20 December 2007

By our own making

Nothing gets the liberal sphere quite as worked up as arguing the merits of the so-called "new atheists"*. See these two threads at LGM, for example, which clocked in at over 200 posts where a typical thread might run around 15 replies. I have an idea why that may be, but it'll have to wait for a moment. First, I wanted to make a remark about something I noticed in there before they went off beyond my education level (alas, there might have been a time when my comprehension could've hung in longer, but not anymore).

It's mentioned at some point that the more prosperous and egalitarian societies in the world tend to be post-religious as well. This makes sense, but, to use biblical verbiage, which begat what? Among the most persistent reasons people turn to supernatural faith is that the existence they are offered in this life is dreary, miserable, and absent of any hope or understanding for prosperity. Religion and its promises of posthumous redemption is the best they can do in the absence of any more material route out of their decrepit existence. This fact is the genesis of Marx's oft-quoted but seldom understood line that "religion is the opiate of the masses." It's odd, in this sense, that liberals who wouldn't favor the law enforcement approach to drugs--attacking the symptoms rather than the disease--believe an effectively similar approach would work with religion.

In a way, the contemporary anti-religious aren't radical enough (quite intentionally, of course, of the trinity only Hitchens could have been considered of the left at any point). We know God doesn't exist, or at least not on the field in which theism arguments are usually contested. So those people following the more culturally repressive strains of religious thought cannot, as they claim, be merely following the dictates of a non-existent being. Presumably, it's human compulsion, but the anti-religious seem to feel eliminating the non-existent God from the equation clears up the problem. We are to believe, apparently, that any positive historical legacy attributed to religious believers--the work of Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, or Dr. King, to cite three 20th century examples--could have been just as easily accomplished without anything we would recognize as spiritual belief at all. However, the more pernicious legacy of religion--oppression, brutality, intolerance--are unique, and dismembering the institutions of religion will magically do away with great chunks of it.

This won't do. It's too narrow. A far greater threat to humanity in recent history has been, and remains, rampant nationalism, for which religion has only served as a subservient booster. Out here in the heartland, American exceptionalism has ascended to a kind of quasi-religious belief itself, and people routinely jump between Americanism and fundamentalist Christianity to justify whatever prejudice they happen to be on about today. To plagiarize Stephen Colbert; I believe in America. I believe that it exists. I don't ascribe it any inherent superior qualities compared to other nations, but the anti-religious can't get me that far. They tend to be focused on the familiar, recognizable symbols of religious influence, but ignore, purposefully or not, this authoritarian impulse to create new mechanisms to justify themselves.

When I was reading 1984, it struck me that Orwell's totalitarian state could well have been modeled on some future projection of a theocratic state. But, as far as I know, Orwell never considered this explicitly. He was concerned only with the totalitarianism itself. A few weeks ago I pointed out some anti-theist consternation that the Hollywood production of The Golden Compass scrubbed the explicit religious nature of the primary antagonist, a secretive, authoritarian body called the Magisterium. Granted I have only read some press and seen the trailer for the film, but this seems like an unnecessary lament. If you'd like to see parallels to authoritarian religion, that option remains open to you. For the anti-religous, though, that won't be good enough. Religion is necessarily authoritarian, and vice versa.

This narrow prescription I mentioned earlier from the Big Guns and their liberal boosters in the USA is drawn from the small field of interest each of them is trying to stake out. Dawkins, for example, is chiefly concerned about what he sees as faith jutting into the world of science. A certain variety of American liberal is primarily fighting social and cultural issues, for which he sees fundamentalist Christianity as his primary opposition. Neither is concerned with much beyond eliminating an immediate threat to their own interests. Many flavors of it smell like personal score-settling, a temptation we all succumb to at some point.**

*Still don't like this term.

**Indeed, much of my own resentment for the anti-religious comes from their ridiculous insistence that the moderate/liberal religious are merely revisionists of the "true" fundamentalist faith, and are themselves liable to bust out the billy clubs at any moment! (Oh noes, authoritarian Quakers! Run for you lives!)