Thursday, June 09, 2005

Respect for Religion

I have some sympathy for the position that religion deserves some respect, but this does not mean that we should simply bow and accept it.

The problem is that the naturalistic world view is not what most people are exposed to first, and those who are not already on the naturalist side experience the arguments of people like Dawkins as strange and rather alien. Science, like religion, requires an initial leap of faith. The scientific method does not demonstrate its value as a means of making sense of the world until some time after it has been accepted. It takes some experience applying the method to see that it works and how it works. Religion also 'works', by disabling rational argument in certain matters so that the nonsensical parts of dogma don't bother people. The leaves us with a horrible symmetry, where the naturalistic and supernaturalistic world views have little to distinguish them at first approach. Right now, religion is in the better position because few children have a good grasp of science, but religion is easy. Much of what passes for religion is really just fairy tales for adults. The passage from childlike fancy into adult superstition is seamless.

But superstition has about as much to do with faith as masturbation has to do with true love, and literalist interpretations of scripture are mere superstition. Faith is not simple adherance to rote beliefs. There is an essential element of optimism concerning ourselves and others, regardless of its theological content (which may be metaphorical, or entirely redundant.) It both expects and encourages the best in human nature, and makes us more willing to dare and risk failure. "Faith, hope, and charity" are simply different aspects of the same basic attitude. This is the signal in the relgious message. All the rest is just noise.

'Respecting' religion doesn't mean agreeing with it or simply agreeing to disagree. The arguments over the last 200 years that advanced rationalism and secularism were as often fought in religious terms as in secular terms. The success of western civilization stands on two pillars; both Socrates and Jesus chose to die rather than run, fight, or deny what they believed to be true. This simple act I believe to be more important than the specific beliefs they chose to die for--it illustrates an allegiance to the truth, and in the power of truth to win on its own terms. If religious fundamentalists want to play hardball, play hardball back, but do it by proving that they are betraying Christianity. If they don't understand your language, learn theirs. After all, they are trying to prove that science isn't science.

Argument by authority is a fallacy, but an argument that appeals to cultural authority can still be used to destroy a position if your opponent claims to base his argument upon that authority. Fundamentalism is a fortress when attacked from without, but a house of cards when attacked from within. There is nothing more entertaining than watching a secular humanist or moderate Christian well versed in scripture demolish fundamentalist sophistry. You can destroy the symmetry between science and religion if you invalidate bad religion on its own terms. Then all roads lead to science. The goal is not atheism, but an allegiance to the truth and a willingness to follow wherever it leads you. The rest will take care of itself. Ultimately, I think, you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, simply because God retreats whenever approached by a refutation, and advances into all empty spaces.

Islam may have a problem here; it is sometimes argued within the Muslim faith that the later positions of Mohammed (when he wanted to kill everyone who disagreed with him) superseded the teachings of his early years (when he preached peace and tolerance.) With this position the religion has been corrupted by a cult of personality. However, what Muslim extremists seem to desire most is a return to the greatness of medieval Islam, and this was the period in which Islam embraced science and reason while the Christians were foundering in ignorance and superstition. If this is their goal, then the fundamentalists are taking Islam in exactly the wrong direction, and they too are betraying their faith.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The End of Liberals and Conservatives

There is an article in this month's Vanity Fair about how liberals have forgotten to how to laugh. There are probably a few reasons for this: orthodoxy that takes itself too seriously, the overweaning desire to be taken seriously by others, and perhaps even a feeling of being under siege. But I suspect that these are all just other ways of saying political correctness, and if the old left only has Marxism, and the new left only has political correctness, it's no wonder that liberal has become a dirty word. Poltical correctness was old five minutes out of the gate; it's what sophomores do when they can't be bothered to think, puritanism practiced by pagans. It's what you espouse when you're secretly a reactionary but still want to sleep with a feminist. And though Marx provided a brilliant critique of 19th century capitalism (which is becoming relevant again as the disparity between rich and poor grows,) it offered no solution, and all attempted solutions failed miserably. The worst trait of Marxists was not their love of Marxism, but their defense of communist regimes, which were little different from their fascist rivals.

Conservatives used to be people who wished to move slowly, in order to preserve the existing order so that chaos would not ensue. They resisted new ideas and practices for fear that these would upset the balance. Conservative usually meant The Establishment. Conservative now means the people who want to do away with the established order and return to the past, usually a past imagined in 3D technicolor with little or no resemblance to the real past, and with no real plan to get back there. As my parents used to complain, "you know, in our day, you never heard about child molestation and rape and street gangs." No, you never heard about it. Of course, all of this was rampant in their day, but you never heard about it. And that made it so much easier to get away with, as revelations about the Catholic church make painfully obvious. Before you can solve a problem, you have to see it and admit that it exists. No, the world has not gone to hell in a handbasket. Now it's the left that is fighting to preserve the status quo, so that social advances are not rolled back (not all of which were really desireable or workable.) Conservative imagine a past that they want to return to, liberals remember the past and have no desire to go back. But neither side really wants to go back to the past, and have damn few ideas about where to go in the future.

Libertarian? Everyone is libertarian about their freedoms, and something of a fascist about protecting their rights. Pure libertarianism is as much a pipe dream as communism. You need government to protect your freedoms. For many, government power and democratic involvement are the only means they have to protect their freedoms. We can't all afford rent-a-cops, and somebody has to delineate the powers of private police forces, or we end up with civil wars. Capitalism itself is a creation of government, protected and regulated by laws, courts, and police. Without these, your property goes to the guy with the most guns and the biggest gang. Conservatives rack up huge debts and build enormous bureaucracies and intrusive police agencies. Liberals balance the budget, pay down the debt, and limit police powers. Both sides favour some blend of economic protectionism and liberalism. So which side is libertarian?

Values? Orthodox religion is notorious for fighting rear guard action against the advance of civilization, defending slavery, exploitative labour practices, brutal enforcement of laws, and undue privelege. Grassroots and minority religion used to be the major constituency for the advancement of social policies. But the populism of the grassroots has made it a ripe target for orthodox demagogues, which the more erudite traditional orthodoxies find repugnant. Again, everyone has switched dancing partners, and we now have the working poor voting for the priveleges of the rich, while the many of the old rich support more socialist policies. The old guard may have despised atheism and relativism, but what would they say when faced with the new age Christianity, which enshrines relativism as its own defense? The traditional values of charity and forgiveness have been replaced with traditional prurient prejudices, judgemental and mean.

What has happened is that we rushed forward during the 60's and 70's into unprecedented freedom and tolerance, and we scared ourselves. Some people couldn't handle it all. But we also had an unprecedented wave of youth, most of whom don't know any better, and the danger of freedom is that some people are going to abuse it. That doesn't make freedom itself a bad thing. If drug abuse is becoming less of a problem, it probably has less to do with law enforcement than it does with pure Darwinian selection. Drugs will take who they will; it's not up to you. The rest will learn to avoid them, or will be naturally wary of excess. This process has probably already taken place with alcohol and those of European descent, while native North Americans, with no experience of alchohol, are being bloodied by their first encounter. They will adapt as we did, as we now are, slowly, with regard to drugs. New freedoms mean new mistakes, but that doesn't make freedom itself a mistake. Given time, we find a balance, without it being imposed upon us. Gays want to marry, not to tear down traditional values, but to partake in them. The new conservatives bandy the word liberty about because secretly, they despise it. I now cringe when I hear the word, because nearly everyone who uses it means the opposite. Where there's no faith, there's always force. Because, you know, people just can't be trusted to do the right thing. In God we trust, but you're not Him.

So I really don't think that Liberals and Conservatives exist anymore. Mostly, they are flags for partisans to rally under, or to tell them who to attack. But while all the fighting is going on, not much is getting done, and any hint of useful information is being lost in all the noise. If we could make everyone forget the labels, do you think that they could sit down and have an honest conversation?