Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Don't Talk Sex or Religion! (Coalition Conversations in the Age of Trump)

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. […]
To those not having the law I became like one not having the law […],
so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak,
to win the weak. I have become all things to all people
so that by all possible means I might save some.
(St. Paul to the Corinthians [9.20-22])

"I had no need of that hypothesis." — Attributed to
Pierre-Simon Laplace, responding to Napoleon I's
question, "But where is God […]?" in Laplace's
discourse on an issue in astronomy

         A While back — 8 October 2014, to be exact (reposted 19  March 2015) — I blogged a short, relatively moderate rant against Leftist allies who declined to play nice with those with whom they had converging political interests but deep-rooted philosophical disagreements. In that piece I quoted from memory a line from Ursula K. Le Guin's great 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, "You don't have to be kemmerings to haul a sledge" — i.e., you don't have to be bonded lovers to cooperate on a project.
         Indeed! And now in the Age of Trump it is even more the case that we need coalition politics of the responsible Right, Left, and Center to oppose an incipient mass movement of Trump supporters that can move into all the nationalistic authoritarianism threatened by the slogan "America First."
         So I have some unsolicited free advice — worth every cent you pay for it and more — for my potential allies of the atheistic persuasion.
         First, notice that the lines of St. Paul to the Church at Corinth may sound cynical and hypocritical, and from my point of view, they kind-of are. Still, toned down a bit, they are the standard device of rhetorical decorum: fitting one's words to the audience, subject, and general context. And for those of us of the fact-respecting, "reality-based community," there is the relatively simple fact that Paul was an extraordinarily successful propagandist — check the etymology of the word — and Jesus-Movement organizer.
         And to this add such facts as the survey data that religiosity in the US may be decreasing but still remains high and that churches, synagogs, mosques, and such are by definition already organized communities-of-interest that can be used for group action, e.g., sponsoring immigrants or providing highly traditional sanctuary … up to more radical action.
         There's also the fuzzier philosophical "fact" that asking people to give up God sets up a logical chain leading to conclusions such as that the idea of humans' holding any importance in the universe is a product of an infantile "illusion of central position" and that our loves, losses, achievements, wars, and strivings are radically trivial and described more or less accurately as "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing," as a despairing Macbeth still so poetically puts it.
         Less poetically but more vividly, the mad but philosophically rigorous Marquis de Sade has a pamphlet perused during a pause in the orgy-ing in his Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) entitled "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become [Real] Republicans," wherein he notes that homicide does not destroy life: kill someone, bury the corpse, wait … wait a bit longer, dig it up and weigh what nowadays is called the biomass. If it is not significantly less than the weight of the murder victim, no life has been destroyed. If you argue that human life is more valuable than that of (I'll modernize here) maggots or putrefactive bacteria — on what grounds? Nature alone gives no greater value to human life than any other, and if we humans think otherwise, it is only our conceit.
         So quick conversions to a rigorously materialist view of things are unlikely, not to mention that your average atheist seems open to challenge to being way, way too comfortable in a non-rigorous materialism.
         What agnostics without a lot of time on their hands for theological disputes, or an atheist can do in political organizing is respond to ultimate questions about God with recycling Laplace and saying, "I don't need that hypothesis" — and then shut up about God-stuff and get to immediate political goals.
         Better, of course, effective atheists could imitate St. Paul and work with the literate in the target religious traditions (and that "literate" bit excludes many people who claim the faith) and couch their arguments in religious terms.
         E.g., the opening of the 24th Psalm says, "The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains; / The world, and all who live in it. // For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods." That gives a labor theory of property, and lays the groundwork for theories of social justice developed at some length and high intensity by the Hebrew Prophets and their Jewish, Christian, and Muslim successors.
         Get the point?
         Disagreeing on fundamentals means that eventually religious and secular activists will come to serious practical disagreements. But as anyone who's ever been politically active for more than a few months knows, secular political sorts can get into doctrinal controversies without a hint of God-thought and form circular firing squads with almost the alacrity of religious fanatics gathering the wood to burn heretics.
         If devout Catholics can work with you murderers and damn-ers of the unbaptized unborn, you can work with infantile believers in the Great Spaghetti God with 6th-c. BCE beliefs about sexuality and the sexes.
         Lovers in bonded-relationships, Earthly kemmerings, should acknowledge, talk over, and work through their differences. Two people hauling a goddamn sledge should just shut up when it comes to important differences until they get the sledge where it needs to go.

         "I don't need that hypothesis" can close the argument on God until nobody needs to worry that large hunks of the Americas and Europe are threatened by Fascists.

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