Friday, August 17, 2012

Power and purity

Taboos are a major part of religious practice, across a very wide range of religious traditions. Taboos about what people can eat, wear, act, associate with, believe; the entire range of human behaviour.  Religious taboos are nicely defined as:
a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment.
Such taboos both signal one's membership of a particular religious community and one's acceptance of the authority at the centre of that religious community.

Monotheism tends to have very strong taboos--about belief, food, clothing, gender roles and sexuality. Kosher and halal are a series of food taboos, for example.

The Old Testament is full of taboos. Such as Deuteronomy 13's taboo about worshipping other gods. Or Deuteronomy 22:5's taboo against cross-dressing. Leviticus is a book of taboos mixed in with more common legal prohibitions (critical scholarship identifies a subset of Leviticus as the Holiness Code); and if folk pick and choose among the provisions in Leviticus, then their authority is not Leviticus but whatever they are using to pick and choose. The punishment for breaking these taboos is, at the minimum, shunning and, at the worst, death. Indeed, Deuteronomy 13 requires siblings to kill their brother or sister if they become apostates.

Taboos work on what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels the sanctity/degradation moral foundation, which he describes as being:
shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Haidt has a useful website on research on disgust. But taboos also manifest, in their social operation, what Haidt calls the authority/subversion foundation;
shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
Taboos extend the alleged ambit of morality from constraining our behaviour towards each other (both in the sense of not trespassing and in the sense of actively helping or cooperating) to much wider realms of behaviour and identity. One of the reasons squick is such a useful word is it breaks that connection between disgust and moral claims.

Signaling authorityThere is a long tradition of social scientists attempting to rationalise taboos. But taboos are so many and varied, that rationalising their content is likely to be often a pointless exercise. Their social role, however, is probably highly rational. Both in the aforementioned signaling role--yes, I am a member of our community; yes I accept the authority that binds us together; yes, you can have certain expectations about me--and in their role as an exercise of authority.

The easiest path to power and authority for priests and clerics is as gatekeepers of righteousness. In monotheism, that means offering and withholding God. Offering God as the loving universal Parent and path to salvation and withholding Him from those who do not walk the designated "path of righteousness".

Taboos are enormously useful for setting out the requirements of righteousness. Their very contingency, their very arbitrariness, makes them that much more distinctive and distinguishing, and so effective as social signals. But their contingency, their arbitrariness also makes them more effective as vehicles of priestly and clerical power; the people who can tell you what is righteous, and what is not.

If God just wants us to be nice to each other, that is something any of us can work out, either singly or together. But if God has a whole list of very specific injunctions, those a priest or cleric has to tell you about. Moral simplicity is empowering to people in general, moral complexity to those with specialised knowledge and "understanding". (A point that applies more generally: unions and employer organisations loved the rule-complexity of Australia's arbitration systems as the more complex the rules, the more workers and employers needed agents--unions and employer organisations--to manage the complexity of the system for them.)

Morality v taboosThis tension between morality and taboos runs through the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is the tension between the very Priestly Leviticus and Deuteronomy--with their prohibitions and concern for ritual and priestly authority--and the charismatic prophets with their overriding moral concerns and direction connection to God. The Jeremiah who denounces the "lying pens of scribes" expresses this prophetic and charismatic anticlericalism with particular intensity.

The Christ who spends so much time denouncing misuse of religious authority, advocating concern for the spirit not the letter of the law, and defines His teaching as love God and love thy neighbour as thyself is very much on the Jeremiah end of the spectrum. The conjunction of Christ's two principles can be reasonably summarised as you are not allowed to use God against your fellow children of God (epitomised in "let he who is without sin cast the first stone"). Even the Temple riot which precipitated Jesus's trial and execution was a revolt against profiteering from the priestly monopoly of ritual access to God.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]

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