We often discuss the ways one group of Americans - call them the religious right, social conservatives, or whatever name you like - try to make their religion into our politics. And they do. But there's a flip side to that coin: the many people, left and right, who make politics into a religion. It's a fascinating comparison-in-contrast, and it probably says more about our need for unifying themes around which to base our lives than it does about either religion or politics.
More below the fold....
Religion as Politics, Politics as Religion
Perhaps it's my bias as a novelist, but I often say that homo sapiens sapiens is a storytelling species. To read history deeply is to read a battle for the overarching story of our existence, with historians of different schools bringing different narratives to the series of events they describe. Narratives, stories, make things easier to understand. A set of character types, with clear motivations, actions directed toward those motivations, conflicts where those actions oppose each other, all toward a resolution either written or postulated in the future. We tell stories to make sense of experience.
Both religion and politics can be seen as narrative constructs, and of a very particular kind: both are global, unifying constructs that purport to encompass the whole of our lives. For the deeply religious, everything we do is a religious act, from our relationships to our jobs and hobbies, to the foods we eat and the liquids we drink. In their perspective, we are inherently spiritual beings and as evidence they can offer a spiritual analysis of any proposed idea or act. For the deeply political, everything we do is a political act, and again as evidence they can offer a political analysis of any proposed idea or act.
The Cartesian Analytical Fallacy
The Cartesian fallacy is a critique of the writings of philosopher René Descartes, and specifically of Decartes' assertion that our subjective perceptions correspond to objective reality. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes wrote: "I now seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true." (AT VII 35) Simply, if you see it, it must 'really' be there.
But that is not always reliable, especially as regards our perceptions of others' motives. I see this often as an artist. Critics "see" meanings in my writing that have more to do with their own ideas than anything I wrote, but then write about those meanings as if I had intended them. To deny such an intention is to invite a response of the form: "You may not have been aware of it, but it must have been there at a subconscious level, because it's there on the page." That they may be projecting their own ideas onto the page is dismissed out of hand. If they see it, it must 'really' be there, and that means out there in the work itself.
Similarly, a deeply religious person can "see" religious meaning in any thought or act, and a deeply political person can "see" political meaning in any thought or act. The leap from "I can see it" to "it must 'really' be there" is taken for granted, and thus as they reason it, the thought or act 'really' is religious or political.
The Global, Unifying Lens
Both religion and politics are global lenses, in the sense that each purports to offer guidance and meaning for every aspect of our lives. Any question you might think to ask, on any subject, and any answer you might reach, can be supported or criticized on religious or political grounds. Having made that analysis, the supporter or critic can then impute your religious or political intention. That you might not have considered that intention does not disprove the analysis; it simply means you're unaware of your intentions, or you're lying about them.
So the deeply religious view every question and answer, every thought, word, or deed through the global, unifying lens of religion. Similarly, the deeply political view every question and answer, every thought, word, or deed through the global, unifying lens of politics. Both lenses offer coherent narratives, with heroes, villains, victims, motives, strategies, and postulated resolutions. Events "make sense," not necessarily because the events themselves are coherent, but because the analysis is coherent.
And we homo sapiens sapiens like coherence. We need things to "make sense" because then we can predict and try to control them. We can structure our lives to avoid dangers and embrace opportunities. We can be certain we've done or are doing the right thing, even when we have too little information to justify that certainty, or don't get the results we hoped for. The fuzziness and randomness go away, replaced with a stable and, more important, comfortable narrative coherence.
Viewing everything through the lens of religion or politics offers us comfort, and something else. To the extent that we find others who share our religious or political beliefs, that lens offers a sense of unity. We are a social species, and that is not merely an abstraction. Large chunks of our brains are wired for processes, from facial recognition to mirroring to language, that are only useful for a social species. Our social-ness is biological, yet our individuality seems equally if not even more concrete. We need ways to bridge the gap between "me" and "us," and unifying lenses help us to do that. If we see things in the similar ways, find similar reasons for the events around us, can support or criticize the same goals and decisions, our individual and social existences fit together better.
When lenses differ
The problem, of course, is what happens when we bring different global, unifying lenses to the discourse. When different lenses collide, each sees the others' actions through its own lens. That makes it difficult to have a dialogue, because each is constructing a different narrative. It is not unlike Scarlet O'Hara from Gone With the Wind debating Celie Johnson from The Color Purple. The two characters inhabit different stories with only tangential points of contact.
The conflict challenges our Cartesian analysis: Is it 'really' there just because we see it? That highlights the me-us gap between our individual and social experience. The social-ness of our species cries out for an us-ness, but if we're inhabiting different narratives, we're not an "us" at all. Our narrative, one we can "perceive very clearly and distinctly," must be real, and those who claim to inhabit some other narrative must either not understand their own world, or be lying. And of course they feel the same about us.
Those are "us-us" narrative collisions, but there's another kind as well. Call it "me-us." It's the conflict we feel when some element of our lives invokes or seems to invoke a narrative counter to our religious or political beliefs. Can you enjoy this kind of book, movie, or hobby and still be faithful to your religion, or your politics? Can you play Go, a game of claiming and defending your own and invading your opponent's territory, and still be progressive? What TV shows or sports can you like, or dislike? And if you ask that question, someone - religious or political - will be ready with an answer of "No."
So how much of your "me" to you lop off to conform to the us-lens of religion or politics? At what point does the argument become one of whether you can have a "me" at all, or whether you are inescapably and always conforming to or resisting an "us?"
These are questions without easy answers. Recognizing the questions should encourage us to be a little less dogmatic, with each other and with ourselves. Or maybe that is itself merely another global, unifying lens, a narrative of variety rather than coherence.