Friday, October 16, 2015

Theocracy in America

As an independent bystander living in America, I tend to go through cycles of bemusement, incredulity and disappointment as I watch various spectacles unfold. Specifically, I have worked out my own ideas on morality and religion to my satisfaction, but am still surprised from time to time about how primitive American thinking remains in these areas. Over the last few years I've become more interested in hearing what scientists have to say on various topics, because in theory they are impartially seeking to understand phenomena as they exist and don't impose arbitrary agendas on their research, other than fairly basic ones such as making sure that they continue to receive funding for their projects and, very rarely I hope, cheating on their experiments in order to enhance their careers. The impression I have is that most scientists are honest and thoughtful and are reluctant to compromise their work for personal gain. What I find is that the farther you get from science, the more amorphous the procedures that people follow tend to become. In the academic setting, some members of the humanities camp have even outlawed the traditional idea of truth, in effect making truth relative. There may be something to the idea that Truth with a capital T should be viewed with caution, because it can be used as an ideological weapon, but sometimes it seems as if the anti-science people in the humanities have opened up a floodgate that allows them to proclaim as valid whatever nonsense they happen to dream up.

In this vein I have been thinking for many years about an offhand remark in a short story that I read: "There was a point at which the study of something became a frightening and naive thing." The suggestion here is that one must get on with one's life and not explore things too deeply by examining them in great detail. It is true that always exposing the underbelly of that which one encounters can make it hard to proceed. Sometimes it may be better to suspend your disbelief or set aside your inquiries. I consider this a paradox of honesty, in which honesty can become destructive when people are unable to deal with it. It may, for example, become problematic during the early stages of a relationship, when some breathing room may be necessary for trust and confidence to develop. However, my instinct is usually to get to the bottom of things, so for me there is a point at which the avoidance of the study of something becomes a frightening and naive thing. This is not exactly a new concept, since it dates back to the famous and often-quoted statement attributed to Socrates by Plato: The unexamined life is not worth living. In these matters, my strategy has been to continue thinking about whatever interests me but to bring it up cautiously after weighing the potential consequences. In most situations, since I have few close friends, not much of an issue ever develops when I pursue this course, because I have trained myself to keep my mouth shut and either say nothing or stick to platitudes. The people who know me better - perhaps even the readers of this blog - sooner or later become accustomed to hearing some of my interpretations and analyses.

I wrote earlier that I have not believed in God ever since my adolescence. One of the spectacles that periodically disturb me is the recurring American theme of Christianity and its imputed connection to morality. I've briefly critiqued the popular Christian writer, Marilynne Robinson, and it is easy for me to simply ignore her by not reading her work. However, Barack Obama has recently gone out of his way to see her and make a public display of his admiration, and I find this inappropriate in a major political figure. I'm still not completely sure what exactly is going on with Obama, but I am tending to see him as a shallow thinker who has become skilled at interweaving his public profile with his personal goals. In any case, I seem to disagree with him frequently and my assessment of him as a politician has gradually shifted from positive to negative. By publicly expressing his religious beliefs he is inadvertently linking them to his political views in a nation that is supposed to be secular, and this is disturbing in conjunction with the fact that he also holds the rather discredited idea of American exceptionalism, because it makes him look like a religious crusader. To put it loosely, whether it is his intention or not, I see Obama as proclaiming his allegiance to a Christian God that backs the United States, making the U.S. morally superior to other countries. It is difficult for me not to interpret this as self-righteous, self-justifying, thoughtless and irresponsible nonsense.

Whatever Obama's actual religious beliefs, he seems to be deliberately forging an alliance with a de facto religious figure whose demographics make her acceptable to educated Americans, unlike those of the televangelists who have large followings among the less-educated. The public usually approves of these kinds of alliances and takes them as an opportunity for a feel-good moment, without much reflection. However, only a little analysis shows the insidious effects of innocent-seeming religious alliances such as this. The subtext here is that Obama, who is currently waging war with ISIL and the Taliban and is at odds in varying degrees with several Muslim-dominated regimes, is motivated by a religion that he sees as valid, whereas the versions of Islam that he is fighting are not. From an ideological standpoint, a case could be made that there is little to distinguish this from a recapitulation of the Crusades. Because some Muslims are comfortable with the idea of a Muslim theocracy, they may have a tendency to view themselves as being in a battle to the death with a competing theocracy that is trying to impose itself on them. Seen this way, Obama's public affirmation of his Christian faith and belief in American exceptionalism, which itself is an odd amalgam of national hubris, economic greed, religion and imperialism, only serves to increase long-term international hostility and war. From my point of view there is so much bad thinking going on here that, besides Obama's self-image and America's self-image, the entire project of democracy is brought into question.

In the context of my opening paragraph, Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson belong to the humanities camp, taking liberties with reality that can lead to unreason if no one ever discusses them critically, which is usually the case. Although by nature I am completely apolitical, I find it unsettling to see the leader of a secular state depict himself as a devout believer in a religion that is objected to by the adherents of another religion who have formed groups with which we are at war. Belying his demeanor of Christian principles is his role in the perpetuation of American military adventurism in the Middle East. Beyond the geopolitical inappropriateness of Obama's public embrace of Christianity there remains the basic fact that, as a war-waging military leader, he cannot be considered a true Christian according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was a pacifist and opposed the accumulation of wealth. Between the two of them, Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson make a travesty of reason, and in so doing they are unwittingly perpetuating ideological disputes and world conflict.

Although my initial reaction to Obama as a political leader was positive in 2008, I now see him as out of his depth in his job across the board. This, along with the general dysfunction in Washington, inclines me to think of ways to abandon the current political system entirely. Here is where science could play a constructive role. Over time, a deeper understanding of the instincts and irrationality of our species is emerging, and this could eventually provide a basis for the creation of a more functional system of governance that, in the absence of research, could never have been envisioned only a few decades ago. From the sidelines, I am appalled by the mindless theatrics that regularly occur on the national stage only to be applauded by an uncomprehending public.

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