Online | June 28, 2011 at 12:41 am

Do We Choose What We Believe?


Maybe it’s surprising to no one, but this Jewish, male, New Yorker college student, whose dad is a doctor, occupies one of the most secular demographics in America. These charts are from Robert Putnam’s American Grace:

And as it happens, these charts are predictive — I am pretty secular.

Of course, if you asked me why – over drinks, maybe – I wouldn’t talk about demographic statistics. I’d give you explanations. I’d talk about John Dewey. I might channel old Bertrand Russell essays that I read when I was 14. I’d argue from the premise that I chose my beliefs as a thinking and feeling free mind. This wouldn’t be surprising; everyone can explain their beliefs.

But how seriously should we take those explanations? Did I really begin with an open-minded appraisal of my options, choose a Deweyian secular progressivism because it was the best possible position, and then proceed from there? Or did I begin where I am now, as a secular New York Jew who’s “unmusical” to religious things, and then go on to construct a vocabulary (with Dewey and Russell in it) to justify those beliefs that already existed? Charts like these caution skepticism. How seriously can we take beliefs that would be radically transformed by the roll of the demographic die – by being randomly born into another state, or to richer parents, or if we encountered different books, or met different people?

Richard Rorty tells us to be “ironic” towards our moral vocabulary. Use it to fight for a better world, he says; but acknowledge that the world we’re fighting in is not one of our choosing, and neither are the words we’re fighting with, or perhaps even the side of the fight we’re on.

That’s seems about right to me.

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