Cimino & Smith, “Atheist Awakening”

This October, Oxford University Press will release “Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America” by Richard Cimino (University of Richmond) and Christopher Smith.  The publisher’s description follows:

Atheist AwakeningSurveys over the last twenty years have seen an ever-growing number of Americans disclaim religious affiliations and instead check the “none” box. In the first sociological exploration of organized secularism in America, Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith show how one segment of these “nones” have created a new, cohesive atheist identity through activism and the creation of communities.

According to Cimino and Smith, the new upsurge of atheists is a reaction to the revival of religious fervor in American politics since 1980. Feeling overlooked and underrepresented in the public sphere, atheists have employed a wide variety of strategies-some evangelical, some based on identity politics-to defend and assert themselves against their ideological opponents. These strategies include building and maintaining communities, despite the absence of the kinds of shared rituals, texts, and laws that help to sustain organized religions.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with self-identified atheist, secularist, and humanist leaders and activists, as well as extensive observations and analysis of secular gatherings and media, Cimino and Smith illustrate how atheists organize and align themselves toward common goals, and how media-particularly web-based media-have proven invaluable in connecting atheists to one another and in creating a powerful virtual community. Cimino and Smith suggest that secularists rely not only on the Internet for community-building, but on their own new forms of ritual.

This groundbreaking study will be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the growing atheist movement in America.

Gray on the Ubiquity of Evil

John Gray has a long, superb essay on the subject (h/t L. Joseph), with scathingly acute criticisms of the modern sense in which evil is eminently conquerable through (of all things) politics, or really doesn’t exist, or must somehow be the result of somebody’s mistake, or could be cleared up as a simple matter confusion. Particularly keen are Gray’s comments about the way in which the old religious traditions offer certain insights on the matter, insights that are today largely either ignored or disbelieved. Read it all, including this:

It’s not that [most western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”. So what disturbs the west about Vladimir Putin, for example, is not so much the persecution of gay people over which he has presided, or the threat posed to Russia’s neighbours by his attempt to reassert its imperial power. It is the fact that he has no place in the liberal scheme of continuing human advance. As a result, the Russian leader can only be evil. When George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes at a Moscow summit in May 2002, he reported, “I was able to get a sense of his soul”. When Joe Biden visited the Kremlin in 2011, he had a very different impression, telling Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand each other.” The religious language is telling: nine years earlier, Putin had been a pragmatic leader with whom the west could work; now he was a soulless devil.

It’s in the Middle East, however, that the prevailing liberal worldview has proved most consistently misguided. At bottom, it may be western leaders’ inability to think outside this melioristic creed that accounts for their failure to learn from experience. After more than a decade of intensive bombing, backed up by massive ground force, the Taliban continue to control much of Afghanistan and appear to be regaining ground as the American-led mission is run down. Libya – through which a beaming David Cameron processed in triumph only three years ago, after the use of western air power to help topple Gaddafi – is now an anarchic hell-hole that no western leader could safely visit. One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.

Many view these western interventions as no more than exercises in geopolitics. But a type of moral infantilism is no less important in explaining the persisting folly of western governments. Though it is clear that Isis cannot be permanently weakened as long as the war against Assad continues, this fact is ignored – and not only because a western-brokered peace deal that left Assad in power would be opposed by the Gulf states that have sided with jihadist forces in Syria. More fundamentally, any such deal would mean giving legitimacy to a regime that western governments have condemned as more evil than any conceivable alternative. In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy. In the liberal political culture that prevails in the west, a public choice among these options is impossible.

There are some who think the very idea of evil is an obsolete relic of religion. For most secular thinkers, what has been defined as evil in the past is the expression of social ills that can in principle be remedied. But these same thinkers very often invoke evil forces to account for humankind’s failure to advance. The secularisation of the modern moral vocabulary that many believed was under way has not occurred: public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the west. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times than it does with any western religious orthodoxy.

There follows an interesting discussion of Manicheanism and the views of Augustine, and then this:

In its official forms, secular liberalism rejects the idea of evil. Many liberals would like to see the idea of evil replaced by a discourse of harm: we should talk instead about how people do damage to each other and themselves. But this view poses a problem of evil remarkably similar to that which has troubled Christian believers. If every human being is born a liberal – as these latter-day disciples of Pelagius appear to believe – why have so many, seemingly of their own free will, given their lives to regimes and movements that are essentially repressive, cruel and violent? Why do human beings knowingly harm others and themselves? Unable to account for these facts, liberals have resorted to a language of dark and evil forces much like that of dualistic religions.

The efforts of believers to explain why God permits abominable suffering and injustice have produced nothing that is convincing; but at least believers have admitted that the ways of the Deity are mysterious. Even though he ended up accepting the divine will, the questions that Job put to God were never answered. Despite all his efforts to find a solution, Augustine confessed that human reason was not equal to the task. In contrast, when secular liberals try to account for evil in rational terms, the result is a more primitive version of Manichean myth. When humankind proves resistant to improvement, it is because forces of darkness – wicked priests, demagogic politicians, predatory corporations and the like – are working to thwart the universal struggle for freedom and enlightenment. There is a lesson here. Sooner or later anyone who believes in innate human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form. Aiming to exorcise evil from the modern mind, secular liberals have ended up constructing another version of demonology, in which anything that stands out against what is believed to be the rational course of human development is anathematised.

The Obama Effect?

President_Barack_ObamaIn The American Interest this week, sociologist Peter Berger has a provocative essay on the controversy over the City of Houston’s demand for sermons several pastors have delivered on the topics of homosexuality and gender identity. Berger says the roots of the controversy lie in the Obama Administration’s disregard for religion. He makes a powerful point, but I wonder whether he overstates things.

The City of Houston’s demand came in the form of subpoenas in a lawsuit over a petition to repeal a city anti-discrimination ordinance. As I explained in an earlier post, the city’s demand was outrageous, even given the freewheeling standards of American litigation, and the city has in fact narrowed its request. Some smart observers think this “narrowing” is just a publicity stunt. In my opinion, the new subpoenas, which ask only for communications that relate to the petition and ordinance themselves, stand a better chance of surviving. We’ll see how the court rules.

But leave aside that narrow, procedural matter for now. Here’s a more important question. Why did the city issue the offensive subpoenas in the first place? America has a long tradition of respecting religion, and the idea that government would demand to know what pastors were saying in their own churches should have set off all kinds of alarms. We don’t do that sort of thing in our country.

Berger says the episode reflects America’s decreasing regard for religion and religious believers. And he lays the blame largely at the door of the Obama Administration:

This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

Now, there’s much in what Berger says. The Obama Administration has shown little enthusiasm for religious freedom. True, the Administration  intervened recently to protect a prison inmate’s right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. But in the two major religious freedom cases of its tenure, Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration created obstacles for religious freedom in needlessly inflammatory ways. It insisted on the Contraception Mandate, even though it knew the mandate would gravely trouble some Christians and even though alternatives existed that could have given the Administration most of what it wanted. It accepted compromise only grudgingly and litigated the case to the bitter end. And in Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration argued that the Religion Clauses had nothing at all to do with a church’s decision to select its own minister–a position a unanimous Supreme Court rejected as “remarkable.”

Still, when it comes to a declining respect for religion in America, I’m not sure the Administration is a cause so much as an effect. Perhaps its actions reflect a broader cultural shift to secularism. Most likely, there is mutual reinforcement. A growing cultural secularism, embodied, for political purposes, in the Democratic Party, contributed to the President’s election; and the President’s election in turn has contributed to a growing secularism. This growing secularism leads many people to view religion–traditional religion, anyway–with antipathy. And that antipathy leads to things like the Houston subpoenas. It’s a vicious circle–or virtuous one, I suppose, depending on your view of things.

Also, it’s not clear things are so bad for traditional religion now, or that they were so good before. As Yuval Levin wrote recently in First Things, religious conservatives seem to have overestimated their cultural ascendancy during the Bush Administration–so did their opponents, as I recall; remember those cartoon maps of “Jesus Land”? –and may underestimate their influence today. According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50% of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of six percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining–and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

Well, these are complicated issues. Berger’s essay is very worthwhile. You can read the whole thing here.

Around the Web this Week

Some interesting law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

“Religion, Violence and Cities” (O’Dowd & McKnight eds.)

In November, Routledge Publishing will release “Religion, Violence and Cities” edited by Liam O’Dowd (Queen’s University Belfast) and Martina McKnight (Queen’s University Belfast). The publisher’s description follows:

In exploring the connections between religion, violence and cities, the book probes the extent to which religion moderates or exacerbates violence in an increasingly urbanised world. Originating in a five year research project, Conflict in Cities and the Contested State, concerned with Belfast, Jerusalem and other ethno-nationally divided cities, this volume widens the geographical focus to include diverse cities from the Balkans, the Middle East, Nigeria and Japan. In addressing the understudied triangular relationships between religion, violence and cities, contributors stress the multiple forms taken by religion and violence while challenging the compartmentalisation of two highly topical debates – links between religion and violence on the one hand, and the proliferation of violent urban conflicts on the other hand. Their research demonstrates why cities have become so important in conflicts driven by state-building, fundamentalism, religious nationalism, and ethno-religious division and illuminates the conditions under which urban environments can fuel violent conflicts while simultaneously providing opportunities for managing or transforming them.

Mullin, “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics”

In December, I. B. Tauris Publishers will release “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics” by Corinna Mullin (Richmond American International University in London). The publisher’s description follows:

Why did political Islam so readily occupy the position of enemy ‘other’ for the United States in the context of what the American political leadership of the time labelled the ‘War on Terror’? In a wide-ranging analysis of the historical and ideological roots of U.S. discourse on political Islam, Corinna Mullin examines the ways in which this new ‘other’ came to perform both an identity-constructing role for Americans and a politically expedient, rhetorical justification for mainstream U.S. political thought and action concerning the Muslim world. After a new U.S. administration under President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Mullin explores the prospects for a truly ‘post-war on terror’ politics.

Panel at AAR Meeting Next Month

The Religion and American Law Discussion Group will host a panel at the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego (November 22-25). Topics will include “Religion and American Law, Applied” and “The Meaning and Ramifications of Greece v. Galloway.” Speakers include Dusty Hoesly (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Barber (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Graziano (Florida State), Charles McCrary (Florida State), Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis), Steve Smith (San Diego), and Steven Green (Willamette). Details about the conference are here.

Upcoming Natural Law Colloquium Lecture at Fordham

Fordham University School of Law’s Natural Law Colloquium Fall 2014 lecture will be held on November 19th. Jennifer Nedelsky (University of Toronto) will speak on “Part-time for All: Creating New Norms of Work and Care.” CLE credit is available for this lecture.

Get more information and register here.

 

 

Abraham, “Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India”

This December, Palgrave Macmillan will release  “Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India: Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi” by Jose Abraham (Concordia University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islamic ReformColonialism was much more than another account of imperialism in human history. It introduced European categories and concepts into everyday habits of thought of the colonized. Focusing on writings of Vakkom Moulavi, who is known as the father of ‘Islamic reform’ in Kerala, South India, Abraham argues that the socio-religious reform movements of the colonial period was largely shaped by the discourse on modernity. In the wake of the socio-political changes initiated by colonial rule in Kerala, Vakkom Moulavi motivated Muslims to embrace modernity, especially modern education, in order to reap maximum benefit. In this process, to counter the opposition of conservative leaders and their followers, he initiated religious reform arguing that the major themes of colonial discourse were fully compatible with Islamic traditions. However, though modernization was the overall purpose of his socio-reform movement, he held fairly ambivalent attitudes towards individualism, materialism and secularization and defended Islam against the attacks of Christian missionaries.

O’Connell, “God Wills It”

This November, Transaction Publishing will release “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion” by David O’Connell (Dickinson College).  The publisher’s description follows:

God Wills ItGod Wills It is a comprehensive study of presidential religious rhetoric. Using careful analysis of hundreds of transcripts, David O’Connell reveals the hidden strategy behind presidential religious speech. He asks when and why religious language is used, and when it is, whether such language is influential.

Case studies explore the religious arguments presidents have made to defend their decisions on issues like defense spending, environmental protection, and presidential scandals. O’Connell provides strong evidence that when religious rhetoric is used public opinion typically goes against the president, the media reacts harshly to his words, and Congress fails to do as he wants. An experimental chapter casts even further doubt on the persuasiveness of religious rhetoric.

God Wills It shows that presidents do not talk this way because they want to. Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were quite uncomfortable using faith to promote their agendas. They did so because they felt they must. God Wills It shows that even if presidents attempt to call on the deity, the more important question remains: Will God come when they do?