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.