Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Lockean Conundrum

Edward Feser argues that we are all Lockeans now, though he sees an inherent contradiction in Locke's simultaneous rejection of Scholastic Natural Law theory and his founding the theory of individual human rights on a theological premise:

In the beginning (of our story, anyway) were the Middle Ages, and the relative political, cultural, religious, and intellectual unity that characterized them. This unity was never perfect, but it was extensive enough that the traditional label "Christendom" aptly describes the civilization of the period. Two events shattered this unity: the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The first event put private individual conscience in place of public institutional authority, splintering Christianity into innumerable sects and setting off a series of bloody religious wars. The second dethroned the Scholasticism that had given an intellectual foundation to medieval civilization, seeking to replace it with a philosophy more conducive to justifying the political, religious, and intellectual individualism that the Reformation had spawned, while reigning in the chaos it unleashed. (As Ralph McInerny has put it, modern philosophy can to some extent be described as "the Reformation carried on by other means.")

There is, of course, a lot more to the story than this; the point is to highlight the factors most relevant to understanding Locke's concerns. (In previous TCS Daily articles, I have had more to say about Scholasticism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.) A devotee of the Enlightenment, Locke sought to replace Scholasticism with a new empiricist foundation for philosophy and science, to promote individual rights and religious toleration, and to curb the dogmatic subjectivism or "enthusiasm" associated with some varieties of Protestantism. A sincere Protestant himself, he also thought that much of this could be accomplished only given certain theological premises; and as we shall see, his thinking on this was by no means an arbitrary byproduct of his religious views devoid of independent intellectual motivation.

Scholasticism was a complex intellectual phenomenon, but for our purposes we might focus on its commitment to certain key ideas derived from Aristotle's metaphysics. Among these was essentialism, the thesis that everything that exists has a fixed essence or nature, also known as a "substantial form." Hence the essence or substantial form of a human being is to be a rational animal; and a person retains this essence even when he or she fails to manifest it perfectly, due to incomplete development, say (as in a fetus) or injury (as in someone with brain damage). In addition to this, the Scholastics followed Aristotle in affirming the existence of final causes - ends, purposes, or goal-directedness inherent throughout the natural order, independent of any mind, and in particular of human interests. Thus a bodily organ like the heart, for example, has the end, purpose, or function of pumping blood, the moon has a natural end or tendency toward motion around the earth, fire has a natural end or tendency toward the generation of heat, and so on and so forth. (Contrary to a standard caricature, these ends or goals were not taken to be conscious ones: The heart has the end or goal of pumping blood and the moon of going around the earth, but obviously they don't think about doing these things; they just do them. For Aristotle and the Scholastics, conscious goal-seeking of the sort human beings and other animals exhibit exists against a larger background of unconscious goal-directedness or teleology permeating nature.)

Now these metaphysical ideas had dramatic practical repercussions for morality and politics. For human beings, like everything else, have on the Scholastic view an essence or nature, and this essence or nature entails that they and their various capacities, from reason on down to the lowest biological faculty, have various final causes or natural ends or purposes. All of this, on the Scholastic view, is entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. But this essence and these final causes determine what is good for us: If it is of our very essence or nature that we and our various capacities have certain goals, ends, or purposes, then we cannot flourish except by living in a way that is conducive to the realization of these goals, ends, or purposes. Hence morality has a foundation that is also entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. This is, in a nutshell, the idea of natural law. Later Scholastic thinkers developed on this basis a theory of natural rights, on which a person's right to something - his life, say, or his property, or whatever - is grounded in his obligations under natural law to pursue various ends. If the natural law obliges you to pursue X, and the only way you can pursue X is via Y, then you must have the right to Y, otherwise you would be unable to fulfill your moral obligations. Hence, for example, since not being killed or deprived of a certain domain of free action is a prerequisite to performing any actions at all, including moral ones, you must have a right not to be killed or deprived of personal liberty, all things being equal. (The usual caveats apply for those guilty of serious crimes.)

It is all much more complicated than this, of course, but that is perhaps enough to set the stage for Locke. Modern philosophy and science, as represented by thinkers like Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, and so forth, are defined perhaps more than anything else by their rejection of Aristotelian Scholasticism, and in particular of the notions of final cause and substantial forms or essences. For the moderns, there are, appearances notwithstanding, no final causes or substantial forms in nature at all, or at least none we can know about. Hence science ought in their view to proceed on the assumption that the objects of its inquiries are comprised of inherently meaningless material elements governed by purposeless chains of mechanical cause and effect. This was not a "discovery"; it was a methodological stipulation, and it remains nothing more than that to this day. The reasons for making it were complicated, but chief among them were an obsession with quantifying nature in the hopes of making it more amenable to technological manipulation, and - not least - a desire to undermine what such thinkers regarded as the dogmatism of the Scholastic system. (It is also far more intellectually problematic than most people realize; indeed, the thinkers who made this historic intellectual shift understood its problems much better than do contemporary thinkers, who, generally speaking, simply take it for granted unreflectively and uncritically. I briefly discuss some of the problems with it here.)

Locke was thoroughly committed to this new "Mechanical Philosophy," as it was called. To provide it with intellectual foundations, and further to undermine the authority of Scholasticism, he developed his empiricist theory of knowledge and a corresponding metaphysics to replace the Aristotelian one. One result of this was a system of thought that severely curtailed metaphysical inquiry and any religious conclusions that might be based upon it. This skepticism, while by no means total, served to justify a doctrine of religious toleration: Since, given Locke's empiricism, there is very little to be had in the way of genuine knowledge where religion is concerned, we ought to tolerate a wide diversity of religious opinions.

Yet Locke was also intent on defending a doctrine of inviolable natural rights against thinkers like Hobbes and Filmer, whose advocacy of absolute state power threatened the individual liberty the Reformation and Enlightenment were supposed to have ushered in. How could this be done given his abandonment of the Scholastic foundations of natural law? Locke's solution was to draw very definite limits to his theological minimalism. In line with his Scholastic predecessors, he argued that the existence of God could be established through pure reason, by means of a version of the traditional cosmological argument. But to prove the existence of God is just to prove the existence of a divine creator of the world, including human beings. Hence reason shows that we are, as Locke puts it, God's "workmanship," "sent into the world by his order, and about his business." And given Locke's famous theory of property - that what starts out unowned can be acquired by "mixing one's labor" with it, as you might acquire a piece of fruit by plucking it from a tree - it follows that we are God's property. Indeed, since God created us ex nihilo or out of nothing, his ownership of us is even more absolute than our ownership of anything we can acquire out of raw materials we did not make. So to harm another human being in his life, liberty, or possessions is in effect to damage what belongs to God, to violate divine property rights. Talk of individual human rights, then, is a kind of shorthand for God's rights over us: I must treat you as if you had a right to your life, liberty, and property, because to do otherwise would be to offend against God. At the same time, our rights are not absolute; because we belong to God, we cannot damage ourselves (through suicide or debauched living, say) any more than we can harm others.

There is a rich irony in this. Modern people tend to assume that medieval thinkers regarded morality as grounded in arbitrary divine commands backed by hellfire, and that it was modern thinkers who moved us away from this crude understanding. Yet in fact the Scholastics thought that, at least to a very large extent, the demands of morality can be determined through unaided reason via a philosophical investigation of human nature. If something is good or bad for you given your nature, it is good or bad for you whether or not God created that nature; hence the question of God's existence can be bracketed off. But Locke, like other early modern philosophers, denied that there is, or at least that we could know that there is, such a thing as human nature in the sense that the Scholastics had in mind, viz. the having of a fixed essence or substantial form together with its inherent natural ends or purposes. Lacking this metaphysical foundation for his doctrine of natural rights, Locke, the Enlightened foe of Scholasticism, has no choice but to appeal directly to God's will for us.


Locke, as well as all of us, do have a choice. We can appeal directly to our will for ourselves. The problem with Scholasticism, as described by Feser, is that it is impossible to establish inherent natural ends of physical entities because such a determination assumes a purposeful agent directing the entities. You can't say that the natural end of fire is to produce heat because one is assuming a creator or director of the fire wants heat as the natural end of fire. But it can be said that heat is a property of fire. Likewise one can say that human beings have a nature which substantially determines the most harmonious ways of arranging affairs between individuals in society. Though, without access to God's mind, if it exists, one can't know the inherent natural ends of that nature with regard to Him, but one can know the inherent natural ends that people apply their own natures toward.

So crucial, in Locke's thinking, is the existence of God to the possibility of natural rights, that he was led to deny that toleration ought to be extended to atheists. For "the taking away of God," he said, "though but even in thought, dissolves all." It is sometimes thought that his motivation was a mere prejudicial belief that atheists could not be trusted to abide by their promises and oaths. But it goes deeper than that. Whether or not this or that individual atheist happens to want to live a moral life, Locke's view is that atheism necessarily undermines the rational foundation for doing so. It is inherently subversive of public morality, whatever the motivations of its adherents. Contemporary conservatives would not go so far as to deny toleration to atheists, but many of them would sympathize with the view that at least a generic theism ought to inform public life, and that the moral and political order is unlikely to be stable without it.

In other respects too, contemporary conservatives are bound to find Locke's thought congenial, despite his status as one of the founding fathers of the broad liberal tradition in political philosophy. As was just indicated, Locke's criterion for denying toleration to a view was its tendency to subvert public order. This led him to refuse toleration not only to atheists, but also to any religious doctrine which bound its adherents to give their primary allegiance to a foreign power. Notoriously, this led him to hold that Roman Catholics ought not to be tolerated either, given their allegiance to the Pope. Obviously, contemporary conservatives would not agree with him on this. But many of them would say that radical forms of Islam, whose proponents' first (and indeed only) loyalty is to the international Muslim jihad rather than to the countries in which they happen to reside, have no right to expect the same treatment afforded to other religious communities. Whatever dangers some civil libertarians might see in such an attitude, it is certainly a very Lockean one.

A tacit Lockeanism may also underlie the attitudes many American conservatives have taken to international affairs in the post-9/11 world. Locke famously held that "all princes and rulers of independent governments, all through the world, are in a state of nature," meaning that the position of every government with respect to every other one is analogous to the relationship between individuals in circumstances where no government exists. This is so, in Locke's view, "whether they [i.e. 'princes and rulers'] are, or are not, in league with others: for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic." An international treaty, on this view, even if it establishes norms of international law or an organization like the United Nations, does not count as an exit from the state of nature as long as it falls short of the establishment of a world government. When you add to these theses the consideration that for Locke, "in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature" - that is, where no government exists, everyone has the right to punish violations of the natural law - it is easy to see why someone might conclude that in the international context, any particular government has the right unilaterally to punish another government for its violations of the law of nature (whether these violations involve reneging on its agreements, mistreating its citizens, or whatever). In particular, it is easy to see why many American conservatives would hold that the United States had every right to intervene in Iraq beginning in 2003.

Lockean considerations could even be applied to a defense of the controversial way in which the United States has treated enemy combatants in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Locke also famously argued that "captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties... cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society." In Locke's view, since someone who fights in defense of an unjust cause has forfeited his very right to life, he has no grounds to complain if he suffers some lesser punishment instead. At least with respect to those combatants who have engaged in terrorism, then, a defender of American policy could argue on Lockean grounds that there is no moral difficulty in detaining such persons indefinitely or applying to them rough or humiliating methods of interrogation.

None of this is intended as either a defense or a criticism of U. S. foreign policy, which is not the subject of this essay. The point is rather to underline the extent to which the thinking of many contemporary American conservatives reflects a broadly Lockean worldview. Indeed, a strong case could be made that modern conservatism (at least in the British and American contexts) represents a more purely Lockean point of view than that of contemporary liberals and libertarians, who also look to Locke for inspiration. Modern liberals would advocate a far more extensive redistribution of wealth than Locke could have tolerated, in the name of an economic interpretation of human equality that he would have rejected. Libertarians, by contrast, would radically scale back government in ways that Locke did not and would not advocate, eliminating public assistance for the needy and decriminalizing so-called "victimless crimes," all on the basis of a theory of rights very different from Locke's own. Both liberals and libertarians would eschew the theological foundations of Locke's political philosophy and his advocacy of a privileged place for religion (or at least a minimal theism) in the public square. There is a sense, then, in which today's conservatives are really just liberals of an old-fashioned Lockean sort who seek to preserve Locke's moderate liberal legacy "whole and undefiled" against the more radical contemporary liberals and libertarians who would, in their view, distort it by separating Locke's interest in liberty and equality from his commitment to religion and public order.

The "liberal" Locke

This does not entail, however, that contemporary liberals and libertarians do not have a Lockean leg to stand on; far from it. For one thing, whatever Locke's own intentions, the philosophical doctrines he put in place of Scholasticism do in fact tend to undermine even the few elements of that older worldview that he sought to preserve. As his successor David Hume was to show, empiricism, when followed through consistently, undercuts the notion of causation underlying cosmological arguments for God's existence. (It also undercuts the notion of causation underlying scientific inquiry, and indeed, the possibility of any knowledge at all. But that is another story.) The result is that Locke's theological minimalism collapses into a complete skepticism about religious claims in general - something Locke's liberal successors have quite naturally taken to justify removing even Locke's generic theism from any privileged place in the public square. And without either God or the Scholastic conception of human nature, the limits Locke would put on our rights disappear, opening the door to libertinism in the sphere of personal morality.

Locke's doctrine of religious toleration had in any case rested on a very restricted conception of what we could claim genuinely to know where religion is concerned. "Every church is orthodox to itself," Locke said, evincing the view that religious doctrines about which various denominations disagree must be treated by government as mere subjective preferences that ought to have, unlike his generic theism, no influence on public policy. He also went so far as to insist that "toleration" - not doctrinal orthodoxy, not apostolic succession, not antiquity, not holiness, but commitment to a modern liberal political ideal - is "the chief characteristical mark of the true church." When you combine all this with the radical religious skepticism entailed (however unwittingly) by Locke's empiricism, it is but a very short step to the conclusion that religious opinions as such and in general are as subjective as tastes in ice cream, ought to be kept out of the public square entirely, and are "reasonable" only to the extent that they subordinate themselves to the liberal conception of justice. John Locke is transformed thereby into John Rawls.

In opposition to the Scholastic view that the essences or natures of things are objective, existing independently of the human mind, Locke argued that "the essences of the species [under which things fall]... are of man's making." Thus, what counts as a member or this or that class of things is ultimately a matter of human convention rather than objective fact. Locke also famously held that what is essential to being a person is continuity of consciousness of the sort manifested in memory, rather than membership in the biological category homo sapiens. In these doctrines lay the seeds of the view that it is up to us to decide whether certain human beings count as persons, and that fetuses and those in "persistent vegetative states," since they are not conscious, ought not be afforded that status, or the rights that go with it. Though Locke himself would no doubt have been horrified at the fact, contemporary defenders of abortion and euthanasia have very solidly Lockean grounds for their position.

In several ways, then, Locke's epistemological and metaphysical views have implications that are far more congenial to the opinions of present-day liberals and libertarians than they are to those of conservatives. It is natural, then, if liberals and libertarians who reject Locke's theism but sympathize with some of his other epistemological and metaphysical views might see themselves as perfectly justified in picking and choosing those aspects of his political philosophy that they like and reinterpreting them along less conservative lines, even if the reinterpretation is sometimes a fairly radical one. Though their Lockeanism is less pure as a result, it may be more philosophically coherent.

Here many conservatives, though they are on the whole closer to Locke's own way of thinking, may for that reason find themselves in greater philosophical difficulty. For contemporary conservative intellectuals seem by and large to endorse the intellectual revolution that Locke and his fellow modern philosophers inaugurated. No less than their liberal counterparts, they tend to see the world in broadly empiricist terms, and regard science rather than metaphysics as the paradigm of genuine knowledge. Like Locke, most of them reject the suggestion that belief in substantial forms, final causes, and other Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysical notions is essential to a proper understanding of morality. They are also, in their own way, as beholden to the rhetoric of individual freedom and skepticism about authority as any modern liberal or libertarian. To the extent that these philosophical attitudes have the unconservative implications mentioned above, then, the conservative Lockean position seems threatened with the same incoherence that Locke's own position manifests. Liberals and libertarians, while less true to the letter of Locke's philosophy, can plausibly claim to be more true to the radical spirit that underlies it.

Conclusion

The lesson would seem to be this. Those who seek to appropriate Locke's legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all. One must either endorse Locke's revisionist metaphysics - his rejection of objective essences and final causes in nature, his reductionistic account of the nature of persons, and so forth - and abandon the traditional moral and religious elements of his philosophy; or, if one wants to maintain these conservative elements, one must reject the revisionist metaphysics, and return to something like the Scholastic worldview it replaced. One must be either a radical or a reactionary. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to be a Lockean.


I don't see a problem here, since the success of our form of government is not dependent on the fidelity to which it adheres to Locke's formulation of his theory, but on the fact that it works. Locke grasped upon an idea of how to best balance the powers of the state and religious authority against the freedoms of the individual, and it was a brilliant idea that proved highly successful. But idea men like Locke are sometimes off the mark when explaining why their idea works. Inevitably human progress is a trial and error affair, and philosophical ideas as such are not as important in ensuring the continued success of a new innovation as they are in generating an idea that leads to an experiment.

33 Comments:

Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Wow. Good stuff, Duck. Thanks.

It's a good article, but the conclusion that we must all be either radicals or reactionaries says more about the dangers of over-philosophizing than reality. As Locke is one of a small handful of thinkers who can rightly be called the intellectual fathers of the Anglosphere (and especially the U.S.), and as the Anglosphere is the great global success story of the last three hundred years, does he suggest it was all built on fallacies and sloppy thinking? To paraphrase Orwell, you have to be a philosopher to be so stupid.

Still, there is a sense in which he does identify the theological dilemma that has bedeviled Protestantism since it stopped being so literal in its beliefs about the celestial order and which is now hitting us daily in stark relief. How can you reconcile a belief in tolerance, individual liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion with the need for a baseline common public piety that grounds limited government? The American experiment is much more impressive in the rolling hills of New England than in urban ghettos.

Locke's rejection of atheism as deserving of tolerance seems totalitarian today and no doubt drives you folks splenetic, but I imagine this was his concern. He must have forseen something. As he was valiantly working late at night by flickering light to bring freedom and tolerance to a blood-soaked world, did Divine Grace suddenly send him a vision of Paris Hilton?

This also touches on another sore point around here--the public aversion to voting for avowed atheists. I know you Duckians planning your presidential runs feel insulted and aggrieved by this, but isn't it rather obvious that, all other things being equal, anyone who believes in limited government as an opening principle would prefer to be governed by one who believes his own ethical and moral compass is constrained ab initio.

October 21, 2007 6:57 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

How can you reconcile a belief in tolerance, individual liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion with the need for a baseline common public piety that grounds limited government?

I think you answered this question in your first para.

Locke was better at describing what than why, to the point where the what earns the title "self-evident truth". Contra OJ, when something arises to that level of obviousness, then it matters not a whit what why you throw at it.

Locke's rejection of atheism as deserving of tolerance seems totalitarian today and no doubt drives you folks splenetic, but I imagine this was his concern. He must have forseen something.

Splenetic? Hardly. As a dunnoist, I find the insistence there is no god just as off putting the insistence there is a specific, revealed, God. Claiming knowledge where none exists is the crime.

This also touches on another sore point around here--the public aversion to voting for avowed atheists.

You have your aversions mixed up, although probably forgivably so.

This particular dunnoists aversion is to defining people by group identity, a distinctly un-American -- and distinctly, if not uniquely, religious -- outlook (OJ, I am again looking at you). The Texas GOP schlamozzle highlights that precisely. The entire emphasis was on group identity, not individual merit.

Religions always emphasize group identity over, and sometimes to the complete exclusion of, individual merit.

It boggles my imagination to get a handle on how the Texas GOP could, ostensibly anyway, insist that certain truths are self-evident, then, in virtually the next breath, spew completely contradictory nonsense.

Do I feel insulted and aggrieved? Well, no more than, say, any particular African-American male minds being labeled as a criminal because a disproportionate number of African-American males are criminals. (leaving aside for the moment whether a disproportionate number of anti-theists are distinguishable from theists in any non-religious particular).

... but isn't it rather obvious that, all other things being equal, anyone who believes in limited government as an opening principle would prefer to be governed by one who believes his own ethical and moral compass is constrained ab initio.

Yes, but it pays to keep your rhetorical question's implicit assumption firmly in view: where do arrive at the conclusion that anti-theists don't believe all our moral and ethical compasses are constrained ab initio?

As for this particular dunnoist, it is impossible to find naturalistic evolution persuasive and not believe in ab initio constraints.

(It is a matter of some puzzlement how the Left can so pervasively believe in evolution and completely discard the notion of such constraints. That puzzlement abates somewhat, however, when considering that the Leftism is just another form of religious belief: the tenacious adherence to a set of precepts, regardless of contrary evidence.)

October 23, 2007 10:34 AM  
Blogger David said...

Religions always emphasize group identity over, and sometimes to the complete exclusion of, individual merit.

There may well be religions of whom this is true, but they certainly aren't Judaism or Christianity, which are solely concerned with individual merit.

As for African-Americans and atheists, they are not at all the same thing. People have the right to be atheists and people have the right to disagree with atheists. We shouldn't go on atheist pogroms, but people have the right not to vote for an atheist, or to only vote for atheists.

October 23, 2007 4:21 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Certainly people have the right to vote for or against whoever they want for whatever reason. But atheists have every right to challenge the assumptions upon which people decide to vote against atheist candidates. Such as Peter's assumption regarding moral compasses, which he'll have to explain, as I'm not sure what he's getting at.

Peter, what do you mean by having one's moral compass restrained ab initio? Why should a moral compass be restrained? Isn't the moral compass the thing that should do the restraining?

But generally the popular opinion among religious people is that religion equates to morality. It's a major challenge to try to persuade people otherwise. Protestants used to think that a Catholic politician would be beholden to the Pope, and many Christians will still refuse to vote for a Mormon.

I think that the prejudice against atheists will slowly erode, for two reasons: one, athiests in the US (I'm including agnostics, non-theists and the non-religious in general because I think the distinction between these categories is about as broad as the distance separating the tastes of Coke and Pepsi) are becoming a larger percentage of the population from one generation to the next. Two: as more people are comfortable professing no faith, then more religious people will actually come to know non-believers personally, whether as children, siblings, friends or coworkers, and familiarity tends to erode prejudices based on stereotypes.

October 23, 2007 6:37 PM  
Blogger David said...

Absolutely, Duck. Which is why complaining that the Republicans are being nasty by pointing out that someone is an atheist misses the point entirely.

October 23, 2007 6:43 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It is a mere conceit of the philosophers that every human action must be traceable and reducible to a primordial and fundamental concept AND that that concept must be correct.

I, at least, am not a Lockean. The manifest absurdity of his conclusion that atheists are somehow disqualified from public life is enough to demonstrate that he didn't have any idea what he was talking about.

There weren't a lot of explicit theories of government on display in the 1690s, and Locke looked better than Filmer.

However, the great age of political theory was just beginning. Mandeville, Franklin, Swift, Defoe, Jefferson, Sewell, Ward, Pope, Edwards, Adams, Newcastle, Hume etc. (to take just the writers in English) were going to offer more options, some good, some bad; within a century, Locke was nothing but a museum curio.

And so he remains.

October 24, 2007 9:18 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

There may well be religions [which emphasize group identity], but they certainly aren't Judaism or Christianity, which are solely concerned with individual merit.

Huh?

Judaism: ultra-Orthodox vs. all the rest.

Christianity: Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans (Missouri Synod vs. the rest), Pentacostalists, Baptists (Southern and otherwise), Catholics vs. all the pretender Christianities.

Religions could confine themselves to criteria for moral behavior (which are material, adherence to, and consequences of, which can be judged individually).

They do not.

What they do is define people by group affiliation, using criteria that are largely indistinguishable from magical hand waving.

As for African-Americans and atheists, they are not at all the same thing. People have the right to be atheists and people have the right to disagree with atheists. We shouldn't go on atheist pogroms, but people have the right not to vote for an atheist, or to only vote for atheists.

Absolutely. However, the sanctity of the voting booth wasn't what I was talking about.

Which, to reiterate, was: The [Texas GOP's] entire emphasis was on group identity, not individual merit. Their attack on judicial candidate had not word one to say about his actual record, but instead focussed solely on group affiliation. That is just as un-American as if the candidate was black, and the Texas GOP campaigned against him solely because African-Americans are over-represented in the crime statistics.

If those truths are self-evident, then we treat people as individuals. Otherwise, as clearly the Texas GOP believes (whether they know it or not), let the tribalism hit the fan.

Considering the track record of anti-Judaism, you think people would have sussed by now the nonsense behind judging people based solely on such group affiliations.

Which is why complaining about Republicans are being nasty by pointing out someone is an atheist is entirely on point. It is just as much on point as excoriating campaigning against someone solely due to being a Catholic, Mormon, Jew, woman, or African American.

October 24, 2007 12:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Both Judaism and Christianity allow for the possibility of righteousness outside of the religion and both agree that mere membership in the group guarantees nothing. Fundamental to both is that G-d judges us for ourselves.

October 24, 2007 4:13 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Both Judaism and Christianity allow for the possibility of righteousness outside of the religion'

Some sects do. Others do not.

The statement was decidedly a minority view among the Christians around me, who, furthermore, deplored righteousness in favor of salvation.

October 24, 2007 11:32 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, well they were a special elite troop we sent just for you. A little weird on the theology, but man, their staying power! We figured if you were ever going to finish that multi-volume life work, The Complete List of Christian Atrocities, you could use a little inspiration to keep the jiuces flowing.

Don't knock it, Harry. Some of those foxy Christian ladies who hate righteousness are worth getting to know.

October 25, 2007 2:44 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Skipper: Both Judaism and Christianity allow for the possibility of righteousness outside of the religion and both agree that mere membership in the group guarantees nothing.

Sectarianism doesn't exist? Who knew?

October 25, 2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not so special, just a late survival of a formerly well-nigh universal outlook.

I have not read widely in Judaic religious ethnology, but I have in Christian.

With the big exception of the notably not very Christian William Shakespeare, I cannot recall ever seeing any acknowledgement of righteousness among unChristians earlier than the early Enlightenment.

The earliest example I can call to mind just now is Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters,' although there may be some examples of Italian humanists comparing popes unfavorably to Turks earlier than that.

The concession of righteousness to unbelievers is one of many secular ideas that have colonized Christianity so successfully -- like mitochrondria in our cells -- that it seems inherent when it's really subversive.

It's a good thing. I'm glad some Christians -- although, as Skipper says, Texas Republicans are not among them -- now admit that outsiders can be righteousness.

But it's new to me. Takes a little time to get used to it.

I could retire now if I had a ten-spot for every Christian neighbor who promised I'd go to hell if I didn't accept Jesus as my personal saviour.

October 25, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

I really can't tell whether you are more troubled by religious people who claim a direct pipeline to Eternal Truth or religious people who don't.

Surely to time has come to acknowledge that we are just repeating ourselves endlessly. Although you insist over and over that we do not understand your arguments, I think we do--we just don't agree wih you. It seems we are locked into some kind of battle between an almost automotonic materialism that doesn't even acknowledge a human nature that isn't materially driven and a religious perspective from the third cntury B.C. I know you think competing religions and the incompatibility of competing claims to absolute truth is a killer for faith in general, but it isn't--obviously. It's also a timeless issue among the religious and long pre-dates the modern world.

I've been reading this about the Gifford lecures, the famous, bequeathed lectures about science and religion that have been going on since the late 19th century in Edinburgh. Talk about an all-star cast of brilliant scientific and theological minds. I don't think too many of them would be all that impressed with either of us.

The lectures reveal an intellectual breadth and richness to this question that seems to be gone with the wind in our era. There are endless variations to the belief/unbelief debate that confounded much brighter minds than yours and mine, and there was a lot more respect between (or among) them. I suggest we show a little humility and deference to the ancestors and do the hard work needed to explore them.

I'll start. Forget all those scientific puzzlers about whether God exists and what science says about it. Let's look at the streets around us. Why do you think ordinary people who don't care about theology or science, but aren't ignorant or uneducated either, go to Church or synogogue and why do so many of them feel good about the experience? Really good.

Let's try harder, ok?

October 25, 2007 4:09 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Because they never really thought about what they're doing?

In the other thread, I mentioned the insight of the Jesuits. (No doubt they were not original in it.)

That is sufficient, I think, to explain 99+% of religious observance, including the feel-good (or enjoying the feel-bad) part.

Why, in your view, do primitives 'feel good' about leaving food out for tree-spirits -- or, worse, shooting their virgins full of arrows?

October 25, 2007 5:44 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

shooting their virgins full of arrows?

Good thing we sent the missionaries out to stop that nonsense, eh Harry? It's part and parcel of our "enjoy the feel-bad" side.

October 26, 2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Cute, but it doesn't answer the problem: Why do people feel good about doing things that are manifestly not good?

I could have multiplied examples endlessly.

If anybody shoots virgins full of arrows regularly for a non-religious reason, I haven't heard of it.

Even if we grant the 'feel good' part, how explain and justify the
'feel bad' part?

Is there some fundamental evil within the concept 'religion'?

Obviously, yes.

Can it be eliminated without destroying the whole idea?

It is not so obvious that it can.

I bet those big domes in the Gifford lectures never tackled that one.

October 26, 2007 10:52 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Harry:

I don't think folks go to Church because it makes them feel good, or even feel good about feeling bad. They can do that on a golf course or in an environmental NGO. If that's all it was, I doubt you modern heathens would be so troubled. I think many folks who go to Church do so because they feel freed from things you don't think they should be freed from.

October 28, 2007 4:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Is there some fundamental evil within the concept 'religion'?

Yes, human nature. But you will be relieved to know a recent study proves religion has had no discenible evil effects among barnyard animals.

I bet those big domes in the Gifford lectures never tackled that one.

Absolutely no harm in betting. You lose.

October 28, 2007 4:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's just bizarre that, coming out of the 20th century, Harry can pretend that religion is uniquely dangerous. All the degradations of religion through the millennia can't hold a candle to what the USSR did, all by itself, in seventy short years. Virgins don't deserve to be shot full of holes, but neither do kulaks, and the kulaks were killed wholesale.

October 28, 2007 6:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David:

It's not really all that bizarre. Surely twentieth century history proves that the modern mind thinks that the rationally based killing of a million is morally preferable to the irrationally based killing of a hundred. That's one reason the crimes of Stalin, Mao, etc. are excused by many as "excesses" or other ambivalencies, while the Inquisiton, which killed far fewer over two hundred years than Stalin did in a good afternoon, is their lodestone of evil incarnate. Or why certain modern folks can forsee and be too sanguine for comfort about the need to obliterate Mecca ("No choice, purely defensive, so sorry, you will thank us some day")but can't lower their blood pressure about virgins used for target practice in remote and savage lands long ago.

It also helps if you can use your rational materialism to pretend you have no opening hostile animus and are simply following an objectively conceived plan with noble ends, or what the modern world sees as noble ends. That I think is one of the reasons the Marxists escape the opprobrium the Nazis earned. (Another interesting aspect of the Nazis is how modern Darwinian/materialist thinking has pretty much extinguished the heavy debates of the '50s and '60s on how a scientifcally based culture could result in Hitler. Today we just say that they were remnants of medieval Christianity or paganism and keep on truckin'.) I suspect most young Americans think the lynching of several hundred blacks during Jim Crow was more offensive than the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

Getting back to my favourite bugbear, this explains the brilliant evil of a Dawkins. Of course he would never openly attack religious people directly or advocate their physical oppression. The man oozes open-mindedness and human compassion, after all. He is just worried, based on the most modern psychological evidence available, about how they will mess up their kids. Will no one think of the children?

October 28, 2007 7:16 AM  
Blogger David said...

Ah Dawkins. Our Duckian friends keep telling us how the test of any ideology is how it tracks reality, and yet Dawkins' ideology told him that it would be a good idea to write to Ohio voters and tell them that they shouldn't vote for George Bush because he was acting just like someone who shot a burglar in his own home.

October 28, 2007 7:22 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

But I am not proposing Stalinism as a model of right conduct.

Nobody is.

That's the reason.

Stalinism: been there, done that, didn't like the result. Won't try that again.

Religion: been there, done that, got very mixed results, let's keep on truckin'.

That wouldn't matter if we had somehow insured ourselves that the bad parts would not inevitably recrudesce.

My position is that they inevitably will. If that's so, we get to balancing the interests. I don't see a lot of that going on.

It's all well enough to shrug about shooting virgins in 'distant lands' (actually, Kansas), because comparatively few virgins were shot just as comparatively few heretics were burned.

But that's merely a question of technology. It's the impulse to murder that we need to worry about.

Religions with an impulse to murder are in a position to do as much damage as a Stalin now. I see no reason in history to predict that they will pull back from that brink when they contemplate the outcome.

Rather they will celebrate it.

October 28, 2007 12:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

See, now you guys are always ridiculing me for bemoaning our lack of progress, but now we've actually gotten somewhere.

Relgion: Not as bad as Stalinism.

Harry Eagar,
October 28, 2007

October 28, 2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But that's merely a question of technology. It's the impulse to murder that we need to worry about.

Of all the modern fairy tales that most people today nod unthinkingly at, but that don't stand up to five minutes of serious scrutiny, that is my favourite. The notion that the Church wanted to kill off its adversaries but lacked the means is absurd. Horrible as medieval anti-Semitism was, it was characterized usually by localized, short term bloodlust, sometimes ignored by Rome, sometimes strongly opposed, but usually unable to do anything at all without the cooperation of the local monarch. I've certainly never seen evidence that the pogroms were ever given offical papal sanction or encouragement, even by theologically intolerant Popes, and neither you nor Skipper have been able to prove me wrong there. Whenever it became large-scale, the weapon of choice was expulsion, not killing, and religion had little to do with many of the expulsions. The Crusades were bloody, but I have never heard anyone claim they were about killing off Muslims. As to Isalm, how can you square the concept of dhimmi over hundreds of years with an irresistable compulsion to murder?

But I think the real proof that you are way off is that when the Church did set out to eradicate Christian heresies, it was remarkably successful and thorough. No technological problems with obliterating the Albigensians, were there? You can blame this on religion if you like, but I suggest the reason is the same one civil wars are so murderous--betrayal is a much more powerful motivator for revenge and destruction than fear of "the other".

Ironically, modern anti-clericals like to point to the wars on heretics as proof of the oppressive and totalitarian nature of the Church, and a certain historical sympathy for them has grown through their status as victims--sort of theocratic "gallant little Belgiums". Yet most of those heresies--Gnostics, the Manichees, the Cathars and lots of proto-calvinist ones like the Hussites were radical ascetic creeds that despised the flesh and earthly existence and pleasures. They renounced the importance of the body and material life in favour of a complete focus on the spiritual and the hereafter. Talk about dangerous theocracies in the making! Time and time again, the Church stood firm for reason, respect for the material, the importance of earthly life (and secular authority) and the general here and now. Yet awareness of that seems to be gone with the wind and all the modern Ducks and Harrys can see are warped, terrifying priests and nuns binding with briars their joys and desires.

But anyway, Harry, how do you take the historical record of one church and deduce universal rules about religion from it? I guess all those murderous Jews get an historical pass, no? And I sure hope somebody is keeping an eye on what those Amish are planning after dark.

Sorry, Harry, the impulse to large-scale murder, genocide and mass marginalization has become much stronger since the Enlightenment. That is a fact so obvious as to be incontrovertible for the historically literate. You have a choice in the risk you think it is better that we take--the cold and rationally planned elimination/marginalization of those trying to thwart a better tomorrow by determined but amoral scientism or the uncontrolled, irrational lurching of an unrestrained piety that breaks through the bonds of objective morality. But please stop saying they both come from the same place or the only difference is the efficiency of the widgets.

Stalinism: been there, done that, didn't like the result.

Yes, yes, the results were indeed disappointing. But wasn't the dream beautiful, Harry?

October 28, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "Stalinism: been there, done that, didn't like the result. Won't try that again."

Well, you might not, but there are still plenty of Marxists cruising about.

Besides, the new Stalinism is gonna be something like global warming as defined by the Goran. Since that's the "greatest" moral issue of our time, it can trump any other morality if needed.

October 28, 2007 5:49 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yet most of those heresies--Gnostics, the Manichees, the Cathars and lots of proto-calvinist ones like the Hussites were radical ascetic creeds that despised the flesh and earthly existence and pleasures.

So the Church was making the world safe for hedonism? Peter, with reasoning like this it is no wonder that you are the master of the courtroom. I am in awe.

But nice try. Prior to Christianity there was no heresy problem in the west. The Romans, contrary to the terrible tales of the persecution of Christians, were quite tolerant of the religions of other nations. The Christians got into trouble mainly because they would not declare fealty to Rome, not because their religion offended the religious sensibilities of the pagan priesthoods. Constantine brought Christianity into the fold not because he was overcome by the Christian message, but as a practical matter, to bring order. He continued to practice the pagan religion, and preached tolerance for all religions, but the Christians would have none of it. But much of the unrest caused by Christians was caused by their internecine battles over doctrine. Constantine called the council of Nicaea to force the warring bishops into a consensus over the Arian controversy. Contrary to the assertion that Christianity lent stability to western civilization, it has been the cause of instability. The Roman emperors coopted Christian authority and enforced orthodoxy because Christian bishops were fragmenting the empire over ridiculous theological hair splitting disputes.

We have secular government today not because Christianity demands secular government, but because Christianity is so unstable that any civilization based upon it is doomed to self-destruct, as Christendom did during the Reformation. Secular government is Christianity's equivalent of a 12 step program.

If you want to run the tally of deadly ideologies, it's the Thirty Year's war you should be looking at, not the Inquisition. And don't play the "it was about politics, not religion" card, because the same could be said of the Communist atrocities in the Soviet Union and China.

October 28, 2007 9:50 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Prior to Christianity there was no heresy problem in the west.

Nope, no heresy problem. Lots of slaves, rightless women confined to the home, magic and dangerous feverish cults, massacres galore, Emperor-gods killing on a whim, circus's for all, etc., but no heresy problem. At least not until those unstable Christians came along and spoiled it all. The Christians wouldn't declare fealty to Rome? Why, the cheek of them.

Ah, the good old days.

October 29, 2007 1:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But much of the unrest caused by Christians was caused by their internecine battles over doctrine. Constantine called the council of Nicaea to force the warring bishops into a consensus over the Arian controversy. Contrary to the assertion that Christianity lent stability to western civilization, it has been the cause of instability.

Thinking about this some more Duck, I realize you have pegged my frustration with the U.S. and American politics perfectly. Endless hairsplitting over this and that, violent rhetoric over the most mundane matters, internecine battles in Congress and the courts, constitution says this--constitution says that, presidential campaigns that never end. Argue, argue argue--can't you people do anything else? Surely the world would be a better place if you would all just shuddup, pledge fealty to the government and get on with it.

Constantine brought Christianity into the fold not because he was overcome by the Christian message, but as a practical matter, to bring order.

If you are telling me mighty Imperial Rome changed its state religion holus-bolus just to co-opt a disorderly minority sect centered on the poor and dispossessed, then I think I understand why heresy wasn't much of a problem for them.

October 29, 2007 2:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

We have secular government today not because Christianity demands secular government, but because Christianity is so unstable that any civilization based upon it is doomed to self-destruct,...

Sorry Duck, but that last comment of yours was just so rich it cries out for a multi-post reply.

Duck, I've read a lot of attacks on religion and Christianity in my time. I've read that they are locked into medieval notions of timeless order and resist the exciting march of progress and change. I've read that they hate freedom and imprison folks in rote, drab, sexless lives, using the terrors of guilt and damnation to keep everyone in line. I've read that they won't tolerate dissent and will always find some way to get rid of the opposition. But I have to say this is the first time I've heard anyone complain that Christianity is a force for instability. I guess that's why Western civilizaion never got anywhere.

I'm tempted to inquire further into your notion of an ideal level of stability, but frankly I'm afraid to.

October 29, 2007 3:01 AM  
Blogger David said...

Why do you think that the Romans didn't have a problem with heresy? Once they started deifying their emperors, treason -- or just not wanting big statues of the emperor in the town square -- became heresy and were punished severely.

Also, the Romans used to burn witches, even before becoming Christian.

October 29, 2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'why certain modern folks can forsee and be too sanguine for comfort about the need to obliterate Mecca ("No choice, purely defensive, so sorry, you will thank us some day")'

Wow.

Considering how murderous Islam already is and how much more murderous its acolytes say they are prepared to get, that's scary.

My newspaper runs daily accounts of religious madmen suicide bombers, and you worry about secularists?

By the way, I didn't say Stalinism was worse than religion. From a purely domestic political perspective, it was more successful at keeping out Germans than tsarism/Orthodoxy, which counts for something if you're a Russian.

It's a question whether Stalinism was an individual aberration or a general outcome. The only difference between it and Christian rule of, say, Marburg was scale.

October 29, 2007 9:36 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Lots of slaves, rightless women confined to the home, magic and dangerous feverish cults, massacres galore, Emperor-gods killing on a whim, circus's for all, etc., but no heresy problem'

And, aside from the emperors, switching to Christianity improved which of those?

October 29, 2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David:

I realize we are condemned forever to challenging the axiom that today is the best of all possible worlds by definition, surpassed only by tomorrow, but must we now give equal time to the charge that Ancient Rome takes second place?

October 31, 2007 4:32 AM  

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