Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Writing in the  American Conservative, here’s Gilbert Sewall on the Oxford classicist, E.R. Dodds. Read the whole thing, really, but here is Sewall discussing Dodds’ Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety (1965):

In 380, Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, proscribing all other religions. Temples were closed, property confiscated, pagan holidays prohibited, and Olympic games ended. Freedom of religion vanished.

Olympic Games ended – not all bad then.

Sewall:

This obnoxious self-confidence made Christians many enemies among ordinary Romans. “Like all creeds which claim the total allegiance of the individual—like communism, for example, in our own day—early Christianity was a powerful divisive force,” Dodds said, using italics to make his point

To educated pagans, blind faith rendered Christianity contemptible. But what had been no more than an administrative nuisance or psychological curiosity in the early Empire became an actual menace to its stability and security: a state within the state, a secret society that disrupted social cohesion…

Why did the Christians win the Roman culture wars? First, the anything-goes ecumenism of late antiquity led to “too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from: you could pile one religious insurance on another yet not feel safe,” Dodds explained. “Christianity made a clean sweep.” The Church cared for widows and orphans, the old, unemployed, and disabled. Most important, the Church created a community that gave self-respect and meaning to lives, provided human warmth, and offered hope.

Since Dodds wrote, the Western world’s educated and powerful have for the most part abandoned Christianity. Multimedia blur fiction and fact, making fantasies appear real and true. In such a world, what rubrics will provide a moral anchor and semblance of community? What voices will give lives meaning and direction?

As I’ve mentioned before, the need for “meaning” remains elusive to me, but it is  undeniable that that is something most people appear to want—something, like religion itself, that appears to be hardwired within our species, presumably because it fulfilled and, indeed, fulfills, an evolutionary purpose.

The ‘New Atheists’ who want to get rid of religion are on a hiding to nothing. There will always be religion. The only question is the form or forms it will take.

Sewall:

Washington-based journalist Andrew Sullivan has likened today’s campus activists to a religious sect, one that finds redemption through confession of white guilt and privilege, conversion, adoption of esoteric language, and adherence to a strict moral system. “Liberalism and empiricism have parted company,” warns political philosopher John Gray, an academic leftist and no friend of religion, in the Times Literary Supplement.

I have posted something on some of what Sullivan has been saying here and on Gray too (most recently) here.

In this context, it is worth noting this comment by Gray (‘academic leftist’ is not, incidentally, quite the right label: Where he stands is more complex than that) :

[Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

But conformity is not comfortable for all, and part of the comfort it does give lies in bestowing a power to enforce that conformity on others, power that is  pleasurable in itself, but also as a demonstration of a superior morality.

Sewall:

A rising quasi-religion propagates articles of holy faith through academic and corporate workshops, training sessions, and safe-zone certifications. In deconstructing canonical works, defaming ancient heroes, denouncing thought crimes, destroying icons and symbols, and closing down opposing viewpoints as hateful, it displays humorless fanaticism….

[T]he emerging intersectional priesthood has no intention of ceding secular power or accommodating adversaries. As an elect mindful of the responsibility to crush lies, convinced of its superior moral vision, it demands greater temporal power to redeem and punish recalcitrants.

As Dodds showed, belief systems that seem absurd to non-believers can and do create state-enforced thought monopolies. Once institutionalized, they can remain in power for long periods of time. Those who refuse to embrace sacred mandates and hierarchies are deplorable. They are mad, stupid, or evil, not merely stubborn or freethinking. Heresy contaminates. Nonconformists deserve legal reprisals, stigma, and ruin. To expunge the demonic threat, autos da fé, psychiatric hospitals, labor camps, and confiscations—many possible tools—are available to enforce divinely inspired righteousness.

Good times.

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May/18

15

Tom Wolfe, R.I.P.

“A cult is a religion with no political power.”

Apr/18

21

Mobile Phone, Immobile Superstition

Yet another reminder that, to quote (yet again) Carl Jung, the Middle Ages…live on merrily.

The Catholic Herald:

Priests have been carrying out exorcisms over the phone as demand continues to rise, a Cardinal has said.

Speaking at the Vatican’s annual exorcist training conference in Rome, Cardinal Ernest Simoni said priests are delivering prayers of liberation, part of the exorcism ritual, remotely.

“There are priests who carry out exorcisms on their mobile phones. That’s possible thanks to Jesus,” he said.

However, some warned that the practice was not wise, as people who are possessed often writhe around violently and have to be restrained during exorcisms….

Annual exorcist training conference?

Yup.

Around 250 priests from 50 countries are attending this year’s conference at the Regina Apostolorum university as prelates from around the world report an increase in demand for exorcisms.

The course started in 2004, and since then the number of priests attending each year has more than doubled.

And this pope, of course, that man of science who has taken it upon himself to lecture us all about climate change, will approve:

In his most recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis warns that the devil is not a myth but a “personal being who assails us”

“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” the Pope wrote. “This mistake would leave us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

And among his naughty tricks is, lest we forget, same sex marriage.

Or so this pope believes:

Here’s a 2010 story from the National Catholic Register about the then Cardinal Bergoglio (my emphasis added):

A Jesuit cardinal has become the latest Church leader to speak out forcefully against a government’s push towards same-sex marriage, and has called on his nation’s contemplatives to pray fervently to prevent such laws.

According to an article in tomorrow’s L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina, has said that if a proposed bill giving same-sex couples the opportunity to marry and adopt children should be approved, it will “seriously damage the family.”

He made the statement in a letter addressed to each of the four monasteries in Argentina, asking the contemplatives to pray “fervently” that legislators be strengthened to do the right thing.

He wrote: “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Cardinal Bergoglio continued: “Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

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Apr/18

21

Liberalism as Faith

Cross-posted on the Corner (and a post, I would hope, that ‘Secular Humanists’ would read):

The British philosopher John Gray is not someone to shy away from ‘difficult’ topics. If you are looking for a provocative long read this weekend, his new article in the Times Literary Supplement ought to be a contender. I didn’t agree with all of it (for example, I would argue that the supposedly secular totalitarianisms of the twentieth century—essentially millenarian sects, as Gray rightly observes—were even more ‘religious’ than even he would claim), not that that matters.

Above all, Gray’s take on where the arguments of John Stuart Mill, one of the saints of traditional liberalism, have led is, to say the least, intriguing.

An extract:

 [Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

While he never faced up to the contradictions in his thinking, Mill was fully aware that he was fashioning a new religion. Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.

That may or may not be true, but at least Mill recognized its essentially religious nature, not that that took much doing.

Gray:

Like Comte, [Mill] believed that humanity is a progressive species, though he diverged profoundly in how he understood progress. And what is “humanity”? The conception of humankind as a collective agent gradually achieving its goals is not reached by observation.

Like the brotherhood of man, just another delusion, unless it’s old Cain who we have in mind. Whether it is—as some delusions can be—a useful or even necessary delusion is a different question.

But back to Gray:

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion….

Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past…

Food for thought, to say the least.

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Apr/18

12

Like An Oscar, But Not

Blocked! I don’t know what brought on my inclusion on this sort of reverse Index librorum prohibitorum (I don’t think I’ve ever engaged with this particular site) but recognition is recognition…

 

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Apr/18

4

A Bahai Walks Into YouTube HQ…

Yesterday’s YouTube shooter, Nasim Aghdam, was an adherent of the Bahai faith, which appears to be a kind of Middle Eastern spin on Unitarian Universalism. Despite the Rastafarian look of the above pic, she ain’t about that. Heavy.com has more:

According to the Mercury News, the father says he warned police that his daughter had gone missing and was angry at YouTube but they called and said they found her sleeping in her car. She had recorded a video ranting that YouTube was discriminating against her. However, she did write about religion in the context of the Baha’i.

The blog post starts, “At the turn of 2014, one of our campaigns led us to the Baha’i. Thanks to Supreme Master Ching Hai et al, we were already aware of some Baha’i texts containing guidance on diet and abstinence from animal flesh. Therefore, was very keen to meet people from the Baha’i community and learn more. Not long after, we were invited to attend a local Baha’i meeting on the 8th of January 2015 at Leeds Quaker house. It is now down to the universal house of justice to take affirmative action, to ensure that the growth of Bahai principles increases it must pay special tribute to Abdul’s prophecy, about the ‘pity’ and ‘compassion’ that he observes in his verses animals/vegetarianism.”

Nobody could have predicted the likes of Aghdam to be the first to go on the (very) offensive with regard to Big Social Media and their widely acknowledged, frustratingly opaque, and seemingly arbitrary practice of filtering certain content, a.k.a. “shadowbanning.” Like others, I’d have guessed a disgruntled white male intellectual of perhaps a libertarian bent. (Complaints of a censorious nature directed at Silicon Valley do appear to be coming from the right in recent days.) Initial reports had it that the shooter stepped on to YouTube’s meatspace property for something related to a domestic dispute. Boy were they wrong about that! While her beef may have been personal, it wasn’t exactly interpersonal. And while unheard of in the US until yesterday, Aghdam, or “Green Nasim,” was something of an internet celebrity in Iran.

This attack was notable for at least two reasons: its type and the type of perpetrator. Both are fairly novel. One blogger suggests that Aghdam may very well be the world’s first Shadowban Shooter.

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Mar/18

4

The Devil as Recruiting Sergeant

The Middle Ages, as that dodgy sage Carl Jung once wrote, “live on… merrily”. That’s no surprise, really. Superstition will always be with us, in new forms—and in old.

Crux:

ROME – With reported demonic possessions on the rise in Italy, the Vatican is hosting a week-long training to better prepare exorcists for ministry. Catholic leaders have said that the country needs more exorcists, and better training.

“Today we are at a stage crucial in history: Many Christians no longer believe in [the devil’s] existence, few exorcists are appointed and there are no more young priests willing to learn,” said one of the event’s speakers, exorcist Father Cesare Truqui, according to Vatican News.

Now, of course, it’s true that the devil has a major role to play both in the traditional Christian story and in some expressions of Christian belief today (some: I don’t remember him playing much of a role in the teachings of the splendidly mild Church of England in which I was raised). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the obvious concern with which Father Truqui contemplates the fact that many Christians apparently no longer believe in Old Nick. Part of the reason for the anxiety that causes him will, undoubtedly, be spiritual, but on reading that paragraph, with its giveaway claim that we have arrived at a “crucial” stage (there always has to be a crisis; see Rahm Emmanuel for details), it’s hard not to detect the professional anxiety of someone who is worried that the demand for his guild’s services may no longer be required.

But more than that, it’s revealing that this conference is being hosted at the Vatican. The current Pope, like all demagogues someone with a shrewd grasp of what pulls in the crowds, is noticeable for the emphasis he places on the devil. He knows that fear is a good recruiter.

What that does to the mental health of the psychologically vulnerable is not something that appears to count for too much.

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Mar/18

4

Abusing “Frankenstein”

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason:

The meme of Frankenstein as a mad scientist who unleashed a disastrously uncontrollable creation on the world has been hijacked by anti-modernity, anti-technology ideologues to push for all manner of bans and restrictions on the development and deployment of new technologies…

For decades, the specter of Frankenstein’s monster has been invoked whenever researchers report dramatic new developments, from the use of synthetic biology to build whole genomes from scratch to the invention of new plants and animals that can better feed the world. Experiments in repairing defective genes in human embryos, which have been conducted in China and the U.S., are routinely described as precursors to the creation of “Frankenbabies”—the long-dreaded but not yet seen “designer babies.”…

There is nothing immoral in Frankenstein’s aspiration to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death.” The people who will choose to use safe enhancements to bestow upon themselves and their progeny stronger bodies, more robust immune systems, nimbler minds, and longer lives will not be monsters, nor will they create monsters. Instead, those who seek to hinder the rest of us from availing ourselves of these technological gifts will rightly be judged moral troglodytes.

Despite the din raised by anti-technology ideologues and the claque of conservative bioethicists, our world is not filled with out-of-control Frankensteinian technologies. While missteps have occurred, the openness and collaborative structure of the scientific enterprise encourages researchers to take responsibility for their findings. During the past 200 years, scientific research has indeed poured “a torrent of light into our dark world.” At nearly every scale, technological progress has given us greater control over our fates and made our lives safer, freer, and wealthier.

The punch thrown at “the claque of conservative bioethicists” is well aimed: They are, for the most part, a wannabe priestly caste trying to wrap ancient superstitious fears in the modern, more respectable-sounding name of bio-ethics. In reality what they are peddling is the same old same old, Prometheus, Galileo and all that.

Bailey concludes:

Victor Frankenstein variously condemns his creature as a “demon,” a “devil,” and a “fiend.” But that is not quite right. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy,” the creature insists. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” He was endowed with the capacity for hope, sharing the same moral faculties and free will exercised by human beings.

Frankenstein is not a tale about a mad scientist who looses an out-of-control creature upon the world. It’s a parable about a researcher who fails to take due responsibility for nurturing the moral capacities of his creation. Victor Frankenstein is the real monster.

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Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, CA

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (HT Tyler Cowen) ruminates on the past and present of Catholicism and how it stacks up to the influence of Silicon Valley. In short he claims that it’s, well, falling short in the modern age:

A simple glance at the history of the church should show that the current situation is anomalous. As Rodney Stark, the invaluable social historian of Christianity, notes, Christians in the Roman world had longer life expectancies than their non-Christian peers, a fact that can be largely attributed to the church’s welfare system, which was the first organized and professionally run welfare system in recorded history—in other words, a radical, world-changing innovation. It is attested by both Christian and pagan sources that Christians in antiquity provided health care lavishly to their own and to others; it is less often noted that in the process they literally invented the hospital, another rather important innovation.

He laments that Bill and Melinda Gates have done more to help eradicate malaria in Africa than Catholics have. Gobry is smart to point to Catholicism’s internal contradictions that e.g. pit environmental conservation against birth control:

Catholic doctrine includes care for creation, but also includes the condemnation of artificial family planning. How does one reconcile environmental conservationism with a moral vision that, if applied consistently, would lead to explosive population growth?

Seeing as how the center of gravity in the Catholic world has moved to the Global South – with Argentinian Pope Francis its official spokesperson –  it’s difficult to see how Catholicism will ever be on equal footing with Silicon Valley in both the near and long-term future. Argentina ain’t Japan. It should come as no surprise that a religious figurehead who is down on euthanasia might be at loggerheads with the “spiritual” home of transhumanism, a sizable minority of godless libertarians, and abortion as taken-for-granted.

One area of surprising agreement between the Catholic Church and Silicon Valley is global warming. But that’s about it.

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Feb/18

10

Ideologies of Undivided Devotion

From Yuri Slezkine’s magnificent The House  of Government’, a Saga of the Russian Revolution, a book centered around the idea that Bolshevism was, at its heart, just another millenarian sect, if a peculiarly malevolent one:

“Of the seventeen prisoners, thirteen, amongst whom were close friends of Radek, had been condemned to death, while he himself and three others had been sentenced only to imprisonment. The judge had read the verdict, and all of us had listened to it standing up..

Radek offered himself—along with Bukharin, among other friends—as a scapegoat, a metaphor of unopposed temptation, the embodiment of forbidden thought. He may not have murdered anybody, or even conspired with any murderers, but in Bolshevism, as in Christianity or any other ideology of undivided devotion, it was the thought that counted. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

His offer was accepted.  Radek, an enabler of mass murder, was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet concentration camp, where he was killed. He need not be mourned.

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