A Year of Progress
posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM
Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.
The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.
Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.
But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?
Who Lost Iraq?
posted on 11.30.2006 at 10:41 PM
Here's a perspective on the Iraq disaster from Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times:
In Iraq, the "West is best" default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos.
By "West is best" here we are supposed to read "Enlightenment," whose alleged failings mean a lot to Mr. Shweder. So the point is that the war in Iraq represents a failure of secularism. This despite the fact that the war was launched by an intensely religious American president who admitted to consulting his heavenly "Father" on the matter and to basing his foreign policy on his religious beliefs. This despite the fact that support for the war came overwhelming from the religious right. This despite the fact that much of the indigenous bloodshed in the country can now be traced to a more than thirteen-hundred-year-old religious dispute having to do with the ousting of Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, as caliph.
And, certainly, neither the Bush administration, which started the war, nor the Shia and Sunni fighters who help continue it, are known for their weakness for the "discourse about universal human rights."
A Born-Again Government
posted on 10.28.2006 at 6:15 PM
Here's the always interesting Garry Wills:
The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government--until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.
Wills outlines the extent of the religious incursions into the current White House.
George W. Bush -- II
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:09 PM
The basic text on the religiousity of the current president of the United States and its influence on his policy remains Ron Suskind's article two years ago. Here he tried to explain Mr. Bush's remarkable confidence in his "gut" and his "instinct":
All of this [as well as] the certainty and religiosity -connects to a single word, ''faith".... That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness.
It is, of course, deeply upsetting to contemplate the wrongness of all the decisions Mr. Bush has thusly made.
George W. Bush
posted on 10.01.2006 at 11:57 AM
There has been some dispute lately about just where the current US president stands among the supernaturals. We have, of course, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' suggestion that Mr. Bush is "El Diablo." But other observers see the self-described "Decider" as fitting more gently into a religious context. Here is Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:
In Bob Woodward's highly anticipated new book, "State of Denial," President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.
I'm not sure the "almost" is necessary in the phrase I italicized above, as has been noted here before. Certainly, one of the great gifts of religion has been certainty. Here is the first major Christian theologian to write in Latin, Tertullian, having a go at those wishy-washy Greek philosophers (whom the Christians would, soon enough, put out of business):
Wretched Aristotle...taught them dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing...self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them....
Mr. Bush settles questions. (The Republicans even pass laws to make sure everyone knows they are settled.) And I'm naive enough to remain shocked that questions could be so badly settled with so little reliance upon wisdom and reason, with such terrible consequences for this country -- and the world -- at this time.
The devil often appears as "the opponent" of religion. But, as history has taught, it is the partisans of religion -- with their obstinate, at some point unreflective certainty -- who so often muck things up.
Religion and Politics -- A Comment
posted on 05.10.2006 at 9:58 PM
This critique of Bush's injection of his religious beliefs into his policy decisions comes from a record from China, dated 662 BCE:
It is when a state is about to flourish that [its ruler] listens to his people; when it is about to persih then he listens to the spirits.
Religion and Foreign Policy -- 2
posted on 05.07.2006 at 10:16 AM
When I began this book I looked at President Bush as an anomaly. But in working on the book I found that all American Presidents in one way or another invoke God.... President Bush is a little different because he's so sure about what religion is telling him.
God Would be Great in 2008!
posted on 05.03.2006 at 1:56 PM
Why not cut out the middle man and just elect the Almighty president?
Positives: Known for being decisive leader. Has military experience. Projects sense of authority. Reputation for integrity. Many millennia of experience with media (primarily testaments and oral tradition, however). Unlikely to find new skeltons in closet (though possible Satan might make rounds of Sunday talk shows).
Negatives: Beard tests poorly with focus groups. Hazy citizenship. Has so far escaped openly taking sides in sectarian debates -- might be difficult to avoid in a debate. Unlikely to carry California. Possible tough questions about Katrina and holocaust. At least one well known extra-marital relationship. Jealous. Testy.
Religion and Foreign Policy
posted on 05.02.2006 at 2:41 PM
Here are three (consecutive, I believe) sentences from President Bush, speaking in California last week:
A. "I base a lot of my foreign-policy decisions on some things that I think are true."
B. "One, I believe there's an Almighty."
C. "And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."
Bush has said these sorts of things before. But perhaps it would be useful to look closely at a few of the words he uses.
"True" is not, on the face of it, an ugly word -- especially when tempered, as it is in statement A, by "I think." The problem, particularly when the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake, is how truth is determined. Statements B and C indicate that Bush sees truth not as the product of investigation, analysis or discussion but of belief or revelation. So we seem to have foreign policy based on faith. (To be fair, the United States was founded on the assumption that a few "truths" are "self-evident.")
"Free," too, is an attractive word. However, in statement C it is removed from the realm of politics and assumed -- based on belief or revelation, for how else could this be determined? -- to have been placed in "everybody's soul." Freedom here is not an "unalienable Right," like "Liberty" in the Declaration of Independence; it is an inescapable "desire." We no longer need to ask people how they weigh various "rights," whether they might upon occasion prefer tyranny to war or lawlessness, "Life" to "Liberty." We don't need votes or public-opinion surveys. We know what they "desire." We can look into their "souls."
Perhaps the most interesting word here is "Almighty." This is no mere "Creator," limited to endowing. This is not Tony Blair's God, who, along with history, will judge. Bush names a can-do Deity -- All Mighty. His God runs the whole show. That (although I am unfamiliar with the president's thinking on the question of free will versus determinism) would seem to take lots of pressure off Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. The key is not whether there really were WMDs, whether civil war was likely or how many troops should have been sent. Align yourself with the wishes of the Almighty -- and the "desire" He has implanted in "everybody's soul" -- and, in time, He'll take care of the rest.
I don't know enough about the religious pronouncements of other presidents or other world leaders. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric has not been that exceptional. However, for the man (ostensibly) running the United States today -- with its resources, with its power -- these three statements strike me as deeply, deeply disturbing.
posted on 04.29.2006 at 4:46 PM
For a summary of the argument for teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the schools, see the new United States presidential press secretary, Tony Snow (via Matzke via Pharyngula). Snow asserts:
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.