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Archive for May 2009



Henry James, fellow skeptic

I confess that Henry James usually drives me up the wall, for the usual reasons.  Give me the passion and directness of Edith Wharton or Trollope over James’s cloying mannerisms any day.  These are undoubtedly my failings, not his, for which I take full responsibility.  And I may have to reconsider my impatience with his prose, given his clear-eyed refusal to sound an alarum over the diminution of Christian zeal in Europe: 

[James]  has no religious faith. Not a word of piety can be found in his letters. He visits not one of the great cathedrals to pray. Christmas, as several letters show, is like any other day. “As to Christianity in its old applications being exhausted,” he writes, “civilization, good & bad alike, seems to be certainly leaving it pretty well out of account.”

(From Alexander Theroux’s Wall Street Journal review of James’s letters.)

James’s  indifference to religion makes this book, which argues for overtones of Catholicism in James’s works, an even more preposterous example of the compulsion among some believers to find confirmation of their own faith where none exist.




We are all Leftists now?

So argues Kevin Gutzman in There is No Authentic American Right – and a Good Thing, Too. In What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 there is some coverage given to the attempt by some early Federalists to create what might be termed a Tory party. They failed. In many ways both the pro-business and development Whigs and populist Democrats who crystallized during this period were liberal parties. Though it must be added my understanding is that most liberal parties in the world are generally clustered on the Right more than the Left in the public imagination (e.g., German Free Democratic Party).




Underdogs and empathy

Obama’s infamous “empathy” test for judges:

we need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old — and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges.

has triggered a debate about the appropriate role for empathy in judicial decision-making, with conservatives arguing—rightly—that a judge’s overriding duty is to apply the law and let the chips fall where they may.  (In a large number of cases that come before courts, things are not that simple, of course.  The facts fall between legal categories and judges have to decide how to extend existing legal rules to cover them.  This activity does come close to making “policy” as Sonia Sotomayor put it, though there are better and worse ways of devising those new rules, and judges should try to understand the effects of a new legal regime on all affected parties.  Nevertheless, the idea that judges should only apply rather than make the law is an important aspirational fiction that we should not cast aside.) 

“Empathy” is a code word, naturally, for privileging the usual suspects: the alleged victims of American classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.  (Glenn Greenwald notes that Samuel Alito paraded his empathy during his confirmation hearings.) 

But why accept the conventional wisdom about who deserves empathy and who doesn’t.  Here’s some hypothetical litigants and affected parties who probably wouldn’t meet the Obama empathy test but who should (regardless of their actual legal rights in a dispute): (more…)

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After reading this Michael Shermer piece I went to Amazon and looked up Bruce Hood’s book Supersense.  Amazon has posted an engaging little short video of Hood talking about his book — engaging enough, at any rate, that I momentarily forgot that I am poor as a church mouse (on this site, I guess that should be a humanist-discussion-group-meeting-house mouse), my children are hungry, etc., etc., and shelled out twenty bucks for Bruce’s book. It better be good.

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Religion red in tooth and claw

I’ve been reading about Jan Kupecky, a Baroque Bohemian portraitist, whose paintings I fell in love with in Prague several years ago.   (This lousy reproduction does not begin to convey the extraordinarily modern irony and chiseled delicacy of this sitter’s expression (he is the miniaturist painter Carlo Bruni); the lips of this young tutor blaze mesmerizingly red in the original.)  Kupecky’s family history in what is now the Czech Republic is a reminder of what Christianity meant when it was at the height of its power and in league with the state.   The first throes of the Thirty Years War began in Bohemia, from which Protestants were driven out unless they agreed to convert to Catholicism.  Starting in 1627, one fourth of the nobility and one fifth of the burghers, including Kupecky’s parents, emigrated.  From the middle of the 17th century, non-Catholicism was considered an offense against the Habsburg state in Bohemia.  Such worldly power plays were as much the natural condition of Christianity as its more recent tamed American version.



Blessing the subway

Earlier this month, the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, visited a subway construction site in Manhattan to offer his blessing: “Bless this tunnel, those who are constructing it, and those who will use it.”

Such an act has at least two possible meanings, as I see it, one dubious, the other admirable and worthy of emulation.   If Dolan’s blessing was intended or understood as a shield against accident, why isn’t he blessing the entire city or even the world?  And if Catholics do believe that a priestly blessing can have a protective effect, have curiosity and the passion for knowledge ever led them to try to measure when such effects occur?  Or are they happy to simply take it on blind faith that God pays attention to such gestures?   I don’t want to hear that no one ever prays with the intention of calling forth a divine response and intervention; such prayers are the daily currency of belief. 

But Dolan’s blessing could have another meaning as well—simply the expression of such precious human sentiments as gratitude and good will.  And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context.  Do we need a designated religious figure to express thanks for the labors of our fellow men and the creativity of the human spirit?  If not a priest, who can channel our appreciation and wonder?  Blessing is a noble performative utterance that ought to be separable from a belief in God, but it’s hard to see what non-religious figure would play the official blessing role without looking ridiculous.  Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get. 

Religious leaders are convenient spokesmen for human emotion.  When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy.  That is a vital function.


The Audacious Epigone points out that though attitudes toward gay marriage shifted a great deal over the past few years for liberals and moderates, not so much for conservatives. This makes sense. I’ve looked at attitudes toward homosexuals where liberals, and to a lesser extent moderates, exhibit a great deal of age dependent difference. In contrast young conservatives tend to agree with older conservatives to a far greater extent. Younger conservatives who point out that opposition to gay marriage is less burning of an issue for more recent age cohorts on the Right are correct, but the difference is dwarfed by the radical changes you see in the Center and Left.




The Terminator in desperate straits

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found time to attend a Sacramento prayer breakfast last week in the midst of California’s budget crisis.  Last year, he assured the Catholic Health Assembly in San Diego that he would call on God’s power to get health care reform in California: “ Every day, I will be on my knees praying the 20 rosaries, but we are going to get the job done.”

He must have gone back on his word since 2008, given the lack of health reform results so far.   Maybe this latest petitionary effort will be more successful, but I’d rather see him take on the unions and at least confront the health care, education, and law enforcement costs of illegal immigration.



Preaching from reason: a contradiction in terms?

I was sympathetically reading this profile of the preacher of what the New York Times claims is New York’s largest church.  The Rev. A.R. Bernard has built his ministry around the responsibility of men, according to the Times, a message that is desperately needed in East Brooklyn, the city’s poorest and highest crime area, where his Christian Cultural Center is located.  Then I got to this:

He said he has seen some astonishing things. The first was a teenage girl who came to his storefront church and crumbled to the floor, convulsing. Her face turned blue, then green. She growled.
When he splashed holy oil on her forehead, he said, she spoke in a deep man’s voice and, though they had never met, referred to his wife and sons by name and said they were in danger. She bit a deacon on the hand, opening wounds; when Mr. Bernard touched her, she let go and the flesh was whole.

He said he visited one young woman at her house and saw her eat broth, then regurgitate nails. Real nails.
A possessed man punched a wall and broke his hand. Mr. Bernard said he sandwiched it between his and it healed.

He does not do exorcisms any more. They drained him. “Now I have staff,” he said.

(Note that reporter N.R. Kleinfield raises not the barest quiver of skepticism towards these claims, indeed, that he seems to revel in their preposterousness [I hope that my religious colleagues on the right would agree that they are patently preposterous].  Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.)

Is this the compromise we have to strike—a means for affirming positive moral values in exchange for rankest superstition and ignorance?  The greatest boon of religion, in my view, is the sermon.  It is a formal, regular forum in which to shore up the values required for a stable, law-abiding society.  Those values—patience, forgiveness, and self-discipline, among others–are not religious values, they are human values; religion merely appropriates them and claims them for its own.  But secular society has not evolved a counterpart to the sermon in which to articulate and strengthen its core moral components.  The watered-down sermons of the Unitarians and Universalists that I sometimes subject myself to on the radio on Sunday mornings waiting for the classical music to come back on are nauseatingly PC and puling.  In comparison, the Lutheran kooks who go before the Unitarians, confidently explaining such mysteries as what happened to Jesus’ body in heaven, at least occasionally focus on ethical essentials when they are not demanding total, unequivocal faith in God as the only route to salvation.

We cannot assume that positive values are self-perpetuating and will take care of themselves.  Families are their original source, but they may fail.  I wish we could create a secular institution for regular moral tune-ups that appeals to reason, not fantasy.

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Diverse radicals

In regards to Heather’s post below there are many complex issues here, and frankly I get tired of those who want to claim that religion or anti-religion have some necessary and exclusive association with any given movement, whether it has the aura of the right or the wrong in the contemporary Zeitgeist. The specific role of religion in the modern Civil Rights movement for example is well known and acknowledged, but the complementary actions by secular liberals from the North (i.e., those famous “outside agitators”) is also part of the puzzle, as well as general social trends toward greater equality of rights after the nadir of race relations in the early 20th century. In any case anyone wishing to grapple with these sorts of complexities should read John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. The book is somewhat positive in its assessment of John Brown’s character, as one can deduce from the title, but the more important issue are the details of Brown’s motivations and actions. He was famously a New England Calvinist of the old school whose radical fervor was rooted in a particular religious sensibility. But I was rather surprised to find out that the men who went with him to Harper’s Ferry in the quixotic quest to raise a slave rebellion were generally of heterodox religious inclinations. Oliver and Watson Brown, who died during the fighting at Harper’s Ferry because of their abolitionist fervor, were themselves not adherents to their father’s orthodox religious views.

This is not to say that religion had nothing to do with abolitionism, but rather to suggest that the reduction of the movement to simply its religious wing (numerous as it was) dismisses the general social radicalism which it signaled* (and which the evangelical Tappan brothers feared) and the strong sectionalist sentiment with which it correlated. The abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun were both Unitarians, but that does not imply that was any meeting of the minds on questions of politics between these two. The Unitarianism of Parker naturally congealed with a particular sort of New England social progressivism with which it was traditionally aligned. In contrast the Unitarianism of Calhoun was simply following in the tradition of the rationalist religious inclinations of a long line of landed Southern aristocrats, most famously exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.

* The early women’s rights movement emerged out of the abolitionists.


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