Friday, April 13, 2007

Religious ideologies & the social order, secularization theory & cross-cultural studies

Written 1 January 2007:

I have learned a lot over the past few years from studies of the history of New Age thought, the western appropriation of the philosophies of India, China, and Japan, and cross-cultural studies of religion and mysticism, particularly comparing India and the West. Sources can be found at the bottom section of my atheism web guide. Let me also point out my recently published book review:

Dumain, Ralph. “Secularism, science and the Right” [Review: Nanda, Meera. The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Three Essays Collective, July 2005. 118 pp. ISBN paper 81–88789–30–5.], Frontline [India’s National Magazine from the publishers of The Hindu], Volume 23, Issue 24, Dec. 02–15, 2006.

I experienced a sudden insight at the tail end of a four-day philosophy conference, just concluded:

The American Philosophical Association
Eastern Division One Hundred Third Annual Meeting,
Washington, DC, December 27—30, 2006

It happened during this session:

VIII-K. Special Session Arranged by the APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies
Topic: Tensions in the Making of “Self” Across Cultures: Some Themes Invoking Interactive Prospects

Chair: P. M. John (Westfield State College)
Speakers: David R. Schiller (Independent Scholar)
“Moral Leaders, Practical Harmonics, and Moral Delight”
Ifeanyi Menkiti (Wellesley College)
“‘I Am Because We Are’—A Traditional Answer to a Modern Question?: Reflections on the Hermeneutics of ‘Self’ in African Culture”
Brad Art (Westfield State College)
“A ‘Suffering’ Job in Search of his ‘Self’: An Existential Encounter in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition”
P. M. John (Westfield State College)
“The Samsaric, the karmic, and the Real ‘Self’ in Hinduism: From an Illusory World to the Real Brahman through a Reciprocal Karma”

The program was shuffled around a bit, but I was there for three presentations—on the cosmological and religious beliefs concerning the self in Hinduism (India), the Book of Job (Old Testament), and traditional sub-Saharan African societies. This session was absolutely fascinating, because I learned not only what was taught but something extra that was not: how to relate religious ideologies to the social structures from which they are derived. This latter element was left out of the talks entirely and I interjected it after each talk. However, the self-contained systematic presentation of each of these belief systems was highly illuminating.

The analysis of the Book of Job revealed subtleties in Old Testament Judaism I had never appreciated before, also giving me a new perspective with which to criticize it I had never dreamed of before. The treatment was so subtle and nuanced I should repeat it in detail, as there are some deep lessons to be learned about the structure and motivation of the belief system of the ancient Hebrews and their relation to their god. There was, however, no mention made of the real historical circumstances under which the Book of Job was written or was admitted into the canon.

I was always puzzled why Meera Nanda (see my book review above) treated Hinduism unfavorably in comparison to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Listening to the exposition this afternoon, I finally realized why Hinduism is the most horrible religion ever devised by man. Comparing these belief systems, it became clear to me that Hinduism is absolutely the worst of all of them, and I let the speaker on the subject have it with both barrels. He was not inclined to defend it, but he was unable to say anything in response. Then another member of the audience, who looked like he may have been from that part of the world, went on by citing some horrors from the Laws of Manu.

The African speaker was more general in his characterization of conceptions of the self in traditional African societies, but the organization of village life and the role of the ancestors (the deceased) gave at least a broad context to the social function of their belief systems.

You can learn a great deal from the internal conceptual structure of these world views, but you cannot truly understand them without measuring them up to the social orders they are designed to stabilize. But you must also not simply view them as irrelevant disorganized effluvia or mumbo jumbo whose content is entirely arbitrary. The key is in the interaction between the ideologies and their societies, and the role that superstition plays in the relations connecting the known and the unknown, the facts of existence and a regulative conception of Right. I’m not saying anything new, but I spontaneously realized how to apply this insight in any situation that calls for it.

And then I had another sudden insight as to just how worthless Dawkins and Dennett and Sam Harris really are in explaining anything about how ideologies are created, structured, and passed on in societies. There is nothing there. It’s as if every society that ever was is structured like a free market in which some advertising (meme) is more attractive and memorable than another. It is just that childish. Dawkins simply doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t know anything. And he is ideologically determined in a way of which he is totally unconscious, which is just what ideology is. It’s not like I didn’t realize it before, but now it was suddenly clear as to how an approach to the subject matter must be entirely different.

And there is also a reason why the groupies of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are as ignorant as they are. They know they hate religion, superstition, authoritarianism, ignorance, dishonesty, hypocrisy, stupidity, and delusional thinking—which is not to be sneezed at!—but the problem is, they don’t really have a handle on anything else about society and ideas. In other words, atheists in America are just like other Americans. Maybe this should be a selling point: “We are just like you, only slightly less clueless.”

I have started out the new year reading about theories of secularization and their application to different societies and historical periods. And then it hit me that this is what we need in our milieu. This is the missing link.

As far as I can tell, we are on two different tracks that converge or diverge in confusing ways, which I will now enumerate in a simplified fashion as extremes:

(1) separation of church and state (religion and government),

(2) agitation for (a) atheism or (b) the public acceptance of atheists.

While (1) and (2b) are compatible, (1) and (2a) sometimes work at cross-purposes. When you interact with the public, do you really want to get caught up in arguing about the existence of a god when other priorities take precedence? There are of course, gradations of issues in between, from issues of secularization and reason in the public sphere to the problems of revealed religions and superstitions. This middle ground, in addition to church-state separation, is our real battlefield. The assault on “God” as an abstract concept is only of significance in (a) its conflation with specific religious systems, beliefs, and institutions, (b) its role in pseudoscience, (c) the incompatibility of the anthropomorphic attributes of God with what scientific knowledge has taught us about the universe.

In addition to all the arguments we need to muster to combat ignorance in all these areas, we need to understand more about the relation of superstitions to social forces, and thus we need to attend to comparative studies and especially theories of secularization and desecularization. For this purpose, we have to push Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Shermer out of our way, for they are not only useless but positively harmful.

1 comment:

quo said...

I could be wrong, but I cannot help suspecting that the real cause of your outrage is the fact that Dennett, Dawkins and Harris are getting a lot of attention and you aren't.