Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Review: Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God - or what went wrong with Liberalism

Mark Lilla: The Stillborn God, religion, politics and the modern West, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2007, 309 pages, notes, index, references in chapter notes.

        Prof Lilla addresses a perennial problem of forecasters and prophets: the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees. We live in a society at a particular point in time. The "structures" of our society - our institutions like the army, parliament, political parties - seem stable fixtures. Generally, our lives are too short to see these structures evolve much over time. Today, with our accelerated pace of change, is a historical exception. I am old enough to have lived, as it were, under two "regimes". Growing up in the US in the 1960s in an affluent, reactionary town, the greatest bogeymen were ("International") Communism (generally conflated with socialism and Social Democracy) and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Paranoid Right feared the "numerous" communist moles secreted away in all American institutions - especially universities, the Federal Government and the labor unions. "Intellectuals" and any other group seen as "deviant" in some way was also suspect (note 1). 

        Back in those(supposedly) simpler days, there was no Internet, no AIDS, no gay marriage. The things people fear today - climate change, resource depletion, Muslim terrorism - were unheard of.. It was, in retrospect, quite a different world.

       I have come to suspect that a good part of the seeming unpredictability we perceive in the "World Process" is due to our ignorance of the larger, deeper currents that move society. We don't see the Big Picture. We are too close to the trees to see the forest, all we see are tree trunks, branches and foliage around us.

        Prof Lilla has attempted to provide the Big Picture to help us understand the (apparent) sudden "rebirth" of Religion - and religious tensions - in our supposedly "secular" world.

 Background The Renaissance brought a new interest in the affairs of this world. Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, attacked growing corruption and opulence in the church. His goal was to return to the pristine virtue of Primitive Christianity. Instead, he provoked a vicious cycle of religious wars in Europe which shattered Christian unity, perhaps forever.

        Secularized thinkers, disgusted by the excesses of religious zeal and fanaticism, attempted to constrain - if not control and regulate - religious passions. One of their proposals, which has been universally adopted in the West, is what prof Lilla calls the "Great Separation", that of the Church and State. For Lilla - and I concur - we make a big mistake in assuming that such "watertight compartmentalization" of life into "secular" and "religious" bins is "natural", inevitable or universal. In many earlier societies - perhaps most - social life was highly ritualized, organized around the enactment of collective rites. Harvesting grain wasn't just a way of getting food or producing some trade good. Harvesting was also - and perhaps primarily! - a "participation" in a "cosmogony", the enactment of a "sacrament", with religious feelings and emotions attached.

         Our early modern world, scared by the horror of the religious wars between Catholics and Reformers, turned a blind eye toward religion. "The Great Separation" was an attempt to confine religious sentiment, and practices and activities inspired by religion, to the sphere of "private life". We pretend religion does not exist or matter (much). This blind spot becomes evident in a quote from Samuel Johnson:

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel -  April 7, 1775

        Indeed! How curiously the omission reads in the 21st century. Today we would be inclined to say,

Patriotism and religion are the last refuges of a scoundrel.

         Think: 9-11, the Twin Towers; ISIS, on line video atrocities filmed by contemporary religious fanatics.. Think: the hatred between Israeli Jews and Muslims. The link between religion and thuggery is too evident not to see today.. is omnipresent..

                         A cheery looking Thomas Hobbes, author of the (notorious)                  Leviathan, sometimes considered an apologetic for Totalitarianism
        Hobbes, a now forgotten British philosopher who lived from 1588 to 1679, played a crucial role in forging and shaping the modern western political ideal of "Separation of Church and State". Hobbes may also have been the founder of the "scientific", anthropological, "evolutionary" approach to the study of religion. It is from within this new intellectual tradition that Stillborn God is written. Rather than debate unanswerable questions on the existence, nature and will of God, we now ask "What functions(s) does religion perform?", "What competitive advantage did engaging in religious behaviors have for early human - or protohuman - societies?"

        Ultimately, Stillborn God is a plea for secular humanism. We must divorce ourselves from messianic politics. We must refuse to build societies on ground plans drawn from Holy Writ, the fiery inspirations of prophets.

        At one time I would have sympathized fully with such views. Today, I think the evidence is in: secular humanism has failed. Recent  history records one resounding failure after another: World War I, the rise of fascism and Marxian Communism, World War II; the global demographic, environmental and climatic crises; the depletion of non-renewable resources and the atrocious management of renewables, the failure of our "leaders" to deal with these challenges, etc. The litany of woes and screw-ups is incredibly long! In such a world, facing accelerating and mutually reinforcing crises, it is hard to see much hope for secular humanism. And - given secularism's patent failures - it is only natural to turn to forces outside and beyond the merely human for succor (even Lilla admits this..)

         Another point needs to be made. Is it even possible to disengage the spiritual and the secular, the theological and political? All human cultures in the past were founded on systems of religious belief and practice. Secular humanism wishes to replace religious cosmogonic frames of reference by a scientific cosmological one, based on  "fact", evolutionary history, empirical psychology, physical knowledge of the environment. The project is indeed a laudable one, but is it sufficient? Is it (even) feasible?

          Lilla likes to contrast humanism's benefits (toleration of differences, freedom of speech, "realism"..) to the risks imposed by taking religion seriously (intolerance, oppression, delusion.. ) However, one may legitimately ask how much of Lilla's humanism is ultimately derived from biblical texts like the Epistle of James. This curious text is the sole surviving teaching of James, the brother of Jesus, who became head of the nascent Christian community after his brother's execution by the Roman occupying forces for "highway robbery" (that is, for engaging in Anti-Roman guerrilla). James' epistle is a mere four and a half pages long and deserves reading by humanists (secular or not). How much of what modern liberals, progressives, social democrats and democratic socialists profess is found in those four short pages! One sees a pre-echo of Marx's fiery pronouncements  in the epistle's cry for social justice in the here and now.

          Some revelatory verses from the Epistle of James (New King James Version):

2: 13-17:  "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and if one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled", but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

           Can't be clearer than that, can you? "Social justice" in the here and now.

           Again, James 5: 1,4 - rather "proto-Marxian"..

           "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!.. the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts."

         The point at issue: can we really segregate the religious and the secular as Lilla would have us do if, in fact, some of humanism's deepest values are inspired by or drawn from the good book?

          Another problem. If we reject the religious - or values derived from religion - as a frame of reference defining what a morally good life consists of, what, exactly, do we replace "religion" with? The consumer society? It's destroying the life support systems of the planet! Marxism? Fascism? Monarchy? Been there, tried them..

          Humans seem to require - most of us anyway - a "Road Map of Reality" for guidance and direction, to situate ourselves in the Universe and to gain significance, meaning or purpose relative to that situation. Given the state the world is in, secularism (humanistic or not) has simply failed to provide an adequate "road map" (the fact that religion has also failed to provide an adequate map doesn't change the outcome..)

         Indeed, it is arguable that the current planetary crises are due, in part, to the adoption of just such a "secular (humanist)" worldview as Lilla recommends!

        "Ostentatious rank-assigning consumption" (HervĂ© Kempf) is in direct defiance of Christian charity. Ayn Rand in her philosophy of selfishness explicitly rejects compassion and charity as "mystical" - therefore false and life-negating. She provides the ethical / value system justifying "ostentatious rank-assigning" hyperconsumption. "Ostentatious rank-assigning consumption" is environmentally destructive: our "worth" or "value" is determined by our capacity to "look down" on those who consume - and waste - less than we do. Rank is determined by how much we waste and deplete the earth, in other words..

        Responsibility for environmental crises has often been laid on the Church's doorstep: the famous (over-cited) passage in Genesis giving man "domination" over the earth. Yet, ostensibly, the destruction of the world has actually accelerated in "post-christian / post modern" times! Fifty percent of wildlife has died off over the last 40 years (unbelievable as that may sound). 

         Looked at objectively, on can just as easily argue that most modern woes rise from the vices and attitudes Christianity (and Judaism) most strongly reject like greed, inequity, hypocrisy, hubris - "values", or anti-values, that form the very base of the neoconservative worldview and economic system. In this sense I feel Lilla's thesis is unconvincing from both a historical and psychological perspective. Secularism has not led to a fairer, more egalitarian culture. Rather, the contrary is true: never in history has the gap been the haves and have-nots been greater..

         Lilla is correct in rejecting the sectarian lunacies of religion and the savagery of fanatics. But we render Truth bad service if we fail to reject the lunacies propagated by non-religious ideologues: neocon economics, neo-Nazism, Right-wing militias, geo-engineering projects to "undo" the damage done to the environment by industrial technology by massive doses of "compensatory" industrial technology, (hyper-) consumerism, the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet (neo-classical economic theory actually teaches this lunacy in universities).. The secular world has generated plenty of its own lunacy..

        Secularism and secular humanism especially fail to address the problem of "disaffected youth". How do we in the West explain / understand why our children go to Syria and join ISIS? How do we explain homegrown acts of terrorism? Well, the short answer is, we don't! We don't understand them. They are walking enigmas, moving unseen till they strike. And then we strike back with invective and hatred against all Muslims..

       We are not handling things well. Here again, secularism - and even secular humanism - seem to have let us down. Why are so many young people feeling so alienated, alienated to the point they would take the lives of fellow citizens whose names they don't even know? This is certainly a surprising development to say the least.. So why did secular scholars not give us a heads up? Did they not see these challenges approaching? If they did not see these challenges approaching, what good is their philosophy..

          The secular world has left many young people without a moral compass. They seem lost. The frenetic activity of pop culture: violent video games, extreme sports, the cult of entrepreneurship.. hides an inner void, an existential vacuum that seems to compel to nihilistic violence.

       When all is said and done, the secular world often seems to lack significance or motivation. These figures - easily verifiable by a google search - are terribly revealing: the number of American religious missionaries is nearly nineteen times as large as the number of "secular missionaries" serving in the Peace Corps! Today, an increasing - and alarming - number of people show signs of - or "suffer from" - narcissism and anomie (note 2). It seems to me that many of these individuals are also prey to radicalism be it "Muslim" terrorism, neo-Nazism or the New Right. Often these lost souls are trying to build a better world. Some would lash out against those who are seen as oppressors. Perhaps it is time to ask if the "secular project" is not bankrupt..

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         Secularism died a double death in the twin failures of Liberal Theology and Liberal Political Theory. For Lilla, the liberal god died in the trenches of World War I: for many the (naive) belief that the Kingdom of God had arrived with the philosophy of Progress and the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century was simply no longer tenable after the butchery of the trenches. Likewise the political philosophy of Liberalism as espoused by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill has failed to prevent the rise of new un-freedoms in industrial societies. In his foundational essay, On Liberty (1859), Mill argued that a free society with a minimal state breeds strong men, mature citizens, who are the people most suited to advance the project of civilization.

                                   John Stuart Mill, 1806 - 1873

           Unfortunately, Mill's political philosophy no longer applies to the contemporary industrial state which represents neither the interests of the individual citizen nor the "work of civilization". Rather, the corporate elite through their formal and informal; legal, paralegal and illegal, lobbies acquire enormous control over policy making and state regulatory powers.

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Fascism: control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite

        The multinational corporations and the financial sector are in the process of establishing a "neo-feudalistic" regime. The destruction of Labor as a political force over the last half century is telling in this regard. Globalized capital flows freely between Asia and North America, following the cheapest labor. Chinese laborers and Pakistani sweat shops compete against North American blue collar workers. Who wins? Global capital! They get to play one group of workers against another: divide and conquer! Witness America's rust belt (de-industrialized zones) and the working class' declining real wages since Nixon opened the door to US trade with China in 1972.

         In short, secularism and Liberal Political Theory have failed to protect the laborer or the common citizen and his rights from the accumulated power of globalized oligarchic power. This, I hold, is why our young people are joining ISIS while Right wing extremist groups multiply like slum roaches in many western societies today.

      The Great War, liberal theology's discomfirmation?

        Despite my reservations concerning secularism and its future, I found prof Lilla's book agreeable reading, reasonably argued (his faults are generally those of omission rather than of commission..) Especially useful was his excellent presentation of Thomas Hobbes' philosophy / psychology of religion.

         The title, Stillborn God refers to the failure of liberal theology which tried to reconcile the prophetic tradition of the Bible with modern bourgeois society by presenting the latter as the fulfillment of the former. This view died in the trenches of the Great War of 1914 - 1918. This is quite clear from the list of young disaffected German religious thinkers, Christian and Jewish, cited by Lilla. Stillborn God also suggests - perhaps unwittingly - that we  are living through an interregnum, a transition from one era to another..

                          The 20th century: the death of utopia?


1- One can get a feeling for the extreme Right's intense paranoia - not to mention sheer wackiness! - by visiting conspiracy sites and the flakier American conservative interest group sites

The racism here is flagrant: the "Maitreya" - future Antichrist - spoken of is, for Buddhists, the next incarnation of the Buddha.

Vaccines kill!

Hot off the press - all the news that print to fit. This one is too good not to include, NASA's phony mission to pluto (the moon landings were also faked..)

2- Are we becoming more narcissistic? You bet we are! 

 Anomie? How many people do you know with this condition?

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