Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Power of Choice

7/29/2015—Maria Russo, the editor of the children’s books for the New York Times Book Review, wrote a penetrating indictment of our culture in the Book Review last Sunday. She was writing about the newly discovered Dr. Seuss book, What Pet Should I Get?. The book is ok by the standards of Theodor Seuss Geisel and was just about ready for publication. But it was never published. The question is, why?

The official explanation given is that, at the time, Seuss was so busy that he forgot this one. That does not ring true to Russo—or any other author, frankly.

Russo’s explanation is that the content of the book—2 children trying to decide which pet to get in a pet store, led Seuss away from dog and cat to imaginative animals. This, she believes led him to write One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, which has many of the same elements, but has moved away from the context of commercial choice into pure imagination. Seuss “ran… away from the pressurized of money and responsibility… .”

Choice is the rubric of our day. It is the foundation of both capitalism and individual rights theory—loss of choice is why jail is a punishment. Choice is human autonomy and free will.

But choice is also not-imagination. It is the opposite of play and lies always in the realm of what already is. Choice is not transformative, except maybe in exposing my surrender to my context, as in Sophie’s Choice. Thus choice is also the opposite of itself. I am choosing among choices I did not necessarily choose.

Russo is showing us that the current world is unimaginative. Seuss was too imaginative to live in it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why a Jew Invented Hallowed Secularism

7/22/2015—If you look on page 7 of the book Hallowed Secularism you will see the reference to E.L. Doctorow’s 2000 novel, City of God. Doctorow invented the term hallowed secularism in that novel. Doctorow died yesterday and I thought it appropriate to think about him and the kind of religion that could bring forth such an idea.

In the novel, a very liberal rabbi, Sarah Blumenthal, is struggling with the Jewish tradition. Her synagogue is called the “Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism.” Sarah wants to maintain a universal ethics “in it numinousness”.

That term refers to the sense humans have of the tremendous mystery of existence. Something more.

Sarah wants to answer, yes. God can be seen as something evolving. The teleology of humanity, which we pursue without even always realizing it, has given “one substantive indication of itself—that we, as human beings, live in moral consequence.”

Realizing this is the potential of hallowed secularism. I used to think of this as mere humanism, but it is not that. Instead, there is a reality apart from just us, though we are a part of that reality. We relate to that reality.

Doctorow was born in 1931. A baby through the Depression. Ten at WWII. Drafted during the 1950’s. His first novel was published in 1960.

So Doctorow was Jewish to his core, but was part of the last Jewish American generation that could think religion without primarily thinking the holocaust. He was as liberal as could be. But he was always a religious thinker. Politically, there was something European about him. According to the NY Times obit, he described himself as part of the “pragmatic social democratic left.” (This might be how my hero, the late Tony Judt, might have described himself).

Doctorow must have viewed Judaism as closer to the universal element that is real and universal, without the fantastic elements he could not believe. This was leading him toward something wholly secular, but not simplistically materialistic. We need the holy, he was reminding us.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Great President

7/21/2015—It is time to give President Barack Obama his due. He really has improved things for America and the world. The four major items of accomplishment are: medical insurance for many of the uninsured, the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Iranian deal and coming out of the 2008 recession.

As for Obamacare, this has been a goal of progressives since the New Deal. The program could be better but it is done. And it has had a major effect on the life of poor and working class people. That effect will only grow.

As for Cuba, this move has improved US relations with Latin America more than any action since the Panama Canal Treaty, for which President Carter never gets enough credit. The move should have been made years ago.

If the Iran deal prevents Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10 years, it should count as a major achievement. And there is the potential for even a greater payoff. Within those ten years, the deal may change the nature of the regime.

Finally, I cannot say I am ecstatic with the state of the economy—with its 5.3% unemployment and low participation rate and too much part-time work—but have you looked around the world? Obama’s opponents would have moved us down the path of Europe.

I would add other matters as well. I am committed to free trade and believe the potential Asia trade pact will be helpful. Some kind of peaceful counterweight to China is needed.

There are a number of areas where Obama has clearly failed. The worst misstep was promising action against the Syrian regime and not acting. But in general no clear policy with regard to the Arab world, China and Russia. But Obama is a cautious man. No clear policy is better than a bad one.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Religions that Promise Us Death and War

7/18/2015—I have written before about the death of Islam. It is easy to see that Islam will go down the path that Christianity did in Europe after the wars of religion following the Reformation. For what do we see? The more religious you are, the more violent you are. This can be seen in the lone gunman who kills marines in Tennessee. But the violence is almost as clear in the Saudi Arabian diplomatic cables that put opposition to the Shia sect in Iran above even humanitarian aid. All in the name of purified Islam. Who needs this?

But now we see the same thing in Judaism. The Aipac organization is opposing the deal with Iran and, of course, Israel does too. The more Jewish you are, the more likely you are to oppose the deal.

Israel’s version of security lacks any real commitment to the humanity of its foes. You see this in the way Arab citizens of Israel are treated. You see this in the way Iran is portrayed. Demonized.

I don’t know whether President Obama is skilled enough to sell the deal to the nation. But Roger Cohen’s column today in the New York Times is how a lot of young people will see it—-the alternative to the deal is war and an actual Iranian bomb. And these young people will see that religion, in this case Judaism, kills.

And you can see this in India, too, in Hinduism’s political expression. The more religion, the more hatred.

But what do we see in Roman Catholicism? Pope Francis. What do we see in Buddhism? The Dalai Lama. They have their blind spots too. But it isn’t always the more religion, the less humaneness. If religion has a future, they are it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Good News Tuesday

7/14/2015—Woke up today to the news that agreement has been reached on loans to Greece and an Iranian nuclear deal. The world is a little better today.

Not altogether better. Greece did not get much debt relief, which it needs eventually. But it would be bad at this point for the Euro zone to fracture. As for Iran, the Republican Congress will not agree to the deal.

But that is OK. Netanyahu opposes any deal with Iran. But he is wrong. Even in terms of Israel’s interests. Eventually, the American electorate will choose peace and not war. I just hope Clinton runs on the deal.

As for Greece, apparently Krugman was wrong. A deal for them is better than an exit in their view. Well there is always time to leave if the economy does not pick up.

A good day all around and better than most alternatives.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mark Greif Says We Can No Longer Ask, What is Man?

7/10/2015—In a really depressing demonstration of how trivial the concerns of our time have become, Mark Greif—a teacher at the New School, co-founder of n+1, and the author of Against Exercise, a supposedly important essay in 2005 (actually just a goof)—has written The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. Grief’s thesis is that writers during this period—for example, Niebuhr, Mumsford, Sartre, Arendt, etc—asked, in light of the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the bomb, about the nature of man and that this discourse now appears “tedious” and “unhelpful.” “For a variety of reasons, we are more likely to identify (and, as we like to say, to celebrate) the differences among human beings than to corral them into some hortatory category like ‘universal man.’” (quotes selected by Christopher Bentley in the New York Review).

So, the theme of universal man is unmasked as colonialism and sexism and we now include people of color, women, gays etc. (I won’t ask who this “we” is if no conglomerations are possible. Or, is it now groups we are supposed to ask after?)

And what are we supposed to ask now? Not any attempt “to reopen a fundamental philosophical anthropology” but “Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring ‘who we are’ distinct from what we say and do and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.”

So now we are utilitarian and it does not occur to Greif that he has asserted, unquestioningly, that man is the sort of being who lives to achieve an aim. But is man the kind of being who lives to achieve an aim? Or is man becoming the kind of being for whom all aims now seem pointless?

It turns out that it is not the question what is man? that is unhelpful, but prematurely arriving at an answer. For Grief’s warning is against “preprogrammed” answers to any such questioning. Grief just does not believe anyone can ask the question of man and keep the question open. I guess Grief does not know Heidegger.

I am willing to assert that the question of man, properly framed to move away from anthropology to ontology, is the only question worth asking, for it leads to all other questions. The question is not what is man but who is man and it certainly can open by asking Who am I? Without this fundamental questioning, all other investigations, such as how to stop global warming, are boring. I cannot ask about the world if I have never asked about the human being’s responsibility for the world. And that fundamental question of responsibility is not aided very much by dividing it up into the woman’s responsibility for the world, the gay person’s responsibility, the responsibility of people of color, that of rich white people and so forth. Looking at matters in this latter way is comical as a starting point, however important such political/economic questions can become as the discourse unfolds.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Can God Do a New Thing?

7/4/2015—This may seem a strange question for a hallowed secularism blog, but it is the gay marriage question. A controversy has broken out on a law and religion listserve about the view of the New Testament on gay marriage. Or on marriage generally.

But this controversy goes beyond law. It is the basis for most of the opposition to gay marriage in America today—or a lot of it.

One has to start with the acknowledgment that Jesus would have been horrified by the prospect of gay marriage. Of course he would, because such relations were unclean under the Old Testament purity code. But so was, most particularly, eating ham. Or not being circumcised.

The purity code was plainly abolished by God when Peter appealed to it in the Book of Acts. “What God has made pure, you must not call unholy”--or in the underlying Hebrew terms, what God has made kosher, you must not call treif.

The gentiles—today Christians—who condemn gay marriage do not understand that they themselves were regarded as unholy by the purity code and by Jesus--"It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."--until Jesus himself learned the lesson that Peter had to relearn after Jesus' death. That code is no more.

So the only Gospel question about gay marriage is whether God has made it kosher. Even to a nonaffiliated former practitioner like myself, it is clear that God has done a mighty act, has broken down a new barrier. But it is as hard for some religious people to accept that God does a new thing, as it was to many Jews in Jesus’ day to imagine that gentiles were now included in the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

7/1/2015—John McGinnis, Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern Law School, and the author of the book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, wrote a piece last week in City Journal commenting on Chief Justice John Roberts decision in King v. Burwell. Based in part on the work of St. John's law professor Mark Movsesian, McGinnis criticized the method of statutory interpretation that allowed Chief Justice Roberts, and the majority, to uphold subsidies on the federal Obamacare website despite language in the statute suggesting that such subsidies are only available on websites created by the states. Chief Justice Roberts was using a method of statutory interpretation that looks to the purpose of the statute and adjusts interpretation accordingly.

Now, one can criticize Chief Justice Roberts on the ground that he got the purpose of the statute wrong or even that the hodgepodge of the Obamacare statute should not be considered to have a purpose.

But McGinnis does not rest with arguing that Robert's got this particular instance of statutory interpretation wrong. McGinnis argues more generally, relying here on Professor Movsesian, that since federal legislation "is a product of 535 legislators plus the president" interpretation by purpose is inappropriate for a statute: "It's hard to distill an overriding intent or purpose from such a collection of wills… "

McGinnis and Movsesian seem very close here to denying the intelligibility of collective work. For them, there is no rationality, there is only will. They have been infected by the ideology of the market, in which people have desires and nothing more can really be said about them. The person with whom they may be said to be in agreement is Margaret Thatcher, who famously said "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

In keeping with the spirit of individualism, McGinnis judges methods of statutory interpretation by how much they favor the ends of progressives, as opposed to those of conservatives. But there is much more at stake in the denial of intelligibility than the outcome of this or that political issue.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Supreme Court's Week

6/27/2015—This blog has been off and on during June because of travelling. But coming this week, Hallowed Secularism will be back to a normal 2-3 posts a week schedule.

The Supreme Court has a big week, upholding Obamacare once again and enacting national same sex marriage. Given my long time support for both, it may surprise people that I have very mixed feelings about these decisions.

Basically, the decisions are not very convincing. In King v. Burwell, the Obamacare case, Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion admitted that the dissenting arguments were strong. They were. The decision can be defended, but only on the ground that the Act could not really mean what it said, which is not a persuasive basis for an opinion. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court fortunately rested on the fundamentality of marriage, but there is no reason to think of gay marriage as itself a fundamental right—something that had not been dreamed of only a few years ago.

In terms of gay marriage, there was always a two-prong possibility—politics or rights. The advantage of politics, in which states legalized gay marriage one by one over time—is that the opponents would feel they had a say and that compromises could be worked out with religious believers who continue to maintain that gay marriage is sinful. Holding gay marriage to be a right means that no compromises are likely. This means that gay marriage will now become a wedge to pursue religious institutions that refuse to adhere to the new right. Law is supposed to bring harmony, not further controversy.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Democrats Are Wrong on Trade

6/20/2015—I don’t mean the Democrats are necessarily wrong on the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which I don’t know much about. But the rejection of the trade agreement by House Democrats last week was not about this particular agreement. It was about the benefits of trade in general.

This is where the failure of leadership by Paul Krugman and people like him has been so glaring. The economy is a dynamic system. The dynamism of that system has benefited the US. Yes, a lot of those benefits have gone to the top .001%, but not all. And even if redistribution is the goal, a growing pie is easier to redistribute than a stagnant one.

Protectionism is part of a general retreat by Democrats from growth and a better future. It says that we have a certain number of good jobs and we have to do everything to keep them. In the end, this hurts most workers. It’s the old story of trying to retain the carriage industry when cars came out.

The irony is that jobs were already coming back to the US. We’re an economy that does not really need protectionism because of our dynamism.

It is an empirical question whether the US economy benefits from freer trade or not. My impression is that the evidence is clear that we do benefit. A lot. So, where is the strong defense of free trade by people like Krugman?

So, I don’t know much about this agreement. On the other hand, if it does protect intellectual property from government confiscation, isn’t that a good thing when many governments do not respect property rights at all? And if the agreement is as much about the politics of Asia—keeping a peaceful counterweight to China—well, isn’t that a good thing as well?

Anyway, Democratic opposition to this trade deal was mostly about latent opposition to NAFTA. And that opposition is a mistake. Trade in general is the issue. And trade in general is good.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The End of Rawls

6/18/2015—The Duquesne Law Library kindly forwarded to me a recently published book edited by Martha Nussbaum and Thom Brooks, which presents a series of essays on John Rawls’ book, Political Liberalism. (It’s called Rawls’s Political Liberalism).

I tried to read Nussbaum’s introduction, and I really must, but I couldn’t. Rawls has been around since the 1970’s and since that time, liberals like Nussbaum have tried to convince themselves that a stable, reasonable, secular world can be built around him. But it is just not the case. Rawls is not the future.

The basic problem is one of truth. Rawls does not want the liberal state to take a position on the nature of a good life because people disagree. But there is no getting around some actual value commitments in political life. The pressure of normative life gives to Rawls a feeling of result oriented jerry rigging, as when he famously viewed the pro-life position as outside legitimate liberal political life. Rawls gets to decide which comprehensive doctrines are “reasonable” and it always seems that they are the ones he does not disagree with too much.

But I stopped reading the Introduction when Nussbaum suggested that Judaism is more rational and regards autonomy more than does Christianity. And then she cites the Oven of Aknai story as proof—it is not in heaven.

Does she not realize that the Oven of Aknai story is about the overwhelming power of the rabbis to squelch dissent? It is the opposite of the rational account Nussbaum and other liberal Jews like to tell themselves. The lone dissenter is excommunicated. And while it is true that the story states that God cannot intervene in disputes between scholars, nothing in the story suggests that the winning side was actually more rational than the dissenter. They just had the votes.

Judaism is rabbinic, not rational and is not dedicated to autonomy. That is why there are chief rabbis and why the rabbinate in Israel decides matters of family law. You can call rabbis making rulings rational if you want, but the legal reasoning is just the same as in Christianity or Islam. And just as hierarchical.

The problem we liberals have is that we lack a foundation. We distrust religion—Jews attempt to distinguish Judaism, as Nussbaum did—because we reject the authority of truth. Hence Rawls’ proceduralism. But how do you sustain human life this way?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Secularization in Greece and Turkey

6/16/2015—I’m just back from a visit to Greece and Turkey. I was exposed not to young people as much as to the generation of my children. And even there, to people from Istanbul, rather than from more rural areas, which makes a difference.

Nevertheless, it is clear that secularization is continuing to make tremendous inroads in these two countries. The phenomenon is not the same in each country. In Greece, matters are similar to the United States. People leave religion and do not give the matter of religion much thought. That is not possible in Turkey, where Islam is a dominating presence and the entire country is organized around the Islamic calendar and practices. (A revealing detail is that our hotel did not serve bacon at breakfast, even though many foreigners stayed there).

So, secularization in Turkey occurs among people who were raised in Islam and take much of its teaching seriously. Just few of its practices.

In both countries, however, the issue of the future remains open. One way to think about this is as a question of the source of values. More deeply, however, is the question of whether values are real and important. Nihilism asks the question, what’s the use? A secular civilization must have a way of addressing that question. So far, neither Greece nor Turkey has successfully come to terms with this problem.

The way this plays out is that in Greece, the ancient sites are simply archeological curiosities with historical significance. In Turkey, however, the spiritual power of religious spaces is openly and unself-consciously acknowledged. This makes a visit to Turkey satisfying in a way that a visit to Greece is not—or, at least not to me.

Turkey is a country that will be very important to the future of world events. The roots of democracy and liberty are very deep. They are not a function of a westernized elite. Turkey is the place where a new public role for Islam will be worked out.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How to be Spiritual but not Religious

6/1/2015—It is beginning to dawn on people that this nonreligion thing is going to be difficult. Hence Molly Worthen’s piece in the New York Times yesterday entitled Wanted: A Theology of Atheism. The idea is to get away from the “ill-tempered nihilists” image, says Worthen.

Well, actually no. The goal is to get away from the “good without God” self-confidence. The need is not, as Worthen believes, for “a confident humanist moral philosophy.” It is the opposite. Finally, nonbelievers must come to see how bereft humanism is. Humanism is just as implausible as theism. That should be the starting point. Then, maybe we could get somewhere.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Krugman on the Economics of the Average American

5/30/2015—Since I have been so critical of Paul Krugman on trade, it seems fair to acknowledge his importance in reminding American policy-makers—-or even just the comfortable top 25%--of the reality of life for everybody else.

He has done this before, but he did it again in yesterday’s New York Times, in a column entitled The Insecure American. Krugman is giving a kind of overview of a new Federal Reserve Study on the financial well-being of American households. He writes specifically that he “hope[s]” readers will not find any of his statistics surprising, but Krugman is plainly worried that well-off people have forgotten what life is like.

Krugman begins with conservative bashing—-not from the study, of course. Three quarters of those who self-identify as conservatives think the poor have it easy because of government benefits.

Do you know anybody like this? I don’t. Instead, people I know—-and this would be true not only of conservatives but of most people—-would say it is hard to be poor. But we have no idea how hard it is. Just watching people taking two buses at 5:15 a.m. to get to a job while dropping children off at daycare—and those are healthy, young people with jobs. Seeing them you think, how do they do this every day? Don’t blame conservatives for our obtuseness.

Krugman makes three major points. First, life expectancy has not risen much at all for the bottom half—-so don’t raise the retirement age for social security. Second, social security provides almost all the income for 25% of Americans over 65—-so don’t cut benefits.

Third—life is precarious for the bottom half, so don’t cut entitlements for anybody. Krugman is shocked by one finding in particular—-47% of Americans report that they would not the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400. “$400!” he writes.

This reaction reminded me of a scene from a documentary about public defenders that I watched last week. In an opening scene, a young African-American lawyer despairs because she has worked a deal for pre-trial diversion for a young client accused of some minor crime—shoplifting? Charges dropped if he goes to a program and stays out of trouble for a year. But the condition of the program is that he be out on bail and he and his family never are able to find the money--$500? So, he is probably going to jail, which will change the rest of his life utterly.

Moral of the story—-we should be thankful if life is not utterly hard. We should be generous in spirit toward those for whom it is. We should not be so concerned about other political issues that pure class issues escape us. The political left has so forgotten this last point.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Future of the Roman Catholic Church

5/25/2015—It is a mark of the richness of the Roman Catholic Church that two men who have recently been beatified, and one now a saint, had conflicts with each other when they lived. I’m speaking of Archbishop Oscar Romero and John Paul II.

I am no expert in these matters. The story of the Pope’s concern about communism and Marxism in Central and South America leading him to blindness concerning the death squads and oppression in some of these countries, notably El Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was murdered, is well known. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the story is largely a myth. You could look at Filip Mazurczak’s piece from February 2015 to see this other side.

I am most interested, however, not in the conflict, but in how the Church could respond so well to the needs of the time in these disparate areas of the globe. JP II was needed in Poland. His stance against the inhuman oppression of communism will stand forever in the annals of human rights.

But liberation theology and the stance of the Church with the poor against overwhelming economic and military power, symbolized by Romero, was also needed then and is needed today in the face of global capitalism. The Church is able to respond to both. Can this be said of any other institution in the world today?

This brings me to Ireland. The media is reporting the very welcome news of Ireland’s endorsement of gay marriage as a defeat for the Church. And I suppose you could say that. The Church spends a lot of time and effort opposing gay marriage.

But the stories only obliquely refer to the illegality of abortion in Ireland. This matter, a crucial matter, a matter of life and death apparently finds no similar cultural change. Perhaps it is not a decline of the Church. Perhaps the Church is simply wrong about gay marriage.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Finally, a Krugman Column on the Trade Pact

5/23/2015—Well, I finally got the op-ed from Paul Krugman on the proposed trade pact (the Trans-Pacific Partnership—TPP) that I have been waiting for. The column appeared Friday.

If you read the column really carefully, Krugman is, as he has said in his blog, mildly opposed. But it is a mealy-mouthed opposition. There are reasonable people on both sides, he says.

Krugman ends up writing mostly about how the Obama Administration has not been forthright. The President has not made the case etc. It's not really about trade, it's about intellectual property—as if protecting property rights is not an aspect of free trade.

Krugman even seems to say that free trade is no longer important—because we have already realized most of the available benefits by generally lowering tariffs.

But this is a real sleight of hand. Many of the opponents of the TPP are opposed to free trade. They believe that we would be better off with tariffs and other trade barriers. If they are wrong about that, shouldn't Krugman have said so?

Krugman wants the issue to be technical and narrow. But it is not. The Democratic Party is turning against trade. Krugman disagrees with this new thrust. Why does he not say so?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Martin Heidegger’s Humanism

5/19/2015—Well, that title is certainly misleading. Heidegger made clear that he was not a part of humanism in the Letter on Humanism. Every humanism is grounded in metaphysics that Heidegger was trying to overcome.

But yesterday, in reading Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, I came across indications of the place of the human being that I could only call humanism.

The terms will be strange upon first hearing them. The subtitle of Contributions is Of the Event. The event is that which appropriates the human being. (You could return to the statement in Introduction to Metaphysics—the human being is that being for whom being is an issue).

Heidegger writes often of the gods or the god. You could hear divinity. But you could also hear history. Creativity. Holiness. Significance. Heidegger places the Supreme Being of Christian and Jewish thought in the tradition of metaphysics. So he is not speaking of a being when he speaks of God.

Here are the two sentences that struck me. “[The fissure of being] can come into question only if the truth of beyng as event lights up, specifically as that of which the god has need in such a way that the human being belongs intrinsically to the event.” “The appropriating event conveys god to the human being, even while it assigns the human being to god.”

In some way, Heidegger sees being as between the human being and the god. The point for me is not just that the human being is claimed—Heidegger would write that expressly in the Letter on Humanism. The point for me is that the god needs the claimed human being.

This is not a recapitulation of Christian thought, though it evokes Christian thought. It is an essential task of humans. God—the call of what is essential here and now—comes to us and we are thereby claimed.

This is a way to think human life that could be called religious, though Heidegger would point out that such universalisms are metaphysical. This thinking calls forth a credible way of life outside the usual categories of religion and nonaffiliation. There is something important for humans to be.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Where Is the Democratic Party Leadership on Trade?

5/18/2015—I thought pandering to the base was a Republican Party monopoly. Apparently not. Specifically, where is Paul Krugman on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the Trade Deal?

In his op-eds, Krugman is pro-free trade. But he has been mostly silent on the opposition in the Senate by Democrats to the TPP. I had thought that Krugman was afraid to say he supports the deal because Democratic Party sentiment is against it. Turns out, if you read his blog, he mildly opposes the deal and does not think it that important. He says it is not really a trade deal.

But there is a larger point here. The New York Times today ran a story about a closed refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois that Barack Obama had noted in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. It’s still closed. The workers are still out of work or underemployed.

In other words, the argument is not just over this trade deal, but still over the NAFTA. On this issue, Krugman originally supported free trade, rather strongly, but in the telling by William Greider in the Nation in 2013, Krugman has since pulled back in his support.

Look, I don’t know about trade. I assume that it is generally a very good thing. And even closed factories in the US would probably have closed anyway, free trade or no. But I can be persuaded by a real debate.

But what is needed is that real debate within the Democratic Party—and we are not having it. Right now, there is less discussion of the trade issue in the Democratic Party than over global warming in the Republican Party. Why am I reading about trade in Krugman’s blog and not in his columns? It ought to be possible to decide whether the NAFTA was overall a good thing for America or not. This absence of discussion is more indication of the sickness within our political life than the partisan gridlock in Washington.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith Attacks Transcendence

5/16/2015—Philip Kitcher should have written the book that transforms secularism. The book he did write, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, does not appear to be that book.

I’m in the midst of it and having trouble finishing it because it’s sort of boring. As I expected from the book reviews, there is too much attacking religion. The book is supposed to be about life after faith, not about why people leave religious faith. The case against religion is not important and has certainly been done to death. (It’s not important because people don’t leave religious traditions because of arguments and, anyway, why should anyone try to get people to leave religious traditions?)

But I am struck by how Philip (I’m trying out first names in an attempt to promote human solidarity) defines the basic terms of the religion/secular divide. On page 6, in the setup, he writes that secularism (I hate the term secular humanism—the point is the truth of reality of which humans are just a part, not the whole thing) demands of religion a reply to only one question—“[t]he core of secularist doubt is skepticism about anything ‘transcendent.’”

Philip describes the transcendent as “something beyond the physical, organic, human world… .” Now, leaving aside human world—if Philip means materialism, why not just say so?--obviously, love and music are beyond the “physical, organic.” Or, maybe later in the book, Philip will explain how all of existence is rooted in the physical, which it is, but humans do not yet understand the connections. Think of the brain and consciousness.

But I don’t think Philip is going in that direction. He also writes a revealing additional description of transcendence in relation to Christian resurrection—“there was no abrogation of normal physical and organic processes.”

Well, OK. But a very different claim. Somewhere I have written—probably more than once—the world is all there is, but there is more to the world than meets the eye. If all it means to be secular is not to believe in things that violate scientific laws as we know them, a lot of religion remains quite safe. Wittgenstein (not using Ludwig) answered Philip years ago in two observations about early tribes—their religions told many stories, but not that enemies’ heads exploded during battles and when they carved weapons, they did so with exactness and not by myth. In other words, early man did not abrogate the laws of science. There remains a great big mysterious world of otherness out there without denying anything scientific.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Religion Trends in America

5/13/2015—I suppose that I should be expected to be happy about the news reported yesterday by the Pew Research Center that the group of which I am a member, the religiously unaffiliated—the nones—is rapidly growing. But I’m not.

The numbers of startling. As of 2014, the nonaffiliated are now 23% of the adult American population. (Presumably, the real percentage is even higher since this is self-reporting). Meanwhile, the percentage of self-identified Christians is 71%. Sounds high, but it was 81% just a few years ago and 90% if I remember correctly in 1963.

Well, what of it? My concern is with the future of American life. We forget that, according to the sociologist Robert Putnam—the Bowling Alone guy—going to church is one of those aspects of social capital that help wealthier people live better lives and help their children advance—along with other things, like getting and staying married. Today, if people are not going to some kind of church, chances are that their kids are not going to do well.

We don’t think of things this way, of course. But having a church is like any other part of a rich social life. Not having one is not just a declaration of independence from God. It is also cutting one more social tie in life.

One more depressing fact, from Frank Bruni in today’s New York Times—the percentage of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track is higher than ever: 62% to 28%. This trend has continued uninterrupted for the past ten years.

Now of course, there is a sense that we are on the wrong track; by almost any measure the trends are bad for America. But since America is also doing pretty well today by any world standard and much better than we have been since the 2008 economic crisis, you would think the surveys would at least show improvement. But they do not. Is that because religion is also a source of optimism about the future and America is less religious?

America is going to continue to get less religious: 35% of the millennials are unaffiliated. Real Christian commitment is already pretty rare—I noticed last week that many Catholics mistake references at a Catholic funeral to resurrection with references to heaven, for example. There is no point bemoaning this.

But if declining religion is not going to mean declining everything else, nonaffiation is going to have to be translated into new affiliation. I don’t know what social forms that will take. But I do know that nonreligious life is going to have to be social and have substantive content—a story if you will about the nature of reality. A story from which to live.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading Heidegger I

5/12/2015—-What is needed for secularism in America, and in the West generally, to flourish? By secularism, I refer, as I do in Hallowed Secularism, to that great movement of what could be called “unchurching” that leads to human life outside of religious myths and images. It is no longer unusual for young people in America to have never lived within the teachings, stories and calendar of any religion.

That is something quite new. Almost all people my age in America grew up within a religion, usually some form of Christianity. And even among people in their forties today, that is the case. But, among people in their thirties and twenties, that trend changes. And this will continue to be the case, more and more.

So, what is needed for religiously nonaffiliated people to live satisfying lives? To answer that, we must think about what religion does for people, even for people who no longer believe in the religion in which they were raised.

Religion offers an orientation to reality. Religion answers the question, what is reality like at its deepest, most real level? Secularism needs to be able to offer answers to that question.

Obviously, I am suggesting that secularism cannot do that now. Instead of serious attempts to grapple with the question of the nature of reality—-of ontology-—secularism currently offers a hodgepodge of materialism, positivism, naturalism, empiricism and rationalism. None of these orientations is really satisfactory, which will become clear once secularism moves away from bashing religion to attempting to ground human life.

Thus, I turn to the philosopher Martin Heidegger for that orientation. I have been reading philosophy and religion with my teacher, Robert Taylor, since the early 1980’s. We started with a group that read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations line by line for ten years. Robert and I studied a variety of philosophical and theological works after that, but recently we have been studying Heidegger’s great work, Contributions to Philosophy, an hour and a half in the morning, Monday through Thursday. It is slow going.

Under Robert’s influence, I have begun to interpret Heidegger in a very religious way. Indeed, sometimes Heidegger seems to me to be retelling the Christian story in non-dogmatic terms. He writes of God and gods and seems to be referring to divinity itself—certainly he rejects the notion of a supreme being just as he finds the classical metaphysical tradition in general to be at an exhausted end. Divinity is what moves history.

I have not been referring to this Heidegger study, but now I think that I must. Secularism needs Heidegger to set itself on some kind of ground. Gradually, in pieces, I want to explore what that might mean.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Two Odd Things about the Shootings at the Cartoon Contest Last Week

5/10/2015—Happy Mother's Day to all. A secular holiday if ever there was one.

There were two odd things about the reactions to the shootings last week in which a police office shot and killed two would-be terrorists obviously intent on killing people involved in the Mohammed cartoon contest. [I have no idea why authorities will not confirm this motive when it is so obvious. One of the two shooters reportedly had ties of some kind to radical Islamic movement and everyone knows that some Muslims believe it is proper to kill people who demean the Prophet by representing him visually. Anyway, why else would they be there with assault rifles—a Second Amendment display? Actually, that does make you wonder why the NRA did not protest the shootings. Surely it can't be a crime to carry assault weapons in Texas.]

One oddity is the sudden love affair between conservative Christians and the First Amendment. Some years ago, when a crucifix was placed in a jar of urine, some of the same people were calling for an end to government funding for the arts. Now, I realize that ending funding and shooting people are quite different. And even then, no one thought the artist could be put in jail. I only mean that it is not inherently good to make fun of peoples' religious beliefs. Doing so is not something admirable.

But this leads me to the second odd reaction—or rather silence. This is one of those "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is absolutely true that if there are people willing to kill others whose speech offends them, that speech absolutely must go forward, whether or not the speech is offensive. Otherwise, the criminals will decide what can be spoken in this society and we are no longer free.

Where are my fellow first amendment fundamentalists on the left? I almost want to send money to the group that sponsors these cartoon contests. And I certainly want my tax money spent defending them. They are willing to risk their lives for the sake of speech. How many of us are willing to do that?

And as for the fact that they are anti-Muslim—well at the moment, the only point they are making is that some Muslims believe that Islam is inconsistent with free speech. I believe the shootings make their point about that quite well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Iconic Picture of Burning Silliman Hall

5/6/2015—This year is the 50th anniversary of the famous picture of Silliman Hall burning as a high school football game continues to be played between Mt. Herman and Deerfield Academy. So much of my life was formed at Mt. Herman that I have to mention here that this photo appeared in the New York Times today. Why today I have no idea.

Mt. Hermon is a good reflection of the trends in society that led us to the secularized place we are now in America. When I went there from 1966-1970, it was still a very Christian school, but was subject to the buffeting of the 1960’s. (The school and its sister school, Northfield, were founded by Dwight Lyman Moody, the great evangelist of the 1890’s.)

A little over 25 years later, when my older daughter graduated, it was still pretty religious, but very much interreligious, with a curriculum emphasizing the world’s religions and their wisdom. But I’m not sure how long that phase lasted. By the time the son and younger daughter graduated, over the next 7 years, my impression is that the religious emphasis was fading under the influence of good works in the world: a sort of combination of psychology and ethics.

I don’t know much about what the school is like today.

The story about the photo emphasizes that today, the football game would have been stopped—too much fear of a lawsuit or some safety danger. Undoubtedly that is true. Undoubtedly, a decline in society.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Choosing to be Good Without God

5/4/2015—I had no idea that there had been a particular Christian response to the claim that atheists can be good without God. Last night I watched the beginning of Time Changer, a self-identified Christian movie from 2002. In the movie, a Professor at Grace Seminary in 1890 has written a book that argues that the Church should teach morality without attaching that teaching to the authority of Jesus Christ. Another Professor, who has seen where such teaching leads because his father invented a time machine, opposes Seminary endorsement of the book. To settle the matter, he sends the author into our future to see for himself.

Not a great movie, but a great question. Satan does not oppose morality. Satan’s enemy is Jesus Christ. People who suppose that if they are good people, they are going to heaven are in for a shock when they end up in hell.

We do see today the decline in confidence about the good and all sorts of experiments are going forward to find a solid ground for making judgments. Sam Harris argues that science can show us what is good. Peter Singer is arguing in a recent book—The Most Good You Can Do—that reason leads us to what he calls effective altruism. And so forth.

The problem is not deciding to do good. The social crisis is that doing the good becomes merely a personal choice. The decline is not in morality as much as it is in authority, just as the movie argues.

So, the question is not what is good. The question is what is binding. Or, as Heidegger is translated—“what holds sway.” Here is where many modern people have a problem—with any claim of authority.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How to be Spiritual but not Religious

4/29/2015—It is hard not to be religious. It is hard to know what to do. This is more a question of ritual and practice than of belief. Consider the book review by Meghan O’Rourke of The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.

The book is a memoir of the sudden death of Alexander’s husband and her response to it. He was relatively young. They were very much in love. It was sad.

That said, my point here is the difficulty. Here is how O’Rourke puts it: “One might argue, of course, that the recent swarm of grief memoirs is just another manifestation of our confessional culture of self-disclosure. I’m biased — I wrote one of these books myself — but I think what we’re seeing here is something deeper and more useful: a desire to understand and give shape to an experience that defines us, an experience that is ethical and social in nature. How we grieve alone tells us something about who we are together. These books teach us that grief is not something merely to endure, medicate away or ‘muscle through,’ but an essential aspect of life — even a kind of privilege. ‘What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture?’ Alexander asks, devastated by her seemingly unbearable loss, searching for meaning where none initially presented itself.”

You never hear about things like this. But this is what a religious tradition really gives: a way of living. Something to do when your spouse dies. In contrast, the secularist does everything herself. And who can bear that?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Is Matter Enough? But What is Matter?

4/25/2015—The physicist Freeman Dyson reviews Steven Gimbel’s book, Einstein: His Space and Time in the New York Review. Dyson concentrates on politics and what he calls Einstein’s philosophy, by which he means “a general view of nature.”

It is here that the usual disagreement between believers and nonbelievers (in orthodox religion) comes into play. Atheists and their fellow travelers like to say that we follow reason and evidence. It is a silly claim—like believers saying that they are good, I guess—but it is also incomprehensible, as Dyson shows. We have no idea what nature is like.

According to Dyson, Einstein’s general view of reality “describes nature as a single layer of observable objects with strict causality governing their movements. If the state of affairs at the present time is precisely known, then the laws of nature allow the state at a future time to be precisely predicted. The uncertainty of our knowledge of the future arises only from the uncertainty of our knowledge of the past and present. I call this view of nature the classical philosophy, since all objects obey the laws of classical physics.”

Einstein’s view is that of most of the nonaffiliated. But ten years after Einstein worked this out, Niels Bohr, looking at quantum mechanics as understood by Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, described “the universe as consisting of two layers. The first layer is the classical world of Einstein, with objects that are directly observable but no longer predictable. They have become unpredictable because they are driven by events in the second layer that we cannot see. The second layer is the quantum world, with states that are not directly observable but obey simple laws. For example, the laws of the second layer decree that every particle travels along every possible path with a probability that depends in a simple way on the path.” The two layers are connected by “probabilistic rules.” The future in the first layer is in principle uncertain.

Bohr’s understanding dominated the twentieth century and led to new sciences dominated by mathematical symmetries at the quantum level that were only approximate for the world we know. Both layers are real, but we don’t understand their connection.

Today, however, a new generation of scientists reject Bohr’s dualism. According to Dyson, these new scientists believe that only the quantum world exists and the classical world is an illusion brought about by a process called decoherence that erases many quantum effects.

Then Dyson gives this summary: “there are three ways to understand philosophically our observations of the physical universe. The classical philosophy of Einstein has everything in a single layer obeying classical laws, with quantum processes unexplained. The quantum-only philosophy has included everything in a single layer obeying quantum laws, with the astonishing solidity and uniqueness of the classical illusion unexplained. The dualistic philosophy gives reality impartially to the classical vision of Einstein and to the quantum vision of Bohr, with the details of the connection between the two layers unexplained. All three philosophies are tenable, and all three are incomplete. I prefer the dualistic philosophy because I give equal weight to the insights of Einstein and Bohr. I do not believe that the celestial harmonies discovered by Einstein are an accidental illusion.”

Now this is a physicist writing, a Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. So, I’m sure this account of our situation is accurate.

Most atheists know nothing of quantum theory. In a vague way, they assume Einstein’s view. They can’t be dualists because that would allow both this world and another world to be real, which would smell religious to them.

But that means, from the perspective of many scientists, atheists believe in an illusion—rather comically, precisely what they accuse religious people of believing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reform of Judaism

4/22/2015—Considering Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now, suggests the question of what other religious traditions need a reformation, from the point of former adherents, anyway. Hinduism on matters of caste? But hasn’t that been worked on quite a bit? Christianity on gender and sexuality? But, again, the tradition is hard at work on these matters. No one I know has a problem with Buddhism.

But what about Judaism? Granted, it is a tiny religion—around fourteen million in the world, mostly in Israel and America. But, for whatever reason, Judaism has an outsized influence on world events. I am not speaking of a world Jewish conspiracy, but that old canard does show the impact that Jews have had.

What is the problem with Judaism? Ironically, it is the same as the root of the problem in Islam—the problem of the other. In Islam, it is an insistence that everyone become a Muslim, or at least an unclarity as to what it means theologically that someone is not a Muslim. In Judaism, it is the meaning of the goyim—of the non-Jews in world history.

Years ago, the Jewish thinker and founder of Jewish Reconstruction, Mordecai Kaplan, called for an end to the concept of chosenness—the idea that Jews are the people chosen by God to be the fulcrum point of world history. But Kaplan’s call has had no effect.

Judaism traditionally teaches that the point of world history is what God has planned for the Jewish people. Eventually, the day is to come when the Jews are reinstalled in Israel and the Kingdom of God will reign. The only suggestion I know of the role of the other nations at that future time is that all the nations will worship God on the hills of Jerusalem.

There are warnings in the Torah that Jews should be especially sensitive to the stranger—“you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And the book of Ruth places an immigrant at the center of Jewish history as the ancestor of King David.

But the horrible history of the Jewish people—exile and death followed by a threatened existence in the modern State of Israel—has hardened Jewish concern for the survival of the Jewish people above all other considerations. So, I never heard religious insistence—that is, in the synagogue—to be kind to the stranger in the sense of the non-Jew in Israel and the West Bank. Nor did I hear that Jerusalem should be shared so that the Muslims may also worship God on the hills of the city. (though, to be fair, the religious sites in Jerusalem are open to all religions, as they were not before 1967).

I am speaking here theologically. There are many Jews in Israel and outside working for peace. And there are many Jews, again in and out, who favor harsh polices out of a feeling of necessity and not out of prejudice against others, who would love not to be threatened. But in both cases, the feelings are essentially secular.

What is the religious meaning of the current situation? What does Judaism teach about the land of Israel and its native population? And its neighbors? Obviously some of the ancient traditions are not good—in the Old Testament, they were to be exterminated. But what about later teachings? I have never heard clear religious thinking here. That is what I mean by the need for a reformation in Judaism.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Campaign Finance Becomes an Issue

4/20/2015—-not two days back from Cleveland and campaign finance has become an issue—-for the moment. As I told the Symposium audience on Friday, the simplest answer and most immediate answer is to eliminate caps on contributions. This would end the era of the super PACs.

But the fact that Mike Huckabee has now proposed this—if he did before, I was not aware of it—is the problem. For the moment, Democrats and liberals oppose this change. If only a few of them switched on this, eliminating contribution limits would pass tomorrow.

So, I asked them to act now. A few phone calls is all it would need and it would accomplish two things—first, put control back with the candidates and therefore with the voters. Right now, voters are told by candidates that they should not be held accountable for independent spending because they are not allowed to control it (which is technically true).

Second, because disclosure requirements are strict for candidates, all the sources of money would be known. Actually, this is not even strictly necessary, since candidates themselves would be forced to disclose or pay the consequences.

As I will show in an article for the Cleveland State Law Review, none of this is inconsistent with other reforms, such as public financing. No need to fix everything at once.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Taking a Break for Campaign Finance Reform

4/16/2015—My responsibilities this year at Duquense Law School have been preventing me from traveling and speaking—-and thinking, actually. But tomorrow, I take a break and head to Cleveland-Marshall Law School to speak at a symposium on campaign finance reform sponsored by the Cleveland State Law Review. The keynote speaker is Professor Larry Lessig, whose book, Republic, Lost, has achieved best-seller status.

I will be proposing the counter-intuitive strategy of eliminating contribution limits as a way of restricting the super PACs. Without contribution limits, money would go to candidates—-an enhancement of democracy—-and legal independence of the super PACs would be gone. That independence is a function of enforcing contribution limits. I am hoping for an op-ed tomorrow in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Going After Faith

4/12/2015—I have always thought that Philip Kitcher is the best of the New Atheists. That is the group that came to the consciousness of the American public around ten years ago arguing against religion. The first wave of the movement culminated in the late Christopher Hitches’ blockbuster, God In Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Other well known members of the group were Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. My own books, particularly American Religious Democracy (2007) and Hallowed Secularism, (2009), which no one can afford to buy, were written in opposition to certain aspects of the New Atheism, though acknowledging the reality that many people were leaving the religious traditions—including the author.

Kitcher was the best of this group because of his compassion for people, especially in Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith in 2007. He knew that religion offered something that people needed and he thought that trumpeting atheism without regard to that was almost cruel.

Kitcher’s recent book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, appears to continue in that vein. I haven’t read it yet so I’m not going to discuss it. I want instead to inquire after its starting point.

Why would anyone want to argue “the case for” an alternative to religion? In much the same way that almost all people born into a religion end up becoming members of that religion without actually evaluating the other religions, people don’t “choose” to cease believing and become secular. Once that happens, people might “choose” to leave or stay in a religious tradition physically, but once the supernatural becomes unreal, that is the end of a certain kind of faith. At least that is what happened to me. (I know that there is a tradition of radical doubt within the religious traditions, which leads to crisis, but that is another matter. In a culture in which the supernatural is in question, doubt need not be experienced as crisis.)

So, why seem to argue against religion and for secular humanism? In his review of Kitcher’s book in the New York Review, Adam Kirsch points out that “secular humanists have the duty to be evangelists.” That is how Kitcher and the others feel--evangelists against religion--and it is the wrong starting point. Since Kitcher has always said that faith is great for those who have it—-something Christopher Hitchens could never admit—-and since faith is not an option for those who don’t, why argue at all? In other words, why should the nonaffiliated write about religion, other than as a resource for secular life?

Therefore, the subheading of Kitcher’s book should have been “Life in Secular Humanism.” Kitcher knows this—-in fact, the blurb on Amazon reads, “Although there is no shortage of recent books arguing against religion, few offer a positive alternative—-how anyone might live a fulfilling life without the support of religious beliefs.”—-so why does Philip still speak of argument? Why does he devote a chapter to vindicating doubt about religion and another to refined religion that does not espouse supernatural belief?

The answer is that Hallowed Secularism—-or secular humanism-—is hard. Criticizing religion is easy.

Philip Kitcher does not accept the responsibility of this hour. How do we now live, now that God is dead? It is a simple question. But the question haunted Nietzsche. I doubt that the answer to that question is any kind of humanism. Humans are not in control of reality.

It may be that among the nonaffiliated, the differences may finally have to be confronted, which the preoccupation with religion still prevents. For me, the category of the transcendent is the starting point. Phillip points out that the transcendent cannot function the way traditional religion does. Fair enough. But is the transcendent real? Does it teach humans something lasting about reality? If it is real, then it, not reason, is our proper starting point.

The holy does not disappear when one stops going to church, synagogue, mosque or temple. It just becomes harder to live by it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Only Ten Years Stopping an Iranian Bomb

4/8/2015—I feel like I am living in some fantasy land. I heard an analyst today say that the proposed deal with Iran is a mistake because it would only delay an Iranian bomb for ten years and after that it might be easier for Iran to build a nuclear weapon than it is today.

I would have thought that the guarantee that we would have ten years breathing space would be greeted with rapture. A lot can happen in ten years, including peace and regime change or reform.

Everything I have heard about the deal makes it sound like the real thing. And the extremes to which critics are going to criticize it makes it sound all the better.

Which brings me to the real point. What is it about Iran that makes the Israeli government so crazed? Yes, Iran backs Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel. But really doesn’t Saudi Arabia do the same thing? And Israeli seems close to a tacit deal with the Saudis.

My theory is that the problem for the Israelis is that the Iranians are actually religious. The government of Israel is basically secularist. And that is true even on the right. There is a fear of what a really religious state might do—drop a bomb to bring on the apocalypse, maybe.

But Iran has not acted in such a weird way. The country suffered horrible loses in a war with Iraq. I don’t believe they would welcome an Israeli retaliatory bomb dropped on Tehran.

We made the mistake with the Soviet Union of thinking it would risk nuclear war. That was never true. It is not true of Iran either.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Making the Worst of Religion

4/3/2015—I hope my reaction was not partisan. One of the best pieces of news in years was the President’s announcement yesterday of a possible, not-yet-quite-final nuclear weapons deal with Iran. The very specificity of the announcement seemed to shock everybody. The New York Times referred to it as “surprising” and even Republicans in Congress were hesitant to condemn it. A real deal would change the politics. American does not want more war. Especially in the Middle East.

So, what headline does the Tribune Review run in its Passover story? Nuclear Deal in Iran Casts Pall Over Jewish Holiday in Pittsburgh.

Now, granted this newspaper is an opponent of President Obama. But it is still a newspaper. If the basic reaction the reporters had encountered had been cautious, overwhelming joy, they would have reported it. (My experience with the Tribune Review is that the reporters are very fair).

So, how does that look to everybody? It looks like another example of a religion in the way of peace.

This occurs at the same time that Good Friday arrives on the heels of religious believers forced to retreat on discrimination against gay people in Indiana and Arkansas.

Welcome to the new face of religion—discrimination and war.

Of course religion is supposed to stand up to the culture. So, all I can say here is that the religions in question are wrong. I’m all in favor myself of protecting that 70-year-old florist from delivering flowers to a gay wedding if she does not want to. But if that religious protection had been coupled with a gay marriage bill in the first place, and the rest of the bill linked with protections of sexual orientation from discrimination, none of the controversy would have happened. Religious believers offer gays nothing and then are surprised at the reaction.

Where is the lure of religion? Where is its surpassing beauty in a world of gray ordinariness? It’s there. Many, many millions will experience it during the next few days in Good Friday and Easter and Passover. But one of humankind’s reservoirs of insight is drying up, like a California lake.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Can the Cross Mean?

4/1/2015—What can the cross mean to the nonreligious? (I mean the nonaffiliated). After all, the cross is the intensely Christian symbol. What can it mean for the rest of us?

I’ve been reading Martin Heidegger’s difficult masterpiece, Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger is on the traces of being. Heidegger writes that the original thrust of western philosophy turned from being to beings. That tradition of metaphysics culminated in the various sciences and is now exhausted. He is seeking a new beginning.

Philosophy seeks after the truth of being. Being is a formal symbol, which can be contemplated as how the holy, the sacred, comes to us. We have a hint of being as refusal.

Refusal is the mysterious secret of human life. We don’t know much. We can’t know much. But we can know that.

What is Jesus’ last moment on the cross but the refusal? “Why have you forsaken me?” God does not speak or reassure.

Yes, I know it is all happiness ever after on Easter, but that is not true of the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, the only way we know that the Kingdom of God endures after the cross is through the life of the participant.

Heidegger presents a new understanding of Christian knowing.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Think about Religious Exemptions

3/29/2015—For the last several years, I participated in a group that urged legislators to enact compromises on the issue of gay marriage. The legislature would amend the state’s marriage law to allow gay marriage, while at the same time enacting a religious exemption from participating in gay marriage. The group’s intellectual leader was the nation’s leading expert on church state, Douglas Laycock.

The group’s raison d’ĂȘtre has disappeared because the courts have brought about gay marriage judicially, thus leaving legislatures only to deal with the issue of religious exemption.

But religious exemption by itself, without the compromise of permitting gay marriage in the first place, presents a serious political problem. To understand the problem, and to see how it is playing out in Indiana right now, the reader must understand that there are two ways to think about a religious exemption from any kind of general law.

Perhaps the classic way of thinking about a religious exemption is to imagine a Jewish or Muslim prisoner who requests not to eat pork. The religious believer is focused only on his or her own religious life in such an example. The religious exemption is not intended to be a protest against the policy generally of prisoners eating pork.

But now imagine a devout prison guard, perhaps a Roman Catholic, who opposes the death penalty. The guard requests a religious exemption from participating in an execution partly out of concern for his or her own religious life but partly also as a protest against the underlying policy of the death penalty.

It is not usually necessary to distinguish between these two ways of thinking about religious exemptions because the religious believer in the second situation is usually such a minority that the protest part of the exemption is practically insignificant, politically speaking. The prison guard might hope to delegitimize the death penalty through a religious witness, but has no realistic expectation that this will happen.

But now consider the case of gay marriage. Although proponents of religious exemptions like to frame the issue in terms of the first example – – the 70-year-old Florist, who only wishes to be left alone by a gay couple about to be married – – the clearly political message being propounded by requests for gay marriage exemptions is opposition to gay rights. Religious believers are using exemptions to try to halt or retard the legitimation of gay marriage in particular and gay rights in general.

It is really not fair for proponents of religious exemptions in this context play such a double game. That is why compromise, like the Utah example in which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was linked with a religious exemption, can work, whereas simple religious exemptions spark controversy, as in Indiana right now.

I am not suggesting that anything can be done to limit the problem of religious exemptions in the current political context. But it would be helpful to think in these terms. It would help explain to religious believers who are not involved in the gay-rights issue to understand why people might oppose religious exemptions. And it would also help proponents of gay rights and gay marriage to more clearly delineate what they can accept and cannot accept by way of religious exemptions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Holding Back the Chinese Tide

3/25/2015—Is there anything as pathetic as an aging power attempting to retard the rise of a new one? Or, as pointless? Thus, the failure of the Obama Administration to convince our allies, especially Germany, to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was both comical and embarrassing. Great Britain, Germany and France joined last week. Italy to follow.

Joining the Bank should have been seen as positive--as a way of bringing the Chinese into the international community in a way that might have enabled our European allies to influence their new partner in territorial disputes China is having with its neighbors. (Of course, our allies can still play that role).

But really what was the point? China is a rising power and very wealthy. And, unlike the US, able to act coherently. The surest way to conflict with China—unnecessary conflict—is to refuse to recognize that fact. In setting up this bank, China was not invading Ukraine. Was not insisting on its own sphere of influence to the exclusion of anyone else. China was expecting to use its new power to expand its influence. That is what nations do.

If this was a subtle game—I doubt it—reassure Japan and South Korea by appearing to oppose the Chinese Bank, it was too subtle for me. I was just embarrassed by my country.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Problem for Post-Netanyahu American Judaism

3/21/2015—Let’s assume that Netanyahu ran a racist campaign in which he revealed his true colors. He believes Arab Israelis have no place in Israel. He opposes creation of a Palestinian State. He wants the West Bank for Israel. He’s willing to bomb Iran. Etc.

Now what for American Judaism? Jews have been acting like supporting Israel through American power is a given and a good thing. That stance is now impossible for some American Jews because the policies above, which a majority in Israel voted for, do not deserve American support. So, support for Israel will have to end, or at least diminish. The Jewish vote in America is about to split. The Republican candidate in 2016 might get one-third of it. And maybe more than one-third of Jewish money.

But that is just politics and might be reversed by a deal with Iran that would force Congressional Republicans and Netanyahu to back down. America is not in a mood for war with Iran. The Democratic nominee for President in 2016 would love to run on such an agreement.

More difficult for American Jews is the religious question. Just what is Judaism apart from support for Israel? What is Judaism apart from identity?

The pre and post-war period of Jewish thought looks now like a golden age that ended. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were widely read in America. Who is read now among young American Jews? And the religious current was so strong that it could fruitfully merge with secular thought, as in the work of the Jewish existentialist Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. This is no longer happening in America.

The next step for American Judaism will have to be back to theology. Or, should I say, back to religious thinking. It is not clear that the resources are there for such a step.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustainable Political Thinking

3/17/2015—The current conservative insistence that social disintegration is unrelated to money—so that the current push by the left to do something about income inequality will not raise taxes on the rich—is curious. It proceeds from an assumption that income inequality is not inherently bad, so that it is necessary to invent another goal other than redistribution to justify it. But, if worker productivity gains do not translate into more money for workers, then the bosses are stealing money that properly belongs to workers. You can correct that in different ways—stronger unions for example—but you don’t need a theory of culture to do something about it.

But the conservative drumbeat, by Ross Douthat and George Will, for example, reminds me that there is more to political life than money. In the same way that ecological systems must be sustainable, political life must also be sustainable. Political life that is nothing but argument by one side against the other is not sustainable.

There are different ways of thinking about the styles of political life. Right now, all America has is ideological confrontation. (It is not really ideological). That is getting us nowhere. This style suggests far more differences among Americans than is really present. We exaggerate our differences because our political goals are merely oppositional.

What would a more sustainable political life look like? I’m not sure. And maybe it is not possible. I’m told that the Permaculture Movement has an aspect of decision-making style. And it was once thought that President Obama’s career as a community organizer would aid him in building consensus in Washington. But that did not happen.

Maybe here, in styles of thought, is where philosophy could be of service to politics. Not philosophy in the analytic style of logic—though a little of that could not hurt in politics—but Martin Heidegger’s questioning after being. A more soulful politics. On the other hand, did Michael Lerner’s politics of meaning go anywhere in the 1990’s?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Would Prosperity Matter?

3/14/2015—The extent to which working people have contributed to the prosperity of the owners of capital is truly astounding. Since 1979, I read today, productivity has grown over 60%, but wages have climbed only 6%. Put another way, if wages had matched productivity, which in economic theory they should, the median wage today would be $54,000 rather than $35,000. That is a lot of money and it has gone to shareholders of corporations rather than to workers.

Now, what America should do about that, or whether anything could be done about that, is one question. But another question is whether a more equal distribution of the fruits of labor would make any difference.

That second question asks what you think the basic problem in America is. If you think the basic problem is economic, then obviously you try to do something directly about the money. But if you think the basic problem is something else, then you do something about the money, but also you look to do something else as well.

A friend of mine said last night that the basic problem in America is a general social breakdown. Students are dropping out of school. Families are not being formed. There is a general lack of social solidarity. There is great distrust.

If he is right, let’s ask whether a fairer distribution of income might contribute to more social cohesion? Would students be more likely to stay in school if they saw themselves getting really well paying jobs? They might. If the median income were much higher, would some people marry and raise children who now decide not to do so? They might. So, even if we accept what could be called a conservative view of America’s troubles, that the troubles are moral, we might decide that economic inequality has to be aggressively dealt with.

For me, the more fundamental breakdown is not economic or moral. It’s hard for me to give it a name. Let me say for now that the problem is that we hate each other. And it may even be deeper than that. Our language may be exhausted. (But that would not prevent us from doing something to spread the wealth around.) Maybe all our troubles start there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Well, Some Dare Call it Treason

3/11/2015—The news is dominated by the letter from 47 Republican Senators to the Iranian leadership explaining that they will not be bound by any deal President Obama makes with Iran. Even the sympathetic Daily News called them “Traitors” on the front page.

Well, why not? Why not send such a letter? Another sympathetic newspaper, the Tribune Review, wrote today that the letter was giving President Obama a dose of his own medicine. We have a President who legislates in violation of the separation-of-powers and a Congress that conducts its own foreign policy, also in violation of the separation-of-powers.

Yesterday, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented relativism as it affects family life. He was referencing, if I remember correctly, Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. The poor lack values, Brooks wrote.

But Brooks is wrong to see nihilism only among the poor and only in intimate life. Here, in the President’s Executive orders and the Netanyahu speech and Iranian letter, is the face of nihilism. For nihilism is the lack of restraint that comes when there are no standards other than my own will. It is the will to power. Why shouldn’t the President act to promote good policy as he sees it? Why shouldn’t the Republicans try to protect the nation from the folly they fear?

None of us has faith that our existing institutions will vindicate the good in the long run. So, we have to act. We are ensnared in what Heidegger called the nihil, the nothing. All that is left is self-assertion. And it is on all sides.

I’m not without hope that we will not remain in this plight. Heidegger famously said “only a God can save us.” And he did not mean a return to old-time religion. But he did mean that a saving could happen.

The question is, how does it happen? I wonder if we could begin to prepare in law?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Watching the Left Behind Movie

3/7/2015—Last night I watched the highly entertaining Left Behind movie, starring Nicholas Cage, Chad Michael Murray and Cassi Thomson, and based sort of loosely on the novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Let me say up front that, as Jackson Cuidon wrote in Christianity Today, this is not a Christian movie in the sense of raising any serious issues of theology about the Rapture in which believers are taken up to heaven by God before the tribulations of the end times can begin. Instead, it is, on the surface, a basic disaster movie with a plane landing with little fuel and a kind of alien movie, in which supernatural forces disrupt human life. Or maybe, as Cuidon also writes, it’s basically Harry Potter. [He also points out the cruelty with which a dwarf is treated in the movie as showing its unchristian heart.]

The rapture event is portrayed as entirely a matter of belief. You get taken because you believe something—presumably Christ as your savior. Other pious believers are not taken. This is symbolized by a Muslim in the movie. Undoubtedly, the producers were afraid to use a Jew in this context. This avoids the issue of the liberal Christian. In the movie, the world is binary—you are either a recognizable believer or not (or a child—all the children are taken). No instance of a rich person not taken because, although professing faith, he amassed too much money. One insincere minister is shown.

One issue raised in the movie is whether a loving God would act this way. Thomson’s character doubts it. Lots of people are killed, after all, when the Rapture happens. Airplane pilots are taken at a higher rate it seems than other adults.

Nor is the question raised whether Mom, who is taken, should have renounced Christ to be with her daughter in her time of need.

But I have more sympathy for the movie’s religiosity than Cuidon does. It’s very clear that the characters who are not taken are lost. A number of them are conventionally sinful—Cage is about to have an affair, for example. But some—Murray and Thomson—are not. They are good people who have not thought deeply about what human existence is about. They are brave and even loving, but they are in a kind of limbo. And because of that, they have no views on the structure of existence, human or otherwise. No critique by them of economics or anything else. Murray, the famous reporter, is asked about the tsunami he covered. He criticizes a believing woman who stayed with her child when she should have evacuated because God would protect her. But this is just the joke about God and the rowboat. (“I sent a rowboat to save you.”)

Revealingly, when he is asked by Thomson about the meaning of the tsunami, he has no answer. Not even, all those people could have been saved if more money had been spent on warnings.

So, Left Behind is a kind of wake-up call after all. Don’t drift through life. Make a decision. Not about religion, but about reality.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Foreign Leader Speaks

3/4/2015—Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to a joint meeting of Congress that the deal that President Obama is trying to make with Iran is a bad deal and should be rejected. I did not watch. Of course there are good and bad deals and I have no idea what the Administration will be able to do with Iran. From the perspective of a deal, Netanyahu’s speech might be helpful, since it will show Iran how difficult it is for the President to go forward. This might encourage Iran to reduce its own demands.

I am interested in what the speech will mean for the future of American Jewry and American politics. It seems obvious that Israel is now a politically partisan issue in a way it was not before. Before, Israel enjoyed almost automatic political support. But now any position Israel presses in America will be evaluated more like any other issue.

If the Administration does make a “one-year” deal with Iran—freezing activity so that it would take one year to make a bomb, Americans will support it. Such support would be overwhelming if Americans paid attention to foreign affairs. But it will be pretty high if the Administration mounts a “the alternative is war with Iran and more terrorism as a result” campaign. The Republicans are riding a bad horse here.

If that happens, American Jews will for the first time line up on the opposite side of a position that Israel is pressing. You might say that has already been happening in regard to building settlements in the occupied territories, but the matter has never been presented that dramatically.

The fundamental question is not an Iranian bomb, as important as that obviously is. The fundamental question is the nature of Judaism in America. If Judaism is not support for Israel, what exactly is it? The answer to that question will determine if Netanyahu’s speech will be seen in retrospect as a marker on the path to the end of Judaism in America or as the first step in a religious rebirth.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Is There Something Wrong?

3/1/2015—I am visiting our grandson and family and my thoughts turn to his future. (It is also my birthday) I see America and the West in general as running out of steam. Our basic commitments, such as democracy and the rule of law, no longer seem to inspire. As we experience one more threatened government shutdown, we must acknowledge that forces more powerful than our criticism of this or that political figure are in play. People in public life may not be at all different from how they were before. It may be the context that has changed. It may not be possible now to
perform properly in American public life.

If so, what does that mean for the life of my grandson?

As a symbol that something may be deeply wrong, take a look at pages 22 and 23 of the New York Times Book Review of February 22, 2015—two weeks ago. On page 22 is a review of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island; on page 23, a review of Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan short story collection.

The reviewer of McCarthy's book likens him to the French theorist Guy Debord, who coined the term "society of the spectacle." I can't tell that much from the review, but McCarthy writes about a world dominated by corporations and technology, from which authentic human relationships have more of less disappeared. This is the commodification of experience, of which Debord wrote. McCarthy doubles as a cultural critic of a decidedly ironic bent—his collaborator is Simon Critchley. It is questionable what these people offer beyond parody and loss.

Michael Greenburg's review of Lethem uses terms like absurdism to describe him. The best story, he writes, is the last one, Pending Vegan, in which a man with his family "feels under spiritual assault upon entering SeaWorld.

The point here is the lack of authenticity. This is not some personal failing. It is, instead, an absence of credibility. There is no larger story that makes sense of existence. Both these writers feel that.

The only beginnings of an alternative that I know of is the work of Martin Heidegger. Critchley's last book was about Heidegger. Maybe something will happen to change things and usher in a more hopeful future. But would you bet your life on that?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Transformed Without God

2/24/2015—The question is often asked, and resented by the religiously unaffiliated, can you be good without God? Obviously you can, say those who call themselves nonbelievers.

It’s the wrong question, for two reasons. First, religious practitioners are not good. They are terrible sinners. Just ask their traditions. The word “good” here means, I haven’t killed anybody. It does not mean I have lived in dedication to others, to truth, in depth or anything else. It does not even mean I have been faithful to those around me. It does not mean anything important. Jesus said, why do you call me good?

So we’re not good and that is related to the second point—-the question of life is not ethics. The question is transformation and human possibility. Organized religion is not too good at that. But non-organized religion is terrible at it.

To illustrate this, listen to how Phil Zuckerman describes secular life in his new book, Living the Secular Life—(by the way, I got this from a book review by Susan Jacoby in the New York Times) “He extols a secular morality grounded in the ‘empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.’”

Now nothing about this is terrible. But it is boring. It’s proud of itself for accepting that we die. But Martin Heidegger long ago spoke of authentic human life as being toward death—-sein zum toda. Indeed, Cicero described philosophy as learning to die. This is not new and Zuckerman's take, extolling pragmatism, is empty. What is pragmatic if I’m going to die anyway? Does pragmatism mean reasonably self-regarding but not hurting anybody, at least not doing so outside normal limits? Why not just quote Google—don’t be evil?

But Google can be sinister, too. Good people are monsters sometime. Maybe most of the time.

Now, contrast this with the call to enlightenment in Eastern religion. Or the call to self-sacrifice in Christianity—he who would save his life will lose it. And what about living in depth, in art, for example? Or devotion to truth? Or anything that would make life worthwhile?

There is a view in secular thought that the problem with human life is the belief in transformative possibility itself, that such a view leads to death camps. This view was stated classically and elegantly by Isaiah Berlin. I just reread A Message to the 21st Century in the New York Review of Books, which says this specifically:

“Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.
The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. …This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false.
So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen.”

Berlin admits that his view “is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march.” His view “does not engage the generous emotions… .” But it will keep you from killing anybody and may to a certain extent improve the world.

This is the dead air of positivism. It is Phil Zuckerman’s air also. And I want to tell you that if all you can aim at is not killing anybody, you will not even succeed at that.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bad News From Ukraine

2/20/2015--There is plenty of bad news in the world this week. Certainly ISIS. The economic situation in Greece. But the potentially dangerous news had to do with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, is playing a deadly game. And no one knows what he wants--does he?

This morning, Ukrainian military forces continued their retreat from Debaltseve, while British fighters scrambled to intercept Russian bombers near the British coast.

We may assume that nothing is accidental. Putin is insisting on a free hand in Ukraine and is threatening--what? War with the West? Over what? A land bridge to Crimea? Incorporation of all Russian speakers into Russia?

At some point, there will be a response from the West that will be harmful but insufficient to deter Putin, who has put all his eggs seemingly in the Ukrainian basket. He can't back down without real political pain at home.

It is funny to see Putin participating in "cease fire" talks he has no intention of honoring. Putin controls the military situation in eastern Ukraine and there would be a cease-fire if he wanted one.

Meanwhile, what happened to the Obama Administration and its talk of military assistance to Ukraine? Where are the missiles extended to Poland?

Economic sanctions have worked. But they have not been dramatic enough. It's time for a different kind of response, mainly to remind Putin that he is playing with fire. Because he is and does not seem to realize it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Why Does ISIS Have Any Support?

2/13/2015—After all, everything about ISIS is repulsive to decent people. And that has nothing to do with the nature of one’s religion. Its action are horrifying to Muslims too.

And yet it does attract thousands of Western youths. Why?

I believe the reason is the emptiness of Western life—the bankruptcy of our ideals. The exhaustion of our tradition.

Two hints of this from the New York Review of Books. Sarah Birke in How ISIS Rules attributes the growth of the group to the absence of “convincing ideologies” in the West. And Mark Lilla in France on Fire points out that Republican ideology collapsed in French schools in the 1970’s and nothing really took its place.

What do we believe in? Conservative and libertarian thought is at heart a corrosive individualism. Capitalism is greed. Technology is an addiction. And liberalism no longer believes in its proffered truths.

Worst of all, we Americans have failed to build a political culture of affection and community. We hate each other. We mistrust each other. Why should young people find our way of life enticing?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Deep Cynicism of the Political Parties on the Electoral College

2/10/2015—A couple of years ago, the national Republican Party floated the idea of moving a couple of blue leaning states they controlled from winner-take-all Presidential election states to congressional district winning states. What the Republicans did not explain is that such a move would destroy democracy in the United States.

The reason this is so is the peculiar way we Americans elect the President. We do not vote directly for President but for Presidential Electors state by state who meet in the Electoral College and cast their votes for President. This system is a holdover from a theory of the framers of the Constitution that the President would be selected not democratically but as a result of a deliberative process—-like the way Cardinals elect the Pope.

America evolved to regard its President as necessarily democratically elected and that understanding sits uneasily on top of this rickety structure. Most of the time, the Presidential candidate with the most votes wins. Even when this does not happen, as in 2000, the vote is close.

The reason an undemocratic Electoral College usually yields democratic results is that most 48 states practice winner-take-all. Thus, Republican votes in California are discounted, as are Democratic votes in Texas. The system only works as a whole.

The system would also work if all the states divided their electoral votes by congressional district.

But if a couple of blue states changed to congressional district while the rest remained winner-take-all, only democratic votes would be discounted nationally. The result would be that the Republican candidate for President would usually win, even if that candidate received less votes. This might happen every time.

Obviously, that would be the end of democracy in America. Eventually, the people would wise up and some military coup would end Republican rule. The Republicans who floated this idea had no notion of how dangerous this idea was.

But to see how deep the cynicism is, in both Parties, the New York Times reports that Nebraska, one of the two states with congressional district election, is considering moving to winner-take-all.

All believers in democracy should rejoice. We need all states to go to winner-take-all and stay there.

But this is not how the matter is seen. Republicans are pushing it because they want to maximize their electoral vote—“It’s obvious that the majority of citizens of the State of Nebraska are Republicans,” said J.L. Spray, the state Republican chairman. “They want to have the maximum voice in the Electoral College.” Meanwhile, “Democrats, not surprisingly, are fighting back.”

No. Democrats should be very happy. They should press for a national commitment to keep the Electoral College as democratic as possible by having the same system in every state. But Democrats are no more committed to democracy than are Republicans.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Building Better Secularists

2/7/2015—Some kind of watershed in the growth of secularism passed this week. Four days ago, David Brooks wrote Building Better Secularists, which was a column about what secularism needs to be healthy—obviously of great interest to a hallowedsecularism blog. Last Sunday, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, two secularism stories appeared: Re-Creation, about the godless Sunday Assembly movement, and Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Sherman’s op-ed, Morality on the March, about how great the non-religious Enlightenment was.

OK. So secularism continues to grow. I’m glad I got in on the ground floor.

But all three instances demonstrated the same nihilism in secularism. Brooks was mildly criticizing, while it was unconscious in the Sunday Assembly and Sherman.

For Brooks, Phil Zuckerman’s book, Living the Secular Life, is the model of growing secularism: “Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.”

Now, of course, this is nuts. There is no reason to think that people who don’t go to church reason at all, just as there is no reason to think that people who go to church employ reason. Choice is usually an illusion, as much of psychology teaches us. Secularists are as prone to groupthink as anyone else—actually more, as you will see if you try to be pro-life in a Unitarian Church. Brooks makes this point and calls for “an enchanted secularism.” [holiness, Brooks, not magic—hallowed secularism].

The nihilism is implicit here. One builds one’s own moral code because the only standard is to thine own self be true.

The nihilism is also a little hidden in Sherman, who believes he is celebrating morality. But he give away the game by his reference to “human natural rights.” This is Sherman’s weak spot, because the point of natural rights was that they are independent of human choice. That is why majorities cannot take them away from us. Natural rights might be grounded in reason, of course, but it is the kind of reason employed by the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis—rights are what is proper to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we humans are. Efforts to ground rights outside traditional religion have proved impossible—have proved impossible within religions also, as Nietzsche saw.

Finally, the nihilism is explicit in the Sunday Assembly movement. These are people who feel they cannot go to church or synagogue, but who crave community. They are the people that Zuckerman and Sherman are writing about.

But, listen to how one such member described her spiritual journey—“it made more sense to be agnostic, to be open-minded, not believing any one thing is right or wrong.”

Now, thank God, (if you’ll pardon the expression) this person does not believe that. She believes plenty of things are right and wrong. But once you are in this habit of speech, you are lost. Reason is impossible. Reason requires the burning determination to understand the way things actually are. Thinking is only possible in an ordered universe. And an ordered universe is one in which, though we see darkly, as St. Paul said, we know it is crucial to reality that we believe what is true.