The Amplifier

Some more on that terrific Simon Blackburn article ‘Religion and Respect’. So much of it is so exactly what I think myself, and have been saying here with tedious iteration – naturally I think it’s terrific. But it is, all the same.

But, I argued to myself, why should I
“respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs
of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my
host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some
such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed

Just so. We’re expected (all but coerced, at times) to ‘respect’ some beliefs, but not others.

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term…The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on
the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it
uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes.

Exactly. As do words like faith, and community, and spiritual – words that span a spectrum and mean different things for different purposes. It is necessary to be always, permanently, without fail, tirelessly vigilant about and attentive to words like that. They have designs on us (which is to say, people who resort to them have designs on us). It is essential to foil their knavish tricks.

People may start out by insisting on
respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too
difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request
for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling,
or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

Bingo. Respect creep – that’s exactly it. (And come to think of it, it also makes a nice nickname for Galloway – but that’s another story.) There’s a huge difference between respect in the sense of leave me alone, and respect in the sense of see me and my beliefs as special and devout and good and superior. The first does not entail the second. Crucial point.

In postmodernist writings on religion, it is the done thing to distinguish between
theology and ‘onto-theology’, or religion and ‘onto-religion’. Onto-theology makes
existence claims. It takes religious language in the same spirit in which people calling
themselves scientific realists take science. It makes claims about what exists, and these
claims are more or less reasonable and convincing, and when they are true they point to
explanation of the way things are in one respect or another…In more sophisticated circles, onto-theology is old hat. Instead we should see
religion in the light of poetry, symbol, myth, practice, emotion and attitude, or in general
a stance towards the ordinary world, the everyday world around us…

Yes. We’ve seen that ‘sophisticated’ line more than once. I’ve been known to call it harsh names. In fact, amusingly, I made a note while reading page 11 that I would put it more strongly than SB does: I would call it a cheat. On page 15, SB does exactly that, which made me laugh a good deal. Snap!

But equally perhaps ‘God exists’ functions largely as a license to demand respect
creep. It turns up an amplifier, and what it amplifies is often the meanest and most
miserable side of human nature. I want your land, and it enables me to throw bigger and
better tantrums, ones that you just have to listen to, if I find myself saying that God wants
me to want your land. A tribe wants to enforce the chastity of its women, and the words
of the supernatural work to terrify them into compliance.

Brilliant image. Tantrum-amplifier, threat-amplifier, enforcement-amplifier.

I think
that the ontological imaginings do their work at a slightly different place. They work to
close off questions and doubts, and in effect to fend off reason. They cement a particular
way of associating ‘ought’ and ‘is’ and insulate it from criticism…By closing its eyes to this bit, expressive
theology in fact repudiates everything that makes religious language the power that it is.

Yet again – just so. But you’re going to get tired of reading me saying ‘Exactly,’ so I’ll stop. That’s only a fraction of the ‘exactly’s in the article. I give it my personal secular award for today.

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