Friday, September 28, 2012

Born Against (Slight Return)

Gertrude Himmelfarb:

"A man's religion"—but also a man's irreligion, James might have said. For the varieties of irreligion reflect the same once-born/twice-born dichotomy as the varieties of religion. The "New Atheists" easily fall into the category of the once-born, being as monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism. "Neo-Atheists," on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism and eager to import into secular society some of the enduring "goods" of traditional religions. Thus, they exhibit more of the character of the twice-born. So too, current varieties of will-to-believers are of both types. "New Age" disciples, rejecting traditional religion and aspiring to personal fulfillment and universal harmony, belong to the once-born. "Born-again" Christians, though, are of a mixed variety—twice-born in their acute recognition of sin, which prompts some to return to traditional churches with their rituals and dogmas, while others, like the once-born New-Agers, seek refuge in transitory non-dogmatic, non-ritualistic churches or mega-churches.

She's repurposing William James' famous psychological distinction between the once- and twice-born to illuminate the sociopolitical battle between religion and atheism, which is why I'm inclined to quibble with it. I mean, obviously, I would not want fundamentalist Christians crafting policy, but that's as far as it goes. Beyond the bare minimum effort required to maintain a secular state, social and political proselytizing doesn't interest me in the slightest. My favorite influences taught me better than that:

The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.

Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own!

Even if we were mad enough to consider all our opinions true, we should still not want them alone to exist: I cannot see why it should be desirable that truth alone should rule and be omnipotent; it is enough for me that it should possess great power. But it must be able to struggle and have great opponents, and one must be able to find relief from it from time to time in untruth – otherwise, it will become boring, powerless and tasteless to us, and make us the same.

Whatever kind of bizarre ideal one may follow, one should not demand that it be the ideal, for one therewith takes from it its privileged character. One should have it in order to distinguish oneself, not in order to level oneself.

True believers of all types, regardless of the character of their particular pet cause, would stare in dumbfounded disbelief at someone uttering such notions. Once-born, twice-born, they all derive comfort from bonding with their in-group and seeking to convert or overrun the out-group. I, on the other hand, aim to widen chasms between myself and others as much as possible and create them where they don't already exist.