Thursday, March 23, 2023

You Say You Want Secularization, Well ...



Recommended book: Ara Norenzayan's _Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict_ (Princeton UP, 2013).

You may put "science" in quotation marks with "social science(s)," but Norenzayan takes a scientific approach to religion in human history, asking the Darwinian Question, "What's it good for?" One answer is always the "null case": in this case that humans have been so successful since getting good at basket-making and sewing, dealing with fire and hunting and gathering — that we could and can afford investment in, say, an anatomical appendix and often heavy investment in religion (and the arts and such). Still, a cultural trait as long-lived and widespread as what we'd call "religion" seems likely to be doing some cultural heavy lifting. 

The more seriously philosophical, like the 20th-c. Atheistic Existentialists (and some SF writers), will point out the handiness of God to avoid despair in a humungous, heartless, material universe; but few of us think much about our triviality in the universe. Nor do we often recognize how important Thomas Jefferson et al.'s conveniently republican "Creator" is in the Declaration of (American) Independence if we're to believe in human equality and (ahem) natural human rights.

Norenzayan concentrates more on psychology (his field), history, and practical matters for maintaining imagined communities too big for people to know one another. 

Big gods, concerned with human morality — keeping promises, observing contracts, not killing people who annoy you — are very useful for social trust; and moralistic, loving (and punishing) big gods are useful for getting people through bad times, and, in the religions that worship them, getting social support-work done.

So: Those who want more secularism would do well to spend less time poor-mouthing theists (and/or praising selfishness) and more working with potential allies to "get to Denmark": i.e., establish a competent, compassionate state that enforces contracts and good behavior, provides support for those in need, and works to encourage trust among citizens and those citizens' trust for their government. 

(If you're a rigorous fundamentalist who believes humans are essentially souls to be saved or damned, that by Faith and Faith alone — and the *right* faith — shall those souls that can be saved be saved, and that each soul is literally of infinite value: then just keep "doin' a-what comes naturally" and oppose the welfare state, "deep state," and the unarmed forces of government generally and on all levels.)

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