Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eddie Glaude Jr. & the bankruptcy of the black religious intellectual

I commented on philosopher-theologian Eddie Glaude Jr. in March 2007 on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog:

Tavis Smiley meets Eddie Glaude: Black pragmatism in action

I singled out what I considered to be the strategic essence of his ideological positioning: "a combination of ethnic provincialism and the impersonal rhetoric of professional philosophy, creating an illusion of intellectuality combined with community engagement." Analyzing his deployment and intertwining of two cultural code languages, I concluded: "The combined code of bourgeois professionalism and ethnic provincialism is pretty slick."

Glaude is in the news again, and once again ideological scrutiny is in order.

"A call to give religion full voice in the public square," USA Today, December 9, 2008.

Glaude spoke on race and religion at the second annual Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Key West. (The full transcript should soon be available at Glaude complained that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were unjustly forced to mitigate their expression of the religious basis of their political convictions. Note carefully the basis of Glaude's complaint, as reported here:
Glaude observed both men seemed to say that democracy demands religiously motivated people translate their concerns into universal, not sectarian, terms, that a religion’s claim to truth is not sufficient or persuasive.

But, Glaude said this would mean only those who argue from reason, i.e. facts or science, not from revelation, can make their case in the public square. Revelation can be subjective, personally interpreted, and relevant only within a religious community not beyond it, he said.

Glaude views such enforced translation into universal secular terms is conducive to an “unchristian result", whereby politicians cannot authentically express their real convictions. The nauseating obscurantism and ignorance embedded in this perspective reveals the menace that lies concealed in the ideological interventions of today's left-liberal clergy. The very essence of a secular society and secular democracy is the presumption that only rationalistic, universalistic criteria are legitimate in the public square, and that neither institutions nor policy can be based on religious revelation or supernaturalist superstition, though in their capacity as private individuals people have the right to believe and express whatever nonsense they choose. Glaude's advocacy of the irrationalist pollution of political discourse is a manifestation of a decaying society and its prevailing rightist tendencies. Was the religious left of earlier generations as bad as this?

Now see:

Black church and politics in the Obama era by Michael Paulson, The Boston Globe, December 8, 2008.

Glaude highlighted the racial dimension of the election and its aftermath, mentioning also the speculation over whether Obama will enroll his family in a black church in Washington. Glaude scoffed at the notion of a post-racial historical moment, though the emergence of black leaders who never experienced American apartheid marks a historical shift. Glaude also contemplated the impact of Obama's presidency on the black church.

"How will black suffering speak publicly? [. . . ] "Wherever power is operating, there is a role for a prophetic voice, but it's going to be complicated because a black man is running the empire.''
I don't disagree with this last point, which at least alludes to a sociological perspective that could be delineated much more clearly than Glaude's otherwise murky ethno-religious perspective.

This next article is even more revealing of the issues:

Trends beyond black vote in play on Prop. 8 by Matthai Kuruvila, San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2008.

This article highlights the uncomfortable implications of the reported claim that "70 percent of African Americans voted to ban same-sex marriages in California." However, many commentators warn that improper conclusions may be drawn from this statistic, including a tendency to place the blame or credit squarely on blacks for the outcome of this vote:
But demographers say the focus on one race not only disregards the complexity of African American identity but also overlooks the most powerful predictors affecting views on same-sex marriage: religion, age and ideology, such as party affiliation.
Faith is emphasized as a key factor:
A number of black gay and lesbian Christians say the No on 8 campaign underestimated the role of faith in the election. The impact of poor religious outreach was compounded in the African American community, where the church remains the single most powerful organizing force.

Historically black churches, which have a diverse array of denominations, include many with a long tradition of biblical literalism, said Professor Eddie Glaude, who teaches religion and African American studies at Princeton University. Glaude said many black churches in the 1960s believed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was "too radical."
Glaude is quoted:
"Failing to engage the black Christian community is a failure to understand that there's an internal argument to be had among all Christians about how we ought to understand same-sex love [...]"
It's a shame that this Princeton prof can't dig beneath such banality to get to the bedrock issue. As long as religious authority holds sway, an internal religious dialogue aimed at liberalizing religious dogma is undoubtedly better than nothing, but the problem with the black Christian community runs deeper than theological disputation. Liberal middle-class professionals who occupy a genteel world have the luxury of a pretend open-mindedness that blinds them to the viciousness undergirding social institutions, the popular imagination, and their manipulation by power-brokers. The failure of black intellectuals, in a post-apartheid era no less, to challenge the authoritarianism and backwardness of the black church, not just in terms of specific positions, but in its fundamental nature, is appalling. Traditionalism, authoritarianism, and religious orthodoxy are fueled by a culture of ignorance and fear. Without challenging the fear-based cultural basis of the black church-- its pretense to a love ethic notwithstanding--and without challenging its obsolete provincial ethnic basis, the black intellectual becomes a traitor to the intellectualism that got him where he is. To be a socially conscious black intellectual in a post-apartheid era wherein the class divide within the black population marks a historically new problematic is better than simply jumping ship and shifting one's loyalty entirely to the upper classes, but an ethnically and religiously based ideology is an inadequate posture. Glaude is a protege of Cornel West and his vacuous "prophetic pragmatism". It's too bad the Ivy League fails to yield better than this.

Glaude is also quoted in a Pew Forum article on Obama:

"Does Obama need to find a black church to call home?" by Adelle M. Banks, December 9, 2008.

Obama's engagement with Jeremiah Wright and his church remains an enigma, meaning, as does everything with Obama, all things to all people. To what extent Obama's self-reportage of his motivations and his faith is authentic is only one question, for the deep question of ideology is how people fool themselves, not others, how they dwell within an ideological universe whose real operation remains obscure to them. Obama's earlier association, which did him well in Chicago black politics, proved to be an impediment to his presidential ambition, though obviously not an insurmountable one. Obama's church affiliation compounded the ambiguity of his political self-presentation, attacked or defended by the right and left on bogus grounds. I agree with Adolph Reed Jr., who termed Obama a neoliberal fraud. Cornel West is a much gentler critic as well as an Obama supporter, but West's own Christian rhetoric blurs the analytical contours needed to assess the situation.

Elements of the black religious left continually vaunt the phrase "speak truth to power," but they continually blunt the still-forbidden truth that needs to be spoken.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Michel Onfray reviewed again

I've blogged about Michel Onfray, his Atheist Manifesto, and his hero Jean Meslier a number of times. I just have a few notes to add now. First of all, note this detailed review of Onfray's book published last year:

Layton, David. "A Fresh Look at Atheism and the Enlightenment," Free Inquiry, vol. 27, no.4, June/July 2007, pp.64-65.

In addition to highlighting Onfray's key points, Layton calls attention to specifically French aspects of Onfray's writing. While skeptical of some of Onfray's assertions and arguments, Layton enumerates three objections at the end: (1) Onfray takes too many shortcuts, especially in his treatment of history; (2) Onfray tends toward rhetorical sloppiness; (3) in propounding a manifesto, Onfray projects a post-Christian future sans evidence to back himself up.

My reaction to Onfray's manifesto inclcuded its specifically French undertone and characteristic pretentiousness. Perhaps prevailing French mores are still so bourgeois that its atheists perserve respectable Christian morality even after dumping God, but I wonder whether that's true or just a conceit? The call to reject moralism and embrace physical existence doesn't sound awfully revolutionary in our time. I'm beginning to wonder whether Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto attacks only monotheism because Onfray was influenced by Nietzsche. Perhaps Nietzsche's approbation of the sickening Laws of Manu were responsible for Onfray's omission of Hinduism from his catalogue of religious horrors?

I was prompted to think about this after perusing Brian Leiter's Nietzsche blog, particularly this entry of 6 Dec. 2007:
"the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced"

That is how Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is one of the contenders for the Republican nomination to be U.S. President, described this idea: "The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life." Admittedly, in the American context, this is partly code language for opposition to abortion, but putting the parochial peculiarities of American politics to one side, Romney is surely right that the "inherent and inalienable worth of every life" is, indeed, "the most revolutionary political proposition" of modernity (perhaps ever). It is equally clear that the basis he offers for it--namely that "every single human being is a child of God"--is (viewed as a cognitive, rather than an emotive, proposition) false.

But when Nietzsche mocks the "free thinkers" who "oppose the Church but not its poison" (GM I:9) is he not thinking precisely of those who reject the false cognitive proposition but still accept that "most revolutionary political proposition," precisely the one discovered by those Nietzsche calls the "slaves" at the birth of Christianity?
Here is my reaction of 10 July 2008:
Not terribly insightful on anyone's part. But now I think I understand Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto better. He cut and pasted some Nietzsche . . . To analyze Nietzsche's assertion, though, requires a bit more. One item on the agenda is to examine what the German socialists had to say about Christianity. Was the moral poison the moralistic illusions about Christianity, or the egalitarianism so hated by Nietzsche?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spinoza's language & alleged atheism

The blessed Baruch Spinoza has been interpreted in various ways, one of them as a covert atheist by opponents and fans alike. Traditionally, anyone not a standard theist, or extremely heterodox, even if not an avowed (or even tacit) atheist, could be labelled an atheist. In the past century or more, materialists and atheists have been tempted to view Spinoza as one of their forerunners. However one wishes to interpret Spinoza, a key entry point into this conundrum is Spinoza's transmutation of inherited metaphysical concepts and hence of accepted philosophical terminology. See this entry on another of my blogs:

Spinoza’s Semantics

You will find further links there, including these:

Spinoza & Marxism: Selected Bibliography (with Basic Spinoza Web Guide)

My Yiddishe Spinoza (entry in old blog)

Leibniz (entry in old blog)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lenin on atheism, materialism & popular education (2)

I had not intended to delve into this subject, but now that I have started it, I must add another key article by V.I. Lenin: "On the Significance of Militant Materialism" (12 March 1922), in Lenin’s Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), Volume 33, 1972, pp. 227-236. First published in Pod Znamenem Marksizma, No. 3, March 1922. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

In this article Lenin dwells on the need for atheist literature, inter alia recommending the lively writings of the 18th century Enlightenment for purposes of popularization. While this literature is outdated in certain respects, it can easily be updated and supplemented and still compares favorably with less exemplary contemporary writings, whether they be dull, content-poor specimens of atheist literature or the deceptions of liberal wafflers pushing their own brand of religiosity or purporting to avoid "extreme positions". It is also vital to combat the misuse of new scientific theories (Einstein's relativity at the time of writing) for new forms of mystical-idealist obscurantism. Lenin also proposes an alliance of scientists and (dialectical) materialist philosophers to address the need for philosophical clarification of innovations in scientific knowledge, ideally a sort of “Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics”.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Lenin on God-concepts, liberalized religion, & political orientation

Even with the near-instantaneous accessibility of information thanks to the digitization of information, finding a specific piece of information you know exists can be time-consuming. In this case, there are two factors involved: (1) inaccuracy in memories of information acquired decades ago, (2) variations in translations from foreign languages. Hence it took me a long time to track down the source of a quote in this letter:

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written on November 13 or 14, 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 121-124 [#55]. First published in Pravda No. 51, March 2, 1924. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

Here Lenin reads Gorky the riot act for indulgence of the "god-building" tendency among the Russian intelligentsia. Here is the key phrase, in this translation:
Just because any religious idea, any idea of any god at all, any flirtation even with a god, is the most inexpressible foulness, particularly tolerantly (and often even favourably) accepted by the democratic bourgeoisie—for that very reason it is the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful “infection”. A million physical sins, dirty tricks, acts of violence and infections are much more easily discovered by the crowd, and therefore are much less dangerous, than the nubile, spiritual idea of god, dressed up in the most attractive “ideological” costumes.
The force of the first sentence is diluted by the choice of words. As it turns out, this phrase is quoted constantly by right-wing Christians, translated thusly (source of translation unknown):
Every religious idea, every idea of god, every flirtation with the idea of God is unutterable vileness. . . . vileness of the most dangerous kind, 'contagion' of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions . . . are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of a God . . .
Usually the quote cuts off at the first ellipsis. Now isn't this a much more forceful translation?

The full argument should be read. The gist is that the insinuation of watered-down, feelgood notions of God are much more subtly insidious than the gross abuses perpetrated by religionists.

Lenin elaborates his thinking in a subsequent letter:

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written in the second half of November 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 127-129 [#58]. First published in 1924 in Lenin Miscellany I. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

On the masking effects of liberalized religion:
Like the Christian socialists (the worst variety of “socialism”, and its worst distortion), yon make use of a method which (despite your best intentions) repeals the hocus-pocus of the priests: you eliminate from the idea of God everything about it that is historical and drawn from real life (filth, prejudices, sanctified ignorance and degradation, on the one hand, serfdom and monarchy, on the other), and instead of the reality of history and life (here is substituted in the idea of God a gentle petty-bourgeois phrase (God=“ideas which awaken and organise social feelings”).

Your wish in so doing is to say something “good and kind”, to point out “truth and justice” and the like. But your good wish remains your personal affair, a subjective “innocent desire”. Once you have written it down, it goes out among the masses, and its significance is determined not by your good wishes, but by the relationship of social forces, the objective relationship of classes.
Lenin goes on to clarify why. . .
Your entire definition is reactionary and bourgeois, through and through. God=the complex of ideas which “awaken and organise social feelings, having as their object to link the individual with society and to bridle zoological individualism.
As for the political handling of religion, this may be Lenin's most important statement:

"The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion" [translated by Andrew Rothstein and Bernard Issacs], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), Volume 15, pp. 402-413. From Proletary, No. 45, May 13 (26), 1909. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

Lenin's dialectical position rejects both the doctrinaire anti-religious politics of anarchists and the waffling timorousness of liberals:
To people with a slapdash attitude towards Marxism, to people who cannot or will not think, this history is a skein of meaningless Marxist contradictions and waverings, a hodge-podge of “consistent” atheism and “sops” to religion, “unprincipled” wavering between a r-r-revolutionary war on God and a cowardly desire to “play up to” religious workers, a fear of scaring them away, etc., etc.
. . . We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.
Critics who see Marxist policy as inconsistent on the question of anti-religious agitation fail to see:
The contradiction which perplexes these objectors is a real contradiction in real life, i. e., a dialectical contradiction, and not a verbal or invented one. To draw a hard-and-fast line between the theoretical propaganda of atheism, i. e., the destruction of religious beliefs among certain sections of the proletariat, and the success, the progress and the conditions of the class struggle of these sections, is to reason undialectically, to transform a shifting and relative boundary into an absolute boundary; it is forcibly to disconnect what is indissolubly connected in real life.
As for the (in)appropriateness of religious expressions:
Another example. Should members of the Social-Democratic Party be censured all alike under all circumstances for declaring “socialism is my religion”, and for advocating views in keeping with this declaration? No! The deviation from Marxism (and consequently from socialism) is here indisputable; but the significance of the deviation, its relative importance, so to speak, may vary with circumstances. It is one thing when an agitator or a person addressing the workers speaks in this way in order to make himself better understood, as an introduction to his subject, in order to present his views more vividly in terms to which the backward masses are most accustomed. It is another thing when a writer begins to preach “god-building”, or god-building socialism (in the spirit, for example, of our Lunacharsky and Co.). While in the first case censure would be mere carping, or even inappropriate restriction of the freedom of the agitator, of his freedom in choosing “pedagogical” methods, in the second case party censure is necessary and essential. For some the statement “socialism is a religion” is a form of transition from religion to socialism; for others, it is a form of transition from socialism to religion.
As for the policy of party (which was a voluntary association before the revolution) and state on religion:
The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a “private matter”.
All the aforementioned writings originated prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once the Bolsheviks fight the brutal civil war and retain command of the state, there is a whole new set of circumstances to evaluate historically. Here is a key statement on communist ethics from the Soviet Union's earliest years:

"The Tasks of the Youth Leagues", Speech Delivered At The Third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League, in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), Vol. 31, pp. 283-99. Speech written and.or delivered on October 2, 1920, published in Pravda, Nos. 221, 222 and 223, October 5, 6 and 7, 1920. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

Lenin asserts that communists do indeed have an ethics, in spite of accusations to the contrary. To wit:

In what sense do we reject ethics, reject morality?

In the sense given to it by the bourgeoisie, who based ethics on God's commandments. On this point we, of course, say that we do not believe in God, and that we know perfectly well that the clergy, the landowners and the bourgeoisie invoked the name of God so as to further their own interests as exploiters. Or, instead of basing ethics on the commandments of morality, on the commandments of God, they based it on idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God's commandments.

We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts. We say that this is deception, dupery, stultification of the workers and peasants in the interests of the landowners and capitalists.

We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat's class struggle. Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.

The old society was based on the oppression of all the workers and peasants by the landowners and capitalists. We had to destroy all that, and overthrow them but to do that we had to create unity. That is something that God cannot create.

This notion of morality has been contested in light of the subsequent history of the Soviet Union and other regimes citing Marxism-Leninism as their authority. Nonetheless, there is much good sense in Lenin's philosophical viewpoint that remains worth considering, though today's circumstances and politics are fundamentally quite different.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Langston Hughes: Goodbye Christ, Hello Persecution

Langston Hughes caught a lot of grief for his poem "Goodbye Christ", written in 1932 during Hughes' most radical period. Subject to censorship by others and by Hughes, this poem can now be found all over the Internet, along with commentary by people who defend it and attack it, or defend it with qualifications (Christians who lament the exploitation of Christianity).

A good place to start is The Successful Censorship of Langston Hughes’s Poem “Goodbye Christ” by Joshua B. Good (Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007). Here you will find the text of the poem along with a history of the consequences of publishing it, including being banned, censored, hounded, subject to government surveillance, and being treated as a subversive. The poem excoriates the gamut of obscurantists from huckster preachers to popes to robber barons, and sends corrupted Christianity on its way, because it's now revolution time. Hughes was ultimately forced to back down to people and forces he attacked, e.g. powerful megachurch leader Aimee Semple McPherson. The FBI got on his case and surreptitiously worked to undermine his career. In 1953, during the McCarthy era, Hughes was hauled before HUAC, and took the trouble to explain his poem as a reaction against the abuse of Christianity, insisting that it was not anti-religious and denying he was an atheist. Hughes was forced to downplay his poem and mute re-publication in order to stay on the good side of his patron and others.

Ronald Bruce Meyer also contextualizes the poem, with some additional information and excerpts from Hughes' other mentions of religion. See also Hughes’ "Goodbye, Christ”: Controversy and Communism. Cited here is the important anthology you should seek out, Faith Berry’s Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writing of Langston Hughes. Red Flags reproduces the poem and notes its omission from Hughes anthologies.

See the web page On "Goodbye Christ" for brief passages on this poem by Christopher C. DeSantis, Faith Berry, and James A. Emanuel.

As for Christians' online reactions to the poem, here are a couple specimens. Adult Christianity's Poppy Dixon defends Hughes for indicting the hypocrisy of professed Christians. An airhead by the name of John Piper proclaims The Tragedy of Langston Hughes and a Warning I Will Heed, claiming this to be Hughes' "most lamentable" poem and a tragic "loss of this talent to the service of Christ." But don't despair, Piper is praying.

Last but least, let's not forget right-wing reactions, which continue to the present day. For example, note these specimens of the red-baiting of presidential candidate John Kerry for adopting a slogan from Hughes, "Let America be America again": John Kerry's Stalinist Campaign Slogan, These Last Days Ministries, and the late right-wing archvillain, William F. Buckley.

Don't you just love white Christian America?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Religion, economic insecurity & social inequality

Very interesting commentary and interchange on the Pharyngula blog:

The trends, IF they continue, are in our favor

Commentators debate the causes of the differences in religiosity between Americans and West Europeans and the correlation because economic security, social equlity, and the decline of religion. Even the name of Karl Marx is brought up, though he is anathema in the USA and perhaps in other parts of the English-speaking world as well.

Monday, June 16, 2008

George Eliot, novelist, translator, nonbeliever

George Eliot may be most famous for her novels, but I think of her as the translator of Ludwig Feuerbach's epochal The Essence of Christianity.

Here is a summary of her life and work:

Frome, Susan. "The Sage of Unbelief: George Eliot and Unorthodox Choices," The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIIII, No. 1.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sherwin Wine: Laughter not worship

From a CD of podcast highlights of the Humanist Network News I acquired at the World Humanist Congress last week:

Rabbi Sherwin Wine on humanism and spirituality:
"One of the things that you do in the celebration of humanism is you talk about the human condition, and what we all know is that the human condition is absurd. . . You celebrate the absurdity of the human condition. So . . . people often ask me, what's your substitute for worshipping God—you worship people. Never. Never! And the alternative to worship for me has always been something I treasure; it's laughter."
You can't beat Jewish humor for perspective! The official podcast of the American Humanist Association can be located at or

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. as secular humanist

Jeff Nall,
“Remembering the Humanism of Martin Luther King.”
Toward Freedom,
July 12, 2005. Feature article (alternative version of Humanist piece);
Reprint: Theocracy Alert, Online Journal, July 16, 2005.

Those invoking the name of MLK in the cause of left/liberal theocracy had better reconsider.

Another source with some information on MLK and the religious issue in the civil rights movement (including defamation of secular Jews) is:

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

On the role of existentialism in black thought and the civil rights movement, see:

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

For further background, see:

Allen, Norm R., Jr. “Religion and the New African American Intellectuals,” Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 9, no. 2 (1996), pp. 159-87.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Marriage of Bette and Boo

The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher Durang, directed by Perry T. Schwartz and offered by my favorite theater company in the Washington DC metropolitan area, Spooky Action Theater, is described as “Thirty years of divorce, alcoholism, madness and death in a wacky family world turned inside out.” It is also a tale of thirty years of serial pregnancy, psychological abuse, and Catholic ignorance, told in a series of flashbacks by Bette and Boo’s surviving son and a student of English literature, Matt. The play begins with the wedding ceremony of Bette and Boo, and what at first glance seems to be just another vapid middle class family scenario quickly morphs into a tactless farcical display worthy of an episode of South Park or Family Guy. In 1985 Durang was ahead of the curve. At first I had my doubts, but when Karl Hudlocke (Boo’s dad) referred to his wife Soot (no kidding) as “the dumbest white woman alive,” I knew I would love this play.

Bette begins her nightmare marriage as an airheaded Catholic girl, void of knowledge of the real world, dreaming about all the babies she wants to have. Decades of bitter experience that follow do not dissuade her from her illusions, i.e. her Catholic brainwashing. She is also unable to break Boo’s addiction to alcohol, itself propelled by her incessant urge to breed. Her sister Emily is a basket case constantly apologizing for her existence. Her other sister Joan is bitter and cynical . . . and seemingly always pregnant. Her father, Paul Brennan, has a speech impediment that will have you rolling in the aisles. Her matronly mother Margaret attempts to manage this menagerie. As for the in-laws, Soot Hudlocke is an addled doormat. Her husband Karl—my favorite character—is callous, cynical, tactless and totally outspoken in every situation without a tinge of self-consciousness. Then there is the doctor who keeps delivering Bette’s stillborn babies, and the pièce de resistance, the priest Father Donnally.

Time and hardship have a way of wearing down the naïveté of even the most clueless and wiping the forced smiles off the faces of even the most vapid. But the inability to learn anything from bitter experience takes a lot of effort, unless one’s faculties are disconnected from reality at the onset. This is where Catholicism comes in.

Father Donnally is an obtuse jackass, indifferently pushing the Church’s party line on these families without engaging them as real human beings, which they have been discouraged from becoming in the first place by their upbringing. One of the most hilarious, and perhaps the key scene in the play occurs at a marriage counseling retreat attended by both families in toto and conducted by Donnally. This moment reveals the disconnect between ideology and reality like no other. Donnally alternates between regurgitating the platitudes of church doctrine sans conviction and more convincingly imitating a slice of sizzling bacon. His audience listens without conviction. No birth control, no divorce, but also no thought is allowed by the Catholic Church. All resent and hate their lives and one another, but they are mentally and psychologically numbed and hence have no place to go. This is what happens to you when you’re not allowed to feel your own pain.

Father Donnally nevertheless has one moment of truth, which nevertheless fails to induce him to reflect on his theocratic propaganda. Donnally screams: why don’t people get to know the people they are marrying; why don’t they think about what they really have in common with the person they plan to spend the rest of their lives with? Why are people so stupid? He has posed the question of questions, but he will not stay for an answer.

You know, as comic as this play is, it’s not far removed from reality. I wasn’t raised like this, thank goodness, but I’ve known more dysfunctional Catholics than I can count. This dehumanization, this disconnect of one’s own emotions and thoughts from one’s reality, is one of the innumerable crimes the blood-drenched Catholic Church can never recompense.

The actors all did a superb job. How they could keep from breaking character while I and others howled in the audience is a miracle of the acting craft I will never understand. The set too was marvelous; I don’t know how this company does it without money. This is not establishment bourgeois theater for the upper crust; it’s always on the edge, and you should show up to support it.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo
by Christopher Durang,
directed by Perry T. Schwartz,
with Katie Atkinson, Gerald B. Browning, William C. Cook, Joe Cronin, Mary C. Davis, Bill Gordon, Martha Karl, Ellen Mansueto, David Rothman and Mundy Spears.

The Black Box Theatre at Montgomery College, Corner of Philadelphia (East-West Hwy) & Chicago Ave., Takoma Park, MD.
June 5 – 29, 2008. Performances Thu – Sat at 8 PM and Sun at 7 PM.

My reviews of other Spooky Action productions:
Alice in Washington

Away With All Gods! (1)

I'm not accustomed to sober, measured argumentation from Maoists, but the 21st century holds many surprises:

Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian (Chicago: Insight Press, 2008).

That's right, Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Regardless of what you think of the party line in general or on various matters, there is much material on this web site of interest, under the rubrics:

Atheism & Religion

Christian Fascism

I'll cite two specific pieces which appear in the book's bibliography:

"A Leap of Faith" and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods by Bob Avakian

God the Original Fascist Series by A. Brooks.

Note also this debate on YouTube:

Atheism, God and Morality in a Time of Imperialism and Rising Fundamentalism, An Exchange Between Chris Hedges and Sunsara Taylor (23 April 2008).

Barack Obama on the Nature of Religious Faith

Barack Obama on the Nature of Religious Faith, on Austin Cline's Agnosticism/Atheism site, highlights the contradictions in Obama's vapid plea for Christian tolerance and provides links to the various presidential candidates' positions on religion and secularism.

Emmett Fields' Bank of Wisdom

Emmett F. Fields has for many years provided an incredible service by digitizing and compiling dozens of old and rare volumes of freethought literature to preserve this legacy and make it available to future generations:

Bank of Wisdom (rare freethought classics on CD-ROM)

Fields also sells posters and busts, but I will limit myself to listing his CDs for sale to date, with boldface added by for works of special interest:

#1 - The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 2nd Edition
#2 - An Introduction to Freethought - The Religion of Freedom
#3 - An Appreciation of Thomas Paine
#4 - Facts of Freethought
#5 - Freethought and the Bible
#6 - History of Woman Suffrage
#7 - America - The Historic Facts
#8 - The Un-Holy Inquisition
#9 - The Writings of Thomas Jefferson
#10 - The Vatican - World's Oldest Political Machine
#11 - ATHEISM, The Struggle Against Superstition
#12 - The Jesuits
#13 - Woman: Her Story
#14 - The Lost Treasures of M.M. Mangasarian
#15 - An Introduction to REALITY
#16 - EVOLUTION A FACT Beyond Honest Doubt!

I have the first 13 of these, excepting #4 & #10. Just to give examples of the content of these CDs:

#2 - An Introduction to Freethought - The Religion of Freedom

1. 400 Years of Freethought, by Samuel P. Putnam -- Freethought's finest History.
2. A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers, by J.M. Wheeler.
3. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine.
4. My Beliefs, by Luther Burbank.
5. The Origin and Nature of Secularism, by George Jacob Holyoake.
6 & 7. The Jesus Problem, and The Historical Jesus by J.M. Robertson.
8 & 9. The Worlds Sixteen Crucified Saviors and Sixteen Saviors or None by Kersey Graves
10-12. The Four Gospels, I Don't Know Do You?, I Am Not Afrain Are You? all three by
Marilla M. Risckr.
13 & 14. Analysis of Religious Belief, Vols. I & II by Viscount Amberley
15. Flowers of Freethought by G.W. Foote.
16. The Origin of the Christian Church by Investigator.
17. The Bible a Dangerous Guide, by Marshall J. Gauvin.
18. Essence of Religion, by Ludwig Feuerbach.
19. An Open Letter To Jesus Christ, by D.M. Bennett.
20. The Non-Religion of the Future, by Marie Jean Guyau.
21. The Religion of Science (1860)
22. The Struggle Between Science and Religion, by Arthur M. Lewis.
23. The Christ, by John E. Remsburg.
24. Views of An Agnostic, by Ross E. Browne.
25. Eight Lectures, by L.K. Washburn.
26. The Establishment Case by Emmett F. Fields.
27. A full color plaque of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States before it was perverted in 1954.

#11 - ATHEISM, The Struggle Against Superstition

Joseph Lewis:
The Ten Commandments
The Bible Unmasked
The Tyranny of God
An Atheist Manifesto
ATHEISM and Other Addresses
Joseph Wheless:
Is It God’s Word?
Forgery in Christianity
History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, by John William Draper
The Atheism of Astronomy by Woolsey Teller
Penalties Upon Opinion by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner
Our Rationalist Heritage by Walter Hoops
Satires and Profanities, by James Thompson
George E. Macdonald:
Fifty Years of Freethought, Vol. 1
Fifty Years of Freethought, Vol. 2
REPORT of the International Congress for Progressive Thought, 1904.
31 Sermons by M.M. Mangasarian.
The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade
Superstition in All Ages by Jean Meslier
Candid Examination of Theism by Physicus
Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism by Thomas Inman
The American Rationalist Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1962 – Atheism by Madalyn Murray (O’Hair)
The Pillars of Priestcraft, 4 Vols. (A collection of earlier works published in 1768.)
Henry M. Tichenor:
The Life and Exploits of Jehovah
The Creed of Constantine
Tales of Theology
The Science of Materialism by Charles T. Spalding
The Biography of Satan by Kersey Graves
FAITH or FACT by Henry M. Taber
Heroes and Martyrs by G.W. Foote and Charles Watts
ATHEISM; An Affirmative View, by Emmett F. Fields

On the question of the accessibility of freethought literature, see:

Prahl, Frank. "Getting Better Access to Freethought Literature: Is the Library of Congress Censoring Our Libraries?", Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, Volume 7, 1999.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Lenni Brenner vs Hitchens & Lerner

Oldies but goodies from Counterpunch: Brenner takes on Christopher Hitchens' claims about Thomas Jefferson's religious attitudes:

July 26, 2005
Biography as Wish-Fulfillment
Jefferson, Hitchens and Atheism

. . . and the pompous gasbag Michael Lerner, characterizing him, coincidentally as I have done countless times, as a narcissist:.

February 19, 2003
Michael Lerner and the Workers World Party
The Ranting Rabbi Doesn't Speak for All Anti-War Jews


Lenni Brenner on Obama's Theology & Heaven's Census

I previously mentioned this hilarious essay by Lenni Brenner circulated on 7 April 2008, but I've finally located it on the Counterpunch site:

Obama's Constitution, His Pastor, & His Unbelieving Mom In Heaven
By Lenni Brenner

This is old stuff, but you can be sure Obama's religious problems will return to haunt him in this presidential campaign time and time again.

Jeff Nall, Condorcet, & Perpetual Revolt

It's a pleasure to discover more activists and public intellectuals of a progressive nature in atheist/freethought/humanist circles. Over the weekend I learned of this enterprising young fellow:

Jeff Nall: Writer, Speaker, Activist

Note his new book:

Perpetual Revolt: Essays on Peace & Justice and The Shared Values of Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives
Publisher: Howling Dog Press, 250 pages.
Cost: $20.00 ($15.95 + $4.05 shipping and handling)

Jeff has some other web sites of interest. My point of entry was his site on French Enlightenment philosopher Concordet:

Condorcet: Male Prophet of Feminism, by Jeff Nall

Note Jeff's writings on political activism and alliances with those elements of the religious left who oppose theocracy and uphold separation of religion and government. Hopefully here one can find elements of the religious left who refrain from defaming atheists and reject the introjection of obscurantism and theocracy into the public sphere in the manner of Michael Lerner, Chris Hedges, and Jim Wallis.

The Humanist Institute, Michael Shermer & Baloney Detection

The Humanist Institute " is a leadership training program created by the North American Committee for Humanism." Leadership training involves both the practical and intellectual sides of humanist education. I have my doubts that "humanism" is the all-encompassing philosophy it purports to be, and its conception of intellectual history seems to be limited by the lingering consequences of McCarthyism, but still, there is a resource here to be drawn upon.

I followed through a number of links, but for the moment I'll just single this out:

(AHA) 66th annual conference, "Blazing a Humanist Trail," in Portland Oregon on Thursday, June 7th, 2007. Preconference - The Humanist Institute.

One of the preconference seminars, for which materials are available online, is:

Science: Methods and Uses
Warren Wolf

It is always of interest to me what expositions of the scientific method include and exclude. I note with some amusement this set of guidelines:


Unfortunately, only Shermer's own guidelines are to be found here, nothing about detection of Shermer's own baloney. Shermer, after all, is a devotee of Ayn Rand and is now peddling his own pseudoscience of "evolutionary economics". Many pop intellectuals today, extending themselves beyond their legitimate scientific credentials, are wont to translate their allegedly scientifically based insights directly into political and economic generalizations and prescriptions, innocent of the intervening factors of history and social organization. Whether libertarians like Shermer or "liberal" shills for the Democratic Party like George Lakoff, these ideologues parade about on the public stage pimping their half-baked ideas on the authority of science. Social theory has been disappeared out of the intellectual repertoire of organized American humanism and atheism. These folks are quite convinced—the upscale liberals especially—that they are the very embodiment of reason. Delusional thinking in a decaying society knows no bounds.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC)

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) could prove to be quite an important resource. The institute has issued some interesting publications, and several texts can be found online.

I mentioned David Hollinger's essay in a previous entry. For an introduction to the symposium see:

By Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar.

One important publication is Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. See the Introduction online.

Maryam Namazie & the anti-Islamist movement

According to the relevant Wikipedia entry Maryam Namazie "is a communist political activist of Iranian descent. She is mainly known for her activities for women's rights, asylum seeker's rights, gay rights and for her fight against the Islamic republic and political Islam internationally." She is associated with the Worker-Communist Party of Iran and other organizations. Residing in the UK, she is the recipient of the National Secular Society's "Secularist of the Year" award for 2005.

She is also a signatory to the MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism. See:

Full text: Writers' statement on cartoons

MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Whatever can be said about the intellectual state of the UK, surely its political discourse cannot be as thoroughly backward as that of the USA. Could a communist be awared similar recognition in American atheist/secularist circles? When pigs fly. We are stuck with the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now with the American Enterprise Institute. A study remains to be done about what McCarthyism did to atheism / freethought / humanism in the USA.

David A. Hollinger on alliance with liberal religion

By David A. Hollinger

Recently I reviewed on this blog Hollinger's essay collection Science, Jews and Secular Culture. The essay cited above can be found on a site rich in resources:

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC).

I haven't kept up with the development of Hollinger's intellectual career, so I don't have a full picture yet as to what he is all about. In this essay, Hollinger advocates an alliance with liberal religionists, adding the proviso that instead of proscribing debates over religion in favor of cooperative efforts on other social issues, religion itself should be debated in the public sphere in hopes of winning over religionists to the more benign, liberal side of religion.

I have some reservations about Hollinger's formulation. America's civic religion has deteriorated badly ever since Jimmy Carter announced he was born again, something I had never heard of before he showed up on the national scene to destroy the Democratic Party from within. American civic religion was already excessively pumped up since the onset of the Cold War, albeit slightly moderated by the invocation of a fictitious Judaeo-Christian tradition on the part of Eisenhower and others which covered up the inherent anti-Semitism of a Christian nation. But from the moment JFK declared the absolute separation of church and state in 1960, secularism was on the upswing. Then, any specific discussion of religious issues was safely kept out of sight so that public business, including popular culture via television (with the exception of Billy Graham's noxious crusades), could be conducted with minimal turbulence. But as what Americans call liberalism broke down in the late '70s, so the secular bourgeois democratic consensus was dealt a serious blow with the rise of the New Right and the election of Reagan. And with the dumbed-down millennium and Baby Bush's coup d'etat, the Constitution as well as secular democracy has been converted to toilet paper. Now the Democratic Party is a party of faith. The religious left has now become dangerously theocratic.

So what to say about Hollinger's proposal? I think religion should be excluded from policy discourse if not from public discourse, unless we plan to reinstitute the Middle Ages, withcraft trials, and similar intrusions into public business on a supernaturalist basis. Democracy cannot live where any other than rationally discussable and accountable propositions are the objects of public policy debate under the tacit assumption of a naturalistic universe, whatevcer private beliefs are held. This question was seemingly settled a long time ago, but ever since the New Right got a foothold in the media, secular debate becomes tied up with Biblical interpretation. If you remember, for example, Phil Donahue's engagement with the likes of Jerry Falwell, you will have an apt reference point. Religious discourse should be militantly excluded from the political sphere, and if it the issue comes up, the justification for excluding it should be the inherent authoritarian and theocratic nature of injecting religious belief into the political/legal system. Religious issues should be publicly debated in fora specficially tailored to such discussions, but religion should be persona non grata in the political sphere.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Womanism revisited

In an earlier entry I criticized Alice Walker's airheaded New Age ideology. I won't pass judgment on her fiction, but her opinion pieces get more and more ludicrous as time goes on.

More generally, in a commodity society every issue becomes an identity and every empirical concern is turned into metaphysics, with a proliferation of idealistically conceived isms. We need not doubt that there is a race issue, and a gender issue. I am also convinced that the whole is more than the sum of its components in this instance, as I know quite well the special characteristics of black women's situation in American society. But aren't there enough problems as it is without adding obscurantism to the mix?

Black feminism is a commonly accepted concept, but why "womanism"? Why must a specific nexus of human experience be converted into a metaphysical concept? First, let's take a look at the definition:

Womanism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If the notion were not pretentious enough, note that by the time we get to the third paragraph, we are in the realm of womanist theology. What could be more priceless?

The fun is only beginning. Now look at this:

Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm by Linda E. Thomas.

If the black liberation theology of James Cone et al were not bad enough, here we have a new wrinkle on the theme. Furthermore, the goal is to link the existential situation of black American women with "women of color" all over the world. Added to this is the slumming mentality of anthropologists and one gets a particularly self-indulgent provincial ideology. Both expand and limit your social identity in a metaphysically defined fashion and glorify folk experience to concoct a fictional essence to be categorically distinguished from the essence of other groups, and you get the obscurantism of a race and sex based epistemology that is somehow insulated from the rules of evidence, inference, verifiability and rational accountability that apply to everyone. And if black women did not already have religion up the wazoo, they need a new theology to keep them just where they are.

Here is another blog entry on the subject:

Womanism/ Black Feminism

Here there is more nonsense about womanist theology. Walker is quoted as claiming that "womanism" is not exclusive and sounds more inclusive than "black feminism".

One can of course play with terminology however one likes. Furthermore, a new ideological concept also presents a new opportunity to consolidate a power base. However, no power base nor any constituency nor any identity can be shielded from critical scrutiny. A politically organized movement to achieve rationally accountable goals is one thing; ideological mystification is something else.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Humanism progresses in Black Africa, not in Black America

See the report on humanist activism in Africa:

African Americans for Humanism in Africa by Norm R. Allen Jr.
Free Inquiry, June/July 2007, pp. 38-40.

Allen contrasts the notable activity in Africa with the scarcity of non-white participation in organized humanism in the United States. It seems to me an inquiry into the reasons for the depressing situation in the USA is in order. At the very least, one could attempt to enumerate the factors influencing black Americans' inclinations towards or against religion as individuals. Participation in organized atheist/freethought/humanist groups is another matter, but one could pose the question whether there is any socially causal factor to differentiate racial (non-)participation in these groups.

Another question is the existence of all-black atheist/freethought/humanist groups. I know there was a group in Harlem in the 1990s, unaffiliated as far as I know with any other. I don't know whether it still exists. I was invited to attend its monthly meetings, but I was never available in New York at the proper time. There is, however, a Harlem group now on the grid:

Harlem Community / Center for Inquiry

See also my web guide:

Black / African-American / African Atheism

One key question to pose is the degree of correlation of nonbelief among black Americans with racial integration. I would think that social segregation reinforces ingrained behavioral patterns, whereas interaction with diverse groups of people enables individuals to escape those patterns. But another question is the pattern of religiosity among the educated black middle class, and whether it is changing generationally. Other correlations to be factored in include regional and urban/suburban/rural factors, gender differentials, and behavior often deemed deviant in black communities (homosexuality, nerdiness, unusual cultural tastes, etc.).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sam Harris, Islam, neurophysiology & historical illiteracy

So far on this blog I concentrated my criticism of Sam Harris on his op-ed piece "Head-in-the-Sand Liberals". While he is eloquent on the need to oppose "faith", he is a very ignorant man on most other things. Here is a sample, his most recent piece on the threat of Islam:

Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks, The Huffington Post, posted May 5, 2008

Harris complains about the cowardice in the West of publicizing attacks on Islam, the Koran, Muhammed, etc., due to the fear of violent retaliation. He insists that the religion of Islam is intrinsically related to Islamic political violence and wonders where the Muslim moderates are in speaking up against it. He insists on the right of free speech, which he counterposes to the barbarism of Muslims ready to do away with anyone who dares to exercise it in the criticism of Islam. There are, however, some gaps in Harris' argument. He has no real notion of social causality. Doctrines produce behavior, but what produces and sustains doctrines, the interpretation of doctrines, and the translation of doctrines into action? What are the institutions that reinforce dispositions, convey information, and instigate actions? And what about the context in which information is conveyed? The problem begins in the very first sentence:
Geert Wilders, conservative Dutch politician and provocateur, has become the latest projectile in the world's most important culture war: the zero-sum conflict between civil society and traditional Islam.
Wilders is under a death threat for a documentary film denouncing Islam. If Wilders has a right to free speech, and Islam is bad, then surely Wilders should be defended. But note at the outset Wilders is described as "conservative Dutch politician and provocateur". Wouldn't this set off some alarm bell to anyone not in a coma? One might want to know something about what Wilders' politics is all about, how it relates to the Netherlands's Muslim population, and to what extent this population refuses to conform to West European secular democratic norms, and to what extent they are under siege by European right-wing hate groups. What is Wilders' goal in defaming Islam; is it part of an illegitimate assault on the immigrant population? I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I think they are essential to an assessment of the situation.

Or perhaps Wilders' motive and political agenda are irrelevant to the content of his film: if the content is sound, then what does the political context in which it is generated matter? And regardless of the morality of the situation, doesn't Wilders have any absolute right to free speech in any case? Would anything be different were a person of Muslim origin to circulate anti-Islamic materials, as many, including most famously, Ayaan Hirsi Alihas done?

I have no problem with the denigration of Islam as a general principle, but there is no action that doesn't have a context, and we are deprived of the real social context in which Wilders' film is circulating. We don't know, for example, what percentage of the local Muslim population supported or approved of the assassination of Theo van Gogh, or how the information about the provocative cartoons or this film is communicated to the rest of the Muslim world to stimulate retaliation.

What about Harris' characterization of the global geopolitical situation? Can the very concept of "culture war" explain the world situation? Is it true that the the struggle over Islam is the world's most important culture war? And that the "zero-sum conflict" between Islam and civil society makes sense as an explanatory framework for understanding the world system?

The fact is, Harris is an ignoramus. He lacks the elementary tools to analyze society, and he knows nothing of history. He deduces society from fragmentary facts and abstract principles, as if belief systems are suspended in air and just generate social realities . . . or, are just rooted in the physiology of the brain.

Which brings to mind his only area of expertise. On his web site he presents four surveys, one or more of which he requests his readers to fill out, as part of a research project on the neurophysiology of religion:

Research Volunteers Needed
We are preparing to run another fMRI study of belief and disbelief, and we need volunteers to help us refine our experimental stimuli. This promises to be the first study of religious faith at the level of the brain.
I suggest you take a look at one or more of these questionnaires. I filled them all out. Perhaps they are not as idiotic as they seem. I don't remember much about survey design and psychological testing, but I'm guessing that the questions are designed to elicit telltale responses while concealing their purpose from the test-taker, so that the testees reveal more about themselves than they consciously intend. Still, it's hard not to think that these questionnaires are utterly ridiculous and can't possibly measure what they purport to measure. And can you even imagine the ideological biases of the survey designer? And for all we know, people who concoct questionnaires like these themselves belong in a straight jacket and a rubber room.

But more generally, the question must be asked: what can it mean to ascertain religious faith based upon the study of brain physiology? Of course we can gain knowledge about how dysfunctional thinking operates on the basis of the physiological and psychological mechanisms at work. But separated from real behavior in social context, they are just abstractions, descriptions of abstractly delineated processes. Everyone concedes that environmental stimuli trigger these brain processes, but then don't we have to understand just what the "environment" is, and how its structure and history--i.e. the structure and history of society--create a structure and history of responses and dispositions in the brain? How can we actually know about the genesis of and mechanisms of social reinforcement of belief systems by studying brain physiology in abstracto?

It's too bad people like Harris cannot learn the lessons of the Soviet developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, for starters. The same ideological naivete gets repeated over and over. We get a regression to metaphysical abstractions of social behavior--in-/out-groups, prejudice, etc.--in combination with natural-scientifically conceived biological constants, in order to explain behavior, and real society and history drop out of the picture. Instead of institutional analysis combined with the essential concept of ideology, we get pseudo-scientific garbage like "memes" and pseudo-Darwinian explanations of economic systems and social history. But instead of going after the likes of Dawkins, Shermer, and Wilson, let me focus on the problems of self-enclosed biological explanations.

Yesterday I happened upon perhaps the worst "scholarly" book on bigotry I have ever seen:

Dozier, Rush W., Jr. Why We Hate: Understanding, Curbing, and Eliminating Hate in Ourselves and Our World. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2002. Publisher description.

Perusing the book, and reviewing the bibliography, I am astounded how completely devoid it is of something you will find in all serious books on this subject--real information about society and history. There is no usable social knowledge or information in this crappy book: it's all about brain physiology combined with platitudinizing. I cannot conceive of anything with scientific pretensions more disgraceful.

This is the same clueless ignorant level on which Harris operates. And most other prominent public atheists on the American scene are no better. They are disgraceful representatives of atheism, not because they are too haughty and confrontational in their atheism, but because they are politically bankrupt. With what they contribute to popular enlightenment with one hand, they take back with the other. These people have contributed mightily to the provincialism and miseducation of their fans regarding the nature of their society. Their science-worship itself is a source of ideological mystification.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (5)

Sorry to keep you waiting for my review of Rev. Wright's notorious speech at the National Press Club and the subsequent fallout. While some of the attacks on Wright and/or Obama are askew, defense of Wright can be equally repugnant. Case in point: tonight's episode of the racial Twilight Zone:

Barack Obama, Reverend Wright and Black liberation theology
By Malik Miah
Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
"Malik Miah is editor of the US socialist magazine Against the Current, where this article first appeared."

This is one specimen of unbearable stupidity that shows that hard leftists no more than black nationalists or mainstream liberals have a firm grip on reality in their minds. First, there is the admonition to other leftists not to think like sectarians and reject mainstream electoral politics. Then Miah projects "a possible shift in political consciousness" when Obama disillusions his young supporters when he proves to be just like any other mainstream politician. Those hoping for a change might be motivated to seek a more serious change. Well, maybe, but one would have to investigate more carefully the composition and perspectives of Obama's supporters to assess this potential intelligently. Then Miah acclaims this "outstanding speech", though it doesn't go as far in denouncing institutional racism as many on the left would like to see. Obama is alleged to reveal himself as different from the run-of-the-mill mainstream politician. Well, Obama, as the would-be president of neoliberal America, said what he had to say without excessively humbling himself by disowning his pastor, and made some conventional sops to his white audience in order to defend at least a basis for a different social perspective on the part of blacks. Logically speaking, the speech left much to be desired, but it hit the right note under the circumstances.

Then Miah's argument goes south as he defends Wright, insisting that Wright is no hate-monger and that Wright preaches "in the best tradition of Black liberation theology." Miah did not intend this to be a backhanded compliment, of course. It gets worse when Miah makes the disgusting move of equating Wright with King, concluding: "Wright and King delivered the same message of truth." Here Miah shows himself to be a liar. King resolutely opposed black anti-Semitism and never would have had anything to do with the likes of Farrakhan or any black separatist. King would not have exploited black paranoia and illiteracy by spinning conspiracy tales about AIDS unsupported by evidence, or by peddling crackpot notions about black developmental psychology and brain hemispheres.

Miah asserts a linkage of the black liberation theology that arose in the '60s with a tradition going back to slavery. "It is rooted in Black nationalism and the traditions of Black radicalism. It goes back to the resistance to slavery. The modern version arose during the civil rights movement. It basically combines the philosophy of the Black Christian church and Black nationalism." The "modern version", however, has little in common with the pre-black-power phases of American history. Miah quotes Cone; I'll take Miah at his word for now; Cone:
The Black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles Black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism... The Blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition.
It can be seen at a glance that King would never identify himself with this drivel. King might have identified God with the oppressed, but he never would have advocated God as a black God and not the God of all peoples. This obscurantist metaphysical fol-de-rol is of no value to black liberation; the only black power it promotes is that of the manipulation of the masses by self-aggrandizing leaders. Interestingly, Miah argues that Wright's perspective is mainstream, neither anti-American nor anti-capitalist.
In Wright's speech before the National Press Club, he identifed himself with Black liberation theology and pointed out that the attack on Obama and him by the corporate media and others is in reality an attack on the Black community.
This is doubly reprehensible. Aside from identification with the hocus-pocus of black liberation theology, Wright commits the sin of all black nationalist demagogues, including his pal Farrakhan: instead of establishing a rational, verifiable connection between his own interests and the interests of others, he arrogates to himself the right to equate his own agenda with that of the "black community", wrapping himself in the black nationalist flag to ward off criticism of his individual responsibility for crackpot ideas and a manipulative racial-mystical world view.

Finally, Miah warns his fellow socialists not to be sectarian and turn their backs on mainstream electoral politics. But the fact that he has to issue this admonition already proves the bankruptcy of his peers. Interestingly, Miah demonstrates awareness of the limitations of black capitalism by identifying Wright, Jesse Jackson, and Obama with it, and by highlighting the trend towards integrating minorities into the management of corporate America. Miah thinks that Obama's candidacy is an indicator of a post-racial society in germination, because of the willingness of a number of whites to accept Obama and not succumb to race-baiting. Well, it does indicate something, but precisely what and how far it goes is a matter for discussion. Miah suggests that the Obama candidacy opens up an opportunity for consciousness-raising on race. Well, I wonder. What we see, in Obama's "landmark" speech as well as all the hand-wringing over the "Wright" scandal, is not so much a penetration of the race situation on the ground as the usual insipid contrast of two opposing perceptions: "whites see the world this way, and blacks see the world that way, and whites don't know how the world looks from the other side of the racial divide." Well, the last part is true, but the media propaganda environment does not admit any deliberation beyond the pluralist ideology of showing us a diversity of viewpoints. The occasional showcasing of the "black perspective" is predicated on the curious form of integrated segregation to which the American racial order has evolved. Without the maintenance of de facto racial social segregation, the "black perspective" would not have to be peddled as some exotic foreign country that requires ambassadors to speak in its name. "Diplomacy", in fact, is an apt metaphor for this shell game, for diplomacy is all about understanding the perspective of the leaders of another country enough to negotiate with them . . . diplomatically. Diplomacy, however, is not designed to pursue truth beyond appearances.

Curiously, once Miah links black liberation theology to black nationalism, which he links to black capitalism, he fails to draw a number of conclusions therefrom. He seems quite unconcerned with the irrationalism and obscurantism of the black liberation theology of Cone and his successors, nor does he broach the subject of the stunting of the intellectual growth of black people under segregation, reflected in the power of the black church to inculcate hocus-pocus and the authority of preachers over a rationally accountable investigation of social reality. Here Miah succeeds in demonstrating the mental confusion and mediocrity of the American left.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (6)

So much transpired in the few days following Bill Moyers’ interview with Jeremiah Wright, not to mention the fallout afterward. Wright spoke at a meeting of the NAACP, followed by an infamous engagement at the National Press Club, after which Barack Obama forcefully dissociated himself from Wright, citing outrageous statements by Wright.

How outrageous was Wright, exactly? Is he the total maniac the brief video clip of him shouting “God damn America!” purportedly shows him to be?

Moyers gave Wright the opportunity to contextualize his remarks and explain his views. Moyers addressed the double standard by which Wright and right-wing white preachers are judged owing entirely to race and provided some needed balance in his follow-up statement:

Bill Moyers: Welcome to the Journal, May 2, 2008.

Moyers contrasted the reasonable and rational dialogue he had with Wright on April 25 with what he called the “politics of personal destruction” on May 2, the likes of which he had never seen. Moyers was on target in redressing the imbalance, yet he did not delve to the bottom of the Wright affair. No one in the mass media I have yet encountered has systematically addressed just what is wrong with Wright.

Obama himself declined to explain the discrepancy between the Wright he knew and the “outrageous” behavior he witnessed in this press conference. Wright is so outrageous that his remarks are shunned by “every American”. Obama must know this is not quite true, but this is politics. Wright’s denunciation of American foreign policy is hardly outrageous. However, his characterization of the cause-and-effect relationships between American actions and the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01 is highly imprecise, and furthermore, mystified by his transmutation of the facts into theology. Offensive, though not necessarily crazy, is Wright’s characterization of 9-11 as the “chickens coming home to roost.” Perhaps Wright is a Malcolm X wannabe, Malcolm having characterized the JFK assassination in just this way. A more accurate descriptive term for 9-11 would be “blowback”. The phraseology of “chickens coming home to roost” in conjunction with the tone in which it was delivered carries the connotation that the people killed in 9-11 got what they deserved, but in fact, the chickens have faulty navigation skills and never quite arrive at home to roost. People in power don’t often pay for their crimes: cannon fodder and civilians do.

We can fault Wright for his offensive remarks, though not for his hostility to American foreign policy, which hardly is anathema to every American as Obama claimed. Where, then, does Wright definitively cross the border into outrageousness? Objectively, his offenses are these:

(1) His unsubstantiated folk paranoia about the U.S. government giving AIDS to blacks;

(2) His crackpot remarks about black learning style and left brain/right brain thinking;

(3) His defense of the anti-Semitic, separatist fascist Louis Farrakhan;

(4) His megalomaniacal claim that an attack on him is an attack on the black church.

Bill Moyers, while otherwise commendable, does not venture into these telltale signs of the underlying ideology of Wright and the numerous black nationalist crackpots among and outside of the black clergy who think like this.

Wright’s outburst at the National Press Club may have singlehandedly cost Obama the presidency. White people are, after all, chronically insecure, and panic more at the slightest aggressive gesture on the part of a black person than at the Caucasian monsters and lunatics that abound in their midst. The post-mortem conducted by Charlie Rose is worth scrutinizing with care:

A discussion about Barack Obama & Rev. Jeremiah Wright with James Clyburn,

Sally Quinn, Floyd Flake. Further discussion about Race, Religion and Politics.

Flake and Clyburn were quite measured and precise in their statements, knowing well what damage Wright was wreaking upon Obama. Flake was a congressman and remains a minister. Clyburn is a congressman and—my memory is shaky—may be a preacher as well. Flake denied that Wright could claim the right to equate himself with the black church as a whole. Naturally, none of the participants in the discussion were about to criticize the institution of the black church per se.

Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, a white woman who monitors the current dominance of religion in public discourse, was remarkably sympathetic to the black situation, but she missed the mark on a couple of important points. She contrasted the rational content of Wright’s speech with his responses during the Q & A during which he went haywire. He seemed to be off-center in his outlandish responses to questions posed to him. Quinn’s sensitivity to this discrepancy, however, fails to account for its root cause. Quinn made one other remark that proves that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. When the question of Obama’s biracial composition was brought up, Quinn responded with her knowledge of the one-drop rule: in America, if you’re part black, you’re black. Flake nodded. This remark, however, is not as sophisticated as Quinn would like to think. Even if both your parents are black, and you are definitely black according to our racial classification system, your viewpoint is not thereby automatically secured. But if one your parents is not classified as black, even if other people classify you as black, you definitely do not experience your world in the same way as “real” black people, especially if you are raised by the white side of your family. Quinn’s remark, in this light, is actually quite stupid. Obama’s association with a nationalist like Wright most assuredly requires some explanation. Maybe Obama’s nonbelieving white mother is up in heaven as Obama assures us, but what must she think of her son joining an Afrocentric church whose preacher is a fan of Louis Farrakhan. No biracial child is going to put up with the likes of a separatist crackpot bigot like Farrakhan. Either Obama is a total opportunist and his conversion to Christianity is a pose, or the impact that Wright had on him exposes another weakness in his character. There is much about Obama’s attitude towards an institution he originally must have found quite alien that is probably not too distant from that of the typically stupid white liberal or white leftist who feels obligated to underwrite black ignorance out of a sense of political or moral deference. This weakness hardly disqualifies Obama for the presidency, especially given the demonstrably low standards of both the American presidency and the white American electorate, but it is a pressure point worth probing. Note, then, this discussion of the question:

Why'd Obama Join Trinity in the First Place?
The New Republic,

In the next installment I shall continue to pursue the fallout from the Wright-Obama affair, with an emphasis on the difference between the analysis of two irreligionists, Adolph Reed, Jr., a black leftist, and Christopher Hitchens, a white former leftist turned warmonger and unprincipled gasbag.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (4)

Bill Moyers' Interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, April 25, 2008.

Resuming the narrative: Wright reviews his life and times--his sojourn in the military, during which he attended President Johnson in the hospital, his changing perceptions of what the church is and should be, the dominance of white cultural superiority even in black institutions, which persisted until 1968, and so on. Then Wright denies that Black theology is a race-based theology, explaining the meaning of the church slogan "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian". His narrative makes sense from the perspective of the '60s, when the aggressive public assertion of black culture was a novel and bold move. However, the more one asserts "our culture", the more one is tempted to impose uniformity and conformity among its members. There is much more to consider between 1968 and 2008. But not to worry, says Wright: his church is multiracial and multicultural as well as unashamedly black.

Then Moyers and Wright get involved in a discussion of Bible stories, and Wright makes a number of proclamations about what God and the Bible tell us to do and not to do. Here the cherry-picking and brazen arbitrariness of the assertions are ridiculous. But Moyers is eating it up. The Bible stories and its teachings are universal, but oddly the God of a billion galaxies decided only to speak to one nationality lodged in a narrow patch of desert and the rest of the universe--maybe even the multiverse--has to accept all this bubba meises without proof. So, while interrogating verifiable human history, Wright opposes, to the false values of the state, fairy-tales about what God ordains. And when he enumerates the injustices done to various peoples by modern empires, including those committed by the United States, he converts these earthly insights into theological principles, and thus explains his remarks about the chickens coming home to roost on 9-11-01. There is indeed a cause-and-effect relationship between the actions of American foreign policy and the terrorist attacks, which can be explained in rational terms. "Chickens coming home to roost", though, is neither precise as an assertion nor does it explain anything. Wright is indignant about the willful misrepresentation of his perspective and his church, recounting all the social services and good works the church performs, complaining that his vilifiers know nothing of the black church. Yet an outsider not just to the black community but to religious institutions can't help but notice the schizoid nature of Wright's mind as he feels compelled to translate rational knowledge into theological mumbo-jumbo and practical social service and political action into a supernatural mission, just as surely as he originally sought to make religion relevant to the real world.

In the course of explaining his relationship with Obama, Wright says:
. . . he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of god about the things of God.
That's quite a cheeky assertion. And with what justification can Wright speak in the name of God about the things of God? Why not, without just being a politician, just speak of the things of the world as they are? His theology is already selective and politicized to the hilt.

It is also revealing how Wright justifies the crackpot fascist anti-Semite and black separatist Louis Farrakhan. He simply waves Farrakhan's ideology aside and says, well, look at all the great things he's accomplished, keeping black men off drugs, etc. etc. A purely opportunistic, pragmatic exculpation without any accountability for the ideology and institution of Farrakhan's gutter religion. But even more revealing is the corporate metaphor: "Louis Farrakhan is like E.F. Hutton. When Lewis Farrakhan speaks, black America listens. They may not agree with him, but they're listening." This assertion is idiotic on several counts. What does it mean to listen and not agree? Who says they're all listening? And if they do listen, then what does that say about their susceptibility to manipulation? What an absolutely corrupt justification!

Now get a grip on this:
Your theology determines one's anthropology. And how you see humans determines your sociology. To look at how we've come to see race, and in others of other races, based on our understanding of God who sees others as less than important. Less than my people. And where in our religious traditions are there passages in our sacred scriptures that are racist? They're in the Vedas, the Babylonian Talmud, they're in the Koran, they're in the Bible. How do we grapple with these passages in our sacred texts? The same way you grapple with Judges:19, where it's alright for a preacher to have a concubine and cut her up into 12 pieces. We gotta argue with our texts that are, as we've been struggling with, battling with, wrestling with, anti-Semitic. The Christian, "The Jews killed Jesus." No, we gotta come to grips with, you know, these texts were written by certain people at certain times with certain racist understandings of others who are different.
Well, the way to come to grips with these deficient sacred texts is to strip them of all authority and divine sanction, as these very admissions prove none of them can possibly be the word of God.

This man appears to have assassinated his own intelligence. So why was biracial, middle class, atheistical Barack Obama so impressed with him? A Harvard graduate couldn't do better than this? Naked pragmatism without rational accountability for one's nonsense--like attracting like?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (3)

Wow! I have five days of media extravaganzas to catch up on. OK, I need to retrace my steps to Saturday 25 April, when Jeremiah Wright appeared on Bill Moyers Journal.

First, for more background on black liberation theology, see:

Bill Moyers' Interview with James Cone, November 23, 2007.

Now, for the good stuff:

Bill Moyers' Interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, April 25, 2008.

Let us disassemble the ideological basis of this presentation step by step. First, we have a review, replete with video clips, of the course of Wright's career with his church, emphasizing the social services provided to the working class black community and political agitation against injustice. Then, we are introduced to Barack Obama, who began his association with Wright as a religious skeptic, with a purely pragmatic political motive to join up with Wright, but later allegedly becoming a religious believer. And then we are introduced to yet another ingredient: a clip of black children dressed in dashikis, with a voice-over indicating Wright's inculcation of allegiance to the "black value system" and and to black Americans' alleged African roots. And here is where the wool begins to be pulled over our eyes.

What is wrong with doing this in the current period, say 1989 or 1999 or next year in 2009 as opposed to 1969 or 1959? What is different about de facto segregation in post-apartheid America compared to the rigid segregation imposed by the state and civil society in the period during what we call the modern civil rights movement revved up in the '50s, reached a turning point with the landmark legislation of 1965, and mutated to a new level of militancy as the civil rights legislation failed to alter the intransigent economic and social institutions that kept black America down? Before the protean black power ideology came to the fore in the late '60s, any "black value system" that existed was not a metaphysical entity but a system of social arrangements imposed by white violence and black strategies of both adaptation and resistance given the conditions imposed. As such, the situation fostered the affirmation of both cultural particulars and universal values. This was the mental universe in which Martin Luther King, Jr. moved, with all the expansiveness and limitations that his historical moment embodied, to become a leader of a real movement and the symbolic representative of the greatest political expression of human dignity the world has ever seen.

The nebulous ideology of "Black power" also reflected a historical moment, and MLK grappled both with this mutation in the movement and the objective conditions that engendered it. On the 40th anniversary of his assassination, the media opened up to the point where the average person today could delve further into the depths of King's courage and greatness than the mainstream media would ordinarily foster on such occasions. Had King not been cut down in Memphis the day he readied himself to lay down his life for black garbagemen, he surely would have never been allowed to survive the Poor People's Campaign then in the planning stages. The Poor People's Campaign was not about the maintenance of a separate "black value system" but multiracial class warfare on the march to smash through the ghetto walls of economic, social, political, educational and cultural segregation, grinding them to dust beneath a blitzkrieg on institutional privilege and intransigence. In comparison to this, the prospective of black liberation theology is a petty-bourgeois piss-ant.

All the documentation of all the politicized black churches that provide social services cannot evade the essential duality of the role of petty bourgeois preachers who minister to the underprivileged. Their role is to firm up their power base and their position atop their power base, ideologically bolstered not merely by a rational rationale and function, but via an irrational and essentially authoritarian legitimation via religion turned provincial and nationalistic, which gives us black liberation theology.

Thus the "black community" and the "black value system" become metaphysical entities, and the black political preachers who survived King, whatever good works they do, have never risen and never will rise to his level but rather ideologically decay and ultimately stink once the historical moment that vivified them has passed and their mode of adaptation is drained of growth and life.

Stay tuned for more to come!