Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Liberal religion vs. the 'new atheists'

"Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination . . ."

-- Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia
Should I Quit Being Christian? Some Questions for the New Atheists
Tikkun / By Be Scofield.
AlterNet, June 28, 2010

"The new atheists negate the contributions of religious people in the reforming of religion and the resisting of injustice."

A long whine about the "new atheists", with some interesting tidbits about Martin Luther King, Jr. Problem is, the historical information adduced here leads to ahistorical conclusions about the future . . . where to go now that we know what we know . . . and so the author ends up being as useless as the historically illiterate Sam Harris.

Scofield does not understand the problem with wishy-washy liberals, whether in religion or other matters. He fixates on certain statements by certain "new atheists", i.e. that moderate religionists pave the way for the extremists. He is so put out by such a blanket assertion, he seeks to disprove it with loads of historical information about the contributions of liberal religionists to progressive political action and social reform. This, I suppose, is consonant with Tikkun's soft and cuddly notion of progressive politics, a milder version of more radical liberation theology.

There is, however, a problem with this argument: the failure to distinguish between yesterday and today. Secular humanism emerged from the long and painful struggle to liberalize religion, passing through the stage of liberal religion and in the USA very much through the medium of Unitarianism. The first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, itself largely a product of social liberalism, already surpassed the level of today's whiny religious liberals. The question is not one of demanding that the past conform to the imperatives of the present and future, but of what our standards should be now.

Scofield fails to attack Dawkins and especially Harris where they are weakest: their ignorance (in the case of Harris, shameless ignorance) of history and indifference to sociological analysis. Harris is the only "new atheist" who is actually new on the scene. The others and their colleagues have been at it for decades and still show no curiosity to learn anything new about history or society. The exception to the rule is of course Christopher Hitchens, who knows more about both than the rest of the organized humanist movement combined, but who has jumped the shark and utilizes his leftist past as petty gossip.

Instead, Scofield obsesses over this one isolated idea about moderate religionists, ignoring the purport of the comment for today's world, instead escaping into the past, including the all-embracing bosom of Dr. King, to justify the squalid middle class feelgood self-indulgence in nicey-nice prettification of ugly reality.

Unfortunately, neither Scofield nor the "new atheists" seem to be aware of what's wrong with upper middle class make-nice liberal religion. What is most noteworthy here is the middle class inclination towards respectable niceness and liberal guilt. (For the panderers to liberation theology, it's radical guilt, which is liberal guilt raised to the nth power.) And characteristically disgusting is the exploitation of Dr. King, the gold standard of the social gospel. Interestingly, Scofield tells us here that the Kings seriously considered joining the Unitarian Church, but realized they could not be socially effective with black Southerners by doing so. If this is so, it's not for us to judge King in hindsight, because he was not a free agent, but what about us? Why must we be shackled with the chains of the past?

It's one thing to be Mr. Nice Humanist walking the plush grounds of the Harvard Divinity School, it's quite another to fight one's way out of the culture of poverty and struggle to transcend the abuse heaped on one by social dysfunction, bad child-rearing practices, fear-based enforcement of social conformity, and degrading assaults on psyche and intellect. Such people don't live in a nicey-nice world and know what the struggle for the human mind is worth. It's war.

Ideological obfuscation does not help anyone, and progressives reveal something about their own weak politics in so indulging. Pompous gasbags like Cornel West and Michael Lerner are quite limited in what they positively have to offer compared to the harmful nonsense they spew and their contribution to the theocratic domination of public discourse.

Spinoza's excommunication: a play by David Ives (1)

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. A play by David Ives.
June 26–July 25, 2010, DC Jewish Community Center.
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore.

"In this witty theological drama, philosopher and accused apostate Baruch de Spinoza faces excommunication from the Jewish community."

Baruch de Spinoza
Simon De Vries
Clara von Enden
Rebekah de Spinoza
Rabbi Mortera
(Rabbi? ) Ben Israel

I saw this play last night. It is an excellent play, brilliantly written. Baruch Spinoza explicates and defends his heretical philosophy in the face of impending excommunication. The characters, their belief systems, the rationale behind their behavior, and the interaction of their perspectives make for compelling philosophical theater. The audience discussion following the play was uncommonly intelligent as well.

The logical structure of the play is impeccable, though its historical accuracy cannot be vouched for, other than the recitation of the kherem. I don't know Spinoza's biography well enough to evaluate the characters. I was told during the discussion that the Simon De Vries of the play, who is presented as Spinoza's betrayer, is a composite of three historical characters. Clara von Enden is presented as Spinoza's shiksa love interest. Spinoza's sister Rebekah is tossed into the mix as comic relief to taunt Spinoza but later to taunt his antagonists. If I knew anything about these actual historical characters, I could comment, but I can only claim that as fiction they work quite well.

The audience members who participated in the discussion showed that they picked up on the logic of the play quite perceptively. There is more to be said about the logic of Spinoza's system in relation to the real world, particularly in terms of human destiny and irrational social institutions, to take the next step beyond what was explicitly discussed. We see a logic behind Spinoza's coming up with the notion of the intellectual love of God and his conception of a purpose for human perfectability in an impersonal universe. If we extend the logic both of Spinoza's thinking and its interaction with its antagonist--tradition-bound, fear-based, superstitious, repressive social institutions--we can move some steps beyond Spinoza after opening up the covert dialectic in play here.

(To be continued)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Martin Gardner takes on Oprah before his final departure

Somebody had to do it.

Oprah Winfrey: Bright (but Gullible) Billionaire by Martin Gardner
Skeptical Inquiry, Volume 34.2, March / April 2010.

I think he was too kind.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

George Novack on socialism & humanism, revisited

I broached this subject elsewhere in a previous post: Socialism & Humanism: Novack & Mattick.

Recently, in the process of googling, I came across this piece:

Psychoanalysis and the “empty place” of psychology within Marxism by Frank Brenner

I've been to this site before. My distaste for sectarian Trotskyism (is there another kind?) notwithstanding, I usually get one or two useful bits out of these internecine debates. Somewhere in his essay Brenner criticizes Novack's 1973 book Humanism and Socialism. Brenner manages to pinpoint weak points in Novack's argument, for example, on the question of human nature. Novack's book is similar to the two 1959 articles cited in my earlier post, albeit an expansion of the same themes. Little changed in 15 years for Novack, it seems.

There are certain things I like about some of Novack's philosophical books, most of which, I think, were published in the '70s, but unlike Novack, I changed quite a bit over any 15-year period you can name, and his abstract schematism and Trotskyist dogmatism are more striking and harder for me to take now.

There is also the fact that in the 1970s some Marxist intellectuals could still get away with the conception of lawlike social causality and the virtually inevitable future prospects of socialism despite the wrenching historical detours of the 20th century. The circumstances of today would necessitate a rewriting of arguments like these, except I suppose among still-resolute sectarians.

My critique of Novack stands, but I may have more to add when I've (re-)read his book. Given my own experiences with the secular humanist movement, I'd certainly write a badly needed critique differently.

Presumably one of Novack's concerns, and certainly one of mine, is how to orient oneself with respect to the organized humanist movement, which was in fact organizing itself at the same time Novack latched on to Marxism. What really is bourgeois or proletarian humanism? In organized movements, involving Marxists for instance, "humanism" was a banner of both Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. Proletarian humanists also latched onto the bourgeois humanist movement. (Mark Starr, who started out as a leftist and war resister in Wales and ended up as a labor bureaucrat in the USA is a prime example. He wrote an article in the late '40s about John Dewey and signed the Second Humanist Manifesto.) I don't find this taxonomy terribly useful to clarify the relationship between humanism and socialism.

The first Humanist Manifesto was issued in 1933, an historical turning point for obvious reasons. Many of the contributors to this project were Unitarians who decided it was time to shed the previous theistic trappings of their denomination. The principle author was the philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, originator of a non-reductive materialist philosophy variously named critical realism, critical naturalism, emergent realism, and maybe something else I'm forgetting. Sellars was also a man with socialist leanings, though with no worked-out social theory that I'm aware of. Novack doesn't mention him, but of course he mentions others who signed on or got involved, such as Dewey and Corliss Lamont, whom Novack characterizes as liberal reformers who prefer to speak in abstractions about common ethical principles and human welfare in general, occluding the fundamental social facts and explanation of class antagonism. Apparently, Novack never updated himself from the 1930s, as far as the American movement was concerned (he did discuss dissident East European Marxist humanism), so of course he never analyzed what became of secular humanism as a result of McCarthyism and the Cold War. Hence we are stuck with these generalities and a few hoary examples. Arguing for a generic Marxist perspective, and one so flimsy that it cannot be used in practical or ideological interventions in the real world, does not much inspire me. Furthermore, the goal of influencing the way people think should not be from the perspective of getting them on board the correct vanguard party, but influencing their orientation in the practical situations in which they find themselves, which is all the harder to do as practical options become closed off.

Novack also proved to be behind the times in addressing the live debates of the '70s, most notably around sociobiology (unless he wrote of this elsewhere), where there is really something to fight about and which remains a live ideological problem.

The progressive intelligentsia has moved on, as a result of what wasn't killed off in the '70s. Today's sophisticated intellectuals, while paying lip service to class when necessary, have learned to identify their targets as racism, sexism, heterosexism, et al, and the intersections of these factors, and, whether incorporating or rejecting the conceptual edifice of postmodernism, generally succumb to the confused fragmentation of our time. Furthermore, the integration of perspectives, not just the obvious class perspective, but the incorporation of scientific knowledge, the processing of all the social and ideological currents with which we are bombarded--this whole scenario has outgrown the parameters of the arguments of old. To sum up, a static and schematic characterization of the relation between socialism and humanism and a formulaic advocacy for a Marxist perspective of the sort that Novack engaged in are useless.

The most interesting development in the U.S. atheist/humanist movement in the past year is the almost overnight explosion of a visible black atheist presence. The variety of ideological perspectives brought to this grouping in formation--encompassing not only the prevalent mainstream "liberalism" but the entire range from socialism to right-wing libertarianism, with occasional dollops of conservatism and Afrocentrism--provides us a veritable laboratory of bourgeois ideology in the remaking. (We shall see whether the initial thrill of overcoming isolation and ostracism and finding others with a common experience dissipates once the participants in this development have absorbed what black atheists do and do not have in common.) It is also instructive to view the degree of acceptance of the intellectual influences coming from the atheist/humanist movement as a whole and possible rebellions against the prevailing intellectual constellation. From those few voices inclined to challenge the star system and prevailing preoccupations of the atheist/humanist/skeptics movement, beyond the predictable call for diversity, what will we find? The one serious challenge I've seen is predicated on a black feminism and the notion of "white supremacy" as the fundamental social organizing principle, which indicts the existing atheist/humanist movement as dominated by white males--a predictably insipid criticism, which, among other things, conveniently omits an explanation of why this crop of white males (and why not add white females to the mix?) thinks and acts as it does, or how these people got to hold the positions they do, as opposed to those who never became leaders or media stars, or for that matter, how today's bigwigs may differ in orientation from the left-leaning white males of an earlier era whose influence was eclipsed by McCarthyism.

Feuerbach revisited

Some years ago I compiled an essential bibliography of works by and about Ludwig Feuerbach in English. Little of the material listed is (or was) readily available online. (Most likely Google Books did not exist or was not as extensively developed back then, so you might want to check there now.) I've just had occasion to check for more material online, albeit not in a systematic fashion. So let's begin with an overview of Feuerbach.

Feuerbach, Ludwig - Introduction (eNotes)

Unfortunately, much Feuerbach commentary derives from theologians. So to know one's enemy, here are a couple of examples:

Anthony J. Godzieba, "Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion"[review of Van Harvey]. Theological Studies. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6404/is_n3_v58/ai_n28691700/

B. A. Gerrish, "Feuerbach’s Religious Illusion" [review of Van Harvey]. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=77

I've also had occasion to take a look at Feuerbach's Lectures on the Essence of Religion, a copious volume only a little of which is available online. Here is a quote, though, not hitherto found online as of this writing:
"My doctrine or view can therefore be summed up in two words: nature and man. The being which in my thinking man presupposes, the being which is the cause or ground of man, to which he owes his origin and existence, is not God‑-a mystical, indeterminate, ambiguous word-‑but nature, a clear sensuous, unambiguous word and thing. And the being in whom nature becomes personal, conscious, and rational is man. To my mind, unconscious nature is the eternal, uncreated being, the first being-‑first, that is, in time but not in rank, physically but not morally; man with his consciousness is for me second in time, but in rank the first."

-- Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 3rd lecture, p. 21.
Next time I get to reading Feuerbach, I'm going to keep an eye out for what he says about the evolution of religion. The Young Hegelians took off from the liberalization of Protestantism, which may have skewed their notions, but the logic of what all of them have to say about the logic of religion and its relation to society is worthy of attention.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stephen Eric Bronner, defending the Enlightenment for progressives

I still find Bronner's treatment of the Danish cartoon controversy and his work on the Enlightenment immeasurably superior to everything the secular humanist movement has produced in these areas.



Martin Gardner Dead at 95

Martin Gardner is no more. Say it ain't so. I discovered Martin Gardner in the Mathematical Games column of Scientific American, having innocently bought it off the newsstand because of my boyhood interest in science. I think the issue I bought was June or July 1967: his column that month was about John Horton Conway's game "Sprouts". And then I was hooked. My name was published in one issue of Scientific American for my solution of some problem involving "Baker's Solitaire". Names were omitted though, when said article was reprinted in one of Gardner's anthologies. Gardner's columns radiated from the base of recreational mathematics to encompass quite a range of topics. Gardner stimulated my interest in the related hobby of abstract strategy board games, but that was only the beginning. Through Gardner I learned about the artist M.C. Escher, the 19th-century fad of 4-dimensional space, anamorphic art, the godfather of the ars combinatoria Raymond Llull, and numerous other fascinating topics reaching into obscure corners of intellectual history. I also read several of Gardner's books in addition to his collections of Mathematical Games columns, most memorably Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

Gardner is also known for The Annotated Alice and other volumes, but his two biggest claims to fame are probably his contributions to recreational mathematics and to the "skeptical" movement. I returned to Fads and Fallacies several times over the decades. I was never fully convinced of Gardner's criteria for the demarcation of science and pseudoscience. In addition to dealing with obvious crackpots, he delved into fringe areas where rationality bleeds into irrationality, such as Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, William Reich's radical psychoanalysis and orgonomy, and Marshall McLuhan's theory of the media. Still, the range of Gardner's examples supplied a background I could draw upon throughout my adult life. This book can be said to have stuck with me, but I will forever be indebted to Gardner for all the wonders to which I was introduced via his work on recreational mathematics.

Martin Gardner, 95, a journalist, provided in-depth analysis of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat