Monday, September 06, 2010

Baseball and religion

I have a lot of the same feelings about professional baseball (and professional sports in general) as I do about religion.

I think both professional baseball and religion are a colossal waste of time. The labor and resources we dedicate to both would be far better spent doing something else. I have no sympathy in the literal sense for baseball fans and religious congregationalists: not only do I not enjoy them, I cannot imagine enjoying sitting in a baseball stadium or a church. I find the social prestige and economic privilege we afford baseball players, managers, owners, and commentators, as well as priests, bishops, popes, and theologians, to be completely unwarranted.

Fundamentally, I think both baseball and religion are just silly: it's ridiculous to pay good money to watch a bunch of grown men in silly clothes throwing a ball around or watch a grown man (or, more rarely, a woman) in a silly hat drone on about his imaginary friend and his fanboy crush on a bunch of iron-age goat herders.

On the other hand, I think it's silly, but so what? I can certainly sympathize at a more abstract level with doing what you enjoy, whatever that might happen to be. If you enjoy something I don't , well, it's your money, spend it as you please. And every individual in a democracy has as much of a right to the public purse as any other. I'll vote against a penny in sales tax to build a baseball stadium, but once the vote's taken and I've lost, I'll pay the penny with a good will: everyone has to pay for some things we don't want, that's just life in the big city. If you enjoy baseball, or if you enjoy religion, it doesn't matter whether or not I can sympathize with you: it's a free country, do what you like; you don't have to answer to me.

Of course, along with these real and relevant similarities, there are some enormous differences. Baseball fans don't care that not everyone is a baseball fan, and they don't get all butthurt when I say out loud that I think baseball is silly. And when I say that I think baseball is silly, they don't demand that I learn the infield fly rule or the complex strategy of relief pitching. They don't get apoplectic because I don't just as vociferously indicate my dislike of football, cricket or professional bowling.

When baseball players happen to molest children, the baseball community doesn't close ranks to protect them. They don't say that only those who love baseball are good and moral people, and those who dislike baseball are unfit to be citizens. They don't organize political campaigns to take civil rights away from a class of citizens. A baseball player can't use his skill in baseball to justify violence against his wife or girlfriend. While prominent people in baseball do have social prestige, nobody says that being able to hit a tiny little ball moving at 100 MPH gives one a special insight into ethics, sexuality or law.

And they don't blow up or assassinate football fans.

The critical difference is that baseball doesn't make any special truth claims, so they don't have any special truth claims to defend against scientific or rational inquiry. They don't have to lie, they don't have to bullshit, They don't have to erect an edifice of doublethink. They just say "We like watching grown men throw a ball around; what's it to you?"

And that, of course, is why I spend a lot of time talking about religion, and no time at all talking about baseball. If the position of the religious were just that they enjoy getting together on Sunday morning and talking about their invisible friend, I'd give religion no more attention than I do baseball: it's not my cup of tea, but to each his own.

But of course that's not the case.

The major themes of this blog are atheism and religion, communism and economics, the philosophy of science, and meta-ethical philosophy. They're all related: everything about this blog is about what is a matter of truth and what is a matter of opinion, and how we determine — about matters of truth — what is actually true.

Anyone who has read even a little philosophy knows that philosophers no less than theologians have been trying for thousands of years to find a way to determine what is actually true about ethics, the truth about what is good. And what I've discovered, both from thinking as clearly as I can about the subject as well as observing the staggering, monumental failure of philosophers and theologians to offer a reasonable methodology for determining the actual truth about what is good, is that the good is a simply a matter of opinion.

That the good is a matter of opinion doesn't disturb me personally in the least, but it's apparently a very bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow. We would really like to believe that it's true genocide, slavery, racism, murder, rape, theft, misogyny, bigotry, oppression, exploitation are objectively bad. But they're not. The best we can say is that people predominantly have the opinion that these activities are objectionable, and so we deprecate them socially, sometimes violently. We simply have to come to terms that our society is an evolving set of opinions; that our social development is not a "progression" in discovering the One True Set of Ethics. In just the same sense, DNA is just an evolving set of genetic information; it's not a progression of discovering the One True Organism or Species.

Sometimes we can allow conflicting opinions (like about the value of baseball) but sometimes we can't. Just because the status of women is a matter of opinion doesn't mean we must allow men whose opinion is that women are inferior free rein to oppress and exploit their wives and daughters. Learning all the different political ways to effectively reconcile conflicting opinions requires as much careful, patient intellectual work as does puzzling out all the different scientific ways to understand the physical universe.

But to even begin this task, we have to be on the right track. It took us five or six thousand years from the invention of writing to figuring out the right track for understanding the physical world: the scientific method. Once we found the right track, our scientific knowledge started increasing exponentially: indeed, this exponential increase is how we know we found the right track. But getting on the right track means getting off the wrong track. And even in science, people violently resisted getting off the wrong track. Power and privilege is a part of it: if some persistent delusion or myth affords someone power, privilege, luxury and ease, they're not going to blithely abandon that delusion.

But it's also a matter of identity: we are what we value. When we seek to change not just someone's values but the very foundation of those values, we're reaching into the very heart of their psyche. We are, in effect, almost "killing" one person and replacing them with another. Indeed many religious people conceptualize their conversion — and many atheists conceptualize their deconversion — as being reborn: they have changed the foundation of their values: they see themselves as a new person. It's tough, it's fraught with peril, but change — even the deepest metaphysical change — is inevitable.


  1. The critical difference is that baseball doesn't make any special truth claims, so they don't have any special truth claims to defend against scientific or rational inquiry.

    Dude, you have obviously never asked a Yankee fan who was better, Maris or Mantle.

  2. Dude, you have obviously never asked a Yankee fan who was better, Maris or Mantle.

    It might be stupid, but that's not a special truth claim: its resolution doesn't depend on divine revelation.

  3. It might be stupid, but that's not a special truth claim: its resolution doesn't depend on divine revelation.

    Dude, like I said, you've obviously never asked a Yankee fan this question.

  4. I bow to your superior experience. I must amend my position: that baseball fans typically don't seem to make any special truth claims relevant to non-fans. Nobody ever said — at least not to me — that God himself ordained that we must watch baseball.

  5. I'll grant you that. While Yankee fans and Red Sock fans may hate other worse than Shi'ites and Sun'nis, there is no concern with infidels.

  6. ... Yankee fans and Red Sock fans may hate other worse than Shi'ites and Sun'nis...

    Let me know when Yankees fans start planting bombs in Red Sox bars.


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