Monday, December 22, 2008

Leveraging Spirit: Ethical Questions for Naturalistic Religion III

Part III

I get the sense that Fox (1994) and other theologically oriented academics try to protect spirit via sacredness. These arguments seem to say awe and mystery are necessary for spirit’s emergence. A collective repudiation of sacrilegious acts are required to maintain a sense of sacredness (Atran, 2002). In a pluralistic society such norms are hard to generate and enforce. Society, increasingly, does not want moral watchdogs. Sacrilege grows from the ashes of good intentions.

The more I investigate change dynamics in education the more I come to value the work by Willis (2004). He argues that organizations naturally oscillate between rigid, bureaucratic, overly rationalized states and unfocussed, grass root controlled chaos. During repeated oscillations collapse is likely. Figure 3 illustrates this idea.

I see a parallel process in community building. People oscillate between desire for community and disillusionment at its formation. I think Briskin (2001) articulates this well in his case study of an infighting women’s organization. Hierarchies are an essential reality and need. However, they are tied to both a history and future of inevitable abuse. In addressing this issue, Naylor & Ostendberg (1996) propose workplaces need slow, committed growth with adaptive feedback. This fits with Deal & Peterson’s (2000) view that things being changed can’t be known superficially. Knowledge must be on a deep enough level to formulate complete explanations of what is really going on. Every action or event has more to it than is apparent on the surface. However, complexity theory suggests most human interactions can never be fully known. All causal variables can’t be prestated and all interactions can’t be anticipated (Kauffman, 2008). As a result shadow systems will always emerge. Sacredness as an emergent class may survive, but the specific content guarded won’t. Guarding spirit in community by fighting for its sacredness may be a noble battle, but I suspect it will be settled on unfavorable terms.

Leveraging Spirit: Ethical Questions for Naturalistic Religion II

Part II

When I look at community building initiatives that may take us in a good direction, but whose promises are usually practically unrealistic in wide implementation, Dufour’s professional learning community (PLC) comes to mind. The last thing the people at the PLC conference I attended wanted to hear was Andy Hargreaves (2008) warnings about the skeletons coming with “silver bullet” PLC implementation. As Briskin states, “we act from the tension of unequal forces,” (pp. 52). Believing there is a shadow side to every good intention rarely overcomes the sacrifices change demands.

Companies are attune to this fact. The theoretical frameworks underlying community building initiatives are increasing in sophistication. Advances in group neuropsychology and evolutionary approaches to religion hone organizational tools. When organizational theorist say “culture, values, symbols, and ideas must be added for they are the springs on which[the definition of] institutions rest,” (Stout, 1998) they seem to be saying the trappings of spirit are necessary components for successful business. Well intentioned initiatives build on this class of knowledge. We have increasingly sophisticated powers to leverage community. However, the sophisticated understandings required to prevent abuse have been thrown out with secular rejections of religion.

I think one can generally see two approaches to guarding the spirit in community:
1) arguments from sacredness,
2) arguments from utility.

Mitroff & Denton (1999 as cited in Groen, 2004) exemplify the argument from utility. “Those who practice spirituality in order to achieve better corporate results undermine both its practice and its ultimate benefits. To reap the positive benefits of spirituality, it must be practiced for its own sake,” (pp. 20). I certainly agree with this statement. Business initiatives that commodify spirit are typically easy to spot. They don’t resonate with the self-sacrifice, commitment displays, and implicitly understood norms necessary for authenticity (Atran, 2002). As a result, they don’t have the moral authority to safeguard abuse (Wilson, 2002; Smith, 2004). Without this, community stagnates. The problem is, not everyone finds spiritual dopplegangers easy to spot. What happens when pseudo-spiritual initiatives are sophisticated enough to skip ready detection?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leveraging Spirit: Ethical questions for naturalistic religion

To care for the soul within us and outside in the world, we need to recognize that soul is not in our possession, but rather the points of overlap where interior experience and the outer world are joined. – Briskin, 2001, pp. 247

I am not an autonomous person. Like all people, my environment affects me. The stimuli I receive, alters some of the weightings behind my thoughts. In turn this affects the contexts and communities I pick. I subtly change the things I belong to. In turn, this changes me. How does this line of thinking relate to Briskin’s statement “soul is not in our possession” (2001)? I can influence my outer world through self-selection and action. I can perturb my inward experience by the accumulated effects of conscious choice. If I am not an automaton, some chunk of soul is in my possession and control. This has profound implications. If soul is in my possession, can part of it fall into someone else’s hands? If so, what are the ethics of manipulating community spirit arising from soulful interaction?

Present-day psychologists subscribe neither to the idea that the mind is a tabula rasa nor to the idea that the mind is completely genetically determined. Today, the nature-nurture debate is about how genetic and environmental influence interact. (Ploeger, Van der Mass & Raijmakers, 2008, p. 7)

Evolutionary scientists like Atran (2002) and Wilson (2004) convincingly explain many aspects of spirit’s emergence. Atran identifies numerous heuristics behind religious behaviours. Wilson provides strong arguments for the practical utility of this class of behaviour. Wilson argues that even if religious beliefs are false literal descriptions of the world, they are adaptive. “Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors,” (Wilson, 2004, p. 228). Belief in and of itself has great power.

This raises ethical questions. What happens to ideas that move us in a good direction, but whose ultimate promises are not realistic.

Note: This is the first part in a series of posts exploring questions around the leveraging of naturally perceived spiritual dynamics.