Consciene and Consciousness

Came across this article in The Nation by Jeff Sharlet via Arts and Letters Daily (h/t to A&LD). It is a review of Martha Nussbaum’s new work Liberty of Conscience and Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith. Sharlet you may recall is author of The Family.

While Waldman’s book has its flaws, and Sharlet is right to point out that there is (or at least can be) a sloping curve towards eroding pluralism, Sharlet I think too much sides with Nussbaum (surprise it’s The Nation).

One of my pet peeves always is titles of such posts. Now Sharlet may not have had anything to do with the title, if so he’s off the hook, but whoever did come up with just shows the stupidity and embedded prejudice of this whole enterprise.

The title is “Beyond Belief”. That which is beyond belief is the liberty of the conscience that Nussbaum promotes and Sharlet endorses (with a long interesting passage on Roger Williams as background).

Here’s JS:

Religion is a set of beliefs, ideas, rituals or customs. Conscience is more fundamental: the faculty of searching for the beliefs, ideas, rituals or customs that make up religion or, for that matter, the rejection of religion.

At best I think that is a very incomplete definition of religion that is–where are the acts of charity and self-sacrifice, for example? Never mind mysticism.  Or it too easily separates conscience from religion (characteristic I suppose of a secular description of reality).  Shared stories shape conscience–including shared stories of secularism and the valuation of the individual’s ability to choose over religious traditions.  That secular tradition might indeed be superior to traditional religion in many ways (I’m open to that argument), but it’s not a metaphysical construct.  It’s a storied tradition.

But the point I want to focus on is that once the issue is framed in this manner we are headed in the direction of Kant’s “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.” The individual conscience is essentially raised to the level of final arbiter. Anything else is the dogmatism of religious institutions hell bent on power and out to keep anyone who obeys in a state of servile adolescence.

For Kant there was still a moral law that was implanted in the conscience naturally. That idea is faintly echoed in Nussbaum-Sharlet but mostly hollow at this point. Once the conscience is deemed the final arbiter the parallel of a moral law eventually succumbed to the postmodern critique of genealogy. But the individual conscience was left (just minus the moral law to which it was beholden) leaving the apothesis of the individual consumer of postmodern society as the judge, jury, and prosecution of all lifestyle choices. [Except of course that you are always being told what to buy, how to dress, what to read/believe, and people are more neurotic than ever about making sure they fit in–but YES WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!!!!].

Query: What if your individual conscience tells you to believe in rituals and customs? What then? Who is going to tell you you are wrong–someone else’s conscience (but I thought the conscience was inviolable?). You see the problem here.

This view of the supremacy of conscience is Beyond Belief. Except of course that it is just another kind of belief and the reader is being told to believe it by authorities (Nussbaum is a Professor Divinity at UChicago no less!!) who cite historical authorities (Roger Williams) in order to get you to follow their point of view.

In other words, we are back to Gadamer’s point about the prejudice of the [Western] Enlightenment was a prejudice against all prejudice (read: traditions/authorities/beliefs).

In other other words, if these traditions were correctly and self-consciously understood as such (instead of Reason and the Position of Liberty and the Original Founders Meaning), it could bequeath a legitimate if partial truth to us: that one of the validity pressures in the world (in the subjective mode of being-in-the-world) is sincerity/truthfulness. Whatever someone believes and holds to must have relevance in their personal life, it must ring true to them in some fashion or else its a shame.

But who critiques the conscience? Can the conscience ever be malformed or misjudge? Or simply be less developed and therefore possessing a small horizon of understanding/vision?

It’s just more of the same (in Ken Wilber’s terminology)  A Single Boundary Fallacy: namely that there is only one boundary to cross in consciousness (in this case from immaturity-faith to maturity independent conscience).

The Founding Fathers didn’t need to be for religious liberty (contra Waldman) nor for liberty of conscience (contra Sharlet) but rather just for freedom (of a number of kinds, those two included) within the bounds of a legal order.

The Sharletian position of a wall of separation (which Williams coined and Jefferson later quoted) between religion and state undervalues the other half of the First Amendment: The Freedom of Speech and yes Religious Belief (or no religious belief for that matter).

That Freedom to speak does not need to be (in Sharlet’s words) the bland centrism of Waldman. It doesn’t need to be a vision for religious liberty as much again as liberty which then religious liberty can flourish in (though doesn’t need to be intentional to the Founders and even if it were their view is not the final reality–there I agree with Sharlet). There is a difference in other words between rightly protecting minority views in a majority culture (the point of incorporation); it is something else to silence majority speech on the chance it might offend certain minority views.

The problem with the Sharlet view of incorporation is how easily it can slide it a de facto (and let’s just call it here) white liberal upper class minority view (a minority within the majority white culture) assuming it speaks for and homogenizes all minority views. Ask some American Buddhists, atheists, and Muslims what they think of Christian-themed imagery in American discourse and you are bound to get some adamantly opposed, others not bothered by it, others actually thinking it’s a net positive.


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