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Archive for November 2011

I agree with libertarians on many specific issues. But on a deep level I no longer am in sympathy with libertarianism. Why? The issue can be encapsulated by a conversation with a friend recently. He posited that so long as his own actions don’t impact others then he should have liberty to engage in his actions (e.g., smoking, drinking, etc.). Practically there is a great deal of wisdom in this perspective. But I now believe that this individual focus misses the critical insight that humans are generally social beings, who gain meaning and purpose from being socially embedded. A philosophically liberal, in a broad sense, perspective which focuses on individual rights and utility extracted from a social context ignores this reality of human nature.

But in the period between 1800 and 2000 this viewpoint was operationally very useful, because so many of the public policy issues were addressed rather well by focusing upon the individual. Concerns of material want are preeminent in this case. Food, shelter, and clothing. Basic subsistence is rather easily addressed in a reductionistic moral framework. You can decompose average caloric units, and aggregate them and evaluate the distribution of consumption, treating all individuals as reasonable atomic units.

Now that we are in a post-materialist era in the developed world I believe that these easily reducible and atomized concerns are fading into the background. Though many of the basic “Culture War” issues like abortion or gay rights are framed in an individual rights context, I believe that more deeply they’re really about a collective vision of society. Individual liberty and tolerance quickly cedes ground to a collective moral vision. This is not a prescriptive model, this is for me a descriptive one.

The reality is that for a minority of humans a fundamentally liberal/libertarian moral framework is profoundly appealing. It makes intuitive sense to us. I say us because I’m one of those individuals. But I don’t think it describes most human beings. And we have to begin with the modal human being when generating an empirically informed rich moral framework. Don’t we?




Via the Daily Mail:

Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain’s leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.

Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion. Similar to the beliefs expressed by fundamentalist Christians, Muslim opponents to Darwinism maintain that Allah created the world, mankind and all known species in a single act.

Steve Jones emeritus professor of human genetics at university college London has questioned why such students would want to study biology at all when it obviously conflicts with their beliefs. He told the Sunday Times: ‘I had one or two slightly frisky discussions years ago with kids who belonged to fundamentalist Christian churches, now it is Islamic overwhelmingly….They don’t come [to lectures] or they complain about it or they send notes or emails saying they shouldn’t have to learn this stuff.”

Perhaps the most telling thing about this sorry story is the students’ unwillingness merely to study something with which they disagree. What exactly are they afraid of?

In due course, we can, I expect, see an effort made to allow them to be spared the requirement to attend class on the grounds of “conscience”, the miserable, self-righteous and Balkanizing excuse increasingly being used in the United States to secure exemption for religious folk from this rule or that.

And this is interesting (emphasis added):

Sources within the group Muslims4UK partly blame the growing popularity of creationist beliefs within Islam on Turkish author Harun Yahya who, influenced by the success of Christian creationists in America, has written several books denouncing Darwinist theory

The weird ecumenicism of fanaticism never fails to impress.

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Just Another Carnival Barker

Today’s Roman Catholic hierarchy knows that the old hoodoo is a good way to bring in the crowds, so here’s one veteran doing his bit:

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Well, I give him credit for rejecting the intellectually absurd temptations of ecumenicism, but I interrupt:

Reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist. “It’s not worth a jot. The scientist simply explores what God has already created.” His views may seem extreme, but in fact reflect previous warnings by Pope Benedict XVI, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy. In 1999, six years before he succeeded John Paul II as Pope, he issued a document which warned Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises. They could “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer, the document said. Yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body but it was erroneous to confuse that with “the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit,” the document said…

Father Amorth has previously said that people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron and have such superhuman strength that even children have to be held down by up to four people. He has also claimed that the sex abuse scandals which have engulfed the Catholic Church in the US, Ireland, Germany and other countries was proof that the Anti-Christ is waging a war against the Holy See.

Satan's Little Helpers

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I get tired of Left-liberals who yammer on about “bigotry” because people are concerned that candidate X is Mormon/Muslim/etc. A person’s whole background matters, and when you are judging someone politically you are engaging in an act of discrimination based on your values. Some conservatives play the “religious bigotry” game too, but they’re being self-interested hypocrites, as I suspect most conservatives don’t have an issue with individual discrimination based on religious orientation as such (e.g., last I checked conservatives were overrepresented among the set of Americans who wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president).

The differences on this issue have cropped up in the Herman Cain Arab-doctor-chemotherapy story. Some people bring this up as evidence of Cain’s overall bizarre stupidity. But others see it as more evidence of his anti-Muslim bias. The reality is that I think anti-Muslim bias as a general matter isn’t necessarily bad. Just like anti-atheist or anti-Evangelical bias isn’t necessarily bad. I wouldn’t want my daughter marrying an Evangelical or a Muslim. And so on. But if I had cancer I really wouldn’t care if my doctor was a Muslim, Evangelical, or pagan worshiper of the three-horned-god! What I’d care about is whether my doctor knew their medicine! Yes, I know Herman Cain is joking…but there’s way too much evidence that this guy is just a plain joker. People do, and should, take all aspects of background into account when judging he character others. But they need to do this rationally and effectively. At least if they want to be president of the United States of America.

Addendum: I apologize to Sarah Palin for thinking she was ignorant or dull. The curve just got re-centered.



Lame Ad, Worse Response

Via the LA Times:

The Benetton clothing company is known for shock ads that have stirred controversy around the globe with images of death row inmates and people dying of AIDS. Its latest campaign, unveiled Wednesday, so offended the Vatican that it is taking legal action to prevent the circulation of a doctored image depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Muslim imam.

This after the company announced that it was withdrawing the image in response to a protest from the Vatican. In a statement Wednesday, the Benetton Group said the “UNHATE” campaign was designed to “combat hatred” and promote “closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations.”

It features photo montages of world leaders locked in a kiss. President Obama is shown with China’s Hu Jintao and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Benedict was shown with Ahmed Tayeb, leader of Al Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most influential institution. The Vatican called the image “offensive not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers.”

In a statement Thursday, the Vatican said it was taking legal action in Italy and abroad to prevent its distribution, including “through the mass media.” (Link in Italian)

Benetton’s ad is annoyingly preachy, and, in its intention to “shock”, depressingly lame. More depressing still, however, is the Vatican’s insistence that “offense” (always that telltale word) to “the sensibilities of believers” is reason enough to suppress the ad’s distribution. We can be sure that other religious groups will appreciate the precedent.




Paul Apowida

Cross-Posted on the Corner:

As some regular readers may understand, I’m possibly not the best person around here to comment on religion, but, as I’ve mentioned before, the belief by some ecumenical sorts that all expressions of faith are, as expressions of “spirituality” (whatever that may mean), equally worthy of respect, is not an idea that should go unchallenged.

This story from the Daily Telegraph is an extreme case, but it makes that point. It is also a thoroughly good story in every sense of the word.

At just after 1.30pm on Thursday, Paul Apowida, a soldier with 1st Battalion The Rifles, marched on to the parade ground at Beachley Barracks, near Chepstow, to receive a campaign medal for his service in Afghanistan. Fresh off the plane from Helmand province where, as point man, he had led his fellow riflemen across some of the country’s most treacherous terrain, Apowida was wearing his Army fatigues and a green beret, proudly displaying the cap badge of the battalion. Not required – after a six-month-long tour – were three other things that had kept him safe: body armour, his rosary beads and his Bible.
“I took my rosary with me every time I went out on patrol,” he says when we met after the ceremony. “My rosary, my Bible and a picture of Jesus in my helmet. And, every time, at the end of a patrol, I thanked God for bringing me and my mates back safely.”
There are many brave soldiers serving in Afghanistan, but few have a background as unusual as Apowida’s. Born in a remote village in the semi-arid scrubland of northern Ghana, Apowida’s father died before he was born. When his mother died shortly after giving birth, the baby was considered cursed, deemed a “spirit child” – a child possessed by evil spirits who would bring misfortune on the entire community – and condemned to death by a soothsayer who instructed Apowida’s stepmother to feed him poisonous herbs. The belief in “spirit children” has a long, dark history in Ghana and, although there are no official statistics, is thought to have led to thousands of deaths.
But Apowida was rescued by a Catholic nun, Sister Jane Naaglosegme, who had been posted to his village to start a care home for “spirit children”. She nursed him back to health – he had already swallowed the herbs, but they had not proved fatal – and, eventually, after two further attempts on Apowida’s life, she sent him to a boarding school 800 miles away, in Tema, just outside the capital, Accra.
Not a natural scholar, he struggled in his classes but then went to art college, where he flourished.It was at this time, also, that he became the beneficiary of a new charity, AfriKids, set up in 2002 by a young, idealistic woman in her early twenties called Georgie Cohen (now Georgie Fienberg). Fienberg, who had worked with Sister Jane during a gap year in West Africa, had got to know Apowida on her regular trips back to Ghana and funded him through art college. In his last year of college, Apowida said that his mother had come to him in a dream and told him he should join the British Army. Britain – in the form of AfriKids – had done so much for him, she told him, that he should join to show his gratitude.
Fienberg agreed to become his legal guardian, and he moved to London, where he attended sessions run by British Military Fitness. He joined The Rifles in 2008.

Well, thank you Paul Apowida. And thank you Sister Naaglosegme, Georgie Fienberg — and Afrikids.

Georgie Feinberg & Paul Apowida



A Cleric, Jealous

Britain’s chief Rabbi seems upset that people are finding that spiritual pap, “transcendence”, call it what you will, is not the only way to some sort of contentment. The Daily Mail reports:

Speaking at an interfaith reception [Itself a ghastly concept, but I interrupt] attended by the Queen this week, he said: ‘People are looking for values other than the values of a consumer society. The values of a consumer society really aren’t ones you can live by for terribly long.

Lord Sacks said iPad tablets were like the tablets of stone bearing the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses
‘The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.

‘When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about ‘i’, you don’t do terribly well.’

Jobs died aged 56 in October, prompting an outpouring of grief from across the world.

Sacks added: ‘What does a consumer ethic do? It makes you aware all the time of the things you don’t have instead of thanking God for all the things you do have. If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you’ve got an iPhone but you haven’t got a fourth generation one, the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.’

Absurd, but Sacks has form when it comes to this sort of thing. Here he was a year or so back:

The leader of Britain’s Jewish community claimed the continent’s population is in decline because people care more about shopping than the sacrifice involved in parenthood.He blamed atheist “neo-Darwinians” for Europe’s low birth rate and said religious people of all denominations are more likely to have large families. The Chief Rabbi, who entered the House of Lords last week, made his comments in a lecture on religion in the 21st century hosted by Theos, the public theology think-tank, on Wednesday night.

Lord Sacks said that faith had survived so far because it could provide answers to mankind’s eternal search for meaning in life – unlike the market, the state, science or philosophy, which underpin modern liberal democracies. He claimed religion could continue to play an important role worldwide in the future, by engaging in debate with scientists, by campaigning on issues such as global poverty or the environment, and by discussing the nature of the common good with humanists.

The Chief Rabbi warned that secular Europe is at risk, however, because its moral relativism can easily be defeated by fundamentalists.And he claimed that its population is also in decline, compared with every other part of the world, because non-believers lack shared values of family and community that religions have.

I’d agree that he’s right that religion will endure. It’s baked into our genes for any number of reasons, including, I suspect, the need that many have for some sort of organizing principle (me, I’m happy with chaos and an indifferent universe, and then making the best of it), but, on the population question, he is, like George Weigel, the author of that rather curious book, The Cube and the Cathedral, being distinctly disingenuous.

Here’s what I wrote on the Corner back then:

Mark, the fact that I think that gently declining populations are (at least in principle) a thoroughly welcome phenomenon may make me biased, but it’s a shame to see Lord Sacks seemingly falling for the myth peddled by some clerical folk (and those in their camp) that Europe’s declining population is something, he appears to imply, unique to that continent. Here’s this week’s Economist with a timely reminder of the facts:

In the 1970s only 24 countries had fertility rates of 2.1 or less, all of them rich. Now there are over 70 such countries, and in every continent, including Africa. Between 1950 and 2000 the average fertility rate in developing countries fell by half from six to three—three fewer children in each family in just 50 years. Over the same period, Europe went from the peak of the baby boom to the depth of the baby bust and its fertility also fell by almost half, from 2.65 to 1.42—but that was a decline of only 1.23 children. The fall in developing countries now is closer to what happened in Europe during 19th- and early 20th-century industrialisation. But what took place in Britain over 130 years (1800-1930) took place in South Korea over just 20 (1965-85).
Things are moving even faster today. Fertility has dropped further in every South-East Asian country (except the Philippines) than it did in Japan. The rate in Bangladesh fell by half from six to three in only 20 years (1980 to 2000). The same decline took place in Mauritius in just ten (1963-73). Most sensational of all is the story from Iran.

When the clerical regime took over in 1979, the mullahs, apparently believing their flock should go forth and multiply, abolished the country’s family-planning system. Fertility rose, reaching seven in 1984. Yet by the 2006 census the average fertility rate had fallen to a mere 1.9, and just 1.5 in Tehran. From fertility that is almost as high as one can get to below replacement level in 22 years: social change can hardly happen faster.

Fewer people, more stuff: Sounds good to me.

"You'd rather have an ipad?"

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The rise of fundamentalism

As ultra-Orthodox flex muscle, Israel feminists see a backsliding:

“Women walk down the street as though they are at the beach,” said Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a spokesman and leader for an umbrella group of ultra-Orthodox factions. “If in the past this was typical only of Tel Aviv, today it has reached Jerusalem as well. They encroach on our way of life, prompting our people to impose new restrictions, deepen separation and erect higher barriers to keep it away.”

The conflict is gaining intensity, he said, because of the rising influence and numbers of the haredi community, once a small, scattered minority that today numbers 1 million, about 15% of the population. The ultra-Orthodox live mostly in separate cities and neighborhoods where they have been free to practice their beliefs without interference. As their political power grows, they are demanding more accommodation for their way of life, Pappenheim said.

“We used to be a small minority fighting for survival,” he said. “Now we are a huge minority. As the saying goes, with food comes more appetite.”

He said the segregation was not intended to discriminate or oppress women but to “protect women’s honor and dignity.”

This is a general problem with highly religious subcultures which become prominent, and start to break out of their ghetto. The broader issue is that religious pluralism and tolerance are to some extent illusions born of the marginalization of some groups as the expense of others. The illusion is unmasked when the powerful and powerless invert positions.

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The Rise of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox (Again)

Gershom Gorenberg writes in Slate:

Rather than being a diorama of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, as many Israelis and visitors believe, Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state. Policies with unexpected effects fostered this new form of Judaism, at once cloistered and militant. So did successful measures by haredi leaders to revive a community that was shrunken by modernity and then devastated by the Holocaust.

While a similar revival has taken place in haredi communities in the United States and other western countries since World War II, their dependence on government funding is necessarily more limited. In turn, the extent to which adult men can engage in full-time religious study rather than working is also more restricted.

In economic terms, the haredi revival in Israel has been disastrous. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is ever more dependent on the state and, through it, on other people’s labor. Exploiting political patronage, ultra-Orthodox clerics have largely taken over the state’s religious bureaucracy, imposing extreme interpretations of Jewish law on other Jews. By exempting the ultra-Orthodox from basic general educational requirements, the democratic state fosters a burgeoning sector of society that neither understands nor values democracy.

Gorenberg’s description of the way that “cloistering” has worked is worth pondering:

Remaining a full-time Torah student [with the help of generous taxpayer funding] allowed a man to stay out of uniform. The deferment helped lock young men into the kollel lifestyle. So did the education gap: Though ultra-Orthodox men spent years engaged in study, their schooling did nothing to prepare them for jobs in a modern economy. From their teens on, their curriculum was devoid of mathematics, sciences, foreign languages and other general studies.

Thus “the society of scholars”—as sociologist Friedman named it—took shape. Older haredi men, who’d come of age before the change, worked for a living. A growing number of young men stayed in kollel after marriage, often for a decade or more. The father was a carpenter, shopkeeper or tailor; the son was a full-time student. In a universe of arranged marriages, Torah scholars were the most sought-after grooms.

Between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel fell from 27.5 to 21.5. At the beginning of that period, the typical haredi groom was slightly older than the average for Israeli Jewish society. By 1981, he was four years younger than the Israeli Jewish average. Among haredi women, marriage before age 20 became the standard. Ultra-Orthodox couples started having children early and continued to have them often. This, too, made leaving haredi society much more difficult, for women as well as men.

In the 1940s, it had seemed to ultra-Orthodox educators and parents that nothing could stop young people from giving up religion. Now the exodus stopped. The gulf between the society of scholars and the secular world grew too wide to cross. Rabbis wrote with satisfaction that children were outdoing their parents at piety.

And that’s bad news for Israel.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan




The Idea of Meaning (or Something)

Writing on Why I’m Catholic, “atheist convert” Jennifer Fulwiler explains why she turned to Rome, starting with concerns such as these:

One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special.

I guess that depends on what you mean by “special”. To family, friends, and, indeed, to oneself, a life can surely be “special” even if it counts for nothing in the scheme of that big old indifferent universe. If all is indeed random (best guess, but who can be entirely sure?) pondering that fact ought—by inserting a little proportion into how we see ourselves—to be comforting. And it says nothing to the meaning of life. To the extent that we feel that we need meaning, we can make that for ourselves. Anything else looks a lot like vanity. Who needs the universe’s applause?

And if Ms. Fulwiler wants to construct that meaning for herself through the faith she has discovered within, good for her, and one can only wish her well, while regretting, perhaps, the faux naïveté of passages like this:

I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I’d ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one. I was alternately baffled and horrified by what I read in the first few hundred pages. Joe encouraged me to the second part of the book, called the New Testament, explaining that that’s where Jesus comes into the picture.

Oh come on. I know the American education system is not what it was, but is this college-educated woman implying that she had never heard of the New Testament, a collection of writings that are, for all their flaws, a foundational text of western civilization?

If so, God help us (so to speak).

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

NGC 602: Not Too Bothered About Us

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