The Isis Cult

isis vs isis

Until recently, when I used the term “Isis cult” I had in mind the once-popular religion of Isis and Osiris, a faith originating in archaic Egypt, then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. It was a major religion when Christianity was just getting started with small groups meeting in local Moose Lodges. But now, of course, the term refers to the religio-political nightmare known as The Islamic State in Syria (and the Levant). They are insane savages, to put it mildly. One can scarcely imagine a more depraved bunch. They seek to exterminate Jews, Christians, Yezidis, Shi’ites, and any Sunnis who commit the mortal sin of disagreeing with them. They crucify and behead unbelievers. They rape women and girls, seeing these atrocities as by no means inconsistent with the moral ideals of their religion. They do their best to murder the pre-ISIS past, warring against the cultural heritage of the Middle East and the West, demolishing ancient Assyrian relics and promising to level the Pyramids of Egypt. It is hard to understand such religious and moral perversion, as if these maniacs had prayed the prayer of Gilles de Rais (the historical Bluebeard): “Evil, be thou my good!”

But it is even harder to understand what motivates young Muslims in America and Western Europe to drop what they’re doing and buy a plane ticket to Pandaemonium. In biblical terms, it’s as if it was Satan who appeared on the Galilean shore, bidding Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee to leave their nets and follow him, and they did.

In some ways, there are parallels to the great “cult” hysteria of the 1970s. Then, too, we heard about seemingly normal young people, none of them particularly deprived, unstable, or uneducated, who walked off good jobs and abandoned degree programs to march to the tune of Reverend Moon, the Hare Krishna sect, the Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation, the Children of God, etc., etc. Of course, the big difference is that none of these groups was violent. I know what you’re thinking: what about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple? Keep in mind that Jones did not send his people to engage in acts of violence. Politically, the People’s Temple was a pretty sophisticated Liberal activist group. Their violence was a spasm of self-annihilation. Ditto David Koresh’s Branch Davidian commune. The Manson Family, on the other hand, was a genuine exception.

What is a “cult”? There are two criteria. Neither is necessary, but either is sufficient. Often both are present. First, a cult is a (new) religious movement transplanted from a different culture, e.g., the Unification Church (“Moonies”) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (a missionary effort of a Hindu devotional (bhakti) sect dating back to 14th century India). Second, there is complete control, voluntarily embraced, over the lives of the adherents, exerted by the leader himself or by a pyramid of deputies if the cult is large enough. Reverend Moon matched and married couples he had never met and who likely did not know each other. (I attended two of their mass weddings in Madison Square Garden.) Jim Jones dissolved married couples and matched them with new mates.

As far as I can tell, none of the notorious cults of the 70s actually coerced, brainwashed, or forcibly isolated members from their families. These accusations were born of a lack of understanding by outsiders as to what attracted individuals to join these groups and to render such absolute dedication. (Or maybe not so absolute: the typical turnover rate for cults was over 90 per cent!) Concerned parents, pundits, etc., were in effect saying, “I can’t imagine joining a cult unless I got hypnotized or brainwashed!” They just didn’t get it, any more than most today can fathom the motivation of young people who up and join ISIS.

But I think it is a mystery with a solution. I believe the late fundamentalist Presbyterian Francis A. Schaeffer hit the bull’s eye in his 1972 booklet The New Super-Spirituality. He was discussing the earlier hyper-fundamentalist Christian groups like the Alamos and the Children of God. These groups made no secret of their contempt for mainstream evangelical churches and ministries. The COG, for example, would send into Sunday morning church services their own members clad in sackcloth and ashes, stamping wooden staves on the sanctuary floor, chanting verses of judgment and doom. It was a classic case of a repeating historical pattern described by sociologist Max Weber: sects begin by rejecting “worldly” religious institutions which have betrayed their founders’ radical, counter-cultural vision. But in a generation or so, as these Young Turks have children and assimilate to the societal norms they once repudiated, the sect becomes a church, and after a while the whole thing begins again.

Schaeffer was sectarian in one sense: at some of his lectures (I heard one of them at Princeton University chapel), he would stamp his feet and shout “We are the true Bolsheviks!” But in The New Super-Spirituality, he theorized that a new generation of Christian youth, raised on Sunday bombast about taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, were disillusioned by the complacent piety of their pew-potato parents and decided to chuck the affluent American lifestyle and put their money where their mouths were. They sought out Christian communes (I visited some of them: Reba Place Fellowship, Sojourners, Jesus People USA, Christian World Liberation Front), pooled possessions, took Bible names, and spent hours each day witnessing, praying, and reading scripture. All in the advancing shadow of the Second Coming.

I think we are witnessing pretty much the same thing with young Muslims leaving the West and heading for the Islamic State. You have to understand that the whole Jihad movement is a reaction against centuries of theologically devastating Islamic humiliation. In the early centuries Islam ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire was at its height. This success could not but be experienced by Muslims as living confirmation of their belief that they were pioneers and inheritors of the Kingdom of Allah on earth. Thus when their empire began to fade, to fragment, and ultimately to face defeat, even domination, by Christian and secular powers, it was Allah’s own reputation that was impeached. It was no mere frustration; it was an existential threat to the religion: “then your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

The eventual (and predictable) result was a Revitalization Movement (Anthony Wallace). When a traditional culture (and thus religion) is threatened by conquest or colonization, many will acquiesce, but some will resist, absorbing elements from the outsiders which had given them a tactical advantage (sometimes including elements of the conquerors’ religion, but not necessarily). In short, the partisans of the old ways will try to turn their enemies’ weapons against them. This accounts for the happy willingness of Islamists to embrace Western technology like Social Media (not to mention weaponry) to promote a return to the norms of the seventh century. Sort of like that Star Trek episode where, on a parallel world, the Roman Empire never fell and the Roman legionaries used machine guns and televised gladiator matches.

I believe Islamic young people in the West (some of them) find themselves in the same position as the disappointed evangelical youth Schaeffer described. What they heard in their mosques about Muhammad and the past glories of Islam sounded antithetical to the pluralism and secularism of the society around them. Pluralism inevitably dissolves any master narrative that may once have given a more monolithic society its identity and sense of direction. For Muslims, their very existence as one more plant in a larger garden seems to contradict the ostensible raison d’être of Islam. The blandishments of radical Islam offer what a secular, pluralistic society cannot give: a jihad to conquer anomie.

Let’s turn to the question of the mad violence of Islamist militants. What accounts for this? Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann offer the clue to this one. The Islamists, as they know full well, are totally at odds with the modern, secular, religiously diverse world. They face criticism from all sides for their advocacy of ancient Shariah law. Even the very existence of alternative opinions is a threat, since the mere fact that other worldviews are possible (and actual) must raise questions: “They seem pretty convinced, too! How can I be sure we’re right?” Traditionally, dogmatic religions try to set their members’ minds at ease using “legitimation” strategies, seeking to defend, e.g., the accuracy of the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus. They may caricature or slander competing faiths. It might be bad manners, but nobody ends up bleeding.

Evangelism serves as another legitimation strategy. The more people one can persuade to join one’s religion, the more votes one can count toward the truth of one’s belief. One’s faith is buttressed by one’s membership in a “plausibility structure,” a matrix of people who share one’s beliefs, values, and assumptions. The peer support makes the shared beliefs seem self-evidently true. After all, “everyone” thinks so, right? A believer may seek to keep unbelievers (or other-believers) at arm’s length, since at close quarters their lack of faith in your creed might tend to undermine your faith in it. For instance, interfaith marriage is sure to erode either spouse’s faith.

The Isis legitimation strategy is in principle the same as evangelism and high-walled parochialism, only it is much fiercer. Here one seeks to remove from the very earth any and all who do not share the true faith. The goal is to make radical Islam self-evidently true and impossible to doubt. The very existence of dissenters and doubters constitutes aggression against which the ansaru Allah (helpers of Allah) must “defend”—by annihilating them. The women, like their men, do not even count as humans anymore, so pious Muslims may rape them (one may add, like goats).

Even the “pagan” past must go, as Islamist fanatics seek to erase any evidence that the world was ever anything but Muslim. It is like the fundamentalist hatred for dinosaur fossils, the very existence of which allows and demands a version of history and paleontology inconsistent with the Bible.

Jihad-ChildSome politicians urge us to pause a moment and try to understand our enemies. I think I do understand them, and that understanding does nothing to soften my total and complete antipathy to the Isis savages. In fact, it only makes it worse.

One point at which ISIS does not parallel the cults of the 1970s is that business about the turnover rate. The idealistic kids who heed the call of Islamism are not likely to be able to return home once they start having second thoughts.

So says Zarathustra.

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The Gnosis

God creating the universe through geometric principles. Frontispiece of the Bible Moralisée, 1215.

It will come as no news to you that I find Gnosticism very fascinating, and that for a number of reasons. As Hans Jonas explained, it is a mythologized portrait of a particular kind of life-stance with which we may identify without signing on for all the crazy cosmological doctrines of the ancient Gnostics. “Gnosis” is Greek for “knowledge,” and it developed the connotation of  esoteric or elite knowledge, saving knowledge, and knowledge so controversial in its implication that those party to it must be very careful not to impart it too quickly to those not ready for it: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Even without the doctrines of a Fall within the Godhead, of the creation of the material world by the bungling Demiurge, etc., the Gnosis of which I speak is rightly called “saving” knowledge because the possession of it constitutes true enlightenment. Many, many things become clear for the first time. One’s perspective changes. One sees everything in a new light. There is great wisdom in it, if only one will apply it, and one must apply it, in just the same way the navigator of a submarine must and will use what his sonar tells him: once he becomes aware of obstacles in his sub’s path, he will of course steer clear of them.

After gaining the Gnosis, one does not make the choices and the judgments one formerly made. His associates will not understand why he does not, and it will not necessarily help if he tries to explain. The explanation will likely be even more baffling to them. Christian and Sufi Gnostics learned early to be circumspect, even evasive, about their new knowledge lest they goad outsiders into persecuting them. And they learned it the hard way. People tend not to want to question inherited assumptions (about religion or anything else). To question erodes their cherished sense of security and makes them feel disloyal to their parents and teachers. The Gnostic is the one who has come to prize truth above these things (who knows why this person does and that one doesn’t?), and it is a big mistake to imagine that everyone, their fine-sounding rhetoric notwithstanding, feels this way.

The one who dares to question understands truth in a formal sense: whatever it is, he wants to find it, to fill in that blank. Even if he never manages to find the answer, he knows that the search itself will profit and nourish him. By contrast, the one who is loyal to traditional verities and unwilling to reconsider them understands and cherishes truth in a material sense. For him, “truth” is defined as denoting the content delivered him by tradition. He has no blank to fill and thus seems to have nothing to seek.

The Gnostic will be reviled as a disdainful elitist: “this multitude that knoweth not the Law is accursed” (John 7:49). But that is defensive projection by those who resent, not the actual attitude of the Gnostic, but rather the insecurity they begin to feel in his presence. The real attitude of the Gnostic is that of the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism: an impartial compassion toward all and a (sagaciously cautious) eagerness to share the Gnosis. The Gnostic follows the examples of two great forbears. Like Diogenes, he goes about, lantern lit in the daytime, with an eye out for those who have become dissatisfied with the standard account of things and are looking for something better: “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20). He does not want to come on like an uninvited Jehovah’s Witness at the door, trying to sell unwanted goods. And like Socrates, the Gnostic does not ask anyone to take anything on faith, but to reason it out to see the truth for himself. (This is why the best way to open up a biblical literalist to the Higher Criticism is to ask him if he does not prefer an approach that elucidates the puzzles of the text instead of creating more of them.)

What, you ask, is this much-vaunted knowledge? Simply, it is the accumulated knowledge and insight of the modern world, the things intellectuals know or are trying to learn. Intellectuals tend to speak of “modern man,” as if everyone were clued in, on the same page. But they are not, and people’s haphazard, destructive behavior demonstrates that.

Freud and Jung were Gnostic revealers (like Morpheus in The Matrix). Paul speaks for most folks when he says, “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:15). Who does? These two great psychoanalysts invented ways to shine a light deep into the caverns of our unconscious/subconscious mind and to reveal the unsuspected cave paintings down there that explain so much. Once you read these men, you can begin to understand your own secret motives, your fears that cause you to repeat destructive patterns rather than risking success and growth, and so on. You find you can understand the foibles and foolishness of those around you and bear with them in compassion instead of hating them.

Denis de Rougemont (Love in the Western World) explains why people seek extramarital affairs, sacrificing security and loyalty for the thrill of what they think is a pure love unfettered by either mundane circumstances or responsibilities. He shows how this urge reflects a spiritual eros that Plato talked about, nourished in ancient and medieval Gnosticism (the love of the soul for the transcendent Lady Wisdom, Sophia), driven underground by heresy-hunters and quickly resurfacing disguised in the lyrics of Courtly Love, then debased and demythologized as “romantic” adulteries affairs. (Obviously, adultery is much older, but De Rougemont’s discussion presupposes the more recent invention of romantic love.)

Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Interaction Ritual) shows us the great degree to which our everyday conduct is an intricate dance with carefully defined and minutely dictated steps which we are taught implicitly by imitation as we grow up and are socialized.

Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality, The Sacred Canopy, The Invisible Religion) are sociologists of knowledge. They widen the scope of understanding the social world around us, laying bare the mechanisms of externalization and reification whereby the ad hoc corporate creations (religions, governmental systems, class norms, etc.) of a founding generation take on a life of their own when the next generations inherit them as unassailable givens. They show how and why our assumptions seem so self-evidently true to us: indoctrination and peer pressure, isolation from those with different inherited views, activities of apologists and “legitimators” of one’s own culture’s beliefs, etc.

Literary Structuralists and Narratologists (Roland Barthes, Gerard nette, Seym Chapman, etc.) let us in on the many magician’s tricks authors use to weave their seductive spells, hypnotizing their readers into the state of “temporary, willing suspension of disbelief. “Ah! Now I see what he’s doing! Hmmm… I bet I could do that myself!” It’s like learning physiology and anatomy: your body works on its own. You didn’t have to learn how to breathe, eat, etc., but you gain considerable advantage by learning how and  why things function as they do. New Thought theorists like Ernest Holmes and Charles Fillmore helped many to understand that most of their troubles are of their own making and that they have the power to change that by redirecting their habits of thought and using visualization and mantra-like affirmations. Nothing spooky, it is a technique to marshal one’s energies to achieve what had seemed impossible because of our fatal assumption that the future must be a replay of the past with its misfires.

I could go on and on. Once you take the time and trouble to learn such things, you have taken what Don Cupitt calls “the leap of reason,” and you gain a sky-top perspective on the whole human ant-hill and how it works. Like the ancient Gnostics and mages, you know the secret forces and mechanisms of the world you live in, both social and scientific. They appear esoteric and occult only because the vast majority of our contemporaries have neither time nor opportunity to learn what we know.

You have been thinking, the whole time, how so many of society’s problems are the fault of self-proclaimed “philosopher kings” who know only fancy notions such as I have discussed and who inhabit a world of pure theory, trying to impose it onto the rough terrain of a recalcitrant reality where it does not work so well. Granted. Knowledge and wisdom are by no means the same thing. But I think that, while you can have knowledge without wisdom, you can’t be wise without knowledge.

So says Zarathustra.

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The Second Death of Mr. Spock

Leonard Nimoy’s death (yesterday as I write) was an awful blow, though no real surprise after his recent hospitalizations. I doubt if there could be a better eulogy for him than the one Admiral Kirk delivered at the end of The Wrath of Khan. It may sound as if I have lost any ability to distinguish between Mr. Nimoy and the character he portrayed to such great effect. And I suppose I have. But it’s Nimoy’s fault. Leonard Nimoy brought the Spock character to life in an almost literal sense. Just after the bone-headed NBC cancellation of Star Trek (just as tragically inane a move as CBS’s turning down the show in favor of the insultingly stupid Lost in Space), 

Nimoy wrote a book titled I Am not Spock, hoping to avoid being typecast, or, really, being obscured and absorbed by the character he played. But that is just what happened. (Come on! The cover of that very book had a photo of the actor making the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” hand sign!) Actually, Nimoy wasn’t type-cast. He played various roles over the years on Mission Impossible, In Search of, and Fringe. But he knew good and well what had happened decades later when he published a second book called I Am Spock. He was.

Nimoy books

I think of moments from two non-Nimoy movies. In Batman Begins, Ras al Ghul tells Bruce Wayne that, in order to fight crime as he wants to, he must “become more than a man.” In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers returns to camp having liberated hundreds of soldiers from a Nazi work camp, and Bucky Barnes exhorts the crowd, “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” In that moment, Steve has become a living symbol, something “more than a man.” It tells us the crucial thing about the myth of comic book super-heroes: that we have the possibility to transcend mere individuality. Not in the wretched collectivist sense, merging into the mass, which is to become less than a man. Rather, it is to incarnate a myth and an ideal. Not just a patriot, but Uncle Sam.

This is what Paul Tillich said characterized the person of Jesus as the Christ: he had sacrificed what was Jesus in him to what was the Christ, the Anointed. In Jungian terms, one could say that Jesus had become a Christ figure! And he had done so by virtue of “the inflation of the archetype,” becoming lost in the Christ Archetype (already available in the Collective Unconscious).

Anyone remotely familiar with the Star Trek episodes and movies knows that Mr. Spock was a Christ figure. Nor was this simply a matter of his death and resurrection. Throughout the series he had been a perfect blend of spirit and reason, of cross-bearing and selfless duty. He was a kind of demigod along the lines of the Jesus of Matthew and Luke, not a divine incarnation but rather a hybrid of heaven and earth. In Spock’s case, the “heavenly” half was his space alien heritage as half-Vulcan. (Keep in mind that in the Bible, “heaven” simply denotes “the sky.” Jehovah was what we would call a space alien, much in the manner of the God-entity in Star Trek V.)

Star Trek’s Romulans and Vulcans were supposed to share a common origin, diverging after Vulcans colonized what would come to be known as Romulus (at least I think that’s the history). Once they went their separate ways, the Romulans symbolized the martial ethos of the Roman Empire (the Klingons, on the other hand, are the Mongol hordes). The Vulcans represent the Roman Stoicism of Cicero and Seneca. Spock is the perfect Stoic, setting aside emotion in favor of dispassionate reason. But Spock and his fellow pointy-eared philosophers also display elements of Zen Buddhism, as when in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock explains that he displays Mark Chagall’s painting of the expulsion from Eden to remind himself of the fleeting character of all things: that’s the Buddhist tenet of anicca, impermanence. Vulcans are sometimes depicted in Roman togas, sometimes in Zen monastic robes. A key moment in The Wrath of Khan is when Kirk finds Spock in a black Zen robe meditating in his quarters. (Zen is even more prominent in Star Wars, no great surprise given the Japanese cinematic inspiration of that movie.)

All this suggests that perhaps Trekkies are not quite so pathetic as they seem. I love Star Trek very much and have watched it avidly since the very first season of the show in 1966. I’m talking about fans who dress up in Starfleet uniforms and Klingon armor, the geeks depicted on that classic SNL skit with William Shatner telling off a room full of pimply conventioneers wearing Spock ears. This creeps me out big-time. To me, such antics suggest an inability to find meaning in the mundane world, though I could be wrong.

Yeah, maybe I could be at that, because here you have a bunch of people who are so inspired by the world of Star Trek that they wish to be absorbed in it and what it stands for. What they are doing is, when you think about it, a kind of ritual emulation. They want to do what Leonard Nimoy did: identify with their favorite characters to the point of becoming them. And with these characters, that would seem to include nobility and courage. If Nimoy/Spock was a Christ, then these are his Christians.

Vulkan TuvokThat said, you will never see me dressed up as Harry Mudd or Horatio Jones (the only Trek characters I could possibly pull off) at a fan convention, but you will see me (if you are spying on me) glued to the tube watching Star Trek. Kirk and Spock and Picard make for an edifying spectacle. You watch enough of it and these characters start popping up in your conscience. Once I attended a wedding reception and saw most of the guests flocking to a conga line. Someone beckoned me to join in, but I asked myself, “What would Mr. Tuvok do?” I stayed seated. Okay, maybe that’s a poor example, though I’m sticking with it. I’ve learned much wisdom from the words and examples of other Star Trek characters. You can’t really help it.

One final thought. Perhaps mythology, ancient or modern, is made necessary because the “real” world is filled with corrupt, base, and morally mediocre individuals who do not rise above the general morass because they cannot attain escape velocity. If we look to others for clues to how to transcend, to become something better than we are, we most often look in vain. When occasionally we do find a hero, say, like Dr. King, we are willing to look past his sometimes serious flaws because we can see that, to some significant degree, he did manage to launch into the heroic empyrion. Maybe we can emulate him. If we do, we, too, will become myths. Like Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy is gone, but, lucky for us, Spock lives.

So says Zarathustra.

meditating spock

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Atheists for Huckabee

Don’t worry: this is not an attempt to persuade your 2016 vote one way or the other. Instead, I am trying to make my position clearer to many of you who remain baffled at my political conservatism. 

Obama Messiah

To most atheists, skeptics, humanists, etc., it appears self-evident that political “Progressivism” (Leftism) is the logical political stance for them (us). As I have tried to explain before, I reject this connection and remain surprised that such tough-minded skeptics turn right around and embrace failed, dreamy ideologies long ago discredited by history and based on sheer faith such as they would never be caught dead applying to religious questions.

When Liberals vote based on their Socialist, pacifistic, and Politically Correct faith, sure with closed-eyed certitude, heedless of the foreseeable consequences, I see them as merely one more sect of faith-fueled theocrats. I call it “political snake-handling.”
I see them as imperialistic and intolerant in their ceaseless efforts to scrub public space and speech of religion. They look to me like the Red Guards trying to impose their own Cultural Revolution. [1] They are the mirror opposites, I think, of the Christian Reconstructionist nuts. [2]

And as long as a political candidate is not a Christian Reconstructionist (someone who wants to replace the Constitution with Deuteronomy), I consider his or her religious faith irrelevant. I base my vote on real-world policy, things like the economy, smaller government, and foreign policy. I’d much rather have a Pentecostal or a Roman Catholic in the White House than a Socialist.jesuschrist karlmarx with halos Obviously, I plan to vote Republican in 2016, as I have in every election since that of the disastrous Jimmy Carter. I don’t care much for Rand Paul and his isolationist tendencies, but I’d even cast my ballot for him if Hillary Clinton or Pocahontas, er, I mean Elizabeth Warren, were the Dem nominee.

Frankly, I’d prefer Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister whose religious beliefs I categorically reject. I think his stand against PC and Islamo-fascism is vitally important. These ideologies are dangerous to free speech and national security. Unlike President Neville Chamberlain II, Huckabee appears to have learned the lessons of history. If he becomes President (and the same is true of most other Republicans), we have a good chance of averting another Holocaust in Israel. (Watch Obama allow it and then say that at least it solved the Israeli-Palestinian problem.) Huckabee will not vainly imagine he can make nice with the apocalyptic fanatics in Tehran, whose every action serves to demonstrate their incorrigible, anti-Semitic intractability.

Huckabee, I’m pretty sure, holds certain apocalyptic beliefs himself. He most likely believes all the nonsense about the Antichrist, the Rapture, and Armageddon, the stuff I debunk in my book The Paperback Apocalypse. But that hardly means he thinks it’s his duty to bring on the End Times, an absurdity often ascribed to Ronald Reagan with no justification whatever. Pat Robertson, okay, but my point is that Huckabee is more like Reagan than Robertson. (Similarly, many of our militant secularist pals used to try to convince us that George W. Bush was a Reconstructionist, thereby revealing their gross ignorance.)

mike huckabee as moses

I do not like it when I hear Huckabee make contemptuous cracks about atheists (e.g., how their holiday should be April Fool’s Day),  but I don’t care. I am not a whining “victim.” To hell with “sensitivity.” I’m drawing a wider circle that includes him. Admittedly, it’s more troubling when, as recently, he said something to the effect that atheists should be fired from government posts, but I think atheist alarmists have missed his point. Huckabee, I think, takes the bait of those whom I call “Westboro Atheists,” the kind of atheism I repudiate. They are almost all “Progressives” supporting the ruinous policies of the current regime, and I think that is what Huckabee blames them for. Hell, I’d like to see them on the bread line myself.

One reason I think Huckabee opposes atheists insofar as they are “Progressives” is that he gets along fine with George Will (an atheist), Charles Krauthammer (an agnostic leaning toward atheism), and  Karl Rove (an agnostic). These guys are my (and apparently Huckabee’s) kind of non-believers.

But Huckabee opposes Gay Marriage big time, doesn’t he? I don’t, though it is not a major concern of mine. But Huckabee’s opinion is moot. Like him, Reagan was Pro-Life, but he never really did anything about it. What could he have done? In the same way, a President Huckabee would never be able to turn back the clock on Marriage Equality even if he wanted to. Besides, he seems to have softened his position a bit lately, comparing belief in Gay Marriage with using profanity and narcotics: he is tolerant of colleagues and friends who do any of these things.

Huckabee would shelve Global Warming fears, which is certainly okay with me, since I strongly suspect the whole thing is yet another Progressivist scheme to control, i.e., screw up, the economy. As my old professor, Robert Beckwith, used to say, “Figures don’t lie, but liars sure do figure!”

Vote for whomever you want. I am just sharing the sort of calculus I bring to bear on politics. I don’t think there is a particular political stance inherent in atheism or humanism, as some do (remember the recent flap over “Atheism Plus”?). I do not even see atheism as politically relevant. You don’t have to be a secularist to be against Christian theocracy; most Christian fundamentalists repudiate it, too (e.g., Norman Geisler, Chuck Colson). And I am equally leery of any possible atheocracy.

So says Zarathustra.


[1] Yeah, I know our Westboro Atheists are not resorting to actual violence like the culture-purging Red Guards or the Taliban. You know what I mean.

[2] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law; Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics; Gary North and Gary Demar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t.


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Crime as Punishment

Random scene captured by Google Maps Street View feature.

An important theological debate long ago erupted out of a single word in the Greek New Testament. The Pauline Epistles often refer to salvation as “justification” (δικαιοσυνη). That word might mean declaring someone to be righteous even if they’re not, on the basis of faith, or it might mean making someone righteous. Traditional Protestants have always preferred the first, while Roman Catholics (as well as Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, a Protestant) have opted for the second. The Protestant understanding is that God saves us by crediting (imputing) the righteousness of Christ to our (bankrupt) account, saving sinners by canceling their debt of sin. The Catholic view is that salvation is a process of gradual growth, nourished by the sacramental infusion of divine grace.

This is why the Protestant says he is saved “the hour he first believes.” It is why he is confident of going to heaven; he may occasionally slip up and backslide, but Christ’s grace does not change, so there is nothing to fear. The Catholic, on the other hand, says he hopes to be saved when he stands before the throne of God. Salvation is the culmination of the process; hence the Catholic would not think to claim he is already saved. It would be brazen presumption. The Protestant knows he has a long process of sanctification (actually becoming a righteous person) ahead of him, but being justified, being “rightwised,” has already conferred the status of “righteous” upon him through faith, so he feels he is saved already. It’s just got to work itself out from here on in. In the meantime, he rejoices that righteousness has been imputed to him, as a kind of legal fiction. He is already righteous de jure and looks forward to becoming more righteous de facto.

A related question concerns whether sin is imputed to someone who has not yet sinned. Of course, we’re talking about Original Sin. Sure, we all eventually go wrong and do things we know are wrong, things we are ashamed of. Maybe even crimes. But before we sully our consciences by our own acts, does God hold us responsible for the sins of our ancestors, all the way back to Adam and Eve? That is the doctrine of imputed sin, and not all Christians believe in it.

But what interests me here is a paradox worthy of Jacques Derrida: what if de facto wickedness, actual culpable behavior, is (not imputed but) imposed? What if it is, in effect, a punishment rendered to those who have done nothing wrong, a punishment consisting of being made wicked? That is of course counterintuitive, just the reverse of the usual order of things as we view them: someone does something bad, and punishment is inflicted. And that is usually what happens. But there is something else going on in the world.

AccattoneThis first occurred to me when I saw two very challenging, sobering films. The first was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 Accattone (which means “Scrounger”). The title character is a contemptible bastard, a pimp who betrays his wife and steals from his young son. The action takes place amid the awful conditions of post-World War 2 Italy. Eventually the scoundrel is persuaded to straighten up and fly right. He manages to secure honest work, spending all day at back-breaking manual labor for scant wages. It is crushing wage-slavery that he cannot endure. He  goes back to his life of moral squalor. But soon he dies a random, senseless death on the street. In his death scene, Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion begins to play. The ending seems to suggest that every human being, simply as a man, no matter how defiled and ignominious, is to be identified with the Son of Man. His dead-end degradation, his moral dereliction, is his crucifixion. Life itself is a sentence passed upon him.

His criminality is a punishment imposed upon him for no crime already committed. It is not that he is framed and actually innocent. No, that would be bad enough, but the “punishment” is to render the innocent a genuine sinner, a criminal, a low-life and a louse. He starts out innocent (a blank slate) and is then punished by being made immoral, not merely declared immoral whether or not he is. Fallenness is not the crime, but the punishment—for no crime committed.

The other depressing film was Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968). In it, a foreign invasion and/or a fascist takeover reduces a once prosperous and cultured society to near-barbarism. People start casting their previous morality aside in order to survive. Max von Sydow’s character no longer thinks to complain when his wife sleeps with the town commandant to get extra provisions of food and medicine. One learns to deprive one’s neighbors in order to meet one’s own needs. One comes to realize in retrospect that morality was a luxury made possible by affluence. It was like art, literature, and music: nice, even precious, things which must be set aside when the only game in town is sheer survival. If normalcy should return, one may regret what one had to do, but the real regret was having to face the reality that culture and civilization are luxuries, not necessities, when one finds one can no longer afford them.

The grim scarecrows managing to get along in the time of savagery did nothing to invite the great tribulation which forced sub-moral behavior upon them. Their circumstances were not a punishment for any evil they had done. On the contrary, it was imposed on them from out of the clear blue. They were innocent. Then they were punished. And the punishment was being forced into abandoning moral goodness.

I think that the disproportionate crime rates in the black ghetto constitute such a punishment. The habitat long ago became a jungle of desperation and predation. (How? I am no sociologist, but I found the explanation given by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, 1967, pretty persuasive.) But, as in all jungles, there is great danger from predators. It is nature red in tooth and claw. The predators have devolved, as the nice, white Swedes in Bergman’s Shame did, into a pre-moral, amoral state. Ghetto youths are making bad choices, but they are not exactly in a position conducive to considering their options with dispassionate detachment. The ability to do so is one of the luxuries their circumstances have deprived them of. Their crimes are their crucifixion, their dehumanization, their degradation, their paradoxical punishment for nothing they did.

But this does not let them off the hook. Society (especially their fellow ghetto-denizens) must be protected from the predators. What’s the alternative? Can you picture this scenario? “Look, buddy, I guess I ought to arrest you, but your whole life is one big set of mitigating circumstances, so that would be unfair.” But we can’t do that. Society must adopt the legal fiction that the criminal did have a choice, that he did make a culpable decision that he was free not to make, in short, that he was fully responsible for his crimes. We have to dispense “justice” on that basis. Just as actual immorality was imposed upon them, now moral responsibility must be imputed to them, contrary to fact, paralleling the Protestant view of justification: being declared responsible, not being made responsible.

Again, what is the alternative? If we treat malefactors as hapless victims of unchosen circumstances, if we recognize them as “beyond freedom and dignity” (B.F. Skinner), we have no reason not to forcibly recondition them as in Clockwork Orange. Is that better? a-clockwork-orangeBy holding criminals accountable, we may be ascribing greater dignity to them than they (or we!) deserve. For we, too, are surely the products of our conditioning, and the illusions of freedom and dignity serve us pretty well, too. It all means that the whole system of an enlightened and cultured (and fair) society is a game of play-acting. And it’s a game worth playing.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Crime, Racism, Religion | 5 Comments

Mob Violence with your Host, Bob Violence!

american flagg comicBack in the 1980s there was a fascinating comic book called American Flagg (written and drawn by Howard Chaykin). The hero was Reuben Flagg, a former movie star who lost his job when the studio copyrighted his image and could generate it by machine, so they didn’t need him to make new films starring “him.” A lot cheaper that way. You see, this was set in, I think, 2075, coming up on the Tricentennial. The rich had relocated to a terraformed Mars. While they were sitting pretty on the Red Planet, back on earth things were going to hell. Reuben Flagg got a job with the Plexus Rangers as a glorified mall cop. The Plex Malls were the weekly target of hordes of looters. And the ensuing mayhem was the subject of a weekly TV show called Mob Violence, hosted by a guy calling himself Bob Violence. I couldn’t help thinking of this last week as I watched, in disgust, the Ferguson riots. I looked at the calendar and was surprised to see it was only 2014, a good sixty years ahead of schedule.

But the entertainment value of the riots was not theringmaster al sharpton only thing that disturbed me about the fiasco. There are some important implications that I have not yet heard addressed. For one thing, there is the fortress mentality of the rioters and demonstrators—if there’s any difference in this case. I have no trouble recognizing the True Believer, whether religious or political. In fact, any difference is moot, since this “Don’t confuse me with the facts” attitude makes politics into religion. I believe that liberal Progressivism is essentially a religion. It presupposes an intentional obliviousness to the facts of experience, a faith that an improbable agenda and a Utopian vision that has failed many times before will prevail this time if we close our eyes and believe hard enough. That’s just like Pentecostal faith healing. That’s political snake-handling, though more people are likely to die. The evidence showed that the police officer had not murdered Michael Brown, but did the rioters care?

The evidence indicated strongly that the late Mr. Brown was a predatory thug. But the rioters/demonstrators canonized the “Gentle Giant” as a saint, one might say a Trayvon Martyr. At least one hopes they were making the Brown of history into the St. Michael of faith, because if they were, that means they understood that an acknowledged thug would make an implausible martyr. But it might be worse still. I suspect that the rioters knew full well that he was a thug and a thief—and meant to celebrate it! His robberies and his attempt to wrest the policeman’s gun from him were the miracles required for sainthood. Ethics matter not. Crime? No problem! He was black, and that was the only real virtue, and quite sufficient. Policeman Darren Wilson’s crime was simply to have killed a black man.

Of course, had the policeman been black, too, we’d have heard nothing about it. That’s why we hear so very little about black-on-black crime in the inner cities. For you see, even to suggest, as Daniel Moynihan once did, that there is a problem in the black community is considered racist. It’s not Whitey’s business, even as males are supposed to have no right to criticize or to oppose abortion. The ad hominem fallacy has become policy where Identity Politics holds sway.

And if black Americans dare speak out against black-on-black violence, they are considered “Uncle Toms.” They are, like any African American who dares to succeed in mainstream American schools or business, “acting White.” No, we are to understand, it is black to fail, or not to try to succeed, because the preferred dogma is that the System excludes blacks and that the System rewards blacks with success only if they will betray their own people by making it look like the System is not biased against blacks.

Don’t you see what is really at work in the Grand Jury aftermath? Rioters/demonstrators reject the Grand Jury finding that no reason exists to show Officer Wilson acted improperly. No, it had to have been a kangaroo court, because it did not yield the verdict the mob desired. Wilson had to be made a scapegoat for the Obama-Holder-Sharpton agenda. Look at the big picture: the direction this is taking is to render it impossible for any blacks ever to be convicted, since blacks will never accept any verdict as anything but a case of racism, of persecution of black Americans. The jury system becomes moot if it does not exonerate blacks (they can’t be guilty, since they possess the only real virtue: being black) or condemn whites (especially cops), no matter the circumstances, who kill blacks.

This radical ideology ignores the grief and anger of blacks whose sons and siblings are destroyed by black violence, whose businesses are burnt by black rioters. It is not all or even most black Americans who promote this race war agenda. No, it is the work of outsiders and professional agitators, opponents of the American system who are igniting and fanning the flames of every Ferguson. Some are black, true, but many are white Anarchists, Communists, Alinskyites, etc., who are scapegoating blacks, seeking to goad White America to blame their black fellow Americans and thus to create hatred where it had not existed for decades.

charles manson

What these America-hating vermin are doing is exactly like the strategy of Charles Manson. Al Sharpton, Charles Manson: 666 of one, half a dozen of the other. You’ll recall that Charlie did not send his disciples on murder sprees just for the hell of it, as in the movies The Devil’s Rejects and The Strangers. No, Manson, a white racist, was trying to pin the blame for the Tate-La Bianca murders on blacks, hoping to incite a devastating race war that would bring down the hated American system, leaving him in charge. Yes, it was a crazy scheme, but so is that of those race-baiters who set Ferguson on fire.

So says Zarathustra.




Posted in Crime, Politics, Racism | 5 Comments

I Slam lslam

the messageI have taught Religions of the World for over thirty years. I’m teaching it again right now. I once declined to join a secular humanist educational project because their approach toward the religions was shrill and snotty. I couldn’t take that approach and retain my scholarly integrity. The first principle of teaching World Religions is to try to represent the religion, each religion, from the inside, as (you imagine) it seems to its adherents. I always assign an essay requiring students to choose one of the religions we cover and imagine how their lives would change if they converted to it. This approach to teaching Comparative Religion tends to incline those who take it to embrace a personal belief that, even with all their differences, the various faiths are all “true” in some sense. Each seems to do its job for those who embrace it. One thus becomes a supporter of all religions, savoring their artistry (including the cognitive artistry of their theologies), their exoticism, and their idioms of spirituality. I have long affirmed this approach, even as an atheist and humanist. But I am learning to make exceptions.

I have always taken a dim view of the pothead Rastafarians. Not much of a fan of the murderous Thugee (though that’s safe to say since their sect is extinct). Satanism is not an issue here: the pulp fiction stereotype is, appropriately, a fiction. Real Satanists are just theatrical humanists, believing in neither god nor devil. Om Shinrikyo was a nasty bunch, dedicated to clearing the earth of human beings to prepare the way for the return of ancient gods (which also sounds like pulp fiction, but it’s not: these creeps pumped Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system).

Then there are sects that have undeserved bad reputations because of media vilification, like the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. (They receive the same treatment as the Tea Party.) These folks get slandered for the same reason groups like Om Shinrikyo get ignored or not taken seriously when the issues of religious pluralism and relativism come up. They are not “our” religions, not mainstream religions with large constituencies that we don’t want to offend. But I think these faiths must be factored into the equation.

Think of the parallel situation in party politics. Our Constitution has nothing to say about a two-party system, but it defines democracy as we practice it. There are all kinds of political parties out there, some of which manage to garner enough signatures to make it onto the ballot: Socialist, Progressive Labor, American, Communist, Natural Law, Libertarian, you name it. But they get no air time. Because they receive no coverage, we end up with a skewed view of the democratic system. A high school history teacher of mine (Mr. Faller at Bloomfield High, I think it was) once remarked on the irony of our criticizing the Soviet Union for being a one-party state. You could choose from a slate of candidates—all of them Communists. Okay, in the USA, you can choose between candidates representing a big two parties! Big difference. Libertarians make this point all the time, adding that Democrats and Republicans are pretty much one party anyhow.

So is our democracy really what we say it is? Maybe not. Likewise, is our respectable, liberal religious pluralism-relativism what we think it is? Does its apparent viability depend upon a convenient oversimplification? We have to deal the barbaric religions into the game and ask if we can give them all equal honor, as we do Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Because if we had to admit some of them are unacceptable, wouldn’t that render invalid the whole “super-ecumenical respect for everything” (as my Montclair State professor Steve Johnson called it)? I think it would. I think it does. And it is Islam that has forced me to face this question. For I am thinking more and more that Islam is more like Om Shinrikyo than it is like Christianity or Hinduism.

There. I said it. And I will say more.

I regard Islam as a religion of barbarism, a self-confessed death cult, a great step backward in the evolution of religion. It marks a return to the bloodthirsty fanaticism of Joshua and Samuel in Bronze Age Israel. One cannot separate a religion from the culture for which it forms the ideological glue. Islam arose amid scimitar-swinging, slave-trading Arab barbarism. I’m not saying it simply stopped there. When a religion spreads beyond its cultural cradle, it mutates. It moderates. It begins to shed some of the features that once fit best (or at all) in its original milieu.

This means its members, amid new surroundings, try to assimilate, downplaying (by reinterpreting) the newly offensive aspects of the religion that no one found scandalous back home. You see this, for instance, in Jewish documents from the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world. The Epistle of Aristaeus, for instance, written in Greek for Gentiles and assimilating Diaspora Jews, tries to make kosher laws look less silly to outsiders by interpreting them as customs aimed at shielding ancient Israelites from corrosive pagan influences in their environment.

(This was probably true, by the way, but to admit it is already an accommodation to intellectual secularism. This is the issue between Pauline and Jewish Christians in the New Testament: the former viewed Torah regulations as Jewish identity markers unnecessary for Gentiles converting to Christianity, while Jewish Christians deemed those “customs” as the non-negotiable Word of God binding upon all Christians, Jewish or Gentile.)

Other Hellenized Jews took it even further, allegorizing ceremonial laws (like the ban on eating mice!) as if they taught moral lessons in some way. Some even thought that, once you understood those lessons, you needn’t bother with literal observance. How convenient! Nothing standing in the way of going to that pig-picking in your Gentile neighbors’ back yard! “Sure we’re Jews! And, er, damn proud of it. Gimme another shrimp cocktail, will you?” The more you were a good Roman, the more you had to shave from your Judaism. That’s the logic of assimilation. And that’s why assimilation is such a contentious issue in religions today. Faced with it, some will double down on tradition, since they can see it slipping (or stampeding) away. This is what occasioned the Hasmonean revolt against Jewish cooperation with the Seleucids’ Hellenization program. And this accounts for the rise of militant Islam in the world today (in case you hadn’t noticed).

Once you understand this dynamic of evolution-via-assimilation prompting a recrudescence of the original tradition, you can see the fallacy in one of the major arguments of apologists on behalf of both liberal Christianity and moderate Islam. Marty E. Marty (the very poster-boy for namby-pamby, “standing for nothing, offending no one” liberal Protestantism) refers to what he calls “the Walter Kaufmann Fallacy.” Kaufmann (The Faith of a Heretic) ruthlessly criticized theologians and clergy, scripture and creeds. Marty felt Kaufmann was being unfair and trying to make it easy for himself by employing the Fallacy of Bifurcation: he sought to force his readers into eliminating any “third option” of moderate, reasonable religion, so they’d see the choice as between superstitious stupidity on the one hand and unbelieving rationalism on the other.

Moderates, Kaufmann argued, were just diluting their faith into a “safe” pretense. Liberal apologists like 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher tried to launder Christianity to make it acceptable to “the cultured despisers of religion.” Neo-Orthodox theologian and preacher Rudolf Bultmann insisted that the New Testament must be demythologized to make Christianity amenable to “modern man.” You see where this is headed. Conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis mocked this approach as “Christianity and water.” J. Gresham Machen measured the vast distance between historic Christian belief (what Clark H. Pinnock would call “classical Christianity”) and liberal Protestant Modernism, concluding that Modernism was Christian in name only (and that it was, in effect, a case of trademark violation). Ultra-liberal theologian Don Cupitt has admitted as much, proposing that “Christianity is our Old Testament.”

Postmodern apologists for liberal, moderating approaches to religion mount an argument similar to Marty’s. They reject what they call an “essentialist” approach. Who is to say what is “Christianity proper,” “true Buddhism,” or “essential Islam”? They bemoan books like Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (in the original German, bearing the same title as Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity). There is no “essence,” no “proper” or “true” version, of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, or anything else. To say that there is, is merely to claim the crown for one’s own favorite version.

Today, when Multiculturalist apologists (excuse-makers) for Islam hurl accusations of “Islamophobia” against anyone who dares to criticize Islam, they try to discount Islamic savagery as some kind of distortion of “true Islam” (as witness our theologian-in-chief: “ISIS is not Islamic.”). No, they say, “real” Muslims are gentle folk quietly running falafel stands on your local street corner. This is of course itself an essentialist argument. Consistent essentialists say there simply is no “true Islam,” but this is really saying the same thing: that you can’t condemn “Islam” since there is no such thing. Sure, there are mass-murdering rapists who carry a pocket edition of the Koran in their ammunition belt, but that’s pretty much a coincidence. You wouldn’t want to “profile” Muslims as terrorists—or terrorists as Muslims!

What gives the lie to this nonsense is the dynamic of assimilation-and-reaction. Religions moderate by virtue of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, jettisoning their original principles, no longer being true to themselves. That’s the whole point of it!

Moderate Muslims in America (like the innocuous, head scarf wearing teenager in the i-phone commercial, or smiling giant Shaquille O’Neill hawking Gold Bond, whatever the hell that is) are good Americans precisely insofar as they take Islam less seriously. Just read the damn Koran. Look at Islamic origins and history. When mealy-mouthed “moderate Muslims” tell us that jihad has nothing to do with killing infidels but refers only to the pious individual’s spiritual struggle, we are hearing either disingenuous spin (cynical PR worthy of Josh Ernest and Jay Carney) or hopelessly naïve ignorance.

Consider the claim that Islam is “the religion of peace.” The word “Islam” does mean “peace” but in the sense of “pacification, submission.” Submission to Allah, which of course means submission to his self-appointed representatives. It’s not abstract, but concrete. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to submit to these cavemen. Nor did the people whom the first, founding generation of Muslims conquered. Today’s Jihadis are merely returning to the roots of their religion, in contrast to “moderate” Muslims who have modernized, i.e., compromised, accommodated.

Look where all liberalizing religions inevitably and logically end up: approaching closer and closer to humanism. They increasingly slough off all that once gave them a distinctive character. They come ultimately to see their identity in terms of (sentimental) liberal politics, moral permissiveness, and watered-down beliefs. As far as I can see, from my forty years of study, all that is left to them is “faith” as permission to ignore the practical results of their favorite policies. (I call it “political snake-handling.”) Self-righteous “people of faith” endorse utopian courses of action, heedless of real-world consequences, since taking them into account would be “worldly.” Faith means they can be as innocent as doves, but no longer as wise as serpents.

I have come, very reluctantly, to award the title of “real Islam” to the savages, that bubbling lava pit of primitives howling for the blood of cartoonists, beheading passers-by, “honor-killing” rape-victims, mutilating female genitalia, suicide-bombing Israeli schools, machine-gunning people for getting Western haircuts, and so on. The great shame of the decadent West is our pathetic kowtowing to such virulent barbarism. “Thank you, effendi! May I have another!”

And here is another sense in which “Moderate Muslims” are well-assimilated Americans: they are just as cowardly. They have fled the field of the contest for the right to define Islam. They have surrendered the copyright to the savages and the primitives. Thus they just don’t count. They are like the Germans who, while not actually card-carrying Nazis, knew about the deportation of Jews but raised no note of protest. By their silence, they say, “It’s okay with me.” They have taken the mark of the Great Beast.

But even these cowards (and secret sympathizers) are not as bad as “useful idiots” like Ben Affleck, Karen Armstrong (who surely ought to know better!), and others who regard “Islamophobia” as a greater menace than Islamo-fascism (which, unlike the former, actually exists).

 A few years ago I was out in Dearborn, Michigan, where I strolled with great interest through a sprawling street fair run by the large local Islamic community. I was (and remain, despite all I have said here) fascinated with Islamic history and theology, and I rejoiced to see the shining pride of these people, showing off the tokens of their heritage. For a long time, the memory of this experience ameliorated my increasing antipathy for Islam. But then I started hearing that some Muslims at one of these fairs stoned a group of (admittedly obnoxious) Christian evangelists. Oh well…

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

The Decline of the Best

This morning I saw on the news that a British politician bemoaned multiculturalism and its poisonous fruits as a result of Britain (and, by extension, America) having abandoned God. Usually this kind of statement exasperates me, but the more I listened, the more I saw his point. And, though I am not a theist, I suspect he is right in his diagnosis, though not in his implied prescription. You’re not going to like this.

I believe the politician was talking about what the great sociologist-theologian Peter L. Berger called “the Sacred Canopy.” Traditional societies were insular. The Sacred Canopy is the system, the hierarchy of values and beliefs of such a society. Each more, each law, each custom, each belief, each assumption is another brick in the vault ceiling. They all support one another; the practices are legitimatized by the values, which in turn are legitimatized by the beliefs. The ultimate punch line is that the gods gave the laws to Moses, Hammurabi, Muhammad, etc. Of course the laws were the invention of entirely human elders and ancestors, not of gods. Like the framers of our Constitution, the elders knew the laws were their own ad hoc invention. But they passed them on to the next generation who did not create them but merely received them. Invention magically becomes tradition. The human elders who bestow the laws upon the next generation are the real-life analogues to the mythic deities who are imagined to have issued the laws and to guarantee not only their validity but also the punishment of those who transgress (at least that’s the threat). It’s called priestcraft when you are the ones who set the system up in the name of the gods. But when that second generation inherits their elders’ position and authority, they do so with sincere belief in the gods and in their own god-given mandate.

When the pre-Socratic Sophists, having traveled outside of Athens, returned, they told people what they had learned, namely, that the way they do things in Athens isn’t necessarily the way they do things over in Sparta, much less in Egypt or Babylon. And what makes us think the Athenian way is “the” right one? Don’t they think the same in those other places? The erosion began.

Did you ever see the TV miniseries/DVD Pillars of the Earth? In it, much effort goes into the building of a medieval cathedral. Finally ready, the structure opens its doors to the public. Worshippers pour in, gazing up to the hemispherical ceiling. And then the bricks start descending, and everyone who is not beaned by the liberated stones makes a beeline for the exits. It was to prevent such collapses that architects used to insert the keystone at the very top of the dome. Pull that out, and gravity seizes the day. Look out below!

God is the keystone. Pull it out and everything else will collapse. That was the British politician’s point, I think. But is that collapse inevitable? Well, at least not immediately. We might adopt the stance of the Sophists. Perceived as subversives, they did not actually attack Athenian tradition, lock, stock, and barrel. They were pragmatic: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just because “our” system is not uniquely valid, no better than others, that doesn’t make it invalid. Sure, there is room for improvement, but why be so disillusioned with the old claims of divine sanctions that you throw out the baby with the bathwater? This chastened stance allows you to accept the ways of others if they don’t impinge upon yours.

But suppose societies begin to interpenetrate, e.g., via trade and immigration? Pluralism eventually morphs into fragmentation. It represents the taking into the very heart of one’s society the tolerance of the Other, so that everyone is the Other. No more social identity, no more coherent worldview. No transcendent sanction or reason for our ways. No more “our” ways. In our case, look at the polarization on matters like abortion, healthcare, euthanasia. There seems no longer to be a common ground from which to settle these issues.

We were able to delay the shattering of the American Sacred Canopy by the clever expedient of creating a second, secular religion, the so-called Civil Religion that united us as Americans with a common heritage and value system. This was the model of the Social Compact or Social Contract. Again, purely pragmatic: maximize freedom for all, limiting freedom only when it would impinge upon another’s. No revelation claimed or needed. But now that, too, has broken down. Our society harbors fundamentally different values and interests, our populations making their American identity secondary to their ethnic identities, no longer willing to assimilate into the Melting Pot. Someone said the Melting Pot has become the Salad Bowl, but I think it has become the Compost Heap.

Why are Jihadists such a threat to the rest of us? Because they still have a Sacred Canopy, Sharia Law based (they think) upon divine revelation. We have none. We cannot agree even to defend our way of life and culture, since powerful interests within our country reject key aspects of it. Socialism, environmentalism, isolationism, multiculturalism, Political Correctness all make fundamental agreement on urgent matters nearly impossible.

Of course our enemy need not be Islamic (or Christian) theocracy. One can propound a totalitarian agenda without God. Political Correctness, with its speech codes, its constant ad hominem attacks on dissenters, its ludicrous charges of racism, the corruption of the press as the government’s propaganda bureau, the government’s mandated menus, the militant atheist jihad against public expressions of religion—or even of patriotism: all this is the intolerant Sharia of the Left.

Leftists protest that they are not anti-American, but anyone who advocates being a “citizen of the world,” “thinking globally and acting locally,” is admitting that he is opposed to putting his own country’s interests first. It is all right with him if other countries to put their people’s interests first. The same principle underlies the double standard of “diversity.” It is the blindness of the freshman anthropology student who, impressed with the variety of world cultures, concludes that all are valid—except ours. Multiculturalism is “World Citizenship” writ small: the replacement for patriotism. Everybody but us.

Of all the labels I might choose, I prefer “freethinker” to “atheist” or “humanist.” And I recognize that the very trends dissolving the American community are the result of individualism and free thinking. People are unwilling to be told they owe allegiance to anything anymore. The greatest axiom is “Question authority.” This is why church attendance is rapidly shrinking. Not that I mind. In fact, I have always urged people to think for themselves, to question authority, to be individuals. I love seeing a herd of cats, as they say. I take people as individuals, and so I can sympathize with liberals who want to show compassion for illegal immigrants, even imprisoned terrorists. They are people, individuals, no matter what category we place them in, and people per se deserve respect and compassion. But I am aware that this concentration on the trees obscures the forest. There is a Bigger Picture that we ignore at our peril.

I am afraid that the truth may not work. I think there is no God. It may well be that, for the sake of maintaining the Sacred Canopy, we do need a God, but that doesn’t mean there is one. But even if, for the sake of social, moral, and political consistency, you wanted all Americans to return to God, it’s way too late for that.

Secularists and Progressives do not see things this way. I have loved and lived by radical individualism ever since I watched Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner back in 1968. Let a hundred flowers bloom. In fact, let six billion flowers bloom. But what if we face an existential threat? Is it really an invasion of privacy to require AIDS or Ebola testing? To profile Arab airline passengers?

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some needs kick in only once the basic needs for health and safety are squared away. Joining an orchestra to play the violin is not the best idea if we need people to join an army to defend a society that appreciates orchestras. Otherwise, one is fiddling while Rome burns.

I think there is a natural cycle: the more enlightened and sensitive a people becomes, the greater its danger, the sooner it will fall before the assaults of barbarians. Sophistication breeds self-absorbed decadence. When a society becomes little more than a debating society, it becomes paralyzed. That’s us. When we are too good (or too preoccupied) to fight our enemies, we invite evil to prevail. And it is our very virtues that will have made us impotent.

When a civilization allows itself to become too civilized, taking advantage of its leisure to amuse itself with hyperbolic morality and theoretical, ivory tower ideological fantasies far removed from reality, it is living in a bubble that is asking to be popped. And soon the Klingons will arrive to pop it. It is an eternal pendulum swing, for the triumphant barbarians will eventually kick back and enjoy the opium dreams of over-sophistication—until some younger, more virulent group of savages shows up to dump them out of their padded wheelchairs.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Politics, Religion | 13 Comments

Tolerating Intolerance?

The other day I received a typically interesting e-mail for The Bible Geek podcast.  I  thought it would be good to address it here. Dan Mangum wrote:

You often point out that you are not concerned about the religious belief someone may hold. You are not alone, and this opinion is common.  On the surface it seems logical, reasonable, as well as pragmatic. 

I don’t agree. My concern is that a religious belief frequently carries with it quite a bit of baggage. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have said they don’t care about an individual’s personal belief but with the caveat that they just don’t want those beliefs forced upon them or others. Yet part of their belief system for many requires or demands that they try and convert others to their religion.  Belief systems can promote profound scientific ignorance from denial of evolution to denial of global warming. If we are in the End Times, as many evangelicals seem to believe, why would they worry or care about global warming?  Some beliefs, as you know, hold that the Bible is inerrant and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Some belief systems may fight vehemently against gay rights and birth control, some treat women as second class or worse, while others may consider it their duty to kill those of different beliefs or even those of the same beliefs, including honor killings. 

My point is perhaps we should no longer say that it is OK for someone to believe what they want (or are told) to believe, particularly when the consequences of those same beliefs can lead to some horrible actions and outcomes.

I invite Dan to correct me if I have misread him, but I think he is saying that we should not retreat into too-tolerant relativism, to say that all viewpoints are equally true or equally wholesome. I agree with him. In my remarks to which he refers, all I mean to say is that, in polite, civil society I say “Live and let live.” I do not consider it my duty to try to convert individuals I meet to my beliefs (or lack of beliefs). It is simply none of my business. This is quite different, as I see it, from exchanging ideas in print, when the point is to share opinions in theoretical terms. Even when I debate “opponents,” I do not consider them enemies. Usually I find I can become friends with them after the debate (or between debates). I am happy to call Greg Boyd, Gary Habermas, Bob Siegel, and others friends. I feel that theoretical disagreements should not get in the way.

But I draw my circle of friends and friendly acquaintances even wider, numbering among them a whole gallery of Catholic traditionalists, fundamentalists, Satanists, Communists, Moonies, New Agers, Ahmadis, you name it. It would not cross my mind to try to convert them to my views. I am all the more stimulated and enriched by their views the more different they are from mine. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

What about science denial? I think it is unfortunate for fundamentalists to deny evolutionary biology, but really what difference does it make? None until Creationist organizations try to get public schools to teach Creationism/Intelligent Design alongside evolution. And then what to do? Go to court! That is the proper venue, and so far it has worked pretty well. “Witnessing” to individuals that they should accept Charles Darwin as their personal savior is only going to make you into a jerk.

(By now, you probably are aware of my skepticism toward the Politically Correct doctrine of Global Warming. Go right ahead and try to shame me as a heretic for questioning Progressivist apocalypticism. I believe that is the custom. But I don’t want to derail the discussion by pursuing that here.)

The West has gotten itself into real big trouble in the last decades by tolerating intolerance. I once had a parishioner whose husband was undergoing treatment, including radical surgery, for throat cancer brought on by smoking. The guy was a smoking fanatic, and he kept puffing even after this. But there wasn’t very much “after.” He died from the cancer he had enthusiastically invited into his body. And that is what Europe has done by welcoming Muslims to come in and set up ethno-religious enclaves with no intention of assimilating to the host culture. More and more these immigrants demand special privileges up to and including their own Sharia laws and law courts. In Pauline terms, they demand that the state cater to the “weaker brethren” by making everyone else (the native French, Dutch, Swedes, Britons, etc.) observe their Islamic restrictions, e.g., skipping the Holocaust in history classes because it might offend Muslim kids who have been catechized to believe it never happened—but should again. (I know there have been false rumors about this, but also true reports). Or removing menu items from restaurants for fear of Muslims boycotting their establishments. And, of course, allowing the public propagation of Jihadi hate-speech. Newspapers shy away from criticizing Islamic violence for fear they may be its next objects. So much for free speech.

That man I mentioned should have stopped smoking once it became clear what the costs might be, and Europe should have reversed its tolerance of intolerance years ago now. These days, they are taking a second look, but, short of mass deportations, whatever they do will probably be too late. We in the United States are not as far gone yet, but the PC “useful idiots” would rather be martyred for the sake of self-surrendering “toleration” and Multiculturalism even if it means endangering the very Western ethic that prompts them.

(Deportations? Wouldn’t that be sweeping with too broad a broom? Wouldn’t you be exiling many innocents along with the dangerous few? No doubt you would. But ask yourself: doesn’t that argument allow terrorists, in effect, to hide behind human shields? We’re talking about emergency situations.)

Remember, our American toleration and celebration of diversity is a function of our Social Compact system, which means we maximize, not absolutize, personal freedom. “Your freedom ends at my nose.” That’s pretty simple. We should not fear we are guilty of bigotry or intolerance when we say, “You’re welcome to believe in Islam as long as you behave yourselves.” And we’d better be ready to say it. Same goes for the (numerically tinier) Christian Identity lunatics. And the (slightly more numerous) Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists who are armchair theocrats (thankfully repudiated even by most fundamentalists).

The Social Compact means the limitation of freedom just as much as it does the enjoyment of freedom, because, without the limits to define it, we lose freedom. Just like traffic laws, right? You can travel anywhere, but you gotta stay in the correct lane!

Back in New Jersey I was pleased to make friends with the local Imam and a member or two of his congregation. I even had him speak in my Sunday service. I still would. I have no problem with anyone’s beliefs, even if I think they are groundless. I only have a problem with bad behavior, behavior that inhibits the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Politics, Religion | 14 Comments

Nietzsche versus the Nanny State

neitzsche vs nanny state

Recently my wife Carol appeared on the radio program Equal Time for Freethought. The topic was the Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, a “closely held” corporation (i.e., owned and run by a single family). The court agreed that the fundamentalist Green family did not have to violate their conscience by having to provide employees abortafacient methods of birth control (while happily providing 16 other methods that prevent conception rather than nipping it in the bud). I don’t want to get into that issue here, though I agree with the Court’s ruling. Instead, I want to focus on the reaction the other panelist had when Carol dared venture the opinion that advocates of the Nanny State are catering to a lack of moral fibre on the part of those dependant on it and thus reinforcing it. Instead, people ought to be taught to think critically, Carol said, to make good life decisions, and to learn self-reliance rather than being addicts co-dependant on a government only too happy to reattach them to the umbilical cord—rather like the human batteries in The Matrix, exploited by the Machines which keep them in a blissful coma.

Carol had uttered unspeakable blasphemy in the ears of today’s Liberals. It is impermissible to suggest that anyone is to blame for their disadvantages. Such a stance is understandable. Liberals rightly loathe the practice of “blaming the victim,” damning the poor for their poverty, as if they were simply lazy when in fact they are “lost and afraid in a world they never made.” An excellent dismantling of such cruel prejudice is available in the still-enlightening book Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. For fear of allowing this aspersion ever to be cast again, Liberals jeer at any suggestion that the victim has ever brought it on himself. And I think their alternative is insidious. Carol was right.

I believe the Liberal approach closely reflects that of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. This therapeutic ideology requires those who seek help to start by admitting their utter helplessness, their absolute powerlessness. Anything short of that would hold out false hope to the addict. One thus evades responsibility and the resultant guilt. Every Twelve Stepper takes refuge amid a plausibility structure of the like-minded. “If you won’t blame me for my failings, I won’t blame you for yours. Isn’t that great?” It would be dangerous for such a person and such a group to recognize any case of a person who simply (though not easily) broke with his addictions by sheer force of will. Such a case of moral heroism would tend to debunk their crucial tenet: an addict is helpless outside the womb of the group, and without dependence upon a “Higher Power,” which, a la Durkheim, is a mystification of the group. Its tangible avatar is your “sponsor.” In the case of the Nanny State, the Higher Power is of course the government itself, even the current President. But the government actually plays the role of the addicts’ enabler.

I cannot help seeing the whole business as a perfect manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Slave Morality. One seeks to escape responsibility by fleeing into the open arms of others who are happy to embrace an identity of mediocrity, victimhood, and mutual low expectation. Again, “If you don’t hold me accountable, I won’t hold you accountable.” We’re all “good” because no one is, or can be, good. And no one better expose the scheme! If anyone should recognize his own potential, presupposed in and presupposing his responsibility and guilt (Kant: “‘I ought’ implies I can.’”), and strike out on his own, recognizing himself as his Higher Power, the self-satisfied dwellers in the Platonic cavern will try to take him down, to persuade him that he is arrogant and that he is a doomed Icarus, sure to crash. Better to remain safe within the anthill of the happily mediocre. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra exhorted such potential Supermen not to suffer themselves to be stung to death by a cloud of biting gnats. Shoo them away and excel!

Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” was nothing sinister but only recognized the need for the Superman (why not you?) to cease acquiescing in the values of John Q. Public (what Heidegger called “das Mann”) and decide for himself. This marks a transition many people never make: the breaking with conventional moralism and the preachments of authority figures, the assuming of one’s own moral autonomy and responsibility.

To bring this back to the race issue, can there be a better example of the Slave Morality than the tendency of African-Americans to ostracize their members who manage to excel and to succeed in the larger society? Condoleezza Rice is an example, Colin Powell is another. Black school children are persuaded to think that to succeed represents a selling out to an oppressive White culture, and that anyone who does that is “acting White.” Race-baiters like Al Sharpton encourage such belief, implying that black failure is a badge of fidelity and authenticity. But it is instead the sickening spectacle of blacks internalizing the worst propaganda of the Ku Klux Klan: “Blacks must fail; just watch them fail. See?” But this is the Slave Morality, the huddling together of a frightened crowd under the umbrella of a creed of self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. “Don’t tell me I can succeed, because then I will have to feel guilty if I don’t try.”

African-Americans of this pathetic persuasion like to condemn successful black individuals as “Uncle Toms” or “house niggers.” But this is to transvalue values in the wrong direction, calling success failure so that if an African American acquiesces in failure and poverty he has “succeeded” and can praise himself to the strains of Gangsta Rap (though those rappers seem to have succeeded in Whitey’s world pretty well). If someone breaks out of this socio-mental ghetto and makes some money, he has failed! That’s just where the KKK wants them! I view someone like TV business guru Charles Payne as one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Payne was harassed and rebuked by neighborhood children for trying to do well in school. But he pressed on and succeeded. He is the Superman who shooed away the stinging gnats.

But it’s not just the KKK who wants American blacks to fester in defeat and failure. It’s the government, too. Obviously. They pretend to meet the needs of the helpless while enabling their dependence and, in classic Twelve-Step fashion, assuring their target group (ideally, everyone) that they are all helpless. It is like Bonhoeffer’s scathing remark that Christian evangelists in a post-religious age must circle like vultures, seizing on the feeble—and trying to convince everyone else that they, too, are feeble. Such Christians are like the peddlers of a medicine show elixir, trying to sell the audience the notion that they are sick with an ailment only their elixir can cure. And so is the government, as they actively seek to recruit more and more to the welfare rolls and to flood the country with the wretched of Central America. “We’re your friends! And you’re going to vote like your friends vote!” Why kill the governmental goose that lays the golden egg?

Who is the Superman? Are there only a few exceptional individuals? If they can be so characterized, then people like Charles Payne become exceptions that prove the rule. But that was the opposite of Nietzsche’s point. The Superman is anyone who resolves no longer to dwell among the indistinguishable, passive, unmotivated, and self-despising mass. Don’t get me wrong: certainly there are genuine cases, loads of them, of inescapable oppression and insurmountable odds. But I’d prefer to make that conclusion after I try to transcend my limitations, not before. And that’s when I take Camus’s Sisyphus as my model.

So says Zarathustra.

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