The Authority of Tradition = A Cause for Anti-Intellectualism and the Disbelieving of Experts

download-1As someone who calls himself a Jamesian before all other eponyms, I typically have and for the most part respect people’s right to believe whatever religious claims they want to believe. Given the limits of reason itself, I think the Will to Believe is the best argument for God’s existence there could be. For the most part, these claims have little bearing upon my reality. I get on with others even if they consider my non-Christian thinking blasphemy, and only sometimes do people really get self-righteous enough in thinking their view of the cosmos through religion is so truth-apt that all others most convert to it. We all know that Christianity has gone through this, and perhaps those around you have demanded conformity from you. You may be dissenting for scientific reasons and the like. On a whole, I am neither harmed by group A claiming Hinduism is true, Group B claiming Buddhism is true, or Group C claiming that Christianity is true.

Next, if I were to think long and hard as a philosopher would the world be better off without Christianity? I cannot deny the Church’s role in protecting and insulating belief with Aristotle and Plato. I cannot deny the role these theories have had on the lack of our scientific imagination. At the same time, I cannot imagine philosophy’s history without engagement with Christianity; it’s so constitutive of what philosophy came to be. In fact, I find myself being humbled by just how daunting of a question Christianity’s legacy is both to moral reform on some things that seem positive like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Dorothy Day’s work on organized labor within Catholicism, and the feeling that these are sometimes more exceptions than they are the rule. Hence, my ambivalence to religion. Still, perhaps the most cautiously optimistic version of my ambivalence is to let live and let live.

Then, one moves to the American Southeast on the West Coast of Georgia, and one sees already how badly the students are prepared for academic study at a four-year university. They refuse the most basic scientific facts because they’ve not heard them, or come from such a cultural background that they are suffused with the belief in adhering to religious truth regardless of the powers of human reason. Conservatism and Christianity become bedfellows down here that normal interaction with everyday people is taxing along the fault lines exposed by that alliance. Let me give you an example.

As soon as people know I am a philosopher, they immediately want validation about either Trump’s politics or some type of science denialism whether it is epidemiologists and lockdowns or geophysicists and climate change. When confronted like this, I politely say, “Oh what in their scientific models do you disagree with?” I get strange looks and move on. It’s an easy out, but it also goes over their heads. If they caught on, then they’d know what I am doing. I’m exposing these science denialists to the lack of actual disagreement with what scientists are claiming. If it gets heated beyond that, then I say whose work? Certainly you have a scientist in mind that you disagree with. “All of ‘em.” That’s not a precise answer narrowing down on a specific claim of someone’s research. Don’t we think that we should be disagreeing with someone’s aspect of the work you don’t like?

Now, what is plainly obvious to me may not be visible in bad faith to another. I see spurious ambiguous claims. I see nobody bothering to learn even the basic facts of virology (or whatever science they must in order to make actual real disagreements) and what the media has claimed on behalf of scientists trying to do the legwork is often badly reported. It’s still there, however. You may be asking: what does this have to do with religion?

Down here, the political interests of the wealthy and the rich are inextricably linked to their cosmic vision of the world, a certain type of Christianity that sees the Earth as given to us by God and our right of sovereignty over it despite our best scientific findings saying how we treat it are harmful to us and cumulatively to our future generations. However, the demands of capitalism and God are measured only with respect to the present. Christianity becomes, as it were, suffused in the ruling ideology of the American South. The implication and effect is the most danger religion poses to human beings, the pure belief in authority over and against the democratic power of achieving scientific consensus by reproducing the effects of someone else’s scientific findings. Science can be verified by more than just myself. By contrast, Christianity has long since modeled its truth simply based on the revelation of prophecy and confirmation of miracles from the authority of what is written. People prejudge the Bible worthy of their assent and then consider the revelation and insight thus gained as the basis of knowing reality. They socialize their children into accepting positions merely from the respect of authority alone. In its very structure, Christianity (and many other religions) demand of people what my philosophical heart can never surrender. From this angle, the culture wars are merely the after effect of traditional sources of authority no longer commanding widespread authority.

Christianity instills the belief that true trusted knowledge can only come from revelation and the authority of tradition. Since scientific experts like virologists suggest things that are harmful to tradition – like our economic way of life – then everyday people immediately distrust science. I find this ludicrous to say the least. Denying the aid and help of scientific experts is to think that one’s own opinion about tradition is as equal to the work of a scientific expert. That’s very foolish.

The tension is even more glaring when I think of William James’s want to defend the everyday ordinary experience of religion with such openness so as to prevent the biases of learned men from contaminating the understanding of what everyday people experienced religiously. James came from a place of radical empiricism about individualist experience. You listen to what someone has experienced and you allow for that rich qualitative report to be true. He let others be and reported only what they told them. However, the question here is does James and my own Jamesian sensibilities permit too much of religion? Scattered amongst its benefits diamonds may be, but the overwhelming effect I see it has on the possibility to educate Southern minds may be entirely damaging on such a general level that even if someone were to say there are benefits of the Christian left or Christianity to motivate a modicum of Leftist change, such a modicum (at least in the South) cannot compare to the overwhelmingly damaging conditions for anti-intellectualism and anti-science I and my many professor friends have experienced directly in the classroom.

For the moment, I have adopted a practical stance to treat all religions like pieces of artwork. You may love Goya’s paintings. I do not know if they are good. I tend to dislike the dark hues of his composition. However, my aesthetic dislike of Goya is in no way a reason for me to refuse them any space in a museum. Following this analogy, the claims of religion, even from those I find abhorrent, cannot call for their censure, but must be included in the religions that make up our shared cultural space in American life. I’ve even tilted my reading of James to think this is a conclusion that follows upon the heels of his radical empiricism of religion. This turns all religions into a form of aesthetics (an implication not many are willing to accept). Now, while this practical neutrality is, I think, one way to ensure why Congress should never make explicit laws establishing a church or favoring any one particular religion, people in the United States often do favor Christianity explicitly and implicitly. It’s hard not to favor your own beliefs when most of the surrounding culture does accept them. The question comes in when we must think long and hard about whether or not we should maintain this practical stance of neutrality in our private and personal lives (especially as educators).

As a pragmatist, I admit there will be a time when the dangers of a religious belief may harm the experience of others. In cases of the alliance of Conservative politics and Christian religious belief, there are times when the two domains cross over in a Venn diagram. I give pause to that practical neutrality at that point. If socializing people in a religion makes them more inclined to accept sources of authority, then such religious mindsets may be readily more inclined to accept an authoritarian government that espouses their religious values while also they in honoring that authority seek to violate the practical neutrality to which we should all treat each other. In this way, Christianity never fully adopts the practical neutrality that an empirical philosophy of religion calls for. In other words, I should make the leap a bit farther and show that with the empirical philosophy of religion we should also think of aesthetics as guiding an ontological explanation to say what religions truly are, a series of habits, rituals, and beliefs that incline our minds to act in a certain being-in-the-world way; it is not a true conception of what reality is, but how we are and act in reality. Metaphysics is, then, simply a speculative conceptualization of aesthetic practices of a particular religion that some Christians call theodicies and apologetics. Two immediate consequences follow:

1. Scientific disagreement cannot occur since science reports about what is whereas aesthetics guides us how to feel and comport ourselves; it does not and cannot give us a report about what is, but only how one is faring.

2. Aesthetics are only useful if they give us some conception of how we ought to be. Thus, religions can be evaluated in just how much their aesthetics impacts the democratic living alongside others.

By J. Edward Hackett

Philosophy is a tool for exploration and philosophical texts are always meant to disrupt and disturb one into Socratic tension.

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