Tag Archives: Philosophy and Religion

Davies, “The Happiness Industry”

Thomas Jefferson famously included the pursuit of happiness in his list of the happthree principal rights the Creator has given man and that government has a duty to protect. It was a masterful phrase, one that could win over both Evangelicals and Rationalists at the time of the American revolution. By tracing the right to God, the phrase suggests that true happiness consists in pursuing Him. But the phrase obviously connotes earthly well-being as well.

It’s that latter meaning that most survives in American liberalism today. Perhaps the most famous example in American law is the “mystery of life” passage in the Casey opinion. But well-being is not something we recognize without instruction. We are trained to think of some things as meaningful and conducive to happiness rather than others. Which means that happiness is a somewhat manipulable concept. As anyone who watched Mad Men would know.

The manipulability of happiness seems to be the subject of a new book from Penguin Random House, The Happiness Industry, by William Davies. It looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In winter 2014, a Tibetan monk lectured the world leaders gathered at Davos on the importance of Happiness. The recent DSM-5, the manual of all diagnosable mental illnesses, for the first time included shyness and grief as treatable diseases. Happiness has become the biggest idea of our age, a new religion dedicated to well-being.

In this brilliant dissection of our times, political economist William Davies shows how this philosophy, first pronounced by Jeremy Bentham in the 1780s, has dominated the political debates that have delivered neoliberalism. From a history of business strategies of how to get the best out of employees, to the increased level of surveillance measuring every aspect of our lives; from why experts prefer to measure the chemical in the brain than ask you how you are feeling, to whyFreakonomics tells us less about the way people behave than expected, The Happiness Industry is an essential guide to the marketization of modern life. Davies shows that the science of happiness is less a science than an extension of hyper-capitalism.

Plantinga, “Knowledge and Christian Belief”

Professor Alvin Plantinga’s (Notre Dame) important book, Warranted ChristianPlantinga.ashx Belief, was a meditation on the relationship of Christian faith and reason. It was a work in epistemology of religion–an attempt to answer the question about the irrationality or the lack of justification for Christian belief.

Plantinga has now written a shorter volume for non-experts, Knowledge and Christian Belief, just published in April by Eerdmans. The publisher’s description follows:

In his widely praised Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000) Alvin Plantinga discussed in great depth the question of the rationality, or sensibility, of Christian belief. In this book Plantinga presents the same ideas in a briefer, much more accessible fashion.

Recognized worldwide as a leading Christian philosopher, Plantinga probes what exactly is meant by the claim that religious — and specifically Christian — belief is irrational and cannot sensibly be held. He argues that the criticisms of such well-known atheists as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are completely wrong. Finally, Plantinga addresses several potential “defeaters” to Christian belief — pluralism, science, evil and suffering — and shows how they fail to successfully defeat rational Christian belief.

Rosemont, “Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion”

In March, Rowman & Littlefield released “Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion” by Henry Rosemont Jr. (Brown University). The publisher’s description follows:

The first part of Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion is devoted to showing how and why the vision of human beings as free, independent and autonomous individuals is and always was a mirage that has served liberatory functions in the past, but has now become pernicious for even thinking clearly about, much less achieving social and economic justice, maintaining democracy, or addressing the manifold environmental and other problems facing the world today.

In the second and larger part of the book Rosemont proffers a different vision of being human gleaned from the texts of classical Confucianism, namely, that we are first and foremost interrelated and thus interdependent persons whose uniqueness lies in the multiplicity of roles we each live throughout our lives. This leads to an ethics based on those mutual roles in sharp contrast to individualist moralities, but which nevertheless reflect the facts of our everyday lives very well. The book concludes by exploring briefly a number of implications of this vision for thinking differently about politics, family life, justice, and the development of a human-centered authentic religiousness. This book will be of value to all students and scholars of philosophy, political theory, and Religious, Chinese, and Family Studies, as well as everyone interested in the intersection of morality with their everyday and public lives.

Tene, “Changes in Ethical Worldviews of Spanish Missionaries in Mexico”

This month, Brill releases “Changes in Ethical Worldviews of Spanish Missionaries in Mexico” by Ran Tene (Hebrew University). The publisher’s description follows:

“Conversion” is a basic religious concept, which has manifold implications for our everyday lives. Ran Tene’s Changes in Ethical Worldviews of Spanish Missionaries in Mexico utilizes a cross-disciplinary methodology in which the fields of Philosophy, History, and Literary Studies are drawn upon to analyze conversion. He focuses on two moments in Spanish writing about Mexican missions, the early to mid-sixteenth century writings of the Spanish missionaries to Mexico and the early seventeenth century manuscripts of the author/copyist Fray Juan de Torquemada. The analysis exposes changes in worldviews – including the concepts of identity, ownership, and cruelty – through missionary eyes. It suggests two theoretical models – the vision model and the model of touch – to describe these changes, which are manifested in the missionary project and in the texts that it (re)produced.

“Tafsir and Islamic Intellectual History: Exploring the Boundaries of a Genre” (Görke & Pink, eds.)

In February, Oxford University Press released “Tafsir and Islamic Intellectual History: Exploring the Boundaries of a Genre”  edited by Andreas Görke (University of Edinburgh) and Johanna Pink (University of Freiburg, Germany). The publisher’s description follows:

How and when did Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) emerge as a literary genre of its own? To what extent was it influenced by other disciplines, such as law, theology, or philosophy? How did different political or theological agendas shape works of tafsir, and in what ways did the genre develop over time and in different regions? These are some of the major questions which this book seeks to address.

This book constitutes the first comprehensive attempt at describing the genre of Qur’anic exegesis in its broader intellectual context. Its aim is to provide a framework for understanding the boundaries of tafsir and its interaction with other disciplines of learning, as well as the subgenres and internal divisions within the genre. It discusses the emergence of the genre in the beginnings of Islamic history and the changes and potential ruptures it has experienced in later times, the role of hadith, law, language, philosophy, theology, and political ideology for the interpretive process, the regional dimension, the influx of modernist ideas and the process of writing tafsir in languages other than Arabic.

Among the fifteen authors who have contributed to the volume are leading scholars in the field as well as young researchers, which makes for a unique and fresh perspective on a field that has long been reduced to its instrumental value for understanding the Qur’an. Covering the time from the formation of Qur’anic exegesis until the present, it is a valuable resource for advanced students and scholars in the field.

“Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics” (Braidotti et al. eds.)

Next month, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics”  edited by Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht University), Bolette Blaagaard (Aalborg University), Tobijn de Graauw (Utrecht University), and Eva Midden (Utrecht University). The publisher’s description follows:

Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics contributes a counter-discourse to the myth of secularism. This myth is a strongly-held belief, predominantly advocated in the westernised world, that progress and modernity is intimately linked to secular politics and social relations. This book develops a range of critiques of this myth through discussions on the current political, social, and technological conditions in which we find ourselves. It explores the political implications of the myth, as well as exploring postcolonial relations, liberal-secularism and religious sentiments, and the mediated public sphere, with an in-depth focus on the Dutch case. Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics takes issue with the secular condition and accepted beliefs of its liberal emancipatory foundations.

“Belief, Law and Politics: What Future for a Secular Europe?” (Foblets et al., eds.)

This December, Ashgate Publishing will release “Belief, Law and Politics:  What Future for a Secular Europe?” edited by Marie-Claire Foblets (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany), Katayoun Alidadi (Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium), Jørgen S. Nielsen (University of Copenhagen, Denmark), and Zeynep Yanasmayan (European University Viadrina, Germany).  The publisher’s description follows:

This edited collection gathers together the principal findings of the three-year RELIGARE project, which dealt with the question of religious and philosophical diversity in European law. Specifically, it covers four spheres of public policy and legislation where the pressure to accommodate religious diversity has been most strongly felt in Europe: employment, family life, use of public space and state support mechanisms. Embracing a forward-looking approach, the final RELIGARE report provides recommendations to governance units at the local, national and European levels regarding issues of religious pluralism and secularism. This volume adds context and critique to those recommendations and more generally opens an intellectual discussion on the topic of religion in the European Union. The book consists of two main parts: the first includes the principal findings of the RELIGARE research project, while the second is a compilation of 28 short contributions from influential scholars, legal practitioners, policy makers and activists who respond to the report and offer their views on the sensitive issue of religious diversity and the law in Europe.

Owen, “Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville”

In December, Cambridge University Press will release “Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville”  by  J. Judd Owen (Emory University). The publisher’s description follows:

Does the toleration of liberal democratic society mean that religious faiths are left substantively intact, so long as they respect the rights of others? Or do liberal principles presuppose a deeper transformation of religion? Does life in democratic society itself transform religion? In Making Religion Safe for Democracy, J. Judd Owen explores these questions by tracing a neglected strand of Enlightenment political thought that presents a surprisingly unified reinterpretation of Christianity by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson. Owen then turns to Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the effects of democracy on religion in the early United States. Tocqueville finds a religion transformed by democracy in a way that bears a striking resemblance to what the Enlightenment thinkers sought, while offering a fundamentally different interpretation of what is at stake in that transformation. Making Religion Safe for Democracy offers a novel framework for understanding the ambiguous status of religion in modern democratic society.

On Old Age (and Ezekiel Emanuel)

In a much-discussed Atlantic essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel — physician, public commentator, and prominent supporter of the Affordable Care Act — argues that we’d all be better off if we died at 75. That way, we would escape the debility and indignity that accompany old age and avoid being burdens to our children and other loved ones. And we would have the solace of not outliving our productivity. After all, he writes, “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Emanuel has no plan to commit suicide if he reaches 75, he says. But he plans to reject all medical treatments, even routine ones, that go beyond the palliative.

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He Knew

Emanuel rightly mocks “American immortals” who seem to believe they should (and maybe will!) live forever. And, in a culture like ours, which values youth and professional achievement virtually above everything else, his argument has a kind of plausibility. I’ve had 25 year-old students tell me they already feel over the hill. Why linger on into your eighties or nineties, when your best days and accomplishments are far behind you? Plus, society would save lots of money if people stopped seeking medical care at 75.

Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity — these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.

Not everyone believes this, of course. But one needn’t be a Christian, or a religious believer of any kind, to appreciate that old age has some things to offer. “For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life,” said the pagan Cicero (above). And one needn’t be a religious believer to see that the elderly may still have much to contribute to us, even if they are weak, sick, and no longer able to write symphonies.

In a lovely response to Emanuel, my friend, John McGinnis, explains this, offering his own parents as an example. John does a much better job than I could, so I’ll just quote him:

But youth and good health do not measure humanity. Millions in diminished health enjoy life, being with their relatives, laughing at old movies, even just sitting in the breeze and sunshine. And their relatives and friends enjoy being with them. Indeed, they may find in the elderly’s struggle with aging an inspiration and a reaffirmation of life. In caring for the frail, weak and sometimes woebegone, they may also expand their own sympathies and express some small measure of gratitude for the debt of a good upbringing that can never be fully repaid.

That is certainly my experience watching my parents age well past 75. I have never admired my father more than when at the cusp of ninety he faces down his own infirmities and cares for my mother who has Parkinson’s disease. And although much is taken from my mother, much abides—her concern for others, her delight in reading new novels and rereading old ones. Emanuel argues that in seeing the decline of those we love, we may forget our happy memories of them in their years of vigor and achievement. But those memories do not need to summoned at particular times, because they infuse my being. In any event, the most valuable memories of all are not defined by physical wellbeing but by spirit and character. For so many people beyond 75 the forging of character continues and the power of their spirit at their end will instruct us by example at our own.

For one important thing, though, Emanuel is to be commended. Most of us do our best to ignore our mortality and the questions it raises about how we’re living our lives. As Pascal observed long ago, people will do pretty much anything to distract themselves and avoid thinking about it. That’s not wise; even a long life goes by so very fast. Every writer knows the benefits of deadlines: they force you to concentrate and get serious. Well, Emanuel says, he’s given himself a deadline.

Ellethy, “Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy”

This November, Routledge Publishing will release “Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy: Classical and Modern Interpretations” by Yasser Ellethy (VU University, Amsterdam).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy aspires to clarify the tensions and congruences between the revelational and the rational, the text and the context, the limits and the horizons of contextualization in Islam, as these emanate from the Islamic interpretative tradition.

This book examines classical and modern Muslim interpretations with regard to the concepts of diachronic development, pluralism and democracy based on Arabic-Islamic sources and literature. Focusing on the parameters of semantic changes, methods of interpretation and cultural variables, it shows how this interpretative tradition offers a diversity of ideas and approaches that can be utilized in contemporary debates concerning the socio-political contextualization of Islamic genuine thought. However, within this diversity, Islam presents generic principles and core values as ‘moral paradigms’ that can deal with such modern challenges. Based on the analysis of core Islamic texts and key-terms related to the discussed issues, mainly from the Quran and the Sunnah, and the broader Arabic-Islamic literature, it explores the boundaries of the mutable and constant in the Islamic worldview.

Presenting classical Muslim interpretations and scholars as possible interlocutors in debates over the compatibility of Islam with challenges of modernity, this book is essential reading for researchers and postgraduates interested in Islamic Studies, Philosophy of Religion and Political Science.