Thursday, April 24, 2008

Don't fence me in. At least not with that kind of fence.

I'd like to follow up on The Wife’s critique of Jürgen Habermas’s abstract pronouncements on religion and secularism to comment on a related matter.

In one of the summaries of Habermas’s paper (full version -- in rather heavy-duty philosophical German -- here), part of his argument is presented like this:

Secular citizens must remain open to the possibility that even religious utterances, when translated into a secular context, can have meaning for them.

He has attested to a 'truth potential' ('Wahrheitspotenzial') in religion, one to which even secular citizens should attend.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what Habermas means by this, but I detected echoes of this notion in a couple of other recent commentaries, both of which seem to be based on the notion that there is a specifically religious truth that can -- to borrow from Habermas -- be 'translated' to have meaning for the secular world.

In particular, they both focus on 'limits' to human knowledge and action.

While I would not for a moment doubt that the universe -- and our own nature -- places limits on both of those things, I can't see any reason to think that there is a separate, special religious ‘truth’ on this matter.

We begin with Chris Hedges, author of I Don't Believe in Atheists.

As quoted by Ophelia Benson, Hedges argues the following:

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest.

I can’t do any better than Ophelia’s reply:

Stark, staring bullshit. Could hardly be more wrong. Obviously there is no need whatever to believe in 'sin' to be aware that we can never be omnipotent and that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. Really it's mostly non-theists who are aware of that in the most thorough way, because theists mostly believe that we will ultimately be 'redeemed' or 'atoned' in some way. The rest of us just think we are deeply flawed animals and that's all there is to it.


What is so irksome about Hedges’s comments (well, one of the things) is that his fevered imagination has conjured up a nonexistent army of New Atheist utopians. He sees them as the secular equivalent of religious fundamentalists (such an original inversion!) and claims that they are going about preaching a Darwinian gospel that has as its ultimate goal the Perfectability of Man.

Hedges, for instance, says that although atheists do not have the political influence of the religious right (again, quoted by Ophelia),

they do engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism. They sell this under secular banners. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection, this time made possible by human reason. (Emphasis added)

Ophelia responds:

It's very noticeable that Hedges never offers any evidence for this kind of crap (which continues for page after page, and recurs throughout the book). He repeats it ad nauseam and offers zero quotations to back it up - which is not surprising, since there aren't any, since they don't believe any such fucking thing. This is grossly irresponsible unwarranted garbage, and it's a sign of something or other that a reputable publisher failed to throw it back in his face. I don't think the Times would have let him publish this dreck in the paper - except possibly on the Op-ed page; it's somewhat shocking that a division of Simon and Schuster published it.

There's a great deal more of this kind of thing, but you get the idea. He's beside himself with rage, he makes no effort to be accurate, he considers himself entitled to make wildly exaggerated claims, he can't think, he can't read carefully, and he's overflowing with malevolence. (Which is funny in a way, because one of his chief claims is that religion is somehow necessary for or intimately connected to goodness, compassion, generosity, that kind of thing - yet he himself displays a remarkably unpleasant belligerence coupled with carelessness with the truth.)

Like Ophelia, I’ve actually read the authors that Hedges rails against. This has led me to being undecided: I'm unsure whether I have to conclude that he is deeply mendacious, pathologically delusional or simply cannot read.

There may be legitimate debates to be had, but Chris Hedges is not having them.

(A personal digression, if you will, before we continue, which follows up on Ophelia’s scathing comments on Hedges’s problems with the truth. I, too, wrote and published a book. In it, I had to document carefully all of the claims that I was making. I have also recently completed a second historical manuscript, and I have -- again -- invested an immense amount of effort in to ensure that what I was saying was not only interesting and a good read but was also well-supported and, you know, factual. It is proving, however, an upward struggle to find an agent or popular press who will even take a serious look at it, despite the fact that it contains far more sex, violence and human interest than Hedges seems to manage in his sour, leaden, humourless ravings. Still, he has the odd ability to pile up any old stack of rancid arguments with only a glancing relationship to reality and nevertheless find a publisher that can turn his book into a bestseller. Is this flawed animal maybe just a wee bit envious? You bet. Ok, back to the carefully reasoned argumentation. I thank you for your patience.)

We turn now to Georgetown political science professor, Patrick Deneen. Now, I often find Deneen to be insightful on topics such as sustainable living, the environment or the problem of resource scarcity. We also agree very much on the virtues of clotheslines. He's clearly a different quality of thinker than Chris Hedges.

However, he seems to be advocating a related (if more thoughtfully expressed) message as Hedges: we ignore the insights into the human condition provided by religion at our own peril.

In a recent post, Deneen has -- based on recent comments by Wendell Berry in Harper's and by Pope Benedict in an address to Catholic educators -- asserted the importance of recognising the limits of human freedom and knowledge.

As reported by Deneen, Berry responds to the contemporary civilisational crises by turning to literature:

Berry's main argument is to point to the literary tradition - naming Marlowe and Milton, but drawing on Dante and including Goethe - of depicting Hell as a place without limits or boundaries. Hell is a place where bounds are not known, where judgment has been abandoned and where, because appetite roams free and wild, its denizens are enslaved to desire. We have made our own hell, largely because we have discarded the self-imposed limits of traditional human understanding, whether derived from religious, literary, or other cultural sources.

Deneen links these thoughts on 'self-imposed limits' to a passage from Benedict's recent address.

Maybe it's just me, but I can't help finding something distinctly chilling in these words from the leader of the world's largest single Christian denomination:

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it." (Emphasis added.)

Deneen -- who as far as I can tell apparently agrees with at least the gist of this -- favourably compares Benedict's vision of a quest for knowledge that is not 'somehow autonomous or independent' of 'the faith and the teaching of the Church' to another, more 'debased' and untrammelled version of academic freedom:

Disciplines (note the word) that were to teach us how to be human - most centrally, how to limit ourselves and our appetites, how to govern ourselves as individuals and as members of polities - have been transformed into "liberative" studies. No discipline has fallen further from its original role as a discipline and into a "liberation movement" than English literature - and it generally doesn't matter if one attends a secular or a Catholic university.

Now, readers of this blog will know that its contributors have more than a small quibble with some of the more esoteric and transcendental tendencies in the humanities. However, it would seem to me that religion and (much) post-modernist thinking share a rather paranoid resistance to science and materialism.

In this respect, the naive liberationism that Deneen detects in some humanities departments is just the other side of the same coin as the spiritual yearning to escape our physical bonds offered by religion. (In any case, given their detachment from reality, I don't imagine literature departments are going to be liberating anyone soon.)

As The Wife put it some time ago, spirituality is not the answer.

Undoubtedly, our limits as people are very real. But the assumption that we need religion to tell us this is a very strange one. The accusations made by Hedges are full-on Mad Doctor fantasies: anyone who has spent any significant time with the works of Dawkins or Dennett or Harris (just to name the most well-known of the secular villains out there) will know that all their works emphasise the natural basis (and, thus, the limits) of human beings.

Following a detailed exploration of the human mind, Steven Pinker has observed,
Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with. (How the Mind Works, p. 565)
It is something like this kind of recognition that you will find scattered throughout the works of people like Dawkins and Dennett (and many others). Evolutionary psychology is based on the notion that our minds are shaped by our animal nature with all the limits to perfection that that brings with it. (Dawkins even has a chapter in The Extended Phenotype that is called 'Constraints on Perfection'!) Christopher Hitchens uses the words 'primate' and 'mammal' throughout God Is Not Great to refer to various human beings on practically every other page.

Just precisely where in all this can you find a vision of human perfectionism?

Many of the limits we face, of course, are beyond our bodies, and they will affect us whether we recognise them or not. Since Deneen has argued that the return of scarcity may force us to live lives more in accordance with traditional 'virtues', it is odd that he seems to overlook the reverse: that those past virtues were a product of scarcity, rather than of any external (i.e., God-given or transcendentally cultural) source. If you depend on good husbandry to make sure that you have crops next year, you will tend to find that good husbandry becomes an important -- perhaps central -- part of your culture.

Our limitations, in any case, are not dependent on our beliefs. Even were we to disbelieve in them (or do not recognise them because we are blind to our instincts) they will still shape our lives.

The world is infinitely more than what we happen to believe about it.

Finally, Deneen quotes Wendell Berry's assertion that every religious tradition he knows of 'fully acknowledg[es] our animal nature'. I find this an extraordinary re-writing of the past.

If you were to identify an institution that has resisted acknowledgement of human beings' animal nature, it would be hard to find a better one than organised religion. This is a problem, I hope it is not necessary to point out, that continues to this day. To the extent that some religious thinkers have sought to alter that view, it is because they have been forced to as a result of having to find an accommodation with well-grounded scientific findings.

Furthermore, the ‘limits’ one finds in religious views of humanity are all too often the wrong kinds of limits, deriving from an intellectually vacant alleged incapacity to fully comprehend 'God’s will 'or from the frankly unpleasant and bizarre notion of ‘original sin’. These notions do not simply point to human failings in some kind of vague and general way (i.e., we're imperfect); rather, they describe very specific flaws that have a very specific (and imaginary) origin.

At root, both Hedges and Deneen's arguments seem to contain a category error: finding answers in the Bible (or literature) for how to deal with social organisation, technology, environmental catastrophe or the impending food shortages that may (rather soon) cause misery and death in some parts of the world is about as fruitful as looking to Ulysses to tell you how to fix your car.

Nor is it the case that moderation and goodness are unquestionably inherent in religious texts, even if moderate and good people will, of course, find such meanings if they look for them.

It is striking that so many of the current arguments in favour of religious belief are reversals of so much of what religion has often meant. Throughout its history, religion has downplayed the value of our earthly existence in favour of promising us an eternal life in the hereafter. Now, we are told, we need religion to make our lives meaningful in the here and now.

We need religion to learn moderation? A glance at its history suggests that few, if any, religions have been much reluctant to expand their own power (or that of certain nations) beyond all bounds of temperance. I know several people (a few of whom I'm related to) who have no doubt that God wants them to prosper and consume and take the most crass dominion over the Earth.

We need religion to teach us about human dignity? That’s a new one: how often have religious motives been the basis for violating the dignity of whomever is perceived as an infidel? (Yes, that'd be right. Pretty often.)

Deneen thinks that Benedict's statement on academic freedom (quoted above) is based on an ‘abiding belief in the compatibility of faith and reason, and his confidence that honest and valiant exploration will yield knowledge that is ultimately compatible with faith.’

That's a nice belief. But what if it doesn’t work? What if the discovery of knowledge leads in ways contrary to faith? I don’t think we’re entirely in the dark on this question, given the long history of the faithful combating, suppressing and simply ignoring things that ‘contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church’.

These, I suggest, are precisely the kinds of limits that we don't need.


Gwyn said...

(academic) freedom = (academic) slavery...

Great post!

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks Gwyn.

To follow on from your comment:

I must admit, when I read the quote about all religions 'fully acknowledging our animal nature' I almost expected it to be followed by: 'and we are at war with East Asia. We have always been at war with East Asia'.

Berry has written some good stuff, but that was pretty hard to swallow.

Hope all's well your way, and thanks for coming by.

Jura Watchmaker said...

"Wahrheitspotenzial" could have meaning in the sense that religiously-minded people may be want to consider 'spiritual' issues more than do atheists and agnostics. I stress the may there, and the term "spiritual" I use in its loosest possible sense. This is why I personally am more interested in the form of scientism promoted by Stuart Kauffman than that of, say, Richard Dawkins.

Like you, though, I suspect that Habermas the philosopher is saying more than this, and he is in fact making a strong epistemological point. The reason I say this is that I find it difficult to believe that the philosopher has an emotional-spiritual bone in his body.

Maybe this is what attracts him to Raztinger and Catholicism. This is religion as aesthetics rather than a personal relationship between a man and his god, or man and nature. It is something different from deism, but there is an overlap between organised theistic religion and this form of detached enlightenment thinking.

It may seem perverse, but the enlightenment could be said to have saved catholic Christianity. And when free thinking came along and threatened to do it in, religion was saved again by structuralist philosophy!

It's a funny old world.

J. Carter Wood said...

Something by Kauffman just appeared at, here.

I must admit, I have less of a problem with 'reductionism' than Kauffman seems to, and the word 'sacred' makes me cringe a bit. He makes clear he's talking about a 'Creator God' as a 'symbol', but...but I just can't see the necessity. And I'm not so sure about this distinction he makes between the Greeks being purely rational and the ancient Jews relying on their 'full humanity'.

What does that mean?

I'm not dismissing him; but I think I find myself more in Dawkins camp. (Though I suppose I've made that clear...)

Of course we're not purely rational. Indeed, it's been a great deal of reductive study that has brought that out clearly.

I'm wondering whether one's preferences on such questions might boil down to personality. Or maybe just a preference for certain kinds of language. I don't know.

There are many who find Dawkins (just for example) terribly cold and rationalistic. I don't see that, and I find he writes very movingly about the human capacity for awe and wonder. Sam Harris turns off some non-believers with his talk of 'spirituality', but I found that discussion in The End of Faith to be just about right, as he makes abundantly clear that he's really talking about achieving particular kinds of mental states.

I was talking to a very good friend in London when I was there a couple of weeks ago. He's incredibly intelligent and a convinced atheist, and I was talking about evolution and psychology. He believes that we are purely biological -- that all thought originates in material, etc. -- but still, he wants something...else.

I was reminded of a discussion between Dan Dennett and Robert Wright that revolved around 'epiphenomenalism' and consciousness. Like in that conversation, my friend and I just couldn't -- in some way -- stop talking past one another. I was the cold reductionist and he wanted something...else, less 'simplistic', some sense that 'that's not all we are', I think.

'Spirituality' is a difficult word. I'm never sure what it means. 'Religion' is somehow easier.

A funny old world indeed.

Thanks, as ever.

Jura Watchmaker said...

Kauffman can be clumsy in his use of language, but he's trying to extrapolate from scientific thinking to the more 'human sciences', and I don't think we have yet developed the necessary vocabulary.

I'm with Kauffman on reductionism in science. His problem with reductionism is that it doesn't explain what we observe in the natural world. And when it comes to biology Dawkins has for years been slowly chipping away at the selfish gene thesis.

The selfish gene was a useful contribution to the debate, but science has since moved on. Long may it continue to do so.

I'm also with Kauffman on Jewish spirituality, but I have neither the time nor inclination to go into this now. I need to switch off this sodding computer and do something more useful with the rest of the evening.

My understanding of spirituality is pretty much in tune with Sam Harris' borrowed Buddhism. I'm glad that there are avowed atheists such as Harris and Kauffman who are prepared to discuss such matters.

J. Carter Wood said...

Yes, I think I need to switch off the machine as well.

So I think I shall.

Sleep well.