“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Church of Capitalism and the Hunt for Welfare Witches


When you’re inside an awe-inspiring cathedral, listening to a booming sermon alongside hundreds of congregants, you’re very likely not assessing the ideas resonating down from the impossibly high, vaulted ceiling on their merits. The robustness of the tradition serves as its own proof, forestalling any sustained questioning. Spend an equal amount of time in a temple or a mosque, though, or doing ethnographic research with a hunting-and-gathering tribe in sub-Saharan Africa, and questions about the nature of religion and the validity of any one tradition become unavoidable. We shore up what begin as naked ideas by dressing them up in physical trappings and by surrounding ourselves with likeminded peers. We seek evidence of our ideas in the real world, pretend finding it is serendipitous, put assertions of the ideas to music in mystical settings that inspire us to undeniably real and profound experiences, which we then turn from side to side to witness others experiencing. We build our lives up from the foundations of these simple ideas, like the grand cathedrals, and so questioning them is out of the question. Doubting thus becomes a perversity.


Voltaire captured the essence of why the tribal impulses manifested in religion must be kept in check when he wrote, “He who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Religions have a catastrophic tendency to undermine their own tenets of compassion and humility by dehumanizing those with competing traditions. But it’s not just the Church of Rome or Islam that poses an existential threat to our global population of seven billion. Just as Christ’s exemplary empathy is so often drowned out by the confused swirl of idiocy that is Christian tradition, the beneficial effects of free markets have been reified into a worldly idolatry that serves to contravene free thought while it goes about debasing growing numbers of its devotees at the feet of dynastic heirs whose wealth makes for its own breed of apotheosis. The Church of Capitalism, the attribution of supreme beneficence and supernatural powers to the blind mechanisms of free markets, has established its tradition nowhere on earth as strongly as in the United States. Heaven has been replaced with the high life, hell with dehumanizing poverty. But at the core of both Christianity and Capitalism is the myth of free will, the absurd overestimation of the individual’s powers of self-determination. We don’t object to the state of the damned in hell because we believe they belong there. They chose to be there. We rather take pride in our own virtuousness, which is evidenced by our being materially better off. But what if the bad choices are preceded, or even precipitated by the poverty? To pose the question is perverse.


Our inherent tribalism has us organizing ourselves into competing groups and arranging even those within our own group according to hierarchical rankings based on who best exemplifies the ideals which set us apart from the outside groups. In the Church of Capitalism successful entrepreneurs, small business owners who create the jobs which grow the economy and the conservative politicians who clear the road for them of regulatory hurdles and disincentivizing taxes are the analogs of Hindu Brahmins. Who are the pariahs, the untouchables? The analogy fails for Americans because for us the idea of hereditary castes is appalling—people are only what they make of themselves. We revile those at the base of our hierarchy for the conscious choices they make. They choose to cash in on the folly of politicians and academics with bleeding hearts. They choose to compound their poverty by having more children because they make the shrewd but unconscionable calculation that more kids will earn them more government largess. They choose to sell their dignity for the food stamps and welfare checks heretical progressives are so outrageously wrong to offer them. So our pariahs are worse than those in other religions because they suffer their abjection by their own choosing.


Throughout history and all over the world, poor people have more children. Social scientists refer to the change from illiterate agrarianism to educated civilization as the demographic transition. The claim that welfare causes impoverished women to have more children is based on profound ignorance. Women have lots of children when they’re poor and uneducated. They have fewer when they’re better schooled and better off. For those of us in The Church of Science and Humanism, the biggest problem the global community faces is not slowed economic growth; it’s exponential population growth. But if we can agree that something needs to be done about our welfare witches, finding a way to educate them is an infinitely better solution than burning them—or stepping back, washing our hands of them, and congratulating ourselves for our superior choices as we watch them burn themselves. For if it’s not about heredity, why is the leading determiner of who ends up poor in America the income and education level of parents? And whatever happened to “There but for the grace of God go I”?

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