Saturday, September 02, 2006

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

I’ve just watched a trailer for the new documentary Jesus Camp, which charts the rising trend of recruiting children into ‘God’s Army’ and instructing them on their moral duty to wage a Christian war on their enemies. And who might these be? Well, a clue is provided by one woman who says “There are two types of people in the world: those who love Jesus and those who don’t”. Without seeing the film it’s not clear whether she means the enemy are people who don’t believe in a God or Jesus (let alone love either of them), or those that believe in a different God and reject Jesus as salvation.

In any case, such a ridiculously simplistic dichotomy of humans into an enormous ingroup of Christians and an even bigger outgroup of non-Christians is a recipe for disaster. I recently wrote about parochial altruism, or the tendency to be more lenient towards our ingroup and less forgiving of outgroup members. This proclivity can be pernicious enough when groups are differentiated on the basis of relatively meaningless symbolic markers, such as which football team you support (and therefore what shirt you sport), or other social or linguistic differences. Add a deeply held and powerfully inculcated moral dimension to this, and the degree of ingroup–outgroup hostility will only flare up. If you truly and dogmatically believe that you and your kind are on the one true path to salvation, that your group alone is acting according to the moral dictates of your God and saviour, then it is only natural to take a tough line towards anyone that threatens the beliefs of your group, by either denying the existence of your God or towing the line of a different one.

Commentators and theologians are not blind to the harmful effects of stressing differences between religious groups, and often try to downplay the inherent conflicts created when religious communities come into contact with one another. But ecumenical attempts to persuade everyone to just get alone always ring a bit hollow to me. If religious adherents sincerely believe in their chosen (or inherited) faith and implicitly assume the their sacred texts are inerrant and infallible guides to living a good life, then there really is a clash between different religions. Christians should view Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists and so on with suspicion (and likewise). They should feel that other religions, or the rejection of religion, pose a moral threat to the fabric of society. It’s hard to find a middle ground between moral positions that are taken to set in stone, based on ancient codes that are absolute and unchangeable.

My preferred strategy is to be open about the often-irreconcilable conflict between different religions — and to use this fact as a starting point for keeping religiously motivated moral prescriptions out of the spheres of social and public policy (education, the law, medicine and the like). If we’re going to try to strike a balance between the competing demands of different religious groups, we can’t use the frameworks of any given religion to do so (that would be pretty unfair, and create much marginalisation). Instead, we will have to make recourse to rational, secular, non-religious principles – using reason, argument and evidence to advance our claims. Although this will get up the noses of a number of people, it seems the only defensible way forward.

Of course, following such a course is no guarantee that everyone will get along. But that is not an inherent problem of a secular approach to structuring society; it would seem to stem more from the nature of the beliefs held by those in conflict. In any case, we already accept that the national policies adopted in democratic societies will leave a significant number of people with a grievance. For instance, British National Party members are no doubt annoyed that their views on immigration and the racial composition of the UK are not mainstream, and this has historically stoked conflict, but we don’t say “Well we’d better bring them to the table too, and incorporate their vision”. So too with religious groups. Just because they’ll be upset if society is run on secular line doesn’t mean they have the automatic right to be given power to influence the sort of societies we live in.

If people could be persuaded to drop some of the dogmatism of their belief, and accept that difficult social, cultural and political problems require open hearts and minds for their solution – essentially a rejection of the certainties and dogmatism to which they are accustomed – then perhaps a greater dialogue and understanding between groups could be achieved. This, no doubt, all sounds very ‘right on’, optimistic and perhaps even a bit naïve; but a greater understanding of the psychology underlying our moral judgements and social behaviour could provide our best hope for reducing the conflict endemic around the world, from the ‘Culture Wars’ of the US to the ongoing troubles in the Israel, Lebanon and the Middle East. We need to recognise that no one has the last word on how we should by virtue of adhering to the tenets of a holy book, and that different cultures and social groups can legitimately stress different aspects of the moral realm.

Cultural psychologists have suggested that moral issues cluster into at least three different realms: the ethics of autonomy (individual rights), the ethics of community (social codes) and the ethics of divinity (purity and sanctity*) [1]. It seems that at least some of the friction encountered when liberals clash with conservatives arises from the moral domains that they are most concerned with (the ethics of autonomy for liberals, and for conservatives an expanded domain that touches on the ethics of community and perhaps also divinity) [2]. Neither domain is necessarily better or more justifiable than the other, and recognising that our different cultural backgrounds may lead us further into one domain than another provides a jumping off point for truly trying to engage with the concerns and arguments of your ‘adversary’, whether liberal or conservative. Unless, of course, you’re absolutely certain that the morality you embrace is underwritten by God, the cosmic law giver, and that deviation from your moral path is an affront to your creator, a transgression punishable by eternal torment.

Productive conversations cannot take place between disputants that start from radically different and immovable moral positions. A bit more humility is required. We need to accept that we must listen to the arguments of other people, and possibly revise our stances in light of what they say. This cannot happen when two (or more) sincerely and held religious belief systems come into conflict (except perhaps for some very general claims, such as ‘killing is wrong’ – but you hardly need a religious basis for thinking that!). And this is why making children more fundamentalist -- more certain that anyone who thinks something different from them is an enemy to be thwarted, and certainly not persuaded by -- is a sure fire way to ensure that we all go to hell in a hand basket.

*The ethics of divinity are usually somewhat alien to many Westerners, especially of the non-religious variety, who typically occupy the two-dimensional plane created by the axes of ethics of community and ethics of autonomy. The ethics of divinity have been characterised in the following way:
“The ethics of divinity: divinity/purity violations. In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.” [3]
1. Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M. & Park, L. The “Big Three” of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the “Big Three” of suffering. In Morality and Health (eds Brandt, A. & Rozin, P.) 119–169 (Routledge, New York, 1997).

2. Haidt, J. & Hersh, M. Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31, 191-221 (2001).

3. Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S. & Haidt, J. The moral-emotion triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral ethics (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, 574-586 (1999).


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