Monday, November 02, 2009

The Religious Left--Part 1--Universal Victimization

By Mike Dorf

On Friday, Cornell Law School celebrated the publication of my colleague Steve Shiffrin's new book, The Religious Left and Church/State Relations.  I've discussed much of the underlying work with Steve (whom I greatly admire) but I must confess at the outset that I haven't yet read the book (though I plan to do so), and so these comments are based on the panel.  It featured commentary by Kent Greenawalt, Sally Gordon, and Bernadette Meyler.

Shiffrin argues that the religious left is better positioned to respond to the religious right than is the secular left.  By the "religious left" he more or less means to refer to people who self-identify as religious and who support separation of church and state at least in part based on their religious convictions. Shiffrin's pragmatic case notes that the great majority of Americans have some religious convictions, and so arguments that banish such convictions from the public sphere--as the Rawlsian notion of "public reason" would--will ring hollow or at best incomplete.  If the secular left wants separation of church and state, it would do better to take a back seat to the religious left, which wants the same thing but can argue for it in terms that have broader appeal.

In this post I want to make an observation.  In a follow-up post later in the week, I'm going to register a doubt about the likely efficacy of the strategy.  Here's the observation:  We now seem to have reached a place in our public discourse on religious matters where nearly everyone feels victimized.

Recent books by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris all, in one way or another, urge atheists to "come out."  And with seemingly good reason: With polls showing that atheists are among the most despised, least trusted minorities, atheists might be borrowing a page from the gay rights movement and trying to show their religious fellow citizens that atheists are their friends, relatives and neighbors.  Of course, this round of books is not at all effective for that purpose, because the books tend to treat religious belief as a form of irrational, often immoral, superstition.  I don't know whether these authors intended to insult religious people, but it wasn't hard to predict that this would be the effect of their writings.  It's therefore probably best to read the recent atheist books as round one.  They aim to raise consciousness among atheists themselves, who can then feel the power of their numbers and later argue for acceptance and even changed policies.

Meanwhile, the religious right has for some time been promoting its own narrative of victimization.  The supposed "war on Christmas" has now morphed into a "war on Christianity"--a term being used by some on the religious right to describe laws in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. that extend protection against hate crimes for LGBT persons and efforts to respect Muslim traditions.  Googling "war on Christianity" produces over half a million hits. You can't make this stuff up.

So, if atheists and the religious right feel persecuted, surely the religious left feels secure, right?  Nope.  It was striking to me how, during the panel on Shiffrin's book, Professor Gordon (whose work I much admire and whom I like very much) repeatedly spoke for the religious left as though they are a persecuted minority.  She reported to having felt lonely, isolated, and even scorned by her progressive friends in the academic world for taking religion seriously.  Reading Shiffrin's book was for her empowering.  She realized that she was part of a great silent plurality if not majority, that would be silent no longer.  And she directed her anger not at the religious right but at the secular left, at one point wishing that the likes of Richard Dawkins would "shut up."  I believe Gordon meant the point in jest; she doesn't literally want to censor the atheists; and I suspect that she would not exactly say she is victimized for her religious convictions.  But still, I perceived real anger.

It is tempting to take from these competing narratives of persecution the lesson that America has become a nation of over-sensitive whiners, or worse, that our public life is so fractious that we cannot engage each other respectfully despite our diverse views about ultimate value and meaning in life.  But I would resist both temptations.  Certainly Shiffrin himself has repeatedly shown in my conversations with him that it is possible to understand the strength of views he does not hold.  Greenawalt specifically noted how the book is scrupulously fair in its treatment of opposing views.

As for Americans more broadly, it strikes me that competitive victimization is simply an effective political rhetoric.  In many contexts, differences about religious matters are simply not salient.  Thus, for example, on Thursday night, I had the good fortune to attend Game 2 of the World Series, where strangers of all religious faiths, and no religious faith at all, came together to high-five one another and in unison chant "who's your daddy?" at Pedro Martinez, united by the true American faith: That with enough money, and a Presidential pardon for illegal campaign contributions, you can assemble the best baseball team on the continent.  Go Yankees!


Paul Scott said...

"Of course, this round of books is not at all effective for that purpose, because the books tend to treat religious belief as a form of irrational, often immoral, superstition."

Hate the sin, love the sinner, no?

In any event, I think you may be mischaracterizing Dawkins position somewhat. (Or maybe I am, since I see his position and mine as so close as to be indistinguishable, so I may simply be layering his actual position with my own.)

My position (and I think Dawkins as well) is that religion, as a basis of knowledge (as opposed to religion as a basis of power) is not due any respect. That there is no evidence at all that God is more or less likely to exist than fairies, unicorns, invisible teapots and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Until such evidence is provided, there is no reason to treat it differently from any other fiction. To this point, in his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins criticizes of religious study (as distinguished from the study of the Bible from an historical and literary perspective).

I (and, again, I suspect Dawkins) would treat religious belief exactly like a Christian would treat someone who actually insisted that unicorns exist and that they tell him that policy position X, Y and Z are essential to the morality of man. Christians would look upon such a person as a nut-bag. They would be right, they just don't see the irony of their position.

With that stated, I don't think Dawkins would suggest that people living in this delusional state are morally compromised because of the delusion. God (the concept) and morality are necessarily independent. They may (and in many cases, are) morally compromised by their religious tenants, but those are acts of man and are not distinguishable by their purported call to the Divine.

Religion, however, is real in one respect. It is a collection of world-wide, significantly powerful political organizations. Created by and directed by people. It is a terrifying force and something that is morally questionable, but in that regard not significantly different from government or powerful corporations.

God, like unicorns and fairies, is imaginary. It is not something to fear or respect.

I think most conversations about religion treat it with respect on the question of the underlying fantasy of the Divine. It is simply part of the background that God exists and the only thing being discussed is religion on religion's terms. That is the fallacy of Prof. Shiffrin's position. Yes, the Religious Left may well be able to better enter a dialog with the Religious Right on any number of issues (including "separation of Church and State"), but ultimately I don't see the purpose - The Religious Left and Religious Right are simply likely to agree with each other on too many issues. Most importantly they share a core respect for the others' beliefs. They treat belief in God and the scriptures as relevant to policy making.

For example, I doubt very much that Prof. Shiffrin (though I don't actually know) would support the removal of having a religious purpose from section 501 of our tax code.

A true separation of Church and State - one in which the State viewed religion and religious institutions no differently from the way it views, for example, Microsoft or Starbucks - is not something in which the Religious Left would find itself interested.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Paul, my point wasn't that Dawkins is wrong on the merits. Rather, my claim was that the religious majority will predictably be insulted by a book that argues that religious people hold delusional views. Therefore, I was saying that we shouldn't expect the atheist-empowering books to earn for atheists the acceptance of believers.

Steve S said...

Thanks so much to Mike for posting about my book.
I wonder if Paul (if I may) would agree that he has no evidence to show that the supernatural does not exist. The denial of the supernatural is a scientific assumption, not a scientific claim. Why is there something and not nothing? I wonder if Paul can show why that is the case? I agree, by the way, that arguments for the existence of God are inconclusive (though the evidence for Christianity deserves to be discussed, not ignored). Agnosticism strikes me as a reasonable position, but it can lead to a secular or a religious perspective
Am I right that Paul concedes that the religious left has a more politically attractive position in combating the religious right than the secular left? If so, why is that not important?
Paul asserts that religion is dangerous. Whether it is politically helpful or not is a contingent matter. I argue in the book that religion has been politically progressive on balance in the U.S.,but not in Europe. I also argue that some of what has been done in the name of religion has been a cover for expansionist imperialist regimes.
I agree that the religious right arrives at morally compromised positions because of its bad theology. I do not think that is true of the religious left, and I wonder what Paul might have in mind.
Paul is right that the religious left believes in constitutional protection for free exercise of religion (not treated like Starbucks), but persecution of Starbucks or religion (the former might be defended given its terrible coffee) is not separation.
The 501 question is a good one and complicated for me, but it would be helpful to know if Paul is really talking about 501 (c) (3) rather than the whole section.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks for the lovely post, Mike. Here's a quick thought on the competing victimization narratives point: One of the more longstanding critiques of certain religious traditions is that they in effect codify and rationalize one or another form of 'slave ethos.' The best known instances doubtless are those of Marx's and Neitzsche's critiques of Christianity in particular, as opiate and self-valorizing narrative, respectively, for down-trodden people too timid to demand their due in the here and now. But this tradition of critique goes back much further, and has been leveled at probably just about all widely known religious traditions. One thing that's striking, against this backdrop, about everyone's wanting to claim victim status these days might thus be this implication: It would suggest that there are an awful lot of frightened and desperate 'slaves' and 'proles' out there looking for succur in weird paranoid fantasies. It might be worth noting in this connection, incidentally, that I for my part seem often to have suffered a sort of empathy-blindspot vis a vis these persecution complexes, at least where they truly are complexes. While they would not be dismissible as complexes in the cases of, say, Quaker or Jewish or Catholic Americans in most states outside of Pennsylvania and Maryland up to some point in the late-mid 20th century, and while they no doubt also are understandable in the cases of American Muslims and atheists even today, I can't for the life of me see how most American religious adherents or agnostics of the present day can sanely feel that put-upon. But then, I've never been attracted to 'slave morality' either, even when at my most religiously devout. If anything, I suppose I'm some sort of 'liberation theologian' hoping to liberate all oppressed living creatures. And while that's likely a minority position, I very much doubt it will stay that way, and certainly never have felt persecuted in any event. ('Mother and Father, forgive them and bring them to reason -- the "persecuting majority" -- they know not what they do.')

Michael C. Dorf said...

We have now entered fairly deep philosophical waters, and accordingly, I welcome interventions by those of my readers who are better versed in the literature than I am. With that caveat, I'll wade in up to my chin.

Steve poses what Nozick called "the ultimate metaphysical question": Why is there something rather than nothing? One answer is supposed to be something like "because God willed it." For myself, I have always found this answer puzzling. Isn't God part of the "something" we're trying to explain? And if not, haven't we just moved on to the antecedent question of "why is there God?"

Nonetheless, I concede that it is equally hard to envision a God-less answer that makes much sense either. For that reason, some philosophers have taken the view that the question itself rests on a kind of fallacy, or that "nothingness" is a conceptual impossibility. I don't find that very persuasive either.

If I had to stake anything on the question, I'd tentatively guess that there are false assumptions about the physical world nested in the question itself, in the same way that, prior to the ancient Greeks' discovery that the Earth is a sphere (and again after that knowledge was lost for centuries), people puzzled over why ships that sail far out to sea don't fall off the edge of the Earth. But this is only a guess.

In any event, we can suppose that the seeming unanswerableness of the ultimate metaphysical question makes belief in some sort of animating spirit in the universe called "God" somewhat more plausible than it would be if we had a scientific answer to the question. But that still provides no evidence for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other faith that posits a benevolent Deity who intervenes in the affairs of human beings--and we have plenty of evidence to the contrary. E.g., the problem of evil (hardly solved by the deus ex machina of free will); and the fact that all supposedly Divinely written or inspired texts contain factual errors that were reasonable for human beings to make at the time given their level of science, but that one would expect the Creator of the Universe to know more about. At most, the difficulty of conceiving an answer to the ultimate metaphysical question offers some reason for thinking that perhaps something like Spinoza's conception of God is plausible.

Finally, a terminological point. As I recall, Sam Harris (or perhaps it's one of the other atheist writers) proposes that the word "atheist" should be understood not to mean someone who believes in the non-existence of God, but someone who has no more reason to believe in the sort of God in which most people believe than he has to believe in Zeus and the rest of the Greek pantheon. Calling this sort of disbelief "agnosticism" greatly overstates the nonbeliever's ambivalence.

Michael C. Dorf said...

For clarification: I started and thus finished my comment before Bob Hockett posted his, so I meant to be commenting on the exchange between Paul Scott and Steve Shiffrin. I appreciate Bob's addition too, of course!

Paul Scott said...

Part I - The Political Side

"Am I right that Paul concedes that the religious left has a more politically attractive position in combating the religious right than the secular left?"

Sort of. I would phrase it this way. I think the commonality of interest shared by the Religious Left and Right means that on an issue like "Separation of Church and State" makes it more likely that that issue could move closer to the view of the Religious Left. Is that really "combating" the Religious Right? Maybe, but not enough.

I'll presume, and you can correct any thing I have wrong, that the Religious Left does not support, for example, "prayer in school." Let's assume that the RL is able to dialog with the RR and now the RR no longer supports it either. I am dubious about that proposition, but I do accept that the RL is in a better position to accomplish this than the SL, because of the large ground of shared interests.

The question to me remains - has anything really been accomplished? The RR now no longer asserts an issue, but the coalition that achieved this presents a best case of of movement to the political will of the RL. The dialog has been entirely on the terms of religion (and realistically, the RL and RR in America is more specific than Religious Left or Right, it is Christian Left and Right, so the dialog is not only entirely theist, it is entirely Christian).

For real, long term success, the Religious Right must lose in the minds of Americans on the basis of secular reasoning, not some form of religious dispute resolved because of religious reasons or benefits that inure to religion.

This quote from your reply, to me, sums up the danger:

"I agree that the religious right arrives at morally compromised positions because of its bad theology. I do not think that is true of the religious left, and I wonder what Paul might have in mind."

I do not know which tenants of the Religious Left are, or may be, morally compromised. It may turn out that the answer is none. However, the belief that one group of individuals is morally compromised not because of their positions but because it has "bad theology is terrifying on its own. It implies directly that if you, as a member of the Religious Left, only have the moral high ground because you are right on the theology. Arguments on theology (which to me, may as well be arguing about the average length of a unicorn's horn) is not a dialog in which the Secular Left (or Right, for that matter) can join.

The Religious Left appears more closely aligned to my concept of morality than does the Religious Right, though for reasons concerning which I have no comprehension. Your suggestion is that as a member of the Secular (Left? - maybe), when it comes time to discuss the policy implication of that morality I should leave that dialog to a group of individuals who take their moral guidance from something completely foreign and not understandable to me. It is based on Theology, not Reason. How can I possibly have any trust where that will lead?

Paul Scott said...

Part II - Science and Theology

"I wonder if Paul (if I may) would agree that he has no evidence to show that the supernatural does not exist. The denial of the supernatural is a scientific assumption, not a scientific claim. Why is there something and not nothing? I wonder if Paul can show why that is the case?"

On your specific question, parsed very carefully, I agree - I have no evidence to show that the supernatural does not exist. That includes the Christian God, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Unicorns, Fairies, etc.

That question, of course, is a fallacy on its own. Proving the non-existence of the supernatural (writ large) is not something subject to scientific methods. Some specific supernatural claims may be scientifically testable (such as a person who claims that they are a werewolf and that as a consequence of their being a werewolf they are poisoned by silver and transmogrify during a full moon).

Testing the theory, however, that an omnipotent, omniscient being that "works in mysterious ways" created the universe and interferes in human affairs is not a testable hypothesis. In order to be testable, something has to be subject to being disproved. The hypothesis itself states its own disprovability. So, no, of course I have no proof to disprove something not subject to disproof.

That something cannot be disproved, however, is not the same thing as saying all maters are equiprobable. Probably the single most significant evidence directly against the probability of some being having created the universe is the fact of the evolution of species. The strongest arguments here (imo) being found in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" and Gould's "The Panda's Thumb." Both of these (though I find Dawkins more convincing) outline a mathematical model the implications of which make the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient universe creator highly suspect, at best. (Dawkins the summarizes this in "The God Delusion", but here the argument - though still compelling - is not presented in its fullest form).

Now, as to the specific instance of Christianity (or, really, all three major religions worshiping the same "God"), that is a different story. Here the claims go beyond merely claiming the existence of a creator. The claim specific facts, some of which are disprovable (and many of which have been disproved - usually then retorted only with the "mysterious ways" clause). Christianity also claims a single "Bible" as the "word of God." This Bible has many many translations - all purporting to be the "Word of God." These translations are inconsistent, sometimes in trivial ways sometimes in fairly dramatic ways. This alone (whether trivial or dramatic) clearly means that parts of the "Word of God" cannot be correct - a rather startling revelation from something that is omnipotent and omniscient.

Finally, and wonderfully relating directly to Darwin (the death of whose daughter was the "final straw" in his theism), we have the problem of Evil. Evil is entirely consistent with the existence of a malevolent or merely uncaring God. It is not consistent with the existence of a loving God that actually interferes in human life.

Paul Scott said...

I understood your point, and certainly agree with it. I don't see a way around it; if someone believes in garden fairies and you continually bombard them with the absurdity of this belief, they will be understandably insulted.

Your larger point - the shared, universal victimization - is also compelling.

My perhaps poorly stated point of disagreement was far more narrow.

I took minor exception only to this: "...treat religious belief as a form of irrational, often immoral, superstition."

I (and perhaps Dawkins) am concerned with the conflation of theism with religion. I don't think it is possible for theism to create morality or immorality. Religion, of course, can and does. Those involved in the religion think of this morality of theologically based, but I think that is impossible. For something to be theologically based necessitates the existence of a God. It absolves humanity from its own immorality - transferring that immorality to a supernatural being.

My disagreement (which may be no disagreement at all) goes no further than that.

Paul Scott said...

Part III - Taxation

Sorry, I see I skipped this part of your reply.

I think I mean most of section 501, but I certainly mean 501(c)(3). I do not see why the Free Exercise Clause requires that religious institutions be tax exempt and, correspondingly, religious donations be tax deductible.

Of course, like everyone else, to the extent a religious organization wanted to participate in charitable activities, it should be as free as everyone else to for a 501(c)(3) for those purposes.

But paying salaries of ministers, building elaborate churches and providing a form of entertainment, for which one collects receipts does not seem to me to be something demanding the encouragement of a tax break.

Steve S said...

I do not want to extend comment on the issues we have discussed in this thread. I think I owe a comment on section 501 (about which I know little).

(1) I assume that non-profit institutions can not be subject to income tax.
(2) I do not have strong views whether churches should be exempt from property taxes or whether religions should enjoy the benefits of 501 (c) (3) just because they are religious.
(3) I do think that charitable work by any group religious or not should enjoy the benefits of 501 (c)(3) so long as they do not discriminate in terms of clients or employees and so long as they do not proselytize.
(4) I do think that 501 (c) (3) organizations should be able to take political positions and not forfeit benefits.
Having said this is what I think, I am not sure about most of the positions I just described.

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