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.