Unholy Trinities

The superstitious say that bad things come in threes, though this is probably due to the clustering illusion, cognitive bias, and an emphasis on trinities in western culture. We can only hope, pathetically, that all the blood shed over Arianism was not for nothing. I am feeling superstitious today because it has been a gloaming week here in America. It began (first) with Duck Dynasty “star” Phil Robertson giving a gruesome speech, to applause from Christians at a prayer breakfast, about the rape, killing, and torture of a hypothetical atheist family:

Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at [the atheist father-husband] and say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it [sic] dude?” Then [they] take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say: “Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.”

Who exactly is sick in the head? Is it the Christians in the audience who applauded this hate speech or the Christians who are now defending it? Ironically, I am glad that these people — who clearly suffer from an absolute failure of moral imagination — believe in a “moral” God. Without such beliefs, they might feel free to act out these sorts of sick fantasies. This is the kind of thing that plays well in large parts of camouflage-wearing Christian America. God may yet save the South, but it has not happened yet.

Moving north to Indiana, where things are supposedly more sober, we find (second bad thing) that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has been enacted. For those who did not know that religious liberty was under siege in Indiana, this may seem a bit strange. It would indeed be odd if Hoosiers, protected in their religious beliefs by the Constitution and favored in those beliefs by tax-exempt status, were being prevented from worshiping as they see fit. Needless to say, nothing of the sort was happening. What did happen is that Indiana’s ban on gay marriage was overturned last year, so horrified lawmakers in the state needed to strike back. They apparently were having nightmares about “religious” bakers, florists, and photographers being forced to do gay wedding business.

Let’s be clear about this: when we are talking about “religion” in Indiana, we are talking about Christianity. Eighty percent of all Hoosiers are Christian.* So while Christian proponents of this law talk loftily about “religious liberty,” it really has nothing to do with imperiled beliefs. For the non-sophists among us, the intent and purpose of the law is clear: it enables Indiana business owners to refuse anyone service if it would offend their Christian religious sensibilities. While Indiana’s governor appeared on national television today to assure us that the law won’t be used that way because Hoosiers are “nice” and “don’t discriminate,” this is hardly assuring. Having just given religionists a legal weapon that can be wielded, are we now to believe this will not happen? This is an especially pertinent question for Indiana, which has a history of not being nice.

Let us not forget that during the 1920s, Indiana was the national epicenter for the Ku Klux Klan. In 1925, thirty percent of Indiana’s white males were members and the Indiana KKK had over 250,000 members (largest of any state). That same year, over half the elected members of the Indiana General Assembly were Klan members, as was the Governor and many other high ranking state-local officials. While some may wish to say this is long past and best forgotten, the Indiana Magazine of History instructs otherwise in its lesson plan on the subject:

As a political influence, the Klan faded quickly in Indiana, but its social and cultural influence dovetailed more subtly into Hoosier life. Klan literature capitalized on American racism, nativism, patriotism, and traditional moral and family values. Klan members targeted blacks, Catholics, and Jews, but also immigrants, political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, gamblers, bootleggers, thrill-seeking teenagers, and motion picture producers. In one sense, Indiana’s Klan was a populist organization: it engaged community interests, presented a program of action, and promised political changes.

The Klan’s message of patriotism, American superiority, and Protestant Christianity united native-born Hoosiers across many lines — gender, geography (north and south), class (white and blue collar), religious (many denominations of Protestants), and residential (urban and rural). But this populist club also propagated a negative and wicked influence. Historians have found no documentary evidence to directly link Hoosier Klan members to lynchings in Indiana, but their marches, burned crosses, brazen publications, and boycotts of community businesses evoked fear, intimidation, and lifelong trauma. Historian James Madison has observed that Indiana’s Klan “cannot be dismissed as either an aberration or as simply the insidious appeal of a fanatical few. Nor should the Klan be seen as thoroughly dominating the state and accurately reflecting racist, violent, or provincial beliefs shared for all time by all Hoosiers” (The Indiana Way, 291). Somewhere in the middle we find the meaning of the Klan in Indiana history.

Given this sordid history, with its lingering cultural legacy now making an appearance in the form of a Christian “religious freedom” law, we should justly be suspicious. One way to evaluate a law is to ask if it stands the test of different times. We should thus consider whether Indiana’s new RFRA would have been a good law during the 1920s, when the Protestant KKK was dominant in the state. How might white-Christian Hoosiers have used RFRA back then? Would they have been nice? Would they have used it to discriminate? These are of course just rhetorical questions. Hoosiers should be ashamed.

And just to show that neither the South nor Indiana are alone in their Christian foibles, here in Colorado we find our third event to complete the cluster. Some may have heard about the young woman in Longmont whose 34-week-old fetus was cut from her stomach by a lunatic who wanted a baby of her own. Fortunately the expectant mother survived but unfortunately the developing child did not. One of Colorado’s state legislators, Republican Gordon Klingenschmitt, linked this tragedy to biblical prophecy and claims that the crime was committed because God is punishing America for legal abortion. Klingenshmitt, a former Navy chaplain and current Christian minister, here lays out his logic:

God Bless and/or Curse America, but please only in clusters of threes. This was quite enough for one week.

Did you like this? Share it:

Hunting Primordial Spirits

If we were to sketch a genealogy of scholarship on animist worldviews, A. Irving Hallowell (1892-1974) might justly be listed as a founder. His classic paper on Ojibway ontology and world view (pdf) laid the foundations for the field. Less well known is Hallowell’s mentor, Frank Speck (1881-1950), whose Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (The Civilization of the American Indian Series) (1935) is perhaps the first full-scale monograph that describes animist worldviews. Speck and Hallowell, both of whom spent decades living with aboriginal hunters in Canada, were deeply impressed by these people and their cultures. Though their combined ethnographic work is impressive in terms of descriptive detail, neither was content with mere description: they wanted to penetrate these “primitive” cultures and treat these with the analytical seriousness accorded to “modern” cultures. The overall result was that Speck and Hallowell provided us with a cogent philosophy of aboriginal hunting societies.

From this foundation, scholarship on animist worldviews has burgeoned in several different directions, and Speck-Hallowell can count many intellectual descendants. One of the more famous, or infamous, is former Rutgers historian Calvin Luther Martin, whose book Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (1982) ignited a major debate about pre-contact Native American worldviews. Martin’s primary protagonist in this debate was Shepard Krech, an anthropologist deeply familiar with Native American hunting practices and history. Without putting too fine a point on things, Krech argued that Martin’s views were romantic, idealist, and without foundation in fact. Martin apparently harbored nostalgic longings for a pre-contact past that had never existed, and if it did, we have no evidence for it.

Krech published his larger views on this subject in The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), which is a rather sobering examination of American Indian hunting practices, land use, and “conservation” history. In Chapter Seven, simply titled “Beaver,” Krech presents what I presume to be his argument against Martin’s Keepers of the Game thesis, which was largely built on beaver hunting and the beaver trade. In the midst of this chapter, Krech touches on Frank Speck’s work:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white trap­pers, loggers, and others placed Northern Algonquian lands under increasingly relentless pressure. Like the Hudson Bay Company (“HBC”) earlier in the nine­teenth century, several outsiders demonstrated a heightened interest in helping relieve the pressure. Filling a similar role taken by HBC traders in the 1820s to 1830s was Frank Speck, an anthropologist. In 1908, Speck began three decades of ethnographic observations among the Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi, Ojibwa, and other Algonquian people. From the 1910s through the 1930s, he was the single most influential proponent of the primordial nature of conservation and hunting territories. An anthropologist-activist dedicated as much to helping native people articulate their political causes as to the analysis of culture, Speck helped native people develop strategies to protect themselves from outsiders who wanted their lands.

As Harvey Feit, an anthropologist, revealed, Speck, drawing liberally on a letter by Armand Tessier, an Indian Affairs governmental employee, claimed that Indians pos­sessed “instinctive” understandings of nature and that conservation was a “natural law” among them. In opposition — here was the rele­vant context for his remarks — hypocritical white intruders “often accused” native people “of being improvident as regards the killing of game,” and of being wasteful and thinking only about the present, and sought restrictions on Indian hunting and control over Indian lands.

Chief Aleck Paul of the Temagami Ojibwa confirmed this conservationist sentiment: “So these families would never think of damaging the abundance or the source of supply of the game, because that had come to them from their fathers and grandfathers and those behind them. . . . We would only kill the small beaver and leave the old ones to keep breeding. Then when they got too old they too would be killed, just as a farmer kills his pigs, preserving the stock for his supply of young.” In con­trast, Chief Paul noted, was the white man “who needs to be watched. He makes the forest fires, he goes through the woods and kills everything he can find, whether he needs the flesh or not, and then when all the animals in one section are killed he takes the train and goes to another where he can do the same.”

Except for the ending, the imagery and language were largely Speck’s (and Tessier’s). Chief Paul showed that he could co-opt the language and imagery of private property and conservation to score points against outsiders who threatened. To achieve their goal — control over the exploitation of resources — all three mounted an argument based on primordial possession of private property and conservation principles. The Cree and Montagnais co-opted a similar imagery (pp. 195-97).

Here we have essential historical context for what Speck and Hallowell often presented, in their writings, as ancient or timeless practices. Martin took this a step further and presented these Native American worldviews as “pristine” and inherently conservationist. But as Krech bluntly notes elsewhere in the chapter, we simply have no evidence of a “primordial pre-European time.”

Primoridal

Did you like this? Share it:

Corporate Nation Under God

In a recent poll, 57% of registered Republicans “support establishing Christianity as the national religion” and another 13% are not sure about it. Most such voters believe that the United States was, from its inception, a Christian nation, so formally establishing this “fact” seems a logical next step. But has the United States always been a Christian nation or was this idea manufactured and marketed by the industrial-business class? According to Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, it’s the latter. In a recent NYT article which previews his forthcoming book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse genealogizes this relatively recent idea:

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.

The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal…Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.

In a shrewd decision, these executives made clergymen their spokesmen. As Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew noted, polls proved that ministers could mold public opinion more than any other profession. And so these businessmen worked to recruit clergy through private meetings and public appeals. 

The most important clergyman for Christian libertarianism…was the Rev. Billy Graham. In his initial ministry, in the early 1950s, Mr. Graham supported corporate interests so zealously that a London paper called him “the Big Business evangelist.” The Garden of Eden, he informed revival attendees, was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” In the same spirit, he denounced all “government restrictions” in economic affairs, which he invariably attacked as “socialism.”

With Graham’s fervent support, Americans elected Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide and the national annointing commenced:

The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, Eisenhower was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with [a corporate funded pastor] at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.

The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, “In God We Trust,” on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation’s official motto.

During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God.” They’ve believed it ever since.

Though Kruse does not mention it, the geopolitical context for this christening was the Cold War, which was ideologically framed in the United States as a righteous battle against godless Communism. Like all great and enduring myths, the origins of this one were soon shrouded by the mists of time, or selective forgetting, and the Christian nation story took on a life of its own. Despite the end of the Cold War, the campaign continued and today it appears that ~76 million Americans would like to establish Christianity as the national religion.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with one of these many millions. He had just published a book on George Washington, the purpose of which was to prove that this revered founding father had always conceived the new nation as Christian and that the Jeffersonian separation of church and state was an egregious error. When I asked how he had approached the project, he stated he had hired research assistants to selectively search Washington’s entire corpus of writings for references to “God” and/or “Providence.” He then arranged these cullings in chronological order, without regard for context and with no examination of what Washington understood by “God” or how he conceived of “Providence,” as proof that Washington had originally framed the United States as a Christian nation. Rather than question these research methods, or lack thereof, I decided on a calming glass of wine.

This, however, is the sort of thing that continues to nourish the myth. While I doubt that Kruse’s book will persuade the believers, and am sure it will be savaged by the free-market Christian patriots on Fox, I’m looking forward to its release. Though Kruse’s focus is slightly different, his book may serve as a nice companion piece to Jeremy Carrette’s classic, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (2004).

Washington-USA-Christian

Did you like this? Share it:

Science of Good & Evil

Are the New Atheists “scared” and panicking? Are they “fervently vocal” because they realize that religion is not in retreat and is instead flourishing? I don’t have answers to these questions because I don’t know any New Atheists, don’t read their books, don’t listen to their podcasts, don’t attend their gatherings, and don’t pay them much mind. These don’ts derive from my assessment of New Atheism as a cultural or dialectical response to an historically particular form of western Christian religion. To combat this peculiar form and its Abrahamic relatives, New Atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where New Atheists and their Christian opponents do loud and dirty battle, it offers little to those of us not bound by the sterile binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.

My understanding of this localized (i.e., the US/Britain) and provincial (i.e., Christians/Atheists) phenomenon owes something to John Gray, who for several  years now has been scourging the New Atheists for their foibles and faults. With his latest crack of the whip over at the Guardian, Gray takes aim at Sam Harris and his dubious arguments for “scientific morality.” While Harris claims that morals can be derived from and founded on science, it seems odd that the morals he deduces match perfectly with liberal values. Surely this is no coincidence and Gray is justly skeptical. He notes that “science” (there is no such reified or unified thing) has historically been deployed on behalf of all manner of morals, many of them odious. Harris, a neuroscientist by training and polemicist by penchant, has not finally discovered the elusive philosopher’s stone which transmutes science into morals:

Following many earlier atheist ideologues, Harris wants a “scientific morality”; but whereas earlier exponents of this sort of atheism used science to prop up values everyone would now agree were illiberal, Harris takes for granted that what he calls a “science of good and evil” cannot be other than liberal in content.

Harris’s militancy in asserting these values seems to be largely a reaction to Islamist terrorism. For secular liberals of his generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.

This progressive march of science and secularism, which was never more than a minority movement found mostly in Europe, has been rudely interrupted:

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way. The rise of violent jihadism is only the most obvious example of a rejection of secular life…The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.

These are the facts, Gray asserts, which have thrown New Atheists into a panic and accounts for their quixotic quest to establish a “science of good and evil.” This is a phrase, coined by Harris, which immediately arouses suspicion for anyone well-versed in Nietzsche, whose Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Genealogy of Morals (1887) thoroughly historicized and deconstructed the contingent categories of “good” and “evil.” Alert to these issues, Gray brings them the fore:

How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him…It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure.

Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

While this is not an entirely accurate, and certainly not complete, rendering of Nietzche’s genealogical project, it’s accurate and complete enough for Gray’s well-taken point. Science, sensu lato, has some enlightening things to say about morals, or what I would call talking primate ethics. History, in my estimation, has even more enlightening things to say about the development of morals. But I’m not sure that anything Sam Harris says about the so-called “science of good and evil” is enlightening; indeed, it may be darkening.

Hobbes-Moral-Philosophy

Did you like this? Share it:

Graeme Wood Responds

Following on from Cris’ recent posts about ISIS and its coverage in the media, a new interview of Graeme Wood addressing his recent Atlantic article has just been posted by New Atheist Sam Harris. I often have a polarised response to Sam Harris because on the one hand, I agree with him that people are often reluctant to criticise any aspect of religion under the guise of tolerance/relativism, however, he also frequently makes grand reductionist pronouncements about religion or religious traditions and seems to have little use for the extensive existing research literature on religion and extremism. True to form in this interview, Harris provides much to agree with and yet also presents some head-slapping moments. Graeme Wood however comes across well, he provides interesting details about how he constructed the story and further nuances his position. I also agree with his assessment that many of his critics are simply misreading his piece based on their rather inflexible agendas:

Wood: Many enemies of Islam … have wanted to read the story as claiming that Islam is responsible for terror, or that ISIS is Islam. In fact it denies these claims explicitly and has a long section about literalist Muslim objections to ISIS. Many Muslims have, ironically, read the piece in exactly the same way, assuming it blames Islam for ISIS. That misreading, I think, is because it’s easier to argue against the anti-Islam point of view than to reckon with the possibility that Islam contains multitudes, like other religions, and that some of them are very, very nasty indeed, even though they share the same texts as the not-nasty ones… Finally, some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think—that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.

The only comment that gave me pause was the final ‘they are simply evil’, which is an understandable reaction but also something of an unproductive sweeping assessment. Sam Harris calls him on this point later however and argues for a more nuanced position:

Harris: Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” you stated at the beginning of this conversation. Calling them “evil” can be as misleading calling them “crazy.” …

I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people—fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth—who simply believe what they say they believe. (emphasis added)

I fully agree with Harris’ point here and it made me think about the recent fascination, evident even with liberal news sites like the BBC site and the Guardian, with various mundane details of the previous life of ISIS’ British executioner ‘Jihadi John’. While, his unmasking generated understandable interest, I was taken aback with the fact that the BBC and Guardian’s top stories for the past few days have been recounting his previous jobs in IT and comments from previous teachers, as if they represent some shocking revelation. The fact that he was a normal person, who had lived a fairly unremarkable life, seems to be baffling the media but that actually seems entirely predictable. Extremists can be life long fanatical devotees, raised in families of extremists or recruited after suffering some great injustice, but often they are not- especially when they come from the West, in such cases they are usually just ordinary teenagers or young 20 somethings that fall into extremism for fairly mundane reasons, be it political dissatisfaction or even just existential ennui. Harris’ makes this point clearly and I think it is noteworthy that this suggests a more realistic appreciation of Islamic extremists than many of his critics claim.

Wood defends his point by noting that ISIS fighters commit acts of barbaric savagery and openly promote things like the return of slavery and the execution of homosexuals as ‘good’ and thus calling them ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’ is not entirely unwarranted. Most people would agree with this, but I still think Harris’ point stands that to do so can be counterproductive.

Harris’ hawkishness does come out several times during the interview however and at one point he seems unable to understand how meeting ISIS in some glorious clash of civilizations battle could be a bad strategy:

Harris: It seems that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to engage us there, especially if we told them that we intended to build a gay-porn palace on the site, or some other sacrilege. It seems that these guys are telling us with every breath how to wage psychological warfare against them.

So why not act on this information? It seems to me that the psychological and propaganda value of our resulting victory is not something to wave away lightly. Imagine the effect this would have on true believers everywhere: They’ve created a new caliphate, and the new caliph is just swell. All the prophecies are coming to fruition, so an army of the purest jihadis to exist in a thousand years rides into this final battle and gets smashed by infidels. And God just sits on his hands…

Graeme Wood is eventually able to counter Harris’ enthusiasm by highlighting that such actions would lend ISIS and other Islamic extremists a propaganda victory that would ultimately prove harmful:

Wood: The decision not to attack them that way is a natural outgrowth of acknowledging that they mean what they say. If they really think there is a war brewing between Muslims and the West, then you don’t convince them otherwise by telling them to bring it on.

But even then, Harris seems to fail to appreciate how utterly self defeating it would be to hand ISIS a clear demonstration of one of its central propaganda premises, namely “that Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong”.

Harris: It strikes me as such a strange fear to be obliged to consider. And to have it be the primary concern that closes down specific military options just seems uncanny.

I also enjoyed Wood’s counter of Harris’ simplistic dismissal of all of the existing academic research into extremism. He does then go on to criticise the peculiar ‘dogma’ of certain researchers who dismiss the relevance of ideology or beliefs out of hand but it is clear he does not attribute this perspective to all researchers:

Harris: … when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.

Wood: Yes. However, the countervailing current in social science is the tradition in ethnography and anthropology of taking seriously what people say. And this can lead to the exact opposite of the materialist, “root causes” approach. When Evans-Pritchard, for example, talks about witchcraft among the Azande, he’s describing exactly what they say and showing that it’s an internally consistent view of the world. This is something that anthropology has done quite well in the past, and it gives us a model for how we can listen to jihadis and understand them without immediately assuming that they are incapable of self-knowledge.

What I’m arguing for in the piece is not to discard either type of explanation but to remember the latter one and take the words of these ISIS people seriously (emphasis added).

In short, this is a very nice follow up to The Atlantic piece, which is simultaneously enlightening and at times very frustrating to read. Graeme Wood comes across as a very reasonable and responsible journalist, whose main argument is that we need to pay attention to what extremists say and not dismiss the influence of their beliefs because of the somewhat removed role of religion in Western democracies. He does not posit ideology as being the single factor responsible for extremism but rather a factor that is all too frequently overlooked. Harris on the other hand comes across sincerely, and at times well informed, but also as reactionary and dismissive of opinions that differ from his own. However, I am glad a voice like Harris’ is out there as liberals do need people like him to serve as a counterweight to the vocal US-centric narratives of liberal critics like Chomsky and Greenwald.

— Chris K.

 

Did you like this? Share it:

All About Islamism

The web is currently on fire with some great writing, and serious thinking, about “Islam” and Islamism. In this post, I covered some notable aspects of Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS. As good as that article is, and I think it superb, there has been some pushback, including this response in the Atlantic by Caner Dagli. Although Dagli is a professor of religious studies, his interest – or perspective – is not purely academic: he approaches these issues from inside the tradition. As a Muslim, he takes issue with the outsider idea or claim that ISIS is “Islamic.” As an insider, he argues that ISIS is in fact “un-Islamic” and disputing this puts (the vast majority) of non-militant Muslims in an impossible position: How can they denounce ISIS if they can’t rely on the texts and tradition to argue that ISIS-Islam is inauthentic, wrong, or as Dagli puts it, “phony”?

As an outsider, I can empathize with Dagli’s position and certainly want him, and other Muslims, to continue arguing that ISIS-Islam is “un-Islamic” and wrong. But as an outsider, I also recognize that these kinds of arguments may make pragmatic sense from inside a tradition but are analytically suspect from outside the tradition. This may explain the relative incoherence of Dagli’s response: it rings weak to my outsider ears. As an insider and an academic, Dagli is in a double-bind. While I don’t find his argument persuasive, I certainly hope that Muslims do. There is no way that outsiders can adjudicate issues of authority or authenticity within “Islam.” Lacking such standards, it behooves us to take Islamists, and their beliefs, seriously.

This, in fact, is what Michael Walzer argues in this dense piece over at Dissent. He chides his political fellow travelers on the secular left – liberals, journalists, and academics – for failing to recognize that religion itself can provide powerful, and perhaps even primary, motive force for human action. As I observed in my post on Wood’s ISIS article, this may sound strange to those who take their religion or religious beliefs seriously, but academics have a long history of explaining (or explaining away) religious beliefs-actions as the product of something else. Walzer argues, rightly in my estimation, that this is a mistake:

In the three and a half decades since the Iranian revolution, I have been watching my friends and neighbors (and distant neighbors) on the left struggling to understand—or avoid understanding—the revival of religion in what is now called a “post-secular” age. Long ago, we looked forward to “the disenchantment of the world”—we believed that the triumph of science and secularism was a necessary feature of modernity. And so we forgot, as Nick Cohen has written, “what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny.”

Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf.

So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist “the possibility of tyranny?” Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called “Islamophobic.” Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.

The root cause of religious zealotry is not religion, many leftist writers insist, but Western imperialism and the oppression and poverty it has bred. So, for example, David Swanson, first on the War Is A Crime website and then on the Tikkun website (with a nervous but only partial disclaimer from the editor), asks “What to do about ISIS?” and answers: “Start by recognizing where ISIS came from. The U.S. and its junior partners destroyed Iraq . . .” That’s right; there would be no ISIS in Iraq without the U.S. invasion of 2003, although if Saddam had been overthrown from within, the same religious wars might well have started. For ISIS doesn’t “come from” the U.S. invasion; it is a product of the worldwide religious revival, and there are many other examples of revivalist militancy. Swanson might offer a similar explanation for all of them, but the explanation loses plausibility as the instances multiply.

The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion (emphasis added). Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests.

But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).

[W]e have to acknowledge that the academic theory (which was also a left theory) that predicted the inevitable triumph of science and secularism isn’t right—at least, its time horizon isn’t right. Leftists have to figure out how to defend the secular state in this “post-secular” age and how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy. The appeal of religious doctrine and practice is obvious today, and we need to understand it if we are to persuade people that religious zealotry is frighteningly unappealing.

Because I’m an academic of sorts, I have considerable interest in all the non-religious theories (e.g., economy, politics, power, imperialism, colonialism, symbolism, etc.) that may explain religious beliefs and behaviors. But because I was raised in an American evangelical environment, in which wildly diverse people from all walks and stations of life take their spooky religious beliefs seriously and act accordingly, I have never discounted – or explained away – those ideas and actions on the basis of something else. While non-religious theories may partially explain why some people take their beliefs so seriously and are moved to act on those beliefs, these explanations are rarely and perhaps never sufficient.

While searching for an explanation which brings us closer to a necessary condition, we should acknowledge there is a psychology at work which predisposes some people, at all times and in all places, toward religious beliefs and consequent actions. We should take them seriously when they tell us they are doing something for religious reasons. Sometimes religious actions are just what they appear to be and what believers say they are. This is the methodological lesson that Robin Horton so forcefully made about the anthropology-sociology of religion, and I reckon he is right.

There are of course those, primarily academics, who disagree with this view in general and Walzer in particular. In this response, Yale professor Andrew March takes Walzer to task with alternative theories of Islamism and in this Berfrois article, Justin E.H. Smith (whose work I greatly admire) states his disagreement. While I do not disagree with either March or Smith, their arguments are not exclusionary or alternative: they are complementary to Walzer’s point, as I think he makes evident in this reply.

– Cris

Radical-Islam-Pig

Did you like this? Share it:

Slavish Conscience

Over at the London Review of Books, Adam Phillips criticizes self-criticism in an essay that includes this brilliant bit:

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves. But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating…and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative. It is the stuck record of the past…and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

Phillips is right: there is something seriously wrong with the homunculi in our heads. With Freud as his theory-master and Hamlet as ego-actor, Phillips engages with conscience, that most intractable and culturally inflected aspect of ourselves. Though Michel Foucault merits no mention in his essay, Phillips is also talking about discipline: that resolve, sometimes steely but always nagging, which seemingly arises from within but which is implanted from without. In near modernity, or in Abrahamic times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of God, whose state-serving accoutrements present as morals. In modernity, or in consumer-capitalist times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of the Market, whose state-serving accoutrements present as desires. These are the shaming and punishing voices of masters, in which case we are slaves.

— Cris

self-criticism-2-300x236

Did you like this? Share it: