Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame

At Notre Dame, Obama Defends His Abortion Stance -

President Obama directly confronted America’s deep divide over abortion on Sunday as he appealed to partisans on both sides to find ways to respect one another’s basic decency and even work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. As anti-abortion leaders protested his appearance at the University of Notre Dame, the nation’s storied Catholic university, Mr. Obama defended his support for abortion rights but called for more “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” in the debate that has polarized the country for decades.

Well, Obama got it right on this one, though the persisting Religious Right won't be convinced and Progressives will make a show of yapping and whining. Embedded in the political rhetoric was the hard kernel: abortion is a moral issue about which rational, educated, informed people of good will disagree. Pro-choice advocates aren't baby-killers; pro-life partisans aren't out to enslave women.

Will Obama succeed in de-politicizing abortion? I doubt it. It would mean winding back 30 years of history, during which the personal became political and economic issues were eclipsed by Culture Wars. During that time conservative Evangelical Protestants who ignored abortion as a "Catholic thing" during the run-up to Roe v. Wade got on board with the pro-life agenda in order to form a political alliance with Catholics and Progressives made abortion a litmus test because fighting for "women's right to choose" was easier than fighting for affirmative action to end sex segregation in the labor force--and, of course, more sexy.

But, who knows? Then we were riding high and could afford to worry about "lifestyle issues." Now the economy dominates everything and the lower classes, dangling over the abyss of unemployment and forclosure, don't have the leisure to worry about the rights of stem cells.

Obama did good. The Religious Right rump will keep waving signs showing dismembered fetuses and conventional feminists will froth at the mouth about his support for abortion reduction but most Americans will support him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Next Christendom The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity: Philip Jenkins: Books

Fear of Islam is peaking, fueled by reports that the religion is burgeoning in numbers as well as militancy. Jenkins grants that Islam is indeed booming but marshals the evidence that today's largest religion, Christianity, will grow exponentially, too, and will remain the faith of the largest proportion of humanity. But the Christianity of 2050 will be very different from that molded by the 1,300 years during which Christianity was the faith of a rapidly developing Europe. The new Christianity will be liturgically anarchistic compared with the staid services of white, upper-middle-class people today. It will be overwhelmingly the faith of poor nonwhites living south of Europe, the U.S., and present-day Russia, and it won't reflect the values of the wealthy global north. It will revive Christianity's root emphases on healing and prophecy because its adherents will resemble the poor and oppressed who first embraced the redemption, the healing, and the blessing that Jesus promised.

I've been reading this book which is a wonderful read but remarkably depressing. In addition to making a compelling case that Christianity will become the religion of the barbarians, Jenkins argues en passent that the barbarians will take over, through immigration and outbreeding.

If that's correct it's the end of the Roman Empire. The effete secular Epicureans of the near-sterile Senatorial class bewailing the decline in standards while the barbarians sack Rome. Aging Europeans (and Americans) will be swamped by young immigrants from the Third World breeding innumerable children. The barbarians--the brutal beasts who beat up women and whose life's goal is to fuck and impregnate as many as possible--will win. The illiterate, superstitious barbarians who join the church because it promises healing and material benefits will remake it in their image.

I'm not entirely convinced this will happen because the sects that working class strivers, including immigrants, join are potent forces for social mobility--and even in the US, social mobility is a lot better than it was 1500 years ago. So our barbarians will be civilized--develop habits of thrift and prudence, make money and see to it that their kids are educated. Those kids will establish half-way covenants, and their kids will be completely assimilated and secular. It took 1000 years to civilize the northern European barbarians but these days it only takes three generations to make a gentleman.

Still it's lousy either way. Either you have religion preserved under the auspices of barbaric holy rollers, the end of the Enlightenment and of liberal Christianity, or you have the inevitable march of secularism, with only a brief pause for the time it takes the barbarians to become civilized. I suppose that if I had to choose I'd pick secularism over a return to barbarism.

Jenkins is certainly right in noting that the charismatic Christianity that flourishes in the Global South and amongst immigrants to the Global North is closer to the Christianity of the New Testament than the respectable, institutionalized European version, which is dying out. But this kind of authenticity has never interested me.

Why, I wonder are we stuck with Hobson's choice between liberal, increasingly anti-religious secularism and a Christianity that is becoming increasingly conservative by attrition as the educated, liberal elite abandon religious practice altogether? Why didn't Christianity go the way of Greek religion which evolved into a system of cults and practices that could accommodate everyone from upper crust Epicureans who regarded the gods as no more than allegorical figures, monotheists who regarded them either as manifestations of the one God or lesser, semi-divine beings, and illiterate peasants who worshiped the stones and stocks at the boundaries of their fields?

Some guesses. Christianity was from very early on doctrinal: it included a package of beliefs which, over time, were made more specific. To be a Christian was, minimally, to sign on with those beliefs. In spite of the fact that according to one poll a small but significant proportion of self-identified Christians of various denominations say they don't believe in God, the idea that one would identify as a Christian and take part in liturgy without believing seems pointless given this understanding of religion as fundamentally doctrinal and liturgy as an expression of doctrine.

Moreover, religious practices have become divorced from civic and patriotic celebrations in a way that no one until recent times could have imagined. Anyone can participate in the civic events but participation in liturgy is, at least in theory, reserved for those who have made a doxastic commitment. Historically, as the requirements for orthodoxy grew increasingly stringent, fewer and fewer people could conscientiously commit to orthodoxy. In the past this was the root of sectarianism. And it was a matter of dumb luck which sect ended up setting the standard. In the East, Orthodoxy became the orthodoxy by a fluke. If Constantinople hadn't hung on until the 15th century, long after north Africa and Asia had fallen to the Turks, Monophysitism or Nestorianism might have been the orthodox industry standard in the East.

Currently however the response of most dissenters is not to form sects or alternative churches but to drop religious practice altogether. Since citizens don't, as a part of their ordinary civic involvement, need to participate in religious rituals, and since they see no point in doing so, they drop out.

The trend is self-perpetuating. As dissenters, skeptics and merely nominal Christians drop out of the Church, the Righteous Remnant becomes increasingly homogeneous and conservative, socially as well as theologically--and off-putting to still more people. So the Remnant becomes still smaller and more intense. Churches become sects; civic religion is replaced by secular myths and celebrations; the gathered church becomes the paradigm. Secularism becomes inclusive while Christianity becomes increasingly exclusive.

In the ancient world strict secularism was anomalous: the officially polytheistic religious establishment, such as it was, could accommodate almost anyone including Epicurean materialists, monotheists and animists. Now secularism is inclusive while Christianity is strictly defined and exclusive, no longer a cultural default, so you don't get fellow-travelers.

So now you have evangelical mega-churches operating as self-help programs for the neo-barbarians, promoting a socially conservative agenda. Their version of Christianity is srictly defined and, as I learnt in a "church planting" class I took, the expectation is that the "seekers" who come to investigate are expected to become "fully devoted followers" in 6 months to a year. Meanwhile, mainline churches have become activities centers for the elderly.

In the end neither will survive. The elderly will die off and the next generation of oldsters--my generation--who dropped out of the Church 30 years ago will find other ways to occupy their time. The barbarians amongst us, the immigrants and indigenous lower classes, will become civilized and secular. And the Global South will become civilized and secular in a century or two, once they get on track economically. That's the way Christianity ends--not with a bang but with a whimper. Not because an enlightened public no longer has any use for metaphysics but because churches have effectively abandoned metaphysics--because conservative churches offer little more than self-help programs, puritanical ethics and social control, and because mainline churches offer nothing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How Do Americans Really Feel About God? | The American Prospect

[T]he Pew Forum looked at 'the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S.' and found that roughly half of U.S. adults have changed religion at some point in their life. Further, the number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with a particular religion -- now hovering around 16 percent -- has grown more rapidly than any other religious group in recent decades. In recent years, the story of American religion has been hyped up in fire and brimstone thanks to our previous president, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, and the massive evangelical movement that influenced him to enact policies that were consistent with religious perspective: the global gag rule, abstinence-only sex education, and marriage-promotion programs, just to name a few. But those days are over...Americans are testing the waters of a new kind of religious complexity. This isn't the New Age spirituality of The Secret or the rabid atheism of Ivy League intellectuals. It isn't the over-the-top bar mitzvah or quinceañera. This is the steady, patient movement of citizens who are searching for the center again, Americans who want to believe in the goodness of a country and its people, folks who are affiliated with fairness and kindness over any one institution of worship...Strangely, Barack Obama's election was the closest thing to a religious experience that I've ever had. My faith was renewed in a country that, at times, has felt beyond saving. My heart swelled with the sense of interconnection that I've only heard described in spiritual terms. I certainly don't think he's a god, but I do think that the hope and sense of responsibility and community that he's been able to inspire in people is profound.

The Pew Forum report linked in the article notes also that the unafilliated are not only the fastest growing "religious group" but the one with the highest attrition rate: more than half of all individuals who were raised unaffiliated become affiliated. And I'm one of them.

Maybe that's why it's so devilishly hard for me to understand the widespread animus against religion--Christianity in particular. Whatever is the problem?

As far as I can see there are 3 problems:

  • The exercise of political power by churches and religious lobbies, particularly in the interests of promoting socially and politically conservative agendas.

  • The affirmation and promulgation of false beliefs.

  • The promotion of implausible and unduly restrictive moral rules, especially regarding sexual conduct.

Even so, it's still hard for me to understand. As the article notes, the political power of the Religious Right has been broken. They had a 30 year run--now it's over. And they didn't accomplish much of anything. Row v. Wade stands; Iowa has legalized gay marriage; campaigns to mandate the teaching of "intelligent design" in the public schools have flopped; and, when it comes to the alleged rights of stem cells, most Americans frankly do not give a damn.

Still, the New Atheists and their followers are vexed and urge constant vigilance. Those Fundamentalists could come back in force at any time and, some urge, apparently rational liberal Christians are just "enablers." They cite the Crusades and the Inquisition to make the case that religion--Christianity in particular--is a politically potent, destructive force.

I wonder how many could explain what the Inquisition was or even answer a multiple choice question about the approximate date of the First Crusade, or what it was supposed to accomplish: 8th century, 12th century, or 16th century? The whole campaign to defend the Enlightenment against incursions by militant Fundamentalists seems awfully like the Reds-under-beds scare during the Cold War.

As for the affirmation and promulgation of false beliefs--who cares? While I was grading my logic yesterday morning I was listening to a Sunday Morning TV show about the latest fad for "cleansing" which is supposed to leech out poisons from the body through the ingestion of godawful concoctions laced with hot peppers, and enemas. Devotées swear by it, though there's no empirical evidence that it does any good. Religious belief is surely no more harmful than this nonsense or any of the other health fads and therapies Americans consume. And surely religion, at least religion of the mainline Protestant variety, is less harmful than than the anti-vaccination movement or the campaign against genetically modified foods or, for that matter, the Mars-Venus literature.

So I, as a Christian, believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ as his only son, our Lord, and the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Big deal. That's metaphysics. I know metaphysicians who believe that tables and chairs don't exist and others who believe in Platonic forms, sets, numbers and propositions do, and many, including me, who believe that denizens of merely possible worlds exist. So what? We all have arguments, none of which are conclusive, and many of us are likely wrong. But our ontological commitments are harmless. No one bothers with us and there's no reason why they should or, arguably, why they should bother with people for believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God with his suite of angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.

I suppose the real issue is sex. Christianity, at least officially, mandates restrictions on sexual activity. Popular culture defines human worth in terms of sexual attractiveness and sexual activity. This at least is the way it was in the wake of the sexual revolution when I came of age. I diligently strove to have sex with as many men as possible and managed to achieve double digits though not, I think, triple digits.

But how many Christians take their churches' official doctrines regarding sexual expression seriously? So whatever is the problem? More generally, why should anyone worry about churches' official doctrines concerning any moral issues since churches don't have the power to enforce them and most adherents don't take them seriously. They're pleased when their churches endorse moral views they hold on independent grounds but ignore moral injunctions they do not endorse.

So why did I, like most others who were raised unchurched, become religiously affiliated? What interested me were the aesthetic elements broadly construed, mysticism and metaphysics.

If I had been born later, or further to the west, I doubt that I'd ever have developed the slightest interest in religion. If I grew up amongst megachurches meeting in auditoriums, where people sat in theater seats listing to Christian soft rock and therapeutic sermons I would never have been attracted.

But I grew up amongst brownstone churches filled with dim religious light, vibrating with the numinous. And I was in training to be a musician: I sang the Mass in Latin, and the Te Deum and Magnificat, in innumerable classical settings. The People of the Land in my neighborhood were Italian Catholics and I grew up with Mediterranean Folk Catholicism--which I envied. I am hard-wired for high church: Anglo-Catholicism opened its gaping maw, swallowed me up, smirked and burped. I just plain love churchiness and all religious stuff--the buildings, the music, the smells and bells, the Prayer Book, and all the gee-gaws and frou-frou.

I was also interested in mysticism, something that went beyond the heart-swelling "religious experience" the author describes, something that has little to do with any sense of "interconnection," hope, responsibility or community. I suppose I can understand those sentiments but they've never really interested me much. I was after an acid trip. That churchy stuff did it for me--and still does.

Finally, I find the metaphysics intriguing--in particular the doctrine of the Trinity and the Real Presence doctrine, on which I write. Is it true? I don't know, any more than I know whether any of the other metaphysical commitments I've taken on, to four-dimensionalism, the existence of possible worlds or mereological universalism (the last currently under reconsideration), are correct. But I've plonked for them and will defend them, unless I become convinced otherwise. Maybe most importantly I simply like working on these issues.

I doubt that I'd have become interested in religion if I were raised affiliated and ground through the whole regime of church and Sunday School as a child: smarmy Jesus and sentimental Jesus stories, construction paper projects, niceities and moralizing. It's drivel but it's harmless drivel. Whatever is the problem?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Way We Live Now - Kindergarten Cram -

The Way We Live Now - Kindergarten Cram -

Jean Piaget famously referred to “the American question,” which arose when he lectured in this country: how, his audiences wanted to know, could a child’s development be sped up? The better question may be: Why are we so hellbent on doing so?

Easy answer. Because the US is a high-risk, high-stakes casino that is ostensibly a fair meritocracy. We have the highest Gini coefficient in the civilized world and the most meager social safety nets. And we do not believe that it is feasible to provide decent lives for all. There will always be losers, we believe, and so we're desperate to make sure that our kids aren't amongst them.

Given the way the system works, this means pushing kids ahead of the curve fast since, at every stage of the game children will be (officially or unofficially) tracked and have to perform ahead of their peers to get onto the fast track for the next stage which will solidify their advantage. At every stage advantages and disadvantages accumulate and the gap between the minority groomed for success and the throwaways grows. It may be possible to get off the dummy track but at every stage it becomes harder and less likely.

By high school students are irrevocably sorted into those who are groomed upper middle class lives--placed in AP classes, sent to science fairs, and pushed into the "leadership roles" in student government and extracurricular activities that will get them admitted to "good colleges"--and the rest who are kept occupied, disciplined and controlled. Students on the disciplinary track conclude, with good reason, that school is nothing but a kind of jail and simply want out. They see no connection between education and future benefits because for them there is none.

Parents don't want their kids on that track with good reason. I was on it and it was miserable. I saw the smart kids at a distance, the Rah-Rahs who wore madras, who were in "advanced classes," on student council and in various clubs, who were lauded as National Merit Semi-Finalists at school assemblies. I knew some of them from orchestra--another one of the extra-curricular activities that would look good on their college applications. But they weren't in my classes, where students resented being in school and the ethos was passive-aggressive, where teachers' primary concern was keeping us quiet and preventing us from chewing gum.

No one ever talked to me about college, or encouraged me to do extra-curricular activities, or expected me to do well, or even expected me to be interested in what I was ostensibly supposed to learn. School was just a dull job we had to do, like the jobs we would get when we graduated. I sometimes think that the real purpose of the regime was teaching us how to cope with boredom to prepare us for boring drudge work.

Of course we go hellbent for leather to speed up development so that at every stage kids will get into the top quintile, to keep them from being tracked into the kinds of classes that not only stifle ambition but kill any interest in intellectual activity.

Those yuppie parents who push their kids to read at 3 and fight to get them into the "best" pre-schools, are behaving rationally. As long as there's an educational tracking system which feeds into what is, contrary to our official ideology, the most rigid socio-economic tracking system in Global North parents will clamor for kindergartens where 5 year olds are drilled to pass tests.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist - Defecting to Faith -

[A] study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one.

I'm one of those and suppose I'm typical of most who

said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.

But I'm not particularly sympathetic to Blow's reductivist conclusion that

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign.

At the crudest level, why should "the nonreligious movement" have to do this job? Why don't people just visit churches, go to services, support churches that maintain the buildings and run the services, and believe whatever they please? There's a good reason for this: "the nonreligious movement" doesn't do architecture. And, for all that an increasing number of American yuppies regard themselves as Buddhists, they don't build temples.

I suppose the deeper question is that of why we don't think that visiting churches, participating in services and maintaining buildings isn't good enough. I just finished reading a great read: Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, describing the conversion of Europeans to Christianity. What did that conversion mean for the Goths and Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Lombards and, in the end, the Wends and Lithuanians? Initially, at least, it meant little more than conformity to a practice--churchgoing and following various rules for social organization. Why don't we think it's good enough that we participate in religious practice and support the institution that makes them possible, whatever we believe?

For myself I have no interest in the Church as "community." If I had any interest in "community" I would certainly not look for it in any church. Church people are not my kind of people and I want nothing to do with them. But I love the buildings, the services and the music, and I like participating anonymously, alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd is my kind of "spiritual" experience--walking through a farmers' market, as I did this morning. I like people as "background." I like participating in crowd scenes where I don't have to make contact with anyone but can just appreciate them as throbbing Life. In the same way, I like going to church so long as I don't know anyone and can participate impersonally as part of that impersonal Life. I don't want anything to do with them personally and certainly don't want to be a member of the "community."

Is this really so terribly queer? I don't assume that everyone is like me. But I see no reason to assume that no one is--that no one but me has that interest in the impersonal numinous, in church buildings, services and ceremonies in which one can participate anonymously as a a mere part of the crowd, submerged in the seething mass. That seems to me the religious impulse at its core: to recognize that one's life makes no difference, that one is of no significance or worth, that in the grand scheme of things one is of absolutely no consequence.

But so much for metaphysics. Why should the "non-religious movement" pick up steam? If it does, what will it provide? Buildings? Art? Mythology?

Blow, and others who write on this, are not among us who were raised without any religion. They were ground through the regime of churchgoing and Sunday School, raised in worlds where there was an obligation to believe and those who couldn't manage it were in some sense failures or, in any case, untrustworthy.

I was brought up to believe that religion was, at best, a mechanism for keeping "uneducated people" in line and a comfort for the elderly facing death. I was taught that all religious belief was superstitious and that any interest in religion was morbid and "sick." Blow just doesn't get it, doesn't get what it is like to be brought up secular. For me, and I suspect other like me, religion is a guilty pleasure--one of those forbidden things like sex that deliver big thrills. And for me at least it isn't the believing that delivers the thrills but the buildings and services, the business of organized religion, the outward and visible signs.

I can read the handwriting on the wall. Organized religion will collapse and, I believe, we'll all be the poorer for it. Because organized religion is not a matter of doctrine or moral rules, as those who were raised with it believe, but a matter of art, architecture, mythology and ritual. For most, that has been poisoned by dogmatism and puritanism so, to the extent that they have an interest in "spirituality" they will look for it in "the non-religious movement"--which has nothing to offer.

I still don't get it. De facto churches don't require loyalty oaths and can't enforce moral commitments. There are no gatekeepers. Anyone can go to any church and enjoy the service with no questions asked. Why don't people questing for "spirituality" just do church and ignore the stupid things that clergy say--like everyone else?