Monday, October 29, 2018

Yo, Leftish Atheists — Cool It for a Bit: Organizing Against Trumpism

“Be diligent in the study of Torah, and know how to answer an Epicurean.”
   Rabbi Elazar, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Hebrew Fathers)
And an Epicurean scientific materialist should know how, and when not to, answer a rabbi.
   Rich Erlich

The context here is the rise of Trumpism in the United States, following a trend toward right-wing, authoritarian movements in Europe and elsewhere. My fear is the rise of an articulate successor to US President Donald J. Trump, a successor who is truly charismatic and can lead a genuine Mass Movement; my hope is that decent people can soon get a broad coalition to oppose such a movement, and defeat it.
Given that most Americans, indeed, most adult human beings, follow some sort of faith; given that most adult Americans strongly oppose “hate speech” but also dislike “political correctness”given that “social justice warrior” has gone from a mildly hyperbolic compliment to a rebuke — given such fairly hard facts, I want to at least talk at some of my comrades on the Left and ask them, for a while, to tone down their language — and, on some subjects, for a bit, to shut up. 
Such a request is, let’s say, a problem for me as a recovering academic and Life Member of the ACLU.
Such a request will be problematic for the spiritual descendants of Abolitionists and war resisters and, at a great distance, the Prophets of old: people in the US Puritan tradition, but without the black clothing, big buckles, and (usually) God. 
So I’m going to go at this issue carefully and at a long length for one of my blog posts, making a few passes at the topic.

Pass 1: The story goes that the great scholar and scientist Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, once explained to the Emperor Napoleon his  (Laplace's) theory for the origin of the solar system. The Emperor complained that Laplace had described creation without ever mentioning God, to which Laplace responded (in the story), "Sire, I do not need that hypothesis."
And that (without the "Sire") is the proper scientific response. Whether or not God exists is not testable, but it is an inelegant, unparsimonious, and a clear violation of "Occam's Razor" to introduce so large an element as God into an argument unless necessary — really, really necessary.
            When God might be useful, is for a bit later. For now, let’s just stick with the Laplace principle. Any sentence beginning “Science proves” is bullshit-ish ‘because “Science” is too abstract to prove much, and the scientific method doesn’t exactly give final proofs of anything for what we experience as the real world. It’s the discipline of theology, not any of the sciences, that studies God; so don’t say “Science proves there is no God” or get into such arguments at all. What various sciences and their pre-scientific precursors have done over the last couple or so centuries is make God increasingly irrelevant for explanation of natural phenomena. And for big questions like free will and “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” — the God hypothesis isn’t very useful. (Strict Calvinists strongly believe in God, not necessarily free will. That God willed the universe to be as opposed to not be, just puts the mystery one step back: "And why would God necessarily prefer Being to Non-Being"? Plus, the description in Genesis is the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos, without explaining out of what Nothingness the Chaos arose.)
            So, on scientific grounds, don’t argue religion: “I don’t need that hypothesis” is all you need to say. And if religious sorts press the issue, they are the problem, not you.

Pass 2: Leftish Faith
Note: If you want a more respectable source than a retired English professor’s blog, see Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) on Natural Rights, and some of Mr. Harari’s follow-up writing.

            In 1976. for the US Bicentennial Celebration at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), I was asked to speak on … well something relevant. At the speech, I looked out at an audience far larger than I’d expected — at least one Speech teacher had required attendance — and started out with a thoroughly-rehearsed ad lib on how I was from Chicago and Chicagoans rejected the elitist concept that one had to be an expert to talk usefully on a subject, “OR, Chicagoans rarely let our ignorance get in the way of shooting off our mouths. And tonight I’m going to shoot my mouth off on the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document, far more revolutionary than most of us recognize.”

            And I proceeded to talk about something I did know about: from around Shakespeare’s time the Homily — a canned sermon — on Obedience to Authority and “An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.” 

            On the basis of Holy Scripture and Natural Law, the writers of the Homilies were convinced that

Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth and all about, in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order. […]  The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds, and all the birds of the air, keep their order. The earth, trees, seeds, plants, herbs, corn, grass, and all manner of beasts keep themselves in order […].

Human beings also have all parts both within and without, like soul, heart, mind, memory, understanding, reason, speech, with all and singular corporal members of our body in a profitable, necessary, and pleasant order: every degree of people in their vocation, calling and office, is appointed to them their duty and order: some are in high degree, some in low, some Kings and Princes, some inferiors and subjects, priests, and layfolk, masters and servants, fathers, and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, and everyone needs the other, so that in all things God, in good order, is lauded and praised, without which no house, city or commonwealth can continue, endure or last. For where there is no right order, there reigns abuse, carnal liberty, enormity, sin and Babylonian confusion.

Take away Kings Princes, Rulers, Magistrates, Judges, and such estates of God's good order, and no one shall ride or go by the highway un-robbed, no one shall sleep in their own house or bed un-killed, no one shall keep their spouse, children, and possession in quietness, all things shall be in-common, and there must needs follow all kinds of mischief, and utter destruction of souls, bodies, goods and social well-being. But blessed be God, that we in this realm of England, feel not the horrible calamities, miseries, and wretchedness, which all they undoubtedly feel and suffer, who lack this godly order: and praised be God, that we know the great excellent benefit of God shown towards us in this behalf, God has sent us his high gift, our most dear Sovereign Lord the King, with a godly, wise and honourable counsel, with other superiors and inferiors, in a beautiful and godly order.

            I have no doubt that somewhere in the back of a church or two, some rebellious soul was mouthing silently the subversive old rime, from John Ball, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eva span, / Who was then the gentleman?” I.e., when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden to earn their livings by toil like digging and spinning — “From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude,” serfdom and exploitation, “came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men” (“naughty” was a much more powerful word back then). Still, the orthodox, non-heretical, traditional, obvious view was that the universe was a Great Chain of Being, running from the hand or footstool of God down through the orders of the angels to the stars and planets, and then humans in our order, and down through plants and animals to the minerals and down to your basic rock. Everything in its order, held together by the love of God for all and the love of each conscious creature for those above and below, and our sense of different obligations to those above and below.
            This “most excellent and perfect order” had been obvious among the educated (and otherwise privileged) since the time of Aristotle. 
            Human hierarchy was part of this “godly order”; human love and obligation was natural.
            It’s a beautiful and useful view, especially from the top. From the bottom … well looking up, the human part might look more like a multistory outhouse, if one were so privileged as to own an outhouse. And if you lost faith in that “godly order,” well you were “an heretic,” and if you acted or even spoke aloud that loss of faith, you were open to a charge of treason and finding yourself, if male, hanged, drawn, and quartered, or, if female, burned alive. So if there were any doubts, most people probably kept them quiet, and they were lost to history; and this orthodox view of hierarchical society came down to the time of the American Revolution, and parts last to this day.
            If you play Twenty Questions, you begin with “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?,” and in that order because, ultimately, that is the order in the Great Chain of Being. If you talk of “higher” and “lower” animals, higher and lower in terms of what? Possibly in terms of a simplistic idea of evolution, more likely in terms of the Great Chain of Being and the possibility of drawing a firm line and making radical distinction between humans as “the paragon of animals” and “a little lower than the angels” — and the rest, many of whom you want someone to kill and skin and cook or pluck and cook and feed you, without your feeling guilt.
            Against such well-established doctrine, it’s difficult to argue, and Thomas Jefferson and the guys didn’t bother. Instead, in the subversive tradition of John Ball, they offer a competing creation myth, if not for the universe, then for human society — and like John Ball find justification for rebellion against “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Now earlier I mentioned that there are times when God can get useful … and this one is a biggy, with that bit about being created equal and created endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights.” That requires some long leaps of faith. First, that a Creator-God exists, that that God created us and somehow cares about us, and that that God created us equal in some sense, and “with certain unalienable rights.” But get rid of a Creator, and then what? If we have rights, where do they come from? And if we’re equal, equal in what sense? 
            Believing in a Creator is a leap of Faith; that the Creator would care about us, takes the jump into the Absurd — but that absent that Creator that we have some sort of rights from … Nature? That’s also a leap into the absurd, and the idea that we’re equal is just, to put it politely, “counterfactual,” or “ingenious” in a very negative sense of the word.
            Personally, I believe in human rights, and believe strongly. But that’s belief, an act of faith. If you also believe in human rights, that far you too are a person of faith. That makes you no worse than those who believe in the Great Chain of Being, and in some practical ways probably a good deal better; but your belief in equality is built on the same ontological sand pile as their belief in hierarchy. 
            You probably also believe in the American Republic and quite likely the American Nation, which Harari points out are imagined or “imaginary communities”; and you probably believe in corporations — “fictive persons” — and the value of money, including paper money that has just about no value outside the belief that such fancy paper has value. 
            So don’t get snarky with God-believers, with “How can you believe …?” Not if you believe in other people’s belief in money enough to take paper for goods of actual value — and not if you believe in your nation enough to say you’d die for it.

Pass 3
            I spent some forty years teaching and doing scholarship, and before that I did a little bit of science; so let’s say I’m fond of truth and that I rather compulsively try to lay truth upon people. There are times, though, when one can assert one’s truth quickly and then shut up, or just avoid various topics of conversation. 
            Specifically here, if you want people to face courageously the human condition and throw away their crutches of ridiculous beliefs — okay, good; but please face up to what you are asking, and please note that dropping their faith and facing the universe without it, may exact a price some highly useful potential allies are unwilling to pay. 

            In African Genesis(1961), Robert Ardrey recounts a theory from the early 1940s: The Illusion of Central Position. According to the theory, this illusion "is the birthright of every human baby." A baby boy enters the world and "Bright objects appear for his amusement, bottles and breasts for his comfort. His groping consciousness finds no reason at all to doubt the world's consecration to his needs and purposes. His Illusion of Central Position is perfect" (African Genesis144; ch. 6). With maturity, however, the illusion is undercut and the child and then the man comes to a truer perception of his place in the scheme of things.
Nonetheless the theory grants that should a man ever attain a state of total maturity — ever come to see himself, in other words, in perfect mathematical relationship to the tide of tumultuous life which has risen upon the earth and in which we represent but a single swell; and furthermore come to see our earth as but one opportunity for life among uncounted millions in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy as but one statistical improbability, nothing more, in the silent mathematics of all things—should a man, in sum, ever achieve the final, total, truthful Disillusionment of Central Position, then in all likelihood he would no longer keep going but would simply lie down, wherever he happened to be, and with a long-drawn sigh return to the oblivion from which he came. (145; ch. 6)

And we can add today that our universe may be only one among several or many or an infinite number of universes, and that whether our universe peters out through entropy or reduces to nothingness in The Big Crunch, our universe is doomed; so even if a human being gained galactic glory, that, too, would be, in terms of the Big Picture, fleeting. Definitely, totally fleeting, and trivial. 
            Similarly, in The Big Picture, for the value of the human species, let alone any individual human. 

            In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher, decides, "[…] as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts. For […] the fate of man and the fate of beast [are] one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust. Who knows if a man's lifebreath does rise upward and if a beast's breath does sink down into the earth?" (Tanakh 1985; cf. KJV 2000: 3.18-21). That last question is rhetorical: no soul in ancient Jewish theory — that was an Egyptian and Greek idea — but “lifebreath,” and the lifebreath animating human beings and what we consider the “lower” animals is the same: not doggy heaven but oblivion or Sheol: “the grave” or “pit,” with maybe a kind of amorphous semi-existence. And taking such a hard-nose, hard-ass, hard-look view at the world, Koheleth doesn’t lie down and die but cries out on life’s “Emptiness, emptiness! All is emptiness!” And chasing after the wind (Eccl. 1). 
            And such an analysis can be pushed beyond Existential despair and into some nasty conclusions in ethics.  

You want to put that Epicurean on steroids and get a truly rigorous materialism? Well, the Marquis de Sade is far out of date in his science and was far, far out of his mind — psychopathic serial killer and all — but he was strong on intellectual daring and pushing an idea to its conclusions. "What we call the end of the living animal," Sade notes in a very long philosophic pause from a pornographic novel, what we call death and killing of a human or other animal (or plant) is not "a true finis" — end, goal — "but a simple transformation, a transmutation of matter, what every modern philosopher acknowledges as one of Nature's fundamental laws" ("Manners" section of " Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become [Real] Republicans" 1795). Modernizing the argument: Kill someone, bury the corpse, let it rot, dig it up, and weigh it, and the biomass of the human remains, and the feeding putrefactive bacteria, maggots and such will show no significant loss of weight. If you feel that a living human being is superior to a mass of putrefactive bacteria (and I certainly hope you do), how is that feeling any more than the product of our "small human vanities," species chauvinism, and "stupid notions of pride"?
            Which gets us back to human rights and, more deeply, human value. If you believe in human value, you believe in human value. 
            If God exists and cares one way or another about a recent species on an unremarkable planet in a rather banal galaxy, and if that care is love for what in some sense He/She/It has created and created in some sense in His/Her/Its image — yeah, we humans have value. Or you can skip the mystic stuff and just believe without a whole lot of evidence that in a huge universe and maybe multiverse not just our species but individual humans have some sort of significant value.

So: A broad alliance is necessary to resist what looks like a resurgence of fascistic rule, maybe moves toward outright fascism; and necessary for that alliance — parallel to the entry into US politics of Vietnam Veterans Against the War by the US in Vietnam — necessary for that alliance will be religious folk, and the more Evangelical the better. And so for good, Machiavellian, pragmatic reasons, people of faith should be cultivated, not pushed away. And, I hope I have shown, there are considerations that should make it possible for sensible atheists and agnostics to work with faith folk honestly, without hypocrisy. 
            It just takes a little humility.
            “Know how to answer an Epicurean [materialist],” Rabbi; and responsible Leftist materialists should know how to talk to rabbis and other people of faith enough to get them to resist Trumpism, and to plan how to do it.

“Solidarity Forever!”, people; or at least until the current crises in the American Republic have settled down.

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