Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Meanwhile, in Atheist Land

Now that Christopher Hitchens has died and people have ceased to care much about Richard Dawkins's strident atheism, apparently others have decided they need to take up the slack. Thus we are presented, in the NYT, with a fairly tame and tired defense of atheistic morality, courtesy of one Louise M. Antony, who "teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst." She does not give me a lot of confidence in the quality of instruction there, as she skips over the whole 19th-20th century demolition of natural law with nary a mention of so crucial a figure as our old buddy Friedrich Nietzsche. On the strength of this recommendation I've taken up reading Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh, and while I would agree that, thus far, he goes a little easy on the allies (an early section on Churchill leans to the hagiographic) the relentless listing of the atrocity-based methods of Nazi and Communist rule laves me with little doubt about their moral systems. Yes, atheists can be moral, and that's mostly because most atheists in the USA at least take their moral compass from the hands of those Enlightenment moralists who fused Christian and old pagan virtue; one doubts, however, that Marx was enamored of the Stoics. The years passed, and we all saw that, in the end, almost anything could be justified, or indeed justification set aside entirely. Natural law worked only as long as all more or less agreed on its basic principles, and in time, that agreement failed.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post we have yet another tired atheist trope, this time in the declaration that "Celebration, despite their protests, does not belong solely to the pious." Here the question is why the irreligious should celebrate Christmas, to which this particular pious person must reply, "Madame, you may celebrate, but you do not observe Christmas." We of course must be trotted through all the tired old saws about how it's really a co-opted pagan holiday anyway (which may or may not be true) and how it's about family and stuff, and one longs for Linus to set Charlie Brown straight again for another year. As with nearly everything about Christian holidays, it's all about anamnesis, the annual recollection of the miracle of the incarnation, how God hallowed human flesh to the utmost and set us on the road to Calvary and redemption. All that family stuff is nice if your family is pleasant and hell if they aren't, and giving presents can likewise cut either way depending upon how you feel about shopping. But it's all supplementary to the real observance of the feast. Our atheist is sentimental; we are faithful. There is a great and unbridgeable gulf between the two.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pantheist Broadcasting Service

So here I am in the living room, having made my squash and shrimp bisque (recipe to follow), and I've turned on WETA, the local PBS station. And they're showing Journey of the Universe, which at first seems to be some sort of Grand Science Survey a la Carl Sagan's old Cosmos series. However, the film's thesis, it appears, is founded in an expression of religion: Brian Swimme, the scientist you see on screen, is frequently identified as a pantheist, and the theologian you don't see, at least in the first episode, is Mary Evelyn Tucker, who is strongly connected to evolutionary and environmental theology.

Swimme's earlier book, The Universe Is a Green Dragon, expresses the view that there is a teleology to cosmic history. You can read this excerpt to get a flavor of the thing. What is striking isn't so much the religious spin he puts on the facts of cosmology, but that PBS is so willing to present this stuff in this way. It's hard to imagine John Polkinghorne stood up in front of the camera to present his very Anglican and very Christian view of the same topics, and not just because he isn't as handsome as Swimme, or for that matter as Deepak Chopra, whose Hindu-esque/new-age take on Christianity also saw PBS airtime. It's rather obvious that the public television people are uncomfortable with letting Christianity express itself on their airwaves, except as a historical relic (any number of "historical Jesus" programs) or as the source of aesthetic outpourings (Sister Wendy and various musical presentations). But they aren't uncomfortable with religion when it makes nothing more than impersonal demands which happen to already line up with their subculture's mores.

In the case of the program at hand, those demands are environmentalist, and never mind the irony that Tucker herself admits elsewhere that pantheist religion has a poor environmental record. Environmentalism traces rather plainly into Christianity: it is from thence that the obligation to manage Creation rightly springs, even though the expression comes at a certain distance. It's rather ironic that Swimme's theses can be taken in a decidedly anti-environmentalist direction, considering the emphasis he puts on the inexorability of evolutionary development. It is surely the case that we can screw up the earth enough so that we cannot live on it, but not enough so that nothing can live on it, in which case one assumes that Life will try again and replace us with something which it hopes will be less destructive. Personally I find Pokinghorne's anthropic analysis to make far more religious sense: if the universe "wants" sentient beings, there's no particular reason for it to want them. And there's no strong cosmological argument against the possibility that, absent the Apocalypse, humanity will live and die alone on this planet, with nothing to show the rest of the universe except a tiny handful of space probes which may well travel on into the void unnoticed, and an electronic whisper into the ether that goes unheard before it is silenced. Is that what the universe really wants?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Two Days, One Not Infamous

There's a limit to how much an Anglican should spend on the new Roman mass translation that English-speaking Catholics switched to on Lent 1 of this year. It's not as bad as the old, pedestrian version, with its occasional egregious misrepresentation of scripture, but it isn't good either: nobody noticed that one needs to use English syntax as well as English vocabulary (and never mind "consubstantial"), and the problems with the Latin text are faithfully reproduced. It perhaps represents a break from the ecclesioclasm of a generation back, but to suggest that it is going to break Catholics of rushing through mass as quickly as possible so they can get to their Sunday shopping, or that they are going to start having kids in sufficiency to supply the altar with priests and the schools with nuns: I don't see that happening. An Anglican converting, I suspect, is going to be stuck with most of the same RC theological and practical issues.

My traddie acquaintances are all for it, of course, topped with some degree of longing for Tridentine Latin. Not that they are SSPX/V sedevacantists; they aren't that rebellious. But it is striking the degree to which an anti-establishment contrarianism colors them, and I have to suspect that the fact of them having all been betrayed by the Episcopal Church enters into this. Of course our grip on the establishment was broken back in the sixties, much as we continue to delude ourselves otherwise; we are really incapable of putting pressure on the political establishment anymore, and we have become increasing divided in our subservience to social liberal interests on the one side and neocons on the other. But the liberal capture of church polity continues to make the faithful life difficult, and it is understandable that people give up and go elsewhere.

Once elsewhere, though, the craziness bursts forth. One of the things that I find striking is how often this sort of conversion is accompanied by an attachment to political revisionism as well, and aside from the occasional Marxist, there seems to be a strong attraction to American right wingery: paleoconservatism, or its cousin libertarianism. And that leads to a striking susceptibility to crank theories. So every December 7th rolls around, and one of these guys puts up his inevitable post advocating the old theory that FDR deliberately provoked the Pearl Harbor attack in order to pull the USA into the war. The centerpiece of this conspiracy theory is Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit, which any genuine historian finds faulty to the core. It's easy to find fault with Stennitt's claims: the McCollum memo does not support his interpretation, and his claims about allied code reading simply are not true. A set of fringe theorists making questionable claims is not good enough reason to abandon the orthodox theory: that while we did put pressure on the Japanese, their military considered us a threat anyway and might just as well have attacked without the pressuring; that the surprise at Pearl Harbor was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the chain of command did not ensure readiness because the expectation of attack was so high, they presumed that obvious preparation would be made; that FDR did want to go to war against Germany, but was surprised that Germany would make this possible by (for once) honoring treaties and declaring war on the US on Japan's behalf.

Not surprisingly, these people don't like JFK and are willing believe in assassination conspiracies about him. The fact, unfortunately, is that JFK was the model of a modern American Catholic, and these traddies are not. Maybe they're conservative, maybe they aren't, but they take the more classically Catholic position that the pope is a point of loyalty, not someone to be obeyed. One also imagines that the average American Catholic is of a more pragmatic view on politics, and is not wedded to the hyper-Enlightenment rationality of libertarianism, which really doesn't take sin seriously enough. It is entirely germane that that the doctrines of American conservatism are more powerful than the teaching of the church, so that when the Vatican insists on the obligations of societies, through their governments, fulfill their obligation to take care of the poor, the traddies go through contortions to push this away from the teaching authority which they would otherwise ascribe to the church.

I've not been able to turn off my Protestantism anyway. But it seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with a viewpoint which is controlled by a doctrine of fringiness.