The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.

 

Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Hume’s Atheism And God As Nature

The ‘freethinker’ Anthony Collins is said to have commented on Samuel Clarke‘s Boyle Lectures on the existence of God that “it had never occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God until Clarke tried so hard to prove it.” (noted in John Clayton’s Reason, Religion, and Gods: Essays in Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, pp. 314.) I was reminded of this “mischievous” remark yesterday afternoon during my philosophy of religion class, as we discussed David Hume’s ‘Of Miracles‘–which carries out a systematic epistemic debunking of claims for the existence of miracles– for at one point a very bright student asked: Professor, what exactly were Hume’s views on religion? Was he an atheist? (This was her third encounter with Hume this semester, whom we had encountered before in two extracts from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions–against the argument from design, and a statement of the problem of evil.)

Hume scholars will recognize quite readily the can of worms being opened by such a query. (Googling ‘Was Hume an atheist?’ should provide some hint of the dimensions of said can.) Here, I just want to make note of a provocative remark that Philo makes in his rejoinder to Cleanthes in Part VII of the Dialogues–as part of the refutation of the argument from design:

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle?….If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

It seems to me in these closing sentences that two claims are present: a) Hume suggests that ‘rational’ approaches to proving the existence of God are destined to fail in that they push beyond the bounds of experience and thus, transgress the limits of what can be known or claimed to be true, and b) if there is a referent for the term ‘God’ then the most reasonable thing would be to identify it with the ‘principle of order [of] the present material world.’ The former reasserts Hume’s empiricist biases in metaphysics and epistemology; the latter, more interestingly, supplies another conceptualization of the term ‘God.’ (Hume’s further claim that ‘the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better’ suggests that the longer the chains of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence, the more susceptible they will be refutation.)

So for Hume, the best way to make sense of ‘God’–the only kind of ‘God’ whose existence we could reasonably claim to believe in–is as the principles that underwrite the sensible world we experience. The laws of nature, for instance. God, then, is not the Author of Nature, God is Nature. If ‘atheism’ is defined as the rejection of the standard theistic conception of God as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful–then Hume was an atheist.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

No Atheists in Foxholes, My Ass

Here is vignette #7 from Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out . Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

This little bon mot, intended to deflate the pretensions of skeptics and disbelievers has a long and dishonorable history; it is often trotted out, a triumphant smirk spreading across the countenance of the faithful as they surmise they have honed in on the Achilles heel of the atheist. The atheist stands indicted: he is merely a fair weather disbeliever. When the chips fall, he will duck for cover under the shelter provided by the Good Lord, just like the rest of us. (There is another, crafty, way to interpret it, of course: that only believers go to war. But I don’t, ahem, believe that.)

I wonder if the faithful ever stop to think–I know, silly question–about how awful an argument for faith this is. It suggests that our true believing nature will be revealed  when shells are cascading down around us, when, in short, we are possessed by extreme fear, anxiety, and panic.

But why would anyone imagine that a psychological state riven by such extreme sensations and affects is one in which we will rationally come to hold beliefs? One might as well just say that in these states, we witness the breakdown of rational decision-making and belief formation, that the beliefs held by those in foxholes are forced upon them by their circumstances.

Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios:

[A] standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed’….The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true.

But:

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

To conclude, let me complete my excerpting of the vignette above:

The shelling moved further up the line . We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

Note: Italics and capitalization of Hemingway vignette as in original 1986 Scribner Classic edition, pp. 67

Margaret Cavendish, Epicureanism, and Philosophy as Confession

In her erudite and enjoyable Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity Catherine Wilson makes note of Margaret Cavendish‘s participation in the so-called “Cavendish Salon” in Paris, which served as “the center of a revival of Epicureanism led by Hobbes and Gassendi.” Cavendish, who might have obtained her knowledge of that school of thought either through her own translations of the originals or from Hobbes, went on to write Philosophicall Fancies, which would serve as one of the “earliest print references to the reviving doctrine.”

Interestingly, Wilson suggests Cavendish’s philosophical inclinations were grounded in her biography:

Echoing Lucretius‘s unforgettable opening passage on the murder of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, Cavendish went on to say in The World’s Olio of 1655 that it was better to be an atheist than superstitious; atheism fostered humanity and civility, whereas superstition only bred cruelty. Unlike More and Descartes, Cavendish recognized no spirits or incorporeal substances in her metaphysical system. Consciousness depended in her view on a material substrate: Nature makes a brain out of matter so that there can be perception and appreciation of the material world.

Cavendish’s religious skepticism and her initial attraction to the atomic philosophy reflected the somewhat rebellious and resentful attitudes of one excluded from participation in the learned world and essentially powerless. Accustomed to being ruled and ordered about by fathers, husbands, and even sons, early modern women might have been drawn to a philosophy in which nature was depicted as accomplishing everything by herself [note Wilson’s use of the feminine pronoun here] without taking direction from an autocratic and psychologically impenetrable divinity. Lucretius insisted that ‘nature is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods’, and Cavendish proposed that:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make,
For being subtile, every shape they take;
And as they dance about, they places find,
Of Forms, that best agree, make every Kind.
[Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London:1664),6]

.

As this marvelous collection of quotations–put together by Peter Suber–shows, the idea that philosophy works as a kind of confession has a long and storied history. Among the most famous proponents of this metaphilosophical thesis was, of course, Nietzsche.

First, in Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann, University of Nebraska Press, 1984 (original 1878):

[§513] However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.

And then most memorably, in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1966 (original 1886).

[§6] Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument….

Links added throughout; Nietzsche quotations from Suber’s page

Lessius and the Fear Theory of Atheism

The ‘fear theory’ of the origin of religion is sometimes traced back to Democritus and Lucretius; it may be found too, in David Hume‘s Natural History of Religion. In its most general form, mankind conjured up God and the gods when made aware of its fragility in the face of nature’s capriciousness and power, its inevitable, painful and slow death. The seventeenth century Catholic theologian Leynard (Lenaert) Leys (latinized: Leonardus Lessius) who enjoyed a long, productive and influential career at the University of Leuven, although perhaps most famous for his 1605 treatise De justitia et jure (On Justice and Law) ‘that went through more than twenty editions in the 17th century alone’ provided an ingenious response–of sorts–to it. It does not amount to–and certainly does not intend to be–a refutation of the fear theory; it presupposes the existence of God, so it does not form part of the dialectic dedicated to the task of establishing such claims. Instead, it applies a converse version of the fear theory to atheism and thus seeks to ground its proponents’ claims in their own particular psychological pathology.

In his De Providentia Numinis et Animi Immortalitate, Libri Duo Adversus Atheos et Politicos (On the Providence of the Deity, and the Immortality of the Soul, Against Atheists and Politicians), which contained some arguments from design–fifteen in all–for the existence of God, and was translated in 1631 into English as Rawleigh: His Ghost, Lessius explains atheism thus: Man seeks to deny religious belief because secretly he accepts its teachings and fears the terrible penalties that will accrue to him on Judgment Day because of his sinful, dissolute life. Afflicted by this agonizing fear, unable to reconcile himself to its terrifying finality and perhaps unable to change his sinning ways, he conjures up atheism and its associated doctrines, notions which deny the existence of God. This lack of belief in a Supreme Being then, relieves him from his fear by getting rid of the cause of that fear.

(The targets of Lessius’ polemic are not particularly notorious. He relied on lists made by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Claudius Aelianus and identified, among others, the following:  Diagoras of Melos and Protagoras; Theodore of Cyrene and Bion of Borysthenes; Lucian; and besides Democritus and Lucretius, Epicurus.)

Lessius’ theory–while certainly a clever bit of work–is false. It is so largely because: a) arguments against the existence of God are quite as successful as they are–via their refutation of positive arguments for that claim–and show belief in the existence of a Supreme Being to be lacking any rational foundation; and b) in sharp contradistinction to the prima facie plausibility granted to the fear theory of theism by the oft-expressed fears of the unknown by the faithful, it relies on ascribing a wholesale ‘false consciousness’ to atheists.

Sources:

1. Michael J. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press, 2004, pp 30-33.

2. S. N. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion, Manohar Books, 2013, pp. 159.