Wednesday, October 10, 2012

We Are Doomed

I liked a great deal of John Derbyshire's book. He hails from a branch of conservatism that has had to sit in the corridor much of the last decade, more paleocon than neocon. Derb himself might say metrocon, a word he coined that never caught on, as he relates in this book.

He is quite serious in his belief that We Are Doomed,  in the sense that we are past the point of no return in more than one area in America, and the West in general.  Though pessimistic, he is not despairing, and has tips on how we are to buck ourselves up in the partial, though inevitable collapse he sees coming - a collapse that is as much cultural as financial.

But this isn't a review, but an occasion to spin off and discuss a part of the book I not only disagree with, but think that Derb has lost the objectivity he insists on in others.  He was once a Christian believer of some mild C of E sort, but has no definitively decided he is not.  I am certainly likely to look at such reasoning with heightened suspiciousness, though even I have acknowledged some folk who have taken that path remain somewhat reasonable.  I tend toward the Thomist idea that perfect reason must lead to God, however - my bias that causes me to be extra hard on that line of thought.

The first red flag went up when he asserted that all religions have creation and world-ending myths, that they are rather easily knocked down by science, and thus the Christian story should be held in similar regard.  This is simply not factually true.  Some religions - notably some of the Native American tribal beliefs - have creation myths that are important to the whole picture.  But even a moment's thought will reveal that the mythologies we know most about - Roman, Greek, Norse - make scant mention of such things.  Extra points if you remembered Yggdrasil, but even that has only occasional mention and is not the ultimate beginning - just beginningish.  The Eastern religions are quite cyclic and repeating, as most religions are.  Beginning, middle, and end are more western ideas.  They are not entirely absent in the East, but it is mostly westerners who are fascinated by them.

In fact, many of the supposed creation stories only seem to have come into prominence once Christians started asking "How do you chaps think the world got started, then?  And where's it all going?"  I don't want to oversell this.  There are religions with solid creation ideas, and most of the major ones have at least something we can point to, especially around the Mediterranean.  But they don't figure in the literature much beyond their first few mentions - Hesiod, for example. 

Small point, Mr. Derbyshire, but one with large implications.  As I posted recently, any two things can look similar if you squint hard enough.  Selection bias and confirmation bias are powerful. Beginning, middle, end is not exclusively western, but it is dominantly so.

Which brings me to my more basic point: we all tend to adopt the beliefs of those we hang out with.  As an evolutionary strategy, this is the safe choice.  The tribe may need the occasional person to think outside the box, and will carry the genes for that, but it tends to be a risky survival strategy. While acknowledging that some scientists remain (or become) Christians, he notes that these are far fewer than in the population at large.  The biologists and neuroscientists in particular have low percentages of believers, and he feels they should be the most reliable evaluators of human thought. 

Except that a strongly related group, medical doctors, including the neurologists, hold confessional beliefs at rates similar to the general population.  Derb doesn't hang out with this group, so he believes what the academic biologists hint to him is the norm: unbelief.  I don't mean to be harsh on him as any worse than the rest of us, all huddling together with the like-minded and believing what is socially comfortable, but neither is it any better.  Not in the least.  Therefore, one shouldn't make a big deal out of claiming your group is somehow different when writing a book.

In a pure argument, I think Mr. Derbyshire would take the point and agree with it at least partly.  But that would be a purely theoretical agreement.  From his tone in writing, it is clear that for all his doubt about consciousness and solidity and untrustworthiness of thought, he thinks this (un)belief is really true.  They really are the experts, and I'm with them.

I've made the point often and don't need to hammer it.  Beliefs have their fashions, and these are often more powerful movers of opinion that logic.  The song from South Pacific is dead wrong about racial prejudice:  you don't have to be carefully taught.  It's the prejudice that is natural, attested in all literatures as far back as we can trace.  Racial prejudice went away in our society largely because it became unfashionable, not because there were lengthy logical debates and persuasions about it.  The James Micheners of the world had a belief and sold it. There's a cart-and-horse question here, because they received the idea from parts of their culture as well, but you take my point. A single artist is seldom powerful, but in the aggregate, artists change the culture.  In this case, they made racial prejudice unfashionable.  Hard to argue with that, but it still isn't reasoning.

It may be the best we poor humans can do, however.

In my own lifetime the same thing has happened with acceptance of homosexuality.  Movies and theater, more than books and music, has had a great deal to do with this.  But those media have not engaged us in debate or intellectual consideration of the topic (though they sometimes pretend to portray this), they have simply convinced us that it is unfashionable to disapprove of homosexuality and immoral to forbid it in any context.  Credit or blame whoever you want on this, but the culture as a whole went along. 

One important addition: we all belong to several groups, and it will often happen that we feel conflicted about who we will ultimately side with.  It is an interesting general problem, but I am much more interested in how it plays out when one of the belief-sets is Christianity, or what the individual believes is the Christian norm. People get converted to conservatism or liberalism - or conspiracy theories or parenting styles or socialism - along with their Christianity, and many don't separate these out very well.  Again, it is a hard thing to go against the group one looks to for mates and jobs and companionship. 

Sometimes the choices can be revealing.  Sometimes you can sense that a person has not rejected the faith as taught, but has, without realising it, put their church membership second to some other group.  I have been most aware of this when watching how wealthier parents choose to have their children raised. Depending on the prevailing culture, that may be aspirational parents sending their children to religious schools though they are only somewhat religious, or might be previously religious parents who start thinking that getting children into the "best" schools is their real allegiance.


james said...

As you show, he hasn't actually studied the matter carefully, or he'd have avoided such bloopers.

If we don't think and look carefully, we're apt to be nudged this way or that by the fashions of our peers or pulled along by the logic of our lusts.

I don't know about your churches, but the ones I've been in haven't been very big on self-denial and fasting and such like, though they still retain some respect for the rules about avoiding sexual sins. I'm given to understand some of the youth have abandoned the church because they can't put up with rules on sex. I wonder what reasons they'd offer if the church went in more for fasting and simple living.

(As I wrote this I ate a few {more than a few} fresh baked cookies, so I'm probably not the best one to write about fasting or self-denial...)

Dubbahdee said...

The self-improvement/Personal Development crowd with which I ran for some time often touts this aphorism: "In 5 years your income will match that of the 5 friends you spend the most time with." The idea is that you should choose your friends carefully -- your destiny depends on it.

As they tended applied it, it has certain non-charitable implications. Don't hang with the down and out. Put yourself among the wealthy and successful so that you can attain what you aspire.

Not a very Jesus thing, really, is it?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Technically I spend more time with colleagues who do much the same job than most others, so the idea is true, though perhaps trivially so.

As for social connections, I think people feel comfortable with "their own," and that is defined in several ways. Income may be one of them, but I'm not sure it's dominant. My own life would suggest that age, smarts, and how many children they had were larger factors.

Jonathan said...

This topic needs more Copithorne.

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