religious thinking

In the last few days I’ve come across a few stories that helped
gel an idea that’s been diffusely roaming around my head for a few
years now.

First I heard a story on the radio about the abysmal state of math
and science education in the States. A science educator made the
point (I’m paraphrasing): "Given it’s importance in every aspect
of our daily lives, public understanding of technology, and even
basic scientific principles, is woefully inadequate."

Then I heard an interview with John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, authors
of _The
Emerging Democratic Majority_
(based on this
article
in The American Prospect). Their basic thesis is that
the kinds of areas that vote majority Democratic are growing faster
than those that don’t. One of the points they made in the interview
is that the number of people who claim on surveys that they "do
not attend church" has risen from around 15% to around 30%
in the last twenty years, and is going to keep rising. This supports
their overall thesis because religious observers tend to vote Republican
and non-observers Democrat.

Now, why is that?

It’s kind of remarkable when you
think about it: on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any direct
correspondence between the teachings of the Bible and the platforms
of the parties. God never says to vote Republican. Why do the religious
do so? The typical explanation is that the things that go with voting
Republican also go with being religious. The one is not caused by
the other, but simply attends it in most cases.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I’m going out on a limb
as usual, but I tend to think that the habits of mind, the intellectual
temperament, that inclines one towards religious belief also inclines
one towards the right wing of the political spectrum.

Many right-wingers will object, of course. Many libertarians (with
whom I have great sympathy), for instance, are humanist atheists.
I’m talking, though, about the cultural conservatives, who increasingly
dominate the party and the dialogue.

 

There are, in my mind, two fundamental intellectual temperaments.
The first I call _religious_, because it is most characteristic
of religious believers. It is inclined to fix upon a set of basic
truths, either truths from a source of authority (i.e., the Bible,
or Dad, or Dr. Phil) or truths that seem "self-evident."
New data, new experience, is processed through the prism of these
truths. This makes for "moral clarity," as the current
phrase goes, but it can also lead to a certain kind of blindness:
data that does not sit easily with the basic truths can be over-looked,
discarded, or viewed as malicious.

At the extreme, consider those who believe that the world was,
as the Bible claims, created some seven centuries ago (I can’t remember
the exact number). Evidence coming from geology or astronomy that
contradicts this thesis is simply not considered _as evidence_.
Instead, believers must posit a conspiracy of heathens, or assume
that God is testing their faith, or some such. The idea that the
Earth could be older is simply not on the table, not up for debate.
The belief is immune to revision.

A person has a religious intellectual temperament precisely to
the degree that they hold beliefs immune to revision.

The other temperament, which I call the _scientific_ temperament,
takes its cue from the natural world, a world of fuzzy boundaries
and continuums, kludges and jury-rigs, a world of almost infinite
depth and complexity. This world can be, to a degree, understood
and predicted with our categories, but never be fully captured.
A person of this temperament takes our finitude and fallibility
to heart, and remains at a certain intellectual remove from his
beliefs. He does not claim that there is no truth, only that truths
(plural) are as tenuous as our place in the universe, and so he
remains open to revising them based on new evidence. He is flexible.
This is, according to the religious, the plague of "relativism"
and "moral weakness."

Now it might seem tenuous, but I believe that there is a line from
these two temperaments to the sides of our current political spectrum.
Much of what I read and hear from right-wingers strikes me as religious
in character. They describe their policy positions and prescriptions
not as temporal, not as the best we can do at the moment, but as
issuing directly from bedrock, immutable truths. For this reason
they are almost always more fervent and evangelical than their left
wing counterparts. And, truth be told, they are more _angry_.
They view liberals as apostates, heathens. The term "liberal"
is meant to imply a fundamental corruption, such that the particular
arguments and facts advanced are mere smoke screens for a campaign
of moral ruin.

Take the Iraq issue. Even sympathetic liberals have noted that
if one traces the course of the debate (such as it is), one notices
that the administration _began_ by stating, as fact, that
"regime change" is necessary. In response to public outcry,
they began grudgingly making arguments in favor of the idea–even
providing some slim evidence. But the attitude has always been that
they are explaining something overwhelmingly obvious to a child.
The appearance is that the need to invade Iraq is, for the right,
a matter of religious/ideological belief, not evidence. Evidence
is beside the point, at best a means to lead the benighted to the
truth.

This also explains why the right wing wants to call Saddam Hussein
(or Osama, or drug dealers, or the enemy _du jour_) "Evil"
rather than simply pointing out the harm they are doing. It is one
thing to say that Hussein is mistaken, warped, that he has gone
horribly wrong at some point in his development, that he is hurting
people. These are human terms. The word "Evil," however,
is religious at its core. It implies something Other, something
without human motivations, desires, needs, or emotions. A bad person
can be negotiated with, or pressured, or, at the limit, forced.
But an "Evil" person cannot be communicated with, cannot
be touched. If we believe that Islamic fundamentalists are people,
we might attempt to affect them, decrease their anger, change their
minds. If they are Evil, we can only attack. "Good vs. Evil"
is a religious matter, and religious differences cannot be resolved
by debate. The _only_ response to Evil is force. Coincidentally,
in this matter the right wing’s beliefs dovetail quite neatly with
the Islamicists’.

Left wingers, at their best, are pragmatic. (Of course, of course,
there are zealots on the left too.) They desire the best for the
most people, and they feel their way towards it carefully, willing
to try new things and discard them if they don’t work. In this they
are like the majority of people on the planet. It is for this same
reason, however, that they continually lose the propaganda war.
Slogans and certitudes are always more rousing than provisional
solutions and tentative attempts, particularly in an atmosphere
of fear, which this administration has been assiduous in maintaining.

Overt religious observance is waning in this country. It remains
to be seen whether religion in its guise of ideology will continue
to dominate our political discourse.