CAT | Religion
The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger on Pope Francis’s meeting with Raúl Castro (and France’s President Hollande’s with Fidel):
A beaming, star-struck Mr. Hollande on Monday received a one-hour audience (there is no other word) with the 88-year-old Fidel. The French president said, “I had before me a man who made history.”
“Bienvenido!” said Pope Francis to Raúl Sunday when they met at the Vatican. “Welcome!” The Vatican press office didn’t release details of the meeting, other than to describe it as “very friendly.”
Photographs of the meeting between the president of Cuba’s inhabitants and the leader of the world’s Catholics suggest they hit it off, with both men aglow in smiles. In fact, Raúl seems to have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Baptized into Marxism while in college, he announced he might rejoin the Catholic Church. But let Raúl explain his sudden reconversion:
“I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”
Who could doubt it?
When he says, “if the pope continues this way,” we assume the Cuban president is referring to Francis’ criticisms of capitalism, as when he wrote in 2013: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” Francis described this theory as an “opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts.”
Meanwhile we await the Pope’s encyclical on the environment with interest. That will, of course, only concern itself with facts.
Let us assume that instead of being the pope, Francis was just a guy in Cuba named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, living in Havana. If this guy no one had heard of summoned the courage to say something in public as harsh about Castro’s communist system as the pope did about capitalism, Raúl would do any number of things to Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Raúl would have the Cuban police grab him off the street and drive him far outside Havana, where they would beat him up and abandon him. Or they would dump Jorge in prison, where he’d get beaten some more and better not get sick because medical treatment for political dissidents is hard to come by. Or a mob might show up to scream obscenities at him anytime he showed up in public.
Shaming, harassment and humiliation is what Raúl and Fidel have done to, among many others, the Ladies in White, who are wives of jailed dissidents, and who march in Havana to—of all things—Sunday Mass. What they find on the way to Mass is not fellow communicant Raúl but his mobs or police, which routinely attack them.
We know this because Raúl’s brutal modus operandi for critics of Cuba’s system is described at length in reports by the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch. But the Castros’ celebrity status with international elites transcends anything they do, and so Cuba is a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Sophisticated opinion holds that Barack Obama’s December “opening” to Cuba means the market and tourists will change the place—for example, Raúl’s release of 53 political prisoners. According to Hablemos Press, which operates inside Cuba, some of those 53 have been rearrested. Other post-“opening” dissidents have been beaten. How come? They tried to meet with an opposition group, Movement for a New Republic.
Good to know that the Pope had such a “friendly” meeting with the dictator.
Since then, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have reached an accommodation with Hefajat. The Islamist group has confined itself to the madrassa premises and the government has put five bloggers in jail for allegedly hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.
The government now appears to be walking a tightrope.
There is little doubt the prime minister wants to pursue a secular future for Bangladesh. But she appears to have little time for atheists who are on a collision course with Islamists.
The bloggers don’t just want protection from killers and justice for those murdered – they also want to enjoy the freedom of speech that is enshrined in the constitution. The government does not seem to think that freedom should stretch to the criticism of religion.
And Islamist extremists want to strike terror into the hearts of such writers and bloggers through targeted killings.
Why is the government walking a tightrope? Because, as Omar Ali observes the majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims, and many of these individuals are wary of standing up for the rights of those who verbally attack their religion. Many “moderate Muslims” may enjoin peace, but won’t fight for it on behalf of others.
Overall, compared to a sectarian hell like Pakistan Bangladesh is doing well. But if it wants to continue to be an exemplar of liberal economic practices grinding away poverty one percentage point at a time it needs to also stand by principles of liberal social tolerance. It is difficult to have one without the other in the long term.
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.
“Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”
Writing in the American Conservative, Philip Jenkins:
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist government savagely persecuted the Orthodox Church, killings many thousands of clergy and monastics, and closing the vast majority of churches and monasteries. When Communism fell, the church returned to visibility, and the last quarter-century has witnessed a startling and many-sided revival. Places of worship have been rebuilt, monasteries flourish again, and pilgrimage shrines have begun a new era of mass popularity. The post-Soviet religious restoration was supervised by the then-Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008) and by his successor, Kirill.
In exchange for so many blessings, the church has of course given fervent support to the Putin government, lavishly praising it and providing ideological justifications for a strong government at home, and expansion beyond its borders. But such enthusiasm goes far beyond mere payback. Support for authoritarian regimes is deeply embedded in Orthodox political thought, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular has always been tinged with mystical and millenarian nationalism.
When Kirill presents Orthodox Russia as a bastion of true faith, besieged by the false values and immorality of a secularized West, his words are deeply appreciated by both the state and the church. The apocalyptic character of that conflict is made evident by the West’s embrace of homosexual rights, especially same-sex marriage. As so often in past centuries, Holy Russia confronts a Godless and decadent West. It is Putin, not Kirill, who has warned that “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”
We should not see Kirill as a rogue cleric abandoning the interests of his church to seek political favors: he really believes every word. Whether Putin and his circle literally believe the religious rhetoric is not relevant: they act as if they do. The solidly Orthodox framing of Russian nationalism also ensures that powerful Rightist groups happily rally around Putin and his not-so-ex-KGB clique.
Over the past few years, the nature of Russia’s military-ecclesiastical complex has repeatedly become evident. Kirill extended the church’s blessings to the pro-Moscow regime in Belarus after a highly troubling election. In Ukraine, Kirill completely echoed Putin’s line that the Russian-sponsored separatist guerrillas were well-intentioned local citizens who justifiably feared oppression by the Kiev regime. Kirill even granted church honors to Cuba’s Castro brothers. All is in God’s hands, it is all His will….
Meanwhile, the Interpreter reports:
Activists from a radical Russian Orthodox group placed a pig’s head on the steps of the Moscow Art Theater (MKhT)on April 1, Gazeta.ru and Govoritmoskva.ru reported. Dmitry Enteo, header of Bozh’ya Volya [God’s Will] Russian Orthodox Civic Movement, said the protest was against Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been calling for an Islamic ‘reformation’. Dan Hannan is not so sure that that’s right:
What, though, do we mean by “Reformation”? Most people mean that they want a more modern Islam, one which accepts the separation of church and state, the equality of women, the supremacy of Parliament and so on. This, though, is very far from what the Christian Reformation was about. Its architects were not seeking a cuddlier, more ecumenical version of their faith. On the contrary, just like today’s Salafists, they wanted to purge and purify, to go back to an older and more demanding template, one more closely tied to the Scriptures….
Instead of a Reformation, we might do better speak of an Enlightenment. The reconciliation of Christianity with secularism and pluralism owes less to Luther and Calvin than to Milton and Locke. The West, over the centuries, became less cruel, more intolerant of torture and violence, readier to see other points of view, keener on individual rights and on democracy – and, as it did so, certain religious strictures dating from the Iron Age fell naturally into desuetude.
The abolition of slavery, for example, was a process largely driven by evangelical Christians. Not because they had suddenly discovered Biblical verses condemning servitude – there are none – but because their understanding of their faith had adapted as their world became kinder. Likewise, the reintroduction of slavery in ISIS-held territory revolts most Muslims, not because of any Koranic injunctions – again, there are none – but because the institution belongs to an older, uglier epoch. We have, as the saying goes, moved on.
Dan is right, but there is something else. The Reformation was a rejection of a united Christendom—a Christian ‘ummah’, if you like, an idea already badly damaged by the split with Eastern Orthodoxy— and, in essence, its replacement with something more secular, a series of national (protestant) churches subordinated to local secular authority rather than universalist Rome. As such it was both an intellectual and a political process.
As I posted here, England’s Henry VIII went to his deathbed considering himself a good Catholic. His dispute with Rome was not over theology, but power. Henry wanted more of the latter (and Anne Boleyn too) but the underlying (and ultimately more important) question was whether England should be governed by English laws or those of some alien authority. Henry VIII, quite correctly, if for self-interested reasons, said that the law begins at home. Within a few decades the Church of England had set off on its own.
Meanwhile, the Peace of Augsburg (1555) had accepted the principle that within the Holy Roman Empire, the rule that would apply would be cuius regio, eius religio. As the local prince worshiped (the choice was between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism) , so would his people.
And it’s hard not to think that Christianity’s intellectual authority of was not dented by this development. The notion of a universal overarching truth had been trashed and what’s more, particularly in northern Europe, God had, in a sense, been reduced to a rank below Caesar, a demotion that must, I suspect, played its part in clearing the way for the Enlightenment.
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.