Religious tribalism

As a prefatory matter, I have long believed that one’s guiding philosophy is functionally religious. That has ramifications beyond what follows, but those are for another day. For now, think of it as “atheist Stephen Hawking had a religion of sorts.” It’s the sort of thing “scientism” was coined for.

In an episode of “The Briefing,” yesterday Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary reflected on the death of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. You can read a full transcript of the eight minute segment on Hawking using the link above.

Here is how the episode was summarized on Mohler’s Facebook page, which I think is broadly representative of what Dr. Mohler said on the show:

We believe that Stephen Hawking and all of his brilliance was simply evidence of the fact that he was a human being made in God’s image but a human being who died without God. That’s the great tragedy but that’s not what you’re likely to read in the obituaries.

Instead what you’re going to see is a secular world trying to find a secular reason to celebrate a secular thinker and to say something significant about the meaning of his life. At the end of the day, the secular worldview can provide no argument for why the life of Stephen Hawking was ever significant nor your life nor my life. Only the biblical worldview can answer that question and it does profoundly answer that question.

The thing that struck me when a friend showed the post to me is this: If you swapped “Oppenheimer” for “Hawking” and, on the Facebook post, changed the name and photo from Mohler to Francis Schaeffer you could show the entire post to someone, say that Schaeffer wrote it on the occasion of Oppenheimer’s death in 1967 and… it’d be believable.

I love Schaeffer so I don’t mean that purely as criticism of Dr. Mohler. If we must talk like an evangelical from the 1960s, Schaeffer is a very good one to choose. And yet when you read that take on Hawking’s death, the tedium of it still comes across.

Earlier this week I got coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Like me, he grew up in an abusive fundamentalist church which left him with plenty of baggage to work through over a number of years. As we talked, the conversation turned to the work of Jordan Peterson and to a debate that my friend had seen in which Peterson and William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist, argued over the possibility of meaning in human life. I said to my friend that several Christian friends of mine watched the debate and were far more impressed by Peterson than they were Craig. My friend nodded. “Peterson doesn’t care about winning,” he said. “Craig wanted to a win a debate. Peterson wanted to pursue truth.”

If there is a defining problem with a certain brand of reformed evangelicalism, it is that we care more about winning—winning debates, winning political campaigns, winning institutional battles—than we do about simply pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful.

(Jake Meador, The Tedium of Worldview Analysis at Mere Orthodoxy)

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Not just like worldly music

From my personal journal 4 – 1/2 years ago:

Should I ever be tempted to say that CCM is “just like worldly music,” I should resist. There’s a cheesy, oily sound to CCM vocals that marks it as “Christian” music within the first four vocal bars.

And then from 9/13/13:

Tough day. I looked at Syrian beheading photos and listened to CCM for 7 minutes. Ouch!

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Lossy compression

I just (when I wrote; not when this was released) finished reading two blogs and a New Atlantis article, all three related. They individually and collectively hit me so powerfully that I have scheduled a reminder to come back to them after they’ve had a chance to marinate a bit.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the blogs, that of Swarthmore’s Timothy Burke, in a delayed reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy that liberal political dispositions “are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events”:

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do …

Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

I am not quoting that to mock those of liberal political disposition, or Timothy Burke, or Swarthmore. In fact, I pretty much share that “Trump is sacrilege” feeling. I appreciate how well Burke elaborated it.

Nor do I quote that to convince my readers that “Trump is sacrilege.” The other two things I read, both by Alan Jacobs, are on what I think it a more enduring concern, at least to me at this juncture of my life. That concern involves at least three key terms, by my parsing:

  • Information density.
  • Mythical core.
  • Lossy compression.

Stay tuned. I suspect there will be more coming on this concern, but it needs to ferment/marinate first.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the time, I’ve given the links. The mashup of the three strikes me as challenging but not really unfamiliar or beyond the reach of an intelligent reader. But then, I may have a pretty unusual reading history that prepared me for this challenge.

Here’s what Alan Jacobs said about it:

And Wesley Hill:

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

More worrisome than fast lanes and slow lanes

What worries me more than fast lanes and slower lanes on the internet:

[T]he [Google/Facebook] duopoly’s dominance threatens the marketplace of ideas. Beyond advertising, Google and Facebook control how millions of people find their news. Americans are far likelier, collectively, to encounter articles via search engines and social media than on a news site’s home page.

Google is used for nearly 90% of online searches in the U.S. A Pew survey this summer found that the four most popular social-media sites for getting news are Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google), Twitter (which has a Google partnership), and Instagram (owned by Facebook). No more than 5% of Americans use another social-media platform to get news.

If executives at a Silicon Valley monopoly [e.g., Google] believe that censoring certain content will push the world in a positive direction, market pressures cannot sufficiently restrain them.

Journalists also argue that tech companies are pushing media toward the lowest common denominator. Social media rewards clickbait—sensational headlines that confirm readers’ biases. Google and Facebook’s advertising duopoly bleeds traditional publishers of the revenue needed to produce high-quality news. At the same time, Google’s search engine is biased against subscription content, depleting another source of funding.

The bottom line is that Google’s and Facebook’s advertising policies and algorithms make it less profitable to produce high-quality journalism from any perspective. Their duopoly also gives tech executives the power to defund and block content they personally object to without taking a major hit to the bottom line.

(Mark Epstein, Wall Street Journal) Unlike fast lanes and slow lanes, this threat is not hypothetical. It is making us stupider already:

In a November speech, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, argued that “edge providers” like social-media websites and search engines “routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.” Mr. Pai cited YouTube’s decision to place age restrictions on and pull ads from videos by conservative commentator Dennis Prager’s Prager University, including a video by Alan Dershowitz on Israel’s founding.

He also pointed to Twitter’s suspension of a pro-life campaign ad from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, an action that would have been illegal if done by a TV or radio station. Twitter has refused sponsored tweets from immigration opponents, saying its hate-speech policy is triggered by messages such as “the fiscal cost created by illegal immigrants of $746.3b compares to total a cost of deportation of $124.1b.”

When virtually all online advertising goes through two companies …, they have the power to harm websites arbitrarily. One political blog that posted an article trying to distinguish the “alt-right” from white nationalism received a warning email from Google’s AdSense team. An editor took the article down, explaining to readers that the blog “needs revenue from the Google ad platform in order to survive.” You needn’t agree with the editorial decision to publish the article to be troubled by Google’s vetoing it.

On top of all that, Google and Facebook are entirely opaque about how they decide what to put under your nose when you do a Google search or go to wherever it is that people go on Facebook to (eeewwww!) get world news. All we know is that paid advertising has something to do with it. Beyond that, Google keeps search algorithms secret partly for the legitimate purpose of keeping content providers from gaming the system.

Need I note that this article is unlikely to appear at the top of your Google search or on Facebook if, God help you, Facebook is where you go for actual news about the world?

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Some more on sexual harassment

In Monday’s Washington Post, Sally Kohn argues that “Sexual harassment should be treated as a hate crime”:

We have to stop seeing sexual harassment and sexual assault as some sort of flattery of women gone awry. In truth, sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, or sexuality, or flirting, or courtship, or love. Rather, sexual assault is a kind of hate. The men who gratify themselves by abusing women aren’t getting off on those women, but on power. These men don’t sexually assault women because they like women but because they despise them as subordinate creatures. We should call it misogynistic harassment and misogynistic assault, not sexual assault. These are hate crimes.

Had she stopped there, the column would have been another example of why “hate crime laws” are noxious weeds, but she didn’t stop:

I don’t mean this in the formal, legal sense. Hate crimes are already problematic ….

Whew! That’s a relief!

But then, what’s her point?

  • We need to fight the misogyny, sexism and the systemic marginalization of women and disproportionate empowerment of men. That’s what creates the society-wide dynamic in which men think they’re better than women …
  • the predictable dynamics of a society that hates women.
  • we need to see about how our boardrooms and stockrooms and classrooms and family dining rooms teach, incentivize and perpetuate misogynistic hate.
  • Employers also need to address misogynistic hate deep within corporate culture and rooted in business policies …
  • Whether we realize it or not, most men hate women. As do most women as well; studies show
  • we’ve all grown up inside the rotten barrel of a society that automatically grants men disproportionate power and privilege …
  • it’s the rotten air we’ve all learned to breathe. That’s the rot at the core of misogynistic harassment and assault — a rot within all of us, that has nothing to do with sex or affection and everything to do with hate.

My synthesis of that list of quotes is “our society is rotten, top to bottom and surface to core. Maybe even that nature is rotten.

I’ve complained that we’re not getting to the bottom of the sexual harassment revelations (and no doubt false accusations in at least a few cases), so I’ll give Kohn credit for trying to get more radical (that is, getting to the roots).

But her “woke” indictment is too sweeping to be of any use. It’s the secular counterpart to a generic Christian meta-explanation “Why? Because ‘sin,’ that’s why, dummy” or a Calvinist positing that it’s all fore-ordained to glorify God’s sovereign good pleasure.

The level of generality it too high to help. Only the “woke” will bite, and if they try to impose some specific top-down solutions to a society that is (according to Kohn) so fundamentally rotten, they’ll produce more populist backlash, more Donald Trumps, more Roy Moores.

Maybe there are a few nuggets in there, but I rate it, overall, “not helpful.”

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Maybe I’m too pessimistic about progress on sexual harassment thus far:

There is a radical change in culture. Things which used to be tolerated by both genders are now increasingly defined as inconceivable. And I find it interesting that this case focuses on the margins: You said, but you didn’t touch. It’s a good place for the debate to be. It’s an interesting indication how the culture has changed.

(Amitai Etzioni) “Inconceivable.” Oh! Wait! That was written 26 years ago! Never mind.

(H/T Joel Mathis, who’s somewhat skeptical himself.)

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Helpful—no, make that “Bracing”:

Sexual harassment is a filthy offense. However, it is impossible to restrain unless we acknowledge a standard of sexual morality.

To avoid conceding any such thing, workplaces have taken to defining sexual harassment as unwanted sexual attention toward another person. In other words, the point isn’t what one is actually doing, but how the other party receives it. It is entirely subjective.

Such a standard is unworkable, because the lecher cannot know whether his beastly attention is unwanted until he commits it. The rule merely encourages him to give it a try. If the other party is too intimidated to object, his behavior is not identifiable as harassment even then.

Suppose we define sexual harassment in the older way, as lewd attention toward another person. Whether attention is lewd does not depend on what the other party thinks of it.

Persisting in lewd behavior over the protests of the other person makes it still more despicable, of course. But it would have been despicable anyway.

(J. Budziszewski)

Note that the second paragraph is cognate with David French’s observation that for sex to happen, somebody must “make the ask.” French’s point was that consent is vitiated if the askor is disproportionately powerful relative to the askee.

Budziszewski is going a level deeper, and his definition would improve things. But even workplace flirtation strikes me as a problem when there’s a power imbalance.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

 

Resilience

Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

There are two more paragraphs in this Wall Street Journal “Notable & Quotable” from Jonathan Haidt, the last sounding a hopeful note about America’s resilience.

I, too, see signs that the great ship of culture is swinging around on some of the issues that concern me, as, for instance, younger people begin re-populating our walkable cities, many of them choosing not to own an automobile.

There’s no government edict to depopulate the suburbs, and the fears (justified) of peak oil are abated. But as if by instinct, people are behaving as if they grok this little slice of fossil-fuel reality, whether or not they articulate it.

I suspect that some shift will happen, too, in America’s recent tendency toward secularization, though I can’t claim to know how the shift will come about, or just how the new landscape will appear.

No, God never promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church anywhere, howsoever temporarily, but I doubt that America’s becoming so unfaithful that Africa must send missionaries with the Gospel any time soon. (To echo Jonathan Haidt, though, I have very low confidence in my optimism about this.)

But I am bearish on Evangelicalism (if you hadn’t noticed). Coincidentally (providentially?), Michael Gerson has some supporting commentary both for resilience in general but with specific bearishness on Evangelicalism:

It is sometimes assumed (including by me) that the presidency sets a moral tone for the nation, influencing what society considers normal and acceptable in a kind of trickle-down ethics. But the sexual harassment revolution emerged from society in spite of — or even in defiance of — a president who has boasted of exploiting women and who stands accused of harassing more than a dozen.

This is a reminder that the moral dynamics of a nation are complex, which should come as no surprise to conservatives (at least of the Burkean variety). This is a big country, capable of making up its own collective mind. Politics reaches only the light zone of a deep ocean. It is a sign of hope that moral and ethical standards can assert themselves largely unaided by political, entertainment and media leaders ….

[R]apid shifts in social norms should be encouraging to social reformers of various stripes. Attitudes and beliefs do not move on a linear trajectory. A period of lightning clarity can change the assumptions and direction of a culture.

I elided some comments about how the country is moving to a better place on sexual harassment, because of that I’m quite skeptical, for reasons I’ve mentioned in recent blogs. But Gerson has a big Evangelical fish to fry:

And where did this urgent assertion of moral principle come from? Not from the advocates of “family values.” On the contrary, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family (now under much better management), chose to side with GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama against his highly credible accusers. “I have been dismayed and troubled,” Dobson said, “about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment.”

It is as if Dobson set out to justify every feminist critique of the religious right. Instead of standing against injustice and exploitation — as the Christian gospel demands — Dobson sided with patriarchal oppression in the cause of political power. This is beyond hypocrisy. It is the solidarity of scary, judgmental old men. It is the ideology of white male dominance dressed up as religion.

This is how low some religious conservatives have sunk ….

Dobson isn’t just “religious.” He’s Evangelical. As is Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s angry son, a reliable voice in support of guys like Roy Moore. I know of at least one other Evangelical scandal that could explode, involving a substantially fraudulent CV of a prominent Evangelical apologist. I’m not sure why it hasn’t exploded yet.

Some places remain, though, where student are given lenses other than “power”:

Imagine a beautiful garden in the midst of a gray, industrial, bleak city. The city’s architecture is functional only, given totally to the making of money or to the most ephemeral, when not downright base, forms of entertainment. This city is all big box store and mega-super-cinema-plex. But the garden is lovely, lush, and inviting. It is full of beautiful growth and well-crafted stonework. It is a place for true recreation and joyful exercise. And it is ancient, passed down through generations of city-dwellers as a place of relief and regeneration.

What would you think of the generation that let that garden die?

What would you think of a people who intentionally destroyed it?

In short, the main reason Western civilization, with an emphasis on “Great Books,” deserves a prominent—indeed, the prominent—place in the curriculum of the Christian university is stewardship ….

(Benjamin Myers, The Christian University: Steward of Western Civilization) At Myers’ university, there’s a required 15 credits in Western Civilization. Bully for them! Myers:

Let us not cheapen the noble goal of exploring world cultures by pretending that three hours in Polynesian folklore is as good as fifteen hours in Western civilization, when we really just want to open up twelve more hours for the study of management or sports nutrition.

Remember the old quip—I think it was from William F. Buckley—that the problem with liberals (“progressives” probably would have been more apt) is they can’t begin to describe the utopia in which they’d finally be conservative because all at last was well?

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that universities and liberal arts colleges like Myers’ be left unmolested because those who would homogenize education and stamp out unfashionable truths are themselves unstable chasers-after ephemera and delusions. This has been my conviction for nearly 50 years.

Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz, by the way?

Resilience. I like that hopeful word. It’s a nice balance to my usual doom and gloom.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

 

Out-takes

A plurality of Alabama Republicans nominated Roy Moore, a judge famously removed, twice, from his office as chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, as their candidate in the upcoming election to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. Moore’s appeal lay mainly in his promise to offend the sensibilities of the great and the good in Washington. He has a talent for saying things that incense the elite—that “the transgenders don’t have rights,” that parts of Illinois and Indiana are under sharia law—but he is not otherwise accomplished. He is a small, countrified Trump.

Now Moore faces credible accusations that he preyed on underage girls, and his circumlocutory denials seem to confirm the allegations’ truth. They won’t end his candidacy, however, because the people who invested most heavily in outsiderism and the benefits of “disruption” can’t bring themselves to believe what everybody else can see clearly: that they’ve backed a fraud …

We understand … that there was never any hope of persuading President Trump to disavow his support for Moore. The president, as he amply proved in his responses to the Charlottesville riots last August, is constitutionally incapable of condemning anyone, no matter how awful, who has praised Donald J. Trump.

This sudden addiction to troublemaking has been called “populism,” and maybe it is. The populisms of the past, however, had content—a set of ideas or ideals, however imperfectly expressed. The new populism looks like nothing more than a perverse need to outrage the nation’s bien pensants.

(The Weekly Standard)

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Any doubt about where the Economist stands on this race?

Okay, then: the title is “Doug Jones against the darkness.”

IMG_0364

I long ago ceased being enough of an Anglophile to care what anyone in England thinks. I’ll neither grovel for their approval nor flash them the bird.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

From my Twitter feed

I’m strongly inclined to agree with Shapiro on that.

By analogy, I am pretty confident it’s possible for a couple to, say, marry before one of them is through college, practice contraception to allow that one the best chance to finish college on time, and not buy into the culture of death by so doing. But if Rome is right on this (which I often wonder), they’re still doing a bad thing, and they’re probably creating cognitive dissonance should they wish later to criticize “the contraceptive mentality.”

A society that decides that contraception should make every child Planned® is a different story.

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I think he’s burned that bridge, but I am regularly amazed at people’s credulity and partisan flip-flopping.

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Let me translate:

One thing the Roy Moore reaction proves: Rod Dreher is totally correct in his Benedict Option book to place no hope for Christian conservatives in the old Religious Right.

He’s got that right. If they’re not uniformly corrupt, politically and morally compromised, the old Religious Right is too full of metastatic corruption and compromise to even hold out hope for them.

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* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Nothing happened

Somehow, a day passed without anything notable happening.

Well, nothing notable and edifying came to my attention.

The sky continued to fall down around Baton Rouge (here endeth my cryptic allusion, which some of you will get), and some Polish Catholics, with the help of a Jesuit priest, did a profane rap nuptial mass (6:23 pm November 1) that sets back the possibility of Orthodox/Catholic ecumenism by about 25 years.

So I’m going to step back to yesterday’s Performance Today, which reminded me of an earlier encounter (via From the Top) with Gateways Music Festival, a concept surpassingly wonderful, which I’ll let you encounter for yourself, without further ado.

Be edified.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.