Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

Lee Harris has written a lengthy essay, Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’, on religion and philosophy, and especially Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution.

He takes a sympathetic look at the farmers — on the “wrong” side of the Scopes Monkey Trial — who didn’t want their children taught evolution:

If an elite group of men enter into a community and claim to possess a truth that no one in the community can judge for himself, by the standards of common sense that the community normally falls back upon to make judgment calls about the ordinary questions, then this elite group may be said to possess a gnosis — a Greek word that we shall use to indicate a special source of knowledge that gives cognitive authority to those who have it, and where those who lack this knowledge are in no position to be able to evaluate it. For example, if you tell me that a long series of numbers add up to 123, and if I can check your addition by adding these numbers for myself, either in my head, or on paper, or by means of a calculator, then we are not dealing with gnosis, because we each are capable of adding the sum, and because we both recognize the legitimacy of the other’s method: if our tallies conflict, we both agree that one of us has made a simple error in our calculations, and we will redo them until we find the error and are thus able to come to an agreement.

This, however, is not how gnosis works. With gnosis, one party claims to have a method for discovering truth that the other party lacks. It may be because the party claiming gnosis has received divine revelation whereas the other party has not. Or it may be because the privileged party has keener intuitions than the less privileged. The influential English literary critic F.R.Leavis, for example, argued that certain persons, like himself, have a special faculty for identifying great works of literature which normal people lack. Leavis could intuit the greatness of the novels of D.H.Lawrence by a process that is frankly a mystery to less gifted mortals such as myself, who would rather have an important appendage removed than to read another monstrosity like Women in Love. Or the elite claiming gnosis may base their cognitive superiority on their access to secret traditions and esoteric lore, passed down from generation to generation, and forever guarded from the undiscriminating eyes of the vulgar, in which case the cognitive elite approximates the sociological entity called a priestly caste.

When we discuss a priestly caste, the assumption is often made that the priests have deliberately chosen to make their knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary person. For example, the Chinese literati spared no efforts to keep a monopoly of reading and writing to themselves; and a similar tendency can be found in virtually every priestly caste. From this perspective, any claim about esoteric knowledge that cannot be shared with the general public is viewed as hogwash; if anything, the priestly caste has gone to trouble to make their pretended secret knowledge appear to be far more difficult to access than it really is-a device dubbed obscurantism.

Yet what about quantum physicists? Where do they fit sociologically? Their knowledge is inaccessible to the average person, at least without elaborate initiation into the mysteries. Yet do we wish to accuse quantum physicists of engaging in esoteric hocus-pocus in order to baffle and bewitch the masses into accepting their cognitive authority over them? That is going too far-and yet, what happens to a society where so much of what constitutes science is no longer comprehensible to the average layman, and where questions that touch very close to home can only be decided by an intellectual elite whose process of inference cannot be checked and verified by the man in the street?

I love this metaphor:

The Baptists and Methodists were missionaries to the periphery, and because they appealed to the laboring class and those who got their hands dirty, it had to address them in metaphors that they could understand — and not in bloodless abstraction. Logical arguments felt them cold; but stories they could understand. And that was what the Bible was — a set of entrancing Arabian night tales that allowed a man to hover for a spell in another world that was still so much like his own. To ask whether the stories were true was like asking a fan whether professional wrestling is real — We’d rather not think about it, thank you just the same, because we are enjoying our willing suspension of disbelief to the max, and we’d prefer not to have anyone quiz us about where Cain got his wife. It is like having a brainy kid sitting next to you during a sci-fi movie, who every now and then whispers smugly, ‘You know, that can’t really happen,’ in reference to some minor violation of the special theory of relativity.

The Blood of Martyrs

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

In The Blood of Martyrs, Lee Harris explains a perspective that’s quite foreign to most of us:

Banners are flying today in Gaza that read: ‘The blood of martyrs has led to liberation.’ They are the banners of the popular militant Palestinian group Hamas, and they enunciate an unpleasant truth that proponents of the so called peace process would be well advised to ponder. Translated from the language of hagiography, the message of the banners is blazingly transparent: Terrorism works. It gets us what we want. Look what the intifada was able to achieve: the liberation of Gaza. Just think what more terrorism can do for our cause. If the blood of martyrs has led to the liberation of Gaza, may we not expect the blood of martyrs to lead to the liberation of Jerusalem. As the popular Palestinian T-shirt says, ‘Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem.’

The Future of Tradition

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

In The Future of Tradition, Lee Harris looks at the battle between reason and tradition:

America has been in the midst of a culture war for some time and will probably remain so for some time longer. But culture war is not peculiar to this country. Indeed, there have been at least three great culture wars fought in the course of Western history, including one contemporaneous with the rise of the Sophists in ancient Greece, the epoch identified with the French Enlightenment and the German Aufklärung, and our own current battle. The first two ended in disaster for the societies in which they occurred — the outcome of the third is still pending.

Each of these wars has its own particular antagonists, each its own weapons of combat, each its own battlefield. But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe, and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

Read the whole article. There’s even a bit of a zinger near the end.

Do We All Worship the Same God?

Saturday, August 13th, 2005

Lee Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies, asks, Do We All Worship the Same God?:

Starting from the premise first articulated by Xenophanes, and later developed by Feuerbach and Marx, the atheist can immediately see that the religious illusions of men will naturally reflect the immediate world, both natural and social, in which they have been reared and in which they must struggle to survive.

For a warrior elite, the gods will live lives very much like their own. There will be plenty of battles, much drinking and carousing, and a wanton disregard of all sexual proprieties. For those who must toil so that the warrior elite can live the same life as their indolent hell-raising gods, these gods will naturally appear to be capricious and dangerous — forces to be appeased and placated, like the warrior elite itself.

On the other hand, consider those men who have created communities in which hard work, and not brute courage, is the key to high status — what kind of god do you think they will project upon the heavens? Certainly not the worthless bums of the warrior pantheon. Indeed, the first step that such a community will naturally take in the religious field will be to debunk the gods of the warrior elite.

The semi-legendary Persian religious reformer Zoroaster is the paradigmatic example of this debunking process. In his eyes, the old gods of the warrior pantheon were nothing more than demons — and as demons they deserved to be hated and reviled, and not worshipped and groveled before. In their place, Zoroaster offered an entirely new vision of a supreme god of light and truth — a hardworking god who was constantly aiding and helping out the good peaceful hardworking people, and fighting valiantly against the demons from the dark side.

If you had asked Zoroaster if we all worship the same god, he would have quickly told you that no we don’t. Some worship demons; others worship a god of light.

The atheist, on hearing Zoroaster’s response, would say that neither the demons nor the god of light really existed; yet if he were a sociologist of religion, he would be bound to notice the difference in the way in which these two radically distinct illusions have manifested themselves in human communities. Indeed, he would be forced to conclude that there was in fact nothing that distinguished societies more than the illusions that they entertain about the divine. The Aztecs worshipped cruel and ruthless gods who demanded mounds of freshly ripped out human hearts; the Zoroastrians worshipped a god of light who spent day and night watching over men, struggling against evil and working always for the good. Both forms of worship were based, from our point of view, on pure illusion — and yet what a profound difference it makes to a society which illusion it chooses to go with.

Few things matter more than how men chose to deceive themselves.

War in Pieces: The Blood Feud

Friday, July 8th, 2005

After 9/11, Lee Harris wrote Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology. Now he continues his thinking in War in Pieces: The Blood Feud:

Immediately after 9/11, the general consensus was that we were at war. And yet this evocation of the concept of war bothered me because it did not quite fit. Wars were things that Westerners did. They were fought for economic reasons or for territorial expansion; they were instruments of policy; they had a point and an objective. You knew when a war started, and you knew when it was over. On both sides of a war you had diplomacy — the breakdown in diplomacy normally started wars, and a recommencement of diplomacy inevitably signaled their termination. Finally, wars, when they were fought, tended to resolve into a series of increasingly climactic battles, allowing each side to keep score of its position, as in a game of chess, and ending in some well-established gesture, like waving the white flag or slaughtering your enemies en masse.

If you try to make the random and scattered terrorist attacks since 9/11 fit into this pattern, you will soon realize that it takes a good bit of twisting and squeezing to make these events match the profile of Western warfare. [...] After the London bombing, I feel more than ever that the war model is deeply flawed, and that a truer picture of the present conflict may be gained by studying another, culturally distinct form of violent conflict, namely the blood feud.

In the blood feud, the orientation is not to the future, as in war, but to the past. In the feud you are avenging yourself on your enemy for something that he did in the past. Al Qaeda justified the attack on New York and Washington as revenge against the USA for having defiled the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia by its military presence during the First Gulf War. In the attack on London, the English were being punished for their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the blood feud, unlike war, you have no interest in bringing your enemy to his knees. You are not looking for your enemy to surrender to you; you are simply interested in killing some of his people in revenge for past injuries, real or imaginary — nor does it matter in the least whether the people you kill today were the ones guilty of the past injuries that you claim to be avenging. In a blood feud, every member of the enemy tribe is a perfectly valid target for revenge. What is important is that some of their guys must be killed — not necessarily anyone of any standing in their community. Just kill someone on the other side, and you have done what the logic of the blood feud commands you to do.

In the blood feud there is no concept of decisive victory because there is no desire to end the blood feud. Rather the blood feud functions as a permanent “ethical” institution — it is the way of life for those who participate in it; it is how they keep score and how they maintain their own rights and privileges. You don’t feud to win, you feud to keep your enemy from winning — and that is why the anthropologist of the Bedouin feud, Emrys Peters, has written the disturbing words: The feud is eternal.

Who Separated Church and State?

Friday, July 1st, 2005

Lee Harris asks Who Separated Church and State?, and answers, only semi-ironically, Jesus:

Imagine going to a Roman citizen circa 33 AD and asking him to explain the dividing line between the Roman state and the Roman religion. He would scratch his head in puzzlement. For the Roman, the state was the church, and the church was the state: the same entity performed both civic functions and religious duties. But if you had gone to Galilee at about the same time, you might have encountered a man who taught another doctrine — a revolutionary one.

This man, Jesus of Nazareth, when asked the question whether it was lawful to pay taxes to support the Roman state, replied: ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.’

The religious community, according to Jesus, must have nothing to do with the state — which is why the Romans with their purely civic religion hated so passionately the religion he founded. These new-fangled atheist Christians, instead of permitting their god to be worshipped along side the normal gods of all other peoples, refused to abide by the rules that governed Rome’s civic religion, which was the rule of tolerance: I accept your gods if you accept ours. But these Christians, like the Jews from whom they came, not only refused to accept other people’s gods along side their own jealous god; they didn’t even think that other peoples’ gods were gods at all. At best, they might be demons — but in every case, what other men called gods were not, in the eyes of the Jews and the Christian, worthy of being worshipped. Their motto was not our god is better than your god, but our god alone is god.

Nothing could have been more politically incorrect to the collective mind of the Romans than this bizarre monotheistic fanaticism. For the placing of a god over and above the state, a god who could not be regulated by the priests appointed by the state, what else could this mean than the establishment of a higher and emphatically separate authority than that provided by the state, namely the church — and, naturally, a church that would operate in complete autonomy from the state, in no way dependent upon the state for its survival.

The Cosmopolitan Illusion

Friday, March 28th, 2003

In The Cosmopolitan Illusion, Lee Harris weighs patriotism against cosmopolitanism. In the process, he describes how the Roman system transcended family or clan:

Families and kin can clearly work well together, but the source of their cohesion is simultaneously the source of their weakness: Either one is a member of the family or the tribe or else one is not. If not, you never will be, and you know it. But this law does not apply to societies in which the primary unit is a group able to work together — a team, and not the family. This, according to Livy’s account, is how we are to understand the secret of Rome’s initial rise to greatness: It was made up of people who could work together precisely because family could not and did not matter to them. This meant that they were free to organize and cooperate without the structural tensions that arise when there are a number of different families, each vying for positions of prestige, prominence, and power, and leading in their contentious train all sorts of juvenile rabble-rousers.

Comparing America to Rome and Iraq to Scythia is left as an exercise for the reader.