Category Archives: Tolerance

Racism, Hegemony and Transition

Setting aside my more personal philosophical concerns for a moment, I need to address an issue which many of my American friends and acquaintances in particular are struggling with, and which many more are struggling to avoid dealing with: How do we define the term racism, and what needs to be done about the problem of racism today, particularly in the American context?

It has now been over 150 years since holding black people as slaves became illegal in the United States ––since those determined to hold onto those slaves lost a brutal war regarding the matter –– yet in many ways the US is still struggling to come to terms with that legacy of shame. For some it remains a matter of principle to keep believing that the federal government never should have taken away their right to own other human beings whom they considered to be their natural inferiors.  Thus they consider it a matter of justifiable civic pride to hold onto flags, monuments and other symbols of their struggle to keep blacks enslaved.

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For others the issue is a matter of ignoring the continuous efforts to keep darker skinned people in a position of fear and subservience, saying that since slavery has been over for so long black people should not be allowed to use the problems stemming from that institution as an excuse for the position they find themselves in; they should work harder, avoid drugs and violence more thoroughly, be more committed to family values and save money more carefully, and if they do that they can have the same opportunities as any white people have. It is rather difficult to determine to what extent the ignorance and assumptions of moral inferiority inherent in this argument are simply the result of poor education among those who hold such beliefs, and to what extent they are a matter of certain white people struggling to maintain the assumption that black people are naturally inferior and thus need to be kept in submission to their lighter skinned masters.

Others, it must be admitted don’t really care so much about the position of darker skinned people in society, but they wish to make a political football of the subject, trying to blame problems related to slavery on the other political party: either emphasizing or denying the extent to which the major parties swapped roles regarding the civil rights struggle between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan.  As tempting as it is to get distracted by proving historical points in this regard though, let me simply say that there are still manipulative con men in both parties trying to accuse the other of being racist purely as a cynical political tactic, but for poorer blacks there is little question in their mind as to which party they can expect to take an interest in their situation; and for whites who are resentful of government putting black people’s needs and interests ahead of their own, it is equally clear in their minds which party to turn to in order to try to correct this situation. Both may be mistaken in whom they have decided to trust in these matters, but the alliances which the parties have established in terms of racial interests are quite clear these days.

But this is largely a distraction from the main point I want to get to here: what will happen when white men are no longer in the position to say what sort of rules everyone else needs to live and play by? Such a day is fast approaching for the United States. It is more or less demographically certain that within the next generation, for the first time in the nation’s history, white people will make up less than half of the United States’ citizens. If something resembling a functional, honest democracy remains in place, that will mean that the various brown and black people of the country will have the possibility of bonding together and setting the rules that white people will have to live and play by. This has many white racists loading both their britches and their rifles.

This is where the word hegemony comes in. Originally an ancient Greek term for international domination, hegemony was largely re-defined by the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist that died in prison for taking a stand against Mussolini. Gramsci was trying to find a way of describing what enabled Mussolini to convince people to follow his orders and support his regime, even though they were seriously screwing up their own lives in doing so. Basically Gramsci theorized that the secret behind Mussolini’s power, and many other such self-appointed dictators, was that he was able to make people believe that his authority was simply part of the natural order of things. So according to this understanding of the terms, if you can convince people that you are somehow naturally entitled to be in charge, and that things will work best for everyone involved if they would just settle down and do what you tell them to, then you are in a position of hegemony. Sound familiar?

In practice we find many examples of hegemony in our world today. One of the biggest challenges in doing charitable work in Africa, in fact, is to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic structures that have caused so many of that continent’s problems to begin with. Colonial racists spent centuries working on constructing a position of hegemony for themselves there, in many cases quite successfully. Consequently, though it isn’t part of the natural order of things that black people need white people to take care of them, tell them what to do and manage their economic structures for them, many Africans –– both black and white –– keep operating on an assumption that this would be the case. Part of the solution to this problem is simply to provide native Africans with the sort of education that has previously been available primarily just to white people; part of it is to help them overcome the scourge of tribal infighting which made them vulnerable to colonization to begin with; and part of it is to undo some of the remaining structural remnants of colonial governance intentionally designed to keep local people in helpless passive submission. But those actions involve cultural shifts which could take many generations to bring about. In the meantime we still need to take empathetic action to help those who are suffering in extreme poverty. We just have to do so without perpetuating the myth that the only way they can survive is with the help of white men –– easier said than done.

Back in America, meanwhile, the racial and cultural hegemony has its own implications, complexities and ugly aspects to be dealt with. Many southern white leaders in the mid-19th century, while trying to justifying themselves as slave-holders, theorized that God intended black men to be under the control of white men since the days of Noah, constructing a vast number of theological, anthropological, evolutionary and historical arguments to back up this claim. Losing the Civil War and the legal right to hold slaves did not eliminate their deep existential commitment to these arguments, and consequently many these arguments have been passed down through the 5 or 6 generations since slaves were set free. The core element of these arguments is an implicit belief that for a modern western society to continue to function in a stable and sustainable manner, white people need to be in charge, and the rules that everyone else as well needs to live by are those formulated by white people. Those who continue to believe in and perpetuate such a myth –– whether of white, black, mixed or other racial origin themselves –– are part of the American cultural problem of assumed white hegemony.

White hegemony has had a rather diverse history in the United States. In the time of the “founding fathers” it was quite explicitly part of the nation’s ideology. If you have any doubts about this look up the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823): buying property from a native tribe doesn’t count as a legal transaction, because only white men could be party to binding legal contracts. In the time following the American Civil War there was a relatively brief period during which some former Confederate leaders recognized black people as partners in the process of democratic governance, but that was swiftly brought to an end in the 1890s by the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Those who took part in mixed race political parties, including such as former generals William Mahone, James Longstreet and even P.G.T. Beauregard, were labelled as traitors to their race and as much as possible systematically forgotten. Blacks who could not be trusted to support “respectable” white leaders were systematically prevented from voting.

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Publicly murdering a black person or two every now and again helped keep them in a submissive mood. Beyond that, making sure that services for white people were kept separate from services for black people gave the former a certain sense of security and superiority over the next few generations. I won’t detail the extent of the racist crimes that extended from the Hayes presidency to the Truman era, but suffice to say, in those years there was never any question of black people being given equal rights and opportunities in American culture. It was only with desegregation rulings of the US Supreme Court in the 1950s, and the courageous civil rights protests of the 1960s, that black people’s rights to recognition as people, and the federal government’s responsibility to protect their rights as people, started to be taken seriously in US law.

Most southerners have gradually started to accept black people as teammates, co-workers and fellow citizens over the past couple of generations since then, but this has not been a smooth or painless process. For many the unspoken limit to their tolerance for their darker-skinned neighbors  has remained the principle of white hegemony: as long as black people are willing to abide by the basic rules set for everyone by the white people –– who need to remain in exclusive control of all mechanisms of legislation and administration in the nation –– then we can allow them to live and work in peace together with us. As long as things seemed to work smoothly on that basis many optimists even claimed that racism had ceased to be a problem in the United States… until that trouble-maker Obama came along.

Obama brought together the oratory flare of the black Protestant church tradition with the benefits he gained from a liberal white upbringing, an Ivy League education and an interracial late baby boomer’s sense of cool. This combination enabled him to win the hearts and minds of pretty much all black and brown people in the US, with a large enough minority of white people supporting him for him to handily become as the first non-white president of the nation. This sent a shock-wave through the racist community: it wasn’t so much that this dark-skinned president was initiating dangerous policies for the nation (though many would try to claim that this was the case), but he rather posed an existential threat to their basic belief that for things to operate properly in the nation white people need to remain in charge. All of a sudden the willingness of whites to peacefully coexist with their darker-skinned neighbors as long as they were willing to abide by basic white rules started to get a lot less clear. Coexisting under rules that a black man had helped put in place wasn’t something they were ready to sign off on!

Suffice to say the next US president succeeded in getting elected by bringing together all of those who shared these fears and resentments of the increasing status and influence of darker-skinned people in society, together with those who became economic losers because of automation that came with the IT revolution and because of increasingly internationalized trade. His core message was the dishonest claim that he could basically turn back the clock in terms of demographics, human rights and technology to a time when these formerly middle class whites’ incomes and positions in society were more secure. Probably few people were ignorant enough to believe this message at face value, but if this guy would push back against blacks, immigrants, global financial interests and “progress” in general, that would be close enough to satisfy the base he was building. From there having an opponent who was even easier for the heartland to hate than he was proved to be enough to put him this crooked rich boy from New York over the top in terms of the Electoral College vote.  Even so, it shocked many Americans, and pretty much all of the rest of the world, that an American national election could be won on the basis of such ugly sentiments and blatantly false claims. In the famous words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”

For all the international humiliation that this administration has brought on the United States in its first year, however, one thing remains clear: as long as the US maintains its current constitutional democratic structure, the reactionary defense of white hegemony which brought this president to power is destined to be defeated and eliminated over the course of the next generation. As hard as white Bible Belt Baptists, Amish, Mormons and other such groups try to encourage their women to have “quivers full” of kids, and as hard as they try to stop non-Europeans from being able to immigrate to America, within the next 40 years white people and self-identified Christians will make up less than half of the US population. The Obama presidency was merely the first shot across the white hegemonists’ bow, signaling the impending end of their era. The current crop of racists and reactionaries controlling the Republican Party now have to decide how they are going to deal with this.

I qualify this prediction, however, with an awareness that there are supporters of the current president who are so committed to the principle of white hegemony that they would rather destroy the American system of government than to allow white hegemony to come to an end. We have seen more and more of these people on the streets of America this summer, and as the likelihood of the current president being removed from office before the end of his first term increases, there is an ever increasing chance that his most blatantly racist and reactionary supporters will attempt to violently prevent the constitutional processes in question. So one of the serious questions to be asked is whether the US constitutional structure and civil society will be strong enough to hold these reactionaries in check. I hope and believe so, but I also hoped and believed that Americans would be intelligent enough not to elect the current president to begin with. Likewise in the early 1930s most people would have hoped and believed that such an advanced society as Germany would be able to prevent a violent reactionary racist group like the Nazis from winning an election and seizing power there. We’ll see what happens.

The main message for Americans today to recognize is that things will not remain the same, and they certainly will not go back to the way they were in the early 1950s. There will either be bloody chaos leading to the demise of the United States as a constitutional democracy and a global power, or their will be a tense yet peaceful transition out of white hegemony into a more genuinely multi-cultural and tolerant society. This latter alternative, however, will require that, rather than trying to unilaterally set all the rules which darker-skinned people must live by and beat them into submission to those rules, white Americans must, learn to listen more carefully and respectfully to the interests, concerns and yes, demands of non-whites. Preferably they should learn to do this sort of listening before they lose their majority status entirely. If there is one thing that the past decade has proven beyond doubt though, it is that a significant number of white Americans still have a lot to learn in that regard, and a high degree of resistance to the learning process. Even so, hope remains.

For other “developed” western countries the demographic shift is less inevitable, but the need to establish sincere and productive inter-ethnic dialogues is just as critical. Fortunately most countries can approach this new situation with a cleaner slate than the United States, but former colonial powers in particular still face some major challenges in learning to listen to their darker-skinned citizens. Yet I firmly believe that if this challenge is faced with sincere mutual respect and a desire to more sincerely live up to our ideals of respecting the value of every person as a person, there is good reason to hope for the best.

May God protect us from ourselves in any case.

 

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

Homosexuality and African Ethics

I will be in a challenging position next week. Over the next few weeks I will once again be visiting Kenya, working on building cooperation with local churches there so that they can do their own work and fulfil their own spiritual calling better. This will inevitably involve extended discussions of the core ethical teachings of Christianity, and that in turn is rather likely to come back to the matter of toleration for and even full acceptance of homosexuality in (post-)Christian western cultures. My perspective is inevitably going to be very different from theirs, and I want to carefully consider how to approach the issue in a way that opens fresh perspectives for them without scandalizing them or frightening them away.

20150218_112840For some of my more secularized friends the phrase “fulfil their spiritual calling” may be rather scary sounding, so let me try to partially unpack what that means to me. I believe that the strongest teaching Jesus gave to his followers regarding the difference between those who are on God’s Kingdom’s side and those who are functionally in opposition to God’s Kingdom is in the end of Matthew chapter 25. (The connection between this teaching and the two parables which preface it is an interesting sermon unto itself, but we’ll leave that for another time.) In short, in the last 16 verses of this chapter — which is where Jesus comes the closest to talking about heaven and hell in the sort of terms that evangelicals and Catholics are most familiar with — the factors which distinguish those bound for heaven and those bound for hell are simply their efforts to care for those lacking food, drink, shelter, clothing, medical care and companionship. Nothing there about doctrinal purity; just a strict emphasis on showing God’s love to others in practical terms. That is what I believe churches in Africa in particular are spiritually called to do. Many of them do it quite well; others miss the mark by a considerable distance.

Meanwhile, for myself and other western Christians who take Jesus’ message seriously, finding partners who can help us help others is an extremely important part of following the Lord’s teaching. In the case of finding ways to help those in Africa with the six sorts of needs Jesus talks about, the options are essentially of four sorts: 1) supporting the work of local governments, 2) establishing or patronizing successful businesses there which work with responsible local partners (Fair Trade produce, etc.) 3) giving direct assistance by way of trustworthy secular non-governmental organizations, or 4) giving direct assistance by way of faith-based organizations (churches). Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and all of them have their fair share of con-men involved. In simple terms though, those who are acting out of a sense of responsibility to a higher power do, on average, the most efficient work in terms of channeling the practical aid they receive to those who need it most. More human suffering is eliminated per dollar donated through church groups than through any of the other three channels.

But besides basic dishonesty and greed being found in churches as well, when it comes to the process of helping others, church leaders are also among the most poorly educated and most naïve of partners there at times. Also it is sometimes difficult for them to see a connection between providing practical aid and preaching the message of the Bible as they basically understand it. And like western Christians, African church leaders also have a tendency at times to believe that their prejudices and cultural traditions represent God’s will for mankind. Thus part of what I am trying to do on these African adventures is to build a sort of educational network to help keep church leaders there honest and responsible to each other, and to help them build a greater practical understanding of how the gospel message can be understood and applied in ways that make us more like the “sheep” than the “goats” in Matthew 25.

DSCF2920There are strict atheists who don’t believe that Christianity really does any humanitarian good, and there are Christians who believe that convincing as many as possible to swear allegiance to their brand of belief is more important than humanitarian work per se. I believe both are wrong, but I don’t want to take the bandwidth here to argue against those positions. If you disagree with my premises as stated above all I can say for now is that I wish you the best of luck in finding your own purpose in life elsewhere, and goodbye for now. Meanwhile, back to the challenge stated at the beginning: dealing with the questions of homosexual rights and gay marriage in the context of this mission.

Let me state a few things from the outset regarding this issue. First of all I happen to have friends –– good friends in fact –– on both sides of this issue, for whom the whole idea of calling their convictions into question even is highly offensive. Those on both sides are thus just going to have to bear with me; or otherwise walk off in disgust and stick to your respective safe social circles where no one contradicts your views on this highly polarized issue. Second, Kenya, and equatorial Africa in general, has a series of very different cultures than our own when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, family ties and social acceptability in all of these areas. Europeans have, over the past few centuries in particular, frequently tried to step in and “repair” Africans’ “primitive” social structures in these regards. Some of these interventions have been more justifiable than others. As it is, Kenyan culture and the ancient Jewish culture of the Bible are probably far closer to each other than either culture is to that of the modern west. This necessitates a certain caution and humility on the part of any and all of us who wish to try to help there in any sense. Third, this relates to profound questions regarding the basic essence and purpose of sexuality, and how that in turn relates to spirituality, in ways that I can barely scratch the surface of here and in ways that could be very difficult to speak about to essentially uneducated African churchmen. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I can easily anticipate critics of my ideas here from the conservative side saying that by raising questions about what these leaders are dogmatically motivated to fight against in the name of Christ, I could be seriously damaging their motivation and effectiveness as Christian leaders (and in the same regard some aggressive atheists might hope I will limit the effective spread of the Christian message in this sense).  To these people I say that, as powerful as hatred and dogmatic false certainty are as motivational tools, in the long run they do more harm than good, and the Christian message will go forward stronger and healthier without them. Your perspective may differ, but I’m sticking to my convictions on that one.

So let me start the actual discussion of the matter with a premise from my own personal philosophy: The most ultimately fulfilling forms of human pursuits are those which give us a sense of either confidence or connection or both. The most satisfied and fulfilled people are those who are convinced that they are good at what they do and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The point of religion and/or spirituality –– including the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus came to proclaim and enact –– is to enable people to find these forms of satisfaction in life in deeper ways. If a person’s or a group’s faith isn’t working in these regards, then it isn’t working, period. But that being said, there are always difficulties involved in choosing what sorts of things to base our confidence on; and there are limits as to how deeply we can love which sorts of people without driving ourselves crazy, literally. Loving everyone, completely, would involve making all of their problems and conflicts in life part of my own life, and none of us have that sort of capacity. Thus religion provides us with standards by which we can have some idea of what to expect of ourselves, what we can justifiably feel proud of or confident about, what we can justifiably expect of others behavior-wise, and what sorts of abusive and destructive behaviors we should stand up against.

So there are good practical reasons for having doctrinal standards in general, and those of the Christian tradition have stood the test of time fairly well, but there are still good reasons to think critically about how important those standards have become to us as ends unto themselves, rather than as means enabling us to better love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are a number of good reasons to frame the question in these terms, but the simplest might be in terms of telling the story of King David.

David had a pretty adventurous life, in which he “bent the rules” on plenty of occasions. One particular occasion which stands out is in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22, where David is on the run from crazy King Saul. In making his get-away he stops off in the town of Nob to talk to the priest there and get supplies. David flat out lies to the priest, saying he is on an urgent secret mission for the king, and he then takes as basic food the bread which has already been ceremonially dedicated and set aside for only priests to eat. While he was there he also saw a character he didn’t particularly trust, a foreigner named Doeg, but he didn’t actually say anything about his suspicions or warn the priest that if he was caught helping him he could be in big trouble with Saul. And as it happened, this foreigner did go and tell Saul that the priest of Nob had been helping David. Saul went ape poop crazy about this, and when he wanted the priest and his extended family massacred in a revenge killing, and none of his regular soldiers were willing to do it, this same Doeg took care of the bloody deed for him. One kid from the priest’s family did manage to escape with his life though, and he ran to tell David about the matter. David basically told the kid, “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll protect you.”

Skip forward to the Gospels. One of the tales which is told in each of the synoptic gospels is how Jesus responded when the Pharisees tried to bust him for breaking some of the more trivial rules regarding manual labor on the Sabbath day. Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of ripe grain, rolling them between their palms to get the kernels out, and snacking on them. From the Pharisee’s perspective this was clearly “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was to first of all remind them of the story from 1 Samuel 21: “David was not blamed for bending the rules; why should you condemn my friends and I for a far more trivial infraction?” (Mark 2:23-26, for one telling.)

032311_2057_REVIEWINGTH10But then going back to the Old Testament history of the matter, David was never actually condemned for this rather questionable move on his part, nor for the vast majority of his careless, selfish or bloodthirsty maneuvers during his life. In fact, when David’s descendants turn out to be a batch of first class idiots, over and over again we read that in spite of their misadventures, “for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah” (e.g. 2 Kings 8:9). And in particular there was only one event in his life for which David was morally censured by the Old Testament historians: “the case of Uriah the Hittite.” We’ll come back to that one. The point is that strict observation of the rules was not the thing that made David, or Jesus, so important. Loving God completely and caring for those around them continuously (or nearly continuously in David’s case) was what set their lives apart. The rest, from their perspectives, was details.

So how does this relate to the Bible’s, or Christianity’s, rules about sex? Touchy subject, but I sort of have to tackle it here. Basically it is recognized that sexual release is something that all healthy people want, perhaps even need, but that letting that go unrestrained can cause all sorts of problems. The spread of disease was not actually mentioned by the Biblical writers, but it is an obvious related issue. More important to the ancient Jews was the matter of keeping their bloodlines going. In essence sex, from the Old Testament legal perspective, was supposed to be used for that procreative purpose and that purpose alone. Stated briefly, that made a lot of sense for its time, but it doesn’t really work so well these days.

Going through this rather quickly, there are three essential problems with maintaining that procreation only standard for sex today:
1) It relates to a scientifically outdated perspective coming from Aristotle that there are complete “souls” contained in a man’s sperm, and that these souls need to be respected and only released in places where they can grow into complete human beings. We now know that sperm contains no complete patterns for people, making its sacredness as such more questionable.
2) Maximizing human populations is, for many reasons, not a particularly wise or even moral strategy these days: It leads to millions of children ending up in pain and suffering, and strains the resources of the environments in which these clans try to sustain themselves. And then,
3) There are many valuable things about sex as a bonding experience between the couple who share this experience with each other, whether or not they are hoping to make babies in the process, that religion would be foolish to belittle as such.

So with these things in mind, how should sex be regulated and restricted so as to enable the greatest benefit in terms of enabling people to feel good about themselves and connect with each other in positive ways; yet without spreading diseases, without abusively using each other’s bodies for otherwise meaningless sexual satisfaction, without making excessive numbers of babies who are doomed to suffer hunger and neglect, and especially without cheapening the meaning of sex as a way in which two people can become part of each other in the deepest sense?

To be honest, we really don’t have any new set of rules that perfectly answer all the complicated questions involved in balancing the harms and benefits of different aspects of human sexuality. In every society we still have problems of rape, STDs, children in crises from physical and emotional neglect, and couples in crises with issues of jealousy, possessiveness, sexual frustrations and unfaithfulness in their relationships. It would be perhaps a bit naïve to say that there was a time or place where people didn’t have these problems, but it would be even more naïve to believe that we are getting closer to ideal moral solutions to them. The main issue is that within churches and communities we need to remain honest regarding the challenges we are dealing with here, and we keep trying to share our “best practices” with each other when it comes to confronting these issues, without attacking those who fail to meet our standards for purity in the process. (One exception is that those whose sexual carelessness and cruelty seriously damages the lives of others –– rapists, child abusers, reckless sexual adventurers breaking promises to committed spouses, and the like –– thoroughly deserve to be condemned for these practices. These are not matters of lacking ritual purity; they are matters of selfish cruelty.)

All that being said, the perfect ideal which the vast majority of people have in mind regarding their sexuality –– which has been remarkably standard for the majority in most human cultures throughout human history –– is for each of us to be able to find some healthy partner of the opposite sex, who shares a desire for the two of you to share life with each other. This should theoretically involve completely satisfying each other’s sexual desires so neither feels a need to look elsewhere for such satisfaction, and in this process the two of you would parent a manageable number of children together, each of whom feels completely wanted and each of whom can aspire to someday having for him- or herself the same sort of wonderful relationship that you have with your spouse. Those are the primary aspects of our ideals for sex and marriage; the rest is details.

Sadly in real life things hardly ever work out that way, so in hundreds of little ways we need to work out how to deal with situations where key aspects of this ideal break down on us. What are we going to accept as “close enough” to be acknowledged as a socially acceptable pair bond, with an assumed private sexual practice involved? How do we regard those who have children outside of the context of a legally committed sexual relationship? What are acceptable grounds for dissolving such a bond between two people? Who will we allow to raise children that are not born into an ideally functioning family unit? In what ways can we allow these sorts of compromises without further weakening the standing of the generalized ideal within the society?

In practice these are issues that each couple, each church, each local community, each ethnic traditional culture, and each level of civil government needs to work out for itself. The bases for deciding which “non-ideal” practices are acceptable and which aren’t really isn’t something that God has carved in stone and given a simple, eternal blueprint for mankind. Those who are looking for simple, absolutely certain answers to moral questions, particularly regarding sexuality, face continuous disappointment in reading the Bible. What we do have there is a guiding pair of ideals –– to love God and to love each other –– and a complex, immanently human set of stories and guidelines for realizing those ideals. We need to acknowledge that our societal rules are very much a work in process in this regard.

Part of this challenge is for churches to work out their own systems for stabilizing family relationships within their community of faith. In doing this sometimes they need to set stricter standards than the rest of society regarding how close to their religious ideals for marriage a couple has to be before the church is willing to formally acknowledge their relationship as legitimate –– in other words, to marry them. It is part of freedom of religion in most countries that churches are allowed to make such decisions for themselves. If someone has been divorced and remarried five or six times, the church is not required to conduct a new wedding ceremony for them, or to acknowledge their remarriage as “accepted by God”. Likewise religious communities are not forced to ceremonially accept mixed marriages, where someone from their community chooses to take a spouse from outside of that community. Sometimes these decisions are made purely on the basis of prejudice, but often they are made in good faith as an attempt to keep their system for reinforcing family life as viable as possible.

So then we come to the question of what to do about that minority within our communities whose sexual attraction is primarily to those of the same sex. Can we somehow “cure” them so that they can fit in with the standard ideal for sexuality as a basis for, and restricted to, the process of building a family with someone of the opposite sex? Can we just require them to live without sex for their entire life and leave it at that? Should we consider this orientation to be a form of sexual irresponsibility on their part and punish them for having such desires? Frankly religious communities have tried all three of these approaches, and many imaginative combinations thereof, with rather problematic results: Some are “successfully cured”. Others are driven to suicide. And then we find a broad continuum of results in between these two extremes.

What has been historically changing over the course of my lifetime is that same-sex attraction is no longer treated as an illness by medical and social work professionals, and from there the process of accepting those who experience such attractions as “normal” members of western societies has been moving forward relatively rapidly. Now last week the United States as joined a number of other countries in which same-sex couples who wish to have their personally committed homosexual relationships legally recognized as marriages have the right to be married, and to have their marriages legally recognized as such wherever in the country they happen to go.

In different cultures –– particularly those where the “proper roles” of men and women are very much separated and distinguished from each other –– this sort of development creates an especially painful crisis: for a man to sexually “play the role of a woman,” or visa-versa, messes up their whole perspective on how life is supposed to work. For a society to fully accept such a private sexual practice as normal is just too mind-blowing for them. This seems to be particularly true in many parts of Africa.

To my African brothers and sisters who are particularly bothered by this issue I would like to stress the following:

  1. Churches are not being required to sacramentally accept homosexual marriages as unions “joined together by God”. Any given church can still choose whether it will see whether such unions are close enough to what family is intended to be to offer their blessing. What they cannot do is legally refuse to acknowledge these people as full members of the secular society, having the same legal rights based on commitment to each other that “traditional married couples” have. Churches are still allowed to preach against homosexuality as much as they are allowed to preach against divorce, but when it goes as far as encouraging attacks against those who are divorced or gay, that becomes a different matter, regarding which what was wrong before is still wrong now.
  2. In spite of what some evangelists or radical Muslims may try to tell you, recent natural disasters are not the result of people in those areas getting too free with their sex lives. That isn’t how God works. I have my own perspective on what motivates some people to preach those sorts of things, but that’s for another time.
  3. Gender roles are changing, and that really has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is still true that in many African villages that women still must eat separately from men, after they have finished serving the men. Such practices are not seen as “normal” in western society, even if they are quite in line with how things were done in Jesus’ time. Trying to prevent these things from changing, or trying to change them back to the way they were in the times of our forefathers, is really not going to do any good. The roles of women and the roles of men are getting closer to each other all the time as a function of education being available to both boys and girls, and modern technology that is used in the workplace being just as easily operable for men and women. Blaming homosexuals for the way these things are changing, and the uncertainty these changes may cause in family life, is certainly unjustified.
  4. Again I must stress that rather than reacting with hate against things we find sinful or distasteful, the emphasis of the Christian message needs to be on building our capacities to love God and each other. The balance here is that part of loving each other is preventing people from doing things to harm themselves and each other, and that would include matters related to sexuality. But whatever we may agree or disagree about in terms of the details of what constitutes “harm” here, we need to keep the premise of learning to better love God and each other in mind when addressing the issue.

Beyond that I’m not going to tell people what they have to believe on this matter. It is a very complicated and culturally relative thing, and it is not my job to tell them how to organize their societies in terms of gender roles. I will continue to preach the Twin Commandment of Love, and I will continue to do what I can to improve education equally for girls and boys, and to improve access to technological means of improving productivity there for both women and men, but I will leave it up to the people themselves to work out the implications of these things for family life. After all, it’s not as though I’ve proven that I have that whole business figured out for myself…

But I promised that I’d come back to the case of Uriah the Hittite. Perhaps you know the story already. One of David’s main commanders, who happened to be a foreigner in Israel, had a particularly hot wife named Bathsheba… But before going any further with the story (which you can read for yourself in 2 Samuel 11), let me toss in a speculative detail to the reading that might put it in a different light: what if Uriah was actually gay?

It is not unknown for attractive women to feel most comfortable with gay men, who are not so overwhelmed by their attractiveness and thus find it easier to talk to them as people. It is also not unknown for gay men of the ancient world to have taken wives for themselves as matters of keeping up “normal” social appearances. For a Hittite immigrant to ancient Israel and a convert to the religion of Israel, keeping up appearances would have been particularly important. Then we have the fact that Bathsheba was being a bit of an exhibitionist, washing nude on her roof below the castle, in the spring when the armies had gone off to fight but the king was known to have stayed home. She had just finished with her period, reminding her once again that her husband wasn’t about to get her pregnant any time soon, so…

6581240257_e1a86586cd_bDavid gets all excited, has her brought up to the castle, spends a night with her, accidentally gets her pregnant, and then has to figure out what to do about it. He does everything in his power to get Uriah down to the house and into bed with his wife soon enough so that he’d think the child was his, but none of it works. Even stoned drunk, with an engraved invitation from his commander and chief to go spend some conjugal time with the Mrs., Uriah feels more inclined to go be with the guys in the barracks. What does that tell you?

So then David does the one thing that, of all of the crazy things he had done in his life, God gets angry with him about: he has Uriah killed. He puts matters in the hands of Joab, a real Machiavellian sleaze if ever there was one. He lets Joab know, subtly, that Uriah should die in battle. They were in the process of starving out an enemy city, but Joab has a sudden change in strategy: he sends Uriah’s unit up against the main fortifications so as to rattle their defenses a bit. Strategically it was a bone-headed move, but Joab told the messenger, “If the king gets pissed about this just tell him, ‘Uriah died in the attack,’ and that should cool him off.” So it went. So God became displeased. Of all of David’s misadventures, that was the one where he actually intentionally betrayed someone loyal to him; someone who perhaps happened to be gay, with that playing a role in why the king had him killed.

The point: hating and attacking people because of their sexual inclinations is not something we can excuse as being in any way part of “God’s work”. Thus however you need to work out your system for making families stronger, scapegoating and attacking gays as a source of the problem is not an acceptable way of doing things. Chew on that for a bit.

Sorry for rambling on for so long!

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Bruce/Caitlyn

Since this is such a fiercely debated topic, particularly among religious types this month, I’ll take a moment here to weigh in with my perspective on Mr./Ms. Jenner issue for the record. In doing so though I’ll make an exception to my regular habit of posting a picture or two with each blog entry, because the general obsession with this individual’s visual appearance is clearly part of the problem.

When I was 14 years old I actually dated a girl who had a bit of a crush on Bruce Jenner. He was definitively masculine, but in a suitably moderate way, well-spoken, strongly ambitious and self-disciplined, and capable of winning competitions across a fairly wide range of sporting events. He was sort of “vanilla” in a number of senses –– nothing particularly edgy or dramatic about him –– but as disposable breakfast cereal advertising mannequins of that era went he had more of a claim to public respect than most.

In the years thereafter then I get where he, as Bruce, struggled to maintain his role as a husband, a father, a step-father, and most of all, as a B-list celebrity. I haven’t really bothered following the details, but I get that, while he never went through the trauma of a post-celebrity “riches to rags story” (like Tina Turner’s era living on food stamps after her break-up with Ike), life has been quite complicated and challenging for him in his four decades in various intensities of limelight. The common thread holding his life together though was that he could always make a safe, comfortable living off of just being a handsome man in the public eye in the company of beautiful women, with nothing beyond that really being expected of him. We call it celebrity for celebrity’s sake –– being famous mostly just for being famous –– going through the effort to remain fit and healthy looking, but exhibiting no particular special talents beyond that. That’s obviously a rather superficial way for anyone to live, but there are plenty of minor celebrities who play just such a role in American society in particular these days, and all-in-all Bruce probably played it with as much dignity as any of them.

One significant chapter of this story that I never really noticed first-hand as it was happening was his role in the whole Kardashian saga. Obviously I’ve noticed the pin-up competitions between the different sisters, and heard about the celebrity marriages based on the family’s “reality TV” fame, but other than Survivor I have to say that I’ve never really followed that genre, so I didn’t actually realize how much Bruce had to do with all that absurdity. Would those girls ever have become so rich and famous without building their own celebrity for celebrity’s sake on Bruce’s celebrity for celebrity’s sake? I really cannot say, but then again I really can’t think of many questions based on events in the international news media which are less relevant to life as I know it.

While on that topic, it’s also worth considering, how should the Jenner/Kardashian celebrity be compared to other such reality TV based vacuous celebrity producing enterprises such as The Osbournes, Duck Dynasty, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and/or “Real” Housewives of Wherever? To what extent are all of these signs of the post-Reagan cultural shift and decline in the American empire? Another question I can’t really definitively answer.

Whatever the case may be, Bruce, as Bruce, was clearly profiting from and enjoying his celebrity status during those years, but at the same time he was experiencing its fade into irrelevance –– thoroughly eclipsed by his step-daughter Kim’s breaking of the internet and all that. The “well-endowed” women with pretty faces were getting all of the major attention, and the big bucks. Could that have anything to do with his decision to become one of them? (For pronoun critics out there, the currently self-identified “she” was still a self-identified in the masculine while making that decision.) How far can this case of surgical self-reinvention be compared, for that matter, to the disturbing case of Michael Jackson? I don’t feel justified in drawing strong conclusions in this area, but since what we’re talking about here is the absurd arena of celebrity for celebrity’s sake here, I believe that these questions deserve to be asked.

As it happens, this week I’ve been spending quite a bit of time taking an on-line course, without credit possibilities, by watching Stanford University’s Youtube channel lectures by Robert Sapolsky on human behavioral biology. I strongly recommend the series for anyone who has a hundred hours or so to spare this summer for such things. In this series Professor Sapolsky strongly considers many aspects of what it means to be masculine and/or feminine, for many other species and for many mutated versions of humanity.

There are many fascinating aspects of the basis of gender and sexuality that we don’t have absolute scientific explanations for. It is clear that some parts of the brain tend to be bigger and more active in women than in men, and visa-versa, and that those with ambiguous gender identity do in fact often have brain morphology closer to the opposite gender than to the one they are physiologically identified with. So should they be allowed to change their physical gender identity to match their sense of self otherwise? Without allowing for any definitive ontological determination of what makes someone “really a woman” or “really a man,” Professor Sapolsky remains open-minded about the prospect of allowing people to have surgical gender reassignment to give them a greater sense of harmony with themselves. In evolutionary terms that may reduce one’s possibilities of passing on one’s genes, but there’s more to being a person than just reproducing. So how else might this sort of self-reinvention be a threat to anyone else, particularly to those outside of the gender ambiguity sufferer’s family?

It would seem that the reason this is considered to be a threat, by religious folks in particular, has to do with a concept of screwing up “God’s design” within each of us: that there is something holy and absolute about a man being a man and a woman being a woman. What can we say about that?

First of all, let’s be honest: the optimal situation for any person is to accept themselves for who they are, physically, mentally and in every other way; “warts and all.” Our bodies all vary a bit from what we might ideally like them to be, especially as the aging process moves along, but accepting my body as it is, as one of the primary determinants of what makes me me, and being at peace with it regardless of where it fails to measure up to my Platonic ideal for what sort of body I would like to have, is part of being a mentally healthy person. Yet that being said, I don’t have any crisis of conscience over the idea of having particular aspects of my body that might come to trouble me fixed: getting warts removed, getting treatment to keep my eyes working properly, and should it become necessary, having surgery to improve various aspects of my body’s to function, and perhaps even its appearance. (The latter is an extremely abstract idea for me, but I wouldn’t have a crisis of conscience over having it done.) So from there, when it comes to our bodies not matching up to our ideal self-image pictures of what they should be like, how do we go about deciding in which cases the body should be fixed and in which cases the conscious identity should be adjusted to accepting the body for what it is? Can I condemn those who have particular difficulties accepting the current state of their bodies gender-wise for wanting to get them “fixed”? I mean besides this being very much a “First World problem” –– related to abstract vagaries of identity dis-satisfaction, which are often based on the sort of dysfunctional media culture that we live in –– what’s the problem?

When it comes to things ranging from separating conjoined twins or correcting other birth defects, to reconstructing one’s appearance following a major accident or something like cancer surgery, I don’t think many religious people have a serious problem with doctors playing a major role in changing a person’s bodily identity. But when the “problem” is the body not matching the sense of gender identity that the person senses within her-/himself, why is that a more touchy matter for them? Perhaps the biggest question that disturbs people about the whole transsexuality issue here is whether manhood and/or womanhood as such are under some sort of threat. Most relevant in this case, is it still culturally acceptable to be proud of being a man? If so, what does that even mean these days? And then on the other side, can someone who has lived for over 60 years as a man really have any accurate idea about what his life really would have been like as a woman? This is to say nothing about the marketing confusion caused by having someone whose professional identity was very much based on providing a physical ideal for masculinity all of a sudden choose to physically be a woman instead. For those who draw their sense of gendered norms from the mass media, what does something like that do to their whole idea of what it means to be a man? I can sort of see where some might be a bit threatened by such a situation. And for those who believe that there is an eternal absolute standard for masculinity and femininity, each proscribed by God himself, I get where this sense of threat is all the more acute in relation to the Jenner case.

So what does it mean to be a man as such these days? Going back to Professor Sapolsky’s lectures, there are a few things worth noting in this regard. Most important, there is not a set “natural” mode for relations between the genders for humanity. Biologically speaking, as a species we are pretty seriously mixed up, being half way in between classic “tournament” species like baboons and “pair bonding” species like ostriches. We are neither naturally prone to monogamously mate for life, nor to accept the idea of only alpha males getting to mate with as many desirable females as they want and the rest going without. We have certain tendencies in both directions, but we are bound to neither orientation. Nature as such does not give us any particular moral imperative in terms of the “right way” for the genders to relate to each other, either in terms of our mating practices or in terms of our economic production practices. Toss in the added complication of the technology assisted lives we now lead reducing the logistical need for maintaining traditional gender roles based on physical capabilities and things have gone pretty thoroughly beyond of the realm where “proper” roles can be readily defined. We are cursed with rather extensive freedom in this area, and with a great deal of individual responsibility for what we do with that freedom, with little hope, in Western societies at least, of holding our sexual partners, or anyone else for that matter, to some eternal transcendent standards in these matters.

But beyond that there are at least two things which seriously set mankind apart from any other type of mammal or other animal: we have a far greater capacity for rational self-control, and a far greater capacity for empathy than the rest. No other creature can stop and think things through nearly as far as we do, and no other creature is capable of the sort of compassion that we, in the best case, are able to exercise towards those we see in conditions of unjust suffering. Through taking advantage of those traits, hopefully we can work our way through the current crisis of uncertainty regarding gender roles and mating practices. Hopefully individual couples can find ways to care for each other and work out the ambiguities of their mutual responsibilities well enough to keep societies going while these roles remain in flux.

Meanwhile it’s worth remembering, and/or pointing out to fundamentalists of various sorts who still don’t get it, that sticking to tradition for tradition’s sake –– in gender roles just like everything else –– just isn’t going to work.

So with all that taken into consideration, the celebrity formerly known as Bruce Jenner is really the least of our problems when it comes to the on-going significance of masculinity, or femininity. The process of gender reassignment surgery does involve somewhat more complications than most other forms of reconstructive surgery, but it need not be any significant threat to the rest of us. The more people there are who “get” that, the healthier society will be.

Frankly the thing that bothers me about Caitlyn’s new identity is not so much denial of her masculinity, but rather her denial of her being a 65-year-old has-been. So she has chosen to turn to the sort of doctors that are most easily found in the immediate vicinity of Hollywood to radically alter her persona, in ways that makes her a hero to some and a freak to others… which, for someone seriously addicted to the limelight, is far more satisfying than irrelevance at least. In other words accepting that transsexuals can be perfectly healthy and well-adjusted members of society in their reassigned gender identity does not automatically imply that this particular individual should be considered as either mentally healthy or “normal” in any other context than the abstract world of reality TV’s system of producing celebrities for celebrity’s sake. And yes, I do see that whole industry as both reflecting and producing some serious societal dysfunctions.

I don’t deny that there might be some other sense of normal existence possible for her still, but in the unlikely case where something like that could come about, I don’t see any possibility of it having relevance to life as I know it. Still, for what little it’s worth, I do see Caitlyn’s post-surgical persona as slightly closer to “normal” than Michael Jackson’s at least. Your mileage may vary.

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Hating Islam vs. hating Catholicism

I’ve decided to tread the fine line regarding my fast on expressing hate here. There has been an abundance of hate speech going around on my social media news feeds this month, and it’s been hard not to respond to the intellectual and moral inferiority of much of it. But that would involve expressing how little respect I have for certain individuals’ intellectual and moral capacities, which I have promised to spend some time not doing. Even so, perhaps I can permit myself to address the issue of hatred for a particular group of people in a more constructive manner. The hated group in question is of course Muslims.

CatholicMuslimOn the issue of relating to Islam I am pleased to have people pissed at me on both sides. I have Muslim friends –– genuine friends –– who are offended that I do not consider some aspects of their faith to stand up well to intellectual and moral scrutiny, to the extent that I would not remotely consider converting to it at this point in life. I also have Islamophobic friends –– again, genuine friends –– who deny the legitimacy of the very word “Islamophobic”, saying that Islam is a force of evil that all rational people should have a fear of. For them it is offensive that I am willing to give the vast majority of the world’s Muslims credit for pursuing a life of peace, at harmony with the highest powers and principles in the universe.

In any case, from this DMZ-walking perspective on the issue, I found Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent interview with the Huffington Post, promoting her new book, Heretic, to be particularly interesting.

This author and thinker has become infamous as something of a patron saint among secular islamophobes, so the mere mention of her name will have some people closing this blog right here with a quick curse on me, and others tingling with excitement that I might join them in their prejudices; sad on both accounts.

All I can say is that I merely wish to give credit where credit is due for her suggestion that Muslims can (unlike her) remain Muslims, subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, and pursue what is best and most uplifting about their faith, even while calling for its modernization in five key areas:
1. Allowing critical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammed.
2. Prioritizing the present life over concepts of the after-life.
3. No longer giving religious law precedence over secular civil law.
4. Ceasing to take mandatory commands as the basis for morality and civil order.
5. Ending calls to arms and killing others in the name of defending faith.

Another thing I found interesting about the interview was how, as a lady 7 years younger than myself, Hirsi Ali kept referring to herself as a representative of an older generation, but that’s sort of beside the point here. Her main point is that by accepting these sorts of challenges to their traditional orthodoxies, the other major monotheistic religions have become in many respects much stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of modernity; and in terms of its impact on world culture, it would be by far the best thing for all concerned if Islam would go through the same sort of internal revolution of self-reevaluation. On this I largely agree with her.

The counter-arguments to this position fall into two basic categories: a) The evil powers that be within Islam will never allow these sorts of reevaluations to happen, or b) If these sorts of changes would occur among the followers of Muhammed, the change would be so profound that they would no longer be justified in calling themselves Muslims.

The first is a matter of speculation regarding the future that is rather fruitless to argue about at any length. Suffice to say, there are certainly Iranian ayatollahs and ISIS supporters, among others, who wish to do all in their power to prevent any such reforms from taking root with their religion, but they probably won’t get the historical final word on the subject. We’ll see.

Regarding the second point, I am of the understanding that, first of all, we outsiders can’t really try to tell Muslims what their faith should mean to them and where its limits should be drawn, but then beyond that they’re not particularly keen on letting other Muslims draw those lines for them either. There isn’t any Pope of Islam, and as bitterly as Muslims may disagree with each other on all sorts of theological and moral issues, hardly any of them take it upon themselves to determine which other Muslims are to be recipients of Allah’s mercy in the after-life and which are doomed to damnation. In theory that sort of open attitude should make reform that much easier to bring about, though in practice it looks inevitable that any steps forward on Hirsi Ali’s five points will only come as the fruit of bitter and bloody struggles.

Needless to say, the time when Christianity went through its equivalent major struggle was nearly 500 years ago already. It may not justifiable to refer to Hirsi Ali as a potential Muslim Martin Luther, but she could end up playing the role of something like a Muslim Erasmus: eloquently pointing out some of the problems in the way the faith is being practiced so that other, less intellectual radicals who are more deeply involved in the religious system might become motivated to bring about changes from within. Yet it should be acknowledged that whether or not such reform happens, the resisters to reform are likely to remain in the majority, and the protesting, reforming minority will continue to be branded by the majority as “heretics” for many generations to come.

This brings us to the question of how we relate to those closer to home who identify with ideologies which famously resist reform. In the Christian case, up until the time of my birth at least, that primarily meant those evil Catholics. Without having to  go back as far as Martin Luther and his polemics against the popes of his age as the world’s biggest pimps, we can see all sorts of ways in which, over the past couple of centuries, hatred against Catholics has been a major factor in world politics in general and in US politics in particular. Nor did the Vatican do itself any favors by holding to a hard line against officially recognizing members of any other churches as fellow Christians until only about 50 years ago. When it comes right down to it, the matters that Hirsi Ali wishes to see reformed within Islam are the very things which radical Protestants have pushed to bring into the Christian theological debate for centuries already, and which many Catholics (and now more conservative Protestants) have been at best hesitant to accept.

Considering “sacred scriptures” to be human documents, subject to human perspectives and limitations in their attempt to reveal the divine, has been a difficult matter for many Christians to accept. Beyond that, as with Muslims, there has been the tendency among Catholics authorities to consider the traditional understandings of what God expects of us from within their official framework also to be beyond question. Daring to ask, “Has God really said…” remains valid grounds, among the most traditional monotheists of both persuasions, to burn someone as a heretic, at least figuratively if not literally.

Likewise focusing on the after-life at the expense of responsible living in our present, material lives is hardly an exclusively Islamic problem. Catholic preaching about possibilities of earning extra rewards in heaven, and avoiding extra sufferings in purgatory –– abuses that Luther railed against in is 95 Theses –– has remained a staple of their (and again, many conservative Protestants’) populist message, frequently at the expense of teaching people to love their neighbor and to act as peacemakers.

The question of the relationship between religious law and civil law in turn was the primary emphasis of Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in which he condemned anything that gave the Church less official authority in the lives of its members, including public education, civil marriage, civil divorce, separation of church and state, and priests’ liability to civil prosecution. The implications of Shariah law are actually quite mild by comparison. The same document goes a long way in promoting the sort of thinking which Hirsi Ali wishes to challenge see eliminated from reformed Islam in terms of “Ending the practice of ‘commanding right, forbidding wrong’”.

Finally we have the matter of religious leaders in both traditions declaring either “crusades” or “jihads” (very much equivalent terms) against those whom they label as “evil”. Even though this practice effectively reduces their affirmation of the ideal of being instruments of God’s peace to nothing more than the grossest hypocrisy, Catholic leaders have been more than a little hesitant to renounce the practice entirely, and to condemn their predecessors’ practices in this regard.

Am I saying all of this to revive a hatred for Catholicism among Protestants? God forbid! My point is that even though there are what I see as significant intellectual and moral failings within official Catholic doctrinal positions –– which are not only historical embarrassments, but issues relevant to contemporary morality and world peace as well –– I am not really even tempted to see Catholics as inherently morally inferior people. Most people, it seems, got over that issue when JFK was elected as president. The last stalwarts to cling to such a prejudice were probably the Protestant Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, and now even they seem to have outgrown it. So why then do so many people think that Muslims should be held as morally suspect for their lack of will to reform the tenants of their faith?

Let me summarize this matter as clearly as I can: I strongly believe in the value of religious faith to motivate people to do good, to see themselves as inherently interconnected with others, to find purpose in their earthly existence, and to enable them to forgive themselves in spite of all their experiences of failure in life. At the same time I recognize the risky tendencies within many (all?) religious traditions to validate tribal prejudices, to use blind dogmatism as an antidote to life’s uncertainties, to manufacture a sense of self-righteousness among their believers, and to hatefully attack others on these bases. I personally maintain a continuous crusade, or jihad, against these evils within my own life and within my own faith as much as God grants me the strength to do so.

On these bases I see all people of faith –– and most of those who currently lack a sense of faith –– as living with the same struggles in terms of their everyday moral practice. Some are more self-aware about it than others, but it’s not my position to issue final grades for them in this respect. Thus I wish to evaluate people as neighbors and fellow citizens of the world, not based on the extent to which the dogmas they subscribe to are compatible with the dogmas I subscribe to, but based on how they personally prioritize between their purposeful interconnection with others and their more dogmatic tribalistic impulses.

Yes, that includes Muslims. Yes, there are particularly disturbing aspects of the dogmas they officially subscribe to, just as there are with Catholic dogmas. Yes, I would like to see those dogmas reformed so that they are more conducive to achieving the sort of goals that Kareem Abdul Jabar outlined in his column this winter: “people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship.” I do believe that the kind of reforms that Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests would better enable Muslims to live that way. I also believe that more thoroughly accepting those kind of reform principles would help Catholics to more thoroughly live that way. But I don’t consider these reforms to be a prerequisite for any Muslims or Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists, or secular humanists even, in gaining my friendship and respect.

If people from each of these tribes can better learn to respect the others then, so much the better.

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Rich Men’s Problems with the Kingdom of Heaven

On a subject sort of relevant to my last post of 2013 here, last week the Pew Research people released the results of an international survey that they’ve been conducting for the past few years. Their basic findings, in very simple terms: The more money people have in their pockets, the less they see religious belief to be a precondition for moral goodness. The United States would seem to be an exceptional case in this study, but on closer examination it’s really not.

So who should be excited, threatened or disturbed by these findings?

Go_to_church...These results actually shouldn’t come as a surprise in any particular sense, nor should the fact that the United States once again appears to be an exception to the rules of secularism laid out in some of the more problematic reporting on this matter, nor should the fact that the polemics tend to snowball the further from the facts you get on this issue.

First of all let me clarify what I see as the primary non sequitur related to this question: It is not asking how many people believe in God (large or small g), or how such beliefs affect their own lives. What it is effectively asking is, can you actually trust someone who doesn’t believe in any god to still be a good person? In that regard it actually has very little to do with personal faith as such. Pope Francis and I are both strong believers in God, but we are both entirely convinced that the factually correct answer to the survey question is no, you don’t have to believe in God to be a “person of good will” and to treat others with decency. On the other hand, Machiavelli and his followers –– and among the living, Jürgen Habermas –– while having no particular belief in God themselves, have stated that religious belief plays an essential role in keeping “the masses” in line and enabling productive levels of social cooperation, implying that one should have certain suspicions about those who lack the moral restraint which personal faith tends to instill. So while this is an interesting question on a number of different levels, it really doesn’t measure levels of personal faith in any direct way.

What it does measure, however, is probably more relevant to the issue of “secularization” as it is defined by sociologists than personal faith is: It measures the extent to which religious mutual understanding is socially expected of people as a foundation for mutual trust. The current Wikipedia article on secularization begins by defining the concept as “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions.” The sociology section of about.com defines secularization as “a process of social change through which the public influence of religion and religious thinking declines as it is replaced by other ways of explaining reality and regulating social life”. Agreed. In other words what we’re talking about is how much control religion has over society, which is a somewhat different question than the extent to which people personally believe in God.

Peter Berger tells the story of a recently arrived immigrant dentist in the United States starting to work on a new patient’s teeth when the man stopped him briefly to say, “By the way, I’m a Baptist.” The dentist had no idea what relevance this had to the condition of the man’s teeth, or anything else, but for a sociological researcher the message was clear: The patient was saying that he could be trusted to pay his bill afterwards so there should be nothing for the dentist to worry about in that regard; he didn’t want the dentist to be distracted by such concerns while he was working on his teeth. What the new survey results show is that this sort of anecdote could also easily take place in many African or South American countries (perhaps with a different church being named) but among more prosperous “Western” countries it would be unique to the United States.  It says nothing about how well Baptists or other believers actually pay their bills, nor about how non-believers in turn attend to their own financial obligations. Nor does it tell us how fervently people believe that some supernatural power holds them responsible for their actions. It only tells us about how people within the society in question use religion as a basis for their social credit rating schemes.

DixBankNoteOn one level there would be an obvious correlation between how widespread personal faith is and how much people use that as a standard for determining whether or not they can trust each other: Such faith has to be in relatively widespread circulation to be accepted as a form of social capital. By analogy, legend has it that the southern states of the US originally became known as “the land of Dixie” due to the use of a French (or French language) currency in which the ten (dix) was particularly well known. That would not imply any particularly strong allegiance to France or the French economic system, but it would imply at least some sort of cultural connection in France’s direction which related to the means by which Southerners exchanged goods and services. The personal religiosity of people who trust each other on the basis of belief in God need go no deeper than that.

The social mechanism involved comes back to Machiavelli’s strong belief that religion is an essential means which any ruler should take advantage of in order to do his job effectively. While it may not hold true as a general definition for religion, in the vast majority of cases religion comes down to a social expression of belief in God or gods. Taking advantage of this belief as a means of manipulating those under their power can be a very potent tool in the hands of rulers, whether the rulers in question happen to share this belief or not. Thus it remains strongly in the self-interest of the ruling elites to encourage people to believe that there is some divine power out there which is on the rulers’ side on things, and to sow distrust in those who would question the divine basis for the rulers’ authority. From there it would stand to reason that the greater the polarization is between a nation’s lower classes and its rulers, the more critically important it becomes for rulers to have this tool at their disposal so as to reduce the chance of insurrection. It would also stand to reason that the more economically helpless the people feel, the more likely they would be to base their sense of solidarity on transcendent factors like a shared belief in God. In these regards the recent Pew data merely provides empirical evidence in support of what sociologists of religion should have pretty well surmised already.

What this doesn’t tell us is what sort of a role personal faith plays in people’s lives, and whether or not that faith is an overall good thing in terms of social dynamics. It is a major leap of faith to move from the Machiavellian theory that the religious faith of the people provides an important means of manipulating them to the Leninist theory that religious faith can be reduced to nothing more than a means of bourgeois manipulation. That is sort of like saying that because antibiotics are being fed to beef cattle to cause them to put on weight faster (in turn leading to humans consuming their meet also to put on weight faster, which is a very real problem these days, by the way), we can conclude that the only function and purpose of antibiotics is to cause weight gain.

So what is the purpose of Christianity, and perhaps other comparable religions, if not to enable social control of the masses? Quite simply, to teach us to respect each other as fellow beings “made in the image of God,” and to look beyond ourselves for the capacity to live up to ideals we feel that we’re not capable of living up to on our own. I won’t bother to proof-text that out here, but if there are any fundamentalists out there who wish to challenge this summary of the Gospel message as inaccurate I’m up for the debate.

For any atheists and other skeptics who consider this to be too optimistic a summary of the faith meanwhile, I freely acknowledge that many of my co-religionists have rather missed (or misplaced) the point on this one, but that doesn’t make it essentially wrong. The fact that the Bible itself is full of bitter power struggles (especially in the Old Testament, but really in both testaments) doesn’t take away the essential focus of the teaching of Jesus on the points given here –– commonly known as “the twin commandment of love”. The rest of the essential message of Christianity can be mind-mapped back to these two points, not with absolute agreement on all of the details involved, but with essential shared purpose among “people of good will” within the faith and beyond it. Here too I’m quite open to further debate with anyone who cares to question this interpretation.

In any case, once you accept that there is more to religion than what Lenin was prone to acknowledge, much of the polemic against theism in general that we find in CJ Werleman’s summary of the Pew report on AlterNet essentially falls apart. The reasoning he gives for seeing atheists as in fact morally superior to theists –– based on the isolated statistic of atheists making up a disproportionately small segment of the US prison population –– really proves none of the points he is trying to make. What this factoid rather tells us is that self-identifying as an atheist is far more risky and thus much rarer among those in lower economic classes and minority communities in American society who end up as the basic fodder of the prison-industrial complex; whereas among the upper classes, who have all sorts of means of avoiding imprisonment when they commit evil deeds, publicly acknowledged atheism is a far safer posture to hold.

Salon’s republication of Werleman’s article then added sloppiness to the intellectual carelessness of the original by captioning their Facebook link with the quote, “Without the South’s religiosity, ‘America’ would look like a developed, secular country…” and then leaving out the poorly reasoned section of the article containing that quote from the version they posted.

For a more rational heuristic as to what sort of people should be more readily trusted and what sort of people should be kept more at arm’s length, rather than looking at how strongly different groups are represented within prison populations we should be considering the frequency of psychopaths occurring among them. In those regards theists have a far from spotless record, especially given the ways in which theism is susceptible to power abuse, but power-hungry atheists generate at least their fair share of social tensions and monsters to be afraid of.

But the primary lessons to be drawn from the Pew survey aren’t essentially about whether either theists or atheists are inherently better people. It rather shows us something about people’s reluctance to trust those whose foundational ethical assumptions are different from theirs. Most specifically, it invites us to consider why it would be that poorer people around the world are more likely to consider their religion as an important basis for personal trust, and why this tendency would be particularly pronounced in the United States in general and in the former Confederate states in particular.

On significant factor here is the dynamic confirmed by recent studies that the wealthier a person becomes, the greater the risk is of that person losing a capacity for empathy.  Thus if religious participation is in many respects an exercise in empathizing with others, it stands to reason that the wealthy will place less importance upon it than those whose empathetic reflexes have not been damaged in this way. This in turn would lead to poorer people having a greater tendency to build contacts with like-minded people through religious activities than rich folks do. Probably a minor factor, but still worth noting.

A far more significant causal factor, I believe, would be a lack of basic education among the poor (not only in the South, but across the US), in civics in particular. This aspect of education involves making learners more aware of those outside of their own closed communities; ideally involving actual mutually respectful contact with people who are part of “other” groups –– those of other skin colors, other language groups, other religious backgrounds, other sexual attractions, other cultural norms, etc. If these “other” people can be kept as a distant abstraction and if authority figures are able to maintain ignorance about such “others” within their isolated communities, that makes hatemongering a far easier process for them. From there they can use that hatred as a means of motivating people to do all sorts of things they may have in mind, or to “take their eye off the ball” as they go about fleecing the suckers. Nor does hatred of the other have to be the result an intentional plot to manipulate the haters; it can be an entirely organic and self-sustaining reaction within ignorant and isolated communities. A brilliant example of this is the ways in which the fictitious Eastern European society in the film Borat looks at Jews.

In this regard the social dynamic we see demonstrated in the recent Pew data is as follows: The better off people are economically, the better educated their children become; the better educated each successive generation is, the less ignorant of and segregated from others they are inclined to be; and the more aware of others they are in practice, the more likely they are to respect those others as individuals regardless of differences in race, religion, language, sexuality, etc. The southern states of the US have their own historical reasons for being somewhat backwards in these regards, but there is no credible sociological argument for reducing religion as a means of improving the situation. Color me optimistic, but I believe that improved civics education, including elements of concrete cross-cultural interaction, can go a long ways in eliminating the toxic prejudicial elements of traditional religious cultures, leaving in place a valuable set of societal resources to be exercised in communities of faith.

map of israelSouthern “Bible Belt” culture and its various spin-offs are a complex problem unto themselves. Besides Machiavellian strategies historically being used by the white aristocracy of the South to control the poor black folk of the region by way of religion (which majorly backfired on them with the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Era), there is a widespread ignorant assumption that white American Protestants have somehow inherited the role of “God’s chosen people” from the ancient Israelites. It is fair to say that Bible Belters are not alone in this regard: many forms of religion irrationally declare divine favor on some in-group at the expense of the human dignity of various out-groups, and that they give religion a bad name in the process. It is also fair to say that this aspect of “Christian culture” runs directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the core message of Christianity. This problem needs to be dealt with, but not through the elimination of all religious influences in American culture.

Besides the photo ops and private conversations with President Obama last week, the most recent headlines regarding Pope Francis have had to do with his recent theological statements confirming a personal belief in hell as a real place where wicked people’s souls go when they die –– Mafiosos in particular.  The thing which puts one in the position of deserving eternal torment is not defying the church’s authority as such, but disregarding the rights and dignity of other people –– failing to love in the what Jesus commanded us to. I believe that this sort of “hellfire and brimstone” message, not the moralism and cultural control preached by the “religious right” nor the strict secularism preached by the missionaries of “new atheism”, offers the best hope for curing what ails our failing communities. I challenge any of my readers to try and change my mind on this one.

 

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On Hobbies, Lobbying and Religious Freedoms

Those of you who are following the major American ideological debates have probably heard of the “Hobby Lobby” case coming up this month before the US Supreme Court. For those that haven’t, it basically comes down to this: The new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” by any other name) basically gives bureaucrats the right to decide what form of “preventative health care” insurance companies should be required to provide for all patients. The current bureaucrats in charge of these things have decided to make pretty much all birth control measures short of surgical abortion part of that category. This first and foremost has got various Catholic employers of all sorts upset because, they claim, that this is requiring them to participate in “anti-life” activities which go against their religious convictions. But in addition to that, other anti-promiscuity-enablement oriented Protestant owned businesses as well are saying that they don’t want to be forced to have a hand in paying for the prevention of pregnancies for their employees. One such business is a chain of “artsy-fartsy” hobby supply shops called Hobby Lobby. They are now suing the government for making them pay for health insurance coverage for their employees when enables those employees to get free birth control pills and which covers “getting their tubes tied” if they so choose. This is what the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about this month.

hobbylobby003This, dear friends, is the sort of controversy that can only happen in America, for two reasons: 1) Though the United States has been making steady progress of late towards joining the civilized world in terms of recognizing health care as a basic human right, it still remains culturally addicted to allowing corporations’ obscene profit-taking off of health care provision as a higher political priority than patients’ rights to receive basic care regardless of their capacity to pay. This is the factor that prevented “single payer” or even “government sponsored alternatives” to the highly profitable health insurance industry from being enacted in the recent rounds of reform. This means that what would in any other country be paid for by the government –– covered by taxation or a publicly managed insurance scheme –– in the US is still being paid for by employers and private citizens (with a little bit of government backing where private citizens can’t afford the payments that insurance companies demand). And 2) religious organizations in the US are closer to being able to control the political process in the US than in any other traditionally Christian majority democratic country in the world, and in the interest of proving their continued relevance in the process these religious organizations have a certain need to take opportunities like this to try to prove to the world how bad ass they are. Go figure.

It is in cases like this where I am prone to agree with Pope Francis’ famous October homily where he referred to those whose Christianity has become a political ideology as “a serious illness” within the Church.

The argument being put forward by Catholic intellectuals on the matter is that they’re really not out to make sure that other people conform to their church’s religious teachings prohibiting all “artificial” forms of birth control (saying that any form of birth control, other than women crossing their legs to keep men from getting in to impregnate them, is immoral); they’re really just trying to prevent good Catholics from having even a semi-active role in the process. But if that’s true –– if all that Catholics and their fellow anti-recreational sex Christians really want is plausible deniability in the process of actively participating in a culture that approves of such practices, that’s really not all that hard to arrange. There are plenty of ways for them to (figuratively) close their eyes, or to make blindfolds available for them. But effectively, when they’ve been offered such blindfolds to enable deniability, their objection has been, “No, we’ll still know what’s going on, and we just can’t have that.” From there the question becomes, are they really sincere about allowing others not to share their religious convictions and prohibitions or not? Is the point really to maintain deniability, or is it more to make this “sin” that much more inconvenient and thus less frequently practiced among others who don’t happen to share their beliefs? If the deniability argument is really just an excuse for a strategy aiming to reduce the sexual sins of others, freedom of religion should not provide them with an excuse for pursuing such a strategy, even in America.

RS824_MartinEdstrom-SE-130521-5619-960x640I am reminded of the story I heard, about 20 years ago, regarding Muslims in the Swedish higher education system. One provision of the Swedish system for enabling young people to complete university studies in state universities was to provide government guarantees for student loans from commercial banks. This was a problem for Muslim students because their religion strictly forbids them from taking out loans on which they would pay interest. Attempts to set up a properly Islamic shadow student loan organization fell apart, for all sorts of logistical reasons. It was starting to look like self-segregation into a more permanent lower class for lack of higher educational opportunities would be the fate of Sweden’s devout Muslims, but then one imam came up with a solution: He issued a fatwa declaring that, because a non-Islamic government had made the loan system the only available means of attending state universities, as a minority group living within that country without means of decisively changing the situation, young Muslims could take such loans anyway by not thinking of the interest as interest. Because it was money that the government told them they had to pay, after the fact, in order to get an education, it could either be conceptualized as a form of taxation, which sharia law has no problem with. Thought of in this way, a good Muslim could participate in the student loan system and make these interest payments to “corrupt institutions” without being guilty of contributing to an unholy private financial system in their host country, even while nominally participating in such, because in doing so they were really just “paying their taxes”.

Again, assuming that their motivations are purely a matter of seeking deniability in terms of supporting the sins of others, the worst hardship that the Hobby Lobby people and their co-plaintiffs could be forced to endure in terms of a loss of religious liberty is actually a milder version of the crisis of conscience that the Swedish Muslim students went through in the late 20th century. In fact the moral provision is already in place in this regard: in upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the first legal challenges against it, the Supreme Court already ruled that, while the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to tell insurance companies how to run their business, it does have the authority to decree forms of taxation which it deems necessary for promoting public health, and in that regard what the whole “Obamacare” system comes down to at the end of the day is an elaborate form of taxation to promote public health. The question from there is whether or not religiously oriented businesses can be required to pay this sort of tax. After that the primary question becomes whether or not the US court system feels justified in telling religiously oriented businesses to “suck it up”.

surpreme-courtRefusing to pay such a tax –– or such a set of insurance premiums –– from there becomes the same sort of civil disobedience as a pacifist refusing to pay federal income tax because she does not want to financially support the United States’ drone bomber program in Pakistan. It is true that tax money from every tax-paying citizen and business in the United States is being used for very immoral purposes according to a pacifist perspective. It is true that pacifists have the moral right to protest against this practice by any means at their disposal, and that no one has a right to attempt to silence them politically. It is true that in choosing the path of civil disobedience –– not paying what the government tells them they have to pay as a matter of placing their moral conscience ahead of government decrees –– they may end up legally suffering in support of a higher moral and political purpose. It is somewhat unimaginable, however, that any US court would make them exempt from paying income taxes on such a basis. Yet this is effectively what Hobby Lobby and company are asking the court to do for them.

It should be obvious that the evangelical fundamentalists at Hobby Lobby are at least as free to practice their faith, in every possible sense, as Swedish Muslim students are to practice theirs. The government is not stopping them from displaying anti-sexual materials in their shops, requiring them in any way to promote sex within their shops, requiring them to remain open on Sundays rather than going to listen to anti-sexual sermons on that day, or in any other way forcing them to accept America’s sexually promiscuous culture. What the government is effectively saying to them is that we need to recognize that sex, for purposes other than making babies, is something that the vast majority of Americans wish to practice, potentially including many of their employees. As part of taking care of the health of such people then, the government of the United States has chosen to join every other democratic government in the Western world other than Ireland in declaring that preventing people from experiencing unwanted consequences of recreational (i.e., non-procreative) sex whenever we are safely and reliably able to do so needs to be part of “health care”. And just as all tax payers are required to contribute to the drone bomber program, all employers are required to cover health care costs for their employees, including forms of health care which enable these employees to have sex without making babies if they so choose. Just as pacifists do not have the right not to pay taxes just because they don’t believe in supporting war, employers do not have the right not to pay for broad health insurance coverage for their employees just because they don’t believe in enabling recreational sex.

ReligiousFreedomRally1_wide-5ef89e31d8b4bb636bcf5f59083eb7f0873704a1-s6-c30From there this is no longer a question of freedom of religion; it becomes a question of the perpetual hobby of the religious right to flex their lobbying muscles. Unlike Sweden’s Muslim students, joint Catholic-Evangelical right wing political pressure groups in the US don’t feel like they are in a position where they must helplessly accept the government’s decrees on such matters. They have been fighting tooth and nail against everything they believe President Obama stands for for more than 6 years already (ever since he began actively campaigning for the office), and the goal of finding excuses to tear holes in his health care legacy appears to be much more important to them than working to strategically reduce the sinfulness of their fellow citizens even. This makes their illness, as Pope Francis defines it, all the more acute. We’re not talking about any manifestation of Christ’s compassion here, but its polar opposite: a power struggle based on purely on hate of the “other”.

obamacare_1_590_396Being as I see the Pope as being on the same side of this issue as I am, I hope it is clear that I’m not in some paranoid way anti-Catholic, but there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in claiming “freedom of religion” as a defense for traditional Catholic beliefs in this matter. It is easily forgotten by those who insist on this ancient tradition’s right to respect that it was not until two years after the Catholic president John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Catholic Church issued its first statement nominally accepting the whole idea of freedom of religion as part of its official teaching. This went directly against centuries of Catholic teaching explicitly rejecting such a principle, and there are still Catholics today who consider the Second Vatican Council to have committed heresy in making such a statement. This group is a rather small minority within the Catholic Church, but then again so are those who strictly adhere to the church’s official teachings on sex and birth control. The difference is that the anti-religious liberty faction no longer has official status within the Catholic Church; the anti-birth control faction does have such status.

But from an American constitutional perspective all that is beside the point. The point is that, in principle, no one should be telling these most ideologically conservative Catholics what they are and are not allowed to believe, even if they have been historically prone to try to tell others what they are and are not allowed to believe. We cannot tell them what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith, even if their goal is still to tell others what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith.

From here it must be acknowledged that the specific combined case coming before the Supreme Court this month involves strictly Protestant plaintiffs. Does that make it unfair to specifically critique the Catholic position on this one? I don’t think so. As any of the evangelical Protestant opinion leaders on this issue will tell you, when it comes to “pro-life” political activism such as this, thanks largely to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the late 70s and early 80s, Protestants have been progressively “catching up” with Catholic positions on these matters over the course of the past generation. They share a political goal of restoring Christian ideologies to a position of dominance within the political process and in other cultural arenas. In efforts such as the Manhattan Declaration they have set aside their doctrinal differences for the time being, until the cultural dominance “Judeo-Christian values,” as they loosely define them, is restored.

IX-PiusIt would be fair to say that the Protestant partners in this effort haven’t really thought this matter through yet in philosophical terms. The Catholic position on the question is based on cultural norms predating the American Civil War and other scientific discoveries and cultural crises of the period of the industrial revolution. Catholic teaching against birth control goes back in practice to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, whose long and dysfunctional reign left many cultural scars on Western society in general. Pius’ understanding of sexual reproduction was still based on the Aristotelian understanding of the subject adopted by Thomas Aquinas: the basic soul of the baby was contained in the father’s sperm, and the material for building a body to house that soul was to be found in the mother. It was thus a wife’s job to provide as many bodies as possible for millions of little souls contained in her husband’s sperm, and for a man to never intentionally ejaculate in any that did not give these little souls the possibility of finding bodies for themselves within a woman’s uterus. Obviously most of these souls would never find bodies, but that was beside the point; masturbation was still tantamount to murder.

Later scientific discoveries of 23 chromosomes coming from each parent and all that made little difference in the matter doctrinally: the main issue remained enabling the Church to exercise as much control as possible over people’s sex lives and encouraging Catholic families to procreate as much as possible.

The mandate to maximize procreation made a lot of strategic sense in an era when most poor families would lose as many children to childhood diseases as they would see through to adulthood, and when many young men would die in battle, fighting “for God and country” and many young women would die giving birth to their first or second child. So of course it was only natural that you wouldn’t want to reduce your odds of your bloodline’s survival by limiting the number of children you had. These days, however, the effort to make strategic sense of a mandate to raise large families is a much more abstract process. Our instinctive desires have evolved more in the direction of taking better care of every individual child we chose to have, and not accepting the routine loss of two or three of them in each family as “the will of God” and part of the proper order of things. This largely eliminates the need to have as many children as possible to increase one’s odds of evolutionary survival, with women regularly dying in childbirth being seen as “acceptable collateral damage” and also part of “God’s will” for them.  We have become completely comfortable with “playing God” in matters of limiting childhood and maternal deaths, so it should follow from there that we are also ready to “play God” more in terms of how many babies we keep making.

benedict-2010Now in his last encyclical letter Pope Benedict XVI did have an argument to offer in favor of the socio-economic benefits of continuing to make as many babies as possible: Basically, the more kids you have, the more human resources we will have in the global society as a whole. And as long as we don’t waste any of these human resources, their efforts and ingenuity will translate into greater technical innovations and greater expanded wealth for everyone in the future. To make that work all we have to do is to insure that every kid has enough to eat, adequate medical care and optimal educational opportunities to realize his/her potential. Towards that end we just need to establish a major international organization –– sort of like the United Nations, only “with teeth,” as Benedict says (§ 67) –– for the massive global redistribution of wealth to make sure these kids are provided for. As long as we can establish the sort of global socialist mega-bureaucracy necessary, there’s really no reason to have any form of “artificial birth control” in the world… or so Benedict believes… or at least so he claims… but somehow I don’t see that happening.

So until the social structures Benedict envisions globally are in place, enabling couples to freely decide how often they want to make babies in the process of sexually satisfying each other seems to make an abundance of sense –– for reasons of defending social stability, domestic economics, and yes, for women’s health even. If that involves allowing and even enabling people to have sex without making babies –– thus taking a bit more control over how many babies are born and over how many woman die making them –– more than some religious folk are comfortable with, I think we can live with the idea of limiting the realization of their religious ideals in that regard. Not that this will do much to limit their lobbying hobby, but hopefully it won’t affect the court decision this time around.

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That Old Time Religion

In looking into philosophical perspectives on the “proper” role of religion in politics, a few weeks ago I stumbled over the work of Brian Leiter on the subject. This was a fortuitous discovery in terms of providing me with a quality example of the sort of discourse which is respected in the field in which I am doing my dissertation. For other purposes it seems to be an example of how painfully wrong-headed thinking can be presented in excellent style.

leiter coverThe book of Leiter’s that I have out of the library at present is entitled Why Tolerate Religion?, published last year by Princeton University Press. Its approach is primarily that of judicial philosophy: considering the subject of what sort of approach to the subject would be most just from an international law perspective. The practical case that he focuses on is one of a Sikh boy in Canada who considers it to be his religious duty to carry a small but deadly bladed weapon –– his ceremonial kirpan –– to school with him each day, in spite of the school’s blanket prohibition on students carrying weapons to school with them. For the Canadian court this was actually a bit of a no-brainer: the rule was established to insure student safety, and never in the history of Canada has a Sikh used his kirpan offensively against any fellow student or citizen, thus allowing a devout Sikh student to carry one poses no significant threat to the safety the rule was established to protect. Beyond that it was unanimously recognized by the high court judges as a healthy part of the young man’s social, moral and religious identity, which Canadian and international law goes to great length to protect.

kirpan permission

Leiter, however, has a bit of a problem with the principle of the matter. Why is it that such provisions are made just for religious folk? What makes religion so special as a legal and political factor? Why can’t any kid who has a major existential and traditional commitment to his blade carry one to school?

His way of further exploring the issue gets more and more problematic as he goes along. The decisive wrong turn he takes in chapter 2 is, setting aside Durkheim and the rest of the sociological tradition which follows, to define religion in general in a particularly hostile manner: Religion is the field where things are taken as “matters of faith”, which, siting legal philosopher Timothy Macklem, Leiter takes to be things, “where the quest for reasons is impossible but commitment [even without reasons] is potentially valuable” (pp. 31-2, bracketed phrase Leiter’s). On this basis Leiter’s essential definition for religion (p. 34) is essentially anything which 1) issues categorical demands for action, and 2) does not answer to evidence or reason. Given that essential definition for the entity he stands in opposition to, it is hardly surprising that he comes to the conclusion that legal provisions for the toleration of such are philosophically not justified.

Leiter’s negative perspective becomes somewhat more understandable when it is placed in the context of his personal negative experiences in Texas, which he states outright in the preface: “My interest in the topic of religious toleration arose when teaching at the University of Texas–Austin and witnessing in the years 2001 to 2008 the pernicious influence of reactionary Christians on both politics and public education in the state.” (p. ix) In exploring the realm of religious culpability in political matters he goes as far as saying, “religious believers overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, widely considered one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States, whom many think ought to be held morally culpable for the illegal war of aggression against Iraq as well as the casualties resulting from domestic mismanagement.”

It is not hard to see where his negative perspective on the matter comes from then. Jeffrey Stout comments that his difference of perspective on religion in politics with his fellow Princetonian philosopher of the subject, Richard Rorty, primarily stemmed from the fact that Stout viewed religious influences in politics through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu, while Rorty viewed them through the lens of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I would thus agree with Leiter in one particular unstated premise of his work: many politicians who have used Christianity as a demagogic tool in the political process, and many of the rank and file of the “religious right” who follow them, have a distinct tendency to make asses out of themselves.

Setting aside this particular cultural problem for the time being, however, let’s go back to the basic matter of what makes religion religion, particularly in legal terms. The obvious, and obviously outdated, definitions on the subject have to do with belief in God or gods. In de facto legal matters questions of religious rights and requirements for religious tolerance always essentially come back to what people understand as, in James Madison’s words, “duties that we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging them.” We all know that Buddhism officially counts as a religion without believing in the relevance of a creator to our day-to-day moral lives, but that doesn’t really change the essence of the issue in legal or philosophical terms: karma provides an essential philosophical place-holder for God in this given system, thus implying a certain requirement of respect for that traditional understanding of the universe on much the same grounds as for those who believe in more active divinities. The primary point is that there are transcendent bases for our particular moral actions, based on factors that really can’t be reduced down to a strictly materialist perspective.

Another aspect of religion as religion that is particularly relevant here is that it is a communal phenomenon, never merely a manner of personal spiritual experiences. St. Paul speaks of the community of Christian believers as analogously forming a “body” which takes on the role of being “the bride of Christ”. Refusal to associate with others in that same “body” makes one’s Christian identity as such somewhat subject to question. And in this respect it should be pointed out that Christianity is quite certainly the most individualistic of all significant world religions; if Christianity has this communal aspect built into its very fiber, a fortiori other religions certainly do as well. No system which does not equip people to relate constructively not only to their understanding of God, or whatever else is “out there”, but also to their fellow man –– “brothers and sisters in faith” or otherwise –– deserves the title of “religion”.

A third factor which, especially in sociological terms, is essential to the definition of religion, is a multi-generational tradition. Some group which is just starting out, worshipping someone, or worshipping according to the principles laid out by someone who is still alive or who has died less than a generation or two ago, doesn’t technically get to call itself a religion; they are still just a “cult”. That doesn’t have to be a pejorative term, other than in indicating the fact that the belief in question has yet to stand the test of time and enable its community of believers to thrive within their given social environments. Questions of what legal rights cults should be entitled to as such are, strictly speaking, matters of freedom of conscience more than freedom of religion. That may not make a great difference in terms of moral philosophy, but in terms of judicial decision making it can have some rather important implications.

If we change around this fundamental definition of what counts as religion in this way it essentially screws up Leiter’s whole argument against taking religious toleration as a foundational principle in moral and legal philosophy, but it combines with some of his other arguments in ways that lead to interesting conclusions that Leiter hasn’t really taken into account. Primary among these is the virtue of tolerance as tolerance. Tolerance as a virtue is, by definition, a matter of respecting compromise for its own sake. If I am entirely indifferent towards some particular practice, such as my Muslim friends’ religious practice of always putting on their right shoe first in the morning, then there is no justification for speaking of “toleration” in that context. Likewise if I compromise with someone merely because I am not in a secure position from which to overpower and completely subdue them, then that is not exercising any essential social virtue; it is merely a matter of calculating the maximum realization of my selfish personal interest in what I see as non-ideal situations.

Leiter effectively lays out three essential arguments for what he calls “principled toleration” in this sense: toleration as an ideal state of affairs rather than as a matter of indifference or as a strategic position taken for lack of capacity to completely dominate the other. The first is taken from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, essentially assuming that religious and moral values are things we are socialized into, with little choice in the matter, thus becoming an involuntary aspect of who each of us is as a person to the same extent as skin color, handedness and raw athletic capacities. On this basis it would make sense for someone entering into the “game” of human life without knowing what “cards they will be dealt” in this regard, to agree ahead of time to a rule according to which rejection of the other person based on religious identity would not be allowed. This would also include a provision that religious majorities should grant certain basic rights to religious minorities. To do otherwise would be just as unjust as penalizing “lefties” or red-heads or tall people for having those characteristics.

Rawls’ argument is a deontological one –– based on understandings of moral principle for its own sake. The other arguments (or broad categories of argument) that Leiter lays out are more utilitarian: based on providing the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people in practice. First among these is the assertion that freedom is an important aspect of satisfaction in human life unto itself. In some ways, as applied to religious or other moral convictions, this runs contrary to the essential deontological argument given above: if people really are able to choose what they believe to be right or wrong on transcendent bases, then there is no point in making provisions for acceptance of what were assumed to be involuntary matters of personal and social identity. But given the uncertainty we are left with in regard to the extent to which we are able to choose anything in practice, and given the extent to which at least an illusion of being able to determine our own destinies remains an important motivational factor in human psychology, it is not unreasonable to leave both justifications in play without them cancelling each other out.

Leiter’s third potential argument for principled toleration of religious difference is based on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which he labels as the epistemic argument for toleration. It basically says that 1) processes of moral learning serve to increase overall human happiness, and 2) proper moral learning can only take place in an atmosphere of some accepted diversity –– where there are possibilities of choosing between what we come to see as better and worse options, none of which are strictly excluded. Thus leaving the door open to various “experiments in living” is an essential aspect of increasing human happiness by way of enabling people to discover the sorts of “moral truth” that cannot be arrived at merely by means of authoritative instruction.

Leiter’s negative attitude towards the value of religion as such keeps him from accepting the idea that religious beliefs are worthy of special toleration on the above grounds, but again, that comes as no serious surprise. The practical issues in question essentially fall into two categories: 1) Under what circumstances should people be granted exceptions from otherwise universally applicable rules based on their religious beliefs? And 2) Under what circumstances can we consider particular laws to be unjustifiable based on their intent to violate the religious convictions of particular groups? Setting aside the sensitive issues of Leiter’s resentments towards Bush fans, the go-to practical examples here are, respectively, Canada’s acceptance of Sikh kirpans in schools and France’s ban of Islamic headscarves in schools. Without going through the details of his arguments against religion as a basis for judicial decision-making on these matters, let me close here by giving my own semi-religious perspective on such matters.

gurbaj-singh-mutali-kirpanExceptions to rules need to be granted all the time, and not merely on religious grounds, but religious grounds provide some of the strongest grounds for making such exceptions. I teach teenagers in a public school, so I here imaginative pleas for exceptions to established rules based on all sorts of premises pretty much daily. There are rules requiring students to be present (and on time) for all basic lesson periods. There are rules regarding the level of work students should be expected to do at home between lessons. There are rules regarding when students are allowed off of school premises during the school day. There are rules regarding when students are allowed within school buildings for purposes other than attending classes (mandatory outside recess periods). Rarely does a working day go by for me without some student appealing to me to allow an exception to one or another of these rules. All of these pleas, when they go beyond the level of “Pleeeaase Mr. Huisjen!” have a certain common structure of 1) acknowledging the essential purpose of the rule, 2) presenting some factor of greater personal or moral importance than the factor which the rule is intended to safeguard, and 3) making a case for the exception being small enough so as not to endanger the principle which the rule has been instituted to protect. In these regards the level of discretion that I must exercise as part of my work is not essentially any different from that which any policeman or judge must exercise. Our own human psychological limitations will always come into play, but as matters of principle we can generally tell when those three bases for a valid excuse are being met and when they are not. Given the nature of religion as I see it, I have no problem with students having time off to observe religious festivals that are not built into our school calendar because they concern small minorities within the school community, or with Muslim kids staying inside to do their salat together on part of their outside recess break, or any other minor infringement of school rules based on their families’ religious practices. In terms of their role in enforcing respect for tradition transcendent standards for morality and social participation, I see religious observations as doing far more good than harm. If, like Leiter, I saw them merely as irrational cultural practices childishly demanding to have their own way, I might be less charitable, but in this matter I believe he is just categorically wrong.

When it comes to rules being instituted with specific prejudice against given religious groups, I believe the case is more complex, involving the balance between religious identity and broader social solidarity on the one hand, and between the utility associated with given religious practices according to religious teachings themselves and the harm that comes about through their practice on the other. Thus I strongly support laws against female genital cutting of any sort, regardless of religious justifications for such; in part because it is a matter of physically altering the girl for purpose of keeping her within the religious/tribal community, in part because the physical harm caused far outweighs any purported benefits brought about by such an operation. Just because some claim that it is a religious procedure does not, in my considered opinion, justify its tolerance or continuation. If laws against it seem to target some particular religious group, so be it.

4headscarves_Said_TzarnaevYet when it comes to the famous headscarf ban, I find this rule clearly unjustified. The religious motivation at issue is admittedly somewhat questionable: an assumption that for a woman to reveal her hair in public is a means of drawing masculine attention, in ways that may cause problematic responses from the men in question. I don’t believe there is any justification for men making unwanted sexual advances towards women based on their hair being exposed. The very thought strikes me as absurd, regardless of its having been dignified by various Islamic mullahs over the centuries. But that does not mean that I accept a prohibition on women modestly covering their hair, based in part on their sense of religious identity, to be justifiable either.

Along the same lines, I believe that if women wish to dress in such a way that the outlines of their nipples are visible through their clothing, that may reflect a particularly edgy intent on their part, and there may be good reasons to institute dress codes against that level of exposure in some cases, but their choice to dress that way is not a justification for any masculine lack of restraint in approaching them. I fully support the ethic behind “slut walks” to shame those who would blame women for violence against them based on how they choose to dress. But that being said, even though I do not see many of the religious arguments mandating the wearing of padded bras and/or thicker sweaters to be rationally justifiable, I would certainly not support a dress code which forces girls to make keep their nipples visible regardless of any religiously instituted cultural modesty requirements they might wish to observe to the contrary! To me the headscarf ban really makes no more sense than that.

Questions of what is essential and what is incidental to any given religion will always be subject to debate, both within the religion in question and among its outsiders. A fortiori, what is essential and what is incidental to religion in general is also going to be somewhat contentious in many contexts. This does not justify making straw men out of religious values for attack as Leiter has done. I would agree that there are many times when tolerance should not be limited to religious matters, but it that does not follow from there that religion should not be a very specific basis for toleration.

For the rest, I’ll leave it between those who believe differently than I do and their God (or whatever else they believe in).

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Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

In Search of Objective Morals without God

I’ll finish off the year here by addressing an issue that I promised some critics I’d eventually get back to back in October. My excuses for not writing about this matter sooner are a rambling tale unto themselves that I’ll leave aside for the time being. The question that I wish to consider though is what, if anything, outside of postulating the existence of the divine, can make a moral code “objective”?

While I don’t join such Christian apologists as William Lane Craig in using objective morality to prove that there has to be a God, I am a theist and I do believe that there are certain moral “facts” that are absolutely true, which have their root in what we might call, for lack of a better term, “the mind of God”. I don’t consider all morals to ultimately be objective matters and I freely acknowledge that religion is the source of much immorality in the world, but I still believe that those aspects of morality which are indeed timelessly and absolutely true can only be so if there are rooted in something beyond the contingencies of life as we know it and experience it on a day-to-day basis. I find myself part of a very respected and mainstream position in this regard, while at the same time finding that there are a vast number of ways in which relatively intelligent and well-informed people could reasonably disagree with me about such matters. But my point remains, search as I may, I can’t seem to find any convincing argument for morals being absolute without it coming back around to morals having their basis in the same transcendental realm as other principles of theology.

Discussing this in the autumn with my regular interlocutors on such matters, James and Aaron, I put it to them that I remain agnostic on the question of whether such an absolute but non-theological basis for ethics is “out there”, inviting them to give me reasons for believing in such. James’ style of writing about such things tends to be relatively dry and carefully structured. Aaron, on the other hand, tends to shoot from the hip, blasting away at the points he disagrees with in rapid fire mode, often missing, but making it perfectly clear what he has a distaste for.

Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Let me make it clear from the start here that if either of these gentlemen have serious moral flaws in their day-to-day life and behavior (and I don’t know them well enough to be aware of any such problems), I would not blame them on their lack of belief in God; nor, I believe, would they blame my moral flaws on my religious inclinations. On political matters we are more likely to agree with each other than I am with many fellow theists, than Aaron is with many fellow agnostics and James is with many of his fellow atheists. For instance, while none of us are prone to respect papal authority as such, I believe we would all agree with the Pope Francis’ recent statements that promoting nutrition, education and health care for children is a significantly higher moral priority than protecting the wealthiest citizens’ rights to their private property. The question here is not one of serious disagreement about practical issues then; it’s one of looking for mutual understanding on why children’s well-being in these areas is a moral priority –– and has that always been a “moral fact” or is rather something that has been emerging as a fact over the past couple centuries or so?

The analogy can be drawn with the heliocentric understanding of our solar system. It is generally accepted these days that, regardless of its not having been generally accepted in the past, the earth has for millions of years rotated around the sun, not visa-versa. That is a fact that humans have discovered, not invented. Can we say something similar about the “fact” that enabling all citizens to have access to basic education and health care is a higher moral priority than protecting millionaires’ exclusive rights to determine how all of their money will be spent? Obviously that is part of the teaching of Jesus, but equally obviously as of two or three centuries ago such a moral position was broadly considered to be a utopian absurdity. In our own day and age we still have Ayn Rand disciples (some of whom also, mistakenly, consider themselves to be followers of Jesus) who fundamentally disagree with the concept of such positive human rights. Does that make them any less “morally factual”?

Overall, are we humans in the process of making these into facts or are we in the process of discovering them as facts? And if they are something pre-existent that we are in the process of discovering, where and how have they previously (always?) existed, if not in/with God?

It is that last question that I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to among my atheist and agnostic “moral objectivist” friends. They would like to believe that there are grounds for believing that foundational moral principles are “facts” analogous to those in physics and mathematics in some respects, but that this has nothing to do with religious understandings of such matters. I have seen many unworkable variations on this theme, but so far none that I find completely workable. When it comes to the existence of such a rationally consistent, epistemologically defensible and morally binding ethical theory, I remain an agnostic: such might exist, but I have yet to see one. My purpose here is to explain why the ones I’ve been presented with thus far don’t meet the standards I’m trying to elucidate here.

Let me start by recalling my own variation on Karl Popper’s famous “Three Worlds” perspective (I actually wrote my earliest version of that essay years before I first encountered Popper’s perspective, but that’s beside the point): I believe that a fourth “world” is quite necessary, and when it comes to their ethical implications I don’t believe these worlds can reliably be put in a fixed hierarchical order. The additional necessary world would be that of the divine, or transcendental absolutes, which to one extent or another atheists and strict materialists make a point of categorically denying. From a religious point of view this transcendent “world” would contain the first cause(s) for all and everything in the universe. From an atheistic point of view, if it is acknowledged at all, it is perhaps seen as something of a culmination point for “World 3” matters, and at the same time as a set of principles observable in “World 1”, as Popper calls them.

This world’s exact content is difficult to quantify since, unlike the other three, it is not directly observable in any empirical sense, nor is it subject to change based on human volition. It can be approached in both “left brained” and “right brained” manners –– both rationally and mystically (or intuitively) –– and the elimination of either approach leads to rather warped perspectives. The content of this transcendent realm would include much that has been rejected as being “unscientific” but also much which has been acknowledged as “a priori”. This would include such mathematical concepts as the ultimate value of pi and prime numbers, theoretical concepts used in physics such as the properties of objects travelling close to light speed, moral ideals such as justice and inter-connectedness, and many of the vast varieties of investigations conducted in the name of systematic theology.

In addition to postulating that there must be at least these four “worlds” –– the transcendent, the physical, the individual consciousness and the social/societal –– I would theorize that our ethical structures, to one extent or another, depend on all four. We have some moral matters which concern necessary means of preserving our material environment, but it would be somewhat absurd to reduce all ethics to questions of sustainability. We have some moral matters which are questions of reducing personal suffering in practical terms for major portions of our societies, but that too is in many regards a seriously insufficient standard for morality. We also have moral standards that we conform to in order to protect the social structures we are part of –– be they ethnic traditions, cultural artifacts, patriotic exercises or constitutional procedures –– but those too are insufficient as comprehensive bases for ethics, at least as ends unto themselves. All of those relative and variable factors must be included in the pie we call ethics, but beyond that I too believe that there are some things which we must recognize as absolute matters of moral principle, belonging to the transcendent realm. These would include prohibitions on things we recognize as inherently evil or destructive of things we recognize as inherently good. How broad a category this last one turns out to be is a matter to progressively be discovered, but given its rather sublime nature the discovery process will always be somewhat complicated and methodologically problematic. Sad to say for some, but I believe that much of this discovery process will necessarily continue to fall under the heading of “theology”.

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the basis of ethics, involving a mix of variable, absolute, subjective and objective considerations. So from this perspective the operative questions are,
1) How much of the field properly belongs in the absolute, objective, “factual” arena?
2) Can the “factual”, objective side of ethics be based in any other realm (or “world”, as Popper calls them) than the transcendent? and
3) To what extent is the transcendent realm, as defined here, inherently related to the person of the supreme deity –– “the one true God”?

Rather than further expanding on my own understanding though, let me move on to explaining why all meta-ethical theories I have thus far encountered strike me as inconsistent, unconvincing, culturally conditioned, theologically based, or some combination of the above. This does not imply any problems in terms of reaching cross-cultural understandings on what norms should be observed and respected within any given context. It’s only a problem if you feel the need to convince me that morality is an inherently objective and non-theistic matter.

In response to my question of what standards they would appeal to, from a non-theistic perspective, in saying, e.g., that slavery has always been inherently evil, Aaron replied, “There are dozens. Hedonism. Egoism. Utilitarianism. Kantian Deontology. Rossian Deontology. Divine Command. Natural Law. Virtue. Social Contact. Intrinsic value. Take your pick. Any one of them could be the rational, objective basis of moral facts.”

Fine, let’s take those ones to start with, one at a time, and see if any of them lead to a good excuse for seeing ethics as an absolute matter without inadvertently falling back on the old theological presuppositions of Western Culture, without coming back to human subjectivity and without theoretically imploding. I’ll necessarily be painting with rather broad brush strokes here, so forgive me for not covering as many details as fans of these particular theories might like.

Hedonism in terms of ethical discussions is going to be largely synonymous with Utilitarianism here. Skip it for now.

Egoism here can be taken as sort of like Utilitarianism with a greater emphasis on the good of the subject than the good of society at large, so it has no particularly unique merits as a basis of moral theory, especially if we are looking for objectivity here.

Utilitarianism then is the first point worth looking at seriously here. In its simplest form: pleasure = good / pain = bad, evil. Its particular distinctive teaching as a meta-ethical theory: the only measure of moral goodness is end results, not means of accomplishment. This, in a nutshell, is also the basis of would-be philosopher Sam Harris’ up-coming challenge. My simplest rebuttal: In Buddhist terms there is truth to the matter that life inherently involves suffering, and Utilitarianism offers no objective answer to the question of what is worth suffering for or how factors like freedom or self-respect figure into the equation. If/once those factors are taken into consideration, it is no longer a factual or objective matter.

Kantian Deontology is in many regards the most basic paradigm for absolute, objective ethics and it highlights the essential difference between Kant’s first and second critiques: The idea of a transcendent metaphysical reality “out there” is something about which our scientific investigations can say very little, but it is precisely this realm which must form the basis for our moral justifications. As one course book I had memorably put it, “what Kant took away [from theology] with his right hand, he gave back with his left.” It’s a long debate, but in the end it’s clear that Kant himself saw “moral facts” as coming from God, and using his theories as a jumping off point for atheistic moral philosophy thus has its own inherent problems.

Rossian Deontology, based on the thinking of William David Ross, to quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article about him, “presents a unique and compelling form of deontology, according to which there are a plurality of both moral requirements and intrinsic goods. There is no one master principle that explains why the particular things that we believe are wrong/right are in fact wrong/right. Instead, there are a number of basic moral requirements which cannot be reduced to some more fundamental principle.” That seems to me a valid starting point, with much in common with my own intuitive perspectives. This, however, is built not upon objective standards and transcendent moral laws so much as on what Ross saw as the “moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people.” While I’m sure those were very nice people, the resulting standards will, by definition, not be objective in the way that theorists here are hoping for.

Divine command obviously is going to provide a theocentric view on moral absolutes. Enough said.

Natural Law is a predominantly Catholic intellectual tradition based on Aquinas developing Christian interpretations of Aristotle. There is little point in looking further there for grounds for absolute ethics for atheists.

“Virtue Ethics” is the label generally given to the neo-Aristotelian position on the subject. This is closely tied to the logic that Aquinas drew from Aristotle in formulating his 5 proofs for the existence of God. The principles from the Nichomachean Ethics, while not inherently theistic, they contain a rather vague description of the virtue that a good man should develop and trade on. This would tend to be taken as some combination of what Popper would call “world 3” factors and what I would call transcendental factors. It won’t give you absolutes without God in any case. If you don’t believe me ask Alstair MacIntyre.

Social Contract ethics, a la Hobbes and followers, is certainly a suitably atheistic in structure, but likewise it is nowhere close to meeting the standard for objectivity that these guys are looking for. It’s based on what societies’ members theoretically want as part of their rationalized greed, not some eternal principle to which they must conform. It will be by definition variable according to the same subjective bases that Ross uses.

Intrinsic Value is generally used as a more neutral term for the moral principle originally formulated in Latin as Imago Dei: because people are “created in the image of God” they are inherently deserving of respect, just due to the value they have as people. There are any number of variations on this principle, and I believe it would be fair to say that any system of thought which does not grant a certain amount of intrinsic value to people as people –– both individually and collectively –– does not deserve to be called “ethics”. But that leaves the matter unresolved as to why people are to be considered intrinsically valuable. No offence, but the less theological those rationalizations have been, the less rational and convincing they are.

So none of Aaron’s off-the-top-of-his-head suggestions on the matter really bear any fruit in terms of providing non-theistic absolutes as ethical foundations. From there he suggested that I go read a book or two by Russ Shafer-Landau and get back to him when I know more. That is the equivalent of an evangelical telling an agnostic that they could continue their talk after the latter had read enough of William Lane Craig to meet the former’s standards, but such is the nature of chats with Aaron at times. Anyway…

I’ve since done a bit of digging into Shafer-Landau’s thoughts on the matter, though probably not enough to satisfy my interlocutors here, and here’s what I’ve found: “Russ” is in many respects sets the modern Platonic ideal for how professors would like to see their students structure their arguments –– an ideal blend of ordinary language and formal logic, tying together “ivory tower” and “Main Street” perspectives. He’s an atheist but not the sort of “new atheist” who sets for himself the task of convincing others to share his enlightened lack of faith. Rather he comes across as a seeker of wisdom in the old model: finding rational justifications for what he personally believes, and framing the discussion so that those who believe differently can come to some mutual understanding with him as to where they each are coming from and what is important to them. In this way he earns significant respect from all who read his stuff and listen to his lectures. Beyond that he is the heir apparent to G.E. Moore’s meta-ethical empire, whatever label you want to put on it. So it would fall to Russ, if anyone, to provide a palatable answer to Bertrand Russell’s post-Moorean dilemma of: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (volume 11 of Russell’s papers, 310-11).

As I understand it, Shafer-Landau’s justification for believing in the sorts of objective, external, intuitively accessed, factual moral principles that he does, without any reference to God being relevant to the subject, is that these facts are what he considers to be self-evident: “such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” That standard is more than a little bit problematic in itself. It effectively supports its favorite propositions by moralizing against the studiousness and/or the attention span of all who would disagree. His primary point seems to be blocking any ideas which may “conflict with our most important moral convictions and platitudes.” (Quotes from here.) Thus, as a proof that there must be something morally absolute “out there,” I don’t think Russ’s findings would come anywhere near changing Russell’s mind about the matter.

In a video series covering one of his guest lecture he where discusses his ideas’ relationship with religious ideas, Shafer-Landau divides the issue up into two questions: 1) Does objective morality depend on God in order to be viable? (a question of dependence) and 2) Do arguments against the existence of God also work as arguments against the existence of objective morality? (a question of parity). Each of these questions he in turn divides up into two separate aspects to be considered. The dependence question he divides up into consideration of the “authorship argument” and the “reason argument” which might also be called the enforcement argument.  The parity question he divides up into consideration of metaphysical arguments and epistemological arguments.

Regarding the authorship argument –– Can we have “laws” without a “law giver”, which in order for the law to be “objective” could not be human or societal law giver? –– Shafer-Landau argues that, yes we can, since we have the “laws of thermodynamics” operating in just such a manner. This seems to involve a fair amount of equivocation, however, when it comes to the difference between prescriptive and descriptive laws which he introduces later in the same lecture. I’ll come back to that.

Regarding the reason argument –– Can moral laws really make any difference in terms of compelling action without a divine judge to back them up? –– Shafer-Landau confesses that there are some popular atheist arguments against the premise of a divine judge being necessary that he would actually not accept because they would undercut his understanding of the absoluteness of moral standards. His preferred tack on this one is to say that if moral laws are true/factual, then whoever violates them becomes “blameworthy”, and avoiding “blameworthiness” provides a compelling motivation to follow the laws in question. This gives rise to the obvious question, Blameworthy before whom? There would seem to be three basic alternatives here in terms of how the blameworthy thing could motivate people to stay on the straight and narrow, corresponding with Popper’s three worlds: It could be a matter of damaging the material order of things, it could be a matter of falling into a rut of self-rejection, or it could be a matter of facing social stigma. It is “self-evident” however that none of those negative reinforcements are limited to those who have broken objective moral laws, and many who have broken such laws are handily able to escape from all of those consequent forms of suffering. The explanation doesn’t seem to cut it.

On the parity side, when it comes to epistemological arguments against being able to know if there’s a God, Shafer-Landau essentially admits that the same arguments work just as well against being able to know that there are such things as objective moral standards. Challenges to the mechanisms of knowing, factors of historical contingency in the understanding of the matter, the lack of scientific methodology in investigating the issue and the level of disagreement between leading believers in the subject area, he admits, have just as much bite against moral realism as they do against theism. All of these can be argued back against, but only at the expense of alienating some fellow atheists. His honesty in this matter is to be commended.

On the metaphysical side of the parity question, however, he does see essential differences between arguments against religion and those against objective morality. These he sees the challenges essentially as two: the problem of why evil and suffering continue to exist in unjust ways, and the problem of “parsimony”, better known as the Occam’s Razor principle. His argument for differentiating between the degree to which these critiques discredit his program of moral objectivity and to which they discredit the concept of the divine is to be found in the prescriptive/descriptive distinction mentioned above. Moral laws are not required to say how things are; merely to set standards for how things should be done. Religion, he believes, has a greater self-inflicted requirement to describe given states of affairs.

The problem here is that this lower standard for “truth value” for morals than for religion then undercuts their autonomous status with regard to the “law giver” issue. If we are talking about an idealized norm as something distinct from actual states of affairs, the only way that “language game” has any functional currency is if there is some form of consciousness –– be it human, collective, digital or divine –– in which those norms find their origin. The character of the consciousness which effectively institutes and maintains those norms would in turn determine the essential characteristics of the norms in question. So if you can accept the idea of moral laws being just a function of an emergent collective human consciousness, contingent on the various drives and flaws characteristic of that consciousness and not fundamentally aspiring to any higher standard than that, you don’t need any God to get there from here. But if you’re hoping for more than that…

Stopping to consider my interlocutor James, I’m under the impression from his ample writings that he would not like to distance himself too far from Shafer-Landau’s position on these issues. They also both have a certain fascination with terminological distinctions between themselves and their relatively close associates in their field, which seem analogous to the distinctions between “Arminians” and “Neo-Pelagians” or “post-millennialists” and “a-millennialists” in Christian theology. You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing that particular fascination. But I’ll close here with reference to one factor both Russ and James wish to raise in the process of distancing themselves from religious folk: Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.

The dialog in question, starring Socrates as always, asks the basic question, “Is what is reverent reverent because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is reverent?” Reverence here is a sub-category of moral virtue in general, and thus the debate is taken as a classical investigation of the relationship between virtues and divine will, implying that the former cannot be dependent on the latter. There is one essential point of agreement between many theists and atheists on part of this matter: basing our moral decisions exclusively on what we take to be “God’s specific commands” is a highly problematic practice. Beyond that though, the relevance of this dialogue to the question of determining what is absolutely morally true and how that relates to the divine is somewhat limited and “challenged”.

First of all there is the matter of Plato’s presupposing a polytheistic world, in which part of the problem was dealing with the discrepancies between the various gods’ desires. This debate then would be more analogous to a modern discussion between two men regarding the proper way to show a woman that you love her, given that it works a bit differently for each of them. But it still relevant to ask the general question, Are particular signs of love and respect for women taken as such because they fulfill the woman’s basic desires, or do they desire such things because they are seen as signs of love and respect? Underlying this is the question of what is it in general that is essentially pleasing to women, thus setting standards that all men would benefit from operating according to with regard to all women? A tough and mysterious question indeed!

Following through with that analogy then, we might say that, yes, women desire evidence that they are loved and respected more than they want, for instance, the convenience of having doors opened for them, or the sight and smell of flowers in the room, or maybe even the taste of chocolates. But we cannot jump from there to a conclusion that the challenge of expressing love to a woman can be met by following some abstract standard which fails to consider the desires of the particular woman in question!

From there the analogy could be applicable to a theistic understanding of ethics. A transcendent moral law based on “pleasing God” should not be doing so as a matter of blindly following what we take to be his commandments, but nor would it be a matter of following some abstract pattern which shows no consideration for the essential character of the one we are attempting to please.  What Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro does not prove in this regard is that the character of God would be irrelevant to ethical questions.

Beyond that it’s worth considering the debate in the context of the specific forms of “irreverence” that the Athenian democracy was, in this somewhat fictionalized account, punishing people for. In Socrates’ case his “irreverence” took the form of “corrupting the youth” in various ways. History leaves us insufficient evidence to determine whether or not pedophilia was one of the background factors in this charge being made, but that is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case, Plato’s opinion was clearly that the collective social conscience of the people, based in part on their religious inclinations, was an insufficient moral standard on the basis of which to condemn so great a man.

The character of Euthyphro, meanwhile, was using the same vague irreverence prohibition in Athenian law to prosecute his own father, raising quite a few eyebrows in the process. His father’s offence was nothing serious really; all he did was accidentally kill a slave. There was some question of whether or not the slave deserved to die anyway, and slaves were considered more or less disposable, so nothing was likely to be done about it otherwise. The only thing that gave the slave any form of protection was that particular forms of cruelty to slaves were considered to be punishable on the basis of being “irreverent”. So while from Plato’s and Socrates’ perspective this was a matter of some kid using a patently absurd provision in the judicial code disrespectfully condemn his own father, from Euthyphro’s perspective the issue was that the old bastard had killed another human being and no one else was going to do anything about it, so he felt that it was his moral duty to do so. The gods would not have it any other way.

Regardless of all his difficulty in arguing the meta-ethical foundations of his case with Socrates, in context of the crime in question I believe that any modern ethicist would have to say that Euthyphro was in fact morally in the right with what he was doing. The fact that Plato didn’t see it that way shows just how culturally conditioned his purportedly “objective” ethical standards really were.

I’m available to take this discussion further with any who are so inclined but the cultural standards I hold myself to say I should have found a way to finish this essay about 2000 words ago! So let me just summarize by saying:

–          I’m not arguing here that theists are inherently better people than atheists.

–          I personally believe that ethics needs to contain a mix of subjective, inter-subjective and objective factors to properly “work”.

–          In appealing to absolute and objective standards in ethics, philosophers need to be clear regarding how those standards fit into the rest of their meta-physical world view.

–          Thus far in western intellectual history I have yet to come across a workable absolute and objective ethical standard that does not end up leaning on theological premises or (other) subjective cultural perspectives in its basic formulation.

–          Thus, for the same reasons that Bertrand Russell abandoned G.E. Moore’s ethical system, I find it highly problematic for atheists to attempt to profile themselves as ethical absolutists.

–          Even so, I’m ready to let them pursue their seemingly irrational faith in this regard as far as they want to take it.

God bless all of you who have bothered to read this through, and may you all find ways to become “better people,” whatever that means to you, in this coming year.

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Filed under Basic logic, History, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Tolerance

The Games Some Atheists Play

Some friends have encouraged me not to bother with the Harris Challenge thing any further, for reasons I have already stated, among others. I’m still not sure about that matter, but I do agree that life is too short to waste significant parts of it arguing with those whose minds are made up to disagree with you in their own silly ways. There’s no point in trying to teach everyone out there to think clearly, especially those who have an existential commitment to not doing so. This goes not only for “new atheists” but also for hard core Tea Partiers, for jihadi Muslims, for converts to most cults and for those convinced that they don’t have to worry about the problems they are creating for themselves because of Jesus’ immanent Second Coming.

My primary goals in life as a philosopher and as a post-evangelical theist these days are:
– to establish as much peace and mutual understanding as I can with those around me –– including those who have chosen to believe differently than I have,
– to learn to be more compassionate on others, regardless of their beliefs,
– to try to empower systems of justice against those who carelessly treat other people as disposable convenience items,
– to encourage and enable as many as possible of those who share my basic beliefs to do the same,
– and to encourage responsible and sustainable behavior and cultural practices among those of all different sorts of beliefs.
I honestly believe that is how God would have me live. For those of you who don’t believe in any God, or who believe that your god would have you act according to different sorts of priorities (like “smiting the unbelievers”), I will continue attempting to relate to you according to these principles regardless of our differences.

This creates a certain number of practical dilemmas for me in terms of which arguments are worth diving into and which are worth sitting out. When are there genuine opportunities for building mutual understanding and working together for peace, justice and sustainability; and when are there just conflicts spurred on by those addicted to debate as a contact sport? It’s never going to be a black and white matter, or an easy call for me to make regarding my own personal balance issues.

This came to mind yet again this week when a virtual acquaintance of mine, who is quite the confirmed atheist, floated a link clearly intended to evangelize for his world view –– not so subtly hinting that atheism is the only completely rational perspective on transcendental and moral issues, and those who disagree probably cannot outsmart a goat. How far do I really want to bother with replying to such silliness?

Such a cute mascot for atheism...

Such a cute mascot for atheism…

The only reason I can think of to bother at all is that my virtual acquaintance might really be so naïve as to see this as an honest means of encouraging discussion on the matter rather than as a polemic move more likely to shut down productive dialog on such matters, and I might be able to convince him otherwise. So to unpack this matter for his benefit, with hopes of increasing possibilities for respectful dialogue in the future, I’ll take the trouble this time.

The link in question, which really doesn’t deserve to be promoted, asks a series of 17 questions. The first –– whether or not you believe there is a God –– is the only one not presented in strictly black and white terms. That in itself tells you something about the lack of subtlety to expect here. So OK, yes, I believe there is a God.

Question 2: “If God does not exist then there is no basis for morality.” True or false?

This is already getting silly. Careful consideration shows that there are numerous bases for morality possible. How sustainable and consistent each alternative basis happens to be is a different question. Is there any basis for considering morality to be more absolute than market phenomena which does not postulate either a God or some other transcendental “placeholder” for God? That obviously doesn’t lend itself to being a simple yes or no question, but the quiz-makers obviously don’t want to explore such complications in their beliefs here. In any case, let’s say that this is false.

Question 3: “Any being which it is right to call God must be free to do anything.”

And here we have the old “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” shtick. The debate over what is properly meant by “freedom” is going to screw up any abstract conclusions drawn from whatever I answer here, but for purposes of playing along let’s say “true”.

Question 4: “Any being which it is right to call God must want there to be as little suffering in the word as is possible.”

Here we have a proposal that some instinctively think might provide a valid replacement for the idea of God: reducing or eliminating suffering. This I’ve already stated my disagreement with Harris & Co. over. Obviously suffering is nothing to be promoted for its own sake, but that does not make its reduction or elimination the highest of virtues, either for God or for mankind –– since rather obviously the most efficient way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all who are capable of suffering. By that logic the world would be a better place if life never would have come into existence. So without digging deeper into the inconsistencies this entails for many atheists’ presuppositions here, false.

Question 5: “Any being which it is right to call God must have the power to do anything.”

This is essentially a restatement of question 3. Power and freedom are going to be closer in functional meaning to each other in this context than the various definitions of either freedom or power will be to each other. The same silly question of what sort of rocks God might make demonstrates the trivial potential of this wording as well. But given the naïve character of the question I’ll again let it slide as “true”.

Question 6: “Evolutionary theory maybe false in some matters of detail, but it is essentially true.”

Apparently tossed in to weed out and identify strict fundamentalists. Obviously this lacks definition. Is it asking if random mutation and selection through competition for survival explain everything about the variety of biological life we find in the world today? Does “evolution” as conceptualized here entail its own sense of purpose and direction for biological life? Are we to take this question to include within the concept of “evolution” the various theories of the initial origin of the universe? Well… rather than digging through all the conceptual problems here, I’ll take the charitable view that “evolution” is taken to mean a collection of scientific theories regarding how the world continues to change and develop. Obviously many such theories are in a rather “imperfect state” at present, but I’d be willing to grant that more often than not they reflect an honest pursuit of understanding of the dynamics involved in such matters. So let’s say true here.

“DANGER! No injuries so far, but watch out! Danger ahead!”

So the game is satisfied with my performance, but it’s playfully suggesting that it’s still gonna get me. How amusing.

Question 7: “It is justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, regardless of the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of these convictions.”

In other words, do I believe in the absolute primacy of a posteriori rational evidence as the final determinant of metaphysical reality? Um… not really. The problems with such a position are rather conveniently papered over in the wording of the question. Good way to catch some people out I guess. I can sort of expect the quiz to draw some unwarranted conclusions about me on this matter, and if I was taking this seriously that might bother me, but no worries on that account.

Question 8: “Any being that it is right to call God must know everything that there is to know.”

Can God still be God if it is possible for him (or her or it) not to be aware of particular details? I shy away from the sort of thinking that reduces God to a rational, mathematical abstraction in these sorts of ways. By that sort of logic it can easily be proven that I don’t exist. But in practical terms a god who can be tricked by clever manipulation and lack of awareness of potential outcomes really isn’t worth worshipping, so for practical purposes let’s I’ll leave this one as “true”.

Question 9: “Torturing innocent people is morally wrong.”

Another hint at the obviousness of believing in utilitarianism as more morally binding than theism: setting an absolute standard of non-suffering that God would have to submit to in order to be truly good, creating at least a paradox regarding God’s freedom and all that. Open questions as to the meaning of “innocence” in this case go without saying. Behind this we have the question of whether belief in morality requires belief in some form of justice inevitably coming to those who cause others to suffer for their own selfish reasons. But such belittled complications aside, no, I do not believe in the justifiability of randomly waterboarding those who have been designated as our enemies, either for pragmatic reasons or based on some theory that “God says we should.” At least in a prima facie way I would agree that it is wrong to torture those who have had no direct role in causing suffering for others at least.  Thus true.

Question 10: “If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.”

Ah, the old “compare God to mythical creatures” shtick, searching for potential contradiction with #7. What are we going to do about this? How are we to explain the persistent beliefs and “superstitions” regarding the “monster” in such a case? Can we take a lack of evidence as evidence of a lack in such cases? Here I would really like to remain entirely agnostic. The possibility of an exotic though now extinct species in the body of water in question is theoretically possible, as is a mass hoax. In practice if I were to go out boating on the loch in question the least of my fears would be that of encountering Nessie, but I don’t believe that there is any strong proof that such a creature either has or has not existed at some point in history. I can pretty much count on the game manufacturing problems on this however I answer. Playing off the abstraction factor of question 7 then, I’ll go with false.

Question 11: “People who die of horrible, painful diseases need to die in such a way for some higher purpose.”

In other words do I believe God gives himself the right to torture people to realize his own ends? Obviously some major complications and qualifications are being papered over, and simple yes or no answers aren’t really going to work here either. To address the proposition itself rather than its implications though, no, I don’t believe that every case of unjust suffering in our world must inevitably have been caused to serve a higher purpose. I believe that some people’s suffering can serve important purposes –– many times in terms of building compassion in others –– but I don’t consider that to be inevitable. Yet in spite of that I still believe that justice is a cause worth pursuing. Conceptualizing this in a way that works both metaphysically and normatively is equally challenging, regardless of what transcendental entities one does or does not believe in. I challenge anyone to disagree with me about that. So anyway, leaving that as false…

Question 12: “If God exists she could make it so that everything now considered sinful becomes morally acceptable and everything that is now considered morally good becomes sinful.”

Yet another variation on questions 3 and 5, this time specifically framed in moral terms, though logically no different and no less trivial in its hypothetical structure. (Can you imagine a quiz like this with no hypothetical questions?) Oh well… let’s go with the same response as to the other silly questions of this sort…

“You’re doing brilliantly! Only five more questions to go and not so much as a scratch so far! Well done!”

Yes, I’m totally flattered…

Question 13: “It is foolish to believe in God without certain, irrevocable proof that God exists.”

Pascal’s prisoner’s dilemma comes to mind, as does my old friend Lyman’s old adage, “For those who do not believe, no proof is possible; for those who do believe, no proof is necessary.” I get the idea that whoever wrote this question doesn’t understand much about the nature of beliefs, etc. I’m going to say “false”.

Question 14: “As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.”

Ah, playing with the old equivocation on the meaning of “faith” thing. Then there’s the matter of determining what constitutes a “compelling argument” in such cases. Are we talking about an argument where anyone who does not come to the same conclusion as the one making the argument must inherently be dishonest or stupid not to see things the same way? Or are we talking about an argument which leaves the unbeliever in question feeling like for him personally more things fall into place on a non-believing premise than on a believing premise? I am quite convinced that atheism is a matter of personal ideological choice in pretty much every case I’ve ever encountered. Does that make it a matter of faith? Depends on your definitions. Does that make in non-rational or irrational. I wouldn’t want to make any insulting claims against my friends’ cognitive processes on that one, just as they would not want to make such insulting claims against mine, I’m sure. Thus quite the crap question here. Flip a coin: heads for true… tails: false.

Question 15: “The serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe had a firm, inner conviction that God wanted him to rape and murder prostitutes. He was, therefore, justified in believing that he was carrying out God’s will in undertaking these actions.”

The silliest question this far here –– and that’s quite a significant superlative! He could also claim a conviction that the CIA wanted him to rape and murder the women in question. That wouldn’t make him justified in doing so, nor would it prove that the CIA does not exist. It merely demonstrates that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Dum-ti-dum-dumb… false.

Question 16: “If God exists she would have the freedom and power to create square circles and make 1 + 1 = 72.”

Postulating yet another hypothetical rock for God to make and lift for the cynic’s amusement. Is there really a point to this silliness? Out comes my coin again… heads this time.

“You’ve just bitten a bullet! In saying that God has the freedom and power to do that which is logically impossible (like creating square circles), you are saying that any discussion of God and ultimate reality cannot be constrained by basic principles of rationality. This would seem to make rational discourse about God impossible. If rational discourse about God is impossible, there is nothing rational we can say about God and nothing rational we can say to support our belief or disbelief in God. To reject rational constraints on religious discourse in this fashion requires accepting that religious convictions, including your religious convictions, are beyond any debate or rational discussion. This is to bite a bullet.”

Yeah, whatever. If I thought this were a sensible question to begin with I’d take such a critique almost seriously.

Question 17: “It is justifiable to believe in God if one has a firm, inner conviction that God exists, even if there is no external evidence that God exists.”

Interesting rhetorical variations in comparison with #14: “no compelling arguments or evidence” vs. “no external evidence” and “inner conviction” in contrast with vague assertions of rational processes for the atheist. If you want an example of the difference between rhetorical implication and philosophical argument, this would be a good place to look. Should I flip again… or just ignore the rhetoric and give the believer the same dignity in choosing his ideological position I would give to an atheist? May as well go with the latter…

“You’ve just taken a direct hit! Earlier you said that it is not justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, paying no regard to the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of this conviction, but now you say it’s justifiable to believe in God on just these grounds. That’s a flagrant contradiction!”

Oh dear! Whoa is me! Given a choice between considering the structure of the rhetorical attack to have factual significance and looking beyond the silly rhetorical structure to allow for dignified and informed ideological choice, I’ve been found guilty of not realizing the factual implications of the rhetoric being used! I’m so embarrassed… not.

“You have reached the end! Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this activity. You took 1 direct hit and you bit 1 bullets. The average player of this activity to date takes 1.37 hits and bites 1.09 bullet. 576888 people have so far undertaken this activity. Click the link below for further analysis of your performance and to see if you’ve won an award.”

Oh goody goody! I’m smarter than your average bear… or theist. I wonder what I might have won!

“Congratulations! You have been awarded the TPM medal of distinction! This is our second highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground. The fact that you progressed through this activity being hit only once and biting very few bullets suggests that your beliefs about God are well thought out and almost entirely internally consistent.”

Well that’s… might white of you! I’m so glad you almost entirely approve of my beliefs… and I hope that someday you find your own consistent and intelligent way of expressing your beliefs to those who don’t share them…

Meanwhile, I hope that those who are prone to spreading such “games” can see just a little more clearly now their limitations in terms of building sincere dialog. This propaganda exercise doesn’t really stimulate thought so much as reflect a lack thereof regarding significant matters of definition. It vacillates between insulting and condescending with a rather unjustified air of authority, as though only atheists like them can be “real philosophers”.

If you just want to mess around with such games on the same level as automated quizzes which tell you things like “What sort of Jerry Springer guest are you?” or “What sort of Amish teenager are you?” I’d almost be willing to grant it the same sort of mostly harmlessly offensive status… were it not for a couple of factors: First of all those other offensive quizzes are not trying to sell subscriptions to a service to make you a better Amish teenager or Springer guest. But more importantly, I find the reinforcing of a false dichotomy between faith in God and philosophical thinking to be not only distasteful, but harmful to those on both sides of the mythical divide thus established.

You still want to defend the fun and utility of such a game? Not much else I can do for you.

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Filed under Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sustainability, Tolerance

Scientific Insight vs. Blinding with Science

Together with the many entirely fair critiques of my last entry here was one that I found to be rather off the mark: that it contained a “subtle condemnation of biology and sciences”. I actually believe that this was a misreading by someone who is conditioned to believe that anyone who is in favor of religious perspectives is in all likelihood anti-scientific. There are plenty of inductive reasons why someone might be prone to reach such a conclusion, but I honestly don’t believe that it is applicable to me, at least not in the context of what I was trying to say to Daisy. Yet at the same time I must admit that, like many theists, I do see limits in the extent to which science can replace philosophy and religion in human life. Let me see if I can make a case for that for you.

Richard_DawkinsI see science as a means of searching for understanding of the world we live in, which has resulted in some spectacular insights and, through technological advancement, miraculous changes life as we know it. What I don’t believe in is “Science” as an abstract authoritative determinant of truth in ethical and metaphysical matters –– I’m not a believer within the sort of faith that Richard Dawkins has become high priest of among the so-called “new atheists”. This has been on my mind a fair amount this month, since a friend of mine suggested that some of us participate in Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape Challenge” this winter. At this point I am fully intending to do so, even though I don’t think I have much chance of winning, for the same reason that I don’t feel that I have much chance of winning the lottery.

I look at it this way: Given Harris’s ability to top best-seller lists with his attacks on religious beliefs, I’m quite sure there will be thousands of participants wanting to take a crack at him. I’m also quite sure that Harris’s mind is sufficiently made up on the matter where he will allow himself to become confused by seriously considering the merits of any of the arguments he will be presented with. Any reasonably clever under-grad student of philosophy could easily refute Harris’s arguments, but that doesn’t mean he’d be able to recognize the merits of their arguments and admit defeat. Many public intellectuals who are not even theists, and who will be too busy with more prestigious and better paying work to bother with such a challenge –– ranging from Simon Blackburn to Jonathan Haidt –– have already pointed out the multiple flaws in Harris’s arguments. Given his obstinate rejection of their counter-arguments, I’d see it as pretty close to psychologically impossible for his mind to be changed by an argument presented by any of us unknowns. Nor do I see it as particularly likely under these circumstances that he would be able to qualitatively differentiate between those who adequately refute his ideas and those who don’t, to say nothing of being able to judge who best refutes his ideas.

Sam HarrisThe 1000-word sampler format he has stipulated adds even further to the randomized aspect of the contest. So which, if any, of the hundreds of competently written refutations that he will inevitably receive will come out as the official winner has to come down to a matter of random selection. (I do believe there will be an official winner, but given what I see as the inevitably random nature of the selection process, I’m not at all sure that the winner will be one of those which competently refutes Harris’s position.) But what the hell, I play free raffle drawings for new cars and the like at the grocery store all the time, so why not participate in this one?

So as this relates to my perspective on science which has just been called into question, as I have been pondering such questions anyway, and as, for reasons stated above, I don’t believe that tipping my hand a bit here would seriously reduce my chances of winning, I’ve decided to start offering some of my thoughts here on why I actually don’t believe that science can answer all of our moral questions for us, and where I believe we should go from there. Harris/Dawkins fans, feel free to comment here and critique my perspective to your hearts’ content.

To start with let me give Harris credit for sincerity in at least one regard: I don’t believe he is doing this challenge thing for the money. He might or might not sell enough extra books on the basis of such a contest to cover the minimal prize money he’s offering, but that’s not the point, for him or for the participants. Like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Tariq Ramadan and many others, Harris is fortunate enough to have become quite financially secure from book sales that have been an incidental part of his holy war on behalf of the ideals he believes in. His interest in offering such a challenge would more likely be  a matter of hoping that if he can get a few thousand people –– philosophically inclined theists in particular –– to seriously consider his polemics against their position, he might actually succeed in converting a few dozen or so of them in the process. This in turn would advance the meme he believes in, which he has dedicated his life to spreading, thereby doing far more to justify his existence than additional money in his pocket would. This point will be worth coming back to.

benthamAnyway, as hundreds have already pointed out, the essence of Harris’s moral perspectives are borrowed, through some convoluted form of intellectual heredity or another, from Jeremy Bentham –– the fellow whose mortal remains can still be seen in a glass case in the hallway of University College of London. Bentham’s essential belief was that there are really only two things that matter in life: pleasure and pain. Whenever you increase the former and/or decrease the latter for the population at large, you are doing something morally commendable.

S BaartmanNo basic high school level philosophy course is complete without exploring the limits of the validity to this approach. In simple terms we have to ask ourselves, for example, was the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, “The Hottentot Venus,” as a sideshow freak, a sub-human curiosity and a sexual novelty item in London and Paris a morally right thing to do? You would be hard pressed to find an ethicist these days who would stand up to defend this historic abuse; but since it did give hundreds of Europeans pleasure, a sense of superiority and adventure, increased solidarity and perhaps even increased libido –– all for the nominal price of destroying the well-being and dignity of an African servant girl who probably wouldn’t have had much of a life back in Cape Town anyway ­­–– according to a consistent application of Bentham’s principles it would very definitely have been considered the morally right thing to do. And this case isn’t even hypothetical.

If we consider the defense of innocent victims to be a higher priority than the overall pleasure of the crude and sadistic masses –– as would the vast majority of professional thinkers on the subject, and even “normal people” in the world today would –– in its simplest form, Bentham’s moral philosophy fails right there. So instead of sticking to the simplest form of Bentham’s utilitarian belief, Harris focuses on the negative side of things. He paints a picture of the worst possible condition, where intense suffering for all continues unabated indefinitely. Wouldn’t the prevention of such a situation be a moral goal that everyone could agree on? Rather than focusing on increasing pleasure as a moral goal then, we should simply focus our moral energies on reducing suffering.

The problem with that is something that any middle school student can see quite immediately and intuitively: The simplest and most effective way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all beings capable of suffering. Would this sort of global suicide solution really be the hypothetical peak accomplishment of human moral action? Highly unlikely. So from there the question becomes, what is there about life that makes it worth embracing and promoting, even if it does involve pain and suffering for many?

BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionHarris doesn’t really take the question that far, and to the extent that he brushes up against this question he speaks of “peak experiences” between the valleys of suffering that somehow might make life worth it. He doesn’t say in very specific terms what these peak experiences might be, but he has faith in science and technology being the best ways of defining them and bringing them about. This in turn leads directly to the justification presented for the dystopian society in the 20th century’s pioneering novel of that genre: Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, no Christian apologist himself, doesn’t offer any ideal solutions for the problem of how to find sustainable meaning and purpose in life, but after giving such arguments a carefully constructed coherent expression, he thoroughly demonstrates that the best hope for humanity is not to be found in making people into happy cogs within an immense societal machine. Pretty much every other novel in the same genre thereafter has come to much the same conclusion.

What makes these future horror stories so scary is really the whole idea of people being considered disposable in a system that doesn’t offer any significant amount of choice to those stuck within it. To Harris & Co. these factors don’t really seem to make any difference. Life is essentially random and meaningless for the most part anyway, they believe, regardless of what sort of ideology you espouse. Beyond that people are far more like machines than we care to admit –– following pre-programmed paths and automatically responding to stimuli around us even when we are the most sure that we are choosing our actions and responses for ourselves. So if some group of self-appointed technicians takes it upon themselves to engineer everyone else’s lives so that the average guy can go through life without thinking too much, with a minimal amount of pain and with reliable drug-induced periods of euphoria coming on a regular basis, what’s wrong with that? If you don’t really care about freedom as such, if thinking for yourself isn’t all that important to you, or if you imagine yourself to be one of those who would be in the position of deciding things for everyone else; and if you can’t imagine that life could have any greater meaning than that… nothing.

Philosophers in general tend to be rather addicted to the sensation of thinking freely for themselves, and they are rarely under any illusions that a technocratic totalitarian government would select them as the technicians in charge of things. It thus comes as no surprise that they do not embrace the same sort of Huxleyan vision that Harris does as an ideal for an ideal future. Meanwhile for the less philosophical “normal people” of the Western world there is still the recent historical memory of what happened when the people of Germany and Austria surrendered their freedoms to the technocratic regime of the Nazis (shortly after Huxley’s classic was written) which discourages them from going along with any such system too readily.

Nazi-Swastika-AustriaThe greatest risk/possibility of Huxley’s dystopian vision coming true these days then would actually be if “the one percent” of the population which controls obscene amounts of wealth and power these days were to engineer an Atlas Shrugged style revolution where the rest of the population would no longer be able to challenge their power. In fact this isn’t an entirely unlikely scenario. The “Tea Party” movement’s economic populism seems to have been designed to lay the groundwork in the US for just such a move: convincing the population to think of “entitlement” and “socialism” as dirty words, and to believe that the common folk should be happy just to take whatever the ingenious technocrats in charge of the economy are willing to give them. Government should not try to help the poor majority at the expense of the tiny minority at the top; that would be stealing! If those not within the ruling elite become nothing more than disposable commodities within the system controlled by the unquestioned elite, well… that’s just how life works. Nor, it must be admitted, has the Democratic Party, which theoretically should be the counter-balance to this sort of elitist dynamic, made any decisive moves to reduce this slide towards absolute oligarchical control.

I’m not accusing Harris of being a closet Tea Partier; I’m saying that the Tea Party is the political tool with the greatest possibility of enabling his technocratic ideals to be put into practice, and that should give him pause for thought. I can’t imagine it will.

The irony is that the majority of those who support the sort of “new atheist” dogma which Harris publicly champions seem to have something of an allergy to authoritarian regimes in general, since historically, more often than not, such regimes have had a heavily religious component to them. Harris’s own favorite whipping boy in this regard is the Taliban. But rather than promoting personal freedom, justice and individual liberty as solutions to this problem, what Harris is effectively suggesting is that organizations like the Taliban be replaced with a more competent, secular and scientific form of totalitarian control; what Neil Young poetically refers to as “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” How else can the ideal of scientifically detecting and engineering greater states of satisfaction in the population be achieved? But is this really what we want?Neil_Young_2012

The above critique –– tearing down the opposition’s dogmatic position –– is the easy part. Offering a viable alternative is the hard part. When it comes to dealing with real live human beings, with all of their destructive passions and mutual antagonisms, designing a system to help them thrive and meet their individual needs while respecting each of them as intrinsically valuable and entitled to freedom as individuals has proven far easier said than done. So let me start by saying that while I don’t believe that science, in some abstract authoritative sense, can provide us with the ultimate goals that we should be striving towards, I do believe that science as a set of methods of looking for information without any particular ideological baggage attached, and technology as a collection of tools which provide means of achieving personal goals we set for ourselves without determining what those goals should be, are especially useful for promoting human thriving and social stability. At best they are means of keeping ourselves honest as we search for understanding, and of avoiding unnecessary pain and risks in the process. The trick is to keep these particular pursuits within their respective roles as servants rather than as authoritative structures. As long as we don’t let science blind us to other aspects of the human experience, or let technology determine what is important about us as people, we should be OK with them, but that’s far easier said than done.

When it comes to setting goals that are ultimately worth living for, I believe that there are a number of different means by which this can be done, and that the greatest risk for us as humans is when some authoritarian figure or another declares that he has the exclusive (God-given) right to determine which lives have value, on what bases, and which lives are more readily disposable. I don’t believe that making such declarations based on the authority of “science” makes them any less dangerous than basing them on the authority of some deity or another.

Harris points out that presuppositions of given values are inevitably built into the activities of the “scientific community” as such, and science cannot be done without certain presuppositions in terms of basic values, but that does not mean that the validity of such values can be conclusively proven by way of experimentation or scientific observation. This makes it rather absurd to refer to such values as matters of “absolute fact” that can be discovered and declared on the basis of some sort of scientific authority.

I believe the path to greater peace and stability in human society is that of having the humility and sincerity not to claim the sort of exclusive handle on truth which makes us feel entitled to eliminate those who don’t share our perspective.  This points to something that both theocracies and “brave new worlds” have been guilty of. The alternative is to build a system of mutual respect based on empathy and appreciation for our commonality in many important regards. In religious terminology this means seeing other human beings as also made in the image of God and entitled to certain expressions of respect on that basis, given that none of us are entitled to put ourselves in the place of God to judge the ultimate value of another person’s life. In secular terms that would mean recognizing our common heritage and shared long-term interest as part of the same remarkable process of life. This is far easier said than done though, and claims of special revelations and whiz-bang technological innovations cannot be trusted to iron out the moral bumps along the way for us.

But this essay is already more than twice as long as Harris’s little contest rules will allow for, and at that it still doesn’t include some significant points I have in mind on the subject. All in all I don’t see myself as likely to make any serious money off of these ideas, especially not by way of Harris. So why am I bothering with all this?

I guess I have to admit that I too do this to advance the sort of memes I believe in –– which for me include love, justice, tolerance and the spirituality found in the Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean I do this to belittle processes of scientific discovery or to promote any particular power structure based on European cultural traditions, though I recognize that the sort of memes I believe in have often been used to do such things. I have no vested interest in the maintenance of the power of those currently controlling our cultures though, and I don’t see tradition for its own sake as something to be desperately clung to. Nor do I see academic rationalism as a pure, sterile process unto itself as the key to solving all of the world’s problems. I believe in carefully, rationally and systematically thinking things through; and combining that process with connecting with and caring about the messy business known as human life. I see that as my best chance of finding happiness, purpose and longer-term satisfaction in life for myself and those I care about.  I also happen to see that as the essence of the Christian gospel. I recognize that your mileage may vary though, and I don’t give myself the right to send those who disagree with me to hell.

Harris, and others like, him have very different ways of going about giving their lives meaning. I don’t find his approach particularly coherent or promising, but as long as he isn’t using it to belittle the value and dignity of those I care about (or even if he tries to use his ideas for such purposes, but does not do so particularly effectively) I can leave him to it. If he’s offering a podium for presenting what is important to me, I’ll take a crack at it. The rest, as I’m prone to conceptualize it, is up to God.

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Filed under Basic logic, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Religion, Science, Spirituality, Tolerance

“Why doan he TALK like a Man?”

One of the factors about my up-bringing that I rarely mention these days –– in part, I admit, out of concern that people might label me a certain way and think of me as less intelligent because of it –– is that in the 1970s I went to a private Christian high school: an abstinence only approach to sex, homophobic to the max, unapologetically creationist, the whole nine yards. I don’t want to go into an evaluation of my socialization into that sort of belief system just now though. I mention it only as necessary context when I say that I had a few outstanding teachers there who found subtle ways of encouraging me and my classmates to think outside of the box which that system created.  One in particular was an English teacher by the name of Charlie Reed who tried to “save our souls,” in a less religious sense of the term, using the writings of Mark Twain. One of the most interesting and memorable parts of these lessons had to do with chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn.

Due to lesser teachers’ lack of capacity to bring such literature to life for students, this book has frequently been banned in American schools. I have little sympathy for such perspectives. Sure, there’s a certain amount of risk involved in considering the slave-holding society of the 19th century south –– including their use of the word “nigger” –– in such a sympathetic way, but the greater danger is in ignoring that era and its effects in terms of on-going problems in social dynamics in the United States and the post-colonial world elsewhere, or failing to consider the humanity of all those involved. In his masterpiece here, Sam Clemens / Mark Twain tells a particularly exciting and funny story which opens a window into the diverse mentalities of those living along the Mississippi, with all their profound virtues and vices clearly on display. Thus anyone who would use passages like the closing line of chapter 14, “you can’t learn a nigger to argue,” as a racist joke is either showing their own incredibly blatant stupidity or reflecting the gross incompetence of their teachers in terms of introducing literary context.

This chapter came to mind for me last week, as I sat through some less than thoroughly stimulating lectures on the question of the connections between language learning and culture learning. It occurred to me that these professors could learn a lot if they would start reading Mark Twain rather than European Union directives on these matters. The problem, I suspect, is that they’ve never learned the former language. Twain was a pioneer in the art of writing so as to capture the subtle nuances of the heavy dialects spoken by former slaves, which makes his writing particularly difficult to grasp for those who have never heard such speech. Professors such as Mike Byram who have recently declared themselves to be the arbitrators of “intercultural competence,” in turn, write in the largely incomprehensible dialect of European Union directive-writing bureaucrats. I got the impression that, somewhat ironically, those in this particular “chattering class” are rather uncomfortable stepping outside of their mother tongue of Bureaucratese, and they are blissfully unaware of the extent to which teenagers and non-academic working folk find their language far less comprehensible than the dialect writings of Mark Twain.

The lecture series I’ve just completed seemed to have been intended, more than anything else, to provide the equivalent of CLIL –– “Content and Language Integrated Learning” –– in Bureaucratese, for aspiring bureaucrats and for the sort of academics who wish to reach a point in their careers where they no longer have to deal with people. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, very few of us taking the course actually had those particular sorts of ambitions. I actually consider such ambitions to be a particularly pernicious form of social maladjustment, and for those who suffer from such I’m not sure if anything can be done to fix it. I don’t think bureaucracy addicts and anti-social academics can be forced to acknowledge their problems and seek therapy, and I don’t think they can be educated out of it. (Actually believing such problems can be solved by means of theoretical education is part of the problem.)

The best hope I can offer is for them to carefully read and consider the sub-text of Huck’s debate with Jim in this cultural classic. The original is freely available on line, but I suspect that translation will be required. Hence this essay.

Briefly setting the narrative context, Huck, the poor white boy with extremely limited education, who has run away from his foster mother, “the widow,” and Jim, the escaped slave owned by the widow’s sister, have just had a spot of particularly good luck: successfully stealing a boatload of loot from some riverboat thieves, including a small library and a few boxes of particularly good cigars. This in turn led to them having a rather philosophical discussion about the concepts of “nobility” and “cultural difference” in general, setting the stage for much of the conflict which is to follow in the novel.

Their discussion is intriguingly multi-layered in that it involves abstract discussion of exotic “others” that neither of the conversers really knows anything about, the partial deconstruction of power dynamics in both familiar and exotic cultures, and an exploration of assumptions about the communicative implications of what it means to be human. In short it covers the full thematic range which Byram & company have attempted to communicate about.

huck and jimThe discussion begins with the general topic of kings. For Jim the concept of a culture of kingship opens up a whole new range of ideas for contemplation. His previous associations with the word “king” had been limited to the biblical character of Solomon and the cards ranked between queens and aces. There is a brief discussion of the economics of being a king: how much they make in exchange for doing what sort of work. Huck clearly has no reliable data about this target group, but he relishes in the opportunity to step into the role of “expert” based on having read more than Jim about the matter. Yet from the start of the discussion Jim is able to point out inconsistencies and likely errors in Huck’s account. Huck finds this in turns intimidating and frustrating, but he continues to play the “expert” role as far as he can on an improvisational basis. Thus within this passage there’s a powerful implied moral critique regarding how expertise is constructed in academic contexts in general.

Solomon of Huck FinnEventually the discussion comes back around to the assumption that, like Solomon, kings tend to have thousands of wives. Solomon being the only king Jim had ever heard of by name, this premise goes unquestioned. Jim, as the student, follows up on this shared assumption that Solomon at “had about a million wives” with pertinent questions about what that would imply regarding Solomon’s legendary wisdom. Even discounting for all of the factual errors and inter-cultural misunderstandings involved in the dialog, most contemporary theologians would have to admit that Jim has a valid point here: The inevitable domestic friction and the lack of appreciation for individual intimate relationships that would result from polygamy on such an absurd scale certainly call into the question the wisdom of any man who would crave such a lifestyle. Huck, as teacher, argues back against these claims with a somewhat weak appeal to the widow’s authority as a higher academic expert in such matters, but not having been properly socialized into the academic tradition of citing established authorities as a means of proving points, Jim refuses to accept this rebuttal.

He goes on to further argue his point by citing the narrative from 1 Kings chapter 3 –– of Solomon settling the argument between the two women as to whose child the live one was and whose was dead one was by offering to cut the live child in half –– as evidence of Solomon’s hyper-polygamy having numbed him to the human value of children. Here Huck points out, correctly, that Jim has broadly misunderstood the context and intent of the king’s command, but as Huck lacks the intellectual sophistication to explicate the psychology of Solomon’s bluff as a test of maternal affection, he replies with a line that’s actually been tossed at me by a few of my own teachers over the years: “You don’t get the point!” This in turn leads to a bit of a power struggle over the question of who is entitled to determine what “the point is.” Not being able to argue through this impasse, Huck switches topics.

dauphin coat of armsHe picks up on the matter of Louis XVII of France, the son of the king beheaded in the French revolution, who presumably died of disease while being kept imprisoned and in isolation by the revolutionary authorities, about whom there were also some rumors that he had escaped to America. Here Huck’s information is surprisingly accurate, including his reference to this would-be king as “the dolphin,” which is actually the literal meaning of his French title of “Dauphin”. And in fact there was a pretender to this title who was active as a missionary to the Native Americans on the north end of the Mississippi River valley at the time depicted in the novel. Jim in turn found the idea of a young king living on in America both comforting and disturbing. If I translate his concerns about the matter into the sort of English that even bureaucrats might understand, Jim says, “He’ll be rather lonely though. There aren’t any kings here for him to associate with. Nor will he be able to find employment in his own profession. So what might he end up doing?”

Huck answers these concerns by stating that a French noble in the United States stood a reasonably good chance of getting a position in law enforcement, or as a teacher of French as a foreign language. This leads to a particularly interesting comic exchange in which Jim is baffled as to why anyone would want to bother with such a thing. From his perspective the only natural way for humans to communicate would be in some variation or another of English. He might not even have known the name of the language as such, no name being necessary for what he considered to be such a universal aspect of the human experience. There is a particularly funny line where Huck asked Jim what he would think if someone were to say to him, “Parlez-vous français?” Again, translated into what bureaucrats would consider to be a “standard speech,” Jim’s response was, “I wouldn’t think anything; I’d hit him in the head, hard –– as long as he wasn’t white. I wouldn’t let any black man call me that!”

The ensuing debate over whether French is a natural way for humans to communicate with each other has Huck trying to justify the concept of people speaking different languages using an analogy of animals speaking different languages within their respective species. Cats and cows each have their own natural languages which are incomprehensible to us and to those of other species. So just as nature allows for many different languages among various species of animals, it is perfectly natural for nature to allow for many different languages among humans. Jim deconstructs this analogy, however, with the simple question, “Is a Frenchman a man?”  Huck doesn’t actually know any Frenchmen, but based on his reading on the matter he assumes that this would be the case. From there Jim goes on to ask why a Frenchmen don’t talk like men: my title question here.

Comic jabs as Francophiles aside, this portion of Twain’s text invites the reader to explore his/her own prejudices as to what forms of speech and action might be considered “natural” for humans in general. One theoretical approach to this matter, seemingly popular within Bureaucratese culture, states that there are particular proper forms of action and codes of behavior that are properly associated with given linguistic spheres. Humans are inherently flexible as to how they learn to act and communicate, but together with each particular form of communication we as humans develop, there comes a proper set of cultural expectations that should be learned together with the language. Teaching students to be able to switch back and forth between these codes –– to appreciate differences in language, and as part of that, differences in culture –– is intended not only to expand the range of individuals with which the student can communicate, but also to deepen the student’s understanding of and appreciation for her/his own language and culture. Exploring such matters with confidence, while still allowing a privileged position for those who have attained a particular bureaucratic status, is the intent implied in the title of the book I have sitting next to me at the moment (left over as background reading for the lecture series I’ve recently endured): Becoming Interculturally Competent through Education and Training.

The problem, however, comes when “culture” becomes a normative rather than an analytic concept. It is one thing to say that the French tend to be a particular way; it is quite another thing to insist that someone must be a particular way in order to qualify as Frenchman, or as a participant in French culture. The epitome of using “culture” in a normative way is what is known in philosophy as the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

There is some potential value and some potential bovine excrement involved in an assertion that education and/or training can and should bring about “competence” in basic human inter-relational skills. In order for each of us to be able to accept others as people –– to relate to them in a way that automatically assumes neither superiority nor inferiority, nor automatically prioritizes conformity to a particular set of linguistic/cultural norms –– each of us needs to be personally secure in where she/he comes from. We need to both recognize the value in the way we were raised and to see that this isn’t the only way things could have been done. We also need to see how others, who were raised in significantly different ways, have certain advantages and disadvantages in terms of what they are consequently capable of and how they view the world. Ideally we should develop a capacity to learn by comparison, to search for “best practices,” and not to assume that our own cultures have already found all of them. Education can help with that. Genuine human interaction with those we are prone to think of as “other” can help much more. But there are some forms of insecurity and maladjustment that neither social interaction nor education can fix. I believe we’re best off just recognizing those problems for what they are.

In the story of Huckleberry Finn, the “poor white trash” boy learns that the black man, in spite of his dehumanizing background, and in some cases because of it even, has developed many particularly important and useful skills for wilderness survival. He also comes to see the black man’s feelings and intuitions as important, and he adjusts his moral practice accordingly. He becomes “inter-culturally competent” in ways that no bureaucracy or contemporary education program would sign off on, but in ways which actually matter in real life. He still considers liberating slaves to be socially unacceptable, and he still doesn’t categorize an anonymous “nigger” getting killed as a human tragedy; but he’s willing to repeatedly risk his freedom and his very life to protect his black friend, and his friend more than returns these favors.

The question of how one should be expected to talk and act in order to count as “a man” –– as a human being entitled to rights as such –– remains open here. Our standards for speech and cultural action always have room for improvement. Blatantly abusive language and prejudiced practices certainly need to be reduced, where they can’t be curtailed entirely. But far more important in practice than such bureaucratic measures of “intercultural competence” is a practical capacity to form interpersonal connections with “the other”.  The more native speakers of Bureaucratese learn to “talk like men” in this regard, the more functionally competent they will actually become.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Human Rights, Linguistics, Racism, Respectability, Social identity, Tolerance

Generally Speaking…

There is both a certain danger and a necessity in making generalizations. There are certain people who tend to miss that point at both ends of the spectrum. This tends to make communication rather difficult at times.

By the way, did you happen to notice that all of the above three sentences are in themselves unsubstantiated generalizations?

Let me toss out a few more:

  • Professors usually to wear eye glasses.
  • Peugeots are prone to electrical problems.
  • Kids who grow up in ghettos often get involved in a criminal underground economy.
  • Children who move between different countries and cultures during their school years tend to develop a stronger sense of empathy than those who remain in one place during those years.
  • Many Muslim women are victims of domestic violence.
  • Many Eastern European women are prostitutes.
  • Very few people die at over 100 years old.

All of those generalizations tend to hold true to one extent or another in everyday life. To deny the evidence in support of any of those propositions is to stick one’s head in the sand. But likewise, to base one’s evaluation of any given individual on such facts is blatantly stupid. Let’s analyze each of them more specifically, in reverse order.

Burns 100The last bullet point there was part of a quip from the sharp elder comic George Burns once his own age got up into triple digits: “If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.”

It ruins a good joke when you have to explain it, but I’ll do so anyway: He was equivocating on purpose. When we say that few people die at over 100, what we generally mean is that the vast majority of the population still tends to die much earlier than that. This does not mean that those who live to over a hundred are less likely to die within the next ten years than those who are in their 80s or 90s. Actually the opposite is very much the case, and Burns knew that only too well. He knew his body didn’t work as well as it used to and it wasn’t going to last forever. Another of his memorable quotes is, “Everything that goes up must come down. But there comes a time when not everything that’s down can come up.” This may or may not be related to his earlier observation that “Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.” But I can still enjoy his joking attempts to deny his mortality, considering the fundamental honesty behind it. I don’t, however, respect the way other people equivocate in less fundamentally honest ways on the significance of facts regarding human societies.

That would go for the case of associating Eastern European women with prostitution. When we say that “many are prostitutes”, the truth of the matter is that among the sex workers of the western world, a disproportionate number of them do come from formerly Communist countries in the eastern part of Europe, which is still desperately struggling to fight its way out to the economic shambles left after the collapse of their variations on Marxist economics, and to overcome the kleptocracies which have folllowed. The fate of these working girls has become a cliché of American television drama of the past decade or two, and it can also be seen on the streets of Helsinki and many other cosmopolitan cities (or so “they” tell me; I haven’t done any first-hand investigation into the matter).  There is nothing to be gained in denying that this is happening.

There are three potential applications for this information: For those who agree with Raskolnikov’s condemnation of the institution of prostitution in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or who are otherwise concerned about the trafficking of young women into “first world” brothels, knowing that a major concentration of these evils takes place in Eastern Europe can be strategically important in the process of fighting against them. Then using the same sort of thinking somewhat to the opposite intent, sexual predators who are shopping around to get the biggest “bang for their buck” might focus their acquisition efforts on women from that part of the world in order to increase their odds of success. But the worst sort of application to put this sort of information to is to start categorizing all women from these former Communist countries as suspected prostitutes. The offensiveness and inaccuracy of such a generalization cannot be over-emphasized. If you don’t intuitively see the problem with that sort of thinking I’m not sure what can be done to help you.

The same applies to many generalizations about Muslims, including the one that their women tend to get beaten: Just as it is true that many women from Eastern Europe end up becoming prostitutes, it is true that many women in Muslim homes end up getting beaten by their husbands or other male authority figures. In neither case do we need much “sociological imagination” to find a cause and effect relationship between the status in question and the problem being manifest: We can easily see how intense economic pressures combined with a cultural trends towards the sexual objectification of women could lead to many women from Eastern Europe getting trapped in a life of prostitution; and we can easily see how a religious emphasis on cultural conservatism for its own sake ––maintaining Arabic social norms from 1400 years ago as manifestations of “God’s eternal will” for mankind –– combined with an understanding that women rightfully need to be kept in submission to men, would lead to a higher risk of women being physically abused. It would even be fair to concentrate efforts on reducing spouse abuse in general on women from particularly culturally conservative Muslim communities. Denying problems there is in no one but the abusers’ interest. But it is certainly not acceptable to label all Muslim husbands as suspected wife-beaters or to label all Muslim wives as likely victims of abuse.

Resisting this “because you’re X, you must also be Y” urge, even while digging out new and unrecognized connections between the factors X and Y in question, is an on-going challenge in social sciences in general. The whole point in studying human behavior –– on an individual level, on a micro-communal level, on a macro-communal level and/or from a historical perspective –– is to identify risk factors in order to avoid or overcome them, while at the same time recognizing the “evitability” of all such risks. We can choose what we do with our lives; we can choose how we weak handplay the cards we are dealt. Like Poker, life in general involves a degree of “luck,” but it is largely a matter of skill. Yet in either case for someone to a claim that random factors of “the luck of the draw” are irrelevant to the game merely shows that the person making such a claim has no understanding of how the game works.

In concrete terms I have seen this over the course of the summer in the little research project I’ve been working on with alumni from the schools I’ve been teaching at for the past decade and some. In one sense or another almost all of these young people can be labelled as “multi-cultural,” meaning that their up-bringing has reflected a mix of various “cultural” –– national, regional, linguistic and/or religious ––traditions. This multi-cultural up-bringing is the hand that each of them has been dealt. It inevitably has a direct effect on enabling them to make certain sorts of choices and preventing them from making others. My research has repeated the findings of many others in this field in demonstrating that one of the strongest effects of such multi-cultural childhood experiences, particularly in terms of exposure to a vast variety of traditions and lifestyles through global mobility, is that the young people in question develop a broader human perspective: They become much more capable of “putting themselves in the other person’s shoes” than others who lack their range of experience in this matter.

This is as much of a “fact” as any of the social sciences are capable of producing. It provides particularly useful information for analyzing what sort of parameters the young people in question are making their decisions in. It shows how social cause and effect work in this sort of context. It does not, however, determine what sorts of careers these young people are ultimately suited for, nor does it conclusively define the character of any given young person whom I have been speaking with on the matter. Either to deny the factuality of this dynamic or to attempt to re-state it in a more deterministic fashion would be a grave mistake.

This applies to all general statements regarding human identities and interaction, including those regarding places like Florida where the legal system now seems to have declared open season for the killing of young African-American men. The facts of the matter, sociologically speaking, are that darker skinned residents of that state, and of the United States in general, are far more likely to have grown up with reduced economic opportunities compared with their lighter-skinned “peers”. As with all sociological facts, there are vast numbers of exceptions to the general rule on this, but the correlation between skin color and poverty is more than strong enough to make it register as a significant social dynamic. Likewise the correlation between being raised in poverty and “alternative economic activity” –– a.k.a. “a life of crime” –– is quite well established, with the same qualifications applying. On this basis it is not entirely irrational for Floridian white people to have a certain degree of fear of the local black population. This in turn has been used to justify the actions of particular white men (struggling with their own personal insecurities) such as George Zimmerman and Michel Dunn, considering young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to be a such a serious threat that, when these black boys commit such heinous crimes as walking through the wrong neighborhood late at night or playing a car stereo too loud at a gas station, the rational course of action for the white man is to take out a gun and kill them.

Does this sort of thinking have a basis in fact? To the extent that the information they base their stereotypes on is factual, yes, it does. Does that make it morally justifiable? Of course not. Am I justified in considering Floridian culture in general to be morally depraved on this basis? That is a more complicated question, but I am perfectly at peace with myself in joining Stevie Wonder in boycotting the state until further notice, whether or not it makes any difference.

The issue here is that, besides the problems inherent in making generalizations in general, there is a matter of using these generalizations as a basis for denying the basic value of some people as people. If we look at people primarily in terms of abstract general categories we can put them into –– such as “highly skilled,” “extremely punctual,” “rather introverted/extroverted,” “emotionally (un)stable,” “(un)trustworthy,” “aggression prone” or “creative” even –– and if looking at them in terms of those characteristics keeps us from seeing them as human beings with whom we share an certain basic God-given essence (whether or not you take that literally), regardless of how factually well-founded those general categories are, we’re in morally dangerous territory.

In this sense people are not like cars. Regardless of how emotionally attached to their vehicles some people get, our fellow human beings still belong in a different category from our beloved machines. Thus there is much less moral risk involved in pointing out general characteristics of particular sorts of automobiles than there is in itemizing general characteristics of particular sorts of people. In terms of empirical evidence it may be less true to say that Peugeots are prone to electrical problems than to say that the Irish are prone to drinking problems, or that the Finns suffer from repressed emotions; but I am still more comfortable speaking in generalities about the former, because there is less of a risk of making assumptions against any individual’s human value on such a basis.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots' propensity to have electrical problems.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots’ propensity to have electrical problems.

That being said, valid generalizations, with the proper level of scientific caution and moral restraint included, should not be rejected out of hand as de-humanizing. To deny that some combination of genetic factors, religious influences, environmental restraints and patterns of socialization –– “culture” in the broadest sense of the word –– shapes who we are as individuals in some validly generalizable ways, for fear of these generalizations being used as a means of de-humanizing others, tosses out whole nurseries full of babies together with the bath water. Not only are these generalizations frequently useful in terms of diagnosing the cause of social malfunctions, thus enabling us to deal with them more effectively; when understood in context they really shouldn’t be considered a threat to individual integrity or human value. When someone uses a sociological or cultural-anthropological generalization as a means of de-humanizing someone else whom he considers to be significantly “other” than himself, it is not necessarily that the generalization lacks factual legitimacy so much as that the person utilizing the generalizations in such an abusive way lacks moral integrity.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses

I could go through the ways in which this applies to all of the above-mentioned generalizations, but let me instead skip forward to the first item in my bullet-pointed generalizations at the beginning of this essay: Professors tend to wear eye glasses. This is a rather trivial observation, but in general I believe it holds true. Of course there are exceptions: The new rector of the University of Helsinki, whom I met for the first time a couple weeks ago, needed no optical assistance in reading his remarks to a visiting delegation or looking people in the eye while chatting at the reception which followed. Well over half of the professors I have ever met, however, lack such physical capabilities. There are in fact valid cause-and-effect reasons for this phenomenon. Professors in general tend to be 1) older academics, 2) selected on the basis of extensive, eye-straining reading and writing work, and 3) less prone to “real life” interaction than analytic speculation. In terms of the first two factors I speak in part from personal experience: as I work my way up into higher academic status from being a mere high school teacher with a master’s towards a doctorate and maybe thereafter professorship, I find that both the age that is creeping up on me all the time and the text work which I must do in the process make reading glasses ever more of a necessity for me. I will never make the professor level without needing glasses quite badly. In terms of the third factor here, I would site Sir Ken Robinson’s famous first TED Talk as evidence of the claim that professors tend to be socially awkward, and I appeal to my readers’ broad cultural experience as evidence of the general correlation between wearing eye glasses and feeling socially awkward. As I am being partially tongue-in-cheek here I don’t think any further evidence is necessary.

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

The reason that this observation is not particularly well-published, I believe, is not that it fails to hold true, or that the statistical likelihood of professors to wear glasses can be written off as a coincidence; but rather that professors are not particularly proud of this fact and beyond that it lacks functional relevance. If there were some contract negotiations for professors in which optometric services were being considered as a work-related expense, this issue might have some practical relevance, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening. What is more likely is for professors to be critiqued for generally being old, out of touch and selected according to particularly abstract criteria, with a tendency to wear glasses as a potential marker of any of the three. Since professors generally don’t care to have attention called to these factors, and since professors are the gate-keepers as to what gets published and what doesn’t in the field of social sciences in general, it is unlikely you will find any academic literature on the subject.

But regardless of all that, what harm is there really in noting that professors tend to wear glasses? If we accept the generalized image that professors tend to be rather funny old people in general, and that they are no less valuable as people for their eccentricities, is there really any further risk in making a general observation about their need for glasses? I wouldn’t think so. The risk comes when the human value of “the other” is genuinely being called into question, and when their right to participate in society and even their right to live are being seriously questioned. That isn’t about to happen on the basis of professors wearing glasses. The greatest risk professors as such tend to face, as Ken Robinson points out, is not being invited to dinner parties, and their eye glasses really have nothing to do with that.

So what should I say in closing? How can I generally sum up these generalizations? I hope that academics in general continue to recognize the general value, together with the general limitations, of speaking in general terms. In more specific terms, I hope that the professor whose general misconceptions I’ve been shaking my head at for the past couple weeks reads this someday and recognizes its implications in terms of his theories’ lack of viability… someday… but not yet. Beyond that I hope that the students I am teaching, my fellow university students and my readers here can all recognize that, in spite of my obnoxious manner at times (as defined by certain cultural norms) and my tendency to slip into abstract generalities at other times, I really do mean well, and I really do respect each of them as significant individuals… at least in a general sort of way.

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Filed under Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Respectability, Tolerance

The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters

I promised my virtual friend James that this weekend’s blog would be in response to his inquiries about what I consider to be the core issue of expertise in religion in general. More specifically he tells me, “We had a…  conversation about this in the past. At the time you said that some religious authorities might be experts in something different from philosophers — not necessarily metaphysics or ethics.” To be honest about it, I don’t remember the details of that specific conversation, but I don’t question his word that we had such a discussion at some point.

So where should I start with this? How can I present this in a way that is accessible and somewhat interesting to folks other than James and myself, without repeating too much of what I’ve already blogged about this summer?

I suppose I should begin with a few comments about the limits of language in such matters. I was recently reminded of the Frank Zappa quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There are many different expressions of human creativity and the human experience which have a very imprecise correlation with each other. Put in another way, there are many different sorts of “truth” that we humans can try to express to each other. The western tradition has been justifiably faulted by those of the African, Orthodox Christian, Indian and Oriental traditions for being too preoccupied with what might be called a forensic aspect of truth: what can “be proven in court beyond reasonable doubt” –– or in the words of a blogger of the Orthodox tradition that came up on my feed this week, we are preoccupied with a “flat” or “literalistic” interpretation of truth. This is where we get off on reducing religion to a collection of positions on metaphysics and/or ethics that largely miss the point of what religion is there for. We become so busy with our dance that we fail to see the architecture for what it is.

But here I’m trying to communicate to James and others something of what this other level or dimension of religious reality is all about without just retreating to empty clichés about its “otherness”. Given the limits stated above, the best way I know how to do that is in terms of exploring the concepts of connection and integrity. The point of religion is both to enable us to deepen our sense of connection with essences and realities from beyond our own physical and phenomenal limitations, and to “hold ourselves together” and discover what the meaning and purpose of our individual identities are. In many senses these two purposes can be at odds with each other, and the struggle to balance them with each other creates an on-going dynamic and learning process which (I believe) needs to be the center of the religious life in general, and the Christian experience in particular. Now let’s see if I can unpack that a bit for you.

The great dilemma of philosophy of religion is that the building blocks of epistemology –– the investigation into the question of how we can really know anything –– are based largely on processes of alienation. There is a great truth to the aphorism, “Whoever discovered water was not a fish.” In order to recognize the existence of water as such we need to be aware of something other than water. For a fish to make the discovery that water exists it needs to have the experience of being taken out of that water. Thus much of the process of investigating the basic realities of what makes life what it is for us inevitably involve fish-out-of-water experiences for anyone who really wants to know about such matters.

Beyond that, the process of learning always involves an element of comparison, and comparison involves holding things in separation from each other –– frequently putting them in opposition to each other. Any time, as a teacher, I divide a class into small groups for a review game, I create false borders between those who will end up as the “winners” and the “losers” for that particular exercise. In the pursuit of a greater depth of knowledge this is considered to be a justifiable risk  –– or acceptable collateral damage –– but it also clearly illustrates how our pursuit of knowledge can lead to a reduced sense of harmony and connection with others and with the world around us.

Thus it becomes necessary to have certain professionals within our societies whose job it is to somehow bring the people together again, and to re-establish harmony between neighbors and between mankind and our environments. Those who performs such tasks are very commonly referred to as priests or priestesses; sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.

Yet if in this process of re-establishing harmony the “priest” causes people to doubt or to lose track of what it is that makes each of them unique and valuable –– making everyone think of themselves and each other as indistinct parts of a nebulous mass of being “one with everything” –– he may be doing more harm than good. Like the organs within the human body, recognizing that they are interconnected and mutually dependent does not make any given organ less vital to the whole. Each organ has to have its own integrity for the whole to be able to function. So in addition to bringing people together and building a sense of commonality, another vital part of the religious leader’s job is to help people discover their own distinct value within the whole and to develop a basic set of principles to live by that enable them to “hold themselves together” as individuals on a day-to-day basis.

These processes of discovering and developing an integral personal essence for myself as a person and discovering and developing the forms of connection I have with the people and the world around me are profoundly challenging on-going processes. These are the essence of religious or “spiritual” life. A number of different traditions have developed over the millennia of human experience to guide us in these processes. Some have worked better than others. Arguably the most successful has been the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, and not just for reasons of historical coincidence. This is not to say that this tradition has reached a state of perfection in any one particular form as many of its various fundamentalists might claim, but that it has provided a variety of very useful means of enabling people to conceptualize their relationships with each other and a greater reality which have led to some particularly successful civilizations, by whatever measure you care to use.

But to look at religion as a means of building materially successful and securely self-perpetuating societies is, from the perspective I am talking about, to put the cart before the horse. This is where the most fundamental difference between what we might call a scientific paradigm and a spiritual paradigm comes in. The scientific perspective could be said to focus on the dynamics of physical forces colliding with each other and struggling against each other to make our world what it is. Gravity, centrifugal force, inertia of various sorts, magnetism and a variety of chemical bonds interact in sometimes more, sometimes less harmonious ways, randomly producing reality as we know it, pretty much by coincidence. To the extent that any of this has any meaning it is a matter of the conflicts between these forces, and their random abstract manifestations in our macro-level experiences, result in victory for some forces and defeat for others. By trying to influence which forces are able to succeed in given situations, and by trying to arrange to be on the “winning side” in as many conflicts as possible, those of a scientific perspective set out to give their life meaning through the dynamics of conflict.

The spiritual paradigm, on the other hand, looks at things from the perspective of love rather than conflict being the most important thing in life. Rather than defining ourselves in terms of what and whom we can overpower, we can define ourselves in terms of what and whom we can connect with most deeply. My meaning is not determined by the extent to which I can prove myself to be one of the fittest for survival, but by having the privilege of interacting with what is most beautiful and magnificent in life, and contributing to this beauty and magnificence for others to experience.

There is no denying the interconnection between these two paradigms. Not only, as stated above, does a sense of connection provide a competitive advantage for some, seen by those who prioritize the scientific perspective as well, but a battle against “the forces of evil” frequently sets the conditions under which spiritual interactions take place. There is very much a yin-yang relationship between the factors of conflict and harmony here: they continuously spin around chasing each other, and at the very center of each is the other. This, however, does not keep them from having very different implications and sets of priorities. Another good virtual friend of mine, Pastor Brian Zahnd, expressed it particularly well in one of his Facebook statuses this week:

“Deep down don’t we at least suspect we are really made for shared relationship and not competitive acquisition?

But we’re thrown into a modern world where identity and purpose are almost entirely based in a ruthless contest for status and stuff. […]

Attempting to yoke God to that kind of agenda is what the Bible calls idolatry. God harnessed as means. The holy reduced to utility. It’s what Abraham left Ur to get away from. It’s what the Spirit call us away from.”

This is not a matter of reducing the religious experience to just “stories, rituals and social needs” as James suggested at one point in our discussions this week. It is a matter of a matter of exchanging our cultural yin for a much deeper yang as the basis for our lives. It is not a matter of more precisely defining the forces in conflict with each other (metaphysics) or finding socially acceptable competitive strategies for ourselves (ethics), but of turning the whole paradigm upside-down.

Let me illustrate what this means to me by telling something of my day-to-day experiences this week and how I define myself in relation to them. On Monday my younger son, Kristian, began his compulsory Finnish military service. While he’s doing his first few weeks of basic training he agreed to loan me his car. This whole phenomenon of our father/son relationship, the significance of compulsory military service within this society, and the symbolic role of the vehicle in question within our social dynamics are all complex issues unto themselves. Let me paint through them with broad brushstrokes by saying that I chose to relate to each of them in terms of the love expressed rather than the competitive factors involved.

Which one looks sort of like me?

Which one looks sort of like me?

At times I have my doubts about how thoroughly my sons realize how important they are to me and how much I love them, in spite of all of the barriers that have come between us over the years. Sometimes I get the feeling that they are “playing me” to get what they can out of me for their own competitive advantages in life, but other than staying honest with each other about such matters there’s no point in dwelling on such negativity.

With regard to the compulsory military service, Kris is not in any way significantly tempted to try to get out of it. While on the one hand it is a matter of being ready to kill those who would try to seize control of his homeland, its more direct meaning for Kris is one of taking part in a form of competitive bonding with his older brother and his peers in terms of proving what he is capable of physically and socially within that context. In many real ways it is far more love than hate which comes out in his motivation for being there.

The car is actually an expression of social identity for Kris as much as it is a practical means of transportation. I haven’t always approved of his motivations to try to gain social acceptance through having the right sort of vehicle, but then again he hasn’t always approved of the particularly ugly but practical vehicles I have driven over the years. (Ten years ago when I was driving him to soccer practices he used to ask me to let him out around the corner from the field so his teammates wouldn’t tease him about my car, literally!) In any case, it is was a significant exercise in trust between us when I loaned him most of the money to buy his current “sporty and cute but practical” set of wheels, and it is a return gesture of love and trust for him to loan me his “baby” for this time when he is otherwise occupied.

My primary interest in having the car was to have the opportunity to visit with one of my dearest friends in the world: my old spaniel, Mac. When I left for my year in South Africa I gave Mac up to a new family which lives down the Finnish coast a ways from the capital region. In many ways this was painful for me, but in all respects it has turned out to be a perfect fit for Mac. He has now lived with his new family for a full 2 years, and while there is still a bond between my furry friend and I, he clearly loves his new home and the whole family clearly loves him. Getting to visit with him this week, for the fourth time since my return from Africa, was a much anticipated treat. I would almost call it a spiritual experience in itself.

July w 021In one sense a dog can be considered as basic “property” but that’s not really how it works. I fully identify with the prayer, “God, help me to be half as good a man as my dog thinks I am.” It’s not a matter of having a status symbol I can be proud of, but a matter of having a personal connection with a loyal friend that helped keep my sane for many years. Following up on that connection with personal visits continues to have its own therapeutic value for me, but that’s not all there is to it. There really isn’t any other adequate expression for it than “sharing the love”.

I’ve tried to make it perfectly clear to Mac’s new family that I’m deeply grateful to them for the way that they’ve enabled him to thrive in his new home, and I would not consider trying to take him back for my own selfish therapeutic needs. Borrowing him for the afternoon once in a while, when it fits together with their agenda, is something I deeply appreciate though. In fact I consider my life to be that much richer for this family’s friendship based on our mutual appreciation of our four-legged friend.

July w 039Anyway, as I was leaving on that trip, since the radio antenna is broken off on my son’s car, I got out a old collection of CDs from his trunk that I forgot I had loaned to him, and I chose Stevie Wonders “Conversation Peace”. This wasn’t a big hit album for him, since it admittedly ranges from rather preachy to rather sappy in places, but along the trip I was still struck by the extent to which Stevie “gets it” spiritually:  Love, in many different senses of the word actually, is our best chance of overcoming the greed and corruption which plagues our societies. This ranges from appreciating the sensuous whispers of an intimate partner to feeling a new lease on life based on fresh human contacts, to taking a stand against the senseless violence caused by the ridiculously competitive and unregulated handgun market in the United States, to having a capacity for repentance when we cause pain for others, to very overt songs of prayer and worship. If you want to understand what the basic message of Christianity means to me personally you could do much worse than giving this album a listen.

The challenge of balancing these factors of connection and self-respecting integrity is no easy matter. The sheer difficulty of the challenge involved has led many who have found functional systems along these lines to jump to the conclusion that their particular tradition represents the only right way of thinking about such things. It would also be fair to say, however, that many of the followers of the scientific paradigm have fallen prey to the same fundamentalist impulse at times. A philosophical perspective, which theoretically doesn’t take sides in this matter, sees both forms of belief in the absolute finality of their own truths as equally problematic. This is why, as Bertrand Russell noted, philosophy is subject to attack from both scientists and theologians much of the time. Yet both scientists and theologians –– both those focused on discovering the dynamics of material conflict and those interested in developing a capacity for transcendent love –– inevitably and reluctantly go through processes of learning from their own mistakes. To characterize either paradigm according to the behavior of its fundamentalists is equally objectionable. To say that those of either paradigm are more or less capable of admitting their mistakes and learning from them is blatantly prejudiced and untrue.

But of course I have my own biases here. As a proponent of what I have labelled as the spiritual paradigm, in spite of the argumentative tendencies that I continue to recognize within myself, I prefer increased connection to perpetual conflict –– I am honestly more interested in building friendships than winning arguments as my primary goal in life. I recognize, however, that there are those for whom having the experience of intellectual power is more important than searching for meaning in life beyond our competitive urges. And yes, I do realize that some of the nastiest competitors in such manners use religious dogmas as their primary weapons in the fight. Thus, even if this were a perfect statement of my position (which I am quite sure it is not) the debate could never end here. Thus the best I can hope for is that those on the other sides are willing to compromise to the extent of introducing a bit of mutual respect into the ideological struggle. If that level of compromise with a spirit of harmony is too much for them… so be it.

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Filed under Ethics, Love, Materialism, Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism, Tolerance

Regarding Obama and Homosexuality in Africa

I’ve been dragging my feet about finishing a more thematically ambitious essay I started more than a week ago, but while working on that I have been actively involved in various other debates that I haven’t blogged about here. To get something up here while semi-blocked on the other project, allow me to toss out a response I gave via social media to an acquaintance of mine in central Africa this morning. He wrote:

President Barack Obama should know that we africans [sic] have our ways life. We don’t just copy anything done in the western world. Its shameful to hear president Obama advicing [sic] african governments to ligalise [sic] homosexuality and gay marriages! The American president should be made to know that we make our laws based on our ways of life, not on the uncalled for advices [sic] from foreign leaders. If there is nothing usefull [sic] he can tell african leaders and people, then he better shut up, enjoy his african tour and go back home.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn't actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don't have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn’t actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don’t have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

This sparked a lively conversation, strictly between Africans, on topics ranging from the irrelevance of the homosexuality question to the pressing problems of poverty, Obama’s personal vanity and his mother’s potential Jewish roots to the extent to which Africans are expected to mimic western cultural standards. So in response to that my wake-up rant this morning was as follows:

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OK, as an American with no pretense at fully understanding Africa, but having tried, having only spent a year in South Africa, and having worked teaching humanities subjects in international schools in Europe for most of my professional life, I still feel I have to say something here.

President Obama is the first American president to be in touch with his African ancestry, as well as the first to have spent a significant amount of his childhood in a Muslim country. He doesn’t make any particular claims of cultural connection with your cultures beyond that, and those who have false expectations of him on those bases only have themselves and their own social echo chambers to blame.

By American political standards Obama is a moderate liberal. That means that his policy priorities are focused on better reinforcement of human rights for all both within the US and around the world… in theory. In practice of course he has his own cultural blind spots. This does not mean that he is going to start lecturing Africans on the meaning of marriage from his own cultural perspective: He will not be preaching to Jacob Zuma about the dangers of his polygamy or his adultery. But with his general human rights focus he will be telling Indians who didn’t get the message from Gandhi that they can’t treat Dalits as disposable human beings. To Africans, I honestly believe, he is fully justified in saying that there are certain abuses that cannot be tolerated in the name of “protecting cultural tradition”. These would include genocidal wars, the sexual abuse of children, and yes, killing homosexuals for no other crime than being homosexual.

It is rather difficult to say if homophobia in Africa is a cultural feature which goes back to the time when sangomas dominated religious life there, or whether homosexuality was something that Africans learned to hate and fear with the coming of Muslim and Christian missionaries. There is little question about the matter that in all cultures there have always been certain small minorities of men who are more sexually attracted to other men than to women, and that the same has gone for women as well. Westerners did not introduce this phenomenon into any culture. Westerners may have actively tried to change attitudes towards such people, in both positive and negative ways. In this regard for Obama to preach tolerance towards homosexuality in Africa is, probably to his mind, and in my mind quite justifiably, a matter of attempting to undo the damage that has done by other westerners and outsiders with their various forms of hate-mongering. There isn’t any God-given or other need for Africans to hate and attack the sexual minorities among them. Those people too are people, having value as such and capable of making important contributions in their societies.

I’ve been studying the phenomena of “Theonomy” among western Christians and “Qutbism” among Muslims as radical programs for establishing modern civil law on the basis of “God’s eternal decrees” — including a religious decree that homosexuals should be killed for their “perversion” just because “God says so.” This is not a traditional African perspective on such matters, but foreign missionary groups have very actively and successfully promoted such views on the African continent. In the name of respect for indigenous culture those messages should be rejected at least as vehemently as President Obama’s message of tolerance — preferably far more vehemently.

I say all this not as the outsider who is “so much more intelligent that you” but as the outsider who can perhaps see your situation just a little bit more clearly for not being entangled within it. You might have the same advantage in analyzing problems of European culture. I ask that you kindly consider my words here not as those of a wannabe cultural imperialist, but as those of someone who wants to be your brother in spite of having been born white and far away. Peace all.

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That’s a strictly “take it for what it’s worth” perspective, but if any of you would like to add your own $0.02 worth here, feel free.

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

Is there an Alternative to Secularism and Fundamentalism?

In trying to be a good little boy and use my summer vacation from teaching productively in terms of my doctoral studies, over the past week and a half I’ve been reading a fair amount of theoretical literature about the sociology of religion. Part of what I have realized in the process is that there are effectively two paradigms that dominate the discussion in the field: secularization and fundamentalism.

secular marchThe sad narrative goes something like this: Starting in the late 1700s a series of revolutions started to seriously weaken the political authority of churches within the western world. Priests were allowed no role in government in the United States, the power of the cardinals was demolished with the collapse of the monarchy in France, and the political authority of the papacy became a thing of the past in southern Europe in general. This led to Copernicans being allowed to come out of the closet, and other ideas that would have previously been considered dangerous heresies to develop and advance –– the most infamous being Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the mid- to late 1800s the Vatican states had collapsed entirely; Comte, Marx and Freud were each predicting the complete demise of religion as a force within society; and Nietzsche was declaring that God was already dead. A concerted effort to phase out traditional Christianity and to realize a new, “more advanced” sort of social structure started to take shape among western intellectuals.

Within Christianity some German theologians in particular started working on developing new variations on the faith which would be less at odds with these modern ideas, but rather than making Christianity more relevant this merely made it more relative: rather than putting the faith in touch with new realities these theologies had the general effect of making it harder to see how there could be any distinctively Christian message left. It sort of helped the secularists prove their point. Other Christian leaders, however, particularly in the United States, went to work with great vigor on trying to defend the traditional understandings within their various branches of Christendom as eternal and unchangeable truths. They declared that there are certain basic ideas which are absolutely essential, or fundamental, to anything which could dare to call itself “Christian”. Thus within this sort of siege mentality the social phenomenon of “Fundamentalism” was born.

Over the course of the twentieth century secularism and fundamentalism continued to do battle with each other. After starting out as a Protestant Christian reaction to modernization, variations on fundamentalism began to spring up within other religious traditions as well, most notably within Islam. Effectively those religious movements which remained “mainstream” and interactive with the modern world have become less and less relevant culturally and politically, while those who have been seen as taking a strong stand in promoting the implementation of God’s will –– sticking to “eternal truths” regardless of how unpopular they are with the mainstream –– have managed to draw significant numbers of new converts continuously. While these new, radically conservative religious movements have not been able to establish anything like the sort of power base that the Medieval Catholic Church had –– or even the sort of pull that the first generation Protestant Reformers had within central Europe –– they have progressively become the most politically significant forms of religion in the world today. Particularly intimidating in terms of world peace over the next generation are the Saudi, Pakistani and Iranian variations on Islamic fundamentalism, and the US “religious right” variations on Christian fundamentalism together with some of its radical off-chutes in developing countries.  BRAZIL-MARCH FOR THE FAMILY

The information revolution of the past generation has further intensified the battle between these trends. Anyone can find as much reinforcement for their extreme positions as they could hope for, 24/7 –– telling you why you should ditch all religion as nonsense, or telling you that you need to stand and fight against the global conspiracy to destroy your faith, whatever your taste may be. The question is, is there any alternative left between these two extremes?

Before taking this question further, I think it is useful to unpack one current distinction in terminology: between secularism and secularization. Secularization is a matter of sociological theory which addresses the fact that religious institutions do not have the sort of power that they did a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of generations ago. This much is in many ways self-evident in most western societies, even in the United States. This is not necessarily an indication of a victory for a group of politically and intellectually anti-religious activists who can be referred to as “secularists.” Such activists undoubtedly exist, and have a significant audience, particularly in Europe, but they don’t really deserve much of the credit or blame for the reduced role of Christianity in, for instance, determining what hours shops will be open, or determining which children are “legitimate” these days.

What I am talking about here though is the ideological battle between secularism –– the socio-political effort to phase out religion as a factor in public life at least –– and fundamentalism –– the religious belief that the teachings of a particular faith tradition need to remain unchanged and unquestionable as a social norm, with subsequent claims over all aspects of public life. For both of these ideological movements the social realities of secularization make up the essence of the cultural environment in which they function.

So is there some viable middle ground to be found between secularism and fundamentalism then? To address this challenge we have to stop to consider what we regard as the basic point of religion is to begin with. There are a few alternatives to be considered. It seems that most secular sociologists are making a combination of two assumptions on the matter: the point of religion is either to enable social control or to secure magical help in day-to-day life, or both. On the first account it could say that a cultural assumption of a religious or biblical standard being binding in society was once useful as a means of creating cultural solidarity and mutual trust and the like; but this also had its down-sides in encouraging things like gay bashing and witch burning as accepted social practices. The second consideration puts Christianity on even footing with Shamanism: rather than worrying about pleasing God or building an ethical code for its own sake, it implies that people are worried about God sending the rains so that their crops grow. Then if they get beyond worries about this life then maybe they’ll start worrying about life after death as well, needing magical assistance in securing a favorable position for themselves there as well. As far as the basic purpose of Christianity goes I believe both of these assumptions are fundamentally wrong, but in terms of understanding portions of the social dynamics within particular societies they are worth taking seriously at least.

Knowing where you want to go is an important part of getting there. If what you really want is a safe, comfortable and controllable life in the material world, and that’s really all you want, then a secularized technological perspectives on life is probably the most effective means of getting you there. Not that prayer and use of technology are mutually exclusive. If I were to become seriously ill I would definitely use both, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that matter. But I would not substitute prayer for taking medication or whatever else a trusted medical professional would recommend on a purely materialistic basis. In many very fundamental respects we all depend on modern technology to keep our lives functioning safely and dependably. In the western world one important fruit of this technological perspective is that, unlike just a few generations ago, having a few children in each family die of disease before reaching adulthood is no longer the norm within society. Another significant effect of the technologically driven world that we live in is that I can sit here and write this in my low budget teacher’s apartment, with no significant financial backing for my ideas, and with minimal skill in using publicly available technologies I can send out this essay realistically expecting it to be read in 50-100 countries. So overall I think it’s fair to say that rather than depending on prayer as a means of magical control of our environment we can more reliably turn to technology to help and protect us in practical terms.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing luck.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing rituals to improve our luck. If improved luck is the point of religion for you…

This deserves two important qualifications though: First, our technological approach to life can have many horrible unforeseen consequences, which we need to be watching out for continuously. We have not yet mastered the art of using our technological skills and possibilities in sustainable ways. We as humans have burned out many habitats where we have set up shop, sometimes successfully moving on to other places afterwards; sometimes dying out en masse as the result of our mistakes. The only thing that’s really changed about that dynamic over the generations is that we’ve got fewer and fewer alternative habitats to move on to when we burn out our old ones these days, and our impact on the planet as a whole is more something we need to pay attention to than in the old days. So in this respect we need to limit the faith we put in technology as we now have it, carefully insisting that it serves us and not visa-versa.

Secondly, there are many aspects of faith healing –– involving feeling a sense of purpose and in our lives and a sense of connection with forces beyond ourselves –– that really do work in terms of helping our bodies to heal at times and helping our technical operations in this world to function more efficiently. Praying really does help people to be more successful on all sorts of different levels. Regardless of your understanding of why that might be, there is really no point in trying to deny this fact. This is not to say that prayer is as effective as modern technology in terms of realizing many basic goals, but as a factor operating in conjunction with technology, or in the absence of technology, there is plenty of evidence that it really does work somehow. At a bare minimum it reinforces a sense of being loved, which any medical doctor can tell you is not something to be belittled.

In any case, on the other end of the spectrum, if the strongest possible sense of social control in society is really what you are looking for, then fundamentalism is probably the most effective way of getting there. As one old agnostic acquaintance of mine on line pointed out some years ago, “Just look at the pyramids. Religion gets s**t done.” The less you allow religion to be questioned, the more s**t it is able to get done. There are a number of more politely expressed and politically accepted variations on this theme, ranging from the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli to those of Francis Schaeffer, with the common theme that if people can be assumed to share certain religious values, you need far less authoritarian brutality to keep them in line. And when you do use authoritarian brutality, if you do so in the name of a god that everyone trusts in they are far less likely to revolt and make a (literally) bloody mess of things as a result.

Beyond that, as a matter of temperament many people do not want to live in a state of uncertainty about any more than is absolutely necessary. They want things to be cut and dry and simple; clearly understood by all as operating according to “proper principles”. If that’s the way things have to be for such people, an absolutist understanding of religious tradition is the most tried and true means of keeping things that way for them.

But such pragmatic considerations aside, these aren’t the most important aspects of religion –– or “spirituality” –– to be considered. Part of the broader perspective necessary has to do with the qualifications stated above regarding the usefulness of prayer at times, but more to the point would be the consideration of the enduring role of some traditional religious practices even in secularized societies: rites of passage, the most important of which are affectionately known as “hatching, matching and dispatching.” What is it that continues to make baby dedications, church weddings, and religious funerals –– and to a slightly lesser extent coming of age ceremonies of various sorts –– within religious settings popular even with essentially non-religious people? It could be argued that these rituals have been used as means of controlling people and bringing good luck to those participating, but neither of those explain why people want to keep doing them these days. There’s obviously something more to it than that.

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

These rites are means of marking out times when the overall meaning of life is most profoundly being considered and open to question –– when people are thinking about why we’re here, what it means to be human, what we might hope to accomplish in life, what meaning our lives have to others, what makes someone a “good person,” and the possibility of something more “out there” that ties all of this together. It is in its capacity to consider these matters that religion distinguishes itself from being just an expedient of politics or a crude form of control to be replaced by technology.

The essential Christian answer to these questions of the meaning of life is in what Jesus taught were the most important commandments given by Moses –– the Twin Commandment of Love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We must first find a way of relating to the transcendental principle that gives our lives true meaning, and embrace it fully and without reservation; and once we have that established we must recognize that each of us is essentially connected with all of those around us, and we need to treat them accordingly. It is the process of developing this sort of meaning in life, not the politics or the luck improvement rituals, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian –– perhaps what it means to be a religious or spiritual person in general.

It must also be recognized, however, that while there is a very generalized seeking and vague awareness of the challenge of finding meaning in life, that makes particular religious rituals at different phases of life feel particularly comforting, it has always been a small minority within the population who truly “get it”. In this regard I believe that Sören Kierkegaard was on the right track –– in the generation before secularization and fundamentalism became significant social dynamics in northern Europe –– in saying that the religious mob mentality that was dominant in his time had little to do with the message of Jesus. True faith is a matter of individual connection with a power beyond ourselves, in a way that is not intended to win popularity contests. What the masses are into as means of establishing social acceptability is never going to be a matter of loving God with one’s whole being.

kierkegaardFrom Kierkegaard’s perspective then secularization is hardly to be regarded as a threat to true faith; quite the opposite. It is only when faith can be seen as a matter distinct from social respectability that it can truly have significance as a dynamic unto itself. This does not mean that Kierkegaard would have been happy about the program of secularists –– those whose political agenda includes the elimination of religious observance as part of everyday social interaction. He would have wanted God to remain important in people’s lives in ways that these folks have made it their mission in life to deny. But secularization as a progressive historical trend towards less mass religiosity within mainstream culture is something that Kierkegaard certainly would have received as very good news.

Fundamentalism would have been a greater problem for Kierkegaard. Trying to distill the essence of Christianity down to a set of doctrinal standards intended to provide a safe basis for social identity and a valid criteria for controlling and judging others is precisely what the gospel is not about. In fact this is a greater threat to the processes of learning to find meaning in our lives through loving God and truly connecting with our neighbors –– believers and non-believers alike –– than either secularization or secularism. But I believe that Kierkegaard would believe that in spite of the Fundamentalists who attempt to dominate religious dynamics these days, those who truly seek God with all their hearts will still be able to find him.

There is still something to be said for the argument that human beings have a near universal sense of spiritual craving, unfulfilled and ignored as it may be for most people. But somewhere deep down inside, almost everyone wants to find a sense of transcendental purpose and social harmony based on connecting with factors beyond themselves. In our secularized age many people turn to experiences other than religion to fulfill these longings. In this regard, while reading up on the passing of “Funky Claude” Nobs this year, I was rather struck by a quote from Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, saying that for 40 years he’d never done a concert without Smoke on the Water because “it’s almost a spiritual experience. The song no longer belongs to us… we just accompany the crowd.”

Deep+PurpleThat sounds about right actually. Rock concerts involving standard anthems enable people to experience a sense of transcendent connection with those around them in ways that few other things do these days. If religion fails to enable people to find such experiences they will seek them elsewhere… with varying degrees of commitment and success in finding what they are looking for.

I’m not really sure how important it is in the big scheme of things, but I’d sort of like to see more sociologist of religion actually get this point.

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Filed under Love, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Social identity, Spirituality, Tolerance

Silencers

In considering the varieties of “Christian Politics” lately, I’ve been looking at the question of which of the outspoken voices in this field are genuinely committed to a pluralistic democratic form of government and which believe that their priority should be to enforce God’s will on their fellow citizens, using the democratic process as one imperfect means of doing so until “God’s kingdom” can be more properly realized. This is actually a particularly hard line to draw, as many of the most conspicuous characters in the field work very hard on trying to have it both ways. The question is, when someone like the Southern Baptists’ lead lobbyist Richard Land says that his goal is to establish “an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority,” how seriously do we need to take that, either as a promise of stability or a threat to religious freedom? When Chris Hedges labels this sort of political action as “American Fascism” is he exaggerating, or does he have a legitimate point? This goes back to a question of the essence of American identity, the minimum requirements for freedom of religion, and the practical limits we are willing to place on freedom of expression.

silencerIf we start with the fourth point from Wolterstorff that I quoted last week –– “There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion [or lack thereof] in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice” –– the key question becomes, what constitutes a significant threat to the right to political voice for various players within the political process?

Since the term “fascist” is already on the table here, let’s go ahead and consider the negative examples of the Axis Powers leading up to World War 2. The Germans, due to a fair amount of frustration with the loss of their previous cultural stability based on “Christian tradition,” and the consequent economic turmoil that their country was going through, became increasingly polarized between Communists and right wing nationalists, both of which claimed to represent the interests of the common working people. As their country became more polarized and as it became more and more difficult to pass basic legislation due to ideologues’ unwillingness to compromise, basic legislation started to be passed more and more by executive decree –– using Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. The practical matter of getting stuff done –– keeping the power turned on and keeping the trains running –– became more important to people than the principle matter of everyone continuing to have a voice in government. Into this situation stepped a brash young Austrian-born leader by the name of Hitler, taking power as something of a minority compromise candidate and insisting on overcoming the problems of divisive fragmentation in German political culture through ruling by decree. The idea was to silence everyone who didn’t agree with him by calling their patriotism into question, especially those of the political left. Within two months citizens’ constitutional right to elect representatives to theoretically speak on their behalf became a thing of the past. Hitler’s speech of February 1, 1933 was a classic in terms of religiously justifying his party’s process of seizing power and silencing the opposition:

Since that day of treachery [the surrender at the end of World War 1] the Almighty has withheld his blessing from our people. Dissension and hatred descended upon us. With profound distress millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life have seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences…

Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos…. This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor.

as leaders of the nation and the national Government we vow to God, to our conscience, and to our people that we will faithfully and resolutely fulfill the task conferred upon us.

The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life….

Turbulent instincts must be replaced by a national discipline as the guiding principle of our national life. All those institutions which are the strongholds of the energy and vitality of our nation will be taken under the special care of the Government.    

It is not hard to see how a frustrated and impoverished people who are prone to see trusting God as the answer to their problems would readily go along with this sort of program, and how they would gladly participate in the process of silencing anyone who would dare to disagree. With Communists and Jews as scapegoats for all that had gone wrong, and with no one daring to publicly challenge his “mission from God,” Hitler did indeed bring about a major economic turnaround in Germany, instilling people with a great sense of pride in their national destiny and their right to attack all who opposed the value system they represented.

Where did they go wrong strategically? Perhaps just in terms of over extending themselves militarily. Where did they go wrong morally? In too many places for me to try to detail here. Suffice to say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best solution that the best minds of the time could come up with to reduce the risk of the same sort of tragedy happening again. This document brings together, in rather diversified form, the best of religious and secular thinking of that age about what people should be entitled to for no other reason than that they happen to be human beings. This in turn defines what the task of government is: insuring that the rights of all of its citizens are defended as thoroughly as possible.  I believe it would be fair to say that the primary risk of fascism in the current generation comes from those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with this document, and/or those who consider their particular religious or nationalist agendas to have a higher priority than the principles of human dignity it lays out.

Some of the most broadly recognized general principles contained in this document are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, the right to citizenship, the right to family life, and the right to just and fair legal protection for all. These rights spill down into other things that may be more controversial: the right to travel internationally, the right to regular paid vacations, the right to a basic education, the right to change religions, the right to adequate health care… But perhaps the most challenging bit is the practical application of the rather broadly accepted Article 30: Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. In other words, I can’t use my rights as a means of trying to take away your rights, and visa-versa. That is especially difficult when it comes to speech and religion. How do you allow someone to be free to practice a religion that contains the teaching that it must attempt to dominate all other religions? How do you allow everyone to have their own say when the purpose of speaking for many is to shout the next guy down?

It’s quite fair to say that both the US ideal of freedom of religion and the international ideal of the UDHR remain works in progress. We have never had a state of affairs where perfect respect for all members of society has been realized in an ideal fashion. There have always been some who have been unfairly discriminated against, abused as a labor force, stolen from and/or scapegoated. Since I have become an expatriate from the US the level of social protection and recognition has gradually improved for some, such as Hindus and homosexuals, while it has gradually fallen apart for others, such as inner city school students and minimum wage laborers. This was one of the main points of Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, which was probably one of the key moments that ended up getting him elected as president. We need to avoid nostalgia for the days when some folks rights were better recognized, and we need to work towards the idea of having all people’s dignity protected more than it has been thus far.

So the question with regard to religious interests in politics is one of how far we can allow particular groups to dominate in the interest of unity, order and prosperity, at the expense of others rights to participate in the democratic process and have their other rights properly recognized? This leads us to consider which groups which are now dogmatically promoting their own agendas at the expense of constructive dialog between interest groups might be genuinely dangerous in the future. Who might we allow into power as a minority compromise group, assuming we can somehow keep them in check with the strength of the system, only to discover as the Germans did in the early 1930s that we have unleashed a monster? But just as critical a question: If we suspect that a particular group could rise up to become the new Nazis, how far can we go in working to preemptively silence them or shout them down without the cure (or immunization) becoming worse than the potential disease?

There are particular groups out there these days that I consider particularly dangerous in terms of having a stronger commitment to their set ideas of right and wrong than they have to constructive dialog and mutual recognition of each other’s basic rights. This, however, is a matter of human temperament for many, which cannot be fixed through eliminating particular political alternatives for them. I believe that the best we can do is to try to educate people in the processes of constructive dialog and in awareness of the rights of others. If we can, both from religious and secular perspectives, avoid tribal mentalities of praying to our various sorts of gods to “bless us, burn them,” we’ll stand a much better chance of not inadvertently wiping ourselves out in the next few generations.

Meanwhile, when we see political groups of various sorts doing hatemongering and attempting to silence the political opposition in the name of doing God’s work, remember where that sort of rhetoric has been used before.

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Filed under Ethics, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

Defining Freedom of Religion

Among the other scandals I’ve seen spillage of in postings by my fundamentalist friends in recent weeks, there has been a matter of the US military making efforts to clamp down on the extent of the “witnessing for Christ” being done by its officers. One Coast Guard Rear Admiral in particular has vocally objected to being told that he is not allowed to share his faith when and where he chooses. As this is fairly directly related to the subject of the doctoral studies I am just getting started on, I thought this would be a reasonable opportunity to see if I can put some of the theory I am working on shaping on this matter into terms that even fundamentalists can understand it. Please let me know how I do here.

lee0503The practical issue, as I understand it, is whether or not people in high positions of authority, being paid by the government to tell people what to do, can from that position of authority suggest to those working for them what they should believe in religious terms. In the case of the United States there is a delicate balance between every person at any level of society being free to believe whatever they are inclined to believe religiously, and to express that belief publically, and then the requirement that the government itself would not officially sponsor or endorse any particular set of religious beliefs, or tacitly require them of citizens or government workers.

This goes back to the question of to what extent the United States can be said to be a “Christian country” and what we are really talking about when we speak of the importance of freedom of religion and the separation between church and state. There is a lot of noise and confusion about these topics these days, and sorting them out is no easy task.

I’m inclined to start sorting these matters by following Nicolas Wolterstorff’s lead and going back to the middle ages. There we had something called “Christendom” which was a social system based largely on an assumption that everyone who mattered in society was a baptized and believing Christian. Yes, there were some non-believers or different believers within the system, but their perspectives on things didn’t really matter when it came to the rules by which society functioned, and they could be kept in their place through the judicious exercise of the righteous sword of the rulers. So this system operated on the assumption that all those who mattered recognized two intertwined systems of organization within the society: the one dealing with heavenly concerns and the one dealing with earthly concerns –– the church and the empire(s). There was more than a little overlap between these ruling systems: the church was involved in taxation, war, policing and the legitimizing of the secular rulers; and the emperors made it their duty to cultivate morality and “true religion” in their people. This led to more than a few power struggles between representatives of the state and representatives of the church, and you don’t have to follow The Borgias to be aware of how bad it could get at times.

borgias ironsFor many good reasons this system started to break down, most definitively with the Protestant Reformation, but the resulting systems of organization were not so much tolerant and pluralistic societies as what Wolterstorff calls “mini-Christendoms”: systems in which tried to keep the same sort of Christian consensus within their societies, but with a purer and more focused doctrinal basis. Among the bravest and most ambitious of these mini-Christendoms were those that took shape in the New England colonies in America in the 1600s, where governor Winthrop boldly proclaimed that Massachusetts would become the proverbial “city on a hill” that the rest of western society could look to to see how a truly godly society would operate. Much later on Ronald Reagan dusted off that same imagery, and there are some who seem to think that there is clear thread of “Godly governance” in America that stretches from Winthrop to Reagan, with the odd liberal aberration here and there in between and since.

The fact of the matter, however, is that mini-Christendoms didn’t really work that smoothly. Pluralism started creeping into even the most carefully exclusivist of them, causing all sorts of practical and political problems. This is where the real American innovation came in: the radical separatists who determined that their government would be better off independent of English governance also decided that there would be no officially sanctioned church for the nation. It took some time to break free from the mini-Christendom mentality –– and it could in fact be argued that this is still an on-going process in the US –– but the radical innovation that the American founding fathers brought to world politics was a system of governance in which, to quote Wolterstorff again:

  1. Church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) and state are to be separate and distinct institutions, without any administrative connections between them.
  2. Religious exercise is to remain free from any state interference.
  3. The state, when distributing benefits and burdens, is not to discriminate between citizens on account of their religion, or lack thereof.
  4. There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice.

The first of these is what we are talking about when we talk about the separation of church and state; the following three are the essential standards for what we call freedom of religion. These are separate but related issues: it is possible to have separation of church and state without freedom of religion, and visa-versa. It is fair to say that the former is more important in the US than in most other countries, but the latter is more freely ignored in the US than most other countries –– at least those which publicly endorse the concept of human rights. The challenge is to allow all religious and non-religious people freedom to express their convictions and attempt to build coalitions based on their shared perspectives without allowing them to silence or put special burdens on those they disagree with. This is many times easier said than done.

One of the most influential theorists in this field has been John Rawls, and American social scientists who started out in academic life training for the priesthood, but who lost his faith due to the emotional struggles he went through as a soldier during World War 2. Rawls’s basic principle when it came to religion and politics is that in order to have a mutually respectful public debate about the principles on which a democratic government should operate we need to base our arguments on premises that all participants in the debate can accept as starting points. So for instance if we are talking about what sort of laws we would have restricting the practice of summer barbeques, it is perfectly justifiable to base these arguments on limiting damage to the environment and limiting the smoke and smells that drift into your neighbor’s space, because those are things we can all agree are important things to take into consideration. But we cannot, from Rawls’s perspective, limit people’s right to cook pork sausages in public just because Jews and Muslims find them to be religiously offensive. If Jews and Muslims don’t want their neighbors to be allowed to grill such summer delicacies in public they will have to find some secular justification for their objection. Otherwise it just won’t fly.

Much of the current argument against religious content in politics these days is based on Rawls’s premise here, but this is not without its philosophical problems. Briefly, to find abstract principles that everyone can agree are valid starting points in all relevant political discussions is probably too demanding a standard to put on a genuinely pluralistic society, and we can still hold to the principles listed above even if we do allow religious believers to voice their political opinions on the basis of their religious beliefs. It is thus perfectly legitimate for someone to stand up in an American town hall meeting in an area where Jews and Muslims between them constitute a sizeable amount of the population and say, “On the basis of my faith I do not wish for my family to be constantly exposed to the smell burning pig meat all summer, and therefore I suggest that all who agree with me band together to pass a resolution to keep others from being allowed to afflict our senses and sensitivities in this way.” Others are freely allowed to argue back on the basis of whatever ideological principles they subscribe to, and eventually the matter will have to come to a vote.

So how do these principles relate to Christians promoting their faith within the military? To start with there is the matter of military officers, as official representatives of the US government, not using their position as a means to promote their religious beliefs. It would effectively violate the principle of separation between church and state if participation in a particular form of worship is expected of soldiers as part of “following orders.” If military officers –– again, as official representatives of the US federal government –– are actively working to build up active membership in their own religious communities, that effectively violates the First Amendment principle prohibiting government support for particular religious institutions.

But what if officers, not as officers per se, but as believing human beings who “happen to wear the uniform” want to share the joy of their faith with those around them, and in particular reach out to those who are hurting or traumatized, as military service so often makes people feel? This is the justification that Rear Admiral Lee, referred to above, has to offer for his actions in promoting the gospel while performing his command duties.

Here I believe we need to bring in the analogy of sexual harassment, and apply the same principles limiting what we consider to be acceptable behavior. It is true that when someone puts on a uniform he or she does not cease to be a spiritual being, but it is also true that putting on that uniform does not cause a person to no longer be a sexual being either. The military has come to realize that they should not attempt to prevent all romantic or even sexual encounters between their personnel, but what they need to be most careful about is allowing those in positions of authority to use those positions of authority as means of fulfilling their sexual desires. Beyond that they need to make sure that among those of comparable rank, without either one being under the other in the chain of command, the military does everything in its power to enforce respect for who say that they’re not interested. Thus putting on the uniform, figuratively speaking, really does require a greater degree of sexual restraint than what is required of civilians and lower ranking soldiers. I believe the same principle needs to apply to the desire to share one’s faith.

Unfair analogy? I really don’t think so. The urge to religiously convert others has more in common with seduction than most people realize. In both cases the core motivation is (ideally) that of building the satisfaction of a deeper interpersonal connection with the target individual in a way that the object of this attention will also gain greater satisfaction in life in the process. In both cases, however, there are many who are more interested in “scoring points” and racking up impressive statistics for themselves than actually caring about the objects of their attentions as people. In both cases the sincerity of the love involved is extremely difficult to judge. In both cases it is better to ere on the side of caution, but to avoid institutional paranoia wherever possible.

Military chaplains are specially trained not to convert soldiers to the chaplain’s beliefs, but to help soldiers find a sense of comfort, purpose and connection in the soldiers’ own beliefs. That too is a complicated matter, but overall the professionalism of these men and women is held in high regard. For a soldier to talk with the chaplain about religion is rather like a soldier talking with a psychologist about sex: the chaplain cannot do his job properly unless he can relate to the soldier as a fellow spiritual being, but preventing any expectation of the soldier participating in the chaplain’s own religious identity is part of the basic safety of the interaction. Those who are not so trained need to be much more circumspect with regard to their efforts to provide spiritual guidance and support. As with sex, it’s perfectly natural that other officers would want to participate in meeting the needs of those under their command at times, and under certain circumstances it might even be the morally right thing to do, but there are good reasons to have rules against it as well.

To me it is obvious that many consider the conversion of as many as possible to their religions or personal value systems to be the ultimate purpose of their lives. They carry this sense of mission with them whatever they do and wherever they go. In fact I have deep personal respect for many people who live like that, even when the sorts of religions or ideologies they are promoting are not the sort I can identify with. But… and there’s always the “but” in these cases… I believe that those who have this sort of mission and identity, as a matter of personal integrity, need to recognize the rights of others to disagree with them. I believe that those who cannot resist the temptation to continuously compel others to join them in their belief systems probably need to excuse themselves from certain sorts of tasks within society. When they are unable to make this sort of judgment for themselves, I believe that sometimes it will have to be made for them.

Within government service, especially within the military, it is vitally important that each individual can do his or her duty without compromising his or her identity as a Jew, a Muslim, an Atheist, a Sikh, or even a born-again Christian. It is entirely expected and respectable for any of those to be allowed to stand up for his identity and to explain what this identity means to him. If he ends up winning a convert or two, fine. The problem comes when someone from one of those perspectives expects everyone else to share his perspective, and succeeds in making life difficult for those who refuse.

People of good will on all sides of these matters will continue to work on functional compromises that enable practical cooperation. People on all sides who are looking for excuses to hate those who disagree with them will continue to do so, and feeding them excuses for their hatred will continue to be a big business for certain “news outlets”. I can only hope that those I care about will tend towards the former.

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Filed under History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

Fireflies

Over the Easter break I got a chat message from K., one of my fondly remembered students from years past, currently living well on the other side of the world. I’m actually not sure of the state of his own religious beliefs, but K. was telling me that he was recently challenged by a dogmatic atheist who asserted that the ways in which religious people are still trying to penalize homosexuality and prevent same-sex couples from being fully accepted into society is further evidence that religion always does more harm than good in society. So knowing that I am a relatively open-minded and believing sort of person, he wanted to get my take on this question.

My standard brief response on same-sex marriage was that as a committed hetero the status of this legal and cultural innovation isn’t of particular personal importance to me, but as a multiple divorcee myself I believe that I have personally already done more damage to the institution of marriage than any same-sex couple ever will. Beyond that I’m sort of traditionalist still in the sense of believing that ideally children should be raised with positive role models of both sexes at home, but I still see gay couples of either sex raising kids together to be far preferable to a single parent struggling to raise children on his/her own. The main thing is that the child feels loved and secure, and witnesses emotional maturity and adult cooperation between her/his parents. That’s about as far as I’m willing to take a stand on the matter.

K. then wanted to know what I thought of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. I told him that the Old Testament teaching on the subject was basically that sex should always be done in such a way as to potentially make babies –– “be fruitful and multiply” –– and any sexual activity which lacks that capacity is considered sinful. I consider that to have been an important, useful policy relative to the ancient Jews’ and Israelites’ cultural situation back in the day, but not an eternal moral requirement. In my own life I have done my part for the race in terms of producing enough offspring for replacement purposes, but the vast majority of my sexual experience has been of the sort where baby-making was not a possibility. Thus I cannot in good conscience judge others whose sex lives are of non-baby-making varieties.

In terms of the New Testament teaching on the subject the only serious consideration given to homosexuality there was that the Apostle Paul was clearly a bit homophobic in Romans 1, and quite possibly he was a latent homosexual himself and angry at himself regarding his attractions in that direction. If you read his epistles with that in mind it opens up a fascinating new human perspective on things.

K. thanked me for my input and said that he’s been meaning to read more of the Bible for himself sometime, but that he had this nagging feeling that parts of it that just don’t work. He sometimes felt a bit of sympathy with the perspective of the “genius girl” character on the sci-fi series “Firefly” when she wanted to “fix” the preacher’s Bible by trying to take out the parts that didn’t work.book-river-bible

I knew basically what he meant in terms of that urge. It has a long and prestigious cultural history: Thomas Jefferson was one who spent some time with his own version of such a project. Beyond that lately I’ve been reading a book by Chris Hedges in which he says (p. 6), “Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. …Until this happens … these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate and eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means that these churches share some of the blame.”

I get what is meant there, but I still basically disagree with the sort of project in question. I don’t think we can go through the Bible censoring out the offensive bits. This might make me sound like an NRA anti-gun control nut, but I don’t believe that scriptures cause genocides; people with tribal mentalities using scriptures as weapons cause genocides. I believe that people need to let go of the idea that through their interpretation of the Bible (or the Qur’an, or the Adi Granth, or the Analects…) they can arrive at perfect and unquestionable certainty about everything in life. Once they set aside their cravings for simple absolutes to use as their epistemological and moral foundations, the scriptures that they turn to for guidance will cease to be a threat to those around them. If they continue craving such simple certainty, however, any moral code that they turn to, no matter how enlightened and inherently benign it might be, will become a deadly weapon in their hands. So for me going through the Bible and blacking out the hateful bits as a means of protecting mankind is a project doomed to failure.

But all that being said, I must confess, I didn’t really know what K. was talking about with his “Firefly” reference, so I had to go and look it up. And given my studious dedication to such matters, over the past week I had to watch the complete series through. (It only had one production season, so it wasn’t that big a task.) I have to admit, it provided me with an interesting perspective on a bunch of different things.

firefly_cast2The series basically lays a thin sci-fi veneer over the 19th century archetype of honorable Confederate soldiers, admitting that they lost the war but never admitting that their cause was not the more just one, forming a sympathetic band of outlaws moving around out on the fringes of  known civilization. This band is made up of  basic assortment of archetypal elements:

  • The captain of the gang, who was a heroic sergeant during the war –– a leader down in the trenches –– who used to be quite a devout Christian but now wants nothing to do with matters of faith 
  • His Stoic and faithful sidekick who quietly and competently takes care of most of the practical details involved in realizing the leader’s strategies (who in this version of the myth happens to be a darker skinned woman) 
  • The crazy wizard of a “wheel man”/driver, capable of getting the gang out of all sorts of scrapes with the law and other menaces through his imaginative maneuvering skills (who in this version of the myth happens to be married to the commander’s faithful sidekick) 
  • The uneducated, unpolished technical genius with a mystical ability to repair and “soup up” just about any machine known to mankind (who here happens to be a “poor white trash” girl) 
  • The simple-minded, high testosterone human killing machine that can never be entirely trusted, but who continuously proves himself to be rather useful in the ever-present gun fight scenarios 
  • The elegant high-end prostitute who relies on the gang’s protection and provides them with an air of refinement at times when they need it, who shares a secret attraction with their commander that neither is willing to admit to anyone 
  • The renegade preacher who has a deep and sincere faith, and lives according to monastic vows, but is fully ready to participate in a righteous battle every now and again (who in this case happens to be black)
  • The young, highly intelligent and highly educated but socially awkward “Yankee” doctor who has his own reasons for running from the law and from his own people, whom the gang keeps on because they find him useful 
  • The doctor’s helpless but gifted little sister, whom the gang band together to protect from the mean, cruel world out there 
  • The outside menaces of “Feds”, hostile tribes, local warlords, chain-gang bosses and the like.

The plot elements in this series, such as they are, are really nothing more than means of exploring the inter-relationships between these archetypal characters, under circumstances that glorify “God, guns and guts” as approaches to greatness. To me the amusing and interesting part of all this is the sheer transparency of the myth being retold in this manner. I’m also fascinated to consider how all this relates to the ear of cultural history which the show falls into just over 10 years ago, in GWB’s first term as president. It came out less than a year after the 9/11 tragedy, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t succeed in building the sort of cult appeal that it was looking for –– that time of exceptional national unity and solidarity in the US was not the ideal time for the telling of a myth of Confederate nostalgia and the honor to be found in resisting the federal government’s encroachment on the lives of heroic southern gentlemen while dreaming that eventually the South can rise again. The writers, producers and directors of this series couldn’t have known when they went into production that such a dramatic change in American consciousness would occur before they would be ready to broadcast. Their tragedy as it turns out: the show never saw a second season.

My guess is that without 9/11 it would have had a much longer run. Or perhaps if it had come out after GWB had succeeded in thoroughly re-dividing the country into “red states” and “blue states”, or after the election of the nation’s first black president brought Confederate nostalgia to its greatest high since the death of the original Civil War veterans, Firefly could have become a long-running cult classic among redneck nerds to rival the status of Lost or Game of Thrones among yuppie nerds. Then again, perhaps the cultural coup of creating a demographic of “redneck nerds” would have been too much to expect of one TV show even under the most ideal political circumstances.

So it remains unclear how much market there might have been for a myth set in a futuristic world where space ships are equipped with rough-sawed hardwood tables and mismatched wicker chairs; where heroes chase down levitating rocket scooters on horseback; where modified six-shooters, pump-action shotguns and 25th century laser cannons are all used in the same gun battles; and where the good guys are once again those who lost their war for independence and are thus forced into submission to a larger federal government, whose powers they continue to resist with the help of guts, guns and perhaps God. Sci-fi/fantasy as a genre has always “pushed the envelope” of seeing how many cultural and scientific impossibilities they can get the audience to overlook. If this one would have succeeded commercially it would have set a new benchmark for enabling an audience to suspend disbelief.  

mal-gun

Perhaps with a longer run the show could have explored how the commander, having been disillusioned of his faith when he saw that God was not there to help out in the righteous war that they lost, could come again to appreciate the importance of having something transcendent to believe in. There were certainly hints in that direction. Or perhaps once these mythical characters were properly familiar to and respected by the audience, the script could have tossed in more intellectually challenging and stimulating variations on the archetypes and mythical structure in question. Then again, maybe they would have just played it safe and stuck to feel-good themes that rednecks are traditionally comfortable with: the married couple deciding to have children in spite of the continuous struggles they are facing, the educated outsider and the down home poor girl managing to fall in love and get married in spite of their clumsiness and cultural differences, the gallant captain eventually making an “honest woman” out of the pure-hearted call girl, the dumb gorilla eventually developing a sense of honor  in terms of appreciating some values more important than his base hedonistic interests, the captain’s honor continuing to cause him to triumph against impossible odds in spite of his gullible trust in others (exploited by his “wife” and his old army buddy in the first season) …

But from my non-southern perspective there are also significant risks in this sort of mythical world gaining prominence in the national psyche. The more committed people are to a belief that resisting any central government is in their best interest –– materially and spiritually –– the less any honest democratically elected government will be able to do to limit the sociopathic powers of big businesses, protect the environment against unsustainable exploitation, or protect the human rights of those who are seen as “different” against local bigotry. The more that people subscribe to a myth that personal gun toting can solve all of their security concerns, the greater the arms race between neighbors will be and the more people will end up getting killed unnecessarily. The more the idea of a new civil war is glamorized, the greater the risk of some hot-heads succeeding in starting such a war. The more people are ready to believe that God is on their side in their honorable killing sprees (wars), the more intense those killing sprees can get. The more elements of nostalgia people depend on –– particularly nostalgia for the “good old days” before civil rights were federally enforced in the US, or for the “good old days” of Apartheid in South Africa –– the less motivated people will be to confront the abuses of “the good old days” and the need to keep working on building a more truly just society.

wallpaper-firefly-serenity-1024

Then again, I admit, maybe I’m just taking a piece of escapist pop culture a bit too seriously.

Whatever the case, though this show did provide me with some hours of amusing distraction this last week, I still think that since the American education system is coming nowhere near equipping kids to critically examine what sort of myths they absorb, it’s probably for the best that Firefly ended up getting cancelled. Then again, if it would have actually succeeded in creating a sub-culture of truly redneck nerds, the sheer entertainment value of watching such creatures trying to function in everyday society might have outweighed the long-term cultural dangers of having the show continue.

My take on a passing trivial matter. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Education, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Pop culture, Religion, Sexuality, Time, Tolerance

The Burden of Proof Thing

One of the classic fallacies recognized in philosophy is the argument from ignorance: You can’t prove it, therefore it isn’t so. Or just as often, you can’t disprove it, therefore it is so.

There are truckloads of things in this life that none of us can never know for sure: whether or not your boyfriend/girlfriend is contemplating cheating on you, whether a student actually did his own homework, what country your jeans were made in, whether some hacker has been looking at your private correspondence, whether Shakespeare actually did all his own writing, whether there are other planets with intelligent life on them in the next galaxy over…  On all of these things we sometimes have to take scientific or strategic wild-assed guesses, or SWAGs for short.

For any given SWAG that we operate on the basis of, there will almost always be some smart ass who will harass you about the matter, saying, “You can’t prove that!” or “How could you possibly know?” And of course in the final analysis many times we can’t know. Nor is it always possible to determine what level of doubt is reasonable even. Is the best policy to charitably believe what we are told as coming from good faith investigation unless proven otherwise, or is it best to assume that self-appointed authorities are full of crap unless they can prove that they know what they are talking about in some clearly repeatable scientific sort of way?

John Locke prescribed a particular method for determining which premises were trustworthy and which weren’t in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: First one is to collect evidence concerning the matter in as thorough and unbiased a way as possible, corresponding with whatever empirical data is at one’s disposal. Second, one is to weigh the probability of the proposition in question based on that evidence. And then finally one is to adopt a level of confidence on the matter which corresponds to the certainty that the evidence at hand provides. But this unjustifiably assumes that such a thing as neutrality is possible on such matters. Locke was a devoted Protestant theist, and as such he automatically assumed that his belief that the New Testament was reliable was perfectly rational, but that the Catholic doctrine of trans-substantiation wasn’t. Not being able to see how his perspective contained just as many biases and unjustified assumptions as the next guy’s made his system a lot less useful than he thought it was.

Of course the most controversial SWAGs these days have to do with the foundations of religion. Is there a God out there? Is there a spiritual realm beyond the material world we live in? Do the scriptures of my religion flawlessly, or even somewhat reliably, show us what God expects of us? Suffice to say, final rational proof on any of these questions, of the sort that demonstrates that all who disagree with you are idiots, is not forthcoming on any of these questions. So the question then becomes, whose responsibility is it to prove that they are right, with the assumption going against them until they are able to do so?

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it's up to you to prove it.

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it’s up to you to prove it.

Let me start laying out my own views on this matter with a view that most westerners will agree with fairly readily: If I’m trying to take power over your day-to-day life and convince you that you need to change your pattern of living to conform to my tastes, or if I am trying to convince you that the authority structure which I have decided to submit myself to has to be the one that controls your life as well, the burden of proof falls on me. This does not mean that either the religious or the non-religious assumption has the higher moral ground; it merely means that the party which is attempting to limit the behavior of others has the responsibility to explain why their behavior must be limited. If I am telling you that you should not be allowed to smoke in public places, it thus falls to me to prove that it would be harmful to others if you were to exercise the freedom to smoke as you please wherever you happen to be. If I want to insist on you being required to salute my flag, it is up to me to prove that this ritual plays a valuable and irreplaceable role in creating a sense of national solidarity and our shared cultural values will be less reliably realized if you fail to do so. If I want to prevent you from performing your preferred prayer rituals in some public space, it is up to me to demonstrate that these rituals cause significant harm or loss of freedom to others. In each case, the one who would take control over the other has the burden of proof to establish why the limiting of the other’s freedom is necessary.

This does not relate to the bigger religious questions of the existence of God or the spirit world or the reliability of some given faith, however, unless those views are being used as a means of attempting to take control over the lives of others. It must be acknowledged that religion has frequently been used for such purposes, and that such thinkers as Machiavelli strongly recommended the practice even; but that does not mean that this is part of the basic nature of religious belief in general, nor does it mean that religious perspectives are more liable to be used as the basis of coercion than non-religious ones. If anyone would care to make such a claim, the burden of proof is on them. It takes more than anecdotal evidence from Khomeini’s Iran and Calvin’s Geneva to prove such a case, especially when we have Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia on the other side of the balance. But in the case where an Islamist party is campaigning to make the closing of businesses for daily prayer times as a matter of civil law, and that women should be fined for indecency of they show too much leg or cleavage in public, then yes, the moral burden of proof falls on them to demonstrate that there is a need for such laws. If they are basing these laws on an understanding that there’s a god out there who gets seriously pissed when things are not done so, it becomes their responsibility to prove such a proposition to the satisfaction of any skeptics who will be required to live by such rules.

This too needs to be qualified, however. Complete consensus on moral and legal matters is a rather unrealistic standard to hold any society or system of government to. Just because not all skeptics can be satisfied does not mean that governing beliefs are inherently illegitimate, be they based on religious or any other ideology. There is still a practical value in the level of conformity embodied in the adages, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” and “When insane, do as the sane do.” The concept of human rights was introduced as a means of limiting the extent to which the majority can exercise power over minorities that they don’t like, but within those limits there is a fair amount of room for the standards that the community operates according to to be set by the principles of the majority, be they secular, deeply religious, nominally religious or agnostic. The point I am making is merely that the act of using an ideology as a means of controlling others is a factor that, philosophically speaking, causes someone to take on a certain burden of proof. In cases where neither religious nor secular ideas are being used as a means of usurping control over others, neither takes on a moral burden of proof in this regard.

So then in terms of establishing mutual understandings about underlying principles of reality for purposes of philosophy of science or applied ethics, how should we go about looking at these matters?

When it comes to the philosophy of science, actually, in the way it is practiced today this is somewhat of a mute question. Science is, in practice, a communal understanding of how we can go about fruitfully investigating various aspects of the dynamics of the material world. Whether there is a spiritual realm beyond this is sort of a moot issue as far as the scientific investigation itself goes. Just as when you are investigating the proper techniques of French cuisine you don’t need to take ice hockey strategy into consideration, so when you are doing most forms of science the potential existence of a spiritual realm is not particularly relevant. The exceptions are when we are trying to discover scientific causes for things that seem easier to understand in non-scientific terms, like why people heal faster from sickness and injury when they feel loved, or how we can determine whether or not people are capable of exercising moral choice in their actions. For some this also includes questions of the origin of life and consciousness, and the claims of different religions to be able to explain such things in non-experimental ways based on concepts of divine revelation within their faith. In these cases, when religious believers wish to impose their religious understandings on the process of investigating our material universe and theorizing about its dynamics and origins, they certainly do take on an extraordinary burden of proof in doing so. Likewise pure materialists who wish to demonstrate that there are in fact no important questions about life as we know it that cannot be answered in scientific terms take on a particularly heavy burden of proof in making such claims. Overall though, this field is not necessarily any more burdensome on religious people in terms of proof issues than politics is. The practice of scientific investigation is not one that needs to take a stand on the existence and dynamics of the spiritual realm one way or the other.

In the realm of personal ethics –– determining what I must do in order to think of myself as a “good person” –– there is so much disagreement regarding the underlying principles of what it is that makes particular actions right or wrong that the question of God’s role in the whole matter can easily get lost in the shuffle. It would be fair to say that whether or not there is a God, all of us suffer and benefit from a combination of nature and nurture when it comes to the “gut reactions” that determine more about our moral behavior than our ethical ideals do. That leaves each of us, if we want to be rationally ethical in the way we life, with a personal burden of proof to ourselves in terms of finding grounds for believing –– in “good faith” –– that the ideals we claim to believe in are true, useful and sustainable. Sometimes, we all must admit, we get a bit lazy about this process –– doing whatever feels good at the moment, or naively believing what our priests or cultural gurus tell us without stopping to think things through. Or like Locke himself, we chose to believe that the beliefs we were raised with are fundamentally rational and objective, even if in practice we should know better.

In my maybe not so humble opinion on the matter, there’s a lot to be said for being humble on purpose in this matter. We need to recognize that we will make mistakes and we need to believe that doing the best we can with what we’ve got will end up being worth something in the long run. Believing that there’s a just but merciful God out there evaluating the whole mess we get ourselves into but being ready to accept us in spite of ourselves when we cry out for his mercy is the best way I know of to go forward with such things. I have my reasons for believing that this is an honest thing to believe, but even if I’m wrong it’s still more functional than most. If I’m right about the basic things then the God out there is big enough where he doesn’t need me to defend his honor or to prove to others how great he is, and ultimately it’s him that’s in charge of judging everyone else, not me. If it turns out that I’m wrong, well I’ve done my best to be fair and honest about things, so I just have to hope that that counts for something.

Yet some want to prove to themselves, and those around them, that in some abstract sense their approach to the metaphysical principles they base their beliefs and morals on is in better faith than the next guy’s. It would be unfair to say whether this practice is more common among theists or anti-theists, but the most recent examples of such that I’ve seen have been tentatively presented from the anti-theist side. In particular there’s this one by my virtual friend James.

James has this thing for abstract logic, so to look at the question in good faith he wants to consider it in the most purely abstract terms possible: thinking of the question of the existence of God(s) entirely separately from any cultural preconceptions whatsoever. That in itself is a rather problematic premise since our minds really don’t work that way; but moving on, his best effort at a purely abstract argument for starting with the assumption of the existence of God is that given all of the mutually exclusive definitions possible for divinity there would seem to be pretty good mathematical odds that one of them might exist. This, however, boils down to a fruitless game of perpetual disputes over definitions, not providing anything worth basing ones further contingent beliefs on. The argument he offers in turn for starting with the assumption that there is no God is that the more carefully you define the nature of the sort of god you are will to accept as God, the further you decrease your odds of finding such an entity “out there.” Thus it may be safest not to assume that there is such a thing “out there.”

I’m frankly not sure how this relates to the real comfort and sense of purpose that some get from believing in God, and the sense of freedom and open possibility that others get from not believing in gods. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone’s starting default position on the subject is actually going to be set without any reference to these existential emotional factors. We obviously become what we receive the most reinforcement at becoming in these matters. If our primary experiences of religion are negative, we learn to avoid all that such religion stands for. If our primary experiences of religion are positive, we learn to cling to those beliefs as a key part of our frame of reference in shaping our personal identities. Clearly there is more to the cognitive validity of various religious beliefs than just the cultural conditioning factors, but the power of these factors is foolish to deny for those on either side of the question. This will set the de-facto default setting that each of us in fact has to work with; the rest is tactics in the power struggle between these default settings.

So what it comes down to is this: if you need me to accept your premises as grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof regarding the validity of your premises lies with you. If I need you to accept my premises as the grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof lies with me. If we can interact without having to agree on the matter, neither of us shoulders a burden of proof. And as long as we can accept that the other has certain rights regardless of how much or how little she agrees with me, the risks involved in being in the minority of convictions on such matters is manageable. And if each is secure enough in his/her convictions so that we don’t act as though the truth of the matter might hinge on whether or not we win the argument or a holy war on the subject, these bitter arguments and holy wars over such matters can be kept to a minimum.

And if you can’t accept that, it’s up to you to prove me wrong.  🙂

 

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Filed under Epistemology, Human Rights, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

The Borders of Bigotry

I got labeled as a bigot once last month.

To the best of my knowledge this is a fairly rare event. I’m quite frequently labeled as a bastard, a slob, a hard-ass, a space shot, a fantasy merchant and virtually every other negative epitaph that is commonly associated with middle-aged divorcees, religious thinkers or ENTPs. “Bigot” usually isn’t one of them.

The occasion was one of the debates over gun control that I got entangled in post-Sandy Hook. My interlocutor was presenting a variation on the naturalistic fallacy to argue against restrictions on what are commonly called assault rifles. I’m not sure where he got his figures, but he made a claim that there are somewhere between 5 and 10 million AR-15s in private use in the United States. Thus, he argues, given how few people actually end up getting killed by them, there’s obviously nothing wrong with keeping such high-end killing machines at home in private hands.

How much "prejudice" am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

How much “prejudice” am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

Now like I said, I’m not sure where these figures came from, or if they take into account all of the AR15s which were purchased in the US, just because that’s by far the easiest place in the world to get them, by private armies from countries that supply the US with drugs –– the Central and South American countries that actually have higher gun violent rates than the US –– which have since been illegally exported from the US. But even if it is true that one in 15 US households is equipped to blow the s**t out of a crowded restaurant, I don’t see any rational reason why they need to be so equipped. I would go as far as to say that those who feel a need to own such equipment, for whatever psychological reasons they may have, should be justifiably subjected to deeper official scrutiny than the rest of the general public merely on the basis of their compulsion to be so massively equipped for violent action. And this, dear friends, is what is said to qualify me as a bigot.

Let me clarify my position on this matter just a tad: I am not saying that those who feel a need to own assault rifles should be categorically labeled as insane or clinically paranoid and delusional, or even as inherently bad people. I recognize that while many assault rifle owners may have been convinced by advertisers to acquire such equipment as a means of compensating for certain insecurities about their masculinity, this would not necessarily be the case for all of them, or necessarily even the majority of them. For those who wish to use such equipment as toys –– to periodically blast the hell out of inanimate objects as a form of emotional release –– I don’t see this as any more harmful or dangerous than drag racing: As long as it is restricted to the confines of secure areas where it doesn’t endanger the general public, fine by me.

What I am saying is that I find the whole idea that certain people feel a need to be equipped to kill large numbers of other human beings to be deeply disturbing, and I believe that those who feel such a need should be subject to enhanced official scrutiny on that basis alone.

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

I do not think of this as being equivalent to racial profiling, discrimination against religious groups or even enhanced scrutiny of those who follow particular styles of music.  Of these examples I consider the last to be the closest though, and in that regard I would be willing to be scrutinized on the basis of my tastes if that’s what it came down to: I happen to deeply appreciate many aspects of the artistry of the Grateful Dead, and I consider Jerry Garcia’s death of a heroin overdose to have been one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 1990s. But unlike many (most?) other even moderate “Dead Heads”, I have never experimented with any form of pharmaceutical recreation beyond basic alcohol. Even so, I recognize the cultural connection between this band and a certain sort of drug culture, so if I were selected for a random drug test on the basis of my taste in music in this regard I would feel rather cynical about it, but I would not take it as a violation of my basic rights. I wouldn’t be inclined to accuse the police of bigotry for checking.

It’s sort of like police having breathalyzer patrols out more heavily on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s not as though everyone who drives on those evenings is considered to be a likely drunk, but among those out on the road at such times there is a far greater likelihood of finding drunk drivers than among those in commuter traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, for instance; thus it makes a certain amount of practical, pragmatic sense for the police to run such patrols at such times. And if I’m pulled over and asked to blow at such times I don’t take offense at it. I certainly would never accuse the officer with the breathalyzer of bigotry just for being at it on the weekend!

Just as it would be absurd to accuse a cop of bigotry for breathalyzing random drivers near a bar on a Saturday night, it would also be absurd to call it bigotry if law enforcement were on the lookout for abusive forms of pornography among those with large dildo collections… or to be on the lookout for those with violent tendencies which could put the public at danger among those who collect particularly powerful killing equipment.

Charlton Hesston’s “cold dead hands” shtick, sponsored so effectively by the NRA, makes the siege mentality among gun owners –– and defensiveness regarding their identity as gun owners –– a far more emotional issue than the consumer identity of any other product line I can think of; and the higher powered the killing equipment they feel a need to possess, the higher the emotional pitch of their argument seems to get. So on that level it doesn’t really surprise me to find myself labeled as a “bigot” by a self-appointed representative of AR15 owners. Even so, it might well be time to reconsider how we use the word “bigot” and who is justifiably labelable as such.

One place where this has come out in broader public discourse over the past few weeks has been in relation to the battle over the political confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is openly critical of American expansionist neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, and thus those factions of the right wing press and the Republican Party which have the deepest commitment to such military adventurism have made a committed point of labeling him as a bigot. Why?

Chuck_Hagel_Iraq_5-635x357Well, he’s actually given them two excuses. First of all, as a military veteran and a resident of what is now called a deep red state, Hagel has apparently been socialized into a fair amount of homophobia, and 14 years ago he let a certain amount of that fly by joining in on a Republican attempt to block the appointment of an openly gay man, politically active in support of gay rights causes, to the minor post of ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel has publicly retracted his statements of that time, but it would still seem reasonable to assume that he retains a certain amount of edgy suspicion towards those of the LGBT persuasion; and visa-versa.

That seems to be a side issue however: Those who are particularly concerned for gay rights tend to be concerned with respect for human rights across the board. The core issue for those who prioritize this issue is to insure that people are respected as people, regardless of factors that are beyond their control, such as their race, their gender, their national origin, their tribal identity and, yes, their sexual orientation. One of the primary means by which people tend to lose their basic rights most commonly and most thoroughly is through military expansionism, by whatever excuse it is carried out. Hagel’s personal priority is clearly limiting military expansionism; driving home to his fellow Americans the lessons of the Viet Nam war that he learned better than most. That gives him a common cause with the main current of the LGBT community, for which they are largely willing to look beyond his past indiscretions and lingering suspicions. As has often been the case, Senator Barney Frank has been the one to express this most eloquently. What seems to remain at issue is efforts by those who stand to profit the most from military adventurism to stir up these animosities and suspicions, which the people concerned have largely worked through already, to keep Hagel out of a position where he could cramp their style.

The more significant bigotry charge against Hagel is in relation to “anti-Semitism” purportedly reflected in his critical stance toward military expansionism by the state of Israel. Here too his critics have been able to use Hagel’s own choice of words against him: In 2006 he is quoted as referring to the unquestionably powerful pro-Israeli lobbyists on Capitol Hill as “the Jewish Lobby.” It  makes it harder for Hagel’s allies to draw a distinction between sensitivity to “Jewish concerns” and unquestioning support for militant Zionist expansionism when Hagel himself blurs the line with his careless choice of words.

That being said, there is a distinction to be made there, and the Jewish-American journalist to whom Hagel made this unfortunate statement actually defends the legitimacy of Hagel’s viewpoint in context. In order for Israel to be a sustainable project, and for it to eventually develop stable and respectful relations with its neighbors (which may not be possible until its Arab neighbors run out of oil in any case, but it is still worth hoping for), they need to start treating the Arab minority among Israelis and displaced Palestinians overall as people worthy of respect as people. Creeping further and further into Arab held lands with Jewish settlements, and backing up this expansion with the Israeli army being ready to fire on anyone who throws rocks at the “settlers” is a policy well worth critiquing. Hagel’s willingness to say so is one of his chief merits.

The elephant in the middle of the room here is actually the pro-Israel American Christian Evangelicals. Among other places this is fairly clearly laid out in Barbara Victor’s book on the religious dynamics behind the GWB presidency: “The Last Crusade”. In short, there are numerous American Christians who believe that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is a sign that Jesus Christ will be coming back very soon, that as part of this process Israel needs to completely control all lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at least, and that supporting the state of Israel is one of the most important ways for believers and believing nations to earn God’s favor. This is combined with a strong suspicion that the UN (and/or President Obama) represents the interests of the Anti-Christ. Among Americans who uncritically and unquestioningly support Israel’s expansionist policies, this sort of Christians is a more potent political force than secular Jews hoping for a secure homeland for their people.

But back to the topic of bigotry: We all have been raised with our own suspicions about “the Others,” whoever they may be. The question is how well we are able to critically reconsider our prejudices in this regard, and what sort of heuristic devices we can use without diminishing the human value of others.

Backing off to a less emotionally charged example: last summer I bought the cheapest semi-reliable looking car I could find with a larger than average amount of cargo space. As it happened, this one turned out to be a Citroen. I’m still driving it, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the basic safety inspection next month, so I’m just seeing how much I can still get out of it before throwing it away. This is in fact the fourth French car I have owned, not counting one I helped my son pick out, and I can say that it has strongly confirmed certain preconceptions I have about French cars in general. In particular I believe now more than ever that the basic electrical systems in all French cars are inherently unreliable. There are about a dozen little electronic controls on my car that work intermittently at best (seat warmers, intermittent wipers, electric windows, dashboard lights…), and a few months ago it actually had an electrical fire –– smoke and flames and all –– which, with some help from charitable passers-by, I managed to get extinguished quick enough and repaired far enough to keep it drivable. But I still pass on the practical advice to whomever it may concern: if you’re going to buy a French car, be prepared for electrical problems.

You can actually barely see the fire damage.

On the surface you can actually barely see the fire damage.

Does that mean I hate the French or their cars overall? Not at all! Under similar circumstances I would still consider buying yet another French car some day; I’d just be prepared to experience electrical problems with it. Does this count as a prejudice? Perhaps. Does it have a rational, empirical basis? I’d say. Could it be overcome in the light of new evidence? I believe so: if Peugeot, Renault and Citroen get their collective act together with quality control in this regard, and consumer testing starts to demonstrate a surprising new level of reliability, I could overcome my generalized suspicions on such a basis. Should I feel guilty about my current frame of mind on such things then? Please.

Now what about when this relates to groups of people? There is one very fundamental difference: whereas cars only have instrumental value, we have good reason to postulate that people have inherent value. In other words people aren’t just valuable for what use we might find for them; people have value in and of themselves. There is something very close to an ethical consensus that those who don’t believe this are not to be trusted. This is one of the defining elements of bigotry: dismissing the overall value of particular groups of human beings based on preconceived notions and generalizations about what “they” are like is as good an explanation as any for what makes someone a bigot.

But that does not mean that all heuristic analysis of fellow human beings is inherently immoral. I have complete respect for Indonesians as persons, but if I were to be scouting for promising basketball players I probably wouldn’t spend much time in Indonesia, given that the average height of men there is about 20 cm shorter than most other countries. If I were recruiting high-rise construction workers I might show somewhat of a preference for indigenous Americans, as I understand they are significantly less susceptible to vertigo than those of other ethnicities. Even in these limited examples individual excellence or personal limitations should not be overlooked of course, but the main point is that the generalized capacities in question are perfectly acceptable heuristic devices so long as human value is not assessed on such bases.

Heuristic analysis of functional capacities and risk factors relating to different groups of people –– especially when it is based on consumer decision patterns that they demonstrate –– is not a matter of calling the human value of such individuals into question. Thus I have no sense of guilt over feeling less comfortable with people for whom AR15 ownership is an important part of their identity than I do with others who find the mass distribution of such killing technology to be rather problematic and disturbing. I am equally at peace with my relative unease with extreme body modifiers, porn addicts, show wrestling enthusiasts and street racing participants. I recognize that such lifestyle choices do not eliminate the human value of such individuals, and there are undoubtedly many wonderfully warm, kind and stable human beings within all of these categories. But I still find such lifestyle decisions to be both inherently dangerous and potentially symptomatic of deeper psychological issues. I see no bigotry in suggesting that social workers and law enforcement personnel should pay particular attention to the behavior of those who make such lifestyle decisions –– especially to those who are emotionally attached to their assault weapons.

On the political side, I really cannot say whether Chuck Hagel is more or less prone to bigotry than the average former Republican Senator. I suspect less so, but that, I admit, may simply reflect my own prejudices. The point is that he has demonstrated a clear recognition of the human value of both gays and Jews –– those he has been accused of being most bigoted against –– and he has firmly committed himself to working with both groups towards reducing destructive stupidity and unnecessary aggression in US military policy. While that goal may be more Utopian than bringing about lasting peace in the Middle East, it is still good to see someone intent on making sincere efforts in that direction at leastFor arms manufacturers and their political allies to attempt to block such efforts at restraint and re-thinking in the name of “exposing a bigot” is the height of political immorality.

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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance