Posts tagged: Religion

My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.

Why are so many artists inclined towards (non-traditional) supernatural belief?

I have an experience I wonder if you share. I know a number of artists. Almost none of them are Christians, but none of them are naturalists. That is, none of them think that the world is exhaustively described by the natural sciences. The artists I know usually believe in some kind of cosmic order, that morally bad deeds somehow get punished supernaturally, that the universe can smile on someone who does good, that the fundamental nature of the universe is good and one of compassion and care, that there’s life after death (usually reincarnation), and that art partakes in at least something divine, understood very broadly. And they often love astrology, crystals, “metaphysics” and the like. This is surely true of many famous actors and actresses. Sure, there are exceptions, but don’t we often stereotype many artists as, well, odd in that they tend to have wacky, seemingly superstitious beliefs about the world? There’s a certain loveliness to these beliefs, as they indicate the artist is a person of goodwill and kindness. But whatever the case, they seldom think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields. There’s just more to the world than that.

Now, I grant that very few humans think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields, but the artists I know seem especially adamant about this fact.

OK, so perhaps I’m wrong to generalize, but suppose I’m right (and I’m sure some of you are inclined to agree). What explains the seemingly greater non-traditional religiosity of artists of various sorts? Here’s a hypothesis: there’s just something about aesthetic experience that inclines one towards thinking that beauty is something out in the world, that aesthetic judgments are in some way objective and that the sublime is somehow real. And perhaps the fact that beauty is implicitly understood as a kind of perception lends itself to metaphysical beliefs that would undergird those judgments, such as that beauty is a perception of the ordered goodness of the world. But perhaps that’s an overly intellectual explanation.

Here’s another possibility. Artists often seem inclined towards intense moods, both positive and negative. And we associate the supernaturalism of artists with those in good moods. But the depressed artist may be much less inclined towards plucky supernaturalism, and so more inclined to embrace meaninglessness, or some kind of (perhaps) overwrought reaction towards a “dead” universe. So maybe when people feel happy, they project that onto the universe, and when they feel sad, they project that onto the universe too. (Just to note: I know plucky naturalists, jovial Hume-types in the mold of Daniel Dennett, but for whatever reason, most people tend to think of naturalism as a “sad” belief system.)

A third possibility is that artists associate having these beliefs with being a good, open-minded person for purely cultural reasons. Good people have “good” belief systems, which means avoiding sad views like naturalism and traditional beliefs like conservative Christianity, which are seen as close-minded.

I also wonder whether there’s some connection between religiosity of the individualized, eclectic, happy variety is associated with openness to experience. Many, if not most, religious people tend to be lower on openness to experience, but that’s associated more with traditional religious belief.

In any case, I think there’s a real phenomenon that artists are inclined towards a certain kind of supernaturalism, at least moreso than the average person. And I’m curious as to what’s going on.