Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it's gone

I

Islam’s strength doesn’t come from its emphasis on the communal. Islam gains its strength from a clear and understandable god idea. At this point, I think science shows people already believe in god even when very young, most likely at birth, although that's difficult to prove. People at minimum believe in something larger than themselves. They don’t immediately believe in a particular religion’s view of god, that comes through training.

In reality, the god in which everyone believes is their own existence, their own self. When another person questions god, the accused gets angry and interprets the question as an attack on themselves - which it is. I learned a long time ago there’s no point in debating religious people. It’s impossible to reason someone out of a belief they didn’t reason themselves into.

To them, there is no universe without god, because it would require a universe to be perceived without the person there to perceive it and that’s logically impossible. No one loses their religion, they simply replace it. But I’ll get to that. And from where I’m sitting most people have some version of a replacement god, so debating anyone on this is fairly pointless. But I’ll get to that too.

The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. Islam operates from a default assumption that humans have a functional, natural (but very wrong) tendency to think the universe has meaning. A natural and specific observance of patterns not actually there. Just because something is functional and natural doesn’t make it true. Islam understands human creatures wish to see those patterns in noise. It’s what keeps us alive. But Muslims aren’t especially prone to phantom pattern-recognition, Christians and secularists see the same false patterns. To think otherwise is simply to expose a poor understanding of the mind.

Consider how a human living in the savannah might see rustling grass and suspect only the wind. If the rustling is actually a lion, the person is lunch and the failed pattern-seeking brain is removed from the gene pool. If another sees the same rustling grass but immediately assumes a lion and chooses to run away and there actually is a lion that person will stay in the gene pool, passing on good pattern-seeking genes centuries later to city-dwellers and blog-writers (ha ha).

But those are the obvious examples. What explains god is the person who sees rustling grass and immediately runs even if there is no lion. That person’s brain is a wide-open pattern filter, as Michael Shermer says. He/she looks for and finds all sorts of patterns in the noise of nature. They can’t help it. Some have an acute ability for this, while others learn to differentiate real patterns from the imaginary (the lion from the non-lion).

Islam is excellent at taking this pattern-seeking and funnelling it into a clear, understandable and - crucially - transmissible form known as religion. Religion was the first attempt (therefore the worst) to explain some of the crudest patterns people thought they were seeing. Many religions give followers a set of tools to control their pattern-seeking brains and by so doing stumble accidentally on real patterns.

II

Christianity picked up reason and logic on its way into Rome, married the two strands and became a petri dish for developing pattern-seeking tools. After two millennia, the Christian West has pretty much dropped the superstitious aspects but retained the parts helping adherents find real patterns (reason, logic, clergy, emperor, church, charity, proselytising, critical texts, etc). What’s left over is a milieu of institutions and structures formed by the Christian empire. Religion enables people both to defer fear of death while supplying a plug-and-play guide for living. Rationalism helps develop better filters for finding actual patterns. Together, the West was created and evolved.

III

Here I agree with Jürgen Habermas that secularisation of the rhetoric of political discourse results in religious fictionalisation of the body politic, in which religious groups Balkanise and organise around efforts to “religionise” (Christianise) the rhetoric. But I disagree with both Habermas and the recent Pope Ratzinger that the there is any effect of secularisation on the substance of the dialogue. They say secularisation led to a loss in Western culture evidenced by violent 20th-century wars, increasing moral decadence and the rising threat of bioengineering.

First, the rhetoric on those wars, as in every war, was overtly religious. In addition, every war before the 20th-century was fought to the furthest extent technologically possible. The apparent brutality is simply a function of technology. Second, when people use the phrase "moral decadence" they need to articulate its meaning. It could mean either sexual openness or crime.

Third, religion (not Christian spirituality, but religion) needs to come to terms with the role of sex in life. Sex is the subtext of every political issue. Until religion can move beyond its paternalist, Dark-Age roots, it cannot intelligently inform the discussion of these issues. Lastly, the political order has always been secular, even when the political order was controlled by the papacy in Rome. The rhetoric was religious, but in the end, politics is a function of economics and power distribution, which, depending on your viewpoint, has everything or nothing to do with religion.

Secularisation refers to those aspects of life which substantially lack a spiritual dimension in fact. With respect to the Gregorian reforms, while there is/was doctrinal logic to support the consolidation of authority in the apparatuses of the Church, there was no doctrinal logic to do so to the exclusion of secular matters. There was, however, enormous secular logic to motivate such activity, including consolidation of power as it was distributed across the vastness of continental Europe.

Westerners, in general, have begun to make policy with no compass other than science. We need some philosophy better than "good" and "bad" that’s internally consistent in a way the Church hasn't been, ever. Science is rapidly enabling everything imaginable, including the horrible. But what is guiding the progress? What sets the direction of advancement? Now, the guide is profits and calculation. That's clearly not going to work. But the Bible isn't either, nor are proclamations from religious elders.

It's wonderful that Habermas is only asking we go back to our roots and attempt to translate our private senses of the good back into public discourse, but doesn't that only work for Westerners at least conversant with Western civilisation’s dominant religious tradition? Does it work for the sociopath, whose lack of a moral compass finds him better suited to navigate a corporate/consumer society without the guilt or hesitation the rest of us feel?

IV

You can’t understand the Western world until you understand Christianity. You especially can’t understand Western secular philosophy unless you understand Christianity. Christianity is a religion, true, but it also spawned idealism, which is the actual bringer of destruction in the modern world.

Idealism is a philosophical school. Or rather a number of philosophical schools. I find the term most useful as it pertains to the line from Plato to Hegel to Emerson to Dewey. An Idealist is a person who believes that universals exist independently. Specifically, in the modern sense, an idealist believes in concepts such as Democracy, the Environment, Peace, Freedom, Human Rights, Equality, Justice, etc, etc.

What do these concepts have in common? One, they have universally positive associations. In fact, they have no meaning without these associations. A statement such as "the Environment is evil" or "we must work together against the Environment" is simply not well-formed. It is the equivalent of Noam Chomsky's "colourful green ideas sleep furiously."

Two, they are impossible to define precisely. It's fairly clear they have no meaning at all. Three, if you live in or have been exposed significantly to the Western world, those concepts refer to Christian interpretations of the words only. The idea that Justice could also exist in a different form in Xhosa tribal lore isn’t even part of the conversation when discussing Justice. And once the superstitious aspects of Christianity’s coupling with Greek rationalism were excised, the institutions and ideas remained. Out of this surgery has emerged a strange sort of post-Christianity.

After all, what is socialism but the Christian idea of god’s flock believing in a (not obvious, and unscientific) common humanity? What is the idea of gays/poor/black people being championed over straight/rich/white people but the Christian idea of the “last will be first”? What is modern democracy but the Protestant notion that god speaks to individuals directly, not through the clergy (vox populi, vox Dei)? What is the idea that every country should become democratic but the Christian goal of “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”?

V

This is why conspiracy theories are so prevalent in the West. Everyone is told meaning is illusory, but their eyes (and brains) say otherwise. Of course, their eyes are wrong, but they can’t shake the feeling this entire universe has patterns, real patterns. Any world without religion is impossible in thier minds. Broadly interpreted, UFOs, ghosts and all manner of psychic phenomena are religions. It is the belief that there is more “out there” coupled with the notion that one can have a personal experience with that other.

When someone cackles on about the Bilderbergs, Masons, Washington or the Jews being responsible for some event, they are being human. People cannot accept the randomness of the world and that bad things often happen for no reason. To them, the CIA causing 9/11 is preferable to believe because otherwise the "omnipotent other" wasn’t and therefore isn’t in control. Without a neat conspiracy, the void stares back.

If there isn't a religion available, people will make one up. They do this even in the face of SCIENCE, because SCIENCE says absolutely nothing about hope in the face of despair, love and death. If one is faced with insurmountable problems, the human mind has to make an appeal to something somewhere, otherwise it turns to madness.

If you discount all the supernatural aspects of the New Testament, what you are left with is the story of a philosopher who told everyone to love one another, especially the people you instinctively don't want to love. It’s a story of a guy who was killed for saying those words and willingly went to his death because he loved his executioners.

Even if Jesus is just a guy, another Socrates whose teachings ran afoul of power, the story is still remarkable. It gives people hope that maybe there is somebody out there who loves them even when everything indicates the contrary. When people pray, they are calling out to everyone else alive on earth for help, hoping that their fellow man will hear.

But we live in this post-Christian society in which superstition is discarded but the machinery of religion remains. God hides round the corner, just out of sight. We no longer we call it  “god,” but rather by new names – Democracy, Government, Environment, etc. These are the same thing: unreal metaphysical concepts reified by pattern-seeking brains. Friedrich Nietzsche spoke about society killing god but knew it was futile if the old god would simply be replaced by a new god, far more powerful than the last because it is disavowed.

VI

Postmodernism is dangerous for this reason. It rightly exposes and mocks the human transplantation of god onto the idea of the State. It lays bare people’s desperation to feel secure, to feel not alone. Many are happy with postmodernism’s warning, thinking how good it is to catch oneself believing in nonsense, and shift thier path towards the presumed light of correct thinking.

But postmodernism offers no option to expiate the god belief. It just says Christianity is fake, but so is nationalism, progressivism, science and “reason.” It doesn’t supply something to hold onto and people find themselves staring back into the void. No one wants to face a capricious and uncaring universe. To do so would be to comprehend non-existence. The postmodernist forgets how avoiding this very thought was what religion was built to assuage in the first place. This most fundamental tool is repealed without anything offered in replacement. Instead of facing existence without the crutch of religion, people revolt, holding onto a gene-deep certainty they exist. And they look for whoever will give them solace.

The only thing people know about their lives – truly know – is that they are thinking, that they are here right now. They have no proof how they got here, or if anything they see and touch is real. Or even what “real” would look like. All they know is that “they” can think and then they extrapolate this as proof for god. They desire this other entity. This "omnipotent other" could be the State or Jehovah, it doesn’t matter. The entity performs the required function.

VII

A confused post-Christian society with nowhere to turn, desperately searching for meaning and teleology might find Islam the perfect balm. It doesn’t have the scepticism of Christianity’s marriage with Greece or the detachment of Eastern religions. Islam just says you are absolutely right to believe in god, there is meaning in the universe and offers a new plug-and-play for living the “good life.” Islam still offers a safe avoidance of tackling the terror of oblivion. People can return to being sentients cycling through their lives as though pausing in a doctor's waiting room for the appointment at the end of existence. That they miss out of life is not the tragedy, it is the goal for religious people.

If you’re lazy or scared or lost, Islam offers a community of fellow believers. And for this society/culture where everything is questioned, in which nothing should be strongly believed and where no one can say what is real, Islam’s certainty is deeply attractive. People abandon “clear” postmodern thought because their unnanswered fear of death gives them no other option. As science progresses and rational atheism pervades more of Western life, expect its confused citizens to head back to both mosques and old churches.

Postmodernism at once both uplifting and destructive. It exposes the religious mindset and the machinery of power. Deconstruction helps peel back the layers covering human thought. But it didn’t ask Nietzsche’s question. It assumed the stories we tell ourselves - the all-important myths - serve no real purpose for frightened human animals if they aren't true so there's no harm in discarding them without offering a replacement.

They assume the surgery was a loving service for all humans, freeing them of the torture of seeing patterns in noise. But they underestimate how desperately humans wish to divert from the void. Postmodernism took away the god structures offering nothing in return. They proclaimed, “god is dead,” but never thought to ask “what will we replace him with?”

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