19 October 2014

A complaint about secular strategy

I have a number of complaints about Reza, but this seems to me an essential point that both secularists AND religious apologists often miss. 

"...that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion."

People in effect are picking and choosing values to fit their experience and preferences. This at least has long been my experience in talking with religious persons and observing their behavior. Religion influences those values around the margin from there and can certainly impact the values that children might start with as "priors" that they can either accept or abandon throughout their lives. But its primary influence is to reinforce what people already want to think and believe. Whether that is charitable or hateful in its orientation toward other people.

If "we" spend a lot of time arguing over the text, we may be hitting something that some people are "clinging to" as a basis for their beliefs, but it isn't necessarily where those beliefs came from. Nor something most practicing religious people take seriously. One should always be keeping in mind most people who are religious do not read their canonical texts regularly or completely with an eye toward the contradiction rather than seeking verification and affirmation, much less study theology. This has the effect of making arguments over the text relatively pointless and the influence of religious dogma on their behavior and existing beliefs relatively small. Sometimes those logical "gotcha's" will amount to something. Most of the time they will not relate to the experience of religious persons, or religious persons can explain away such complaints as the beliefs of "other people" (a common problem when dealing with the metaphysics of their deity of choice).

This doesn't explain away the societal problems of religious interpretation, particularly religious literalism and fundamentalist mindsets (not necessarily the same). All of these have potentially harmful effects, and all of them are much larger in impact than I think Reza or other theological scholars tend to be aware of. For instance the large volumes of people in the United States who express belief in a "personal god" or in young earth creationism suggest a large body of the public that either prefers literal canon or wishes to be seen expressing support for literal canon, as they imagine it, rather than expressing skepticism over the validity of metaphor upon actual human and global history and the accumulated knowledge of the physical sciences as tools for investigating those processes. That is still a serious setback to contend with as a society. It is not insurmountable, but it is significant.

But it does suggest that many of the approaches of argumentation designed to marginalize such people who do practice a "literal interpretation" are potentially ineffective. Such arguments can casually lump together in the attempt to divide away "moderate" co-religionists and can backfire by sloppily describing "all Christians" or "all Muslims" in broad strokes, with the caveat attempted, or excluded depending on which religion and which commentary, that "only these kinds of people are true X". The no true Scotsman argument never works but it is especially flawed if the attempt to use it is to say "these other people I am describing and am not a part of can be sub-divided like this". Given the volume of contradiction and interpretations required to make religions still have value and meaning in the modern environment, we should expect that arguments over "religious" or theological validity as applied to the general religious public are functionally useless. People will be able to easily evade such arguments internally without making fundamental shifts in their worldview that distinguish or even touch upon any doubts in their faith claims and associated dogma and purported wisdom.

A central point to respond to instead is not arguments over what makes a "good" or "moderate" religious practice, but rather how much bigotry and hostility to "other" (be they non-co-religionists, women, homosexuals, atheists, etc) a population of people already has, already prefers in their personal lives, and which their choice of religious practices can serve to amplify and accelerate in its effectiveness. The main upshot of such thinking is that it provides a more functional mission to secularists. Dismantling religion, and the religious beliefs, faiths, and practices of billions of human beings is an impossible, daunting and perhaps fruitless task. Dismantling and reducing the impact of racism, of religious strife and exclusion, of sexism or misogyny, are likewise difficult Sisyphean tasks, but they are tasks for which there is demonstrable progress and for which religions themselves can be contorted to become useful allies in those causes. As examples, those religious entities which opposed slavery or supported the causes of civil rights or which oppose the prosecution of US immigration law upon otherwise innocent, hardworking and decent individuals. These are also much more practical goals than arguments over metaphysics and dense treatises on canonical laws. Where they arrive at obstacles from canonical law or metaphysics, the religions themselves can become isolated through obstinate, dogmatic resistance to change (see: the volume of people fleeing from the Catholic church, or from Southern Baptist communities), and this then serves the associated goal of decreasing social reliance upon religion in the formation of public law (I have less interest in the association of private beliefs upon personal behavior so long as it doesn't violate the law or compel legal environments upon all people that do not have some Kantian or utilitarian logic behind them, your mileage may vary). The religions that have endured for hundreds or thousands of years have done so because they are flexible and adaptable, much as any other social institution can do. They can be slower to adapt and may have been dragged kicking and screaming to a change. But change they will if they must to survive and flourish.

As a secondary point, I would draw attention to the distinctions between ISIS and Hamas being made later in the interview. One of the major points which leads to the effectiveness of many terrorist groups is the ability of those groups to service the demands of the public they control (sometimes through fear and violence rather than ideological coherence). Those demands and grievances are real and they are often legitimate demands and problems even under a liberal Western convention of human rights and needs (jobs, education, medicine, food for example). Much of what people saw in the "Arab Spring" as a "yearning for democracy" was more a recognition by broad and otherwise non-unified bodies of the public in those countries demanding basic things like jobs, or food, or better public services. We might recognize those things as effects of a democratic society, or think of them in those terms, but in practice, so long as those needs are met, people may otherwise put up with quite tyrannical states. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or much of Iran works in this way where Egypt could not, and we accordingly see less internal strife in those countries than we do in Jordan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Turkey, etc. If a group emerges promoting itself as capable of instituting reforms that will provide those basic needs and it appears well-organised or has a track record of provision of some of those reforms for its members and allies, whether that group has terrorist affiliations or not, it will be able to assume some level of power and authority in any government that is subsequently re-organised. The reason we have seen less cohesion in Libya or Syria than was initially the case in Egypt (under the Muslim Brotherhood) is that there are fewer organisations that have such track records, and greater internal factionalism. The reason those groups like Hamas attract some level of popular support isn't necessarily that people approve of their violence or even oppressive social goals (they quite often are repelled by it, though not nearly enough), but that they have proven somewhat effective at managing basic survival and economic needs. This is not a feature of "Islamism". It is a feature of virtually any insurgent group which deems itself as providing a front against an oppressor. Religion becomes a weapon in that war, a selected belief and set of practices, and the selection of harsh and oppressive forms of religious practice has its own purposes in providing internal cohesion or the appearance of purpose to potential members. But it isn't necessarily the agent behind the war.

There are agents globally for whom that is true, that religion is a principal motivation for which they are committed to violent action. But most people are fighting or agitating or committing acts of heinous violence over something more basic. When we do not recognize this, and proceed to acts of violent retaliation ourselves, without concern or consideration (as say, the drone war appears to be waged), this itself does damage to our cause by providing more fuel to those who say we are nothing but oppressors and glory to those who wish to be seen as fighting that oppression. Sometimes the best thing to do with someone who wants attention for their misdeeds is ignore them and treat them with disdain rather than viciousness. This though still leaves the underlying mission of basic humanity, resolving those basic questions of meaning and purpose through the provision of a functional economy and basic human needs of health and safety. That is difficult to instill and install from afar. I would not recommend that we do so in many cases (Iraq and Afghanistan being but two examples that were ill-advised, Syria or Egypt or Libya being others). But I would also not recommend that we be seen or allow ourselves to be seen as preventing it either.
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