Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Secular Matters of Faith

We sometimes use the word "faith" as if it were a synonym for "religion." It's not, exactly. Religious beliefs are matters of faith, but one reason why some issues are debated so much is that many questions about this world have no factual answers and can only be “answered” on faith. This being the case, it behooves those of us who debate these issues to admit that they are secular matters of faith.

Example #1: Global warming...may be verifiable as real some day, long after our lifetimes. What’s verifiable right here and right now is that human activities have caused weather patterns that reflect local warming—cities are significantly hotter than their suburbs, north or south. We know that there are things we can do, individually, that contribute to making summer weather less miserable in our neighborhoods. We don’t know what the weather will be like fifty years from now. Whether we expect it to be hotter, colder, about the same, maybe wetter or drier, is a matter of faith.

Example #2: Evolution from one end to the other of the range of what’s possible for a species is a fact. Any vegetable garden is a display of dysfunctional mutant plants that could not survive in the wild, that humans have selected to become the majority genotype for species that "naturally" would have been...smaller, in most cases, and otherwise less appealing to us. Evolution into a different species is a wildly speculative theory backed by no factual evidence. We don’t know how and when species originated. What we believe about the origins of species is a matter of faith.

Example #3: The Nazis were on a mission to thin the population of overcrowded Europe. Entire ethnic groups were outlawed and added to prison camps originally set up to house criminals. All people connected with the Nazi prison camp system were highly motivated to distort the facts. Masses of people were reported dead when they had in fact escaped, and some people were reported alive when they were in fact dead. Lots and lots of people died. How many of them died from different causes—starvation vs. murder vs. typhus—will never be known. We don’t know how many murders of various kinds of dissidents and criminals were on the conscience of Adolf Hitler when he died, nor do we know how many deaths of dutiful Germans were; we do know that Hitler caused a fearful number of deaths. Academic debates among historians about this kind of thing are nothing new, but I’m bemused by the intensity with which people who aren’t even historians argue about the precise unknowable number of Jews killed by the Nazis. Does it matter, morally? If the Nazis had killed only six law-abiding Jews, strictly for the “crime” of being Jews and therefore unable to emigrate to other countries when ordered to leave Germany, would that be any better, morally, than if they were able to kill six million? The claim that Hitler killed six million Jews is a matter of faith.

An e-friend suggests that "gun control" might be another secular matter of faith. I think the evidence is overwhelming that "gun control" won't curb violence, even shootings. Obviously some violent crimes involve firearms. It’s even possible that some particularly unimaginative and/or volatile criminals might even have been unable to commit the crimes they committed without guns. But it was during the gun ban in Washington, D.C., that the Washington Post was printing obituaries of murdered teenagers, mostly shot in the back, almost as a regular feature; in Ireland, where illegal guns were harder to get, violent people simply used bombs and killed thousands of innocent bystanders along with the people they regarded as targets. It's possible to argue from statistical evidence, as John Lott does, that more guns may actually equal less crime...or at least less violence. 

But last night, while counting a full dozen large, new-looking Confederate flags flying on the backs of pickup trucks (most beside U.S. flags), I realized that identifying with either side of a debate from a previous century is often a matter of blind faith. People who reenact historical debates and battles may choose a side based on which side their ancestors were on, or simply on which side has more room for new reenactors, or, if they want authenticity, which side's stuff is easier to get--or even on their physical resemblance to historical figures. People who identify emotionally with one side or the other are more likely to be unrealistically projecting their own beliefs onto people who would not, in fact, have understood or identified with their beliefs. 

As Tony Horwitz documented in Confederates in the Attic, there are people who imagine that the Confederacy had something to do with either left-wing or right-wing political beliefs as we understand those beliefs today. Our own political beliefs may be to some extent based in blind faith. Our attempts to project those beliefs into the past certainly are. It's possible to know something about what people were thinking and saying during the War Between the States, because many of those people wrote it down. They were not thinking about the United Nations, or bioengineering, or even Marxism. What they might have said about the issues that concern us, if they had ever discussed those issues, will never be known. 

What they did say about the issues that concerned them is an interesting study, full of surprises. I don't even want to go into the North's real concern, not with slavery but with the humiliation of being sucked back into the then powerful British Empire, or the various Southerners who recognized slavery as an economic disaster and debated plans for ending it, because I don't have documentation at hand or time to dig up references online. Suffice it to say that even those of my generation who thought we could simply equate the North with emancipation and the South with slavery were wrong. (Some influential Northern writers felt that way, but although they were on the right side of history, they were unpopular in their own time.)

And so are those who think, "My ancestor was a Confederate soldier and therefore would have wanted me to fly a Confederate flag." Maybe he would, and maybe he wouldn't. The 1860s were one of those periods when a lot of Americans were young enough to learn from experience. There are surviving documents in which Confederate veterans urged people to haul down, "furl," and even "bury" their Confederate flags, not even for strategic reasons, but because slavery had been a bad idea and secession an even worse idea.

Every young Southerner identifies with the "Rebels." Apparently even young Northerners do. I was a Southern partisan, myself, at age ten, but the more I've learned about the Civil War, the better I've come to appreciate John Ross's position. It was not my war. It was not the war of anyone now alive. 

And yet...what a foul, unnatural, un-American evil censorship is, and how beautifully those starred-and-barred anti-censorship statements ripple in the wind! "Farby"? Too right they're farby. Beautiful, though, until somebody gets around to designing an anti-censorship flag for living people to rally around.

We need such a flag, though. The Confederates were hardly libertarians. If they didn't advocate for censorship of books and newspapers, it was probably because their society was so censorious that some parents discouraged their children from reading or writing at all. They considered bare skin disgusting, they banished people from towns for expressing the kind of ideas modern "redneck chic" aficionados express, and they formally ostracized anyone who'd been divorced. That any Confederate ancestor would be willing to claim any of his or her heirs in this generation, but especially the type of heirs who wear Confederate flag T-shirts, is very much a matter of faith.