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.

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