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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Many of the Faithful Are Really Just Aesthetes

Upgraded and adapted from Comments:

In my last post I proposed "that scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes of belief-ascription are all warranted as reasonable according to different criteria, [and] that these are not reducible to one another in their proper work, their proper forms, their practices, [or] their histories. But since I do believe one can warrant one's beliefs in any of these modes with good reasons it isn't really right to say that I am a relativist in the sense Americans tend to mean [by that charge.]" This is a proposal I have expanded on in many places, but especially here.

My friend (and Friend of Blog!) Robin responded with the following question:
What would you say to someone who puts "religious" just as comfortably in your list that includes "scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political"?

(This isn't a challenge, by the way. I'm just genuinely curious!)

When people start making religious claims that might otherwise sound questionable to a longstanding atheist, secularist, and appalling voluptuary like me I find that if I adjust my Universal Translator a bit and hear them making aesthetic claims ("I am following my bliss"), or moral claims ("I try to be a decent person according the norms of my community") instead of making troubling onto-theological claims in the philosophical sense, I have discovered to my delight that the overabundant majority of religious discourse becomes pretty unobjectionable even to crusty atheistical ears like mine.

Not only that, but I have found that I can carry on quite sustained and detailed conversations with people who locate their religiosity pretty close to the center of their selfhood in ways that seem completely mutually respectful and intelligible so long as I keep these mental translations to myself. That makes me think these translations are probably capturing the substance of what is really at stake in much of the discourse that passes for "religious."

From all this I conclude that

(1) my sense that the United States is pretty much a secular country despite the megaphone organized religion has got is still perfectly sensible,

(2) my Deweyan faith that Americans, like everybody else, are critical enough to sustain democratic institutions and intelligent enough to collectively solve shared problems is still perfectly sensible,

(3) my belief that most people really are mostly right about most things most of the time isn't ruled out by some prevalence of rampant irrationalism after all, and that

(4) too many of the new "militant atheists," so-called, are mistaking as terrifying irrationality what is often little more than a rather glib usage of superficially theological vocabularies to express aesthetic and moral beliefs, and this mistake of theirs makes these militants feel more alienated, scared, and desperate about the state of the world than they need be, attesting to what I have long suspected has as much of a reductionist failure of imagination and an anti-democratizing failure of nerve in it as it has good sense.

All that said, when a fundamentalist champions patriarchy, when an evangelical jackhole champions genocide or theocracy, when a Robot Cultist muddies the distinction between policy discourse and flim-flam artistry and fraud, when people uncritically substitute the dictates of priestly authorities (religious or otherwise) for critical engagement, well, you can be sure I do call them on it for dangerous nonsense.

In answer to your specific question, then, I don't finally think "religious" is properly added to my list of modes of warranted belief, but mostly because the bits of religiosity that do seem to me to be warrantable are already subsumed under the aesthetic and moral categories.

If it hurts the feelings of an otherwise unobjectionably religious person to put that point so baldly, I'll just do the mental translation in my head and go ahead with dinner.

Does that answer your question? I didn't take it as a hostile provocation or challenge at all! I like answering this question. I tend to think my approach on this subject could be much more widely applied to good result.


Robin said...

This was a wonderful answer! I often think that the UNobjectionable religious claims are often moral more than anything (just, unfortunately, divinely commanded), so I was curious where it fit into your list.

I do wish I had your optimism about the rationality of the country these days, though. My violin instructor teaches at 2 Christian universities here (one is evangelical) and even though she herself is a Christian, she is knocked on her ass by, as she puts it, "the overwhelming meanness" of these people.

I like how you added aesthetic in there, though - I don't think I had ever thought of religious belief in that way (which is just my guilt-ridden Catholic upbringing rising to the surface, I think). It's a really inspiring image :) Thanks for that!

Dale Carrico said...

Another ex-Catholic, eh? You'll be amused to hear that not only do I tend to aestheticize a lot of what religious people tell me about the significance to them of their faith or spiritual practices, but I analogize it to periods in my life when I was getting exotically intoxicated on who knows what and getting screwed in pervy ways by strangers in public places and so on -- that is to say, when I think of prayer meetings and church going and meditation and New Age affirmations and the rest as the sort of interpersonal exploration and experimentation one often toys with, learns from, and moves on from it seems broadly legible to me, a bit kinky and silly, but, you know, legible.

Dale Carrico said...

As for fundy meanness -- this arises from too much sequestration in my view. Progressive taxation of income and property and the circumvention of money politics will re-weave these communities back into the fabric of multiculture, as they will need to build diverse coalitions to get what they truly most want done like everybody else, rather than living in privatized walled enclaves and doing politics via backroom payments to cronies.

Robin said...

Interesting! I remember sitting around with my own drunken pervy circle of friends when I was 16, discussing something just like this! I recall mentioning offhand that I was actually thankful to have been raised Catholic, and not just for the saucy plaid skirts, but because it was exactly that - something I toyed with, learned from, and moved on from. I still look at that day as the day I realized that I was glad to have gotten it out of the way early (the religion part!) because it gave me a foundation and incentive to bother actually caring about truth and utility. The conversation stuck with me all these years because no one else had considered religion this way and it sparked a nice discussion. Fascinating to think of the context of the discussion itself one level removed as part of its own religious sort of exploration.

This has got my wheels turning. Thanks, Dale!