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TAG | religion

Apr/10

25

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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Jan/10

24

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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Here. Or embedded:

We talk about The Faith Instinct.

Nov/09

11

The nation-state as idol

Rod Dreher & Daniel Larison discuss the intersection of religion and patriotism. The issue of course isn’t adherence to a higher law vs. the nation-state; even those without explicitly religious motivations can reject loyalty to a state whose actions they feel to be illegitimate. Rather, the bigger issue are multiple loyalties. Religion is an incredible ideological and institutional system for transcending boundaries of nationality, but the inverse of that is that religious minorities have long been under suspicion. During the Persian-Byzantine wars of the early 7th century Jews notably sided with Persians and exacted revenge for 6th century persecutions in the Levant upon the previously dominant Christians. This was a rational act by a religious minority who aligned with the power which had a history of greater tolerance toward their faith, the Zoroastrian Sassanians.

But the relevance of multiple loyalties varies from group to group. There is for example one majority-Jewish nation. And there are only two majority-Hindu nations. There is only one Cuba. By contrast, there are ~1.5 billion Muslims scattered across the World Island. One reason Islam has bloody borders with other civilizations likely has to do with the fact that it has many borders, period. This means that Muslim populations are likely to be faced with a test of loyalty far more often than Hindu populations, or Sikh populations.

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In my post Religious diversity & its discontents I referred to America as a “Protestant nation.” This caused some confusion because as regular readers know I’m not too focused on theology, as opposed to historical and evolutionary continuity. For example, the fact that every colonial and early republican era Unitarian Church in New England used to be a Congregational Church excepting King’s Chapel is extremely significant to me. American Unitarianism was predominantly Christian until the 20th century (this nation has had 4 Unitarian presidents, though Thomas Jefferson was certainly a closeted Unitarian in terms of his personal beliefs), and theologically had some affinities with the latitudinarianism of Anglicanism (the “Broad Church”). But in terms of its history, institutions and cultural outlook it was a product of Calvinist New England.

I just finished Kevin Phillips’ The Cousin’s Wars, and he gives the statistic that at the time of the American Revolution ~60% of Americans were adherents of dissenting Protestant sects, while only 5-10% of English were (both these numbers are likely underestimates, insofar as exclusions upon dissenters in England probably resulted in many adhering to the Anglican Church, while in regions like Virginia the aristocracy hewed to their customary Anglicanism despite personal heterodoxy of belief which would have made them dissenters). You can read Phillips’ book for his full argument, but in short he argues that there has been a centuries long conflict which organizes itself along the divisions which first came to the fore in the early 17th century between Puritans and Cavaliers. This chasm is descriptively obvious, copiously documented in works of scholarship such as Albion’s Seed.

What stuck me in hindsight is Phillips’ review of the data which suggests that there was a strong tendency among Protestant immigrants from European nations to assimilate to the Anglo-Saxon folkways which they encountered in the United States. This is why metaphors such as “the melting pot,” “salad bowl” or “stew” as a model for American cultural evolution mislead, they deny the consistent hegemonic role played by Anglo-Saxon cultures. As an example, below are the results from the General Social Survey on the denominational breakdown for the 2/3 of German Americans who label themselves Protestant. Though the traditional Lutheran church is prominent, the majority of German American Protestants now affiliate with sects of British origin.
(more…)

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Nov/09

1

Religious diversity & its discontents

CONGREGATIONAL CHURCHOver at ScienceBlogs I’ve put a comment up about tensions in New York City between a mosque & an establishment across the street which serves alcohol. The issues around public displays of religion, and the norms which are enforced around religious establishments, are both complex and cross-culturally general. In India riots have often occurred when a group of Muslims or Hindus march by an establishment of the other community in the course of a religious procession. Similar issues occurred in Europe during the Reformation when religious diversity was extant in many areas. Catholic festivals and parades relating to saints and relics were ripe targets for zealous Protestants to engage in disruption & violence. Apparently the same sort of clashes are now occurring in Latin America as sizable evangelical Protestant minorities challenge the Catholic domination of public space.

The relationship of Protestants and Catholics in the United States has often been fraught as well, not to mention strife between Protestant denominations themselves (in the latter case, one might read up on the oppression which Baptists and Methodists in New England complained of even into the 1800s at the hands of the Congregationalist establishment). John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom relates the sordid 19th century history of conflict between the majority and the minority, which often resulted in violence, as well as its 20th century ramifications. To a great extent the resolution was achieved once American Catholicism evolved into just another denomination in the American order, when American Catholic’s began to espouse beliefs and norms approaching those of Protestants (“traditionalist Catholics” resist this tendency, but they’re numerically marginal). Because Jews were so much less numerous the similar tensions never manifested. American Judaism before the emigration of Hasidic rabbis in the wake of the chaos in Europe in the mid-20th century, turned itself into another denomination, with the Reform Movement setting the tone. Unlike Catholics Jews simply did not have the numbers or political power to bargain for anything more. In fact, Reform Judaism in the 19th and early 20th century was more assimilated than it is today, having disavowed the concept of a Jewish nationality and recasting themselves explicitly as analogous to the Protestant groups which populated the American scene (see American Judaism). McGreevy describes how these Jews, Protestantized and often secular, formed an alliance after World War II with the post-Protestant WASP establishment and initiated the modern Culture Wars, with conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews arrayed on the other side.
(more…)

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Oct/09

30

Why are Catholics Democrats?

Norman Podhortez just came out with a book, Why Are Jews Liberals?. It seems that this as intellectually interesting as writing a book, “Why are blacks Democrats?”, would be. You can tick off specific reasons, but in ethnic terms American liberalism and the Democratic party is a minoritarian coalition. To some extent it has been true since the recruitment of the Irish in the urban North in the early 19th century as allies with the outnumbered partisans of slave power. In fact The American Jewish Identity Survey tells us that once Jews become Christian, they aren’t so liberal. Here are the percentage of Republicans by Jewish subgroup:

Jews by ethnic origin & religion – 13%
Jews by ethnic origin, irreligious – 13%
Jewish by ethnic origin, “Other religion,” which is mostly Christian – 40%

Jews of other religion are also less intelligent than the other two groups, 36% college graduates vs. 57% for Jews who are religious and irreligious.

In any case, if Norman Podhoretz wants Jews to become Republican, he should encourage conversion to Christianity. Specifically, Protestant Christianity. Look what rock-ribbed Republicans Jim Talent and Marvin Olasky became. And don’t even talk about Howard Phillips, he wants to bring back to the inquisition for idolaters and pagans!

But I come not to talk of Jews, but of Catholics. As I said, the rise of the Democratic party as we know it was to a great extent concomitant with the first waves of Irish Catholic immigrants to Northern cities. The historical details of this are well known, so I won’t go into it, but to some extent the ties still are operative. According to the exit polls, last fall Barack Obama won 47% of white Catholics. He only won 34% of white Protestants! This is still a large difference.

Some of this might be accounted for my region and ethnicity (e.g., Italians and Northeasterners are more likely to be Catholic). So I looked in the GSS. There’s a variable “ETHNIC,” which asks where one’s ancestors came from. I wanted to look at a few groups, especially ones where the sample size wasn’t too small, and where there were likely to be Catholics and Protestants. So

1) French, who are those whose ancestors come from French Canada or France

2) German, whose ancestors come from German or Austria

3) British, whose ancestors are from England, Wales or Scotland

4) Mexican, whose ancestors come from Mexico

5) American Indian, whose ancestors come from Mother Earth’s union with Coyote

Some of these groups, such as Germans, had Protestant and Catholic cohorts from the beginning. By contrast, Mexican Americans have a large Protestant contingent through conversion (though some indigenous immigrants from Chiapas were converted in Mexico). American Indians were targeted by both Protestants and Catholics. Finally, though Huguenots have been prominent in the American aristocracy (Franklin Delano Roosvelt’s mother was a Huguenot, as were the ancestors of many Southern low country planters), I assume most Protestant French Americans arrived at their religion through conversion on these shores.

I also limited the sample to 1992 and later to have some contemporary relevance.

Then I compared these classes to two categories, political ideology and political party. I created an “index” of liberalism and Democratic orientation, so that I simply multiplied the frequency in each class by an integer. Ergo:

Index of liberalism = (% liberal) X 2 + (% moderate) X 1 + (% conservative) X 0
Index of Demo orientation = (% Democrat) X 2 + (% Independent) X 1 + (% Republican) X 0

So an index of liberalism of 1 means perfect balance, while below 1 means somewhat conservative, and above 1 means somewhat liberal (2 being all liberal). The same for Democrats. Then I took the ratio of Catholics to Protestants by their indices.
(more…)

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Sep/09

29

Rule by Good Men

Since Heather’s post on Karen Armstrong I’ve heard her a lot on the radio hawking her new book, The Case for God. From what I can gather her arguments are mostly relevant to religious people; those of us who are irreligious tend not to be particularly invested in the ideological details of religions so much as its material consequences (I am, to be honest, a bit more curious about ideological issues mostly because the religious people I meet tend to be intelligent). Armstrong’s strenuous objection to the vulgar nature of the fundamentalist ascension in the modern age, and rise of scientism, is fine as it goes, but it is ultimately a matter of academic interest. The populations of developed nations can read the Bible, and so will. Additionally, democratic populism is such that the moral authority of credentialed priestly castes have been sharply limited. If religion qua religion was defined by the goings-on at Princeton Theological Seminary then the world would be a different place indeed. But it isn’t. Religion in the contemporary world is far more often a vehicle for what during the Enlightenment was termed “enthusiasm.”

Sep/09

6

Religion Unplugged

Wandering through Queens on Friday night, I came across a botánica, a fascinating small store of a type that I had never seen before. Wikipedia has a useful description here, and although as John knows all too well, Wikipedia is not always (ever?) the most reliable source of information, judging by what I saw and heard (I was with a Latin American friend who had a chat with the store’s primarily spanish-speaking proprietor), it’ll do here.

 In any event, as an example of syncretic religion at work, this little shop (and what it was selling) took some beating. In addition it was a useful reminder, stripped off much of the usual intellectual flummery, of the universal fears and beliefs that lie at the heart of almost all religion – and do so much to explain its continuing appeal. As for me, materialist to the end, I bought a candle dedicated to Juan del Dinero, a benevolent spirit (some prefer the euphemism ‘folk saint’) known for his ability to deliver riches. Here’s hoping.

 Hey, you never know.

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