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Archive for November 2008



Religion & nihilism



On the varieties of prediction

In some of the comments below I engaged in a discussion about the power of prediction, the necessity of skepticism, and so on.  In the format of a weblog the full overgrown shape of one’s thoughts can be somewhat muddled.  For example, I evinced a skepticism of predictions of the future from rational a priori assumptions, and therefore a particular prejudice toward custom & tradition.  But across the set of species of predictions obviously various degrees of skepticism are warranted.  After all, I think it would be ridiculous to be skeptical of an astrophysicist who made a prediction as to the arc of celestial orbits.  The record on these things is rather different in terms of precision & accuracy from predictions of, as a contrast, macroeconomic performance.  It stands to reason that the cudgel of skepticism should be selectively applied to different classes of rational systems and the projections thereof.  On the great chain of predictive being, I would rank it like so:




Dangerous Places

Further to Heather’s remarks:  the London Daily Telegraph has a photo-display titled “20 of the world’s most dangerous places.”

Here are the Telegraph’s 20, with their dominant religions (according to the CIA World Factbook). I think my abbreviations are obvious, except perhaps “A” for “Animist.” There’s a wonderfully broad representation of faiths … though Taoists seem to be pretty peace-loving types, at least since the Yellow Turbans were suppressed.

 Iraq   I 
 Afghanistan   I 
 Chechnya   I 
 South Africa   C(Pr) 
 Jamaica   C(Pr) 
 Sudan   I 
 Thailand   B 
 Colombia   C(RC) 
 Haiti   C(RC) 
 Eritrea   I/C 
 D.R. Congo   C(RC) 
 Liberia   C(Pr) 
 Pakistan   I 
 Burundi   C(RC) 
 Nigeria   I/C 
 Zimbabwe   C/A 
 India   H 
 Mexico   C(RC) 
 Israel/Palestine   J/I 
 Lebanon   I/C



Rules Of Engagement

I’d just like to put down the following marker:  Any commenter who blithely misquotes a thing I’ve said, as one commenter just did, will in future not get past the moderator barrier while I’m guarding it. (Which, unfortunately, won’t be all the time.)

It doesn’t have much, according to Alex Knepper in this post from another blog, date about two weeks ago.  I particularly liked the Tenth Amendment point (towards the end).



Ilana Counterblogs

Ilana Mercer counterblogs (read down a bit) to my post on “Theology Outside the Tribe.”

To her points:

Yes, indeed, Islamic theology is interesting to a lot of people, as the excellent sales of Robert
Spencer’s books
show. That is a clinical interest, though — a hostile one, in fact.  Psychiatrists are interested in insanity, but they don’t want to be insane. 

When I said that “Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe,” I meant of interest in the way that a real intellectual discipline — math, biology, history — is of general interest. From the fact that a person wants to study microbiology, I can deduce nothing about his tribe or fictive tribe (e.g. religion). From the fact that a person wants to make a serious, engaged, non-hostile study of Islamic theology, I can deduce with high probability that he is a Muslim.

Talmudic study “involves logic and law.” Sure it does. As I said, it is intellectually formidable, as are the other high and ancient theologies. However, my space-program analogy applies:  If you want non-stick frying pans, go develop them — the Saturn V rocket is not a necessary piece of equipment. If you want to train kids in law and logic, go train ’em. The Gods and the Afterlives aren’t necessary parts of it.

(You can make a case that they might once have been.  Perhaps you can’t, in the historical development of a culture, get to law and logic without going through theology.  I think that’s possible.  As an argument for persisting with theology, though, it falls to the midwife counter-argument.  You need a midwife to deliver a baby, but she’s no use to you thereafter, and just gets in the way.  Pay her off gratefully and send her home.)

Now, a conservative might say to that:  “Well, the religious-based teaching is our customary approach. It’s worked well for us in the past, and we can’t see why we should change it.” I’m sympathetic to that. I’ll only note that properly theological study is founded on supernatural precepts — on fantastic and miraculous things that are supposed to have happened in the remote past. That has to subtract something from a student’s appreciation of logic and natural science.

(Though from what Ilana says, the Talmud she studied seems to have had the supernatural stuff taken out, like Jefferson’s Bible. That doesn’t remove the tribal element — nobody not Jewish is going to learn logic and law in just that way — but it makes it pretty innocuous.)

Ilana quotes Paul Johnson: “The Bible is essentially a historical work from start to finish.”

If that were true, every Jewish and Christian theology course would really be a history course. Which is not the case. The Bible is a religious document, with lots of history (and some really good stories, beautiful verse and prose, and first-rate expositions of ethics.) Paul Johnson is a committed old-school RC:  see his book of apologetics. His opinions about the Bible are correspondingly colored. If you think that Christianity is all true, then of course the Bible will, for you, be as factual as an auto-repair handbook. And if not, not. 

“The central error of anti-religion crusaders is that they consider the Jewish and Christian traditions systems of ideas, denuded of historical context, to be accepted or rejected on the strength or weakness of their intrinsic logic (or lack thereof). Judaism and Christianity, however, are who we are historically (the same is true, unfortunately, of followers of Islam). One can no sooner denounce them than one can disavow history itself.”

Ilana loses me here. From the point of view I was applying — i.e. casting a critical eye on the claims of theologians to have anything useful to tell us about non-theological topics — the Jewish and Christian traditions are systems of ideas. What else are they?

“What we are historically” is a mess of stuff:  Jewish and Christian religion, Greek philosophy, Roman law, Enlightenment science, and all sorts of lesser tribal threads — the moots and parliaments of the Teutonic forests, their religion (I am at this moment listening to Das Rheingold ), Arabic numerals, and so on. No thoughtful person accepts the whole shebang uncritically. Probably I’d find Wagner more thrilling if I actually believed in Wotan and Fricka. Alas, I don’t. You can cast a wistful, even loving, eye back on the traditions of
humanity while rejecting some of them as untenable in light of later understanding.  You may even “denounce” aspects of our tradition without having “disavowed history.”

I must say, though, I think Ilana would make a splendid Rheinmaiden; and if she mocked me, I’d be just as upset as the Nibelung dude.



Homeland security in Kentucky

Nice to know Kentucky’s state legislature has its priorities straight:

The 2006 law organizing the state Office of Homeland Security lists its initial duty as “stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.”

Specifically, Homeland Security is ordered to publicize God’s benevolent protection in its reports, and it must post a plaque at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center with an 88-word statement that begins, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” …

As amended, Homeland Security’s religious duties now come before all else, including its distribution of millions of dollars in federal grants and its analysis of possible threats.

The language in question was inserted into the bill by State Rep. Tom Riner, a Southern Baptist minister, and overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers two years ago. Social Services for Feral Children writes:

That must explain why Kentucky has fared so well in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. That and the utter absence of any strategic or even symbolic targets within the state….

And to the extent the agency does serve a necessary function, I wonder whether it can attract the sort of seasoned anti-terrorism talent it needs with a stated mission that sounds more appropriate for a congregation than for a cop.

A friend emailed me and suggested I look into the GSS and figure out which groups are smarter in terms of political & religious combinations.  So again, my methodology is simple. I took the WORDSUM variable, which is the # correct out of 10 on a vocabulary test as a proxy for intelligence.  Sliced & diced the survey sample into “Secular” vs. “Religious” (i.e., those whose confidence in the existence of god is 0 to sometimes vs. those who are mostly to totally sure), and “Right” vs. “Left” ((aggregating from “slightly” to “extremely” liberal or conservative).  I also split the results including non-whites, and only with whites.  Here are the means for the classes:




Religion and moral decline, contd.

A reader suggests that one needs to examine the same society over time, rather than comparing different societies, to test whether the waning of religious belief and fervor leads to moral decay. So let’s look at the West over the centuries, which has become increasingly secular as the Church was ousted from government power and religious faith and practice occupied less central a role in civil life. It is not my impression that public norms have become more callous, predatory, or violent; that civil society has become more unruly; or that individual obedience to the law more uncertain.

Here are just a few practices that have become unthinkable in our secular times:

–Burning at the stake was not only tolerated by religious authorities, it was practiced by them. (more…)

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Kmiec as Vatican Ambassador?

I suppose I should pass over in silence the blog flap over whether President-elect Obama might properly name Pepperdine lawprof Douglas Kmiec as Ambassador to the Holy See (Michael Sean Winters, America Magazine, pro; UCLA lawprof Stephen Bainbridge, con and more). It’s not as if I have a horse in the race, exactly. Although he’s a respected guy, I had never warmed to Prof. Kmiec’s writings back in his days of obscurity when he was an expositor of fairly standard Catholic social conservative views, and I found it no improvement when he rose to sudden fame last year as the founder of what sometimes seemed like a one-man club, Catholic social conservatives for Obama. When his name surfaced as a possible ambassadorial pick, I found it hard to care much either way: Obama won the election, so naturally he’ll fill jobs with his supporters.

But I find something jarring in the nature of the Catholic-conservative mobilization against Kmiec, which quickly runs to words like “traitor” and focuses on church traditionalists’ “disappointment with Kmiec’s role in the recent elections”. To read Prof. Bainbridge’s posts, it would appear that Kmiec’s appointment would gravely “insult” the Vatican because the wishes of that ecclesiastical institution in this month’s U.S. election were clear and Kmiec chose to defy them (as in fact did a majority of Catholic voters) by preferring the Democrat. All U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican have been Roman Catholics. Perhaps I’m missing some nuance, but if I’m reading Prof. Bainbridge correctly — and I’m a big admirer of his work on most occasions when religion does not rear its head — the only acceptable candidates for the job would seem to be those whose obedience to church dictates would pass muster with “serious, loyal” Roman Catholics.

Am I the only one who thinks this a bit mad? I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that if there’s one quality I want above all others from members of our diplomatic corps, it’s their willingness to adhere unflinchingly to U.S. policy and interests as opposed to those of the host country or institution. It is no use pretending there are never clashes of interest between two sovereignties; there are always some. And when that happens, we want an American ambassador whose conscience will be completely untroubled at the memory of having smiled and said misleading things while the interests of the host country or institution are left to twist and wave in the wind. I have no idea whether Prof. Kmiec is such a person, but I know that if I were a President seeking to fill this particular slot, I would be looking for someone with a proven record of intellectual independence from the Vatican, not the opposite quality.

But that is to assume that the position should be filled at all. As Bainbridge commenter Stephen Green points out, it was President Reagan who in 1984 broke with long American tradition by creating the first ambassador-rank diplomatic station directed to a church (the Vatican) rather than to a country. Time, maybe, to admit he made a mistake?

P.S.: The Vatican could refuse its assent to a foreign power’s naming of a particular ambassador, though perhaps at a cost (in making explicit a strain of relations) that it would not always wish to pay. In recent years the church has vetoed ambassadorial picks from France and Argentina because they were divorced or gay.

Further: Bainbridge has now expanded on his views in an exchange with blogger Henry Farrell (Crooked Timber).


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