Thursday, July 29, 2010

W.C. Craig is honest about theology (at least)

William Lane Craig is a theologian and christian philosopher who is well known for his intellectual defenses of Christianity and many debates with atheists. His pompous and oily delivery calls to my mind PZ Myers' line about the “used-car salesmen of the soul”, though I'm sure Craig hopes his paternalistic tone will remind believers that they are the flock and he their intellectual shepherd. Craig most often presents himself as a moderate interested only in reasonably justifying his Christian dogma, and it's true he has turned in some command performances remaining cool under fire from atheist debate partners. However, despite his attempt to maintain his moderate rep, he's a fellow at the anti-evolution Discovery Institute which is in turn funded by a web of extreme rightwing business and political figures. Not very savory. Oh yes, he also penned a charming article devoted to justifying genocide!

What's astonishing about Craig is that he quite nakedly admits that all his pretensions to reasonable debate, to exchange of views, and to finding the truth is all worth about as much as a pelican in the Gulf of Mexico. This video, for instance:

Truly amazing, he's saying here that no matter what evidence against Christianity shows up (or, in our world, already exists) he will never change his belief in the God of revealed scripture. I can certainly list evidence that would cause me to change my conclusions about theism. This should be the case whenever we come to a reasoned conclusion on anything; it simply shows we weighed evidence and made our decision with respect to that evidence. Sadly, as the video shows, Craig can't pass this test of counterfactuals. He can “know that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence” and “if, in some historically contingent circumstance, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity I don't think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.”

This means, of course, that no debate of Craig's is ever really a debate, and no position of his been reached by careful weighing of evidence and use of reason (even though he's quite happy to lie suggest that this isn't the case). He should immediately take down his website “Reasonable Faith” or at least change its grossly unwarranted name. Still, nothing too surprising here. The great Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann summed up Craig and his ilk in his description of theology:
“Theology is also a comprehensive, rigorous, and systematic avoidance, by means of exegesis, of letting one’s Yes be Yes, and one’s No, No.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Melting of Big Butter Jesus


not as triumphant

Above is the statue at Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, seen before and after a recent dose of lightning. The $300,000 dollar masterpiece, dubbed by amused locals as “Big Butter Jesus”, tastefully called to mind the wailings of Creed frontman Scott Stapp. As you can see the heavenly fire left it a little worse for wear. More than anything the statue's untimely end reminded me of the Roman poet Lucretius and his epic poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), a sprawling work full of praise for that famed philosophical scoundrel, Epicurus. It also has a wealth of hilarious and insightful lines criticizing religion.

Epicurus, who Marx had called “the greatest representative of Greek enlightenment”, was one of the earliest thinkers to encourage a fully materialist view of the world. Epicurus claimed that even if the gods existed they were little more than ineffectual phantoms who had no interaction with the world itself. He elaborated on the theories of Democritus- you know, that outlandish notion that the world was made up of tiny, indivisible pieces called “atoms” (yes, clearly a bunch of crazy talk)! Having revealed religion to be mere myth and humans to be fundamentally free Epicurus then built a rather beautiful piece of ethical philosophy. If only it had become widespread before the disintegration of Rome rather than the dour self-flagellations and persecutions of Christianity...

The reason I'm reminded of Lucretius is that in De Rerum Natura he makes some brilliant observations about Jupiter's lightning, thought to be used by the grumpy god to smite his enemies. After asking why most of the divine bolts are wasted out in the ocean or in rocky wastelands, he concludes

And, lastly, why, with devastating bolt
Shakes he asunder holy shrines of gods
And his own thrones of splendor, and to-breaks
The well-wrought idols of divinities,
And robs of glory his own images
By wound of violence?

Some of the atoms that once made up the mind and body of Lucretius are now riding the updrafts above Monroe. We must imagine them richly amused.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Commodities and Contradictions

I have to riff a bit more on the “paradox of the preface” that Andrew Pessin thinks can be the cure for those pesky ol' religious conflicts. Pessin recommends believers operate with a contradictory combination of beliefs: being certain that their religion is true while thinking that they may be wrong about that certainty. Of course logically this is nonsense, as Ophelia Benson puts it over at the excellent Butterflies and Wheels making it “I am certain” he turns the whole thing into gibberish. If you are already quite certain that you have made a mistake somewhere, then you can’t also be certain that you haven’t – you can’t be certain that every sentence is true.

Now of course people can function while holding contradictory beliefs; the key being that they alternate between their two opposing positions in such a way that they avoid the nasty cognitive dissonance that might force them to confront the fact of the contradiction. I gave an example of this in my last post: the believer who wouldn't accept non-rational means of decision-making when going about their daily tasks but who is quite happy to abandon reason when talking about metaphysical issues.

However, there's an even more glaring example of living and functioning with contradictions that we deal with every day- what Marx referred to as “commodity fetishism”. No, not that fun kind of fetish; rather Marx has in mind the icons and statues worshipped in many religions, objects that are really just hunks of wood or stone but that are thought by believers to have magical powers.

In our modern world rather than statues of Ganesh we make fetishes of commodities. We come to mistake the results of social relations as objective qualities that inhere in the objects themselves. We come to think that the values of objects that we create are somehow natural aspects of those objects and “the market” as if both the objects and the market are not simply the solidified final result of many human social interactions. Really, we come to think the things we create are in the saddle rather than ourselves. Commodity fetishism is essential to capitalism, obviously. It's no accident Marx used the religious terminology of the fetish when describing how:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

In part this is a form of “scale error” since it's not too hard, when we personally create an object or perform a service, to see that our work depends on relations to other people and springs from our own creative powers. Later that same day when we become buyers of commodities it becomes almost impossible for us to keep in mind that our earlier understanding still applies. We see our food, lying serenely on the store shelf, as something brought and priced by the hand of the market and not as a chain of human relationships of which we play a part. We can't see the entire ensemble of commodities we encounter each day as being of the same nature as the ones we create. Of course it's hard to take in such a totality, especially as in the last few centuries the objects we encounter have often incorporated labor of people in multiple countries over long periods of production and spanning vast webs of interrelationships. How else is it that we can feel vague pity for starving children in third-world areas and not see that their specific economic situation is directly tied to our economic and political choices? How else is it that we can think it is normal to “rent yourself” to an employer who gets to appropriate the things you create with your labor?? The exclusionary function of commodity fetishism reminds me of the exclusionary function of religious doctrine, which is supposedly universal for all humans (as God's beloved creations) and yet in practice sharply distinguishes between believers and heretics (to the extent that unbelievers must be tortured for eternity, no less!).

All this just tells me that Pessin's advice is unneeded and ineffective; we already live with contradictions . We alternate between contradictory positions in different times of day, in different locations or in when taking on different social roles. Social progress is largely composed of ferreting out these contradictory (read: hypocritical) positions and dealing with them. Pessin would have us try to heighten this tension by constantly crashing our contradictory notions together, but not even with an eye toward transcending them. Strange medicine, that.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pessimistic about Pessin

Both Jerry Coyne and Jim at Apple Eaters have worked over a thoroughly confused article written for the Huffington Post by Andrew Pessin, chair of philosophy at Connecticut College. I want to attack it from a different angle, however. At first glance it seems to be a piteously easy target; Pessin unveils what he thinks is a panacea to religiously motivated political and social conflict. He somehow thinks the missing key is to have believers

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Got it? You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible. It's what everyone (other than bakers) has yearned for since time immemorial: the proverbial cake, both eaten yet had!

Yup, that's basically it. Not only is it logically confused, it's not even that new. As Jim points out

He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along. But why would he think this? There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet.

Pessin's argument is truly embarrassing, not least because he completely misses the way in which religious violence is often predicated on just the sort of muddled mindset he wants us to adopt. Religions are, at core, a set of rationally indefensible beliefs that the believer is ordered to protect from all inquiry and doubt (Yes, the miracle of faith!). This means trouble of course; in their everyday lives every human is constantly using reason to make their way about the world. When I get up from my laptop and head to the kitchen to make more green tea I'm going to have to make countless judgments informed by past evidence to guide my actions: walk around that box on the floor and not through it, use the doorhandle to open the door otherwise it will be rather difficult to get to the next room, it's inadvisable to try and drink the tea faster by placing the teabag on my tongue and pouring the boiling water straight out of the kettle and into my mouth, etc. This applies just as much to believers, or else they would never be able to get out of their house in the morning in time to make it to their “Xtreme Teen Bible Reading”. All this (often unconscious) reasoning with regards to how to navigate our material environment predisposes us to prefer confirmation to uncertainty.

Thus, for the believer, having to quarantine and protect their unfounded beliefs from the sort of reasoning they use everyday makes them very sensitive to any sort of threat to their contradictory mental balancing act. Certainly the theme of “great doubt” and “the dark night of the soul” popping up interminably in religious literature tells us that this contradiction is alive and kicking in the hearts of believers, not to mention the ubiquitous praise of faith.

This tension is present in formal religious institutions no less than in each individual believer. Throughout history religions that have attained political power have found scriptural justification for executing heretics and doubters of all kinds. These are all examples of defense mechanisms that have accumulated in the ideological structure of religion. Comprehensive knowledge structures (ideologies) that must protect unjustified beliefs from critique and inquiry accumulate such little gems or perish. We can see these defenses at work most blatantly in religion but also in one other significant area- political ideologies! We don't see these sorts of “epistemological quarantine” as internal features of science and philosophy, but we do see them when science is distorted in the service of political concerns. Political ideologies that are dependent on covering up power relations or embarrassing facts in order to keep exploited populations quiet have these very same mechanisms. Ask any dissident who has been denounced for being “unpatriotic”, a “traitor”, “not a real american”, or simply “crazy”. Without these safety measures present, no religious knowledge structure would have lasted for long without being whittled down to a toothless deism.

What follows from this, I think, is that we must see the repeated history of vicious inter-religious warfare as deeply connected to this “epistemological quarantine” demand that is right at the heart of religion qua religion. The repeated attempts by religions, once they have attained hegemony, to "cleanse" themselves of heretical elements are partly an outgrowth of this unavoidable tension. Pessin, then, is mistaking one of the causes of disease for its cure. Encouraging believers to simultaneously ramp up their “certainty” while constantly encountering threats to that fragile, cherished certainty is a dangerous prescription.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Trimming the Hedges

Last week I read this piece by Chris Hedges, someone who has done some great investigative work in the past exposing the incestuous ties between Christianity and extreme right wing politics in the US (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America is a particularly good one). It's really too bad to see a usually critical observer bump up against the wide flank of his own sacred cow, and that's just what's occurring here. Hedges thinks that as religion loses its (still very dominant) place in the world, we'll be left with a nihilistic, scientistic, deeply unequal and needless to say brutal culture. Despite all the social and political evils justified by religions even to this day, many of which Hedges himself has uncovered, he maintains

There remain, in spite of the leaders of these institutions, religiously motivated people toiling in the inner city and the slums of the developing world. They remain true to the core religious and moral values ignored by these institutions. The essential teachings of the monotheistic traditions are now lost in the muck of church dogma, hollow creeds and the banal bureaucracy of institutional religion.

His first sentence neatly sidesteps the question of how much of this trumpeted religious charity work really accomplishes versus the forcible conversions, encouragement of homophobic violence and perpetuation of sexual ignorance by missionaries worldwide. Leaving those aside, to think that the “true core” values of the monotheistic traditions are social justice concerns about the world's many vicious inequalities has to be a sick joke. It reminds me of a diehard Leninist who blames the horrors of the USSR's state capitalism solely on Stalin's authoritarian personality while trying desperately not to see the deeply anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary form of the Bolshevik party itself. If at the very core of these religious knowledge structures is a moral concern with alleviating suffering due to inequalities and injustice we should see that concern permeating their most fundamental texts- these are, after all, the founding documents without which any later interpretations wouldn't even exist. When the ancient Hebrews wrote out God's words concerning how much you can beat your slave, when Jesus stated that his apocalyptic Jewish cult was only for “the lost sheep of Israel”, when Mohammed ordered his minions to execute doubters....yes, that refined moral excellence is so wonderfully inclusive!!

The really funny thing is that Hedges, like all well-meaning progressive believers, thinks that somehow he can personally discern the "real" Christianity from the false. How does he propose to do this? If the nasty and intolerant pronouncements in the Bible are to be dismissed in favor of cherry-picking the ones which jibe with our modern sense of decency and human rights, why is anything in these texts to be believed at all?

I'm sure he feels “in his heart” that his loving, socially just Jesus couldn't have really meant to condemn much of the world's population to eternal torture simply for not aknowledging him as their dictator. The problem there is, of course, that the average functionary in the Nazi Shultzstaffen truly felt sure, “in their heart”, that they were making the right interpretation of German national and racial history. Let's not go by hearts, but rather by facts- and the historically accumulated facts of the “monotheistic traditions” show that Hedges' hopes of a (well-hidden) progressive core are baseless daydreams.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Defining away religion's claims

The skeptical/atheist community has been chewing over (and by now regurgitating!) two important epistemological issues as of late. First there's the debate kicked off by Sam Harris' TED talk and upcoming book in which Harris claims to be able to overcome the facts/values divide and come to objective, scientific conclusions about what is correct moral behavior. There's been some fast and heavy back and forth about it by Russell Blackford, Massimo Pigliucci and Harris himself. I'm NOT going to wade in on this one, I'll just keep chewing that cud....

The second issue is surprising since it seems, at first glance, so simple. Evolutionist and cat-lover Jerry Coyne has made the point several times recently that science can, indeed HAS, disproved supernatural claims. On the face of it this is obvious- open the Bible, read its account of the earth's creation, and then consider that in light of accumulated geologic and cosmological evidence about how our planet formed. Simple indeed. However, some (Pigliucci again!) maintain that the supernatural can not, by definition, be scientifically disproven or even interrogated. This seems only to be true if we ignore the history of supernatural and religious belief. Overall the vast majority of religious beliefs have been things subject to investigation; they have been physical phenomena that have been claimed to have occurred (such as God creating species directly in their present form) or alleged states of the world/human nature (such as that prayer will have an effect). Both of these are equally amenable to empirical investigation. We can looks at the facts gathered in paleontology and evolutionary biology and, using this evidence, falsify the religious claim that God woo-wooed whales into existence in their current form.

Pigliucci's walling off of scientific investigation from supernatural phenomena only works for the most arid deism. That's to say, it's a truism that the tools of rational investigation can't be brought to bear on phenomena that aren't even phenomena, that don't interact in any way with the material world. The moment they do, however, they are subject to investigation (and would presumably be in the Pigliuccian definition ipso facto NOT supernatural). But really, what is this religion that has no interaction or influence upon the world? When has any religious ideology like that existed? Even the desperate retreat of wanna-believers such as Karen Armstrong into a polite, ill-defined and ecumenical deity won't cut it: their God must poke his head up somewhere. Besides, that type of playing-it-safe deism is light years away from the religion of almost all believers today and especially when we consider what adherents and their churches have historically believed. The doctrines of Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc have all contained specific claims of supernatural intervention in the material world. This has happened again and again in their history as knowledge structures. Most of these claims have been proven false, with two responses from the religions themselves. Some religions modified their knowledge structures to remove/abstract/coverup the falsified claims as the Catholic church has done in the case of its acceptance of evolution. It's no surprise this is often the response of larger, more powerful and thus more “materially invested” religions. The other approach was initially to legislate away the problem and forcefully maintain orthodoxy, but the erosion of religious power in many states has closed this option off. The result is “guerilla tactics”, trying to attack the scientific consensus and sow confusion about the status of the evidence itself that has overturned the previous claim (i.e. the Discovery Institute).

Whatever occurred, at the time each of these claims were made they certainly had the status, within doctrine, of being an example of supernatural influence in the world. When heliocentrism was going down in flames under the evidence brought to bear by various Copernicans, the church certainly acted as if the very truth of revealed doctrine was at stake. In other words, they saw the situation as the possible disproving of a supernatural claim!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Divine Foot, meet materialist mouth

At my workplace there's some well meaning propagandist who never fails to drop off Jehovah's Witness “literature”. February's issue of Awake! is particularly compelling, with the cover tagline of “Earth- designed for life” (not even the grace of a question mark to be found...). Of course, it lines up the usual suspects: the fine-tuning argument, the teleological argument, etc. There's also a ridiculous sidebar entitled “The Bible is Scientifically Accurate” with four very pained attempts to show our omniscient creator's scientific foreknowledge (i.e. “The universe is governed by laws: 'I [Jehovah] had appointed...the statutes [or, laws] of heaven and earth' -Jeremiah 33:25, written before 580 B.C.E.”)

What's of more concern, however, is the fact that once again biologist Richard Lewontin's words in the New York Review of Books come back to bite the collective behinds of materialists. Awake! doesn't use the whole quote, but even in its entirety anyone can see how ripe it is for creationist quote-mining:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

Awake!, like countless other apologists, pulls the especially juicy bits about a prior commitment to materialism to conclude

“Despite the evidence that the natural world seems too well designed to be a mindless accident, amny scientists refuse to believe in a Creator. It is not that science somehow compels atheists to 'accept a material explanation' of the world, say evolutionist Richard C. Lewontin...Is such dogmatism wise, especially is the evidence overwhelmingly points to a Creator? What do you think? -Romans 1:20”

Nice bit of argument from divine authority at the end. I sympathize with the points Lewontin was trying to make in the piece (I recommend reading it all!)- that the fundamentalist religious backlash in the US must be seen as a result of the calculated destruction of progressive left alternatives within the culture of the rural and southern working class, that a science in the service of institutions of political and economic exploitation can produce monsters, that the tools of critical rational thought must be extended to all instead of simply being told the results of the use of those tools. At heart, he says, “What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance...It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.”

Despite all this, his talk about “a prior commitment to materialism” is simply throwing red meat to the intellectual cannibals. The intelligent design proponents at the Discovery Institute have frankly admitted that their war against evolution is simply the opening battle to their greater showdown with the materialisms of not only Darwin, but more importantly of Freud and Marx. Besides, what Lewontin says here may not be true- see Sean Carrol on why the oft-quoted distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “ontological naturalism”, that science somehow is barred from investigating supernatural phenomena, is not as tenable as it might seem. There's a good case to be made that science can, and has, investigated possible divine phenomena- and that to date almost every religious postulate about the natural world has been found to be utterly wrong. Heliocentrism, immutability of kinds of animals, the age of the earth and the universe, whether we should beat non-virgin brides to death with large stones..the list goes on and on. So, materialism need not be a priori but rather a supposition demanded by the history of knowledge.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Culture, Genetics, Stinkheads

Alright, I promised to write a bit more about cosmopolitanism and theodicy, but that's still cooking somewhere in the back of my head and right now I don't have access to enough caffeine to bring it out. In lieu of that, let me point this article, via Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True. Coyne is discussing a recent paper (and the NY Times article about it) on recent work to discover some evolutionary changes in the human genome that may have been selected for because of cultural practices. By this they mean things such as the appearance and spread of the mutation that allows adult human to remain lactose-tolerant even after reaching adulthood. This is the partly contingent and partly human-chosen structure of culture affecting the genetic makeup of humans. Now sociologists are often deeply suspicious of genetic explanations for human qualities, and with good reason- scientific racism is not dead yet! Still, these sorts of studies are of a different sort and cautious enough, though I'm not sure if they can be useful for the social sciences.

This sort of work that should be considered in light the evidence compiled by sociology, anthropology, and history of the extreme cultural malleability of human behavior. One of my favorite prosaic examples of that is “stink heads”, salmon heads buried for a week or more in the ground to rot and considered a delicacy among the Yup'ik. Our biological inclination to avoid rotting food, so seemingly basic and undeniable, seems less like a law and more like a tendency which socialization at an early enough age can overcome. The work discussed by Coyne comes at this problem from the other direction. Looking at both we would say the relationship between culture and genetics is dialectic over the long-term, in which cultural practices can influence our physical makeup and this can in turn affect the development of culture. But again, given the very long time frames and social isolation needed for these culturally-induced genetic effects I think we have to be very careful in seeing what role they may play in cultural and social history, especially in our highly globalized modern era.

More useful to the social sciences ( and to atheists!) might be the application of phylogenetic methods to understanding human cultural development. One cool example is this paper by Steven Jay Gould's old collaborator Niles Eldredge and Ilya Temkin which traces the “evolution” of the trumpet-like cornet (NYTimes article as well). Phylogenetic trees, the “tree of life” style charting that is used to plot evolutionary history, might be a useful tool for charting the tangled path of social evolution.

Once some solid methods are hashed out, these sorts of phylogenetic approaches might be applied to things as large as the changes over time within the institutions that interact over multiple nations, civilizations and even at the level of a world-system. Types of states, economic models, even the way radical social movements organize themselves could have their development laid out phylogenetically. One could certainly apply this kind of evolutionary tree history to religion- the sort of project that I bet would show how “innovation” in religion, from directly political and tyrannical to the more mild polite forms we see today, has most often come from outside its epistemologically frozen structures. You know, from those nasty heretics/atheists/freethinkers/doubters who wouldn't just sit down and “be polite.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Natural disasters and the excuses of theodicy

The recent Haitian and Chilean earthquakes have once again put theodicy in the spotlight. Like the massive South Asian tsunami of 2004, these are natural disasters that kill thousands of men, women, and children during the disaster itself and doom thousands more to painful starvation and homelessness. Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the concept of a loving, all-powerful god with the obvious existence of suffering in the world, as you might expect, has a long pedigree as a feature in the larger religious knowledge structure. However, in the last few centuries it ( or rather the economic, political and cultural environment that theodicy has been forced to deal with)has undergone some important transformations that I think auger well for the future prospects of atheism and secularism.

In the days of local temple and city gods, and subsequent pantheons composed of many gods with human-like personalities, the “problem of evil” isn’t much of a problem at all. One can simply read the religious stories (oops, I forgot we call these ones “myths”) of Near Eastern and Mediterranean antiquity: there we see that if an individual sickens and suffers, or even if an entire city’s population is crushed by some nasty turn of fate, it is assumed that some deity was behind it. This doesn’t really present a problem for most believers, however: if those suffering are unknown to you or enemies then of course they may be thought to have brought the suffering down onto their own heads through their wicked ways, and if the suffering is visited upon you, those you love or your friends/countrymen then of course it might not be the work of YOUR specific God at all but rather that of a competing/jealous/enemy deity. So far, so simplistic.

An interesting aside to this is the discussion of the development of doctrines of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism. Both “karmic” explanations and “propitiating your owner god/watching out for competing gods”-type explanations have the benefit, of course, of being wonderful rationalizations for all sorts of hierarchical social practices- here we see religion’s role as a type of “anti-sociology” that undercuts any attempt at rationally analyzing one’s social situation. I remember the first reading I did that really brought this home to me were the descriptions of ancient Near East god-kings in Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (a flawed but really entertaining and intriguing book…)

Back to theodicy, the problem of evil really became an issue once monotheism gets running. The ancient Jews actually unwittingly charted this transition in their own holy texts, where we can see lingering hints of the older “many Gods competing” narrative next to the newer omnipotent concept of Yahweh who takes gleeful credit for suffering in the world. Bart Ehrman’s "God's Problem" is an excellent mapping of the various theodicies in the Old and New Testament; his treatment of Yahweh’s behavior in the book of Job alone is a pretty good demonstration of just what a unethical and capricious monster the Old Testament Yahweh was thought to be.

For the ancient Hebrew tribes, God was all powerful and yet the continual humiliation of Israel and Judea at the hands of invading conquerors even when the Jews were doing the right things (i.e. executing non-virgin brides, keeping men with injured testicles away from the Temple, ritualistically killing animals, smearing their blood around the altar in the right order, burning them “to make a sweet savor unto the LORD” etcetcetc…) meant there was a problem. Eventually they resigned themselves to the fact that god will visit pain on the deserving and the innocent alike, just as the big man asserts in his rant to Job. Of course, this is tantamount to being ruled by an insane dictator, one with whom there is no chance to even get on his good side. No surprise, then, that by the time Christianity spreads in the cosmopolitan world of imperial Rome, there is a return to the “competing gods” line in the form of demons and, of course, the bad behavior of that horny old goat Mr. Splitfoot.

Notice all this rationalization is pretty far from the New Age "apophatic" god so popular with apologists these days, who hardly seems substantial enough to burn a bush let alone raze a city.

So much for the history-next time I’m planning to talk a bit about why it looks like theodicy is becoming an increasing problem for religion today. I think this is bound up with the increasing cosmopolitanism of world cities and, even more importantly, the globalizing processes that have occurred over last few centuries in both economic and political spheres.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Freshly sliced Fish

In the NY Times “Opinionator” blog Stanley Fish makes a confused case for (re)including religion and religion-derived justifications as valid motivations for state policy. Fish, agreeing with author Steven Smith, thinks that

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Fish gets here by mischaracterizing “secular reasons” as being reasons that are expunged of all questions of values and only deal with raw empirical data

reasons cut off from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable — can take us a long way. We’ll do fine as long as we only want to find out how many X’s or Y’s there are or investigate their internal structure or discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth.

Russell Blackford does a beautiful job slicing up Fish's historically naïve musings. He notes, significantly, that Fish's strangely reductive definition of liberal secularism is a distortion- that one can recognize that values inform and motivate all decisions without thereby opening the field to arbitrary supernaturalistic explanations for one's values.

In attacking the Lockean approach to separation of church and state, Fish totally misunderstands the notorious fact/value distinction, which is not the same as the distinction between empirical and logical, or the distinction between natural and supernatural.

There is a distinction between allowing the state to make value-laden judgments (as all judgments are) in material matters where there is some recourse to facts to guide the decision making. But, as Blackford correctly points out, Fish's desire to include the realm of the religious here shows a sad ignorance of history. Religion is a type of knowledge structure which specifically privileges ignoring material facts and rational argumentation within its own epistemology- indeed it's proud of doing so, just ask kind old Martin Luther. Religion is in many ways a unique type of “epistemology” (*ahem*), and making it a matter for the state to decide has been historically dangerous. The result, sickening cycles of bloody religious warfare/cleansing and lame justifications of political tyranny, was the very history that motivated much of the early thought on tolerance!

However, I would also mention that Fish's obviously impossible definition of secular reasons, that they are thought to somehow leap directly out of data without values playing a part, does have its precursors. Notably, in the defenders of economic privilege with their notions of the market as some sort of force-of-nature. The last two centuries, especially with the dropping of “political economy” in favor of “economics”, have seen proponents of capitalism pretend that state decisions in the areas of property law, regulation, workers' control and political participation have been made on the basis of purely factual considerations. Even more obvious an example was the grossly misnamed “scientific socialism” of the Leninists, who pretended that it was “just the facts” of inexorable economic law that “forced” them to liquidate worker's councils in revolutionary Russia in 1917-18 or slaughter dissidents at Kronstadt in 1921 .

It has been a long battle to reintroduce considerations of values into economic and political discussions, or at least uncover that they have been there all along. Fish's argument would swing us all the way back to the other end of the spectrum by hiding the very real differences between types of value systems; “secular” knowledge structures such as Habermasian discourse ethics or Bryan Turner's vulnerability ethics can't possibly be equated with the arbitrary pronouncements of misogynistic, ethnocentric tribal leaders from thousands of years ago. Sorry to my postmodern relativist friends!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bob Marshall levels with us

Now this is charming- legislator Bob Marshall of Virginia visited the recent convention to protest funding of Planned Parenthood and mentioned that

The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children...In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest.

Now, this is just an attempt to threaten women away from exercising their reproductive rights. At the same time it's also a friendly reminder that a mother's "first fruits" had better be dedicated to the lord. Just a great illustration of the fundamental reliance structures of religion have on controlling the reproduction and early parenting practices of women. By structures, here I don't simply mean concrete religious institutions, which have shown a remarkable skill at creating large, widespread systems that are fairly efficient about terrorizing children into the faith (Obviously the Irish reform school scandals come to mind, but religious control of education has been by far the norm and not the exception throughout history).

More than that, I think this is a component of religion as a general epistemological structure, one that has been exaggerated at times due to historical circumstance; a feature of what world-systems analysts like Immanuel Wallerstein and Richard Lee would call a "knowledge structure." Religions are knowledge structures that function as ideologies, but even moreso than most ideologies their claims are without material force and increasingly easy to rationally refute. Thus they are very reliant on getting to possible adherents when they are young. If you want to channel a bit of Daniel Dennett, this can be considered a "memetic feature" that was selected for as religious institutions came down through history, and I would bet it has been amplified as science and materialism made faith less ubiquitous in the last few centuries.

After all, if you want to encourage a child's overactive sense of agency-detection and prime them to accept arguments from authority it's crucial to start early- and the way to the child and to controlling the child's early environment is by controlling the mother. So, in a way, religion is still asking us to be Abraham and put our Isaac up for sacrifice, only this time the mind instead of the body.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ferris and the Templetonians

Apropos to my previous post, looks like the new book by Timothy Ferris, The Science of Reason (review here) makes the case that the self-correcting experimentalist practices of science were instrumental in creating modern liberal democracy. This will definitely have to go on my reading list. Looks like Ferris is selling some of the liberal progressivism I talked about in my last post, though I think there's a case to be made that the core of his thesis is correct to some extent. I would say, though, that the real heir of scientific-critical thought in the realm of politics would be the libertarian left; anarchists and democratic socialists of various stripes that fought for more radical democratization in the times when democracy was limited indeed. Though I quibble with this definition a bit, it's useful to recall that anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker characterized the libertarian left as :

the confluence of the two great currents which during and since the French Revolution have found such characteristic expression in the intellectual life of Europe: Socialism and Liberalism.

After all, if one really thinks critical inquiry and constructive debating of ideas is the best way to advance freedom in society then your model should probably closer to Rocker than Adam Smith and his heirs. Rocker, echoing the broad lineage of democratic socialism, advocated that all levels of society should be organized along directly democratic lines from industrial syndicates to community/regional councils, which could then federate in order to interact across large areas. Instead, it seems that Ferris thinks that a system where we elect representatives outside of our control and have our constructive competition go on between profit-focused “private tyrannies” (Chomsky's memorable term for corporations....) is somehow closer to the ethos of scientific inquiry. Hmm....

It's also interesting that the reviewer for the NY Times review linked to above is Gary Rosen of the Templeton Foundation. The Templetons crew is always looking for ways to show that science is incomplete, that it is some sort of task-specific methodology that is sorely limited without being butressed by God/spirituality/quantum mechanical New Ageblahblah. Rosen's concept of science seems narrowly focused on “experiment” as opposed to “evidentiary argument”, the kind of pigeonholing of science that would exclude paleontology, geology, and cosmology (not to mention the social sciences and history) because they cannot isolate variables in laboratory environments. If you've limited the purview of what counts as science to such an extent, then you can make claims like this:

The experimental frame of mind encompasses the scientist in her lab, the inventor in his workshop and even (with some literary license) the reflective bohemian, the calculating entrepreneur and the shrewd democratic leader. But does it yield the “laws of nature” from which Locke and Jefferson drew the idea of universal human rights? Does it explain our reluctance today to compromise those rights in the name of expediency or results? Jeremy Bentham dismissed the idea of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” because it stood in the way of a proper utilitarian calculus of human welfare. Arguably, one can find his heirs today atop the Chinese state, conducting technocratic experiments of their own and deploying the tools of modern science (Google beware!) to preserve a “harmonious society.” For the politics of liberty, mere empiricism is not enough.

Well, sure, a narrow experimental empiricism will never be enough to get far in the messy worlds of human history and society. But without rational argumentation that appeals to material evidence, the bedrock of a broader conception of science, then we are truly wandering blindly. I suppose Rosen would want to insert religious faith here as the corrective. When the Templetonians can point to even one method that religion might have to come to truth, or even one truth that religion has bestowed upon us that couldn't have been uncovered otherwise, then they might have a chance. I recommend Rosen pray more fervently, cause the chances aren't looking too good.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Armstrong, Accommodationism, Cake

An excellent light interview with Sam Harris ran recently on Southern California Public Radio here. Followed by the usual comments about his "simple and uninformed" view of religious faith....

It calls to mind Harris's recent exchange with vague hand-waver Karen Armstrong in the pages of Foreign Policy in which his fairly matter-of-fact questions and observations were ignored by Armstrong. Instead, she characteristically spent her time complaining about his "tone." This obsession with the civility of arguments instead of their content is something that accommodationists like Armstrong seem to share with the more liberal, "modern" theologians. It's no wonder she goes on to name check folks like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, each of which have their own charming approach to denying history or, when forced to concede how hopelessly incoherent most historical religious claims are, attempting to drain history of all importance.

No surprise, then, that someone like Armstrong likes such approaches- it allows her free reign to redefine specific religions, or religion in general. This is almost always toward definitions that are vague enough avoid refutation and aligned closely enough to modern conceptions of human rights that all the historical abuses and savageries of religion are excluded as not being examples of "true faith."

What really fascinates me, however, is how this ahistoricism parallels the worst of the classical liberal narratives about "progress." The usual liberal line has always been that that modern capitalism and parliamentary "democracy" may have started out in an extremely barbaric form (no political participation for the majority of society, crushing exploitation of workers etc...) but that it progressively reformed itself to be more just and recognize rights in groups it had previously treated as industrial fodder. Rights were"granted" from on high, so to speak, and we must all be thankful and not cause too much of a fuss.

What this sort of storytelling tries to do, of course, is gloss-over the essential part played by radical social movements and marginalized groups in creating the last two century's advances in human rights. Recent work by Micheline Ishay (The History of Human Rights) is fairly good at showing that most of the limited political and social rights that are enjoyed today weren't the result of some inherent process internal to capitalism or the modern era. Instead, they had to be fought for step-by-step in a grinding process where rights were forced as a concession out of the state, usually by scaring political elites into throwing some sort of bone to the masses to preclude full-blown revolution. The right to limited workplace protections, the (nominal) end of child labor and slavery, even the extension of the vote to non-rich white males were all only won in the West because people spoke out vociferously and mobilized physically for them.

The point is that both the accommodationists/ultra-abstract theologians and the liberals like to have their cake and eat it too. Actually, it's more like they enjoy eating cakes that have been baked by others- claiming that the forces that tried at each step to hold back the tide of progress on these matters, religion and capitalism, actually just reformed themselves from within due to some miracle of their nature. This is why Armstrong can indulge in vague, polite deism and pretend it isn't simply a fall-back position to salvage religion in the face of withering criticism.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Society, Religion, History

Well, as this is an introductory post I suppose it would do for me to lay out a few aims for this blog. This is intended to be the intellectual dumping ground for my thoughts on religion, atheism, and the historical relationship between the two. I'm an atheist who has seen the recent resurgence of atheist writing in the fields of philosophy, biology, and in popular press and books as a breath of much needed fresh air.

I work in the social sciences, and there the retreat from meaningful critique of religion in the last few decades is palpable. The realm of "sociology of religion", in particular, has become a sanctuary for theologians who mostly seem to want to cover up religion's historical existence as a series of institutionalized patterns of thought that have had real, and usually terrible, consequences. This is all the more pathetic when we think back on the "founders" of modern social science; Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. They all advanced damning criticism of religion both as an epistemology and as an historical entity, and all from three widely differing viewpoints.

So I hope to use this blog as a place to recapture that original critical stance that has been largely lost when the social sciences analyze religion. That being said, I don't intend for anything I post here to approach any level of "academic rigor." I'm using this more or less as a public arena to do some brainstorming and set down any idea I think might be useful. Comments are always welcome, if anyone happens to stumble in here!