All Souls Kansas City

“Failure to Attribute,” October 23, 2016 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

The attribution of consciousness is the foundation of human moral understanding; without it, our guidance is theoretical, and our behavior may all too easily fall into the category that we term ‘inhuman’, which designates just exactly that failure to ascribe to others our own reaction to pain.

reality-perceptions-missClick here to watch the service or read the sermon below.

Among the many tiresome aspects of this season’s presidential campaign, and there have been many – it’s almost over folks; just a couple more weeks, but for heaven’s sake get yourself and everyone you know to the polls! – has been its intellectual vacuity.  The entire process seems to have taken as its motto Maya Angelou’s assertion that while people will forget what you said, and even what you did, they will never forget how you made them feel.  Even Hillary, whose capacities and interests probably incline the other way, has been processed ad nauseam through the filter of how everybody feels about her.  And I get that many, perhaps most, American voters are more swayed by emotional response than by considerations requiring intellectual effort.  But I’m finding this marathon of political empathy a bit tedious at this point, so this morning I invite us to take a break.  Let’s actually think, about some ideas, together, shall we?  Just for something different.


A decade ago, in early 2006, University of Minnesota researchers conducted a telephone survey of over 2,000 households in which they found that:


“…Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’ Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”


The lead researcher of that study, Penny Edgell, noted that Atheists:


“…offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years. … It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as everyone shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious. … Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong. Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good’.”


The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance observe, in their report on this and similar surveys, that:


“It would appear that Atheists have a major public relations job ahead of them before they can be widely accepted and valued.”


This despite indications that the percentage of American adults who do not follow any organized religion nearly doubled between 1990 to 2001 — from 8% to 14% of the adult population, making Atheists, Agnostics, Non-believers, Secularists, Humanists, etc. the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.  Those of us like me, who find ourselves included in this suspect category, may go ahead and wax indignant if we choose, but we would be better advised to spend our energy seeking to understand the basis for the reportedly common view that we are ‘self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good,’ and how we might most effectively refute that perception.


So, here’s my thought: since I am not persuaded of any divine creation or management of the universe, I would argue that it has been evolutionary pressure, not divine mandate, that has made all of us insistently moral beings, precisely because we are a social species.  Those individuals who best maintain the network of mutuality in their communities thrive best, and ultimately have the greatest reproductive success.  Thus we are hard-wired for a sense of ethical relatedness.  However, as with many other attributes which serve our genetic success, this moral awareness does not come fully formed when a particular human being is born.  Like the innate capacity for language, its potential is there, awaiting the environmental and relational experiences that will give it form, and cause it to develop in certain particular ways.  We are all born with the urgent ability to learn to speak, but we are not born knowing English or Chinese.  In the same way, we are endowed with ethical sensibilities, but the specific content of right and wrong will be filled in by a social context.  Educators and developmental psychologists have invested a great deal of time and energy observing exactly how that moral sense emerges and is formed in people as they grow; how it can be stunted or twisted, what it looks like at different stages along the way, and what are some of its cultural variations.   Out of those explorations emerges one seemingly universal and rather mysterious process, which is the idea that I want to consider today in reference to the potential morality or otherwise of atheists.


This most basic of premises for human morality I am calling the attribution of consciousness; some philosophers and students of brain function call it ‘a theory of mind.’  It is the hypothesis, which seems obvious only until you really start to think about it — as the readings this morning suggest — that the universe contains other awarenesses just like one’s own.  The idea that other people, and indeed other creatures, constitute individual centers of experience analogous to mine, is a kind of conceptual light switch which is not really a function of intellectual information.  It is an emergent understanding that unfolds gradually, as a part of development and maturation, and if it works properly, becomes so basic to our perception of the world that we almost can’t really examine it, or conceive what the alternative belief would be like.  Most of us, as functional adults, take it for granted both that other people see and hear and feel much as we do, and conversely, that what we observe about them is likely to be true to a greater or lesser extent about ourselves.  Most morality, certainly of the humanist variety, comes back to this principle, which is the foundation alike of the child’s crude ethical equation – “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” – and the loftiest formulation of universal imperatives or golden rules – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


One traditional measure of moral maturity has been the width across which an individual is able to apply this principle.  Just how broadly are we able to attribute consciousness?  Beyond all sophistry about economic cost and benefits, or rights of property opposed to rights of liberty, slavery was self-apparently wrong because anyone could see from their own center of consciousness that they themselves would be miserable as a slave, and ought to be able to attribute that perception to other people who were enslaved.  Torture is wrong, precisely because how would you like it if someone did that to you?  The attribution of consciousness is the foundation of human moral understanding; without it, our guidance is theoretical, and our behavior may all too easily fall into the category that we term ‘inhuman’, which designates just exactly that failure to ascribe to others our own reaction to pain.


The question then becomes, just how widely are we to cast this net of attribution?  And this is where, I want to suggest, the moral suspicion of atheism arises.  For most of us recognize intuitively that a person who does not attribute consciousness to others is missing some crucial factor in what would make him or her a morally reliable participant in our networks of mutuality.  Much of the analysis of sociopathic criminals notes their severely stunted capacity for empathy; they do not identify with the pain they cause; they fail to attribute to their victims feelings like their own.  There is a logical progression which suggests that we move from attributing consciousness first to those nearest to us, whose reactions we experience up close; next to other people in circumstances like our own, with whom it is easy for us to identify; then to people like ourselves, and later to people in general, expanding the circle of attributed consciousness wider and wider as we go.  Somewhere along the line, we may add non-human creatures to that list, recognizing that different as the consciousness of an animal might be from ours, we share some crucially relevant capacity for the experiences of suffering and well being that make them objects of moral consideration.  It is not surprising, then, that multitudes of human beings have arrived at the conclusion that it is equally appropriate to ascribe to the universe as a whole, in its totality, the same sort of consciousness, and to perceive that we have some set of moral obligations to a larger, universal consciousness, which still so much resembles our own.  Thus arises the notion of an anthropomorphic god.


I suspect that it is our failure to attribute consciousness to the larger forces of cosmos that makes many people nervous about atheists like me.  The old chestnut question, “How can you be moral, if you don’t believe in god?” may not always be asking exactly what we generally interpret it to mean.  Those of us to whom such inquiries are addressed most often hear them as variations of either “How do you know what the ethical rules are supposed to be, if there is no god to tell you?”, or more commonly, “If there is no authority who is going to reward you for keeping the rules, or punish you for breaking them, what motivation do you have to follow them?”  When we respond with affirmations of the good for it’s own sake, or for human well-being as a whole, the answer often doesn’t seem to satisfy the underlying question.  We might come closer to the real issue if we heard the question as having to do with the attribution of consciousness, as parallel to something like, “If you don’t suppose that I have an awareness of pleasure and pain much like your own, how can I feel safe about the way you might decide to treat me?”


People who fail to attribute consciousness appropriately are dangerous, as can be easily seen in the case of non-human creatures.  If someone tells me that animals do not have feelings that count, I am going to be most reluctant to entrust that person with the well-being of my cats.


It is along these lines, I think, that popular opinion so distrusts the proclaimed atheist.  Those of us who fall into that category, or close enough, are within our rights to feel impatient with the question of why we should be good if no one is keeping score; in my experience, few people if any actually conduct their moral lives on the basis of bribes and threats.  Most of us want to be moral, because that is the better way to live; so do even most folks who accept the propositions of heaven and hell.   But if there is no consciousness like our own beyond our own, how shall we love the world, and hold life itself in reverence?  That, it seems to me is a fair question.  It has any number of possible good answers, but it is a reasonable thing to ask.


One of the possible, and quite ancient, answers to that question is the tradition of spiritual practice that invites us to realize that our own consciousness is not exactly what we usually think of it as being.  As D.E. Harding suggests, when you get over the notion that you must be very much like all the other human beings you see walking around, and stop thinking that you have an eight inch hairy ball with various holes on top of your shoulders just like them, then you can begin to realize how vast that perception is that you have, where everyone else has an ordinary head.  It’s counter intuitive, but it’s a rather exhilarating exercise once you get the hang of it. Such a perspective invites us to realize the extent to which our normal consciousness is such a limited subset of the universe, that it would be silly to try to see the totality of everything as analogous to our rather puny awareness. Instead of imposing our experience on the cosmic scale, we should rather strive to realize how much of that larger reality our perceptions constantly miss


Another, somewhat more complicated response, is to affirm the moral relevance of beauty and order in the cosmos, without needing to ascribe a personal awareness to it.  Our sense of moral obligation may rest upon the foundation of attributed consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to end there; it may expand to include even that which is much more unlike ourselves.  The slowly emerging sense of humanity’s ecological impact as an ethical concern is one example of this kind of structural expansion of our moral categories.  Alice Walker’s familiar quote from “The Color Purple” when she realizes her spiritual connections so deeply that “I knew if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed,” illustrates such a perception at work.


Yet another possible answer suggests that human relationships, perhaps extended also to animals, provide ample guidance for our present moral needs.  If we could ever truly come to the point of ascribing full consciousness to our individual fellow creatures, both human and non-human; if we could consistently treat them all as we ourselves would prefer to be treated, that would actually be quite sufficient.  So doing would surely represent vast progress over the common run of current human behavior, and at that point there would be time enough to worry about our obligations to anything more cosmic.


All three of these points are intelligent responses to the riddle of how an atheist can be a moral person, and it certainly becomes each of us to ponder how we might reply thoughtfully as individuals to such a challenge.  Yet in the end perhaps the most important answer that any of us can make is to live and behave and treat other people in such a manner that our ability to attribute consciousness to others, and to respect in them the feelings that we know from our own experience, is clearly demonstrated.  Our minds are constructed in such a way that I can never prove my thoughts and feelings to be like yours; I cannot actually see with your eyes, feel what is in your heart, walk in your shoes.  We take that commonality finally on faith – we have to – that some important part of what it means to me to be a human being is very like what it means to you, that the pain and joy you feel is significantly similar to my own experiences.


Perhaps we really are all part of the butterfly’s dream; there’s no way to tell.  But even so, the needs and hopes and sufferings that we share are still the source of the good we know.  It makes sense that all people want to be assured that we can trust one another at least to try to imagine the impact of our actions by what it would be like to be on the receiving end; that we have that essential basis of moral perception, the attribution of consciousness to others.  For me, it is enough to suppose that my mirror is in you; I do not need to find it also writ large in the personality of the universe, and I do not believe that it is to be found there.  But I understand why for some people that act of moral imagination seems important, even perhaps essential.  My most pressing task is not to try to talk them out their perspective, but only to show, through my own steadfast commitment to a life of ethical insight and behavior, that even without attributing consciousness to the universe in the person of God, it is still possible for me to be good.  If only we might resolve all our competing ideologies on the basis of who among their advocates leads the most admirable life!  If only we might take to heart the saying I learned many years ago in UU Sunday school, that if your religion makes you kinder than me, then your religion is better than mine.  Let’s make sure, shall we, that by such a measure, our own lives, here in the community of skeptics and free minds, will always do our convictions credit.


In 1906, when evolutionary biology had begun to permeate popular awareness and Einstein’s theory of relativity had just been published, a Unitarian professor of literature by the name of William Herbert Carruth wrote a poem comparing the unfolding of the cosmos to an expanding human moral awareness.  These realities evoke a reverence in us, he suggests, that can be appropriately described in theistic language, but need not be.  His words seem like an appropriate way to conclude these reflections.

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church

October 23, 2016


       “Being a Self”                                 by Madeleine L’Engle

       “On Having No Head”                     by D.E. Harding

       “Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly”        Traditional Teaching Tale