Book Club: The Character Gap, 4, Improving character by way of divine assistance?

Character is a crucial component of human ethical life, as Christian Miller discusses in part I of his The Character Gap. He then goes on two demonstrate, in part II, that there is a gap between where our characters typically are and where we would want them to be. We are not, on average, really bad people. But neither are we, on average, really good ones. There is plenty of room for improvement. Which is why part III of Miller’s book is so compelling, as it explores a number of strategies that, empirically speaking, have been shown to either work or not work if our goal is to improve our characters. I had originally thought not to comment on the last chapter of the book, on how divine assistance can be helpful to become better persons, because even though it doesn’t speak to me as a secular minded individual, I do not with to engage in polemic about religion for the sake of ruffling feathers. But, in order to be intellectually honest, I did read that last chapter, and I did not like it. I’m going to discuss it here not because I wish to criticize religion, but because Miller does a pretty bad job there, and readers should be forewarned, particularly as it contrasts with the highly readable and eminently sensible rest of the book. So, here we go.

I think it was a questionable choice on MIller’s part to devote a chapter specifically to religion, given the otherwise neutral tone of the book, but I understand that, of course, many people do get moral guidance from their religion, so the choice is defensible. What is more problematic is not just that it comes at the very end of the book, making the narrative equivalent of a very jarring sharp turn, but that Miller focuses only on Christianity. His excuse for doing so is somewhat lame. He doesn’t have the space to treat other religions, and he is unfamiliar with them. Well, then either write a separate book on it or familiarize yourself with other traditions. I suspect - but do not know this for a fact - that the actual reason for the choice was far more prosaic: Miller himself is a Christian. Nothing wrong with it, but it would be as if I wrote a whole book on topic X without a mention of specific philosophical or religious approaches to X, and then tacked a whole chapter on how Stoicism, and only Stoicism, sees X.

Still, the above is a matter of authorial and editorial choice, and even if mine would have been different, that’s no serious criticism of Miller’s. The thing is, though, that he takes a number of philosophical and scientific liberties in the last chapter that he was very careful to avoid in the preceding ones. And remember that The Character Gap is written by a philosopher with the express intent of bringing in the power of empirical data to the question under examination.

Miller focuses on three aspects of the relationship between Christianity and character: the importance of rituals, the social dimension of practice, and the special role of the Holy Spirit. 

Before going into that, he shows on the basis of scripture that Christianity too affirms the character gap. That’s an understatement, of course, as Christians think of themselves as fallen from grace, and moreover that even though they may improve, ultimately their salvation requires divine intervention. Obviously, nothing like that is present in any secular approach to the issue of character. Moreover, Miller himself points out a huge problem for Christians in terms of motivation. If they want to become better people not because it is the right thing to do, but in order to go to heaven and avoid damnation (however literally or metaphorically they may interpret those concepts), then they are not doing it for the right reasons.

Be that as it may, let’s look at the first aspect of Miller’s treatment: the role of rituals. One crucial Christian ritual is, of course, prayer. But here again it is Miller himself who sounds the alarm bell:

Admittedly, the primary purpose of these prayers is not, on the face of it, to improve the Christian’s own character. It is to thank God. Or to call upon God to help someone else in need. Things like that. (p. 183)

Nevertheless, he adds, one can easily imagine that the cumulative effect of daily prayer will be the improvement of one’s disposition to act in certain ways, i.e., it would improve virtue.

Other Christian approaches to betterment include the use of role models, such as the famous WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets worn by many believers especially in the American south. We have seen before that rituals and the choice of role models have empirically been shown to work, so all of this is fine. But what Miller surprisingly fails to mention here is that there is nothing inextricably religious about any of this. Rituals, mantras (or prayers), role models, and so forth can and are being used not only by other religions, but also in entirely secular settings. So there is nothing special - from an empirical standpoint - about religion in general or Christianity in particular. My Socrates is your Jesus, my Meditations is your Gospel of Luke, but they work in the same way.

Next, Miller turns to the effect of social practices:

The Christian knows that she is part of a community of millions of fellow believers who have said that they are committed to loving God and loving their neighbors as themselves. The Christian, in other words, is not on her own. When she needs advice, she has people to turn to. (p. 186)

True, of course, but also - again - no different from secular communities, like the Ethical movement, for instance.

What’s the empirical evidence that this sort of things works? Miller, as usual throughout the book, describes a number of experiments in psychology to support his claims. For instance, a study conducted at the University of Texas showed that domestic violence is 61% higher among males that do not attend church regularly. Another study found that students who go to church are more likely to stay on track at school. More generally, measures of “religiosity” are correlated with reduced suicide rates, lower drug use, increase use of health care services, reduced smoking, reduced alcohol abuse, healthier lifestyles, promotion of mental health, and lower mortality rates. But of course:

These are merely correlational studies, and we all know that correlation does not equal causation. So we don’t know what is causing what - perhaps it is the people who already are low on criminal behavior, high on making donations, low on health problems, and so forth who gravitate toward religion. If so, then these studies are of little help to the concerns of this chapter. (p. 192)

That caveat put forth, Miller says that he would be shocked to find out that the causality only goes in the wrong direction, so to speak. So would I. It is likely that religiosity has some causal effect on the above listed variables, and also - not mutually exclusively - that there is some self-selection effect, so that people who are healthier, more diligent, more conscientious, etc., tend to go to church more often.

But that isn’t the main problem. The main problem - which goes entirely unacknowledged by Miller - is that the same exact relations of cause and effect will likely hold in a secular context. It isn’t religion per se, or the presence of a god, that are at play here. It’s that when people feel like they are members of a caring community, any caring community, they will live healthier and more ethical lives.

Nothing so far, then, seems to me to justify a separate entry in the book about religion, let alone specifically Christianity. That special reason comes with the last aspect examined by Miller: the Holy Spirit.

Rather than [Christians] being left to their own devices in improving themselves, the thought is that God himself can intervene in an important way and actively contribute to the process. This is a bold idea that we have not seen before in this book. (p. 196)

It surely is a bold idea, but it is relevant only if you are a believer in a particular kind of god, which, needless to say, is an epistemically questionable position to take. Miller at this point goes into some detail about the rather strange (and I say this as a former Catholic) role of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology:

One of the central roles of the Holy Spirit in Christian thinking is carrying out the process of what is known as sanctification. Roughly, sanctification has to do with the period of time after someone becomes a follower of Jesus. It describes the process whereby a believer is changed into a perfected version of herself. The thought is that God initially designed human beings to be a certain way, and in particular a virtuous way. But we have all fallen far short of that standard, as the examples throughout this book illustrate. The process of sanctification is, then, the slow, gradual process of restoring in the Christian the person God designed her to be. (pp. 196-197)

But this, as I’m sure Miller is aware of, raises massive philosophical issues. Why did God design us imperfectly in the first place, given that he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and benevolent? The standard Christian answer is that we were also given free will, but this just won’t do, because now we are told that God himself, in the form of the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, is back to give us a hand. Is this despite the fact that we don’t want to improve? Then so much for free will. If we do want to improve, then why not give us all the necessary tools in the first place, thus avoiding much suffering?

These aren’t just nitpicking questions coming from a secular philosopher. Miller himself is keenly aware of these problems, and - simply put - does not have an answer:

Prayer becomes, then, an avenue for the Holy Spirit to do its work. In fact, the Holy Spirit might even have prompted the Christian to engage in prayer in the first place. … How exactly does the Holy Spirit effect character change? That is a vexed question in Christian theology, one whose answer will likely be for the most part inscrutable to human beings in this life. (p. 197)

A vexed question that will be inscrutable to human beings in this life is a fancy way to say that we have no idea of what’s going on here. So why bother? Why go down this particular rabbit hole, one that, of course, is certainly not backed by any kind of empirical evidence, thus making it stand out even more from the rest of the book?

Despite my qualms as expressed in this last commentary on The Character Gap, the book is well worth reading, particularly chapters 8 and 9, which deal with what does and does not work in order to improve our character. Whether you try to be a better person because you think it’s the right thing to do, or because God says is the right thing to do is, ultimately, irrelevant. As Garrison Keillor used to say at the end of his Writer’s Almanac: be good, do good, and keep in touch.

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