Sex, Race, and Religion

In dealing with these difficult and controversial subjects, my starting point is a total commitment to my species. When all is said and done, humanity, taken as a whole, both spatially and temporally, is a hell of an impressive act. We may find entities of comparable intelligence, adaptive power, and sophistication elsewhere in the universe, or we may not. Pending any such discovery, we are unique. I am proud to belong to this unique and marvelous form of life.

Yes, there are problems, and yes we should get on with solving them, but I refuse to approach them in a state of guilt or shame. Look at where we started, look at what we’ve accomplished so far, and then put aside the sackcloth and ashes and get on with the job. We’ve come this far, and the world is not about to end.

Gender and Sex:

Even in contemporary America, important differences still exist between the sexes in matters such as early training, reproductive strategies, and job opportunities. These are differences that collide head-on with our relatively recent, but thoroughly humanistic and admirable view that everyone should have an equal shot at the good things of life. But there are different kinds of differences; and I have made myself unpopular by trying to distinguish between discrimination against women that is culturally imposed, and sex differences that are programmed into our very nature. Many of the women I know are working hard at abolishing or at least minimizing both kinds of differences. I support them enthusiastically when they are fighting culturally imposed differences, but when they are coming up against something I regard as rooted not in history but in prehistory, ie human nature, I switch. When they fight for equal pay for equal work, or demand that society lower the boom on rapists, fine; but when my female liberationist friends hound men and heap opprobrium on them for feeling and acting a little horny, I say it is not fine. The male sex drive is a very basic and I sense important part of our human inheritance. It is tied in subtle ways I do not fully understand to the creativity, propensity for risk-taking, and unquenchable curiosity that has propelled us out of caves. Women as well as men can be creative, curious, questing–I don’t deny this–but that is no argument. Squash the male sex drive and you lose an essential attribute of humanity. Women as well as men will lose.

When I look at how the species began, I do not grouse about the fact that males and females have yet to achieve perfect equality of status. Look at how it used to be, look at how it is now, and ponder the future. On the whole, the species is evolving with extraordinary rapidity, in this regard as in others. Patience, my female liberationist friends. Moderation in all things, including your expectations. Some things are even more important than your absolute equality. Your humanity is one of them.

Race:

When I look at where we are coming from, I do not grouse too much about the fact that certain racial and ethnic groups still discriminate against other such groups, even within our own egalitarian America. We’ve come a long way, and the fact that there is still a considerable way to go does not strike me as requiring an automatic response of shame and guilt. Ethnicity is a very deeply rooted human trait, probably about as deeply rooted as the gender differences I just defended. And like male horniness, some of it may be worth preserving. There is strength in diversity, racially as well as culturally. How, for one thing, will you have hybrid vigor if there are no different elements to hybridize?

Ethnicity will come into its own, and become universally recognized as a Good Thing, when everyone has an equal shot at the good things of life. Or at least when no member of any ethnically defined group is denied that equal shot because of his or her ethnicity. When that ideal condition is reached, everyone can regard his own special provenance as a source of pride, indulging in the normal human capacity to make the best of whatever argument, however dubious, may be at hand that makes him or her feel special and important. I submit that that kind of a utopia, a multiracial one, is a more desirable goal than that of a blah, coffee-colored humanity where race and ethnicity are phenomena known only to specialists in ancient history.

If we can agree on an egalitarian but racially diverse global society as mankind’s long-term goal, maybe we can also agree that it is both more desirable and more practical to channel our tribal instincts than to try to abolish them completely. Like male horniness, human tribalism served humanity well during the formative period of our evolution. Now we are embarrassed by its more traditional manifestations. Why not? We have changed; humanity as a whole has achieved puberty, and is entering on a new condition. But before we decide utterly to exorcise the ghost of tribalism from our inner natures, let’s look at how that quality may relate to other human qualities we shall certainly continue to need. Competitiveness, for example, and a desire to get ahead in the world. Love of family, and a willingness to sacrifice for parents, spouse, and children, to take another example. I can’t prove it, at least not here, but I suspect these admirable qualities are closely related in our inner psyches to our atavistic urge to bash when confronted with other races. We need to take that urge to bash and redirect it, not take it out on the parade ground and shoot it dead.

Redirecting our tribal instincts is easy, and can even be fun. The solution is simple–form teams or groups that are multiracial and multiethnic; then your team can compete against other such teams. Sports, with the Olympics as the prize example, have long been recognized as a very effective approach. When you work closely with individuals of other ethnic or racial groups, you soon internalize the fact that they are human too. This is the yeast that has already broken down ethnic barriers in a large part of American society.

Many applications of this principle are presently available; we don’t need to rely just on sports. And the possibilites are expanding exponentially as spatial barriers crumble before advances in transportation and communications. In my book, “Culture Wars and the Global Village,” I describe my vision of a future global society, where affiliations are based more on highly specialized personal and professional interests than on geographic togetherness. When everyone has a modem, or its functional equivalent, mankind can regroup from the ground up. If your interest is a special form of philately or entomology or whatever, one of your closest associates may well be a native of Shanghai, and in this case it will be hard for you to get worked up about the yellow peril.

Black Americans have a tougher time in our fair country than other minorities and we know a lot about the reasons why. But even here the yeast is working, except perhaps in the inner city ghettos. In another generation or two we’ll be able to look more objectively at the inner city problems, and apply color-blind medication that will be more effective than anything we seem to be able to come up with at present. Right now there is too much shame and anger in the white community, too much pain and hurt in the black, for the degree of clarity the situation requires. This subset of humanity’s overall problem with tribalism is proving tougher and less tractable than many of the other subsets. But overall, the evolutionary thrust is clear. Mankind can move in only one direction–toward the universal appreciation of the oneness of us all. It is only a question of time, and human adaptability. You can go around in sackcloth and ashes all you want, suffused with guilt–for myself, I’ll rest easy with the thought that the present is better than the past, and the future will certainly be better still.

Religion:

If I am more patient than my critics as regards race and related aspects of human tribalism, I am less so regarding their congenital incapacity to perceive that the time has come to give God the boot. The current ability of many Americans to see the world around them in modern terms and still go to church on Sunday implies an ability to live with cognitive dissonance that is downright staggering.

The basic problem is that we have allowed theism to co-opt the language and much of the universalist ethic of humanism. Theism in its ancient, tribal form is a particularist phenomenon, aimed at fortifying a small portion of humanity in its competition with other small human groups. Theism is a jealous companion; the gods of different groups devour each other when they can; this phenomenon is expressed today in the efforts of the more fanatic theists to proselytize, and in the efforts of other theist groups to resist proselytizing.

This kind of atavistic theism–the “it’s my God and He will protect me, and you are damned if you don’t agree” variety, is, of course, totally out of step with the times and is rejected by a solid majority of Americans and other modern people. The dominant God of the contemporary era has become something benign and universal; one often thinks of God in terms of some overarching principle, an intergalactic law of gravity with ethical overtones, if you will, rather than as an old man with a long white beard and flashing eyes. In fact, the closest things we have to old-time theologians in our modern society are the astronomers, searching for first origins, and the underlying principles of the cosmos. But if God has become another law of physics, or a bunch of principles helping everyone on the planet to relate to each other and their environment, where is the fire? where is the beef? What, basically, is the difference between this antiseptic modern theism and plain humanism?

I submit that humanity has embraced at least some humanistic ideas and ideals for quite a long time. The Golden Rule, applied to everyone, not just fellow-members of one’s own tribe, is an early example of a concept that is 100% humanist, and 0% theist. In our time, science and a humanist view of the essential unity of all people have largely replaced theism as organizing principles on which educated people base their understanding of their world and the cosmos.

Many people still think of themselves as theists but are in fact closet humanists. They continue to belong to one or another of the established denominations, but only because they were brought up that way as children. Their ethics and values are almost entirely humanist. It is humanism, not theism, that evokes their concern about starvation in Africa, and makes them ashamed of the fact we still have not completely eliminated race prejudice from our society. It is humanism, not theism, that makes them want to preserve the planetary support system for future generations.

In the context of contemporary conditions it is humanism, not theism, that has a lock on the values and ethics that humanity needs if it is to progress, indeed if it is even to survive. The old gods, where they still survive in ways that can be distinguished from humanism, do so as anachronisms at best, infernal nuisances more often. They encourage bestiality between groups in many parts of the world, as seen in our times in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, and many other places. They becloud thinking on planetary problems like birth control. They resonate with echoes of the past, with the thinking that dominated humanity’s childhood. They are eminently disposable in this day and age.

I hope I have demonstrated that my non-belief in God does not equate with being some kind of socially irresponsible anarchist or whatnot. Quite the contrary. I regard humanism as the only effective and truly responsible social and ethical response to the problems imposed on humanity by our galloping technology and imploding human universe. As for the unreformed theists, the trouble they are causing the rest of us is severe, but will presumably diminish, as their numbers decline. Meanwhile they have the migraine of cognitive dissonance to keep them busy. They are welcome to it.

One last thought: I show some pride in my atavistic past as regards race and sex, and counsel caution before we all get together and try to extirpate whatever is left of these ancient instincts. Some good may yet come of them, you hear me saying, once we have succeeded in translating them into impulses more congenial to modern times. And yet I see no good whatever coming out of old-fashioned theism. Get rid of it, I say. Is there not a contradiction here? No, there isn’t. Most of us have already translated our theist impulses into humanism. Humanism is the logical descendant of theism. Just as we need to channel our sex drives and our tribal competitiveness more effectively, we need to complete the translation of theism into humanism. It is all part of the same magnificent tapestry, the four-dimensional symphony of mankind.

Carl Coon 9/89 (rev. 4/01)

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