Harry Marks wrote: I had in mind the social phenomenon, the sense that there is a strict judge waiting for us after we die, which I think is what people had in mind when they said "if God didn't exist we would have to invent Him[sic]". I would make more of an argument for a civilizing effect of the Spirit of Caring.
First, thanks for this reply.
Sorry I went so long unaware of your response. I must have gotten caught up in work about the time you posted this.
DWill wrote: I think I can assume now that you appreciate nuclear weapons as peacekeepers but only compared to the worse record of religion, which makes a show of humans living in peace but appears to fail to deliver. I read some of Pinker's Better Angels book, but I don't recall if he gave atomic bombs any credit for the lessening violence of civilization that he documents.
These kinds of "big think" questions are endlessly fascinating, at least to me, but I recognize that they are largely impervious to solution. In that sense I think they have a strong kinship with religious issues, and indeed economists often refer to "theology" when it comes to big, vague issues like the balance between equilibrium forces and momentum forces in the macroeconomy. A person's answer to many of these questions seems to come down to personality as much as any pattern in the evidence. The good news is that strong shifts in the evidence, such as the experience of Great Recession following 2009, actually move a lot of economists from one side to another.
In such cases people seem to project their sense of "how life works" onto the configuration of evidence. Confirmation bias has a lot to say about what we attend to and what evidence we emphasize. So when the evidence is mixed, and the question is too relevant to simply walk away from (for a significant fraction of the population) then mythological forces and ideological forces and tribal forces can bring out competing narratives that take on a shaping ability of their own. Add in the madness of biased media and conflict-promoting social media algorithms that we have today and the result is a pretty dramatic example of competing worldviews.
DWill wrote:Likely, he would attribute the bombs not being used for the past 75 years mostly to moral progress, not the fact that they're just too horrifying to contemplate using. Maybe the ability to appreciate the horror, having a deterrent effect, is itself a sign of moral progress. One thing we can be sure of is that Pinker, like you, doesn't give religion credit for the increase in civilization.
I am reading a few sources, including a blog and a philosopher, who take the other view, arguing that despite all the horrors of religious empire, the very structure of thought in Europe and the West ("Christendom") gave rise to a culture that questioned itself, providing humanism with a basis in moral meaning. It isn't clear to me that this "thought bias" was stronger in the West than in, say, Buddhist countries. A person I respect (a Unitarian minister, actually) argues that each religion is a language, and that it is worth getting to know some other religions so that one begins to have a feel for what all the languages are, collectively, talking about.
And, again, these vague questions can be fascinating but unresolvable. Maybe fascinating because they are unresolvable. On the question of the bomb, I do think that there was a reinforcing process in which the sobriety that came with WWI led to a certain moral progress which perhaps made it possible for the Allies to exercise restraint, so that they avoided using atomic weapons against Stalin or for the pursuit of empire. But the horror of Mutual Assured Destruction played a role relatively early on. And so the two aspects, moral sobriety and mutual fear, were probably both at play but some people will want to give priority to one or the other.
DWill wrote:I'm never sure that any blanket statement about religion can be true or false, though.
Perhaps not. Religion is what it is, and it combines so many different social forces that disentangling them is probably hopeless. Those of us operating within religion hope to burn away the bad parts and foster more of the good parts, but who is to say whether that has any prospect of success. And I need to remember that critics on the outside may sometimes have a clearer view than what we insiders have.
DWill wrote:Just what bearing does their religion have on the beliefs they show to us in the public sphere? I can't figure that out. What strand of Christianity are they fingering? They seem more similar to ethnic groups that claim superiority over other groups, for no discernible reason in the view of outsiders. Atheists have never been wrong to seize on the ability of religion to divide and make "others," on the way to arguing that it needs to wither.
I regularly make an effort to construct a version of the other side in my own head. While this may be hopeless, and a clunky left-brain folly at that, I feel drawn to make the effort. Currently it seems to me that there are several intertwined strands that need to be recognized.
One is the need for authority. "Liberals" tend to discount this but it is very real. Most people of any persuasion want their version of what is right to be true, to be the correct version. And I think the less one is willing to be open to extravagantly hypothetical alternatives, the more one will seek authority to justify the perspective one lives by. Haidt was good on this subject, though he could have expressed matters in much greater depth. It seems to be part of the process that the family dynamic involves affirming the "strict" version of parental correctness even when people explicitly reject the particulars of their parents' worldview
. This is an odd thing, to me, so I am going to try to present it slightly differently. Even though they know that their own parents were often wrong, the need to have parental authority established seems to demand that parental correctness be affirmed. To paraphrase the old toast about country, they seem to feel "my parents, right or wrong, may they always be considered right."
This seems to have combined itself with a proto-fascist need for solidarity. I can never quite get why publication of the Pentagon Papers, or criticism of the country, make some conservatives apoplectic, but I try. I can see why they want to have values of patriotism and solidarity reinforced, but I am not connected to the fear that makes it such a threat. It has something to do with the old fascist symbol, the bundle of sticks that is so much stronger than the individual stick. And this seems to be the reason why it is so important to today's Republicans to choose a leader who fights against liberal ideology. A person who is strong is one who will fight, because if you don't fight you just lose. But it is just as necessary that the rest of society, or of "our kind of people", fight alongside the leader. Evidently deep in their family dynamics or their epigenetics, or something, there is a sense that anyone who breaks ranks to criticize is a direct threat to each member of society.
A third force involved is the conservative religious culture that requires rules and respectability. I can feel aghast at the loss of structure in the raising of children, in which nothing is done when kids come home and spew swearwords, for example. There is a lot in me that resonates to this - I am a pretty straight arrow, never having been tempted by drugs or any counterculture of rebellion. But again, I am left at a loss as to why this does not generalize to empathy for the plight of racial minorities (and to be fair it often does) or to affirmation of ambition in women (again, it often does). In fact the evangelical culture combines symbolic empathy for unborn children with a sense that sexual propriety would make abortion unnecessary in a way that progressives ignore at their peril.
Holding these firmly in mind I am able to make sense of the implicit racism that holds onto structural racism in almost the same way that monetary success holds onto the money. This is not about oppressing others, it is about seeing no sense in taking away from those who have worked hard and taken risks for the sake of groups in society who have no allegiance to the rules of propriety. While I can see that this ends up reinforcing the oppression that holds down minority groups, I can also see that White Supremacy is not often the goal or motivating force involved. There is a tremendous amount of what we might call common sense in the tribal opposition to giving favorable compensatory treatment to minorities. And of course the refusal to see this on the part of liberal leadership is eminently exploitable by the right-wing media.
DWill wrote:Who decides whether the added capacity has been good, on balance? I don't think anyone can decide, but people in Guatemala living in fear of gang violence will have a much darker view than I would. By the accident of being well taken-care-of, a different prospect opens to me. The badness of the world is almost all hearsay to me. I've just defined privilege.
Well said. And a good point of perspective to be able to recognize that many of the side benefits of "enlightenment" have been due very much to the interactions between different aspects of self-interest. If we try to impose a narrative in which progress has been due inevitably to moral progress, we risk blinding ourselves to forces which are quite capable of turning in a direction that is morally abhorrent.
DWill wrote: Sometimes I wonder whether we magnify the importance of changes we think we see in our own brief span of life. When I think of some distant period of history, say 1480-85, I think that nothing of lasting importance could have happened; it was only 5 years, a blink in time. Yet in my own time I'm ready to say that paradigms can be shifting all over the place, revolutions in thought occurring, when maybe I'm just viewing the up-and-down wave motion of history.
That's good perspective, but I think we have to take trends in thought seriously. QAnon may be just a fluctuation, or it may be a source of "thought bias" that will take long decades to undo. Even so I am a strong believer in grace, which in this case means the ability to regard people benevolently even when we think they may be injecting powerful poison into the social system. My sense of what treatment they deserve has to be tempered by awareness that I do stuff they may see as poisonous, and that if I approach them judgmentally I may be injecting a poison of my own.