Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/10

17

Beliefs as descriptions, and beliefs as identities

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Stephen Prothero has a piece up, Hinduism’s caste problem, out in the open. Prothero points out that religionists often use logical constructs to play word games which reinforce their in-group. Caste is not a problem with Hinduism per se, but is a cultural problem. The treatment of women is not a problem with Islam per se, but a cultural problem. The history of European anti-semitism was not an issue of religious conflict per se, but a detail of history.


From a philosophical perspective religion is about a god, or a deep ground of being. But that’s really not what religion is as it is lived, as opposed to thought. From the perspective of many religious professionals religion is a set of rituals. Correct belief. Proper behavior. From the perspective of lay believers religion is about communal worship. It is about doing the right thing. Being seen to do the right thing. Religion is a massive overgrown bush of a thing, fundamentally entangled with the amorphous entity we refer to as ‘culture.’ Making a distinction between religion and culture is often a matter of obfuscation or evasion. Religion is culture. In some cases, culture is religion.

This problem manifests with the irreligious as well. Atheism is at the bare bones an opinion in relation to the god hypothesis. But the reality is that many American atheists assume that atheism naturally entails a particular social and political world view. Pro-environment, pro-abortion, pro-feminist, etc. Basically, atheism entails secular humanist liberalism. As a correlation this holds, but obviously there’s no logical inference. It is rather a cultural artifact.

There is identity, our embeddedness within a social community of norms, values and opinions, which we implicitly hold to be correlates with our grand philosophical presupposition. Of course most humans are too stupid to even spell ‘philosophical,’ their adherence to the Nicene creed or Tawhid is nominal, the equivalent of being a fan of Manchester United or the Pittsburgh Steelers. They know nothing about the day to day running of a sports franchise, there’s no substance to their fanaticism. And yet it is there  nonetheless.

These affinities and identities have material consequences. Too often identity and community gets stripped away from the equation, we pretend as if humans are idealized reason machines. When we ask humans the way the world is we make a pretense that they’re capable of being objective, of tearing themselves from the brambles. The reality is that we look through the bramble darkly.

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5 comments

  • John · July 18, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Religion is indeed woven tightly with culture. A Christian who lived in the year 1010 would have few values in common with a Christian who lives in 2010, yet they would claim to have the same religion. This actually gives me some hope for the Islamic world. If the culture moderates, the religion eventually will accomodate. The form that Christianity was in during the year 1010 wasn’t all that compatible with democracy, but an infusion of Enlightenment values changed Christianity, so that now most Christians are good (in fact often the best) defenders of Western civilization today.

  • Chuck · July 18, 2010 at 1:21 am

    “Religion is a massive overgrown bush of a thing, fundamentally entangled with the amorphous entity we refer to as ‘culture.’ Making a distinction between religion and culture is often a matter of obfuscation or evasion. Religion is culture. In some cases, culture is religion.”

    Excellent point. Culture itself is where distinctions should be made. There’s a difference between culture as life-perspectives, culture as particular norms and ways, and culture as hamburger and fries.

    At the extremes, there’s a sense of culture which means how we approach and organize our internal and external world – and a sense which means the curious but not so behaviorally significant idiosyncrasies that accumulate between groups of people — across geographic and temporal space. I guess, cultural junk DNA.

    “These affinities and identities have material consequences. Too often identity and community gets stripped away from the equation, we pretend as if humans are idealized reason machines.”

    Much of this stripping away, though, is due to the dissociation of individuals from groups. That is “culture” becomes individually idiosyncratic. It becomes a part of private space as opposed to public space. Assuming some theoretical continuum between Humans as group beings and Humans as Gods of their individual virtual realities, the question is what is the optimal balance, given our sociobiology and the level of affluence/technology which mediate these dispositions. That is, what relation between the public and private sphere strikes an optimal sociopsychological balance

    This issue with identity, of course, in not independent from the balances you strike with regards to economics and polinomics — (though hopefully it is from population genetics)

    And there might not be an optimal balance. There might just be different societal systems that have different trade offs, with some favoring: maximizes productivity, social harmony, individual creativity, long term political stability.

  • Chuck · July 18, 2010 at 1:35 am

    “And there might not be an optimal balance. There might just be different societal systems that have different trade offs, with some favoring: maximizes productivity, social harmony, individual creativity, long term political stability.”

    The world might be such that there are different niches for different systems. Or that the world system, if we see it as a whole, allows for significant drift. While it’s clear that some social/ political/economic/ systems are being selected for, there’s not reason to suppose a Spencerian progressive Darwinism. Or read history like a Hegelian.

  • RandyB · July 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    On another thread, I opined that faith and prejudice are both terms for judgments arrived with insufficient factual basis. When a set of societal values becomes so inculcated that most members (or at least those with power) can’t imagine society run any differently, they are likely to use religion to justify why that’s just the way things are. Desegregation in the South in the 60s violated just such a societal assumption, and expressed itself religiously in things like advocacy for parochaid, so white parents could send their children to segregated Christian schools. The 1980s Religious Right used the concepts and language of pro-segregation to advocate for states rights, less judicial activism, and the use of their understanding of the Bible as a prerequisite to interpret the Constitution.

    Shaw once described a character as “a barbarian who believes the customs of his tribe to be the laws of nature.” Cultural liberals ( a term I don’t intended pejoratively) saw societal inequalities in the 60s as based on the customs of our tribe, and asked why women and blacks were unequal under our laws and why so many elderly lived in poverty after a lifetime of work. Various government initiatives greatly reduced those inequalities.

    Unfortunately, the cultural liberals of today still see nothing but custom behind many good traditions. Why should kids grow up in two opposite-sex parent families? Why should English be universal? Why a capitalist economy? Why are men better at science than women and more interested in sports? Why do blacks draw so much more police interest? Why should good jobs be reserved for Americans? These are questions to which secular liberals believe there are no answers.

    Except there are. A hallmark of today’s liberal press is to excise the information that would justify conservative policies. They want everyone to believe that our cities are full of out-of-control teens and young adults because of legacies of custom. So they use concepts like offensiveness and diversity to claim that the onus is to change the customs, not get more people to practice them.

  • Lorenzo from Oz · July 24, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Yes, but I would point out that monotheism, for example, has some persist patterns that have been passed on from Jews to Christians to Muslims due to the natural role of the One God in moral discourse. Including the Christian origins of dhimmitude.

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