Welcome back, intrepid traveller! The ‘Too Dumb To Vote’ series has taken a back seat to more pressing events, but now it’s back in style. Today we will take a farcically truncated look at the interactions between religion, morality and politics, and how this interplay underlines the weakness of the current democratic system. We’ll hit this in three sections: (i) a rushed look at definitions, and a quick aside on ‘science as religion’, (ii) highlighting how tricks similar to those outlined in TDTV 2-6 are used to lure and keep people in religions, and (iii) how religion affects voting, and to what extent that’s OK.
I. Definitions of Religion
There are many. Emile Durkheim, French ‘Father of Sociology’, saw it as:
a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, – beliefs and practices which unite [into] one single moral community, all those who adhere to them. (Durkheim, 1915)
This is pretty good, but a bit dated, mainly because Durkheim was working in a
Euro-centric world which contained something of a paternalistic hierarchy between ‘proper grown-up religions’ (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism), contrasted with the belief sets in the colonies (paganism, animism, shamanism, Scientology, magic.) His definition excludes this latter category from counting as religion, since it (in his view) lacks the community-spirit.
Fortunately, good old Clifford Geertz, American anthropologist, proposed this instead:
(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic
(Geertz,1985, Religion as a cultural system. Anthropological approaches to the study of religion)
I prefer this one, since it put all blends of otherworldly beliefs on the same footing – there is no hierarchy. Where (for example) Manifest Destiny Protestants were quite happy to see their religion as immeasurably superior to (say) Lakota Sun Dance and Ghost Dance practises, Geertz allows us to point at the whole lot of them and say, “You seem to believe in things that aren’t there. Religion.”
This is clarified by vans Baal and Beek, in:
(Religion is) all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically
(van Baal & van Beek 198, “Symbols for communication an introduction to the anthropological study of religion”)
The ‘empirical verification’ stands out to me most strongly. It allows us to condemn belief systems, whatever their pedigree, age and ‘niceness’, to the same box – shit we can’t be sure of. In it, the character “Storm” from this hilarious Tim Minchin video, is as much a religious believer as the Pope.
Now then, now then. Some wonderful thinkers, generally when arguing with atheists or evolution-supporters, point to the Geertz quote and ask smugly, “Isn’t science just another form of religious belief?”
And you can see how this makes sense. We can’t simply hide behind a defence of scientific principles as superior to the truth-finding principles of religious beliefs, as this poster humorously does. Sure, it’s great that science is adaptable and peer-reviewed, meaning that the community will happily discard a theory if compelling evidence disproves it. But so will certain religions, else Messrs Calvin and Luther would’ve just read the Bible, shrugged and muttered, “Seems legit.”
Science does give us a system for understanding and interpreting the world, it is symbols-based, scientists do believe them. Arguably, science even includes a healthy helping of “blind faith” in the belief that our logical systems are sound and our empirical assumptions hold true. This is a rather scary notion, and lots of skeptics/scientists would not concede the point, but there it is.
However, “science as religion” is missing something. The morality. Good scientists do not draw morality from science, because science can only establish facts. Professor Dawkins highlights this in one of his gradually-more-offensive talks, here. When you take a survey of scientists, you will find people who argue for a whole spectrum of positions on moral debates (death penalty, abortion, contraception, foreign intervention.) Their way-of-understanding-the-world does not directly inform their ethical choices in the sense “It is good to do x”. Religions will happily say (indeed, it is one of their most important roles to say) “murder is wrong” or “giving to charity is right”.
Science can tell you a near-limitless number of things about murder, from the biology of caving in someone’s head with a baseball bat, to the psychological torment murderers go through, to the different efficacies of legal systems and prisons, but it cannot tell you whether hitting someone with a baseball bat is right, wrong, or indeed has any moral value.
II. The Tricks of the Trade
I don’t want to labour this comparison too much, as I’m sure you’ll already have noticed similarities for yourself. It isn’t too hard to see how any of the accidental and deliberate techniques that influence our voting processes can also be used to influence our spiritual choices, just as they affect judicial procedures and social interactions. For analysis, skip to III.
Language and Rhetoric. Religions are as guilty as anyone (except perhaps advertisers) for using logical fallacies, not least appeals to tradition, in defending their positions or attacking those of others. Moreover, the fire-and-brimstone preacher or charming local witch doctor can be reliably imagined to use hyperbolic language, extreme emotional vocabulary and ‘ting to impress on you the aura of their spaghetti monster in the sky. They tend to let you join in, with songs and prayers, which not only give you the ‘group membership’ feel, but also act as convincers – by repeating religious affirmations or mantras, our brains naturally believe them more. [See also Family Guy S9E9]
Physical. As previously noted, you’re more likely to trust and believe in someone of your own class/ethnic group/aesthetic assumptions/gender/accent. Religious leaders (and devotees) have specific forms of dress that conform to potential believers’ expectations. Most will also exploit the cultural link between confidence, good public speaking and effective leadership. Lots of religions tend to emphasise the “Other-ness” of nonconformists and competing religions, giving your hostility-programmed subconscious lots to get fired up about. Woohoo.
Magic. Oh you know religions are a huge culprit. Faith healing, explaining natural events (e.g. US TVangelical Pat Robertson arguing a snowstom is God’s way of punishing the Gays. Derren Brown does a lot of excellent videos on this, exposing ‘psychics’, ‘mediums’ and various religious miracle workers (4OD) who use Barnum Statements and suggestion. Sadly it doesn’t end there. Religions are great fans of void filling (creating a horrible problem which you cannot solve for yourself, and presenting theirs as the only cure). See also: Hell.
Brain Chemistry. As well as being littered with appeals to confirmation and memory biases (e.g. using good luck to prove the effectiveness of prayer, interpreting God not destroying the world as evidence that the Apocalypse is coming), most religious events and experiences do a serious number on your subconscious. As well as the powerful effects of group membership and action, you’ve got the cunningly designed centres-of-worship and the affirmation rituals (e.g. Mass, Hajj, 400,000 prostrations).
An excellent blend of these at work can be seen (or inferred) from the Soul Survivor (Christian Summer Camp) that friend and atheist blogger extraordinaire Alex Gabriel attended and documented recently.
III. What does it all mean, Basil? Or, how religion affects politics, and if that’s OK
It’s important to acknowledge that politics and morality cannot be divorced, and should not be. We ultimately want to vote on policies we think are ‘Good’, and our definition of ‘Good’ depends on our morality. We need some form of ethical (or meta-ethical) value-system to determine what aspects of policy we prioritise, and what outcomes we would prefer. And if you’re convinced that your religion is the correct method for determining morality, then that’s valid.
Where religion isn’t valid is in determining which policy will bring about the outcome you’ve decided is ‘Good’. What I’m warning against is religious techniques being applied to political problems willy-nilly, when the most superficial look at that religion shows a whole confused range of views on the topic (e.g. whether the death penalty is acceptable for Christians, whether Sharia should be followed to the letter, whether Israel should even exist as a state). Moreover, I’m terrified when people deploy religious non-facts to serious arguments. This is where science comes in. Science is not qualified to say whether injections or condoms are morally good, but it can empirically prove to A) South African tribal groups who reject bovine flu vaccines, fearing that they contain evil spirits designed to kill cattle, and B) the Pope, rejecting contraception on numerous grounds in favour of abstinence, that the ‘scientific’ methods are quantifiable more effective in reducing bovine flu and STI-AIDS rates.
It seems to me that an informed voter needs both a well thought –out value system* and the ability to rationally evaluate arguments and statistics. Even for those of you who disagree with the franchise-qualification idea should, I hope, still see the value in a greater emphasis on adequate universal critical thinking education.
God Bless America.
*This may be the content of a future blog, but in the meantime, let’s just say that your value system is well thought out if you’re confident that you came to it regardless of all the naughty influences in II. This can of course include non-religious value systems (utilitarianism, Aristotelian value-ethics, neo-Platonism, hedonism, whatevs.)