Archive for February 2009
[T]he common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.
— George Orwell, “England, Your England“
It was difficult to read this New York Times piece without feeling just a little cheered…
Mr. Zuckerman, a sociologist who teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., has reported his findings on religion in Denmark and Sweden in “Society Without God” (New York University Press, 2008). Much that he found will surprise many people, as it did him. The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church. Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism. At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.” Were they reticent because they considered religion, as Scandinavians generally do, a private, personal matter? Is there, perhaps, as one Lutheran bishop in Denmark has argued, a deep religiosity to be discovered if only one scratches this taciturn surface? “I spent a year scratching,” Mr. Zuckerman writes. “I scratched and I scratched and I scratched.” “And he concluded that “religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it.
I know the feeling.
The piece can also be seen as an interesting examination of the way that the state churches of protestant northern Europe (the Church of England – as opposed to ‘Anglicanism’ – is another example of this phenomenon) still represent a strong and largely benign national/cultural presence in countries where the majority population has retained little or nothing in the way of formal religious belief.
Read the whole thing.
Well, depends on how you define secular. I interviewed Greg Cochran on bloggingheads.tv recently, talking about evolution, etc. I think this might be the only way that you could get two registered Republicans on that show; have them talk only about science. In any case, Greg is a Christian, but his politics are not what I would term transcendent. (more…)
My own view, which my book goes into at length, is that by itself rational empiricism gives you desire and technique as (radically anti-conservative) guides to life. Satisfaction of desire doesn’t seem to constitute human flourishing. To get beyond it though you need a moral tradition that’s understood to connect to something that transcends desire and thus the empirical.
So far as I can tell, an adequate theory of such a thing is going to have to explain why life objectively has a purpose, and that’s going to involve attribution of purpose and intention to the world at large. In other words, the theory is going to be religious. And it’s going to say something definite, otherwise it will be useless. So it’s going to make specific religious and non-empirical (“supernatural”) claims.
This is an old argument. Religious people often believe that morality grounded in the reality of God gives their own worldview a consistency and coherency which those who do not believe in God can not have. But I think that religious people often forget the power of their argument emerges in large part when you presuppose that such a God does exist, with the characteristics which religious people attribute to it. An objective ethics and metaphysics outside, above, and beyond, the natural does exist in your own mind when you presuppose it does exist. But saying it is won’t make it so.
Recently I was engaged with a discussion with an anarcho-capitalist who agreed with the assertion that his politics were metaphysically true. Obviously I disagree, and have an extreme skepticism toward metaphysics in general. Rather, I believe politics are simply a means to an ends, a subset of the utilitarian inclination. The ends are defined in large part by the custom & tradition of a community, and to a large extent rooted in urges and impulses which have a biological grounding. In other words, at the end of the day the is-ought dichotomy and naturalistic fallacy collapse. But to say that human morality is fundamentally natural does not mean that there is no room for debate in terms of the what it is in the specific sense.
As for the idea that a transcendent reality is necessary, I will venture to offer that I have always found the models and theories posited by religious people about their gods less than awe inspiring. There certainly beauty and glory in this universe which is simply outside the purview of human animal comprehension; anyone who has grappled with the formalisms of Quantum Mechanics can claim that they seen the face of the incomprehensible & awesome abyss. But I believe that its relation to a human political and social order are tenuous at best. Rather, the primary entity which transcends is the community and society, because I do believe a strong case can be made that individualistic hedonism which is the final form of classical liberalism offers diminishing returns precisely because of the nature of the human beast. We are a social animal, and individual happiness is contingent upon communal amity.
Note: These sorts of philosophical discussions are of course only relevant for a very small, if influential, minority. Most human animals operate in a world of custom and innate reflex, not analytic reflection.
Here’s a good thumb-sucker piece, courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, about the connection between human rights and religious belief. In there somewhere is a version of the “midwife” argument — i.e. that whether or not religious faith was necessary to the emergence of concepts like human rights, and whether or not such concepts can survive in the absence of faith, are two independent issues. The author of the piece thinks yes, and yes. Me: maybe, and yes.
No wonder the newspaper business is in trouble. Look at the standard of reporting in this story from the Baltimore Sun:
Police said a 58-year-old man stabbed his teenage son after he refused to take off his hat at church earlier in the day. The father and his 19-year-old son got into an argument on Sunday afternoon. That’s when police said the father went to a car, got a knife and stabbed his son in the left buttock and fled.
The son was taken to University of Maryland Medical Center for treatment. The father’s name was withheld pending his arrest.
They don’t even tell us what denomination church this was!
Incidentally, as a resource for arguing about Christianity, I have found the Christian Think Tank website invaluable.
For example: How many miracles did Jesus perform, according to the Gospels? Answer: 36 … including three revivifications, which is two more than I can ever recall. (A more interesting question might be: How many Christians could give the correct answer to that question?)
While reading my Sunday Telegraph this morning, my eye was caught by an ad for yet another proactive atheist venture, a movie (or at any rate a DVD) titled The God Who Wasn’t There. Its premise seems to be that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist. That doesn’t seem very likely to me — didn’t one of the Roman authors mention him? — but I’m no expert. Anyone seen this movie and got an opinion?