One of the most rewarding things about studying religion is that it’s given me a much clearer understanding of the culture wars. If religions are essentially collections of arbitrary demands and senseless supernatural claims, then there’s not much at stake when it comes to the great cultural divides in our modern culture. But if religions are not arbitrary – that is, if their components, such as rituals, mythologies, and symbols, actually play functional roles in organizing and orchestrating collective life – then traditionalists and conservatives have valid motivations to retain and defend their traditions. This is because humans are utterly dependent on one another for survival, and any tool or institution that facilitates collective living is thus worth keeping around. Progressives, academics, and secularists would to do well to pay attention to these motivations if they want to understand the seemingly irrational fervor with which traditionalists defend their faiths.
But that’s a scholarly analysis. About a year ago, I wrote a much more personal piece, which I recently published online at CivilPolitics.org. CivilPolitics is an outreach and public-interest website run by Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer; its founders hope to facilitate better dialogue across ideological and political lines. In an age where people seem to often talk right past one another on issues of moral, political, and metaphysical importance, a site like CivilPolitics is desperately needed.
The basic claim in the essay, which at CivilPolitics.org is titled “The Culture Wars: An Armistice,” is simple: “Conservatives are microscopes. Liberals are macroscopes.” In other words, traditionalists and conservatives tend to be better at using the basic tools of social living, including ritual and religion. This is why they usually report being happier with their family and immediate relationships, and happier in general. Liberals and progressives, meanwhile, are better at understanding the broad-scaled and abstract issues that affect us all, from global climate change to systematic inequality. Each side makes tradeoffs; the traditionalists tend to be pretty poor at identifying (or even perceiving) large-scale challenges, while the progressives are often handicapped when it comes to the basic project of making community work (have you even been to a hippie farm?). Any culture needs both frameworks, both perspectives, to function properly. Here’s an excerpt:
The child of pot smokers and rebels, I have always been taught to believe that conservatives are mostly wrong, about most things, and that the project of civilization is largely the process of dragging these atavistic, blunt-browed austalopithecenes along, very much against their will, until we – the radicals and liberals – have built a society free of inequality, racial hostility, and recreational automobile racing.
I no longer subscribe to that vision.…
Conservatives’ small-scaled lives teach us that friendships and the touch of a loved one matter immensely – give me the choice between a companion and bread, and I will starve with the company. Liberals inspire with their broad understanding, their ability to see the entire and its patterns, their compassion for those who are left outside where it is cold and damp. Perhaps it would be trite to say we need both these strategies. Instead, I will say that I need both: I cannot live in the world of vast systems or in the warm, compressed universe of the tribe alone. My own happiness depends on marrying these knowledges.
Read the full essay here.