kurban bayrami konusunda..dusunmek gerek…

facebook sayfamdan aldigim bir kac yazi ve yorum..

Yavas yavas su kurban kesim vidiyolari paylasilmaya basliyor..
ve demektirki insanlara kufur etmektense, ve kendimede bunucektirmektense, bu aralar facebooku cok kullaniyor olmicam.

Kitabinizi birde anlasaniz..

“It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah; it is your piety thatreaches Him.” (s22a37)

“Degildir etleri yada kanlari allaha ulasan, ancak Allah’a sizin takvanizerecektir.”

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londraya gecince ingilteredeki numarami yollarim isteyenlere.

  • <gizli> Kurban kesmekte takvanın gereğidir bunu unutma Like · Reply · 2 hrs  
  • Mahir Sayar ayeti ve sonrasindakileri okursaniz, bu sadece bir yorum. benimyorumum farkli. allah bana benim yorumumu soracak, cunku herkes kendinefsinin muhasebesini yapacak. hayvanin kanini tavka nedenile bolunecek diyeinanlar de kendi muhasebelerini yapacak. herkes kenfi nefsinden sorumlu. bana gore yanlis. et ve kan degil, takvadir diyen ayate nasil kavta kan ve etten dir diye anlarki insan, bunu hic anlamadim. yani takvanin olcusunde kan dokebilmek kabiliyeti dahildir diyorsan bilmem, cok farkli bir yere cikar. Like · Reply · 1 · 2 hrs · Edited  
    • <gizli> İslam’ın kurbanı ne için kesilmesi gerektiğini iyi anla kurbanavahşet gözüyle bakanlar akıl tutulması yaşayan sözde elit, aydın zihniyetesahip olduğunu düşünen gerizekalıları okumaktan ziyade kuran oku anlave onu yaşa mahir.. Like · Reply · 56 mins
  • <gizli> Mesele kesmek bicmek degil mesele takva meselesi tabi ki.. sen onuAllah a adayacaksin ibadet sayacaksin.. fakiri goreceksin yaaa is bu arkadasimbenim icin… kuban kes demis Yaratan ama kendin icin degil.. bunlari unutmamaklazim. Like · Reply · 1 hr  
  • Mahir Sayar yazi uzun, hepsini okumayacaksaniz, bosuna yorum yazmayin..saygilar.
    mmm arapcayi anliyabilmek icin 2 sene kuweytde yasadim.. quranin arapcasinidaha fazla ogrenebilmek icin 8 ay bedevilerle yasadim. her biriniz, arapcabilmiyorken, ancak baskalarinin yorumlarini okuyup (ki birinin ceviriside, o kisinin sahsi yorumudur) bana nasil boyle seylerle gelebiliyorsunuz?

    ilk musluman toplumum adetlerinde, yani kismet sunnet il-adat denen seyin yemek kulturunu nekadar biliyorsunuz merak ediyorum? 1, buyuk bas hayvan yemezlerdi. ona bakarsan kertenkele de yenmezdi (muslumanlar arasinda, cunku muhammet demistirki “kertenkele benim toplumunum besini degildir” ama yasaklamamistir.. ilginc degil mi?

    Omer – sunu demistir – kirmizi etin bagimligdan sakinin, alkol gibidir” o toplumun insani belki senede 2 kes et yerdi, eid el fitra ve eid al adha.. et kan vahsetleri yoktur.. sokaklarda etleri kesmeslerde.. baska bir hayvanin oldurulen hayvani gormesini izin vermezlerdi.. her et yiyen toplum et kesiyor.. bana farkini anlatin.. ibadet sayacaksin konusunda, o her sahisa mahsus.. allah bana “sen o hayvan gerekmeyen besin icin niye kesmedin derse” ozaman suclu benim, fakat “karnin ac degil iken, ihtiyacin yok iken, o hayvani bosuna BENIM ADIMA oldurdun, mashallah” diyecek bir allahin kulu degilim..

    hatta o ilk musluman toplumun bir lakabivardir paso et yiyenlere – QARAB derlerdi.. etcil/vahsi demektir.. azicik da fiqh bilginiz varsa – surat al baqaranin niye “inek” adini verildignide biliyorsunuzdur? bilmiyormusunuz? cunku inek yiyen toplumlarin tarih boyunca yaptiklari ve yapacaklari bir misaldir baqara suresinde gecenler..

    azicik 25 senin disinda dusunun, azicik 1400 senelik gozlerle dusunun..

    takva soz konusu budur – size gore allah O kesilen etin dokulen kanin ihtiyaci mi var? allah israftan ve masrufunlardan bahsederkene, kimden bahsediyor saniyorsunuz?

    karniniz ac mi? acliktan olen tanidiginiz var mi? migrosdan alisveris yapamayan taniyormusunuz? bunlara belki evet dersiniz.. belkide hayir.. bilmem.. ama benim kesmeye ihtiyacim yok.. tanidigim da yok boyle bir ihtiyaci olan – ama dunyada cok adam ac.. cok insan ac.. cok insan acliktan oluyor.. saniyormusunuz ki yaptigmiz kesim yetmedigi icin mi?

    quranda bir ayet vardir… size birakiyorum belki acip bakarsiniz,
    “el dunya ummekum..” diye baslar..

    “dunya sizin ananizdir…” bir acin bakin o ayet nediyor..

    ma’ide suresinde de bir sahisdan bahseder allah… bir meclisten kalktiginda dinledigi herseyi sorgulamadan kabul ettigi icin allah onu suclu bulur.. sirktir..

    ama kitap kimle konusuyor ki? hocanla mi? imamlarla mi? yoksa kitap bana mi veriyor bu ornekleri..

    quran benimle mi konusuyor?

    tabiki benimle konusuyor..

    ve sen okursan seninle konusuyor…

    israf… ben? belki zaman icin, belki su icin, ama can icin asla.. bir canin israfi yoktur.. qatiledir.. sartsiz kosulsuz..

    quranda derki yediginiz et “tayyib ve helal” olmalidir.. helaldan kasti nedir? tayyibden kasti nedir?

    bir sozluk acip bir ayetteki kelimeleri ogrenip “acaba allah bana ne demeye calismis burda” cunku Quran “SANA” SENINLE konusuyor.. “2. sahisi” kullaniyor..

    SEN BU KITABI anlamalisin diyor – ve BU KITAPTA SENI SUHPEYE dusurecek birsey yoktur diyor..

    quranin arapcasi konusunda, “biz qurani arapca gonderdikki, anlabilesiniz” diye.. demekki quranin idrakinda arapcanin bir onemi var.. burdaki 2 yorumcu haricinde tanidigim herkes ile konusuyorum, yds, kpss, kpds – bukadar cok ugrastiniz bu dunya icin birsey basarmak icin, kac tanenis arapca icin bukadar ugrastiniz?
    kuveyte gitmem gerekmidi? bilmem.. ingilizce ogretmeniyim – ogrencilerimde biliyor – dilin ana dil oldugu yerde daha avantajli olur…

    ozaman bedeviler? onlarla yasamam gerek midi? bilmem>> ama sunnetdir.. muhammedin hayatini biliyorsaniz o bedevi degildi – sehirlidi… fakat ailesi bedevilere yolladilar, cunku bedeviler daha edebidir – daha egitimlidi.. MODERN hayattan daha az etkilenmislerdi – ve bu 1400 kusur sene once!!! siz dusunun…

    ben kendim bilmedigim surece zaten allah ibadetimi kabul etmez.. bilincsiz ibadet taklitir.. ne imam ne hoca ne diyanetin kalbinin icini bilmiyorum – ancak kendiminkini biliyorum – ve quranderki allah size kendinizden daha yakindir.. kimin sozlerini guvenmem lazim? diyanetin mi? al azhar mi? medine mi?

    diyanetin adamlarina bukadar mi guveniyorsunuz?
    akp’ye oy vermek fardhi 3ain dir diyenlere cok mu guveniyorsunuz?

    dedigim gibi – herkes kendi sahsi muhabsebini yapacak – araf soz konusu.. bir hayvanin etini kesip bunu hala ibadet sayildigini dusunuyorsaniz o sizin muhasebeniz.. o hayvanin kanini dokebilmek, kurban kurban diye burda hitap etmek laf cambazligi – kurban arapcada “mustehak” kelimesine esdegerdir…

    ve tabiki burda HALA derken muhammed ve islamin son tesekullunden sonradan bahsediyorum.. hristyanlar icin ve yahudiler icin kurallar farkli…

    qurandaki asil kelime “adha” dir.. “birsey alinmasidir” demektir..

    .. bunun icin bazi insanlar “dahi”dir.. cunku onlardan “bir sey alinmis” (ve yerine allah baska bir teffik vermistir”…)

    o hayvanin kanini dokebilmek ibadet sayiilMALI diyorsaniz, o sizin hesabiniz.. benim quran’dan anladigim allah, bana – niye oldurmedin – demeyecektir.. ac degilim, ihtiyacim yok, ve kestigim hayvanin ihtiyaci olanlara gidecegini ancak KENDI ELLERIMLE VERMEDIKTEN SONRA – kesmem.

    su var tabiki, beni taniyanlarda bir ada hayalim oldugnu biliyorlar.. evet – o adada, picagi ben bilerim, hayvani ben avlarim, hayvani ben keserim, yerim ve kalani dagitirim..

    hepimizi islah etsin.

    ve insanlarin facebookta yorum yapacak zamanlarini arapca ogrenmegelerine yonlendirsin. amin

Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself

The beginning of our story isn’t difficult to find. Every schoolchild learns that our story began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution.

Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself?

Delivered October 18, 2000, as a Fleming Lecture in Religion, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas

Contrary to popular opinion, Charles Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. By the middle of the 19th century, the mere fact of evolution had been around for a long time, and most thinkers of the time were perfectly content to leave it at that. The absence of a theory to explain evolutionary change didn’t trouble them, wasn’t experienced as a pressure, as it was by Darwin. He knew there had to be some intelligible mechanism or dynamic that would account for it, and this is what he went looking for–with well-known results. In his Origin of Species, he wasn’t announcing the fact of evolution, he was trying to make sense of the fact.

In my mid-twenties I began to feel a similar sort of pressure. The modern Age of Anxiety was just being born under the shadows of rampant population growth, global environmental destruction, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear holocaust. I was surprised that most people seemed perfectly reconciled to these things, as if to say, Well, what else would you expect?

Ted Kaczynski , the Unabomber, seemed to think he was saying something terribly original in his 1995 diatribe blaming it all on the Industrial Revolution, but this was just the conventional wisdom of 1962. To my mind, blaming all our problems on the Industrial Revolution is like blaming Hamlet’s downfall on his fencing match with Laertes. To understand why Hamlet ended up badly, you can’t just look at the last ten minutes of his story, you have to go right back to the beginning of it, and I felt a pressure to do the same with us.

The beginning of our story isn’t difficult to find. Every schoolchild learns that our story began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution. This isn’t the beginning of the human story, but it’s certainly the beginning of our story, for it was from this beginning that all the wonders and horrors of our civilisation grew.

Everyone is vaguely aware that there have been two ways of looking at the Agricultural Revolution within our culture, two contradictory stories about its significance. According to the standard version–the version taught in our schools–humans had been around for a long time, three or four million years , living a miserable and shiftless sort of life for most of that time, accomplishing nothing and getting nowhere. But then about 10,000 years ago it finally dawned on folks living in the Fertile Crescent that they didn’t have to live like beavers and buzzards, making do with whatever food happened to come along; they could cultivate their own food and thus control their own destiny and well being. Agriculture made it possible for them to give up the nomadic life for the life of farming villagers. Village life encouraged occupational specialization and the advancement of technology on all fronts. Before long, villages became towns, and towns became cities, kingdoms, and empires. Trade connections, elaborate social and economic systems, and literacy soon followed, and there we went. All these advances were based on–and impossible without–agriculture, manifestly humanity’s greatest blessing.

The other story, a much older one, is tucked away in a different corner of our cultural heritage. It too is set in the Fertile Crescent and tells a tale of the birth of agriculture, but in this telling agriculture isn’t represented as a blessing but rather as a terrible punishment for a crime whose exact nature has always profoundly puzzled us. I’m referring, of course, to the story told in the third chapter of Genesis, the Fall of Adam.

Both these stories are known to virtually everyone who grows up in our culture, including every historian, philosopher, theologian, and anthropologist. But like most thinkers of the mid-19th century, who were content with the mere fact of evolution and felt no pressure to explain it, our historians, philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists seem perfectly content to live with these two contradictory stories. The conflict is manifest but, for them, demands no explanation.

For me, it did. As evolution demanded of Darwin a theory that would make sense of it, the story in Genesis demanded of me a theory that would make sense of it.

There have traditionally been two approaches to Adam’s crime and punishment . The text tells us Adam was invited to partake of every tree in the garden of Eden except one, mysteriously called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As we know, Adam succumbed to the temptation to sample this fruit. In one approach, the crime is viewed as simple disobedience, in which case the interdiction of the knowledge of good and evil seems entirely arbitrary. God might just as well have interdicted the knowledge of war and peace or the knowledge of pride and prejudice. The point was simply to forbid Adam something in order to test his loyalty. Under this approach, Adam’s punishment–banishment from Eden to live by the sweat of his brow as a farmer–was just a spanking; it doesn’t “fit the crime” in any particular way. He would have received this punishment no matter what test he had failed.

The second approach tries to make some connection between Adam’s crime and his punishment. Under this approach, Eden is viewed as a metaphor for the state of innocence, which is lost when Adam gains the knowledge of good and evil. This makes sense, but only if the knowledge of good and evil is understood as a metaphor for knowledge that destroys innocence. So, with roughly equivalent metaphors at either end, the story is reduced to a banal tautology: Adam lost his innocence by gaining knowledge that destroyed his innocence.

The story of the Fall is coupled with a second that is equally famous and equally baffling, that of Cain and Abel. As conventionally understood, these two brothers were literal individuals, the elder, Cain, a tiller of the soil, and the younger, Abel, a herder. The improbability that two members of the same family would embrace antithetical lifestyles should tip us off to the fact that these were not individuals but emblematic figures, just as Adam was (Adam merely being the Hebrew word for Man).

If we understand these as emblematic figures, then the story begins to make sense. The firstborn of agriculture was indeed the tiller of the soil, as Cain was said to be the firstborn of Adam. This is an undoubted historical fact. The domestication of plants is a process that begins the day you plant your first seed, but the domestication of animals takes generations. So the herder Abel was indeed the second-born–by centuries, if not millennia (another reason to be sceptical of the notion that Cain and Abel were literally second-generation brothers).

A further reason for scepticism on this point is the fact that the ancient farmers and herders of the Near East occupied adjacent but distinctly different regions. Farming was the occupation of the Caucasian inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent. Herding was the occupation of the Semitic inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula to the south.

Another piece of background that needs to be understood is that in very ancient times farmers and herders had radically different lifestyles. Farmers were by the very nature of their work settled villagers; but herders (by the very nature of their work) were nomads, just as many present-day herding peoples are. The herding lifestyle was, in fact, closer to the hunting-gathering lifestyle than it was to the farming lifestyle.

As the farming peoples of the north expanded, it was inevitable that they would confront their Semitic herding neighbours to the south, perhaps below what is now Iraq–with the predictable result. As they have done from the beginning to the present moment, the tillers of the soil needed more land to put to the plough, and as they’ve done from the beginning to the present moment, they took it.

As the Semites saw it (and it is, of course, their version of the story that we have), the tiller of the soil Cain was watering his fields with the blood of Abel the herder.

The fact that the version we have is the Semitic version explains the central mystery of the story, which is why God rejected Cain’s gift but accepted Abel’s. Naturally, this is the way the Semites would see it. In essence, the story says, “God is on our side. God loves us and the way we live but hates the tillers of the soil and the way they live.”

With these provisional understandings in place, I was ready to offer a theory about the first part of the story, the Fall of Adam. What the Semitic authors knew was only the present fact that their brothers from the north were encroaching on them in a murderous way. They hadn’t been physically present in the Fertile Crescent to witness the actual birth of agriculture, and in fact this was an event that had occurred hundreds of years earlier. In their story of the Fall, they were reconstructing an ancient event, not reporting a recent one. All that was clear to them was that some strange development had saddled their brothers to the north with a laborious lifestyle and had turned them into murderers, and this had to be a moral or spiritual catastrophe of some kind.

What they observed about their brothers to the north was this peculiarity. They seemed to have the strange idea that they knew how to run the world as well as God. This is what marks them as our cultural ancestors. As we go about our business of running the world, we have no doubt that we’re doing as good a job as God, if not better. Obviously God put a lot of creatures in the world that are quite superfluous and even pernicious, and we’re quite at liberty to get rid of them. We know where the rivers should run, where the swamps should be drained, where the forests should be razed, where the mountains should be leveled, where the plains should be scoured, where the rain should fall. To us, it’s perfectly obvious that we have this knowledge.

In fact, to the authors of the stories in Genesis, it looked as if their brothers to the north had the bizarre idea that they had eaten at God’s own tree of wisdom and had gained the very knowledge God uses to rule the world. And what knowledge is this? It’s a knowledge that only God is competent to use, the knowledge that every single action God might take–no matter what it is, no matter how large or small–is good for one but evil for another. If a fox is stalking a pheasant, it’s in the hands of God whether she will catch the pheasant or the pheasant will escape. If God gives the fox the pheasant, then this is good for the fox but evil for the pheasant. If God allows the pheasant to escape, then this is good for the pheasant but evil for the fox. There’s no outcome that can be good for both. The same is true in every area of the world’s governance. If God allows the valley to be flooded, then this is good for some but evil for others. If God holds back the flood then this too will be good for some but evil for others.

Decisions of this kind are clearly at the very root of what it means to rule the world, and the wisdom to make them cannot possibly belong to any mere creature, for any creature making such decisions would inevitably say, “I will make every choice so that it’s good for me but evil for all others.” And of course, this is precisely how the agriculturalist operates, saying, “If I scour this plain to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the plain, but it’ll be good for me. If I raze this forest to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the forest, but it’ll be good for me.”

What the authors of the stories in Genesis perceived was that their brothers to the north had taken into their own hands the rule of the world; they had usurped the role of God. Those who let God run the world and take the food that he’s planted for them have an easy life. But those who want to run the world themselves must necessarily plant their own food, must necessarily make their living by the sweat of the brow. As this makes plain, agriculture was not the crime itself but rather the result of the crime, the punishment that must inevitably follow such a crime. It was wielding the knowledge of good and evil that had turned their brothers in the north into farmers–and into murderers.

But these were not the only consequences to be expected from Adam’s act. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is harmless to God but poison to Man. It seemed to these authors that usurping God’s role in the world would be the very death of Man.

And so it seemed to me when I finally worked all this out in the late 1970s. This investigation of the stories in Genesis was not, for me, an exercise in biblical exegesis. I’d gone looking for a way to understand how in the world we’d brought ourselves face to face with death in such a relatively short period of time–10,000 years, a mere eyeblink in the lifespan of our species–and had found it in an ancient story that we long ago adopted as our own and that remained stubbornly mysterious to us as long as we insisted on reading it as if it were our own. When examined from a point of view not our own, however, it ceased to be mysterious and delivered up a meaning that not only would have made sense to a beleaguered herding people 8,000 years ago but that would also make sense to the beleaguered people of the late twentieth century.

As far as I was concerned, the authors of this story had gotten it right. In spite of the terrible mess we’ve made of it, we do think we can run the world, and if we continue to think this, it is going to be the death of us.

In case it isn’t evident, I should add that, of course, my reading of Genesis is only a theory. This is what creationists say of evolution, that it’s “only a theory, it hasn’t been proved,” as though this in itself is grounds for dismissal. This misrepresents the point of formulating a theory, which is to make sense of the evidence. So far, Darwin’s theory remains the very best way we’ve found to make sense of the evidence, and my own theory has to be evaluated in the same way. Does it make sense of the evidence–the stories themselves–and does it make more sense than any other theory?

But solving this particular riddle only began to alleviate the pressure I felt for answers that were not being looked for at any level of our culture. The philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid down by people who confidently believed that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilisation builder. These things were as instinctive to him as predation is to lions or hiving is to bees. This meant that to find and date Man’s birth, they had only to look for the beginnings of agriculture and civilisation, which were obviously not that far back in time.

When in 1650 Irish theologian James Ussher announced the date of creation as October 23, 4004 B.C., no one laughed, or if they did, it was because of the absurd exactitude of the date, not because the date was absurdly recent. In fact, 4004 B.C. is quite a serviceable date for the beginning of what we would recognise as civilisation. This being the case, it’s hardly surprising that, for people who took it for granted that Man began building civilisation as soon as he was created, 4004 B.C. would seem like a perfectly reasonable date for his creation.

But all this soon changed. By the middle of the 19th century the accumulated evidence of many new sciences had pushed almost all dates back by many orders of magnitude. The universe and the earth were not thousands of years old but billions. The human past extended millions of years back beyond the appearance of agriculture and civilization.Only those who clung to a very literal reading of the biblical creation story rejected the evidence; they saw it as a hoax perpetrated on us either by the devil (to confound us) or by God (to test our faith)–take your pick. The notion that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilization builder had been rendered totally untenable. He had very definitely not been born either one.

This meant that the philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid by people with a profoundly erroneous understanding of our origins and history. It was therefore urgently important to reexamine these foundations and if necessary to rebuild them from the ground up.

Except, of course, that no one at all thought this was urgently important–or even slightly important. So human life began millions of years before the birth of agriculture. Who cares? Nothing of any importance happened during those millions of years. They were merely a fact, something to be accepted, just as the fact of evolution had been accepted by naturalists long before Darwin.

In the last century, we’d gained an understanding of the human story that made nonsense of everything we’d been telling ourselves for 3,000 years, but our settled understandings remained completely unshaken. So what, that Man had not in fact been born an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder? He was certainly born to become an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder. It was beyond question that this was our foreordained destiny. The way we live is the way humans were meant to live from the beginning of time. And indeed we must go on living this way–even if it kills us.

Facts that were indisputable to all but biblical literalists had radically repositioned us not only in the physical universe but in the history of our own species. The fact that we had been repositioned was all but universally acknowledged, but no one felt any pressure to develop a theory that would make sense of the fact, the way Darwin had made sense of the fact of evolution.

Except me, and I have to tell you that it gave me no joy. I had to have answers, and I went looking for them not because I wanted to write a book someday but because I personally couldn’t live without them.

In Ishmael, I made the point that the conflict between the emblematic figures Cain and Abel didn’t end six or eight thousand years ago in the Near East. Cain the tiller of the soil has carried his knife with him to every corner of the world, watering his fields with the blood of tribal peoples wherever he found them. He arrived here in 1492 and over the next three centuries watered his fields with the blood of millions of Native Americans. Today, he’s down there in Brazil, knife poised over the few remaining aboriginals in the heart of that country.

The tribe among aboriginal peoples is as universal as the flock of geese, and no anthropologist seriously doubts that it was humanity’s original social organisation. We didn’t evolve in troops or hordes or pods. Rather, we evolved in a social organisation was peculiarly human, that was uniquely successful forculture-bearers. The tribe was successful for humans, which is why it was still universally in place throughout the world three million years later. The tribal organisation was natural selection’s gift to humanity in the same way that the flock was natural selection’s gift to geese.

The elemental glue that holds any tribe together is tribal law. This is easy to say but less easy to understand because the operation of tribal law is entirely different from the operation of our law. Prohibition is the essence of our law, but the essence of tribal law is the remedy. Misbehaviour isn’t outlawed in any tribe. Rather, tribal law prescribes what must happen in order to minimise the effect of misbehaviour and to produce a situation in which everyone feels that they’ve been made as whole again as it’s possible to be.

In The Story of B I described how adultery is handled among the Alawa of Australia. If you have the misfortune to fall in love with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband, the law doesn’t say, “This is prohibited and may not go forward.” It says, “If you want your love to go forward, here’s what you must do to make things right with all parties and to see to it that marriage isn’t cheapened in the eyes of our children.” It’s a remarkably successful process. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that it wasn’t worked out in any legislature or by any committee. It’s another gift of natural selection. Over countless generations of testing, no better way of handling adultery has been found or even conceivably could be found, because–behold!–it works! It does just what the Alawa want it to do, and absolutely no one tries to evade it. Even adulterers don’t try to evade it–that’s how well it works.

But this is just the law of the Alawa, and it would never occur to them to say, “Everyone in the world should do it this way.” They know perfectly well that their tribal neighbours’ laws work just as well for them–and for the same reason, that they’ve been tested from the beginning of time.

One of the virtues of tribal law is that it presupposes that people are just the way we know they are: generally wise, kind, generous, and well-intentioned but perfectly capable of being foolish, unruly, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, sneaky, lustful, treacherous, careless, vindictive, neglectful, petty, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. Tribal law doesn’t punish people for their shortcomings, as our law does. Rather, it makes the management of their shortcomings an easy and ordinary part of life.

But during the developmental period of our culture, all this changed very dramatically. Tribal peoples began to come together in larger and larger associations, and one of the casualties of this process was tribal law. If you take the Alawa of Australia and put them together with Gebusi of New Guinea, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the Yanomami of Brazil, they are very literally not going to know how to live. Not any of these tribes are going to embrace the laws of the others, which may not only be unknown to them but incomprehensible to them. How then are they going to handle mischief that occurs among them? The Gebusi way or the Yanomami way? The Alawa way or the Bushman way? Multiply this by a hundred, and you’ll have a fair approximation of where people stood in the early millennia of our own cultural development in the Near East.

When you gather up a hundred tribes and expect them to work and live together, tribal law becomes inapplicable and useless. But of course the people in this amalgam are the same as they always were: capable of being foolish, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, and all the rest. In the tribal situation, this was no problem, because tribal law was designed for people like this. But all the tribal ways of handling these ordinary human tendencies had been expunged in our burgeoning civilization. A new way of handling them had to be invented–and I stress the word invented. There was no received, tested way of handling the mischief people were capable of. Our cultural ancestors had to make something up, and what they made up were lists of prohibited behavior.

Very understandably, they began with the big ones. They weren’t going to prohibit moodiness or selfishness. They prohibited things like murder, assault, and theft. Of course, we don’t know what the lists were like until the dawn of literacy, but you can be sure they were in place because it’s hardly plausible that we murdered, robbed, and thieved with impunity for five or six thousand years until Hammurabi finally noticed that these were rather disruptive activities.

When the Israelites escaped from Egypt in the 13th century B.C., they were literally a lawless horde, because they’d left the Egyptian list of prohibitions behind. They needed their own list of prohibitions, which God provided–the famous ten. But of course, ten didn’t do it. Hundreds more followed, but they didn’t do it either.

No number has ever done it for us. Not a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. Even millions don’t do it, and so every single year we pay our legislators to come up with more. But no matter how many prohibitions we come up with, they never do the trick, because no prohibited behaviour has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it. Every time someone is sent to prison or executed, this is said to be “sending a message” to miscreants, but for some strange reason the message never arrives, year after year, generation after generation, century after century.

Naturally, we consider this to be a very advanced system.

No tribal people has ever been found that claimed not to know how to live. On the contrary, they’re all completely confident that they know how to live. But with the disappearance of tribal law among us, people began to be acutely aware of not knowing how to live. A new class of specialists came to be in demand, their speciality being the annunciation of how people are supposed to live. These specialists we call prophets.

Naturally, it takes special qualifications to be a prophet. You must by definition know something the rest of us don’t know, something the rest of us are clearly unable to know. This means you must have a source of information that is beyond normal reach–or else what good would it be? A transcendent vision will do, as in the case of Siddhartha Gautama. A dream will do, provided it comes from God. But best of all, of course, is direct, personal, unmediated communication with God. The most persuasive and most highly valued prophets, the ones that are worth dying for and killing for, have the word directly from God.

The appearance of religions based on prophetic revelations is unique to our culture. We alone in the history of all humanity needed such religions. We still need them (and new ones are being created every day), because we still profoundly feel that we don’t know how to live. Our religions are the peculiar creation of a bereft people. Yet we don’t doubt for a moment that they are the religions of humanity itself.

This belief was not an unreasonable one when it first took root among us. Having long since forgotten that humanity was here long before we came along, we assumed that we were humanity itself and that our history was human history itself. We imagined that humanity had been in existence for just a few thousand years–and that God had been talking to us from the beginning. So why wouldn’t our religions be the religions of humanity itself?

When it became known that humanity was millions of years older than we, no one thought it odd that God had remained aloof from the thousands of generations that had come before us. Why would God bother to talk to Homo habilis or Homo erectus? Why would he bother to talk even to Homo sapiens–until we came along? God wanted to talk to civilised folks, not savages, so it’s no wonder he remained disdainfully silent.

The philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries weren’t troubled by God’s long silence. The fact alone was enough for them, and they felt no pressure to develop a theory to make sense of it. For Christians, it had long been accepted that Christianity was humanity’s religion (which is why all of humanity had to be converted to it, of course). It was an effortless step for thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox to promote Christ from humanity’s Christ to the Cosmic Christ.

Very strangely, it remained to me to recognise that there once was a religion that could plausibly be called the religion of humanity. It was humanity’s first religion and its only universal religion, found wherever humans were found, in place for tens of thousands of years. Christian missionaries encountered it wherever they went and piously set about destroying it. By now it has been all but stamped out either by missionary efforts or more simply by exterminating its adherents. I certainly take no pride in its discovery, since it’s been in plain sight to us for hundreds of years.

Of course, it isn’t accounted a “real” religion since it isn’t one of ours. It’s just a sort of half-baked “pre-religion.” How could it be anything else, since it emerged long before God decided humans were worth talking to? It wasn’t revealed by any accredited prophet, has no dogma, no evident theology or doctrine, no liturgy, and produces no interesting heresies or schisms. Worst of all, as far as I know, no one has ever killed for it or died for it–and what sort of religion is that? Considering all this, it’s actually quite remarkable that we even have a name for it.

The religion I’m talking about is, of course, animism. This name was cut to fit the general missionary impression that these childlike savages believe that things like rocks, trees, and rivers have spirits in them, and it hasn’t lost this coloration since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to settle for this trivialization of a religion that flourished for tens of thousands of years among people exactly as smart as we are. After decades of trying to understand what these people were telling us about their lives and their vision of humanity’s place in the world, I concluded that a very simple (but far from trivial) worldview was at the foundation of what they were saying: The world is a sacred place, and humanity belongs in such a world.

It’s simple but also deceptively simple. This can best be seen if we contrast it with the worldview at the foundation of our own religions. In the worldview of our religions, the world is anything but a sacred place. For Christians, it’s merely a place of testing and has no intrinsic value. For Buddhists, it’s a place where suffering is inevitable. If I oversimplify, my object is not to misrepresent but only to clarify the general difference between these two worldviews in the few minutes that are left to me.

For Christians, the world is not where humans belong; it’s not our true home, it’s just a sort of waiting room where we pass the time before moving on to our true home, which is heaven. For Buddhists, the world is another kind of waiting room, which we visit again and again in a repeating cycle of death and rebirth until we finally attain liberation in nirvana.

For Christians, if the world were a sacred place, we wouldn’t belong in it, because we’re all sinners; God didn’t send his only-begotten son to make us worthy of living in a sacred world but to make us worthy of living with God in heaven. For Buddhists, if the world were a sacred place, then why would we hope to escape it? If the world were a sacred place, then would we not rather welcome the repeating cycle of death and rebirth?

From the animist point of view, humans belong in a sacred place because they themselves are sacred. Not sacred in a special way, not more sacred than anything else, but merely as sacred as anything else–as sacred as bison or salmon or crows or crickets or bears or sunflowers.

This is by no means all there is to say about animism. It’s explored more fully in The Story of B, but this too is just a beginning. I’m not an authority on animism. I doubt there could ever be such a thing as an authority on animism.

Simple ideas are not always easy to understand. The very simplest idea I’ve articulated in my work is probably the least understood: There is no one right way for people to live–never has been and never will be. This idea was at the foundation of tribal life everywhere. The Navajo never imagined that they had the right way to live (and that all others were wrong). All they had was a way that suited them. With tribal peoples on all sides of them–all living in different ways–it would have been ridiculous for them to imagine that theirs was the one right way for people to live. It would be like us imagining that there is one right way to orchestrate a Cole Porter song or one right way to make a bicycle.

In the tribal world, because there was complete agreement that no one had the right way to live, there was a staggering glory of cultural diversity, which the people of our culture have been tirelessly eradicating for 10,000 years. For us, it will be paradise when everyone on earth lives exactly the same way.

Almost no one blinks at the statement that there is no one right way for people to live. In one of his denunciations of scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, “You gag on the gnat but swallow down the camel.” People find many gnats in my books to gag on, but this great hairy camel goes down as easily as a teaspoon of honey.

May the forests be with you and with your children.

The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism

 

In recent years, conservatives have fallen into a thoroughly oppositional mind-set in American politics. We have had good reasons for doing so.

A man is not primarily a witnessagainst something.
That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.
Whittaker Chambers, Witness

 

 

The agenda of the Obama administration has frequently been moved by a political philosophy hostile to what conservatives seek to defend: ordered individual and economic liberty, cultural traditionalism, personal responsibility, civil society, religious freedom, a commitment to work, a belief in America as the last best hope of mankind. Provoked on one or more of these fronts, conservatives have reacted defensively, making our case against what we have taken to be serious mistakes. This is a necessary and appropriate response to the circumstances. But it is dangerously insufficient.

Its insufficiency is dangerous, first, for the simple political reason that conservatives who want to succeed electorally need to offer voters something more than opposition to someone else’s ideas. It is also dangerous because it contributes to an impression (too often held by some conservatives themselves) that the Right is merely a brake on American life, while the Left holds the steering wheel—or that conservatives just want the liberal welfare state at a slightly lower cost than the Left has in mind.

But our oppositional mind-set is dangerous above all for a deeper reason: it threatens to make us forget what we seek to defend and advance, and so to reduce American conservatism to an outlet for nostalgia or outrage. Nostalgia and outrage are both inherently confused and unfocused forces in political life. They have their uses, but they could never do as organizing principles. The organizing principles of a political movement must involve some vision of the good of the whole—that is, some idea of how our society ought to approach its common life and why, which can help persuade the broader public and unify copartisans in the service of shared loves and hopes, not just shared frustrations or resentments.

Today’s conservatism sometimes gives the impression that until fairly recently the organizing principles of American life were obvious to everyone and embodied in the nation’s political practice. If this were true, then conservatives would be defenders of a threatened status quo and so would not have to work very hard to show Americans what we stand for. But it is not true. In fact, the organizing principles of our national life have always been hotly contested. American politics has involved a Left and a Right at each other’s throats almost from the first. And the Left has, in some important respects, been the dominant force in these arguments for at least the last third of the nation’s life. Progressivism has largely defined the status quo, in the process perverting the constitutional system to which conservatives point as the proper ideal.

To advance our cause, then, American conservatives need to offer our vision as a genuine alternative to the status quo. Doing so requires us to make an appeal to the broader public grounded in both a practical and a theoretical case, and therefore to engage simultaneously with the mundane realities of American government and the principles and philosophy that underlie our idea of the proper character of society and politics. It requires, in other words, a political program that draws on a conservative anthropology, sociology, and epistemology, and expresses itself in terms of both political philosophy and public administration.

This means that today’s Right needs both a firmer grounding in the foundations of the conservative tradition in American politics and more practical policy proposals that can speak to the public’s needs and wants.

Some conservatives are now trying to provide (or recover) these two essential supports. This small group of mostly younger writers and thinkers has come to be described as “reform conservatives.” Although this group is sometimes seen as standing in opposition to the establishment wing or the Tea Party wing of conservatism (or both), it is better understood as an extension of the two. Reform conservatism seeks to articulate what unites them and to supply what they are missing, and so to strengthen the American Right, and with it the larger American experiment, by making it more conservative.

The project of these reformers can perhaps be most clearly understood by first reflecting on the character and purpose of conservatism in America—that is, again, on the anthropology, sociology, epistemology, and public policy of the Right. By working our way up from those roots toward the surface of American political life, we can begin to discern the nature of an emerging reform-minded Right and the shape that a rich and effective twenty-first-century conservatism might take.

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American conservatism has always consisted of a variety of schools of social, moral, political, and economic thought. But they are nearly all united, in a general sense, by a cluster of anthropological assumptions that sets them apart from most American progressives.

Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This elevated yet gloomy conception of man, deeply informed by the peculiar, paradoxical wisdom of the West’s great religions, sets conservatives apart from libertarians and progressives alike, and sits at the core of most conservative thinking about society and politics.

It leads, to begin with, to low expectations of human affairs and away from utopianism. In the modern history of the West, conservatism has often manifested itself as an anti-utopian creed, unwilling to believe that timeless human problems could be permanently resolved by some novel insight, clever system, or transformational leader. The most profound and basic human problems recur in every generation because they are intrinsic to the human person—a function of our permanent incongruities and limitations that must be acknowledged, counterbalanced, mitigated, or accommodated but that can never really go away. No social organization of any sort can permanently overcome these problems, because the human being can be understood only as an individual and personal creature, albeit a fundamentally social one. Moral progress must ultimately be achieved through the transformation of individual souls rather than made for them by society as a whole.

The fact that these limits are inherent in humanity also leaves most conservatives persuaded that the experiences of different generations will not be fundamentally different from one another—or, as some have put it, that human nature has no history. Regardless of how much intellectual and material progress any society may make, every new child entering that society will still join it with essentially the same native equipment as any other child born in any other place at any other time. A failure to initiate the next generation of children into the ways of civilization would not only delay or derail innovation but also put into question the very continuity of that civilization. This is why conservatives rarely imagine that our society is on the verge of utopia and frequently (perhaps too frequently) imagine it is on the verge of a breakdown. And it is a crucial reason why conservatives care so deeply about culture.

The sense of man’s fallen nature often leaves conservatives with low expectations. But it is precisely because of those low expectations that we tend to be far more thankful for success in society than we are outraged by failure.

Progressives have much higher expectations. They are more open to the possibility of the perfectibility of man, and they tend to think they have a formula for it, so the persistence of failure infuriates them. When conservatives are outraged, it is generally at seeing something valuable lost; progressives are more commonly outraged at the obduracy of the status quo.

An appreciation of and a gratitude for what works in society, and an inclination to address our failures by building on what works rather than starting over, give conservatives a high regard for long-standing social institutions—those that have been valued by generations of people dealing with the same kinds of basic human problems we now face. It is a key reason why conservatives are traditionalists, inclined to be protective of established ways.

Those customs and institutions that have stood the test of time (which is really a recurring trial-and-error process, generation after generation) are likely to be best adapted to help us address eternal human challenges and meet enduring human needs, and therefore to enable genuine progress. They are likely to possess more knowledge than we can readily perceive and than any collection of technical experts, however capable, can have. A great deal of society’s wisdom is contained in the structure of such customs and institutions—and so is conveyed not just as knowledge but also as practice.

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This understanding of the place and significance of enduring institutions points from the anthropology to the sociology of conservatism. The conservative vision of society—informed both by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals alone to address social problems and by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals—seeks social arrangements that encourage individual moral progress while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society—families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more—that stand between the individual and the state.

An appreciation of these middle layers of society is one of the things that most clearly sets conservatives apart from progressives. American progressivism, from its earliest incarnations, has been characterized by a deep suspicion of and hostility to mediating institutions, which it has viewed as lacking in democratic legitimacy and embodying little more than prejudice and backwardness. Precisely because they are not rationally designed but have rather evolved gradually, as traditions do, these institutions have struck the Left as vestiges of a predemocratic era at odds with the logic of modern politics.

Thomas Paine was one of the earliest exponents of the view, now common on the Left, that society needs to be understood as consisting merely of individuals and government. All the layers in between, he argued in 1791, are remnants of a darker time and have no place in the political life of a free society. Such institutions, Paine contended, only put distance between the individual and his rights, “and the artificial chasm [is] filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which he has to pass.”¹

What Paine did not see, but many of his radical successors have, is that defining society as simply individuals and a government that represents their interests leaves no room for common action that is not state action. Clearing out the space between the individual and the state abolishes many of the means by which we exercise our liberty and opens the way to arguments for vast expansions of the role and power of government.

Contemporary progressives surely do see this, and they frequently make arguments for government action that implicitly assume, without expressly defending, this view of society. So, for instance, in his second inaugural address in 2013, President Barack Obama argued that the demands of a changing world make a greater reliance on government unavoidable, because the only alternative is a radical and simple-minded individualism:

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.²

Both the view of the past and the view of the present implicit in this argument are wrong. And both share in the same error: a rejection of the mediating layers of society.

Those layers have always been central to the conservative understanding of social life. It is an understanding that grounds rights and duties not in an abstract individualism but in a rich sense of the way in which our social arrangements can, through the generations, lead to a greater understanding of permanent truths. This understanding has been perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Edmund Burke’s response to the radical liberalism of Thomas Paine. In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, written in 1791, Burke wrote:

Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.³

This may well be the most important paragraph in all of Burke’s voluminous writings. It sets out the links between a conservative anthropology rooted in the limits of the individual’s power and choice and a conservative sociology that expresses itself in the complex social topography of the life of a free people. It helps us again to see a stark distinction between conservatism and progressivism, on several levels.

It is first of all crucial to see that this conservative sociology begins from family obligations that highlight the inherent limitations of the power of choice in the human experience. An enormous portion of the conservative worldview becomes clearer when we see the importance this view places on cultural continuity as a function of generational transmission—on the inescapable responsibilities human procreation imposes on each generation. An enormous portion of the progressive worldview becomes clearer when we see the degree to which it is shaped by a desire to be liberated from these obligations—and from the implications of the basic facts and character of human procreation. Many of what we loosely call the “social issues” in our politics involve debates about whether such a liberation is possible or desirable—whether the word choice can be poured like an acid over traditional social arrangements, burning all links of obligation and duty and making responsibility merely optional.

And it is no less crucial to see that the social topography Burke describes stands in the way of such radical liberation. The Left has long treated the flattening of society into individuals and a government as a prerequisite for true equality and so for justice, both in principle and in practice. The sociology of conservatism, which understands society as “spun out” of the family, the community, and the array of mediating social structures, suggests that justice in principle and practice needs to be pursued through our evolved, traditional institutions rather than around them, because those institutions answer to the enduring character of the human person.

The sociology of progressivism proposes as the alternative to society’s mediating institutions artificial social structures created by exercises of technical expertise empowered with state authority—in other words, government programs.

We live amid a profusion of such programs now. They are the pillars of the liberal welfare state, intended to stand in for and to weaken the pillars of our traditional free society. These programs were by no means designed with malevolent motives in mind. Each is expected to answer a real social need that progressives believe can no longer be (and never again could be enabled to be) met by mediating institutions.

By replacing a function of the traditional family, or work, or with a public program, progressives hope to liberate the individual from undue reliance on others. Dependence on people you know is oppressive, this vision implies, because it always comes with moral and social strings. But dependence on larger, more distant systems of benefits and rules is liberating, because it frees people from the undue moral influence of traditional social institutions even as it frees them from material want. A healthy dose of moral individualism combined with a healthy dose of economic collectivism can make for a powerful mix of freedom and equality. And this mix is to be achieved through public programs and institutions that address material problems by applying technical knowledge.

Conservatives have always resisted such gross rationalization of society and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions—from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets—will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that vital space between the individual and the government is a matter at least as much of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation.

Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism feels like freedom only because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas. But real freedom is possible only with real responsibility. And real responsibility is possible only when you depend on, and are depended on by, people you know. It is, in other words, possible only in that space between the individual and the state that the Left has long sought to collapse.

What happens in that space generally happens face to face—between parents and children, neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers. It therefore answers to immediately felt needs and is tailored to the characters, sentiments, priorities, and preferences of the people involved. It treats human persons personally. That kind of bottom-up common life is what makes society tick. Although it can certainly be reinforced by public policy, it could never be replaced with centralized administration, however capable the technical experts who engineer the programs.

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The anthropology that yields the sociology of conservatism also leads to the (closely related) epistemology of conservatism, and for all the reasons we have already begun to see.

The Left’s high expectations of the human person point toward a social vision with great confidence in the capacity of rational design to liberate the individual from burdens and obligations. This vision implies that we can solve or at least mitigate social problems by consolidating knowledge in the hands of the only legitimate institutions of common action—government institutions. Modern science, including modern social science, helps make this possible.

Conservatives begin from a very different premise about human knowledge and power. As already noted, conservatives tend to believe that society’s knowledge, often gained by a trial-and-error process across generations, is contained as much in the forms and structures of its institutions as in the explicit expertise they convey and apply. This is one of the reasons why conservatives respect traditional institutions. Mankind’s permanent moral limitations have close counterparts in mankind’s permanent cognitive limitations, and society’s institutions exist to help us alleviate the painful consequences of these limits—to enable society’s knowledge to be more than the sum of its citizens’ knowledge.

One of the great benefits of life in society (as Friedrich Hayek famously noted) is the ability to apply to our problems and needs knowledge that we do not ourselves possess, and indeed that no one in particular possesses—not even the most knowledgeable technocrats. Conservatives tend not to share in the progressive confidence in technical expertise, doubting that any group of experts could ever have enough knowledge to pull off the feats of management and administration that the Left expects government to achieve. Our anthropological and sociological modesty point us toward profound epistemological modesty.

That does not mean that we see society as incapable of achieving the enormous feats of applied knowledge required of a modern, diverse, dynamic nation. Rather, we think these feats can be achieved through institutions that channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than ones that impose technical knowledge from the top down. Conservatives, especially in America, are not fatalists, and indeed we are often fairly cheerful about America’s prospects. But we are cheerful and hopeful precisely because we start out with low expectations—because we believe in the capacity of American society to improve itself over time in this dynamic, diffuse, decentralized, and incremental way even while we doubt the capacity of consolidated technocratic management to improve it all at once by following a plan.

That bottom-up channeling of knowledge is what many of our society’s mediating institutions do much of the time, particularly when it comes to solving practical problems. Put simply, it is a process that involves three general steps, all grounded in humility: experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

Markets are ideally suited to following these steps. They offer entrepreneurs and businesses a huge incentive to try new ways of doing things (experimentation); the people directly affected decide which ways they like best (evaluation); and those consumer responses inform which ways are kept and which are left behind (evolution).

This three-step process is at work well beyond the bounds of explicitly economic activity. It is how our culture learns and evolves, how norms and habits form, and how society as a general matter “decides” what to keep and what to change. It is an exceedingly effective way to balance stability with improvement, continuity with alteration, tradition with dynamism. It involves conservation of the core with experimentation at the margins in an effort to attain the best of both.

That is why conservatives often reach for the language of markets in public policy—not necessarily always for actual markets but for following these three steps to achieve incremental improvements. Presented with a classic public-policy problem, such as how to improve schooling, reduce poverty, or restrain health-care costs, this approach can (1) allow different service providers to try different ways of meeting the need in question; (2) enable recipients or consumers of those services to decide which approaches work for them and which do not; and (3) thus provide clear evidence for which approaches should be kept and which should be dumped.

By contrast, government programs on the model of the liberal welfare state generally do not allow for any of the three steps. Administrative centralization and regulation proscribe experimentation; beneficiaries of services are not the ones who decide what is working and failing; and special interests grow around existing programs, making it hard to eliminate failures.

Conservatives tend to think society is much too complicated to be amenable to consolidated technical solutions that assume we already have all the answers and that government should simply impose them. We therefore believe that public policy should reinforce our long-evolved, decentralized social institutions, help all citizens take part in them, and sustain the space in which they can function.

What has come to be called the conservative reform agenda largely involves different ways of moving from the welfare-state model to the market-oriented model (or mediating-institution model) in different arenas of public policy. That is what school choice involves; it is what the conservative approach to health-care reform looks like; it is what the Right has to say about reforming welfare; and it is where conservative ideas point on the full range of domestic policy questions.

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It is not by coincidence that this approach has come to be described as reform-oriented, and it is important to understand that term, too, in the context of conservative intellectual history.

“Reform conservatism” refers to an effort not to change conservatism but rather to change American government in accordance with the sorts of conservative ideas laid out here. It speaks of an approach to public policy that seeks not to decimate government—cutting its size without regard for its purpose—but to curtail it by transforming its character through an understanding both of its proper purpose and of the proper mechanisms of policy and administration.

Such a conservatism will involve itself in the details of public-policy debates and not limit itself to the level of abstraction. Some conservatives recoil from such details, taking arguments about them to be concessions to the technocratic mind-set. But in fact, involvement in such debates is the only way to transform our governing institutions—to imbue them with an antitechnocratic modesty that makes possible continual improvements against a background of constructive stability. In the words of Friedrich Hayek:

Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.4

Indeed, the anthropological, sociological, and epistemological views that give conservatism its shape suggest an approach to policymaking that takes public problems seriously and that believes the state can play a role in creating the circumstances for their remedy—but that this must almost always be a supporting role and not a leading one. To avoid thinking about public policy altogether and argue only that there ought to be less of it is to let the Left define the role of government in accordance with its own ideas of the human person and society while the Right merely bargains over the size of the errors we make.

In America, such engagement with the details of policy is particularly important because it can also be a means of rescuing the character of our public institutions from the destructive distortions of progressivism. The U.S. Constitution, as both its structure and the writings of its framers make clear, is rooted in just the sort of skeptical view of human nature and human power that characterizes conservatism, and it advances precisely the view that the government (and the Constitution itself) exists to create a protected space within which society can flourish rather than to fill that space or command what happens in it. That is why the Right tends to view the boundaries established by the Constitution as liberating (or as creating a space for us to thrive), while the Left tends to view them as constricting (or as keeping the government from acting decisively and moving the country forward).

American progressives have always been dissatisfied with the modest role assigned to government in our system and have sought innovations in public administration that would advance a more assertive role for the state. A key task of conservative reformers today is to recover the more humble idea of American government at the core of our system. The fact that they must do so by starting with that system as they find it, and championing changes to it, must not be confused with a willingness to abide the progressive presumptions that have distorted it for many decades.

The understanding of reform as a recovery and restoration has been crucial to conservative thinking for centuries. Here, too, Edmund Burke can be our guide. Burke always sought to be associated with the term reform (even launching a weekly student newspaper called The Reformer, dedicated largely to culture and art, as an undergraduate at Dublin’s Trinity College in 1748). The term appealed to him because, in contrast to mere innovation, it spoke of a desire to retain the best of a long-standing practice or institution while addressing the worst—combining, as he put it in 1790, “the two principles of conservation and correction.” The greatest statesmen are those able, he wrote, “at once to preserve and reform.” Burke thought the greatest instances of such reform had occurred during the gravest crises Britain had faced, “at the two critical periods of the Restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without a king.” He continued:

At both those periods the nation had lost the bond of union in their ancient edifice; they did not, however, dissolve the whole fabric. On the contrary, in both cases they regenerated the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not impaired. They kept these old parts exactly as they were, that the part recovered might be suited to them.5

Today’s conservative reformers might find some inspiration in this idea of reform that uses the healthy parts of the constitutional system to serve as a model for addressing those parts that have been corrupted. We are privileged to be heirs to a system of government that was largely well founded and ordered to begin with. But it has been distorted over time, so that the task of today’s conservatives is in large part a task of reformation and recovery that would result in a genuine alternative to the American status quo. And our understanding of what is to be preserved and what is to be corrected should be guided by the anthropology, sociology, and epistemology of conservatism.

That understanding must also be guided, finally, by an ideal of human liberty. And here, too, conservatism has a unique contribution to make.

The idea of liberty that too often permeates our political debates is rooted in a radical (or progressive) anthropology that has too high an opinion of the character and rationality of man. Progressives and some libertarians, in different ways, imagine that by liberating the individual from all outside constraints we could set free his noblest instincts and eradicate our greatest social problems. Both take for granted a human individual capable of handling an enormous amount of freedom responsibly.

But such a person rarely occurs in nature. More often, he is an artifact of a particular kind of culture, which seeks to shape citizens capable of living as free men and women—of aligning their desires with their duties by understanding both well. When we fail to see the need for such a culture of moral formation, we imagine that all that is required for a free society is the absence of corrosive and distorting moral coercion, and so we are liable to seek through politics a morally neutralized public square.

When, instead, we see that our free society requires a flourishing private culture of moral formation for liberty, we are inclined to prize and to defend the institutions that enable and engage in such formation. And these are, once again, the mediating institutions that fill the space between the individual and the national state and speak to the simultaneous nobility and iniquity of the human person in personal terms.

These institutions have been weakened in recent decades, both by the effects of a hostile progressivism and by changes in American life to which they have not ably responded. It would be a mistake to imagine that they stand waiting, ready and strong, so that we need only roll back the liberal welfare state and they will step in. This would be to ignore the erosion of families, communities, civil society, and the market economy in the era of the welfare state. The mediating institutions need to be revived, reinforced, and empowered. This, too, is an important reason why conservatives need to look to a particular approach to public policy for means of ultimately making public policy less important and less powerful.

A conservatism committed to the future of the free society—grounded in a sense of the limits and the dignity of the human person, in an appreciation of the virtues of our core social institutions, and in a grasp of the means by which society improves its knowledge and addresses its problems—would seek to give our mediating institutions more freedom and power to help them recover their strength, so that America may do the same. Every plank of the policy platform of today’s reforming conservatism seeks to do exactly that: to inject greater and more meaningful power into the space between the individual and the state, and so to help American society address practical problems in a way that also reinforces its capacity for liberty.

The goal of conservatives in national politics cannot just be to have less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a slightly lower cost. The goal, rather, should be to transform American government along conservative lines, into a government that works to sustain and expand the space between the individual and the state; to strengthen the family, civil society, and the market economy and make their benefits accessible to more Americans; to help the poor not with an empty promise of material equality but with a fervent commitment to upward mobility; and to strengthen the middle class by lifting needless burdens off the shoulders of parents and workers.

That kind of government would certainly cost less, but it would do far more than that. It would advance the vision of our founding and build on the best of what America has been and on the foundations of the conservative view of the human person and society. And it would show voters why and how such an approach would improve their lives.

To achieve that, conservatives must first gain a better understanding of exactly what we have to offer. We must make the political appeal of American conservatism—the face we put before the public—significantly more conservative, and therefore both more principled and more practical. We must each be a witness for a vision of the good life worthy of the name.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author, most recently, of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.

This essay is taken from the Spring 2015 issue of Modern Age. Subscribe now.

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1 Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791), in Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Daniel Webster (New York: Vincent Parke & Company, 1915), 4:56.
2 President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2013, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/21/inaugural-address-president-barack-obama.
3 Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Paul Langford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 8:161.
4 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 7.
5 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in Writings and Speeches, 8:72.

Reality – Your personal guidebook

Do you believe all the arguments presented in this article, at least with respect to your own beliefs?

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I believe: Your personal guidebook to reality

Belief and Reality is central to science as well as religion – but we rarely stop to think how bizarre it is. Find out what your core values are really built on

THE day I sat down to write this article the news was rather like any other day. A teenager had been found guilty of plotting to behead a British soldier. Fighting had broken out again in Ukraine. Greece was accusing its creditors of being motivated by ideology rather than economic reality. Some English football fans were filmed racially abusing a man on the Paris subway. Admittedly, all of that day’s stories were unique in themselves. But at the root, they were all about the same thing: the powerful and very human attribute we call belief.

Beliefs define how we see the world and act within it; without them, there would be no plots to behead soldiers, no war, no economic crises and no racism. There would also be no cathedrals, no nature reserves, no science and no art. Whatever beliefs you hold, it’s hard to imagine life without them. Beliefs, more than anything else, are what make us human. They also come so naturally that we rarely stop to think how bizarre belief is.

In 1921, philosopher  put it succinctly when he described belief as “the central problem in the analysis of mind”. Believing, he said, is “the most ‘mental’ thing we do” – by which he meant the most removed from the “mere matter” that our brains are made of. How can a physical object like a human brain believe things? Philosophy has made little progress on Russell’s central problem. But increasingly, scientists are stepping in.

“We once thought that human beliefs were too complex to be amenable to science,” says Frank Krueger, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “But that era has passed.” What is emerging is a picture of a belief that is quite different from common-sense assumptions of it – one that has the potential to change some widely held beliefs about ourselves. Beliefs are fundamental to our lives, but when it comes to what we believe and why it turns out we have a lot less control than you might think.

Our beliefs come in many shapes and sizes, from the trivial and the easily verified – I believe it will rain today – to profound leaps of faith – I believe in . Taken together they form a personal guidebook to reality, telling us not just what is factually correct but also what is right and good, and hence how to behave towards one another and the natural world. This makes them arguably not just the most mental thing our brains do but also the most important. “The prime directive of the brain is to extract meaning. Everything else is a slave system,” says psychologist Peter Halligan at Cardiff University, UK.

Yet, despite their importance, one of the long-standing problems with studying beliefs is identifying exactly what it is you are trying to understand. “Everyone knows what belief is until you ask them to define it,” says Halligan. What is generally agreed is that belief is a bit like knowledge, but more personal. Knowing something is true is different from believing it to be true; knowledge is objective, but belief is subjective. It is this leap-of-faith aspect that gives belief its singular, and troublesome, character.

Philosophers have long argued about the relationship between knowing and believing. In the 17th century, René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza clashed over this issue while trying to explain how we arrive at our beliefs. Descartes thought understanding must come first; only once you have understood something can you weigh it up and decide whether to believe it or not. Spinoza didn’t agree. He claimed that to know something is to automatically believe it; only once you have believed something can you un-believe it. The difference may seem trivial but it has major implications for how belief works.

If you were designing a belief-acquisition system from scratch it would probably look like the Cartesian one. Spinoza’s view, on the other hand, seems implausible. If the default state of the human brain is to unthinkingly accept what we learn as true, then our common-sense understanding of beliefs as something we reason our way to goes out of the window. Yet, strangely, the evidence seems to support Spinoza. For example, young children are extremely credulous, suggesting that the ability to doubt and reject requires more mental resources than acceptance. Similarly, fatigued or distracted people are more susceptible to persuasion. And when neuroscientists joined the party, their findings added weight to Spinoza’s view.

Your credulous brain

The neuroscientific investigation of belief began in 2008, when Sam Harris at the University of California, Los Angeles, put people into a brain scanner and asked them whether they believed in various written statements. Some were simple factual propositions, such as “California is larger than Rhode Island”; others were matters of personal belief, such as “There is probably no God”. Harris found that statements people believed to be true produced little characteristic brain activity – just a few brief flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward. In contrast, disbelief produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision-making, as if the brain had to work harder to reach a state of disbelief. Statements the volunteers did not believe also activated regions associated with emotion but in this case pain and disgust.

Harris’s results were widely interpreted as further confirmation that the default state of the human brain is to accept. Belief comes easily; doubt takes effort. While this doesn’t seem like a smart strategy for navigating the world, it makes sense in the light of evolution. If the sophisticated cognitive systems that underpin belief evolved from more primitive perceptual ones, they would retain many of the basic features of these simpler systems. One of these is the uncritical acceptance of incoming information. This is a good rule when it comes to sensory perception as our senses usually provide reliable information. But it has saddled us with a non-optimal system for assessing more abstract stimuli such as ideas.

Further evidence that this is the case has come from studying how and why belief goes wrong. “When you consider brain damage or psychiatric disorders that produce delusions, you can begin to understand where belief starts,” says Halligan. Such delusions include beliefs that seem bizarre to outsiders but completely natural to the person concerned. For example, people sometimes believe that they are dead, that loved ones have been replaced by imposters, or that their thoughts and actions are being controlled by aliens. And, tellingly, such delusions are often accompanied by disorders of perception, emotional processing or “internal monitoring” – knowing, for example, whether you initiated a specific thought or action.

These deficits are where the delusions start, suggests Robyn Langdon of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. People with delusions of alien control, for example, often have faulty motor monitoring, so fail to register actions they have initiated as their own. Likewise, people with the delusion known as “mirror-self misidentification” fail to recognise their own reflection. They often also have a sensory deficit called mirror agnosia: they don’t “get” reflective surfaces. A mirror looks like a window and if asked to retrieve an object reflected in one they will try to reach into the mirror or around it. Their senses are telling them that the person in the mirror isn’t them, and so they believe this to be true. Again, we trust the evidence of our senses, and if they tell us that black is white, we generally do well to believe them.

You may think that you would never be taken in like that but, says Langdon, “we all default to such believing, at least initially”. Consider the experience of watching a magic show. Even though you know it’s all an illusion, your instinctive reaction is that the magician has altered the laws of physics.

Misperceptions are not delusions, of course. Witnessing someone being sawn in half and put back together doesn’t mean we then believe that people can be safely sawn in half. What’s more, sensory deficits do not always lead to delusional beliefs. So what else is required? Harris’s brain imaging studies delivered an important clue: belief involves both reasoning and emotion.

The feeling of rightness

The formation of delusional belief probably also requires the emotional weighing-up process to be disrupted in some way. It may be that brain injury destroys it altogether, causing people to simply accept the evidence of their senses. Or perhaps it just weakens it, lowering the evidence threshold required to accept a delusional belief.

For example, somebody with a brain injury that disrupts their emotional processing of faces may think “the person who came to see me yesterday looked like my wife but didn’t feel like her, maybe it was an impostor. I will reserve judgement until she comes back.” The next meeting feels similarly disconnected, and so the hypothesis is confirmed and the delusion starts to grow.

According to Langdon and others, this is similar to what goes on in the normal process of belief formation. Both involve incoming information together with unconscious reflection on that information until a “feeling of rightness” arrives, and a belief is formed.

This two-stage process could help explain why people without brain damage are also surprisingly susceptible to strange beliefs. Our natural credulity is one thing, and is particularly likely to lead us astray when we are faced with claims based on ideas that are difficult to verify with our senses – “9/11 was an inside job”, for example. The second problem is with the “feeling of rightness”, which would appear to be extremely fallible (see “What’s your delusion?“).

So where does the feeling of rightness come from? The evidence suggests that it has three main sources – our evolved psychology, personal biological differences and the society we keep.

The importance of evolved psychology is illuminated by perhaps the most important belief system of all: religion. Although the specifics vary widely, religious belief per se is remarkably similar across the board. Most religions feature a familiar cast of characters: supernatural agents, life after death, moral directives and answers to existential questions. Why do so many people believe such things so effortlessly?

According to the cognitive by-product theory of religion, their intuitive rightness springs from basic features of human cognition that evolved for other reasons. In particular, we tend to assume that agents cause events. A rustle in the undergrowth could be a predator or it could just be the wind, but it pays to err on the side of caution; our ancestors who assumed agency would have survived longer and had more offspring. Likewise, our psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy. During the dry season, for example, animals are likely to congregate by a water hole, so that’s where you should go hunting. Again, it pays for this system to be overactive.

This potent combination of hypersensitive “agenticity” and “patternicity” has produced a human brain that is primed to see agency and purpose everywhere. And agency and purpose are two of religion’s most important features – particularly the idea of an omnipotent but invisible agent that makes things happen and gives meaning to otherwise random events. In this way, humans are naturally receptive to religious claims, and when we first encounter them – typically as children – we unquestioningly accept them. There is a “feeling of rightness” about them that originates deep in our cognitive architecture.

According to Krueger, all beliefs are acquired in a similar way. “Beliefs are on a spectrum but they all have the same quality. A belief is a belief.”

Our agent-seeking and pattern-seeking brain usually serve us well, but it also makes us susceptible to a wide range of weird and irrational beliefs, from the paranormal and supernatural to conspiracy theories, superstitions, extremism and magical thinking. And our evolved psychology underpins other beliefs too, including dualism – viewing the mind and body as separate entities – and a natural tendency to believe that the group we belong to is superior to others.

The second source of rightness is more personal. When it comes to something like political belief, the assumption has been that we reason our way to a particular stance. But, over the past decade or so, it has become clear that political belief is rooted in our basic biology. Conservatives, for example, generally react more fearfully than liberals to threatening images, scoring higher on measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate. This suggests they perceive the world as a more dangerous place and perhaps goes some way to explaining their stance on issues like law and order and national security.

Another biological reflex that has been implicated in political belief is disgust. As a general rule, conservatives are more easily disgusted by stimuli like fart smells and rubbish. And disgust tends to make people of all political persuasions more averse to morally suspect behaviour, though the response is stronger in conservatives. This has been proposed as an explanation for differences of opinion over important issues such as gay marriage and illegal immigration. Conservatives often feel strong revulsion at these violations of the status quo and so judge them to be morally unacceptable. Liberals are less easily disgusted and less likely to judge them so harshly.

A different Reality, different realities

These instinctive responses are so influential that people with different political beliefs literally come to inhabit a different reality or different realities. Many studies have found that people’s beliefs about controversial issues align with their moral position on it. Supporters of capital punishment, for example, often claim that it deters crime and rarely leads to the execution of innocent people; opponents say the opposite.

That might simply be because we reason our way to our moral positions, weighing up the facts at our disposal before reaching a conclusion. But there is a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that belief works the other way. First, we stake out our moral positions, and then mould the facts to fit.

So if our moral positions guide our factual beliefs, where do morals come from? The short answer: not your brain.

According to Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, our moral judgements are usually rapid and intuitive; people jump to conclusions and only later come up with reasons to justify their decision. To see this in action, try confronting someone with a situation that is offensive but harmless, such as using their national flag to clean a toilet. Most will insist this is wrong but fail to come up with a rationale, and fall back on statements like “I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong”.

This becomes clear when you ask people questions that include both a moral and factual element, such as: “Is forceful interrogation of terrorist suspects morally wrong, even when it produces useful information?” or “Is distributing condoms as part of a sex-education programme morally wrong, even when it reduces rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs? People who answer “yes” to such questions are also likely to dispute the facts or produce their own alternative facts to support their belief. Opponents of condom distribution, for example, often state that condoms don’t work so distributing them won’t do any good anyway.

What feels right to believe is also powerfully shaped by the culture we grow up in. Many of our fundamental beliefs are formed during childhood. According to Krueger, the process begins as soon as we are born, based initially on sensory perception – that objects fall downwards, for example – and later expands to more abstract ideas and propositions. Not surprisingly, the outcome depends on the beliefs you encounter. “We are social beings. Beliefs are learned from the people you are closest to,” says Krueger. It couldn’t be any other way. If we all had to construct a belief system from scratch based on direct experience, we wouldn’t get very far.

This isn’t simply about proximity; it is also about belonging. Our social nature means that we adopt beliefs as badges of cultural identity. This is often seen with hot-potato issues, where belonging to the right tribe can be more important than being on the right side of the evidence. Acceptance of climate change, for example, has become a shibboleth in the US – conservatives on one side, liberals on the other. Evolution, vaccination and others are similarly divisive issues.

So, what we come to believe is shaped to a large extent by our culture, biology and psychology. By the time we reach adulthood, we tend to have a relatively coherent and resilient set of beliefs that stay with us for the rest of our lives (see “Your five core beliefs“). These form an interconnected belief system with a relatively high level of internal consistency. But the idea that this is the product of rational, conscious choices is highly debatable. “If I’m totally honest I didn’t really choose my beliefs: I discover I have them,” says Halligan. “I sometimes reflect upon them, but I struggle to look back and say, what was the genesis of this belief?”

Forget the facts about Reality

The upshot of all this is that our personal guidebook of beliefs is both built on sand and also highly resistant to change. “If you hear a new thing, you try to fit it in with your current beliefs,” says Halligan. That often means going to great lengths to reject something that contradicts your position or seeking out further information to confirm what you already believe.

That’s not to say that people’s beliefs cannot change. Presented with enough contradictory information, we can and do change our minds. Many atheists, for example, reason their way to irreligion. Often, though, rationality doesn’t even triumph here. Instead, we are more likely to change our beliefs in response to a compelling moral argument – and when we do, we reshape the facts to fit with our new belief. More often than not, though, we simply cling to our beliefs.

All told, the uncomfortable conclusion is that some if not all of our fundamental beliefs about the world are based not on facts and reason – or even misinformation – but on gut feelings that arise from our evolved psychology, basic biology and culture. The results of this are plain to see: political deadlock, religious strife, evidence-free policy-making and a bottomless pit of mumbo jumbo. Even worse, the deep roots of our troubles are largely invisible to us. “If you hold a belief, by definition you hold it to be true,” says Halligan. “Can you step outside your beliefs? I’m not sure you’d be capable.”

The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things. But it would surely be a better one if we all stopped believing in our beliefs quite so strongly.