Tuesday, October 31, 2006

John Derbyshire on Religion

The Derb has a brilliant post up on his religion and opinions on religion. I've had many discussions with people where I'm worried I've either come across theophobic or philic depending on the person I was talking with but I think this article comes pretty close to my personal view of its effects:

"In the end, I think I’ve now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero."

On the societal effects of religion:

"Religion is first and foremost a social phenomenon. That religious module in our brains is a sub-module of the social one, or is very closely allied to it. To deny it expression is just as foolish, just as counter-productive, as to deny expression to any other fundamental social feature of human nature — sexuality, or aggression, or the power urge, or cheating."

The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don’t mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling it.

"So I guess my answer is something like: If a society accommodates the people’s religious impulses well, it’s a good thing, and if not, not."

Ross Douthat has remarked on this already and is, I think, somewhat mistaken about what is happening in Europe. He believes that Europe has done the impossible and denied the religious instinct en masse but this is not what I see happening in Europe.

My personal understanding of when religion becomes harmful is when you decide that your religious outcome depends upon the views of others. The key problem with Islamic extremism is that it takes Danish cartoons or Muslim apostates as a genuinely dangerous affront to their own beliefs; the confidence to see the views others hold of your religion as immaterial to your own spirituality is an important challenge for institutional religion.

This is also why I find some, but not all, evangelicals a little disturbing. Those evangelicals who purely think they have something wonderful to share with others I tend to find very pleasant people but those who have even a vague notion that the sin of others is corrupting to themselves or otherwise harmful to their own chances at a blissful eternity can be unpleasant.

In this sense I think what is going on in Europe is quite healthy. The numbers actually proclaiming themselves atheists is not making any serious advance. Instead people are either heading towards a view of God which is very personal or into a broader spirituality which is best caricatured as an intellectually fuzzy compatriot to Taoism or Buddhism as a spirituality not centred on a deity. This actually seems a pretty feasible replacement for Christianity to me and the only plausible argument I've heard against it is that it leaves us somehow vulnerable to alternative, non-Christian, doctrines in our midst like Islam or totalitarianism but this thesis never seems convincing. Why is "soft" religion easier to replace with extremism than "hard" religion?

The other thing I would want to note about Derbyshire's argument that religion is inescapable is that it does not mean God is necessarily alive in a Nietzschean sense. What is dead, both in Europe and most of America I think, is the fear of God; which I do not think is biologically predetermined. This means that we will need to form something new and means the questions of last man/overman etc. cannot be avoided. Religion in the modern sense is just as nihilistic as atheism.

As to my own religious beliefs, I've laid them out in more detail before. Essentially, I think the question of whether God exists is ethically unimportant. I think that if you don't believe in God the truth tends to nihilism but if you do a nihilistic conclusion is equally inescapable if you ask the question "why do what God tells you?"

The only way belief can create morality is through fear of punishment and I do not want that to be the basis of my own approach to the world. As such, I consider myself a committed agnostic; I do not want to know. What I've taken from Nietzsche is that nihilism can either give you the dismal future of a meaningless life (the last man) or allow you to create your own meaning (the overman); I hope my life is a clumsy attempt at the latter.

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