Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Priestly "Science" and Democratic Politics

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn't too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science's self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I've been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

I suspect that it is especially when one assumes an essentially religious attitude toward what one has construed as "science" that "science" so construed is invested with such ferocious incompatibility with its religious competitors. As far as I can tell, plenty of people have essentially aestheticized their religious faith and practice, or mean to indicate through their declarations of faith that they like to think of themselves as "decent" people in some undercritical sense of the word, or to designate the straightforward sociological fact of their membership in some moral community that matters to them. None of this is any more incompatible with science than being a music lover, a foodie, a druggie, or a promiscuous pervert is "incompatible" with science. One expects Priests (including the self-appointed Priests of Science) to think otherwise than this, however.

This matters, among other things, because the last thing the world needs these days is another mode of fundamentalist religiosity (this time in the name of a Priestly and too-authoritarian "science") encouraging True Believers that if only they'll be intolerant and pure enough in their moral fervor they will prevail over all difference and sweep the world.

Secularism is a political attitude, and more particularly a democratic political attitude, that seeks to proliferate the moral and esthetic lifeways that can reconcile themselves to peaceful co-existence but without renouncing the indispensable edifications of their personal perfections. This attitude has the benefit, to the extent that it succeeds, of facilitating collaborative problem-solving among otherwise incompatibly differently-identified people (something science-minded folks should be especially enthusiastic about), of minimizing the civilizational energies wasted in bloodyminded disputation, and of making the world safer for the idiosyncratic personal creative expressivity that expands the space of freedom available for all.

I am enormously encouraged at the courage of the new atheist militants who publish unapologetic declarations of their own personal paths to perfection. And as an atheist myself I am well pleased to discern a trace of the strange path I myself am on in reading of theirs.

But I have no doubt whatsoever that the secular compromise will function to protect my own idiosyncratic freethinking primarily because the variously faithful have learned the hard way that they need protection from one another. The overabundant majority of Believers benefit from secular tolerance and it is an appeal to this common sense that will best ensure that a separation of Church and State is re-instituted and subsequently thrives, not some false identification of secularism with the needs of a small minority of atheists demanding protection from the variously faithful.

And as for the ascetic idealism of our eliminative materialists, as for the eager or reluctant technocratic attitude that technoscientific complexities or technodevelopmental urgencies demand the circumvention of democratic deliberation among the "ignorant" and "unintelligent" herd, as for the palpable desperation with which our statisticians and bomb-builders cling to their pet methodologies with all the hysteria of dot-eyed fanatics contemplating the One True Way, denying the historical indebtedness of science to practices of esoteric mysticism, denying the ongoing life of religiosity and estheticism in science's invigorating metaphors, denying the unpredictable passions that drive scientific agency, denying the absolute imbrication of scientific practice and political practice, as for the facile Providential and Apocalyptic tonalities in which our Superlative Technologists discuss Progress, as for all that one honestly would expect atheists of all people to know better than to fall for all that crap.

Fundamentalism is an anti-democratic political formation derived from a moral one. It is essentially anti-democratic. I can empathize with the human frailty that renders this move appealing to some, I can celebrate the underlying idiosyncratic pleasures that this move seeks to protect, I can cheerfully treat the differences on the basis of which the various fundamentalisms derive their identities as differences that don't make a difference to my sense of sharing the world with a peer so long as the fundamentalist extends the same courtesy to me or, sadly incapable of this, withdraws from the world altogether to contemplate her personal perfection in private. But where democracy is threatened by anti-democracy one must struggle against it, one must agitate, educate, and organize to facilitate democratic outcomes. The defense of democracy actually demands the democratization of anti-democracy, not the tolerance of anti-democracy in the name of democracy.

No doubt the fundamentalists will sneer that this is hardly a "cheerfully nonjudgmental" attitude, this is hardly an expression of "secular tolerance" -- but one must understand that the constitutive gesture of fundamentalism is its substitution of moral for political belief: Fundamentalism is an essentially anti-democratic or pre-democratic attitude, and one no more properly applies democratic attitudes like secular tolerance to fundamentalist moralizing than one would to a hurricane or a pandemic or an art fad.

For fundamentalists, of course, it would only be with the obliteration of political contestation altogether and the presumed prevalence of their signature moral monoculture that they would affirm that, at last, they were "tolerated" in the measure proper to them. To extend democratic considerations to fundamentalist formations is to misconstrue democratic politics as fundamentally as fundamentalists do themselves.

The proper democratic attitude to take with fundamentalists is to insist that their fundamentalism must be democratized, the texture of their faith privatized or estheticized and then celebrated as an expression of diversity, their authoritarianism discouraged where possible and domesticated into harmlessness where impossible. Do please read that sentence carefully before any of you foolishly start crowing about how tyrannical democracy truly, secretly is in its deepest heart compared to your own fundamentalist piety or incumbent elitism or parochial bigotry or market idolatry or what have you, all you lurking anti-democrats out there. Democracy doesn't democratize "by any means necessary" precisely for fear that a false democratization will be anti-democratizing. We're way ahead of you. Democrats are quite as aware of their own vulnerabilities and of the anti-democratizing pathologies of power as any critic who claims to have arrived at an anti-democratic viewpoint through a hardboiled contemplation of such vulnerabilities and pathologies (always, one discovers, the better to rationalize their indifference to the unearned suffering in the world that facilitates their own unearned privileges).

Be that as it may, this attitude that fundamentalism must be democratized else it will surely undermine the democracy most of us cherish seems to me to be precisely the same attitude democratically-minded people should take as well with those who would rewrite science in the image of authoritarian religiosity. Such projects -- whatever their own honest assessment or retroactive rationalization that theirs is the only way technoscientific practices may be protected in a world that tragically disdains them too easily -- finally look to me to be all too often little more than the typical and distasteful effort of some fundamentalistically-inclined folks to spoil a perfectly good and reasonable collaborative practice (through which indispensable powers of prediction and control are acquired in the service of the solution of shared problems) by turning it into yet another occasion for Priestly moralizing elites to demand reverence and awe from everybody else.

9 comments:

Martin Striz said...

As far as I can tell, plenty of people have essentially aestheticized their religious faith and practice, or mean to indicate through their declarations of faith that they like to think of themselves as "decent" people in some undercritical sense of the word, or to designate the straightforward sociological fact of their membership in some moral community that matters to them. None of this is any more incompatible with science than being a music lover, a foodie, a druggie, or a promiscuous pervert is "incompatible" with science. One expects Priests (including the self-appointed Priests of Science) to think otherwise than this, however.

What you've described is the "religious moderates" set, which is merely a subset of all religious people. You've conveniently neglected to mention that religious fundamenalists comprise a significant portion of religiouis people. You've conveniently neglected to mention that these fundamentalists make instrumental claims about the world that are patently false. You've conveniently neglected to mention that they weild power and influence over public policy -- things like school curricula, sex education, and the way that federal dollars are spent (for example, on "faith-based" initiates that give tax money to religious organizations so they can proselytize their mythos).

You have mischaracterized the conflict as one between some kind of militant scientism and religious moderation, when in fact it is between reasoned secularism and religious fundamentalism. I've read the main works in the recent rash of books criticizing religion: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. All three of them briefly mention religious moderates and generally agree that they are not the problem. Harris goes so far as to say that the only real problem with moderates is that they promulgate a discourse-space where religious claims are immune from criticism, and that is dangerous (a claim with which I agree).

Most of the volume of their criticism is directed toward religious fundamentalism in its various guises. They are not advocating for militant materialism or scientism, they are advocating free inquiry, open debate, and evidence-based belief. I don't see what's wrong with that. The demand for evidence is not some priestly declaration made by Scientists. It applies to everything. In your own rhetoric department, you wrote a doctoral dissertation with a bibliography. Why on earth did you include a bibliography? Could it possibly have been because it lends some credibility to your claims? Citations (a form of evidence) create a causal connection between your claims and the things they describe. Otherwise, I suppose you would be free to make shit up ad libitum. Well, that's what faith-based beliefs do.

this matters, among other things, because the last thing the world needs these days is another mode of fundamentalist religiosity (this time in the name of a Priestly and too-authoritarian "science")

The modern critics of religion, as I said, support free inquiry and open debate, which on its face is incompatible with fundamentalism. The problem is that you can't reason with people who reject reason prima facie. What do you do then?

Secularism is a political attitude, and more particularly a democratic political attitude, that seeks to proliferate the moral and esthetic lifeways that can reconcile themselves to peaceful co-existence but without renouncing the indispensable edifications of their personal perfections.

That is a very circumscribed characterization of secularism. Many different political attitudes can be secular. Objectivism and totalitarian Communism were secular, but they were not democratic. Maybe you meant secular humanism?

But I have no doubt whatsoever that the secular compromise will function to protect my own idiosyncratic freethinking primarily because the variously faithful have learned the hard way that they need protection from one another.

Have they really? In large swaths of the world, including the United States, it doesn't seem that way to me.

Dale Carrico said...

"You've conveniently neglected to mention that religious fundamenalists comprise a significant portion of religiouis people."

I don't understand this complaint at all. I spent the whole post railing against fundamentalism, and I quite agree with you that fundamentalisms are a deep danger to democracy. Where I may disagree with you in the post is in my contention that [1] fundamentalism is in essence a political and not an epistemological phenomenon, [2] in my insistence that *both* scientific and religious outlooks are vulnerable to appropriation by fundamentalist mindsets, and [3] in my insistence that for *neither* scientific nor religious outlooks does this vulnerability to fundamentalist appropriation tell us what is *definitive* about the proper work of scientificity or of religiousity.

"You've conveniently neglected to mention that these fundamentalists make instrumental claims about the world that are patently false."

If all you have on hand is a hammer then everything tends to look like a nail. I think many of the religious claims dismissed as unfalsifiable perversions of proper scientific claims may be better described instead as declarations of membership in moral communities, expressions of "we"-intentions, testaments to essentially esthetic attitudes concerning the sublime and so on. To say that what matters most about them is the way they fail to pass muster as scientific claims is often just a matter of massively missing the point.

"You've conveniently neglected to mention that they weild power and influence over public policy -- things like school curricula, sex education, and the way that federal dollars are spent (for example, on "faith-based" initiates that give tax money to religious organizations so they can proselytize their mythos).

Nobody who reads this blog with any regularity at all could fail to know where I stand on matters of the separation of church and state and about the disastrous impact of faith based moralizing (whether religious or market fundamentalist in origin) on public policy. But this is largely beside the point in my view. The way to minimize the corrosive and corrupting influence of fundamentalisms to our democratic way of life is to enlist the majority of the faithful in defense of institutional protections of the plurality of faiths and practices (incidentally including marginal atheists and perverts and esthetes like me).

To attack all religiosity as inevitably irrational seems to me a hopeless cause in a world of billions of believers (many of whom, I think, are fortunately quite prepared to privatize their belief when push comes to shove, so long as they don't feel disrespected or opporessed for their beliefs).

And what is worse it is a pointless as well as hopeless cause, since this kind of sweeping condemnation does not look to me even remotely necessary if what we want is really to institutioonally support what is useful and emancipatory in consensus science (of which I too am a champion, after all, though mine is a championiship that does not demand zealotry).

And, worse still, it is a pointless, hopeless cause which seems furthermore all too prone to lead its partisans into puritanical crusades against every sphere of reasonable warrant (moral, esthetic, political) that is not immediately reducible to instrumental terms. That is to say, I worry that it threatens to turn otherwise perfectly nice reasonable people into puritanical prigs for no worthwhile reason whatsoever.

It is here that the cultural and sociological kinship between fundamentalist scientism and the religious fundamentalisms it would slay grows too palpable to ignore, in my view of the matter.

"You have mischaracterized the conflict as one between some kind of militant scientism and religious moderation..."

But it was you who characterized my position this way. My expressed view is that religiosity is best understood as a moral and esthetic matter, and fundamentalism an authoritarian political formation opportunistically taking up religious and esthetic belief in a way that scientific belief is no less vulnerable to. "Moderation" doesn't even come into it as far as I can see.

"...when in fact it is between reasoned secularism and religious fundamentalism."

I agree with this formulation, as it happens. Although I don't see any reason to exclude all but atheists from the movements of reasonable secularism, nor to include only the variously religious in the movements of authoritarian fundamentalism.

"Harris goes so far as to say that the only real problem with moderates is that they promulgate a discourse-space where religious claims are immune from criticism, and that is dangerous (a claim with which I agree)."

I think no claim should be immune from criticism. But I also think it is important to be clear about the actual ends facilitated by claims to our belief, and the proper warrants that justify modes of belief as reasonable ones.

I worry that even many otherwise reasonable people have a terribly impoverished sense of the range available to reasonable belief-ascription. I think it is key to understand that instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, and political beliefs differ according to their forms, ends, and proper warrants. I think that all of these are at once inter-implicated but also irreducible to one another.

Debates about religious faith, moral membership, esthetic taste are prone to dreadful derangment by those who want always to understand reasonableness from the perspective of just one mode of reasonable belief-ascription. This is the larger debate I am grappling with when I say things that may seem counterintuitive to you given that you also know already that I am an atheist and a defender of consensus science.

"They are not advocating for militant materialism or scientism, they are advocating free inquiry, open debate, and evidence-based belief. I don't see what's wrong with that."

I think that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism. And I think the militants encourage these appropriations by refusing to distinguish fundamentalism as an essentially political formation from religiosity which can (and my view often does) do altogether different work -- especially moral and esthetic work.

By proposing that the essence of religiosity is irrationality and then proposing that fundamentalism is the pathological expression of this basic underlying irrationality, the new militancy often radically misconstrues the actual morphology of fundamentalist authoritarianisms.

"The demand for evidence is not some priestly declaration made by Scientists."

It can be, though. As when some jerk demands you prove that the love of your life loved you back, or that the vocation to which you've commited your life is worth it, or that your most cherished poem wasn't actually written by a worthless hack.

"In your own rhetoric department, you wrote a doctoral dissertation with a bibliography. Why on earth did you include a bibliography? Could it possibly have been because it lends some credibility to your claims?"

Just because I know the way to do research in an academic setting doesn't mean I confuse every proper argument for an instrumental one.

"Otherwise, I suppose you would be free to make shit up ad libitum. Well, that's what faith-based beliefs do."

This is a statement that seems most forceful if only instrumental beliefs can be reasonable and warranted beliefs. But we can engage in a process of political reconciliation with nothing but a shared faith in the promise at arriving at a workable compromise to warrant our endeavor. We can take up a path of self-creation with nothing but our sense of its legibility to us inspire our risk of offering it up to the judgment of the world. We can offer up an ethical case in the face of novel circumstances based on some meta-ethical framework, soliciting a universal assent that may never materialize.

These cases may be shoehorned into instrumental models of rationality if you really squint and sweat it, but it seems to me reasonable belif-ascription is not perfectly subsumable within the bounds of instrumental rationality and the testability (and so on) which warrants it.

Since the moral end of membership, the esthetic end of self-creation, the ethical end of universal legibility, the political end of contingent reconciliation seem none of them to be subsumable within the bounds of the instrumental end of prediction and control it isn't clear to me why any of this should seem particularly surprising or threatening.

"The problem is that you can't reason with people who reject reason prima facie. What do you do then?"

Don't be so quick to throw up your hands. Realize for one thing that there may be many people who are reasonable enough to reason with who are nevertheless not reasonable enough to identify with. Realize that sometimes we really can agree to disagree. Realize that one need not compromise real commitment to one's best beliefs just because one admits their defeasibility or that there will be viable lifeways for which these best beliefs will nonetheless inspire indifference at best.

Or, more to the point, since I feel quite sure you already realize all these things, realize that sometimes the better case to make is to get others to realize these things rather than to persuade them to affirm as true the various specific beliefs one has oneself found one's way to, even for good reasons.

"In large swaths of the world, including the United States, it doesn't seem that way to me."

I think we deeply misunderstand the allure of fundamentalist political formations so long as we fail to grasp just how brutal and catastrophic the project of (racist) post-colonial neoliberal wealth concentration has been, and what it means to hear humanist universalist pieties on the lips of the indifferent hypocritical beneficiaries of corporate-militarist violence.

When Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western civilization he famously quipped that he thought is sounded like a good idea. I have little doubt that the clash of contemporary fundamentalisms will give way to estheticized multiculture and consensus technoscience the moment we really treat the planetary precariat with the dignity, respect, and fairness they deserve as much as everybody else does.

Martin Striz said...

I don't understand this complaint at all. I spent the whole post railing against fundamentalism, and I quite agree with you that fundamentalisms are a deep danger to democracy.

Yes, but my criticism about you not mentioning religious fundamentalism was specifically with regard to your description of "atheist militancy raising a ruckus," and "Science's self-appointed Elite Champions" making "baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion." To the extent that atheists are making that claim, it is generally with regard to religious fundamentalism, but the "religion" that you characterize in the incompatibility-of-science-and-religion conflict is a moderate one.

The Elite Champions of science, in print if not online, are folks like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. Harris is immanently reasonable, and I highly recommend The End of Faith. Dawkins is pretty fair, too. Hitchens writes as much to entertain as to persuade, and has styled himself as a bulldog for promotional reasons, and should be read in that context.

Where I may disagree with you in the post is in my contention that [1] fundamentalism is in essence a political and not an epistemological phenomenon, [2] in my insistence that *both* scientific and religious outlooks are vulnerable to appropriation by fundamentalist mindsets, and [3] in my insistence that for *neither* scientific nor religious outlooks does this vulnerability to fundamentalist appropriation tell us what is *definitive* about the proper work of scientificity or of religiosity.

I agree on the second two points. On the first one, I think that fundamentalism is primarily a psychological phenomenon.

I think many of the religious claims dismissed as unfalsifiable perversions of proper scientific claims may be better described instead as declarations of membership in moral communities, expressions of "we"-intentions, testaments to essentially esthetic attitudes concerning the sublime and so on. To say that what matters most about them is the way they fail to pass muster as scientific claims is often just a matter of massively missing the point.

53% of the American population rejects evolution in any form. A sizable percentage of them want their mythology taught in school. They make claims about metaphysical souls that reside in embryos and then demand public policy regarding research to reflect their views. Again, neither I nor the authors that I cite have any contention with people wanting to join moral or social communities. But the false instrumental claims that they make are real and dangerous.

To attack all religiosity as inevitably irrational seems to me a hopeless cause in a world of billions of believers

*Groan* Again, the attack is mainly on religious fundamentalism, and in the case of Harris, any faith-based belief system. Yes, there are plenty of other fundamentalists, but religious fundamentalists are by far the most numerous, and in any case, they currently yield a lot of power and have a growing number of secularists worried, which is why they are the object of criticism among a growing number of people, in print and online.

And, worse still, it is a pointless, hopeless cause which seems furthermore all too prone to lead its partisans into puritanical crusades against every sphere of reasonable warrant (moral, esthetic, political) that is not immediately reducible to instrumental terms.

That's an interesting claim. I actually think that, to the extent that moral, esthetic and political considerations have real-world outcomes, they are subject to scientific analysis, and can be informed by science. For example, if ethical considerations are contingent on consciousness, then science can tell us what kinds of agents demand our ethical consideration. If morality has anything to do with happiness, then scientific disciplines like positive psychology can help us understand what we ought to do to be happy -- to be moral.

Debates about religious faith, moral membership, esthetic taste are prone to dreadful derangement by those who want always to understand reasonableness from the perspective of just one mode of reasonable belief-ascription.

You always mention ethics, esthetics, and politics, but you never elucidate what exactly those modes of thinking are and why one should subscribe to them. Oh, and by the way, the very claim that "several modes of rationality exist, including instrumental, ethical, esthetic and political" is an instrumental claim requiring evidence. Perhaps your next blog post should be a solid instrumental defense of that claim.

I think that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism.

Have you actually read those books, or do you just enjoy casting aspersions like seeds in the wind?

Just because I know the way to do research in an academic setting doesn't mean I confuse every proper argument for an instrumental one.

Or rather, every academic discipline with any merit uses an evidence-based mode of rationality. You have yet to make the case for any other one.

Don't be so quick to throw up your hands.

Well, a lot of people aren't throwing up their hands. They are agitating on purpose. The "atheistic militancy" that you perceive seems to some secularists like the only way to engage people that you can't reason with.

Kyle Parry said...

I would add to this discussion an interesting pair of claims made in this month's Harper's that majority environmentalism depends on scientific rationalism for its force and intelligibility and that this dependence is fatal to the cause of environmentalism, a movement whose project, he argues, is to counter the "desturction of our own world".

White suggests that whereas environmentalism may have begun with spritual and poetic underpinnings (Emerson and Thoreau), it has over time defaulted to "a lower common denominator -- the languages of science and bureuacracy". White argues that such language as a common denominator is merely an apology for the continuation the current destructive order of things (a consummate Marxist environmentalist position on the status quo, only without the happy historical Communist conclusion!). The dependence on such language does nothing to question the exploitive consumptive practices of core capitalist countries and also reifies human beings as fulfilling only the two unprofound roles of workers and consumers. (He takes this as subconsciously at work in An Incovenient Truth, "an extended apology for scientific rationalism, the free market, and our corrupted democracy").

For White, religion is not and ought not be inimical to the cause of environmentalism, or for that matter any cause. But, crucially, this is not because he is a fundamentalist. He rather seeks to include religion in what he calls a "common language of care". He bases this on the notion that religion is the "principles by which [people] live". Crucially, this understanding of religion foregoes the critique of religion as ungrounded attachment to unevidenced beliefes or unthinking attachment to an institution. Surely, we should not be lured into thinking he is making a descriptive claim, when surely this understanding of religion is extremely prescriptive. After all, surely some people with religion would object to this claim (e.g. religion may mean blind faith alone), and, secondly (something I think is important to note in general), practices by indigenous communities that our default language calls religion may not be called that, or anything like it, by the people engaged in those practices. Indeed, I was told recently that the Yoruba in Nigeria mock colonialist Christians because they are "believers", those whose knowledge is based on outside authority rather than their own experience.

His prescription is for a common language based on reverence for Being, i.e. (drawing from Western philosophy) "the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing". He takes this as a minimally controversial, deeply profound, and potentially widely common reconstitution of the basis of environmentalism. It serves to question destructive capitalist principles which otherwise, to his mind, proliferate subconsciously and nefariously. Presumably, he thinks that such a language will be more infectious than Emerson and Thoreau's poetic and spiritual appeals. Clearly, he thinks it is vastly more important than the arguments of atheist scientific rationalist secularists, as you discuss here.

In my view, these appeals to 'universal soldarity' are extremely powerful and compelling. They come out of extremely thoughtful engagments with the possibility of solidarity across difference. I think of Judith Butler's discussion of our "precarious lives" or Rilke's "oceanic self". These vocabularies, thinking of Rorty in C/I/S, are infectious and do highly egalitarian work in promoting the principle that cruelty is the worst thing we do.

I think we have to question White's outright condemnation of environmentalist appeals that call for work within the prevailing, current political economy. After all, could Gore's film have had the impact it did if it made a point of including more visionary appeals to eventual, necessary changes in the very fabric of the order of things? I still wonder on that. On the same note, I wonder if the Democratic presidential platforms that get created around universal healthcare, which I expect will seek to work within the existing private framework, will include visionary calls for eventual social, government-based guarantees. Tapping my Baby Boomer polls, what people want is a clearly stated policy that accounts for the large percentage private insurance takes up in the GDP.

Anyway, an interesting rhetorical addition to your discussion of priestly science and democracy! Please forgive the verbosity and the inability to link to the article. It will be available on Harper's website next month, I assume.

jfehlinger said...

Dale Carrico wrote:

> Fundamentalism is an anti-democratic political formation derived
> from a moral one. It is **essentially** anti-democratic.

A good opportunity to quote from something I just picked up at
Barnes & Noble.

_The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the
Fate of the Nation_, by Drew Westen, Chapter 15 "Civil and
Uncivil Unions", pp. 399-400:

"Jimmy Carter describes what he considers the key characteristics
of fundamentalist religions everywhere. They are invariably
dominated by authoritarian males who consider themselves first
among equals. They draw a radical distinction between themselves
and everyone else, who are defined, at best, as objects of pity,
and more usually, subhuman objects of scorn. They are angry
and militant, often willing to resort to violence to assert
the dominance of their beliefs, and vew any efforts at cooperation
or negotiation with others as signs of weakness. One of the
ironic features of Christian fundamentalists, who avow their
allegiance to the Prince of Peace, is their antagonism to
any efforts to negotiate or even talk with their enemies,
believing this to signal weakness. Carter summarizes the
central features of fundamentalism with three words:
**rigidity**, **domination**, and **exclusion**."

Also on p. 399:

"Although there are no firm boundaries between the two, the
difference between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians
lies in the extent to which the latter are motivated by fear,
hate, and the 'other-condemning' moral emotions, particularly
disgust, contempt, and loathing. No less of an authority than
Jerry Falwell has described it well: 'A fundamentalist is just
an evangelical who is mad about something.'"

> The proper democratic attitude to take with fundamentalists is to
> insist that their fundamentalism must be democratized. . .

Hm. Do you think drugs in the water supply would do the trick? :-0

> [T]his attitude that fundamentalism must be democratized else it will
> surely undermine the democracy most of us cherish seems to me to be
> precisely the same attitude democratically-minded people should
> take as well with those who would rewrite science in the image
> of authoritarian religiosity.

From Chapter 6, "Trickle-Up Politics", p. 133:

"Why Johnny Can't Run

. . .[W]hy are Democrats so consistently unable to run emotionally
compelling campaigns? . . . The first [reason] is, well, cerebral.
Democrats. . . tend to be intellectual. They like to read and
think. . .

[I]t can be self-destructive politically when alloyed with a belief
in the **moral superiority** of the cerebral at heart, because
moral superiority registers with voters. And, truth be told,
the empirical record linking moral action and intellectual rigor
isn't very strong. While the philosopher Martin Heidegger was
sympathizing with the Nazis, many Germans of far lesser
intellectual means were not. Indeed, the most dangerous kind of
a psychopath is a smart one.

A second reason is a mistaken belief that reason can provide both
means and ends, when it can only provide the former. Despite
philosophers' best efforts to derive morality from reason, no one
has been able to do so successfully, and for good reason: the
fuel that drives our actions, including moral actions, is emotional,
not cognitive. Nothing is more irrational than spending our
lives trying to fend off mortality when no one has ever escaped
that fate. There is nothing rational about wanting the best for
our children, who themselves are mortal and hence have no particularly
good reason for eating the flesh of cows or burning fossil
fuels. . .

[W]e are endowed by God, Darwin, or natural selection with motives
to care about our children and families. To what degree we extend
our concern to ever more inclusive groups -- community, state, nation,
Western people who look enough like us to elicit feelings of
sympathy, all humans, all sentient creatures -- depends on how
high a price we are willing to pay to make them our moral
priorities. And that, in turn, depends on a host of factors -- all of
them emotion-laden -- from our capacity for empathy, to our
moral and religious beliefs, to how much we enjoy a good burger. . .

But I suspect the biggest source of resistance. . . is a **discomfort
with emotions** characteristic of many cerebral Democrats, including
many who make strategic campaign decisions. . .

Psychologists have described and studied people who show a
discomfort with or a disinterest in emotion. . . Of particular interest
is a syndrome known as an obsessional personality style,
characterized by tone deafness to emotion, usually combined with
a preference for viewing emotion as something irrelevant or
bothersome, a hard-driving if not overly conscientious attitude
toward work, and a tendency to focus on details that often
leads the person to lose the forest for the trees. If obsessive
individuals express emotion, it is usually righteous indignation. . .
I have found that obsessive people tend to be perfectionistic;
to see themselves as logical and rational, uninfluenced by emotion,
preferring to operate as if emotions were irrelevant or inconsequential;
to have difficulty acknowledging or expressing anger; to be
controlling; and to be competitive with others. My colleage
Jonathan Shedler has studied a similar phenomenon he calls
"illusory mental health," which describes a kind of person who
**reports** little or no anxiety or distress but often oozes it
from his pores. . .

Such individuals. . . frequently hold values many of us would
consider noble. They are particularly comfortable with policy,
facts, figures, and poll results. They are often exquisitely
sensitive to power dynamics, and may be helpful in coalition
building or in recognizing when someone is gaining or losing
prominence or power. However, they may also require control in
ways that others find overbearing. . ."

Martin Striz wrote:

> What you've described is the "religious moderates" set, which is
> merely a subset of all religious people. You've conveniently neglected
> to mention that religious fundamentalists comprise a significant
> portion of religious people. . . You've conveniently neglected to
> mention that they wield power and influence over public policy. . .
>
> You have mischaracterized the conflict as one between some kind of
> militant scientism and religious moderation, when in fact it is
> between reasoned secularism and religious fundamentalism. . .

Dale replied:

> I spent the whole post railing against fundamentalism, and I quite
> agree with you that fundamentalisms are a deep danger to democracy.
> Where I may disagree with you in the post is in my contention that
> [1] fundamentalism is in essence a political and not an epistemological
> phenomenon, [2] in my insistence that *both* scientific and religious
> outlooks are vulnerable to appropriation by fundamentalist mindsets. . .
>
> To attack all religiosity as inevitably irrational seems to me a
> hopeless cause in a world of billions of believers. . .
>
> [I]t is a pointless as well as hopeless cause, since this kind of sweeping
> condemnation does not look to me even remotely necessary [to] institutionally
> support what is useful and emancipatory in consensus science. . .
>
> [It] seems furthermore all too prone to lead its partisans into
> puritanical crusades against every sphere of reasonable warrant (moral,
> esthetic, political) that is not immediately reducible to instrumental
> terms. . .
>
> It is here that the cultural and sociological kinship between
> fundamentalist scientism and the religious fundamentalisms it would
> slay grows too palpable to ignore, in my view of the matter.

Martin replied:

> I agree. . . that fundamentalism is primarily a psychological phenomenon. . .
>
> The "atheistic militancy" that you perceive seems to some secularists
> like the only way to engage people that you can't reason with.

pp. 398 - 399 of _The Political Brain_:

"[U]nlike fundamentalists, evangelical Christians are not primarily
driven by rage or loathing, and Democrats make a tremendous mistake
when they fail to engage with them. . . [I]f you simply watch the
face of evangelical minister Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest
mega-churches in the country. . . you will see little of the anger,
disgust, pride, and contempt that are the primary emotions expressed
on the faces of Robertson and Falwell. By virtue of who they are
and what they believe, evangelical Christians are readily moved
by compassion.

The Reverend Billy Graham is an evangelical Christian who. . .
infuriated fundamentalist leaders in his response to a question on
homosexuality on the television show _20/20_, which illustrates the
difference between the heart of an evangelical and a fundamentalist:
'I think the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but the
Bible also teaches that pride is a sin, jealousy is a sin, and hate
is a sin, evil thoughts are a sin, and so I don't think homosexuality
should be chosen as the overwhelming sin that we are doing today.'
Elsewhere he added, 'God loves all people whatever their ethnic or
political background or their sexual orientation. . . . Christians
take opposing sides on many issues. . . Those on both sides of
the issue must love each other.

Democrats would. . . do well to appeal to the better angels of the
evangels, by posing a question religious conservatives should ask
themselves every time they feel strongly about a 'values issue'
that has become politicized, whether abortion, homosexuality,
poverty, or welfare: 'Am I feeling mostly love and compassion, or
am I feeling mostly disgust, contempt, or hate?' If the answer
is the latter, their faith is likely being compromised by prejudice
('Whoever is angry with hiis brother will be liable to judgment' --
Matt. 5:22)."

jfehlinger said...

Kyle Parry wrote:

> I was told recently that the Yoruba in Nigeria mock colonialist
> Christians because they are "believers", those whose knowledge is
> based on outside authority rather than their own experience.

Oh not that old canard. Sounds like Ayn Rand (or Nathaniel Branden)
accusing someone of "social metaphysics" (being a "second-hander"
in the noggin).

Of **course** the vast, **vast** majority of **everybody's**
knowledge is based on outside authority rather than their own
experience. (It would be an impoverished world if everybody were
**restricted** to the latter -- we certainly wouldn't
have computers or the World Wide Web, and we'd never be able
to figure out how to work them on our own if we did
have them!)

Does the earth go round the sun? Did dinosaurs once rule the
earth? Did Washington cross the Delaware? Does E=mc^2?
How the hell should **I** know?

My "belief" in all those things is based on outside authority.
Does that mean I'm wrong to believe them? Back in 1970,
when she was still alive, my old granny used to drive me nuts
by insisting that the Apollo moon landing the year before
had been faked. To this day I'm not sure if that's what
she really believed, or if she was doing it just to get my
goat.

When and whether belief in things outside one's own
experience (or interpretations of one's own experience that
one could never have come up with on one's own) is warranted
is a complicated subject. See, oh just off the top of my
head, W. V. O. Quine's _The Web of Belief_, or Susan Haack's
_Defending Science - within Reason: Between Scientism And Cynicism_.
(What, you expected me to explain it on my **own**? :-0 )

Kyle Parry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kyle Parry said...

I'm glad you seized on this. I don't mean to give the wrong impression that I think there is anything wrong with "belief" as in trusting outside authority on matters of knowledge. I am nowhere near contesting that the vast majority of everyone's knowledge is based on 'outside authority'. This fact is wholly necessary, wonderful, and infectious.

Indeed, now that you mention it, I am shying from the very notion of 'outside authority' because it makes it seem as though -- truly, normatively -- there were an inside authority with which one should in fact judge what is known and unknown. It seems to me that, realistically, any claim of knowledge one gives is necessarily given in the terms of an 'outside' discourse whose origins one was neither witness to nor conscious acceptor of.

I guess the point of my bringing this example up was to hammer home that the author of the Harper's article's concept of religion is at least partially normative, although quite powerfully descriptive ("religion is the principles by which one lives"). In the Yoruba example, a _community of people_ (as opposed to a Randian singular individual) who by all appearances practice what 'we' might trust a reasonable anthropologist to call "religion", at the same time -- in their very own discourse with anthrpologists -- mock an alternative "religion" because it is based on the concept of "belief" which is foreign to them.

I think it is an open question who we are to "trust" in this matter. Do you the Yoruba have a religion? Are there seemingly spiritual matters that they engage in which seemingly have an effect on the way they conduct their lives? In a world of appearances, belief is crucial (trusting outside authority), but so is questioning that belief.

So I think we're in agreement? As you say, "When and whether belief in things outside one's own experience (or interpretations of one's own experience that one could never have come up with on one's own) is warranted is a complicated subject". Indeed! To your complicated question I think we should we answer "yes and no".

jfehlinger said...

Kyle Parry wrote:

> [T]he very notion of 'outside authority'. . . makes it seem as though. . .
> there were an inside authority with which one should in fact judge
> what is known and unknown. . . [R]ealistically, any claim of knowledge. . .
> is necessarily given in the terms of an 'outside' discourse whose
> origins one was neither witness to nor conscious acceptor of.

Yes, indeed.

Normal humans are **inseparable** from their social milieux,
most obviously in terms of language (and "discourse") itself.
What do you have left when you subtract the social environment
from the "mere" biological organism that is Homo sapiens?
Somebody horribly handicapped by the standards of normality,
like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, or the more recent tragic case
of "Genie".
http://www.feralchildren.com/en/pager.php?df=leiber

In a sense we're all cells in a superorganism, comprising the
"megatext" (to borrow a lit-crit term) of one's culture.
Despite the skirmishing which currently occupies so much of
our attention (and which could, I suppose -- among other
crises -- wipe us off the face of the planet), the separate
superorganisms are fast blending into a single global one, thanks to
comm tech (printing, radio, TV, Internet, WWW, Google, Wikipedia, the
blogosphere) and English as the de facto lingua franca. The
superorganism is **itself** learning and growing, like a slime mold
exploring its environment. I don't know how far this metaphor
(like that of the "meme") can be pushed before it breaks
down into silliness, but Howard Bloom carries it pretty far in
_The Global Brain_.
http://www.amazon.com/Global-Brain-Evolution-Mass-Century/dp/0471419192

This idea does, of course, have ideological overtones which rub some folks
the wrong way. It sounds rather too "collectivist", for one thing.
It denies (or at least seriously undermines) the notion of an
individual locus of control, an irreducible
core of individuality, a "soul". It seems to be a slander against
the dignity of Man, to evince what Rand would've called "a
malevolent sense of life".

-----------------------------
Norfolk: And will you forfeit all you have -- which includes the
respect of your country -- for a belief?

Sir Thomas More: Because what matters is that I believe it,
or rather, no -- not that I believe it, but that **I** believe it.
I trust I make myself obscure.

Norfolk: Perfectly.
-----------------------------
_A Man For All Seasons_
http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/m/man-for-all-seasons-script.html

There was an amusing interchange last year on the Extropians'
mailing list about how Keith Henson stuck his foot in it with the libertarians
by writing an article, ostensibly about evolutionary psychology
and memetics, in which he suggested that humans not only aren't
(out of stupidity, laziness, immorality, or an unfortunate lack of exposure to
Ayn Rand) but can **never** be in fully-conscious (read: "rational")
control of their lives -- there's no "I" there. He couldn't figure out why his article
elicited such antipathy from the editors of various libertarian
journals to whom he submitted his piece, until a decade
after he wrote it.
http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2006-March/025606.html
"I probably would have offended them less by peeing in the
potted plant at their office." ;->