The current fashion appears to be to describe our current situation as “post-secular.” Secularism, it appears, cannot adequately accommodate the equal citizenship of conservative religious populations in a time of religious resurgence. Secular claims of neutrality between religious stances ring hollow. And however it might be defended, secularism cannot be honestly presented as a requirement of reason or an essential feature of a technologically advanced civilization.

All this is correct, as far as it goes. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we have a notion of post-secularism that will do a better job in a pluralist environment. There are, for example, multicultural ideas that try to recognize community identities. Something like that may well be an increasingly prevalent political option. But I know of no way to do everything: accommodate the conservatively religious without forcing them into a liberal personal choice/private association pigeonhole, and also consistently support a liberal conception of individual rights, including gender-related rights, across the board. This might not be possible.

Consider some of the recent controversies involving medical matters. Conservative religious practitioners often demand a right to opt out of secular professional demands as a matter of conscience. Pharmacists want to decline to fill birth control prescriptions. Psychologists want to be able to reject gay and lesbian clients, or to be able to tell them that they consider their lifestyle immoral. The common liberal response is to say that these professions have their internal standards and certification requirements, which are neutral with respect to religion, and that conservative religious people have no business trying to carve out exceptions for themselves.

But the standards are not entirely neutral. They affirm secular liberal values such as not being judgmental about personal sexual choices. The very notion of health as understood within a conservative religious context is different. Politically speaking, a conservative health-related practitioner can either join efforts to change standards in a way that bends towards their moral views, or to try to carve out a conscience-based exception for themselves. Secular liberals are in a similar position when the standards or laws regulating their work are linked to conservative religious values—for example, when abortion providers are required to provide all sorts of “information” to a woman.

So, how would a post-secularism resolve such conflicts? What principles apply?

Here’s another example, now involving the conflict over women wearing hypermodest Islamic dress. Feisal G. Mohamed proposes a post-secular approach:

Might there be a third way? If, as several thinkers have suggested, we now find ourselves in a “post-secular” age, then perhaps we might look beyond traditional disputes between political and ecclesiastical authority, between religion and secularism. Perhaps post-secularity can take justice and equality to be absolutely good with little regard for whether we come to value the good by a religious or secular path. Our various social formations — political, religious, social, familial — find their highest calling in deepening our bonds of fellow feeling. “Compelling state interest” has no inherent value; belief also has no inherent value. Political and religious positions must be measured against the purity of truths, rightly conceived as those principles enabling the richest possible lives for our fellow human beings.

Perhaps—but all too vague for comfort. Mohamed admits that “Humane action is of course open to interpretation,” but I suspect the difficulty runs deeper.

Consider two of the parties to the debate: secular liberals vs. religious conservatives. We have some overlapping ideas concerning justice and appropriate forms of equality, but nowhere near a widespread agreement, and especially no agreement on principles that might help us extend our intuitions beyond paradigm cases. Agreeing to respect justice and equality would, I dare say, do next to nothing for resolving conflicts about medical practice or public dress.

In particular, I doubt that “humaneness” or any such principle can do a lot of work. You end up either with a vague principle that is endlessly contested in its particular applications, or deciding that you’re just going to favor a particular cluster of interests or ways of life: which is what secularism did in the first place.

I think that attempts to resolve such conflicts by appealing to some sort of principle—a principle of justice based on public reason, for example—can enjoy only very limited success. At best, candidate principles are expressive: they can help express and make more coherent views of one tendency or other. There is a political contest here, which cannot be bypassed by trying to take the discussion to a more abstract level.

Post-secularity is, in my view, an accurate enough description of our present social circumstances, where neither conservative religious nor secular liberal constituencies are about to fade away. But in this environment, post-secularist, multiculturalist etc. views do not enjoy any superior standing at any abstract level. They are political positions, with attractive and repulsive qualities, just like any other. And good-old-fashioned secularism also remains a political option.

Now, secularism of some sort will likely remain the favored political option of people more-or-less like myself: secular liberals. Secularism is not neutral, nor is it uniquely reasonable or pragmatic or universally desirable or anything. A secular order favors some people (us) and disfavors others (the conservatively religious). Nonetheless, I could defend it as a form of living together most suited to the broad interests of myself and people like myself.

So I remain a defender of secularism, though sometimes a more lukewarm defender than others might like. But this is a political stance. I don’t conceive of secularism as an overarching principle that regulates the legitimacy of all politics.

bookmark_borderThey’re raising the dead! Today!

I ran into a 2009 web page from a Hawaiian Christian movement of some sort, where they claim a man was raised from the dead recently.

Even if you believe their report (I suspect the usual embellishments and exaggerations), it’s not as clear-cut as they advertise it.

Other miracles include a “multiplication of food” incident, and a healing of an incurable disease.

I’m tempted to say that it must be interesting to live in a less-developed country where this sort of miracle-belief and religious fervor is routine and everyday. But then again, the US is such a country, given our crappy standing on many indicators of social health. We might as well enjoy a culture where miracles are all you can hope for.

bookmark_borderToo much choice

One thing that strikes me about conservative monotheist morality-talk is how it’s so focused on everyday and family questions. For example, a fatwa site I regularly visit doesn’t just concentrate on doctrinal and ritual details; it’s full of advice on all sorts of personal matters.

I wonder if that’s part of the attraction. I don’t mean this in the sense of the stereotype of fundamentalists looking for canned answers and avoiding thought. That strikes me as implausible—conservative Muslims looking for advice don’t just blindly follow the advice they receive. They seek advice in the context of thinking about what to do, and adhering to religious principles is an important demand for them. I would speculate that the religious moral language and tradition gives them a very useful framework, while giving even the most everyday sorts of decisions some kind of sacred significance.

Contrast that to the sort of secular liberal attitudes I take to questions about, say, family life. I tend to say that unless there is more harm done on balance (sometimes quite difficult to figure out, that), that it’s none of my business. People will figure things out and make their own choices about their lives, and I’m in no position to give advice, regardless of whether I like or dislike some of the options on offer.

It’s easy to see (or misconstrue, perhaps), this liberal reticence to interfere as a kind of evasion or even being free of content. Critics say that secular liberals too often tend to treat moral choices as similar to a choice of toothpaste: they emphasize the availability of choice so much that they’re left with no guidance about what is a good choice. That’s probably not entirely fair. But I can see that a traditional moral framework that refuses to punt everyday questions with a “it’s your choice” can be attractive. It might imbue everyday moral choosing—what most people care about, most of the time—with a kind of seriousness apparently lacking in liberal reticence.

bookmark_border“Thoughts in a Hijab” video
Thoughts in a Hijab from Reel Grrls on Vimeo.

The most common argument given for living in a secular fashion is that this represents liberation. Secular liberals are all for freedom.

But a lot of people reject this form of freedom. They don’t want to be “liberated” from their cultural identity and especially their religious practices.

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God exists” Part 3

Let’s set aside, for the moment, Richard Swinburne’s critique of Ayer’s Logical Positivist argument for the incoherence of theism, and consider Swinburne’s concept of “God”. I’m jumping ahead to the second book in Swinburne’s trilogy on theism (The Existence of God, 2nd edition).

There are two kinds of explanation according to Swinburne: scientific and personal. Swinburne argues that the existence and the most general features of the universe are best explained by theism, which amounts to a personal explanation: some person performed some action or actions in order to acheive some purpose or purposes.

The core concept of “God” in Swinburne’s view derives from that of the simplest personal explanation. Simplicity is a key criterion for evaluation of any type of explanation, whether scientific or personal.

A person must have some degree of power and awareness, and so a person cannot have absolutely no power and no awareness (the quantity of zero power is excluded). Swinburne states that the simplest quantitiy of something is either zero or infinity. Since a person must have some degree of power and awareness, the complete absence of power and awareness is excluded for persons. Thus the simplest sort of person is one that has infinite power and infinite knowledge. Therefore, the simplest sort of person to hypothesize in a personal explanation is a person who is omnipotent (unlimited in power) and omniscient (unlimited in knowledge).

Persons can also have various degrees of freedom, and Swinburne again postulates a person of unlimited freedom, meaning that only rational considerations influence such a person’s choices, not any extraneous influences such as instincts or desires.

So, the core concept of “God” for Swinburne is an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free person. The other properties of God are logically derived from these properties. Thus, God is also perfectly good, because God always knows which actions are wrong or right, better or worse, and being completely free God always chooses to do what is right or best.

God is omnipresent because God is unlimited in power and unlimited in knowledge, and being present in a location means being able to influence objects and events in that location and being aware of objects and events in that location. Since God’s knowledge and power is unlimited, God knows about and can influence objects and events in any and every location.

bookmark_borderBlog Changes

I’ve finally bit the bullet and asked to be included among the administrators of this blog. So, I’ve made some changes to the appearance of the blog. I’d welcome comments and advice about whether this helps or hurts readability.

I’ve also been deleting comments by “DM” as they appear. I’ve tried to identify and block his IP, following the advice of “shreddakj”; but either it hasn’t worked so far or it hasn’t kicked in. If he’s still around by tomorrow, I’m going to temporarily institute moderation for comments. I seriously dislike having to do that, but maybe we can wait until DM finds a new hobby other than mindlessly disrupting comments sections.

bookmark_borderThe Old Creeds

Does anybody read the old creeds any longer? Here is the Athanasian Creed (late 5th or early 6th Century) in its entirety:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Yep, that’s right. You have to believe all this mumbo jumbo to be saved. Should you entertain the slightest suspicion that in the Trinity the Essence is divided, or harbor the least doubt that Christ was begotten before all worlds, then you are doomed to an eternity in hellfire. Really, it is pretty amazing that in Christianity anybody at all is saved.

bookmark_borderVatican Condemns Ordination of Women

Check this out:
The desiccated old farts that constitute the Catholic hierarchy never learn do they? Why does the Roman Catholic Church have any moral capital at all? Why should anyone listen to a 2000 year old old-boy network? Well, of course, the RC church has done a lot for the poor, as it damn well should since it is responsible for there being so many of them. However, it never has worked so zealously for anybody as it has to hide and protect the pederasts in its midst. Why women remain in an organization that treats them like that is to me a greater mystery than the nature of the Holy Trinity. Wouldn’t it be great if they would start leaving in droves?

bookmark_borderWhat’s the harm?

What’s the harm? is a fascinating website collecting news stories concerning people who have come to some harm due to paranormal and supernatural beliefs. It’s intended to counter the common “well, what’s the harm in believing that?” response that critics of paranormal and supernatural convictions often face. It’s not a detailed case including statistical assessments of harm and so forth, so its evidential value is limited. But at least it might get people thinking that some of this may well, in some circumstances, lead to some very serious harm.

Still, I’m not sure that even an extensive study that went beyond collecting individual stories would be applicable to religious supernatural beliefs—supernatural beliefs tightly embedded in the life of communities—as opposed to the more free-floating woo-woo variety of supernatural beliefs.

I can see making a case for, say, homeopathy being harmful on balance. All our serious evidence and background knowledge comes down of the side of homeopathy being a preposterous notion. It’s a diversion from seeking real medical help, which in cases of significant illness, can and does lead to obvious cases of harm. The reason people use homeopathy is primarily, almost exclusively, to improve their health. There is no plausible case for very beneficial indirect effects of homeopathy that could offset the harm to health homeopathy can promote. The relevant notion of harm in assessing homeopathy concerns health, and there is little controversy about whether, say, cancer is really harmful. So, on balance, I think we can conclude that homeopathy is harmful.

But things start to get murkier, I think, when other motivations come into play. Many fans of alternative medicine, for example, are attracted to alternative modalities not just because of immediate pragmatic health benefits that they think they can obtain, but because alternative medicine is often wrapped up in an attractive spiritual philosophy concerning a person’s place in the universe. Followers often are not just convinced that there are immediate health benefits due to the alternative regimen they follow, but also that they are becoming attuned to a deeper promise of feeling at home in the universe. They might have a new group of friends, a new way of seeing their lives, all which are very valuable to them above and beyond immediate health issues.

In such a case, it becomes harder to judge whether the alternative medical philosophy is harmful on balance. In pragmatic health terms, yes, it’s harmful. But how do we weigh the indirect and psychological benefits an adherent might enjoy? Do we really have a commonly held, clear concept of the relevant harm in such a case? Different people—reasonable, adequately-informed people—may well judge the balance of harm differently in some cases.

If that is so, then religious supernatural belief might be an even more impossibly murky case. After all, many religious beliefs are very tightly coupled to personal identity and community integrity. Dropping a religious belief is far more consequential than ceasing to buy homeopathic remedies—it can entail becoming a different person in some respects, and often it means isolation from a community. The very notion of harm in play is vehemently contested, since religious supernatural beliefs are often closely tied to notions of morality and the purpose of ones life. Religions redefine the notion of harm in self-serving ways, as when many devout people think that losing ones faith is one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a believer.

So I am not sure that “where is the harm?” has a clear-cut answer, where religious belief is concerned. As a rather catankerous sort of nonbeliever, I’ll continue to work toward reducing the influence of religious supernaturalism. But that is a political judgment rooted in my circumstances and my way of life. I have a hard time seeing myself as selflessly trying to reduce harm for everyone. Indeed, to the extent that I succeed, many of my political competitors will legitimately judge their interests to have suffered harm.

bookmark_borderThe “heart” of a religion

Quotation from John L. Esposito’s The Future of Islam, page 6:

If a group of Jews or Christians had been responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, few would have attributed it to the beliefs of mainstream Judaism or Christianity. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist was not attributed to something in mainstream Judaism; nor was the clergy sex abuse scandal attributed to the heart of Catholicism.The most heinous crimes committed by Jewish or Christian extremists are not tagged as reflections of militant radical Christianity or Judaism. The individuals who commit such crimes are often dismissed as fanatics, extremists, or madmen rather than labeled Christian or Jewish fundamentalists. By contrast, too often the statements and acts of Muslim extremists and terrorists are portrayed as integral to mainstream Islam.

I find it hard to disagree with Esposito here, if I read this as a commentary on yet another aspect of the seriously low quality of US journalism and public media.

Still, I’m uneasy about other possible interpretations. For example, it’s customary (and accurate) to point out that Islam is diverse, and that it is a mistake to adopt an “essentialist” view of Islam as a world religion. But few seem to complain as much about essentialism when an author asserts that violence or some other undesired characteristic is not one of the “integral parts” or the “heart” of a religion. Indeed, above, it’s unclear whether Esposito is generally uncomfortable with essentializing in the media, or whether he has a narrower complaint about negative essentializing—if it would be fine with him if the media were to treat Muslim-tagged violence in the same quasi-apologetic essentializing way reserved for Judaism and Christianity, saying that the heart of the religion remains pure.

One reason to be concerned here is that even without resorting to mythical essential qualities of a religion, it’s legitimate to ask what it is about certain varieties of Islam that lead them to be associated with violence. And it makes no sense to exclude specifically religious reasons from contributing to this.

For that matter, it also makes good sense to probe those causes that contribute to sexual abuse that are tied to Catholic history and doctrine. It is a good idea to ask about how some ideas within modern and historical Judaism may have contributed to the casual dehumanizing attitude toward Arabs so common in conservative Israeli and US circles. And yes, as nonbelievers, we could also ask how features of Enlightenment rationalism have contributed to our own set of ideologically-motivated disasters.