Monday, March 26, 2012

High Hopes

Society & Faith

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope,
An Essay on Man (1733)
It is not easy to be optimistic these days; it takes a lot of faith to be so. Truly, there is much to worry about, both locally and internationally. Truly, things could be worse, and that's the fear: a nuclear Iran; a volatile Syria about to erupt into civil war that spills over into other nations; increasing poverty and civil unrest in Europe; a declining middle class in the United States and Canada; and continuing assaults on democracy and freedoms in many nations of the world— all this taking place 20 years after the collapse of  communism and the optimism and promises of the early 1990s.

When will this madness end? is a fair question to ask. For an increasing number of persons, comfort is found in the religious life. Alexander Pope was a man of his time and generation, where his Christian faith informed his secure views of the afterlife, the only place or position where true rest and repose would be found. No more striving and struggle; it all sounds relaxing and appealing. No doubt, religious people often place their hopes in the afterlife, in a messianic age where truth and justice will prevail. That's a comforting thought for people who view that life achieves a perfect state of redemption only later.

But for persons who look and live in the here and now, change is wanted, even demanded, in our lifetime. Such a view is what engenders change, since the promises of later do not always move people to better the world in the hear and now. In some cases, however, it does, as in the central beliefs in Judaism to perform tikkum olam, repairing the world now, while at the same time preparing and living your life in accordance with the dictums of doing mitzvot, or good deeds. Doing good is always a good thing to practice, to observe, whether or not you believe in the afterlife.

Truly, it takes courage and diligent and conscientious effort to better the world now without any belief in an afterlife. This is it; it's all we have, and we ought to make the best use of our time on earth. In truth, all persons hold some sort of faith, whether it is religious or secular. For example, it also takes faith in the institutions of democracy and science to advance humanity. That explains why in every election, there is at least a hint of optimism that things will change and get better. That this candidate will strengthen the institutions of democracy and increase the level of opportunity for all of its citizens.

It takes optimism to believe that such institutions are not only good but operating effectively and fairly for all. The current failure in optimism, some would say, is a reflection that we are not doing a sufficient job in bringing persons to a clear understanding on why democracy is the best and fairest system for the greatest number of persons. That means a liberal democracy that has within its confines an economic system, and government policies that emphasize and deliver fairness to all of its citizens. As I have written previously in a number of articles, these ideals have been stretched thin, if not distorted to fit narrow special interests.

That doesn't mean that Western values are the problem, though some might think so. It is quite the opposite, namely, the attack and erosion of Western (moral) values that has led to our social unrest, uncertainty and inequalities. Western values, derived in large part from the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, are the underpinnings of our modern liberal society, without which humanity would be all the poorer and mired in the Dark Ages. Some might disagree but they can't honestly point to a better political or economic system.

Yet, optimism is not the same as hope. The former has a secular component; the latter a religious one. Optimism places its faith in secular society and what it can accomplish, whereas hope tends to place its faith in God and his judicious and (often) unknown ways. But the observant and faithful hold on tenaciously to the promises. Such promises contained in the Jewish Bible have given and continue to give comfort to Jews the world over. In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, writes:
A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certian theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope an active one. (166)
In uncertain and dark times, when the human instruments of morality seem weak, people tend to have less optimism and turn to religion for hope and certainty. Today, it might be easier to have hope than optimism.


  1. Part 1:

    Thank you for this truly very interesting (for me) post. Now, having read it, and feeling somewhat more emboldened because of it, I wish to (only 1/2 jokingly) publicly announce that I have just earlier today found the REAL CULPRITS for the current "moral decay" of our societies, including the spread of Atheism, the decline of faith in the Western Democratic values, maybe (but who knows when even the most recent Economy Nobel Prize winners do not know yet whether it behaves rationally or not & to which purpose money serves) even the Global Economy !

    It was no other than the (ominous & conspiratorial) "triad" of Mr. Alexander Fleming, (of Scotland), Mr. Howard Florey, (of Australia), and Mr. Ernst Boris Chain, (originally of Germany, later by family need & choice, probably also coercion from Great Britain), who at the end of WW II, in 1945, obtained the (always possibly suspiciously dubious) Scandinavian Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine for their discovery of Penicillin, that substance which has so directly contributed to actually changing the course of human interest History, not only by allowing totally unsuspecting and innocent people to protect themselves from the (always known as devious because it actually takes so many rapidly changing forms and shapes just like Designer Couture Fashion, probably on purpose just to confuse everyone) French illnes (in more modern times known as syphillis) & also from the infection with the religion primary causative secret agent named Streptococcus (explained as to why & how below in part 2), but unfortunately also to the selection of some Penicillin resistent germs & the development of the known (according to even Mr John le Carre) always possibly corrupt, corruptible, corrupting & scary Pharmaceutical industry ! Shame on them & J'accuse !

  2. Part 2:

    (as to why poor Streptococcus, when it could have been any other germ, who knows ?)

    As a sometimes masochistic hypochondriac liking at times to read about various ailments on wikipedia to find which one I might like to possibly acquire today, I have formulated for myself the opinion (which I admit it gives me some pleasure to spread around as a possible rumor whith the help of this totally unsuspecting blog) that, (disregarding now whether G-d actually exists or not, I personally believe He does, I actually even have a vague idea he may actually co-habitate & share some partnership-business interest & even a degree of friendship plus who knows what else with quite powerful usually organized, but at times even chaotically or even sadistically behaving mother Nature), it may be possible that some deep seated human being fears (anxieties), subsequent superstitions & even compulsive rituals which at times accompany various religions of the world (once Adam & Eve wished so strongly to graduate so early from Paradise without even getting their GED in spite of what G-d advised them to do in an always ethical guiding way) may actually have a possible rather deep structural substrate in the brain somewhere there where also resides Pinocchio's Jimminy Cricket at times, commuting for his work as a Moral Conscience bureaucrat along the orbito-frontal highway and in the same place where that illness OCD (and other possibly addictive behaviors plus their associated Pleasure/Guilt) may originate.

    Now, it may be already known (via mass-media e.g. even the reputable nih dot gov) that some young children may actually begin to have some OCD symptoms rather abruptly after a Strep infection via the so called PANDAS mechanism (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with Streptococcal infections), so I thought that in the olden times (before they had Penicillin or tonsillectomies or even ice-cream) it was quite more likely for those who managed to survive scarlet fever or severe throat & tonsil infections with Strep plus their possible subsequent severe heart complications, to select themselves thus as sufferers of various degrees & types of PANDAS, the ones with Tourettes becoming the (organized) religious leaders, and the ones with more simple OCD just mere church attendees & fans of various rituals and degrees of of superstitions & guilt. (Later when it came to the Prophets and the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, we already have heard the rumor about increased religiosity in the ones with various temporal lobe afflictions, cf the Neurotheology News quite popular tabloid.)

    Now, once Penicillin came into the picture, there results a rapid increase of CURES against such infections and rapid reductions in complications at mass levels, thus an increase in Atheism too, not to mention the French again with their political 1968...and you can imagine the disaster !

  3. P.S. (totally speculative, because really I have no clue about politics):

    This "theory", BTW, also may explain the paradox as to why the always seemingly more religious far right is also so very strongly anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-vaccinations, anti-everything, except producing more & more babies, just to counter the selection of Atheists in the general population at a Evolution of the Species level. It is not that they do not believe Mr Charles Darwin's evidence, it's just that they already know it too well and this may be just sheer panic !

  4. Rudolph: very amusing posts. Of course, I believe in the value of penicillin's discovery as a great gift to science. People follow atheism for various reasons, some as a support to their scientific beliefs, some as a rebellion against established beliefs, and others because they lack knowledge. Humans, in order to advance and prosper, require large doses of "hope."


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