Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Dark Side of Utopianism

A few years ago I made the mistake of reading Gilead, the novel by Marilynne Robinson, on the basis of a recommendation. It is one of the most boring novels I've ever read, and I found it intellectually offensive. Robinson is a Christian apologist who is trying to reconstruct Calvinism in an earlier form from which it has deviated considerably over the centuries, presumably in an attempt to make it more palatable to contemporaries. My assessment of Gilead is quite different from that of others: it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005 and is said to be one of Barack Obama's favorites. I interpret Robinson as a utopian thinker who has not learned from, or perhaps doesn't care about history. She is evangelizing her religious point of view as if she has found true religion, just like millions of others before her. What makes this especially offensive to me is that Robinson has good credentials as an intellectual and a writer. Though I don't claim to be an expert on religious history, I'll say a little about the problems created by religion.

America was settled by religious lunatics. From the earliest days they were fighting amongst themselves and persecuting or kicking out members who didn't conform. In certain respects, many of the groups can be described as utopian. Some groups seem relatively benign. The Rappites, an industrious group of Germans, built a prosperous town from scratch in the Indiana wilderness and didn't bother anyone. Other groups, like the Puritans, were always picking on nonconformists, one of whom was Ethan Allen, the unruly Vermont settler who resisted the Great Awakening, contributing to his frequent moves. Then there were outright frauds or crackpots like Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism and was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. In the early days, many parts of the U.S. were regional theocracies. Middlebury, Vermont, where I live, had only one religion, Congregational, and all landowners had to pay a tax to the church whether they belonged or not. The church was given 100 acres next to the 100 acre Town Plot, and there was a 100 acre Minister's Right to the south. With a mixed background like this it is hard to imagine that the U.S. was based on any comprehensive notion of Christianity.

All religions morph over time, and the U.S. has received refugees from religious conflicts worldwide. This may have made it somewhat less stable ideologically than other parts of the world that had been dominated by single religions for hundreds or thousands of years. As a product of the Enlightenment, the foundation of the U.S. would have been an excellent opportunity to create a secular state. However, the predominance of Christian denominations among the early settlers has made the U.S. a de facto Christian nation. The separation of church and state technically exists, but not in the minds of many of the public. They still need to be trained to think of government as secular and to restrict their religious sentiments to their private lives.

As noted in my post on Thomas Malthus, the Romantic branch of the Enlightenment left a lot of room for anti-science. Although I am sympathetic with certain aspects of Romanticism, I now conclude that intellectually it has led to many undesirable consequences. What I think of as the intellectually rigorous strand of the Enlightenment follows the sciences: Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Einstein, etc. The soft strand, Romanticism, is associated with religion, the arts, the humanities and governance: Locke, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Rawls, etc. It will be apparent to those of you who have read my previous posts that I believe that science should play a greater role in determining systems of governance. The West hasn't come to terms with the fact that its notion of freedom is not compatible with human nature in a way that is likely to be sustainable politically or environmentally. Contemporary theories of individual freedom can be traced to a time when land seemed inexhaustible, global pollution was inconceivable and conflicting ideologies were less problematic. American governance seems to assume, without evidence, that humans are inherently good. In my opinion, there has been insufficient research into human nature, a study which has the potential to provide better guidelines for organizing society than the ad hoc process in place, which relies on miscellaneous untested opinions and leaves room for the continued exploitation of the system by those in power. Such research could easily produce better systems than those to which we've become accustomed and replace guesswork and arbitrary convention with science.

Even in the case of ostensibly innocuous religious groups there is the potential for internal and external strife when a creed becomes dogma. Utopians like Marilynne Robinson think that they have found a "way," but because their "way" is not universal it will inevitably become a source of contention. Christianity has splintered into countless denominations since the Reformation, and no end is in sight. My position is that people should be allowed to engage in whatever mythologies they choose so long as those mythologies do not become part of the public domain. For the good of the whole, religion has no place in public life at the institutional level. Barack Obama has no business endorsing Marilynne Robinson, because it is a breach in his responsibility as the leader of a secular state.

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