Monday, October 24, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | This age of fanaticism is no time for non-believers to make enemies: "Humanists must assert the secularity and plurality of politics and citizenship; but in doing this we should not assume all believers differ from us. Christian humanists also believe politics is part of the secular sphere (the natural law, not the divine law). Religious fanaticism thrives domestically where there is either physical poverty or poverty of political and social ideals, and internationally where there is gross injustice. Humanists need to be more active in social policies and less fussy about the company we keep."

Humanists must assert the secularity and plurality of politics and citizenship; but in doing this we should not assume all believers differ from us. Christian humanists also believe politics is part of the secular sphere (the natural law, not the divine law). Religious fanaticism thrives domestically where there is either physical poverty or poverty of political and social ideals, and internationally where there is gross injustice. Humanists need to be more active in social policies and less fussy about the company we keep.

What a remarkably reasonable thing to say! Immured as I am at a Catholic college (and glad of it) I haven't seen an upsurge of anti-religous sentiment on the ground. But the chatter in the ether seems to be reaching a crescendo, Dawkins beating the drum with Dennett's obligato and a crowd of witnesses denouncing sharia and suicide-bombing as a natural and inevitable consequence of pernicious ontological commitments.

And that is what religion is: commitment to the existence of some supernatural being(s) packaged in a fabric of art, myth and liturgy. The idea that any metaphysical theory by its nature could drive people to lunacy and violence is as bizarre as the notion my mother and others 50 years ago entertained that daylight savings time was a Communist plot.

This is not intentionally naive. As it happens adherents of metaphysical systems form themselves into groups--and even more often, groups adopt metaphysical commitments as part of their corporate identity. They develop customs and policies and fight with members of competing tribes. So do ethnic groups, sports fans and street gangs competing for turf. Religious warfare is commonplace but it isn't at bottom theologically motivated--metaphysics is innert.

Tribalism and violence are part of our genetic heritage--religion, like blood kinship, language, football team fanship or neighborhood is just one of the markers we pick up to define our tribe, to sort out who we support and who we beat up. Metaphysics is epiphenomenal--Dawkins, Dennett and all the self-righteous secularists who've emerged lately to make the case that bloated ontologies produce social ills are either naive or, more likely, disingenuous.

People are more likely to do violence in the name of religion than in support of other intellectual commitments because in the aggregate religious people are more likely to be uneducated, tribal and sexually diamorphic. Football fans of competing teams wreck property and do violence to one another because they're working class lads; opera fans who worship competing divas do not trash the neighborhood and beat up on oneanother because they are effete snobs.

9 comments:

pdf23ds said...

The metaphysics themselves might not be a causal factor, but I think the naturalistic worldview is a remedy for the urge to tribal violence.

On the other hand, a much better way to defeat that urge is to have members of all tribes communicate on a personal level. If you are fully aware of the humanity of the other, an not able to denigrate them into the subhuman in your mind, you've lost the rationalization you need, and the other is no longer the other, but part of one's extended tribe. This dynamic is probably more basic.

Perhaps the naturalistic worldview does make it harder to demonize the other, though. As naturalists, we now know (but haven't always) that race is mostly cultural, and that genetically we're all continuous in the absolute, though "racially pure" people are in the center of clusters of related genotypes.

Anyway, I think naturalism does tend to prevent dogmatism, and dogmatism of some kind is probably necessary to provide a framework to justify violence or oppression of an outgroup.

So, anyway, I disagree with the article.

Universism

Andrew Brown said...

I suspect that the undecidability of theological propositions is what makes them so well suited to fighting over. As usual, the causation is twisted and reciprocal, but the fact that compromise is intellectually hard -- well,is the Pope Antichrist or isn't he? -- makes it politically harder, which, in turn, makes this particular way of understanding the dispute seem the best one.

So I think there is a reason why religious disputes tend to be much more vicious than ones over -- say -- sport. As for your contention that this is a matter of class and education, I don't think there is much inthe history of sixteenth-century Europe to support this. Rising standards of literacy and rising standards of education led to an increase both in theological interest and in savagery. The Bible and Sword type of protestantism was not ignorant.

H. E. said...

Religious wars during the Reformation were inextricably linked to emerging nationalism. Crackpot sects and marginal religious groups that had many of the characteristics of the Reformation Christianity were going all through the middle ages (see e.g. Norman Cohn In Pursuit of the Millenium). It was only when Luther's cause was taken up by the German princes that things got moving--which strongly suggests that it was the politics, not the metaphysics, that were doing the real work.

Fast forward to the present and consider, e.g. Northern Ireland where the tags are "Protestant" and "Catholic" but theological disagreement, as far as I can see, plays no role whatsoever. Or consider Darfur, where Muslims are killing other Muslims--especially interesting because it suggests that the earlier hostilities between the "Muslim North" and "Christian South" weren't theologically driven either.

Andrew Brown said...

Crackpot sects and marginal religious groups that had many of the characteristics of the Reformation Christianity were going all through the middle ages (see e.g. Norman Cohn In Pursuit of the Millenium). It was only when Luther's cause was taken up by the German princes that things got moving--which strongly suggests that it was the politics, not the metaphysics, that were doing the real work.

I think they reinforce each other, and it is invidious to claim that either is fundamental. Consider Henry V, who burnt Lollards as enthusiastically as he slaughtered and pillaged in France. If he had taken the Lollard side, he would have cut himself off still further from the French, but also from the rest of Catholic Europe. The reformation offered a new way of framing political differences, which, in turn, sharpened doctrinal ones. And in Northern Ireland the association of protestantism with liberty appears to old-fashioned protestants a point as much theological as it is political.

Some Guy with a Weblog (and a Wii) said...

People are more likely to do violence in the name of religion than in support of other intellectual commitments because in the aggregate religious people are more likely to be uneducated, tribal and sexually diamorphic. Football fans of competing teams wreck property and do violence to one another because they're working class lads; opera fans who worship competing divas do not trash the neighborhood and beat up on oneanother because they are effete snobs.

I'm dancing around the edges of an idea that I don't think I'm smart enough to frame, but let me take a try. Perhaps, in the end, the truth ties more closely to your previous post about the economics of liberty. Religion, or more accurately "religiosity," prospers where there is no opportunity. So from the standpoint of the poor hyper-religious Muslim, the view might be "I have no chance at a good life here, I will probably die young...why not follow this ideology that promises me paradise?"

The same general logic drives young adults to gangs. Grasping at anything that promises circumstances better than those they have presently. When you begin to see an ideology not merely as theory, but as salvation, defending it (or following the odious dictates of a leader who warps the tradition, maybe) becomes much more important. Because if "they" are right and you are wrong, then you have nothing.

"People are more likely to do violence in the name of religion" because religion promises elevation from poor circumstances, if only in the next life -- a salve for desperate lives. "[O]pera fans who worship competing divas do not trash the neighborhood and beat up on one another" because there is no percentage in doing so. Love of opera is hardly tied so closely to personal salvation as religion.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the reason people are more likely to do violence in the name of religion than other intellectual commitments is that religious metaphysics _requires_ violence. If you've even slogged through the Bible, you know what I mean. If not, try reading this sample (from Numbers 31):

7 They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 "Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. 16 "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.


Is violence really a surprise among those who subscribe to a metaphysics which requires the slaughter of all men, women, and children (except those taken as sex slaves) who dare question their beliefs?

Murky Thoughts said...

The idea that any metaphysical theory by its nature could drive people to lunacy and violence is as bizarre as the notion my mother and others 50 years ago entertained that daylight savings time was a Communist plot.

Religion brings metaphysics with it, but enlightened folks realize that we are animals first and philosophers second. If religion affects your beliefs and behaviors, it's doing psychology, and where else would we look for the cause of violence but in psychology? Genes don't kill people. People kill people.

Murky Thoughts said...

Oh, and E.O. Wilson seems to have inched a good distance toward the ranks of Dawkins and Dennet

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