Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pullman on power and religion

The movie, The Golden Compass, has caused some controversy of late. I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy earlier this year, and I watched the movie last week. I'm in the process of writing up my thoughts regarding the books and the movie, and will post them up as soon as I'm finished.

However, I came across a recent article in Time (December 10, 2007) about Philip Pullman, in which he discusses his books and the religious controversy that surrounds them. I found the following quote quite interesting, as it closely resembles my personal thoughts on religion. Like me, Pullman has no problem with religion per se, but he does have a problem when religion gets mixed up with too much power:

"Religion is at its best when it is furthest from political power . . . The power to send armies to war, to rule every aspect of our lives, to tell us what to wear, what to think, what to read – when religion gets hold of that, watch out! Because trouble will ensue."

I think that is one of the main themes that underlines His Dark Materials trilogy: the power of the Magisterium - the church in Pulman's books - represents, for Pulman, what can happen if religion gains too much power.

8 comments:

CyberKitten said...

I saw The Golden Compass yesterday & have read the trilogy twice so far. I shall look forward to your reviews.

Roger Saner said...

I read "Northern Lights" a few years ago and really enjoyed it - wanted to get my hands on the rest of the series but haven't managed to so far. Hoping to see the film soon...

I think the controversy from some (and it should be noted - only *some*) Christians is pretty silly. I could write more on that but am leaving it there.

Interesting Pullman mentions the power religion has to send people to war. It's easy to mention the Crusades, for instance, and say, "See - that's what religion does, therefore it's dangerous and let's stay away from it." However, if you take a look at the wars of the 20th century and ask which ones are religiously motivated and which aren't, a completely different picture emerges. Recent research (and I'll have to go and find the reference) shows that only 3 wars in the last century were religiously motivated...

The great themes in the Bible and within the Judeo-Christian traditions talk about how religion impacts public life. Things like freedom (for instance, in Exodus), justice (all over the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah) and peace (the Lion lying down with the lamb; nations beating swords into plowshares) are not bad things to aspire to!

To relegate religion to "that private thing you do which shouldn't affect the world" is a deeply dualistic worldview, one which, if carried to its ultimate position, is a highly insulting thing to say to someone, for it is essentially saying, "Your views are useless in the public sphere because they're irrelevant, so keep them hidden in your heart - don't let them influence 'normal' life."

Lui said...

"Things like freedom (for instance, in Exodus), justice (all over the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah) and peace (the Lion lying down with the lamb; nations beating swords into plowshares) are not bad things to aspire to!"

Nor are they the preserve of religion.

"To relegate religion to "that private thing you do which shouldn't affect the world" is a deeply dualistic worldview, one which, if carried to its ultimate position, is a highly insulting thing to say to someone, for it is essentially saying, "Your views are useless in the public sphere because they're irrelevant, so keep them hidden in your heart - don't let them influence 'normal' life.""

Basing one's world view simultaneously on the findings of the painstaking methodology known as science and the evidence-lacking dogmas of religion is already dualistic. Archaic irrationalities should be kept right away from the decision making process in a modern society. The reasons that religion continues to be as strong as it is are childhood indoctrination, ignorance and contempt of science, the hijacking of wonder by various forms of pseudo-science and superstition, and cultural inertia. Without these things, religion would have little else to stand on, because its claims would be scrutinised solely by adults who have not had their minds injected with the idea that faith is a virtue rather than a vice. It would become so diluted that it would face extinction in a relatively short space of time.

Roger Saner said...

@Liu: please explain how you can agree that religion's values of freedom, peace and justice are good things, and simultaneously say that religion is a vice. Thanks :)

Lui said...

"@Liu: please explain how you can agree that religion's values of freedom, peace and justice are good things, and simultaneously say that religion is a vice. Thanks :)"

Because religion isn't required to see the value in them; religion doesn't "own" them. What religion does own, however, is a belief in the idea that the universe is run by a being who wants us to honour and worship him. We can have freedom, peace and justice, and have it completely decoupled from the supernatural nonsense.

Roger Saner said...

@Lui: You're right: religion doesn't "own" the concepts of freedom, peace and justice. Jacques Derrida calls justice "the un-deconstructable" - in other words, take away everything else, and we should still have justice. I put this question about God to you: what if part of worshipping this being called God involves working for the above states - and the desire of this God is that all on earth experience freedom...and justice...and live in peace with each other. Is that still supernatural nonsense? Surely, if belief in God is superstitious nonsense, it shouldn't actually matter, as long as the adherents are still aiming to work for peace, freedom and justice?

Your criticism of religion is straight out of the 18th century Enlightenment, which wanted to get rid of religion by showing it up as a bunch of useless superstition, completely without any scientific basis, and we can then "get rid of the lie" (Voltaire, I believe). It's surprising then, that 2 centuries later, religion is still doing fine. It's doubly surprising that the philosophical critique of ideology - especially by Neitzche (who used it against religion) - has turned in on itself and that we are now becoming suspicious of the modern suspicion of religion; we are faced with the death of the death of God.

Part of the reason for that is those who have spoken (and acted) loudest in support of the idea of the death of God have created terrible societies in which peace, freedom and justice are the last things to be attributed to their reigns (think communist Russia, and China under Mao). So simply removing God from the public sphere does nothing to help society become a better place.

In response to your first comment, allow me to respond personally.

I wasn't indoctrinated as a child - in fact I had a remarkable amount of free will (the only indoctrination came when I was in varsity, when a fringe religious group almost succeeded in proving that they were right and everybody else was wrong. I experienced that as violent). I am not ignorant of science and don't hold it in contempt (I'm fascinated by quantum mechanics, chaos theory, theories of the expanding universe, quarks, string theory, emerging theory, etc - and am not tempted to use that science to either prove or disprove God - I am using it to try and understand the world around me more). My sense of wonder has not been hijacked by pseudo-science or superstition (spending a night under the stars in the Drakensberg is still an amazing experience). I will, however, plead guilty to your last point - that faith is a virtue rather than a vice - in a slightly different way though. Faith is useful for people when they don't use it as shield to hide behind so they can excuse themselves from the necessary task of becoming human by embracing their own suffering (taken directly from the pages of M. Scot Peck's "The road less travelled"). When belief becomes a weapon, I sing along with John Mayer:

"Belief is a beautiful armour
but makes for the heaviest sword."

Peace.

Rocketstar said...

Freedom is the distance between church and state.

Lui said...

"Is that still supernatural nonsense? Surely, if belief in God is superstitious nonsense, it shouldn't actually matter, as long as the adherents are still aiming to work for peace, freedom and justice?"

In a world where people don't really take their beliefs seriously enough to make other people pay for it, then what you say would apply generally and I would have far less of a problem with religion. In the world we live in, though, it pays to see what else many theists are working for apart from justice and freedom: the complete subjugation of everyone else to their view of the world. A lot of religious people can't seem to comprehend the fact that beliefs have consequences, and a lot of non-theists also can't seem to see that religion isn't just some harmless fun. Even so-called moderate faith has dangerous consequences, when it lays the groundwork for more toxic strains to gain adherence. When people are taught that faith is a virtue rather than a vice - that believing in things without sufficient evidence (even in spite of the evidence) is a good thing, and that tradition, revelation and wishful thinking should trump the systematic pursuit of truth - then it makes minds malleable to genuinely harmful belief. If those minds had been taught how to look at the world objectively without having to frame everything through the lens of faith, then they would be far less likely to fall prey to the fanatics. It was faith that filled their heads with the idea that belief by itself is a good thing. Of course most religious people don’t fly planes into skyscrapers or bomb abortion clinics, but a minority will so long as the idea that belief by itself is a good thing is respected and honoured. It should be challenged.

"Your criticism of religion is straight out of the 18th century Enlightenment, which wanted to get rid of religion by showing it up as a bunch of useless superstition, completely without any scientific basis, and we can then "get rid of the lie" (Voltaire, I believe)."

Actually, my criticism of religion is straight out of the 21st century, through my observations of the harm that religion continues to do, and the mindless adherence it continues to win in a world where rational, clear thinking is needed to solve the problems that face us.
And I strongly think that religious beliefs are indeed without any scientific basis. Otherwise it wouldn't be called "faith".

"It's surprising then, that 2 centuries later, religion is still doing fine."

It's only surprising if you adopt a naive expectation that people will necessarily come to embrace rationality in place of dogma and comforting delusions. This is testimony to the way religion can control people. It doesn't mean that it has even a grain of truth in it.

"So simply removing God from the public sphere does nothing to help society become a better place."

Definitely, but a critique of communism devoid of its proto or quasi religious tendencies is one-dimensional. Communism isn't what automatically happens when we remove God; communism has its own ideas that cannot be questioned. And if reality has anything to say that isn't to the liking of the status quo, then all the worse for reality. Those who mention the truth (when it contradicts the party line) are ostracised and denounced as enemies who are trying to sway children/the people/society from the one true virtuous path. While nominally secular, the mentality has the trappings of religious dogmatism, for there are truths that are held to be so sacred that to blaspheme against them is considered not only shocking but inexcusable. the Soviets even suppressed science when they though the occasion warranted.