Friday, June 02, 2006

in case you were wondering where i get it,

i get it from dad.

his essay on religion (printed on some dead trees somewhere) below:



“Film ignites the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists,” says the NY Times. No it doesn’t, not for a moment. This headline mindlessly concedes to “religious” belief the status always claims but never earns–of being an excuse, even a justification, for any variety of stupidity or depravity that is available to small-minded people. There are certainly (partial) explanations of this kind of bad behavior, but there are no excuses for it–or everyone would be engaging in it, instead of just witless mobs. What ignited the wrath etc. in fact was not the film (Water) but a fanatical desire of men to maintain the criminal institutions of male tyranny, to go on justifying the oppression of women, and to find apparent excuses for unleashing their impulse to violence. All this is then called “our religious beliefs” by the people who act out ignorance and depravity; and the media of discussion, not to mention occasional, self-styled multi-culturalists, reproduce this self-exculpation as though it had an actual intellectual or “cultural” content. This is pure blather. Hindu “culture” doesn’t demand the oppression of women, Hindu men do that. One might as well say that Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, and Violet Liuzzo “ignited the wrath of white racists,” or that Emmet Till “ignited the wrath of defenders of Southern womanhood” by (allegedly) whistling at a white woman. No, the racists and oppressors and fanatics wilfully ignite their own uncontrolled wrath, and they always find an excuse to do so when it becomes too much for them to keep in check. They need no actual ignition, but just any visible instance of what they have learned to treat as a self-justifying spark; their combustion is wholly internal. If they were not ignorant and depraved persons, they would respond as any version of reason would tell them to respond to a serious communication, with their own serious counter-communication. Of course, religious belief can make room for such seriousness, as for example many post-Aquinas Catholic theologians have done by carving out a place for secular reason within the overall framework of their theology. But it’s not the theology that helps them to do that, it’s rather Aristotle’s very secular (and for intelligent persons, necessary) account of what constitutes a reasoned argument. (He’s not the only one who did that, but he is the one Aquinas relied on to find his own escape hatch to secular rationality.) Religion, fatally, provides plentiful alleged justifications for intellectual and moral defectiveness to those who need them. It provides no independent justifications of its own for intellectual and moral reason.


Religion is harmless only when it makes no serious truth claims on its own behalf. To clarify: I have a friend who believes that there is a realm in which the souls of the departed still exist in some way or other, and that she has witnessed communication with that realm. I doubt the validity of that evidence; it’s all too easy to fake, and has been faked over and over again. Still, there are no grounds on which I can assert the falsity of her claim–how could I possibly know–and it would be churlish of me to do so. Nothing depends on truth or falsity here, after all. There’s no way in which her conviction can lead to repressive demands on my own behavior, nor does the possibility exist that she will behave in a way I would consider unethical because of that conviction. That kind of spiritual belief is truly private, truly harmless, and truly (assuming against the odds that fakery is not involved) unimpeachable.

But that is not the case with, especially, universalistic religions: i.e., the great monotheisms. They pose no problem as long as their claims remain in the realm of purely mystical, personal, experience (but then they aren’t really universalistic). But the generalized truth claims of, say, Christianity and Mohammedanism can’t both be accepted: one or the other has to go. Either Christ came to redeem all of us, or some of us, or didn’t actually do anything of the kind. And if he wasn’t a redeemer but just a persuasive guy, then there’s no reason to take anything he said seriously unless it happens to comport with something I believe on other grounds; the same with Mohammed. (This is why the Sermon on the Mount is such a favorite with Leftists, among whom it possesses as much as but no more authority than say the Gettysburg Address does with Unionists.) More crucially, if I am given as a reason for doing or not doing something I might or might not want to do, that it is or is not the Christian thing to do–that’s simply a non-reason as far as I am concerned. Sure there’s a lot of Christians in the world, but there’s a lot of people who believe all sorts of stupid or wicked things, and it simply isn’t possible to reason from the firmness or generality of someone else’s belief to the validity or invalidity of my own. This is not an inconsequential conclusion, in that if I am correct then religious belief ought to remain an absolutely private affair (not individual, but private: the two words do not at all mean the same thing). So the belief of some–many--Christians or Muslims that the truth of their convictions gives them either a duty or a right to legislate rules that might apply to me, or to anyone, Christian or otherwise, who does not believe as they do, is a recipe for tyranny. Nothing else. That coincidentally one or more of those religiously based convictions might be in my estimation defensible is beside the point. I have many beliefs to which I am sincerely and firmly wedded that I would never dream of legislating for other people (e.g. that in our society general utility can be maximized only if individuals practice birth control; that racist and anti-Semitic beliefs are morally noxious; that “substance abuse” is potentially both self-destructive and socially harmful; that the world would be much better off in the absence of Christianity and Islam and Hindu nationalism; and so on). We can believe in the rightness of some path and yet have absolutely no intention of legislating it for others. Only beliefs about truly public matters ought to be treated as legitimate subjects for legislation, and by the same token no religious belief can be truly public: widespread, perhaps, but not public. And what makes the belief about some matter “public” is that reasons can be given for it that don’t depend on my acceding to or adopting someone else’s special system of belief; they are reasons accessible to any member of the public. Some distinctions between “public” and “private” are debatable (see my parenthesis), but this isn’t one of them.


When you hear the word “blasphemy” used in any context whatsoever--except approvingly, as in “I try never to let too much time pass without blaspheming against at least one religion”--you know you are in the presence of a committed enemy of free speech and free thought. There’s never enough blasphemy to go around, it is in fact the original source of all free speech.


There’s a common confusion that comes about when we invoke the example of some allegedly good person who was, or good behavior that was, apparently inspired by religious belief. But it’s a fallacy (the “genetic fallacy”) to judge a belief by its genesis; we judge it by its outcomes. Anyhow, those religious persons who find reasons for good behavior have usually done so in spite of or in addition to, not because of, their religious commitment. Martin Luther King, e.g., is often invoked as an example of the value of religious conviction in addressing public matters--though one would do much better with the example of Joan of Lorraine, who certainly would never have liberated Orleans if she hadn’t thought herself to be the Sword of The Lord . But anyhow examples like King are self-destructive, because they’re not about truth but about utility–precisely the ground on which a true believer wishes never to stand! Make utility your argument and the next thing people will be giving you the counter-example of Son of Sam, or the Crusades. Bayard Rustin, an atheist, a homosexual, and an early Freedom Rider, had exactly the same political beliefs as King but a lot less success in communicating them to the world at large. That’s either a testimony to King’s charisma or to the American people’s general inattention, but not to his Christian beliefs, since more Americans who shared those beliefs were opposed to or indifferent about racial integration than not. What King did was make his version of Christianity compatible with American constitutionalism, thus having it both ways. If he hadn’t been able to do so, then all the good Christian intentions in the world wouldn’t have produced whatever success the Civil Rights Movement ultimately had. And if the actual truth of Christianity, rather than merely King’s own upbringing, was truly the ultimate cause of King’s behavior, that’s a pretty poor recommendation for Christianity, given the continued malodorous state of race relations in the U.S. forty years after his death. Perhaps God likes racial discrimination after all?


My own belief is that the violence and oppression attendant upon the expansion of Christianity’s claims (or Islam’s) are worse than its alleged benefits; but the argument started when I make that statement cannot be settled by any so-called empirical data. In fact, all serious theologians have the same method for dealing with that argument, which is that a truly serious concept of “god” is not about a god who’s into details, like who wins which war, or makes a million, or gets a bases-loaded triple in the 8th inning of a playoff game, or any of that ridiculous nonsense that is a sure hallmark of imbecility whenever you find anyone who believes it. Serious theology (all of it, regardless of particular religion) is about the nature of the universe, and right or wrong serious theologians are not going to try to kill anyone or take over a government on its behalf. It’s the ones who think their god has rules that you and I have to live by or we must be punished for our sins, who would leave the world better off if they all just popped out of existence. And note that what I say here doesn’t apply to the conscientious objectors like say the anti-Nazi Pastor Martin Niemoller (“First they came for the Jews and I said nothing...”), who refuse to collaborate with horrendous wrongdoing, always a defensible stance on any ground; but don’t dogmatically try to run people’s lives. Niemoller didn’t reject the Nazis because they weren’t good Christians, but because they were murderers. Being his own kind of Christian may have helped him to be able to make that distinction, but lots of people who weren’t any kind of Christian were able to make it, and some earlier than he did. Famously the Huguenot descendants in the village of Le Chambon sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis under the leadership of their pastor and his wife, but that wasn’t because they were believing Protestants–just ask the remnants of German Jewry about believing Protestants. It was because they’d endured hundreds of years of persecution themselves and understood what it was all about and that it must be resisted. Same thing about the Black churches in the US--most of them, anyhow. They’re about adapting white Christianity to the experience of the descendants of slaves–not vice versa.


Another pernicious confusion: Of course secularism turned into an ideology may also be dogmatic (though hardly ever, in our society, punitive), but ordinary, honest, science is not in any sense “dogmatic,” no matter how authoritative it makes itself sound, because it’s always open to counter-demonstration. It’s not dogmatic to insist absolutely that Boyle’s Law, or the law of entropy or gravity, or evolutionary theory, are “true,” in the sense that though testing them whenever a reasoned suggestion is made about a need for testing is called for, simply denying them is dogmatically and wilfully ignorant. Scientists may be dogmatic (“science” never is) in the sense of not listening to possible alternatives, but since they’re always challengeable by other scientists, that doesn’t last long. Religious dogma, however, is not testable, therefore not challengeable in that sense. You can only disagree with it, and not have a moral leg to stand on in its terms, until and unless you make a theological revolution and reverse the terms. Whereas the scientist always has a leg to stand on as long as she follows agreed-on procedures; and there’s no problem about what those are, since even her most dogmatic opponent will insist that he too followed those same procedures, and this can be checked. Someone is not morally errant, but wrong, and over time it’s possible to find out who (could be both, of course, or even neither, as with quantum vs. wave theory). Dogma, however, always denies not just the other person’s conclusions, but the other person’s very way of seeing as invalid. Also, we have to avoid a phony symmetry here. Creationism, e.g., is not just “another way of seeing;” that claim is typical of the homage irrationalism pays to rationalism even while pretending to scorn it. Instead that kind of religious dogmatism is a refusal to engage in the kind of acts of seeing that are open to everyone, not just to the true believer. Such comprehensive doctrines that invalidate the non-believer’s way of thinking, and are punitive etc. on top of that, are incompatible with democracy, since the justification of democracy is that people can reason together to find the best alternative for themselves, without being subject to exclusion. The creationists, e.g, withdraw from the democratic community, perhaps in only a small way, but ultimately perhaps in a very large way–the possibility of good faith debate on anything has been undermined by them. None of this is to say that some religious Americans don’t have genuine grievances, but simply that not every response to a grievance, religious or otherwise, can be justified sensibly or is compatible with democratic civility. And a grievance is not any more deserving of respect because it’s religiously based (cf World Trade Center!), and a lot of the time less. Because what you’re dying to say is, Give me a reason, not this mindless bullshit!


If you can go an entire week without being enraged by at least one loathsome hypocritical oppressive execrescence of organized religion somewhere in the world, you seriously need to see a psychoanalyst or an A-list neurologist.