Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Flatland of Dreams

For the second time in a week, Jerry Coyne, a secular Jew, has blamed the Shoah on ...  Judaism. On April 1st he wrote, in the context of the recent massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif, that Anne Frank was killed "because of religion." When a commenter challenged this idea, Coyne responded, tersely, "Jews are a religion, not a 'race'." Then, yesterday, he blithley caricatured the (correct) view that not all conflicts involving religion are about religion:
We’re all familiar with those people who claim that ... while religion may seem to be involved in today’s horrors and evils, when you look deeper ... you’ll ultimately find the real causes.  The Protestant/Catholic fracas in Northern Ireland?  A historical squabble—religion was just a “label” for political opponents.  The persecution of Galileo?  A civil and political affair, not involving faith.  The institutionalized slaughter of the Jews during World War II? Well, the Nazis needed a scapegoat somewhere. (my emphasis in bold.)
The notion that Nazi antisemitism was a "religious" matter is, of course, utterly unhistorical; the kind of non-fact one is used to hearing from people like Ann Coulter. The Nazis were concerned with Judaism as a racial phenomenon, not a theological one. The Nuremburg Laws were very clear in defining Jewishness along bloodlines. Even the descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity in generations past were considered as Jews, and marked for extermination. And while Jews were killed in larger numbers by far than any other group, they were not of course the only victims of the Reich. The Nazis killed Poles for being Poles, Roma for being Roma, homosexuals for being gay, political leftists, the disabled, and many more, adding up to several millions of victims.

There was one group that was persecuted on strictly religious grounds: the Jehovah's witnesses. Unlike Jews, they were allowed to escape persecution by renouncing their faith. In this sense, Coyne is close to being correct—a relatively small percentage of the Nazis' victims were killed "because of religion." But the point is a perverse one. Religion "caused" the death of some 2,500 Jehovah's Witnesses under the Nazis in the same sense that being physically weaker "causes" many women (and several men) to be raped, or that being non-white "causes" one to be disproportionally stopped, harassed, arrested, and jailed. It's just the wrong way to look at causality.

Because Jerry Coyne doesn't value the ideology of Jehovah's Witnesses, or religious Jews, he declares them objectively without value: extraneous, moribund. If these ideologies were absent, there would be no conflict, no bloodshed. Things will be better when we all cleave to the same metaphysical certainties, without dissent or pluralism. Sam Harris makes the case for this state of affairs in The Moral Landscape. Marcuse called such a society "One Dimensional." With less subtlety we could call it hegemonic.

Louis Ruprecht has a piece at Religion Dispatches on the recent study proposing mathematical models to explain the impending extinction of religion, in which he makes an excellent comment on the authors' invocation of enlightened self-interest ("utility") in one's choice of language, and, by extension, religion:
Deliberations over “status” in a colonial context are not matters of utility; they’re exercises in power. [Choosing to speak] Spanish or Quechua was a political decision as much as anything; a decision to accept or reject the new imperial order. Those who chose the more difficult bi-lingual option were often enormously useful as translators, though often deeply unhappy since they effectively belonged nowhere—no longer native and not quite imperial was their tragic new location.
From the point of view of mathematics, it's easy to interpret social change as a function of competing options in the marketplace of ideas, where the fittest wins. The study of social sciences—history, philosophy, anthropology, even literary criticism—is a needed counterweight to this view. It is easy to forget that power and privilege always regard themselves as rightful and inevitable. We abhor "might makes right" as an abstract principle, but in the real world we endorse it every time we neglect to ask if what is happening around us is what should be happening. To describe our moral choices as matters of "utility" gets us nowhere, since we can always rationalize the course of history as furthering the good of something.

The tragedy of social monopoly—hegemony—is patently obvious in the case of the loss of our linguistic diversity (the capitulation of countless indigenous languages to colonial usurpers), making it a strange analogy for the authors of the extinction-of-religion paper to employ. Even in John Lennon's warm and fuzzy formulation, the idea of the world "living as one," with "nothing to kill or die for," has always had a very chilling (and ultimately boring) monotonic quality to it. Lennon, ironically, was a deeply iconoclastic man, who would not have lived comfortably in the "Borg Collective" milieu conjured in his song (another image suggested by the song is, also ironically, the Christian heaven).

Our task on this planet is surely not to end conflict. Manage it, as best we can, yes, but not end it. The call to celebrate ideological diversity is no more a platitude than the call to celebrate, and preserve, genetic diversity. It's more like recognition of a law of nature. Hegemony has never yet ruled the day, and likely never will. It takes two to tango, and, as Emma Goldman is supposed to have said, a revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.

3 comments:

Brian said...

<span>"Things will be better when we all cleave to the same metaphysical certainties, without dissent or pluralism. Sam Harris makes the case for this state of affairs in The Moral Landscape."</span>

Sam Harris wants us to cling to metaphysical certainties? Wow. Would you be comfortable being represented as accurately and fairly as you just represented him?

<span>"The call to celebrate ideological diversity is no more a platitude than the call to celebrate, and preserve, genetic diversity."</span>

This whole article is just the sort of thing I would expect from someone who supports anti-miscegenation laws.

Unsubscribe.

underverse said...

<span>This whole article is just the sort of thing I would expect from someone who supports anti-miscegenation laws.  </span>

Brian, I honestly don't have any idea what this is supposed to mean.

E said...

Because Jerry Coyne doesn't value the ideology of Jehovah's Witnesses, or religious Jews, he declares them objectively without value: extraneous, moribund. If these ideologies were absent, there would be no conflict, no bloodshed.

Yes, that's a great way to highlight the flaw here.  In cultures where these kind of things have been actively opposed or suppressed, we haven't seen a corresponding or necessary increase in peace.  People can be quite brutal without religion too.

And, unless I'm mistaken, Sam Harris is a positivist arguing for evaluating morality in those terms.  If that isn't a plug for metaphysical certainty, I don't know what is.  Bizarre comment.