miércoles, 13 de mayo de 2015

Why Secular Liberalism Isn’t Liberal

John Gray, René Girard, and the return of tribal religion

by Forfare Davis

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain …
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah

—The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

A couple of months ago readers of the Guardian were presented with the peculiar spectacle of an atheist intellectual calling out his fellow atheists for being, of all things, too religious, of engaging in what the author coined “missionary atheism.” The author was the intrepid John Gray and his article was “What Scares the New Atheists.” The religious faith he accused his atheist cohorts of was a crusading belief in the scientific and rational basis of liberal values. Mr. Gray then follows with various examples of atheism’s inconvenient history of collusion with some of the West’s most unfortunate and bloody ideological projects. The irony of the New Atheism, Gray goes on to assert, is that it is driven not by reason, but rather by fear that the march of secularism may be faltering; rather than demonstrating the self-awareness of say, a Freud or Schopenhauer, both of whom understood religion’s important roles in society, New Atheism simply offers another variant of evangelical movement based on a faith that dare not acknowledge itself as such even while crusading against other faiths.

Mr. Gray’s article comes some months after a similar though lesser-known episode between prominent New Atheist Sam Harris and the psychologist—and also self-described atheist—Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote “Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind” using the occasion of a bet Harris has made to anyone who can disprove to his satisfaction the scientific basis Harris proposes that undergird liberal morality. Drawing from studies used in his recent book The Righteous Mind, Haidt explains that Harris will most assuredly not lose his bet, but only because Harris, like all mere humans, must rely on faculties that too readily succumb to the propensity to rationalize preexisting biases. The premise of Harris’s challenge, and by implication the premises of New Atheism, rest upon a presumed objective clarity that human beings systematically demonstrate not to be in their intellectual character.

As if to illustrate these critiques, recent events appear to be making Gray and Haidt’s case, for the more secular we have become, the less liberal secular liberalism seems to be. Whether you are a conservative Christian business owner, the Little Sisters of the Poor, or an otherwise reliable liberal voice opining in New York Magazine about how the liberal project has been co-opted by a cult of political correctness, we seem to be approaching some threshold where the “party of science” is reverting to the party of the tribe.

According to Haidt, none of this is new. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt proposes that the profile of human nature emerging from recent studies suggest that humans are not as rational as many secularists would like to believe. Rather Haidt describes our species as “90 percent chimp, 10 percent bee”—that deep in our “caveman software” is what he refers to as a “hive switch,” an override that operates that part of us which is “groupish,” and that much of what motivates us in terms of values, politics, and religious persuasion are really the banners we are preternaturally disposed to run to when that switch turns on. But here alongside Haidt, the work of literary theorist René Girard should be considered, for two reasons. First, Girard offers a helpful model to understand the psychology of overly ideological times, and second, the soil from which he developed this theory was primarily the writings of that great psychologist of ideology and extremism, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky once famously wrote that if his fellow Russians ever became atheists they would turn atheism into a religion. Girard’s account elaborates on this theme, suggesting that beyond a certain secular horizon, society does not cease to be religious, but rather returns to a more primitive and tribal form of religion.

Like Haidt, Girard observes that ideology becomes a source of tribal identity, but at its most extreme it becomes increasingly dependent not on the principles that it espouses but on the psychological kinetics of its adversarial relationship to its rivals. Positive philosophy gives way to the need to feed on rivalry as a source of meaning. This is why extremist ideologies tend to be built upon fabulist views of a possible future: the more spectacular the vision, the more unreachable the goal, the more immersive the cause. Girard’s term of art for this is “mimetic rivalry.” It is mimetic, or imitative, because it depends upon and even apes the aspirations to power of the enemies it dedicates itself to defeating. Thus the mimetic ideologue’s battle never ends, because in “mimetic rivalry” it is the battle, not possession of the territory, that gives meaning and identity. Consequently, when victorious the revolution proceeds to turn on its own internal factions, and when it consolidates its power carries on its battle against the counterrevolutionaries hiding in the shadows.


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