Friday intellectual spot 6: Alan Wolfe on liberalism and New Scientist on religion

20 Feb

Again I have picked two that appeal to me from the past week on Arts & Letters Daily.

K Anthony Appiah reviews Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism on Slate.

Alan Wolfe is the sort of social theorist who would rather be plausible than provocative. Eschewing the lunacies of the left and the right—avoiding even their slighter sillinesses—he hews to a sensible, if unexciting, center. We must be robust—even militarily robust—against genocide everywhere, but recognize the limits of our armies as instruments of democratization overseas. We can encourage religious engagement in the public square but insist on freedom from religious imposition and the widest workable range of religious expression. Let us also welcome immigrants in a spirit of openness while accepting that we cannot absorb all who want to come and asking those who do come to open themselves to us. Wherever there is a reasonable middle ground—as here, between nativism and multiculturalism—he finds it unerringly. And, despite the Polonius-like platitudinousness of my simplifying summaries, he is attentive to the complexities of actually bringing these thoughts to practical life. If professor Wolfe had a coat of arms, its motto would be "On the one hand, on the other." And though he may have only two hands, they are permanently occupied: He has many balls in the air. He is, as my British uncles might have put it, impeccably sound. If liberalism were just a temperament, we could agree that he has it in spades.

But, as he argues himself in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe’s distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.

Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We’re used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It’s not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe’s sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance."…

In New Scientist (4 February) Michael Brooks explored Born believers: How your brain creates God. I found this fascinating; looked at another way it may have also been called “Why it’s hard to be an atheist.”

WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It’s not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it’s that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. "I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works…

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Posted by on February 20, 2009 in faith, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, religion, web stuff


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