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Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.


It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”


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The maturation of the South

Matthew Yglesias highlights an interview Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour did with Politico wherein Barbour concedes that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, that abolition of slavery was an imperative, and that it required the Civil War to do it. What he said is not news, per se, but that fact that it’s a Mississippi state governor that’s saying it is.

Barbour has been highly visible in contemplating a presidential run, and it’s highly likely he’s been forced forced into the admission due to his series of public missteps on history and race. First, going back last year to the brouhaha over Virginia Governor’s McDonnell’s hamfisted proclamation for “Confederate History Month” that neglected to mention the issue of slavery, and McDonnell claiming after the fact that slavery wasn’t “significant” enough to honoring the history of Virginia’s involvement to merit mention of it, Barbour brushed off the controversy, claiming it was a “nit” and “trying to make a big deal.” That didn’t sell well.

Then he stepped further into it when he reminisced warmly about the racial harmony of his boyhood town of Yazoo City, Mississippi, claiming that the town’s prominent Citizen’s Council, an organization so maligned by northerners, was just a civic leadership organization that kept the KKK out of things. It was quickly pointed out that the Citizen’s Council’s raison d’etre was segregation, and even Barbour’s boyhood best-friend emerged out of the woodwork to describe how violent and powerful the Citizen’s Council was in pursuit of it, not only against blacks but whites to accepted blacks as customers, clients, and friends.

And when the particularly vile neo-Confederate organization Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the key founders of the KKK, Barbour killed it, but then ruffled feathers by saying that he wouldn’t “denounce” the proposal. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” he said.

So Barbour’s sincerity can certainly be questioned. Why should we pay attention to Barbour’s recent admission about the nature of the Civil War? Because it’s been said, regardless of the reasons for saying it. It would be great if there were sufficient political pressure building inside Mississippi to force its utterance, but the fact that it’s coming from outside Mississippi means that we should be glad that it’s registering at all.

The notion that the Civil War was fought over issues other than slavery – states rights, taxation, or what have you – was a myth first put forward by the Confederacy in the last days of the war and then given the nod by historians so that the South could save face after provoking a war for a patently amoral cause upon which it attempted to build a new nation. The inability of the South to face up to this brutal historical truth has perpetuated a cultural and political immaturity throughout the former Confederacy, particularly in its white governing class. That the South is today largely governed by an infantile claque of demagogues is largely the result of that refusal to own up to the truth.

Outside of the Beltway, and perhaps his own state, nobody takes Barbour seriously as a presidential candidate. Mississippi has far too much baggage for its governor to claim any sympathy or allegiance from the rest of the nation. And that Barbour seems, even against his own intentions, to embody a stereotype to which that baggage is attached pretty much means his candidacy is over before it even begins. But that a politician from the South has to say finally the hard truths that the rest of the nation put to rest long ago means that maybe the South will be finally able to grow up and get to work.

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First spring report

It is spring. Cormac’s birthday generally fall on or about the equinox, so the start of season is well-marked in the household. The weather’s taken a step back from full endorsement of it, but the season pushes on largely mindless it would seem to temperature shifts. I had my binoculars this evening to detect any new seasonal arrivals in the population at the edge of the fields, but my ears – at least at first – were what I relied on. A little part of me was hoping that I’d hear the end-of-day songs of the catbirds or wood thrushes that are so thick through here mid-spring, confirming the calendar and spiting the cold. And I thought I heard a thrush in the distance, but it was I think more longing than clear attention to the sound. As I got further out into the fields and closing on on the woods I heard it again as a plushy bunch of notes and a burr: song sparrows. So they’re here, and I can add them to the tally with the redwing blackbirds and the bluebirds.

As I closed around the far side of the fields I thought I saw a couple swallows perched atop mullein stalks near the line of woods. That would be a welcome sign. I brought the binoculars up, and realized how long it had been since I’d brought them along. The birds didn’t move as I was adjusting and readjusting the lenses and the hinge between the barrels, so much that I had half-decided they were tufts of leave fiber or remnants of flowers. But then I had the focus working, and it was clear that the tails were too long for tree swallows. As I moved closer, it was also clear that even accounting for magnification the birds were much larger than swallows. And then they took flight, and as I watched through the glasses it became clear that I was watching a couple kestrels come to see if the field mice were moving. Then three. I thought I had seen one in a sycamore the other day, and it was nice to have it confirmed that they were around.

Watching them watch for signs of spring would be a sign, if I needed it, but in truth kestrels are always around if usually out of sight. But I as I turned back I noticed even in the twilight that the underbrush in the woods had sprouted that green haze of new leaf that will soon render the entire woods somewhat blurry in aspect for about a week before leaves and then flowers begin to unfold with increasing force. Sign enough.

But not all of the winter birds have left, and on my way back a largish flock of several dozen juncos, or snowbirds, as some people apparently call them, crossed my path cheeping loudly.

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Report from the field

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Holy Thursday

This is William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence:

’Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk’d before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seem’d these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

The poem refers to the annual London ritual of bringing the children of the charity schools to St. Paul on Holy Thursday. The charity schools housed and trained – educated not being exactly the right word here – orphans and children whose parents were too poor or entrapped in debt, which at the time involved lengthy prison stays, to care for them. The ritual was to display on the behalf of the London citizenry their civic virtue of Christian charity, and as well I’d imagine the ritual would serve as a living metaphor for each citizen’s fragile metaphysical state and dependence upon the grace and charity of the Church and Savior.

Blake’s ironic take is to show the powerless children from the lowest economic and social status in full possession of a strong spiritual import and power, though he tempers those “harmonious thunderings” at the end when he turns from bends the “mighty wind” of the children’s song into a tepid sentimentality about children as angels and beggars at one’s door.

The consideration of those efforts to turn innocent spiritual power into cheap profit produces the companion poem, same title, in Songs of Experience:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?Is that trembling cry a song?

Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

The children, the poem insists, are victims of a usurious scheme to cheaply cloth and house them while they’re trained to feed industrial London’s insatiable appetite for child labor. Blake wants us to see the ill treatment of the children as an affront to the holiness of the ritual’s occasion. Charity schools were parish concerns, though maintained largely not for spiritual reasons so much as for the benefit of a public sentiment that would prefer to see the children used to generate some profit, and not, as Blake would have it, simply bask and grow while sheltered in the relative security of England’s wealth. Or at the least not be traumatized by poverty and enslavement, because children occupy a special place of holiness in Christianity: they are powerless and becoming. In Blake that lack of power and the blessing on it becomes a particular kind of power — a harmony and a wind or a river — when viewed as a representative ideal.

Just that. I was moved to look back at Blake’s poems because of the day and because of the horrifying response of defenders of the Catholic Church, and now the Vatican itself, to the growing scandal surrounding Pope Benedict. I’m not going to get into it, except to say that I find efforts to blame the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on gays or hippies to be the most craven, low, and amoral kind of response. But if want to read about the depth to which the Church has sunk and its defenders are willing to, you can go here and keep reading. I think if we keep the day at all, we should think about the moral obligation of those whose dependency places them in our trust and the particular power they have to sanctify or condemn. And now look, it’s Good Friday.

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It’s time for the pope to resign, and for the church finally to face up to this.

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Awesome on so many levels.

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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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I’m preparing two essays, one brief and another longer, on religion, knowledge, and contemporary society. Plus, I’m due to post an update on the job search. Meanwhile, as I’m continually threatening to violate the spirit and form of a blog with my long even if somewhat spontaneous ruminations, here’s a few small things.

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The Catholic Church’s increasing irrelevance, and why not?

It used to be that the Catholic Church was actually a force for good in the world. Sure, there were some embarrassing doctrinal issues, and the whole male, unmarried clergy thing was kind of, well, weird, but at the same time the Church was earnest, devout, and genuinely concerned about not only its parishioners but also the spiritual and material well-being of all people. Being raised as a Catholic was for me always a source of pride, which was helpful, because growing up Catholic in the south is fairly much like growing up there as a Jew. It’s not a huge conceptual leap for me to regard American secularism as just another version of American Protestantism as it might be for northerners: I’m used to a cultural milieu which assumes Protestantism to be as universal and transparent as the air we breath, and one that silently but pointedly excludes my kind.

That was then. In the twenty-odd years since I renounced the Church, that whole male, unmarried clergy thing was revealed to be what it has been for hundreds of years – if not longer, simply part of a massive conspiracy for socially inept and sexually confused men to fuck unwilling young boys. The Church never anticipated the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that finally permitted the victims of abuse to speak out due to the growing understanding that they wouldn’t entirely become social pariahs for admitting publicly what they’d been forced to endure. That finally if somewhat surprisingly slowly undid the whole silence about it, though I dare say the abuse still continues now even if somewhat muted.

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