For Christmas, it seems my favorite theorist has written a book on my favorite topic.

I haven’t gotten my copy of “American Grace” yet, but I am going to go with the NYTimes book review and recommend it in advance–right after, that is, you read “Bowling Alone” and “Making Democracy Work,” (if you really want to geek out). Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam is a genius, a workhorse, and extremely accessible in his style. Also, he’s my hero.

For lovers of liberal democracy, the cancerous decline of civil society in America should be taken as seriously as global warming is by environmentalists.

An excerpt from the American Grace review:
There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).

Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.

So, people I know and respect seem to have bought into the notion that Julian Assange is a modern revolutionary, on the run from the CIA in the form of Swedish sex vixens. Normally, I do not indulge in conspiracy theories, and this is no exception. As far as I can tell, all of the big corporations, weapons dealers, third-world dictators, and shadowy government agencies do their work fairly openly. Just this month, Vanity Fair reported on new regulations that allow Big Pharma test potentially deadly, grown-up medicines on the babies of illiterate parents in developing nations. Response from the public sphere? Fundraisers? Campaigns? Marches? Nope. Not a peep. In my generation, we tend to mistake information for action.

This may be because deriding the less educated for their religiosity via the NYTimes comment section, and changing our Facebook profile pictures in support of nebulous social causes, are what passes for social activism in the internet age. We must be the toast of the corporate world: In our rush to atomize ourselves in the name of an overrated and underachieving individuality, we liberate our supposed nemeses from any threat of organized response and the result, I am sorry to say, is not self-regulation on their parts.  Heck, they don’t even need to be secretive about their dirty business; after all, why pay for an army of super ninjas when they need only our continuing inability to tear ourselves away from Adult Swim long enough to organize anything more revolutionary than an ugly sweater/ ironic facial hair party (itself just an excuse to take pictures for FB.)

Julian Assange, however, was weaned on a hacker culture which ignores the mundanity of evil and grounds itself in belief in a sexy, dystopian Big Brother–a spooky god of the Old Testament variety–invisibly menacing the reluctant anti-heroes of an imaginary, Blade Runner-esque fantasyland; a dark and rainy place, with nary a Chili’s restaurant in sight.

The truth, of course, is that solitary anti-heroes rarely make revolutions. They may sometimes be effective cheerleaders, but real revolutionary change in America, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, has been highly organized, very public, and reliant on large, civil society networks willing to rise from their couches and actually, physically, do something. To act, consistently.

Assange, conversely, is a pale, skinny loner who (likely) after years of frustration at being overlooked by his tan,hirsute, beer-drinking brethren Down Under, became obsessed with being noticed himself. If you want to blame anyone for Wikileaks, blame Russel Crowe. But I digress.

Consider that the allegations against him–that he had consensual sex with a couple of Swedish (ie hot) women and then may have annoyed them by neglecting birth control–are not exactly going to tarnish his name with the scorching pitch of Hades, except perhaps among feminists–all five of whom will undoubtedly change their FB profile pics in protest.

More likely, the allegations will make him the envy of flocks of dreaming geeks all over the world, sitting alone on Friday nights with only the flicker of their monitors to guide them. Even now, in the blogosphere, most of the tar and feathers have been reserved for the two women bringing charges. I don’t know if you have ever looked at internet porn, dear reader, but it doesn’t exactly engender sympathy to feminist complaints…nor even to perceiving women as human.

SO, when speculating about who is behind Assange’s Swedish sex scandal, I ask only that you take into account these ten facts and observations:

1. These women were fans of his and still cry hallelujah over the wikileaks brand.

2. Swedish chicks are like the penultimate male fantasy; they are the Latin/Italian men of mandom.

3. It’s unlikely that the CIA is recruiting double agents in bfe Sweden, where the second accuser was from.

4.It’s unlikely Swedes would cooperate with the CIA, given how superior they believe themselves to be, what with the healthcare and the paid paternal leave and the no death penalty.

5. Even if Assange were convicted of these crimes, at most he’d spend five minutes in a Swedish pen; probably next door to a gardener named Lars who’d painted his house a non-permissible color.

6. On the other hand, the accusations are just kinky enough to make Jersey Shore fans–indifferent to State Department commentary on Angela Merkel’s pantsuit, or the revelation that innocent people die in wars–pay attention.

7. The kerfuffle dovetails nicely with the release of his autobiography.

8. Assange, let’s face it, is a total fame whore: He compares himself to MLK Jr and describes himself as ‘messianic.’ He pretends to live this secret agent, man-on-the-lam lifestyle, and yet doesn’t hesitate to plug his mug into every hole in the news cycle–meanwhile, it remains unclear that anyone is actually chasing him. It’s not like the guy is reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya, or any of the stories that get real journalists murdered on a regular basis, in spite of their attempts to hide…not in plain sight.

9. If the CIA wanted to screw him over, I doubt it would use lightweight charges of quasi-sex crimes in Sweden. Think about it, the Mossad can find a Palestinian dissident hiding in Jordan and inject poison in his ear as he walks down the street, but the CIA can’t find a guy who looks like a Halloween costume and appears in the news stream on my computer screen every time I log on? Who do we think he is, Batman?

10. Details of his case were leaked to the media. And who is better at leaking the lurid, useless details of things we already knew or suspected?

My conclusion, based on all of these observations: Assange himself conspired with the women to create these accusations. Now he gets to be Julian Assange: historic hero of civil rights, space-age messiah, and Australian sex machine! Thanks a lot, Russel Crowe.

It’s not that I don’t think a condescending comedian speaking on a topic outside his or her realm of expertise is a great vehicle for persuasion. In a society where people can be swayed by a talking gecko, Gervais might even be considered a big step up. However, in this holiday message,  the generally brilliant comedian wants to persuade you that God does not exist because science is actually God. Among all the bullscat on offer this Christmas season, that’s a pretty big load to swallow. 

What’s that you say? Science is a method for describing objects and events in the natural world? A means of systematizing that which is known? Not a moral philosophy, nor even a prescriptive one?

True.

However, according to Mr Gervais, Science is also some sort of humanoid entity: it has ‘agency;’ is truth seeking; is humble–it even has a non-discrimination policy! It is ultimate logic, neither jealous, nor vindictive. These, of course, are qualities no scientist could perfectly embody in him or herself, nor in the practice of science, which is the byproduct of being wealthy and educated, and having individual thoughts and intentions. And so the descriptors Gervais deploys are ideal qualities that only a perfect, fantastical being could hold. Dare I say it: a super being, even a god-ish being! 

That’s not to say that science does not embody these ideals, in theory…meaning, before humans get ahold of it. Not unlike Christian philosophy before Southern Baptists come along.But I doubt Mr Gervais gives religion the benefit of this distinction, so why science? Unfortunately, anyone who has tried to get an academic paper of any kind published can tell you that after you factor in the office politics, the professorial egos, the competing ideological agendas, the quality of your research becomes the least of your problems. And that’s not to wonder what “truth” is being sought when science is used to test drugs for rich Westerners on impoverished six-month-olds in underdeveloped countries, or to copyright genetically modified seeds which are then forced onto farmers, or to make the newest plastics for our garbage dumps. If Science is god-like, it can be as cruel as anything you’ll find in a pagan pantheon. I too like penicillin. And I like the idea of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. If only this was all that science and religion were.

But I digress. Gervais defends his atheism with the assertion that God does not exist because Science has not proven God’s existence. Because, as Science has demonstrated, the existence of things is contingent on Science proving them. This is why, as we all  know, nothing existed before the invention of Science–the First and Ultimate cause. And no other form of truth–not moral, nor philosophical nor even personal–is valid without Its rubber stamp. Think there are universal rights and wrongs? Did Science say that was right? Believe you really love your child in a meaningful way? Did Science tell you it was more than oxytocin and survival instinct? I didn’t think so.

Gervais asserts then that the burden of proof is on believers, to prove God’s existence using Science. But, we can conclude, as non-Scientists, they really have no right to believe in anything other than Science, given that the means and methodology to prove even that they can think about Science coherently are undoubtedly beyond them.

Gervais also claims that people are always asking him why he doesn’t believe in God. He is sick and tired of lowering himself to condescend to these people and therefore hopes to clear all this up with this nice, patronizing article about God, Science and truths so obvious that they occur even to lower middle-class British children…in his family…if, as he seems to think, not to anyone who draws different conclusions.

Based on simple logic and my own observation, albeit unscientific, I have concluded that Gervais may be full of it. First, I don’t believe people ask him all the time why he doesn’t believe in God. Concomitantly, I believe he enjoys thoroughly condescending to those who do. I also believe he mistakes atheism for a kind of superior intelligence. But I, for one, live in one of the most religious cities in the world (Rome) among one of the world’s most demonstrative peoples (Italians). Moreover, I am a nice-looking woman still in my reproductive years. So, if anyone, anywhere were going to be randomly asked about God as a sort of conversation starter, you’d think it would be me, here. And yet, this happens maybe twice a year. Usually by Mormons. And I cannot even be flattered considering that they’ll ask anyone who walks by. I’m also pretty sure they have heard the Science speech and found it unconvincing. Gervais, on the other hand, hails from Britain, one of the most famously non-religious and famously polite countries in the world; he is a middle-aged man, and a famous comedian. Shall we discuss things that are improbable? Nevermind that asking people to justify their beliefs is considered the height of impoliteness, in what universe does someone meet a famous comedian and think: “Hm, I wonder why he doesn’t believe in God.” I even suspect that it’s not really a matter of politeness. I suspect 99% of the population doesn’t care what he (or I) thinks about God or Science. It’s sort of like hearing about what people dreamed last night, ie boring. (It’s for that other 1% that I write this blog; by which I mean, it’s for me.) Let’s face it, all people really want to know is whether you know any famous celebrities, or failing that, politicians, and whether or not you’ve had sex with them.

If people ask Gervais about his atheism, it might not be because they want to challenge or persecute him, but instead because he talks about it incessantly. Yes, the more likely truth, given that Gervais has inserted his disbelief into episodes of his comedy series “The Extras,” as well as into his stand-up and now this silly article, is that no one is really asking him, in spite of his clear desperation to answer. Albert Einstein famously supposed that the ardent atheists of this world rooted their beliefs not in logic, but in some bad childhood experience. In the case of a comedy writer, being told not to talk about sex or use the “f”-word is probably sufficient grounds for rejection of a philosophy, just based on threat to livelihood. So, the prosecution submits: Gervais also has motive to hate on religion.

All of that said, I do not think Gervais is wrong–specifically, that God as conceptualized traditionally is improbable according to nature as described by scientific experimentation. However, there are two problems with drawing any grand conclusions from that rudimentary observation: 

1. The conception of God employed so liberally and literally by atheists and skeptics (that of an Old Testament old man on a fluffy cloud smiting Sodomites as they flee in terror) is drawn from a book which was, historically, read metaphorically. God is described in a lot of ways, but most of all as unknowable. It is, of course, more convenient (and not a little lazy) to shoot down this literal target than it is to tangle with the unknowable deity in which many believers suppose.

2. We have no means of determining the extent to which we have successfully, enduringly described nature–nor of the portion of existence which we are able to comprehend with our senses and their amplifiers. Sure, it seems like a lot. But it probably also seemed like a lot when Hobbes was describing the body in all of its biles and humours. Or when the Greeks were reducing everything to elements. Or when the cavemen first discovered that fire burned and systematized which berries would poison them. Face it, we’ve been on this planet for a fraction of a blink of an eye, and only a miniscule portion of us are especially bright. If you feel great confidence in the answers produced under those conditions, what is that if not a bit of faith? The point is, there is no cosmic answer book against which we can check our conclusions. Maybe this is where the otherwise useless juxtaposition of religious and scientific inquiry becomes intriguing: with the suggestion that there is an ultimate truth that we try to apprehend.

But to decide that the means of making that attempt is itself the Ultimate Truth? Let’s just say that Gervais has a very deep faith after all.

It’s a good thing Peaches is doing this in Williamsburg, Brooklyn because noone without ironic hair, seventies, thrift store attire and a bloated sense of individualism could sit through this without wanting to rip their own ears off, salt them with tears of desperate boredom and then gnaw them into nonexistence. The only thing worse than musicals? Annoying hipster “provocateurs” turning said musicals into one-man/woman shows. Newsflash: Nobody willing to pay the price of admission on this is going to be provoked or offended. And nobody else cares. Jeez(us).

Ok, so I don’t know if the comment below, posted by “Marie”  following a NYTimes article on nihilism and religion, actually belongs to someone of my generation. She could be eighty…or fifteen. And to give Marie credit, I think she means to say that she doesn’t need to believe in God to follow her admittedly shifting, probably deeply relativistic, moral code. I would agree with her there. Belief in God = Not required for following moral norms. HOWEVER, what our blissfully un-self-aware friend actually says is that we don’t need god to follow a moral code–in her case, one which she ’developed’ on her own, and which is based…wait for it…on the universal of the Golden Rule (note that she puts that in caps but lower-cases God, even while evidently referring to the monotheistic (proper noun) God.)

I guess I’m an atheist, or at least a non-theist, & I’m with Melville on the well-lived life centering on small things. But I certainly have developed my own set of moral principles, which admittedly shift with time & experience, though which I think are every bit as good as, or better than, what most organized religions propose. There is, of course, a great deal of overlap between what theists & non-theists believe. Most of us start with the universal Golden Rule to govern our day-to-day conduct, for instance. We don’t need god for that.

Attn Marie:

The Golden Rule, as we commonly understand it, came down to us attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. While it is true that similar incarnations of the same principle are recorded in earlier texts, its existence in our collective, Western imagination is largely attributable to our Christian heritage. Similarly, the notion that it is “universal” only exists within this Christian, religious framework. I assure you that not all cultural frameworks accept as universal the proposition that we should do unto others as we would want done unto ourselves. In many societies, there are hierarchies which require very different treatment for people of different races, genders, castes, socioeconomic statuses, etc. In those situations, there is nothing immoral about dealing with others in ways very different than you would want yourself dealt with.

With this in mind, I feel I can safely assume that the entirety of the moral code you ‘developed’ for yourself probably hews closely to the Judeo-Christian account of things–you know, the universalistic outlook which shaped the notion of morality in the culture in which you were brought up? Yes, the fact of it is, you did not invent that. I admit, it is possible that I am wrong to assume you relied on Christian moral notions (other than the Golden Rule) to fashion your moral outlook. You may have come up with some completely different set of principles ‘all on your own.’ Perhaps, like the ancient Greeks, you think sex with boys is ok. It might be, as in some contemporary patriarchal cultures I won’t name, you don’t see killing your less-desirable girl offspring as particularly problematic. Or maybe tossing children with disabilities off a cliff, like in that 300 movie, is alright by you. Do you, like virtually all cultures historically, think slavery is ok?

Ultimately, I doubt it. I suspect, that like most of my cohort, you are following an ethical system heavily informed by Judeo-Christian philosophy and norms and are simply displaying your zero awareness of how history shapes the present and the cultural debt you owe to said philosophies and institutions for the morality, and for the very freedoms you enjoy today.

Anyway, I am off to invent my own society here in my apartment. In this society, I will be the sovereign and all who entereth will serve and obey me. The napping will be plentiful, and the eating of Toblerone even moreso. Yes, I came up with that on my own, aren’t I a paragon of creativity?

This goes back to Hitchens’ mouth-offery about the Catholic Church ‘causing’ AIDS in Africa. Closer to the truth is that, in addition to priests and nuns regularly handing out condoms: the Catholic Church is the biggest private provider of AIDS care in the world, providing antiretroviral treatment, home-care visits and counseling to one in four of the world’s 33.3 million AIDS patients, according to the Catholic charity Caritas International. In 2008, members of the Catholic HIV and AIDS network spent 180 million euros (about $235 million) on assistance…

When people like Bill Maher or Hitchens or Dawkins call for the abolishment of religion, I always wonder who, if anyone, they imagine will step in and fill the gaping, practical gaps in charity created by said abolishment. None of them, of course, being (P)Oprah.

Or perhaps these benefits of religion pale in comparison to the irritation caused by institutions that dare question their thin, libertine morality. Or to put it more succintly: Is all that AIDS care really worth it, when they turn around and try to make me feel bad about porn?

Things have been a bit hectic in this neck of the Italian bosco; however, I did get a chance to listen to this Intelligence Squared debate and it was pretty fantastic. Howard Jacobsen, the third speaker, was breathtakingly funny and eloquent. 

Upsides: a couple of relatively novel replies to the motion: “Stop Bashing Christians;” more generally: hearing something other than the same childish oversimplifications in this debate over the place and validity of religion in the public sphere.

Downsides: Preponderance of Catholic sex abuse jokes (Seriously? 1. Pedophilia isn’t funny. 2. As if there weren’t plenty of other material to be mined in the realm of religious practice); Matthew Parris citing the temerity of the Catholic Church demanding rights after its persecution of Galileo (a Committed Catholic unto his death); Darwin (whose theory is taught as nothing other than scientific fact  in Catholic schools and who was not hostile to Christianity himself), and the Spanish Jews exiled or persecuted in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Wrong? Sure. A complicated political context? Also, yes. As I’ve pointed out before, trotting out the Inquisition as if it happened yesterday, free of any historical framework, is perhaps the only path worse for wear than pedophilia jokes, at least when it comes to pooping on the Catholics. If you want to bash the modern Church, why not start with its issues relevant to this century? Or, if not, then can we also bash David Cameron’s government because Britain was once a pure monarchy? Ridiculous.)

The question of whether or not God exists is indeed boring. Questions about the role of organized religion in social structure and collective morality, on the other hand…not so much boring.
And I’d like to point out that I am now not the only one who has noticed the militant atheism that leaks inevitably into the comments section of the NYTimes. Another great article from de Waal:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/the-god-science-shouting-match-a-response/

Question: What do you get when you create an officially atheist state where religion is discouraged and even persecuted?

A. Mass enlightenment.

or

B. A religious revival at the first available opportunity

One answer here.

God or god?

1 comment

I’ve noticed the following trend, in otherwise grammatically correct sentences: failure to capitalize the word God when (contextually) it would seem the author was referring to the Biblical personage.

This irritates me, not because I care if people believe in God (I really do not) but because I care about the politicization of bad grammar. In short, just because you hate on Christianity, doesn’t mean you should punish grammar. Ok, I realize there is a historical relationship between religion and the evolution of the written word that might cause us to want to punish the latter for mingling with the former: Classical Arabic was codified and is based on the Quran; Dante Alighieri, when he wasn’t drawing his map of hell, was standardizing modern Italian language; the spread of literacy in Europe was initially a religious effort intended to enable worshippers to read the Bible; and religious missionaries did found most of our greatest universities in the US–but does our resentment of all of this influence really mean we have to reject grammar rules in order to move on into the bright, irreligious future we’ve got planned?

Now, in case you don’t get how this works “God” referring to the title/personage in the Bible should always be capitalized. Yes, yes, “god” is also a concept, which may be confusing, but the contexts should clarify things for you, ie:

“My dormmate got really stoned and rambled on about the notion of god (deity) in terms of contemporary gender constructs until I stabbed out my eardrums with a pencil.”

Versus:

“Sarah Palin said if she ever lost her faith in God, she would fall back on the sacred practice of hunting polar bears from SUV windows at the town dump, which she believes is their native habitat.”

Now, you might protest: But I don’t believe in God, so why should I capitalize God?

Well, I’ll bet you don’t “believe” in Sherlock Holmes, Mickie Mouse or, in my case, Ann Coulter. Sadly, grammar does not conform itself to our whims. God, at a minimum, in most of our cultural references (including, historically, phrases like “Good God, Oh my God, God willing, and God, would you shut up, Ann Coulter!”) refers to the character (who may or may not exist) in the Bible, but was certainly busy giving orders to Moses, smiting Onan, and sending various other characters (who may or may not have existed) down their fateful paths.

You might also be thinking: Fine, but I don’t want to capitalize God because it’s God’s fault my parents wouldn’t let me wear that shirt that said “sexpig” to school in eigth grade and because some Christians are mean/silly. Man, that was a cool shirt.

In this case, fine–go ahead and use capitalization as a way to air your grievances. We can have half the country capitalize Barack Obama and the other half throw him to the lower case. You can capitalize God after watching a Law an Order marathon and contemplating what a nice, highly intelligent, liberal, humanitarian Christian Sam Waterston is, and then revert back to lower case when Christine O’Donnel says something dumb about masturbation or homosexuality. But why stop there? Maybe Facebook can make an application where the names of people we’re mad at get ‘lower cased.’ While we’re at it, why not start misspelling people’s names–on purpose! Or attaching profanities to them? Maybe we can choose new titles for public personages we don’t like? ‘Glenn Beck, Commentator,’ could become ’glend bick, claptrapmaster.’ That would really show him. I shudder with the possibilities here.  

So yeah, I vote that either we go all the way with this: force grammar to submit to our opinions and politics as if the whole construct were just so much Twittering, or write like educated adults, even when our instincts are leaning juvenile.