Archive for June 2015
I remember when atheism was clearly aligned with the left. It was a mere decade ago or so that stem cell research and sundry other hot-button issues characterized the distinction between the atheist liberal community and the Bush-loving, religious conservative community.
Remember Leon Kass and the Council on Bioethics?
But in 2015, with identity politics not only ascendant but nearly firmly in place, atheism is switching sides. Or that’s the impression one gets from this summary of a Dawkins/Dennett talk in Boston by Geoffrey Lee Hodge of the secular progressive TheHumanist.com in a piece called “Advancing the Atheist Movement: Dawkins, Dennett, and the Second Wave.” Hodge takes issue with DD’s reluctance to break bread with liberal Christians:
It should come as no surprise that insulting someone’s beliefs is not an effective way to change their viewpoint. What is surprising is that even facts are often ineffective and sometimes even detrimental to changing someone’s mind. To succeed, the atheist movement needs to win not just the minds of moderate believers, but their hearts as well. The overwhelming success of the gay marriage campaign in the US has not been due to a sudden increase in the number of people identifying as gay; the movement has succeeded because more and more moderate heterosexuals are convinced that it’s unfair to limit access to marriage based on ancient discriminatory beliefs held by some religions. Nor has other social change occurred due to a sudden increase in the numbers of women or African Americans
Liberal churches address a need for spirituality and community without the harmful fundamentalist insistence that the rest of the world must conform to their ideas.
Hodge is correct that the political landscape isn’t changing due to sudden bursts in the gay or black population. It’s changing because a largely white and progressive media/professional class has changing interests. And you see it on display here. Instead of encouraging DD and their fans to reach out, say, to more black and brown atheists, Hodge encourages atheists to be less fond of atheism, to, one supposes, encourage more black and brown (and female) interest.
(Of course, appealing to the interests of a minority within a minority might seem an uber-progressive endeavor. But we all know that if you go too far down that road, you may very well end up in Ayn Rand “the ultimate minority is the individual” territory, where NO progressive wants to be.)
Hodge is right to point out that people are hardwired to be religious, and any overly zealous atheist movement is likely to find itself irrelevant, politically. In a democracy, anyway. But it’s remarkable to see that even among the atheist left, the atheism comes second. Maybe even a distant second. There’s been a distinct shift away from touting the benefits of a zero-tolerance policy with regard to anti-scientific thinking, and toward an obsession with the sex and race of the people doing the touting. What’s being talked about is less important than who’s doing the talking.
Less substance, more style.
No wonder godlessness is becoming associated with the right, who are increasingly difficult to distinguish from “problematic” liberals. Like Dawkins.
Here’s an extract:
[W]hat will be the end result of our wicked urge to own things? Mayhem, of course. All the pollution produced in the making of our things will increase “the threat of extreme weather events,” [Pope Francis] says, echoing in green-friendly language the Old Testament God’s promise of floods as punishment for mankind’s sinful antics. We should also gird ourselves for the “catastrophic consequences of social unrest,” since “our obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”
…The Vatican is now a fully-fledged green institution. Which isn’t surprising. The demonisation of human hubris and promotion of eco-meekness that is at the heart of the green ideology chimes perfectly with the asceticism of Catholicism.
The similarities between the pieties of environmentalism and the diktats of Catholicism are striking. Environmentalism rehabilitates in secular drag the stinging rebukes of humanity once delivered by pointy-hatted men of God.
Christianity’s end-of-worldism is getting a new airing in the apocalypse obsession of greens, who warn of an eco-unfriendly End of Days. Its promise of Godly judgement for our wicked ways has been replaced by greens’ promise that we’ll one day be judged for our planetary destructiveness. A leading British green has fantasised about “international criminal tribunals” for climate-change deniers, who will be “partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths.”
The Word of God has become the authority of The Science (greens always say “The” before “Science,” to signal its definitiveness.) “Science has spoken,” said Ban Ki-Moon last year, in a speech on why we should all obsess over climate change, just as Catholics insist the “Lord has spoken” so STFU. Greens breathe life back into Catholic guilt, too, urging us to feel bad about everything from flying abroad to eating strawberries out of season. Carbon-calculating, where people measure their every single production of carbon, is like Catholic guilt on steroids.
Of course, you can offset your carbon by planting a tree or something—what Catholics call penance. In the past, rich believers paid priests loads of money for an Indulgence, which absolved them of their non-mortal sins—today the eco-concerned wealthy spend their cash on offsetting their carbon farts, the modern equivalent of an Indulgence.
This is why Francis is so drawn to environmentalism: he sees it as a more acceptable, 21st-century way of pushing the guilt and meekness and anti-Promethean outlook that the Vatican has long been hawking.
O’Neill is right, and that’s every reason to be worried. Apocalyptic fantasy, the pursuit of ascetism and “anti-Prometheanism” (From Eve’s “sin” to the persecution of Galileo to Frankenstein to today’s GMO scares) have sold well for thousands of years. There’s no reason to think that they will not continue to do so.
Pope Francis’s document is poorly argued, destructive in intent and adrift from commonsense; it will doubtless be adopted with enthusiam.
From First Things, an interesting take on the pope’s eco-encyclical by R.R. Reno.
Here’s an extract: “Everything is connected” is [the Pope’s] mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”
Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.
Indeed. And it’s worth noting that these are not the first “fierce denunciations” (I’ll stick with that relatively gentle phrase) that we have seen from a pope with something of a weakness for a demagogic, occasionally even paranoid style that would have played well in the Peronist Argentina of his youth, a time when he clearly learnt much and understood little.
But back to First Things:
Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.
Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.
There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.
Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.
Obviously, I’m not with Reno on the need for the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church (readers may disagree!), but his broader point is subtle and very well made. The fact is that Francis is a pope who is profoundly at odds with not just (what we understand as) the West, but with the best of the West.
And, I would add, this encyclical is far from being the only evidence of that.
The presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron, no friend of free speech, at the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings was, in the scheme of things, a comparatively minor moment of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, it’s always helpful to have reminders of where his government really stands.
Writing in The Independent, Francis Wheen:
Three years ago today, Saudi Arabian police arrested Raif Badawi for the crime of running a website “that propagates liberal thought”. His blog had put the case for secularism in observations such as this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
As if to prove his point, a Sharia court hauled Badawi back into the fearful circle, sentencing him to 600 lashes and seven years in jail for “going beyond the realm of obedience”. Last year, deciding that he had been let off too lightly, a judge upped the punishment to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment plus a fine of one million riyal (about £170,000).
What does our government think of this?
Asked about the flogging and jailing of Badawi, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said in the Lords last week: “We maintain our view that freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression are core rights that lead to long-term stability and good governance.”
But? Yes, of course there was a but, and one to take the breath away: “My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”
Do they? Last Friday I asked the Foreign Office how the minister could be so sure. No answer has yet been forthcoming. Perhaps the “vast majority” of Saudis are indeed fanatical sadists who rejoice to see liberal bloggers whipped. Or, then again, perhaps they aren’t. No one knows: this is an absolute monarchy, not a marginal in the West Midlands being polled by Lord Ashcroft.
If I had to guess, the grotesque treatment of Badawi probably worries few in Saudi Arabia, but why Anelay had to say what she did, well…
There’s been some smart commentary in The Spectator from Damian Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, on Laudato si the Pope’s eco-encyclical, due to be released tomorrow, but already extensively leaked. It’s (obviously) fair to wait to see what the final document actually says before making too detailed a critique, but the Vatican’s complaint that the leak was a “heinous act” would suggest that what has been leaked is not too far off the mark, and so some discussion seems more than reasonable.
Thompson’s comments are even-handed and I’d recommend reading them in full.
He also cites an article by Bjorn Lomborg in USA Today.
Here’s an extract:
A cruel truth is that almost every significant challenge on Earth hits the poor more than the wealthy: hunger, a lack of clean drinking water, malaria, indoor air pollution. The question then is how we make the most difference for the most vulnerable. A reasonable starting point is to listen to the world’s citizens. A United Nations survey of 7.5 million people found that many other issues are deemed more urgent. The top priorities were education, health, jobs, corruption and nutrition. Of 16 problems, the climate was rated the lowest priority.
One reason may be that today’s climate policies themselves have a cost, which predominantly hits the poor. Cuts in electricity consumption require price hikes that hurt the worst-off and elderly. Relying on expensive green energy sources like wind and solar power makes electricity pricier and less available for those who desperately need it. The biggest problem with today’s climate change policies is that they will cost a fortune for very little good. The toughest global warming policy today is the European Union’s commitment to cutting 20% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This will cost $235 billion. And cut temperatures at the end of the century by a measly 0.1ºF.
If Pope Francis is, like he likes to claim, interested in truly helping the world’s poorest Lomborg suggests that he look elsewhere, to improved access to contraception, say, and lowering restrictions on trade. Well, we already know what Francis thinks about the former (Fair enough, but that does not remove the topic as a legitimate area of focus when assessing his contribution to the debate) and, as for the latter, well, let’s just say Francis, sticking to his Peronist roots, is no fan of the mechanisms that have improved the lives of so many in the past few decades.
Lomborg is too diplomatic to say so, but the new encyclical creates the impression that – yet again – a Pope is genuflecting before the United Nations. Every recent pontiff has developed this bad habit. Their intentions are honourable, but I can’t help wondering whether the long Catholic-UN romance owes something to a natural fit between the corrupt Roman Curia and its sleazy counterparts in the UN.
In this document, however, Francis goes further than his predecessors: he endorses the UN’s diagnosis of and solutions to the complex problem of climate change. That’s his prerogative, but don’t let anyone tell you that he’s speaking ex cathedra. Jeb Bush, a Catholic, has every right to say – as he did this week – that, with all due respect, he doesn’t take his economic policies from the Supreme Pontiff.
Laudato si isn’t just about the environment: it’s a political statement by the Pope. He knows very well that climate change has been dragged into the Left vs Right culture wars, not only in the secular arena but also in the Catholic Church.
Indeed he does, and he’s making very clear where he stands.
Meanwhile, remind me again why Speaker Boehner has invited Pope Francis to address Congress.
Note: I still cannot link to URLs so:
Salon, the progressive website so enamored of SJW politics that even white belly dancers attract condemnation, today publishes a piece entitled, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs. Jon Stewart: Islam, Liberals, and the Media’s Dangerous Double Standard.” Excerpt:
A determination to avoid judgment consistently disorders rational thinking about Islam and draws too many progressives into thickets of idiocy where they entangle themselves in contradictions and assume positions that are nothing short of reprehensible. Let’s not, they would say, criticize Islam (no matter what atrocities its votaries commit), because Muslims are a minority and are sometimes discriminated against. Let’s not, in other words, “punch down.”
Such a progressive is, sadly, Jon Stewart.
As you can see from the below, this article is a bit of an anomaly at Salon. But here’s to hoping (not praying) for more such writing in the future.