Sunday, February 19, 2006

A limited defense of religious faith

The Libertarian mantra of "fiscally conservative, socially liberal", which is false on both accounts - viz. the "socially liberal" defense of the right of the Klan and Nazis to march through Skokie* or the "fiscally conservative" idea that even if you can get more for your money with some social spending and foreign aid in terms of domestic tranquility and peace abroad, the objective of cops, courts and the military, it's always unacceptable, whereas spending your society into a hole you'll have to tax yourself out of someday on corrupt military contracts and excessive cop and court facilities because Big Business wants it is mandatory, has infected the Democrats, liberals and progressives of America.

One of the things we can all agree on, as we bash Islam across the world, as we hunt through the Quran and hadith and the rantings of the worst representatives of the Moslem faith we can possibly find, ignoring the glorification of genocide, bizarrely violent and stupid customs and folk beliefs, and paradigm xenophobia, racism and religious bigotry you can find in the Torah, Talmud, disregarding the psychotically bigoted HaTanya, ignoring the writings of the founder of Lutheranism, ignoring centuries of hate-filled edicts from the Catholic Church, and so on, and the history of American Protestant fanaticism from the witch hangings through the Great Awakening up to our present theocracy, one thing we can agree on is that it does not matter because, really, "all religion is the problem."

First of all, I suspect that's often a dodge to hide Judeo-Christian chauvinism, given the polls that show a large majority of Americans - 80-85% at least - are believing Christians or Jews. But that obvious observation aside, let me address those who do think religion is the problem, and perhaps the only thing wrong with Islam is that it takes itself seriously or is extreme or has too low a component of science or is just against Western progress because it's Western. Or something like that.

First of all, the implication that religion or religious faith are of no value I find completely dubious. On balance, it may even make people act better as individuals than they'd be otherwise, and when they act badly as a group, frankly, it's usually mixed in with the usual power and resource games. But even taking religion as a break even thing, there is a tremendous value to the religious perspective.

Since this is, unapologetically, a Science Fiction Weblog, I will cite the Dune series as embodying the concepts here. On the one hand, the various faiths had been synthesized into new shapes (Buddislamists, Zensunnis, and the Orange Catholic faith, which included Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Judaic and Islamic elements), in the case of Buddhislam and Zensunnism, as a way of creating new ethnic enclaves and social cohesion. In the case of the Orange Catholic faith, it was spread by a Missionaria Protectiva controlled by the Bene Gesserit (Well-doers) to seed the various planets with preset religious memes and prophecies that would protect the dominant imperial culture in advance. That, of course, is classical missionary behavior, and the classic function of missionaries of the approved state faith in an imperium.

On the other hand, all of humanity owed its freedom, literally, and probably its existence, to the early crude efforts at a Missionaria Protectiva. The Butlerian Jihad, and I wonder if it's a coincidence that Herbert's is the 2nd such crusade - the first was in Samuel Butler's Erewhon, on behalf of humans against "self-willed" machines - had at its core a rigid division between human and inhuman, and more importantly, between living and dead. Conscious and unconscious. Really aware, and faking it. Because of the fanaticism of faith, the recognition that you have to take at least a few starting ideas as givens and not deconstruct every element of morality, reality and learning, humanity prevailed against machines pretending to be alive, conscious and superior, and their lackeys, who were mostly machine but with human brains. I think that's believable - that you couldn't have gotten a gaggle of Libertarian capitalist rationalist corporatists to go fight the machines. Okay, believable is kind of an understatement here.

I find a lot of the "liberal heroes" of anti-religion really repellent. In particular, people like James Randi, Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet offend me with their simplistic pseudoscientific style of talking about society, reality, philosophy and religion. Dennett's main contribution so far is a compilation called the Mind's I. I think John Searle simply killed the thrust of that - that there really is no distinction between a human mind and a pattern in a book or a good computer program. You should look up Searle's Chinese Room for the details. I would also point out that Hume was the originator of the notion that the self and awareness are not primary and not even real. Or not as real as a good piece of engineering. And Hume's philosophical goal was justifying the rule of the elites, as Thom Hartmann has pointed out.

I will give Dawkins credit for being a real scientist (I suspect Randi and Jillette of being almost complete scientific ignoramuses, from some of the things they've said about science and the scientific method). And some credit for introducing revolutionary ideas like memes into the language and culture. But the thing about calling yourself a "Bright" is pretty good evidence that Dawkins sucks at relating to actual hominids running around. Sagan, similarly rigid in his anti-religious crusade, would never have made that mistake.

Not long ago, a lot of high-tech moguls from places like Sun and Oracle met to discuss - well - machines taking over and replacing people, and how that was a genuine threat, maybe not in our lifetime but in that of our children or grand-children.

We already are under assault by inhuman entities, not conscious but pretending to be, like the Chinese Room, things that want to displace people, enslave them, destroy them, humble them wherever possible. And they have allies who are making themselves as inhuman as possible. They're called corporations.

More on this later.

*For the record, I support the ACLU, I support the right of people to engage in hateful speech, and I am against hate-crime laws. I just don't claim that that's "socially liberal." It's socially "laissez-faire," but it's balancing absolute rights against the right of people to go about their lives not living in fear and not being hindered by harassment. We can't advocate - really, talk about - assassinating the president because that involves preparing the ground for undermining our democracy. We can't issue death threats (to a degree), because they're reasonably often enough a precursor to violence, so they justify at least putting people under scrutiny and in some cases, punishing them. It's a good question whether Alan Berg would be alive today if the death threats he got had been followed up by legal action. It's not clear enough that the answer is "yes" to make me want to go beyond our current balancing act.

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