Monday, April 23, 2012

On Criticising Religion

"Suppose I live under a totalitarian regime that has indoctrinated
me to venerate its leaders and accept the state’s values. I might be happy,
yet inauthentically so: my happiness is not autonomous, for it depends on the
acceptance of values imposed on me through manipulative practices. This is a
problem. Is it a subjectivist problem? It is not a problem from the subjective
point of view: I wholeheartedly endorse my values and way of life. I see nothing
wrong with my circumstances. This affirmation may persist through reflection
and exposure to the facts. You might call my attention to my lack of autonomy,
the inauthenticity of my happiness. I might agree with you on this, but then say,
‘‘so what?’’ I do not value autonomy or authenticity. As far as I am concerned,
these are the decadent values of a pathologically individualistic society. Leave
me alone.
It is worth considering what is to be done with someone like me. Deprogramming
seems the only route to enlightenment."

- (Daniel Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, p. 207)

Few things are more difficult to objectively quantify than human happiness, but although any "hedonic calculus" will necessarily have its short-comings, the effort itself - to understand and measure happiness - remains a worthwhile one. In classical economic theory, one can measure human inclinations only in terms of material wants ("demand") and therefore define happiness purely in terms of fulfilling those wants. The rational agent, therefore, is one who maximises consumption.

There are at least two key problems with this homo economicus model. The first is that humans are not inherently "rational", at least not in terms of their capacity to dispassionately assess what actions may be in their best interest, and can on occasion be shown to act in ways which objectively serve to make themselves worse-off. A simple example is an experiment know as the "Ultimatum Game" which shows that people will reject the free provision of money on grounds as tendentious as "fairness", a proclivity that the "rational agent" approach to human nature cannot account for in its model.

The second unrealistic assumption of the "rational agent" model is that people can be made happy (or at least be satisfied) simply by getting what they want. In the first place (and this is something that classical economic models do, to their credit, accurately reflect) human wants are infinite, resources are not: hence the foundation of economics. Secondly, it scarcely needs pointing out that "getting one's own way" (particularly exclusively in the context of material satisfaction) is scarcely sufficient (or even necessary) to the living of a happy life. Do the lives of wanton excess lived by wealthy celebrities frequently lead to deep and lasting happiness?

Part of the reason for this misconception of human desire and happiness comes from the subjectivist account that people are ultimately capable of knowing what they want and that happiness emerges from the pursuit of that want. This is the basis of political and economic liberalism. People must be free to make decisions about their own lives, and it is not for us to make judgements about this: after all, how could we? Who are we to judge what is best for someone?

While this approach may hold some superficial appeal, again we require only a few simple examples to show that we all have limits on how willing we are to support this approach as an accurate reflection of human intentionality. Surely not even the most committed subjectivist, for instance, will agree that a severely depressed or otherwise mentally affected patient can have a better idea of what is in his best interests than the doctor treating him? Would we not be remiss if - in the name of self-determination - we supported without judgement his decision to refuse all medical treatment? Or how about the wife who finds herself regularly beaten by her husband? Would we take seriously her denouements that her marriage is making her happy? Of course not. Such an example demonstrates that - at least in certain cases - we can make the objective judgement that certain decisions that people make are likely to lead to unhappiness, or at least constrain their capacity for self-actualisation in some significant way. We should not withhold the provision of advice to those suffering in cases such as these, and I believe that our realm of empathetic concern should be expanded even further.

Although the "beaten wife" serves as a provocative, perhaps extreme example, I believe that we can be similarly objective in our negative judgements concerning the effect of fundamentalist religions on the mental health of believers. As much as they may protest and insist that their beliefs make them happy, even a cursory examination of their lives betrays patterns of behaviour that severely impinge on their capacity to enjoy anything even approaching "happiness". An integral part of being happy (or at least a consequence of happiness), I think, lies in the ease with which one can socialise with one's fellow human beings. We can see intuitively that the social behaviour of happy person will consist in relaxed and broadly cheerful, egalitarian behaviour with others, where the behaviour of the unhappy person will probably be governed by mistrust, resentment and crippling awkwardness. It may be too easy here to simply point to the almost disconcerting lack of social skills common to religious fundamentalists, but there is also a darker, more serious side to their asocial tendencies.

A key feature of religious fundamentalism (at least of the Abrahamic variety) lies in its exclusivism: that is to say, that the dogmas of these faiths are not only true, but true to the exclusion of all others. This creates a clearly defined in and out group, where the syncretic consideration of ideas from the "out group" are to be fiercely resisted as a matter of course. Plainly, such an adversarial conception of the world is not condusive to healthy human relationships with those seen to be in the "out group", hence the proclivity to either recede from the world or to establish hysterical persecution fantasies in which the beleaguered believers must stand firm against a great (though nebulously defined) enemy. For fundamentalist Christians we need only look at the paranoid treatment of homosexuals (who, it is often believed, are united in some shadowy, pan-global conspiracy to undermine traditional Christian values for some reason) to witness how pathetically warped dispositions to outsiders can become under fundamentalist religion.

Another important cause of (or at least indication of) happiness lies in positive self-image; or, to put it more generally, "feeling comfortable within one's own skin". Highly negative self-appraisal will invariably lead to unhappiness in one's life, if it isn't already an indicator of outright depression. In fundamentalist religions, there are few functions of the human body that are not viewed with strict disapprobation if not complete disgust. Sex is an obvious place to begin, with normal human sexuality derided as sinful under all but a few prescribed conditions. In the stricter expressions of sharia Islam, disgust at the human body can manifest itself in an almost puerile obsession with almost all bodily functions, regardless of their necessity. Virtually all substances produced by the body render one haram, or unclean. How can one have a positive self-image when one sees even the most mundane functions of one's body as abominable in the eyes of the omniscient creator of the universe?

People may say that we should leave believers alone - that they have made their choice, that it makes them happy, and that that should be the boundary of our concern. In some ways, indeed, we must be prepared to acknowledge that the quest to confront religious beliefs is at best Quixotic and at worst unduly intrusive and obnoxious. However, we should also acknowledge that certain patterns of religious belief can be seen to constrain the believer's potential for an authentic, self-fulfilling life. To this extent, we would be doing her an injustice by not pointing out the damaging, self-constraining nature of her beliefs, much the same as if we were to ignore any other forms of self-harm.

Now there may be the objection that religious beliefs have the potential to expand (rather than contract) one's engagement with the world. Certainly such outcomes are possible (theological beliefs may, for example, serve to expand one's realm of concern under the guise of agape, or generalised, fraternal love) but such religious proclivities are assuredly not the ones targeted in this post. My point is not that religious beliefs should be targeted indiscriminately or irrespective of their content, but rather that religious beliefs which restrict free, happy and authentic behaviour should not be allowed to propagate without opposition. Whether or not they are likely to accept it at the time, the airing of such opposition can be shown to objectively help people. If we are capable of facing views that contradict our own without suffering unduly for it, it is surely the height of arrogance to presume that fundamentalist believers will react any differently. Let us not be patronising: we are all adults, capable of exercising the power of reason and changing our minds. There is literally no good reason to deny someone else this same opportunity for self-growth.

Perhaps a more pertinent and practical objection can be raised about the appropriateness of interjecting our opinions where they haven't been solicited. It is, I agree, a fine line which separates honest outspokenness from the kind of reverse proselytism that has unfortunately characterised much publicly-aired atheism in recent years. Clearly choosing the appropriate battles requires a degree of tact that may not easily be taught, but - as a broad rule - it seems that publicly broadcast beliefs are almost always fair game. If one wishes to enter one's beliefs into the public realm, one cannot claim to be offended when such beliefs are the subject of criticism from others. The right to be criticised (or offended!) is both the cost and the privilege of employing one's right to free-speech. It could be objected that religious beliefs occupy a private realm that critics have no business imposing themselves upon, but - by definition - a truly private belief could not be known to anyone else. It therefore behoves us not to engage in a priori attacks on one's religion before we are in possession of all the necessary facts, but public beliefs are not entitled to such protection. Once a belief is uttered publicly, one forfeits all claims to exclusive possession of this belief: it is now a part of the public sphere, for the rest of us to address as we wish.

It's not clear that such a approach will help to erode confidence in fundamentalist beliefs or rather simply further entrench the fundamentalists in their marginal positions, but I think such concerns are largely beyond our control. If a fundamentalist wishes to be offended, or to believe that she is being heroically persecuted for what she believes, then she will be able to do so quite independently of anything we might think to say. If they are going to claim persecution anyway, there is surely little we can say to make it worse. Besides, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, "argument [is] valuable, indeed essential, for its own sake". As a consequence of an argument, we can expect to find our beliefs either strengthened or exposed as folly by its end. For either eventuality, we should all find ourselves thankful.

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