Monday, March 16, 2009

Appeal to heaven

If science and faith seem to be at war, it's worth taking a step back before joining the fray. Trace the fault line and one is likely to find political motivations at the core.

If science aims at organizing what we know about our universe, and faith aims at asking deeper questions of it, then the two occupy different roles in human affairs. All things being equal, there is nothing about these roles that should prevent them from being complementary.

Globally, most of what is portrayed as a conflict between secularism and religion is a political question about integrating people into the world economy. If you practice a faith in which usury -- lending and borrowing -- is proscribed, then you are not going to make a very good "entrepreneur," or consumer.

The traditional approach of contemporary "globalization" has been to beat with a club those who do not avail themselves of these modern "freedoms." Unsurprisingly, this breeds resentment and militancy among those under the club. In the Middle East, for example, the club is often wielded by Arab governments at the behest of Western strategic and commercial interests. In other cases, Western forces assume this role directly.

Closer to home, the bumper sticker battles between Darwin and the Jesus fish are a sad testament to the ability of the political class to enlist beleaguered citizens in an ongoing feud between contending rulers. This is called "culture war," and it has been ordained by elite groups as legitimate terrain on which to capture hearts and minds. Since neither side gains from raising issues for which there is an established consensus -- defense spending or private sector health care, for example -- these subjects are excluded from public debate.

The Republican Party, whose only goal is to transfer maximum power to economic monopoly via the bottomless purse of the state, makes common cause with any social trend that further alienates citizens from their government, if only to inoculate them against economic obstructionism. Demanding that schools give equal time to creationism is fine because it imposes no burden on business either way. Neither do a number of other pointless initiatives -- amending the constitution to prevent flag burning or gay marriage, for example -- which have no practical relevance to advocates except to make the nation that less free for everyone else.

In light of such depravity, the Democratic Party is happy to assume the mantel of enlightened statecraft for professional, managerial, and urban constituencies. Democratic standing has been harmed considerably among the rural working class, who no longer have the benefit of an entrenched labor movement from which to frame their hardships in economic, rather than cultural, terms; and who, for too long, have been left to right-wing radio personalities uncontested. The conservative caricature of liberals as "elitist" is accurate to the degree that the Democratic Party is dominated by the same class interests as Republicans; only the Democrats are made more vulnerable to the charge insofar as they do not refute what they share culturally with the educated professionals who manage most American institutions, lending "substance" to the claim that "liberal elites" run the country, oppressing the average American at every turn. In fact, the Republican Party has merely found political advantage in distancing itself from its own institutions on strictly cultural terms, because its only practical consideration is the bottom line.

Insofar as one party identifies with "science," the other with "faith," it's worth taking the purported "war" between the two with a large grain of salt. The war is for political supremacy, and supremacy requires ratification from the population. Science and faith are merely two positions reeled out as bait for any willing takers, and they conceal a consensus between parties which comprises what neither have in common with anyone.

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