Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Taylor takes the prize

Belief is slippery and insubstantial as smoke. Like smoke, only its residual diseases mark the passage of its memes through us.

This sounds presumptuous but look around you: I doubt that most people have done the amount and intensity of study and soul searching regarding the belief systems they espouse to give a passable defense or explanation that bears any resemblance to rationality. That is why I would expect to enjoy hanging out with a few old Jesuits who teach science or philosophy at Boston College but fear for my safety if locked in a room with some of William Donahue's pet parishioners.

Not that one can't say they believe a thing they don't really know well or understand. That is the power of "what would the neighbors say", not the power of god. So any time I run into someone claiming they do X because they "believe" Y, I just don't turn over that rock. A don't ask, don't tell policy regarding other people's jumble of hope and received imaginings avoids disturbing us both. It is rare outside of the liberal blogosphere for people to just come out and say "[insert deity name] hasn't shown her face in MY world. So sorry to disappoint, but I gotta move on". That breaks the don't ask, don't tell protocol and when you force the issue that way, all the folks who won't even look inside and ask themselves, get their fur up. Once you break the charmed silence of the don't ask, don't tell, or what I also think of as "tolerance through willed ignorance" you can either go into respectful dialog or, if even one party has insecurity about their grip on faith or even one party flunks the reciprocity test ["you live in my world as much as I live in your world"], an asymmetry built on what sounds like absolutist beliefs springs up. Then don't ask, don't tell breaks down to some veiled form of inquisition: "do ask, do condemn".

Discussion of whether a person "believes" in some deity, let alone the one you happen to envision or perceive is fruitless friction if not conducted between minds enlarged by a friendship more confirmed and trusted than one's own ideas about god. [ and yes, as you may detect, in my experience (call it a "belief" if you need to throw rocks in my direction), chevruta, study groups and other communal states of mind with or without aid of much ritual are the equivalent of "religious experience" but with the great benefit of being explainable.]

What you have read so far is just a paste-in of a comment I left at Majikthise. A few of us discussed there the folly of conventions and popular notions about if and where one dares to be an atheist in America. Some of us were born tired of arguing about the acceptability of atheism in public life. Others seem certain it will be important to them even after they die.

Given the purpose of the Templeton prize and Northwestern Professor Charles's Taylor's various herculean efforts to make the relationship between politics and religion "hand in hand" rather than "hand to hand", its probably about time he won the Templeton.

The premise of his work repulses me somewhat. Much of his career is involved in a passionate campaign to restore what he conceives of as the lost primacy of our spiritual nature and the way our institutions used to tend to that aspect of our characters. If he weren't quite so convinced that religion is the only way for humans to express and harness that spirituality, I bet I'd be buying his books. In the NYTimes coverage of the prize, you would get the impression that his life's work is to prove the divide defined in C.P. Snow 's "Two Cultures" thesis is not only real but that the evil half is not the humanities.

Professor Taylor has written extensively on the sense of self and how it is defined by morals and what one considers good. People operate in the register of spiritual issues, he said, and to separate those from the humanities and social sciences leads to flawed conclusions.

“The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable,” Professor Taylor said in remarks prepared for delivery at the announcement of the prize at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York this morning. This is damaging because it “affects the culture of the media and educated public opinion in general.”

But as of now, I don't really know what opinion of Taylor's work I would hold if I had read much of it. This doubt has come to unshackle me from my initial certainty by the accident of having heard Taylor interviewed on NPR as I left work today. The NPR web intro is not heartwarming either:
He disputes the rationalist approach that regards morality and spirituality as anachronisms, as well as those who use moral certitude or religion to justify righteous violence.

The transcripts have not yet gone up on If I listen to the linked audio at the NPR page, this post will never get out. When I get that transcript, I will see if I only hear what I hope to hear. I only recall three of the many questions posed. I paraphrase the answers and Robert Siegal's questions:

  1. Did he think America gave sufficient consideration to religion it its national dialogs? Yes but only if superficial treatments are what count.
  2. What did he think of the outing of the "highest ranking atheist in office in the US"? He doubted highly that this congressman was alone. There is a huge amount of hypocrisy covering up most people's actual beliefs with far more shallow professions of belief and of disbelief than well earned positions on these matters.
  3. Is Intolerance not some inescapable curse of having religions? Not at all. The people most thoroughly studied up on their religion are among the most tolerant of other religions.
Maybe its just the "tone" of his answers I like. So I guess I won't mind speaking with Professor Taylor, I just won't read any of his books.

People smart and honest and diligent enough to have earned their opinions have by that sole achievement earned my ear. It is so quiet here sometimes but Taylor is a man I can at least listen to. After all, he gets a million pounds sterling for saying some of the same stuff I said.

UPDATE: The transcript went on line [for a fee] this morning...I think I heard it about right:
SIEGEL: Do you think that political discourse in the United States actually suffers from a deficit of talk about God or religion?
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, I think it suffers from a deficit of maybe serious talk about God and religion. I mean, religious belonging and God and the Bible are used as kind of clubs to beat other people over their head with. If you have religion without an absolute, you know, touch of self-criticism, then you have some kind of, I think, distorted religion.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, I noted this week that a group that advocates - and I’m not sure how they used the word, whether it’s secularism or atheism - determined by survey that it had found the highest ranking nonbeliever in the U.S. government - or the highest ranking, self-confessed nonbeliever. And he’s a veteran California Democratic congressman, Fortney Stark, Pete Stark, who admitted that he does not believe in a higher power. The fact that one could find no higher than that…
Prof. TAYLOR: Yeah.
SIEGEL: …in American politics suggests that indeed our politics don’t suffer form the lack of religious belief.
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, maybe it proves the - and maybe it proves that there’s a high degree of hypocrisy about all this because there are demands made by religious-believing voters on people that they can’t possibly get elected unless they declare themselves. And I think that probably what you have here is a very high hypocrisy level… (Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: You suspect there are more than a few agnostics and atheists in the closet in American life.
Prof. TAYLOR: I would lay some serious money on that proposition. But we’ll never know, because they won’t want to shoot themselves in the foot by admitting it.

SIEGEL: Can there, do you think, actually be a level of diversity of religious - and for that matter - nonreligious ideological beliefs within society in which people are devoted to what they believe in, sufficiently so to act on that belief, and sufficiently so to actually regard in utterly different concept of humanity’s place on earth or the order or the universe with a truly generous Democratic spirit? Or ultimately, if people are wedded to very powerful beliefs, are they ultimately going to be intolerant of ideas that are completely and philosophically at odds with their own?
Prof. TAYLOR: Yes, that’s - in my experience, intolerance and depths of religious commitment just don’t correlate at all. I mean, and even perhaps the opposite. I’ve known lots of people who are kind of - let’s say - lax agnostics, where they aren’t very invested into it but they just take for granted that religion is passe and so on. And they are, in some ways, incredibly intolerant. Certainly, they have no understanding for what they’re denying. And then there are people that are very, very profound believers, but are interested in the fact that people are atheist, that there’s some kind of very deep position here which has driven people to that.

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