From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.

Kareem

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Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.

donnie_darko-frank

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

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