Tuesday, January 1, 2013

In Defense of Religion Done Right

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.  ISBN: 1400067820.

I am slowly making my way through this book, which I am enjoying a lot (as I have enjoyed all of Taleb's work that I have read thus far).  Taleb articulates well why I am reluctant to abandon traditions, including religious traditions, even as I question the utility of dogma, including religious dogma, as a transparent guide for human life.  I like traditions.  I think they are useful, providing more upside (more opportunity for large profit) than downside (risk of serious damage).  I dislike dogma.  I think it provides more downside than upside, more risk than reward (and the rewards are nothing special, no matter what kind of dogma we are talking about: the more seriously you take any dogma, the more likely it is to ruin your life, hurting you deeply).

In brief, I love Christmas (tradition) and loathe the idea of trying to force myself or others to believe literally in Santa Claus (dogma).  I am open to Santa existing as people imagine him (recognizing that people's imagination paints him very differently as historical situations vary), but I am not invested in him existing.  I couldn't care less.  My Christmas is beautiful rather he comes down the chimney physically or not.  Assuming he does make it to my stocking in person, I don't even care whether he leaves gifts or coal.  He can do whatever he pleases.  Historically, this means leaving me alone.  The closest I came to seeing him for real was when I tried to imagine him sitting in a pile of presents one year under the Christmas tree.  I recall announcing to one of my sisters that I had seen Santa, that he was sitting under our tree.  Thus did I become an allegorist, like better men before me, choosing to illustrate my life with myth even as I failed to find it literally true: there was no jolly old gent sitting under my Christmas tree, sitting pretty in a holiday coat and handing out presents to all and sundry.  My experience with God to date is exactly the same: divinity is a picture I project onto circumstances, a word I throw out into the void to give it shape.  "Santa" represents generosity, kindness, presents, Christmas, and a bunch of related things.  I invoke him to point to these.  "God" represents many of the same things.  He is a picture I can call up to illustrate and/or point to things like justice, love, hatred, vengeance, and so on.  In my experience, he is not a real person the way I am.  We have never met as human beings.

But that does not mean that I have no use for religion, no appreciation for tradition, no reservations about innovators who proclaim the end of everything old and the rise of new truth (whether some new religious dogma or scientific theory supposed to revolutionize the world: I distrust both, for the same reasons).  Distrusting the latest costume-dresser pretending to be Santa is not the same thing as hating Christmas.  With that in mind, I offer my defense of a religion, which comes from a position essentially identical to that of Nassim Taleb.

I really appreciate religion, even now that I am no longer comfortable practicing the LDS faith I was born into. I wish that apologists (especially the LDS apologists I am familiar with) didn't spend so much time fighting impossible (and absurd) battles, as though it really mattered what happened in the past. (Do I care whether there were coins in ancient America? Horses? Chariots? Old World civilizations in the New that disappeared without leaving a trace? Must I care in order to save my life? If so, I am doomed.) Why seek to control the past, which is beyond control (especially in our modern world)? Why not focus on the real weakness in much opposition to religion, weakness that shows up in blind trust in scientists and socially empowered bureaucrats (who can be just as dumb and selfish as any prophet or priest)? So many religious apologists just settle for being really bad scientists and bureaucrats, when they might offer so much more.

Religion has historically helped us solve problems otherwise insoluble (like how to galvanize a community of people who cannot see eye-to-eye intellectually, not for lack of education but for fundamental disparities in individual capacities: we are not all adapted to think the same things about life, the universe, and everything). Religion gives people "safe" ways to place bets with the universe that we actually live in (the universe of social ties, biological urges, irrational and unexpected outcomes: not the academy or the lab), ways that even the most incapable can turn to solid profit (and we are all incapable at some point of our lives, perhaps even most of our lives: science cannot make us smart; it just illustrates more precisely how dumb we are). Religion done right releases us from the illusion that the universe is comprehensible, that it all makes sense somehow, that if we only got in good with the right people (or obtained the right information), we would understand it all and never suffer anything we didn't want to suffer. Somehow, some uppity religious folk always turn this formula on its head and end up trying to shove their personal worldview onto everyone else as some kind of absolute truth (as though priests were like physicists and/or kings: they aren't, not at all, and they wear both roles very badly, as the really good priests have always recognized). The idea that we might save the world by indoctrinating people in Darwinism (vel sim) is honestly as ridiculous as the idea that we might save them by indoctrinating them in correlated Mormonism. People don't need classes in advanced physics to learn how to drive cars. They don't need classes in biology to know how to live and be healthy (any more than birds need classes in flying, as Nassim Taleb says). Here is something that apologists could contribute. They could make the positive benefits of religion more evident, allowing people to make better use of them (while avoiding misapplications of religion, misapplications which people are noticing more every day, despite all the apologists' efforts). They could embrace the unity that binds faith and doubt (which are just two words for the same thing), instead of trying to fight it by begging every question and coming up with caricatures of scientific reasoning that even a dense kid with no rigorous academic grounding can see through (if he cares to look, as many of us just don't).

Religion is about practice. It is about how the individual imagines himself in the world, how he sees himself acting and being acted upon. It is fanciful, not factual. It never became factual until philosophers and theologians made it so, attempting in good faith to arrive at a kind of truth that is not universally available (the objective, rigorous truth that exists in physics but is impossible in social science, where there are too many variables and nonlinearities to allow for simple, elegant truth: mathematics can tell the truth in physics; in social science, equations almost always lie). Religious apologists could leverage this reality. They could defend religion, instead of joining the parade of fanatics that have been burning her down to the ground ever since somebody decided to oppose faith and doubt to one another and persecute with violence those on the wrong side of their arbitrary line. The greatest irony for me since my "awakening" in grad school has been the realization that religion's most ardent enemies include a great many clerics, including many who profess to defend the faith (and are obviously sincere in some cases: they just don't realize that their hard position weakens and ultimately destroys the plot of land where they want to build the kingdom of God).

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