Thursday, February 09, 2006

Three good links

No promises, but here are some links that I thought were good enough to post. I'll even bring them full circle and comment on the cartoon controversy. One) Adam Kirsch writes in the NY Sun about Daniel Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell:
Mr. Dennett wrote the book in the first place. He candidly describes him self as a "godless philosopher" and has invented an obviously value laden term, "bright," to describe people like himself who are proudly emancipated from religion. [how nice! -ed] He is careful not to pronounce outright on the existence of God or the truth of any given religion - preferring to argue that what religion needs is not affirmation or denial, but study - but there is no doubt that Mr. Dennett believes the world would be better off if religion disappeared tomorrow. If his actual assertions leave any uncertainty about this, his metaphors and images do not: On the very first page, for instance, he compares human religions to Dicrocelium dendriticum, a parasite that lives in the brain of ants and compels them to irrational, self-destructive behavior. The problem with "Breaking the Spell" is not this frank hostility to religion. On the contrary, there is a long, honorable, and thrilling tradition of atheistic polemics, from Voltaire to Nietzsche and beyond. If anything, one wishes Mr. Dennett were more familiar with this literature and had learned its most important lessons. If he had, perhaps his own attacks on religion and religious people would not sound so much like the complacent broadsides of the village atheist. For the best atheists agree with the best defenders of faith on one crucial point: that the choice to believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it." Mr. Dennett would have benefited from a ride on Kierkegaard's horse. For what dooms his book, not just in literary but in logical terms, is his complete failure to recognize the existential demand of religion. "I decided some time ago," he writes, "that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God's existence," and so he leaves God out of his argument entirely. Instead, Mr. Dennett writes about religion as a purely social and empirical phenomenon.
Two: This article by Micheal Kazin, in the left leaning Dissent Magazine, contains a history of twentieth century politics that is sure to be useful today. It serves as an antidote to the widespread practice of viewing and commenting on politics soley through the lens of ideological theory. He writes from the other side of the fence that I sit on, but deserves credit for being pretty fair. Writes Kazin:
Perhaps the most significant reason for the tenacity of public religiosity in U.S. history is the fact that a crusading faith and a democratic polity emerged together and at roughly the same time. Wrote Tocqueville, "Next to each religion is a political opinion that is joined to it by affinity." A leveling faith has dominated American religious life since the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which Tocqueville witnessed. The great revival appealed as much to blacks as to whites, spawned thousands of new Protestant churches, and made the passion of evangelicalism the common discourse of most Americans. In the words of historian Gordon Wood, "As the public became democratized, it became evangelized." The idea that anyone, regardless of learning or social background, could "come to Christ" dovetailed with the belief in equal rights emblazoned both in the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. The synthesis of evangelical Protestantism and the ideology of grassroots democracy was found in no other nation—at least not with such passionate conviction and for such a long period of time. After the early years of the Second Great Awakening, most white Christians turned their backs on its transracial promise and refused to continue worshipping alongside blacks; the latter, both from necessity and pride, founded their own churches. But all embraced a religion that promised to cleanse a sinful world. ... But then a great transition took place. In the quarter-century after the Second World War, the liberal intelligentsia—among whom secular Jews and lapsed Catholics had achieved unprecedented status—viewed the close link between political crusading and evangelical faith to be an anachronism, vital mainly among "extremists" on the right. Billy Graham was no extremist, but his energetic companionship with every president from Eisenhower onward seemed a perfect example of how leaders of mass revivals were also willing to prostitute themselves to the powerful. Prominent liberal Protestant clergymen came to the same conclusion, albeit by different routes. Reinhold Niebuhr, the most respected theologian of the postwar era, argued that no manner of collective awakening could rid the world of sinful institutions or behavior. "[Billy] Graham honestly believes," he scoffed, "that conversion to Christianity will solve the problem of the hydrogen bomb because really redeemed men will not throw the bomb." Meanwhile, activist Protestant ministers on the left, such as William Sloane Coffin, Jr., first an influential chaplain at Yale and later senior minister at New York’s Riverside Church, interpreted their faith almost solely as an ethic of "social action" and "social responsibility." The spiritual majesty was gone. Bryan and his generation of Christian progressives thought of a good conscience as a gift from God, one only a knave or fool would turn down. But liberal Protestants and their secular allies now thought of God as little more than a good conscience.
Three: I'm with this guy. Peter Berkowitz takes on "critical theory" which might not mean anything to you if you were never a literature student, however I'm sure you've encountered these ideas if you read at all widely:
[Critical] Theory's central tenets are few, are neatly summarized, and purport to describe the world as it really is: "There is," as Derrida famously put it, "nothing outside the text." Indeed, all the world is text. Equivalently, what passes for knowledge - not only in literature but throughout the humanities, social sciences, and even the natural sciences - is socially constructed, or a text that is collectively authored. Texts are radically indeterminate and inevitably self-subverting. No author can successfully inscribe his or her intention in a text or convey meaning through literature. Every text is no more and no less than what a reader makes of it. Cultural studies - the examination of how hierarchy and subordination are produced and performed in everything from mundane habits, mass media, and popular culture to international relations and theoretical physics - is the highest form of intellectual inquiry, and because all the world is text, literary theorists are its consummate practitioners. It might appear that nothing in particular follows from these propositions for politics, or that what follows is that in politics, as in the interpretation of literature, anything goes... The particulars of Theory's transformative agenda remain murky. But the tendency is plain. The vast majority of causes that Theory's proponents champion involve the demand for the liberation of imagination and desire from the allegedly false and malevolent limitations imposed by two constitutive elements of the West. One oppressor is the tradition of rational thought from Socrates and Plato through the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs. The other is the Western tradition of individual liberty and equality under law as developed and instituted in the West but especially in the United States. Indeed, to reconcile Theory's affirmation of the radical indeterminacy of texts with its claim that such indeterminacy generates an emancipatory and typically egalitarian political program, one would have to suspend the ordinary laws of reason - recognized, contrary to Theory's extreme pronouncements, not only in the West but around the globe and from time immemorial. If texts are all there is and the world is nothing but a text, if moral and political standards like everything else are constructed and not discovered, why shouldn't the strong and ruthless regard themselves as emancipated to rewrite other people’s lives in whatever ways that strike their fancy and that they can get away with?

Going full circle, here is the conclusion of Adam Kirsch's take down of Dennet:
Mr. Dennett is left, then, with two aporias. The first is that, as we have all learned, you cannot move from an "is" to an "ought": in this case, from the assertion that religion evolved to the prescription that we stop practicing it. Any ethical exhortation, and that is what "Breaking the Spell" boils down to, must employ ethical arguments, which means arguments about truth and human flourishing. These are the kinds of arguments that serious atheists have dared to make: that religious belief is a dereliction of our ethical responsibility, an affront to our intellectual honor. Mr. Dennett surely believes this as well, but his failure to argue it leaves his atheism looking like just another prejudice. The second, and more important, dilemma for Mr. Dennett is that there are kinds of truth the positivist cannot measure. At the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about.
The point of all this is that Liberal / Secular / Material arguments about how they are remaking the world but those darn hidebound religious conservatives keep getting in the way are so much hogwash. First, they are dishonest and confused, most of them, about their own relationship to metaphysics - which any attempt at reform must rely on. Secondly, this confusion allows them to say horrific and apocalyptic things about their opponents (take a bow Paul Martin and Micheal Herle). Of which, I am not. I am in favour of people seeking reform, and being aware that this is logically dependent on a metaphysics of some sort. I favour doing so without tearing down and mocking those who simply have a somewhat different metaphysics from which to start. If we are historically aware, the greatest things the west has accomplished have come about through this sort of dialogue. The floor here is humble respect for your opponent. The ceiling is - well, that's what they debate is all about, isn't it? The real and ugly opponent in all of this is not so much right or left, religious or secular. It is being in the dark about our metaphysical assumptions and how that darkness leads to cursing and hating others for not being mirror images of ourselves. It is the polar opposite of humilty. Using the cartoons of the Mohammed that have caused such a stink in the middle east as an example, there is nothing wrong with taking offense at the cartoons. There is everything wrong with acting on that offense with violence directed at anyone and anything that is different, including those who have nothing to do with their creation or publication. Were the cartoons offensive? Should they have been published? Those are questions that it is profitable to debate. Debate requires that such things can both be published and that non violent responses be permitted. A blanket ban on them stifles debate, as does the suggestion that they are nothing more than funny hats and smelly food - ie. they are nothing but a private concern. Another question that cannot be overlooked in all of this is who brought the cartoons back out of the musty closet they had fallen into, and why now? Qui Bono from this bit religious manipulation? Because republishing them to this effect has to have consequences too.

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