Saturday, August 04, 2007

Talking about religion without a shared religon   posted by Razib @ 8/04/2007 03:46:00 PM

Via Daniel Larison I came upon this YouTube of Mitt Romney freaking out about a radio talk show host's characterizations of his religion. A few years ago I wrote about Mormonism with the Romney candidacy in mind. My main aim was to get some facts out there, and offer a tentative prediction that the candidate's Mormonism would be a serious problem. The main line of evidence I offered was that Romeny's core target audience, Christian social conservatives, would also be the same group most allergic on abstract theological grounds toward supporting a Mormon (I believe that only a few very liberal Episcopalian churches accept Mormon baptism as valid when taking converts, for example). I don't believe it will prevent the majority of social conservatives from backing Romney, rather, I simply believe that the erosion of support could be great enough to be a deal breaker (the fact that Romney has evolved from being a moderate to a conservative recently and rather quickly doesn't help). I doubt Romney will get the nomination, but I do think that his candidacy will pave the way for the viability of future Mormons because the exoticism factor will be somewhat defused. After all, two generations ago many conservative Protestants were skeptical of John F. Kennedy because of his nominal Catholicism, but 3 years ago there was skepticism of John Kerry because he wasn't Catholic enough from the same sector. Though the underlying differences between Protestantism and Catholicism remain (though one could argue that post-Vatican II Catholicism is more congenial toward accommodation with Protestantism), the familiarity with Catholics & Catholicism on the part of many evangelical Protestants has taken the bite off in terms of comfort (though in many parts of the American South Protestants are likely to make a distinction between "Christian" and "Catholic," which I've noted even percolates into the pages of periodicals such as The Houston Chronicle).

My post from a few weeks ago, In the name of a word, highlighted what I believe to be the power of nominal terms and theories in coalescing groups around the banner of unified community set against others. The Mormon Church has some exotic beliefs, but the reality is that the typical Mormon really isn't that different from the typical American Jew, Protestant or Catholic. Nevertheless, the theological differences between Mormonism and other American religions is not something that is going to disappear in the near future. Rather, the reason that I believe that Mormon candidates for president will be less dogged by after Mitt Romney is that his campaign will humanize Mormonism. Once people can think of Mormons in a concrete manner they can focus less on the abstract differences, which most people have only the vaguest grasp of anyhow. That being said, I do think it is important to note that America is becoming a more religiously diverse nation in absolute terms, in other words, the variance in the characters which define the major religions is increasing.

I think it can be argued that the period between 1950-1980 was the high water mark in homogenization of American religion since the first wave of Irish famine immigrants, as Jews and Catholics were brought under the umbrella of mainline Protestantism. Today the majority of Catholics are sociologically difficult to distinguish from Protestants, and they tend to even speak of their religion in a very "Protestant" way. But after 1980 the rise of the Christian Right, and the great increase in those with "no religion" and New & Eastern religions fragmented the theological marketplace. A few years ago I reviewed The impossibility of religious freedom, a book where the author argues that separation of church and state was only viable because of a very narrow understanding of religion as such in a Protestant America. Because our government, and to some extent or laws, gives special dispensations toward religion those in positions of authority come into play in terms of defining exactly what the bounds of a particular religion might be. If someone says "my Muslim religion prevents me from engaging in x," that is very different operationally from "my personal philosophy prevents me from engaging in x." In America someone who espoused a philosophy which violated laws would simply be prosecuted, this is not a nation where philosophies are given special consideration, but, it is a nation where religions are given special considerations. Therefore, the authorities have to determine if the religion of Islam does entail what the individual who claims to be Muslim believes it entails. The fact that religions are diverse, riven with faction and difference of opinion, naturally leads toward the subjective opinions of outsiders carrying great weight in terms of who and what is a legitimate expression of a given faith.

This means that people of different religions need to communicate to each other, often about rather obscure terms which the typical religionist has an imprecise grasp of. Though higher religions are generally supplemented by a large philosophical body of work, in a day to day context in nations such as Japan, India, Spain or Iran, where one religious tradition is overwhelmingly dominant, such details are irrelevant and religion as such is simply a lived experience that emerges out of the conventional social experience. That is not necessarily true in the United States, where there is no common religion, and one can not take for granted the religious truths held by others or a common grounding of premises. Because one can not expect a Christian to bone up on the nitty-gritty details of Islam, Muslims are likely to engage in usage of analogy. For example, a mosque is like a church, an imam is like a minister, and so on. These analogies are imprecise and always lose subtly and nuance. Communicating the details of religion across different religions isn't like working through a mathematical proof together, there's a lot of fuzziness and disagreement, and the native in one religious tradition might not necessarily be clear or reflecting unified consensus within their religion in the first place (the quest for the "Muslim Martin Luther" always seems to end up at the tail of the distribution of belief).

This results in a lot of confusion. If you watched the Romney video you'll see that he gets into a religious argument with the host of the radio show, who reads him some church authorized text. Romney is rather incensed, and tries to get across the reality that he is the expert on his own religion and that the host is not understanding some nuanced details. I won't get into whether Romney is trying to pull a fast one, rather, I will agree that those outside of a religious tradition will often attempt to assemble some Truths and work with them as if they are axioms from which one can derive clear and distinct propositions. In this way one can communicate with a religionist on their own ground, just as someone enters a technical field of study from the outside and masters the formalism so as to be fluent in the discussion. Unfortunately, this is not really something that works. I simply do not believe that most religious propositions derive from clear & distinct axioms, and the elasticity of interpretation is something that is very difficult to comprehend or conceive of from the outside of a religious tradition. Atheists (like myself at one point) often tend to engage in this sort of behavior, stating religious axioms and then showing they are absurd and contradictory, ergo, the religious system is shown to be false or incoherent. But it does not happen with atheists alone, I have entered into discussions with non-Christians who brandish the Nicene Creed to show exactly what Christianity really says and is. The fact is that the history of Christianity can not be reduced to a set of creeds or short axioms, it is a cultural brand which is highly contingent upon historical events and its particular social matrix. Now, I don't believe that Christianity is predicated on divine revelation, nor do I think that the way Christians live today is the most straightforward application of their foundational texts, but the reality of how Christians practiced and have practiced shows that looking closely at texts for determination as to why human action is the way it is is pretty futile (it doesn't help that a person of a particular religion will tell you they do what they do because their religious text tells them, even if other members of the same religion come to wildly different interpretations and justifications). Personally, I am generally skeptical of the inferences made by Christians, whatever their stripe, from their holy texts. But then, I am not Christian, and critically, I am not embedded in their social environment, and so my plausibility matrix is very, very, different.

As Americans we live in, and will continue to live in, a religiously pluralistic environment. Additionally, particular religions will have material consequences on us all because the tribunes of our state are themselves religious and will exhibit natural influences from that direction. The fact that a minority of American Christians have specific theological beliefs intertwined with the geopolitics of the Middle East is a background condition of our world, the fact that I might think those theological beliefs are absurd is irrelevant in the proximate framework. As an American it is probably important to have a minimal level of familiarity with the primary religious dispensations which dominate the marketplace of ideas. That being said, it is important not to pretend that the reading of the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, and so on, result in a perfect understanding of the religious phenomenon. Less than a month ago I got into a pretty long internet discussion about the factual claims of Mormonism with a group of Mormons. I went to a high school that was about half Mormon, and most of my closer friends by graduation were of that religion. I have read the Book of Mormon and some supplemental literature about the Church before, so I thought I went into the discussion "knowing my shit," so to speak. Well, it didn't turn out that way. To make a long story short some sophisticated Mormons don't read the Book of Mormon in a very obvious way, to my understanding. Instead of believing in magnificent civilizations seeded by mass migrations from the Old World, they offered a much more parsimonious and frankly nearly unfalsifiable narrative of minimal colonization by a small family in a very small geographic area that was absorbed by the indigenous substrate. Most Mormons don't believe this from what I can tell (personal communication with my friends), but enough do that I had to pause and reassess what I believed about what Mormons believed. Similarly, a few years ago I asserted blithely that Sunni Muslims do not believe in free will in response to a commentary by an American Sunni Muslim who blandly seemed to assert exactly such a thing. Now, the reality is that there were always counter-trends within Sufi groups to the normative consensus in Sunni Islam, but I suspect that another thing that is happening today with American Sunni Islam is that in the process of assimilating American religious terminology it is becoming operationally "Protestantized." There are thousand "real Islams," and it just seems to turn out that the real Islam maps on pretty well to local cultural conditions.

Where does that leave us? I think there are several dynamics we have to keep in mind. First, American religions seem to be converging upon common characteristics which are descended from the Radical Reformation (e.g., individualism, operational Arminianism, etc.). Second, the theological variance is increasing, at least in the short term, as the marketplace is being saturated with new denominations and religious groups. Third, the increased diversity means that it is extremely difficult to talk about religion in a straightforward manner without getting into a lot of overhead to clarify definitions. After all, there are many different interpretations of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, etc., which are numerous on the American landscape. Before even one can map concepts from one religion to another, one must clarify exactly which flavor of religion one is encountering when one talks to Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and so on. I don't know where this is going, but if I had to bet I suspect that a vague civil religion will become identified with the elites that marginalizes the numerous sects in the public space. The sects will continue to be vibrant with a large number of Americans, but they won't be important players in public policy because there will just be too many different loci of power to deal with. The protection and respect a religion receives will be directly proportional to its numbers & power. Very small religions won't be religions at all, but cults. So I suppose in the end nothing really changes, there is simply a quantitative shift in emphasis.