Friday, December 16, 2005

Myth America 2: Religion Boogaloo

James Wolcott helpfully steers us toward another brick in our mythic wall, a fantastic declamation of the cynicism exhibited by ivory-tower conservatards, when it comes to matters of faith, and specifically the deliberate promulgation of "intelligent design" mythos, couched in the greater monotheistic mythos.

As a matter of historical curiosity, this new turning of neocon eyes toward heaven comes just as Pope John Paul II has officially recognized that "the theory of evolution is more than an hypothesis." Indeed, it comes as evolutionary thinking itself is shedding considerable light on an array of questions and problems, from brain growth to the development of immune systems, from sociobiology to economics, from ecology to software design. Such research is yielding anti-designer results. F.A. Hayek long ago recognized the phenomenon of "spontaneous order" and described how it arose in markets, families, and other social institutions. Now, ingenious computer models are confirming Hayek's insights. It is increasingly obvious that social systems, from commerce to language, evolve and adapt without the need for top-down planning and organization. Order in markets is generated through processes analogous to Darwinian natural selection in biology. In other words, we can indeed have apparent design without a designer; the world is demonstrably brimming with just such phenomena.

Notice the libertarian trope of reflexively dismissing even the need for "top-down planning and organization". Still, his base premise is observably correct -- systems in both the natural kingdom and in the realm of human societal relationships can be observed to have an organically evolving quality unto themselves. The sentient qualities of the individuals will seek out the most advantageous situations for themselves in either type of case. It's just common sense.

But the neocon assault on Darwinism may not be based on either science or spirituality so much as on politics and political philosophy. That is the view of Paul Gross, a biologist and self-described conservative. Gross is much concerned with the interplay of science and politics--he is the co-author of the 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science--and is puzzled by the attacks on evolutionary biology by people whose political views he largely shares. Regarding Commentary's anti-Darwin article, he says he is mystified that the magazine "would publish the damned thing without at least passing it by a few scientists first."

Gross believes that the conservative attack on Darwin may be a case of tactical politics. Some conservative intellectuals think religious fundamentalists are "essential to the political program of the right," says Gross. As a gesture of solidarity, he says, these intellectuals are publicly embracing arguments that appear to "keep God in the picture."

It's that sort of thing that confirms my assumption that "American intellectualism" is essentially an oxymoron on the level of "jumbo shrimp". American intellectuals are frequently compromised somewhere along the line, usually as rent-boys for a "think tank" funded by some whackjob Mr. Burns-type gazillionaire. Not only that, Americans themselves typically aren't politically aware enough to have even read any genuine intellectuals. Rush Limbaugh is not an intellectual. Dipshit hagiographers like Peggy Noonan and George Fwill, also not intellectuals. Court stenographers like Woodward and Miller -- not real reporters. (At least Woodward probably didn't fuck Mark Felt, where apparently Judy Miller would suck cock to get the inside scoop on a sack race.)

The end of the Cold War may also be a factor. Marx fell with the Soviet Union; Freud has been discredited by modern psychology and neuroscience. The last standing member of the 19th century's unholy materialist trinity is Darwin. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, makes the connection clear: "Darwinism is the most important of the materialist ideologies--Marxism, Freudianism, and behaviorism are others--which have done so much damage to science and society in the 20th century." Kristol agrees. "All I want to do," he told his AEI audience, "is break the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination. For the moment that's enough."

This is so ridiculous, on multiple levels. First, merely lumping Darwinism in with other "materialist ideologies" does not mitigate its inherent scientific probity. Second, it's a bit ironic that these fields are pejoratively dubbed as "materialist" by filthy-rich pelf-grubbing pseudo-intellectual twaddle-merchants renting themselves out to whoever will have them. Third, which is more "restricting" to "our" imagination -- the adventure of continuous scientific progress, or a collection of metaphorical fables written by Bronze Age Levantine tribesmen, said by its faithful to be absolutely immutable? It is disingenuous to even allow such lies to go unchallenged.

But something deeper seems to be going on, and the key to it can be found in Bork's assertion in his book that religious "belief is probably essential to a civilized future." These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. Of course, this is not a novel thought. Many others have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservative activist Beverly LaHaye, a biblical literalist who is president of Concerned Women for America, puts the matter directly: "If the biblical account of creation in Genesis isn't true, how can we trust the rest of the Bible?"

Kristol and his colleagues may worry that once this one thread is pulled from the fabric of religious belief, perhaps the whole will become unraveled, with grave social consequences. Without the strictures and traditions imposed by a religion that promises to punish sinners, the moral controls that moderate our base desires will lose their validity, leading ultimately to moral chaos. Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is "the opium of the people"; they add a heartfelt, "Thank God!"

It is no secret that many neocons are in a deep funk over the state of American society. (For an especially glum assessment, dip into Bork's best-seller.) In the 1960s, many of them advocated federal programs to ameliorate such social ills as poverty, crime, racial discrimination, illegitimacy, and drug abuse. But as one social welfare program after another succumbed to its unintended consequences, they recognized the limits of governmental intervention. Having suffered a crisis of faith in the efficacy of social science, they now believe that only the restoration of religious belief among the masses can re-establish order in American society. As David Brooks recently wrote in the conservative journal The Weekly Standard, policy intellectuals used to sound like economists; now they sound like ministers. He's right. At conservative confabs today, the longing for yet one more Great Awakening of religious fervor is palpable.

Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

How about just leaving people the hell alone, and letting them figure it out for themselves? Nah, that'd be too easy -- plus, everyone would be doing their own thing, which would be bad for business.

Can it really be that simple? Can it really be all about a means of controlling the bewildered herd?

Another prominent neoconservative, Leon Kass, author of Toward a More Natural Science (1985), and a member of the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, also believes that evolutionary theory poses a threat to social order: "[T]he creationists and their fundamentalist patrons...sense that orthodox evolutionary theory cannot support any notions we might have regarding human dignity or man's special place in the whole. And they see that Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

Was it Chesterton or Burke who said that if men didn't believe in something, they'd believe anything? This is a more politicized iteration of that old saw. It would be nice if these assholes put their money where their mouths always are, but there's more to "regarding human dignity" than grudgingly accepting soup kitchens and holding toy drives once a year. How about the next corporation that guts its employees' pension fund after profiting $4 billion in six months, we make sure that upper management takes it in the shorts with equal force? Or does more money equal more dignity?

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that `the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

In crude terms, some critics of Strauss argue that he interpreted the ancient philosophers as offering two different teachings, an esoteric one which is available only to those who read the ancient texts closely, and an exoteric one accessible to naive readers. The exoteric interpretations were aimed at the mass of people, the vulgar, while the esoteric teachings--the hidden meanings--were vouchsafed to the few, the philosophers. Philosophers know the truth, but must keep it hidden from the vulgar, lest it upset them. What is the hidden truth known to philosophers? That there is no God and there is no ultimate foundation for morality. As Kristol suggests, it is necessary to keep this truth from the vulgar because such knowledge would only engender despair in them and lead to social breakdown. In his book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero, Strauss asserts with unusual clarity that Socratic dialogues are "based on the premise that there is a disproportion between the intransigent quest for truth and the requirements of society, or that not all truths are always harmless."


Thus, to preserve society, wise people must publicly support the traditions and myths that sustain the political order and that encourage ordinary people to obey the laws and live justly. People will do so only if they believe that moral rules are divinely decreed or were set up by men who were inspired by the Divine.

Kristol restated this insight nearly five decades ago in an essay in Commentary dealing with Freud: "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."

Oh, well good thing we have Strauss and Kristol and the rest of the enlightened ones -- who don't really believe it themselves -- to decide for us what "truths" we vulgar proles can and cannot handle. That is repulsive. As much as I beat on people for being suckers -- and most of them are -- the problem is not one of native intelligence. It is a problem of being conditioned to be suckers, by a crappy school system, an indifferent government, and a sensationalist media. People are just stuck on this hamster wheel of sorts, living on road rage and manufactured conflict, repeatedly trying to sate themselves with more useless shit. It's the only way to forget that their real wages stagnate while their cost of living keeps soaring; that they're just a paycheck or two from the streets; that if there's a medical emergency in the family, they're going to be left destitute, whether or not the treatment is successful.

The system has always been broken, because the systems have always revolved (and evolved) around the class who set up the system in the first place. Whether despotism, monarchy, republic, or democracy, there have always been inherent inequities in the system, and thus various mechanisms for dealing with the social fallout. Nationalist and religious mythos -- frequently intertwined -- are what these self-appointed keepers of the flame use to keep the flock docile. They believe they're lying for the Lord, because they genuinely believe that the majority of people need other people (like Kristol and Strauss, coincidentally enough) to look after them. What it boils down to is that they don't think we can take care of ourselves.

The glorious flip side to all that is this -- it's because they're scared shitless of what would happen if people got wise.

(still more to come)


Anonymous said...

It is that simple.

"Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich" Napolean Bonaparte

Greedy corporate slugs need the unwashed masses living in fear of the man behind the curtain.

Craig Heath said...

They believe they're lying for the Lord...

And as you point out so well, it's the same old story no matter what the system. The nazis believed they were lying for "the Volk" - the Stalinists believed they were lying for the "Socialist Man", etc.etc.

And it's not only "the man behind the curtain" they want us to fear (thanks, anon), but "the other" and each other. Keep us fighting over Darwin and Dogma, black and white, have and have-nots, and the fat cats can keep the system floating on our backs.

It's disgusting beyond words - but you have the words for us, Heywood. Thanks!

Error 404 said...

So, if there can be more than one set of truths, one for the Illuminati and another for the sheep, why is it so impossible that there be two kinds of truth, one mythic and another observational?

Evolution makes a crappy myth: no forward-moving plot, no significant characters, no key conflicts that turn the tide one way or another, way too slow moving - time on a scale that is emotionaly meaningless. It has only two things going for it: it is factualy true and it provides the framework for all of modern biology.

The Genesis accounts, on the other hand, are about the relationship between God and Man and Everything Else. I doubt that your average nomadic tribesman who heard it told by the priest who first wrote it down even thought about the possibility that Adam used to be an actual individual in the observable world, that one might find his grave with his bones (minus one rib) in it. Yer average nomadic tribesman isn't and wasn't dumb, and the story is clearly fanciful as history. And if you had somehow shown him that (as he probably assumed anyway) Adam is not a long-dead person but a metaphoric representative for men of his tribe, he'd have asked you why you thought that was even remotely relevant to what the priest was talking about.

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