bookmark_borderSovereign selves

Lately I’ve been reading some conservative, religion-friendly material on bioethics. Not because I greatly care about bioethics per se, but because biotechnology seems to be something that bothers religious thinkers, and so I figure anyone who works on science and religion like I do should keep up with some of the arguments.

One impression I’ve developed is that a lot of the conservatives really don’t understand science. I don’t mean technical details as much as the nature of science. A common theme is the confusion of applied science with basic science. So, for example, when they write about stem cells, they only discuss matters having to do with “cures,” ignoring the intellectual reasons scientists are interested in stem cells regardless of biomedical applications. Now, I have to admit the fault lies partly with the scientists. We always sell research to the public by promising immediate applications. But I would have hoped a more serious debate would reach beyond the PR bullshit.

Maybe more seriously, there’s a lot of religious conservative befuddlement about the substance of the science relevant to biotechnology. When conservatives write about stem cells, abortion, and so forth, I often suspect that for all their ostensibly secular griping, ideas about ensoulment and God’s Laws are lurking in the background.

Still, there are some interesting ideas out there. For example, there’s the regular accusation that liberal individualists, who are those most enthusiastic about science and its applications, ignore concerns about continuity between generations, make individual freedom and choice the be-all and end-all of ethics, and deny any higher social purposes beyond individual well-being. Liberals, this accusation goes, overlook how humans are embedded beings defined by their unchosen relationships. They pursue an ideal of the “sovereign self,” free of constraint and unchosen encumbrances. This leads liberals to ignore obligations to the weak and the dependent, particularly those of us in the early and late stages of life. And naturally, a “society” composed of such self-centered individuals will also reject the very possibility of higher purposes. The ethical horizons of liberals and secular humanists are restricted to alleviating individual suffering, staving off death, and preventing those forms of injustice due to the random, uncontrolled aspects of nature. While conservatives do not discount these as worthy concerns, they insist that there is more to life, that morality transcends such fundamentally self-centered interests.

I get this sort of thing even in conservative books that are not about bioethics. I just finished Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. (I don’t recommend it. It’s learned, but also tendentious and boring.) But there too, she continually veers off into bioethics as an illustration of what she dislikes about liberal individualism and the sovereign self.

Now, I can’t set aside conservative concerns about the sovereign self as simply mistaken. I will concede that sometimes liberal ethical thinking puts too much of an emphasis on individual autonomy and choice as supreme values. And conservatives are correct that such an overemphasis will have the most obvious effects where we are concerned with the unavoidably weak and dependent. We are not little gods. We always live lives full of constraints, dependence, and relationships. Indeed, many of our most valuable relationships, such as that of our families, ethnic and religious allegiances, and political associations, are completely entangled with coercive elements. If the liberal dream is one of complete human freedom, this is at least unrealistic, perhaps pathological, maybe even dangerous.

Fair enough. But I don’t think that describes more serious versions of liberal humanism all that well. Most importantly, those conservative thinkers I’ve been reading fail to capture a very important aspect of what I would consider a more mature liberal ethical orientation: the demand for participation rather than for a complete emancipation from constraint.

So, yes, liberal humanists can and should acknowledge constraints and dependence. We do not choose our families, but that is a stage for many of our most intense relationships. Our relationships define us to a significant degree. We do not choose the society or political system we are born into. But that is, almost always, the arena in which we are public moral actors. All this is hard to deny. But in all that, I think liberals want to be able to participate in shaping the relationships that constrain and define us.

For example, we are not happy with a strict family where the paterfamilas sets the rules. Instead, we prefer a more egalitarian family, where we participate in shaping our lives together. This is not the same as a collection of atomized sovereign selves having “equal” exchanges based on choice. Nonetheless, it is still a relationship that we make together, rather than leaning entirely on “higher purposes” handed down from on high.

In politics, we are not content with a traditional society where all acknowledge the God-given roles to which we are supposed to conform. Instead, we prefer something more democratic. We might not have chosen our neighbors or our politics, and we may be coerced into paying taxes or performing national service. Yet we want to participate, to have a voice in our collective affairs and a chance to shape our societies in ways which may be more to our liking. Indeed, by participation, we have an opportunity to make relationships and reconcile ourselves to unchosen constraints.

I don’t think such an approach solves all problems or that it should change the minds of conservatives. Too much of our moral outlook depends on individual temperaments and interests for me to hope that rational people must inevitably reach a moral consensus. Nonetheless, perhaps I can hope for some minor progress: that those conservatives interested in serious debate rather than just political victory should represent liberal humanism more accurately. We do not have the same goals as conservatives, and yes, this is in large part due to a different conception of human freedom. And yes, liberal humanism is sustained by people with a distinctly modern temperament, who have “buffered selves” that start out at a further distance from established social moralities and religious convictions. Nonetheless, most of us are nowhere near close to the common conservative caricature of self-centered, spoiled brats absorbed in a quest for absolute sovereignty of individual choice. That stereotype has no place in the scholarly literature, and lately I’ve been seeing far too much of it.

bookmark_borderWhat’s with the British Labour Party?

I like looking at British news sources like the Guardian and the BBC. Their contents seem much better than the appalling crap put out by the mass media here in the United States.

One benefit is the Guardian also regularly runs explicitly secularist and skeptical columns by the likes of Polly Toynbee, AC Grayling, and Susan Blackmore. (They even ran a column of mine once.)

Polly Toynbee’s latest is a good example, but it leaves me with a question. She points out that it is the Labour Party that is behind much of the recent push toward more public religiosity in very secular Britain:

The unctuous claim there is a special religious ethos that can be poured like a sauce over schools and public services to improve them morally has been bought, to a depressing extent, by Labour, and over a third of all state schools are now religious institutions – despite overwhelming evidence that their only unique quality is selection of better pupils, storing up trouble with ever more cultural segregation.

But why? That is, why Labour in particular?

Historically, you expect conservatives to be more religion-friendly, and liberal and left parties to be more wary of religion in public life. So, is this yet another way in which New Labour has really been a center-right party? Or is it more of an artifact of Tony Blair’s nauseating religiosity?

I don’t follow UK politics closely enough to know what’s happening. With any luck, someone will comment.

bookmark_border“How to be an ally with atheists”

Greta Christina’s blog has an interesting piece about “how to be an ally with atheists,” addressed mainly to politically left-liberal believers who want to be more inclusive towards nonbelievers. It’s almost all eminently sensible stuff; I think Christina does a very good job capturing some of the routine everyday crap that drives atheists up the wall.

Still, I wonder how the premise of the piece holds up. Christina says that

the atheist movement is just beginning to get off the ground, and it’s already come very far in a very short time, both in terms of numbers and in terms of visibility. IMO, in the coming years and decades, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

I don’t know. That seems optimistic. If I were a liberal and was concerned only about political payoff, I still might be tempted to distance myself from nonbelievers, since any association with atheists can only hurt in the wider public realm. Making it clear that you stand against nonbelievers can be cheap way of advertising ones moral credentials, for liberals as well as conservatives.

bookmark_borderUN against free speech

According to Reuters, “The U.N. General Assembly condemned defamation of religion for the fourth year running on Thursday, ignoring critics who said the resolution threatens freedom of speech.” Here’s one item that caught my eye:

Islamic states say such resolutions do not aim to limit free speech but to stop publications like the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed that sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world in 2005.

At first glance, that seems to be a blatant contradiction, “we don’t aim to limit free speech but to limit free speech.” I think what they really mean is not to limit responsible free speech. And almost all Muslims consider blasphemy—insults to the sacred—as a very clear example of irresponsible abuse of the freedom of speech.

I don’t see anything particularly strange or illegitimate about wanting to limit free speech this way. I don’t like it, but that’s just my interests coming into conflict with the interests of Muslims. Figuring out what happens next is up to politics.

bookmark_borderPassing the hat

I just got a year-end donation request from the Internet Infidels, the parent organization of this blog. I just donated a few dollars, and if you read this blog regularly, that might be a good idea for you as well.

While I’m passing the hat, if you want to support those of us who write on this blog, you might consider buying (and giving as gifts) a book or two we have authored. There’s a list on the right side of the screen if you scroll down. None of these are best-sellers, and very little of the price turns into royalties for us. But we would would very much like people to read and enjoy these books, and maybe have some minor influence on the debates over gods and demons. That is perhaps the main reward in writing such books. After all, it’s hard work. It isn’t like a blog where we get to test-drive as yet half-baked ideas. We try to put the well-worked out, good stuff in the books.

Get thee to thy favorite bookstore now.


bookmark_borderTwo conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theory 1— Antisemitic

According to this theory, Jews control politics and finance, particularly in technologically advanced countries. They do this in order to advance their own interests, from diverting wealth to Jewish hands to stealing Palestinian lands. Fearing the consequences of discovery, however, the Jews operate behind the scenes. They often infiltrate non-Jewish institutions and work through them.

The traditional version of this theory goes squarely against established modern knowledge. It denies the Holocaust ever took place, endorses the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as authentic history, and is friendly toward crackpot biological thinking about sinister racial characteristics of Jews. Many conservative antisemites think that Jews are naturally secretive and keep their control over political and financial institutions well-hidden. They also control the media and academia, so the conspiracy runs wide and deep. But those willing to look behind the smokescreen of respectable, established ideas can see hints of the immense malign power exercised by elite Jews.

There is also a liberal version of antisemitism. Liberals are embarrassed by the crude way in which their conservative brethren oppose modern knowledge. So they concede that modern knowledge is correct in describing the immediate operations of politics and finance. They acknowledge that there is no good evidence supporting the notion of a Jewish purpose interfering with politics or finance. Indeed, they say that proper antisemites should not set themselves against established, neutral academic work.

Yet the liberals still assert the existence of a Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, they attack their conservative colleagues for lacking depth in their ideology. They say that the conservatives reduce the conspiring Jews to just another sordid cabal wielding power. No, the true conspiracy is much grander. A truly great conspiracy, after all, would not be like that revealed in the Protocols when interpreted literally. A truly great conspiracy would not be so easily discovered—it would work so thoroughly behind the scenes that it would accomplish Jewish purposes by working through the ordinary mechanisms of politics and finance. The conservatives are guilty of underestimating the deviousness of the Jews. And the philosemites in academia and beyond are guilty of attending only to the surfaces of events, not availing themselves of the deeper meaning revealed by liberal antisemitism.

Conspiracy theory 2— Christian

According to this theory, a God controls the unfolding of the universe, particularly in its physics and biology. God does this in order to further His own divine plan, from revealing his Son to bringing all the faithful into communion with Him. God, however, respects free will and therefore operates behind the scenes. He often uses natural laws and works through them.

The traditional version of this theory goes squarely against established modern knowledge. It denies evolution ever took place, endorses the Bible as authentic history, and is friendly toward crackpot physical thinking about the spiritual implications of quantum mechanics. Many conservative Christians think that God respects our free will and keeps His control over the operation of the universe well-hidden. He allows the secular media and academia to be blind to His power and purpose. But those willing to look behind the smokescreen of respectable, established ideas can see hints of the intelligent design apparent in His creation.

There is also a liberal version of Christianity. Liberals are embarrassed by the crude way in which their conservative brethren oppose modern knowledge. So they concede that modern knowledge is correct in describing the immediate operations of physics and biology. They acknowledge that there is no good evidence supporting the notion of a divine purpose interfering with physics or biology. Indeed, they say that proper Christians should not set themselves against established, neutral academic work.

Yet the liberals still assert the existence of their God. Indeed, they attack their conservative colleagues for lacking depth in their theology. They say that the conservatives reduce God to just another entity in the world, however immense in power. No, the true God is much grander. A truly great God, after all, would not be like that revealed in the Bible when interpreted literally. A truly great God would not be so easily discovered—He would work so thoroughly behind the scenes that He would accomplish His purposes by working through the ordinary mechanisms of physics and biology. The conservatives are guilty of underestimating the greatness of God. And the atheists in academia and beyond are guilty of attending only to the surfaces of events, not availing themselves of the deeper meaning revealed by liberal Christianity.

Moral of the stories?

I suspect that for most of us, our reactions to either story are conditioned by moral attitudes.

For most residents of post-Holocaust Christendom, antisemitism is evil, and variations on the conspiracy theme are not material. (Even if “liberal antisemitism” were not a fiction, few would care or see it as much of an improvement.) And the liberal Christian story, even when it doesn’t inspire faith, seems at least harmless, even useful as a way of helping religious people to stop making trouble for science.

In some Arab and Muslim circles, reactions would be different. “Traditional antisemitism” would seem to express some moral truths, and even ring true as a description of how the world works. And liberal Christianity would come across not as harmless but as an example of how weak-kneed Christianity is failing to resist the evils of secular thinking.

No analogy is perfect. But liberal theism is, when taking its usual line about the compatibility of science and God, a cosmic conspiracy theory. We should try to set aside moral attitudes for a while. And then, I think, the two conspiracy stories look very similar. Cognitively, liberal theism is quite close to my fiction of liberal antisemitism.

bookmark_borderEarly Islam

The IHEU Newsletter reports on a Conference on the Early History of Islam and the Koran in Germany this March.

There’s some fascinating research going on about very early Islam. Now, among those in the field, it’s well known that the historical sources concerning the early phases of Islam are few, late, and tendentious. In other words, we have very little good information, and there are reasons to distrust the orthodox salvation-history Muslims think is what happened. This leaves room for some radical scenarios, particularly concerning how Islam may have arisen as a Christian sectarian offshoot.

This is all very interesting, though I naturally can’t be very confident in interpreting what’s happening. A lot of the new research is attractive; it promises to make sense of a lot that is obscure or dubious under the orthodox account. But I’m not sure that in conditions of poor evidence, radical scenarios are all that better than more established ideas. I think of parallels in the study of early Christian history. There too, evidence is very sparse and tendentious. You can put out ideas such as that Jesus never existed, and it has to be a possibility. But in the end, I figure Jesus-myth scenarios are improbable, and there is a danger that nonbelievers can get caught up in the attractions of such a deliciously ironic possibility and give too much weight to such ideas.

I think our main emphasis when looking at Islamic history also should be on how much we don’t know, and how the orthodox scenario is almost certainly not the full story about what actually happened. The really radical scenarios are useful mainly as a way to highlight this uncertainty: our evidence is so poor that even ideas such as Muhammad never existing have to be taken to be possibilities.

bookmark_borderNew paper against cosmological argument

J. Brian Pitts has just published an article in the latest issue of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science: “Why the Big Bang Singularity Does Not Help the Kalam Cosmological Argument for Theism.” Here’s the abstract:

The cosmic singularity provides negligible evidence for creation in the finite past, and hence theism. A physical theory might have no metric or multiple metrics, so a ‘beginning’ must involve a first moment, not just finite age. Whether one dismisses singularities or takes them seriously, physics licenses no first moment. The analogy between the Big Bang and stellar gravitational collapse indicates that a Creator is required in the first case only if a Destroyer is needed in the second. The need for and progress in quantum gravity and the underdetermination of theories by data make it difficult to take singularities seriously. The singularity exemplifies the sort of gap that is likely to be closed by scientific progress, obviating special divine action. The apparent irrelevance of cardinality to practices of counting infinite sets in classical field theory and Fourier analysis is noted.

Apparently you can get a copy through this link from Pitts’s home page. William Lane Craig already has a response posted.

bookmark_borderLiving without God

Here’s an interesting new book: Ronald Aronson’s Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.

It’s not a book that argues against the gods. Instead, Aronson writes for the reader who is already skeptical, but who is affected by the loss of confidence in secular politics and life stances that characterizes our time. He wants to start a conversation about where we can go and what we can do when we (secular people) can no longer subscribe to the myth of Progress or that somehow we are on the cutting edge of history.

The strongest part of the book is the first couple of chapters, where Aronson has a compelling description of the problems secular thought encounters today, where the notion of progress has become much more elusive.

Given the eclipse of progress, secularists are today faced with a task more daunting than that of attacking religion: the need to develop meaningful secular worldviews that are no longer explicitly or implicitly tied to the belief in human and societal advancement. (p. 40)

This is correct. I somewhat resist this concern; after all, whether we can construct satisfying or “meaningful” worldviews has little to do with whether supernatural claims are correct, and that is what interests me the most. I don’t even like the idea of caring about “meaning” too much—it strikes me as a distraction. Nonetheless, if nonbelief is to have any significance outside of an academic ghetto, the ethical, and more broadly speaking, political aspects of nonbelief have to do the heavy lifting.

Aronson sketches out the directions he thinks are promising. He starts with a discussion of gratitude, which I don’t find convincing. He addresses ethical and political matters, where I tend to agree with his sensibilities, but I am doubtful about whether the notion of responsibility can carry as much weight as Aronson wants it to do. I also wonder how readers who are not quite as politically leftish as Aronson and I would respond. He also talks about cultivating the right attitudes to appreciate knowledge, about which I can’t have many complaints. He rounds it all up with a couple of chapters on “Dying without God” and “Hope.”

In the end, I found myself wondering whether Aronson was really reintroducing an attenuated version of progress. Perhaps it is not so easy to be a secularist without some notion of worldly progress, however uncertain. That doesn’t mean progress is a reasonable hope; I also find myself drawn toward more perhaps nihilist views such as John Gray’s Straw Dogs. I don’t know if I have much I can contribute to answering such questions, but they’re interesting.

I recommend the book, not because I expect it to be convincing to everyone, but because it clearly makes the case for an interesting kind of conversation, and gives his side of it.

bookmark_borderTrinity, schminity

I was listening to Hank Hanegraaff’s Bible Answer Man today while driving. He was trying to explain the Trinity to a caller. It seemed weird, as if Hanegraaff was describing something he didn’t understand to someone who was struggling even harder.

You have to admire Christianity, in a backhanded way. There are no end of lunatic religious stories available in the world ( Xenu, anyone?), but I don’t know of anything that compares to good old fashioned Christian theology when it comes to specializing in the outright incomprehensible. The Trinity, for example: three persons, but one godhead, whatever the hell that might mean. The Christians certainly don’t know. It’s a mystery of the faith.

Well, fine, I might say, every religion should be allowed one incoherent item of dogma. But even the Trinity, which appears to be as bad a piece of nonsense as is possible, is not enough. The Christians have to go for overkill. On top of the Trinity, Jesus has to be both fully man and fully God. I see. But wait, it’s not over. There’s transubstantiation. To all appearances, the wafer remains a wafer and the wine wine, but it’s really the body and blood of Jesus. Oh, and there’s this bit about “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Take that, readers! Make sense of it if you can! Obscure, incomprehensible, and self-contradictory all at once! And on and on and on.

The ancient metaphysical stuff almost makes modern liberal theological contortions respectable. After all, you get the impression that the modern stuff is mostly asinine “well God can be made compatible with all that too” excuse-making. It may be wildly implausible but perhaps there may be something vaguely possible hiding in the verbiage. These days they merely try to rot your brain, not blow it to bits.

I now appreciate the way orthodox Islam came to distrust Greek philosophy. Good move, I think. If you avoid the Greek philosophizing, you still end up with drivel. But it’s good, honest drivel. Muslims have not tended to write long books and start heated arguments concerning the nature of Muhammad. (Some sects do give in to the temptation, but the orthodox usually squish them.) A much more worldly and sensible religion, in other words.

Insane. That’s what the bloody human race is. Insane.