Friday, December 23, 2011

Will No One Think of the Children?!

This started as a comment on Brett's excellent previous post but it got so lenghy I'm making it a full-fledged post of my own. Ride-em, coattails! :)

Brett's thoughts reminds me of Steven Pinker's new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I haven't read but have heard about and fully intend to read someday! Pinker's thesis, as I understand, is basically summed up in the title: violence-wise, things are as good as they've ever been for most people (note to self: read book and make sure I haven't endorsed something about holocaust denial).

I think there are a few things at work in the World In Decline (henceforth WID) theory: First, any religion concerned with teaching moral standards, particularly a brand of Christianity preaching the imminence of a deity returning to usher in paradise, is going to emphasize the blood and sins of its generation to try and spur its members to repent and prepare for what's to come. You'll never find a time in history when the majority of of religious people said "Gee, it sure is nice to be living in this golden age of humanity!" That is always consigned to a mythic past or prophesied future, and present standards are always declining - anything else risks fostering apathy. I suppose if history really were a linear devolution of morality, by now we'd be gouging the eyes out of anything we couldn't fornicate with, but thankfully we're not there yet. Not to say that things can't get better or worse at times, just that we're not irreversibly on rails to hell.

The Golden Age of television, of course, is a proven fact.

Second, I think, is human nature. We tend to remember the best parts of our own lives more than the worst, and for history in general we look for Great Leaders and Important Events. Even in evil we find uplift and positive lessons (eg Holocaust survivors or Christmas stories during the Great Depression). I think that filtering out and finding meaning in ugliness is critical to how we create a Story of Ourselves. Besides rogue philosophers and hormonal teenagers, who wants that to be a bad story? But unless we recognize that the story is idealized and not necessarily representative of reality, we risk comparing it to a murky present that will always come off second best.

That said, there are a few things that LDS people who promote WID tend to emphasize, and they can be legitimate concerns, sort of (more liberal WIDs must wait for another day). Foremost, I would say, are concern over supposed declining morality and increasing indifference to religion in The World (have I mentioned how much I dislike that phrase? The World. What a meaningless strawman. Ick).

So, morality. Most of the focus there goes toward sexuality. Are people more promiscuous and lascivious now than ever before? Well, Lady Gaga would have caused an uproar in 1955, but most Mormons would take her over a return to ancient Greek morality. Maybe sexuality is as much at society's forefront as in any past era, and certainly through the internet pornography is more easily attainable than ever, but the oldest profession isn't nicknamed such for nothing, and the fundamental issues are nothing new.

Thankfully women (at least in western-culture, broadly speaking) now have more control over their own sexuality than ever, and while a girl in the mall wearing skinny jeans may challenge a poor young man to keep his thoughts virtuous, that's preferable to unequal power structures leaving women without freedom to make meaningful decisions.*

Also there's gay marriage. But, look, it's a civil liberties issues, not a moral one, and homosexuality's been around forever, and, you know what? Let's not get into this now. Too much to cover there, and I haven't even gotten to...

Secularization! I actually agree that secularization is the general direction of our culture today.** In part, science is responsible for taking the mystery out of things we used to not understand. Where religion once had broad license to fill gaps in our knowledge of the world, we now have more situations where God is, if not irrelevant (as hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins argue), at least not strictly necessary to explain everything. Obviously there are theological arguments that God created of the natural processes that govern the world and there are holdouts who deny naturalism or empiricism altogether, but the point is that in a generally prosperous world where we seem to have a grasp on how stuff works, there are fewer reasons to seek the help of the Divine.

So you're telling me this is caused by tiny little wriggling things in my blood and not God's wrath?

Though I think WID proponents sometimes overstate the extent to which religion is declining, there is certainly a threat to traditional Christianity embedded in how our society is trending. However, I think the responsibility lies with religious people to make a case for their faith's continued usefulness. It doesn't do any good to say only, "Look at how evil the world is and how faithless you are" - we have to make a positive argument. I would tell someone, "Look, living as a Mormon has brought me a lot of happiness and surrounded me with decent people, and it promises some pretty awesome stuff if it happens to be true, as I believe it is". I wouldn't draw the line at, "Sorry, your hemline's a bit too high" or "You must believe in a literal creation narrative at odds with any reasonable geologic timeline". Religious leaders necessarily keep their messages broad, but their calls to repentance need not be phrased or interpreted as dire warnings on the demise of all that is good. To the Church's credit, it's moving in what I think is a good direction with its family-centered message and "I am a Mormon" campaigns.

So, problems in the world? Absolutely. Fixable? Sometimes. Destined to fail? I hope not. Reason for optimism? If you want it!


*This is another post in its own right, but it is obviously 100% incumbent on everyone to take control of their own thoughts, and I have absolutely no patience with anyone who even indirectly argues that modesty for women (let's face it, our current discourse on the subject focuses entirely on females and has all sorts of problems) has anything to do with mens' sexual morality. Individuals are responsible for their own choices and personal morality, period. "Walking pornography" is an evil doctrine that fosters rape culture and abdication of responsibility.

**And part of me asks, "What is "culture"? What is "our"? I am neither smart nor dedicated enough to get all structural about this now, so just go with me here.