Thursday, December 24, 2009

Science, Charity, and Scientific Charity

Paul Adams

Michael Novak makes the point, in his excellent new book, No-One Sees God, that atheists have a harder time empathizing with religious believers than vice versa. That is a serious handicap when you want, as Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens have done, to write books about God and religion without any attempt to understand the inner lives of serious believers.

Many people, and not only these evangelical atheist authors, react with intense hostility toward the Catholic Church in particular. They just want to fling some accusations at one, but do not actually want to hear a response, assuming perhaps there is none or that no-one ever thought of that before. As Dr. Johnson said of the 18th century atheist philosopher David Hume, "Every thing which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote. . . . Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull' (July 21, 1763).

You see this in the evangelical popular atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, who pour scorn and ridicule on religion in general and Christianity in particular, without taking the trouble to inform themselves at even a rudimentary level on theology or history or philosophy. Other famous anti-Christians, from Celsus to Nietzsche, at least knew what they were attacking.

On many apparently unrelated issues, such as global warming or health insurance, people tend to cluster in their opinions according to whether they consider themselves liberal or conservative. But the liberal-conservative divide is hard to disentangle since both terms cover very different ideologies that overlap. So one tendency in conservativism is the Burkean perspective which values tradition and the wisdom and resources embedded in it. (Tradition is the democracy of the dead, I think Chesterton said.) Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, is my favorite writer in this vein--I loved his autobiographical England: An Elegy and Gentle Regrets, even the bits I disagreed with.

On liturgy, I also loved German novelist Martin Mosebach on The Heresy of Formlessness, which shows the importance of liturgy as it develops organically over centuries. He argues that the post-Vatican II iconoclasm and attempt to be "relevant" has been a tremendous loss that emptied the pews in Europe especially. He extends the argument to much modernist art and architecture too. I especially like his comment on "senile avantgardism."

It's significant, isn’t it, that "liberal religion" within mainline Protestantism and the "liberal" tendencies within Catholicism are dying on the vine. When people from nominally Catholic countries (Mexico, South America) convert to Protestantism, it is to forms like Pentecostalism because they see them as more demanding, not less, more counter-cultural, not more accommodating to secularism. Within the Catholic Church, it is the more "traditional" and orthodox seminaries, dioceses, religious orders, and movements that are thriving and attracting the young.

Making the question more paradoxical is the fact that the defenders of tradition in indigenous or traditional societies--ones that are hierarchical, intolerant of dissent, conformist, anti-democratic and characterized by gerontocratic polygyny--are often political liberals and post-modernists who oppose all those features to the extent they survive in their own culture. In contrast, Christianity played a revolutionary role in the development of science, democracy, civil and human rights, separation of religion/church and state, ending of slavery, the liberation of women, and insistence on that core social work value, the equal and intrinsic dignity and worth of the individual person (slave or free, male or female, able-bodied or disabled, from conception to natural death). All of these in themselves undermine traditional cultures. (See David Bentley Hart's wonderful book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies as well as the work of Rodney Stark--The Victory of Reason, The Rise of Christianity, etc.)

So who is liberal, who conservative? Another tendency in "conservatism" comes from classical liberalism and is thus very different. It supports the free market and the sweeping away of tradition that it brought and brings about. The Economist magazine represents this tendency--pro-market, against protectionism and statism in most of its forms, but pro-same-sex marriage and decriminalization of drugs, etc. Like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. In its strongest form, it becomes libertarianism, the hypertrophy of individual autonomy against the demands of culture, family, and community and thus the opposite of Burkean conservatism.

In a milder form, neo-conservatism ("liberals who were mugged by reality" as they say) takes this sort of view. Within Catholicism, George Weigel, Michael Novak and others take this position--orthodox on everything except the Church's social teaching, with its preference or option for the poor. The Church, of course, is the major provider of social services and direct aid to the poor in the world. Novak and Weigel would agree and support this work and point to the much higher level of charitable giving in time, talent, and treasure, of the orthodox-religious. But the Church hierarchy--traditionally Democrats--also favors things like national health insurance (except insofar as it involves taxpayer subsidies for plans that provide abortions) and other governmental protections of the poor.

I just finished the book Michael Novak wrote with his daughter, Jana, then in her early twenties, called Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God. It discusses all the questions people raise against religion in general and Catholic Christianity in particular, but in a civil and respectful way. (It would not be helpful for those of my family and acquaintance who are so hostile as to be unwilling even to hear counter-arguments or responses.) Now I'm reading Novak's more recent book, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. It is very interesting and also very empathetic and respectful of atheism. He especially likes Albert Camus, but also is remarkably patient and civil in the face of today's polemical atheists, some of whom are personal friends.

There is a view or assumption that the most “liberal” in religion, those who most accommodate to or approximate secular-liberal thinking are also the most rational or committed to reason. But I would argue that that distinction belongs to the Catholic Church, for which Reason (Logos) along with Love (Caritas) are central to their understanding of God. It was that commitment to reason and hence the intelligibility of everything in a reasonable God's Creation that made possible the rise of science (as even atheists like Alfred North Whitehead recognized, unlike today's public atheists). It also explains why most of the world's great scientists, theologians, and philosophers have been Catholic or at least--after the Reformation--Christians. As Juergen Habermas, the distinguished leftist, atheist German philosopher who had an interesting dialog with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put it, 'Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.'

In contrast to Protestantism, at least to those tendencies within it that see reason as depraved since the Fall and hence unreliable, Catholicism always emphasized the centrality of reason in defining and developing doctrine, and the complementarity and necessity to each other of both faith and reason. Every phrase and aspect of this most complex of religions has been subjected to intense scrutiny and theological discussion. (Not to discount Catholicism's mystical and contemplative traditions, but these developed within the rational structure of Catholic doctrine, not as substitutes for it.)

I think there is an interesting parallel between the professionalization of science and of social work. Both were important activities of the clergy in particular--the amateur parson-scientist was a stock figure of 19th century literature--and charity remained and remains at the heart of Christian "ministry." But as these fields professionalized, they distanced themselves from their clerical roots. Social work emerged as a profession out of the Charity Organization Societies, an effort to adopt "scientific charity" in place of the earlier disorganized efforts of amateurs. Scientists became professionals and also distanced themselves from amateurs and their association with the Church. The narrative of a fundamental opposition between science and religion, so dear to today's public atheists, was an invention of the 19th century--of two books in particular, Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1876). (For a modern analytic philosopher's assessment, see Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.) This was the very same time as the COS's were getting under way in the eastern U.S. Not cause and effect of course, but two expressions of the professionalizing tendencies of the time and place (White was the first president of Cornell).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Suicide and the Problem of Stigma

A recent op-ed in the NY Times discusses the difficult issue of stigma in relation to the White House policy of not sending presidential condolences to families of armed forces members who commit suicide as is done for those who die of other causes. See:

It is a familiar problem in social policy generally, although little discussed these days. The assumption is that stigma is bad and destigmatization good. The difficulty is that stigma has always served as a form of social control to discourage behavior that is socially disapproved. It works, though at great cost to stigmatized individuals. When behavior is destigmatized or--in the case of suicide, even "glorified" as the author puts it--there is more of it. Consider, for example, divorce (and the demonstrable impact of "no fault" divorce which ended marriage as a binding contract) or single parenthood, or suicide. Suicide prevention advocates, in my experience, assume that destigmatization helps. But then how to deal with the awkward fact that when you destigmatize a behavior, you get more of it?

When people want to minimize a behavior of which they disapprove, they seek to stigmatize, and often to criminalize it. Consider drunk driving and MADD, or sexual harassment in the workplace. So it is a mistake to see the issue in terms of conservatives' favoring stigma and liberals opposing it. Both favor the use of the areas where they want to change personal behavior through public policy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Charitable Endeavor | First Things

From the latest issue of First Things, Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, on the threat to religious liberty and the Church's charitable mission posed by the new belligerent secularism.

A Charitable Endeavor | First Things

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dignity and Worth of the Person, Pt. 2

Paul Adams

Gilbert Meilaender has an insightful little book on human and personal dignity (Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. New York: New Atlantis/Encounter Books, 2009). He argues that we need to distinguish two radically different senses of dignity. One is "human dignity," which refers to the dignity we share as members of a species that has the potential for various kinds of excellence or human flourishing. In achievement of this potential, we vary and are in this sense unequal. We flourish to different degrees as human beings depending on health, disabilities, aptitudes, circumstances, effort, and so forth.

But there is a second sense of dignity, that of the human person, which affirms our radical equality as unique individuals. This personal dignity recognizes that all human beings are of equal value and no individual or group is less worthy or deserving of being treated with dignity--whether sick or well, disabled or physically or mentally able, janitor or scientist, peasant or president, close to birth or death, and so forth. It is the intrinsic dignity of all human persons that informs the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948--in part a recoil from the opposite view and its consequences under Nazism and the eugenics movement for whom some lives are more worth living than others.

Jacques Maritain, according to the author, was astonished that people of radically different ideologies and cultures could nevertheless agree on a list of such rights. "Yes," they said, "we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why." In social work there is also agreement on the "dignity and worth of the human person" as a core social work value. The value is implicit in social work's commitment to those who are valued less highly according to the first definition of human dignity--the poor, oppressed, vulnerable, disabled, frail, those who are less able to flourish as individuals or in society.

But why do we hold this view of intrinsic human worth and dignity inherent in every person regardless of their state of life and health, achievement and social status? Meilaender suggests that this view derives from and is probably incoherent without the Jewish and Christian understanding of human beings as equally distant from (or close to) God. Inherent in this view too is a rejection of the dualism that sees humans as selves or gods that happen to inhabit bodies or as beasts who are reducible to their physical dimension. We are neither beast nor god.

In this way, the book challenges us to think more deeply and respectfully of our Jewish and Christian heritage, so easily dismissed by those in the academy who think they have risen above it. It reminds us--although this is not its explicit point--of the horrors wrought in the last century by atheist and anti-Jewish, anti-Christian regimes that rejected the notion of the intrinsic dignity of the person.

It is important to realize that Meilaender's (along with the UN Declaration's and Pope John Paul II's) understanding of the person and the equal intrinsic personal dignity of all is just the opposite of the view that speaks of personhood as something some have and others do not. The point of that view, of course, is to deprive some human beings of the dignity of persons. "It is used to deny rather than affirm our fundamental equality." It is that view, which Meilaender contests, that opens the door to euthanasia, assisted suicide, eugenics, racial genocide, and abortion, all of which treat some individuals and lives as of lower value and dignity than others.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ethics with Character

My article on virtue ethics and their application to professional (and particularly social work) ethics is in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare:

Ethics with Character: Virtues and the Ethical Social Worker.
Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare; Sep2009, Vol. 36 Issue 3, p83-105, 23p

Here is the abstract:

This article explores the relevance to social work of those aspects of applied ethics that are not primarily about identifying and resolving dilemmas. It examines the potential of the ethical tradition rooted in the virtues and character of the practitioner—from Aristotle and Hippocrates to contemporary virtue-based ethics in medicine—to guide and enrich our understanding of the social work profession and the dispositions or qualities of character its practice requires and develops.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jolies fesses: Another take on misogyny and multiculturalism

From Telegraph Expat, a young English reporter's account of the warm welcome she is receiving in Paris. The comments following the article are revealing in all sorts of ways too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Misogyny as multiculturalism

Misogyny as multiculturalism

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In Defense of Anne Rice

An excellent discussion of the "new" Anne Rice is to be found at the excellent First Things magazine.

FT review of Anne Rice's Angel Time

See the review of Anne Rice's latest book at

So much better than the NYT's mean-spirited review by Christopher Buckley--agnostic son of a famous Catholic father who is still hostile to the Church and whose guide in such matters is the theologically illiterate Christopher Hitchens. Sad, but so typical of the NY Times. (The relevance of all that is in this review's hilarious first paragraph.)

Taking Atheism Seriously

Alister McGrath (2006). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.

McGrath's is not a polemic against atheism, but an account of it as a cultural phenomenon that arose and declined in a specific historical period and context. That historically concrete (as Marxists say) perspective naturally irritates atheists who want to treat atheism as the default position independent of time and place. Many atheist writers have assumed that atheism is the truth and have sought to explain Christianity or religion in general, not seeing their own disbelief as a cultural-historical phenomenon in need of explanation. (Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, for example, do not trouble themselves with the truth claims of Christianity but assume its falsity as their starting point.)

Hence the claim that atheism does not need explaining because it is simply an absence of belief (not believing). But it is really a positive "belief that something is not the case." Since 1) this disbelief has a distinct history of rise and decline; and 2) it is, unlike Christianity or theism, a rare and until the 19th century an eccentric belief, it is a perfectly proper subject for the kind of study McGrath conducts. It is true that in the late 20th century, half the world's population lived under officially atheist regimes, but this temporary political success and its consequences in themselves are part of the explanation of atheism's subsequent decline.

One reviewer gives the impression that the dictionary definition of atheism is absence of belief in God or gods. I did not do an exhaustive search, but the Merriam-Webster online definition I found corresponds to McGrath's use and everyone else's until very recently: a)a disbelief in the existence of deity; b) the doctrine that there is no deity. McGrath well describes the attempt by some recent atheists to expand the definition to include those who have no particular opinion, those who are searching and questioning but undecided, and those (agnostics) who consider the answer unknowable. It is an indication of atheists' demoralization in face of the failure of the old secularization thesis, the loss of atheism's appeal, and the resurgence of religious (especially Christian) belief throughout the world and the confident militancy of Islam, that they go to such lengths to puff up their numbers.

The importance of the book is the way McGrath takes atheism seriously as a social, cultural, and historical phenomenon in its own right. It deserves examination in sociological, historical, and cultural terms no less than the religions to which it responds. It played an important historical role in the critique of established religion and the oppressive role it played, for example, in 18th century France. In this context or that of 19th century Russia, atheism could reasonably be seen as a liberating force and much was made of the blood shed in the name of religion through the centuries. This argument lost much of its force in the 20th century given the record of anti-Christian forces like Nazism (which adopted much of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity and Christian morality as a vapid and servile restraint on the amoral Superman) and the officially atheist and even bloodier regimes of Stalin and Mao. These regimes, unrestrained by Christian morality or the universal proscription on intentionally killing the innocent, shed massively more innocent blood than all previous religions and religious states combined. Atheism was no longer the liberator but the oppressor. As McGrath points out, atheism has at least as much to answer for as any major religion, yet it has not begun to do its own soul-searching (if that's the word!).

McGrath arguably spends too much time on "organized atheism" in the form of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her organizations and the English National Secular Society. But the account of these relentlessly dreary and unappealing outfits serves a purpose as well as being amusing. It shows how atheists can be just as corrupt, prejudiced (O'Hair was fiercely homophobic, as Hitler and Stalin were anti-semitic), and nasty as religious organizations But one could argue that atheism is by its nature a diffuse, unorganized and unorganizable cultural current, and most atheists have always been embarrassed by such operations. Of course, to that extent the failure of atheism to meet the human need for community (a central strength of religion) is all the more a challenge for its adherents.

To me, the most interesting part of the book is the discussion of Protestantism as a precursor of atheism. Protestantism (to which McGrath himself adheres) "disenchanted" nature (the earth no longer being "charged with the grandeur of God," divorced sacred from secular/profane, the religious from everyday experience, the verbal (preaching and Scripture) from the sacraments and sacramentals that gave physical expression to the divine and united heaven and earth, most fully in the Eucharist. It denounced artistic depiction of God, stripped the altars, destroyed statues, and laid waste to the cultural treasures of Christendom. The churches became bleak and grim, and God absent, distant, and disagreeable. As McGrath says, " is a small step from declaring that God cannot be pictured to suggesting that he cannot be conceived as a living reality in the rich imaginative life of humanity" (p.212). It is no accident that it is in a very different form, Pentecostalism, that Protestant Christianity is thriving today among the poor and oppressed of the world.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

dignity and worth of the person

Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person

Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.

This from the NASW Code of Ethics. There is much to say about this core value, especially in relation to eugenics, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, racism, sexism, breeding sibling embryos for medical treatment, gendercide, abortion, cloning, rationing of medical treatment on the basis of age, disability, ascribed "quality of life," and other aspects of bioethics.

But here I want to consider the source of this principle, adopted as a universal standard for mankind in the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). A staff working paper of the outstanding (and recently dismissed) President's Council on Bioethics, called Bioethics and Human Dignity and written by Adam Schulman , has a useful discussion of four sources of the principle--in classical antiquity, biblical religion, Kant, and 20th century constitutions and international declarations. All but the first of the these--the pagan version that has a concept of human dignity but does not accept the intrinsic and equal dignity and worth of all humans--find their origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, just because of its universalism, in Christianity.

As David Bentley Hart argues (see earlier posts), the Christian Revolution transformed the cultures that absorbed it in this as in other respects. (See his fascinating discussion of Peter's tears as a simple but profound expression of this new universal-democratic principle, as well as opposition to infanticide, abortion, gladiator contests, and other practices that violated the principle.)

The 2007 debate between Dinesh D'Souza and Christopher Hitchens brought out how the transformation of cultures throughout the world by Christianity represented a great gift (and not just or only an alien imposition) as it established the equal and intrinsic dignity and worth of all as a recognized, if not always practiced universal principle. One of the most interesting questions in the debate was posed to Hitchens by a man from Tonga. Before the Christians came to Tonga, he said, the place was a mess. Even cannibalism was widespread. The Christians stopped this practice and brought to Tonga the notion that each person has a soul and God loves everyone equally. The man from Tonga asked Hitchens, "So what do you have to offer us?" Hitchens was taken aback, and responded with a learned disquisition on cannibalism in various cultures. But he clearly missed the intellectual and moral force of the man's question. The man was asking why the Tongans, who had gained so much from Christianity, should reject it in favor of atheism. See this segment of the debate on youtube at

Nietzsche, who saw Christianity as having lost its credibility and moral force in modern Europe--God was dead, he said--scorned those like the English novelist George Eliot who wanted to salvage Christian morality in the absence of Christian faith. His own vision was much bleaker, one consistent with the actual course of events in the 20th century with its murderous anti-Christian regimes of Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. that explicitly rejected the moral constraints of a Christian God.

Phillip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, has argued against the alarmist view of Europe as abandoning its culture and the faith at its heart in face of secularist and Islamic pressures. (See his God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis.) In the course of his argument, he noted that "J├╝rgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher, stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, 'Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter'[emphasis added]." Interestingly, Habermas, that old radical European intellectual, shares with that old European Catholic intellectual now known as Pope Benedict XVI, this deep understanding and concern about what is at stake for the future of Europe. (See their dialogue on The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, published in 2007 by Ignatius Press.)

explaining atheism 2: Dinesh D'Souza

November 6, 2007 by Dinesh D'Souza

When the Catholic missionaries came to my native India, they sometimes converted people by force. Even so, many Indians rushed on their own to embrace the faith of the foreigners. And why? Because they were born into the low caste of the Hindus. As long as they remained Hindus, there was no escape; even their descendants were condemned to the lowest rungs of humanity. By fleeing into the arms of the missionaries, the low-caste Hindus found themselves welcomed as Christian brothers. They discovered the ideal of equal dignity in the eyes of God.

To listen to prominent atheists, you get the idea that their sole cause for rejecting God is that He does not meet the requirements of reason. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he discovered, after death, that there is an afterlife. Russell pompously said he would tell God, “Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.” Yet unbelief, especially when it comes in the belligerent tone of a Russell, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, is not merely a function of following the evidence where it leads. Rather, unbelief of this sort requires a fuller psychological explanation.

Let’s remember that atheists frequently attempt to give psychological reasons for the religious commitment of believers. In his commentary on the works of Hegel, Karl Marx famously said that religion is the “opium of the people,” meaning that religion is a kind of escapism or wish fulfillment. Along the same lines, Sigmund Freud saw religion as providing a cowardly refuge from the harsh realities of life and the inevitability of death.

I’m not convinced by any of these explanations. The God of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—is a pretty exacting fellow. Wish fulfillment would most likely give rise to a very different God than the one described in the Bible. Wish fulfillment can explain heaven, but it cannot explain hell. Even so, my purpose here is not to dispute the atheist explanation for the appeal of religion. I intend to turn things around and instead pose the issue of the appeal of atheism. Who benefits from it? Why do so many influential people in the West today find it attractive? If Christianity is so great, why aren’t more people rushing to embrace it?

Some atheists even acknowledge that they would prefer a universe in which there were no God, no immortal soul, and no afterlife. In God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger confesses that not only does he disbelieve in God, he doesn’t like the Christian God: “If he does exist, I personally want nothing to do with him.” And philosopher Thomas Nagel recently confessed, “I want atheism to be true….It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God….I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

The aversion to religion and the embrace of atheism becomes especially baffling when you consider that, on the face of it, atheism is a dismal ideology. Many atheists like End of Faith author Sam Harris and The God Delusion author Richard Dawkins seem serene and almost gleeful about living in a world whose defining feature seems to be nature red in tooth and claw. This is an odd reaction, because as a number of evolutionary biologists like George Williams have admitted, Darwinism would seem to be a repulsive doctrine. Williams expresses open disgust at the ethical implications of a system that assigns no higher purpose to life than selfish bargains and conspiracies to propagate one’s genes into future generations. According to Williams, a moral person can respond to this only with condemnation! Yet Dawkins and others embrace Darwinism with genuine enthusiasm. Why are they drawn to such a philosophy and where, in its grim hallways, do they find room for such evident good cheer?

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould provides a clue. Pondering the meaning of life, Gould concludes that “we may yearn for a higher answer—but none exists.” Then he says something very revealing. “This explanation, though superficially troubling if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating.” In other words, the bad news is good news. Doctrines that might ordinarily seem to be horrifying—death is the end, there is no cosmic purpose or divine justice, free will is an illusion—can from another vantage point be viewed as an emancipation.

Emancipation from what? We have to probe deeper, and one way to do it is to go back in history, all the way back to the ancient philosophers Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Epicurus is mainly known today as a hedonist, and he was. But like Lucretius and Democritus, he was also a materialist. All three of these pre-Socratic thinkers believed that material reality is all there is. Lucretius and Democritus even suggested that man is made up wholly of atoms, an uncanny foreshadowing of modern physics. At the time that the pre-Socratics wrote, however, there was no scientific evidence to back up any of their mechanistic claims about the natural world. Why then were they so attracted to teachings that were completely without empirical basis?

Epicurus confesses that his goal is to get rid of the gods. He also wants to eliminate the idea of immortal souls and to “remove the longing for immortality.” Lucretius too writes of the heavy yoke of religion, imposing on man such burdens as that of duty and responsibility. The problem with gods, Epicurus says, is that they seek to enforce their rules and thereby create “anxiety” in human beings. They threaten to punish us for our misdeeds, both in this life and in the next. The problem with immortality, according to Epicurus, is that there may be suffering in the afterlife. By positing a purely material reality, he hopes to free man from such worries and allow him to focus on the pleasures of this life.

Not that Epicurus was a hedonist in our modern sense. He counseled that people control their sexual impulses and subsist on barley cakes and water. He was less concerned with wild pleasure than with minimizing suffering, what he termed “freedom from disturbance.” Even death, he said, is a kind of relief, because our atoms dissipate and there is no soul to experience the lack of life or to endure the consequences of a life to come. In sum, Epicurus advocated a philosophy and a cosmology that was purely naturalistic in order to liberate man from the tyranny of the gods. And so did Lucretius, who sought through his philosophy to “unloose the soul from the tight knot of religion.” For these men, their physics was the ground of their ethics. As Ben Wiker puts it, “A materialist cosmos must necessarily yield a materialistic morality.”

Here is a clue to the moral attractiveness of Darwinism. Darwin himself wrote that “he who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” He was implying that a better understanding of our animal nature might radically change the way we view morality. So the appeal of Darwinism for many is that it eliminates the concept of a “higher” human nature and places man on a continuum with the animals. The distinctive feature of animals, of course, is that they have no developed sense of morality. A gorilla cannot be expected to distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Consequently Darwinism becomes a way to break free of the confines of traditional morality. We can set aside the old restraints and simply act in the way that comes naturally.

From Darwin’s own day, many people were drawn to his ideas not merely because they were well supported but also because they could be interpreted to undermine the traditional understanding of God. As biologist Julian Huxley, the grandson of Darwin’s friend and ally Thomas Henry Huxley, put it, “The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a supernatural being is enormous.”

And from Julian’s brother Aldous Huxley, also a noted atheist, we have this revealing admission: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was…liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”

As the statements of the two Huxleys suggest, the reason many atheists are drawn to deny God, and especially the Christian God, is to avoid having to answer in the next life for their lack of moral restraint in this one. The Huxleys know that Christianity places human action under the shadow of divine scrutiny and accountability. Christianity is a religion of love and forgiveness, but this love and forgiveness are temporal and, in a sense, conditional. Christian forgiveness stops at the gates of hell, and hell is an essential part of the Christian scheme. The point here is not that atheists do more evil than others, but rather that atheism provides a hiding place for those who do not want to acknowledge and repent of their sins.

In a powerful essay, “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism,” Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz argues that in order to escape from an eternal fate in which our sins are punished, man seeks to free himself from religion. “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.” So the Marxist doctrine needs to be revised. It is not religion that is the opiate of the people, but atheism that is the opiate of the morally corrupt.

If you want to live a degenerate life, God is your mortal enemy. He represents a lethal danger to your selfishness, greed, lechery and hatred. It is in your interest to despise Him and do whatever you can to rid the universe of His presence. So there are powerful attractions to life in a God-free world. In such a world we can all model our lives on one of the junior devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Belial, who was “to vice industrious, but to nobler deeds timorous and slothful.” If God does not exist, the seven deadly sins are not terrors to be overcome but temptations to be enjoyed. Death, previously the justification for morality, now becomes a justification for immorality.

The philosopher who best understood this “liberation” was Nietzsche. Contrary to modern atheists who assure us that the death of God need not mean an end to morality, Nietzsche insisted that it did. As God is the source of the moral law, His death means that the ground has been swept out from under us. We have become, in a sense, ethically groundless, and there is no more refuge to be taken in appeals to dignity and equality and compassion and all the rest. What confronts us, if we are honest, is the abyss.

Yet unlike Matthew Arnold, who saw the faith of the age retreating like an ocean current and was terrified by it, Nietzsche in a sense welcomes the abyss. He is, as he puts it, an “immoralist.” In his view, the abyss enables us for the first time to escape guilt. It vanquishes the dragon of obligation. It enables us to live “beyond good and evil.” Morality is no longer given to us from above; it now becomes something that we devise for ourselves. Morality requires a comprehensive remaking, what Nietzsche terms a “transvaluation.” The old codes of “thou shalt not” are now replaced by “I will.”

My conclusion is that contrary to popular belief, atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt, it is a moral revolt. Atheists don’t find God invisible so much as objectionable. This is something that we can all identify with. It is a temptation even for believers. We want to be saved as long as we are not saved from our sins. We are quite willing to be saved from a whole host of social evils, from poverty to disease to war. But we want to leave untouched the personal evils, such as selfishness and lechery and pride. We need spiritual healing, but we do not want it. Like a supervisory teenage parent, God gets in our way. This is the perennial appeal of atheism: it gets rid of the stern fellow with the long beard and liberates us for the pleasures of sin and depravity. The atheist seeks to get rid of moral judgment by getting rid of the judge.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Explaining Atheism Pt. 1

I have been reading both recent popular atheist books by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. (Ditchkins, as Terry Eagleton calls them)and also some of the critiques of this outpouring of militantly anti-religious (primarily anti-Christian) bestsellers. The best of these critiques of the atheists (so far) are by David Bentley Hart, Alister McGrath, Dinesh D'Souza, and the formerly leading atheist philosopher Antony Flew, as well as the Marxist critic Eagleton himself.

All of the anti-religious writing and much of the response assume that it is religion that needs to be explained and justified. During the heyday of atheism in the 19th century, the leading atheist intellectuals, wrote not to refute religion but to explain it as a social or psychological phenomenon. That is, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, most influentially, took as their starting point that the truth claims of Christianity and all other religions were false and did not trouble themselves with the task of refuting them. The default position, the truth, was atheism. The task then was to explain why religion had been such a universal phenomenon in human experience until their time. (See McGrath's excellent, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World for a review of the explanations advanced by Feuerbach, Freud, and Marx.)

But what if we examined atheism in the same way? We assume that it is false as well as rare in the cultures of humankind. Then the task is to explain its rise to prominence among European intellectuals in the 18th and especially 19th centuries, its political spread so that half the world's population lived under officially atheist regimes by the mid-20th century; and its rapid decline, along with theresurgence of religious belief since the late 20th century. From this perspective, atheism is a socially constructed, historically specific phenomenon, of immense importance in its day and still of wide appeal in Europe and among the elites of North America.

McGrath's Twilight is immensely helpful in this regard. Of particular interest to me is the way that the notion of a "war" between science and religion arose in the social conditions of 19th century England and eastern North America. It is of course the opposite of the truth as far as Christianity is concerned. Almost all the great scientists from the Middle Ages through Newton were either churchmen (priests or monks, etc.) or at least devout Christians. One of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, Gregor Mendel, was a Catholic monk. In 19th century England, the parson-scientist was a stock figure in literature, reflecting in part the underemployment of the clergy in the state-supported church. The rise of professional scientists led to a rivalry between the scientific amateurs (clergy) and professional scientists as the latter asserted their claims to recognition and support. A war was thus invented between science and religion, put forward by two highly influential books, John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1876).

Today, no reputable historian of science, to my knowledge, accepts this account of such a conflict or war, but the influence of this anti-religious narrative is still widespread among popularizers of atheism and the general public.

I am intrigued by McGrath's interpretation of the rise of this story of a social opposition between scientific amateurs and professionals. Is there a similar phenomenon in the history of social work where, with the gradual professionalization of social work, charity came to have a bad name? At first it was to be "organized" in a "scientific" way, replacing the old-style random acts of kindness with a more systematic approach to social casework. Today, the old Charity Organization Societies, in which the profession has its origins, is regarded in a poor light by most professional social workers, not because they lost sight of charity as love and a fundamental Christian duty, but because they were too moralistic and insufficiently professional and scientific--or insufficiently devoted to social change and justice. Just as the parson-scientists were seen as insufficiently professional by full-time scientists, so the pastoral care of the clergy was seen (by professional social workers) as a kind of amateurish social work.... [more to follow!]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Europe, Self-Denigration, Arrogance, and the Politics of Selective Indignation

The Politics of Selective Indignation
Aug 27, 2009
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
The online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education for August 10, 2009 carries an article by Carlin Romano called “The Shame of Academe and Fascism, Then and Now.” I’m hoping that this essay will cause some pangs of conscience among the privileged classes of administrators, professors and students in our nation’s elite universities in regard to its eerie silence surrounding the crushing of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, although it probably will not. Here, at any rate, is Romano’s j’accuse:

How should America’s university presidents respond to the savagery in Iran today? The incarcerated student protesters forced to lick toilet bowls. The imprisoned dissidents beaten to death in holding pens, some with their fingernails torn out. The many murdered protesters, including Neda Agha-Soltan, the now-iconic young philosophy student shot in cold blood. The banning of foreign and domestic journalists from honest coverage or even access to news events. The arrest of professors and shuttering of academic institutions.

Here are a few hints from another era. Night of the Long Knives.Kristallnacht. Auschwitz. Nuremberg. Too strong a comparison unless what takes place next in Iran is mass murder? Granted, vast differences exist between Nazi Germany then and Islamic Iran now. But the vast similarities are also plain. The insistence that state power trumps individual rights. The unaccountable supreme leader. The mass trial. The phony exhortations by rulers to a nonexistent Volk, a unified people. The attacks on and discrimination against women. The existence of militia-like forces, wreaking violence on dissidents. Fascism is fascism.

What prompted Romano’s cri de coeur is the appearance of a new book called The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses by Stephen H. Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and coeditor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History. The record of attitudes among Ivy League presidents, deans, and professors toward the Third Reich prior to the outbreak of war is, to put it delicately, dismaying.

But perhaps not surprising. Most of the rest of Romano’s article consists of a full review of the Norwood book but concludes with this plaintive rhetorical question meant for today academy:

No one stopped Nazi and Italian fascism before it killed millions. Perhaps someone will stop Iranian fascism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a scholar to look back, decades from now, at how America’s academic leaders spoke out against the thugs and butchers of Tehran?

Don’t count on it, I say. Several decades ago Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that protests and demonstrations aren’t really directed against perceived injustices, despite the claims of the protesters to the contrary, but are exercises in moral exhibitionism. In other words, they are not so much efforts to win over the wavering, convince others through arguments, or even convince oneself, but are more usually exercises in posturing and (frequently) intimidation of other, perfectly legitimate points of view. But long before MacIntyre was even born, Friedrich Nietzsche saw, with his usual spot-on eloquence this same syndrome: It’s not the cause that draws protesters but the chance to express discontent for its own sake:

When one thinks of how much energy is contained in young people’s need to explode, it is no wonder just how unsubtle and undiscriminating they show themselves to be in choosing this or that cause: What attracts them is the spectacle of the zeal enveloping the cause and, as it were, the sight of the burning fuse-not the cause itself. Subtle seducers understand this well and carefully emphasize the prospect of the explosion and disregard the reasons favoring the cause: for it is not with arguments that one can win over these powder-kegs! (The Gay Science, aphorism 38)

I kept thinking of this passage while reading Christopher Caldwell’s recent and justly praised book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, which shows how flummoxed European secular liberals have become in the face of a resurgent Islam, both on the stage of world history and, above all, in their own cities. With a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, Caldwell recounts a story that was little covered in the United States but which captures the essence of the dilemma of what I wish to call here the Politics of Selective Indignation:

In Turin in the wake of September 11, the Moroccan radical Bouriki Bouchta set fire to an Italian flag, slandered Israel, and spoke out in favor of Osama bin Laden. Although Bouchta changed his views and his tone after the Madrid bombings of 2004, he was deported to his native Morocco in late 2005. At that point he hired lawyers and made strenuous efforts to be readmitted. Part of his defense was that none of his behavior would have been unusual for a member of the Italian radical left. “In a sense,” recalls the Italian journalist and Islam expert Francesca Paci, who covered his case, “he behaved too much like an Italian.”

We all recall the huge antiwar demonstrations throughout the world leading up to the United States-led invasion of Iraq inaugurated on March 20, 2003, which makes all the more glaring the remarkable absence of protests, especially from secular leftists, against the current theocratic regime in Iran. But such selectivity of targets for one’s ever-seething indignation carries a price, especially for Europe, which is the lesson Caldwell draws from the Bouchta affair: “On one hand, opposition is a right. On the other hand, it is a right that was granted to certain Muslim immigrants too early-before they had become citizens and before they had learned the difference between dissent and subversion.”

It is admittedly often difficult, indeed sometimes impossible, to draw a line between legitimate (or even illegitimate) dissent and outright subversion; but there are obvious cases, as the hotheaded Bouchta seems to have recognized when he belatedly condemned the Madrid bombings.

But can Europeans recognize the distinction? Here we get to one of the central reasons animating selective indignation: a narratology of prejudice that gives an automatic safe-conduct pass to some truly horrific instances of bigotry. Here, first, is Caldwell’s summary of the narrative that gives rise to the blindspot:

Europeans, like Americans, had developed a number of stereotypes about intolerance. Racism was something done by an unchanging class of perpetrators (rich, white Christians) to an unchanging class of victims (the poor; the dark-skinned, the colonized, the downtrodden). It was assumed that anti-Semitic acts, should they ever reappear, would come neatly wrapped in the ideology of continental fascism as it had been practiced in the 1920s and 1930s. The change of dramatis personae left Europeans confused. So far was the new anti-Semitism from these usual stereotypes that the public-especially that part of the public trained to be vigilant against racism-was incapable even of recognizing it.

This new anti-Semitism, it should go without saying, now finds root in the fetid soil of the European secular left. But equally obviously, that kind of metastasized anti-Semitism goes under a different name: anti-Zionism. Yes, theoretically they are different phenomena: one can certainly oppose the policies of Israel without necessarily being anti-Semitic; and Caldwell concedes that one can even oppose the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic (some Jews, after all, are against Israel on theological grounds specific to their interpretation of Judaism). “But in practice, this distinction had the effect of laundering anti-Semitism back into the European political mainstream. The cause might advance in the name of anti-Zionism, but Europe’s Jews were being attacked because they were Jews-they did not have to fill out a questionnaire first.”

Adding to this vocabulary of the madhouse is the preposterous charge that the memory of the Holocaust is keeping European Muslims from assimilating into full citizenship. As Caldwell sardonically notes, because of the cultivated memory of the Holocaust, competition for the prize of top victimhood means that European polities are now far more tolerant of behaviors that would otherwise never have been countenanced:

The shock to Europe’s conscience that followed [the Holocaust] had made the continent safe for other minorities. An immigration of the sort that brought Muslims in such numbers to Europe would have been unthinkable without the anguished moral self-examination the Holocaust brought in its wake. Such an immigration would have provoked mistrust, xenophobia, and violence. It takes very little reflection to know how Europe-minus its guilt over the Holocaust-would have reacted to a radical Arab nationalist pressure group headquartered in Flanders. . . . [But] as the Jews accumulated “rivals” with an interest in dislodging them from their position as Europe’s top victims, the system was suddenly turned inside out. The ideology of diversity and racial harmony, which had always been snickered at as well meaning and politically correct, now became the means through which anti-Jewish fury was reinjected into European life. Far from forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust, anti-Semites and anti-Zionists were obsessed with them. They were a rhetorical toolkit. If the Muslims were the new Jews, apparently, then the Jews were the new Nazis.

Christians too find themselves squeezed by similar selectivity of outrage, if not with the same smelly offensiveness of Jews being analogized to Nazis. Still, Christians arerhetorical targets for abuse in ways that would be labeled racist and xenophobic if directed at Muslims. Caldwell quotes one particularly creepy transgressive artist (a cross-dressing potter who earns his living fashioning obscene depictions of Christian iconography) who, upon being asked why he never made pottery mocking Islam, said: “The reason I haven’t gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.” I suppose one can admire the man’s honesty while deploring the all-too typical cowardice of the sentiment.

But such cowardice really does squeeze Christians, who must simultaneously tolerate obscene attacks on their religion while their attempts to point out any flaws in Islam are excoriated, as Benedict XVI learned to his consternation after the reaction to his lecture in Regensburg in 2006. The upshot of this cowardice is that laws aimed specifically at Muslim customs that outrage liberal sensibilities must be universalized. Thus, when the French government gets worried about Muslim schoolgirls wearing veils to class, it must ban not just veils but yarmulkes and “large” crosses (whatever that means). In other words, laws obviously meant to be directed at Muslims have the effect of undermining freedom for every religion.

So too with theology: instead of challenging the Muslim doctrine of revelation and its attendant image of God on the basis of a Christian view of the relationship of faith and reason (which was the gravamen of Benedict’s Regensburg lecture), one must attack all forms of religious belief, no matter how well-grounded they are in rational philosophical theology. Again, such a strategy has the (perhaps intentional) effect of putting only Christians on the defensive, never Muslims, who already see atheism as part of the decadence that makes them reject European secular culture in general. In a particularly insightful passage, Caldwell shows how this works:

A main weapon in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s attacks on Christianity was ridicule. But while hoping that Muslims will learn the lessons of Voltaire, Europeans have gone to great lengths to insulate Islam from Voltaire’s methods. Ridiculing Islam has been confused with xenophobia and racism. Those with questions about Islam are expected to content themselves with kicking the dead horse of Christianity in hopes that Muslims will, by inductive reasoning, come to see that the general laws so established apply to their religion too. The spate of book-length tracts against “religion” in general, by Richard Dawkins, Michael Onfray, Christopher Hitchens, and others, surely owe a lot of their popularity to a timid public’s unease at expressing misgivings about Islam specifically.

In the meantime, most occasions for Muslim-Christian dialogue, especially of the spontaneous kind not officially sponsored by the Vatican and conducted by competent theologians on both sides, are merely empty exercises in group-think. For example, at the publicly funded Hamara Centre in Leeds, England, local Muslims and Christians promote fellow-feeling by lamenting globalization, attacking the war in Iraq, and decrying Israel’s policies toward Palestine. “That is not crosscultural communication,” Caldwell dryly observers. “That is rallying Christians behind a Muslim agenda.”

Reading Caldwell’s book made me ask (and not rhetorically, either) whether the specific genius of European civilization will survive its now-pervasive Politics of Selective Indignation. I’m no prophet, but I’m not feeling particularly sanguine at the moment. Nor is Caldwell: “[Europe] is a civilization in decline. It is missing some hard-to-define factor. Whether or not it can defend itself, it has lost sight of why it should. . . . You cannot defend what you cannot define.” So its fallback option is empty moral preening and selective indignation.

Moreover, that default position is directly related to the pathology at the core of contemporary European “civilization.” In a shrewd review of Caldwell’s book in National Review (subscription required), Theodore Dalrymple correctly sees the connection between European self-abasement and its insufferably obnoxious superiority complex (which also animates its anti-Americanism):

The Europeans now have such a foreshortened sense of history that they suppose that homosexual marriage and an equal representation of women in parliament and the boardroom have been their core values since at least the time of Julius Caesar; the religious roots of their civilization are to them either not evident or a cause for embarrassment and apology. This means that they think it normal to apologize for the Crusades and for Muslims not to apologize for Islamic imperialism; this is a manifestation of the strange European complex of self-denigration and arrogance, according to which only Europeans are sufficiently human to do real wrong.

In the meantime, the show trials in Iran against the pro-democracy demonstrators are continuing. With nary a peep to be heard from the powder-kegs of the secular left. Big surprise.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Retrieved August 26, 2009 from

Thursday, August 6, 2009

While Europe Slept: Ethics and Cultural Decline

There is a growing body of literature on the death of Europe, the demise of European culture, the self-hatred of a "multiculturalism" that uncritically respects and celebrates every culture but its own and every religion except the one on which its culture is based. And, on the contrary, a smaller body arguing that the reports of Europe's death are exaggerated.

One perspective emphasizes the relentless march of aggressive Islam, finally set to complete the process of conquering all of Europe--the process that spanned centuries with little effective resistance until it was (temporarily?) halted at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Others point to the growth of secularism as a rigid and intolerant "cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world-- [a secularism that] has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing."

That quotation is from a thoughtful essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicage. Called "While Europe Slept," it appeared in the March 2009 issue of First Things/span>--see

The dialectic and dialogue between belief and unbelief that has, she argues, characterized the Europe of the past three centuries has given way to this narrower, constricted view of humanity with the withering of belief. "The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God--the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely--all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God." Without God or some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living and others (e.g., a hospital ethics committee or court of law)have the power to decide whose life is wretched and so not worth living. Peter Singer's satanic utilitarianism boldly embraces the implications of this moral philosophy in principle as the Nazis did in practice.

Elshtain shows with moving eloquence how the secular elevation of the sovereign self, unconstrained by superstitions about the intrinsic and equal dignity of all human life, leads to illiberal and dehumanizing consequences. In this brave new world, where the ethical and moral barriers to taking what they want have all been lost, the powerful have their way simply because they can.

"Over time human rights, now almost universally accepted among Europeans, will themselves come to be seen as so many arbitrary constructions that may, on utilitarian grounds, be revoked—because there is nothing intrinsic about human beings such that they are not to be ill-treated or violated or even killed. Even now, many do not want to be bothered with the infirm elderly or damaged infants, so we devise so-called humane ways to kill them and pretend that somehow they chose (or would have chosen) to die. Elderly patients are being killed in the Netherlands without their consent. A new protocol for euthanizing newborns with disabilities is institutionalized in the Netherlands, and the doctor who authored the protocols, Eduard Verhagen, tells us how “beautiful” it is when the newborns are killed, for, at last, they are at peace.

"The Australian utilitarian Peter Singer predicts confidently that the superstition that human life is sacred will be definitively put to rest by 2040. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that by that moment “life unworthy of life” will routinely be destroyed—in the name of liberal humanitarianism and compassion, and even cost-effectiveness, rather than the triumph of a master race. It is a softer nihilism than the past's, but it is nihilism all the same.

"In an interview for a British magazine during the summer of 2005, Singer said that if he faced the quandary of saving from a raging fire either a mentally disabled child, an orphan child nobody wanted, or normal animals, he would save the animals. If the child had a mother who would be devastated by the child's death, he would save the child, but unwanted orphans have no such value.

"This is the entirely consistent result of the view that human life no longer possesses an innate dignity, that we are only meat walking around, and we can be turned easily into means to the ends of others, just as we may turn others into means to our ends. It is the old master-slave scenario come to life, even as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment."

Can Europe survive its current cultural malaise, slackness, and loss of self-confidence that she and others (myself included) perceive in its demographic collapse--"one sign of an existential loss of hope and a turning of the self inward on the self, refusing to extend the self to a child and thus abandoning the task of civic formation on this most fundamental and private level."

It is not hard to show that the last, most secularist of centuries produced, in the practice of its major atheist and anti-Christian regimes (China, Russia, and Germany), a scale of mass murder many, many times that of all (even nominally) religious wars and persecutions of all previous centuries combined. Elshtain shows the ideological process by which this modern evil arose and continues to flourish.

"Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism. If human beings do not tend to what is good—if, indeed, they no longer believe in any such thing—they create a vacuum, into which comes that negation called evil and sin in Christian theology, a draining away from what is good.

"Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian ­monster of Europe's past or the serial killers of contemporary movies. It can take the form of medical practitioners killing handicapped newborns or infirm patients, rather than healing and caring for them; the form of isolating and neglecting immigrants; the form of ignoring antisocial behavior and cruelty until it turns into open and widespread criminality; the form of an indifference that, in the name of toleration, permits a zealous minority to call for the murder of those who have drawn cartoons (however stupid those cartoons may have been) and for more suicide bombers and the killing of innocents.

"Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

policy advocacy in action

In many schools of social work, "policy practice" is taught by way of having students testify before some legislative body or committee or even city council. I have long believed that it is prudent to teach students something about social policy before having them give testimony about it. Look at this clip and tell me I'm wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.5

Strategic Aims, Not Abuses, Are U.S. Focus in Kyrgyzstan
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Despite repressive practices, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was praised by President Obama after reversing a decision to close an American air base.

For the whole story, see

Not an unusual kind of story, but is it hypocrisy? This is the charge often leveled at the U.S.--it preaches democracy but supports repressive dictatorships and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.). In these cases, the government is subordinating one value (promoting democracy) to another, conflicting value (strategic security, or whatever one wishes to call it). It is obviously much easier to condemn such trade-offs as hypocrisy when you are not in power with responsibility for the national interest. But when you are, is it possible to avoid such conflicts between, let's say, moral and strategic concerns? And do trade-offs like this rise to the level of hypocrisy?

Friday, July 17, 2009

a good review of David Bentley Hart

It's at:

Like me (see below), he regards Hart's "Atheist Delusions" as a brilliant book, more accurately described by its subtitle, "The Christian Revolution and Its Enemies." Like me, too, the reviewer, Paul Griffiths, sees a rhetorical contradiction (if that's the word--inconsistency, discrepancy?) between the book's emphasis on how Christian joy replaced pagan gloom and the author's own gloom.

He also brings up a point that I agree with but did not include in my review. Hart stresses the novelty of Christianity, how it changed completely the worldview of pagan Rome and Greece. True, but he makes it look as if Christianity came out of nowhere by downplaying its prehistory in Jewish scripture and religion. The Incarnation was, according to Christian tradition and scripture, prepared over centuries in the history of God's special relationship with the Jewish people, with their long internal and external struggle toward monotheism. The Hebrew Bible is an essential part of the Christian narrative. The novelty in Jewish terms was not the coming of a Messiah--that was expected and there were several contenders--but the entirely unexpected form he took--the God-man as an unassuming member of a family that was not socially or economically distinguished--not to mention the manner of his death and subsequent resurrection.

Still, an extraordinary and brilliant book, very different from the other critiques of Ditchkins (Dawkins+Hitchens), in Eagleton's happy term. If nothing else, people raised with, and unquestioning of the standard Enlightenment narrative (how the darkness and superstition of the Middle Ages were dispelled by secular reason and science) should read the book for a compelling and accurate counter-narrative.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.4

Just reading a book on economics for social workers. I was inspired to read it by seeing ever more clearly the central importance of trade-offs in social policy analysis--a concept fundamental to economics but alien to social workers, who look for solutions to social problems. (In contrast, as Black economist and social commentator, Thomas Sowell puts it, "There are no solutions, only trade-offs.")

The authors, Lewis & Widerquist (2002, p.9) give three examples of weird behavior and point out that two of them, though pathological, are not irrational in economic terms, because the agents act consistently with some set of preferences. In the third case, where a man never wears a seat belt but supports legislation requiring seat belt use, is behaving irrationally in economic terms because his actions are contradictory. Rationality then is about consistency, matching words to actions, or preferences to behavior.

Of course, we could surmise in this case that the man is quite consistent in that he wants a law to make him do what he knows he ought to do. Compare the example of a man with strong homosexual tendencies who favors draconian laws against homosexuality. He is not necessarily inconsistent, if he supports such laws as deterring him from succumbing to temptation to what he regards (in this example) as sinful behavior.

But he is the sort of man who, if the inconsistency is discovered, is likely to be called a hypocrite. The practice of "outing" such people is part of the armory of some homosexual activists. Is hypocrisy, then, nothing more than inconsistency?

Or does hypocrisy require that you believe, as well as do, the opposite of what you proclaim?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Caritas in Veritate

So the long-awaited third encyclical letter by Pope Benedict XVI is out and available online--at

I guess I would never make much of a journalist or even commentator. I am still working my way through it. "Benedict’s reflection is a lengthy and substantial one—30,468 words: an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, and 159 footnotes," as Blosser says, and I am still trying to absorb the critical first few pages. It is a major document--the first social encyclical of the century and an important statement of the Church's social doctrine by a pope who has seldom if ever been surpassed in learning in that office. It brings the core principles of the Church's social teaching to bear on our present economic, cultural, and political situation.

So, as they say, more to come. Meanwhile there is an impressive array of commentary on the encyclical from intelligent and well informed authors...and some predictably dumb ones from the media. A good round-up after the first day following publication, to be updated often, i assume, is offered by Christopher Blosser at

The most critical response so far has been from conservative Catholic writer George Weigel, who thinks the pope made too many concessions to the liberal crowd over at [the Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace, leading to incoherence in places that show that body's influence. Weigel was a good friend of Pope John Paul II and his authorized biographer. His critique is at

Weigel is taken to task for his "intemperate attack" by the (also conservative) Daily Telegraph (UK)'s commentator Damian Thompson at

Benedict has been described (both by way of compliment and of criticism) as to the left of any American politician, as well as--in the past and by the ignorant and malicious--as ultra-conservative and even soft on Holocaust-denial. But in general his encyclical has already served as a kind of Rorschach test wherein readers find confirmation for what they already think. One pro-life group has already extracted the best pro-life quotes and abstracted them from their context in the letter. In general, the terms left and right, whether in politics or theology, obscure more than they reveal. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to Catholic social teaching. Sadly, the terms serve above all as a way to avoid taking the trouble to study a major document such as this to see what we may learn from it that we did not already know or think.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.3

Perhaps the most persuasive candidate for a charge of political hypocrisy is Obama's response to Helen Thomas's famous "interruption" at a recent presidential press conference. The president was saying how affected he was by the video of Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan being shot in the chest and bleeding to death. He referred to international norms of freedom of speech and expression. At that, Thomas started to ask him why he would not allow publication of the photos of the abuse of detainees held by Americans abroad. Obama brushed the point aside as "a different question."

The New York Times's Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" columns, challenges that position. See

Cohen shows the importance of transparency in and for a democracy and that that cannot mean you only allow publication of uncontroversial material. Beyond that, he says, "There is also the matter of personal integrity. President Obama campaigned as a proponent of openness and accountability. On his first day in office, he issued new ethics directives, pledging to make transparency a hallmark of his administration." Only last April, his justice department said it would comply with a court order to release the photographs...and then revised the policy to refuse publication. Agreeing with Obama's principled pro-transparency position, Cohen deplores his abandonment of it [at the first real test]. He concludes, "But more than this, transparency is an ethical ideal, the political expression of a commitment to honesty. It is disheartening to see it resisted by someone who has spoken so ardently in its defense."

Was Obama acting hypocritically? Well, he affirmed one standard but failed to meet it in his own actions. As we saw below, that in itself is not yet hypocrisy. Does he advance one set of standards while really and in practice accepting another? That would be hypocrisy. But can we really tell the difference? Do we need a pattern of such discrepancies before we can call it hypocrisy?

Hypocrisy Pt. 2

Another kind of hypocrisy talk in politics has to do, not with the private lives of politicians, but with their allegedly inconsistent political positions. The charge is used on all sides. From the left come charges that Israel (and the United States for that matter) is in no position to criticize Palestinian terrorists because it is a practitioner of state terror itself. The United States is hypocritical in denouncing North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapons when it has the world's largest stockpile of them and is the only country actually to have used them, and then to bomb intentionally a civilian population. On the other side of the political spectrum, the media is accused of giving openly gay mayor of Portland, OR a more or less free ride over allegations of improper behavior with a male underage subordinate. See and . In contrast, the argument goes, a heterosexual conservative politician would have been pounced on and mauled gleefully and relentlessly. (Of course, that does not quite work, because Bill Clinton was pounced on and conservatives!)

The obvious response to such charges of hypocritically ignoring the beam in your own eye is to accuse one's accusers of treating morally different cases as if they were "moral equivalents." So, they ask, is it not morally relevant that Israel has a policy and principle against targeting civilians. When these appear to have been violated, there are accusations, inquiries, and prosecutions. In contrast, Hamas and other terrorists deny the distinction between civilian and military targets. They place rocket launchers and arms caches in civilian areas, near hospitals or mosques, precisely because they know the Israelis, unlike themselves, are officially squeamish about attacking such targets. They themselves have launched over 10,000 rockets deliberately (if not very effectively, thank God) against civilian targets in southern Israel. So the cases are different and it is a reflection of your moral bankruptcy if you don't see the difference.

Is North Korean possession of nuclear weapons no different morally from that of the United States? In treating them as morally equivalent you have to ignore a lot of significant differences. The U.S. has possessed the weapons for sixty years whereas North Korea is expanding the nuclear club. It is a notoriously nasty, totalitarian state and a source of instability. It shows no interest in open and honest negotiations and disregards in practice the agreements it signs. (Here someone might point out that the U.S. broke its treaties with American Indians.) By the way, I regard all possession of nuclear weapons by anyone as evil, just because they are built to be weapons of mass destruction aimed at civilian targets.

This sort of approach to politics, going directly from very abstract principles to particular cases, may make one side appear unrealistic and self-righteous while the other appears hypocritical.

In what sense is hypocrisy involved here? Is it about saying one thing and doing another, as in failing to live up to one's own moral standards? But that, I argued in my previous post, is not hypocrisy but the nature of the (fallen) human condition. Hypocrisy has to mean something more serious, like expounding one set of principles while really adhering to a contradictory set. But is that the case in any of these examples and how do we know?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Once again the exposure of marital infidelities by leading social conservatives--in this case South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign--raises the question of hypocrisy.  Many respond with unconcealed glee as two more such politicians, like a line of influential preachers of family values, are exposed as hypocrites who do not practice what they preach.

But is that hypocrisy?  If so, what is it about such contradictory behavior that constitutes hypocrisy, as opposed simply to failure to live up to one's own moral code?   Is the term used so loosely as to have become meaningless?  For example, the male prostitute who revealed in 2006 that the prominent evangelical pastor Ted Haggard had been paying him for sex, said "My intent was to expose a hypocrite."  Haggard himself seemed to accept the charge in his letter to his congregation.

But Robert T. Miller argued at the time that Haggard was not a hypocrite but someone who was too weak to live up to his own moral code.  He believed what he did was wrong, but did it anyway.  Or as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good....I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do...."  Succumbing to temptation is not the same as hypocrisy.  It is the common human lot, which there are only two ways to avoid.  One is to be a saint.  The other is to have a conscience so deadened that one adapts one's moral code to justify or rationalize whatever it is one is doing or wants to do.

Similarly one could argue, as Miller does, that President Clinton was not a hypocrite , but weak in both having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and concealing it.  Even less is hypocrisy involved either in Bristol Palin's becoming a single mother, contrary to her own moral code, or in her family's standing by her, or for that matter, in Bristol's publicly warning other teens not to follow her example.  When we teach our children to be nice to each other but at times fall into angry and hurtful exchanges with each other, we show weakness, we show we do not always live up to the standards we hold and teach, but we are not hypocrites.  Otherwise hypocrisy would be a part of all wrongdoing, and not a peculiar or distinct kind of behavior.

What makes the difference?  For Miller it is about dissembling what you think the good is.  Building a reputation for financial probity and giving seminars on business ethics while habitually engaging in fraud and enjoying your ill-gotten gains is an example.  It is, or may be, not a case of falling into a sin you hate and regretting it afterwards (as in the Haggard example) but pretending to hold values that you really do not.

In a recent blog on the Witherspoon site, philosophy professor Christopher Tollefson takes a sterner view.  He agrees that hypocrisy is not just a failure to live up to one's moral code:

A person's failure to live up to his stated moral code need not call either the validity of nor his belief in the code in question.  In fact, given the inevitability of moral failure in our lives, it is similarly inevitable that those with strong moral convictions will sometimes fail to act in the way they publicly identify as morally appropriate.

The hypocrite, he asserts, "deceives others by by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice." It is about maintaining an illusion while leading a double life, at great cost to yourself morally and psychically as your integrity crumbles, and to your family, your career, and your cause when the inevitable discovery takes place.  Tollefson's argument is a powerful critique of the nature and evils of hypocrisy, ending with an implicit appeal to his governor (Mark Sanford) to resign.

But I am still unclear about the distinction these authors are making.  For Miller, it is between a) doing and concealing what you know to be bad (I do what I do not want, but agree that the law is good) and b) upholding standards and values that I neither follow nor believe in.  For Tollefson, the "concealing" part of Miller's (a) seems to make it already hypocrisy.  It is the living a lie that creates war within ourselves, corrupting our integrity and leading us toward rationalizing, at least to ourselves, behavior we once knew was wrong.  When Tollefson describes this state of internal strife as making us "agents who know what is good but choose what is not..." he seems to be describing not some special state but the ordinary conflict between virtue and vice, knowing what is good but doing the opposite, that St. Paul describes and that we think of simply as succumbing to temptation.  Of course, the more virtuous we become, the less of a struggle we have because we are no longer tempted in the same way.

There is a line, it seems, between the element of concealment that attends all wrongdoing and the living of a lie where we profess values or goods in which we do not ourselves believe.  Even when we immediately regret our deed, feel remorse, and resolve not to do it again, we do not confess it to the world.  Knowing what is good but choosing what is not does not qualify as hypocrisy, pace Tollefson, unless we want to call all wrongdoing hypocrisy that is not committed brazenly in plain sight. 

So what of Haggard?  He preached against homosexual behavior while sometimes engaging in it himself and concealing the fact from his family and congregation.  Yet in Miller's view that was not hypocrisy.  Haggard, like Clinton, fell from time to time into doing what he knew was wrong.  He struggled against temptation and sometimes lost.  What makes Governor Sanford, in Tollefson's view an undoubted hypocrite, different?  Was it the chronic, habitual character of his infidelity?

There are degrees of hypocrisy.  When a man is genuinely concerned about the harm that his behavior may do to his family, his deception is done at least in part for the sake of others.  But, Tollefson argues, "The form of hypocrisy that seems most especially egregious is that in which the "tribute" [that vice plays to virtue, in La Rochefoucauld's famous definition of hypocrisy] is entirely specious. The agent simulates virtue in this case not because of a recognition that the appearance of vice can corrupt or harm others, or because he is still somehow allied with virtue, but because the appearance of virtue brings with it certain rewards." This is the form of hypocrisy to which people in public life are particularly drawn, perhaps the more so as we hold public officials to higher standards in their private lives than is the case in other countries.

But motivations too often conflict within an individual, especially in all but the most egregious hypocrites, and yet hypocrisy must be deliberate and intentional.  

I am not yet willing to say that hypocrisy is no longer an intelligible concept.  But it surely is a term not to be thrown about carelessly.  Perhaps it is more useful in examining one's own conscience than as a term of public accusation.

Miller, R.T. (2006). Haggard and hypocrisy. Retrieved July 1, 2009 from

Tollefson, C. (2009). Hypocrisy and public life. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Professional Ethics and Ideological Coercion in Social Work

Scratch a secular liberal--or so it seems--and you will find an authoritarian who seeks to use the powers of the state and licensing bodies, along with professional associations and their ethical codes, to enforce conformity and squelch dissent.

In 2007, the National Association of Scholars released a report about the enforcement of the profession's code of ethics in schools of social work. It was called The Scandal of Social Work Education and the scandal alleged was one of ideological coercion on a wide scale, discouragement of open discussion, and suppression of dissenting views. The study cites several cases where students were allegedly coerced into advocating to their state legislatures for causes they opposed. There are several notorious cases of outlandish behavior by instructors and schools, but the NAS survey of leading schools of social work suggested that the problem is endemic and that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics was being used to legitimate a particular and narrow political uniformity. As George Will (2007) saw it, NASW "adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics."

As if to reinforce Will's point, a recent article in the online Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics by two Kansas professors, Spano and Koenig, argued for using the NASW Code of Ethics as a sort of ideological screen standing above "personal worldviews" and against which social workers would assess their positions on a range of contentious social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. The Code is actually silent on these issues, and not nearly as prescriptive as its critics suggest, but the authors argued for interpreting the code in such a way as to prescribe particular positions. It seems that many schools of social work and their faculties do the same. The article was a sustained attack on evangelical Christians, although in principle their arguments could be used to mute other minority voices (e.g., Marxists') within the profession.

I wrote a critique of their article, which appeared in a subsequent issue of the journal accompanied by their response. I responded to their response to me, again followed immediately by their second response. This final S&K salvo muddied the waters even more, since I do not hold any of the positions the authors attributed to me but actually agree with much of what they say. So I wrote a letter in response (my last word in the exchange!) which is forthcoming. The original article and subsequent exchanges can be found in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, free online, at: