Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Craig Debates an Empty Chair

It’s the dream match-up, the ultimate showdown in the contemporary God debates: In one corner we have William Lane Craig, a prolifically published professor of philosophy with dual PhD’s in philosophy and theology, and arguably the most prominent living Christian apologist.

In the other corner we have Richard Dawkins, Oxford biologist, bestselling author of books explaining and defending evolutionary biology to a general readership, and—largely by virtue of his hugely bestselling The God Delusion—arguably the most prominent living apologist for atheism.

Or not.

When Craig began to plan a fall 2011 series of debates and lectures in the United Kingdom, many thought it was the ideal opportunity for Craig to finally face off, one on one, against Richard Dawkins. Instead, on Tuesday evening Craig--at least if the event lived up to its billing--lectured opposite an empty chair, one symbolically placed to remind the audience of Dawkins’ absence.

It is true that the two have appeared once before on opposite sides of a debating stage. The event, however, was a tag-team panel debate in Mexico between three atheists and three theists, on the question, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” And that event gave little opportunity for either of them to probe the other’s views.

The most substantive interaction in Mexico was a kind of straw man exchange. Craig, focusing narrowly on the topic of the debate (as he is wont to do), defended the view that theism makes life objectively meaningful in a way that atheism does not. He made sure to note explicitly, however, that this conclusion does not as such give us reason to believe that God exists—a view that Craig defends on other grounds. Dawkins responded by attributing to Craig the argument that God must exist because a universe without God is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Theists and atheists alike have been hungry for something more substantive—an opportunity for Dawkins to respond explicitly to the objections Craig has been leveling against The God Delusion for the last few years; or a chance for Dawkins to directly challenge the arguments for God’s existence that Craig didn’t have a chance to develop in Mexico.

But Dawkins has steadfastly refused to play. The pressure to debate Craig during his UK visit was strong. There were separate debate invitations from the British Humanist Association, the Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union, and Premier Radio. There was even a much-publicized insinuation of cowardice by a fellow atheist and Oxford don, Daniel Came.

But the final blow to those hoping to see a face off between Dawkins and Craig came last week, days before Craig’s scheduled Oxford lecture, when Dawkins felt called to make a public defense of his decision. It appeared in the form of an essay in The Guardian, “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.”

In that essay, Dawkins begins by minimizing the significance of Craig as a public intellectual and defender of Christianity. “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig,” he begins. “He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either.”

To get this result from a consultation of philosophy professors, Dawkins must have been careful to consult only philosophers long dead. Indeed, as a professional philosopher myself I would be hard-pressed to find colleagues who haven’t at least heard the name of William Lane Craig. And in the sub-field of philosophy of religion, it would be hard to find any who weren’t well-acquainted with at least some of his work.

This is not to say he enjoys universal respect. In fact, many would likely make a low growl or roll their eyes on hearing his name. Some might say he’s not really a philosopher in any true sense, because he uses what are admittedly substantial philosophical skills mainly in the service of Christian apologetics.

But in a discipline that still practices blind refereeing in professional journals, Craig has enjoyed enormous output. And few would deny the significance of his scholarly contributions to the philosophy of religion, especially in connection with his revival and defense of the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument.

And over the years, Craig has had one-on-one debates with a veritable who’s-who list of academically astute atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchen, Victor Stenger, Paul Kurtz, Anthony Flew, just to name some of the more renowned. Indeed, one might make the case, given Craig’s reputation as a formidable debater, that Dawkins’ absence from this list is a bigger credit to Craig’s reputation than would be his appearance on it.

Nevertheless, in his account of why he refuses to debate Craig, Dawkins dusts off the dismissal he’s borrowed from a former Royal Society president to rebuff creationists’ debate invitations: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”

When the debate invitations come from creationists who want to attack the theory of evolution, this rebuff actually makes sense. Such creationists are people with little or no legitimate scientific background who want to challenge the credibility of evolutionary theory in debate with a renowned evolutionary biologist. Even if Dawkins could easily wipe the floor them, the act of dignifying them a place next to him on a podium would lend a false stature to their arguments and credentials.

But in this case the proposed debate has almost the opposite character (and not just because Craig is uninterested in denying the science of evolutionary theory). In this case, what we have is an established professional in the philosophy of religion inviting Dawkins—who has no philosophy of religion training but who’s nevertheless written a popular book on the topic—to discuss issues in the philosophy of religion. Let me say that another way: Dawkins, a non-philosopher, is being invited to take the stage with an accomplished philosopher to discuss philosophical arguments. Under these conditions, Dawkins’ invocation of the Royal Society president’s rebuff rings hollow.

But Dawkins saves his main argument for last, when he points to some deeply troubling dimensions of Craig’s apologetics: specifically, Craig’s effort to defend Old Testament reports of God commanding genocide. Craig seeks to argue that these reports might be taken as veridical, as genuine accounts of divine commands, without thereby undermining the moral perfection of God.

These arguments are hardly central to Craig’s public apologetics. The passages Dawkins quotes don’t come from Craig’s published works or lectures, but from the Q&A section on his website, practically buried among hundreds of questions on more traditional apologetic topics (one wonders how and why Dawkins came across them). Nevertheless, Craig said the things he said there, and he stands by them—and Dawkins largely lets them speak for themselves. He quotes them and invites us to look upon them with horror.

Like Dawkins, I find Craig’s efforts seriously disturbing—even after looking at the quoted passages in their broader context, in which Craig (among other things) confesses that they “offend our moral sensibilities” and then roots this aversive response in the jarring contrast between the genocide passages and what he takes to be the holistic ethical message of Scripture.

In my view he should’ve stopped there. In purely pragmatic terms, do we really want to say, as Craig does, that since children are innocent and will be ushered into heaven at death, God might very well command their slaughter since such slaughter would do them no harm (and might do them some good by taking them out of the world before they can fall into mortal sin)? Do we really want to lend this sort of presumptive credibility to the claim that indiscriminate slaughter of children and adults can enjoy divine sanction? What implications does Craig’s argument here have for how we should assess contemporary terrorist claims to be acting on God’s will?

If this were legitimately Dawkins’ reason for refusing to share a stage with Craig, one might at first see it as principled, even heroic. Can we really dignify such apologetics-run-amok with a public platform?

Of course, this argument may be nothing but a pretext. Perhaps, as one author recently insinuated, the obscure source of these quotations suggests that  Dawkins did "a little internet trolling" in order to dredge up a rationale for a decision already made. There is, after all, a much more obvious reason why Dawkins might refuse to debate Craig: He was afraid he'd lose.

This wouldn't be an idle fear, given Craig’s years of experience debating atheists, and his extensive training in philosophy and theology. He's a more formidable debating opponent than, say, the bishops Dawkins has expressed a willingness to take on (since the latter are devoted to ministerial and administrative tasks rather than to honing their arguments for theism). And even though Dawkins is clearly convinced that he has the truth, he knows full well that in a debating context, having the truth doesn't guarantee a win.

If so, I’m not at all convinced that “cowardice” is the right word for such motivations. Consider: In the recent book that John Kronen and I wrote defending Christian universalism, one of our targets was Craig. I’ve challenged Craig’s views on hell before—in what I think is one of my best philosophical articles. I still think my critique of Craig is brilliant and devastating. In broader terms, I’m pretty darned confident that, on the issue of hell, my arguments are better than Craig’s.

But if he challenged me to a public debate on the doctrine of hell, I think I’d refuse. Why? First, because I don’t think the public debate format is the best way to explicate and assess the arguments on both sides with the degree of precision that’s required. Second, because I’m a plodding thinker who needs to consider and think about arguments for awhile before responding to them, and who generally feels compelled to rewrite and revise what I say multiple times before I’m confident it expresses what I really mean. I feel an obsessive need to qualify and nuance my remarks, sometimes to the point of losing my audience.

And I say “Um” a lot.

And so, in a debate with Craig, I’d be trounced. And I’d lose convinced I had the better arguments on my side—and I’d rush home and write up what I should have said, publishing my crushing refutation of Craig in a book that nobody will read.

Knowing this, is it cowardice to refuse to debate Craig? Or is it simply an honest recognition of my own limitations, and a recognition of the fact that debates are sometimes lost by people with the better arguments on their side, simply because the opponent is the better debater? Perhaps Dawkins, although convinced he has the truth on his side, knows full well that the debate format will favor Craig and thus hurt Dawkins’ cause and hence the truth as Dawkins sees it.

If so, this the decision not to debate isn’t cowardice but an expression of certain virtues—among them, honesty with oneself.

But if this is Dawkins’ real motivation, he isn’t being honest with the rest of the world. While his decision not to debate for reasons of this sort may be legitimate, his overall behavior remains less-than-admirable. So let’s assume that his stated reasons are honest: He is so offended by what Craig stands for that he doesn’t want to lend those ideas the kind of platform that a public debate with Dawkins would generate.

The problem, of course, is that Craig already enjoys an enormous public platform. The controversy around Craig’s visit to the UK virtually guaranteed a large audience for his UK lecture/debate tour, whether Dawkins was a part of it or not. And while there’s something to be said for refusing to dignify certain arguments with a response, it’s sometimes necessary—and, we might think, the job of public intellectuals—to take on bad arguments and explain why they are bad. This is especially true when the bad arguments are being voiced by prominent figures who happen to enjoy a substantial audience. Do we really want to allow their claims to stand unchallenged?

But there is, a think, a deeper reason why, if Dawkins was being sincere about his reason for not wanting to debate Craig, he should’ve reconsidered. As a reason to refuse a debate with Craig, his moral objection comes off sounding like a smokescreen whether it is or not. It’s painfully easy for a jaded public to roll their eyes, dismiss his moral indignation seriously, and conclude, “He’s just afraid he’ll lose.” And under those circumstances, his moral message itself is lost behind its perceived insincerity.

Another, more powerful gesture in support of this moral message would have been possible if Dawkins had actually shown up for the debate. Dawkins says he doesn’t want to shake Craig’s hand. But one needn’t shake someone’s hand to debate them. Consider the impact of showing up for the debate—a context in which handshakes are customary—and refusing to shake Craig’s hand…and then explaining why with all the moral indignation of which Dawkins is so eminently capable.

Rude? Yes. But people couldn’t cynically dismiss the moral message as nothing but a smokescreen for cowardice. The refusal, precisely because of its deliberate violation of normal etiquette, would carry no small measure of symbolic weight. In fact, this is why I think it's sometimes morally right to be rude.

As it is, the weightiest symbol of this event may have been an empty chair.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Politics of Division: A Case Study in Anti-Gay Rhetoric

Last month I devoted a blog post to picking apart the anti-same-sex marriage argument of Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum—what we might call his “napkin gambit.” The other day I was reminded of that post—and the YouTube clip of Santorum’s campaign speech that inspired it—by a cartoon that a friend called my attention to. As a reminder, here is the campaign speech at issue:

And here’s the cartoon:

Now Santorum’s hopes of winning the GOP nomination are thankfully slim, but he's still pushing remorselessly at the same themes. And the ideas driving his campaign are not restricted to him along. Of those ideas, the ones I find most disturbing here aren’t his opposition to same-sex marriage as such (although I think that is unjust), or his argument in support of that opposition (which I find as flimsy as, well, a napkin). I know people who oppose same sex marriage--often on the basis of arguments I find flimsy--whom I'd describe as decent, well-meaning human beings. If they have a reason for standing where they stand, it's neither hate nor homophobia. You can talk to them about the issues, and they'll listen to you with (it seems to me) an openness to being persuaded.

In fact, I know opponents of same-sex marriage who actually seem to want to be persuaded--who feel compassion for the plight of their gay and lesbian neighbors and wish for their sakes that they could endorse a different view. But something--usually what they take to be the necessary implications of their religious faith--has led them to regretfully take the stand they've taken.

Now I think there are things going on in these cases that are troubling, but they aren't nearly as disturbing to me as what I see going on in the Santorum clip. What’s so disturbing here is the in-group/out-group ideology which frames Santorum’s perspective, his arguments, and his campaign.

The cartoon above exposes part of the dynamic that defines such bifurcating ideologies. But I think it’s worth digging a bit deeper into this dynamic. If we look carefully at the clip from Santorum’s campaign speech, we see Santorum framing his candidacy in terms of an epic struggle between two communities: “the faith community” and, of course, gays and lesbians.

In the spirit of the bible-thumper in the cartoon, Santorum goes so far as to describe LGBT responses to his attacks on marriage equality as a “jihad against Rick Santorum.” But this labeling is the culmination of a broader effort to paint LGBT efforts for equality as an attack on the faith community as a whole. Referencing the landmark Lawrence vs. Texas case which declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, Santorum catastrophizes the implications of allowing that ruling to stand uncontested:
…we will see not only marriage destroyed but we will see ultimately the faith community destroyed and...ghettoized as bigots because they stand up and preach biblical truth.
With a final flourish, he represents himself as, among the presidential contenders, the best defender of the faith community—the one who cares enough to fight the LGBT community’s supposedly sinister efforts to realize marriage equality.

In evoking the language of jihad—which the American religious right takes, however imprecisely, to be Islam’s equivalent of “holy war”—Santorum not only frames himself as a soldier in a war against Christianity’s enemies, but seeks to place the pursuit of marriage equality into the same category into which so many conservative Christians locate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Muslims and homosexuals are battering at the gates of the faithful, and the very survival of Christianity is at stake.

There is nothing especially new about this pattern of thinking, nor is there anything novel about using it to pursue political power. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the structure of Santorum’s rhetoric—because it helps reveal why this campaign speech before an anemically small gathering is not something to be laughed off or dismissed as just the ideas of a harmless crackpot who’ll never get elected. After all, he did get elected to the Senate.

Santorum’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because of its structure. In fact, the ideological picture that Santorum paints on the campaign trail has precisely the same structure as those ideologies used to support what John Ladd, the recently deceased Brown university philosopher, has called “collective violence.”

Ladd argued that there’s a crucial difference between private violence pursued for personal gain and “collective violence,” by which he meant violence done by people who see themselves as agents of a larger whole, and who target their victims not for personal reasons but simply because those victims belong to the enemy group.

So, for example, Anders Breivik—the homegrown Norwegian terrorist who perpetrated July’s horrific attacks—saw himself as an agent of a culturally Christian west struggling against a hostile Islamic world and its enablers. He was not acting for personal gain but to further a conceived group mission. His victims were not chosen because of any personal qualities, but simply because they attended the wrong summer camp—and so identified themselves as members of the wrong group.

Ladd pointed out that collective violence occurs within the framework of a justifying ideology. And what does that ideology look like? Santorum’s recent campaign speech is nothing short of a blueprint. First, the world is divided into groups—a chosen group and the “others.” Ladd called this the “Doctrine of Bifurcation.” Next, the groups are represented as being locked in a zero-sum struggle, one in which any gain for one group means a loss for the other. Members of the chosen group are faced with a solemn mission to defend their group—and by implication all that is good and right—against the dire threats posed by the others. This is what Ladd called the “Doctrine of Group Mission.”

These elements are clearly present in Santorum’s stump speech: There’s us, the chosen group, the heterosexual Christians; and then there’s them, the jihadis, the Muslim terrorists and the homosexuals. We’re locked in a struggle in which any gain for them—even so modest a gain as no longer being subject to criminal prosecution for having a consensual sexual relationship—is perceived as a threat that may very well destroy us.

Sometimes, within such ideologies, a case is given for the direness of the threat. But such a case needn’t be especially compelling (and Santorum’s clearly isn’t), since its function isn’t to undergird a substantive philosophical position but to set up the ideological divide. That ideology, in turn, serves a function of its own, one which becomes clear at the close of Santorum’s speech, where he announces himself to be the agent who will defend the chosen group. This becomes elevated to a sacred mission, a duty that others are shirking but that Santorum is prepared to live out, even at risk to himself.

Let me be clear about some things. I’m certain that Santorum has no plans of going on a killing spree. The fifty or so people in the room with him have no such plans. There is nothing about his ideology of division that explicitly promises violence. And just because collective violence is embedded in ideologies of division, it doesn’t follow that every ideology of division gives birth to a murderous Anders Breivik. In fact, it may even be true that the impact f Santorum’s message is partly sanitized by the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra, which operates (most of the time) to keep the violence against gays and lesbians covert and psychological rather than overtly deadly.

Nevertheless, ideologies of division are a stewpot for a distinct kind of violence. Not long ago the ideological message of “Islamic invasion” hit home with murderous consequences in Breivik’s twisted psychology—causing quick defensive responses from some of those who had been preaching this message. They’d been preaching it not because they wanted anyone to go on a killing spree, but because they wanted to promote restrictive anti-Islamic policies. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see how supporting their agenda in these ideological terms could breed self-styled soldiers willing to take the war to another level.

Likewise, Santorum likely doesn’t see how his rhetorical choices contribute to the patterns of thought that culminate in gay bashing. He and others will continue to paint overt violence against gays and lesbians as born out of the twisted individual psychologies of the perpetrators. But Ladd’s message is that we make a grave mistake when we confuse collective violence for individual violence, precisely because we fail to see how our broader social patterns of thinking feed into the motivations of those who do the killing.

I need to stress here what I am not arguing. I am not arguing that Rick Santorum and his conservative followers are the enemy, an “other” group with whom we, the chosen ones, are locked in epic struggle. It would be frightfully easy to fall into that pattern of thinking—but to do so would be to fall prey to the very thing I am criticizing, a phenomenon so seductive that even moral outrage against it can easily slip into its perpetuation in another form.

What I am arguing is that Santorum is promulgating a dangerous pattern of thinking, dangerous in part because it is so seductive. It is a pattern that doesn’t fall on just one side of party lines. On the contrary, the hostility across party lines is one of its effects. Santorum is a case study of how easily and naturally we fall into ideologies of division, without ever seeing the role that such ideologies play in fomenting the range of social problems we bemoan, from congressional deadlock to hate crimes.

And refusing to see this, we behave as if the rhetoric of holy war, the message that we are doomed unless they are stopped, is just a way to drum up votes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Attention and Imagination: Some Thoughts on Simone Weil's Religion of Attention

Attention is important. In fact, for the sake of actualizing the full potential of our lives, it may be more important than anything else.

The moments of purest joy in my life have come at those times when I forget about myself enough to pay attention, with absolute purity, to the world in all its beauty. I watch my children at play, and instead of seeing their play through the filter of my own desires and concerns, instead of thinking about how their play is affecting me, I focus so completely on every laugh, ever twirl, that there’s no longer any room for the other stuff.

For my stuff. My son likes to “make smoke” by throwing Oklahoma red dirt into the air. And more often than not I think about the bath he’ll need to take, even though he just had one. And he’ll probably leave his bath towel on the floor, and a dirt ring in the tub.

As simply as that joy eludes me. But sometimes I manage to stop and look, to silence my own stuff enough to let what is out there in. To really let it in, unfiltered by my own stuff. To let it be, for me, what it is.

To pay attention. And in that moment the beauty and goodness of my son, flinging dirt into the air to see it turn to smoke, hits me with heartbreaking power.

I think we tend to underestimate the significance of attention. One reason I love the philosopher-mystic Simone Weil is because she didn’t. For her, attention was a centerpiece of her philosophy. She took attention to be the essence of both love and prayer, and she saw it—not willpower—as the crucial element in self-transformation.

The other day, I was directed to the website/blog of my dissertation director, Newton Garver. Of the occasional thoughts/reflections appearing there, I was particularly caught by the ones that focused on attention. One entry was nothing more than a single sentence from Irish Murdoch: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.”

About half an hour after posting this—perhaps after meditating on it for a time, thinking about its significance—he posted the follow up comments:

Iris Murdoch holds that proper attention both reduces choices and increases freedom. Wow! When we get our minds around that inspired thought, we will have put some distance between ourselves and the stultifying dogmas of our outcome-oriented civilization.

Paying proper attention, which is especially important with respect to other people, means appreciating the inherent reality of what we are attending to. Simone Weil took mathematics or formal logic to be good training for paying proper attention, because it is so difficult in these fields to hide reality under hopes or desires. Seeing other people as they really are is much more difficult than seeing mathematical reality.
In reading this comment, I was struck by how often I am accused, by atheist critics, of failing to attend to reality, of seeing everything through a filter of hopes and desires. Atheists almost inevitably—perhaps irresistibly—perceive religious conviction as precisely this: an exercise in projection, as the outcome of imposing one’s own wishes and cultural prejudices onto the field of experience and staunchly refusing to see the stark reality underneath.

And there certainly is much religion that looks exactly like this—which is undoubtedly why Simone Weil, devoted as she was to a philosophy of pure attention, was inspired to describe atheism as a purification. “Of two men who have no experience of God,” she says, “he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

And for Weil, the opposite of attention is imagination, which she calls the “filler of the void.” She claims that “if the imagination is stopped from pouring itself out, we have a void.” And the existence of such a void is crucial to attention. Paying attention means establishing within ourselves a space free from our own stuff, our own desires and anxieties and presuppositions and imaginings, a space of emptiness into which reality can flood.

Imagination is the enemy of such attention. “The imagination,” Weil says, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” The true God, for Weil, is not the superman fashioned by our imagination to satisfy our subjective needs, but is, rather, that which floods us at precisely that moment when we achieve this void and thus find ourselves open to reality—attentively present to it—in all its mystery.

In other words, God is what fills us when we love reality for itself, absolutely and perfectly, apart from our preconceptions and imaginings, and no matter how it affects us for good or ill. Weil’s fixation on affliction may be seen in this light: To love reality even in the face of affliction—even when it shatters us—is to relate affirmatively to reality apart from its propensity to serve our desires. In that moment of afflicted love, we have stopped filling up the fissures with imaginings that suit us.

We can understand Weil’s comments about atheism in the following way: When atheism is arrived at based on a rejection of imagination and a desire to attend to the truth, the atheist has thereby adopted the attitude that is essential for any authentic experience of God. And this remains the case even if theistic belief is in important ways closer to the truth about God than is atheism. Even in the face of similarities in appearance, there’s a huge difference between believing an invention and experiencing reality free from the filters of invention. The latter happens when we pay attention. And attention to something means openness to it that is unconditional, that does not wait on its worth, that is prepared to accept whatever comes.

Given much of the history of religion and much of what goes by the name of religion today, it shouldn’t be surprising, I think, that many atheists see themselves as more serious about paying attention to reality than are theists. But it seems to me that both atheists and theists can be bad at paying attention to reality—although, perhaps, bad in different ways. Both can and (probably inevitably) do see the world through the filter of their preconceptions, through the lenses of their desires, through the unconscious reification of speculative imaginings.

Those who imagine an empty room beyond a locked door are just as guilty of filling the room with the products of their imagination as are those who fill it with imagined furniture, or imagined crates. The only difference is that refusal to imagine is easier to confuse with imagining emptiness than with imagining a room full of stuffed clowns. Likewise, those who imagine that there is nothing beyond the boundaries of what science can discern are just as guilty of filling in the fissures with their imagination as are those who populate the transcendent with personality.

And those atheists who immediately dismiss religious experiences of a transcendent love at the root of reality, who immediately cast away such experiences as of course nothing but delusional projection of wishful hopes—well, isn’t it clear that, in confidently attributing imagination as the source of these experiences, they are assuming that ultimate reality can’t be anything like what this religious experience teaches? If so, they are not just begging the question in their dismissal of these religious experiences. They are, more significantly, basing their dismissive assessment of such experience—their conviction that the experience must be rooted in imagination rather than attention—in their own exercise of imagination.

It is not this sort of atheism that Weil takes to be a purification.

I think atheists sometimes adopt a self-congratulatory attitude towards their powers of attention because they—unlike too many religious believers—take very seriously the lessons of science. The fact is that science is built around the effort to pay attention in much the way that Weil describes. For this reason if for no other, those who are drawn to Weil’s brand of religiosity need to take science and its conclusions seriously. There may not be a single “scientific method” that correctly describes all the various things that scientists do—but it is clear, at least, that science pays attention to the empirical world, to its building blocks and to the laws that regulate it.

But it is one thing to praise the attention of a good scientist. It is something else again to conclude that Simone Weil’s religious experience cannot be the outcome of sincere attention, because to treat it as such would require that there be more to reality than what attentive scientists study. It is one thing to say that scientists pay attention to their subject matter. It is something else again to insist that the subject matter of science exhausts what there is to pay attention to.

And there clearly is more to pay attention to. But to make this point, I don’t want to focus on religion. I want to focus on what my former mentor and teacher, Newton Garver, focuses in on: paying attention to persons.

What does it mean to pay attention to a person? A person is a whole, the sum of many parts, and what is most definitive of persons is not our syntax but our semantics (if that metaphor makes sense). I do not pay attention to you if I am focused on the hairs protruding from your nose and the way that they flutter when you exhale. I might be paying very good attention to those hairs, but in so doing I am not paying attention to you.

But the same is true if I pay attention to your nervous system, or your skeletal system, or your brain. If I study you the way a scientist might, I am failing to pay attention to the person. I am focused on the grammatical structure of a sentence, or the word order, or the use of punctuation, or the shape of the letters—not on what the sentence means.

I don’t want this point to hinge on what we think about the relationship between mind and brain. But it certainly is true that I cannot pay attention to a person if I am not paying attention to them as conscious beings—beings who experience, believe, hope, fear, anticipate, plan, intend, do. Subjectivity and agency, whatever their ultimate explanation, are clear loci of personhood. Persons experience the world and act in it. And even if you think that both of these things have their roots in brain processes, it’s still clear that I would not be paying attention to you as a person if I were fixated on understanding the inner workings of your brain.

It is one thing to attend to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, something else to sit down with one’s music theory background and the score, and study how Beethoven constructed each movement. Both can be worthy exercises of our attention—but in each case, we're attending to something different. Perhaps what we're attending to are aspects or dimensions of a reality that's bigger than we can encompass all at once, in one single act of attention. Perhaps once we engage in piecemeal attention—to this, then to that, then to the other—we can arrive at an integrated attention to the whole that is more complete. Nevertheless, to experience the emergent whole is not the same as to study the parts out of which it emerges.

Loving a person means paying attention to the person—the subject who acts in the world, who grasps meanings and expresses those meanings in both verbal and nonverbal ways. To pay attention to a person means paying attention to what they’re doing, what they’re communicating, how they’re feeling, what they think and believe.

You don’t pay attention to a person if you reductionistically explain them away. You don’t pay attention to a person if your focus, when hearing what they say, is on attempting to understand how they could come to be so stupid. Nor are you paying attention if you’re trying to understand how they got to be so smart. Nor are you paying attention if your main goal is to understand their psychology so you can later manipulate them. Attention is a matter of openness, of having who they are enter into the fissures that you leave room for. This kind of attention does not primarily lead to propositional knowledge. You may not be able to come up with a list of facts about them. Nevertheless, if you’ve paid close attention, you know them.

What such attention to a person allows for is grasping something of their more private experience, as opposed to an array of empirical facts about them. And part of what paying attention to a person involves, I think, is treating what one thereby grasps as important, as meriting respect, even if it isn’t reducible to any empirical fact.

You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to atheists if you immediately assume that their atheism springs from a desire to be free from obligations to a creator to whom, were theism true, they’d owe their existence. You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to theists if you immediately dismiss their religious experience as nothing more than wishful thinking.

None of us can communicate our whole selves to each other without considerable work, considerable efforts at self-expression on the one hand, and open, unprejudiced attention on the other. And even then, the communication will be incomplete. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between knowing someone as a subject, however incompletely, and knowing them as objects. It is the latter sort of knowledge that science is after, and insofar as we regard persons with nothing more than scientific attention, we are not attending to them as persons. We have reduced them to mere things in our sight—and however much we may be attending to their parts and processes (including psychological ones) we are not attending to them.

I think it is also possible to attend to the universe in something like the way that we attend to persons: holistically, focused on knowing it as opposed to knowing a litany of facts about it. Is it possible that this sort of attention—which is, I believe, what Weil has in mind when she speaks of prayer—opens us up to an aspect of the universe that is not available to the scientific eye? The universe as subject rather than mere object? Is it possible that this distinctive sort of loving attention is precisely what brings us into contact with the meaning beyond the universe's syntax, the person for whom the universe is an endless form of communication?

There are those who have sought to pay attention to the world in something like this way, and who report the same thing that Simone Weil reported on the basis of her efforts at absolute attention: a personal presence brimming with love.

Dismissal is, of course, easy. Not everyone has this experience. It could be mere delusion. But is dismissal required? By what? By the urgings of our own imagination, which fills up the spaces beyond science’s limits with emptiness?

As I said, sometimes I pay attention to my children while they play. I really pay attention, so fully that I lose myself and my agendas. And it is then that I’m most overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of what I see. Put simply: In my experience beauty and goodness overwhelm me, they most seize hold of me, when I am least invested, when my desires and dreams and hopes have been pushed back to make a space for what I’m attending to, so that it may flood in. Does it then make sense to say that beauty and goodness are nothing more than subjective projections, that these things aren’t part of reality, that they must be imposed upon reality by me in that moment, even though it seems to be the very moment when my stuff has been most successfully put away?

Why? Is this judgment really rooted in the weight of evidence? Or is it, rather, rooted in an exercise of imagination, one which, again, fills up those dimensions of reality outside the domain of scientific inquiry with gobs of emptiness?

It may, indeed, be very hard for all of us to distinguish between the products of imagination and the outcomes of pure attention. Real attention may be so hard that few of us actually achieve it, even when we tell ourselves that we have. It is possible that my religious experiences (far less vivid than Weil's, but of the same general kind) are the outcomes of my imagination filling up the void, and I'm just telling myself that I'm paying attention? Of course that's a possibility.

But there are other possibilities. And in our efforts to attend to each other, we fall short to the extent that we treat some possibilities as certainties, and others as impossible.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cosmic Gratitude and Ways of Seeing

In the recent post outlining my overall “philosophy of religion,” I offered the following comment: “With respect to the origins of the cosmos, we have to decide whether to adopt a stance of gratitude—the kind of stance that makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency.”

My point here was to given an example of how ways of seeing the world are implicated in the practical choices we need to make in our lives. Among many examples I might have chosen, I considered the act of being grateful for the existence of the cosmos and everything in it. We might call this "cosmic gratitude." I chose this example because I wanted to be clear that some practical decisions are more matters of inner stance than outward action. While being grateful might express itself in concrete gestures (saying “Thank you,” for example), it is first and foremost an internal attitude that one adopts.

And adopting this attitude of cosmic gratitude clearly makes sense if the whole of our reality is seen as the product of loving agency. It might not make sense given certain other ways of seeing--in fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But since I hadn’t thought about the issue deeply enough to decide whether adopting this attitude makes sense only if reality is the product of loving agency, I deliberately chose not to say that.

At this point, as a philosophy teacher, I can’t resist pausing to offer a brief mini-lecture about the kind of basic logic you're likely to learn in a critical thinking course. (And I don't mean to be condescending in doing this. Even those of us who know this stuff quite well can sometimes benefit from taking the time, every once in awhile, to walk through it deliberately, like a novice). A proposition of the form, “If x, then y,” is called a conditional. the statement that appears in place of "x" is often called the antecedent of the conditional, while the statement in the "y" place is called the consequent. Unlike conjunctions ("x and y") and disjunctions ("x or y"), switching the placement of x and y makes a difference.

When you do switch the antecendent and the consequent, what you get (“If y, then x”) is called the converse of the conditional, and it is logically distinct from the original conditional—in other words, they’re saying different things, which means that formally speaking the truth value of a conditional and its converse needn’t be the same.

Unfortunately, things get a bit messy because conditional statements can be expressed in a variety of ways. For example, “If x, then y” is also sometimes worded as “x only if y.” Even though the "if" here appears before the statement in the "y" place, the "only" has a logical function such that "y" is still the consequent. But if someone says, “x if y,” they mean “If y, then x.” In other words, “x if y” is the converse of  "if x, then y," and so is the converse of “x only if y.”

To sum it up: "x if y" is the converse of "x only if y." The two are not logically equivalent. Contrast the following: (a) “A thank you letter is polite if you receive a birthday gift”; (b) “A thank you letter is polite only if you receive a birthday gift.” Based on the conventions of etiquette in the US, (a) is true while (b) is false. Likewise, we need to clearly distinguish “Cosmic gratitude makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency” from “Cosmic gratitude makes sense only if reality is the product of loving agency.” It was my intention in the earlier post to say the former (a view which I am confident is true), not the latter (since I haven't considered it carefully enough to say for sure what I think of it).

But it is quite easy on a quick reading of someone’s argument to confuse a conditional statement with its converse--especially when the positioning of the "antecendent" and "consequent" are out of their usual order, as was the case in my earlier post. And, judging by recurring comments on my previous post, many readers apparently did just that. For example, SecularDad asked, “Why can’t someone have this sense of gratitude without belief in a loving agency?” Burk said, “The fact is that we can feel gratitude in any case.. it is all about us, not about the cosmos. We are here, and have feelings, so we can feel gratitude, and do so. The idea that we need a conjured ‘father’ or other totem on the other end, whose existence is, as above, hypothetical at best and utilitiarian in origin ... that is simply absurd.” More cautiously, Bernard said, “I, like Burk, feel hugely grateful for my own existence without having any conception of that beyond the physical, and readily accept it doesn’t work this way for you.”

But even if these comments were sparked by a misreading of my original remark, they raise an interesting set of questions. After all, this cosmic gratitude--this sense of gratitude for one’s existence and for the world in all its mystery and wonder—is a common human experience that seems to cut across religious and philosophical differences. And there is at least some reason to think that this sort of gratitude is healthy. People who cultivate cosmic gratitude (as opposed to very selective gratitude) are more likely to be at peace with themselves and their lives, even if things aren’t perfect.

Given the ubiquity and value of this attitude, it is worth digging deeper into the conditions for its coherence. What I said explicitly in my earlier post was that such cosmic gratitude is coherent under the traditional theistic view that existence is a gift of love. Given this way of seeing things, cosmic gratitude “makes sense.” Implicitly, of course, my remark suggested that there might be ways of seeing things where such gratitude wouldn’t make sense. (While I’ll resist another critical thinking mini-lecture, I will point out that this latter suggestion emerges based on principles of “conversational implication”: In ordinary conversation, one doesn’t typically point out that A is true under condition B if one thinks A is true under ALL conditions—and so, while one cannot make this assumption in formal logic, when someone asserts a conditional it is usually fair in conversation to impute to them the belief that the “consequent” of the conditional isn’t true under all conditions.)

In any event, I think it is pretty clear that there are ways of seeing reality such that, given those ways of seeing, an attitude of cosmic gratitude makes little sense. Here's an example: Suppose you see the cosmos and everything in it as the product of a supremely powerful Devil who created the universe solely for the sake of having targets for his malevolence. Everything exists purely so that this supreme Devil can achieve his goal of a universe teeming with endless conscious torment of the worst conceivable kind. And this Devil, being supremely powerful, will not fail to achieve this goal: In the end, every conscious being will be brought to a state of eternal suffering so horrific that it would have been better not to have existed at all. Those who at present enjoy their lives, who experience love and happiness, are afforded this glimpse of goodness only for the sake of making possible some special sort of torment later: perhaps the torment of having precious goods decisively and permanently ripped away, or the anguish of witnessing the crushing ruin of loved ones, etc. Ultimate affliction, we might suppose, is so much worse when there are points of contrast, so that endless, hopeless yearning for lost love and joy can be an additional source of anguish in the Devil’s arsenal.

And yes, I am fully aware of just how close this worldview I’m describing is to views actually embraced by some Christians—specifically, strict double-predestination Calvinists, as well as those who see eternal hell as the fate of all those who die without having explicitly accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. In fact, I think an important objection to such versions of Christianity might be built around what I am saying in this post. But I won't develop that argument now.

My point here is this: If you see the joys of this life as fleeting moments in a whole existence definitively stripped of worth by neverending, soul-crushing anguish--and if, furthermore, you see the purpose of existence to be the realization of such states of torment in every conscious being--well, it hardly makes sense to adopt a stance of cosmic gratitude for existence. If, by contrast, you think that the sufferings of this life, no matter how serious, are but fleeting moments in a whole existence definitively imbued with worth by neverending, soul-uplifitng goods--and if, furthermore, you see the purpose of existence to be the bestowal of such goods on every conscious being--well, it clearly makes sense to adopt a stance of cosmic gratitude.

But these extremes are hardly the only two options. There are numerous alternatives, some of which make cosmic gratitude coherent, others of which don't.  The interesting question raised by the comments on my previous post is whether you need to see the cosmos as having loving agency at its root--whether, in other words, you need to see the cosmos as a benevolent creation--in order for cosmic gratitude to be a coherent response to existence.

In addressing this question, I first want to consider a line of argument that won't work. Specifically, the argument that of course gratitude makes sense without adopting this condition, because we exist and have feelings, and so can feel gratitude, and may do so. This won't work because the question is not whether we can feel cosmic gratitude no matter how we see the universe. The question is whether cosmic gratitude makes sense no matter how we see the universe. It is a question of coherence--over whether every way of seeing the universe can coherently undergird a grateful attitude.

I've already argued that seeing the universe as wholly the product of malevolent agency can't be coherently conjoined with cosmic gratitude. But few see the world in such a hideous way (although it may prove to be more common than one might think, once one digs below the surface of certain theistic beliefs). The more interesting question is whether gratitude makes sense given a naturalistic worldview. And here, rather than try to give an answer of my own, I want to consider something Bart Ehrman has to say on the matter.

For those unfamiliar with Ehrman, he is a religious studies scholar who has authored a number of highly successful popularizations of work in biblical studies. In one of those works, God's Problem, Ehrman devotes several pages to reflecting on his own deconversion from evangelical Christianity--a process that occurred in stages, and that took him from a "Bible-believing" Christian intent on saving souls from damnation, to being a progressive Christian, to being an agnostic who views the Bible as wholly a human artifact. In discussing this deconversion process, he reflects on some of its more painful aspects. One of those aspects has to do with gratitude. Here is what he says:
Another aspect of the pain I felt when I eventually became an agnostic...involves another deeply rooted attitude that I have and simply can't get rid of, although in this case, it's an attitude that I don't really want to get rid of. And it's something I never would have expected to be a problem when I was still a believer. The problem is this: I have such a fantastic life that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don't have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don't see any plausible way of filling it. 
Now let me stress here that I'm not at all sure that Ehrman is talking here about cosmic gratitude, that is, the sense of gratitude for existence as such--both one's own and the existence of the universe. It seems to be more a case of gratitude for the kind of existence that he has come to enjoy. We might call this "specific gratitude." And he rightly notes, a bit later on, that this species of gratitude is problematic. As Ehrman puts it, "If I have food because God has given it to me, then don't others lack food because God has chosen not to give it to them? By saying grace, wasn't I in fact charging God with negligence, or favoritism?" 

These concerns are, of course, bound up with the problem of evil--which is Ehrman's focus in God's Problem. And it seems to me that the theist's only escape from these concerns is to deny that God is directly responsible for the precise distribution of blessings and challenges in this life. If this is right, then gratitude for specific blessings may not make sense within a coherent theistic framework.

But my concern here is with cosmic gratitude, and with the question of whether seeing the world as the product of loving agency is a necessary condition for such gratitude to make sense. And here, a different aspect of Ehrman's discussion becomes relevant. Specifically, gratitude is a feeling with what might be called a "double-intentionality." There's what we're grateful for, but there's also who we're grateful to. Is gratitude possible without the latter? And can the object of the latter be anything other than an agent who meant well in providing what one is grateful for?

If not, then while an atheist or agnostic might be happy for existence, or take delight in it, or have feelings that are in some sense analogous to gratitude, they couldn't be genuinely grateful (at least not coherently so). And that would mean that anyone who was genuinely grateful for existence itself would thereby be operating, at least implicitly, as if there were someone to be grateful to: an agency responsible for existence itself.

But this conclusion follows only if we give negative answers to the questions I just posed (Is gratitude possible without the latter? And can the object of the latter be anything other than an agent?). So--what do you think of these two questions?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My "Philosophy of Religion" in Outline

As I was getting ready to reply to several comments on my earlier post, Monks, Miracles, and the God of the Gaps, it seemed to me that the comments I was starting to write were really aimed at fitting together the pieces of my overall "philosophy of religion." And that task seemed more suited to a blog post than to a set of comments. And so I decided that I really should offer a post which affords such an overview--one that doesn't systematically defend every piece, but instead seeks to show how the pieces fit together, to show how the ideas developed in various places on this blog and in Is God a Delusion? are related to each other.

Obviously, not every aspect of my thinking on religion is going to appear in such a sketch. What I want to highlight here are the "themes" that are most helpful (I hope) in giving a big picture summary of my philosophy. Things which I don't explicitly discuss here, but which are clearly significant to me (religious experience, the nature of consciousness, etc.), should not be considered less important to me just because I don't address them explicitly here. I'm pretty sure that readers can readily see how and where these other topic fit into the broad scheme I'm offering. At the end of this overview, I offer "further readings" suggestions, directing those interested to places where I develop these themes in greater detail.

Here, then, is my attempt to summarize and coordinate several key dimensions of my overall "philosophy of religion":

1. I take a religious worldview, insofar as it is religious, to offer a framework for a "way of seeing" the whole of experience. A way of seeing attaches a certain meaning and significance to what is experienced. It weaves the features of experience together in a certain way, and attaches a meaning to the elements of experience and to one's life as a whole. It also has implications for how one should respond to the world--both in terms of actions and in terms of attitudes. Insofar as a religious worldview is a way of seeing, it must "fit" with experience in some broad sense. Not every "ways of seeing" is coherent given the actual content it is trying to invest with meaning (we can coherently see the duck-rabbit as a duck, or as a rabbit, but not as ballerina dancing atop a monster truck).

2. Many ways of seeing involve positing things about reality that are not themselves part of the field of experience. Generally, religious ways of seeing--especially theistic ones--are like this. They make claims about a transcendent reality that make possible a distinctive way of seeing. To see reality theistically requires, in effect, that one affirm that the empirical world of our experience is the outpouring of a transcendent conscious agency. In Is God a Delusion?, I thus describe religious beliefs as "meaning-bestowing beliefs about the transcendent."

3. Sometimes a way of seeing is chosen out of a kind of moral hope. Of the possible ways of seeing experience, one in particular may strike us as the most optimistic, the most expressive of our moral sense of what is good. Put another way, we embrace one way of seeing among a field of alternatives because, given our understanding of what is good, we judge that it would be good if this were what it all means. In Is God a Delusion?, this is what I have in mind when I talk about "the ethico-religious hope," and I define faith in terms of this hope. To be precise, faith in this sense means choosing to live as if this hoped-for possibility is true.

Conceived thus, faith is not knowledge and does not imply knowledge or certainty or any such thing. To embrace a particular way of seeing "out of faith" is not to claim to have special grounds for belief that make one's way of seeing more likely to be true than the others that "fit" with the field of experience. To believe on faith, in this sense, is thus NOT the same as claiming that "it's lovely so it must be true." To claim that would be to claim that the loveliness of a worldview is proof of its truth--which is a clearly dubious epistemic assumption (although, as a postulate worth testing, it may be worth considering the more modest idea that the moral attractiveness of a worldview has evidentiary signficance--a point I get to in #6).

Nor is faith nothing but wishful thinking. Better to call it hopeful living--since it is about living as if a hoped-for possibility is true. But if so, it is hopeful living regulated by evidentiary constraints. Unlike mere wishing, it must meet the constraint of what "fits" with the field of experience. It must be a hopeful possibility.

4. The pursuit of knowledge, when it comes to that which transcends the empirical--when it comes to what Kant calls the "noumenal" reality (things as they are in themselves) behind the "phenomenal" realm (things as they are for us, or as they appear to us)--cannot proceed in the way that we pursue knoweldge of phenomena. Knowledge of phenomena cannot be pursued in advance of adopting a certain way of seeing. While some ways of seeing appear to be common to humanity, and form the basis for a common experience of the world and public claims of empirical knowledge, this common foundation can fit within a variety of broader, more holistic ways of seeing.

When deciding among these broader ways of seeing and the claims about the transcendent/noumenal that they presuppose, either no knowledge is possible (Kant's view) or we must rely on an approach very different from the one that guides the acquisition of empirical knowledge (such as, for example, the approach endorsed by Hegel). Each of these options warrants independent consideration.

5. If we go with Kant's view, then holistic ways of seeing--including, I should add, naturalistic ones--all fall into the same category: they are unknowable speculation, and if there are any reasons for us to choose among them, the reasons will be more practical/pragmatic/moral than "evidential." At least sometimes it is practically impossible to operate from a position of neutrality, to fail to take a stand with respect to one way of seeing or another. With respect to speculations about human agency, we either have to operate as if we are free, or not. With respect to the origins of the cosmos, we have to decide whether to adopt a stance of gratitude--the kind of stance that makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency. At least sometimes, elements of one's personal history make a position of indifference, of neutrality among ways of seeing, inconceivable.

The point is this: many of us confront an existential choice that we cannot ignore indefinitely--and so we have to decide on what basis to make that choice. If Kant is right, then deciding on the basis of moral hope--that is, a hope shaped by one's conception of the good--seems as good a basis as any, if not a better one. Kant himself invokes morality as providing the decision-making standard by which "postulates" about the noumenal are made. In other words, he thinks that given the inability to have "speculative knowledge," we nevertheless can and should embrace those beliefs about the transcendent that make our moral lives coherent--that offer, in my terms, a "way of seeing" the world in which moral norms are meaningful and moral life is possible. But as soon as this kind of hope is allowed in as a basis for decision-making, we need to consider another possibility, one which speaks to what might be called an epistemic hope: namely, the hope that Kant is wrong, that there is a way to move towards seeing the truth when it comes to ways of seeing.

6. And so we come to Hegel, who describes a mechanism whereby holistic worldviews can (and do) evolve against the testing ground of human life. On this Hegelian view, a worldview lived out as a matter of moral hope--while not thereby a matter of knowledge--might (like all other worldviews adopted for other reasons) evolve progressively in the light of "contradictions" or experienced deficiencies that emerge as that worldview is lived out (especially insofar as it is lived out communally). The idea--perhaps the hope?--is that noumenal reality, even if it transcends our understanding, nevertheless is the substance of both us and our world, and so impacts the tenability of certain lived-out worldviews. We just won't succeed forever in living as if the world in which we live is fundamentally unlike the way it really is. And so, whatever the origins of one's "way of seeing," lived experience becomes its testing ground, the venue in which decisions made in hope are refined, ideas embraced on the basis of faith are adjusted or even, potentially, overturned.

And the Hegelian evolution of faith-based worldviews offers the opportunity to test experimentally a notion that we cannot just dogmatically assume, but which we cannot simply dismiss out of hand either--namely, the notion that goodness and beauty are in some fundamental way related to truth.

In a way, this is what I take to be what distinguishes evolving religious traditions from other evolving (nonreligious) worldviews: They adopt, as part of the operative presuppositions which are being experimentally lived out, the presumption that beauty and goodness are not mere epiphenomena, not merely the subjective projections of a consciousness that is itself nothing more than the by-product of blind matter and energy, mechanism and chance; they are, rather, clues about the ultimate nature of reality. That something is in tune with our deepest, most stable, and pervasive value intuitions is thus treated as having evidentiary significance (albeit not overriding significance) in the formation of our beliefs.

The Hegelian religious project, then, becomes the long-term, evolving effort to critically live out, in Hermann Lotze's language, "the conviction that what is so fair and full of significance cannot be an accidental product of that which is without significance, but must be either the very Principle of the world or closely related to its creative principle." In short, the act of faith--the decision to live as if the fulfillment of one's moral hopes is real--establishes a framework from which the pursuit of transcendent knoweldge is sought through a plodding, historic process of pragmatic refinement. And it is a framework whose central postulate lends defeasible evidentiary significance to our moral (and aesthetic?) intutitions.

From a Hegelian standpoint, when it comes to such postulates "the proof is in the pudding." Unfortunately for all of us, this is a pudding we're cooking intergenerationally, and none of us will be alive to see the finished product. In the microcosm of our own lives, Kant may be right about the inaccessibility of the noumena. Moral hope may be all we have to go on. But that shouldn't keep us from taking part in the evolving social project that promises to discipline our speculative hopes with the pragmatic implications of living them out.   
For more on #1, see especially here and here

For more on #2, see especially Is God a Delusion? (IGAD) Ch 5

For more on #3, see especially IGAD Ch's 8 & 9

For more on #'s 4 & 5, see especially my series of posts on characterizing naturalism.

For more on #6, see my recent posts on Hegel.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Decriminalize Domestic Violence? Really?

Okay, time for a little rant.

Apparently, the city council of Topeka, Kansas, is considering repealing the part of the city code that prohibits domestic battery. The problem arose because the county District Attorney's office, confronting a 10% budget cut, announced it would stop prosecuting misdemeanors--leaving that to the local municipalities. And this meant that domestic battery--which in most forms is a misdemeanor--was left to the cities to prosecute. Since the cities are not in any better financial position than the county, this literal passing of the buck just made matters worse. Topeka, like everywhere else, is looking to cut costs, and suddenly it has extra financial burdens dumped into its lap.

I empathise. Passing off costs to others is a common way to deal with budget shortfalls, but when the buck is passed in a climate in which everyone is looking to cut costs, the effect is that someone is left with an inordinately heavy burden. That in itself is a problem--it seems far better that the burden be shared equitably, which will only happen without this sort of buck-passing.

But that isn't the problem I want to focus on here. The problem is one of priorities. The problem is about what a society is willing to consider in situations of scarcity. One might reasonably ask whether some vocal minorities have so anathematized the "increase tax revenue" option that certain options that are far less tolerable end up being considered first. Yes, there are concerns about increasing taxes on those who have more than they need--worries that those taxed would, if allowed to keep the money, do more with that money to promote the common good than would the state. And there is no doubt that there are cases of government waste--but is it really true that the rich routinely use their money more productively, in terms of stimulating the economy and promoting the public good, than does the government?

When the matter at hand is domestic violence, I can't think of much that the rich would do with their excess that would compare, in terms of significance for the public good, to the importance of intervening in cycles of domestic violence. On this issue, it seems to me there can be no doubt at all. If the choice is between raising taxes on the rich and decriminalizing domestic battery, it's clear what should be on the table and what shouldn't.

This is not to say that these are the only choices. The point is that new taxes should be on the table long before we consider the idea of letting abusers beat their spouses with impunity. There are some things you just don't put on the table as things to potentially cut from the budget, so long as there are other options. And so long as their are people so rich that they've long ago hit the point at which increased wealth doesn't translate into increased human happiness, there are other options. So how did this proposal ever make it onto the table?

Some might object here that what is at issue in Topeka is misdemeanor domestic battery, not felony assault. Severe beatings and murders would, of course, still be prosecuted.

But a big part of the problem with domestic violence is that there is a cycle of abuse that has the propensity both to accelarate and to escalate. Abusers use violence as part of a broader pattern of control--a pattern that also includes contrition and apology, a "honeymoon" period, and a phase of escalating tension in which fear of another violent outburst has the victim scurrying to appease the abuser until, inevitably, she doesn't scurry quite fast enough.

Early in an abusive relationship, the outburst of abuse may be merely verbal, and it is an isolated event set against an extended period of bonding in which the victim feels special, perceiving herself as the treasured focus of the abuser's life--a perception which, perversely, has a measure of accuracy. Abusers do tend to make their intimate partner the centers of their lives. At the heart of abuse is a genuine human longing for intimacy that has been twisted by fears and insecurities into an obsessive need to maintain control over the intimate partner so as not to risk loss.

And the abuser relies on an arsenal of tools to keep the victim under control: sincere apology, gifts, adoration and worship, selective manifestation of insecurities and frailties at moments when such revelations are likely to inspire empathy, efforts to create dependence through financial disempowerment and social isolation, psychological hazing aimed at shattering self-esteem and (as occurs in fraternity hazing and some military training) rebuilding the victim's sense of worth around the abuser ("I'm nothing without him!"). And then, of course, there is physical intimidation, the looming threat of violence aimed at inspiring the visible displays of subserviance. This may provide the most tangible assurances of control.

And then, finally, the explosion of violence. Early on in the escalating cycle, it's a slap or a shove. But as the cycle progresses, the honeymoons get shorter. Perhaps the heady feeling of control that comes during the escalation towards violence is addictive, and so the urge to get to that stage sooner becomes irresistible. The "honeymoon" strategies become perfunctory, simply what needs to be done to keep the victim from running away in the wake of the violent episode--keeping her around so that the "drug" of her terrified subservience can be enjoyed again. And again.

The outbursts of violence become more frequent, and at the same time more extreme. Like the drug addict, the abuser needs more frequent and bigger doses to get his high.

The point of all of this is to stress the significance of misdemeanor domestic battery laws. What they do is make legal interventions possible at a stage in the escalating cycle when tragedy may still be averted. This is not something that we should even consider dispensing with when there are other, less terrible options. And there are other, less terrible options. While there are people who scream and rage as if a tax hike on the rich were the end of the world as we know, this sort of hyperbole cannot, must not, be allowed to distort our collective priorities so badly that decriminalizing domestic battery is preferred to mildly inconveniencing the richest Americans.

If one has a strong opposition to graduated tax increases, that argument should be heard and the reasons discussed in public debate. If there are instances of government waste that could be eliminated as an alternative to raising revenue, by all means these should be discussed. But when taxation is so villified that allowing domestic violence to occur with impunity makes it onto the table when revenue-increase options are possible, something has gone terribly wrong.

Am I missing something?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Monks, Miracles, and the God of the Gaps

I'm going to be in another play. This one is, in part, about miracles--or, more precisely, about the desire for them. The rather utilitarian desire.

The play--"Incorruptible," by Michael Hollinger--is a dark comedy set in the Dark Ages. All the action occurs inside a monastery in Priseaux, France, where the bones of St. Foy are on display--bones that have failed to produce a miracle in over a dozen years. The monks, their faith and finances failing them, embark on a mercenary plan to save their order: digging up bones from their churchyard and selling them as holy relics.

My character is, arguably, a monk who never had any faith to lose. The heir apparent to the abbot, Brother Martin sees the churchyard scam as a natural extension of what he does every day: make a living by peddling lies. At one point early in the play, the abbot and another monk are urgently hoping the Pope will see through a deception that sidetracked his planned trip to Priseaux. Brother Martin asks, "Why would he?" When they answer, because it's the truth, Martin dryly declares, "If the truth were always apparent, we'd be out of business."

Martin lives in a community looking for God. But where are they looking? The villagers have sick cows and sicker spouses, and so they turn their eyes towards the bones of St Foy, hoping for miraculous healings. When none come, their faith withers. Jack, the one-eyed minstrel, has begged and prayed to have his sight restored to his mangled eye (the result of an occupational hazard: juggling knives). But now, after years of unanswered prayers, his faith is gone.

Brother Martin, too, is in his own cynical way focused on miraculous healings. In his case it's because miracles (or the appearance of miracles) bring pilgrims, and pilgrims bring money. And the monastery is in rather desperate need of money. Others are readily caught up in Martin's way of thinking--or, more correctly, drawn down by it.

By "miracle," all of them mean a Deus ex Machina solution to their troubles--a breach in the regularities of nature that helps them achieve their desires. For all of them, this is what it means to believe in God: It means there is a power beyond the world that--if you pray hard enough, with enough faith--will break into the regularities of nature and, with cymbals and trumpets, take away some cause of pain or restore something lost.

Today we turn to technology to solve our troubles: medicine to heal the sick, pesticides to drive off the locusts. In the medieval world of "Incorruptible," miracles offer the fickle equivalent--and in such a world, the religions that promise miracles are, more often than not, valued simply to the extent that they can deliver on that promise. Such religion depends for its credibility and its survival on a cymbal-and-trumpet God who shatters the ordinary patterns of the world, perhaps in the form of an "incorruptible," a saint so holy that, in death, her body refuses to decay. Such religion relies on signs and wonders--or, in their absence, on the capacity to fabricate the illusion of one.

The contemporary purveyors of so-called "ID theory"--those who search through the annals of modern biology looking for some "irreducibly complex" organic structure that just can't be explained by the mechanisms described in evolutionary theory--are also, in their own way, placing their bets on this cymbal-and-trumpet God. And if they can't find their miraculous protein or organ, then there's always the Museum of Creation and Earth History to fabricate slick illusions.

What they all exemplify is one way to be religious, one way to conceive of what it means to believe in the divine. Hungry for miracles, they ignore the taste of chocolate and only shout the name of God when the chocolate drippings form a likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Miracle-seekers embody a species of "God of the gaps" theology. But they don't just believe in the God of the gaps. Their eyes are glued to the gaps, committed to the reality of gaps, disappointed when gaps are closed, disillusioned if they cannot find enough gaps for God to fill. A miracle isn't a miracle unless it's a gap, unless it's an inexplicable violation of the order of nature.

I'm reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admonition to those who "use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge." In Bonhoeffer's words, "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved." To see the presence of God in something is to experience it as miraculous. And when we restrict our understanding of the miraculous to the inexplicable, we leave God out of the rest of our lives--the majority of our lives. God becomes caulking in the wall, rather than the home in which we live and breathe and have our being.

The poet and scholar Frederick Turner makes a similar point, in a Dallas Institute lecture, when he says, "It is easy to deceive ourselves that something strange, something supernatural, is happening, as we know well from accounts of flying saucer enthusiasts, superstitious cultists, and ghost hunters. But perhaps our greater danger, our greater credulity, lies in deceiving ourselves that something strange and marvelous is not happening."

We stare up at the star-littered sky, waiting for fireworks. And when the ephemeral sparks don't come, we hiss and walk away, disappointed and disillusioned under the ceaseless stars. Fixated on the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the gap, we cannot experience the miraculous in the seamless beauty of the world. Our quest for miracles shuts out the miraculous in an ordinary day, an indrawn breath, the smile on a beloved face.

The problem for those monks in "Incorruptible" isn't that their saint's bones have failed to perform a miracle in recent memory. Their problem, rather, is that the miracle of existence eludes them. Caught up in the trials of life, the pain and loss, the worry for the future, they have lost sight of being itself, the unutterable mystery of what we take to be routine, the unfathomable depths that lie beneath the problems that have been solved.
This is what Schleiermacher had in mind when he spoke about "the intuition of the infinite in the finite," or that constant, unrelenting inkling that existence as we know it has a "whence."

There is the religion that clings to the promise of extraordinary miracles--violations of nature's laws that we imagine vividly and long to see. And then there is the religion that arises out of the experience of the world all around, when its miraculous character rips through the humdrum of life, lifts us out of our skins, and grants us inklings of truth beyond imagining.

Or in the more poetic language of Kahlil Gibran,
 …if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather, look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the clouds, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending rain.

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.