The Politics of Belief (It's All in the Choosing) Open Thread)
From The Art Newspaper:
The inaugural Singapore Biennale (until 12 November) opens with an ambitious programme of exhibitions and events in venues across the island. The biennial’s theme is “Belief”, inspired by the city’s multi-faith population—most Singaporeans are Buddhist, but there is also a Christian and Islamic population. Also, many works have been installed in religious sites, such as the Masjid Sultan Mosque, the Sri Krishnan Hindu Temple, the Orthodox Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, the oldest church on the island designated a national monument in 1973, and the Chinese Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul, which was designated a national monument in 1993.OK, so I've admitted to being agnostic (believing in nothing else quite as much as I do Art, but reserving the right to start believing in God in an emergency [yes, I'm opportunistically religious...the whole foxhole thingy makes total sense to me]), but it's impossible to not take organized religious seriously these days, even if only as a threat to invidualism, so I'm impressed by the bold mix of art and religion this program takes as its theme. Still, I had never thought of the piece that Gulnara and Muratbek are exhibiting as dealing with "belief" in a religious sense (although other works of theirs deal directly with such themes), so I went looking for the Biennale's mission statement. From the Artistic Director, Fumio Nanjo:
The world today is complex and diverse, fraught with war and terrorism. As Huntington suggested in his book, The Clash of Civilisations, is it really impossible for people with different values and faiths to live together peacefully? In this age of ever diversifying and mixed value systems what should people believe in and live by? To live moment by moment is also to make choices from multiple possibilities. What do we base these decisions to live by on? Some people believe in the absolute truth of religion, others believe in the rules of capitalism and economics, others in progress and development, and yet others believe in the values of nature and the environment. Love and Art can also become ways or pointers by which to live.[Peaceful co-existence? I'll let you decide for yourself if Singapore's notoriously strict and restrictive government is not perhaps the true reason such violent conflict is not as much a problem there are it is elsewhere, but I do appreciate the promotion of the ideal all the same.]
Although Singapore is a small island nation, different faiths, languages and ethnic groups coexist without violent conflict. It is perhaps fitting then to reflect on the meaning of belief today in such a society. Through art, can we once again think about what binds us together as human beings? This seemingly straightforward yet potentially complex question underpins the first edition of the Singapore Biennale.
But back to Belief. My general sense of belief is best summed up by the joke "Everyone has to believe in something. [pause for comic effect] I believe I'll have another drink." In other words, we choose what to believe, very consciously, after consideration. That means we also choose, very consciously, what not to believe, rejecting the alternatives. And it means something else as well: that our choices are not as important as the choosing itself. Sure, we, as humans, will choose poorly from time to time, because like anything else, choosing well takes practice. The ultimate peril, IMO, lies not choosing poorly, but in merely adopting the position someone else suggested you should (which, you could argue, is merely another choice, but not one worthy of the hard work the species has done to evolve if you ask me).
That just so happens to be my guideline for political positions, as well. I feel everyone is obligated to choose a position on the most pressing issue of the day, eventually at least. You can always change your mind, but you can't remain indefinitely ambivalent (well, not and still have a relevant opinion...which, of course, means my opinion on religion is currently irrelevant, yes, I know). There's a spectrum of "truths" for any given issue, and as the political blogs demonstrate quite convincingly, you can debate the details ad infinitum, but in the end, your relevance depends on believing in something. Making that choice. This may seem obvious to many people, but it's always been a struggle for me.
This became clearer to me after spending a good chunk of time debating on right-wing political blogs. I found that I liked and admired many of the folks on them I was debating and could find lots of common ground to help smooth over the more contentious exchanges when things got too heated. More than that, though, I often found their argument as equally compelling as my own argument on a given topic.
For a while, that was paralyzing. How could I argue pro-this or anti-that if my side didn't have an unshakable grasp on the Truth? Then slowly (like most things) it dawned on me that my argument was very likely just as compelling to them as theirs was to me, but that they had actually just taken a stand. I had wanted my decisions to be made on irrefutable facts. I hadn't realize that it's a weighing process...adding up the pluses and minuses and deciding in the end what to believe.
This realization, of course, led me to understand the importance my worldview played. If I add up the pluses and minuses and the totals pro and con are nearly equal, do I just stay on the fence? No, I've decided, because the staunchly pro and staunchly con sides will keep marching forward, trying to bend perceptions and the law to their will. The only way to not be a victim to that is to make a stand myself. That was nothing short of a liberating epiphany for me. I realized that I can't resolve the discrepancies of each issues (I don't see how I'll ever be able to answer fully, for a controversial example, why a zygote isn't a human entitled to rights), but I can rely on my overall worldview to make a choice when the choosing matters.
How, you're probably wondering at this point, is this fool going to tie all this back into the Singapore Biennale? I wish I knew that myself. I think I'll choose to open up the thread instead: