Archive for the ‘religion’ category

My New Favorite Mayor…

July 20, 2014

…would be Her Honor Kimberley Driscoll, chief executive of the town of Salem, MA, now caught up in a  dispute with Gordon College.   Gordon is a Christian school with an educational mission it describes thusly:

The best foundation for Christian higher education is the narrative of Scripture, and the goal of Christian higher learning is love—for both God and neighbor.”

That love does not extend to all neighbors.

Thomas_Eakins_-_Swimming_(1895)

The college recently requested an exemption from President Obama’s LGBT anti-workplace-discrimination order, a decision that caught the attention of Salem officials.  In response, the city  ended a contract it had with the school to manage its town hall.

That caught the attention of, among others, Glenn Beck, who warmed up the usual suspects to object to Salem’s decision.   In a letter posted to her Facebook page on Wednesday, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said her office had received more than 50 calls that day from supporters of Beck and “right-leaning” blogs result,  many of them…how to say this?…not what you would call civil:

Driscoll said the callers expressed “some patently offensive views regarding LGBT individuals.”

No surprise there. But what came next turns this from a conventional story of conservative/religious push-button rage that the exercise of the their first amendment rights were not without consequences into a lovely moment, courtesy of Mayor Driscoll:

So to fight back, she said she planned to donate $5 for every phone call to the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (nAGLY).

Hee!

You go, Madam Mayor.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, Swimming/The swimming hole, 1885

Things I Hate With The White Hot Heat Of A Thousand Suns

September 16, 2013

This, for one:

Gary Humes, a programs manager with the Navy, was entering the building where the shootings took place around 8:20 a.m. when he was met by people fleeing the building and warning of a shooter inside. He and more than 100 others ran to another building across the street, while others ran to the Navy museum nearby.

“I decided to go into work a little late this morning,” he said. “I guess God was with me.”” (from The Navy Times story on today’s mass shooting*).

Should we thus infer that God was not with the dead and wounded?

I’m not going to get into the problem of evil in this space.  There are ways religious believers reconcile themselves to the obvious fact that bad things happen to good people — or at least people for whom the evil outcomes are undeserved by any reasonable calculation.  There are certainly logically coherent ways to understand the presence of evil in the world as a strong indicator of the absence of deity actively intervening in human affairs.  Neither of those true statements is in play here.

Rather:  hosannas like the one above are to me the markers of failed religion.  I don’t me Mr Humes himself.  Dodging the kind of horror he did today would make anyone — me certainly – feel an almost giddy (and guilty) sense of relief.  He gets a pass from me on anything he says in the moment.  But it’s still possible to read something in the verbal formula that someone in such straits reaches for in such moments of trial.  And the “God is with me” trope — that to me is the signal of a religious culture thoroughly getting it wrong.

Or, to put it in another frame, what would Jesus say?

Aelbert_Cuyp_-_Landscape_with_cattle_-_Google_Art_Project

This, for example:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25)

 

Image: Aelbert Culp, Landscape with Cattle,  c. 1639-1649

 

Belated (But Not Completely Outdated) Happy New Year

September 6, 2013

I know Anne Laurie handled the start-of-holiday greetings, so I’m tagging on behind, with a few hours (and roughly 100 shofar blasts) to go in Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year.

Really, I’m doing so just to give me an excuse to post this image:

Gierymski_Feast_of_trumpets_I

I know of vanishingly few fine-art images of Jewish ritual life — even fewer of views of religious practice out in the world.  So when my art-historically sophisticated wife sent this on, it was a surprise.

Anyway, I find this holiday one of those that works on me, atheist-Jew that I am.  The two stories read on the two days of services come from the Abraham cycle.  Day one, we read of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the camp.  Day two, the binding of Isaac.*  Terrifying stuff, terribly sad, much grist for thought.

And then, after the chanting is done, apples and honey all round!  As we say in my family, so to you:  may the coming year be as sweet as this apple and this honey.

*If you want to read a brilliant, horrific account of the path the Akedah — the Isaac sacrifice story — took in Jewish history, look no further than Shalom Spiegel’s classic, The Last Trial.  For an equally brilliant dissection of the literary technique in the story, the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. is so good I believe every writer should read it.  Here’s the essay on its own. (In it, Auerbach compares the story of the sacrifice of Isaac to the scene in the Oddyssey, book 19, when Odysseus’ housekeeper recognizes the long-lost hero by the old scar on his leg.  Just a brilliant bit of literary analysis, and a great introduction to thinking about one’s own writing from the point of view of technique and desired ends.)

Image:  Alexander Gierymski, The Feast of Trumpets, 1884.

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?

Cranach,_Lucas_d._Ä._-_Doppelbildnis_Herzog_Heinrichs_des_Frommen_und_Gemahlin_Herzogin_Katharina_von_Mecklenburg_-_1514

Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.

Kindermord, GOP Style*

February 13, 2013

What is it with the folks over at the GOP command bunker?

The State of the Union response gig is a fool’s errand.  Nobody really cares about it; the media resents having to halt whatever self-amuse may be hair-ifying their palms; and the atmospherics of the actual speech are going to suck. No matter how much they may try (and they usually don’t very much)** you can’t win a visual comparison with a presidential address before a joint session of Congress.

Going up on the teevee after the President on such occasions is a necessary evil for the out-party, something that somebody has to do.  There’s a ton of pressure, and the near-certainty of losing the comparison with the act you’re attempting to follow

So:  do you put the rookie talent you’re trying to nurture into a role where merely avoiding embarrassment is a triumph?  Or do you choose someone who’s been to the dance before?

Bougival_Dance

If you’re the GOP, you burn Bobby Jindal four years ago, and now you toss Marco Rubio into a steaming pile of that which emerges from the south end of a north-facing horse.

Seriously — this makes no sense.  In both cases two men that the Republican party at least seems to think are potential major national players were tossed into a structurally difficult task at the very beginning of their big-league political careers.

Both did worse than I think their handlers may have expected, but where was the sense in taking the risk at all?  It’s years yet –at least a couple, before the public presidential race kicks in.  There’s no conceivable benefit to the individuals or the party that could flow from a speech in these circumstances that will matter in any deep way either to the actual political process in the here and now, nor to presidential politics coming down the pike. Doesn’t it make more sense to send up there somebody who has been up and down the course a couple of times and can be trusted to come home with as few bogies as possible?

I know, I know.  In both the Jindal and Rubio examples there is a party motive: the attempt to portray the Republican gerontocracy as something other than old and pale.  But, to continue to mix metaphors, this is a case of eating your seed corn.  Jindal is still a figure of fun; Rubio took a real blow last night, IMHO.  It just seems like crappy long-term political management to me.  Which, of course, is just fine, coming from that side of the aisle.  Long may such fecklessness wave!

*Grim origin-event for this title.

**That said, you can do better or worse, and last night’s GOP set was truly horrendous.  My wife, a two-time Emmy award winning designer (bragsplaining, I know), wondered if the folks in the Republican brain trust have even heard of the concept of  production values.  Bad camera line, crappy camera-subject geometry, and cliched, busy visual design.  I know how hard it is to make a single-camera shot against a backdrop sing.  But it is a mere matter of professional skill to do it not-awfully.  Rubio, for all his own sins, was ill-served by those who should have taken much more care.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougivalbetw. c. 1882 adn 1883.

Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.

September 28, 2010

Much amusement is being had over the story about how little believers know about their own religions (and less about anyone else’s) compared with atheists and agnostics.*

Here’s my  favorite line in the New York Times piece on the Pew study various blocs’ knowledge:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” [American Atheists president] Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing.

I’d just like to point out to you that Albert Einstein, who did not quite call himself an atheist, made a similar point more than sixty years ago.  In his “Autobiographical Notes” (he described as  “something like an obituary,” Einstein remembered his approach to and then rejection of revealed religion — a journey accomplished by the time he was twelve years old.

In telling how he banished himself from what he called “the religious paradise of youth,” Einstein recalled his brief exposure to traditional Judaism, mandated by the Bavarian educational system that in the late nineteenth century required that all students undergo formal religious training.  Here’s how that experience played out, at least in the remembrance of that child-Einstein’s 68 year-old heir:

Even when I was a fairly precocious young man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.  Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase….As a first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.  Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity…

And it was an appreciation of traditional religion, not the rather loose God-in-nature talk of his later life.   His sister, among others, reported that Einstein absorbed both the formal outward signs of Jewish observance — cajoling his parents into forgoing pork, for example — and an inner emotional commitment that manifested itself, briefly, in spontaneous expression like composing religious songs on his way to school. And then it all…

…found an abrupt ending at the age of twelve.  Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively frantic [orgy of ]** of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies…

That reaction, which Einstein reports initially seemed tragic (“a crushing blow” is the phrase he used — in German, niederschmetternder Eindruck) grew less as he discovered the consolation, the reward of scientific inquiry.  He wrote, in one of the most beautiful scientific credos I know,

“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation [italics added].

Note, contra Silverman’s natty soundbite, it wasn’t just handing Einstein a Bible that made an impact, it was Einstein’s capacity to compare that text with experience.  Which is what I think Silverman was trying to say.

Just two more things:

First, three cheers for science writing!  It got Big Al off the schneid,so it must be worth doing, right?  Or so we here at MIT Science Writing do avow.

Second:  science, the investigation of “this huge world,…which stands before us like a great eternal riddle,” is liberating. Or, to use the word that describes what I feel when I encounter an intricate elegance or a grand idea, it exalts.

Which, for all the social value that I believe writing about science does indeed have, is really why I do this job.

*And Jews and Mormons, though I have to pause before touting the quality of Jewish religious education if the numbers on those who can correctly identify the faith professed by Maimonides are to be believed.

**the translator’s interjection, not mine.

Images: August Allebé “The Butterflies,” 1871

Gerard Dou, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” c. 1665

Pope Blames Atheism For Holocaust

September 16, 2010

Really.  He did, right up there on his hind legs in front of the Queen and England and all.

Here’s the Guardian’s excerpt of the relevant remarks:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live,” he said.

“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious people who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society …”

I’ll still attempt to be slightly cagey about my own place in the unbeliever-believer-crazed religious fanatic spectrum (remember, I said “slightly”), but as I sit here near the end of the Days of Awe, reflecting on who among my friends, colleagues and acquaintences I need to ask forgiveness for what acts committed over the last year, and thinking about what I wish to think about tomorrow at the beginning of the Day of Atonement, I can be clear about this:

For this Pope — anyone, really, but especially this ex-Hitler youth Pope — to tell me or anyone that the problem of evil can be explained away by blaming those who do not believe, is an abomination.

That’s high-falutin.  Let me try again in more simple language.

Asserting that the Holocaust is in essence the punishment unbelievers bring on the world is a variation on the blame-the-victim strand in writing on this evil.

Ben Zion-Gold, the rabbi who married my wife and me, is a Holocaust survivor.  He lost his entire family in the camps.  He has spoken about the viciousness of this line of explanation, and of the destructiveness of it to any claim for the value of revealed religion.  No god worth believing in can be imagined to use the faithful instrumentally, as lives that must on occasion be snuffed out, no matter what their individual worth, to serve the greater good.

Bluntly, I’d say Christian Europe has a great deal of introspection yet too do on the entanglement between religious commitment and the Holocaust (and much else besides.)

The Pope is correct that a few priests and other ministers resisted Nazi demands.  He omits other, less convenient facts. And in the end, the point remains:  it wasn’t atheists that set the Holocaust in motion, nor atheists who devastated Rwanda, nor pagans who massacred my own country’s native Americans, nor … you get the idea.

It was Germans, it was Rwandans, it was devout colonial Protestants (first, in my home area of Massachusetts) and so on.  Individual agents, many of them by their own lights wholly religious people, have over history committed crime after crime after crime.

If you want to say that the intellectual context in which they lived mattered to their crimes, if the ideas that animated them helped drive their actions, well and good.  But then a measure, just a tithe, even, of intellectual honesty would note the Christian strains in the context of so many mass killings, including the Holocaust.

Please note, in this argument, I am explicitly not doing what Pope Benedict has done:  it was not aggressive Christianity that caused the Holocaust, any more than did “extremist atheists” (whatever that vacuous phrase might mean).

Hitler and his circle set it in motion, thousands of Germans, many of them Christians, some of them not, and many more allies and collaborators, executed it, and millions across Europe passively enabled it — and unless we confront the specifics of how each of those levels of engagement emerged, operated, and convinced itself of the tolerability of the actions involved, then we are left undefended against any repetition.

In that context, Pope Benedict’s vicious nonsense on this matter only deepens that vulnerability.  (I.e., rooting out “atheism” is not, IMHO, going to reduce the risk of the next genocide.  It is far more likely to be the occasion for it.)

Enough.  To put it as plainly as I can:

When the Pope tries to use the sufferings and death of millions (of Jews!) to advance his claims of Christian truth, then he is himself committing an act of moral viciousness.

The Jews of Europe, and the gay men and women, the gypsies, the Slavs and all the rest murdered by the Nazis did not die so that Joseph Ratzinger could try to shift the focus of moral attention from what actually happened — including the entanglement of religious believers in the Nazi program — to what he wishes we would believe happened.

Instrumentality again: those deaths, no one’s death, should be morally available as an means to advance some other program.

Joseph Ratzinger should be ashamed of himself.

Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.

June 1, 2010

Another post resurrected from the month (or so) of my discontent:

From Sullivan, an essaylet on the nature of God and the foundations of faith, which contains this argument:

For me, the core argument for some force behind the universe, revealed metaphorically in Scripture, is affirmed by science as we currently have it. Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

I know Sundays are slow days in the blogging trade, but this is just awful.  Not as private faith, mind you — Sullivan has repeatedly affirmed his particular form of belief; it clearly is meaningful to him, rich in both emotional weight and in sufficient intellectual plausibility (to him) not to offend his personal experience.  But as an attempt to assert a less particularist claim, awful just begins to describe the rhetorical catastrophe above.

Unsurprisingly, what gets this blog’s goat is the invocation of science in defense of a cosmological Godhead.  Which means I’ll pass over in sort-of silence the bit of sleight of  hand in the first clause of the quoted passage, the notion that a metaphor of God (“some force behind the universe”) is the essence of what the text of scripture reveals of the deity.*

That said, the real sin of thought and word in the passage I quote comes when Sullivan writes the argument for a force behind the universe (whatever that actually means) “is affirmed by science as we currently have it.”

This is a nonsense. What does he mean by a force?  Is it anything like the meaning of the concept as it emerged in the specific science — physics — whose subdiscipline, cosmology, he is about to invoke?

Well, no, obviously.  And to give a little flesh to that blanket dismissal, consider Nobel laureate and my MIT colleague Frank Wilczek’s meditation on the notion of force as Isaac Newton first cobbled it together.

Some years ago, he wrote a three part essay, “Whence the Force of F=MA” in which he described force as a culture, or perhaps better, as a language. [Links here to all three sections] Sullivan would, I think, find some of what Wilczek writes quite comforting:

…the law of physics F=ma comes to appear a little softer than is commonly considered. It really does bear a family resemblance to other kinds of laws, like the laws of jurisprudence or of morality, wherein the meaning of the terms takes shape through their use. In those domains, claims of ultimate truth are wisely viewed with great suspicion; yet nonetheless we should actively aspire to the highest achievable level of coherence and explicitness. Our physics culture of force, properly understood, has this profoundly modest but practically ambitious character. (Essay III in the series)

If laws of morality and laws of physics are kissing cousins, as Wilczek seems to imply, perhaps there could be something to Sullivan’s claim (hope? — ed.) that the force of which physicists speak might have something to do with the Sullivan’s metaphor of God.

I’m putting thoughts in Sullivan’s mind here, of course, but the point I’m making is that analogies are tricky, and the use of implied ones even more so.

But the problem for Sullivan’s case is that Wilczek did not say that the content of  moral or civil laws mirror, even imperfectly, that of physical ones.  Rather, he simply stated that physics, more than usually understood, makes use of one of the most valuable habits of thought in the humanities:  some of what physicists “know” they learn through using an idea, rather than explicitly grappling with its inner tensions.

That’s fine, and true, and it is surely a trick used across lots of different intellectual approaches.  But for all of Wilczek’s kind bob in the direction of another division of the academy, when he gets down to the actual issue of  why such a “soft” concept of force has persisted in the famously “hard” discipline of physics, his answer embraces the nitty gritty of life as physicists actually lead it:

By comparison to modern foundational physics, the culture of force is vaguely defined, limited in scope, and approximate.  Nevertheless it survives the competition, and continues to flourish, for one overwhelmingly good reason: It is much easier to work with. We really do not want to be picking our way through a vast Hilbert space, regularizing and renormalizing ultraviolet divergences as we go, then analytically continuing Euclidean Green’s functions defined by a limiting procedure, . . . working to discover nuclei that clothe themselves with electrons to make atoms that bind together to make solids, . . . all to describe the collision of two billiard balls. That would be lunacy similar in spirit to, but worse than, trying to do computer graphics from scratch, in machine code, without the benefit of an operating system. The analogy seems apt: Force is a flexible construct in a high−level language, which, by shielding us from irrelevant details, allows us to do elaborate applications relatively painlessly. (Essay I)

I don’t want to put Wilczek in the position, even seemingly, of arguing with an essay written years after his.  But the point he makes here makes a mockery of all sorts of woo that follow from the fact that physicists are willing to accept a certain level of imprecision in order to do real work.  (Think Deepak Chopra, et al.)

For Sullivan, there are all the usual sins of woo-mongers here.  There is sloppiness of language.  He writes of a “force behind the universe” — which means … what?  Is it the quality that has powered the expansion of our observable patch of the universe since the Big Bang?  If so, it ain’t “behind” anything.

There is the mixing of categories.  Is he talking about a question of origins, of what triggered the current expansion?  More likely, I think, though Sullivan is, as is usual for writing that attempts to draw this kind of false connection between a specific problem in science and much broader question in some other domain.  If so, then Sullivan is mistaking a partial lack of knowledge for affirmative evidence of an immanent purposefulness to weight the scales our way, towards a universe in which we could emerge.

But this form of the old God of the Gaps argument misses the real action in modern cosmology.  For the point is that however much some questions may be incompletely understood  – the nature of the inflaton field, perhaps, or the implications of the certain concepts in Brane Theory and related studies for the question of the uniqueness of the Big Bang —  Big Bang cosmology is driven by a combination of theory and observation that works to describe the phenomenon(up to a point…which is why there are still jobs for cosmologists).

All of which is to say that just  because Sullivan cannot actually grasp the structure of contemporary physics, that does not mean he is free to ascribe any interpretation that makes him feel happy to what he thinks physics is talking about these days.  (By “free” I mean plausible, even remotely correct.  Obviously he, like me and any of us, is free to spout whatever nonsense we choose).

Even so, Sullivan is at least on familiar, if very shaky ground, when he asserts that a metaphoric interpretation of modern physics offers comfort, at least, if not outright confirmation, to a metaphoric vision of some concept of wholeness which we may conveniently call God.  That could fall, I guess, within my “whatever gets you through the day” category, as long as I am not asked to assent to any specific claim about the human condition based on the latest work on extra dimensions or the arrow of time.  (Hi, Lisa!Hi, Sean!)

But then there is this :

The second question is the nature of that force. The core revelation of Jesus – and the Buddha, for that matter, in some respects – is that the force is good, not evil. There is hope. Death is not what it seems. Love prevails. In this tragic, fallen, cruel world, this is not an easy doctrine. It cannot be inferred from the evidence. Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description. Even metaphor fails.

[lease note that I have not cut anything from this passage -- the two quotes above follow immediately one to the other.]

Most of this is just embarrassingly bad writing. (See, e.g. the phrase “some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description.”  To me, at least, this reads like the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around but not on the point at hand. But maybe I’m just in a bad mood…)

Still, whatever you think of the prose here, the claim that because Sullivan cannot imagine a purely physical account of the origins and evolution of the universe, therefore his prior assumption must be the correct interpretation is an appalling lapse of logic, an argument so bad it makes me wonder if all the stuff we hear about the Oxford Union as Parris Island for debaters is pure nonsense.

Here’s Sullivan’s syllogism:  Science tells us that there is a mysterious force within the universe.  (Assumption not in evidence — at least in the spiritual sense.) That force is good (ditto) — which I know, because Jesus told me so.  (But that’s what you wanted to confirm, I thought, independent of scriptural assertion).  Therefore, I’m not going to really die, and the world, despite all the evidence we have, is one in which love triumphs.  (Errr, no.  Not on the evidence as presented here.)

I mean, I get it.  I do.  Andrew Sullivan believes in the traditional promise of Christianity.  In that promise, Jesus was more than a man; his death was transformative of the reality of death for all humanity.  That transformation establishes the fundamental predominance of love over evil in the universe, for no matter what grotesqueries may overtake us on this earth, redemption will be found in the next.

But that has nothing to do with science, with physics, with that branch of physics and allied disciplines that studies the history of the cosmos.  It has nothing to do with the concept of force as it is used within that inquiry.  There is nothing to support this fervid hope within the anisotropy map produced by the WMAP satellite.  No measurement, no mathematics can tell you that Jesus left his tomb before three days passed and walked among his disciples, bearing his good news about the ephemeral nature of mortality.  (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

Sullivan might respond that this is what he means when he talks of the “gift of faith.”  But if that were truly what he meant, then why the claim that science “affirms” this view of the spiritual nature of the forces that have shaped the physical universe?

Because, I think, he knows that what he’s really saying is that this is something he feels very deeply, and that it therefore must be true — and he wishes he had something more to convince his readers (and perhaps himself) that it is so.

But it doesn’t, which is or ought to be fine:  if faith has any meaning it is that it is an individual commitment.

I’ve belabored this enough, I think.  Sorry to natter on so long.  I just hate these attempts to claim the authority of science in support of what I think of as the Dorothy mode of thought:  click your heels hard enough and any magic can come true.

*All I’ll say is that Sullivan is correct when he asserts that metaphoric interpretations are the only contemporary readings of scripture that are compatible both with modern scien and what is often termed the “problem of evil.” But despite what seems to me that obvious truth, the countervailing fact is that a very large number of religious people, including the hierarchy of Sullivan’s own church, not to mention many in the rabbinate that leads the tradition in which I grew up, do not see the Bible as exclusively, or even centrally metaphorical.  In those settings, God did tell Abraham to kill Isaac;* Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Certainly, there is no shortage of metaphor even within a plain reading of much of the Bible, and plenty of sophisticated and subtle religious thinkers have recognized the central importance of using metaphor to interpret scripture.  (Read the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s reeadings of Talmud if you want to see this kind of exegesis performed at the highest level.)

But I still think it is not so much disengenous as it is internal evidence of Sullivan’s own religious difficulties that he leaps to the metaphor whilst ignoring more direct readings of the scriptures and the teachings of his faith as he seeks to avoid the implications of purely materialistic accounts of the fate of mortal humans in this universe.

All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world.  And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

Images:  Michaelangelo, “The Last Judgment” 1537-1541.

John McLure Hamilton, “The Billiards Match,” before 1936.

WMAP data mapped onto an ecliptic projection, five years of data, 2008.

Sometimes I Just Don’t Get Andrew Sullivan

April 1, 2010

Usually, it’s pretty easy to parse Andrew Sullivan.  He has some very good instincts — see e.g. Palin, S. and torture for two very passionately argued correct calls — and some bad ones (he appears to be innumerate, and he has shown some willingness to use real sleight of hand in arguing with science he dislikes).  Mostly, I see him as evolving the idea of a blog as something between an online review and a genial post-prandial mostly-monologue about the state of the world, and though I often swear off his work, I just as often check back in.

But in an exchange with self-described “obnoxious and flamingly anti-religious atheist” PZ Myers, he said something I truly don’t understand:

Christianity flees power as Jesus did; Christianism seeks it above everything else. And there is nothing more powerful than killing others, except for torturing them. Hence my distinction, which I make from no authority. I merely think that declaring a homeless, apolitical, non-violent hippie in first century Palestine as someone who would bless a twenty-first century terrorist militia in North America is a bit of a stretch.

I’m not going to argue doctrine or dogma here, just history.  And in this wrangle, history could not be more on PZ’s side.  What I don’t get is that there is no way, just none, that Andrew Sullivan, B.A., Oxon, MPA, Ph.D, Harvard could possibly be ignorant of that past.

That is:  Jesus may have fled power, but his followers have not, for almost the full two millenia since the death of that dangerous religious dissident in the Roman province of Judeaea.

Just to focus on that part of Christendom to which Sullivan explicitly pledges faith, it can’t be news to him that from the conversion of Constantine in 313 c.e., and the start of official tolerance of Christian worship in Roman territory, to Theodosius’ decision, seven decades later, to establish Christianity as the state religion of the empire, the church, its hierarchy, and its community of believers became an integral component of the structure of legitimacy and even adminstration for the civil power.

Flash forward to 800, and the willingness of Charlemagne to accept the right of the Pope to crown him Holy Roman Emperor, and  you promote the notion of divinity in kingship, and its corollary: that the religious potentate may exert divine authority over monarchs.  Leap again to the papacy of Gregory VII, 1073-1085, and you see the doctrine of Papal supremacy over civil rule taken to its extreme.

And so on…Popes ruled as feudal magnates; they levied armies, formed alliances and so on.  National churches embedded themselves in power structures, and everyone was afraid of the Spanish Inquisition.

The beat goes on — I’ve just been reading Francisco Goldman’s chilling The Art of Political Murder about the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, slaughtered after shepherding a devastating report on government and military human rights abuses in his home country.  In Goldman’s telling Gerardi was the kind of man Sullivan has in mind, I think, as a leader who stands up to power rather than embracing it — but Goldman also documents the history of members of the hierarchy embracing the brutal political/military ruling powers, which is to say that people almost anyone but Sullivan would recognize as Christians enmeshed themselves in the web of power, even when it involved killing and torture.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that all those who are revered by the Church embraced the structures of power.  But for everyone of these:

There is one (or more) of these:

I don’t think this point needs a lot more words, even for so logorrheaic a writer as your humble blogger.  But the Catholic Church, as is common to major religious organizations, has from its prehistory engaged with state power.  And that embrace has extended to torture, murder and much more besides.

Again, this isn’t to deny the existence of that part of religious experience, the imitation of the model of Jesus, that Andrew Sullivan sees as the royal road to leading a good life.  It does say, though, the long record of the Church in this vail of tears includes lots of people who meet any reasonable definition of the word “Christian” and yet have performed acts and practices that Sullivan and I both see as hateful.

To define away that millennia-long element in Christian history as inauthentically part of the Christian experience is magical thinking.

I can understand why Sullivan would like to think that the tradition that gives him such a wealth of internal experience is not stained with all the brutal reality of history.  But wishing it were so cannot make it so, as I tell my nine year old almost daily.

Why does this matter?  It doesn’t really; Sullivan’s hopes and dreams aren’t my problem.  But this was an example of profoundly sloppy writing and thinking, and, though it’s still no business of mine, I’d offer him this bit of  unsolicited advice:

Be very careful.

It’s just too damn seductive to let desired conclusions dictate the facts you become willing to know.

Down that road lies the particular intellectual pathology that Sullivan himself, as it happens, has observed in former friends over and over again.

Images:  attibuted to Giotto, “St Francis’ sermon to the birds.” before 1337.

El Greco, “Portrait of the Cardinal-Inquisitor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara,” 1596-1601


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,436 other followers