Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When You Blame Religion, What are You Blaming?

In a recent Raw Story piece, "These are the 12 worst ideas religion has unleashed on the world," Valerie Tarico comes up with a list of some really harmful ideas--ranging from notions such as "blasphemy" and "heresy" and "holy war" to practices such as female genital mutilation and blood sacrifice and male ownership of female fertility. And she blames religion for them.

Yesterday, Kate Blanchard--a religious studies professor at Alma College--shot back with a concise but pointed response, one that resonates with my own perspective.

In the course of answering the Raw Story piece, Blanchard makes the following insightful observation about our use of the term "religion":
Some people like to think that the "essence" of religion is all sweetness and light, while the violence and bigotry for which religious people are famous are unfortunate cultural add-ons. The flip side is the idea expressed in the aforementioned post, that the essence of religion is tribalism and violence, while all the good stuff is "our shared moral core."
This is a point I tried to make a few years ago, in connection with a debate/discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell. In my more academic writing, I've argued that religion has become a "bifurcated essentially contested concept": On the one hand, people use "religion" as a value-laden term and offer competing understandings in part because we disagree about what deserves the value-ascription that goes with religion. On the other hand, we don't agree on what the value-ascription is that goes with religion.

The result is that people can have all the same values and the same assessment of the facts and yet end up seeming as if they fundamentally disagree about religion--when really they're just talking past each other. Joe Shmoe can hate all the things that Valerie Tarico hates, and they can (perhaps) love all the same things about Martin Luther King, Jr. But they disagree vociferously about religion. Why? Because Ms. Tarico attributes the former things to religion (because religion is bad, and these are the things that make it bad), while attributing MLK's virtues to humanism; but Mr. Shmoe attributes MLK's virtues to religion (because religion is good, and these are the things that make it good), while attributing Ms Tarico's list of horrors to the general human propensity for tribalism and the like.

There are ways I expressed myself in the book, Is God a Delusion?, that put me very close to sounding like Joe Shmoe--and were I to rewrite it today, that's one of the things I'd change. What I wanted to say then (at least in my moments of greatest clarity) is what I will say now: It's not that the essence of religion is all sweetness and light. Rather, there is something important that runs through the religions of the world that, if we take it to be religion's essence, provides an internal basis for critiquing the very things that Valerie Tarico criticizes in her piece. And this is a reason to take it to be religion's essence--because it provides a reason for religious people to rethink some of the more harmful things that religious communities have endorsed and perpetuated (if not originated).

What is this thing that I find running through the religions of the world? Well, it's a bit hard to summarize briefly, but here's my best effort: There is this thing I call the ethico-religious hope: the hope that in some fundamental way, reality is not indifferent to moral goodness, that despite the cold indifference of natural laws there is something beyond the empirical skin of the world that is on the side of the good. There is, within religion, a lifting-up of mystical experiences that speak in favor of this hope--even if, of course, they can be explained away as delusional. But one thing that religious communities do is make a decision to live as if this hopeful possibility is true--as if the mystical experiences that speak to it are not illusory, but are rather glimpses into a dimension of reality that transcends the ordinary run of our empirical lives.

One feature of religion, then, is a commitment to aligning our wills and lives to this ethico-religious hope, and cultivating the kinds of mystical experiences that nurture this hope.

I think that if we extract from the religions of the world these elements, it will be hard to blame Valerie Tarico's 12 bad ideas on them. In fact, I think that if we focus on these elements, they provide the basis for challenging such evils. This is one of the things I aimed to show in Is God a Delusion?

But it is also true that real-world religions embody a diversity of features, including our propensity for tribalism and our urgent desire for certainty and easy answers. But blaming religion for these features is itself an instance of falling prey to the desire for easy answers. This is a point that Kate Blanchard makes nicely towards the end of her short piece:
Many of us are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that human nature and history are irreducibly complex, in favor of bedtime stories that let us sleep better at night. We blame the worst stuff on religion and dream of a better world without it, as if other factors like land, nationalism, gender, wealth, power, or the desire to be right are unique outgrowths of religiosity. As if heresy, blood sacrifice, glorified suffering, or the desire for eternal life are not equally insidious in their secular incarnations.
The result is the naivete of John Lennon's Imagine. A friend recently shared on Facebook his conversation with his young daughter about this song, in which he went into a detailed account of its oversimplified and naive vision of the human condition...putting her to sleep in the process. But maybe it's the song that should put us to sleep. I kind of like the song. I find it pretty--but pretty in the way that oversimplified bedtime stories are pretty. In fact, Valerie Tarico's list of religion's evils and Lennon's wistful imaginings seem to be different ways of articulating some of the very same ideas.

If so, Kate Blanchard's response is not just a reason to resist oversimplified attacks on religion, but a reason to be suspicious of Lennon's more lyrical naivete.

If you haven't read Blanchard's piece, it's a quick read and worth clicking over to.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Death of Chivalry? A Plea for Human Decency

A few years ago my family and I were heading into a restaurant for lunch. I was herding the kids, trying to keep them from running into the street or smashing their faces into concrete posts. Hence, my wife reached the restaurant door before I did.

A man who watched this scene responded with horror, surging forward to save the day. He managed to do what I should have been doing instead of keeping my children alive. It was a near thing, but he got to the door before my wife did and held it open for her, rescuing chivalry from the clutches of my negligence.

And then he gave me the kind of withering look reserved for people who push old ladies into traffic.

At first I was baffled. But then I realized what was going on. Watching to make sure the kids didn't commit unintended suicide in the manner of small children--that was my wife's job. My job was to take care of her by making sure her Ironman-triathlete arm muscles weren't strained by the task of opening a door.

This case was hardly unique. I'm not at all good at the chivalrous-holding-open-the-door-for-a-lady thing, at least not the Oklahoma version. I was raised in upstate New York by Scandinavian parents. My mother, a Norwegian raised mostly in Denmark, reserved a distinctive kind of scorn for those American men inclined to inflict Chivalry on her. (My father never dared.) She'd make this scoffing noise--very Danish--combined with an expression that was part bafflement and part eye-roll. Sometimes she'd follow it up with something like, "I can get my own chair."

I'm not a child was unspoken but implied.

If she was trying to be polite to the chivalrous agent of condescension, the scoff would be stifled and her face would wrinkle up in a way that mostly expressed discomfort. Sometimes she'd enact the expected ritual responses in a playfully mocking manner: "Oh!" Big Dramatic Expression. "What a gentleman!" The guy would usually catch on, and pretend that all along he'd been play-acting as a way of expressing their shared disdain for such things.

So perhaps I can be excused for growing up without the habits of chivalry that Oklahomans generally treat as normative. But I've tried, for the sake of form, to catch on a little bit when I'm out in public. Unfortunately, I'm a bit dense about it. A couple of years back I thought that I was doing it right. I got to the door ahead of my wife and held it open. I silently congratulated myself on remembering the ritual.

But I did it wrong. I did it in the way that I hold doors for people coming up behind me as I'm entering a building. You know, that common human decency which leads you to make sure the door doesn't slam in the other person's face. Once they get there and their hand is on the door, you let go and continue on into the building.

It turns out that chivalry isn't about common human decency. I may have held the door for my wife, but people glared anyway--because I didn't continue to hold the door until she'd passed completely through ahead of me. I'd forgotten about "ladies first."

I remember having a conversation about this with my students once. "Why," I asked, "have I done something wrong if I fail to run ahead of my wife to get the door and hold it for her, but my wife hasn't done anything wrong if she fails to do the same for me?"

"Because," my students answered, "you're the guy."

And that's it exactly. Chivalry isn't about common human decency. It's about gender differences. It's a ritual reinforcement of differential gender roles. And insofar as it is a holdover of a patriarchal culture--one in which women were rendered dependent on men--rules of chivalry reflect and reinforce that patriarchal culture.

Here's how I look at it. In a patriarchal society, rules of chivalry have an important function in symbolically encouraging men to restrain how they use their privilege in relation to women. In patriarchy, that privilege makes women's life prospects depend on the good will of the men in their lives. Fortunately, there have always been men of good will in the world. Hence, many women have had decent lives despite patriarchy. And the rules of chivalry have helped to promote that. Every time a man makes a chivalrous gesture, he's reminded to use his privilege to care for rather than exploit women. He also sends a (possibly deceptive) message to women that here is a man who will not exploit his advantage over them: a man of good will, who will use his higher status in the cultural hierarchy to care for those lower in it, rather than abuse them.

But at the same time that chivalry symbolically communicates the importance of not exploiting a privileged position, it symbolically reinforces the hierarchy itself. When women ritually allow men to do for them what they are fully capable of doing for themselves, they symbolically hand over to them the power to take care of them. Rather than being autonomous agents who take care of themselves, they transfer the power to a paternalistic caretaker.

I suppose a paternalistic caretaker is better than an abusive tyrant, if you have to put your life and happiness into someone else's control. But equality is better still.

Let me be clear. I believe in human relationships. I believe that they should be shaped by care and compassion. And I believe that in an intimate partnership, we need to be willing to trust our partner, and sometimes rely on them to do things for us, even things that we could very well do for ourselves. Self-care and self-control have to make room for trust and interdependence. We are not wholly autonomous beings. We need to form intimate partnerships where we can care and be cared for. We need to make space for both--and that means letting others hold doors for us, even when we have the muscular strength to open them ourselves.

But the problem with chivalry is that what it symbolizes goes only in one direction. The woman gives up her self-reliance to the care of the benevolent man. There is no symbolic parity.

When I asked my students why my failure to hold the door for my wife was a big deal, but her failure to do the same wasn't, it was a very serious question with a very serious point. I would eagerly try to learn cultural rituals that affirm interdependence and mutual care between men and women. But the door-holding ritual doesn't do that, precisely because it is gender-specific in what it demands.

Chivalry is, in other words, a set of rituals designed for a society in which gender relations are not egalitarian, a society where women are vulnerable to exploitation and hence dependent on making sure that the men in their lives are men of good will, men who will use their privileged social position to care for those women rather than abuse them.

I believe we should be aiming for a society characterized by gender equality, a society where neither sex is uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, a society where women don't need gestures of chivalry to assure them that this man won't abuse his privilege--because he doesn't enjoy such privilege.

For that, we need new rituals. We need symbolic acts of human decency, acts that communicate our openness to egalitarian partnerships, to interdependence, to a balance of vulnerability and self-reliance, trust and care.

That said, we do face a world in which women are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse at the hands of men than the other way around. And this fact may call for ritual acts and gestures that are specifically for men--ritual acts whereby men symbolically express their rejection of rape and the culture of rape.

I don't think the rituals of chivalry are well suited to this aim. First of all, their focus is on a kind of paternalistic care-taking in which the woman is passive and the man is active--and the message here is hardly an unambiguous repudiation of rape.

He opens the door. She walks through.

He takes off her coat. She passively lets him.

He pulls out the chair. She sits down.

He orders the wine. She trusts his judgment.

He pays. She relies on his financial privilege, feels indebted, and wonders how much he thinks he's buying in return.

He directs and she follows. He acts and she allows. It's almost as if the whole thing is aimed at habituating her into a pattern of acquiescence...all in preparation for that moment when he finally makes his move.

The truth is that all of us are vulnerable to abuse, to being used by others in various ways. All of us can benefit from a culture that, in its little rituals, symbolically repudiates such abuse. And if there are special gestures that men should convey to women that women aren't expected to reciprocate, it makes sense for them to be special forms of these more general rituals.

What would these rituals look like? I'm not sure. What do we do now to show common human decency through symbolic gestures? Can any of them be adapted to dates, to romance, to intimate relationships in ways that affirm interdependence, equality, and mutual care?

The death of chivalry is often bemoaned, but I doubt that anyone would really miss it were it replaced with something that is truer to an ideal of gender equality--something that is about our shared human condition, our shared vulnerability, our shared need to be cared for and to be relied on.

That's what we want and need--but men want and need it as much as women do, and chivalry falls short not only in terms of reciprocity, but in terms of subtly imposing a patriarchal hierarchy on expressions of care.

So let chivalry die. But let's not merely let it die. Let's strive together to replace it with something new.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Nigerian: Terrorism and the Limits of Love

Last week, the world became Charlie Hebdo.

After a pair of Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine, killing twelve, "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") became a Twitter hashtag, a slogan on signs, a message on buttons pinned to celebrity lapels at the Golden Globes. There were marches. There was intense international attention. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the world stood with the victims of the attack.

A related attack in Paris, two days later, targeted a Kosher market, killing four and spurring the Grand Synagogue of Paris to cancel Shabbat services for the first time since World War II. It received somewhat less attention.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram engaged in a slaughter of the innocents, killing perhaps as many as two thousand villagers. The news was reported, and the world went back to its usual routines. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they went back to announcing their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

CNN has offered a nice overview of the differences between global reactions to the two disparate terrorist attacks--the one in France that has stimulated a display of international solidarity not seen since September 11; and the far bloodier one in Nigeria, which was received as another bit of bad news somewhere out there in the world. The report goes on to offer some explanations for the differences in reactions, ranging from the symbolic resonance of the Charlie Hebdo attack to the real-time reporting of unfolding events that was possible in France but not in northern Nigeria.  

My aim here is not to denounce the expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, but to reflect on the limits of our solidarity. There would be something amiss in the world, I think, had the international community not offered the kind of show of solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks that it did show. But if that is true, then there is something amiss in the world--because the reasons why it is right and good to show that kind of solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims are also reasons why it is right and good to show solidarity with the victims of countless other brutal and pointless tragedies.

The kinds of considerations that CNN invokes to explain the differences in our reactions do merely that: they explain. They don't justify.

We are flawed, finite creatures. We live our lives, absorbed in our own small concerns. And every once in awhile something breaks through--"Je Suis Charlie" enters our world in something like the way that a new fad sweeps in. We're caught up in the fad, and maybe the fad sparks some real compassion. But compassion is not a fad.

I am as guilty as anyone. In my case, my guilt is bound up with my academic leanings. Some events raise issues that I can't help but intellectually gnaw on, given my academic training and the direction of my scholarly concerns. The Charlie Hebdo massacre raised issues about freedom of speech, about the legitimacy of critiquing crude and disrespectful speech even in the wake of extreme and intolerable violent responses to that speech.

It raised issues about the ways in which extremists try to provoke retaliation--seeking to inspire those they attack to strike back in ways they hope will get out of hand, thereby helping to fuel the polarization and hostility that breeds extremism. Increasing Islamophobia is, for extreme Islamists, a victory: It means that Muslims will feel more alienated, more threatened. Fear and exclusion breed the kind of disaffection that may help the extremists identify and nurture new recruits.

Trained as I am in nonviolence theory and the study of conflict resolution, I find myself drawn in by these kinds of issues. But when I consider the ongoing violence in Nigeria, all I can see is blood. It's too much. The scale of it shuts down the intellect, and all I can do is turn away in mute horror.

It's so much easier to think about Charlie Hebdo, because I am able to hold it at arm's-length and think about it in intellectual terms. I'm a limited creature, and while I know I have within me the potential to push against those limits and even rise above them, too often I'm just too tired. I call that weariness sin.

If I loved deeply enough--if I loved with the kind of love that Jesus called for, the kind of love that encompasses everyone, even my enemies--I would be driven by a fire of love that would overcome my weariness. But too often the weariness wins, because my love is too limited. I call those limits sin.

I do not weep enough for the world, because I don't want to spend my whole life crying. I call that sin. I call it sin because it means my hope is frail.

And so I want to say that I am Charlie, but I also need to say that I am the Jews killed in a Kosher supermarket, and the Nigerian villagers slaughtered in their homes, and the Muslim who is horrified by the Charlie Hebdo killings and afraid of what it will mean in the weeks to come. I am the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, and the Jewish family in Tel Aviv cowering in a basement while bombs are lobbed from afar.

I want to say it because I want to feel it, because I want to be more than I am. And I want to encourage others to do the same.

Perhaps it is too much to weep for the whole world, for all its victims. Perhaps we must concede that our limits would turn such efforts into empty gestures. But at least we can cry for the Nigerian dead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Atheist Purification and the Case of Ryan Bell

I’ve been following with some interest the year-long journey of former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher Ryan Bell, who made the decision a little over a year ago--in the midst of a crisis of faith--to try on atheism for a year. His Year Without God has generated some strong reactions and is nicely chronicled not only in various media pieces but on his own blog.

Bell, at the conclusion of his year-long journey, has announced that he isn’t going back. "I don't think God exists,” he told NPR's Arun Rath. His year without God will be, it seems, longer than a year.

So what do I think of this? Do I share William Lane Craig's catastrophizing view that Bell's journey is "spiritually disastrous" and that "If this man really does consistently live out an atheistic lifestyle, it could do irreparable harm to the Christian church"? 

No. In fact, it may do the church some good. Much hinges, I think, on whether Bell's journey towards atheism reflects more of the spirit of Simone Weil, or more of the spirit of Blaise Pascal. Let me explain. 

When I first heard of Bell's existential experiment, one thing that immediately came to mind was Simone Weil’s notion that atheism can be a “purification.” This idea may seem strange coming from a religious mystic committed to relinquishing herself to God. But it makes more sense once we pay attention to the terrifying danger she saw in gods of the imagination

As Weil puts it, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” Put another way, our imaginations are very good at constructing false gods that block the pathway through which the genuinely divine might enter our souls. (I would add that cultures are good at it, too, so if we simply adopt our notion of God from cultural institutions rather than our own imaginations, we aren't any better off.)

The divine, as Weil sees it, defies conceptualization. At one point Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.” But she pairs this atheistic assertion with a contrasting claim that is more suggestive than clear: “I am quite sure there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory.”  And as she puts it, “that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Weil’s theistic counter-claim becomes clearer when we recall key features of her spiritual journey. Her love of God was sparked by unexpected mystical experiences that shattered her understanding of what was possible—mystical encounters with a love “like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” But she still “half refused” to accept what she had experienced. As she put it in a letter to her friend and confidante, Father Perrin, 
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
Weil made it clear to Father Perrin that it was her intellect, not her love, that resisted the urgings of her mystical experiences. I get the sense that her intellectual resistance was in service to her love. She did not want her love to fall on a false object. She wanted her love to be true. And to keep it true, she had to be rigorously critical of any particular conceptualization of the divine. 

On Weil's view of things, all false images of God must fall before the critical scrutiny of the intellect. Only then will the true God—who transcends our concepts but comes to us in profound experiential encounters—be the object of our love. This isn’t to say that nothing can be said about that to which mystical experience points. After all, Weil herself had things to say. But to treat what one has to say as adequate, and to place one’s hope and devotion in the image one has constructed through one’s words and thoughts—that is, for Weil, the real spiritual disaster.

Weil reminds me here of Socrates. Socrates famously held that one of the greatest impediments to knowledge was false certainty. To dislodge someone’s certainty, to cast them into a place of doubt, was for him a necessary first step in the journey towards truth. Paradoxically, this is so even if the belief happens to be true. If we have a true belief but our certainty exceeds what is warranted, then we are further from the truth than the doubter. We aren’t connected to the truth as the truth, because we cling to it in a manner that's indifferent to truth.

This is essentially the point Simone Weil is making about belief in God. It is what she means when she says, “Of two men who have no experience of God, 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.”

Ryan Bell’s journey towards atheism might be just the kind of purification that Weil is talking about: a step in a journey towards truth, whatever that in the end may prove to be. If we are lovers of the truth about the divine, as opposed to lovers of our particular conception of God, then we have nothing to fear from such journeys and everything to gain.

Of course, Bell's atheism might be something else. It is possible that Bell’s shift towards atheism is a product of the kind of self-indoctrination that Blaise Pascal recommends at the conclusion of his famed “wager.” After arguing that we should bet on God’s existence because the costs of doing so are trivial and the potential payoff infinite, Pascal confronts the reality that beliefs aren’t so easily controlled by our decisions. It’s one thing to tell skeptics, “It’s a good pragmatic bet to believe in God”; something else for them to actually shake off their skepticism and believe. 

And so Pascal offers a strategy for attaining faith. And how do skeptics attain faith? “(B)y acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” In other words, by immersing themselves in the life of the believer, surrounding themselves with believers and doing as they do. Simone Weil despised this method, by the way, precisely because it could instill belief in anything.

The same method, of course, can be pursued to promote unbelief. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, if you pretend to be something long enough, you become what you pretend to be—whether it be a Nazi (as in Vonnegut’s novel), or a Christian…or an atheist. Is that what’s going on in Bell’s case? After a year of operating as if he were an atheist, did atheism sink in like an Aristotelian habit?

Only Bell can answer that for sure. But I doubt it. I doubt it in part because of the trajectory of his spiritual journey. According to one article, Bell was once so religiously conservative, so steeped in the anti-intellectual warnings of fundamentalist Christian culture, that in college he refused to read Voltaire because “writing such as Voltaire’s defiles the soul.”

There is a difference between immersing oneself in a particular worldview to the exclusion of rivals, with the aim of becoming a believer, and exploring an alternative worldview with an openness to being moved and transformed by it. The former treats the worldview in question as a final destination. The latter treats it as part of a journey whose final goal is not entrenchment into the worldview in question, but a deeper insight into the world. 

Pascal is recommending something more like the former—and it is something more like the former which motivated the young Ryan Bell to resist “defiling” his mind with ideas at odds with the worldview he’d chosen as his final destination. But at some point Bell broke away from that Pascalian pattern of belief-reinforcement. He left the rigid domain of false certainty for the realm of doubt and questioning. It seems to me unlikely that, in exploring atheism during his Year Without God, Bell would do so in the spirit of the very self-indoctrination he’d left behind. More likely, I think, is that his existential experiment and its outcome represent an ongoing journey.

In other words, I see Bell’s shift towards atheism as reflecting more of Simone Weil’s spirit than Pascal’s--more an exercise in spiritual purification than atheist indoctrination. Whether this is true or not will be seen in where his journey takes him next—whether he continues his exploration in the spirit that motivated his Year Without God, or whether he takes someone like Richard Dawkins as his model, and sets his heels into atheist ground as trenchantly as he once did into conservative Christian soil. 

But much of what Bell is saying these days reflects more of Simone Weil than Pascal. In one interview, he resists calling his expression of atheism a conclusion, because "conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from." This sounds as if atheism is not so much a final destination into which he intends to dig his heels, as it is a place he has come to on his journey. 

And finally, there is this sentiment from his NPR interview: "I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality." Again I cannot help but think of Weil's words: "If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

If there is a God who transcends our understanding, Bell may be closer to that God now than he was a year ago.