Thursday, February 24, 2005

Folie à Deux

Robert M. Jeffers has written an excellent piece on fundamentalism's symbiotic relationship with modernity:

[W]hen "reason" insisted on primacy of place and the right to judge all aspects of human existence, even the "metaphysical" ones (Ovid's Metamorphoses is not about fantasy and gods, but about human passions and how individuals change) and the metaphorical understandings, an irruption was bound to occur. And that occurence, in religion, was fundamentalism.

It is, of course, inherently unstable, as well as unhealthy. Calling it a pathology is not an inapt metaphor. It is our Ouroboros, the world snake devouring its own tail. This is visible in our cultural life, and in our political lives. It affects the way we understand the world, and understand others in the world; and the way they understand us. Mark Miller is right: in its excess, in either the Bush Administration, or "Focus on the Family" or even Al Qaeda, it is pathological. But until we understand the basis for the problem, we won't understand how to respond to it.
One basis for the problem, it seems to me, is the vulgar error of believing that diametrical opposition is necessarily a sensible corrective to a false (or simply objectionable) intellectual conception. Too often, such opposition merely leads to a dance of death wherein each side justifies and reinforces the other's worst excesses through its own.

When "reason" defines itself primarily through dogmatic opposition to a given system of thought - as it does in the more extreme forms of what Daniel Dennett calls "greedy reductionism" - it ceases to be reasonable, and starts resembling that which it claims to detest. Reason, properly so called, is neither a reflex nor a habit, but an achievement; it requires a considerable amount of effort, and an even greater amount of personal honesty. Having managed it on one occasion doesn't mean you'll inevitably manage it on the next. This makes it something very different from the sort of thinking that goes into the standard Technological Sublime boilerplate.

My favorite example of the latter is Ray Kurzweil's books, with all their techno-triumphalist prattle about downloading intact human personalities onto computers; it astonishes me that such writing is thought of as scientific, instead of as a modern-day version of those Medieval wonder-books in which any irrational or impossible claim could be made so long as it inspired the correct amount of reverent awe. The willingness to accept such crude conceptions as somehow "rational," simply because they're made by a scientist, is the would-be rationalist's equivalent of believing that Jerry Falwell is morally excellent simply because he's a preacher. In both cases, belief is formed through an assessment of context rather than content, which is anything but rational.

The larger problem is that fundamentalists welcome noisy opposition from scientists and atheists; it shows that they're doing their job, and it brings in lots of donations from the faithful. "Rational" opposition poses no real threat to the political vitality of fundamentalism, and has done a great deal to abet it.

Unfortunately, as long as it remains easy to "prove" one's rationality by attacking fundamentalism, and to "prove" one's sanctity by attacking science - as long, in other words, as seeming remains a convenient substitute for being - things probably won't change. We're a nation that adores convenience, after all, and few things are more convenient than a self-hewn shortcut to personal righteousness.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's limited simply to our nation - throughout history people have found it easier to define themselves by what they oppose than what they stand for, even the "good guys." It's more than a shortcut to personal righteousness, it's a shortcut to tribal identity and social acceptance.

Try this: round up a few friends who share your political/religous/anti-religous point of view and try to go a whole evening without denouncing anything.

-Dan McEnroe

Phila said...


I never said that it was limited to the USA...that'd be crazy! But there is certainly a stereotypically American style of worship, whether it's of God or Mammon, and it does seem to me to revolve around convenience. Madonna's instant grasp of the Kabbalah is an extreme example that'll have to stand, here, an representing this sort of drive-thru approach to religion.

That said, I obviously couldn't and don't disagree with you. But the question here isn't whether or not people define themselves through opposition; it's obvious that they have, do, and will. The question is whether we're obliged to do this in a crude, reductive, simplistic way that actually strengthens our opponents. Personally, I don't think so. The whole point of my post is that reflexive forms of opposition tend to turn into folie a deux...hence the title.

Anonymous said...

Well that's the problem, innit...

Unfortuntately, I've noticed that those who refuse to define themselves by opposition tend to avoid politics and such and focus on doing something useful!

-Dan McEnroe

Phila said...

I'm not sure what's "unfortunate" about people focusing on doing "something useful"...but the world is full of subtleties that go right over my head, so think nothing of it.

Aquaria said...

The larger problem is that fundamentalists welcome noisy opposition from scientists and atheists; it shows that they're doing their job, and it brings in lots of donations from the faithful. "Rational" opposition poses no real threat to the political vitality of fundamentalism, and has done a great deal to abet it.In other words, we're feeding the beast. I recognized this problem a long time ago. I don't argue with them. There IS no arguing with them. You cannot argue reason with a person of faith; they are, as Nietzsche rightly pointed out 125 years ago, removed from any possibility of determining what is true or not true. Their conviction will not allow them to see anything but what supports their side.

And this is why, when people here in Texas ask me what church I go to, as if it's any of their damned business (they honestly consider this "civilized" discourse on short acquaintance), I tell them, "I will answer your question. Then you will say, 'That's nice,' and we will change the subject. Because you will not change my mind and you cannot change yours."

robin andrea said...

i do fall into that "opposition" hole myself sometimes. i agree with you and jeffers about the one feeding the other. the place where it seems to me that the real friction lies is in public policy and law. as neither side, reason nor fundamentalism, will persuade the other of its position i suppose we are left with majority rule constrained by the constitution.

dread pirate roberts