Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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donald_trump_august_19_2015_croppedThis blog began in the fall of 2008 somewhat on a lark. This was during a period when the American Right was beholden in many ways to the Religious Right. By “many ways,” I mean more in symbolics and rhetoric than reality. The reality is that conservatism in the 2000s was a “three legged stool” where the Religious Right was fed rhetorical “red meat,” while the neocons were ascendant and the economic conservatives achieved some gains (and losses).

But the power of religion in conservatism was such that genuflection to Christian values and identity was normative, even among the mostly secular Washington and New York conservative intelligentsia. Of course, there were always libertarians, but the libertarian position within the Right has always been one of tactics rather than strategy. It was not controversial being a libertarian and an atheist. What was more atypical was a non-libertarian conservative admitting their atheism. In 2008 George F. Will declared he was an agnostic. By 2014 he was admitting to be an atheist. Will’s transformation from bashful to agnostic on the Colbert Report in 2008 to sanguine atheist in 2014 illustrates a change in American culture: secularization entered a new phase in the 2000s, and a much larger proportion of Americans are no longer Christian in belief. In the United States over the past generation the number of Americans who have “no religion” has gone from one out of ten to one out of four.

As if to portend these trends in Barack Obama and Donald J Trump you will have two presidents who are cultural Christians at best. Though many assert that Obama is an atheist at heart, I suspect that despite his lack of belief in most of the supernatural elements of the religion he does have some rationalization for why he is a Christian. Trump’s position is different, as he is from a Protestant background by heritage, and it seems likely that that heritage is what he would lean on to assert his Christian bona fides. But Trump is arguably as religiously disinterested in the confessional aspects of Christianity as Obama, as adduced by his public comments, as well as his sanguine attitude toward the conversion of his daughter Ivanka to Orthodox Judaism (Eric Trump was married under a chuppah, as his wife is Jewish, while Donald Trump Jr.’s wife has a Jewish father, though she does not seem religiously Jewish as evidenced by her wearing a cross at her wedding).

Trump’s attitude toward religion is not the aspect that it is notable. Many Republican politicians are not particularly religious in private. What is notable is that he made no attempt to not be transparent in his lack of strong religiosity when appealing to religious voters. Trump’s appeal to religious voters in the Republican party was that he would defend their rights and interests, not that he was truly one of them.  The Religious Right then has become part of the interest group constellation of the Republican Party, but it is not calling the shots on the optics and symbolic rhetoric in the same manner as before.

What is the future then? I don’t think anyone knows. The election was a close one, and trends don’t help. Social-cultural systems are sensitive, and nonlinear. Expect chaos before we settle into a new system and stationary state.

Nov/16

26

Castro: The Pope and the Dictator

pope-francis-and-fidel-castroTo Pope Francis, Castro’s death was “sad” news, kind words indeed from someone who the former dictator would once have described as “social scum”.

Meanwhile, just two or three weeks ago the pontiff was being quoted favorably on Telesur (a TV network funded by the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, disappointingly in such company, Uruguay):

Asked [during an interview with the press ] if his pursuit and support for a more egalitarian society meant he envisioned a “Marxist type of society,” the pontiff said in response, “If anything, it is the communists who think like Christians…Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom.”

Francis is not a communist (his ideology is better seen as a blend of left-Peronism and ‘a Catholicism of the people’, two strains of thought that themselves overlap). Nevertheless, to say that that description represents a very benign interpretation of what communism really is, is to put things very mildly indeed.

Then again, Francis’ line of argument is not so different from what Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the leftist Roman Catholic writer and activist possibly now headed for canonization, deployed in the Catholic Worker in July/August 1962:

We are on the side of the [Cuban] revolution. We believe there must be new concepts of property, which is proper to man, and that the new concept is not so new. There is a Christian communism and a Christian capitalism. We believe in farming communes and cooperatives and will be happy to see how they work out in Cuba. God bless Castro and all those who are seeing Christ in the poor. God bless all those who are seeking the brotherhood of man because in loving their brothers they love God even though they deny Him.

And Pope Francis, of course, is something of a Dorothy Day fan. Praised for her “passion for justice”, Day was one of “four representatives of the American people”, singled out by the Pope during the course of his speech to Congress in 2015.

Meanwhile from Forbes earlier this year:

The Obama administration has continued its effort to expand contact between the U.S. and Cuba by easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Although Raul Castro’s government has continued economic reforms, it has maintained the Communist Party’s political stranglehold. Indeed, despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.” In contrast, there were only 40 cases in 2011…..

Sad times, indeed.

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Oct/16

29

Germany: “Everything about this mosque made me feel uneasy”

Refugees and Turks pray during Friday prayers at the Turkish Kuba Camii mosque located near a hotel housing refugees in Cologne's district of Kalk, Germany, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Cross-posted on the Corner:

One obvious concern about Angela Merkel’s decision last year to, so to speak, throw open the doors to Germany was the obvious risk that potential jihadists were among those that she was  welcoming into the country. That concern hasn’t gone away, and nor should it, but here (via  Reuters) is a twist:

Hani Salam escaped civil war in Syria and survived the journey from Egypt to Europe. But when he saw men with bushy long beards at a mosque near his current home in Cologne last November, he was worried. The men’s appearance reminded him of Jaish al-Islam, the Islamist rebels who took over his hometown near Damascus, said Salam, 36, who wears a mustache but no beard. One of them told Salam that “good Muslims grow beards, not moustaches,” he recalled – a centuries-old idea that he dismisses. “Everything about this mosque made me feel uneasy,” he said.

Syrians in Germany say many of the country’s Arab mosques are more conservative than those at home. Over two months, a dozen Syrians in six places of worship in three cities told Reuters they were uncomfortable with very conservative messages in Arabic-speaking mosques. People have criticized the way the newcomers dress and practice their religion, they said. Some insisted the Koran be interpreted word-for-word.

In Germany, other different faiths are traditionally supported by the state. But most of the country’s four million Muslims originally came from Turkey and attend Turkish-speaking mosques which are partly funded by Ankara. Last year around 890,000 asylum-seekers, more than 70 percent of them Muslims, entered the country. Around a third came from Syria. Many of them do not want to go to Turkish mosques because they do not understand the sermons. They prefer to worship where people speak Arabic.‎ Yet in these mosques, other problems arise. They are often short of funds, or else supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Some back ultra-conservative or highly literal interpretations of Islam, such as Wahhabism or Salafism.

Ah, the Saudis, yet again: Our allies. Still spreading poison, it seems.

And the Salafists  have been trying a little outreach:

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has recorded more than 320 attempts by Salafist Muslims to contact refugees last year, often by offering food, clothes, free copies of the Koran and help with German to asylum seekers living in shelters. Earlier this month, a Syrian committed suicide in prison after he was arrested on suspicion of planning to bomb an airport. His brother and friends in Germany have said he was “brainwashed” by ultra-conservative imams in Berlin…

Read the whole thing

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Sep/16

21

The God of War

isis2Crux:

 Ahead of his day trip to Assisi to participate in a World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis said that the gathering of women and men religious from around the world is not a “spectacle” but simply a prayer for peace in a world at war.

“Today the world will have its center at Assisi, for a day of prayer, penitence and crying, because the world is at war,” he said on Tuesday. “God the father of all, Christians and not, wants peace. There’s no god of war, this is done by the devil.”

Well, that rather depends. God is, as I’ve noted before, in the eye of the beholder and if that beholder decides that his God wishes war, then a God of war is what He will be, much as that might embarrass the Pope.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, writing in the Daily News in 2015 (my emphasis added):

A video shot earlier this month in which Libyan militants line up 21 Egyptians on a beach and cut their heads off provides a window into the killers’ motivations. This one, complete with dramatic music and images of the sea turned red from blood (it was likely shot elsewhere and manipulated to look like it took place by the sea) ends with one of the militants pointing a knife in the air and proclaiming in English: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

…The militant movement imagines itself to be at the beginning of an apocalyptic battle with Christians. An anticipation of that fight is what has attracted thousands of young Muslims from around the world to take up arms.

….[When] the ISIS militant declares, “we will conquer Rome,” he has in mind an end-times scenario in which the forces of Islam will confront and defeat an army of Christians in an apocalyptic battle in Syria and then proceed to take Istanbul or Rome (there is some confusion here because classical Islamic traditions describe Constantinople — today Istanbul — as the capital of “Roman” territories).

ISIS’ obsession with this scenario explains why the fourth issue of Dabiq — the movement’s flashy online magazine — features an image of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome with the black flag of ISIS flying above it.

Yes, a God of war.

 

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Sep/16

19

Pope Francis: the Man with the Answers

Pope Francis Leads The Solemnity Of The Most Holy Body And Blood Of ChristCross-posted on the Corner.

AP:

Pope Francis has encouraged Europeans to welcome refugees, calling authentic hospitality “our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.”

Francis Saturday spoke to alumni of Jesuit schools in Europe who were in Rome for a conference on refugees.

There’s a lot I could say about this, but I won’t.

Just ask yourself what it says about the judgment, and, perhaps, more than just the judgment, of the man who is now Pope.

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Sep/16

4

Trump on God


bible-onlineCNN (from last year):

“Well I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this?” Trump said, motioning toward an oceanfront golf course that bears his name. “Here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals they say ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals. We have to, we have to bring it back, but God is the ultimate. I mean God created this, and here’s the Pacific Ocean right behind us. So nobody, no thing, no there’s nothing like God.”

God is, as always, in the eye of the beholder.

 

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Aug/16

4

ISIS, God and The Devil

ISISAusten Ivereigh’s defense of Pope Francis’ response to ISIS appears to be, well, evolving.

Just the other day, he was arguing this:

[ISIS] is a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious.

Now:

First, the Islamic State might recruit mentally-ill teenagers from the banlieus, but it is far from being a bunch of psychopaths. Islamism is a violent ideology drawn from a purist Islamic fundamentalism. It is a version of Islam which radically differs from, and is rejected by, most of the Muslim world.

Second, a war with Christianity is key to its worldview. The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome,” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse

Of course ISIS recruits far more than “mentally-ill” teenagers, but Ivereigh’s recognition that it is a religious movement (however repellent) is a welcome acceptance  of reality.

Ivereigh goes on to explain that Francis has a “six-fold strategy in response to the Islamic State provocation”. Apparently it’s “well thought out, and it is effective”. I’ll leave you to read the full piece and judge for yourselves, but this, well:

For the radicals, violence is sacred, sacrificial, divinely-sanctioned – it is precipitating Armaggedon and the celestial triumph of Islam.

So when Francis declares that its violence is, as well as being evil and abhorrent, “senseless,” as he described the Nice massacre, or “absurd” as he said of the violence that slayed Hamel, he is dealing Islamic State a significant blow: the world’s leading religious authority has denied them the legitimacy of a religious justification.

This is a strategy, but it is, also, genuinely, demonstrating what true religion is.

Well no. The idea that ISIS or, for that matter, many of the people inclined, however remotely, to sympathize with them will pay the slightest attention to the opinion of a “religious authority” for whom they have no respect is, to put it at its kindest, naïve.

As to what a  “true religion” is, well, let’s just to say that religion takes  many forms, not all of them benign.

And then:

As a longtime discerner of spirits, Francis has a keen awareness of the workings of the diabolos, the great divider, and the subtle ways evil can persuade ‘good’ people to set themselves over and against ‘bad’ people.

Did Ivereigh felt the need for a little Greek, with its suggestion of erudition, to conceal the primitive beliefs that it describes: The Devil. No less.

Superstition, wishful thinking and denial do not a good “strategy” make.

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Aug/16

1

The Avoidance of Uncomfortable Reality

ISIS ChurchCross-posted on the Corner.

Crux:

Pope Francis on Sunday defended his avoidance of the term “Islamic violence” by suggesting the potential for violence lies in every religion, including Catholicism.

“I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence, because every day, when I read the newspaper, I see violence,” Francis said, when asked about why he never speaks of Islamic terrorism or fundamentalism when condemning attacks such as the murder of a French priest last week, who had his throat slit by an Islamic terrorist as he was celebrating Mass.

The pope said that when he reads the newspaper, he reads about an Italian who kills his fiancé or his mother in law.

“They are baptized Catholics. They are violent Catholics,” Francis said, adding that if he speaks of “Islamic violence,” then he has to speak of “Catholic violence” too.

Well, no, there’s a difference between a murder committed by people who happen to be of a certain religion, and murder committed in the name of a religion.

Francis is no fool.

He must know this, but still he says what he says.

And then:

 Although clarifying that he didn’t know if he should say it because “it’s dangerous,” the pope then admitted that terrorism grows when “there’s no other option.”

“As long as the god of money is at the center of the global economy and not the human person, man and woman, this is the first terrorism,” he said, defining it as a “terrorism at the bases,” against the whole of humanity.

No, money is not the “first terrorism”. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that a good number of the more notorious Islamic terrorists have come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. They had alternatives—many alternatives—but they were drawn to violence by their understanding of God, as many have been before them, and many will be in the future.

Again, the Pope must know this, but he prefers, once again, to change the subject, talking, once again, about the wickedness of “money”, cheap, stale demagoguery with the stench of conspiracism about it.

It’s not really for me to say so, but I would think that Francis’ church has the right to expect rather more from him.

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Jul/16

31

“On A Relentless March”

League of the GodlessThe news that some in the Democratic Party might have tried to ‘out’ Bernie Sanders as an atheist was neither particularly surprising nor particularly shocking. Atheism doesn’t play well with the electorate. What’s more, to the extent that a candidate’s religious faith (or lack of religious faith) might influence his or her policies, it’s something that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing.

Nevertheless, as was probably inevitable in an age of taking offense, people have been offended.

Writing for Bustle, Raina Lipsitz grumbles that “one important group is missing from the DNC’s platform: atheists.”  Naturally the word “problematic” makes an appearance later.

Naturally, “atheist groups” have called for the firing of the Democratic operative who wanted to raise Sanders’ supposed atheism. Naturally he has apologized to “those [he] offended.”

One voice of sanity is “outspoken atheist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier”. Asked whether this exclusion bothers her, she replies:

“Yes, I’m an atheist … But do I care whether the Democratic platform includes an explicit nod to us atheists? Hell no….”

#StandWithNatalie

On the other hand:

Toni Van Pelt, president and public policy director of the Institute for Science and Human Values, disagrees. “This is the time to call on the Party to officially recognize the nonreligious as true Americans…Atheists are on a relentless march to be recognized and valued by the larger community. We will no longer accept a back seat to those who profess a faith … it would behoove the Democratic Party to reach out in a public statement to those of no religion … and [acknowledge] that the philosophy of living life to the fullest here and now is of great importance.”

Officially recognize!

Relentless march!

Living life to the fullest!

Great importance!

Oh please.

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Jul/16

30

Father Hamel: An ‘Absurd’ Killing?

church-apCross-posted on the Corner.

I posted something yesterday on Pope Francis’ disconcerting (there are other adjectives) response to the murder of Father Hamel in Normandy earlier this week, specifically with reference to this comment:

“I only want to clarify, when I speak of war, I am really speaking of war … a war of interests, for money, resources. … I am not speaking of a war of religions, religions don’t want war. The others want war.”

This, I argued, was wrong-headed for any number of reasons, not least the way that it effectively tried to downplay the wider religious significance of Father Hamel’s killing. That’s a topic that Damian Thompson has now addressed in The Spectator. Mr. Thompson, I should add, is not only an associate editor of The Spectator, but also the editorial director of the Catholic Herald:

Father Hamel was killed while re-enacting the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is the essence of the Catholic Mass, which — unlike Protestant commemorations of the Last Supper — is presented to the faithful as the same sacrifice offered by Jesus. To kill a priest who is saying Mass is therefore an act of unique desecration. You do not need to be a believer to grasp this point. Enemies of the church have understood it since the beginning: an early pope, St Sixtus, was beheaded during Mass in 258 ad by agents of the Emperor Valerian. Islamists, who reach back to the Dark Ages for so many of their actions, have rediscovered this crime. Their intense (and very successful) campaign to cleanse the Middle East of Christians reached its symbolic peak on 31 October 2010, when Father Thaer Abdal was shot dead at the altar of the Syrian Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. Fifty-seven other innocent people, many of them worshippers, died with him.

The gunmen who broke into the church during Sunday Mass were heard to scream: ‘All of you are infidels… we will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell.’ They were members of an Iraqi faction of al-Qaeda that had declared war on churches, ‘dirty dens of idolatry’, and in particular ‘the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican’. The motives of Islamic terrorists are sometimes hard to disentangle from their personal biographies and factional infighting. But sometimes they are obvious, and the only thing obscuring them is the politically correct preciousness of the liberal western media and commentariat. Many Islamic fundamentalists, including those who don’t participate directly in violence, loathe Christianity with a poisonous passion reminiscent of medieval Christian anti-Semitism. Its practice must be suppressed — either without violence, as in Saudi Arabia, or amid carefully staged scenes of bloodshed, as in Baghdad or Rouen.

In the 21st-century Middle East, Christianity has been suppressed on an astonishing scale….

Thompson goes on to ask whether the murder of Father Hamel will “awake Christendom from its torpor.” As evidence that it will not, he cites comments by Austen Ivereigh, a  biographer of Pope Francis and a  former spokesman for the English Catholic Church. Mr. Ivereigh is quoted as  referring to the ‘pointless banality of the Rouen murder’ and as urging us not to glorify it by ‘ascribing religious motives’.

Well, to me at any rate, the “religious motives” were  all too clear.

In a long, closely-argued piece for ABC, Mr. Ivereigh has now discussed the Pope’s response to Father’s Hamel’s killing, and specifically the description of the attack as “absurd” act of violence.

Absurd?

Ivereigh:

Absurd violence? The words seemed almost trite. There was no mention of martyrdom, or even of Father Hamel. The Pope’s attention was neither on the victim nor the perpetrator, but on the nature of the act; and rather than ascribing to it any religious or ideological motive, the Pope reduced it merely to an outpouring of hate. For Francis, it was not an attack, assault or a slaying – or any of the other terms we journalists love to use to dramatise – but a meaningless, pointless act; mere hatred; an absurdity…

Ivereigh duly tweeted the Pope’s words and duly received a disapproving response:

I was drawing attention, I said [to one critic], to the Pope’s focus on the act rather than the motives of the killers, which are at this stage – I was writing just hours after the event – frankly obscure. But based on previous ISIS-inspired acts, not least in Nice, the attackers were likely to be vulnerable, depressive losers lured into violence by radicals on the internet; to call them religious, I warned, was to buy into the Da’esh narrative, that this was a war of Islam on the West and Christianity.

This will not do. The murderers’ motives were never, frankly, that obscure, although elements in their mix might have been. Perhaps it’s easier for me, someone without any religious faith, to accept than it would be for Mr. Ivereigh, but people can be drawn to religion for any number of reasons, some noble, some far less so. Some of these people may be talented, secure and successful. Others may be “vulnerable, depressive, losers”, but they have all arrived at a religious destination, even if they may well have very different understandings of what that destination is.

Yes, there are good reasons to resist giving the current conflict with elements in Islam an incendiary label, and those reasons are strong enough to justify a noble lie or two, but lying to ourselves is not only unwise, but also dangerous.

Ivereigh cites the Archbishop of Marseilles:

“We are no longer in the realm of ideas,” he said – no small thing for a Frenchman to declare – but confronted with a very new kind of war, unknown until now.

Yes and no: Part of the effort to defeat ISIS must involve trying to understand its ideas.  Ivereigh argues” that violence has no part in God’s plan; it is no-thing; it is absurd.” Well, that may be true of his God, but, God is in the eye of the beholder, and He can take forms that are not always so benign as Ivereigh believes.

Ivereigh adds:

[ISIS] is a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious.

I can’t agree. In a post last year on the topic of whether ISIS is nihilist (it’s not) I noted:

ISIS, like most millenarian movements, believes in a cleansing fire (and, in its case, in setting it), and ideologically it explicitly looks back (to the teachings attributed to Mohammed)… but to think that this also involves an embrace of the technologically pre-modern is evidently a mistake.

And in another post on the same subject, I cited the British philosopher John Gray:

[F]ar from believing in nothing, Isis militants are possessed by faith. Though some reports suggest that the militants may have been fuelled by euphoria-inducing drugs, their attacks are not random acts of terror. They are moves in a methodical strategy of savagery that serves an apocalyptic myth. Isis is an explicitly eschatological movement, infused with fantasies of cataclysmic end-time battles and a universal caliphate.

Indeed it is. It’s not the first of its kind. It won’t be the last. And it will not be wished away.

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