Sunday, July 26, 2009

Anglican Schism, Ho-Hum

The Anglican church's crumbling foundations | Stephen Bates | Comment is free |

If the Americans are shown the door the consequences for worldwide Anglicanism are incalculable and not just because the wealthy US church largely pays for and sustains the communion, including in those parts of the world where the church's mission would not otherwise survive. In the Church of England there are many who find they have more in common with their American brethren than with the strident, coercive voices they hear from the conservatives.

So the Anglican Communion as an institution is over. So what? Why did we ever need it in the first place? I can still go to any Anglican church in the world and feel perfectly comfortable going for Communion. So can anyone else, if they have the nerve, whether Anglican or not--no one is checking. What difference does it make if there's an Anglican Communion with an institutional struction and bishops that fly around the world to have confabs with one another?

I thought the whole point of having a "Communion" was that anyone who was a member of a church in the Communion could take Communion in any church within the Communion. It was like having one's money in a bank that had lots of branches around the world with ATMs where one could do banking business. Suppose Bank of America fragments so that my local branch is no longer part of the same firm as all these other branches around the world but I can still use their ATMs without paying additional fees. Why should I care? The institutional structure makes no difference to me so long as I can conduct my banking business conveniently wherever I go. The Anglican Communion makes no difference to members if they can still go to Communion in any Anglican church, whether in or out of the Anglican Communion. What else is there?

I suppose there's the money--and lots of it. For churches outside of the US being in the Anglican Communion has been like Having Contacts: it provides access to the money and power of the Episcopal Church. When the schism becomes official, will the Episcopal Church keep sending money to poor Anglican Churches in the Global South? And if it does, will they accept it? Hell I care. If the Episcopal Church stops sending money or other churches stop accepting it, then the Episcopal Church will just plow it back into endowment or use it to litigate over church property in the US and to maintain empty churches. Why should I care? I contribute to Oxfam. There are plenty of secular charities sending money to the Global South and no particular reason to have that money channeled through the Episcopal Church.

So I am still puzzled. What is the point of the Anglican Communion? It isn't needed as a vehicle for income transfers from the US to the Global South. It certainly doesn't exist to maintain doctrinal uniformity--that's the last thing I or most other Anglicans want. It doesn't issue Communion tickets because anyone can go to Communion in any Anglican church no questions asked and no ticket needed. So what on earth was it ever for? And what bad consequences will there be if it splinters into two or two hundred fragments?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The New Atheists

The philosopher's God | HE Baber | Comment is free |

I wrote this piece for The Guardian, which got the predictable comments there and then enjoyed something of an afterlife on Butterflies and Wheels with more predictable comments.

I suppose I can understand some of the hostility to religion. There are still a few people around who were raised as fundamentalists and got beat up by it or who live in backwaters where conservative evangelical Christianity is the religion du jour, religious participation is de facto mandatory and non-participants get flak. And there are many more who don't have much contact with religion of any kind but who have picked up the rhetoric of these embittered ex-fundamentalists because it's an intellectual status symbol or because it's bad and therefore cool. Ho-hum.

What I don't understand is the virtually universal tone-deafness to religion--the utter failure to understand its appeal. But maybe I just have an anomalous understanding of what religion is.

Religion as I understand it is metaphysics + cult.

Metaphysics isn't empirical. The metaphysical commitments of religion don't have anything to do with the way in which material world operates. Science tells the whole story about that. They are solely concerned with out-of-this-world matters: the existence and nature of God and the possibility of postmortem survival. The metaphysics of religion commit one to belief in the supernatural, to out-of-this-world states of affairs--not to any claims about the supernatural influencing the natural order or breaking into it by way of miracles.

Cult consists in liturgy and, by extension, the infrastructure that houses it and facilitates it: church buildings, religious art, silverware and costume. It includes also all literature, music and art that has religious themes.

That's it in its essence. For historical reasons all sorts of other stuff has been tacked on, much of which has been, over the centuries sloughed off. Religions once provided cosmologies: now we know better and have abandoned creation myths for scientific accounts of the origin of the universe. Religions, Abrahamic religions in particular, told an historical story: we now know better, read the Bible critically and recognize that most of the history it includes is at best fanciful.

Most religious believers still seem to imagine that religion provides ethical guidance. It's time to dump that too: ethics is a purely secular discipline. As far as the Big Questions about the Meaning of Life and such, these aren't even intelligible. Faux-religions that dispense with the metaphysics but insist that they have something to offer when it comes to ethics and questions about Meaning or The Human Condition are completely worthless. Secular ethics, a philosophical specialty, deals with ethics and the empirical social sciences tell us everything there is to know about the "human condition."

So what is left is metaphysics and cult. That's religion in its essence. So what's the problem with that? Interesting metaphysics, that doesn't in any way undermine a completely scientific understanding of the natural world, ceremonies, customs and wonderful art and, if we're lucky, religious experience.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Big Tent Collapses

More briefly, on the quasi-collapse of the Episcopal Church, I ask why people leave the Episcopal Church for more conservative groups--not only or primarily break-away "continuing Anglican" outfits, but non-Anglican evangelical churches, the RC Church and Orthodox churches?

The explanation one always hears is that these people are social conservatives who object to the liberal policies of the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches. But is this really true for all, or even for the majority? Could it possibly be that what they're after is religion--a commitment by the church to belief in the supernatural, a program to get members in touch with it, and moral support for religious belief in a world where it's increasingly socially unacceptable?

I'd bet that for lots the conservative moral and social agenda to which these churches are committed is a don't-care for many people. These churches unabashedly offer religion and lots of people are prepared to get on board with the conservative agendas as a concommitant--or at least sign on and ignore them. I might too, but I just cannot accept the conservative agenda as a don't-care. I might if I were male because the nub for me is the commitment to understanding gender as theologically or metaphysically relevant. I can't no way no how buy that and, when I've contemplated trying in order to affiliate with a church that was religiously congenial it slams me as a reducio of religious belief: if Christianity, real Christianity with real theistic metaphysics, entails that men and women are in some deep metaphysical sense different, then I cannot buy Christianity.

Conservatives are on the whole patronizing jerks about this. They respond by saying either (1) that I don't understand that difference doesn't mean inequality or that (2) if I'm not willing to accept the "hard sayings" which invariably concern sex and gender, I'm not sincerely religious--I'm just interested in, as one formerly Episcopalian Orthodox priest put it, haberdashery. But that's untrue--about me and about others who cannot buy into their program.

(1) It isn't inequality to which I object but la difference as such--the idea that men and women are in some deep way different or ought to play different roles, even if those roles were genuinely equal. (2) It isn't that the "hard sayings" are hard in the sense that they would prevent me from living the life I want to life or doing the things I want to do. They are just plain unbelievable and, when I've tried out the mental gymnastics it would take to generate belief in these hard sayings it invariably strikes me that believing the fundamental religious claims takes mental gymnastics and may be equally implausible. Reducio.

There may be virtue in doing things that are hard to do, that take self-sacrifice, but there's no virtue in believing things that are hard to believe. What is peculiarly offensive about religious conservatives is the assumption that believing seven impossible things before breakfast is virtuous and that anyone who balks at that is just an aesthete playing games, dabbling in liturgy, without any serious religious commitment.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pared-Down Episcopal Church Is Looking to Grow Through ‘Inclusivity’ -

Whether Episcopalians really can regenerate a church based on youth and “inclusivity” remains to be seen. So far, they have paid a price for their actions. Four bishops, the majority of their dioceses and numerous parishes around the country jumped ship in the last few years to form a new, theologically conservative entity called the Anglican Church in North America. That group will not consecrate women, not to mention gay men and lesbians, as bishops. It has about 100,000 members, while the Episcopal Church has about two million. But a church study shows that membership declined about 6 percent from 2003 to 2007. The Episcopal Church also saw its contributions decline...To theological conservatives, these are signs of a church that will ultimately collapse because it has sold its soul to secular political causes.

Well, I'm glad that I left over 10 years ago, because if I hadn't I'd be heartbroken.

Of course the Episcopal Church will survive my lifetime, getting older, grayer and smaller--as I get older, grayer and, worst of all, smaller. But it is not going to "grow through inclusivity." Do these priests really believe that the Church will regenerate and then some by picking up a larger gay clientele and attracting "young people" because of its new, cool image? I wouldn't put it past them. Back when I was a kid they thought they could attract me by doing folk masses and adopting the idiom of the youth culture as interpreted and expurgated by middle-aged clerics.

And, of course, the conservative Anglican lot will do even worse. In Episcopal Church dioceses they'll meet in school cafeterias until they get sick of it and join some more established coventicle of holy rollers. In break-away "Anglican" dioceses they'll effectively kill off the local Episcopal Church and then become just another evangelical Protestant denomination or quasi-denomination.

What were they thinking? The outcome was predictable: anyone could have seen it coming. This campaign for gay rights in the Episcopal Church didn't benefit gays who were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and didn't need to be adopted as yet another victim group or social justice project. And it undermined the Church. It didn't make anyone better off and it made some people worse off. How could any agent, individual or corporate, knowingly set out to achieve such an end?

The only answer is that they were blinded by by their own arrogance. These priests, overpaid do-gooders working for an organization that represented 1% of the American public, imagined that they had a prophetic voice to which the great unwashed would listen. They imagined that they had the standing to be heard and the resources to make a difference, like rich old ladies assuming that they could get their way--imagining that because they had a small clientele of retainers and sycophants the whole world was listening to them, when they were nothing but laughable nobodies.

Express any reservations about the Episcopal Church's program and you get tarred as a conservative because the whole controversy was represented by the Church, and in the media to the extent that they paid attention, as a battle in Culture Wars between liberals and conservatives. So any critique was hopeless--especially vexing to me as a liberal. I don't think there as anything whatsoever wrong with homosexual activity. I don't, for that matter, think there is anything wrong with any consensual sexual activity, whether it's part of a "committed relationship" or not. Sex is a trivial entertainment.

But the priests who were promoting this agenda just couldn't or wouldn't distinguish between the question of whether homosexual activity was ok and the question of whether the Episcopal Church should launch a campaign to persuade people that it was. Maybe this was a manifestation of residual adolescent cynicism: if people object to the Church's agenda it's just a cover--they're really homophobic reactionaries and puritans who object to the goal of "inclusion."

So now, even if I wanted to go back, where would I go? I certainly have no sympathy whatsoever with the conservative agenda of these break-away groups. None allow women bishops and most won't even have women priests. Their ethical commitments, including their views on sexuality, are diametrically opposed to my own. But there is less room in the Episcopal Church for me because as a consequence of this fight the Church has become an ideologically based organization focused on promoting political agendas and engaging in social action. The miserable irony is that I support these political agendas and am largely in agreement with the social vision. I just don't think that this is what the Church is for--and I don't think that it can pursue these goals effectively. Politics and social action are the business of secular organizations--and I contribute and belong to lots of those.

Church is for religion, because it isn't in a position to do anything else effectively and no other organization can do religion at all. The Episcopal Church is going down the tubes because it's clergy don't think religion is important or interesting. I sat through endless discussions "facilitated" by church growth gurus during the Decade of Evangelism which articulated a "vision" for the Church which assumed that religion wasn't important and that, in any case, people weren't interested in it. To attract members "congregations" (another buzz word) need to offer an array of essentially secular programs and activities--schools and pre-schools, coffee-klatch groups for stay-at-home moms, barbecuing consortia for guys, youth groups for high school kids, do-good projects and volunteer work, softball games and golf tournaments, adult education on various topics, crafts groups, exercise groups and every sort of community activity. Then they would come because those where the things that interested people--not religion.

But they didn't come, because secular organizations provided all this cheaper and better. Now that religious affiliation is de facto as well as de jure optional people are not going to bother with the Church unless they're interested in religion.

So now where are people who are interested in religion supposed to go, now that the Episcopal Church has gone further down the road to being a private, upscale community center? I saw where the Church was going years ago on a trip to Alaska to give a lecture and visit a theologian friend. She took me to the local Episcopal Church which had been colonized by academics and area yuppies--the tiny minority who were not yet resolutely secular. It was, I recall, an A-frame ski lodge affair in polished beech with a large hand-crafted patch quilt hanging from a balcony. The service consisted of selections of Good Music performed by the virtuoso organist, who taught at the university music department, and announcements of the various activities in which the congregation was engaged, including AIDS ministry, recycling and various social action projects. The liturgy was squeezed into the cracks of the corporate self-congratulation ceremony and there was, of course, the inevitable home-crafted bread baked by some organic housewife in birkenstocks.

But what are the alternatives? None for me because the split in the Church--not merely in the Anglican Church between Episcopalians and break-away groups, but between the old mainline and evangelicals across the board--mirrors the Culture Wars split in the larger society between secular liberals and religious conservatives. The difference is that within the larger society secular liberals are increasing while conservative evangelicals are declining, within the churches conservative evangelicals are taking increasing market share while the mainline is dying out. So the end toward this trend is heading will be the picture Obama's publicity crew has in mind when it tags yet another minority to be conciliated as "people of faith." The US, belatedly, will become a secular society on the European model, where most people are polite agnostics and where a small minority of polite conservatives, on the Rick Warren evangelical lite model, promotes family values.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wise Latina

Sotomayor backs off ‘wise Latina’ quote - The Boston Globe

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, deflecting tough questioning by Republicans on the second day of her confirmation hearings, said yesterday that in 17 years as a judge she has never let her own life experiences or opinions influence her decisions. Sotomayor said her now-famous remark that she would hope a “wise Latina’’ would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male was a regrettable “rhetorical flourish that fell flat,’’ and does not reflect her views.

I once remarked that I didn't think that being a woman gave me any special perspective on teaching logic and that the philosophy department at my university would do just as good a job if it consisted entirely of white males.

I got slammed. This was something one wasn't supposed to say because, it was held, people of good will should promote the noble lie that members of disadvantaged groups, women and ethnic minorties, had something special to offer. As far as I understand there are two reasons for telling this lie: (1) it is supposed to be encouraging to members of disadvantaged groups and, more importantly, (2) it is supposed to persuade employers and others in positions of power to stop discriminating against women and minorities.

Since around 1970 women and minorities have been expected to make identity politics noises. So, Obama as a rising black politician was expected to do ethnic, join a black church and talk about black liberation. And Sotomayor was supposed to make noises about the special wisdom of Latinas. Neither of them, of course, believed it, and I doubt that their critics believe that they believed it: these are just the noises you're supposed to make to be a good mainstream liberal who happens to be a member of a minority group.

What a pity Sotomayor couldn't just tell the unvarnished truth. These are just the noises we minorities are supposed to make. We're supposed to take pride in our ethnic heritage--we certainly don't dare say that we feel no connection to it or consider it irrelevant. We're supposed to utter platitudes about the importance of diversity, about the special contributions (whatever they are) that members of different ethnic groups make.

Of course it's walking a tightrope because while making these noises we have to signal that we don't really mean it--that ethnicity is just a little hobby for us, as it is for the descendants of European immigrants. But everyone has always known what the game is so it's hardly dishonest--certainly not as dishonest as the behavior of Republican interrogators feigning shock at one conventional little feel-good remark about wise Latinas, pretending that they believe that I or anyone else ever took this bullshit seriously.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Bravo, Turkey!

Turkish gameshow Penitents Compete tests atheist resolve | World news |

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: what do you get when you put a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Buddhist monk and 10 atheists in the same room?

Viewers of Turkish television will soon get the punchline when a new gameshow begins that offers a prize arguably greater than that offered by Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Contestants will ponder whether to believe or not to believe when they pit their godless convictions against the possibilities of a new relationship with the almighty on Penitents Compete (Tovbekarlar Yarisiyor in Turkish), to be broadcast by the Kanal T station. Four spiritual guides from the different religions will seek to convert at least one of the 10 atheists in each programme to their faith.

Those persuaded will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their newly chosen creed – Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists.