Friday, August 24, 2007

Ebert on religion

From Roger Ebert's review of September Dawn (zero stars):
In my opinion, when anybody believes their religion gives them the right to kill other people, they are fanatics. Aren't there enough secular reasons for war? But there is no shortage of such religions, or such people. The innocent, open-faced Christians on the wagon train were able to consider settling California, after all, because their some of their co-religionists participated in or benefitted from the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

Were there fanatics among those who ran the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition or the Crusades? Or the Holocaust? No shortage of them. Organized religion has been used to justify most of the organized killing in our human history. It's an inescapable fact, especially if you consider the Nazis and communists as cults led by secular gods. When your god inspires you to murder someone who worships god in a different way or under another name, you're barking up the wrong god.

The vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don't want to kill anybody. They want to love and care for their families, find decent work that sustains life and comfort, live in peace and get along with their neighbors. It is a deviant streak in some humans, I suspect, that drives them toward self-righteous violence, and uses religion as a convenient alibi.

That is true, wouldn't you agree, about Mormons, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on? No, not all of you would agree, because every time I let slip the opinion that most Muslims are peaceful and nonviolent, for example, I receive the most extraordinary hate mail from those assuring me they are not. And in a Muslim land, let a newspaper express the opinion that most Christians and Jews are peaceful and nonviolent, and that newspaper office is likely to be burned down. The worst among us speak for the best.
I might quibble with Ebert's wording ("secular gods" requires a metaphorical interpretation; "non-theistic religion" might be more literally accurate but rhetorically clumsy) but I agree with his sentiments.

One key idea from this passage is that "The vast majority of the members of all religions... don't want to kill anybody." I agree. But... and it's a big but: The vast majority, those who don't want to kill, tolerate and support the extremists who do want to kill. The critical idea here is ethical authoritarianism.

There are (at least) three separate concepts that get conflated under the catch-all of "religion": faith, theism, and ethical authoritarianism. Faith is the belief in the truth of unfalsifiable (and therefore not truth-apt) propositions. Theism is, of course, belief in the actual existence of a personal God. Ethical authoritarianism is the ceding of ethical judgments to some human authority. These concepts are intertwined: both theism and ethical authoritarianism require faith, and those who assert ethical authority often (but not always) do so on the basis that they are speaking for God.

One interesting case study of faith and at least weak theism is the Religious Society of Friends, popularly known as Quakers. I was fortunate to be associated with the Quakers for many years, from my childhood to my early twenties, a critical period in the formation of my ethical beliefs.

The Quakers absolutely reject religious authoritarianism: God speaks, in their view, exclusively to each individual's conscience. It's right in their doctrine:
With a book and a steeple, with a bell and a key,
You would bind it forever, but you can't, said he,
For the book it will perish, and the steeple will fall,
But the light will be shining at the end of it all

-- The Ballad of George Fox
The only real article of actual faith the Quakers have is that certain elements of conscience really are universal: Everyone "deep down" really does have love for all his fellow humans; some people are simply confused or damaged. They make up for this faith, though, in completely rejecting coercion:
If we give you a pistol will you fight for the Lord,
No, you can't kill the devil with a gun or a sword
They may judge you, they may shame you, but the Quakers will not coerce you.

Their theism is very weak, and exists really to explain the universality of conscience. However, they're pretty flexible on this point: So long as you have the expected elements of conscience, they're not going to get hung up on your theological interpretation.

I'm not a Quaker any more because I don't share their faith in the universality of conscience and the concomitant complete rejection of coercion, but, as an atheist anarchist and humanist, I'm still pretty darn close. And the Quakers are one of the very few religious groups I'm unreservedly happy to have in the world.

Contrawise, we can see faith and ethical authoritarianism without theism: The "secular gods" of Nazism and Soviet Communism, who ceded ethical authority to the Führer and the Party. It was not that the Führer or the Party had some sort of "expertise" to determine good; something was, rather, good by virtue of being asserted by the Führer or the Party. (The Communists tried to two-step around this authoritarianism, but the vacuity of their denialism is as transparent as that of the Catholic Church.)

I do think that Ebert makes a mistake—or at least doesn't go far enough—in excusing the vast majority of the religious. His own mistake is excusable: He's a movie critic (and, in my not-so-humble opinion, a darn good one), not a philosopher. I think he's right in concluding that the religious majority doesn't want to kill, but because they have ceded their personal ethical authority, tolerate the fanatics who justify their actions by that same authority. Furthermore the majority have absorbed some abhorrent cultural practices—notably the Islamic subjugation and oppression of women—by virtue of that authority. Undermine the authority and, as we've seen in the West, the implacability of that subjugation eases enough that it can be effectively resisted. It is wrong to demonize the religious majority, but it is equally wrong to hold them blameless.

It is only the religious extremists on the other end, those such as the Quakers whose faith completely undermines authoritarianism, that can be held blameless.

Anyone who asserts some authority to determine good, however acceptable we find the details of their ethics, is missing the point. What is good ought to be good by virtue of real people believing it to be good, not because the good is privileged by some God, prophet or scripture, be it Jesus or Ayn Rand, the Bible or Das Kapital. Authoritarianism, however benign the details, make two fundamental mistakes.

What is good today will be bad tomorrow. There are interesting arguments that Christianity, Islam, Communism—even Libertarianism—were reactions to the evils of their day, and better in comparison. But times change, and all reforms cause their own problems which must be corrected. By trying to establish good by authority, though, the reforms of today become the oppressive dogmas of tomorrow. Stripped of his mysticism, Hegel had a good point: The cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is a fair description how our politics work. The mistake is to think we can somehow escape this cycle, that this cycle somehow leads to perfection in finite time. The mistake is to think that there is some grand synthesis, which does not itself become a thesis generating an antithesis.

Authority, however benign its rule, is itself dangerous because of Diderot's trap:
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.

Michael Shermer argues that we should temper our criticism of religion presumably to avoid offending the religious majority which Ebert accurately describes as not themselves wanting fanaticism. I disagree, but not because I have a different opinion about what the majority wants, but because I think our criticism of religion must be harsh so long as the religious majority cedes their ethical authority to their scripture and clergy. To soft-pedal our criticism is to cede the battle over authority before it is even engaged.

If the religious majority does not wish to be associated with the fanatics, they must denounce not only the fanatics, but also the authority of scripture and clergy by which they justify their fanaticism.


  1. You are truly great, my love. Ebert's inarticulate prose pales next to your ardent defence of the truth. Usually, one sees a quotation from a source far superior to a blog author, who then pays homage and humbly retires, not wishing to spoil the moment by adding badly expressed commentary of his own.

    It's the reverse with you.

  2. A profound post. What worries me is that when the chips are down 'moderate' believers will nearly always side with the 'well-meaning but misguided' extremists of their own faith rather than with those 'wicked godless atheists' [us]

  3. viz. and to wit: the widespread cheering in the Muslim world after 9/11.


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