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Writing in the  American Conservative, here’s Gilbert Sewall on the Oxford classicist, E.R. Dodds. Read the whole thing, really, but here is Sewall discussing Dodds’ Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety (1965):

In 380, Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, proscribing all other religions. Temples were closed, property confiscated, pagan holidays prohibited, and Olympic games ended. Freedom of religion vanished.

Olympic Games ended – not all bad then.

Sewall:

This obnoxious self-confidence made Christians many enemies among ordinary Romans. “Like all creeds which claim the total allegiance of the individual—like communism, for example, in our own day—early Christianity was a powerful divisive force,” Dodds said, using italics to make his point

To educated pagans, blind faith rendered Christianity contemptible. But what had been no more than an administrative nuisance or psychological curiosity in the early Empire became an actual menace to its stability and security: a state within the state, a secret society that disrupted social cohesion…

Why did the Christians win the Roman culture wars? First, the anything-goes ecumenism of late antiquity led to “too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from: you could pile one religious insurance on another yet not feel safe,” Dodds explained. “Christianity made a clean sweep.” The Church cared for widows and orphans, the old, unemployed, and disabled. Most important, the Church created a community that gave self-respect and meaning to lives, provided human warmth, and offered hope.

Since Dodds wrote, the Western world’s educated and powerful have for the most part abandoned Christianity. Multimedia blur fiction and fact, making fantasies appear real and true. In such a world, what rubrics will provide a moral anchor and semblance of community? What voices will give lives meaning and direction?

As I’ve mentioned before, the need for “meaning” remains elusive to me, but it is  undeniable that that is something most people appear to want—something, like religion itself, that appears to be hardwired within our species, presumably because it fulfilled and, indeed, fulfills, an evolutionary purpose.

The ‘New Atheists’ who want to get rid of religion are on a hiding to nothing. There will always be religion. The only question is the form or forms it will take.

Sewall:

Washington-based journalist Andrew Sullivan has likened today’s campus activists to a religious sect, one that finds redemption through confession of white guilt and privilege, conversion, adoption of esoteric language, and adherence to a strict moral system. “Liberalism and empiricism have parted company,” warns political philosopher John Gray, an academic leftist and no friend of religion, in the Times Literary Supplement.

I have posted something on some of what Sullivan has been saying here and on Gray too (most recently) here.

In this context, it is worth noting this comment by Gray (‘academic leftist’ is not, incidentally, quite the right label: Where he stands is more complex than that) :

[Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

But conformity is not comfortable for all, and part of the comfort it does give lies in bestowing a power to enforce that conformity on others, power that is  pleasurable in itself, but also as a demonstration of a superior morality.

Sewall:

A rising quasi-religion propagates articles of holy faith through academic and corporate workshops, training sessions, and safe-zone certifications. In deconstructing canonical works, defaming ancient heroes, denouncing thought crimes, destroying icons and symbols, and closing down opposing viewpoints as hateful, it displays humorless fanaticism….

[T]he emerging intersectional priesthood has no intention of ceding secular power or accommodating adversaries. As an elect mindful of the responsibility to crush lies, convinced of its superior moral vision, it demands greater temporal power to redeem and punish recalcitrants.

As Dodds showed, belief systems that seem absurd to non-believers can and do create state-enforced thought monopolies. Once institutionalized, they can remain in power for long periods of time. Those who refuse to embrace sacred mandates and hierarchies are deplorable. They are mad, stupid, or evil, not merely stubborn or freethinking. Heresy contaminates. Nonconformists deserve legal reprisals, stigma, and ruin. To expunge the demonic threat, autos da fé, psychiatric hospitals, labor camps, and confiscations—many possible tools—are available to enforce divinely inspired righteousness.

Good times.

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Aug/17

5

Media Suddenly Interested in Muslim Opinion of Gays

After years of ignoring survey data and news reports that weren’t conducive to boosting Islam’s image, so-called new media is leaping on a Pew survey showing American Muslims to be more LGBTQ-tolerant than white evangelicals. Yes, just that particular strain of Christianity, adjusted for race:

U.S. Muslims are as tolerant as Protestantism in general, and slightly less tolerant than the average for all the subsets of Protestantism listed (white evangelical, white mainline, black Protestant) as well as Catholicism, but acknowledging this undercuts the alliance-building aspect to disseminating this news. And as the game of telephone and the dynamics of meme-spreading dictate, this will distill into “Muslims are more queer-friendly than Christians” when it’s being triumphantly told at the bar tonight. The same survey shows that less than half of foreigners support homosexuality, but that’s information likewise not congenial to progressivism, so don’t expect any headlines.

U.S. Muslims have changed their opinion on LGBTQ matters more rapidly than other groups (likely due to their being relatively upper-income, urban, and college-bound, and thus prone to getting the cultural memo) so you get the sense that a Most Improved Award is being treated as a Gold Star. It also speaks to the idea that seemingly contradictory alliances that are more hypothetical than real have a way of becoming real over time.

Of course simple surveys like this don’t capture the intensity of anti-gay sentiment, a rather crucial point. Sure, Huffpo, make Kim Davis the face of evil all you want, but it wasn’t an evangelical who murdered 49 people at a gay Orlando nightclub last year.

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds his bible while speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian C. Frank - RTS1XL2

This from Religion News Service:

The Battleground Poll has the Clinton-Trump God gap at under 15 points, with those who say they go to church at least once a week preferring Trump to Clinton by nine points and those attending less frequently preferring Clinton to Trump by less than six. That compares to a God gap in 2012 of nearly 40 points.

Since the God gap became salient in the 1990s, it’s always exceeded the gender gap. Not, evidently, this year. Between women’s support for one of their own and the misogyny of the other candidate, gender identity is trumping religion.

This parallels the seeming decline in interest in religion and the ramping up of a secularized culture war. The New World has been taking its cues from the Old World for a while now – as evidenced by the youth – and like Europe, America is implicitly agreeing that God is pretty much dead and moving on with matters more material. Oh, and this:

Roman Catholics voted for Obama over Romney by a couple of points but are now supporting Trump over Clinton 45 percent to 39 percent. Does this reflect a deep-seated Catholic proclivity for having a man at the top?

Except their man at the top has sparred with Donald Trump pretty visibly. Hm. As for Trump’s alleged misogyny, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams makes the point that Trump is insulting to everyone, but it’s only his attacks on women that provoke people into clutching at pearls:

Donald Trump called John Kasich “disgusting” for how he eats. Trump insulted Rand Paul’s looks. He said Rubio was sweaty and little. He mocked a disabled guy (an enemy reporter) who has a bad arm. Ted Cruz turned into “lyin’ Ted” and Jeb Bush got tagged with the “low energy” kill shot.

What do you call it when a man insults his enemies who are both male and female? Democrats call it a “woman problem.”

Indeed.

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Oregon shooter Chris Mercer disliked organized religion and considered himself “conservative, republican.” This according to the Daily Beast.

But then, an attempt to paint Mercer as a righty runs into problems. He also expressed sympathy for the race-card-playing black Roanoke shooter, e.g., and is himself half black (which sadly matters, even if that says more about the observers of these atrocities). On the other hand he appeared to be critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Though he loved guns, he also had beef with Christians, as those scary accounts of his actions Thursday inform us.

Secular rightists of course have a greater beef with Islam, not Christianity. (I’d say if forced to choose, but it’s not even a contest.)

The New York Times reports that Mercer chimed in on the topic of “commercialism” in online forums, which would suggest a progressive’s form of discontent – it’s unlikely he was approvingly citing passages from Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, afterall – but then that’s not much to go on.

No, all we really know is that Mercer was in awe of the negative attention mass murder grabs; he liked guns; he had problems attracting women; and he might have had Asperger’s. There’s a manifesto apparently in police custody, but since Mercer opted to go the typewriter route ala 1965 and not post it on Medium, it’s not publicly viewable.

I think the blogger formerly known as Half Sigma might have it right: Beta Male Rage.

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May/14

18

“Nostalgia for the Absolute”

hereticIn the course of an article triggered by the bullying of climatologist Lennart Bengtsson, Mark Steyn digs up this extract from a tremendous “imaginary address” by Yale law professor Stephen Carter to America’s Class of 2014, currently so busy, as Steyn puts it, “disinviting truckloads of distinguished speakers from their graduation ceremonies”:

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

They never really went away (see Marx, K., to start with), but otherwise spot on.

And, yes, read the whole of both Steyn and Carter’s pieces.

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Mar/13

10

Those who can not see God

Rod Dreher has an interesting post up at The American Conservative, The Lie Of Atheism (It’s Not What You Think). He relays a scourging of the New Atheists by Damon Linker. Rod has an interesting passage which I think highlights the difference between his psychology and that of my own:

…I have never understood why people would think of atheism as a liberation (aside from those who were raised in a traumatic religious situation, I mean). When I was at my point of greatest doubt about the existence of God, the loss of Him struck me as a thing to accept with fear and trembling. If it was true, I told myself, then I would have to accept it. But, as Linker avers, what a terrible truth!

This is probably the norm. I have talked to atheists and non-atheists who have recounted to me their moment of doubt. No matter whether the moment passed, or, it propelled them toward disbelief, it was emotionally fraught. The power of this moment, and the possible falseness of deep intuitions about a transcendent God, are genuinely affecting and I do not doubt the authenticity of these experiences. But one must be careful to generalize here, as there are some for whom God is not intuitive, and never has been. I speak from personal experience, as I have never had a deep intuitive belief in God, even when indoctrinated as a child. My wife is similar. This is why I think people need to be careful when asserting that a Nietzschean understanding of atheism is the only honest understanding of atheism. No matter your philosophical stance, the authenticity of the Nietzschean frame is contingent upon one’s own psychology. If the universe was banal and Godless, there is never not “reveal” of his death and the consequences of that event.

And obviously all the concerns about personal nihilism as a universal human conundrum faced by those who abandon God are moot in the case of individuals who never knew God in their bones to begin with and exhibit normal social and ethical mores. There may still be broader philosophical issues, but those do not have the same emotional valence. And, of course, one can still assert that for most people the Nietzschean model is relevant (I would dispute this, but this is a matter more subject to empirical investigation).

Mar/11

16

Liberal de facto apologia for Islam

In the comments to my post “The double standard” many liberals objected to my assertion that much of the Left engages in a situational criticism of religion, whereby conservative Christians bear the full front of the secular critique, where Muslims do not. My own personal experience with this is that almost everyone I have close personal contact with is a liberal, because of the scientific-technologist Left Coast circles in which I move. They’ve often absorbed a set of mantras about “moderate Muslims” which indicates little deep understanding, comprehension, or concern. In other words, they are the unreflective inverse of the right-wing Islamophobes whom they detest!

My issue is not that American liberals strenuously defend the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. My issue is that they often expand their defense to an inaccurate characterization of the religion. See this exchange by Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches and Michael Brendan Dougherty:

 

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Mar/11

10

The double standard

A few years ago Markos Moulitas wrote a book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. This is in a long tradition of demonization of American Christian conservatives by the Left. All’s fair in love and war, but I think this tendency to make an analogy between American religious conservatives and Islamic religious conservatives is one reason that the hypocrisy of white “enlightened” liberals is rather galling to many. The reality is that Muslim Americans have moderately conservative views, which if they were white Protestant Christians would get them labelled as slack-jawed inbred cretins. But, since they are generally “people of color” their beliefs get a pass, and on the contrary, many on the Left fear being termed “Islamophobic,” all the while defending the robust validity of critiques of Christian conservatives. This isn’t about principle, this is about power. Below are some data from the Religious Landscape Survey:

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Feb/11

20

Prince & bishop

One of the major back stories about Bahrain is the disjunction between the religious confession of the ruling family, and the populace. The elite and the monarchy are Sunni, while the masses are Shia. This is of a piece with the nearly 1,000 years of rule of the Arab Shia by Sunni monarchs since the fall of the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt (who were Shia sectarians). Yes, there were pockets of Shia Arab rule such as the highlands of Yemen, but by and large the Shia Arabs had to look to outsiders, such as the Shia of Iran from the 16th century on, to protect their interests. Even where they were a majority, as in much of the Persian Gulf and in Iraq, it was the assumption that Sunnis would rule. That order seems to be collapsing. Syria has long between dominated by a quasi-Shia Alawite minority, and has been Iran’s ally in the Arab world, both due to geopolitics (similar to the alliance of Scotland and France against England), as well as the common distrust of Sunni radicalism. Iraq in 2003 shifted from Sunni domination to mass rule of the Shia. Finally, Lebanon seems to have switched from a de facto Maronite-Sunni condominium to a polity directed by the cohesive collective action by the Shia (possibly a plural majority). This is the “Shia Crescent,” stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. The main exception to this is the Persian Gulf proper, where large Shia populations are dominated culturally, politically, and socially, by Sunni elites in eastern Arabia, as they have been from time immemorial. How sustainable is this?

Does it matter? All I can say is that the Al Khalifa should remember that Paris was worth a  mass.

Sep/10

26

Dhimmitude and demise done well

Sometimes readers will ask about a good book on the history of religion, and I’m pretty hard-pressed to recommend something without qualification, caveat, or caution. But I can recommend The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died without any riders. I have a long review up at Discover blogs outlining why. In my review I forgot to mention that you can read the first few chapters on HarperCollins’ website.

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