In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

Religions and their atheisms

Ernest Renan, as one of his contemporaries saw him

In his essay on Ernest Renan, Irving Babbitt wrote:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

Lest we think Renan’s tongue was entirely in his cheek as he wrote this last excerpt, Babbitt elaborates:

Renan thus has a special gift for surrounding science with an atmosphere of religious devotion… In other words all the terms of the old idealism are to be retained, but by a system of subtle equivocation they are to receive new meanings.  Thus a great deal is said about the “soul,” but, as used by Renan, it has come to be a sort of function of the brain.  “Those will understand me who have once breathed the air of the other world and tasted the nectar of the ideal.”  When this is taken in connection with the whole passage where it occurs, we discover that “tasting the nectar of the ideal” does not signify much more than reading a certain number of German monographs.  Men, he tells us, are immortal- that is, “in their works” or “in the memory of those who have loved them,” or “in the memory of God.”  Elsewhere we learn that by God he means merely “the category of the ideal.”*

As Babbitt reads him, Renan has rejected all of the characteristic doctrines of Christianity and certainly of its Roman Catholic variety.  He could fairly be called an atheist.  Yet he is a distinctly Roman Catholic atheist.  It is the God preached in the church he attended as a boy in the town of Tréguier in the 1820s and 1830s in whom Renan disbelieves, not any other god; it is according to the imaginative categories that he learned there that he thinks of the world.  This much is hardly surprising.  Renan was of course a man of great erudition, but his earliest and most intensive learning was of his childhood social environment and the ideas that prevailed there.

What brings this to mind is an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education a week ago.  Author Stephen Asma is, like Irving Babbitt before him, an American scholar of no religious affiliation who has studied Buddhism deeply and with sympathy.  Also like Babbitt, Asma is aware of the ways in which the religions we grow up in and around can shape our basic assumptions about the world even when we think we are rejecting them.  Asma’s essay discusses the leading figures of the “New Atheism,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the movement.  Asma argues that when these men argue against “religion,” they are in fact arguing against only those forms of monotheism with which they personally are most familiar:

As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men’s cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, “I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble.” I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould’s pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of “nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a” (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they’re wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the “mo­ral­ity job” to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Asma goes on to discuss animism at length, pointing out that if we classify the belief that nature is inhabited by spirits who influence our lives and require our worship as a single religion, it is easily the world’s most popular.  Yet animists rarely offer explanations of natural phenomena that compete with scientific explanations, and they do not ground ethical codes in divine commandments.  Westerners who focus on the rituals animists perform and the stories they tell to explain these rituals often dismiss animism as a childish notion, and to believe that “an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will ‘evolve’ (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent).”  If those Westerners side with the New Atheists, they may expect to see a further step in this ‘evolution’:

And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no “in­ten­tions” be­hind them. The view of na­ture as “law­ful” and “pre­dict­a­ble” has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

Yet this view of animism, Asma argues, is hopelessly distorted.  It leaves out the key insight at the root of animism: “An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.”  When I tell my classes about ancient Greek and Roman medicine before the time of Hippocrates, I often say something similar to this definition Asma offers here.  The ancients, I say, believed that the health of the body reflected the person’s social environment.  They expected a person whose relationships with others were loving and secure to be healthy, and they expected a person whose relationships with others were hostile or uncertain to be unhealthy.  These expectations are not at all unreasonable; more often than not, we do find exactly this.  When they saw that a person whose relationships with the people they could see were loving and secure, but that the person’s physical health was poor, it was by no means irrational of them to assume that there must be other persons whom they could not see with whom the person’s relationships were not so good.

Asma sums his argument up thus:

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris’s new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

I suspect that there are at least as many atheisms as there are religions.  As Renan retained the mental habits of Catholicism even after he renounced the Roman Catholic Church and the God it preached, so too the “Four Horsemen” and company cannot help but reject the specific religions which have been important to them.  That’s why it won’t do, for example, for John Wilks to say that “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.”  A person who was raised in a culture where Vishnu and Thor are simply names in stories that no one believes and who does not set out to adopt a belief in them is not doing remotely the same thing as is the person who, raised in a culture where virtually everyone pays cult to the gods of the Hindu pantheon or those of the Norse pantheon, declares that those gods are unreal and that their worshipers are wasting their time.  At the beginning of his or her journey away from belief in the gods, the latter person will certainly share most of the beliefs and the mental habits that go with the worship of those gods.  And it is entirely possible that s/he will still share them to the end of the road.  If so learned a man as Ernest Renan remained readily recognizable a Roman Catholic decades after he came to the conclusion that there was no God, it is clear that the simple act of rejecting a religious doctrine, however important that doctrine may be to the followers of the religion, does not by itself remove the influence of that religion from the person’s mind.

This much may seem obvious.  The forms of atheism that people develop as they leave a religion should be seen as phases of that religion.  Renan’s Roman Catholic atheism is a phase of Roman Catholicism, as Richard Dawkins’ atheism is a phase of Low Church Anglicanism, Sam Harris’ atheism is a phase of Judaism, ibn Warraq’s atheism is a phase of Islam, and so on.  Yet it is not obvious, as witness John Wilks’ comment identifying himself as a “Thor-atheist.”  What keeps it from being obvious is, I would say, the influence of fundamentalism.

Today, “fundamentalist” is often used as an empty term of abuse, suggesting angry people who are impatient with disagreement.  Yet it began with a definite meaning, a meaning which people who identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians still use.  “Fundamentalist” began as a name for people who agreed with the doctrines laid out in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  Those tracts identify certain interpretations of particular passages of the Bible as essential to Christianity and argue that one will be saved from damnation if and only if one believes that those passages, under those interpretations, are true.  Fundamentalists regard those passages, under the prescribed interpretations, as the great truths of Christianity.  They expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of these great truths, and they expect society to be transformed upon the triumph of the Christian movement.

To what sort of atheism does fundamentalist Christianity characteristically give rise?  I myself know many atheists who were raised by self-described fundamentalists.  Some have gone through complex intellectual and spiritual journeys since leaving their earlier faith.  Upon others, however, the marks of fundamentalist thinking are still writ large.  For example, one friend expressed amazement that a professor in a psychology course at the fundamentalist Bible college she attended could avow belief in fundamentalist doctrines.  When I asked her why she was surprised, she said that she expected his practice as a scientist to show him that there was no place for supernatural ideas.  She said that he must have “compartmentalized” his mind so as to keep his scientific thinking separate from his religious beliefs.  While psychologists do sometimes use the word “compartmentalization” to refer to an attempt to protect a cherished belief by creating a separate mental space into which one may confine dangerous knowledge, the currency the word has in this sense among atheists raised as fundamentalist Christians goes far beyond its actual prominence as a scientific concept.  The readiest explanation for its popularity among ex-fundamentalist Christians is that they still believe that once a person accepts the great truths, that person will naturally attain the virtue that marks the movement.  The content of the great truths may be different (“There is no God” rather than “There is a God,” “Science is the sole path to understanding nature” rather than “Faith is the sole path to understanding eternal things,” etc,) and the movement has a different name and a different liturgy, but the followers of each movement expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of the great truths and society to be transformed upon the triumph of the movement.  The expression “fundamentalist atheist” rankles nonbelievers, understandably so given the word’s pejorative uses.  Yet mental habits of the affirming phase of fundamentalism transfer so readily to its atheist phase that one can hardly expect the expression to die out.

*pages 259-261 in The Masters of Modern French Criticism (Boston, 1912)

Friends Journal, January 2011

During our Christmas break, the Believer and I read the latest issue of the Quaker publication Friends Journal.  I also read several books, among them the third volume of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays. The themes of this month’s issue of the magazine seemed to coincide in some interesting ways with the themes More explored in that 1905 collection.

Phil H. Gulley’s article on “The Meaning of Universalism” brings to mind two of More’s essays, the one on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, also the one on William Cowper.  More argues that Cowper was the first English poet to make home life a major theme of poetry, and that Whittier was at his finest in exploring scenes of home.  In that way, Gulley is a follower of Whittier, for his essay is strongest in its vivid scenes from his childhood home.  Explaining his belief that there is no Hell, but an afterlife in which every human will proceed to salvation, Gulley tells of his parents insisting that he invite every child in the neighborhood to his eighth birthday party.  From that point on, he couldn’t imagine that God would give a party and leave anyone uninvited.

In his essay on William Cowper, More connects the poet’s poor mental health to his fervent belief in Jean Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.   Calvin argued that the human will is powerless to accomplish anything of importance, certainly powerless to earn salvation, so that it is only by the free and arbitrary grace of God that some few souls, the Elect, are spared damnation.  Of this doctrine, More writes:

Good Dr Holmes has somewhere written that it was only decent for a man who believed in this doctrine to go mad.  Well, Cowper believed in it; there was no insulating pad of worldly indifference between his faith and his nerves, and he went mad.

The most obvious thing about this Universalism is that it is a form of Predestinarianism. It differs from Calvin’s doctrine only in expanding the number of the Elect to include all humans.  I cannot see that one form of Predestinarianism should be radically healthier than another.  Perhaps the belief that our actions on earth are of no importance to a kindly, indulgent God who can deny us nothing we might desire would lead to another set of delusions than those which would haunt believers in a doctrine that preaches that our actions are of no importance to a capricious, inscrutable God who will save or damn us without reason, but neither doctrine seems likely to inspire clear-headed realism.

If Gulley himself has kept his wits intact, I hasten to add, it is less likely because of an “insulating pad of worldly indifference” than it is a testament to the parents he commemorates so fondly.  As it so happens, Gulley’s father Norm was a coworker and a good friend of my father’s, and I was an occasional visitor in the home where he grew up.  My visits came after Phil Gulley had left for school, but I can confirm that they had created one of the most wholesome environments imaginable.

Another piece in the issue describes people who came from very different environments.  In her “Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence,” Stephanie Wilder describes her work as a teacher in a facility for juvenile offenders in Philadelphia who have been convicted of serious crimes.  Some of these crimes are very serious indeed; the Believer and I both lost sleep after reading that “One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman.  He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her.”  Wilder begins the next paragraph by acknowledging that “My students are unlikely to change.  The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent.”

Wilder turns to an obvious question:  “So why do I continue to work in juvie?”  After saying that as a Quaker, she is “reminded to seek that of God in everyone,” Wilder goes on to say that “I have learned to let go of my attachment to outcomes.”  She focuses on what she can control- her own behavior- not on her students’ behavior, which she can’t control.   “The boys use the expression, ‘Don’t test my gangsta!’  It means, ‘Don’t push me so far that I lose control.’  I feel that my ‘gangsta’ is my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence.  I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get disappointed.”

I’m sure Wilder’s basic point is sound- there is no point in focusing on other people’s behavior when all we can control is our own.  It is possible to take this too far, however.  Her presence in the classroom has an influence on the boys.  All of the stories she tells make it sound like her students respond to her principled nonviolence and solicitous concern for that of God in them with unbounded contempt.  If that is the case, then she may in fact be making it more likely that they will reoffend.  If the face of the justice system is someone they regard as a joke, then it can hardly deter them from continuing with the lives of crime in which they have already become so deeply invested.  As I reads the piece, I kept hoping that Wilder would describe some way that she found to use therapeutic methods based on the “Criminal Thinking” psychological model, or some other approach that has actually had success steering violent offenders away from their patterns.

I think you should be more explicit here in step two

Recently I took a lot of books to the nearest used book store.  My main goal was to free up space in the apartment, but since the guy doesn’t pay cash for books and I’m not inclined to give him books for free I had to take store credit.  That meant picking up a few books.  What he had that I could imagine myself reading were popular science books about cosmology written in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s.  It’s been fun looking through those.  It’s as if I’ve been mentally reenacting the development of grand scale physical theory as it has played out over the last 60 years.  So I started with The Nature of the Universe,  a series of lectures delivered in 1950 by Fred Hoyle, who coined the phrase “Big Bang” as a silly name for what he regarded as a ludicrous hypothesis.  Then I moved on to a somewhat later book suggesting that the hypothesis might not be so ludicrous, to a still later book that explains it as a settled fact, and then to a relatively recent book which shows impatience with people who still talk about the Big Bang when the the real questions are all about the period of extremely rapid cosmic inflation that followed immediately after the Big Bang.

Seeing how dramatically cosmology has changed in the last 60 years and how much more powerful its arguments have become, it’s easy to think that physics must have reached maturity in that time.  One might think that physicists are done making great discoveries, and that in the next few years they will tidy up the few remaining problems facing their discipline.  Looking more closely, a different picture emerges.  So, reading one of the more recent books I came upon a reference to proton decay, including the casual remark that in the distant future, several trillion years from now, there won’t be any protons left.  I was curious as to how long it takes a proton to decay and what happens to the little fellow while he is decaying.  So I googled “how long does it take a proton to decay?”  That brought up some articles saying that we don’t know how long it takes protons to decay, and that as a matter of fact we have no proof that they decay at all.  No one has ever seen a proton decay, and since we know virtually nothing about the internal structure of the proton we cannot very well describe the process by which that structure would dissolve.  Knowing so little about the proton, we are in the dark not only about the origin and future of the proton, but we are also in the rather embarrassing position of not being able to explain why objects have mass.  The Large Hadron Collider is supposed to inform this ignorance, but at the moment physics is left with an enormous blank space.  This blank space suggests, not a mature science with only a few loose ends left to tie up, but a young science whose greatest discoveries are very likely still to be made.

Perhaps I will cap off my read-through of old popularizations of cosmology with a look at Stephen Hawking‘s forthcoming book. This book has already received a great deal of commentary, most of in response to this quote:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

I haven’t yet seen the book, and these two sentences are not included in this excerpt from it published in Time magazine, or this one from the Wall Street Journal.   So I don’t know what Hawking is driving at with this line.  Since the book only became available on the 7th of this month, few in the armies of commenters can have seen it either.  Not even philosopher Ervin Laszlo quotes any part of the book aside from these 35 words.

It would therefore be both unfair to Hawking and superfluous for me to become yet another person who has reacted to these two sentences without reading the book from which they are taken.  So I will confine myself to mentioning some ideas of which this line has reminded me, ideas which I do not attribute to Hawking.

The discussion surrounding Hawking’s two sentences tends to be summed up in headlines like “Stephen Hawking: God Was Not Needed to Create the Universe,” “”Hawking’s Rejection of God Unpersuasive, Say Faith Leaders,” and “God Has No Role in the Universe, Says Stephen Hawking.”  The idea that the existence of the physical universe in some way or other proves the existence of a supernatural being who created and governs that universe is known as “the argument from design.”  To the extent that the 35 words quoted above summarize Hawking’s project fairly, that project would represent an attempt to refute the argument from design.  Over the centuries, other arguments have been advanced to prove that God exists; I very much doubt that an attempt to refute the ontological proof or the transcendental argument would inspire the furious reaction these 35 words have elicited in so many quarters.  Many people who are quite willing to see the other arguments as exercises for logic students to work through seem to be passionately attached to the argument from design, even to equate acceptance of its soundness with religious belief.

This state of affairs puzzles me.  As a teacher in a university classics program, I often talk with students about the mythological ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In these ideas, we see a culture which showed an intense concern with the birth of the gods, and an equally intense concern with the origins of various human populations.  The ancients usually worshipped their gods, not one at a time, but in groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the primordial cosmos to explain what the kinship relations were among the gods.  Only with that knowledge could they properly appease the unseen forces that they believed to hold great power over their lives.  Most of the ancients lived, not as atomized individuals, but as members of close-knit kinship groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the origins of the human race to know who their relatives were, and which groups were offshoots of other groups.  What pagan Greeks and Romans did not seek to find in myth was an account of the origin and basic governance of the physical universe.  Greek and Latin mythological texts simply take it for granted that “there is something rather than nothing,” that “the universe exists.”

To give just one example, the most famous Greek mythological text treating of the world before humans was Hesiod’s Theogony.  Not only does Hesiod say that the first cosmic entities emerged spontaneously from the void; this idea doesn’t even strike him as something needing explanation.  The gods did not create the physical world, as they were all descended from the entities formed in that first moment of spontaneous generation.  Hesiod does not appeal even obliquely to any process that might have produced the Earth.  “At first there was a gaping void, and then came into being deep-breasted Earth, the unshaken foundation of all the immortal gods who occupy the snowy peaks of Olympus, and shadowy Tartarus deep in the Earth’s wide ways, and Eros, most lovely of the immortals, who undoes the strength of minds and limbs and counsels both human and divine .”  And that’s it- from there on out we’re on to the interesting part, the cosmic family tree.

This blasé disregard for the origin of the physical world did not set the Greeks and Romans apart from their neighbors in the ancient Mediterranean world.  The ancient Hebrews, for example, were so bored by the topic that they placed two contradictory accounts of the origin of the world side by side in chapters one and two of Genesis, and then spent a good many centuries producing sacred texts that barely mention either account.  Having established that they were not an subgroup of any other existing nation, the Hebrews could go on to other subjects.

It has only been in the modern world that the idea has taken hold that the physical world operates like a machine, and that if there are gods who govern it they must be machinists.  With the prevalence of this idea, the “argument from design” became vitally important to believers of many stripes.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is often cited as the father of the argument from design, but it is worth pointing out that he in fact rejected the forms of the argument that are familiar today.  In Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas pairs the following objection and response:


Is all social life schooling?

I’ve always read a lot of magazines.  Before we started this blog in June 2007, if I came up with an idea while reading one of them I would sometimes make a note of it in a word processing document.  More often I would just forget about it.  Now I post “Periodicals Notes” in which I make those ideas available here.

Among these old documents I recently found  some speculation triggered by this paragraph on page 23 of The Nation for 19 June 2006: “In his 1964 book Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), [Sayyid] Qutb wrote that ‘if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children’ and, whether on her own or by pressure from society, seeks to work in jobs such as ‘a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company,’ she will be ‘using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings.’  This, he claimed, would make the entire civilization ‘backward.’”  What intrigued me about this précis was the idea that “the training of human beings” is the activity that separates healthy societies from backward ones.

Augustine of Hippo, in the City of God and the dialogue de Magistro, takes a similar view.  The City of God is a sort of cultural history of the Roman Empire, tracing how various religious ideas have influenced events from the legendary period of the seven kings of Rome up to Augustine’s own day.  Rather than simply dismissing the ideas he disagrees with, Augustine treats them as early stages in the process that would prepare the Mediterranean world for Christian doctrine.  This process of learning involved the whole of Greco-Roman society.  In the dialogue de Magistro, he asks what purposes speech serves, and concludes that every one of those purposes is a form, of teaching.  If all speech is teaching, then all social life must be educational.

Around the same time I read the issue of The Nation with that essay about Sayyid Qutb, I read the  Spring 2006 issue of Telos. That issue includes an article by Aryeh Botwinick called “A Monotheistic Ethics: Ben Zoma’s Mishnah” which finds such a view in the Babylonian Talmud, in Ben Zoma’s comments on the passage “Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.”  I rather doubt that Sayyid Qutb read the Babylonian Talmud, or Augustine for that matter.  I suspect that Qutb, Augustine, and Ben Zoma came independently to the view that society is above all a place for teaching and learning.



I’ve often wondered about the word “fundamentalism.” The word seems to refer less to a specific set of beliefs than to an attitude of militant certitude about one’s beliefs.  So an “Islamic fundamentalist” and a “Christian fundamentalists” can look at each other, each serene in the conviction that the other will be damned for obscene folly.

How widely can the word be applied?  We hear sometimes about “Hindu fundamentalists”; while no one can deny that there are aggressively militant Hindus, some do deny that the word “fundamentalism” can be stretched to cover a body of religious practices that are not built around a holy book or the story of a prophet.  On the other hand, there are those who argue that militant Hindu nationalists have been trying to refashion Indian religious traditions in the image of the monotheistic movements commonly known as fundamentalist.

If fundamentalism isn’t particular to any one religion or even to any one category of religions, is it even necessary to be religious to be a fundamentalist?  Or, to ask a related question, if fundamentalism isn’t about particular religious doctrines but about the believer’s attitude towards doctrines, then wouldn’t we expect fundamentalists who change only in that they have lost faith in their religious doctrines to approach disbelief in the same way they had formerly approached belief?  That is, would we not expect fundamentalist theists who ceased to believe in their God or gods to become equally fundamentalist atheists unless they had undergone some change in their approach to their beliefs?

Yesterday, Arts & Letters Daily linked to a several-week-old piece on Slate that reminded me of these questions.  The most interesting bits of that piece were quotes from Australian science blogger John Wilkins.  Wilkins has denied that “fundamentalist atheism” is a meaningful phrase, but his description of the mindset that sets the “New Atheists” apart from the agnosticism he approves does sound very similar to fundamentalism:

For now my objections to the “New” Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organized religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

2. [The New Atheism] presumes to know what it cannot. More on this below.

3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of “weak” Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

5. But does that mean no *possible* evidence could decide it [existence or nonexistence of God]? That’s a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that’s a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists.

Secular Calvinism?

Adherents of the political tendency known as libertarianism often defend their positions with appeals to economic theory.  They do not often show a high regard for the concerns of environmentalism.  So when a libertarian think tank publishes a book that equates the academic discipline of economics with the environmentalist movement, one may well take notice. 

In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert H. Nelson of the Independent Institute argues that the forms of academic economics that have influenced policymaking in the US in recent decades, like the forms of environmentalist thought that have begun to play a role in public affairs, are secularized versions of Calvinism.  How so?  To quote the Independent Institute’s summary:

The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena today—the New Holy Wars—are crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankind’s impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.

Nelson is himself an economics Ph.D, having received that degree from Princeton University in 1971.  If one of the tenets of the religion of economics is that economics is not a religion, that would make him a wayward priest.  The summary goes on:

Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.”

That’s an interesting claim, and a list of very diverse people.  Nelson seems to focus on the USA, but it would be interesting to contrast the environmentalisms that have taken hold in countries with histories of Calvinism with the environmentalisms that have taken hold where Calvinism was never ascendant.  Onward:

Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient,” writes Robert Nelson.

Coming from a libertarian economist, the statement that “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient” is as amazing as Luther’s Ninety Five Theses were coming from a Roman Catholic priest in 1520. 

The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.

To the extent that this is true, I suspect it is not because of the intellectual forebears of contemporary environmentalists, but because those environmentalists have come to Africa as agents of Western bureaucracies.  As such, they have been constrained to act and think in the terms those bureaucracies made available to them, terms which often have little connection to the social and ecological realities of Africa. 

There is another, shorter, summary on the same page:

“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.

“If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the ‘spiritual values’ of economics versus the ‘spiritual values’ of environmentalism,” writes Nelson in his introduction. “For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.”

In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs down—or unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.

In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.

Some readers of this blog have expressed interest in “political theology,” the idea that there are no truly political belief systems, but that all political theories are simply theological doctrines in disguise.  This notion is often associated with the German legal scholar (and onetime NaziCarl Schmitt (1888-1985.)  Say what you will about Schmitt’s detestable activities from 1933 to 1937, he made a powerful case for political theology.  Nor did he originate the notion; it can be traced back to Cicero’s Laws (especially book 1, chapter 8), and back of Cicero to the Stoics, with the idea that a certain memory of the Divine lingers in the human mind and that the various legal codes and religious practices of the world result from the attempts of various peoples to translate  that memory into a guide for action.  If there is truth in political theology, then we would expect both economics and environmental theories to be driven by unacknowledged theological commitments.

“I will pray for you”

Quaker meetings don't usually look like this anymore

Sometimes I envy my Christ-y Christian friends their habit of telling people in distress “I will pray for you.”  Coming from someone you trust, from someone whose God is love and whose worship is nurture, those words can be comforting.  The nervous chatter that I tend to fall into when people tell me their troubles comforts no one, I’m sure. 

Of course “I will pray for you” is often far from comforting.  When someone you have no particular reason to trust says that s/he will pray for you, you may hear “I know what’s good for you and am looking for an opportunity to impose that agenda.”  Or, “I wish I could use God as a means to control you and make you into the sort of person I like.” 

Last year Mrs Acilius and I visited a Quaker meeting in Seattle (Seattle-ite readers might want to know that it was University Friends Meeting on 9th Avenue NE.)  University Friends Meeting is unprogrammed, which is to say that the meeting for worship consists of whoever shows up sitting quietly together until someone feels the need to say something.  That person stands up, speaks, then sits down.  The silence resumes. 

One man stood and told the group what he does during silent worship.  He thinks of a person he knows and cares about.  He tries to picture that person in his mind’s eye.  He holds that mental image, the person in front of a plain background of white light, as clearly as he can for as long as he can.  That’s his way of praying for someone.  Since there are no words involved, he doesn’t wish anything on the person. 

I’ve tried this meditative exercise  quite a few times now, and I can recommend it.  Not only do I not spend that time thinking about ways to turn the person I’m thinking of into a different sort of person, but after a few moments any desire I may have had to control the person fades away.  Instead, I become more willing to listen to whoever it is I’m thinking of, to accept him or her as s/he is and to respect his or her own power of decision. 

I think this is where silent meditation in general has an advantage over language-based forms of prayer.  If we are to live life as it comes at us and to accept people as they are, it will be because we are able, first, to distinguish between those few things we ought to control and the infinite number of things we ought not to control, and, second, to show respect to that which we ought not to control.  We should respect other individual humans, other cultures, other countries; non-human animals, non-animal life, and the ecological systems in which they thrive; the world of the past, the possibilities of the future, and the immensities of space.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control. 

When we produce language, whether by speaking or signing or writing, we are faced with a continual series of decisions, of factors subject to our control.  Which words we use, how we structure those words into sentences, which other participants in the conversation we acknowledge and how we acknowledge them, these are all matters we try to control precisely.  Language, in turn, is a tool we use to control our world, by classifying knowledge, developing social networks, and crafting tools.  Language can be a tool we use to control each other.  Because language is so bound up with the idea of control, no one who prays in words is ever more than one step away from trying to cast a spell.  Silent meditation, on the other hand, is a way of letting go, of renouncing control.  Through it, we become more aware of our surroundings as they are and less concerned with the way things used to be or the way they ought to be.  Silent meditation may be a tool of some kind, but it certainly is not a tool for remaking the world in one’s own image.  In silent meditation, we may even let the world remake us.

Colin Newman; The Residents; Vinnie-P

Jesus Guns

US military uses rifles marked with Bible codes.