Opinionista Siya Khumalo 13 December 2018

Does Religion have a role to play in society? Pre-Interview Thoughts

Yours truly has been invited to participate in a panel discussion on the role of religion in society on eNCA’s Madam Speaker with Iman Rappetti. This is me ordering my thoughts.

The question assumes that rational deliberations can be had in and about a society by society’s members, which would be bizarre if the humans having those rational deliberations were not also the product of purposeful intelligence. As previously explained, it’s absurd to expect humans to make free, intelligent choices unless we’re the effect of a cause that’s capable of free, intelligent choices.

This is true for how we deliberate on religion itself: if consistency is as consistent as the demand for rational thought assumes it is, then human rationality itself (such as it is) is arguably compatible with the rationality of humanity’s cause. This intuition, held by billions of people, is the basis for universally binding “should” and “ought” statements.

If we must wait to prove that “God” exists before allowing the consistency of this train of thought, then we’re also forced to provide the basis of the demand that things ought to be proven before they’re believed or not be believed at all.

Is our subjective sense of “free will” an accidental evolutionary adaptation that, in terms of homeostasis, rewards us emotionally with a sense of a continuous self for making decisions that our chemistry was going to make for us anyway? If so, our choices about religion only feel like they’re really ours when they’re really our molecules’. The mind isn’t something extra-physical that physical brain tunes into like a radio tune to a frequency signal. Rather, the mind is an effect of neurochemistry stimulated by external circumstances.

That further means near-death experiences, artistic inspiration, religious visions, your ability to love – indeed, your sense of being you – is theoretically reducible to, explainable by, and manipulatable from a digital console. You think your smartphone’s upgrade prompts are annoying? Wait until there’s an app in your image and likeness, replete with regular upgrades to bug-free versions of you to replace the current version of the operating system. All along, we wondered whether science had disproven God. But it is technology that will reverse-engineer the mechanics of resurrection, proving it was theoretically possible all along.

Personally, I can’t wait to upload my consciousness to a disembodied virtual world, or have the vessel I identity with destroyed and simultaneously reassembled at a different end of the Earth or the universe through quantum entanglement — can you? Why not, if “you” are a product of a very complex chemical reaction on the one hand, and the fundamentalist Christians awaiting a Rapture, on the other hand, are insane? Rapture or not, there’ll soon be no escaping these questions’ relevance. The trajectory of technological development places them squarely on our horizon. Disappointment, anticlimax, to discover that the computer uprisings of sci-fi movies can’t happen because the distinction between “real” and “artificial” intelligence was imaginary all along. This is Professor Yuval Noah Harari territory, but soon it’s going to divide whole nations at voting polls – assuming that democracy survives.

This leads us to the second assumption hidden in the question: that of society. Orienting oneself, in reality, presupposes metaphysical facts that include things like “purpose”; “society” is simply how people organise to do this en masse whether they realise it or agree on anything or not.

A few months ago, I was invited onto a panel discussion where self-confessed patriarchs, culturalists, traditionalists and conservative Christians asked questions about feminism. The organisers of the discussion had described it as a platform for finding common ground between feminists and traditionalists.

These men wanted to know on what first principles a feminist worldview had the right to take primacy and frame the conversation. The panellists were all feminists, after all. This is where people became defensive (“I don’t subscribe to the Bible; don’t assume to impose it on me”), which led to battle lines being redrawn (“But you’re imposing your feminism on me, so the theme of this debate was a false promise!”), leading to the patriarchal questioners being dismissed as difficult “classroom clowns anyway”.

Having an ethical belief without a clear prior metaphysical basis for it is like having big biceps and a great sixpack — attached to underdeveloped core muscles: the accessories are cosmetically pretty, but the trunk doesn’t provide a vertical platform for stabilising appendicular skeletal movements. World news headlines are the instability you get when everyone’s flexing their moral biceps without logically thinking through the core of their belief systems. This isn’t always blatant: liberals, for example, tend to reduce historic moral imperatives to ahistorical platitudes that commend goodness in general but compel nothing in particular. Disguised as altruism, their interventions are intended to benefit just themselves.

We’re headed into the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the definition of “human” will come under shocking dissection. This will impact on social justice, the discussion of which requires the metaphysical orientation of purposeful personal being among themselves and in ultimate reality. We’re not the first generation to do this, so the heavy lifting’s been done before. It’s just that previous generations knew and admitted they were doing theology. DM


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