Category Archives: Religion

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

The Rise of the React-o-Cons

The rise of “reform conservatives” has drawn an increasing amount of attention. The wonky right has been treated most recently to a lauding article in the New York Times, following a critical take by E.J. Dionne in Democracy.  Some writers have gone as far as declaring Republicans the party of ideas. But reform conservatism fails to reach the holy grail of modern conservatism, wedding support of the family with adoration for the free market.

Cracks have already formed in the reformicon facade. There is little willingness to challenge the insanity of the Republican Party, so environmental issues have gone entirely ignored. Attempts to bend a fundamentally flawed theory of poverty into wonky centrist plans have collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. When foreign policy is broached, and itrarely is, the result is embarrassing. (Conservative writer Scott McConnell worries, “it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.”  The reformicons, if they care about immigration (it didn’t garner a mention in their famous “Room to Grow” plan), did nothingto halt recent Republican self-destruction on immigration. The most substantive challenge they appear willing to make toward the party’s right-most wing is banalities about inflation.

Instead, reform conservatism sticks to “wonky” economics plans, where attempts to distinguish themselves from centrist Democrats fall away. Had the Obama administration chosen to push for a more progressive plan (which likely would have failed to pass), then the reformicons may well have proposed something very much like the Affordable Care Act. Obama instead chose the conservative route: expand already existing programs and keep the private insurance system broadly in place. The fact that Obama’s plan was drawn from Heritage documents and implemented previously by Republicans is inconsequential — the important point is that it is philosophically conservative. That is, it prefers market mechanisms when possible and expands old bureaucracies (Medicaid) rather than create new ones.

In fact, the Obama administration has shown a consistent preference for conservative policy proposals — ones that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but rather leave already existing structures in place, but reform them subtly. His administration has preferred, where possible, to delegate power to the states and to use market mechanisms rather than government decree to reach policy goals. (Witness his recent plan for curbing global warming, which relies on federalisminnovation and market mechanisms, rather than command and control.) His foreign policy has been restrained compared to the naive sentimentality of the previous administration and he has shied away from crusading on social issues, preferring to silently advance transgender rights.

Because of Obama’s conservatism, the “reformers” have been forced to take on an increasingly reactionary tone. Yuval Levin, for instance, according to the generous Sam Tanenhaus, sounds rather more reactionary than reformist:

For all [Levin’s] temperateness of tone, and for all the meticulously reasoned arguments that he has shepherded into the pages of National Affairs, Levin justly says his ideas are radical. He envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire re-imagining of it.

This longing to roll back time and go to a long-gone utopia is not a conservative impulse, but rather a reactionary one. We see this impulse when Ramesh Ponnuru seeks to obliterate the conservative Affordable Care Act on the basis of a radical (and almost entirely unsupported) reading of a single sentence. This is not the attitude of someone who, as Burke might suggest, attends to “the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.” Instead Ponnuru resembles the impetuous “children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.”

Most reformicon (react-icon?) proposals still hold to the old Reaganite dogma that “the government isn’t the solution to the problem, the government is the problem.” Instead of “tax cuts,” the new right-wing buzzword is “tax credit.” Reading their foundational document, “Room to Grow,” you wonder whether the reformicons might try to solve terrorism with “tax credits” as well; the phrase appears 21 times in the manifesto, and “credit” 81 times (abortion and gay rights go unmentioned, guns are mentioned once). Given that immigration is the single biggest issue that faces the Republican Party, one would expect a chapter, or even a paragraph, on the subject — she would be wrong. Sadly, for reform conservatives, the Obama administration has already begun expanding tax credits and has signaled its intent to do more, meaning that reformicons generally substitute real change for the Taco Bell effect.

* * *

From the beginning, “reform conservatism” had deep troubles. For one, its thinkers have made no secret that their goal is to somehow save the odd Republican coalition of social conservatives, foreign policy hawks and business conservatives. These contradictions are most obvious in the conflict between business libertarian conservatives and social conservatives, and expose the deepest failings of reform conservatism.

The most famous and influential reform conservatives all cut their teeth in the culture wars. Ponnuru first graced the national spotlight after calling Democrats the “party of death,” and blundering through an interview with Jon Stewart. Yuval Levin worked with Robert P. George who believes marriage can only exist where penile-vaginal intercourse does. (This is not a caricature of his argument). Ross Douthat is known for his radical Catholicism. (He supports allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and compared the contraception mandate to sterilization.) All of them swarm at a chance to rue the rise of single mothers. But their “family-friendly” values are tough to reconcile with the market — one of the most anti-family institutions (there is a reason the Atlas Society, which exists to forward Randian ideas, harbors an open disdain for the family).

Hobby Lobby, which could be seen as another instance of market relations inserting into family life (the decision of when to begin one), is instead seen as a victory of “religious liberty.” This conclusion is not foregone, but rather justified, rather explicitly, as a way to maintain an uneasy alliance between religious radicals and the more libertarian business wing of the Republican Party. As Julia Azari writes,

The religious liberty-contraception question provides an opportunity for three important factions within the Republican Party – ideological libertarians, business interests, and social conservatives – to agree on something.

Someone actually concerned about families might worry about Hobby Lobby’s policy towards pregnant women, which is certainly not Christian and barely civilized:

When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives—on the false grounds that they cause abortions—would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.

Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.

That is unsurprising: The question at hand in Hobby Lobby was not religious liberty, but corporate power. The goal is not “family,” but rather exclusion of certain groups from the public sphere. We don’t need to look too far back to find conservatives who understand that the deepest threat to the family is not the government but the market. Marxist conservative Christopher Lasch writes,

The sentimental veneration of motherhood, even at the peak of its influence in the late nineteenth century, could never quite obscure the reality that unpaid labor bears the stigma of social inferiority when money becomes the universal measure of value … children pay the price for this invasion of the family by the market.

The greatest threat to the civic institutions that the reformicons praise so highly are also threatened by the market: “all that is solid melts into air.” Pope John XXIII writes in “Mater et Magistra,”

We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

And yet the reformicon proposal for getting the long-term unemployed hired is to reduce their wages — further degrading them.

America is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Because of this, paid leave is a luxury in America that is available to all wealthy and most middle-class women but denied the poor. Only 5 percent of women in the retail sector have access to paid maternity leave. A study by Linda Houser and Thomas Vartanian finds that only 11 percent of private sector workers reported paid family leave through their employers, and only 5 percent of women in the bottom quarter of wages report access. The reformicons aren’t interested in what almost every other country (and some states) have done: guaranteed paid leave. In the “Room To Grow” essay on work-family balance (the only one, notably, written by a woman), Carrie Lukas rejects the idea of paid leave, arguing that, “Knowing that any worker facing a medical issue could take up to three months of paid leave creates a significant new risk for employers.” The reformicon dogma  can be summed up quite simply as “money over everything.”

When family and marketplace meet, reformicons will prefer markets. They therefore lack proposals to deal with rampant wage theftscheduling abuse and the massive gender pay gap. The gender pay gap will cost women in retail $381 billion over the next six years, a recent Demos report finds. Given that 40 percent of women in retail contribute 40 percent or more of their family’s income, reducing that gap would be a benefit to working families. It’d be great to hear some reformicon proposals — instead we get decepticon denialism.

The failure of reform conservatism to forward actually family-friendly policies is probably its most glaring deficiency. As Christ once said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” I’ve noted these contradictions before: Rubio and Ryan want to expand opportunity and reduce inequality; the only way to do that (at least the way every other country has done so) is to strengthen government programs. The best way to strengthen the family is to remove the market from family life. It is corporations, not government, that schedule workers and it is laissez-faire that has eroded the middle class for the past four decades. In Dionne’s essay, he notes that some of the reformicons have recognized their ideological contradiction, but he summarizes the failure to correct it accurately, “Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market’s shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market’s priorities …”

Eventually reform conservatism will collapse upon the weight of its own contradictions. Ronald Reagan, like an unwitting best friend setting up a bad blind date, formed an increasingly unmanageable coalition. The initial spark has died and the elderly lovers are increasingly bickering. Vitriolic hatred of Obama is a weak attempt at coalition maintenance. The dirty fact is that very few policies can make all the parties of this increasingly fractious coalition happy. Reform conservatives have tried to brush these issues under the carpet, but eventually voters will want red meat, something Republicans simply cannot deliver and remain a viable party. Without a symbolic enemy to rally around the coalition will fall apart, which is why the reformicons are neither particularly interested in actually existing policy or conservatism.

Originally published on Salon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the right: “Cosmos,” Christians, and the battle for American science

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism — the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values. Religious conservatives have selectively adopted the legacy of liberal Enlightenment, from free speech to science, and jettisoned it when it does not suit their narrow ideological aims.

There is a nasty tendency for those arguing for their case to adopt a stance of enlightened empiricism on one issue to devolve into empirical nihilism on another. There is also the habit of shifting from a high praise of liberal values on one issue to utter contempt on another. Of course, our various liberal values will come into conflict frequently and must be weighed, but we must be disturbed at how quickly some, particularly on the religious right, are willing to twist these traditions for their own gain.

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

In truth, we cannot get fundamentalism without the scientific revolution. Fundamentalism does not exist independently, but rather defines itself in relationship to post-Enlightenment values. It is the odd melding of science and religion that creates fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is ultimately both a scientific and religious text. Fundamentalists, like the conspiracy theorists they resemble, will build up reams of evidence creating the case for something that can be disproven with a simple logical proposition. Few thinkers have built such an impressive edifice of logic and evidence upon such a thin foundation of speculation.

Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion — he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible’s explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims:

When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? because, in a way, it wasn’t just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, “No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe.”

But this rhetorical flourish is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the creation narrative, and religion in general. Religion, ultimately, aims at truths deeper than science and trying to apply religious reasoning to the natural world is absurd. Augustine warned as much, telling Christians in “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” to avoid, “talking nonsense on these topics.”

More worryingly, the idea that a rather tenuous reading of a literary work holds the same weight as centuries of scientific evidence is more than a little absurd. D’Souza is trying to selectively apply science, but without its foundation — empirical, testable, repeatable propositions.

We see here the fundamentalist flaw: a mass of rhetoric, reason and evidence built on the utterly insane proposition that the Old Testament is meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe.

The reason any somewhat knowledgeable Christian is frustrated by these debates is that they simply pit one fundamentalist against another. One tries to use science to disprove religion, the other to prove it — both apparently unaware that belief is something that cannot be “proven.” That’s the entire point! Too often, religious excursions into science resemble the thinking of the suicidal people described by Anne Sexton, “They ask only what tool, they never ask why build?” Fundamentalism at its core is the misunderstanding of the proper relationship between science and religion — one practiced just as frequently by atheists as Christians.

Another form of this trend is the co-option of liberal values. The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values — much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds.

One recent example of this illiberalism was the quickness with which Catholics decried a “Black Mass” at Harvard. The “Black Mass” is merely a satanic parody of the Catholic mass — which, while it may be offensive to some Catholics, is totally harmless in practice. Of course, the idea of Catholics demanding special privileges is not rare, but to be expected; one wonders if Satanist child abusers could claim that their church would deal with the matter internally.

Liberal values are not weighed in a vacuum, but this weighing appears to be something many religious conservatives are incapable of doing. During the Black Mass controversy, Father James Martin appeared on MSNBC and said, “I think to put it in perspective, we could say, how would we feel if they said, ‘we’re going to do a little cultural thing, we’re going to do something that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, just as a cultural experiment, we’re going to set up the reenactment of a lynching …’” Father Martin claims to put the event in perspective, and then does the opposite, equating the merely offensive with an act of white supremacy.

Lynchings were intimately tied to white supremacy in the post-Civil War South — their intention was to establish white hegemony and create a permanent underclass. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of crosses were either overtly violent or symbolically violent. The reenactment of a lynching would not be acceptable at a liberal university because it would amount to the direct threat of violence to minorities on campus. It would be aimed at suppressing their rights to expression.

One wonders how Father Martin has lived his entire life in the United States and is still capable of making such an odious comparison. The distinction between the merely offensive and what amounts to group libel or defamation is hard to make, but the Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that some speech may be more than just offensive, and can therefore be regulated. As Clarence Thomas noted in his correct dissent in Virginia v. Black,“just as one cannot burn down someone’s house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.” Father Martin seems to miss this distinction and believes that he should be protected from ever being criticized or offended.

Hobby Lobby provides another example of the selective use of the liberal tradition. One might find it ironic that Catholics aim to carve out an exception for themselves from laws of general applicability when denying other religions that privilege. But sadly, religious majorities have a long history of understanding the First Amendment diametrically wrong, as a protection of powerful religions rather than weak ones. It is the latter the Founders knew would need special protection (see: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), not the former.

To both of these claims — that many on the religious right have entirely abandoned the post-WWI liberal consensus of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment values — there are those who would like to say the same about the left. The Economist is quick to point to GMOs as the left’s version of anti-scientific inquiry. Such claims are entirely overblown. More recently, there have been claims that the left is showing the same illiberal tendencies as the right, most notably Michelle Goldberg of the NationShe argues we are “entering a new era of political correctness,” which she calls “left-wing anti-liberalism.”

While she cites some rather damning movements, they are all fringe movements that have produced pixels but will not bring about change. As Marx once wrote of Communism, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” We might note that the idea of illiberalism is something liberalism must countenance, even though it must be prevented from ever being existent.

And here the threat from the right is far stronger: We have seen free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and rights of due process come under scrutiny at all levels. Workers are being denied even the semblance of control over their labor and women over their bodies. Money is making a mockery of democracy.

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922:

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

His words are still more important today. We live in an increasingly connected and multicultural world, and yet many major religions refuse to recognize marginal ones. We also live in a world threatened by global warming, and yet some Christians deny it, even though it has long been a tenet of religion to live in harmony with nature.

Originally published on Salon.

The Piketty pontiff: How Pope Francis is bringing Catholicism back to its anti-inequality roots

Pope Francis sent conservatives into a rage on Friday when — in a comment that had shades of Thomas Piketty — he called for a global movement toward ”equitable economic and social progress,” to be achieved in part by “the legitimate redistribution of  economic benefits by the state.”

Americans are perhaps more accustomed to the “conservative-tinged activism” that has defined the church’s stateside leadership in recent years. However, Francis’ statement on “legitimate redistribution” shouldn’t come as a total shock, even if we ignore the pivot toward economic justice he has already signaled in the year since his election.

In truth, the Pope’s focus on inequality is consistent with a long history of Catholic social justice teaching. In one of the church’s most important encyclicals on the question of economics, “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Pope Leo XIII wrote,

Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

Leo XIII also advocated government assistance to the needy, the right to form unions and the right to a livable wage.

Social justice activism also appears in the church much more recently. When Reagan sent goons to South America to crush the leftist uprisings, they weren’t just killing young socialists — they were gunning down nuns.



Even more conservative Catholic thinkers, like the writer G.K. Chesterton, would not be seduced by the idea the wealthy were somehow virtuous (and the poor feckless). In“Orthodoxy,” he writes,

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussion about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is rich.

Obviously, things have changed. American Catholicism has in recent years focused more on conservative political causes. Calls for social justice, meanwhile, have receded into the background — and in some cases even found themselves opposed by prominent Catholics.

Take for example Rick Santorum, one of the most prominent Catholic politicians, who said in 2011,

If you’re low-income … in many states you can qualify for Medicaid, you can qualify for food stamps, you can qualify for housing assistance, and that’s not if you’re in poverty. That’s if you’re above the poverty line. And so you have all of the children growing up in an environment where government is paying you, and then we wonder why do these kids feel they’re entitled to so much?

That is not a healthy thing for children, it’s not a healthy thing for society … Suffering, if you’re a Christian, suffering is a part of life. And it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life … There are all different ways to suffer. One way to suffer is through lack of food and shelter and there’s another way to suffer which is lack of dignity and hope and there’s all sorts of ways that people suffer and it’s not just tangible, it’s also intangible and we have to consider both.

Contrast that to Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in “Rerum Novurm” that,

Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

Although Santorum’s sentiments certainly don’t constitute the views of all American Catholics, one does wonder what would happen if someone held opinions on abortion this out of line with the church’s position. Would they be run out of town? We know they would.

For a long time it seemed as if someone could be a perfectly respectable Catholic thinker and also believe odious things about poverty and race. (See: Rick Santorum, and also Paul Ryan.) The Church seemed far more interested in abortion, homosexuality and contraception than the plight of the poor. A 2010 Pew study finds many Americans draw their views on same-sex marriage and abortion from the church but few draw their views on government assistance to the poor from the church.

A change in emphasis from the culture wars to poverty would be welcome, and certainly not unprecedented. In a way, Pope Francis can be seen as putting the reforms of theSecond Vatican Council of 1965 back on track after decades of derailment by conservative popes. (As Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, said in 2012, the goal of Vatican II was “to engage, not condemn.”)

Broadly speaking, the Catholic church’s teachings are socially conservative and economically liberal, although over the last four decades, there has been a strong emphasis on the social conservatism. If Francis shifts the conversation to economic issues, might it actually galvanize change?

If nothing else, it will make Christians confront the fact the Christ was no friend of the rich and powerful. In the New Testament, the only person Jesus ever describes as occupying Gehenna (often translated as “hell”) is a rich man who “dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury,” but nonetheless ignored the beggar Lazarus.

Jesus also once told his followers that, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

There’s a long history of concern in religion — as in the work of Karl Marx — that market systems corrupt virtue and degrade humanity. Pope Francis himself voices this fear. In May of last year, Francis tweeted that,“My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost.” He noted further that, “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture, no! We get dignity from work.” When discussing the collapse of Bangladesh factories he worried that that many political and economic systems “have made choices that mean exploiting people.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangeli Gaudium,” Pope Francis writes,

Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

Although the Catholic Church may not have the influence it once did, religion still holds power in both the international and American political discussion. In his recent Brookings Report, “Faith in Equality,” E.J. Dionne argues that a religious left may be a powerful force fighting for economic justice:

The edge that religious progressives have among the young also presents an opportunity to our religious traditions: a focus on social justice and inclusion offers a more promising path to engaging the energies and allegiances of the new generation than does a continuation of the culture wars. Pope Francis is one religious leader who seems to have noticed this.

The intellectual terrain that the Catholic Church now navigates is far different from now than it was even a few short years ago. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” is on the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists, and Francis is on his way to becoming one of the most popular popes in history. Some people have dismissed Obama declaration that inequality the “defining issue of our era.” Pope Piketty begs to differ.

Originally published on Salon.

Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 

 

This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.

Originally published on Salon.

An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument

Salon has posted a riposte to my piece. I (unsurprisingly) find it unpersuasive. Here are some thoughts. Luciano argues that,

While creationism is certainly quackery, I take issue with the idea that it is not a religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief by definition. It is the idea that god created the universe and animals in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This may not be McElwee’s belief, but it is certainly the belief of Ham and millions of other Christians. If McElwee truly believes that young earth creationism is not a religious belief, I challenge him to produce a scientist who rejects the creation account in Genesis, but is nonetheless a young earth creationist.

I think the problem here is that Luciano thinks a statement can either be religious or scientific. I would disagree with him that creationism is religious in the same way I imagine he would disagree (rightly) with me if I said that Lysenkoism was scientific. Religion becomes quackery when it tries to make assertions about the repeatable, observable functioning of the natural world (i.e. a scientific claim).

Luciano notes, “Second, the ‘modern man’ is actually more moral than his predecessors.” I bring this up only because it was only recently that I predicted we would hear this line more often from the new atheist crowd (I address the use of the term NA in a footnote). That’s because NA is not in fact a defense of non-religion, but rather western imperialism. It is the new “Oreintalism” and like the old Oreintalism, it has only the scantest knowledge of the tradition it attacks.

He argues next,

However, the reality is that religion conveys no more wisdom on people than say, Aesop’s fables. But in fairness to Aesop, no one has ever cited his works as justification for irrational hatred and violence. The idea that religion is the only thing keeping people from moral nihilism is easily debunked by the fact that there are millions of people who reject religion yet lead moral lives.

Luciano does not realize that he has given religion the highest of praise! Here is the story of Kassie Neou, a human rights advocate from a Cambodia, during his time in a KR prison cell, as relayed by Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell:  

Captured nonetheless, Neou was tortured five times and spent six months in a KR prison with thirty-six other inmates. Of the thirty-seven who were bound together with iron clasps, only Neou’s hope of survival was rewarded. The young guards executed the others but spared him because they had gown fond of the Aesop’s fables he told them as bedtime stories.

This is the profound impact that a simple story can have on even the most deprived and violent individuals. It is no surprise that Christ, Buddha and Muhammad make ample use of metaphor, parable and analogy. I would argue that the truth’s within Nietzsche, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Christ are at least as important as the truths found in Darwin and Gould, even if the former cannot be tested in any way other than being lived.

Luciano expounds on the violence point by ending his piece with the Weinberg quote I have regularly lampooned: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the sentiment of an educated. white. man. If I persuade my readers of nothing else, I hope to persuade them that the utter humiliation and degradation of deprivation is a far more powerful impetus to evil than belief in the metaphysical. This has been my argument from the beginning, and I stand by it. Religious extremism, and to a large extent, religion itself, is a reaction to the broader political and economic forces within society.

Note: So apparently calling an atheist a “new atheist” is a slur: “First, I have never heard anyone refer to himself as a “New Atheist.” As far as I can tell, it is most commonly intended as a smear by believers and accommodationists – those who believe there is a common ground to be had between religion and science.” It then falls to me to develop a neologism. I think “evangelical atheist” will suffice.*

* I jest of course, “new atheist” is here to stay. It stuck in a way “bright” didn’t and it describes an important zeitgeist. It has been used by neutral sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and atheists themselves.

 

William Saletan’s understanding of creationism is deeply deficient

I’ve written a lot about creationism and its genesis, which I see as a desire, deep in this country, to avoid complexity and ambiguity. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because the scientists who espouse it “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He’s dead wrong. Creationism is merely part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism,” an absurd and dangerous idea, Christian doctrine. Saletan believes that a magical distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

I think this is a well-placed dissemblance forwarded to obfuscate the deeply political motives of the creation movement:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

Can one be a good creation scientist? Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

I’ve been told by more than a few science people that this isn’t true, and I think I can prove it. For instance, in order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating, which seems to me very important for other areas of science. I’m sure this isn’t the only instance where creationism bleeds into other parts of science (I doubt you can do biology, paleontology or astronomy properly, to name three).

I’ll end this blog post with this story from Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). I humbly request Saletan consider it when next writing on creationism: 

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but … well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not—at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth—or at least at the same time—and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought—that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

That, Mr. Saletan, is not someone who has compartmentalized their creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which they see the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect) do you really believe this is a small deal for these scientists? I suspect very much the opposite.

 

 

Is my characterization of New Atheism a straw man?

I backed away from it a tad when I published my first piece, mainly because the criticism was so vehement. I noted that the syllogism with which I started may have been strong and probably doesn’t represent all thinking on this issue. Well, I think it does again. Partly because I had lunch with a friend who re-assured me that I was not crazy, and party because of a new tendency in intellectual debates to basically say something, but hedge just enough to not come out and say it. But your audience figures it out.

So, on the NA. There are two ways to go about my political critique: a strong and weak. The weak argument is that that New Atheists tend to downplay political and economic tensions and overemphasize religious ones. This seems to me almost axiomatic, and can be seen most clearly by looking at how they talk about the Middle East. The second is that NA have a weirdly Utopian and summarized in the deliciously revealing Steven Weinberg quote, oft-cited by NA, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” This, I think is our fundamental disagreement. It stems from a very silly but very Western middle-class mindset, which I have seen too many times to count. It’s the idea that there is a way that we can structure society in a way that makes everyone happy. You see it on the Beltway, it’s the heart of Reaganism (cut taxes for the rich, grow the economy for the middle class, no one loses) and it’s why Obama is fucking up so dreadfully. You also see it in a lot of wealthy philosophers, like Wittgenstein, who want to ignore class conflict and instead look to the weakness of language. And the NA have embraced it roundly. Instead of seeing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one over land and resources, it’s about that damned religion! 9/11 wasn’t retribution for centuries of intervention in the Middle East, it’s that damned religion!

I used to think that the goal here was to obfuscate power structures. That’s the result, but the motivation is more benign: to portray the world as getting better, with religion being the main problem. Why? Because then you deny the fact that liberal capitalism isn’t quite as awesome as we thought. Want proof that this is the goal? Read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels. It’s basically a defense of free trade and liberal capitalism (and a shitload of Kant).

Okay, so, back to the original syllogism. I said,

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

I added,

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.

So first off, I’m a polemicist, so I allow myself rhetorical and literary flourishes (for instance, I say the fundamentalists have “weaponized Christianity”) intended to make my writing more enjoyable. If the malaise of our day is to cloak one’s argument in qualifiers to protect oneself, I prefer to go a step further to provoke latent conflict. This is because I believe that our society tries to hide conflicts I would much rather have out in the open.

Is my syllogism true? It’s worth noting a few things. First, when a NA does a debate or writes a book, they are prioritizing attacking religion over anything else they could be doing (say fighting deprivation). That means they attach important significance to the consequences of religion. If they thought economics were the problem, they might spend more time talking about it. Second, let’s look at the propositions:

Hitches debated against the proposition, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.”
Grayling debated for the proposition, “The world would be better off without religion.”
Dawkins debated for the proposition, “This House Believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century”
Sam Harris debated the proposition, “Religion and Politics: The End of the World?”

A few caveats are probably necessary. For instance, much like I don’t choose the titles for my pieces, these men (I don’t know of any women that are super prominent in the NA movement, for good reason) probably don’t choose the titles for the debates. Sometimes they want to amend them. But they are willing to stand by them. The titles are meant to be provocative, certainly, but I think they indicate that the NA are happy to stand by the ideas I’ve attributed to them.

Final note: On the term “New Atheist.” It’s not meant to really describe every atheist, merely a zeitgeist in the atheist movement (I’m well aware these men do not agree on everything, but they are similar enough to note their common ground).