Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Civic Religion

Since one of the threads here is the discussion of religion in American life, I wanted to bring into that discussion our civil religion.

Some posit that there is an American tradition of a civic religion, which becomes a language for values. Its adherents describe things as "true to our heritage" or "un-American," and having quasi-theological discussions about the sacred constitution and the pantheon of founders. The language of the American military concerns martyrs, ritual, and ceremony. The civic religion has its range of adherents, from flag-waving fundamentalists to those who proclaim "dissent is patriotic." Many secularists actually are believers in this secular religion, without understanding how religious such activity is, in a sociological sense. Most of the people on this blog would be considered adherents.

Theologian Paul Tillich famously defined religion as "a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern." He also said, "Man's whole life, including his sensual life, is spiritual." He meant to say that our commitment to non-rational ideals (or at least ideals to which we are committed for reasons other than the fact that they happen to be rational) is a religious commitment, whether or not it has anything to do with the supernatural. In other wors, the subjective experience of believing that something "really matters" is a religious feeling.

I mean to distinguish this activity in America from mere nationalism. Rarely does nationalism become a whole discourse. The American civic religion is so strong because it is just that- an entire national discourse. It is rich with symbolism. Our Rome and Mecca is Washington, a city named after the Father of Our Country, replete with its temples to the deities (Jefferson, Lincoln) and the honored dead. The flag is a near-sacred object. Patriotic events mimic religious fervor. September 11th was an incredible moment of this kind that we all lived through. This makes many Europeans ill.

Yet our liberty, I would argue, has its refuge here in this American religion that posits liberty and democracy as sacred ideals. Our civil war was, in many ways, a religious war between those who saw themselves as true believers and the enemy as heretics. This inspired martyrdom. It still does. Pat Tillman was such a martyr. The Civil Rights movement was also consciously about calling on people to "bear witness," and though led by pastors, its symbol was the flag rather than the cross. And the response was likewise.

As a side note, you can understand what happened in the 1960s as a schism between those who held, with Goldwater, that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" and those who opposed such a fundamentlist Americanism. It also split the left between those who Believe in America and those who adhered to the counterculture or to internationalist ideals. GWB is on the Goldwater side of the divide, by the way (his father was not). Separation of church and state has sometimes been interpreted by secularists as the equivalent of the first commandment, "You shall have no other God before the state."

I suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national hero because he so clearly articulated that there are some things a person must be willing to die for, which included, to him, liberty. Indeed, he is not just a martyr to freedom; to many, he is a "secular" saint.

35 comments:

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG describes an, "American tradition of a civic religion," stronger than "mere nationalism." LTG cites veneration of the flag, of the founding fathers, etc. as evidence of this. He has a good point and I am glad he brought it up. I'm afraid I must agree that our political and public life tends this direction quite a bit. But unlike LTG, this scares me.

LTG says, "[O]ur liberty, I would argue, has its refuge here in this American religion that posits liberty and democracy as sacred ideals." I strongly disagree. The extreme religiousity of American political discourse is one of the greatest threats to our liberty--not its refuge. Sanctimonious flag-waving does no more to further our American ideals than a mad holiday shopping spree does to reveal the true meaning of Christmas. In fact, it obscures it.

LTG notes that, "Patriotic events mimic religious fervor... This makes many Europeans ill." But the reason Europeans are sickened by such events is not because they lack patriotism, nor because they lack religion. The Europeans were masters of patriotism in the 19th and early 20th ceturies, and the best state-managed event of George W. Bush pales in comparison to pomp and pageantry of Hitler's rallies at Nuremberg. No, the reason these displays make Europeans ill is that they have learned the hard way that the state-as-god is actually the language of fascism.

(RxR has discussed fascism and American politcs in great detail before on this blog.)

I'd also like to respond to LTG's assertion that, "Many secularists actually are believers in this secular religion, without understanding how religious such activity is, in a sociological sense. Most of the people on this blog would be considered adherents. "

Even from a sociological point of view, I think it is misleading to call all spiritual behavior or strongly emotional beliefs "religious." Although religion has so usurped the role of ritual and spirituality in human cultures that some now believe they cannot exist without religion, we should not make that mistake on this blog.

I lit candles on 9/11 at an impromptu shrine on our street. I felt angry, shed tears, and felt great pride on that day--and still do. I feel a strong emotional tie to our past and our symbols of our ideals and our values... but it is not religious. My love of my country and faith in its ideals have no supernatural aspect to them.

They are just love and faith.

Anonymous said...

I love it. I read two of the most emotive posts I've read on this blog, followed by spam on how to make $1000 a day, an entry without thought or content. Delicious irony, mmmmmm.

One thing I was deeply interested in when I was in the USA was seeing what American people are like, given the popular notion in my country of US citizens as simply being loud and bad at geography. I was happy to see a diversity and a depth of culture that other countries could wish to emulate.

What I also saw, though, was a country totally preoccupied with itself. Why look elsewhere when you have enough news and interest in the one location? It is not a criticism but an observation. So a question for me is how long will the myth of American Individualism continue? Why do you consider Pat Tillman a martyr when he was killed by friendly fire? What exactly is he a martyr to?

I thought of how to end this comment. Holy Grail "You are all individuals" seems to trite. "I have a dream" is too idealistic for me. I'll settle for "Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!" 

// posted by Koala Boy

Anonymous said...

Koala Boy is the Aussie De Toqueville. Yes, I think Americans are quite self-absorbed. As one who thinks culture is largely (if not entirely) driven by economic circumstances, I'll suggest the cause is that we are so huge, so amazingly big (more Monty Python refrences), that other countries just don't come on our radar screne that easily.

Think of it. Without having the numbers at my finger tips, I'd guess that if you added up all the imports to and all the exports from Australia it would equal about 25% of Australia's total economy - maybe more. In the USA, that figure is about 10-12%. In Belgium the figure is about 100%. American's think less about the outside world besause in very real terms it matters less - no offense.

As for the secular religion thing. It's telling that LTG adopted the language of post-modernism to make his argument about a secular "religion." Something the post-modernist movement shares with religiosity is the opposition to modernity (rationality, economic determinism etc). Both often claim that modernity doesn't really exist, that is a mere social construct. Of course I profoundly disagree. Economic principles such as market forces are always at work whether we recognize them or not. Ignoring supply and demand and incentives for and against particular actions won't make those concepts cease to exist.

An interesting note: the first writing ever found by archeologists was an accountant's leger keeping track of tax revenue in the form of grain surplus turned in to the state. The tax authority at the time was the priests so the earliest priests (as opposed to shamans) were also the world's first accountants. Later, double entry book-keeping was invented by Italian monks.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

A quick reply to Dr. S: the point is that it is a mistake to assume that unless it has a supernatural component, it is not religious. The love, faith, and "shrine" you referred to are all accoutrements of a religiosity. I know that secularists and atheists reject the word "religion" as if it has cooties, and I sense that is how Dr. S has reacted here. True relativists or postmodernists approach the world as if nothing is ultimately important. By contrast, the idea that something is actually unconditionally important is the beginning of religion. What do you mean by "faith"? I suggest that what you mean is trust - trusting that the thing you believe in is of ultimate importance. Think about this, and how this means that your world-view is not radically different from those whose faith includes the supernatural.

It would be quite different to believe in a radical materialism, that, for example, love is just a set of neurological impulses with no more intrinsic "value" than any other set, or that faith is a psychological crutch for the weak. That "right" and "good" are concepts created for control, and have no meaning beyond possibly pleasure or pain.

As an aside, a retired bishop once gave a sermon to my small congregation at Stanford saying that the corollary of the hackneyed phrase "God is Love" is the understanding that Love is God. By this, he moved away from the notion that God is a supernatural being to say that Love itself was the most important thing in the universe. (Episcopalians get in trouble with other Christians when they do this kind of thing.) An issue being raised here was the relationship of the divine to the human. Protestantism has most traditionally posited God as the other, with whom one can have a relationship. This is the standard view of what religion is that is held by most Americans, secular or not. Buddhism posits God is other only because we are separated from the whole, but that you can become one with God - to lose one's subjectivity entirely. Others would hold that God is not other at all, but is found "in all of us." When Jesus said "Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there will I be also" this can be understood (traditionally) as an invitation to an external spirit or a radical statement about how Love itself is God - nothing supernatural at all.

Koala Boy: Please keep in mind that when I said "Pat Tillman is a martyr" I was not making an objective statement about his status. I mean that his death was treated like martyrdom by many of those who "believe in America." Hard to miss that, I would have thought.  

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG says love, faith, and trust are all religious impulses. LTG says religion need not have any supernatural component. LTG would have you believe that "belief" itself is a religious notion. Oh, come on! With that definition of a religion, my predilection for certain cheeses would constitute a religion.

The plain meaning of religion is (I quote OED): "Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life."

Despite clever attempts by post-modern apologists to have it both ways, to defend their belief in the supernatural while distancing themselves from it, to keep the mantle of infallibility while discarding the cloth it's made of -- religion is still a distinct world-view. LTG asks me to consider that my, "world-view is not radically different from those whose faith includes the supernatural." Ah, but it is precisely because my world-view does not include the supernatural that it is radically different!

What I believe most fervently is what my reason and observations support, not that which is inaccessible to them. That matters far more than that we both light candles. For religion to expropriate almost every cultural ritual and then say, "look, now you're being religious!" is just silly.

The opposite of religion is not total relativism, radical materialism, nihilism, dispassion, or amorality; that’s a lie religious people have been telling for centuries to try to discredit freethinkers and claim all warm fuzzy feelings for themselves. But there’s a whole world of philosophy out there that embraces love, freedom, and ethics and has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. LTG has it backward. Religion is an outgrowth of our spiritual exploration--not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

If you insist that belief in the supernatural is the sine qua non of religiosity, then what Dr. S says is unassailable.

But I detect a certain stubbornness in the unwillingness to contemplate the possibility that profound commitments to ideas are similar to religious beliefs and attitudes (and that, as a corollary, religious beliefs are not just superstitions, but also profound commitments to ideas). And the word 'postmodern' is a bit of a buzzword here, don't you think? Let's avoid straw men too: nobody is arguing that belief in the supernatural is the only source of ethics.

Let me ask Dr. S directly then: what do you mean by "faith" in your context? Other than the lack of a divine being, how do you think the subjective experience of your faith differs from that of a religious person? Why is that distinction important? How did reason and observation lead to your faith? What do they have to say about love or the depth of your commitment to these ideals?

Since this is a political blog, let me add: why is your definition faith the only proper basis for political activity, while belief in the divine or supernatural must not be? 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Amen Dr. Strangelove!

I'll add that not only is religion an outgrowth of spirituality rather than the other way around but that in most cases (our friends on this blog are notable exceptions IMHO) religion is a substitute for spirituality.

I'll let Dr. Strangelove address this for himself but I have a very definite opinion about the ligitimacy of religion in democratic politics and here it is:

I have no real problem with people derriving their policy preferences from their "faith" (to be defined through debate later), or explained using a vocabulary of religion. However, there is a difference between religious politics of either left or right and secular politics.

For secularists, policy preferences are just that preferences. For me, the policies I want are nothing more than that. They are the result of my own selfishness, my reason and my concern for the greater good for the greater number.

But for a person basing their politics on religion, preferences are the reflection of their interpretation of the word of God itself. The problem is that for the vast majority of religious people, religion is defined by two principles: obedience to the invisible man in the sky and the unshakable belief they have a superior understanding of what the invisable man wants.

That means that religious politics is not predisposed to genuine empathy with people with whom they disagree. Disagreements are no longer simply differences of opinion they become threats to God or religion itself. For Christian conservatives anyone who disagrees with their ideology is either a heretic, an infidel or, worse, apostate. Many Christian liberals feel the same way about the Christian conservatives. It takes policy out of the realm of negotiation and compromise and places it firmly in the area of absolute truth.

Most dangerous of all, religious politics is predisposed to the view that there is some ideal policy out there (of course they disagree about what it is). They believe that if a sufficiently righteous individual(s) could be found to achieve that policy, all political debate would become unneccessary. Since they also tend to believe that their prefered policies are the ideal, they do not regard dissent as legitimate (witness today's Republican leadership). "Who would object to the divine policy who was not evil!?" they demand to know.

To conclude, many people are religious. Trying to stamp out religion, would be a gross violation of my liberal principles (besides, it is not religion that is threatened in this country but freedom from religion). Religion can coexist with democracy but it is always an uneasy coexistance. People who worship and obey a supernatural "Lord" can't be expected to have an unambiguous relationship to democracy.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

RBR writes: "People who worship and obey a supernatural "Lord" can't be expected to have an unambiguous relationship to democracy." Okay, I'll bite. What is it about the twin principles of minority rule and human rights that is inimical to belief in the divine?  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

"Minority rule" is not the foundation of democracy. "Minority protection" is. Your confusion of these two distinct principles suggests part of the problem with politicized religion. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

Let me get a couple of things out of the way. First, I agree that postmodern is a buzzword, and I will stop using it. Second, I apologize for implying LTG said religion was the only source of ethics. I am glad LTG recognizes this is not so.

Now to the meat of my response. Back in the original post, LTG said that, "the subjective experience of believing that something 'really matters' is a religious feeling." In succeeding comments however, LTG retreats, claiming now only that a profound commitment to an idea is "similar" to a religious belief. This I can accept, insofar as the experience of feeling committed to a cause--whether patriotic, religious, or scientific--is a human emotion common in us all. But it is not a "religious" emotion. And the similarity ends with the feeling.

What do I mean by "faith"? Faith in humanity means never ratting on your fellow comrade in the prisoner's dilemma. Faith in your ideals means following them even when they are painful, not because you expect a reward (heavenly or karmic) but because you believe that sacrifices are necessary to achieve a better world somewhere down the line, even if you won’t be around to see it.

How have reason and observation lead to my faith? One example is what I just said about sacrifices. I have seen how the sacrifices of those who came before me have given me a world far better than theirs. Thus I wish to do the same for those who come after me. And I have good reason to believe I am hardly alone—there are lots of people more idealistic than me, and that inspires me. On the other hand, I also have seen that the best intentions often backfire, and what sounds reasonable can be misleading. And I know I am often wrong.

How does the "subjective experience" of my faith differ from that of a religious person? Well, it’s hard to say, as I have not experienced religious faith personally. I’m sure deep down they both feel good. But there are some key differences. I do not have absolute, unconditional, or infinite faith or commitment in anything. I don't believe that such statements are even valid in our finite existences. I have very strong faith and commitment to my ideals and beliefs, but everything remains open to doubt, revision, and falsification. It is a humble faith.

Why must belief in the divine or supernatural not be the basis for politics? OK, well I'm going to get argumentative here, because I need to hurry this up. (Please add appropriate caveats in your own mind.) The reason religion needs to be kept out of politics is because religious faith and revealed truth are not open to falsification. “God says so” is not debatable. When you run up against a religious wall in political discourse, you find compromise and reason are abandoned. Instead of holding a rational discussion, you can only shout your pre-determined opinions to one another. Or shoot at each other. And that’s exactly where we end up: religious infighting, suicide bombers, and Crusades. The difference between religious faith and religious fanaticism is not a matter of degree. Both are unswerving belief in absolute truth—the “degree” is effectively infinite. The only distinction is that fanatics believe in more violence.

Anonymous said...

I found this thread very interesting indeed and I am sorry that I am late to the discussion. However, everyone has made very good points. RBR is absolutely correct in his characterization of the problem of basing politics on religion. LTG makes some interesting analogies in his initial post, but they are only analogies. Every government or nation has its symbols a faith objects.

I am not a theologian or a philosopher, so I will leave the question of whether the supernatural is the perquisite for a religion aside (although I have an opinion). I think it is useful to see religious fervor, or any other kind of fervor for that matter, as a psychological condition like a form of ecstasy divorced from reason, rather than a belief or faith.

I understand this notion of Civic Religion because I am guilty of placing the Constitution on a "faith-like" plane. The reason is that I have an overly developed sense of commitment and great respect for the law. The law is what takes us out of Hobbesian sate of nature. The Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man sought to codify the dignity of human beings. Somehow writing it down made it harder for people to ignore. Religions work in a similar way. That is why they have so much dogma.

The ideals encapsulated in these documents came from the Enlightenment, which focused on freedom from an angry, oppressive God. That freedom came from reason. Since we started out trying to understand the role of religion in American life, I think it might be worth tracing the roots a little.

Let's start at the Renaissance. The Renaissance taught people that beauty (through art) could be had on earth. Artists started with the Divine- painting biblical figures. But to do that, they had to explore human beings, their anatomy, their expressions, their emotions. They, in effect, painted God in the image of man and man in the image of God. (Ever notice that in Michelangelo's "Creation of Man", God is floating in a big brain?) And once man sees himself and God intertwined, he begins to understand that he and God are not really different. In fact, they may be one in the same. If that is the case, the king isn't so important either. There goes the Divine Right of Kings and priests. Traditional notions of religion and reverence are subverted. I love that scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail when Arthur rides up to the peasant's digging in mud only to find that they will not bow to him. In fact, they get downright sassy to their "king".

From this comes the Enlightenment where we wake up and realize that we can control our government and our destiny. And in a sense, people replaced their faith in a higher power with a faith in their own power.

The United States started out, remember, as 13 colonies with different religions, but a common ideal- religious freedom. That meant freedom not only from a state mandated religion, but from a whole social system that was built around that religion. Yet the Pilgrims were religious fanatics by some accounts. They wanted to freely demonstrate their faith through the practice of their religion.
The Mayflower Compact was an amazing social contract because it was so basic and so secular. It was the idea that social contracts were needed for society to function.

Throughout our history, however, we have had a tendency to turn our civic mindedness into a religious-like attitude. We have this tendency to throw ourselves into things whole-heartedly, sometimes without much reason. Think about notions of "the city on the hill", "manifest destiny", a blessed nation, etc. All of these equate our nation with something God like. And we have learned, many times, the danger that comes from this type of analogy.

Dr. Strangelove asks, "How does the "subjective experience" of my faith differ from that of a religious person? " Well, that is poor question. Faith is faith regardless of whether it is religious, humble, or whatever and I'd argue that it is always subjective. I learned that faith was believing in something (usually intangible) that cannot be proven. (That said, I was raised Catholic and the last thing the Church wants to "Prove" is that Mary was a Virgin, the Consecration of the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, etc. ) If that is faith, then once there is proof of something, there is no longer faith, only facts.
 

// posted by UNWest

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Dr. Strangelove asks, 'How does the 'subjective experience' of my faith differ from that of a religious person?' Well, that is poor question. Faith is faith regardless of whether it is religious, humble, or whatever..."

Actually, it was LTG who asked me that question.

Dr. Strangelove said...

A more salient comment. USWest writes, "I think it is useful to see religious fervor, or any other kind of fervor for that matter, as a psychological condition like a form of ecstasy divorced from reason, rather than a belief or faith."

If USWest is making a distinction between religious belief and religious fervor, then I approve--and I'm glad she said this. In my earlier post, I confused the two concepts USWest clarified. Please let me retract my ill-thought-out assertion that, "The difference between religious faith and religious fanaticism is not a matter of degree... The only distinction is that fanatics believe in more violence."

USWest says, "I learned that faith was believing in something (usually intangible) that cannot be proven... If that is faith, then once there is proof of something, there is no longer faith, only facts."

I would amend that. To me, faith is belief in something without sufficient evidence. There may well exist sufficient evidence, but either the believer does not understand it or does not know of it. And in any case it does not need to rise to the level of proof. Being somewhat of a positivist or empiricist, I am not convinced of the validity of unprovable assertions about existence: if it is impossible to prove something exists... does it really exist at all? (But I digress.)

Anonymous said...

I meant "majority rule." I slipped up because I was pondering the second half, whether "human rights" was an adequate substitute for "minority protection" - a phrase which always suggests to me group rights rather than individual rights. RBR, your comment that this typo means I don't understand democracy is insulting.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

OK: "Majority rule" is also not the foundation of democracy. "Minority Protection" is.

While I don't think LTG doesn't understand democracy in any grand sense, the politicized religious in this country consistently rely upon crude claims to "majority status" (a false claim by the way) to justify their exclusion of dissenters. LTG has actually alluded to this in his justification of limitting political debate to a contest between the religious left and the religious right.

However it belys their true justification for their claim to being immune from dissent: namely that not only are their preferences better for the country but that their preferences are not just their own but God's own preferences! Whether they are in the majority or not is neither here nor there to them. But they use terms like "majority rule" as propoganda because they don't feel ready (yet) to simply order secular dissent into the camps. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

The Law Talking Guy said...

Dr. S. writes "God says so" is not debatable. Actually, this has probably been, in its various forms, the most debated proposition of all time: what does God want? What Dr. S means, I think, is that a person whose sole justification for policy is belief in divine commandment will only be persuaded by a theological argument, and those who believe that they have receives such a commandment personally are immune even from that. Most of the latter are simply insane, of course.

Dr. S. writes that he has no "absolute, unconditional, infinite faith" in anything. Wow. Neither do I. I'm in inclined to think St. Francis did, but that's a fond hope. Radical fundamentalists claim to, by the way, but even they are normally, if secretly, beset by doubts. Most religious people would not dare contend that their faith is based on "reason and observation" as Dr. S has done. Grace alone, I believe, was Luther's formulation.

UNWest writes that the idea of an American Civic Religion is merely an analogy, that it is like a religion. Plainly, if you believe that religion requires a supernatural being, then my comments must be construed as an analogy. I suggest, however, that it is a very powerful analogy, in that case. In other words, many many Americans act as if the nation were holy and its values sacred.

To my mind, Dr. S. behaves towards his beliefs, his "faith" as he put it, as if those ideals were sacred.

And that's my point. If you behave as if your ideals were sacred, that's big thing. I don't just mean using the language of faith, or rituals (like symbolically lighting candles) that have their origins in religious practice. It means actually believing, as I think Dr. S does, that he ought always to be true to his beliefs, and that they might even be worth dying for. RBR said that policy preferences "are just that, preferences." I don't think Dr. S. means that his faith is just a "preference" of that kind. And I will wager that he opposes policies that he thinks run counter to his faith with THE SAME fervency as religious people do in their way. If so, that holds the same implications for democracy as religious faith. And that's what I've been getting at all along.

The idea that people who believe in the divine are inherently more fervent or less persuadable than those with other bases for their ethics are, with respect, basing their opinions on the behavior of the most ignorant and/or fundamentalist of religious persons.

I should add that this discussion shows the hostility of many on the left to religion as a whole (even among those who admit to holding some ideas on a "faith-plane") which is a major problem we liberals have in communicating with a nation that is largely religions (regardless of church attendance figures. those irk me, I mean, what's the 'attendance' standard for an atheist, so I can measure his sincerity?)

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR, the basis of democracy is majority rule. That's what it means. Minority rights must also be respected. Those are the basic pillars of our democratic system.

I urge that it is folly in a religious country to refuse to engage the religious right on any terms other than secularism. This is not an attempt to stifle dissent or a claim that religion is privileged as a majority to "rule." It's a means of communication and engagement in a language people understand. I thought that was 100% clear. I guess not. If progressives refuse to admit religious people into their ranks, we will lose every election. If we refuse to engage them on their own terms, preaching atheism only, we will lose every election. And why do that? Good people do believe in God too, you know.

I suggest that the only person on this blog eager to send anyone to the camps is the one who demands that anyone who believes in God be removed from the public sphere. Now, it's 4:55am and I have to get back to sleep, so I can get ready to start oppressing again.

Anonymous said...

Wait, not quite done oppressing for the night.

I'm waiting breathless to hear from Dr. S. how reason and observation lead to the conclusion that one should never rat out the other in the prisoner's dilemma. This is gonna turn game theory on its head!  

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

In an earlier comment, LTG spoke of the "belief that something is unconditionally important" or "of ultimate importance" was the beginning of religious thought. And when I said that I did not have "absolute, unconditional, or infinite" faith in anything, I was trying to reference that prior statement of LTG. I was trying to express a difference between us in how we view things.

But LTG still keeps trying to tell me I have religious-like feelings, attitudes, or beliefs... even though none of these things of mine are absolute, unconditional, ultimate, supernatural, or related to the divine in any way. I have tried to explain my relevant feelings, attitudes, and beliefs, and explain why spiritual feelings are not the same as religious-like thought. For running through all my faith and commitments is the profound understanding that they are just my own conceits. Nothing is really sacred or holy in the sense that the object has some extra, metaphysical quality in and of itself. If you cannot understand that--if you insist that somewhere, deep down, everyone believes in something religiously--then the gulf between us is wide and I cannot help you cross it.

LTG says many Americans act as though their nation were holy and its values sacred. I agree. And I think that is one of the greatest threats to our freedom and our democracy. By the way, in answer to something LTG said, nobody on this blog demands, "that anyone who believes in God be removed from the public sphere." Talk about your straw men!

Oh, and as for the prisoners' dilemma, let me first amend what I said. I don't actually believe you should "never" rat on the other people--you should "almost never" do it. (But you can [almost] always add that kind of caveat to everything I say. I presume we all understand that?) You can justify the "(almost) never rat" conclusion in an infinitely repeated prisoners' dilemma with an infinite number of people, chosen randomly and often blindly. (It's not the only solution.) It's kind of like Kant's categorical imperative of moral philosophy: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it would become a universal law." My conscience tells me it's the right thing to do.

Dr. Strangelove said...

And before you poke at it... yes, atheists have consciences too. And they do not come from god, nor are they religious in nature. It's biological.

Anonymous said...

Three comments, now that we are way off topic.

1. What is the evidence that conscience is biological? Is this just the theory of altruism being a group survival tactic?

2. I think you have created confusion by missing the difference between a belief (even if wracked with doubt or uncertainty) that something is of ultimate concern, unconditionally important, and an unconditional, abslolute belief in something.

3. I can tell you hate the word "religion." But I'm waiting to hear any difference beyond the lack of a supernatural. Dr. S writes: "For running through all my faith and commitments is the profound understanding that they are just my own conceits. Nothing is really sacred or holy in the sense that the object has some extra, metaphysical quality in and of itself." The second sentence is just a repetition that you don't believe in the supernatural. Fine. A rose by any other name... What I mean is, so what? When you say "they are just my own conceits" what does that really mean? Does it mean that you: (1) don't take your own beliefs seriously; (2) don't believe anything is worth dying for; (3) don't believe that you have a right to urge others to change their ways based on your beliefs; (4) don't believe that things like rape and murder are justly punished by society, even though society consists of more than just you and your conceits? Of course not! And how, other than your lack of God, is that different from reliigious faith? Do you really mean to suggest that you hold to your faith less strongly than I do to mine? Nothing in your previous comments would lead to that conclusion.

The problem in this discussion is really that many people here do not understand what religious belief is, and are so hostile to the word 'religion' that they cannot even contemplate it. RBR hates sociology and both RBR and Dr.S. loath "religion." Very well then. We can stop this thread. But why bother? I'm enjoying a light day at work.

As for the PD, I don't think Dr.S's answer came close. In all your life, Dr. S., you will never confront any situation even close to a prisoner's dilemma of infinite repetition and blind randomness. Most of the time there is just one interaction - just choice that matters- and I hear your expressed willingness to cooperate and take the penalty even though you know the probability is that it will work out badly for you. Why? One of the aspects of the prisoner's dilemma overlooked in the suggestion of repeated iterations is that, as initially posed, the prisoner's dilemma is incapable of repetition. The prisoners are gambling with their lives, really, facing death or years in prison. To act in that situation *as if one were facing an infinite set of choices* is very strange indeed.

I believe that Dr.S.or RBR cannot claim to be motivated by a rational attempt to maximize self-interest, unless we read "self-interest" so broadly as to lose all meaning (i.e., to read self-interest to mean "the interests of others over myself"). You both have commmitments to other ideas, for which you might even be willing to take the ultimate act against your own self-interest - perish.

 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

Darn it. I was just about to delete my previous two comments, as I had second thoughts.

I'll reply to LTG soon.

Dr. Strangelove said...

One quick thing. My "infinitely repeated" PD was a metaphor for one's entire life, not a single interaction.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"1. What is the evidence that conscience is biological?"

OK, this is one of the points I wanted to delete. I was wrong to say this. What I should have said is that my conscience is, as best as I can tell, a result of biology and sociology: nature and nurture. And this was not relevant anyhow since you've already backed off the metaphysical.

"2. I think you have created confusion by missing the difference between a belief (even if wracked with doubt or uncertainty) that something is of ultimate concern, unconditionally important, and an unconditional, abslolute belief in something."

I don't think I made this mistake. But let me be clear. I do not believe anything to be of ultimate concern or of unconditional importance. I also have no beliefs that are unconditional or absolute in their conviction.

"3. I'm waiting to hear any difference beyond the lack of a supernatural." I arrive at my beliefs at the end of my reasoning, not at the beginning. I take my leaps of faith when I have exhausted my reserves of logic an observation... whereas religious thinking starts with a leap of faith. That's a huge difference. You should address it.

You posed four options, and I'll show you how they play out against my answer so far.

Option (1): I don't take my own beliefs seriously. I do, but I change them when evidence warrants. Sufficient evidence could convince me that the bible, when properly interpreted, is a source of revealed truth rather than a repository of myth. Is there any evidence I could possibly present to you that would convince you of the opposite?

Option (2): I don't believe anything is worth dying for. I am, but that is because I am willing to die for something that is not of unconditional or ultimate importance. (At least, I think I am. Hopefully, this won't get tested...)

Option (3): I don't believe that I have a right to urge others to change their ways based on your beliefs. Correct. But I feel I have a right to urge others to change their ways based on the evidence. And the evidence forms the basis for my beliefs.

Option (4): I don't believe that things like rape and murder are justly punished by society, even though society consists of more than just me and my conceits? I do. But we've already established that ethics does not need to come from anything religious (or are you retracting that?)

As for the PD, I already mentioned that I think you misunderstood my metaphor. No choice is taken in isolation. That's a mistake that experience has taught me I should (try to) avoid. I agree that I am not maximizing self-interest, because such a claim would, as LTG rightly says, water down the term to nothing. (But surely that is not your definition of religion?! By abandoning the metaphysical aspect of religion, you've watered down that term so far that it is almost meaningless already.)

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against sociology. What I don't like is post-modernist "critical theory" which is found most commonly in the humanities rather than the social sciences but is found, unfortunately, among social science departments as well.

As for rational self-interest. I'll concede that my policy preferences are based only in part on my own self-interest. I also prefer policies that yield the greatest good to the greatest number (as I have said before). However I fail to see how that complexity in my own opinions neccesitates the existence of a religious foundation for them.

Why is LTG so reluctant to acknowlege the possibility that things like concern for others, ethics and committment to causes can have non-religious and even non-spiritual sources?

I know LTG to be an open minded and intelligent person. If I heard such reluctance from someone who I had no such confidence in, I would think their reluctance was a symptom of their trying to impose an absolut religious truth on me. Like Mormons baptizing people in absentia regardless of whether they've asked to be or not. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Let me respond here:

Option (1): I don't take my own beliefs seriously. I do, but I change them when evidence warrants. Sufficient evidence could convince me that the bible, when properly interpreted, is a source of revealed truth rather than a repository of myth. Is there any evidence I could possibly present to you that would convince you of the opposite?

Absolutely. I already believe the bible contains many myths. No issues there. The bible is a collection of stories, reports, letters, poems, and outright myths collected over the some 1500 years that represent the experience of the Jewish people with God and the early life and followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The evidence is pretty good that most of what is in the bible is "authentic" in the sense that they are real historical documents passed down from the time of their composition. Whatever they may be, nobody faked them in a medieval monastery. It is an authentic tradition, even if you believe it to be no more true than Ovid's Metamorphoses. To use a lawyer's analogy, the bible would be admissible as "evidence" to show what the Hebrews wrote and studied, but it is inadmissible hearsay as to the truth or falsehood of the statements contained therein (no jokes about dying declarations please).

(As an aside, compare this the Book of Mormon, which was created out of whole cloth by Joseph Smith in 1830, but purports be the work of people, races and nations that we archaeological and genaeological evidence shows never existed).

Option (2): I don't believe anything is worth dying for. I am, but that is because I am willing to die for something that is not of unconditional or ultimate importance. (At least, I think I am. Hopefully, this won't get tested...)

If you are willing to die for something, I think that's the definition that it is of ultimate importance to you - how could it be more important? I think you're working too hard to avoid the issue.

Option (3): I don't believe that I have a right to urge others to change their ways based on your beliefs. Correct. But I feel I have a right to urge others to change their ways based on the evidence. And the evidence forms the basis for my beliefs.

This does sound like more of an abolute claim to truth than I have advanced? It suggests that all right-thinking persons must agree with you unless they have better evidence, and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong. In a democracy, I think anyone who believes they have the right answer has the right to try to persuade others of this fact.

Option (4): I don't believe that things like rape and murder are justly punished by society, even though society consists of more than just me and my conceits? I do. But we've already established that ethics does not need to come from anything religious (or are you retracting that?)

You stated that your beliefs were just your own conceits. I asked you why "my own conceits" (which is a very limited claim) is enough to justify locking someone up in prison for the rest of his life for violating those conceits which you think could change at any time with new evidence. I think your ethical beliefs are deeper than just "your own conceits" - you think they are based on actual evidence, unlikely to be refuted, and should be followed the rest of society too. 

// posted by LTG

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR writes "Why is LTG so reluctant to acknowlege the possibility that things like concern for others, ethics and committment to causes can have non-religious and even non-spiritual sources?"

I have expressed zero reluctance of this kind! That's a straw man, and RBR knows it. For the record, I have always believed and always expressed on this blog that one does not have to believe in the supernatural to have ethics.

I have simply stated that such concern and commitment is inherently religious in the sense that those who have such ethical beliefs act as if they were sacred ideas. In other words, they have faith, doubt, commitment, reluctance, angst, but ultimately a willingness to take a stand and even risk everything for what they believe is true. What do you think a Christian thinks Jesus was about - exactly that! Understanding that this is so can make atheists and believers realize that the other is not so alien as they first appear. It can give us a language to communicate.

Dr. Strangelove said...

According to LTG, religious beliefs need not have anything to do with the supernatural, divine, or metaphysical. As far as LTG is concerned, for a belief to be “religious” means only, "actually believing… [that one] ought always to be true to [one’s] beliefs, and that they might even be worth dying for." LTG feels that any personal commitment where one has, “a willingness to take a stand and even risk everything for what they believe is true,” is, “inherently religious.”

The crux of our argument is that LTG sees no meaningful distinction between "belief" and "religous belief" (and wants to claim all deeply felt beliefs as “religious”) whereas I see “religious belief” as a distinct subset of "belief" in that it contains or relies upon non-falsifiable assumptions.

Is there any possible evidence I could show a true believer to convince him there is no God, or that Jesus was not the son of God (if he lived at all) and that he died for nobody? Or how about convincing a Mormon that his holy book was “created out of whole cloth,” as LTG put it?

LTG is right that some people have a civic religion re America... but I believe this is a threat to our democracy and freedom, for reasons I have expressed earlier.

Anonymous said...

Here is what I saw as LTG's reluctance:

"I believe that Dr.S.or RBR cannot claim to be motivated by a rational attempt to maximize self-interest, unless we read "self-interest" so broadly as to lose all meaning (i.e., to read self-interest to mean "the interests of others over myself"). You both have commmitments to other ideas, for which you might even be willing to take the ultimate act against your own self-interest - perish."

I see reluctance also in his denial of reluctance:

"I have simply stated that such concern and commitment is inherently religious in the sense that those who have such ethical beliefs act as if they were sacred ideas." 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Dr. S. writes "I see “religious belief” as a distinct subset of "belief" in that it contains or relies upon non-falsifiable assumptions."

Show me how your faith/belief is falsifiable, and we'll start talking. Your assertion is not enough. I think this is just another way of saying "belief in God is different from other beliefs because it is different." How is your faith falsifiable?

Your assumption seems to be that I base every other belief on God, and therefore won't change any other beliefs. That is not how it works. Beief in God is not a priori - for most of us it is rather derives as if an argument from the world a fortiori. (Latin doses for the day. Lawyers do that when we want to be pricks and pretend that our quasi-medieval education is special).

Nor, as a factual matter, do I think you actually arrived at your beliefs through a pure exercise of scientific reasoning. I mean, did you really try to figure out if murder was good or bad with a neutral scientific examination, entertaining the possibility that it was okay to kill, for example, the next person who stood on the movie ticket line ahead of you? I suspect your path rather mimics Pascal's famous line about God that he had "no need of that hypothesis."
 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG writes: "Show me how your faith/belief is falsifiable, and we'll start talking. Your assertion is not enough."

>May I take this as a tacit admission that religious beliefs are not falsifiable? As for my assertion not being enough, I think we've reached the end of our ability to discuss this if you think I'm just lying to you--or that I don't understand my own belief system enough to discuss it.

LTG writes: "Belief in God... derives as if an argument from the world a fortiori."

>So by this do you mean that you are now claiming your religious beliefs are based on evidence or proof? I believe you explicitly said that it was not (I quote): "Most religious people would not dare contend that their faith is based on 'reason and observation'...Grace alone, I believe, was Luther's formulation."

LTG writes: "Nor, as a factual matter, do I think you actually arrived at your beliefs through a pure exercise of scientific reasoning. I mean, did you really try to figure out if murder was good or bad with a neutral scientific examination...?"

>I never claimed this: you are making a straw man of my argument. I never said I started with a blank slate. In fact what I said earlier was, "my conscience is, as best as I can tell, a result of biology and sociology: nature and nurture." I have derived new beliefs through reason, however, and I have also done my best to put all my preconceived ideas through the mill of reason and experience to see if they hold up or need to be changed. That's philosophy. Religious beliefs, however, are not subject to the same mill. Religious people do not apply the same standards of evidence to their religious beliefs as they do to their other beliefs. Don't get me wrong--they may question and doubt their faith, but it is a different process from the normal one, since the same evidentiary standards do not apply. As even you have admitted, most religious beliefs are practically defined so as to be unprovable (unless you have some proof of God of which I am unaware?)

**BUT I need to make a clarification and partial retraction. LTG's recent comment as given me pause for reflection, and I realize that I have blurred together two different types of belief, and in so doing I have wronged religious people. Let me try to set my error right.

There are beliefs about value (e.g., "murder is wrong") and beliefs about fact (e.g., "Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone"). I have confused these.

A system of beliefs about value can be shown to be inconsistent, and an individual statement of belief can be shown to be without meanigful content... but since it is not strictly a logical proposition, a single belief about value cannot be "falsified" in the sense I claimed earlier.

On the other hand, a belief about fact can be falsified. My problem with religious beliefs about fact is that they are exempted from the possibility of falisification. For example, there is no evidence I could possibly bring to bear that would convince a believer that Mohammed was not a true prophet. These are the dangerous beliefs. These are the ones that underlie creationism and make scientists angry enough that some of us get "cooties" when religion is brought into the mix.

It is unfortunate, therfore, that many religious people base their statements of value on their (non-falsifiable) statements of fact. For example, "Abortion is wrong because the soul enters the embryo at conception." I once had a friend who said--very articulately, I thought--that he believed abortion to be wrong, but that this was not based on anything else. It was a stand-alone assumption. At that point, one could try to show it was inconsistent with other values (e.g., support for the death penalty?) but the "religious fact" problem was now safely out of the picture.

So now maybe I can give LTG some of what he has been asking for. Someone who's faith may have inspired or enriched their values--but who has not based their values on religious beliefs of fact--has the same kind of belief as I do. I think this is how LTG, as an enlightened and modern Christian thinker, works. I don't think LTG looks at the Bible to find his values written there, but he accepts some of the stories in the bible as inspiration for or examples of how to approach ethical issues. I do that too, by the way! But since I don't think the Bible is sacred, I feel free to ignore passages that don't make sense or are not consistent; I feel no need to go back to the Aramaic to try to figure out what the sacred text "really" says.

I would say that such ethical beliefs are inspired by religion, but are not "religious beliefs" in the standard usage: they are not incontrovertible or absolute or unconditional, and they require nothing divine or metaphysical. But LTG has already said repeatedly that ethics need not be based on religion, so I think we are in agreement here.

Anonymous said...

Dr. S. writes "But since I don't think the Bible is sacred, I feel free to ignore passages that don't make sense or are not consistent; I feel no need to go back to the Aramaic to try to figure out what the sacred text "really" says."

So do I, by the way, and so do many progressive Christians and Christian churches. There is quite a difference between those who make an idol of the bible, and seek answers from it like an oracle, and those who use it as I have described, as a very human record of man's interaction with God. Original texts are valuable not because they contain more truth, but because they are more authentic records.

p.s. for what it's worth, almost none of the sacred texts are in Aramaic. It is one of the curiosities of the Christian religion that the "original" documents (gospels, letters) were written in koine, or common Greek, which was not the language of Jesus. In other words, the "original" is, in fact, a translation. A very few words of Jesus are recorded (in quotes) in Aramaic. Two come to mind. One is "ephatha!" meaning "be opened!" said in the healing of a deaf woman. The other is what he said on the cross: "eli eli lama sabach thani" meaning "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Students of Arabic or Hebrew will recognize immediately that Eli is a vocative related to Allah, because Aramaic is very close.
 

// posted by LTG

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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