Replying to critics of “Thinking Shall Replace Killing”

This is a very short response to some criticisms directed at my essay “Thinking Shall Replace Killing”, published on Patheos.com back in February.

The first thing I’d like to remind critics of is the appearance of the word “short” in the title. It is neither a comprehensive nor an all-inclusive essay. It is barely an introduction to a complex and important topic. But accomplished some of its purpose, which was to get people to realize that there are alternative ways to think about spirituality and ethics besides divine command.

It may be worth observing that some of the text of this essay came, in part, from a larger and longer manuscript on ethics which will be published by O Books next year. Another recently published essay of mine, entitled “The Sacredness Between Us”, also comes from that manuscript.

I occasionally release portions of manuscripts like this in order to be able to assess reader interest, and also to consider objections and criticisms. Constructive criticism is extremely useful to a philosopher, and I am able to improve the quality of my writing when I receive good quality constructive criticism from well-wishing but critical readers. Indeed I see this as an important part of what it is to be a public intellectual. I participate in the same community as my readers do; I am involved in a conversation with them. When I publish an entire book-length treatment of a topic like this one, it will be of much better quality because of that conversation.

But back to the point. Among all the various criticisms, two stand out in my mind, because they were mentioned by several critics, not just one or two. I’ll address them here.

One had to do with the historical discussion of the moral principle that “thinking shall replace killing”. Some critics called it “absurd at face value”. Some said I was romanticizing history, trying to make warlike pagans look like “love, light, and faery dust kinda folk”. Some questioned whether I had actually studied any history at all. These are not criticisms: they are just statements, and I feel perfectly at ease ignoring them.

But a more substantial criticisms along these lines went like this. Polytheistic societies were very capable of killing, and frequently indulged in killing, when they felt they needed to kill. Even while Pericles was shaping Athens into a centre of culture, so he was also shaping Athens into an imperial power, perfectly capable of conquering and oppressing other cultures. Surely that is contrary to the argument that thinking was replacing killing as a social force.

Now that is what an interesting, substantial, and useful criticism looks like.

In reply, may I suggest the following. My essay is not a political or economic history. It is an intellectual history; it is a very short look at the history of the idea that thinking is ethically better than killing. It is possible that certain critics, not seeing that distinction between intellectual history and political/economic history, concluded that I was making a point about the latter and not the former – a point which, were that the case, would be easily refuted by the facts. But I am, indeed, aware of the facts: they are implied in the essay with statements like this one:

“Athens, in the time of Pericles, became a society in which artistic and intellectual activity became at least as culturally important as military victory”,

and this one:

“In this change, I’m sure that the Celtic people did not cease to be a warrior people. But I think they also began to recognize other values, such as art, justice, and peace.”

None of these statements admit of the hard, fast, and absolute dichotomy between thinking and killing that some critics attribute to me. (Indeed I am reminded of Isaac Bonewits, who might have said that there is a dualism presupposed in the criticism – and isn’t it dualism which causes all the trouble?) The criticism is thus a straw man.

But does not the statement “thinking shall replace killing” read as a dichotomy between thinking and killing? Why use a statement with that dichotomy apparently built right into it, if that is not what was intended? I retained the statement from Deganawidah, as a moral claim (not an historical claim), because I find it artistically appealing as well as ethically profound and correct. Thinking about our problems, talking about them, reasoning about them, disagreeing peacefully, and arriving at solutions via consensus and dialogue, really is ethically better than solving our problems with force majeure. And there really is a logical disjunction between expressing oneself with words, and expressing oneself with murderous violence. I tip my hat to phenomenologists like Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Ricoeur. But perhaps this essay of mine was not clear enough to get the point across. My writing, then, will have to improve.

Another criticism had to do with what might be called the essay’s implicit Goddess essentialism. In the second half or so, the essay describes “the culture of the Goddess”, as contrasted against the legalistic culture of the patriarchal monotheist god of the Abrahamic tradition. To which some critics thought: is he just substituting one monotheism for another? Which goddess does he mean there? Well, on one level these criticisms are just expressions of annoyance that I did not follow the polytheist party line. Let me remind everyone, then, that I’m under no obligation to toe anybody’s party line. But on another, more serious level, these criticisms call for more clarity, and that is also an excellent and fair criticism.

When, in that essay, I spoke of “the culture of the goddess”, what I had in mind was this:

“…a society that affords real priority to the goddess, and to her way of presenting the revelation of her divine presence, is likely to be a society where the values are cast not as rules or laws. It is likely to be a society in which the values are cast in the form of character-virtues. I think this is so because her message is not a commandment to be obeyed: her message is a presence to be experienced. Her message tells us who she is, not what to do.”

And this is contrasted with the way God appears in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

“…the presence and the revelation of God, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, establishes a social and political order.”

That statement about the moral difference between the Abrahamic and the Pagan point of view is one of the most important steps in the essay, as I see it. Worrying about the name I assigned to this way of thinking, and what it might imply, seems to me a red herring. All I would have to do to respond to the criticism is change the name of the argument into something that would draw attention to the logic of the argument itself instead of to its superficial packaging.

Well, I probably will change that name, for the sake of clarity. But let’s keep our eyes on the ball. For what is at stake here is something much more than a name. What is at stake is the quality of our lives. Indeed the problem is not really whether a religion is monotheist or polytheist. The problem is not even whether a religion is legalist in nature, as I characterized the Judeo-Christian tradition. The problem, let us remember, is oppression. Legalist religions tend to be much more susceptible to oppress people than other kinds of religion. But whether a given religion is legalist or not, we should reject any part of it that would rather frighten people into submission than reason with them or inspire them. We should declare, as the Sufi mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiya declared:

I want to pour water into hell and set fire to paradise so that these two veils disappear and no one worships God out of fear of hell or in hope of paradise but just for the sake of his own eternal beauty.

Legalist religion tends to be more subject to fear than animism, or theism, or any shade of –ism in between. But we are not necessarily looking to dispense with legalist religion, nor for that matter with religion as such. We are looking for ways to dispel fear, with all of its attendant suffering, and we are looking for ways to create meaningful and worthwhile lives.

Let’s not lose sight of that, please.

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5 Responses to Replying to critics of “Thinking Shall Replace Killing”

  1. An excellent essay at the time, and a reasoned and measured reply.

    It seems to me sometimes that Paganism has more than its fair share of people willing to defend violence and conflict in the name of “history.” Jeff made an observation recently about some libertarians using their political philosophy to justify a personal vice (f’ex: racism or sexism, “why should the government force me to hire black people and women if I don’t want to?”). In a religion as young as modern Paganism is, with its roots to the past so tenuously stretched over two thousand years of lost or obscured tradition, sometimes it does seem to attract those folks who would like to claim any number of vices and flaws in our ancestors as our proper birthright and best role models.

    Challenging that notion by complicating the history of violence and how it was viewed by our ancestors, and showing that their ambivalence to violence was just as real as ours is today…. is immensely important, but I think probably not as appreciated as it should be. 🙂 And I’m really impressed with how calm and forthright you are in your reply to critics. I still struggle with knee-jerk defensive reactions when I face similar critics, as though red herrings and irrelevant criticisms are personal insults. But I’m trying to do better. 😉

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  3. Interesting as always!

    I do have a further question/clarification, though. You wrote the following above, in relation to goddess-based religions: “I think this is so because her message is not a commandment to be obeyed: her message is a presence to be experienced. Her message tells us who she is, not what to do.” I’m not sure that at least two of the three major monotheisms didn’t do the same. Christianity is pretty much inextricable from the theology–the “who he is”–of Jesus as the eternally-begotten incarnation of the Word, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, etc.; Islam is pretty much inextricable from the theology of Allah as the only god, as revealed through the prophet of Islam. From those theologies follow the legalism, which is far more pronounced in Islam than it is in Christianity (at least initially). The legalism in Judaism follows largely from it being a religion of communal practice, which it remains to this day, after several different reforms over centuries in response to different external pressures on the group, but always in connection with an ongoing theology that made the binding ties between the people of Israel and their god the constant concern. In any of these religions, though, the presence of the god(s) concerned is supposed to be realized and experienced in the following of the various rules and the keeping of the commandments…

    All of which is to say: I’m not entirely sure the dichotomy between “who s/he is” in terms of divinities and “what to do” is as strict as that–and, particularly in Christianity and Islam, the extreme emphasis on the person of Jesus and the oneness of Allah (as revealed through their prophet) is what makes them so exclusivist and exclusionary to all other religions and even dissenting views of the “who” within their religions. In any case, it might be something to consider.

  4. Interesting as always!

    I do have a further question/clarification, though. You wrote the following above, in relation to goddess-based religions: “I think this is so because her message is not a commandment to be obeyed: her message is a presence to be experienced. Her message tells us who she is, not what to do.” I’m not sure that at least two of the three major monotheisms didn’t do the same. Christianity is pretty much inextricable from the theology–the “who he is”–of Jesus as the eternally-begotten incarnation of the Word, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, etc.; Islam is pretty much inextricable from the theology of Allah as the only god, as revealed through the prophet of Islam. From those theologies follow the legalism, which is far more pronounced in Islam than it is in Christianity (at least initially). The legalism in Judaism follows largely from it being a religion of communal practice, which it remains to this day, after several different reforms over centuries in response to different external pressures on the group, but always in connection with an ongoing theology that made the binding ties between the people of Israel and their god the constant concern. In any of these religions, though, the presence of the god(s) concerned is supposed to be realized and experienced in the following of the various rules and the keeping of the commandments…

    All of which is to say: I’m not entirely sure the dichotomy between “who s/he is” in terms of divinities and “what to do” is as strict as that–and, particularly in Christianity and Islam, the extreme emphasis on the person of Jesus and the oneness of Allah (as revealed through their prophet) is what makes them so exclusivist and exclusionary to all other religions and even dissenting views of the “who” within their religions. In any case, it might be something to consider, or at least to make a note or a qualification on…

  5. Arcanum says:

    For what it is worth, I do agree in the point that thinking did in fact replace killing historically, which then developed into what is now known as instruments of power.

    but the way the thesis was framed around the “idea that thinking is ethically better than killing,” is a bit amazing from the examples used and just seemed weak in that the examples cited. Was diverting funds to people for other than fighting an “ethical” move or was it using soft power, and making maximum use of the population?

    This quote really stands out to me;
    “Pericles transformed Athenian society this way not primarily by force of arms, but also by force of words. Even his opponents acknowledged his mastery of oratory and rhetoric”

    Which is the very definition of soft power – not ethics or “goodness’ His opponents weren’t scared of words – his opponents were scared that their people would view their own nation/state and culture as a “dump” and want to join the Greeks (and thus increase the tax base)……kinda like US culture in the world today, for how could you attack what you crave so much? Well, most people anyway.

    So in summary, I think the examples to support the “thinking replaced killing” is there, its just the argument that this was done for (contemporary western?)ethical reasons just is not there, and I would say it never was there.

    Perhaps one may have more luck comparing contemporary pagan practices and beliefs with other contemporary philosophies.

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