Antipathy and Propathy

Mar 1st, 2004 12:09 am | By

I was planning in any case to say a few things about the case for the other side. In a laborious attempt to be fair, to avoid groupthink and confirmation bias, etc. No not really, that’s only a joke – there actually are some things to be said for the other side that I find persuasive. Not for the basic truth claims of religion, but for the idea that religion can be a good thing in some ways. (Not much of an admission, believers will think, but it’s the best I can do.) I was planning to do that today in any case and then by pure coincidence I got a reminder or reinforcement from Chris Bertram at Twisty Sticks. He cites as his reason for not sharing my antipathy to religion, the very thing I was going to talk about.

One of the reasons I can’t bring myself to share the antipathy to religion that is expressed by someone like our esteemed regular commenter Ophelia Benson, is that, at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern that secular morality finds it hard to match up to (motivationally, I mean). Secular morality is a thin gruel compared to the notion that, as children of God, we are to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

I know. I wish I didn’t, I wish it were otherwise, but I do, and it isn’t. At least not generally, not here and now. There have been times and places where secular or mostly-secular forms of morality in fact did motivate people to be good. Stoicism, Epicureanism and other Hellenistic schools did do that kind of work, and I think so did Confucianism. And then of course there is Marxism. Now there’s a secular motivator that’s not thin gruel! But the dire effects of some of that motivation spring to mind and one has to wonder if motivation and irrational conviction are entirely inseparable, and hence dangerous. Can one have the motivation without the tendency to seize the bit and run blindly off into the land of revenge, cruelty, ruthlessness and massacre? I really wonder. That ‘at its best’ that Chris has there is crucial – one couldn’t even have that sentence (not honestly) without it.

But all the same I do know. A thought about this that struck me fairly recently has to do with loyalty, and how that is probably a large motivation factor. A more familiar factor is the one about judgment and punishment or reward – that’s the factor that James Mill had some harsh things to say about, to mention only one critic. But that doesn’t have to be the only one. To the extent that people are able to feel love for whatever deity they believe in – love, as opposed to fear – then they want to do what they think will please the deity. If they think of the deity as kind and loving (which is a bit of a trick, given the world as it is, but never mind that for now), then they will want to be kind and loving. They will feel not just squalid, self-regarding, calculating reluctance to do mean, cruel, pain-causing things, but more generous, other-regarding reluctance. And that does happen. Which comes first, which causes which, is a nice question – whether people who would be like that anyway are the kind who have that view of the deity, or whether such people actually become better than they would be otherwise. But some sort of link seems at least possible.

So that’s one item, and I can think of others, having to do with community and so on. I’ll save them for later.



Groupthink

Mar 1st, 2004 12:08 am | By

Are we all awash in a sea of mutual agreement and back-patting and groupthink here? Is all this discussion of lame defenses of religion just another smelly little orthodoxy*? Do we agree with each other too much, with the result that we are smug and arrogant, as the beleaguered minority that doesn’t agree with us says? My colleague probably thinks so, even though he’s just as critical of religion as I am. He thinks blogs tend to foster groupthink; he’s just written a very good column on the subject for TPM. He also thinks a lot of other skeptical things about blogs, which is tiresome of him. No doubt he thinks I’m being very pompous, vain, boring, etc, as some commenters do.

Well, maybe so, maybe I am. But if what I’m saying, and if what other skeptical commenters are saying, about religion is nonsense and self-satisfied arrogant drivel – fine: convince us. Talk us out of it. Make a case. Give an argument. By all means. I just haven’t seen any that convince me yet.

What I have seen is some more material for the Rhetoric Guide. For instance: the easy equation of failing to agree with, failing to be convinced by, a dissenting opinion, with arrogance and smugness. But not all failure to assent to dissenting opinions is arrogance or smugness, is it. One can’t agree with any and every opinion that’s offered, can one, not without risking total incoherence and getting everything wrong most of the time. As so often, there is a conflation, an elision, a running together going on here, a non sequitur. You disagree with me therefore you are being arrogant and smug and obstinate and you’re not listening. But that ‘therefore’ is bogus. One can continue to hold an opinion despite proffered dissenting opinions, without necessarily being arrogant and smug. The one does not entail the other. Surely all sorts of alternative explanations are obvious: the evidence is not there, the arguments are not well-founded, the basic commitments of the two parties are different, and so on. And then, a further possibility is that we are indeed being arrogant and smug, engaging in an orgy of mutual congratulation, and still are right, or still have a better case, or still have better arguments. Or not. But the mere failure to be convinced by opponents, by itself, does not equal arrogance.

And one thing that’s a bit disingenuous about the charge is that there is no shortage of arrogance and smugness on the Hooray for religion side. At least that’s my view – in all its arrogance and smugness. That’s part of the point of this whole discussion – that many of the commonly-heard defenses of religion, defenses that come even from atheists like Gould, in fact have a good deal of arrogance and smugness to them, such as the idea that religion has a monopoly or even a special expertise in morality for example. That’s one reason I want to deconstruct them. (The main reason is just that I think they’re wrong.)

Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t think I’m doing any original philosophy or anything like that here. I ain’t qualified to do that. I’m just trying to take a look at some familiar public rhetoric on the subject of religion, and say what’s wrong with it. Anyone can do that. A cat may look at a king, and we citizens and consumers of mass media are allowed to offer our opinions on various subjects. That’s something I for one (differing with my esteemed colleague on this matter) think blogs can be good for.

But I don’t refuse to be convinced. Only I have to be convinced.

*One of our more vituperative critics accused me of setting up a smelly little orthodoxy a couple of weeks ago, which was odd, because in the context the phrase meant the exact opposite of what Orwell meant by it: the context was the argument over the hijab, and surely, surely, among the bien-pensants (that’s French for ‘smelly little orthodoxy’) in the Anglophone world the smelly little orthodoxy is emphatically against the hijab, not for it. It’s smelly and orthodox precisely for the extent to which one is forbidden to say anything at all in favour of the ban, and to which one is called rude names and made mock of for daring to do so. What could be more smellily orthodox than that I really don’t know.



Another Bad Defense

Feb 27th, 2004 11:27 pm | By

We’ll get back to the religious discussion (and anyway it’s continuing in a lively manner in the comments), but other things come up in the meantime. This item may seem like just a bit of self-advertising, but it isn’t really. I hadn’t even seen it until today, and didn’t know about it, so I feel I came by it honestly. That is to say, I would have linked to it anyway, even if it had not been by someone who writes a column for B&W; I would have linked to it if I’d never heard of Julian. I would have done a Note and Comment as well, because he mentions some ideas I’ve been scratching away at lately, and others that suggest new areas for further inquiry.

There is this for instance:

Several months ago I was contacted by another Sunday morning show to discuss some religious issue or other, and on that occasion the producer explicitly said that the reason for not using me was that I was “not extreme enough”. This is the kind of thinking that hampers serious, constructive debate over the challenges a multicultural society faces. The media almost invariably confuse balanced coverage with having two sides put equal and opposite cases.

That is a pretty bizarre thing for a producer to say, isn’t it. Arguably, of course, it’s not so much ‘thinking’ as sheer bottom-line calculation. Viewers prefer to watch people with polarized ideas shout at each other rather than people with overlapping ideas tease out their disagreements and discuss the reasons for them. That’s not entertaining, who wants to watch that! It’s useful, it’s helpful, it’s constructive, it teaches everyone something, but it’s not like watching a street fight, so the hell with it. But too right about hampering proper debate. That’s something that gets plaintively pointed out here quite often, too, but fat lot of good it does. James Fallows said it in his book Breaking the News, and Deborah Tannen said it in hers The Argument Culture. But to no one’s surprise the McLaughlin group and Bill O’Reilly didn’t suddenly mend their ways.

And we’ve been running into the same thing here lately, at least it seems so to me. It seems to me there was a strong either-or line on the hijab issue: either you’re completely unequivocally against it, or you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it. Mention of possible reasons to oppose the hijab was just treated as thought-crime and either ignored or greeted with foam-at-the-mouth personal vituperation. There just wasn’t any room to treat it as a complicated issue with a lot to be said on both sides. That’s odd – but maybe another point Julian makes can help explain it:

The lazy use of derogatory labels is one symptom of this malaise. One of the least helpful of these is “Islamophobia”. The introduction of this term into the lexicon of multiculturalism has, at a stroke, made it much more difficult to draw the kind of careful distinctions a serious discussion needs. It should be obvious that there is a world of difference between disliking a belief system and hating its adherents. “Islamophobia” blurs this distinction, by suggesting that opposition to Islam is just a prejudice, like homophobia or racism.

Exactly so. I’ve squandered a lot of breath (and typing energy) lately arguing that it’s a really terrible idea to conflate religion with race, and that includes conflating any particular religion with race. They are very, very different things, both because one is voluntary and escapable and the other is not, and because one is a system of ideas and the other is not. Make religion the equivalent of race and in an instant you’ve made it much more difficult to disagree with anything a given religion does. Which of course is exactly why the defenders of religion and religions do it. But why the defenders of multiculuralism do it is another matter, and one that needs some looking into.

By eliding “race and culture” and presenting them as though they were two sides of the same coin, Phillips tarred Goodhart with the Powellite brush. But this is nonsense. Race and culture are not inseparable. Culture concerns beliefs and practices and we are responsible for what we believe and do. We have no such responsibility for the colour of our skin or ethnicity.

Exactly. Just what I say! Therefore must be right. So there’s another confusion we all need to oppose, along with the one about religion and ‘separate spheres.’ Religion is not entitled to defense on the basis of being the same sort of thing as poetry or love, and it’s also not entitled to defense on the basis of being the same sort of thing as race. It’s going to have to do better than that.



Not Only Where but Also What

Feb 26th, 2004 7:08 pm | By

Funny, it didn’t even seem like that much of a storm. I went out for a walk in it, thinking it was just a common or garden variety storm. I didn’t turn back after five minutes because I was drenched, so it can’t have been raining all that hard! It was certainly raining sideways, thanks to the wind, but I have been in many harder rains. I was wet when I got back but not soaked. And yet there were floods. And then awhile later there was more wind, and then there was a sudden unpleasant absence of electricity, which lasted more than seven hours. Nature can be so obstructive.

I was going to say something about meaning (and what we mean by it), but I want to say a little more about borders first, and also about what we mean by ‘science’. Those two things are essentially the same subject, but approached from different angles. What we mean by ‘science’ makes an enormous difference to what we mean by those formulas about the separate spheres – to where we draw those contentious borders between them. Or rather not all that contentious – not contentious enough. That’s my point. For some reason the platitude about ‘Science over here’ and ‘many other valuable things over here on the other side’ gets endlessly repeated and not questioned enough. If it can get repeated and not questioned even by such a thoroughgoing rationalist and scientist as Gould, we know something must be odd.

One thing worth mentioning is that it’s not only a matter of the location of the borders, but also one of what the borders are actually like. Are they sharp and clear like a fence or a wall? Or are they more vague and blurry, like, Oh, that range of hills; like, From about here to about over there somewhere. Or are they in fact not a border or division at all but a continuum. Maybe it is simply not the case that science is entirely different from poetry, emotion, love, justice and the other items that usually go in the other sphere. Maybe science is simply continuous with rational inquiry, only (as Susan Haack puts it) more so. If that’s the case (and I think it is) then is science really entirely irrelevant to, say, love, or poetry? Is it out of the question to think about either of those things in a rational way? One can think about things in a rational way without thereby excluding also thinking about them in a non-rational way, after all. And surely we all do. Martha Nussbaum has an excellent illustration of this, I’ve just remembered while typing, in Sex and Social Justice [sorry I can’t give the page reference at the moment, because I’m Away and don’t have it with me]. She’s discussing Nell Noddings’ ideas about women’s ‘different’ approach to knowledge via ‘caring,’ and she offers as example her feeling of unreflective love for her daughter on seeing her asleep on the couch after a basketball game. Very nice, says Nussbaum, but is it really true? Aren’t there all sorts of rational ideas underlying that unreflective feeling? How does she even know that is her daughter for example? And how does she know the sleep is a healthy athletic one and not a drug-induced stupor? And many more elaborations of the idea, which are both convincing and amusing.

So that’s the kind of thing I mean. The banal version means something like: science is in another sphere from love because you can’t stick love in a test tube or on a scale. True enough, but it doesn’t follow that you can’t learn anything at all about it by taking thought and even to some extent by considering evidence. And surely that applies to most of the items in the usual version of the Other Sphere. They may not belong in a test tube, but it doesn’t follow that there is nothing of interest or value to be said and thought about them via analysis and inquiry and investigation. The whole scheme is in fact a canard, and should be done away with.



East of the Border

Feb 24th, 2004 4:49 pm | By

José mentioned the resort to fuzzy and misleading analogies that sophisticated theists resort to. I’ve been thinking, and scribbling notes, about that for a day or two. It’s true. There are fuzzy misleading analogies that crop up over and over again. I’m short on time at the moment, so will just say a couple of things, and go on at more length tomorrow.

There is for instance another version of the ‘separate sphere’ argument. That ‘science’ (never explicitly defined, and always cited in such a way that it’s implicitly defined far too narrowly) is in one sphere and poetry, art, morality, meaning and similar (often including things like love) are in another, along with of course religion. But if one thinks about it, that’s an odd way to draw the map. I could just as easily draw a quite different map, or several different maps, with the borders in quite different places. With science and all other kinds of empirical inquiry in one sphere and perhaps art, poetry, meaning and religion in another. Or with empirical inquiry and secular activities such as art and poetry along with emotion in one, and religion and ‘meaning’ in another. Or with all the terms except religion on one side and religion all by itself on the other. It all depends on which criteria you use to decide who goes on which side, doesn’t it.

And that gets into the misleading analogy aspect. Poetry and literature are great favourites for this – but that is indeed a bad analogy. There is a reason fiction is called ‘fiction’ for instance. Because it’s fiction. Surely an enormously important difference between literature and religion is that literature does not claim to be true in the way that religion does. Nobody talks about having ‘faith’ in Anna Kareninina or Macbeth. Nobody reproaches presidential candidates for not mentioning Elizabeth Bennett or Don Quixote often enough. Nobody ends a campaign speech with ‘Hamlet bless you.’ It’s a very tendentious matter where that border should be drawn, as it so often is with borders. It’s a victory for the theist side if as many items as possible are included on their side – in short everything except laboratory science. But one could argue that none of the items really belong there – except possibly ‘meaning.’ I have some thoughts on that, but they’ll have to wait.



Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

Feb 23rd, 2004 11:01 pm | By

I think part of why this either-or argument is so interesting is because the ‘separate spheres’ retort is so popular. If I’ve heard people say that once I’ve heard them say it – quite a few times. It’s always irritated me profoundly. That’s one reason I was so intensely annoyed to see Stephen Jay Gould, of all people, come out with it a few years ago. (Another reason was that he said so many absurd things in the process.) It’s always irritated me because it’s so convenient. So perfectly tailored to allow people to believe anything and everything they want to, just by locating whatever it is in the ‘separate sphere.’ Of course, people are ‘allowed’ to believe what they want to in any case, but with a convenient sphere to stash things in, they can do it without losing face intellectually, or at least they think they can, and some people let them get away with it.

But let’s stop letting them do that, shall we? Let’s hold their feet to the fire. Let’s just ask them, if it’s in some separate sphere that’s immune from any kind of inquiry (and don’t let them claim there’s another, special kind of inquiry for the Separate Sphere, because there isn’t), then how do they know anything about it? And if they don’t know anything about it, why are we supposed to believe them when they tell us where it is? If they do know anything about it – how do they know? Perhaps they’ll tell you it’s via an inner experience. Well, that experience is part of nature, obviously. So let’s inquire into it. They won’t want to let you, of course, they’ll claim it’s impossible, or that they’ve had a Revelation. But just stay calm, nibble a few pistachios for strength, and ask where the Revelation came from.

After all they have gotten away with it for a long time. It is very convenient, isn’t it. There just happens to be this Place that’s not really a place, that’s not part of nature, that’s not subject to scientific inquiry (meaning any kind of human inquiry), that’s not anything we know anything about – but even though we don’t know anything about it, by definition, because it’s in this Other Realm outside of nature – despite that, religious people know all about it and about the deity who lives there. Oh well that’s convincing. Hmph. If that’s where it is then they don’t know anything about it and can’t say anything about it, and can’t whistle about it either.



Either It Is, or It Is Not

Feb 23rd, 2004 6:33 pm | By

Right, where was I, before things got so busy. Several places, one of which was a series of disagreements over theism and atheism. One of our readers, Ben Keen, emailed me a thought on the subject last week that suggested some further thoughts, or they may be just repeated restatements of the same thought, I’m not sure. My brain got a bit curdled over the last few days, and I’m not sure it’s back to normal yet. Whatever ‘normal’ may be in my case.

Ben’s comment, which he’s given me permission to quote, was this:

the topic of
religious claims being exempt from the same sort of scrutiny as other
sorts of truth-claims. Something people often say is that science
makes claims about the natural world and religion about things outside
the natural world. Well, it occured to me that if it’s claimed that
God can possibly have any effect at all on the natural world or if
religious precepts somehow are meant to engage in any way whatever in
how we think or act in the natural world, then indeed they must be part
of the natural world. There’s no way that something can have any
meaningful effect on us without somehow being part of the world we live
in – so the claim of privilege by separation is bogus.

I don’t think I’d thought of it in quite that way before. I’d thought of it in a slightly different way, which was to wonder in a sullen fashion why, if this God people are always saying is in another realm, is in another realm, they think they know so much about it and can talk about it with confidence? Huh? But that doesn’t make the point sharply enough, whereas Ben’s version does. Surely there are only two possibilities. Either the deity is part of nature, in which case it is accessible to human research and inquiry, or it is not, in which case it isn’t. Period. You can’t have a deity that is in some convenient ‘other realm’ inaccessible to atheists and scientists but accessible to ‘spiritual’ people. Or one who is in some other, non-natural realm, but nevertheless is in some way active or relevant in this, natural one. That’s just a flat contradiction, it makes no sense. So that particular argument just falls splat and becomes useless.



Another Installment

Feb 21st, 2004 7:16 pm | By

I suppose you’re thinking I’ve fallen silent. That, exhausted by all the to-and-fro, the heat and light, the blood sweat and tears of late, I’ve shrugged and yawned and decided to take up ping pong in a serious way.

No I don’t, not really, I don’t suppose you’re thinking about it one way or another, on account of how you have better things to think about. I just like to say things like that. I only do it to annoy, because I know it teases. At any rate, no, I haven’t fallen silent. On the contrary, I had a whole stack of things to talk about on Thursday, along with the ones I didn’t get to last week – and then something intervened. My colleague and I had a sudden unexpected and very large assignment, so we had to drop everything else and work on that. So now my heap of back N&Cs is longer than ever. I’ll never catch up. The rest of my life, I’ll have this nagging gnat-like little thing somewhere in my mind, buzzing away in a tiny voice about those old Comments I never commented. No I won’t. I just like to say things like that.

Anyway the heat and light was all very useful really, whatever you may think. I got a lot of new material for the Rhetoric Guide, which I haven’t updated in – I don’t even know how long. At least a year probably. All very ‘if you’ve got a lemon make lemonade,’ isn’t it. But true all the same.

And so back to the discussion. There is a pretty good article at the LRB on the hijab issue. One bit of it gave me a terrible turn for reasons somewhat separate from the hijab issue:

Another factor is surely how difficult it’s got, since 11 September, to tell a man of God from a politician. ‘God bless you’ and ‘Allahu akbar’ are not part of political discourse in France as they are in the United States and the dar el-Islam. France can feel squeezed between the two (and niggled in a third way, so to speak, by the cross-Channel wash of Blair’s piety). People feel that their cherished secular state is now something of a redoubt, and are losing their taste for an open-ended attitude to the veil.

Oh, damn. Tell me about it. I don’t watch or listen to things like campaign speeches precisely for this kind of reason (among others, all to do with general pointlessness), but I heard the end of a Kerry speech on the news and sure enough – ‘…blah blah blah and God bless you.’ I jumped as if I’d been cattle-prodded. ‘Will you stop that!’ I felt like snarling. There was a time when presidential candidates did not say that. It’s within living memory, even. I think it was Reagan who started it – I think born-again Carter didn’t do that. Was polite enough to keep it to himself. But everybody since, boy – god-blessing all over the place. Well, so – there we are, paired with the dar el-Islam. Oh good. That’s just exactly what I want the country I live in to be like. Not pesky old secular France but the god-ridden dar el-Islam. Who can blame France for feeling squeezed? (Well that’s a silly question, a lot of people can. But I don’t, anyway.) But back to the main point:

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student’s refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine. This is a management issue then, as much as a matter of principle, and a very urgent one, because of the frightening rise of anti-semitic harassment in French schools.

The management issue is surely one aspect. It’s not as if school dress-codes are unheard of. If a religion required students to attend school naked from the waist down, would teachers cheerfully acquiesce? Add that onto the coercion of women aspect, and at the very least it seems reasonable to say that one ought to be able to see some merit in the ban without being accused of thought-crime.

The old law of 1905 separating church and state has been much discussed in the course of the veil controversy, particularly by women who support the new one, and it is to women – of Muslim and non-Muslim origin – that the most eloquent defence of the ban so often falls. Painless birth was ferociously condemned by Pius XII in the 1950s, the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter reminded a television audience in January, to illustrate her point that every attempt by women to ‘take charge of their bodies’ has been made in the face of religious opinion, and that the issue of the veil is no different.

I didn’t know that about painless childbirth and Pius 12. That’s fascinating. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, eh? That’s another thing I like to say, and by no means only to annoy.



A Fun Project

Feb 18th, 2004 9:05 pm | By

I linked a few days ago to an excellent article by Chris Mooney about a long article promoting ‘Intelligent Design’ in the Harvard Law Review. It’s worrisome stuff.

Still, you can understand why a rave review in the Harvard Law Review would get the ID crowd excited. Such a publication represents intellectual legitimization of a sort that traditional creationists never achieved. “The whole game plan here is to credential the movement,” observes Florida State University law professor Steven Gey, a specialist in legal issues surrounding the teaching of evolution. Gey calls the Harvard Law Review piece “very weak” in its assessment of the legal case for teaching ID in public schools. But he adds, “I suspect this Harvard note is going to cause problems. I suspect they’re going to make reprints and scatter it here and yon, as if this were really some valid legal approach.”

Great. More ammunition for the ‘let’s take buzzwords like “evolution” out of the curriculum’ crowd. And the Harvard Law Review article even misdescribes what Intelligent Design is.

Even more astonishingly, the Harvard Law Review piece paints the ID movement as entirely divorced from religion, citing its “exclusive focus on empirical evidence and philosophical argument.” This statement is extremely misleading. As Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross document in their new book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: 2004), there’s virtually nothing to Intelligent Design but religion.

An enterprising B&W reader emailed me yesterday to tell me (with permission to quote him) that he’d done some searching and found an email address for a member of the editorial board of the Review, and then wrote to said board member to alert him to the situation and urge him to read Mooney’s article. He suggested I should include the link to the list of Review board members. An excellent idea, so there it is. If you have an idle moment, why not warn someone from the Harvard Law Review.



Sleeping In An Age Of Waiting

Feb 17th, 2004 11:28 pm | By

Okay, so it’s obvious that the Deluded Socialists are a bit odd. I mean look at their names for starters (P. Traven, D.S. Burton, P. S. Burton, Ben Illin, et al). What’s with the Burton twins? I can’t believe they’re married – after all that’s hardly revolutionary – but I’d lay odds that they’ve both adopted “Socialist” as a middle name. Shame they’re named after a gentleman’s clothing outlet, though.

But what is striking is just that they are extraordinarily boring. Now, it’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that there isn’t going to be a socialist revolution any time soon (well, at all, really). And sure, Marxist theory is pretty much a joke – and hell, I’ve read an awful lot of the stuff (that’s the problem with a doctorate in political sociology). But really one does hold out the hope that if you’re going to have a revolution – albeit that you’re not – it will be just a little bit exciting. Unfortunately, if this particular vanguard are anything to go by, it’s a false hope. It’ll be the only revolution in history where the masses are fast asleep before the first shot is fired.

By the way, Portentous Socialists, if you’ve got a minute in between the busy waiting, you may want to remove the Butterflies and Wheels link from your main site as well. Why limit your irrationality to your blog? Oh you don’t…



The Hazlitt Comparison

Feb 17th, 2004 10:56 pm | By

You may remember that I talked about Hazlitt’s Letter to Gifford recently. I forget what made me think of it then – I think it was something I was discussing with Scott McLemee, but I misremember what. Something has put it in my head again. Memory is an odd thing. Anyway, this is what I said last time. Somehow I just feel like saying it again.

The letter to Gifford starts off briskly:

Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it.

There are so many people around who have that ugly trick, these days. How one wishes for a few Hazlitts to cure them of it.

Yes and at the same time, how few people there are around who can write like Hazlitt. Well there’s nothing surprising in that. Few people – in fact no people – could write like him at the time, either. That’s rather the point. He’s a one-off. He was, as I said last time, a brilliant, dazzling writer – so he could get away with things that just make other people look unpleasant and out of control. It is a nice point. One sees the same thing in Christopher Hitchens (who often reminds me of Hazlitt). He can say outrageous, cutting things, because he’s witty and brilliant and knows what he’s talking about. When other people, who are less witty and brilliant and don’t know what they’re talking about (and such people are legion), attempt the same kind of thing, they just look rude and self-infatuated. But they will keep trying.

There’s another thing about Hazlitt, too.

He didn’t write anonymously. When he wanted to insult people, he did it under his own name. I have an idea he would have scorned the notion of attacking people anonymously – would indeed have considered it a trick suitable for the likes of the Quarterly Review and Gifford himself. Anonymous insulting is easy enough, but it’s a mug’s game.



Some Items

Feb 17th, 2004 7:33 pm | By

Right. As promised, some further evidence. I’m just going to shove some things in here in a not particularly organized way, for now. I’ll do a more organized version later, for In Focus. This will be part of the rough draft.

There is this from the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society for example:

I am talking here as a veteran women’s right activist, as a political activist that has defended freedom and equality, and has fought against a religious dictatorship i.e. the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am talking here as the first hand victim of religious suppression and tyranny. I am talking here as the first hand victim of political Islam…How many cases of honour killings are enough to say ‘stop’ to religion? How many beatings and actual house arrests of girls will be needed for us to say stop? How long and to what extent must girls be deprived of equal opportunities, of equal access to a joyful and happy life for us to put a halt in religion’s meddling with children’s lives, and women’s rights? We are duty bound to defend women and children from religion’s rule, from religion’s influence and from a mafia-like hierarchy – the mullahs, or the so-called religious leaders of the community, that profit from this situation.

That’s Azar Majedi’s view of the French ban on the hijab. And then there is this from No to Political Islam on human rights and Islam, and the difference between the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights of 1981:

Many Islamists claim that the UDHR is an attempt to force western standards and ideals on to others who do not share them. But abuse of human rights cannot be excused by cultural relativism. If we believe that everyone has the right to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness then we must oppose any system that seeks to deny those rights to others. To accept religion, culture or tradition as a justification for human rights abuses is to discriminate against the abused and to send the message that the victims are undeserving of humane consideration.

And there is this from Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim page 176-177:

It is clear that Islamic militants are quite aware of the incompatibility of Islam and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, for these militants met in Paris in 1981 to draw up an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights that left out all freedoms that contradicted Islamic law. Even more worrisome is the fact that under presure from Muslim countries in November 1981, the United Nations Declaration on the elimination of religious discrimination was revised, and references to the right “to adopt” (Article 18) and therefore, to “change” one’s religion were deleted, and only the right to “have” a religion was retained.

Only the right to have a religion – not the right to refuse to have one. Here is item e. from Article 12 of the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, with bracketed annotation by No to Political Islam:

No one shall hold in contempt or ridicule the religious beliefs of others or incite public hostility against them. [To criticise verbally or in writing any aspect of the Law shall be deemed to be inciting public hostility to the religious beliefs of others.] Respect for the religious feelings of others is obligatory on all Muslims.

So non-theism is not an option. So is this ‘free’ choice that we’re always being told Muslim girls make to wear the hijab – really a free choice? When the religion itself is not optional? I can’t help having my doubts.



Error

Feb 17th, 2004 3:38 pm | By

The waiters are at it again – they seem to be obsessed. I want to say just a couple of things, as briefly as possible, by way of setting the record straight. There are other people out there criticising B&W and also me, that I’m ignoring. But the waiters fight dirty, and I want to make that clear. 1. They accuse me of prevarication – of, in fact, lying, though they avoid that actual word, perhaps because it’s actionable. But prevarication and concealment is the charge.

Among these other commenters is Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels. Two days ago she came clean at last on her own blog…Pot and kettle indeed – assuming, as we must, that Ophelia herself has given up pretending to be one of those “who think there are good reasons and arguments on both sides”, and is still, as she always in fact was, one of those who favour the ban. It would have saved us, at least, some time if she had said as much months ago.

I did not come clean, because I was not hiding anything. I did not give up pretending, because I was not pretending. The waiters don’t know and have no possible way of knowing what I always was. Ad hominem attacks are always deplorable, and accusations of lying are beyond the pale. 2. The waiters are anonymous. In their latest attack I count ten mentions of my name. I am not anonymous; they are. So there they are, making sustained ad hominem attacks and accusations of concealment and prevarication, by name, while they themselves are nameless. I should think they would be embarrassed at themselves.



Denial

Feb 17th, 2004 2:21 am | By

Right. Let’s see if I can discuss the hijab debate without dragging in my King Charles’ head, the anonymously abusive waiting socialists. Oh look, no I can’t, there it is now. Yes I can – I did that on purpose.

It has been decreed by omniscient (albeit nameless) people who can see into the minds of other (not nameless) people that I have been pretending all this time to be somewhat divided, to have qualms, to see the point of arguments on both sides. It’s not in fact true that I’ve been pretending, but I’ve stopped havering now. Some of the arguments I’ve read over the past few days have pushed me off that fence. There is what seems to me an extraordinary amount of denial involved in all this, and also an extraordinary amount of sentimentality that makes the denial possible.

The sentimentality is about religion, and freedom of religion, and ‘self-expression’, and culture, and the hijab, and Islam. The denial is about the hijab, and Islam, and Islamism, and coercion, and what the hijab stands for, and its history. It seems to me (if only because what people are saying makes no sense on any other terms, at least I can’t make sense of it) that people think the hijab is kind of a colourful bit of exoticism, a whiff of the Other, a badge of rebellion, a sign of authenticity, a piece of (of all things in the world!) self-expression. Self-expression! It’s self-immolation, self-immurement, self-extinguishment.

It’s also a very obvious, conspicuous, non-ignorable sign of inferiority, degradation, and subordination. People who object to the ban constantly refer to it as a sign of ‘religious belief,’ thus bestowing on it that air of taboo and hands-off that invocations of religion and ‘religious belief’ always do bestow. But religious belief is simply not the only thing it stands for, to put it mildly, and it seems to me very disingenuous to talk as if it were.

What else does it stand for? It stands for the Taliban whipping women with antennas broken off cars for showing a bit of hair, that’s what. It stands for religious police in Iran beating up women (or worse) for not dressing ‘correctly’. It stands for men blaming women for exciting them, for being able to get pregnant, for having genitals and breasts and bodies and hair and arms and necks. It stands for men fearing and hating women and doing everything they possibly can to keep them ground into the dirt. It’s not benign, it’s not harmless, it’s not just some quaint cultural artifact. But you’d never know it.

Here is one staggering remark, from A Fistful of Euros:

No, the French government and a large part of the French population doesn’t really understand freedom of religion and they don’t understand it in exactly the same manner that most Americans don’t understand diversity, multi-culturalism or freedom of expression. Islam is entirely secure in France, so long as it has no measurable significance and makes no meaningful demands on believers.

Meaningful demands. Do you mark that. The French people who support the ban are being rebuked for disapproving of the ‘meaningful demands’ that Islam makes on ‘believers.’ Not all believers, mind you. No – slightly over half of them, as a matter of fact. The other half is fully exempt from those ‘meaningful demands’ and in a position to enforce the demands on the other half. The demands are made of women and girls, and not of men and boys. Males can walk around in public freely with their heads and necks poking out into the air as if they were not filthy or contaminating or polluted or dangerous – as if they were just ordinary heads and necks like anyone else’s. It’s women who are obliged to wrap theirs up, who are not allowed to walk around freely in public without having a piece of cloth swaddling their necks, hair and shoulders, on pain of being called whores or raped or beaten. That’s the meaningful demand we’re supposed to feel embarrassed or guilty for opposing.

And then there’s the bottomless well of sympathy for the girls who want to (or have been trained or bullied to want to) wear the hijab, and the staggering absence of sympathy for the girls who don’t and who don’t want to have to see the degrading thing next to them in class all day. Here, for instance, from the discussion at Twisty Sticks

You’re right, though, that Muslim women could have a very positive influence on Islam. But banning what some of them think an important part of their religion is not, I’d suggest, a very constructive way of encouraging them.

Okay, but what about not banning them? What about what allowing them in the classroom does to the women who want nothing to do with it? Why so much concern for what the wearers want and none for the others? Do the anti-banners really think about what it is they’re supporting? The right of people to insist on the inferiority of women in a highly visible manner in public schools, all day every day. Now there’s a cause to fight for!

But someone else at Twisty Sticks made the point I’ve been meaning to make for days:

I have a very inelegant hypothetical here. What if groups of immigrants from India, who were of the (formerly or not so formerly) “untouchable” class, settled in a number of cities in the U.S. These untouchables believed that it was important to their Hindu history to wear a black headband so that all the Americans would know right away that they were second (or is 7th) class citizens. The untouchable children, male and female, all in black headbands, were trained by their parents that they should walk behind their betters, keep their heads down, not dream for better….You get the picture. Is this freedom of expression or freedom of oppression?

Exactly.



Idiot Savant? Moi?

Feb 15th, 2004 6:26 pm | By

It can be quite interesting, in an unnerving sort of way, seeing people blogging about Oneself. I’ve been seeing quite a lot of that lately, partly because of the religion and hijab discussions, both of which get people agitated. I’m certainly not going to comment on all of them – I’m not that much of an egomaniac (oh yes you are, oh no I’m not, are, amn’t) – but once in awhile one will suggest an interesting thought or line of inquiry. There is this one for example.

“Some people come into the world as idiot savants, having no choice but to concentrate all their energies on the study of their one small corner of the universe. The results can be interesting, beautiful or even profound, but that’s not a defense of small mindedness, is it?” I cut that paragraph out of last night’s post and moved it up to the front. I think I should have a little more fun with it, since it applies not only to the limitations of Ophelia Benson’s ideology (and the limits of her intellectual curiosity) but also in a more general way to a whole array of recent events and debates…The argument behind liberal economics is that it is predicated on a form of neutrality, predicated itself on an assumption, that of the drive for maximalization. Ophelia Benson assumes that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Brad Delong assumes, for the purposes of his economic theorizing, that all people want the same thing.

I take it (and I could be wrong) that this guy is criticizing instrumental rationality, and that he takes me to be an instrumental rationalist. I find that interesting not only because it’s about Me (oh come on that’s why, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not, is, isn’t) but because it’s probably relevant to why rationality and reason have a bad name at the moment. It’s the Voltaire’s Bastards idea, that conflates rationality of all kinds with instrumental rationality. So questions such as ‘Why should we believe X if there is no evidence for X?’ (a question I have been asking a lot lately) are viewed as peculiarly narrow and limited, and the same kind of thing (or perhaps even exactly the same thing) as instrumental rationality. So if one raises such questions, and then declines to be fobbed off with replies to the effect that science can’t answer all questions and there is more in heaven and earth than etc. therefore we should believe what our inner experience tells us however incommunicable it may be – then one is a small-minded idiot savant with limited intellectual curiosity.

Of course I don’t in the least assume that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Quite the contrary in fact, and that’s part of what I’ve been saying. Religionists want consolation, or meaning, or reassurance, or a feeling of security, or all those. Rationalists want their ideas about the world to match the reality of the world as closely as may be. I see those two things as being strongly opposed; in short, not the same thing.

Maybe an item a little farther down the page helps to explain the confusion.

“[I]t is never a good idea to allow one’s political, ideological and moral commitments to infect the judgments that one makes about truth-claims which have nothing to do with such considerations.” I have little interest in arguments except those that involve one’s political, ideological and moral commitments, and not only for political, ideological and moral reasons.

That’s a quotation from our About, as you’ll probably recognize. Apparently our blogger has found me irritating enough (on the God thread at Twisty Sticks, I think it is) to explore B&W a little. But he hasn’t understood the passage very well. I should be sympathetic, really, because it took me awhile too. I got confused in much the same way. It’s my colleague’s work, About is, and when he first wrote it, when B&W was under construction, when in fact there was no B&W except a banner at the top of an empty page – when he first wrote it, we discussed it, and I wasted a good deal of time arguing about that very line, for the same sort of reason. I didn’t want to disavow all political, ideological and moral commitments. Nor did I have to, he kept patiently explaining, until after a few hours I finally grasped it. The point is about the truth claims. Judgments about truth claims are different from judgments about politics and morality, and things do go wrong when we get them muddled. We can all, I imagine, think of examples in about a quarter of a second – especially if we’ve been reading B&W, which spends all its time pointing them out. We want it to be true that there are, or are not, WMD in Iraq, so we have to be very very careful, when considering the evidence, not to let that want influence the way we look at that evidence. Substitute anything you like for the phrase ‘WMD in Iraq’ and the thought is the same.

So we’re not in the least saying that moral or political arguments are less interesting than other kinds. We’re saying that it’s not a good idea to let our commitments infect our judgments of truth-claims. If that’s a small-minded, idiot savant, limited, intellectually incurious view – so be it. But guess what – I don’t think it is. I think improving one’s chances of getting at the truth of the matter is actually enlarging rather than narrowing. But then I would, wouldn’t I.



On and Off the Fence

Feb 13th, 2004 8:52 pm | By

Excellent. There were several people reminding us that many French Muslim and Muslim-background women do in fact support the ban on the hijab at Twisty Sticks yesterday, as I mentioned. And today there are several more. Very good indeed. The prevailing assumption that there is Only One Right Way to think about this issue has been shown up, frankly. I have a lot to say about this, but only time to say a little of it now.

A tangential matter: the Waiting Socialists point out that they weren’t ‘scolding’ me, as I said. No, true, they weren’t. I did think of that as I typed the word – then typed on. Too lazy (or in a rush) to think of a better word. But I should have, really, because that’s just the kind of thing I hate (well one of the kinds of things, I hate lots of kinds of things): conflating questioning and disagreement with attack or rebuke. In fact that was really stupid of me. If they had a comments place I would say so there, but they don’t – however they clearly read me just as I read them, so it comes to the same thing. This is tediously self-referential, I know, but it’s also not – because mistakes like equating interrogation with scolding are among the many many ways we go wrong in our thinking. I suppose I think there’s just no such thing as too much attention to the ways we do that.

Allow me however to take issue with or perhaps expand on one thing they say:

We note that, once again, none of our questions, or those of others who don’t entirely agree with her, has been answered – except one: Ophelia now writes as if she has got off the fence that she depicted herself as sitting on in her previous posts on this issue. That, at least, we are glad about. It never was a very convincing posture.

Well…maybe. But I’m not sure if I’ve really been sitting on the fence, or if it’s just that I keep going back and forth. Or is that exactly the same thing? (Not so much sitting on the fence as swinging on the gate, perhaps.) At any rate, I do go back and forth. I do see drawbacks either way, as well as advantages. But about the convincing part – true enough. My real preference is for the ban – but I also do see why other people object. The objections have merit. But I do think the anti-ban side has a remarkable tendency simply to ignore or discount the arguments of the other side. I think there are real tensions in this issue.

And one final random item (time presses today), Norm Geras’ highly amusing birthday poem to Kant at normblog. I’ll give you just a flavour, including the sly quotation from B&W:

For we are little crooked folk
Yes, even learned bookèd folk
Are crooked little timber folk

Though clever supple limber folk

And Kant it was who said ‘Hey crooked!’

He could have said ‘Your claws are hookèd’

Yet he did not, he spared us that

He didn’t see us like a cat

He saw us more like twisty sticks

Like rough bent planks, no easy fix



Darwin Day, Religion, the Hijab

Feb 12th, 2004 8:03 pm | By

Happy Darwin Day. It’s appropriate, in a way, to have all these arguments about religion all over the place. It’s as if I’d planned it, but I didn’t. Nope – it was the result of a mutation, I think.

The one at Squiggly Wood I mean Crooked Timber goes on. And there’s another at Matthew Yglesias’ blog. Mostly, I must say, the arguments seem surprisingly feeble as well as repetitive. Why is that surprising – surely part of my point is how obviously shaky it all is. Yes but they’ve had all this time to come up with good arguments! Hundreds of years. But so much of it is just along the lines of ‘How dare you?’ or ‘Who are you to disagree with so many people?’ or ‘The Pope is the leader of millions of people and atheists are a tiny minority’ or ‘Science can’t answer questions about X’ or ‘Science is just another belief, exactly like religion, no difference at all, they’re exact equivalents’ or ‘Atheism is a belief in just the way theism is’ or ‘Religion is consoling so how dare you point out that it’s not true.’ None of this is very convincing or persuasive, is it. I want to say more about this – but later.

Meanwhile, there is more discussion of the hijab issue – not surprisingly, since the French MPs decided just a couple of days ago. There is one discussion at the ever-popular Twisty Sticks I mean Crooked Timber, and another at Fistful of Euros, and no doubt at many other places too, but I haven’t seen them – too busy making my own noise. (Soon everyone on the planet will be blogging and no one will be reading – a state of perfect equilibrium, or entropy, or reductio ad absurdum.) But the arguments on the ones I have seen seem to me irritatingly one-sided, or one-eyed. Everyone exclaiming about freedom and tolerance, and making all too little account of the many French-Muslim women who support the ban. Many don’t, but many do – why are the ones who do just discounted? I wonder.

And tolerance is such a shifty word. So shifty that I don’t use it any more, haven’t for years – since long before B&W. (Or maybe I never did use it, maybe it’s a few years ago that I became aware of that, and of the reasons.) Sure, tolerance is a good thing up to a point – but only up to a point. There are so many things I haven’t the smallest desire to be tolerant of. So the easy, feel-good use of the word is evasive, it seems to me. Tolerant of what, exactly? Of parents who impose fundamentalist Islamic views of women on their children? Are we so very sure that’s a good thing to be tolerant of? If so, I would recommend a read of Susan Moller Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Good for Women?

It’s also interesting that the fans of tolerance seem to be so unable even to hear the arguments of the other side. That of Rana on Crooked Timber, for example:

If you think wearing hijab is “way cool” you haven’t worn it. I did until the age of 18. There is no question in my mind that it is a symbol of “militant Islam” and a blatant manifestation of women’s second-class status. The Islamists are using us in their jihad against liberal, secular society (not to mention any moderate interpretation of Islam). Last summer I visited Cairo (my father’s hometown) and visited an exhibition of urban photos from various decades of the 20th century. What particularly struck me was the near total absence of headscarves into the Sixties. Not only among the bourgeoisie but in the working class areas of the city as well. Today it is ubiquitous, even on university campuses and in fashionable cafés. I asked an Egyptian friend of mine why this is so and she looked at me as if I were crazy. “In my neighbourhood any woman who doesn’t wear hijab is considered a prostitute.” Make no mistake, hijab represents the triumph of Islamism.

Or those of Phersu at Fistful of Euros:

I respect the Anglo-Saxon concept of multiculturalism and their lack of Secularization but it is not the French Republican principle of laïcité. I had this debate many times with Charles Taylor and other Communitarians who think our conception of modernity is obsolete because of globalization and I know I will not convince you. In the UK, there is still a State Religion (even if Charles wants to change that). In the US, every child has to swear allegiance to a Nation “Under God”. There is no “laïcité”, only Toleration of many Churches. In France, religion is supposed to be purely in the private sphere and the State protects the freedom of conscience against all religions. That is why no civil servant or minor students can show religious signs.

Multiculturalism and tolerance can often seem to work in only one direction, or in one direction further subdivided. Toward ‘Third World People’ but only if they take the approved view. For some reason, the approved view in this context is that there is absolutely nothing in favour of the French ban on conspicuous religious apparel, so any ‘Third World People’ who take another view are just kind of lightly jumped over as if they weren’t there. It’s interesting…

The Waiting Socialists are still scolding me about this, too:

Now that this pernicious attack on individual freedom and social tolerance, mainly for the benefit of Jacques Chirac, has come so very close to being enforced, we hope that other genuine secularists will think again about their support for it, or their failure to oppose it – which, regardless of the detailed reasons for their hesitation, amounts to much the same thing in practice.

But I’m afraid I still don’t agree with them. And the more comments I see from such as Rana and Phersu, the less I agree. So blogging can serve a purpose, after all.



Two Frameworthy Statements

Feb 11th, 2004 9:02 pm | By

Here’s the one I wanted to comment on no matter what. In a discussion of that perennially popular subject, why are there so few conservative academics. I simply wanted to point out (actually I want to frame in gold leaf, and embroider, and carve in stone, and issue in a limited edition with illuminated initials and gold binding) this comment, which pretty much sums up a lot of what B&W is about and what prompted it in the first place:

The labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ take on new and peculiar meanings in Academia. For instance, I believe in affirmative action, increasing taxes on the rich, socialized medicine, I am pro-legalized abortion, hold Christianity to be institutionalized ignorance, and donate to the ACLU. In all you could say I am pretty left wing. Except when I was a grad-student in Classics. Then I was called at various times a Nazi, a Fascist, compared to the French Aristocracy prior to the revolution, and labelled ‘arch-conservative’ more than once. Why? I rejected relativism, ridiculed deconstructionism, was in favor of the traditional Canon as core reading in the Humanities, had the audacity to point out the many egregious historical errors that certain Black Studies and Women’s Studies professors made (the former blatantly making stuff up about Egypt, the latter Crete). I also ‘proved’ I was a right-winger by explaining the etymology of the word ‘history’, after someone used the term ‘herstory.’ Intellectual conservatism and political conservatism are quite different things.

There it is. The day the left became associated with anti-rationalism and left rationalism to conservatives – that was one bad day.

It’s fascinating to see Stanley Fish saying something similar. I don’t know if this is a clarification or a change of views. I had thought he was a fairly Rortyish (or do I mean Rortyesque) pragmatist, but this doesn’t seem very Rortyesque:

It’s hard to see how anyone who believes (as I do) that academic work is distinctive in its aims and goals and that its distinctiveness must be protected from political pressures (either external or internal) could find anything to disagree with here. Everything follows from the statement that the pursuit of truth is a — I would say the — central purpose of the university. For the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them.

But either way, it’s a very eloquent statement of a very important point. Where is that gold leaf…



Shoes and Ships and Sealing-wax

Feb 11th, 2004 7:43 pm | By

It’s going to be one of those days when there’s more to comment on than time to comment in. ‘More offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.’ There’s a very interesting piece by Stanley Fish in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that I want to say something about; there’s a quite fascinating comment at Crooked Timber that I’m going to say something about, come what may; there’s the rest of that rumination on wishful thinking I wrote yesterday that I want to add; there are other odds and ends; and there’s also another interesting discussion at Crooked Timber which I ought to point out. It discusses the religious arguments and disagreements we’ve been discussing here lately. It made me laugh a good deal in a startled sort of way when I first clicked on CT, but then I wasn’t expecting it. Plus I’m easily amused.

One of the odds and ends I mentioned was the discussion at What Happens When You Tell a Lie. Marijo thinks the tone of my post on wishful thinking was contemptuous and trivializing, so I thought I would clarify. It wasn’t. What I said was in fact dead serious. I really do wish I could just wish away pain and death and sorrow. Of course I do! But I can’t. I’m well aware that fantasy can be highly consoling, and in many forms I think that’s perfectly harmless and indeed beneficial. How many lonely children have been comforted by their imaginary friends? Probably billions. In one way you could think of the deity as an imaginary friend. But that gets more dangerous, because the fantasy starts getting confused with reality, and that confusion is socially encouraged and even sometimes mandated. And then things can go badly wrong. But that is not at all to say that I have no use for fantasy. I spent my entire childhood in a fog of the stuff, and I’m firmly convinced that was a fine thing.

I wrote a column for TPM Online about some of these issues recently. I offer it by way of showing that contempt was not what I was expressing in that Comment below.



Then Beggars Would Ride

Feb 10th, 2004 11:13 pm | By

If wishes were horses, if pigs had wings. The world is one way, our desires are another. Hence the joy of fantasy, daydreaming, fairy tales – magic. The book I want is upstairs – how I wish it were here in my hand. The food is in the refrigerator, uncooked – how I wish it were cooked, on plates, on the table. The dishes are dirty, I wish they were clean. X, Y and Z are dead, how I wish they were alive. A and B are ill, I wish they were well. The world is full of suffering, I wish it were not. The suffering is useless, I wish it were useful. Bad things happen, I wish they didn’t.

We want to believe the universe encodes our idea of meaning. But it doesn’t. We have to content ourselves with self-created meaning – projected meaning. Invented, assumed, dreamed up. Applied, pasted on, added, painted, stage-set meaning. Upper floor meaning – pretend, make believe. Applicable only to us. Contingent, subjective, made.

And made by us. Not by a deity, not by chemical processes, but by us. Shabby shambling little primates on a smallish insignificant planet. One animal species among the millions that live and have lived on this planet – how could its notions of meaning be inscribed in the cosmos? But we so want to think they are – so we pretend that religion somehow underwrites our claims.

We don’t want our meaning to have been made, and especially not by us. We know we’re not good enough. So we assert that it’s been done by someone much grander – and yet like us – only more so. Like us only perfect – the way we would be if we were perfect. Which seems like a contradiction in terms – if we were perfect we wouldn’t be like us. Being imperfect is the very essence of being like us. It’s hard to know what we would be like, really – as soon as you start to think about it it makes no sense. What would perfect arms be like, for example. Longer? Shorter? Extendable? Retractable? Equipped with blades? Infinitely long?

That’s the great thing about religion. It doesn’t need to bother with such things (unless it’s Aquinas, but it’s common or garden religion I’m talking about here, the religion of the newspapers and The New Republic and the pundits), it just asserts, and ignores contradictions and impossibilities. That’s the whole point. It’s a mechanism for making wishes into horses. A wish-to-horse conversion device.