Friday, September 24, 2004

Closed systems in the open society

Karl Popper believed that the closed society gives certainty regarding unseen powers and ultimate outcomes. However, in the open society belief in magical, unseen forces takes a back seat to thoughtful discussion, which includes an endless critique of all theories, philosophies, systems and plans. The open society values thought over belief; it values group discussion over the idea that some expert has concluded, once and for all, the secret to personal or societal success; the open society is practical and piecemeal — not sacred or utopian.

And so a problem: It would seem to me that the devout believer struggles with his or her existence in the open society. That society, which gives them freedom of belief, also threatens it; it always tends toward a dangerous erosion of all their sacred truths. Therefore, the devout person must perform a balancing act, which the secular person can avoid.

So, how far does the devout person go in his fight against the open society; how far does he go in threatening the very basis of the freedom to believe? How hard does he or she chip away at the foundation of freedom? Remember, the Baptists were very intent on supporting Virginia's early freedom-of-religion plan (which later became the blueprint for our Constitution) because they knew if there was any sort of state religion they would be barred from the forms of worship they so cherished, which is not to say that Jewish or Muslim groups would have objected but that other Christian groups would have barred the Baptists from their chosen practices. The Baptists, as Christians, were very concerned about Christian oppression. So that's the first irony.

And so the absolutists sided with the freedom people because the only place their closed views were protected was in the open society. And that's the second irony — and a pretty big one. The devout believer needs the open society every bit as much as the avowed secularist. Maybe more.


Blogger Euclidian said...


Thanks for the history lesson.
What a tremendous kernel.

It is so painfully obvious that the free society we live in allows the extremists near free rein to try and limit others. Would that they rather learned to simply appreciate the freedom and leave the rest of us alone.

Questions: Why can not the devoutists simply live their lives amid the swirl of secularism? Build their own insulated utopia against the secular backdrop, or within the secular sphere, to practice what they preach? Peaceful coexistence of unlike practices. The Amish manage, mostly, to do this. Some Jewish groups as well. Conviction can limit secular intrusion.

It seems to me the devout person only has a problem if they try to convert the "nonbelievers" to their way of thinking. Or concern themselves with the beliefs of others rather than their own.


September 24, 2004 at 10:07 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Your interesting comment and good question make me think of two important writers.

First, there’s Richard Rorty’s comment on how Plato and Aristotle built into Western culture the importance of knowing the truth and getting our beliefs right; and in Rorty’s view, this has lead to all sorts of problems only now coming to light. Basically, human and religious diversity shoots the idea right in the head.

Second, Marcus Borg focuses the problem for us when he writes:

“We can perceive Christian diversity in the various cultural forms that Christianity has taken. To illustrate without seeking to be comprehensive: there is a second-century Syrian way of being Christian, an eighth-century Irish way, a twelfth-century Eastern Orthodox way, a fifteenth-century Chinese way, and a nineteenth-century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way.

“There is theological diversity as well. Without explaining the differences, there were, from the early days of Christianity, Arian and Athanasian Christians, Monophysite and non-Monophysite Christians, predestination and non-predestination Christians, infant-baptisim and adult-baptisim Christians. Being Christian therefore can’t be about getting our beliefs ‘right,’ even though we have often acted that way.

“The point is, there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being a Christian. … ”

No single way? That’s just what the devout believer doesn’t want to contemplate.

The devout believer has mastered the old Plato-Aristotle approach — long ago adopted by Christianity — that right is right, end of story. That’s not very conducive to being open-minded.

September 25, 2004 at 5:04 PM  

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