Thursday, November 02, 2006

Enlightenment as Discomfort

Yesterday I talked a little about how one might respond more sensibly to the challenge supposedly presented by religion to the secular liberal order. Today I want to post briefly about the secular liberals, the inheritors of the Enlightenment.

Something of the coherence of these defenders of the Enlightenment seems to come from their dislike of religion and especially fundamentalist religion. Which is all very well, up to a point. But while it is clear that the faithful are being bamboozled into acceptance of the 'War on Terror' through the the idea of a religious struggle between Jesus and Mohammed, I don't think that liberals have entirely appreciated how the idea of a confrontation between the enlightened West and benighted Islam also serves to make the 'thoughtful media' safe for American foreign policy aims.

In this respect, as in so many others, it seems that Enlightenment resides in putting an end to a certain kind of comfort and in recognising that we can also become caught up in a system of unstated resentments and inadmissible satisfactions. Though the language differs according to taste and cultural background, the temptations are not so very different - to live in a world of simple binary divisions.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Faith and Reason (Part 1)

This is a topic I will come back to, again and again, I suspect, so I thought I would start as I mean to go on.

There has been a spate of books in recent years that have sought to set out a simple division between faith and reason in which faith is understood as being a commitment to Biblical (or Koranic) literalism and reason is a commitment to materialism and the values of the Enlightenment. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The End of Faith by Sam Harris adopt this central organizing division.

We will have plenty of opportunities to examine this style of thought in the months ahead (Christopher Hitchens and Al Gore both have books coming out that will, I suspect, seek to join a party already in full swing). But right now I just want to ask whether if what Dawkins and Harris say is true - that fundamentalist religion poses a unique and autonomous threat to secular society, even to the survival of mankind - their response is a sensible one. (They are quite wrong of course, let's be clear about that, but like I say, we have plenty of time).

Because faced with this terrible threat to science and reason, both Dawkins and Harris seem to think that a campaign of ridicule makes sense as a response. "My, aren't they all idiots, these religious nuts - they think the world is 6,000 years old! And they are scary too - they want to kill all the witches and the infidels!" That seems to the the sum of their program. Mock them enough and the Christians will finally see the error of their ways.

Wouldn't it make more sense for progressives to recognise the sincerity and decency of many millions of fundamentalist Christians, and stop fantasising about a world where brilliantly enlightened polemic would be enough to make them change their Bible-loving ways? Because if we tried to speak with these Christians in a register they understand, it would be more likely to result in trouble for the religious right, who we can all agree are a trouble to the world.

For example, much has been made in recent years about the unnerving character of the modern, publicly traded corporation. Without wanting to imagine that all the ills of capitalism can be solved by better regulation or reform of corporate law, the corporation is important to the modern system both practically and symbolically. There is no reason why fundamentalist Christians cannot be enlisted in the campaign against corporate power just as secular progressives have. After all, corporations have some very thought-provoking characteristics. Joel Bakan describes them as being psychopathic in his book The Corporation. But we can use another register altogether.

After all, a corporations is immortal and possessed of an inhuman clarity of purpose, to seek profit above all other considerations. An immortal and fictitious person, incapable of any human feeling yet entirely ravenous, a leviathan given form and cover by thousands of human beings: such a monster must surely outrage the faithful. If the evangelicals wish to fight dragons, then let us invite them to join us in a crusade against these demonic concentrations of greed – for what is a thing that does not live and does not age? The overwhelming moral emergency presented by the modern industrial corporation seems more likely to appeal to the evangelical imagination than the managerialist policies of the Democrats and the Labour Party.

It's just a thought. For decades fundamentalists in the United States have been cannon fodder for all kinds of nutty policies. It is high time secular progressives started to speak to them in terms that they will recognise, to show them a way out of the torments of the 'culture wars'. If anyone starts talking about prayer in schools or creationism, you can just point out that Reagan was a warlock and that Bush isn't really born again. Neither of those two factoids are jokes, by the way, they are just stone cold facts that have their basis in the word of the Lord. Hallelujah!

The history of the Labour Party shows that deep religiosity doesn't have to mean hostility to progress. In fact the party was a sight more radical when it was run by born-again Christians than it is now. God knows the left could use a few million people who get up early, do what they say they will do, and who look forward to a better world than this.

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