Saturday, January 24, 2015

Truth Claims

It’s interesting how relativist arguments get used in apologetics for institutions that claim to have had the absolute truth always and forever.

The moderate defenders of religion are very quick to make relativist and aesthetic arguments, and downplay any claim to the truth. What exactly is being defended.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Judging the past

Is it unfair to judge the past for things we supposedly know better now? Possibly, but that it not the question, really. Part of the problem is that we are not better than the past in the way we think we are. So really, what we need to do is judge ourselves.

In other words, it is the same ideology that persists in us that must be examined.

Let's say, for example, the idea of making Junipero Serra a saint. We who had fourth grade in California knew of his missions up the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco. He was a Franciscan, and the current Pope chose the name of Francis for himself.

It is unfair to blame him for mistreating the Indians, we are told, because nobody knew any better at the time. Now, of course, we know it is wrong to enslave people and destroy their culture, impose your religion on them, kill them with epidemics. Easy for us to say!

But to excuse him from this on the grounds that he brought Christianity to them (supposedly a good thing) and that the Europeans were going to colonize anyway, so it was good to have Christianity soften the blow, well, that is said by someone in the present who should know better. Really, Serra is dead so he won't care if he is judged harshly. When we claim to be sparing him we are really sparing people in the present.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Here is an article that kind of pisses me off, since it is dripping with sexist assumptions. It seems to assume that women will always see themselves as hardworking drudges and attribute brilliance only to men.

Also, there are some places where you need brilliance. That spark of true intelligence is pretty rare, and few have it. If we give that up, then what are those people supposed to do?

A Few Remarkably Stupid Ideas About Religion

The first is the idea that only the good parts of religion are religious, by definition. Thus any evil that stems from religion is not "religious" in nature, but political, cultural, economic, or just the result of people failing to live up to religious principles.

It is easy to see why this won't work. If we are trying to evaluate the results of an actual religion, in the actual world, then we cannot automatically put everything good into the religious category, and chalk up everything evil to non-religion.


The second, a remarkably stupid one propagated by Karen Armstrong, is that religious wars of the Middle Ages weren't really religious, because there was not separation at the time between religious and secular realms. Everything was religious.
First of all, there is the whole business about religion before the modern period never having been considered a separate activity but infusing and cohering with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state.
This is true, but the implications are the opposite of those drawn by Armstrong. It is precisely the implication of religion in state violence and non-state terrorism that is at issue, after all, for those in search of secular alternatives.

This idea goes hand in hand with the first. Religion itself is pure, so even when it is implicated in one cohesive political war-machine, it retains its purity, somehow.


The third is that religions do not truly preach the horrible things they do preach. Everything unacceptable becomes irrelevant or metaphorical, and people who actually believe that holy books say what they seem to say are naive fundamentalists. Since religion is pure and beyond critique, those who act on what the books actually say are not truly religious. Only the moderate, intellectual type are truly religious. Those who don't actually believe in anything very firmly.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Myths of the Non-Religious

I prefer the term "non-religous," because it is accurate and describes various kinds of atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism, without committing any individual to any particular position within this spectrum. Here are some myths about us.

1. We lack religious education.

Many of us have had extensive religious upbringings, and have wide knowledge of a diverse number of traditions other than our own. The non-religious tend to be better educated, on average. That is to say, a higher proportion of better educated people are non-religious. Being non-religious is often a conscious choice, involving extensive study of religion.

2. Our ethical shortcomings derive from our lack of religiosity.

We do have ethical shortcomings, like everyone else. It makes no sense to attribute these shortcomings to a lack of religion, or to attribute the flaws in religious people to their religion. In fact, one of the most frightening things is not that religion causes wars and other horrific things (which it does, by the way), but that in many cases it makes no difference. In other words, imagine the front in WWI, with French and British and German and Austrian soldiers shooting at each other. Some are Protestant, some Catholic, others Jewish. It is not a religious war, but religion has done nothing to alter it either. The non-religious and the religious soldier act exactly the same.

3. We worship science.

Some of us are scientists. I happen not to be. I do accept scientific conclusions when my layman's knowledge of them leads me to believe they are are well supported. Some non-religious people are scientifically ignorant or ill-informed. Some have a very basic understanding of some parts of science, but are still pretty much ignorant (like me). Scientists nowadays are highly specialized and don't have detailed knowledge of other highly specialized sub-areas of research either.

4. Lack of religion is the main motivating factor in our lives.

No. It could be for some, especially if one's lack of religiosity is recent and hard won. For the deeply religious, it is hard to imagine not being motivated by religion, hence the assumption (on their part) that a lack of religion is equally motivating.

5. We are hedonists.

This one is true, I have to confess. Non-religious people live for life's pleasures. Fine foods and wines, sex. Few of us are ascetic hermits. In this respect, we are profoundly different from religious people.

6...but we lack aesthetic sensibility and our lives have no meaning.

Since we see reality as a bunch of atoms swirling around, we cannot appreciate Picasso or Bach. This one is obviously true: there are no agnostics in concert hall and museums. Also, our lives are meaningless. We derive no meaning or satisfaction from personal and family relationships, political activities, hobbies, or work. Sarcasm aside, I don't happen to believe in MEANING in the cartoon version of the hermit on the mountain top, who knows the the meaning of life.

7. We are an organized group with leaders.

While I appreciate that some people have written popular atheism books, I haven't read much of that literature, and have varying opinions about the cogency of their arguments. My non-religion precedes the boom of popular atheism books. There are organizations of the non-religious, but I don't happen to belong to any of them.

8. We are obnoxious.

This is also very true. Our very existence is obnoxious to those who can't understand our lack of religiosity. If we speak out and make our existence known, this is also obnoxious. If we go so far as to criticize religion, in any way, then our obnoxiousness grows, by just that much. If we take a strident tone in this criticism, then we even more obnoxious (and so on).

9. We are misogynists.

Ok, you got me again. Non-religious people hate women. The cat is out of the bag. Seriously, though, this is a case where religion or its lack is not a determining factor. Religious liberals support equal rights for women, religious conservatives do not. Virtually all Abrahamic religions have been profoundly and unapologetically patriarchal until about half an hour ago, and some still are. If your church is progressive on all gender and sexuality issues, great for you. You should realize that it only became that way because of rising secularism. In fact, your moderate religion is only moderate because it supports liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

But you're getting me off track here. Non-religious people are as misogynist as they would be if they were religious, and for the same reasons. Suppose a socially awkward scientist tries to pick up a woman at an atheist convention and makes her uncomfortable, that's because he is inept, not because he doesn't happen to go to church.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Secular Offense

The non-religious are used to having our lack of religion dismissed, ridiculed, rebutted. Many of us grew up in religious communities, and are accustomed to displays of religiosity. We rarely take offense at the expression of religious opinions, except to the extent that they are offensive for other reasons. Only the attempt to make religious ritual a part of state functions is directly odious. I am personally offended by anyone saying that "religious murders are wrong, but...". I fly into a rage when I hear that. Of course, nobody notices this because I am only at home in front of my computer. Of course, my rage does not mean that I have a right to commit physical violence against people expressing that opinion. By their own logic, though, they should expect me, and others like me, to be violent. After all, they have offended me! Why wouldn't they expect a punch in the nose? The Pope made the analogy just yesterday, that if someone cursed his mother in the Argentine fashion, he would punch them.

The difference is that that non-religion, for the non-religious, is not a sacred icon. You insult my lack of religion, you don't insult me at all, because that is not a part of me. You can burn effigies of Bertrand Russell or Darwin all day long, I don't care. You might as well insult my love of cilantro or my lack of affection for cats.

Nobody cares about offending a secular humanist, and perhaps they are right not to care, because we are slow to offend and slow to violence.

What I have learned from my own post, then, is that the claim to offense is a powerful tool that non-religious people don't use a whole lot. By claiming this power you automatically gain a mother who can be cursed at obscenely, and hence the right to punch people in the face. The non-religious are orphans. You can say "chinga tu madre" all day and our answer is that we have no mother to be fucked.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

So I Wrote This This Morning

10 Footnotes

In 2009, I published Apocryphal Lorca: Parody, Translation, Kitsch, with University of Chicago Press. Although I wrote this book quickly, beginning in 2006, much of what I had been studying all my life went into it: American poetry, translation theory, jazz, Lorca himself. A friend and colleague of mine, Jill Kuhnheim, told me that it was fun for her to read it because there was so much of me in it. I did not abandon Lorca after the publication of Apocryphal Lorca. My first thought was to write a book on the contemporary Spanish poet Antonio Gamoneda, but this soon morphed into a project on Spanish modernism, and then, eventually, into What Lorca Knew: Fragments of a Late Modernity.

Although I have written other books and articles on Spanish poetry, I remain most closely identified with my work on Lorca. My current project, while substantially different in its conceptual scheme, continues to draw out some the implications of the central idea behind Apocryphal Lorca: that a poet like Lorca becomes strangely unrecognizable in a foreign context—in this case a foreign context that happens to be my own, domestic American literary culture. Of particular interest to me is the discovery of things that I might have explored in this book, but that either escaped my attention or did not seem significant enough to me at the time. Some of this material has worked its way into What Lorca Knew, but not in any systematic manner. Hence the idea of offering up these “Ten Footnotes to Apocryphal Lorca,” which I conceive of as an exercise in scholarly humility.

I am not a modest person by any means, and a display of false modesty is unlikely to convince anyone to the contrary. Still, in scholarship I maintain the posture of epistemological skepticism: the idea that one’s own conclusions are inevitably questionable and incomplete. Some of the discoveries I have made after the publication of the book confirm my insights into Lorca’s North American reception; others reveal my blind spots and lead to significant revisions of my ideas or to new directions of research.