SODOM & GOMORRAH: We are told myth is dead. This itself is a myth – and a very dangerous one at that.
In the vein of the Enlightenment, people today are convinced that the expansion of reason and science will do away with old superstitions. Religion, myth, and anything not falsifiable is on the way out. We would do well to echo the words of Carl Schmitt: “No one should want to disturb such a beautiful myth and it is, in fact, impossible to destroy it.” (Schmitt 1970, 31) We have shown that liberalism cannot survive a conflict with mythical politics. A hands-off approach to the nature of discourse that takes place in a society risks fostering the growth of radicalism. Liberal policy makers have, as a result, found themselves in a predicament. They can either continue to uphold their beliefs and risk a destruction of liberalism itself, or they can violate the prohibition on intolerance and silence the radical opposition. Many Western countries prohibit publications that claim that the Holocaust never happened, Russia has proscribed the Communist Party, and defenders of these preservationist policies find themselves unable to present a consistent defense of their actions. A violation of the principle of free discussion in one realm can easily be used as a justification for its violation in another, but liberal policy makers only haphazardly determine when and where censorship should be applied.
Liberal thinkers will have to more fully address the problems free speech poses; a reliance on Mill’s “harm principle” (that one can say what one wants, but one cannot physically hurt another person) cannot adequately answer the challenge posed by systems that seek to turn democracy against itself. They will have to determine what exceptions there are to free speech. These same thinkers also need to address ethical issues. Susan Neiman has already begun a move to return to Kantian ethics. (Neiman 2009) Her efforts attempt to take skepticism into account while keeping in mind the suffering of innocents as a criterion for moral action. She attempts to refute my claim that liberalism does not face the ethical questions by forcing her liberalism to do so. Yet Neiman fails in two regards.
First, she misunderstands revelation. Neiman claims that the Enlightenment liberals were able to retain reverence to a higher deity while advocating principles of equality. (Neiman 2009, 226-253) The God of the Deists was better than the God of traditional Christians, she claims, because the traditional God was cruel in the Bible. The Deist God takes what is common to all religions and advocates that, which allows believers to approach the true nature of God as a loving, caring entity. She states that the Enlightenment Deists were correct to claim that this would reduce religious conflict. (Neiman 2009, 230) Perhaps Deism would reduce religious conflict, though it may be impossible to ever know since not all of us are Deists, meaning that there are other groups who retain allegiance to an exclusive point of view. “The God of the Bible doesn’t deserve to be God; He is too brutal, too vain, and too petty to meet our real notions of the divine.” (Neiman 2009, 231)
Adherents to sacred texts will not care about such a view. To them it does not matter if God appears a certain way to the outsiders. What makes sacred texts compelling is their claim to absolute truth, not their propensity to create peaceable relations. The believer does not care about the “tortured bits of logic” that are required to prove the validity of certain doctrines. The doctrines are valid because the divine gave humanity the book; humanity’s failure to comprehend key features of that book should not be blamed on the divine. The “I AM THAT I AM” of Exodus will always answer the prayers of the faithful to “rest yet for a little season” since God has a plan outside of the scope of human comprehension; faith means accepting that this will work out for your benefit. (Exod. 3:14, Rev. 7:10-11)
Second, Neiman tacitly agrees that myth will trump rationalism. She claims that Enlightenment liberals are “committed to the idea that the world can be changed” and that “This idea isn’t something they know to be true, any more than their critics know that it’s false. You may regard it as a matter of faith – as long as you acknowledge how many other ideas are matters of faith as well.” (Neiman 2009, 137) This is exactly the point; Neiman has abandoned certain assumptions that used to be based on reason to the realm of myth. When talking to other liberals, she will rely on reasoned, rational argument; when faced with transcendent views that make claims to forces outside of reason, Susan Neiman is forced to counter with a response also grounded in myth. She is not alone.
Murray Rothbard attempted the creation of a social ethic from the science of economics several years before Neiman’s career. (Rothbard 1962) His project took theories about human economic action and drew out a system of moral behavior that departed from the value-free approach of previous liberal thinkers. Daniel Maguire utilizes a mixture of feminism, Malthusian economics, and Unitarianism to create an ethic for evaluating social behavior. (Maguire 2000) What does all of this symbolize? People have begun responding to the weaknesses of the current order. We must also respond and find attractive and believable alternatives.