Saturday, April 26, 2003

More on language and religion.
I got in a bit of a tiff with someone over my comments on the philosophical usefullness or uselessness of religion, my point being that its ability to navigate or explain the world is all that it is EVER used for, and when that ability is gone, faith turns sour. The article is on a dust up in the community of Ultra Orthodox jewry. In a sense it all goes back to Moses and Aaron. Should one interpret the laws or merely follow them? Why should there ever be a need for a religion to change? The existence of the debate itself implies a tacit, even if hidden, acceptance that our gods are our constructions. The tale ends up wagging the god.
I am talking here specifically about the scholastic aspect of religion. The faith of the peasantry, as has been documented over and over again, is contradictory, self serving and shot through with irony. But the world of the yeshiva and the seminary is something else, and the isolated intellectual world of the Ultra Orthodox has become a graven image of itself.

I said that a religion is a language, but it makes more sense to call it an ecosystem, an enclosed and self supporting community. The system must remain flexible to survive, which is an absurdity if you view it as ordained by gods- why should the gods care what we think?- but makes perfect sense if you see it as a practical mechanism for ensuring social stability. It has been a central fact since the dawn of politics that people are more willing to obey the commandments of an invisible and ineffable presence, even if proclaimed a man with a sword, than they are to obey the man with the sword alone.

As an aside, isn't it posible to see the vow of celebacy as a democratic force, as a pressure against the formation of an independent priestly class? I'm beginning to think we should make the same demand of our military officer corps.

The central question of anthropology and in a sense the central question of all modern society is the question of "dynamic structure."

How do you construct a viable community where obligations are enforcible without limiting personal freedoms to a point that people refuse to accept those obligations? A rationalist or an analytic philosopher will make an ass of himself trying to answer that question. A person who has more respect for observation and empiricism would look around him and ask a few more questions. Most Americans are more interested in personal freedom than Europeans. Europeans have less privacy- there's simply less room- and families and social obligations interfere in private lives, even for the educated, in ways Americans would not tolerate. It's a matter of acculturation, not rationalism.
My interest over the past few days or weeks has been to try to drive home to most of you, who seem to be either libertarians, liberal technocrats or 'reformers', the value and necessity of curiosity and the seemingly impractical: the value of the arts and humanities; the value of doubt and the fragility of two dimensional 'concepts'.

Beware of people who tell you what freedom is. Arik Sharon is not a liar. Neither are Antonin Scalia and John Ashcroft. George Bush, of course, is. But on another level he isn't at all. Is he driven only by power? Doesn't he also have a deluded notion of god and what is right? Greed and god are wrapped up together somehow. Isn't that strange? The same is true for Ashcroft and Scalia. If it's not greed for money it's greed for power. If its not greed for power it's the sin of pride. If there were a law against irrationality they'd all be in jail.

Beware of people who tell you the definition of freedom. Beware of people who tell you the definition of art. Beware of people who tell you the definition of poverty.

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