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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 21, 2023

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Arnold Kling on Michael Huemer on Thought Crime

Michael Huemer has a meditation on the phenomenon of thought crimes. A thought crime emerges when one group of people decides that if a person is suspected of believing X, then that person should be punished.

It kind of goes without saying, but inherent in the notion of "thought crime" are both crime and punishment. If it doesn't deserve punishment, then it's not a crime.

the status of ‘thought crime’ does not in general attach to beliefs that are so conclusively refuted that anyone who investigates carefully will reject them. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. It is precisely because epistemic reasons do not suffice to convince everyone of your belief that you attempt to convince them through moral exhortation. When the plea “Believe P because the evidence demonstrates it!” fails, then we resort to “Believe P because it is immoral to doubt it!” Indeed, you might reasonably take someone’s resort to moral exhortation as pretty strong evidence that they have a weak case, and they know it.

Calling something a thought-crime is a dominance move. It is coercive. You only have to coerce someone if you cannot convince the person voluntarily. If X is demonstrably false, then you should be able to convince someone voluntarily not to believe X. It is only if X is plausibly true, or ambiguous, that you have to resort to coercion.

This makes the accusation of thought-crime highly suspect. The more that you try to force me to believe that the virus could not have come from a lab, the more suspicious I become.

Amen, brother. But is this just preaching to the choir? Consider: A whole lot of NPCs and talking heads sure ate up The Narrative. Propaganda is effective, to an extent, but beyond that extent it is deeply corrosive, particularly to any intellectual class, who become disillusioned and cynical. Thought crime is next.

Religions in general, and Christianity in particular, are all about thought crime. You have to take the salvation of Jesus into your heart or something, and if you don't, have fun with eternal damnation. I can accept Aquinas, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis. These are men who appealed to reason, writing to convince and persuade.

I imagine only atheists see the appeal of comparing woke (progressive, successor) ideology to a religion of sorts, likely filling some kind of primitive need for tribal loyalty, purity tests, and expensive signals (rabid adherence to nonsense). I'd love to hear Antonin Scalia's take though. Or L. Ron Hubbard's. Perhaps what we are seeing with successor ideology is not an individual need for such, but instead just the character of mass movements, the nature of power, its patterns of growth and movement and perpetuation. Are propaganda and thought crime inevitable?

Let's take it back to 1984. Orwell demonstrates the existential horror of a regime that can successfully deploy thought crime. Didn't he make it blindingly obvious for everyone? I'm pretty sure we were all nodding our heads in 8th grade English class about the evils of totalitarianism, only a few years after the USSR fell. I suspect this issue is particularly salient for me, as a libertarian.

Anyways, I'm not mad, just disappointed.

I imagine only atheists see the appeal of comparing woke (progressive, successor) ideology to a religion of sorts

Huh. Well, more traditionalist Christianity is not shy, at all, about recognizing other religions as existing. It just often considers them all to be evil / bad at worst or distorted and having a glimmer of partial truths at best while still preventing the worshipper from coming to to true salvation in Christ.

The biggest divide within humanity, from the earliest days of Christianity, was between Christianity and paganism, which was clearly recognized as false (but very real in the sense of existing) religion. And even there, traditional Christians have often thought pagan religions are worshiping real, existing spiritual forces - demons or whatever. As a matter of fact, the people I grew up around saw New Age woo in exactly this light.

In that sense, "woke-ism is religion" actually fits very, very cleanly into traditional Christianity's existing world view.

I think, ironically, it's an atheist conceit that "theists" believe that "religion" is generically good.

On the one hand, this is true in the sense that traditionalist Christians do think "freedom of religion" is good, if the alternative is the state overtly oppressing their religious practice. And it is true that there's no shortage of more militant atheists or even just progressives who, when push comes to shove, really are more concerned with "freedom from religion". And they really are comfortable with the state and/or society's sense making apparatuses constantly redefining religion downwards until it's nothing more than subjective thoughts in a persons head that they should keep to themselves and not have impact the public square, with anything else being hate speech. See also the actual existing history of the Bolsheviks and their process of erasing religion in the Soviet Union for a history traditional Christians sometimes are more aware of. Anyway, that's "freedom of religion", not "religion", as a public good, according to traditional Christians.

But on the other hand, that doesn't exactly mean that such Christians would necessarily see other actual particular religions themselves as good things in the world. They take the differences between faiths very, very seriously. If you ever poke around in conservative spaces where, say, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals and Mormons and Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims (and other traditions) share space in dialog with the general goal to find solidarity in promoting conservative politics, it's not that rare for topics concerning their differences to crop up, and in such cases, the topic either needs to be smoothed over and tabled almost immediately, or it can immediately flare up into intense acrimony. The differences are not small, and people take them very seriously. And again, this is a mental framework that absolutely can make sense of woke-ism as an alternative, much more hostile religion.

The detractors of those religions have a habit of deciding that the differences between different religions traditions are actually pretty trivial, and that the ire between faiths is a function of the narcissism of small differences and power jockeying. But, at least in this detractor view, the different traditions are materially and functionally really about the same (and believers of such often occupy roughly the same class position), the sects maintain the same role in propping up old, traditional power hierarchies, and so on. From that perspective, "religion" turns into a gray blob that all "religious people" value. But that says a lot more about the people who believe that critique than about "religious believers".