Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/09

25

Blessing the subway

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Earlier this month, the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, visited a subway construction site in Manhattan to offer his blessing: “Bless this tunnel, those who are constructing it, and those who will use it.”

Such an act has at least two possible meanings, as I see it, one dubious, the other admirable and worthy of emulation.   If Dolan’s blessing was intended or understood as a shield against accident, why isn’t he blessing the entire city or even the world?  And if Catholics do believe that a priestly blessing can have a protective effect, have curiosity and the passion for knowledge ever led them to try to measure when such effects occur?  Or are they happy to simply take it on blind faith that God pays attention to such gestures?   I don’t want to hear that no one ever prays with the intention of calling forth a divine response and intervention; such prayers are the daily currency of belief. 

But Dolan’s blessing could have another meaning as well—simply the expression of such precious human sentiments as gratitude and good will.  And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context.  Do we need a designated religious figure to express thanks for the labors of our fellow men and the creativity of the human spirit?  If not a priest, who can channel our appreciation and wonder?  Blessing is a noble performative utterance that ought to be separable from a belief in God, but it’s hard to see what non-religious figure would play the official blessing role without looking ridiculous.  Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get. 

Religious leaders are convenient spokesmen for human emotion.  When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy.  That is a vital function.

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17 comments

  • Kevin Lawrence · May 25, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Ceremonial deism is the answer you are looking for.

    If we can all agree that there is emotional value in christian mythology unrelated to its truth value, the bishops can keep their funny hats, atheists can have a decent funeral and we can all enjoy a few guilt-free choruses of Handel’s Messiah together

    http://www.ceremonialdeists.com/

  • meanmathteacher · May 25, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get.

    Let’s see, I’m trying to remember a society where the state replaced religion and the citizens were left with only government officials to perform blessings. I’m pretty sure it was in the last 100 years or so.

    I kind of like letting the religious types do their thing as long as I don’t have to play.

  • John · May 25, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    “When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy.”

    The ironic thing is that natural disasters like earthquakes and floods are called “acts of God”.

  • Ploni · May 26, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Ms. Mac Donald returns to the big question of Secular Right:

    And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context.

    Maybe it was her use of the word “noble” elsewhere in the post that reminded me of Roger Scruton’s article contrasting what he calls the noble, virtuous “Old” Humanism with the ignoble, vicious “New” (Dawkins) Humanism. Scruton praises in retrospect the Old Humanism and laments its replacement by the New. He seems to miss the historical point, though. The Old Humanism failed and was superseded by the New because the OH was destined from the beginning to fail, because its goal – the goal of Heather Mac Donald and Secular Right – is unattainable. You can’t engineer a secular-rationalist replacement for the “positive social functions” of religion.

  • Kevembuangga · May 26, 2009 at 4:03 am

    You can’t engineer a secular-rationalist replacement for the “positive social functions” of religion.

    Then we are doomed, since every religion is arbitrary nonsense there is no chance of peaceful coexistence in a closed world.
    Or one and only one of them will overtake all the others, in which case I would bet on Islam, since it is the most stupid, oppressive and psychotic it perfectly fits “the masses”.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · May 26, 2009 at 8:08 am

    As Heather is no doubt about to remind us, what Ploni calls the “positive social functions” of religion should never be mentioned without some acknowledgment of the negative social functions they invariably drag along with them. If you want the charity, forbearance, and communitarian solidarity, you have to put up with the obscurantism, exclusivism, and buggering priests. There doesn’t seem to be any way out of this. What a fallen world!

  • Alex · May 26, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I am skeptical about those who decry the “New Humanism” and the “New Atheism”. Sure, some atheists are obnoxious, but it has been ever so – H.L. Mencken was not exactly a rhetorical pussycat – and atheists hardly hold a monopoly in that arena. Indeed, the diatribes against “New Atheism” always strike me as a desperate effort to pour bathwater around the baby of rationalism so that both may be discarded without too much guilt.

    Address the supposed weaknesses of atheism for what they are, or attack Dawkins as an individual if you must – but don’t dismiss an entire worldview because you dislike a few of their supposed spokesmen.

  • Ploni · May 27, 2009 at 3:11 am

    @Bradlaugh
    Actually “positive social functions” was a direct quote from Ms. Mac Donald, not from me. Mr. Derbyshire raises an interesting question, though (alongside his surprisingly derogatory use of the word “exclusivism”). Is it possible to engineer the negative social functions of religion in a secular society? We would need those in order to manufacture authenticity, wouldn’t we? To use his example, how could we get our new secular priests – these would be our television talk show hosts, presumably – to embrace buggery to a near-Catholic degree? By requiring celibacy, obviously, but how exactly would that be engineered?

  • Heather Mac Donald · May 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Ultimately,for me the only thing that matters is the truth of religion, not its utility. I have yet to see anyone present evidence for the truth of his religious belief that is remotely credible, and I’m not the only one to think so. The billions of people outside any given religious faith are just as skeptical as I am. I also think that the “charity, forbearance, and communitarian solidarity” that Derb mentions as a positive function of religion can surely be achieved (and are daily achieved) outside a religious context, since those values are human, not just religious, values. That having been said, there’s no question that the speech-acts conventionally associated with religion, such as blessing, are noble and wonderful. And to the extent that priests and ministers officially function as emissaries of niceness and compassion, that, too, is an admirable role. Maybe we’ve just gotten used to a clergyman in that role, and if we had always had a secular indvidual as our official nice person, it would not seem strange or cloying.

  • JohnC · May 27, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    @Heather Mac Donald “Maybe we’ve just gotten used to a clergyman in that role, and if we had always had a secular indvidual as our official nice person, it would not seem strange or cloying.”

    Indeed. This is a case where travel really does broaden the mind. Take Australia, for example, where nominal Christians are still a majority (55% of those aged 25-34, for instance), but the public square is almost totally secular, and even where clerical involvement is inevitable, such as state funerals, it is the eulogies of friends, family, colleagues, politicians or public intellectuals that are reported in the media.

    Though their current Prime Minister is well known to be a committed Christian, it would be inconceivable to hear him utter the words “God Bless Australia” in any context. Some of the most popular prime ministers, going back at least 60 years, have been avowed atheists.

    Even in private, more than two-thirds of marriages are solemnized by civil celebrants, and the 2002 GSS showed a bare 20% of Australians aged 18-24 participated in any church or religious activity in the previous three months. Almost every other activity was more common, including attending museums and art galleries or visiting a zoo.

    In general, religion in Australia appears to be seen as something for consenting adults in private, but there does not seem to have been any conscious effort to replace the role of ministers or their public “speech-acts”. The natural processes of civil and political society have filled any void, whether it be in celebration, mourning, or moral reflection.

    It is possible.

  • Ploni · May 28, 2009 at 1:11 am

    Heather Mac Donald :

    Heather Mac Donald

    Ultimately, for me the only thing that matters is the truth of religion, not its utility.

    Same here, speaking as a life-long atheist. However I see that skepticism as a defect or a flaw in my nature, not as something to be proud of or to recommend to others.

    I also think that the “charity, forbearance, and communitarian solidarity” that Derb mentions as a positive function of religion can surely be achieved (and are daily achieved) outside a religious context, since those values are human, not just religious, values.

    Whoa, wait just a minute. “Charity” in some vague, gooey, secular sense may be a human value, if you define it so abstractly that it can’t be applied to real live humans. But there’s no meaningful universal, “human” concept of charity. Even Christianity, which pretty much defined the concept in the West, means something different by charity (caritas, agape) than what Secular Right means by charity, despite the fact that there’s a lot in common: universalism, individualism, and other stuff.

    Non-Christian religions have their own versions of the concept of charity, but they generally mean something much more foreign to Secular Right: I’m sure that the Muslim correlate of “charity” is consistent with jihad and dhimmitude, for instance. As usual, the Secular Right versions of virtues such as charity are secularized Christian concepts. It’s these secularized Christian traditions that you at Secular Right want to defend from the constant challenges (Muslim, pagan, etc.) which they’ll inevitably face. You want to defend them after knocking out their traditional Christian base.

    So much for charity. Similarly for all the other Secular Right virtues you’ve listed here: forbearance, community solidarity, niceness and compassion. In their specific, concrete meaning, all Secular Right virtues are secularized Christian virtues: not Jewish virtues, not Muslim virtues, and certainly not some abstract imaginary “human” virtues.

  • Kevembuangga · May 28, 2009 at 5:13 am

    certainly not some abstract imaginary “human” virtues.

    So there could not be any virtues outside some religion?
    Yet another “strange atheist” indeed, even ashamed of being so (dixit).
    I rather suspect some dishonesty…

  • JohnC · May 28, 2009 at 6:37 am

    @Ploni “In their specific, concrete meaning, all Secular Right virtues are secularized Christian virtues: not Jewish virtues, not Muslim virtues, and certainly not some abstract imaginary “human” virtues.”

    Anthropologically, remarkably similar ethical values are ubiquitous in all human social groups, the main difference being where and how the group boundaries are drawn. This very ubiquity is what biologists are talking about when they refer to the “problem of altruism”, and in this sense such values are indeed universal, even if their specific codifications employ different metaphors.

    Zakat (or alms-giving), for instance, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and looks remarkably similar to Christian charity, and has homologs in every human social group.

  • Anthony · May 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

    “Maybe we’ve just gotten used to a clergyman in that role, and if we had always had a secular indvidual as our official nice person, it would not seem strange or cloying.”

    JohnC points out that many private acts have found suitable replacements in Australia; the same is true in the U.S., though probably to a lesser degree. But there is a level of event where some sort of “official” statement of solemn sympathy is useful, but not worthy of the attention of the Vice-President.

    Some countries still have Kings and Queens to perform this service (among others), but the thought of deploying the minor nobility in place of parish priests or even bishops seems more than faintly ridiculous.

  • Ploni · May 29, 2009 at 9:28 am

    @JohnC
    By “charity” I did not mean alms-giving.

    Agreed that “love those in your in-group” is probably a universal “human” value. It’s also too abstract a concept to be useful in real life. The devil is in the details: not only of the group boundaries, but also, for example, (1) how to resolve competing duties to different in-groups (who’s more important in a given situation, your wives or your clan?); (2) how to treat members of various out-groups (with love? cut out their beating hearts and eat them? somewhere in between?); and probably a zillion other types of real-life questions that we could think of.

    Blithely ignoring these differences makes any talk of abstract “human values” meaningless. There was a time when the argument I’m repeating here was a standard conservative critique of Heather Mac Donald’s position, which was itself a standard of utopian Enlightenment liberalism (philosophisme). Joseph de Maistre, we need you now more than ever.

  • Craig · May 30, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    I don’t know how vital a function it is, but it can be very nice. This is an interesting conundrum. I wouldn’t want the Official Nice Person to be a member of the government, and especially not royalty. And yet, as you point out, secular versions come off stilted or silly, as in taking the very wonderful “Merry Christmas” and diluting it to the tepid “Happy Holidays”. I don’t even believe in God anymore, but I’d rather hear and say Merry Christmas. There’s more comfort in the specific than the generic, even if you aren’t “in” the specific group.

    How to come up with a secular replacement for a religious function is quite the puzzler.

  • Cassie · May 31, 2009 at 4:25 am

    @Kevin Lawrence
    Kevin, well said. Old religious habits are hard to break. I suppose many humans need ritua.

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