Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nazism (or Applied Christianity)

Oliver Kamm writes an excellent article in The Times, which is reproduced on his blog here.

I recommend you read the whole thing, but here are the key excerpts:

“IT IS PARTICULARLY difficult for a Pope that comes from Germany to come here,” said Pope Benedict XVI at Auschwitz at the weekend. The difficulty lies in his being Pope more than being German — even a German of his generation. Benedict’s praying for forgiveness in his native language has been widely remarked on, but it was an apt gesture.

… the Roman Catholic Church, which was not at all an agent of genocide and whose adherents included many heroic benefactors and rescuers of Jews, continues to be the subject of vigorous historical debate concerning its role in those dark times. The paradox needs explaining, and resolving.

The Pope’s prayer at Auschwitz asked where God had been during the Holocaust. For some of us, the question is an ineradicable obstacle to religious faith, but it is still nothing like as tough a question for Christians as where God had been in the preceding two millennia. Why did God, with omniscient knowledge of the suffering to come, not move his followers to abjure the imagery of anti-Semitism? Catholic sins in that ignoble history are not only ones of omission.

The Second Vatican Council, opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, historically renounced the notion of a collective guilt on the part of the Jews for the death of Jesus, and denounced “all outbreaks of hatred, persecutions and manifestations of anti-Semitism which have been directed against the Jews at any time by anyone”. But there is an irreducible element in the New Testament that holds the Jews culpable for the rejection of Christ.

How could it be otherwise? God selected the Jews to prepare for His Coming. Jesus announced that he was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. He drew a band of disciples, all of them Jews and one of them the man whom Catholics regard as their first Pope. Yet the Jews, merely by remaining Jews, rejected him. When the lethal accusation of deicide is removed from Christian orthodoxy, this brute historical fact remains. Even 20th-century Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, in his book A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question, could not rid themselves of the assumption that the Jews are somehow historically aberrant.

At Auschwitz, of all places, Benedict might have referred to the biblical and Catholic roots of European anti-Semitism. He preferred to concentrate on the heroism of Catholic witnesses against Nazism. The picture he gave was thereby highly misleading.

The Pope prayed in the cell where a Polish Franciscan, Maximillian Kolbe, was starved and incarcerated before being murdered by the Nazis. Kolbe was canonised by Pope John Paul II. Yet Kolbe’s writings evince a firm belief in the veracity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the existence of a Masonic-Jewish conspiracy. John Paul’s canonisation of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun and died at Auschwitz, caused still more trouble. The Church’s celebration of martyrs against Nazi barbarism is unerringly partial. It decries the blasphemous claims of authority, while sparing few words for the integrity of Jewish history.


[…]
Pope Benedict pointed at Auschwitz to literally the worst crime of our age, which was committed by those who certainly considered themselves emancipated from superstition, and the agents of supposedly scientific notions of race.

But no amount of theological reflection will render future generations immune from the atavistic forces that aimed at the destruction of every last Jew in Europe, and to which the Church certainly made a historical contribution. I have no interest at all in the fortunes of Judaism, but a great concern in the resilience of historically persecuted peoples. Only by removing the accumulated detritus of malign ideologies can that happen.

Organised religion, even in the form of so learned a man as Pope Benedict, is one of the obstacles. Revealed truth cannot be discarded, precisely because it does not come from human reason: it can only be accepted or rationalised. Yet revelation turns out to be a highly unreliable guide. There was no revelation to the Catholic faithful till Vatican II that the Jews were not Christ-killers. There has never yet been a divine revelation, to my knowledge, that freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended. If there ever is, it will paradoxically be because the way liberal civilisation operates has superseded the traditional religious imagination. It is time it did.





Some people seem to believe that by positing a direct line to the Holocaust that magically starts just a few decades earlier in The Origin of Species, and by endlessly repeating the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition”, they can rewrite two thousand years of history.

It is self-delusion of the most absurd kind.

54 Comments:

Blogger Peter Burnet said...

By "some people", I assume you are referring to Stephen Jay Gould?

May 31, 2006 4:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Those same "some" people attribute the Holocaust to in large part to Darwin, because without evolutionary theory, materialistic Nazism would never have existed -- the insanity resulting from applied rationalism is obvious.

Right?

Well, aside from asserting, rather than demonstrating, the virtual non-sequitor between Darwin and Hitler, there is just one other eensy-beensy problem.

The most horrific death camps were in Poland, at the time staunchly Polish, and only several years under the Nazi boot when the Final Solution got underway in earnest.

Unless Hitler and Darwin made some astonishingly quick inroads, the ground for the Holocaust must have been very fertile, indeed.

And those who deny it are standing rather closer to David Irving than I would find comfortable.

May 31, 2006 4:17 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "It is self-delusion of the most absurd kind."

Indeed. Yet it is, in my opinion, a critically important self-delusion.

History and religion are the keel and rudder of civilization. To be sure, their drag slows down progress, but on the upside, they help keep the ship of civilization from being blown too far off course and being dashed on the rocks or run aground.

OK, now that I've got my hokey metaphor for the day out of the way, I have a few more points.

History and religion do evolve. Not history itself, of course, but rather what's recorded and what's taught. My children are taught a very different version of history than I was. Today's Christians have significantly different beliefs than those one-thousand years ago. Those are both good things. Our beliefs cannot evolve unless our religions and histories evolve with them.

Homo Sapiens are Moral Believing Animals. The only way to exterminate religion is to exterminate homo sapiens. I'm not sure if y'all are ignoring that fact or just like to complain about something that can't possibly be changed. It's like hoping that lions become vegetarians.

If we weren't believing animals, we'd be -- well -- animals. The animal kingdom is a pretty nasty place, full of rape (dolphins) and murder (lions), and I doubt we'd be better off without the framework provided by religion. We'd still be raping, torturing and killing each other, with or without religion. Indeed, Stalinism, Maoism, and Facism showed us that pretty clearly.

I find it amusing how the most uber-Darwinists want to redesign (Intelligently, of course!!!) humandkind without religion. Have you heard of the concept of unintended consequences?

May 31, 2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

You want to visit Britain some time.

It is really very close to being a post-religious society. Which is to say, the majority are areligious.

May 31, 2006 9:11 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "You want to visit Britain some time. It is really very close to being a post-religious society.."

I've been to Britain. Great place! Once I get used to the accent I feel right at home (except for the weather).

Let's see how y'all do for the next 1000 years. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is a resurgence of religion (or equivalent) in Britain and the rest of Europe, though I doubt it will be Christianity - I think it'll be something much nastier.

May 31, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I said:

... at the time staunchly Polish ...

But meant:

... at the time staunchly Catholic ...

Memo to self: Preview is your friend

May 31, 2006 10:48 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Yet the Roman Catholic Church, which was not at all an agent of genocide'

Not true. RCC was at the forefront of the Croat department of the Holocaust.

This guy's piece is a classic example, to me, of missing the point. Aside from the quote above, I don't challenge the rest of his statements, I just don't care about them.

He doesn't care about the future of Judaism. Well, I don't care about the future of Christianity. Only the behavior of Christians.

Fact is, the Germans had a lot of help in murdering Jews (and gypsies), from people whose educational level precludes any suspicion that they advocated Darwinism or even had ever heard of Darwin.

What they did know was that 2000 years of Jew-hatred.

Orrin wants to call the slaughter applied darwinism. More properly, it was applied Lutheranism and applied Catholicism.

Ideas do have consequences, but only when people run out the string on them.

Until around 1940, it just wasn't possible to run out the string over a whole continent all at the same time.

It was, as Arendt wrote but never quite understood, a triumph of logistics in the service of religion.

++++

Bret, no one detests religion more than I do, but I'm on record as saying we will always have it with us. The most we can hope is to tame it a little.

Considering the behavior of the Croat priests within the last dozen years, the historical handwringing about what happened as long ago as 60 years is whistling past the graveyard.

Religion is no less dangerous to children today than it was in 1944.

May 31, 2006 11:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

There has never yet been a divine revelation, to my knowledge, that freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended. If there ever is, it will paradoxically be because the way liberal civilisation operates has superseded the traditional religious imagination. It is time it did.

Theology, which is the creative interpretation of revelation, always lags cultural evolution. The view of the Good evolves with society, and then Revelation is combed for new interpretations that will justify the new Good. But it is always done in a way that it seems Revelation supported the new Good from the outset.

May 31, 2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

History and religion are the keel and rudder of civilization. To be sure, their drag slows down progress, but on the upside, they help keep the ship of civilization from being blown too far off course and being dashed on the rocks or run aground.

Calling religion a rudder assumes that civilization is a ship that is consciously trying to get somewhere. Religion tends to want to keep the ship where it is, so anchor is probably a more apt metaphor. But civilizations generally stumble their way into the future like a blind man feeling in the dark, so sometimes the anchor keeps the man from walking off a cliff. (OK, these metaphors are hopelessly mixed). But sometimes the ship anchors in the worst possible place, so any movement away would be a welcome change.

I don't disagree that civilization wouldn't be necessarily better without religion, all other cultural practices being equal. Neither would they be worse off. But the evolution of cultural practices requires a flexibility from religion that it often doesn't permit. And when religion develops that flexibility, it often loses the appeal it once had. It is not surprising that a people, like the English, who have watched their civilization advance from slaveholding aristocrats to free citizens, and have watched their worldview move from Biblically based cration myths to Darwinian evolution, all in the space of a handful of generations, should see the faith that once defined their outlook on the world and society become so stretched by its accomodation to these changes as to become something of little consequence.

May 31, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Duck wrote: "Calling religion a rudder assumes that civilization is a ship that is consciously trying to get somewhere."

Not really. As I write this I'm watching various robots cruise around our office that are clearly navigating, are clearly not conscious, are not pre-programmed, are mostly just reacting to their environment (so aren't really trying to get anywhere in particular), and yet are pretty intelligent. Civilization need not be conscious to have a discernable, multidimensional direction. I think that civilization is a superintelligence that methodically explores the search space for a more optimal solution. It's just that the problem and solution space are so complex we can't possibly, as individuals, figure out what the are.

Duck also wrote: "...sometimes the ship anchors in the worst possible place..."

That seems unlikely unless you have an interesting definition for "worst". The odds that we've evolved a set of genes and memes that have the worst possible fitness seems implausible. Now, if you consider the survival of the western civilization meme set and the survival of the species homo sapiens unimportant, then perhaps it could be true, but who gets to define what "worst" means? Hopefully not Osama.

Duck wrote: "...the evolution of cultural practices requires a flexibility from religion that it often doesn't permit."

That would be the point - it's using the anchor to keep from falling off the cliff (to use your mixed metaphor).

I have to admit that I have no idea just how robust civilization is. Is it a thin and fragile veneer with which we should be careful? Or are we at the end of history and civilization will be firmly entrenched forever? I suspect it's closer to the latter, but if the former, we should be quite happy for the anchor. People in the west live pretty well right now, even with religion. It'd be quite a fall if civilization collapsed. What would I do without flush toilets??? And what's the upside of letting go of the anchor? That a few more people embrace Evolution? A little bit faster scientific progress? It's hard for me to get real excited about the possible benefits and it's easy to be nervous about the downside.

Duck wrote: "It is not surprising that a people, like the English..."

It's not surprising that a people representing less than 1% of the people currently on earth for a period representing 0.1% of the time people have been on earth can be identified as an example of the viability of some way of life, especially when the big anchor still exists across the pond.

May 31, 2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'It's just that the problem and solution space are so complex we can't possibly, as individuals, figure out what the are.'

Oh, I think that if the proffered solution is Islam I could figure out the answer all by myself.

May 31, 2006 5:26 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

History and religion are the keel and rudder of civilization.

You forgot abattoir.

The only way to exterminate religion is to exterminate homo sapiens.

Undoubtedly true. Unfortunately, should apocalyptic mullahs get their hands on some nuclear weapons, religion will exterminate a great many homo sapiens.

If we can't live without it, nor with it, what is the answer?

We'd still be raping, torturing and killing each other, with or without religion. Indeed, Stalinism, Maoism, and Facism showed us that pretty clearly.

You make a very common mistake here, by implicitly stating that some notion of a supernatural being is required for a belief system to qualify as a religion. That is simply not the case. Of all the characteristics religions possess, the only optional one is a supernatural godhead. Stalinism, Maoism, and Fascism were all religions, and excited every bit as much, and as murderous, religious fervor in their adherents as any fundamentalist deistic religion. Surely, you must see the religious overtones in North Korea's Dear Leaderism?

So your example shows only that a religion, when it constitutes a majority sect within a polity and has group rights from which all other sects are excluded, will ultimately attain atrocities that would be unthinkable in the absence of religion.

Answer to my question above: Since there is no possibility of eliminating religion, which means no eliminating the murderous fanatics that follow in train, the best possible alternative is that prevailing in the US: a government completely (well, largely completely) neutral with respect to religion, and a completely free market in religious belief.

The result is a proliferation of sects to such a degree as to guarantee the ascendance of none.

Unfortunately, the Judge Roy Moores of this country are immune to the lessons of history.


Harry said Until around 1940, it just wasn't possible to run out the string over a whole continent all at the same time.

My assessment has been similar: It wasn't until the advent of the Industrial Age and advanced management and logistical practices that the grasp of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism finally met its reach.

May 31, 2006 7:07 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Interesting that despite the opposing views, all of you take it for granted that religion (by which you really mean a big overarching majority religion like Christianity or Islam), will always be with us.

I can understand that assumption from an American point of view. But as I've pointed out before, America is the exception not just in the developed west, but in the Anglosphere as well.

In The Atheism Tapes (I sent Skipper a copy), Jonathan Miller interviews the British but US-based philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn envisages a future 'post-religious' society, where religion is just not an issue. People talk about God like we talk about Zeus or Isis - 'isn't it quaint how people used to believe in this God idea' etc.

Coming from McGinn, it sounds like a John Lennon lyric: "imagine there's no heaven...and no religion too, yoo hoo oo-oo-oo..."

But in Austria and Australia, Britain and Belgium, we're already there, or very nearly. Very few profess a solid faith and the percentages going to church are in the single figures range. In conversation, it's largely assumed that you're religion-neutral (in contrast to the States, where you wouldn't dream of uttering a causual anti-Christian quip to a stranger).

Has the western world collapsed without its all-important rudder? Is Africa, home of the most faithful, a relative paradise?

Of course not. What's taken its place? Nothing, or maybe a whole load of things, like political correctness, the cult of celebrity, gym-membership, socialising, political junky-ism, junk food, football fanatacism, intellectualism, Harry Potter, new-age spirituality, mobile phones, gardening, shopping, saving for your holiday, business, busy-ness and above all, television.

I'm afraid I find Bret's position incredibly patronising.

Religion is for him a useful fiction, which serves two main purposes: firstly, it keeps the ignorant plebs, of which he is of course not one, in their rightful, God-fearing, law-abiding place. Second, widespread Christianity can act to prevent the spread of Islam. In other words, the chief advantage of majority Christianity is its intolerance of minority populations. Which I have no quibble with other than in the use of the word 'advantage', and I refer you back to the original Kamm article on anti-semitism.

June 01, 2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

But in Austria and Australia, Britain and Belgium, we're already there, or very nearly. Very few profess a solid faith and the percentages going to church are in the single figures range.

I neglected those obvious examples. I am very concerned, though, that the absence of religious faith also leads to the absence of backbone (a la the Dutch, French, et al), which segues into ...

... widespread Christianity can act to prevent the spread of Islam

true enough, but that also turns Christianity into a self-licking ice cream cone.

(Similar, and sadly so, to the one of the main reasons women need men: to gain protection from other men.)

I'm afraid I find Bret's position incredibly patronising.

It is the atheism of the elites.

June 01, 2006 4:23 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Poor Skipper. Morning sees him thundering gigantic curses at Christianity for mystical nonsense and all manner of atrocities through the ages and then we find him fretting over a beer at sunset about how wimpy we will all be without it. Skipper, maybe we should introduce ID in science classes as a kind of philosophical calisthetics to keep us rough, tough and ready to roll.

This is such a gas because, of course, a hundred years ago the swipe many atheists and agnostics took at Christianity was that its message of peace and love was overly-feminine and undermined our natural toughness and resliliency. Ok for old ladies perhaps, but no philosophy for real men with serious jobs to do in a world without pity. Now we associate it with dedicated Marines/Air Force personnel while secular rationalism is the creed of choice for peaceniks, Euro-weenies and metrosexuals. As Yul Brynner would say: "'Tis a Puzzlement."

June 01, 2006 5:40 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

I am very concerned, though, that the absence of religious faith also leads to the absence of backbone (a la the Dutch, French, et al)

Again, I find it hard to see a strong correlation. The French just behave like the French behave. The Spanish are more religious (at least nominally) than most other European nations yet their election was Al Qaeda’s only victory.

At the risk of descending into Peter’s impersonation of myself, I fear I must bring up my beloved old ‘even believers don’t really believe it’ theory, just briefly…

Most Americans call themselves Christians, or Believers. Most Britons are ‘agnostic’ or unreligious. But what does this amount to? Have the Americans carefully examined scripture and Christian doctrine and said: “yes, I believe this”, while the Brits have done the same and rejected it?

Not at all: none of them have examined anything.

To profess a ‘belief’ in God in America is just a part of being in the American club. It’s almost a patriotic duty. Athletes and American Idol contestants routinely ‘thank God’ or ‘Jesus’ for their success. But if you asked them about the finer or even the rudimentary parts of Christian doctrine you’ll get nothing but a confused jumble of half-remembered children’s stories (Jesus and Moses helped the Good Samaritan rescue his Technicolour Dreamcoat from Noah’s Ark etc), and perhaps a (praiseworthy) recitation of ‘Do unto others’, or a (less praiseworthy) one of ‘An eye for an eye.’

Thanking Jesus for every damn little thing is just part of the whole American shtick, like waving the Stars and Stripes, being the best at every sport except the big one, friendly shop staff and misunderstanding irony.

And it’s that club that really provides the ‘backbone’. The details of the religion are arbitrary.

Most Brits are exactly the same, but reversed – they haven’t consciously rejected scripture following careful intellectual analysis. They haven’t thought about it at all. It’s just that in Britain there’s no link between professing faith and being ‘in the club’. Far more important is to be able to discuss the latest injury crisis in the national soccer team, to queue in an orderly fashion and to keep your front garden tidy so as not to let down the neighbourhood.

I’m atypical not because I’m unreligious, but because I’m in any way interested in religion.

It’s a good thing, on the whole. Actually studying doctrine leads to nothing but arguments, as Duck shows in his post about Jesus’s blood-sacrifice. And those who have carefully examined the scriptures tend to fall into three camps: they reject it, they still believe or aspire to belief but are troubled by doubts, or they go stark raving mad and bash Bibles on street corners or strap bombs to their backs.

June 01, 2006 6:06 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I don't know, Brit. What you say makes a certain amount of sense if you mean the doctrinal tenets of Christianity or any other faith. But if "religious" just means believing (or acting as if you believe) in a purpose and morality external to us to which we have a duty to conform, then I think Skipper's frets shouldn't be dismissed too lightly. We here don't go in for what you somewhat patronizingly call the American "schtick" either, and it is true that most people confuse formal religion and general reverence privately in their minds without becoming overly taxed about it, but I wouldn't depend much upon the guy without either for anything. Surely it doesn't make a lot of sense to say religion is irrelevant to social strength and resiliency and then have nightmares about our ability to counter the Islamicist threat?

June 01, 2006 6:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

What you mean by 'general reverence' and Skipper means by 'backbone' I would probably refer to as 'a sense of duty' - but it takes into account moral duty, family loyalty and a patriotic sense, among other things.

My view is that the link between a sense of duty and a formal religion is greatly overrated. Irrelevant, even. Plenty of hypocrites in the church, plenty of wimps in the priesthood, plenty of very unpious squaddies with 'upper lip stiffer than grit', as Duck might put it.

June 01, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Impious, even.

June 01, 2006 6:50 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I see. So, religion has all kinds of downsides for society and is responsible for all manner of warping, unjust things, but it has no connection to virtue whatsoever?

Ya really gotta wonder how the whole mess evolved, don't cha?

June 01, 2006 7:00 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Ah but a parodist as keenly observant as yourself will remember that I'm no Dawkins, and no Harry, when it comes to pontificating on religion's responsibility for man's evil. I've even defended Muslims...

I generally prefer to blame, or praise, men for their own actions.

June 01, 2006 7:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

But if "religious" just means believing (or acting as if you believe) in a purpose and morality external to us to which we have a duty to conform, then I think Skipper's frets shouldn't be dismissed too lightly.

It is possible to believe in a purpose in morality external to us that doesn't involve a deity. I can't remember where I read it, but someone said that worship of god originated with worship or the community that one belongs to. I'd say that defines most Americans, even secular ones like myself. If I had to name my true 'ism', that positive identity that defines my values, as opposed to my negative identity as an atheist, which only identifies what I'n not, it would be 'Americanism'. Americanism has its sacred texts, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; its patriarchs, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; its saints, like Abraham Lincoln an Martin Luther King, and its rituals, such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. It has its Holy Orders, such as the Marine Corps and the Air Force, and it is a universal faith. We feel that anyone can be an American, and we proselytize for our values across the globe.

Christian Americans believe that the "under God" part of the American religion is a necessary prerequisite, but it really isn't. Americanism defines the values, duties and benefits of participating in the American community. All you have to do to take part is value that community and desire to preserve and uphold it.

The problem with many Euros is not that they stopped worshipping God, but that they stopped worshipping their nations.

June 01, 2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

I think the British are very apathetic Christians as opposed to being agnostics\atheists.

It's not that they don't believe in God ; it's just that they would prefer to watch football and go shopping on Sunday as opposed to dressing up for church.

June 01, 2006 7:48 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M Ali:

Yes, it is an unreligious nation, not an anti-religious nation.

Nearly all western countries are the same.

June 01, 2006 7:54 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

OK, now I'm confused about the religious views of the British. So here are some specific questions...

Do a majority believe in God, where God is a supernatural entity? Or not?

Do a majority believe that something of themselves (e.g., spirit) lingers past death? Or not?

June 01, 2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The boys who went over the top in 1916, whether English or French, were not notably religious.

The Anglican religion has not had any genuine believers for about 200 years, according to report; and a good many of the poilus thought themselves anticlerical if not also antireligious.

So it doesn't seem that religion, as such, is necessary to have a motive to lay down (or throw away) your life.

The Pals battalions perhaps suggest something about what, other than religion or even patriotism (as usually construed), was going on, at least in England.

So we see that religion is not necessary in order to defend social values (whether those have any desirability or not). Some of us also see that religion does give an extra reason, which irreligion does not, to commit atrocities.

Who needs it?

Objectively, nobody. Subjectively, almost everybody.

The great insight into religion and belief, I think, of the 20th century came from the Jews, like Berlin, who rejected idealism after having been subjected to the German version.

In America, idealism is still, thoughtlessly, idealized and admired. The magazine Ideals -- little read by Duckians, I bet -- is the core of American values. I imagine it would puzzle Europeans.

June 01, 2006 10:01 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The boys who went over the top in 1916, whether English or French, were not notably religious.

The Anglican religion has not had any genuine believers for about 200 years, according to report; and a good many of the poilus thought themselves anticlerical if not also antireligious.

So it doesn't seem that religion, as such, is necessary to have a motive to lay down (or throw away) your life.

The Pals battalions perhaps suggest something about what, other than religion or even patriotism (as usually construed), was going on, at least in England.

So we see that religion is not necessary in order to defend social values (whether those have any desirability or not). Some of us also see that religion does give an extra reason, which irreligion does not, to commit atrocities.

Who needs it?

Objectively, nobody. Subjectively, almost everybody.

The great insight into religion and belief, I think, of the 20th century came from the Jews, like Berlin, who rejected idealism after having been subjected to the German version.

In America, idealism is still, thoughtlessly, idealized and admired. The magazine Ideals -- little read by Duckians, I bet -- is the core of American values. I imagine it would puzzle Europeans.

June 01, 2006 10:01 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

It is a bit of a reach to say that religion isn't necessary for defending social values by using the examples of the Pals, most of whom fought for reasons of patriotism and comradeship.

"Some of us also see that religion does give an extra reason, which irreligion does not, to commit atrocities."

By the same token it does seem somewhat obvious that religion does and can act as a powerful motivator in ensuring standards of decent behaviour throughout society.

To borrow a leaf from Arthur Herman's book [i]To Rule The Waves[/i], it was the insistence of people like William Wiberforce that slavery was morally wrong - based on religious impulses - that eventually led to its' abolition.

Meanwhile the irreligious and libertine Dutch were perfectly happy to count their money as the slaving ships sailed back and forth across the Atlantic.

June 01, 2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

It is a bit of a reach to say that religion isn't necessary for defending social values by using the examples of the Pals, most of whom fought for reasons of patriotism and comradeship.

But Ali, patriotism and comradeship are social values.

June 01, 2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I agree, religion can support desirable social values, although citing Wilberforce is not too impressive. He came after a very long run of proslavery Christians. And was followed by the Christian Germans, who were still enslaving 125 years after Wilberforce.

There's a cost to having religion, big or small as it may be, and since there is, to make it worthwhile, the benefits need to be conclusive and large.

It's hard to see that, say, Orthodoxy was good for Russian society. I don't know enough to judge the argument, but respected authorities (Billings, for one) think that Novgorod was one of the most promising prototypes for what might be regarded a premodernism, until swamped by Vladimir's Christianity and Mongol savagery.

June 01, 2006 3:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

My view is that the link between a sense of duty and a formal religion is greatly overrated. Irrelevant, even.

Until fairly recently, I thought so, too. Now I am not so sure.

Every once in awhile, when I decide a stick in the eye won't inflict quite enough pain, I visit one or two MAL websites (Pharyngula and Lonbud), and have noted a couple things:

First, there is no parellel in my (somewhat limited) experience on the conservative side of the spectrum to the routine, reflexive, ignorant, and foul mouthed spew that passes for a MAL comment thread.

Second, the analytical void is filled by astonishing amorality. For instance, while I don't think it is necessarily the West's duty to fix every vicious, kleptocratic, government on the planet, one would think that over a million dead Iraqis, Iranians and Kuwaitis due to Saddam's predations would count for something.

I haven't been able to get my arms around it, never mind put it into words, but there seems to be a very little overlap in the US between those who don't find anything the West stands for worth defending, and those who profess religious belief.

Along these lines Duck said:

If I had to name my true 'ism', that positive identity that defines my values ... it would be 'Americanism'. Americanism has its sacred texts, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; its patriarchs, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; its saints, like Abraham Lincoln an Martin Luther King, and its rituals, such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. It has its Holy Orders, such as the Marine Corps and the Air Force, and it is a universal faith.

Exactly. Perfectly, succinctly, exactly. I have felt, and still feel, the frisson of religious enthusiasm in just this way.

But for those who adhere to no revealed dogma, nor to the civil religion, they really (and I hate admitting this) do tend to be desiccated, self centered, and wholly amoral.

June 01, 2006 6:14 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

For me, the civil religion still includes things like self-determination, which no American party has endorsed since 1919. Hard to know where to go.

The offspring of Christianity and American patriotism is an unlovely child. Of all nutty beliefs, the belief that Jesus was an American is in some ways the very nuttiest.

June 01, 2006 11:44 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

It's unreligious. When polled, a typical response to the God question is "I suppose I sort of believe there might be something after death".

The point is that to the majority, religion no more impinges on their lives than does quantum mechanics or string theory, which most might also have a vague belief in.

There was no big symbolic rejection of religion in Britain.

It just died of boredom.

....

But Britain isn't the interesting case study, because it is typical of western countries.

America is the interesting case study, because it is atypical. You're (understandably) starting from the wrong place, by assuming that the US is the control, and everywhere else is some kind of oddball experiment. But as my cousins across the Pond never tire of telling me, America is exceptional.

Europe is the control. As education, scientific knowledge, tolerance, choice, wealth, liberal values and entertainment options on Sunday mornings have increased, so the central role of religion has declined. Exactly as you'd expect.

So the question is: why hasn't the US followed the same pattern?

You could write many a book in answer to that question.

My quick, superficial answer is to do with the 'club' thing. America, becaus of its relatively 'artificial' nature, needs to have very strong 'identifiers' - ie. things you have to subscribe to in order to get in the club and be classed as an American. Things like all that 'Americanism' stuff that Duck and Skipper are welling up about above.

But God is also one of those identifiers. There is definitely a sense in the States, which you don't get in Europe, of a strong assumed correlation between belief and patriotism.

It seems to me that avowed atheism borders on treason, which I'd have thought must bother Duck and Skipper, though I'd be interested in their take on that.

June 02, 2006 1:26 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I'm not sure your definition of the control holds up, Brit. Canadians, Aussies, etc. likewise do not like to mix religious language and imagery with politics, but they are very patriotic places quite capable of waving flags as hard and emotionally (and irrationally) as the cousins. We are much more like you in the sense that religion is there for those who like it, but it is not actively disdained or seen as something to be rooted out (just surveyed warily for corrupting Id'ers and televangelists from the south). Outside of the doctrinaire left, you don't see too many in-your-face, defiant atheists or campaigns against parochial schools. There are signs that even Quebecers are getting past their virulent reaction to untramontanism. Religion, as in church-going and Bible-reading, is pretty much for a minority on the side, but the underlying morality is much stronger. In fact, we can be quite neurotic when our formal recitations of tolerance, relativism, etc contrast with our priggishness about right and wrong when push comes to shove. We're pretty blase about grace, but we still understand sin. How long that will last I have no idea.

It is (continental) Europe that strikes me as the odd man out. Harry would love the place. There, secular anti-religion is a full-blown religion, just like anti-patriotism has become. I have been struck many times by the agitated state perfectly decent Europeans can quickly evince when these issues come up. Religion is bad and dangerous, the family is a source of oppression for everyone but me, the EU project must continue no matter what the people want (because otherwise self-slaughter is a certainty), all hail Gaia, national pride is for soccer fans and facists, etc. There is nothing rational or democratic about it and warnings about lemming-like suicide "do not compute". It's a faith that would impress Savonarola.

Like at the UN, it is easy to see the US as odd man out simply because Europe is composed of so many countries. But, exceptional as the US is, on a global scale, I'd say Europe is the weirdo.

June 02, 2006 2:43 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Harry:

Who needs it?

Objectively, nobody. Subjectively, almost everybody.


That strikes me as an anti-Darwinian insight. If there is no objective need for it, then it confers no survival advantage. So, if we imagine pre-historic man struggling for existence in the face of privations and threats we can barely imagine, why would he waste so much time and invest so much energy in pursuing religion. Consciousness can't be the complete answer because the higher animals at least have a kind of consciousness and they don't indulge in such foolishness. So, what is your explanation?

June 02, 2006 2:53 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

By necessity I'm oversimplifying, but you could limit the 'experiment' to the Anglosphere and the 'America as exception' still stands.

I think you're right if you limit your definition of continental Europe to France.

In Belgium, Germany and the Scandinavian countries the route has certainly been the same as Britain. Italy and Spain likewise to lesser extents. Poland will follow.

Unlike other countries, France is officially secular. Other places are officially religious. In practice they're all secular, though strangely France is slightly more pious in practice than Britain and the non-American Anglosphere.

Again, there are historical reasons for the anomoly of France: ie. a bloody history of sectarian conflict, and the ideals of the Revolution.

By the way, I think your question to Harry can also be reduced to ‘why is America the exception?’

The ‘darwinian’ explanation for the history of religion would be ‘religion is less useful the more societies develop’. Hence the virtual death of religion in the ‘control’ countries.

June 02, 2006 3:23 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"Useful" for what? Survival? So, let's talk modern demographics.

June 02, 2006 3:34 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey, we haven't had a good Darwinism dust-up for a while, so here goes.

That is absurd logically and scientifically. It assumes ex post facto that what we are today is a product of maximum evolutionary success and injects teleology front and center. How can anyone know as a matter of science that we wouldn't have flourished even better if religion hadn't declined in most of the West? Given modern demographics, that is a far more plausible assertion. (Standing by for: "No, Peter, you don't understand. It's all about the genes. Or humanity in general. Or something else. It has nothing to do with the societies we actually live in.") It is the most egregious example I've ever seen of cooking the books by starting with the conclusion and working backwards to make the evidence fit. Almost as bad as positing the theory of sexual selection and then assuming the ladies got it right everytime.

June 02, 2006 3:53 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Oh Gawd...he's off on one again.

With religion, you're into the wonderful world of social darwinism: meme territory, not gene territory. Social control, what works, keeping Bret's plebs in their God-fearing place, moral order etc.

Also, any brand of darwinism isn't about the magic production of things that help reproductive success. It's about explaining reproductive success - and of course, its far more common flipside, failure and extinction.

June 02, 2006 4:03 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey, it was your explanation, not mine. Do I take it you don't believe it? Good man.

June 02, 2006 4:15 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...


But Ali, patriotism and comradeship are social values.


And in England's case their origin was heavily linked to religion, as national solidarity owed a lot to the belief that the English were God's Chosen People, fighting a virtuous war against the despotism of Catholic powers like the Spanish Empire.

June 02, 2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

It seems to me that avowed atheism borders on treason, which I'd have thought must bother Duck and Skipper ...

Bother isn't nearly strong enough a word.

As well, It seems to me that avowed atheism borders on treason ... is also not stated nearly strongly enough, when compared to what is actually the case.

Never mind certain prominent bloggers stating that atheists cannot possibly be good citizens, and should be punished or deported, Bush 41 has publicly stated atheists can't be good citizens. I could go on with a list of more or less prominent Americans who have said similar things, taking for granted such remarks are true on their face.

The consequent botheration is multi-faceted.

First, there is the evident, and utter, failure to learn one of history's most prominent, and repeated, lessons. Demonizing a group is the first step to perpetrating atrocities upon that group. The language these people use is no different than that used by the Nazis with respect to the Jews: the attribution of a threatening deficiency due solely to immaterial beliefs, and having nothing to do with real world acts. NB: I don't mean to suggest in even the tiniest measure that such people have a Final Solution for atheists in mind. But there is simply no avoiding the fact that replacing the word "Jew" with "atheist" makes the respective utterances indistinguishable.

Second, as a consequence, these people unavoidably repudiate one, if not the, distinguishing core tenet of the Angloshpere. That is, the civil religion means that the prevalent means of assessing people is through individual merit. The alternative, practiced throughout the rest of the world, is attributing to individuals the perceived qualities of the group to which they belong. Tribalism and sectarianism are the rule throughout the world and history. The irony here is rich. Many, if not all, of people branding atheists as, say, lousy citizens, would also be the ones most critical of group rights, such as affirmative action.


You also asked So the question is: why hasn't the US followed the same pattern?

It may well be possible to write a book on the subject, but I believe the core answer is simple. The US is the first secular government in history (some may argue France, but I suggest that the French Revolution attempted to trade one state religion for another). The absence of religion from the founding documents is striking, and Article VI of the constitution was unprecedented. It is important to keep in mind that American government is secular in the primary sense of the term -- neutral with respect to religion, not antagonistic to it.

As a consequence, the dead hand of government was completely removed from the religious sphere. And, as in economics -- but even more so, since the absence of government from religion is nearly total -- the result is orders of magnitude more dynamic and adaptive than would ever have been the case otherwise.

So, you are quite right. Europe is the control; the US is the one-off experiment.



Peter:

That strikes me as an anti-Darwinian insight. If there is no objective need for it, then it confers no survival advantage.

You are looking at only one side of the coin. Just as with the appendix, for which there is no objective need, religion may persist simply because it is insufficiently lethal, particularly for women, who are the demographic limiting factor.

Additionally, that there is no objective need for religion, in that in a material sense there is nothing prohibited to areligious societies that is permitted for the religious, does not mean there are no subjective benefits that derive from group religious identity.

And, in a very Darwinian sense, we may well be on the verge of learning whether the material advantages deriving from the absence of intrusive religious belief outweigh the group cohesion, individual conviction, fertility, and willingness to die, attending Islam.

I'd prefer to let the hive mind, rather than apocalyptic mullahs, decide that one. But we may not have the choice.

June 02, 2006 5:21 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

The issue isn't why religion persists. It is why it arose in the first place if it is objectively unnecessary and confers no survival advantage and why, in Harry's words, there is almost universal subjective need for it.

June 02, 2006 5:35 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

But that wasn't your question above - you were talking about religion in the modern world.

"Why is there apparently an innate impulse towards supernatural belief in humans?" is one question, to which you could construct a darwinist answer.

"Why and how have the various manifestations of that impulse evolved over the course of human history - eg. in the major religions?" - is a different question, which requires a different kind of answer, eg. a 'social darwinism' answer.

June 02, 2006 5:43 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Trying to arrive at a simplistic Darwinian explanation for a memetic trait like religion, I believe, is nearly impossible. You have to take into account that every identifiable trait is not necessarily something that was directly selected for, but may be a secondary effect that is "along for the ride", so to speak, with some other related trait that provided the necessary survival or reproductive advantage.

What we know through psychological studies is that people tend to examine external events for signs of agency, that is, the results of intentional behavior of sentient beings. This may have developed to help animals distinguish whether a movement in the grass was the result of wind or a lurking predator.

Another thing that we know about humans is that we are pre-wired to belong to complex social groups of up to 50 members. We have the pre-loaded firmware to allow us to manage and navigate one to one relationships with every member of these smal groups, to discern status relationships and act accordingly.

If you combine these two traits you get a being that detects agency in external events like thunderstorms and floods (and since these events are not agent-driven, you could conclude that our agency-detection software is defective), and social relationship skills that try to stay in the good graces of the more powerful members of the tribe, and you get religion.

June 02, 2006 7:42 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "It's unreligious. When polled, a typical response to the God question is "I suppose I sort of believe there might be something after death"."

Well, it might sort of depend on what you mean by "sort of" and "might", but I don't think that's all that different from the typical private American citizen's view. I've always considered someone who "sort of" believes in God and afterlife as having a religious worldview.

So Europeans are not quite as non-religious as I previously thought you were claiming.

June 02, 2006 7:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

It's very similar to the US, as I stated above.

Most people on both sides of the pond live a relatively unexamined life.

The difference is the club.

In the US you have to thank Jesus for every jot and tittle of circumstance to be in the club, and politicians have to pretend to be pious to get elected.

June 02, 2006 7:59 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

As often happens, others speak for me better than I can myself.

However, to continue: I have just read Diderot's 'D'Alembert's Dream,' in which he derives the life principle from 'sensitivity' which is reaction to 'perception.'

Without wholly endorsing Diderot, we have to acknowledge that our sensory apparatus evolved non-teleologically, and that our processing software made a lot of compromises. Even our limited sensors take in lots more data than we can process.

So we have an array of filters.

As an undesirable consequence of this rattletrap system, we all have feelings of immanence. These feelings have, so far as anyone can determine (and more effort has been put into this than any other human endeavor), no connection with non-human reality.

Objectively, there's no reason we should have to deal with non-existent things.

Subjectively, we seem (most of us) unable to resist trying to cope. Religion is our coping mechanism.

This particular habit's survival value fluctuates; think of it as akin to sickle-cell anemia, sometimes enhancing total fitness, sometimes not.

For Guanches, religion ended up with zero total fitness. All the Guanches are dead, thanks to Christianity.

It's pretty hard to argue that the inclusive fitness quotient of religion is not declining under modern conditions.

It's like our craving for animal fat. A beneficial trait when dead mammoths were few and far between, not so good when there's a McDonald's on every corner.

It takes time to shed, a long, long time since excessive fondness for fat usually claims its toll after reproductive age.

Such bad habits are almost immune to natural selection.

Religion, as Skipper says, is not.

June 02, 2006 12:01 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Harry:

think of it as akin to sickle-cell anemia...

I'd rather not. At least, not before dinner.

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