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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Michaels & Religion: Can’t We All Get Along?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 12:49 PM

Now that we’re going hot and heavy on religion, I’d like to take another look at Michaels, who devotes his 6th and penultimate chapter to “Religion in Politics: The Good News.” The news is good because, Michaels says, at last he has found something that cannot be assimilated to the identity engine.

I don’t have a well-formed argument in mind. I just want to raise some issues. 

Religion vs. Culture

The first issue I want to raise is a rather pedantic one about the notion of culture that Michaels has been employing throughout the book. Consider this relatively early passage in the religion chapter. (p. 174):

Like ideological affiliation but more radically, religious identity is very different from racial or cultural identity. The big selling point of cultural identity (the selling point, really of the very idea of identity) is that cultures are essentially equal. That’s what makes them different from classes, since classes are essentially unequal - they involve more or less money. And it makes them different from religions too, since if Christianity tells the truth, all other religions must be false.

I find this treatment of cultures and religions as different kinds of entities to be a bit odd. The oddity isn’t quite of Michaels’s own making - I do believe it to be inherent in the ideas Michaels is critiquing - but it is not clear to me why Michaels takes this at face value.

I would think that most professional social scientists and humanists regard religion as itself a cultural phenomenon - at least in large part, for there is a great deal of speculation these days about possible biological roots for religion. That is to say, from the point of view of these intellectual specialists “culture” is a category that subsumes religion and so cannot be in conceptual parallel with it, as Michaels treats it. I understand that Michaels is not analyzing the concepts of professional intellectual specialists, that he is analyzing politically active concepts, but the fact that he nowhere even acknowledges this somewhat different notion of culture, not even in a footnote, bothers me.

I note that, when intellectual professionals talk of culture in this way, so that religion is a facet of culture, they are also “standing outside” not only any particular culture, but outside of all cultures. Sometimes the stance of a hypothetical Martian anthropologist is invoked in this regard. I further note that, the concept of cultural relativism was originally an epistemological and methodological one. The idea was that you can’t understand another culture in terms of your own; you must understand it on its own terms. In taking this stance the intellectual professional is not, of course, called on to adjudicate the truth claims made within various cultures and stated as universal truths.

Of course, the idea that professional intellectuals can “stand outside” has been called into doubt - an issue I’ve touched on in my earlier piece in this Michaels-fest. If you can’t stand outside, then cultural relativism makes no sense as an epistemological principle. It simply collapses into an ontological notion, that all cultures are somehow equal.

So where is Michaels standing in The Trouble with Diversity? Is he attempting to stand outside the political field he is critiquing or is he critiquing it from within? It’s not clear to me what kind of issue this is, whether it matters, and how it bears on Michaels’s general treatment of religion. It’s all a muddle.

Belief and Practice

Then there is the question that’s arisen in the discussion Adam Roberts initiated on Dawkins and Eagleton: What is the relationship between statements of belief and religious practice? This is also at issue in Alan Wolfe’s review in Slate:

Nor do all religions assign the same priority to belief as evangelical Christians do; observance, for some, is more important than belief, and so long as a society allows them to keep their strict observance, they can easily live together with others of different convictions. And even those who believe that Jesus is the way have come to accept that others can find God in other ways. Since Nostra Aetate (1965), the Vatican has worked assiduously to recognize the validity of Judaism to Jews, and the great bulk of American evangelicals, for all their talk of witnessing the faith, do not routinely tell their Hindu co-workers that they will burn in hell. In a world in which intermarriage is a fact of life and switching congregations hardly worthy of notice, religious diversity is an inescapable fact, not a logical impossibility.

It does seem to me that Michaels concentrates on doctrine. Consider this long paragraph (p. 180):

The problem, then, with thinking of religious diversity on the model of cultural diversity is that it turns what should be a debate about the validity of different religious beliefs into a consensus about their equal worth and thus obscures their relevance to public policy. It’s precisely religion’s claim to universality that makes what Neuhaus calls “religiously based public values” matter in American public life. By public, he means first that the religious component should not be privatized; can can’t think of someone’s faith the way Jefferson famously did when he remarked that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” If my neighbor’s belief in God involves also, say, a belief that abortion is wrong, it does and it ought to affect me. It cannot be treated as a merely private fact about him, such as the fact tht he likes Chinese food or opera. And by public, Neuhaus also means that the religious arguments made in the public or political sphere should themselves be what he calls “transsubjective.” “Public decisions,” he says, “must be made by arguments that are public in character. A public argument is transsubjective. It is not derived from sources of revelation or disposition that are essentially private and arbitrary.” Identities can be private - it really does do me no injury if my neighbor is black. Identities are not transsubjective - the things that make me who I am need not make anybody else who she is. But beliefs, Neuhaus rightly insists, are neither.

It is one thing to point out that competing claims to universal truth cannot all be true. At most, only one claim can be true, though it is quite possible that none of the competing claims is true. That is one thing.

But it is not at all clear to me, given the kinds of examples that Wolfe has given, that the question of competing truth claims is the central political question. It is an issue, certainly, but it is not clear to me that it dominates the politics of religion. What are the practical limits of peoples willingness to accommodate competing beliefs and practices? I don’t think they are unbounded, nor should they be, but I don’t think we can determine those limits through logical examination of doctrine.

Fear of Fundies

Finally, let us consider the specific context in which Michaels is arguing. Though he tends to make his arguments in universal terms, i.e. about truth claims of any and all religions, he isn’t arguing about politics in Japan or India or Brazil or France, for example. He’s concerned about politics in the United States. In that context, the religious right is the focal point of religion in politics. That religious right consists largely of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, mostly, but not entirely, Protestant.

I’ve got this vague impression that the fundamentalists and evangelists we (the progressive left) find so fearsome are, to some extent, a figment of our imaginations. For whatever reason, we prefer to demonize them rather than dialogue with them. This is not something I’m prepared to argue in detail, but . . . 

Consider the following paragraphs from an article Malcolm Gladwell published last year:

Not long ago, the sociologist Christian Smith decided to find out what American evangelicals mean when they say that they believe in a “Christian America.” The phrase seems to suggest that evangelicals intend to erode the separation of church and state. But when Smith asked a representative sample of evangelicals to explain the meaning of the phrase, the most frequent explanation was that America was founded by people who sought religious liberty and worked to establish religious freedom. The second most frequent explanation offered was that a majority of Americans of earlier generations were sincere Christians, which, as Smith points out, is empirically true. Others said what they meant by a Christian nation was that the basic laws of American government reflected Christian principles-which sounds potentially theocratic, except that when Smith asked his respondents to specify what they meant by basic laws they came up with representative government and the balance of powers.

“In other words,” Smith writes, “the belief that America was once a Christian nation does not necessarily mean a commitment to making it a ‘Christian’ nation today, whatever that might mean. Some evangelicals do make this connection explicitly. But many discuss America’s Christian heritage as a simple fact of history that they are not particularly interested in or optimistic about reclaiming. Further, some evangelicals think America never was a Christian nation; some think it still is; and others think it should not be a Christian nation, whether or not it was so in the past or is now.”

As Smith explored one issue after another with the evangelicals-gender equality, education, pluralism, and politics-he found the same scattershot pattern. The Republican Party may have been adept at winning the support of evangelical voters, but that affinity appears to be as much cultural as anything; the Party has learned to speak the evangelical language. Scratch the surface, and the appearance of homogeneity and ideological consistency disappears. Evangelicals want children to have the right to pray in school, for example, and they vote for conservative Republicans who support that right. But what do they mean by prayer? The New Testament’s most left-liberal text, the Lord’s Prayer-which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring ("Thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven"), then welfare relief ("Give us this day our daily bread"), and then income redistribution ("Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors"). The evangelical movement isn’t a movement, if you take movements to be characterized by a coherent philosophy, and that’s hardly surprising when you think of the role that small groups have come to play in the evangelical religious experience. The answers that Smith got to his questions are the kind of answers you would expect from people who think most deeply about their faith and its implications on Tuesday night, or Wednesday, with five or six of their closest friends, and not Sunday morning, in the controlling hands of a pastor.

The entire article is worth reading. And you might want to take a look at some of the papers at Christian Smith’s website.


On the final issue you raise, Bill, I probably shouldn’t say too much, since I have an essay in the works on this topic. But briefly: what Cass Sunstein calls the “ideological amplification” of increasingly specialized, demographically specific media, plus the related phenomenon of people’s need to simplify a complex social environment by ruling out certain beliefs and practices as not worthy of consideration, result in the kinds of false assumptions that Christian Smith has been exploding. But of course our need to have enemies is strong enough that hardly anyone pays attention to serious empirical research like Smith’s—thus the spate of new books crying out against The Coming American Theocracy. And if you go into a Christian bookstore you’ll find books employing precisely the same fear-mongering rhetoric to denounce The Coming Secularist Tyranny. Conservative Christians and committed secularists don’t want to understand each other, they want to hate each other, and there are plenty of writers out there willing to feed those fires. Conversely, very few people are doing what Bill does here: subject their common assumptions to scrutiny to see if they are warranted.

By on 10/18/06 at 11:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Alan. I can’t think of any political move that has greater upside potential than respectful dialog between the left and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cass Sunstein on Barak Obama:

I’ve just finished reading Barack Obama’s new book, The Audacity of Hope. An immediate reaction is that whenever possible, Obama likes to propose solutions that do not reject the defining principles of those with whom he disagrees--and if he finds it necessary to reject those commitments, he does so in a way that shows unfailing respect for them, and that puts their beliefs and (perhaps above all) their motivations in the most favorable light. This is true on questions involving the economy, national security, immigration, the role of religion, abortion, affirmative action, and much more.

In this way, Obama’s book has the same feel as the central argument in John Rawls’ Political Liberalism, with Rawls’ emphasis on the value of achieving an “overlapping consensus” from people with diverse foundational beliefs. (Rawls hopes that the overlapping consensus can include Kantians, utilitarians, religious believers, atheists, agnostics, and many more, all of whom might be able to accept certain principles from their own foundations.) Rawls argues for an overlapping consensus in part on the ground that it enables people to live together, but more fundamentally because it embodies a principle of civic respect.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment


You refered me from Michael’s site. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog site.

By on 10/19/06 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim, it’s certainly not my blog and this thread isn’t typical. But welcome.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon said:
“I can’t think of any political move that has greater upside potential than respectful dialog between the left and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.”

I completely agree.  Frankly, I see more willingness to dialogue coming from these Christians than from the left, but maybe that’s just my experience.

Incidentally, for anyone looking for some of that “upside potential”, be sure to check out Bill Moyers’ PBS special on the “Green” movement within Evangelicalism.

By on 10/19/06 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From the Christian Science Monitor:

A national survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on Aug. 24 shows ambivalence about the relationship of religion to politics and social issues, and unhappiness with extreme positions. The public is not polarized into liberal and conservative camps, the poll suggests, but yearns to find middle ground on contentious social issues.  

There is distress about both ends of the political spectrum: 49 percent of American adults say conservatives are too assertive about trying to impose their religious values on the nation, yet 69 percent say liberals go too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.  

“Americans value religion, and attempts to remove it generically from the public square bother a lot of people,” says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum, which cosponsored the survey with Pew Research Center on People & the Press, both in Washington, D.C. “But they start getting worried when religion becomes highly politicized,” he says. “They don’t want it to be too far to one side or the other, or too much in favor of one particular group.”  

Indeed, the poll shows that relatively few people say they belong to either extreme - the “religious right” or “religious left.” Only 11 percent identify with the religious right, a slight drop from the 1990s, Dr. Green says, perhaps reflecting the decline of the Christian Coalition. The right includes about one-quarter of conservative Republicans and 20 percent of white Evangelicals.
Only 7 percent of Americans identify with the “religious left,” yet that is an increase over previous years. Since the 2004 election, considerable foment has arisen within religious circles over the political agenda of the right, with new groups forming to present alternative views on values.  

Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found stronger affiliation in these categories among African-Americans and younger adults. Fourteen percent of blacks identify with the religious left; 19 percent say they belong to the religious right. Among adults under 30, 14 percent choose the religious left, while 13 percent choose the right.  

According to pollsters, the right remains a more potent political force because members agree on a cohesive list of key political issues, while those on the left hold a variety of views.  

Indeed, the survey traces the spiritual roots of the right to white Evangelical Christians (about 24 percent of the US population), which the poll reveals as having views “distinctly different from those held by the rest of the public and even other religious groups.”
When asked, for example, which should have more influence on US laws - the will of the American people or the Bible - 60 percent of white Evangelicals chose the Bible. Other Protestant, Catholic, and secular groups voted the opposite way by huge majorities.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Camille Paglia in an interview in Salon:

It seems like religion has never been a bigger issue in American politics, recognized on both sides of the aisle as something that needs to be addressed. Have the Democrats changed the longtime Republican characterization of them as godless?

Well, as long as the Democrats are perceived as the anti-religion party, we’re going to lose the culture wars. That’s why Hillary has made such a show of churchgoing and wearing crucifixes—even while there seems to be little connection between her Christian ideals and her backstage activities as a politician and money raiser. But religion is absolutely central to this country in ways that Europe’s secularized intellectuals fail to understand. I’m speaking here as an atheist who studies religion and respects it enormously. In the history of mankind, the benefits that religion has brought to society in shaping behavior and moral choice are overwhelming in comparison to the negatives, which anyone can list—like religious wars and bigotry. Without religion, we’d have anarchy.

Religion is also a metaphysical system that honors the largeness of the universe. It’s that sense of largeness, which my generation used to call cosmic consciousness, that is missing in the cynical ideologies promoted by the elite universities—like post-structuralism, which is obsessed with politics and language and has a depressingly debased view of human experience. Post-structuralism doesn’t see the stars or the enormity of nature, which for religious people symbolizes God’s power. So I think that the constant sniping at religion coming from liberal Democrats is really a dead end.

But there’s reason for alarm at the right-wing intertwining of religion and politics, where the Bible is seen as the prophetic master plan of the universe and where Israel as the Holy Land must be protected at all costs from Muslim infiltration—duplicating the agenda of the medieval crusades. But to claim, as Democrats often do, that there has always been a separation of church and state in America is misleading: The U.S. simply has no official state religion. The formative influence in our intellectual heritage came from Puritan dissidents in New England. Major universities like Harvard and Yale were founded on religious principles.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/06 at 06:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Great post, I see racial self-segregation all the time, and I want to investigate the issue more thoroughly.
I always find something new and interesting every time I come around here - thanks.

By John Constantine on 11/02/06 at 05:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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