Archive for August, 2013

This, Too, Shall Pass: James Kalb on Secular Liberalism

August 29, 2013

James Kalb

James Kalb asks, “How Long Will Secular Liberalism Endure?” (Crisis Magazine, 8/26/13)

Secular liberalism, the dominant political ideology in Europe and North America, “is at odds with Catholicism,” Kalb warns, drawing our attention to what should be definitionally obvious. (By “Catholicism,” he means conservative Catholicism.) A “harmonious relationship” might have been possible, he says, if the secular state had not become over-weening in its attempts to “change the beliefs and attitudes of the people,” but Catholics are “increasingly required to conform to anti-Catholic norms” and even “punished as … criminal[s] for public assertion of Catholic moral doctrine.” The U.S. Government, in particular, is now “radically opposed to religion and natural law,” while “progressive utopians” have cast the Church as “intrinsically antisocial and oppressive.”

Kalb reminds us that Catholicism has always had its enemies—first, the Romans, then the Muslims, and finally the secular political systems of the past century. But, he adds, secular liberalism is fundamentally flawed insofar as (1) it “lacks a grounded principle of authority,” and (2) it “makes maximum equal satisfaction its highest good,” thereby placing ever-greater demands on public resources and undermining discipline, loyalty, and public spirit. Its system of control consists not of “threats and force,” but of “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation.” And yet, secular liberalism continues to appeal to the masses, who “believe they have a right to get what they want.”

Kalb’s thesis contains a number of glaring defects.

The first is his assumption that there is a bright line separating Catholics and secular liberals. The truth is that most Catholics, at least in Europe and North America, are, for all intents and purposes, secular liberals themselves. How else are we to explain the indifference of most of these Catholics to their church’s teachings about same-sex marriage and contraception? They have become “father-deaf” about such matters and no longer bother confessing what they no longer consider to be sins. By and large, they support the secular state, unlike many of the responders to Kalb’s article (the so-called “faithful” Catholics, as Crisis Magazine would have us believe), who proudly declare that they’ve stopped voting!

Second, generous government subsidies and tax breaks for religious institutions and programs in this country and abroad belie the claim that these governments are hostile to religion. Furthermore, what he describes as “radical opposition” to natural law is nothing more than the galling indifference of those who don’t take it seriously. Few of its proponents have even agreed about what it is. Historically, it has been used to justify slavery, primogeniture, monarchical absolutism, and the oppression of women. To the extent that our judges and legislators are aware of this, we can only hope that they will escalate their indifference toward natural law to actual hostility.

Kalb maintains that, while progressive Christians have largely sold out to the secular state, the Church has remained “independent and refractory.” Kalb is correct, if by “the Church” he means the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the global magisterium. The laity is another matter. Indeed, one might make the case that the laity in the U.S. and Europe have been “independent and refractory” vis-à-vis the magisterium.

Third, Kalb’s assessment of secular liberalism’s prospects is premised on the assumption that Catholicism has something better to offer. But Catholicism’s “grounded principle of authority” is a stock of myth, folklore, superstition, tradition, and scripture with little or no internal coherence and absolutely no empirical basis. U.S. constitutional and case law may be far from perfect, but at least it is a reasonably coherent corpus of decisions dating back to our nation’s founding, and it furthers the principles of justice and fairness that almost all Americans espouse.

Fourth, secular liberalism doesn’t need to operate through “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation” any more than Catholicism needs to operate through fear, coercion, and threats of eternal damnation. To say that secular states sometimes use propaganda is not to say that propaganda is necessary to sustain the secular state. To say that they sometimes over-regulate is not to say that they must. Likewise, the long and shameful history of Catholic conduct toward Jews, heretics, apostates, freethinkers, and homosexuals is not proof that Catholicism and oppression are inseparable. We can all do better.

Finally, does secular liberalism make “the maximum equal satisfaction its highest good,” as Kalb claims? Not at all. What secular liberalism wants to maximize is the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This has become, in Steven Pinker’s words, “the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions.”  And he adds, “…its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

Elevator floor, Paccar Hall, Foster School of Business at the University of Washington

Elevator floor, Paccar Hall, Foster School of Business at the University of Washington

Words semantically related to "CHANGE" -- Evolve, Adjust, Trade, Refine, Transform, Alter, Innovate, Create, Improve

Words semantically related to “CHANGE” — Evolve, Adjust, Trade, Refine, Transform, Alter, Innovate, Create, Improve

Stephen Colbert Takes on Out Tennessee Mayor Johnny Cummings

August 15, 2013

Catholicism: Why the Sheep are Scattering

August 11, 2013
Avenging Angel

Avenging Angel

by Doughlas Remy

Without fear, shame and the concept of hell, the church would pretty much be out of business. Or at least out of the business they’re presently in.   –Dean Hansen

I think Dean Hansen has it exactly right: “Without fear, shame, and the concept of Hell, the [Catholic] Church would pretty much be out of business.”

Conservative Catholics writers and bloggers routinely use the threat of eternal damnation as their ultimate trump card when they feel cornered by demands for change. The threat is usually covert, thinly veiled by references to “judgment,” “pleasing God,” “consequences of sin,” and “being lost.” The avowed purpose of these allusions is to encourage sinners to secure their salvation while there is still time. Their real and obvious purpose, however, is to stoke feelings of existential Angst about death, guilt, and the Final Reckoning. Once believers are “primed” with such thoughts, the institutional Church is positioned to influence their behavior.

However, these fear dynamics are no longer as effective as they were when the Church’s authority on matters of faith and morals went virtually unquestioned. Western Catholics are now, by and large, well-educated and cosmopolitan. They live in pluralistic societies where monotheisms co-mingle more or less comfortably precisely because the hard edges of absolutist faith have been progressively worn down by commerce, communications, and a worldview increasingly informed by science and reason.

The threat of damnation has lost its sting. We are now all Universalists: the idea of an exclusionary heaven loses its appeal once we see people of other faiths—or of no faith—as “like us,” no better and no worse. None of us seriously believes that the Dalai Lama is an evil man deserving of eternal punishment, or that only a select few (i.e., those who espouse our own particular views) will enter that “strait” gate into Paradise. These archaic ideas have been seen for what they are: naive, tribalistic, solipsistic, and profoundly divisive. Their power to leverage Catholics’ behavior and unify the Church has waned. The old sheep dog has lost its teeth, and the sheep are scattering.

Conservative Catholics—those who have held fast to the modalities of fear and shame—sometimes express their bewilderment about the pace of change in the actual beliefs and practices of Catholic laity, a laity that, in the U.S. and several predominantly Catholic countries, has supported same-sex marriage and access to contraception despite the fulminations of the bishops. What they seem not to understand is that the majority of Catholics in these countries have become “father-deaf,” so to speak. They simply ignore what they are instructed to do, without any fear of consequences. They have looked behind the curtain and seen who the wizard really is.


August 11, 2013

Same-Sex Criminalization Laws Around the World

August 5, 2013

See an interactive map here.

Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

August 5, 2013

Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Language of Love

August 3, 2013

A Philosopher of Science Explains the Importance of Scientific Consensus

August 3, 2013
Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

by Doughlas Remy

I’ve been blogging on conservative Catholic websites for about as long as those sites have existed. Why I chose Catholic ones and not, say, Evangelical ones, has more to do with my early (i.e., post-graduate) literary interests than my religious background (Southern Baptist). I read Catholic authors because my specialty was French and Italian literature. Then a French literary critic, René Girard, captured my attention in the 70s, and for the next thirty years, I was reading and re-reading his books. From his reading of great European literature—especially the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust, he had developed and beautifully articulated a theory of mimetic desire, a theory that seemed to have vast implications for all the human sciences. I was enthralled, and I still am. But then something almost inexplicable happened: René Girard had a conversion experience and became folded back into Catholicism. I still do not understand his conversion, even in the light of his own writings, but his re-induction into the faith of his ancestors now had me wondering anew about the power of faith and about the anthropological role of Christianity in the evolution of human morality. Looking for conversation about this issue, I discovered Gil Bailie’s site (The Cornerstone Forum), and then other conservative Catholic sites. Though I was never Catholic myself, I became fascinated by the Church’s millennial struggles with the secularizing forces of Western civilization. I understood that Catholicism—quintessentially emblematic of the sacred in Western history for the last 2000 years—is now in steep decline. The laity is going its own way, ignoring Church teachings about homosexuality, contraception, and a host of other issues. Conservative Catholics know this and resist the trend by discounting every idea that does not either emanate from the Church or receive its stamp of approval. In many cases, as I have discovered, this resistance amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the scientific understanding of the world that has been accumulating since the Renaissance. 

The topic that drew me into discussions on conservative Catholic sites  was almost invariably homosexuality—because I am gay, because it was a “hot” topic on the blogs, and because I could see that conservative Catholic opinion was flagrantly out of touch with scientific understanding about homosexuality.  And the homosexuality issue took on added significance because it was, and is, one of Catholicism’s current “flash-points” with secularism.

But other “hot” topics on these blogs, such as contraception and climate change, were too compelling to ignore, and so I diversified, but always with a view to offering secular perspectives and encouraging more empirical approaches to issues.

I cannot even count the number of times I’ve cited consensus scientific opinions about these issues, only to be told that these opinions don’t count. Never mind that  98 percent of climate scientists believe that climate change is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because a certain university professor somewhere has published a peer-reviewed study claiming that the whole anthropogenic climate change theory is a conspiracy and a hoax! These denialist bloggers say they are only giving equal time to both sides of the question, but in fact they are ignoring consensus opinion on the matter while looking for confirmation of their biases. (Otherwise, they would give unequal time to the two sides of the question, at a ratio of 98 to 2.)

And never mind that all the major medical and social welfare associations in this country, as well as the World Health Organization, have unequivocally stated that homosexuality is not a disorder. The Church says that it is “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s that. Again, consensus opinion doesn’t matter, and if a veneer of scientific respectability is needed for the Church’s archaic stance on the issue, then any one of several socially conservative think tanks can be depended on to provide one.

With these frustrations roiling in the background, I came across a passage from Massimo Pigliucci’s “Answers for Aristotle” (2012), one of the best and most accessible guides I have found to understanding the roles of science and philosophy in modern life. Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at CUNY-Lehman College, has this to say:

Answers for AristotleScientific knowledge is both objective and subjective, because it results from a particular perspective (the human one) interacting with how the world really is. The result is that our scientific theories will always be tentative and to some extent wrong,… but will also capture to a smaller or greater extent some important aspect of how the world actually is. Science provides us with a perspective on the world, not with a God’s-eye view of things. It gives us an irreducibly human, and therefore to some extent subjective—yet certainly not arbitrary—view of the universe.

Now, why should any of this be of concern to the intelligent person interested in improving her or his well-being through the use of reason? Because a better understanding of how science actually works puts us in the position of the sophisticated skeptic, who is neither a person who rejects science as a matter of anti-intellectual attitude nor a person who accepts the pronouncements of scientists at face value, as if they were modern oracles whose opinions should never be questioned. Too often public debates about the sort of science that affects us all (climate change, vaccines and autism, and so on) are framed in terms of alleged conspiracies on the part of the scientific community on one side and of expert opinion beyond the reach of most people on the other side. Scientists are just like any other technical practitioners and in very fundamental ways are no different from car mechanics or brain surgeons. If your problem is that your car isn’t running properly, you go to a mechanic. If there is something wrong with your brain, you go to the neurosurgeon. If you want to find out about evolution, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, your best bet is to ask the relevant community of scientists.

Just as with car mechanics and brain surgeons, however, you will not necessarily find unanimity of opinion in this community, and sometimes you may want to seek a second or even a third opinion. Some of the practitioners will not be entirely honest (though this is pretty rare across the three categories I am considering), and you may need to inquire into their motives. Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. Keeping in mind, of course, that they might, just might, be entirely wrong.