Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On future plans.

As I'm heading into one of my periodic moments of frustration and disgust with politics and current affairs in this third-rate, bush-league country of ours (I mean, seriously, do we need another superficial nitwit trading on his father's name for influence and power? Whether the name is Trudeau or Ford, it's equally disgraceful; say what you like about Harper, but at least he earned his position by good old-fashioned brown-nosing and a certain innate tendency towards ruthlessness. Not to mention that the Libs are still incapable of articulating a policy vision that's substantially different from that of the Conservatives and, unlike the Conservatives, have no real ambition for making the country great. The Conservatives' problem is their ambitions are flawed and doomed to failure by their policies, but at least they want something for Canada. The Liberals only want things for themselves -- still, now and always. Anyway, for an aside, this is getting long, so back to the point) I intend to go back to a point I last touched on some months ago. I don't find it sufficiently interesting or important to make it into a book segment -- and if you aren't reading the other blog, you just suck -- but a long pamphlet seems about right.

That topic, dear readers, is religion.

As I see it, there's four areas of concern within the topic, and I'd like to talk about them all.

First is the metaphysical aspect. This is the obvious one, but also the least relevant. Very few religious people, in my view, believe in a deity as a straightforward objective reality. At some point, people clearly did, but I suspect that this belief is holding on as little more than a formula. Anyone who seriously believes there's some sort of super-being outside normal space and time -- who doesn't take it as a metaphor or an abstraction or a moral ideal or some such -- is so deeply irrational that they should probably be kept away from sharp objects. That said, it's a fun point to play with because it sets the stage for pointing out the problems with the other aspects of religion; the metaphysical aspect is so obviously screwed up that starting with it gives a bit of a rhetorical edge to the later points.

Second, there's the epistemological issue. This is, simply, the problem of faith. "Faith" can be a weasel word, used by cowards to insulate some cherised beliefs from rational scrutiny. In that sense, faith isn't worth talking about because it's just a disavowal of responsibility for one's beliefs, and a refusal to engage seriously with the beliefs of those who disagree with you. There are, however, other senses of faith which are worth taking more seriously. For example, Kant's sense of rational faith, applied to the things that one can choose to believe in but never really know, for they lie outside the reach of experience (and, we could add, logical inference), and thus are literally unknowable. There is no proof for them, but also no proof against them, and thus one can only have faith in them. That sort of thing is an interesting attitude, and it's worth considering where it goes wrong.

Third, there's the moral issues. Many people rely on their religious beliefs to provide them with moral teachings. This is a basically juvenile approach, pushing responsibility for what one does and says onto some external force which (see point one) doesn't actually exist. But not only does religion teach us to be dependent for our moral views, it also warps us by eliminating or degrading our sense of human dignity, leading us into a sort of slavery. And religion also inculcates a list of vices which is pretends are actually virtues, modesty and humility among them.

Finally, there are political issues. This requires reading "political" broadly; the issue worth talking has nothing to do with, say, the US Catholic bishops taking shots at Obama for daring to say that health insurance should cover contraception. No, this is political in the sense of communal, of involving relations between people. It's probably the strongest argument in favour of religion that it provides people with a community, devoted to some sort of common purpose, many of which purposes are justifiably considered good. However, I suspect that there's very little that's actually religious here. That is, while it is true that groups can be good, and common purpose can be good, it's not true that these are necessary, nor is true that religious communities are a necessary or even preferable form of political unit.

So, stay tuned. This should be fun, at least for me. If it goes well, I may throw things together, tighten and edit them up a little, and e-publish it on Amazon or something as a little experiment in e-publishing. I'm not at all convinced that one can make a living publishing things any more, but it might be possible to at least make some pocket money.


Ian said...

This sounds fantastic. I'm looking forward to it. I might warn you that you may have spent too much time among philosophers and urbanites to remember that there are a lot of legitimate god fearing folk in this country. Dismissing them is easy, but the fact we have a science minister who can't define evolution is just cause for concern.

I'm not really surprised you gave up on SunTV so fast. That stuff will rot your soul.

ADHR said...

@Ian: Are you sure they're legitimate? I think we have to be alive to the possibility of self-deception here. That is, people get so wrapped up in a certain identity -- being a "believer" -- that they convince themselves they literally believe in a deity, even though their everyday actions suggest they don't. After all, as I'm sure you know, people who literally believed in deities in ancient times did things like sacrificing animals (even people) to gain their favour. You don't see too much of that any more.

I'm still watching Sun (or SUN as they insist on stylizing it). I do get paid for it, after all. I just quit writing about it because it was getting repetitive. Only so many ways you can say "you're racist ignorant douchebags".

Catelli said...

Anyone who seriously believes there's some sort of super-being outside normal space and time -- who doesn't take it as a metaphor or an abstraction or a moral ideal or some such -- is so deeply irrational that they should probably be kept away from sharp objects

I was one of those and I'm still related to a whole bunch of them. God is an "object" undefinable, but real.

Those folks do exist.

Ian said...

It's almost too convenient to say people are lying rather than admit the irrationality of some beliefs that are out there. Take one of my friends out here who's mother is sending her emails telling her being involved with a humanist group is going to land her in jail. These are not the words of someone who just claims to hold the faith, these are the words and actions of someone afraid for her daughter's immortal (and even mortal) soul.

Perhaps the vast majority of urban Canadians who are continually faced with a diversity of beliefs can at most give token statements of belief, but in the true bible belts of this country you can find some scary fundamentalists who do think the world will end in their lifetime, abortion is murder, and evolution is a fairy tale.

ADHR said...

@Catelli, @Ian:

Well, let me be clearer: of course there are deeply irrational people out there. There isn't really a lot of point in talking to people like that, though, at least about the things they're irrational about.

However, I do think self-deception (which is not quite the same as lying; lying, it seems to me, requires you know what the truth is) is pretty widespread. When you've got someone who claims they believe in an all-powerful, loving deity who will protect and help them, and yet this same person goes to the hospital when they're sick, calls a mechanic when their car is broken, and calls an electrician if the power goes out -- this person is either hopelessly inconsistent in his beliefs (so, irrational) or insincere in avowing belief in a god (so, self-deceiving). After all, if you really think there's a god like that out there, why aren't you demanding that god intervene to help you? (The way ancient peoples did when things went wrong.)

There is some nuance here. The Amish, for example, don't seem to be deceiving themselves -- so, they believe in something nonsensical -- but their conception of god seems to be a god that provides opportunities rather than a god that directly intervenes in their lives. Hence their focus on hard work and communal support: god helps those who help themselves.

So, there's a dodge here which avoids the problem of inconsistency and self-deception, while diving right into the heart of believing nonsense.

But, again: I think that's really quite unusual. If we consider the way people behave generally, and look at public avowals of belief in this or that as just one aspect of behaviour, it seems clear to me that most god-botherers aren't really sincere. If they were, they'd behave differently. Even in the case of your relatives, Catelli, or your friend's mother, Ian -- or my in-laws, for that matter -- they might say, and even strongly believe, that there is a real god. But that's consistent with either a contradictory set of beliefs (god will protect me; I need to protect myself), self-deception (even though I act like I don't believe in god, I really do!), or a belief in the ridiculous (Stephen Harper is an honest man).