There’s no sight in nature more beautiful to me than the dance of epistemologies, but of late I’ve begun tuning out articles on “science vs. religion” and “atheism or faith” because the Death of God appears to have discharged more heat than light. When the usual suspects make the usual points in the usual way to the usual crowd, a wise man is forgiven for playing “Flappy Birds” instead of taking notes.
I grant you that a subject like this dates back thousands of years and advances at a glacial pace, but it does advance. The writing about it in much of the popular press does not. It treats the clash of culture the way it treats celebrity outfits – an infinitely renewable source of the same old adjectives draping the flavor of the week.
I also have a problem with Flappy Bird.
So after a long scholarly winter I’m pleased to have some truly thought provoking works on how we navigate the search for divinity and our place in the world.
It’s hard to recommend Adam Gropnik’s New York piece “Bigger Than Phil” enough. A subtle, nuanced, search not so much of the issues of theological epistemology (how do we know God does or doesn’t exist) but of the moment when our cultural switched from one default position (“of course there’s a God”) to another (“what kind of intellectual could possibly be a believer?”). In that look at our history, of course, we discover a lot about our present that’s worth knowing, and Gropnik is an elegant cultural coroner.
“The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement,” he notes. “(W)e are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” … “Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone. The sappers who silently undermined the foundations of the Church did more damage than the soldiers who stormed the walls.”
And then there’s this insightful section, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety: Continue reading What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us
This is a “Laugh and Cry” moment.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is threatening to block a Holocaust memorial in Columbus, OH … because it includes a star of David.
According to a letter sent by the Foundation’s co-presidents, Dan Barker and Annie Gaylor (PDF): “Since the Star of David is a religious symbol and a secular government is not supposed to be promoting religion, especially when there are other perfectly secular alternatives, we’re objecting to that religious symbol.”
So let me get this straight: the Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a memorial to the Holocaust … an attempt to wipe out Jewish people and Culture … to not include any Jewish symbols.
A secular alternative is needed to represent the Jewish people … who were persecuted for their religion. Continue reading Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a less Jewish holocaust
I recently wrote a post in praise of John Gray, for whom the idea of human progress is as much a myth as a flat earth. His arguments are a bracing, exhilarating, intellectual tour de force.
But when you see what this idea looks like in practice, it’s terrifying.
You don’t need to read Gray to understand how much is at stake in this article about the South African university system, which after a wave of peaceful integration in the late 90s … has voluntarily re-segregated over the past 10 years.
If you can read that article without your faith in mankind blinking, you’re tougher than me.
There’s also profoundly valuable information here for our own future: the understanding that there is a tipping point when minorities make up 30 percent of an actively participating population, and that at this point they expect the institution they participate in not just to welcome them on its terms, but to start to accommodate theirs.
It’s a reasonable request – and the beginning of majority panic, “white flight,” and riots. Continue reading A secular prayer for progress
Having just gone off on one of my epistemology lectures about the limitations of Reason as a guiding principle, I now need to distance myself from others who feel the same way but are less … er … rational about it.
Yeah, FOX News.
In an interview objecting to the idea of a “National Day of Reason” to compliment the National Day of Prayer (yep, a real thing), Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America (yep, a real person), said that:
“You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust.”
I’m sorry, but … for all the many things one can say about Hitler, one can’t claim that he was unceasing in his pursuit of rationality. Continue reading What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? (A FOX News exclusive!)
Inmate David Arenberg has reached an accord with the Aryan Brotherhood: they let him eat at the table “for” white people, but only after everyone else has eaten. That’s the best deal he can get, and he’ll take it, because eating at a table “for” the other races violates a strict code, and gets you killed.
He’s actually under the Aryan Brotherhood’s protection, because he does legal work for them. Hey, a Jewish lawyer is hard to come by in prison …
Ironically that’s exactly the deal that Hitler refused to make. Just prior to World War II one of the most prominent industrialists in Germany, a man partly responsible for the invention of chemical weapons and the re-arming of the Wehrmacht, got his first audience with der Fuhrer. Continue reading You should read this: surviving as a Jew in prison
First we had Atheism, which held that there is no God. Then we had the “New Atheism,” which holds that there is no God and doesn’t want his kind around here. Now we have the “New New Atheism” … I wish I were making this up … which doesn’t like God but loves church.
As an article in Salon notes: “Emerging amidst a rash of new atheist literature — which considers the possibility of a more religious Atheism, and a more structured lack of faith — (the time for an atheist church) is intellectually ripe.”
Because that’s just what atheism was missing: theism.
I’m actually quite sympathetic to the idea of Alain de Botton that not having God in your life still leaves something missing. Indeed the biggest ocean separating the atheists of the 19th and early 20th century from the “new atheists” was the fact that the former were deeply worried about what would happen to people and society without religion, while the latter were confident that only good things would come from treating a 5000 year old institution like so much old newspaper. Nietzsche desperately feared that Man would destroy himself without God; Russell was deeply concerned about the way society would function as a moral order with its religious center removed; Dawkins, on the other hand, says that religious parents should be accused of child abuse.
The New New Atheists, having done nothing to build, support, or even understand churches, would like the religious to hand them over now. Because the New New Atheists have noticed that the religious sometimes (let’s not kid ourselves with “always” or even “often”) don’t suffer from a malaise in modern life. They sometimes (again, let’s not give too much credit) have a sense of meaning and purpose and community that scientific rationalism has utterly failed to provide. Who knew that reducing people to brain chemicals could be demoralizing? Continue reading Meet the New New Atheists – now with church!
To say that modern psychology is ill-suited to studying the religious mind is much like acknowledging that an ape can play the accordion, but that you wouldn’t want him to be the only entertainment at your Bar Mitsvah.
Religion generally involves the search for the transcendent, while most contemporary psychology is searching for an easily diagnosable symptom. The actual thoughts and feelings of believers usually count for nothing in this approach, because what do they know? They’re only subjects.
Normally this means a great deal of stupid research is published about the religious, but bad research mindsets are a two-way street. This week it’s atheists getting run over.
According to research published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, atheists actually don’t know how much they really believe in God. Their thoughts and feelings on the matter, of course, are not considered evidence. Continue reading Absurd research suggests that atheists aren’t really atheists
A dear friend I don’t see very much asked me how I felt personally about the abdication of Pope Benedict.
“What do you mean, personally?” I asked.
“Well, how’s your Catholicism?” she said.
She’s spent years thinking I was a Catholic.
It happens. A former colleague at SF Weekly was worried, after seeing me defend the Church, that he might have offended my Catholic heritage. When I attend parties where people casually bash the Church (which, again, happens) I make a point of defending it. Not its response to pedophilia, which is indefensible, or its stance on condoms, which is tragically misguided, or its prejudice against homosexuals, which is contemptible … but its existence in the modern world. Both in terms of its right to exist and its position as a frequent force for good.
People don’t get it. Why would I do that if … as is the case … I’m not Catholic, have never been Catholic, and don’t come from a Catholic family? If in fact, as is probably true, my ancestors were surely persecuted by the Church?
Well. Continue reading Why I so often defend the Catholic Church
Reading Rudoph Herzog’s account of humor in Germany under the Nazis, I find I can’t get the following joke – told by Jews inside a concentration camp – out of my mind.
A Jewish village in Eastern Europe has been victimized by the most horrific sorts of attacks, pogroms, and mass shootings. One of the villagers escapes to the neighboring town and tells everyone what’s going on. He’s asked: “And what did you do?” He answers: “Last time, we recited all 150 psalms instead of the usual 75. And we fasted on the Day of Atonement.” “Good work,” came the answer. “You can’t just sit around doing nothing.”
It’s very funny, and it’s very obvious why.
I find myself asking …
What else could they have done?
Continue reading Laughing too long into the abyss
I have severe reservations about the literary criticism that made Stanley Fish famous, but I have to say I find his long-running series of essays in the New York Times to be provocative, insightful, and important.
In his 2012 “Christmas column” (“Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State”), Fish comes down to one of the central reasons that a liberal democracy can never breathe easy – and will likely never own the easy loyalty of the mass of mankind that all the systems we keep thinking we’ve vanquished do.
“Substance, then, is the chief danger to the liberal state.”
Tragic but true.
This conclusion is inevitable when you realize that liberal democracy exists because it is committed to individual liberty and the freedom of conscience – but that to protect everyone’s liberty and conscience, it cannot allow anyone’s beliefs to be expressed in ways that would change society. It doesn’t matter if it’s “Christ is Lord” or “A is A” or “evolution explains that” – a liberal democracy only cares that everyone gets to express themselves, and believe what they like, without rocking the boat.
It is committed to a process: a process which regards the truth value of any set of beliefs as irrelevant, and people who are too committed to the truth (which a liberal democracy would call “values” or “culture” or “lifestyle”) are dangerous. A truth can exist within a liberal democracy only so long as it does not make claims that impact the public’s right to be indifferent. Continue reading The price of “Freedom” is “Vigilence”; the price of a liberal democracy is “Truth”