News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: April 2005

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Destruction of the Temple 2001

Plato says in the Republic that oligarchs (those who rule states in the name of money) seek to get money out of fear. Not that they fear losing their money or simply that they fear others stealing their money, but that they accumulate their riches out of fear. Fear of what? As Plato says, out of fear for their lives.

One could interpret this in several ways. That is, the oligarchical soul attempts to obviate their fear of death through accumulating wealth. Once this is accomplished, then their efforts in life are to continue to stave off that fear through political means, as well as through the activity of accumulating more and more wealth.

This piece of social psychology is very telling, I believe, when placed in relationship to what happened on September 11, 2001. This can be seen from several angles: from the view of the attackers, especially bib-Laden, and from the US in its response to the attack.

From Bin-Laden's perspective, it can be seen as a stroke of genius in understanding capitalist psychology. That is, in attacking the World Trade Center, the economic nexus of this country, he knew that he would instil the most fear and elicit the strongest reaction. Even if he was not conscious of this effect, and it was simply a military tactic in a larger strategy, it says something about bin-Laden's understanding of the American spirit--Americans are fearful because they are rich. Attack their money and you will instil a primordial fear of death which the accumulation of wealth is meant to hide.

From the American persepctive, there is nothing more fearful than having one's riches attacked. Since the basis for the accumulation of wealth is related in some way to fear for one's life, then what worse could happen than to see the temple and symbol of your wealth attacked and decimated? Therefore, one can gauge the rage of the reaction to 911; the ferocity is not simply a reactive defensive move--it is much deeper, relating to the threat not only to self and property but to one's very being, a being that is supposed to be protected by wealth.

In a capitalist society, wealth is the way of assuring that we can control and maintain the threats to our safety and to our lives. It is the basis for our certainty that we are safe. Attack the source of our wealth and you attack something so close to who we see ourselves as as humans that we not only act to save our material well-being but also to save and defend our spiritual well-being.

I do not pretend to be saying anything new here. No doubt, Freud's theory of narcissim and filthy lucre comes close to saying something very similar. But if these comments have any basis in reality, they would account for the lack of regret that this country's citizens have displayed towards the deaths of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilians. It would also account for why the media are reluctant to display these deaths and to report the extent of the destruction incurred by the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is no guilt associated with this death-dealing; indeed, we are not reposnible for occurs to anyone else. There are no innocents here; we the victims must wreak our vengeance. We are under a holy ban to extend our wrath, a wrath that is God's own. We must visit Holy retribution upon the perpetrators of this attack, as well as anyone who is unlucky enough to be caught in the way while we execute that vengeance.

One more thing: I have always wavered between two interpretations of why bin-Laden would chance an attack on Americans on American soil. It would seem to have been a miscalculation on his part in assuming that Americans were too weak and spineless to respond to the attacks. Perhaps he simply thought that the American government would weakly fritter its energy away in indecision and hapless cowardice and respond in the same as always had.

On the other hand, I can see bin-Laden expecting exactly the type of reaction by the US military that did occur. He hoped to ignite an over-reactive response that would ultimately end in the US attacking and then occupying parts of the mideast. In this way, I imagine, bin-Laden hopes to suck the US onto his own turf and play out the wargame on his terms. He can use the occupying forces as a propaganda tool to gain emotional support from the occupied, as well as more recruits to his ranks.

If the latter is true, then it must be seen that 911 was part of a strategy that was not simply a tactical attack geared to wound the beast. The strategy hopes to drag out the struggle for decades, thereby ensuring that even if he were to die there would be enough militant fervor to fill the vaccuum left by his death. Read more!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Calling All Atheists

A recent article at Dissident Voice describes a situation I have always found humorous. The disjunction between those who believe in God and the atheists has always struck me as being a false dichotomy. The fact that many religionists do not trust atheists is reflected in the reciprocating fact that atheists do not trust religionists. But the distrust on both sides seems misplaced to me.

I do not see the necessity of this distrust. Indeed, I find that the two sides perhaps feed off of each other and that the distrust merely reflects a sense of anxiety on both sides for their respective positions. That is, the religionists are anxious about the certainty of their beliefs and their ability to prove beyond doubt the central tenets of their faith; while the atheists are anxious about their denials of any divine or transcendental dimension to life.

I have always found helpful in this debate to remember the comments of Simone Weil, who said (paraphrasing) that she could learn more from atheists than from believers. What did she mean by this? I think she meant several things: 1) atheists critique the abuses of power of an ideology that uses religion to shore up its foundations to oppress others; 2) some atheists display a high sense of morality in their commitment to the plight of the oppressed and the marginalized; 3) atheists ask themselves the hard questions about the reality of God that religionists unthinkingly accept; and 4) atheists often display a steeled sense of purpose that bourgeois religionists forego in their sense of comfort and self-satisfied righteousness.

To say this does not mean that all religionists or all atheists are characterized by these comments. Indeed, there are religionists like Weil herself who could easily fit the description of an atheist, yet her religious life betrays the lie to the atheist claims. On the other side, many atheists are so comfortable in their certainties that they have given up the search for the truth of their own beliefs, becoming thereby just as self-reighteous as many a religionist.

It is an interesting fact that many people in America distrust atheists. If you believe the polls, many Americans would not vote for a candidate who espoused atheist views, Jesse Venture notwithstanding. When I bring this fact up in my world religions class, I am always amazed at the incredulity that my (mostly non-traditional) students evince when I state that I think that atheists can be and perhaps are more ethical than many a religionist. The basic argument they propose is that no-one can be moral who believes that there is no transcendental basis for their beliefs. In other words, how can you be moral if you do not believe that values are eternal? The alternaitve, I imagine, is that values will have no solidity, no basis in reality, no unchanging basis for their "truth."

I believe that it is something like this argument that Dostoevsky's writings attempt to show in his novels about nihilism and spiritual despair. While I see much truth in these views and am sympathetic to them, I do not believe that it is inherently logical. One can only think of such thinkers as Aristotle, who most likely did not believe in a transcendental God yet whose writings on ethics have formed the foundation for Thomistic Xtian ethics. One can think also of Emerson, whose God was Nature, and yet whose ethical outlook enabled him to oppose the genocide of Native Americans, when many a religious spokesperson was silent.

To paraphrase Pomponazzi, a life of virtue should be its own reward; whether or not we live a life as long as a redwood, the point is how true to our morality we can remain, thereby displaying true character.

Does this mean that I think the atheists are right? No, I think many simply do not recognize a basic fact about human nature: people do evil simply for the sake of doing evil. In fact, much ethical behavior is simply not possible unless one recognizes this fact. Yet, in a world of relative means and ends, it is not impossible to imagine an atheist acting more ethically than a religionist. But, I suspect, this is because the religionist has confused relative ends with absolute ends, and relative means with absolute means.

The Xtian religionist is always faced with the fact that the world is a fallen one. This means that one's awareness of achieving certain ends in this world are always suspect, most especially because sin clouds the clarity with which we can see the absolute ends and it infects the will with which we would hope to achieve those ends. In many respects, therefore, differentiation between what a moral atheist would do and a moral religionist would do simply cannot be maintained. A moral atheist just might have some sense of the proper means to accomplishing the right end; and a moral religionist just might confuse his own interests with those of God.

There are no guarantees about how to act rightly in this world. The rule for a Xtian religionist is that one must love one's neighbor and enemy; yet, the difficulty of carrying out that command is obvious from historical circumstance and personal experience. Human nature is built around the desire for self-love, and overcoming that self-love is a struggle that one must face in one's awareness of God's presence. Read more!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Who's Responsible (2)?

When we ask about responsibility, is it legitimate to limit our concept to the individual? What I am thinking of is the repsonsibility that those who give orders have in acts that they themselves may not actually commit. Of course, this question was undertaken at in the Nuremburg trials held to judge German political, bureaucratic, and military leaders accountable for the Holocaust. People cannot hide from their responsibility by saying that they were simply following orders.

This principle makes its way down through an entire chain of command. The US Uniform Code of Military Conduct holds the enlisted man directly resposnibile for carrying out any actions that might be deemed immoral and against the common-sense understanding of what that means. The assumption being, obviously, that everyone "knows" what it means to be moral.

As Nuremburg showed, however, and as most recently displayed at Abu Ghraib, this assumption about people having a moral sense is deeply called into question. Not only that, but the idea that only those who actually perpetrated the immoral acts were held accountable. Yet, there was obviously an environment in which these acts occurred, as well as a social understanding common to soldiers and commanders alike that one might argue contributed to what one could call an environment of indifference or hostility. This environment gave tacit legitimacy to the bedstial treatment of prisoners, simply because they were in some way not worthy of respect and humane treatment.

What I want to suggest is that America has created a culture in which people can be easily reduced to objects undeserving of human consideration. To believe that the people who carried out these acts simply did so becuase they are evil is simplistic. The point is that they grew up in a society that conditioned them to act and react to circumstances in certain predictable ways. While we should no doubt hold them responsibile for their actions, we should also ask what it is about our world, the US socio-cultural world, that made these people into who they are? (more on this later)

For an interesting discussion of America's responsibility in the deaths of innocent civilians, see Majikthise's blog.

For a useful framework for understanding how criminals deny responsibilityf or their acts, see Sykes and Matza. Read more!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Was or Is Ratzinger a Nazi?

Let's get it right. Although I disagree on many points with the current pope, I do believe that the recent rumors floating around that he was or is a Nazi pure and simple lies. I would not even mention it, but my son and my daughter have asked me about it in the last two days. Ostensibly, they are not even getting their information from religious sympathizers, just secular angst-ridden teenagers. So where does the lie come from? Why jump to this conclusion? Try this on for size; the writer's political leanings are obvious.

Ratzinger did belong to the Hitler Youth, but membership at that time was compulsory. His father was demoted numerous times for refusing to join the Nazi Party. Ratzinger has written that Nazis were ""fanatical ideologues who tyrannized us without respite."

Pass the word: Even if you do not agree with the man's theology, he displayed character and independent thought in the face of tyranny and evil. More... and more... Email the Pope Read more!

Who's Responsible?

Everytime I hear about holding people repsonsible for their actions, I begin to ask what people are talking about. For conservatives, this is the great cry to the troops. Yet, as Steven Thomma argues, it simply is not the case that leaders of our society live by their own moral outrage. Instead, if you have money and power, you are rewarded with a golden parachute or perhaps an award from the commander in chief.

I think that what the political and religious conservatives mean, however, is that if you do not have money and power then you are to be held responsible for your circumstances. The poor and socially outcast are held to a higher social and moral standard simply because they cannot stand up for themselves. There are no tears shed over them, only aspersions and vitriol.

There is no excuse for being poor; if you're poor, on drugs, or psychologically fractured, it is your fault and so society has a right to take out its rightrous wrath on your unrighteousness. As Job found out from his friends, he deserved the deaths of his children and the boils and necrotic skin. If he had been truly right with God, he would have been protected and comfortable in his life, fenced in by God himself. Read more!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The New Pope

Congratulations are usually in order when a new leader is selected for a state. The problem with extending congratulations of this kind to the Catholic Church is that it and its leaders suggest that it is not a socio-cultural-political entity. "The Church" advertises its processes and procedures as effects of the Holy Spirit at work in the body of Christ. While I would like to believe these statements, I am doubtful that politics and other factors were not just as much at work in the selection of Pope Benedict XVI as was the Holy Spirit, if not less so.

Let me just say that I think that selecting John Paull II was an inspired choice 28 years ago. The current pope's selection was predictable. After the inroads into people's hearts and into church history, JPII opened up and widened the mass appeal of the Catholic Church for many from other religions and the non-religious. Yet, in his waning years, I began to see a siege mentality developing in the church hierarchy. With the advance of Xtian and Moslem fundamentalism, the Catholic Church itself is responding to fundamentalist elements within its own confines in its selection of Joseph Ratzinger to lead it for the next few years.

The advance of spiritual desolation in the form of levelling is all-encompassing. It cannot be stemmed or fought on any socio-cultural, ecclesiastical, or political front. The hardening of doctrinal boundaries or proposal of comprehensive religious solutions for worldly troubles is ultimately self-defeating. This is simply because modernism itself is a systematic effort at incorporating all differences and opposition and turning them into facets of itself.

The only "solution" to spiritual desolation is becoming an individual. One is faced with a stark choice: either dive into the dissolving waters of the modernist bath or gather one's spiritual forces into oneself and seek a relationship with the transcendent in fear and trembling. Any mass movement or institution is ultimately a temptation to lose oneself and become lost to eternal happiness. Read more!

What is up with US?

I wrote the following in response to the anonymous writer, Spengler, at Asia Times Online:

Is "Xtianity" American, Russian, Abyssinian or any other state religion? The assumption underlying your comment is that true religion is somehow aligned with a nation, which defines its character. This assumption, you will note is what I questioned when I originally posted at this site. That is, that you somehow associate Xtianity with a state-religion in much the same way as Jews associate Judaism with a nation or state or theocracy. Therefore, I imagine that we will soon reach the point when just being born American will mean we are Xtian.

I find these assumptions absurd and destructive of true Xtianity, which is associated in no way with a state or people or anything temporal, even a church. Xtianity calls the individual to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It calls for a recognition of personal sinfulness and says we can indeed find eternal happiness if we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

As far as the philosophers are concerned, it is the point to realize not that we can find faith thru reason but that philosophy should be limited, as Wittgenstein notes, to addressing grammatical problems, which ultimately are misundertsandings about the use of concepts to cover cognitive areas to which they do not apply. The desire to create a philosophical system represents, for Wittgenstein, the ultimate sin--to build a tower of Babel in definace of God.

The spiritual desolation indicative of our age is hydra-headed--it expresses itself in the desire to create systems of all kinds--scientific, religious, ethical, spiritual, and so on. It defines itself specifically in this age as the desire to identify religion with politics and political structures. Because individuals find themselves incapable of taking responsibility for the task of finding eternal happiness, they associate themselves with a group, which promises salvation for their guilt and sin. But this is a false promise, and its associated impetus is the sign of despair, the ultimate sin--for it represents humans trying to be God.

The true problem, contrary to your assumptions, is to realize that the modern age indeed destroys true religiousness--it has collapsed infinity into temporality. The various manifestations of this desolation include scientism, consumerism, religious enthusiasm, end-of-the-world hysteria, warehouse churches, evangelism campaigns, cultism, cafeteria-style religion, spiritism, fundamentalism, literalism, etc. The metaphor for the age is packaging--modern religious leaders have learned how to package Xtianity in much the same way as perfumers do a scent or politicians do a candidate.

"Individual conscience"? I think not--it is simply the desire to fill a hole in a spiritual vaccuum that many ultimately find in this wasteland. Yet, what do they have preached to them? They have various forms of concumerist fantasies designed to pack the churches where worship is tanatamount to experiencing a show meant to entertain "spiritually." They have movements they can join--against abortion, for abortion; against change, for change; for values, against values; all packaged and served up to satisfy a temporal need, whether that is anomie, envy, ressentiment, alienation, failed love affairs, addiction, etc.

Indeed, much of what is called religion in America accords with what a friend of mind who spent a week in jail said: "Guys in jail have preachers come in who pray with them, read scripture, and create a spiritual high. So these former addicts of one kind or another simply replace a drug high with a religion high." Read more!