Saturday, August 28, 2010

On loyalty of a peculiar kind.

The Scientific American podcast highlighted today research showing that members of "Generation X" (why is that Godawful name still around?) are on average more loyal to religion than are members of their parents' generation. Setting aside the question of how reliable this report is, since there are very few details given, let us instead treat the article as a launching point for discussion.

Indeed, it is uncontroversial that loyalty to religion exists in some sense. What does such a loyalty mean, however? What courses of action are demanded by such a loyalty? This is at best a problematic question to answer, as it is belief in a set of material claims that may be taken as comprising a religion. Under this view, religions are not adopted as matters of principle, but rather as a matter of that belief. One may as well ask what a loyalty to The Lord of the Rings implies.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is a bizarre notion that one can be loyal or disloyal to a set of claims about material reality. Such claims are ideally decided by consulting that self-same material reality, rather than loyalty to one or another set of claims. One that is loyal to a set of religious claims is then someone that is compelled by this loyalty to assert the primacy of their claims over evidence. Such loyalty is distinct from loyalty to a person, ideal or value in that it cannot be a matter of principle without falling into the trap of argument by appeal to consequences.

This sort of religious loyalty is, on the other hand, one onto which principles can be grafted. If some of the material claims to a religion are that certain modes of conduct are inherently morally superior to others by divine edict, then adoption of principles reinforcing those modes of conduct is a consequence of loyalty to those claims. Since correspondence to reality is not demanded from these religious claims about reality, such claims may be manipulated so as to imply any of a wide range of mutually contradictory principles. That is, religious loyalty is not a matter of principle so much as a vessel into which principle can be poured.

Witness, for instance, the latest absurdity from Glenn Beck, his I Have A Scheme speech. As others have noted, the attendees were indeed fiercely loyal, but to no particular principle. Rather, the Tea Party, in buying into and expressing loyalty towards material claims that are demonstrably false, has made themselves into so many empty vessels into which the hateful principles of the GOP may be poured.

Just as with religious loyalty, this political loyalty neither demands nor exhibits correspondence with reality, neither demands nor exhibits principle. As such, it is difficult if not impossible to apply reason to these views. This sort of blind loyalty, made without deference to what actually is, must be seen as a problem if we are to progress in our moral thinking as a society.

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