Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Church of the Divine Slacker

The Church of the Slacker God | Machines Like Us

[W]e should really think of 'accommodationists' as 'worshippers in The Church of the Slacker God.' But this raises the question of why intellectuals like Wright and Baber so desperately want to belong to such a church, which frankly does not seem to offer much to its parishioners. After all, it rules out answers to prayers, miracles, heaven, and all the other goodies that entice believers to join the more mainstream churches, even though those goodies never actually materialize. How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests...Why do religious intellectuals like Baber and Wright feel the need to find reasons to believe in the existence of such a slacker god?...Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.

The New Atheists are an irritating lot for at least 3 reasons:

(1) First, while there is nothing to say about atheism, the New Atheists just keep talking...and blogging, and commenting, and writing books, and talking and talking and talking.

There's nothing to say about atheism for the same reason that there's nothing to say about non-stamp-collecting: it's simply the denial of a thesis and non-participation in a practice. There is plenty to say about stamp collecting, none of which interests me, and even more to say about religious belief and practice: one can discuss theology, church history, liturgy, ecclesiastical politics, and so on ad nauseum. But there's nothing of interest to say about atheism: all one can say is that atheists don't believe the theological claims and don't engage in religious practice, which is pretty obvious and thoroughly uninteresting.

Consequently, the only thing atheists qua atheists have to talk about is why they aren't theists: why theological claims are implausible and why the practice of religion is silly, superstitious, pointless or positively dangerous. But we've heard it all. Hume said it, and said it well. Russell said it and popularizers like Mencken and Sinclair Lewis packaged it for mass consumption. The New Atheist project of saying it over and over again seems distinctly pointless--and thoroughly boring.

I'm not suggesting that the New Atheists' criticism of religious belief and practice is impolite or strident or disparaging of religion, which ought to be respected. I'm fine with rudeness and stridency, in which I often engage myself, and see no reason why religion should be respected. I just don't see why atheists should engage in the critique of religious belief and practice--any more than non-stamp collectors should spend their time and energy going on about how boring and pointless stamp collecting is. Certainly, when religious belief is under consideration, in philosophy of religion classes or public debates, that critique needs to be considered--and represented in it's most powerful and compelling form. I just don't see any reason why, apart from this, atheists should endlessly rehearse anti-theistic arguments, or affiliate with atheist organizations or send their kids to atheist summer camps any more than non-stamp-collectors should make a fuss about the folly of stamp collecting, or join non-stamp-collector organizations or send their kids to non-stamp-collector camps.

(2) New Atheist bloggers and commentators are, for the most part (though not universally) just bloody awful.

Not everybody of course. There are interesting blogs and intelligent commentators. But enter this arena and in most cases it is impossible to get anywhere because of the defensiveness and clubbiness, informal fallacies and meta-talk. Enter into a discussion with a comment about the New Atheists and immediately you will be challenged for calling them "the New Atheists"--there is apparently a back story, which I don't know, and the phrase is taken to be derogatory. Before cutting to the chase you have to explain that you don't mean "New Atheists" in any derogatory sense and explain what you do mean. By the time the discussion of nomenclature is finished you are too tired and frustrated to go on and have forgotten the original point.

The defensiveness and hostility are incomprehensible. I've known a few people who were brought up in oppressive, conservative religious homes--chiefly embittered ex-Catholics--who are still angry, resentful, hostile to religion, and defensive. I get it. And I can see how secular people living in strongly religious, social conservative cultures might be equally hostile and defensive. But very few people now are in these circumstances.

I eavesdrop on the discussions and hear people who have not had the old time religion banged into them as kids and who live in subcultures where secularism is the norm expressing or, as I believe, feigning the same defensiveness and hostility. I don't get it. One way or the other though, it is frustrating and, I'm beginning to believe, pointless to engage in discussion.

I got into one of these frustrating discussions on one blog at which a commentator referred to the virtual space of the discussion as "our atheist living room." OK, I get it: there are lots of ostensibly public spaces devoted to discussion and debate on the internet that are in fact semi-private clubs. I've blundered into these places quite often, entered into the discussion, and eventually finally given up (or been kicked out) when I realized that the purpose was "community" and mutual support rather than discussion or debate. As far as I can see most New Atheist blogs are de facto atheist living rooms and there are simply few venues for serious discussion.

(3) New Atheists don't get religion, don't get that they don't get religion, and are unwilling to entertain the possibility that there is anything to get.

How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests

This is like asking how much mileage you can get out of great sex. How could the Greeks and Trojans have fought that epic war over Helen? Or like asking how much mileage you can get out of love of country or the desire to create a better, fairer society or relieve suffering or achieve fame and fortune or make significant advances in the sciences or save the ecosystem or any of the other things which various people regard as of ultimate importance. I myself don't get the importance of great sex, love of country, the desire to create a better society or relieve suffering, the desire for achievement or a whole host of other goals that others regard as important. But I get that they regard these things as important, and I'm even curious what it would feel like to regard these things as important. I don't think that they can't possibly really have these interests and goals, or believe that when they say they have these aims they must be disingenuous or self-deceiving and really be after something else.

Most atheists, new and old, and most religious believers don't get that there is something to get about the desire for religious experience and seem to think that the motive for religious belief and practice must really be something else.

Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.

I can only speak for myself, but I have no interest in the potential of God to "do something" or in some sort of "comfort." I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, believe that science explains all there is to explain about how the material world works and that technology is all we need to solve all our practical problems. I am not looking for "comfort."

For me, aesthetics is the whole enchilada and religious experience is the limit of aesthetic experience. The very phrase, "mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory'" is bizarre: what could be more important or less "mere"? This is like saying "mere fame," "mere money," "mere achievement" or "mere orgasm." Give us some credit. I can't empathize in my gut with people who want to "make a difference" to the world or help people. I just haven't got that in me. But there are clearly lots of people who do. We have lots of kids at my place who enter the "Teach for America" program: they want to "make a difference" and to help. This is opaque to me, but I can recognize that impulse, applaud it, and see that it isn't "really" something else even though it's not something that I myself can feel.

My "ultimate concern" is ecstasy--that slam-bang aesthetic experience in this world and the next: as I understand it, the vision of God. And I'm fascinated by the stuff of religion, not only because it provides the props that facilitate religious/aesthetic experience but because I find it fascinating in and of itself. I just plain like religion for its own sake. Most people don't understand my taste for religion any more than I understand the urge to collect stamps. I do however recognize that some people really like to collect stamps and that their interest in stamp collecting isn't "really" an interest in something else. I dearly wish that others would recognize that my interest in religion and the interest of others who share my tastes, is not "really" something else.

Religion is a minority taste. There's no more reason why most people should be interested in religion than there is reason for people to be interested in stamp collecting. Of course I'd like it personally if more people were interested in religion so that I would be in a comfortable majority rather than a beleagured minority and, more importantly, so that there would be more resources to maintain the religious infrastructure--the church buildings and services--I need to crank up religious experience. But if there is one thing I do NOT believe is that the slacker God in which I do believe cares whether we believe in him or not.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Eighteen Again

Op-Ed Columnist - Parsing Mr. Wilson’s Apology -

Joe Wilson, who will be forever known as the “You lie!” congressman, unless he does something even weirder in the future, has a lot of fans this weekend at the Taxpayer March on Washington. This is an anti-Obama demonstration organized by FreedomWorks, the group that helped bring us the summer town hall meeting protests. Those were, of course, the events where we learned that we did not actually have a national consensus on the inadvisability of bringing loaded weapons to places where the president is speaking...Among the co-sponsors of the march are the Tea Party Patriots, who helped bring us those anti-tax rallies last spring...The one thing that unites them seems to be a sense of inchoate rage. Although mentioning it makes them really, really mad.

It's all familiar--Revolution For The Hell Of It. That's what we were up to in 1968, marching in Chicago to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. Some people had serious political agendas but most of us were there to have fun, and to vent that inchoate rage.

I didn't see the pig, but I just read about it in Nixonland, a sentimental journey back to the days of Revolution. I was just a foot soldier lost in the crowd and didn't see much, but apparently our leaders, after yelling insults at the Chicago cops hoping to provoke a reaction released a greased pig in Lincoln park which the cops had to capture.

I'm not even sure why I was there. Partly I think I was there to participate in a world historic event--to have been there--and partly to protest against a variety of social inequities and features of the culture I didn't like. We all had our particular betes noir. For me it was dress codes and grooming requirements. I was always irritated when people assumed that I dressed like a slob because I had some radical political agenda or flaky philosophy of life. I wasn't a slob because I was a hippie: I was a hippy because I was a slob.

For others it was educational and occupational expectations. We were the first generation of kids for whom college was mandatory so colleges were full of students who had no academic interests or career goals, couldn't or wouldn't do the work, and had no reason to be there. They were mad at the system that was forcing them through the meat grinder, through college and to respectable middle class jobs in which they had no interest. For all of us of course there was the war in Vietnam--the great symbol of everything we didn't like.

Now it's payback time. Those working stiffs who drudged away while we had fun doing revolution, the Chicago cops we insulted and provoked, those working class Joes who watched us rich brats enjoying opportunities they never got, frolicking in the streets, graduating, getting the good jobs, getting rich and hijacking the whole culture are getting theirs back. Now they're doing tea parties, town hall meetings and revolution for the hell of it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Taming Religion

Tony Blair's justification of faith | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |

"Faith is not going to disappear", he said: 'We have this view in Europe that once peope get a bit more sensible, a bit more rational, faith will go out of the window. That's not the way the world works.'..the one thing he did not say or claim, even by implication, was that faith was harmless. It seemed to me that he thinks of it as thoroughly dangerous – which of course it is – but that is what makes it so necessary to tame, and such an interesting challenge for any politician. "If people can't find a way of taking their religious faith into co-existence with others, we're in for a really dangerous time."

When I was an undergraduate my fantasy was the Middle Ages, in particular, what I thought of as "Chaucer's Merry England." Here was a world, at least as Chaucer represented it, where there was pageantry and color, sex, drunkenness and jollity, and lots of religion--which no one took very seriously.

This of course is what the Society for Creative Anachronism calls "the Middle Ages as they should have been" and most certainly were not. But it provides an agenda for taming religion.

What should religion be? That depends on what you think religion is. Nowadays people seem to have high-falutin' notions of what it is that are quite detached from what most religious folk historically would have imagined. They claim it has to do with the Big Questions. According to one of my colleagues who does Freud, religion is a "palliative" in the face of our recognition that the universe is without purpose and that our lives are "meaningless."

I'm not sure in what sense our lives could have "meaning" or what their being "meaningless" comes to but I agree that the universe is without purpose. I'm just not bothered by it, and don't see why anyone should be bothered. I don't see the problem.

Most people as far as I can see aren't bothered by it either and in any case historically most have not thought of these non-issues as the stuff of religion. For the folk, including me, religion is cultic practice and belief in the supernatural. That's the core. In addition religion promotes moral decency--honesty, kindness, diligence and a sort of generic uprightness.

That seems pretty tame to me. To be a religious person is to believe in the supernatural--to believe that there is a God, or gods, or something or other beyond the material world, which may or may not intervene in human affairs but generally does not interfere--and to engage in various religious ceremonies, traditions and practices. What's the problem?

In the US for decades advocates of separation of church and state have fought to keep religion out of the public square--to get prayer out of the public schools, Christmas creches out of public parks, and hilltop crosses off of public land. The New Atheists have joined the crusade. The idea I suppose is that these innocuous symbols and practices are a gateway to the harder stuff: oppressive puritanism, theocracy and superstition, inquisitions and crusades.

It is an empirical question whether suppressing the innocuous trappings of religiousity would make the world a better place. The Beatles, imagining there was no Heaven, seem to have thought so but I rather doubt it. People enjoy religiousity and believe that it promotes moral decency. When crusading secularists work to take it away, they get their backs up--as well they should.

Religious folk have their backs to the wall. In the US the religious white working class is a shrinking minority. They're scared and angry because they believe that their way of life is under attack and that chaos is breaking in. What would satisfy them? Do they really want nothing less than the whole religious right agenda--including "creationism" in the public schools, the suppression of gays and the institution of a whole range of puritanical constraints?

I really doubt it. I think they would be quite happy with displays public religion--creches in the park, ten commandments in front of courthouses, prayer in schools and invocations by clergy at public ceremonies--and the promotion of generic moral decency along the lines of the Girl Scout code. And there is nothing wrong with that. I'd like it myself--along with processions in the streets and other high church fun.

So that seems to me the way to tame religion. Maximize innocuous religiousity.

It's an empirical question whether this would work but it's worth trying. As a thought experiment at least, imagine that there were processions in the streets and prayer in the public schools, that high school athletes huddled in the field to invoke Jesus' support for their team and in time of drought there were public prayers for rain. Imagine that religiousity was pervasive, that the events of the liturgical year were publicly celebrated with public Christmas festivities, passion plays, and other ceremonies in due season.

If we had all that stuff, would anyone care about gay marriage, evolution, stem-cell research or any of these symbolic issues? Call me naive or call me cynical: I doubt it.