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!