Monday, May 23, 2016
The Past of Islamic Civilization
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”
― George Orwell, 1984
These days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.
As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?
For the majority of Muslims, it is the time of the Prophet that represents an idealized society. However many of them implicitly also realize that by its own constitution that era cannot be replicated precisely because of the Muslim belief that the Prophet cannot come back and there will not be another prophet – a perfect society needs a perfect man. The era after that which is most revered by (Sunni) Muslims is the era of the Righteously Guided Caliphs. What most folks fail to realize that that era was revered in classical Islam not because of it was a time of peace and prosperity but because of its proximity to the time of the Prophet. On one hand it was a time of great expansion where the foundations of Islamic governance were also laid down. On the other hand it was also a time of civil wars when there was a great deal of intra-Muslim bloodshed. To anyone who wants to revive that era, one must caution that it is also the time when the Khawarij, the intellectual ancestors of groups like ISIS first arose. One must be careful in what one wishes for.
Then there is the Golden age of Islamic civilization centered on Baghdad, Cordoba and Samarkand. While the Islamists tout the greatness of this era what gets shoved under the rugs is that many of the rulers of this era were less than exemplary when it comes to their orthodoxy. Another fact that many people fail to recognize is that even during the Golden Age the majority of the subjects of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims including an appreciable percentage of scientists and philosophers who were instrumental for the rise of Islamic civilization. Science and technology back then as it is now is an international collaboratory enterprise. The last point is especially relevant to our day and age since the exclusion of non-Muslims in the national narratives in the Muslim world has unfortunately become the norm. Outside of small academic circles most people, Muslims or non-Muslims, are unaware of the fact that what came to be identified with the Islamic systems of governance was heavily borrowed from the Sassanids. The millet system of the Ottomans was inspired by a similar system that the Rightly Guided Caliphs has enacted which in turn was invented by the Sassanids. When the rulers of Vijaynagar in South India were copying the style of Muslim palaces they were actually copying the plans that Muslims had acquired from Sassanids. The greatest irony here being that while some modern day non-Muslim Iranians blame Muslims for destroying their culture, it was actually the Islamic culture that led to the widespread dissemination of the Iranian culture but under the Islamic garb.
The lesson being that he early Muslims had to deal with many practical considerations of ruling a multi-ethnic multi-religious Empire and inspiration had to be taken from anywhere and everywhere. Even the aesthetics that came to be identified as quintessentially Islamic had roots in earlier civilizations. The archetypical image of how a mosque should look like is heavily borrowed from Eastern Orthodox Churches that the Muslims first encountered in their conquests of Syria and the Levant. These observations do not make these developments less Islamic but rather it shows the openness of the Islamic culture of a bygone era. The translation of Greeks works did not start in the time of Abbasids as in the popular imagination but rather it had already started in the second generation from the time of the Prophet. Khalid bin Yazid, an ummawid prince and a scientist himself was instrumental in sponsoring the translation project in Alexandria less than 50 years after the time of the Prophet.
Then there is Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain has been romanticized by people as diverse as Tariq Ali, Osama bin Laden, head of States etc. It is supposed to represent a time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in an era of supposed harmony. While one may disagree with the details of convicencia how it came to an end is where a great deal of disconnect lies in the minds of the Muslim masses. It was not just the advancing armies of Aragon and Castilia that doomed the culture of tolerance but the Almohad were equally intolerant towards the culture of coexistence. It is easier to kill a culture if it already has a self-inflicted wound. The last great flowering of the Islamic civilization was of course the Ottoman Empire. It is also arguably the most successful Muslim empire in history. The empire that now stands as the emblem of the Caliphate only took up that mantle in its declining years. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was followed by more than a century of Romanphilia. In fact Mehmet the Conqueror wanted to conquer Rome itself to “reunify” the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Sultans styled themselves as the Emperors of the Romans till the very end of the empire. People in the Balkans focus on the ethnic conflict in the dying days of the empire but fail to mention the 5 centuries of coexistence prior to that. Thus the question of brining back the Ottomans is more appropriately phrased as which incarnation of the Ottoman Empire as it greatly changed over the course of seven centuries. The dichotomies of Christian vs. Muslim disappear even more when one realizes that the majority of the Ottoman army at the siege of Vienna in 1683 may actually have been made up of Christians. Can we really imagine such a scenario three hundred years after the fact?
If the Abbasids represented the Golden Age of Islam then perhaps the rise of Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids, the Mali Empire, the Indian Ocean trade networks and the spread of Islam in South East Asia should be termed as the Silver Age of Islam. There may be many more things that we can learn from the less glamorous and the seemingly peripheral parts of Islamic history: The question of Islamic law and how Muslims should live as minorities in a non-Muslim state has come to the fore in the West recently. Even some of the learned ulemas act as if this is an unprecedented situation and as if this has not happened before. Islam has been in China for longer than most Muslim majority places in the world. Chinese Muslims have a long history of integrating with and long conversing with a foreign civilization. Chinese Muslims arts, culture, language and even philosophy has much to teach the rest of the Muslim world if only they are willing to listen. Al-Andalus was not the only region of Europe that was occupied by Arabs and Berbers and brought advanced civilization there. Sicily was the Andalus that disappeared early on. What is however missing from discussions of Sicily is that Muslims did continue to flourish in Sicily for 150 years even after the fall of Islamic rule there mainly because of the somewhat enlightened rule of the Normans in Sicily. The most well known of these Christian rules was Roger II, after whom the most famous book of Islamic geography is named Kitab ul Rigel (The Book of Roger), by the celebrated geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi. Even after the persecutions started it was not until 1336 that the last group on Muslims in Italy were forced to convert.
My point here is not to argue that one must not look at the past for inspiration but as with most things in life the good comes with bad. It could be that none of the examples that I have outlined previously are that relevant to the present predicament of the Muslim world. Pick up almost any history text on Islamic history especially in Arabic, Persian or Urdu it reads more like a series of events than a meaningful analysis of history. Thus missing from the narrative of the Islamic world is the impact of the Black Plague in the historical imagination of the Muslim world even though which is equally devastating in the Middle East as it was in Europe or how the disruption of the Indian Ocean trade network by the Portuguese was instrumental in the long term economic decline of the Muslim world.
Perhaps the answer may lie in something else entirely – alternate history. By forcing Muslims to think about what could have been they may also start thinking about what could be in a more nuanced manner. There will of course be people who might object and say that why dwell in the past in any form whether positive or negative. It is however impossible to escape history, the kind of people that we want to become is usually a function of how we imagine how we got to be what we are. Historians may argue that all national, ethnic and even religious histories have an element of useful fiction and objectivity is relative at best. Even if we take this view we still have to answer the question, what kind of fiction do we choose for ourselves. We are who we are by the virtue of stories that we tell about ourselves. Make sense of history thus becomes paramount in moments of civilizational crisis. This is of course not to discount that there are indeed more urgent problems in the world like the Syrian Refugee crisis or the Climate Change but with a group of people that constitute around a forth of humanity there are enough people to have interesting and valuable thoughts to any subject under the Sun and perhaps even beyond.
Monday, February 29, 2016
Shame on You, Shame on Me: Shame as an Evolutionary Adaptation
by Jalees Rehman
Can shame be good for you? We often think of shame as a shackling emotion which thwarts our individuality and creativity. A sense of shame could prevent us from choosing a partner we truly love, speaking out against societal traditions which propagate injustice or pursuing a profession that is deemed unworthy by our peers. But if shame is so detrimental, why did we evolve with this emotion? A team of researchers led by Daniel Sznycer from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which suggests that shame is an important evolutionary adaptation. According to their research which was conducted in the United States, Israel and India, the sense of shame helps humans avoid engaging in acts that could lead to them being devalued and ostracized by their community.
For their first experiment, the researchers enrolled participants in the USA (118 participants completed the study; mean age of 36; 53% were female) and India (155 participants completed the study, mean age of 31, 38% were female) using the online Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform as well as 165 participants from a university in Israel (mean age of 23; 81% female). The participants were randomly assigned to two groups and presented with 29 scenarios: The "shame group" participants were asked to rate how much shame they would experience if they lived through any given scenario and whereas the "audience group" participants were asked how negatively they would rate a third-party person of the same age and gender as the participants in an analogous scenario.
Here is a specific scenario to illustrate the study design:
Male participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Female participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Male participants in the "audience group", on the other hand, were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, he is discovered cheating on his wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view him negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view him very negatively).
Female participants in the "audience group" rated "At the wedding of an acquaintance, she is discovered cheating on her husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view her negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view her very negatively).
To give you a sense of the breadth of scenarios that the researchers used, here are some more examples:
You stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor.
You cannot support your children economically.
You get into a fight in front of everybody and your opponent completely dominates you with punch after punch until you're knocked out.
You receive welfare money from the government because you cannot financially support your family.
You are not generous with others.
For each of the 29 scenarios, the researchers created gender-specific "shame" and "audience" versions. The "audience group" reveals how we rate the bad behavior of others (devaluation) whereas the "shame group" provides information into how much shame we feel if we engage in that same behavior. By ensuring that participants only participated in one of the two groups, the researchers were able to get two independent scores – shame versus devaluation – for each scenario.
The key finding of this experiment was that the third-party devaluation scores were highly correlated with the shame scores in all three countries. For example, here are the mean "shame scores" for the wedding infidelity scenario indicating that people in all three countries would have experienced a lot of shame:
The devaluation scores from the third-party "audience group" suggested that people viewed the behavior very negatively:
For nearly all the scenarios, the researchers found a surprisingly strong correlation between devaluation and shame and they also found that the correlation was similarly strong in each of the surveyed countries.
The researchers then asked the question whether this correlation between personal shame and third-party negative valuation was unique to the shame emotion or whether other negative emotions such as anxiety or sadness would also correlate equally well with devaluation. This experiment was only conducted with the participants in the USA and India. The researchers found that even though the fictitious scenarios elicited some degree of anxiety and sadness in the participants, the levels of anxiety or sadness were not significantly correlated with the extent of devaluation. The researchers interpreted these results as suggesting that there is something special about shame because it tracks so closely with how bad behavior is perceived by others whereas sadness or anxiety do not.
How do these findings inform our view on the evolutionary role of shame? The researchers suggest that instead of designating shame as an "ugly" emotion, it is instead an excellent predictor of how our peers would view our behaviors and thus deter us from making bad choices that could undermine our relationships with members of our community. The strong statistical correlations between shame and negative valuation of the behaviors as well as the universality of this link in the three countries indeed support the conclusions of the researchers. However, there are also so important limitations of these studies. As with many evolutionary psychology studies, it is not easy to ascribe a direct cause-effect relationship based on a correlation. Does devaluation lead to evolving a shame mechanism or is it perhaps the other way around? Does a sense of shame lead to a societal devaluation of certain behaviors such as dishonesty? It is also possible that the participants in the audience group responded with the concept of "shame" in the back of their mind even though they were not asked to directly comment on how shameful the act was. Perhaps their third-party assessments of how bad the behavior was were clouded by their own perceptions of how shameful the behavior would be if they themselves had engaged in it.
Another limitation of the study is that the participants represented a young subgroup of society. The mean ages of 23 (Israel), 31 (India) and 36 (USA) as well as the use of an online Amazon Mechanical Turk questionnaire means that the study results predominantly reflect the views of Millennials. The similarities of the shame and devaluation scores in three distinct cultures are among the most remarkable findings of these studies. However, perhaps they are more reflective of a global convergence of values among the Millennial generation than an underlying evolutionary conservation of an adaptive mechanism.
These limitations should not detract from the provocative questions raised by the studies. They force us to rethink how we view shame. Like all adaptive defense mechanisms, shame could go awry. Our immune function, for example, is an essential defense mechanism but an unfettered immune response can destroy the very body it is trying to protect. Perhaps shame acts in a similar fashion. A certain level of shame could help us function in society by promoting certain moral values such as justice, honesty or generosity. But an excess of shame may become a maladaptive prison which compromises our individuality.
Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Roni Porat, Shaul Shalvi, and Eran Halperin. (2016). "Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Image Credit: The image of the mask was obtained via Wellcome Images.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Why should I respect your stupid opinion?
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Vol.2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p. 595. It should be noted that in this same letter Jefferson argues in defense of the idea that the world is the product of intelligent design.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 16 (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association,190 ), pp. 100-1.
 This criticism of the principle that people are entitled to have their beliefs respected is made by Peter Jones. (See Peter Jones, “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science,” Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct. 1990), pp. 415-437.)
 This essay is a revised version of part of Chapter Five of The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton University Press).
Monday, December 07, 2015
The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World
by Jalees Rehman
Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary "Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world", published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report "Science at Universities of the Muslim World" (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Here are some of the key findings:
1. Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world's population, yet they only generate 6% of the world's scientific publications and 1.6% of the world's patents.
2. Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications - even though Iran's population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.
To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).
3. Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.
So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.
In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.
However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in "hikma" or "traditional wisdom". Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university's website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the "Golden Age" of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic "Golden Age". My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the "Golden Age" of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.
This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How "liberal" is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.
The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:
"I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don't need external censorship except mine."
"Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate."
"Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect."
This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all "non-Aryans" from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.
The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.
Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.
Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Freedom as Floating or Falling
Nine days after 9/11, on 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the World Trade Centre attacks by addressing a joint session of Congress. He lamented that in the space of a 'single day' the country had been changed irrevocably, its people 'awakened to danger and called to defend freedom'. Out of the painful deaths of almost 3000 people germinates anger and a drive for retribution. The attackers, whom Bush terms 'enemies of freedom', are apparently motivated by envy as well as hatred:
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
In this passage alone, there are four instances of 'freedom', and in the approximately 3,000-word-long speech from which it is taken, 'freedom' is invoked 13 times.
Given that the speech was a major statement of Bush's intent following the wound of 9/11 and that the US government uses the name 'Operation Enduring Freedom' to describe its War on Terrorism, it is clear that freedom is a crucial concept to the US and its allies. This is unsurprising, since the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island off the coast of New York City has long served as a symbol of freedom and the vaunted American myth of social mobility. But what does freedom consist of and is it a universal value? In other words, does everyone – men and women, and people from different classes, races, or religious backgrounds – experience it in the same way?
In 2014, Bangladeshi-origin writer Zia Haider Rahman published his fascinating and very male debut novel In the Light of What We Know. The book deals in part with 9/11 and its aftermath. One of Rahman's two main protagonists, Zafar, works in Afghanistan soon after the outbreak of war in 2001. He avers that the American occupiers 'justify their invasion of Afghanistan with platitudes about freedom and liberating the Afghani people'. Having studied law and worked for a US bank, Zafar is in some ways part of the American 'relief effort'. And yet he is simultaneously not part of it, due to his Bangladeshi background and brown skin. Because of this, coupled with his working-class origins, he sees through the rhetoric of freedom as platitudinous.
Later, Rahman's Zafar describes a raucous, sexually charged UN bar in Kabul, concluding, 'It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged'. Here he unpicks what the Americans mean by freedom. It bathetically involves a person being free to drink alcohol and explore his or her sexuality – whether within or outside marriage is not usually seen as important. To the occupiers, freedom is about individual choice in the free market. This means little to the majority of Afghans. As Zafar points out, the efflorescence of new drinking establishments under the occupation is popular with the local elite class, but 'the poor are disgusted'.
Out of freedom's sister word liberty comes the verb 'liberate', another word for saving. This idea of liberation and saving brings us to Lila Abu-Lughod's book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013). The anthropologist moves ideas about freedom into the realms of race, class, and gender. Herself a feminist with heritage partly in the global south, Abu-Lughod suggest that Western feminists see themselves as 'saving' their benighted Muslim sisters.
Abu-Lughod also scrutinizes the repercussions from one notion of freedom being extolled above all other values. She questions whether women's clothing can symbolize freedom or unfreedom, and whether forces that put limits on every individual's free will mean that, as Wendy Brown puts it, 'choice … is an impoverished account of freedom'. Abu-Lughod seems to suggest that the binary opposition of free and unfree is at the heart of twenty-first-century versions of Orientalism. She argues that American feminism is deceived by the 'powerful national ideology' of freedom and fails to recognize the unequal power relations that underpin this ideology.
Rather than accepting the premise that Western freedom contrasts with imprisonment by Islam, Abu- Lughod shows that believing Muslims have their own ideas about and goals for liberation. The Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad, also known by his birth name of Tim Winter, similarly writes that Islam represents 'radical freedom, a freedom from the encroachments of the State, the claws of the ego, narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry and an intrusive state or priesthood'.
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. ... To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
This somewhat tongue-in-cheek list intermixes trivial things, ideals, and rights. It also neatly illustrates that many apparent freedoms are culturally specific shibboleths that might alienate not just 'fundamentalists', but a good number of non-Western, non-Christian, non-male people (and many Western vegetarians including me would be put off by the bacon sandwiches!). Ideas of freedom are culturally located. Notwithstanding Rushdie's claims, liberty does not equate to wearing miniskirts rather than burqas.
I move now to Muslim women writers' ideas about freedom in Britain. Attia Hosain, who died in 1998, is known for the short story collection Phoenix Fled and novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, both set in India. However, she also wrote a promising putative novel about diasporic Britain, 'No New Lands, No New Seas'. Hosain worked on this between the 1950s and 1970s, but eventually abandoned the novel, perhaps because the virulent racism of the late 1960s onwards (typified by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech and the subsequent rise of the National Front) made her migrant topics too painful to complete.
Her central migrant character Murad is having a minor breakdown in the paradoxically crowded, isolating capital of London. He frequently expresses the idea that he has been unmoored, thinking that his thoughts should be 'pegged down, hammered to solidity or he would fly into space, dissolving all matter into formlessness'. He remembers that when he first arrived in London 'he floated away with a wild incredulous sense of freedom'. Perhaps the most interesting instance of Hosain's portrayal of freedom as what David Bowie memorably described as 'floating in a most peculiar way' is this passage:
his happiest moments were in the in-between world where he was free yet not free of intrusive presences, as when at a concert his submerged thoughts would float above the music and cover it with a drifting film until he pushed it away, and under the sounds to which he forcibly attached his mind until the music emerged clearly as if he, with every nerve-end vibrating, were himself one of the instruments.
Although at certain moments, Hosain's text represents freedom as floating in an unnerving way, in this passage Murad's thoughts soar with the music. They are then brought back to earth by a 'drifting film', an image of feather lightness that nonetheless weighs down, of the film's transparency that still manages to ground the character again.
This idea of happiness coming from an in-between realm that at once represents freedom and bondage is illuminating. It's a notion that women especially can appreciate. The Cairo-born, London-resident writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif once said that she feels most free when she is writing on her own in a room but can hear her family busy with happy activities not far away. She finds contentment in being free and yet not free.
Although Hosain's ideal is a sublime freedom coexisting with unfreedom, breaking down the binary that Abu-Lughod so dislikes, the novelist recognizes that a banal version of freedom as individual choice is the one that prevails. Murad and his friend Isa together investigate 'the areas of liberty that London had given them'. The narrator notes that this is initially 'mostly in respect of women and wine, then through pubs and prostitutes to the poetry of freedom and friendship without the taboos of tradition, the constraint of custom and duress of duty'. It is a similar version of freedom to that which Rahman criticized: a prosaic lack of restraint in relation to 'women and wine'. Alliteration underscores the glibness of Murad's free indirect discourse on freedom here.
Formlessness, lack of solidity, freedom, and loneliness: these images echo again through the pages of Sudanese author Leila Aboulela's London novel, Minaret (2005). Hosain's notion of flying or floating up into space is inverted in the later text. Aboulela describes her Sudanese protagonist Najwa's metaphorical ‘fall' through space due to an encounter with the vertiginous liberties of the West.
What makes Minaret distinctive as a novel of Muslim experience is that it centres on a character's journey towards religion, rather than away. Many Anglophone novels about the British Muslim experience from the 1990s and early 2000s are about young Muslims discovering 'freedom', in the shape of a secular life, and independence from familial or kinship ties. In contrast, Aboulela's novel traces the Westernized protagonist, Najwa's, downwardly-mobile journey from her privileged position as a Sudanese minister's daughter, to exile in London when a coup dislodges her father from power, and eventually life as a domestic servant to a wealthy Arab family in the former imperial capital. During this descent, an unfurling religious identity sustains Najwa through her losses.
The supportive ties that Najwa discovers in her mosque are starkly contrasted with the supposed 'freedoms' of the non-religious world, which Aboulela portrays as being constrictive rather than liberatory. The notion of liberty in Western thought, since the time of Hobbes's Leviathan, has meant a freedom from external constraints and the right of individual self-determination. In Arab and South Asian thought, by contrast, freedom, hurriya in Arabic or azadi in Persian and Urdu, has typically had political, communitarian connotations. It would be wrong to suggest that Muslims have not hotly debated the concept of freedom over the centuries. In the Sufi tradition, freedom has been compared to ‘perfect slavery', which indicates not only that slavery in the Arab world was, in Amitav Ghosh's words, a relatively 'flexible set of hierarchies', but also that the institution was often used as a metaphor for understanding 'the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves"'.
I don't explain … my fantasies. My involvement in Tamer's wedding to a young suitable girl who knows him less than I do. She will mother children who spend more time with me… I would like to be his family's concubine, like something out of The Arabian Nights, with life-long security and a sense of belonging. But I must settle for freedom in this modern time.
The issue of clashing cultural understandings of liberty highlighted by this passage is particularly pertinent in the light of Abu-Lughod's analysis of the rhetoric of 'freedom' used to justify the War on Terror. With her evocation of Alf Laylah wa Laylah or The Arabian Nights, Najwa indicates that feminism has not usually considered non-Euro-American traditions when defining 'women's lib'. Yet Najwa's wish is itself problematic, especially since later chooses to perform Hajj rather than marry Tamer. This internal monologue smacks of lugubrious, even masochistic propensities.
Najwa has been brought up in a broadly Western tradition: she comes from an elite family that only pays lip service to Islam. Her early life, while affluent and sheltered, is nonetheless depicted as lacking some essential component. Within conventional limits, Najwa has considerable freedom in her dress, education and sexual relations. Yet she feels uneasy when strange men appraise her body in its revealing clothes, and her only sexual relationship with a Marxist exile in London is sordid and guilt-ridden. After a Leftist coup in Sudan leads to her father's imprisonment and eventual execution, her family is described as ‘falling' through space. This image of descent evokes the 'horror' inherent in too much liberty. Of course it also suggests the fall common to both Judeo-Christian and Qur'anic theology, whereby Adam and Eve/Hawwa were banished from the Garden of Paradise to live on earth. Najwa's fall is complete once her brother Omar is imprisoned for drugs and her mother dies. Freed from her caring duties, Najwa supposes that she should feel a sense of emancipation, but instead observes, 'this empty space was called freedom'.
To recapitulate the ideas explored in this article, the War in Afghanistan has led to the privileging of a Western dichotomy of freedom vs. unfreedom. Lila Abu-Lughod interrogates and genders this binary. Hosain anticipates these debates in her 1950s-70s fragment, while in a post-9/11 context Aboulela robustly challenges them. We should not forget, though, that ideas of political freedom are more crucial in the Muslim world now than ever. This is easily perceptible in the Arab Spring (now mournfully becoming known as the Arab Winter). I conclude with Soueif's quoting of a chant against the Egyptian regime: 'They said trouble ran in our blood and how'd we dare demand our rights | Oh dumb regime | understand | what I want: | Liberty! Liberty!'
Monday, March 02, 2015
Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?
by Jalees Rehman
There are at least two ways of how the topic of trust in God is broached in Friday sermons that I have attended in the United States. Some imams lament the decrease of trust in God in the age of modernity. Instead of trusting God that He is looking out for the believers, modern day Muslims believe that they can control their destiny on their own without any Divine assistance. These imams see this lack of trust in God as a sign of weakening faith and an overall demise in piety. But in recent years, I have also heard an increasing number of sermons mentioning an important story from the Muslim tradition. In this story, Prophet Muhammad asked a Bedouin why he was leaving his camel untied and thus taking the risk that this valuable animal might wander off and disappear. When the Bedouin responded that he placed his trust in God who would ensure that the animal stayed put, the Prophet told him that he still needed to first tie up his camel and then place his trust in God. Sermons referring to this story admonish their audience to avoid the trap of fatalism. Just because you trust God does not mean that it obviates the need for rational and responsible action by each individual.
It is much easier for me to identify with the camel-tying camp because I find it rather challenging to take risks exclusively based on the trust in an inscrutable and minimally communicative entity. Both, believers and non-believers, take risks in personal matters such as finance or health. However, in my experience, many believers who make a risky financial decision or take a health risk by rejecting a medical treatment backed by strong scientific evidence tend to invoke the name of God when explaining why they took the risk. There is a sense that God is there to back them up and provide some security if the risky decision leads to a detrimental outcome. It would therefore not be far-fetched to conclude that invoking the name of God may increase risk-taking behavior, especially in people with firm religious beliefs. Nevertheless, psychological research in the past decades has suggested the opposite: Religiosity and reminders of God seem to be associated with a reduction in risk-taking behavior.
Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University have recently published the paper "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" which takes a new look at the link between invoking the name of God and risky behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that reminders of God may have opposite effects on varying types of risk-taking behavior. For example, risk-taking behavior that is deemed ‘immoral' such as taking sexual risks or cheating may be suppressed by invoking God, whereas taking non-moral risks, such as making risky investments or sky-diving, might be increased because reminders of God provide a sense of security. According to Kupor and colleagues, it is important to classify the type of risky behavior in relation to how society perceives God's approval or disapproval of the behavior. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments to test this hypothesis using online study participants.
One of the experiments involved running ads on a social media network and then assessing the rate of how often the social media users clicked on slightly different wordings of the ad texts. The researchers ran the ads 452,051 times on accounts registered to users over the age of 18 years residing in the United States. The participants either saw ads for non-moral risk-taking behavior (skydiving), moral risk-taking behavior (bribery) or a control behavior (playing video games) and each ad came either in a 'God version' or a standard version.
Here are the two versions of the skydiving ad (both versions had a picture of a person skydiving):
God knows what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
You don't know what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
The percentage of users who clicked on the skydiving ad in the ‘God version' was twice as high as in the group which saw the standard "You don't know what you are missing" phrasing! One explanation for the significantly higher ad success rate is that "God knows…." might have struck the ad viewers as being rather unusual and piqued their curiosity. Instead of this being a reflection of increased propensity to take risks, perhaps the viewers just wanted to find out what was meant by "God knows…". However, the response to the bribery ad suggests that it isn't just mere curiosity. These are the two versions of the bribery ad (both versions had an image of two hands exchanging money):
Learn How to Bribe!
God knows what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
Learn How to Bribe!
You don't know what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
In this case, the ‘God version' cut down the percentage of clicks to less than half of the standard version. The researchers concluded that invoking the name of God prevented the users from wanting to find out more about bribery because they consciously or subconsciously associated bribery with being immoral and rejected by God.
These findings are quite remarkable because they suggest that a a single mention of the word ‘God' in an ad can have opposite effects on two different types of risk-taking, the non-moral thrill of sky-diving versus the immoral risk of taking bribes.
Clicking on an ad for a potentially risky behavior is not quite the same as actually engaging in that behavior. This is why the researchers also conducted a separate study in which participants were asked to answer a set of questions after viewing certain colors. Participants could choose between Option 1 (a short 2 minute survey and receiving an additional 25 cents as a reward) or Option 2 (four minute survey, no additional financial incentive). The participants were also informed that Option 1 was more risky with the following label:
Eye Hazard: Option 1 not for individuals under 18. The bright colors in this task may damage the retina and cornea in the eyes. In extreme cases it can also cause macular degeneration.
In reality, neither of the two options was damaging to the eyes of the participants but the participants did not know this. This set-up allowed the researchers to assess the likelihood of the participants taking the risk of potentially injurious light exposure to their eyes. To test the impact of God reminders, the researchers assigned the participants to read one of two texts, both of which were adapted from Wikipedia, before deciding on Option 1 or Option 2:
Text used for participants in the control group:
"In 2006, the International Astronomers' Union passed a resolution outlining three conditions for an object to be called a planet. First, the object must orbit the sun; second, the object must be a sphere; and third, it must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto does not meet the third condition, and is thus not a planet."
Text used for the participants in the ‘God reminder' group:
"God is often thought of as a supreme being. Theologians have described God as having many attributes, including omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), and omnibenevolence (perfect goodness). God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, and the "greatest conceivable existent."
As hypothesized by the researchers, a significantly higher proportion of participants chose the supposedly harmful Option 1 in the ‘God reminder' group (96%) than in the control group (84%). Reading a single paragraph about God's attributes was apparently sufficient to lull more participants into the risk of exposing their eyes to potential harm. The overall high percentage of participants choosing Option 1 even in the control condition is probably due to the fact that it offered a greater financial reward (although it seems a bit odd that participants were willing to sell out their retinas for a quarter, but maybe they did not really take the risk very seriously).
A limitation of the study is that it does not provide any information on whether the impact of mentioning God was dependent on the religious beliefs of the participants. Do ‘God reminders' affect believers as well atheists and agnostics or do they only work in people who clearly identify with a religious tradition? Another limitation is that even though many of the observed differences between the ‘God condition' and the control conditions were statistically significant, the actual differences in numbers were less impressive. For example, in the sky-diving ad experiment, the click-through rate was about 0.03% in the standard ad and 0.06% in the ‘God condition'. This is a doubling but how meaningful is this doubling when the overall click rates are so low? Even the difference between the two groups who read the Wikipedia texts and chose Option 1 (96% vs. 84%) does not seem very impressive. However, one has to bear in mind that all of these interventions were very subtle – inserting a single mention of God into a social media ad or asking participants to read a single paragraph about God.
People who live in societies which are suffused with religion such as the United States or Pakistan are continuously reminded of God, whether they glance at their banknotes, turn on the TV or take a pledge of allegiance in school. If the mere mention of God in an ad can already sway some of us to increase our willingness to take risks, what impact does the continuous barrage of God mentions have on our overall risk-taking behavior? Despite its limitations, the work by Kupor and colleagues provides a fascinating new insight on the link between reminders of God and risk-taking behavior. By demonstrating the need to replace blanket statements regarding the relationship between God, religiosity and risk-taking with a more subtle distinction between moral and non-moral risky behaviors, the researchers are paving the way for fascinating future studies on how religion and mentions of God influence human behavior and decision-making.
Kupor DM, Laurin L, Levav J. "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" Psychological Science(2015) doi: 10.1177/0956797614563108
Monday, September 15, 2014
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The case for God's existence is unsuccessful. Theistic arguments either beg the question, or involve deductive fallacies, or don't really prove what they promised to. Furthermore, the atheistic arguments all seem decisive – there's no morally acceptable solution to the problem of evil, and there is no need for God in a naturalistic universe. Current theistic replies are mostly rear-guard actions in reaction to the atheist – more apology than apologetics. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis that God doesn't exist. And this is good news, too. God is just a cosmic bully. Such a being might provide the universe with meaning, but in so doing, makes it all pointless, especially human autonomy -- which, by hypothesis, would have to resolve itself into God's will. God's existence would be a moral tragedy, so good riddance to bad rubbish.
Call the view expressed above Positive Evidential Atheism (PEA). It is the two-part thesis composed of an evidential claim and a positive assessment: (1) our overall available evidence supports belief that there is no God and (2) God's non-existence is a good thing. We endorse PEA. Paul Moser challenges PEA in his book The Severity of God (2013). Moser argues that if God exists, He would be silent; moreover, He would be particularly silent to those who accept PEA. This "divine hiddenness" explains why PEA's advocates think they have no evidence for God's existence. Given that God hides, the evidence is misleading. In response to Moser, we defend PEA along two lines: (1) PEA needn't be undercut in the fashion Moser takes it to be, and (2) divine hiding can be rendered as supporting PEA.
Let's begin by considering the divine hiddenness view in a little more detail. It runs like this: Even though the problem of evil may seem unanswerable, we humans are not in a position to know that God would not allow severe evils in the world. Moreover, we do not know if God intervenes in this universe with individuals engaged in proper relationships with Him. Access to evidence of God is not a matter of looking and seeing, but a matter of searching, yearning, and then being transformed. God, in fact, wants relationships with us, not just our assent to claims of His existence. And so He hides from us until we are ready for His presence.
Notice that the divine hiddenness view reconciles the fact of widespread disbelief with God's capacity and goodness. God is silent until we are ready to hear. Were He to reveal himself when we are not ready, the relationship He desires and we need would be perverted. God's ways, in short, are not our ways; to expect otherwise is nothing short of idolatry. Divine hiding, so the reasoning goes, is something we should positively expect of a God truly worthy of worship.
God's motivation to hide is especially pronounced in the case of the positive atheist. As Moser has it, "God typically would hide God's existence from people ill-disposed toward it"; as they are ill-disposed toward God, "their lacking evidence for God's existence is not by itself the basis of a case for atheism"(2013:200). Thus positive atheists should expect that their evidence regarding God's existence is misleading, since they are precisely those for whom God's presence will be elusive. Hence PEA's positive assessment undercuts its evidential claim. Moser calls this the "undermining case" against PEA. Yet, as we will argue, the undermining case is not decisive.
First note that PEA's positive assessment and evidential claim are not logically separable in the way that Moser assumes. PEA concedes that if God exists, He is the only object worthy of worship. But worship is itself morally suspect. Worshipping God is an all-in, complete commitment – one gives one's life completely over to Him. All one's meaning and value, then, comes from Him. To give oneself completely over to anyone, to have that entity determine all the values and meanings for you, is to completely give up one's autonomy. To demand of others that they completely give up their autonomy is immoral, and to require that they do so with the very last act of their own singular volition is positively sadistic. Consider, then, that God demands that we worship Him, and punishes those who fail to do so. The worship of anything is immoral; thus God's existence would be a morally bad thing. Yet, God by definition must be morally perfect, and His existence must be a good thing; therefore, God is a morally impossible entity. So the reasons for PEA's positive assessment of God's nonexistence are also part of the evidence for His nonexistence. Rather than undercutting the evidence against God, the positive assessment contributes to the evidence for atheism.
Here's a second defense against Moser's undermining case. The divine hiddenness view holds that PEAs can see no evidence for God's existence because God deliberately hides from them. The view seeks to explain why PEAs can't see any reason to accept God; however, the view seems unable to explain how one becomes a positive evidential atheist. After all, one does not arrive in this life, fresh from the womb, despising the very idea of God. Rather, one typically thinks one's way into an atheist position from a theistic one. How, then, can divine hiddenness account for the fact that very often individuals become atheists after considering their evidence while espousing a theist view? If God hides from those who are disposed to reject Him, why does He also seem to hide from those who yet believe but begin to doubt, or merely wonder? Now, on Moser's view, it may be in character for Him to withdraw even from the doubter – He is severe, after all – but this kind of severity is morally unacceptable. Thus, we rare brought back to PEA's positive assessment: Moser appeals to God's severity in order to explain the fact that the atheist's evidence against God looks so compelling; but the existence of a severe God would be morally atrocious. And that's further evidence for positive evidential atheism.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Buddhist Musings in Ramadan
by Jalees Rehman
Ramadan is the month of fasting and a time for spiritual growth among Muslims. The traditionalist approach to "spiritual growth" is for Muslims to complement their fasting with performing additional prayers at night and regular reading of the Quran throughout the month. My own approach is somewhat different, I tend to complement my fasting with the reading of writings and scriptures from other philosophies or faith traditions, including atheist and humanist teachings. This year, I decided to study the Dhammapada (in the translation of Gil Fronsdal), one of the most widely read and revered writings in the Buddhist faith.
I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism because I was reading the remarkable novel "A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki, who is not only a brilliant author but also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. The first person narrator in the novel is a 16-year old Japanese girl Nao who is bullied by her classmates. Nao's parents moved from Japan to Silicon Valley but were forced to return to Japan when the Dotcom bubble burst. Nao's father loses his job and the family is forced to live in poverty. The family's poverty and the fact that Nao is seen as an alien "transfer student" lead to her being ostracized at school. But her classmates go even further and begin psychologically and physically torturing her, leaving scars and scabs all over her body.
Nao is invited to spend the summer with her 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko who is a Buddhist nun. In the following scene, Jiko takes a bath with Nao and notices the scars:
"I waited. Old Jiko liked to take her time, and she was really good at it because she'd been practicing for so many years, so as a result, I was always waiting for her, and you'd think that waiting would be annoying for a young person like me, but for some reason I didn't mind. It wasn't like I had anything better to do that summer. I sat there on my little wooden stool, naked and hugging my knees and shivering, not from the cold but in anticipation of the scalding heat of the water, so when, instead, I felt her fingertip touch a small scar in the middle of my back, I was startled. My body stiffened. The light was so dim, how could she see my scars with her bad eyes? I figured she couldn't, but then I felt her finger move across my skin in a pattern, hesitant, pausing here and there to connect the dots.
"You must be very angry," she said. She spoke so quietly, it was like she was talking to herself, and maybe she was. Or maybe she hadn't said anything at all, and I'd just imagined it. Either way, my throat squeezed shut and I couldn't answer, so I shook my head. I was so ashamed, but at the same time, this enormous feeling of sadness brimmed up inside me, and I had to hold my breath to stop from crying.
She didn't say anything else. She washed me gently, and for the first time I just wanted her to hurry up and finish. After we were done, I got dressed quickly and said good night and left her there. I thought I was going to throw up. I didn't want to go back to my room, so I ran halfway down the mountainside and hid in the bamboo forest until it got dark and the fireflies came out. When Muji rang the big bell at the end of her fire watch to signal the end of the day, I snuck back into the temple and crawled into bed.
The next morning I went looking for old Jiko and found her in her room. She was sitting on the floor with her back to the door, bent over her low table. She was reading. I stood in the doorway and didn't even bother to go in. "Yes," I told her. "I'm angry, so what?"
Once Nao is able to speak about her anger to Jiko, Nao's healing process can begin. The story makes frequent references to Buddhist teachings, quoting from Buddhist texts as well as allowing the reader to gradually imbibe important spiritual concepts. To better understand these concepts, I decided to read the Dhammapada. I first began with the chapter on "Anger" where I was struck by the following verses:
"The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders."
How often do we let our anger chariot determine our paths? I can remember countless times when I have been passively holding the reins but rarely take control of this chariot.
I will just leave you with one more excerpt from the Dhammapada, but I advise you to read it (and, of course, Ozeki's novel!) in its entirety:
From the chapter "The Sage":
"As a solid mass of rock,
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is not moved
By praise or blame."
Monday, March 03, 2014
Is Internet-Centrism a Religion?
by Jalees Rehman
On the evening of March 3 in 1514, Steven is sitting next to Friar Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the printing press will change everything."
Let us now fast-forward 500 years and re-enact this hypothetical scene with some tiny modifications.
On the evening of March 3 in 2014, Steven is sitting next to TED-Talker Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the internet will change everything."
Clay's advice in the first scene sounds ludicrous to us because we know that the printing press did not usher in an era of wealth, justice and peace. Being retrospectators, we realize that the printing press revolutionized how we disseminate information, but even the most efficient dissemination tool is just a means and not the ends.
It is more difficult for us to dismiss Clay's advice in the second scene because it echoes the familiar Silicon Valley slogans which inundate us with such persistence that some of us have begun to believe them. Clay's response is an example of what Evgeny Morozov refers to as "Internet-centrism", the unwavering belief that the Internet is not just an information dissemination tool but that it constitutes the path to salvation for humankind. In his book "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism", Morozov suggests that "Internet-centrism" is taking on religion-like qualities:
"If the public debate is any indication, the finality of "the Internet"— the belief that it's the ultimate technology and the ultimate network— has been widely accepted. It's Silicon Valley's own version of the end of history: just as capitalism-driven liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama's controversial account remains the only game in town, so does the capitalism-driven "Internet." It, the logic goes, is a precious gift from the gods that humanity should never abandon or tinker with. Thus, while "the Internet" might disrupt everything, it itself should never be disrupted. It's here to stay— and we'd better work around it, discover its real nature, accept its features as given, learn its lessons, and refurbish our world accordingly. If it sounds like a religion, it's because it is."
Morozov does not equate mere internet usage with "Internet-centrism". People routinely use the internet for work or leisure without ascribing mythical powers to it, but it is when the latter occurs that internet usage transforms into "Internet-centrism".
Does Morozov's portrayal of "Internet-centrism" as a religion correspond to our current understanding of religions? "Internet-centrism" does not involve deities, sacred scripture or traditional prayers, but social scientists and scholars of religion do not require deism, scriptures or prayers to categorize a body of beliefs and practices as a religion.
The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) thought that the feeling of "absolute dependence" ("das schlechthinnige Abhängigkeitsgefühl") was one of the defining characteristics of a religion. In a January 2014 Pew Internet survey, 53% of adult internet users in said that it would be "very hard" to give up the internet, whereas only 38% felt this way in 2006. This does not necessarily meet the Schleiermacher threshold of "absolute dependence" but it indicates a growing perception of dependence among internet users, who are struggling to envision a life without the internet or a life beyond the internet.
Absolute dependence is not unique to religion, therefore it may be more helpful to turn to religion-specific definitions if we want to understand the religionesque characteristics of Internet-centrism. In his classic essay "Religion as a cultural system" (published in "The Interpretation of Cultures"), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) defined religion as:
" (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."
Today's Silicon Valley pundits (incidentally a Sanskrit term originally used for learned Hindu scholars well-versed in Vedic scriptures) excel at establishing "powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations" and endowing "conceptions of general order of existence" with an "aura of factuality". Morozov does not specifically reference the Geertz definition of religion, but he provides extensive internet pundit quotes which fit the bill. Here is one such example:
"To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience."
—Steven Johnson in "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age"
One problem with abstract definitions of religion is that they do not encompass the practice of religion and its mythical or supernatural aspects, which are often essential parts of most religions. In "The Religious Experience", the religion scholar Ninian Smart (1927-2001) does not provide a handy definition for religions but instead offers six "dimensions" that are present in most major religions: 1) The Ritual Dimension, 2) The Mythological Dimension, 3) The Doctrinal Dimension, 4) The Ethical Dimension, 5) The Social Dimension and 6) The Experiential Dimension.
How do these dimensions of religion apply to Internet-centrism?
1) The Ritual Dimension: The need to continuously seek connectivity by accessing computers or seeking out wireless connectivity, checking emails or social media updates so frequently that this connectivity exceeds one's pragmatic needs could be considered a ritual of Internet-centrism. If one feels the need to check emails and Facebook or Twitter updates every one to two minutes, despite the fact that it is unlikely one would have received a message that required urgent action, it may be an indicator of the important role that this ritual plays in the life of an Internet-centrist. Worshippers of traditional religions feel uncomfortable if they miss out on regular prayers or lose their rosaries that allow them to commune with their God, and it appears that for some humans, the ritual of Internet-connectivity may play a similar role.
2) The Mythological Dimension: There is the physical internet, which consists of billions of physical components such as computers, servers, routers or cables that are connected to each other. Prophets and pundits of Internet-centrism also describe a mythical "Internet" which goes for beyond the physical internet, because it involves mythical narratives about the power of the internet as a higher force that is shaping human destiny. Just like "Scientism" attributes a certain mystique to real-world science, Internet-centrism adorns the physical internet with a similar mythological dimension.
Ideas of "cognitive surplus", crowdsourcing knowledge to improve the human condition, internet-based political revolutions that will put an end to injustice, oppression and poverty and other powerful metaphors are used to describe this poorly defined mythical entity that has little to do with the physical internet. The myth of egalitarianism is commonly perpetuated, yet the internet is anything but egalitarian. Social media hubs have millions of followers and certain corporations or organizations are experts at building filters and algorithms to control the information seen by consumers who have minimal power and control over the flow of information.
3) The Doctrinal Dimension: The doctrine of Internet-centrism is the relentless pursuit of sharedom through the internet. The idea is that the more we share, the more we collaborate and the more transparent we are via the internet, the easier it will be for us humans to conquer the challenges that face us. Challenging this basic doctrine that is promoted by Silicon Valley corporations can be perceived as heretical. It is a remarkable testimony to the proselytizing power of the prophets and pundits in Silicon Valley that people were outraged at the government institution NSA for violating our privacy. There was comparatively little concern about the fact that the primary benefactors of the growing culture of sharedom are the for-profit internet corporations that make money off our willingness to sacrifice our privacy.
4) The Ethical Dimension: In many religions, one is asked to follow aspects of a religious doctrine which have no direct ethical context. For example, seeking salvation by praying alone to a god on a mountain-top does not necessarily require adherence to ethical standards. On the other hand, most religions have developed moral imperatives that govern how adherents of a religion interact with fellow believers or non-believers. In Internet-centrism, the doctrinal dimension is conflated with the ethical dimension. Sharedom is not only a doctrinal imperative, it is also a moral imperative. We are told that sharing and collaborating is an ethical duty.
This may be unique to Internet-centrism since the internet (both in its physical or its mythical form) presupposes the existence of fellow beings with whom one can connect. If a catastrophe wiped out all humans but one, who happened to adhere to a traditional religion, she could still pray to a god (ritual), believe in salvation by a supernatural entity (mythological) and abide by the the religious laws (doctrinal). However, if she were an Internet-centrist, all her rituals, beliefs and doctrines would become meaningless.
5) The Social Dimension: Congregating in groups and social interactions are key for many religions, but Internet-centrism provides more tools than any other ideology, cultural movement or religion for us to interact with others. Whether we engage in this social activity by using social media such as Facebook or Twitter, by reading or writing blog posts, or by playing multi-player games online, Internet-centrism encourages us to fulfill our social needs by using the tools of the internet.
6) The Experiential Dimension: Most religions offer their adherents opportunities for highly personal, spiritual experiences. Internet-centrism avoids any talk of "spirituality", but the idea of a personalized experience is very much a part of Internet-centrism. One of its goals is to provide opportunities for self-actualization. We all may be connected via the internet, but Internet-centrists also want us to believe that this connectivity provides a path for self-actualization. We can modify settings to customize our web browsing experience, we can pick and choose from millions of options of what online courses we want to take, videos we want to watch or music we want to listen to. The sense of connectedness and omnipotentiality is what provides the adherent of Internet-centrism with a feeling of personal empowerment that comes close to a spiritual experience of traditional religions.
When one reviews the definitions by Schleiermacher or Geertz, or the multi-dimensional analysis by Ninian Smart, it does indeed seem that Morozov is right and that Internet-centrism is taking on many religion-like characteristics. There is probably still a big disconnect between the Silicon valley prophets or pundits who proselytize and the vast majority of internet users who primarily act as "consumers" but do not yet buy into the tenets of Internet-centrism. But it is likely that at least in the short-term, Internet-centrism will continue to grow, especially if Internet-centrist ideas are introduced to children in schools and they grow up believing that these ideas are both essential and sufficient for our intellectual and social wellbeing. Perhaps the pundits of Internet-centrism could discuss the future of this emerging religion with adherents of other faiths at a TEDxInterfaith conference.
Image Credits: Photo of Gutenberg Bible (Creative Commons license, via NYC Wanderer at Flickr)
Monday, February 03, 2014
The Impossibility of Satan
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
God is by definition is the greatest possible thing.
If God is the greatest possible thing, then He cannot fail to manifest any perfection — otherwise, there would be a possible thing greater than He.
Existence is a perfection; that which does not exist lacks something that would improve it.
Therefore, God must exist.
The conclusion can be strengthened, further, with the thought that necessary existence is a greater perfection than contingent existence, and so it is necessary that God necessarily exists. Now, that's a pretty heavy conclusion derived only from some strikingly lightweight premises. This is what makes the Ontological Argument so interesting – it seems clear that something's gone wrong, but it turns out that it's very hard to explain what it is.
In our Reasonable Atheism and elsewhere, we've held that the Ontological Argument is a kind of litmus test for intellectual seriousness concerning God's existence. We've claimed further that atheists in particular had better grapple with it. Here's why: Every atheist thinks the argument goes wrong; moreover, they think it's obvious that it fails. But saying that the argument's failure is obvious is not yet to identify what the failure consists in. Yet very few atheists offer much more than simple derision of the argument. Now, that's not intellectually serious – especially if the whole point of any argument is to articulate reasons for the sake of guiding belief. Saying that an argument is obviously wrong and then not having anything substantive to say about its failure is contrary to what honest argument is all about. Smug dismissals of the Ontological Argument as insipid or mere wordplay are themselves mere blather. On top of that, it is exactly the sort of thing anyone devoted to the Enlightenment project should avoid. If you're committed to reason and think the Ontological Argument isn't any good, you've got to wrestle with it and devise an account of its flaws. And while you're at it, you had better bother to consult the most sophisticated versions of the argument available. Otherwise, you're just a poser and a hypocrite.
Now, the Ontological Argument has its critics, and some of the more trenchant objections have been devised by theists. One longstanding objection has been that the Ontological Argument proves too much – specifically, that it overpopulates the world with strange but necessarily existing entities. And so, to St. Anselm's version of the Ontological Argument, the Catholic monk Gaunilo ran the counterargument that the same reasoning could prove that there is a Perfect Island. Atheists have gotten in on the game too. Michael Martin has argued that the Ontological Argument can prove that there must be a perfectly evil being (1990: 93). Richard Dawkins claims that by identical reasoning he can prove that pigs can fly (2006: 84), and Christopher Hitchens argued that it allowed him to prove that there are dragons (2007: 265). We joined the game in our Reasonable Atheism, where we argued that the same reasoning at work in the Ontological Argument can be extended to prove that God can't be the thing that necessarily exists (2011: 88).
Here's another run at the "proves too much"critique, one that takes the existence is a perfection premise in a quite different direction. Here, we are not concerned to show that the Ontological Arugment overpopulates the Christian's world, but rather that it underpopulates it in a crucial respect.
Call it the Ontological Proof for the Impossibility of Satan. To start, we employ the similar definitional setup as the Theistic Ontological Argument. Let's say that Satan is, by definition, the worst possible thing. If something is the worst possible thing, then it not only must have lots of bad properties, but it must not have any perfections; it must be the kind of thing that could not be made any worse than it already is. If it had a perfection, it would be better, not worse, than a thing that lacked that perfection, and thus would not be the worst possible thing. Next, we adopt the Ontological Argument's premise that existence is a perfection. And the conclusion swiftly follows: Satan must lack existence. Further, assuming that a possibly existing thing is better than necessarily not existing thing, it must follow that it is necessary that Satan necessarily does not exist. The Christian's world just got a whole lot smaller.
At first blush, this argument might be excellent news for theists and atheists alike. That there's no Satan is morally speaking an excellent outcome. It is a proposition that atheists already knew, but it will also be one that will relieve the theists of the threat of all-encompassing eternal torture.
But now consider a troubling consequence of the argument. If one accepts the Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, one must hold that there are some evils that, in virtue of not existing, are worse than evils that do exist. Consider a case of evil – say, the kidnappings in Cleveland, Ohio. An implication of our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan is that the morally identical copy of those kidnappings that might have happened in Pittsburgh but did not,are worse than the ones that occurred in Cleveland. This looks twisted. The implication is that the world is made better when evils actually occur, as existing evils are less bad than nonexistent ones. How could that be? The culprit is the premise that existence is a perfection. And that's the premise driving our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, and some version of this premise features in all versions of the Ontological Argument for God's Existence that we know of. Indeed, it strikes us that some such premise is a sine qua non of Ontological Arguments as such. Alas, this premise must be rejected if the theist wants a world populated by both a God and Satan. Perhaps the better course for the theist would be to just abandon the Ontological Argument.
Monday, December 09, 2013
A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists
by David V. Johnson
In "San Manuel Bueno, Martir," the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.
"The main thing," San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, "is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all."
When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. "Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them," San Manuel tells him. "It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything."
Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.
The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. ("I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …") What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's "conversion," then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.
I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.
The question is why.
* * *
I like to follow the practice of philosopher Mark Johnston and label the Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris trinity and their followers the "undergraduate atheists." And risking oversimplication, I would summarize their view with the following statement:
Humanity would be better off without religious belief.
This view — call it the Undergraduate Atheists' Thesis (UAT) — asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven't and don't. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.
I am an atheist who was raised Catholic and, like Lazaro, I am also someone who frets about the public's general lack of scientific understanding. Yet I am deeply skeptical of UAT.
First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
My impression of UAT advocates is that they think it obvious that human beings would be better off without religion. Their typical mode of argument suggests this. They tend to argue by piling up a litany of anecdotes that, in total, suggest such a massive sum of evil from religion that it tips the scales so strongly toward the negative that a more careful weighing is unnecessary. But I remain unconvinced. In fact, I suspect the scales might tip the other way.
Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno's. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly.
As someone who knows what it's like from the inside to be a believer, I suspect that I'm better able to appreciate this point than the undergraduate atheists, who perhaps never grew up as part of a faith. For them, the only thing worth calculating is the objective consequences of religious superstition. But that would represent a gross error.
Under the comparative scenario on which UAT rests, we are to imagine, as far as we are able, a course of human history without religious belief. This is exceedingly difficult to do, since religion is nearly universal across cultures. Yes, in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits. I submit that this would be a huge net negative for humanity, even if we granted that the religious universe would have more war, more intolerance and more folly than the non-religious one — something I'm not willing to grant.
* * *
A related problem for this alternative scenario: Some researchers have suggested that there is a natural tendency in human beings, perhaps even grounded in their neuropsychology, that leads them to form religious beliefs. If this is true, the alternative scenario under UAT would have human beings like us — i.e. ones who have a tendency (dare I say a need?) for religious belief — who nevertheless lacked the resources to form such beliefs. That sounds to me like a recipe for mass misery.
Or suppose that in the alternative universe, human beings would not have this tendency towards religion. They would not be quite like us. Let us call them "Dawkinsians." They would be like human beings in every respect, including their stupidity, impulsiveness and tribalism, but they would lack any tendency toward forming religious beliefs. They would certainly lack the psychological boon from religion, but they would also somehow not have the need for it. They couldn't all be like David Hume, meeting death without blinking — that would be unfair. (Of course humanity would be better off if everyone were like David Hume!) What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn't, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it's not a fair comparison.
Note that I do not need to secure agreement with the conclusion that humanity with religion is better off than without. All I need to put UAT in doubt is the consideration that a full investigation into its truth would require calculating not only all the good and bad objective consequences of religious belief versus the good and bad of a world without belief — wars, intolerance, violence, etc. — but also the subjective psychological consequences of human beings with religious belief versus humans without. If you believe that this is a hopelessly complicated task, you have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Black and Blue: Measuring Hate in America
by Katharine Blake McFarland
On Saturday, September 20, 2013, Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh man who wears a turban, was attacked by a group of teenagers in New York City. "Get Osama," they shouted as they grabbed his beard, punched him in the face and kicked him once he fell to the ground. Though Singh ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw, he survived the attack.
More than a year earlier, on a hot day in July, Wade Michael Page walked into Shooters Shop in West Allis, Wisconsin. He picked out a Springfield Armory XDM and three 19-round ammunition magazines, for which he paid $650 in cash. Kevin Nugent, like many gun shop owners, reserves the right not to sell a weapon to anyone who seems agitated or under the influence, and Page, he said, seemed neither. But he was wrong. Eight days after his visit to Shooters Shop, Page interrupted services at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, about thirty minutes southeast of West Allis, by opening fire on Sunday morning worship. He killed six people and wounded three others, and when local police authorities arrived on the scene, he turned the gun on himself.
Page, it turns out, had been a member of the Hammerskins, a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist offshoot born in the late 1980s in Dallas, Texas, responsible for the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses and the brutal murders of nonwhite victims. He was under the influence. The influence of something lethal, addictive, and distorting: indoctrinated hatred. We don't know the precise array of influences motivating the teenagers who attacked Prabhjot Singh. But even considering the reckless folly of youth, their assault against him—a man they did not know, a physician and professor targeted only for his Sikh beard and turban—reverberates down the history of American hate crimes.
Last fall, I attended a workshop offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center on hate groups in the United States. The workshop was part of an educational retreat for law enforcement and corrections officials, and was being held at a remote lodge in northern Ohio on one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, trees ablaze against a deep blue sky that betrays the blackness of space behind it. It was a strangely glorious setting in which to learn about skinheads. The dissonance was unnerving.
The man leading the workshop on hate groups was very muscular, a little shiny and a bit red in the face. Reminiscent of a cartoon bull, he is the kind of man I instinctively hope never to see angry. When I googled him before the presentation nothing turned up, but this anonymity is purposeful. Since the 1980s, SPLC has used the courts to undermine extremist groups, winning large damage awards on behalf of victims. Several hate groups have been bankrupted by these verdicts, rendering SPLC the occasional target of retaliatory plots. Thus, the low Internet profile and somewhat threatening physique of the workshop presenter, whose singular job it is to monitor these groups day in and day out. I found myself wondering about his family—what did his children know about their father's work, what did they think of it, were they safe?
Before the workshop, my knowledge of hate groups was limited, an epistemological deficiency afforded by privilege. I knew about the terror of the Klan in the 1800s, and their resurgence in the 1900s. I had studied, read, and heard firsthand stories of cross burnings and lynchings, sinister echoes of our nation's Original Sin. But my notion of modern-day extremism was based on the occasional unkempt white supremacist, rising up from his subterranean Internet world to buy a town. According to SPLC, the reality is more damning. Here's what I wrote down in my notebook during the workshop:
- There are more than 1000 active hate groups, including Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, and border vigilantes.
- This figure—this 1000+—represents a 67% increase since 2000.
- Since 44th President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813% from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.
- Only 5 – 15% of hate crimes are committed by actual hate groups.
In the margin next to this fourth fact, I scribbled three question marks and the words, how do we measure threat?
When I was six years old, my favorite fairytale was The Princess and the Pea. The Prince's search for a real Princess, a designation determined entirely by her sensitivity to a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, seemed remarkable. As an unduly sensitive child, I marveled at the notion that sensitivity could be the key to a happy ending. In my own life, even in those earliest years, sensitivity seemed only a liability.
But lately I've remembered the story in a different light, for its comment on what lies beneath. The ability of unseen, seemingly insignificant phenomena to affect the surface. A relatively small proportion of all hate crimes are committed by hate group members. But statistical insignificance might not obviate concern because numbers might tell only part of the story. I scarcely slept at all, the Princess said, I'm black and blue all over.
Here is a problem of statistical measurement: in 2008, two professors wrote a white paper that found no significant relationship between hate groups and hate crimes. "Though populated by hateful people," they write, " [hate groups] may be a lot of hateful bluster." But in 2010, Professor Mulholland at Stonehill College conducted a study that found hate crimes to be "18.7 percent more likely to occur in counties with active white supremacist hate group chapters."
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics out this year, victims are less likely to report hate crimes to the police than they were ten years ago, with only 35 percent of all crimes reported. The result is that thousands of hate crimes go uncounted each year. This study also found an increase in the number of violent victimizations (92 percent of all hate crimes are now violent), and an increase in the number of religiously-motivated crimes over the past 10 years.
In a somewhat complicated coincidence, the problem of inaccurate data collection was addressed by Prabhjot Singh in a New York Times op-ed he wrote over a year ago. He called on the FBI to stop categorizing anti-Sikh violence as anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic in their annual reports. He decried the popular assumption that all hate crimes against Sikhs are instances of "mistaken identity," wherein the attacker assumes the victims to be Muslim. A true and fair grievance. But a year and a month later, Singh was victimized in his own neighborhood in Harlem by a group of teenagers yelling, "get Osama."
How do we measure threat?
Just after the shooting at Oak Creek, and months before the workshop on hate groups, I attended an interfaith service at a Sikh Gurdwara to commemorate those killed by Wade Michael Page. Upon entering the Gurdwara, I was instructed to take off my shoes, which I did, and then a young woman handed me a scarf to cover my head. I was escorted to a long, white room, with an aisle down the center—women sitting on the floor to the left, men on the right, and an altar adorned with brightly colored tapestries and cloths at the front. The room was almost full, but I found a spot near the back. The women's headscarves—blood orange, deep blue, and scarlet—burned beautifully against the white walls.
The service opened with a Sikh prayer, and Dr. Butalia, the leader of this Gurdwara, welcomed us all in English. He expressed how much it meant to him and his community to be supported by so many visitors, and he asked all the Christians to stand. I stood up, along with the two Catholic nuns in front of me, and about fifteen others. When we sat down, he asked all the Muslims to stand. When the Muslims sat down, he asked the Jews to stand, then the Hindus, then the Buddhists, then the Baha'i, then the Jains, then the "various people of conscience." With each group that stood, the hard shell formed by the word "stranger" cracked and dissolved. Children ran back and forth across the aisle, holding hands, on important missions from mother to father and back again. Dr. Butalia described his friend, Satwant Kaleka, the leader of the Gurdwara in Oak Creek who died trying to protect his congregation with a butter knife. His voice faltered, "He was a peaceful man." Then we prayed for the man who killed Kaleka. We prayed for Wade Michael Page, naming him "a victim of hatred," and we prayed for his family.
Towards the end of the service, a speaker told us a story that went something like this: a long time ago, there was a king who sought to be the most powerful man in all the land. He went around proving his strength by breaking the branches off trees with his bare hands. A wise man saw him doing this and approached him. "‘Oh, you are very strong,' said the wise man, ‘but now, can you put it back together?' People who destroy are not powerful," the speaker said, "people who unite are powerful."
The earliest definition of the word "victim" dates back to the 15th century and connotes a holy sacrifice. By the following century, the word lost its exclusively sacred associations, and today four definitions are offered:
- a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency;
- a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency;
- a person or animal sacrificed or regarded as sacrificed;
- a living creature sacrificed in religious rites.
A person harmed by injurious agency. A person deceived by her own ignorance. A person sacrificed. It's too much to measure.
And there is no word or concept for "victim" in the Sikh tradition. After he was attacked, Prabhjot Singh's responses embodied the Sikh concept of chardi kala, which translates to "joyous spirit" or "perpetual optimism." He said that if he could talk to his attackers he would "ask them if they had any questions," and "invite them to the Gurdwara where we worship." He was also thoughtful about his one-year-old son: "I can't help but see the kids who assaulted me as somehow linked to him."
Numbers and naming can take us only so far. Sometimes causality defies quantifiable analysis and sometimes the relationship of one thing to another is indirect, cyclical, or statistically unlikely. A restless night, a confusing coincidence. Perhaps the question is not exclusively, or even primarily, one of measurement—the measurement of threat and causation, the correct category and quantity of victims—but a different question entirely:
Can you put it back together? I'm black and blue all over.
Monday, April 29, 2013
The Folly of Perpetual Victimhood
by Jalees Rehman
I grew up in a culture of guilt. One of the defining characteristics of post-war Germany was the "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", a monstrous German word that describes the attempts to come to terms with the horrors of Nazi-Germany and World War II. How could Germans have abandoned all sense of humanity and decency? Why had millions of German actively or passively engaged in the mass murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and so many other minorities? This Vergangenheitsbewältigung resulted in a deep-rooted sense of collective shame and guilt, one which transcended the generation which had lived through the war and even engulfed Germans born after the war and Germans with immigrant backgrounds, whose families obviously had no historic link to the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany. We did not feel blameworthy in the sense of having to answer for the Nazi crimes, but we did feel that the burden of history had foisted a responsibility on us. We felt that it was our responsibility to be continuously vigilant, watching for any signs or symptoms indicating a recurrence of right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, militarism, nationalism, discrimination or other characteristics of Nazi Germany. Our obsession with collective introspection at times became so excessive that it paralyzed us, such as when we developed a general paranoia of expressing any form of German patriotism, because it might set us on a path to Nazism. Many Germans also had near-hysterical responses to any discussions about genetic engineering, because it evoked haunting memories of Nazi eugenics. But despite these irrational excesses, I think that we Germans greatly benefited from our post-war soul-searching which helped us build a mostly peaceful country – no small feat, considering our past.
Roughly one decade ago, "mirror neurons" were among the hottest items in neuroscience research. These neurons in the brain of an individual were thought to fire upon observing behaviors in other individuals: When I see someone eating a delicious piece of chocolate, my mirror neurons fire and help create a proxy sensation or awareness in my brain that mirror the observed behavior so that I might have some sense of eating the chocolate myself. If this were true, mirror neurons would play a central role in generating a sense of empathy. Newer scientific research has questioned whether "mirror neurons" truly exist, but there is little doubt that our brain has some neurobiological substrate that enables empathy, even if it does not consist of the exact same set of anatomically defined neurons as has been previously suspected. I therefore still like to use the "mirror neurons" metaphor, because it aptly evokes the image of a neurobiological mirror in our mind. I would like to extend that mirror metaphor and also propose that our mind might contain "guilt neurons", which fire when we observe some degree of resemblance between ourselves and perpetrators of crimes. Part of being immersed in the post-war German tradition of collective guilt and soul-searching is that it endowed me with ultra-sensitive hypothetical "guilt neurons". When I hear about a tragedy or crime, I not only feel the natural empathy with the victims, but in a reflex-like manner ask the question whether I bear some degree of responsibility – not blame – for this tragedy and crime and how to best work towards preventing it in the future. This "guilt neuron" activity is strongest when I sense that the perpetrator is a member of an in-group that I also belong to, such as crimes being committed by fathers or husbands, by Germans, by scientists or physicians, by Muslims, by people with a South Asian heritage and so forth.
When Anders Breivik in Norway committed his mass murder in 2011, I felt a very deep sadness, because I could really empathize with the victims and their families. He killed teenagers and young adults attending a youth camp of the Social Democratic party. His victims could have been my children, and a couple of decades ago, I might have attended a similar youth camp in Germany. My guilt neurons were silent – I did not feel much of a responsibility because I had little to nothing in common with the perpetrator. He despised everything that I supported – diversity, feminism, progressive-liberal thought and the environmental movement. But I felt that there were people who ought to have felt some degree of responsibility. His manifesto quoted extensively from far-right bloggers and authors in the United States and in Europe, who seemed to have shared his world-views. Does this mean that everyone promoting anti-immigrant or far-right views in Europe and the US should have been blamed for the deeds this mass killer? Of course not! They did not directly provide him with the weapons and they did not ask him to murder the social democratic youth – but shouldn't one take some responsibility for promoting hateful messages that denigrated immigrants, Muslims and citizens with progressive-liberal thoughts? The responses of the far-right politicians and authors who might have unwittingly influenced Breivik were quite disappointing. Instead of undergoing an introspective analysis, the far right just issued perfunctory condemnations, stating that they would never have endorsed the murders. The politicians and far right bloggers continued to engage in their hateful rhetoric, even tried to seize the opportunity to portray themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The Breivik acts of terror did not seem to have activated the "guilt neurons" of the far right.
The week following the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013 was a very sad week for me. Boston is one of my most favorite cities in the world. It is the first US city that I ever visited. I spent many months there when I was a student in the 1990s. Boston eased me into American culture by cushioning the culture shock that Europeans experience when they first visit the US, mostly because it reminded me a lot of my home town Munich, famously known as the "Weltstadt mit Herz" ("city of the world with a heart)". Like Munich, Boston is wonderfully suited for long city walks. The Bostonians were extremely hospitable and friendly. I remember seeing beautiful sunsets in Boston, spending hours in the wonderful bookstores in Cambridge and Boston and being thrilled by the plethora of universities and their libraries in the Boston area, which seemed like an endless treasure trove of knowledge. I was thus devastated when I saw the tragedy of the bombings unfold – more or less live on the Internet and on Twitter revealing painful descriptions of victims who had lost their limbs at a marathon. I was haunted by the image of the young boy Martin Richard holding up a sign which said "No more hurting people" in 2012 – only to be murdered in the subsequent year at the Boston Marathon bombings. The idea of this beautiful city, normally bustling with activity and creativity, being forced into a lockdown because of some psychopathic killers was heartbreaking.
On Friday morning, I heard the news that the perpetrators had been identified; two Muslim immigrants with Chechen origins. They were brothers, the older one - 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev - had been killed in a shoot-out. The younger one - 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had not yet been captured and an ongoing manhunt was still paralyzing the city of Boston. There were vague reports of "Islamist connections" of the older brother based on his alleged Youtube video playlists. The younger brother was a college student at the University of Massachusetts and had a Twitter account with the handle @J_tsar, from which he had sent his last tweet on April 17, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. His last tweet was a re-tweet of the conservative Muslim cleric, Mufti Ismail Menk: "Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's last self-authored tweet was "I'm a stress free kind of guy", one day after the bombing – both tweets seem rather cynical in the context of someone who had helped inflict so much suffering. His Twitter feed of the past months was a combination of mindless blather, evoking the traditional cliché of the banality of evil, but it also contained a number of tweets which indicated that he saw himself as a Muslim, even quipping about how Muslims at his mosque thought he was a convert to Islam instead of being born a Muslim.
The specific motives of the two brothers were not yet known when the news broke. Did they murder and maim their fellow citizens because they felt it was consistent with or even mandated by their view of Islam? Was it a political statement regarding the war in Chechnya and they just happened to choose innocent civilian targets in Boston because it was easier than planting bombs in Chechnya or Russia? Were they psychopaths seeking notoriety and infamy without any specific religious or political goals? Were they aided by a terrorist organization or acting as individuals?
Multiple Muslim organizations and prominent Muslims strongly condemned the Boston Marathon bombings, expressed their condolences for the victims and made it very clear that such acts of terror were inconsistent with Islam. Muslim organizations routinely issue such statements when Muslims commit acts of terror, but the question remains whether such statements are enough. Since I possess overactive German guilt neurons, I feel that as members of the Muslim community in the US, we have a deeper responsibility to undertake an introspective analysis and explore why US Muslims engage in forms of violence. Some might argue that there is no need for such introspection, since we do not yet whether the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers were in any way linked to Islam. Even apart from the Tsarnaev brothers' motives, US Muslims need to understand that there is an unfortunately high level of tolerating suicide bombings or violence against civilians. A Pew survey conducted in 2011 revealed that 13% of US Muslims thought suicide bombings or violence against civilian targets could be justified to defend Islam (rarely justified: 5%; sometimes justified: 7%; often justified: 1%). The Pew survey compared the results to those obtained from surveying Muslims in Pakistan, of whom only 7% felt that such violence could be justified in the name of Islam. Sadly, this degree of acceptance of suicide bombings or violence against civilians among US Muslims has not budged since 2007. This suggests that there is a disconnect between US Muslim organizations (which categorically condemn all attacks against civilians) and the US Muslim community.
Even though the 13% represent a small minority within the larger US Muslim community, they might be the ones who are most likely to be radicalized and it is thus important to understand what motivates them to endorse suicide bombings and violence against civilians. One hypothesis that can be explored is whether the Muslim self-perception of collective victimhood may contribute to their willingness to endorse violence. During the past 15 years that I have lived in the US, I have noticed that in Friday sermons (khutbahs), discussions, lectures, articles and books, American Muslims often perceive themselves as collective victims. Khutbahs routinely end with prayers for people in need, but in my experience, there is a rather one-sided portrayal of the global Muslim community as victims - khateebs (khateeb = person who gives the Muslim Friday sermon or khutbah) frequently mention the plight of Muslims who are oppressed and persecuted in regions such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir or more recently, Burma. However, there is little mention of prayers for victims in situations where Muslims are the primary perpetrators, such as is the case when Sunni Muslims murder Shia or Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, or when they kill or persecute Christians, Jews or atheists. The buzzword "Islamophobia", which is not really a phobia in the psychiatric sense, is frequently used to depict Muslims as victims. There are many cases of anti-Muslim hate speech and discrimination, but the haphazard use of "Islamophobia" to bludgeon legitimate criticisms of Muslims or Islam is rendering this term useless. An exaggerated "Islamophobia" view of the world also perpetuates the one-sided portrayal of Muslims as victims instead of promoting a more balanced view, one which would also include some discussion of anti-Western hostility that is found among Muslims ("Occidentophobia", incidentally is also not a true "phobia").
Is there any evidence that such a sense of collective victimhood could affect one's moral judgment? A remarkable study conducted by the social psychologists Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe lends credence to this idea. In a paper entitled "Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions" published 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wohl and Branscombe examined the acceptance of Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians by Jewish Canadians. Using a web-based questionnaire, they surveyed Jewish Canadians in two different conditions, one which included showing the participants a website that reminded them of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews and one condition in which participants just saw a neutral website. Importantly, participants who were reminded of the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust (prior to answering the questions) experienced significantly less guilt about Israeli actions against Palestinians. In a different set of experiments, Wohl and Branscombe then asked Americans how they felt about the harm inflicted by American troops on Iraqis. The American participants felt far less guilt regarding the American attacks, when the participants were reminded of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interestingly, they also felt less guilt about the Iraq war when they were reminded of the Pearl Harbor attack. This suggested that it was not a causal link between September 11, 2001 and Iraq that had made them endorse American violence, but merely the sense of collective victimization - independent of whether the perpetrators were the Japanese military or Muslim terrorists.
Considering these data, it might be important to study whether Muslims who are continuously reminded of historical or ongoing collective victimization - being victims of "Islamophobia" or of military actions in Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya - could promote a justification for violent acts, quite similar to the participants studied by Wohl and Branscombe. Conversely, a more balanced and realistic view of history and current affairs which would depict Muslims as both, victims and perpetrators might lower the likelihood of Muslims endorsing violence.
On the Friday after the Boston Marathon bombings, prior to heading to the Friday sermon, I wondered whether the newly disclosed information that the bombers were US based Muslims would help promote a process of soul searching in the American Muslim community. Unfortunately, the twitter feed of one of the most popular English-language Muslim blogs, MuslimMatters.org, known for its überconservative or right-wing ideas, did not suggest that this would occur. Some of its tweets and re-tweets on Friday morning suggested an all-too-familiar reaction of American Muslims. The religion of the Tsarnaev brothers was supposedly not relevant and had no bearing on the attacks; "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime"; "If it wasn't you, then don't feel guilty. Do not take the burden of others upon your shoulders when they are wrongfully placed there"; and there were tweets about how Muslims might need to be vigilant about potential "Islamophobic" backlashes: "Please contact your local CAIR chapter if you experience any type of violence as a result of the tragedy in Boston: cair.com."
The idea that somehow "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime" is puzzling since we routinely look at context of a crime. When Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage, murdering children and terrorizing an elementary school, American society did not just respond with "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime". There was an extensive effort made to re-evaluate gun laws and the mental healthcare system, and there was a general shift in the public opinion on gun control. It may be important to clarify the difference between "blame" and "responsibility". As a society, we should take responsibility to help each other and care for each other, and when we fail to do so, there is no shame in taking responsibility for that failure. That does not necessarily mean that we are all to "blame" for the acts committed by the Tsarnaev brothers or by Adam Lanza. Also, there is no need to expect that only Muslims have a responsibility to act in response to the Tsarnaev crimes. One should explore all the factors that resulted in the tragedy, such as failures of law enforcement to detect the planned plot, addressing how they accessed the weapons and training that enabled them to commit their crimes or whether there had been warning signs that could have alerted family members, friends and colleagues. Muslim soul-searching is just part of the greater soul-searching process that involves society-at-large in response to the tragedy.
As I headed towards our Friday khutbah in Chicago, I wondered whether the khateeb would broach this difficult subject. The first part of the khutbah was about Moses and David, and how these two prophets should be our role models because they exemplified steadfastness in their faith, gratitude and prayer, thanking God even under most difficult circumstances. The second part of the khutbah specifically addressed the Boston bombings. The khateeb strongly condemned the terror attacks, and said that Muslims are never allowed to kill innocent civilians. He then explained the horrors of the Chechnyan war and how Muslims suffered at the hands of the Soviet and Russian military. However, instead of an analysis and introspection addressing how we could help reduce the recurrence of such acts, the khateeb indicated that he wanted to mention one other event in this context. He said that after the Boston attacks, an interfaith service had been planned and that the initially proposed Muslim representative had been vetoed by some members of the Boston community. The objection to this particular choice stemmed from the suggested imam's alleged ties to Islamist groups. A different Muslim representative was then chosen for the Interfaith service. Our khateeb then made a rather bizarre statement in a defiant tone and said that Muslims should choose their own leaders instead of allowing "Zionists" to make decisions for the Muslim community! Rather than look in the mirror and think about potential reasons for why some US Muslims justify violence with religion, Muslims were again being portrayed as victims of alleged "Zionists". The promising first part of the khutbah had focused on Moses and David and emphasized the shared Abrahamic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but the same khutbah had ended with the spreading of unnecessary conspiracy theories and regurgitating the image of the victimized Muslims. I left the khutbah with a heavy heart.
In the subsequent days, I observed how Muslims attempted to downplay the Muslim connection of the Tsarnaev brothers but I also saw how right-wing, anti-Muslim American groups began asking for massive profiling of Muslims merely based on their faith or ethnicity. We need to move beyond the two extremes - the one-sided portrayal by anti-Muslim hate-mongers of Muslims as purely evil perpetrators and the equally one-sided portrayal of Muslims as perpetual victims. We can then achieve a balanced and honest view of the role of Muslims in American society with a realistic and equitable distribution of responsibilities and expectations.
As with most unfathomable crimes, there are probably many factors that come together, there is no one single all-explanatory cause. The vast majority of supporters of far-right ideology do not go on shooting rampages like the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik did. The vast majority of homes containing an arsenal of guns do not give rise to child murderers such as Adam Lanza. The vast majority of Muslims who watch Islamist Youtube videos do not commit terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, we have to carefully analyze the risk factors that lead to the tragedies and work together to reduce the risk of recurrences. I do not want to live in a libertarian heaven with dormant "guilt neurons", where everyone is exclusively responsible for their own actions and where we can expediently shrug off any responsibility for the suffering of fellow humans or for the crimes committed by others. The strength of a society depends on the willingness of its members to engage in introspection and shoulder responsibilities.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Civility and Public Reason
Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
According to a prevailing conception among political theorists, part of what accounts for the legitimacy of democratic government and the bindingness of its laws is democracy’s commitment to public deliberation. Democracy is not merely a process of collective decision in which each adult citizen gets precisely one vote and the majority rules; after all, that an outcome was produced by a process of majoritarian equal voting provides only a weak reason to accept it. The crucial aspect of democracy is the process of public reasoning and deliberation that precedes the vote. The idea is that majoritarian equal voting procedures can produce a binding outcome only when they are engaged after citizens have had ample opportunity to reason and deliberate together about matters of public concern. We claimed in last month’s post that democracy is all about argument; this means that at democracy’s core is public deliberation.
In a democracy, public deliberation is the activity in which citizens exchange reasons concerning which governmental policies should be instituted. This activity is necessary because democratic decision-making regularly takes place against a backdrop of disagreement, where different conceptions of public interest conflict. It is important to note that although reasoning always has consensus among its goals, democratic deliberation is aimed primarily at reconciling citizens to the central reality of politics, namely that in a society of free and equal individuals, no one can get everything he or she wants from politics. As democratic citizens, we disagree about which policies will best serve the public interest, and so, when democracy makes collective decisions, some of us will lose – our preferred policy will fail to win the requisite support. Yet democratic laws and decisions are prima facie binding on us all, even when they conflict with our individual judgments about what is best.
Public deliberation is that component of the democratic process in which citizens show each other respect: When democracy decides, some will win, and others will lose, but everyone has the opportunity in advance of the voting to present reasons and arguments in favor of their preferred outcome and against its competitors. Even though democracy requires each of us to live under some laws and policies that we individually oppose, we nonetheless can see ourselves as something more than mere subjects; because we each are able to contribute to the deliberation leading up to the vote, we can see ourselves as authors of the laws and policies that result, even when our individual judgment opposes those results. In short, public deliberation enables us to see democratic policies as justified even in cases where we individually think them mistaken. We cannot require unanimity in a society of free and equal citizens, but we can nonetheless respect each other by resolving to live together under only those laws and policies that can be justified. Public deliberation is the means for exhibiting this kind of respect.
Given that the public deliberation is supposed to manifest respect among citizens who disagree, there are a few desiderata that processes of public deliberation must satisfy. The most obvious is egalitarianism. Those who affirm a view about the public good must be open to questions and challenges from any quarter; every citizen has the right not only to assert views, but also to voice objections. “Because I said so” and “you don’t count” are never valid moves in public deliberation. This leads naturally to an additional feature of proper public deliberation, namely, reasonableness. If processes of affirming views and voicing objections are going to manifest respect among citizens, then when gets exchanged must be reasons rather than threats, commands, and insults. At the very least, this means that public deliberators must argue in accordance with basic rules of critical thinking and proper inference. But reasonableness also requires that citizens exchange reasons of a certain kind. More specifically, in order to be reasonable, public deliberation must be conducted by means of reasons that are themselves public. Public reasons are those reasons that are recognizable as reasons by democratic citizens as such. They are reasons that could be acknowledged from the perspective of any democratic citizen, rather than only from the perspective of some individual perspective or other. Accordingly, in public deliberation, citizens must reason from a public perspective rather than from the perspective of their individual moral or religious convictions. Just as “Because I said so” does not count as a reason in public deliberation, neither does “Because my church says so.”
Here’s why. We noted above that the main function of public deliberation is not to prove that one’s views about the public good are true, but rather to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable. And to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable is to show that they are justifiable to them. In order to show that one’s views about the public good are justifiable to your fellow citizens, one must articulate the case for one’s views in terms that do not presuppose one’s own particular moral, metaphysical, or religious commitments. For your fellow citizen may reject these commitments without thereby disqualifying themselves for democratic citizenship.
An example will help. Imagine a fellow citizen affirming that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because God forbids homosexuality. Here, what has been offered is a reason that could count as a reason only for those who hold certain religious convictions. But free and equal citizens of a democratic society are not required to have any religious convictions at all. So the justification proposed fails to show that the position is justifiable. Contrast this with the case of a fellow citizen who affirms that that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because permitting it would weaken the stability of the family, thereby weakening the most basic institution of all human society. Social stability is a concern for democratic citizens as such. Accordingly, in response, a critic will challenge the claim that allowing same-sex marriage will undermine the stability of the family, and thus social stability overall. But the important thing is that the social stability argument proposes a reason of the right kind. Those who support same-sex marriage cannot simply say in response, “Who cares about social stability?” They instead need to engage with the reasons offered by the same-sex marriage opponent. To be sure, we are confident that the social stability argument against same-sex marriage falls short, but that is a different matter from what is now at issue, namely, which reasons are properly public.
We may say that public reasons are of the kind that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unintelligible by democratic citizens. Thus there is a fundamental difference between a reason such as “The Bible forbids it” and “Equality requires it.” One who dismisses the former does not thereby disqualify himself for democratic citizenship; one who dismisses the latter does. Accordingly, a group of citizens that insists on a public policy that can be supported only by means of nonpublic reasons thereby shows disrespect for their fellow citizens. Put otherwise, to affirm a public policy that cannot be supported by public reasons is in effect to say to one’s fellow citizens “Because I said so.” And that’s to deny that one’s fellow citizens are one’s equals. That’s disrespectful.
Indeed, it’s uncivil. The moral core of democracy consists in the project of enabling citizens to live together socially as equals, despite the fact that they disagree deeply about fundamental moral and religious matters. This democratic moral vision can be realized only when citizens recognize a duty to respect each other as fellow citizens, equal sharers in political power. This respect requires citizens to recognize what John Rawls called the duty of civility, which is the duty to offer one’s fellow citizens public reasons when deliberating with them about the public good. Knowing that deliberation occurs against the backdrop of deep disagreement, we must on the one hand be willing to recognize the diversity of religious, philosophical, and ethical commitments available to democratic citizens. On the other hand, we must be able to explain the basis for any policy we advocate with reasons we can expect any of those diverse individuals to endorse as consistent with their status as a fellow free and equal citizen. That’s the tightrope of democratic justification. Democratic deliberation, then, requires us to argue from a public perspective.
Accordingly, we see that civility is indeed all about being respectful. But the relevant kind of respect is not that of the calm tone and cool demeanor. The respect proper to democratic citizens has to do with the ways in which we acknowledge our fundamental equality as sharers in self-government. And this is in turn a matter of whether we reason together even when our reasons conflict.
Monday, July 23, 2012
The Argument from Ugliness
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
1. The universe (or parts of it) exhibit property X.
2. Property X is usually (if not always) brought about by the purposive actions of those who created objects for them to be X.
3. The cases mentioned in Premise 1 are not explained (or fully explained) by human action or non-intentional events internal to the universe.
4. Therefore: The universe is (likely) the product of a purposive agent who created it to be X, namely God.
The variety of teleological arguments is as broad the range of properties one can reasonably substitute for X. Traditional teleological arguments plug in for X the claim that some feature of the universe is fine-tuned for life, or that the universe has whatever is required in order to support creatures capable of consciousness, or moral responsibility. The argument from beauty, by contrast, begins from the premise that the universe exhibits beauty. This, the argument runs, entails that the universe must have been created by God, and thus that God exists. But teleological arguments have what we call evil twins. These are arguments that are teleological in structure, but proceed from premises concerning the imperfection or nastiness of the universe to the conclusion that there is no God. The universe, after all, is a mixed bag. Thus, for every theistic argument from, say, fine-tuning, there’s an atheistic challenge beginning from the observation that precious little of the universe is inhabitable and that living creatures are actually poorly designed. Similarly, for every theistic argument from consciousness, there’s an opposing atheistic argument that contends that consciousness deeply flawed and in any case not much of a boon. And for every theistic argument from the fact of moral responsibility, there’s an atheistic argument from immorality. This is what we call the evil twin problem: if theists contend that teleological arguments are valid in their logical form, then they must confront the atheist versions.
Here we will pose the evil twin problem for the argument from beauty: the argument from ugliness.The theistic argument from beauty has been around at least since Hesiod, who explains the grandeur of the world as a product of Gaia and Ouranos’ love. Plato, too, invokes the divine to account for beauty in the Symposium. Augustine gives an explicit version of the argument in his Confessions: We look upon the heavens and earth, and they cry aloud that they were made. . . . It was You, Lord, who made them: for You are beautiful, and they are beautiful; You are good, and they are good: You are, and they are. (XI. 4) In the twentieth century, F.R. Tennant proposed a version of the argument, noting that the world is “saturat[ed]” with beauty (1930:91). He continued, “Nature is sublime or beautiful, and the exceptions do not but prove the rule” (1930, 91-2). Nature, Tennant then infers, must be the product of a mind with the purpose of aesthetic fulfillment, intent on producing something beautiful. Mark Wynn, extending Tennant’s line of thought, notes that: Most believers, it seems to me, are more likely to be impressed by the beauty of nature, when considering whether the world answers to providential purpose, than by mere regularity or order. (1999: 15) Wynn, however, is modest about how much the case from beauty can actually prove; he holds that it cannot be “persuasive in isolation from other [theistic] arguments” (1999: 36). Nonetheless, Wynn does take it to be a positive case. Finally, Richard Swinburne holds that “God has a reason to create a beautiful inanimate world – that is, a beautiful physical universe” (2004: 121). Swinburne claims that God, being the source of good, will be instrumental in producing as much good in as many varieties as possible. So, he reasons, if God creates a universe, it will be beautiful. Since the universe is beautiful (and a universe without a creative god would likely not be quite as beautiful as this one), we therefore have reason to believe that God exists and has aesthetic values (2004: 190).
Again, the general problem for theistic teleological arguments is that the world is a mixed bag. Yes, there is order, pleasure, goodwill, and beauty aplenty. But there’s also disorder, suffering, hate, and ugliness. Now, if we are reasoning from effects to a cause, then the cause of the mixed-bag universe must be a mixed bag as well. But God can’t be a mixed bag. You get the idea. Like the argument from beauty, the argument from ugliness proceeds from a few key cases. Consider terrible art. We have some in mind, for example songs by the 1980s rock group Ratt and Thomas Kinkade paintings. They are schlocky and stupid, things merely to endure. Yet these are human products. So consider instead the harsh call of crows, or the unsightly leaking of sap from a splintered tree limb. Or take the human form and the insipid and unwieldy elbow – even the most graceful can only but manage its awkwardly hinged angularity. The anglerfish of the deep and the aruana of the Amazon are hideous creatures, and spiders are so awful, it is hard for many to contain themselves when up close to them. In addition, there are sticky and stinky swamps, boring groupings of trees, misplaced shrubbery, and intermittent villages filled with sticky and stinky children. Yuck. A friend of ours recently stopped smoking, and he remarked that, as an unfortunate consequence, his sense of smell had returned: “Most of the smells in the world are disgusting.” And, of course, there’s also vomit, puss, bile, phlegm, and feces. The world is tolerable only in small and selective doses, or perhaps from very far away. Why so much ugliness? Is it that there’s a God who has inverted aesthetic sensibilities and wishes to impress them upon us? Is God ugly and so causes earthly ugliness? The argument from beauty contends that since there is beauty in the world there must be a God who is beautiful or prefers beautiful things. By similar reasoning, one might conclude that God either is ugly or likes ugliness. But there’s a third possibility: Perhaps God created such an ugly world because he hates us. Consequently, given the amount of ugliness in the world, we have reason to believe that God either is ugly, likes ugliness, or hates us and torments us with ugliness. However, given that God must be a perfect unity of all good things, a being that either is ugly, likes ugliness, or inflicts ugliness on others cannot be God. Therefore there is no God.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Only Philosophers Go to Hell
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists. Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? The Problem of Hell is a special version of the Problem of Evil, which is the general challenge that a just and loving God would not intentionally create a world with excessive misery, and yet we see the excesses all around us. Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here. At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies. But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity. Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one. That’s a problem.
There are two standard lines in defense of Hell. The first is the retributivist line, and the second is the libertarian line. We think that if either succeeds, only philosophers could go to Hell. This is because only someone who understands exactly what she is doing in sinning or rejecting God could deserve such a fate as Hell, and only a philosophical education could provide that kind of understanding. So, it follows, only philosophers can go to Hell.
Retributivism with regard to Hell runs as follows: Those in Hell are sinners, and sin demands punishment. Therefore, Hell is necessary; it is the place where that punishment is delivered. This seems reasonable as far as it goes, and it does work as a nice counterpoint to the regular complaint that sometimes the wicked prosper in this life – they will suffer appropriately in the next. But retributivism about Hell ultimately seems problematic. Grant that sinners deserve punishment. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment being visited upon those in Hell is objectionable. Sinners can’t do infinite harm, no matter how bad they are. But they get an eternity of torment. Punishment is just only when it is proportionate to the wrongs committed by the guilty. So even if Hell’s express purpose is to enact retribution on those who are guilty of sin, and even if the guilty do get what’s coming to them in Hell, making that punishment eternal is moral overkill. Again, disproportionate punishment is morally wrong, and Hell is guaranteed to be exactly that for everyone there.
Take a moment to consider some moral wrong you’ve done. Perhaps you stole a piece of bubblegum from the corner store. That was wrong. You know that. Now imagine that you were caught in the act, and you were given a beating for doing that wrong. And we’re not talking just any beating – we’re talking about a real drubbing, one that ranges from your legs, up to your torso, and then to your face. And it doesn’t stop. The people who caught you keep hitting you. For a week. For a month. For a year. Now, for sure, you got punished for your moral error. The problem with the punishment is that it was out of proportion to the seriousness of the wrong you committed. You stole bubblegum, but you got a year-long beating in return. The beating was much worse than the moral harm done in stealing the bubblegum. Now consider: Every sin is only a finite harm, but punishment in Hell is eternal. No matter how bad the sins of sinners are, they will always be punished disproportionately in Hell. That’s unjust.
One response might contend that the sin of those in Hell isn’t in the temporal wrongs they have committed in sinning, but rather, the sinners in Hell commit the wrong of rejecting God, the greatest good. That is their infinite error. Consequently, the sin of those in Hell is infinite, and so they deserve eternal (hence proportionate) punishment.
Notice that in order to deserve the full measure of that punishment in Hell, a sinner who rejects God must know exactly what she’s doing. If, say, the person who rejects God does so because she did not understand Him properly or because she did not know what she was rejecting Him, then she cannot deserve full punishment of Hell. She has made an error, but it was not related to her character, but consists in her failure to grasp the divine. She didn’t fully understand her actions. Only those who understand exactly what they are doing deserve proportionate retribution.
It seems clear that only someone with appropriate philosophical acumen could have that kind of understanding. Being familiar with a textual tradition is clearly insufficient, as the art of interpreting those texts is what’s required to take them appropriately. (No one takes Solomonic wisdom to consist in the threatening to chop up anything in contention.) Philosophy is what constitutes those interpretive moves. So, on the retributive theory of Hell, only a philosopher could justly go there.
The other going justification for Hell is libertarianism, the view that one freely chooses Hell as embracing an eternity away from God. God made Hell as a place where those who want to be away from Him can go. As C. S. Lewis put it, “the doors of Hell are locked from inside.”
Again, choosing is not simply a matter of what gets chosen, but it is also a matter of what the chooser thinks she’s choosing. A person who freely drinks a cup of petrol while believing it to be a cup of water does not really choose to drink petrol. Consequently, only those who know who and what God is can properly choose to be without Him. And only those with accurate philosophical understanding of God can be in this position. Again, only philosophers can go to Hell.
All this seems excellent news for non-philosophers. Socrates may have been right that the unexamined life is not worth living, but at least it keeps you out of Hell. But there’s some bad news, too. By way of the same kind of arguments presented above, we should hold that Heaven is reserved only for philosophers. If Heaven is our loving communion with God, it must be something we’ve knowingly chosen. God could not want us to enter into an eternity of loving communion with Him without our knowing what we are doing. And, again, only philosophers could understand what that choice amounts to. Only philosophers can go to Hell. And only philosophers can go to Heaven. Maybe that’s not such good news for non-philosophers. But perhaps there’s some comfort in the thought that non-philosophers might be able to avoid going anywhere for eternity.
Aikin and Talisse's Reasonable Atheism is available from Prometheus Books.
Monday, January 16, 2012
On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular
by Tauriq Moosa
In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments... all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.
Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.
The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”
His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:
A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.
Belief is not knowledge, it is merely a belief or a formation of viewpoints on a particular subject. Belief backed by evidence, reason, engagement, self-criticism is the ideal of any thinking person – but we cannot expect all our beliefs to follow suit, though we ought, as much possible, to be testing our beliefs against these forms of self-engagement, since we could be wrong.
Milton highlights that even if a belief be absolutely true – “the planet is not on the back of a tortoise” – it is the basis of that belief that highlights whether one is a heretic or not. If your basis of belief is because some pastor or assembly dictates the belief, then anything can be believed. A pastor could claim that condoms increase the spread/danger of AIDs, an assembly could determine that public spending on stem cells is wrong – but no one should accept that just because the pastor or assembly has so determined.
If a group of people decide that a particular piece of writing violates what they consider appropriate morals, attitudes or views, they will then censor that piece of writing, whether through complete obliteration or, worse, modification tailored to the tastes of the mindful moralisers; its existence is one aspect but it is also the idea’s distribution that concerns censors. An idea or viewpoint’s contrarian view will be locked inside its author’s head, forced to rot, since it is denied the sustenance of fellow minds. This is the goal, in any case, of every form of censorship.
But it doesn't work.
The “heresy” that Milton refers to is not Biblical antagonism; it’s not defying the orders of the ruling religious authority (though obviously that’s the definition we assume). Milton’s heresy is about complete domination of thought.
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.
Milton, however, must not be viewed as a secularist, fighting to untangle religion's root in political decision-making. He was not against the status quo and indeed was simply advocating that if a view or opinion truly is against the status quo, then so be it. This blasphemy however can be discovered afterwards and the books can be done away with then: blasphemy will reveal itself, so should not concern us before since we might end up lumping in legitimate, albeit controversial, inquiries which could benefit us all, among the things we ought not to see or to have been produced in the first place. The Areopagitica is filled with justifications based upon Bibilical mandates to seek out “God’s work”, in order to understand him. His suggestion was that works should not be censored before publication. There will be many failures and offences, he said, “ere the house of God can be built.”
It is this that makes Milton's argument seem strange. After all, Milton has just indicated that one ought not to believe based on an appeal to authority – but is defending free speech because God has said so. However, Milton can overcome this by indicating that the purpose of life is to discover his god’s purpose, which can only be found by constantly engaging with ideas, forcing them apart, seeking what is true. Indeed, the idea of knowledge leading to proper engagement also made it easier to separate good from evil, since, as Milton says, “good and evil… grow up together almost inseparably.” Milton claims that to fight Adam’s curse, humans require better knowledge overall, despite knowledge being the basis of the curse. In order to know good, Milton says, we must know evil.
Therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.
There is little wonder then that Milton’s most famous character is his Satan, in the celebrated long poem Paradise Lost. Satan and what he embodied is so potent, Alasdair MacIntyre says, that this character alone “brought Blake over to the devil’s party, and has been seen as the first Whig.” Satan’s motto is, after all, Non Serviam, which, continues MacIntyre, is “not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy.”
The point being that the fight for individual liberty means the distancing from the security of larger dominance. Security does not necessarily mean safety though: it only means one is not in danger of intrusion - like having one’s views, opinions and therefore life upended by radical alternatives (that, possibly, might be better). The point being that overarching infringement on individuals was done for the purposes of maintaining, as we have seen, “order” (for the common folk - also known as "power" for the rulers). Satan upset this order as set by god by “rebelling” – though this is in itself quite a complicated matter – but forever served as the catalyst for thought against overarching domination – even if, as all domination claims, it is for the individual’s own good because he is part of a larger group. Milton was evidently in two minds about it, but saw the necessity in both areas.
The beauty of the Areopagitica is that it eloquently outlined and began a conversation from the lips of one of our greatest word-users. Even if, as I’ve highlighted, Milton only began a conversation for free thought - and did so within the narrow confines of religious thought - Milton was spurned on not by anti-religious sentiments but by what he perceived to be a twisting of the very religious sentiments which should make humanity curious, knowledgeable and able to engage with varying and new concepts. Milton feared that due to our inherent ignorance, which can only decrease (or increase if we want to take a Socratic stance, given our awareness of our ignorance) with more knowledge, we are not even in the right position to know whether something should be banned or censored:
He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attained the utmost prospect of reformation that the mortal glass wherein we contemplate can show us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth.
How does someone know that we need not attain more knowledge, simply because the idea appears heretical? Milton’s worry, though apt, was driven by the desire to learn more so that humanity could be closer to God. Milton thought therefore opposing knowledge acquisition was to, essentially, oppose humanity's most important mission, since“he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”
Only God is so infallible, Milton could claim, as to know what is and is not allowed to be considered. Humans, being infallible and ignorant and full of sin, would be going against their very nature and design to deny knowledge, since they would be claiming to have that knowledge anyway: how can we know if it is good or bad unless we know what it is!
The irony should be obvious now: Humanity’s fall was supposedly through its acquisition of knowledge in the Garden. For Milton, the fruit of our failure becomes the seeds of our salvation.
The reason for highlighting Milton’s motivations and justifications is to not allow us to paint a secular portrait of this religious man. This does not discredit his brilliance, talent and genius, nor should it lessen the power of the Areopagitica. But in order to know our history of fighting for freedom of thought and speech, we should consider one of the most important documents to be the Areopagitica. But in so doing, we should be as fully aware of its origin and justifications as possible. As Milton himself tried to do, knowing an origin can help clarify a path for the future.
The Areopagitica remains one of the best documents for freedom ever conceived. But, one that remains central to me, will have to be a little book by another John, published in the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, called On Liberty.
Monday, December 12, 2011
The Case Against Santa
As we have noted previously on this blog, Christmas is a drag. The holiday’s norms and founding mythologies are repugnant, especially when compared to its more humane cousin, Thanksgiving. The story of the nativity doesn’t make much sense; moreover, it seems odd to celebrate an occasion that involved the slaughter of innocent children. And the other founding myth - the myth of Santa and the North Pole - is one of a morally tone-deaf autocrat who delivers toys to the children of well-off parents rather than life-saving basic goods to the most needy. But, when you think about it, the Santa myth is far worse than even that.
To start, the Christmas mythology has it that Santa is a being who is morally omniscient - he knows whether we are bad or good, and in fact keeps a record of our acts. Additionally he is somnically omniscient – he sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake. Santa has unacceptable capacities for monitoring our actions, and he exercises them! In a similar vein, Santa takes himself to be entitled to enter our homes, in the night and while we’re not looking, despite the fact that we have locked the doors. In other words, Santa does not respect our privacy. He watches us, constantly.
This is important because the moral value of our actions is largely determined by our motives for performing them. Performing the action that morality requires is surely good; however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished. Acting for the right reasons is a condition for being worthy of moral praise; and, correlatively, the blame that follows a morally wrong action is properly mitigated when the agent can show the purity of her motives.
The trouble with Santa’s surveillance is that it affects our motives. When we know that we are being watched by an omniscient judge looking to mete out rewards and punishments, we find ourselves with strong reasons to act for the sake of getting the reward and avoiding the punishment. But in order for our actions to have moral worth, they must be motivated by moral reasons, rather than narrowly self-interested ones. In short, under Santa’s watchful eye, our motivations become clouded, and so does the morality of our actions.
The exclamation at the end of Santa Claus is Coming to Town captures the moral ambiguity that the Santa myth imposes on us: “You better be good for goodness sake.” Could there be a more confused moral prescription? On the one hand, if the expression aims to exhort us to act on the basis of properly moral motives (for the sake of goodness itself), then the Myth of Santa undercuts our reasons to be moral. Apparently, the account runs as follows: Santa keeps tabs on what you do and when you sleep. He will punish or reward you on the basis of your performance. So you should be good for purely moral motives. The trouble, again, is that after having given a variety of non-moral, strictly self-interested reasons to act, it is a perfect non sequitur to conclude that we must act on the basis of purely moral motives. In fact, if we’re right, the Santa myth undermines the idea that we should act on the basis of our moral reasons. By accepting the Santa myth, then, we nearly ensure that we will not be good.
On the other hand, the expression “be good for goodness sake” may be simply a form of emphatic interjection, like “Do your homework, for Chrissakes!” or “Exercise and eat right, for Pete’s sake!” And in light of the story of Santa’s monitoring practices and the consequent rewards and punishments, this interpretation seems more in keeping with the overall Santa myth, and seems like a more psychologically plausible bit of advice. This reading, however, embraces the usurpation of moral motivation. It impels its listener to be bribed for good behavior; in fact, it places bribery at the heart of morality.
So far, we’ve presented a broadly moral argument against Santa. He doesn’t respect our privacy, and our knowledge of that fact, in light of his role in punishing and rewarding us, distorts our moral motives. Yet he seems to require that our motives be pure. Santa is thus a moral torturer: he punishes those who are not good, and then imposes a system of incentives and encouragements that go a long way towards ensuring that everyone will fail at goodness.
To our moral argument there could be added a theological critique of Santa. The problem with Santa Claus from a religious perspective is that he is presented in the mythology as a kind of god. Like the gods of the familiar forms of monotheism, Santa is morally omniscient. He rewards the good and punishes the evil. Moreover, he performs yearly miracles of bounty that, at least by our lights, put Jesus’ miracle of the fishes and loaves to shame. In other words, Santa Claus can be no mere man; accordingly, the Santa mythology implies a Santa theology. And monotheists should be alarmed. We know that Yahweh is a jealous god, and encouraging children to propitiate Santa with their moral behavior sounds very much like the sort of thing that makes a jealous god very, very angry. Imagine Moses’ frustration with the Israelites were he to come back from the mountain to find them telling Santa stories instead of only worshipping a golden calf. It seems to us that taking the first commandments seriously (the ones about worshipping only the god of Moses) should be a source of moral concern about the Santa myth. Christian parents that embrace the Santa myth make idolaters of their children.
We, the authors, are atheists. We deny Santa’s existence, and Yahweh’s, too. The case we’re pressing against Santa here is analogous to the famous argument from evil. (We think the argument applies to Yahweh, too; but that’s a different story.) It works on Santa because he is a morally objectionable entity who is supposed to be intrinsically good, and intrinsically good yet bad entities do not exist. There is, of course, much more to say about the moral case against Santa. To repeat: he uses his miraculous production capacities to make toys instead of things that contribute to lasting welfare; he uses his monitoring capacities to keep track of the things people do, but does not see fit to prevent morally horrible things, assist the victims of crimes, or report criminals to the authorities. And so, not only does Santa Claus not exist, it’s a good thing, too. The questions that remain are why the myth of Santa persists, and why a major holiday is partially focused on such a despicable character.
Monday, October 17, 2011
On the Gods of Horses
The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?
The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:
If horses or oxen or lions had hands
or if they could draw with their hands and
produce works like men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as
similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had.
The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:
Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.
The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.
To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?
Imagine a horse crafting a god in his own image, an ox attributing to the divine the best of what he can conceive. What’s funny is that these are self-indulgent depictions, limited by the depictor’s imagination, which is bounded by the kind of animal it is. An image may capture the comic intuition: In the process of drawing the gods, each animal’s body casts a shadow. The animal draws an outline of the god’s body using that shadow. That’s how each animal gets started conceiving of the divine.
The correlation observed is between properties of the one doing the depicting of a god with the depiction of the god. Crucially, the humor, then, indicates that these depictions are, as one would expect, erroneous. God just doesn’t look like a horse, or an ox, or a lion, or....
But why would such images be in error? Imagine a committed polytheist, one who thinks that there are many, many gods. Polytheists of course disagree about the number of gods there are. So consider a Herculean polytheist. The Herculean polytheist believes in the maximal number of gods. He may say that the Xenophanes’ joke relies on an underestimation of the number of gods there are. The Herclulean polytheist may say in response to Xenophanes:
Exactly! The Thracians have red-haired gods, Ethiopians have dark-skinned gods. Greeks have Greek-looking gods. Same with oxen, horses, lions, and so on, all the way down to squid, moles, and worms. They’ve all got gods that fit with them. The variety of the representation of the gods is not a challenge, but rather evidence of the vast number of gods.
When there are philosophical bullets to bite, the Herculean polytheist makes a meal of them. The Herculean polytheist surely has devised a clever strategy of embracing the presumptively ridiculous consequences of the view. Herculean polytheism, however, invites two uncomfortable consequences. First, it excessively populates divine entities. Greeks have the Olympians and their ancestors and progeny, which already seems bloated; now multiply those numbers by the number of species and races. That’s a whole lot of gods, many of whom are simply redundant. Does the horse’s sun god or the Greek’s sun god or the sparrow’s sun god move the sun across the sky? Was it a team effort when the Thracian, mole, and squid gods created the world?
Second, on the Herculean polytheist view, the duty to worship the gods now has more to do with the worshippers than the gods. One might think that the reason why one should worship a god is that the god is special; the Herculean polytheist holds that one worships a particular god because of who one is. It may seem correct to do so as a gesture of identity, but then worship is no longer about god, but about the worshipper’s identity. Hence we are back to Xenophanes’ critical concern (and Clement’s extension of it), namely, that it looks like religion is more about the humans the gods.
Consider an analogy. In freethinker and atheist circles, a version of the Xenophanes correlation is often invoked to capture the contingency of religious belief. The following is exemplary.
Freethinker: If you were born in the United States of America, you are most likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to become a Muslim. If you had been born in Norway in the viking ages, you would have believed in Thor and Odin. If you were born in Athens around 500 BC, you’d worship Zeus and Athena.
The correlation here is, roughly, that the surrounding cultural milieu determines how one conceives of the divine. We may call this the sociological theory of religion. As the dominant religion of the culture varies with time and geography, the conceptions of the divine held by individuals will also vary. So far, this is only a descriptive point, but it is often deployed as a criticism of religion. The presumption seems to be that one’s conception of the divine should not be determined by simple contingencies. And so the more one’s theology is the product of time and chance, the less confident one should be that it is correct. The determining factors are sociological and historical, not rational.
However, once we make this observation about our images of the divine, we can subject the whole of our theology to the same criticism. It’s not just conceiving god with a long beard that’s in trouble; conceiving of god as rational, loving, and good may be projections as well.
Interestingly, the question of existence never arises for Xenophanes. In fact, in other fragments, Xenophanes offers positive conceptions of the greatest of the gods. But once we see the critical trajectory of Xenophanes’ challenges, we are compelled to ask the question: Isn’t god’s existence, too, a projection, the product of mere contingency?
Monday, September 19, 2011
Book Review: ALL THINGS SHINING: READING THE WESTERN CLASSICS TO FIND MEANING IN A SECULAR AGE By Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
by Wayne Ferrier
ALL THINGS SHINING is a book meant for a general readership, and I am approaching this review as a general reader rather than from within the academic consortia. I may not be the ideal person to review this book. First off, I don't feel like my life is worthless or lacking meaning, which the authors assume is the way most of us feel; secondly, reading Dreyfus and Kelly reminded me why I gave up on philosophy in favor of science; finally, if I had to choose, I'd choose monotheism to polytheism any day.
I do think that it can't hurt to peruse the classics and/or philosophy in search for meaning, but so much of it is long winded and more often than not takes you on a journey into the incessant clamoring of the individual intellect; itself often leading to depression. Each sentence, perhaps each paragraph of ALL THINGS SHINING makes glorious sense, yet it made no sense to me what the authors are getting at. If I were to boil it down, I am left feeling that the thesis is an emperor without clothing. After reading, it is hoped that we'd wish to escape the supposed nihilism of our hopelessly lost modern dilemma. Calling upon a pantheon of Homeric gods is the way to bring back the sacred, to restore meaning. Man himself cannot do great things nor should he be expected to—when man acts great, it's the doing of the gods. To not acknowledge this is being ungrateful. We have lost touch by not honoring and respecting these gods, who can supply so much benevolence; gods which I could not make out, by reading this book, if we are really supposed to believe in or not.
The monotheism offered in ALL THINGS SHINING, and we are advised to abandon, is taken from Dante's poetry, concepts from the Middle Ages rather than the monotheism found in scripture. What is ironic it's just this version of monotheism that is more Greek than of Abraham; ideas such as the Inferno, (Hell, Hades), were incorporated into early Christianity when it was being exported to the west.
The leap from many gods to one God did not come suddenly—it took time. Monotheism was a new paradigm in human thinking, evidence of what the human mind was becoming capable of doing. The ancients had been exposed to the so-called wisdom literature and came to believe in a common human heritage and universal thought. I see no reason to go back. If you're looking for a book to help you find the meaning of life, you may not find it here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a book to introduce you to a thread of philosophy running through several important classics, you might enjoy it.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity
by Liam Heneghan
The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]
In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.
In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”
A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.
About him I have a few things I’d like to say.
Just as Melville’s masterpiece can retrospectively be read as an ecological classic – a tale of resource consumption; a disquisition on our relationship with something upon which we both monomaniacally depend and that which will be the death of us: I speak here of nature – there are things we can learn from the asceticism of Simeon Stylites valuable to us as environmentalists. The magnetic force of an ascetic impulse that drew the Stylite up the pillar, and that skewed the balance of his life towards denial rather than affirmation also draws environmental writers to their proverbial mountain tops, and oftentimes swerves our environmental instincts towards chastisement rather than celebration. The cooler air on the pillar-top and on the piney mountain trail is languidly scented with the odor of sanctity. Saint Simeon’s life is so brutal, so macabre, that a close reflection is self-revelatory in the way that microscopy turned on the human body exposes within us both the teeming good and the pathologically bad.
Simeon Stylites installed himself on a pillar constructed on a site of his choosing near Antioch, Syria, and lived there for thirty-six years until his death in 459 AD. This can be regarded as one of the more terrifying historical examples of a modest ecological footprint. Simeon remains a revered saint, though it is clear that he shocked many of his contemporaries. Today he serves as an example of the bewildering nature of the early Christian ascetic impulse. Nevertheless, his self-renunciation was so extreme and his self-mortification so unsavory that most modern commentators disavow him. To suggest that the modern environmental movement shares this same ascetic impulse may seem gratuitous. I try to show that the comparison is useful, and do so not in a bid to scupper environmentalism (I am, in fact, a committed environmentalist) but rather to contribute to a more honest discernment of our environment motives.
I start by recounting in modest detail the extraordinary and ghastly details of Simeon’s life.[iii]
Simeon was born in 388 AD in Sis near the northern border of Syria in what is now modern Turkey. His early interest in Christianity was stimulated, some say, by hearing a talk on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He entered into monastic life quite young, perhaps around the age of sixteen. Asceticism was especially prevalent in Syria in early Christian times where eremitic monasticism (solitary anchorites) was more common than in Egypt where coenobitic, that is communal forms of monasticism were favored. Accounts of Simeon's initial feats of austerity and the responses of his fellow monks remind us that he was extreme at a time when spiritual rigor was already quite pronounced. In addition to more conventional forms of asceticism: fasting, sleep deprivation, standing for lengthy periods and not washing, he invented a range of self-mortification techniques that put him in an ascetic class of his own much. For instance, when others in the community finished their nocturns he would hang a heavy stone around his neck as penance while his brothers slept. One night he fell asleep with this apparatus about his neck and injured his head. To prevent this from happening again, he procured a “certain round piece of wood” which would roll from beneath him if he nodded off. [iv] In addition to the asperities already mentioned he also innovated by tying a rough fiber around his waist (in one account, it was the rope from the monastery’s well that he wore) which abraded the skin and produced noisome smells, and had him shedding worms into his bed.
Many of the stories told about Simeon can be classified as hagiographic nonsense. For instance, he was challenged by some of the monks to test his faith and trust in God by grasping a red-hot poker which he did with without harm to his hands. Perhaps the moral of the story is that what protected him from incinerating his hand was that “he despised them (i.e. his hands).” Even his abbot, to whom his chagrined and apparently jealous brothers complained, found his fervor disconcerting (though the community may have been irritated by his flaunting of the monastic rule; indeed, more simply it may have been the smell of putrefaction that so disconcerted them). When the abbot asked the youthful Simeon to account for the vigor of his practice the young monk replied, quoting scripture: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 50:7).
Ultimately Simeon was forced out of the monastic community and became a hermit living for three years in a hut at Tell-Neschin. There he spent the whole of Lent without eating or drinking, a practice that became habitual for him. He broke his Lenten fast with the Eucharist host which returned him to vigor. Another austerity from this period was standing in prayer for as long as his legs could hold him. He perfected this and the claim is that he would stand in prayer for the duration of lent. From the hut in Tell-Neschin he moved to a rocky platform near Antioch and spent five years standing there. After this he moved to his series of pillars. His first pillar was nine feet high, but it was replaced by a series of others, each taller than the last. Ultimately, the progressively ascending Simeon lived fifty feet or so from the ground and was visible throughout the region, attracting a large congregation of the faithful and the curious.
The list of his spiritual services performed from the rocky platform and from his successively more prodigious pillars is a long one; harlots were transformed into vessels of virtue, the blind saw the light, hunchbacks were straightened, heathens were converted to Christianity, lepers were healed, the exsanguinating possessed were relieved of their demons. All the while our hermit is strenuously attacked by satanic forces which came in all forms, including that of a lustful camel!
One final nauseating story: as the “king of the Arabs” (more correctly, a Saracen) approached our saint’s pillar, a worm fell from a necrotizing tumor on Simeon’s thigh and the king picked it up. He touched it to his eyes and heart. The saint declared, appropriately enough, that it is “a stinking worm, fallen from stinking flesh” and in consternation asks why the king was soiling his hands. The king however regarded the worm as a blessing and on opening his hand found the worm transformed into a pearl." This allegory prompts to ask how we might manufacture a pearl from the tortured life of Simeon. What is the meaning of all of this? What general principles can be deduced?
Ascetic deprivation is a price paid in flesh for metaphysical rewards
Simeon’s turned his back on this world so that he could gain access to that other world: a heavenly one with the angels. In his early monastic life Simeon submitted to the coenobitic rule of the house (though not without chafing at the rule as we have seen), praying in common, celebrating the Eucharist together – the typical trade of earthy freedoms for heavenly reward. The pillar was something different. It is hard not to see in the pillar a more direct emulation of the Christ’s passion. The pillar can be seen as representing the mountainous heights of Christ in the wilderness and the ultimate stasis of Christ on the cross – an emulation that one can term “the prophecy of behavior”, a term coined by Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University to illustrate the significance of Simeon’s actions as powerful in their symbolism.[v] Simeon on the pillar can be seen as an aggressively literal form of standing before God. In his introduction to the translation of the lives of Simeon, Robert Doran locates this practice within the exercises of Gnosticism[vi]. Gnostics, Doran, reports have been referred to as “the immovable race”. Standing before God result in what is termed “immovability”, achieved by means of a visionary ascent to the transcendent realm. For this removal to the heavenly realm Simeon acquitted his debt with ulcerated feet and maggoty flesh. The suggestion is not, I think, that Simeon was a Gnostic, it is just that in his ascetic ascent and his aggravated immobility, he reinvented gestures that hitched him to another world beyond the tears and tribulations of ordinary mortal cares. Asceticism is reproduced both by emulation and by the types of intuitive rediscovery found in the life of Simeon.
We know of Simeon through what was written about him by his contemporaries and those who came after him, but other than the few snatches of conversation reported by his biographers (often regarding his worms, it might seem) we do not have his direct account of what motivated him. A clue though from the Antonius biography: as a youth in church Simeon inquires of an old man about what is being read and learns that it concerns “the control of the soul”. Pressing his elder further, he is told to:
“reflect on these things in your heart, for you must hunger and thirst, you must be assaulted and buffeted and reproached, you must groan and weep and be oppressed and suffer ups and downs of fortune; you must renounce bodily health and desires, be humiliated and suffer much from men, for you will be comforted by angels.”[vii]
Asceticism relies upon the acquisition and application of expert knowledge
Ascetics are called to special vocation – the life in the desert is not everyone’s cup of tea. Thomas Merton, a monk and occasional anchorite of more recent times, writes of the special nature of desert hermits’ lives in the early Christian centuries in the introduction to “The Wisdom of the Desert” his slim but compelling volume of the sayings of the desert fathers.[viii] Those more loquacious fellows had more to say than Simeon about the application of spiritually expert knowledge towards to end of achieving closeness with God. A dramatic account of the purpose of ascetic knowledge is given by Abbot Joseph: when Abbot Lot asked him what he should do in addition to keeping the rule, and applying himself to prayer and contemplative silence, Abbott Lot rose, his hands extended towards the heavens and his fingers “became like ten lamps of fire.” He said: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”[ix]
Merton calls the wisdom of the desert “a very practical and unassuming wisdom that is at once primitive and timeless.”[x] This wisdom concerns self-discovery regarding the spiritual journal – discoveries that Merton describes as “more important than any journey to the moon.” The wisdom of the desert is simple in philosophy but is quite voluminous: I will give just a few examples. Abbot Hyperichius instructs that it “is better to eat meat and drink wine, than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother.”[xi] Less obscurely Abbot Pastor said that “a life of ease drives out the fear of the Lord from man’s soul and takes away all his good work.”[xii] Again, Abbot Pastor” “[if] you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one.” Perhaps you had to be there.
A more technical account of ascetic wisdom can be found in the Philokalia, a collection of texts written from the 4th to 15th centuries, deemed especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy.[xiii] There, a more complex theological lexicon is employed. In order to achieve the end of “being comforted by angels”, or achieving a greater closeness with God, the desert father marshals the following skills: “discrimination”, the spiritual gift of discriminating between the types of thought entering the mind, with the purpose of achieving “discernment of the spirits” – which thoughts come from God and should be cleaved to, and which from the devil; “intimate communion”, the freedom of approach to God; “Watchfulness”, a state of attentiveness where one carefully watches over one’s inward thoughts and fantasies – the state is linked with purity of heart and the rigorous application of the virtues and results in stillness (hesychia) in which one listens to God and can open to Him.
Ascetic deprivation secures a measure of temporal power
The hagiographical exuberance of Simeon’s vitae with their massive iteration of Simeon’s improbable miracles becomes tedious in its pietistic adulation; nevertheless the examples testify to the intercessionary power of our saint, and provide a roster of critical community needs. Surrounding Simeon on his pillar was a fairly dense agricultural population, reliant on reliable irrigation systems. This was a community concerned about disease, drought, crop productivity, and the depredations of large predators. A saint should be able to regulate the elements and master nature.
The equations of ascetic algebra typically balance the significant intercessionary power of the holy man against the self-mortification of his body. Great power is equated with great corporeal contempt. One wins a spiritual war not by inflicting the most violence, but by sustaining the most damage. For Simeon to accumulate the reputation that he did one should expect staggering penance of this flesh. And this, as we have already seen in part is what we find.
Ironically, each incremental rise of Simeon on his pillars, motivated, according to some biographical authorities, by a desire to get away from the throngs and closer to an airy solitude, increased his visibility and attracted more onlookers. Nevertheless, Simeon served this community through his miracle-working, and his fame and influence spread throughout the Christian world.
The ascetic then is marked by i) a commitment to rewards in another realm, by ii) the deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and by iii) the achievement of certain temporal authority, despite the ascetic’s declared intent. My list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. The problem to which asceticism is the proposed solution is solved by a suite of regularly recurring behaviors that we should also note – an initial departure followed by a commitment to immobility in another place; a rejection of civilization, through a commitment to a new rule; a distain of the city; physical austerity; a preference for raised ground, though ascetics often start their career at lower altitudes (Simeon, for instance, lived down a well for a while after leaving the monastery).
If asceticism was simply a matter of self-mortification then we could claim that we have never lived in more ascetic times. We diet to shed those dozens and dozens of unsightly pounds; some voluntarily submit to a surgical ablating of the flesh for the purposes of fabricating the perfect nose; our star athletes allegedly undergo a period of sexual continence before the big game; some of you may even gallop on scorching days for distances in excess of twenty-six miles, for no better reason than to replicate the achievement of the first person to die from that feat. And in general terms the definition of the ascetic as a person who practices “rigorous self-discipline, severe abstinence, austerity”, might tempt us to smuggle the more excessive of these modern deprivations under the definitional bar. However, the OED qualifies the definition by pointing out that asceticism aims are achieved “by seclusion or by abstinence from creature comforts”. Furthermore, the term derives etymologically from the Greek asketikos, meaning monk or hermit and more generally the root term is ascesis – the practice of self discipline, or exercise. If, in the final analysis, the contemporary mortifications listed above seem to fall short of being ascetic, why might we, in contrast, regard environmentalism as fundamentally so?
To use the life of Simeon Stylites as a point of comparison with environmental thought and practice may be a challenging place to start to make a case that environmentalism is foundationally ascetic. Certainly there are more temperate ascetics, ones who like St Antony of Egypt (231-356 AD) traveled to the wilds there to meditatively dally, but after decades alone returned to society, at least in the sense of taking many disciples under his care. In other words, there are ascetics whose practice might be more appropriately compared to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond. Perhaps one might compare tree-stylites like John Muir perched in a storm-tossed Douglas Fir or Julia Butterfly Hill residing in her California Redwood to the ascetic sadhus of India, who, practicing what is called urdhamukhi, dangle out of trees. In the case of Hill, she lasted two years; as for the Muir and the sadhus, the latter who dangle upside-down, their tree dwelling lasted a matter of hours. And so on; one might look for a milder ascetic counterpart for Robinson Jeffers dyspepsia concerning his fellows, preferring you’ll recall, to “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk”; one for Ed Abbey’s hilarious but curmudgeonly defense of inaccessibility for Arches National Monument in Desert Solitaire; one for Paul Ehrlich’s discomfort in an ancient Indian taxi (“People visiting, arguing and screaming…. defecating and urinating”) prompting his writing of The Population Bomb; counterparts even for the simple-living needed for ecological footprint reduction, for the belt-tightening required by sustainability, and for the meat-eschewing dicta of environmental vegetarianism. In all of these examples there is a whiff of asceticism but none requires the foot ulcerating commitment of standing on a pillar for decades. So why Simeon?
As we have seen most definitions of asceticism are vague to the point of admitting too many members into the ascetic fold –skipping a meal or two does not the ascetic life make. The vitae of Simeon Stylites, however, distill his life to the point where there is little to notice other than ascetic fervor. As discussed, the examination of his life allowed us to enunciate some principles, and to register the suite of dispositions associated with the ascetic. These included a commitment to rewards in another realm, a deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and the gaining of certain temporal authority, often despite the ascetic’s declared intent. The dispositions include a departure from “home”, followed by a commitment to immobility in another place, a rejection of civilization which is typically accompanied by a distain of the city, often physical austerity, and a preference for raised ground. The life of an ascetic is the life of critique. In this we not only see the odd particulars of our saint’s life, but also, I think, if one squints a little, the life of the environmental movement.
Space prohibits a full treatment here of how the ascetic drive underpinning environmental thought and action unfolded over the past century or so. Using the principles and dispositions just enunciated some of this should be fairly obvious; other points are more obscure. Sustainability measures, fairly obviously, call (justly) for a deferment of pleasures right now, for an equitable world in the future; Paul Shepard and David Abram mourn the passing of the Pleistocene or indigenous worlds; nature-lovers almost everywhere incline towards inhospitable places; John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ed Abbey, Charles Darwin (even): all left though some returned to tend their flock; the mountains beckon to Gary Snyder, David Brower, and to Arne Næss; Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and Bill McKibben all demand reproductive self-limitation; Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Al Gore are outraged by what our times have wrought; eight biosphereans spent two years in the bubble of Biosphere 2 (like Simeon they had their support "disciples"); Aldo Leopold and Martin Heidegger had a great fondness for the nostalgia of shack-dwelling. And those not in shacks prefer, like Melville's mast-men, and Simeon, life en plein air - leave absolutely no one inside!
And I agree with them all, in many ways at least. My point, and it seems curiously feeble to me to say it, is not that the ascetic impulse is always wrong, though most contemporary writers disapprove of the Simeon’s vigor, or that environmental thought is wrong when it tends towards asceticism (it certainly is not, but our priorities need to be refined). Rather, I am interested in a more straightforward accounting of the motivations and the behavioral reflexes of environmentalism – where it is ascetic let us call it so; and when our ascetic impulses lead us astray let us reconsider. At its worst the ascetic disposition of environmental thought has translated into calamitous action – for instance, inhumane population policies, unjust removal of peoples from their traditional lands. Less tragically, but still detrimentally, the comfortableness of the environmentalists’ ascetic disposition coaxes the “eco-cete”, the everyday ecological monk, into an unbalanced preoccupation with conservation in wilderness areas, a neglect, until quite recently, of the city as a site for conservation, an often ruthless demarcation of the human from the wild, a nostalgia for worlds that have passed if they ever existed at all, a great nausea towards domesticated humanity – that is, most of us, an over-confidence in an expert knowledge of the natural world, a puzzling relationship with technology, and finally (for now) a snooty distain of those who cannot articulate the environmental convictions in the professional lingo of the movement.
Now, an objection to my claim (one of many, no doubt) may be that there is, quite obviously, no direct link between the life of Simeon and other pillar saints and the mainstream of environmental thought. However, the ascetic impulse is an ineradicable component of who we are – the human without some ascetic impulse (even if it is expressed in a diminished key) has not been born. We do not simply copy ascetic gestures, we all seem capable of ascetic innovation. In some movements – religious, philosophical, environmental –they may simply express themselves more blatantly. To illustrate the idea that ascetic gestures can converge, consider this. There is evidence of a phallus worshiping cult in Northern Syria sometime before Simeon’s time and centered about 180 km east of Simeon’s pillar. According to the Greek author Lucian, men would climb the phalli two times a year for a period of a week and “commune with the gods” and bring good fortune to the community. Though the period aloft was not reckoned in years, nevertheless the phallus dweller remained awake for the duration. If he fell asleep, a scorpion climbs up the column and “treats him unpleasantly.” [xiv] So, long before Simeon’s time worshipful clambering up phalli was commonplace. This has led some to suggest that his ascetic practice was merely an emulation of pagan practice. Several Simeonists are outraged and take pains to deny the connection. The issue is moot from my perspective. It seems that when a saint sees a phallus or a pillar he knows just what to do. That, my friends, is the ascetic impulse. And if environmentalists are up there with them, hoisted up their own proverbial pillars, at the very least the view should be clear; it may be time for us to clamber on down, and lead the community as many ascetics have also done.
[i] MacNeice, Louis (1940) Stylite, Poetry, Vol. 56, No. 2, p. 68
[ii] Melville, H Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton & Company; Second Edition (October 2001)
[iii] There are three accounts of Simeon’s life available, one written by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, a contemporary of our saint, one by his disciple Antonius, and the so-called Syriac Text, the longest account of his life. Translations are available in a convenient volume by Robert Doran (1989, The Lives of Simeon Stylites Cistercian Publications). There are conflicts between the accounts and not all of the stories are shared between all of them. Indeed, there are some accounts in the broad literature on Simeon that I draw on but which may not be canonical.
[iv] Frederick Lent (1915)The Life of St. Simeon Stylites: A Translation of the Syriac Text in Bedjan's Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915), pp. 103-198
[v] S. Ashbrook Harvey (1988) The Sense of a Stylite: Perspectives on Simeon the Elder Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 376-394
[vi] Doran, 33.
[vii] Doran, 88.
[viii] Merton, Thomas (1960) The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions
[ix] Merton, 50.
[x] Merton, 11.
[xi] Merton, 32.
[xii] Merton, 62.
[xiii] Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos (translators) (1979)The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1 - 4); Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Markarios of Corinth. My paraphrasing of the definitions of technical terms relied upon the glossary from these volumes.
[xiv] Frankfurter, David T. M. (1990) Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria. Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 168-198
Monday, May 23, 2011
Letter From Be’er Sheva
By Jenny White
I remain convinced, despite my anthropological training not to generalize, that every society has an aesthetic, a particular repetition of pattern, that informs its material manifestation. In contradiction to the anthropological view that you must delve under the surface to understand a place, I’m going to suggest that this aesthetic is most powerfully visible to the uninitiated. The observant tourist, for instance, who sees everything through a child’s indiscriminate and unfiltered gaze. Patterns pop out to the uninitiated. For locals, by contrast, patterns harbor familiarity, wholeness, comfort, rootedness. Patterns are woven into the everyday, felt, but no longer seen. On my first visit to Japan, I was struck by the layered rows of boxes I saw everywhere, in the arrangements of windows, proportions of houses, the way images were arrayed on fliers and ads, far beyond what I would expect by accident or convenience. I experienced the boxes as a powerful imprint on my surroundings wherever I went. Perhaps I was wrong. A friend who is a specialist on Japan doesn’t see it. Does the forest have a shape without its trees? Nonetheless, I will continue with my conceit, on the justification that I am also a writer and writers gleefully play with any patterns they see, even if an anthropologist would tell them that without context, there is no meaning. No writer believes that; her job is to create meaning, not analyze it.
I am now in Be’er Sheva in the Negev desert, teaching a three-week course at Ben Gurion University. A driver brought me from Tel Aviv airport to my residence in a ten-story building that towers over the neighborhood. The streets near the residence are little more than rows of cement rooms with walled-in tile forecourts. Behind them loom three- and four-story apartment buildings of unfinished cement without ornamentation or color. There is little attention to detail and the buildings are crumbling, festooned with wires and rusting grates. They remind me of bunkers with blank walls and slits for windows. That is the only pattern I see beyond the ubiquitous lack of ornament. But it is a pattern.
On the Sabbath I set off toward the high rises I could see in the distance. I had heard about a mall – the only one – that was open on Saturdays because the owner was Russian. I trudged for an hour and a half along wide utilitarian roads unrelieved by vegetation and then through a deserted industrial area until I reached the mall—a strip of boxy shops arrayed in a horseshoe around a parking lot and the Hillel Café, which to my great relief was open. After an invigorating pasta salad, I returned home by another route. Nothing I saw diminished my first impression. The buildings were higher and better built, but pale, bunker-like, with wide, narrow windows, and without detail.
There is little color in Be’er Sheva, even in people’s clothing. I am told that many eastern Jews live here who are observant. Some of the women wear long skirts or tunics and little caps over their hair. Others dress in shorts and t-shirts. Observant or not, it's a low-key, cheap-jersey world. Sidewalks are cracked, littered. Things are jury-rigged. In some ways the city reminds me of Turkey in the 1970s, but without the colors. In those days, even the poorest Turkish house was whitewashed or painted blue against the Evil Eye and flowers planted in recycled oil cans brightened balconies and doorways. In Israel it seems as if color might tempt the Evil Eye rather than ward it off.
The university is an oasis to which I gratefully return after each expedition. Its buildings are attractively modern, set like sculptures within artfully designed greenery through which snakes a gurgling stream. It is full of cafes, like a little Tel Aviv. The students on campus look like the students on any US campus. But the buildings also have something of the bunker about them, thick cement expanses, narrow windows, no color. I was told that if anything threatening happens, there were bunkers in the basement, but that simply stepping into an inner room would likely be safe enough. The common room in my residence also doubles as a bunker. There is a reason, of course, for bunkers. Not long ago, Grad rockets fired from Gaza reached Be’er Sheva and one landed on a university dormitory.
Jerusalem gave me the impression of monumental fortifications, by which I mean less the Ottoman city walls, but the vast settlements, enormous cliffs of structures rising from hilltops and extending into the distance like impregnable walled forts. I also visited Sderot last year, one of the towns that bears the brunt of Hamas-inflicted rockets. Sderot is nothing but a bunker. Even the bus stops are bunkers where the riders wind themselves into cement walls to wait. The city representatives met us in their underground command bunker and told us about their traumatized populace.
Tel Aviv boasts celebrated modernist structures in the cubic Bauhaus style. But when I visited Tel Aviv for the first time last year, I saw a city of square, unadorned cement buildings with balconies, their cladding peeling like bad sunburn, shots of color provided by the occasional orange trumpet vine. The boardwalk along the sea was bleak cement. Friends who live there see an entirely different city; they see cafes, the sociable homes of friends and family, intellectual and economic exchange, a vivid life projected onto these otherwise unremarkable surfaces like hot-pink bougainvillea. I didn’t think “bunker” in Tel Aviv, but I did think “impermanence.” This is a clue, I think: structures built not from a tradition or for posterity (except in a defensive sense), but also not built as a tradition in the making. The statement seems to be a practical “get on with it”, set in a no-nonsense present that eschews investment in an uncertain future.
Yesterday I asked one of my university colleagues here why there was so little color or ornamentation. He explained that early Israeli architects brought with them the Bauhaus style and that modernism remained the building norm. In the 1950s and ‘60s Israel’s population increased so rapidly that buildings were thrown up as quickly as possible with “no time for nonsense.” The modernist style and the lack of ornament and color, he added, were also a rejection of the East. It was a way for Israelis to say, “We are Western.” Indeed, houses in Bedouin towns on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva and in Palestinian Ramallah, which I visited last year, were notably more ornate with large arched windows and rooftop crenellations that looked less like battlements than crowns.
In Ritual and its Consequences, Adam Seligman et al. suggest that repetition of pattern in the world we construct around us is closely related to ritual, that is, stylized repetitive interactions that relate the self to the world. These exist in both religious and secular domains. Ritual isn’t an external expression of the world as it actually is, nor is it simply the expression of an internal state. Instead, it supersedes the individual by providing an “as if” world that makes it possible for very different groups of people to share a social world. Rituals, I would add, are acts by which we calm ourselves, rehearse who we are and who we would like to be as a society, despite our differences. Israel’s national pattern might be called the blast wall, a defensive structural skin that protects the family within. It shows little concern for structural details or exposed public space, but places all its emphasis on what is inside. My otherwise bleak walk to the mall, for instance, was relieved by a colorful head-high billboard as long as a city block that showed a series of ordinary faces of men, women, children, couples. People are displayed in bright hues, whereas structures and actual people on the street are wrapped in protective coloring.
There are, of course, instructive exceptions. In suburbs inhabited by professionals, houses are shaded by lush gardens. Tel Aviv is said to be a city of cafes – individuals practicing public simultaneity and open display. Contradicting the Israeli pattern with such alternate rituals cracks open the “as if” world of Israeli public identity and reveals the different groups within. Last year, the Zionist head of an illegal West Bank settlement told my visiting group with some disgust that “those people in Tel Aviv who sit around in cafes and drink cappuccinos” had forgotten their Zionist heritage. They had become soft, he complained, and would no longer be able to defend the nation.
The lens through which Israelis see the world is that they are a people under existential threat (it is common to hear people say, “they hate us because we’re Jews”). Patterns of material culture evince that fear with a repetition of defensive walls and an unwillingness to draw attention through ornament, color or public display. Instead, Israel as a nation emphasizes Jewishness and the physical presence of Jews and their families, the fertile yolk within a hard, white shell. There is little “Israeli” material culture. You won’t find tourist artifacts that represent Jewish Israel (rather than the many other cultures that reside here). Other than religious artifacts and Dead Sea bath salts, there is nothing “Israeli” to buy in the areas tourists frequent or the airport shops. Jewishness and Jews are the portable treasures.
There are signs of change, the confidence to tempt the Evil Eye. The newest building on campus has a vulnerable glass skin under a cement awning. A new housing complex has Moorish arches over its windows. Delicate nods to the future from a haunted present.
Monday, May 02, 2011
Dishonest to Whom?
Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.
Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that - unlike morality and the rule of law - religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.
It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.
Warnock affirms that religion can be morally good, and good for us. She holds that the stories of the New Testament “can teach morality as nothing else can, in vivid and memorable form” (159). Additionally, she holds religion is a civilizing force. Emotionally profound episodes in life call for ritual and ceremony; death, birth, thanksgiving, marriage are made public, sharable, and civil given their intersection with religion. Finally, Warnock emphasized the aesthetic dimension of religion; she holds that the breadth and depth of our imagination is increased with religious icons and stories. She claims that “to lose these things, though it would not be the end of society, would be its incomparable spiritual loss” (161). Hence there are moral, social, and aesthetic reasons to reject the view, common in some atheist circles, that sufficiently enlightened individuals see the elimination of religion as a worthy social goal, that in a properly civilized social order, religion would be at best a historical curiosity.
Warnock acknowledges that the question of the social value of religion comes to the balance of goods and evils. Surely Warnock is correct to holds that, from this consequentialist perspective, religion can be a vital social good. However, there are familiar social consequences of religion that are not so salutary: religious bigotry and intolerance, mistreatment of women, opposition to science, general credulity, authoritarianism, and so on. But it is important to emphasize that, regardless of how the cost/benefit calculation runs, Warnock has hung her case for the social value of religion on entirely secular considerations. In proposing that the matter is to be decided on the character of the social consequences of religious belief, Warnock has asserted that the value of religion is wholly detached from the truth or rationality of the central theological claims of the major religions. On Warnock’s view, the content of religious beliefs, arguments, and commitments is irrelevant.
In fact, on Warnock’s view, religion can be highly socially valuable – and therefore worth sustaining - even if all distinctively religious claims are demonstrably false. Her defense of religion, then, has the same form as the defense we adults give of our practice of promoting among our children the belief in Santa Claus: It’s such a useful and comforting fiction that the belief ought to be promoted (or at least not denied), despite the fact that Santa does not exist. This is what Plato famously called a Noble Lie.
Given this, we must ask: Is Warnock’s defense a defense of religion? Or is it merely a defense of the idea that some people need the comforting fictions that religion provides in order to be good, responsible citizens?
Arguably a defense of religion along these latter lines evacuates religion of what does the inspiring and instructing, namely, the distinctively theological commitment to God. Put otherwise, a defense of religion which rests solely upon considerations regarding the social value of religious belief is ultimately no defense at all. If religious belief is to be defended, it must be understood in terms that religious believers can recognize. According to religious believers, their beliefs are not merely useful social instruments or efficient means for instilling good moral habits. They are rather commitments to very particular metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological views. These views provide the basis for the moral and communal practices among religious believers that Warnock finds socially valuable. But the social value of the practices provides no defense for the underlying views, all of which are, we contend, false. No discussion of the merits of religious practices and institutions should be permitted to evade the fundamental question of the truth of distinctively religious claims.
When we first read Warnock’s book, we puzzled over its title. Why would a book that sets out to defend the social value of religious belief be titled Dishonest to God? We wondered: Who is being dishonest? What could dishonesty to God be? In the light of subsequent reflection, though, we think we’ve come to understand the title perfectly.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Of Quislings and Science: Reflecting on Mark Vernon, The Templeton Prize and Richard Dawkins
by Tauriq Moosa
Recently, Sir Martin Rees was awarded the most lucrative science-prize in the world, The Templeton Prize. Notice I said ‘lucrative’; not most respected or prestigious, though some indeed do think it is. This prize is awarded because it, according to its official website, “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” It is given to those “who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality” – a sentence worthy of a tacky Hallmark card.
Sir Martin is in the company of £1,000,000 sterling and Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Indeed, I wonder if that amount is enough to sway anyone, so that he or she is mentioned in the same breath as these fanatics. The point being there is little that is, by definition, about science. The Templeton Foundation and Prize is about promoting notions of the Divine, in whatever loose language you can fathom, using something vaguely non-Divine in approach. If you can anchor your pursuits that effect the world, dealing with sick people (not aiding) like Mother Theresa, or probing the mysteries of the universe with an appreciation for its beauty or possible higher purpose, then you qualify. They’ve melted the solid idea of the theistic god down into liquid form, so it slips through any pretention even when the person awarded the prize is not religious. Like Sir Martin Rees.
If Sir Martin donates it all to Oxfam, I would have little to quarrel with it suppose, except I think any scientist who doesn’t think there’s a conflict between faith and reason or science and religion is wrong. But that’s another discussion. What interests me about this whole episode was not the prize itself but the views that arose concerning the atheist culture wars. I’m interested particularly in ex-Anglican-priest-turned-“agnostic” Mark Vernon’s ever-banal criticisms of Richard Dawkins, as seen here (an ad hominem attack), here (how Dawkins is doing nothing new even though Vernon keeps writing about him), here (when Dawkins praises fellow writer, Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins is promoting hatred), here (Dawkins… groupthink… bus… bad), here (I don’t even know).
I rather enjoyed Dr Vernon’s books 42 and Plato’s Podcasts, so it is disappointing to see this usually clear, clever writer putting on the same performance each time Dawkins is mentioned in an online discussion or in the media. This is especially so when Vernon reflects on Sir Martin’s recent prize and… Richard Dawkins’ stridency. Yes. You obviously made that connection as quickly as I did. Vernon, expert bar none on how Dawkins should conduct himself publicly, has to write something… and it might as well be as Dawkins’ media nanny.
What is remarkable is Vernon’s ability to pull bones from the Rees story to create some fossil of an argument about Dawkins’ stridency. He does this by reflecting on Dawkins’ calling Rees, then head of the Royal Society, a “compliant Quisling” when it came to hosting the Templeton Foundation in the UK. As if uncovering a museum piece, Vernon unveils his newfound argument in the short space allotted him in the Guardian. But at the end, it’s as though we were expecting to discover a newly discovered species (of argument) but were given merely two broken teeth from a creature we’ve all dealt with before.
What’s more disappointing is the teeth barely draw any blood.
Firstly, why is it necessary to raise Dawkins’ past comment, now nearly a year old? Dawkins’ comment was about Rees and Templeton, so Vernon says it appears as “Rees has seemingly hit back”. This, however, makes no sense since Sir Martin did not choose to give himself the prize. It was, um, awarded to him. Maybe we can say he “hit back” by accepting it. But not everyone’s life revolves around Richard Dawkins enough to accept a million-pound prize just to spite the brilliant biologist.
Secondly, Vernon claims that Dawkins was wrong to call Rees a “Quisling”. Such rhetoric (finger wave) will not do! “Quisling”, says Vernon, was “hurled” against fascist collaborators during the Second World War; what was Rees collaborating with by agreeing for the Royal Society to host the Templeton Foundation? Says Vernon: “The Royal Society lent its prestige to the Templeton Foundation by hosting events sponsored by the fund, which supports a variety of projects investigating the science of wellbeing and faith.”
Hm. The science of what? Wellbeing… sure. Kind of. I would just put that down to either health or morality. But faith? Should the Royal Society also sponsor the Aries Rising Druids Society to investigate “the science” of astrology? Or perhaps Darkmoon Bloodstar’s “science” of magic? The point is: It’s not science, so why involve the Royal Society? Remember, the award is not restricted to scientists – though it seems, politically, this is a powerful avenue for the Foundation to push for in order to gain some credence. After all it is the major area fast destroying any pretentions toward knowing what you can’t possibly know.
Vernon I think is using “science” incorrectly when saying “science of… faith”. (I also doubt he means investigating religious belief from a psychological or neuroscientific perspective. If he did, he could’ve said it as I have. If this is what he means, I apologise.) For someone who spends so much time talking about Dawkins, even wanting to subject the poor biologist to unfalsifiable assertions to do with human behaviour based on ancient mythology (no, not astrology – I’m talking about Freudian psychotherapy), Mark Vernon has not read enough Dawkins. Consider this irritating paragraph:
Dawkins and Rees differ markedly on the tone with which the debate between science and religion should be conducted. Dawkins devotes his talents and resources to challenging, questioning and mocking faith. Rees, on the other hand, though an atheist, values the legacy sustained by the church and other faith traditions. He confesses a liking for choral evensong in the chapel of Trinity College. It seems a modest indulgence. The ethereal voices of rehearsing choristers can literally be heard from his front door. But for Dawkins this makes the man a "fervent believer in belief". And that is a foul betrayal of science.
Notice it has nothing to do with whether god exists or not, whether there is a purpose to our lives, etc. It’s got to do with Dawkins and Rees’ public image and personal habits. We’ll forget that Dawkins regularly speaks on aesthetic appreciation with some other unfeeling, cold, nihilist atheistic scientists (well, according to Vernon’s judgement).
Dawkins spends much time in The God Delusion discussing his appreciation for beauty in the world, even in choral music. Indeed there are several pages where he quotes his appreciation of the Bible as an important work of literature. Anyone can appreciate the beauty of Gothic architecture and the intricacy and brilliance of cathedrals. This does not make anyone “a believer in belief”. Again, like his use of "science", Vernon does not understand the terms he is using.
The term is from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Writing in the Guardian (of all places!), Dennett explains what belief in belief is. “Sometimes the maintenance of a belief is deemed so important that impressive systems of propaganda are erected and vigorously defended by people who do not in fact share the belief that they think is so important for society to endorse.” Vernon does not himself believe in god but thinks it is important, like Rees, to appreciate that others believe in god. Call it belief squared. (I think “belief in belief” is a catchy but is somewhat obscuring phrase. It doesn't quite capture what Dennett means - or, again, maybe I'm just slow.) Dennett continues:
Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the "I'm an atheist but" crowd, who publicly deplore our "hostility", our "rudeness" (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we're right. They don't themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.
He appears to be telling us about Mark Vernon. But, with regard to appreciating that others believe in god, Sir Martin does fit this. So, he is a believer in belief but not because he appreciates choral music and evensong. Vernon has given us the right conclusion but using the wrong premises. Rees qualifies as a “believer in belief” because he:
also claims to be an "unbelieving Anglican" who goes to church "out of loyalty to the tribe". He has criticised Stephen Hawking for arguing that we don't need God to explain the origin of the universe, and supports "peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains".
This appreciation or respect for religion because others are religious, however, is exactly what Dawkins was correctly criticising as policy for the Royal Society. Similarly – and again – we must ask for consistency. Would we support those who believed in alchemy as a solution for cures? Would we be happy to say homeopathic parents should not be charged for manslaughter when they implicitly kill their children? These beliefs, like religious faith, also are unwarranted, unsound and have no evidence to support them – they, too have plenty of believers. We do not expect physicians to have an appreciative attitude toward homeopaths, when both are focused on the same area. Why then should a cosmologist have an appreciation toward theologians, also focused on the same area?
No doubt many will claim they are separate spheres, but this is not true. If they are separate spheres, religious institutions wouldn’t be trying to get evolution out of schools; we wouldn’t be having hysteria over pushing the time back as to the birth of the universe. If religion and science were different spheres, I don’t think I would be fighting tooth and nail in my thesis to have policies on the ethics of killing re-considered. If these are separate domains, it is not the scientists up in arms but the faithful. Basically, this discussion wouldn’t need to happen. What can cosmology possibly gain from engaging with Leviticus or Paul’s Letters? What can the Quran contribute to our learning about biology?
Vernon however will have none of this. Respect is needed. Indeed, Vernon proudly proclaims himself as a benefactor of Templeton funding. He calls himself an accommodationist. “I often write about the relationship between science and religion, and have been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow, the beneficiary of a first-rate seminar programme organised by Cambridge academics, funded by the Templeton Foundation. But then I love the big questions.”
Right. The big questions. I have and do read some wonderful Christian writers on “the big questions”, like Alasdair MacIntyre, a contemporary moral philosopher who follows Thomas Aquinas very closely. I am currently obtaining a bibliography for my thesis that includes many works, including analyses of Aquinas’ Summa and the positions of the Catholic Church regarding assisted-death. My main reason is not through respect of the God-Did-It formula (explain anything: science, morality and so on, by throwing god somewhere in to your explanation); rather, my reason is out of appreciating the power the formula holds, especially with regard to swaying public policy and opinion on my research area, which is killing and death. I need to know it, inside-and-out so that I can combat it effectively. This means I can engage sociably, amicably and vaguely intellectually (I still don’t understand most of philosophy, because I’m unfortunately not smart enough) without being smug, arrogant and so on. I can do this in my writing and I do it with my opponents.
Why mention “I love the big questions” by associating it with Templeton God-Dit-It engagements? Why mention Dawkins' strident attitude and so on unless Vernon means his appreciation for these sorts of questions somehow makes him better able to engage? There is no evidence to support his attack, nor his view that Dawkins’ attitude is doing anything wrong. This is an annoying paragraph – much like the whole silly article – but it becomes clear why he ended it as he did: to compares himself to Rees. Not in the sense of being as brilliant, but in the sense that both can be appreciative of and toward Templeton policy.
Rees pursues [the big questions], too, through cosmology, a subject that clearly fascinates many for similar reasons. Is there life like ours on other planets? What is the nature of our connectedness with the stars? It is partly for his insights on such matters that he has won the prize. But if he is modest about what can be achieved for religious belief by science, he insists that scientists should not stray into theological territory that they don't understand.
It is Rees' insights, not his evidence or his actual scientific research, that matters: His insights based on his own (very beautiful) writings and communications. It is not his research but Rees' somewhat open-hearted approach to the Divine and majesty within the Universe that won him the prize. Dawkins, remember, can’t appreciate beauty, can’t listen to any kind of music and love anything vaguely religious because he is just a smug, bad person with no social-media skills. If this is Vernon’s opinion, which this piece and those millions of others seem to indicate, then of course Vernon would think that Dawkins is not pursuing the big questions like Rees is.
Again, Dawkins himself has put it beautifully that he considers biology, or rather the study of evolution, to be the most important study of all: It answers “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” It even answers what the “purpose” of life is. None of these questions appear to satisfy many people; some people want grand, mythological narratives of which they are the centre between battling gods and swooping Hans Zimmer soundtracks. Rather, Dawkins would advocate that we consider a warm summer breeze and the sounds of a night garden, the Milky Way and pictures from the Hubble Telescope.
I don’t understand why anyone would want their lives to be out of a story written by Bronze-Age goat-herders. Certainly, because of science-writers like Dawkins and Steve Jones, I am considering studying biology. (Again, I don’t think I can with the brains required and all but I want to.) I agree with Dawkins’ assessment. So, if Dawkins is in the department directly involved in perhaps the most important questions, how does this distinguish him as any different from Sir Martin? Dawkins’ science was through a microscope; Sir Martin’s is through a telescope. Both are wonderful areas, with their own intricacies and theories that display human genius. Both, too, are related.
Vernon goes on to describe some previous prize-winners, like Paul Davies (who actually I really enjoy as a science-writer). “Davies is not [theistic or religious], though he believes it is perfectly valid to pursue questions of meaning in the context of what is being discovered about the cosmos. After all, is it not remarkable that our universe has produced entities within it that ask such questions – namely ourselves?”
Did Dr Vernon, a philosopher, just ask or rhetorically make the Fine-Tuning Argument? I don’t think it needs any more debunking than is already in place. But, let’s remember: Vernon is not a believer. It is doubtful he would be persuaded that there is anything more just because things look remarkably tuned that way. I don’t think it’s remarkable that the universe has produced entities like us since it could not have done otherwise. Vernon is giving a free-willed intention to the Universe. We can say things like “If the amount of carbon was this or that degree off, we never would’ve existed” but why is that useful? It didn’t happen. All those percentages are in place.
Consider: Imagine another universe, very similar to ours. Call it the Fire Universe. On one particular planet, in one particular solar-system, in one particular galaxy, there are conscious life-forms made of fire. They cannot exist on every part of their planet – some parts are too cold; other, ironically, are too hot – but nonetheless, there are certain parts of the planet that are Goldilocks good (i.e. just right). These Fire Beings would no doubt say “If carbon was just one degree off, we never would’ve existed!” But that’s the point! They exist. If the carbon was, say, a degree this way or that, Ice Beings would be there instead posing the same questions. This is not useful for discussions since, to repeat, it didn’t happen. (Notice the irony: Why make life-forms so potentially on the brink of non-existence? Why would a deity make it that life perpetually exists on a precipice. Remember: if all these amazing complicated numbers are just a tiny degree bigger or smaller, we would not have existed. But it also means if they change sometime today or tomorrow, we would cease to exist. I’m uncertain why this is an argument for god’s existence. It seems be the opposite.)
We can therefore point out that Vernon is placating Templeton policy with such a statement. It is not remarkable, Dr Vernon. It simply is. You are not posing a big question as opposed to a banal if not useless one. Ironically, these are exactly the sorts of questions Templeton, being a not-very-well disguised faith-based institution, would be asking: boring, circular and unhelpful for science. Finally, Vernon lops his culture-war grenade into the mix. Out of nowhere comes this sentence, found in the second last paragraph.
That such a highly regarded figure [as Sir Martin] has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.
He provides no evidence of this. This is something that that silly thing called science can verify. For example: Will Dawkins and other atheist book sales decrease? Will the rhetoric change into the rainbow-unicorn speak that explodes with glitter at the mention of the word “divine” and “remarkable” and “majestic”? Again: Vernon still does not understand that there is little linking science and Templeton save the scientists it has given money to. I’ve noted above that the sorts of questions Templeton tackles are not scientific; rather, it is this kind of hippy-ish, pantheistic wonderment at existence that qualifies one as a potential prize-winner. Templeton won’t give an award to a remarkable scientist who bashes god but, for example, cures cancers. It’s not about the science, it’s about the attitude. For this reason, it has nothing to do with science. Vernon does not appear to understand that. Therefore, it seems unlikely Dawkins will lose respect among his peers because his peers are, um, scientists.
Whether or not they do hold views like Sir Martin’s is beside the point. That’s what will win them the Templeton Prize. It’s not attitude that wins you a Nobel. Vernon’s piece is boring. Very boring. My column is longer than his article, obviously. But this all highlights something quite important that I think needs to be understood about science, attitude, snarkiness and so on. Vernon has made no argument and has contributed very little to the discussion. My aim is to try get Vernon away from talking about Dawkins and back on to talking about Plato. (Frankly, I prefer Plato to Dawkins but then I’m a follower of Socrates. Science is way above me.) That’s where Vernon shines and the more he continues to write nonsense like this, the less I want to read him, no matter his subject matter.