Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Religion and Enlightenment

Online at:

Religion and Enlightenment: A Reply to Shweder's "Atheists Agonistes"
By Thomas Riggins

Recently the New York Times published an article by Richard A. Shweder (11/27/2006) a professor at the University of Chicago. Shweder's article is an attack on the Enlightenment tradition and indirectly gives a boost to the antiscientific and superstitious ultra-right political environment in the US, so recently trounced in the midterm elections. Shweder's description of the Enlightenment tradition is historically inaccurate and wrongheaded, as I hope to show.

The author seems to think that there is a vast secular movement abroad in the land, derived from the Enlightenment, to denigrate religion and religious people. He tells us that "pious" mention of "God" is "one of the ways to bring a certain type of dinner party to a halt." I am sure it is. Just as "impious" mention of "God" is a way to bring other "types' of dinner parties to a halt.

Not only will the "pious" mention of "God" disrupt a certain type of party but so will expounding the theology offered "in evangelical churches." He says that "is likely to produce the same effect." Well, I'm not surprised. Outside of a church supper if someone starts spouting off about "sinners, apostates or blasphemers," and the "promise of salvation" it might very well put a damper on most dinner parties.

Shweder thinks the dinner parties most affected by this sort of behavior are those given by "cosmopolites who live in secular enclaves." Since a recent Newsweek poll shows that about 80 percent of Americans are religious (believe in "God" and the Bible), I can't image where these secular enclaves of cosmopolites are located (but there must be a big one at the University of Chicago) which so upset Mr. Shweder.

In any event we are informed that for the aforementioned "cosmopolites," "religion is automatically associated with darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or pre-modern cast of mind." Not only that, "but it has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of the gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith."

How can one take such an expostulation seriously? There is no such thing as such a "Darwinian" article of faith as that proposed by Shweder. Many, perhaps even most, scientists maintain that science (including Darwinism) and religion deal with different areas of human experience. In fact one of the greatest of the "Darwinists", the late Stephen Jay Gould, maintained exactly this position and advocated greater mutual understanding between science and religion. In other words, Shweder has a created a straw man to knock down in order to make his arguments, lacking in merit, look better than they are.

Shweder's actual target, it turns out, is not the Enlightenment at all (as we shall see) but three contemporary books by secular humanists which he considers to be over the top. The books are "Breaking the Spell" (Daniel Dennet), "Letter to a Christian Nation" (Sam Harris), and "The God Delusion" (Richard Dawkins).

Why, the author wonders, are these atheists so provoked at religion? Why are they attacking books "dictated or co-written by God" and believed in by 2.1 billion and 1.3 billion "self-declared" Christians and Muslims respectively? He decides the reason is that "secular society" is attacking religion because it fears that "it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real." Marxists should take note. Since Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment, it would be embarrassing if it turned out to be more illusory than religion: especially after that "opium of the masses" crack.

The article goes rapidly down hill from this point. He says the Enlightenment has its own version of Genesis "and the themes are well known." The Enlightenment was not really interested in Genesis. The author has confused Darwinism, a product of mid-Nineteenth Century British science with the mid-Eighteenth Century "Enlightenment" movement which was basically a political movement against despotic government as well as against authority as the basis of personal belief and understanding of the world.

Here is the author's simplistic description of the "Enlightenment" as he thinks it is seen today: "The world woke up from the slumber of the 'dark ages,' [most people call this the "Renaissance", it was 400 years before the "Enlightenment"-tr] finally got in touch with the truth [this is nonsense, the 18th Century thinkers only said they wanted to search for the "truth" not assume they had it already because King and Pope said so] and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe." Nobody, by the way, uses the word "good" in this context. The question for the Enlightenment would have been, for example, if one wanted to know how many, if any, moons Jupiter had would it be better to look in the Bible or Aristotle, or to use a telescope. I don't think this would be an "illusory" method to adopt.

Shweder thinks that what the Enlightenment represents can be seen as "religion (equated with ignorance and superstition)" giving way to "science (equated with fact and reason." But this is not the Enlightenment story at all. The Enlightenment was not hostile to religion. Both Thomas Paine and Voltaire, for example, as well many of the most noted figures of the Enlightenment, believed in God and subscribed to personal religious beliefs. The issue was what attitude to take about some forms of state sponsored organized religions and their political agendas as well as their outright violent persecutions of individuals and groups that disagreed with them. The great Enlightenment figures did indeed battle for tolerance and the rights of all people to their religious beliefs as long as they did not try to deny those rights to others.

The author is correct on some aspects of the Enlightenment's views on science. Science was embraced as a way to understand the natural world, to find the causes and cures of diseases, and to improve human life in general. Science also used reason and the search for facts to carry out this program. However, I cannot think of one great Enlightenment figure who claimed that only science could use "fact and reason."

Shweder's description of the Enlightenment is so off base that it is difficult to understand what his game plan is. He says the Enlightenment "blueprint" was designed to "remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West's secular elites." But surely the propagation of such Enlightenment values as human rights, religious freedom (including the freedom not to be religious), public education, public health projects, scientific advances in our understanding of nature, the end of absolutist political regimes and their replacement by representative governments, was in the interests of the vast majority of the populations of the countries where the Enlightenment took root.

"Science has not replaced religion," the author proclaims thinking this is a defeat for Enlightenment thinking. But it was never the intention of science to replace religion as such. As I mentioned above, many Enlightenment figures were not at all hostile to religion (Immanuel Kant comes to mind), only to dogmatic, narrow minded, dictatorial religious elements using religion for their own selfish purposes.

But in one sense, the only sense intended by the Enlightenment, science has replaced religion. Concerning matters of fact with regard to the natural world, in astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., educated people in general (not just "secular elites") turn to science for explanations and guidance. Tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activities, are no longer explained in terms of religious dogmas. Religious leaders who explain events such as 9/11 as due to God's dislike of gays are increasingly finding themselves discredited.

Shweder ends up deciding that since so many people believe in religion, even if religion is a delusion "it is a delusion with a future." Marxists, of course, believe that the widespread acceptance of religion is due to socio-economic conditions which manifest themselves as religious beliefs after a long process of alienation and reification. Widespread religious dependence is a sign of our backward social conditions, even in the 21st Century. Shweder holds that a "shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society." This would seem to preclude multiculturalism and societies that tolerate different, rather that shared, conceptions. Shweder's view may be shared by many religious people, but it is definitely pre rather than post Enlightenment in its spirit.

In conclusion, I will only state that people such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, both militant atheists and "pop" philosophers and scientists, are not representative of Enlightenment thinking in general, although they, as most modern thinkers, have been influenced by some aspects of it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Social Contract & Human Rights: A Review

[Archival Material 2000]
Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York
The Corliss Lamont Chapter of the American Humanist Association
Why Humanists Should Reject The "Social Contract”

The following is a rebuttal to an article by Robert Grant entitled "The Social Contract and Human Rights" which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of The Humanist magazine.

by Thomas Riggins

Robert Grant's "The Social Contract and Human Rights" while well intentioned cannot, I believe, be the basis for a Humanist outlook.
The main thesis, that "human rights are inherent features of our nature as human beings" the author fails to establish. When he discusses our "nature" it seems that it boils down to being the nature of "an animal that is a predator with needs for food, clothing (!) and shelter". The author shows confusion in this definition as "clothing" is certainly a social construction as is the "need" for it in many instances.
He improves on this definition, based on his understanding of Rawls, by presenting Rawls' ideas on the original condition of human beings -- "stripped of their accidental characteristics: gender, age, race, nationality or tribe, social status, wealth or poverty, good health or disability." This imaginary predatory animal happens to be "rational, able to think at a very abstract and symbolic level." This last feature is too far-fetched to be realistically considered. It took our species a long time and many ages of development to arrive at "rationality".
The author is aware of this and allows that the original condition leading to the social contract is only a theoretical condition not an historical one. This is a thought experiment -- and not a very good one. It means that the actual people (or person) rationally constructing the contract is in fact of a particular gender, age, race, nationality, etc., and most important lives in a particular historical period in a particular socio-economic formation. For Rawls and our author that formation is late capitalism as it developed in the United States after the extirpation of the native American cultures, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the war of conquest waged against the people of Mexico.
It is this society's concept of "human rights" which Mr. Grant thinks is "universal" and general "in their application to all people and at all times." Mr. Grant only discusses John Locke, John Rawls and the US Constitution as the sources of his ideas. Those societies that don't embody these universal values must have a problem. They do, and Mr. Grant tells us that it is due to the fact that "the degree of knowledge and understanding of these rights and duties will vary" by culture. This is a very, or not so very as you choose, polite way of saying that societies not agreeing with our values (which are after all universal or catholic values) are backward.
And what are these values? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This pursuit includes "the right to acquire and own property" -- a right the "backwards" aboriginal tribes were lacking when they met up with the followers of John Locke who, exercising their universal rights, gave them their first lesson regarding the unalienable rights of man.
I believe, as humanists, we must understand and learn from other traditions while seeing them as historically conditioned -- and this includes our own tradition. What we must not do, and I think the Grant article is guilty of this, is elevate our own tradition to the status of "universalism". This is just rehashed cultural imperialism and has its roots in the dogmatic religious outlooks of the past and present. If you are looking for universal human rights and duties go to Rome and ask the Pope. Humanists should realize that we create our own values, reacting to the times and climes, and rational people can disagree on what these values are.
~ ~ ~
Robert Grant is a practicing attorney and former judge living in New Rochelle, New York. He is a lecturer and the author of American Ethics and the Virtuous Citizen, published in October 1999 by Humanist Press, a division of the American Humanist Association. The book expands upon and develops the ideas in his article.
Thomas Riggins is Chapter President of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, the Corliss Lamont Chapter of the AHA. He teaches History of Philosophy and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was involved with Students for a Democratic Society.
The article discussed above originally appeared in the January/February 2000 (Volume 60, Number 1) issue of The Humanist magazine (ISSN 0018-7399), published by the American Humanist Association, Washington, DC 20009-7125.

This was originally a letter sent to The Humanist but since they had a financial interest in the sales of Mr. Grant's book they refused to print it in my opinion. All religions have their nihil obstats and imprimaturs.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Terry Pinkard's Hegel

Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Pp. 780

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Terry Pinkard’s Hegel is one of the best introductions available to the philosophy of Hegel. We often hear that Hegel is the eminence grise standing behind Karl Marx and that the Hegelian dialectic is the basis on which Marx and Engels developed materialist dialectics. Lenin even says that it is impossible to understand Capital without reading Hegel’s Logic.

The problem with Hegel is his forbidding style which drives many readers to distraction. He seems to be incomprehensible. Pinkard's book overcomes this difficulty. It is clearly written in an enjoyable style and covers both Hegel's life and philosophical development as well as providing easily digestible summaries of all the works--especially The
Phenomenology of Mind, The Logic, The Encyclopedia of The Philosophical Sciences, and The Philosophy of Right.

For those who want to know what all the fuss is about, this is a highly recommended first book on Hegel from which one can graduate to the original works.

Hegel's politics were progressive and humanistic. Pinkard points out that he supported the American and French revolutions and rejected as "degrading" the type of newly developing capitalist division of labor touted by Adam Smith.

Hegel thought that modern individualism [i.e., entrepreneurial capitalism] must be harmonized with the interests of the people [people before profits]. Pinkard suggests that his philosophy was based on three components. The three component parts of Hegelianism being 1) a blend of representative government with "Germanic" freedom; 2) Scottish commercial society; 3) French revolutionary politics.

This may remind readers of Lenin's Three Component Parts of Marxism -- namely British economic theory, French socialism, and German philosophy.

Perhaps one of the most trenchant points Pinkard makes in his chapter on The Phenomenology is the following on the French Revolution (The Phenomenology discusses the development of human consciousness from its origins up to Hegel's time):
“The Revolution, under Rousseau's influence, had culminated in a vision of ‘absolute freedom’ as determined by a ‘general will,’ which in the development of the Revolution became identified with the ‘nation.’ Kant saw that what was required had to be a self-determined whole that made room for the individual agent and neither swallowed him in abstractions such as ‘utility' nor reduced him to moral insignificance as merely a cog in the machine of the ‘nation’."

Replace "nation" with "class", "general will" with "the party", "absolute freedom" with "socialism" and "Rousseau" with "the cult of the personality" and maybe we can begin to see why Hegel and Kant are still relevant.

The following Hegelian observations are still meaningful (properly updated): the first with respect to how communist and worker's parties were sometimes perceived to have operated, the second on the role of the press.

“Without an anchoring in social practice, in the self-identity of the people in the reformed communities, the reforms could have no authority;[Reference is to German communities in Hegel's day that progressive government ministers were trying to liberalize] they would only appear, indeed would only be, the imposition of one group's (the reformers) preferences and ideals on another. Without the transformation of local Sittlichkeit [ethics], of collective self-identity, the reformers could only be the "masters" and the populace could only be the ‘vassals.’”’

Pinkard continues: “In their reforms there was no ‘dialogue’, there was instead only administrative fiat in which, even in those cases where the ‘right’ thing was being decreed, the self-undetermining nature of decrees that seem to come from ‘on high’ was evident. The press plays its proper role when it serves as a mediator for the formation of such public opinion; when the press serves to mediate things in the right way, it thereby serves to underwrite the process of reform.”

In studying Hegel it has often been the rule to start with The Phenomenology of Mind, but Pinkard points out that Hegel, late in life, did not consider that work, interesting as it may be, a proper introduction to his system. One should begin with reading the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences.

I think we should note that there has been a dialectical reversal in modern life from the times of Hegel. Pinkard notes: “The problem of modern life [ in Hegel's time] was that its rationality was not immediately apparent to its participants; for that one required a set of reflective practices that could display and demonstrate the rationality of modern life, namely, those involved in modern art, modern religion, and, most importantly, modern philosophy.”

However, now it is. I think, just the opposite. The irrationality of our world system is what is not immediately apparent. As it was the task of Hegelianism at the beginning of the nineteenth century to demonstrat the rationality of the world, especially the world resulting from the French Revolution, so the task today is to show, by means of Marxism, the irrationality of the new world order. This is another way of saying that whatever progressive role the bourgeoisie played in Hegel's day is long over.

Pinkard's discussion of The Philosophy of Right is also important. It centers on Hegel's "core idea" that "what counts as 'right' in general is what is necessary for the realization of freedom."

How much Hegel's views on freedom can be adjusted to Marxism is a matter of debate. This problem is too complicated to go into in a review, but a hint to its solution may be found in Hegel's view that the opposite of freedom is "to act in terms of something one cannot rationally endorse for oneself, that is, ultimately to be pushed around by considerations that are not really one's own but come from or belong to something else (for example, brute desires, or social conventions." Or. I might add, an economic system based not on humanistic (working class) principles but on the drive for profits whatever the human cost. An economic system that controls us instead of being controlled by us makes a mockery of all bourgeois claims to "freedom."

The following observations by Hegel-- on religion and the state-- are relevant not only to our own situation (the Bush/Fundamentalist religious nut position), but to Zionism and to political Islam. Again, summarizing Hegel's views, Pinkard writes: ” Letting religious matters into state affairs only leads to fanaticism; when religion becomes political, the result can only be ‘folly, outrage, and the destruction of all ethical relations,’ since the piety of religious conviction when confronted with the manifold claims of the modern political world too easily passes over into ‘a sense of grievance and hence also of self-conceit’ and a sense that the truly faithful can find in their ‘own godliness all that is required in order to see through the nature of the Laws and of political institutions, to pass judgment on them, and to lay down what their character should and must be.’”

Although there is no space here for the attempt, Hegel's philosophy may also be useful in trying to explain the collapse of European socialism. His doctrine that "world history is the world court" has much to recommend itself for a hard nosed analysis. I also pass over the chapters on The Logic with reverential silence.

This book is a work of important philosophical as well as historical analysis. The Hegel described by Peter Gay ("a disembodied spirit who oracularly pronounces on deep matters") becomes a living and easily comprehended human being in Pinkard's handling of him. Anyone who wants to know what Hegel had to say, and why it is still important, could do no better than begin with this biography.

Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be
reached at Adapted from the print edition of Political Affairs.