Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hitchens versus Blair on religion, and an alternative defense of religion (warning: Jesse in philosophy mode)

Sometimes I think I spend too much time trying to read provocative stuff on the computer, and I wonder if I should be getting out more? Or at least watching movies, instead of trying to read words, on these video screens? But today my attention was called to a transcript of a debate between Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair on the following topic: "Resolved: Religion is a force for good in the world." So I had to read it. And now, having read it, I have to respond to this public display of rhetoric, a showcase of a debate carried out in the most mundane terms possible. It's a sad truth... Hitchens' sensationalist provocation versus Tony Blair's apologism just didn't make a very interesting debate.

Strangely, though the resolution seems to place the burden of proof on Tony Blair's shoulders, Christopher Hitchens immediately takes up the role of arguing a constructive thesis (in essence, arguing the inverse of the resolution), possibly because he's called upon to go first. He does this with relish, of course, because it's a position he's been practicing his whole life. Hitchens' argument is almost too predictable for my taste: organized religion is an irrational institution that makes conflicting and regressive demands of its followers, and it amplifies their negative tendencies, especially tribalism, dependence, and submission. His evidence is pretty obvious: a litany of global conflicts and suppressions undertaken in the name of religion, or at least with religion as an essential component, however ambiguously. Disempowerment of women and the crisis in Gaza are two of his favorite situations to cite, but he also manages to co-opt a number of other genocides and point out the role of religions in their perpetuation.

Tony Blair argues a hazy counter-position that attempts to drag Hitchens' claim into doubt. He essentially says that Hitchens can't prove religion is a wholly negative influence, given all the positive work done in the name of the church. He downplays Hitchens' anecdotal evidence, provides a few counterexamples, and appeals to a sort of common wisdom: that just from everyday social experience, you can tell that a great many people can be part of a religious community, and channel that experience into positive actions and intentions... and that these people can be fully logical and reasonable, as well. But Blair isn't making any positive argument in favor of religion, so much as taking a defensive stance against Hitchens' rabid atheism.

This is a weak-ass debate, I have to say. I'd expect Hitchens to take a stronger position, but he waters down his argument, saying in his second speech, "Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I'm arguing is it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism." This echoes the circumlocutive nature of Blair's argument, which is infused with apologism. He keeps saying things like, "My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good." I'm telling you! Weak weak weak!

These two characters are basically arguing the same thing: religion's done bad stuff, but it's not ALL bad stuff. Hitchens says there should be more secularism, Blair says it's important to see religion in its positive aspects and try to reinforce those aspects. They're like two samurais who circle without ever coming in for a sword strike.

Hitchens won the debate, according to the polls. I think this is just because he's a lot more passionate about secularism than Blair is about theology. But couldn't one of these two find a more creative way of framing and expressing their argument? I think I can, and though I'm a mere non-committal agnostic, I think I could have made a better case for religion as a "positive force in the world" than Tony Blair did. Let me give it a shot.

WARNING: Long, abstract argument about religion looms ahead.

First, to answer Hitchens, who sets the tone for this debate: Hitchens spends his words characterizing religion as a supernatural belief system with detrimental outcomes. Among these:

  • "To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment"
  • "To consider women an inferior creation"
  • "[to force] nice people to do unkind things, and also [to make] intelligent people say stupid things"

  • These points do not stand as self-evident, no matter how loyal you are to enlightenment thinking. Images of hell and eternal punishment are an Abrahamic staple, mirrored in images of heaven and salvation, and linked to a deeper philosophy that moral choices have spiritual consequences (not, in itself, a terribly negative idea). In many religions, they are replaced by karmic mechanisms of rebirth, or by a yearning for emptiness as freedom from self-indulgence and vanity (Eastern philosophies are definitely religions, make no mistake). Historically, churches have been connected with female empowerment as well as subjugation, and they've been accredited as a powerful part of the civil rights movement. And the last of those three points is such an abstraction, it's almost meaningless... it can be answered readily with the claim that religion provided a social and institutional groundwork for GOOD works, for humility and community and human solidarity, and that religion's role in tribalism is as much a consequence of the latter as a fault of the former.

    So these points neutralize themselves, simply because the anecdotal effects of religion are so contingent on its historical conditions (and also, so subject to observational bias and retroactive interpretation). Instead of trying to find reasons to praise or blame religion, we should consider its historical role in the world, the dramatic ambient influence it has had over the centuries. That's where, if anywhere, we'll discover its overarching value: its long-term outcomes, whether they're positive or negative.

    When you say, "What has religion always given us, in different ways, throughout the history of civilization?" I think the best answer is that it's created a space for the discussion of morality as a function of transcendental consciousness. There has always been power, and self-regard, and goal-seeking behavior, but by appealing to a transcendental authority, religion has put morality beyond the reach of the contingent historical circumstances, so that "virtue" and "right and wrong" can be discussed and regarded as an independent sphere of principles. That's what's so important in the idea of a higher power, whether it's a monotheistic consciousness or an oligarchy of conflicted dieties... or even, in Eastern cases, a highly-abstracted "heaven and Earth," a Tao or a true nature of the universe. And I'll argue that this not only makes religion justifiable in pragmatic terms... it also clarifies the logic and validity of its truth-claims. Looked at as an historical artifact, religion is neither "evil" or "misguided."

    It's hard to imagine a culture entirely without religion -- without any sense of a higher power or a transcendental framework. However, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that such a society would be deeply driven by survival instincts and power struggles. Human interaction can't happen without some sort of heirarchy and authority, however provisional it is, and without the stabalizing force of a "higher power," isn't it pretty reasonable to assume that power struggles would entirely dictate our loyalties and our deference? And that the strongest would become the final authority on moral good? People like Christopher Hitchens may hate the idea of a transcendental source of absolute authority, but isn't this far better than what we would get from an earthly source of absolute authority?

    By making morality and virtue a conversation that can take place outside the immediate, strength-based power structure, religion has been an excellent tool to challenge the social and political hegemonies throughout history. If you can have communities of faith, you can escape the tendency to organize into ethnic enclaves, or alliances of wealth, or (especially) strength-based classes of master and slave. I find Nietzsche's ideology to be a bit noxious, but there's something to be learned from his work in The Genealogy of Morality. He claims that religion allowed the slave to become the master by effectively inverting the standard dominant/submissive parity. With religion, weakness could become a virtue; excess and brutality could be seen as flaws. Nietzsche thought this was a shitty development, but I think it's not so bad. Morality SHOULD be more complex than "do what the strongest guy tells you," shouldn't it?

    Indeed, as long as we're talking about philosophers, we should mention the idea of discourse ethics: that "moral truths" are gradually being illuminated by way of a collective process of reasoning, carried out in conversation, debate, and rational rhetoric in public discourse. This idea is championed by contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas... and though Habermas doesn't talk directly about religion, as far as I know, he does claim that ethics are evolving within society by way of ongoing conversations about morality. And it's hard to imagine many conversations about morality without some appeal to a transcendental moral authority. It's the public institution of religion that's provided the changing platform for this kind of discourse throughout history.

    It's actually kind of amazing, the way religion's focus on virtue and moral self-awareness has allowed it to be such a dynamic system. The various reformations couldn't have happened in such a strong, hierarchical system, if that system was purely political and terrestrial. It's only by appealing to the higher power that Martin Luther was able to question the Catholic Church's corruption at the time. And I think, arguably, religion has been involved in every major moral evolution throughout the history of man's moral consciousness. Even in times like the Enlightenment, when man was moving away from centralized organized religion, there was still an appeal to the higher will of God, manifesting in various forms of deism and religious fragmenting throughout the world. This fragmenting led isolated communities to seek freedom, and their spiritual solidarity and desire for liberation led to the formation of our current democratic republic.

    The newest version of this kind of shift is the new movement from institutional organized religion to pluralistic, personal religious conviction. It's a credit to the power and flexibility of religion that this evolution can take place so naturally.

    I said above that the "transcendental moral" nature of religious thought isn't just pragmatically justified... it's also rationally justified. The reason I say this is that religion, the placement of trust in a higher power, mirrors an actual human faculty for which there is no ultimate natural account. This is the human capacity to treat virtue and moral rightness as ends to be pursued in themselves, rather than mere survival techniques or responses to threats of force. Indeed, we can look for a rational reason for empathy and purity of conviction all we want, but it's always going to become a bit ambiguous when you account for self-sacrifice, stewardship, pacificism, and the passionate devotion to abstract principles. Rational explanation is too strict, too raw, too cynical to account for this whole moral structure.

    Religious faith is a way of reconciling the knowledge that these moral impulses come from something greater than the biologically-determined, self-regarding individual consciousness. It's not illogical to perceive a transcendental force of harmony at work in the world, and this force would exist outside the plane of rational, deterministic explanation. Religions are all ways of encountering this transcendental force, through various traditions, metaphors, narratives, and belief systems. Reason legitimizes them, purely by virtue of its inherent incompleteness.

    That's my argument, I think -- not short, but hopefully succinct enough to be clear. Religion is indeed a force for good in the world, because it's provided a platform and pivot-point, at every stage in history, for a debate on morality and virtue outside the demands of power and self-preservation. And even in the face of reason, religion is a legitimate project, because we will always have to go looking for "truth" in places that logical and reason can't entirely illuminate... especially in the case of moral and spiritual truths.


    Garreth said...

    Hitchens is a clever man. I mean that in both the pejorative and positive sense. He certainly knows his way around an argumentative discussion, what with his educational pedigree and what not. However, I think he tends manipulate arguments through rhetorical tactics.

    I've read a number of his articles in different places, and I read a book he wrote called, Notes to a Young Contrarian. Most memorable for me, however, was an appearance of his on The Daily Show where I'm quite sure, given the color of his nose and cheeks and his unsure seated posture, that he was quite plastered. Smart as a whip, still, just unfocused and rambling.

    Given his diagnosis of cancer, his impending demise is a sad postscript, but an interesting backstory for this debate

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