Secular Faith vs. Pragmatism

Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University, causing protests from many Catholics (though very few students) who thought Obama’s pro-choice stance, as well as his support for embryonic stem cell research, should make him off limits to the Catholic university.

Pause for a moment to think about that mentality.  It is one thing to be pro-life, it is another to think that it is inappropriate for the President of the United States should speak at a graduation event because he is pro-choice.  In a country where open debate and discourse is the norm, it seems odd that some would want to ostracize and reject a person simply due to their view point on one issue.

The reason, of course, is religion.  Obama for the aradent conservative Catholics (a vocal, yet quite small minority at Notre Dame) is anti-God.  He stands for something they think their faith is fundamentally opposed to, and therefore he should not be allowed to speak at an event that culminates the educational experience at a Catholic university.

Yet before one simply looks at religion as somehow less tolerant or rational, the same can be said for those believers in secular religions — ideologies.   The age of reason brought about a frontal assault on religion, one which I think most organized religions will not ultimately survive.   But people still need something to believe.  Ideologies filled that role.

Read pundits or blogs from the right, and they are so certain in their ideology that they are convinced Obama is bringing about a socialist tyranny and destroying the country.  Blogs from the left think that Bush and the GOP already brought us half way there and Obama is trying to pull us back from the abyss (or, when Obama is pragmatic, they see him as selling out).   They all have a litany of core assumptions and interpretations that get applied to virtually any situation.   They also don’t realize how absurd they can sound.

Once I was debating an anarchist — an economist who is convinced that society would run best with no government or regulation.   It was a belief based on pure theory — how the world should be if his core assumptions played out perfectly.  Yet the way that on line debate (probably about seven years ago) went showed how hard it is to convince a true believer.  First, when I gave numerous examples of government breakdown where anarchy lead to horrid conditions, solved only by a rebirth of government and rule of law, the response was that I should look at Iceland in the 11th century.

Huh?   If you have to that far back to that specific of a location to try to find any example of anarchy ‘working,’ that proves my point that it isn’t economic laws but culture and tradition that shape stability.  A small pre-modern closed society might indeed function with custom and tradition providing order, with no overt government needed.   But he was dead serious in claiming this was proof of his position, so strong was his faith.  Moreover, such folk debate in a manner designed to avoid dealing the content of opponents, and instead to go after them personally — and woe to you if you make an error.

I made one error – in a reply I talked about comparative advantage but described absolute advantage.   That’s a common error, in political science I’ve seen that done in text books.    Yet he pounced on it, proclaiming that I was clearly ignorant of economics, and any time my argument got really good he’d go back to that point and say “but how can anyone take seriously someone so ignorant of economics.”   A careless mistake is magnified in order to avoid confronting something that can challenge ones’ faith.

They do it on the left too.  The attacks on Obama for not being stronger about the torture accusations, for continuing military tribunals, or naming moderates and Republicans to high level positions are immense.   A world view that sees business and elites as colluding in a way to create war, oppress the masses, and shape society to serve their interests is just as powerful as the one that says the free market is the path to total freedom.   These contradictory ideologies — or faiths — are supported by strong arguments from pundits and intellectuals.   You can’t chose between them by using reason, each constructs arguments that make perfect sense and have strong evidence.  You have to choose some assumptions or beliefs to start with, and then go with that.

One reason I’m hopeful that Obama will be a good President is that he’s different, he’s a pragmatist.   The key aspect of pragmatism is to recognize that one may be wrong.   Some say pragmatism means having no principles — to them, faith in one set of beliefs is a virtue, doubt in ones’ beliefs is weakness.  But that kind of perspective is irrational and based on fear — fear of not being right.  Pragmatists have principles and should be overt in stating them and being guided by them, but the fact that they recognize they may be wrong leads to a few important differences:

a) They can change their mind about the importance of various things in context.   That means they listen to other arguments, and decide if perchance their initial interpretation was wrong.   This will get them attacked as being a ‘flip flopper,’ but to a pragmatist, the key is making the best decision, and refusing to change ones’ opinion in the light of new evidence and arguments would not be strength, but irrationality.;

b) They can compromise, even when core principles are at stake.  Recognizing that they may be wrong, they realize that in real world situations compromises are necessary and possible.   To the ‘faithful’ compromise is a dirty word, they imagine that compromise means giving in (and the true believers are convinced that compromises are all one sided — rhetoric on the far left and far right show that each is convinced that when they compromise the other side simply takes it as a victory and doesn’t reciprocate); and

c) They are problem solvers, more likely to connect with real people and their situations.   Ideologues abstract situations into principles and values, often putting the intellectual exercise of abstraction ahead of consideration of the life conditions of people involved.   As true believers they think any consideration of sympathy or empathy is weakness, causing people to compromise core values because of emotion.  Pragmatists, who tend to see the world in shades of grey — or better yet, a rainbow of shades — realize that real world experiences are far more important than abstract logic or ideological principles.   Life is what its’ all about, not intellectual games.

Luckily, our system tends to reward pragmatists, since that represents the majority of American culture.  These are people who don’t see themselves on a left-right scale, don’t have a secular ideological faith, and who respect other points of view.  Pragmatists can make very wrong decisions, to be sure, but in times of crisis their ability to recognize they may be wrong and look for compromise is important.  The abstract thinking true believer who puts his or her personal principles above all else is very dangerous.  If that person is in error in any part of his or her belief system, the ramifications for a society can be devastating.

Obama going to Notre Dame is showing his pragmatist credentials; listening and interacting with those who think differently, looking to build common ground.  The true believers who want culture war and ‘our way or no way’ don’t like it, but it might save the country.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on May 18, 2009 - 17:51

    I agree, people who always think they are right and they know how everything should work are the most impossible people to work with in politics. They refuse to work collaboratively and they demonize you once you stop supporting their agenda.

  2. #2 by helenl on May 19, 2009 - 02:39

    Scott, I’ve been busy and am planning a vacation (in June)so I haven’t left many comments, but I continue to read and enjoy your posts. Best, Helen

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on May 19, 2009 - 14:35

    Attention readers: Scott is right…death to all who question his words!! LOL

    I always knew I had a Scotish heritage, but now you have made me see the light and turned me ScoTTish…

    Sorry, I have nothing

  4. #4 by henitsirk on June 6, 2009 - 20:09

    I’m currently editing a new English translation of an early 1700’s treatise on religion and politics by an atheist French Catholic priest. Among many good points (be kind and gentle to animals; extreme disparity in wealth causes major problems both practical and moral) he rants on and on against religion and Christianity in particular. What strikes me is his rather naive view of human nature. He envisions a sharing of labor and wealth so that all are cared for, and therefore all are kind to each other.

    On one level I do believe that if people have enough to eat and material security then many of their supposed ideological hatreds diminish. I think most if not all violence is fear-based, and fear comes from a perceived lack of security/power/self-direction. But to say that if we all shared wealth equally we would all be good people is a bit simplistic. In this case, I think the priest’s rabid anticlericalism and antimonarchism prevented any true pragmatism. He merely substituted a nascent socialist ideology for his Christian/monarchist one.

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