Deluded and Proud of It

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Every time I think that the editorial page of the Houston Chronicle has hit rock bottom, someone like Richard A. Shweder comes along and shows me new depths. In a column titled, "Guess who's unwelcome at dinner? Nonbeliever elites may as well get comfortable with God in conversation," Shweder succeeds in combining the most irritating elements of: populism ("nonbeliever elites" vs. "2.1 billion self-declared Christians and 1.3 billion self-declared Muslims"), intellectual sloppiness ("Science has not replaced religion...." -- as if science could pinch-hit for philosophy), moral relativism ("[F]anatics and infidels have their ways of keeping each other in business."), and anti-intellectualism ("If religion is a delusion, it is a delusion with a future....").

It is this last quoted sentence, in which Shweder treats with disdain the question of whether religion is true, however, that explains how the rest of his column is even possible in the first place, including the observation and the question he uses to kick it off. Shweder observes, "One of the surest ways to bring a certain type of dinner party to a halt is to speak piously about God." (As an aside, I am an atheist, but not a leftist. I doubtless never attend "a certain type of dinner party", either.) The fact that "secular" is not identical to "leftist" does not remove the fact, however, that I would not waste much of my time, either, in the kind of conversation Shweder would apparently wish to initiate with me. Could it be, Mr. Shweder, that some people really don't believe in God?

We'll get to that in a minute, for he also asks, "Why, then, are the enlightened so conspicuously up in arms these days, reiterating every possible argument against the existence of God?" Given that Shweder cites Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, the defensiveness Shweder implies to secularists has a grain of a good point, but I will not concern myself with the intellectual difficulties experienced by skeptics. Nor will I dwell much on the myriad confusions in Shweder's facile historical analyses caused by the fact that Western civilization was far from consistently rational over the course of the twentienth century. (Communism is not a rational belief system. It is but a godless religion.) I am more interested in the question that the inadequacies of a Dennett or a Dawkins permit Shweder to dodge, which is this: What, if anything, is it about religion that merits intellectual opposition?

Oddly enough, Shweder drops us a hint at the outset when he complains that, "[R]eligion is automatically associated with darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or premodern cast of mind. It has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress;" and then immediately imputes a religious quality to this common association, "and the death of gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith." [bold added]

Well? Might there be good reasons for people to associate religion with "darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or premodern cast of mind"? Has Shweder not heard of the Middle Ages? The Inquisition? The persecution of Galileo? The blood libel against Jews? The Salem Witch Trials? The numerous bloody wars waged throughout history, like the current one that precipitated the atrocities of September 11, 2001? Each and every one of these dark chapters of human history was motivated by the same thing: religion. If the association between religion and various undesirable qualities is "automatic", could it be from a preponderance of the evidence? And could all this evidence have an underlying cause related to the nature of religion itself?

Of course, mere association does not make an airtight case, but for Shweder to dismiss a lack of belief in the supernatural as an "article of faith" is an act whose gall matched only by its dishonesty. Let us quickly review the relevant definition of faith, shall we? The American Heritage Dictionary defines "faith" as, "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence". You, Mr. Schweder, prove your God was ever alive and we can sit down and discuss whether reports of his death are exaggerated. I accept nothing on faith.

But in bringing up faith, Schweder is, in the act of obliquely mentioning the elephant in the room, hoping nobody will notice that faith is in fact ... the elephant in the room. If a "superstition" is "a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge" (i.e., a belief or notion held by faith), then perhaps Mr. Shweder could tell me what is the matter with my automatic association of religion with superstition. Or why I should not equate the two. And if "irrationailty" is "the quality or condition of being irrational [not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical]", we have yet another "association" he pooh-poohs as "automatic" when he should be praising it as correct.

And as for all the misery and pestilence I earlier noted was "associated" with religion, why might that be? Might it be due to the fact that religious tenets, being based on faith, cannot be rationally discussed? How does one come to believe that someone is a witch in the first place? And how would the poor "witch" disprove such an assertion even if an accuser were open to evidence? How does one convince millions of people that Allah is the one God and Mohammed is his Prophet? And how does one persuade them to start acting in accordance with Allah's alleged wishes?

One does not prove or persuade in matters of faith. Ayn Rand's 1960 essay "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World" (as reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It) explains the strong historical association between faith and force, which Shweder ignores, or at least hopes his readers will not notice:

Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when mean deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, persuasion, communication, or understanding are impossible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduces mankind -- a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence. [bold added]
This is why the Church once tortured heretics. This is why Galileo was imprisoned for life. This is why nineteen men flew planes into buildings. They had no arguments with which to persuade anyone of the "justice" of their cause, so they simply attempted to negate whatever dissent they could by force.

This, Mr. Shweder, is why so many secularists are speaking out -- some more effectively than others -- against religion. They see the real-world consequences of religion consistently put into practice and want to put a stop to the alarming trend towards greater religious piety in the West that you're busy gloating over. Religion is dangerous because it is in essence the rejection of reason.

Ironically, unfortunately, and tragically, many secularists do not see this issue clearly enough. The question of whether there is a God, which Dennett, Dawkins, and Shweder seem preoccupied with is not even the most important issue here. The most important issue is this: "How do we know what we know?" Too many secular intellectuals ultimately think that we do not know anything whereas Shweder openly accepts what he admits might be a delusion! All make the same mistake of rejecting reason even while paying lip-service to reason (or at least to science) or the tolerance that can arise only when all parties agree to renounce the practice of enforcing their religious beliefs on others.

But science and political tolerance are both implicitly based upon reason, which had never adequately been defended and was under attack (by Immanuel Kant and others) besides during the Enlightenment and ever since. As Paul Saunders put it:
The antidote to the Kantian irrationalism of postmodern universities is a rebirth of reason (a renaissance) with a full scale assault on Kantian irrationalism. Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand created a systematic philosophy of reason, Objectivism, and began the assault on Kant. Dr. Leonard Peikoff captured her philosophy in the book "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand". ... [R]eason must again be embraced in the universities which requires that Kant be driven out.
In addition to finally affording more people a better understanding of reason, Rand's philosophy, with its ethics of rational egoism, would also permit more people to realize the crucial importance of adhering to reason in furthering their own lives. Not only would this cause more people to appreciate the mortal danger posed by religion, it would turn on its head the contention Shweder quotes that one must believe in God to be moral. Indeed, many would correctly realize that while superstition cannot found morality, it can certainly do an amazing job of interfering with its discovery and its practice!

-- CAV

PS: I am unfamiliar with Richard Shweder. On rereading this, another possible interpretation of Shweder's piece comes to mind. He does not necessarily have to be religious himself to have written this column. He could well be writing this from the position some hold (and see comments) in evolutionary psychology that religion evolved to help men survive. He is still wrong.


Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you ask: "If a "superstition" is 'a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge' (i.e., a belief or notion held by faith), then perhaps Mr. Shweder could tell me what is the matter with my automatic association of religion with superstition." Reminds me of a comment someone made (not sure who, I think Mencken) that in theology, when you get right down to it, the difference between religion and magic is that the priest does not claim that his god will do everything he tells it to.

Gus Van Horn said...

In other words, religion is easier 'cause you don't have all those damned sleights-of-hand to practice or props to tote around!

Hee, hee!