Friday, April 07, 2006

Pass The Salt...

This is the kind of thinking which leads to eating Irish babies. I'm sympathetic to their assessment of the effects of organized religion on individuals, but at the same time I've a problem with endorsing the idea just because it has a positive social outcome. This goes back to my previous post about the numinous feelings induced by drug use. If you are, like myself, a materialist, agnostic, (weak) atheist, can you (should you?) in good conscience describe such experiences in spiritual terms? If you are, like Ed Brayton, a deist who denies the existence of revelation, is it proper to be endorsing religious institutions? What does it say about you and your system of morality, that you endorse an idea or institution based on its beneficial effects even thought, at its core, that same thing is founded on principles which you consider to be untrue? I think it makes you a pragmatist which, as far as I'm concerned, is generally a benign stance to take. Governments, for example, have ideological charters (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness in one notable case), but they should be pragmatic about how they go about fulfilling their charter. The greatest good for the greatest number, as long as they can do so without substantively violating any of their core principles. Rigorous consistency and ideological purity at the level of national government is unachievable. People, on the other hand, have the ability to be consistent about the ideas they choose to endorse. If you're ok with a pragmatic approach that's fine, but you better be ready to follow it to its logical conclusion. What I really find objectionable in Ed and Mr. Olson's approach is that is has a "bread and circuses" feel to it. They're essentially advocating organized religion as a mechanism for ensuring social stability. But why stop there? Let's posit any idea or institution is good if it
  • Increases social stability and happiness by some measure
  • Doesn't violate anyone's fundamental rights
There's all sorts of things that fall into this category. Escapist entertainment? Yup. Government subsidized recreational drugs? You bet. I'll confess that I'm being a little hyperbolic here, but I can't help but feel that in the end you end up with a society straight out of Brave New World. Additionally, Ed talks about the value of tradition and ritual. To which I would offer this rejoinder: Why are the centuries-old bottles of balsamic important? Neither age nor generational continuity should automatically imbue an object or idea with special merit. I can't help but see the craving for tradition as a reaction to the constant change which is the norm for contemporary culture. But that's just it, its a reaction, not a considered choice. Ed's choice of the word "craving" indicates that there's a non-volitional component. In the end it seems like nothing more than pandering to the id/reptile brain. You can find value in tradition, but tradition is not inherently valuable.

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