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the Religious Conservative's False Choice

Over at his blog, my friend Dan recently reposted a blog article from back in February, looking at whether we should avoid challenging religion for practical reasons. This was my first time reading the post, and I found myself quite agreeing with Dan at several points. But I also found myself wondering how common this argument was? Or more precisely whether we should take the argument he's criticizing as representative or even compatible with the religious traditions conservatives are usually inspired by.

Let's start with the argument Dan is reacting against. He takes it from an email from someone named Caroline:

It would also be nice if people would carry out actions in good conscience of just being decent human beings rather than in fear of reprisal in the afterlife, but as there are “decent and undecent men in every crowd” (Frankl), it is not likely that humanity and some sort of functional moralistic system would hold up under strained conditions. And even under a fairly prosperous society such as ours, how much can the law really control without a Big Brother system? It is imaginable that these spiritual notions that keep people hopeful and happy about their lives also serve to maintain functional morality at least. Isn’t it possibly that being quick to remove religions altogether could be a cure worse than the illness?


As I understand it, the argument goes something like this:

  1. Society is full of people without a conscience, who can't be trusted to behave morally without some sort of coercion.

  2. We can either coerce people through the church or through the government.

  3. For the government to effectively coerce people into acting morally when they wouldn't otherwise do so, there will be lots of bad consequences (need for intrusive surveillance, complete taking away of freedom, possibility of unjust incarceration, etc.)

  4. So we shouldn't get in the way of the church's ability to coerce the faithful.


Now, I reject this argument for several reasons. So does Dan, and I think our reasons are mostly - though perhaps not totally - the same. Here's what I would say:

  1. Conservatives are just too damned pessimistic about human nature. They don't trust people to be truly free, and they think someone needs to control people to keep them from hurting themselves and others. Ergo the need for coercion. And I simply don't buy that.


  2. If a religious institution can manipulate someone in the right way, they can manipulate them in the wrong way just as easily - because clergy aren't angels. Arguably, in many ways they are worse than their conservative counterparts. I've seen comments from pastors and imams and rabbis and every other stripe of "holy" man that I don't think anyone in modern society would dare to say, if it wasn't in the name of some holy book or other.


  3. It is always worse to imprison the mind than to imprison the body. If someone is genuinely unable to develop a conscience, then it is better to lock them in prison than to try to scare them out of even wanting to act immorally. Genuine character development is impossible. In that case, you'd be keeping them from even having the desires that come naturally to them, rather than just keeping them from acting on said desires. If religion's purpose is to scare people straight, that's even more restrictive an incarceration than jail would be.

    (It should be said: if jail's purpose is truly to prevent further harm rather than punish, they'd be a lot more humane than they are today. And punishment shouldn't enter into the picture. If a person is really incapable of growing a conscience, they're not responsible for what they do - they are in a certain sense inhuman. Which is tragic and pitiable, but if they're really beyond help to realize they're acting wrongly, I'd say they don't deserve blame.)


So, as far as all that goes, I agree with Dan. But I also think this is a pretty bad reason for thinking we should keep religion around - because it's a pretty bad description of what religion should be doing. The purpose of religion isn't repulsive but attractive. It should provide a standard to aim for and a metaphor that helps them think about how to get there. A narrative, a language that helps guide their thought, but that the faithful are ultimately in charge of interacting with. Not a coercive tool, and certainly not something imposed on the masses by the PTB.

Now, as a description of how religious people actually think, this idea of religion as carrot-or-stick might be pretty fair. I personally think it's a bastardization of religion (in the original etymology of twice-binding, in this case man to God), and I actually have a hard time understanding why it's so prevalent in people who call themselves Christians. Theologically, it shouldn't matter how ethical your actions are. You've already screwed up so bad - or more precisely, Adam and Eve already screwed up so badly on your behalf - that there's nothing you could ever do to make it any better or worse. Hell isn't for bad action but for refusing to accept something offered. So if people think we shouldn't murder or lie or steal because we might get sent down below, I'd say they're not really real Christians.

When I type that, I keep hearing the voices of the conservative pundits who said Anders Breivig wasn't a real Christian because real Christians couldn't possibly be so evil. But that's not what I mean. I mean this view, held by a lot of so-called Christians stands in direct contradiction to Christianity's core theology. Can't speak for Judaism, Islam, or the rest, of course. But even in the Bible you see an awareness that this could be a real problem. Remember, Paul asks, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?" (Rom 6:1). If anything, Christianity should make people less moral rather than more - unless there's a real character change.

And for that, coercion just won't work - certainly not on those people who aren't capable of growing a conscience. Actually, authoritarian religion won't work, either. If the point of religion is to have you believe a check-list of propositions about the nature of God, morality, metaphysics, an afterlife, etc., well, those are still just propositions. And on this point at least I'm pretty strongly Aristotelian: the way you develop a capacity and an inclination to act a certain way isn't by passively having facts transmitted into you, but by having a set of experiences. Just like you can't develop strong biceps by injecting muscle mass directly into your forearm; you need the raw material, yes, but you need to lift a few barbells as well.

Over in his bio at Camels with Hammers, Dan says that he was a "devout Evangelical Christian" until his final semester of undergrad, and even attended one of the more conservatively religious schools in the country. I grew up Methodist with a strong dose of Catholicism, and so I think the associations I have with religion may be different than Dan's. Yes, the place we lived when I was figuring out my religious identity (high school + undergrad years) was a small Appalachian town where all churches seemed to have a more fundamentalist bent, and I had a hard time with that. So I get a lot of how Dan sees Christianity and religion generally (or at least how I think he sees it; it's always possible I am making assumptions).

Still, growing up we were not fundamentalists who believed there were certain bullet-points everyone had to believe in. Nor were we evangelicals who thought that breadth of outreach should trump depth of theology. We were Methodists, and that meant accepting that reason was involved in how we interpreted Scripture and viewed religion. If I am taught that two passages mean things that seem to contradict each other, then there's a challenge, a place to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). These are the phainomena Aristotle said drove us to examine things more deeply and work out just how things really work. My understanding of what my religion teaches is never completely finished, and neither is any other humans. If someone seems to have an authoritarian understanding of the right and the good, I'd say they're fooling themselves.

I'd also point out that in many traditions, theology itself is dynamic. A good example is the Jewish rabbinic Pardes model, where Scripture has several parallel truths, and the fact that one is true does not mean the other is true. Revelation is supposed to work forever, and not be a one-time gift that we understand and then move on from. So when the Israelites were told not to kill, or only to take fair compensation for an injury suffered (eye for eye, etc.) that may have been a radical enough teaching for the time. Once they'd absorbed it, though, the teaching could instruct them still to go further down the same path, if they treated it like a continuous teaching rather than a one-time deal. Dynamic, not fixed and authoritarian.

So I'd agree with Dan and others who have made similar arguments, that if an institution just tries to make people stand in line and accept the completely-worked-out truth, that needs to be fought against. It's lazy and works against autonomy, as Dan observed quite well. I'll gladly join him in that fight (and try to, though I work more from the inside). But where I get hung up is this idea that that's what religion is really all about. Religion in my experience is all about humility and realizing what you don't know. It's also all about realizing there's no one who can explain the truth to you.

I can't help thinking, that if people really believed that we'd be less prone to authoritarianism rather than more. And I know for myself, I started figuring out that my pastor (or my favorite author, or my teacher, or my duly elected official) didn't know everything when I started reading things for myself rather than trusting what others had to say. My gut instinct is that religion, like most institutions, can be useful in beating down authoritarianism as well as in building up. It comes down to how you use it.

(Btw, this post title shamelessly stolen from Dan's original post. There's no connection or endorsement; I just was too lazy to think up my own.)

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/7249.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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