The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

An interesting take on the Nazis and their sympathizers comes from Jorge Luis Borges. What motivates a certain variety of reactionary authoritarianism isn’t straightforward politics. The vision is grander than that, almost a cosmic battle. Issues of who is victorious in war is maybe secondary.

In moments of honest admission, Adolf Hitler explained that the struggle he envisioned went beyond mere national interest. He wouldn’t allow German soldiers in Russia to retreat. Either Germans were superior and would succeed or they were inferior and would lose. His only purpose was to test the German race against foreign races. Let the best people win, that was his attitude. It had apocalyptic implications. Other races had to be destroyed and subjugated. Failing that, the German population must be sacrificed in the attempt. It was total war requiring total commitment.

This is similar to Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of Islamic jihadis. She has pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists seemed to intentionally flout Islamic law, as if they were demanding Allah’s attention and forcing the Divine Hand to intervene. They were trying to call down apocalypse, not unlike American evangelicals hoping to incite violent attack on Israel as they believe must happen prior to the Second Coming. It isn’t mere nihilism.

Some would argue that a similar attitude is held by Trump supporters. Not even those who voted for him, according to polls, thought he would do what he promised. But the one thing that he could accomplish was to destroy a corrupt system. Electing Donald Trump as president was like lobbing a grenade into a bunker. It may be an act of desperation, although it makes perfect sense as an all too human motivation. Studies have shown that individuals are willing to punish perceived wrongdoers even at great costs to themselves. It is what morality becomes when morality has been denied for too long.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

There is a balance point in this, though. It is the fantasy of violence that matters most, the glorious battle that transcends mundane reality. The other way victory threatens is by making the violence all too immediately real. It was easy for Hitler, safely back in Germany, to play out his ideological visions on distant battlefields. When violence gets too close, it simply becomes terrifying. The Nazi sympathizers Borges described had the advantage of cheering on Hitler from a continent across the ocean. But even for them, the possibility of the Nazis actually winning caused trepidation.

* * *

The metal vultures and the dragon
by Alec Nevala-Lee

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

Psychology of Politics, Development of Society

I’ve been thinking out some complex issues and data.  In particular, my mind has been stuck on the issue of liberal and conservative. 

This relates to personality types and traits, but furthermore it relates to genetics.  Scientists have discovered specific genes that correlate with specific tendencies of political attitudes.  That isn’t exactly surprising as trait research has already determined many psychological differences are passed on from parent to child.  But this is particularly paradigm-shifting on the level of politics.

I plan to write more about this, but I just wanted to outline my thinking for the moment.  There are multiple facets that interrelate in ways I’m trying to determine.

There does seem to be an evolutionary angle that would be very important.  Different genetics enhanced species survival as humans developed ever more complex societies.  One theory I came across proposed that liberal genetics are a more recent evolutionary adaptation.  As humans spread out from Africa, specific traits became more desirable: curiosity, openness to new experience, adaptability, empathy, diplomacy, ability to imagine new possibilities and consider multiple perspectives, etc.  These are all traits that research has proven are correlated with each other, and they together seem to create the framework for the liberal attitude.  Still, the older genetics remained useful because any given society would still need the majority of its population to be fairly conservative in order to create social stability and cohesion.

This development happened when humans were still hunter-gatherers, and so at that time the genetic differences wouldn’t have been as magnified.  With the rise of settled agrarian cultures, an entirely new way of social organization became possible.  This was a traumatic time in the devlopment of the human species.  It’s been a while since I’ve read Paul Shepard, but as I recall he saw this era as being pivotal where something irreversibly switched in the human brain.  This was the beginning of civilization.

I was just tonight reading again some of Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe.  I consider him to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.  I’d forgotten much of the specific ideas in this book, but one particular thing stood out.  He goes into great detail about how civilization rests on the back of slavery.  Every civilization was built with slave labor (including the early democracies).  Even the modern industrialized nations with their supposed democracies and free markets are dependent on slave labor and sweatshops in the third world countries.  Many of the earliest immigrants to the Americas were indentured servants and slaves.  Civilization as we know it would collapse if there wasn’t some class of people enslaved or in oppressed servitude. 

(I also wonder how this fits in with prostitution as the oldest profession and temple prostitutes who lived in servitude.  In early civilization, prostitution represented the civilizing of primitive desire as the temple prostitutes served the highest ideal of their societies and the temples they worked in were at the center of those cultures.  The example that comes to mind is “The Epic of Gilgamesh” where the wild man is civilized by a prostitute.)

Jensen’s explanation of all of this is just brilliant.  Combined with Shepard’s work, this explains a lot about how we became this way.  The earliest records of humans are about the laws upholding civilization and these laws speak about slavery (e.g., Code of Hammurabi).  The Old Testament in various stories and the 10 commandments promotes slavery.  The Christian Gospels even promote slavery.  The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all were dependent on slavery.  Until modern times, few people even thought too much about slavery being a bad thing.

However, some people back then began to question such issues.  During the Axial Age, the origins of modern Enlightenment ideals began to take root.  Those early ideals were in complete conflict with the very structure of civilization and that conflict persists to this very day.  So, where did this conflict come from?

Earlier in social development, humans perceived the world animistically.  According to Julian Jaynes, the very understanding of the individual as clearly separate from the world didn’t even fully exist throughout much of early civilization.  It was a slow shift while individuality formed.  As division of labor in society became more important, so division of labor within the human mind became more important.  The world and the gods stopped being experienced as immediately alive realities.  The world became objectified and so did humans.  Individuality and objectivity go hand in hand, and this is what allows for the objectivication of humans in the form of slavery.

This growing sense of individuality came to a crisis point during the Axial Age.  The brutality of slavery had become very apparent, and people began hoping for something more.  People were less satisfied to simply be in servitude whether to other people or to the gods.  The divine had become distant within hierarchical society, and in response the desire for divine closeness became extremely strong.  Humans started to perceive the divine as being among humans which is reminiscent of the animistic past, but this divine closeness was now built on a relationship of individuals as equals.  The first communes formed which was out of which Christianity took root.  However, Christianity and all of the Axial Age religions were brought back in line with hierarchical slave society, and the brief glimmer of the Axial Age prophets was almost entirely forgotten for the next thousand years.

However, it was never entirely forgotten.  The Axial Age ideals were the liberalism of their day.  I wonder if that liberal urge that kept popping up relates back to the genetics that first formed when humans left Africa?

It seems like there has always been this push and pull within human society that is shown in the the earliest historical records.  Since civilization began, this concept of progress formed.  Civilization is dependent on endless progress and this seems to relate to its dependence on slavery.  In order to maintain a slave population, the early civilizations (as well as later civilizations) were forced to be constantly at war by attempting to conquer other people.  Enslave or become a slave.  Endless progress, endless growth, endless conquering, endless usurpation… which continues to modern civilization as well (even if endless wars now have a larger global context). 

This is where I’m feeling a bit murky.  Civilization is simultaneously built on this ruthless progress, but civilization wouldn’t have been possible without those early liberal traits of diplomacy and whatnot.  This seems to be a part of that internal conflict that is the very fabric of civilization.  As society became more hierarchical and more divisioned, the liberal traits of curiosity and experimentation were focused towards technological innovation.  Even fairly early in Greek society, a well-educated leisure class had already taken hold (with Socrates being the ultimate representative).  The liberal instinct in some ways became even more important as empathy and diplomacy would’ve been absolutely vital during this time of cultural clash.

There was a shift that happened after the Axial Age.  The liberal instinct had a temporary burgeoning in society, but the liberal instinct was looked upon with ever greater suspicion as Empire building became the central impulse.  The Roman Empire as it was inherited by Christianity was quite oppressive, and it didn’t take long for the heresiologists to oppress the liberal impulse within Christianity itself.  This is where many see the proper beginning of Western civilization.

Ever since that time, the conflict between the liberal and conservative impulses has led to much violence.  But, with the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, the liberal impulse began to have greater influence than it had in a long time.  Also, progress began to happen more quickly.  The liberal impulse is the gas pedal of civilization, but this is balanced with the brake of the conservative impulse.  The fight between the two hasn’t been pretty.

The main issue isn’t specific beliefs or values.  Liberalism and conservatism are relative tendencies.  What was liberal during the Axial Age has become the norm for modern Western civilization.  Generally speaking, even modern monotheists have forsaken their own texts in denying slavery.  The conservative impulse wants to hold on to what has become the norm which is perceived as being traditional.  It’s not important, however, that the perceived traditional values actually correspond to the actual historical tradition.  For example, family values have been centrally important for all of Christian history, but what Christians today consider as family values isn’t what the early Christians considered family values (and Jesus himself didn’t value family at all).  So, liberal and conservative are dependent on the historical context which is always changing with the endless progress that we call civilization.

This has served us moderately well up to this point.  Even so, we find ourselves at a new crisis point and so some people conjecture that we’re experiencing a new Axial Age.  It does seem that the level of cultural mixing in modern society hasn’t been seen in Western civilization since the earlier Axial Age.  The religious sensibility forming now is to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism, and I think this would explain why fundamentalists have essentially created a new religion that has little to do with early Christianity (which fits into the ideas of Karen Armstrong).

Much of what I’ve talked about can be explained using the model of Spiral Dynamics which would add a lot of much-needed detail.  The history following the Axial Age I somewhat explained in my post Just Some Related Ideas and Writers which basically follows a Jungian view of Western development.  But there is a further aspect that is more central to my thinking at the moment.  Along with Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe, I’ve also been re-reading Compass of the Soul by John L. Giannini.  The two books make for good companions as they both analyze Western society from different perspectives. 

Giannini’s book is helpful because he is coming from the Jungian tradition, and more importantly he combines his roles as Jungian analyst and MBTI practitioner.  He carefully considers Jung’s view on personality as it fits in with Western sociohistorical development.  He sees a split in our society between tendencies towards the personality types of ESTJ and INFP with the former dominating the Western psyche since sometime shortly after the inception of Christianity.  Essentially, ESTJ and INFP are just a more complex way of saying conservative and liberal.

However, this more complex language is helpful because it’s grounded in decades of psychological research.  Also, it brings me back to where I began this post.

(I want to note one other book: The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen.  The author discusses two issues relevant to this post.  He discusses Max Weber’s theory about how rationalization and bureaucratization increases as society becomes more complex and hierarchical.  He also discusses Ernest Harmann’s boundary types.  He mentions research that shows thick boundary types with their conservative attitudes tend to promoted to upper management in hierarchical organizations.  Any major organization is hierarchical and so our society in general is ruled by thick boundary types which is just another way of stating the theory Giannini puts forth.  These highly promoted people tend to have thicker boundaries than even the average person and so the people at top perceive and behave differently than the lower classes.  A seeming implication of this is that even Washington Democrats will be more conservative than the average liberal.) 

The reason I’m so interested in all of this is two-fold. 

The most obvious reason is that the conflict between liberals and conservatives is the most intense that I’ve seen in my lifetime.  And it’s a rather personal issue as I’m liberal and my parents are conservative. 

Secondly, I suffer from obsessive curiosity syndrome.  I feel compelled to try to understand the society I was born into.  There seems to be a narrative to our culture and I suspect that it’s our collective unawareness of this narrative that keeps us stuck in it.  We play these roles we are given and we come to identify with them.  Some of this is genetics and so can’t be changed, but genetics are just predispositions.  I want to believe that the liberal and conservative impulses don’t have to be eternally at odds.  Maybe I’m just a dreamy-eyed liberal with my head in the clouds.

 – – –

Let me give this some more contemporary context.

I’ve been doing some web research on personality types/traits, political attitudes, and career predispositions.  Here are some of the ideas I’m tossing about at present:

The problem with liberal and conservative as labels is that they’re highly relative.

The vast majority of scientists and journalists identify as liberal (or at least they do in the US), but it just means that these groups of people identify as more liberal than how they perceive the general population of their particular society.  In the most general usage, conservative means what is traditional or conventional and liberal means what is not limited to the traditional or conventional.  As such, liberal journalists are only moderately liberal.  They’re liberal because they aren’t perfectly aligned with the average person (or rather they don’t perceive themselves as such), but they’re clearly moderate in their being closer to the mainstream than they are to radicals on the fringe.

However, different societies will vary greatly in their political spectrum.  It’s probably true, though, that scientists and journalists in any society will be comparatively more liberal because those professions seem to demand a liberal mindset (at least liberal in terms of personality traits).

The further issue is how close is the correlation between liberal as political self-identification and liberal as personality trait.  Research on personality traits show that they can’t be categorized as either/or, black/white.  Some people are on the extreme ends, but most people are near the middle.

There is no one way to define these terms.  Liberal and conservative can apply to many issues, and so a person can be simultaneously liberal on some issues and conservative on others.  And any given issue can only be labelled as liberal or conservative relative to the context of the societal norms and the historical era.  Many political positions that seem conservative in a modern industrialized society would be deemed liberal (even radically liberal) in pre-modern and non-industrialized societies.  Liberal and conservative are labels that are inseparable from confounding factors of individual and collective development.

With development, other issues such as intelligent and morality have to be considered as both of those relate to intelligence.  There is a correlation between liberalism and IQ (i.e., traditional methods of testing intelligence), and so that probably explains much of the reason for scientists and journalists identifying as liberals.  As a personality trait, liberalism signifies openness towards new experiences and curiosity towards new information.  Higher education is largely defined by new experiences and new information.

Nonetheless, plenty of people with more conservative personalities go to college as most of the population is fairly conservative personality wise (or rather according to MBTI statistics the conservative SJ temperament represents the largest portion of the population; the question then is how well does the SJ temperament represent the normal definition of political conservatism).  These college educated conservative types tend to be drawn to careers in law, politics, and business.  Most interestingly is the fact that policymakers tend to identify as conservative.  But, even in liberal fields, the top administrators in hierarchical organizations (which includes every major private and public organization) will be more conservative than what is the norm even for the general population.  Scientists may be liberal, but the administration of scientific labs and the corporate funding for science likely is controlled by conservatives.  Journalists may be liberal, but the editors, owners and CEOs of media companies are generally more conservative. 

(The so-called liberal media bias is false.  It may have once been true when newsrooms were independent and reporters were more free to do their own thing.  But in recent decades (because of pressures to increase profits) reporters have been increasingly told what to do by upper management (this is based on a lot of research I’ve done and isn’t an just an ideological claim).  However, this isn’t to say that media is precisely conservative biased in any simple sense.  Let us just say there is conflict of biases where the conservative bias at the moment has gained the upperhand.)

Social liberals are going to be more interested in intellectual inquiry and social conservatives will be more interested in ideological norms.  Because of this, most social scientists and those interested in social science will be moral liberals (research supports this conclusion).  As for moral conservatives, they’re either less interested in or else actively mistrust social science research and theory.  For example, the evidence that certain psychological traits and types (personality, moral inclinations, political ideology, behavior, etc.) are largely inheritable undermines the idea that everyone is completely responsible for themselves as individuals (which is a major aspect of moral conservatism).  The tendency to see human nature as complex is more attractive to the social liberal, and so the liberal attitude is more open to the possibility of nature being equal to or greater than nurture (which could explain why they have a more open view of family values).  The reason why evolution vs creationism seems so central to the culture wars may be because it reflects on the large-scale the same issues of nature vs nurture (I’m a bit unclear on this point).

I’ve come across the theory that conservatives tend to look at media and art in terms of how it serves or undermines their ideology (i.e., the perceived ‘norm’).  This would be supported by the Christian cultural critic who I heard speak a few years ago.  She discussed the need of morally conservative Christians to use film and pop culture to promote their views.  Immediately after this talk, I went over and looked at a William Blake exhibit which presented his vision of the relationship between religion and art.  

There couldn’t have been a better contrast between the conservative and liberal views.  Blake’s art was inspiring because it didn’t represent ideology in any simple way (i.e., no overt political messages, no promotion of group norms).  Instead, Blake’s art pointed towards truths that transcended mere politics.  I sensed that Blake wasn’t limiting himself to his own preferred bias.  

Is the conservative view of art as ideology comparable to the conservative view of news as ideology?  I’ve noticed that many conservatives don’t see a difference of the bias of Fox News from the bias in more liberal news, but to many liberals this is an insult.  I’ve noticed that quite a few liberals seem to idealize intellectual objectivity as a moral value, and they’re not content with the cynical view of extreme conservatives.  The social conservative tends to see humanity as fallen and traditionally this fallen nature included the failure of human reason.  Social conservatives are more mistrusting of reason which explains why they mistrust science (be it Darwinian evolution or climate change).

By the way, this also relates to the tendency of most comedians to be liberal.  Humor is very much related to curiosity and openness to experience.

Anyways, it’s all very interesting.  Journalists, Scientists, and comedians all are dominated by self-identified liberals and Democrats.  I remember offhand that only 6% of scientists (including in the hard sciences) identify as Republican.  That does seem to be saying either something about human nature (psychology, genetics, etc) or something about modern culture… or, as I suspect, a bit of both.

 – – –

I’m, of course, speaking of liberal and conservative in their most extreme manifestations (i.e., exaggerated stereotypes).  It’s important to keep in mind that as personality traits the population distribution is found mostly in the middle rather than on the polar opposite ends.

Also, liberal and conservative don’t always equate with Democrat and Republican.  For example, earlier last century Republicans were the liberal party especially in the South.  So, when I speak of liberal I’m talking about an attitude based on personality traits and not party affiliations which represent shifting labels of shifting demographics.  I was looking at data from the Pew Research Center.  Their definition of liberal corresponds with Democrat only slightly more than it corresponds with independent.  I’m willing to bet, though, that if Democrats dominated for a couple of decades the number of liberals identifying with independent would increase just as how recently many have left the Republican party.

As for psychological attitudes, I do wonder if the way society is structured is causing these genetic traits to become increasingly magnified.  I was thinking that this possibility could be a contributing factor to the present intense political conflict.

Here is a theory I’ve been thinking about the last couple of years.

I’ve looked at mappings of demographic data.  Liberals are concentrated in urban areas in and around cities.  Conservatives are spread out in rural areas.  However, a confounding factor is that ever since the Industrial Age began people have been slowly migrating to cities.  This is how liberals became concentrated in cities in the first place, but the population in general has now become concentrated in cities.  For this reason, cities are more ideologically diverse and so liberals have been forced to adapt to diversity which happens to be one of their talents anyhow. 

The other result is that rural areas have become less diverse and more extremely conservative.  This makes me wonder if conservative politics has become more radicalized partly because of this concentration.  Even the moderate conservatives would tend to move to the cities leaving behind the most extreme conservatives (those who are so resistant to change that they’d rather remain even in poverty-stricken areas).

Ignoring the possible genetic component, our political system by itself would magnify the concentration of extreme conservatives in the rural areas.  American democracy is representative.  In an attempt at fairness, sparsely populated rural areas get more representation per capita.  What this means is that extreme conservatives get more representation per capita.  The result of this is that public debate gets pushed to the right.

This is important as sometimes presidents get elected even though the majority of the population voted against them.  How does a president lead a country when he doesn’t represent a majority of the population?

Also, the media focuses on the extremes.  The rural areas represent the far right-wing.  The Republican politicians tend to be moderate conservatives, but the more radical conservatives of rural areas hold great sway.

 – – –

I don’t know what to make of this, but it’s very interesting.  It seems our entire political system is rather messed up.  I’m hoping by placing US politics in a larger context that I’ll be able to see beyond the polarizing tendency of public debate as it gets shown in the media.

Anyways, it goes without saying that all of this is largely speculation and hence tentative.  I am basing my speculations on actual data, but it is very complex.  Trying to disentangle the threads is difficult if not impossible.  The challenge of making sense of it is only slighly lessened by the fact that some great minds before me have written some insightful books.

The Religious Wars

The Religious Wars  by Nicholas D. Kristof (NYT)

(My comment is posted at Kristof’s blog post about this article: A Truce in the Religious Wars?)

The moderate and open-minded view of religion has been around for a long time, but you wouldn’t know it for all the publicized conflict between the Fundamentalists and the New Atheists.

There was a great surge of open religious discussion in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, but then the conservative religious bent returned to suppress liberal-minded inquiry for many decades.  As new Gnostic texts came to light and gained more attention, slowly but surely a new generation of scholars began presenting alternative viewpoints.

Joseph Campbell set the stage for the contemporary liberal strain of religious studies, but his influence became less obvious after he died.  Apparently, there was no one at the time to take Campbell’s place as he had large shoes to fill.  At the same time, conservative Evangelicals had been gaining power and have managed to be very influential in recent decades.  Liberal scholars still did great scholarship, but they weren’t able to get as much public attention.

Finally, liberal scholarship is regaining popularity again.  It seems that Karen Armstrong is in a position to take up the role Campbell once played.  The public is tired of the endless friction between the extremists on either side of the theist/atheist divide.

Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists

 – – –

FIRST COMMENT

This response profoundly misunderstands Karen Armstrong’s arguments.  This isn’t a fair portrayal.  As far as I understand her arguments, the criticisms presented here don’t seem to touch upon what she actually writes about.

Armstrong’s books are very scholarly.  She isn’t against rationality and science.  What she supports is making subtle intellectual distinctions in order to create a rational context to discuss otherwise non-rational issues.  She backs her arguments with historical evidence which is the best one can do when trying to analyze the development of religion and society.  And nothing she states contradicts any known scientific facts or theories.

Armstrong offers great insight into the religious mind.  Her explanation of the origins of literalist fundamentalism make more sense to me than any argument I’ve come across.

Her argument is that a new way of thinking about religion arose with the Axial Age.  In particular, this involved the ability to think metaphorically.  But I don’t think she disagrees that it was initially (and for many centuries to come) a style of thinking limited mostly to elite theologians.  It was only with the Enlightenment that the the Axial Age ideals started to take hold more clearly and science provided a new paradigm by which metaphorical thinking could be contrasted.

In response to science, the idea of religious literalism arose as entirely distinct from allegorical interpretation.  It’s not that literalist thinking didn’t exist to an extent earlier, but it only became an ideology unto itself in modern times.

Armstrong isn’t an enemy of atheism.  The only thing she is an enemy of is closed-mindedeness and simplistic thinking.  Her criticism of the New Atheists isn’t a criticism of atheism in general.  She is simply pointing out that certain arguments made by some popular atheists aren’t the best arguments to be made.  Her main issue is that, by talking about religion in literalist terms, the atheist just plays into the hands of literalist fundamentalists.  She wants to undermine religious literalism at it’s base.  She wants to show fundamentalism for what it is by showing how it developed.

 – – –

SECOND COMMENT

We seem to be talking past each other or something.

And you apparently have me mistaken for someone else.  I’m far from being a religious apologist.  I can’t stand apologetics and I harshly criticize anyone who uses it.  I do have some interest in religion and I study religious scholarship, but I’m not an overly religious person as I usually think of myself as an agnostic.  I look for insight where ever I can find it whether from religion, science, psychology or whatever.  But I especially appreciate quality scholarship.
 
Straw-men arguments? I have no clue what you’re talking about.  My basic argument was that you didn’t understand Armstrong’s ideas, and I then explained my own understanding of her work.  Have you read her books?  If you haven’t, then I don’t know why you have such strong opinions based on such limited info.  Or if you have, you need to reinforce your argument with more specifically quoted examples.
 
“Of course, Armstrong doesn’t say she is against science. I never claimed this. She is completely misrepresenting it’s place in history, that’s all.”
 
Well, so far, you’ve mentioned science 25 times and mostly in reference to Armstrong.  Going by your own words: Your argument is that she undermines and blames and ignores science, that she doesn’t care about scientfic facts, and that she is dangerously usurping science for a liberal anti-scientific agenda.  If this isn’t your true opinion, then you need to edit your previous statements or else better explain what you actually meant by these words.
 
“I am amused at how you built your assumptions into the statement while cloaking Armstrong’s revisionism in the language of tolerance.”
 
All statements have assumptions built into them.  My argument was fairly simple and straightforward.  I wasn’t cloaking anything.
 
“Firstly, she is not so much making ‘intellectual distinctions’ as she is making stuff up.”
 
Generalized judgments and dismissals aren’t helpful.  Give me precise quoted examples of her making stuff.   Show in detail that your allegation is correct.  Explain how her supposed “making stuff up” disproves her entire argument and undermines all of her scholarly respectability.
 
“Secondly, your implicit assumption that there is no other rational context to discuss such issues is wrong.”
 
No such assumption was implied.  I’m fond of many other rational contexts.  I wasn’t arguing that Armstrong has the market cornered on rational contexts.  She isn’t even an author I obsessively read or even think about that much.
 
“There is one very powerful rational context that is always relevant- objective reality.”
 
I like objective reality.  Are you implying that my arguments or Armstrong’s arguments deny or contradict objective reality?
 
“No preferential treatment of facts is necessary, thanks a lot (read up on sociobiology- really read- to get a rational context for understanding religious fundamentalism).”
 
I don’t understand your complaint.  Preferential treatment of facts isn’t necessary, but emphasizing the importance of facts is always a nice thing.  And, yes, I do read up on many fields of study.  In particular, the relationship between biology and behavior is a topic I often read about.
 
“Literalist fundamentalism was always there.”
 
It seems we’re defining literalism differently.  I can’t assess your definition as I don’t know what facts and theories you’re basing it on.  As far as I can tell, you seem to be using a very general and vague sense of literalism.  In terms of cognitive ability, however, literalistic thinking is more narrowly defined.
 
“Religion is the political remnant of a system of belief that told a narrative of factual events. For modern religious moderates, when it comes to everyday issues they can understand that there is such a thing as the real world and there is the emotional world, but when it comes to religion they forgo this distinction.”
 
It’s not that all fundamentalists dismiss this distinction.  Many of them simply don’t understand it.
 
The definition of literalism I’m using is from a developmental perspective.  On the personal level, people have the potential to learn how to make clear rational distinctions at a particular stage of development, but this depends on the person’s intelligence and their social environment.  As such, development can be stalled or even permanently stunted.  Plus, integrating this ability into all aspects of one’s life involves even further stages of cognitive development that are even less common.  There are also theories that discern stages of development in societies.  A person is only likely to develop to the extent that most others have developed in their society.  Our modern understanding of literal facts didn’t exist thousands of years ago.  Even when this understanding began to develop, it was a minority of the population that grasped it.
 
I openly admit that it’s hard to figure out the cognitive processes of ancient people.  But plausible theories can be formed using historical data, anthropology, psychology and neurology.  Anyways, my main point isn’t that all ancient people didn’t have some basic sense of an external reality that they perceived as being separate from their own subjectivity.  I’m simply pointing out that religious literalism as we know it today has become influenced by a scientific worldview which wasn’t the case in the past.
 
“Please spare me the Axial age BS. It is a half-baked hypothesis that relies on amateurish post hoc reasoning. Such ideas are designed to appeal to those who have already made up their minds. In this case, it is the mind of the religious moderate who desires above all to find a way to make all the religions work together in harmony.”
 
You have many biased assumptions about many things.  Half-baked?  Amateurish post hoc reasoning?  Please do explain!
 
Armstrong didn’t simply invent the idea of the Axial Age as it (along with similar ideas) has been discussed by many scholars.  It’s common for scholars to analyze history according to ages of socio-cultural development such as tool-making, agriculture, city-states, etc.  In terms of the Axial Age, there was a specific time period when many cultures were developing written language and when certain new ideas arose such as monotheism/monism and variations of the golden rule. 
 
The term Axial Age is merely a way of labelling and describing a broad period of cultural transformation.  That such a transformation happened is a matter of historical record, but the cause of it is a complex issue.  Even though cultural transmission is one possibility, it’s implausible as being the sole cause as there were many separate cultures experiencing similar changes at around the same time.  It is true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but obviously something was causing massive change.
 
“To understand cultural patterns on such large scales one needs to take into account a lot more real variables that Armstrong can grasp.”
 
Why do you presume what Armstrong can grasp?  Do you personally know her and have you scientifically tested her cognitive abilities? 
 
She is a religious scholar.  That is what she is an expert in and so that is what she focuses on.  Why would you expect a scholar of a specific field to take into account all possible variables including those outside their field?  Yes, there are other areas of scholarship that are relevant.  So what?  That doesn’t disprove Armstrong’s contribution to her area of scholarship. 
 
Her ideas are just another possible piece of the puzzle, but I’m all for trying to understand the whole puzzle.  For that reason, I turn to such things as Integral theory in order to get a conceptual framework to put the pieces together.  Even so, you can never know that you’ve completely figured it out because theories about human cultural development are impossible to scientifically prove beyond all doubt.
 
“For example, briefly, the ‘ability’ to think metaphorically evolved at least 70,000 years ago, but possibly up to 300,000 years ago. However, the ability to perceive our world around us evolved with the first intelligent ancestors we ever had. For intelligent biological organisms to survive, they needed to be convinced that certain things were true. Metaphor as a semantic tool is pointless when faced with a hungry lion. Literalism is the default setting.”
 
I’m not using literalism as referring to the perception of external reality, though there are theories that propose that early humans didn’t clearly distinguish between internal and external experience (such as Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism or Lloyd deMause’s theory of schizotypal personality).  Instead, what I am focusing on here is the cognitive ability to think in terms of black and white absolutes.  This is how a person cognitively processes perceptual experience rather than the process of perception itself.  So, metaphor as you are using it seems to be equated with mythological thinking which according to some theories of development represents an earlier stage of development.
 
“It is an insult to say that these people did not believe that stuff literally.”
 
I’m not saying that and I don’t think that Armstrong comes to that conclusion.  For example, consider Christianity.  Some of the earliest theologians relied heavily on allegorical interpretations.  Yes, they believed they were true but not necessarily true in a physical sense.  Christianity arose at the end of the Axial Age when the distinction between allegorical truth and objective facts was becoming more common.
 
In a sense, even these early Christians believed their allegorical interpretations were literally true for they conceived the spiritual realm as being the highest truth.  Still, they were making a distinction which is different than the earliest religions where the spiritual and physical were inseparable (and so mind and world were connected through magical thinking).  Nonetheless, even this conflation doesn’t deny that they may have had some understanding of reality as external to them.  If a hungry lion attacked, they would defend themselves against it.  But afterwards they probably would interpret it as an animistic encounter with a spiritual being.
 
I don’t know if I’m communicating this in a way that you understand.  I’ve been studying these kinds of ideas for years and I can’t claim to have it all figured out.  It’s a very complex topic involving many different theories by many different scholars in many different fields.  However, I often return to Ken Wilber’s Integral theory as it connects more of the puzzle pieces together than any other theory I’ve come across, though I don’t agree with everything he claims.  It’s first and foremost a descriptive model, but to the degree it accurately explains objective facts it can be considered potentially predictive in that all individuals and all societies tend to follow certain patterns of development.  According to Wilber’s use of Spiral Dynamics (which represents only one line of development), there are distinct stages.
 
 – The earliest stages see the world in terms of animism and magical thinking, and so mythology is “literally” a part of the world.
 – After the earliest stages, humans began to develop a more individual sense of consciousness meaning that that the mind was showing some independence from the environment (i.e., people could think about rather than merely react to the world).  Likewise, spiritual beings also were perceived as being more clearly distinct from the world and from human individuality.  The sense of something being “literally” true meant that it existed outside of mere human experience.
 – The stage where “literal” thinking shows itself most clearly is when humans start emphasizing binary opposites that are polarized into absolute right and wrong, absolute true and false.  Self and other become absolutely distinct.
 – After this stage, experiential data and evidence take on greater value.  Standards and methods are developed to ascertain what is objectively true.  What is “literally” true is what is verifiable.  
 – This is where postmodernism and cultural relativism come in.  “Literal” truth becomes just one perspective and what is considered true is whatever allows for and includes the most perspectives.  As such, science and religion are perspectives and there is neither is inherently superior to the other in that there simply separate paradigms of reality.  However, within multiple perspectives there is a sense that some things are universally true and I suppose that this might be taken as “literally” true in some way.  This is primarily where Armstrong is arguing from, but I don’t know if this is where her thinking ends.
 – Beyond all of this, further stages of development are proposed where inclusion of different perspectives is allowed while maintaining a meta-perspective to discern the value of different perspectives.  These higher stages supposedly emphasize the ability to understand the different stages and different perspectives toward practical ends.  Something is “literally” true to the extent that it effectively works towards some clearly defined goal.  So, there would be no singular truth per se as there are many goals.  These goals aren’t seen as necessarily in conflict for it would be considered most optimal to find where lesser goals can be directed towards more encompassing goals.
 
By the way, this isn’t mere theory.  Spiral Dynamics was formulated according to research Clare Graves did, and Ken Wilber correlated it with other research and other models.  My point being that Armstrong’s arguments can be placed in this larger context of diverse scholarship.  Whether it’s absolutely true or not, time will tell.  But for certain this does offer a plausible explanation of cultural development that clarifies the relationship between religion and science.
 
– – –
 
THIRD COMMENT

 “After the publishing of this response,the commenter responded by ignoring my entire rational argument in favor of more confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias simply means that people tend to seek confirmation to their own view which is something everyone does to an extent, but it’s generally used to describe extreme examples of someone biased thinking.  However, making this allegation against an opponent can just as well be used polemically to dismiss another person’s view and evidence.  In this case, Kamal’s allegation of confirmation bias appears to be an example of confirmation bias.

“My statements were twisted in typical religious fashion, using the all-too-common religious dance between objective and subjective concepts in order to obscure naturalistic truth.”

Twisted?  I merely pointed out Kamal’s exact words.  I didn’t even take them out of context.  Anyone can look at his comments and see for themselves what he wrote (assuming he hasn’t since edited out these statements).

Typical religious fashion?  I presented carefully explained rational arguments supported by diverse theories and evidence.  All of the references I made can be found within the mainstream intellectual tradition.  Many of the ideas I was using for context are taught in universities and in some cases are based on social sciences research.  If Kamal considers this “typical religious fashion”, he must interact with some very intelligent and well-read religious people.  I wish he would give me their contact details because I’d love to meet such intellectually respectable believers.

“I am not interested in arguing with religious people since there are plenty of more useful things that I can occupy myself with.”

I explained to him that I’m not religious.  Some atheists can’t differentiate being interested in religion and believing in religion.  Anyone who has studied religious scholarship in any depth would quickly realize that many religious scholars aren’t religious believers.

“The writing of this article, contrary to what religious folk may think, has nothing to do with actually arguing against religious folk and everything to do with ridiculing Armstrong’s incoherent religious apologetics.”

He states his true intentions.  He isn’t interested in actual debate no matter how intelligent.  His main (and maybe only) purpose is to ridicule Armstrong because he has categorized her as a mere believer.  As his perception of her opposes his atheistic ideology, she must be attacked at all costs even if it means sacrificing intellectual honesty.  Polemically winning the debate by silencing one’s opponent is more important than the open puruit of truth.

“Such ridicule is well within my right, and I believe it is essential to the process of developing a strong freethought response to institutionalized superstition.”

Free speech is definitely everyone’s right, and it’s his right to choose whose comments he wants to post.  However, if his purpose is genuinely to promote freethought, then he should support the free speech of others rather than attempting to silence disagreement.  New understanding comes from the meeting of different perspectives.  Freethought isn’t about any particular ideology or theory.  Freethought is dependent on respect for open discussion and respect for all rational viewpoints.  His opinion that my viewpoint is wrong simply doesn’t matter from the perspective of freethought.  An intellectual argument deserves an intellectual response… which is what Kamal refused to do and so he loses any rational justification for calling himself a defender of freethought.

“In view of this, I have decided to not publish any further comments form religious folk. If you think you have won the debate, good for you. Please continue to feel good about yourself.”

Thank you.  I do feel good about offering you opportunity to have a rational discussion, but it saddens me that you apparently have embraced pseudo-intellectualism.

“We rationalists have our hands full trying to build real moral alternatives to religion and I would rather not waste my time arguing with those who cannot let go of primitive superstitions.”

Primitive superstitions?  Is that the best you can do?

Oh well… 

 – – –

NOTE ON COMMENTS

I posted the first two comments to Ajita Kamal’s blog.

However, the second comment apparently wasn’t allowed to be posted.  I can only assume that Ajita Kamal had no rational response to my dismantling of his argument.  I don’t know if Ajita Kamal is an example of a pseudo-intellectual, but his actions seem to show a lack of intellectual humility and maybe honesty.  After my comment was posted there and not approved, an earlier commenter returned to praise his writing.  He accepted this praise, but didn’t mention my having refuted his criticisms of Karen Armstrong.  Ajita Kamal is the type of ideologue of the New Atheist variety who gives atheism a bad name.

For obvious reasons, I made no attempt to post the third comment to Ajita Kamal’s blog.  Kamal did finally acknowledge in his blog the existence of my comment, but he still didn’t offer any rational response.

 – – –

ABOUT KAREN ARMSTRONG

I’m no expert on Armstrong’s scholarschip, but she is someone I refer to on occasion.  She is highly influential and probably can be considered to have taken up the position of authority that Joseph Campbell once held.  If you don’t like or understand Campbell, then you’ll probably have the same attitude about Armstrong.  Both began as Catholics and both sought a non-literal understanding of religion.

As for Armstrong, she was a nun who became an angry atheist and then later came to accept the label of “freelance monotheist“. 

I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham.  I can’t see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles heels. But recently, I’ve just written a short life [story] of the Buddha and I’ve been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.

My sense is that she just means that she has the sense of something profoundly true, but she is unwilling to making any ideological claims about it.  She separates her scholarship from her experience, but at the same time sees scholarship as a way of exploring possible universal aspects of human experience.  From what I can tell, she isn’t trying to apologetically convince anyone of a particular position.  Her own position is an attitude of openness and acceptance (which I would deem intellectual humility).  She takes her role as scholar very seriously and so her attitude of openness is also an attitude of intellectual curiosity.  She doesn’t seem to start with the position of having anything figured out (either theistically or atheistically), but neither is she resigned to relativism.

What is interesting about Armstrong is how differently people react to her ideas.  Some religious believers agree with ideological atheists in their belief that she is the ultimate enemy (whether of “faith” or of “reason”).  On the other hand, many religious believers, agnostics, atheists, and generally open-minded curious people consider her to be a proponent of freethought and religious insight.  What is clear is that those who disagree with her are forced to come to terms with her very popular scholarship.

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you’re interested in further criticisms of the New Atheists, see these other posts of mine:

Here is a thoughtful criticism of the atheist response to religion:

A Mission to Convert
By H. Allen Orr
The New York Review of Books

And some other interesting blogs, articles, and videos:

http://fora.tv/2008/02/27/Karen_Armstrong_in_Conversation_with_Alan_Jones

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya64kx1U2r8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsZF8I6lrdQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtpF94Fjue4&feature=related

http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/05/30/armstrong/

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html

http://www.newsweek.com/id/215180

http://300dollarwonder.blogspot.com/2007/01/karen-armstrong-why-atheism-is-in-vouge.html

http://www.religiondispatches.org/blog/religionandtheology/2026/is_karen_armstrong_right_was_religion_always_about_belief_or_not

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relationship_between_science_and_religion

http://www.examiner.com/x-8637-Sacramento-Spirituality-Examiner~y2009m6d9-Theism-and-Skepticism

http://hokai.info/2006/11/where-atheist-revolution-went-wrong.html

http://rationalmorality.info/?p=132

http://karmabuster.gaia.com/blog/2009/5/dennett-dawkins-metaphor-and-much-more

http://julianwalkeryoga.gaia.com/blog/2008/2/interesting_conversation

http://coolmel.gaia.com/blog/2007/12/the_new_atheists_are_people_too

http://sunwalked.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/dawkins-the-fundamentalist-takes-a-left-and-a-right-to-the-chin/

http://www.northernway.org/weblog/?p=301

http://anamchara.com/2009/07/15/the-epistemology-of-post-fundamentalism/

http://anamchara.com/2008/01/04/holy-agnosis/

http://godisnot3guyscom-jeanette.blogspot.com/2009/11/trinity-by-ken-wilber.html

http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2007/09/more-on-why-new-atheists-will-fail.html

http://integral-options.blogspot.com/search?q=new+atheists

Religion and Science: Middle Ground

I recently wrote (here) about Man vs. GodKaren Armstrong and Richard Dawkinseach wrote an essay, but it seemed to me that Armstrong was closer to understanding the larger context that would allow a middle view.  Dawkins is one of the New Atheists and these extreme atheists can seem as literal in their thinking as some religious types.  These New Atheists and Christian Fundamentalists agree on the literalism of religion. The former believes it’s literally false and the latter believes it’s literally true.  Armstrong, on the other hand, is arguing that literalism isn’t a helpful mindset to understand religion.

I came across something on RichardDawkins.net (here).  The comments below the article are mostly the typical hardcore atheist knee-jerk misunderstandings (for the atheists that pride themselves on being intellectuals some of them can be pathetically ignorant).  The article is Darwinists for Jesus by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (The New York Times).  The author is writing about Michael Dowd (who wrote the book Thank God for Evolution).  Dowd’s view seems akin to that of Armstrong which is interesting as Dowd said that he personally knew Dawkins (Dawkins allowed a letter he wrote to his daughter to be republished in Dowd’s book, but Dawkins wouldn’t publicly endorse the book because of his public role as a hostile atheist).  Like Robert M. Price, Dowd started off as a biblical literalist and once he started questioning (instead of turning to atheism) he turned to agnosticism (or weak atheism if you prefer).  A commenter at RichardDakins.net linked to a video of Dowd being interviewed on the Infidel Guy Show. 

I haven’t read Dowd’s book, but this interview gave me a basic understanding of his view.  Dowd talked about the universe as a nested reality with ultimate explanations being unknowable.  He differentiated between private and public revelations which he connected with religion as night language and science as day language.  We do things in our dreams that would seem bizarre if it happened while awake and yet these night events are completely normal within the context of dreaming.  He spoke of myths in the Campbellian sense of not lies but deeper truths, archetypal realities.  This is what Armstrong writes about.  The silly part of this debate about creationism vs. Darwinism is that the earliest Christians themselves didn’t tend to take Old Testament stories literally.  The interviewer was an atheist, but semed to have some understanding of this unnecessary division as he said that he supported the view of Kenneth Miller.

A famous Christian who tried to find a middle ground between the two was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Dowd briefly mentions Teilhard de Chardin in he interview which made me happy because this opens a connection to Integral Movement theorists such as Ken Wilber.  Open-minded Christian intellectuals like Dowd are serving a role parallel to that of the Integral theorists.  Many Integral theorists are focused on complex analysis and of application to society in general, but Dowd is more narrowly focused.  Dowd is mainly writing to a specific sector of Christians.  At present, he said that he has spoken mostly to Unitarian Universalists, but he wants to focus more on Evangelicals who lean towards Progressive Christianity.

He referenced diffusion theoryin explaining his sense of purpose.  He realizes that he isn’t going to reach the extreme Christian fundamentalists, but he recognizes that there are millions of Christians who are willing to question and who accept scientific theories.  Even though these liberal Christians may seem like a minority, Dowd points out the media focuses on the extremes and yet change is most likely to happen in the middle.  Ideas introduced into Progressive Evangelical churches will filter down into the Evangelical mainstream.  The present generation of fundamentalists won’t change, but Thomas Kuhn points out (in The Structure of Scentific Revolutions) that ideas change (paradigm shift) when new generations come to power.

As an example, demographics show that the new generation is less overtly religious and more liberal, and also the new generation has a changing relationship to religion.  Religious and social attitudes are changing immensely and this change will become very clear in the next few decades.

Secular or ‘unaffiliated’? Findings escalate debate

The 2006 Baylor religion in the USA survey delves into the beliefs of the 10.8% of respondents who claim no religious preference or identification:

Belief in God

• Believe in higher power or cosmic force: 44.5%

• Don’t believe in anything beyond the physical world: 37.1%

• Believe in God with no doubts: 11.6%

• Believe in God with some doubts: 4.8%

• Sometimes believe in God: 2.1%

Source: Baylor survey

American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population

  • The 1990s was the decade when the “secular boom” occurred – each year 1.3 million more adult Americans joined the ranks of the Nones. Since 2001 the annual increase has halved to 660,000 a year. (Fig.3.1)
  • Whereas Nones are presently 15% of the total adult U.S. population, 22% of Americans aged 18-29 years self-identify as Nones. (Fig.1.2)
  • In terms of Belonging (self-identification) 1 in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion, while in terms of Belief and Behavior the ratio is higher around 1 in 4. (Fig. 1.17)
  • Regarding belief in the divine, most Nones are neither atheists nor theists but rather agnostics and deists (59%) and perhaps best described as skeptics. (Fig.1.17)
  • The most significant difference between the religious and non-religious populations is a gender gap. (Fig. 1.17)
    • Whereas 19% of American men are Nones only 12% of American women are Nones. (Fig. 2.1)
    • The gender ratio among Nones is 60 males for every 40 females. (Fig.1.1)
    • Women are less likely to switch out of religion than men.
    • Women are also less likely to stay non-religious when they are born and raised in a non-religious family.
  • Most Nones are 1st generation – only 32% of “current” Nones report they were None at age 12. (Fig.1.10)
  • 24% of current Nones (and 35% of 1st generation or “new” Nones) are former Catholics. (Fig. 1.10)
  • Geography remains a factor – more than 1 in 5 people in certain regions (the West, New England) are Nones.
  • Class is not a distinguishing characteristic: Nones are not different from the generalpopulation by education or income. (Figs 1.6 & 1.7)
  • Race is a declining factor in differentiating Nones. Latinos have tripled their proportion among Nones from 1990-2008 from 4% to 12%. (Fig.1.4)
  • The ethnic/racial profile of Nones shows Asians, Irish and Jews are the most secularized ethnic origin groups. One-third of the Nones claim Irish ancestry. (Figs 1.4 & 1.5)
  • Nones are much more likely to believe in human evolution (61%) than the general American public (38%). (Fig. 1.15)
  • Politically, 21% of the nation’s independents are Nones, as are 16% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans. In 1990, 12% of independents were Nones, as were 6% of Democrats and 6% of Republicans. (Fig. 2.1)
  • Young adults aren’t sticking with church

    Seventy percent of Protestants age 18 to 30 drop out of church before age 23 and give multiple reasons for their departure.

    Why they leave

    • Wanted a break from church: 27%

    • Found church members judgmental or hypocritical: 26%

    • Moved to college: 25%

    • Tied up with work: 23%

    • Moved too far away from home church: 22%

    • Too busy: 22%

    • Felt disconnected to people at church: 20%

    • Disagreed with church’s stance on political/social issues: 18%

    • Spent more time with friends outside church: 17%

    • Only went before to please others: 17%

    Reasons cited by the 30% who kept attending church:

    • It’s vital to my relationship with God: 65%

    • It helps guide my decision in everyday life: 58%

    • It helps me become a better person: 50%

    • I am following a family member’s example: 43%

    • Church activities were a big part of my life: 35%

    • It helps in getting through a difficult time: 30%

    • I fear living without spiritual guidance: 24%

    Source: LifeWay Research survey of 1,023 Protestants, conducted April and May 2007. Margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points

    In Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of ‘Evangelical’

    Meet the next generation of Christian leaders

    Jonathan Merritt: A New Generation of Religion and Politics (PBS interview)

    Emphasis Shifts for New Breed of Evangelicals

    Evangelicals at a Crossroads As Falwell’s Generation Fades

    In evangelical politics, a generation gap

    American Relgious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008)

    Most religious groups in USA have lost ground, survey finds

    Generation Y embraces choice, redefines religion

     Shifting religious identities

    Trends in Attitudes Toward Religion and Social Issues: 1987-2007

    Science in America: Religious Belief and Public Attitudes

    The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey Reveals a Fluid and Diverse Pattern of Faith

    Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life

    Religion in America: Non-Dogmatic, Diverse and Politically Relevant

    Public Support Falls for Religion’s Role in Politics

    Despite Pastors’ Protest, Most Americans Are Wary of Church Involvement in Partisan Politics

    More Americans Question Religion’s Role in Politics

    How the Public Resolves Conflicts Between Faith and Science

    An Evolving Debate about Evolution

    Religious Differences on the Question of Evolution

    Re: Man vs. God

    Man vs. God

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html#articleTabs=article

    I’m not sure exactly what use there is in placing these two authors together.  They’re mostly focusing on separate issues.  I suppose it’s helpful just to demonstrate the distance between two views.  Both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins are criticizing literalist religion.  The difference is that Dawkins also dismisses non-literalist religion.

    I’m in favor of Karen Armstrong’s position as she has a better grasp of history and societal development.  She seems to comprehend what the real issue is.  However, Richard Dawkins does have a point.  Literalism is still a popular view, but the even more fundamental point is that it’s ever becoming less popular.  Polls show that traditional religion is waning and alternative interpretations of spirituality are increasing.

    It’s true that it might take a while for literalism to become a minority position especially in the US.  Even so, Karen Armstrong has written about how fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity.  Both scientific materialism and fundamentalism both tend towards literalism, seeing all of the world through one lense.  Armstrong is suggesting that multiple perspectives will give more understanding.

    She points out how the symbolic view of the divine is very old, older than Christianity.  Many of the earliest Christians were influenced by the allegorical interpretations of the Greeks and the Alexandrian Jews, and these early Christians often discounted literalist interpretations of the Old Testament.  It’s only in recent centuries that biblical literalism took its cue from science and became widely popular.  The debate about the historical nature of Jesus is more of an issue today than it ever was at the earliest decades of Christianity.

    Dawkins bring up a very important point in his last paragraph, but he betrays a lack of comprehension of the subject.  It seems to me that Armstrong’s view simply goes over his head.  Yes, literalism is popular.  So?  Why does he want to make all people open to religion and spirituality the enemy of his ideological vision of scientific humanism?  His view even seems to discount the value of openminded agnosticism.  You’re either with him or you’re against him… pick a side or else become irrelevant (and lonely).  He is correct that many people don’t understand the views of sophisticated theologians such as Armstrong (himself included), but that doesn’t make such views any less important.  It’s lonely to speak against popular opinion.  However, that was just as much true for atheistic scientists in centuries past.  Popular opinion is always changing.

    The problem with trying to compare these two authors is that you need a larger context to judge by.  There are two many issues and too much background info that need to be understood in detail: Axial Age religions, Hellenistic influences on Judeo-Christianity, logos and mythos, literalism and allegory, modernism and postmodernism, etc.  There are these large trends of history that we’re all caught in and it’s hard to see outside of our situation.  This is a very old discussion.  The debate between literalism and allegory, for example, has come up again and again throughout history.  There was a major debate about it in the 19th century, but then was almost entirely forgotten about again in the twentieth century.  This debate has been become active again, but the situation is different.  The literalism of both scientists and fundamentalists is a viewpoint of modernism.  Despite the influence modernist thought has on the world, we are slowly developing towards a new paradigm of understanding.

    To understand what is emerging from this cultural conflict, I’d suggest turning to some other ideas.  Personally, I find Ken Wilber’s integral theory helpful and also Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics.  But there are many models that are helpful.  What Dawkins misses is the human element.  He is idealizing objectivity, but humans are inevitably mired in subjectivity.  If you want to understand why humans believe what they do, you need to understand human nature.  Studying psychology always adds some insight.  To specifically understand the shift society is dealing with at the moment, I think the study of generations is even more important.  Polls show that they younger generations have a very different view of religon.  It’s obvious that we should look to the opinions and attitudes of the young if we want to see where the world is heading.  The youth are less traditionally religious, but interestingly this doesn’t equate to them being non-spiritual.  So, it would seem that the youth are leaning more towards Armstrong’s view.  But time will tell.