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Monday, February 21, 2005

Velleman on Religious Dogma

David Velleman at Left2Right posts on the recent controversy regarding religious groups' taking the Indian Ocean tsunami as an opportunity to proselytize. Speaking of this and other forms of religious dogma, he writes:
Anyone who thinks that he understands what happens on the other side, and understands it well enough to meddle there, is suffering from monumental hubris, self-certainty of a kind that fuels inquisitors, crusaders, jihadists -- and some Israeli settlers, too.
In the comments following the post, he responds to criticism that jihadist suicide bombers should not be compared to proselytizing and mormon genealogy with: "it should be possible to talk about manifestations of similar attitudes closer to home, even if those manifestations are relatively harmless."

Sure, you can talk about it. But Velleman shouldn't pretend 1) that all religious zeal has this danger of leading to disaster and 2) that this is something necessarily religious.

Regarding my first point, it was noted in the comments that "certainly such things as the early abolitionists and the many churches' humanitarian efforts are not any less laudable because the purpose for the effort was religious." I agree that there's "something wrong with discounting otherwise beneficial efforts just because they were accomplished due to religious zeal." The issue should be the content of the action, not the source of the motivation for accomplishing the outcome.

Regarding my second point, Richard Posner spoke here last semester about what he called the "religion of the left"--a reading of the constitution that requires blind adherence to an interpretation of the first amendment. His contention is that since the possible consequences of a terrorist attack are so egregious, preemptive war and the curtailing of civil liberties may be justified.

Now, maybe one disagrees with the variables used in Posner's cost/benefit analysis; maybe the problems with intelligence should cause us to add to the risks and raise the potential costs. But my experience has been that my lefty peers refuse to even undergo the analysis. There is something about the First Amendment that requires blind adherence even in the face of possible disaster. In Posner's words: "The First Amendment has become a suicide pact."

So, it seems, there is dogma on both sides.

I don't entirely disagree with my lefty friends in their somewhat blind adherence to the First Amendment. Such zeal can be used to accomplish both good and bad. But the argument has to be that we should cabin the zeal because the possible benefits of the good are outweighed by the possibility and likelihood of the bad, not that we should cabin zeal because (regardless of what it is actually currently producing) it could at some point lead to bad.

I think, by the way, that the left alienates a lot of people who are extremly sympathetic to their causes with this sort of discussion. Surely human rights activists should seek to garner the support of people motivated by both religious and non-religious reasons.


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