Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Of Relatives And Relativism

On Christmas Eve I listened to our community radio station’s weekly program on African-American affairs. This week the topic was Christmas, naturally, and the format was a roundtable on Christmas memories and traditions. One of the speakers, a man known on the station as the Deacon, interrupted his reminiscences of school Christmas parties to claim that you’d get a “phone call from the ACLU” if you did today the kinds of things they did in his youth. Well, of course: state-run public schools shouldn’t be fostering religious observances. (The irony of black folks attacking an organization dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and civil rights wasn’t lost on me either.)

But the moment passed, and soon everyone was laughing over memories of waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. About midway, though, one of the regular hosts of the program got serious and reminded everyone that the “reason for the season” was “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”, even though you can’t say that nowadays without getting “a phone call from the ACLU.” Considering that the station has a weekly gospel music program (the Deacon is one of its programmers, and also occasionally plays Christian disco/techno/hiphop on Saturday nights), it was a comical accusation. In a country whose President claims to be taking instructions from Yahweh, Christians still love to claim that they’re embattled and persecuted.

But then, the ambition to have total social penetration and control isn’t limited to religious believers. It seems to be a fairly typical outcome of social organization: many scientists and their allies (Al Gore, for example) would like you to believe there’s currently a War Against Science and Reason. (My personal favorite is sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s “Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism” – Pat Robertson couldn’t have said it better.) There must be no corner where the light of faith, be it in Jesus or superstrings, shineth not.

Despite these infomercials for the Lord, and occasional efforts (mostly by the Deacon) to steer the focus back to religion, the overwhelming bulk of this Christmas program was devoted to food, gifts, shopping, competitive poverty (your family wasn’t as poor as my family!), and family. Leading the prayer over the Christmas ham, the Deacon declared bravely, that’s a tradition, and he is a man of tradition, tradition is important to him. But before long the others were teasing him for not having been as poor as he claimed, while he insisted that he was so.

I was especially amused by his appeal to tradition. We’re located in Southern Indiana, where the tradition of white supremacy has not yet been eliminated: tradition doesn’t, in itself, deserve respect.

For example, I recently read British philosopher Stephen Law’s The War For Children’s Minds (Routledge, 2006). Law is a nice middle of the road secularist liberal, grappling with the limits of religious freedom. He imagines a conservative religious parent (a father, no doubt) arguing for his right to keep his children out of secular schools, and perhaps too for government support of sectarian schools:

Surely, as a parent, I have a right to send my child to a school that will raise her in accordance with my own religious convictions. Surely, if I believe it’s in her best interests that she not be encouraged to think critically about her own religious tradition, that she mix only, or almost only, with children of the same faith, and that she not be exposed to other points of view (I feel they will only ‘corrupt’ her), then that is my right. The government has no business stopping me.

Law comments:

Of course, we can concede to the proponent of this objection that the state should respect parental freedom as much as it reasonably can. But there are limits. If a practice is physically or psychologically stunting children, surely we are justified in banning it.

Now, my first reaction to this is to ask how to determine that “a practice is physically or psychologically stunting children,” especially psychologically. I came out at a time when it was taken for granted that gay people were psychologically stunted, and unfit to be parents. To this day we defend ourselves by declaring that the children we raise will be as healthy as the children of heterosexuals, and no less likely to turn out heterosexual. We, you see, have no right to raise our children in our own image (even assuming that we’d succeed – almost all of us had heterosexual parents, after all). We can only be parents if we let the most bigoted heterosexuals decide what is good for our children. It’s as if Christians were allowed forcibly to baptize Jewish children, then to abduct them from their families and raise them as Christians … oops! They did do that, back in the good old days when people took their faith seriously.

Which brings me to my second reaction, which goes deeper. The idea that parents should have the right to choose their children’s religion, or their own for that matter, is a consequence of the Enlightenment, and is presented in relativist terms: I want my children to learn what other parents – and the Church of England! – believe to be false; but it’s my truth, and I’m entitled to impose it on my children. Relativism of this kind is very common among religious conservatives, and indeed might even be their invention, historically. In the good old pre-Enlightenment days, Englishmen belonged to the Church of England (or the Roman Catholic Church, before the heretic and schismatic Henry VIII rebelled against God). “Dissenting” churches (the adjective is significant) were those that refused to submit to duly constituted royal and Divine authority. That’s why these relativists fled to other European countries or to North America, to have a place where their private “truth” could pretend to be the truth.

Why should a benevolent but just Sovereign allow falsehood to be taught in the place of truth? Why permit “faith” schools even to non-Anglican Christians, let alone cattle worshiping heathen and Mahometan infidels? If these people really want to go back to the good old days, they should be allowed to do so: to the days when Catholics burned Protestants or vice versa, depending on who was in power at the moment, and it was always open season on Jews or Albigensians. Of course not many really want to go back to those days, even if they don’t remember that freedom of religion, in all its relativist splendor, was the product of religious believers who didn’t want to be tortured for their faith, and therefore had to forego the pleasure of torturing others for theirs.

If we’re not ready to go back that far, we could be moderate and merely deny full citizenship to dissenters and their children. As for the United States (as opposed to the original colonies with their patchwork of religious establishments), it was founded on the principle of religious freedom and pluralism – in a word, relativism as the word is used by religious and cultural reactionaries. These people cultivate a very convenient historical amnesia when it comes to these issues; they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

The core issue is authority, isn’t it? Like many secularists Law is defensive about the Holocaust, which absolutists love to blame on relativism: “In fact, it would be accurate to blame [Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution] on his Authoritarian mind-set.” I think we should be more aggressive, and challenge Authoritarians to specify just why, by their lights, they would condemn Eichmann. After all, he did what he was told without question, just as they want others to do – as long as they’re giving the orders. “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out!” is a hallowed Judeo-Christian value, so a better question is whether tradition can object to the Holocaust. Not only Christians (but not all of them!) but Communists, opposed Hitler. Let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Which brings up the popular “moral capital” argument, that atheists are somehow coasting along on the values of religion. Let it be remembered that valuable change occurred because people rebelled against duly constituted authority, for whatever reason. (Amartya Sen has written wisely on this point, especially in The Argumentative Indian [Allen Lane, 2005] and Identity and Violence [Norton, 2006]). If anyone is coasting on moral capital, it’s today’s reactionaries who accept and benefit from the results of the Enlightenment, or the antislavery movement, or the Civil Rights movement, which they opposed fiercely in the day but are perfectly willing to hide behind now.