Thursday, August 31, 2017

Your "Conventional Narrative" is Made Up, and Your Ideas are Mush

As I complain all the time, most of my contemporaries can only imagine a scholarly debate in one way: as bold new ideas attacking on entrenched orthodoxy. Consider this gem about from Mark Koyama the rise of religious freedom as in ideal:
According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions. . . .

With my colleague at George Mason University, the historian Noel Johnson, I recently completed the book Persecution and Toleration (2017), in which we show that ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient.
This bold new attack on the "conventional narrative," this assault on the established wisdom, is exactly what I was taught in college in 1984. The notion that the rise of the modern state made possible our modern notion of "rights" is old enough that Michel Foucault framed Discipline and Punish as an attack on it in 1975. I wonder if Drs. Koyama and Johnson have even read Foucault, since anyone who had would know that when and why states and societies persecute people is a very complex and difficult question. On the narrow question of religious tolerance, the pro-tolerance thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries took their cue from ancient Rome, so they certainly didn't think there was anything new or unusual about religious tolerance under a strong state. This is an old argument that has been raging for many decades, and neither side is either new or radical.

Everybody is probably bored with my harping on this theme, but somebody has to point out how common this way of framing questions has become, and how idiotic. It is a terrible intellectual habit that has bad effects on our scholarship, distorts how millions of people see the world, and probably messes up our politics as well. We should stop.

Not every argument is about old ideas vs. new ones. Sometimes both sides are ancient (free will vs. determinism; democracy vs. dictatorship), other times both are new (differing interpretations of quantum mechanics).

Just forget about whether an idea is new or old, radical or stodgy, and focus on whether it is right.

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