Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who is Giving to Society and Who is Leeching?

People often try to identify society's parasites - the people who take more than they deserve or contribute, those who are straining the system - whether that be "welfare queens," Wall Street execs, artists, academics, CEOs, or union members, depending on who is making the judgement.  Likewise, people locate the "providers," the selfless and generous members of society, and commonly attribute these properties to philanthropists, non-profit employees, "job creators" (i.e. CEOs), scientists, politicians, and volunteer workers.  When I look at the world from a Marxist perspective, my lists do not resemble either of those above.

The Leeches
From a global perspective, I would say that a leech is anyone making more than a living wage in the industrialized world.  Anyone who drives, in a car with GPS, listening to their iPod, to a job that enables them to sit and pee when they want to, to go home and order Thai food in the evening, and take the weekend off to sit on their leather sofa and watch Blu-Ray movies on their flat screen tv.  Anyone who has more than what they could produce by themselves (given existing level of technology) is by definition a leech.  They are taking more than their fair share and leaving the rest of the world with less.

The Givers
Obviously, I would not put the so-called "job creators" in that category because, far from actually being job-creators in any predictable sense, they are most responsible for Third World poverty, pollution, materialism, urban poverty and crime, inaccessible medical care, the alienation of the elderly, war, and violence in general.

I also do not think that scientists are contributing to society in any general sense, once you get to the end of the balance sheet.  (Click here, here, and here for a refresher on my attitude toward science.)  A lot of new technology is only enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the global population, and the production of new technologies - including even medical treatments and pharmaceuticals - is done in the service of capitalist interests, not the "common good."  In fact, the "common good" is threatened by pollution, advanced weaponry, rising costs of health care, increasing poverty, and that unquestionable "voice of authority" that has naturalized concepts of race, gender, and sexuality to the detriment of all but white, straight, middle-class males.

Academics in general are leeches.  Those with a "social interest" claim that they are going to use their research to transform society.  But who, in the whole history of academia, has actually made a dent in the social order?  Even Marx, the paragon of socially radical scholars, whose work is STILL relevant as a critique of the world system, has failed even more than a century later to actually change that system.  Intellectuals and politicians who have acted in the name of Marx have done nothing more than create some of the most violent forms of capitalism ever to have existed.  And a very scant few of the academics today are in the same league as Marx.  Most spend their days doing busy-work - rehashing their dissertation into a million dull, uninspiring variations, while participating in conferences, seminars, and journals that try to pass these turds off as Belgian chocolate - and they do all this "important" work while making a pretty nice salary, wearing clothes made by Indonesians who can barely leave the factory, eating at restaurants where they are served by people working two jobs a day, etc.  So many people are putting so many hours of labor into the material things they take for granted; and they believe they are contributing something back to those people by writing a few articles for esoteric journals.  Academics live in a comfortable cocoon.

Even philanthropists, foundations, and non-profits are NOT contributing in any meaningful way to society.  They may redistribute an insignificantly tiny fraction of the world's wealth back (yes, back) to those in need, but mostly they stand as a huge road block to systemic change.  They are a visible symbol of the possibility of progress within the current system (a lie).  They pacify and make people complacent.  The are ultimately beholden to corporate interests, and, consciously or not, actively work to maintain the status quo.  (Go here and here for more detailed discussion.)

Now, on the other hand, people who work on their own, for no salary, to comfort and aid those around them, certainly are doing something commendable.  They are contributing something.

Those who engage in protest, speak their minds, and challenge the social order are at least making attempts in the right direction.

But most of all, the biggest contributors to society are those who work hard, doing menial labor for a pittance, so that the privileged may eat, be entertained, clothe themselves, be transported, and keep their homes clean all the more easily and affordably.  In some sense these are de facto slave laborers, and they form a majority of the world's population.  The real Givers are all the assembly line workers, garment makers, servers, dishwashers, maids, auto mechanics, bus and cab drivers, grocery stockers, construction workers, miners, plantation laborers, couriers, janitors, yard workers... and I would even include teachers.

They may not choose their lifestyles and jobs (they would probably give anything for something better), but they give more than they receive, nonetheless.  And anyone who does not have the balls to work a crappy, low-paying job should never talk about "giving back," "making a difference," or "contributing" to society.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Intentionality, Human Will, and Power

Last night as I was driving around, I heard a segment on NPR about the death of Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist apologist.  The very first thing I head when I turned on the radio was a discussion of his debate with Dinesh D'Souza. An excerpt was played that started with D'Souza trying to explain the difference between Christian and Islamic morality.  He said something to the effect of, "In Christianity, intentionality is central to morality.  The Bible says that even if you think about committing a sin, you have already committed the sin in your heart."  To which Hitchens replied, "Thought Crime.  Thought Crime.  That's totalitarianism!"  And the audience cheered.  Now, I know I have said that I think these debates are stupid (to even participate in one requires a certain amount of ignorance of social processes and history), and I also said that I probably would not blog about such things again.  (Once you get started, it's hard to stop?)  But this really isn't about religion.

Hitchens claims that the role of intentionality in the Christian moral framework places it on par with totalitarianism.  If I were participating in the discussion, I would have pointed out to Hitchens that intentionality also plays a significant role in modern legal systems.... more than just "significant," intentionality is actually the fulcrum.  It goes beyond just various sorts of charges for "conspiracy" and "intent to commit a crime," but also hinges on whether or not a person is capable of distinguishing between "right" and "wrong."  So, then, by Hitchen's standards, are all modern states totalitarian?

The problem, as I have pointed out before, is with the word "totalitarianism" itself.  The separation of "democracy" from "totalitarianism" is a false dichotomy.  In fact, to the extent that modern sovereignty and jurisprudence are based on notions of human rights (which include "life" itself), and in so far as the governmental impulse is a force that penetrates individual subjectivity and shapes consciousness, then "seeds" or aspects of totalitarianism very much are embedded in all modern institutions.

And here is where I would circle back to D'Souza.  The fact that intentionality is an important aspect of Christian morality today (though not, I would argue, historically), is merely a reflection of the development of "religion" complementary to, and following the same principles of organization as, other co-depend institutions of modernity, such as law, the state, the capitalist economy, and science.  Thus, intentionality in "religion" mirrors intentionality in, for example, law, because they arose together as part of a single systemic emergence.  If Islam is claimed to lack this interest in intentionality, that is only because Islam and everything else outside of "the West" (culturally or geographically) is represented as the antithesis of modernity - its "Other."

I thought these points were worth elaborating because they provide a demonstration of the way in which the concept of the "subject" (that internal, thinking, willing, feeling part of the human) is vital to the form and character of all modern institutions and relational structures.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Contradictions Of Christmas

In the essay I posted a week or so ago, I argued that modernity generates its own contradictions (e.g. religion and secularism; globalization and nationalism; representative democracy and totalitarianism; neoliberal ideology and increasing centralization of capital). Christmas, in particular the ritual of gift exchange and the figure of Santa Claus, serves as a great point of entry for examining some of these simultaneously generated contradictions.

One of the most important phenomena which shaped the modern American version of Christmas was the construction, in the early 19th century, of the concept of "childhood." Quite a bit has been written on this topic, and many have argued that it arose from the necessities of capitalism (the creation of a new demographic market and products). One may note that the construction of the "teenager" also occured during similar a period of economic expansion in the post-WW2 era. Both of these events also opened up new domains for academic and popular psychology (the Queen of the human sciences associated with governmental power). Christmas reflects the psychologizing of childhood, which emphasizes children's need for love, affection, and fantasy. Gifts, in particular, satifisy the need for love and affection, while Santa Claus indulges children's imaginations.

Of course, there is more going on here. First, there are contradictory attitudes toward the demands of capitalism. The early images of Santa Claus as a craftsman with his own workshop (to eventually be replaced by the elven sweatshop) valorized pre-capitalist forms of production. The pampering of children itself was a reaction against child labor, which was heavily used in many industries. Today, many Christmas movies feature The Prodigal Son, returning from the Big City, where s/he lived a souless/loveless existence (often employed in banking or business), to resume life in the Small Town, rekindle family bonds, and finally find love.

On the other hand, Christmas has been heavily promoted and elaborated by commercial interests - especially department stores (who are responsible for many aspects of the Santa narrative, including the story of Rudloph the Red Nose Reindeer). American Christmas was overtly commercial from the very beginning and has been serving capitalist interests for over two centuries. It is important to note that the image of Santa Clause which eventually became dominant was, in the time of its origin, a portrait of a wealthy industrialist (a sort of "robber baron" philanthropist). In this way, practices/discourses associated with Christmas embody at the same time an acquiesance to - or even embrace of - consumerism and conspicuous wealth, as well as a skepticism toward industrial labor and urban living.

Christmas also serves as a medium for indirect commentary on secularism, science, and religion, most importantly through the figure of Santa Claus. Not only does Santa Claus fulfill a perceived need for fantasy in healthy child development, but from His inception He has been one instantiation of a broader Romantic critique of modernity. For example, in a famous 19th century editorial, belief in Santa Claus was held as an antedote to the excessive skepticism of the modern era and the concomitant loss of a sense of wonder. One can see that this concern is still salient in many contemporary Christmas movies, even when not driven by any specifically relgious concerns (and thus complicating the modern binary of secular/religious). In fact, many religious Christians are more ambivalent toward the figure of Santa Claus, as they view it as a "secularization" of a Christian saint. This is a great example of how reactions against scientism (the belief that science is the only pathway to "truth") need not always be religious. One could argue that the antipathetic stance toward scientism by default imbues this treatment of Santa Claus with something of a religious nature. But only if one is to alter the definition of "religion" to contain everything opposed to scientism (which, of course, is circular reasoning), and that would entail the lumping together of very disparate phenomena, which, on the whole, always tends to obscure more than it clarifies.

American Christmas is a creation of capitalism that also expresses disastisfaction with manifestations of capitalism. And "Santa Claus" entails the "secularization" of a religious narrative (the disentanglement of morality/charity from religion), which simultaneously challenges secular attitudes toward progress and truth.

Every creation of modernity entails the creation of an oppositional force.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where Marx Failed To Critique

Marx's critical analysis of society was quite comprehensive. Hardly anything escaped his cynical gaze, and no institution was sacred: he critiqued everything from the state to philosophy to the family. But "hardly anything" is not "nothing." Two things, in particular, slipped through the cracks of Marx's solid framework.

Science and technology
Marx did not believe that capitalism was necessarily bad; he believed it was a necessary step in the evolution of society because it allowed for the scale and type of technological innovation which Marx believed could finally free humans from demeaning labor. In fact, he believed the communist revolution would occur only after a certain level of technological development worldwide had been attained. Technology is necessary for sustaining the sort of communist utopia that he envisioned.

Related to this evaluation of technology, Marx relied on evolutionary models in his thinking and unhesitatingly championed science. For some reason, science seemed to be the one realm that Marx could not conceive of being permeated and structured by bourgeois interests. Of course, I have already spent a considerable amount of time in this blog making up for that lapse, so I don't think I need to go into more detail.

Marx actually did attack many liberal/secular doctrines: for example, the sanctity of the individual, the importance of private ownership and competition, and the meaning of "democracy" in practice. He still, however, maintained some notion of "the human potential," which a life freed of meaningless labor was supposed to help one attain. I do not think this is a terribly large omission; for my part, I still cling onto ideas of individual equality and "toleration" of differences that spring from the same source. It is hard to frame one's values in a language that is completely outside of the dominant (in this case liberal, secular) ideology. But a little awareness that one is doing so does not hurt either.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Modernity And Its Contradictions

I came across an essay I wrote not too long ago, in which I attempt to analyze the meaning of "modernity."  I think it is a nice way to conclude my series of posts about religion, and it also clarifies some of the attitudes I have expressed about religion and science.  So I paste an extract of the essay here:

At its heart, modernity may be described as a particular set of relations (among people, institutions, discourses, practices, and objects), forged through global interactions, imbued with centrifugal inertia, and undergirded by an ideology of progress that simultaneously creates modernity’s Other.  This last point, in particular, warrants emphasis:  while modernity involves the creation of certain sorts of relations, it also entails the production of its own contradictions and oppositional forces.  I could employ the language of physics and muse that every action is enabled by an opposite reaction; or I could invoke Foucault and note that where there is power there is resistance (and modernity is, indeed, an active, dominating force).  However, the situation is more complex than that.

Perhaps a more effective way to employ Foucault at this point is to recall his contention that one may find, by examining differences and disjunctures, that they are sustained at a “deeper” level (using his archaeological metaphor) by a common logic or rule of dispersion.  For the relations and discourses that constitute modernity, this rule is activated by the notion of the subject, which developed (at least according to Foucault) as a result of the Protestant Reformation, which, incidentally, also provided an opening for the reconfiguration of institutions and domains of authority from which modernity ultimately emerged.

The idea of the subject made possible epistemological, ontological, and social-moral frameworks that serve as rules of dispersion for particular institutional and discursive domains.  For example, the epistemological logic of the subject-object divide specifies a set of positions that one can take as to how this divide may be mediated (i.e. how one can know).  The delimitation of these positions, in turn, was part and parcel of the shaping of separate institutional domains for science and religion:  scientists established their legitimacy and independence from religion by laying claim to a distinct mode of knowing in which personal experience is made subject to a set of extra-individual, impersonal constraints; the Church, for its part, was able to counter-assert and maintain the relevance of its own authority by rebuilding itself on complementary epistemological ground – privileging a propositional type of “belief,” yet in reference to a different set of objects left to it by science (the “supernatural”) and by recourse to tradition or personal revelation, the epistemological alternatives to scientific method.  In a general sense, the epistemological basis of science has been imputed with modernity to a greater extent than either of these alternatives, but more importantly, it is considered modern to wholly distinguish between these modes of knowing along with their appropriate realms of application (“nature” for scientific method, “supernatural” for tradition and intuition).  Thus, a modern, rational religion (Christianity, deism) is one that recognizes its own limits, whereas any nonscientific belief or practice that intrudes on the territory of science is derided as “magic” or “superstition,” the truly pre-modern.  It is, then, a single epistemological rule of dispersion that allows science and religion to coexist, on complementary epistemological grounds, even as these grounds interact and come into ever-changing articulations with each other, continually calling their boundaries into question (witness Creation Science), and likewise a single epistemological framework that simultaneously creates modern reason and pre-modern superstition.

Ontologically, the existence of the subject enabled formulations of human nature, will, and consciousness, which in turn specified several modes of being as a human.  Enlightenment philosophers delineated a way of being human that is characterized by the social contract, in which individual goals are pursued, yet checked and ultimately subordinated to the collective good.  The philosophers argued that this mode of existence was preferable, in particular, to one alternative:  a state of nature, which is marked by unrestrained self-interest and violence.  Later social theorists outlined another type of human existence that Durkheim termed the collective conscious, where individual thought and will derive from and are subordinated to the group.  Although Durkheim and his followers valorized and romanticized the collective conscious to a certain extent, others viewed it as coercive and patriarchal.  Regardless of these different attitudes, however, this mode of existence, as well as the “state of nature,” were unanimously held as representatives of the pre-modern, while only the social contract has been deemed modern.  The modern state (and its associated mode of governance) is assumed to operate under the social contract, protecting human rights and promoting the general welfare of the population.  This contrasts with the pre-modern tyranny of chiefs and kings, as well as the “mechanical solidarity” of ethnic groups and tribes.  Here, as with the epistemological framework, these ontological juxtapositions are derived from a single rule of dispersion, while the positions, in practice, cannot so easily be separated from one another.  On the one hand, the phenomenon of the nation-state and nationalism demonstrates how group loyalties and sentiments may be utilized by state governmental apparatus.  On the other hand, we have Agamben’s contention that human rights discourses and biopower (a derivative of governmentality) further solidify the basis of sovereignty (rather than making it irrelevant) by allowing it to intrude on life itself.  The foundations of genocide and terrorism are just as modern as constitutional law.

Finally, a related social-moral logic, which posits a fundamental tension between individual and collective ends, specifies several possible relations between social organization and resource distribution.  According to the demands of progress, it is modern to recognize that resources flow most efficiently and fairly via competition and freedom of choice, while the pre-modern alternatives are “primitive communism” at one end and unequal distribution of wealth sustained by inheritance or other non-market-driven mechanisms at the other.  The latter was first represented by the aristocracy, to which the emerging bourgeois was opposed, and later by monopolies and corporate “corruption.”  The opposition of the former to the modern, competitive free market has been largely construed as a division between socialism/communism and capitalism.  Again, these alternatives are the possibilities derived from a single social-moral framework, and again, their boundaries are not discrete in practice.  Capitalism, while driven by competition, is also sustained by state regulation and social welfare programs (without which it would have collapsed), is inherently monopolistic (controlling and coordinating differential parts of the production process, for example) and generates massive global inequalities without allowing the “losers” a fair competition.

We have seen, then, how the concept of the subject served as an organizing principle, which shaped as it was simultaneously shaped by newly emerging institutional and discursive domains:  namely, science and the associated notions of reason and rationality; governmentality and discourses about human nature, individuals, and rights; global capitalism and the ideology of competition and choice; as well as their pre-modern Others which these movements generated, and which helped to sustain them.  Like the boundaries among various points of dispersion, or between modernity and its Other, the limits of these institutional and discursive zones are blurry, overlapping, and continually shifting.  Science, for example, is subject to market forces, dependent on corporate resources, funded by the state, and employed in the service of governmentality and state sponsored violence.  These, then, are not distinct domains, as much as they are types of relations that mobilize overlapping sets of people, resources, practices, and ideas.  Yet the separation of these relations into discrete categories, and the upholding of an ideal of purity - fearing the dangers of admixture (for example, science tainted by politics or corporate interests, the market manipulated by the state) – is nevertheless fundamental to the way in which modernity and the ideology of progress are constructed.

Might it be effective at this point to invoke Latour’s notions of hybridity and purification?  Latour asserts that the defining characteristic of the “modern Constitution” is an ideological purification of objects into the categories of “nature” and “society” with a concomitant, albeit unrecognized, increase in the production of hybrids of these categories.  Perhaps one could add to or substitute for “nature” and “society” the categories of “science,” “religion,” “politics,” and “economics.”  Certainly, the preceding discussion has demonstrated the way in which these “modern institutions” are, in fact, hybridized, while sustained ideologically as separate categories through the work of purification.  However, one could argue, a la Kant or Durkheim, that categorization is a universally necessary means of ordering and interpreting the world, and that purification and hybridity are essential components of that process.  In other words, everyone “purifies” an inherently “hybrid” reality according to a set of categories, whatever those categories may be.  This is not distinctly new or “modern.”

Yet, for Latour, the categories of “nature” and “society” are not incidental.  Rather, he contends that they possess a particular efficacy.  For example, transferring insights from physics about mass and forces into political realm resulted in a powerful strategy of domination.  However, the nature-society divide may be viewed as one aspect of the broader distinction between pre-modern and modern, in that “nature” is generally used to index origins, primitive beginnings, that from which modernity is to be distinguished (natural versus technological, man-made; state of nature versus the social contract, nature versus cities, industrialized cores), while “society” is perceived to be the vehicle for cultural evolution that has come to replace biological evolution in the human species.  The efficacy of this distinction, then, lies in the fact that it upholds and makes possible an ideology of progress, which is foundational to the dominating impulses of modernity. Furthermore, one may argue that to speak of transfers or hybrids complicates an understanding of the ontology of these categories, whereas from the perspective adopted above, in which the categories are viewed as types of relations, the particular efficacy noted by Latour may be explained in terms of the way in which different relations of power sustain and reinforce one another.

Having established key institutional/discursive domains of modernity, such as science, governmentality, and capitalism, as types of relationships among people, practices, objects, and discourses, one can view the emergence of a “modern” order in terms of a reordering of such relations that Europeans initiated both locally and abroad.   However, this statement needs to be qualified.  Relations are never one-sided, and those that are constitutive of modernity were created through the mutual interaction of landlords, peasants, merchants, and statesmen, as well as of plantation owners, indigenous leaders and laborers, slaves, administrators, and middlemen.  Everyone participated in the construction of the relations that lie at the heart of modernity, even if a minority ultimately benefited.  Therefore, while modernity may have involved the development of something new and different, European men cannot be given all the credit (if credit is to be given).

If the relations constitutive of governmentality, science, and capitalism, among other “modern” forms, resulted from processes that involved nearly everyone, how, exactly, are they related to the project of global imperialism?  Certainly, a governmental form of power, inherently diffuse, is easier to administer at a distance than one based solely on sovereignty, which is centered upon the personal authority of the sovereign and more territorially contingent.  As such, the development of governmental institutions and power relations would have supported the colonial agenda.  Capitalism, for its part, actually extended the aims of this project (from accumulation of wealth to the creation of markets and dependency relationships) and increased its inertia.  Products of scientific research were also instrumental in the success of European conquest; naval transportation, weapons, cartography, and ethnographic descriptions of native culture, for example, were absolutely essential.

At the same time that these pillars of modernity provided the institutional and material support necessary for colonial expansion, their ideological components (ideas about rationality, human rights, competition), operating as a seamlessly integrated whole, provided a moral justification for the exploitative enterprise.  Together, these ideological elements composed a master ideology of progress, which held that humans (some humans, at least) were continually improving their lot and gradually approaching a state of perfect happiness, efficiency, and universal knowledge.

In order to sustain the illusion of progress, it was necessary to simultaneously create its opposite – to create the pre-modern and traditional in order to produce a visible teleology.  Thus, the ideology of progress involved the construction of a binary opposition (rational, efficient, principled modernity versus the superstitious, emotional, perpetual conformity of the primitive) and the concomitant assignment of real human populations to either side of this division.  This occurred across spatial as well as social dimensions:  modern Europe (Western Europe, to be more specific) was opposed to the traditional, conformist Orient (or, really, every other part of the world); white was opposed to nonwhite, wealthy to poor, adult to child, man to woman.  Hence, the visible teleology could be constructed on virtually every level of scale, at home and abroad, with the added benefit that only a select group of people (white, upper-class, men) could claim the mantel of modernity, with all that it entailed.

The power of the ideology of progress lies in the fact that it legitimates the social order (inequality is the natural result of the “race to the top”) at the same time that it provides a license for those at “the top” to exploit everyone else (in the name of further progress).  In this way, colonialism could be viewed as a necessary and natural extension of human progress, a benevolent endeavor to enlighten and uplift all of humankind, while at the same time, the ability to colonize served as incontrovertible proof of Europeans’ advancement over others.

Not only did the relations, institutional structures, and ideologies constituting enterprises like science, governmentality, and capitalism enable the colonial project, but they also possessed an inherent universalizing logic and centrifugal inertia that was served by colonization.  Scientists strove for a complete, total knowledge of the world that required unfettered access to other environments and other groups of people.   The development of industrial centers required the creation of supply areas for cheap raw materials and markets for manufactured goods across the globe.  The ideals of human rights, rational thought, and economic liberalism are premised on a notion of universal, natural capacities of humankind and are accordingly posited as ends to which all human life should be directed, the universal keys to humanity’s liberation from the shackles of tradition.  Therefore, the particular relations of discourses, institutions, people and materials that constitute modernity are characterized by a centrifugal inertia that both legitimizes as well as incites expansion and global consolidation.  Fitting, considering that this relational constellation was forged in the course of new global encounters and the construction of new transcontinental networks.

We have seen, then, that the development of modern relationships, institutions, and ideologies cannot be separated from the colonial enterprise; that the ideology of progress, in particular, serves as its consolidating logic; and that the separation of the world into modern and pre-modern components is the primary means by which the ideology of progress is sustained.  However, in addition to serving as a condition of possibility for the ideology of progress, the “pre-modern” spaces that modernity generates within itself are also utilized as grounds for challenging the ideological and material impulses of modernity.  An understanding of this situation requires a treatment of modernity, not as a unified ethos or a monolithic structure, but as a configuration of relations that are constantly being reproduced and reworked.  The relations are not stable and the actors involved try to redirect them toward their own purposes, on varying levels of scale.  Thus, it should be no surprise that religious fundamentalism, nationalism, terrorism, demonstrations of state sovereignty, anti-colonial and leftist revolutionary movements, and reassertions of territoriality find fertile ground in a “modern” world.  Nevertheless, as anthropologists and other social scientists focus their analytic lenses more directly on problems of modernity, they tend to confine themselves to “modernity” as one end of the pre-modern/modern divide (looking in particular at science, bureaucracy, governmentality, and the political economic implications of global capitalism), while many of these seemingly “pre-modern” areas of resistance are in need of more thorough research (particularly religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and territoriality).

Perhaps it does not help that the term “modernity” is used (including by myself) to refer both to a social construction as well as to the actual conditions of the contemporary world.  Although “modernity” the social construction does correspond to the actual emergence of the types of institutions and ideologies that it references, these represent only one aspect of a phenomenon that is broader and much more complex.  Regardless of whether new terminology is needed to reference this larger configuration, an enlargement of theoretical focus, perhaps in a more totalizing direction, as anathema as that may seem in the midst of current trends, might deepen our understanding of the modes of resistance to modernity that we currently struggle to grasp.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?

A recent debate at New York University sought to answer this question. Now, normally I ignore these things when they pop up in the news, because I have absolutely no interest in these discussions and think it is all nonsense: from the formation of the question to the concluding statements. I decided to listen to this one, however, because I have been wanting for some time to do a post where I evaluate a debate and pull apart the arguments. Also, I had already started to write about religion, so I thought I may as well get it all out in one fell swoop, include this discussion in the mix, and then most likely not bring up religion again in any systematic way.

As it turned out, this debate was worse than I expected, and it conclusively shows that you can have an impressive CV, advanced degrees, and best-selling books, and still be utterly stupid. This goes for all sides, who were equally terrible; though, I must say, while the opposing (pro-religion) side performed as I had expected, the supporting side was far more lacking in sanity and depth than I could ever have imagined (perhaps solely due to the train wreck that was the philosopher). I will say this for the latter: it is pretty impressive when you manage to come off as racist (or Eurocentric, to put it politely), standing next to the man who wrote a book claiming that president Obama is an angry, racist Kenyan.  (That man is Dinesh D'Souza, Fox News Superstar, and member of the opposing side in this debate.) I thought it odd that they would involve such a raving lunatic in the debate, but D'Souza, oddly enough, did not sound that rabid compared to the others. It probably says more about everyone else that it does D'Souza. And it really says something about the others, because I make this statement despite, I will admit, having a very passionate abhorrence of Dinesh D'Souza. He just makes me so ANGRY!

I found it interesting that, for the pro-religion side, there were only representatives of the Judeo-Christian tradition. There were no Muslims, no Hindus. All participants were men, all were middle-upper class, all were British or U.S. citizens. Thus, the perspectives on both sides were quite limited.

Before moving on to the debate itself, I have one more preliminary comment in the form of an elaboration on my statement that this is all nonsense. In light of my anthropological/deconstructive view of religion, the question itself does not make any sense. If religion is not a single entity with any sort of essence, and can thus not exist in any linear causal relationship with any other aspect of society, then it follows that religion cannot have any particular "effects."  It does not exist on one side of some mathematical equation that would allow one to isolate its positive and negative effects, in order to employ a cost-benefit analysis.  In children's terms: religion does not make people good, and it does not make people bad. Even in Marx's dialogical view, religion was shaped by people and their needs as much as it shaped them. More importantly, because the consruction of "religion"is so instrumental to the narrative of "modernity," and because the institutional elements associated with "religion" are part and parcel of large-scale institutional transformations that shaped the modern world, "religion" is both a creation and necessary component of modernity.  Questioning whether the world would be better off without religion is like asking if the world would be better off without the economy. It just does not make sense.

Now, to move on to the debate. I can think of no more pleasurable way of discussing it, than with a blow-by-blow commentary.

The participants:
Darwin Jr. (Matthew Chapman, Darwin's great-great-great-grandson, or something like that)
Philosopher (A.C. Grayling - what. a. moron.)
Rabbi (David Wolpe... a cute man, but lackluster debater)
Right-Wing Crazy (Dinesh D'Souza)

*Note: since everyone speaking with a British accent sounds alike, I often had trouble distinguishing between Darwin Jr. and Philosopher.

Philosopher: We are not here to argue the existence of God or whether it is rational to believe in God, but rather the sociological implications of religion as a man-made (hello, sexism!) social institution.
Andddd..... wrong. It does not take very long at all for this to turn into a discussion about rationality and belief. Just wait.
All religions have two things in common: monolithic ideology (if you don't subscribe to our views, you will be sanctioned); this is directly opposed to Enlightenment philosophy and the values of liberal democracy (pluralism, individual autonomy, liberty, democracy). 
So you're not going to share the second thing religions have in common?  Well you're a tease. But as to the first - monolithic ideology - I will say two things (and I, for one, will actually get to the second). First, it is not true that all religions have a monolithic ideology, in the terms outlined by Philosopher (forcing subscription to a single view via threat of sanction). Buddhism, of course, is a great example. But other religions contain sects within them that are more "open" or "tolerant" (whatever word you prefer) to different religions and points of view. There are a substantial number of religious people who do not try to impose sanctions on those who believe differently.  Therefore, that feature is not a necessary defining element of religion (of course, there are no necessary defining characteristics of religion).  Point two, all ideology is in some sense monolithic, and that is just how human society works. For example, I would ask, do certain nations not have to face sanctions from the UN and/or the U.S. for not following the principles of democracy which are imposed, with violent force, around the world? The argument made is that violence is sometimes necessary to spread the principles of democracy. This characteristic cannot be confined to religion. Now, as to the statement about "Enlightenment philosophy" and "the values of liberal democracy" (of which Philosopher tautologically lists "democracy" as one) I will have to set aside a post-colonial critique of these concepts, because it is a whole different, complicated discussion in itself. My post on the ideology of progress just scratches the surface. My only comment now will be that, the invocation of these values shows that Philosopher is residing in a fairly non-progressive domain of academia, and is apparently unaware of or unconcerned by many of the valid critiques about the inherent Eurocentrism and racism embedded in these views.
Also, everything good about religious morality is shared by non-religious ethical outlooks. Ancient Greek values were derived from reason and human experience. 
Right, right right.  But the question is not whether the world would be worse without religion, it is whether it would be better. The burden of proof is to demonstrate that the world would, in fact, be better, and therefore this argument is irrelevant.
Final point: what's wrong with "moderate religion"? Moderate religion means that people do cherry-picking, and that is hypocrisy.  At the other end are people who take their religion extremely seriously - "the extremists." They are the most honest, because they remain committed to tradition and stay closest to the texts. If that is real religion, honest religion, then the world is very much better without it. And if the world is better without the most true and honest form of the religion, why not put the hypocrites in with them too?
The concept of "tradition" is problematic because no human practice is static and understood in exactly the same way by all practitioners. Tradition is constantly interpreted and reinterpreted to fit the circumstances at hand. Who are you, Philosopher, to determine that there is one "correct" method of interpretation to apply to traditions and texts, and that anyone who interprets things differently is necessarily a "hypocrite" or dishonest? Who gave you the authority to determine what is "real" religion, and what is mere cherry-picking? However, I am most interested by your statement, "If that is real religion, honest religion, then the world is very much better without it." Isn't that the proposition you are supposed to be trying to defend? Up to this point, you have kind of been skirting around the issue. You gave one easily refutable argument at the beginning, but have been padding your opening statement with irrelevant musings ever since.  Now you simply repeat the very statement you are supposed to prove.  You can't just say "the world is very much better without it" - you have to give reasons why this is the case. A restatement of the proposition you are trying to defend does not constitute an argument. I hope you teach that in your philosophy courses.

Rabbi: The good deeds of religion do not make headlines. The largest aid organization in the world is a Christian organization. The difference between religious aid workers and others is they stay. If tomorrow you took religion out of the world, the world would be tremendously impoverished in terms of the way in which people who are in trouble get help. 
I don't know if it's because he reminds me of a Seinfeld character, but of all points made in this discussion, this is the hardest to counter based on the limitations imposed by the question itself. The part about staying is particularly important in the world of foreign aid, though this does get addressed by someone on the other team, who notes that proselytization plays a role in the length of stay. This is true, and, from my perspective, that is one big drawback of religious aid. But, sticking to the question at hand, one would have to determine whether conversion is a greater evil than poverty or starvation.  I know how Philosopher and Darwin Jr. might respond, but I am also willing to bet neither has experienced true poverty.  Additionally, there is the fact that, if we are talking specifically about Christian aid, the recipients (much of the Third World) are already Christian, and to a much greater degree than many people in the U.S. (in fact, they send their own missionaries to the United States) so that should be taken into account as well. Interestingly, Rabbi leaves out the role of religious organizations in impoverished urban areas within the United States. This is where the lack of diversity on both sides of the debate becomes significant. If you spend much time in white, middle-upper class suburban areas or college towns - particularly in spaces dominated by universities - you may be unaware of the importance of religious organizations in the lives of the urban poor. In fact, to go from the former to the latter is jarring. And I say this based on some personal experience. In urban areas, religious organizations often fill in the gaps that are left by the state's inadequate "social safety net," providing services and resources that are denied to these "dispensable" citizens. NOW, that being said, I return to my original sentiment that the question being debated is ridiculous, and point out that, in some hypothetical universe without religion, some other sort of institution might exist to fill in those gaps and provide those services (though I hesitate to say even that because the hypothetical is not meaningful). I would also like to point out that many of the "problems" that religion may or may not be solving were caused by capitalism, so maybe we should be arguing whether the world would be better off without capitalism.
Point 2: according to studies, religious Americans give more to charity, volunteer more, participate in civic processes more, attend more meetings, are more likely to vote (the Religious Right?), less likely to drink (are we excluding Irish Catholics?), divorce (are we excluding Anglicans?), do drugs, they're much more helpful in their communities.  If you want to measure altruism and empathy (I don't; I think that's a stupid idea), the best measure is not age, gender, income, education, it's whether you're involved in a religious community. Religion is a system that encourages goodness, which is why when a religious person does something wrong, people get particularly upset. Many people of all beliefs and no belief do good in this world, but religion is an organized system that makes people better and seeks to do good in the world. The world without it would be a poorer, sadder, crueler place.
I do not know how to respond to this point, except by saying that I don't buy into these studies. I think anyone's personal experience can contradict the claim that there is any correlation between personal habits (drinking, divorcing, voting) and religion. And any systematic attempts by religious groups to encourage voting have had deleterious consequences (the Religious Right, AIPAC, etc.) Also, I would argue that organized transmission of moral frameworks occur outside of religious contexts. But above all else, as I said before: religion does not make people bad and it does not make people good. The End.

Darwin Jr:  Religion makes two big claims: God really exists and religion makes us behave better. But does religion really make us behave better? (I don't think this is the question you are supposed to be answering...) To partially answer that question, I will quote a verse from the Bible that says something awful.  Quote, quote quote.  Far from making us behave better, religion often complicates and distorts morality. Everyone wants food, water, shelter, love, and for their children to grow up happy and in a peaceful world. Because of these common desires, war should be unthinkable. Religion, however, makes everyone an infidel to someone. 
So, point number one is, religion causes war. Without religion, there is no reason at all why wars might occur. I'll just let the absurdity of that argument sink in.  Actually, as a social construction, religion does not have the capacity to cause wars.  Usually religion is invoked as a justification for actions that have a political economic rationale.  See my post on the systemic nature of violence.
There are thousands of gods available and which one you believe in is an arbitrary result of birth. If my opponents were born in Afghanistan, they'd both be Muslim. (If I were not Darwin's great-great-grandson... oh wait.) How then do they know that their god exists and other gods don't or that their god is better than the other gods? Because they have been told by an authority figure, who said their god is supreme, he is invisible, we have no proof of his existence, but if you have faith, you will believe in him. They take the weakest point of the argument and make it a condition of entry so that you overlook it. This affects many aspects of life including the functioning of democracy and the understanding of science, both of which demand that you insist on evidence (which is why scientific journals are open to the general public so that they may examine the evidence themselves), question everything (even global warming?), and take nothing on faith from anyone.
I have already written at length about how the ideological descriptions of science and democracy bear little resemblance to real practices.  Thus, it is NOT true that science always insists on evidence for every assumption (in fact, many assumptions go undetected.. like, that testosterone must cause aggression, because that is how males are by nature), that the peer review process and accessibility of scientific documents allow for adequate scrutiny, and that people are encouraged, in the spirit of science, to not take on faith the claims of experts. In fact, particularly in the debate about global warming, we are told:  "It's science!  You have to believe it!"  I am not trying to argue against global warming here, of course, merely pointing out some hypocrisy, in which "science" and "experts" demand the same faith from the masses as religious authorities. Same goes for "democracy." The whole American electoral process was based on the presumption that the mass of the American public was too stupid to be fully entrusted with the power to vote without some oversight.
A lot of Americans don't believe in evolution. Creationists are ignorant but passionate. Faith over reason. Antipathy towards science slows the progress of stem cell research, harms women's health, and contributes to skepticism about global warming.
So, about global warming. If I'm not mistaken, isn't it corporations who push the skepticism about global warming, because they want to continue to pollute with impunity? But back to the main argument, which is, partially, that when you hinder science you harm the world (see post addressing this  claim). It also presupposes that religion is inherently and necessarily opposed to science. This cannot be the case because religion does not have a single essence, and I can think of plenty of counter-examples. But I would also like to address Darwin's comments about evolution. If we are doing simple cost-benefit math here, I would like to point out that on evolution's score card there is eugenics (some of Darwin Jr.'s relatives founded the eugenics movement in Europe), racism, and social Darwinism.  Ideas about evolution have had horrendous social consequences. This is a perfect example of why you can't construct such simple linear equations out of complex social phenomena (science only contributes good... is never used for evil; religion only makes people bad... ).
Religion claims to provide morality, but it is divisive, homophobic, it subjugates women, and it distorts morality.
Actually, that sounds like the beginning of a great riddle... What is divisive, homophobic, subjugates women, and distorts morality?  Answer:  capitalism!  Of course, religion is not inherently any of these things (because, for the fiftieth time, it has no essence). For example, at the last gay pride parade I attended, probably close to a third of the groups in the parade were religiously affiliated.

Right Wing Crazy: The crimes of religion are miniscule compared to the crimes of atheist regimes that are greater in magnitude and duration. Fewer people were killed during the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials than throughout the history of the Soviet Union, under Mao, Kim Jung Il, and Pol Pot. They killed millions of people. Dawkins says that unlike religious people who kill in the name of religion, these dictators did not kill in the name of atheism. However, looking at the works of Marx, you can see that the atheism is not incidental, it is intrinsic to the ideology.  Marx said that religion is the opium (a drug) of the people and said that you had to get rid of religion to free people from their shackles.
Sighhhh.  Right Wing Crazy, of course, commits the same fallacies as everyone else. Just as religion does not cause violence, it is equally ridiculous to say that atheism causes violence. Especially when you are talking about the kinds of genocide and political violence invoked by Right Wing Crazy, to simply hold atheism as the cause and ignore all the many factors that would have existed regardless of the dictators' religious affiliations, that is about as nutty as saying that war would be inconceivable without religion. Oh yeah, and Marx. That was my main objective in writing my previous post - to respond to this argument. Plus, I cannot express vehemently enough the fact that the actions of these dictators did not follow from the writings of Marx!
Usually when we think of secular society, we think of Europe; but Europe is not really secular. It is the product of centuries of Jewish and Christian civilization. I will throw in some pretentious literary quotes now. 
The concept of the "secular" is also a social construction, and quite a complex one at that. The idea of the "secular" and "secularism" as a movement was born in Europe. Europe is secular in the sense that the logic of secular doctrine (sanctity of the individual and private property, e.g.) structures much of civic and social life. However, Right Wing Crazy is correct that no one completely breaks from their past; and history structures the present. Though this does NOT mean that Europe is essentially Christian (in part, because, say it with me, nothing is in its essence religious). But really, I don't understand the relevance of this point at all. What difference does it make if Europe is secular or Judeo-Christian? Perhaps because Right Wing Crazy is associating all that is good in the world with the supremacy of European culture... and therefore he has to defend it as religious? I don't know, and I don't think I want to know.
When we get rid of religion, we license terrible calamities.
Terrible calamities are unavoidable, either way.

Moderator: Why would so many people embrace religion if it is destructive to them?

Philosopher: Religion is pervasive in history and it is handed down from parents to their children, so it is a potent force in society. But if you look at the trend in the developed and advanced and educated (and by "developed and advanced, and educated" I mean "white") countries in the world since the time of the Enlightenment, you see the numbers [of religious people] are plummeting, even here in the United States of America. The trends are setting in the right direction.
First, Philosopher is wrong in his assumption that things get passed on with any fidelity over time. He also ignores the many instances of "conversion" and abrupt change throughout history. He ignores "external" (horiztonal) influences and processes of diffusion. And he ignores the fact that there have been multiple "religions" and multiple histories (but he really seems to envision a singular history, in which all people past and all non-European people present form an undifferentiated "dawn of humanity" against which European (Western, white, European) people have majestically advanced to levels of near perfection.) The claim that religion is waning is a dubious one, despite whatever studies he wants to cite (of course, Philosopher is going to restrict his statistical attention to Western - or in his terms, advanced - countries because they are the only ones that matter when it comes to understanding global trends; they are, after all, on the cutting edge of cultural evolution). In all seriousness, though, this claim has been floating around in the sociology of religion for centuries, and the world today looks nothing like the many predictions that were made based on this assumption. Now it is more of a sociological/anthropological truism that this is not the case and only causes social scientists to misunderstand and miss out on a lot of what is brewing in the world right now.

Moderator: Pro-religion side, what of this point that religion gets kids early and then it's set? (oh whyyyy is this relevant?)

Right Wing Crazy: We also get kids early with habits like brushing their teeth, learning the mathematical tables.   
Seriously??? These were the best examples you were able to come up with? I mean, if it were me, I would have said that parents impress their political views on kids at an early age; they inculcate racial prejudice; they transmit gender norms; they ingrain the values of democracy and science before children learn to reason. That is why a lot of people don't critically think about what any of these latter things really mean in practice. It is a fact of social life that socialization occurs at a young age, and this involves all important cultural values and principles. But my task is to ridicule Right Wing Crazy, not to form his arguments for him.
We all learn our ethical values from our parents. Now a personal story about how I went to Darmouth and my beliefs were battered. Saying that we learned it from our parents misses the thrust of why billions of people continue to do it into old age. Religion delivers practical benefits. It gives us the hope of life after death. That is a practical benefit.
No. Clearly you do not know what a practical benefit is. A practical benefit of religion would be "It helps me get elected to public office because most Americans only vote for Christians."
Second, religion is a mode of transmission of morality. No one teaches their kids morality through Heidegger or Nietzsche.
Are there no better examples of secular morality? I shudder to think of what the world would be like if children were taught morality through Nietzsche. A world overrun by self-absorbed, oddly reactionary hipsters.... NOOOO!!
Darwin Jr.: People in other cultures become addicted to their religions. (I will leave alone the racist implications here) Even if you could remove all of the bad things about religion and keep all of the good things about religion, none of which can't be performed by people who don't believe in God, you end up with someone like Father Christmas. 
Well, I guess that would depend on what you define as the "good" parts and the "bad" parts.  (For some people, the hope of life after death is one of the "good" parts, and I don't know that Santa Claus provides that; in addition to the fact that his charity work is somewhat lacking... one night a year, one present?)  On the whole this is quite an arbitrary conclusion to come to.
Would you want to find out that the president of the United States was a devout believer in Father Christmas?
Well, if a lot of adults in America believed in Father Christmas, and everyone who had ever been president of the U.S. believed in Father Christmas, then I would not find it so shocking, no.

Rabbi: It's interesting that the side that is actually providing evidence of any kind is this side. The idea that religious people are only religious because of a psychological deficit while non-religious people have reasoned their way out, not only slights the idea that religious people are capable of thought, but also railroads you into condemning it without looking at all of the histories and ideas. Perhaps your argument is not as sound as you think it is.
The cute little rabbi is getting feisty!

Philosopher or Darwin Jr.: Most people who escape religion do it because they look at the facts. Children don't know what race and ethnicity they all are. We have to work very hard to divide them.
Okay. I am really having a lot of trouble figuring this out. How do the first two statements have anything to do with each other?  Is Indistinguishable British Accent implying that religion causes racism? Interestingly enough, science was actually at the forefront of the construction of the concept of "race." Religious doctrine may have helped, but it was also religious people who opposed slavery and racism at a time when scientists were still calculating how much smaller black skulls were. Which is only to say, once again, that you can't make such ridiculous attributions.

Right Wing Crazy: Darwin did not become an atheist because he discovered evolution; it wasn't facts. It was when his daughter died, he said that if there were a hell he would know a lot of people who were in it, and he could not bear that thought. You, Darwin Jr., talked in an interview about nuns who beat you and stuck their hands down your pants. In many cases we are not dealing with facts, but "wounded theism." Many times when we hear the word "atheism" we are dealing with people who are angry with God, or the representatives of God.
And Right Wing Crazy turns the tables on his opponents by using the psychological fallacy against them.  Fallacy nonetheless.  Oh, by the way, have you noticed that this has become a discussion of the rationality of belief now?  I think the momentum occurred somewhere around the time Santa Claus was mentioned.

Moderator: Darwin Jr., are you angry with God?

Darwin Jr.: How can you be angry with someone who doesn't exist? Darwin's atheism didn't come solely from the fact that his daughter died. It was a very slow process of seeing how the theory of evolution was in conflict with the Bible. 
It seems that Darwin Jr. does not know much of his own family history. Darwin never considered himself an atheist (more agnostic); and from what I've read/been told, it was not so much evolution which caused him to question his beliefs (religiously framed ideas of evolution had existed prior to Darwin, and Darwin himself thought it was great evidence of design), but more moral quandaries like the existence of suffering. Regardless, I don't think it is possible to isolate a single cause for Darwin's transformations in belief. And more importantly, why are we discussing this??
Let's give the religious people that at some point in history religion was helpful (oh you're so kind), but the texts upon which they are based are archaic, absurd, cruel, and open to interpretation.
No! I will not stand for texts that are open to interpretation!
There are better ways of conducting yourself in this life. I don't buy the idea that we've inherited it from Christianity because if you look at the evolutionary world, empathy, cooperation, compassion, clearly existed before God decided to intervene.
What was the question we were debating again?

Moderator: Rabbi, you are not a literalist, would you like to respond?

Rabbi: I am not a literalist. But what I find interesting is the leap that Darwin Jr. is making. He says that these texts have cruel things, there are better ways to behave. 
And the leap is.... where?
But we are not asking if the world would be better off if we rewrote the Bible, but would the world be better off without the influence religion has on religious people. To Philosopher: I disagree that people are fundamentally good. You've clearly never visited a playground. Children have to be socialized to good, and that is hard work, and that is what religious communities do.
And clearly, without religion, everyone would behave like children on a playground, all the time.  Actually.... that already happens. WITH religion.

Darwin Jr.: This is the viewpoint of a rabbi who does work in an affluent community in Los Angeles. Both of my opponents are sophisticated. The people who I've talked to in Pennsylvania who are creationists and fundamentalists ignore their sophistication. Most of the world is fundamentalist and takes a barbaric view of many of the texts.
Ouch! So, we've made brief passes at sexism, developed a passionate relationship with Eurocentrism (aka racism), and now we're starting to eye classism? Damn those unsophisticated white trash Pennsylvanians!

Moderator: If there were no religion what would be happening in Pennsylvania?

Darwin Jr.: The harm is enormous. Half of the growth in the American economy since WW2 has been from science and technology. This anti-scientism is gradually eroding America's ability to produce enterprising, educated citizens.
HA! HA! Yes, American economic growth had nothing to do with the construction of exploitative global relationships following European imperial decline, and the current economic contraction has nothing to do with the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Science could have brought us to such great heights, but religion ruins everything. Should I point out that Henry Ford and many other American entrepreneurs were devoutly religious? What I think this debate is really missing is a historian.

Moderator: Does religious thinking limit science?

Right Wing Crazy: If you were to make a list of the greatest scientists of all time, the majority were religious. 
True; except that "religious" would be an anachronism if you go back a couple hundred years.
We are indicting all of the world's religions based on the 1% minority of religious rednecks. (We are the 99%!!) Nothing could be more shameful than to imply that Athens and Jerusalem, that have shaped our economy, philosophy, checks and balances....

Philosopher: You are the most tremendous rewriter of history I have ever come across in my life. When Christianity became dominant in Europe (3rd-4th century AD), they found that their ethics were very thin and got their extra ethics from Greek philosophy. Most of European culture is deeply rooted in classical antiquity. Christianity was an oriental religion the erupted into Europe and derailed it for over a thousand years. People couldn't build a dome like before because they lost knowledge of simple engineering.  Religion did to the history of our culture exactly what Darwin Jr. says it's doing again.
Oh pot calling the "tremendous rewriter of history" black..  Where do I begin (and where should I END?)?  I find it interesting that Philosopher characterizes Christianity as an "oriental" eruption into Europe, implying: 1) Europe has always had distinct geographical, ethnic, cultural borders... The Roman Empire certainly never encompassed the "oriental" territory where Christianity was born); 2) Anything coming from outside those borders is necessarily disruptive to European progress; 3) Western Europe has a distinct essence (and I won't say it's superior to the "orient," but...) and 4) that essence contains absolutely no elements the originated outside of "Europe" however conceived.  The tryst with classism was fun, but you know it's racism who I truly love. Perhaps the most hilariously outrageous part of Philosopher's argument is his claim that religion singlehandedly diminished technical knowledge to the point that Europeans didn't even know how to construct a dome anymore. First, it is not even clear if he is talking about a contiguous population here, as the teleological history of European progress often weaves disparate groups of people into a single historical narrative. Of course, Philosopher seems to think the context of the barbarian migrations/invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire are insignificant to these developments (or, more aptly, regressions). And then there is that whole sticky business that many of the great "achievements" that Philosopher would laud occurred after the Christianization of Europe, but before its secularization. I think Philosopher is proving that if you are really passionate about a belief, you will say any number of absurd things to defend it.

Rabbi: Long before Christianity, Judaism enunciated all of the ideals you say did not come from Christianity. ...
Oh for the love of...

---Now I'm getting bored so I'll skip to the last interesting part-------

Audience question: How are the harms of religion different from those of nationalism and racism?

Philosopher or Darwin Jr.: I think the difference is that even the mistakes of the people who are acting out of nonreligious motives are mistakes based on reason, and most of the horrors of religion are mistakes based on superstitious fear and delusion.
Next time someone tells me I'm racist, I'll explain that my racism is based on reason.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Marx and Religion

There are many misconceptions about Marx's view of religion, as well as the relation of atheism to Marxism in general.

Now, it IS true that Marx himself wasn't religious, and that it is a tenant of most forms of Marxism that all social institutions derive from and support the relations of production that form the base of society. In this sense, religion, as a social institution, is contingent (or part of the "superstructure," in Marxist parlance). It follows, then, that in Marx's view of revolution, when all relationships of domination were challenged and dismantled by the oppressed, this would extend to all social institutions, including the institutional forms of religion as we know them today. Now, Marx may have believed that at this point, people would cease to believe in God if there were no authority figures telling them to do so. However, that is quite different from saying that Marxism is in principle an atheist philosophy.

In fact, Marx was more ambivalent toward religion than most people realize. He may not have articulated a definition of religion like the one I outlined in my previous post (my own thinking on the subject owes much more to Talal Asad); however, unlike other scholars of his time, he did not rely on simple functionalism and recognized that religion was too complex to exist in a linear causal relationship with any other aspect of human life. Thus, he did believe that religious institutions were used to inculcate bourgeois ideology (even though he did not even touch on the role religion played in the emerging bourgeois-colonial world order with its concomitant "colonization of consciousness"; and he probably could not have imagined the way religion would come to be commodified, the way it would create new spaces for capitalist exploitation and use the language of markets and competition in the constitution of liturgical and discursive practices). But he also noted that religion "is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions" (the words immediately preceding the famous "religion is the opium of the people"... a context which gives this statement a double meaning, as opium is also an excellent pain reliever). Furthermore, as part of his general theory that that which arises from the materiality of productive processes comes to have a life of its own in which it is dialogically related to the material "base," Marx believed that religion contained ideas and principles (justice, giving to the poor, etc.) that could potentially be used by the oppressed to resist the forces of their domination.

Now, certainly there have been plenty of atheist Marxists. And this is excluding the "communist" dictators of the 20th century, because their political strategies bore little to no resemblance to the teachings of Marx, did not need to be justified by Marx (and in that sense the special relationship the Russian Orthodox Church had with the Tsar and the important role its clergy played in the old social order helps contextualizes the Party's actions toward religious institutions). But, one should note that there have also been a significant number of religious Marxists around the world. The very prominent "liberation theology" of Latin America, which fuses Catholicism with Marxism, is a good example.

I bring this up because it will be relevant to my next post, but also, because it demonstrates the way in which a certain view of Marx and Marxism was deliberately manufactured to sustain the narrative of the Christian-Capitalist-Democratic West triumphing over the Evil-Communist-Atheist East. It was necessary to play up the "inherent atheism" of Marxism/communism in order to frame the Cold War as a battle between Good and Evil, and cover up the fact that it was really a territorial squabble between two imperial powers.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Defining Religion

To solve the problem of properly conceiving of "religion" and its relation to other social institutions, it is first necessary to break down social life in general into its constituent elements. These are: interpretive frameworks (systematic ways of organizing and perceiving reality), practices (including habits, techniques, and ritualized behavior), discourse (particular ways of using language), relationships, and artifacts. All of these things are absolutely necessary for mutual understanding and the coordination of collective ends. Without any of these things society would not be possible.

Now, interpretive frameworks include what we understand as "belief" and "morality"; practice includes public and private ritual; discourse includes liturgy, prayer, scripture, symbols, and "religious language"; relationships often involve hierarchy and authority; and artifacts include what are deemed sacred objects, relics, churches and cathedrals, vestiments, books, and so on. The question then becomes, what quality makes any of these things particularly or essentially "religious," as opposed to "normal" or "secular"? What makes them special?

The answer is nothing. Religion does not have an essence and nothing is in its essence religious. Religion is, rather, a social construction, and as I mentioned in a previous post, the concept of "religion" as we know it today was a product of the social processes and institutional rearrangements that resulted in the modern world order. In some sense (and running the risk of sounding functionalist), the concept of "religion" was needed to create space for new institutions and domains of authority (the state, science, capitalist enterprises: the trinity of the capitalist mode of production) that were independent of previous relations of power. And, to some degree, elements that were associated with these older power structures were reformulated as "religion": an entity that could be separated from public life as it was organized by the state and capitalism.

To the extent that this explains the emergence of the concept of "religion," it is interesting to note the complementarity in the definition of religion and modern social institutions. For example, as it is differentiated from the domain of science, religion takes the form of a set of propositional beliefs, primarily concerning the existence of various beings and states (and the notion of "existence" and "being" is exactly that which underpins the positivist philosophy of science). The thing that separates this new concept of "religion" from science is that science is concerned with the existence of "natural" beings and states (and remember how instrumental the construction of "nature" is to state formation), while the beings and states affirmed by religion are "supernatural."

Digression. Just as the concept of "nature" emerged around the time of the Enlightenment, so too did "supernatural," as its complement. The hypothetical alien who visits earth might wonder, isn't reality, reality? Certainly, for some people a spirit might be just as real as a tree. So why isn't it "natural"? But that is just the point. The concept of "supernatural" is in itself a judgement about the reality of that to which it applies. In a sense, it is the imposition of a perspective that already presumes what entities are and are not contained in the universe. And just as there is nothing essential about religion, there is nothing essential about the supernatural. Invisibility and immateriality, for example, are not exclusive properties of the "supernatural"- they apply equal well to certain elements of the "natural." Furthermore, a thing can belong to the realm of "nature" even if there is no evidence for its existence; usually the "thing" in question arises from logical or mathematical deduction. But that means that what are usually given as the defining characteristics of the "supernatural" (invisibility, intangibility, lack of evidence) can also apply to the "natural." Which is only to say, once again, that these two categories are historically contingent social constructions and not distinct essences. I make no claims about whether the existence of a superstring is just as likely as a god, because that is missing the point entirely. End of digression.

Politics and religion are also defined in a complementary way, using the common grammar of the individual subject. Religion is ideally contained in the "private" realm, compartmentalized within an individual's life, while the civic dimension - the individual as the citizen - takes precedence in the constitution of one's identity. Of course, as I mentioned before, the religious idea of the "sacred man" with divinely bestowed rights forms the foundation of the "citizen." In this way, religion never was and could never be relegated completely to the "private." Still, it is interesting to note that the phenomenon of nationalism contains many of the same elements attributed to religion: particularly the symbols, rituals, pageantry, use of the senses and emotions, relics and monuments, "scripture" (like constitutions), and appeal to authority (founding fathers) and interpretation thereof. Yet, nationalism is not a religion, and that is not because of any essential differences between the two. It is due to their differential historical positions and relations to the state and other modern institutions.

What these complementarities (between religion and science and religion and politics) demonstrate is that, not only were certain aspects of the old social order brought together under the category of "religion," but all of the things so labeled were also reformulated on new terrain and brought into complex relationships with the emerging domains of authority associated with "modernity." Thus, it would be wrong to conclude that everything belonging to "religion" is some sort of "survival" or hold over from the past. Because it has transformed and integrated itself into the modern world, it is simultaneously new and modern as well.

So how would I define "religion"? Perhaps as a historically emergent category that contains a teleology and a vector of change, and as a concept that is created by modern institutions even while it supports and makes possible these very institutions by articulating a dimension of human subjectivity that is employed in modern power relations. Or, it is the necessary element of "modernity" that is not considered modern.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holidays and Capitalism Part 2

I reflected a little today on the way in which Thanksgiving parades are essentially a vehicle for corporate advertising (and I think that should be obvious given its history). More than that, they fashion corporations as constitutive elements of local and national "tradition," and manipulate public sentiment in a way that is very favorable to participating businesses. Perhaps this demonstrates that the use of emotion and pageantry is not confined to nationalism.

Thanksgiving: Politics, Religion, and Nationalism

I have kind of mentioned before that I am a big fan of the fall holidays, and that would include Thanksgiving. It is still interesting to note that this holiday marks an important anniversary in the wedding of American politics and religion. The idea that America is a "Christian nation" may, in certain respects, not be true. But the idea that the founding fathers were all deists who divorced political strategies from religious sentiment is false to a much greater degree. In fact, they used religious rhetoric for political purposes in much the same way that politicans do today. Things haven't changed all that much. In this way, the idea of America as a "Christian nation" may be true in a normative sense - in the role Christianity has actually played in the construction of narratives that constitute national identity. Yes, it is exclusive. But nationalism is always exclusive.

In the case of Thanksgiving, its first civil incarnation occurred when a national day of prayer was decreed by president Washington. This was during a time of increasing anti-federal sectarianism, and immediately following the Whiskey Rebellion. The national day of prayer was deployed in an effort to use clergy to promote nationalist/federalist messages, and indeed, the celebration mixed nationalism and Christianity quite harmoniously.

I will have to discuss religion in greater detail in the future, but for now I will make a few comments (as it relates to the above discussion) and allow that to suffice.

The concept of "religion" has not always and everywhere existed. The categories that we use to carve up the social order have a distinct history. The idea of "religion," as we currently understand it, was shaped through the reorganization of institutional domains that resulted in the modern world order. The way that we conceive of "religion" has everything to do with authority and the bases on which it is constructed. The idea that "religion" should be separated from other social institutions - politics, economics, education - is an ideology, and one that does not acknowledge either the socially constructed nature of these categories, or the complexity of their internal constitution and the blurriness of their boundaries. Case in point, the secular state itself was founded on principles of the "sacred man," and divinely bestowed human rights (all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."). In their very foundations, "politics" cannot be separated from "religion."

Often "religion" is defined as a set of beliefs. Of course, that definition is inadequate even to encompass all that is placed within the domain of religion. For example, sets of symbols, ritual practice, interpretive and moral frameworks, certain ethics for conducting human behavior (interestingly, all elements of nationalism as well). It is as much concerned with the "here and now" and all the materiality of life as it is with the beyond and unseen.

It stands to reason, then, that many of the above elements - particularly moral and ethical principles and modes of interpretation - associated with a particular religion can either overlap or conflict with the moral/ethical/interpretive frameworks employed by "secular society" and nationalism. Practices and material elements of certain religions may be proscribed or differently valorized by the state and its legal system. Conversely, symbols and practices associated with nationalism may easily be appropriated by religious institutions, while the state can just as easily make use of symbols and practices belonging to a particular religion.

It is because of this more-than-latent potential for overlap and conflict that religion and politics can never be entirely separate.

(A similar argument can be made for the case of economics, if one is willing to admit, unlike classical economists, that the economy is often understood and framed in moral/ethical terms, and that it involves, at its heart, human relationships.)

So... Happy Anniversary American politics and religion!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Libertarians Are Wrong

I have elaborated on science, and now I would like to elaborate a bit on the state. It got a nice pummeling from me a couple of posts ago, when I claimed it was essentially a tool of violence wielded by capitalist interests. Does this put me along side "small government" libertarians?

Maybe in some respects. But here are all the areas where I think libertarians are flat out wrong:

1. Libertarians do not view the state as a servant of the capitalist class; they believe it is in an independent source of power (by which capitalists may actually be oppressed);
2. Libertarians completely misunderstand the nature of capitalism. They believe it is primarily characterized by free markets and private enterprise, when it is actually characterized by wage labor and monopolization of production and, in fact, both limits the the freedom of the market and subsidizes enterprise (through use of the state, of course). Libertarians tend to see these things as "corruption" rather than the inherent nature of the system.
3. It follows that libertarians believe if the extent of the state were limited, free markets would flourish and the market would more rationally and efficiently organize society than the state. They do not realize the beast we are dealing with, and that eliminating government agencies would be akin to simply cutting off one of its limb (with the possibility of regeneration).
4. Libertarians accept without question all aspects of liberal/neoliberal ideology: the sacredness of the individual, the rationale of the social contract, the principle of "liberty" embedded in "democratic societies" (whatever liberty and democracy mean in actual practice...), and the ability of all people to be successful if they just try hard enough.
5. Regarding that last point, libertarians are totally blind to the inequalities that are built into the system. They seem to think the playing field is level, and that everyone could be a millionare if they just worked sufficiently hard (maybe they even take it for granted that there will always be people naturally "lazy" enough to take all the undesirable, low-paying jobs).

In essense, libertarians buy into all the myths and ideologies of the modern social order, probably more than anyone else, and simply try to make reality conform to those myths. What they really need to do is think more critically about what is actually going on.

There is one more significant way in which I diverge from libertarians, the explanation of which will entail that I contradict my two-posts-ago comments somewhat... which I think is totally healthy behavior. Yes, I believe that the state exists at the behest of the capitalist class and that it always ultimately serves capitalist interests. That is vitally important to remember because pinning one's hopes on the state is a risky business (as many of the Russian revolutionaries discovered). BUT, under very narrow and circumscribed circumstances, eliminating any longer-term perspective, it has its benefits.

Generally, once again if one is only thinking in the short-term and within the bounds of the current system, state management of social services is more beneficial than complete privatization. This holds true for education, health care, transportation, and would likely also hold for financial services if such a thing were ever attempted (it won't be). This is the case because the people who are actually involved in the administration of these programs and services cannot profit in the same way as those who are more indirectly involved. It ensures standards, quality controls, and more or less universal accessibility (often more towards the "less" end though...). And often the people who directly provide the services are knowledgable and driven by the noblest of intentions (not profit). On the other hand, when the profit-motive is directly involved in the provision of services, the consequences are often disasterous. Scams abound, unqualified people jump on the bandwagon, and disparities in quality widen (thus reinforcing existing social inequalities). The ability to profit brings out the worst of human qualities, not the best, as many libertarian types and others insist. But isn't government wasteful and inefficient, they counter? Everything is wasteful and inefficient; that is the nature of bureaucracy, whether public or private. The arena of education, in particular, demonstrates very desicively that public management is by no means less efficient or less effective than private management; to the contrary, public schools often do a better job - particularly with the challenges they are given - than private schools. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the supposed "crisis" of American education is a fabrication of political/economic interest groups.

So, if the only two options I am given are state control within the framework of the current system, and privatization within the framework of the current system, in most cases I would prefer state control. But that is like a slave choosing the house over the fields. I would REALLY prefer not to be enslaved.