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Archive for June 2011



God: Swing Voter, Fickle Too…

Via New York Magazine

After a thorough investigation, Daily Intel has discovered that God is separately backing at least three different contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Over the course of the past few months and even years, God has sent signs and direct messages to each of these candidates encouraging them to run, presumably without telling them that he supports other candidates as well.

God has apparently thrown His weight behind Herman Cain, soon-to-be candidate Michele Bachmann and that strange Rick Santorum, a candidate for whom one electoral humiliation is not enough.

Under the circumstances, I can only conclude that God is a Democrat.

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The “Infinite Blessings” of Suffering

Andrew Sullivan quotes from a (paywalled) article by New Yorker writer Aleksander Hemon, whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 9 months old. He quotes the terribly bereaved father as saying this:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.


Now let’s flash back to Crisis Magazine’s Barbara Nicolisi and her reference “to the infinite blessings that come through suffering…By removing suffering and the meaning of suffering from our culture, we make the final step in denying and defying our creature-hood.”



Ayn Rand as Scarecrow (3)

Time’s Amy Sullivan (she is the religion writer who dreamt up the story that Republicans were drumming up Obama-as-antichrist rumors during the 2008 election) was also thrilled by Paul Ryan’s encounter with a member of the religious left:

These days, when people question a politician’s “morality,” they usually mean his or her personal behavior and choices. But an interesting thing is happening right now around the GOP budget proposal. A broad coalition of religious voices is criticizing the morality of the choices reflected in budget cuts and tax policy. And they’ve specifically targeted Ryan and his praise for Rand, the philosopher who once said she “promote[d] the ethic of selfishness.”

A broad coalition. Really?

It is, however, certainly a dishonest one. As its members well know, it’s quite possible to pick and choose what one admires about an author without agreeing with everything that he or she said. After all, there’s some pretty rough stuff in the Bible. Are we to take it that this posse of ‘progressive’ clerics has signed up for everything that is in their holy book?

But back to Amy Sullivan:

Across the street from the Faith & Freedom Conference Friday afternoon, a group of religious leaders continued the attack on what they now consistently refer to as “The Ayn Rand Budget.” Father Cletus Kiley, a Catholic priest, declared the Ryan budget “does not pass our test” of Catholic teachings, and suggested that supporters of the budget “drop Ayn Rand’s books and pick up their sacred texts.”

Who, I wonder, is Father Kiley to set “our” test? As for the infinitely patronizing suggestion that supporters of the Ryan budget should “pick up their sacred texts”, well, those supporters should just pause to ask themselves how much tax this church of Kiley’s pays and move on.

Andrew Sullivan discusses some of these issues here. There’s an enormous amount with which to disagree, not least his implicit rejection of the syncretic nature of Christianity, a religion that, after two thousand years, amounts to rather more than the possibly apocryphal words of its presumed founder, but this, in particular, caught my eye:

It seems to me that one of the core messages of Jesus was that his kingdom was not of this world. Politics is a necessary evil, but it is not a spiritual vocation. Between a life in the world and a life that is otherworldly, it is hard to see Christianity in a political mode.

I’m not sure that’s a distinction that holds up. Thus Father Kiley may believe that his agenda is spiritual, but it sure looks political to me…

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Whose Life is it Anyway?

There’s been plenty to read on Andrew Sullivan’s blog this week on the question of assisted suicide. Amongst the posts and pieces to which Andrew has linked is this one by the New York Times’s Ross Douthat to which Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum had this fine retort:

So what’s the objection to assisted suicide? This is where it gets weird. Douthat argues that it’s a slippery slope: if terminally ill patients are allowed to kill themselves, what’s to stop anyone else who wants to do it? Nothing, he says, as the example of Dignitas, a Swiss assisted suicide clinic, shows. And technically that’s true: about a fifth of Dignitas’s clients aren’t terminally ill, but merely weary of life. But think about that number: it means that perhaps 200 weary people have used Dignitas’s services over the past decade or so. That’s something like 20 per year.

In other words, even after a decade in business, Dignitas almost certainly isn’t doing anything to spur suicides and it hasn’t created a tidal wave of people wanting to die. Like so many other things, it merely provides an additional option for the well off (Dignitas charges about $6,000 to perform an assisted suicide). The less well off simply continue to swallow bottles of aspirin or jump off bridges.

So, again: what’s the problem? More than anything else, I think this column illustrates the perils of taking a religiously motivated belief and trying to justify it on secular grounds. It just doesn’t work. The slippery slope here pretty obviously doesn’t amount to much, so you’re left with a simple disapproval of people deciding to take their own lives. And what’s the argument for that? Douthat doesn’t provide one. He simply declares it murder and calls it a day. Without recourse to his underlying religious objections, that’s really his only choice.

But of course, that’s the real slippery slope. If the state is allowed to prohibit me from killing myself, what else is the state allowed to do? Can it force me to accept medical treatment that will save my life? Can it force me to accept medical treatment that might save my life? If not, why?


Douthat responds here:

The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives.

To which one must point out that it is possible to disapprove of something without believing that it should be made illegal.

A conservative Republican Congressman from North Carolina’s military and Bible belt, Walter B. Jones, opposed the war in Iraq and is now calling for a pull-out from Afghanistan.  For such a courageous stance against party conformity, he should be congratulated.  Among likely presidential contenders (leaving aside Ron Paul), the stance on U.S. war against countries we have no hope of transforming and no stated desire to conquer ranges from “We’re not doing enough invading” to “We’re not doing enough invading or enough shoveling of tax dollars down the gullet of the Pentagon.”  I heard Tim Pawlenty do his tough-guy routine against the Syrian President—“We give him an ultimatum: ‘You’re gone tomorrow’”—several weeks ago to a group of influential New York neo-cons, who rewarded his promise of aggressive militarism with an enthusiastic round of applause.  All the other major Presidential candidates would have said the same thing.

But however much I admire  Rep. Jones’ intrepid individualism, I cannot help puzzling over his understanding of how he arrived at his anti-war stance.  He voted for the authorization of military force in Iraq in 2002, then started having misgivings about the invasion and in 2005 publicly called for troop withdrawal.   The reason he changed his mind, he said, was that God led him to do so: 

“I thank God that he made me feel guilty about my vote on Iraq,”

he told the New York Times.

This statement raises a host of questions.  If, in Jones’ view, God is anti-war and thus led him to that Godly stance, why are there so many equally devout Americans who are just as convinced of  the justice of the Iraq war?  Is Jones uniquely attuned to God’s will?  The implication is unavoidable that those pro-war believers are mistaken about God’s will—why is that?  Does the fault lie in themselves and in their disordered prayer lives?  It must, since presumably God would not send readable messages about the injustice of the war to some people and inscrutable messages to others.    Or perhaps God sends completely different messages to different people—pro-war to some, anti-war to others–just for the sake of spectator sport? George Bush claimed divine mandate for the Iraq invasion, since freedom is God’s gift to humanity, which he, Bush, was assisting with the Freedom Agenda.  Presumably, Jones would say that Bush was mistaken in his reading of God’s will.   But how does Jones know that he, Jones, is right and Bush is wrong?  Both appeal to the identical and sole piece of evidence: Their personal sensation of God speaking to them.  But again, if Bush is wrong, why did he get it wrong?  If you were God, and the unjustified loss of American lives (we won’t even mention Iraqi lives) were important to you, wouldn’t it be equally important to get the message out, clearly and unequivocally?   Either God screwed up in his messaging or your fellow Christian war hawks are screwed up in their ability to receive God’s will, but I have never heard a believer confront this fact explicitly and either berate God for being coy or accuse his fellow Christians of lacking access to God’s message.  Nor have I heard anyone offer a theory as to why there should be disagreement about something so fundamental as God’s will—about war, in this case.  If the problem is that man’s fallen state prevents him from perceiving God’s clear messages in all their unequivocal splendor, Jones is therefore implying that he is less fallen than his fellow Republican religious war supporters.  (more…)




Helping Out

On the general matter of assisted suicide:

(1) I couldn’t care less what people with ideological or theological fixations think.  They are entitled to their intellectual pleasures, but they have no right to foist their conclusions on citizens of a free society.

(2) The only jurisprudential objection to assisted suicide is that if it is permitted, then it will be easier for ingenious people to commit homicide.

This seems to me to be true. However, I can’t believe it is beyound the wit of our jurists to devise laws that (a) accommodate the sincere, reasonable, non-transient wish to die of  a Daniel James while thwarting the fellow who wants to bump off Granny for his inheritance.

If that is beyond the wit of our jurists, we are paying them too much.

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The Place of Suffering

[Cross-posted to NRO’s The Corner.]

Tangential to the exchange between Wesley Smith and Andrew Stuttaford on the death of Jack Kevorkian:

Here is something I was reading last week. It’s from the 1991 book In Search of Human Nature by Stanford historian Carl N. Degler. The book tracks the influence of biological ideas on the human sciences from the time of Darwin to the mid-1980s. (The book’s subtitle is The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.)

Degler’s subject here is the great German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Boas taught at Columbia University from 1896 on and was a tremendous influence on modern American anthropology. He was a key figure in the establishment of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) that prevailed in the human sciences through the middle decades of the last century. This was the system that sought to expunge (“decouple” is Degler’s word) biology altogether from anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

The key word in the SSSM is “culture,” used in the anthropological sense. (Which Boas seems to have invented. He was, according to Degler [p. 71] the first person to use the plural form of “culture,” in 1895. In We Are Doomed I tag the SSSM as “Culturism” [p.137].) A friend of mine, a geneticist, when someone ascribes some feature or other of human life to culture, snarls: “Culture? What is that? What are the upstream variables?” The answer, if you are a Culturist, is: “More culture!” It’s turtles all the way down.

Boas was not actually as dogmatic a Culturist as all that. He was a great admirer of Darwin and often left the door open for biology. The really dogmatic, Marxist-tinged Culturism that E.O. Wilson deplores in On Human Nature was really the work of the following generation of anthropologists and social scientists … though many of them, to be sure, had studied under Boas. Certainly there was more to Boas than the two-dimensional ethnic booster (he was Jewish) in Chapter Two of Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique. He was a brilliant and subtle man, a committed empiricist who would, I am sure, easily have bested his current detractors in open argument. Culturism is false, but it was not preposterous in its time.

At any rate, here is the extract from Carl Degler’s book that came to mind when reading the Smith-Stuttaford exchange. It relates to the place of suffering in human life. Carefully read, there are all sorts of connections to our current concerns about demography and the affordability of entitlements. The included quotes from Boas all come from his essay “Eugenics” in Scientific Monthly 3 (Nov. 1916).

In his final objection to eugenics, Boas, the prime advocate of a cultural interpretation of man, skirted very close to accepting a biological basis
of human nature. One of the admitted attractions of eugenics, he acknowledged, was its aim of “raising a better race and to do away with increasing suffering by eliminating those who are by heredity destined to suffer and to cause suffering.” Particularly attractive, then, was “the humanitarian idea of the conquest of suffering, and the ideal of raising human efficiency to heights never before reached.” To that ideal his response was bold and uncompromising, but its premise smacked of biology: “I believe that the human mind and body are so constituted that the attainment of these ends would lead to the destruction of society.” The burden of his objection was that for human beings suffering was at once desirable and necessary. “The wish for the elimination of unnecessary suffering,” he insisted, “is divided by a narrow margin from the wish for the elimination of all suffering.” Such a goal “may be a beautiful ideal,” he conceded, but “it is unattainable.” The work of human beings will always require suffering and “men must be willing to bear” that suffering. Besides, many of the world’s great works of beauty “are the precious fruit of mental agony; and we should be poor indeed,” he was convinced, “if the willingness of man to suffer should disappear.” The worst thing of all, he warned, was that if this ideal were cultivated, “then that which was discomfort yesterday will be suffering today, and the elimination of discomforts will lead to an effeminacy that must be disastrous to the race.”

To Boas, “effeminacy” was the tendency of the people he saw around him to reduce suffering in the name of efficiency. “We are clearly drifting toward the danger-line,” he feared, “where the individual will no longer bear discomfort or pain for the sake of continuance of the race, and where our
emotional life is so strongly repressed by the desire for self-perfection — or by self-indulgence — that the coming generation is sacrificed to the living.” In modern society he saw a repetition of that tendency, which “characterized the end of antiquity, when no children were found to take the place of the passing generations.” To the extent that the “eugenic ideals of the elimination of suffering and self-development” are fostered, the sooner human beings will drift “towards the destruction of the race,” he gloomily predicted. The irony of Boas’s objections was that similar apocalyptic fears animated the eugenicists’ demands for their program. They saw the danger and the inevitable national decline as emanating from the reproductive reluctance of the educated classes, whereas Boas seemed to embrace all classes in his jeremiad.

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Ayn Rand as Scarecrow (2)

Via TPM:

Paul Ryan was chased by a protester waving a giant Bible and decrying libertarian author Ayn Rand on his way out of the Faith and Freedom Conference, a social conservative gathering in DC where he delivered a speech on his budget.
“Why did you choose to model your budget on the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand rather than the faith of economic justice in the Bible?” the blond, 20-something male asked. He said he wanted to “present” Ryan with a Bible to teach him how to help the “most vulnerable.”

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Multiculturalism: Christianity (partly) to Blame?

Getting to grips with the pathologies of multiculturalism is no easy task, but here from the Wall Street Journal is retired (center-right) Dutch politician Frits Bolkenstein having a go. This, in particular, caught my eye:

The other foundation of our current masochism is, ironically, the very Christianity that modern generations have been so eager to cast off. Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

If Islamic civilization may be described as a shame culture, Christianity is a guilt culture. Listen to Bach’s “Passion According to Saint Matthew.” The chorus—that is to say the people—sings, “I shall be punished for what you [Christ] have suffered,” and, “You are no sinner, like we and our children.” Pride joined guilt and we in Europe soon came to believe that the mote in our eye was heavier than the beam abroad.

This would not be a problem if the burden of a bad conscience came with atonement, forgiveness, confession, expiation or any of the other theological or liturgical forms for purging guilt from the sinner. Formerly, Catholicism and Lutheranism provided for the atonement of guilt. But these traditions no longer have credibility in Europe. Feelings of guilt are not sublimated. This also goes for Calvinism, which in its purest form knows no remission of guilt in this life. Its effects have been deep in Europe and outlast the doctrine.

Thus in 1996 the Dutch government declared that its “debate about multiculturalism must be conducted on the principle that cultures are of equal merit.” And so it has gone, for years.

A stretch, I feel, but intriguing…

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Ayn Rand as Scarecrow

Public nuisance Jim Wallis and a motley collection of other “religious leaders” have taken a new tack on the budget debate. The Republicans, they allege, are in thrall to Godless Ayn Rand (who knew?) and their plans (such as they are) for tackling the deficit apparently run against God’s “instructions” to us.



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