vrijdag 28 september 2007

A very short politico-religious autobiography


This post is intended for those who read my old weblog and wonder what the hell happened. Or the old friend who e-mailed me a few weeks ago how I was thinking to go about combining Christianity and socialism. My politics are currently a confused mess, and they have been so for quite some time.

In a way, I am following in my father's footsteps. My father was a member of the Dutch Pacifist Socialist Party during the 1970s and later a member of the Dutch Communist Party until it dissolved in the early nineties. He encountered the local Church during the peace movement of the 1980s and slowly approached Roman Catholicism, which led to his conversion and theology studies in the 1990s.

The main difference between him and me is, I think, one of temperament. I was more orthodox as a Marxist than he ever was, and probably will end up being more orthodox as a believer as well. I guess it's because I like intellectual puzzles. Orthodox Marxism, with its emphasis on the dialectic, provides a lot of them. So do more orthodox variants of theism. But I'm fundamentally not a people's person. I think this is probably my weakness: both my approach to Marxism and my approaches to philosophy and religion have been very, and perhaps overly, intellectualistic.

In any event, my family background should explain why a combination between Leftism and religion was never something particularly remarkable to me.


I was involved with mostly Trotskyist groups during my late teens and early twenties, but my sympathies towards Trotskyism were mostly, I guess, a cover for a more deep-lying attraction towards Stalinism - not so much as in the sense of Stalin's politics, but the Eurocommunism combined with a strongly Pro-Soviet attitude of the Dutch Communist Party which was dominant in my home region. The orthodox Trots just seemed to me to be more able defenders of socialism than the Stalinist leadership in East Europe, which caved so easily and sold out in 1990-1991. In any event, this lead to me never feeling quite at home in the Dutch radical-left politics of the late 1990s, which seemed to me to be self-absorbed with a lot of navel-staring, a worrying lack of doctrinal consistency, and an obsession with environmental issues which was pretty alien to me (I was from the countryside. I knew about mud and green stuff and more mud).

An important centre for my political thought was the war in the Balkans and the response of Western governments. It split the Left pretty much down the middle, with groups variously backing the Bosnian-Herzegovinan government or the Serbs. I very much mistrusted the reigning tendency in the Left to regard BiH as some kind of multi-ethnic, multicultural beacon of hope beleaguered by the neo-fascist Serbs. This seemed to me to ignore the notion that the collapse of Yugoslavia was the collapse of a socialist state (or more correctly of course, a "deformed worker's state"). I felt that something was going wrong if socialists were as eager to support the split-off of the new former Yugoslavian republics as the government of (freshly re-united) Germany was.

There were other issues as well. I've never been particularly sympathetic towards (radical) feminism. Obviously, I believed in equality between men and women, within an overall framework of socialism - but the attitude of feminists within the radical left seemed unpleasantly eager towards censorship (pornography, of course - but also the defacing of works of art in the Netherlands), seperatism, etc. I was very much aware that I was a guy, that I liked girls in various states of undress, and didn't feel like apologizing for it.

Anyway, all this lead me to develop politically in a particular direction. I was impressed by the way the Spartacist
combined an orthodox but very analytical and highbrow Trotskyism with a provocative libertarian streak. The journal Living Marxism, the child of which is Spiked-Online later seemed also inspiring to me (though this time mostly as provocative libertarianism with a trotskyist streak). And when protest erupted against the bombing of Yugoslavia in spring '99, I became aware of some very trenchant right-libertarian and paleoconservative criticisms of NATO, centering around such websites as Antiwar and Llew Rockwell's site. I still think that the fundamental libertarian arguments and the leninist arguments against war are not that far apart: they both center around the role war plays in strengthening the state (something which, of course, is very clearly shown by the climate of fear and authoritarianism that seems to have taken off in the US during 9/11).

Needless to say, I never could subscribe to core libertarian ideology, but I still think libertarian thought on particular single issues can be very worthwhile.

In any event, my interest in political activism as such slowly declined without any particular break in my political convictions. I already said that my attraction to Marxism was a very intellectualistic one.

As for my religious beliefs at the time, I was mostly agnostic with vague leanings towards theism or towards atheism at various points. Though I appreciated the socialist criticism of religion from a sociological point of view, I regarded Marxian historical materialism as fundamentally relational, as saying something about the relationship between consciousness and material circumstances, rather than as asserting the primacy of matter. I never regarded atheism as an implication of Marxism.

My encounter with religion and religious people during my youth (my schools were all religious schools - both RC and Protestant) also, I believe, inoculated me to some of the worst caricatures of religion and religionists I see around the blogosphere.


Anyway, fast forward to 9/11. All the time I am thinking that the slow surrounding and annexation of the former Soviet Union by the West would be the main theme of the coming decade. That Kosovo would be followed up by the bombing and occupation of Belarus, the Balkanization of Russia, etc. etc. Turns out I was a bit wrong about that. Out of nowhere 20 islamists perform just about the most spectacular terrorist attack ever - in both callousness and conspicuous mass murder, and symbolism, striking at one of the big icons of the capitalist West.

The new battle lines confuse me. Though I have no liking for US foreign policy any more than I had before, I tend to regard political islam as representing an ideology much more backwards and barbarous than western capitalism. I am also convinced the US neocons as well as Blair are sincere about their messianistic, universalist bourgeois ideology. The "blood for oil" argument didn't impress me (I heard it before during the Kosovo protests. It didn't impress me then either). I find myself more open to accept ideas as fundamental factors in shaping policy, rather than looking for nefarious economical motives behind the ideas, as the vulgar Marxists do.

My opposition to the Iraq war is considerably more reluctant than to the bombing of Yugoslavia. Part of that might be simple pessimism. Remembered the US flattening the Iraqi forces in '91, then NATO by hook and by crook getting what it wants from Yugoslavia in '99, and now war-weary Iraq caves in again. No-one seems to be able to really withstand the US anyway. Of course, I am proved wrong here when the Iraqi resistance starts to seriously kick US arse - but it kicks other-Iraqi arse even more seriously, in an amazingly nihilistic and bloodthirsty way.

It's a sad and horrifying spectacle. The US, without much political conviction, killing massive numbers of people from afar with jet planes and cruise missiles and all those horrible engines of destruction - and then Iraq erupting in a murderous civil war with Islamist groups seemingly simply intent on killing their Shi'a enemies by the hundreds. It strikes me that most political terrorism hitherto seemed to be restricted and focused on more or less limited political aims. The Islamists on the other hand seemed to be hell-bent on simply killing. Death. Of as much people as possible, and preferably fellow muslims.

Recalling Rosa Luxemburg. The choice before us is between socialism and barbarism. I'm considering that socialism has failed, and it won't get a second chance. And that we get barbarism instead.

My political convictions shift a little bit during the following years. I never was very much anti-Israel, not as obsessively as most of the Left was. Sure, I believe that the occupation should end and the Palestinians should have their sovereign state - but I believe the Israelis deserve to have their state as well. The Marxist discussions about whether the Jews are a nation, whether self-determination applies to them, I answer pragmatically: Whether they were a nation or not, they definitely are now, and they seem to be self-determining just fine.

I move towards a more pro-Israel position. My kheffiye goes into the cupboard, and remains there forever (I took it off when I encountered a march of kheffiye-clad Palestinians brandishing portraits of sheikh Yassin - the murderer ordering young boys to blow themselves up. Much as I try, I cannot fault the Israelis for liquidating him). Eventually, when the war in Lebanon breaks out, I root for the Israelis. It seems to me that no peace is possible as long as the Hizbollah and the Palestinians keep shooting rockets at Israeli territory.

This position of course being incompatible with Marxism without some very serious mental gymnastics, so I guess it marks my break with Marxism on the practical and political plane (the one on the philosophical having preceded it).

I grow more sensitive towards anti-semitism among the Left, but ultimately there's a very deep gulf seperating me from the "decent Left" exhibited by such places as Hurry Up Harry. The gulf basically being their support for military adventurism of the US and Western Europe. Kosovo was their defining political moment just as it was mine - except that we moved in opposite directions.

I spend the years 2002-2003 in Finland, after which I move to Sweden. Around that time, I start adopting what I could describe as a strong pro-science and pro-secularism position. For a long time I believed that the fall of socialism also lead to an attrition of Enlightenment values as well - something exhibited very nicely by the fact that the people taking up arms against a decadent Western capitalism end up making it look good. In the academic domain, I encounter post-modern thought and take an immediate dislike of it.

So in my political ideas, some elements that had always been there (secularism - which I never confused with being anti-religion; a liking for technological and industrial development and a dislike for environmentalism; libertarianism in areas of culture, free speech, etc.) get very much emphasized. I think that the product are the posts on the old weblog.


There's a few factors which have lead to me getting politically and religiously where I am now. My belief in God had, in some vague sense, been there for a long time. But I start to realize just how many different layers of meaning can lie behind the notion "God exists" and start reflecting on them. I get interested in ideas of God slowly coming into existence, as propounded by for example Teilhard de Chardin.

In my academic work, I discover the autonomous, metascientific tradition of the human sciences and of linguistics (Collingwood, Coseriu, Esa Itkonen, etc.) which makes me distrust the unity-of-science notions that seem to be implicitly held by so many on the pro-science/pro-reason side of the "science wars". I still don't understand a whit of post-structuralism, but I am not as eager to call it nonsense as I used to be.

I start getting interested in philosophy as well. I realize that the materialist idea I quietly held about man - that basically, we are all chemistry and that our thought and feelings somehow arise from that chemistry - is less universally accepted and less obvious than I thought. Philosophically, my main waypoints are Whitehead and Peirce, and they have been for some time.

But philosophical theism may defend the idea of God as a philosophical category, but not as an object of religion. But I may have been in some sense religious before I became a theist. My attraction to Marxism may have had a religious element in it. What got me specifically interested in Christianity was reflecting on two key Biblical event. The first was of course the story of Isaac and Abraham. Which is not so much about the obedience of Abraham as of the faith of Abraham, who tells his son specifically that God will provide for the offering. By doing so, God proves himself not to be just one more idol demanding the blood of human sacrifices: He proves himself to be a trustworthy God. Years ago, when I started reflecting on the story, I told myself that were I a Jew or a Christian, I would be able to justify my religion by just pointing to that story, to the internal logic of it. I can't quite explain the sensation involved - let's just say that there was a creeping sense that what I was reflecting on was more than just myth with a morale.

Of course the story of Abraham seems to be strangely in contradiction with that of Jephta. The warrior Jephta swears that, if God grants him victory, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he gets home - which cruelly ends up being his daughter (and the daughter duly gets sacrificed). I interpret Jephta's story as a warning: Jephta tries to manipulate God, to get him to do him a favour in return for something later. He basically treats God like He is some kind of idol who can be manipulated. There's an enormous contrast between Jephta's manipulativeness and Abraham's unconditional trust.

The other Biblical event is, of course, that of the Gospel. Reading on Jesus, he seemed to me to defy the categories I would put him into. He was not just a great moral teacher, rather, his central command (love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and love your neighbour as you love yourself) transcends morality. He also was not just a social radical, rather, his notion of the Kingdom of God moves beyond the worldly notions of social radicalism, the idea of matching worldly power with worldly power. To me, there seems to be this strange out-of-time quality about the gospels. The same I had with the story of Abraham, something that both in its literal and symbolic meanings is more real than any other sign or story could be. That Jesus somehow combines the concrete and the universal. It's hard to explain, and I lack the notions to explain myself here.

I was of course very much struck by the notion that, through Jesus, God partakes in the universal fate of mankind: to live, to suffer and to die. Which implies just about the only answer to the problem of evil which I find acceptable. That evil - both natural and human-caused - are implicit in the finitude of God's creatures and beyond God's capabilities to intervene. But that God is not only transcendent, but at the same time omnipresent in the universe, in every human being and every small creature, and that He has joy with their joy and suffers with their suffering.

Isaiah 42 has a beautiful passage, which is quoted by Matthew (12: 15-21):

Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
Nor make His voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not be disheartened or crushed
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.

The God speaking here is a God who does not break into the universe from the outside, but who accepts and loves his creatures despite all their imperfections and their finitude. Note that He did not become incarnate among the philosophers of Athens or the emperors of Rome, but instead as a carpenter at the ass-end of the Roman Empire, and that he decided to associate with the publicans and the sinners, rather than with the pious and notables of his time and place.

My ideas about the trinity are vague and probably marked by at least three or four historical heresies. Suffice here to say that I do believe that in some way, God became incarnate in the man Jesus: that Jesus was both wholly divine and wholly man. This also means that God, through Jesus, experienced suffering and death. Contrast this with Socrates, a wise and virtuous man, who died with dignity surrounded by his friends. Or Seneca, who wrote about the humane treatment of slaves, and on how we should treat ceramics as if it were gold, and gold as if it were ceramics (but who was richer than the emperor, and to whom the idea of giving up on his earthly possessions would sound very quaint). To compare this with Jesus, who rather than preaching on how to live virtuously told people to lose one's life for his sake; who rather than elucidating morality showed how the laws of his day were subverted and transcended by love, and who died the death of a common criminal, in utter abandonment and loneliness, only to arise as a sign of hope to all of us who must face their own crosses and their own deaths. There is a kind of truth here, which to me seems to go both beyond literal truth and beyond the symbolic truth (in the sense that myths, great literature and great poetry can be symbolically true). The Word has become flesh.

But the notion of Jesus' message transcending morality does not make morality invalid, and the notion of the Sermon on the Mount transcending somehow social radicalism doesn't vitiate the need for social radicalism. Rather, I think that the way God in the New Testament aligns with the suffering and struggling and sinful part of nature and mankind, rather than with the virtuous and materially wealthy part, as well as the notion of the "Kingdom of God" as a community of people both marked by love for each other and love for God (and to me, the omnipresent God primarily manifests Himself in the love between human beings) makes some kind of Christian socialism very much possible.


As I mentioned, I reject Marxism as a philosophical doctrine, which is to say, I reject philosophical materialism. I'm not sure about the dialectic. I never understood it when I was a Marxist, I actually came to understand it when, during my Ph.D. studies, I came to understand a certain phenomenon as fundamentally identical and non-identical with itself. I think Peirce's three basic categories essentially restates Hegel's dialectic, and as such, I believe it to be very useful in making sense of stuff.

I no longer believe that the crimes of Stalinism can be simply explained as an outgrowth of bureaucratization and thermidorean reaction, as the Trotskyists like to do. There was too much wanton bloodshed going on under Lenin and Trotsky's command for that to be a sufficient explanation. I think the anarchists may have been correct about Kronstadt after all. And I cannot escape the notion that the rather callous attitude the Communist regimes have taken towards human life and the value of the individual - as something to be sacrificed for the good of future generations - is not wholly unconnected to its historical-materialist philosophical base.

At the same time, it would be unfair to focus on the tremendous bloodshed of the Russian Civil War and Stalin's reign while forgetting what the Bolshevik revolution responded to: the obscene slaughter of the First World War. The twentieth century may point out very clearly the tragedy of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it also points out the moral bankruptcy of the capitalist powers which they encountered in the trenches at WWI, and the ideological exhaustedness of Western liberal capitalism, which has seen itself beleaguered not only by socialism, but also by Fascism and now by Islamic fundamentalism. People need a transcendent ideal to fight for, something they can put their lives on the line for. If a society cannot give it to them, it is ultimately doomed. Socialism provided a transcendent ideal for millions and millions of people during the last century. But Fascism and theocratic movements can play the same role. The Americans have held out pretty long precisely because their nation provides Americans with some kind of basic ideology with capitalism at its very core. But liberal capitalism has long died out as a vital political ideology in Europe. Trotsky was wrong about many things, but he was right about this one: the time for capitalism to be overcome by a new system has not only come and gone, but capitalism is starting to smell funny.

And this is where the secularists and the pro-Enlightenment "decent leftists" are wrong. People (with perhaps some courageous exceptions) aren't going to die for secularism. They seem very prepared to die for Islam. Michael Corleone would know where to place his bets. Without incorporating Enlightenment values and secular values such as freedom of religion, universal human rights, equality between the sexes and all that into some kind of ideology which can make people feel part of something much bigger than themselves - as communism like nothing else could - Enlightenment values are dead.

So I'm rooting for some kind of socialism to re-emerge which might avoid the tragedy of the Soviet Union. I believe that to do this, it probably must incorporate some religious or quasi-religious values at its very heart (notably involving the sanctity of human life, etc.).

Otherwise, my politics haven't changed very much. Except maybe for the following:

- I modified my opinion on environmentalism a lot. I still don't believe in Global Warming. But I'm very much in favour of conservationism. I believe the weevil and the vole and the mole and the beetles and the millipedes deserve their place on earth as well, as fellow Creatures. I'll probably end up making some lifestyle changes as I don't believe the industrialized cattle-farming of the West is morally defensible.

- I'm still a libertarian on free speech issues, pornography, sexuality in general, etc. That doesn't mean I think sexuality is all hunky-dory. I stared into too much private abysses of myself for that. At best, it's a demonic force that needs to be thrown a bone every now and then. I would tend to regard sin as the tragic condition of finite, mortal beings with an intuition of the infinite and the immortal. Basically, whatever that "drags us down" to the level of merely biological creatures, and tempts us to do evil in pursuivance of biological needs. In that sense, I'd pretty much regard sexuality as "sinful" to the extent that I very much understand C.S. Lewis' and Michel Houellebecq's ideas of asexual future supermen. But I believe that sin as a condition must be overcome by love between humans and love between man and God, rather than denied or extirpated.

- My opposition to the death penalty is pragmatical rather than principal. I believe that there are crimes for which death is the only appropriate punishment. It's just that I don't trust anyone to hand it out.

- Retrospectively, my reflexive anti-West position with regards to Yugoslavia, Kosovo etc. was much too simple. The idea of NATO encircling the former East and Soviet Union probably overestimated the coherence of NATO policy a lot. I still think Kosovo was a very bad idea. Not sure about the intervention in Bosnia. I think that the whole policy, alternatingly supporting seperatism (with Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia as state) and opposing seperatism (with regards to the Krajina Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs, and latterly the Kosovars) was hopelessly contradictory.

- I'm tending to conservatism on culture and education issues. But this is not new, and has itself a long socialist tradition. The socialist publishing houses of the 1920s and 1930s spend great effort in making the literature of the world available for workers to read. Because then the idea was that, as a preparation for power, the working class needed to make the cultural heritage of the world its own. The misbegotten idea that political leftism should involve fighting against the cultural heritage of the world arose in the 1970s, and not from within the working class.

- I remain very much on the Left on issues of social security, workers' ownership of the means of production, anti-racism, rights for immigrants, etc. Particularly the last one is a burning issue in Europe these days, where some kind of alliance of secularism and racism has arose against previous excesses of political correctness and multiculturalism. I don't believe in multiculturalism, mind you. But I believe the idea of multiculturalism itself is a product of the ideological death of Western liberalism. But the current wave of xenophobical and raw racist discourse in for example the Netherlands (presenting itself under the excuse of the need to protect our "secular values" against islamic fundamentalism) must be fought tooth and nail. On this, I believe the traditional radical Left, for all its failings, has generally done better than the "decent left".

dinsdag 25 september 2007

Andrew Rilstone on the "Courtier's Reply"

Andrew Rilstone has a nice post up about the "Courtier's reply" argument, which was originally proposed, I think, by P.Z. Meyers but is now enthusiastically embraced by Dawkins. The argument is a reply to charges of ignorance on theology to the extent that since clearly there is no warrant to believe God exists and religion is vacuous nonsense anyway, there is no need to know anything about theology (just as the little boy need have no refined knowledge about sartorial habits to point out the emperor is naked). Or in Dawkins' words, quoted by Rilstone:

It assumes there is a serious subject called theology, which one must study in depth before one can disbelieve in God. My own stock reply (Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?) is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.

I think I mentioned the argument before. I detest it, because it is basically a license to intellectual laziness. Andrew Rilstone remarks correctly that one may not need any acquaintance with theology to warrant disbelieving in God, but writing a book about it is another matter.

Technically, though, the rational arguments for and against the existence of God belong to philosophy of religion, rather than theology. However, as Rilstone remarks, a lot of the "new atheist" polemics against religion are directed specifically against traditional Christian beliefs (e.g. the alleged absurdity of Trinitarianism) or the history of Christianity (e.g. the alleged responsibility of religious beliefs for this or that instance of bloodshed). Which do touch upon theology.

The "Courtier's reply" move is astonishingly poor, to the extent that it's baffling that Dawkins is actually using it. As it is, it is equally open to rhetorical deployment by Creationists (why read anything about biological evolution, as it's nonsense anyway?), Flat Earthers, and so on. I really think there's a hubris thing going on here. To wade into an area which has more than two thousand years of extremely bright believers making cautious and complex arguments and extremely bright disbelievers making equally cautious and complex arguments, and to think all one has to do is to ignore all that and point out the emperor is naked, one needs a pretty high opinion of oneself. I think there is a tendency to that sort of thing in academia recently, at least in the humanities: to ignore the traditions of thought that exist and reinvent wheels (which tend, as the linguist Raimo Anttila once pointed out, to be squarish or at least have serious bumps in them).

As a matter of fact, it is intellectually sound to, if one sees a naked emperor, to rub one's eyes and take a careful second look. I'm not innocent of neglecting to do so (there's enough blog comments of mine circling around which consist of half-informed opinions about theology, including a lot of misattribution of views - but my excuse is that I didn't publish those opinions in a book).

In a footnote, Andrew Rilstone makes another point which is pretty dear to me:

Most Christians seem to be pretty well versed in the content of their faith: if you ask them "What do we mean by 'atonement'; why do we believe in it; and where do we differ from the Catholics?" they can often give you a coherent reply, although I assume that their knowledge comes from popularizing works rather than primary texts.

Because there's another kind of intellectual bad move which one could dub the, well, why not the "strawman argument", namely that there is no need to deal with the annoying points that my opponent (say, a theologically informed detractor of Dawkins') makes, as my polemic is directed against what "people really believe", which bears suspicious resemblance to a bearded guy sitting on a cloud fixing the bacterial flagellum, sending innocent little babies to limbo and tossing about untossably heavy stones. In other words, a cartoon version of religion.

In my opinion, religious people's conceptions of God are a lot more "sophisticated" than usually alleged, with a lot more points of contact between theology and "folk religion" than usually thought. Sure, people may not be able to express their ideas in precise philosophical terminology - but the ideas are often nonetheless there. And people's conceptions may change and evolve during their lifetime (any genuinely lived religious outlook does) and may sometimes be held with more confidence than other times (faith and doubt is not a zero-sum game: one may have a lot of faith and a lot of doubt at the same time).

But what really is at hand here is Popper's principle of charity: if you want to demolish an intellectual position, you should find its most clear and elaborate statement. And if there is an obvious fault in the position which could be easily remedied, you remedy it yourself instead of dancing around it while pointing a finger at it. Because that's the only way intellectual progress is made.

There's too much ho-hoing at non-fatal argumentative holes and perceived naked emperors going around, and too little mutual constructive criticism (there are exceptions, of course, but they do not dominate the faith vs. reason debate).

zaterdag 22 september 2007

Brendan O'Neill on Amnesty and Abortion

Spiked-online's Brendan O'Neill tears into Amnesty International's attitude towards abortion. Dismissing the Catholic Church as "an obscurantist institution, which argues that rape victims who become pregnant should consider their babies ‘a blessing’ from God", O'Neill saves most of his criticism for Amnesty's reluctance to support abortion rights in any but extreme cases (for rape victims and in case of pregnancies due to incest). O'Neill is particularly incensed by what he regards as the misanthropic motivation behind Amnesty's policy: "In other words, Amnesty supports abortion as a means of keeping in check African barbarism rather than as a right that African women should enjoy in the name of liberty and equality. This is not about calling for the right to choose as a common good, a right that might help elevate women’s status; rather it is about allowing abortion in certain circumstances as a corrective to rape and destruction.".

I'm enormously conflicted on this issue. I think the Catholic Church's attitude towards Amnesty has been extremely high-handed and unhelpful. At the same time, I would support Amnesty's policy of not calling for the right to an abortion quite independently from my own opinions on the subject. The strength of Amnesty lies precisely in the narrow and relatively politically neutral set of rights it supports. Brendan O'Neill contrasts the notion of human rights as instituted from above with what he sees as the liberatory potential of abortion rights: "Where human rights emphasise governments’ responsibilities to protect people from harm, the right to choose frees a woman from official prying into the decisions she makes about her body and her life; it increases her humanity, it makes her a fuller, more independent human being. The human rights agenda gives rise to Western advocacy on behalf of at-risk individuals, as groups like Amnesty and officials at the UN adopt victimised individuals in the developing world and campaign for their human rights to be reinstated; by contrast, real rights emphasise a person’s ability to be a self-advocate, if you like, to make decisions and take actions according to his or her own interests and desires.". Well, maybe. But regardless of the possible merits of this view, it is ideologically loaded to such an extent that I believe organizations such as Amnesty better steer clear of it.

On the issue of abortion rights itself, I'm not close to having a coherent viewpoint. Instinctively, I find the idea of abortion utterly repellent. I do not believe that a woman's right to choose can be supported without taking into account an unborn foetus' right to live. When precisely a foetus becomes enough of a human being to be assigned such a right is, I think, an unsolvable question. Children are in a state of total dependency on others and continue to develop towards full personhood until well after their birth, whereas at the same time I would have difficulty regarding a newly fertilized egg as endowed with rights. I would respect the consistency of extending a pro-choice position to postnatal infanticide, while at the same time finding the idea absolutely abhorrent. But my personal beliefs do not really allow for a rights-begin-at-conception kind of view either (I believe that a pro-life position might be defended on other grounds - though whether I would agree with such grounds I do not know. I don't think the conflict between rights and interests can be simplistically reduced one way or the other).

I'm unenthusiastically in favour of legal abortion, though. My main reasons being pragmatical (illegal abortions probably leading to more suffering and death). Some time ago I used to state that the fact that I will never be confronted with the "right to choose" myself meant that I had to withhold any standpoint on the morality or legality of abortion, but I now find that stance a bit craven.

In practice, though, the policy Amnesty International takes seems to me somewhat inconsistent. I don't see the rationale of supporting abortion rights for rape victims while not doing so for the general population. Because the same kind of conflict between rights exists in both cases.

What strikes me about Spiked-online's general "line" here and in other places is the very clear and consistent, but occasionally a bit head-banging, way they defend Enlightenment-based values such as individual liberty, individual responsibility, etc. I often find myself in agreement with their individual standpoints while not necessarily subscribing to the philosophy behind it. This case is a bit different. At times Spiked-online's advocacy of the autonomy and self-determination of the individual is done in a very dichotomistic, black-and-white manner. I think Brendan O'Neill's attitude to the abortion issue might be an example - even though O'Neill would find most progressives and liberals agreeing with him. A very different issue is O'Neill's provocative defence of the fur industry which is, putting it mildly, slightly less politically salonfähig. Where Spiked-online tends to quite correctly criticize views on human beings as being merely continuous with the animal kingdom as misanthropic, it tends to substitute it with positing a categorical gulf between humans and the natural world which strikes me as very poorly nuanced.

This said, Brendan O'Neill's article about the fur industry, wrong-headed as it is, is an excellent example of why he and his co-writers at Spiked-online are so much worth reading: their disdain for reigning political orthodoxies.

zaterdag 15 september 2007

Dancin' in the Ruins

Sorry for the long absence. Was just reading a very worthwhile paper by James A. Keller - "The power of God and miracles in Process Theism" (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:1, 1995). Keller's piece leaves, correctly I think, fairly little room for miraculous occurrences in the philosophical framework of process theism. Whitehead's God is a God who rules by "persuasion", rather than "force": as immanent in the universe, it may entice each particular event to develop one way or the other, but each individual event remains constrained by the past that has gone before.

I've argued at some point that there is no tension at all between assenting to a belief in the lawful behaviour of nature on the one hand, and to a belief in miracles on the other. Science necessarily deals with regular occurrences and patterns which might be encapsulated by natural laws - Peircean "thirds". A miracle is by conceptual necessity a singular, unrepeatable event (a Peircean "second"), and thus can never be claimed to invalidate our scientific knowledge of how nature works. Only if miracles themselves were a regular occurrence would this be so (but then we would either want to establish some regularity concerning the miraculous events themselves, which would mean subsuming them into a scientific worldview - they would no longer be miracles). I still think this is correct, and so I do not believe that a scientist who, say, believes in the resurrection holds contradictory beliefs.

The evolution of my own religious beliefs over the past few years proceeded from some (mainly philosophical) theism-minus-Jesus to strongly considering that the Galilean rabbi was qualitatively more than just a Galilean rabbi, to my current, somewhat grudging, understanding of Jesus as in some unique fashion both human and divine. Which is where I stop: I have no set beliefs on the Trinity, or on whether Jesus was God incarnate from the outset or whether He gradually became so (and became aware of it) during His mission, or what precisely happened on the cross (except that He experienced suffering and indeed death). But it's here where I run into a brick wall.

First, I can't well harmonize my philosophical beliefs (which are very sympathetic to some kind of Peircean/Whiteheadian process theism) with my religious ones. I used to think that a handy way to conceptualize the Son was to be as some kind of incarnation of Whitehead's consequent aspect of God (the immanent, loving and suffering, and evolving aspect of God) with the transcendent Father as Whitehead's primordial aspect. But I find this meshing poorly with the New Testament: Jesus regarded himself arguably as the Son of God, but not as God. There's the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and there's many other clues that Jesus was under constant temptation to flee from His fate (Matt. 16:21-23).

Second, there's the resurrection. I'm fairly agnostic about the other miracles. There's the wonderful story about Jesus walking on water - and Peter coming to meet him, but sinking when he starts thinking about it too much and becomes very nervous (Matt. 14:25-33). There's an allegorical meaning here that is so obvious that it doesn't matter very much to me whether Jesus really walked on water. But the resurrection is a very different thing. I can make sense of the last supper - the symbolic sharing of Jesus'/God's being (His body and His blood) in the form of bread and wine among his disciples and among the future Kingdom of God, and of the crucifixion - as of God sharing the burdens and ultimately the bitter fate of mankind, but only in the light of the resurrection. Suffering and death are not just undergone, but also conquered by God.

And I can't really make sense of it except literally. Jesus was encountered at Emmaus by his disciples, who were turned by that event from a group of hiding, cowering and very disappointed disciples to the apostles who went on to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a hostile world. (I can think of some kind of probably fanciful way in which the events after the resurrection were somehow simultaneously happening there-and-then and were a foreshadowing or vision of the far future in a rupture-in-time kind of way. But this does not help me).

And this I cannot square with my philosophical beliefs. Jesus is the black hole at the edge of my philosophical universe, so to speak. And perhaps this is the way it should be. I've come to find the effort to build an event like the death of Christ and His resurrection into a particular philosophical framework somehow strangely distasteful. The cross should still be a "folly to the Greeks".

Perhaps the efforts to harmonize reason and faith are and should be ultimately Sisyphean. We scaffold our views on the world and on God with some kind of reasonable framework, with all the arguments and musings on necessary and contingent existence, primordial and consequent aspects and all that, to meet the mocking challenges of modern-day Greeks, only to find the whole building gloriously crashing down when confronted with the events of one particular weekend in Roman Palestine. And then start all over again.

Some internet links: David Heddle reminds me why I have a began to foster a dislike for some varieties of skeptic/debunking discourse by pointing to a course description about ID and science at the SMU physics department, which looks like it has been put together by a fourteen-year old. You have to see it to believe it.

In the interests of equity, I cannot but refer to the hilarious latest offering from Jack Chick (hat tip: Dangerous Idea).

And finally. I sometimes find myself strangely ambivalent towards the "Chamberlain atheists". Though militant atheists like Dawkins and PZ Meyers may profess to mock religionists, the time they spend on polemicizing against religion speaks otherwise. Sometimes with their less militantly atheist protractors, I sense an actually much more patronizing attitude towards religion - it's all harmless tomfoolery, why bother with it? Aside from this, there is a tendency to call for common unity against ID or political Christianity which seems to unprincipledly subordinate philosophical differences to political aims (of course, I disagree with the very American liberal political viewpoint that seems to be current at Scienceblogs).

This said, I find a lot to agree with in this nuanced piece by scienceblogger John Wilkins. Including this paragraph:

One point I fully concur with the "angry atheists" about: there is no case for religious exceptionalism. We should not tread lightly because it's religion in our criticisms. There's nothing about religion that makes it less criticisable than other forms of public belief such as politics or ethics. It is, after all, a human activity, whatever else its adherents may think it is. But this likewise applies, tu quoque, to atheisms and humanisms and so on. If we assume that we are all errant on occasions, all human activities are equally to be critiqued.