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Radicalism, religion and climate change

Although Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. But a case can be made that adopting, in the absence of religious belief, the absolute judgments and sharp moral imperatives which are characteristic of the prophetic and apocalyptic literature and the New Testament doesn’t really make sense; that it is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse.

Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. Making matters worse, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish behavior.

In this connection, the behavior of climate change activists and their followers has often been remarked upon. Committed environmentalists often seem curiously uninterested in understanding the actual impact of various kinds of activities and processes. If it’s “renewable”, or involves recycling, it’s good. The virtue signalling side of this is all too obvious.

Amongst activists the focus is very much on polemics and political action rather than open discussion and persuasion. The problem is that this sort of approach is not conducive to forming the sort of broad coalition which is usually necessary to achieve effective and lasting policy change.

Due to a family connection, I ventured out of my comfort zone recently to attend a climate change meeting. I was expecting a discussion or debate, but there was little discussion of the facts, no science, just consciousness-raising and a bit about strategies for influencing legislation.

Most of the participants (who were obviously very sincere and intelligent people) had a moral focus and talked about modifying their own lifestyles, but the main speaker was too partisan-political for my taste. She had recently become an advisor to a former trade union leader who had moved into politics.

It was noted at one point that only two or three percent of scientists questioned certain apocalyptic predictions. “Let’s hope they’re right,” I commented. Dead silence. Disapproval. This was not what one was supposed to say (though I assume the thought, the hope, was kosher). I had revealed myself not to be one of them.

“So, Mark, you are a climate change skeptic!” interjected my cousin (who was hosting the event). In a very weak sense, perhaps I am. As I explained to the group, it’s not something I know a lot about. I think the climate is changing, and it seems very likely that human activity is playing a significant role, but beyond that there’s nothing useful I can say.

What struck me above all was the initial response to my off-the-cuff comment, that awkward silence. There was something amiss here. It was as if even the possibility of a relatively optimistic climatic future was not to be countenanced or publicly acknowledged.

Certainly, the reaction was political and revealed a strong in-group/out-group dynamic. It was also consistent with something which many have suggested before me, namely that the main driving force behind (at least some of) the activism in this area may not be the well-being of the biosphere at all, but broader political goals which a climate crisis makes more attainable.

As I see it, the excessive politicization of environmental concerns is counterproductive to the activists’ own stated goals. It leads to suspicion and resistance on the part of conservatives, for example, who might under different circumstances be sympathetic to cooperative action on the environment. If climate change does require urgent action, openly talking about the science and the inevitable uncertainties involved will not block the way.

And the more serious the projected problems are seen to be, the more imperative it is to move questions of climate change and potential preventative or mitigatory action as far as humanly possible away from the realm of partisan politics; to unbundle the issue, in other words, from the set of irredeemably contentious social and political causes with which it is all too often perceived to be associated.

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For a guy who laments moral relativism, Rod Dreher doesn’t shy away from equating ISIS, though with the expected qualifier, to the folks in Silicon Valley. Upon reading a dialogue between two future forecaster types at – who talk about “useless” people (from an economic, military, and intentionally hyperbolic POV, let’s be clear) and the possibility of the very rich cheating death – he’s come away convinced that “slavery” will soon be at hand:

This is the religion of the future. Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress. These are the barbarians coming to rule us — and the masses will welcome them.

If you are not part of a church community that is consciously resisting this vision, then your children, or at best your children’s children, will be lost to the faith. There is no thought more corrupting to the human soul than the Serpent’s promise in Eden: “Ye Shall be as Gods.”

Goodness, er, gracious.

Dreher is disturbed by modernity, period, and for him Silicon Valley is symbolic of everything wrong with the (relatively) rationalist, reductionist tendency in the human affairs of the Global North. He blames the “barbarians” of Silicon Valley for being both elitist – e.g. with their talk of a technological “singularity” and interest in life extension – and down-to-earth in the worst way, by promoting “bread and circuses.” Think Netflix and Snapchat (or to get really granular, the animated gif keyboard).

Some of what Dreher is criticizing is rightly considered problematic (to borrow a term from the left), such as long-term unemployment becoming the norm. And Dreher correctly points out that the trends being noticed in the conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman aren’t necessarily being promoted. But the solution to these and other ills aren’t being obstructed by techno-optimists as much as they are anti-state libertarians (to call out “our” side), or the political dysfunction seemingly difficult to dislodge given increasing ideological rigidity.

In any case, egghead utilitarians deliberating about how the masses will endure the end of work and ample food and entertainment is not at all on par with radical Islam. But that’s just my two cents. Or is that two bitcoins? Whatever.


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From the eyes of babes

The cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom has a long piece in The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Life of Babies. Such research always interests me because the biological and cultural shape that humans give to morality are important parameters in setting the framework for a society which can flourish. But in regards to morality I’ve always felt that the Christian Right and secular Left often share a strangely similar world-view. Bloom alludes to the former:

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

In other words, without God on High humans are consigned to depravity most deep. It is in its own way an implicit endorsement of the Blank Slate model, which finds praise in the eyes of Christian conservatives when it comes to homosexuality as well. But Bloom does not mention the other proponents of a purely cultural origin for all norms and the judge of human action, the secular Left. Here it is not the voice of God within our souls, but the revolutionary vanguard, the cultural intelligensia who can tell us how properly to flourish, for their own intuitions are the judge of man.




Moral thought, rational or reflexive?

Rod Dreher, Does moral action require rational thought?:

What do you think? My answer is, “Mostly, no.” I believe virtue is mostly a matter of habit. This is not to say that reason has nothing to do with morality; obviously there are many dilemmas that require serious moral deliberation before one acts, so there is absolutely a place for reason. My point is that in most cases that confront us, we don’t have to think before we act morally; we behave morally (or immorally) because we have gotten into the habit of thinking and acting in ways that lead us to a particular moral response to a challenge.

Presented this way, I mostly agree with Dreher. Rather, it seems that rational justifications are created after one makes a moral judgement. But this quote from The New York Times gets at the issue more subtly:

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Over at Crunchy Con Rod Dreher points me to a new book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, which, in Dreher’s words “attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters.” If you open the Bible and read it front to back, there is much to defend, or as academics would say, “contextualize.”

As a young unbeliever with some fluency in the basic texts of the Christian religion I would occasionally point to the “politically incorrect” aspects of scripture, or commentaries by the Church Fathers, in arguments with my devout friends. The main issue which prompted me was the contention by my righteous interlocutors that their religious tradition espoused timeless values, that they had access to Truth untouched by historical contingencies. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Liberals are wont to point out the selective reading of scripture by cultural “conservatives.” The sections devoted to homosexuality have great relevance today, but those speaking to the sin of divorce are less emphasized in a society where many “Bible believing Christians” engage in serial monogamy.

Attempts by Christians to genuinely “roll back the clock” in a more credibly consistent manner have met with little success. Doug Wilson, a Reformed theologian and pastor prominent in right-wing Calvinist circles, attempted to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. Wilson’s argument is logically consistent. Christianity Today noted:


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Civilizing the young

Many Americans who are indifferent to faith will confess they find themselves challenged as they try to raise good and decent children without the religious confidence their parents had.

writes William McGurn, for whose sagacity I have the utmost respect.  But if I may offer an alternative perspective, while taking Bill fully at his word:  The problem for child-rearing today, if one exists, may stem less from lack of belief in God than from lack of belief in authority.  If parents are unwilling or unable to restrain their children, my guess is that it is their absorption of the 1960s ethic of authenticity, rather than skepticism towards supernatural claims, that is most influencing their practices in the home.  Jesus is not the source of the mandate to say please and thank you; a due respect for civilization is.  Self-restraint, manners, artifice, the ideal of behaving like a gentleman or a lady, these are courtly virtues, not necessarily religious ones, and they were all trashed by the pseudo-cult of “getting back to nature” (i.e., no haircuts, bathing optional, no more suits and ties, no more waiting till marriage, and, from what I observe in some of my peers and their progeny, forks, spoons, and knives expendable).  Religious zeal can in fact trump respect for authority and manners in the pursuit of holy Truth, no less than the baby-boomers’ pursuit of maximal self-expression, which latter quest I suspect is the real child-rearing culprit here (along with a hyper charged multi-billion dollar youth industry). (more…)




The Evolution of God

I have been reading in Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Lucidly written and cockily iconoclastic, it contains many mischievous pleasures. Wright rehearses the patent inconsistencies among the four gospels regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth (he is obviously not the first to do so); he portrays the Jesus of universal love as a creation of the PR wizard Paul and the later gospel writers, all of whom were eager to make sense of Old Testament prophecies and to market a new religious product. Mark’s gospel, by contrast, shows Jesus to be still in the throes of an Israel-centric, particularistic moral framework, and it is Mark, Wright argues, who portrays Jesus most accurately by virtue of having been closest in time to Jesus.

(Wright’s reading of the relative truth value of the four gospels is not uncontested. I asked Ross Douthat about Wright’s interpretation of Mark after a Templeton Foundation discussion; Douthat chortled. The so-called Jesus Seminar has shown just the opposite, Douthat said; it is the appealing, loving things attributed to Jesus, not the vengeful, unappealing ones, that are the most accurate. No surprise there.)

Wright presents religious morality as an epiphenomenon, not a driver, of what he calls “facts on the ground.” Religions and their idea of God have evolved towards tolerance and inclusion, Wright argues, as a result of societies’ growing cosmopolitanism. When people see themselves in beneficial, non-zero-sum relations with the foreign Other, largely as a result of trade, their religions will follow suit and become more universalistic and humane.

There are aspects of Wright’s book which I don’t understand. It seems to me that he might oversell the degree to which Christianity embraced tolerance through its own internal evolution, rather than having tolerance thrust upon it by forces outside of itself. Non-conforming believers suffered massacre and exile periodically through European history; Dissenters in late 17th century and early 18th century England could find themselves locked up in the pillory. New sects sprang up in America for the sole purpose of avoiding association with errant co-religionists. Wright says nothing about the long and recent history of Christian intolerance. I may simply be reading Wright too literally. But maybe his argument here is not paying enough attention to “facts on the ground.”

I am most puzzled, however, by his hypothesis that the “growth of ‘God’ signifies the existence of God” (286). (Wright presents this idea as a possibility, not a certainty.) Since we are basically making things up as we go along when it comes to positing the nature and habits of God, I could equally well argue that a God would be most likely to make the moral truth manifest from day one, rather than waiting around through thousands of years of false images of him and false understandings of his law, including through imperfect Christianity, to see his truth revealed.

And I also don’t quite know what to make of Wright’s statement that perhaps after all “God is love” (456). Wright is coy about whether he himself thinks that God is love:

You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it (459).

Wright buttresses his argument that God may be love by arguing that love allows us closer apprehension of the truth, and since God is truth, God is also love. A parent will understand that his toddler is shrieking in the grocery store line because the child has missed his nap, not because the child is inherently a brat, Wright says. I think Wright overestimates the clarifying properties of love (though he himself acknowledges its capacity to delude). Mstislav Rostropovich ruined an otherwise superb recording of Prokofiev’s War and Peace by casting his wife as Natasha. Now perhaps Rostropovich was simply browbeaten into the decision, but he could well have believed that his beloved Galina Vishnevskaya still sounded youthful and attractive at that date in her career, rather than excruciatingly shrill and sharp.

But even if love were the most direct route to truth, the idea that love as we know it—the passionate embrace of and appreciation for another human being—has anything to do with the massive, incomprehensible explosions of energy and mass that thunder throughout the cold, dark universe billions of light years away from our reckoning strikes me as a bit fantastical and anthropomorphic. I certainly cannot explain how we got here, but I’d rather wait a thousand years to see if science can push back a few more layers of our ignorance before positing what seems to me a somewhat metaphorical explanation for our place in the universe.

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A recent featured two philosophers, and was titled “Explaining and Appraising Moral Intuition”. A considerable proportion of the discussion involved the utility of cognitive and evolutionary psychology in probing the reflexive roots of our moral intuitions, and how that might modify our moral reasoning. One of the interlocutors, Joshua Greene, suggests that exposing the proximate cognitive processes and the ultimate evolutionary rationales which set the framework for our reflexive moral judgments may allow us to reconsider their validity. What should be the criteria which we use? Greene alludes to utilitarianism. But that begs the question: what is this utility you speak of Dr. Greene?

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There are a series of papers out right now which show the positive relationship between political conservatism and reflexive disgust responses. Instead of summarizing the research myself I will point you to Observations of a Nerd, who does a really good job. The only caution I would add is that the post has a rather disgusting illustration of a toilet, so it seems possible that the author is skewing the readership toward liberals who are more likely to be able to overcome their revulsion!

In any case, as with most psychological models this is a complex one with many shades of gray. For example, it seems likely that human aversion to the odor of rotting meat and bodily waste is reflexive and innate in a very deep sense. There doesn’t need to be a very suble adaptive explanation for this since the risks of consuming bad meat are rather high (I have read that the majority of the mild illneses experience in our lives are probably due to food poisoning!). On the other hand aversions to specific foods, such as taboos against consumption of certain types of meat, are learned behaviors which tend to crystalize during one’s pre-teen years. Though an aversion to dog or pig meat is not hardwired, proximately the way people respond to these is not learned, but rather a co-option of innate disgust responses which are primed by cultural norms toward specific stimuli.

There is human variation in this. We all know that some people are picky eaters while others are adventurous. This generalizes to many aspects of life in terms of openness to the novel and new. Not surprisingly one of the most significant correlates of political liberalism within the population is openness to the novel and new. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has constructed a model to explain the emergence of political worldviews out of lower level moral dispositions, and naturally these moral dispositions themselves probably emerge from even lower psychological biases.

What is the moral, so to speak, of these research projects? One implication is that much political talk (though not all) about the axioms which drive our orientations are simply plausible stories which our conscious pre-frontal cortex generates as a “reasonable” facade on top of deeper emotionally driven commitments. The model that politics derives from explicit principles, as opposed to intuitive dispositions, naturally results in attempts of reasoned “dialogue.” But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.

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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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