The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.


Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.