The all-too-human search for meaning

When I watch this video about “religious people and scientists finding middle ground”, I find myself not only trying, in terms of my own subjective position and beliefs, trying not to “identify” with either side of this equation. This video is probably immensely helpful for people that in Western society who may be fundamentalists or avid atheists to be respectful or compassionate toward the “other side.” Nevertheless, I find certain subjectivities and certain philosophical points of view not represented here. I am not complaining about this in the interest of a kind of identity politics: far from it. If a fundamentalist Muslim were on this panel, or a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, there would not be this much agreement or at least good spiritedness. In fact, in this panel of rather liberal-minded religious leaders and only one scientist (the paleontologist) who seems to be avidly a staunch atheist, I find the conversation going down conventional 21st century paths.

Rather, my question is: what does it mean to be having conversations like this? Is it because morality is “innate in humanity” as the paleontologist suggested? Is it evolutionarily based? Or is culture constructed through moments like this? I argue that media like this are representations of performative tolerance, our liberal ideological era’s main tenet, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues. And that is not necessarily, as Zizek argues, a bad thing! Perhaps pure tolerance is the framework around which these people are gathered together, but it is also an all-too-human human desire to learn from other people, to listen, to be compassionate, to feel compassionate.

But is there really such a wide birth in the subjective positions being represented here? There is more culturally in common with a pastor and a scientist than most people would care to admit. The outlier is obviously the Buddhist monk, who seems at the end of the video to capture the attention of the other listeners when talking about dying and human suffering. That immanent attention to human suffering is not a language most Westerners are used to hearing on an everyday basis. We are much more comfortable arguing whether God exists or not.

Nevertheless, I have to admit, even given my own attachments to Buddhism, that the Zen monk is not culturally as far removed from the pastor as, say, the native shaman is from any of the people represented in this video, or rather a member of a society that is isolated from modern mainstream society. Take any member of a society from New Guinea, from the isolated Himalayan village, and add them to this conversation, and one will find that the common language of discussion (not just English) and necessary cultural background for even participation in this “debate” is not present.

When a social scientist or a student of culture sees a video like this, he not only sees the cultural dividing lines between the different ideological positions being represented, but he also sees the subjectivities that are represented, the cultural backgrounds from which these people come from.  In modern society, one’s subjectivity is almost always represented by what ideology one holds, rather than what community one belongs to. In Clifford Geertz’ work on contemporary Indonesia, Geertz observed this rationalization of religion firsthand, and the increasing division between Muslim conservative fundamentalists and indigenous reform-minded traditionalists. What this growing ideological divide obscures is the fact that this growing ideological divide in modern Indonesia is contemporaneous with a much more problematic process: modernization and the uprooting of communities themselves.

What anthropologists refer to as traditional societies do not have a common language for participation in a debate like this because it is pointless. Belief in something is not as important as the shared customs and traditions of one’s village, one’s ancestors. In many indigenous societies, this kind of “ancestor veneration” goes to the extent of venerating tradition itself for its own sake. This kind of generalization can only say so much, but it is a fact that the embodied process of creating kin is more important on a daily basis for indigenous societies than belief in this or that metaphysical construct. If beliefs are held so dear by traditional societies, it is because they represent something that is very strong indeed: a seemingly unshakable bond to the way of life that has been passed for generations. This is especially strong in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the globe.

This video ends with the modern liberal tolerant mantra: “It is important to question one’s own beliefs.” This is completely antithetical to the traditional society’s own core ethic: one’s beliefs that were passed down through one’s ancestors are sacrosanct. Sure, modern indigenous people, say in the US, are exposed to all of the ideological fronts and modern forms of scientific knowledge. However, even the modern indigenous person largely stands outside of these cultural debates. Her own traditions teach something far different: that we must learn to love the people who are actually in our lives, rather than the people across the hill. We must learn to love the earth beneath our own feet. We should not seek a metaphorical model of exploration: exploration of different lands, different worlds. Rather, we should be content to be right here. It is, in Deleuzian terms, a territorialist model, rather than a model of deterritorialization.

It should be noted that there is a critique, now parroted by the political right wing, but also by philosophers like Nietzsche, that this kind of tolerance and open-mindedness leads naturally toward believing nothing at all, to a kind of nihilism. Perhaps that is not the right way to put it. The belief in tolerance as a kind of “cultural praxis” is stronger than ever, and it is performatively enacted by members of modern society, even if the pastor may be pissed off by the paleontologist, and vice versa. I believe that is because there is an underlying dimension, a cultural and therefore necessarily political dimension, to this debate that is not being addressed. The paleontologist said it best when he began by stating that he has been combating Creationism his whole career. Why is this the case? Creationism is dangerous, in this scientist’s mind, not only for spreading beliefs that aren’t “testable” (a scientist’s favorite go-to discourse), but for the fact that evolution is *empirically useful*. It goes somewhere. It reproduces invention and progresses biology and science as we know it. The scientist, by fearing Creationism, fears not only fundamentalism, but what comes along with it: lack of appreciation for the empirical work of scientists like himself, but also the spread of potentially dangerous beliefs (like vaccines causing autism). A scientist like this is concerned not only with defending things such as modern medicine, but also probably defending against the political side of fundamentalism: the increased potential to believe in authoritarian regimes. From this perspective, its very interesting to see a Zen monk being represented from a highly industrialized country with a history of authoritarianism, rather than somewhere from the “Third World.”

What do members of the Third World have to say about these defenses of modern medicine? Well, if they are in Africa, they may believe that modern medicine is a godsend, or they may secretly or openly distrust those members of the international community forcing it upon them at the same time as they are meddling in the affairs of their country. The gap between worlds here is immense, and problems like these are what anthropologists deal with on a daily basis. The debate and cultural dividing lines represented in this video seem tame, if not silly, by comparison.

From an anthropologist’s perspective, the cultural dividing lines represented here are not the real lines that divide the world. The real lines that divide the world are between the modern and non-modern worlds, the former colonies and former colonizer countries, the First World and the Third World. Where is that debate? Furthermore, even within the confines of this country, this video and debate do not get to the heart of the problem dividing religious people from scientists: it is essentially a byword for the divide between conservatives and liberals, between Left and Right. Even then, there is more in common between them that meets the eye as well. Distractions inside of distractions…

If anything, this is more evidence that it is almost impossible without training to see one’s own culture in real perspective. The reason is because it takes a difficult look at one’s own subject position and realizing what about it may be not unique, or how it may simply be the product of history. Perhaps that even extends to your personality: now that is an uncomfortable thought for many. These are the kind of tough questions we need to ask ourselves if we truly want to begin a dialogue with people who are “Other”.

A final note: what I see in this debate, even from the Zen monk, is a lot of “I” speak. Perhaps that is the language everyone feels comfortable with. If an anthropologist was in this debate, he would probably make everyone uncomfortable with a lot of “we” speak. If we are going to have debates like this one, we should realize the historical and cultural context in which it is situated: the Scopes “monkey” trial, the “moral majority”, the Puritans, just to name a few American examples. We could also reference the French Revolution and the state-sponsored Cult of Reason, and anti-clericalism in general during the Enlightenment. If anything, I just want one social scientist or historian on panels like these: someone who is used to looking at humans either diachronically or synchronically. Perhaps that is too much to ask for: what does a historian know about religion? “That isn’t the purpose of debates like this!” And so it goes on…


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