Others may want to stand upon the ‘politics of identity’, or in other words the kind of identification with a particular tradition, or group, or national or ethnic identity that invites them to turn their back on outsiders who question the ways of the group. They will shrug off criticism: their values are ‘incommensurable’ with the values of outsiders. They are to be understood only by brothers and sisters within the circle. People like to retreat to within a thick, comfortable, traditional set of folkways, and not to worry too much about their structure, or their origins, or even the criticisms that they may deserve. Reflection opens the avenue to criticism, and the folkways may not like criticism. In this way, ideologies become closed circles, primed to feel outraged by the questioning mind.
Accepting a religion may be more like enjoying a poem, or following the football. It might be a matter of immersion in a set of practices. Perhaps the practices have only an emotional point, or a social point. Perhaps religious rituals only serve necessary psychological and social ends. The rituals of birth, coming of age, or funerals do this. It is silly to ask whether a marriage ceremony is true or false. People do not go to a funeral service to hear something true, but to mourn, or to begin to stop mourning, or to meditate on departed life. It can be as inappropriate to ask whether what is said is true as to ask whether Keats’s ode to a Grecian urn is true. The poem is successful or not in quite a different dimension, and so is Chartres cathedral, or a statue of the Buddha. They may be magnificent, and moving, and awe-inspiring, but not because they make statements that are true or false.
One peculiarity of our present [ethical] climate is that we care much more about our rights than about our 'good'. For previous thinkers about ethics, such as those who wrote the Upanishads, or Confucius, or Plato, or the founders of the Christian tradition, the central concern was the state of one's soul, meaning some personal state of justice or harmony. Such a state might include resignation or renunciation, or detachment, or obedience, or knowledge, especially self-knowledge. For Plato there could be no just political order except one populated by just citizens.... Today we tend not to believe that; we tend to think that modern constitutional democracies are fine regardless of the private vices of those within them. We are much more nervous talking about our good: it seems moralistic, or undemocratic, or elitist. Similarly, we are nervous talking about duty. The Victorian ideal of a life devoted to duty, or a calling, is substantially lost to us. So a greater proportion of our moral energy goes to protecting claims against each other, and that includes protecting the state of our soul as purely private, purely our own business.