A friend made an observation that got me thinking. It follows, along with my reply (lightly edited and formatted a bit better):
What we devote our lives to — the principles we honor [and] uphold — is our god.
This strikes me as a rather peculiar formulation. You state it as a given, but such semantic games seem to devalue your own God, relegating that God to simply a set of “principles.” Have you really devoted your life to those principles? Have all Christians who nominally state their faith, even though it seems to exert little control over their lives, really devoted their lives completely to the “principles” of a Christian God?
The God of Everyday Lives?
It seems to me that this effort to make certain that people like me (or like non-believing Progressives) have a “god” is pushing the semantics a bit far.
Most Christians, I would guess, go through their lives with their faiths playing a small or even negligible role in how they conduct themselves day to day. There are exceptions, some of whom are noble indeed. Other beliefs are likely much the same; a discussion of Islam in this context seems worth a post.
Atheists/non-believers/agnostics go through their lives with religious faith playing no role at all. In many cases, it would be hard to tell the difference from nominal Christians, or sometimes even very devout Christians, merely by their actions.
So what does guide our actions and thoughts? It seems to me that each person initially absorbs from their societal surroundings a set of principles that unconsciously guide them. We in the West call these “morals,” and the effects of conflicts between them and our actions our “conscience.” I don’t object to the names.
In the US, these guiding principles in the larger society initially came from the Judeo-Christian-influenced Enlightenment, with a large dose of influence from this country’s excellent founding documents and early leaders like the highly admirable George Washington. Note that it would not have mattered if Washington were really a devout believer, or an atheist who put on a show of piety for an audience that expected it. His actions would still have been impressive and sometimes astounding, and he was a worthy man to look to for guidance.
These national influences are merely a canvas, it seems to me, though a good one in America’s case. More local societal influences can vary widely from this, and add their own color to spots on the canvas, sometimes hiding it completely. And the canvas has discolored with time; it needs a restoration.
Even if a young man in a Washington DC ghetto and a young woman in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown might both be Christians with the same family income, they will nevertheless likely start out their young adult lives with very different principle sets indeed. Individual family differences can play a large role here as well. Two young men of the same age and ethnicity from adjacent homes can emerge with very different core guidance.
Breaking the Mold
As we grow, we reach a point where we start consciously thinking about our guiding principles, and we have the option of modifying them. We’re not forever trapped in the mold in which we were initially cast. It is not easy to change, as habits become our masters all too soon. And it involves actively thinking about, and then acting upon, a part of us that normally gets no real thought at all.
Religions generally come with prepackaged sets of guiding principles to adopt. Conversion to a different religion often provides a set of guidelines that will often be at least somewhat different from the ones one had previously, together with a strong rationale (for the new believer) for adopting them. Many people are at least partially successful in updating their core principles, though I suspect that few can make changes that match the newly offered set completely. Some profess to very radical changes, which seems to me a rather extraordinary feat. I imagine that this happens less often than is bragged about.
The Honest, Insightful Donald Trump?
This topic was, interestingly, a rare moment of speaking the truth for Donald Trump. He described with some insight that, growing up in New York City, he would have different “values” than would someone who had grown up in Iowa. This led, later, to Ted Cruz’s comment on New York values, but the expression came from Trump himself. Trump’s comment about his values and Cruz’s observation about them were both correct. But it still cost Cruz a lot, perhaps the election, because of Trump’s and the media’s portrayal of it.
(I confess that “honest” and “insightful” do not usually come readily to my mind when I think of Mr. Trump. But he will win the election, and then we’ll see what results.)
That’s What I’m Talking About
To me, these “values” were the internalized guidance I’m talking about. And even in New York City, there will be much variation between individuals, largely from more local “societal” influences — just as will be true in Iowa. The “averages” of these in the two locales, though, will be clearly different, and that was Cruz’s point.
I’d be very careful indeed to suggest that, without Christianity (or some religious belief) one cannot have a useful set of internalized guidance. And I’d be more careful yet about suggesting that such internal guiding principles make up a “god” that non-believers worship. They are not even the God of Christianity for believers, though in the best of cases that Christianity has helped the believer to update the core guidance in good ways.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle