Sunday, 8/3/14

    1. Is religion anti-social?
    2. A notable 50th anniversary
    3. The social uses of neurosis


Is religion anti-social?

We still read heartening stories like that of medical missionary Kent Brantly, who may lose his life for having selflessly fought Ebola in West Africa. Whatever I suspect about the shortcomings of Evangelicalism, Evangelical Brantly’s “once more unto the breach” attitude toward fighting this modern plague has deep roots in the lives of Christianity’s Saints through the ages, as they cared for the sick and dying at known personal risk, even if they didn’t know the germ theory of disease, in earlier plagues.

A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.”

(G.K. Chesterton)

But I’m starting to encounter a different, more ominous genre, too. I’m writing in day 2 of Orthodox Christianity’s 14-day Dormition Fast. While we don’t fast utterly – no food or water – as do Muslims from sunup to sundown in Ramadan, my ears still perked up at the NPR story As Millions Of People Fast For Ramadan, Does The Economy Suffer?

[S]ince Muslims who observe Ramadan are supposed to fast from dawn until sunset, what this means is that the length of fasting will depend on the season. Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott analyzed changes in the lengths of fasting in a 167 countries over more than 60 years. And they measured how economic productivity rose and fell in those countries over time. And they found that longer periods of fasting were associated with a drop in productivity. So having your fasting from go from 12 hours a day to 13 hours a day, for example, means a GDP drop of about seven-tenths of 1 percent, which is quite sizable. And interestingly they find that this effect is only in Muslim-majority countries, so they’re not picking up on some seasonal variation in economic productivity.

This really is a story about scientific method in one of the social sciences, and I don’t fault NPR for it. But consider what Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott were studying. How may readers, maybe, reacted to my block quote by thinking ill of Muslims for a religious practice that “hurts the economy”?

“Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking—thinking!”

“[I]ndustrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”

(Brave New World, Kindle Edition at locations 661, 2878)

The NPR story also, to its credit, added a countervailing point:

VEDANTAM: … Muslims who are observant seem to place greater focus of family, greater focus on social well-being rather than individual well-being. And there’s survey data from more than 200,000 people in dozens of countries that produces a finding that your standard economist might not like. Here is Campante again.

CAMPANTE: Muslim individuals become more likely to report that they’re happy and that they’re satisfied with their lives. So in that sense, the practice of Ramadan may make people poorer as a result of the slow-down in economic activity and the way they sort of choose to change their economic behavior. But on the other hand, it seems that they are happier.

GREENE: Material versus non-material satisfaction, right?

Right. But your standard economist might not like it.

O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picknicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungaily laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.

(Ezra Pound)

[See this, too.]

Saturday’s Washington Post ran an editorial, What we need to fight Ebola, that hits me “closer to home” than a story about how some other religion’s rigorous fasting retards their nations’ economies (though I’m sure that Orthodox fasting affects the economy, too):

Relatives may have extensive contact with an infected person before he or she dies, or they may help prepare the body for burial. Funeral traditions in Africa frequently involve washing the body before it is buried, which can mean contact with blood and other infectious bodily fluids. Public health workers haven’t been able to curtail this traditional practice; it’s a challenge that puts religious and cultural beliefs in direct conflict with infection control.

This African funeral tradition – essentially the community cherishing and preparing a brother or sister for a funeral – within the community, without corporate funeral homes, including lovingly washing the body – is Orthodoxy’s tradition as well, and there’s an effort to recover it from the captivity of the corporate funeral industry. So I guess we’re un-hygenic, at odds with infection control (as was Dr. Brantly, it appears).

[N]o offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual—and, after all, what is an individual?” With a sweeping gesture he indicated the rows of microscopes, the test-tubes, the incubators. “We can make a new one with the greatest ease—as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself. Yes, at Society itself ….”

Brave New World, Kindle Edition at location 1771)

During Megan McArdle’s speech about social versus financial capital to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, I found myself thinking “if there’s a trade-off, is it really so self-evident that people will be better off if we wean them from reciprocal altruism and make them individualists instead?”

Every one of the popular modern phases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good . . . The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

(G.K. Chesterton)

There’s no persecution in what I’ve just outlined. It’s by no means certain that persecution or secular dhimmitude is the eventuality of it. But I’m trying to be vigilant …

The modern state views religion as an anomaly; it is at least a nuisance and at worst a threat. This is not surprising. After all, religion posits another sovereignty, a superior sovereignty, against the sovereignty of the state.

Whenever the Guardians of the existing order claim that someone or something is unfit or unsuitable (as in private schools being unfit or producing unfit citizens), or that only the state schools produce “good education”, we must ask “good for what?”, “fit for what?” and “suitable for what?”, because it is not the job of government to tell us what our deepest values and ends should (or must) be.

(William Bentley Ball)

… and to inculcate vigilance and a philosophical bent in others, too.

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy, certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution . . . . he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords.”

(G.K. Chesterton)


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Flannery of Andalusia at Milledgeville.

A world indifferent to its need for redemption is not indifferent to the possibility of redemption; it’s a world hostile to that possibility. Down the centuries, the mockery endured by Christ on the cross may stand as the paradigmatic expression of that hostility.

The Church meets this hostility by doubling down on its conviction that the truths it professes are really true, and in fact reveal the deepest truth of the human condition. Flannery O’Connor again:

the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection . . . are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of those laws . . . [It] would never have occurred to human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.

You can’t get much more countercultural than that. Yet what Miss O’Connor wrote speculatively in 1955 what was the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council solemnly affirmed a decade later, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “in the mystery of the word made flesh … the mystery of man truly becomes clear … Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam… fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”

(George Weigel, Easter with Flannery O’Connor)


Sorry for all the thought crimes of the preceding articles. I can only hope they’re the product of neurosis in the best sense.

You wouldn’t want [a neurotic] operating on your brain or flying you cross the Andes in a jet or in charge of things when there’s a Red Alert, but when it comes to writing poems and novels or painting pictures or even preaching sermons, it’s hard to beat them. Their overactive imaginations, which are a curse elsewhere, are a blessing there. Personally speaking, their oversensitivity may be their undoing, but professionally it’s one of their strongest cards. They may see and hear and feel more than is good for them, but there’s no question that, with the exception of their immediate families, it’s good for everybody else.

(Frederick Buechner)

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.