The open consensus


Kenan Malik is another who is not impressed by the surface “liberalism” of the new pope, and, happily, he is not impressed by it in the NY Times, where he will reach many people.

Francis may be transforming the perception of the church and its mission, but not its core doctrines. He has called for a church more welcoming to gay people and women, but he will not challenge the idea that homosexual acts are sinful, refuses to embrace the possibility of same-sex marriage and insists that the ordination of women as priests is not “open to discussion.”

Oh oh oh but he mentions The Poor. He doesn’t wear the red shoes. He lives in a couple of rooms and goes places on the bus. Surely that’s good enough! Surely gestures are all anybody could possibly want.

Religious values are immensely flexible over time. Christian beliefs on many issues, from slavery to women, have changed enormously in the past two millenniums. Yet an institution like the Catholic Church can never be truly “modern.” The authority of the church rests on its claim to be able to interpret God’s word. Were the church to modify its teachings to meet the preferences of its flock, then its authority would inevitably weaken. But were it not to do so, the chasm between official teaching and actual practice would continue to grow.

And that is, of course, our fundamental problem with religion, those of us who have such a problem. It’s the problem I have with “God” – the fact that there’s no avenue of appeal, no way to negotiate or object. It’s an anti-human arrangement.

According to Professor Woodhead, few British believers now look to religion as the primary source of moral guidance. Most follow their own reason or intuition, or the advice of family and friends; fewer than one in 10 of believers seek guidance from God or a holy book. None look to religious leaders. The only faith that shows a substantially different pattern is, again, Islam.

It is easy to see why conservatives and traditional believers would find these figures troubling. Even for nonbelievers and social liberals, however, there may be cause for concern. The more open attitudes to social mores and the greater willingness to think for oneself are welcome. But the decay of religious authority points also to a more atomized society and a destruction of collective consensus about moral judgments.

But collective consensus about moral judgments is simply oppressive if it’s a bad consensus, as it so often is. The possibility of change and reform is the only hope of abandoning bad consensus moral judgments over time.

 

Comments

  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Well, I’m sorry to say this, but Malik’s piece was tepid to the point of. . .well, not really needing to be written. I suspect the NYT makes it hard for sensible secularists to tell it like it is, but why bother, then? This read as a mealy mouthed, weak protest designed not to call the problem by its real name, and not to offend too deeply. V. disappointing from Malik.

  2. says

    Oh oh oh but he mentions The Poor. He doesn’t wear the red shoes. He lives in a couple of rooms and goes places on the bus. Surely that’s good enough! Surely gestures are all anybody could possibly want.

    Actually, the dear pope causes a lot more costs by being humble.
    Because the Swiss Guard now have to secure the usual palace AND his humble falt and so on, and so on. But it’s surely good for the image.

  3. brucegorton says

    The more open attitudes to social mores and the greater willingness to think for oneself are welcome. But the decay of religious authority points also to a more atomized society and a destruction of collective consensus about moral judgments.

    I am not entirely sure that is a downside. Collective consensus about moral judgments always seems to amount to “We’re good, you’re bad”.

  4. kbplayer says

    Because the Swiss Guard now have to secure the usual palace AND his humble falt and so on, and so on. But it’s surely good for the image.

    I think it was Nehru who used to sigh that it took a lot of trouble to keep Mahatma Ghandhi living a simple life – security guards on 3rd class carriages and the like.

  5. Andrew B. says

    “I am not entirely sure that is a downside. Collective consensus about moral judgments always seems to amount to “We’re good, you’re bad”.”

    What about the collective consensus that child rape is a bad thing? I think he has a point, authority (and associated threats and shame) is a really effective way of forming a consensus. It’s so much harder without that. You have to get people actively involved in discussion and get them really thinking hard. And most people would rather die than think, as some fellow once said.

    Authority is a shortcut to moral reasoning. It’s effective and mostly efficient, but sometimes shortcuts don’t pan out (I’ve been on enough family road-trips to know that). Collective moral reasoning is like trying to decipher a map, on the other hand.

  6. says

    “I am not entirely sure that is a downside. Collective consensus about moral judgments always seems to amount to “We’re good, you’re bad”.”

    What about the collective consensus that child rape is a bad thing? [snip]

    But that’s why we have a legal system and a political process for changing the legal system when the social consensus changes regarding what behaviours are considered criminal. Most nations have divorced their legal system from the authority of the church a long time ago, and that’s precisely why the habit of people looking to the church for moral guidance has declined, and that’s precisely why the separation of church and state is a good thing – the state’s political processes are still imperfect, but they are still far more transparent and accountable than the church’s processes.

  7. Al Dente says

    tigtog @5

    the state’s political processes are still imperfect, but they are still far more transparent and accountable than the church’s processes.

    Also the state’s laws are determined by more or less logical processes, not by an enclave of gerontological virgins interpreting what the voices in their heads tell them.

  8. says

    Although the gerontological patriarchs of the Tea Party stripe are doing their best to make laws on exactly the same voices in their heads basis.

  9. Andrew B. says

    Tigtog: I completely agree, I was just arguing for the usefulness of collective consensus. No doubt the collective consensus of authoritarian systems like the RCC are poisonous.

  10. says

    I do think Francis is a step forward from Benedict, though admittedly that sets the bar pretty low. And he’s still fairly new at the job, so it’s hard to say just how deep this nicer image actually goes.

    I welcome any step forward, but too many people on the left, and too many secularists both right and left, are going on and on like this is a huge, fundamental change. It’s a small step forward, which is good, but we can’t forget it’s *small*.

  11. RJW says

    ”’the decay of religious authority points also to a more atomized society and a destruction of collective consensus about moral judgments.”

    Why? Seems like the tired old assertion that there’s no morality without religion. As to a “destruction of collective consensus”, surely the secular state is the most likely agency to reach an ethical consensus within a society that permits religious freedom.
    The mores and ethics of some religions are quite inimical to liberal democratic values and are more likely to be a negative influence against societal cohesion, unless of course, the society is governed by a theocracy.

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