« US Attorneys: The Basics | Main | I Am So Not Surprised... »

March 14, 2007

Comments

But if the person under discussion accepts any one of the major religions, whose Gods are (basically) good*

did you have a footnote to add there ?

The key problem with Bush isn't that he trusts God's judgment or that he tries to follow God's morality.

The problem is that he fails to attend to one of the key problems that all major Christian thinkers wrestle with--the idea that as fallible human beings we our understanding of God's morality is often gravely flawed and as such can lead to dramatically bad consequences.

When I considered myself a Christian, that was one of the very key take-aways I got from the apologetics by C.S. Lewis. He was always very attentive to that.

It is something I carried over with me in my not-so-Christian years and is part of what makes me a conservative in temperament: yes we should try to do good--but sometimes our pride or our selfishness or our self-righteousness cause us to do evil while thinking we are doing good. We should ALWAYS be as attentive to that possibility, and the more grand our plans, the more our ideas effect other people's lives, the more important that becomes.

Bush has the power to change many people's lives, but he seems totally unaware of his own fallibility.

Cleek: I think I contemplated adding a footnote saying something like: and if you don't think that most of the Gods of the major religions are basically good, let's argue about that somewhere else; but then decided not to. I will delete the asterisk.

Amen, hilzoy, amen.

Kipling- ... If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but take account of their doubting too ... [or something like that]

Bush/Cheney ... If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, and destroy the traitorous sons of bitches doubting you too ...

I was thinking of that quote from Lincoln's 2d inaugural, "as God gives us to see the right", while reading this.

no one who believed that God was an actual person, with His own judgment and His own views on what we ought to do, would have any reason whatsoever to assume that he had gotten those views right.

This, to me, is critical. I do not understand how any truly religious person can be certain he knows the will of God. Infallibility is reserved for the divine.

So it seems to me that acceptance that one's own understanding is imperfect, possibly simply wrong, is an essential part of a consistent religious belief. That, in turn, implies an obligation to consider other views, to read and listen to what others have to say about right and wrong, and to reflect on and examine one's own views. To take the position that one absolutely knows is, almost, sacrilegious, because to do so is to assign oneself divine status.

Note Lincoln: "as God gives us to see the right," not "as we know God wants us to do."

From what I can tell, the system that modern evangelicals use these days is to pray to God for guidance and then just do what seems best to them at the time. They then figure that the consequences are in God's hands and not their problem.

and if you don't think that most of the Gods of the major religions are basically good, let's argue about that somewhere else

:)

that's why PZ gave us Pharyngula.

I do not understand how any truly religious person can be certain he knows the will of God

i agree. but then the logical conclusion, to me, seems to be: then what's the point ? if you can't know what your god wants, how can you possibly act in ways that please him/her/it ? guess and hope for the best ?

Bernard and Frank: this is why I hold the somewhat heterodox view that one of the main problems with a lot of contemporary evangelical Christianity is insufficient faith in God. Because if they actually believed in him, they'd have to worry a lot more than they seem to about the possibility of being the Pharisee in the temple, or the false prophet who is inwardly a ravening wolf.

cleek: you can try, taking the Bible (in the case of Christianity) as your starting-point, and work as hard as you can to locate and eradicate your own self-deception and temptations to vice. (And vice, in the NT, is not primarily sexual; the main focus is on self-righteousness and a lack of compassion.)

Just reading the parable of the sheep and the goats every night before bed would be a good start.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, if Bush reaches those pearly gates and the judgement is a thumbs down, it will be too late.

I mean: one short version of the point of the post is: someone who genuinely believed in God would be no more likely to blithely say 'ha ha, I will be vindicated by His judgment!', assuming that 'God's judgment' is whatever he thinks it is, than someone who genuinely cared about scientific truth would be inclined to think that whatever he thought was what science would end up validating.

I suspect people don't see this about religion (and morality) because they're already assuming that there is no God, so what else could it be but a way of dressing up your own views as Objective Truths? But if you genuinely believe either in God or in objective moral values, it's as big a leap from 'what I think' to 'what is true' as it is in the case of science.

In all three cases, the answer (according to me) is serious and genuine intellectual humility, not utter skepticism and throwing up one's hands.

On infallibility.

Hilzoy- Yes I violently agree with you on this. Heck I will go further and say that while I am personaly not confident of going to heaven, I am confident that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are going to hell. Its a minor consolation, but I enjoy it.

Its also why I still feel small traces of affection for John McCain. Even though he now has his lips firmly attached to Falwell's bunghole now, he once had the insight to see that these people are evil and the courage to say so.

I know that I am God because every time I pray I find that I am talking to myself.

Hmm, Greenwald's post is a good one and Hilzoy is eloquent as always, and I always appreciate Sebastian's invocation of C.S. Lewis, a humble, thoughtful man.

But without putting too much of a point on it, I think Bush's religion, and the self-important maunderings of the roomful of disaster lovers he invited to be the voices in his head on that particular day can be summed up in the words of his pithy Vice President when he told Patrick Leahy (was it him?) to "go f--- yourself."

Shallow, damaging, macho people. Their certainties threaten all of us. ANYthing can be justified and rationalized.

That we can tell them to shut up and get lost via elections is of credit to the Founders.

Think of the mess we'd have if they got what they deserve.

Although my own religious upbringing (Catholic & Lutheran) is in line with your post, hilzoy, I have the impression that the long-standing Evangelical doctrines of "justification" and "sanctification" give all these quotes a different flavor.

My understanding -- which is very much subject to correction -- is that, in Evangelical theology, someone who has truly been born again in Jesus receives assurance that he is acting according to God's will *directly*, through prayer or his inner experience.

I have the impression it's connected with how the traditions use the word "sinner". In Catholic & Lutheran tradition, we are all sinners, membership in the Church does not mean you can't be called a sinner. Calvinists and their many spiritual descendents seem to use "sinner" to mean the opposite of "saved": "I was a sinner until I met Jesus."

Basically, hilzoy, I think your argument is outside Bush's religious tradition. It's not just him, it's a major Christian movement.

Hilzoy: I too read that post by Glenn Greenwald, and found it one of the scariest things I have ever read on the Web. Even though I myself regard “religion” pretty much as an unmitigated negative in regard to politics, a President who is religious doesn’t bother me: even one who is seriously religious, a la Jimmy Carter. But George W. Bush’s apparent notions of “religion” (and their relation to policy) really frighten me: they seem to boil down to “God blesses me: therefore he blesses my politics and my policies” – and leaves it at that.

Moreover, Greenwald’s account of this grotesque neocon circle-jerk seems to indicate that nowhere in any of these discussions with the President does the notion of him having any responsibility to the electorate, the Congress, the Constitution or any outside agencies; or legitimate constraints on his actions.: Nope, apparently , in the ideal neocon White House, the only relevant players are the President and God – and as long as the (neocon-defined) “interests” of the US are upheld; the former is answerable only to the latter.

In reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an historical analogy: of another semi-incompetent leader who assumed (indeed insisted on) Divine sanction for his authority; ignored the voices of the peoples’ representatives, surrounded himself with toadying yes-men and religious/political ideologues who told him only what he wanted to hear; enthusiastically embraced authoritarian measures, and came to grief after involving his country in a bloody foreign war without a viable “exit strategy”.

Add a couple of beards here and there, and some fancier uniforms, and you’d have Tsar Nicholas II.
And we know how well things turned out for him.

To be more specific: like Frank, I was raised not be too confident that I personally was going to Heaven. But the many branches of Christianity deriving from Calvin agree that *all* it takes to get to Heaven is the full acceptance of Jesus' offer of salvation. Once you've truly taken His hand, you are *golden*, no worries.

To argue that Bush is mis-using or mis-applying "trust in God", I think you'd have to do so *within* that Evangelical tradition -- which I don't know enough to do. As it is, you're just arguing that his version of Christianity is not yours.

Doctor Science: I have no reason to doubt what you say, but I am baffled as to how one could square that with the Bible, which (as I understand it) evangelicals also claim to take seriously. Not to mention the existence of disagreement among evangelicals.

Also, fwiw: back when I was Christian, I spent a lot of time with evangelicals, and that didn't seem to be true then. But that was 25 years ago, and things change.

This reminds me of something that I think my grandmother once said, although my dad can certainly correct me on this point:* salvation by faith is only meaningful if that faith is demonstrated through works. That's the measure of how much you love God, whether you're willing to commit your life to deliberate acts of goodness; and anyone who merely says that they were saved by the blood of the lamb but refuses to act on it -- and that includes hilzoy's point about taking one's obligations seriously -- is in fact committing a grievous sin against God by faking salvation without actually having attained it.

[In a more refined version, it's not enough merely that you do some good things, your life should be committed to a totality of good things, even if you fail to achieve that goal. Putting money in the collection plate while eviscerating social programs, for example, strikes me as precisely the lazy kind of pretend-faith that is offensive to God.]

In fact, I'd probably go a bit further, being a heathen, and say that salvation by works is the sole metric by which one should be judged since God ought to care only about one's goodness and not one's hewing to an arbitrary doctrine of "loving Jesus" (or whatever), which seems to me utterly orthogonal to the question of how good one is. Needless to say, this isn't exactly a popular theological point amongst Christians... which is why I'm not one.

* Regardless, it's still my basic theology.

Calvinists and their many spiritual descendents seem to use "sinner" to mean the opposite of "saved": "I was a sinner until I met Jesus."

That's not quite right; Calvinists believe very much that everyone's a sinner. Theologically, there's not much daylight between them & the Lutherans on this. (I am Presbyterian by birth, Lutheran by marriage.)

The remark seems more applicable to Southern Baptists & related affiliations, tho perhaps now *they'll* pop up & deny it.

As for the sheep/goats parable, I recently looked it up & found it a bit more disturbing than I recalled:

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

That is to say, for a goat to have neglected a *sheep* is to have done so to Jesus. If the person who's harmed is a goat, hey, so what.

Now, from Bush's view, is a country full of Muslims populated by sheep, or goats?

The remark seems more applicable to Southern Baptists & related affiliations

Very likely, given that a lot of my knowledge"is derived from the country and "Christian" music on the radio.

hilzoy:

I can fake an Evangelical interpretation of several of those passages.

Matt.25:9:

First, those what have been born again are the righteous by definition, so no worries there.

Second, about that "feed the hungry" angle. Clearly, of all the kinds of food & drink in the world, the Word of God is the best (multiple NT verses apply). So "did you feed the poor?" becomes "did you spread the Word?", and evangelization is not merely one possible Good Work, it is the quintessential Good Work, in fact the only one that counts.

So that passage, which (IMHO rightly) scared CS Lewis, becomes re-assuring to e.g. Baptist listeners: if they have accepted Jesus in their hearts and tried to evangelize those stubborn goats, then they're good to go.

"the many branches of Christianity deriving from Calvin agree that *all* it takes to get to Heaven is the full acceptance of Jesus' offer of salvation. Once you've truly taken His hand, you are *golden*, no worries."

Is that right? My comparative Christianity studies are well in the past, but while Calvinism may say that once you are one of the 'elect' you are golden, but you don't become one of the elect by just accepting Jesus' offer of salvation. The whole concept of the 'elect' is that it is pretty much out of your control entirely. Am I getting that mixed up with something else?

In a tangentially related note: a large number of the very largest Evangelical groups in the country just put out a very strongly worded declaration against torture.

My comparative Christianity studies are well in the past, but while Calvinism may say that once you are one of the 'elect' you are golden, but you don't become one of the elect by just accepting Jesus' offer of salvation. The whole concept of the 'elect' is that it is pretty much out of your control entirely.

Exactly right. Calvin absolutely denies that we are "free" to accept/reject God's gift; that's Arminian heresy, in the eyes of a true-blue Calvinist.

Whereas, and here I'm on shakier ground, Arminian notions were more popular with Anabaptists, who were regarded as scum by Lutherans and Calvinists alike, and who thus colonized America.

Hence the rhetoric about "accepting Jesus as your personal savior," the "choice" motif in Jack Chick tracts, etc., etc.

This has the advantage of being much easier to understand than the dour doctrines of Calvinism.

Sebastian -- where do you see a large number of the very largest Evangelical groups in the country signing that declaration? I can find no institutional signatories at all.

I may well be getting Calvinism itself mixed up with its later US followers. You're right, Calvin said there's *nothing* you can do to become one of the elect. I don't really know how to lump together all the post-Great-Awakenings American denominations, evangelical in the broad sense.

I think Calvin's view of predestination is a difficult concept to grasp because it's not just about your final destination being pre-set for you; it's a rejection of the concept of free will altogether. In other words, accepting Jesus is still the path to Heaven, but Calvin's theology holds that you don't make a "choice" whether to accept Jesus. Instead, if you're one of the ones that God has chosen to save, he'll show you the path to accepting Jesus, and if you're not, then he won't.

So if you're a follower of Calvinism, it's not like you go to church on Sunday thinking "all this could be for naught, because I might be damned to Hell and I have no way of knowing." The fact that you've already found your way into the church proves that God has shown you the way. You're saved, but it's not because you made a choice to accept Jesus, since there's no such thing as "choice."

OK, I think I've been confused. You're right, Steve & Anderson, I'm talking about a post-Calvinist view. But I'm sure I've seen Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion referred to a *lot* by Baptist and unaffiliated Christian groups, so I kind of amalgamated them in my mind.

Googling "baptists calvinism" will quickly teach most of us more than we wanted to know. Apparently, Calvinism is enjoying a revival among many Southern Baptists, but it's very controversial.

This">http://www.mercer.edu/baptiststudies/HotIssues/Fisher/CandTBT.htm">This page states where traditional Baptists take issue with Calvinism, in handy outline form.

Anderson, I don't understand your interpretation of "the least of these my brethren". How do you get from that to the idea that he's talking only about mistreating sheep? Why aren't goats his brothers as well, since all are children of God?

Steve: The fact that you've already found your way into the church proves that God has shown you the way. You're saved, but it's not because you made a choice to accept Jesus, since there's no such thing as "choice."

To continue quibbling, membership in the Church Visible is no guarantee of salvation, tho the average Calvinist may like to forget that. The elect are not guaranteed to know "the assurance of salvation." You may be tormented by doubts, but turn out to be one of the elect anyway. Or vice-versa -- psych!

Someone wrote that if the devil appeared today, he would be someone who, in addition to being physically attractive, would be someone who had all the answers to the the problems of modern life. You wouldn't have to struggle to answer these questions yourselves because it would be all provided for you. And there's such security in having all the answers and letting go of doubt, that it would be very, very attractive to many people.

KC, I was reading "these" to mean "the sheep," which seems to me the natural sense of the passage; but I would be happy to be mistaken, since I'd always thought of it in the broader sense.

I have a couple of Bible commentaries at my house, & will report back on whether they address the issue.

You may be tormented by doubts, but turn out to be one of the elect anyway. Or vice-versa -- psych!

I get the feeling that this doesn't happen in American Evangelical theology. Isn't anyone here a native speaker of Evangelical?

There's actually a Wikipedia article on assurance, tho rather Methodist-heavy.

Dr. Science is apparently right that most Evangelicals disagree with the Calvinists & believe that such assurance is part & parcel of salvation.

The Calvinist view seems, strangely, to be more comforting, since one's doubts do not imply damnation so strongly. A big peeve of mine vs. the Evangelicals is the hyperemphasis on "having faith." If anything is clear from the Gospels, it's that even the apostles were short on faith.

hilzoy,

Just wanted to say thanks for this post. And thanks for this as well.

In all three cases, the answer (according to me) is serious and genuine intellectual humility, not utter skepticism and throwing up one's hands.

Brava. As always.

I don't think it's a problem to care more about what God thinks than what other people think. In fact, God being God, it would be odd if a religious person didn't think this. In particular, it isn't a problem to have a President who is Christian and believes this. Christianity, after all, is a religion whose God commands compassion, and is deeply concerned about justice.

I can't get over this little paragraph - I'm aware that religion is much more prevalent in US society and politics than in Europe, but I'm astounded that a liberal academic like hilzoy would think that way.

The head of state should be a servant of the people, he is accountable only to them and his metaphysical bellyaches should be of no relevance whatsoever.

Blair fits hilzoy's description of the "good christian" perfectly and look where he's gotten us.

The head of state should be a servant of the people, he is accountable only to them and his metaphysical bellyaches should be of no relevance whatsoever.

Novakant presumes a disjunction between doing one's job and following one's conscience which, had the judges at Nuremberg bought it, would have drastically cut down the # of death sentences.

Via Michael P.F. van der Galiën:

Using religion as a political tool has two equally unsavory consequences. First, when religious beliefs become the guide for public policy, the social virtues of tolerance, freedom, and plurality are undermined, if they are not extinguished altogether. Second, the use of religion as a political tool encourages the cultivation of an elite of liars and frauds who exempt themselves from the rules they apply to the rest of humanity. And this is a recipe for tyranny, not freedom or democracy.
- Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the Grand Inquisitor

Sigh. Today seems to be my defend-the-Christians day.

First, when religious beliefs become the guide for public policy, the social virtues of tolerance, freedom, and plurality are undermined, if they are not extinguished altogether.

That is so broad as to be nonsensical. Where did that leave abolitionism?

*Some* religious beliefs have terrible policy consequences. Some do not.

you can try, taking the Bible (in the case of Christianity) as your starting-point, and work as hard as you can to locate and eradicate your own self-deception and temptations to vice

that's a goal everyone should strive for (the last part, that is). no doubt.

but i don't see what that has to do with the problem of: how can you please a god if you simply can't know what he wants ?

Anarch: salvation by works is the sole metric by which one should be judged

The problem with this is it's a short step from "doing good works" to "paying for good works to be done", and soon we have rich people buying their way into heaven by donating money to the Church. This is one of the main things the Protestants were protesting, and the Reformation was supposed to reform, so salvation by faith is pretty much etched into the DNA of most Protestant churches.

Cleek: how can you please a god if you simply can't know what he wants ?

Knowing the will of God in its infinite detail is not, I think, a prerequisite for knowing in rough outline what he wants.

Rather, the typical problem is that what God wants is all too clear, but it also sounds like a drag, so we have to make it seem very confusing theologically, to justify ourselves in ignoring God.

Anderson, that presupposes that in 1933 the german population was hellbent on conquering half the world and exterminating the jewish people. As messed up as german society was back then, this was not the case, as any good history of the Third Reich will show. In fact, Hitler is a good case for arguing against relying on a leader's conscience and instead putting your money on the constitution, democratic institutions and the electoral process as a corrective. All of these had to be forcibly dismantled in order for Hitler to achieve his goals.

Anderson, maybe that quote applies to cynical use of religion as a tool by people who don't actually believe what they're telling the masses? Isn't that the strategy Strauss recommended (which makes the stuff Greenwald is writing about even scarier, maybe)?

Hilzoy: In particular, it isn't a problem to have a President who is Christian and believes this. Christianity, after all, is a religion whose God commands compassion, and is deeply concerned about justice.

Novakant: The head of state should be a servant of the people, he is accountable only to them and his metaphysical bellyaches should be of no relevance whatsoever.

Anderson: Novakant presumes a disjunction between doing one's job and following one's conscience which, had the judges at Nuremberg bought it, would have drastically cut down the # of death sentences.

Novakant: Anderson, that presupposes that in 1933 the german population was hellbent on conquering half the world and exterminating the jewish people.

Mmm, no. The German people were not on trial at Nuremberg. I admit I was broadening your "head of state" argument to include state officers; I don't see how there's a unique responsibility of the head of state, as opposed to say a Cabinet secretary, to "the people."

In fact, Hitler is a good case for arguing against relying on a leader's conscience and instead putting your money on the constitution, democratic institutions and the electoral process as a corrective.

I don't see the contradiction. A head of state in a democratic nation can follow his conscience, believing that what the people want & what God wants are the same, or should be. The democratic checks are actually a good argument for the head's being right to do so, since if his actions displease the people, he will be voted out.

But what I disliked in your comment, and forgive me if I was reading too much into it, was the seeming implication that one can be President or anything else without needing to obey one's own moral beliefs.

Moreover, it is not inconceivable that someone might believe that God asks us to respect others even when we disagree with them, and/or to preserve the separation of church and state, and/or to protect democracy. On most accounts, He certainly prohibits accepting jobs one cannot in good conscience fulfill conscientiously, and if being a conscientious President requires protecting and preserving the Constitution, then one is obliged to do so, having given one's word.

Anderson, maybe that quote applies to cynical use of religion as a tool by people who don't actually believe what they're telling the masses?

Well sure, but saying that fake religion shouldn't enter into politics isn't very helpful in deciding whether true religion should do so.

Isn't that the strategy Strauss recommended

I would be very, very cautious about taking Prof. Drury at face value on anything Leo Strauss believed, without checking first.

Still, the "beautiful lie" that Plato endorsed in the Republic may indeed have been endorsed by Strauss as well, tho I don't think that demagoguery would fit his theory. The many are slow to obey reason, but quick to be moved by rhetoric; hence, the rulers must deploy rhetoric on their own behalf, would seem to be the argument. Taking rhetoric in the pejorative Platonic sense of course.

On religion & the many, see also Nietzsche: the philosopher "will make use of religions for his project of cultivation and education, just as he will make use of whatever political and economic states are at hand." (BG&E # 61).

A point of view most famously summed up by Gibbon's description of the Roman Empire's various cults: all equally true to the people, equally false to the philosopher, & to the magistrate, equally useful.

Anderson, maybe that quote applies to cynical use of religion as a tool by people who don't actually believe what they're telling the masses? Isn't that the strategy Strauss recommended (which makes the stuff Greenwald is writing about even scarier, maybe)?

Precisely so. Read the entire article; the quote was intended to supplement what Greenwald wrote, not to disparage Christianity in public life. That said, the fact that power-hungry Straussian cynics can so easily and effectively exploit the faith of the masses seems to reinforce Drury's thesis.

This article from the December 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine gives good insight into the mindset of some Evangelicals. The ones who desire dominion (ie, fundies who see Dubya's presidency as evidence of God's will in action) are in no way related to the Progressive Christians of the late 19th-early 20th century who actually understood the Sermon on the Mount. Chris Hedges' American Fascists is also essential reading.

Speaking as a Canadian, the near-unilateral permeation of religion in US politics is both alien and disturbing. Pete Stark would not be a Jackie Robinson analogue here. YMMV, and all that.

(Full disclosure: I'm an apostate who used to attend a strict Calvinist [borderline Reconstructionist/Dominionist] church.)

The problem with someone's moral beliefs in general and religious beliefs in particular is that they are entirely arbitrary and the latter are not rationally communicable on top of that. That's why I'm feeling very uneasy when either are brought into the political sphere and would rather have a grumpy, charmless and unimaginative bureaucrat who follows the constitution to the letter than someone who is primarily motivated by some belief-system, which might be unfathomable, incoherent or undemocratic. If we let the affairs of the state become dependent on such vague concepts as 'character', 'morality' and 'faith' then we as the people have partly given ourselves over to one man's/women's will and all the idiosyncrasies that come with it.

hilzoy--
doesn't your argument that relying on the judgment of God would lead to more careful action depend crucially on your interpretation of what God is? I don't see why others would necessarily share that. That is, there are plenty of places in the Bible where God appears to be the divine version of a psychopath. Why not take those as the markers of how God does things?

novakant: "The problem with someone's moral beliefs in general and religious beliefs in particular is that they are entirely arbitrary..."

Oh, let's not go there. Morality arbitrary? (snark: is the 'kant' in your name just for show? /snark)

but alas, there's hope :)

the first ever (?!) atheist in congress just outed himself

The ones who desire dominion (ie, fundies who see Dubya's presidency as evidence of God's will in action)

Right. Whether these clowns are doing more harm to America or to Christianity is a difficult question to answer.

My pet theory is that the evangelical emphasis on faith makes doubt intolerable, and thus leads to various superstitious beliefs designed to banish doubt -- like leader-worship, fundamentalism, Bible idolatry, etc.

People who equate doubt with damnation are people who will do ANYTHING to avoid doubting.

Myself, being skeptical by nature, I have to believe in a Christianity with room for doubt, if I'm going to be any sort of Christian at all.

the first ever (?!) atheist in congress

Trust me, he wasn't.

Unless we acknowledge Mammon as a viable deity.

Oh, fuck. Italics gone/

Anderson violated the posting rules !!! Anderson violated the posting rules !!! Anderson violated the posting rules !!! ;-)

Um ... I was calling my dog while I typed?

novokant: First openly atheist congressman, at least. Some claim Abraham Lincoln was godless, but (IIRC) he never publicly declared his religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

Anderson: if you haven't read it yet, American Fascists dovetails with your pet theory.

my you people post fast, hard to keep up

hilzoy, I've spent quite a while studying Kant and others, but it's been a while, my screen name dates from a period when I was still fervently defending Kant against the perceived amorality of Hegel, in the end I found a sort of unhappy compromise in Rorty's writings on the matter, if that makes any sense

Novakant: in the end I found a sort of unhappy compromise in Rorty's writings on the matter, if that makes any sense

Rorty? Would that be a compromise, or a surrender? ;)

Mattbastard, I haven't read the book, but since I think fascism has similar psychology at work (based on my amateur reading about the 3d Reich), the thesis makes sense.

Anderson: This article by Hedges is a good Reader's Digest condensed version of his book.

well, that's the thing, Anderson, I felt philosophy had to surrender quite a few things in order to still make sense of the world

Hmm. If I ever run for office I will shoot myself in the foot the very first interview by stating my belief that most Americans, for all of their god-professing, don't believe in God.

If we did, why don't we believe people who tell us that God informed them to kill their kids? Why do we consider them mentally deranged?

Hehe. Possibly I should call myself altekant. Or senescentkant, or whatever the latin would be.

"...why don't we believe people who tell us that God informed them to kill their kids?"

Pshh, real Christians know a loving God would never make such a request.

Hilzoy is right about the way Christians should think. Doctor Science is right about the way many actually do think.

Also, in my experience Christians sometimes make a distinction between personal life and politics. A Christian might be very humble and willing to admit to being a sinner and flawed in personal daily relations, but take quite a different view on, say, the war on terror. In the latter case there's Good and there's Evil and we in the West are Good and our enemies are Evil. The psychology involved is described in Orwell's essay "Notes on Nationalism", which ought to be required reading for anyone ever planning to vote or have any opinion whatsoever on foreign policy issues. (Of course, as Orwell points out, lefties are prone to their own versions of this pathology.)

People who equate doubt with damnation are people who will do ANYTHING to avoid doubting.

No doubt.

But equating doubt with damnation seems impossible to square with the notion of a loving God, if you give it just a moment's thought. No great insight there, just puzzlement.

Amos Newcombe: The problem with this is it's a short step from "doing good works" to "paying for good works to be done"...

I have no objection to that. Indeed, that's arguably a cornerstone of liberal philosophy: taxes pay for good works to be done, usually by the government.

...and soon we have rich people buying their way into heaven by donating money to the Church.

And there's the rub: they're buying their way into heaven precisely because they didn't lead a good life previously. If you're talking about a rich person who had lived a good life and, upon their deathbed, decided to donate half their wealth to charity to ensure they got into Heaven... hell yes, I'm in favor of that. It's the people who believe in salvation by money, not salvation by works, that I object to.

OK, I'll be honest: that I despise.

Also, in my experience Christians sometimes make a distinction between personal life and politics.

I call this the "Machiavelli problem," since he addresses it in the Discourses. Basically, no one wants a President who turns the other cheek when the bombs start falling.

But equating doubt with damnation seems impossible to square with the notion of a loving God, if you give it just a moment's thought.

The notion of a loving God is difficult enough to square with everyday life, let alone Auschwitz, that I'll cut the evangelicals some slack there.

--Goodness, at this rate I'll be pulling Karamazov back off the shelf. I need to go look at some porn ,or Fox News, or something ...

hilzoy: When you wrote:

In particular, it isn't a problem to have a President who is Christian and believes this. Christianity, after all, is a religion whose God commands compassion, and is deeply concerned about justice.

it almost sounds as though you believe Christians are less likely to be misled by their devotion than are followers of other faiths. There is no empirical evidence to support this.

One of the striking things about When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball is how *no* particular religion is a guarantee of good behavior.

One of Kimball's "warning signs" that a religion may support evil is "absolute truth claims", which I think is what you're talking about. But while the Bible verses you cite *can* be interpreted as undermining any individual human's claim to know absolute truth, they clearly don't *have* to be interpreted that way -- and there is certainly a long, long history of avowed Christians making claims to absolute truth and killing those who disagree.

You may say they aren't "good" Christians, but speaking as an outsider I'm not going to confine the label "Christian" only to a small subset of those who take the name to themselves. They may not be good people, but to me they seem just as Christian as the next Christian guy.

Dr. Science: no; I don't think that at all. I was just responding the Glenn's post, which was about Bush.

The notion of a loving God is difficult enough to square with everyday life, let alone Auschwitz, that I'll cut the evangelicals some slack there.

Fair enough, Anderson, but if God's ideas of morality are, from a human point of view, utterly random, then why should we try to figure them out? Cleek's "what's the point" argument becomes irrefutable.

Euthyphro, anyone?

This is getting ridiculous. Everybody has a belief system of some form or other that would dictate their approach to governing.

That system may be rooted in a religion or not. The problem is not where the belief system originates, but the degree to which the individual expects everybody to abide by it and allows for no variance.

I have seen that level of intolerance from religious and non-religious people, from the left and the right. I consider myself a strongly religious person. My value system may coincide very nicely with that of someone who has no religious beliefs.

The question is not if someone is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or agnostic or atheist. The question is how rigid or flexible they are, how open to other ideas they are. My problem is with anyone, of any political stripe, or religious or non-religious stripe who tells me they KNOW the truth. They would never get my vote.

I am surprised that noone came up with this famous quote yet:

During the Civil war, President Lincoln was once asked if God was on his side. His reply was, "It is not is God on my side, but am I on God's side?

Concerning "mixing" of politics and religion
If a true "religious" person found out that his/her beliefs are contradictory to his/her official duties, (s)he usually has the option of resigning. I remember a few politicians over here that did exactly that (e.g. Gustav Heinemannn).

"...why don't we believe people who tell us that God informed them to kill their kids?"

Pshh, real Christians know a loving God would never make such a request.

Now, now -- some of them say they'd step right up if asked.

Knowing the will of God in its infinite detail is not, I think, a prerequisite for knowing in rough outline what he wants.

errmm... if you can't know it, then you can't know it in detail or in rough outline - you just can't know.

why don't we believe people who tell us that God informed them to kill their kids?

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

"Also, in my experience Christians sometimes make a distinction between personal life and politics.--me

I call this the "Machiavelli problem," since he addresses it in the Discourses. Basically, no one wants a President who turns the other cheek when the bombs start falling. "--Anderson


It's more than that. I'm not criticizing my fellow Christians for not being pacifists. I mean that serious recognition of the sins committed by our "side" goes out the window, or receives lip service at best. The sins that really matter, that are really evil, are those committed by our enemies. Ours, if we commit any at all, are merely excesses from a few bad apples. I've never read Machiavelli, but Orwell has this attitude nailed. "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of the atrocities committed by his own side, but often has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

My own summary is that the pride and arrogance which Christians know is forbidden in personal life is given free reign in the political sphere. I may be a sinner in need of God's grace, but the group I identify with is God's agent on earth, pure and spotless for all practical purposes.

We pray to someone
But when it's said and done
It's really all the same
With just a different name

Ronnie James Dio - "We Rock"

When you're 15 and really stoned, that sounds like deep theology. It therefore has been my theological basis for more than 2 decades. So I'll stick to talking about Bush.

What I get from Hilzoy's post is that arrogance is what should be understood by Christians to be offensive to God, among other things, but let's stick to arrogance. Arrogance also happens to be George Bush's defining characteristic. All, or most, of the other problematic Bush characteristics spring forth from his arrogance. And the irony is that it appears that the very source, or at least one very major source, of his arrogance is his purported Christianity. It is this arrogance that allows an incompetent to believe he is a visionary.

Cleek: errmm... if you can't know it, then you can't know it in detail or in rough outline - you just can't know.

Perhaps I don't understand the question. A Christian "knows" God's will via the 10 Commandments, the Gospels, etc. There are of course issues of interpretation, but aren't there always? It seems to me that Cleek is using a heightened standard of "knowing" that doesn't apply to living life in general. I don't *know* what's best for my children, but that doesn't stop me from trying to do it anyway.

D. Johnson: My own summary is that the pride and arrogance which Christians know is forbidden in personal life is given free reign in the political sphere.

With qualifiers, yes, that seems right -- tho I can't help suspecting that the spheres bleed over, and that anyone who cheers on political tyranny is probably not turning the other cheek in his personal life.

B. Yormtov: but if God's ideas of morality are, from a human point of view, utterly random

The problem of evil doesn't work out to "utterly random." What the evil in the world suggests, to me, is that God considers even horrible suffering in this world to be relatively acceptable, as against some set of considerations that we cannot comprehend.

That's not a good answer, but then, if I had a good answer to the problem of evil, I'd be off to Stockholm to collect the first-ever Nobel for theology (take THAT, Dawkins!). That answer requires us to regard the deaths of children, the miseries of the poor, etc., as having the same scale to God's eyes as, say, our own child's crying because we won't let him eat his cookie before supper. Assuming God's divine wisdom, that's a reasonable analogy, but it's very, very difficult to accept, at least for someone with as much pride & arrogance as I possess.

--KC, the Oxford Bible Commentary is useless on the sheep/goats issue, and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary says that the referent of "brethren" is "much debated," tho the author of the Matthew chapter comes down for the inclusive reading.

Alas, that argument is based on the hermeneutic circle -- it's the kind of thing Jesus would say, apparently. Which doesn't make that passage a very good proof text, IMHO.

A Christian "knows" God's will via the 10 Commandments, the Gospels, etc. There are of course issues of interpretation, but aren't there always? It seems to me that Cleek is using a heightened standard of "knowing" that doesn't apply to living life in general.

Bernard Y said, way up there (5 or so comments from the top): "I do not understand how any truly religious person can be certain he knows the will of God".

i agreed, and wondered: if you can't know his will, how is it possible at all to act in ways that please God ?

and of course i'm talking about standards of knowing that don't apply to everyday life: we're talking about "knowing the will" of something that, by definition of those who believe it exists at all, is so outside everyday life that normal standards of knowledge, logic, reasoning and evidence don't even apply.

I don't *know* what's best for my children, but that doesn't stop me from trying to do it anyway.

of course you 'know'. even if people didn't have certain natural instincts to guide them, there are obvious ways to learn what's good and what's not - action/reaction, observation, experimentation, etc.. you can't do any of those things with God.

While I (as someone close to the border between Judaism and agnotiscism) am generally going to stay silent in this discussion, if we are quoting rock lyrics to explain God's role in our actions, I have always been partial to The Last Resort by The Eagles:

"Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
'cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs and
Justify our bloody deeds,
In the name of destiny and the name
Of god"

Cleek, let's agree to disagree; I think it's obvious that one can't "know" religious truths in the way that one "knows" the atomic weight of oxygen.

even if people didn't have certain natural instincts to guide them

Hilzoy can do more than I can to invoke Kant's "moral law within" at this point.

Cleek, let's agree to disagree

certainly.

I think it's obvious that one can't "know" religious truths in the way that one "knows" the atomic weight of oxygen.

fair enough, but i must insist that i'm not the one using the 'heightened standard of "knowing" '. it sounds to me like you're talking more about believing than knowing.

Hilzoy can... invoke Kant's "moral law within"

if she does, i hope she uses small words. i slept through all my philosophy courses. :)

"I think it's obvious that one can't "know" religious truths in the way that one "knows" the atomic weight of oxygen."

But for MOST people, the way they 'know' both is exactly the same--people they trust tell them what it is.

Anarch: I have no objection to that. Indeed, that's arguably a cornerstone of liberal philosophy: taxes pay for good works to be done, usually by the government.

Such a wide and well-paved road it is, this path from "doing" to "paying for", and it starts in such a reasonable place: salvation by works. And yet ... and yet ... it takes you to such an ugly place, where rich people steal from the poor, donate a part of it to build a fancy church and shore up their afterlife, then use the rest to support their life here on earth. Those not rich or sociopathic enough had to play by much more stringent rules.

The Protestant way around this was to cut it off at the beginning, and deny salvation by works. Or so I was told by my church, which was Calvinism filtered through the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam.

... God ought to care only about one's goodness and not one's hewing to an arbitrary doctrine of "loving Jesus" (or whatever), which seems to me utterly orthogonal to the question of how good one is. Needless to say, this isn't exactly a popular theological point amongst Christians... which is why I'm not one.
Anarch, Hilzoy mentions C.S. Lewis in introducing the sheep and goats, but in Lewis's telling of the story in "The Last Battle", Aslan accepts some followers of Tash into the fold because they're good people even if their god is bad. A relevant passage is quoted here by someone warning against the dangers of Lewis's heresy.

KCinDC: Yep. It was Lewis' alleged heresy that allowed me to be a Christian at all, or at least to be one for long. I know many, many extremely decent non-Christians; I grew up surrounded by them. Had it turned out that some of them were not as good as they seemed, I would have understood their being damned. But the idea that even if they were what they seemed to be, namely people who spent their lives trying to do what was right, they would be damned for disbelief -- that was always just too much, since the God I believed in was a just God.

Luckily, I had read The Last Battle, and I completely accepted that view. As I saw it (when I was a teenager), there were two main advantages of being a Christian: first, it's easier to do the right thing when you have the right beliefs about why it's right, and when you can call on God's assistance; and second, if you were an atheist who found herself, after death, in the position of the person in that passage, one of the things you'd bitterly regret was that you had missed all that time during which you could have known and worshipped God. Whereas if you were Christian, you could get started right now.

Also: CSLewis, in his non-Narnia works, notes that a lot of the passages that seem to indicate that one has to believe don't, when you look at them closely. You can only be saved "through Christ", for instance: does "through Christ" obviously mean "by knowing about Christ, and believing in His divinity"? No.

Sebastian wrote:
But for MOST people, the way they 'know' both is exactly the same--people they trust tell them what it is.

I agree that this is *critically* important -- that knowledge comes from trusted communities. (I've got Steven Shapin's A Social History of Truth on order from InterLibrary Loan right now, in fact.)

The difference between a religious truth and a scientific fact comes in when you look at how certain the communities are of their truths and how they treat their uncertainties. Scientific facts have the reputation for being more certain than religious ones -- but scientific truth comes with error bars, and religious truth does not.

For instance, if you look at Anderson's example of the fact that the atomic weight of oxygen is 16, you can see how scientific truth is always an approximation, and *known* (at least by scientists) to be an approximation -- the question has been, which approximation is most useful.

In contrast, I don't know of any religious tradition that says upfront, "we can't know exactly what God is or wants, but here's a workable approximation until something better comes along." Or is that what hilzoy is arguing, above?

In contrast, I don't know of any religious tradition that says upfront, "we can't know exactly what God is or wants, but here's a workable approximation until something better comes along."

See, I would say that's exactly how Christianity *does* work -- the Bible is "a workable approximation" in a fallen world. What Christian claims an encyclopedic knowledge of what God wants on all topics? (Though this Protestant would snarkily suggest that the Roman Catholics come rather close to this ....)

It seems to me that the problem is not necessarily that GWB doesn't truly think he's answerable to G-d, it's that his brand of Christianity is much more concerned with intent than with results. I forget where I came across it, maybe the Washington Monthly more than a year ago, but there was an article that went into detail about Bush's rather peculiar brand of faith-based religion. Basically, as I recall, the way you prove you're faithful is to stay the course, no matter what the outcome in this veil of tears. Eventually -- in history, or in heaven -- you'll be vindicated. Meanwhile the important thing is never to lose faith that your initial decision, made in accord with the precepts of G-d, was therefore right. The worst thing you can do is let events change your mind, because then G-d will abandon your enterprise and you're sure not to win. It is thus an act of virtue to throw good money after bad.

This seems to match Bush's observed conduct very well.

And this Roman Catholic would snarkily suggest that Dobson and Falwell and others come even closer.

john miller,

Exactly. And many others, too numerous to mention.

Thanks, Hilzoy, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I also think your comment @ March 14, 2007 at 06:01 PM is particularly relevant. Personally, I've always been struck by the lack of humility among the religious right. Also, despite their more literalist bent toward the Bible, they seem to ignore much of its content to a striking degree. I don't think "fearing" God per se is necessary, but I've always felt that a close reading of the Bible and reverence toward its God would engender a greater drive to try to be open, to think matters through and act wisely, rather than deciding that everything one does or thinks is divinely blessed or inspired.

Resonant with John Miller's sentiments above, I've always been fond of a saying that "I don't trust the person who says he or she has found the light, but rather the person who's still searching."

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad