Saturday, July 13, 2013

More on the Power of the Tribe

Further to my recent post on this issue (see here): Consider the position of a research anthropologist embedded in the tribe he is researching. I have read books about such people who go, sometimes for years, to faraway places, and, after a period of introduction and initiation, become an accepted member of the tribe. In order to fully understand their laws, customs, mores, rituals, values, etc. the researcher participates as a fully-fledged member of the tribe in all of its life-cycle and day-to-day events. 

The researcher has a reason different from the other tribal members for participating in its religious observances, even carefully adhering to the letter of the law. For him it is not a matter of a shared belief in the religious significance of these practices, these injunctions, prohibitions, prayers, religious actions (like prostrations or sacrifices, the intonation of blessings), etc. all involving the supernatural in some way. For the researcher these are a matter simply of tribal practices, having scientific interest. But in order to gain maximum insight, he  considers it necessary to fully immerse himself in the setting, to see what  they see, to feel what they feel, as best he can.  And, often, in the  process, being empathetic in temperament, he comes to value these practices almost as they do, seeing it as they do, but also, simultaneously, seeing them more detachedly as part of the valuable social-capital of the tribe. He sings with them, he celebrates with them, he mourns with them, and by the time he  leaves, he is sad to say goodbye to his close friends. But he does leave and then he writes his book about his experiences and becomes famous and revered in that other world from which he came.

His position is not much different from that of someone born into and growing up in a strictly religious community, who, on the road to adulthood, no longer shares the belief in the supernatural and the associated practices. He still identifies with his family, friends and other members of the community who retain their beliefs. And, moreover, he has an inside understanding of what the traditional religious practices really mean to those who do still believe. He may see these practices as valuable, or aesthetically pleasing and evocative of pleasant childhood memories. And he may still elect to participate in some of them, even though they do not have the same significance to him as they used to.

I grew up surrounded by religious practice. As a young adult I stopped believing the party line. I went through a brief period of rebellion when I distanced myself from all religious practice – or as much as I could. But then I decided this was silly and I  started to participate in whatever felt good to me – for my own reasons, which were mainly to be with those that I loved, enjoying what we had always enjoyed together, appreciating the music, the poetry, going with the flow. I am not alone. Many of my coreligionist community friends are tribal first and religious second, if at all.

A recent example prompted this blog. I continue to participate in the ritual of the priestly blessing at weddings, and, being of the priestly tribe of Cohanim, if I am asked I to give the bridal couple the traditional blessing, as part of the ceremony under the wedding  canopy, I will do so gladly – and did so recently. I see it as tapping into a beautiful age-old practice. I am under no illusions. I don’t believe I have any special power to bestow God’s blessing, nor do many (most) of those who attend these weddings. What others believe is their business, not mine.

Some of my friends didn't understand this and questioned me about it. They see in it an inconsistency between conviction and practice, a kind of hypocrisy. I don’t agree, and I think they are applying an inappropriate standard of “rationality” to my actions. For me, as I have explained before very clearly (see here) it is part of the aesthetic. I am like the anthropologist in my simultaneous identification and detachment.

Just because a particular practice was born of a particular set of beliefs sometime in the past, does not mean that we cannot transcend its original significance and yet continue to use it, for other reasons. This happens all the time, in very complex ways. Some individual components of the social capital continue to evolve and morph into new combinations of meanings and actions, even while some others get discarded. As Friederich Hayek might have said, our current practices embody more wisdom than we can consciously know. As long as no compulsion is involved, why is this even an issue?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Importance of Secularization - and the first amendment.

I believe the founders knew something important when they came up with the first amendment. They understood that all totalitarian movements resemble a kind of religion, and that when an established religion is supported by the coercive power of the state, it invariably becomes intolerably oppressive.  Without the power to compel, religion becomes an individual life-style choice, one that offers great support and comfort to some. In the absence of state-power religious leaders must compete for adherents who, being unable to compel the observance of the population, must make the tenets of the religion palatable and attractive if they are to survive. The power to choose, the power to exit, is what makes religion civil; and the absence of this is what makes religion toxic.

This is what I understand to be the enormous benefit of what we call “secularization.” It is the distinguishing element between toxic and civil religion. In other words, it is not so much the elements of the religious teachings themselves, as the context in which they occur, that is pivotal. Consider the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in order of their founding). Of the three, Christianity is on paper the least intrusive (which may explain its rapid explosion after its inception). In terms of actions, observances, diet, etc. it requires much less than the other two religions. Faith rather than action is emphasized. Yet, when it became the religion of state we got the puritans, the inquisition, colonial plunder, the crusades, etc. The claim to be the “one true religion” provided license for all manner of coercion and brutality once empowered by the formidable state apparatus. It then became an all-pervasive (hence totalitarian) force reaching into the most intimate cervices of private life. Absent this power, Christianity, though its adherents can sometimes be obnoxious and annoying in their dogmatism, is associated most prominently with universal love rather than universal oppression.

Islam and Judaism are both incredibly intrusive in their teachings. They both preach all manner of severe rituals and observances. They dictate behavior in the workplace, the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom and even the bathroom. They offer complete instructions for every aspect of life, no matter how seemingly small and detailed. As such, some people (like me) find them unacceptably intrusive taken as a whole. Yet, in civil societies, secularized societies, one is free to take them or leave them; or to take part of them and leave the rest. Pluralism is protected. I often wonder how Judaism might have turned out in practice had it ever gained a foothold as a state religion (we see some of this in the excessive, though muted, power of the religious parties in Israel, the restrictions they have obtained and the others they desire). Many biblical prescriptions are incredibly harsh (even violent). Yet these play absolutely no role whatsoever in modern Jewish religious teachings in civil societies. The rabbis have no coercive power. Over the generations, lacking state power, the rabbis tweaked biblical injunctions and prescriptions to make them more palatable to people who have a choice. Persuasion rather than coercion drove the evolution of the religion. It may also help to explain why Judaism became an inward-looking religion and foreswore evangelism.

So, I can’t help wondering whether this is an element in explaining the absence of a Reformation in Islam. Sharia law is problematic primarily because it claims the power to compel. It is this rather than the fact that it is so comprehensively intrusive, which is at worst obnoxious to those who do not choose it, that makes it so threatening and dangerous. (It is this desire for the power to compel that makes the Muslim Brotherhood unacceptable as a ruling party). If this is true, then the war for hearts and minds to achieve civil society should focus on selling the importance of something like the first amendment.