Monday, May 21, 2007

Some comments on religion

And Virginia's giant burning cross gives me a segue into a point about religion. My point has nothing to do with burning crosses, but everything to do with supersonic segues.

People sometimes claim that the appeal of religion is that it neatly divides the world into good and evil, and that one derives some psychological comfort from living in such a tidy arrangement. Such claims are sometimes augmented with the observation that religion invests the world with meaning. I think these claims are fine as they go, but obscure the deeper philosophic point about religion regarding normative commitment- the idea that there is something that one should do.

In a recent work Self-Knowledge and Resentment, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has argued for the fundamental importance of normative commitments for agency. In the book, Bilgrami argues that it is only because we see the world as placing normative commitments on us that we can have anything like agency in the first place. In a thought exercise, Bilgrami asks us to imagine a character so thoroughly passive that he lacks the will to get out of bed in the morning. This character, who Bilgrami calls a radically exaggerated Oblomov, fails to see the world as placing any normative commitments on him. That is, as Oblomov sees it, it does not matter whether he gets out of bed or not. It does not matter to him whether he does anything at all. He finds nothing in the world that compels him to action in anyway. Bilgrami then asks us to imagine how it is that such a thoroughly passive character could have thought. Bilgrami argues convincingly that he could not. The idea is that the passivity, stemming from lack of normative commitment, is so paralyzing that no individual could actually live in such a state. It is not that they would be so depressed they would commit suicide. Rather, it is that no such individual could possibly exist. Our imagination fails us when we try to picture such an Oblomov. The conclusion of the thought experiment is that since we cannot imagine an agent lacking normative commitments, normative commitment must be necessary for agency.

I will leave it to my reader to determine if Bilgrami succeeds or not. I find the argument compelling. But what I want to say- my point about religion- is that if Bilgrami is correct, then there is a much deeper point about the role of good and evil in religion than either of the fine, though somewhat obvious and superficial points listed above.

The point is this: if viewing the world as normatively structured is necessary for agency, and religion succeeds in so structuring the world, then religion serves a necessary role in enabling the existence of minded agents.

Now I want to be very clear about something. Notice the way I worded the point: "religion serves a necessary role." I did not say "religion is necessary for." I am not saying that religion is necessary in anyway. Quite the contrary. I am saying that religion plays the role of something that is necessary- a role that might well be played by any number of other world-structuring phenomena.

But what exactly is this point that religion serves a necessary role? My idea here is that by structuring the world along normative lines, religious doctrine makes it possible for people (religious people) to see the world as mattering in someway. For the religious person, it matters whether they go to church or not. It matters whether they break laws or not. It matters all the way down and around. To the religious mind, every single detail of life matters a great deal, because life is a battle between good and evil. That's just the way they see it. And because they feel the world matters, they feel compelled to act accordingly. That is the important point, I think. Not the questions about God's existence, or tidy psychological pictures, or meaning. The important point, if Bilgrami is correct, is that the normative structure of the world calls people into action, thus appealing to their agency. This I find interesting.

Now for a few clarifying remarks. There is probably a temptation to read my remarks about "calling to action" as calling to religious action- going to church, obeying to torah, things like that. That is not what I mean at all. The call to action occurs at a much more fundamental level. It is the call to any action whatsoever. The action need not have any relation to organized religion at all. That was the very point of the Oblomov thought experiment. That if we do not see the world as normatively structured- placing normative demands on our action- then we will do nothing at all. We will not get out of bed. We will not even think. In fact, we would not even be. So you see, it need not have anything to do with religion.

And lastly, there might be a temptation to take my point as a puzzle for how it is that a non-religious person could a exist. This too, would be an incorrect way to read my point. I do not think a non-religious person could not exist. I know plenty of them. Remember, the point was that religion serves a necessary role, a role that might well be played by any number of phenomena. The crucial thing is that an agent must see the world as normatively structured. It doesn't matter how that world is normatively structured or how it got normatively structured, but just that they see it as normatively structured. And the point about religion is that religion is one way that this gets accomplished.

Go Twins! Yeah Democrats!


Andy D said...

At the risk of taking this discussion down a path that you didn’t want to go, I would like to throw my two cents in….

What if religion is right? The other role religion might serve is to explain what the world really is like, and what we should expect when our time here is up. I don’t want to make an argument for or against any particular religion. However, what if there really is a supreme being that created the universe and is at work in the world today. Surely religion would serve as something more than a simple call to action in that case.

BrooklynDissentator said...

Thanks for your comment Andy. I believe my position can accomodate the possibility that a particular religion is a correct description of the world. My point was about the consequences of believing in something (seeing the world as normatively structured). For my position, it doesn't matter whether what you believe (ie the particular way you structure the world) is correct.

Now, I tend to be a relativist about world views, so my philosophic leaning is that no one world view is correct. But relativism need not prevail for my point to stand.

Lets say that a particular religion is correct. Say the Christians are right, for example. Then, in that case, my point about agency would just be another virtue of christianity. I would say: "Congrats Christians! You got it right. And thanks God, because without your normative structure, we couldn't be agents, which is good."

So whether there is a correctly structured normative view of the world, or all views are just as good, I think one could still say that imbuing the world with normative structure enables an agential existence.

St!ff M!ttens said...

Saying there is something one should do is not necessarily a religious idea. I believe I should go to bed soon. Not because I follow some religious doctrine which specifies what is a "proper" or "moral" sleep schedule, but because I am aware of the consequences of not sleeping and I do not enjoy those consequences (being tired the next day). Furthermore, I am aware that lack of sleep can be more than just annoying but also a threat to my survival (in extreme or unusual instances). For my part, I see survival (both individual and species) as good and extinction as evil. Some might think that means that I will do anything to survive. Not true, as demonstrated by this extreme example: If, for some reason, every other human being alive decided that I must die, then in order to survive, I would have to kill every other human being before they could kill me. But that would clearly cause the extinction of humanity, and so I would not try (even if it were feasible for me to do so). This is not because of any religious notion--thou shalt not kill, or whatever (clearly there are times when killing is justified)--It is simply because I am human and therefore I like humans... sort of. ;-}

Andy D asks "what if religion is right?" I find that question meaningless because it doesn't specify which religion and many of the religions with which I am familiar are pretty rigidly defined (granted some of the rigidity has relaxed over the centuries, but still..), and those fairly rigid ideas often directly contradict each other. Don't fundamentalist Christians believe that the Jews are all going to hell? I'm guessing the Jews don't believe that. How can both religions be right? How can any religion be right?

I am not an atheist (because I view atheism as just another religion), but I do not follow any religious doctrine (I may borrow ideas from them on occasion). Not because I object to a rigidly defined belief system, in fact I want one. The problem with religion, in my opinion, is not that it boils down to a binary view (good vs. evil). It is the dogma--hanging on to ancient ideals that are rarely updated to take into consideration the advances of science or philosophy, simply because of the comfort of tradition and the fear of being what we are. Religion, it seems to me, is the refuge of lazy minds and timid hearts. Science and the more logical and "observational" branches of philosophy offer a normative structure that is attempting to be rigidly defined, but is in a continual, self-redefining flux. It's not a perfect system by any means, but then neither are we. ;-}

St!ff M!ttens said...

Oops. I guess I glossed over the end of your post, because going back and reading it again I see that you kind of address much of what I wrote in my previous post.

I think the point I really wanted to make is that when religion calls people to action it has greater chance of calling people to the wrong action because it's like reaching a conclusion based on faulty premise. There are certainly some useful ideas about how to conduct oneself in most religions, but the problem, as I see it, is that the reason behind those ideas tends to be "because God wills it." And if you go around believing you are absolutely doing what God intends you to, then you might think it's okay to fly an airplane into a building full of people who never did anything bad to you, or you might think it's okay to invade someone else's country and completely wreck their societal infrastructure and expect them to be grateful.

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