February 29, 2020

Enlightenment or Societal Regression?

Guest Column
By Isiah Smith | Feb. 24, 2018

I seldom attend church — unless I’m in Miami, where I spend a part of each winter.

My relationship with religion is tenuous at best. However, I am capable of holding two opposed ideas in my mind at the same time while still maintaining the ability to function (apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald).

I don’t think that going to church makes you a Christian any more than going to a repair shop makes you a car.

Dr. King noted, "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning.” Not so at the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami. Senior Pastor Dr. Laurinda Hafner says the church is open to all, including misfits, rejects, and others looking for a place to belong. CGCC is housed in a Spanish colonial revival-styled building that’s included in the U.S. National Registry of Historic places.

The parishioners are gay and lesbian couples, sitting with their children, next to Cubans, African-Americans, old, young, of varying hues and colors and origins.

Messages are delivered by free and open minds: Two years ago Gretta Vosper, the atheist minister and author of “With or Without God: Why the way we live is more important than what we believe” served as guest pastor.

The church band rocks, and the choir has world-class singers. For this year’s MLK day, the choir performed a rousing rendition of “Glory” from the soundtrack of Selma. A young lady with blue eyes and blond hair stood in for the rapper Common.

One Sunday CGCC celebrates Marti Gras, and the next raises money for Haiti.

The pastors are more likely to talk about Goethe and Bach than God and the Bible. Community service and environmental issues take the place of Jesus and eternal life.

On our last Sunday at CGCC, before heading back to frigid northern Michigan, Assistant Pastor Rev. Aaron Lauer focused on societal regression, as that concept applies to our present national moment. He urged us to not lose heart when we wake up each morning to new unhinged tweets and other bad news.

“Human societies always undergo confusing periods of regression and progression in their history. In a regression, people act to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than act on principle and a long-term shared view,” he said.

“The society thus becomes chronically anxious and reactive. They fall prey to irrational arguments sustained by emotional appeal, and tribal herding. It is also characterized by scapegoating, or blame displacement, and a quick-fix mentality.”

“In this present moment,” he continued, “society seems to be regressing because of the dizzying rate of social and technological changes in society. People have become frightened and uneasy as the world changes rapidly around them. It is then that we as a society fall prey to despots, strongmen, and radical, self-interested ideologues.”

Pastor Lauer did not say that the solution to societal regression is to pray and give it over to God. Rather, he said that now is the time to hold tightly to our fundamental values, develop and maintain our sense of community, meditate on the goodness in the world, be forward-looking, embrace change. Refuse to scapegoat others we view as being outside our tribe. Resist promises of quick fixes, and open our hearts to others instead of building walls.

Clearly we are undergoing a societal regression. But that doesn’t mean the world is falling apart. In his new book, “Enlightenment Now,” Steven Pinker marshals an impressive array of data purporting to demonstrate that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness, are all on the rise, in America and in the world.

All of the positive factors are due to the current Enlightenment, Pinker argues, and the belief that reason and science enhances human life.

After yet another mass shooting in another public school, we might be tempted to conclude that we are living in a time more violent than any in human history. Again, Pinker demurs. In an earlier book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” Pinker again used data purporting to establish that we are living in the most peaceful moment in human history.

Some thinkers, such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness” believe Pinker errs in drawing scientific conclusions from descriptive statistics. Other opined that he labors too hard to prove that things in America have gotten better on all fronts. Using data, graphs, and charts, he presents a compelling, if not altogether convincing picture.

Of course, things have gotten better across the millennia. But, really, go far enough back into the distant past, and today looks perfect in comparison. We no longer live in caves. Most people have indoor plumbing; many diseases that used to shorten our lives have been eliminated. I no longer work in cotton fields gratis.

It would however, be folly to conclude that all is perfect. We must remain diligent or risk getting stuck in the next societal regression.

Lisa Halliday, in her new novel, “Asymmetry,” sums the matter up nicely: “You come to see a mostly peaceful and democratic society as being in a state of incredibly delicate suspension, suspension that requires equilibrium down to the smallest molecule, such that even the finest jolt, just one person neglecting its fragility with complacency or self-absorption, could cause the whole … thing to collapse. You think about how we all belong to this species capable of such horrifying evil, and you wonder what [our] responsibility to humanity is while [we’re] here  … .”

The humanistic philosophy, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives, might be the key that unlocks the door to a peaceful and harmonious future.

Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.



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