CAT | culture
Writing in the Guardian, British philosopher John Gray (an atheist himself) takes a look at the ‘New Atheists’ and isn’t too impressed by what he sees.
His attack on the idea that leftists ‘must’ be on the left is well worth noting, and is a helpful reminder that ‘secular humanism’ is not only mush, but presumptuous mush:
[T]oday’s most influential atheists would no more endorse racist biology than they would be seen following the guidance of an astrologer. But they have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science; now it is liberal values which receive that accolade. There are disputes, sometimes bitter, over how to define and interpret those values, but their supremacy is hardly ever questioned. For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.
It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values.
Atheism or agnosticism are simply the absence of belief in a deity. It has no automatic ‘political’ consequences. That absence can sometimes incline the unbeliever to support profound illiberal ideologies (as Gray points out), but it can also lead him or her to do the opposite. A lack of belief will, by definition, mean that unbelievers reject the purported rationale of policies rooted in religious faith, but not always their utility.
There have been many modern atheisms, some of them more cogent and more intellectually liberating than the type that makes so much noise today. Campaigning atheism is a missionary enterprise, aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief; but not all atheists have been interested in propagating a new gospel, and some have been friendly to traditional faiths.
… Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.
And one that I share: “Ultimate questions”? There are better things to think about.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that, to borrow from that old Trotsky line, you may not have much interest in the beliefs of others, but those who follow those beliefs may have an interest in you. To that extent, arguing back against the very root of those beliefs can make a great deal of sense. Critical biblical scholarship served a very useful purpose in the 19th century, so would subjecting the Koran to the same treatment in the 21st.
Gray attributes much of the rise of the New Atheists to 9/11, or rather its implications:
For secular liberals of [Sam Harris’s] generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.
Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way.
Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?
As a species, we appear to have a strong tendency towards religious belief for, doubtless, excellent reasons. When conventional religious belief fades, it is simply replaced by something else (there’s no better example of that than communism, essentially little more than a milleniallist cult, with a supernatural idea of history stepping in for more traditional gods). Raging against religious belief is as foolish (as I am not the first to observe) as raging against bipedalism. Secular sorts would do far better to focus their wrath on the more malign expressions of religious belief. All religions are not equal. An Anglican is not a Salafist.
As you’d expect, Gray also turns his question to the notion of morality without God:
The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science. Empirically speaking, there is no such collective human agent, only different human beings with conflicting goals and values. If you think of morality in scientific terms, as part of the behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans don’t live according to iterations of a single universal code. Instead, they have fashioned many ways of life. A plurality of moralities is as natural for the human animal as the variety of languages.
At this point, the dread spectre of relativism tends to be raised. Doesn’t talk of plural moralities mean there can be no truth in ethics? Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values.
This isn’t the relativism celebrated by postmodernists, which holds that human values are merely cultural constructions. Humans are like other animals in having a definite nature, which shapes their experiences whether they like it or not. No one benefits from being tortured or persecuted on account of their religion or sexuality. Being chronically poor is rarely, if ever, a positive experience. Being at risk of violent death is bad for human beings whatever their culture. Such truisms could be multiplied. Universal human values can be understood as something like moral facts, marking out goods and evils that are generically human. Using these universal values, it may be possible to define a minimum standard of civilised life that every society should meet; but this minimum won’t be the liberal values of the present time turned into universal principles.
Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality. Such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways….
The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future.
No there is not.
Food for thought. Read the whole thing.
The Islamic State is now directing its wrath at Twitter. Namely its co-founder, Jack Dorsey, but also his underlings. And if you thought the Twitter Mob was bad, check out what happens when Twitter itself is in the crosshairs for wrangling with the ultra-reactionary:
ISIS posted an online threat Sunday warning Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey that “your virtual war on the Internet will cause a real war on you.”
The threat was posted in Arabic under a headline, “Foundation for the conquest of Jerusalem for the Islamic State,” and “Twitter a target for the caliphate.”
“Jack, how will you protect your helpless employees when their necks are on the line and they become an official target for soldiers of the succession and their supporters among you?” the online post states. “What will be your response to their families and sons, and their plight in this failed war?”
Oddly, ISIS has nothing to say about the awful, terrible and no-good lack of diversity at Twitter. It’s merely upset that the company is constantly taking down its videos. How selfish! Clearly the fledgeling Islamic State is not in tune with 21st century moral posturing. (Only 8th century beheadings.)
Luckily for the civilized world, the hacktivist spirit that dwells within ISIS is also at work among its opponents. As CNN reports, someone going by the name of “The Jester” has been undermining online jihadis for nearly half a decade:
“I realized something needed to be done about online radicalization and ‘grooming’ of wannabe jihadis, and we didn’t have mechanisms to deal with it,” Jester said in an interview with CNNMoney. “I decided to start disrupting them.”
My black hat’s off to you, sir.
More sweet. Less scary. That’s the promotional campaign, not the ingredient list.
The perennial Easter favorite Peeps continue to try to become a year-round candy with these “peepified” illustrations for Halloween. The simple, colorful drawings are part of an ongoing campaign dubbed “Every Day Is a Holiday,” launched earlier this year to introduce Peeps Minis, diminutive flavored versions of the original chicks. (They’re less than half the size of the flagship product, and come in bags, not the traditional cellophane-front flat boxes).
The airy sugar dumplings, made by confectioner Just Born, haul in an estimated 70 percent of their business at Easter and only a fraction on other holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. There are ghost and pumpkin Peeps on shelves now, but they’ve never moved as briskly as springtime’s puffy chicks and bunnies.
Just when you think that the misery that climate change is bringing in its wake can get no worse, there is this.
…From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties….
Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.
There is, in my view, a perfectly reasonable case to be made that man may be contributing to the way that our ever-changing climate changes. That’s one thing, but how some choose to express their belief in that proposition can be something altogether, well let’s just say, less reasonable.
Millennialist hysteria is not, of course, a new phenomenon. But, to be fair, it’s not all that hellish for those that embrace it. I suspect that with that, um, “pre-traumatic stress disorder” comes a certain excitement too, of a girding up for the End Times, of a preparation for that definitive battle to save the planet, stave off Satan or whatever the particular apocalypse may be.
And the unbelievers just will not listen:
What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears.
But that too all is not all bad. The willful ignorance of those who will not pay attention to that alarm reinforces the sense of moral superiority felt by those who do. Sinners make it so much easier to be a saint.
And that sense of mission, how it burns.
For activists like Mike Tidwell — founder of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities — part of being on the front lines means being outspoken and passionate about the cause. But while activism may be a more forgiving platform to express emotional stresses than within the scientific community, the personal toll of the work goes largely undiscussed.
“You don’t just start talking about unbelievably fast sea-level rise at a cocktail party at a friend’s house,” Tidwell says. “So having to deny the emotional need to talk about what’s on your mind all the time … those are some of the burdens that climate aware scientists and activists have to endure….”
….Perhaps it’s time for those deeply involved in climate science to come forward about the emotional struggle, or at the very least, for those in mental health research and support to start exploring climate change psychology with more fervor. And reaching out to scientists in particular could be a huge opportunity to better explore the world of climate psych, says psychosocial researcher and consultant Renee Lertzman.
“There’s a taboo talking about it,” Lertzman says, adding that the tight-lipped culture of the scientific community can be difficult to bridge. “We’re just starting to piece that together. The field of the psychology of climate change is still very, very young … I believe there are profound and not well-recognized or understood psychological implications of what I would call being a frontliner. There needs to be a lot more attention given to frontliners and where they’re given support.”
“The field of the psychology of climate change” is “very, very young”? I don’t think so.
The chosen, the elect, the saved, the righteous, the “frontliners”.
It’s a very, very old story, but with a new script.
National Catholic Reporter:
BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS Every October, many look forward to Halloween — the trick-or-treating, the parties and especially the costumes.
Every Halloween, however, many also mock religious figures with their costume choices. Costumes for badly behaved nuns, rabbis, Muslims, priests, Catholic schoolgirls, Sikhs and Buddhist monks make their way onto store shelves every year.
Some might view these costumes as harmless fun but Halloween costumes, like television programming and other media, form minds, said Fr. Gregory Labus, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Edinburg and director of the Office of Liturgy and Worship for the Brownsville diocese.
“When it comes to television and other media, people will say, ‘I don’t believe any of that stuff,’ but if you’re watching that stuff regularly, it’s forming you. It is, little by little, making an impression on you and forming your thoughts,” he told The Valley Catholic, diocesan newspaper of Brownsville.
“I would say it’s a similar kind of case with costumes, especially with very young minds. Pregnant nuns or whatever, it’s disrespectful and it’s forming an impression that is not good. … Personally, I would say that Christian families should avoid that sort of thing,” Labus added.
That is up to Christian families to decide for themselves. But as a Roman Catholic priest, Father Labus is certainly well-qualified to give advice in that respect, whatever one might think about his sense of humor.
But then there is this:
“It’s a sign of disregard, of disrespect for people of faith,” said Sr. Nancy Boushey of the Benedictine Monastery of the Good Shepherd in Rio Grande City, whose members wear a habit. “It takes an authentic call from God and makes a mockery of it, no matter what the faith is, whether it’s Jewish or Catholic or any other faith.”
Whatever the reasons for wearing such costumes, Boushey said it is “hurtful.”
“It saddens me because it is sacred clothing for me and for others who wear it — the priests and sisters,” she said. “The clothing is sacred to us and to use it for laughs, it’s very saddening to my heart. To me, it’s a sign of disrespect of God’s call to us.”
Boushey’s failure to accept “disrespectful” disagreement—and, yes, disagreement can be that— with her notions of the sacred without taking personal offense shows a certain narrowness of mind. More than that, in a society increasingly prepared to enforce a ‘right’ not to be offended, her comments represent another small step in the direction of a muted public square.
Halloween is, with Christmas, one of the more enjoyable of our syncretic, splendidly commercialized festivals, so in the spirit of the evening here is a link to The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens, the greatest chronicler of Christmas who does, I think, pretty well for Halloween too.
It opens thus:
“Halloa! Below there!”
When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.
Read on here (you will need to scroll down for a while).
Have a happy–and uneasy–Halloween.
A Saskatoon man who is blind and uses a service animal has launched a complaint to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, alleging a local taxi company is not providing service because of his guide dog. Mike Simmonds claims he’s been denied taxi service more than once because of his dog.
“I think it is common,” Simmonds told CBC News Friday. “If you don’t have the dog you’re not going to hear much about it. Someone like me, I feel strongly about my rights. I feel strongly about my dog helping me out. I want to speak out.”
Simmonds said he has been told that some cab drivers have refused to pick him up with his dog because of their religious beliefs.
Michael Coren, noting that the always PC CBC had oddly omitted to mention what those ‘religious beliefs” might be, tweets, “those Christians!”
Now there needs to be some caution about this story (“Simmonds said he has been told that”), but I suspect that this ABC report from 2007 is not entirely irrelevant:
Commissioners at one of the country’s biggest airports are considering punishing Muslim cab drivers who refuse service to passengers possessing alcohol or guide dogs. The cabbies claim transporting those items violates Islamic law.
“It is against our faith and the airport is discriminating against Muslim drivers,” says a cab driver who would only give his first name, Hashim.
Three-quarters of the 900 cabbies licensed to operate at [Minneapolis-St. Paul’s] airport are Muslim, most from Somalia. It is unclear how many are adhering to this letter of Islamic law which considers the purchase, drinking and transport of alcoholic beverages a sin. Islam also regards the saliva from dogs to be unclean. Nearly 40 million people travel through Minneapolis-St Paul airport annually. Over the past 5 years, airport officials say 5,400 passengers have been turned away. Some had guide dogs or pets, others were carrying cases of wine from California, or liquor from duty-free shops.
“There are times where cab after cab will refuse service, and passengers can be waiting for 20 minutes,” says Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “We’ve had complaints of people being asked if they had any alcoholic beverages in their luggage.”
To be sure, the airport commissioners were reported as going to take action as, apparently are city officials in Saskatoon. Nevertheless these two stories— one from Canada, one from the US—are a useful reminder to those in the United States currently pushing for a very wide definition of the religious rights protected by the First Amendment that, in an increasingly multicultural nation, they may find some of the consequences far less congenial than they imagine.
It ought to go without saying that religious freedom is part of the bedrock of American liberty, but so too is the notion of equality before the law.
There has to be unum, so to speak, as well as pluribus.
The Yale Daily News has some of the details:
Representatives from 35 campus groups and student organizations have signed a letter drafted by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) that expresses concern over an event that is bringing a controversial speaker to campus.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali — a Somali-born American activist known for her women’s rights advocacy and critical remarks about Islam — is slated to give a lecture titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” on Sep. 15 as part of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program speaker series. The daughter of a Somali politician and opposition leader, Hirsi Ali has publicly voiced criticism of practices such as female genital mutilation and has also voiced support for atheism and women’s rights. The MSA’s letter does not ask for a withdrawal of Hirsi Ali’s invitation, according to MSA board member Abrar Omeish ’17, but rather draws attention to her allegedly hurtful anti-Muslim statements and her lack of qualifications to speak broadly about Islam.
Because, of course, strong opinions (or, more accurately, strong opinions of the wrong sort) are not something that should be allowed to be expressed in today’s universities without a self-important little melodrama.
And then there’s the credentialism, that “lack of qualifications to speak broadly about Islam”. Credentialism has long been the hallmark of the intellectually desperate. That it now appears to flourish at Yale is disappointing, but, I suppose, in the degraded campuses of today, no longer surprising.
The Yale Daily News:
Omeish referenced a 2007 interview with the London Evening Standard, in which Hirsi Ali described Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
Omeish said that the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech.
“The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment. That’s what we’re trying to condemn here.”
Hate speech? Libel? Slander? Not protected by the First Amendment? Really? If we’re playing the credentials game, perhaps Omeish would like to set out the qualifications she has that enable her to find that those words by Ali crossed some very specific legal lines. I can fully understand why she might disagree—and disagree profoundly—with what Ali said (indeed, I don’t agree with it myself), but, in asserting what she has done, Omeish has gone rather farther than that.
Back to the Yale Daily News:
After becoming aware of the Buckley Program’s plan to bring Hirsi Ali to campus, Omeish met with [Buckley Program president] Lizardo last week to discuss Hirsi Ali’s speaking engagement and the MSA’s requests. According to Omeish, the MSA never intended to disinvite Hirsi Ali, but instead requested the invitation of a second speaker with academic credentials on the subject. The MSA also asked that Hirsi Ali’s speech be limited to her personal experience and professional expertise.
But Lizardo responded that the Buckley Program would not adopt the MSA’s requests and would not change the format or content of the lecture.
“If the principle is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, then having someone there to correct her views, which is essentially what MSA would like to happen … would only hinder the principle or idea further of free speech,” Lizardo said.
And then there’s this squalid intervention:
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa issued a joint statement to the News in which they confirmed the University’s commitment to free expression but raised concerns over Hirsi Ali’s prior comments about Islam.
“We are deeply concerned … by Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful, comments about Muslims and Islam,” the statement read. “To better represent the whole Yale community and its educational goals, we recommend the organizers consider actions to expand the event, such as allowing concerned students to present their perspectives or adding a scholarly voice to create a more nuanced conversation.”
Yale students would do well to understand that if they wish to learn about debate, tolerance, open-mindedness and a genuine respect for free speech, they should turn to some other place than the Chaplain’s Office.
Over at Mises, they have posted a long (very long) examination by the late (and, in my view, often profoundly misguided) Murray Rothbard demonstrating how Marxism fits into a much older millennialist tradition. The piece is something of a struggle to work through, but it yielded a good number of gems (including the quote from Alexander Gray that I posted yesterday) as well as some highly perceptive insights into what remains an important and (at least in the popular understanding of what Marxism is) overlooked topic.
A part of what attracts people to the apocalyptic is the whole drama of it—the exciting thought that they are living in the End Times—and the egotism too: they are a key part of it.
In this allegedly inevitable process of arriving at the proletarian communist utopia after the proletarian class becomes conscious of its true nature, what is supposed to be Karl Marx’s own role? In Hegelian theory, Hegel himself is the final and greatest world-historical figure, the Man-God of man-gods. Similarly, Marx in his own view stands at a focal point of history as the man who brought to the world the crucial knowledge of man’s true nature and of the laws of history, thereby serving as the “midwife” of the process that would put an end to history. Thus Molnar wrote,
“Like other utopian and gnostic writers, Marx is much less interested in the stages of history up to the present (the egotistic now of all utopian writers) than the final stages when the stuff of time becomes more concentrated, when the drama approaches its denouement. In fact, the utopian writer conceives of history as a process leading to himself since he, the ultimate comprehensor, stands in the center of history. It is natural that things accelerate during his own lifetime and come to a watershed: he looms large between the Before and the After.”
Towards the end, Rothbard introduces us (or me anyway) to the remarkable figure of Ernst Bloch:
A blend of Christian messianist and devoted Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist, the 20th-century German Marxist Ernst Bloch set forth his vision in his recently translated three-volume phantasmagoria The Principle of Hope (Daz Prinzip Hoffung).
Early in his career, Bloch wrote a laudatory study of the views and life of the coercive, Anabaptist communist, Thomas Müntzer, whom he hailed as magical, or “theurgic.” The inner “truth” of things, wrote Bloch, will only be discovered after “a complete transformation of the universe, a grand apocalypse, the descent of the Messiah, a new heaven and a new earth.”
There is more than a hint in Bloch that disease, nay death itself, will be abolished upon the advent of communism. God is developing; “God himself is part of the Utopia, a finality that is still unrealized.” For Bloch, mystical ecstasies and the worship of Lenin and Stalin went hand in hand. As J. P. Stern writes, Bloch’s Principle of Hope contains such remarkable declarations as “Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem” [Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem], and that “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism” is part of “the age-old fight for God.”
I note that this truest of believers eventually left East Germany to settle in the West. Socialism was evidently too much to take.