April 2, 2010

The World Has a Story

Justin Katz

Given comment section conversation, and the fact that it's Good Friday, a Robert Jensen piece from 1993 seems an appropriate item for contemplation:

... modernity has supposed we inhabit what I will call a "narratable world." Modernity has supposed that the world "out there" is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow "has" its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it. ...

If there is little mystery about where the West got its faith in a narratable world, neither is there much mystery about how the West has lost this faith. The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith's object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.

Even before I ceased to call myself an atheist, I had a sense that secular Western society was trying to smuggle the fruits of religious tradition without the responsibilities. The practice is visible on an individual basis, too, in people who developed their sense of reality, and their basic comfort with life, within a religious context, but who decided that they (and their children) no longer needed to keep up with even the tepid demands of religion. The repercussions, it seems to me, take at least a generation to manifest, and I suspect the near future will bring either a return, among the young, to traditionalist faith or a rapid, astonishing deterioration of our society.

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The cited essay was a refreshing read. It brings further the point made by Alasdair MacIntyre in his work "After Virtue". We have come to a philosophical split really, that being the path of Nietzsche or that of Aristotle. Anyways, I disagree with Justin's response that " secular Western society was trying to smuggle the fruits of religious tradition without the responsibilities. The practice is visible on an individual basis, too, in people who developed their sense of reality, and their basic comfort with life, within a religious context, but who decided that they (and their children) no longer needed to keep up with even the tepid demands of religion.". I think this misses the whole point of Jensens piece. It is not that the secular individual tries to smuggle the fruits of religion without responsibility, it is the fact that they no longer can they understand themselves in this world and the concepts once used to assist them no longer seem viable. The "post modern" movement pushed the individual away from any sort of meta-narrative, one where a person can find themselves in intelligently. We now have narratives, but they are not meta-narratives and usually apply to societal norms/culture ignoring the larger aspects of human nature. Against a larger meta-narrative, we were able to fully understand who and what we are. Humans defined themselves and the world around them based on the meta-narrative. Upon losing this narrative, we now are aimless and without solid backing living in an almost contradictory way. So we have basically come to the point where we either have meaning (as in the larger context) or we forgo any true meaning and live in a absurdest world. The result is the appearance of those who still have the customary aspects of religion, the symbolic, without the actual substance. What Justin points to as selfishness is in fact confusion and uncertainty. To bring people back to religion (by religion I mean Christianity/Catholicism in this context), religion must provide the framework for the individual to understand how their life is apart of the larger meta-narrative. The church took for granted that its members or possible members could understand this framework, and clearly they do not. One cannot blame another person other for being unsure and confused in such difficult times. I've been a bit rambling in places and prob.glossed over alot of things I meant to say. I think for anyone interested in the Jensen piece, a must read is MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Posted by: steadman at April 2, 2010 11:39 AM


But this is precisely the point:

It is not that the secular individual tries to smuggle the fruits of religion without responsibility, it is the fact that they no longer can they understand themselves in this world and the concepts once used to assist them no longer seem viable.

The moderns, by Jensen's definition, assumed that the narrative would hold even without the components that imposed rules that they didn't want to follow. I suppose you could say that they began editing to maintain the global sense of a storyline, but with the allowance that they could redefine small bits of the plot to allow them to follow their desires. The post-moderns don't have the foundation, and so they're rootless, drifting back toward an almost animal state in which pure bodily pleasure defines the good.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 2, 2010 12:07 PM

Can you fit this thinking into the reality that, for instance, a less religious place like Ma. has a lower divorce and crime rate than places where "faith" of traditional values are taught?

"[F]or several years now the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] has had the lowest divorce rate of any state in the union.

In 2004 the Massachusetts divorce rate, at 2.2 per 1,000 residents per year, was considerably lower than the US national average rate for that year, 3.8 per 1,000. Indeed, it was lower than the national average rate for 1950 (2.6 per 1,000) and even approached the national rate of 1940 (2 per 1,000)."

The same goes for other factors which seem to reflect your concerns about society falling apart. For instance, Obesity and the related illnesses (both of the spirit and body) are vastly higher in the Bible Belt than in Ma, RI or New England as a whole.

"no region of the United States has a higher divorce rate than the Bible Belt. Nearly half of all marriages break up, but the divorce rates in these southern states are roughly 50 percent above the national average.

According to federal figures:

Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces for every thousand people in 1998.
The rate was 8.5 per thousand in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in Arkansas, 6.0 in Alabama and Oklahoma.
Of southeastern states, only South Carolina's rate of 3.8 was below the national average.
By contrast, the divorce rate is less than 3.0 in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York."

It appears that the facts show the complete opposite of what you may be claiming - that LACK or fundamentalist authoritarian religion means a more cohesive and adjusted society.

What say you? Can you prove your point on a state or regional basis with stats?

Posted by: Stuart at April 2, 2010 12:35 PM

Exactly, but to what extent can this problem be solved? You pointed to a return towards traditionalism, which honestly can be the only way forward for those within the catholic/larger christian community. The reformation and enlightenment project has given way to technology and industry, really hitting modern thought and pushing it toward the postmodern. The only true way to combat it is a return to a lived religion. Religion only makes sense in a larger, meta-narrative that postmodern thought has pushed away, making any sort of lived religion impossible and allowing only cultural religion to remain. A return to traditionalism would give a framework and lived reality to understand the world. We too long have accepted an almost hollow religious nature of those who claim religion in society. Like I said before, its more of the fact that people have lost their way and no longer truly understand their place in the world rather then a self interested choice.

However, all that being said, is it possible? You are correct that postmodern thought lacks any foundation. That is exactly their point. They champion the subjective. They do not look for larger meaning. To them, there is no larger narrative we find ourselves apart of. We each live our own narrative, one that only has meaning for ourselves. This view is very tempting and alluring in the U.S in 2010. The problems can only be magnified once genetic,medical, and other forms of technology increase. What you have touched on is going to be quite the problem for mankind, and it is the root of much of the political/social debate currently taking place.

Posted by: steadman at April 2, 2010 12:52 PM

Streadman, you are assigning all these addition predictions to the common reality! They are simply not true!

The only truth here is that science and technology and communication - and therefore knowledge in total, have increased so quickly that many people are confused. There is simply too much information to get your mind around.

But ANY judgement on this is yours and yours alone. The facts are the facts - our understanding of the world is growing and growing. Most of the advances are good things, allowing more people to live in comfort and good health/happiness than ever before.

Some, like myself, revel in these changes and the advances of our species. Others are put off by the deluge of information and options.

However, the answer is not to become Luddites full of fear. An appreciation of the unveiling of the secrets of the universe as well as the capabilities of man helps create a sense of wonder at these inventions and discoveries.

No matter what you say, we all do live in our narrative - that is, the chatter of our minds, the experience of our environment, etc.
Sure, we share common emotions, creeds, foundations and elements, but we are certainly not sheep or clones. In fact, it is the very individualism of man which is responsible for our progress.

I'll leave you with some quotes from another thinker who did not shun advances, but rather celebrated them. His name was Thomas Jefferson:

"I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society. I believe that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, and that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate."

I think that gives us a good idea of what the Founders thought! They did not say:
"be scared and run for the past".

Posted by: Stuart at April 2, 2010 1:39 PM

Stuart, you lower yourself when attempt to correlate divorce rates to that LACK or fundamentalist authoritarian religion means a more cohesive and adjusted society. Though Justin would likely disagree, I’d contend that there is little if any correlation between divorce rates and a ‘cohesive & adjusted society’. But using your own logic, do you believe that China, Cuba, former USSR are good examples of ‘‘cohesive & adjusted societies’.

The truth is that there is a large area between your anecdotally warped view of fundamentalist authoritarian religion and the State elimination of any practice that occurs in places like Cuba and China. It is unfortunate that religion is now in a tug-of-war between those who want to use it for their individual, selfish and political purpose.

But the simplistic argument that a) ABC is religious b) ABC did a bad thing or is a bad person therefore c) religion is bad – is shallow at best. You said you like to build consensus. That type of rhetoric has no chance of doing that.

Posted by: msteven at April 2, 2010 4:23 PM

Massachusetts also has the lowest marriage rate in the nation. Divorce rates are calculated as a proportion of population, not of marriages, and it's not possible to divorce without having married. Additionally, a high percentage of those who do get married in Massachusetts are Catholic, and Catholics are less likely to divorce.

By contrast, the religious states with high divorce rates also have very high marriage rates (and high rates of young marriages). They also have higher poverty rates, which affects divorce rates, and they tend to be Protestant, which means less (or zero) stigma to divorce.

Regarding the rest, it occurs to me that I've never heard a leftist address the fact that all of those evil corporate types live in their beloved coastal states...

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 2, 2010 5:07 PM

Justin, you put holes in your own case!
If those religious states have more young marriages, more STD's, more poverty, less education and all that other stuff - that shows us that we don't want to live that way! Yet you say we will do better if we go that way!

BTW, as to your health care and drugs, etc. - you are familiar, of course, that Portugal - which is almost 100% catholic - has universal health care and every drug is decriminalized. That means heroin, cocaine, etc.

That is what those Catholics do when given a choice - when they effectively "own" a country. Yet your rants seem to indicate they are total heathen infidels for their views. Strange!

New England, by any measure, has moved further and further away from the return to religion you advocate, and yet the income, education, length of marriage, crime rate and most other statistics have improved compared to the more fundamentalist regions. Secular society, it appears, works better than the rod.

I hear a lot of reasons and excuses from you, but the fact remains that folks in Ma. have measurably more Family Values than those who claim faith.

From the barnes study:
"Atheists and Agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all: 21 percent."

"The divorce rate among Catholics is reputedly the same as that among the general public, where about 35 percent of people who have been married have also been divorced."

Obviously you can find varied stats, but if you want to really preach family values, you'll have to go to those Mormons, who have 14% or so when they marry within their religion.

Posted by: Stuart at April 2, 2010 9:07 PM

Religiosity is not the universal cause. Given its location and historical advantages, it would be extremely surprising if New England weren't relatively wealthy. Indeed, it is surprising that Rhode Island's such a basket case. Mississippi may be religious and poor, but it takes a special myopia to blame the poverty on the religion. I'd suggest that the more relevant inquiry is the effect of religion given other factors.

That's a bit too in depth than I've the time to pursue on a Friday night. But I will rebut your Barna citation by asking why you went back to a 1999 study, rather than checking out the latest iteration, which has Catholics and evangelicals (which, by the methodology, likely includes Catholics) as the worldviews with the lowest divorce rate. (Even your 1999 study has Catholics equal to atheists/agnostics.)

More relevant to the discussion, perhaps, is that atheists/agnostics are less likely to get married in the first place, which means those who do are more likely than the average to be motivated to maintain the marriage --- probably due to overlap of other demographic categories, such as wealth.

To return to the initial topic: it's not surprising that wealthier cohorts would have maintained traditional Judeo-Christian values for a longer term than the average. The point is that it won't last.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 2, 2010 9:42 PM

Maybe we are "backing into data".
The point of your original post seemed to be the old story that when folks are in really bad shape, they tend to cling to old time religion or other comfortable dogmas as comfort from the storm. I don't see that as always a good thing, but rather all that is left when other things are stripped away.

Black folks in the south were often very devout, as are very poor people in much of the world. I would submit that the wealthier and more free people become, the less they cling to fundamental religion.

All in all, this means nothing. You are one example, I am another - period. Each person is an example of their own experiences, beliefs and environment.

You can pull apart the stats any way you want, but the fact is that religion is not a measurable predictor of much - not human rights, equality, marriage, family values, economics, etc.

It might be more accurate to say that world views are - for instance, Asians are extremely successful when they come here - or most anywhere - due NOT to their religion, but to their world view (hard work, family, sacrifice, values). Heck, many of them were raised communist, yet they do fine when released from that dogma.

So, IMHO, the further we can get from dogma, the better we will progress. Keep in mind, though, that hard work and honestly are NOT dogma.

Are you a proponent of dogma?
" it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from"

or are you a free thinker?

If dogma is the answer, both you and we are wasting our time.

Posted by: Stuart at April 2, 2010 11:20 PM

Respect to article author , some fantastic selective information .

Posted by: spice incense at March 28, 2011 5:25 PM
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