Modern Myths: Science vs. Religion

“Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos is so threatening.” This is the subheading to a recent article on the controversy over Neil de Grasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, which began airing earlier this year on Fox. Alternet‘s Adam Lee examines the public outcry of many fundamentalist Christians over the show’s portrayal of the history of the universe; as the show is hosted by an astrophysicist and focused on the scientific exploration of outer space, it is unsurprising that the creation stories related in Genesis are not discussed. For those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture, of course, this is a thrown glove, an invitation to ideological combat. Lee, however, sees the issue in much broader terms: for him, this debate between scientists and fundamentalists is really the manifestation of a much deeper and absolute tension between science and religion on the whole.

Massive volumes have been penned on the idea that science and religion are locked in existential combat, and I have neither the space nor the expertise to go into detail here. A Google search or perusing of Wikipedia’s article on the subject can provide a better introduction to the scholarly debate on this narrative than I ever could. The short summary of what I think you will find in those investigations is this: the idea that religion as such and science as such are locked in some unavoidable ideological war is, simply put, a myth–in the full meaning of that word. It is not only mythical in that this narrative is untrue in many respects (i.e. many scientists are religious, many believers are fully accepting of science, and historically, a vast amount of scientific discovery has been achieved by people who were deeply religious and spiritual) but also in the more pernicious sense: this narrative is mythical in that it forms the backbone of a polemical stance that thinkers committed to a certain vision of modernity employ to discredit their opponents and give the impression that readers and listeners must pick a side in this great battle between progress and knowledge, on the one hand, and ignorant superstition, on the other.

But here, in the small space of a single blog post, I want to focus in on one particular claim that Lee makes–let’s return to his subtitle: “Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos” is so threatening.” Many readers will likely find this claim barely worth mentioning, because the assumptions behind it are largely accepted as obviously true. The uncontroversial nature of this claim only drives home how successfully the “conflict thesis” has been accepted in contemporary thought, for the claim is, theologically and biblically, simply untrue. What Lee is describing here–the idea that humanity is ontologically located at the center of reality–can be called anthropocentrism, an idea which is actually closely tied to Enlightenment humanism–not biblical religion. The assumption of human importance in the universe is the bedrock for social contract theory Liberalism and the application of scientific knowledge to the development of industrialism through technology, all tied up in the modern assumption of historical “progress” towards brighter and better futures. But this view is simply not central to Jewish or Christian religious thought. Somehow, however, many people today–even highly intelligent and well-educated people–seem to think that Abrahamic theology is tied deeply to an anthropocentric vision of reality.

This modern confusion is more complex than a simple historical and philosophical misattribution, though. Anthropcentrism’s consequences are meted out to various ideologies in a specific and ideologically-guided way. What we tend to see as the good aspects and achievements of an anthropocentric culture are attributed to science, technology, and liberal democracy, while the bad aspects or failures of anthropocentrism are attributed to religion or traditional culture. Thus, vaccines, air-conditioning, airplanes, computers, and the moon landings are all proof of the glories of scientific living, while the atom bomb, global warming, and the indignities of modern life are attributable to reactionary, unenlightened religious or tribal thought.

But the problem isn’t just that there is ideological cherry-picking here, there is also a mass of unexamined and baseless claims. There are few, if any, sections of the Bible that lend themselves to an anthropocentric reading. It is true that Jewish and Christian Scripture broadly claim that human life is purposeful and inherently meaningful–that God, the creator of all that is somehow cares for us–but humans are by no means placed at the center of creation. Indeed, the Bible is a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, text. God, not humanity, is at the center of the biblical universe, and it is only in relation to God that humanity can “cash in” its potential, so to speak. Far from being concerned only or primarily with the immediate material concerns of human beings, the Bible stresses that only in consciousness of and service to the Reality that transcends immanent being can humanity understand its true identity. Human life is recognized as fleeting and, in immanent and material terms, almost trite:

Consider, for example, Psalm 103: 14-17 (note that I have left all gendered pronouns referring to God in place; the reader should not take this as my approval of such pronouns. All quotes are from the English Standard Version):

For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Humanity is “dust” and “grass”, formless and fleeting: it is only by God’s continual creating and sustaining act that humans exist, and it is only in God’s loving act that we can have any hope. This same theme is present throughout the Bible; consider Isaiah 29:15-16:

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Here again, any sense of human autonomy from the Ground of Being and Becoming from which it sprang is quashed–only through understanding of the meaning of existence, which is objectively determined apart from humanity, can the particular human harmonize themselves with the reality in which they live. Again, humans are not the center here, but rather a periphery offered meaning and importance precisely to the degree that they conform themselves to the Center, which gives them being in the first place. The writer of deutero-Isaiah continues this theme and even the same metaphor in Isaiah 45:9:

“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Job also takes up this theme of human impermanence and seeming unimportance, even demanding that God leave him alone to enjoy what little passing pleasure he might:

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.

This lament, the opening of chapter 14, is later met with God’s reproval in the closing chapters, which maintain humanity’s determined and circumscribed existence while maintaining both God’s transcendent Otherness and sovereignty. Again, there is little room for a hubristic, anthropocentric reading here.

The Christian New Testament leans heavily on these images, continuing the insistence that the meaning–and indeed salvation–of humanity can come only via the human’s willingness to recognize and follow God, not on any human action itself. Thus James warns his comrades:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Here, even the rich person who seems in control of his or her life, with independent means and social power, is revealed as limited and contingent: the process of becoming will roll over them just as surely as it will over any other particular being in the world; death comes for all life. Similarly, the first letter of Peter directly quotes the lines from Psalm 103 above. And we have only skimmed the surface of this theme’s presence throughout Scripture: a number of other Psalms (e.g. 22, 90, 92) as well as Ecclesiastes explore the theme in greater breadth. But let’s not get carried away with quoting the text–I hope the point has been made.

This, of course, does not mean that religious people are often not anthropocentric in their thinking–but it does suggest, and I would say decisively so, that the source of this anthropocentrism is not their religiosity, but indeed the humanism that informs modern social thought. And here lies the interesting yet often unexplored tension within modern life. For it is modern social thought–social contract Liberalism in the Locke/Rousseau vein–that collides headlong with the scientific determinism of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially the Behaviorism of say, Skinner. The idea that human beings are largely determined and powerless in an often hostile universe is not at all threatening to a biblical view of the world–as we saw above, the Bible itself repeatedly asserts this very fact! It is humanism that finds this view of the world unacceptable and oppressive, for it suggests that humans, despite all our inventive cleverness and power, are ultimately unable to liberate ourselves from our material constraints. This would suggest that it is the largely unspoken yet ubiquitous classical Liberal view of humanity that, contradictorily, leads fundamentalist Christians to so vociferously reject scientific claims that seem to challenge an anthropocentric view of the universe, whether this is the Big Bang or evolutionary theory.

This will likely strike many readers as an odd claim, but, as counterintuitive as it is, I think its a much more accurate reading than the credulous pigeon-holing that Lee employs in his Alternet article. Fundamentalism, after all, is a religious movement that came about precisely to counter the rise of a robust Science in the 19th century; though its roots can be seen in resistance to early historical critical work on the Bible, it is not until geology and then biology undermined traditional readings of the creation stories that a full-throated ‘fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene. But this reaction already shows a major shift in the reading of Scripture, for creation stories that had meant to point to the mystery of creation had been bent–under the guiding rubric of humanism–to instead provide a firm basis for absolute human knowledge of the physical world. It is easy to forget that the basis for Evangelical and fundamentalist theology was and is (primarily) the Swiss Reformation–led by John Calvin, himself an avowed humanist. It was humanism that led to the idea that the Bible could be simply and directly translated–freeing the laity to interpret the text on their own, without ecclesiastical guidance (or interference, depending on one’s view). Although this certainly gave lay Christians more direct access to the Bible, it also meant that this highly diverse and ancient text was divorced from the cultural, philosophical, and hermeneutical context in which it was written–leading easily to a literalistic mode of reading in which the vast majority of the significance of the text is lost. This is, I think, precisely how the theocentric Bible can come to be read in a highly subjective, self-indulgent anthropocentric mode.

Thus, the real conflict here is not between religion and science, but between humanism and science. This seems paradoxical, precisely because we are so used to thinking of science as both the product of and servant to the humanist project: and again, medical, transportation, and information technology breakthroughs fit this narrative well. The last 2 centuries have been witness to an incredible surge in human knowledge, and that knowledge has led to human manipulation of the material environment in ways that have expanded human lifespan and quality of life (at least for those lucky enough to live in “developed” nations and of sufficient class status). This is an obvious historical fact. But of course, this same knowledge has also had its dark ramifications–not only in the development of military technology and the various negative “side effects” of industrialized society (pollution, rising levels of obesity, displacement of traditional culture, etc.) but also in the increased recognition of human beings as more object than subject. The Cartesian/Kantian view of human personhood as based in transcendental reason has collapsed. Humans now are immanent things, objects of science. This has resulted in massive medical breakthroughs–for only as a physical object can the human body be studied and healed scientifically–but it has also raised profound and unsettling questions: for can an object have intrinsic ethical value? When a person was understood as an immaterial soul, the separation of value and fact was not fatal to the maintenance of ethical realism. But if a person is no more than a body, how is a robust ethics to be maintained?

Herein lies the collision of what we might call “early” and “late” modernity: Locke, Rousseau, Descartes and even Kant inhabited a world of transcendent souls animating material bodies. Since the 19th century, this view of humanity has been challenged to the point of obsolescence: yet it remains the basis of our social thought. This philosophical view is necessary so long as we want to maintain modern liberal values of freedom and human rights, as well as the sense of human dignity, because there is no scientific basis for such claims. One cannot show, empirically, the existence of human rights. Nietzsche recognized that the collapse of transcendence meant the end of the old ethics just as much as it challenged old religious views of Divinity; Heidegger too saw the implications for classical Liberalism–and post-structuralist and postmodern thought has continued to drive home these conclusions. Yet, modern society remains caught in the limbo between humanist social thought and scientific determinism. It seems to me that the resistance to evolutionary thought and an “old” universe is as much about salvaging a sense of meaning to human existence–any meaning, religious or otherwise–as it is about defending a particular religious position. Fundamentalist Christians strike me more as the humanist canaries in the coal mine, rather than real countercultural traditionalists. And of course, they are far from the only people frightened by the conclusions of modern science and its manifestation in technology; lamentations of consumerism, the banality of industrialism, and the “disenchanted” nature of modern self-consciousness are common, especially among the artistic Left. What is perhaps unique about fundamentalists, however, is a recognition, even if it is pre-critical, that there is no “going back”–once one accepts the scientific view of the world, the realm of value and meaning seems forever lost.

I am not suggesting that we side with the fundamentalists in their angry, anti-intellectual assault. I am, however, suggesting 2 things that I think Lee–and many others–have missed. First off, fundamentalist angst is primarily humanist, not religious. Secondly, they aren’t wrong for sounding the alarm–their outbursts point to a central contradiction in modern life, the gap between our social/ethical and scientific/technological endeavors. The haughty cultured dismissal of fundamentalist fear only proves the uncritical complacency of many pundits and commentators. In the final analysis, if we are going to affirm science and ethical realism, we will need a new synthesis, a new way forward, that is not dependent on the transcendental individualism of humanistic classical Liberalism. The alternative to developing such a new way forward can only be the ethical relativism that post-structuralism and postmodernity promise. I would argue that such a synthesis can actually only come by reaffirming the theocentric view we briefly touched on above–but that’s a topic needing its own post.

Rand or Christ: Mutually Exclusive

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s recent choice for Vice President in the 2012 campaign

[Update: I’ve edited the last paragraph below to make my statement about pastors, ministers, and priests’ more precise]

Over this past weekend, the Romney campaign announced Paul Ryan as Romney’s choice for VP going into the Republican convention. I’m not a particularly big follower of electoral politics, especially as the Democrats routinely prove themselves to be only marginally better than the Republicans on almost every issue. Nonetheless, the choice of Ryan, who is famous for his Ayn Rand-inspired economic views and fiscal policy, demands a discussion that the Right has seemingly refused to have: Ayn Rand & Jesus Christ, the Fountainhead and the Christian Scriptures, are they reconcilable?

For anyone who’s read anything by Rand and any part of the New Testament, the answer should be automatic and clear: no way. Where Rand celebrates the individual, selfishness, elitism, and an a-ethical callousness, the Jesus of the Gospels demands selflessness, compassion, a willingness to suffer to build a better world, and a rejection of all the worldly pleasures that Rand seems so jealously to guard. So why is it that, on the right in the US, an increasing number of politicians and activists seem to preach some sort of combined Gospel of Christ-Rand? How is it that people can talk religiously about Christ right before launching into worship of John Galt? The question is especially glaring since Rand was such an avowed and aggressive atheist.

To my eyes, the answer is easy: Christ is hard to follow, but easy to co-opt. The social conservative strategy that was launched in the 1970s intentionally tried to redirect public attention from economic issues to social ones: homosexuality and abortion in particular. This approach, as I have pointed out before, is great for elites hoping to foist their preferred economic policy on the nation, since abortion and gay marriage, whether supported or denied, don’t effect the bottom line of the wealthy. There’s almost no cost to powerful corporations and individuals in supporting the ‘pro-life’ and ‘defense of marriage’ movements. And the trade-off is that those groups are willing to back regressive tax policy, relaxed financial regulation, and a tearing-down of labor protections in order to secure financial resources for their single-issue social policies.

The standard line of the religious right over the past 40 years has been that homosexuality and abortion are such awful, egregious sins that Christians have to be willing to support anyone and anything that will help them combat these existential evils. Nevermind that Jesus never said a word about either, and that he did have a lot to say about wealth, power, and social justice. Nevermind that the grassroots activists involved in the pro-life and anti-gay-rights movements are being exploited and abused by the very people who talk all day long about how they are defending their interests. And nevermind that the whole campaign was clearly launched after the 1960s as the Republicans realized that without some wedge issues, they were never going to have any serious role in national politics again. The whole thing was presented as a moral crusade. Christian ethics was collapsed into a hateful, myopic black hole of prejudice, harnessed to the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

But of course, these social issues aren’t the real issues: they are bridle and bit fitted over rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives, used to rally them to vote for officials who immediately turn around and enact policies that have slowly eroded the lives of those very rank-and-file folks. And the even more perverse reality is that the shift in social issues has also greatly impacted the Democratic party: the Democrats are really only discernible from the Republicans at this point on social issues. And while I’m glad to see that they are at least willing to defend justice when it comes to women’s and homosexuals’ rights, on almost every other issue, they have become the slightly-left-of-Republicans Republicans. On  military issues, on labor issues, on whistle-blowers, on financial policy–across the board, the Democrats are becoming just as beholden to elite capture as the Republicans. This has been, I think, the real victory of the social conservative thrust: even when they lose an election, they really win: if your priority has been to defend, say, the military-industrial complex or the big banks, exactly how has Obama been a problem for you? With many times as many drones flying into Waziristan, Yemen, Libya (and elsewhere?) as Bush ever launched in his whole time in the Oval Office, and with nary a powerful Wall St. insider on the other side of bars, it’s hard to see how Obama has seriously challenged the power that is grinding our democracy to dust. This isn’t to deny that the defense of women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals are somehow unimportant–I want to be really clear on this–but they aren’t enough. Democracy can’t survive vast income inequality, the erosion of habeas corpus, and the collapse of the labor movement just because gay folks can get married in New York (however just and great that may be in and of itself!) Social conservatism has rendered economic policy a done deal, and we’re all the worse for it.

So back to Paul Ryan, who last year proposed a budget that the Catholic Church denounced, and who apparently requires all his staff to read Rand’s books. Where such a radical libertarian would have been on the fringe of the fringe in the 1960s, now he’s a shoe-in for VP pick. This is what the social conservatives have brought us: a country in which a politician can propose stripping money from programs that feed and house the poor while simultaneously calling for lower taxes on rich people who already experience historically-low tax rates–and all too many pastors, ministers, and priests warmly applaud. So many Christians in this country have completely lost sight of what our Gospel actually says. They seem to agree with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society,” but Paul made it clear that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s one or the other: are we in this together, building the Kingdom? Or are we all out to get ours, neighbor be damned? The answer used to be clear, however often it was ignored. But today, after 40 years of the religious right, too many of Christ’s followers have removed the Cross from the wall and replaced it with a framed picture of John Galt.

Religion is to Liberalism as Emotion is to Reason? A Response to Responses to James Rohrer

Yesterday, James Rohrer posted an article on Alternet and Salon calling on secular progressives to cease lumping all religious people into one antagonistic group. Alternet’s editors themselves agreed with Rohrer’s critique of the often-nothing-but-critical approach that many progressives have to religion. Rohrer’s piece was, I thought, uncontroversial and even a little bland, if also right on the money: it’s just basic political organizing 101 to never alienate potential allies. It’s easy to criticize specific religious institutions and individuals without over-generalizing and dismissing the billions of religious people all over the world.

Nonetheless, the comments section (at least on the Salon page; I didn’t check the AlterNet one) quickly descended into hyper-simplistic dismissals not only of Rohrer’s point, but of religion and all religious people, without exceptions. The very first comme, from “Mike Sulzer”:

If insulting someone’s religion stops him from supporting progressive ideas, then it is unlikely that he would be much of a supporter in any case.

This is a wildly ridiculous statement; you might as well say “look, if black people can’t get past our racism and work with us on these other issues, then that probably just proves they wouldn’t really be helpful after all!” Insulting people is generally not a good way of making friends, political allies, getting along with coworkers, or even fashioning an argument. It’s not like secular folks are different in this regard: you probably wouldn’t open up a speech to a Secular Student Alliance meeting with “Hey, you’re all a bunch of godless heathens who will burn for eternity! But anyway, let’s talk about climate change.” This is just obvious, straightforward communication etiquette.

While some commenters quickly pointed out the error in Mike’s logic, others rapidly made even more asinine statements, attempting to compare “religion” and “liberalism” in a highly simplistic way. Francis E. Dec summarized this approach:

The religious believer values emotion over reason…

Religion demands individual obeisance to authority. God/The Church is more important than any individual. “Free will,” to whatever extent it exists, is subjugated to “divine will.”

Liberalism is almost exactly the opposite (or is supposed to be – it has of course been perverted in America). Liberal philosophies tend to emphasize the individual – rights and liberties are natural states of existence.

We will, for the time being, ignore the worthwhile questions of whether we can really compare religion and liberalism in such a straightforward way, considering how diverse the former is and how derived from it the latter is. I’d like to hone in on this idea though that Francis seems to want to make–and other commenters too seemed to operate on this paradigm–that religion is all about feelings but liberalism is all about thinking.

Obviously, liberalism’s dawn out of the late medieval period through the Renaissance and European Enlightenment all point to an emphasis on reason over superstition: but does this really mean a preference for reason over emotion? For one thing, we need to unpack classical Liberalism and modern left-wing liberalism. Classical liberalism was indeed an almost absolute glorification of individuality over all other political, social, or cultural concerns. Thinkers like Thomas Paine, John Lock, and David Hume epitomize this outlook. Private property and the non-interference of the government in individual’s lives were the most valued political stances from this approach; it heavily influenced the American Revolution. But modern liberalism is a different animal: though it certainly derived much of its methodology from classical liberalism, it, importantly, breaks with the classical approach in key ways: often valuing the needs of the group over that of the individual; being concerned with the plight of the poor and being willing to use government intervention to assist those in need; valuing the environment and being willing, again, to use government intervention to protect it; and in a host of other ways.

So which liberalism is Francis talking about? Or, to ask a more precise question: if liberalism isn’t concerned with emotion but only reason, what are its ethics based on? Concern for the poor doesn’t arise from some detached, emotionless calculation. People are willing to pay taxes for social programs precisely because they care about other people. The basis for so much of modern liberalism is precisely emotional.

Likewise, although certainly many religious people approach their faith with little critical thought, theology–which has existed in some form or another for millenia–is a very rational approach to belief and thought about religious concepts. Of course, I’m not arguing that the average fundamentalist voter consults Aquinas when they vote or engage in political debate, but this really gets at the crux of the matter: for these commenters, and presumably many other secular liberals and progressives, religious people are seen as a monolith, a block of undifferentiated ignorance and antagonism. While many religious people are both ignorant and antagonistic, not nearly all are. And those who are often the most ignorant are also the poorest, least educated, most embittered victims of modern capitalism; they’re precisely the people secular liberals often claim to care so much about!

I don’t write this somehow not understanding how and why so many people would be hostile to religion and especially to certain religious individuals and institutions. But if these same liberals are as reasonable as they want to think they are, one might hope they would research more and polemecize less, and confront the confusing reality that the world isn’t ever as simple as the black-and-white understanding they have of reason and emotion, religion and liberalism.

Workers, Owners, and Worker-Owners

Since the end of WWII–and for most of the 100 years prior–politics has largely been presented as a battle between Statism and Capitalism. The former essentially boils down to trusting the government to intervene against exploitative private interests and build a just society, while the latter relies on the freedom of private action to rein in tyrannical government. But what neither of these approaches are is democratic. They both offer us a choice: which elites do you want ruling over you? Neither of them offers a democratic society where individuals, families, and communities really can direct themselves.

Salon has touched on this issue with their “99% Plan” and especially with Alex Gourevitch’s article on the need for progressives to articulate a real plan to challenge the growing inequality in the US. While he raises crucial issues, he also falls into the very trap introduced above: the challenge to free-market-fundamentalism will be an empowered state which will stand up for workers against their exploiters. There’s plenty to such an approach that I could get behind, but fundamentally I’m not interested in kicking out one group of elites for another. I’m interested in building a society where people can really determine their own future and run their own communities.

It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that alternative political solutions are not often discussed. It’s like asking why there are so many diet books outlining complicated and arcane diet and exercise programs: they need something to sell. It’s hard to make money telling people that if they want to lose weight they have to eat fewer calories than they expend. That’s simple, and it’s true, but it’s not marketable. But if your diet plan covers hundreds of pages and is woven together with a complex but catchy theme (caveman, south beach, rockstar, whatever) then you’ve created a product; you’ve commodified diet advice. Likewise, if a politician stands up and announces that they want to help working people build autonomous and truly democratic communities, that politician is announcing themselves out of a job. You can’t remain an important, priveleged elite by granting people the means to govern themselves. You’ve got to hold the reins of power yourself.

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Christian Politics: Culture Wars Vs. Social Justice

Even Billy Graham knew the Right was just out to use whatever it could to control working folks.

The recent dust-up over the Komen foundation’s de-funding, and then re-funding, of Planned Parenthood over the past week has now culminated in one of Komen’s Vice Presidents resigning. That Mrs. Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included derisive invective against Planned Parenthood gives the lie to any claim that Komen’s decision was somehow “not political”. Abortion and homosexuality have both been central issues for Republican presidential candidates as well, especially Rick Santorum (for proof of how deeply embroiled he is on the issue of gay rights, just google his last name). At a time when the US economy is barely creating enough jobs to employ the new workers who are entering it each month while millions of other workers have been unemployed for years, when the signs of global warming are only getting more obvious, when we are spending billions of dollars a year on a war with no end and no obvious goal, our politicians are spending huge amounts of time complaining about whom you’re having sex with. What’s going on?

It’s easy to dismiss all the talk about homosexuals and abortion doctors ruining our country as the rantings of old, white, resentful conservatives. It’s easy to blame the trucker-hat-wearing, confederate-flag-waving angry men whom journalists love to interview for the bigotry at the heart of these debates. But it’s not as simple as that. The Culture Wars were begun by a politically astute elite with some explicit and obvious goals. And when we recognize that the focus on social issues is an intentional strategy to distract working- and middle-class Americans from what really threatens them, it becomes clear that those angry, white, working-class men aren’t really the heart of the problem. They’re being manipulated.

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A Quick Response to “In Defense of Flip-Flopping”

Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane, a mechanical engineer and a journalist, take up the issue of political flip-flopping in contemporary US politics today in Salon. For this post to make any sense, go read it real quick–it’s not long.

I think this article is founded on a vast confusion of terms. First, the writers compare political systems to an array of natural ones, and intimate that the two dominant parties in the US are no different: they’re just responding to the changing landscape before them.

But you could say the same thing about a virus–it’s a natural system that responds to the environment it finds itself in. The question is, are our parties more like the human body–or more like a virus infecting us?

And this gets us down to the main error in this article as I see it–there’s no discussion of ethics. The main point that people make time and time again is not that flip-flopping is unnatural, or illogical–it’s that it’s *wrong*. And our two writers simply dodge this question. But for most of us, that’s the crucial issue. Arsenic, fire, and lions are all natural. But they may not be good for us. Someone who argued that a madman rampaging around Manhattan, releasing lions, starting fires, and dumping arsenic into our water wasn’t worth worrying about because, “hey, they’re all natural!” would rightly be dimissed as a fool.

Next, the writers seem to confuse two very different things: they talk about Romney and Obama changing their policies so as to “move their ideas forward”. But obviously, that’s not what’s going on. They’re changing their policies to stay in power, not for some grand ideological scheme. They’re politicians, not mystical philosophers.

Finally, their point is invalidated by facts on the ground–outside of the US, the vast majority of democracies around the world have far more than 2 dominant parties. If the two-party system is some natural outcome of the laws of nature, how do we explain all the countries that don’t have two parties?

Augustine & Newt: A Response to Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has a piece in Salon today vis-a-vis Newt’s less than stellar marital track record. Her main point is laudable: she’s rightly concerned that all the attention paid to politicians’ sex lives distracts voters from the more crucial issue of whether the polices they’re proposing will actually be good for the country. Fair enough, a point well made and definitely something we ought to be talking more about. So I’m glad she wrote about it.

But! She ended up relying on the age-old Augustine bashing to drive her point home. And its here that I have to complain, but just a bit (um, Update: I actually end up complaining a whole lot. Sorry!) She makes two assertions that I think are faulty and poisonous to the whole discourse. First, she claims that the whole obsession with sexuality is a peculiarly Judeo-Christian thing, and seems to imply that if we could get over that cultural baggage, we’d be much better for it. Second, she says that “[m]ost of the fault for this misallocation of our moral indignation lies, of course, in the unruly sexuality of fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo.” Ouch! This is both wildly untrue and a gross over-simplification of Augustine’s life and thought. But let’s talk a bit about that first claim before we get to good old Augie.

The idea that sexual hang-ups are the primary and exclusive legacy of Judeo-Christian culture is as common as it is untrue. First off, sexuality is generally treated as an important, emotionally-charged, and taboo issue in almost every human society. Sure, it takes different forms, and certainly some cultures are more prudish than others. And in that regard, you could certainly target Christianity as more on the prudish side of the spectrum than some other faiths. But Buddhism, for example, is at least as concerned with the control of the libido as Christianity. Siddhartha made it clear that sexual desire had to be completely abandoned on the path towards realizing Nirvana. Confucian philosophy, which is more social and political than it is spiritual, nonetheless felt that female modesty was crucial in order to protect the lineage of a woman’s father and husband. Islam (which is arguably in the Judeo-Christian orbit, but nonetheless clearly has unique cultural and spiritual aspects as well) is well-known for being highly protective/oppressive/prudish about womens’ bodies and often stresses the need for sexual control. Concern over sexuality is not a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s a human thing. Certainly, there’s plenty to criticize in Christianity’s impact on sexual mores in the West, but to take the whole vast burden of sexual hangups that we humans feel and lay it on just one religio-cultural tradition is absurd.

But Hirshman goes even farther, actually claiming that almost all of the blame actually lies not just with one religion, but with one man–Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is certainly famous for asking God for “chastity–just not now.” And Augustine was quite honest about his years of fornication and his inability, for years, to cease it, despite the fact that he thought it was wrong. But instead of seeing this as evidence of Augustine’s sexual hangups, it could just easily be seen as his being very honest, both with his readers and with himself.

As I just mentioned above, the idea that being unable to rein in one’s sexual urges is a spiritual deficiency is hardly limited to Christianity. In fact, even utterly non-spiritual people might well reflect on the fact that being unable to control one’s libido at all could lead to all sorts of problems, and that giving oneself totally to lust can easily distract us from other important facets of our lives. Seeing an unrestrained libido as less than a good thing is hardly automatically or obviously stupid, retrograde, or repressive.

That said, again, I’m not defending Christianity’s whole record on sexuality–there’s a lot to criticize! But certainly we can engage in that criticism in a more sophisticated way, pointing out specifics and building a strong case, instead of just dismissing an entire 2000-year old religion. A bit of research into the issue could have given Hirshman a much more nuanced view on the issue, and also allowed her to make her point more clearly and forcefully, I think. One obvious detail–almost trivial I’ll admit, but hey! fact-checking is important!–Hippo, Augustine’s home is not in Italy, as Hirshman seems to think; it was located in Africa, near modern Tunisia.

But the problems with Hirshman’s article aren’t limited to problems of historical research and interpretation. She goes on to basically ask, hey, what’s the big deal about adultery? and compares cheating on one’s spouse to any other breach of contract–she compares it to ” wearing a dress to the party and then taking it back to the store”. While I appreciate that she’s pointing out that people who cheat on their partners aren’t necessarily awful human beings, I think her comparisons here are way off the mark. She herself essentially admits as much a few lines later, admitting that, for example, Hilary Clinton was clearly deeply hurt by Bill’s philandering. But immediately after, she suggests that it all worked out, because Hilary almost become the President. Huh?

The idea that our broken relationships, our failures to care and love for each other, are no big deal as long as we do well in politics or business is incredibly cold and mercenary. And at the end of the piece, I’m left wondering what exactly Hirshman is getting at. She begins the whole whole piece by warning us that “[w]hen all morality collapses into sexual morality, the voters will become so fixated on whom the candidates are screwing they don’t notice …  it’s them.” Yes! This is, like I said at the outset of this post, a really good and important point! But by the end of the piece she seems to be living in a world where only politics matters, where our personal lives not only shouldn’t be discussed in public, but really shouldn’t be a big deal, even to us. After noting how Newt Gingrich’s second wife has gone through so much and been treated poorly, she concludes the piece by noting that “it’s so gratifying at least to see him bleed a little.” But seeing him bleed a little isn’t going to help us build a more progressive society, and she seems to be getting derailed by the very personal aspect of politics that she seemed to want to discard at the beginning.

In short, this is a piece I would love to see written…again…by Linda Hirshman. Her main point is right on target, but she tries to pull in so many threads and tie it all together with an over-arching worldview that just doesn’t knot well. I think if she had stuck to the details of the issue at hand, she could have wound up with a much better take-down of the Republicans’ (well, and Democrats’) hypocritical public attitude towards sex. On the other hand, if she really wants to write about how this all ties into Christianity, Augustine, and English Common Law, fine! But she needs to do a lot more research first.

This post appeared on both my main blog as well as my Open Salon blog.