Great Fun With a Scientist and a Priest at U of Chicago
Last night I was part of a fantastic evening with Bob Bossie (a rather radical priest), and PZ Myers (a wonderful atheist & scientist), at University of Chicago titled, “A Communist, a Scientist, and a Priest Sat Down to Discuss… Morality to Change the World.”
A couple hundred students and others packed in and most of them stayed riveted until finally our moderator, Ted Jennings (Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary) called it an evening.
PZ posted a short blog entry about the evening, along with the notes of his opening remarks, here: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/04/a_priest_a_scientist_and_a_com.php#comments
Once the conversation began, things moved quickly over a wide range of subjects and we never fully made it back to PZ’s statements about the relationship between science and morality – but I’ll say here that I strongly agree that science cannot answer questions of ought, that bringing science to bear in arguing what ought to be done in no way guarantees the interests of humanity will be pursued, but that attempting to answer questions of ought without science is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Check out his comments, in particular those he writes about what is wrong with both secular and religious arguments against homosexuality.
Bob Bossie is extremely committed to the struggles of the oppressed both in this country and around the world. He began his presentation with a quote that I am paraphrasing, but which essentially posed that, “If they come for the innocent and do not step over your body, cursed be your religion and cursed be your life.” I am proud to say that he and I both recently added our names to this statement organized by The World Can’t Wait calling on people to resist the unjust wars, torture, and repression that continue under Obama entitled, “Crimes Are Crimes - No Matter Who Does Them.” [http://www.worldcantwait.net/index.php/features-mainmenu-220/the-war-of-terror/6280-crimes-are-crimes-no-matter-who-does-them]
Usually, if a moderator does a good job it means that their role is not particularly notable. Ted was a bit different than this. His comments and questions, although brief, stimulated me (and I suspect others) to think quite a bit harder – in very good ways. At one point, after I spoke about how people’s sense of what is natural and of right and wrong changes as the way that society is organized changes (for instance, many used to argue that slavery was just “natural” but very few think this anymore, and many today argue that being focused on “me first” is “natural” but after a revolution when people are no longer forced to compete to survive that will no longer seem so), Jennings replied, “So, we are talking about morality to change the world, but also changing the world to change morality.” You get the idea – he’s a deep guy.
The audience asked about many things, including quite a few questions about communism and revolution. They asked about the history of communism, whether the Revolutionary Communist Party has the right to claim it is the vanguard party, whether vanguard party’s are even necessary or desirable, and (among other questions about revolution and communism) about the policies in the Soviet Union post-WWII when the early advances around women’s liberation were largely reversed with a revival of patriarchy. One guy asked a very profound question which, frankly, more people ought to be asking; whether the kind of upheaval and destruction that accompanies revolutions can be morally justified… but at the same time can refusing to make revolution, or to take bold actions to urgently address the suffering humanity is facing on a grand scale, morally justifiable? I spoke about the learning curve of communist experience and challenged people to get into the new synthesis of communism and revolution that Bob Avakian has developed – with some particular emphasis on some of his most recent work re-examining the centrality of the fight for women’s full liberation as a central and driving force for revolution starting now and all the way through till two radical ruptures: with all traditional property relations and all traditional ideas.
There were MANY other questions as well (I told you, folks stayed late and kept their hands up!) – about science, about religion, about the environmental catastrophes closing in on the planet, how to overcome distrust between different cultures, the role of the internet and new technologies in changing the world, the Tea Party movements, the rising global human population and its implications, humanism, and more.
The students who organized it should be proud of what they did.
At several points the question of gradual change versus a total revolution came up. I argued not only that things are too intolerable for humanity to take the gradual approach, but even more fundamentally that the depth of change that is needed is structural and not change within this system. That a revolution is much more finite, that is, the seizing of the power and the establishment of a new state power – but that that is only the beginning. A revolution really only clear the ground, uproots the economic structures and repressive capitalist state that requires and enforces relations of exploitation and oppression. But, transforming all the social relations, attitudes, ways of thinking and even of feeling takes much more time. But if you don’t make a revolution you can’t even really begin that process and that our responsibility now is to fight to hasten and prepare for a revolutionary situation.
Today, a friend of mine recalled a passage from Wallace Shawn’s extraordinary play, “The Fever,” which is entirely relevant to this question of “gradual change.” It was so good when I went back and re-read it that I am going to excerpt a lengthy passage from it here. Take your time and really take it in.