I've been reading Richard Joyce's book The Myth of Morality, which is certainly interesting and very well written. The main idea is that moral claims are all untrue--morality is a myth. "Torturing babies is wrong" is not true, and "Torturing babies is right" isn't true either. But no, we shouldn't banish all these sentences alike to the flames. Morality is a myth we should hang on to. Presumably we should hang on to the first sentence, not the second. Joyce thinks we should continue to make believe it's true.Let's start with the part about (what Kazez says Joyce says about) morality. If morality is a myth, aren't all moral claims false? I'm not sure what to make of the idea that something can be untrue but not false. Especially since it is supposedly something we can make believe is true, so that it can't be nonsense either. I wonder why we should pretend that torturing babies is wrong if it isn't really? I guess I should just read the book or shut up about it.
As I was reading this, I was struck by the fact that I am a fictionalist about some things, though not (or at least not yet) about morality. To wit, I am a religious fictionalist. I don't just banish all religious sentences to the flames. I make believe some of them are true, and I think that's all to the good.
But then there's the religion part. What Kazez says about religious fictionalism sounds fine to me. She likes to keep Jewish traditions alive by telling the old stories every year, eating matzo, etc. "The important thing is that we keep telling the story." I don't know how future generations will feel about telling stories that no one they knew ever believed, but it works with the Tooth Fairy and Santa, so I don't see why it shouldn't. Turning to
the subject of Christianity, she asks:
Could you find value in the story, and the yearly retelling of it, yet think at least the supernatural aspects are untrue?
I should think so. That's seem to be what's happening in countries like Denmark, where most people don't embrace the tenets of Christianity, but still belong to the Lutheran church. What are they doing, when they go to church for baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and funerals, but pretending there is a deity to sanctify these events? Apparently they prefer this sort of "make believe" approach to complete rejection of religion (see here).This both reminds me of Britain and sounds not quite right to me. It reminds me of Britain because my sense is that when the Bishop of Durham got himself in trouble for denying that miracles like the virgin birth literally happened (if that is what he said) he took himself to be doing nothing more than saying in public what most of the clergy and sophisticated lay people in Britain agreed in private. I think that the views of people like D. Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt have been influential in Britain, which is not to say that they have been universally adopted, by any means. And while they might reject "the supernatural aspects" of religion, I doubt they would call their approach to religion "make believe."
Kazez links to this article in the New York Times about what the American sociologist Phil Zuckerman found when he interviewed Danes and Swedes about religion:
Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”
Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.
Obliviousness is not pretense, it seems to me. It's in some ways closer to genuine faith. At least Wittgenstein appears to have thought that Mormons must simply not ask certain questions, and that this was a key to their faith. Zuckerman's interviewees seem also not to have asked certain questions. There might be questions that a trained historian or scientist might ask that Mormons typically don't, and this Times article suggests that Scandinavians typically don't pursue the lines of inquiry that fundamentalist Christians do. Maybe 'faith' is the wrong word, but I'm pretty sure that 'pretense' isn't right either. It's more a kind of confidence in one's way of living, so that one simply does not think to ask certain questions that might appear to others to be fundamental. Perhaps it simply is not having that fundamentalist or literalist mindset.Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
Well, if in doubt, end with a quote. Here's a great one from the Times piece:
“In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”If only everyone, religious and non-religious, felt that way. Or at least I wonder (living in the Bible belt) whether things would be better in such a world.