Monday, March 26, 2012

These things that pass for knowledge....

The joke at my UCC seminary was about the graduate who came to face his ecclesiastical council in order to be ordained, and confessed that, due to seminary, he had lost his belief in God.

But it was the UCC, so what could they do? They ordained him anyway.

It's a jest on the UCC, but also on seminary. In his biography of Martin Luther King, I remember a passage where King was surprised to find one of his seminary professors attended church. Why? Because the professor so challenged King's church derived beliefs, the doctrines he brought to seminary from his childhood, that King was sure the man was an atheist. Seminary is not "Bible College." It is not a place to have your Sunday school aphorisms affirmed and your faith reassured. There was always some lively speculation in seminary as to which professors were secretly atheists, and a general reluctance to put too much stress on piety, and not enough stress on intellectual foundations.

Which I thought of while I watched this story on "UP with Chris Hayes" this morning. I don't want to pass judgment on Mike Aus (his is a non-denominational church, I'm not sure what title he carries, if any) . But the discussion of how he lost his belief (not his "faith," I would argue; he simply transferred that to something else. Watch this discussion from earlier in the show, and replace "trust" with "faith," a perfectly legitimate transfer as the Greek word in the Gospels translated as "faith" can be equally translated as "trust." You'll see, as Anthony points out here from time to time, that we all "believe" in something. The question is, do we ever examine the roots of that belief, be they science, or religion?) is interesting because he credits two guests on the show: Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker.

Dawkins I've written about before; and Pinker, too, to a lesser degree. Later in the show Pinker defends his thesis that human life is "progressing" towards at least non-violence, first by pointing out violence is down since 1946 (probably due more to the Pax Americana than to "progress," but I digress) and that this decline in violence is due to institutions, not individuals.

Which is interesting on two fronts: one, it tacitly accepts the concept of "original sin," at least as espoused by Christopher Hedges and Reinhold Niebuhr, if not by the local Bible thumper. Two, Mr. Pinker would be hard pressed to exclude the Church, at least in the West, from the institution most to be credited for the improvement he argues has, and is, occurring (and perhaps he doesn't exclude it. My point is the same, with or without his concurrence.).

Here is Niebuhr on the question of sin and national innocence:
A further consequence of modern optimism is a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress. Either by a force immanent in nature itself, or by the gradual extension of rationality, or by the elimination of specific sources of evil, such as priesthoods, tyrannical government and class divisions in society, modern man [sic] expects to move toward some kind of perfect society. The idea of progress is compounded of many elements. It is particularly important to consider one element of which modern culture is itself completely oblivious. The idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks. But since the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of man [sic] is eliminated, a complicating factor in the Christian philosophy is removed and the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Intepretation, Vol. I (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 1996), p. 24.

And here is Chris Hedges, on much the same point:
We have nothing to fear from those who do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectability or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.
Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe In Atheists, New York: Free Press, 2008, p. 13-14.

As if to underline Mr. Hedges point, Richard Dawkins declared everyone who doesn't think as he does unmutual . He told Chris Hayes that all Roman Catholic politicians should be challenged on the doctrine of transubstantiation; those who didn't refute it should be humiliated for believing such an obvious myth. To his credit, Chris Hayes and the rest of the more Jeffersonian panel considered that a disastrous concept of civility. But Mr. Dawkins' sentiments were perfectly clear.

Almost no one in public life any longer speaks of human spirituality (although given the tenor of this televised discussion, I shouldn't be), even though the spiritual emptiness of modern life has been a staple of American literature for over a century now:
The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation which established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his well-known qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he had been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interest were identical, the German-American can has served the interest of the nation well.

But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.
We really have reduced all considerations in public life to matters of economics. The Paul Ryan budget, the concerns over the deficit, the outcry about funding Planned Parenthood or even providing insurance coverage that might pay for contraceptives, is ultimately all about money, and not about people. Money trumps every question of spirituality or human value, because it is only money that matters, it is only money that can be quantified, counted, assessed, and truly valued. It is perfectly clear, across the Western world in the throes of an economic crisis, that people are too damned expensive, and saving money from the people who would consumer is the greatest good and highest duty of society. In some recent speeches Obama has sounded the note emphasized in that second paragraph; but who has echoed it for him? And why is this kind of talk so important? Why is spirituality so valuable to modern democracy?
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952, p. 21-22.

None of this came up among the public intellectuals and pontificators on Chris Hayes show Sunday morning. None of these ideas were presented as fair challenge; discussed; even considered. Nothing pierced the rather simplistic bubble of the conversation aside from Mr. Dawkins' outrageous demand against Roman Catholic politicians. I found, after a while, that I couldn't look at Stephen Pinker and not think: Here is a man of extraordinary privilege sitting at the very pinnacle of a pyramid that is literally international in scope and reach and which provides that privilege to him, out of all the billions of human beings alive in the world at this moment, and all the millions of Americans and Canadians who might, out of all the other billions on the planet, have any hope of laying claim to the same privilege and comforts Mr. Pinker enjoys. And he is absolutely Panglossian in his assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds and it's only getting better and violence is going down as we all become better people thanks, of course, to Western civilization (he's not enough of an anthropologist to give any attention to any other form of civilization). From his perch he gets to scan human history and see nothing but improvement which leads inevitably to his comfortable place, and which will, with his added insight and wisdom, soon guide us all to the new millenium of human perfectability. It's not just the Calvinist and Niebuhrian in me that laughs at his presumption, it is the knowledge that any situation, when you simplify it enough, looks tractable and even eminently explicable. Mr. Pinker is no wiser than Gulliver, no more thoughtful than Pangloss, no less naive than Candide. He assumes his enormous privilege is deserved rather than wrenched from the mouths of children he will never know, who will die because of a system that ignores, if it doesn't exploit, them, just as much as it serves the every comfort of the Stephen Pinkers of the world, and it does the latter only by doing the former. From Mr. Pinker's perch, there are signs of progress; from the perch of the children shot by the US Army Sergeant? Or dragooned into involuntary military service by Kory? Or who will die of starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, across the planet, at any given moment? What progress in the affairs of common humanity do they enjoy?

And just this week I hear doctors warning that an over-reliance on antibiotics may bring an end to medicine as we know it, because of the "superbugs" which prove ever more resistant to those very antibiotics. Technology that has made life such a blessing, may soon leave us where it found us: having tasted paradise, and then cast out again, forevermore. Technology which has already made life a blessing for those on one end, makes it a hell on earth for those on the other, right down to the discarded electronic waste with its heavy metals and poisons that decay in foreign (to us) landfills where people not us, live. Global warming is not the result of bushmen in Australia burning campfires, yet they will be affected by it. Resource wars for water and oil are predicted to be on the horizon, the product of the very progress in science and rise of civilization which Mr. Pinker avers is responsible for the decline in human institutional violence. Surely the people are grass!

But that's alright, because the reliance on violence is declining! That could as much be because the long arm of the powerful, as it was for the Romans in their heyday, is so much longer and more powerful than it is for the recipients of that violence. How does one counter a tank, except with an IED? How does one counter a drone, if at all? How does one shoot back against a bomber, or a cruise missile? Who, in the world, truly possesses the weapons of mass destruction, and who possesses only the ability to kill at best many at a time? Three planes on 9/11 killed 3000 people. How many millions did we manage to kill in retaliation? The great violence of the two world wars was more because of the ability of the two sides to inflict massive injuries on each other over a sustained period. The battles since have been far more one sided. Statistic alone do not indicate the presence of the trend Mr. Pinker is looking for.

And his argument, too, is based on the fact that Samuel Pepys went to a public place to see a hanging, or a quartering, or some other act of violence actually inflicted on another person, as a form of entertainment (as well as an assertion of the power and authority of the State). What's changed now is that we can see such violence 24 hours a day in the comfort of our own homes, and the only difference now is that it's simulated violence. Does that really matter to the audience? Did they really care about the lives of the gladiators any more than fans today care about the lives of "professional wrestlers"? In modern day entertainment, we pretend to hurt people, and even when the violence involves children, we find a good reason for it; or at least we find it entertaining. Perhaps it is better that we don't slaughter people outright for our pleasure; but we still find violence as compelling a subject of spectacle as ever we did. Whether it is real or staged doesn't matter much to us, as we want our faked violence to be as realistic as possible. Even in the movie of "The Hunger Games," the bodies of the children being killed by children were realistically presented as dead, and in some cases their deaths were portrayed as very painful. Do we really care any more about the actors playing the minor roles (the red shirt in "Star Trek," the henchman in any James Bond or other action film; many of the dead children in "The Hunger Games") than the audience cared about the gladiators who were slain? My daughter knew one of the actors in "The Hunger Games" from her school; but she was a minor character, and I can't even remember if she died on screen or not.

And let me just back up and say the idea, presented again by Robert Wright on Chris Hayes' panel, that morality comes only from God is not a theological proposition, but a 19th century secular one. It arose primarily out of concern for the rising atheism of the educated (read: ruling) classes, especially in England, who reasoned that if they couldn't subjugate the masses with a fear of hell and visions of sinners in the hands of an angry God, all public morality (read: the social order that keeps us at the top!) might be undone. It had far more to do with the Great Chain of Being than with Moses giving the law to the tribes of Israel, and for Mr. Wright and others to continue to beat this shibboleth as if it were a real (but dead) horse says far more about their ignorance and credulity, than it does about the least knowledgeable believer in any world religion.

Even as I divest myself of these opinions (prick me and I bleed a gallon of response), I wonder who I think I'm talking to. Stephen Pinker is comfortable in his amorally moral universe, and Susan Jacoby (also on Chris Hayes) was, frankly, incoherent (not that I was much of a fan). Robert Wright is a spent force in this arena (when he isn't, as Chris Hedges would put it, simply illiterate), no more deserving of serious consideration than Pinker or Dawkins. Pinker declares that the angels of our better nature are being wooed on a world-wide basis by institutions? And where do those institutions come from, and from whence comes their beneficent influence? Space aliens? Selfish genes? The progress of Western civilization? Or is it more likely from human beings, and human nature? Has Pinker so much as heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, so much as read sociology or anthropology? Niebuhr's central insights into institutions and morality absolutely turn Pinker's bland assertions and statistics inside out. And I speak as a serious student of the subjects they think themselves qualified to dabble in. Most other serious students know these "ideas" (I use the word cautiously) aren't worth the effort it takes to refute them, and the majority of the world's religious believers don't give a wet snap what the four of them say, or who they say it to. This is a conversation conducted by a small group ignorant of everything except their own preconceptions, impervious to understanding and of no real consequence to the course of human history. Not, at least, when it comes to the very human realm of the religious.

I know I'm not Kierkegaard; but neither am I taking on Hegel or the State Church. And I am reminded of two things; or is it three?
"The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . "

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
And: Those who can't do, teach. Or, at least, they talk a lot; without getting very much done.

These are not, of course, refutations. No idea is ever refuted, ever finally put to rest; no idea, good or bad, is ever ended. But at some point it is apparent that there are discussions worth having, and discussions not worth bothering with. And there is a reason Kierkegaard wanted his audience to eventually leave behind the philosophical works, and take up (and truly learn from) the edifying discourses.

So this is not a refutation; consider it more of a rejection. Again.

Mimi is right in her comment below; I would be better off ignoring this subject, unless I can turn some good out of it. And that good would be to make efforts to refocus the discussion away from the supremacy of materialism and back toward the necessity of spirituality.

And maybe one day I'll learn to leave it lay where Jesus flang it.


  1. What a gloriously long and challenging post with so many points to consider. I will read it several more times.

    Pinker's recent shtick has got to be some of the most clueless narcissism in the alleged intellectual class, such as that is these days. It's amazing how much the fraudulent materialists among them get away with. Apropos of which, here's a blog duel I'm involved with over the dishonest PR operation that is organized atheism and "skepticism".

    I've entirely lost my faith that materialism, either when it is the ideology of a society or an individual person can originate, never mind maintain even civic decency. Unaided by metaphysics, it certainly is not a sufficient level of moral behavior. Even some prominent atheists say that, though not many who speak English, these days.

    "For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk. " Jurgen Habermas

  2. From the link above, Richard Dawkins speaks:

    Evidence is the only way we know to discover what’s true about the real world. Logic is how we deduce the consequences that follow from evidence. Who could be against either?

    Somebody want to give Dawkins a history of philosophy, with the chapters on Empiricism, Idealism, and Logical Positivism dogeared so he must might learn something? Oh, and then teach him the concept of "logic"?

    His definition strikes me as a bit sophomoric, to put it bluntly.

    I'm sure Dawkins is a fine biologist; but he's hopelessly out of his depth here.

  3. As an atheist, I dislike the word "sin", as it implies a judgemental God. On the other hand, I recognize that we are but a species of ape, just intelligent enough to be truly dangerous. Our reason and compassion rarely overcome our essential, tribal, primitive ape-ness. So what some call "original sin" I call "being fundamentally screwed by our own hopeless inadequacy". A conscious commitment to science and reason can help mitigate the problems a little bit or get you killed by an angry mob, depending on circumstances.

  4. A conscious commitment to science and reason can help mitigate the problems a little bit or get you killed by an angry mob, depending on circumstances.

    There are several definitions of "sin," from various Jewish understandings, through various Christian understandings, down through various secular understandings.

    I think Hedges' primary concern is with limitations. One can approach limitations through logic (Godel's theorem of incompleteness) as well as through experience; through theology as well as through a mystical experience (Julian of Norwich's shewings discount the importance of sin to the point they are almost post-modern in their underpinnings). Hubris takes many forms, from that which the Greeks wrote plays and epics (and histories) about, through that which made Russell think he could define all knowledge on a mathematical basis (until Godel made that blow up in his face). So it really is "being fundamentally screwed by our own hopeless inadequacy." Or, at least, recognizing our inadequacies. Hedges would take that off to the dark corner of despair; the Greeks though it explained the inevitability of tragedy; I prefer to let it lead me to the soft light of humility.

    Any conscious commitment to any system, if it's a good system, can certainly mitigate some (but not all; Godel, again) problems. But it can get the mob to turn on you, depending on the mob's predilections and acceptance of your system. Ask any leader of any group.


  5. Nathaniel11:38 AM

    "My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"

    Are you seriously endorsing that as an argument? My organization runs soup kitchens, therefore its statements and beliefs are immune to question? You don't belong to my soup kitchen running organization, therefore I don't have to listen to a word you say?

    It manages the feat of two logical fallacies in just four sentences. Ad Hominem and Non Sequitur. Wonderful.

  6. Are you seriously endorsing that as an argument?

    No. I just like it. And it ties in with this quote:

    The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience

    Actions speak louder than words. Which was ultimately the point (and critique) of the post.

    After all, which is more important? Why you do something? Or that you do something? The distinction matters in criminal law, I'll grant you; in charity, it is perhaps less significant.

  7. Nathaniel12:35 PM

    "No. I just like it."

    Jesus wept.

    "And it ties in with this quote:"

    Oh wait, so you do think it holds merit in context of the quote.

    "After all, which is more important? Why you do something? Or that you do something?"

    It depends. If I on a date with my girlfriend because I like spending time with her, that's one thing. If I do it because I desire sex with her and pretending to like her is the best way to get what I want, then that's another.

    You tell me. Which is more important. What I did, or why I did it?

  8. FYI, most "atheists" and "agnostics" that I know are more properly "igtheists": we consider the word "god" so underdefined as to render atheism vs. agnosticism an impossible choice.

    More practically, either word will do, and we use either depending on how conciliatory we're feeling.

  9. You tell me. Which is more important. What I did, or why I did it?

    Can't say as I really care. I suppose if you subscribe to an ethical system that says one is bad, the other good, then you have your answer.

    How that system is based on materialism or empiricism is beyond me.

    Oh wait, so you do think it holds merit in context of the quote.

    Yes, I do. Isn't that what I said?

  10. You tell me. Which is more important. What I did, or why I did it?

    The moral difference is not in your present behavior, but in your probable future behavior.

    Of course, you might easily be sexually attracted to a woman then gradually fall in love with her.

  11. Rmj, can you suggest the best place to start in reading Niebuhr? Either his own writings or a good source that is an introduction to his writings. Thank you also for this thoughtful post.

  12. Rmj, can you suggest the best place to start in reading Niebuhr? Either his own writings or a good source that is an introduction to his writings. Thank you also for this thoughtful post.

  13. Nathaniel6:42 PM

    "Yes, I do. Isn't that what I said?"

    Generally, when someone asks a question, and the first word in the response is "No," that generally means no. Here, let me quote you:

    "No. I just like it." In response to:

    "Are you seriously endorsing that as an argument?"

    So to the common man, it would seem as though you are saying, no, you don't endorse the argument that if a person doesn't belong to a church they aren't allowed to criticize one.

    "Can't say as I really care."

    If you don't care, why pose the question in the first place?

  14. Just so you know, Nathaniel, I'm letting you have the last word.

    Since you seem to so desperately want it.

    Rusty: I'd start with "Moral Man and Immoral Society." "The Irony of American History" is good, too.

    Niebuhr is so clear and concise I'd just go to the source for him.