28 June 2007


I'd like to take a chance to respond to one of the comments to my most recent post because I think it's really sharp and brings up some important points.

First, I agree with Blair completely when she says "it takes a bit of hubris to have the attitude that someone is merely a lost follower." That is certainly one of the things I wrestle with quite frequently. If I go around preaching the benefits of atheism to theists and permit myself to act in an intolerant and condescending way toward others of different views out of a dead certainty that my views are correct, am I any better than an Evangelical? Clearly not. My interest ought to be, as it always is in my scholarship, merely to understand these beliefs, where they came from, and how they function - not to correct them.

So why do I feel justified in violating "the prime directive," as it were, when it comes to theists who are close to me, but not theists living, say, in the Australian bush?

When I'm studying aboriginal Australians, ancient Israelites, T'ang Dynasty Daoists, the Umayyad Caliphate, and so on, I don't feel compelled to hold these people accountable for having failed to develop the scientific knowledge of the universe we have today. That would clearly be an unreasonable request, given the fact that the development of science as we know its development depended on a very special combination of historical events and circumstances. But when I'm dealing with a modern, well-educated, western theist with an above-average level of intelligence and scientific literacy, I feel perfectly justified in wondering why they persist in certain baroque patterns of thinking, despite having complete access to science, and in many cases having been well educated in the scientific method. A modern, educated Westerner, in other words, should know better than to be religious because science - like it or not - is an integral part of his culture. My willingness to judge, of course, is also compounded by the fact that these people, unlike T'ang Dynasty Daoists, have the power to influence my world through their actions and their votes. They are members of my own society, and as such, we each have a vested interest in the other.

Which I suppose neatly leads into Blair's point about animism (my professors would cringe to hear me say that - all Victorian terms have been forbidden for violating the laws of Political Correctness, even though we don't yet have a better term to use instead), which I agree is one of the world's most common forms of religion. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that it is the most innate form of religiosity, from which all subsequent religions diverged, and to whose beliefs and behaviors the individual theist invariably returns in a number of circumstances. This is actually my biggest interest area in the realm of religious studies, so I'm glad she brought it up.

The ancestral concern is very important - not just because caring for the ancestors (both living and dead) tends to ensure prosperity for the living, but also because it is from the ancestors that vital cultural knowledge flows. I think this latter was the crux of Blair's point - that a culture is inherited from one generation to another, and the continued health of that culture is predicated on the acceptance of the old generation's worldview by the new.

To put this another way: we don't believe because we believe, we convince ourselves that we believe because our parents did, and we think that by believing we can win their approval. This was certainly the case for me growing up a Catholic (although I suppose I can't use myself as an example of the average believer, considering how I turned out).

But what I would like to ask is: isn't there a way to respect our ancestors non-theistically? Religions, after all, change considerably in interpretation and content (particularly in animist societies) even in the span of a single generation while nevertheless maintaining the illusion for all involved that the religious strictures are eternal and unchanging. The great Thomas Paine made just such an observation in a letter to Samuel Adams:

"If we go back to your ancestors and mine three or four hundred years ago...we shall find them praying to Saints and Virgins, and believing in Transsubstantiation; and therefore all of us are infidels according to our forefathers' belief."
More recently, Frederick Barth wrote a book on his work with the Mountain Ok of New Guinea in which he argues that because the meanings of their religious symbols are a strictly-kept secret, the interpretation of these symbols changes drastically every time a new generation undergoes initiation and is forced to make up the meaning for themselves. As countless anthropologists have told us, the most important part of a religious ritual (for animists, but the same is doubtless true of all religions) is the action itself - the meaning associated with it is only of secondary importance.

Perhaps, then, the way to honor the ancestors while still pressing forward into an era of freethought is to keep some outward forms of religion (for a generation or so, at least) but change their meanings even more drastically. This has already worked splendidly in the case of Humanistic Judaism, which if I understand it correctly preserves the rich cultural heritage of what it means to be Jewish while at the same time rejecting the notion of a deity entirely. We see the same thing in Europe among Christians - Catholics in particular - who go to see the smells and bells because, well, that's just what they do, while not giving a damn about the God they're supposedly going there to worship. They maintain the forms out of deference, love, and respect for their elders and their tradition, but have entirely rejected the theological premise on which such actions are ostensibly built.

Perhaps, then, the first step is to really push the idea of Einstein's/Spinoza's God: which is, if I understand it correctly, the use of the word "god" as a shorthand for "the dispassionate laws that govern an orderly universe." (I.e. "God doesn't play dice with the universe" = "an orderly universe does not permit the possibility of chance") I think a great many theists in our society really do believe in god on Spinoza's terms while maintaining religious behaviors out of deference to tradition. But in so doing they render themselves outwardly identical to all other committed theists, making it virtually impossible for us to tell them apart. This is especially true considering that the Spinozas of the world tend to throw down on the side of the theists in their battle against atheists, even though their thinking is closer to the atheist worldview, because they share their social actions and vocabulary with the religious sector.

Because there's more at stake in the God Hypothesis than just the literal truth of a silly proposition, there can be no atheist revolution. Society as a whole cannot be forced to be so iconoclastic. There can only be the gradual metaphorization of God from a deity to a shibboleth. Once the theological commitment has been removed from the equation, it remains to be seen whether the rest of the ritual commitments remain embedded in our society as cultural relics or are thrown out with the bathwater of the God Hypothesis.

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