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Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom

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Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states

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The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.

france

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 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

Christianity and politics: the CDU

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Coke_secularism

haven’t heard this one before

I’ve written a fair bit about the rise of the ‘no religion’ sector of society, in Australia and elsewhere, which has obvious implications for the role of Christianity in politics in the western world. In Australia some generations ago, Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and later his protege B A Santamaria, were hugely influential political figures. The formation of the Catholic DLP (Democratic Labour Party) by Sanatamaria, with the support of Mannix, effectively split the left, handing the conservatives political power for decades before Whitlam’s 1972 election victory. Since then, however, there hasn’t been much overt influence on politics from religion, though of course we’ve had religious PMs, including the current mad monk. Nor have we had any major political parties, that I know of, in which Christianity, or any denomination thereof, is part of its name.

Not so in other western countries. So-called Christian Democracy parties are quite common in Western Europe, usually on the centre-right. Belgium has the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party, formerly the Christian People’s Party; Switzerland has the Christian Democratic People’s Party as well as the Evangelical People’s Party; the Netherlands has the Christian Democratic Appeal Party, and Italy has the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (though better known by its more secular title, the Union of the Centre, UDC).

Probably the most successful and powerful Christian political party in Europe, though, is Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, whose leader, Angela Merkel, has been Germany’s Chancellor for the past nine years. The party has been in power more often than not, though often in coalition, since 1945. In recent times, the CDU has formed a more or less permanent partnership with the Bavarian CSU (Christian Social Union), which is generally more Catholic and conservative.

According to Germany’s 2011 census, their percentage of Christians is almost identical to Australia’s, at a little over 60%, pretty well evenly divided between Catholics and (essentially Lutheran) Protestants. However, as with Australia, the numbers are falling rapidly, and churches are closing and being converted to other uses throughout the country. The ‘no religion’ category has won more votes recently than either the Papists or the Heretics. Interestingly, the eastern part of the country, which was under communist rule for 40 years, is much more atheist than the rest. So for how much longer will Germany’s CDU retain its Christian moniker?

According to its party platform, the CDU derives its policies from both ‘political Catholicism’ and ‘political Protestantism’, whatever that means. The vapidity of such claims, together with the obviously rising secularism of the populace, might explain why Angela Merkel played down any Christian elements in her and her party’s thinking during the 2005 elections. Merkel herself is the daughter of a Lutheran minister but was brought up in the atheist East and is a physicist by training. Recently, though (just prior to last year’s elections) she ‘came out’ for the first time as a Christian, possibly for complex political reasons (the rise of Islam is a much more significant factor in German domestic politics than in Australian). She even claimed, quite nonsensically, that Christianity was ‘the world’s most persecuted religion’. (Actually this is a common view, according to Pew Research, in the USA. It seems many Christians believe that the waning of Christianity’s popularity is a form of persecution). Merkel was elected for another 4-year term in 2013, and her more emphatic public identification with Christianity in recent times means that her party will be stuck with its name as long as she’s at the helm. My guess is she’ll be ripe for retirement in 2017.

Of course, as with most western states, religion in Germany has in recent decades, if not centuries, become a more ‘internal’ matter, and less political, with much ‘encouragement’ from the state.  For more detail on that, check out the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 and its newly-defined principle, Cuius regio, eius religio, and also the concept of forum internum. This is definitely a good thing, given the Thirty Years War and all, but it seems that, as a quid pro quo for religious non-interference in politics, Germany’s Grundgesetz (its Basic Law, or Constitution) has been very generous in its delineation of religious freedom, and this may cause problems if Germany continues to play host to more challenging, and less ‘internalised’, religious beliefs. The Grundgesetz came into being in 1949, but many of its statutes pertaining to religion date back to the 1919 Weimar constitution. Unsurprisingly, no religions other than an increasingly emasculated (if that’s not too sexist a term) Christianity would have been considered relevant in those days.

Much of what follows, and some of the preceding, is taken from the article ‘Religion and the secular state in Germany’, by Stefan Korioth and Ino Augsberg. The constitution guarantees freedom of individual religion and philosophical creed (Weltanschauung) – thus also guaranteeing freedom not to have a religion. In article 3 of the constitution it’s stated that ‘no person shall be favored or disfavored because of his or her personal religious opinions’, and in article 33, ‘neither the enjoyment of civil and political rights, nor eligibility for public offices, nor rights acquired in the public service shall be dependent upon religious affiliations’. Other articles guarantee that there shall be no state church, and create a separation of church and state. In fact the German constitution is unusually detailed in its coverage of the status of religious entities vis-a-vis the state. It is above all concerned to emphasise the principle of state neutrality, but this has caused some difficulties in that the state has withdrawn even so far as to be reluctant to define religion for legal purposes. There is, as Korioth and Augsberg point out, no numerus clausus, or fixed number, of religious confessions, and it has been left to religious communities themselves to define their religiosity. Not surprisingly this has led to ongoing issues with regard to the legal status of religious groups. With the inevitable continuing decline in Christianity, and the rise of more challenging religions, and the disaffected youth who choose to identify with a more intolerant version of those religions, this will be a problem in the future. Hopefully, however painful, it will remain a fringe problem for the ongoing secularisation of Germany.

Just to round things off, Merkel’s newly-found public Christianity is a reminder that often changes have to wait until people die off, if that doesn’t sound too morbid or callous. Of course they don’t have to die physically, they may just have to die in terms of power or influence. Merkel’s position reminds me of others, such as Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court, and the late Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (not that I place these people on the same moral or intellectual plane). The movement towards secularism isn’t so much about changing people’s minds, though that’s always a worthy pursuit. It’s about a changing zeitgeist that feeds those who are brought up within it. Older people die, younger people come to prominence, bringing the newly transformed zeitgeist to the fore. That’s how the flat-earthers, who once filled provincial town halls with their lectures, finally faded from view; they weren’t out-argued or persuaded from their views, they simply died, and their descendants imbibed the new zeitgeist. Not an excuse for complacency, but a reason for hope, and a reason for contributing to that zeitgeist in a positive way.

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm

some people really don’t like atheists

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stephen-prothero-speech

‘Atheism is not a great religion. It has always been for elites rather than for ordinary folk. And until the 20th century, its influence on world history was as inconsequential as Woody Allen’s god. Even today the impact of atheism outside of Europe is inconsequential. A recent Gallop poll found that 9% of adults in Western Europe (where the currency does not trust in God) described themselves as ‘convinced atheists’.  That figure fell to 4% in eastern and central Europe, 3% in Latin America, 2% in the Middle East, and 1% in North America and Africa. Most Americans say they would not vote for an atheist for president.’

Stephen Prothero, from God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world & why their differences matter (2010).

I should admit at the outset that I’ve not read Prothero’s book, and probably never will, as time is precious and there are too many other titles and areas of knowledge and endeavour that appeal to me. However, since, as a humanist and skeptic I have a passing interest in the religious mindset and in promoting critical thinking and humanism, I think the above quote is worth dwelling on critically.

First, the claim that ‘atheism is not a great religion’. It’s an interesting remark because it can be interpreted in two ways. First, that atheism is not a religion of any kind, great or small; second that atheism is a religion, but not a great one. I strongly suspect that Prothero has the second view in mind, while also playing on the first one. Of course atheism isn’t a religion and it’s tedious to have to play this game with theists (assuming Prothero is one) for the zillionth time, but my own experience on being confronted with the idea of a supernatural entity for the first time at around eight or nine was one of scepticism, though I didn’t then have a name for it. I don’t think scepticism could ever be called a religion. And nothing that I’ve ever experienced since has tempted me to believe in the existence of supernatural entities.

Next comes the claim that atheism has always been for elites rather than ordinary folk. This is probably true, but we need to reflect on the term ‘elite’. I assume Prothero can only mean intellectual elites. The Oxford dictionary succinctly defines an elite as ‘a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society’. Generally, therefore, the best of society, or the leaders. It’s broadly true, especially in the West, that you won’t get to the top in business without a good business brain, you won’t get to the top in politics without a good political brain and you won’t get to the top in science without a good scientific brain, and these are all positive qualities. The elites are the best, and the best tend to be society’s movers and shakers.

Yet Prothero doesn’t appear to agree, quite. His juxtaposing of the two sentences intimates that atheism is not a great religion because it has always been for elites. What are we to make of this? My guess is that he’s trying to downplay atheism but has made a bit of a mess of it. And there’s more of this. Before the 20th century, we’re informed, atheism was as influential ‘as Woody Allen’s god’, by which, I presume, he’s referring to Allen’s farce of 1975, God, with which I’m not particularly familiar. I do know, though, that it’s fashionable these days to trash Woody Allen, so the message appears to be that, before 1900 or so, atheism was very inconsequential indeed.

A reasonable person might wonder here why Prothero seems so keen to diminish atheism. A big clue is surely to be found in the subtitle to Prothero’s book. Which raises some questions: What are these eight religions? Are they really rivals? Do they run the world?

The contents page answers the first question: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism and Daoism make up the Premier League. Presumably Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism are struggling in the lower divisions. There is some debate amongst authorities as to whether Confucianism or Daoism are recognised religions, and they’e often found blended, along with Buddhism, in Chinese folk tradition – so, maybe not so much rivals.

Surely the most important question, though, is whether these religions ‘run the world’. I have the strong suspicion that Prothero hasn’t given deep consideration to his terms here, but I’ll try to do it for him. What does ‘running the world’ entail? I’ve heard people say that multinational corporations run the world, or that various superpowers do so, or have done so, but the idea that the major religions run the world between them is a novel one to me. Of course, if I want to find out whether Prothero provides evidence for his claim, or sets out to prove it, I’d have to read his book, and I’m reluctant to do so. It’s surely far more likely he’s tossed in the subtitle as something provocative, a piece of unsubstantiated rhetoric.

A lot of ingredients make the human world run, including trade, transport, law, festivals, education, sex, empathy and new ideas. Customs, habits and religious rituals play their part for many of us too. However, there’s no doubt that, for most westerners, global networking, the take-up of higher education, multiculturalism and travel have transformed earlier customs and habits, with religion taking a major hit in the process. The places where religion is holding its own are those where such modern trends are less evident.

Prothero also seems to be downplaying the 20th century when he writes that the influence of atheism was negligible before that time, as if to say ‘setting aside the 20th century, religion has been the most powerful force in humanity.’ Maybe so, but you can’t set aside the 20th century, a century which saw the human population rise from less than two billion to around 7 billion, a century of unprecedented and mind-boggling advances in science and technology, and in the education required to keep abreast of them, and which has seen a massive rise in travel and global communication. Continuing into the 21st century, these developments have been transformative for those exposed to them. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the same period has seen ‘the rise of the nones’ as by far the most significant development in religion for centuries – or more likely, since the first shrine was constructed. Of course, correlation isn’t causation, and I’m not going to delve deeply into causative factors here, but the phenomenon is real, though Prothero engages in what seems to me a desperate attempt to minimise it with his data. I’ll examine his statistics more closely later.

Prothero also presents the ‘inconsequential outside of Europe’ argument, which, apart from dismissing Australians like me – where more than 23% professed to having no religion in the last census (2011), with some 9% also choosing not to answer the optional question on religion – seems to dismiss Europe as an aberration in much the same way as he dismisses the 20th century. Yet in the last seventy years since the end of WW2, western Europe has only been an aberration in terms of its stability, its growing unity, its overall prosperity, its high levels of literacy and other positives on the registers of well-being and civility. Surely we should hope that such aberrations might spread worldwide. Many of the western European nations are regarded and valued as ‘elite states’, where religious strife, a problem in the heart of Europe for centuries up to and including the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, is now almost entirely confined to its immigrant populations. These are now among the least religious countries in the world.

So let’s look at Prothero’s data. He states that 9% of Western European adults are ‘committed atheists’. Why, one wonders, does he choose this category? Most atheists aren’t ‘committed’ if by this is meant proselytising for non-belief in supernatural beings. They don’t go around ‘being atheists’. As I’ve said, I consider myself first and foremost as a sceptic, and it’s out of scepticism and a need for evidence and for the best explanation of phenomena that I consider belief in creator beings, astrology, acupuncture, fairies and homeopathy as best explained by psychology, ignorance and credulity.

My view is that Prothero chooses the ‘committed atheist’ category for the same reason that William Lane Craig does – to minimise the clear-cut ‘rise of the nones’, to reduce non-belief to the smallest category he can get away with.

Prothero cites a website for his figures on ‘committed atheists’ (9% in western Europe, 4% in eastern and central Europe, 3% in Latin America, 2% in the Middle East and 1% in North America), which is a 2005 Gallup Poll. I cannot find the 2005 poll, but an updated 2012 Gallup Poll is very revealing, as it compares some figures with those from 2005. What it reveals, sadly, is a degree of intellectual dishonesty on Prothero’s part. Prothero claims that atheism is inconsequential outside of Europe, yet the same Gallup Poll from which he took his figures – but this time the 2012 version – states that 47% of Chinese self-describe as committed atheists*. Presumably this was slightly up on 2005 (the 2005 figure for China isn’t given), because almost every nation shows a rise in atheism in recent years, but the huge percentage, together with 31% of Japanese ‘committed atheists’ completely discredits Prothero’s ‘inconsequential outside of Europe’ claim.

It’s worth giving more comprehensive data on western Europe here, based on the 2012 poll by Gallup International. The 9% figure for ‘committed atheists’ is now 14%, with a further 32% describing themselves as ‘not religious’, and 3% ‘no answer or not sure’. The rest, 51%, described themselves as religious. It’s clear that, by the next poll, most western Europeans will not describe themselves as religious. Only 14% of Chinese people currently describe themselves as such – and as we all know, China will soon take over the world.

I was surprised, too, that only 1% of North Americans were committed atheists, according to Prothero. I can’t confirm this, but according to the 2012 poll, the figure is 6%, with a further 33% claiming to be ‘not religious’. The percentage of the self-described religious is a surprisingly low 57%. Perhaps Prothero combined the North American and African figures to arrive at the 1% mark. Who knows what paths motivated reasoning will lead a person down.

The 2012 poll, if it’s reliable, is revealing about the speed with which religion is being abandoned in some parts. In France, for example the percentage of ‘committed atheists’ has jumped from 14 to 29%, an extraordinary change in age-old belief systems in less than a decade.

But beyond these statistics about how people see themselves, the change is most marked, in the west, by the vastly diminished role of religion in public life. It’s precisely Prothero’s claim that religions ‘run the world’ that is most suspect. In virtually every western country, secularism, the insistence that the church and the state remain separate, has become more firmly established in the 20th century. The political influence of the Christian churches in particular has noticeably waned. Of course there are a few theocratic nations, but their numbers are decreasing, and none of them are major world powers. If you believe, as most do, that the world is run by governments and commercial enterprises, it’s hard to see where religion fits into this scheme. In some regions it may be the glue that holds societies together, but these regions appear to be diminishing. Religions these days receive more publicity for the damage they do than for any virtues they may possess. Any modern westerner might think of them as ruining the world rather than running it.

The fact is that, in every western country without exception (yes, that includes the USA), the trend away from religious belief is so rapid it’s almost impossible to keep up with. I’ve already written about the data in New Scientist suggesting that the ‘nones’ are the fourth religious category after Christians, Moslems and Hindus, numbering some 700 million. Wikipedia goes one further, putting the nones third with 1.1 billion. Of course these figures are as rubbery as can be, but its indisputable that this is overwhelmingly a modern phenomenon, covering the past fifty or sixty years in particular. It’s accelerating and unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable.

Books like Prothero’s are symptomatic of the change. Remember The Twilight of Atheism (which I also haven’t read)? Deny what’s going on, promote the positive power and eternal destiny of religion and all will be well.

Well, it won’t. Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Prothero?

 

*To be fair to Prothero, it looks like no 2005 figures for China were available, though the large figures for Japan certainly were. Also, though these figures for China have been uncritically reported by the media, the sample size, as mentioned on Gallup International’s website, was preposterously small – some 500 people, less than one two-millionth of the Chinese population. The survey was apparently conducted online, but no details were given about the distribution of those surveyed. Given the resolutely secular Chinese government’s tight control of its citizens and media, I would treat any statistics coming out of that country with a large dose of salt.

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2014 at 10:33 pm

the strange case of school chaplaincy

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Ron Williams - hero of the High Court challenge

Ron Williams – hero of the High Court challenge

The National School Chaplaincy Program is on the face of it a curiously retrograde program that first came into being in 2006, near the end of Howard’s conservative Prime Ministership. It apparently began its life with a conversation in May of that year between the Victoria-based federal minister, Greg Hunt, and one Peter Rawlings, a member of Access Ministries and a volunteer in primary school religious instruction. Rawlings suggested to Hunt that it would be a great idea to install Christian ‘support workers’ in state schools throughout the Mornington Peninsula area. Hunt, whose religious beliefs are a mystery to me, apparently though this a great idea, one that should be extended to the whole nation, with federal support. His boss, PM Howard, who claims to be a committed Christian, was also whole-hearted in his support as were various other conservative MPs.

Given that over 23% of Australians are openly non-religious (a decidedly conservative figure), and that the rise of the non-religious over the last twenty years is the most significant change in religion in this country, and given that every Christian denomination is in decline, some of them spectacularly, and given the fall in church attendances, and the increasing multiculturalism and multi-religiousity of that proportion of society that is still religious, I personally find it unfathomable that this proposal has received such support. I can only suppose that such organisations as the Australian Christian Lobby, Access Ministries and Scripture Union Australia have far more political power and clout than I could ever have thought possible.

In any case, Labor, under its devoutly Christian PM Kevin Rudd, chose not to throw the scheme out when it came to power in late 2007. Labor has long supported the separation of church and state, a position reinforced, one would’ve thought, by the increasing secularisation of our polity in recent years. Rudd himself was keen to reassure people that he supported church-state separation, as did his Education Minister, Peter Garrett (another Christian). So why did they persist in this program? Wouldn’t a financial boost to school counselling have been a simpler, more effective and far less controversial option? Of course the program fits the current conservative government’a agenda perfectly. It has hit schools hard with its recent cost-cutting ‘share the pain’ budget, while at the same time earmarking some $245 million for chaplaincy over the next four years or so. The program will replace the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015, thus undermining school counselling and psychological services. In May of this year, a provision to allow for non-secular ‘chaplains’ was struck out. It was a finicky provision in any case, only allowing for non-secular welfare workers when all attempts to find an ordained chaplain for the job had failed. However, the striking out of the provision gives a clear indication that this is a federally-backed religious (or more specifically Christian) position. It can also come at a great cost to individual workers and to recipients of their services, as this story from the Sydney Morning Herald of May 21 shows:

Last week’s budget delivered a double blow to youth welfare worker Joanne Homsi. For the past 18 months, Ms Homsi has worked in two high schools in the St George and Sutherland area, supporting students with drug and alcohol issues, low confidence, family problems and suicidal thoughts. As well as talking with students, she has connected them to mental health centres, remedial learning programs and other services. Ms Homsi loves the job, and the schools value her work. But in December she will be looking for a new job – and there will not be a safety net to catch her if she cannot find one. Because she is under 30, she would have to wait six months before she can receive any unemployment benefits under tough new rules for young job seekers.

The federal government, in any case, hasn’t generally been in the business of providing funding for these kinds of services, which is usually a states responsibility, but of course schools will look for funding anywhere they can, and to have that scarce funding tied to a Christian belief system seems wildly anachronistic. This Essential Report poll gives the clear impression that the program is unsupported by the general public, but maybe there’s a larger ‘silent’ public that the conservatives are appealing to, or maybe they simply don’t care about what the public prefers. Their argument would be that take-up of the program is entirely voluntary. In other words, cash-strapped schools are faced with this option or no option as far as federal funding is concerned.

There are plenty of parents who are willing to take a stand on this issue, however. One of them, Ron Williams, Australian Humanist of the Year in 2012, was recently successful yet again in his second High Court challenge to the NSCP, though the government, and the Labor opposition, are perversely determined to find their way around the High Court’s ruling. In a 6-0 result worthy of the German national team the High Court found that the funding model of the government was inappropriate. When Williams’ first High Court challenge was successful in 2012, the then Gillard Labor government rushed through the Financial Framework Amendment Legislation Act to enable it to fund a range of  programs without legislation. Some $6 million was provided to the Scripture Union of Queensland. To add insult to injury for Williams, a father of four school-age children, funding was provided to his own children’s school to employ a chaplain.

The recent High Court finding says that the funding mechanism is invalid. This affects many other federal government funding mechanisms too, as it happens, and that’s a big headache for the government, but the most interesting finding related to the NSCP is that the funding, in the overwhelming view of the High Court, did not provide a benefit to students – which it should according to section 51 (XXiiiA) of the constitution, in order to be valid. In other words the High Court overwhelmingly disagreed with John Howard’s claim, made at the launch of the NSCP in October 2006, that ‘students need the guidance of chaplains, rather than counsellors’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had the money been earmarked for counsellors, the High Court would indeed have seen that as a benefit to students.

So the government is trying to find new funding models for a variety of programs it wants to hold onto, but it’s got a problem on its hands with chaplaincies. They have to be Christians, but they can’t proselytise, they’re there to give spiritual guidance to students, but this isn’t seen legally as providing a benefit, and how do they do that anyway without proselytising? What a holy mess it is, to be sure.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 2, 2014 at 5:45 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia

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This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide

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But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

what can we learn from religion?

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atheists

 

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am

Some thoughts on morality and its origins

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I remember, quite a few Christmases ago now, a slightly acrimonious discussion breaking out about religion and morality. I simply observed – it wasn’t my family. It never is.

A born-again religious woman asked her sister – ‘where do you get your morality from if not from religion?’ She responded tartly, ‘From my mum’. This response pleased one of those present, at least! But as to the implicit claim that we get our morality from religion, my silent response was ‘how does that happen?’

Religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, implies a supernatural being, from whom all morality flows. But if you ask believers whether their cherished supernatural entity talks to them and advises them regularly about the moral decisions they face in their daily lives, you would get, well, a variety of responses, from ‘yes, he does actually’, to something like ‘you miss the point completely’. The second response might lead on to – well, theology. We were given free will, the deity’s ways are mysterious but Good, he communicates with us indirectly, you need to read the signs etc etc. But you’ll be relieved I hope to hear that this won’t be an essay on religion, which you should realise by now I find interminably boring when it tries to connect itself with morality – which is most of the time.

I’m more interested here in trying, inter alia, to define human morality, to determine whether it’s objective, or universal, and if those two terms are synonymous. And as I generally do, I’ll start with a rough and ready, semi-ignorant or uninformed definition, and then try to smarten it up – possibly overturning the original definition in the process.

So, roughly, I consider human morality to be an emergent property of our socially wired brains, something which is, therefore, evolving. I don’t consider it to be objective, because that suggests something outside ourselves, like objective reality. We can talk about it being ‘universal’, as in ‘universal human rights’, which may be agreed upon by consensus, but that’s a convenient fiction, as there’s no true consensus, as, for example, the Cairo Declaration (on human rights in Islam) reveals. Not that we shouldn’t strive for consensus, based on our current understanding of human interests and human thriving. I’m a strong believer in human rights. I suppose what I’m saying here is that my ‘universality’, far from being a metaphysical construction, is a pragmatic term about what we can generally agree on as being what we need in terms of basic liberties, and limitations to those liberties, in order to best thrive, as a thoroughly social species (deeply connected with other species).

So with this rough and ready definition, I want to look at some controversial contributions to the debate, and to add my reflections on them. I read The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, a while back, and found it generally agreeable, and was surprised at the apparent backlash against it, though I didn’t try to follow the controversy. However, when philosophers like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn get up and respectfully disagree, finding Harris ‘naive’ and misguided and so forth, I feel it’s probably long overdue for me to get my own views clear.

The difficulty that many see with Harris’s view is encapsulated in the subtitle of his book, ‘How science can determine human values’. I recognised that this claim was asking for trouble, being ‘scientistic’ and all, but I felt sympathetic in that it seemed to me that our increasing knowledge of the world has deeply informed our values. We don’t call Australian Aboriginals or Tierra del Fuegans or Native Americans savages anymore, and we don’t describe women as infantile or prone to hysteria, or homosexuals as insane or unnatural, or children as spoilt by the sparing of the rod, because our knowledge of the human species has greatly advanced, to the point where we feel embarrassed by quite recent history in terms of its ethics. But there’s a big difference between science informing human values, and enriching them, and science being the determinant of human values. Or is there?

What Harris is saying is, forget consensus, forget agreements, morality is about facts, arrived at by reason. He brings this up early on in The Moral Landscape:

… truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Clearly one of Harris’s targets, in taking such an uncompromising stance on morality being about truth or facts rather than values, is moral relativism, which he regularly attacks.  Yet the most cogent critics of his views aren’t moral relativists, they’re people, like Blackburn, who question whether the moral realm can ever be seen as a branch of science, however broadly defined (and Harris defines it very broadly for his purposes).  One of the points of dispute  – but there are many others – is the claim that you can’t derive values from facts. For example, no amount of information about genetic variation within human groups can actually determine what you ought to do in terms of discrimination based on perceived racial differences. Such information can and should inform decisions, but they can’t determine them, because they are facts, while values – what you should do with those facts – are categorically different.

It seems to me that Harris often chooses clear-cut issues to highlight morality-as-fact, such as that a secure, healthful, well-educated life is better than one in which you get beaten up on a daily basis. Presumably he imagines that all the gradations in between can be measured precisely as to their truth-value in contributing to well-being. But surely it’s in these difficult areas that questions of value seem to be most ‘subjective’. Can we make an objective moral claim, say, about vegetarianism, true for all people everywhere? What about veganism? I very much doubt it. Yet we also need to look skeptically at those values he sees as clear-cut. Take this example from The Moral Landscape:

In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes  a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism very well:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ”culture”, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers”, including feminists.

Now, as a card-carrying humanist, and someone generally quite comfortable with the values that, over time, have emerged in my part of the western world, namely Australia, I’m implacably opposed to the practice described here by Symons. But even so, I see a number of problems with this description. And ‘description’ is an important term to think about here, because the way we describe things is an essential indicator of our understanding of the world. The description here is of a ‘procedure’, and it is brief and clinical, leaving aside the depiction of the ‘terrified struggling screaming little girl’. It isn’t a description likely to have much resonance for those who subject their daughters and nieces to this practice. After all, this is a traditional cultural practice, however horrific. It is still practiced regularly in many African countries, and in proximate countries such as Yemen. Clearly the practice aligns with rigid attitudes about the role and place of women in those cultures, attitudes that go back a long way – the first reference to female circumcision, on an Egyptian sarcophagus, dates back almost 4000 years, but it’s likely that it goes back a lot further than that. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Practitioners see the circumcision rituals as joyful occasions that reinforce community values and ethnic boundaries, and the procedure as an essential element in raising a girl.’

Now, Symons (and presumably Pinker, and Harris) take the view that this is clearly a criminal practice, and that culture should not be used as an excuse. It’s a view backed up by most of the nations in which it occurs, who have instituted laws against it, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to take all necessary steps to end it, but these national and international good intentions face a long, uphill battle. However, if you look at some of the first descriptions of this practice, by outsiders such as Strabo or Philo of Alexandria, both writing in the time of Christ, you won’t find any censoriousness, nor would you expect to. It was well accepted in the Graeco-Roman world that customs varied widely, and that many foreign customs were weird, wild and wonderful. It’s likely that observers from the dominant culture felt morally superior, as is always the case, but there was no attempt to suppress other cultural practices – any more than there was only 200 hundred years ago, in Australia, with respect to the native inhabitants. The ‘mother country’ sent out clear and regular messages at the time about treating the natives with respect, and non-interference with their cultural practices (though it would no doubt have considered them barbaric and savage as a matter of course). It’s really only in recent times that, as a result of our growing confidence in a universal approach to morality or ‘well-being’, we (the dominant culture) have spoken out against what we now unabashedly call female genital mutilation, as well as other practices such as purdah and witch-hunting.

From all this, you might guess that I’m ambivalent about Harris’s confident approach to moral value. Well, yes and no, he said ambivalently. I can’t tell you how mightily glad I am that I live in a part of the world in which purdah and infibulation aren’t prevalent. However, I can’t step outside of my space and time, and I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where these practices were standard. And living in such a world doesn’t mean being being transported to it ‘suddenly’, it means being steeped in its values. After all, my own Anglo-Australian culture was one that, less than 200 years ago, transported homeless boys, in danger of ‘going to the bad’, to Australia where they often ended up being worked to death on chain gangs, and this was considered perfectly normal. I would have considered it perfectly normal, for I’m not so arrogant as to imagine I could transcend the moral values of my culture as it was in the 1830s.

So, to return to the passage from The Moral Landscape quoted above. It isn’t a factual passage, it’s a description, with interpretive and speculative features. It describes, first the actions of ‘one person’, engaged in what seems to us an insane surgical procedure, then we’re asked to multiply this act by millions, and ‘suddenly’ consider it culture. But this strikes me as a deliberately manipulative putting of the cart before the horse. The real motive seems to be to ask us to dismiss culture altogether. After all, any human product that can be called into being ‘suddenly’, and which ‘magically’ blights our moral understanding of the world cannot surely be taken seriously.  Harris, as I recall, used similar arguments against religion, perhaps in The End of Faith (which I haven’t read), but certainly in some of his talks on the subject. A practice or belief which we might lock someone up for, ‘suddenly’ becomes acceptable when engaged in by millions and called ‘religion’.

This strikes me as a glib and naive argument, which could only appeal to historically uninformed (or indifferent) ‘rationalists’. Cultural and religious beliefs and practices, weird, wild, wonderful and occasionally horrifying though they might be, are far too widespread, and too deeply woven into the identity of individuals and social groups, to be set aside in this way.

This is a very very complex issue, one that, dare I say, middle-class intellectuals like Harris and Pinker tend to skate over, even with a degree of contempt.  For myself, I deal with these cultural issues with a mixture of fear –  ‘don’t provoke the culturally wounded, they’ll just get angry and dangerous’ – and concern  – ‘if you take away these people’s cultural/religious identity, how will they cope?’. Perhaps I’m being arrogant about the power of western secular values, but it seems to me that much of the world’s turmoil comes from resentment at old cultural and religious certainties being undermined.

So I believe in cultural sensitivity, for strategic purposes but also because we are all culturally embedded, no matter how scientifically enlightened we claim to be. However, I don’t think all cultures are, or all culture is, equally valuable or equally healthy. How I measure that, though, is a big question since I can’t step outside of my own culture. Perhaps therein lies the difficulty about getting all ‘scientific’ about morality. Science itself is hardly culture-free – a dangerous point to make in some circles.

So I don’t think I’ve gotten much further as to where morality comes from. To say that it comes from culture requires a thorough definition and understanding of that concept, otherwise we’re just deferring any real explanation, but clearly that is the way to go.  But I prefer to look at this connection with culture, and with other more fundamental aspects of our social nature, from a  humanist perspective. Western secular humanism tends to wear its culture lightly, and to value skepticism, reflection and analysis as – possibly cultural – tools for dismantling or at least loosening the overly heavy and oppressive armour that cultural beliefs and practices can become.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2014 at 12:09 am

Why is theology so boring? Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas

These are the posts where I get to be a not-so-nice guy. Theology is one of my principal bugbears, for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve rarely encountered a modern theologian or Christian apologist who can resist lashing out at atheists.

I suppose I should feel sorry for them, they make such soft, or frail, targets (they’re mostly elderly), but they do insist on making themselves targets, so I’m happy to oblige. Before today I’d never heard of Stanley Hauerwas, so imagine my lack of interest in encountering this soft-spoken elderly gentleman being interviewed on my favourite ABC this arvo. Well, not so much lack of interest but mild willingness to be interested – a willingness quickly dashed by some of the first remarks I heard Hauerwas utter (I didn’t know at the time that he was a theologian). He was being interviewed for all of ten minutes on the ABC show One plus One by Scott Stephens, the ABC’s ‘online editor for religion and ethics’. I now recall Stephens having conducted a series of soft interviews in recent times with prominent ‘believing’ Australians such as David Cappo and Clare Bowditch, but I didn’t recognise him immediately, otherwise I might’ve dodged this. Unfortunately I listened – well, ok, I do have a combative interest in what theologians say.

So here’s the little interview in total, together with my commentary and summing up. The interview material is in italics. Enjoy.

Stephens: You’ve written some very interesting things in your recently published memoir. You’ve admitted for instance – ‘you don’t need to be a theologian to be a Christian, but I probably did’. At the end of your memoir, you then say that the whole reason you’re able to call yourself a Christian is because your friends name you as such. In a time that values self-reliance and even fetishizes self-made men, it’s a very strange series of admissions to make from someone who is renowned as one of the most important Christian thinkers in the last half-century. How did you come to that conclusion?

Hmmm. What makes me think all this was in order to introduce Hauerwas as the best thing since Christians invented sliced bread?

Hauerwas: By necessity. I can’t imagine coming to it just by individual reflection, because I don’t trust my own subjectivity at all. So it’s exactly by discovering what I believe through friends who tell me that this is what I believe that I discover that I am a Christian. Umm, it’s not a natural thing for me to be, I oftentimes point out, hell I’m a Texan (laughs) I mean it does not come easy for Texans to become Christian in the way that I think we must be as faithful followers of Christ, that is, to be non-violent. But I think that it’s through friends that you are enabled to live that way.

All of this sounds unproblematic on the face of it, but I have two criticisms to make.

First, the Jesus of the gospels wasn’t an entirely consistent construction. Yes, he said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and I say hurray to that, but he also lashed out at the moneylenders in the temple, sending tables and chairs flying (Matt 21:12), killed a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25, Matt 21:18-22), and damned for all time the townsfolk of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, villages in his own neighbourhood, for not listening to his preachifying (Matt 11:23, Luke 10:13-15). So much for love your neighbours, never mind love your enemies.

Second, Hauerwas describes what people ‘must be as faithful followers of Christ’, rather than what we, arguably, should be upon reflection. It’s all about following the leader, apparently. I’ve written about this before, but the difference between the ‘follow my lead’ approach of Jesus and other preachers and sermonizers, and the Socratic method of constructive engagement, getting the interlocutor to ‘go deeper’, is key, and should be key to the whole framework of modern education. It’s because of this approach towards independence and ‘ownership’ of ideas that religion is fading, methinks.

Stephens: Now this is interesting to me, because one of the themes that you’ve been exploring throughout your career is that, even though it might seem, looking from the outside, that the church is in a pretty good position here in the USA, it’s precisely because American culture is so saturated with Christianity – you’ve spent the better part of your professional career trying to convince Christians in the United States that their cosy relationship with American culture is pretty hazardous to its own health.

Hauerwas: Absolutely. I say I represent the Tonto principle of Christian ethics. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were once surrounded by 25,000 Sioux in the Dakotas, and the Lone Ranger looked over to Tonto and said, “What d’you think we should do Tonto?’ and Tonto said, “What do you mean we, white man?’ and I’m trying to help Christians in America recover the Christian ‘we’, which has been very much occluded in the celebration of the relationship between Christianity and America as the presumption that American democracy is the equivalent of what it means to be Christian.

Stephens: One of your great critiques is that it’s not simply just, say, a cultural issue, that many Christians assume that what it means to be American is to be Christian, and in turn what it means to be Christian is to be American in some sort of deep level, but you’ve even, in some ways you’ve also  upped the ante. You’ve said that one of the great problems facing American politics and also Christian identity, is the assumption that the American god is the Christian god.

This American stuff is of course a bit of a yawn to me, but I will say that there’s no such thing as the Christian god – or rather, no clear-cut thing. In the same sense, there’s no such thing as the American god. There’s the god of Bush junior, who’s different from the god of Obama, etc etc. These are fantasies you can tailor to your individual personality and needs. Apart from that, I’m happy to let American believers simmer in their theological idiosyncrasies.

Hauerwas: Right, yeah, I think, that the reason – I mean, atheism is so uninteresting in America. I mean, atheism in general is uninteresting in our world, because the god that is being denied isn’t very (laughs), isn’t the Christian god. That’s the reason why Americans think it’s very important that you believe in god, irrespective of what ‘god’ names. I find it extremely uninteresting whether you believe in god or not. The god I worship is not some deity, but the father the son and the holy spirit. That makes all the difference in the world for a people that are identified as not religious America. So I want Christians to be able to recover that kind of theological integrity in a world that makes it very hard to even identify it.

This is the passage I first heard – ‘atheism is uninteresting’. Again, I’m endlessly amused that theologians and religious apologists just can’t help having a go at atheism, and so revealing their ignorance as well as their anxiety. And of course their denialism of the fastest-growing movement vis-à-vis religion in the west. Of course, in one sense Hauerwas is right, atheism is totally uninteresting when you compare it to being the pet project of a supernatural being who’s also the creator of the universe, created just for you. It’s a bit like being personally chosen by the Doctor as his lifetime companion in all his space-time adventures. Great japes! Only Doctor Who is a science fantasy TV show, not a religion (with apologies to the Whovians out there).

Yes, rejecting the existence of supernatural entities is not intrinsically interesting, but the point is that atheists don’t go around being atheists. If I can give a roll-call of some of my intellectual heroes –  Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hume, Stendhal, Darwin, Russell, Einstein, Sagan, Attenborough, to name a few – I don’t so much care whether they were atheists, though clearly many of them were/are. What attracts me is their this-worldly concerns. None of these ‘uninteresting’ people are interested in theology, they’re too fascinated by how the real world – and its inhabitants on this tiny planet – works. We live in enthralling times – for exploring human origins, for exploring the world within and beyond our solar system, for exploring neurophysiology and consciousness, for exploring nanotechnology. So many realms opening up for exploration, it’s just endlessly fascinating. I just can’t see how ‘faith’ and theology, the eternally fruitless but entirely self-serving speculation about non-evidence-based supernatural entities, can possibly compare.

Stephens: What you’re saying, though, truly runs against the grain of the assumption that many people believe today, kind of guarantees a kind of social peace and cohesion, the assumption being that, if you wanna be religious, fine, just make sure your religiosity remains a form of inwardness, or even just, probably a better term would be sentimentality. Now, almost everything you’ve written is pitted against the reduction of religion to sentimentality, or ‘god’ to some sort of general deity.

These remarks of Stephens are simply intended to introduce the term ‘sentimentality’, a term that Hauerwas has apparently twisted out of all recognition to feed his theological concerns. I should simply remind readers that the currently agreed dictionary definition of sentimentality is something like ‘an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason’.

Hauerwas: Absolutely, I say the great enemy of Christianity is not atheism it’s sentimentality. and the deepest sentimentality in our culture is the presumption that we should have children in a manner that they do not have to suffer for our convictions. I think it drives people – it drives children absolutely crazy for our parents to think that they ought to raise children in a manner that when children grow up they get to make up their own minds. I mean, what kind of conviction is that, why did you have them in the first place, if you want them to make up their own minds? They don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve been trained. So exactly how to overcome those kinds of sentimentalities that, interestingly enough result in great violence, I think, is exactly the kind of challenge that Christianity presents to the world in which we find ourselves.

So Hauerwas has defined sentimentality, or one aspect of it, as ‘raising children so that they get to make up their own minds when they grow up.’ Imagine how Socrates would deal with such a distortion of a concept!

Maybe somewhere in his theological works Hauerwas has presented his views more cogently than here, but I have little appetite for anyone’s theology, so I must presume to limit myself to this little interview. I’m far from denying that human children need (and get) training, as do all social animals, including dolphins, elephants, wolves, lions and hyenas, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have minds of their own, and that independence of thought isn’t a desired outcome. The trouble is, Hauerwas’s god only knows what he means by ‘being trained’. I suspect the worst, bearing in mind his remark that children should suffer for their parents’ convictions. This sounds to me like he thinks Christian parents should bring them up strictly to be Christians, and make them suffer if they stray. No Darwins, no… (name just about every significant thinker of the last century) would ever get to emerge in Hauerwas’s world it seems, they’d all be trained out of their independence of mind until they were black and blue. But I’m being mean – Hauerwas is an advocate of non-violence.

In any case, none of this has anything to do with sentimentality. We bring children into the world for a whole host of reasons, not all of them worthy, of course. We hope to contribute to their becoming good people and happy, but we don’t need to have read Pinker’s The Blank Slate (another boring atheist) to be aware that kids do indeed have minds of their own from day one. I have no idea what Hauerwas could possibly mean by saying that encouraging independence of spirit leads to great violence, but obviously he’s no student of history. Our modern education, which tries to combine a certain degree of training in the basics, without which children are unlikely to succeed in modern society, with independent analytical skills of the type that have created the scientific and technological explosion we’re currently witnessing, has, in fact, helped to create a less violent society than at any time in human history. And that’s not spin, it’s well-supported fact.

Stephens: Weeks before the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, Time magazine named you America’s best theologian.

Hauerwas: Actually it was September 10, 2000 the 11th, by the time the magazine came out it was the day before, which was wonderfully ironic, because then no-one noticed.

Stephens: But after September 11 you issued many of your most public, most notable, and for many people now even most infamous critiques of the American response to that attack.

Hauerwas: That’s true. My response was, one, you could have done it as a just warrior. I said, you know, the most fateful words that were uttered after September 11 was George Bush’s ‘we are at war’. Now, I think that that was a deep mistake on ‘just war’ grounds. What happened on September 11 was murder, and you don’t go to war against a murderer. As soon as Americans agreed with George Bush, we are at war, you gave Bin Laden exactly what he wanted. You made him a warrior, not a murderer. I think then, the problem…. I think George Bush’s response was a pastoral response. The American people felt at a loss, we didn’t know what to do. We know war, so to say we were at war made this a comforting claim that gave us a sense that we knew what to do – we had to find someone to kill (laughs). So Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to be wars that we had to fight against the infidel. If we had been able to say ‘this was murder’, and how do you respond to murderers, it would have been… it would’ve required a patience that the American people find very hard to enact. I was recently asked, what would I suggest if I wanted America to be more thoughtful and possibly even non-violent, and I said the return to the draft. That we have the situation, we now have is because we have a paid military in which we expect very little cost from the broad American middle class, and it would be very interesting to have a return to the actual sacrifice necessary in order to pursue a legislated war against terrorism. It’s very… I think the Obama administration is to be credited with toning down the war against terrorism, because they understand that’s a war you can’t win in that way. But, generally the American people bought into that, and we paid big prices for it.

Okay, in this latter part of the interview we’ve left theology far behind, thankfully, and we’re into straightforward ethical issues. Apart from the remark about a ‘pastoral response’ from George Bush, there’s nothing in Hauerwas’s argument that owes anything to religion, it’s all secular ethics, and it’s the same ethical argument that myself and many others, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have been putting for years – that so-called acts of terrorism should be treated as criminal, police matters and dealt with under criminal law rather than glorifying them, inadvertantly or otherwise, as acts of war.

So Hauerwas seems to have some reasonable ideas, and a few dodgy ones (he’s a Texan, after all), but it’s unlikely that any of his best ideas emerge from Christian theology. Don’t be a faithful follower of anyone – or anything, except evidence.

Written by stewart henderson

December 20, 2013 at 6:20 am

why is the after-life so appealing?

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Ptolemaicsystem-small

You could say that the question this post poses is both rhetorical and not. Why wouldn’t living forever, whether through cycles of reincarnation, or as a disembodied ‘ancestor spirit’, or in heaven, jannah, elysium or wherever, be appealing? And what could possibly be appealing about the finality of death?

But it’s worth exploring this question more deeply, as I believe it’s a major key to understanding many aspects of religion and ‘spirituality’. I’ve written about this subject before in the context of children and the origins of religious and magical thinking, but this time I want to focus on the afterlife in more detail.

I like to focus on childhood because it’s fertile ground for thinking beyond the bounds and the limits of our mortality and our physical constraints. Shapeshifting, super-powers, magic, and the absolutes of good and evil, they come very easily to young children, and immortality is just another element of that thinking. I want to emphasise this because I object to claims made by some atheists that a lot of this thinking, about magic and absolutes and immortality, is irrational. I don’t think that’s a useful term in this instance.

I’ve given the example, which I’ll repeat here, of kids playing life-and-death games like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, goodies and baddies. When a kid’s shot dead, he accepts it reluctantly, lies down for a few seconds, then declares he’s ‘alive again’, and this encapsulates time-honoured attitudes towards mortality.

Because death is literally unimaginable, and kids, with their vivid and unrestrained imaginations, don’t need much time to work that one out. What’s more, even playing dead is boring. Not moving, holding your breath, trying to get your brain to shut down its thinking and imagining, it’s all hard and unnatural work.

On the other hand thinking about the afterlife can bear rich fruit. To give just one of hundreds of literary examples, Dante’s Divine Comedy divides the afterlife, from which no-one can escape, into 3 realms, hell, purgatory and heaven, with each realm being divided into nine, or actually 10. Nine descending circles of the inferno, with Lucifer lurking at the bottom as number 10, nine rings around Mount Purgatory, with the garden of Eden at its summit representing number 10, and nine celestial bodies of heaven, with the tenth at the top, representing the Empyrean, filled with the essence of god. And their are various other divinely numerical schemes operating throughout the work. Another very interesting depiction of the afterlife occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier, Er, brought from the battlefield as a corpse, reveals himself after a number of days not to be dead but unconscious, and on recovering consciousness tells a richly detailed tale of the afterlife, which he’s been privileged to witness, and also to recall, as he was excused from the requirement of drinking from the river Lethe’s ‘waters of forgetfulness’.

The two points to be drawn from these afterlife descriptions is, first, that they offer great scope for the imagination, but second, they’re constrained by the particular time and space of their own culture, not unlike current descriptions of UFOs and alien abductions. So the Divine Comedy is a large-canvas imaginative rendering of Christian revelation and eschatology as experienced, at least by one atypical individual, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy, while Er’s tale reveals much of how Greeks living not far away but nearly 2000 years earlier might have imagined the life to come.

Interestingly, while there are many cultural peculiarities to these descriptions, they have one key feature in common – the afterlife constitutes a punishment or reward for the life lived on earth. It’s a theme repeated in many religions, as well as in beliefs in reincarnation which aren’t strictly religious. There are those who manage to believe that, even though there’s no deity pulling the strings, we get reincarnated into something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ depending on how we behaved in the life just completed. How this happens, without some conscious being making judicial decisions, is not a question that seems to bother their brains. But what interests me more is that this kind of thinking goes back a long long way. It appears to have a very powerful appeal, one that, as I’ve said, is way too prevalent to be dismissed as irrational.

So I want to explore not only why the afterlife is so appealing, but why a particular kind of afterlife, based on perfect justice, is so appealing. I prefer ‘perfect justice’ to ‘divine justice’, as it takes away the religious trappings while preserving the most important ideal of many religions – the ideal hope that nobody will evade proper justice in the end.

Again I turn to early childhood, a period when rationality and logic mean little, to look for clues to this appeal. I suspect that one of the great events of childhood, or it might be a series of events, is the experience that your parents or your guardians are not the all-protecting beings that you’d more or less unconsciously assumed them to be. I think this experience is made much of in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory, and I associate it with the name of Jacques Lacan, but I have a very limited acquaintance with his views or theories.

In talking of all-protecting beings, I’m really thinking of them in god-like terms. Beings who protect us from harm caused by dangerous objects or predators, but also from harm caused by our own ignorance or folly, by correcting us and guiding us. Our early survival is, of course, entirely dependent on being nurtured by these all-protecting entities, so that it’s all the more shocking when, at some stage in our development, we actually see these entities, even if only for brief moments, as actually threatening our existence. I’m not sure when this may happen. It could be at a very early stage, when, say, a mother refuses the breast to her child, resulting in a screaming fit, and perhaps a great sense of inner trauma and crisis. Or it could be later, when the child has developed an independent sense of justice and realises, or at least strongly feels, that her parent is punishing her unjustly, and quickly infers from this that the parent could be a real threat to her freedom and even her life.

I see an obvious association between this very real experience, which may be near-universal in humans, and the garden of eden story, though the fact that in the eden story it’s the humans who have ‘fallen’, rather than the gods, is well worth pondering. It seems to me that monotheistic religions, by creating a perfect deity or parent, shift the focus of the world’s obvious injustices from that parent to the children, which has at least the advantage of avoiding what could become a problem for children who ‘see through’ their parents – the problem of blame-shifting. Not that this has always stopped  irate believers from berating their perfect Dad for their sufferings.

Of course the more developed way of seeing the parent-child relation is as one between two faulty, all-too-human entities, but face it, the seemingly utterly powerless child and the seemingly all-powerful parent are neither likely to possess such equipoise, at least not for long. Both are profoundly frustrated, the child at not being able to get the parent to see the justice of her situation, or at least at not being able to penetrate the imperviousness and the mystery of the parent’s judgment, and the parent at not having the power to transform the child by his judicious punishment. Frustration leads to idealist fantasies, in which everyone understands each other, everyone judges and measures each other in perfect understanding and harmony. Of course this never happens in this world, bitter experience reveals this, especially in the harsh and often desperate environments out of which so many religions have been born.

It all happens in another life, in another world, another place, a world that doesn’t bear too much thinking about it, but a world that can absorb all the hope aimed at it, all the dreams of the ‘faithful’. In absorbing all these hopes and dreams and cries for justice it just keeps expanding, like a balloon, ever more diaphanous, amorphous, enticing. Who’d want to be the prick that bursts it?

Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

how has our Christian society changed in the last millenium?

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some Lollards hanging about

some Lollards hanging about

I happen to be reading an enjoyable little book in the ‘brief history’ series, A brief history of life in the middle ages by Martyn Whittock. His focus is England, and he covers a period from around the ninth century through to the fifteenth, but he provides enough interesting data from approximately a millennium ago and onwards to make the above question worth pursuing – with a bit more research too of course.

Australia is generally regarded as a Christian country, but Christianity sure ain’t what it used to be. Generally when talking about the decline of Christianity, pundits refer to the past few decades, but it’s worth taking a much longer view to see just how Christianity is faring compared to what it once was. It’s also convenient that Christianity is around 2000 years old – so going back a thousand years takes us to half its life-span up to now. We don’t know how much longer it will live, but I’m more interested in its ‘quality of life’ compared to what it once was. Is it in a near-vegetative state, or is it still thriving?

Obviously we can’t look at Christianity in Australia 1000 years ago, so England seems the obvious choice as the nation that brought Christianity to this country, so very recently.

Eleventh century England was thoroughly Christian, chockful of powerful bishops and clerics. The Norman conquest had little effect on Christianity generally except that the sees of bishops tended to be relocated to the commercial centres along continental lines, and the continental style of church architecture replaced the Anglo-Saxon, resulting in the loss of virtually all the great Anglo-Saxon churches. Edward the Confessor had already signalled this change before the Norman invasion with his reconstruction of Westminster, but of course after William I’s accession this rebuilding process was a deliberate sign of the new order – an erasing of Anglo-Saxon taste, style, and political influence rather than its version of Christianity.

The Church, undivided as it was then, played a vastly greater role in eleventh century society than it does today. The Church hierarchy, with its higher levels of literacy, played a significant, indeed dominant, role in civil administration, and of course the Church was a major landowner, charged with all the minutiae of running large estates, so that you could be a senior Church official without being in any way engaged in what we see as the domain of Christian workers today – sermons, spirituality and charitable works. The Church was in fact an international administrative network dominated by Rome, and administering estates for two masters in a sense – the ‘local’ royalty or nobility, and the pope. Chancery was run more or less entirely by Church officials until major changes occurred in the early fifteenth century.

It’s probably fair to say that atheism wasn’t even a concept in eleventh century England or Europe. Godlessness might’ve been a term of abuse for those who weren’t sufficiently orthodox, but essentially everyone was Christian, to a degree unthinkable today. One quite small but economically successful religious minority existed, namely the Jews, expelled from England in 1290, and increasingly harassed and oppressed from the mid-twelfth century onwards. The whole nation was divided into parishes, each overseen by a diocesan bishop, over-ruled by two archdioceses, Canterbury, which had seniority, and York. It was expected that everyone in the parish attend mass on Sundays, and on various festival days. A yearly procession called Rogationtide served to remind everyone of the boundaries of their particular parish.

All parishioners paid a tithe of their income to the church. A tithe is literally a tenth, though the amount no doubt varied. The practice originated with Judaism, and has been followed in a variety of ways by Christianity and Islam, as well as in secular terms, though this was caught up in the confusion of medieval views of Church and State, with the monarchy being seen as a quasi-religious inheritance.

In the wealthiest parishes tithes were held in tithe barns, for all to see, but of course there was always tension about this form of taxation, especially if the churches or monasteries and their abbots were displaying conspicuous wealth, as a good part of the tithes were expected to support the needy of the parish.

Of course, as among the religious today, the Church presided over all the Main Events – baptism (for babies), confirmation (for toddlers) and penance (for all the rest), as well as the Eucharist (regularly), marriage, ordination (for many, but only performed by bishops) and extreme unction (for everyone in the end). However it would be wrong to assume that religious belief was uniform, either in thought or practice. It was always changing, over time, and according to many and varied regional influences. Early medieval Christianity interacted with local folk practices, and various trends and fashions had a general impact, such as the rise of the mendicant friar movement, as a response to the perceived or actual corruption of the fixed monastic orders. This movement, largely intended as a return to the simple peripatetic teachings of Jesus, in turn suffered from its own popularity, and eventually became associated with a new form of parasitism. Another major impact on religious thinking in the later medieval period was plague, and the devastation it brought, which led to a darker and more personal relation to the deity among many. Chantry chapels for the burial of the dead were built, with special clergy to deal with the overload, since priests were only allowed by law to say one mass a day.

The concept of the ‘clergy’ in medieval Britain was necessarily vague – to the advantage of offenders against the law. In the 13th and 14th centuries any schoolboy (only boys of course) who achieved some literacy could be given the tonsure, the clerical cut, and wrong-doers could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate, the test for which was to recite psalm 51:1 in Latin – ‘ Have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.’  The verse became known as ‘the neck verse’ presumably because it saved your neck, canon law penalties being much lighter than secular ones. A reaction against this avoidance of proper justice led to the benefit of clergy provision being restricted to minor crimes by the end of the 16th century (when England had broken with Rome). Of course, this controversial relationship between canon and secular law is still a problem today, with the Catholic Church still unable to accept the paramountcy of secular law.

Orthodoxy and its maintenance was a problem, as ever, what with Dominicans (blackfriars), Franciscans (friars minor, or greyfriars), Cistercians, Carmelites (whitefriars), and other assorted monks, nuns, canons, priors, churchwardens etc roaming the land or administering estates and distributing finances (at least 20% of all land was owned by the Church in the late middle ages), not to mention anchorites and mystical eccentrics such as Margery Kempe keeping the pot stirred. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Lollard movement, both led by religious figures and both savagely repressed, gave an indication of the tenuous hold of religious authority in times of stress, but again these movements never threatened Christianity and were aimed at reinforcing it through renovation.

And then came the great church schism that fueled the genocidal treatment of the Catholic Irish, not to mention the Thirty Years War in middle-Europe and the English civil war…

As a lover of history I could go on and on, but the essential point is clear. We’ve never lived in a more secular age, nowhere near it. We can easily live our lives without interference from Christianity, to a degree that was impossible even 200 years ago let alone 1000. A situation which certainly gives added perspective to such recent apologist texts as The Twilight of Atheism.

Here in Australia, voted the happiest country in the world for the 3rd year in a row by the Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the rise of the nones is as spectacularly speedy as it is anywhere else. And it seems to me there are great historical reasons for embracing secularism. The current approach of the Catholic Church with respect to canon law and the behaviour of its clergy is an example, but one just has to look at those states where the churches, mosques, synagogues etc have political power, and compare them to those where religion plays little or no political role. Compare also the Europe and England of today with the pre-Enlightenment versions, when the official language was God-saturated but when the kind of justice we now take for granted was in very short supply. It’s taken a long time, and the situation continues patchy, but Aristotelian empiricism, so far as ethics is concerned, is winning out.

There’s no turning back. It seems to me that, as far as Christianity is concerned, it’s the long, long fade-out.

Written by stewart henderson

December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm