Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What We Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

I guess I'd better get back to work.  I recently read an intriguing little book called Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton, 2013) by Brian Leiter.  The title is a bit misleading, since it suggests that religion shouldn't be tolerated at all.  But Leiter's main question is whether religion should be singled out (as it is in the US) for special protection from state interference, compared to other claims of conscience.  He begins by citing a recent Canadian legal case involving a Sikh teenager who demanded that he should be allowed to carry his kirpan, the ceremonial dagger that every adult Sikh male is required to have on his person at all times, in school.  In the end the youth won his case.
But now suppose [Leiter continues] that our fourteen-year-old boy is not a Sikh but a boy from a rural family whose life "on the land" goes back many generations.  As in almost all cultures, this boy's community has rituals marking the arrival of maturity for males in that community.  A central one is the passing of a dagger or knife from father to son, across the generations.  To be a "man" at the age of thirteen or fourteen is to receive that dagger from one's father, just as he received it from his, and so on, stretching back for decades, perhaps centuries.  A boy's identity as a man his community turns on his always carrying the family knife, for it marks his maturity and his bond with the past.  There can be no doubt in this case about the conscientious obligation every boy of knife-bearing age feels to carry his knife with him, even in school.  And there can be no doubt that were his ability to carry his knife abridged, his identity as a man devoted to his community would be destroyed.

There is no Western democracy at present, in which the boy in our second scenario has prevailed or would prevail in a challenge to a general prohibition on the carrying of weapons in the school [2-3].
Leiter seems to overlook something here: the hypothetical second boy wouldn't be the only one wearing his family knife in school, and so he probably wouldn't have trouble as long as he lived in his ancestral community.  He'd only be prohibited from carrying it if his family moved to another community with different manhood rituals, much as the Sikh boy's family had done.

But the basic point is strong, especially since many religions -- at one time, all of them -- are about communities and their norms and rituals.  Israelite religion and Hinduism are well-known examples, but the same would be true of Greek and Roman paganism.  The rituals are often older than the myths that rationalize them.   At some point there emerged religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, missionary religions that sought adherents in a variety of cultures.  But once transplanted, they often grafted on rituals of the old gods, like "Christmas" trees.  Leiter's second boy's knife is by older standards every bit as "religious" as a kirpan.

That doesn't undermine Leiter's argument, though, because in the modern West there is a distinction drawn between religion and other principles that guide conduct and demand adherence.  Why, Leiter asks, should this be so?  What makes religion so special, so privileged?  He never quite answers the question, but I think he'd agree that the burden of argument lies on the person who advocates special privilege for religious claims of conscience.  Along the way he grapples with the definition of religion, and mainly succeeds in showing that it's impossible to draw a sharp line between religion and non-religion, though I think he's satisfied with the distinction he draws.  (He puts a heavy emphasis on faith, construed as attachment to beliefs and demands of conscience that "do not answer ultimately to (or at the limit) to evidence and reason, as these are understood in other domains concerned with knowledge of the world" [34].  He admits that this isn't specific to religion -- for example, "We are, all us, in the grips of a multitude of false beliefs" [76],  though I'm not sure he fully recognizes how universal it is, especially in matters of morality.)

One of his most interesting discussions, to my mind, is on respect.  Philosophers recognize two main kinds of respect: the less demanding can be called "recognition respect," as when I respect your right to hold your beliefs even if I disagree with the beliefs themselves, and I recognize that they're important to you; the more demanding is "affirmation respect," as when I'm expected to agree that your beliefs are totally cool.  He quotes an article by the philosopher Simon Blackburn, who
tells the story of being invited to dinner at a colleague's home and then being asked to participate in a religious observance prior to dinner.  He declined, though his colleague said participating was merely a matter of showing "respect."  His host seems to have viewed this as a matter of simple recognition respect, but Blackburn interprets it (perhaps rightly) as something more:

I would not be expected to respect the beliefs of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians who killed themselves in order to join it.  Had my host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed angry.  I lament and regret the holding of such beliefs, and I despise the features of humanity that make them so common.  I wish people were different [74].
I must read Blackburn's paper, because it sounds to me as though he's confused about the distinction between respecting people's rights to hold their beliefs and respecting the beliefs himself; but his host appears to have been just as confused in the same way.  As Leiter later remarks, it's not clear that a Jewish shabbos prayer is on the same level as the Hale-Bopp cultists, but even so, if I'd been in Blackburn's shoes I wouldn't have been "embarrassed and indeed angry" when asked to participate, though I'd still have declined to do so.  Like a good many of my fellow atheists, Blackburn seems to overreact to other people's beliefs and practices even when they practice in their own homes.  I have been invited to meals where my hosts prayed before eating, and I simply sit quietly until they're done praying.  It is disrespectful of someone's unbelief to expect him or her to participate in one's ritual, though many spiritual tourists delight in doing so.  Politeness and respect -- recognition respect -- need to go in both directions.  Both Judaism and Christianity have traditions of martyrdom rather than participating in non-Yahwist rituals, like burning a pinch of incense before an image of Caesar.  C'mon, would it have killed them to show a little respect?  Blackburn complains about what he calls "respect creep," where "the request for thin toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence" (quoted by Leiter, 75), and that's a valid complaint, but I get the feeling he wants some respect creep in his own direction.  As I say, I'll have to read his paper.

But this anecdote shows just why even minimal recognition respect, let alone maximal affirmation respect, is problematical.  Blackburn's host refused to extend to him, as an unbeliever, the recognition respect necessary not to demand that he participate in prayer, and Blackburn seems to have overreacted to finding himself seated at a table with believers who, reasonably enough, expected to pray.  Did he expect them to go further, and forego the shabbos prayer because an apikoros was present?  I'd call that a failure in even "thin tolerance."

There's more to Why Tolerate Religion?, and I'll get back to it in due time.