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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).



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:






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:





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.



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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Religion & the state of Laïcité

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on the rise of evangelical Protestantism among French Gyspies, and how that differentiates them from eastern European Roma in their anti-social tendencies:

The Gypsy Evangelicals in Chaumont, France counter any stereotype. They park some 6,000 white trailers in neat rows on the grassy runway of a World War I air base. It is a “city” brought from “the north, the south, the east, and the west,” as signs replete with biblical language affirm, anchored by a tent that holds 6,000 and atop of which flutter the flags of France, Belgium, the US, the EU, Germany, and the UK.

The gathering joins these Evangelicals, whose numbers and faith have swelled to some 145,000 of the 425,000 Gypsies in France. Their tight organization, work and family ethic, regard for civil law, and stress on education has made them the “go-to” Gypsy group for French authorities, and a point of pride in a larger Gypsy community that has long suffered a stigma of criminality, drugs, and brawls. Beyond that, they help stabilize and keep a vanishing Gypsy identity intact, analysts say, as economic and legal pressures in post-industrial Europe are atomizing a nomadic life.


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Stephen Prothero has a piece up, Hinduism’s caste problem, out in the open. Prothero points out that religionists often use logical constructs to play word games which reinforce their in-group. Caste is not a problem with Hinduism per se, but is a cultural problem. The treatment of women is not a problem with Islam per se, but a cultural problem. The history of European anti-semitism was not an issue of religious conflict per se, but a detail of history.


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Gray vs. Grayling

It’s worth spending some time on this devastating review by British philosopher John Gray of a new book by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. Neither man is a religious believer, but, after reading this review, it’s difficult not to think that Gray is not the greater skeptic.

This passage is key:

Reading Grayling, it is hard to resist the impression that he believes Western civilization would be much improved if it did not include the Judeo-Christian inheritance. Absurd as it is, there is nothing new in such a claim. It is one of the most venerable clichés of Enlightenment thinking, and Ideas that Matter is a compendium of such dated prejudices. When Grayling condemns religion on the grounds that “a theory that explains everything, and can be falsified by nothing, is empty,” he takes for granted that religions are primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. Such was the position of J. G. Frazer, the Victorian evangelist for positivism and author of the once-celebrated survey of myth, The Golden Bough (1890). In this view, religion is chiefly a product of intellectual error, and will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth of knowledge—the need for meaning, for example? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism. The upshot of scientific inquiry would be that religion is an ineradicable part of human life. Atheism—at least of the evangelical variety that Grayling promotes, which aims to convert humankind from religion—would be a supremely pointless exercise.


Indeed it would. At the same time, we should not overlook the irony implicit in the paradox that Gray seems to accept a little too casually. At its core “religion” is, more likely than not, based on nothing more than fantasy, but what if (as Gray plausibly suggests) that fantasy satisfies a basic need without which human society is unlikely to flourish? That awkward fact doesn’t make religion any more true, it just makes it useful. So what is a secular sort to do? The usually helpful conservative approach—“nothing”—is not really enough. A better starting point is to recognize that some religions (or variants thereof) are more helpful—and more benign—than others.

And speaking of faiths that are far from benign, Gray (not for the first time) falls into the error of seeing the monstrous twentieth century totalitarianisms as bastard descendants of the Enlightenment. In reality, they are better seen as a reversion (explicitly so in the case of the Nazis) to the irrationality that will always be a part of the human condition, the reality of which merits a more serious response than denial or, for that matter, blind faith in Progress.

In any event, read the whole thing.

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Over at ScienceBlogs I have a post up where I explore the differences by state between the American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 and 2008. I then compare these data to the national election results in 1988 and 2008.

Here is a chart which shows the relationship between % “No Religion” and proportion of votes for George H. W. Bush in 1988:

And here is a chart which shows the relationship between % “No Religion” and proportion of votes for John McCain in 2008:

What you see here is that there is no correlation on the state by state level between those with “No Religion” and voting for Republicans or Democrats in 1988, but that by 2008 the proportion with “No Religion” can explain 20% of the variation by 1988. Some of this is just due to the rapid expansion of the proportion of the American population which avows “No Religion”. But the secularization process exhibits geographic patterns; Vermont now has a plural majority for those with “No Religoin,” and perhaps tellingly it is a state which has shifted much further to the Left than the national average since 1988 (it voted for Bush in ’88, but was a deep blue state by ’08). Secularization in fact has been most pronounced in northern New England, which has seen a shift toward the Left over the past generation.

What relevance does this have for current politics? 21% of political Independents have “No Religion,” as opposed to 16% of Democrats and 6% of Republicans. The role of Independents in Scott Brown’s recent victory, and in New England in general, is notable. There is no doubt that today the Republican party is defined by its white Protestant core, and this will be the basis for any future Republican majority. But I think Scott Brown’s election shows the importance of demographics outside of the core in creating a viable majority party. Though Brown himself is an Evangelical Calvinist, his campaign did not seem culturally colored in a way that the secular Center-Right might find off-putting. I think this is an important insight, and suggests further analogies between Scott Brown and Barack Obama.* Though Obama does not seem to be personally a particularly religiously devout individual, he managed to appeal to substantial numbers of religious voters through his mastery of rhetoric and presentation. Similarly, though Scott Brown’s personal beliefs are conventionally Christian, his tone and presentation was such as that voters otherwise skeptical of the Religious Right coloring of the modern Republican party found him acceptable.

* Because Scott Brown is pro-choice and is by necessity ideologically somewhat marginal with the party I am not suggesting here he could ever be a viable presidential candidate as a Republican. Unless he changes his views appropriately, at which point he would lose any shred of credible authenticity for pulling “a Romney.”

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Mrs. T and the Evolution of Religious Tradition

In an earlier post, Heather argued that it was a touch difficult to reconcile the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount with the notion of Christianity as an ideology of the free market. In the comments, I noted that the Parable of the Talents was a better place to look for that, but the better answer is, of course, that a faith need not be defined by its source materials. Religions change. Religions both shape and reflect the different societies into which they spread. They are a natural phenomenon and, as such, they evolve, not infrequently to the point when they have taken forms in which the connection to what their founders may or may not have said in the distant past is, to say the least, stretched. And that’s something that is often all for the good.

In this connection, British blogger Archbishop Cranmer’s decision to post a 1977 lecture by Mrs. Thatcher is timely. You don’t have to agree with it all to find it fascinating, not only for what Mrs. Thatcher is saying, but on how she draws on a religious tradition that has quite evidently come a long way from the Middle East of two millennia ago. Here’s a key extract:

There is much that the state should do, and do much better than it is doing. But there are also proper limits which have long since been passed in this country.

To understand the reason and how these limits can be adduced, we must come back to the nature of man. This is a matter where our understanding and our case, based on religion and commonsense, is so much sounder than that of the socialist doctrine. Yet the socialist travesty has succeeded in gaining wide acceptance by default, even among our own people. I refer to the question of self-interest as against the common good. The socialists have been able to persuade themselves and many others that a free economy based on profit embodies and encourages self-interest, which they see as selfish and bad, whereas they claim socialism is based on and nurtures altruism and selflessness.

This is baseless nonsense in theory and in practice; let me explain why. Let us start from the idea of self. There is not and cannot possibly be any hard and fast antithesis between self-interest and care for others, for man is a social creature, born into family, clan, community, nation, brought up in mutual dependence. The founders of our religion made this a cornerstone of morality. The admonition: love they neighbour as thyself, and do as you would be done by, expresses this. You will note that it does not denigrate self, or elevate love of others above it. On the contrary, it sees concern for self and responsibility for self as something to be expected, and asks only that this be extended to others. This embodies the great truth that self-regard is the root of regard for one’s fellows. The child learns to understand others through its own feelings. At first its immediate family, in course of time the circle grows.

Our fellow-feeling develops from self-regard. Because we want warmth, shelter, food, security, respect, and other goods for ourselves, we can understand that others want them too. If we had no desire for these things, would we be likely to understand and further others’ desire for them?

You may object that saintly people can well have no personal desires, either material or prestigious; but we do not legislate for saints.

Read the whole thing. Really.

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