Sunday, October 01, 2006

Religion and (or versus) Quantification

I recently was watching an interview with a well-known woman novelist (Mary Gordon) on a Bill Moyers show. (He’s been doing pieces on faith and reason.) This woman confessed frustration at being stuck between two worlds: fundamentalism and consumerism. I found her views on consumerism the most interesting part of the interview. {Audio of this essay @ 4.8MB .MP3 5 min}

Essentially, she claimed that she’s tired of everything being boiled down to money, that money was the default, great evaluator of things. Here is a quote from that program:

I think most of what I treasure seems very vulnerable to me right now. And it seems vulnerable to me on several different fronts because I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism. And I think that what I value is threatened by two opposing forces. One, the fundamentalist force, which wants to censor doubt, censor questioning. And one which wants to make everything about money. And one of the most disturbing phenomena in the world as I experience it now is that everything seems to be about money. What can be commodified, what can be sold. The notion that there's never enough money. That greed seems to be okay. That the value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes. That the value of a vocation seems to be gone. It's what can you do that would make money.[1]

One might consider the specific example of movies, where a “good” movie was one that broke opening day records, or made the most money that year. On the view she loathes, “good” movies are defined in terms of money, and not character development or plot subtlty. This goes to show that society has lost something important about literature and art. Certainly I can see her point. That the recent movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest” had an opening day take of $55,830,600, and has grossed $419,866,407 hardly means it will be considered important literature in, say, a century. Yes, it was fun. No, it was not important. On other hand, I think the movie “Schindler's List” will be considered important literature, because it captures something dire and significant about the 20th century. Yet its opening weekend was only $656,636.

Against Ms. Gordon’s point, however, is the whole issue of quantification in assessing some of the big themes of life. Consider, for a moment, Economics. The reason that Economics is so interesting is that it functions as a kind of justification for what we claim to know. Money is a well-understood and convenient tracking unit for how people commit to actions or comment on their own pleasures. Granted, not all pleasure is good, where ‘good’ is being used in the moral sense; for, one can buy heroin, for example, which might bring fantastic pleasure, but which is not a good act, either in terms of virtue, or in terms of long-term advantage to the individual user.

Again, money also tracks people’s wants. Consumerism carries within it the view that people buy things they want, and they indicate the depth of their wants by expenditure of money. Different sub-groups will spend their money differently, and this can be correlated with certain commitments to achieve their goals of acquisition (i.e. to obtain their wants). No doubt, Ms. Gordon would say it's not economics that she's worried about, but something else about consumerism.

I suspect there is a problem with Ms. Gordon's complaint -- one which I see in fundamentalists specifically, which is somewhat ironic, given that she is trying to differentiate herself from fundamentalists; but one which I see in religious people generally: A distrust of quantification in matters of faith.

Overall, justification can be had only with some form of objective quantification. But the essence of religion, at least as a social fact, is about what is subjective – about ‘faith’. Religion functions as a kind of escape from quantification (often appearing in the guise as anti-intellectualism, and in recent days as anti-science). Thus, religious people maintain their position with minimal or no justification at all.

Again, I’m being descriptive in the above argument; I’m making a claim about how religious people are regularly found to operate, not how religion has to be. There are very rational people with very good arguments for why they believe what they do in religious matters, but I just wish it were these rational types that most commonly found among the pious.

I've acknowledge that there are very many religious people in the world, but claim that very few are rationally justified. So I find myself wishing that there were less religious people around. However, perhaps I'm airing an unfair complaint. Consider this analogous argument: There are many musicians in the world, but very few worth listening to. Therefore, I wish there were less musicians in the world. In the musician case, my wish is misplaced. What I really wish is that what musicians there are would be worth listening to. Likewise, I suppose what I really wish is that what religious people there are would be more careful in their reasoning about matters of faith. It is difficult, however, since so very many religious people are not careful at all concerning such matters.


[1] "Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn" Bill Moyers on faith & Reason (June 30, 2006)



At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the fear of quantification is so often found within Christian (or, more generally, religious) circles not because of a tendency toward uncritical thinking, but because the content and structure of religious (or more specifically, Christian) theologies make claims that cannot be checked by any too thorough method of quantification (and other forms of analysis as well). To be a happy member of such community, then, one may need such an uncritical attitude towards one's religious convictions and, thus, rightly (rightly, not in order that one might reach the truth of the matter at hand, but in order that one might rest on a particular understanding of the matter)reject attempts at quantification. Just a thought.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

In other words, A kind of defense against threating one's belief is simply to avoid entering into any attempts at quantification. Logic, science, demographic studies -- all of these would probably force reassessment of the average pious person's beliefs. But such people don't want to reassess their beliefs, so they want to avoid these kinds of studies.

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

or, if religious convictions resist such methods by their very nature and/or content, the average pious person is forced to make a choice: they can either continue on in their religious convictions (based upon such things as religious/traditional authorities and background beliefs concerning past revelations and god's/the gods interactions with contemporary human persons and communities) or they may give creedence to such methods of quantification and lose some or all of their religious convictional set. Here the key move to avoid is, I think, one where quantification of any sort is given prima facia authority. One must make an argument here and not simply assume the superiority of one over the other.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hadn't ever thought about pious people's rejection of consumerism in terms of quantification. It's quite unsettling for most pious people to view their own religion as a commodity that can be given some sort of value because of the rate of consumption.

On the other hand, you have churches like Life Church in Oklahoma City who have adopted this understanding entirely and sell their church services only as products for consumption. The problem for this is that we can readily recognize the religious experiences at churches like Life Church as purely synthetic (i.e. slow guitar + blue lighting = presence of God).

All that to say, I really enjoyed your take on the rejection of consumerism/quantification and the reasons why.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the difference between faith and uncritical thinking? When you reach a certain point of intellectual examination of religion, any religion, you either have to accept it with its shortfalls on the cognitive level or reject it totally. How do you determine where the acceptable point of faith is? Is it different for each of us at our level of understanding or is a static point in reasoned logic?

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A different 'anonymous' here, but..

I don't think that the resistance to knowledge that will challenge one's view is solely an issue for religious people. Anyone with a strong and certain view about life, the universe, and everything doesn't react well to having that view challenged, whatever it may be.

The best example is Einstein. Now, someone can argue about whether or not he was a true atheist (I'd argue no), but he certainly didn't believe in a personal God and said as much. He also was on record as being a determinist - he saw the universe as unfolding according to a plan, with everything being causally connected. Fate, in essence. It was a very scientific, solid, rational view - popular with scientists in particular, even the reasonable types.

When quantum mechanics turned up to challenge that view of classical physics, the response of many scientists was not to go, 'Oh! Well now. Looks like determinism may not be a universal rule after all. But that's the joy of science, right? Finding out what you're wrong about.' The reaction was rather strong, negative, and related to individual and group philosophy and metaphysics. Men of reason acted surprisingly unreasonable.

The point is that almost everyone, religious or atheist, has deep seated beliefs, and few enjoy having those beliefs challenged. The scientific community - the high priests of quantification - are not immune.


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