Religion is to Liberalism as Emotion is to Reason? A Response to Responses to James Rohrer

Yesterday, James Rohrer posted an article on Alternet and Salon calling on secular progressives to cease lumping all religious people into one antagonistic group. Alternet’s editors themselves agreed with Rohrer’s critique of the often-nothing-but-critical approach that many progressives have to religion. Rohrer’s piece was, I thought, uncontroversial and even a little bland, if also right on the money: it’s just basic political organizing 101 to never alienate potential allies. It’s easy to criticize specific religious institutions and individuals without over-generalizing and dismissing the billions of religious people all over the world.

Nonetheless, the comments section (at least on the Salon page; I didn’t check the AlterNet one) quickly descended into hyper-simplistic dismissals not only of Rohrer’s point, but of religion and all religious people, without exceptions. The very first comme, from “Mike Sulzer”:

If insulting someone’s religion stops him from supporting progressive ideas, then it is unlikely that he would be much of a supporter in any case.

This is a wildly ridiculous statement; you might as well say “look, if black people can’t get past our racism and work with us on these other issues, then that probably just proves they wouldn’t really be helpful after all!” Insulting people is generally not a good way of making friends, political allies, getting along with coworkers, or even fashioning an argument. It’s not like secular folks are different in this regard: you probably wouldn’t open up a speech to a Secular Student Alliance meeting with “Hey, you’re all a bunch of godless heathens who will burn for eternity! But anyway, let’s talk about climate change.” This is just obvious, straightforward communication etiquette.

While some commenters quickly pointed out the error in Mike’s logic, others rapidly made even more asinine statements, attempting to compare “religion” and “liberalism” in a highly simplistic way. Francis E. Dec summarized this approach:

The religious believer values emotion over reason…

Religion demands individual obeisance to authority. God/The Church is more important than any individual. “Free will,” to whatever extent it exists, is subjugated to “divine will.”

Liberalism is almost exactly the opposite (or is supposed to be – it has of course been perverted in America). Liberal philosophies tend to emphasize the individual – rights and liberties are natural states of existence.

We will, for the time being, ignore the worthwhile questions of whether we can really compare religion and liberalism in such a straightforward way, considering how diverse the former is and how derived from it the latter is. I’d like to hone in on this idea though that Francis seems to want to make–and other commenters too seemed to operate on this paradigm–that religion is all about feelings but liberalism is all about thinking.

Obviously, liberalism’s dawn out of the late medieval period through the Renaissance and European Enlightenment all point to an emphasis on reason over superstition: but does this really mean a preference for reason over emotion? For one thing, we need to unpack classical Liberalism and modern left-wing liberalism. Classical liberalism was indeed an almost absolute glorification of individuality over all other political, social, or cultural concerns. Thinkers like Thomas Paine, John Lock, and David Hume epitomize this outlook. Private property and the non-interference of the government in individual’s lives were the most valued political stances from this approach; it heavily influenced the American Revolution. But modern liberalism is a different animal: though it certainly derived much of its methodology from classical liberalism, it, importantly, breaks with the classical approach in key ways: often valuing the needs of the group over that of the individual; being concerned with the plight of the poor and being willing to use government intervention to assist those in need; valuing the environment and being willing, again, to use government intervention to protect it; and in a host of other ways.

So which liberalism is Francis talking about? Or, to ask a more precise question: if liberalism isn’t concerned with emotion but only reason, what are its ethics based on? Concern for the poor doesn’t arise from some detached, emotionless calculation. People are willing to pay taxes for social programs precisely because they care about other people. The basis for so much of modern liberalism is precisely emotional.

Likewise, although certainly many religious people approach their faith with little critical thought, theology–which has existed in some form or another for millenia–is a very rational approach to belief and thought about religious concepts. Of course, I’m not arguing that the average fundamentalist voter consults Aquinas when they vote or engage in political debate, but this really gets at the crux of the matter: for these commenters, and presumably many other secular liberals and progressives, religious people are seen as a monolith, a block of undifferentiated ignorance and antagonism. While many religious people are both ignorant and antagonistic, not nearly all are. And those who are often the most ignorant are also the poorest, least educated, most embittered victims of modern capitalism; they’re precisely the people secular liberals often claim to care so much about!

I don’t write this somehow not understanding how and why so many people would be hostile to religion and especially to certain religious individuals and institutions. But if these same liberals are as reasonable as they want to think they are, one might hope they would research more and polemecize less, and confront the confusing reality that the world isn’t ever as simple as the black-and-white understanding they have of reason and emotion, religion and liberalism.

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