Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why Does Religious Extremism Flourish?

There is a touching little article over at RH Reality Check, a reproductive rights website, about a Catholic man who also happens to be strongly pro-choice, and his interactions with others who outwardly are against reproductive rights, but inwardly feel the same as he. Why, the author asks, do these level-headed bishops and priests not attain the levels of power as the extremists so perfectly manifested in the Pope's recent blessing of a woman who is pushing for a Ugandan death penalty for homosexuals?

He recounts the unease with which his fellow-Catholic conversational partners circumlocute the issues — the tendancy to avoid the subject all together — to keep their head down, as it were. Why do these people not succeed?

They do not succeed for the same reason that people like Bishop John Shelby Spong have reached the point of almost rejecting divinity in Christianity. For the same reason the religious are terrified of gay marriage. For the same reason we have an absolute first amendment. The slippery slope.

Absolute knowledge is comforting. When we accept flexible interpretations, interpretations of religion as not having the absolute model of reality, we lose our foundation. We lose the comfort of knowledge, in a scary and indeterminate world, that religion gives. This sort of thinking was recently embodied very well by the Supreme Court justice you love to hate, Antonin Scalia, who likened homosexuality to murder.
“If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against these other things? Of course we can. I don’t apologize for the things I raised. I’m not comparing homosexuality to murder. I’m comparing the principle that a society may not adopt moral sanctions, moral views, against certain conduct. I’m comparing that with respect to murder and that with respect to homosexuality.”
He claimed this was a reduction to the absurd, which only reveals that he doesn't know what that term means, which is truly depressing for someone on the Supreme Court.1 Regardless, what he claims to be arguing against is the dreaded slippery slope. To wit, if we cannot hold beliefs about, and thus predicate laws on, moral intuition in the case of homosexuality, then we are not justified in holding moral beliefs against murder and any other number of heinous crimes.

Scalia arrogantly and condescendingly feigned surprise that his interlocutor was not persuaded by this argument. Perhaps he was not persuaded because it was apparent to everyone that what he had actually done was undermine the belief that murder is morally wrong, or was simply defining "moral" incorrectly.

The point remains though. Scalia put into explicit, logical parlance the belief that by accepting one level-headed proposition, we are forced to recognize that a large swath of other beliefs are undermined, which when applied to strongly-held dogmatic beliefs, is unacceptable.

We do not give time to these religious people precisely because of the nature of religious belief. Dogma must be affirmed absolutely, and no matter how kind-hearted that dogma may become in some circles, it will become ever more resolute in others. Religion is, at least in the Western Judeo-Christian formulation, doomed to forever be lead by the fanatics. I mentioned J.S. Spong earlier, and he is the perfect manifestation of where Christiantiy, and truly any religion must go to avoid this trap: away from deity worship and into a life philosophy. Christiantiy must, for all intents and purposes, become Buddhism.

Most people find this unacceptable. They do not want to give up what they have, even if what they have is of only the vaguest definition. They want their god to be God, their truth to be true, and their world to be the way the world truly is. Even if none of those propositions stand up under scrutiny, that only means that scrutiny should be avoided.

There are many who call for religion to neither become something else nor be extreme. The term no absolute model is taken from William Egginton, who argues for religious moderation by rejecting the belief that one has access to an absolute model of reality. One model of reality is no better or worse than another model of reality. Ignoring all of the issues that I have with this, it is a friendly and acceptable idea on its face. It is a way that we truly can all just get along, even if our dogmas don't mesh.

Again, I believe that the issue that prevents religious moderation, and always will, is that the very act of being moderate undermines the beliefs. Dogmas do not mesh not because people are at logical odds with one another about metaphysical particulars. Dogmas do not mesh because dogma invariably must access the "real" world.2 Dogma must be attached to behavior of some sort, and it is here where they clash, since metaphysical dogmas can never be truly attached to the real world in any significant way. Anyone could be correct, since truth is meaningless in the battlefield of dogmatic beliefs. And accepting that anyone could be correct about something that is so important is obviously something that will never fly. As a believer who is going to predicate a large amount of internal and external behavior around a belief, I want to be damn sure that the belief is true.

In search of this confidence, we look to those who are sure, and anyone who is sure is bound to be an extremist, especially vis-a-vis religion, since no one can ever be sure about it! No matter how much kind-hearted believers want to wish otherwise, religion needs strong dogma to survive. Religion needs extremism to be its assured guiding hand. Without it, it crumbles under the weight of its own inconsistencies and slides down the slippery slope of reason into an abyss of forgotten dreams.

Further reading:
The Problem with Religious Moderates (Excerpt from The End of Faith, by Sam Harris)


1: There are a number of permutations of the reductio argument, but two types that most frequently receive the label: negating an argument by deriving something contradictory from its underlying principles, or maintaining an argument by first negating it and then deriving the original argument from that negation. Scalia thinks he is doing the latter. What he is actually doing is calling into question the foundation of moral thought, even though he doesn't want to admit that.

2: I put "real" in quotes because I am in some dodgy linguistic waters in this part of the article. Egginton argues against the idea of an absolute model of reality, and by using the term "real" to describe the physical realm implies that there is an absolute reality to which dogmas refer. As you can imagine, following his line of thought to its absolute conclusion results in skeptical nihilism and an inability to reject or accept anything. We can freely kill one another because reality isn't anything in itself. For my part, I accept phenomenalism. All that "exists" for me is what I sense, and the model of a persistent physical realm in which other minds exist is a model that has proven useful for my mental continuity. Everything I write is predicated on the idea that there are other minds like me floating in this metaphysical realm. I do not seek the truth of an absolute model, I seek the truth of functional consistency.

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