Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tyler Cowen talks with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Another in Cowen's series of conversations.

A portfolio approach to religion:
TYLER COWEN: Why are there so few atheists in Ghana?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: [laughs] Well, maybe for the same reason that there were very few atheists in much of the world until relatively recently. Atheism is a relatively modern phenomenon, at least the form of atheism that we see around us.

There are lots of Christians in Ghana. There are lots of Muslims in Ghana. And there are lots of believers in traditional religions, which are sort of polytheistic, though they tend to have a high god. There’s one big god, and there’s an earth goddess, and then a bunch of other gods.

Probably one reason why people haven’t given it up is because nobody argues against it. Again, that’s a relatively modern thing, to have people in public arguing against theism. Obviously, there were atheists in the ancient world, but since the rise of the Abrahamic religions, there haven’t been a lot of atheists — except until recently — anywhere.

COWEN: Do you think West Africa is proving to be an exception to the secularization thesis? Which is coming to many parts of the world, many parts of the Middle East. They’re nominally religious. There’s not a lot of belief. But West Africa seems different. Nigeria also.

APPIAH: Yes. Huge amounts of very successful, growing religious denominations, especially — as in many places in the world — the Wahhabi version of Islam and the kind of Pentecostal version of Christianity: born-again Christians, charismatic churches, lots of singing and dancing, people being taken with the Spirit, and that kind of thing.

It’s certainly not going in the direction of secularization as far as I can see, in the sense of moving away from church life or mosque life and moving away from belief. That’s not happening.

COWEN: Marriage across different religions seems especially common in West Africa. Why is that? And have those background cultural factors in some way shaped your own views?

APPIAH: That’s a good question. I think yes. My uncle Aviv, who was a Sunni Muslim, was married to my aunt Grace, who’s a Methodist. My parents were different Christian denominations. That’s not terribly exciting, but they didn’t even go to the same church, actually. They went to different churches. Relatively common in Ghana, both for Christian couples to go to different churches, and for people to marry people who are not Christians, and Muslims to marry people who are not Christians, and so on.

I think it shows something about the character of the belief, which is that it’s, in an odd way — though this has somewhat been changed by the arrival of American Christian televangelism and Wahhabism — but fundamentally, the key thing is belief in, and kind of relationship with, the spiritual world. As long as you agree about that, the rest is details.

Also, people have the view, which I think is a reasonable view if you’re a theist, which is, “Who knows exactly what the truth is about these things? They’re very complicated.” The idea that you get in early Christianity that it’s incredibly important to insist on a long, long list of beliefs, some of which are philosophical and impossible to understand — transubstantiation, consubstantiation, weird stuff like that — that’s not very common. People are very relaxed.

COWEN: And the insistence that things are very complicated — that sounds like you, right? In other contexts.

APPIAH: Yes. [laughs] I think that’s certainly my view. And this idea that a kind of fallibilism, the thought that, “Well, I might be right, I might be wrong” — that’s actually quite a Ghanaian attitude.

People, in a way, understand how hard it is to get to know things, especially about this sort of thing, about invisible spirits and faraway gods. So they are not likely to be super confident about anything outside their own experience. They may be confident that they themselves have had conversations with Jesus or something like that, but the idea that the rest of it is going to be easy to figure out, I think, is not a very widespread idea.

And to some extent, it pervades people’s life, so in other areas of belief, people are kind of willing to think, “Well, I’ll go to the doctor if I get sick, but if he doesn’t do anything, I’ll go to the traditional healer.”

COWEN: Like a portfolio approach.

APPIAH: It’s a portfolio approach.
COWEN: If cosmopolitanism is so wonderful, why are we today seeing a resurgence of nationalism? What’s unsatisfying about cosmopolitanism?

APPIAH: I want to say first that, for me, it’s really important to insist that you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. You can be rooted in a place, care about it in a special way, and still be a citizen of the world, and think that you have obligations and concerns and interests that transcend your national identity.

I’m not the kind of cosmopolitan who’s opposed to national identity, and that’s an important part of the answer because the kind of cosmopolitan who does want to drag people away from their roots has, I think, got no chance of persuading most people. They’re not going to persuade me, and I’m officially a cosmopolitan, so why would I expect them to persuade people who have less reason to be cosmopolitan than I do? [...]

The idea that cosmopolitans are rootless is just a mistake — or have to be. Why has so much of the world turned away from things connected with other places — migration and globalization as an economic phenomenon — which they see as posing threats to their economic stability? Partly, I think, because they’ve been encouraged to think so, even though I think it’s just objectively false that globalization has been terrifically bad for many of the people who are most nationalist at the moment.

And part of it is that the elites that led globalization, or that led integration in Europe, paid almost no attention to the views . . . They weren’t listening. They thought it was obvious what they were doing was good, so they paid absolutely no attention to the tensions and difficulties that were produced. [...]

But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.
What museums should be doing with artifacts from other cultures:
COWEN: So, the British Museum — should they send back what they have?

APPIAH: I think what the British Museum should do is what they are doing, which is to be part of the leadership of a movement in the world of museums to say, “The key questions about the great objects are access questions, not ownership questions. If we fuss about ownership, we’ll never make any progress. Let’s agree that the challenge is to make a world in which everybody in the world is, from time to time, close to a significant body of seriously interesting objects.”

That means that the British Museum should be sharing, as it does, but it should be doing it more. I think sending back, of course, is exactly the wrong solution because sending back means you send all the Malian stuff to Mali. But the trouble with Mali is not that it doesn’t have Malian stuff. It’s that it doesn’t have Italian Renaissance stuff. It doesn’t have Chinese pottery. It doesn’t have tapestries woven by the Aztecs. It doesn’t have lots of the world’s great treasures.

Better to think about the task as being a task of collectively curating the world’s collection for everybody and figuring out how to share more of it in places where it’ll be accessible, more closely accessible to some of the people in the world who don’t have access to anything now. That would be my ambition.

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