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.