“All academic thinking, whether right, left, or middle, is conservative in the extreme…. Nobody wants to hear what he [sic] hasn’t heard before.” — Hannah Arendt, in a letter to the philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, quoted in Jordi Graupera, “A Philosophy Professor’s Final Class,” New Yorker magazine, January 3, 2023.
What Hannah Arendt says applies in large part to religion as well. Religion tends to conservatism for the same reason academia tends to conservatism: people would prefer not to hear something they haven’t heard before.
However, organized religion is somewhat less conservative than individualized religion. In other words, someone who is “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is likely to be more conservative than someone who is part of a religious community.
This is analogous to the tendency of an autodidact to be more conservative than an academic working in academia. When an autodidact has to listen to a challenge to their hard-won, often tenuous knowledge, it can feel like an assault on their very self-hood. When a tenured faculty member has to listen to a challenge to their hard-won knowledge, at least they’re getting paid for it.
So here’s the question. In a time when organized religion is in decline here in the US, should those of us in organized religion give in to the tendency to extreme conservatism? Or should we try to be a little more open?
Richard J. Bernstein had a strong opinion about this question. Jordi Graupera paraphrases Bernstein’s response: “We must all fight off this tendency to conformity, [Bernstein] said. Even intelligent people learn to go along with what is conventional, he explained, and they reject good philosophy.”
Yesterday, before I voted, I spent at least an hour doing some final research into the various candidates and ballot initiatives. The San Jose Mercury news and the San Francisco Chronicle had offered a reasonable amount of coverage of California ballot initiatives, and of the more prominent statewide elections. I already had most of the information I needed to cast my vote. Nevertheless, I went to the League of Women Voters (LWV) Web site to review information about those initiatives and candidates.
News media had offered very little coverage of county elections, like the contentious San Mateo Harbor District Commission elections, and very little coverage of minor state elections, like the elections for Board of Equalization Members. Again, the LWV Web site was invaluable — e.g., it pointed me to an online video of a LWV forum with most of the Harbor District Commission candidates.
In the end, I was able to make what I felt were reasonably informed decisions on most of the candidates and initiatives. But I also realized that I had not spent enough time really learning about the issues and candidates. I should have attended candidate forums for local elections. I should have spent more time learning about statewide elections. Democracy takes time, and I did not put in enough time. And these days, I think political advertisements are so full of lies and innuendo that each time you see or hear one should count as negative time spent on learning the issues — which means spending even more time actually learning about issues and candidates.
Today, I was reading Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, and came across this quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “If once [our people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves.”
Is that howling I hear in the distance?