You might have to believe in God to take the Declaration of Independence seriously

by Sam Goldman on June 18, 2015

Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?

Danielle Allen raises this question about halfway through her painstaking commentary, when she arrives at “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration’s first sentence. Allen acknowledges that many Americans would rather avoid thinking about the role of theology in the Declaration. But she insists—correctly—that the matter is too important to avoid: references to God are not only obvious features of the text, but also “ground zero for discussion of how religion and politics intertwine.” (115)

Over the next few chapters, Allen argues that the Declaration is open to readings that leave out a deity. Belief in God helps justify its claims about the origin and purpose of government. But it’s not the only way of supporting those conclusions, provided that you strongly endorse the premise of equal basic rights. In Allen’s words, “You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” (138)

Allen’s approach reminds of the idea of “overlapping consensus” developed by John Rawls. In Political Liberalism, Rawls uses the term to describe a situation in which citizens endorse the same basic laws for different reasons. In Rawls’ view, overlapping consensus solves the problem of stability in a liberal society characterized by deep disagreements about the nature of reality and meaning of life. Under overlapping consensus, it does not matter why citizens endorse the law—only that they do so.

If I understand her correctly, Allen thinks the Declaration can be the object of a similarly overlapping consensus. She does not deny that some religious doctrines provide strong reasons to endorse the Declaration. To the contrary, she acknowledges that these doctrines have been powerful supports for its authority in the past—and remain so for many people today. On the other hand, Allen wants to convince readers that the Declaration does not depend on religion. “The Declaration…gives us two ways of understanding the source of rights. We can see them as coming from nature and/or we can see them as coming from God. It’s like belt and suspenders.” (134)

This is an ingenious way of defending the Declaration’s relevance to a more pluralistic society than the colonial North America. It is also consistent with strategies used by some giants of early modern philosophy, who offered parallel naturalistic and theological arguments for the conclusions in the hope of convincing readers of different philosophical and religious orientations. In trying to open up the Declaration to resolutely secular audiences, however, I think Allen neutralizes it. The Declaration does not depend on the credo of any organized church, but it loses much of its political and historical significance if God is left out.

The weakness of Allen’s treatment of religion begins with her method. In order to make her case that God is optional, Allen proceeds as if Jefferson were the Declaration’s presiding spirit. For Allen, the God of the Declaration is “Nature’s God” because this is only theological phrase used by Jefferson. She depreciates the other references to God—which are less easily replaced with non-theological claims—as inserted “at later points in the drafter process.” (135)

Allen’s elevation of Jefferson is inconsistent with her own interpretive principle. One of her main arguments is that the Declaration is a work of “democratic writing”, rather than the product of Jefferson’s singular genius. For Allen, the Declaration’s authors include the rest of the five-member committee that drafted it, the Continental Congress that debated and edited the committee’s proposal, the scribe who engrossed the text, and even the printers who reproduced it. Although they are certainly part of the picture, Jefferson’s beliefs intentions are not definitive of the text’s meaning.

If that is the case, there is no good reason to treat “Nature’s God” as the key to the Declaration’s theology. Jefferson avoided references to a personal deity in his draft. But either Franklin or Adams added a reference to the “Creator” in the natural rights section devised by the committee of five. And Congress inserted the phrases “Supreme Judge of the World” and “Divine Providence” in the conclusion. If we read as Allen proposes, these phrases should have equal weight to “Nature’s God”.

Taken together, these statements give a picture of God that is not so easily replaced by “an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” They depict God as the maker of the universe, who cares for man’s happiness, gives him the resources to pursue it, and judges the manner in which he does so. Despite Allen’s assurances that Jefferson tried to avoid religious commitments, writing in a manner compatible with deism, theism, and everything in between, I do not see how the God that emerges from the entire process of composition, could be reconciled with a mere first cause or cosmic watchmaker. On the level of intention, the Declaration presumes a personal and providential deity.

Allen is right to insist that this is not necessarily the God of Christianity. Even with the various edits and amendments, the Declaration makes no mention of Jesus or resurrection, or other specifically Christian doctrines. On the other hand, the Declaration’s God sounds remarkably like the God of Israel. Whether or he is the source of salvation, he is the ultimate authority for politics and the indirect leader of his people. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the first committee to draw up a seal for the United States—whose members were named on July 4, 1776 and included Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson—proposed a design featuring an image of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea and the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”. That is the kind of God to which the Declaration appeals and that many of its authors had in mind.

Of course, it would not matter that the Declaration contains theistic rhetoric if its conclusions could be sustained on other grounds. It’s here that Allen turns from intention and language to considerations of philosophical coherence. She acknowledges that if you believe in a certain kind of Creator, the conclusions of the Declaration follow rather easily. But she contends that you can get to the same place from a very different starting point, even if it requires a few extra steps.

Specifically, Allen recommends that readers who cannot accept the theistic interpretation treat the “laws of nature” as a way of foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions, given observable patterns of behavior. It can be observed that people want to survive. So you might reason that “…when any given group finds a way to survive that does not endanger the survival of anyone else, we should respect their right to organize their survival for themselves. We ought to respect these forces of nature because, if we try to fight them, we will generally do ourselves more harm than good. If we do not respect the rights of others to organize their survival for themselves…we will bring war on ourselves and so jeopardize our own projects of survival.” (134)

On this interpretation, there’s no normative obligation to respect people’s basic rights. But there are good prudential reasons for doing so. Although Allen doesn’t mention it, this sounds a lot like Spinoza.

For Spinoza, there is no natural law is the sense of moral limits of human behavior. On the contrary, he argues that human beings have an unlimited “right” to try to secure their survival however they see fit. For the same reason, different individuals or peoples have a “right” to try to stop them. But those attempts are likely to fail or even turn against their protagonists. The “natural law” obliging us to respect others efforts to organize their own lives is thus no more than a rule of thumb.

This argument is perfectly coherent, given its premise that oppression is counterproductive. The problem is that this premise is likely false. Assertions of rights are often crushed, without much risk to the oppressors. Because they didn’t produce the forecast bad consequences, a purely naturalistic interpretation of the matter would lead us to conclude that these movements had no “right” to succeed.

That conclusion would probably be acceptable to Spinoza. But I think it would not be acceptable to Allen—or to the signers of the Declaration. Again, this is why “Nature’s God” is not good enough. In addition to the source of natural order, the Declaration’s good has to care how human events turn out—and perhaps to intervene to ensure that the results are compatible with justice. Otherwise, the signer’s pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor would be no more than a gamble—and a bad one at that. The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.

Again, Allen does not claim that there’s anything inappropriate or incoherent about a theistic reading of the Declaration. She only argues that it isn’t necessary: you could believe in equal rights even if you don’t believe them to be the endowment of a Creator or destined to be vindicated. And this is almost certain true. There have been many individuals who defended the principles of the Declaration without accepting the kind of theology I’ve outlined here.

Yet that is not quite the issue. Individuals are capable of believing almost anything for almost any reason—and even of acting on that basis. But that is a matter for psychology. The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. I am skeptical that this is the case. Historically, America’s great political movements have made extensive use of religious appeals—often in terms familiar from the Declaration. Several, including the civil rights movement, are unimaginable without such appeals.

So while people can accept the Declaration’s claims about rights for secular reasons, I suspect that those who take its religious elements seriously are more likely to act in the ways necessary to secure them. This is important because the Declaration is not, as Allen claims, “a philosophical argument”. Instead, it is a call to arms. People generally don’t fight for “commitments” and “grounds”. For better or for worse, they do fight for what they believe God demands.

The Declaration’s greatest interpreter, Lincoln, seems to have recognized this. Before the Civil War, Lincoln treated the Declaration as a work of secular reasoning. In a famous letter from 1859, Lincoln compared its argument to Euclidean geometry. According to Lincoln, “[t]he principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” To understand politics, all one had to do was draw valid conclusions from certain first principles.

But definitions and axioms are terms of the seminar room, not the battlefield. Although might have been suitable for peacetime, Lincoln’s scholarly account of politics was manifestly inadequate to a war that revolved around the meaning and authority of the Declaration of Independence. So in his second inaugural, he offered a different account of the same principles. This time, he appealed to a “living God” to achieve the right. You do not have to be a Christian to understand what Lincoln was saying. But I do not think you can be an atheist.

It’s on this point that Allen’s reading of the Declaration fails to convince. Although she establishes the possibility of an “alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves”, she gives no indication what such a ground would be or whether politically significant numbers of people would ever entertain it. By making room in the Declaration for a wider variety of beliefs and worldviews, Allen hopes to make it accessible to us today. In the process, she makes it harder to understand why it was important at some of the darkest moments of the nation’s history—and why it might be so again.

{ 427 comments }

1

Plume 06.18.15 at 3:27 pm

The founders were primarily deists, and in their letters to each other, they often mocked even the idea of Christianity. IMO, any mention of a god in any of the founding documents is merely a cultural formality, a throwaway nod to existing belief systems, and irrelevant to the foundation itself.

And we should hope this is the case. The god of the bible is perhaps the most evil father-god in any major religious tradition. No father god is as given to atrocity, genocide, barbarity, sadism and baffling amounts of unprovoked or wildly unreasonable cruelties. And there is no democracy or demos in the bible. Authoritarianism to the extreme, as well as endless misogyny, support for slavery, racism and a chosen elite are rampant. In short, if someone wanted to invent the worst possible basis for any modern state, they’d invent the bible.

Yes, there are contrary voices. And very loud ones. But the overall structure is one of dictatorship and a call for slavish, unquestioning devotion to authority.

It’s not just that the Declaration can easily be understood without “god.” It actually makes no sense whatsoever if we do adhere to biblical foundations.

2

ZM 06.18.15 at 3:38 pm

The idea of natural law is of Roman origin, not Jewish or Christian. As Romans had an Empire all over Europe their laws were used in many places, like England. When English jurisprudence was being formed in the Middle Ages after time immemorial had passed Roman law was cited by jurists, and from being part of English law then Roman law went to America with the colonists.

“Jus naturale was a concept the jurists developed to explain why all people seemed to obey some laws. Their answer was that a “natural law” instilled in all beings a common sense.”
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_law

3

Plume 06.18.15 at 3:51 pm

ZM,

Yes. Our particular form of government has far more in common with ancient Greece and Rome than anything from the Levant. The bible didn’t give us republicanism or democracy. It doesn’t talk about representational democracy, or voting, or anything remotely like our foundation. It does have kings and queens, which is what the Declaration of Independence rebelled against. At least in part.

I’ve never understood the attempt to Christianize out origin story, other than to justify Christian control of things. There is no logical case for it, and the men who led the rebellion were almost all enemies of the Church/State nexus. They were men of the Enlightenment, and saw what that nexus had done to Europe, how it caused centuries of warfare and atrocity. At least on that score, they wanted none of existing arrangements. On other scores, of course, primarily economic, they were more than willing to keep existing ruling class arrangements. But religion? It wasn’t their thing.

4

Acilius 06.18.15 at 4:11 pm

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

5

Rich Puchalsky 06.18.15 at 5:02 pm

“The bible didn’t give us republicanism or democracy. “

The “bible” gave us social justice, which as a concept is quite visible in many of the lesser prophets in the Tanakh. That concept as we have it today is owed more to that source than anything out of Greece or Rome, as far as I can figure.

6

Harold 06.18.15 at 5:03 pm

There is a sense in which Enlightenment values arose from Christian values — the valorization of man was a traditional Christian theme (as was the concomitant condemnation of man as fatally flawed) also the conception of history as progressive, rather than cyclical. There was an impulse, in the Renaissance and later, to believe that a synthesis/reconciliation of the better parts of Classical tradition with Christian and indeed with all world religions and outlooks was possible and desirable. This involved a purging of all these religions from undesirable “superstitious” elements, such as the Trinity (or whatever else one wanted to exclude) in order to get back to a presumed pre-Adamite “natural” religion. However, the immediate result of Renaissance syncretism was not harmony and world peace but rather the wars of religion and a “blowback” of entrenched dogmatism on all sides.

7

JimV 06.18.15 at 5:08 pm

Axioms (equal rights) don’t have to be justified by a deeper axiom (a creator who wants them) – which in turn has no particular justification. Oppression may work some of the time, and some limited amount of oppression may work all of the time, but not all oppression works, all of the time. So to proclaim equal rights as a basis of government does have empirical justification. Whether any government actually has enforced or will ever enforce equal rights for all its constituents is of course a different question.

8

Plume 06.18.15 at 5:15 pm

Richard @4,

The bible gave us the concept of “social justice”? That would be news to the ancient Chinese, Indians, Babylonians, etc. etc. The code of Hammurabi predates biblical texts by a thousand years, for instance. The bible is largely derivative of far earlier sources, and several other cultures had social justice traditions many centuries before it.

Ancient Greece had its philosophers who dealt with the issue contemporaneously, and ancient Rome the same, with later Jewish thinkers. Just as it would be a mistake to say “philosophy” is some exclusive invention of the Greeks, it’s a mistake to say anything is an exclusive creation or development from the bible. It’s a very big world out there.

9

Stephen 06.18.15 at 5:18 pm

ZM: I am not a lawyer, but I had formed the impression that English common law (the basis of the legal system) was not derived from Roman law, but Scots law (which included things like the torture of suspects) was. Am I wrong?

10

Rich Puchalsky 06.18.15 at 5:18 pm

Consider who “us” is in that sentence. Hint: the sentence of yours that I quoted follows one beginning with “Our particular form of government”. In general, consider that a large majority of the difficultiesthat you have with what other people write may be because of your difficulties with reading comprehension.

11

Plume 06.18.15 at 5:37 pm

Richard @9,

No issue of reading comprehension here, except on your part. We draw from traditions all over the world. To say it was the bible that gave “us” the concept is a major stretch. The founders were very well read for their day and time, and they knew about traditions beyond the Levant, including the cultures I mentioned. Again, they also tended to scoff at and make fun of Christianity, privately. There are very few positive mentions in their letters regarding biblical traditions and texts. They did, however, often mention the Greeks and the Romans, and Asian cultures in general.

12

geo 06.18.15 at 5:51 pm

OP: The Declaration … loses much of its political and historical significance if God is left out.

Why is this? Because unless there is a “maker of the universe, who cares for man’s happiness, gives him the resources to pursue it, and judges the manner in which he does so,” there is no secure ground for the rights enumerated in the Declaration.

From the time of Constantine until roughly the 17th century, most people believed that there was indeed a maker of the universe, who cared for man’s happiness, gave him the resources to pursue it, and judged the manner in which he did so, and that it quite clearly followed from all this that the main duty of mankind was to obey those whom that universe-maker had set in authority over them. To assert the rights enumerated in the Declaration was regarded (and punished) as the grossest impiety, when they were even conceived of. The only — sole, solitary, unique — respect in which being created in the image and likeness of God implied equal treatment for all humans was equal treatment on Judgment Day; and even then, the arbitrary distribution of divine grace (let alone the arbitrary damnation of most of humanity, viz. predestination) meant that we appeared before the Supreme Judge with very different amounts of explaining to do. Sam knows the history of Judaism infinitely better than I do, but in the glory years (centuries) of Christianity, it does not seem to have occurred to very many people that their beliefs were compatible with — let alone provided secure grounds for — the rights enumerated in the Declaration.

In any case, after due consideration of all available evidence over the last several centuries, most educated people, probably including more than 90 percent of all the people whom Sam knows, and I suspect Sam himself, are reasonably sure that there is no maker of the universe who cares for man’s happiness, et cetera. Does this mean that there are no secure grounds for rights? That depends, as dozens of previous Crooked Timber threads have demonstrated at blessed length, on what is meant by “grounds” and what is meant by “rights.” Deontologists believe there are metaphysical grounds for inalienable rights. We pragmatists believe that rights are purely legal, historical, contingent things, and that their ground is solidarity: the quality of moral imagination in virtue of which we perceive that other people think, dream, suffer, and love in very much the same fashion as we ourselves; and, moreover, feel that this entitles them to respect and care.

To Sam, as to Dostoevsky, Leo Strauss, and other critics of the Enlightenment, uncoerced solidarity is a very frail reed on which to base political morality. Well, even we atheist/anarchist/utopian/rationalist radicals agree that having a universe-maker around to consult certainly would simplify things wonderfully. In His/Her apparent absence, the options seem to be: 1) prove that S/He exists after all; 2) pretend that S/He exists and thereby pacify the swinish multitude; or 3) pitch in and try to enhance solidarity.

Come on, Sam — join us!

13

Z 06.18.15 at 6:03 pm

The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. […] People generally don’t fight for “commitments” and “grounds”. For better or for worse, they do fight for what they believe God demands.

They fight because they viscerally believe in something, but what they believe in, and especially the external form of their belief is of secondary importance. Surely you don’t want to deny that many transformative social changes, mobilizing entire societies, happened without any appeal to religion?

Although she establishes the possibility of an “alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves”, she gives no indication what such a ground would be or whether politically significant numbers of people would ever entertain it.

This seems to be phrased in the language of possible alternatives (so the question doesn’t seem to be whether in the actual history of the US declaration of independence, religion was the main ground but whether a politically successful alternative ground is possible at all). If I understood correctly, then aren’t there plenty of obvious answers? Did the Haymarket protesters grounded their protests in religion? Did the French sans-culottes? Did the Spartakists?

14

Plume 06.18.15 at 6:06 pm

It’s always struck me as beyond bizarre that Christians would think of their god as being concerned with our personal happiness and well-being. At least if they read the bible as being literally true. And even if they read it poetically, it takes an amazing amount of energy to get there as well.

The god of the bible slaughters human beings by the tens of millions at the drop of a hat. He commits genocide frequently. He orders genocide frequently. He supports slavery. The Christian telos itself ends in the mass slaughter of billions of human beings. The god of the bible, in a bizarre fit of anger, throws the supposedly first two human beings out into the wilderness for simply eating an apple and being curious . . . this, despite the fact that they’ve never had any parental guidance, teaching, schools, role models, etc. etc. And because he was “disobeyed,” he condemns all women after Eve to give birth in agony, etc. etc. Read Job for another example of this monster’s sadism, and the examples are legion.

Again, it takes an enormous amount of energy and pretzel logic to derive from these stories the concept of a benevolent deity. What is far more obvious is the level of his irrationality and evil. Goddess knows why anyone would deduce Yahweh cares, etc. etc. And that’s not to mention the problem of evil outside Yahweh’s purview. He does nothing about any of that.

I see no way that the Declaration makes a lick of sense if there is a god factoring in. At least not the god of the bible.

15

Harold 06.18.15 at 6:16 pm

Stephen, I think historians now agree that English Common Law is basically rooted in Roman Law and did not arise independently.

16

Tom Gollier 06.18.15 at 8:07 pm

I was struck by the motto ““Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.” That could be the motto of Milton’s Satan. In fact, it really only seems significant if it’s taken in that sense. If tyrant is understood politically and God religiously, it amounts to no more than forsaking the material world for God. Only when God becomes a tyrant, does the need for a Declaration of Independence arise.

17

Harold 06.18.15 at 8:41 pm

Plume, a) reading the Bible literally and interpreting it oneself, without assistance, is a modern (Protestant) heresy. 2) Although not a theist myself, particularly, I see no contradiction between a deity “beyond” human conceptions of good and evil and that same deity supplying human beings with ethical precepts by which to guide their lives.

18

Bruce Wilder 06.18.15 at 8:46 pm

Christians have proven themselves effective bullies. If that is what you think is required to win a fight, I suppose you have an argument. Theists are not, in my experience, often effective egalitarians. Oh, they talk a good game at times, but their image of God is of a king, atop a hierarchically ordered universe. These are the people who gave us the divine right of kings, against which the Declaration was rebellion and revolution. A tactful side-stepping of potential opposition among the religiously inclined, rather than alliance let alone thought leadership is how I would read the Declaration’s references to the Divine.

As for Lincoln, I would note that “under God” made it into the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s most famous remarks on cause of the fight, only after the speech was to be reproduced in written form to raise funds.

19

MJ 06.18.15 at 8:54 pm

All these posts have been most interesting.
Some of the ideas discussed in this edition are the primary theme of Matthew Stewart’s, “Nature’s God; The Heretical Origins of the American Republic”
Stewart goes into great detail on the influences Spinoza had on the thinking of some of the Founders.
http://www.amazon.com/Natures-God-Heretical-American-Republic/dp/0393064549/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1434660283&sr=1-1&keywords=matthew+stewart

20

Plume 06.18.15 at 9:21 pm

Harold,

I think the ethical precepts came down to us despite the three monotheisms of the Levant, not because of them. Boiled down, their idea of morality is to obey the dictator in the sky. Immorality is disobedience.

(Again, there are countering voices throughout, of course. It’s a collection of stories, parables, allegories, myths, etc. etc, written by hundreds, edited and translated by thousands over the centuries. So it’s not possible to be coherent or consistent. But, for the most part, the main theme is obedience.)

From my godless view, the continuum of morality to immorality is basically kindness, compassion, generosity of spirit on to to indifference, cruelty, sadism, etc. etc. The god of the bible is the latter all too often and the former only rarely.

21

yastreblyansky 06.18.15 at 11:05 pm

Sorry, isn’t the expression “nature’s God” explicitly deist? A reference to the purely impersonal source of post-Lockean natural law, the magical thing revealed when “God said, let Newton be, and there was light”? In the “vast chain of being which from God began”. Wikipedia assumes so, for what it’s worth, without seeing a need to argue about it.

The expression certainly comes from Pope’s Essay on Man, but Dr. Google thinks Jefferson’s use of it is derived from the most notorious of deists, Lord Bolingbroke, in his Letter to Pope (it used to be thought that Pope got it from Bolingbroke, but it now appears to be the other way around) or a quotation of Bolingbroke in a commonplace book.

22

Bloix 06.18.15 at 11:40 pm

“the Declaration presumes a personal and providential deity.”

IMHO, the God of the Declaration is a deist God. This is plainly stated in the opening passage, with the reference to Nature and Nature’s God. It is affirmed in the statement that the truths that follow are “self-evident,” that is, disclosed by reason, introspection, and observation, and not by God.

The reference to the endowment of rights by the Creator is not contrary to this reading. Eighteenth-century deists believed in Creation – how could they not? There is no contradiction in the belief that rights arise from the nature of man as created by God, and the belief that the vindication of such rights is entirely a human enterprise, and not by the intervention of God in human affairs.

The references to God in the peroration do appear to be a personal God. The first –
“appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” – is purely rhetorical. It asks God to witness that the signers acted in good faith, but it doesn’t ask him to do anything.

The second – “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”- is more troublesome. It seems to be a statement of a belief that God is on our side. Yet it was possible, in the 18th C, to interpret Divine Providence not as direct intervention in the world, but as the working out of God’s plan through his natural laws.

In any event, the operative provisions of the Declaration do not rely on a personal God. There is no appeal to scripture or revelation, no assertion that the new nation will be a City on a Hill or other Godly construction, no claim to be the instruments of God’s will. There is nothing that would be overly objectionable to a deist and much that a strictly orthodox Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist of the period would have disliked intensely.

23

Shamash 06.19.15 at 12:33 am

Remember that later in life, Jefferson had effontry(!) to edit the New Testament to his own tastes, leaving out all the supernatural acts of Christ. Given that sort of person, I would suspect that the Declaration paid exactly as much lip service to traditional Christianity as it had to in order to get all those signatures at the bottom, and no more should be read into it than that.

24

thehersch 06.19.15 at 12:43 am

Stephen @8 and Harold @14: I’d like to see a reference for either of your claims, Stephen that English common law derives from Scots common law, and Harold that it derives from Roman law. The former assertion is just obviously wrong, and I’ve seen little evidence for the latter, although I am not a student of the subject. Actually, I imagine that the Scottish legal system has a much closer kinship to Roman law than does the English, as Scotland has historically been much more nearly connected to continental Europe than England has been.

25

LFC 06.19.15 at 12:49 am

Z @12 makes what seems to me a key point. People don’t have to be motivated by “a higher power” — in the sense of God — to make sacrifices. They can be motivated by an idea of justice or an idea of History (capital H intentional), to name only a couple of possibilities. (The French, Chinese, and Russian revolutions, e.g., would seem to furnish some examples of these possibilities.) People also obviously can be motivated to make sacrifices by nationalism, patriotism, and a range of other ideologies.

26

LFC 06.19.15 at 12:52 am

p.s. “ideologies” being a neutral synonym here for “worldviews,” “basic beliefs,” etc.

27

Brandon 06.19.15 at 1:02 am

@19

There is nothing that would be overly objectionable to a deist and much that a strictly orthodox Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist of the period would have disliked intensely.

Maybe it’s a question of what counts as ‘strictly orthodox’, but it’s difficult to see why Witherspoon, say, or Sherman, would have signed the document at all unless they could easily read it as being entirely consistent with what they would have considered strictly orthodox Calvinism.

It also seems to me a little dangerous to treat ‘deism’ as a single position rather than a family of positions — when we use it to describe eighteenth-century views, it ends up covering almost any number of views that had a doctrine of creation and regarded miracles as suspect, regardless of the many differences they tended in reality to have.

@20:

Given that sort of person, I would suspect that the Declaration paid exactly as much lip service to traditional Christianity as it had to in order to get all those signatures at the bottom, and no more should be read into it than that.

Perhaps, but that seems to concede an awful lot given that what everyone means by ‘the Declaration’ is not a draft presented to a committee but the document that actually has all the signatures at the bottom.

28

Bruce Webb 06.19.15 at 1:34 am

Well all this seems to ignore the distinction made in the text between God as creator of rights and the People as the originators of the powers of government. That is the Declaration is explicitly NOT “God-given”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People”

‘consent of the governed’, ‘Right of the People’. Nor does that naturally derive from ‘Natural Law’ which as conceived in antiquity and medieval times is anything but democratic.

You get a similar bifurcation in the summartion.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies,”

God here is explicitly a witness and not the authority. In each case the Deity is at one remove from the Authority.

29

UserGoogol 06.19.15 at 1:35 am

It’s worth pointing out that in Jefferson’s original draft the text was “We hold these truths to be sacred and inviolable,” and Benjamin Franklin changed it.

30

Bruce Webb 06.19.15 at 1:42 am

As to the invocation of ‘Nature’s God’, whether you want to see that as Deist or more narrowly Christian, He, She or the FSM is presented as the originator of rights and not in any way the giver of law. At least not this law

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, “

Once again it is the People who are entitled and whom in the next section provide the authority, it is from the People that just powers are derived. God is once again at some remove.

31

floopmeister 06.19.15 at 2:13 am

The founders were very well read for their day and time, and they knew about traditions beyond the Levant, including the cultures I mentioned.

Apparently they also knew what was just under their noses – the Iroquois League:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroquois#Influence_on_the_United_States

While this is certainly contested (and I have little knowledge and marginally less interest in the debates) it would seem that a model federalism existed in at least some form close at hand.

TBH I’m rather glad my own country has no similar founding document – the debate over the Constitution/Declaration texts is too close to the dusty musings of biblical exegesis for my liking. There is more than a whiff of ‘textual idolisation’ to it for those not wrapped up in it. Recent events in a church in Charleston seem once again to plunge the US into a debate over the interpretation of ‘well regulated militia’, for example.

I’m perversely happy that no film cycle will ever be made about the hallowed physicality of the textual basis for my country’s founding intentions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Treasure_(film)

/end partly serious rant

32

Anarcissie 06.19.15 at 2:13 am

Harold 06.18.15 at 8:41 pm @ 15:
‘Plume, a) reading the Bible literally and interpreting it oneself, without assistance, is a modern (Protestant) heresy….’

Obviously, the priesthood of all believers, the theory that every person can interpret the Scriptures for her- or himself, is the foundation or parent of the ideas of universal equal rights and democracy. As far as I know, this concept was unknown in the ancient world, although there is some radically egalitarian talk in the New Testament. (And communism, as well.) It would be interesting to know how it arose in its context.

However, I believe that in the Declaration of Independence, the most reasonable explanation of the ringing-in of God was to make a claim about objective truth, not to summon the Ancient of Days to particularly underwrite the project. This objective truth is ‘self-evident’, not derived by authority and interpretation from revelation, which would be the case if the writers were citing Christian or other theological doctrine. They are not; they are rather putting their political beliefs on the same level as, say, the motions of the planets. Anyone can observe them.

33

ZM 06.19.15 at 2:13 am

Stephen,

“ZM: I am not a lawyer, but I had formed the impression that English common law (the basis of the legal system) was not derived from Roman law, but Scots law (which included things like the torture of suspects) was. Am I wrong?”

I have sworn I will never get into an Internet argument about Scots Law again ;-) .

English Common Law would possibly have origins in or influences from different laws. In Australia I think case law can be cited from other jurisdictions, so that may have been the case in England too in the Middle Ages when the law was being formed (laws before that are laws from time immemorial).

I just know about the Roman law influence on English law from a book called Nature’s Trust by an Oregon legal scholar about the public trust doctrine and climate change. The public trust doctrine entered English and American law from Roman law, and the doctrine holds there are things like air and water which are owned by no one and are to be used by all so the Crown, or in the U.S. the government, has a trust obligation to look after these things for the present and future generations.

A U.S. group called Our Children’s Trust is trying to bring atmospheric trust litigation cases into the courts in the U.S. but it is my understanding that so far they have not got standing.

34

ZM 06.19.15 at 2:19 am

floopmeister,

“TBH I’m rather glad my own country has no similar founding document – the debate over the Constitution/Declaration texts is too close to the dusty musings of biblical exegesis for my liking. “

If you look up Edmund Barton’s annotations of the draft bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia you will see his notes about Moses, Abraham, and Joseph being politicians.

35

floopmeister 06.19.15 at 2:26 am

If you look up Edmund Barton’s annotations of the draft bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia you will see his notes about Moses, Abraham, and Joseph being politicians.

That’s beautiful – had no idea that existed. BTW what struck me most when I looked at it was page 12 where he has underlined the bit about the Senate and the passage of supply bills and then scrawled ‘Deadlock’ in the margin.

Did he predict the Dismissal? :)

36

Jay 06.19.15 at 2:27 am

Intellectually, the Enlightenment project has been dead a long time. Its death is what Nietzsche, Sartre, and in a different way Lovecraft were carrying on about. Life came about by evolution, and evolution programmed us to breed. Like every other organism on the planet, we reliably overpopulate our environment (unless culled) and suffer the resulting catastrophes. Life can’t be the harmonious system of the cosmic clockmaker for long; it just doesn’t work that way.

As war propaganda, the Declaration is a classic. As philosophy, it’s war propaganda.

37

Plume 06.19.15 at 2:31 am

Anarcissie @29,

Not really sure if you’re speaking for believers, or for yourself there. But the protestant concept of personal exegesis of biblical texts, when it came into being in the 16th and 17th century, was far from being any precursor for human rights. Personal exegesis was fine as long as you believed in the basic tenets handed down by protestant churches. They killed non-believers in public, remember. They killed “witches,” etc. They were also, generally speaking, rabidly anti-Semitic, and often violently so. Gross misogyny was the norm. They had slaves, etc.

The ancient Greeks were the main fount of democracy, not the Christian religion or its adherents. And Greek philosophers had been calling for personal questioning of all authority and all hand me down knowledge at least from the time of Socrates, a good 1200 years prior to the protestants.

Christianity gave us some great art, music and literature, but it’s a major stretch to think it positively impacted our form of civics. Its texts were clearly anti-democratic, with few exceptions.

38

John Quiggin 06.19.15 at 3:24 am

I haven’t followed the textual analysis closely, but the conclusion appears to be that only theists can be democrats, or even republicans (in the sense of supporting some form of government by the people).

That seems bizarre. But otherwise we are in the Rawlsian overlapping consensus model, where there are non-theistic routes to the conclusion reached, in the Declaration, by theistic means.

Or maybe I’ve misread the post and there’s something in the Declaration of Independence other than an assertion of the right to self-government, and that depends critically on a deity. What is it?

39

Peter T 06.19.15 at 3:54 am

Note that the phrase is “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. The appeal is to God as the source and guarantor of law – the divine judge. This is one of the most ancient foundations of civilisation, whether as Sumerian city-god whose servant the ruler was (along, of course, with all the others in the city), or Ahura-Mazda who gave rule to the Persian Great King so long as he kept to the Right, or Zeus the Giver of Law, or the Mandate of Heaven. By establishing rule as service, it enabled everyone to get on board. Which is why the first cities everywhere begin as ritual centres, and the first complex societies always start by hauling large rocks to some sacred site.

We may think that we have got beyond this, but if there is no collective purpose to serve, there is nothing but a free-for-all – at best a “big-man” society. Doesn’t have to be God (can be The Nation, or The Coming Utopia, or Gaia, or…). Whatever their differences in belief, the founders knew enough to know that an appeal to self-interest or even to personal altruism was not enough to make a new nation.

40

Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 3:59 am

JQ: “but the conclusion appears to be that only theists can be democrats”

No, I’d say the conclusion is: “So while people can accept the Declaration’s claims about rights for secular reasons, I suspect that those who take its religious elements seriously are more likely to act in the ways necessary to secure them.”

Or, as another way that I might put this, if you accept that racism is the organizing principle of American society from its founding, then you have to confront the fact that all of the effective anti-racist movements have been religious.

41

LFC 06.19.15 at 4:30 am

Acilius @4, whose comment I think had been in moderation so some may not have seen it, is interesting. (Not sure I completely agree — have to think about it — but that’s a separate point.)

@Rich P.: The argument from the OP you’re quoting is an example of the slippage or ambiguity between the U.S.-specific context and a broader context. While it’s true that “Historically, America’s great political movements have made extensive use of religious appeals” that is not nec. the case elsewhere, making a *general* statement about the need for “a higher power” to motivate action and sacrifice v. problematic (see, e.g., Z @13).

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Harold 06.19.15 at 6:36 am

Anarcissie @32 ” the theory that every person can interpret the Scriptures for her- or himself” as “the foundation or parent of the ideas of universal equal rights and democracy. ” Is not obvious to me. Though there may be a connection somewhere.

As far as all this being a new idea — not so much. In his famous funeral oration Pericles is made to say of Athenian law:

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.” — Thucydides (431 BC).

Roman law held that a Roman citizen could not be subject to torture (though this was increasingly honored only in the breech, apparently). The Stoics extended the principle of universalism even to slaves. In the first century, Seneca wrote that:
“There is one short rule that should regulate human relationships. All that you see, both divine and human, is one. We are parts of the same great body. Nature created us from the same source and to the same end. She imbued us with mutual affection and sociability, she taught us to be fair and just, to suffer injury rather than to inflict it. She bid us extend or hands to all in need of help. Let that well-known line [by playwright Terrence (195- 159 BC] be in our heart and on our lips: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto [I am a man and I think nothing human alien to me].”

As far as your second statement about axioms and their being self-evident, this sounds very plausible to me. (God was often depicted as a geometer in this period.)

I have the feeling that if one looked into it, the language both of the Declaration and the Constitution probably echoes well-know law books of the day.

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Chris Bertram 06.19.15 at 7:08 am

It was a pretty standard view up until quite recently that atheists, not fearing divine sanction, could not be trusted to act morally. Locke thought so, as did Rousseau. However it is a pretty silly view to hold given the evidence about how theists and atheists actually behave, and Bayle iirc, among others, pointed this out. The view of the OP that, absent religiously-based reasons, agents only have prudential reasons for acting morally is simply dogmatic assertion. People care about other things than their own good, and, for other than psychopaths, those things include the good of others. Obviously there are volumes more to be said, including about what people have reason to care about as well as what they do, but simply to assert a Hobbes/Spinoza line on motivation won’t do.

44

maidhc 06.19.15 at 7:25 am

The Declaration of Independence was the justification for rebellion. It must therefore stand opposed to the divine right of kings, because under the divine right of kings there is no justification for rebellion. Therefore rights must proceed from some other source.

The “self-evident” bit makes me think of Descartes and Galileo. Interesting that it was Franklin that put it in.

The development of the British constitution is a long series of various monarchs agreeing to give up bits of their absolute power, starting with King John and the Magna Carta that just had its 800th anniversary. Until that time the divine right of kings was theoretically absolute (except maybe for the Pope). But behind that is a memory that under old Germanic law going back to pagan times, freeborn men had certain rights that the ruler could not take away. I believe that, under Roman law, citizens had certain rights, and the same in classical Athens. (I’m not an expert in any of those areas.)

So there’s kind of a background to the idea of inborn human rights. It’s not Christian particularly, although I suppose you could say one has the right not to have one’s wife coveted and so on. But I think the Declaration is one of the first places where it gets prominently advanced as a legal point.

This is a different argument than has existed before. This is not “we’re going to back a different claimant for the throne because we want the spoils” and it’s not “we’re going to demand concessions from the king” like Wat Tyler. This is an attempt to claim that a rebellion is legally justified. It’s a bit hand-wavey, but it’s not bad for a first attempt. When you get into the list of grievances it’s a bit one-sided and simplistic, but it is a kind of propaganda document.

I suppose one of the purposes is to get the King of France on board. He’s going to say “why should I support these rebellious subjects against one of my brother monarchs?”, and here’s the argument all laid out. Of course once the principle had been established, the King of France turned out to be the next one in line. Then next comes Napoleon (just had the 200th anniversary of Waterloo as well).

Once the rebellion succeeded, the Declaration had served its purpose and essentially became a historical document, although the Constitution certainly shows its influence, particularly the Bill of Rights. So whether it referred to God or not, it doesn’t affect the current US system of government directly.

In furthering this discussion, I think a couple of additional topics would be interesting. Did the Articles of Confederation (which came between independence and the “more perfect union” of the Constitution) make any reference to divine power? Also, did the constitution of the Confederacy (which owed more to the Articles of Confederation) do so?

I suppose I could research this myself, but I’m hoping that someone who’s smarter than me will weigh in.

45

Peter T 06.19.15 at 7:46 am

Divine right meant different things at different times, but it never included an absolute right to rule as one wished. Almost all kings took an oath to rule by the laws and customs, do right by their subjects and take counsel. The Declaration of Independence echoes, for instance, the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) in its appeals to both God and the rights of the community (and the wrongs inflicted by their opponent):

http://www.nas.gov.uk/downloads/declarationArbroath.pdf

46

bill benzon 06.19.15 at 8:31 am

Off-topic (sorry) but…

@Rich Puchalsky, #40: “Or, as another way that I might put this, if you accept that racism is the organizing principle of American society from its founding, then you have to confront the fact that all of the effective anti-racist movements have been religious.”

I’ve been wondering if the recent environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, will have an effect that other attempts at moral suasion have not. We’ll see.

However, though I do not think one must be a religious believer to take the Declaration seriously, I do think the theological staging of that document is VERY important and I’m wondering if that staging is somehow related to the fact that modern Americans are more religious than Europeans. I argued this awhile back inSalvation and Democracy, or How One’s Personal Relationship with Christ Underwrites Governmental Legitimacy. Here’s a passage:

How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, I suggest, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends. To understand this, however, we need to push beyond political doctrine, which is mere abstract theory, perhaps not even that. It is ideology. We need a sense of concrete social practices that make such ideology real.

I got a glimpse of those practices from Deborah V. McCauley’s Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (1995). This religion is an intense fundamentalist Christianity organized into small congregations housed in modest churches. These churches protect and promote a mode of religious experience that is foreign to highly educated secular humanists comfortable with the impersonality of urban life. The services are intensely emotional and promote an intimate and personal fellowship between the participants.

The central experience in these mountain churches is salvation through conversion, which has been the central experience of Protestant revivalism since the seventeenth century. In McCauley’s view “conversion breaks through the dominant status order by moving those who become part of a new or separate membership group beyond the control of the prevailing power structure at a basic level of identity.” That “dominant status order” is simply the network of public and private institutions that impinge on the local group from the outside. For someone who has been saved, identity is purely a function of the local religious community. Christian doctrine and stories couple this identity to the larger rhythms of the cosmos while local fellowship gathers the those rhythms to the sensible world.

The Appalachian churches McCauley studied make up a relatively small portion of America’s churches. But many of their attitudes and organizational motifs quite common elsewhere. In particular, their centrifugal and strongly localist organizational style is wide-spread among fundamentalist denominations. This contrasts to the strong hierarchical structure characteristic of the Catholic or Episocopal churches. The world of Protestant fundamentalism is one of local congregations of varying scope cross cut by an extensive but loose web of revivals, conferences, and loose affiliations with Bible schools and colleges. As such, these congregations can serve as a concrete social mechanism for the bottom-up legitimization Jefferson’s doctrine demands.

47

maidhc 06.19.15 at 8:36 am

More on Napoleon. Only indirectly concerned with this discussion:
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/waterloo-and-the-end-of-napoleonic-war.html

48

Harold 06.19.15 at 8:52 am

Chris Bertram @ 43,
Rousseau may have held the prevailing view that atheists were not to be trusted, but wasn’t the character of Julie’s husband M. de Wolmar, in La Nouvelle Heloise meant to demonstrate that an atheist could be perfectly virtuous?

49

Chris Bertram 06.19.15 at 9:45 am

@Harold yes that’s right, though he is cold and unfeeling. I’m not sure what R would have said re consistency. Possibly that Wolmar is exceptional and that the common folk need religion to act morally.

50

Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 11:51 am

LFC: “The argument from the OP you’re quoting is an example of the slippage or ambiguity between the U.S.-specific context and a broader context. “

While I think that it’s questionable that Americans should care about the Declaration, I certainly don’t see why anyone else should, or why anyone should take it as a worldwide model rather than as an expression of American culture. So I regard the slippage to the broader context as a bad idea and I’m not trying to defend it.

51

bianca steele 06.19.15 at 12:16 pm

@45

Presumably the promise to do so was a condition of support from the church for the state, going back to Charlemagne’s time, at least, when the king needed it.

I frankly don’t see how concern for getting into Heaven–or a sense of personal sanctity– at the expense of human concerns could be considered unselfish. The idea of religion as a prop for morality sounds reasonable right up to the point where there’s a difference between the two.

Nature’s God, though, is presumably the God of the geometers and of Einstein (and pre-Darwinian).

52

ZM 06.19.15 at 12:27 pm

floopmeister,

“BTW what struck me most when I looked at it was page 12 where he has underlined the bit about the Senate and the passage of supply bills and then scrawled ‘Deadlock’ in the margin.

Did he predict the Dismissal? :)”

Thank you for pointing that out — it is interesting as it would seem to demonstrate that the founding fathers of Federation purposefully made the Senate able to vote down bills voted by the House of Representatives.

This is not the case in the UK — although I am not sure from what date. In the UK the House of Commons very trickily got a rule made that any money bills were the responsibility of the House of Commons alone so the House of Lords can’t vote them down.

From this the UK House of Commons then extrapolated that every bill that goes before parliament in some way relates to money — effectively leaving the House of Lords toothless when it comes to voting against anything whatsoever the House of Commons votes for.

(at least that is my understanding. If commenters from the UK think that I am wrong about this then they can explain the role of the House of Commons and the House of Lords with regard to the House of Lords being able to vote against bills that the House of Commons voted for with or without regard to money)

53

Peter T 06.19.15 at 12:47 pm

bianca

No the formulas are very old – pagan Swedish kings swore to rule “med rads rade” (with the council’s counsel). In any complex society, rule has to be justified by something other than power, and that something always has a moral component, usually divinely sanctioned.

54

kidneystones 06.19.15 at 1:08 pm

28@ 30@ You have a very unusual way of interpreting the multiple references to a deity that populate the Declaration text you cite.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

“…to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

Contrast this text with that of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson also had a hand in shaping, and which conforms much more to the the interpretation you assign the Declaration:

“The representatives of the French people, constituted as a National Assembly, and considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and governmental corruption, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man: so that by being constantly present to all the members of the social body this declaration may always remind them of their rights and duties; so that by being liable at every moment to comparison with the aim of any and all political institutions the acts of the legislative and executive powers may be the more fully respected; and so that by being founded henceforward on simple and incontestable principles the demands of the citizens may always tend toward maintaining the constitution and the general welfare. In consequence, the National Assembly recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and the citizen…”

The passage: “In the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being” explicitly places a deity at some remove from the process of a government made by man. The Supreme Being is a witness to, rather than author of, the declaration by the National Assembly.

The text of the Declaration argues that “they [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” The operative term here is “by their Creator.”

What is meant by this passage “endowed by their Creator”? Tom Paine’s reply to Burke (1791 pp.49-50) offers a some clues: “Every history of the creation, and of every traditionary [sic] account, whether from the lettered or unlettered world, however they may vary in their opinion or belief of certain particulars, all agree in establishing one point, the unity of man; by which I mean, that all men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation, the latter being only the mode by which the former is carried forward. and consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.”

Lafayette and his co-authors, assisted by Jefferson and others, had a different audience and a different constituency to satisfy. To my mind the two documents read very differently, while guaranteeing similar freedoms and rights. What is absent in the language of the preamble to the Droits is present in the text of the Declaration for good reasons, many of which have been identified by other commenters. God bestows certain inalienable rights upon man, first among them equality. These rights are passed down over generations in much the same way as Original Sin. From this first God-given right to equality proceeds the right to form political organizations and those other rights required to preserve and protect the God-given right to equality. Those of no, or lukewarm, faith can live with the language because the rights to liberty and property and equality are explicitly guaranteed. Those of faith find the language they need to sign the document.

55

Plume 06.19.15 at 1:11 pm

Chris @43,

But wouldn’t a Locke or a Rousseau, today, in 2015, have very different views of atheism? I think it’s safe to say they might be atheists themselves, or at least quite “tolerant” of them. When there is near absolute pressure from society to take religious belief very seriously as the only norm, it’s incredibly difficult for even the brightest, most independent minds to break free from that. Similar to how people once felt about race in America. Even the supposedly progressive Lincoln thought it was the right thing to do to ship all the slaves away, once they were emancipated . . . and held this view until roughly two years before his death — at least according to Eric Foner. Virtually all the anti-slavery movement of his time was basically in that same camp. That slavery was horrible, that blacks should be freed, but that they still wanted a white-dominated country and the slaves sent elsewhere. Abolitionists and radical democrats were of a different view, but decidedly in a minority, and routinely attacked for wanting freed slaves to stay and gain equal rights, etc. etc.

Anyway . . . . I’m guessing that in a different age the founders of this country would have been far less inclined to include any mention of any divinity in any way, shape or form, even to pay lip-service, if not for the massive pressure from all corners to do so. Someone who is “tolerant” of many religious views in the 18th century is probably an atheist today, or at least agnostic.

56

Anarcissie 06.19.15 at 1:40 pm

Harold 06.19.15 at 6:36 am @ 42 —
The Greeks of Pericles’ time practiced and justified slavery, so I have to doubt that Pericles was talking about equality in the same sense as the religious radicals of the early modern period. (Pace Abraham Lincoln, one must say the same of Locke and Jefferson, but they were later and less radical.) The radicals as well not only assumed the right to question the status of persons but the proper formulation of the social order (for them, as given by the Bible). The part about the Stoics is interesting, but fire-eating words like ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek; he hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away’ would have had more effect, I think. Curious that they laid inert for centuries, though.

57

kidneystones 06.19.15 at 1:44 pm

@37 This comment is appalling even by your generally abysmal standards and fails to rise to the level of lay ignorance. You make so many false claims and errors it’s a real challenge to know where to start. There may well have been a great many atheists in the 15th and 16th century dedicated to civil rights and equality. I know of none. My own students, however, are introduced to Levellers, Ranters, and other Protestant sects dedicated to individual liberty, equality, and religions freedom. Asa Gray and countless other Christians played key roles in propagating Darwin’s theory of evolution, and did a far better job of it than Morse and Spenser, the father of social darwinism.

Protestant reformers, such as that famous born-again Christian crank: William Wilberforce and his allies in Christ managed to accomplish something no enlightenment philosopher ever managed to do: end slavery. The abolition movement in the US is the story of Christians, mostly Protestants, risking life and limb to bring religion to slaves, and then use religion to bring slaves to freedom. This work was not done by American Atheists. How about some non-Christian cranks? Gandhi, for example. Good thing he’s not around to cause trouble, but that other notorious defender of opponent of freedom: the Dahlia Lama still is. Returning to Protestants – just think of all the damage the Rev. Martin Luther King did during his time, or the different Protestant American churches and the role they played in bringing Jim Crow to an end. Would Ben Franklin have adopted an anti-slavery position late in life without the influence of abolitionist Quakers? God damn those Protestants and the damage they’ve done.

Atheists would have ended slavery, and Jim Crow, if those pesky Christians hadn’t got there first.

58

Plume 06.19.15 at 1:58 pm

kidneystones @57,

Go team Christian go!!!

For every Christian you can name who made a positive contribution to human rights, civil rights, etc. etc. I can name thousands who slaughtered their fellow human beings in the name of their evil ogre god. I can name tens of thousands who tortured their fellow human beings in the name of the genocidal madman they worship. I can name millions who crushed the spirits of gay people, women and a host of minorities and drove their fellow human beings to suicide. I can name millions who engaged in pogroms against the Jews, and slaughtered the innocent to and from the Crusades.

As for “ending slavery.” Your religion was used to justify its existence for centuries, and “good Christians” engaged in worldwide torture, killing and enslavement of indigenous populations by the millions, in the name of their murderous, hate-filled god.

Cherry picking a few good eggs in a seas of century upon century of atrocity doesn’t make your case.

59

Plume 06.19.15 at 2:02 pm

Beyond that, did those people do “good” because they were Christians, or because they were just good people? I’m betting on the latter. I’m betting that if they worshiped tuna in a can they’d do the same, or if they had absolutely no superstitious beliefs whatsoever.

As Steven Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

60

Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 2:22 pm

People who speak nonsense like that have not undergone a change in being and realized that religion really is (and always was) a functional, metaphorical expression of what is essentially a wordless process — however much the theologies are twisted by the unknowing, to commit crimes. Wittgenstein (far wiser than Weinberg) wrote:

“Christianity [W. was a convert] is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.”

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kidneystones 06.19.15 at 2:22 pm

@ 58. You’re even denser and more bigoted than I originally surmised. When exactly do you think slavery originated? How widespread was/is it? Do you think Vikings took slaves to appease Thor, or for profit? Do you know anything at all about native American slave practices?

The fact is, slavery has been around since at least our first texts, more or less, and almost certainly likely preceded texts. It was a function of profit, and in some cases voluntary self-preservation, as an alternative to starving to death. Christianity, in particular, began in large part as a religion practiced by slaves. You’re in the middle of some sort of fit and I assume just about everyone here is far more familiar with the facts than you, so I’d suggest you go read a book or two and try to calm down.

I recommend Mungo Park’s 1796 “discovery” of the Niger. You’re on firmer ground here, at least. Park’s very widely read text includes a matter-of-fact account of slavery in Africa, an account I believe probably had as much to do with changing minds as anything by Wilberforce. Plus, it’s a great read. You can download copy from Google books.

Here’s Gray’s 1860 Atlantic review of the Origin in full here. (Off-topic, I know),
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1860/07/darwin-on-the-origin-of-species/304152/

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Plume 06.19.15 at 2:28 pm

kidneystones @61,

I’ve studied comparative religion and myth since I was a kid. It’s been more than four decades now of research, observation and reflection. I’ve read countless books on the subject.

And I never even remotely implied that slavery came out of Christianity. I said Christianity was used to justify it for centuries. While you’re cherry picking your books, you might want to find one on reading comprehension and take heed.

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kidneystones 06.19.15 at 2:40 pm

@62. When exactly was Christianity first used to justify slavery, why, and in which languages, four decades of research, observation and reflection?

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Plume 06.19.15 at 2:42 pm

Lee @60,

The main problem kicks in when people ascribe to one and only one religion a process that occurs for people in thousands of different faiths, spread around the globe and throughout time. The main problem kicks in when people actually believe their faith is the one and only faith, and that everyone else is lesser or even evil for not adhering to their particular brand name.

For thousands and thousands of years, people have been experiencing the mysteries of faith and its impact on the body and mind, and it makes no difference if one worships Athena, Kali, Odin, Astarte, Jesus, etc. etc. From the religions of Africa, to Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, et al . . . . for thousands and thousands of years, the same effects have been noted by countless witnesses, regardless of the name of the chosen one or higher being.

And modern science teaches us that there is no difference in the way the brain perceives these things, even if one just meditates successfully, and has no “higher power” in mind. And the same feeling also appears for humans when they see a beautiful sunrise, hear the laughter of children, hold a loved one’s hand, etc. etc. We all reach “spiritual heights” in thousands of different ways, and ascribing this to just one particular religion, or father-god, or any name you might want to use, has had catastrophic consequences throughout world history. When we humans learn the root of these sudden or sustained transformations — that they have nothing whatsoever to do with any actually existing higher being, and are available to virtually 100% of the population — we will move a long way toward peace, love and understanding.

As long as we actually believe in the exclusive domain, dominion or place of one religion over another, we will never get there. Never. We will eternally be divided and at war.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 2:53 pm

kidneystones @63,

Slavery was the norm in the bible. The Ten Commandments tell us not to covet thy neighbor’s slave. The genocidal madman of the bible tells his chosen ones to enslave populations they conquer — especially if they’re virgins — and he never condemns the institution.

Old and New Testament support slavery. Here’s just one example:

They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9).

You can find a much longer list here, Biblical verses used by slave-masters to justify slavery

If you study the Civil War, you can find countless examples of Southern slaveholders citing the bible to support their atrocities, etc. This was the case in Europe as well. Check the names of the slave ships for another indication.

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ZM 06.19.15 at 2:54 pm

“As long as we actually believe in the exclusive domain, dominion or place of one religion over another, we will never get there. Never. We will eternally be divided and at war.”

No offence Plume, but you are being as exclusionary with your anti-faith perspective as anyone who proclaims their faith is the only true one. A lovely Hindu nun recently bought and planted many flowers in the Catholic Church grotto here, which is a better example of peace, love, and understanding, than saying no one can have any religion.

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SG 06.19.15 at 3:02 pm

I thank all the posters for their responses. Although I doubt we’ll all agree, I want to address a few issue that came up in multiple comments:

1) Several commenters disagreed with my interpretation because Jefferson and probably Franklin were deists. That’s true, and has to be taken into account. But in my view it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the Declaration. That’s because I agree with Allen that the Declaration has to be read as a work of collective writing, rather than expression of one or a few author’s intention. The document that emerged from the process of drafting, revision, and debate is clearly more theistic than Jefferson’s original draft. By pointing this out, I think I’m adhering to Allen’s hermeneutic principle more rigorously than does in the book.

It’s also worth remembering that Jefferson’s deism was somewhat unusual, even by the standards of his collaborators. Franklin may have shared something Jefferson’s naturalism, but he took a utilitarian view of religion’s social function. Adams had doubts about miracles, but was basically a liberal congregationalist. Roger Sherman was an orthodox calvinist. I know little about Robert Livingston, but believe him to have been a fairly relaxed Anglican.

The bottom line is that this was not a group likely to base its argument on Enlightenment natural religion. And that’s just the committee of five–the continental congress included many conventional believers and few serious churchmen, such as John Witherspoon, who would not have signed if they thought the Declaration was in any way contrary to Christianity.

2) Other commenters took me to be arguing that only a Christian, or at least a theist, can accept the Declaration. John Quiggin @38 says, the “…conclusion appears to be that only theists can be democrats, or even republicans.”According to Chris Bertram @43, I claim that “absent religiously-based reasons, agents only have prudential reasons for acting morally…”

I don’t claim either of these things. On the contrary, I say: “There have been many individuals who defended the principles of the Declaration without accepting the kind of theology I’ve outlined here…Individuals are capable of believing almost anything for almost any reason—and even of acting on that basis.”

The Spinoza (not so much Hobbes) argument about prudence is Allen’s, not mine. In “Our Declaration”, she says: “…when any given group finds a way to survive that does not endanger the survival of anyone else, we should respect their right to organize their survival for themselves. We ought to respect these forces of nature because, if we try to fight them, we will generally do ourselves more harm than good. If we do not respect the rights of others to organize their survival for themselves…we will bring war on ourselves and so jeopardize our own projects of survival.” (134) Like Chris, I think this is a very weak argument. That’s why I suggest that a theistic interpretation make the Declaration much more coherent, even though it won’t satisfy everyone.

What I am also saying is that the philosophical, psychological, and “political” questions about the relation between God and rights are not the same. Yes, you can construct coherent (although not very compelling IMO) arguments for rights that make no reference to God. Yes, people act morally (broadly speaking) for all sorts of reasons. But I am skeptical about the possibility of building a political community around the rights identified in the Declaration without appealing to religion. As George Scialabba @12 observes, that is one of the reasons I’m a vaguely Straussian conservative, while many contributors and commenters at Crooked Timber are progressives are various stripes.

3) George and others point out that the idea that God wants human beings to govern themselves was pretty much unheard until around 400 years ago. You can find support for it in the Old Testament, if you look. Contrary to many commenters’ assumptions about the Bible’s endorsement of royal authority, check out what Samuel has to say about kings at 1 Samuel 8. But it’s true that no one paid much attention to these passages until they were recovered by Calvinists in the 17th century.

But I don’t see why this is a problem for my interpretation. The Declaration does not appeal to the God of Constantine, or Aquinas, or Luther. Rather, it invokes a naturalized version of the Calvinist interpretation of the God of Israel. This kind of God is a theological novelty. Nevertheless, that’s the God in whom many of the signers and the publics they were addressing believed.

If no such God exists, I’m not sure the Declaration *as written* makes a lot of sense. Do other readers want to argue that it does?

4) Finally, several commenters challenge my claim that the Declaration treats God as the “ultimate authority” for politics. I should have been clearer about this. Like the covenant theology on which it draws, the Declaration treats politics as a kind of two step. First, God gives people rights. Then people establish (or remove) governments to secure those rights. The right to rule is derived directly from the people and only indirectly from God.

I was alluding to this structure when I called God the “ultimate authority”. The idea is that divine will creates the matter of politics: rights-bearing individuals. And divine providence provides some assurance that those individuals will ultimate get what they deserve. But this can only be achieved in and through human activity. Human beings enact God’s intentions when they govern themselves.

That’s why the phrase “Supreme Judge of the World” is not purely rhetorical. The Declaration is asking God to assess whether colonists’ actions are proper and whether their motives are appropriate. In this sense, I think it’s reasonable to say that God is the authority for politics. But perhaps we can quibble about the wording.

I hope that clears some points on which I was more cryptic than I should have been. Also, I apologize for the several typos in the original post, which are entirely my fault. Neither God nor Nature has endowed me with any ability as a proofreader.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 3:05 pm

ZM @66,

I never said “no one can have any religion.” Far, far from it. Not sure how you derived that from what I wrote. The problem kicks in when someone puts theirs above all others, or says there is no other faith but theirs.

I’m more than fine with robust pluralism. I think it’s healthy. The problem is domination.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 3:18 pm

SG @67,

But which god is giving humans rights, and which rights? The god of Leviticus and Deuteronomy who condemns his chosen people to death for eating shellfish, working on Saturdays, wearing mixed fabrics, planting more than one crop in the field, talking back to parents, or failing to scream out loudly enough when raped in the city?

Which god is giving humans which rights? The god who slaughtered every human on the planet sans eight? The god who ordered Joshua to slaughter everyone, men, women and children, in Jericho for simply not accepting his divine sovereignty? The god who, when the Second Coming hits, will slaughter at least five billion humans for not worshiping him, and condemn them all to hell?

It takes enormous amounts of selective reading, and a good bit of mass amnesia, to come within light years of seeing the Declaration as connected with the Levantine god. It just defies all logic and common sense. If one wants to find the most oppositional being imaginable to any form of government based on self-rule and democracy, they need look no further than the god of the bible.

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SG 06.19.15 at 3:24 pm

Well, I’d say that all interpretations of the Bible are selective. There’s a lot going on in there, including many sources from different periods. For an historical account of why people thought the OT, in particular, taught republicanism, you might start with Eric Nelson, “The Hebrew Republic” and Eran Shalev, “American Zion”. Nelson focuses on the 16-17th centuries in Holland and Britain; Shalev concentrates on the American reception and modification of these ideas.

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Anarcissie 06.19.15 at 3:25 pm

SG 06.19.15 at 3:02 pm @ 67:
‘If no such God exists, I’m not sure the Declaration *as written* makes a lot of sense. Do other readers want to argue that it does?’

Sure. I already wrote that I thought the mention of God by the authors was simply an appeal to objective truth, which is made explicit by the term ‘self-evident’. One sees the rhetorical strategy all over, when the speaker feels that ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I am convinced that’ isn’t strong enough — one claims that the whole universe and its supposed creator supports one’s ideas. But one could decide that Nature, absent any sort of God-person, mandated the cardinal rights, or simply agree that there was no other way for willful, intelligent, aggressive beings such as humans to get along without killing one another.

And this is a good thing, because no one really knows what God is or means.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 3:26 pm

Plume @64,

1. Your first two paragraphs are not what Weinberg said, are they? He’s talking about all religion, period.

2. As to the rest, actually science has NOTHING valid to say, so far, about whether there are differences in consciousness that provide new emotional and intellectual insight (except at low levels in psychiatry). Nor does science have anything valid to say about whether all of these experiences are the ‘same”.

I write “so far”, because neuroimaging studies may begin to change that. What the outcome will be, however, is certainly not predetermined.

As to whether there is an external higher being flying around like Santa Claus, I doubt it. But it should be also very clear that:

1. “God” is not only “a concept by which we measure our pain” (Lennon), but also a concept which works functionally to call oneself from outside oneself, which anybody in AA can explain to you.

2. The notion of the scientific alternative, e.g. an evolutionary explanation of the rise of perception and consciousness, including the development of rationality, mathematics, and logic, runs into extreme explanatory difficulty at our current stage of science, because self-reference becomes a logical issue, and because the source of mathematical creation is non-algorithmic (Gödel’s theorem), yet algorithm is a requirement of scientific explanation.

3. A scientific explanation of the universe may therefore be required to admit another metaphysical principle (in addition to the metaphysical ideas of mathematics, particles, fields, forces, whatever) which might look a lot like Leibniz’ monads, as Whitehead and Gödel both concluded. And if there is a central monad?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 3:33 pm

There’s also the question of whether all the New Atheists are making any plans to pay for getting everybody into secular psychotherapy at $200 an hour. Do you have any idea of the OPPORTUNITY COST of religion?

Not to mention how secure and well-founded the principles of psychotherapy are…

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 3:35 pm

SG @ 67: For my part I did not mean to disagree with your interpretation “because Jefferson and Franklin were deists” but because the text of the Declaration is deist, referring in precise language from the 1730s to an intentionless god from whom nature and natural law simply flow, not particularly different philosophically from the concept we now have of the Big Bang.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 3:37 pm

SG,

Thanks for the book recs. Will check them out.

IMO, religions are merely the organizing mechanisms for people who would do these things regardless. A different organizing mechanism in place, they’d do the same progressive things — if they are, indeed, progressive. It’s what’s at hand. And because the bible is a collection of things written by hundreds of different people, edited and translated by thousands, we can certainly find useful things here and there . . . . but that can be said for pretty much every ancient text, religiously based or not.

An analogy:

A group gathers around the centralizing idea of cooking. In this case, this brings together all kinds of progressive folks who extend their activism beyond cooking itself. They successfully alter laws and various conditions for their community in a very humane way. But because they gathered together at first because of the cooking, they don’t ascribe to it what they’ve done.

In a parallel universe, the same group gathers around the centralizing idea of Athena. This brings together all kinds of progressive folks and their activism extends, etc. etc. etc. Like the above example, they get new laws passed and improve conditions for their community. But because they gathered around the centralizing idea of Athena, they ascribe their success to her. They believe they did this because of her.

It’s not cooking or Athena or the god of the bible that did any of this. It’s the folks who gathered together, etc. etc.

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Corey Robin 06.19.15 at 3:43 pm

The notion that the generation of 1776 might have looked to the Hebrew Bible as a warrant for republicanism and anti-monarchical thinking shouldn’t sound so strange. I assume we can turn to Paine’s Common Sense as a trusted source:

“All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form….

“Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honour, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of Heaven.

“Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. The history of that transaction is worth attending to.”

Which Paine then attends to. At some length.

http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/sense3.htm

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 3:43 pm

Pope Francis just came out with an encyclical on climate change, ecology and inequality that that is one of the very few documents which addresses, in its own way but quite clearly, BOTH of the fundamental problems underlying them all: 1. the uncertainty of the complex system and the fact that this is NO excuse for inaction, and 2. the social cognitive bias which keeps reverting to the status quo.

So, two questions:

How did the POPE end up being rhetorically more comprehensive than any scientist or economist, on these issues?

Do you have to believe in God to take Laudato si’ seriously?

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SG 06.19.15 at 3:43 pm

yastreblyansky @74 That is possibly true of the language in the first sentence. I don’t think it’s true of natural rights passage (although we perhaps could argue about what “Creator” means). I’m pretty sure that isn’t for the references to the “Supreme Judge” and “Divine Providence”. My interpretation is based on the assumption (which I share with Allen) that these statements, which were added by groups including more conventionally religious members, have to be taken into consideration. Again, I don’t think the likes of Adams, Sherman, or Witherspoon would have signed on if it were *just* deism.

There’s also an important distinction to be made between deism–“an intentionless god from whom nature and natural law simply flow”–and natural theism, which involves an intentional creator, but excludes miracles, revelation, etc. The Declaration is clearly compatible with natural theism, which was a popular and pretty respectable view in the 18th century. Outright deism was another matter…

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 3:46 pm

Also, Adams was not a “liberal congregationalist” but a radical Unitarian, who thought of God in deistic terms as a “great Principle” and found the concept of the Incarnation disgusting, an “awful blasphemy”, as he wrote to Jefferson in January 1825:

The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by Jews [that’s the Europeans’ prejudice-tainted view, not Adams’s]. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 3:47 pm

Lee A. Arnold: “How did the POPE end up being rhetorically more comprehensive than any scientist or economist, on these issues?”

Not to derail the thread, but have you kept up with what’s happened to any scientist who speaks about this without limiting themselves to statements of strictly supported science? I think that might give you a good idea of why the Pope can be rhetorically more comprehensive and scientist’s can’t. (As for economists, well, they are trained to regard the status quo as the condition of lack of social cognitive bias, and anything varying from that as being questionable.)

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 3:49 pm

Sure, the Declaration is compatible with natural theism and indeed is meant, I’m sure, to be compatible with any religion, but I thought you were arguing that it requires some theistic belief.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 3:52 pm

Lee,

Yes, recent science has shown that our brain waves are virtually the same, effected in the same way, regardless of the supposed higher power at issue. Again, they’ve tracked this for people who are serious adepts of meditational forms as well.

And, to me, this is perfectly logical. I had an epiphany of sorts at age nine, after reading world mythologies. It hit me like a ton of bricks that the sheer multiplicity of religious faiths through the ages proves no one religion can possibly be the one and only. Knowing as we do that religious adepts all over the world and through time have experienced a certain form of ecstatic reaction to belief tells us that there is nothing unique about any of them. The oracle at Delphi was every bit as much in touch with the divine — as she saw it — as any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Shaman, etc. etc. African religions, Asian religions, European, the Americans . . . . on and on and on . . . there is no difference on that score. The names are different, the rituals are different, but the concept is the same.

In general, I think the East has long understood this far better than the West, as many of its “Ways” practice this communion daily, with no necessary recourse to “worshiping” any higher being. And mystics East and West do away with the names altogether, for the most part . . . . realizing the “goal” or “not-goal” is to achieve oneness with the all. They burst through the named gates, the labels, the exclusive clubs, the members only gatherings, and flee those chains. They realize the names are just shortcuts for the ineffable, and that non-mystics all too often block themselves from that All because they remain with the names . . . . They stop well short of going through the gate.

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kidneystones 06.19.15 at 3:53 pm

@ 65 Thanks for the link and the worthy attempt to respond. Grade – F. You provide a wholly inadequate response to part 1 of the assigned question and make no attempt to answer parts 2, and 3.

Comment: “Slavery was the norm in the bible.” 0/10. Should read “Slavery was the norm at the time the Bible was compiled.”

Your bigotry is very sadly evident to any fair-minded reader. You’re not alone in fearing faith and confusing religion and spirituality.

A couple of points, I don’t know how much you know about Hawkins, but the Jesus of Lubeck was his second ship, not his first. I don’t recall any use of Christianity to justify copying Portuguese slavers in grabbing unfortunate Africans. Hawkins’ account is available online and is instructive for many reasons, not the least of which is the notable absence of any discussion on the morality of taking slaves. Hawkins had little success capturing slaves until he found a local chief willing to work with Hawkins to defeat a rival chief. He and Hawkins formed a pragmatic partnership to defeat the rival, enslave the population, and split the captives, which Hawkins subsequently sold. Hawkins returned to England with the profits and informed the crown. Investors in London thought the scheme eminently worthwhile and formed a company to provide Hawkins with better funding and a bigger ship. Elizabeth, of course, was the Supreme Authority of the Church of England, so strictly speaking we could say that the Church of England was responsible for the foundation of the English Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. But that crude reading of history seems to me inaccurate and of little use. I recall that Elizabeth got a quarter share of the profits, but that’s from memory. I agree there’s a tremendous irony in story of Elizabeth providing Hawkins with the ship, but I expect you find something sinister in that coincidence.

I don’t know how many Christian theologians you’ll find justifying the slave trade prior to the 1700s because so few people generally objected to slavery, at least that I’m aware of. One guide I use with my students is the visual record. It’s extremely difficult to find any images of slavery prior to 1600. I’d have to double-check, but I think the first occur in a Dutch book about Islamic slavers, and perhaps Portuguese slavers. The message of these images isn’t that slavery is bad, but that the slavers of nation X treat slaves very badly. William Blake’s late 18th century illustration’s of Stedman are enigmatic, to say the least.

My own limited understanding is that Christian apologies for the trans-Atlantic slave trade entered the public domain as a response, in kind, to attacks on the slave trade by Christian abolitionists, attacks which began in earnest after 1700. These took the form of pamphlets. The absence of any/many pre-1800 depictions of slavery suggests to me that very few people say any reason to produce the images. There are images, I believe of Christians taken as slaves in north Africa, and of Christians taken as slaves by North American Indians. There was an enormous market for captivity narratives, such as Mary Rowlandson’s, one early edition featured illustrations.

There is no question that a great many Christians profited from the labor of slaves, in much the same way that non-Christians profited and profit today from inequalities in trade agreements. One third of the US economy relied directly, I believe, on the slave trade, as did much of the economy of cities such as Liverpool. The Christian churches have a lot to answer for, but trying to hang slavery on people of faith in general, and Protestants in particular, seems to me both venal and wrong. World history teaches us that folks don’t require religion to slaughter one another. We just seem to keep doing it cause that’s what we keep doing, whether for money, self-justification, out of fear, or for fun. Religion’s just another excuse.

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Harold 06.19.15 at 3:54 pm

SG @ 67 I don’t understand the fine points of theology without a reference guide but as I understand it Adams was not “basically a liberal Congregationalist” (Calvinist). Adams was, rather, a devout Unitarian. Unlike Congregationalists, Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity, therefore, they do not believe in the divinity of Christ although accepting Christ as a prophet.

By the 18th C., as I understand it, reaction against the heartlessness of Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and in pre-destination had driven many of its adherents (in Switzerland as well as New England) to become Unitarians. Nevertheless, it was only in the twentieth century that people stopped believing in Providence.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 4:00 pm

Corey, thanks for that.

That’s a take worth pursuing. Paine is my favorite among all the founders, and easily the most progressive.

The problem with the bible, however, is that it contradicts itself in thousands of ways and places, due to the many contributors and the long period of its creation. There is little philosophical consistency in place there, despite the attempts by later editors, redactors, etc.

For every quote against authoritarianism, we can find numerous examples in favor of it. It’s an impossible ask, but it would make a lot more sense of we talked in terms of the individual books, time frames and likely authors, rather than the bible as one work . . . . I’m guilty of failing to do so as well.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 4:10 pm

kidneystones @83,

Your misreading continues apace. I feel very sorry for your students.

Aside from more misreading on your part, this is an all too familiar line from Christian apologists:

The Christian churches have a lot to answer for, but trying to hang slavery on people of faith in general, and Protestants in particular, seems to me both venal and wrong. World history teaches us that folks don’t require religion to slaughter one another. We just seem to keep doing it cause that’s what we keep doing, whether for money, self-justification, out of fear, or for fun. Religion’s just another excuse.

I see this used constantly, both on the individual and group level. If someone does something good, it’s because he/she is a Christian. Their Christianity was the reason. But if they do something bad, their Christianity had nothing to do with it. This extends to the general as well, and it’s a nice gig if you can get it.

With this sophistry, Christianity can never be faulted for anything, it can only be praised as the source for all that’s good and holy in the world. Nonsense.

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SG 06.19.15 at 4:29 pm

@84 @89, Be careful about jumping ahead 50 tumultuous years. Adams’ views in the 1820s were not the same as in the 1770s. He was more orthodox as a younger man.

That said, the difference is not as sharp as one might think. New England Unitariansm developed out of “liberal” Congregationalism, which was technically a theory of church government rather than a theology. Although they rejected Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and predestination, as well as the incarnation, New England Unitarians contributed to believe in an intentional creator, moral world order, and general providence. And these are the kind of views I’ve associated with the Declaration.

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 4:41 pm

kidneystones @ 83: That great 17th-century theologian of free will John Milton, for one, accepted the idea that black Africans were “natural slaves” and the fate of Ham,

…the irreverent son
Of him who built the ark ; who, for the shame
Done to his Father, heard this heavy curse,
Servant of servants, on his vicious Race.

I think the idea that Christians ran the anti-slavery movement in the 18th century has to be based on a foolishly anglocentric view: Surely it belonged more to the Enlightenment than the church, in nontheological packaging from Scotland and the ideas of the decidedly non-Christian anti-slavery campaigners Voltaire and Rousseau before it Bishop Wilberforce took it up.

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kidneystones 06.19.15 at 4:46 pm

86@ Thanks very much for the vote of confidence!

Have to say my students are generally very happy. They read Hawkins, Park, Rowlandson, as well as others in the original and and are free to make up their own minds. It’ll be a treat to tell them about someone who regards MLK, Wilburforce, and Gandhi as the bad guys. And I promise I will!

See you in church!

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Plume 06.19.15 at 5:07 pm

kidneystones @89,

It’ll be a treat to tell them about someone who regards MLK, Wilburforce, and Gandhi as the bad guys. And I promise I will!

More gross misreading. Again, I really really feel sorry for your students. I never said, nor do I believe, that MLK, Gandhi and Wilberforce were the bad guys. I hold MLK and Gandhi, especially, in very high esteem, and Wilberforce for his courageous work on abolition . . . . though he was far from perfect, too conservative on several other issues, and had his own critics to his left for various reasons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=William_Wilberforce

Political and social reform

Wilberforce was deeply conservative when it came to challenges to the existing political and social order. He advocated change in society through Christianity and improvement in morals, education and religion, fearing and opposing radical causes and revolution.[51] The radical writer William Cobbett was among those who attacked what they saw as Wilberforce’s hypocrisy in campaigning for better working conditions for slaves while British workers lived in terrible conditions at home.[159] “Never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country”, he wrote.[160] Critics noted Wilberforce’s support of the suspension of habeas corpus in 1795 and his votes for Pitt’s “Gagging Bills”, which banned meetings of more than 50 people, allowing speakers to be arrested and imposing harsh penalties on those who attacked the constitution.[161][162] Wilberforce was opposed to giving workers’ rights to organise into unions, in 1799 speaking in favour of the Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity throughout the United Kingdom, and calling unions “a general disease in our society”.[161][163] He also opposed an enquiry into the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in which eleven protesters were killed at a political rally demanding reform.[164] Concerned about “bad men who wished to produce anarchy and confusion”, he approved of the government’s Six Acts which further limited public meetings and seditious writings.[165][166] Wilberforce’s actions led the essayist William Hazlitt to condemn him as one “who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”[167]
Unfinished portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1828

Wilberforce’s views of women and religion were also conservative: he disapproved of women anti-slavery activists such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who organised women’s abolitionist groups in the 1820s, protesting: “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”[168][169] Wilberforce initially strongly opposed bills for Catholic emancipation which would have allowed Catholics to become MPs, hold public office and serve in the army,[170] although by 1813 he had changed his views, and spoke in favour of a similar bill.[171]

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bianca steele 06.19.15 at 5:09 pm

Corey@76,

That was definitely the impression I got from the assigned Bible/history textbook we had in Hebrew school, where the sin of the Hebrews was to give up self-government and beg for a king (much as the Europeans, presumably, begged for fascism). I have not before found another person on the Internet who was familiar with that tradition.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 5:09 pm

Corrected formatting:

It’ll be a treat to tell them about someone who regards MLK, Wilburforce, and Gandhi as the bad guys. And I promise I will!

More gross misreading. Again, I really really feel sorry for your students. I never said, nor do I believe, that MLK, Gandhi and Wilberforce were the bad guys. I hold MLK and Gandhi, especially, in very high esteem, and Wilberforce for his courageous work on abolition . . . . though he was far from perfect, too conservative on several other issues, and had his own critics to his left for various reasons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=William_Wilberforce

Political and social reform

Wilberforce was deeply conservative when it came to challenges to the existing political and social order. He advocated change in society through Christianity and improvement in morals, education and religion, fearing and opposing radical causes and revolution.[51] The radical writer William Cobbett was among those who attacked what they saw as Wilberforce’s hypocrisy in campaigning for better working conditions for slaves while British workers lived in terrible conditions at home.[159] “Never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country”, he wrote.[160] Critics noted Wilberforce’s support of the suspension of habeas corpus in 1795 and his votes for Pitt’s “Gagging Bills”, which banned meetings of more than 50 people, allowing speakers to be arrested and imposing harsh penalties on those who attacked the constitution.[161][162] Wilberforce was opposed to giving workers’ rights to organise into unions, in 1799 speaking in favour of the Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity throughout the United Kingdom, and calling unions “a general disease in our society”.[161][163] He also opposed an enquiry into the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in which eleven protesters were killed at a political rally demanding reform.[164] Concerned about “bad men who wished to produce anarchy and confusion”, he approved of the government’s Six Acts which further limited public meetings and seditious writings.[165][166] Wilberforce’s actions led the essayist William Hazlitt to condemn him as one “who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”[167]

Wilberforce’s views of women and religion were also conservative: he disapproved of women anti-slavery activists such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who organised women’s abolitionist groups in the 1820s, protesting: “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”[168][169] Wilberforce initially strongly opposed bills for Catholic emancipation which would have allowed Catholics to become MPs, hold public office and serve in the army,[170] although by 1813 he had changed his views, and spoke in favour of a similar bill.[171]

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kidneystones 06.19.15 at 5:10 pm

@88 Thx for this. Got to go, but your post deserves a response. Yes, the fate of Ham is the passage that pops up most frequently in my readings of Christian apologists. You’re free to hold your own views. I’m not aware that Voltaire, or Rousseau, ever campaigned for anything, although I claim no expertise on either individual.

I do know something of the French 18th century abolition movement, which was very feeble. The 18th century was the boom period for the French slave trade. Indeed, the demand for slaves in Saint-Domingue played a key role in the revolt there. The abolition movement of the 18th century did not gain much traction anywhere until very late. Abbe Gregoire led the fight before and during the revolution, but even after the ban on slavery was basically forced upon Robespierre, much of the abolitionist literature distributed in France was produced in Britain, translated, and shipped into France. The ban on slavery in France did not last a decade and was restored by Napoleon in 1802, I think, with no substantial objection from anyone. Britain imposed a ban on the French slave trade in 1815, as part of the peace treaty after Waterloo, demanding the French end the slave trade within five years. The French regarded this as an act of economic aggression, which it was, whatever else it might have been, and so did very little to comply. Very soon, however, France joined Britain in recognizing that it would be far more economical to simply leave Africans in place and enslave the entire continent. The idea caught on and we’re all living with the consequences of that project today.

My own understanding is that Montesquieu provided the philosophical underpinnings for the French 18th century anti-slavery movement, such as it was, but you may well be right about Rousseau and Voltaire. In terms of results, nothing much changed until Wilberforce and company succeeded. The British popular press treated the abolitionists very cruelly.

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 5:18 pm

@87 Not clear to me whether Adams was more seriously orthodox in his forties than his seventies or felt freer to be open. He was anxious as he and Jefferson remade their friendship to insist that that famous statement made to the Massachusetts Militia in 1798 ( when he was 63, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”) was meant to have the broadest interpretation including atheists, as he wrote in 1813:

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and “Protestans qui ne croyent rien.” Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the GENERAL PRINCIPLES of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.

Surely he and Franklin stuck in that “endowed by their creator” to broaden the appeal of the document in the same way, not to change its meaning (and to improve the clunky sound of “from that equal creation”, which was a good decision from a stylistic point of view; some kind of “creator” is already implied in the passive of “are created” in the previous clause, but it still doesn’t need to be personal or intentional).

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Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 6:13 pm

A whole lot of this discussion seems to me to be wrongly thought out. The question is not whether religion or more specifically Christianity either is responsible for slavery or for anti-slavery. Instead, we should start from an observation: anti-racist and anti-slavery movements in the U.S. are inextricably tied to religion and more specifically Christianity. That does not necessarily say anything about the responsibility of religion per se: perhaps the racism that features as such an enduring and important feature of American society is itself also related to American religiosity. But it does say that without religion there is no historical American anti-racist movement to speak of. And by “historical” I mean pretty much up to the current day. Feminism and LBGTQ rights have progressed as essentially secular movements: I don’t see any major way in which anti-racism has.

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Bloix 06.19.15 at 6:21 pm

#91-
I Samuel 8-22:
And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, … all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations…

And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them…

And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots…

And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks… And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive yards … and ye shall be his servants…

And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles…

And the Lord said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 6:44 pm

Rich @95,

But it does say that without religion there is no historical American anti-racist movement to speak of. And by “historical” I mean pretty much up to the current day. Feminism and LBGTQ rights have progressed as essentially secular movements: I don’t see any major way in which anti-racism has.

This is pure nonsense. Take away religion, especially Christianity, and we take away many of the rationales used for racism in America over the centuries, as well as anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny. There is nothing in the bible that tells us that racism is wrong, and mountains of text supporting tribalism and violent exclusion of outsiders. And in the bible, “outsiders” generally means people who don’t believe in Yahweh/Elohim/Jesus. This later came to mean non-Christians, and often meant factionalism within Christianity itself.

It’s not at all a good foundation for anti-racism. You’re simply attributing good works, deeds and philosophical positions to a particular religion, instead of to the people who hold them independently of that religion. They’d hold them without it as well, easily. They’re not anti-racist because they’re Christian, or Christian because they’re anti-racist. They take the right stance because that is who they are, and they draw from a multitude of traditions that hold human and civil rights as essential.

In short, take away Christianity in America and there would be some other organizing principle to arrive at the same destination, and we’d get there without the darkside Christianity always brings with it . . . telling others how to live their life, the focus on obedience to the genocidal madman in the sky, the concentration on “vice,” “sin,” shame and guilt . . . . and the often overzealous desire to convert others, by force at times. A secular humanist is anti-racist, but he or she doesn’t also want everyone to worship the same imaginary being Christians worship. A secular humanist isn’t into forced conversion, shame, guilt, “sin,” etc. etc.

Would blacks not have led the anti-racist movement if they had held another religion or no religion at all? Are you really saying that without Christianity, blacks wouldn’t have been at the forefront of their own liberation struggles?

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MPAVictoria 06.19.15 at 6:47 pm

“Are you really saying that without Christianity, blacks wouldn’t have been at the forefront of their own liberation struggles?”

Excellent point Plume. Truly A+ comments here.

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yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 6:53 pm

@97: Absolutely. I’d say the same thing for the feminist movement: white churches played a huge role in 19th-century US feminism, contra @95, for and against, but emphasizing them undercuts the more important work of women (who couldn’t use the pulpit because they weren’t allowed).

100

Omri 06.19.15 at 6:56 pm

“The bible didn’t give us republicanism or democracy. “

The Bible depicts the descent of the Israelites from the nascent republicanism of the Judges era to the kingdom of Saul as proof of their stiff neckedness and failure to live to the ideals demanded of them.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 7:24 pm

Plume #82: “Yes, recent science has shown that our brain waves are virtually the same, effected in the same way, regardless of the supposed higher power at issue. Again, they’ve tracked this for people who are serious adepts of meditational forms as well. …And mystics East and West do away with the names altogether, for the most part…”

This is completely wrong on at least 2 different counts:

1. Scientists do NOT test for differences between levels of consciousness even though they have had standard names for a millennia or more; as reported in, for example, raja-yoga, the difference between dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. These name big, qualitative differences in consciousness. The difference between dharana and samadhi is many years, and the whole world! And of course scientists do not test to distinguish between even finer levels, such as, for example, savikalpa-samadhi and nirvikalpa-samadhi.

This is not surprising really, because A) scientists CANNOT make independent verification of the state of consciousness in an exterior subject (other than sleep); it always depends upon self-reportage. And B) any subjects serious enough to know about these things are not going to show up to be tested, because that would interfere with their own practice. Particularly anyone in samadhi, whether savikalpa or nirvikalpa!

So the whole subject of higher levels of consciousness is something which scientists do NOT have a say about; and that is to be kind: in fact they are ignorant.

2. That said, there is no evidence whatsoever that brain waves indicate anything other than gross changes in consciousness, such as sleeping vs. being awake. So far as has been tested, meditation subjects show the same brain wave patterns (extra theta) as others who are relaxing. This not conclusive of anything.

102

Z 06.19.15 at 7:27 pm

Now I’m confused. Like Rich @40, I understood a key quote of the essay to be

So while people can accept the Declaration’s claims about rights for secular reasons, I suspect that those who take its religious elements seriously are more likely to act in the ways necessary to secure them.

In other words, understanding and accepting the abstract content of the Declaration as an atheist is fine, but only theists will actually do something about it. However this

If no such God exists, I’m not sure the Declaration *as written* makes a lot of sense.

seems to mean that even the abstract meaning depends on the existence of a particular God. This is so patently absurd that I must be misunderstanding: whether something makes sense to someone is not an objective property of the object, so if the Declaration makes sense to atheists (and it does), that is proof enough that it can make sense to atheists, even if Sam Goldman doesn’t see how or isn’t sure it is possible.

If however, one sticks with the first quote (maybe it makes sense to them but they are less likely to act upon it), then whether or not a particular divinity exists is totally immaterial; it is more than enough that people believe it does.

I believe that one should be fairly generous to the author of a long and interesting post, and not harp on details, nevertheless, it seems to me that, since Euthyphro, it was settled that unless you go the full way and posit the deity actually showing up and delivering the material Muhammad-in-the-cave or Moses-on-the-Sinaï style, arguments for rights that make reference to God are not going to be anymore compelling (logically speaking) that arguments that don’t, so

you can construct coherent (although not very compelling IMO) arguments for rights that make no reference to God

entails either a strange understanding of logic, deep solipsism or the belief that the contribution of God was direct, historical and tangible. Sam Goldman is entitled to hold any of these positions, of course, but, as several people remarked in the thread already, they were completely antithetical to the religious philosophy of the founders, so certainly an odd intellectual perspective to take in an analysis of the Declaration.

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JimV 06.19.15 at 7:34 pm

Lee Arnold at 72:

“… the source of mathematical creation is non-algorithmic (Gödel’s theorem), yet algorithm is a requirement of scientific explanation.”

Here’s the algorithm which science, design, and thinking in general uses, which is the source of mathematical creation, among other things, and is not ruled out by Gödel’s theorem:

1. Try things randomly (unless a procedure or list of things to try has already been established for the case in question).

2. Check them to see if they work. (What this means depends on the case: does a new design work in the shop and survive in the marketplace; is a scientific theory consistent with all the evidence; does a mathematical theorem satisfy all cases and are the steps consistent with the rules of logic; etc.)

3. If not, try again.

4. When you find something that works, record it for posterity.

Examples from mathematics:

The Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture (based on empirical observation of the characteristic numbers of elliptic curves and modular forms), which led to Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (as discussed in Simon Singh’s “Fermat’s Enigma”).

Scott Aaronson on a mathematical breakthrough in complexity theory: “It’s yet another example of something I’ve seen again and again in this business, how there’s no substitute for just playing around with a bunch of examples.” – http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2325

“The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics” – http://www.eleceng.adelaide.edu.au/personal/dabbott/publications/PIE_abbott2013.pdf

This same algorithm is what produced us (and all our DNA relatives) via biological evolution. Using it we have evolved computer programs which can beat us in chess, in Jeopardy, and (recently) on the verbal portion of IQ tests (given a dictionary of the test language as well as the test questions). The algorithm is not inerrant or all-powerful but can produce amazing results, as long as the applier keeps trying and does not give up.

104

bianca steele 06.19.15 at 7:42 pm

Z @ 102, re. Euthyphro:

I suppose you can suppose that Providence wouldn’t have put us here with these beliefs if God didn’t want us to have them, and that God wouldn’t want us to have these ideas if they weren’t true and useful for practical life and salvation both. (Descartes presumably comes in here too.)

Or you can suppose some complicated philosophical justification for why, even though the beliefs I have now aren’t perfect, institutions as they are, are in fact perfect.

Or you can invent all kinds of epicycles within epicycles to distract from the difference between the real and the ideal, and proclaim that studying the epicycles is better than paying a lot of attention to practical life.

Or you can come up with some substitute for Revelation on the Mountaintop, involving perfect people whose every word is gospel truth–either now or sometime in the past.

Or you can assume there’s a perfect truth that old books must come close to, and that the ideas we have must probably let us come closer to.

But yeah, at some point every religion just stops giving reasons and says the truth was brought down from the mountain.

105

bianca steele 06.19.15 at 7:43 pm

Not that this has anything to do with an argument against the post, which I’m not making. I think the question whether philosophical traditions make sense without God is an interesting one, which probably depends on which religion and which philosophy you choose.

106

Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 7:49 pm

Plume: “This is pure nonsense. Take away religion, especially Christianity, and we take away many of the rationales used for racism in America over the centuries, as well as anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny.”

Plume is the perfect misreader. I can write “perhaps the racism that features as such an enduring and important feature of American society is itself also related to American religiosity” and Plume will write what he writes above in the full belief that he is disagreeing with me.

Plume: “Are you really saying that without Christianity, blacks wouldn’t have been at the forefront of their own liberation struggles?”

Am I really saying … something that I didn’t write? I wrote tha “tanti-racist and anti-slavery movements in the U.S. are inextricably tied to religion and more specifically Christianity” — which they were, like it or not — and that “without religion there is no historical American anti-racist movement to speak of.” Note that that is a statement *about history*, not a counterfactual. A statement like “without Christianity, X would have happened” is a counterfactual.

In actual history, when blacks were at the forefront of their own liberation struggles, they used a particularly religious idiom in which to carry out those struggles. And that’s really all of your nonsense that I’m going to respond to: you’re the worst commenter I’ve seen in some time.

107

Plume 06.19.15 at 8:08 pm

Rich @106

without religion there is no historical American anti-racist movement to speak of.” Note that that is a statement *about history*, not a counterfactual. A statement like “without Christianity, X would have happened” is a counterfactual.

They are both counterfactuals. You are suggesting that the removal of an existing thing would result in the loss of the American anti-racist movement. That assumes nothing takes its place as an organizing principle, or that Christianity was a necessary precondition for the movement itself. We are both dealing in counterfactuals. I’m just saying it’s not logical to assume that Christianity was at all the irreplaceable impetus for that movement, or that it was required for that movement to exist. You made the statement that it was. To me, that’s just an absurd assertion, without any basis in history or reality.

108

yastreblyansky 06.19.15 at 8:16 pm

@93 Aren’t you moving the goal posts a little? I was responding to your suggestion that opposition to slavery originated as “attacks on the slave trade by Christian abolitionists, attacks which began in earnest after 1700. These took the form of pamphlets.” But as far as I can tell English antislavery pamphlets began in the 1780s with the freethinker Thomas Cooper (later, alas, a South Carolina slavery and nullification advocate), whereas Montesquieu denounced slavery in the 1748 L’esprit des lois and Diderot in the 1765 Encyclopédie.

The earliest Christian anti-slavery organizing, in the later 18th century, appears to have consisted mainly of the very heterodox Quakers, both in Philadelphia and in England (in Philadelphia, though, the atheist Tom Paine was a founding member, and the religiously indifferent Benjamin Franklin eventually became the president). When more conventional Christians like Wilberforce took up the cause–and I’m not denying he was a lot more effective than Condorcet–it was in alliance with the secular utilitarian movement of Jeremy Bentham, which also did a lot of the work.

So it’s not only philosophically wrong to insist on the essential role of Christianity, as Plume @97 shows, it’s also not historically accurate.

109

geo 06.19.15 at 8:55 pm

Can we forget about the Founders, for the purposes of this thread? In fact, can we forget about the Declaration? The profound, all-important question raised by Goldman’s post is: can we be good (self-disciplined, self-sacrificing, peaceable) without God? Enough of us, at any rate, to make democratic self-government possible? Burke and Strauss say no, definitely not, and you secular liberals had better cool it with the skepticism and also with all that equality talk. Humankind can only bear so much reality, so we’d better hope the rabble don’t find out they’re on their own, morally.

This is a disturbingly plausible argument. There are a lot of very intelligent Burkeans and Straussians, and a lot of conservatives feel that way even without the intellectual scaffolding. Even some liberals are a tad squeamish about full-blooded popular sovereignty. If we here on Crooked Timber, the Web’s great bastion of enlightened secular leftism, don’t put paid to this fatal distrust of ordinary people’s virtue and wisdom, who will?

110

Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 9:08 pm

I don’t think we can be good without a sense of something being sacred, but that is not necessarily a supernatural category.

111

Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 9:17 pm

It’s more like an anthropological category. It comes with several requirements, such as a periodic social ritual of affirmation and agreement. A text or an incantation; there may be a “declaration”, such as of independence. It almost always has taboo or negative injunction, or a set of them. The choice and the reasons for it are usually re-expressed in the ritual. There are metaphors and art. And so on.

Sometimes the secular left doesn’t like to pay attention to the formalities, seeing them as silly or ephemeral, but in fact such things are primary and crucial.

Relevant literature? Gregory Bateson, Roy A. Rappaport.

112

JanieM 06.19.15 at 9:22 pm

Relevant literature? Gregory Bateson, Roy A. Rappaport.

Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 9:47 pm

So what is the fifth sacred thing?

114

Z 06.19.15 at 9:50 pm

can [enough of us ] be good […] to make democratic self-government possible […] without God?? Burke and Strauss say no […]. This is a disturbingly plausible argument. […] If we […] don’t put paid to this fatal distrust of ordinary people’s virtue and wisdom, who will?

Do we really need to? In the 21st century?

OK, I’m going to be blunt: hardly anyone in the developed democratic world believes in God anymore. Oh sure, some of them might pay lip service to the metaphysical idea of transcendance (self-identifying as theist in opinion polls, for instance) and (far fewer) will even perform some religious rituals from time to time, but for all intent and purpose, they conduct their lives as if there was no God. Effectively, religion as a significant collective social movement has disappeared of most of the developed world; in some countries since several decades already. Does the developed world appear to be particularly more tyrannic, brutal or anarchic since this disappearance?

Who would in good faith pick any developed country 50 or 100 years ago (in the former time period, religion still existed as a social movement in some countries; in most for the latter) and say it was then more sensitive to universal rights than it is now? Or who could look at the list (easily accessible on Wikipedia) of european countries ordered in decreasing order of percentage of the population believing in God (or even some form of transcendence) and perceive in earnest a descent into barbary?

115

Val 06.19.15 at 10:01 pm

Jay @ 36
Intellectually, the Enlightenment project has been dead a long time. Its death is what Nietzsche, Sartre, and in a different way Lovecraft were carrying on about. Life came about by evolution, and evolution programmed us to breed. Like every other organism on the planet, we reliably overpopulate our environment (unless culled) and suffer the resulting catastrophes. Life can’t be the harmonious system of the cosmic clockmaker for long; it just doesn’t work that way

I keep seeing comments like this in various places, and I have a self appointed job of addressing them, though I don’t know if it’s achieving anything.

Your comment is wrong. Almost all wealthy countries have a birth rate which is below replacement rate, and many middle and low income countries are approaching that rate. Those that have a high birth rate tend to be those where women are particularly oppressed and deprived of education, like Afghanistan.

High birth rates are not to do with “evolution” and population does not need to be “culled”. The problem is inequality, oppression and patriarchy.

116

JanieM 06.19.15 at 10:05 pm

So what is the fifth sacred thing?

If I told you that the first four are air, fire, water, and earth, could you guess the fifth?

Or, you could read the book. ;-)

It’s probably far too . . . something . . . for most of CT’s commentariat, but not everyone can live on the philosophical and academic heights.

117

engels 06.19.15 at 10:12 pm

you’re the worst commenter I’ve seen in some time

Yes! I’m off the hook!

118

geo 06.19.15 at 10:21 pm

z@114: Do we really need to? In the 21st century?

Hah! I’ll let Goldman answer this.

119

bob mcmanus 06.19.15 at 10:30 pm

Oh, WSW reviews Samuel Moyn reviewing Jonathan Israel’s radical enlightenment, because Wiki link. It ain’t as if an ethics of immanence is anything real easy, ya know. And…Spinoza is the Man!

I’m not around enough to give Plume competition.

120

Val 06.19.15 at 10:30 pm

And further – population increase is not responsible for malnutrition, which is a problem of distribution, not scarcity. Much of the world’s population eats too much, some don’t get enough.

Similarly, climate change has not been caused by over-population but by fossil fuel use and high rates of consumption in wealthy countries. Here’s a useful article http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/1/014010/article

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 10:31 pm

JanieM @ 166 — Are we talking “love”? The same as in the movie, The Fifth Element? Is that where that came from?

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Val 06.19.15 at 10:32 pm

Sorry that was further to my previous comment to Jay @ 36

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Lee A. Arnold 06.19.15 at 10:36 pm

JimV. #103: Here’s the algorithm which science, design, and thinking in general uses…”
You are describing the stochastic process. Actually, we don’t KNOW that the stochastic process is the source of mathematical creation, as opposed to a description of it, but let’s suppose that you are right.

(And it also stretches the definition of “algorithm” somewhat, since we don’t know how to program a machine to run independently so that, on its own, it will: 1. choose any problem in the universe or even choose to recognize that it is being confronted with a problem, 2. randomly generate possible solutions for that problem, 3. choose the best solution, and 4. devise an experiment to test it. But let’s stretch the definition.)

Evolution is defined as stochastic, and it works as a description there, because the “choice” mechanism is the fight for survival between organisms. In the brain, we would have to posit the choice mechanism as the intention to solve a problem. We could suppose that this is just a later, high-level cognitive development out of the evolutionary mechanism of the intention to survive, e.g. to find food. You might even go back billions of years, and speculate that the fight for survival was just the accidental outcome of chemical atoms which jiggled together, as compelled by the diurnal radiation budget of the earth revolving under the sun, and, because there are chemical “bonds”, the atoms joined into efficient energy states, and their joining was variegated, so the molecules speciated, and started started vying with each other for spatial location. So therefore, the fact that we make choices from randomly-generated possibilities for solutions of mathematical problems, would be ultimately founded upon the jostling of molecules in the primordial soup, and their winning the war for location. We could even get fancier, and hypothesize that consciousness is a long development that was truly destined when molecular species evolved signaling strategies, which helped their own species win the jostling wars.

I think there is a bunch of serious problems with this, including how we would evolutionarily explain the development of self-consciousness (e.g. consciousness of the fact that we are conscious) and the development of consciousness-without-an-object (i.e. consciousness without any intentional or narrative content whatsoever, whether it’s the highest state in mystical reports or, to take a minor and evanescent case, simple epiphany).

But let me just zero-in on a very different problem. It is that there are uncertainties, and/or random generations, at EVERY LEVEL of this explanatory proposal, and they are somewhat unlinkable, or rather we might say, they appear to be in a perceptual hierarchy and we are unable to link them up. To take a list from Murray Gell-Mann:

“1) Possible indeterminacy from the initial condition of the universe if it is impure. 2) Possible indeterminacy from the choice of the fundamental theory (for this universe) if the choice is probabilistic. 3) Coarse graining required to achieve decoherence of histories in a maximal realm, say the usual maximal quasi-classical realm. (The decoherence should really be strong decoherence, with the extra coarse graining that implies.) The uncertainty principle is automatically included. 4) The probabilistic character of all the branchings in this realm in the future. 5) The huge amount of additional coarse graining resulting from unavoidable ignorance on the part of any given IGUS about the results of many of the branchings in the past. [IGUS is an “information gathering and utilizing system”] 6) Still more coarse graining to make calculations practical with available computational tools. 7) Limitations on accuracy of calculation with available computational tools.” (from: Murray Gell-Mann, “Fundamental Sources of Unpredictability”, Santa Fe Institute 1996)

And this is only the stuff which he saw to be definitely required by physics theory. Other scientists occasionally have added fundamental sources of unpredictability to this list, from chemistry up through ecology, and through to the social sciences.

I think it’s strikingly odd that our scientific explanation results in a hierarchy of phenomena which goes up the scale coarse-graining, and down the scale fine-graining, and always loses some of the information from the last level to gain different information at the next level. It’s not clear to me that an evolutionary explanation of consciousness will explain this — stochasticism merely DESCRIBES it, which is not the same — and so I am currently unwilling to accept the idea that the creation of new mathematics is so easily explained. We may need an additional principle, such as that monads search for least-action efficiencies.

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JanieM 06.19.15 at 10:37 pm

Lee — yes, love. I’m not familiar with the movie “The Fifth Element,” but a two-second glance at the wikipedia page makes me doubt that “that’s where that came from” — whichever antecedent you meant to go with each of the “thats.” (I.e. the directionality of your references was unclear.)

Maybe both came from the same original strand of thinking…I have no idea. Starhawk is a Wiccan teacher and writer whose books I have learned a lot from over the years. Most of her writing is non-fiction but Fifth is a novel. Certainly not one of the world’s great novels, but not a bad attempt at fleshing out abstractions into a story, and for me quite thought-provoking.

125

LFC 06.19.15 at 11:28 pm

geo @109

I assume you noted what S. Goldman said @67:

…I am skeptical about the possibility of building a political community around the rights identified in the Declaration without appealing to religion. As George Scialabba @12 observes, that is one of the reasons I’m a vaguely Straussian conservative, while many contributors and commenters at Crooked Timber are progressives [of] various stripes.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. He’s not going to agree with you (or ‘us’) and vice-versa, whether the question is framed in terms of “rights identified in the Declaration” or framed more broadly, in terms of trust in the wisdom of ‘ordinary people’. Prob. just have to agree to disagree.

I do think Bill Benzon @46 (though I didn’t read the whole comment) is onto something about the unusual, in comparative terms, religiosity of Americans and consequently of U.S. politics in the modern era. (But don’t have time to go into that now.)

126

Plume 06.19.15 at 11:33 pm

Lee,

Yes, the rituals are very important. Essential, primal. They focus the mind, then link us with others, they establish connections between humans in the present and the past. Add whatever “sacred” aspects to the mix, and it can be a very good way of directing positive energy outward, and warding off dark energy from attacking the inner life.

My point is that the object of that veneration and ritual is largely irrelevant. The stories we build up around it — the scaffolding as Geo mentions above, regarding a different ideal — those matter. Those indicate the general rationale behind this coming together, its purpose, its goals. Is it about power? Imperialistic by design? Is it exclusivist? Is it based on a pre-elect, a chosen people? Or it is truly welcoming to all, to everyone, regardless of whether or not they agree with the stories, etc. etc.? And is that welcoming contingent on total conversion, or simply without conditions? Is it a loving embrace, a compassionate hello, without desire to transform the outsider into a clone of the insider?

It is extremely difficult for any religion that begins by saying “our way is the only way” or “our god is the one true god” to ever be truly welcoming or loving in a meaningful sense, and it can never be welcoming without condition — by definition. Christianity says our way or no way at all, and if one takes its stories literally, it ends one strand of those stories with the mother of all genocides, wherein billions of human beings are slaughtered for not converting and roasted in hell for all eternity.

From my pov, those stories, along with similar genocidal myths in the OT, make it all too easy to understand why the three religions of the Levant have had more than their share of earthly imperialism, genocide, violent, forced conversions and endless attempts to dominate on the individual, national and international stage.

If we do indeed need rituals, stories, the sacred, an organizing principle to do what is right, we need all of that to begin with unconditional welcoming, all out love, zero imperialism or exclusivity and no forced conversions. In essence, we need that to be the sacred, as well as Nature in the here and now, the most logical organizing principle of them all.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.19.15 at 11:38 pm

geo: “The profound, all-important question raised by Goldman’s post is: can we be good (self-disciplined, self-sacrificing, peaceable) without God?”

It’s the wrong question. What if we looked at religion as, as Lee Arnold says, an anthropological category? Or as something like bill benzon talks about at #46?

It then becomes at least conceivable that the reason you need religion to displace racism in America is that they occupy similar social spaces. A huge amount of the basic value given to a human person, through most of American history, was from whiteness. Perhaps the only thing strong enough to displace that was Christianity — not because of any particular characteristics of Christianity, but simply because it’s the default American religion and occupies the mythic “ground of value” space.

That’s not an argument that religion is inherently good, not in any way.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 12:02 am

I should make it clear that I did not say that religion is an anthropological category. I wrote that ritual is an anthropological category. It has a description-set of functions which is quite aside from any beliefs whether religious or secular, any purposes, times, or places. Roy A. Rappaport is very good from a structural approach — see the book Ecology, Meaning and Religion.

129

Plume 06.20.15 at 12:03 am

But why use one all too often bigoted ideology to replace another? It’s just replacing one crutch with another, one fiction with another.

One huge problem with fictions and ideologies. They have to be endlessly watered, fed, repeated, massaged, cloned, and they need to be drilled into people day after day after day. Most organized religions — like ideologies in general — couldn’t survive without this kind of endless repetition. Something that is true doesn’t need that. We don’t have to keep checking back day after day, rereading passages endlessly, gathering to discuss the same old same old week after week, year after year. The truth isn’t so insecure.

It’s time we kick away the crutch, or at least acknowledge that it exists. And while we’re at it, we also need to acknowledge that 17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest. We’re still murdering each other, raping, pillaging, committing endless atrocities, destroying the planet. And when nine people are murdered in South Carolina, we hear from “Christians” that it was an assault on their religion, not a racist act of terrorism.

Christianity passed its sell-by date centuries ago.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 12:08 am

Lee,

From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie L. Weston, is also very strong. T.S. Eliot took much from her work for his poem, The Waste Land. In the tradition of Frazer and Harrison.

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss is another seminal work.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 1:23 am

Plume #129: “17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest. We’re still murdering each other… And when nine people are murdered in South Carolina, we hear from “Christians” that it was an assault on their religion, not a racist act of terrorism.”

That is remarkably stupid, tin-eared and callous. Maybe you should consider not commenting at Crooked Timber again until we can forget it, in say about 200 years.

132

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 1:29 am

@OP
>The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. I am skeptical that this is the case.

This is so disconnected from reality that it seems close to trolling. I understand that one may not *like* explicitly atheistic ideological movements such as communism, anarchism in the Spanish civil war etc., but it is simply a fact of life that huge numbers of people all over the world have sacrificed their lives for them. (That’s even if one excludes the already-mentioned sans-culottes because of stuff like Roberspierre’s Supreme Being.)

The general logic of the argument in this blog post seems to be as follows:

You must be a theist to take the Declaration of Independence seriously, because:

1. There are some theistic references in it;
2. Some of the people involved were theists;
3. Admittedly, one can subscribe to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence without being a theist, but:
4. One can’t take them *really* seriously (as in fighting and risking one’s life for them) without being a theist, because:
5. I just feel so.

So, to abbreviate even more by skipping the intermediate steps, “You must be a theist to take the Declaration of Independence seriously because I just feel so”. Not bad for a theistic argument, actually. Admittedly CT is supposed to be a leftist blog, but it is understandable that when a conservative argument reaches such a level of intellectual sophistication, it really must be shared with the readers.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 1:30 am

Lee @131,

Sorry, but I speak the truth. It’s not a comfortable truth. But it’s the truth. And I’m sick to death of the absurd idea that we apparently owe eternal deference to religious beliefs. We don’t. They are no more worthy of deference — or egg-shell walking — than our views about current novels, movies, our favorite NFL team, our favorite restaurant, etc. etc.

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John Quiggin 06.20.15 at 1:33 am

I’m not entirely clear now whether Sam Goldman is maintaining the claim I imputed to him. Regardless of Sam’s views, the correct position is that stated by Z@114. The consolidation of democracy in developed countries since 1945 has coincided with the disappearance of serious religious belief. Only in a US-centric debate like this one could the contrary view be maintained.

135

Z 06.20.15 at 1:39 am

I totally agree with Rich’s post @127.

In fact, as the (highly recommended) piece by Bill Benzon suggests, there is indeed a direct, meaningful way in which American Christianity competes with racism in the American psyche: both fulfill the need to belong to a group of elect separated from the rest, and both ultimately derive from it.

It is obvious for racism, though it is important to note that it is especially true of American racism, with its peculiar aversion for intermarriage and ambiguity (Spanish settlers were as racist as American ones, but their own brand of racism perfectly accommodated a continuous spectrum containing Europeans, Africans and autochtones whereas American racism recognizes essentially only 2 categories: black and white).

But the same mechanisms are at play in American Christianity: significant parts of both the theology and actual practice of American Christianity-its localism, its centrifugal mode of propagation, its insistence on salvation by conversion and on the predestination doctrine-can be explained by the anthropological need to have access to the group of elect.

And this, by the way, is the reason why American social history remains (to this day) much more infused with religiosity than others: if a society has the anthropologically irresistible need to designate a separate group of elect, it better be through spiritual means, for they at least offer the theoretical possibility to grant the status of elect to everyone (each within his localist, separate congregation) whereas distinctions based on actual characteristics will lead to the permanent imprisonment of the non-elect group in an accursed underclass (and we’re back to the abject treatment black Americans have received from their own society for the last 250 years).

136

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 1:52 am

Plume @133, Well it’s got nothing to do with deference to religious beliefs, so you fail again. The proper response would have been an apology without the usual self-justifying and hectoring. So this will be the last time I read anything under your name.

137

Plume 06.20.15 at 2:01 am

Lee @136,

Apology for what? For speaking the truth? Come on. I said nothing whatsoever that warrants an apology, unlike your accusation that my post was “remarkably stupid, tin-eared and callous . . .”

Look in the mirror.

138

Val 06.20.15 at 2:02 am

Lee A Arnold @ 131
You criticise Plume for crudely and insensitively introducing the massacre of nine people at Charleston. I can understand why you feel that, but I have to say, as I’ve said on the other thread, from an outsider’s point of view the strange thing is that people here are not talking about it.

You are talking about racism, Christianity, the nature of ‘America’ and its founding beliefs, and yet you don’t talk about that. Why is that? At least Plume named it, even though it was insensitive to do so in the course of making a polemic point about ‘Christians’ as if they were all the same.

Is it despair? Have progressive people given up thinking you can do anything about these profound problems? I ask that charitably because I am trying not to go into the outsider’s default ‘only in America’ position, but I really don’t understand how you can not be talking about this.

139

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 2:10 am

Val, I don’t think that people shouldn’t talk about it; quite the contrary.

140

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 2:14 am

About passages like 1 Samuel 8: they can be and have been, historically, (mis)used for constutionalist and democratic purposes, but in fact they have little to do with popular sovereignty and much to do with theocracy. What the Bible advocates and sets up as an ideal is not for the ruler to be accountable to the people, it’s for both the people and the ruler to obey God (whose will is expressed, of course, through prophets, priests, ideally also through a righteous ruler, etc.). To the Yahwist priesthood, the institution of kingship was a dangerous rival, much more of an independent power centre than the earlier “Judges” had been, so it’s natural that we find such “republican” passages in the Bible. While they include populist complaints (isn’t it nasty that we have to pay taxes to the King and not just to God/the priests as we used to?), they are not based on the principle or ideal of self-government as an alternative, and whatever they liked about (their idea of) the previous system, it wasn’t popular sovereignty.

It doesn’t seem to be very clear what the actual mechanics of the rise of a “Judge” in Israel were. The Bible merely states that they were “raised” by God in Judges 2:16. It is not inconceivable that some kind of elections could have taken place as well, judging from the Phoenician parallels, but if so, it’s telling that the authors just weren’t interested in that aspect of things; the leaderships they approve of are made legitimate from above by God, not from below by elections. Conversely, it is the establishment of kingship, and also specifically the election of Saul – the leaderships that the authors disapprove of – that are explicitly presented as intiatives from below. This is very indicative of the authors’ attitude towards democracy.

It’s clear that control of the heads of state by the citizenry, through election or otherwise, is not what distinguishes a good system from a bad one in the eyes of the authors. The population is not called upon to control its rulers (say, to maintain Yahwism or to protect some of its rights that are enshrined in Moses’ Yahwist “constitution”). This is understandable, since it is distrusted and chastised throughout the text for its alleged ungodliness just as much as the kings are.

Even in the passage cited in 1 Samuel 8, we see that Samuel somehow “made/appointed his sons leaders/judges over Israel” – i.e. it is not stated that the people elected them, and indeed the author does not criticise on principle Samuel’s attempt at de facto heritability as in the Roman Empire or Cromwellian England (even if one wants to assume that a formal election “from below” also occurred, the authors of the text obviously just don’t care about this formal electability). What matters isn’t that Samuel is an elected leader – if he even is one – what matters is that he is a man of God (and indeed a Prophet), and when the people reject him, they reject God (1 Samuel 8:7). There are enough passages that show that it’s acceptable for God’s true representative, just as it is for God himself, to do anything, including imposing his will (God’s will) on the majority of the population by force or indeed terror. It’s just that the Jewish kings in particular weren’t generally recognised as such true representatives by the Yahwist priests. The problem with kings was probably that the stability, permanence and heritability of the institution made them at least partly independent in terms of legitimacy from the priesthood, hence the sighing for the idealised past era of righteous judges.

So the the Old Testament (and the Bible in general) gives few pretexts for political egalitarianism and democracy (even though Europeans have done their best to seek out and use such pretexts as can be found); the general orientation and spirit of the thing is very much that of top-down authoritarianism. Justifying the human rights of the citizens, including their defence against authority, with another authority that bestows them (King, God, God through King, God through Prophet), basically using one boss against the other, is a time-honoured strategy, but it is not only not necessary, but indeed has always been fraught with contradiction and leads to intellectual incoherence and instability: if you recognise that rights are merely secondary with respect to an authority above, then you will easily accept the idea that they can also be cancelled by an authority above. It is not inevitable, but rather a paradoxical compromise with inherited authoritarian ideological traditions.

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Val 06.20.15 at 2:17 am

Again from an outsider’s viewpoint, and excuse me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if black people in America embraced Christianity in part at least for the reasons that Z and Rich are talking about – it was a way of belonging to, and identifying with, ‘America’ as an imagined ideal and home. Therefore the extraordinary cruelty of what happened in Charleston seems to be that the White supremacist guy was saying ‘even here you are not safe – there is nowhere you are safe’.

142

Val 06.20.15 at 2:20 am

@ 139
I think the harshess of your attack on Plume wasn’t justified.

143

LFC 06.20.15 at 2:21 am

Plume @129
And when nine people are murdered in South Carolina, we hear from “Christians” that it was an assault on their religion, not a racist act of terrorism.

Well, I don’t know who Plume is quoting or referring to here, since I confess I have not been following the story in great detail (possibly b.c it’s such a depressing event). It seems reasonably clear that this was a ‘hate crime,’ which is an established category in U.S. law, and I believe the Justice Dept. is investigating it as such. ‘Racist act of terrorism’ also seems an accurate description. As for whether it was an assault on Christianity, I don’t know, but it was definitely an assault on practicing Christians, as the victims were shot during a service at one of the oldest historically African-American churches in the South. I don’t think acknowledging that fact implies any particular view about religion in general.

144

Plume 06.20.15 at 2:22 am

Val @138,

In no way, shape or form do I view all Christian the same. But if people up thread can tout individual Christians for their work on abolition, for example, then they have to also be willing to deal with individual Christians who do terrible things, or say terrible things, or seek to dominate others and impose their religion on them.

They can not, legitimately, call attention to “the good stuff” and then get offended when the “bad stuff” is also brought up.

Several American politicians and media outlets, in the wake of this atrocity in Charleston, called this “an assault on religious freedom,” instead of what it is, a racist, terrorist attack by a white supremacist. In recent months, stretching back many a decade, America has been subjected to a barrage from “Christians” who say they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, even though this is in the context of their bigoted, discriminatory behavior toward powerless minorities. As in, they have been the persecutors, not the persecuted.

I find this deeply offensive, and today’s and yesterday’s comments regarding the massacre the same. Our national obsession with a protracted defense of superstition has gone on far too long, in my view. On balance, I see no possible defense of the overall effects of organized religion, especially Christianity and Islam, on the health and well-being of the world’s population. The amount of death and destruction easily attributable to religious believers is astronomical. And while Christians and the religious of all faiths have also contributed wonderful things to society and civilization, the bag is far too mixed to warrant our knee-jerk, autopilot, inflated sense of deference and calls for “sensitivity.” Frankly, organized religion in general simply hasn’t earned that deference or that call for endless sensitivity. It just hasn’t.

145

Plume 06.20.15 at 2:25 am

LFC,

It wasn’t intended as an assault on Christians. Inside the church, the killer made that very clear. He purposely told a black woman who he let live his rationale. He also told the police he intended to start a race war.

Btw, South Carolina has no hate-crime laws. If it comes to that, it will be a federal issue. SC also still flies the Confederate flag.

146

Val 06.20.15 at 2:30 am

Plume @ 144
I didn’t think Lee’s attack was justified, and I thought you were right to raise the discussion, but I was influenced by Lee’s outrage into thinking (mistakenly) that you had generalised about Christians. Now I see that of course you didn’t, you wrote ‘some “Christians” ‘, making it clear that you weren’t generalising about all Chistians. My apologies, and I certainly think Lee’s attack was unjustified,

147

Val 06.20.15 at 2:31 am

I know some people here are critical of President Obama from a left viewpoint, but surely you think what he is saying here can be supported?
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/19/barack-obama-charleston-shooting-i-refuse-to-act-as-if-this-is-the-new-normal

148

Plume 06.20.15 at 2:37 am

Val,

Thanks. I know and love many Christians. Always have. Was a camp counselor at a Christian camp, in fact, and loved my fellow counselors, staff, etc. etc. It was one of the best experiences of my entire life and I’ll never forget it.

The same goes for several Christian philosophers, mystics, artists, etc. etc. Love and admire dozens upon dozens. Kierkegaard, Hildegaard von Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, Meister Eckhardt, Jacob Boehme, to name a few.

149

geo 06.20.15 at 2:45 am

LFC@125: Yes, I saw Goldman’s reply @67. And no, I’m not trying to convert him to populist utopian radicalism. We long ago took your advice and cheerfully agreed to disagree.

Rich @127: Yes, you may well be right about the historical/anthropological significance of Christianity in America. But I meant to ask a question about moral psychology: given that the democratic self-government often requires self-restraint and even self-sacrifice, and given that religions generally offer more robust justifications (frequently ignored, of course) for such self-denial than secular liberalism, mightn’t social stability benefit from, or even necessitate, religious sanctions? That’s one perennial conservative argument, which I devoutly hope is wrong. I was looking for some comradely argumentative support.

FF@132: I really don’t think you do Goldman’s argument justice. Benign ideologies like Spanish anarchism have all too rarely taken root among large groups. The “atheist ideological movements” that have succeeded — Stalinism, Maoism, fascism — have, alas, been as authoritarian and myth-ridden as any religion, and even crueler. Which is why so many conservatives have asked whether, since myths and authority structures seem to be a prerequisite of social stability, those of traditional religions might not be a better bargain than any secular ones likely to succeed them.

Lee@131: I think you’re being a little too hard on Plume. “17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest” may be slightly feckless, since it’s pretty much impossible to imagine the counterfactual (or any counterfactual, for that matter). But “remarkably stupid, tin-eared, and callous” is surely overkill. Christianity really does have a lot to answer for.

150

LFC 06.20.15 at 2:54 am

Plume @145
Btw, South Carolina has no hate-crime laws. If it comes to that, it will be a federal issue.

If you go back and read what I wrote @143, you will see that I wrote that hate crimes are an established category in U.S. (meaning federal) law, and that I believe that the Justice Dept — a part of the federal executive branch, as you know — is investigating it as a hate crime.

I don’t want to get into a long debate on the other issues. But I will say that, as various commenters have noted above, organized religion has not declined as sharply in the U.S. as in most other ‘developed’ countries (esp. in Europe), and it remains rather important, for better or worse, in various aspects of national life, including politics. I think most Americans still tell pollsters they believe in some kind of supreme being (I don’t happen to share that view, but that’s neither here nor there). Writing comments about the horrible effects of religion won’t change those facts. On the question of deference, I don’t know but I suspect that representatives of organized religion are treated w a certain amt of at least residual deference everywhere, incl. countries where the religious make up only a small minority of the pop.

Outside the developed world, the story is, again, different. For example, the Catholic Church in Latin America, while no doubt the record is mixed, has been in some contexts a progressive force. (This is all fairly obvious, istm.)

151

js. 06.20.15 at 3:00 am

What a strange argument. It’s almost as if you’re trying to turn people off from taking the Declaration seriously. I mean, if I had to choose between stopping to take the Declaration seriously and starting to “believe in God”*, I know which I’d pick in less than a heartbeat—one choice would make me an entirely different person and the other wouldn’t (and I don’t mind who I am).

*Though I should register that I’ve managed to take Aquinas very seriously without for a second believing in any deity-type thing, so I somehow doubt that the Declaration would pose an insurmountable problem.

152

yastreblyansky 06.20.15 at 3:16 am

If I could add one last note on theological language in the Declaration, because I’ve just learned something from a 2002 conference paper by Jeffry Morrison and a useful (though wingnut-sponsored) online breakdown of the drafting process, about the peroration to the work (@22):

The interpolations of “supreme judge of the world” and “divine providence” were not part of the initial editing work by Adams and Franklin (unlike “endowed by their creator”); they were added by the Committee of Five of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin plus Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the former (as Sam Goldman points out @67) a devout Calvinist.

Morrison finds that the two phrases are not just more theistic/less deistic than the language of the introduction, but downright seriously and exclusively Calvinist, with a particularly New England Puritan resonance: “supreme judge of the world” is repeatedly used in Jonathan Edwards’s second most famous sermon, on the Last Judgment, and “divine providence” a favorite of none other than Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, member of the Continental Congress, and the only clergyman to sign the document, who preached a sermon on divine providence at Princeton in May 1776, just a few weeks before the Congress got moving. An oral tradition says that Witherspoon specifically asked Congress to use the expression. (“Providence” is also an Enlightened term for an impersonal divinity, but Morrison notes that “it was common practice for “Awakened” pastors to use what would today be considered deistic language to refer to God”.)

Anyhow, Morrison concludes that the phrases

would have struck Reformed Americans as simply good Calvinist faith in practice, and rallied their support for the cause of independence; which, in the event, they gave. It was in this way that the Second Continental Congress made strategic (though not necessarily impious) use of what can be called political theology in its Declaration of Independence.

while agreeing that the “creator” phrases at the beginning equally express deism.

It’s thus pretty clear that the Declaration was meant to reassure the deist majority in the Congress (which would possibly not have understood the Puritanism of “divine providence” or “supreme judge”, a phrase associated with semi-deist Locke) and the Calvinist population of New England (which would similarly fail to see anything weird about “nature’s god”) that nobody’s religious or irreligious sentiments were being disrespected. But properly understood the final sausage has an unresolvable theological contradiction and shouldn’t be understood as making a theological point at all. The point is political and about the accommodation (unlike in wicked England with its established church) of all views, including disbelief.

I note Sam Goldman advertises himself as a “vaguely Straussian conservative”, suggesting to my way of thinking that his idea of the community’s need for a faith in God to make them behave properly is advocating one of those “noble lies” of which Strauss is often accused, and that the argument for a theological content without which the Declaration cannot be understood (in fact you can only understand it by ignoring the theological content, since it’s contradictory) is itself a kind of Straussian deception; it’s not true, but it ought to be so that it will perform its function of facilitating social control. This is the very opposite of what the Declaration ought to mean.

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js. 06.20.15 at 3:24 am

Also, as many others have noted, this is a thing that actually happened. People acted on it, even!

154

Z 06.20.15 at 3:40 am

geo

[M]ightn’t social stability benefit from, or even necessitate, religious sanctions?

In the actual developed world, social stability was finally been reached when religion ceased to be an operative social force (not saying one caused the other, just observing the simultaneity) so the argument you hope is wrong is in fact maximally empirically wrong. Why worry about it?

Which is why so many conservatives have asked whether, since myths and authority structures seem to be a prerequisite of social stability…

What if it were the exact converse? What if myths and authority structures were a prerequisite for disruptive social change? The intellectuals of the past can be excused-how could they possibly perceive that their epoch was one of permanent transformation?-but with historical hindsight, we can see that with the disappearance of all grand organizing ideologies (mass religion, communism, nationalism…) came a period of great social stability.

Finally

The “atheist ideological movements” that have succeeded — Stalinism, Maoism, fascism — have, alas, been as authoritarian and myth-ridden as any religion, and even crueler.

My nationalistic pride is hurt! The first successful atheist ideological movement (the French Revolution and its 19th century siblings) was well within the range of ordinary revolutions, cruelty-wise.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 3:46 am

yastreblyansky,

Good points:

I note Sam Goldman advertises himself as a “vaguely Straussian conservative”, suggesting to my way of thinking that his idea of the community’s need for a faith in God to make them behave properly is advocating one of those “noble lies” of which Strauss is often accused, and that the argument for a theological content without which the Declaration cannot be understood (in fact you can only understand it by ignoring the theological content, since it’s contradictory) is itself a kind of Straussian deception; it’s not true, but it ought to be so that it will perform its function of facilitating social control. This is the very opposite of what the Declaration ought to mean.

It seems an obvious contradiction for someone to want to flee the tyranny of government, while embracing the tyranny of a supreme judge, especially when effectively that embrace means earthly powers controlling the show . . . . via the power of Big Church. Big Church being the supposed voice of that supreme judge. Or some earthly representative, in some form.

Many a conservative will cry government tyranny when it comes to taxes or all too modest suggestions that we try to control gun violence, but they seem all too willing to bow to a supreme being, without any possible proof of that being’s actual existence. And they often go further. They want the rest of us to adhere to what this supreme being supposedly said and says, even though there is absolutely zero proof that it exists at all, much less actually has something to say to us about our morality, “sin,” and so on.

If one feels the need to bow to anyone, doesn’t it make sense to do so with proof of existence? Better yet, “No gods, no masters,” which is a motto I truly love.

In short, I can’t understood the Declaration of Independence in the context of religious belief. At all. It makes no sense to me in that case.

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.20.15 at 5:27 am

It doesn’t seem terribly surprising to me that both endorsement of and opposition to slavery would be couched in religious language. After all, it’s not as though either the slaves, the slaveowners, or the abolitionists existed in a vacuum; religion suffused all their lives, as it did the lives of all people at the time generally. So it makes sense that in looking for a common language with which to combat slavery, abolitionists would lean on the Bible; that was a rhetoric that would have come naturally to them. I’m not sure that indicates any sort of necessity for religion as a requirement for collective action, though; it’s just a contingent fact about what sort of vocabulary was accessible to the public at the time.

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js. 06.20.15 at 6:25 am

The first successful atheist ideological movement (the French Revolution and its 19th century siblings)

More of this, please! I’m serious—if we’re talking about (a) some sort of late 18th century “declaration” that is about founding a new political community, and (b) the supposed impossibility of building any such community without strong religious underpinnings, we should be talking about France, a lot. (Or else the argument is basically that the US is a weird fucking country—which, yes, agreed!)

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ZM 06.20.15 at 8:49 am

It is rather amusing reading comments about how Christians must note every bad thing any Christian has ever done – from the very same people who always make a fuss whenever anyone points out Stalin and Mao were Communists at which point they retort you can’t measure Communism by any existing Communist state as it wasn’t proper Communism

I guess since the shoe is on the other foot the Christians can just retort it wasn’t proper Christianity

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ZM 06.20.15 at 8:52 am

In no way, shape or form do I view all Communists the same. But if people up thread can tout individual Communists for their good work, then they have to also be willing to deal with individual Communists who do terrible things, or say terrible things, or seek to dominate others and impose their economics on them.

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.20.15 at 9:05 am

It is rather amusing reading comments about how Christians must note every bad thing any Christian has ever done – from the very same people who always make a fuss whenever anyone points out Stalin and Mao were Communists at which point they retort you can’t measure Communism by any existing Communist state as it wasn’t proper Communism

I guess since the shoe is on the other foot the Christians can just retort it wasn’t proper Christianity

The mistake being made on both sides here is the assumption that the “founding document” (the Bible in the Christian case, Marx for communists) provides sufficient information to read off an actual political program for a state. Turns out that you can’t derive either the abolitionists or the Crusades just by reading the New Testament; they aren’t necessary consequences of whatever it is that some Jewish sectarian preached thousands of years before. Just the same, you can’t derive the gulag from Das Kapital; it’s obviously more explicit as a political text than the Bible, but a whole bunch of things that self-proclaimed communists did have very little if any connection to whatever Marx was writing about. Actually this is also true for both the Declaration and the Constitution. The latter does not in any real sense derive the modern administrative state, which formed by various historical accretions. The mania for reconciling obviously necessary state function with some “original intent” of the Constitution is a uniquely American lunacy; most other countries just pass the laws that they think they need and move on with life.

Ideologies, especially ones as broad as religions, can support almost any reading you want if you pick your hermeneutics right. Which is to say that attributing responsibility for social ills (or successes) to something as ill-specified as “Christianity” or “communism” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. These exercises always take the form of some sort of petty point-scoring, with participants trying to hang the maximum amount of corpses on their opponents. It doesn’t seem like a good use of time and energy to me.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.20.15 at 12:49 pm

Jerry Vinokurov: “So it makes sense that in looking for a common language with which to combat slavery, abolitionists would lean on the Bible; that was a rhetoric that would have come naturally to them. “

I don’t agree, but really providing evidence to back this up would require writing too much for a comment thread.

I’ll try to sketch out something. First of all, of course to some extent this is right: common languages that can be used for mass movements are necessarily restricted to those languages that are already more or less available to that society. But the common language used by the American and French Revolutions was available, and not used. The French Revolution was notably rather mild in its support for abolition, unless of course you count Tousssaint L’Ouverture as one of the revolutionaries. Basically, liberal freedom has most often been heard as the freedom of the individual: left fraternity has most often been heard as the fraternity of a favored class. It’s historically been easy to exclude black people from both as not the individuals meant, not the class meant.

Why should religion be better at providing a universalizing language in the American context? I’d point back to what Z wrote at #135. I’d add, though, that notable anti-racist leaders have often seen themselves as offering a kind of religious conversion, a well-established narrative that encourages a leader to throw themselves into the effort to lead and change a mass of people each of whom then potentially becomes a leader of further conversions in turn. Left political movements in America have been attempting to come up with something like this without religion, most notably I’d say in the 1930s, but the lasting social template really isn’t there to the same extent.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 1:38 pm

ZM @158,

It is rather amusing reading comments about how Christians must note every bad thing any Christian has ever done – from the very same people who always make a fuss whenever anyone points out Stalin and Mao were Communists at which point they retort you can’t measure Communism by any existing Communist state as it wasn’t proper Communism

I guess since the shoe is on the other foot the Christians can just retort it wasn’t proper Christianity

Who is calling for that here? No one. I’m simply saying that if you claim Christianity as the reason for the good stuff, be prepared to hear criticism about the bad stuff done in the name of that same religion. No one is asking for a blow by blow acknowledgement. It would, however, be a huge improvement if some Christians simply accepted that others aren’t going to believe as they do, or feel the need to treat their beliefs as delicate little flowers . . . or that even innocent bystanders didn’t feel the need to jump in and protect those delicate little flowers.

As for the latter part of your quote: It’s not that they weren’t a “proper Communism.” It’s that they had absolutely nothing to do< with communism at all. They could have called themselves "bird watchers," and it would have made more sense. And those of us in the anticapitalist, egalitarian, radical democrat, radically anti-authoritarian camp are far more opposed to the Stalin's and Mao's than the vast majority, for reasons already expressed several times here.

But the real key, IMO, now that you bring this all up: In America, it is considered open season, forever, on attacking the left, ferociously, angrily, without restraint. It's considered A OK in conversation to level major denunciations against political philosophies of the left. Of course, the left does this with the right as well, so it's all open season, generally, across the political spectrum.

But religious beliefs? We're supposed to be very, very careful and treat them like the most delicate of flowers. Someone's religious sensibility is elevated to protected status in our country, even though there is absolutely no reason to do so, other than 100% empty, unsupported, received convention. Would we be so careful if someone claimed to worship Athena? Well, there is no more evidence to support the worship of the Christian god than the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom. It's just as bizarre, IMO, to worship either. Worshiping a risen Elvis is no less sensible in comparison . . . other than the two thousand year head start, building up an effective organization. Take away that scaffolding, and it's still, at the very least, questionable enough to criticize openly.

Belief in the literally impossible, the absolutely unproven, the ridiculously absurd. Sorry, but I feel no requirement to walk on egg shells on a forum that is discussing the ludicrous idea that we need “god” to understand the Declaration of Independence. From my viewpoint, America will have taken a major leap in maturity when it finally places religious belief in the same category as politics, philosophy, sports, the arts, when it comes to vigorous, open and honest debate about differing views.

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samuel goldman 06.20.15 at 1:39 pm

I see that you’ve had a busy night. I want to address two points that have come up.

First, I like to think that I’ve won some commenters over to the idea that the Declaration’s language is more theological than they had believed. Yastreblyansky @152 notes the Calvinist origin of the “supreme Judge of the world”. I had been told that Witherspoon asked for this, but had never seen evidence. So I didn’t mention it.

Now Yastreblyansky argues that the result of the compromises in the drafting process pose an “unresolvable theological contradiction”. There’s a tension, to be sure. But it seems pretty easily resolved. The Declaration, taken as a whole, appeals to a God who God is “the maker of the universe, who cares for man’s happiness, gives him the resources to pursue it, and judges the manner in which he does so.” But it is neutral as to the grounds for belief in such a God, which may be Biblical, natural/theological, or merely customary. In the 18th century, that was a pretty wide net because there were very few open atheists. It’s a bigger challenge today, since there are.

But that’s the not the main issue, as Geo has heroically reminded us at @109 @119 @149. The main issue is whether a the long-term health of stable and reasonably democratic society depends religious support–or perhaps a different conception of the sacred. Again, I’m skeptical about that, although I don’t deny its *possibility* as some commenters have claimed. My self-description as “quasi-Straussian” was a bit of a joke. But I do think Strauss is onto something when he discusses the non-rational foundations of an political “regime”.

In thinking about this, it’s probably helpful to some actual evidence. LFC @ 125 John Quiggin #134 charge me with building my story entirely around the US, to the exclusion of other historical experience. So maybe it’s true the American democracy has a particularly close relationship with religious. But Americans are…unusual is all sorts of ways.

Quiggin says: “the consolidation of democracy in developed countries since 1945 has coincided with the disappearance of serious religious belief.” Well, that depends what you mean by developed countries, by the consolidation of democracy, and by “since 1945”.

For example, we’re all familiar with the secularization trend in Europe over the last 40 or so years. On the other hand, the period that I would describe as crucial for the restoration and consolidation of democracy (roughly 1945-1955) was actually a moment of religious revival. This included the extensive influence of Christian thought on the new constitutions and international human rights regimes, which Sam Moyn has been documenting. So I think the record is more mixed than the secularization story suggests.

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samuel goldman 06.20.15 at 1:50 pm

To the put it a bit more directly: I’m not saying that all democratic citizens need to be particularly pious all the time. That’s clearly not the case. If you look at my original post, however, what I am saying is that is religion matters a lot at moments of crisis like the one the Declaration addressed, which involve…revolution, civil war, economic collapse, foreign invasion, etc. Luckily for them, our European friends haven’t had to deal with these things recently.

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Harold 06.20.15 at 1:52 pm

Saying that the Declaration is founded on religious belief is pretty thin gruel, since Trinitarians considered Unitarians, Pantheists, Deists, and Transcendentalists to be atheists and still do. Or worse, they accused them of being believers in “mere humanity” (as Coleridge put it after he himself had renounced Unitarianism). They might as well not have believed in God since conventionally religious people, who were the vast majority, considered them idolaters at best. Most religious people want you to believe every jot and tittle of what they believe, and even then they are not sure of you.

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Anarcissie 06.20.15 at 1:59 pm

Plume 06.20.15 at 3:46 am @ 145 —
A mysterious vacuum might not be a bad sort of master, if one felt a lingering need for one. Remember that with the priesthood of all believers the professional priests have been fatally compromised, if not fully deposed.

Z 06.20.15 at 1:39 am @ 135 —
I accept the idea that in order to unite the many tribes and subtribes of Europe which immigrated here, bringing their lethal hostilities with them, it was necessary to have a clearly marked and accursed anti-elite or anti-elect so that the Europeans could define themselves against them as members of one supertribe, that of the White Man. Otherwise they would have fought one another here as they did in Europe. No existing religion could have fulfilled this purpose, since by mere local exclusion it could not provide the universally accursed minority for ‘everyone else’ to define themselves against.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 2:05 pm

An attempt to boil down #162:

From my observation, the religiously inclined have come to expect a certain perk in our society. Subconsciously, consciously. That is, they get to take their shots at the crowd, without getting hit with return volleys. There are all kinds of social conventions in America that, directly, indirectly, subtly, overtly, make it pretty clear. Someone’s “religious beliefs” are accorded a special place and receive special privileges — more and more these days, even in the legal realm.

They have grown used to these protections, and fight back against even the suggestion that it’s time to take them down, and I think even the non-religious aren’t ready for it — at least not enough of them, yet.

To me, if you’re going to take your shots at others, be prepared for return volleys, even in matters of religious belief. Beyond being “fair,” this is healthy for the believer themselves. Nietzsche talked about “courage of one’s convictions” being too tepid. He thought “courage in the face of an attack on one’s convictions” a better measure. In short, the religious can handle it, or they should be able to. If they can’t, it’s likely a sign that their convictions are in a rather insecure place and need some help. A fair and open debate about these is one of the best ways to secure them again.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 2:58 pm

Val @146, Geo @149,

I strongly disagree. To begin with, this is a public forum. So the FIRST thing you do when writing of a new tragedy is to think to yourself, “What if anybody who just lost a loved one in that tragedy, were to read this?” You are supposed to do this, no matter what your true beliefs about it are. And no matter how unlikely it is that they, indeed, will be reading this discussion.

Why? Because if you do NOT, then you automatically exhibit, to all the rest of us, that you have very little experience of other’s peoples’ emotions, and almost no understanding of emotions other than your own. And perhaps not even your own.

It therefore immediately follows, though you will certainly be uncomprehending of this fact, that you have little understanding of how most human discourse proceeds, much less how it proceeds in a public forum. There are rules of public discourse, and you as an individual don’t get to set them just by your participation in the conversation.

Therefore people will turn away from the discussion, because you have coarsely cheapened the conversation through your own lack of emotional tact. Even when no loved ones are listening. And thus, you have broken another rule of discourse, which is to keep the others in the game, by using sympathy, amusement or instruction.

Indeed the rest of us are likely to find your own prior injunction “to begin with unconditional welcoming”, (see the last paragraph in #126), to be laughably hollow.

But that is just to begin with.

If, in addition to that, your statements in a time of grief don’t explicitly recognize, in a discussion of religion, that religion is a standard and successful way to deal with grief, then you have demonstrated that you don’t know even know one of the main functions of the topic under discussion.

In response to this charge, an intellectual defense of yourself will be inadmissibly incomplete, because the overcoming of grief is not an intellectual process.

On top of that, if you state historical falsehoods, then you’ve now triply damned yourself as a juvenile logic-chopper, and are well on the way to a complex web of embarrassments:

#129: “…17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest” ?

“In the slightest”? Well that’s not merely feckless, it’s wrong, on both the debit and credit side of the ledger. Christianity is on the hook for some crimes, but it can hardly be blamed for not stopping all the rest.

And to its credit? There is no credit? Is this because people could have found other ways to learn love, sympathy, sanctity? Because Bach would have found another reason to write cantatas? Milton, to write the greatest poem in English?

But: A) no, as a scientific matter, we can never KNOW the validity of all of those millions of counterfactuals, and B) as an historical statement, it’s simply false. Putting them together: C) the assertion that a counterfactual might prove it, is wrong.

“…we hear from “Christians” that it was an assault on their religion, not a racist act of terrorism.” ?

What does this mean in the context? That Christianity hasn’t led to “a better world in the slightest”, and that FURTHER evidence is, that the new murders are blamed as an attack on the religion instead of as an attack on a race?

Well that isn’t necessarily further evidence of Christianity’s worthlessness and perfidy, to begin with.

And if the scare quotes mean “some” Christians instead of all Christians, then it is even less evidence about Christianity, as a whole that hasn’t done any good, “in the slightest”.

And if the scare quotes mean, “people who say they are Christian, but are not” (which is what scare quotes usually mean: false representation, simulation, or provisional or temporary status) then Christianity’s got NOTHING to do with this additional evidence.

So this part is all completely illogical.

And in reality of course, almost everyone is calling it a racist act of terrorism, except a few execrable nuts in the right-wing political press and the vile political candidates who are angling for their support. But the fact that politicians hide behind Christianity is not something Christianity can do a lot about. It can’t sue for trademark violations, slander, or false representation of Jesus’ name. However, preachers are frequently warning against others who commit crimes in Jesus’ name.

And the Pope just delivered an encyclical two days ago which is an enormous step in making a better world.

To conclude, the question is NOT, “Golly, maybe Plume’s right? Religion is a two-edged sword, and by golly, no one’s ever pointed THAT out before — and pointed it out endlessly, as if we hadn’t read him the first dozen times!… And as if the rest of us on this blog don’t already know it, from millions of other people, and thousands of books, even though we’re three centuries into the Enlightenment!”

And the question surely is not, “But! those who are grieving their loved ones, don’t know it! and must be newly instructed!” Because I imagine they are pretty much feeling the sword at this moment, and don’t need an emotional imbecile to press it in more.

Instead the real questions are separate; intellectual, emotional.

Intellectually, as ZM And Jerry Vinokurov both indicate, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Emotionally, religion is much, much more than an ideology.

So I think that an apology to the community is still in order.

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F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 3:43 pm

@geo 06.20.15 at 2:45 am
>FF@132: I really don’t think you do Goldman’s argument justice. Benign ideologies like Spanish anarchism have all too rarely taken root among large groups. The “atheist ideological movements” that have succeeded — Stalinism, Maoism, fascism — have, alas, been as authoritarian and myth-ridden as any religion, and even crueler.

I very much *am* doing justice to *the specific thing that he wrote*, and the relative degree of cruelty is completely irrelevant here. Goldman didn’t say that the atheist ideologies that motivate groups of people to make sacrifices are necssarily and inevitably cruel ones (although that would still be begging the question), he said that such ideologies don’t exist – that atheist ideologies simply *can’t* motivate groups of people to make sacrifices. Literally, he wrote that he is “skeptical” that “groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power”.

As for the completely distinct argument that *you* are making on behalf of conservatives – briefly, I don’t agree that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a better record than Communism in terms of justifying cruelty, and I think it’s an absurd rhetorical hyperbole to claim that Communism (or even fascism and Nazism, uneager as I am to say anything positive about them) could possibly be said to be as “myth-ridden” as most religions, including Christianity. Maybe I need to clarify – Das Kapital and Mein Kampf are very different documents, but one thing neither of them asserts is that the sky is a firm ceiling in which the sun, the moon and the stars are fixed for the purposes of illumination. Another thing that neither of them say is that the first man was made out of mud and the first woman out of his rib, and so on, you get the picture. And if they had contained such claims, they wouldn’t have got away with it. As for the cruelty and authoritarianism, for any evil that Communism or even fascism and Nazism ever perpetrated, it holds true that relgious and political traditionalists had done it first, and had been doing it for millennia as far as they had been able to. Conservatives using these things to attack the left and secularism are deeply dishonest and hypocritical, and basically pulling a tu quoque, as has been mentioned already in several threads.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 3:47 pm

Lee @166,

Nothing I wrote warrants an apology, and especially not in relationship to the grief people are feeling in South Carolina right now. In fact, I’ve read and heard them decry the exact thing I decried. I’ve read and heard their appalled reaction to the suggestion that this was an attack on religious freedom, as opposed to what it clearly was:

A racist, terrorist attack on blacks by a white supremacist.

And given that this wasn’t at all about religion, it makes zero sense for you to suggest that criticism of Christianity is at all relevant to the emotions in effect. They are grieving for their loved ones, not because of a supposed assault on Christianity. They are forced to grieve because a white supremacist, wearing three different white supremacist flags, said he wanted to start a race war. He murdered nine blacks in hopes of doing that.

It’s not about Christianity, Lee. Being critical of it is not even in the same universe of concerns for the family and friends of the victims.

You really couldn’t be more wrong about this if you practiced for months.

I don’t owe the board or anyone else an apology.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.20.15 at 3:49 pm

Lee. A. Arnold: “To begin with, this is a public forum. So the FIRST thing you do when writing of a new tragedy is to think to yourself, “What if anybody who just lost a loved one in that tragedy, were to read this?” You are supposed to do this, no matter what your true beliefs about it are. And no matter how unlikely it is that they, indeed, will be reading this discussion.”

I substantially agree with Lee A . Arnold about this particular case. When nine people are murdered in a racist attack on a church, that’s not the time for bringing up what happened as support for some kind of tangential conclusion. It may be time, right afterwards, to talk about America’s gun laws, or about contemporary racism, because both of those are directly related. It’s not time to bring that massacre up in relation to what we’re talking about here.

And really it would be just as crass to do it from another direction. I’ve often been criticized by other commenters here for saying that American culture is all about racism to a degree that they think isn’t true. If I immediately jumped in and wrote “See — I was right all along, and this proves it!” that would be just as stupid and wrong.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 4:00 pm

Rich @169,

You hold a grudge. That’s all too clear. So your piling on is duly noted. But it’s baseless.

And I did think about the remotely slim possibility that someone in SC would read this board. It’s at least a part of the reason I brought it up in the first place. My outrage at the events is outrage on behalf of the victims and their families. There is nothing in what I said that would offend them, and I think they’d agree with that outrage and its rationale. That includes the outrage over the opportunistic attempt to make this about an assault on religious freedom. If Lee or anyone else really wants to get angry and demand apologies from anyone, they need to look there.

I categorically reject his bizarre framing of any of this. It’s actually surreal in its focus.

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F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 4:05 pm

About the issue of deference and sensitivity to religion – I think this is a result of a hybrid between the traditional attitude towards religion and the modern secular one. If religion is just a kind of inherited ethnic identity that people maintain for traditional reasons, then it’s normal that it should not be criticised. It simply isn’t polite to say something like “You’re Hungarian? But why? How can you justify that position?” But if religion is, as it originally was and always will be to some extent, a system of political, scientific and philosophical claims – a description of the world and a programme for living in it, naturally following from the description – then it very much should be open to debate, like any other such system of claims such as Marxism.

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F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 4:10 pm

Plume is right, he has nothing to apologise for, and what is shameful here is Lee A. Arnold and Rich Puchalsky’s opportunistic attempts to silence an opponent and win their arguments by means of drama and emotional manipulation. While I do think that that Plume’s statement about no improvement having resulted from Christianity was unprovable and thoughtless, what he said was in no way an attack on the families of the victims. The idea that a tragic event shouldn’t be mentioned at all because such discussion could hypothetically somehow increase the distress of those who grieve is likewise absurd.

Re Lee A. Arnold’s “Religion is much, much more than an ideology” – well, you might not realise it, but ideology is much more than an ideology, too. Secular ideologies also provide ways to deal with grief, and they are also extremely important to their adherents. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be discussed, and the same applies to religion. “This is an emotional issue to me, so shut up” is just a bullying tactic.

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MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 4:30 pm

“Emotionally, religion is much, much more than an ideology.”

This is just religious people claiming their beliefs are SOOO much more important than non-religious people’s. Needless to say I disagree.

Plume has nothing to apologize for.

/I just finished rereading Terry Pratchett’s Small God’s. Holds up.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 4:38 pm

F. Foundling @171,

Interesting. And it makes a lot of sense. Riffing from that, some questions pop up for me. A Hungarian, minding his own business, not seeking to extend his realm and range of influence, power, etc. etc. That’s one thing. It would be strange to ask him, “Why are you a Hungarian.” But doesn’t the dynamic change, at least a bit, if that Hungarian seeks to extend empire? More so if he successfully does? Wouldn’t imperialism negate the ethno-deference in that case?

Christianity spread beyond the Levant largely because of Roman power, and then several European empires, and then American empires. It’s pretty safe to say it never would have reached our shores without those empires. Especially for the European conquerors of the Americas, a distant desert faction of another desert religion, one with extreme asceticism and self-abnegation built in, doesn’t appear to be the best, most organic candidate for assimilation. And from what we know about pagan religions in Europe, the overall ideology and points of reference were wildly at odds.

In short, Christianity was deeply foreign to the “sensibilities” of pagan Europe. I can see no successful adherence without the strength of various empires (en)forcing it, supporting it, pushing for it, etc. etc. Many scholars believe that the Romans could have gone in several directions. We might all be worshiping Mithras, for instance (a favorite of the Roman legions) if a few minor events had been only slightly different.

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Layman 06.20.15 at 4:47 pm

Lee A. Arnold: “I don’t think that people shouldn’t talk about it; quite the contrary.”

Apparently only so long as they say the things about it you want them to say. There was nothing requiring an apology in Plume’s comment. Further, if you think Plume was using the dead for his purposes, what do you think you are doing?

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Plume 06.20.15 at 4:52 pm

MPA @173,

Well said. And that is the crux of the problem. Because when we are asked to pay special deference, the effect is an elevation of the thing in question above thoughts and feelings of non-believers. Their beliefs, in that case, become more important than others — than ours. Their protected class is a forced hierarchy of values, with ours being much lower on the totem poll. We non-believers don’t accept this. At all.

Again, in America, this is becoming a legal issue as well. In the name of “religious freedom,” we are losing ours, which includes the freedom from religion. The autopilot deference is foundational for that. For that loss. It is also especially foundational for legalized discrimination and oppression of sexual minorities, as well as the non-religious.

To me, a vibrant democracy places all of these “beliefs” in the same open and free marketplace of ideas, up for debate, argument, persuasion, etc. etc. And if one’s religious belief is secure, he or she should welcome this challenge. Eagerly.

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geo 06.20.15 at 5:03 pm

ZM@158: Good point. Glad to see you’ve been reading other CT threads attentively. What I’d suggest is a variation on my lexicographical solution to the Communist/communist conundrum. Let’s call the egalitarian, solidaristic, theologically primitive beliefs and practices of the Jesus movement in the first two centuries CE “christianity,” and the authoritarian, hierarchical, theologically sophisticated organization that came into being as a result of Constantine’s patronage “Christianity.” On this definition, Thomas Muntzer, Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Daniel Berrigan would be the true christians.

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Plume 06.20.15 at 5:20 pm

Geo @177,

I like the small c communism and christianity thing. Graeber uses that for his sense of the real meaning of communism, etc. . . . as we discussed in that other thread.

The human Jesus, which is the only kind I believe existed, lived his life as a small c communist. At least from our limited knowledge of his days on earth. If the proper definition of a Christian is someone who follows Christ, tries to live like Christ, then this opens up the term to billions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, secular humanists, etc. etc. Gandhi comes quickly to mind. The Buddha, too. If, however, the definition is more Paulist, that belief in Jesus as messiah is all that matters — later morphing into belief in his divinity; the two were not originally linked — then we narrow the field again.

I think the switch to belief (as central) from actual practice was key for its spread outside the Jewish community. Paradoxically, it both expanded and narrowed who could be considered “christian.”

181

Jerry Vinokurov 06.20.15 at 5:28 pm

But the common language used by the American and French Revolutions was available, and not used. The French Revolution was notably rather mild in its support for abolition, unless of course you count Tousssaint L’Ouverture as one of the revolutionaries. Basically, liberal freedom has most often been heard as the freedom of the individual: left fraternity has most often been heard as the fraternity of a favored class. It’s historically been easy to exclude black people from both as not the individuals meant, not the class meant.

This is certainly true in the abstract but I’m not sure how much of this holds for the specific case under discussion. What I mean is that neither of those other languages had the kind of penetration that would have been required of a mass movement in opposition to a society-wide problem like slavery. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I doubt that the average abolitionist circa 1820 or whatever was well-versed in the arguments of the French Revolution; those weren’t their times or their language, so why would they have adopted it? On the other hand, if you look through the archives of The Liberator, you’ll see tons of references to the Declaration, to God (of course), and also to the French Revolution.

The abolitionists lived in a society that was steeped in religion, and they were themselves deeply religious people, but their religion predated their abolitionism. It makes sense that they turned to that religion as a weapon to wield against a social evil, but I think it doesn’t make sense to try and run the process backwards and attribute their abolitionism to their religion. There’s no reason to think that religion is going to give you some special access to mass mobilization except to the extent that religion is already embedded in the social order to such an extent that it makes sense to recruit it in support of whatever project you’re committed to. But as (Christian) religiosity wanes, as it has in e.g. Europe, religious language loses its power; people are no longer motivated by appeals to the Divine Judge or Providence or whatever, so a different language has to be found.

182

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 6:11 pm

@Plume 06.20.15 at 4:38 pm

>Interesting. And it makes a lot of sense. Riffing from that, some questions pop up for me. A Hungarian, minding his own business, not seeking to extend his realm and range of influence, power, etc. etc. That’s one thing. It would be strange to ask him, “Why are you a Hungarian.” But doesn’t the dynamic change, at least a bit, if that Hungarian seeks to extend empire? More so if he successfully does? Wouldn’t imperialism negate the ethno-deference in that case?

Well, then the criticism will be of Hungarian imperialism, but not of Hungarian-ness itself. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on a set of claims, and if these claims are true, then it makes all the sense in the world that one should work to extend the sphere of influence of Christianity, as Christians always have been. In that way, Christianity is like socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, the claim that washing your hands before eating is good for your health, the claim that black cats crossing your path can bring bad luck, etc. As for how “natural” Christianity was for an area before conversion, that’s a purely historical question with little relevance for its legitimacy today. Personally, I’ve got the impression that it was best adapted to the relatively developed, urbanised areas of the Roman Empire, and that part of its spread was pretty “natural”; most of the rest has been connected to civilisational influence and with political and economic considerations. But these sorts of spreading mechanisms are pretty normal for religions in general, I think.

183

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 6:21 pm

F. Foundling #172: “..what is shameful here is Lee A. Arnold and Rich Puchalsky’s opportunistic attempts to silence an opponent and win their arguments by means of drama and emotional manipulation.”

F. Foundling, what is the statement of the argument that I was trying to win, by attempts to silence an opponent?

184

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 6:25 pm

MPA Victoria #173: “This is just religious people claiming their beliefs are SOOO much more important than non-religious people’s.”

MPA Victoria, you think that I am a religious person?

185

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 6:27 pm

Layman #175: “Further, if you think Plume was using the dead for his purposes, what do you think you are doing?”

Layman, what evidence is there that I think Plume was using the dead for his purposes?

186

Plume 06.20.15 at 6:38 pm

Lee,

Please be honest here. What I said offended you. It offended you deeply enough to say I should apologize to the entire board or leave. To strengthen your claim, you attempted to make this an issue about the emotions of the people in Charleston, even though you have no way of knowing they’d care at all about a particular criticism of Christianity, and no logical reason to suppose they would . . . . especially when that criticism had absolutely nothing to do with them. Their loved ones were murdered because they were black, not because they were Christian. It is those who refuse to acknowledge that, and try to shift it to some other rationale, who are being offensive and insensitive. Eric Erickson, for example, is now blaming this all on our acceptance of people like Caitlyn Jenner!!

In short, this is about you, not the people in Charleston. Be honest. If you were, you would ask me to apologize to you, because you took this personally and it offends you. IMO, you have no right to assume you speak for anyone else, especially not the victims in SC.

187

Layman 06.20.15 at 7:21 pm

“Layman, what evidence is there that I think Plume was using the dead for his purposes?”

If that’s not your objection, then your objection is incomprehensible. You think that people should discuss it in the right way, but Plume should apologize for discussing it in the wrong way, and with insufficient overt sympathy. Get off your horse, you look foolish up there.

188

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 7:27 pm

Layman #185,

So you, too, think that people who were worshipping in a church, and then watched their loved ones be murdered, could read,

“17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest,” (Plume, #129)

and they would agree that

“There is nothing in what I said that would offend them,” (#170)

because YOU also think that they were in the church to participate in something that THEY believed hasn’t led to a better world, in the slightest?

189

Plume 06.20.15 at 7:39 pm

Lee,

Oh, stop it. Just stop it. Anyone who really is honest about history knows what I said is true, and also that it has zero to do with the massacre in Charleston, and that the loved ones of the victims couldn’t possible care less if someone on a bulletin board made that point. They have a tragedy to deal with right now — one that is all about racism and a racist terrorist act. What an anonymous poster says about Christianity on a bulletin board is going to be the last thing on their minds. Step back, take a deep breath, and you’ll realize this.

And please have the decency and the guts to respond directly to my posts, if you’re going to go on and on and on about my supposed crime. It’s absolutely chickenshit to keep talking about me as if I’m not here.

190

MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 7:43 pm

Why should I care Lee? And why is a religious person’s beliefs afforded more importance than mine?

191

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 7:58 pm

MPA Victoria #188,

So you think it’s okay, then. You think it’s okay to say to somebody whose spouse was just murdered in a church, “Well, your religion is worthless anyhow.”

Or take a secular example. They to the Aurora theatre to see a midnight show, and there’s a mass shooting, and you observe to the survivors, “Well, movies are pretty stupid, anyhow.” That’s okay, to you?

192

MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 8:05 pm

Dodging my question Lee. Why is that? Lets have an honest conversation here.

193

Consumatopia 06.20.15 at 8:07 pm

I agree with Rich that a good case can be made for the indispensability of Christianity to anti-racism and some other movements. However, I think the reason for this is basically the opposite of the argument in the OP. Along the lines geo was arguing at 12, you can just as easily use Scripture to oppose as to agree with the Declaration. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a moral position that you couldn’t use Scripture to defend.

This sort of incoherence might be annoying to the analytically minded, but it can sometimes be a useful tool for the oppressed. It means that you can take whatever beliefs you want (or at least, whatever beliefs you can get away with), and call them Christianity, and use the dominant majority’s own belief system against them.

It’s not just Christianity that can play this role, of course, think of Iranian protestors yelling “Allah akbar” from rooftops at night. It’s not that the logical content of Islam supported the protestors, it’s that one can employ religious symbols pretty much arbitrarily.

194

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 8:11 pm

MPA Victoria #190,

I certainly don’t think a religious person’s beliefs should be afforded more importance than your beliefs! That’s why I asked you about the secular case. Would you say to people exiting the Aurora theatre shootings, “Movies are worthless, anyway”?

195

Plume 06.20.15 at 8:12 pm

Lee @189,

You’ve lost your mind. Is that really how you see this? That I posted as if I were talking directly to a victim’s spouse? That I made it a point to say “your religion is worthless” to them, directly? You think that was my intention or the effect of my post?

Again, you’ve lost your mind.

Using your surreal and bizarre logic, pretty much every criticism we make on this board could be taken that way, somewhere, for someone or group of someones. Given that there was no intention on my part to direct any of it toward them, and that I did NOT in fact do so, you have to stretch the boundaries of reason light years past the breaking point.

You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, Lee. I hope you’ve left something for the trail back into the light.

196

steven johnson 06.20.15 at 8:19 pm

F. Foundling @180
I’m not quite sure what you mean by “civilisational influence and with political and economic considerations..?”

Charlemagne and the Saxons?
The Teutonic Order?
La Reconquista?

Is the common pattern of conversion of a monarch, followed by “conversion” of the population fall under civilizational influence or is it a political and economic consideration?

Also, is this kind of thing relevant to the conversion of one nation to Protestantism or Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy?

197

MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 8:32 pm

Thank you Lee. I am very glad to hear that. So why did you say that a religious person is more emotionally attached to their beliefs than I am to mine? How could.you possibly know?

Straight up I think it is always a good time to talk about societal issues. So I have no problem with talking about gun control right after a shooting or the problems with Christianity right after a racist terror attack. The chances of a family member of a victim reading this is are so small that I really don’t think it should be a consideration. If we didn’t talk about societal issues after a mass shooting in the U.S. we could never talk about them.

198

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 8:35 pm

MPA Victoria,

WHERE did I say that a religious person is more emotionally attached to their beliefs than you, or than anyone else? Please give me the comment #.

199

MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 8:41 pm

Comment 166. It is pretty much a direct quote Lee.

200

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 8:52 pm

Oh I see. My mistake, sorry. It’s because I always take “ideology” by the dictionary definition: a system of ideas to run a political-economic system. Whereas religion to me is primarily spiritual-emotional, with an intellectual-theological framework that is interchangeable, really. I don’t think of people running to an ideology to overcome grief or despair; it is supposed to be reasoned and dispassionate. But of course people do become emotionally attached to them, as we have observed here.

201

Plume 06.20.15 at 8:53 pm

WHERE did I say that a religious person is more emotionally attached to their beliefs than you, or than anyone else? Please give me the comment #.

You more than imply this by your insistence that what I said was unconscionable and would devastate the victims’ families. Aside from the complete absurdity of your stance, you’re also guilty of infantalizing them. It’s beyond patronizing on your part to assume they can’t tell the difference between generalized comments on a bulletin board, in a thread that suggests we must believe in a god for the Declaration to make any sense, and some direct accusation.

I’m making an assumption too. I’m assuming they’re more than capable of seeing the massive, colossal difference.

202

MPAVictoria 06.20.15 at 8:57 pm

Fair enough Lee. Thank you foe the responses.

203

yastreblyansky 06.20.15 at 9:10 pm

@192 I’m trying to wrap my head around that analogy. As a (putatively) secular person, MPA should understand the need to be sensitive about criticizing the movie industry just in case any family members of the Aurora shooting victims happen to be listening? And this explains why we should be sensitive about criticizing the history of Christianity, because, just as the Aurora killings took place in a theater, the white-terrorist massacre in Charleston took place in the victims’ church? I’m not following.

204

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 9:27 pm

@steven johnson 06.20.15 at 8:19 pm
>I’m not quite sure what you mean by “civilisational influence and with political and economic considerations..?”
>Charlemagne and the Saxons?
>The Teutonic Order?
>La Reconquista?

These are some of the more violent cases, obviously. But yes, the reason the Frankish state and most of the other Germanic tribes had become Christian in the first place, and probably even the reason the Christianisation campaign so successfully converted the rest of the Saxon population after the end of the Saxon wars, was the cultural and civilisational dominance of the Roman/Christian sphere.

>Is the common pattern of conversion of a monarch, followed by “conversion” of the population fall under civilizational influence or is it a political and economic consideration?

Usually both, for the monarch and the elite that converts. They do it because of civilisational influence or is it a political and economic considerations. Of course, being a monarch and an elite, they then proceed to influence the rest, sometimes by force. On the other hand, some segment of the population usually converts even before the monarch. In a period with no ideal of religious pluralism, all of this was pretty normal.

Yes, I noticed your sarcasm, and of course the whole thing is appalling from a modern leftist point of view, but obviously, pretty much nobody had such a point of view back then. However, the whole thing can’t be reduced to the violence.

205

Val 06.20.15 at 9:29 pm

Lee @ 166 and thereafter and Plume @ 193
I think there is something in what you are both saying, but Lee you shouldn’t have attacked Plume personally, and you shouldn’t keep doing it, and Plume you should stop reacting by making equally personal attacks on Lee. Of course it’s your business, not mine, what you do, but if you want to talk respectfully at the time of this terrible massacre, then that’s what you should do.

People do tend to turn on each other at times of stress. Also I know that what may look, to an outsider such as me, like people denying an issue may mean, as someone said up thread, that that they don’t know how to deal with it. So I guess first looking as if you’re ignoring the massacre, and then having a fight with each other about it, is all normal behaviour in some ways, when confronted with something this bad.

I’m sorry, I think I sound as if I’m moralising at you. But I’m shocked by this massacre, and all those that have gone before it. I’m with President Obama on this – this isn’t normal. I can say what’s well known, that societies that are very unequal tend to have high levels of violence, and easy access to guns makes it worse, but the deeper issues about American culture and history, the role of racism and Christianity (with a small or capital c) and ideas about individual rights and liberties – the things you’re talking about here – I don’t know enough to comment on their relationship to the tragedy.

I just hope that you all have discussions on this and that it leads somewhere this time. God knows there’s plenty wrong with my own society, we have too much cruelty, but since our gun laws were changed, we really don’t seem to have had those kinds of massacres.

206

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 9:32 pm

Yastreblyansky #201: “…the need to be sensitive about criticizing the movie industry just in case any family members of the Aurora shooting victims happen to be listening? And this explains why we should be sensitive about criticizing the history of Christianity…?”

Depends on 4 things: 1. What your criticism of the movie industry is (the matching example would be, “Movies are worthless anyway, have never led to any good in the slightest”, 2. How soon after the shootings you publish it, 3. That the criticism of the history of Christianity was condemnatory, “[it hasn’t] led to a better world in the slightest”, and 4. the obvious fact (well, obvious to most of us) that those people will now be turning to that very same Christianity to handle their grief and despair, even though it was insisted that it hasn’t led to a better world in the slightest.

207

Val 06.20.15 at 9:40 pm

I’m not trying to hijack the thread to turn it in to a debate about gun laws and whether they work, btw, just in case there’s anyone around here who wants to do that (I’ve seen that happen before). It’s not just about gun laws, though they are part of the discussion.

208

Val 06.20.15 at 9:42 pm

@ 204
Please let it go. Plume’s general comments about Christianity obviously weren’t meant in the way you’re suggesting.

209

Rich Puchalsky 06.20.15 at 9:46 pm

“And this explains why we should be sensitive about criticizing the history of Christianity, because, just as the Aurora killings took place in a theater, the white-terrorist massacre in Charleston took place in the victims’ church? I’m not following.”

Maybe some history would help people understand this inconceivable, can’t-be-followed puzzle? OK. The church where the massacre happened is 199 years old: it’s the oldest historically black congregation south of Baltimore. The A.M.E. Church, the denomination it’s in, is the oldest independent Christian denomination founded by blacks in the world. One of the church’s co-founders tried to start a slave rebellion in 1822. It was active in the Civil Rights Movement. It has recently been active in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a perfect example of how anti-racism has, throughout American history, been a force that has existed with the support of religion — whether you like it or not.

Now, when I commented on this I was just writing generally about how it’s often considered kind of impolite to bring in recent horrible events that are tangentially related to the subject being discussed in order to score points in Internet arguments. Or my part, at least, it really had nothing to do with the substance of this particular case at all. But since people just don’t get it — Christianity is not some kind of minor element of what this church is about. It’s a Christian church — like it or not!

So, sure, you can condemn Christianity if you want to. I have no problem with that: I’m not Christian, and I’m not religious. You can also talk about this massacre all you want. Go right ahead. But doing both at once, at the same time? That’s a whole lot like those people who show up at funerals with the “God Hates Fags” signs. You can still do if you want to — go right ahead. But some people will look at you with the same scorn that they get. Like it or not.

210

yastreblyansky 06.20.15 at 10:00 pm

I have the utmost respect for the Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston and deep sadness for its terrible loss and anger at the racism of the attack. If you asked the question whether the black church in the US has done more good than harm in the course of its history I would easily answer more good.

I felt the movie theater analogy was trivializing the church and the massacre monstrously, and in that way far more directly offensive than discussions of the history of Christianity in general.

211

yastreblyansky 06.20.15 at 10:05 pm

Nobody’s going around lying that James Holmes was pursuing a war on film when he killed his victims in the Aurora theater, but Fox News and its friends continue to insist that the killings in Charleston are a part of their imaginary war on Christianity, to deflect attention from the racist character of the attack. When you associate criticism of the history of Christianity with the Charleston attack you are supporting the Fox view.

212

js. 06.20.15 at 10:08 pm

I think just everyone drop the Charleston stuff, maybe? It’s not really relevant to the post, to begin with. Just a friendly suggestion.

213

yastreblyansky 06.20.15 at 10:11 pm

@210
Right, sorry.

214

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 10:13 pm

Val @203&204,

I don’t take anything Plume wrote as a personal attack! As for me, I apologize if it offends anyone’s sensibility. My basic objection was rhetorical, about the emotional perception of listeners already in existential crisis. So I suppose I should pay attention to the fact that there are also readers who are not Americans, and aren’t ready for the rough-and-tumble of words from a society that is almost entirely inured and numbed to violence, and contains many intellectuals who are always sure they are right, and will even insist that they didn’t mean what they clearly wrote. So you may find it’s all too much to take. But I apologize to you personally.

215

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 11:29 pm

@Lee A. Arnold 06.20.15 at 8:52 pm
> I don’t think of people running to an ideology to overcome grief or despair

Ideologies are ways to make sense of the world and of life and death. And that includes ways to overcome grief and despair, too. The intellectual and the emotional sides of this are inseparable.

216

Plume 06.20.15 at 11:31 pm

Rich @207,

So, sure, you can condemn Christianity if you want to. I have no problem with that: I’m not Christian, and I’m not religious. You can also talk about this massacre all you want. Go right ahead. But doing both at once, at the same time? That’s a whole lot like those people who show up at funerals with the “God Hates Fags” signs. You can still do if you want to — go right ahead. But some people will look at you with the same scorn that they get. Like it or not.

This comment is simply deranged. It makes Lee’s hysterical reaction to a very mild and general criticism of Christianity look almost sane in comparison. Comparing what I said to the odious, disgusting, despicable people behind that campaign? Seriously, fuck you. You’re a fucking idiot.

. . . .

Notice that I said Christianity, in its very long history, has not made the world a better place, which would be an extremely tall order for any entity. Why on earth would anyone find that a shocking statement when it’s so obviously true? And I would say the same about every single religion in history. Not one of them, over the course of their existence, made the world a better place. Not one of them. Each one may have helped individual followers at important times in their lives, and many have been helped by them, as individuals. But the world — the world, the planet and its inhabitants in total — have not seen an increase in our overall state due to any religion, ever, on balance. On balance, they all have come with far too many heavy negatives for that to happen, including an all too relentless desire to control lives and force people to adhere to their very strict vision of “morality,” often by force.

We still suffer through the same things we’ve always suffered through. We still slaughter each other, we still have all the pathologies we’ve always had. We’re still raping and pillaging and destroying ecosystem after ecosystem. Religion has absolutely failed to make the world a better place, and this is patently obvious to anyone who actually, honestly observes the here and now and reads history and is strong enough, mentally, to escape from propaganda. If they are not strong enough mentally, they will continue to believe in fairy tales about fairy tales, one of them being that a religion actually has the power to make the world a better place. You expect the impossible if you think they can.

That task is far too big for any religion, and religions tend not to have that as their goal in the first place. At least organized religions. They tend to have expansion as their goal, and unquestioning acceptance of their rules. They tend to be imperialistic, and that has never, and never will, lead to a better world.

Again, better for individual followers, at times? Certainly. I never suggested otherwise. I’ve seen it happen. But I’ve also seen religion destroy people. First hand. And I shouldn’t have to remind folks about the various atrocities throughout history, like the Crusades, the witch hunts, the Inquisition, the endless sectarian wars, the forced conversion of native peoples all over the world, etc. I shouldn’t have to. And if anyone owes anyone an apology here, it’s Rich and Lee for saying what they’ve said.

217

Rich Puchalsky 06.20.15 at 11:35 pm

Getting back to the thread, Jerry V. writes:
“What I mean is that neither of those other languages had the kind of penetration that would have been required of a mass movement in opposition to a society-wide problem like slavery. “

I can believe that the language of the French Revolution wasn’t widely known in America: I can’t believe that the language of the American Revolution wasn’t. As far as I know, America has always generally venerated the Founders. So if abolitionists could have made a convincing case around more or less liberal ideals, that was always available to them. And indeed, as you write, they tried — abolitionists used just about every argumentative source that they thought might help. But historically, the core of abolition was religious. I don’t think that you can say that they were religious, so religion was a weapon they picked up. They had a few different weapons they tried to use, and only one really worked in an American context.

“There’s no reason to think that religion is going to give you some special access to mass mobilization except to the extent that religion is already embedded in the social order to such an extent that it makes sense to recruit it in support of whatever project you’re committed to. But as (Christian) religiosity wanes, as it has in e.g. Europe, religious language loses its power; people are no longer motivated by appeals to the Divine Judge or Providence or whatever, so a different language has to be found.”

I’m really not trying to generalize this argument to Europe or anyone else but America.

218

F. Foundling 06.20.15 at 11:36 pm

The preceding post is *not* an attempt to return to the discussion of any recent events, it is about ideology and religion in general. And that’ll be all from me.

219

geo 06.20.15 at 11:39 pm

“remarkably stupid, tin-eared, and callous” … “you’ve lost your mind” … “fuck you; you’re a fucking idiot”

I’m with Val; please stop.

220

Plume 06.20.15 at 11:50 pm

F Foundling @213,

Agreed. I think it’s a very shaky separation/division, proffered by Lee.

I’m an atheist. I’ve had direct experience with terrible tragedies, lost countless loved ones, have grieved because of this more times than I can count. I’ve been near death several times, and have battled incurable cancer for the last 12 years, the vast majority of that time taking chemo. It would appear that Lee is suggesting only the religious have emotions, or that only religions can offer emotional support for grief. I find that deeply offensive, on many levels, as it cheapens what the non-religious go through and how we grieve, how we find ways to cope, that life matters to us just as much as any Christian.

The gist of what Lee has been saying all along is that emotions are for the religious, and that because of this we need to pay special deference to them. The rest of us apparently have lesser concerns and needs, and our feelings matter less, our forms of coping don’t count, don’t deserve the same kind of deference, don’t warrant sensitivity, etc. etc. Obviously, this is insulting to the non-religious. But, ironically, it’s also insulting to religious people. As mentioned above, it’s patronizing and it treats the religious like children, as if they’re not strong enough to deal with what everyone else deals with.

Beyond that, this dichotomy is false. For every religious person who has deep, emotional attachments to their faith, I’ve known many who are calmly analytical about theirs. And I’ve known people who are more attached, more emotional, more passionate in their beliefs about politics, sports, books — than many a religious. Online, or in the real world. In fact, these forums should be proof of the emotional attachment and passion for ideas in the secular realm. Hell, I’ve been party to far more heated and emotional battles on the old New York Times book forum than in real world debates with religious people.

In short, Lee assumes too much and stereotypes to the point of caricature.

221

Plume 06.20.15 at 11:58 pm

Geo @217,

Good advice. It’s time for a very long vacation from CT.

222

yastreblyansky 06.21.15 at 12:06 am

@215 Ah. If it’s about the use of religious rhetoric in 19th-century America I have no quarrel. William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln used lots of it.

What I object to is a hypothesis being pushed all the GOP evangelicals: that it was churches (evangelical white churches, as opposed to the necessary Quakers, and the black churches founded in the 2nd Great Awakening) that did all the work, to the exclusion of movements like Garrison’s, which was downright anticlerical, and political parties, the abolitionist faction of the Whigs and eventually Republicans, and workers’ Free Labor and Free Soil movements. But they certainly used a lot of spiritual language.

223

Rich Puchalsky 06.21.15 at 12:25 am

Consumatopia @ #191: “This sort of incoherence might be annoying to the analytically minded, but it can sometimes be a useful tool for the oppressed. It means that you can take whatever beliefs you want (or at least, whatever beliefs you can get away with), and call them Christianity, and use the dominant majority’s own belief system against them.”

Yes. And of course the chosen Christian sources look a lot different. Let’s tale the MLK Jr. “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech as an example.

First there’s the historical, panoramic view. It goes: Jews escaping from Egypt, Greek philosophers, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Martin Luther, Lincoln signing Emancipation Proclamation, FDR. Quick quiz: what supremely important Christian event got missed out there? Jesus gets quoted later on at the same length that Amos does. MLK Jr. does go into the story of the Good Samaritan at length, but that’s a parable not a direct story about Jesus. The question “Who is my neighbor” makes it obvious why MLK Jr. chose it, of course.

Or the “hypocrisy of American slavery” speech by Frederick Douglass. Leaving aside the general mentions of God, there’s first Babylon then “If I forget thee, Jerusalem”. But with “For it is not light that is needed, but fire” and the ensuing paragraphs you can see that the source is Amos again: the day of the Lord being darkness not light, and hatred of festivals that exist only to tell people that they are good when they aren’t. This is why, way upthread, I suggested that there is a specific source for a lot of our social justice tradition.

224

Rich Puchalsky 06.21.15 at 12:58 am

yastreblyansky: “What I object to is a hypothesis being pushed all the GOP evangelicals”

Do we have to take it seriously? I really didn’t think that was worth arguing against here. At most people seem to be arguing against a vaguely Straussian idea that people need religion in order to actually follow through on these ideals. And, again as I mentioned upthread, that’s disproved by history as a general contention even in an American context. The feminism and gay rights movements have had substantial success in the U.S.: neither one was or is essentially religious, so they serve as examples against the theory that only religion can motivate this kind of movement. Racism is a special case because the ground of value that racism provides in America is a lot like religion’s ground of value.

You mention Garrison, so here’s the Garrison “no compromise with the evil of slavery” speech, worth mentioning because he cites the Declaration prominently and religiously.

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yastreblyansky 06.21.15 at 1:20 am

@222 “Do we have to take it seriously?”

Maybe not. That was what got me going about Goldman’s OP, which I thought was more than vaguely Straussian, though “vaguely Straussian” was the expression Goldman used, and pernicious, pointing subtly at the “America is a Christian nation” canard and everything in the rightwing project that it entails.

Though an unsalvageable unbeliever I actually kind of love religion. I love Amos and MLK’s use of him, and I love the longstanding black use of the Exodus story, and I love Pope Francis and all the Jesuits like him, of whom there are many, and I love the person Goldman called the “Dahlia Lama”. And I love the Sufis I know. But I hate the other thing, Strauss or Huckabee or Taliban or Orthodox Putin, so much I maybe lose a little judgment when I think I see it. Sorry if I was complaining about things that weren’t there.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 1:29 am

F.Foundling #213: “Ideologies are ways to make sense of the world and of life and death.”

Then what is NOT an ideology?

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Plume 06.21.15 at 1:30 am

A parting note, regarding my original comment that set all of this nonsense in motion:

Think of organized religion as a water level. To claim that organized religion makes the world better means raising that water level. Now, one part of that organized religion destroyed a million gallons and it can’t be recovered. But another part of that organized religion saved 500,000 gallons. It did a truly wonderful thing. But the water level didn’t go up. It actually went down a bit.

Saying that religion hasn’t made the world a better place is just saying it hasn’t raised the water level. Yes, it’s made life better for some. Millions have benefited from it. But at what price? This is similar to the claim made by conservatives that tax cuts for the rich are good for the entire society. No. They’re just good for the rich. If the rich were honest, they’d say so. They’d tell us, “Yes, they make things better for us,” and they wouldn’t try to insult our intelligence by telling us this helps everyone . . . or is a net good.

Organized religion is like that. It can help a lot of people. But there is no evidence that it’s improved overall conditions (net) when its long history of imperial aggression, bigotry, persecution of minorities, forced conversion and so on is also factored in. The only way to really make the claim that it did raise the water level is to forget all about the one million gallons it lost.

And, finally: If passion and emotional attachment are what give the religious special rights and protections, my own critical views of organized religion deserve the same. They are equally passionate, deeply and sincerely held, etc. There is no difference between their level of passion and mine, their sincerity and conviction and mine, their emotional involvement and mine. To instantly adjudicate in their favor isn’t just illogical, it goes against the ideals of equal rights and common decency.

Trying to silence someone for speaking out about organized religion is itself offensive, and it, not the criticism, warrants the apology.

Regardless of all the things said today, I wish you all well.

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js. 06.21.15 at 2:04 am

I always take “ideology” by the dictionary definition: a system of ideas to run a political-economic system.

This “dictionary definition” is almost misleadingly truncated (I can give the relevant bit of the Shorter Oxford if you want). But even going by this, why wouldn’t religion classify as an ideology? It seems fairly obvious to me that any given religion is a system of ideas (even if it’s other things as well), and that some religion or other has served as the basis of pretty much all political-economic systems for most of human history. You actually disagree with this?

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T 06.21.15 at 2:37 am

Geo @109 “If we here on Crooked Timber, the Web’s great bastion of enlightened secular leftism, don’t put paid to this fatal distrust of ordinary people’s virtue and wisdom, who will?”

Several threads ago a good number of commentators thought the poor shouldn’t be given money to spend on their own behalf, much less on others. Rather, the powers that be should be giving them surplus cheese and public housing instead. So I’m not to optimistic about the answer to your question.

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Val 06.21.15 at 2:52 am

@225
For what it’s worth Plume I also felt that comparison made by Rich was offensive. I was thinking of saying so, but also of entreating you not to respond to it. That’s from bitter experience – in the past I have lost my temper and sworn at people online who’ve said offensive things to or about me, but you come to realise that by responding like that, you end up in the same place.

Anyway I won’t comment any further, except to say to js @ 210, I understand why you want people not to talk about Charleston here, but maybe just to put my views into perspective – we are having a national conversation here about recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution. If anything similar happened here to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (which happened a lot in the past, and which, although I’m not formally religious, I truly pray never happens again), that would have to be acknowledged in the conversation. Obviously you have to be very careful how you speak about these things, but not speaking can also be a problem, I think.

I know it’s not directly comparable, but it might help you see why I thought in a conversation about one of your founding documents, you might talk about Charleston.

I understand people might feel this is the time for mourning rather than talking about what to do, but it seems like in America that’s what people say, and then nothing is done. Anyway I won’t say anything further.

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js. 06.21.15 at 3:07 am

Val,

It’s not that I don’t want people to talk about Charleston on this thread (and it’s certainly not that I don’t people to talk about Charleston in relation to the founding documents of the US—I think we very much should)—I just think that the conversation that was actually occurring on this thread was unhelpful at best, and it seemed best to suggest a simple moratorium.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 3:13 am

Js. #226: “You actually disagree with this?”

If you define an economy as production and distribution, then there have been very few economies based on religion. Ancient temple economies comes to mind. A number of economies devoted a part of production to religious ritual, but most of the time, not a very large part.

Anyway, if you accept the expanded definition of “ideology”, then what is an example of a system of ideas that is not an ideology?

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Harold 06.21.15 at 4:06 am

Christianity improved the world in some ways and not in others. It was an improvement to get rid of the wild animal and gladiatorial fights in stadiums. It was not an improvement to ignore literacy and let all those ancient manuscripts get lost. Still, what manuscripts were preserved were preserved by the church (when it realized that neglecting education had been a mistake) and Roman law was preserved by Christian canon law — thence making its way into common law.

Christianity had more of a place for unmarried women than other ancient religions.

Various priests tried to discourage nobles from fighting by instituting truces for various days of the week. Other prelates sent them on crusades to get them out of the way (which was not a good thing for the countries of the near East) and so on.

Perhaps the gladiators and human sacrifice would have disappeared without Christianity, but what happened happened.

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js. 06.21.15 at 4:16 am

If you define an economy as production and distribution, then there have been very few economies based on religion.

Well, you presumably know about how banks based in many Muslim countries don’t charge interest (at least as normally understood), or say about usury laws in medieval Europe. You don’t think these are economic institutions based on religion? What about taxes levied specifically on members of religious minorities—a common practice in the pre-modern era. On the other hand, you don’t want to be too strict about “economies based on [x ideology]” because then nothing will turn out to be an ideology. After all, it’s not as if modern capitalist economies are based on the writings of Smith, Ricardo, etc. It’s the other way round, surely—first you get the social practice, then , on its basis, you get the theorizing. (I mean, you can’t even get central planning out of Marx, and that’s your most favorable test case.)

But look, this is all besides the point. Because the point really is: what does one gain or lose by designating religion as an ideology or by withholding that designation. I kinda got confused on that point myself, so I went back through the thread, and I found this by you @60:

religion really is (and always was) a functional, metaphorical expression of what is essentially a wordless process

OK. So… I literally don’t know what to make of that. But surely you realize that that is an amazingly controversial characterization of what religion is. Seriously, I am honestly, truly not trying to be dismissive, but that is so alien to what I think that I don’t know how to make argumentative contact with it. Except perhaps to say that when I talk about “religion” and when you talk about “religion” we’re just talking about completely different things. To illustrate: the thing I’m talking about is the kind of thing where a dude in funny hat in Rome can say something and it causes unforeseen problems for Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum. What you’re talking about is… something very different, at any rate. And frankly, I’m not sure why I should at all be concerned about the thing you’re talking about, whereas it’s pretty clear to me why I should be concerned about the dude-with-funny-hat/Jeb Bush kind of thing (or for that matter the MLK kind of thing or the liberation theology kind of thing).

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js. 06.21.15 at 4:17 am

Reply to Lee A. Arnold in moderation. I’d like to think that it was “Santorum” that did it.

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Peter T 06.21.15 at 4:23 am

js@226 and Lee @230

It’s true that few civilisations are directly based economically on religion (although Sumeria and Egypt certainly were). But it’s true that without the ability to frame questions of power and distribution in some way that is not tied to self-interest but is yet emotionally compelling, production remains limited. That frame was first religious (Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, Shang China), then religious-ethnic (Persia, Greece, Rome) then religious-ethnic-national (France, England, Russia, the US), elsewhere national-ethnic-Communist (Soviet Union), just national-ethnic (Australia), and so on, with the proportions varying as the arguments played out.

In effect, people in these systems are arguing about what the system demands, not about what they in particular should have (although, of course, a lot of the arguments are self-serving). And they need a system to have such an argument. This is not to support some Straussian claim about elite mysteries – there is no reason the argument cannot be open. But it will not, at bottom, have some purely rational, instrumental or individual foundation.

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John Quiggin 06.21.15 at 6:16 am

Sam Goldman @164

If you look at my original post, however, what I am saying is that is religion matters a lot at moments of crisis like the one the Declaration addressed, which involve…revolution, civil war, economic collapse, foreign invasion, etc. Luckily for them, our European friends haven’t had to deal with these things recently.

OK, now I’m convinced you’re trolling.

*Irony alert on* So, Europe’s stunning success in handling these problems in the millennium (or two) that ended in 1945 was due to the prevalence of religious belief. Now that religion is gone, our European friends are vulnerable. Fortunately, nothing like this has happened recently, except maybe in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union where religion has come to the rescue as usual. *Irony alert off*

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Christ, Uhren, und Schmuck 06.21.15 at 8:57 am

Human consciousness is all about making up stories. Stories explaining our place in the world. Stories called ‘religion’ are not better or worse than any other stories.

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ZM 06.21.15 at 10:27 am

geo,

“ZM@158: Good point. Glad to see you’ve been reading other CT threads attentively. What I’d suggest is a variation on my lexicographical solution to the Communist/communist conundrum. Let’s call the egalitarian, solidaristic, theologically primitive beliefs and practices of the Jesus movement in the first two centuries CE “christianity,” and the authoritarian, hierarchical, theologically sophisticated organization that came into being as a result of Constantine’s patronage “Christianity.” “

I certainly commend this idea of extending the practice of vernacularly distinguishing between good proponents of an idea/faith and bad proponents of an idea/faith using big Letters or small letters — yet I fear that this possibly brings us into another of CT’s contested grounds — the place of John Bunyan in the literary canon, and how should we follow in Bunyan’s esteemed example?

Surely those who contend that Bunyan is better than Shakespeare must also think that John Bunyan is better than e e cummings — yet this lexicographical solution you propose has the side effect of making all the commendable sorts of ideas — L/liberalism C/communism and C/christianity — start with a lower case letter. I have grave worries that Bunyan would be in despair at the loss of the technique of starting words with capital letters to personify important notions.

I think therefore, if we agree on Bunyan’s high place in the history of English letters, then there needs be an additional third category — the ideal forms of Liberalism, Communism, and Christianity which should be personified with a capital letter as per the standards set out in the work of John Bunyan.

However, in suggesting this addition in memory of John Bunyan, we are faced with an additional lexicographical problem — how can we distinguish between the ideal personified forms of Liberalism, Communism, and Christianity, and the particularly dastardly existing or once existing forms of the same, which are also started with a capital letter in the proposed extension of the vernacular convention?

What to do?

https://youtu.be/losBZCpzbi8

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bianca steele 06.21.15 at 12:10 pm

The government of Geneva was presumably based on religion. I can’t think of many others. The first Holy Roman Empire was justified by religion and endorsed by religion, but it seems that the government was allowed to do its own thing in almost all spheres. As time went on, religious people thought their ideas should have more influence, but religion itself did not often endorse its merger with government.

I’m noting that Bach and Bunyan are pluses for religion when they make religious art, regardless of the beliefs they promote, but not when their sects want to institute their beliefs in government and make those with other beliefs second-class citizens–presumably?

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Peter T 06.21.15 at 12:17 pm

John Quiggin @ 237

Note than the mass protest movements in Europe today march under national (SNP, Syriza) or ethnic (Golden Dawn, FN) banners, with tinges of religion and utopianism. Genteel liberalism is not, apparently, enough to motivate people to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honours.

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ZM 06.21.15 at 12:36 pm

bianca steele,

“I’m noting that Bach and Bunyan are pluses for religion when they make religious art, regardless of the beliefs they promote, but not when their sects want to institute their beliefs in government and make those with other beliefs second-class citizens–presumably?”

I don’t know about this. As John Bunyan started writing when he was a religious-political prisoner after the Restoration, I would think if he never got arrested and gaoled for 12 years for fighting in the Parliamentary army and espousing non-conformist religious beliefs then he might never have had the time or inclination to start writing The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 12:47 pm

Js. #234: ” You don’t think these are economic institutions based on religion?”

I was considering the exact meaning of all of your words. Which, I am beginning to realize, will never be the method of interpretation here, at Crooked Timber comments!

Anyway, you wrote:

“…some religion or other has served as the basis of pretty much all political-economic systems…”

Okay. “Basis” means the foundation, or underlying structural principles, etc. “Systems” refers to whole systems, not to only particular institutions WITHIN them. In pursuance of which:

Traditional Muslim economies were formulated before the Quran, on tribal reciprocity with interstitial markets, i.e. bazaars. A better case for a religious basis might be made for the earlier Muslim POLITICAL systems, not economic–much as in early Christendom–but I haven’t studied that enough to say.

And weren’t the medieval European laws against usury, and also, those laws and customs extolling the “just price”, originally based in ancient social practice first, and then later theorized by the Church fathers?

You also wrote:

“…surely you realize that that is an amazingly controversial characterization of what religion is…”

By now, it should not be! A short history: There was an evident though minor strain of hermeneutical interpretation suggesting that the Bible is symbolic, within Roman Catholicism itself, at least up to the early modern period. Devotees of Eastern religions and particularly Buddhism have occasionally made much stronger statements that all religions are essentially talking about the same wordless experience, and you can find hints of it in various traditional puranas and occasional bold suggestions in the Buddhist literature. Outside of “organized religion”, and throughout history, individuals have regularly emerged to challenge the reigning religion, sometimes to say that all religions are the same, and even to proclaim that they themselves have had some sort of divine experience outside the established religion of the moment — and they were either incorporated into the fold one way or another, or were stamped out. Realized Christian mystics had to be very careful what they said about it, because some were burned for it; an astonishing example (though hardly the only one) being poor Marguerite Porete who was burned in 1310 for claiming, more or less, that she had become god (that’s not so unusual; what’s astonishing is that she left a document, her lovely Mirror of Annihilated Souls; don’t say you can’t get it on Amazon). I am currently reading biographies of Giordano Bruno, who was burned for similar statements in 1600 while combining it with remarkably prescient speculations of the nature of the universe (and was a man to whom Galileo, Kepler, and many other early scientists, religionists and philosophers paid their due respects, including perhaps Shakespeare in Hamlet). Porete and even Bruno were still a bit early for an ecumenical attitude, of course, much less its implied conclusion, though Bruno clearly expressed the logical premises that would lead to that conclusion–and it did not go unnoticed by others at the time. In the West an ecumenical movement has been growing since Swami Vivekananda attended the 1893 Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, an enormous national news headline, soon after which the first named movements which suggested, often explicitly, that all religions are talking about the same wordless experience, emerged into clear daylight with names like “theosophy”, “anthroposophy”, and on and on, throughout the 20th century. The discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1938 has led to a rapidly growing movement that recognizes that not only are all religions talking about the same wordless experience, but that it may not be supernatural. This sidelined into the 1960’s explosion, when the idea started to become a commonplace, though public figures like The Beatles were careful to step around it gingerly. At this moment, new neuroimaging research of this has begun at several universities, aided by the fact that entheogens are more or less predictively causative (though not always instantaneously: a sequence of psychotherapeutic sessions may be required first), thus bringing it into the realm of scientific study, and this is almost certain to help open a new era of more profound understanding — while some of its researchers already suggest, (in their downtime of course!), that older religions are probably founded upon this same wordless experience. (There has already been a remarkable historical research literature before this, strongly suggesting that many if not most of traditional religions arose out of practice with psychoactive chemicals, including among the Maya and Aztec, and were regularly used at the Eleusinian Mysteries. Recent research has even suggested that the occasions of “witchcraft” hysteria in the Middle Ages and a lot of other divine claims were caused by accidental and unknowing ingestion of ergot fungus on wheat, and obviously might account for three millennia of other phenomena.) The current literature which directly expresses or else obviously implies the idea that “religion is (and really always was) a functional, metaphorical expression of what is essentially a wordless experience,” can only be characterized as vast and voluminous. Well-written stuff includes such literary highlights as The Transcendental Unity of All Religions by Frithjof Schuon (1953) (which is theistic), Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith…

We would have to conclude that, rather than being an “amazingly controversial characterization,” at this point, the only big holdouts are the Catholics, the Protestants, the Muslims, the political Left, and the political Right (as well as various cults in Hinduism, but then, Hinduism always has everything in it, somewhere or other). That is a lot of people, for sure. Though it looks to me like Pope Francis is almost ready to admit, what should surely be obvious.

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Layman 06.21.15 at 2:37 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 188

This is shocking bad faith. At any moment, there are certain to be people, recently bereaved, in a house of worship, somewhere, who in your view might have been offended by Plume’s comment, which in fact was not directed to them. The import of your objection is thus that no one can ever utter such comments to anyone, anywhere, at any time, without going beyond the pale. If that’s what you mean, then say so clearly, and stop hiding behind the victims.

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yastreblyansky 06.21.15 at 2:41 pm

@163:

Now Yastreblyansky argues that the result of the compromises in the drafting process pose an “unresolvable theological contradiction”. There’s a tension, to be sure. But it seems pretty easily resolved.

First, why would you resolve it? The thing was written by a committee, and it has a contradiction representing the members’ different opinions. If it actually was a constitutional document, it would have to be resolved in court, but fortunately it isn’t. As Danielle Allen put it, “In fact, the Declaration is just an ordinary memo.” It’s contradictory around the inessential edges, like a State of the Union speech, with an effort to placate irrelevant worries in the Committee of the Whole. Get over it.

The deconstructive effort to give it a singular theological meaning, making the memo into primordial écriture saying something at least three of the authors didn’t think, as if God had written it and the Committee of Five just tried to capture the divine text, is inappropriate; theology isn’t even what its subject is. The subject, as Allen’s analysis is said to show (I’m looking at Gordon Wood’s review in NYRB) , is political equality: she writes,

If the Declaration is right that all people are created equal—in the sense of all being participants in the project of political judgment—then all people should be able to read or listen to the Declaration, understand the work that it is doing, and carry on similar work on their own account, with no more help in unleashing their capacities than can be provided by the example of the Declaration itself.

And if the authors didn’t foresee that this equality would have to apply beyond boundaries of race and gender, they were well aware that it would have to apply outside creedal boundaries to include Quakers, Jews, Muslims, and atheists.

The four theological references in the text don’t make any difference to that reading. Unless there’s some answer to the question Quiggin posed @38, which you haven’t yet addressed:

Or maybe I’ve misread the post and there’s something in the Declaration of Independence other than an assertion of the right to self-government, and that depends critically on a deity. What is it?

The main problem with your argument is that as far as we can tell you don’t have an argument.

Or that it simply dissolves from your initial question, “Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?” into a trail of unintelligible slug-slime, as:

The main issue is whether a the long-term health of stable and reasonably democratic society depends religious support–or perhaps a different conception of the sacred. Again, I’m skeptical about that [about what?!], although I don’t deny its *possibility* as some commenters have claimed. My self-description as “quasi-Straussian” was a bit of a joke. But I do think Strauss is onto something when he discusses the non-rational foundations of an political “regime”.

Actually you described yourself as “vaguely Straussian”, not “quasi-Straussian”. But anybody who knows how to use Google can see that you’ve devoted an academic career to Leo Strauss and the defense of his thinking.

And there’s something Straussian in the bad sense about attacking Allen in this roundabout way, not by engaging with her thesis on the egalitarian (= anti-libertarian) meaning of the Declaration, but by ignoring it as fully as if it weren’t even there in favor of the (Straussian) subject you’d like her to be writing about.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.21.15 at 2:41 pm

Some small comments:

LA: “religion really is (and always was) a functional, metaphorical expression of what is essentially a wordless process”

js: “OK. So… I literally don’t know what to make of that.”

Funny.

Since William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” I’ve most often seen religious experience described as religious experience and religion described as religion. They are two quite different things, even though they are related (religious experiences can be important formative elements in making religions, religions influence the kinds of religious experiences that people have).

Peter T: “Note than the mass protest movements in Europe today march under national (SNP, Syriza) or ethnic (Golden Dawn, FN) banners, with tinges of religion and utopianism. Genteel liberalism is not, apparently, enough to motivate people to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honors.”

The U.S. managed a sort of mass protest movement recently, Occupy, which wasn’t religious at all and which drew on the anarchist tradition.

geo: “Let’s call the egalitarian, solidaristic, theologically primitive beliefs and practices of the Jesus movement in the first two centuries CE “christianity,” and the authoritarian, hierarchical, theologically sophisticated organization that came into being as a result of Constantine’s patronage “Christianity.””

Christian revival movements have been making this distinction for centuries, and it’s probably a historical fiction. Or rather, it’s very like communism/Communism: people contrast the actual state of an existing social system to an imaginary ideal state that never existed.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 3:00 pm

Rich Pulchalsky #264: “…I’ve most often seen religious experience described as religious experience and religion described as religion.”

I’ve most often seen “ideology ” to refer to “political/economic” ideology, which is where the term started, so that just goes to show you… “Religion” now appears to always be taken to mean “organized religion”, which was the term used in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

“…religions influence the kinds of religious experiences that people have…”

That is under a good deal of dispute! For example in mystical experience, in the secondary critical literature, Steven T. Katz thought that the tradition must influence the experience, but there are many others who disagree. The issue is greatly complicated by the fact that it appears that no one ever reports exactly the same experience, even when not under the influence of any tradition. It may be possible to resolve this sort of question with neuroscience.

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engels 06.21.15 at 3:01 pm

Terrible post, terrible thread. Just my two cents.

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Harold 06.21.15 at 3:13 pm

@243 Lee A. Arnold: “There was an evident though minor strain of hermeneutical interpretation suggesting that the Bible is symbolic, within Roman Catholicism itself, at least up to the early modern period” — St. Augustine came right out and said it was symbolic. It is settled doctrine.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 4:02 pm

Layman #244: “At any moment, there are certain to be people, recently bereaved, in a house of worship, somewhere, who in your view might have been offended by Plume’s comment, which in fact was not directed to them. The import of your objection is thus that no one can ever utter such comments to anyone, anywhere, at any time, without going beyond the pale. If that’s what you mean, then say so clearly, and stop hiding behind the victims.”

Well yes I think that’s pretty obviously the first premise: that no one should offend people who were bereaved the day before, and I imagine that most people would think that such conduct is beyond the pale.

But there’s another premise, and it does not hide behind the victims: I also think that what was said intellectually about Christianity (“17 centuries of Christianity haven’t led to a better world in the slightest”) is patently untrue.

And you also write, “…which in fact was not directed to them.”

But no, that comment logically implies EVERY Christian. All are logically included, both by the collective phrase, “17 centuries of Christianity”, and by the absolute qualifier, “in the slightest”.

In addition, a bereaved could not fail to notice the next two sentences, so she might find it hard to suppose that it was NOT directed at her.

However, I do not believe that it was the writer’s intention to be so inept.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 4:11 pm

Peter T #236,

Well that actually gets us back to the theological underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence.

Before Western humanism and the Renaissance led to the Enlightenment, there really was no social concept of the common individual as a self-interested actor; that was kept for kings and aristocrats. (The few self-interested individuals who were merchant traders between the sparsely-located market centers were often suspected, and even despised.) Everybody was in the social organism as the “body of god’; you accepted your place in that hierarchy, in the chain of being. Your virtue was to make the best of your born place in it.

In that sense, everything in the world was “religious” without exception. Observe however that this is not an organized religion.

It is a deep mental construction about the order of the cosmos, and it is found crystallized in both Confucius and Plato. The various later religions just overlaid their own brands upon it, and are mere pikers in comparison to its importance.

It’s not a completely simple idea; there a few standard sub-components: principles of plenitude, continuity, and gradation, which serve to order the kinds of things, and levels of things, which must be in this world, the “best of all possible worlds”.

Lovejoy traces the lineage of the basal idea and its components in the West from Plato up into the late 18th century. At that time it was suddenly inverted in the Western public mind after a few centuries of building-up. I think that this inversion is necessary to understanding the theological concepts of the framers of the US Declaration of Independence.

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samuel goldman 06.21.15 at 4:13 pm

@245 I don’t think Wood’s review is a very good summary of Allen’s book. She does begin by describing the Declaration as an ordinary memo. She moves on to treating it as a “philosophical argument”, in which all the language (and even the punctuation) contributes important information and claims. As a result, she spends three or four chapters (I don’t have the volume in front of me) analyzing the references to God, etc.
I follow her lead in treating the Declaration in the same spirit.

If you read the book, you might be surprised to find that Allen and I agree that it’s not so easy–although it is certainly possible–to endorse the Declaration’s conclusions about equality in the absence of the theological claims. Maybe we’re both wrong about that. But I assure you that there’s no bad faith here.

As a side point, I think my self-description as quasi or vaguely Straussian is a pretty fair description of what I’ve said about Strauss elsewhere. Although I have defended Strauss from critics, I’ve also pointed out some of the many ways I think he’s wrong, both as an interpreter of texts and as an analyst of politics. That might be the subject for a future thread, should CT be kind enough to invite me back.

Your “cold water” reading of the Declaration as a political compromise without stable meaning is much closer to the one Pauline Maier offers in the excellent “American Scripture” than it is to Allen’s view. I didn’t engage it here because I think it’s often more interesting to explore disagreements with an author that emerge on the basis of shared premises.

John Quiggin @237. I’m quite sure that we aren’t going to agree about this. But two points for at least clarifying our disagreement:

1) I really didn’t think you had the Balkans or Russia in mind when you brought up the “consolidation of democracy in developed countries”. They’re only dubiously developed, and there’s been no consolidation. In any case, they weren’t included in my proposed case of postwar Western Europe. So we’re talking past each other.

Which leads to a second and more general observation…

2) To argue, as I do, that religion has an important role in promoting “liberalish” democracy is not to say that it’s a necessary or even sufficient condition. Among other things, you need to have the *right* kind of religion (and a lot of other factors contribute to its success or failure).

One tendency I’ve noticed throughout the comments is that when I suggest that a view of God as guaranteeing human equality and encouraging republican government (which I find in the Declaration) may be politically salutary, commenters respond that there are many forms of religion that offer very different teachings.

This is true (and well known to the contributors to the Declaration–see Adams’ Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law). It is also irrelevant. If I argue that a German shepherd is a good watchdog, the observation that chihuahas, pugs, and shihtzus are not doesn’t refute me.

It’s possible that I’ve been less direct than I want. But I don’t think a reasonably charitable reading of the original post leads to the conclusion that I’m praising, recommending, or otherwise endorsing “religion” as a generic category–or even Christianity. As I and several commenters have pointed out, the Declaration appeals to a synthesis of natural theology and Calvinism. More recently, Catholic thinkers have developed natural law arguments for similar conclusions. But I’m just not talking about the political theology of Eusebius or modern Russian orthodox “Eurasianism”.

To return to the beginning, I start the post by asking “Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?” And I conclude that you can, although I’m less optimistic than most commenters about building political institutions and movements on that basis.

But I could also have asked “Can you believe in God without agreeing with the Declaration of Independence?” The answer to this question is also clearly yes. But I contend that belief in a certain kind of God has nevertheless promoted democracy, especially in America but also in countries that share a similar theologico-political heritage (mostly Western Europe).

I don’t expect this to convince anyone who takes a Christopher Hitchens position on religion as such, or perhaps thinks that we no longer need such crutches, however useful they may have been in the past. But I suspect that this is a fundamental difference of disposition–not the kind of thing that can be settled either by philosophical or historical argument.

253

Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 4:20 pm

Harold #249,

Why do you think that the Church lost that thread in the early modern period? Was it that they had to become “factual” due to the intellectual threat from science? Or was it that the Reformation, and the new political formations and protections, allowed so many alternate divines and freethinkers to slide through the cracks, that the Church couldn’t sustain a symbolical argument?

254

yastreblyansky 06.21.15 at 4:20 pm

@252 Your “cold water” reading of the Declaration as a political compromise without stable meaning
No. The part that matters is the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of the right of all people to egalitarian self-government, and its meaning is entirely stable. The political compromise is the Declaration of Appeal to the Supreme Judge of the World, which I think is why we don’t call it that; it’s just not important.

255

Plume 06.21.15 at 4:22 pm

Lee @250,

I can’t help myself and have to step back in:

No, Lee. My comment in no way, shape or form implies “EVERY Christian.” I would have changed words if that had been the case. I wouldn’t have used “Christianity,” if I had meant Christians. I would have said “Christians, collectively or individually, have not made the world a better place.” I didn’t. Even though it would be true of ANY group of human beings. No single group of human beings in history has, on balance, given positives and negatives, “made the world a better place.” No group has that kind of power, even if they have the intention.

But the main point here is that by “Christianity” I’m talking about the organized religion by that name, which includes the ruling class for that organization. In fact, the comment is directed at that ruling class and its actual doings in the world, along with its tenets, good and bad. It’s not directed, at all, at individual followers. It’s directed at the power structure, not individual worshipers.

And this?

Well yes I think that’s pretty obviously the first premise: that no one should offend people who were bereaved the day before, and I imagine that most people would think that such conduct is beyond the pale.

Actually, if you presented what I wrote, in context, to one hundred different people out in the real world, I doubt more than 5% would object to it at all, and maybe 2 in 100 would say it went beyond the pale. Reason being? The vast majority of people can easily tell the difference between a generalized comment on a bulletin board and a real world, face to face confrontation with the bereaved. They easily note the grand canyon of difference between the two things.

Lee, why can’t you? Why can’t Richard, who went waaaay beyond the pale when he said I was as bad as the people at Westboro Baptist church. I think the board sees you didn’t object to that.

Compare and contrast, Lee. Compare and contrast.

256

Layman 06.21.15 at 4:26 pm

“Well yes I think that’s pretty obviously the first premise: that no one should offend people who were bereaved the day before, and I imagine that most people would think that such conduct is beyond the pale.”

More bad faith. You understand quite well what’s wrong with your premise. And believe me, that’s the charitable alternative.

257

Layman 06.21.15 at 4:29 pm

This is kin to the notion that one can’t object to a war because to do so dishonors those who suffer fighting it. Sheer, unadulterated nonsense.

258

Plume 06.21.15 at 4:47 pm

Layman @257,

Well said.

A part of that is the assumption that all soldiers and their families are in lockstep agreement with government policies in the first place. This extends to the assumption that all Christians support the doings of their particular organized religion. They obviously don’t. In fact, some of the greatest critics of church history were and are practicing Christians. Some of the very loudest critical voices are Christians who seek to better their own organized religion, and understand the importance of acknowledging past wrongs. To silence criticism about those wrongs would be “beyond the pale” for them.

Recent examples would be the fight to expose priestly child abuse, and sadistic practices in various church-run “homes for wayward girls,” etc. etc. Lee, apparently, would prevent exposes like The Magdelene Sisters and Philomena from ever coming to light, because somewhere a Christian is grieving.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 4:48 pm

Layman #257: “This is kin to the notion that one can’t object to a war because to do so dishonors those who suffer fighting it.”

It isn’t even remotely akin to it. But if you went to the gravesite to protest while the burial was going on, then I think you should apologize to the family.

260

engels 06.21.15 at 4:53 pm

if you went to the gravesite to protest while the burial was going on, then I think you should apologize to the family.

Did Plume do that? Wow, what an arsehole.

261

geo 06.21.15 at 5:05 pm

Rich@246: it’s very like communism/Communism: people contrast the actual state of an existing social system to an imaginary ideal state that never existed

Why yes, Rich, it’s exactly like that. So we agree that “communism” has never existed. What was it, again, that we were arguing about?

262

Plume 06.21.15 at 5:08 pm

Engels @260,

;>)

If someone can’t understand the profound (and profoundly obvious) difference between a generalized comment on a bulletin board, directed at no one in particular, and a face to face confrontation at a gravesite . . . there is no hope for them. They simply don’t possess even the most basic ability to differentiate between massively different phenomena.

263

Layman 06.21.15 at 5:12 pm

Lee A. Arnold, this:

“But if you went to the gravesite to protest while the burial was going on, then I think you should apologize to the family.”

…is actually progress! Were I instead to protest elsewhere, far away, while knowing that those family members might see my protest on the evening news, do you also think I should apologize to the family? And, assuming the answer (I am incurably optimistic!), do you now see your error?

264

Plume 06.21.15 at 5:28 pm

Layman @263,

Again, well said. But to take it a bit further: Wouldn’t the nature of the protest also matter? Beyond the location, what is the protest all about?

If one is protesting the abuses and atrocities, past and present, inflicted on various people by an organized religion (or government, or corporation, etc.), wouldn’t this be in an entirely different category from, say, a “protest” in the mode of Westboro Baptist?

265

Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 5:30 pm

Layman #263: “…think I should apologize…”?

Then it would depend on the nature of your protest, much as I replied in #206. If you said war is bad, all will agree. If you said the country he fought for never did anything good, hasn’t led to a better world in the slightest, then you should apologize.

266

Layman 06.21.15 at 5:45 pm

“Then it would depend on the nature of your protest, much as I replied in #206. If you said war is bad, all will agree. If you said the country he fought for never did anything good, hasn’t led to a better world in the slightest, then you should apologize.”

Isn’t this simply another way to say that the graveyard funeral (and the Charleston church-goers) are immaterial to your original objection? That you objected to Plume’s sentiment itself, not that sentiment juxtaposed with Charleston? And that framing your objection as you did, as an insult and harm to those Chareston victims and mourners, was simply an effort, conscious or not, to use them yourselves in raising the righteous volume of your objection?

I’m done, I think.

267

Plume 06.21.15 at 5:54 pm

Lee @265,

If you said war is bad, all will agree. If you said the country he fought for never did anything good, hasn’t led to a better world in the slightest, then you should apologize.

First off, tragically, not everyone agrees that war is bad. Obviously. One need only to reread the discussions surrounding the Iraq War to know this.

Second — and this is another indication that you have trouble seeing obvious differences — saying a particular country “never did anything good” isn’t in the same universe as saying it “hasn’t led to a better world in the slightest.”

Again, see the analogy of the water level above. A people, a group, an organization, a religion, a political party, a system . . . etc. etc. . . . . may do many really great things, but in order to say they made a better world, it must be on balance made better . . . and that includes factoring in what they’ve done wrong. It has to be a net increase in the water level.

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geo 06.21.15 at 6:00 pm

PS to 261: So we agree that “communism” has never existed.

I meant “never existed except as an ideal, of course. I know Rich isn’t as literal-minded as all that, but someone somewhere may be.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 6:03 pm

Layman #266: “Isn’t this simply another way to say that the graveyard funeral (and the Charleston church-goers) are immaterial to your original objection? That you objected to Plume’s sentiment itself, not that sentiment juxtaposed with Charleston?”

No, because the nature of your criticism certainly has a bearing on whether you owe an apology or not.

270

LFC 06.21.15 at 6:24 pm

@engels:
Terrible post, terrible thread. Just my two cents.

I disagree. The post was provocative and arguable, which at least some blog posts should be, and Samuel Goldman should be commended for participating in the comment thread (which is not to say I agree with him). Too often in past CT book forums, the contributors have filed their pieces and then sat back in silence, not deigning to converse with the, often rather few, commenters. If I recall correctly, that was pretty much the case in the forum on Knight & Johnson, The Priority of Democracy — I esp. remember that one because we were given some advance notice and that was the one case where I actually bothered to read the book beforehand (well, 85 percent of it or so). Anyway it’s nice that Goldman has participated in the thread (and in a very civil way), quite apart from whether one likes what he has to say.

271

Anarcissie 06.21.15 at 6:43 pm

I liked the OP and some of the subsequent discussion because in touched on one of my interests, the sources of the idea of equality in human social organization, which seems to disappear for centuries and then suddenly reappear as if from nowhere. Through most of history, people have cast their larger ideas about the world in religious form, so it’s not at all surprising that egalitarianism takes that form. I don’t think this makes them invalid.

However, I could have done without the metadiscussion.

272

engels 06.21.15 at 7:17 pm

Okay, I take it back. I agree it was good of Prof. Goldman to respond to people (however implausible his position may be).

273

Rich Puchalsky 06.21.15 at 8:21 pm

geo: “Why yes, Rich, it’s exactly like that. So we agree that “communism” has never existed. What was it, again, that we were arguing about?”

We mostly agree, which is why I’m still arguing with you. I’m more and more just not bothering to argue with people whose world views are too different from mine — I’ll read what they have to write, if it seems like I might learn something from it, but that’s different.

The problem with casting lower-case christianity as an ideal is that while lower-case communism is an ideal that is in some way about the future, christianity is in some way about the past, and therefore is susceptible to being literalized as “once upon a time, in the first couple of centuries after Christ, Christianity really was ideal”. There are a whole lot of problems that go along with that.

274

bianca steele 06.21.15 at 9:07 pm

ZM @242

I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.

275

ZM 06.22.15 at 12:53 am

bianca steele,

I just meant that in the case of Bunyan he started writing when he was in gaol for religious-political reasons, so it would be difficult to separate his writing from his religious-political activities.

I suppose that does not really contradict your point though that his writing can be seen as a plus for religion, while his fighting in the Parliamentary army as not.

276

js. 06.22.15 at 1:32 am

“Basis” means the foundation, or underlying structural principles, etc. “Systems” refers to whole systems, not to only particular institutions WITHIN them.

But I dealt with this point last time around: I wasn’t reading you literally because a literal reading trivializes your argument. There probably hasn’t been any actually existing economic “system” that was, as a whole, successfully ideologically theorized post-facto. The idea that any economic system as a whole is based on an ideology, strictly speaking, is bizarre. So, given your definitions of “basis”, “system” and “ideology”, it’ll turn out that there are no ideologies at all! At least not not any that can be practically consequent in any way. On this view, you do get the result that religion is not an ideology, trivially, but the argument seems to me like a reductio.

On to the more important point. For the sake of this argument, I’ll just grant that “religion” is the name for a metaphorical articulation of a certain kind of contact with the ineffable (that’s my gloss on @60; feel free to correct it). Fine. But there’s still this other thing, let’s call it schmeligion, which is a name for a generic specification of a (kind of) set of social institutions. In fact, there are multiple schmeligions, each consisting of a set of social institutions with a specific history, etc. The important point about schmeligions, though, is that they are in fact the source of proposals for organizing social, political, and economic life. And through most of human history, they have been quite successful at this—i.e. schmeligion-derived proposals for social, political, and economic arrangements have in fact been adopted and have been very much practically consequent. So it seems to me that schmeligions are in fact ideologies in (more or less) the sense you propose. And of course, most people would recognize Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., as instances of schmeligions.

(I was going to say something about why this matters, but I’m getting tired of typing. Maybe later.)

277

floopmeister 06.22.15 at 1:33 am

Genteel liberalism is not, apparently, enough to motivate people to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honours.

Tell that to the people in Tahrir Square. Many participants in the Arab Spring were religious – many were on the other hand motivated by just this ‘Genteel liberalism’

278

geo 06.22.15 at 1:59 am

ZM@239: What to do?

I’m stumped.

279

Harold 06.22.15 at 2:49 am

Lee Arnold @253. I think the Catholic prohibition against laymen interpreting the Bible had to do with the knowledge (among the literate priests and other educated people, like Dante) that much of its content was symbolic, or superseded, which laymen couldn’t be expected to understand. It had to be read in the light of Revelation (authority), it was believed. During the Council of Trent (mid-1500s) at the beginning of the Counter Reformation, the Church came out in favor of an index of forbidden books. Paolo Sarpi (a hero of Jefferson and Madison) and the official theologian of the Venetian Republic, remarks somewhere in his History of the Council of Trent that the primitive church (by which he means the church at the time of St. Augustine and other church fathers) had no need of such censorship because truly pious people would never want to read unsuitable books in the first place. Of course it was only after the invention of printing that this became such an issue, because during the middle ages books had been a very rare, luxury item and it was customary to read them in short excerpts, or passages, rather than whole volumes. The secular production of books only arose c. 1300. Sarpi was reviled by the Vatican, but the the author of the official vatican version of the history of the Council of Trent that came out in the early 1950s admitted that the Council had gone a little too far and had over-reacted in many of its measures.

It should be remembered that the ideal of a free press was unknown until rather recently, even in the secular realm. Even until before ww1 a person could be jailed for lese majeste — bad mouthing the government — in most countries.

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Harold 06.22.15 at 3:03 am

Samuel Goldman @252 . “But I contend that belief in a certain kind of God has nevertheless promoted democracy, especially in America but also in countries that share a similar theologico-political heritage (mostly Western Europe).”

Some scholars, like Jean-Paul Vernant, believe that democracy arose in Athens through the military, which in Athens elected its officers by popular vote and which was remarkably successful in defeating its enemies. Athenian democracy remained quite connected to the military, since military service was a prerequisite for citizenship, which excluded woman and slaves. However, one did not have to be especially wealthy to serve — many citizens were humble craftsmen or shop-keepers, like Socrates, a sculptor. I don’t see how God had much to do with it, frankly, if that was the case.

Also, after the Peloponnesian war there was a tremendous and glorious memory of all the amazing things Athenian democracy had accomplished — militarily and artistically, but as a form of government it was anathema in the very European countries that had a similar cultural heritage to that of America, unless you are speaking of republican government, such as had existed for many many centuries in Venice and was thought to have been instituted by Nature.

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Harold 06.22.15 at 3:04 am

Jean-Pierre Vernant not Jean-Paul, I meant.

282

Peter T 06.22.15 at 5:14 am

floopmeister

Religion is not the only ideology capable of motivating people or justifying a socio-economic order. Harold illustrates the point – the religion of Athens was Athens (the polis of Athena), with civic festivals, personification of the city’s traits and so on. From outside, a large part of the US discourse seems to be between those whose primary religion is some form of Christianity (seen as justifying America) and those whose religion is some vision of the United States, for whom the truths of the Declaration and the Constitution are sacred. My point is simply that any complex socio-economic order is not self-justifying.

283

Z 06.22.15 at 1:48 pm

The main issue is whether a the long-term health of stable and reasonably democratic society depends [on?] religious support–or perhaps a different conception of the sacred. Again, I’m skeptical about that.

Like engels and LFC, I really appreciate your continued participation in the thread. However, your argumentative stance is now recalling Aesop’s bat arguing with the weasels: when John Quiggin (or I) point out that actually existing stable and reasonably democratic societies have by and large forsaken religion, you retort that “religion matters in moment of […] revolution, civil war, economic collapse, foreign invasion, etc” and when js. (or I) point out that some revolutions (the French ones) and/or civil wars (the Meiji restauration) unfolded without religious inspiration, you answer that you doubt that this can lead to a stable healthy democracy. Well, I think you need to confront the fact that France exists as a historical country, that it is currently a long-term stable reasonably democratic country and that in the last 200 hundred years of its history, religion played essentially no role in either time of crises or time of democratic consolidation. I also encourage you to have a look at Japan and Korea.

On the other hand, I agree with the importance of studying “sacred” or “non-rational” components of political systems, though I believe the former term is misleading (and culturally egocentric) and though I believe that (perhaps contrary to Strauss and in agreement with Sam Goldman of the OP but not always with Sam Goldman of the comments) while they played a role in historically transient crises, it is debatable that they still do so.

On the other hand, the period that I would describe as crucial for the restoration and consolidation of democracy (roughly 1945-1955) was actually a moment of religious revival.

Not in all countries, for the love of God! Even leaving aside the case of Japan (the evolution of which you might credit to the US occupation), do you really think that the policies of Pierre Mendès-France, Clement Attlee or Tage Erlander and Axel Strand were sustained by religious revivalism? For France and Sweden, I am positive that it is complete nonsense. I know much less about the UK, but I find myself doubtful.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 2:12 pm

Js. #276: ” I wasn’t reading you literally because a literal reading trivializes your argument.”

What argument were you talking about, there? By all means, let’s be scientific as possible and hold each other to the literal meanings of words, and please hold me to them, and punch me hard!

Js.: “The important point about schmeligions, though, is that they are in fact the source of proposals for organizing social, political, and economic life.”

Before, you wrote, “…some religion or other has served as the basis of pretty much all political-economic systems…” (#234), but you are saying now, that was not literal. So this new quote similarly means, “The important point about schmeligions, though, is that they are…the source of [SOME] proposals for organizing social, political, and economic life.”

Is that right? Certainly I agree.

And if you get the chance, please write about why this matters. Because actually, you sensed it: I’m not convinced that “ideology” is a useful concept.

285

Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 2:25 pm

Harold #279,

Very interesting, thanks. We might have observed to Sarpi that, at the time of the primitive church, most people probably couldn’t read.

Reading a biography of Bruno makes clear how much he depended upon the relative freedom of publishers and sellers at the Frankfurt book fair, and ought to have been able to get away with saying what he wrote. Alas.

I just finished reading The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715 by Paul Hazard, a book which deserves the highest recommendation. It makes clear how much the development and survival of the freethinking intellectual world depended upon the Dutch publishers and booksellers, who enjoyed the intellectual freedom and political protections engendered by that successful commercial culture.

286

Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 3:01 pm

Geo #179: “Let’s call the egalitarian, solidaristic, theologically primitive beliefs and practices of the Jesus movement in the first two centuries CE ‘christianity,’ and the authoritarian, hierarchical, theologically sophisticated organization that came into being as a result of Constantine’s patronage ‘Christianity.’ “

I’m afraid that will not work, and that we must go with what people call themselves.

First, many people, perhaps almost everyone in the world, would naturally call “belief in Jesus Christ” a religion, and call it Christianity, without needing to mean the organized religion. What is the intellectual basis upon which we, here, reserve the right to disregard this usage, and to take the word “religion” to mean organized religion, and the word “Christianity” to mean organized Christianity?

Indeed, second, we have had a strong tradition on the Left of calling people by that which THEY prefer to be called, and respecting their own preferences insofar as self-naming goes, and not denigrating that appellation: “Black, transgender, gay, white, etc.”

Well, people who believe in Christ call THEMSELVES Christian, capitalized, and call their beliefs Christianity, whether they belong to an organization or not. Don’t they certainly deserve the same consideration?

We already have other people in comments above whose writing would imply that we do not NEED to respect believers on this matter.

287

Jerry Vinokurov 06.22.15 at 3:06 pm

But I contend that belief in a certain kind of God has nevertheless promoted democracy, especially in America but also in countries that share a similar theologico-political heritage (mostly Western Europe).

You can contend whatever you want, but in order for this thesis to be taken seriously, you’re going to need some actual evidence. Democracy (albeit in a very limited form) obviously predates Christianity, which took close to 1500 years before anything that even remotely resembled democratic leanings penetrated civil society to any significant extent. And why assign the credit to religion anyway? Why not the heritage of Roman law or the various indigenous common-law justice systems or Greek philosophy or the changes in the mechanisms of production or the evolution of capitalism? Turns out it’s trivially easy to make all kinds of claims when you can’t really disentangle the various effects of vastly different processes stretching over thousands of years.

The discussion has been interesting, but the thesis of the OP is the weakest sauce.

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Yastreblyansky 06.22.15 at 3:11 pm

@287

Indeed when the thesis gets that weak it’s almost unarguably true and therefore almost totally trivial. In medieval-t0-modern Europe, did Christianity play anywhere near the role of that played by moneylending rules (constructed contrary to Scripture) permitting people of low birth to exercise political power over the nobility and monarch?

289

geo 06.22.15 at 4:22 pm

Lee@286: Yes, I do respect believers (you, anyway). But still, we’ve got two quite distinct phenomena being called by the same name, and it creates a lot of confusion, which we have to clear up somehow. Otherwise, millions of well-meaning people will continue to say things like “How can I take Christianity seriously after the Inquisition?” and “How can I take communism seriously after the Gulag?” Which is tragic, as I hope you’ll agree.

290

Plume 06.22.15 at 4:35 pm

Lee,

Yes. Words matter. They matter a lot. Which is why saying “Christianity hasn’t made the world a better place” isn’t even remotely the same thing as saying individual Christians haven’t done this.

There is absolutely no reason for an individual Christian to take offense at my comment. It’s not about them. It’s about Christianity, as a whole, the institution, the organized religion. And, again, in order for any entity to claim it is responsible for making the world a better place — an impossibly tall order — it must show that, on balance, net, with all things factored in, it has done so. That means the good it has done has to be weighed against the bad.

It’s simply beyond dispute that “Christianity” can’t say, on balance, as a net change, that it has made the world a better place. No large institution can, and Christianity more than most, given its history — and present.

291

bianca steele 06.22.15 at 4:38 pm

Clearly there’s a dialectic in Judaism and Christianity (I don’t know enough about Islam to say whether it’s there too) between egalitarianism and hierarchy. (Egalitarianism of men, only, obviously, and usually of men who are sufficiently devout in following certain rules, and who aren’t cast out of the circle of “the sacred” through illness or deformity or anything like that.) Men are equal because Adam, but then some men are special because Moses. The God of Moses is a protection from empire, but then the Jerusalem elites (Pharisees and Sadduccees) collaborated with empire, but then Jesus and the writers of the Talmud reacted against that, but then Christianity gained power and allied itself to empire, but then Luther reacted against that and called for a return to the egalitarianism of the disciples.

But all of that is an abstraction from the kind of thing Lee’s talking about, one language that promotes one narrative that promotes one dialectic as important, over and above all the other things religion might be.

292

Harold 06.22.15 at 4:46 pm

@285 Lee A. Arnold

The Crisis of the European Mind made a deeper impression on me than almost any other book, as far as guiding the direction of my subsequent reading. I am so glad when I hear anybody referring to it. Now if only more people were made aware of Sarpi, a priest whose enemies (and some of his friends, such as David Wootton, himself an atheist, accuse/ed of atheism.

As far as literacy in antiquity, it is my impression that it was greater then than in the Middle Ages, insofar as private people knowing how to read and owning books — but I may be wrong. But ability to read and write aside, the Middle Ages was a literate society in the sense that people were exposed to the written word through having it preached and read to them, poems, stories, and epics were recited at fairs — and this was true not only in Europe but in China, India, and the Near East and had probably been true in antiquity as well, through the popular medium of the theater.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 4:54 pm

And if we want to dig a bit deeper, and note the difference between the Black Church and the dominant white church of the land, through history, this becomes even more apparent. Blacks, including those in SC right now, couldn’t fail to remember the centuries of terrorism inflicted upon them by white Christians, acting under the umbrella of Christianity. They couldn’t help but notice that it was supposedly “god-fearing Christians” who enslaved them, terrorized them, lynched them and tried to justify all of this via their interpretation of the bible. They couldn’t help but remember how pretty much every slaveowner would have been a regular church-goer, etc. etc.

On Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, they had a very interesting — and at times, moving — panel discussion of the events in Charleston. One of the guests, a Marla Fredericks, mentioned early on a book by Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion. She brought up the profoundly important concept of how heavy this burden is for many black people, how it was, and still is, expected of them to constantly forgive white people for their terrorism against blacks, and how, even white abolitionists used this idea of black Christianity to convince slaveholders to free their slaves . . . . because black religion, black Christianity, teaches forgiveness and is merciful.

This reminder struck me hard, and seemed yet another instance of supreme unfairness, same old same old white privilege, exploitation and suppression. Hiding behind Christianity, wanting to use it to protect whites against righteous anger and so on. The panelists talked about the conflicted nature of this, through history, this deep tension for them and their religion.

As mentioned upthread, both in general and in particular, most Christians are simply not going to be offended by criticisms they often makes themselves . . . . and blacks have an even greater reason to accept them from other sources.

Lee continues a crusade without any rational, logical, or even emotional support.

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.22.15 at 5:23 pm

“Christianity” doesn’t do anything on its own. Trying to formulate a coherent thesis about what “Christianity has done” is like trying to nail a puddle of water to a post.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 5:29 pm

Jerry @294,

Never said or implied that “it” does anything on its own. I’m speaking of the totality of acts in its name, under the aegis of institutional Christianity, the effect of its tenets, doctrines, orthodoxies, dogmas and so on. Its imperialist history from at least Constantine on.

The sum total.

That is wildly different from the acts of individual Christians. They may have indeed “made the world a better place” in some way, without the negatives, without the atrocities, etc. But the entire edifice can’t say that. Again, no large institutional structure can.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 6:08 pm

Geo # 289,
I am not a believer, I just think that people who insist there is no deity have little understanding of the rational method.

And why is it tragic? Suppose someone asks, “How can I take capitalism seriously after inequality and environmental destruction?”

The answers are: I am a Christian who doesn’t make Inquisitions. I am a communist who doesn’t make gulags. I am a capitalist who doesn’t make inequality and environmental destruction.

Each proponent claims that the real causes of the bads are: avarice, vanity, power, hatred, sloth, ignorance.

Perhaps it is so, for all of them.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 6:12 pm

Harold #292,

It is indeed a amazingly great book, on every level.

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.22.15 at 6:17 pm

Never said or implied that “it” does anything on its own. I’m speaking of the totality of acts in its name, under the aegis of institutional Christianity, the effect of its tenets, doctrines, orthodoxies, dogmas and so on. Its imperialist history from at least Constantine on.

The flipside of the point I was making in response to the OP is that this maneuver won’t work either. I mean, yes, obviously under the aegis of institutional Christianity terrible crimes were committed. At the same time, they were being committed before institutional Christianity was a thing, often just because those committing them had the power to do so. “The strong exact what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” wasn’t a Christian thesis. Genghis Khan managed to murder a higher percentage of the population of the Earth than anyone before or since, and it wasn’t because he was such a religious dude. The An Lushan rebellion, pretty much an entirely secular conflict, resulted in the deaths of millions, far beyond any atrocities committed by contemporary Christendom.

People want to assign to religion, and indeed, ideologies generally, much more responsibility for various events than can be reasonably read out from the data. Depending on where you sit in the ideological space, you’ll be assigning merits to Christianity and capitalism and demerits to communism and atheism, or vice versa. As I said before, it’s not good intellectual history; it’s point-scoring so that you can associate something you don’t like with some other thing that everyone recognizes is bad. That’s why the dishonest equation of “progressive taxation = communism = gulag” is deployed by morons all the time. Don’t be equally dishonest by employing their methods.

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Layman 06.22.15 at 6:31 pm

“I am not a believer, I just think that people who insist there is no deity have little understanding of the rational method.”

Do you apply this sentiment equally? Is it irrational to believe there are no flying horses? I confess I so believe, though I don’t insist on it. Surely the rational method permits tentative conclusions about the implausible.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 6:56 pm

Jerry @298,

I think you’re missing the context for this. At least for me. It looks like you’re discussing something else entirely.

Mine is in response to Lee’s relentless crusade that I apparently owe an apology to those who are mourning the racist massacre in Charleston . . . because of my statement that “Christianity has not made the world a better place.” He says this is just like going to the gravesite and personally bashing the mourners directly. Rich Puchalsky took things to an even higher level of rank absurdity by saying my comment was just as bad as the Westboro Baptist bigots when they “protest” at various funerals.

I owe no apology to anyone. But Lee and Rich certainly owe one to me.

301

Jerry Vinokurov 06.22.15 at 7:29 pm

Plume, I’m not trying to get involved in your dispute with Lee; it seems to me beside the point, honestly. I’m commenting on what I think is a really bad argument about specifically the influence of religion. I’m aware of the context, but the quoted statement from you was, I thought, broad enough to be objectionable on its own, so that’s what I objected to.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 7:43 pm

Jerry, we disagree. I think there is more than enough evidence to support what I said, and the reasoning behind it. You don’t. I can live with that.

303

Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 7:44 pm

Layman: “Do you apply this sentiment equally?”

If deity were defined as a flying horse, then it would be irrational to believe there is a deity. But these are different things. Deity is NOT defined that way, and the question of whether deity’s existence can be proved or disproved is unaffected by this example. Deity is defined as beyond rationality, so the only strategy is to hold that this is implausible, because there is nothing beyond rationality and certain proof (or, nothing beyond certain disproof, after Popper) — but this itself is a belief, also not provable or disprovable. So the rational method permits tentative conclusions about this particular implausibility (deity), but those tentative conclusions remain a belief, and neither provable or disprovable.

At #266 you already would not distinguish the following, nor allow me to object to ALL of the following at the same time: 1. a falsehood, 2. an offensive statement whether it is made deliberately or fecklessly, 3. an offensive statement that uses the falsehood, and 4. a falsehood that insults the thing that the offended will be turning to for solace, in their hour of need. These are different things too.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 7:55 pm

Jerry @301,

an additional comment, based upon what Lee has just now posted at 303:

I can see the reasoning behind saying “Christianity” is something too vague, amorphous and inconclusive a thing to even be thought of as a thing. I don’t agree with this, at least not in the way I intended the comment, but I can see that.

If that is the case, however, it makes even less sense to take offense at the comment. One can find the comment objectionable, as you do, because of its vagueness. The puddle against the wall thing, etc. But assigning merits or demerits works both ways. If the comment is essentially meaningless, as you suggest, if it’s not really about anything . . . . how can that be offensive to anyone? It is then even further removed from any direct confrontation with anyone else . . . even moreso than I intended. How can someone take offense at a comment about something that doesn’t even exist?

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geo 06.22.15 at 8:03 pm

Lee@296: What’s tragic is that millions of people have unthinkingly identified communism with Communism and christianity with Christianity, and as a result have never been open to the influence of some of the noblest ideals ever articulated.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 8:27 pm

Geo @305,

I think it’s pretty safe to say that any great idea can be destroyed when it’s institutionalized — when it goes from lower case to caps — especially when it has the backing of an imperialist power. Then the motives all shift. The rationales all change. The intentions all morph into something else entirely. Growth of the institution itself. Centralization of power for the sake of more power. Which really means power at the top, for the sake of the top.

Jesus lived his life as a small “c” communist, from what we know of that life. I don’t think he would recognize what the Christian church or faith became after he died, and he would certainly be revolted by everything about the American Christian Right. He wouldn’t be too thrilled with American liberalism, either, IMO.

To be a “Christian” once meant to walk the walk, to be like “Christ.” And Jesus said don’t even think you can follow me and still hold onto your riches. Give all of that to the poor, and then we can talk. Just the ostentatious display of wealth in our churches alone would drive him to drink in excess . . . .

But my artist side is happy that we have the Chartres and Rouens of this world.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 8:33 pm

Geo #305,

Then I will presume, if I may, that you also grant that capitalism has done a lot of good, by accelerating the standard of living by being a system that allowed individuals to effectuate their own innovative ideas into material reality in a decentralized fashion, and also allocated the resources among those ideas in an efficient way.

But anyway, do you think that people might get those noble ideas in other ways? I would very much love it if you would write a book entitled, The Noble Ideas of Religion, Communism, and Capitalism.

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Layman 06.22.15 at 8:41 pm

“If deity were defined as a flying horse, then it would be irrational to believe there is a deity. “

But if I say to you that flying horses are beings defined as beyond rationality, will you say that people who insist there are no flying horses don’t understand the rational method?

Is there some particular point I’m missing, where positing the unknowable so as to assert that the unknowable can’t therefore be denied, is somehow worth the effort?

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Plume 06.22.15 at 8:45 pm

I can’t speak for Geo, but I imagine he might say that, yes, Capitalism has been very very good for some people, and has allowed some people to do the things you say, Lee, but it can’t be called “efficient,” because it has never allocated resources, wealth, income, access or power in anyway other than to a very small percentage of the population.

If by “efficient” you mean allocation to the richest 20%, with the richest 1% getting the best of the best, then, yeah. But Capitalism has never been good at allocating things to even a majority of the population, and it concentrates power, resources, wealth and access. It doesn’t decentralize them.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 8:51 pm

Layman @308,

I think Lee’s premise rests on far too many assumptions. He assumes he knows what offends everyone else, in particular, people likely far removed from his own experience. He assumes he knows what is unknowable — an obvious contradiction. He assumes he holds the key to all of this and is therefore entitled to speak on everyone’s behalf and play the high priest. He assumes he gets to demand apologies on behalf of people he knows nothing about.

Personally, I’m pretty tired of his assumptions, and I wish he’d look in the mirror for a moment or two.

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.22.15 at 9:27 pm

If that is the case, however, it makes even less sense to take offense at the comment. One can find the comment objectionable, as you do, because of its vagueness. The puddle against the wall thing, etc. But assigning merits or demerits works both ways. If the comment is essentially meaningless, as you suggest, if it’s not really about anything . . . . how can that be offensive to anyone?

Like I said, I’m not trying to wade into the question of causing offense, although what I’ll say briefly about this is that of course most believers wouldn’t share my perspective on Christian history any more than they’d share yours. They might well take offense at the things I said above, arguing that indeed, Christianity has been a force for good, on balance. That, more or less, has been an argument in some comments on this thread.

I’ll just repeat myself once more and then shut up, because I don’t feel like I’m getting my point across: the causal linkage between an ideology and things done in the name of that ideology is, even in the best of cases, pretty tenuous. A great deal of history typically intervenes between word and deed, to such an extent that it’s impossible, on balance, to attribute credit or blame the way you’re trying to do. When someone tries to draw a direct line between Marx and the Soviet gulag, most people familiar with history will rightly note that communism was home to a lot of divergent movements, that the gulags formed under particular contingent historical circumstances, that much of what went down in the USSR had very little to do with communism as such, and so on. And they’re right! But the problem, for those who want to play this game with religion, is that the argument cuts both ways. Much more so in the case of something as vast an amorphous as “Christianity,” which had any number of manifestations throughout the ages.

It’s all post hoc ergo propter hoc on a gross scale. Person X claims to be Christian/atheist/communist, commits atrocity/good deed Y, assign positive or negative points. But it turns out that you can’t separate things out quite so nicely; there’s not a regression that you run with dummy variables for various ideologies and out comes a coefficient that tells you how good or bad it was. And barring that, the problem of how to apportion credit is totally intractable and undecidable, because you can always selectively drop or include events that fit your thesis. Which is why I think that this is a bad line of argumentation and we should drop it.

Then I will presume, if I may, that you also grant that capitalism has done a lot of good, by accelerating the standard of living by being a system that allowed individuals to effectuate their own innovative ideas into material reality in a decentralized fashion, and also allocated the resources among those ideas in an efficient way.

I believe no less a thinker than Marx held a very similar view.

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Plume 06.22.15 at 9:44 pm

Jerry @311,

I think I do understand what you’re saying, and we’re on the same page. Yes, there are incredible numbers of contingencies along the way . . . . in programming language, all kinds of “if this, then that.” No question. The links in the countless chains, the concatenation of events, the multitude of variables along the way. Certainly. The unrelated, parallel realities. The accidents and the accidental mergings. All of that is true. Which is why, ultimately, what I said isn’t offensive in the slightest. It’s too generalized a comment to bother anyone who does believe as you do, that there is no such thing as “Christianity” to pin to the wall, and that one can’t hand out blame and merit to any degree that matters or makes sense.

If an individual believes this, and they read someone making the completely harmless observation that “Christianity hasn’t made the world a better place” — harmless because it’s not about anything, anyone, and can’t be, according to your view — if they read such a comment on the Internet the worst thing they might think is . . . . as you no doubt did . . . . that’s a rather empty, meaningless statement and then they’d go on their way. If they take offense, they can only do so if they actually believe it was directed at them, or at least an actual substance, an actual thing, which you said “Christianity” isn’t.

At worst, most will say, this is all a silly waste of time. I’m going to dinner. In short, Lee is making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. Actually, less than a molehill and more than a mountain.

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geo 06.22.15 at 10:04 pm

Lee@307: Yes, I do acknowledge that capitalism has done a lot of good, especially for feudal societies. Though it’s been a long time since this was an apt description: “a system that allow[s] individuals to effectuate their own innovative ideas into material reality in a decentralized fashion, and also allocate[s] the resources among those ideas in an efficient way.”

For our purposes, though, the relevant difference is that, unlike communism and christianity, capitalism has not been massively, successfully, and unfairly maligned in our society (or in any society really — Soviet and Chinese propaganda wasn’t successful, since hardly anyone believed it and ideological conformity had to be achieved through force).

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Plume 06.22.15 at 10:14 pm

Geo @313,

For our purposes, though, the relevant difference is that, unlike communism and christianity, capitalism has not been massively, successfully, and unfairly maligned in our society (or in any society really — Soviet and Chinese propaganda wasn’t successful, since hardly anyone believed it and ideological conformity had to be achieved through force).

Very true, and I’d go further. Not only has it not suffered endless criticism. It has long received a rather sickening level of unearned praise. Most Americans don’t see this. But our level of pro-capitalist propaganda is every bit as strong as the old Soviet Style Pravda machine was for its own system of choice. In general, it’s probably more sophisticated, and folded into everyday life in a far less obvious way. But it’s equally a matter of brainwashing and propaganda, and it’s every bit as divorced from lived reality.

315

JimV 06.22.15 at 11:27 pm

Belated response to Lee Arnold’s response at #123 (I didn’t see an immediate response – no reason there should be one or any response of course – and stopped monitoring the thread having said my piece – until just now.)

“Actually, we don’t KNOW that the stochastic process is the source of mathematical creation …”

Agreed, I was making a proposal which seems plausible to me based on a lot of evidence, not stating a fact. There may be a better explanation, although I am certain random experimentation will turn out to play a large role, because I have seen it play that role. However, it serves to offer a viable counterexample to your original statement, whether it is the actual case or not – unless you can prove that there is some discovery which could not have happened that way (not did not, but could not have; I know of many which did).

“And it also stretches the definition of “algorithm” somewhat, since we don’t know how to program a machine to run independently so that …”

a) “Because we don’t know” is a god of the gaps argument. There are a lot of things we didn’t know, until we did. They were true all along.

b) In principle we do know. For any human activity you can name – chess, checkers, IQ tests, tell us if it is raining outside – given enough time and effort and computer power we could write a program to do it. Simply add all those results together, and add an operating system which selects from them based on external sensory input. (And any collection of NAND circuits to do those things could in principle evolve randomly.)

“I think there is a bunch of serious problems with this, including how we would evolutionarily explain the development of self-consciousness.”

Well yes, it’s hard to evolutionarily explain the development of anything – teeth, hair, eyes, etc., because the process took many millions of years and didn’t leave indelible tracks. But if you are implying there is some sort of magic involved, whose mechanisms you can’t even conceive and which have never been reliably observed in controlled experiments, then I think there are much bigger problems with your explanation. We know most of the mechanisms of evolution and we observe them in the laboratory, such as Dr. Lenski’s experiment with E. coli. We estimate that radical changes such as the bifurcation of a species into two separate species take on average on the order of two million years, so there has been time so far for about 10^600 bifurcation results (doubling every two million years over about 3.9 billion years) in the Earth’s history – and none of those were inevitable as far as we know (there could have been 10^600 results which were all different), so trying to chart a path back from the present through those bifurcations, with limited fossil signposts, is indeed hard.

Given consciousness, the ability to sense an environment, self-consciousness seems like a self-evident corollary to me: one observes the world, and observes that parts of the world (our bodies) respond to our control and others don’t. I am told this can be observed happening in babies. Consciousness itself, as we experience it, seems to me nothing more than a sort of Windows operating system, which receives sensory impressions from external sources, and refers them for processing to unmonitored parts of our brains (since there are no nerves which monitor neuron activity).

“It is that there are uncertainties, and/or random generations, at EVERY LEVEL of this explanatory proposal, and they are somewhat unlinkable, or rather we might say, they appear to be in a perceptual hierarchy and we are unable to link them up.”

Sounds like another god-of-the-gaps fallacy, or perhaps the Lottery Fallacy. Granted it is beyond our evolved capabilities to determine exactly how, among all the 10^600 highly-evolved results, we came to be – still 10^600 highly-evolved somethings had to occur. Personally I think there could have been something much better than ourselves – better knee joints, and an average IQ like Einstein’s, for example. Looked at from one point of view, any pebble you might see is an inexpiable miracle; from another point of view, any thing you see is a possible result of the nature of this universe, shaped by it the way a hole shapes a water puddle.

“I am currently unwilling to accept the idea that the creation of new mathematics is so easily explained …”

As long as you recognize that it is plausible that no magic is involved, I am happy. In turn, every atheist I know of, including Richard Dawkins, will admit that we don’t know for sure there is no god. We just don’t see the metaphysical need for one or good evidence for one.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 11:58 pm

Layman #308: “if…flying horses are beings defined as beyond rationality, will you say that people who insist there are no flying horses don’t understand the rational method?”

Aren’t there two different extrarational types? If flying horses are beyond rationality, then the question is, are they visible (like Pegasus), or not? If not, how do you know they are horses, or fly? But god is defined as formless and invisible, whether or not She shows up as a burning bush.

“..somehow worth the effort?”

Well this is where I think it gets interesting. I don’t know how much thermodynamic EFFORT it really costs you — and whether there is any “worth” to the effort, is not presently provable. But I think we need a typology.

To see this, it may be helpful to consider two different facts: 1. Every era of thought in history has limits, uncertainties, complementarities, including the present era. 2. Our present physical description of the world has different uncertainties at every hierarchical level of the description (I elaborated upon this second fact, using the suite of examples from Murray Gell-Mann in comment #123).

Why? Scientists tend to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is”, and that’s just fine, they’ve got lots to do: the universe is open-ended and new scientific laws will always be revealed. (Although we should note that Feynman thought that the basic laws were a finite set and would soon all be discovered, and the future after that would be new applications.)

But the next era of science may benefit, just “may”, by being able to recognize what KINDS of unknowability and paradox are regularly generated by the mind, particularly for use in quantum physics and neuroscience. A typology of unknowability and paradox may lead to new scientific discovery. It is worth noting that both Whitehead and Gödel thought that metaphysics would become an exact science.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.22.15 at 11:59 pm

Jerry Vinokurov #311: “might well take offense at the things I said above, arguing that indeed, Christianity has been a force for good, on balance.”

You KNOW that statement is undecidable. It’s not provable to say that organized Christianity has been a net good, or not a net good, despite all its past crimes. 1. We can’t run the alternative history. 2. We can’t put a measure on the “level” of “good” in the world. This sort of statement should be inadmissible.

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floopmeister 06.23.15 at 12:12 am

My point is simply that any complex socio-economic order is not self-justifying.

Point taken, Peter T.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 12:13 am

Geo #313: “For our purposes…”

What are our greatest purposes? Rhetorical exclusion, or promotion of virtue? If we say, “We won’t concentrate on these virtues over here (capitalism), because there’s been little criticism of its immense failure, so instead we will promote these virtues over here (communism, christianity)” — then most people will say, “Wait a minute! What’s wrong with ALL the virtues?” Most people admire all the virtues. It therefore helps your argument to include all the virtues. It is the better rhetorical strategy to say, “Communism, Christianity, Capitalism have all had good things, and we need to put them all together.” Because you are right, capitalism is no longer helping individuals or allocating resources effectively; further, we are going headlong into a world where capitalism is failing more, and people are sensing it, but still being told differently. So rhetorically, getting all the virtues on board will serve the purpose of getting everyone on board, and simultaneously undercut the ability of opponents to say, “NO, you commies are up to your old tricks, trying a clever ploy to confuse! What about THESE other virtues, which you fail to mention or else to credit to capitalism?” So dear sir I abjure you to jettison your antipathies, though judicious (or put ’em in the preface) and write another of your marvelous books, and call it, “The Virtues of the Three C’s: communism, capitalism, christianity: How you are being told a bunch of nonsense about all of them.” (Then you can sneak in the critiques of capitalism too.) It will be a best seller. I am not joking. It’s a great concept, nobody’s done it, and people will definitely pick it up. Then I will come up there, and you can take me out to dinner. The best Vietnamese restaurant around, if you please.

The Principle of Guerilla Rhetoric: “All dissent must be of a higher logical type than that to which it is opposed.” — Anthony Wilden

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Plume 06.23.15 at 12:16 am

Lee @317,

So, if it can’t be determined, one way or another, that also means you have no way of proving I’m wrong. And at the very least:

1.) that means finding the statement offensive is beyond ridiculous.

2.) Thinking you have the god-like ability to know what is offensive to total strangers is a thousand-fold more ridiculous.

3.) Claiming that making such a statement on a bulletin board is akin to going to a gravesite and attacking mourners directly, in person, is yet another thousand fold of absurdity added to the total.

4.) saying, as Rich did, that it’s akin to what the hate-mongering bigots at Westboro Baptist do is still another level of lunacy.

5.) And, the fact that you are still banging on about this indicates a serious problem of monomania, and Lee, I think you really need to seek help with a professional. And now.

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js. 06.23.15 at 12:42 am

LAA @284:

I’m done with this after this comment (tho feel free to respond). But to restate the disagreement as simply as possible—this contrast (@200) is untenable:

It’s because I always take “ideology” by the dictionary definition: a system of ideas to run a political-economic system. Whereas religion to me is primarily spiritual-emotional, with an intellectual-theological framework that is interchangeable, really.

And if you take religion to be “primarily” spiritual-emotional (what is it secondarily, I wonder?), you’re going to need some other word to describe actually existing religious institutions and to talk about the effects they actually have in the world. Hence my “schmeligions” @276. And schmeligions will have as an essential component an ideology, in any sense that you want to describe non-schmeligious institutions as having an ideology. And if you don’t think ideology is a useful concept, then this will apply equally to schmeligious and non-schmeligious institutions.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 1:03 am

JimV #315,
What is your view of the existence of mathematics? Did numbers exist before humans, or did we invent them? If they existed before humans, where are they located? What about higher order mathematics? Did the Mandlebrot set exist to be discovered, or was it invented?

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geo 06.23.15 at 1:23 am

Lee@322: Did numbers exist before humans?

Now we’re getting to the good stuff! If you and Jim can answer that question, I’ll take you both out to dinner.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 1:39 am

Js. #321,

I already AGREED with you at #284 that schmeligions “are…the source of [SOME] proposals for organizing social, political, and economic life.” But at #276 you wrote after that, that you were “going to say something about why this matters” — so I assumed this means BEYOND that fact. So what is it? I want to know!

325

js. 06.23.15 at 1:57 am

Well, why do any ideologies matter? I think they matter because, with due acknowledgement of JV @298, ideologies are away of enforcing oppression*—in particular, they’re methods of generating assent for, or at least quelling discontent with, unjust social arrangements, esp. on the part of those—oh, let’s call them classes, that are in fact oppressed. And religious ideologies have been almost uniquely important in this respect for most of human history (tho they’re less so now, plausibly). I think some bearded 19th century dude wrote a famous, and often misunderstood, bit about this. You might know it! Anyway, that’s why I think the point has some importance and interest.

*Granting the fact that they can be used against the grain to fight that very structure of oppression. I’m not disputing this.

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Plume 06.23.15 at 2:20 am

js @325,

Good points.

And . . .

*Granting the fact that they can be used against the grain to fight that very structure of oppression. I’m not disputing this.

I’m with you in that they can be used against the grain, etc. But on balance, do they generally do enough of this to negate the bad stuff they do? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any evidence to support that. So when someone touts the wonders of X ideology or schmeligion, without acknowledging the dark side, it’s important to counter this, in my view. If it’s not, it tends to help the fairy tale built up around said ideology or schmeligion, and that actually helps them oppress others far more easily.

And to me, one of the most vile ways of seeking protection from such criticism is to go all passive-aggressive and demand special status and special rights above the fray . . . . to demand that we silence our criticism because it may hurt someone’s feelings to hear the truth.

I reject that frame and that request, at least beyond the same civility would would accord anyone else.

One could add to “No gods, no masters,” . . . . “no special exemptions for religious beliefs.” They simply don’t deserve the pass others don’t receive. They simply don’t deserve any extra special considerations not granted to non-believers, book lovers, sports fans, political enthusiasts, etc. etc.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 2:29 am

Js. #325,

I guess I’ve always distrusted the use of the concept, because you can say the ideology does this, or the ideology does that, and it becomes a reified universal causative principle and I tend to distrust that high level of concept because it’s artificial and too distant from objects of study. And I found a lot of the discourse to be fuzzy and I haven’t bothered following it a long time. I’ll have to think about it some more.

328

js. 06.23.15 at 3:52 am

Lee: I do agree that “ideology” is very often used in misleading and unhelpful ways. But I do also think it can be a useful concept, at least within certain frameworks, and assuming that it’s not being used carelessly.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 8:29 am

Js #328,

What is an example of another framework in which it is useful?

330

engels 06.23.15 at 8:50 am

Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk.

331

c 06.23.15 at 11:49 am

Sam Goldman: “The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. I am skeptical that this is the case.”

I think that is empirically false. Here are some causes where significant numbers of people have made taken risks, made sacrifices *and* achieved political change in a wide range of countries without most of them being theistically motivated: feminist politics, LGBT rights, animal welfare protection and environmental activism. Some theists take part in those causes too of course, but so does many non-theists.

Sam Goldman: “On this interpretation, there’s no normative obligation to respect people’s basic rights. But there are good prudential reasons for doing so.” … “a purely naturalistic interpretation of the matter would lead us to conclude that these movements had no “right” to succeed.”

False dichotomy. Non-theistic moral realism is a third option, the view that moral norms have an objective force that is not reducible to the attitudes of neither regular persons or nor god persons. Talk of “natural law” can then be parsed as claims about irreducibly normative facts. Moral realism is very much a live option in contemporary metaethics.

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casmilus 06.23.15 at 12:54 pm

#296:

” I am a Christian who doesn’t make Inquisitions. I am a communist who doesn’t make gulags. I am a capitalist who doesn’t make inequality and environmental destruction.”

The difference in those 3 is that the 3rd version is implausible: capitalism does at least require *some* inequality, even if it doesn’t have to be as vast as it has been historically.

The capitalist would be better off accepting that, and then arguing the other 2 apologists were merely ignoring the practical details of any social order based on their rule.

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Layman 06.23.15 at 2:12 pm

“Aren’t there two different extrarational types? If flying horses are beyond rationality, then the question is, are they visible (like Pegasus), or not? If not, how do you know they are horses, or fly? But god is defined as formless and invisible, whether or not She shows up as a burning bush”

And if I then define flying horses as both beyond rationality and formless and invisible, will you say that people who insist there are no flying horses don’t understand the rationale method?

ISTM that this is all special pleading – that you want to give a measure of credence to just one class of very unlikely things, but not other classes of equally unlikely things. The only obvious reason I can think of for that is tradition; but then, which tradition?

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Plume 06.23.15 at 2:29 pm

To be consistent, or to make any sense at all, or to be “fair,” Lee would have to raise the same level of objection to the following:

Someone on a bulletin makes a critical comment about the NFL
Someone, somewhere, has just buried their father, son, husband, who played in the NFL

Someone on a bulletin makes a critical comment about higher education in America
Someone, somewhere, has just buried a family member who worked for an American university

etc. etc.

It would then be incumbent on the posters to scour the news, 24/7, the obituary section of every newspaper known, to make sure he or she never said anything negative about any organization, institution, group, etc. etc. if someone, somewhere, was in the process of mourning someone involved with those institutions or groups.

Logically, all critical conversation would grind to a halt. Now, some might argue that this would be a really good thing, and who knows? Others, not so much. But, it would be the logical outcome of such restrictions.

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Anarcissie 06.23.15 at 2:44 pm

Layman 06.23.15 at 2:12 pm @ 333 —
We cannot reasonably say that the existence of some sort of god is ‘unlikely’ since we have no idea of what the number of possible states of godfulness the universe(s) can be in, or what conditions or forces would select one and not another. Indeed, ‘the universe’ and ‘god’ are very poorly defined, so one does not know where to begin the probability calculation. By contrast, most states of the universe as we know it do not provide for flying invisible horses, at least not locally, so we can say that their existence is highly improbable.

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JimV 06.23.15 at 2:49 pm

Re:”Did numbers exist before humans, or did we invent them? …”

(My answer on this is my own thought and worth what you paid for it, as always, but since you ask …)

In general, I think math is thinking, thinking is math. When I have three errands to do, such as, buy some ice cream, pick up some dry cleaning, and deposit a check at the bank, deciding what order to do them in is a math problem – a simple one which can be solved by going through all the permutations one at a time and keeping track of the best one so far. (I will get the ice cream last, and go to the bank first because it is closer than the dry cleaner and the dry cleaner is on the way to the super market.) Over time, after considering a lot of problems of a certain type, people develop tricks, or algorithms, to get good solutions quickly, and pass these tricks on to posterity.

One could say, if one wanted to for some reason, that there is a conceptual space (like a Hilbert space) of such tricks which we are exploring. Whether that counts as existence or not depends on how you define existence. This seems like an arbitrary and therefore not hugely important convention to me.

Numbers started as counts (integers) which were empirically based. A herder has eleven goats today. Tomorrow he still has eleven goats. Then one has two kids. Now he has thirteen goats. Then he sells six of them and has seven left. Did counts exist before there were humans or other creatures to experience them (monkeys can count and add and subtract integers up to a total of about eight – which is about the same as the number of things I can visualize distinctly in my head)? I would say yes, this solar system had one sun and Mars had two moons before there were humans to count them. I can’t prove this by my direct experience, but I think so.

Then we have the rational numbers as ratios of integers and the irrational numbers and complex numbers and surreal numbers and so on. They were developed as part of those tricks I mentioned, to solve various problems. However (I think) anything much past the integers is more a useful convention than a metaphysical necessity. As one of the references I linked to points out, complex numbers are just one way of handling rotations, and for many (perhaps all) problems there is more than one trick and set of conventions which can be used to solve it – quaterions, for example. So a different civilization on a different planet will have a different set of tricks and conventions and may think some of our notions, such as irrational numbers, are silly. They could still be considered part of that vast, light-explored conceptual space I mentioned above (to which I attribute no mystical properties), if one wants to, however.

I mention irrational numbers as perhaps unnecessary, because every calculation done on every digital super-computer is done using integers (binary bits), and could in principle be done on an abacus given enough time and a way to record intermediate results. (How about analogue computers, you ask: see quantum mechanics – Zeno was right.) Also, a rational number is just a convention for expressing two integers relative to each other. So integers (counts) are the real-est part of “real” numbers. The rest are our particular conventions, or mathematical language. One might as well ask if the English language existed before before anyone used it. As part of a conceptual space of all possible sounds and meanings which could be assigned to them, yes; but as something that physically existed, no; and as something that was bound to exist (in its specific current form) soon after humans evolved, no.

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Plume 06.23.15 at 3:06 pm

Anarcissie @335,

And that extreme open-endedness is very helpful in making the case for worship, due to the impossibility of closure. It’s kind of like this scenario:

People pray for loved one to recover from terrible disease or accident. Loved one doesn’t recover. It’s “god’s will.” Loved one does recover. “God saved them.” There is no possible outcome that can’t be explained in favor of that god’s existence.

The everlasting presence of evil in the world. Free will. If some evil is brought to justice. It’s god’s will. There seems not to be a problem among believers in the selective nature of supposed interventions, or their overwhelming absence. No matter what occurs, it’s still proof for them of their god’s existence and his love. Love in the absence of intervention. Love in its presence.

I think the tenacity of this vision, along with its reoccurrence through thousands and thousands of years of human history, regardless of the name of the deity, its shape, its human or animal forms, tells us that this is likely something innate in all human beings. It’s entirely internal. The external object is irrelevant and changes depending upon time and place, culture and class.

In many ways I have always found this wondrous and wonderful. The human capacity to believe. And it has helped bring about a great deal of beautiful art, literature, architecture, music . . . and some of the most profound concentrations of human emotion we have. My problem, really, has always been when one organized religion seeks to dominate and force itself upon the unwilling. If we could ever get to the point where that ended, there really might be a substantial net gain . . . . as long as we didn’t then ruin even that by saying this net gain can only happen through religion or religious beliefs.

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Layman 06.23.15 at 3:18 pm

Anarcissie @ 335

I certainly grasp that one can define deity in such a way as to place it beyond the realm of rational inquiry; but it seems to me that a deity defined in that way – undetectable, as it were – can quite reasonably be said not to exist. This is intrinsic to the meaning of words like ‘detectable’ and ‘exist’ , as what can it possibly mean to say that we know of an undetectable existing thing? This is the reason for my earlier questions: what is the point of the exercise, and why give it any credence?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 3:25 pm

Layman #333,

Well if you put it that way, then you are correct. There is no way to rationally disprove that there is something formless that is also a horse. But I think the contradiction is beyond the boundaries of meaning. But claiming that there is something formless and not a horse, does not contradict the meaning.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 3:42 pm

JimV #336,
I’m not sure I understand you. If numbers and math did not exist before humans evolved, then what is the relationship of current mathematical language the early universe, i.e. before the Earth was formed? How is it that mathematical cosmological theories give us some insight into the formation of the universe? Claiming that math is a “convention” or a “conceptual space” into which human thought is moving, rather just dodges the question by fudging an answer, doesn’t it? What would it be a “convention” of?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 3:50 pm

Layman #338: “…what is the point of the exercise, and why give it any credence?”

Well if that is the question, then I gave my own answer in #316: it may be very useful to future science to formulate a precise typology of arationalities, paradoxes, and uncertainties.

342

geo 06.23.15 at 3:53 pm

Anarcissie @335: we have no idea of what the number of possible states of godfulness the universe(s) can be in

Do you mean “godfulness” or “Godfulness”? For that matter, do you mean “universe” or “Universe”? And remember, there’s “being” and “Being.”

343

Plume 06.23.15 at 3:58 pm

Geo,

You’re on a roll, I mean Roll.

344

Layman 06.23.15 at 4:05 pm

“Well if that is the question, then I gave my own answer in #316: it may be very useful to future science to formulate a precise typology of arationalities, paradoxes, and uncertainties.”

Indeed you did, but I confess I found the answer unconvincing.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 4:07 pm

Casmilus #332: “…capitalism does at least require *some* inequality…”

Inequality is not a formal requirement of capitalism. If everybody were engaged in an efficient activity that produced something for trade with everybody else, then the definition of capitalism is fulfilled with perfect equality: everybody privately owns their own means of production and makes an income. That income is equal to everybody else’s income, and the incomes of all are growing because their efficient production capabilities are growing, so they can buy the extra stuff from each other. It could even work out with cooperative banking.

In the real world, this is as unlikely as pure communism, and as distant as pure christianity. But inequality is not a formal requirement. The inequality proceeds from outside the basic definition: differences in resources, abilities, ownership, labor subjugation, political power, etc.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 4:16 pm

Layman #344: “I found the answer unconvincing.”

Since just above it I wrote, “…whether there is any “worth” to the effort, is not presently provable,” I saw you coming.

But then, in #266 you appeared to be unable to allow that a reader could find objectionable, all at the same time: 1. a feckless falsehood, 2. an offensive statement whether it is made deliberately or fecklessly, 3. an offensive statement that uses the falsehood, and 4. a falsehood that insults the thing that the offended will be turning to for emotional support.

347

Plume 06.23.15 at 4:20 pm

Lee @345,

That is absolutely untrue. A formal requirement of capitalism is to produce inequality, after it begins the process within vastly unequal frames. There is no escape from that if it is to be capitalism, rather than some other economic form.

Capitalism means the capitalist purchases labor power in order to produce commodities for sale and profit. M-C-M and exchange value. Your description is more like the pre-capitalist C-M-C and use value.

The capitalist appropriates the surplus value created by those laborers for himself/herself, and gives back a relatively small percentage of the total to those workers. The process begins in the radically unequal power structure of a capitalist business, relative to labor, and it only gets worse with every subsequent step, as the capitalist keeps the lion’s share of the value created by labor for him or her.

And because “profit” is involved, even in one to one transactions the capitalist must receive more than they give, or there is no profit. That produces a series of unequal effects, which trickle down throughout the supply chain. In almost every case, the worker gets a cut in pay in order to make up for each profit act. Consumers, in virtually every case, are also paying more than they get in return. Again, if this doesn’t happen, the capitalist doesn’t make a profit.

Capitalism begins and ends in a radically unequal state, and the capitalist has every incentive in the world to increase that inequality to the degree possible. His or her unequal share of power enables them to do this, and capitalism’s overall control of the world economy empowers the capitalist to gain further advantages via government interventions on their behalf.

348

Plume 06.23.15 at 4:29 pm

Quick follow up:

Your description of everyone owning their own means of production isn’t capitalism, at all, as mentioned. It’s pre-capitalist C-M-C and use-value. It also leaves out the fact that capitalism itself destroyed C-M-C, wiped out self-provisioning and the masses’ ability to self-provision in order to force people into the factories. It violently kicked millions and millions of people off the lands that enabled their self-provisioning, starting in Britain, and forced governments to also block other means, like hunting and fishing. Michael Perelman details this history in his seminal The Invention of Capitalism.

This violent overthrow of C-M-C was even worse in the so-called “third world,” where huge populations were enslaved outright, after their resources were pillaged, or enslaved via pennies on the dollar wages under deadly conditions. The massive gap in what an executive at Apple makes, versus the workers who build Ipads and so on, was the norm for capitalism from day one. While the gap itself has increased over time, in relative terms it’s always been built in and monstrous. It’s baked into the mechanics of the capitalist system. To escape it, we have to escape capitalism itself.

349

Layman 06.23.15 at 4:45 pm

“But then, in #266 you appeared to be unable to allow that a reader could find objectionable,”

On the contrary, I think that’s all an after-the-fact rationalization of a knee-jerk reaction which was in fact guilty if what it accused. But I can’t be bothered to argue the point further.

350

Anarcissie 06.23.15 at 5:07 pm

Plume 06.23.15 at 3:06 pm @ 337 —
Belief is necessary, because our little monkey brains can take in only a very small part of what is going on around us, even though expanded through social practices like science. The rest we have to make up, and hope for the best. Ignorance is necessarly one of the cardinal facts of human life.

Layman 06.23.15 at 3:18 pm @ 338 —
But some people have religious experiences.

351

Plume 06.23.15 at 5:17 pm

Anarcissie @350,

Well and concisely stated.

Your first comment reminds me of both Nietzsche and Wallace Stevens. Necessary fictions.

And your comment to Layman reminds me of Kierkegaard, who said that religion gets in the way of the religious experience.

352

Layman 06.23.15 at 5:20 pm

“But some people have religious experiences.”

Some people have something they call ‘religious experiences’, which seem to be oddly consistent with their cultural norms about religion. If deity is unknowable, our cultural norms are surely wrong, and in fact no one should have such experiences, as they are inconsistent with the idea that deity is unknowable.

353

JimV 06.23.15 at 5:38 pm

Re: “I’m not sure I understand you. If numbers and math did not exist before humans evolved, then what is the relationship of current mathematical language the early universe, i.e. before the Earth was formed? …”

Yes, you didn’t understand me, perhaps because our world views are incompatible. Counts (integers) existed, and patterns to be noticed as soon as there was something to notice them (as part of its survival tactics). Thinking (math) did not exist physically until there were creatures who think (including dogs and cats and other creatures with brains – on this planet, that is). As for math vs. the universe, the map is not the territory.

I have a feeling, belatedly, that rather than being interested in my thoughts on math you expected me to step into some trap. Perhaps that trap does not exist in my world view. Anyway, I can’t see it.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.23.15 at 6:40 pm

JimV #353: “Counts (integers) existed…”

No, sorry, I did not see that. I think our world-views are compatible. But that’s actually what I wanted to know. Because it sounds to me like you think that numbers are metaphysical (which is not to say magical). Is that right?

355

Anarcissie 06.23.15 at 7:20 pm

Layman 06.23.15 at 5:20 pm @ 352 —
Having an experience of something doesn’t mean you know it. By ‘unknowable’ you may mean ‘imperceptible’ but clearly persons who have religious experiences perceive something. And while you may criticize their construction of those experiences, they may criticize your construction of their construction — neither seems likely to be conclusive.

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Layman 06.23.15 at 8:12 pm

“By ‘unknowable’ you may mean ‘imperceptible’ but clearly persons who have religious experiences perceive something.”

If I perceive voices emanating from my refrigerator, we don’t usually think that means I’m experiencing evidence of actual speakers residing in my refrigerator. For some reason, if my perception has a religious framing, we tend to take it more seriously as evidence of some other entity; but I’m not sure why we do that.

More broadly, though, you can argue that God falls outside of the scientific method, but if religious experiences are actually experiences of God, then God is in some manner detectable by experience, which means He/She is susceptible to the scientific method. It’s a paradox; you can’t reasonably argue both sides. Either undetectable or detectable, pick one.

Finally, if you settle on undetectable, our own cultural religious heritage is almost certainly wrong – how could it be right if we can’t know anything of God? If you still insist on religious experiences as genuine, isn’t it odd to find that they always conform to the expectations of the claimant with respect to their own cultural religious heritage? If that heritage is surely wrong, then it must be informing the experience rather than being confirmed by it, which is to say that the experience is something but not a genuine encounter with the ineffable.

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Anarcissie 06.23.15 at 10:44 pm

Layman 06.23.15 at 8:12 pm @ 356 — Science is (currently) limited to phenomena which can be repeatedly observed, measured, described in language, and usually replicated by others, which necessarily leaves out a huge amount of significant experience.

In regard to the subject, I’d rather stay away from capital-G God, who carries a lot of baggage. People have a wide variety of religious experiences which are not necessarily personal confrontations with Mr. G.

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Layman 06.23.15 at 11:22 pm

“Science is (currently) limited to phenomena which can be repeatedly observed, measured, described in language, and usually replicated by others, which necessarily leaves out a huge amount of significant experience.”

Yes, of course, but I’m not responding to the claim that deity can’t (currently) be studied, I’m responding to the claim that it can’t (ever) be studied – that it is outside the bounds of rational method, by definition. If so, then deity is irrelevant – if it can’t be detected, as a practical matter it doesn’t exist.

The claim of religious experience is incompatible with the claim that the deity is beyond the bounds of rational method. Religious experience, if genuine, represents data about deity. If deity manifests – presents data – then it can’t be wholly unknowable. Similarly, communities of worship, and established doctrine, are incompatible with the claim of a deity beyond the rational method. How could we know the doctrine is correct? How could we agree on any precepts?

As to the experiences themselves, I think they’re suspect. They are not different in nature than other phenomena, which we have no qualms about deciding are hallucination or self-deception. And they do seem to invariably reflect and reinforce the religious traditions of the person claiming the experience.

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JimV 06.24.15 at 12:40 am

“Because it sounds to me like you think that numbers are metaphysical (which is not to say magical). Is that right?”

I’m not sure about all of what metaphysical implies, so I looked it up. An online dictionary says , “of or relating to metaphysics”. Wikipedia says, “Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined.”

I’ll put it this way: I can imagine a universe in which the concept of counts might never be formed by thinking and intelligent creatures – you have eleven goats, and then blink and have eight, a macroscopically quantum-uncertainty universe – but I can’t conceive of thinking creatures (or perhaps any creatures) evolving in such a universe. For one thing, there need to be stable, predictable patterns for thinking to be evolutionarily advantageous, and stable counts seem to me to be the most basic pattern. E.g., you see three lions crossing a ridge, and later two of them in the grass, and can suspect that the third is trying to flank you.

So macroscopically stable counts are a necessary part of any universe which I would appreciate or find myself in. Since I am in such a universe, I understand the concept of integer numbers and am able to identify even momentary counts in my concept of other types of universes (that is, the eleven and then eight goats), but since the rules of arithmetic would not be effective for predictions in those universes, those counts would not be useful there.

I prefer to keep myself grounded empirically rather than speculate and extrapolate from the one universe for which I have very limited data, as I expect even this one is stranger than I can imagine. Nor is everything I think I can imagine necessarily possible. Stable counts exist on the human scale in this universe, from which the concept of integer numbers was developed. (Local Conservation of Energy, e.g., heat in minus heat out equals heat stored, is part of this same phenomenon, I think.) Of that much I am rather certain. If that means integer numbers are metaphysical, so be it.

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Anarcissie 06.24.15 at 12:51 am

Layman 06.23.15 at 11:22 pm @ 358 —
I didn’t say god(s) could never be studied rationally, indeed, scientifically, although she, he, it, or they have been so coy up until now, I would be surprised at any marked change of habit. But never say never!

I admit, though, that I agree with Hölderlin: God’s great gift to us is his (etc.) absence.
What will we do if it is withdrawn?

On the other hand, if people have religious experiences, they have to deal with them. Belief in a framework which says you’re crazy might be less satisfying and less effective than belief in whatever you’re experiencing.

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Harold 06.24.15 at 5:17 am

People like their religions. I say, let them have it if they want it.

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Ed Darrell 06.24.15 at 8:37 am

Ben Franklin struck “divine rights” and replaced it with “unalienable rights,” precisely to avoid the impression that God is required to make the Declaration effective.

This is one case where the intent of the founders is clear from Franklin’s writings and other commentary at the time.

Franklin also noted in other places the distinction between natural law, which he said could be determined by study of nature (much as he had discovered lightning was not a tool of gods), and law delivered from the pulpit. Justice Scalia has worked hard to poach on Franklin’s distinctions, and wipe out Franklin’s claims. I think we do better to stick with Franklin’s definitions and other contemporary definitions from that time, in trying to parse whether God is necessary for government. Madison and Washington noted that our Constitution works only for a virtuous people; not enough cops possible to track everyone’s speeding, so we depend on voluntary compliance. Franklin labored to make it clear that virtue arises from many places other than a belief in gods. For that matter, so did Jefferson: In his Autobiography Jefferson recounted the 1786 passage of the law he proposed in 1779 to secure religious freedom in Virginia, the Statute for Religious Freedom:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.

Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Modern Library 1993 edition, pp. 45 and 46.

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Layman 06.24.15 at 1:23 pm

“People like their religions. I say, let them have it if they want it.”

I say that, too, though within ‘have it’ I don’t include bringing it to my front door.

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ZM 06.24.15 at 2:46 pm

“The claim of religious experience is incompatible with the claim that the deity is beyond the bounds of rational method. Religious experience, if genuine, represents data about deity.”

It would depend what you mean by the rational method.

I am reading the very well regarded Melbourne ethnographic historian Greg Dening’s book Church Alive! Pilgrimages in Faith 1956-2006. Greg Dening was a Jesuit before he was a historian, studied ethnography at Harvard, and he left the Jesuits later as he disagreed with the stance on contraception. In this book he says it worries him that the 50 years of the book “belong to the troughs and peaks of my life and spirituality. I have no desire to take anybody where I have been or to tell anybody where to go… Let my own faith be on my own head.”

The Prologue begins with the early church :

“They come down from the mountain in a daze. They realise the Lord has gone from them in a physical sense, that his appearances — ophte is the word they use, a word their Scriptures use exclusively for the ways Yahweh ‘made himself seen’ to Abraham and Moses — are as much a way of understanding as a way of seeing.”

“First, the women ‘saw’ him — ‘saw’ as in a piercing, understanding look — and bore witness to his rising.”

There are similar accounts from other cultures, such as women who sit down by a maid and perceive Ceres’ presence in her.

In terms of the discussion of the institutionalisation of Christianity in the Church, Dening presents Vatican II as a move back to the ways of the early Church:

“Perhaps the most powerful example of the prophetic imagination at work within the Church was the call of the Council Fathers to return to the freedom that Paul calls all who are baptised to; namely, that they exercise their gifts in the service of the Lord. In the inevitable institutionalisation of the Church in the early centuries, that notion of gift and charism became ordered — literally — in the sacrament of order. St Augustine explained order as ‘the appropriate disposition of things equal and unequal by giving each its proper place.’ Thomas Aquinas, a little more bluntly, called it ranking. So priest, deacon and-deacon are ranked.

The ‘imposition of hands’, a joyous, Pentecostal sacrament of the early Church, became ordination, an ordering, with its fatal tendency to built ontological walls around what was ordered.

There was probably no bigger boost to the prophetic imagination in the parish than when the reforms of Vatican II on the ministry began to be implemented in the 1970s. Perhaps there is no more consistent theme in the word pictures of the parishioners than their sense of awe at being entrusted to make a gift of their services…. it was a very rewarding moment when the Church recognised them as ‘acolytes’.

This is the Spirit levelling the Church’s sacramentality. This is ministry in the Church… This is prophecy, a vision of the future.”

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F. Foundling 06.24.15 at 3:30 pm

@Layman 06.24.15 at 1:23 pm

@Harold 06.24.15 at 5:17 am“People like their religions. I say, let them have it if they want it.”

>I say that, too, though within ‘have it’ I don’t include bringing it to my front door.

This is like “People like to have their climate change denial theories, I say let them have them if they want them”. Religions are not just some innocent private quirk, they have practical consequences. They’re supposed to have them, they were designed to have them, and they will have them for as long as they exist. The ideal of religion being a private matter that does not influence public life is a utopia. Ignoring the fact, the way “tolerant atheists” do, means burying one’s hand in the sand.

Assume people like thinking that 14+13=39 and dogs are fish. I say they *shouldn’t* think that. (Of course, “shouldn’t” doesn’t mean a legal ban, it means open criticism). First, people just shouldn’t think things that aren’t true. People’s thinking things that aren’t true is a bad thing and every 2 year old knows this, until they have been taught how to be “tolerant”. First, it has negative practical consequences. In the case of “2+2=5” and “dogs are fish”, such consequences will appear, say, in engineering and veterinary medicine respectively, and they are bound to affect everybody, including those who don’t share the false belief. Second, it’s bad precedent for people’s thinking habit in general – a precedent for believing things when there is no reason to and when there are reasons not to.

Yet, religion is a set of claims that are infinitely more important than such specific issues as whether dogs are fish or not. It is a system that describes everything important about the world and humanity. It is bound to have consequences everywhere, in everything – if taken seriously; and as long as it exists, there will always be people who take it very seriously, and many who take it at least partly seriously.

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Layman 06.24.15 at 3:58 pm

People should in fact not believe things which are not true, and there’s nothing wrong with arguing the facts with them; but in the end, if they insist on their fantasy, I don’t see any palatable alternative to letting them keep their illusions, do long as they don’t use them to harm others. And even then, the prohibition can as a practical matter only be on the acts of harm, not the thoughts.

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Layman 06.24.15 at 4:02 pm

ZM @ 364, I read your post but didn’t grasp your objection. That aside, your post supports my other point, that people who claim religious experience remarkably seem to always describe experiences which are firmly grounded in their own religious traditions, never ones which are alien to it. Odd, that, especially given that they are thereby somewhat contradictory when taken as a whole.

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ZM 06.24.15 at 4:15 pm

Layman,

It was not so much an objection but a clarification of what is to be counted as rational. If someone perceives the presence of Ceres in a maid is it rational to give this the status of fact, or the status of some other type of knowledge, or to discount it as knowledge all together?

Does rationality only refer to measurable knowledge, or other knowledge?

The question about numbers comes in here, as numbers themselves cannot be measured, but are only used in the measurement of things.

I do not think it is so odd that people’s religious experiences tend to be grounded in their own culture, as it us like speaking a language, you need to know what the sounds mean before you know they are words not just noise.

There is a similar saying in The Wisdom of Solomon, which was always my favourite saying in that book – For the elements were changed in themselves by a kind of harmony like as in a psaltery notes change the name of the tune but are always sounds;

You have to be able to recognise the tune, not just noise

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JimV 06.24.15 at 4:51 pm

I started to make this comment yesterday, in response to comments on religious experiences, but deleted it as too personal. Since the issue has been pursued again I’ll type my reaction again, and see whether I post it this time.

My old friend Ron and I began our careers in the same office. I helped him with programming problems and he helped me become more sociable. We were bridge partners at a local duplicate bridge club for a few years, then we moved on to different jobs in different companies and lost touch, until one day I found him working behind the counter at a Wendy’s. He had been diagnosed as bi-polar in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and lost his job (a program manager at Honeywell) and his wife. He got jobs at fast-food places and gas stations but couldn’t keep them, and subsisted mainly on a Social Security Disability pension. He refused to take medicine for his condition (which had bad side effects) or to accept his diagnosis.

He had become an ardent creationist, and would argue with me when we met at street corners until my knees ached and I had to continue on my way. He told me that Jehovah had appeared to him one night, given him an IQ of 1000 temporarily, and debated the Devil in his presence, proving that every word of the Bible was true.

The brain is an organ, and like other organs it can become damaged or dysfunctional, but in doing so it robs the individual of the ability to understand his or her condition (except in rare cases, like John Nash). Ron felt he had empirical proof, through his senses, of religious truth, and preached it with absolute conviction, persistence, and some charisma. (There was always some of the old Ron there, with his sense of humor.)

I have heard, personally, through a relative who recounted stories of his psych rotation in Med School and an experience in the Navy, of similar cases. I wonder how many religious prophets might have had similar conditions. I think the condition used to be called “god-touched”.

P.S. Thanks to Ed Darrell for bringing his considerable historical expertise to bear on the main point of this thread.

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Layman 06.24.15 at 5:02 pm

“It was not so much an objection but a clarification of what is to be counted as rational. If someone perceives the presence of Ceres in a maid is it rational to give this the status of fact, or the status of some other type of knowledge, or to discount it as knowledge all together?”

I think extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but that’s not my point. My point is, if Ceres is defined as a phenomena which can be perceived – whether in a maid or elsewhere – then Ceres cannot also be defined as being beyond the reach of the rational method. And, if there are gods, and they exist outside the bounds of the physical universe, then as a practical matter they don’t exist and can reasonably be denied with no harm done.

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Layman 06.24.15 at 5:10 pm

JimV @ 369

Thanks for posting this. I’m reminded of my own past, arguing with someone about the nature of faith and religious experience. He claimed to believe as a result of personal religious experience, and even argued that faith was intrinsically bound to such personal experiences. No one could, in his view, come to faith as a result of a rational thought process building on the experience of others, because faith was fundamentally irrational and could only result from one’s own personal experience of revelation. I had no problem agreeing with him on this – it is the only approach to religious faith that even begins to make sense to me, given the evidence – yet, somehow, he could not stop trying to convince me through argument that his faith was right and I ought to share it.

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Harold 06.24.15 at 6:04 pm

By their fruits shall ye know them. For millennia religion has attracted the best minds and has be responsible for great poetry and art, wisdom literature, as well as moral teachings. I am not sure that what purports to replace it has always been more free of error and superstition. I only say we disregard it at our peril.

As far as letting people have their religion being equivalent to saying “let them be climate change deniers.” No. If the current pope is any indication. Most religions affirm that reason is given to man by God, to be used for good.

In any case how are you going to force people to abandon their religious traditions? By force or punishment? That’s been tried. The rebound effect that way is certain.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.24.15 at 6:41 pm

JimV #359: “If that means integer numbers are metaphysical, so be it.”

Well you are not alone. There are plenty of people who think that numbers are metaphysical! Engels gave the most famous quotation above (#330). I think it goes a little beyond numbers. Certain operations or relations probably exist independently of the material world: for example, addition. Philosophers of mathematics argue whether higher-order math objects exist independently of the material world, or are just mental formations, but I don’t think that would have any bearing on the basic numbers.

There are other metaphysical existents, too, space and time. They could be metaphysically different from each other. People also argue whether these are conditions of mental thought (Kant) or are “merely” conventions. But numbers are harder to dismiss, because we can use them to calculate difficult situations where we are not around, or which happened before humans existed, the cosmological theory for example.

Anyway at comment #315 you called my observation that there are uncertainties at different levels of scientific description, a “god-of-the-gaps “argument. I already knew what a god-of-the-gaps argument is. I am in pursuit of a very different idea. So I want to ask you to follow these steps and criticize them, because I don’t get to talk to many people who think along your lines. But you don’t have to respond at all, it’s just speculation.

In essence, I will argue that it is possible that there may be something else that exists metaphysically that is not space, time, or number. More importantly, I will try to show that whatever that thing is, 1. it could be discoverable, even though it is presently not well-conceptualized (which is allowed, because there is no rule that everything metaphysical must be apparent and obvious); 2. it accords fully with modern science; and 3. it may account for the nature of some or all uncertainty, paradox, complementarity, etc.

I’ll proceed in steps. The first points are commonplaces, but allow me to reiterate.

My first question was, Why do we admit certain metaphysical premises (numbers, time, space or “extension”) into science, and not others? The obvious answer is because the other stuff is not required for scientific explanation. If we needed to evoke spirits to rustle the leaves in the trees, well then, we would use them. (As we did, a thousand years ago.) But we don’t need them.

(Note that this is different from the answer that is often given, that we don’t use spirits or god for explanation (unless they are whiskey spirits perhaps!), and we don’t use them because we can’t prove rationally whether they exist or don’t exist. We don’t want to use this argument here, because we’ve already accepted the metaphysical nature of numbers.)

But not only are number, space and time all the metaphysics that we need for scientific hypothesis, experiment and verification. They work BETTER.

What is it, about scientific explanation, that makes us say that it works better? Obvious: It’s the simplest explanation (Occam’s razor) that works as far as we can possibly push it, to predict new events, and to cover other phenomena. And we can change the explanation to make it better, and so on.

All of this, so far, is commonplace, but let’s go further.

I next asked, why is this important to us? Why do we value better understanding? And the most scientific answer is efficiency: we value scientific explanation because it uses the least effort (well, after you’ve learned the theory, it does!), it uses the least material, it uses the least time. It helps us make less mistakes, do less harm to ourselves, etc. And the new things that are discovered also do the same, in ways which we may not be able to foresee. So it’s an ongoing process.

(And it turns out that this idea was already expressed 130 years ago by Mach in a section of The Science of Mechanics called “The Economy of Science”; and 50 years before that, Babbage indicated the separate virtues of different processes of efficiency in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures; and 60 years before that, Adam Smith boiled down the basic kinds of efficiency to 1. proximity, dexterity, and innovation — all of which are accelerated by, though not originated in, the division of labor — and 2. the reduction of trade costs.)

So then I asked, where does the ENJOYMENT of the benefit of efficiency originate? Yes of course, it does better for us in terms of material wealth and in the formations of conceptual ideas and in science and scientific application, but WHY is this so? In other words, where does Occam’s razor come from?

Well if we accept the evolutionary explanation of life, the question would be, how did Occam’s razor evolve? Putting it that way, the answer is obvious, after thinking a little. It’s a continuation of the method of the survival of the fittest. In early evolution, the molecular aggregates (let’s say they are not even “life” yet) which happen to be better-constructed — such as in tensile strength, or against harsh conditions, etc. — survive better than those which are not, and that’s a sort of efficiency of their construction. Darwin’s survival of the fittest decribes the most efficiently-functioning animal, the fastest, best-structured for the task, and so on. And from there, things continue to be chosen for fitness, for one characterization of efficiency or another, all the way up to humans, including the way in which ideas are wired in our brains, and how they vie there, for survival.

(So far, this should all be obvious, although the statement that “evolution is the survival of the most efficient” is not standard. “Efficiency” usually means simple mechanical or energy efficiency, not the best fitness for the task of survival, and in addition, evolution has led to energy inefficiencies inside certain organisms, because it make them fitter in other ways. So I want to use “efficiency” as “whole organism efficiency”, interchangeably with “fitness”. Why? This helps to keep in mind all of the reasons why science is valuable, and “fitness” doesn’t quite cover things like science’s economy in statement and application.)

Now, I want to introduce the previous line of observation, mentioned before. We see the repeated appearance of limits to rational thought, appearance of uncertainties, paradoxes and complementarities, in every historical period and at many levels of current explanation. Some are solved, or else absorbed into larger unknowns, but others are not.

So I asked myself, why is this a persistent occurrence? The normal answer from scientists is that the universe is open-ended, and that’s just the way it is. That strikes me as rather short-sighted, akin to a religious priest telling me not to question god. I wondered instead what it could be. Is there is another metaphysical principle, not magic and not mathematics? Only, we haven’t evolved to consider it yet and maybe now is the time, and we need to press our total program of thought to begin to make it apprehensible?

So my next question was, what if this is a systematic phenomenon? And I immediately wondered if the appearance of uncertainties (or at least some of them; never good to make blanket statements!) has the SAME origin as Occam’s razor: that it is also an outcome of evolution. So that we are programmed by evolution to be more efficient, wherever and whenever we can; and we also leave residues of uncertainty and paradox along all major avenues of the human project, including some which, in the far reaches of physics, Gell-Mann calls the fundamental sources of uncertainty. And further that maybe, just maybe, they are connected: the residues of uncertainty are the flip-side of the survivals of the efficient.

In other words, it could be that the process of evolution does not cover everything that there is, or even cover everything that is discoverable; that evolution is not the only method of the universe,; and moreover, it may have introduced a systematic distortion into our thoughts of the universe.

So then, I looked around for evidence that other people have thought about this, even along remote strands. Because that would be the next evidence to look for, at this stage of the investigation. And it turns out, wow! there’s plenty to look at: just among the greats, Leibniz, Kant, Husserl, Whitehead, Gödel, G. Bateson, and many others. Penrose recently hypothesized that a key to understanding consciousness might be QP process in the brain. it turns out that every era of scientific description has thinkers who return to these questions with a revamped set of ideas, as well as people who argue that it is unwarranted or hopeless.

In this investigation, the facts in the preceding paragraph are raw material.

In addition of of course there are long-standing and even ancient problems of aesthetics, the Good and other absolute concepts, the thorny problem of consciousness, etc. Claims by evolutionists to be able to explain these “in principle” should be taken with a big dose of salt until the proofs arrive.

Again, this is NOT a god-in-the-gaps argument. My questions are, Has evolution led to a systematic distortion of the process of discovery? Is there a way to extend the inquiry to find new things? How would we rationally expand the present “species” of rationality?

I keep being led to the thought that a detailed typology of all the kinds of uncertainty, paradox, complementarity, conceptual dualism, etc. might provide some clues. This would be, at the beginning, necessarily an epistemological philosophical project.

There’s no help from the science side, and there may never be. Remarkably, some prominent scientists now even insist that philosophy can have nothing to do with scientific discovery. Not only does this ignore the thought processes of almost every one of the great early scientists, but also, at least one very great recent scientist: Einstein, who started from Kant and proceeded into epistemological analysis of the observer, and only afterward went to find the mathematics, which then proposed the experiments. Scientists today are more like technologists who produce results. That’s fine, so far as it goes. But as Gregory Bateson observed, “Those who lack all idea that it is possible to be wrong [in their basic presuppositions] can learn nothing except know-how.”

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Layman 06.24.15 at 8:08 pm

Harold @ 372, I submit that judging religion by its fruits will produce a mixed report card, with some good and some bad. And, it has to be said, often the agency behind the use of force to change religious beliefs has been (you guessed it!) religion.

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F. Foundling 06.24.15 at 9:42 pm

@Layman 06.24.15 at 5:10 pm

>No one could, in his view, come to faith as a result of a rational thought process building on the experience of others, because faith was fundamentally irrational and could only result from one’s own personal experience of revelation. I had no problem agreeing with him on this

First, I’m sure that very few of the people claiming to be religious actually have any such supernatural experience (for most people, it seems to be a case of the usual desire to belong, conform and obey); and even if they did have one, I see no reason to believe in anything irrationally, no matter what experience one has (now, one can believe in something *rationally* based on experience, but I don’t think any individual experience can offset the mass of uncontroversial, widely known experience that disproves the existing religions). If a supernatural voice in my head tells me that my pen is actually three kangaroos residing in different parts of Siberia (even if it simultaneously makes me high and ecstatic and assures me that it loves me), I will be justified in assuming that the problem is with the voice in my head, not with my vision, my sense of logic, common knowledge of geography and the contemporary science of biology.

@Harold 06.24.15 at 6:04 pm

>As far as letting people have their religion being equivalent to saying “let them be climate change deniers.” No. If the current pope is any indication. Most religions affirm that reason is given to man by God, to be used for good.

The point wasn’t specifically climate change and what a specific pope has deigned to say about it, the point is that false beliefs have negative consequences. Religions make claims that, if true, entail various behaviours that are highly undesirable if they are false. The specific claims and behaviours vary between religions, but they are always there (with no ex- or contra-ception for “infallible” Catholicism – I hope the bitter truth is more palatable when served with lame puns). As for “religions affirming that reason should be used for good” – the problem is what “good” means. When you derive “good” from “whatever Big Daddy in the sky says” (regardless of whether it’s expressed in a “good book” or in an “infallible” priesthood), trouble is inevitable.

>In any case how are you going to force people to abandon their religious traditions? By force or punishment? That’s been tried. The rebound effect that way is certain.

I very, very explicitly wrote that I didn’t mean “forcing”. One should, as in all other things, seek to convince people with rational arguments (improving living standards in general decreases the power of religion as well, since it’s used as a placebo by the suffering and those deprived of any other hope).

My point was that one *should* mind if other people believe things that aren’t true. In my previous post, I mentioned two reasons having to do with effects on people other than the adherents of a specific religion, but a third and important reason is just general benevolence. Ideally, I don’t want anyone in the world to believe anything untrue, because I want each and every of my fellow human beings to be as wise and as free as possible (wisdom being necessary for freedom). This is a general attitude, and what specific courses of action follow from that depends on the circumstances. There’s also the ethical aspect of it. If one takes one’s ethical principles seriously, one is bound to be opposed to anyone in the world having ethical principles and attitudes that are incompatible with them; for instance, if one is strongly opposed to genocide and torture, one should mind, and criticise, people’s worshipping of beings like Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, the God of the Bible and the God of the Quran.

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F. Foundling 06.24.15 at 9:57 pm

@Harold 06.24.15 at 6:04 pm

>For millennia religion has attracted the best minds and has be responsible for great poetry and art, wisdom literature, as well as moral teachings.

For millennia, there was no alternative. If you wanted to talk about what it meant to be human and what morality required, you had to do it within the framework of religion. Things that have been a fact for millennia are not necessarily good things.

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Bill Benzon 06.24.15 at 11:02 pm

@ F. Foundling, # 375: “First, I’m sure that very few of the people claiming to be religious actually have any such supernatural experience…”

I’m not so sure. During the mid-1970s Father Andrew Greeley reported a survey in which 33% to 43% of adults reported having had a mystical experience: J. H. Austin, Zen and the Brain (MIT Press 1998).

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Jerry Vinokurov 06.24.15 at 11:08 pm

I check back in and I discover that the CT commentariat has neither yet solved the Euthyphro dilemma nor come up with a definitive proof of the reality or unreality of numbers. Get it together, people!

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Layman 06.24.15 at 11:18 pm

F. Foundling @ 375, if someone is willing to admit to me that their faith is irrational, based on personal experience rather than verifiable evidence, and non-transferable, I call that a win.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.24.15 at 11:32 pm

I think there are two very different things going on, and they happen to intersect:

1. Intellectually, lots of people want certitude and finality, and they retain a naive feeling that science is untrustworthy, because it provides open-ended discovery instead.

2. Psychologically, there are lots of changes which are more easily categorized, and more easily initiated, by religious or spiritual concepts. Scientific terms such as relaxation, brain cascade, peak experience etc. don’t begin to cover it — in fact they are less descriptive — and science doesn’t provide programmatic concepts such as prayer, meditation, devotion, sacrifice, etc. which can work. This is common knowledge even to many psychotherapists.

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F. Foundling 06.24.15 at 11:52 pm

@Bill Benzon 06.24.15 at 11:02 pm

Nah, the things mentioned in that survey were much more vague, judging from the quotes I find – things like “feeling completely one with God and the Universe”, or “very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift them outside themselves”. This is likely to mean, more or less, “feeling kinda high while watching a majestic sunset”; there’s nothing strictly *supernatural* about such an experience, and it’s very far from a literal revelation confirming specifically the tenets of their organised religion.

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F. Foundling 06.25.15 at 1:01 am

@Lee A. Arnold 06.21.15 at 1:29 am

>>F.Foundling #213: “Ideologies are ways to make sense of the world and of life and death.”

>Then what is NOT an ideology?

My statement wasn’t necessarily a definition, it simply mentioned some characteristics of ideologies. This is separate from the question whether ideologies need to be defined as strictly *political* systems of ideas and whether religions are to be counted as ideologies (but I’d say no to the first and yes to the second, and I don’t think a sharp distinction between the two is warranted, since religions can be very political to varying extents – Islam, Judaism and Hinduism provide more or less extensive instructions for social, economic and political organisation, and traditional Christianity, while not containing such instructions originally, tried to play a somewhat similar role).

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 1:12 am

So what is NOT an ideology? Is psychotherapy an ideology?

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JimV 06.25.15 at 2:51 am

Scattered thoughts in response to Lee Arnold’s #373 (currently; the numbers here change, they may not be the metaphysical kind):

“Anyway at comment #315 you called my observation that there are uncertainties at different levels of scientific description, a “god-of-the-gaps “argument.” Very possibly wrongly on my part. It was based on a general impression that you were stacking uncertainties to reach a conclusion of incredulity, similar to the way creationists try to attack evolution. If that was not what you were doing, I apologize.

“I will argue that it is possible that there may be something else that exists metaphysically that is not space, time, or number.” Oh boy, sounds like I really need to understand “metaphysically” and I am still not sure I do. I take it to mean “something that is a basic, axiomatic, fundamental part of this universe such that this universe could not exist in its present form without it” but that might be too broad. Moving right along, any argument that starts with there might be something (which humans have yet to discover or figure out) can only get agreement. The devil will be in the details of what that something is speculated to be, and whether it is plausible that scientific exploration so far could have missed it.

Occam’s Razor – is related I think to a statistical principle: don’t overfit. If you have a lot of data points, don’t keep adding degrees of freedom to your fitting function until you match all the data points exactly, stop with the minimum number which preserves the general characteristics of the curve (and makes sense physically). This has an empirical foundation: when extrapolating, it turns out that in most cases you will be way off using the former fit compared to the latter fit (once you get the actual data). So in addition to the efficiency of simplicity argument, there’s that. Personally, when faced with two alternative explanations, I also like to use Mario’s Sharp Rock (named for my friend Mario – who doesn’t use it): among two competing hypotheses, yada, yada, yada, choose the most humble one. Example: hypothesis A – a god created this universe and fine-tuned it specifically to produce his desired creature, human beings; hypothesis B – the universe just happened (or has always been here – anyway the same sort of origin story as for the god under A), and humans were fine-tuned by evolution to occupy a very small ecological niche in it. MSR says choose B.

“We see the repeated appearance of limits to rational thought, appearance of uncertainties, paradoxes and complementarities, in every historical period and at many levels of current explanation. Some are solved, or else absorbed into larger unknowns, but others are not.

So I asked myself, why is this a persistent occurrence? …

… it could be that the process of evolution does not cover everything that there is, or even cover everything that is discoverable; that evolution is not the only method of the universe,; and moreover, it may have introduced a systematic distortion into our thoughts of the universe.”

Let’s call that hypothesis A for the persistence of limits and uncertainties. Here’s a hypothesis B: humans just aren’t that smart, but think they are (thanks to evolutionary drive to compete) (present company excluded). Once in a while a very smart human like Einstein occurs and pushes us a little further along, but as our technology gives us access to more and more fine details of the universe, we keep getting stumped. Mario’s Sharp Rock says B. I’m not sure what Occam’s Razor says.

But neither OR nor MSR are infallible, so you could be right. Or both could be right (with a little adjustment of A), if the other metaphysical thing you were postulating turns out to be something like “evolution by random trial driven by some selection criteria with screened results preserved by some sort of memory works in this universe” (but over long times, in fits and starts). My sense of “metaphysical” is that we use it in relation to our universe, but what’s metaphysical to us might not be true in a different universe. So there might be a universe in which creationists would be right, that evolution is somehow physically incapable of producing anything that is very complex (however, there likely will not be any creationists in it to crow). Whereas in this universe, it works – given stable environments for long enough times.

Anyway, I agree in this much: evolution has given us some unfortunate tendencies, as flipping TV channels for ten minutes will demonstrate (or reading most comment sections).

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F. Foundling 06.25.15 at 3:44 am

@Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 1:12 am
>So what is NOT an ideology? Is psychotherapy an ideology?

Again, you want me to define ideology, and I don’t understand how this is relevant for the original argument, which was that secular systems of ideas (whatever you want to call them) can be important to their adherents in the same way as religious ones can be to theirs – including providing a meaning of life, and a consolation for suffering.

Psychotherapy? I’d say borderline, but in its most extreme forms – yes (What causes pretty much everything in the world? Children’s libido. How do we fix pretty much everything in the world? Talk about children’s libido while lying on a couch). OED: “Ideology: A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”. The bit after the comma is frequently assumed, but obviously not obligatory. Wiktionary: “Doctrine, philosophy, body of beliefs or principles belonging to an individual or group.” So in the loosest sense, you could talk about different ideologies even in the realm of haute cuisine, and this type of usage does occur; but in a more narrow sense, one may limit it to such systems of ideas that deal with humanity, its place in the world and how human life should be lived in general (which normally includes social and political organisation).

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casmilus 06.25.15 at 7:58 am

John Plamenatz wrote an interesting short book about ideology, showing the value and limitations of the concept.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 9:48 am

JimV #384,

Thanks for that. I don’t understand how OR and MSR are different. Is it the latter’s assertion of an anthropomorphic (or egocentric) hypothesis?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 10:04 am

I don’t mean that MSR asserts it, but counsels its avoidance.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 10:28 am

Casmilus #386,

Thanks I’ll look for that.

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F. Foundling 06.25.15 at 12:48 pm

@Jerry Vinokurov 06.24.15 at 11:08 pm

>I check back in and I discover that the CT commentariat has neither yet solved the Euthyphro dilemma nor come up with a definitive proof of the reality or unreality of numbers. Get it together, people!

On Euthyphro: the objective direction of causation (“the goodness of X is caused by God’s command for X” vs “God’s command for X is caused by the goodness of X”) is a separate issue from the matter of what people recognise as a practical criterion for establishing morality and godliness (“we can conclude that X is good from the fact God commands X” vs “we can conclude that God commands X from the fact that X is good”). As a practical criterion, the “God > good” direction is inevitably at least partly present wherever you have theism (when you have “evidence” of gods commanding X, this proves X is moral – even if moral intuition or reasoning unrelated to divine authority suggest otherwise, they are too imperfect to be relied on).

As for the direction of objective causation, philosophers and theologists can speculate and have speculated ad infinitum, but the behaviour of deities in traditional narratives makes it clear: the original and earliest view, and the one enshrined in the religious traditions, was that a deity is just your regular patriarch who can and will do pretty much anything, even for obviously trivial and selfish reasons, and must always be obeyed just because he is the boss and has the right to demand obedience (hence “God > good”). This is like the earliest and most primitive view of a child: “good” is whatever his parents command and reward and “bad” is whatever his parents forbid and punish, regardless of why they do it. But no matter which objective direction you assume, as long as the practical criterion remains “God > good”, in practice the authoritarian implications are mostly the same.

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Layman 06.25.15 at 1:31 pm

“So far, this should all be obvious, although the statement that “evolution is the survival of the most efficient” is not standard.”

Definitely not standard, and also I think wrong. The mechanism of evolution is reproduction, and one need only look at the natural world to see countless examples of reproduction strategies that can’t possibly be called ‘efficient’. What matters is successful propagation, not efficiency.

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JimV 06.25.15 at 1:48 pm

Re: “I don’t understand how OR and MSR are different.”

For me the difference is that I can judge (and explain to others) which of two hypotheses makes me feel humbler more easily than I can judge and/or explain which is simpler. Many people seem to find the “god did it” explanation to be the simplest possible explanation for anything, but I don’t.

Another example: A = humans are the smartest, most successful macroscopic creature on Earth because a god loves us and made us in its image; B = some creature had to come out on top (on Earth) and we won the lottery; the universe doesn’t care who did. Again, many seem to find A simple and compelling, and will say that Occam’s Razor favors A.

To paraphrase Feynman, “Don’t let your ego fool you; you are the easiest person for it to fool.” That is the empirical basis for Mario’s Sharp Rock.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 2:42 pm

Layman #391: “The mechanism of evolution is reproduction…”

The full mechanism of evolution is reproduction + selection. I wrote, in that same paragraph, that “in addition, evolution has led to energy inefficiencies inside certain organisms, because it makes them fitter in other ways”. That is because it is already well-known that there are “reproduction strategies that can’t possibly be called efficient”, as well as other things, such as interior body structures, which are not as efficient as they might be. The question was: Is there a logic in evolution that would program the logic of Occam’s razor?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 2:50 pm

JimV #392: “…makes me feel humbler…”

Well be careful there, because many if not most religious people would contend that belief in God is the most humbling for them, and some of them refuse to use belief in God as a justification for the subjugation of nature, and that science by contrast immediately engages a sort of vanity. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and there is no humility-meter to gauge these things.

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JimV 06.25.15 at 3:19 pm

RE: “… because many if not most religious people would contend that belief in God is the most humbling for them …”

This sounds to me like the modern/pop version of “humble” as when an NBA player wins an award and says something like, “To know that I’ve received an award that greats of the game have received humbles me.” The word they are looking for is honors, not humbles.

I think George Orwell was correct with his point that the simplest way to legitimize your propaganda is to change the meaning of words, so that “the creator of this universe loves me and provides my daily bread” is more humble than “the universe doesn’t care whether or not I exist or get enough to eat”.

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Layman 06.25.15 at 3:29 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 393

‘The full mechanism of evolution is reproduction + selection. I wrote, in that same paragraph, that “in addition, evolution has led to energy inefficiencies inside certain organisms, because it makes them fitter in other ways”.’

It would be helpful if you would point to a few examples where you see that “Darwin’s survival of the fittest decribes the most efficiently-functioning animal, the fastest, best-structured for the task, and so on.” Which animals prosper because they are the most efficiently-functioning; and how do you measure this efficiency?

“The question was: Is there a logic in evolution that would program the logic of Occam’s razor?”

If you mean, ‘does something select for beings with a tendency to favor parsimony in their hypotheses’, how would you see this working? How would this tendency make it more likely that a particular primate would find a mate, breed, and protect offspring as they grow to sexual maturity? If anything, humans seem less parsimonious in their thinking than do other animals. Do elephants manufacture convoluted explanations for natural phenomena? I guess I don’t know, but it hardly seems likely from their behavior.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 3:37 pm

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a supplication.

The fact that there are other people in this world who love me, doesn’t make me proud, it makes me happy, it makes me humble. This appears to be much more like what most believers in god express, too.

It always amazes me that these criticisms of religion reveal such emotional animus. I can see being angry if you yourself were misled, or if you justly hate the crimes against other people that have been committed in the name of religion, and with pride.

Still it doesn’t justify a misinterpretation the theology, nor a misconstruction of believers’ emotional attitudes, does it?

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Plume 06.25.15 at 3:51 pm

I would imagine that, at least subconsciously, it’s always been easier for people to “humble themselves before,” or “feel humble in the presence of” the kinds of gods and goddesses who, themselves, are less than humble — to put it gently.

It would be a mistake, for instance, to see the religious as somehow more virtuous than the non-religious, simply because they “humble themselves” before a god. In all too many cases, especially with the tyrannical, frequently genocidal god of the bible, that god crushes those who disobey or refuse to “humble themselves before him.”

In a sense, this “humbling” is either forced or a vicarious experience of the power and might of a supreme being. I have my doubts as to whether the religious would be as likely to humble themselves if their god didn’t demand this, or if their god was never given to genocidal fury. The instances of religious people who voluntarily submit to an absolutely peaceful and gentle deity, who never demands this of them . . . . well, I can’t think of any off hand.

In short, where does “fear” factor in? And how much of this is a kind of submerged joy at having a divine weapon at one’s disposal — believing this, etc. etc.?

The three monotheisms of the Levant rise out of origin myths created by one frequently defeated tribe. Much of the story is about revenge and divine vengeance — against their enemies and against the faltering chosen people themselves. Right wing Christianity especially continues this legacy . . . as it seems to have forgotten about the forgiving side of the story, the Sermon on the Mount and so on. The genocidal madman, Yahweh, seems a much larger presence in the psychology of right wing Christians than Jesus . . . . and Jesus is not without his revenge stories, either. The Second Coming is all about the mother of all genocides, so while we have dozens of stories about a gentle, forgiving, all-embracing Jesus, ultimately he, too, takes part of mass slaughter.

Can anyone really say their “humbleness” matters if they believe in such deities? At least enough for it to mean anything?

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ZM 06.25.15 at 3:54 pm

Jim V you have really misunderstood the meaning of the words “daily bread” in the church, and it is a sacrament not a supplication Lee A Arnold, sacrament from the Latin sacramentum “solemn oath” from sacare “to hallow” and used in Christian Latin as a translation of the Greek musterion “mystery”. A supplication is to ask or beg for something.

“In their [the early Church] new prayer, they pray to the Father, “give us our daily bread” . That word ‘daily’ is an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek word ‘epiousios’, and it is nowhere else to be found in Ancient Greek literature. It is a word they must invent to describe a new sort of bread, the breaking of which was a sign of the presence of the Lord among them. It was a special sort of memory. It bound them in koinonia, fellowship, and communion. The bread they offered in sacrifice at Shavu’ot (in distinction of the sheaves of cereal they had offered at Passover) was now a sign of a special sacrifice that makes them one mind. It is epiousios: eucharistic.”

Greg Dening (2006) Church Alive!

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JimV 06.25.15 at 3:55 pm

This is bad of me and I blame evolution for it, but I can’t resist another personal anecdote.

I come from a family of mostly religious fundamentalists who go to Bible colleges and marry like-minded people whom they have met there. When a nephew or niece graduates from high school, I have a tradition of sending them a popular science book. So when my oldest grand-nephew graduated I sent him Simon Singh’s “Big Bang” (a mostly historical account starting with human-eye astronomy, and only explaining a few things in detail, such as parallax), which I myself enjoyed. In his thank-you note he told me he was not going to read it, because “Science can’t be true because it always changes; religion must be true because it never changes.”

As always, I had taped an envelope containing some $100 bills inside the back cover, labeled “Bookmarks”. I wonder if he threw the book away without finding them.

Anyway, that summarizes the sort of religious humility you mentioned, for me – the ability to ignore thousands of reliable facts and the conclusions of the most brilliant and hard-working humans who have ever lived in favor of their own rationalizations. Not all religious people/religions do this, of course, but I think most of those who don’t will understand my point about humility.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 3:58 pm

Layman #396,

I wrote in that paragraph that I wanted to use “efficiency” interchangeably with “fitness”, and as unmeasurable as the “efficiency” in the terms “allocative efficiency” and “Pareto efficiency”.

To put my original question another way: What is the simplest way of describing the way in which scientific explanation rewards humans? All scientific explanation. Beyond the joy of discovery and knowing, that is. It gives us “more knowledge”, but please characterize the way in which this knowledge is better than other knowledge. And how more of it, is better still. Something happens that is valuable to us. In general, even in one word, what would you name that ordinal (i.e. “more or less”) variable?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 4:02 pm

JimV #400,

That’s not religious humility, that is epistemological fear. I described it as the first of the two problems in #380.

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JimV 06.25.15 at 4:11 pm

RE: ZM – “Jim V you have really misunderstood the meaning of the words “daily bread” in the church, and it is a sacrament not a supplication.”

Okay, I apologize for my confusion, but that was as I learned from 19 years of Sunday School, Sunday Church, Sunday Evening Youth Service, Thursday afternoon Release-Time Religious Education in Junior High and High School, Daily Vacation Bible School in the summer, and thrice-daily recitals of the Blessing, e.g., “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hands, we are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen.”

I really wish there were some way Christianity could get its act together and present a unified message instead of 40,000 and counting (number of sects according to Wikipedia) differing interpretations – maybe some sort of unequivocal divine revelation?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 4:20 pm

ZM #399,

In other words, do you mean that (originally) “Give us” was not a supplication, it was an invocation for the reception of a sacrament in a ritual? The only thing I was familiar with was Lutheranism, where the Lord’s Prayer was spoken at the end of every service, whether it was a communion service or not. Now I have to suppose, that the Lutherans supposed, that it was symbolical, of the symbolism!

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ZM 06.25.15 at 4:36 pm

Lee A Arnold,

I think Lutheran theology does not have any sacraments, so they would mean something different when they say “daily bread” than the early Church meant. But in Luther’s day there was probably not as much research about the life of the early Church as there is now.

JimV there would have to be divine revelation to each person, or else there would be misinterpretations, and if people misinterpreted their divine revelations there would have to be divine help with interpretations, and just think of the time this would take. No one would have time to do anything else with their lives other than listen to divine revelation of the history and meaning of everything.

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JimV 06.25.15 at 4:54 pm

Last comment by me as this is devolving into semantics at this point.

The animus that arises in me is due to what I consider bad-faith (pun accepted) arguments such as that believing in a personalized universe is humility, because I don’t see how one could be more arrogant on that particular issue. If instead one is saying that many religious people try to practice humility in other ways, and therefore Mario’s Sharp Rock will always cut for them, that is a non-sequitor. That they believe there are wiser, more powerful entities than themselves is a trait they share with most atheists, not something uniquely to their credit. My statistical intuition tells me there is intelligent life in the universe much smarter and better than ourselves, and that a god with the technological understanding to create universes would not see much difference between humans and ants. Most religious people I know would consider these opinions sacrilegious. Yes, to do this while claiming absolute humility creates some animus in me. I have no problem with those who don’t argue that way. Those who do need to explain to me why my position (on the examples I have previously used) is actually the less humble one, not just claim that humility is their middle name.

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Plume 06.25.15 at 5:00 pm

To humble oneself before an indifferent universe, to the infinite mystery of why there is something rather than noting at all, as Pascal wrote about . . . . to gaze in wonder at the stars, the waves, the trees, with no concept of gain or punishment in the mix for doing so . . . . that strikes me as having a cache of “virtue.”

But to do so before a tyrannical being of any kind, with those concepts somewhere in the mix — punishment or gain — seems non-virtuous at best.

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Plume 06.25.15 at 5:11 pm

JimV 406,

I’ve never had a problem thinking that there is “intelligent life” out there that might make us look like ants in comparison. It really doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It also has always puzzled me when some people take offense at the idea that we have common ancestors with apes. It seems to personally offend some — especially the religious — that humankind isn’t something altogether special and vastly superior, and that we evolved over the course of billions of years, rather than being formed originally as we are today.

To some, the concept that there are vastly more intelligent beings out there, and that we aren’t the bee’s knees even here, freaks them out.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. And it seems to go hand in hand with another, more geopolitical problem. That all too many Americans can’t stand the idea of not being Number One. Again, I couldn’t care less if we top the list in this or that, other than the bad stuff. Incarceration rates, inequality, the ugly spread of Walmartization, etc. etc.

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JimV 06.25.15 at 5:11 pm

And then after posting I see a new comment from ZM, so I’m a liar.

“JimV there would have to be divine revelation to each person, … and just think of the time this would take.”

Probably this was a joke, but the serious and joking response might be, so god is less powerful and knowledgeable than Google? I would think he, she or it could at least use the human technology of the time, as when the stone-carving people received their revelation carved in stone.

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Adam 06.25.15 at 5:47 pm

@ Lee

“evolution is the survival of the most efficient” is definitely a mistaken assumption about evolution (I know you weren’t positing it as gospel), but “survival of the fittest” is too — both of them are wrong in subtle ways, in that they carry unquestioned assumptions that are mistaken, subjective and completely human.

The best encapsulation of evolution is Douglas Adams’, that “Whatever survives, survives.”

Evolution is directionless; humans are not the “strongest,” the “best,” the “top” or “the most fit” — and life is not “a struggle over resources” (although I really like what you say @125 and quickly dismiss, I think it’s smart and carries a certain poetic profundity) — life is just what happens, and what has evolved when a certain amount of time is up is just what’s left — it doesn’t mean humans are superior to dinosaurs, for example.

Take Douglas Adams’ favorite animal and mine, the New Zealand kakapo — a flightless bird straight out of Monty Python, an asburdity that evolved in the absence of predation which tends to fall clumsily out of trees, shuns the contact of fellow kakapo, and breeds only rarely when a certain fruit flowers, by digging a bizarrely intricate acoustic nest and making a deep bassy call. It’s said that, when Cook first came to the islands, New Zealand had a heartbeat when the kakapo bred, because this deep throbbing came from all directions — which is why it’s such a terrible method of breeding, you can’t tell where the sound is coming from! Still, in their bizarre and cutely-futile way of life, kakapo thrived until humans came, with big wooden ships bearing rats, stoats, weasels, cats, etc., who must have seen them as some great cosmic buffet.

All this is to say there’s no reason to assume that a particular piece of human intelligence evolved because it’s somehow correct, or improved, or efficient, or it makes rational sense, or it metaphysically links up with the nature of the universe.

So, when you ask @ 401, “What is the simplest way of describing the way in which scientific explanation rewards humans? All scientific explanation. Beyond the joy of discovery and knowing, that is. It gives us “more knowledge”, but please characterize the way in which this knowledge is better than other knowledge. And how more of it, is better still. Something happens that is valuable to us.”

I would answer, science does not persist because it’s better, or more joyous (though it is for me), or produces “more knowledge,” or even “is rewarding” — it persists because it persists. (A tautology, but a useful one).

Earlier, you say “The full mechanism of evolution is reproduction + selection,” and I’d like to problematize that as well. A big portion of evolution is “genetic drift” — if a species of 2,000 individuals lives on four islands and three of those islands sink into the ocean, you have genetic drift — evolution isn’t just this rationalist picture of natural selection culling stochasticity, it’s also randomness acting on randomness.

Another useful Adams tautology: “Whatever happens, happens. Whatever happens again, happens again.”

There must be a thousand reasons why science is displacing religion, not all of them good. It’s not a faster car; it’s just something that does some things religion used to do for us, and, consequently, has taken up some of the space it used to occupy.

That’s one reason religion as we know it might be faltering, from an evolutionist perspective — over its 20 centuries or so, it expanded to fill up this space where it described the material world, and that literalness of Medieval monotheism, which stands in such contrast to primitivistic, animistic religion, became a major part of Christianity & etc’s DNA. That those genes mutated through the early physicists and astronomers, through Victorians like Darwin up to the present day to eat some of religion’s lunch is just the way things went — I don’t see how it can be divorced from the climate of sociological/cultural moments like the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or the mid-20th c. and examined in a vacuum. For example, any declining popularity w/ religion in my generation is due as much to the political failure of The Christian Right’s Moral Majority as any inherent logical structure in its way of thinking.

(I like your posts btw and don’t mean to attack, hope it doesn’t sound that way — I do have a hard time understanding what perspective you’re looking from; that said, I’m a proud atheist, but a deep skeptic about pervasive rationality and also worry that science, as we conceive of it today, might lead more to functionaries than visionaries)

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Layman 06.25.15 at 6:27 pm

‘I wrote in that paragraph that I wanted to use “efficiency” interchangeably with “fitness”, and as unmeasurable as the “efficiency” in the terms “allocative efficiency” and “Pareto efficiency”.’

Forgive me, but what I’m getting here is: Occam’s Razor is a bit like efficiency; efficiency is a bit like fitness; evolution produces something like fitness; therefore evolution produces Occam’s Razor, which maybe clouds our thinking. The first half of the conclusion is trivial – evolution produces every attribute of life! – and the second half seems unrelated to any of the premises.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 7:40 pm

Layman #411,

Yes, the second half of the conclusion is not related to any of those premises.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 7:51 pm

Adam #410,

Sure, the “fittest” is just shorthand for whatever survives. “What survives, survives” has been a slogan of biologists for many decades. So if you want to add genetic drift and bottlenecks, let’s do it. BUT there have also been developments in species that are improvements, crowding the old ones out, performing better against competitors and predators. Evolution is a variegated process.

Similarly, I don’t understand your stopping at saying that science is merely what persists. So please elaborate. Do you maintain that, say, Newton’s laws are no more useful than previous characterizations of motion? That the success of Newton’s laws are analogous to genetic drift?

The question I originally wanted to get at, is a little different: Why it should be that science’s simple methodology — Occam’s razor — tended to lead to ideas which survive? It led me to think that Darwin’s original explanation of survival of the fittest — which still holds, as part of evolution — might explain why our brains are wired this way.

Maybe the progress of science is an illusion, though I’m not sure how you would prove that. Or maybe our scientific laws are falsehoods that work accidentally, and the “real” laws are more complex, perhaps immeasurably more complex. But then my question just shifts to, why do our approximations of the laws work so well?

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Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 9:52 pm

JimV #406: “Those who do need to explain to me why my position (on the examples I have previously used) is actually the less humble one, not just claim that humility is their middle name.”

I will never claim that humility is my middle name, but your request is easy to fulfill, although you may not wish to hear it, because you think you already know everything there is to know. But in reality there are two different things going on here, and you ignore one of them.

1. The intellectual reality is that there is rampant “epistemological closure”, because many people, perhaps most of them, need intellectual certitude and cannot think outside the box. We see this in politics, climate denialism, religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, utopianism. By contrast, the attitude of science is that the “truth” is provisional and subject to change, and the process of inquiry is open-ended.

2. The psychological reality is that there is ALSO widespread need to deal with despair, with guilt, with fear of death. The best means for doing this are psycho-spiritual — there is no scientific program which is remotely as “efficient”. To take a narrowly-focused example about which success rates are well-known, we need only look at the success rate of AA and compare it to any “scientific” alcoholism-recovery program. AA has a better success by nearly a magnitude — “It works.” (In fact some alcoholism-recovery programs increase their success rate by finally getting their subjects into AA.)

For #1, i.e. the intellectual difference, talk of “pride” vs. “humility” is pretty superficial. Yes of course, the epistemically-closed are more proud to be “right” but it is silly for a scientist to go around expounding upon his or her humility, and no one ever claims that he or she got into science to be humble. That doesn’t make sense. You get into science for other reasons. Moreover there have been plenty of scientists for whom “humble” was definitely NOT the middle name.

On the other hand, the need in psycho-spiritual change is to admit the powerlessness of the self and to accept a high power. This is a functional strategy, but it can cause a real event. The whole POINT is to defeat pride and accept humility.

Be a scientist, describe and try to understand both #1 and #2. Get your own emotions out of this. Overbearing, obnoxious religious types are NOT the whole phenomenon, and have no bearing on #2. If you yourself do not have a spiritual need and do not see what the fuss is about, well don’t make the mistake of supposing that #1 is the whole story here.

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F. Foundling 06.25.15 at 11:04 pm

@bianca steele 06.21.15 at 12:10 pm
>>>I’m noting that Bach and Bunyan are pluses for religion when they make religious art, regardless of the beliefs they promote, but not when their sects want to institute their beliefs in government and make those with other beliefs second-class citizens–presumably?

@ZM 06.21.15 at 12:36 pm
>>I don’t know about this. As John Bunyan started writing when he was a religious-political prisoner after the Restoration, I would think if he never got arrested and gaoled for 12 years for fighting in the Parliamentary army and espousing non-conformist religious beliefs then he might never have had the time or inclination to start writing The Pilgrim’s Progress.

@ZM 06.21.15 at 12:36 pm
>I suppose that does not really contradict your point though that his writing can be seen as a plus for religion, while his fighting in the Parliamentary army as not.

Apparently, it is now received wisdom that the English Civil War was a conflict between Cavaliers, who fought for pluralism, religious tolerance, and the separation of Church and State, and Roundheads, who had launched a fundamentalist jihad in order to impose a theocratic tyranny on a liberal and secular Merrie England. And it’s clear that accountability of the government to an elected representative body had nothing to do with it and doesn’t matter a toss in any case. Tastes differ, however; for me personally, Bunyan’s fighting in the Parliamentary army would have been a much more obvious and weighty plus for religion than his allegories, however interesting or aesthetically appealing they may be – if it had really had anything to do with his religious beliefs. However, the fact happens to be that he only became pious several years after he was discharged, his army service was due to compulsory conscription, and he was imprisoned for his nonconformist activities only, not for his army service, so religion will have to do without that particular plus in my book.

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F. Foundling 06.26.15 at 12:29 am

@ ZM 06.25.15 at 3:54 pm
>Jim V you have really misunderstood the meaning of the words “daily bread” in the church, and it is a sacrament not a supplication …
>That word ‘daily’ is an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek word ‘epiousios’, and it is nowhere else to be found in Ancient Greek literature. It is a word they must invent to describe a new sort of bread, the breaking of which was a sign of the presence of the Lord among them. … It is epiousios: eucharistic.

This claim seems very dubious. It’s true that “epiousios” is a hapax, but it could conceivably be interpreted in the very commonly assumed sense mentioned by JimV. “Ousia” can mean “being”, thus “life”, hence “what is necessary for life”; some have proposed that it was derived from “epi ousan he:meran” “for the current (lit. “being”) day”. If, instead, “epiousios” was supposed to be a unique technical term having to do with the Eucharist or with transsubstantiation, it is strange that all the various standard translations are with words meaning “daily”, which do not unambiguously point to the Eucharist and can be interpreted as referring to ordinary food, and indeed have come to be interpreted exactly so. Thus, while the Vulgate gives the hapax Latin calque “super-substantialis”, the Catholic liturgical version has “cotidianus”, i.e. “daily”, in “Panem nostrum cotidianum”, the Gothic has “sinteins” from a root “tein-” for “day”, the Old English has “gedæghwamlic” from dæg “day” again, etc.). The Syriac translation reportedly reads “the bread of which we have need today”. Again, if it meant “eucharistic”, it is remarkable that even the Greeks have forgotten that; like everybody else, they now understand the phrase “epiousios artos” to mean “everyday food, or more generally, the absolutely necessary things for human survival”. In the Orthodox Slavic translations, the word is calqued (na-sǫshtĭnŭ), but again, the phrase hlěbŭ na-sǫshtĭnŭ has entered the languages with the same sense “everyday food or essential necessities”.

Finally, it is very odd that Jesus introduces the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, in the Sermon on the Mount, a long time before the whole transsubstantiation business gets started in the Last Supper. At that point, since there was no Eucharist yet, a reference to “eucharistic bread” should have been completely incomprehensible for his audience and should have remained so for quite some time (so it would have required explanations about the future that Jesus doesn’t give). F

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F. Foundling 06.26.15 at 12:34 am

Oops. Pressed enter by accident. To finish the post: Also, the rest of the Lord’s Prayer does not refer to rituals and their technicalities, but to very essential and basic attitudes towards God, life and other humans. A reference to something as specific as the Eucharist seems totally out of place for that reason as well.

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ZM 06.26.15 at 12:39 am

“Finally, it is very odd that Jesus introduces the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, in the Sermon on the Mount, a long time before the whole transsubstantiation business gets started in the Last Supper. “

How silly of the former Jesuit and renowned historian Greg Dening to forget how biblical scholarship thinks Jesus’ words in the New Testament were recorded verbatim as he spoke :-/

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ZM 06.26.15 at 12:43 am

Even if there was evidence that suggested it was Jesus who coined the word, your argument that based on translations of the word being ‘daily’ the word was in common use (despite not being used in any other context in any other writing that has come down to us) is not a good argument, as everyone knows translations are not exact word for word, context for context, substitutions.

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F. Foundling 06.26.15 at 2:08 am

@ZM 06.26.15 at 12:39 am
>How silly of the former Jesuit and renowned historian Greg Dening to forget how biblical scholarship thinks Jesus’ words in the New Testament were recorded verbatim as he spoke

I’m not sure I get your point. Even if it’s not a literally true account of precisely what Jesus said and when he said it (I’ve never said I believe anything in that text to be factually true), it’s still supposed to make sense as a story, internally, and that’s what I think it fails to do if we assume the interpretation in question. As for Dening, arguments from authority are not *always* sufficient to convince me. The man was a historian of the Pacific, not of Christianity; and he isn’t even presenting some standard teaching of his Church here – a look at the relevant article in the Catholic encyclopedia shows that a “eucharistic” interpretation is not traditional in Catholicism. And of course, even if he were presenting a standard dogma of his Church, I still wouldn’t necessarily believe in its correctness; I don’t unconditionally trust priests about religion, or astrologers about astrology, or politicians about politics, or soap advertisers about soap.

ZM 06.26.15 at 12:43 am

>your argument that based on translations of the word being ‘daily’ … is not a good argument, as everyone knows translations are not exact word for word, context for context, substitutions.

I don’t exactly get this either. Translators do try to avoid misunderstandings and don’t just replace one word with another randomly. If “epiousios” was a technical Christian neologism for “eucharistic”, one would expect a translator to borrow the word in its original form or to make a calque, instead of choosing an existing word with a very different meaning that could lead to a misinterpretation. It’s odd to use a translation that is bound to cause a misunderstanding, it is even odder that all the translators have made more or less the same mistake and shifted the meaning in basically the same direction (I now see that even the Vulgate has one “quotidianus” besides one “supersubstantialis”), and that, even in places where the original coinage has been more or less faithfully preserved, literally or a calque, the meaning is still shifted more or less in the same direction. Occam’s razor, you know.

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F. Foundling 06.26.15 at 2:17 am

P.S. Apparently there are also some indications that it could have been literally “the bread for tomorrow”, the general idea still being the same as that expressed by “daily”.

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ZM 06.26.15 at 2:30 am

“If “epiousios” was a technical Christian neologism for “eucharistic””

I do not read the passage at all as suggesting that epiousios was a technical term for Eucharistic. It is saying it was a neologism expressly used for the communion/Eucharist ceremony and the sacraments of bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ in the ceremony.

Even if Jesus coined the word himself , since the Sermon on the Mount predated the Last Supper and crucifixion the audience for the Sermon in the Mount would not be aware that the daily bread mentioned in Jesus’ words in the sermon would soon come to refer to the body of Christ which is shared in the Eucharist service.

The word eucharist by itself is just a word meaning thanksgiving from eu “well” and kharizesthai “offer graciously” not anything to do with daily bread except in the sense of the ceremony.

You are also wrong the gospels are meant to make sense as a story. You can see this quite easily by that fact that the Church kept these 4 different accounts (plus others no longer in use and of uncertain provenance like the Gospel of Peter) and even the three synoptic gospels are not the same, let alone the Gospel of John. As I went to a Catholic university and took the subjects The World and Literature of the Bible and Apocalyptic Eschatology I know the differences in the gospels is acknowledged and taught in contemporary Catholic theology.

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Adam 06.26.15 at 9:26 pm

Hey Lee,

“The question I originally wanted to get at, is a little different: Why it should be that science’s simple methodology — Occam’s razor — tended to lead to ideas which survive? It led me to think that Darwin’s original explanation of survival of the fittest — which still holds, as part of evolution — might explain why our brains are wired this way.”

That’s an interesting thought — I think there’s something to that. But I would say, although it may not seem so profound, the answer lies in how science/”Occam’s razor”/human thought collectively-taken mirrors the process of evolution & natural selection, not the other way round.

There’s a real metaphorical parallel there, including w/ concepts like genetic drift. Partly why I was trying to get away from this direction-orientated thinking, like,

“Sure, the ‘fittest’ is just shorthand for whatever survives.”

Anything “-est” implies that evolution is working towards perfection, which it isn’t; evolution doesn’t care about outcomes. It doesn’t care how much you eat, or fuck, or spawn. There’s no “winning” in evolution; certainly not beyond surviving. And the only ultimate criterion for what survives is, “Whatever survives.”

The notion that “nature is a competition” is mistakenly grounded in human subjectivity, in the particular perspective of a particular people in their specific age, from Victorian humans up to the present day, leading backwards at least to Hobbes. (Interesting that your formulation of “most efficient” pulls back from that, although it does ring like a product of our particular capitalist moment; not, necessarily, meant as a dig). I’d argue, following the metaphor from evolution & selection, that Occam’s razor isn’t a drive towards perfection either — that it won’t lead to some tiny, essential nugget of algorithmic truth that explains all, anyway (not sure that you’re arguing that).

“Similarly, I don’t understand your stopping at saying that science is merely what persists.”

Well, for me, that’s where the parallel between evoltuion and Occam’s Razor makes sense: “Whatever survives, survives.” Science, the science that we have today, we can think of like a shifting set of genes & alleles reproducing itself from one generation to another, mutating & evolving along the way. What drives selection over the genes of this organism we might, reductively, say is the choice of individuals taken collectively to reproduce some piece and not others — and science, collectively, chooses what holds up to its scrutiny.

That “scrutiny” I’m positing as a stand-in or replacement for “simplicity,” I guess because it’s process-focused rather than outcome; in practice, it’s the same result — tear away anything extraneous possible and keep digging deeper.

“Maybe our scientific laws are falsehoods that work accidentally, and the ‘real’ laws are more complex, perhaps immeasurably more complex.”

For me, that’s the crucial piece of the puzzle. What makes them ‘real,’ in the absence of a God-who-spake-it-so? The answer is scrutiny; they hold up to reason, to observation and testing; they allow us to _do_ things in the real world. That doesn’t take away the fact that science is made up of words, and those words have definitions, and those definitions represent models, human constructions that are nonetheless really fucking good ones, which keep working until they don’t anymore, and then we move onto another.

That’s why they, “our approximations of the laws [of nature] work so well” — because if they didn’t, we would let them go, create new ones. The selection pressures we apply to them are what forces science to accord w/ Occam’s razor; if we allied ourselves to reason divorced from reality, science might _seem_ simpler, but it wouldn’t truly be.

I think, then, it _can_ be said that science evolved from nature, and mirrors that process of evolution — once we abandon false notions of what evolution is, anyway. I think it would be hard to look at human history and argue against the supposition that we evolved to think in/with patterns which then themselves evolve, like organisms, gene-complexes or species do. The science we have today, the science we’ll have tomorrow, will be whatever survives.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.26.15 at 10:08 pm

Would you say that Newton’s laws were no better than the previous physical theories? (Which were the Aristotelian explanations of motion.)

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F. Foundling 06.27.15 at 3:49 pm

@ZM 06.26.15 at 2:30 am
>“If “epiousios” was a technical Christian neologism for “eucharistic””
> I do not read the passage at all as suggesting that epiousios was a technical term for Eucharistic. It is saying it was a neologism expressly used for the communion/Eucharist ceremony and the sacraments of bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ in the ceremony.

As far as my imperfect mortal reason is concerned, “neologism expressly used for the Eucharist ceremony” (what you said) means the same as a “(newly coined) technical term for Eucharistic” (what I said). The man you quote explicitly says “It is epiousios: eucharistic”. The same thing is expressed by the sentence “It is a word they must invent to describe a new sort of bread, the breaking of which was a sign of the presence of the Lord among them”. From which all the abovementioned problems follow.

>Even if Jesus coined the word himself … the audience for the Sermon in the Mount would not be aware that the daily bread mentioned in Jesus’ words in the sermon would soon come to refer to the body of Christ which is shared in the Eucharist service

And I don’t see how this helps your argument. Jesus introduces a new word and nobody understands what it means, yet nobody asks either, and everybody keeps repeating it anyway until the phenomenon it refers to appears. Or else it means something like “current” or “daily”, but then after the appearance of the Eucharist ritual it comes to refer to it instead, and then it apparently stops referring to it again and re-acquires its original interpretation.

>You are also wrong the gospels are meant to make sense as a story. You can see this quite easily by that fact that the Church kept these 4 different accounts … I know the differences in the gospels is acknowledged and taught in contemporary Catholic theology.

Every individual gospel *is* supposed to make sense as a story; they were meant to be taken as true accounts by their authors – they aren’t just incoherent ramblings – and also Catholic theology, like other Christian theology, has always accepted the gospels as being generally historically true (and not, say, primarily symbolic). To quote from The Catholic Encyclopedia, reflecting the state of affairs in 1914: “the Church of God, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), has always proclaimed her belief in the historical accuracy and consequent real harmony of the canonical Gospels; and her doctors (notably Eusebius of Cæsarea, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine) and commentators have invariably professed that belief. ” The same article explains that while there are differences, they are not factual contradictions and can be explained away in other ways.

From what you say, I infer that you were taught that there were real contradictions and not just differences; if the courses you took did reflect contemporary Catholic dogma (which is not obvious either), that would imply that there have been some advancements since 1914, and contradictions have come to be acknowledged even by Catholic Church (which is not all that surprising, since, as far as I remember, some of them are glaringly obvious and cannot reasonably be denied). Still, this doesn’t mean that any further concessions are made; it’s clear that accuracy continues to be assumed unless one is really forced to admit inaccuracy. That’s natural – otherwise people would have to accept that anything (and consequently potentially everything) in the Gospels could be false or “just symbolic”, and this is perilously close to becoming, well, non-Christians.

Anyway, to conclude, your interpretation of the “daily bread” thing clearly isn’t generally accepted and doesn’t even seem to be anybody’s official dogma – besides being highly implausible in so many ways – so your extremely categorical assertion of it in 399 in the discussion above was quite unwarranted. Enough with this issue, for me at least.

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F. Foundling 06.27.15 at 5:39 pm

@Lee A. Arnold 06.25.15 at 9:52 pm

>On the other hand, the need in psycho-spiritual change is to admit the powerlessness of the self and to accept a high power. … The whole POINT is to defeat pride and accept humility.

Humility? Well, I guess you could call it that. Personally, I prefer to use “humility” for humbleness (a realisation of one’s imperfection) that is actually warranted – ethically and factually. Obeying an imaginary superior who neither exists nor would be morally good if he did exist is something I would be more prone to characterise as spinelessness, toadyism and masochism. I wish people would confine whatever BDSM impulses they have to their sexual lives and keep them out of their political, ethical and philosophical decisions.

>The intellectual reality is that there is rampant “epistemological closure”, because many people, perhaps most of them, need intellectual certitude and cannot think outside the box. …

I don’t see how any kind of “certitude” can be provided by claims that are certain to be *wrong* (as much as anything can be certain). If one wants to be dogmatic, one can at least pick a dogma that makes *some* sense and has *some* plausibility.

In my opinion, what primarily motivates such people is tribal loyalty – loyalty to one’s community and background – and a desire to belong and fit in, even at the price of affirming and convincing oneself of things that aren’t true.

>2. The psychological reality is that there is ALSO widespread need to deal with despair, with guilt, with fear of death. The best means for doing this are psycho-spiritual — there is no scientific program which is remotely as “efficient”.

Resorting to this “means” to deal with the nasty stuff comes with a very high price – so much so that it can be counted as a failure as much a success, depending on how much you value cognition and ethics and on the severity of the distress. But sure – better religious than suicidal, I’ll grant you that; fortunately, in most cases these are not the only two possibilities, and current statistics on alcoholics do not convince me of the contrary.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.27.15 at 9:23 pm

F. Foundling #426: “…I guess…Personally, I prefer to use…I would be more prone to characterise…I wish…I don’t see how…In my opinion…depending on how much you value…do not convince me…”

This is all you, you, you, you — isn’t it? After this, how would possibly give a proof that you are able to identify “humbleness…that is actually warranted”?

Anyway, insofar as we may discern intellectual justifications here, I am “actually warranted” in pointing-out that you are making a few basic schoolbook errors:

A. Ascribing motives to people and assuming that you may malign their self-reportage. B. Assuming that, what your own motives would have be in this situation, are also their motives. C. And at the bottom of it all, once again: insisting that they must rationally prove the existence of God, when you cannot rationally disprove it.

And you end it with two claims that you do not substantiate: that psycho-spiritual means “comes with a very high price” and that there better methods than Alcoholic Anonymous. Your proofs not opinions, please?

I stated to Geo above (#296) that I am not a “believer”. What I meant is that I am not a traditional theist. There are other things which work, besides theism.

In fact it is possible to restate the claims of Christianity without the need for the devotional intentionality. The Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths:

1. All existence is characterized by desire and suffering.

2. The cause of desire and suffering is the thirst for sensual pleasure.

3. By remainderless cessation of craving, suffering can be brought to an end.

4. The means to do this are: Understanding what those three items mean. Then: resolve, avoidance of immoral speech and conduct, avoidance of professions that may bring suffering to others. Then: effort, mindfulness, and concentration culminating in consciousness-without-an-object. (This list is The Eightfold Path).

If you want to know what is REALLY going on in the phenomenon of religion, not just your own, or my own, or anybody else’s interpretation, there is a simple, real method.

Try a real experiment: Try holding your mind fixed upon one object for 15 full minutes — such as a spot on the wall, or on a word in your mind, something quite trivial — without ANY other thoughts coming in. Set your alarm clock to let you know when the time is up. It won’t hurt you!

Then, come back here, and report your SCIENTIFIC results. Tell us what thoughts forced themselves in, regardless of all your supposed strength — your self-reported lack of “spinelessness” — to conduct this experiment.

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