Monday, August 16, 2004

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results

This editorial in yesterday's Los Angeles Times really irritated me this morning.

The phrase "the war on terrorism" is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles, because we are currently at war with precisely a vision of life presented to Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with "the friends of Satan"? Why did 19 well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed, on the authority of the Koran, that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so easily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.

Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person's religious beliefs. Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between the major religious traditions is simply never discussed.

Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They too suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam versus those of Buddhism and Christianity.

[. . .]

It is time we recognize that religious beliefs have consequences. As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels — and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it. Believe that "life starts at the moment of conception" and you will happily stand in the way of medical research that could alleviate the suffering of millions of your fellow human beings. Believe that there is a God who sees and knows all things, and yet remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual acts between consenting adults, and you will think it ethical to punish people for engaging in private behavior that harms no one.

Now that our elected leaders have grown entranced by pseudo-problems like gay marriage, even while the genuine enemies of civilization hurl themselves at our gates, perhaps it is time we subjected our religious beliefs to the same standards of evidence we require in every other sphere of our lives. Perhaps it is time for us to realize, at the dawn of this perilous century, that we are paying too high a price to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

I'd sign on board with some of this. Yes, I do think we often treat religious sensibility with kid gloves. And yes, I think it is wise to reflect on the 'standards of evidence' that we require of each. This is, I think, the extent of my agreement. Those who know me well, know that I am not a worldclass apologist for religious belief; that I, in fact, lean more toward a kind of materialism than a redemptive spiritualism. As such, I find LOTS to criticize about religion. E.g., while I understand the ideal rationale of traditional Islam's treatment of women, I find much of its practical application abominable; while I think Zen Buddhism may indeed have a lot to teach the closed-off minds of the West, I also recoil when I recall its pivotal role in mobilizing the tyrannical Japanese war effort during WWII; and while Christianity has helped shaped a lot that is good about the Western world, much of what we now regard as 'good' came through centuries of what we'd regard as 'bad' (namely, war, colonization, etc.).

Now, the more commonplace reaction against an editorial like this is to point out the wholesale objectifiying of a religion: that there is no Islam as such, but rather a religion called Islam, in which adherents claim to follow the principles they (subjectively) create for themselves. Such an argument would point out there is (in a sense) a plurality of Islams, and that the singularity 'Islam' is a product of intersubjectivity -- i.e., that no one person can create the concept of Islam, that Islam is not a relativistic construction, but is 'created' collectively, through intersubjective compromise, agreement, and disagreement. What you end up with is a concept of Islam (or any religion, for that matter) that is neither one determinate thing nor the simple product of individual perspective. 'Islam' is, on the contrary, an empty signifier, into which individual perspectives are poured and objective meaning derived; the derived meaning, of course, is dependent upon the perspectives (or complex of perspectives) made available and/or 'agreed' upon. There is, in effect, no individual perspective without collective meaning, and no collective meaning without individual perspective. The upshot of such an argument isn't so much that the editorial is battering a strawman, as it readily accepts the possibility and actuality of the examples it cites, but that its wholesale criticism of religion based on the narrowness of its examples is feeble and unwarranted.

There might be some truth to this. What I'm far more interested in lately, though, is how the 'narrowness' of examples like these actually DO indict religion (but how, potentially, religion isn't really all that interesting without the indictment). For instance, I am becoming more convinced by the arguments that modern religious sensibility, as it becomes increasingly focused on individual, stratified spirituality, is becoming indistinguishable from the structure of capitalism. The most obvious corollary is that of currency currency. Just as gold is no longer the standard of value for modern currencies, but now a commodity amongst many in which one can invest, the truth of modern religion is also a potential investment (and not simply a revelatory foundation). I talked about this on one level above, but it is especially clear, too, when thinking about concrete examples like 'personal salvation', 'heaven', 'hell', etc. You reap what you sow, so it goes. Ask, and you will receive. Die to the old self, and be born again. Even the notion of No-Self in much of Buddhism is presented as being a mark of 'understanding', which somebody like Nagarjuna would seemingly equate with 'nirvana' itself; and even when it isn't, one would be foolish to think that 'Eastern' religion is without its share of sympathetic magic designed to help the individual. The returns on one's investments are, of course, different in different religions, but the structure remains the same.

The problem with this, though, is (as has long been cited) that inasmuch as capitalism involves BOTH a necessary stratification / deterritorialization (i.e., individuals & individual investments, and their hunger for new adaptations and contextualizations of these investments) AS WELL AS a greater dependency upon a network of others for those investments to be cashed-out (i.e., made meaningful / actualized), we are embroiled in a latent schizophrenia. The former resists the latter, and thus the market spreads like mad; indeed, it is a kind of madness. To me, insofar as religion resembles Capital, madness would be its constitutive condition. This is not necessarily the worst thing to say about religion, though. Kierkegaard is famous for saying that the 'knight of faith' is precisely INSANE.

"The person who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite in order to grasp on to the infinite; he is secure enough. The tragic hero gives up what is certain for what is still more certain, and the eye of the beholder rests confidently on him. But the person who gives up the universal to grasp something higher that is not the universal, what does he do?" (Fear and Trembling)

There are a couple of schools of thought about insanity. It could (a) be simply that, or that it simply propagates matrices of power and terror to spread, and thus something to be resisted (this would seem to be the editorial's position). Or, alternatively, (b) it could be regarded as the built-in resistance to these matrices of power and terror, the constitutive point that eludes the grasp of that which it constitutes. For (b) there is always MORE to, say, Islam or Christianity, than Islam or Christianity themselves, they are never quite themselves -- that this incompleteness is, in effect, their constitutive truth. Without this inability to be themselves, the world's religions would not be at all -- that there is nothing, no truth, outside religion to which it infinitely strives, only the material / concrete instantiations of this void itself.

You be the judge.