Sunday, December 20, 2009


Superstition Marches On

Thomas Riggins

Jonathan Benthall has an article called "Beyond Belief: In Spite of Science and Secularism, Religions are Gaining Strength -- But Are They Offering More Than a 'Storm-Shutter' or a New Global Market?" [TLS 12-11-2009]. Under the heading "Philosophy of Religion" (although there is little philosophy involved) he reviews five recent books on religion [Michael King: POSTSECULARISM, Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK, Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD, and Michael Jackson, THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND]. From what I could glean from the review none of the books seem interesting nor deep and, unless one is already predisposed to be sympathetic to superstition and its baneful grip on the human spirit, not worth the time and effort to read. Here are some impressions from Benthall's review.

Mike King: POSTSECULARISM: THE HIDDEN CHALLENGE TO EXTREMISM, 324pp. This is, among other things, an attack on Richard Dawkins, whose militant attack on Theism is still upsetting people. King says Dawkins wants to "arrogate to science what is the proper domain of a quite different human impulse-- the poetic and mystical." He accepts the "non-overlapping magisteria" supported by Steven Jay Gould, adding a third, as Bentall points out, of the arts. These domains are "autonomous with regard to science." He goes on to reject,the reviewer quotes him, "the monoculture of the mind" reflected by the fundamentalists of both religion and scientists-- "ultra-scientism" as Benthall puts it. Well, all I can say is that science wants to explain what is really going on in our world and what ever "poetic and mystical" views turn you on are fine but it is a delusional superstition to think that is the way to world understanding. Astrology is certainly "autonomous' with regard to Astronomy but let us not dignify it as a "non-overlapping magesterium." Religion was a pre-scientific way of looking at the world. Today it simply a tool by which the exploited are more easily controlled by their masters. Once the exploited catch on, if ever-- its doesn't look so good that they will-- it's all over.

Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: REELECTIONS ON THE GOD DEBATE 185pp (Yale). Benthall tells us that Eagleton is turned off by the "doctrinal ferocity" of atheists such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens whom he lumps together as "Ditchkins." Eagleton himself rejects the version of God as a vengeful proponent of hell fire and brimstone and thinks that the message of Jesus has been betrayed by the mainstream interpretation of the Christian churches. He is sympathetic to a left Christianity based on a concept of Original Sin that results in a "tragic humanism." But how can you base anything on the fairy tale of "Original Sin?" Benthall says Eagleton finds it "scandalous" that opponents of religion such as Dawkins and Hitchens" can just dismiss the "work of religiously committed people over centuries in alleviating suffering, working for peace and standing up to dictators." Well perhaps it's not so scandalous when you reflect on the fact that compared to the religiously committed who over centuries inflicted suffering, worked for war and blindly followed dictators-- the number of people Eagleton is referring to is a drop in the bucket. As Bertrand Russell said, first religion does a great deal of harm and then a little good. I don't think we need spend much time on this type of jejune apologetic.

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK: HOW THE GLOBAL RISE OF FAITH IS CHANGING THE WORLD. The first author is an editor (and a Catholic) the second a senior staff member (and an atheist) at THE ECONOMIST, a major organ of bourgeois propaganda and misinformation. Benthall says the thrust of this book is to oppose the "standard view" that religion in the US is "exceptionally elevated" as opposed to Europe and other developed countries "with the drift away from the churches" and that this is the trend of history. "Elevated" is a strange word to use, I think, to describe the primitive nativistic and quite ridiculous beliefs of most American Christians. Everyone who studies the philosophy of religion grants that the US is full of undereducated, unsophisticated, antiscientific, homophobic, racist Bible thumpers to a greater degree than other industrialized areas of the world. That this is "elevated religiosity" is debatable. The authors see, with the exception of Europe, the world trending in the American direction with the rapid growth of religious sects and cults (not their terminology) in the neocolonial world and in China. They are confident that China will become a Christian country. The Chinese "middle class" is better educated than its American counterpart so I doubt this will happen. As we continue to exploit and destroy the neocolonial world, religion can be expected to grow and prosper in this area as it is the sigh of the oppressed after all. Our authors understand this as Benthall writes they hold that, "People take cover from the 'hurricane of capitalism' under the canopy of religion." Since THE ECONOMIST supported Bush's imperialist oil grabbing invasion of Iraq, our authors well know what the "hurricane of capitalism" is capable of.

Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD: FINDINGS FROM THE SOVIET EXPERIMENT IN SECULARIZATION, 264pp (U 0f Ca Press). Using only English language sources, Froese sets out to test the six propositions he thinks are at the basis of the Soviet attitudes toward religion. The six are as follows, according to Benthall's review. 1) Religion is a primitive illusion. 2) Religious rites and values are more important than the gods. 3) Religious leaders are functions of state power. 4) Religious behavior is mostly based on rational choice (!?) [I really doubt the Soviets believed religion was both a primitive illusion AND involved rational choice. Froese puts this one in because he will propose a "market model" for religion later on in his book and most bourgeois thinkers believe markets are the result of "rational choice" such as spending more than you have.] 5) Religion is only concerned with the supernatural. [Another dubious Froese proposition attributed to the Soviets, who were well aware of the social, political, and economic roles that religion concerns itself with.] 6) Religion is subject to market forces the same as businesses are. Benthall says the author has "a personal leaning towards the market model" --i.e., 6) and this, in my opinion, is why he thinks the Soviets believed 4) as well. This whole scheme is cooked up out of Froese's brain. He wonders why the Soviets did not just co-op the Russian Orthodox Church, as the Tzars had, and use it to further the aims of the state. "Froese wonders, Benthall writes, "why Soviet propagandists spent so much effort in creating a substitute religion [i.e., Atheism ] when they could have co-opted an existing one [Orthodoxy] more easily." Froese thinks the Soviet leaders were all like Putin. It does not occur to him that the Bolsheviks sincerely thought religion was a mental poison that imprisons the minds of the masses and makes them slaves and stupid at the same time. The free human beings of the future would be free of the God Delusion.

Michael Jackson [no, not THAT Michael Jackson], THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND: RELATEDNESS, RELIGIOSITY, AND THE REAL. This book will claim a little more of our attention as, unlike the twaddle before, there is some real thinking going on here. The author is a social anthropologist influenced by phenomenology. Benthall quotes him on a need for a modern understanding of religion. Jackson writes, "We need to approach religiosity without a theological vocabulary, repudiate the notion of religion as a sui generis phenomenon, and distance ourselves from the assumption of a necessary relationship between espoused belief and subjective experience." He thinks religion is search for "what matters". Well, this would give it a broader extension than it now has. He thinks that religion develops at the extreme limits of human experience when we arrive at "those critical situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, the limits of our strength...."

"It would seem," Jackson writes, "that for all human beings, regardless of their world views, it is in border situations when they are sorely tested ... that they are most susceptible to those epiphanies, breakthroughs, conversions, and revelations that are sometimes associated with the divine [?? what is the 'divine'?- that's theological vocabulary ] and sometimes simply taken as evidence of the finitude, uncertainty, and thrownness of human existence." This is, of course, an echo of the EXISTENZ philosophy of Karl Jaspers and his notion of "limit-situations." It is also, like Jasper's philosophy, a form of anti-scientific irrationalism. Here is Benthall: "For him [i.e., Jackson], a given interpretive vocabulary is at its most disputable when it appears to privilege one way of representing reality by depreciating others." Taken literally this would mean that the scientific method, the only way so far that we have arrived at propositions that have universal applicability, would be on a par with metaphysical speculations and religious intuitions. Benthall thinks that Jackson's way of looking at the world could lead to "spiritual principles compatible with modern science" and concludes that Jackson's way of looking at religion could result in "a shared 'religious' sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace." Yet again with the "marketplace." This "shared 'religious' sensibility" already exists in the form secular humanism based on the scientific outlook-- a form of Deism without the deity-- and we do not need to go whoring after new gods. Secular humanism + Marxism should do the trick.

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