A long time ago I read something in a John Barth novel, that has always stayed with me.  It is the idea that nothing has an intrinsic value.  All value is assigned by us who chose a moral aesthetic, that is a system of good and bad, then cloak it in a belief system that supports that aesthetic or the other way around: we choose a belief system and accept the moral aesthetic that goes with it.  Either way Barth’s “nothing has an  intrinsic value” is a place to start that has some advantages.  For one it points out the inherent and massive indifference that the universe has about what seem to us moral choices. On the one hand it is nihilistic and means that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” is merely wishful thinking. On the other hand it means that we create value and meaning so we are not condemned to follow a moral system created for us by the universe. It is a humanistic philosophy that puts humans at the center. This is not moral relativism of the “I’m okay, you,re okay” variety. Once you have adopted a moral aesthetic it allows you to judge other ones. If for example you place the highest positive value on expanding human knowledge of the universe, then belief systems that tend to censorship, hinder the development of new ideas, and lead to close-mindedness, become poor ones to you no matter how widely spread, tightly held, or fervently preached they are. As an alternate example if you believe that the most valuable thing is to create a religious state on earth be it Christian, Muslim or something else, then things that prevent that, whether capitalist materialism, secular authority, or propagation of alternative faiths, become morally “bad” things.

How does one establish such a moral aesthetic? One way is to adopt an ideology or religion which in the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz creates, “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [read humans] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” He argues that, “these sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos – the tone, character and quality of their life it’s moral and aesthetic style and mood – and their world view – the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order. In religious [here I would add ideological as well] belief and practice a group’s ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs the world view describes, while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well-arranged to accommodate such a way of life.” If you are within any such system Geertz’s ideas are heresy in contrast to the simple truth expressed by your ideology.

If we understand such ideologies rather they be conservative talk show ones, ISIL in Syria ones, evangelical Christian ones, or even progressive political doctrines, we can see why there would be difficulty communicating with others outside your belief system. If you believe that your world view represents the way things in sheer actuality are, non believers become evil, fools, idiots or at best the misguided or uninformed. Each system has its own signs and symbols, its own things people accept on faith alone, its own rituals.  There is plenty middle ground between a closed belief system which says my way or there is no purpose in even talking to you, and a loose moral relativism that says all belief systems are valid.  Can one say I don’t really know how things in sheer actuality are, but I have chosen to be behave as if this were true and for these reasons? Might we have a belief system that is somewhere between unchangeable and inconstant? Can we believe in something but then alter our view as events and circumstances change or we grow? I am not talking about not having any fixed stars or beliefs by which to navigate. I am saying that differences in religion or ideology are differences in choices and that creates the possibility that change can occur or that conversation can take place. We can choose sides but let’s not make our choices rigid.

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