The Thief's Journal

Home > Notes from the Underground

I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Non-Propositional Religion

Posted in Religion on December 5th, 2010 by Richard

My attitude towards religion has always been a predominantly adversarial one, viewing the central tenets of the major monotheisms as repressive and authoritarian, something to be consigned to history and forgotten. However, I’ve never had any particular view about the existence of any deity; I was more concerned with the doctrinal content of the various religions. I shared with Nietzsche the assumption that any deity was unlikely to exist in any form that could be intelligible to us, which left his representations as dangerous fictions. The problem lies with what remains after the doctrinal elements have been dismissed:

"Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined… The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Much of the teaching of Jesus is about being open to a new way of seeing reality – being somehow more radically ‘awake’. His questions, like those of the Zen masters, shock us into a new level of consciousness. He is more concerned with how we find self-knowledge and inner transformation than fulfilling the letter of the law… Anne Rice is serious enough about her personal relationship with Christ to feel impelled to detach herself from the public face of religion. No doubt it is her own conscience speaking. Perhaps we just need to acknowledge that we need a new container for the shift in consciousness that is present in the Christian mind as well as in the minds of those outside the church searching for spiritual values and meaning."

Part of the reason for this discussion lies with Karen Armstrong’s account of religion:

"Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world’s best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can’t you fail. This is Armstrong’s principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory – in particular the theory of the divine architect… So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the ‘apophatic’ tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic."

The problem is that Armstrong’s account does to a large extent seem like an exercise in misdirection, defending religion against accurate criticisms by redefining it in a form that bears no resemblance to what is commonly practised. Armstrong’s Durkheimite argument about religion being an essentially social construct seems correct to me, but a large part of that communal aspect is concerned with the authoritarian enforcement of collective norms. In other words, doctrine, quite the opposite of any form of negative theology. In historical terms, Luther’s invocation of Sola fide shifted religion from the social sphere to the personal one, something rather more compatible with Armstrong’s negative theology than medieval Catholicism, even if it weakened the emphasis on practice. The Durkheimite aspect of Armstrong’s thesis also works against her broader argument in other respects; adherents of her negative theology have little reason to follow church ceremonies and institutions, leaving behind those who represent everything Dawkins has been criticising. As the Church of England gradually modernises its believers have no real need for it, either drifting into the secular life it has become indistinguishable from or joining other more reactionary and repressive sects, such as the Catholic church.

The Sleep of Reason

Posted in Politics, Religion on April 14th, 2010 by Richard

Stanley Fish summarises a dialogue between Habermas and a group of Catholic theologians:

"The counterpart of science in the political world is the modern Liberal state, which, Habermas reminds us, maintains "a neutrality . . . towards world views," that is, toward comprehensive visions (like religious visions) of what life means, where it is going and what we should be doing to help it get there. The problem is that a political structure that welcomes all worldviews into the marketplace of ideas, but holds itself aloof from any and all of them, will have no basis for judging the outcomes its procedures yield…The liberal citizen is taught that he is the possessor of rights and that the state exists to protect those rights, chief among which is his right to choose. The content of what he chooses — the direction in which he points his life — is a matter of indifference to the state which guarantees his right to go there just as it guarantees the corresponding rights of his neighbors ("different strokes for different folks"). Enlightenment rational morality, Habermas concludes, "is aimed at the insight of individuals, and does not foster any impulse toward solidarity, that is, toward morally guided collective action."

But Habermas does not want to embrace religion wholesale for he does not want to give up the "cognitive achievements of modernity" — which include tolerance, equality, individual freedom, freedom of thought, cosmopolitanism and scientific advancement — and risk surrendering to the fundamentalisms that, he says, willfully "cut themselves off" from everything that is good about the Enlightenment project. And so he proposes something less than a merger and more like an agreement between trading partners: "…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality.

As Norbert Brieskorn, one of Habermas’s interlocutors, points out, in Habermas’s bargain "reason addresses demands to the religious communities" but "there is no mention of demands from the opposite direction." Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The "truths of faith" can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse. (It seems like a case of "separate but not equal.") Religion gets to be respected; reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning.

The result, as Michael Reder, another of Habermas’s interlocutors, observes, is a religion that has been "instrumentalized," made into something useful for a secular reason that still has no use for its teleological and eschatological underpinnings. Religions, explains Reder, are brought in only "to help to prevent or overcome social disruptions." Once they have performed this service they go back in their box and don’t trouble us with uncomfortable cosmic demands. "

This all rather reads like some of Sartre’s tortuous efforts to reconcile existentialism and communism and I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the Catholic interlocutors. Habermas seems to forget that liberalism evolved precisely as a means of diluting (often conflicting) religious tendencies towards ‘morally guided collective action’ and quarantining them in the private sphere. The idea that one’s right to swing one’s fist ends at someone’s else’s face is not one that is easy to recognise in religious ethics, at least not in the ethics of the major monotheisms as they presently exist.

Theory and Theology

Posted in Religion on May 24th, 2009 by Richard

This article by Stanley Fish on the Terry Eagleton’s latest book has already received more attention that it really deserves, but I nonetheless thought that there some points to it that might have been overlooked:
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny…

The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.
The theory suggested by the likes of Derrida and Barthes and expounded by Eagleton and Fish had its ultimate origins in a critique of the Platonic and Biblical conception of logos, of the word as an inerrant source of truth. The increasing trend throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to regard the word as an unreliable proxy for the concepts it denoted, culminating in Derrida’s view of meaning as simply an endless chain of differance, in which one word simply represents another and then another, without any transcendent truth standing behind them. In other words, much of this tradition is explictly anti-religious, denying that holy texts have another capacity to represent anything other than themselves. While the conflict with science is equally evident in the work of Lyotard, I am very far from being persuaded that post-modernism and religion have as much in common as is being suggested above. Certainly, Christian theology is far from being without strains of thought based around the ineffability of the divine, but they hardly account for the majority of the christian tradition. Equally, the description Eagleton proposes of christianity as being akin to a form of art for art’s sake, something that does not attempt to describe or prescribe the world, is something that barely seems recognisable to either a contemporary christanity which rarely lets a week slip without a cardinal or bishop somewhere making incursions into secular politics or to a history where the personal aspects of faith have been very far from those that have been most pronounced. Most religions do indeed purport to describe the world, they certainly attempt to prescribe how it should be and they typically do so without much evidence of the doubt Fish rather probably assigns to them above. In any case, this idea of religion as a form of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ hardly seems consistent with Eagleton’s vision of christianity as a radically transformative ideology, a kind of surrogate for communism. No ideology can dictate how the world should be made anew without some form of denunciation of how it stands at present, and christianity is no different to this. Having long viewed communism as a form of materialistic religion, it hardly surprises me that Eagleton has switched from one totalising ideology to another, although given his dismissal of the liberal ideal of progress as a myth it would be interesting to see how he copes with the problem that the ideal of progress and of history as teleological is a christian concept and one that is particularly evident in some of his current utopianism.

The Alienation of Divine Love

Posted in Religion on December 14th, 2008 by Richard

This article on Julian of Norwich struck several chords with me:

"I found the place unsettling. For a start there was the cold silence of the empty church and the bare room adjoining it: the site where Julian spent years of her life secluded from society, immersed in hallucinatory visions that she was convinced were sent to her direct from God… In this atmosphere of desperate piety, it wasn’t too hard to imagine a 14th Century divine chuntering away to herself about bodily sickness, wounds and the stench of the Fiend… But the bonds of time have been broken. The sign went on to say: "War destroyed the building …" In 1942, a German bomb hit the building where Julian had spent so much of her lonely life as an anchoress. The church I was standing in was a reconstruction.

I felt similarly cut off when I read Julian’s writing. There’s a saying about writers and intellectuals holding hands across the ages, their linked arms forming a barrier against the cruel incursions of time. It’s a lovely and persuasive thought, but it doesn’t always hold true. Sometimes writers also push us away: reminding us just how foreign a country the past is – and how differently they do things there. Certainly, Julian’s thought processes, even in Elizabeth Spearing’s elegant translation in the current Penguin edition, are alien to me… The Christian guardians of her shrine and this website claim that her message is one of hope and love, but to me it seemed one of dread and cruel masochism. Julian begs to be hurt and abased before her God – a God she obsesses over in pages and pages of contorted, twisting theology that neither makes sense nor is, to be blunt, at all interesting – even if she took the daring step of attributing feminine aspects to Him."

I often wonder why people often seem to characterise literature as an atemporal phenomenon that transcends the time and place that produced it and is as readily comprehensible centuries later as it was at the time. The above was essentially my response to the majority of medieval literature and its concern with the extinction of the self in favour of the divine (I particularly recall Eco’s description of medieval literature as a place where everything was subordinated to the theocratic). In an age where writing has been primarily interested in the individual consciousness for hundreds of years, the likes of Margery Kempe are not especially congruent with the modern sensibility. Even in the case of Chaucer I always had the sense that his characters were two dimensional replicas of what a character in a more modern work might look like, filtered through a rather narrow set of social and religious concerns that were all he had to hand to create consciousness out of. The only exceptions that I can immediately recall were, rather oddly, Langland (being too heterodox to fit in with conventional religious categories there’s a form of inadvertent invididualism to his work) and Malory.

Christian Atheism

Posted in Religion on December 12th, 2007 by Richard

An amusing commentary on Richard Dawkins’ self description as being culturally christian from Mark Vernon:

"The deeper and philosophically interesting point, missed in the comments, is the possibility that Dawkins is not only culturally Christian, he’s a Christian atheist too. For example, he believes we are like the animals bar being able ‘to rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’. Note the ‘rebel’ against nature. It’s straight out of the story of Adam and Eve. As far as I know, the concept doesn’t exist outside of Judeo-Christian religion.

Similarly the effort to reconcile scientific materialism with free will, hard line Darwinism being deterministic. This is a Reformation concern. It was only then that the issue of free will became so crucial, people having to be free to choose their salvation. Before free will was a marginal philosophical concern, it being fairly obvious when you think about it that we are free in some respects, influenced by all sorts of factors in others, and able to become conscious of at least some of them, of course… Perhaps Dawkins would say he was Christian atheist if asked. He’d increase the column/blog inches again, since, of course, that implies his atheism is not truth in black and white, but is coloured in a certain way. Relative, in other words – another charge that troubles the doctrinally-minded."

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to observe what Hindu or Islamic versions of texts like The God Delusion might look like; I suspect rather different from their Western counterpart (for instance, Sanskrit has a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language). With that said, while the above point about Dawkins’ attachment to a rather narrowly defined correspondence theory of truth is amusing, I’m not sure that the idea of Christian atheism is quite as outlandish as Vernon suggest. After all, Bertrand Russell did write an article entitled On Catholic and Protestant Sceptics:

"To the Protestant the exceptionally good man is one who opposes the authorities and the received doctrines, like Luther at the Diet of Worms. The Protestant conception of goodness is of something individual and isolated. I was myself educated as a Protestant, and one of the texts most impressed upon my youthful mind was, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil." I am conscious that to this day this text influences me in my most serious actions. The Catholic has quite a different conception of virtue: to him there is in all virtue an element of submission, not only to the voice of God as revealed in conscience but also to the authority of the church as the repository of Revelation. This gives to the Catholic a conception of virtue far more social than that of the Protestant and makes the wrench much greater when he severs his connection with the church. The Protestant who leaves the particular Protestant sect in which he has been brought up is only doing what the founders of that sect did not so very long ago, and his mentality is adapted to the foundation of a new sect. The Catholic, on the other hand, feels himself lost without the support of the church. He can, of course, join some other institution, such as the freemasons, but he remains conscious, nonetheless, of desperate revolt. And he generally remains convinced, at any rate subconsciously, that the moral life is confined to members of the church, so that for the freethinker the highest kinds of virtue have become impossible. "

Update: John Gray takes a similar view in this piece:

"The Golden Compass – is a good example. Pullman’s parable concerns far more than the dangers of authoritarianism. The issues it raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks. Pullman has stated that his atheism was formed in the Anglican tradition, and there are many echoes of Milton and Blake in his work. His largest debt to this tradition is the notion of free will. The central thread of the story is the assertion of free will against faith. The young heroine Lyra Belacqua sets out to thwart the Magisterium – Pullman’s metaphor for Christianity – because it aims to deprive humans of their ability to choose their own course in life, which she believes would destroy what is most human in them. But the idea of free will that informs liberal notions of personal autonomy is biblical in origin (think of the Genesis story). The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity…

The belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning… Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject… More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism. The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic.

There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamo-fascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including antisemitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left, and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists. Islamist techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements. The executions of hostages in Iraq are copied in exact theatrical detail from European "revolutionary tribunals" in the 1970s, such as that staged by the Red Brigades when they murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder". He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island’s Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any postmortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 80s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese communist party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. "

I’m not particularly sure that any of this should be especially troubling; Like James and Dewey (or even Eliot and Mill) I tend to think we can retain certain aspects of christian heritage whilst discarding others and the broader metaphysical superstructure. I might have more time for Nietzsche than Gray apparently does but that still leaves me far from advocating a revaluation of all values. The central problem with Gray’s arguments is that on the one hand he describes atheism as having inherited many of its central concepts from its christian heritage while on the other denouncing communism and fascism as exemplars of the dangers of atheism and scientific worldviews rather than (as I would see them) secularised forms of religions. In Gray’s worldview atheism’s religious basis is only apparent when it is most useful as a stick to beat atheism with; when it is not, he quietly elides it.

Language and recursion

Posted in Culture, Language, Religion on June 16th, 2007 by Richard

Having been interested for a while in the ideas of Sapir and Lee Whorf, the recent research on the Piraha language, which has occasionally been characterised as providing evidence for those theories, was something I was immediately interested in. Looking into it in more detail, I don’t think it actually does support Sapir to any marked intent, but as this article argues, it does challenge many current assumptions about language and consciousness:

"So in the case of Piraha, the language I’ve worked with the longest of the 24 languages I’ve worked with in the Amazon, for about 30 years, Pirahã doesn’t have expressions like "John’s brother’s house". You can say “John’s house”, you can say "John’s brother", but if you want to say "John’s brother’s house", you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house". They have to say it in separate sentences.

One answer that’s been given when I claim that Piraha lacks recursion, is that recursion is a tool that’s made available by the brain, but it doesn’t have to be used. But then that’s very difficult to reconcile with the idea that it’s an essential property of human language—if it doesn’t have to appear in a given language then, in principle, it doesn’t have to appear in any language. If it doesn’t have to appear in one part of a language, it doesn’t have to appear in any part of a language… If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That’s not part of the grammar per se, that’s part of the way that they tell their stories.

So the evidence is still being collected, the claims that I have made about Pirahã lacking recursion and the fact that Piraha is an evidence that there probably isn’t a need for universal grammar. Contrary to Chomsky’s proposal that universal grammar is the best way to think about where language comes from, another possibility is just that humans have different brains that are different globally from those of other species, that they have a greater general intelligence that can be exploited for all sorts of purposes in human thinking and human problem-solving… The ongoing investigation of these claims and alternatives to universal grammar, an architectonic effect of culture on grammar as whole, and the implications of this for the way that we’ve thought about language for the last 50 years are serious. If I am correct then the research so ably summarized in Steve Pinker’s book The Language Instinct might not be the best way to think about things."

What particularly interests me about these arguments is the role they play in the overall history of ideas. In contrast to the ideas of Marx, Freud, Skinner and Foucault, which all assumed to varying degrees that environmental forces are markedly more important than what would now be termed genetic considerations, modern conceptions of rationality have increasingly spurned the idea of the blank slate and moved towards a conception that bears a marked resemblance to that of Thomas Hobbes, if we substitute the term ‘genes’ for ‘passions.’ As Edward O Wilson observed every human brain is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as ‘an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid. I have to admit that evolutionary psychology of this kind is not something I have ever had a great deal of regard for; it tends to involve post-hoc extrapolations that are typically every bit as unfalsifiable as Freud’s theories. In either case, the term ‘just-so story’ seems amply deserved. It tends to disregard culture as a natural and material phenomenon and one that can be described as responding to a form of natural selection. If that is being displaced in favour of a more nuanced, tempered view, the I’ll certainly be happy.

Anti-theism

Posted in Religion on January 4th, 2007 by Richard

I had planned to consign religion to the vaults I imprisoned politics as a subject that was not going to be discussed here, but this article on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s anti-theism seemed well worth making an exception for:

"None has seen fit to give a name to Singer’s Third Position in the debate. So I will: It’s not atheism, not theism, but rather anti-theism, a provocative, profoundly different stance from either of the others. Simply put, contrary to the atheists, Singer believes in a God, but, contrary to the theists, he doesn’t believe in a just, loving or merciful God; he believes in a God who doesn’t deserve worship, a God who deserves our condemnation.

“Singer’s ‘ethic of protest,’ a philosophy that would be his to the end … the point was to show God that he [Singer] disapproved of the way He ran the world, disapproved of His silence and absence of compassion …. Singer insists that because God is evil, man should behave in a moral way … ‘to spite God.’"

I’m reminded of the ending of Joseph Roth’s Rebellion; mistreated by god and state the dying and suffering Andreas is afforded a vision of being entered into heaven. He responds to it by turning his back and proclaiming that he wants to go to hell. In the past, I’ve generally tended to describe myself as agnostic. It’s not so much that I don’t think god exists (though it seems overwhelmingly improbable) as that the depictions of god in the major monotheisms present an entity that is invariably such a repellent tyrant that sympathy for the devil seems the only honourable course to adopt. In practice, this means that the position I most closely have to identify with the likes of Dennett and Dawkins, though I am far from sharing their commitment to rationalism. Dawkins objects to religion on essentially the same grounds that he objects to homeopathy; that he does not believe it to be true. For instance, consider the following from Sam Harris:

"Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth…

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available… If a person doesn’t already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won’t discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion… We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. "

There are two overlapping questions. Firstly the truth value of religious mythologies and the question of morality and religion. While these are clearly related as questions, they are far from being ideal companions; the implication of the former proposition is that even if all morality did depend on religion, that this would still be a peripheral concern compared to whether it is true or not. For myself, I’d reverse this; even if god exists, that would be very far from making him moral.

Update: A similar argument in a review of Richard Dawkins by Thomas Nagel:

"Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical–that is, behavioral or neurophysiological–terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed–that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts. "

Political Religion

Posted in Religion on November 5th, 2006 by Richard

I must admit to finding it difficult not to want to quote all of this article from John Gray:

“The secular ideologies that had such power during the last century were deeply shaped by Christianity… Michael Burleigh argued that, from the Jacobins in the French Revolution to the anarchists of late 19th-century Russia, Europe produced a succession of political religions that had many of the features of the faith they aimed to replace. In imagining a perfected world at the end of history, Marx and Bakunin reproduced Christian eschatology: the belief that human life can be transformed in a vast revolutionary conflagration was apocalyptic myth rendered into secular terms. Christian concepts and values permeated many lesser-known ideologies such as positivism and the many varieties of utopianism… In a horrible way Nazism was a messianic movement, which offered the promise of a new life in a transfigured world to those who were allowed to survive the cataclysm that was to come.

Downplaying the role of the church in the crimes of the last century is part of a larger default in Burleigh’s analysis. Medieval Christendom was hardly an oasis of peace. It was racked with savage wars and campaigns of systematic extermination that prefigure those of modern times. The crusade against the Cathars launched by Pope Innocent III at the start of the 13th century led to the deaths of around half a million people, many by mass hanging, drowning or torture. Violent millenarian movements repeatedly convulsed late-medieval and early-modern Europe. In the early 16th century, a communist New Jerusalem was established in the city of Munster in northwest Germany that had many of the features of later secular regimes, including the methodical use of terror. The extraordinary savagery of modern political religion does not come from giving up Christianity. It is a secular version of the faith-based violence that has been an integral part of Christianity throughout its history.”

I’ve long taken the view that both fascism (or at least Nazism) and communism can be understood as sublimated christian sects as much as responses to economic conditions in the manner Polanyi suggested. In all cases, the principle of noncontradiction is regarded as sound. Induction is useless; the basic premise must be believed in, rather than known, and in either case, conclusions must follow by means of deduction from the basic premise, not induction from empirically obtained data. In both cases, the vision of the new realm is all that is of import, rather than considerations of individual autonomy and rights.

The reformation of the image

Posted in Aesthetics, Art, Literature, Religion on October 1st, 2006 by Richard

I‘ve just been reading this interview with Joseph Koerner about his work on the reformation of the image. Amongst many other things, it raises the question of whether the iconoclastic tradition within Protestantism was to undermine art by severing its link with faith.

“The dispiriting didacticism of this Lutheran art has often been commented on. Nineteenth-century Romantics blamed Luther for the death of art for art’s sake, and its replacement with mere propaganda. Hegel thought that the Reformation inaugurated a tragic but necessary shift towards interiority which had robbed art of its intrinsic holiness, a disjunction between the beautiful and the true. The material world, fetishised by medieval Christianity in the cult of relics, the eucharist and holy images, was now disenchanted, and from that point onwards, however skilfully God, Christ or the saints might be portrayed by painters, ‘it is no help, we bow the knee no longer.’ Art was no longer sacred, immediate, an encounter with the ultimate: instead, it offered an alternative form of textuality, mere food for thought…

The Lutheran aesthetic, Koerner believes, broke decisively with the past in transforming art from a direct encounter with the sacred into a cognitive instrument, a didactic device in which understanding was everything, veneration banished. He therefore insists on the corresponding absence of this cognitive priority in medieval religion… Koerner here effectively articulates a modern version of an accusation often made by Lutherans at the time of the Reformation: Catholicism was external, magical and mechanical, Protestantism was interior and rooted in personal responsibility.”

It’s an interesting argument, albeit one perhaps more familiar from TS Eliot’s theories concerning the dissociation of sensibility (where such writers as the metaphysical poets felt “their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”). In The Open Work Umberto Eco commented that “the order of a work of art in this period is a mirror of an imperfect and theocratic society.” Medieval literature is a place where every single sign was remorselessly subjugated to serving a transcendental order. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in his The Imitation of Christ; “Stand without choice and without all manner of self and thou shalt win ever; for anon, as thou hast resigned thyself and not taken thyself again, then shall be thrown to thee more grace.” In other words, from the retraction that concludes the Canterbury Tales to the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich, art was inseparable from religion. This is an old argument, shared by Bloom in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human and originating with Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy; "their powerful individuality made them in religion, as in other matters, altogether subjective… and markedly worldly… we are individually developed, we have outgrown the limits of morality and religion." The idea of subjectivity as a renaissance development is one that was later to be disavowed by Burckhardt and challenged by medievalists, but it has nonetheless persisted and does indeed seem to account for much of the difference we might find in the autobiographies of Abelard and Cellini. The lack of a sense of subjectivity in medieval art makes it especially difficult for an atheist like myself to appreciate it; there are simply very few naturalistic, non-religious, reasons to do so.

Medieval art and literature are things I can bring myself to admire but not something I can often bring myself to actually like. Reading the above comment from Eco, I find it very difficult not to think of Czeslaw Milosz’s study of how writers were prepared to deform and contort their views to fit the prevailing ideology of communist states. The term Milosz uses to describe this is one derived from religion, ketman, a concept that seems highly applicable to the medieval worldview; “If one penetrates into the minds of these people, one discovers utter nonsense. They are totally unaware of the fact that nothing is their own, that everything is part of their historical formation – their occupations, their clothes, their gestures and expressions, their beliefs and ideas… The pressure of an all-powerful totalitarian state creates an emotional tension in its citizens that determines their acts.” This tension is perhaps best observed in what is, to my mind, the most interesting work of medieval literature, Langland’s Piers Plowman. This is one of the few medieval works where theological conformity is not a given, with Langland being deeply concerned with the relation of his radical social views to heterodox theological positions like Lollardy for the relationship between art and religion to be an unproblematic one.

For myself, art begins with the likes of Cranach and Holbein where the intermingling of the spiritual and the temporal is perhaps rather more uneasy than in their predecessors. Similarly, in literature characters in Shakespeare and Marlowe inhabit a world where god and the knowledge of god are no longer certain (as with Shakespeare’s “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport”). The infinite variety of a Cleopatra or a Falstaff is something quite different to the trompe l’oeil effect Chaucer gives to characters like the Wife of Bath who at first sight appear fully rounded but to my mind never quite escape the taint of allgeory.

Update: Nigel Warburton quotes Richard Norman on the question of whether atheists can apreciate religious art:

“Haldane does however pose a genuine problem for the atheist when he turns to the specific case of religious art, and I want to consider this in more detail. He argues that any serious work of art is ‘a presentation of the reality and values in which the work seeks to participate’, and that in evaluating the work ‘we are judging the credibility of what it proclaims’ (pp.171-2). It would seem to follow that if a work presents religious beliefs and values, the atheist is bound to reject those beliefs and values and is therefore committed to judging the work less highly. And this appears to exclude the atheist from fully appreciating and valuing religious works of art. One of Haldane’s examples is Piero della Francesca’s painting The Resurrection in Borgo San Sepolcro. The atheist might try to take refuge in praise of the formal qualities of the work, but as Haldane rightly says, its form and content are inseparable. The arrangement of the figures, with the sleeping soldiers in their poses of disarray ‘contrasting with the simple sweeping contour of Christ’, who divides the background landscape between the deadness of winter and the new life of spring – all of this serves to point up the content of the painting, and the painting seems to be inescapably religious.”

From a personal perspective, I do find appreciation of religious art to be far from straightforward. To continue to take medieval art as an example, I love the pigments and styles probably more than I do their Renaissance equivalents but do tend to find that art altogether impossible to relate to in a way that I don’t for art after the Renaissance. Art is about content as much as form and the two are not easily separable. The aesthetics of art depend on its propositional elements to a very large extent; I doubt any art can be deflated down to such content but I’m equally inclined to doubt that it can exist independently of it. I’ve never really liked the idea that is some sort of all transcending concept rather than a product of specific cultures. It seems to me that it is more difficult to apprecicate a lot of religious art for much the same reason that the Victorians saw something in Little Nell’s death that we can’t. Certainly there are authors and artists that depict or propound viewpoints of such extremity that is very difficult to be other than revolted by them (the depiction of saints being tortured and killed in medieval art, some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Bible, Hitler’s writings or Riefenstahl’s films); pure aestheticism seems to me a position that very few people will actually hold in practice even while they happen to evince it in theory.

As a final point, it does seem somewhat unreasonable to me that atheists are incessantly questioned on their ability to appreciate gothic architecture or Bach cantatas, when the question of whether the same applies in reverse is never raised. A committed christian could well have a cap on their appreciation of DH Lawrence, Gide, Genet, Bataille, Pasolini, Burroughs, or Bunuel given that all of those have marked divergences from a christian worldview in their work. Or even to Victorian writers like Hardy, Arnold and George Eliot, whose work takes the death of god as essentially a given. My own objection to christianity is mostly that it seems a very cramped worldview that would exclude a great deal if I were to adhere to it.

A Defence of Richard Dawkins

Posted in Religion on January 10th, 2006 by Richard

Rather predictably, there has been quite a lot of discussion of Richard Dawkins’s new series, The Root of All Evil:

With this in mind, Dawkins confronts Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado by comparing the show business techniques of his evangelism to those used in the Nuremberg rally… In the programme’s most dramatic interview, an American-born Jew turned Gaza-based hard-line Muslim called Yousef al-Khattab (formerly Joseph Cohen) announces that he hates atheists as much as Zionists and Christians, and tells us with undisguised menace that we must clean up Western society, where ‘women are allowed to dress like whores.’

‘You’re simply not allowed to attack someone’s religion. You can attack their politics or their football team, but not their faith. I think it’s very important that this should be seen as complete nonsense. Why shouldn’t people be required to defend their religion?’ Dawkins refers not just to Islamist terrorists or the Catholic leaders whose dogma allows Aids to blaze through Africa, but to that majority of believers who consider themselves rational and progressive – if his documentary makes a single statement, it’s that ‘all religion represents a danger to our society and future.’

‘I think moderate religion makes the world safe for extremists, because children are trained from the cradle to think faith in itself is a good thing. So then when someone says it’s part of their faith to kill people, their actions need no further justification, and are almost respected as such.”

Generally speaking, I tend to share Dawkins’ atheism but not his rationalism. With that said, one of the greatest irritations for me is that we speak of people doing wrong ‘in the name of’ religion but we do not hear the same being said of crimes being committed ‘in the name of’ any other ideology. No atrocity was ever done ‘in the name of’ fascism or communism. Religion occupies a privileged position that largely renders it immune from criticism. The distinction between religion and other forms of ideology seems particularly untenable to me given that of the fourteen characteristics of an ur-fascism identified by Umberto Eco, ten apply quite straightforwardly to most of the major monotheisms (religion as a cult of tradition, rejection of modernity, a cult of action for action’s sake, disagreement as treason (heresy, to use the correct euphemism), distrust of disagreement, stemming from individual or social frustration and the provision of a social identity, a cult of heroic martyrdom, and life as a form of struggle). By comparison, Stalin-era communism would qualify for about eight of Eco’s characteristics. In such cases as the Middle East and Northern Ireland it seems clear conflict and violence are attributable to a complex mixture of causal factors. But there’s no shortage of examples of religious groups persecuting one another without reference to other factors to suggest that religion is perfectly capable of being every bit as pernicious as nationalism, racism, fascism or communism.

This all seems to me something that needs to be addressed, even if doing so apparently seems to violate a taboo. Essentially then, people like Dawkins are necessary and I would rather have Dawkins being intolerant and right than people like the Bishop of Oxford being terribly reasonable and fundamentally wrong.