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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Eric MacDonald on Pakistan and liberal religion

This comment that Eric made over at Ophelia's place is worth a bit of extra attention. I'm going to take the liberty of lifting the whole thing:
Pakistan was fucked up from the start. As a kid I watched it happening. As someone said earlier, the partition of India was a tragedy, and it is unfolding with the desperate inevitability of all tragedy. I hold out no hope for the region. Religion, you know, really does poison everything.

I thought, years ago, that liberal religion was a possibililty, and that the traditions that I thought so valuable were worth preserving, and liberal religion would provide the way. I really no longer think this is possible. I am reading of Philip Kitcher’s three papers in which he explores this, but I think it is too late. There is no way to save the aesthetic traditions of religion from the belief traditions before the belief traditions themselves have brought about catastrophe.

I may, of course, be wrong, but at the moment that is the way my thought is trending. There might have been a liberal understanding that could have made Pakistan both secular and in that marginal sense Islamic, as England, for example, is secular and Christian. But Islam will not be moulded to secular realities, and neither, we must admit, will Christianity. Time to say goodbye to religious traditions, and try to make something better. Kitcher thinks there are not enough of the kind of secular institutional realities that can provide the kind of surrogate community that might replace the loss of religious institutions, and that a transition to secularism cannot work until there are. That may be so, and it may be a pipe dream anyway. But I don’t think, given the time table that religions seem to be on, that there will be time to create them before we are in the midst of some kind of religious cataclysm. Perhaps I am just a apocalyptist manqué?
There's a lot in this, and I don't expect you to agree with it all. I really, really hope Eric is not completely right, because things are grim if he is. But I do think we need to think about this.

I supported Jerry's anger a couple of posts back. Let me now say this. I'm not angry at all religious people. Really, I'm not. I totally understand the views of Philip Kitcher that Eric refers to (Udo Schuklenk and I published one of the three essays that Eric mentions, and I still think it's a brilliant piece). I'm not angry at my liberal religious friends any more than I'm angry at anyone else whose worldview differs from mine, but who is a good person by my standards. I'm definitely not into indiscriminate anger.

My main feeling about liberal religion is not that it's harmful or wicked, or even that it's wrong (we may all think things that will eventually turn out to be wrong; that goes with the human situation). It's that it's fighting a losing battle, at least over any timeframe that I can comprehend. Sure, lots of people turn away from organised religion to something more personal or vague or New Agey, while retaining a residual belief in God or a supernatural world. But I'm like Eric. alas: looking at the scene across the world, I can't see the liberal religion that I even feel some fondness for actually prevailing. In some locations it may, but not in the larger scheme of things. It's not really my target, and it only bugs me if it tries, in a misguided spirit of niceness, to shut me up. More strength to the arms of some of the genuine religious liberals.

I wish I were wrong, and I'm open to argument, but I just don't think liberal religion is going to be the solution to our problems.


Eamon Knight said...

I think you're right: the moderate Christian churches are bleeding membership to either the fundamentalist sects on the one hand and apathy or frank unbelief on the other (I should know, having taken that path myself). It's a nice social club, with a little ritual/choral concert once a week, and some volunteer opportunities attached -- but at heart, there's no "there" there. The belief content is too "sophisticated" (read: vague and largely incomprehensible) for the most people. Hell, it's (eg. Spong) incomprehensible to me, and I like trying to wrap my head around new and complex ideas.

Lots of people want the security of having all the answers, maybe with the added emotional intensity of pentecostalist-style worship -- but if you can't supply that, they's rather sleep in on Sunday.

Dimitri said...

Religion is the downfall of every man. They search for something and turn to religion to find it. Religion in and of it's self is empty. Religion is a an organized structure of rituals and beliefs usually centred around a supernatural being[s], and adherence to that. Thus, the world is neither changed for the better by it, nor for the worse. It is the actions taken by those beliefs, that affect the world.

Theo Bromine said...

As someone who had a relatively recent departure from liberal Christianity (gay-friendly, woman-friendly, ecumenical, open-minded etc), I have to agree with Eric that liberal religion (or at least liberalized JudeoChristianIslamic religion) is not the solution. In some very critical ways, almost all theists, however liberal, have core beliefs in common with the most rabid fundamentalist - i.e. that an infinite omniscient/omnipotent/omnibenevolent deity is in control of life, the universe and everything, and that we will all get our just deserts in the end. There is an immense difference in perspective (and therefore in the approach to how to live in the world) between those who believe in divine guidance and justice, vs those who believe that it's all up to us, and that we have one life, one chance and (so far) just one planet.

Jambe said...

I think, for me, it's ultimately a question of how people arrive at ethical conclusions. I really don't like disputing the particulars of any given religion beyond the satisfaction derived from enlightening people as to how silly they really are.

If two people held the same respectable ethical views but one held them because of dogma and one because of skeptical observations of the physical world, I'd have more respect for the latter than the former. The former would be resistant to change if future observations suggest a different worldview is necessary, whereas the latter would readily adapt.

I don't necessarily have a problem with sufficiently watered-down or otherwise innocuous religion; the problem I have is, the more I think about it, the harder a time I have imagining a situation where even an extremely fluffy deist religion wouldn't foster credulity in a person's mind. In other words, I don't know that any sort of "religion" or "spirituality" can be entirely innocuous. I think a skeptical approach to life is the best one so I'm wary of any supernatural fluff that might undermine that approach.

Marshall said...

Quite right I think, liberal religion is a failure, which would be because religion is essentially conservative in nature... the point is always to restrain individual behavior (at least speech acts) according to community norms, thereby reinforcing and conserving such norms. Which is good if you have good community norms, bad if otherwise.