Miscellany and hobby horses

I’m lazy, and I’ve been busy. I do have to start scheduling more time to contribute, and I do need to finish some of the essays I’ve been noodling around with, plus write a couple that’ve been banging around in my head. For starters, there’s the whole headscarf thing, on which I found I have a lot to say and therefore no time to finish. In the meantime,  if anyone really wants to look into it themselves, much of what I have to say comes from Talal Asad, particularly his essay on French secularism collected here, Saba Mahmood’s work, particularly her seminal work on female subjectivity in the revival of Islamic culture here, and those beautiful and brave Rutgers women who wear this with their headscarf or their hijab.

As for my thoughts on why it’s not much of a problem for science if a significant minority of the population still can’t accept evolution but it is a problem for the religious, well, that will have to wait. There’s another brief piece on life on the farm inspired by that triple snow whammy also. That will help break up the monotony with some personal writing – it does seem as if much of my writing interest has turned largely to my professional interest in secularism and religious thought, and not as much the poetry and composition stuff – what tatters of my academic life I’m still clinging to. But that may not hold.

Or it may. Things that have caught my attention, lately:

The schoolchildren of Texas caught a lucky break in the recent primaries. Deranged state school board member Don McLeroy lost his bid to continue representing the Republican party for his district in favor of a candidate who pledged to offer support to a more moderate voice. The vote was pretty close, so that means there are still lots of people out there who feel driven to politicize education rather than allow children to know and experience the real world, and McLeroy still has like-minded supporters on the board, but a victory is still a victory.

Nicholas Kristof asked an insightful question on Sunday: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief organization? It’s World Vision, an evangelical Christian organization based in Seattle that assists children caught up in humanitarian crises – Uganda, Congo, Haiti, etc. Over the past decade, their budget has tripled, and their sense of mission has grown in urgency and scope as well.

This is part of what I’m talking about when I insist that a more robust secularism means a greater voice in the public sphere for religious belief (- and by robust I don’t mean necessarily stronger, in the sense of stricter, but richer, less insecure, and therefore stabler, even if perpetually contested). Although I stand by my assessment that those who hold prominent leadership positions in the American evangelical movement are guilty of exporting violence and murder to other countries as part of a deepening campaign of intimidation against segments of our own society, much of the larger movement that is not so focused on a pointless struggle with secularity has found its sense of Christian mission urging them to respond to real and crucial issues like AIDs, the environment, and human trafficking.

That said, one should guard against the (secular) tendency to castigate organized or institutional religion in favor of the individual believer. Oh, it’s the priests and the preachers that are bad, right? For them it’s all about power and control, or preserving their traditional privilege, etc., etc. It’s what’s in people’s hearts that matter, right? Yeah, it’s not so simple.

It’s true that the religious leadership of much of the American religious community is probably more of a social evil than a social good. After all, there’s very little good that one can say about the Catholic priesthood at this point. And yet the experience of Catholicism without the presence of the Church itself is inconceivable – Protestants perhaps have a little more leeway to imagine religious faith absent the presence of a community, but it’s only a brief and largely illusory margin.

One of the key characteristics, and one of the key values, I think, of religious experience is that moral insistence of the religious community that informs and sustains the existence of individual believer. And as ethical instruction, this experience is immensely valuable in its efforts to not merely call us beyond or outside ourselves, but recognize that our own existence is dependent upon these prior commitments to what makes our being possible. It should go without question that I understand these moral commitments atheistically, but I also recognize that the language and mental architecture remain largely religious, so there we go.

A valuable instruction in this comes out of the torture debate. The Pew Research Center last year came out with polling results showing that support for torture of suspected terrorists was higher among the religiously faithful than those expressing no specific religious affiliation, and the more strongly one affiliated with religious practice and belief, the more likely one was to support torture. And yet nearly every major religious body has made strong and explicit statements condemning the use of torture, demonstrating a marked disjuncture between the attitudes of the religious and their institutions.

Religious affiliation and political identification are, of course, strongly linked, and as the faithful tend conservative, and as conservatives tend to view human dignity and rights more from a tribal perspective as opposed to the more liberal universal perspective, the results of the pole not entirely surprising. Religious institutions, of course, are driven to moral instruction that takes a longer view – one less susceptible to the passions of the moment and political division, and one that takes the dignity of human life as its authorizing position, so their insistence on the moral error of torture is not surprising either.

Unfortunately the religious leadership can articulate the position, but as a whole is too far engaged in their own divisive and politically motivated struggle against modernity to lead effectively, and so the necessary ministry just doesn’t get done. And abominations like Mark Thiessen’s largely self-serving attempt to justify torture along the lines of Catholic just war theology bubble up.

O.K. and one last thing: this recent study suggesting that high IQ correlates with liberalism, atheism, and monogamy in males. Of course it does, you expect me to say? Balderdash, I say. It’s a crock – maybe even a complete crock. The scientist that lead the study interpreted the significance of the correlation between atheism and intelligence thus: “Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger. ‘It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere,’ Kanazawa said.” The man knows nothing about current theories of religion, nor religion itself – it’s once of those not-infrequent embarrassments when social scientists, or other scientists for that matter, attempt to utter authoritative statements on the humanities. They don’t respect the disciplines enough to inform themselves.

And he has this to say about how they determined liberal tendencies: “The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines ‘liberal’ in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. ‘Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with,’ he said.”

Well, O.K., sure, but given what I’ve gone over above, doesn’t that make these people more religious, too? What about other ways to articulate the liberal/conservative divide: anti-authoritarian (liberal) vs. authoritarian (conservative), for instance? Although there’s been some interesting work done recently on psychological disposition and the tendency to identify with one pole or the other of the American political spectrum, such as conservatives having a low threshold of bodily disgust and liberals tending to be more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, whether one is willing help out a stranger is a surprisingly crude way to determine political sensibility.

And if this isn’t bad enough, in the CNN story that’s making the blog rounds, they bring in another academic whose field is described as “leadership” to comment (“leadership” WTF? that sounds even dumber than “communications” as an academic field), and he says that intelligent people are drawn to the novel and unusual as part of the self-display of their intelligence. And that’s not too far off-base from responsible sociology.

But then they quote this self-important blowhard saying that “unconventional” philosophies such as liberalism or atheism may be “ways to communicate to everyone that you’re pretty smart.” Unconventional? Liberalism? Until the Reagan years it was the dominant American political paradigm. And even before it became a political identification, the motivating philosophy behind the founding of the republic. Atheism may be unconventional, but for many of us the ability to think beyond our narrow self-interest and value the sovereign dignity of another is a core ethical aspiration. And it does that aspiration a disservice to label it, whether its the religious or the liberal label you want to put to it, which is why the conversation ought to continue.


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