I have been involved in a very interesting conversation here regarding subjective/objective distinctions and agnosticism.
At the very last, my interlocutor, Bernard, sums up the issue as he sees it:
Your last point, that my agnosticism requires me to dismiss other subjective positions, doesn’t seem to work, precisely because my position, I acknowledge, is purely about taste. I’m not saying your position is wrong, I am saying, given its implications, I have no taste for it. The problem of dismissing others as less capable of sensing truth, the problem of having to extend this belief right to all beliefs, no matter how apparently weird, worries me. And, until I can see how these are not logical implications of the beleif position, these worries wil keep me from believing.
So, let me just try and parse this out a bit and I am just thinking out loud here. We have all run into people who believe (and perhaps it’s true) they have very good taste in matters of decorum, fashion, wine, food, art, plays, literature, music, comedy, and other similar areas. Many give us their opinions about such things professionally, and we call them “critics.” Even though the matters under consideration are subjective preferences and don’t fall into a category of being right or wrong, we still respect some opinions over others and recognize that one person’s taste can be more refined, informed, reflective, and thoughtful than another person’s. It is not that one person is wrong and the other right, it is that we can usually recognize the wisdom, the reflection, and the thought that has gone into one opinion where the other opinion lacks such qualities. We also consider experience, age, and a person’s knowledge of the matter he is opining on. We even will make comments such as, “what horrible taste that person has in clothing or movie watching,” or to the contrary—we sometimes recognize the “good” taste a person has in some areas.
Now these “critics” or people we recognize who have good taste and are knowledgeable generally fall into two categories. The first we call a “snob.” These are the critics who wear their knowledge and “taste” on their sleeve and rub it in the other person’s face. They look down on the unwashed masses. They have no interest in educating people. Their sense of educating someone is to let that person know how common and trashy their views. They would prefer to embarrass rather than educate.
Now Bernard, to his credit, does not seem to fall into this category. He falls, in my view, into the much more positive category of knowledgeable educator. This is the person that, if we’ve lived long enough and been able to see it, has helped each one of us expand our conceptual horizons. These are the people who took the time to explain to us why “this” type of wine is better than this “other” type. Whether it was literature, art, social skills, music, poetry, drama, or some other similar endeavor, there were people in our lives who enabled us to “see” certain things and helped us to appreciate why certain types or forms were better than some others. Even though all these areas are subjective preferences, most of us have come to understand that certain forms and types are better (not right or wrong) than others.
Now before I go further, I would point out what I think are a couple of misrepresentations in Bernard’s response. First, I did not mean to say his agnosticism requires him to “dismiss” the subjective opinions of others. And again, it is misleading for him to presuppose the “subjective” part in the sense that the question we are speaking to is the assertion on the part of believers that God is real in an objective sense, meaning outside their minds and wills. So I would say we need to qualify what is being said there or one is just presupposing that belief in God is a subjective preference and so begging the question. Second, I did not say that others are “less capable” of sensing truth. I thought I made that quite clear. I did say it is possible that certain belief systems such as empiricism and scientism can prevent one from really “seeing” and understanding what believers are asserting. I think we are all capable of seeing and understanding truth.
As far as extending this “belief right” to everyone, I call that freedom. I would be more concerned if there were voices calling for the repression of this right because others either took their beliefs seriously (didn’t consider them to be a matter of taste) or because they didn’t have the same “taste” as the majority. As long as one’s beliefs do not incite hate or require violence, then let a thousand flowers bloom. The proof will be in the pudding so to speak. There have been thousands of movements, cults, belief systems, religions, and other forms of social construction and they have either failed or progressed based upon their ability to provide meaning and give one a sense of purpose and life beyond eating, pooping, and procreation. Either the narrative you believe true is beautiful and attractive or it isn’t- and people will make their choices.
As to the canard that “religion,” by its very nature, must incite hate and require violence I would say see the work of William Cavanaugh who has shown repeatedly such a view to be a myth. In comparison to, for instance, the violence visited by secular governments upon their own or other people, how is this comparison even trotted out? How anyone could make this claim after the atrocities of the 20th Century where a pagan/pseudo scientific state (Nazis) and an atheistic state (Soviet Union, but let us also not forget China, North Korea, and Cambodia/North Vietnam) turned that century into a graveyard is beyond me. I find it quite incredible that people want to talk about the last few decades or so of violence attributable to Islamic fundamentalism (and mostly just because it finally touched the United States), but want to pass over centuries of violence committed by secular states.
Here is why I think Bernard’s default to “taste” rather than saying “wrong” does not work. First, to reduce deeply held beliefs, whether a love for God or an assertion like “The Holocaust was evil,” to a matter of personal taste is really quite incredible. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to communicate to someone that one doesn’t take the other person’s views seriously than to relegate it to “taste” as if we were talking about wine or fashion. It is the ultimate dismissal. At least a Hindu and a Christian take one another seriously enough to say, “I know you truly believe in this God or gods you speak of in a real and objective way, but I simply have to disagree with you.” At least the belief is taken seriously and not as if the person had just asserted that Jazz was the best music in the world, and you, liking classical, remarked, “Well not for me but you are welcome to it.” It is really the ultimate condescension when put to the big questions of life and the things, for instance, that a Martin Luther King Jr. was willing to lose his life for. No one puts their life on the line over which wine or music is better. No one goes to war over which color is better, red or blue. No one. To relegate the things that people are willing to give their life for to matters of “taste” is, well, in really bad taste.
Just as God or “evil” does not belong in the category of wine, or music (clear philosophical category errors), so to should we not relegate the differences in belief (in matters of God’s existence and objective morality) to matters of taste. They are entirely two different questions and areas of life and thought. One would think the scale, as to the difference, would be rather obvious. Imagine someone asserting that saying something like “The Holocaust is evil,” is no different, in any significant way, than saying something like “I really hate spinach.” What would we think of such a person? If a President or Prime Minister of a state or country said something like that he or she would be roundly condemned. If a college/university president said something like that, they would lose their jobs. Not only would people say that it was in bad taste to assert these statements mean the same thing (just stating a preference), they would say it was WRONG.
Bernard’s position fails for another reason. No matter how anyone wants to couch it or hopefully glide over it, to say that one has better “taste” than another or conversely that the other fellow has bad “taste” is to still carve out a place of difference such that it is clear one thinks more highly of his “taste” than the other’s. I see no way around this. If one really believes he is saying nothing different, better, or worse than the other chap, then he would not spend the time defending his indifference by marking out that very difference. Whether someone says, “I think you are wrong,” or whether they say, “I think what you are doing is in bad taste,” they are noting a difference and the inherent meaning within such statements asserts a clear movement of favor toward one view or the other. To even assert something as mild as “I just have a different taste,” in this area is to mark out a difference and let’s not kid ourselves as to the implication of such a statement.
Now, I am assuming Bernard is using the word “taste” in its normal sense. I am going by the standard dictionary definition. Here are some examples:
1. A personal preference or liking: a taste for adventure.
2. The faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate.
3. A manner indicative of the quality of such discernment: a room furnished with superb taste.
4. The sense of what is proper, seemly, or least likely to give offense in a given social situation.
If Bernard is using the word “taste” in a different manner, then I could have very well completely misunderstood him. I will leave it to him to let us know if he was. If he was using the word in its normal usage, then I think my arguments stand.
Finally, I think Bernard’s motivation for wanting his position to be neutral is admirable. He clearly wants to find a way where our deepest held beliefs do not incite hate or violence. I couldn’t agree more. I think, however, that the way he chooses to create this space fails for the reasons already noted. Difference is a fact of life and difference is good. How we choose to deal and live with our real differences and not sweep them away as just matters of taste is the true issue at hand.