Unimportantism

Unimportantism

I am not a religious believer, nor am I an atheist, nor even an agnostic.  How so?  Let me explain.

I was once watching an interview of Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.  His lifespan encompassed much of the 20th century, and, in the musical world, he had known everybody and done everything.  He was most renowned as an interpreter of the Romantic repertoire.  The interviewer, unfortunately, was simply a journalist on assignment and knew nothing about classical music.  So what do you ask a man in his mid-nineties if you know nothing about his accomplishments?  The journalist asked Artur Rubinstein if he believed in an afterlife, and Rubinstein, consummate gentleman that he was, gave an intelligent answer to a stupid question.  He laughed and said that no—he didn’t believe in an afterlife, but if, when he died, he discovered that he was wrong, he’d be just delighted.

Rubinstein was, of course, telling the journalist that his question was unimportant.  How one lives is a more important matter than what happens after one dies.  But it struck me that Rubinstein had made “unimportant” into an important category.  So here’s the important question about religious belief.  If, when you wake up tomorrow morning, the headlines in the newspaper were to report the definitive answer to whether God exists, and imagine, if you will, that the answer were the contrary of what you now believe.  If that answer were absolutely known one way or the other, how would that answer change how you live your life?  If it would change your life, then the existence of God is an important question.  If it would not change how you live your life, then it’s an unimportant question.  Therefore, I would identify myself as an unimportantist non-believer.  Having said that, however, I feel I have more in common with an unimportantist believer than I do with an importantist non-believer.

What Bill Maher and the Pope have in common is that they are both importantists.  For this reason, I have difficulty identifying myself as an atheist.  Modern day atheists make two significant errors.  For one thing, they have turned science into a belief system, claiming only to believe what science has affirmed.  But science is not a belief system.  If anything, it is a skepticism system that challenges belief.  Making science into a belief system is a denial of Popper’s principle of falsifiability in which only a premise that can be falsified can be considered scientific.

Atheists also err by considering all religion to be infantile belief.  They fail to make a distinction between infantile and adult religion.  Infantile Christianity, for instance, is the belief in talking snakes, the belief that God made the world in six days some six thousand or so years ago, and its primary focus is on personal salvation.  Adult Christianity is the desire to be worthy of the grace of God as demonstrated by the sacrifice of Jesus.  Infantile Judaism is characterized by a slavish adherence to a strictly literal interpretation of the law.  Adult Judaism is the love of righteousness for its own sake, a dedication to tikkum olam, the healing of the world.  By denying the possibility of adult religion and seeing all belief as infantile, the importantist non-believers seem impelled by a strong desire to identify themselves as not that. 

Adult religion rejects the literalism of scripture and the relevance of scripturally defined sex roles.  For this reason, we would argue that adult Islam is currently being struggled for but has not fully arrived.  While an Islam that rejects Quranic literalism and the subjugation of women exists in some quarters, it is not available to the vast majority of Muslims as adult Christianity and Judaism are readily available to those believers, and certainly not in those Muslim majority countries where blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy are still part of the legal code.

Importantism, then, features a focus on the self as the most important entity, personal salvation for the believers, personal definition for the non-believers, while unimportantism focuses on the world beyond the self.

Importantism shows up in other contexts having to do with belief, particularly regarding political belief.  Its stamp is the exaltation of the self as the center of belief.  We see this on both the left and the right.  On the right, we can see it in the libertarian acolytes of Ayn Rand, who use her ponderous writings to extend their adolescent narcissism indefinitely into adulthood.  The myth of the free market provides the backdrop for their large-scale projection of the self onto the world and their indifference to any concern beyond personal reach. 

On the left, we see it in political attitudes whose end-point is personal purity.  Much vegetarianism is carried on this vein.  They absolve themselves of complicity in evil by refusing to participate in what they consider a system of cruelty.  They ignore, of course the massive ecological damage and cruelty perpetrated by the production of their preferred annual grains.[1]  A more mature understanding would see the evil of the entire system of for-profit food production, including factory farming and the monocrop production of grains, in light of which personal purity is unattainable and unimportant.  Contrary to vegetarian belief, there is no eating without death.  The question is not whether we participate, but how.

We can also see infantile importantism in the sentimentalizing of victimhood so prevalent on the left.  While victimhood is a reasonable spur to political action, sentimentalizing victimhood has little to do with actual compassion for victims and much to do with the self-righteousness and moral purity of those who profess to champion victims.  The sentimentalizing of victimhood eschews the complexity of that condition.  It breaks the world up into a false binary of victim categories vs victimizer categories and assigns moral superiority to the condition of victimhood and moral purity to those who champion victim categories.  By championing victim categories, they absolve themselves of complicity in the system of victimization they attribute to the natural workings of the state, which is why political action, for the infantile importantists, consists primarily of confrontations with state power.

Here’s an example of how infantile importantism has compromised the effectiveness of the left.  In a recent New Yorker article about political attitudes at Oberlin College,[2] the writer reports what happened to a student who objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups.  He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.”  To the screamer, being a “white cisgender male” puts someone on the wrong side of the victim/victimizer binary and identifies him as a member of a victimizer category.  As such, he is denied a valid political voice; only those who can be identified as victims are allowed that in the infantile importantist imagination.  In this particular case, the screamed-at student’s Jewishness was being particularly denied as candidacy for victimhood because Jews are seen as victimizers of Palestinians, in what can only be seen as an unfortunate revival of the “socialism of the fools,” among the infantile left.  A more adult left would welcome all in an organizing effort to redress the consequences of victimhood while recognizing its complexity.  It would abjure such posturing as unimportant and the effort to exclude as deleterious.

That attitude of the screamer, that only those in a victim category can have a legitimate political voice, has led the left to abandon whole segments of the working class that do not fit the sentimentalized version of victimhood.  In effect, the left has signed on to the corporate project of dividing the working class into competing constituencies to their benefit.  The idea of a white working class, so often referred to by the punditocracy, is a fiction created by that attitude.  There is only a unified working class, and any attempt to destroy that unity is essentially reactionary. 

As many political theorists have pointed out, when the right makes political gains, it is because the left has somehow abandoned its constituency.  The sentimentalizing of victimhood, an infantile importantist attitude, is the primary vehicle by which the current left has accomplished that abandonment. 

 

[1] [1] For a fuller explication of this argument, read The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

 

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/30/the-new-activism-of-liberal-arts-colleges