CAT | culture
Over on his blog, Sam Harris interviews Mark Riebling, the author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. The historical ground covered is interesting—how could it not be?—but these passages, in particular, caught my attention:
Conservative, even authoritarian, religious structures can prove extremely helpful against revolutionaries who want to impose a far more radical, utopian political religion. If Sunni Islam had a hierarchy, we would see many of its leaders resist ISIS more effectively. By comparison, you are seeing the Shia capable of counteraction, not just because they are anti-Sunni, but because they have a clerical hierarchy.
The Sunni conservatives will at some point have to either fight the revolutionaries or obey them. It was similar in Cambodia under Pol Pot—finally the old-line communists in that part of the world couldn’t take it anymore. Likewise, who is now sending troops to prop up an authoritarian Assad to stop ISIS?
The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Which should remind us that in the former Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika did not come from “the Russian people.” They began within the most elite ranks of the Party—the KGB. I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler should be grouped with this family of phenomena—authoritarian resistance to totalitarianism.
And this (my emphasis added):
For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories—but the magic’s gone out of that, too. So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification.
If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous—it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horsewhipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg—I think the personal hunger is the same.
As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else. Which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for US intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism—in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.
Jung was a nut, but he had moments of clarity.
That’s the title of John McWhorter’s excellent piece at The Daily Beast. He looks at the rhetoric of the Blacks Lives Matter movement and its acolytes and finds all the trappings of a new and only nominally secular religion. It’s essentially liturgy, as he explained in a recent Bloggingheads convo.
Fans of writer Sarah Perry and her musings on the sacralization of politics will see similar themes at work in McWhorter’s article.
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.
A mysterious noise from the sky is continuing to baffle people all over the world – as well as giving those who hear it sleepless nights. Sounding like a trumpet or a collective from a brass section of an orchestra, a selection of videos shot from the Canada to Ukraine, via the U.S., Germany and Belarus show strange goings on above us.And the eerie sounds have been continuously heard at all different times and locations for almost a decade.
True to form, the Daily Mail looks into what could be going on and comes up with a number of theories including tectonic plates, aliens and, of course, the apocalyspe:
Seven trumpets are sounded, one at a time, to cue apocalyptic events that were seen in the vision of the Revelation of Christ Jesus, by John of Patmos. Somewhat more worrying as it would signal the end of the world…
“Somewhat more worrying”.
English understatement is not dead.
Full story here (my ability to link seems to have disappeared):
Posted on the Corner last week:
The Economist clearly cannot wait to see the forthcoming encyclical on the environment:
Could Pope Francis become the world’s foremost campaigner on global warming? That is certainly the fondest hope (or in a few cases the darkest fear) of a lot of people who are closely involved in deliberations over the planet’s future. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, met the pontiff today and shared his mounting concern over the outcome of the Paris summit on climate change in December which is widely seen as the last opportunity for a global deal to manage carbon emissions and set some limit to rising temperatures.
Immediately afterwards, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an important part of the Vatican’s intellectual armoury, convened a brainstorming session with the UN secretariat and a gaggle of NGOs, including the New-York based Earth Institute, a study centre which advises the UN on sustainable development: at the Vatican’s behest, the agenda included not just climate change but forced migration and human trafficking, a scourge which has been exacerbated by desertification.
Elsewhere in the Italian capital, some strident climate-change sceptics from the Heartland Institute, a right-wing American organisation devoted to spreading climate-change scepticism, were urging the Pope not to believe in man-made global warming; the institute insists that claims of a human contribution to heating the planet are unfounded, and that proposals to mitigate climate change amount to “shutting down” the world economy.
This offers a hint of the flak that Pope Francis can expect from the religious right, including many Catholics, when he visits America later this year…
In keeping with the tone of what is a cleverly one-sided article, it is, I notice, only skeptics who earn that adjective “strident”.
Over at Breitbart, James Delingpole, who seems to have traveled to Rome in, well, “strident” company, describes a somewhat stage-managed press conference held at the Vatican with Ban-Ki Moon, but perhaps the most interesting item in his report are these comments from the UN Secretary-General:
I don’t think faith leaders should be scientists…What I want is their moral authority. Business leaders and all civil society is on board [with the mission to combat climate change]. Now we want faith leaders. Then we can make it happen.
All civil society? That may not be strident, but it’s certainly an exaggeration and, when you stop to think about it, just a little bit sinister.
Meanwhile this document has come out of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Here’s just one sentence that caught my eye:
The problem is not one of how well our children and grandchildren will fare in the world of the future, but whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond the next 100 years.
And the beginning of another sentence:
Our problems have been exacerbated by the current economic obsession that measures human progress solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth…
Strident much? But take the time to read the whole thing.
As you do so, remember that, for all the scientific discussion (which concerns not only what may or may not be going on, but what should be done about it) and the religious ‘frame’ within which the argument is set out, this is also a profoundly political document and, as such, it must, at least partly, be judged.
Cross-posted on the Corner
Pen International is an association of writers intended both to promote literature and to defend it.
In May, PEN America will be holding its annual gala, an event set to include the award to Charlie Hebdo of PEN America’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, citing the French magazine’s “dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
The day after the attack, the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine vowed to continue publication, releasing their next edition on time with a print run expanded from 40,000 to over eight million under the mantra ‘All is Forgiven,’ donating all proceeds to the families of the victims. The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence.
Indeed it did. PEN America also made the obvious point that it was not necessarily endorsing the cartoons, merely the right to publish them (without, it had no need to add, being murdered).
Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi announced on Sunday that they had withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organisation’s honouring of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo…. [Francine] Prose told the Associated Press that… she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and “deplored” the shootings at Charlie Hebdo…
…the award signified “admiration and respect” for its work and “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo”.
Peter Carey (AFP reports) conceded that “A hideous crime was committed….
“All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
Salman Rushdie made the obvious point:
If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.
I’ll just take the opportunity to quote yet again from an article published in Jyllands-Posten in the aftermath of its publication of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article which included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”
The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
Indeed there should not be.
Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness.
As I noted in a post earlier this year, the newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders, saying this:
“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”
That sad surrender makes it all the more important that PEN America took the stand that it has, and that it has stuck with it. As for authors actually attacking PEN America for standing up for the, yes, sometimes uncomfortable principle of free expression, well…
Crux has a piece on the planned canonization of Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan celebrated as the founder of the Church on the West Coast of the United States.
This caught my eye:
Uruguayan layman Guzman Carriquiry, secretary of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America, said that as a saint, Serra will help the Latino community in the US not to feel like “barely tolerated foreigners,” but to recognize themselves in continuity with Hispanics who have lived in the country for centuries.
“Barely tolerated foreigners”?
According to a new study, it’s a myth that atheists are an especially angry bunch. (Grumpy? Maybe.)
Atheists are often portrayed in the media and elsewhere as angry individuals. Although atheists disagree with the pillar of many religions, namely the existence of a God, it may not necessarily be the case that they are angry individuals. The prevalence and accuracy of angry-atheist perceptions were examined in 7 studies with 1,677 participants from multiple institutions and locations in the United States. None of these studies supported the idea that atheists are particularly angry individuals. Rather, these results support the idea that people believe atheists are angry individuals, but they do not appear to be angrier than other individuals in reality.
HT hbd chick.
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.