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Archive for August, 2009

Nights in the Darkness. Or Knights. Or Whatever.

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One of the peculiarities of living in a Protestant culture is the wway in whih concepts in Catholic theology morph into meanings often completely unconnected with the original idea, and then morph again in the popular media so that even Catholics begin to misuse them.

The most obvious instance of this is the  Immaculate Conception, which  Protestants persist in believing is an expression decribing the way in which Jesus was born without the use of ordinary human sexual intercourse.   It’s actually a term defining the conception of Mary, who in Catholicism is acknowledged to have been conceived by ordinary human sexual intercourse, but without the stain of original sin.

Madonna is a Catholic–or at least was born and brought up as one–but she managed to get it wrong in exactly the Protetan way and to put out and entire record album based on the misconception.

So to speak.  Okay, unintentional puns can be really bad.

One of the other common mistranslations of Catholic ideas has been the whole thing about the “dark night of the soul,” which arrives in Western thought by way of a much-persecuted Spanish Carmelite priest of the era of the Counterreformation named St. John of the Cross.

What St. John actually meant by the “dark night” is more complicated than  I want to go into here–and he wrote a book about it–but suffice it to say that he did not mean the loss of the sense of the presence of  God which Protestantism has assumed he meant.

And I must confess, I didn’t catch on to the reference in the title of the Batman movie until this morning. 

For my purposes today, the misunderstanding works better than the understanding, and it’s not a problem unknown in or denied by Catholicism.

Yesterday, I was asking why human beings find it so unsatisfactory to attempt to live, to find meaning and satisfaction, by way of deeply felt emotion, or by emotion of any kind.

Some of you repsonded by saying that emotion is ephemeral, and I agree with you–but it seems to me that what most people describe when they say they have faith is also an emotion.

I’ve pointed out before that there is a place in Catholicism for intellectual assent to Christian do tine even in absence of faith–but the fact that there is such a place is indication enough that “faith” means something, even to Catholics, that is not purely intellection.

For Protestants, as far as I can tell, faith seems to be entirely a emotional matter, an inner conviction that X, Y, and Z are true, and, far more importantly, an ability to feel the  presence of God in the world, or beyond it.

St. Teresa of Avila–St. John’s closest friend, and one of the first two women ever to be named doctors of the Church–promoted a spiritual exercise we now call the “practice of the presence of God,” and every traditional Catholic religious order strives to teach its members interior as well as exterior silence, so that they can listen to the voice of God speaking within them.

In spite of all this, however, it seems to be universally true that any human being who lives long enough will experience a “dark night of the soul” in the commonplace understanding of the phrase–that no matter how faithful a person begins, he comes to a point when he can no longer feel the presence of God, when God seems to have gone out of the world.

The people who do not experience this all seem–like St. Therese, the “Little Flower”–to have died very young.

I know I keep bringing up Catholic references to an audience I know is not generally Catholic, but when we come to talk about this sort of thing, Catholicism is what I know.  A friend of mine did send me a big book of writings about Lutheranism, and this past winter I read a book of essays by Martin Luther himself, but I don’t seem to have a Protestant sensibility.  

At any rate, none of hat Luther and company said chanes anything I’m saying here, so maybe I can get myself out of this knot and go back to my major question.

Isn’t faith, as spoken of in most Chritian traditions today–Catholic as well as Protestant–an emotion?  And don’t even the most devout and dedicated people go through periods where they lose that emotion, where, in order to go on being Christian believers, they have to sort of bull through their days on conviction and determination alone?

St. John went through such a period, as did St. Teresa.  Teresa called it a “period of spiritual dryness.”  Both of them held fast until they made their way through that to another period of being able to believe in the emtoinal sense, but they belonged to a Church that allowed for intellectual assent in the absence of felt belief.

I have no idea how much sense I’m making here.

I think that one reason why there are so many accidental atheists, though, is that in a world in which belief is always an emotion–in which intelectual assent is so far unknown as to be senseless to most people–the first sign o “spiritual dryness” is the death knell of belief.  There’s no going back, in the same way that we don’t uusually find a way to go back when we stop “loving” somebody, when love is, again, defined as an emotion.

Maybe I’m making a mess of it here, but there’s a phenomenon I’d really like to understand better. What is belief, to most people?  When you say you “believe in God,” what do you mean?

This is one of the reasons why I’ve always found the formula of sola fideii to be so unsatisfactory–if belief is more than that intellectual assent (“I acknowledge the existence of God as true”), if it is an experience of God in the world, then it comes and goes with most people,and in young adulthood or early middle age it can often go for good. 

Sola gracia, solafideii, sola scriptura, the Protestant formula goes–grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.  The last one guarantees I could never be a Protestant, but the first two don’t make much sense to me either. 

Assuming God exists He could grant any individual he wanted to the grace to believe without interruption–but in point of practical fact, He never seems to do that.

I don’t know what people mean when they sa they “believe” in God.  And that’s interesting, because I know a lot of very sincere believers.

Written by janeh

August 17th, 2009 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ideal Shepherds and Abstract Sheep

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Okay,  I’ll admit it.

I didn’t make that one up.

I wish I had, but I didn’t.  It’s part of Allen Tate’s declaration that Keats provedthat Romantic poetry “could be more than ideal shepherds and abstract sheep.”

I’m gong to keep it because it fits in with what I was thinking about for today. 

Or sort of thinking abou.  The mood around here for the last couple of days has been decidedly grim.  My SIL has slipped mostly into unconsciousness and is not expected to last the week-end.  She’s an interesting person–I’m going to say is here, because I don’t have a call on my phone saying otherwise–and sort of the anti-example to the Romantic impulse. 

She is now, and has been, a very devout and traditional Catholic, and she seems to have turned her husband–atheist as the day is long when she maried him–into one too.  She’s got three children, all adopted well past the usual “adoptability” stage, one of them with severe development problems.  In the middle of all this, Child Services decided that she was too sick to properly care for the one with disabilities and removed the child from the home.  Cancer or no cancer, Joann hired a lawyer who made the case that getting sickshouldn’t mean you lose your children and Nicole was returned home.

Like I said, Joann is sort of the anti-Romantic.  Whether that’s because her Catholicism provided her with the framework of meaning so that she didn’t need Romanticism as an alternative, or because she’s Joann,  I’ll never know.

But the Romantic impulse is in fact an alternative to an overarching narrative of another kind.  When a religion begins to break down in the minds of its own believers, they take a lot of different avenues to make up for the framework that they’ve lost, and Romanticism is one of them.

Yvor Winters preferred to call this impulse “hedonism,” but for me, the word has connotations of reckless wallowing indulgence in pleasurable sensations, and that isn’t quite what the  Romantics thought they were doing.

The Romantics lived for deep experience–not just for the momentary spasms of the ordinary orgasm, but for that moment when the earth moved.

Except that, no matter how obsessed some of them were with sex–and some of them were very obsessed indeed, especially the men–the point was less the physical than the emotional.  “Feeling intensely” was the goal, giving oneself over entirely to a profound emotion.  That was why they were so dedicated not just to nature, but to the extremes of nature.  They liked their weather wild and their waterfalls magnificent.

Back a couple of months ago or so, I posted a link to an article about the humanities which some of you read and commented on, and especially on the comments left to it.   One of those comments demanded to know how many people had had had their lives ruined by the bad advice given by Byron and Keats, but II thought then, and I think now, that this is unfair to both of them.

In the case of Keats, you had a man who was dying young and knew it.  Most of his poetry–and it’s the best of the lot–is a struggle to come to terms with that fact from the perspective of a man who could not make sense of it with religion.  Like I said at the beginning of that last series of posts, some people don’t believe just because they don’t.   They don’t disbelieve on purpose.  They would often prefer to be able to believe.  They just can’t.

Keats just couldn’t, and in trying to find a substitute he gave us “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “La Belle Dame  Sans Merci” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  I don’t know if it helped him face the inevitbility of his impending death, but it’s made my life better than it would have been without it.

That said, it’s important to point out a couple of other things.

The first is that none of the rest of these people actually seems to have been able to do what they say they set out to do.  Emotion, deeply experienced, was never enough.   Wordwsworth’s last real eruption of deep emotion came in response to the French revolution.  After that, his poetry peters out into platitudes and bathos.  Coleridge took to drugs.  Byron and Shelley took to politics.

I hate to put the two of them together like that, because I think Byron took to politics sincerely, while Shelley took to politics thee way he took to everything else–as an opportunist whose real purpose was always to get as much as possible and give as little.

Still, the question remains–why wasn’t deeply felt emotion enough? 

It’s a commonplace that the quest for mere sensation never works as a life plan–that it fails as it succeeds.  The people who spend their lives boozing and screwin and dopin are not happy, and neither are the people who make it a goal to buy and own as much as possible.  We watch Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan for the same reason we slow down at car crashes–because it’s a question of when, not if, they’re going to crash and burn.

The “deeply felt emotion” of the Romantics was supposed to be something different, not mindless self-indulgence but the infinite expansion of our ability to feel, to respond to the world around us and to experience it fully.

I have absolutely no idea if any of these people actually managed it.  I can’t get into their heads, and couldn’t even if they were still alive.  What I do know is that if they ever managed it, it was not enough.

Byron could be accused of a lot of things, but insincerity is not one of them.  All the trouble he ever got into in his life was a result of his iron determination to be true to himself.   He even got himself killed for it.

But that’s the thing.  In the end, all that deeply felt emotion, all that fully realized experience came down to a conviction that he had to help the Greeks win their independence from the Ottoman Empire, a sentiment that seems to have resulted as much from a commitment to “poetry” in the abstract (the Greeks were so very good at art!) as from all those feelings he’d spent so much of his verse celebrating.

What’s more, most of us who do not have the Romantic impulse–as I don’t–tend to look on declarations of the primacy of deeply felt experience as…well, sort of fake.  Keats can wrap me up in the moment, and Coleridge can be fun, but I find Wordworth boring and Shelley downright irritating.  Shelley’s most widely read poem, these days, the ubiquitously anthologized “Ozymandias,” does little more than express a commonplace that can be found better expressed in the King James Bible.

Why is it that deeply felt emotion is not enough for virtually anybody?  Why doesn’t this work as a substitute for whatever it was religion gave us?  Why, when I read declarations in “The Humanist Manifesto II” about how Humanists are committed to leading a life of “joy” do I roll my eyes and throw up my hands and think:  oh, for God’s sake?

Maybe this is just me, and the rest of you have no problem understanding this sort of thing.  Certainly lots of people try it on, although not as many as try the “the one who dies with the most toys wins” strategy.

It always occurs to me that this approach would be a disaster to a marriage, and that it’s in marriage where it has had the most far-reaching influence in society today.   If marraige is about “love” and “love” is a strong emotionfelt intensely and unwaveringly for your partner, then it’s some kind of miracle that only half of all new marriages end in divorce.

We talk a lot about the dualities of human experience–mind and body, head and heart.

We just never seem to solve them.

Written by janeh

August 16th, 2009 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 9

with 2 comments

So, I’ve been doing even more thinking, which is probably a bad sign.

But it occurs to me that one of the reasons US  politics may be as rancorous as it is at the moment is that people in the US share an underlying assumption they may not be aware of, and that they might even deny if they were ever confronted by it.

I thinkn that, in the absence of an overaching narrative that unites the entire nation–or the entire West, for that matter–the only form of legitimation left for our ideas about myth, morality, and meaning is…the democratic majority.

In a way, this is nothing new.  Narratives succeed because they become the shared basis of a culture, which means because they become the narrative of a majority.

In this case, however, nobody is actually straightforwardly voting for one narrative or the other.  The issues on the table are at least presumably practical–will there be health insurance provided to everybody y the government?  will the Post Office continue in existence? 

But the fight is, for a solid minority on both sides, not about the practical issues.  In fact, in some ways the whole thing begins to seem very odd to people who are not worried about establishing that foundational narrative for themselves, for people who simply have one and don’t thnk about it, or for people who have never thought about it and therefore now assume that they still have the one their grandparents did.

And in some cases, the particular issues do not make a lot of sense, and the methods of supporting a narrative make even less.

One of the things I’ve always been very bemused by is the way in which so much of the self-proclaimed “religious” right has managed to adopt the philosophy and narrative of Ayn  Rand, who was vehemently and decidedly not just non-religious, an not just anti-religious, but anti-Christian.  A good quarter of John Galt’s famous rant in Atlas Shrugged consists of blaming Christianity for nearly everything that’s gone wrong in the Westsince Aristotle, and that includes Marxism, which Rand was among the first to note the Christian aspects of.

Okay, that sentence should have been shot.

But you see what I mean.  To a solid quarter of the country, a national majority vote in favor of George W. Bush wasn’t just a choice of presidents, it was a judgment on the validity of their myth, morality and meaning.  The same was true of a good quarter of the country when a national majority came in in favor of Obama. 

And these people cannot simply calm down and make sense.   Human beings need narratives to survive.  Once you become conscius that the narrative you grew up with is no longer something you can believe in, you’re compelled to find another one, fast.

And you will.   What never happens, as fas as I can see, is that people simply drift with no narrative at all.  Even full-blown schizophrenics (or maybe especially full blown schizophrenics) have narratives that work for them.   If you really do start drifting, you’ll find something quick that works for y ou, at least in the short run.

But it does have to work.   And it does have to be adopted organically by a large proportion of your citizenry.   If either of those things are lacking, what you get is the end of the Soviet Union.

It’s also a curious aspect of this whole thing that the narratives both minority factions in American society now cling to depend on identifying as minorities, at the same time they try to claim majority support. 

The environmentalist-feminist-multiculturalist wing, for instance, defines itself as persecuted by fascists, white men and Christians.  The atheist wing defines itself as persecuted by believers.  The Christian wing defines itself as persecuted by the other two.

And as long as the main narrative requires persecution to work–or the myth of persecution–it will and must remain a minority narrative.  Majority narratives require a way to function when they’re winning, an explanation that continues to make sense when the people who adopt them can no longer plausibly claim to be persecuted.

I’m going around and around here.  My head is not in good shape this morning. I’ve had very little sleep and very little sanity over the las several days. 

With any luck, tomorrow I’ll be able to get back to linear thought.

But I did want to point out that I meant it.  Right now, the strongest contenders for something that could evolve into a majority narrative aren’t the various political positions, but the fiction-based communities. 

Trekkies, as I pointed out to Robert in a post, have communities–organized communities–of adhereents on every contintent and in almost every country in the world.  They have a shared set of scriptures.  They engaged in organized joint actions of numerous kinds, including charitable work.  They have a full code of ethics and morality and a clear vision of the future and what it is supposed to bring. 

Look at feminism these days and what you see is a small–and rapidly dwindling–band of academic Mrs. Grundys, huddled away in safe little groups and aging by the second.  Multiculturalism is being jettisoned across Europe as the reality of Islamic minorities becomes more real.  Environmentalism as a narrative is held by almost nobody but the real kook fringe.  The rest of the world picks and chooses practical ideas–and some environmentalist ideas are very practical–and leaves the rest alone.

But the Trekkies are growing in number by the day.  And they’re not the only ones.

What I do not think is possible is a return to the Christian narrative as the one the West will share.

To be post-Christian is not the same thing as to be non-Christian.  The post-Christians have lost the ability to accept the Christian narrative as real.  It’s not that they consciously reject it.  It’s that they see nothing they need to reject.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 8

with 7 comments

Star Trek.

I meant Star Trek.

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I’m not a science fiction person.  I sometimes get the two of them confused.

And I wanted to point out to Robert that I hadn’t meant to simplify his point, I was just looking for a simple way to refer to it.  I do know the cluster of principles he’s talking about–multicultural everything, opposition to the death penalty, etc, etc, etc–they’re standard in a certain kind of magazine.

I’ll still stick by my original point.  I think they represent things too remote from the nrmal human being to spread to a majority of the population.

But I also think that it’s not the case that the principles come first and the narrative comes second–on the contrary.  I think the narrative always comes first, and has to.  People do not respond to abstract principles.  Even in the case of the cluster Robert is referring to, most of the people involved in the movement are responding to a modified Messiah narrative and not to the particlar principles involved. 

The everyday people who claim to hold those principles, on the other hand, often seem merely to be using them to pride themselves on being more intelligent and evolved than everybody else, and not as ideals they actually use for their everyday lives. 

But it was Mab’s post that caught me.  After I finished laughing–and, I’m sorry, that much misinformation in one place is funny on some level–it occurred to me that I might be wrong about something.

I keep saying that Americans increasingly lack a shared narrative, but I might e wrong.  I tried to think, yesterday, of a list of ideas and principles we all shared, and then of a list of ideas and principles shared throughout the Anglophone sphere, and then throughout the West as the West, and it hit me that there really is a lot that we all agree on.

We agree, for instance–in levels on intensity going out from the US to the others as presented above–that democracy is the only really legitimate form of government, that people should ideally be equal before the law, that those who are unable to provide for themselves should be provided for.  And that’s just for starters.

What’s happening, I think, is that we’ve begun to diverge in our definition of the terms of that agreement, and we increasingly assume the bad faith of the other side.

Take, for instance, equality before the law.  Conservatives tend to define this as “conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, liberals believe in equality of results,” but the issue isn’t anywhere near that simple.

Tradtionally, equality before the law has meant that two people, one rich and one poor, who go before a judge are judged by the same rules.

And that ideal always operated at least somewhat in the breech, since people are people, and people tend to respond differently to the different perceptions of a person’s importance or worth.

But take a look at the modern problem of, say, legally required credentials for certain professions, like law. 

When Lincoln wanted to be a lawyer, he “read law” in somebody’s law offices for a while and then took the bar exam.  In some states, as late as the 1950s, all you had to do was to hang out a shingle.

These days, practically every state requires a prospective lawyer to have a bachelor’s degree as well as a JD from an accredited law school before they’ll even allow them to take the bar exam.  Serious national careers in law require not just that, but that from “name” schools.   Even conservative commentators (see Ann Coulter) went ballistic over Harriet Myers, since she’d only gone to  Southern Methodist–not good enough for a SCOTUS justice.

Now say you’re a kid with an IQ of 150 (meaning, very high), who happens to be born into a family in inner city  Detroit.   The only schools available to you are not just run down, they’re disasters.  Sometimes they’re heated, sometimes the heat goes on the fritz for days at a time.  Classrooms with forty students in them will have only five or six textbooks to go around.   There’s no discipline anywhere.  Kids run wild, and some of them are dangerous.  Most of your teachers are bottom of the barrel failures who can’t get jobs teaching anywhere else in the state.  You work your butt off, you’re conscientious and dedicated, but your high school doesn’t teach math beyond algebra and it barely teaches that.  Kids graduate with skills that wouldn’t get them into fourth grade in Bloomfield Hills.

Over in Bloomfield Hills, in the meantime, the building is state of the art, and there’s an Olympic sized pool for gym class.   There are always enough textbooks to go around, and classes tend to be limited to no more than twenty-five students anyway.  Courses are offered in five different languages, including Lation, and in mathematics through caculus, and there are forty-five different Advanced Placement courses.  Even a not-very-motivated kid of average intelligence coming out of this system will do spectuacularly better on, say, the SAT II exams (the course content ones) than our first kid.  

And given the entry requirements of the best schools, that average second kid who only sort of gives a damn will have a better chance of getting into Harvard or Yale or even the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus than the first.

In what sense can we say that kid A and kid  B have equality before the law when it comes to wanting to become a lawyer?  In what sense can we even say they have equality of opportunity?

And what’s more, that this is in fact a problem is recognized by both left and right–it’s why the left supports affirmative action and why the right supports vouchers. 

Personally, I think both vouchers and affirmative action are bad policies–neither of them solve the problem, for one thing.  Affirmative action further establish precedent law that it’s okay to differentiate by race.  Vouchers threaten the entire private school system in the US, because it is definitely the case that where the government spends money, the government gets to set rules. 

But beyond the objective reasons anyone might have for favoring or rejecting either of these policies, the big issue, to me, is the way in which people on each side of the divide think that people on the other side are not choosing their option for legitimate reasons, but because they’re inherently bad people.

It’s that second thing, that assumption that “people who think like us” do so for legitimate reasons but “people who think like them” do so because they’re evil and malicious, that I think is the real symptom that we are beginning to lack not just a common narrative, but a commonly understood narrative.

No, I don’t think Mab’s Russians are right and that we’re all going to come apart in 2010.  We actually still share far too much for that.

But I do think that it’s time we started looking actively for a narratie that can provide a rationale for people with different opinions to live together.  Because I don’t think we’re going to come to some kind of monlithic unity any time soon.  We’ve never been in that particular place, and we probably never will be.

And I never got to Star Trek today.

But it’s time for me to get up and get moving.

Written by janeh

August 13th, 2009 at 5:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 7

with 5 comments

As I write these blog entries, there is a situation occuring in the United States that I think may be unprecedented in our history.  I have no idea how this is being reported abroad, although I do get a couple of European news channels and check a few web sites every day.  As far as I can tell, very little is being said about it, and what is being said is perfunctory: when Democrats take to the field to defend and promote President Obama’s health care reforms, they’re met with a lot of opposition.

Well, it’s not opposition they’re being met with, although that’s there, too.  What they’re getting is large groups of outrightly angry people, and those people are not angry at insurance companies or the private health care system now operating in the US. 

It would be dificult to exagerate the fury–and I do mean fury-of what probably is about a fifth of the US  electorate against the very idea of government funded health insurance.  

And that’s in spite of the fact that the US  already has government funded health insurance, and a lot of it.  Medicare (for people over 65) and Medicaid (for the poor) and the various CHIPs programs (for children across a broad range of the middle class) now pay almost 40% of the health care bill in the United States. 

But the real kicker, the thing that completely flummoxes me, is the direction in which these criticisms have been going.  Several chain e-mails and a couple of web site newsletters have spread the contention that the new health care legislation would institute “death panels,” for instance, that would “pull the plug on Grandma” (that’s President Obama’s phrase) because she was using up too much resources and, you know, she’s old, she’s going to die anyway.

In other words, something like a fifth of US voters think that Obama’s drive to provide universal health insurance to everybody in the country is a disguised maneuver to kill them.

But don’t get all superior to the ignorant fundamentalists–which is how they’re being portrayed by at least some of the Democratic Party–because I’ve just spent eight years listening to a big hunking pile of liberals and people on the left tell me that democracy is dead in America, Bush and Cheney are rigging the elections, the whole thing about 9/11 is just a ruse to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, making W. President for Life.

There was no evidence whatsover that Bush and Cheney were getting ready to suspend the Constitution, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that the new health care reform bill includes “death panels,” or anything like them. 

What there is evidence of is a country that is not only increasingly without a shared narrative uniting all (or most) of its citizens, but a country in which two competing narratives are sucking in more and more of the electorate.

And the two competing narratives are not compatible, because they are essentially the same narrative wth different cast lists.   There is the Real  America, the Good America, over here.  There is the Bad America, the anti-America, over there.  We uphold the good and the right and the true.  They’re allied with the devil.  They want to kill us.

If you don’t want to confine yourself to  American politics, you can take this same paradigm global, because it will work with much of the media in Europe, and the peculiar form of “anti-Americanism” that is actually anti-some kind of fantasy with no basis in reality.

But then, aren’t the twin hysterias of left and right within America also fantasies with no basis in reality?  In Europe, I’ve been told that only the rich get health care in America (actually, everybody does, irrespective of ability to pay), that old people are left to starve (social security went into effect in FDR’s administration), that the movie Sicko was banned from screens across the Midwest (it went everywhere, and is now freely available on cable movie channels), and that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a secret set-up by the Bush administration to allow them to invade Iraq (look, logic aside here, even Cheney could have done better than that).

Right wing America tells me that “left-liberals” are going to shred the Constitution, take away free speech and freedom of religion, and impose secularism on the nation.  Left wing America tells me that “fundamentalists” are going to shred the Constitution, take away free speech and freedom of religion, and impose Biblical literalism on the nation.

Neither side seems to be capable of thinking that the two different points of view could possibly live together under the dispensation the Founders envisioned–lots of people who didn’t agree on lots of things willing to put those aside every once in a while to get the roads laid and the bridges built and the mail delivered.

It may seem like I’ve veered off the topic of these posts, but I haven’t really.  We’re either going to find a shared narrative, or die. 

And there are certainly lots of different ways that we can find such a narrative.  One is to have one imposed by force, which is what the American left and right are really worried about.   There is certainly historical precedent for attempts to impose such narratives by force.  The history of Islam is virtually nothing else. 

Another way is to require a public acceptance of an official central narrative without delving too far into how thoroughly the people doing the accepting actually believe.  You wouldn’t think that this would actually work, but the Romans managed it for centuries, with the proviso that public acceptance constituted at least a declaration of loyalty to the government of Rome.

That particular option, however, requires that none of the constituent parts of your nation hold beliefs that preclude their aquiescence to that public acceptance.  “We don’t give a damn what you believe,” the Romans said to the Jews, “honoring the Roman Gods just means you promise not to rebel against Rome.”  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Jews thundered back, “God himself said that.”

Oh, well.

The most successful way to solve this problem, however, is for a new narrative to arise to take the place of the old one.

It’s hard to say what will be successful in a narrative before it arises.  The story of some guy who lives poor, dies poorer and is executed as a common criminal probably did not strike the Romans as a serious threat to the Roman narrative, but it was. 

We can say some things about successful narratives, however.

First is that they have to be narratives–they have to be stories.  Lectures and logical proofs will not do it.

Second is that they can’t violate common knowledge unless common knowledge can be definitively proven to be false.  And even then, it’s better if they don’t present prospective believers with periodic knowledge shocks.  Think about reading a lovely novel that y ou’re really into when the author suddenly tells you that Paris is the capital of Italy.   It pulls you right out of the story and makes it that much harder for you to get lost in it.

Third–and possibly most important–it must speak to real, immediate, pressing human concerns.

Robert thought that the environmentalists were a good candidate for establishing a new narrative. . I don’t, because most of what they concentrate on is abstract to most people.  Global warming, evil corporations, the cultural constrction of gender–to the guy sitting in a diner at six o’clock in the morning, worrying about the results of his wife’s breast biopsy, it’s all going to seem a little remote.

Star Wars, now.  Or Harry Potter.  Or Middle Earth.

That’s something else again.

Written by janeh

August 12th, 2009 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 6

with one comment

Every once in a while, something happens that makes me realize that this discussion is not academic, that the ramifications of what I’m talking about here are both stark and dangerous.  This morning, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine about theproposed health care reform bill now in front of Congress.   It wasn’t anything anybody hadn’t said before, and in its panic it wasn’t any worse than the stuff about  Bush intending to declare martial law and become president for life–but it was indicative about the way Americans have come to feel about each other.

This country has been unique in its ability to survive as a plurality of cultures and religions, but that survival depends on–well, on the narrative, the meaning and the morality all pretty much coinciding in different frameworks. 

And right now, we don’t have it.

Let me go back to a couple of things before preceding from yesterday.

The West–meaning the entire West now, not just the US–has been secularizing for decades.  And it’s been de-Christianizing for longer than that.  Western Europe is now largely secular and almost entirely post-Christian.   For all the supposed religiosity of America, our day to day life is thoroughly secularized and our “religious” life is increasingly post-Christian. 

Even when Americans remain within Christian churches, they are often increasingly post-Christian.  They come for the ritual, for the pot luck suppers, for the kids’ activities–but when there’s something they don’t like about doctrine or moral teaching, they just shrug it off as wrong and contnue with whatever they’ve decided is right for themselves.

My guess is that this trend is irreversible, because it is grounded not in intellectual argument, not in reason and decision, but in a fundamental disconnect from the story.  Hearing about the baby in the manger, the water changed into wine at Cana, the Crucifixion–more and more people hear stories, not historical facts, if they even know the stories to begin with.

I  don’t know anybody in the world who knows how to get people to connect to a narrative.  If I ever do find that somebody, I’m going to mine his brain for the information, because it will make me–and any other writer who knows it–rich.  

What this means, though, is that it’s unlikely that what we’re going to see is a revival of  Christianity in a way that can truly take hold of the culture.  The religious right phenomenon was largely a bust–both the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition folded, two states (Vermont and New Hampshire) have seen their legislatures vote in the legalization of gay marriage, mainstream Protestantism is self-destructing, and Catholic use birth control if they want to, thank you very much.

But the simple fact is that it is not possible to live in a vacuum created by the slow retreat of the country’s main cultural framework. 

And the problem is more acute in the United States than it is in most of Western Europe, because the United States, given its history, does not have the option of falling back on ideas about “blood and soil.”  No, we haven’t always been here, and our government is not a tradition, but a construction. 

People do not live well in vaccums, however, and there will either be something moving in to take the place of the old Christian framework, or we will get to a point when each of the factions now existing will be so paranoid and suspicious of the others that we will no longer be able to function.

The most obvious source to look to for a new framework would be those secular organizations and movements that have spent the last hundred years trying to present a non-religious point of view to the public.

They’ve published position papers, books, articles, even “Manifestoes.”  They have–especially lately–public spokesmen and access to lots of mass media. 

And it’s just not working.

Part of the reason it’s not working is what I was talking about yesterday–the lack of a narrative that can engage people once the movement starts winning. 

This is probably the most important reason, because in the end narrative is what compels human beings to belief and to action. 

But the simple fact is that even on the level of analysis and philosophy, the secular movement is coming up empty.

Go take a look at any of the books of self-consciously secular ethics, or any of the articles dealing with morality or meaning in magazines like The Humanist and Free Inquiry.

What you will find is declarations of the “principles of Humanism,” but no explanation whatsoever as to why those things should be the chosen principles.

Aristotle, Ayn Rand and the medieval Catholic Church assumed you could discover true morality in the study of human nature, but modern day humanist organizations don’t even have that. 

Most writers in this field unconsciously accept the Rousseauean belief in an infintiely malleable human nature–in the primacy of nurture, in other words–and they also accept the automatic rightness of a whole slew of moral principles because–well, just because.

Paul Kurtz tells us, in FI, that people should foster the ideals of “goodwill,” including “kindness,” “honesty,” and “caring”–but what’s so special about goodwill?  Why should I value “goodwill”–and especially goodwill universally applied–over justice, or loyalty to my family and tribe? 

In the issue following the one in which Kurtz wrote his editorial about “goodwill,” Peter Singer–he of the “it’s okay to kill the baby up to 28 days old, because before then it doesn’t have any self-consciousness anyway”–presented an op-ed declaring that it was imperative for rich nations to go on giving aid to poor nations even during a financial recession, even if it caused pain or discomfort to their own populations, because–well, because it was.

I have, by now, read quite a bit of Singer’s work, and in none of it can I find an actual rationale for the moral lectures the man is constantly giving the “rich” about the “poor.”

To say that we should give to the poor because otherwise they would suffer, and allowing people to suffer is wrong, is not a rationale, because one has to ask why it is wrong to allow people to suffer. 

Christianity had an answer for this.  Human beings were made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ–redeemed from an eternity of torment in Hell.  They were therefore enjoined to treat all men as they would treat Christ himself.

Okay, that’s a Catholic thing, and may not translate fully into all forms of Protestant Christianity, but you see what  I mean.  Christian moral law, like Jewish moral law, like classical Greece’s secular ethics, was grounded in a definition of what it means to be human and a narrative of the place of those humans in the world.

I’m not complaining that people like Kurtz and Singer have created bad foundations for their morality, I’m complaining that they haven’t created any.  The lack of any objective foundation–or any admitted one–for their ethical precepts leads to some truly bizarre blips in the moral discussion.  Take, for instance, the woman who mused that we might have to take X seriously, since it seemed to be a “shared common value.”  But if all that matters about a moral precept is that it be shared and common–well, the German elected Hitler.  The Nazis had plenty of shared common values.

To the extent that these writers do seem–and I stress the seem–to accept a common understanding of the nature of the human being and her place in the world, they tend to opt for the neoCalvinism of the environmentalist movement. “The God that holds you over the pit of Hell,” Jonathan Edwards said, “abhors you and is dreadfully provoked.”

Edwards thought better of human beings than PETA does, but you don’t have to go as far as PETA to find the attitude I’m talking about.  “Man is just another animal,” these people say.  “he’s no more important than any other animal.  In any conflict between man and the other animals, man’s interests should not utomatically prevail.  In fact, they should almost never prevail at all.”

The extreme irrationality of this position–especially when yoked to fuzsy ideas about “goodwill” to other human beings–is never addressed by any of the people who propound it, for the very good reason that it could not be addressed with a straight face.

Whether we decide to hunt whales to extinction or to leave them free to breed and replenish theirherds, it’s still we doing the deciding.  There is, in the end, no way for human beings to escape the reality of being human beings.  We are what we are, whether we like it or not.

I’ve always thought that this particular stance is mostly the reaction of a guilty conscince–the position of men and women who resent the fact that being human is not just something we are, but something we must live up to.

But whatever this stance is–and Peter Singer definitely holds it–it fits badly with declarations about our moral obligation to feed the poor, never mind exhortations to kindness and honesty.

John wrote at one point that he didn’t see much in the way of consistancy in present-day secular moral codes, and I agree with him–but the position of secular moral philosophy is a lot worse than that.

And I’ll get to that tomorrow, as well as why I think that what’s on offer will neve fom the bsais for a renewed common culture. 

But first, a NOTE:  Yes, Mab, abortion really is as easy to get in the US  as I said it was.  What it is not is government funded, at least in most states.  Rights under the US Constitution are negative–they are restrictions on government power.   So the “right to abortion” means that the government may not interfere with you going out and getting an abortion from a willing abortion provider.  The government is not obliged to pay for that abortion, however, and it can refuse to allow government funds to be used for anything at all.  Your US funded family planning clinic was just that–funded–and Congress can put any restrictions it wants on the use of government money. 

What’s more, Americans tend to dislike the idea of government funding things.   You should see the amount of strenuous opposition there is to the idea of a government funded health care option.  And no, that’s not all coming from insurance companies.  I know several people adamantly opposed to such a government program who are not themselves insured.  They’d rather go on paying for all their health care out of  pocket than let the government do it.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2009 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 5

with 4 comments

A couple of people have e-mailed me to tell me they really, really, really want to know how I see the Trekkies developing into an alternative religion.  And  I do mean to get to that a bit towards the end of all this.

But right now,  I’d like to take note of Roger’s comment that Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism at the end of his life–I’d never heard of that before, but if it’s true it speaks directly to where this is going.  In fact, it’s nearly perfect.  So I’m really grateful for the information.

“Sunday Morning,” however, is a very early poem, and it is both definitely hedonist (in the sense of “life is about the pleasure you get out of it”) and atheist, and that brings us to today.

There are, as I’ve pointed out, largely unconscious accidental atheists, who do not really know they’re atheists, because they haven’t thought about it much.   But people do think about it, or osme people do.

Christianity provided a framework for living that encompassed things–morality, meaning, narrative–that were scattered among different aspects of the ancient world.  It still does, for people who believe.

People who do not believe, however, aren’t always capable of changing that by an act of will, and don’t always want to.  They still need all the things–morality, meaning, narrative–Christianity provided.

Robert protested that Matthew Arnold didn’t set out to reproduce the Christian framework, because what he produced was not Christian.

But I didn’t say Arnold was trying to reproduce Christianity.  Only that he was trying to reproduce the framework Christianity provided that he could no longer accept because he could no longer believe. 

That is, Arnold needed to come up with a system that would provide morality, meaning and narrative of some kind that would make it possible for him to go on living a coherent life.

Between Arnold and today there have been a number of attempts to provide such a framework, the most mind-numbingly obvious (and destructive) being the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, from the Soviet Union to Hitler to  Mao to Kim il Jong.

But there are also been more organized and somewhat more thoughtful attempts, usually represented by the “humanist” organizations in the Anglophone West.  I put “humanist” in quotes because I deal mostly with a period in which th word Humanist means “somebody who works in the Humanities by profession,” and that’s not what we’re going for here.

In the United States, the major Humanist organizations began with the American Humanist Association, started by a number of now-famous people, including John Dewey, to provide a focal point for what they called “religious humanism.”

By “religious humanism” they did not mean, say, Leonardo da Vinci, but rather a non-theist and anti-supernaturalist system that would exhibit what they considered to be the best aspects of religion, including a sense of awe and wonder that would be expended on the natural world instead of on God.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, there got to be a set of splinter movements awafrom Humanism, resulting eventually in the founding of what is now called the Council for Secular Humanism by a professor of philosophy from SUNY Buffalo named Paul Kurtz.

I’m eliding the history here a lot, but I don’t mean to outline that history.  You can always go look up the web sites for both these organizations, which still exist, in force, and see what they have to say.

A little digging will lead to a number of embarrassments, like Corliss Lamont, one of the bright lights of the original AHA, who was also a committed Stalinist.  But Christianity has its Torquemadas and its decadent Popes, so I’m not sure that sort of thing speaks against Humanism without resulting in our declaring every movement of every kind that has ever existed to be beyond the pale.

The first thing I want you to notice about the framework promoted by both the AHA and the CSH is that it is analytical, abstract and “reasoned.” 

That is, it is essentially a philosophy, and not a narrative.  One of the reasons Christianity is as successful as it is–not only among believers, but among lots of people who think they don’t believe at all–is that it is a very powerful narrative, aspects of which touch every important question in human life. 

And, as I said very early in this blog, the vast majority of human beings think in narratives.   Very few of us approach life, death, love, hate, meaning or anything else important in an analytical way.  Lots of people can’t approach taking out the garbage in an analytical way. 

And, when we get right down to it, even self-proclaimed “secular humanists” can’t approach life in an entirely analytical way.  The problem is that the only narrative they’ve come up with is partial, situational, and likey to become obsolete when they most need it.

From its earliest days, Anglo-American humanism portrayed itself as an example of Prometheus Bound.  Here is the great man, the great intellect, persucuted and hated because he opposes the forces of darkness and strives to bring goodness and enlightenment to men.

I wrote a really long RAM post–or series of posts–on this once that I called the Atheist Narrative, and I’m not going to go through all that here.  Suffice it to say that the narrative was tenable in the early days of twentieth century humanism.

That was an era, after all, when a public university, the City  University of New York, was forced to withdraw a job offer to Bertrand Russell because of public outrage over Russell’s public atheism.  Less famous people risked job loss and ostracism if it became known that they did not believe. 

But that was then, and this is now.  In spite of hysterical declarations by numbers of people in the movement that any atheist sticking his head above water in the Bible belt would be physically attacked and in danger of his life, Christopher Hitchens did a very well publicized book tour for his God is Not Great through that same Bible belt and spoke night after night to rooms packed with enthusiastic crowds.  His book, as well as atheist books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, spent week after week on the best seller lists.

In fact, in at least some areas of life in the United States today, and throughout Western Europe in general, being a Christian believer is far more damaging to your career and financial health than being an atheist.  Entire professions–social work, psychology, social services–have become untenable for believers who are sincere and faithful to their beliefs, or pushed them to alternative provider frameworks like self-consciously Christian charities and foundations.

In the face of this change in the culture, it would seem obvious that the narrative of Prometheus Bound would not work to provide meaning for people looking for it–and, in fact, it doesn’t.  

Even among consciously atheist people, joining, or even identifying, with one of the organized humanist associations is a minority position.  Part of that is politics–the organizations tend to run liberal or left, atheists come in the full spectrum of political belief–but part of it is just exasperation and confusion.

The atheist narrative doesn’t work for most atheists today, and the movement doesn’t seem to be providing any new narrative that might make sense of life as a whole. 

That’s why I said that Trekkies had a better chance of evolving into a new religious commitment–or a new commitment that could plausibly replace religion.  They do provide a narrative, and a holistic one that supports and necessitates a moral code. 

The atheist/humanist organizations are definitely trying to derive a moral code, but they’re having trouble with it–and part of the reason they’re having trouble with it is that they lack a narrative framework for it. 

But there are other problems, and I’ll get too that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

August 10th, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 4

with 5 comments

Well, I definitely think that new religions will arise to take the place of old ones, and that there are a number of movements today that function like religions for the people who adopt them. 

But if I had to opt for a popular movement capable of resulting in a new actual religion, it wouldn’t be the things Robert and Cheryl brought up, but the Trekkies.

And having brought up that provocative little bit, let me get back to my point.

Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens had a few things in common in their poems about the loss of belief.

The first is that they both looked on it as inevitable.  In both “Dover Beach” and “Sunday Morning,” the loss of faith doesn’t come as a decision, but as a fact.   There is something about the modern world that makes belief in the old verities of known religions–the only verities either of these men accepts as valid–impossible.

Both Arnold and Stevens would believe if they could, but they can’t.  They are unable to effect even what fiction requires, a willing suspension of disbelief.  Faced with the Christian narrative, they hit a brick wall of incredulity, and they can’t get passed it.

The second thing Arnold and Stevens have in common is the fact that they think this is a problem, and in neither case do they think that the principle problem has to do with morality.

It’s interesting to read the comments here–and no, Mab, yours about Russia are not boring, they’re fascinating–because most of the people who post seem to assume that the only, or the most important, problem in a sexularized world would be how to foundand enforce a moral code.

You all also tend to assume that you already know what morality is.  I liked John’s comment that he’d rejected utilitarianism and other secular bases for morality because none of them supported his moral preferences.   Try to think of yourself approaching, say, physics that way–no, I don’t accept the theory of special relativity, with that one I couldn’t have magic unicorns.

But for  Arnold and Stevens, the major problem with the loss of faith was the loss of meaning–the necessity of facing death as the end, of living in a world without an overall purpose.

I said a couple of posts back that it is not only seculariztion that is important, but what a society is securlarizing from.  There was significant secularization at the end of the Greek and Roman empires, but in both cases those were societies that took not only much of their morality, but their definitions of being human and their understanding of the “meaning of life” from already secular philosophy.

Christianity provided a one-stop shop for all these kinds of existential questions–yes, it provided a moral code, but most of all it provided a definition of what it meant to be human, and a franework within which all the events of human life fit.

And non-human life.  And non life.

It was the loss of this, of the ability to know that it all means something, that Arnold and Stevens found hardest to bear.  The imagery in “Dover Beach” is stark and pitiless–the two lovers, alone and unprotected in a vast indifferent universe, on the shore where the waves come crashing in, threatening to anihilate them in an instant, with nothing to believe in and look forward to, wile “ignorant armies clash by night.”

What went with this loss of meaning was any way to define what it meant to be specifically and uniquely human. 

I want to stress, again, that there is no reason why these questions must be religious.  The Greeks and the  Romans had a very clear idea of what made human beings specifically and uniquely human, and Christianity adapted some of that definition as its own.

But in Western Civilization, the rise of Christianity meant the rise of an underlying civilizational rationale that was explicitly religious, and that grounded its statemens about the human condition in the assumption not only of the existence of God, but of the existence of a particular kind of God with a particular history of His relationship to human beings.

I don’t think it would be possible to overestimate the extent to which Christianity defined Western Civilization, and still defines it.  Virtually all the theoretically anti-religious political religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been Christian heresies.  The morality that we all assume we know is itself Christian in origin. 

Even the conflict now in the conception of the defnition of the human that seems to be one between believers and unbelievers is actually a conflict between two paradoxical (and maybe contradictory) Christian ideas, one of which has now been adopted by anti-Christians.  

Lucifer rebels, Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, because he discovered that God had provided more gloriously for mankind than for the angels–that he regarded man as not another beast of the field, but as the created creature closest to Himself. 

In the middle ages, and right through the reformation, there was conflict between this concept of mankind and the one where man is so lowly, so vile, so unworthy that he had nothing to do but beg forgiveness and hope for mercy.

Actually, those two are paradoxical, not contradictory, and I even know how to work them out, but for the moment here I want to notice that in the twenty-first century the “lower than a worm” definition has largely been taken up by green and atheist organizations.

Conservative writers like to say that the West is running on its Christian capital–that the reason why France, Germany, Britain and the US are not like Mab’s Russia is that we still hold, albeit unconsciously, Christian assumptions about ethics and morality.

I think that statement is less telling than it seems to be.  I thin it’s true, mind you–but the fact is that societies always run on the assumptions of their pasts.  They can’t help it. 

Christianity, however, provided a total package, and in doing so took over the functions that had been carried out in classical cultures by secular (not atheist) professions.   Attempts, starting in the Renaissance, to return philosophy to the centrality and function it had had with Aristotle resulted mostly in one version after another of a secularized Christian story.

Sometimes it didn’t even do that.   Hegel presented a Christian heresy, as did all the Hegelians who followed him, and especially  Karl Marx, but Kant never really did more than try to find a secular rationale for thoroughly Christian moral ideas. 

Which, by the way, is what Matthew Arnold did.   His response to a world where belief was impssible–and that was the way he would have put it, that belief ws impossible, which it may have been, for him–was to attempt to recreate the Christian framework on the basis of hat he would have called “art” and we would have called “the huanities.”  I don’t know if he was satisfied with the result.

Stevens has a different answer to the problem, and that is to look at death as a good thing–by making love and art and joy fragile, it makes them more intense and therefore more meaningful–and to dedicate himself to experiencing happiness as the meaning of life.  That this approach has its limitations should be obvious, but it’s one that has been enthusiastically advocated by people on all sides of the political divide in the last century, from Paul Kurtz to Ayn Rand.

For the accidental atheist of today, however, thees things are often not an issue.  They know “right” and “wrong” as whatever they were taught it was when they were children.   They don’t question it, or ask themselves what the basis of the definitions might be.  

They don’t ask themeaning of life, either, because–well, because they don’t.  Many of them don’t see any need to.   Life is life.  Whatever.

As to the vision of man, the definit9on of what it mens to be human–accidental atheists tend to have sort of fuzzy ideas that run “well, people are more important than animals,” but the ideas have no context o rationale.  Say what you will about the Christian concetion of man, being “made in the image of God” is not just a description, it’s a demand.   It’s something that has to be lived up to.  

The accidental atheist does not see his humanity as somethign he must live up to, and he accepts his morality as smethingiven and obvious.  That’s why he’s so susceptible to moral panics, and sometimes truly insane ones.  Since he has no foundation for what he believes to be right and wrong, and no way even to articulate the questions that might give him such a foundation, when one of those ideas seems to slip, he gets hysterical. 

What he doesn’t do is adopt one of the ethical systems being advocated by today’s deliberate atheists, and for good reason.

But that will h ave to wait until tomorrow.

However, A NOTE:  I need to pint out, given Mab’s comment, that in spite of the endless nonsense that gets thrown around about the “religious right” in the US, they actually have very little power and only relatively minor effects in most places at most times.

In particular, US women have fewer restrictions on their obtaining an abortion than any other women in the world, anywhere.   When I was living in England, a woman who wanted an abortion had to go before a panel of doctors, explain why, and get permission.   Some reasons–sex selection, say–were unacceptible, and her request could be denied.

In the US, women who want an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy need only to get the money together (and it’s cheap, about $250 most places), march down to the clinic and have one, no questions asked.  If they live in a state with few aborton providers, they may have to travel a ways–women in South Dakato tend to go to Minnesota or Illinois, for instance–but that’s about it. They don’t have to inform their husbands or the biological father of the child.  They don’t have to have a reason.  There’s no required hospital stay. 

And, in most places in the country, there are no protestors, either. 

The rules are a little more like the European ones for abortions in the second and third trimesters, but they’re certainly no more onerous, and in most states they’re less so.

The closest thing to an actual restriction for first trimester abortions in the US is that, in SOME states,  girls sixteen and under must notify their parents–just notify them, they do not have to get their permission–or get a judge to sign off on why they shouldn’t have to.   

I often think that the religious right looms a lot larger in Europe than it does in the US.  They’re a great big voting bloc, and a disciplined one, but they’re a minority nonetheless.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2009 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 3

with 5 comments

For Cheryl–if I knew where I was going with this, I wouldn’t be wriiting it.  That’s what the blog’s for.

Okay, I’m being facetious.  And I do want to point out, for John’s sake, that the existence of God is not a question in philosophy.  It’s a question in theology if you’re arguing in favor.  If you’re arguing opposed, it’s a question taken up by a lot of people, but the rules of philosophy require things you can’t have with that particular question.

Note that most of the people arguing in the New  Atheist mode these days are anything but philosophers–biologists, physicists, journalists, but only Dennett is a real philosopher, and he’s bad at it.

I’l get to that later.

More on secularization. 

A couple of people protest that secularization can’t really be happening because lots of people in the US say they believe in God and there are big, successful megachurches in the Bible Bet.

But the US is not the whole of the West, and any look at Western Europe shows Christianity in virtual collapse.   Polls persistantly find even believers at only around half the population, and people who “find religion important in their daily lives” clock in at well under fifty percent everywhere but Italy and Portugal.

Europe is full of historic church architecture from one end to the other, and where it is not maintained by the Catholic Church, it is steadily being converted into everything from apartments to movie theaters. 

The US is certainly more religiously oriented than this, but n owhere near as religious oriented as it was even twenty years ago, never mind fifty years ago. Those surveys that track how important people find religion in their daily lives find Americans claiming that it’s important or very important about 63% of the time–down from 83% only twenty years ago.

What’s more, conscious unbelief isn’t distributed evenly across social and educational classes.  The more highly educated a person is, the more likely he is not to believe in God, or in any kind of spiriturality at all. 

Put that together with the fact that most Western nations are at least nominally meritocracies–that educational levels largely determine who gets to run things–an what you get are societies in which belief in God is increasingly irrelevant in day to day life.

Remember that “secular” does not mean “atheist.”  It means “of this world.” 

Plumbing is secular.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, if you’re a Muslim or a Christian, if you’re a Trinitarian or a Unitarian–everybody does plumbing the same way, and the rules of plumbing do not change.  When we do plumbing, God needs never to come up.

We’re so used to living in a world where m ost things are secular, that we don’t realize how unusual it is, at least historically.  Well into the nineteenth century, the care of the sick and the poor, the orphan and the widow, were religious activities, carried out by religious societies.  So was much of education.  All those things have no been thoroughly professionalized and often given over to a secular government to run.

And even when the functions remain with nominally religious bodies, those bodies are often religious in name only.  Catholic Charities behaves like a secular social service agency, with fury arising regularly from the pews because doctors and nurses in its employ prescribe birth control or counsel abortions.   In a conflict between God and “good social work practice,” “good social work practice” wins every time.

But there’s actually a deeper problem here in the nominally religious organizations–religious people have stopped acting like religious people in ways that make an enormous difference in the day to day lives of their fellow citizens.

Look for a minute at American parochial schools.  Someone once pointed out that the Amerian parochial school system was the second largest school system of any kind in the world, and it ran for over a century by providing primary and secondary education for Catholic children from poor, working class and oven immigrant families.

It could do this because nuns worked essentially for free.  The parish would contact a teaching order–the  School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Saint  Joseph of Carondolet–and the order would send out a small army of nuns who were paid their room, board, and maybe ten dollars or so a month.  If that. 

The same was true with nuns in Catholic hospitals.  It was possible for the Catholic Church to provide free medical care to large numbers of the poor because it got a lot of highly trained nurses close to free–certainly for a lot less than it would have had to pay secular staff.

Nuns and monks and priests worked for little or nothing because the work was meant to be ad majorem gloria Dei–for the greater glory of God.  

These days, the numbers of monks, nuns and priests get smaller by the day, and none of these people work under the old formulas.  Catholic schools must pay the going rate for teachers even when they hire nuns. Catholic hospitals must pay the going rate for nurses even when they hire nuns. 

The money to pay all these people comes increasingly from government programs, and it comes with strings attached.  The hospital may not put crosses up, or attempt to convert patients or their families.  The orphanage may not insist that adopting parents must be Catholic, or married, or heterosexual.  The school may not insist that the teachers it hires be members of its own faith.

In other words, it is increasingly difficult for religious people to lead religious lives anywhere in today’s West.  It’s a bit easier in the US than it is in France or Holland, but it’s still not easy. 

What’s more, it is increasingly easy for nonreligious people to use religion as an accessory–to insist on a church wedding (as someone pointed out) because, well, that’s beautiful, and traditional and old fashioned, and who’s the priest to tell me I can’t?  After all, everybody has a right to his own opinion!

Many churches have responded to this by lowering the bar, decreasing the discomfort of bein a believer in the modern world.  As late as the early nineteen sixties, a Catholic who expected to receive Communion on Sunday was required to go without food at least from midnight.  Now the requirement is for at least an hour before Mass.  The United Church of Christ–the modern decendant of the church the Puritans brought with them–runs adds trumpeting its inclusion, by which it means its welcoming acceptance of gay couples.

This is why I said many accidental atheists may not even realize they’re atheists–religion in the West has become largely a matter of emotion, of “this feels right to me,” and o little a matter of substance, that someone could go years without realizing that even the feeling was gone.

What such people are most certainly not doing it taking meaning or morality from their religion.  If their religion declares that abortion is wrong and they disagree, they think it’s the church that’s doing the bad thing if the church tries to insist. 

Religion is only legitimate, for accidental atheists, when it adopts the secularism of the world around it, when “God” is mostly a fairy tale encased in a lot of poetic, and thoroughly irrelevant, language.

The Catholic Church had a place–still does, as far as I know–for people who could not “believe” (have the emotional experience of belief), but who had studied the doctrines of the Church and felt intellectually compelled to assent to them.

No such people exist in the secularized church, and the idea of deliberately bending ones will to a discipline one finds difficult, unpleasant and not wholly sensible–all, again, ad majorem gloria Dei–would strike most peope even in theoretically religious Ameria and just plain stupid.

Which gets us back to Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens, but that’s for tomorrow.

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Problem With Religion, 2

with 6 comments

Okay, let me say a couple of things up front, just to make sure everybody knows where I’m coming from.

First,  I’m an atheist–and always have been one, as far as I know.  I came from a family with little or no religious belief and never found the religious position plausible since.

Second, I am not a moral relativist.  I do not think that morality is a “human invention,” or that it is subjective.  I think that the reason John’s philosophers were so lame is not that there is no objective basis for morality, but that they didn’t want to find one.  They’re like children wanting to believe that unicorns are not impossible–if the only way to do it is to refuse to even know the existence of physics, so be it.

But all that is another discussion, and right now I want to go back to this thing, which is not a lament about our lost morals or a wish for a heightened religious sense, but a description of something actual.

Whether the world of the accidental atheist is pleasing to us or not, whether it portends good or ill for the future, it is here.

And it is a specific kind of thing.

First, it’s atheism, not Deism.  Deists–people who believe in the clockmaker God–have never had the least trouble founding their morality on that God.  Thomas Jefferson would have said that God estabished the laws of the universe, both natural and moral, and tha our job is to discover and conform ourselves to them.

Deists are highly moralistic people, if we can believe the examples that have come down to us from the American Revolution, and there’s nothing illogical in the assumption that a God who made laws of motion also made laws of morality and expected us to discover them both.

But although accidental atheists are atheists, they’re soft atheists, not hard ones.  A hard atheist believes that God does not exist.

A soft atheist only doesn’t believe that God does exist.

Think of it this way.

You tell me that there is a giant blue ox living in the Great Plains.  I find that implausible, and I see no evidence of it–no pictures, no substantiated reports of gorings, no museum exhibits of droppings–so  I assume you’re wrong, and I don’t agree that such an ox exists.

But I also am not sure that it does not exist.   Maybe the lack of evidence is circumstantial, a matter of our not going about trying to find it systematically or in the right way, and such evidence might arise at some later date. 

In the meantime, though, with no positive evidence of the blue ox’s existence, I see no reason to assume its existence when I, say, pack for my road trip across Kansas.

And–to head something else off at the pass–this is not agnosticism, either.  When  I pack for Kansas, I don’t assume that the existence of the blue ox is unknown and then act accordingly, I assume it’s not proved and act on that–that is, act as if the ox were not there. 

Second, this kind of atheism is accidental–that is, it is not thought out.  John’s philosophers were not accidental atheists.  However they arrived at their atheism, they were actively engaged in thinking through its implications.

Deliberate atheists may or may not have arrived at their atheism through reason, but they defintely go to the trouble of articulating reasons.

Deliberate atheists have as many arguments for the nonexistence of God as believers have arguments for His existence.

Personally, I don’t think either side is actually able to prove a damned thing, but that’s a part of the discussion to come later.

In the meantime, what’s important to note is that the accidental atheist could not tell you why he doesn’t believe in  God.  He may not even know he doesn’t believe until you call his attention to it. 

He doesn’t believe because he doesn’t believe.  Nothing convinced him to move from belief to disbelief.  

In a way, the accidental atheist is more secure in his atheism than a deliberate atheist ever could be.  The deliberate atheist believes in reason and argument.   Give him reason and argument for belief that he cannot deny, and he’ll begin to sitch, just as a deliberate believer given reason and argument in the other direction that he can’t deny will also begin to switch.

The accidental atheist, however, hasn’t arrived at his position through reason and argument.  He doesn’t believe because–well, not to put too fine a point on it, because the story no longer sounded plausible to him.

His is responding to the existence of God not the way a scientist responds to data or a philosopher responds to logic, but the way a reader responds to a story. 

And the story just doesn’t sound real to him any more.

I think that this describes, better than what I’ve seen so far, the rising tide of secularization in the West since the early nineteenth century–I think it best describes the nature of that secularization.

Russia may have deliberately gone out to destroy religion, but England and France and Holland did not, and yet they are probably at least as secularized as Russia is today.  I do think it is a different kind of secularization–a matter of drift and not of choice.

What’s more, the only way in which the typical accidental atheist differs from Arnold and Stevens is in the fact that they recognize their accidental atheism and try to think through the ramifications of it. 

The average accidental atheist may not even be awware that he has ceased to believe.  He drifts through life on moral habit and moral custom and just doesn’t think about any of this.

What Arnold and Stevens saw, however, is that once you do recognize the problem, you do have to come to some conclusions about it. 

And that lead me to my last point for the day.

I think that what a society secularizes away from matters as much as the fact of the secularization itself. 

There was a fair amount of secularization at the end of the Greek hegemony and the end of the Roman Empire both, but that secularization did not exhibit the same signs this one has, and did not go in the same directions.

The issue is not simply that most of us no longer believe in God, but that we don’t believe in the particularly Christian God.

That is, what we’ve walked away from is not some generic idea of the supernatural, but a specific set of assumptions and characteristics.  Those assumptions and characteristics permeated even areas we have long though of as secular anyway–they are social and cultural as well as religious.

And that means that this particular secularization has problems that are peculiar to it, and that have not existed in any other secularizing age in history. What is in the midst of collapsing here is not just a set of religious doctrines.  Secularized Greeks weren’t worried about finding meaning in their lives, and the late Romans bemoaned the loss of civilization to religion, not because of the lack of it.

And that’s where I want to start tomorrow, so I’d probably better get off and get something done with the day.

Written by janeh

August 7th, 2009 at 8:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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