Sunday, September 16, 2007

Appeals to the sacred are among the most effective political technologies mankind has ever stumbled on

Imaginary gods are really immortal
Liberal democracies may well be suspicious of political movements animated by theology, but they shouldn't suppose that religious belief is irrational. Andrew Brown September 15, 2007 11:00 AM
The news that Hindu fanatics have forced the withdrawal of an Indian government report because it cast doubt on the existence of a deity will obviously strike most people as a triumph for superstitious nonsense. The important point, however, is that it's not irrational to claim that any particular God exists just because it's simultaneously nonsense. The two things are quite distinct, and sometimes diametrically opposed.
Superstitious nonsense makes perfect sense if your purpose is to demonstrate how powerful you are. Power can be demonstrated in many ways; forcing your opponent to agree to something untrue is one of the more common ones. But organised religions can do better than that. They can demonstrate their political power by forcing victims to agree something that couldn't possibly be true and this is a much more effective demonstration, as any tyrant knows.
Atheists have of course learnt this lesson: however frightening it was for Stalin's victims to be imprisoned or shot because of their genuine political opinions, what made the terror truly terrifying was that you would be imprisoned and then shot after being forced to confess to nonsensical crimes, like working for British intelligence. Similarly, a church that merely burns people for supposing that the earth goes round the sun (and I know of no church that actually did so) is not nearly as frightening as one that burns its opponents for holding an incorrect view of the Trinity.
The point about theological disagreement is that it is almost entirely arbitrary. Perhaps, among philosophers trained in the discipline, there are rules of argument. But it is not philosophers we have to fear; and theological disputes certainly become entirely arbitrary at those unhappy times when they become really popular, which is to say divisive. The more arcane a theological point can be, the better it will serve as a tribal rallying point.
This isn't because theology is wicked, but because people are. If we see politics as essentially a matter of conflict between shifting coalitions, one of the functions of religious argument is to strengthen and enlarge your own coalition in a way that pure politics, with their suggestion of grubby self-interest and compromise, just won't do. Appeals to theology function to make your position inflexible when it needs be, because they are by definition appealing to a supreme value; but they can also have the opposite effect, when surrender becomes inevitable, they have the further advantage over merely political claims that the sacred text can be reinterpreted without losing any of its immemorial authority. Look at the role that Christianity played first in justifying apartheid, and then in proving the need to demolish it.
All these are good reasons, perhaps, for liberal democracies to be suspicious of political movements animated by theology. But they are absolutely not reasons to suppose that religious belief will shrivel, or that it is irrational. If it is true that appeals to the sacred are among the most effective political technologies mankind has ever stumbled on, no Darwinian should expect them to be replaced by less effective pieties. Digg it Tailrank Reddit Newsvine Now Public Technorati This entry was tagged with the following keywords:

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