Sunday, May 18, 2014

Refined, non-literal religion

In The Case for ‘Soft Atheism’, philosopher Gary Gutting interviews fellow philosopher and atheist, Philip Kitcher. Kitcher gives a pretty good account of atheism. His response to Gutting's pressure on why he denies the transcendental is not as good as I would like; it's a better argument, I think, to dismiss transcendentalism as incoherent, rather than as simply unevidenced.

Kitcher's account, however, of "refined religion" is terrible. According to Kitcher, New Atheist critiques of religion "have been rightly criticized for treating all religions as if they were collections of doctrines, to be understood in quite literal ways." Kitcher describes a kind of religion that escapes the New Atheist critiques. I cannot improve on Kitcher's succinct description, so I will quote it at length:
Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.

Here's the problem: where do these "most enduring values" come from? How do we know what they are? Are love, tolerance, peace, liberty, cooperation, and happiness are the most enduring values? Perhaps these most enduring values are submission to authority, oppression of the heretic, denial of pleasure, and glorification of others' and our own suffering? Maybe pure hedonism is the most enduring value; perhaps it is absolute individual selfishness, untainted by sentimentality and the slightest concern for others?

According to Kitcher, the refined religious"
see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. . . .

I see refined religion as a halfway house. In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

I think Kitcher is oversimplifying the New Atheist critique of religion. First, there are billions of people who take their doctrines literally. Because these people create enormous social problems, we tend to focus on them. We don't talk much about "refined religion" for two reasons: there are relatively few of them, and those few don't create as many social and political problems per capita. They're not a big part of the problem, and as people trying to address a serious, substantial problem, we want to focus most of our attention on, you know, the actual problem. It is not that we believe that all religious people are doctrinaire literalists. It's that there are a metric assload of religious people who are doctrinaire literalists, and they're a big problem.

But we do understand "refined religion," and we do talk about it. I've been talking about it for at least ten years. The problem with "refined religion" is first that it's not "refined" in any meaningful sense of the word. Refined means being distilled or purified to the essence, and "refined" religion is the opposite: it's doctrinaire literalism watered down with compromise and equivocation. Religious people should be doctrinaire literalists in the same sense that soldiers should be doctrinaire literalists about their orders and that policemen and judges should be doctrinaire literalists about the law. The law is not a collection of "apt metaphors or parables for informing our understand of" social behavior. The law means exactly what it literally says, no more, no less; the only reason that judges ever have to do any substantive interpretation of the law itself is that human beings (not being gods) are lousy at writing laws. "Refined religion" commits the same sin that the Supreme Court (supposedly) committed in Lochner v. New York: reading its own policy preferences into the Constitution. Either scripture is authoritative or it is not; if it is authoritative, then it means what it says; if it is not authoritative, if it is metaphor and parable, then how are you religious?

But the New Atheists' criticism of religion is not that religious people are doctrinaire literalists. Doctrinaire literalism is just the most virulent (and stupidest) manifestation of a deeper, more fundamental problem. The problem is the assertion of revealed moral authority. The problem is not that religious people devote themselves to their deepest values; the problem is that religious people — all religious people, because this is what it means to be religious — take their deepest values to be "transcendent," beyond our "mundane thoughts or . . . our most advanced scientific descriptions." It doesn't matter whether you take these transcendent values literally out of the Bible (or Torah, or Koran, or Veddas, or whatever), or whether you make them up on the spot. Indeed, those who take these values literally from scripture have a much stronger claim to authority than those who make up their own "transcendent" values. The error of the doctrinaire literalists and that of the "refined" is exactly the same: taking one's personal preferences as objective truth. There's nothing wrong with personal preferences per se; our society and culture is nothing more than the millennial negotiation and social construction of personal preferences. To an atheist, what else could it be? But when a person takes his personal preferences to be revealed truth, God's truth, whether those truths are pulled out of a book or out of his ass, he is assuming an authority he has no right to claim.

I have to compare the criticism of religion to the criticism of racism, in a particular sense. (I do not mean to say that being religious is the same as being racist.) A lot of people who criticize racism naturally focus on the really dramatic instances: the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the grossly disproportionate incarceration rates of black people, the grossly disproportionate rates of black poverty, racial profiling, not to mention three hundred years of slavery, rape, lynching, cross-burning, overt discrimination, ad nauseam. To argue that this criticism somehow is itself "rightly criticized" because it ignores all those white people who don't go around actively lynching black people is the height of obtuse stupidity; indeed it is simply apologetics for white racism. Even those "refined" racists, those who believe that of course lynching is terribly wrong, but still think that black people are inferior and need the guidance, benevolence and (sadly, sometimes firm) correction of the superior white race are still racists. They are still holding the fundamental error of the most virulent lynch-every-fourteen-year-ool-who-talks-to-a-white-woman (oops, I mean Emmett Till racist: that black people are inferior to white people. The "refined" racists cannot attack the virulent racists on the one tenet that would completely, instantly undermine their position: the supposed inferiority of black people. And as long as this one tenet remains, the virulent racists will not fade away.

Again, I don't want to say that religion is like racism. The comparison is on one point and one point only: the fundamental principles of both are wrong. The "refined" must protect the foundational tenet of the virulent, the fanatic. And, like racism, as long as the foundational tenet remains, religious fanatics will also remain.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Crisis of capitalism

Thomas Rodham Wells has a decent essay, The Crisis of Capitalism: Income in the Post-Employment Age. As more and more jobs are replaced by automation, labor is losing its traditional claim (i.e. productivity) on the goods and services produced by an economy increasingly dominated by capital. The crux of the biscuit is Wells' claim, "Most modern economists view the economy not as a moral drama in which it makes sense to talk of good and evil or right and wrong, but rather a complex machine that can produce more or less of what we value depending on how it is set up and maintained." Wells, however, is not exactly correct. Most modern economists try to disguise a view of good and evil with seemingly objective, descriptive language. The notions of good and evil are still there, and still strong. Although it's a nontrivial task, the key to a better society is not really figuring out how to operate under conditions of abundance that renders markets irrelevant. They key is removing our deep emotional reliance on Veblen's "invidious distinctions." I think that in their heart of hearts, people would rather lock up or even entirely forego abundance rather than allow evil people — the lazy, the nonconforming, the iconoclastic, the insufficiently grateful — to prosper. The erasure of invidious distinctions shocks our sense of justice; erasure shocks us so deeply that it will require a truly revolutionary transformation, not of "society" but of individuals' minds, to build a society where abundance is not a curse but a blessing.

The evidence is all over the place. In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes the strong case that the truly fundamental character of conservatism is opposition to (true) democracy, opposition to the idea that people can and should actually rule themselves. (Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to the idea that the people can exercise the right to choose between which of the privileged ruling has official power du jour, but even that limited power slips the camel's nose a little too far into the tent for comfort.) In Failure of a Revolution, Sebastian Haffner documents the the people's revolution in Germany immediately after the First Imperialist War; the revolution was betrayed (to those who would become the Nazis) by its own socialist leaders, leaders who found the revolution far too democratic for comfort, and found fascism preferable to democracy. I was once turned down for a job because I explicitly stated at the interview that I would not take a drug test; even though the company did not use drug tests, the idea that I would not categorically submit myself to the power of management was offensive and subversive. In one of the best episodes of Community (and the best episode of its fifth and sob! final season), a trivial mobile app leads to the immediate and total stratification of the college into castes.* The corporal will submit to the entire military hierarchy for the sake of exerting power over his squad.

*The explanatory value of a work of fiction is not, of course, factual, but in its emotional resonance.

The capitalist class did not create this deep desire to create invidious distinctions, to separate people into good and evil, more precisely, superior and inferior, as a matter not of power but of justice. Although capitalism is its own thing, it is still a human institution, and shares characteristics of other human institutions. Invidious distinctions go back to the first human societies after hunter-gatherers, and it's possible (although we know little of actual early societies) that even our long history as hunter-gatherers was characterized by the struggle between equality and inequality. I don't know who said it (Orwell?), but it really is true: to get socialism, we need better people, but to get better people, we need socialism. Of course, "better" is itself a value judgment; I am not myself prepared to say that people more adapted to socialism are "better" than those adapted to capitalism. I will, however, say that I think people more adapted to socialism will be happier than those adapted to capitalism.