Social Cooperation and the Trauma of Conversion

I am very sympathetic to Sam H’s vision of social cooperation and the teleology of ethics. Until perhaps a year ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly that that is all there is to it, at bottom. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m not ready to say that this worldview is wrong so much as I am, at present, exploring alternate terrain, trying to give it its due to an extent I had not bothered to before.

The ouroboros I keep finding myself within is the notion of seeking to be honored as opposed to seeking to be honorable.

Consider my father, discussing the difference between joining a church to participate in local social life as opposed to being a true convert:

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition. I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation. But what am I saying when I use those words? Conversion, properly understood, means revelation: it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life. The experience is always traumatic. Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

On the one hand, I can see a functionalist story explaining the value of going all-in psychologically with membership of a group. On the other hand, such a story seems to be an insult to those who do believe, genuinely, in the rightness of their way of life. The atheist who explains religion as social coordination must seem more condescending and insulting to the legitimately religious than the Richard Dawkins type who just calls them brainwashed idiots. At least the latter does not hide the message that he thinks he is smarter, or less ignorant, than those of whom he speaks.

And yet I do not believe in the divine, and I find it very hard not to think in terms of functions which emerged from the ongoing processes which have shaped and are shaping all things, for which even religions which span thousands of years are merely eddies in the river. And yet in saying this I can see my own traumatic conversion, which occurred nearly ten years ago, in which I saw that I was an insignificant speck of a much larger whole, and somehow—irrationally, emotionally—found meaning and purpose in this.

So while I cannot agree with the truly religious, I can respect them, seeing in common between us the prior painful reorganization of the bones of our personalities. Circumstances lead me to a metaphysical perspective largely identical to Sam’s, instead of theirs. But circumstances have also, I would like to think, given me enough perspective to see the legitimate honor and virtue in what they do; I do not think they or we are robbed of it by Heraclitus’ river. The process of shaping honor by institutional honoring does not profane the act of becoming honorable. This I believe, though I wonder if I am capable of defending this belief as Sam is of explaining our shared metaphysics. Given the high bar that that sets, it seems unlikely.

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