Sunday, March 11, 2012

Secular Chauvinism and the Triumph of False Cognates

This past week I gave a lecture to my students that almost certainly failed in its objective. The course was "Shaping of the Modern World," the topic was "Religion and Science, 1450-1750." I pleaded the case that the conventional story about religion and science in modern history should be held in suspicion. We are often inclined to think that as the world "modernized," science became more important in society and religion less so. I tried to persuade my students that the picture was more complicated, that the roles of religion and science in global society have both surely changed since 1450, but in complex ways that make facile quantitative comparisons of their relative influence specious.

Blue in the face as I may be, I suspect that I will receive many essays on our upcoming midterm which begin, "Since 1450, religion has become less important in world society as the influence of science has grown (for those of my students enterprising enough to find this blog-congratulations! you have a jump on the exam)." Much of the fault for this lies in my own weak powers as an instructor- I lack the personal charisma and clarity of expression required to create a "dissonance effect" that will shake my students out of a deeply entrenched paradigm. Part of the fault, however, lies in the depth to which the paradigm is entrenched, and the frequency and intensity with which it is reinforced by our popular culture and mass media.

The "religion : modernity as oil : water" fallacy is pervasive, as evidenced by the cottage industry of popular secular chauvinists such as Bill Maher. The bias to which it gives rise is insidious. Even people of faith are not immune: if only I had a dime for every devout Jew or Christian I have seen lament the inability of Islam to adapt to the modern world. This might all be amusing if it did not have serious consequences for our discourse and politics. Because so many are so ignorant and so dismissive of religion, we tend to collectively misunderstand many events and movements in which religion plays a central role.

The controversy over reproductive freedom is a central case in point. The past few years, statistics have shown that so-called "pro-life" opinions were becoming more widespread. Some polls seemed to show that a majority of Americans had become "pro-life." This impression was based on a misconception, however. Though many Americans object to legalized abortion for ethical and religious reasons, those reasons are so varied as to not truly be mutually fungible. This fact has been thrown into stark light by the recent  controversy over contraception. As Gail Collins wrote yesterday in The New York Times, "[The] more we argue about contraception, the more people are going to notice that a great many of the folks who are opposed to abortion in general are also opposed to birth control." The perception that a "majority" of Americans had become "pro-life" hinged upon the ascendancy of a false cognate. Those who oppose abortion because they view a fetus as a person and those who oppose abortion because they feel that all aspects of sexual life should be controlled by God are both called "pro-life" by the media, but many in the former group have less in common with fellow "pro-lifers" than they do with large swaths of America that consider themselves "pro-choice."

Other regrettable instances may be seen in American perceptions of the Middle East. Followers of Osama bin-Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini are both "Islamists." Those who view Israel as a vestigial remnant of colonialism and those who view Israel as an impediment to the creation of a new caliphate are both "anti-Zionists." Conversely, those who would defend the "Green Line" and those who would annex "Judea and Samaria" are both simply "Zionists." All of these labels confuse forces and actors that are fundamentally incommensurate with one-another, and all these distortions materially degrade the effectiveness of our foreign policy.

As an ardent secularist, I would never argue that secular chauvinism is a greater problem for our society than religious chauvinism. No such biases come without a cost, however. Anyone who views religion with dismissive scorn does so at his or her peril. The role of religion in today's society is obviously different than that of 1450, but religion remains a robust, multidimensional, and dynamic presence in all corners of the globe and in all aspects of human affairs. Until the common misconception of religion's "decline" is put aside, we will continue to misunderstand the forces that are shaping the world around us, and fail to respond effectively to events that impact our daily lives.