November 2018 Inter-Belief Conversation Café
Does Human Nature Improve?
7 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)
Are we better people than our ancestors? Have we improved through the ages, or declined from a “Golden Age”? From the years of Gentleman’s Club dads, cocktail-making homemaker moms, and baseball-playing kids? From our own teenage years, where we knew everything and elders were clueless? (Or are we more clueless now?) Based on headlines screaming of Synagogue slaughters, color-selective Kroger’s shootings, mail-bombs, reporter assassinations, ripped up nuclear treaties, wars, sexual predators, and “evil” politicians, don’t we have a long way to go before we can say we’ve “improved”? What even is “improvement,” when it comes to human nature? Is it material prosperity? Moral or spiritual development? Just niceness? Would a secular person’s “improvement” be a religious person’s “depravity”? Can we follow our better angels if we aren’t even sure what “better” or “angels” are?
Atheist Stephen Pinker, in Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, claims that despite appearances wars and violent death are less common than in the past. His reasons are the rise of powerful nation-states, global commerce, feminism, cosmopolitanism, and escalating use of reason. Do all people see these as improvements? But civil disasters in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Myanmar seem to argue that the world is far from improved. Are we missing a big picture in the “noise” of our dismal daily news?
Absolute poverty — defined as a household income too low to maintain food and shelter — has declined, with nations in Asia making great strides. But are fewer people now dropping dead from starvation only a sign of how bad things always were? Is material well-being more important than moral or spiritual development? Jesus warned that we could gain the world but lose our souls. Does a full belly outweigh damnation? Is attainment of the good a physical state, or a state that can’t be measured by science?
How much is our nature improving as Americans? The Dream of our Fathers was that their children would have better lives — hopefully in the family job. Their kids left the factories, sweatshops, mines, and farms for the service and information industry. Do they regret what used to be? Was a longer life pushing code online a good trade-off for the coal and camaraderie one could no longer mine? Is improved human rights worth lost status for whites? Why is there anger and resentment against the changes some assert are “improvements”? Are we in the midst of a culture war hyper-polarized between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? What will be its outcomes? Will we acknowledge the human nature of transgender existence, or redefine transgender nature out of existence? Will we keep caging babies because they’re brown and not American? Will we consider such acts an ancient human defect, or a new improvement in human nature? Do we today lie, indoctrinate, and belittle less than we once did? Or do we do it more than ever?
And what of our spirit? With church attendance declining, and even atheism and agnosticism facing flat growth, in what can we believe or disbelieve anymore? Are we now — and have we always — drifted in a moral vacuum with ever-newer gadgets, diversions, drugs, and rumors feeding our prejudice? If we’re less violent, is it because we’re better people, or because our ancient desires now find their catharsis in TV crime shows and disaster movies? If we’ve moved on from our dark past, shouldn’t Hallmark Channel movies and cute, fluffy cat videos be our viewing pleasure?
Have we improved our environment? Or are we causing an Armageddon of rising oceans and escalating cyclones, droughts, flood, pestilence, and war? Will the species extinction we are causing possibly include us? Will measured declines in human violence and hunger still be meaningful if millions of our grandchildren perish, cursing us with their dying breath, because we didn’t want to use mass transit or give up beef? Or will such “End of Days” scenarios all go the way of Y2K, while we humans beings move ever onward and upward, our feet now free of every trace of the clay from whence we came?
On Monday, November 19 from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will ask if we’re improving, or even can improve. Agreements of open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality may make us a little better. But our human nature will certainly improve, because we will have treats!