Friday, October 3, 2008

Another Message to Tim (re: Politics, Religion, and Secularism)


Yep, I was pretty apolitical back when you knew me. I consider myself still apolitical, though a wee bit more informed on the subject of politics.

You’re right that our church nurtured a good amount of our political thinking for us, such as it was.

I don’t think I turned even remotely political until the 1980s, when I was shocked to discover that the progressive liberalization of society I had witnessed up till then was not a natural, unaided progress, that it could in fact be suddenly reversed … and erased.

The “moderate” politics of America appears to be the product of a number of different factors, including the two-party system, cultural distaste for “tension” of any kind, and mass elections’ blunting effects on strongly defined ideology. Tradition, too—the golden mean, etc.

But shifts do occur and extremists sometimes can rise high in the ranks of power—though these generally have to be disguised as moderates. The modern Republican seems like the Democrat of the 1960s to me—and, to some extent, vice versa. And I see no conceivable way that Abraham Lincoln could win either party’s nomination in 2008. Doesn’t smile enough, no jokes in the Gettysburg Address, his wife is nuts, flip-flops on the issue of slavery.

I agree with you (and Foucault) that science, politics, etc., are constrained by the ideologies and values of the ages and cultures in which they exist.

Religion, as well. I see few points of connection, for instance, between certain branches of American evangelicalism today, with their focus on optimism, self-fulfillment, success, the nuclear family, and patriotism (products of capitalism, utilitarianism, and nationalism), and the evangelical faith of, say, John Bunyan in the 17th century. So even a reasonably consistent set of doctrines, traditions, and rituals can be massaged to fit today’s models of mass communications and consumer culture—just as Bunyan's faith was shaped by his century's ideas about individualism, relative indifference to suffering and death, social hierarchies, and the personality-shaping powers of phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile.

Secular science is not pure, obviously. I worked for a few years as a science/medical writer/editor (slash/slash) and was somewhat appalled to find that corporate-funded science was dominated by concerns over proprietary rights to the extent that it was believed that "facts" could be owned. So that in one case a pharma company discovered through research that one of its products had less than a beneficial effect and chose not to publish that finding—thus denying the larger scientific community of useful, perhaps critical, information. Pure science in the Enlightenment was imagined to be unownable, but not so in an "ownership society," like ours.

I reject, though, the idea that secularism is a sort of religion, just as I would reject a claim that atheism is a form of belief in God. Secularism means outside religion. So either secularism simply does not exist at all, so we have no tension here whatsoever, or the word has no meaning—in which case, also, there is nothing really to say about it. (Similarly, if religion is to mean EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS, it too becomes meaningless.)

But if it has meaning, whether one likes it or not, and whether one subscribes to it or not, it means "not religious."

I accept that driving a car to work or eating a ham sandwich or shampooing the dog can all be imbued with religious or spiritual significance—but I think that that significance has to be applied from outside the actions themselves. In themselves, they are secular—with no intrinsic religious importance. They are also apolitical, with no intrinsic political importance, though, again, such importance can be imputed to them, if one so desires.

I don't think all values are religious by nature. My appreciation of beauty, for instance, is a matter of values—and though I love a great deal of religious art and music—and sense the "transcendent" in beautiful things—my sense of their beauty does not have to be grounded in doctrine, ritual, or creed.

Likewise my sense of justice, or duty, or compassion, or purpose.

I have every confidence that an atheist can be a person of high moral values, and a priest can be a person of low values, and vice versa. Religion (doctrine, creed, ritual) does not effect even a uniform sense of values—I know Christians who are appalled by the values of other Christians.

A common sense of decency is not religious, nor is it the prerogative of religion to differentiate between good and bad, right and wrong. Religion, like politics, science, and education, can partake in decency—but not own it. I've known quite a few people who were no less scoundrels for being deeply, sincerely religious. The ancient Greeks had little difficulty separating their social sense of right and wrong from the irrational and immoral doings of their gods and goddesses.

But you're right (or at any rate I agree with you) that we ground our beliefs and disbeliefs in narrative and ideology—and, as Foucault suggests, these come to us through our culture, our historical epoch, maybe especially our language and the other forms that knowingness assumes.

I do not equate organized religion with irrationality and intolerance. Or try not to. And a secularist can be irrational and intolerant.

My point is only that religion does not have dibs on a sense of purpose or the narrative arc one perceives in his or her life—or on deep feeling and a sense of transcendence—so I disagree with Barack Obama when he identifies religion with “the moral underpinnings of our nation.”

I think the nation’s values derive from the Enlightenment—liberty, equality, fraternity—and unalienable human rights—and basic to those values is an acceptance of the plurality of other values and beliefs held by Americans and an accommodation of the resulting tensions, as conflicts of interest thus inevitably arise.

As for me, I have hardly any grasp on the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe, and am pretty sure I don’t need one. And, if I had it (as I once thought I did), I’m still not convinced that it would significantly weigh in on how I drive my car too carelessly, eat a sandwich too fast, or wash my dog too seldom.


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