Tuesday, December 25, 2007
The 1990s was a fantastic decade for comedy, all the better as American society degenerated even further beyond repair. But at some point a line was crossed, and the subversive power of comedy was neutralized by mindless cynicism that ceases to promote social critique and instead serves to further adjust us to our dehumanization.
This is true both of normal sitcoms and adult cartoons. The critical thrust of The Simpsons at its best was blunted by the growth in pure decadence of the adult cartoons that succeeded it.
Some years ago a friend summed up it up this way: “South Park is for people who are too dumb to understand The Simpsons.” Or, as I concluded eventually, the baby boomers knew rebellion against social convention and hypocrisy; but the new brand of humor was designed by slackers for clueless teens and twenty-somethings who never knew anything before Reaganism, who never rebelled against anything, and who have no perspective beyond mindless cynicism which at the end of the day manages to serve the status quo.
After a while I learned to laugh at South Park’s outrageous humor. Funny isn’t supposed to be moral; if it’s funny to you, you laugh . . . but in it there’s also ideology. South Park is gratuitously vicious and sadistic. The gruesome death of Kenny in every episode alone testifies to the sadism at the bottom of this kind of humor, and, by implication, much other humor. But South Park is not mindless cynicism alone, for there is also quite a bit of moralism mixed in with the cynical filth, summed up in the resolution or even a speech at the end of an episode. If you examine these episodes carefully, you will also discover that the perspective of the series’ creators is completely confused, and in the end, rather conservative. These slackers mock redneck values, presumably thinking they are above them, but in the final analysis, they’re idiots.
Another feature of South Park is the pervasive anti-Semitism contained within it. Ostensibly, the ignorant anti-Semitism, racism, nastiness, and piggishness of Cartman is an object of ridicule, but after a while, one wonders. The Jewish stereotypes go beyond Cartman’s constant nasty remarks about Jews, mostly targeting his “friend” Kyle. Kyle’s father is a yarmulke-sporting greedy lawyer; his mother a matronly New York stereotype. When Earth is discovered to be a reality show for the entertainment of the rest of the universe, the cosmic media moguls are a species conspicuously modeled on the Jews.
This is the sort of humor beloved of the young and stupid—what, did I repeat myself?—who think they are too hip to be taken in by anything. So naturally, they don’t take the anti-Semitic stereotypes seriously; it’s all in fun. But then again, given what this nation is like, I have to wonder . . .
Seeing some of these episodes for the umpteenth time, the contradictory messages, splitting the difference, ideological incoherence, and platitudinous morals mixed with cynical degeneracy reveal a pattern.
Viewing this Xmas episode this time around revealed this pattern in a way I hadn’t paid attention to before. It begins with Kyle performing in a sleazy school nativity scene. When his mother walks in on a rehearsal, she hits the roof, and complains to Mr. Garrison that this is an affront to Jews. He dismisses her as a nuisance, but thanks to her agitation soon the whole town is up in arms about public displays of religious symbols and Santa too. Everything has to be modified to placate everyone who finds the least little holiday decoration offensive. Meanwhile Kyle, who feels lonely as a Jew at Christmastime, is judged to be losing his sanity as no one believes that he has seen his object of veneration, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. His friends have him committed to a mental institution where he sings the dreidle song in a straightjacket in a padded cell. When Chef reveals that Mr. Hankey is real, the other kids have Kyle released. The dispute over holiday symbols in the school auditorium escalates into a brawl. Mr. Hankey comes to life and, calling the brawl to a halt, delivers the moral of the episode: Everybody’s fighting over what’s wrong with Christmas, they’ve forgotten what’s right with Christmas. It’s all about eating cookies and having a good time.
In the process, of course, the original affront to the Jews is reduced to mindless politically correct frivolity in the barrage of complaints that follow. Hence the anti-Semitic implications of forcing Xmas on Jews are conveniently lost in this display of degenerate cynicism mixed with cheesy moralizing.
Fame legitimates everything, in spite of controversy, and apparently, aside from the objections of traditionalist organizations, nobody sees anything wrong with this show. In the episode under review, the message of the true spirit of Christmas is delivered by a talking piece of shit. This is indeed a metaphor for our time.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Another book hot off the press and on the shelves. Gave it a scrute yesterday. This book is an anthology of 20 chapters contributed by professional philosophers. Naturally, writing about this topic is likely to be monotonous and repetitive after a while, but this book has its unique charms and could prove to be a valuable contribution. The editor attempts to show off the variety of atheists, from those who were once believers (orthodox Jews, Catholics, etc.) to those who never entertained the existence of God as a serious possibility. There are arguments against the existence of Gods and the authority of sacred texts as well as articles conerning the basis of ethics and spiritual concerns and emotions sans religions and gods. There were three articles that stood out for me:
(1) Anthony Simon Laden, "Transcendence without God: On Atheism and Invisibility", pp. 121-132.
This essay is prefaced with quotes from Thomas Hobbes and . . . Ralph Ellison! There is no mention of Ellison's non-religiosity (now documented by Arnold Rampersad), but Laden borrows Ellison's concept of "invisibility" (which begins with the issue of race but is universalized by Ellison and others) to explain his non-religious sense of transcendence. For me this is definitely the most interesting and original contribution in the book.
(2) George Rey, "Meta-atheism: Religious [Avowal--handwriting illegible] as Self-deception", pp. 243-265.
Seeing as how simple, obvious, and irrefutable the usual arguments against religious beliefs are, and the imperviousness of believers to them, Rey steps back and analyzes belief as a form of willed self-deception. I suppose this is why he coins the term "meta-atheism".
(3) Simon Blackburn, "Religion and Respect", 179-[???].
Blackburn deals with the problem of respecting people and the fact that they hold beliefs which he cannot respect, delineating those aspects of religious expression he can relate to and those he can't. He makes a useful distinction between "onto-theology" and "expressive theology" (or religion), also contrasting transcendence with immanence. Expressive theology can be found in religious art, music, literature, architecture, etc., and Blackburn can appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm that went into it, even though he doesn't take the belief systems seriously. Believing in religious doctrines is what he labels onto-theology. When they become liberalized when putative believers can't swallow them literally any more, they tend to become more and more symbolic and metaphorical, less literally held to be true. I don't recall whether Blackburn says this, but it is just this slipperiness that makes religious liberals so weaselly, as literalism gives way to metaphorization without cutting ties to the tradition as it was originally conceived. Expressive theology is then the hook for the unwary; the difference being that atheists can understand the expression without being tied to tradition and authority, however watered down and concealed.
If the other essays approach being this interesting, you should check out the book.
I don't remember how it happened, but somehow I was led to this blog entry:
The Atheist and the Crucifix by Menachem WeckerMr. Wanker is an artist and writer living in DC. I'm not aware of ever coming across him in person, but how would I know? Anyone, after reading this, on 25 May I wrote my own blog entry (which see).
The same day I received an email from Mr. Wanker out of the blue asking if I wanted to discuss this further. In turn, I asked him: what is there to discuss? Never heard from him again.
I found this entire web site sickening, not surprisingly, but I wasn't about to devote a lot of thought to it. However, certain parallels to this scenario surfaced from time to time and it occurred to me at those times that I will have to return to this theme.
Recently, I made a mental note of it, but then I could only remember that I forgot something I wanted to do. Then, when I read the essay cited below about onto-theology vs. expressive theology, it all came back to me. It's a muracle!
Blackburn, Simon. "Religion and Respect," in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 179-[???].Why did this bug me so? Is it just because I hate evangelism on G.P.? I think there's something more. The idea that a person would be interested in specifically religious art in the contemporary world rubs me the wrong way, just the stomach-churning feeling I would get from contemplating the notion of "Christian rock", or Christian music as a pop music form. It's not that I would not appreciate the religious artistic products of the past, but there is something contrived and dishonest or just plain tacky about this sort of thing in the present.
Why do I think this? Well, one approach to art is propaganda, but I don't think that art with religious content that genuinely moved people in the past was merely propaganda, and in any case did not have to compete with a secular society in order to prove itself as an alternative message. The conditions of the time, in concert with symbolism and the avenues of expressivity, would tend to create a genuine concrete content that could outlive its time and intention. Someone could have thought to himself: well, I want to create Christian, Buddhist, etc., art, but to do that today, in the Western nations anyway, seems to me rather hollow and kitschy.
Let's look at this from another angle. If, to simplify matters, that art expresses its time, if someone has something to say, (s)he will say what needs to be said via the tools and perspectives endemic to that era. An equally passionate and creative person would not express himself in the same fashion at every point in time and space, but would push the envelope given the tools and information at hand in any given cultural environment. So the question is not who is capable of admiring the artistic products of the past, but what are the needs of the present, and given what we know now, how would we best express ourselves now? There are, for example, whole genres that could not have existed as such way back when, such as science fiction, which presupposes a (pseudo-)naturalistic universe in which some questions would be raised that could not have been posed in the pre-modern world. What needs to be said now, on however profound the level, cannot be sought after by imposing a prefabricated religious doctrine that does not express the knowledge and full reality of our time. I think this is why this preoccupation with religion in art is so shallow and debased.
I could conceivably transmit this message to Mr. Wanker, but there's nothing in it for me.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
SOURCE: Is Theism A Logical Philosophy: Debate between E. Haldeman-Julius and Rev. Burris Jenkins, April 13, 1930.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Baggini, Julian. "Silent Witness," The Philosopher's Magazine, no. 39, 3rd quarter, 2007, pp. 16-19.
Baggini interviews playwright David Walter Hall and co-producers Colin Brewer and Julian Bird on the play about Meslier:
The Last Priest
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Symposium on Michel Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism, just published in the UK. Contributors: Richard Norman, Julian Baggini, Jonathan Rée, Doug Ireland.
I am not so thrilled about the panelists. Richard Norman ought to have done better. Julian Baggini is an improvement. Jonathan Rée has lost his mind, how different he is now that when he was interested in working class philosophers back in the '80s.
Note: This is the book published as Atheist Manifesto in the USA.
"How to be a successful atheist priest" by Colin Brewer (2003)
The Last Priest, play by David Walter Hall
Good heavens - some decent atheist drama, 11 June 2007, review of two plays:
Thinker: Jean Meslier by Colin Brewer, New Humanist, July/August 2007
The Last Priest by David Walter Hall
On Religion by A.C. Grayling & Mick Gordon
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Rudolf J. Siebert, "Critical Religion in Antagonistic Civil Society: Towards Discourse and Cooperation among Civilizations (II)," paper prepared for Association for the Sociology of Religion, Montreal, Canada, August 2006.
This article shows up what obscurantist bullshit this whole enterprise is. I note that it is heavily indebted to Habermas, which doesn't say much for him. But more importantly, liberal religionists are trapped within their own irreconcilable contradictions, trying to have their cake and eat it too.
If the citizens learn to know, how to handle in the consciousness of their own fallibility and non-violently, i.e. without tearing apart the social bond of their political community, this factum of cultural pluralism, then they shall recognize, what the secular decision-foundations, which have been firmly written into the constitution of their state, mean in a post-secular society. This is so, because in the dispute between the claims of religious faith and scientific knowledge the culturally, i.e., aesthetically, religiously and philosophically, neutral liberal constitutional state does in no way prejudice necessarily political decisions in favor of the religious or the secular side. The pluralized communicative and anamnestic rationality of the public sphere of the citizens follows the dynamic of the secularization as it compels and forces in the result the even and equal distance between strong religious and secular traditions and cultural contents. However, the communicative and anamnestic as well as proleptic rationality of the public sphere of the citizens remains ready to learn, and thus osmotic ally open toward the religious and the secular side without losing its independence and autonomy. In this context, the scientific enlightenment of the commonsense, which is often full of prejudices, illusions and delusions, has to be accomplished. In this context, the cooperative translation of religious material and potentials from the depth of the mythos and religion into the secular discourse of the expert cultures and beyond that into the communicative action of the everyday life world and even into the economic and political subsystems of civil society, has to be performed. In this context, the long inherited dispute between religious faith and secular knowledge has to be carried out. . . .As I said, liberal religionists have to do some fancy dancing to have it both ways.
There are recommendations for dialogue and reasoned discourse. But note:
We must admit, that in the present world - historical situation no real reconciliation between the religious and the secular, revelation and autonomous reason is possible. Precisely therefore, we suggest, that the discourse between the religious and the secular should at least not be closed up fundamentalistically, or scientistically and positivistically. To the contrary, we suggest an open dialectic between faith and knowledge, revelation and enlightenment, in order from there to derive guidance also for the relationship between church and state, religious and secular education. Such openness does not hope for the return of mysticism to religious orthodoxy, or from secular enlightenment to mysticism. The secular may concretely supersede the religious: the secular may not only critique the religious, but it may also preserve, elevate and fulfill it in alternative Future III – the reconciled society.The recommendation is self-contradictory.
However, already in the present transition period from modernity to post-modernity such open dialectic between the religious and the secular, revelation and autonomous reason, faith and knowledge can, nevertheless, make possible the cooperation between religious and secular people, believers and enlighteners toward a project world ethos. It could be centered in the Golden Rule, which the Chinese Religion, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism. Christianity and Islam and other world religions have in common.This is bullshit. Liberal religionists can find whatever pretexts they wish within their religions, but the fact is that rational dialogue can only occur on a rational, atheological basis, or not at all..
The Golden Rule in all its different forms can conquer the jus talionis. The practice of the Golden rule would be the end of the lex talionis. The analysis should not stop with the realistic assertion that the Golden Rule can not be practiced and thus the lex talionis can not be broken, Men like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Romero practiced the Golden Rule even in its extreme form by following the fourth and fifth commandment of the Sermon on the Mount. It is rather so that the psychoanalytical and critical sociological and critical theological analysis must begin precisely with the question: why is it not possible for some people to practice the Golden Rule and why must they remain under the spell of the mythological jus talionis? When others can liberate themselves from this ban and do to others, as they want to be treated.This is a fantasy typical of the self-deluded liberal religionist. First, they want to reduce everything to metaphysics and individual psychology. Then they call for a sociological analysis of individual psychology? Which is it going to be, and which takes priority?
KURT: Because music gives pleasure as we never can. Music is the most pleasurable and magical thing we can experience.
I'm Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, but I simultaneously say that music is the proof of the existence of God.
SOURCE: Vonnegut, Kurt. Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing, by Kurt Vonnegut & Lee Stringer; moderated by Ross Klavan; foreword by Daniel Simon; photos by Art Shay (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 47
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
For many a decade, I've been aware of Percy Bysshe Shelley's essay on atheism that got him kicked out of university—The Necessity of Atheism. Oddly, I don't remember reading the essay itself. Nor was I aware of Shelley's other essays on religious topics. (His essays are collected in separate volumes from his poetry, at least the ones I have.) His key essays reflecting his heterodoxy are available online:
Selected Prose Works of Shelley,
including, inter alia:
The Necessity of Atheism
A Refutation of Deism
On a Future State
Essay on Christianity
I discovered this in my search for "A Refutation of Deism" (1814).
Prometheus Books has collected these five essays in a book:
The Necessity of Atheism, and Other Essays (1993).
This collection of essays is available via Project Gutenberg:
A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays
On Life in a Future State
On the Punishment of Death
Speculations on Metaphysics
Speculations on Morals
On the Literature, the Arts and the Manners of the Athenians
On the Symposium, Or Preface to the Banquet of Plato
A Defence of Poetry
Only the essay "On Life" is one of the key anti-religious tracts listed previously.
Offline the most comprehensive compilation of Shelley's prose is:
Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954).
The Growth of Shelley's Mind 3
The Necessity of Atheism 37
An Address to the Irish People 39
Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists 60
A Declaration of Rights 70
A Letter to Lord Ellenborough 72
A Vindication of Natural Diet 81
Essay on the Vegetable System of Diet 91
"There Is No God" 97
" I Will Beget a Son" 103
"Necessity! Thou Mother of the World!" 109
"And Statesmen Boast of Wealth" 113
"Even Love Is Sold" 115
A Refutation of Deism 118
A Fragment of "A Refutation of Deism" 138
Refutation of the Christian Religion 141
A Fragment on Miracles 143
The Assassins 144
Essay on the Punishment of Death 154
A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom 158
An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte 162
Essay on Love 169
Essay on Life 171
Essay on a Future State 175
Essay on the Revival of Literature 179
A Treatise on Morals 181
The Elysian Fields: A Lucianic Fragment 194
Essay on Christianity 196
Essay on Marriage 215
A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love 216
The Colosseum 224
A Philosophical View of Reform 229
Two Fragments on Reform 261
A System of Government by Juries 262
Essay on the Devil and Devils 264
A Defence of Poetry 275
Una Favola 298
A. Literary Criticism 303
B. Prefaces to Poems 314
C. Fragments and Minor Pieces 337
D. Translations of Longer Foreign Language Passages 354
Selected Bibliography 365
This book contains some relevant items I've not found online. I put this fragment on my web site and perhaps will add some more material:
On Polytheism (1819?)
Of course, Shelley's poetry is not to be neglected, and all of it can be found online:
The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Other online texts by Shelley can be also be referenced via Project Gutenberg:
Shelley, Percy Bysshe - Project Gutenberg
Scholarly materials abound. These are the best web sites on English Romanticism:
Romanticism On the Net
Monday, June 11, 2007
Whatever else you might say, anyone who could come up with a book title like Is God a White Racist? deserves a medal. Jones contains all the contradictions of a religious humanism: he dwells ideologically within the parameters of religious mythology while attempting to clean it up at the same time and make it answer to more enlightened needs. Except for the fact that it forces theologians to face up to certain questionable features of their superstitions, the reinterpretation of said superstition does not topple its cognitive authority, but perpetuates the imprisonment of intellectual energy within ideology.
The demythologization and higher criticism of religion has a history with a certain nobility in its earlier stages. Spinoza already did this to Judaism, taking considerable risk in an era before this was permissible. Left Hegelianism made a decisive historical contribution, following from the ambiguities of Hegel's position to David Strauss (also passing through Heinrich Heine), to the revolutionization of philosophy itself as well as religious criticism via the Young Hegelians from Bruno Bauer to Ludwig Feuerbach to Max Stirner and Karl Marx. However, not recognizing Marx's rupture of the closed circle of ideology, subsequent liberalizing or modernizing of religions tends to lapse into equivocating make-believe, the philosophy of "as if", and the exploitation of the malleability of symbolism. Religious liberalism and liberation theology have been pulling a sleight-of-hand for some time, but now religious fascism resurfaces to topple the liberal/radical facade.
In addition to the great title, Jones pushes the envelope on theodicy as the deciding issue in theology: whose side is God on? If you're interested in theology, you will find his pushing has made an impact and holds some interest. At the end of the day, if you have any sense you will find that secular humanism beats out the humanocentric theism Jones poses as the only other viable alternative. So maybe you can escape after all.
In his writings Jones has performed one other service: he coined a term that is absolutely hilarious— Whitianity!
To be thorough, he should have called its theological tradition Honkeology.
Jones was influenced most notably by existentialism and post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Albert Camus' The Rebel suggests that Golgotha can also be interpreted as divine misanthropy. Hence occasions of suffering—events in the world— lend themselves equally to opposing interpretations, referred to by Jones as multievidentiality. (8) Jones reviews skepticism about God's benevolence in black American literature. Especially notable is a passage in Nella Larsen's Passing. (38-9) Part I, then, sets up the issue of divine racism.
Part II is an internal critique of black theology, particularly of Joseph Washington, James Cone, Albert Cleage, Major Jones, J. Deotis Roberts. The non-religious reader will probably be least interested in this section.
Part III—Toward a Black Theodicy for Today—is the punchline, the most important section for those not sympathetic to the subject matter. In this section, Chapter XI—Toward a Prolegomenon to Black Theology (169-184)—is the chapter you most want to read. Jones argues that only two models for black liberation theology are viable—secular humanism and humanocentric theism. (172) Secular humanism is a viable option, but Jones prefers to explore the possibilities of humanocentric theism as the last hope for theism.
Jones was influenced by the parallel experience of Jewish suffering, the Holocaust being the last straw. He undertakes an analysis of the work of Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, in the balance of this chapter. (175-184) Rubinstein rejects the standard conception of God and God's role in history. God is really the cannibal goddess Earth! The only Messiah is death. Jones takes up the challenge to show that this alternate theodicy is not the only alternative. Rubinstein rejects secular humanism. Jones refutes this rejection, citing Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew. Jones cannot accept Rubinstein's pessimistic conclusions.
The final chapter—XII: Humanocentric Theism: A Theistic Framework for Ethnic Suffering— is Jones' alternative. The logic of his position is more interesting to me than the position itself. It removes the charge of white racism by stripping God of his sovereignty over human history. It also removes any excuses for the white oppressor. It also removes the option of quietism for the oppressed. (195)
Professor Emeritus, Dr. William R. Jones
Toward an Interim Assessment of Black Theology by William R. Jones
Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows by William R. Jones, The Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525.
Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology by William R. Jones reviewed by William Muehl
“Is God a White Racist?”, sermon by Rev. Dan Harper
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Process Theology: Guardian of the Oppressor or Goad to the Oppressed by William R. Jones, in Process Studies, pp. 268-281, Vol.18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.
The issue is whose side is the God of process theology on—on the side of the oppressed, the oppressor, or everyone (meaning the oppressor in practice)? Jones has a number of questions for process theology as he does for all others:
Given the factor of ethnic suffering, can one assume that God is good? Are not the interpretations that Miller cites — God is benevolent, indifferent demonic/evil — equally probable? Though the position of humanocentric theism accommodates the divine freedom in a manner that prevents making God responsible for the crimes of human history, it does so at the cost of making a demonic deity equally probable. As the divine joker in Bertrand Russell’s eschatological scenario illustrates (FMW), each and every instance of divine benevolence can, with equal validity, be interpreted as a divine misanthropy and malevolence.While I enjoy philosophical puzzles, if I am going to spend my time in a mythical universe, I might be better off going to a Star Trek convention, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or viewing The Lord of the Rings. While cults of any kind invite excess, the difference is to recognize without equivocation that a man-made fictional landscape is involved. Even if you're a cultist, at least you know the object of veneration is naught but a literary artifact. The discipline for analyzing such cultural artifacts is literary criticism or art criticism. Left/liberal theology is another matter. Liberal theologians are pushed towards the recognition that their sacred texts are fiction but can't just accept them as fiction; instead they play the game of "as if" in order to preserve an authoritative status for outmoded superstitions. So instead of good literary criticism we get bad metaphysics--liberation theology, process theology, death-of-god theology, post-Holocaust theology, feminist theology, black theology. A few of these fictional constructs may be of interest, but the whole enterprise is a sad waste of intellectual energy.
I must confess that the manner in which process theology affirms the benevolence of God over against the option of God as demonic or indifferent, is, for me, blatantly question-begging. Howard Burkle, for instance, purports to show that these options are not equally valid. However, the superiority he assigns to the option of benevolence rests on the question-begging foundation of a stipulative definition. The very idea that God may be demonic, he contends, is "inherently inconsistent and therefore not a possibility at all. God cannot be demonic because ‘God’ means ‘absolute perfection.’ If the dominant universal power is not perfectly good, there is no God" (GSB 77).
It would also appear that the logical and theological maneuvers that avoid God’s responsibility for the crimes of human history have several undesirable consequences: any appeal to the future becoming of the divine as preeminent events of liberation is ruled out; even more important, we are left in the dark about God’s character as demonic, indifferent or benevolent. Granting freedom to humans for example, is logically and theologically multievidential. Ultimately, this divine "grace" tells us nothing about whose side God is on or about the divine intent for the future of the human species and its oppressed communities. In what sense can we speak of a divine intent or telos in human history beyond the granting of freedom to humanity, a freedom that is acknowledged to be multivalent, an equal ground of being for good or evil?
Given the insights of humanocentric theism, we are also pushed to ask what it means to advance God, the transcendent, as the ground for the just society? Does it mean more than the claim that the transcendent is both the ground for human freedom/autonomy to operate as moral creator and foundation of the world in which this freedom is exercised? Or does it mean that ultimate reality sponsors, and thus guarantees, the ultimate triumph of specific activities in human history? That is, once humanity is given the status of moral creator, does ontological priority -- i.e., the transcendent -- still establish moral priority? It seems clear that the species of human freedom endorsed by humanocentric theism precludes, at the very least, any immediate movement from ontology to ethics, from the "is" to the "ought," without the intermediate operation of human evaluation. Is this an area where process theology ultimately grounds itself on a question-begging norm?
If there is some good that can come out of this bad medicine, it is that radicalizers of these traditions may on occasion push the envelope from within the mythical structures that religionists inhabit. Jones, by pushing theodicy as the question for oppressed peoples and following through on its internal logic, forces an alteration of the mythic structure of Christianity without abolishing it, and he pushes these questions with every theological system he encounters.
Process philosophy has attracted liberals and even some Marxists. It has linkages to the reactionary obscurantism of contemporary proponents of Daoism and Confucianism. It has linkages to biosemiotics and creationism. It's a slippery devil. Its linkages to liberation theology and particularly black theology enable more mischief. The best thing one can say is that Jones challenges the political implications of its metaphysics.
But sadly, there's more:
Hartshorne's Neoclassical Theism and Black Theology by Theodore Walker, Jr., in Process Studies, pp.240-258, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.
Alien Gods in Black Experience by Archie Smith, Jr., in Process Studies, pp. 294-305, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.
Walker defends process theology against Jones's doubts by adumbrating the differences between Hartshorne's theology and orthodox theism and showing its consonance with statements about God in connection with black liberation from the abolitionist movement on. No doubt such arguments were once useful in appealing to a religious populace, but to have to waste one's time on this nonsense to convince fools of something on the cusp of the millennium is just backward.
But Smith is much worse. Reviewing the literature on the subject, he concludes that there is a need for a holistic view of "relational reality" integrating material and spiritual forces and incorporating the concept of "principalities and powers". Unrecognized social forces are "alien gods" that "represent the visible and invisible principalities and powers that circumscribe human existence." An example of the trial of an Australian aborigine who killed his female companion is analyzed. I can't go on about this superstitious garbage.
The intellectual vampires of liberation theology are perfectly capable of perpetrating their obscurantist mischief without the help of process philosophy, but here we have yet another terrain in which it works its baleful influence. We can thank the liberal and radical mind-manipulators once again for muddying the waters of the human intellect.
My remarks on Whitehead & his influence:
Whitehead & Marxism: Selected Bibliography
Does anyone give good Whitehead?
Whitehead or Marx? Or, How to Process Philosophy
Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
January 2007 reading review (1)
Emergence: Theology or Materialism?
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
—Roy Grimes to his mother, in Go Tell It On the Mountain
“Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.”
— James Baldwin, "Letter from a Region in My Mind" (New Yorker, 17 Nov. 1962; reprinted in The Fire Next Time, 1963).
In this essay I explain my long-standing impulse to read Baldwin's first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953):
James Baldwin Revisited (1): Prolegomena
And here is my review:
James Baldwin Revisited (2): Go Tell It on the Mountain
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
Vonnegut was also honorary president of the American Humanist Asssociation.
Friday, May 25, 2007
I've thought about atheism and the arts from time to time. This author discusses visual art only, and only Christian art, with one passing reference to the art of the other two big monotheisms. His question is, how do atheists deal with religious art, not what kind of art do they themselves create. The responses are various, and the author doesn't delve into the matter too deeply.
Of the interviewees, Richard McBee doubts the ability of atheists to create convincing religious art, but concedes it takes more than religious belief to generate religious art, and more interestingly,
McBee believes atheists should be able to appreciate religious art better than believers, since they do not necessarily seek confirmation of existing beliefs, but they also must do their research.I haven't attempted to apply this principle to the visual arts, but I can confirm it with respect to literature. Two of my favorite authors, Blake and Melville, attract both atheists and believers, and invariably the religious aficionados are shallow and stupid. I find the same goes with the philosopher Spinoza. Perhaps it is no coincidence that all of three were heretics and would attract such a variety of devotees.
I myself can handle religious art that expresses the kind of things I want to express. I love the intensity of William Blake, which I appreciated even more when I saw the last major North American exhibit at the Met in New York. I was first acquainted as a teenager with Blake as a poet, and he has remained my lifelong favorite poet. But then he was a heretic and revolutionary.
As for Christian art, what spoils those Renaissance masterpieces for me are the boring themes of baby Jesus at the breast, and of course that awful crucifixion stuff. Get a life, people! I find Christ on the cross as repellent as does black atheist Reginald V. Finley Sr., who said: “How would we feel today if I wore a miniature bust of JFK around my neck with two bullet holes in his head?”
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
by Stephen Weldon
Religious Humanism, vol. 30, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1996, p. 30-39.
On the history of the science-religion warfare thesis, with reference to Sidney Hook, Paul Kurtz, and intellectual historian David Hollinger.
Contemporary secular humanists are almost unanimous in their opposition to anything called a religion, yet that was not always the case; secular humanism arose out of an influential religious tradition. During the first part of this century, radical Unitarians, members of Ethical Culture societies, and Reform Jews attempted to create a world view that was consonant with modern scientific knowledge, and they explicitly characterized their view as "religious." It was only during and after World War II that a growing number of humanists began to disavow that label, reserving it for supernaturalistic views.In 1943 Sidney Hook applied classicist Gilbert Murray's notion linking a failure of nerve to the decline of Hellenic civilization to a perceived irresponsible retreat to superstition at his own historical moment when the fate of democracy hung in the balance. Isaac Asimov's celebrated 1941 science fiction story "Nightfall" also expresses this fear. Paul Kurtz evinced a similar concern in the 1960s and '70s, alarmed at a rising tide of irrationalism, including occultism, pseudoscience, and New Age thought. He was followed by the popularizers Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan. It is no accident that the preponderance of these militant humanist intellectuals were Jewish.
Hughes, Langston. Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writing of Langston Hughes. Edited and with an introd. by Faith Berry; foreword by Saunders Redding. New York: L. [Lawrence] Hill, 1973.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Monday, May 21, 2007
Event: "The Existence of God: Theism vs Atheism": dinner party & panel discussion
Host: DC International Connection
Location: The Fireplace Mansion, Washington, DC
When: Saturday, May 19, 2007
Ralph Dumain (independent scholar) on atheism, irreligion, & rationality
See statement with web links & bibliography
Richard Akin (Alliance of Secularists USA), former Baptist minister turned atheist
Rick Wingove (American Atheists, Beltway Atheists), main speaker on the issue of "God or no god?"
Lori Lipman Brown (Secular Coalition of America), main speaker on church & state issues, moral atheism
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah - The National Synagogue [Orthodox]), main speaker defending the theist perspective
Click here for main speaker bios.
This program was organized in a hurry with some last-minute juggling. The format along with time constraints did not make it easy to do justice to everyone's interests. Some people found the diffuse directions of the presentations and the audience discussion left them wanting more. I was approached to participate in a future session focused on this topic, but I think other panelists with a greater interest in debating the existence of God would be more suitable. I'll explain momentarily.
Two of the speakers kept on topic: Richard Akin and Rick Wingrove explained how and why they came to reject the existence of a belief in God and why it matters to have evidence-based convictions and a rational system of morality.
The rest of us did not stick to the confines of the defined topic.
Lori Lipman Brown expounded her position on the separation of church and state, why people should not impose their religious beliefs on others, especially via the government, and why owning the label "atheism" is warranted given public opprobrium and discrimination against atheists.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld did not defend the existence of God, but rather the Jewish tradition, frequently inviting us to study with him. He was a surprisingly young man for an Orthodox rabbi, 32 years old by my calculation. One would think only an old man reared in a bygone age would fit such an occupation. He told jokes, acted amiably, but as I surmised from the beginning, he was not a good match for this alleged debate. The shtik couldn't disguise the lack of substance.
I was the first speaker. My presentation was a version of my written statement pruned to the minimum. I laid out what I considered to be the philosophical issues of public concern, spanning the continuum encompassing atheism, irreligion, and rationality. The existence of some abstract conception of God matters when attached to pseudoexplanations and pseudoscience. The notion of a personal God is insupportable, but dangerous mainly when combined with other claims. My argument is for irreligion, that is the rejection of faith, religious and other irrational beliefs and the inevitable authoritarianism of same. Finally, I argued for a broader outlook on irrationality and ideology, inter alia for the benefit of those who think it proves something to argue that Stalin produced a body count to rival that of religious tyranny.
The audience questions and comments were all over the place, as were the personal discussions afterward. Upon reflection, I am convinced that my perspective is correct, because when you listen to what concerns people, you will realize that they are no more interested in the abstract existence of God than I am: all their arguments revolved around other questions, involving parapsychology, paranormal phenomena, the status, validity and interpretation of sacred texts and religious traditions, scientific explanations, the existence of vital forces and life after death, etc. Of course, in theory one has to believe in God to believe in the sacred texts of theistic religions (though there is such a thing as Christian atheism!), but the existence of a god does not in any way justify the validity of any sacred text or religion. Nor does there have to be any god to account for paranormal phenomena if there is anything paranatural or parascientific to explain. The universe is just what it is, however weird it gets. (You've seen the T-shirt--"Taoism: shit happens [etc. etc.]"?)
But some people, pro and con, persist in thinking that the existence of God actually merits debate. Some have heard of the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, etc., and are aware of the relevant philosophical tradition. This is exactly what bores me. And, whatever they say, the majority of people don't really care, either, because they are really out to defend belief systems which they think they can justify by first asserting or proving that there is an omniscient, omnipresent, all-good, infinite, perfect Superfriend, then rationalizing away the discrepancies between this unconceptualizable entity and the actual world we experience, and then adducing revelations via the sacred texts of antiquity to justify more nonsense and create more contradictions.
Therefore, I think I am justified in claiming that the analysis of the persistently illogical, ideological, superstitious mind is more important than the analysis of philosophers' arguments for the existence of a supreme being. But as evidenced by the scattered and often off-the-wall comments from the audience, this is a wide-ranging problem that is very difficult to address comprehensively in a format such as this. History, sociology, psychology, parapsychology, cosmology, evolutionary theory, philosophy of science, history of religion, anthropology, hermeneutics--how on earth can anyone expect to plow through all these areas of enquiry in a disciplined fashion in such a short time, and how many of us are prepared to answer to all of these topics and condense them into sound bites at a moment's notice?
For a real intellectual debate any philosopher or theologian might have done the trick, but the participation of an orthodox rabbi out to defend something more than the existence of God complicated the issue. I was even more ill-disposed towards the rabbi after reviewing his web site (http://www.rabbishmuel.com) the night before the event. I checked out some of his commentaries under the rubric "social issues" and was appalled, beginning with his essays on intermarriage (part 1 and part 2). The attempt to apply outmoded, arbitrary, superstition-derived, ethnocentric perspectives and rules to the contemporary world could not be more superfluous, diversionary, and obscurantist.
The rabbi, surprisingly young, had a manner more akin to a liberal than to the conservative old grouch I anticipated. He agreed with the principle of church-state separation, not only in the USA, but in Israel. He admitted he was intellectually unprepared to defend the existence of God, and he proceeded to discuss the basic principles of Judaism. Having just arrived after the end of the Sabbath, he posed the question: why would a rational person want to observe Shabbos? He claimed that the fundamental principle of Judaism is: there is a God and it is not me, i.e. humility. He further cited Maimonides' negative theology: the infinite cannot be positively characterized or proven. Humility. He also claimed that the religious do not have a monopoly on authority or salvation.
This obviously is a rather unconvincing position, given that in a modern, pluralistic, democratic state we actually have the option of what to observe and how to behave and there is no possibility of acting out the horrors of Old Testament mores. Had I time I would have cited the diatribe by William Blake (no atheist!)against humility in his poem "The Everlasting Gospel". My rebuttal was very brief but cutting. I scolded him for sanitizing the religion. I listed a few reasons why a person would be interested in ritual observance nowadays when it is purely optional, e.g. the psychological need for structure, the feeling that one is important because one is obliged to follow certain rules.
But most of all I let him have it for his duplicitous claim to humility. Humility is a ruse intended to humble others. Humility is sneaky, manipulative and irresponsible. A person should forthrightly stake a claim, take a stand and take personal responsibility for it, without playing games. The rabbi in effect seeks to regulate other people's behavior, as evidenced by his defamation of intermarriage as a "holocaust" and his offensive injunction against it.
In response Rabbi Shmuck accused me of an ad hominem attack. He clarified his position that if Judaism is merely a culture, then there can be no objection to intermarriage, but if the goal is to perpetuate a spiritual tradition, then preservation of that tradition is the priority. However, I was not as careless in my reading of his position as he claimed. Indeed, in his writings he states that if Jews were just an ethnic group, then the prohibition on intermarriage would be racist, but since it's about the preservation of Jewish practice, then it's not. But the Jews are de facto an ethnic group and only by the arbitrary fiat of superstition can anyone commandeer them to fulfill an imaginary divine mission. Rabbi Shmuck responded in another interchange on church-state separation that coercion doesn't work, but he knows that the contemporary multicultural society is his enemy and he wants to turn the clock back while remaining contemporary, that is, not advocating stoning people to death as in days of yore. What a putz!
The rabbi had a number of fans in the audience, one of whom reiterated that buzzword humility. None of them seemed very bright.
An atheist questioner pressed him on all the horrible practices chronicled and sanctioned in the Old Testament--rape, genocide, etc. As these are not acceptable today, how does one salvage the good from the bad? The answer: study. The Hebrew Bible must be interpreted, and the cumulative body of oral law takes precedence. Judaism evolves while respecting tradition. (I suppose the rabbi would not favor Clarence Thomas, but I didn't get a chance to ask.) These difficult passages of the Bible create a lot of tension for us; no belief system is without inner conflict. He offers classes in the Talmud for free.
Another questioner asked how one can claim the Bible is given by God if there is no proof. The rabbi responded that revelation is a core value and he chooses to give it meaning. A demand for scientific confirmation of the work of God misses the point: it is a beautiful book and contains meaning before he the reader finds it.
To sum up, the rabbi is an idiot. His whole style--rhetorical flourishes, jokes, anecdotes, and the rest--reveals the manipulative techniques of a clergyman, in this case a distinctive Jewish style of working an audience. Yeah, he seems like a nice guy, but as a pusher of delusion he's a weasel.
I did not get an opening to interject my point on this absolutely key issue, that of interpretation (officially known as hermeneutics), upon which the rabbi's defense of Judaism turned. Now maybe you see why I think debating religion is much more important than debating the existence of God.
But I sensed there's more to all this nonsense, and I finally articulated it in a private conversation. There's a social subtext here, and it is social class. Below the surface lie the tacit social assumptions of the upper middle class, based on luxury.
In a modern, liberal democratic, semi-secular society, if one comes off as a nice, friendly guy, one may succeed in retooling authoritarianism for the upscale crowd via hermeneutic subterfuges, because the denizens of the upper middle class are all about respectability and finding "meaning" in life without having to suffer the consequences of the beliefs they believe they believe.
Bluffers and fakers like Michael Lerner, Cornel West, and now Barack Obama all play the same game, and when you come down to it, only their liberal upper middle class groupies are really buying it. The poor play their games of make-believe and fantasize about a make-believe world they could occupy. The professional middle class is privileged to live in a world of make-believe. The rabbi, a mere lad a generation younger than I (a baby-boomer), is as removed as the Man in the Moon from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe from which his great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents escaped; he inhabits an airy-fairy world a galaxy away from their poverty, ignorance, oppressed existence and oppressive customs, but instead of exulting in the liberation achieved via a painful upward climb through history, he runs and hides in an artificial fantasy world. If he had ever experienced the cramped mental universe of the ghettoes of his forebears, or those right here in our midst, he might be forced into an entirely different outlook on the liberation of the human mind. With upscale-colored glasses he can find beauty in the violent, ignorant nonsense of the past, but for those of us who don't have this luxury and know what freedom is worth, there is no greater beauty than a free mind.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Picking up on this, The Mindful Hack then quoted me, twisting my criticism of the skeptical movement to justify psi phenomena as a legitimate field of inquiry:
Thinkquote of the day: Skeptical of "skepticism".
This was in turn picked up by The ID Report.
There's no way of controlling how other people are going to use information. Hopefully someone will learn something from the material I put out.
See also my initial commentary on naturalism.org.
Written 16 Mar 2007:
I gave Victor J. Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis a quick read yesterday. It is far superior to Dawkins's latest book and I'm hoping it will ride the wave of the alleged "new atheism" to gain a wider readership than such books would likely have garnered in the past. I have some philosophical nits to pick with the book, but it is an excellent springboard, or baseline, to work from, and then work out some of the more esoteric philosophical issues as a follow-up.
The book focuses on scientific arguments pertaining to all aspects of the God hypothesis, and while not attempting to "prove" a case for atheism, it trashes the basis for any belief in a god exhibiting the standard divine attributes. Thus, while some God could conceivably survive such a treatment, its alleged properties would be constrained. For Stenger, what would be left would be nothing more than a weak deism with no real explanatory consequences.
Fortunately, Stenger does understand the difference between science and philosophy for the most part, and he supplements his science-based approach with some strictly philosophical considerations as to the coherence of certain god concepts on purely conceptual (rather than empirical, i.e. scientific) grounds. This is an improvement over Dawkins.
The most important thing to understand here is the demolishing of a scientific, empirical basis for belief in gods, paranormal phenomena, and nonmaterial self-subsistent entities. Or to put it any other way, God as an explanatory device for scientifically investigated phenomena. The other philosophical arguments are icing on the cake, and they take us a good part of the way to demolishing a rational case for any kind of God 99% of humanity including intellectuals would lay claim to. As I say, there are more refined philosophical issues remaining to be treated, but this is a good basis to work from for general public purposes.
Stenger references two books unfamiliar to me which seem to be central to addressing these purely philosophical issues: The Non-Existence of God, ed. Nicholas Everitt; The Impossibility of God, ed. Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier. I think such approaches are indispensable, as the basic conceptual problems with the god concept are as central as those involving empirical proof of such an entity.
I made pages and pages of notes and outlined a detailed review which I should publish online or perhaps better yet in print. In it I would also address what I consider to be the unfinished business of this genre.
Postscript, 26 March 2007:
There are two ways to conceive of the existence of god: (1) as an empirical entity like any other, (2) as a concept, bearing various definitions and attributes. The "proofs" of the impossibility of God do not pertain to (1), as such proofs are impossible. Rather, the philosophical proofs of God's non-existence would be based on the incoherence, self-contradiction, vacuousness, etc. of the concept. I presume such proofs would have to do with the alleged attributes of God's perfection.
The Dawkins approach, I would say, is rather simple-minded, but since it is addressed to a nation of simpletons who don't understand the nature of scientific explanation, I guess I shouldn't complain. In my view, though, (2) is as important, fundamentally even more important than (1).
The existence of a god as an empirical entity is the anthropological god, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Muhammed, yo mama. But the other god is the god of the philosophers, an abstract concept, the god the theologians attempt to hang on to, craftily shifting back and forth from the anthropological to the metaphysical god.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Someone recommended these texts as introductions to the relationship between Humanism and Socialism:
Paul Mattick, "Humanism and Socialism" (1965)
George Novack (William F. Warde, pseud.), "Socialism and Humanism" (1959)
As a rule American freethinkers, atheists, and secular humanists have no relevant background to evaluate these sources. Not being a proselytizer, I'm not out to convert people. Then again, I'm all for united fronts. My response below illustrates my caveats regarding the relation between abstract philosophical perspectives and social theory.
(1) I read Novack extensively many years ago, but I don't remember everything. I am less familiar with Mattick, though I do know in general what he wrote about. Are you interested in their thoughts on humanism, or in their specific theoretical analysis of socioeconomic systems? What do you seek to learn from them?
As for the connection of socialism with humanism, the issue immediately becomes more general and philosophical, which is fine, but then the specificity of history and politics and economics and sociology can get lost, if the discussion gets limited to very general principles.
Except for certain French intellectuals since the '60s (and their groupies), pretty much everyone in the socialist camp has seen socialism as inherently humanist, however we might view them.
But aside from that, there are so many different standpoints grouped under this general political rubric, I would not consider any text authoritative. I would need something more to go on about what a person wants to know before I would make recommendations for a particular reading trajectory.
(2) My reactions re Novack:
Generally, without a background re some author in question, it can be difficult to evaluate his or her statements, as there are unstated assumptions behind some of them.
Novack was an orthodox Trotskyist, a reasonably intelligent man who played an interesting historical role, most notably in organizing a counter-trial with John Dewey to oppose Stalin's frame-up of Trotsky.
With respect to this essay, I'll focus only on my quibbles.
(a) Novack states categorically that while Marxism and Humanism overlap, they are two different categories. But this is a bad move to make, for there is a misleading tacit assumption. He is equating "humanism" as a general concept with the de facto American humanist movement, as one can see viz. his remarks about Corliss Lamont. But this or that American humanist or group of them is one thing; "humanism" as a historical movement is broader, and "humanism" as an abstract concept, is not inherently synonymous with either of the two, certainly not with the former.
Novack is correct in his criticisms of prevailing tendencies among humanists in our neck of the woods, who are scientific materialists with respect to nature but fall down in their analysis of society. Many are social reformers as well, says Novack, but fail to go all the way.
But what is "all the way", exactly? I will defer this question for the moment.
(b) Socialist humanism: E.P. Thompson published his epochal The Making of the English Working Class in 1963. Novack's essay came out in 1959. At that time, Thompson's major work was a huge bio of William Morris. So yeah, Thompson had romantic tendencies, which also helped him break from the Communist Party of Britain, which like all such parties, made their intellectuals miserable.
And Irving Howe had his origins in the Trotskyist movement, though he became softer in the 1950s.
Now note that Novack is a defender of scientific socialism, and he is addressing the generation that has just discovered the "young Marx" as an alternative to Stalinism. Novack, whose original audience consisted of Trotskyist hacks, is out to warn his comrades of competing ideological tendencies, and is thus wary of the "reversion" to the young, humanistic Marx, shorn of political economy and scientific socialism.
However, Novack's admonitions show him in his role as a hack, defending one doctrine against another. While he is not exactly wrong, he is not completely on the right track either. This is because, on the philosophical plane, he has not calibrated the relationship between different levels of abstraction. Humanism is more philosophically abstract than a proper social theory--"scientific socialism" or any other--humanism is a philosophy of a very general nature, not specifically tied to a given sociology, politics, or even ontology and epistemology, even if it has a social history that can be traced and analyzed. That is, humanism consists of general tenets which overlap a number of different philosophical and political and social positions.
Novack collapses the general orientation of humanism as a concept into the specifics of its ideological trajectory and intellectual representatives, drawing the conclusion that those (in the Marxist camp, especially) who set their tents up under "Humanism" are decent progressives but deficient from the standpoint of Marxism, which for Novack means scientific socialism, where they should be setting up their tents.
But I would not make such an argument, first of all because my recommendations for people would have something to do with the actual claims they are making and their purposes for making them, and with respect to my purposes in interacting with them. But my purposes in interacting with people are not driven in all circumstances by schnorring for a particular political or theoretical position.
When you make reading recommendations, you have to take into account the presuppositions of the author and of the audience, and it is unwise to sic Novack on people without explaining where he is coming from first. I don't think Novack is the ideal introduction for people, because there is a lot assumed that should not be assumed in an introductory presentation.
(3) There is a Mattick Sr. and a Mattick Jr. and I am not clear whether their positions differ. But I'll go out on a limb. Mattick (I'll assume both for now) is not only anti-Stalinist, but also not a Trotskyist. His position is more radically different and he probably fits in closer to council communism and the state capitalism position, for those who know what these terms mean.
Mattick paints the ideological history of capitalism and its relation to humanism with a broad brush, and probably not for an entirely uninitiated audience.
Mattick then proceeds to the young, humanist Marx and then stresses his shift. For those who don't know, this means the shift from Marx in 1844 to Marx in 1845-6, as expressed in The German Ideology. And so we come to the end of Part II of Mattick's essay.
Now I don't disagree with his sketch, except for one subtle point, which may be difficult to explain in this brief post. When Mattick contrasts Marx's shift from a general position on human nature to a view on social humanity from the perspective of class society and class struggle, he is correct, sort of, but there's a very dangerous lacuna, a hole which countless people have fallen into. There's a shift in the level of abstraction. The old abstract humanism becomes invalidated, but I emphasize that this is so from the vantage point of a level of abstraction which functions at a level of explanation.
That is to say, I don't see abstract philosophical statements as worthy of being discarded once they are discredited as foundational explanatory positions. Philosophical general statements are still legitimate as long as they don't pretend to be social explanations. That's all I can say in the course of one post.
Mattick's take on "socialist humanism" is a cut above Novack's, because Mattick does not share the assumptions of orthodox Trotskyism which sees Stalinist states as degenerated workers' states.
However, Mattick fails to deliver the punchline on socialist humanism. I'm assuming he must think it a reaction which is limited, but from a theoretical and political base different from that of Novack.
But, in my view, like Novack, Mattick sees "humanism" as an inadequate position, because it only deals with alienation in general, not in its theoretically adequate social specificity.
While I don't exactly disagree, I don't exactly agree either. Why not? Because I conceive the relation between general philosophical statements and theoretical adequacy different from both gentlemen, because I recognize different levels of abstraction which can both work when not confused with one another.
What does this mean on a more down-to-earth level? It means the far left gives me a royal pain up my ass, whether it be Trotskyism, council communism, . . . or anarchism. Politically, I despise all these people (except Chomsky), while I can engage them on a more general critical level (though 99.9& of anarchists are idiots, and the other 0.1 % are analytically limited, and that includes Chomsky.)
I'm warning that texts such as these by Novack and Mattick should not be inflicted on an unsuspecting public without thinking through what one hopes to accomplish in doing so. Too much is being assumed.
I don't like the far left because its politics are childish. There is a lack of mediation between their abstract positions and real world interventions. Which means, in the context of the secular humanist movement under discussion, that there is a lack of mediation between general positions on Marxism and on its relationship to humanism, and on the relationship of both to practical political action.
(4) As a counterweight to Novack and Mattick, I heartily recommend two books I have just read, both by Stephen Eric Bronner:
(1) Reclaiming the Enlightenment,
(2) Ideas in Action.
Both deal with ideological and political history. The first leans more towards the general ideas of interest to us, because of the inherent interconnection between the Enlightenment and humanism. The second delves more into political philosophies and their practical histories.
Now as a nitpicker I have some philosophical subtle criticisms of Bronner, but in the less esoteric realm I broadly agree. The punchline is that Bronner has an animus against far left romanticism, and he reminds me why I can't stand these people, even though I have just as little patience with conventional liberals and thoughtless realpolitik.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Book review written 20 March, 6 April, 7 April 2007. Originally written in 4 installments on my Freethought Forum blog. Comments attached to these installments are mostly off-track. Of my responses, the most directly relevant are appended below.
Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub., distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.
Is there anything new to be said in favor of atheism, some argument that hasn’t been presented thousands of times before? There is probably little new to say, but aside from the perennial need to break through the defense mechanisms of an intractably irrational humanity, there is always a social subtext underlying the recurrent rounds of atheist assertion. In the USA and across the English-speaking world, we have a pretty good feel for what that is now. But when literature is translated from one language to another, can we be sure we know what is behind the ostensible argument of the text? While it is good to see Michel Onfray’s work now rendered into English, its underlying motive has not been translated, and so we must do some sleuthing to suss out its tacit presuppositions and motives.
It is almost impossible to be a French intellectual without having some highly valued cultural capital behind you. An argument is not just an argument; it enters intellectual space competing for attention not only in ways familiar to us, based primarily on good P.R., but competing for social status based on traditional European intellectual hierarchies. Onfray’s book is prefaced by a quote from Nietzsche, which, we can guess, is not only a quote from Nietzsche, but an announcement to his French audience that Onfray is playing with the big boys. Nietzsche, god of the postmodernists, has been a dominant figure in au courant French philosophy at least since the beginning of the ‘60s.
In his preface Onfray evocatively recounts his encounter with a devout Muslim in the Mauritainian desert. Onfray notes the capacity of this pious and good man to deny the evils of his religion and to see only what he wants to see in a belief system he is in fact much better than. This sets the stage for the book. In the introduction Onfray states his compassion for the victims of religion, reflecting the eternal human inability to face reality. He refuses to feel superior in any way to deluded believers, reserving his contempt for priestcraft, i.e. for the exploiters of the devout. Onfray is more pro-Enlightenment than the original Enlighteners. The mainstream of French deism opposed its more radical wing. In Germany Kant wimped out when it came to religion and morality.
Onfray decides to exploit the term ATHEOLOGY, coined by Georges Bataille in 1950 in a communication to Raymond Queneau. This might not mean a great deal to the uninitiated American reader, but this is a serious marshaling of cultural capital, as Bataille of the famous College of Sociology in the 1930s is a great hero of the postmodernist crowd, and Queneau is known as an associate of the surrealists and a co-founder of Oulipo. Onfray forgets to mention, though, the crypto-fascist undertones of Bataille’s obsession with primitive rituals and secret societies.
Chapter 1 begins with the claim that the death of God has been greatly exaggerated. Even the term “atheism,” a negative term, reveals how its history has been skimped on. Onfray delves into the etymology (15). The recorded history of “atheism” is largely a history of libellous theist propaganda. This has affected the history of philosophy as a whole, as anti-Christian philosophers have been eclipsed. Many celebrated heretics were not in fact atheists though condemned as such. Spinoza, for example, though excommunicated was no atheist and never declared himself such.
Chapter 2 begins with the question, who was the first outspoken atheist? Cristóvão Ferreira, A Jesuit who renounced Christianity (The Deception Revealed, 1636) was a great forerunner. But the honors go to Jean Meslier (1729), a primary object of Onfray’s scholarship. Other French Enlighteners are mentioned, but the atheist heritage of even the famous names is slighted in the history of philosophy: La Mettrie, Nicolas Deschamps, Baron d’Holbach, Helvetius, Sylvain Marechal, and the Ideologues.
The next major leap is instituted by Ludwig Feuerbach, who has also been largely forgotten, except as a precursor to Marx. Feuerbach was exploited by Louis Althusser who used him to bolster his thesis for Marx’s “epistemological break.”
The final milestone is . . . voila: Friedrich Nietzsche.
Onfray claims that religion has now been smuggled back into [French] intellectual/public life, but we are experiencing the birth pangs of a post-Christian era.
The third chapter sets up Onfray’s agenda. We have not advanced beyond the stage outlined by Nietzsche. We don’t live in a non-religious age, but we do live in an age of nihilism, announced by 19th-century writers, including Dostoevsky. Regardless of the loss of traditional religions, people still believe in the need for “something” more. This is what Onfray attacks: “Atheism implies the banishing of transcendence. With no exceptions.” (46)
Citing Foucault’s notion of invisible epistemology, Onfray asserts that the West is still dominated by Christian discourse. (47) French jurisprudence, for instance, is ostensibly secular, but implicitly it is still Catholic. (49) The same obsolete notion of free will and the moralistic torture of humanity prevail.
Religious institutions encourage memory and rote behavior but not learning or critical reflection. (52) Las Casas defended Indians but not their books against obliteration, nor did he defend Africans as fully human in his lifetime. (54) Religionists have a selective memory.
At most we have a tradition of clerical freethinking. We need what Deleuze calls “quiet atheism”. We must confront the final obstacle, “atheist Christianity,” which retains Christian morality. We need a really “atheistic atheism”, that is post-Christian and post-nihilist, beyond both nonbelieving churchiness and anticlericalism. (57) The English philosophers Bentham and Mill should be revisited. (58)
This book aims at the deconstruction of (1) the three main monotheisms, (2) Christianity, (3) theocracy. Despite the conflicts among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they share fundamentals—priestcraft and a hatred of intelligence and life. (59) Paul, the founder of Christianity, was a masochist sadistically inflicting his belief system upon the world. (60)
Such is the book’s agenda. Note also the mustering of the darlings of the postmodern dispensation, Foucault and Deleuze. Clearly, this approach has a meaning in the original French context which is not fully transparent to the average American and other anglophone reader. If what Onfray says about the slights in the history of philosophy and the prevalence of Catholic morality in his neck of the woods holds water, it is certainly worth analyzing and addressing. Still, his agenda, to this American reader, seems very French in another way—pretentious, overblown, and at the end of the day, trite. The French radical intellectual’s preoccupation with grand metaphysical antimetaphysical interventions may be an effective way of muscling into the intense competitiveness in the domain of French cultural capital, but really, is there a whole lot to these portentous generalizations? The Atheist Manifesto is not just an atheist manifesto, as it would be for us in the English-speaking world; it is an intervention in French intellectual life by a pretender to the throne, yet it seems to me to be saying something rather old and unimportant and ultimately no more sophisticated than Dawkins’s banalities. As for the truly affirmative, post-Christian, post-nihilist age, this pretense of standing on Nietzsche’s shoulders to declare a brand new epoch just does not impress me at all.
In the first part of my review I suggested that Onfray was exhibiting the pretentious puffery characteristic of French philosophy. But anything objectionable of that sort was over with by the end of the first part of the book, i.e. the first sixty pages. While the balance of the book does not say anything strikingly new or different from the usual anti-religious fare—what does?—it is nonetheless a searing indictment of just about everything that is wrong with the three major monotheistic religions.
A survey of this sort should not have stopped with the evil that came out of the Middle East nor with monotheism. Certainly there is no more despicable religious system than Hinduism, which embodies every bit of superstitious belief, ritual, taboo, violence, viciousness, exploitation, and racism of any creed known to man. Except for its penetration into New Age thought, which has an historical connection with fascism, Hinduism presents no palpable menace outside of South Asia, so perhaps it is no surprise that Onfray by and large limits himself to the three monotheisms that have the greatest impact on the world political stage. Still, it is potentially dangerous to limit one’s scope to the three monotheisms without at least a caveat. Occasionally Onfray deals with the more general background of religion and superstition, but it is left to us to fill in the blanks as to how and why religion and magical thinking have evolved as they have.
In part two, on monotheisms, Onfray does in fact begin with generalities.
I. The Tyranny of Afterlives
The preoccupation with the afterlife is a way of cheating death, paradoxically accelerating death by incorporating it into life. Religion is a manifestation of a death wish. Monotheism incorporates a hatred of freedom, reason, intelligence, desire, sexuality, and women. It extols obedience and submission. (67) The tree of knowledge is forbidden, i.e. to gaze upon the naked truth (pun intended). There are taboos and an obsession with purity. But does purification of the body entail respect for the body? No, for purification rituals are not about hygiene. (75)
II. Bonfires of the Intelligence
The religions—here Christianity and Islam are mentioned—resorted to book-burning in order to establish the authority of the Book. They exhibited an implacable enmity towards science except for its religious appropriations. (81) Sacred texts monopolize and lay an exclusive claim to knowledge.
The Church has compaigned against all materialist philosophy from Democritus on. (83ff) Why is the Church so opposed to any hint of materialism? One reason is the need for transubtantiation. (86ff) The Church persecuted the philosophy of atomism and combatted the claims of all major scientific advances up through the discovery of DNA. (88–89)
III. Seeking the Opposite of the Real
Religion populates the cosmos with angels, but it is the fallen angels who are the harbingers of freedom. (98) “Paradise” is an anti-world, a clarion call for battle. Religion is the guardian of procreation, replete with misogyny, homophobia, anti-abortionism.
The story of Origen exemplifies the religious celebration of castration. Sexual regulations simulate this state. The countless circumcision rituals, scarification practices, foot-binding, neck-elongation—all forms of ritual initiation, body deformation, mutilation, and real castration—are manifestations of this impulse. Onfray concludes: “God loves the maimed.” (109)
This concluding section, as well as the opening statements of Part II, are the places where Onfray generalizes beyond the three monotheistic religions under examination. Clearly these practices reach back to the origins of humanity, and require more than these general psychological explanations, though they are a start and do indeed enumerate some of the essential issues behind the fear and violence of myth and ritual. None of this is unique to monotheism, but so far, Onfray is doing pretty well. It’s a shame he doesn’t mention Wilhelm Reich, who came to some pretty drastic general conclusions himself about the primal fear that engendered magical thinking, as he himself teetered on the edge of sanity and slipped over.
“Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.”
Part III is devoted to Christianity.
I. The Construction of Jesus
The historical existence of Jesus has not been established. The history of Christianity is replete with forgery, destruction of libraries, book burning, interventions by scribes, persecutions. As Christianity’s history is a forgery, the historical record cannot be trusted. (117)
Jesus is a result of the hysteria induced by the Roman Empire. (119)
Onfray ventures into textual analysis, finds in the Christian scriptures borrowed themes and similar rhetorical strategies to prior works in the Mediterranean region. (120ff) “The miraculous turns its back on history.” (124) The Gospel genre is performative. (125) Historical truth does not matter; myth-making is self-deception. Even a redaction of the myth over centuries could not remove its contradictions and improbabilities. (126) “Jesus was thus a concept.” (129)
II. The Pauline Contamination
Paul was “a hysterical, fundamentalist Jew,”his character pathological, his ideology imbued with brutality, sadomasochism, and sexual morbidity. (131ff) He manifests the joy of submission, the adoration of suffering and misery (137), the hatred of learning and intelligence (138–139).
III. The Totalitarian Christian State
Constantine was a hysterical monster. He turned on the very magic, superstition, and paganism in which he was schooled, building a Christian empire, the first totalitarian state (145). He provided the model for all totalitarian regimes, which trod the path from victims to victimizers. (146ff) The tactics: torture, murder, destruction of libraries and cultural artifacts, propaganda, absolutism; monopolization of violence, communications, organization, private life.
Part IV is titled “Theocracy.”
I. Selective exploitation of texts
Onfray explicates the difficulty of establishing the origins of sacred texts, which were subject to clerical monitoring and control and limited availability outside the clergy. The canons of the three religions were established over centuries. Collectively, their time span adds up to 2700 years. The sum total is an incoherent hodgepodge full of contradicitons which enable cherry-picking of texts to prove anything at all.
The religious traditions are predicated on double standards. The Ten Commandments? “Thou shalt not kill” really means “thou shalt not kill other Jews.” The Gospels are both pacifist and warlike. (164–166) Hitler loved the story of Jesus chasing out the moneylenders. (166) There was a symbiosis between Hitler and Islam. (167ff) The Koran is riddled with contradiction on every page. (168–172) Is there a feminist Koran? A peaceable Koran? How can opposites be rationalized? (173)
II. In the Service of the Death Fixation
Historically, cherry-picking justified the worst, not the best options within these traditions. Monotheism is fixated on death. (176)
Judaism invented monotheism and holy war—the whole mess. (178) Priestcraft existed before, but it was adapted to new ends. Moses was an empire-builder who wrote a prescription for butchery.
Christianity from Paul on sanctioned temporal power as divine—”render under Caesar.” Anti-Semitism was sanctioned in the New Testament. The Vatican colloraborated with all anti-Semitism from the beginning up to and including Nazism. (182ff) The Vatican was linked with Hitler from first to last. Both targeted the same enemies: Jews and communists. (184ff) Was Hitler a pagan? An atheist? He loved the Vatican. (187) There are numerous points of similarity between Catholicism and Nazism. They are not fortuitous but a product of the whole history of Christianity. (188–189)
The Vatican sanctioned the atom bomb. (191)
Love of neighbor? Slavery was sanctioned from the Old Testament to the Middle Passage, and Islam practiced it too.
Zionism is not expansionist or internationalist. It seeks dominion over one territory alone. (195, but note criticisms elsewhere)
The Catholic Church invented ethnocide. (195) The Church Christianity has embraced mass extermination from the beginning to Rwanda. (196–197).
Onfray summarizes the death instinct of the three monotheisms. (197–198)
Before moving on to the final chapter, I want to note that this is all good stuff, but certain generalizations are not well supported. First, Onfray specifically targets monotheism but not priestcraft or class-based religion in general. He erroneously assumes that the Hebrews invented monotheism and that it is qualitatively different from what preceded. But if Judaism was truly an ideological innovation in empire-building, its novelty and relationship to other religious ideologies needs to be precisely delineated. As usual, Onfray leaves out of account the religions of South and East Asia, including the unspeakable barbarism of Hinduism. Outside of the scope of this book, but which we should also keep in mind, is a sociological, historical account of the development of religion which would supply a level of explanation that psychology-based generalizations cannot.
Chapter III of Part IV is its final chapter and the final chapter of the book. It is titled “Toward a Post-Christian Secular Order,” but, oddly, it is mostly about Islam.
Onfray traces Islamic blood-lust back to its very beginning. Islam is inherently hierarchical, discriminatory, and exclusionary, monstrous and retrograde. It is incompatible with the Enlightenment. (Later he says that Islam is structurally archaic; it is not liberalizing and cannot accommodate the Enlightenment: 209ff.) It is the patriarchy of herdsmen defying time. (202) Its discrimatory nature is codified in the concept of dhimma, a notion that institutionalizes the “yellow star” that the Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. (203–204) Islamic society is a closed society opposed to democracy. (204ff)
Onfray also delves into its contemporary fascist incarnation, particularly the hijacking of the Iranian revoluton of 1978 by fundamentalism. (206ff) Foucault, who was pro-Khomeini, was inexcusably ignorant about the true nature of this counter-revolution in the revolution. (207) (Note: Foucault is again mentioned on p. 214.) I will return to this point later.
Onfray summarizes the “mystical logic” of the fusion of fascism, populism, and Islam. (211ff)
The 21st century is shaping up as a monotheist holy war between the Judaeo-Christian USA and Islam. Must we choose between them? (214)
Onfray opposes “religious secularism.” Freethinkers are still too holy. Even their vitriol is reminiscent of their enemies. (215ff) In effect we see a secularization of Judaeo-Christian morality.
Moral handbooks in republican schools preach the excellence of the family, the virtue of work, the need to respect one’s parents and honor the old, the rightness of nationalism, patriotic obligations, mistrust of the body and passions, the beauty of manual labor, submission to political authority, duty to the poor. (216–217)
This obviously addresses French conditions, and I lack the background to evaluate these assertions. If they are correct, the middle class respectability that tends to accompany secular humanism is much worse in France than it is in the USA.
Another curious assertion:
While the epistemology remains Judaeo-Christian, secularism acts as if religion no longer impregnates and imbues consciences, bodies, and souls. (217)
My guess is that French secularism is quite different from what it is in the USA, and official society there simply sweeps the real psycho-cultural life of society under the rug.
Finally, Onfray broaches his perspective on a post-Christian secularism. (218–219) The notion of the equality of belief systems is wrong. There is a war on between Enlightenment and magic, between philosophy and priestcraft, between this-worldliness and otherworldliness. And the final words of the book:
They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuine deadly sin. (219)
Now let us recall that the book is refreshingly free of French philosophical cant once the first part of the book is past. In this final chapter we find that Foucault’s misguided embrace of Islamic fundamentalism is a matter of some importance to Onfray, but curiously, he fails to account for Foucault’s lapse. Is it so mysterious, though, why the illiberal anti-humanism, the reactionary vitalist Nietzscheanism of French radical chic, the intellectual slumming and rhapsodizing over the body from the privileged sanctuaries of the academic elite, should finally stumble back to its natural home, fascism? In any case, Onfray’s silence on this matter is baffling, given the trouble he took to criticize Foucault at all. Then again, I may be baffled only because there is a French subtext to this intervention that eludes me.
To sum up, the book is very good for what it does. A few books attacking religion from various angles may add up to a formidable array. This is quite a different angle of attack from Stenger, who attacks theism and religion from the standpoint of science. Onfray condenses the miserable historical record of pathology of the three Abrahamic religions. His lacunae, as I have mentioned before, are that his account is abstractly psychological and that it unnaturally isolates monotheism as the culprit from other magical and religious belief systems without even providing a sociohistorical account of monotheism. Perhaps there is a deeper reason for these omissions than simply the need for focus. One would have to consult Onfray’s other works in French to make this determination. Now that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, limited as they are, have opened the doors to the best seller lists and the op-ed columns and the electronic media, perhaps more substantial fare can squeeze its way in as well. But the severe ideological limitations on public discourse in America, especially under conditions of political repression and media manipulation, may preclude more radical interventions on the religious question from getting through. This book, however, is a useful weapon in the arsenal.