Thursday 17 July 2014

Eliding the past

                                            Rational thought, religious style? 
'Faith' leaders unite to oppose euthanasia. [Here.]

I've retained enough of a memory of what it was like to be an atheist (or perhaps just enough common sense) to get a sense of how convincing the non-religious will find such an intervention. (Oh, go on, guess!) Indeed, it must have occurred to at least a few of us bronze age goat herd fetishists that, as soon as a sizable number of people hear that religious leaders think this or that, they'll go and do exactly the opposite. Although I hope that some of the proponents of euthanasia have thought about the issue a bit more deeply than this, I've come across quite a few who clearly regard the debate as mainly having a symbolic function in the extirpation of religion: whatever the religious think, they are agin it.

Putting aside the issue of euthanasia, it is quite odd to think that religious leaders of a wide variety of backgrounds agree on their opposition. I suspect that the New Atheists will simply explain this agreement along the lines of 'religion dumb, therefore dumb conclusion', but to anyone else, the agreement of widely different theologies and sensibilities in this area really ought to require a bit more explanation.

Well, here's my best go at it. In essence, we have here an opposition between tradition and modernity. Those religious leaders who oppose euthanasia hold fast to old, pre-modern traditions. Those who promote euthanasia (whether religious or not) tend to reject tradition and embrace the new. So what unites the 'religious' leaders is less religion and more adherence to traditional values.

Modernists have constructed for themselves a closed belief trap: in essence, a way of thinking that prevents them thinking their way out of error. The examples you often find quoted of this sort of trap are religious: 'Doubt is the temptation of the devil, therefore it's important to believe and reject evidence as Satanic.' But the secular equivalent of that are the hermeneutics of suspicion such as Marxism, Freudianism, Feminism and New Atheism that teach their adherents to reject any evidence from the past or from other cultures as tainted by patriarchy or neurosis or class interest or religion.

Focusing on religion for the moment, if you reject any moral guidance 'infected' by religion, you leave yourself an extremely narrow evidence base. Obviously, most other countries are infected by religion outside Western Europe so can be disregarded. Most Western European writers of the past thousand years have also been infected by religion or the reaction to it, so you're probably only safe with Irvine Welsh.

If you then reapply the critical filter with all the other versions of the hermeneutic of suspicion, you won't end up with much that's safe to read or pay heed to. And if you add into that the material restrictions of modern education (reduced patience in reading, lack of foreign and ancient languages, emphasis on utilitarian outcomes) you have some quite difficult fences to climb before you can access any perspective that might provide a serious contrast or check to modern 'chatter'.

Does this matter? Well, it does if you take the view that traditional values are like traditional skills: they embody the carefully accumulated experience of generations about what does and doesn't suit our human nature and condition. I won't attempt to defend such a view here but - unless you're absolutely sure that it's a mistaken view- the very obvious fact that we have systematically constructed a culture which is inoculated  against this sort of wisdom really ought to be very worrying.


  1. I think you could take this one step further; I'm thinking of Foucault et al (intellectually) and Maslow, Rogers et al (psychologically). Their radical subjectivism results in the idea that there is no truth in any sense we would recognise. All we are left with are either individually or socially constructed ideas that can be re-constructed at any time with equal validity. Maslow, at least, finally came to recognise that this resulted in the destruction of any possibility of serious teaching or learning - and thus the death of any intellectual tradition (there's that word again!)

  2. Completely agree there's more to be said here. I suppose in the end it boils down to a question of whether there's some sort of abyss separating modernity (or post-modernity) from previous ages, and what sort of abyss that is. (And there are lots of possible candidates: the 'subjective turn', secularization, new technology, new class structures etc etc.) So lots more to be said and smarter people than I have said lots (which doubtless won't stop me throwing my tuppence in at various stages!). But because those issues are so complex, I was struck by the simplicity of the present issue: for whatever reason (and, as I've said, there are probably lots of them) very many people -including very many highly educated people- are cut off from the past. And really, I wonder, if it's put as brutally as that, how many of them are completely happy with that? (The obsession with (eg) genealogy and 'Tudor porn' (ie bodice rippers!) suggest the human desire to maintain contact with the past remains, even if most of the forms it takes seem rather trivial.)