Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's all about power

Sharia, Pakistan, and what it says about theology

One of the oddest experiences in a culture war debate is when the theist says that, in the absence of his own moral code ruling the world, all that would be left would be "power". Apparently his lack of power means that power in the hands of others would be bad, reverting to a power-mad mad-max world of dog-eat-dog Darwinism. As power-grabbing gambits go, it is one of the more audacious and obvious, but the propaganda certainly gets some traction.

The rationalist reels back and wonders ... "where on earth did that come from?" Of course it did not come from earth at all, but from the imagination of the theist, by way of that most common psychological phenomenon, projection.

Power is an ever-present dynamic in human affairs, and enlightened systems have progressively found ways to limit and legitimate power on relatively sensible and equitable foundations- on the commonalities of the human condition, on the consent of the governed, on reasoned debate, and on realistic analysis of conditions. Historical examples abound of startling descents into Machiavellianism prompted ironically by unrealistic/idealistic ideologies of many kinds, including Communism, Fascism, Islamism, and the Protestant-Catholic conflict.

The example of modern Europe shows that profound secularism is compatible with, and indeed leads to, progressive and peaceable government. So what is going on in the theist argument? Assuming that the argument is not just pure tribal narcissism, (we are good, you are bad, especially when you threaten our core ideology), or a misreading of history, (Bolsheviks were atheist, therefore all atheists are Bolshevik), one is left with the proposition that this argument is about the same thing the culture war in general is about- influence, especially over the next generation. About power.

Power is the ability to have other people do what you want rather than what they want. They can be coerced or pursuaded, cowed or propagandized, but the aim is the same. We all want the world to be as we wish it, so we all want power over others to make it so. Being in charge of morals is one traditional path to such power, cooking up theological directives behind a curtain of god-talk. Maturity is in large part the realization that this aim is not only impossible, but undesirable, given our individual limitations and variation. A better way is to support a system where as many people can follow as many of their own inclinations as possible, and what rules do need to be made are made with maximal consciousness, consultation, and consensus among a people with cultivated minds and public spirit (if I can be somewhat idealistic!). The current gay marriage movement is an outstanding example of this process.

But the wish never goes away, and the negotiation of morals is perpetually vexing. The invention of gods has many more sources in our cognitive apparatus and neuroses than a communal need for morals, but it certainly is a cherry on top to have one's favorite diety tell everyone else what to do. Now the administration of power comes into the hands of shamans, priests, and so forth, who are (ideally) intuitive and humanistic geniuses providing a brake on the raw (less cloaked in spirituality) power-drive of other members of the society, providing the much-needed check to militarism and regular politics. This was the conception of most ancient societies, such as Rome. Yet who signs up to be a priest or Imam? And who vets them, and what institution restrains them? That is the practical question of the quality of spiritual leadership where virtually all institutions, notably the Catholic church and the amorphous world of Islam, leave a great deal to be desired.

The clever part of this scheme is the false humility involved. Theists humbly "serve" their deity, praise its power and wallow in their own worm-like (or sheep-like) insignificance. They may be "fallen", worthless "sinners". God may be "incomprehensible", all-powerful, and all-good. Yet when all is said and done, it is the priests who tell others what to do, not the other way around. A new social hierarchy is established, with priests in the middle and all other humans below them, with god, conveniently invisible, inscrutible and only professionally detectable/interpretable, above all.

Isn't that what is going on in Pakistan right now? Those who watch religious currents could see this battle for power brewing for years, indeed ever since the internally conflicted "islamic republic" was conjured by M. A. Jinnah. There may be practical arguments for Sharia over the existing legal system of Pakistan. But that is not why militants have forced the government install Sharia law in the Swat valley. That is not why they kill their fellow citizens in a growing war on the civil society of Pakistan. It is part of a culture war, with Islamists pursuing power over their fellows via the most base means of terrorism and intimidation while cloaking themselves in religion, of which they are apparently outstanding exemplars, being more deeply, extremely, "objectively", inhumanely, and exhibitionistically devoted than all others. Thus they want and deserve power to tell others what to do. Sickening, isn't it? Our own theists are usually prevented by relatively recent tradition from taking up arms, but are their justifications any better?
  • NYT magazine review of conditions in Pakistan.
  • Pakistani Taliban have larger goals.
  • Excellent discussion of religion ascendent.
  • To see the quality of theist morality and Orwellian "love", just take a look at their "Storm" advertisement against gay marriage.
  • Quiverfull and theological Darwinism.
  • Pakistan and regression on polio.
  • Another dire analysis of Pakistan, in the Nation.

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