Monday, April 25, 2011

Trading in God for fourth and goal

In case you haven’t watched it, this post is inspired by Stephen Colbert’s interview with Sean Kelly on the Colbert Report. Colbert hosted Prof. Kelly in order to discuss All Things Shining, a book co-written with Prof. Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley. In the interview, Kelly explains how modern people lack an absolute connection to a religion as a source of meaning in life. But the sacred can still be accessed—and his example is that of “rising as one with all the other people on the couch,” while watching the Super Bowl. In that moment of excitement, “it’s absolutely clear what’s excellent sacred before you.” In this manner, “football becomes a version of the sacred.” This comment provokes Colbert’s tease which is the title of this blog post.

(Full disclosure: I am not an active sports fan) I think Colbert is right to tease Kelly for “trading in God for fourth and goal.” The authors of “All Things Shining” clearly have an obsession with sports and, without counting, I would guess that about half of the examples in the book are sports-related. While sports and sports-spectating are universally popular pastimes, I believe they are ethically-neutral pursuits that serve our entertainment needs, unlike more value-laden activities such as work, communication, and organization that touch on more fundamental human needs. To call sports “sacred” seems to ignore any ethical criteria about why an activity deserves our time, attention, and energy.

But the authors do not seem interested in ethical criteria:

There are a wide variety of domains worth caring about and there are no objective, context-independent principles for determining which domains these are. You just have to try it out and see. Some people care about mathematics, others about music, some prefer baseball and others bullfighting. Some prefer drinking a local wine with their friends. Whether a domain is worth caring about is determined by whether it appropriately elicits further and further meaningful involvement with it. (219)

I want to seek out secular forms of the sacred, that is, notions of the sacred that do not require a God or a Church. But I think there can be a line between the secular and the profane. I want to believe that what is worth caring about is more than simply what can keep one’s interest. Kelly and Dreyfus’ list of things to care about: math, music, baseball, bull-fighting, social drinking—these are all largely aesthetic pursuits—comes off as a very luxurious sacred. In a world of such great suffering, this list appears shallow and callous. Surely there must be more important pursuits than the ones on this list.

As a Humanist, I think a secular notion of the Good can be developed by examining human need. Attentiveness to moods and development of skills definitely have a place in my image of human health and flourishing—but there are many fundamental levels (think Maslow’s hierarchy) of human need/good that deserve our caring attention before sports (ex: hunger, housing, safety, work, friends, love, family, heritage, history, a better world for the future). Kelly and Dreyfus’ seem to lack a sense of gravitas in the mission of determining what humans might hold most dear in a world after the death-of-God. They don’t even offer bread—only circus.

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