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.


  1. I don't get the drama - I would love it if most people agreed with me most of the time, and could give me food for thought when we disagree. I'm puzzled by N's concern with Truth fostering boring sameness - as if there's the slightest danger of that happening. But don't you want your fellow humans to believe facts rather than fictions? Atheists are right, and Believers are wrong. However, I don't argue with people about religion; I tell them, "I believe only that for which I have evidence.", and let my self-confidence sell it. Doesn't the fact that your writing aims at convincing us of the truth of your opinions belie your last statement?

  2. The birds fly, the tide ebbs and flows, and the Vile Scribbler scribbles. Expressing opinions through prose is just the flowering of my nature.

    No, I honestly don't intend to convince you guys of anything; if it happens, it's just a byproduct. I mean, I enjoy the process of striving for truth and seeking to express insights in a way that pleases my aesthetic sense. I try hard to be accurate, and I enjoy debating. But as a writer, matters of perspective interest me far more than matters of fact. There are already a bajillion bloggers who exist to fact-check their political opposites, and they bore me silly. "Oh, look, a Christian/Republican said something stupid again!"

    Plus, I assume you, me, Brian, Shanna, etc. all agree for the most part on a basic ethical worldview, so I don't see any need to harp on stuff like that. And I wouldn't want to create that sort of cliquish environment where we all reinforce each other by attacking our common enemies. If anything, I'd rather prod you guys into taking issue with me.

    I don't want to, say, make you all become fervent Nietzsche fans -- I just want to use what I know of him to maybe make you see a subject in a different light. The writers I enjoy the most are the ones who make a new subject interesting to me, or who present a fresh perspective on a familiar one. I wouldn't mind doing that with my own writing, but that's about it as far as goals.

    And you have to keep in mind that I literally get between 20-30 hits a day, and half of those are from Googlebots. I'm not exaggerating when I say that no one is listening to me! And again, I'm perfectly fine with that. The act of writing itself is all the sustenance I need. But my attitude is: I don't have to please an audience's expectations or sustain ad revenue, so why not use this space to challenge myself and others?

    To answer your other question, I don't really care what my fellow humans believe; I'm more concerned with how they act, and even there, I primarily want to be left the hell alone more than I want to influence their actions. As we both know, believers can be humane and wise while atheists can be dogmatic and blinkered, for example, so I don't hold any illusions about how nice things would be if only everyone could believe the same things. Historically, in fact, trying to get everyone to believe the same things has been one of the most reliable sources of strife and bloodshed.

  3. It does seem weird that you have three regular customers out of about a billion people on the internet. It pleases me to be a meddling idealist, leading horses to water so they'll see the light. Frankly, I have the track record of Cassandra. But how can you not want that people stop being blind and stupid, and become insightful and wise? Can't you use your blogger super powers to make this happen?

  4. Even if I were wise in any important ways, I doubt I have the social skills necessary to persuade people of it. And honestly, I think stupidity and blindness are inexhaustible and endlessly adaptable. Humans, like any other animal, have no purpose beyond securing food, security and reproductive success. Truth-seeking is just one of those ad-hoc features that we've put to intermittent use; I don't see it ever becoming the driving force in human existence.

    Sure, like anyone, I can look at specific instances of callous or self-destructive behavior and say "Oh, that's terrible. They/someone should do X, Y and Z instead!" But I've become very wary of letting inductive reasoning run wild from that point. I lack the wisdom and perspective to come up with general laws and principles (I suspect most people do, actually, but it flatters them to think otherwise). Like Lao and Chuang Tzu, my talents are better utilized by deflating other such schemes.

  5. talents are better utilized by deflating other such schemes.

    That's your superpower? You're Deflation Man?
    When you are on a sinking ship, it is helpful to know what won't save you, but it would be more helpful to know what will.

  6. But we have no way to know what precise qualities and actions in what precise combinations would "save" us, let alone what "salvation" would look like. All we can do is muddle along, making ad hoc fixes and patches where we can, hoping that an asteroid doesn't come along and take the decision out of our hands.