Is “Beyond Belief” Beyond Critique?

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

I don’t know Tristan Vick, the blogmeister at Advocatus Atheist, but I think I like him.

Back in April, when I wrote a series of articles criticizing New Atheism for being loud and obnoxious, Tristan said I was being loud and obnoxious and to put a lid on it.  I was being so persistently obnoxious, in fact, that if I’d replied to the article then I would have been even louder.  So I’m glad I waited. Time’s a healer.

Tristan points out:

Obviously Hoffmann doesn’t know anything about the education of the New Atheists. Sam Harris is a philosopher turned Neuroscientist, and holds a PhD in modern Neuroscience from UCLA. Richard Dawkins is a world renowned evolutionary biologist and he was the University of Oxford’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Christopher Hitchens is an infamous atheist intellectual, a savvy journalist, and graduated…

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What Arab Spring?

rjosephhoffmann:

There was never an Arab spring. Yesterday’s events in Tunisia when 17 foreigners were killed by jihadis, not to mention some rather disturbing dis-confirming events in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen prove that the thirst for reform was not a thirst for democracy. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy analysts in the United States Department of State got it as wrong under the Obama regime as under the irrepressibly stupid reign of G W Bush. This post from 2011 was written on the cusp of enthusiasm, when it was obvious to most of us who knew the region that American astrologers were reading the signs backward. The rest, as they say, is history. Bad history. Embarrassing history.

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

I’ve just read a WSJ interview by James Taranto with (who else)  Paul Wolfowitz–“Wolfie” to his friends. That’s right, the guy who had the distinction of working under two Bush’s and two US defense secretaries–Dick Cheney (under George I) and Donald Rumsfeld (under George II) is now looking for a spotlight and a microphone.

Presumably his two disastrous stints in government, the ones that brought us aucours  the beginnings of the Iraq conflict under H.W. and everything else under W. (including a strategy for “finishing what we started”) gives him the right to be quoted.  That’s why Cheney and his elves are making the talk show rounds, trying to find enough crumbs of recognition to make a real piece of pie before the Democrats take it all.

In the interview, Wolfowitz claims that Obama missed the clear signals of the Arab spring. If you missed it too, this is the period that…

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Christopher Hitchens

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

by admin Posted on December 17, 2011

Christopher HitchensHERE is no reason to eulogize Christopher Hitchens except that, had he stuck around to read the tributes, some of what is being said might have amused him. So we will read each what the other writes knowing he would have said it better, except he probably wouldn’t say it at all.

Hitchens in many ways belongs rhetorically to another era, which is why the twentieth and twenty-first century, what little he lived in it, is privileged to have known him. His verbal style was self-conscious, but seemed effortless, driven by the “true wit” (what Alexander Pope described as “nature to advantage dressed”) that was perfected in Restoration and eighteenth-century England coffee houses and left Thames-side by the sober English migrants who came to America to escape the kind of ridicule his sort had represented back home. Hitchens’s choosing to live in…

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The Non-Elite: A Brief Meditation on the Nature of Atheist Humanism

rjosephhoffmann:

Everything old is new again. Except me.

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

ERASMUSWhat concerns me most about the misapplication of the word ‘humanist’ to full frontal atheists is that most such humanists are not humanists at all. Not in any meaningful sense. To be solipsistic about it, if they were they would not be full frontal atheists.

By dint of past associations, I have a great many ‘friends’ (as Facebook misuses the term) who would call themselves new or raw or ‘out’ atheists—-Dawkinsites in short.

In a pinch they will say they like books (who doesn’t?), art (sort of), and music (some). But I always have the impression that you can’t press them too closely on what books, music or art they like. It probably isn’t Bach, Chagall, or Proust. It certainly isn’t the Bible—-in any translation, or any context.

And that is the problem. The loudest God-deniers-—not all but the loudest-—seem to lack cultural context. They are metaphor poor literalists…

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Religion 2010 Wish List

rjosephhoffmann:

Now 2015. I didn’t get my wish.

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

This isn’t about how all religions are very nice chaps, really, or that–ideally–all religions promote peace on earth, good will toward men, and women, in their own very different ways. Not even the religion that copyrighted that slogan in the New Testament after stealing it from Virgil’s fourth eclogue (where it’s assigned to the Muses of Sicily) has been able to follow the advice of the angel choirs.

No, this isn’t about how religions are greatly misunderstood by nearly everybody who feels less than passionately about religion, how they inevitably fall short, like David the King, of what they really and truly and essentially are. I have no idea what any given religion essentially is and much less an idea what religion in general essentially is. I have theories, of course.

But I do know that religion is slippery when confronted with its sins–ranging from blowing up fellow worshipers or…

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Killing History: The ISIS War on Civilization

Image result for nimrud

One of the key features of the book religions is iconoclasm—literally, idol smashing.  The ancient Hebrews developed a dislike for statues and images sometime in the first millennium BCE, and after occasionally reverting to worshiping them decided to prohibit them outright because their God “was a jealous god, above whom, there can be no others” (Exodus 20,4).

This was more wishful thinking than fact, since in military encounters with the many-godded nations that surrounded them Israel habitually lost to these other gods.

The Christians tried for a while to ignore their rich pagan legacy of temples and statues,  but finally succumbed to the temptation to make icons, name churches after saints, and produce thousands of images to encourage their veneration.

Image result for iconoclasm

Later, Christians in the East decided to clamp down on the practice, finding it more than a little like the idol-worship condemned in the Decalogue. And later still, during the Reformation, Christians in the West went through various spasmodic attempts to cleanse the protestantized churches of their statuary and altars and demolish the monasteries that had become factories for producing them.

In its early days, Islamic iconoclasm expressed itself in refitting Christian churches as mosques, chipping away at mosaics, whitewashing frescoes, converting bell towers and baptisteries into minarets, as well as effacing (literally cutting the nose off) Christian statues.  Catholic Christians in turn reclaimed more than a few churches, especially in Spain, and duly set about giving them new altars and stony or chalky saints.

Image result for mosque at cordova

Hence What is happening in Syria and Iraq with the destruction of the antiquities at Nimrud and Hatra has a history.  But it is a history with a difference.  Radical monotheism has always expressed itself as an incentive to destroy the shrines of your religious enemies  It is a tangible way of saying that my beliefs are better than yours–that my doctrine is the right doctrine, based on my book and my revelation—which are also right where yours is wrong.  Only love and religion produce such strong emotional extremities of beauty and destruction.

But one should not be be misled by the mere fact that iconoclasm has a history: religious rivalries of the kind I have described happened in the real time of contemporaneous disputes; they constituted a kind of ritual and theological warfare between living religious movements.  The wholesale attack on the civilization of the planet in the name of religion–the artistic and aesthetic murders we are witnessing–are scarcely related to any dispute anyone in the contemporary world is having or wants to have–religious, theological or otherwise.  To most onlookers, shredding manuscripts and hammering 3000 year old artefacts to powder is not an event we can locate in a contemporary matrix or in the lexicon of irrational and savage behaviour.  It has the irrationality of a tornado without any of the natural beauty of a violent, natural storm.  That is because we do not expect storms to be rational. We expect humans to be rational.

Many of my Muslim friends are aghast at what is going on in the Middle East, just as the world was aghast in 2001 at the dynamiting of the sixth-century CE Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.  There is something especially sickening about these displays of the craven mind, especially because the ones affected by this assault on history are not affected out of religious devotion to ancient images but because they know that antiquity is physically limited: we instinctively know there is a moral imperative to preserve these uncommon treasures of our human past.  That is where the revulsion comes from.

Yet the generality of the Muslim world can only come up with feeble scolds like “Unislamic” to describe what is being done by madmen to restore Islam to its native purity and intolerant righteousness.  And when we search for appropriate analogies, as Barack Obama absurdly tried to do recently, we are instructed that it “hasn’t been long ago since Christians and Jews did violent things in the name of religion”–a platitude so venomously inexact that it can only have been spoken by a politician.  Mr Obama’s larger point seems to have been that no religion has a monopoly on violence.  Yet to the casual observer, the thought that irate Presbyterians or Chasidic Jews would today burn “apostates” in cages or take sledgehanmmers to priceless relics of the past seems more than a little far-fetched,

What’s the Matter with Ahmed? A World without a Past

The actual modus operandi of Islamic state is a radical belief in the “totalizing imperative.”   It incorporates into its monotheism both the largely defunct Jewish doctrine of election (the belief that a god chooses some people, nations, or forms of belief over others), the Christian mission to “evangelize” the world to believe in a unique message of salvation, together with a driving obsession with the finality of its eschatological vision:  There is no god but Allah; no Prophet beside or after Muhammad; and no revelation outside the Quran.

For some Muslims, like the branch of Islam represented by Islamic State, the entail of this finality is that there is also only one correct interpretation of this profession of faith:  not only Christians or unbelievers must be converted or face death, but also other Muslims who adhere to a heretical variant of the Takfirist-Salafist form of Sunni Islam to which they belong.  However, understanding the ideological species of Islam that IS represents does not explain their success, their growing popularity with Muslim youth from a variety of sectarian backgrounds, or the brutishness of their methods.

Image result for jihadi john

Theologically, both in its normal and “extreme” iterations Islam only superficially resembles Christianity.  The intuition of most Jews and Christians that Islam is ontically different from the other book traditions is actually a fairly precise judgment.  Islam is not “where” Christianity was five hunded years ago or a thousand years ago.  It is not a religion poised on the brink of reformation, enlightenment, and modernity but a religion whose cardinal assumptions seem to drive it repeatedly back into the cavernous recesses of its beginnings.  The most startling example of this recidivism is its view of history.

Judaism values its history as a history of suffering, almost uninterrupted between the Exile of the sixth century BCE and 1945.  But in dispersion, Jews came to see the value of history: history became their home, the Bible the sentimental record of their own contribution to civilization. The Persians, the Syrians and for a while the Romans–all immersed in their own national mythologies–permitted the Jews their cult, their temple, even the illusion of having     “kings,” but no Jewish civilization arose out of Jerusalem or the dead north of Samaria. By the second century of our era it had virtually disappeared from the map.  The historical destiny of Jews was expressed in their story as wanderers, survivors, and eventually in scholarship and ethics.  Jews were in history, as Eric Osborn once said of the biblical tradition, like a fish is in water.

Christianity given the choice between discarding the Hebrew legacy of their “Old” Testament or accepting it, accepted it in a symbolic and prophetic way—but at a time when Judaism too was beginning to understand religious origins more liberally, as though both faiths had a mechanism for self- correction and adaptation. For all the murderous petulance that characterized Jewish-Christian relations from the time of the Crusades to the time of the Inquisition to the Holocaust, Christians clung stubbornly to the premise that they were honorary Jews, adopted sons and daughters of the promise made to Abraham.  That is, they shared a common history of salvation, and one of the ways they were able to do this was grounded in the preservation of history and the acceptance over time of the transformative power of civilization through (sometimes cautious) acceptance of learning.  It is fair to say that both Judaism and Christianity today are essentially ethical movements whose doctrines and protagonists—up to and including God himself—are symbolic statements of what Paul Tillich once described as “ultimate concern.”  The existence of literalist strains of Christianity and Judaism do not undermine this essential pattern of demythologizing and adaptation.

The scenes out of Iraq show us the demonic side of monotheism: the desire to erase history as a way of laying claim to finality.  In Islam, the Qur’an is the final book, Muhammad the final prophet and the straight path of Islam the only path.  It is true that Judaism and Christianity once believed similarly rigid things about their truth- claims, but both of the original monotheisms underwent political and social disconfirmation that made it impossible to sustain the original doctrines in their original form or with the same intensity. Historical reality became the mechanism for adaptation and correction.   Judaism for example was never a “resurrection” faith even in the time of Jesus.  Its messiah was never an otherworldly figure, except after hopes of a this-worldly deliverer began to vanish.  Picking up on the minor theme of a divine son of God and messiah, Christianity too began in disappointment—its saviour had been executed by the Roman magistracy in Palestine with the collusion of Jewish leaders.  He had saved nobody, alienated many, and died an agitator and tax rebel.   This disappointment was rationalized (with plenty of help from popular Jewish apocalyptic texts) into a belief in a “second coming” when “all will be revealed”—a belief that could not be sustained over thousands of years of non-fulfillment.  In short, the core doctrines of Christianity and Judaism were disconfirmed by historical outcomes that could not have been foreseen in 700 BCE or 1000 CE.  History chipped enthusiasm down to size and taught these religions to live in a world that was increasingly demystified by science and explicable without the need for religion.

By contrast, the self-definition of Islam in its most extreme form–that it is final in every respect—has not been disconfirmed.  It is axiomatic that it cannot be.  Islam is counter-culturally and trans-historically true. And because the Salafi form of Islam does not recognize the analogy of its experience in Jewish and Christian antecedents (perhaps the most blatant example of its irrationalism) its zealots believe that they can effectively usher in the conditions for the Judgement.  They will do this by submitting fully to their interpretation of the will of Allah as announced by his human vizier,  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, otherwise known as the Caliph Ibrahim.

Image result for caliph ibrahim

They will do this by beheading unbelievers, torching heretics, forcing teenage girls into marriage with Muslim fighters.  They will do this by executing Shia Muslims, destroying the Assyrian Christians and their churches and homes, torturing and killing the Mandaens and Yazidis who have hung on by their nails for over a thousand years of persecution and indifference.  They will do this by smashing the priceless treasures of the ancient Akkadian Near East in Mosul’s Museum, and bulldozing the sites of ancient Nineveh and Nimrud, including the Mosque of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul.  They will do this by destroying thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul’s libraries.  Just as they have already done it by destroying Hatra using explosives and bulldozers. One attacker was filmed declaring,

“These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah.  The Prophet Muhammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.” (Morgan Winsor (5 March 2015). “ISIS Destroys Iraqi Archaeological Site Of Nimrud Near Mosul”. IBT.  Retrieved 8 March 2015.)

In the ISIL vision of the world, pre-Islamic history must not exist. Indeed it does not exist.  In their world every trace of a history that does not corroborate their narrow definition of the truth is demonic: it must be erased, destroyed, turned to rubble because God the all-powerful must (somehow) be threatened by 3000 tear old artefacts that stand deserted and quiet in the sands of Iraq .  History in their religious universe is a kind of illusion, a deception sent by the devil to distract earlier races and people from the true faith.  It cannot be preserved.  It must be erased, repealed.  History is the incarnation of the Unislamic, and the  the pre-Islamic is the greater part of that intolerable period before Allah revealed his will to the final Prophet.  The only position for a believer, on this calculation,  is to regard art, architecture, music, science, free inquiry and philosophy as heretical, while rape, arson, torture, destruction, beheading and violence (aided, to be sure by smart phones and slick media presentations) is the will of God.

The poisonous logic of the Caliph Ibrahim and his ISIL fighters is that by burying the remains of the past the past will lie still and stay dead.  But quite the opposite is happening: ruins that are largely untended in the Iraqi desert are now objects of veneration to millions who had never heard of them, and their ancient ghosts have been set free to roam and haunt the modern palaces of government and civilization–and more importantly, the modern consciousness.   No religion proves it is the fulfillment of history by hiding the evidence of the history that came before it. That is called lying. Deception.  It is what the Islamic  State is based on and, when it lay still and permanently dead in the destruction it has wreaked, what it will be remembered for.

Five Good Things about Atheism

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

It seems I cannot win.

When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.

It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.

To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.

As far as I can tell, there are five:

1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and…

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Three Fewer Things to Say About Atheism

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Mao and Stalin were atheists. This proves that atheists are not socially tolerant. I can probably think of a hundred names to add to the list to build a case. But it would be the wrong case because, surely, it was communism that supplied the evangelical intolerance of the social and economic movements we associate with Stalinism and Maoism. Atheism is simply a component of a larger picture. (As I mentioned to the reader who lodged the objection, this is a good example of the fallacy of division.)

Beyond this, we can’t deny that the ideologues of the communist movement understood atheism as a formative mind-set: Marx (and Engels) began as left-Hegelians, along with a half dozen theologians ranging from Strauss to the early myth-theorist Bruno Bauer. Their atheism flowed from a material view of the world and a rejection of the superstition that could be used to keep the…

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Religion and Moral Intelligence

“The gods must die so that humanity might live.” (The Buddha)

The naturalist philosopher Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world. Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle. Many people who regard themselves as religious believe it as well.

The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.

The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it. To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support. The book religions taken as diagrams for modern life are irrelevant, regressive and inadequate. In the case of some, the religious practices are more than irrelevant: They are dangerous and inhumane. They are incompatible with common sense and moral intelligence.

Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water. The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion. Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any.

Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of moral values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—-homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor.

We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world. As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our Promethean effort to understand. At the same time, in a strictly literal sense, these gods do not exist and have never existed. To the extent that people continue to believe that there are sources and standards of authority beyond humanity, that belief has to be accounted irrational. Individual religions become dangerous and irrational precisely to the extent they maintain that morality is not created but revealed or dictated by unseen powers.

At the same time, there is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule. The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history. We cannot be guilty of what we once believed or what we did not know three thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago. Yet we are guilty if we continue to believe it today. As rational creatures, we have a moral responsibility not to believe it, and a moral responsibility to embrace the description of the world that science provides and every day makes more clear to us. It is intellectually important to know our religious past. It is intellectually irresponsible and absurd to let the world-view and life-stances of our ancient predecessors determine the way in which we should lead our lives, make decisions, or form political communities.

It is not true to say that religion has nothing to teach us. It is true that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created. The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.

Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now. But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago. Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history. Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.” A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error. Yet that is what religion once required of us.

For these reasons morally responsible women and men will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route. But they will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of this moral intelligence. The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82). The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.”

That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.