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."