment and Religion: Exploring the Tension between Freethinking and True Belief.” Enlightenment could be defined simply as “the desire to examine old ideas and think new thoughts.” Religion could be defined as, “The desire to retain old ideas and live out pre-ordained rules and practices.” We could, like Emerson, try to explore the psychology behind each approach to life.

Sounds like a good way to learn more about diversity, starting with ourselves.

Jon

 

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