Tag Archives: Western religions.

Reflecting on “The Swerve” – and the future of civilization

Poggio Bracciolini was a hunter of lost manuscripts. One of many 14 & 15th Century Italian Humanists seeking to recapture lost classical civilization. He was also apostolic secretary to Pope John XXIII. (If you wonder how that could have been the case, since you remember the remarkable 1958-1963 Pontificate of Pope John XXIII, I’ll get to that later.) He stands out in history because of his remarkable success in finding a copy of Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things that had disappeared from public view more than 1,000 years earlier. The fascinating detective story of how this was accomplished is beautifully told by Steven Greenberg, in his award-winning book The Swerve, which I had trouble putting down. 

But that is not the point of this comment. Rather, it is on the light this book sheds on the challenges of cultural development that I wish briefly to comment. While reading – for the second time – this dramatically unfolding story, I was continually drawn to thinking about the fragility and complexity, the socially and economically interrelated and historically conditioned reality, that is contemporary civilization. And how much each of us is a product of the time and place of our birth, having to make the most of the historically determined “niche” in which, for better or worse, we chance to find ourselves. And more, having a seriously limited capacity to effect the context or trajectory of our encompassing society, and its historically constituted social, economic and cultural situation. 

Poggio and his fellow Humanists, for example, were surrounded by the historical ruins of Classical, and particularly Roman, civilization. And they were deeply aware of the limits of their own possibilities, and of how far their current world was from that lost world. They could fantasize a classical life for themselves, as they sought to recapture a classical Latin literary style, but they could not significantly effect the degraded culture in which they found themselves.  

Poggio, for his part, not being of noble birth or having important family connections, was only able to take advantage of his exceptional handwriting ability – to write with clarity and elegance – and thus to pursue a highly successful career as a scribe. (Such a skill in our modern computer-based world would, of course, be of practically no use.) Thus he was able to fairly quickly advance within the Church bureaucracy, itself deeply involved in the developing world of contentious Italian city-state politics of the early Renaissance. It was also a world of pervasive city-state conflict, court intrigue, and Church corruption through which any one interested in succeeding had to navigate perilously. It was that world that both produced the Pontificate of the completely corrupt Baldasare Cossa, and then his removal from office, three years of imprisonment, and the complete effacement of any acknowledgement of his reign from official Church history, thus allowing the saintly Angelo Roncalli to assume the title of John XXIII in 1958.

As I was thinking about what it might have been like to be Poggio, and to have found oneself in his time and place, I compared his situation to mine — and, in a wider sense, to “ours,” those born in the Unites States in the last years of the 20th and the first years of the 21st Century: to the complexity and fragility of the technologically advanced civilization and life styles we take for granted. For example, life expectancy for most Italians in Poggio’s time was about 40 years. And those who, like Poggio, lived into their 60s or 70s — very few lived much beyond that — were plagued by numerous ailments, even quite minor ones by contemporary standards, for which there were no effective medical treatments. And, of course, travel beyond one’s local town or village was practically impossible, except for the quite wealthy, with travel time being at best 7 miles an hour, and communication being almost entirely word of mouth, and limited to the most immediate local concerns. 

I will not further dwell on such historical contrasts except to underline the dependence of the life chances of each person on the current historical and cultural conditions which we had no role in producing. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of historical progress in science, culture, economics, medicine, communications, and politics. But certainly not all of us, and certainly not all equitably. For that historical development has sadly and tragically also been scared by imperial expansion, colonial exploitation and oppression, even genocide, and an increasing despoilation of the Earth, with an increasing threat to the very conditions of decent life on the planet. Nothing guarantees the continued survival of our civilization, nor the continued cross-cultural advances in world-wide life expectancy, and certainly not the success of efforts to combat pervasive forms of corruption, subjugation, exploitation, and oppression. Civilizations, even the most powerful, have disintegrated and died, and that usually more from internal rot than external conquest. Did people in the declining years of the Roman Empire know that their Empire was in the process of disappearing? And was there anything that they could have done about that? 

And what of us today, in the US in the age of Trump? Are we in the midst of the agonies of a nation and a culture in decline, tearing itself apart? And if so, as I fear, is there anything that we can do about it? I, for one, have committed my life to the collective struggle to provide an alternative path that leads from decline to cultural renewal. And our human potentials for the advancement of human well being are literally unprecedented. 

But far too many take our economic, scientific, educational, medical, social and cultural advances for granted, and can only see how we fall short of our highest ideals, or even of our most realistic possibilities. And far too many others are infatuated by fantastical religious beliefs and practices, themselves the products of scientifically primitive ages, and, convinced of their revealed Truth, seek to impose them on the rest of us regardless of the consequences. While still others will use the resources of civilization to amass unlimited amounts of wealth and power without regard to either their effects on the lives of the vast majority or on the long-term consequences for the Earth’s habitability. 

Many of these groups seem quite content to demonize those with whom they disagree, and are prepared to destroy whatever stands in the way of their ascendency. Meanwhile, the complex and tenuous project that is human civilization, on this our increasingly fragile planet, apparently proceeds with business as usual, as we tend toward numerous potential calamities, from climatological, demographic, ecological, biological, chemical, to nuclear. How can we preserve and protect the magnificent accomplishments that are human civilization – in science, medicine, technology, art, history, culture, human rights, environmental preservation, and cross-cultural appreciation – while still mobilizing our collective resources in practical and realistic ways to counter these forces of destruction? Perhaps we may take heart from the growing numbers of people across the globe that have begun to mobilize to counter these institutionalized forces of destruction, but I am far from confident of their success. Life on this earth does not come with an insurance policy. Nor is salvation provided for people or civilizations. Yet such mobilization, as amorphous as it is, is our only hope. For success is not assured, but without it we are lost. So let us all resolve to do our part, step by step and piece by piece, while never losing our humane bearings in the effort to contribute to a world of enhanced mutual respect for human dignity and for the sustaining of an harmonious balance between human beings and the natural world that is our only home.  

My public talks currently scheduled for 2018

Public Talks for 2018

“American Philosophy: it’s originality, and practicality, from progressive education to science, law, and democracy.” Gold Coast Library, 1/17 7pm.
There is much that is unique about the development of the United States of America, as well as much that is not. Original visions have struggled with quite traditional values and attitudes throughout our history. American Philosophy, in giving voice to the possibilities of America has made original contributions to Western Philosophy, developing our ideals while critically analyzing our limitations. Touching on a wide range of areas, from education and politics, to religion and science, we will provide a perspective on this development, and suggest some of the fault lines that mark contemporary experience.

“Making Sense of Recent Elections: what can we learn from the unexpected election results in America, Britain, and elsewhere?” South Huntington Library, 1/24 7pm
First the British vote to withdraw from the European Union, then the American election of Donald Trump startled experts and deranged established political expectations and institutions. Similar forces have seemed to be at work at other European countries, though with modified results. What are we to make of these election results, and what do they portend for the future of Western liberal democracies? These are the kind of issues we will seek to address.

“Trump’s America: what is its vision, program, and the nature of its support.” Gold Coast Library, 2/7 at 7pm
We will explore the significance for America of the election of Donald Trump. What were the conditions that laid the groundwork for his election? Who voted for him, and why? And what are the possible consequences?

“Fantasyland: Reflections on America’s Character and Culture”
3 lectures at Hutton House, LIU Wednesdays 2/14-28 from 1-3pm.
In these Reflections on America’s Character and Culture, we will explore:
Who we are. The cultures, ethnicities, and belief systems that have built the U.S. How we developed. Some of the major challenges we have faced, and how we addressed them. Our growth, expansion, and Manifest Destiny. The emergence of the “cultural Cold War” that has come to dominate our politics. The Trump phenomena. And the divergent paths now before us.

“Manifest Destiny and the Meaning of America: thinking about our history and its contemporary relevance.” Syosset Library, 3/1 at 2pm.
Americans have always believed that we are an exceptional people. From the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, seeking to build “a city upon a hill” that all the world would view as an example of how all should live, through the 19th Century notion that we had a “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire North American continent “from sea to shining sea.” As a nation, we continue to believe “that God shed his Grace on thee.” We joined WW1 “to save the world for democracy,” and continue to believe that we are the beacons of “The Free World,” with an obligation and responsibility to preserve the values that have made us great. What is that belief system? What are its origins? How has it operated to guide our history? And what are its implications for us as a nation today? These are the issues I hope to address.

“The American Dream: what it means and what are its prospects.” Elmont Memorial Library, 4/6 12:30 pm
Since its inception, one of the central meanings of America has been the opportunity to make something of one’s life. America offered the promise, and quite often the reality, of a continually improving standard of living for oneself and for one’s children. This sense of individual possibility, rooted in personal freedom and basic human rights became a beacon for people across the world. That became the wider significance of the claim that we were « as a city upon a hill » for all the world to see what life could become. In recent times, however, this vision has become increasingly uncertain. What has been happening to the American Dream? Why is that? And what can we do about it?

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion.

At the recent convention of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association I picked up a book on “Living the Secular Life” by Phil Zuckerman. Since Dr. Zuckerman is a “professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California,” and the book comes with endorsements from Susan Jacoby, Greg Epstein, and David Brooks, among others, I thought this book would be useful in developing the theory and practice of our Ethical Humanist congregation on Long Island. But, to my profound chagrin, and even annoyance, I found from the outset, that rather than contributing to our efforts, Professor Zuckerman had defined us out of existence. Without the slightest degree of self-awareness, this “expert” on secular studies simply treats as interchangeable the words secular and anti-religious. Thus all of his facts and arguments presuppose that to be secular you must be anti-religious, and to be religious you must be anti-secular, that is, I suppose, you must believe in the divine and the sacred. I say “suppose”, because I must admit I could not get much beyond the first few pages, so put off was I by this casual conceptual extermination.

But I think the deeper point that calls for comment, is the fact that Professor Zuckerman’s approach is quite representative of the views and attitudes of the vast majority of Americans — and perhaps of many people around the world. As an expert in “secular studies” you would think that Professor Zuckerman would have known better. But that he reproduces conventional prejudices does call for, at least, a response and a clarification.

The word religion may be seen as coming from the Latin religio (or perhaps religare) which refers to being bound. There need be no reference to the divine, sacred, or transcendent in its meaning, though, of course, often there is. But quite to the point, religio speaks to one’s being bound by belief and practice to a shared community – similar to the root of yoke, from which Yoga is drawn. (According to Wikipedia: “yoga (from the root yuj) means “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach” in its most common literal sense. By figurative extension from the yoking or harnessing of oxen or horses, the word took on broader meanings such as “employment, use, application, performance” (compare the figurative uses of “to harness” as in “to put something to some use.””)I need not appeal to Buddhists or Confucians, however, to underline the point that one can be bound up with a community of believers and practitioners, who celebrate life’s passages together, while “ministering” to the needs of one’s fellow congregants, without having to make any appeal to “higher authorities.” In fact, one may well be committed, as are we at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, to building a community of “caring hearts,” living an ethical life, attributing dignity to all human beings, and seeking to promote human respect and social improvement throughout the world, without making the slightest appeal to the divine or sacred. And to do all of this as a secular religious community, that is at least recognized as such by the US government, if not by Professor Zuckerman. If he had made that distinction, I would have loved to see how his factual analyses would have changed, as well as his consideration of the personal and social values of such secular religious communities — with their commitment to science and human betterment — as well as the social and institutional role that such secular organizations might play, more particularly, in the policies and programs of the United States.

On The threat posed by radical Islam

On The threat posed by radical Islam to the civilized world

Recent events have made starkly clear that radical Islam has become a serious threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. After 9/11 and the killings at Charlie Hebdo, among many other such acts, no one can doubt the threat posed by radical Islam to the West. But the killing of three Muslims in North Carolina — purportedly over a parking space dispute — is only the most obvious recent sign of the way increasing numbers of non-Muslims in the West — egged on by some demagogic media figures — are coming to perceive all Muslims as a threat, and may experience social support in discriminating against them, or even engaging in anti-Muslim violence. This is occurring in a world context in which non-Muslins have seen the emergence of an apparently growing radical Islamism that is more than willing to kill unlimited numbers of innocent civilians in the pursuit of its fundamentalist religious agenda. That is an inescapable reality. This movement is real, morally indefensible, and truly frightening. No wonder many have called for intensive scrutiny of all Muslims, and some have even sought to justify completely unjustified attacks at Islamic institutions. This reality has created a very dangerous and potentially unnerving reality confronting innocent, law-abiding Muslims, of which there are many, possibly a large majority, who are placed in the extremely uncomfortable, and possibly even dangerous, situation of having to continually worry that they may be discriminated against, or even targeted for attack, by members of a frightened non-Muslim world.

Thus, this reality of systematic Islamic terrorists presents vital challenges that cannot be avoided, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It must be addressed, directly and without equivocation. Non-Muslims must honestly confront the factual reality of an international culture of Islam that has not yet experienced an “enlightenment,” and all too often remains rooted for the most part in a pre-scientific mindset of religious fundamentalism. It is not enough for well-meaning, and even humanist Westerners, for example, to defend the freedom of religious beliefs and hence the rights and liberties of all Muslims — however important and legitimate that is — and to criticize those who raise serious criticism of the religious beliefs and practices of an Islam that claims to be following the direct divine — and hence, non-questionable — directives of Allah. Such Western humanists and defenders of religious toleration must face seriously the current historical reality of, and propose practical strategies to address the challenge posed by, the current status of the religion and practice of the religion of Islam across the world. We must take seriously an Islamic religious reality that has created, and sustained, an international culture of Islam that can generate massive local protests that have taken place across the Islamic World, from Algeria to Indonesia, and practically all places in between, against the very depiction of the prophet Mohammed. More dangerous than even the horrendous violent extremism of groups such as Al Quada and the so-called Islamic State, is the support that such terrorism has received from the Islamic masses. Such mass protests and overt expressions of support, even involving many middle class individuals and professionals, have been approved, encouraged, and celebrated by many Islamic religious leaders. Some have explicitly justified the murders at Charlie Hebdo and called for the beheading of any others that commit similar “crimes”. These attitudes are in fact the soil that nurtures radical “Islamism”, that fundamentalist expression of Islamic values that justifies terrorism in the name of religious purity. It is not sufficient for individual Muslims to separate themselves from such views. It is essential for the organized Islamic community, with its religious officials in the forefront, to systematically challenge such beliefs and practices. And they must do that publicly, and regularly to their own congregations. But it seems that that is quite difficult for them to do, given the Koranic claim of direct divine revelation for Islamic beliefs.

For there are basic aspects of Islam that make it particularly susceptible to such radical fundamentalist beliefs and practices. At least that is my impression — and I will suggest what I believe some of those are — but I would love to be talked out of my views, and convinced of the contrary. It seems to me that there are problems specific to Islam, as opposed to all the other major world religions, that make its adaptation to the modern world particularly problematic, and tend to feed fundamentalist beliefs and practices among its adherents. But I am no expert on Islam. I only wish to share my concerns, with the intention of stimulating thought and inviting criticism and the presentation of alternative perspectives.

First, there is the issue of the Koran, and the revelations of Allah through his Prophet, Mohammed. As I understand it, it is the contention of Islam that Mohammed is the vehicle through which the unadulterated words of Allah are presented to the world. That means that these words are not debatable, or modifiable. They are the direct revelations of god’s truths. This is different, for example, from the Christian or Jewish Bibles, in which most of the divine revelations are presented by others, and are thus more open to interpretation and challenge. The statements in the Koran, on the other hand, can easily be taken as unquestionable, unmodifiable directives as to what one must do, and how one must live. This makes it increasingly difficult to flexibly adapt the religion to the exigencies of a modern era that is far different from that in which Mohammed lived.

Second, the Koran envisions a unitary politico-religious community, that does not provide for distinct political entities, such as states. Thus it has an inherent tendency not to recognize political boundaries, rather to be inherently international and expansionist. From the recent lead article in The Atlantic Magazine article comes the claim “that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.” And that, of course, also militates against recognition and acceptance of any separation of church from state.

The truly Islamic character of the self-proclaimed Islamic State was well expressed in that article. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

For example, continuing from The Atlantic, “…the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, … [observed that] the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam [is] … preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. ‘People want to absolve Islam,’ he said. ‘… [But] Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,’ Haykel said. Islamic State fighters ‘are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.'”

“The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews ‘until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.’ The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. ‘What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,’ Haykel said. “’There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.'”

“Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “’The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. ‘That really would be an act of apostasy.'”

However inevitable and necessary, therefore, for the non-Islamic world to energetically oppose such views — and in so doing, to carefully and effectively reaffirm their commitment in word and deed to freedom of thought, discussion, and association, freedom of the press, and respect for the dignity of all people — that will hardly convince Islamic true believers. Only sustained, public and effective action by the organized leadership of Islam, and that internationally, across the Islamic World, can begin to turn the tide. But that is something many seem quite unwilling, and perhaps, unable to do. It would, no doubt, open them to serious internal criticism, and possibly to real physical danger. And, with the Islamic world not having undergone an Enlightenment that recognizes and accepts the truths of natural science and the legitimacy of an independent secular political order, that would probably be seen as an illegitimate Western profanation of the True religion of Islam. Hence, truly, an apostasy, worthy of death. And yet, unless and until that is done, it is inevitable and understandable that all Muslims will be under some suspicion, and their personal freedom and respect will be on the defensive. And that threat to non-violent and law obedient Muslims, is also a very serious, and probably growing, threat to Western values of human rights and dignity, and to the institutional protections which are vital to the continued existence of free, democratic self-governance.