I just came across a TED talk by Dan Pallotta entitled “The way we think about charity is dead wrong“. Pallotta essentially lines up a criticism of traditional non-profit culture by comparing it to for-profit business models. He emphasizes that all the tools that for-profit business have: advertising, high salaries for CEOS and other decision-makers, investment capital, etc. are essentially unavailable to non-profit organizations. Pallotta outlines a reform proposal: non-profits need to think and act like for-profits if they are going to succeed. He points to a number of large campaigns in which aggressive marketing resulted in vast donations being given to a variety of causes (his two examples were races and rides for AIDS and breast cancer research). For Pallotta, the future of charities lies in using the tactics and tools of the business world to make non-profits more competitive and successful in securing funding.
Such a view of non-profits seems totally consistent with the culture of the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences (TED). TED’s talks almost exclusively seem to focus on technological and market-based solutions to the world’s problems, with a heavy dose of self-congratulation over the successes of “social innovators”. Missing from every TED talk I’ve ever seen is any discussion of to what extent technology and neoliberalism themselves are parts–perhaps even core parts–of the very problems TEDers seem so resolved to solving. Pallotta can stand up on stage, pointing out that most MBAs in the private sector make $400k a year 10 years after college while most non-profit CEOs make half of that or less, and not recognize that incomes of this level are one of the driving cause of the very problem of poverty he supposedly wants to combat!
Yesterday, Victoria over at Short White Coat, Inc. wrote a penetrating post about the intersection of poverty and health problems in the US, reflecting on her work with AIDS patients who were exiting the criminal justice system, she lamented the reality: despite her training and intentions, these people faced such a host of social, legal, and medical problems that their futures seemed bleak, their challenges intractable:
My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.
Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 in which he argued that science can-and should-be used to define morality and ethics. His argument essentially boils down to this: moral decisions are decisions made about facts. The more we know about the world, the more facts we have about it and the better and more sophisticated our understanding of those facts, the better decisions we can make. Therefore, morality should be guided by science (and presumably not religion) because it is the scientific process that allows us to test which ethical decisions work well, and which are deficient.
At its core, I don’t disagree with this argument. For example, if we want to help children grown up healthily, I think it makes sense to research nutrition, to see what foods tend to help children grow quickly and healthily. Such an approach would be broadly scientific, and it’s hard to argue with. But it also seems clear to me that Sam Harris both misunderstands the traditional “science can’t define an ethics” argument and is overly credulous when it comes to science’s general merits. The presentation video is below:
At the beginning of this past semester, I was invited to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. I attend a small seminary, and it seems that this book was suggested as a way to encourage the vast majority of students who are clergy-in-training to confront the reality that religious institutions have lost both influence and respectability over the last 5 decades, to say nothing of the 2 centuries before that. The world has changed; and as they say: change or die. Bass seems to have a very clear idea of what the Church must do to remain relevant to modern people, and she lays down the challenge, as she sees it, and her proposals for meeting that challenge. I was appalled by the shallowness of her analysis and the pandering of her proposed solutions. Let me get to some details.
Bass is, essentially, a supporter of the “spiritual but not religious” line of thought. In short, proponents of this attitude want to pursue a personal spiritual “quest” but are uninterested in religious institutions, rules, or communities. This is a simplistic description, but this is part of the problem: the spiritual-but-not-religious attitude is itself a gross oversimplification, as if spirituality and religiosity were two distinct modes of action or being that one could pursue independently of each other and a whole host of other cultural, social, and political practices.
I realize that this spiritual-but-not-religious attitude is embraced not only by Bass but also by many of Tikkun‘s readers and writers. Indeed, communications from Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives frequently reiterate how the network actively welcomes atheists and agnostics who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” so readers should know that I speak only for myself and not for Tikkun in my criticisms of this line of thought.
To me, the spiritual-but-not-religious approach, at least among Christians, seems to be a reaction against a traditionalist, conservative, rule-obsessed 19th century Protestantism. But is a rejection of this specific type of religiosity a rejection of “religion” altogether?