In defense of Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams

Recently, rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams announced that they are declining to hold concerts in two states who have laws which they find morally objectionable.

In other words, Springsteen and Adams are willing to forgo income they usually receive because they do not wish their participation to give the impression that they support or agree with something.

One might ask whether the rockers hope to instigate change by their refusal to offer their services.

I suspect that they would answer that they hope that they do cause change, but taking a moral stance is worth doing for its own sake.

They will presumably sleep a little better at night knowing they were true to their deeper principles, putting a value on something transcendent (freedom of conscience) that is higher than the almighty dollar.

A preemptive response to cynics

Now, it would be easy to be cynical about such actions, but I do not think that warranted.

To be sure, we could label this as merely the social posturing of men who do not really need the money, and will not miss it. A cynic might claim that they will gain more in good will from the rest of their audience than they lose from those whom they exclude from their commerce. These claims might even be true.

But, that isn’t really fair, and it’s hardly relevant anyway. We can’t access their hearts and minds; we can only take them at their word: their sincere convictions mean that to offer their particular service under the circumstances that currently prevail feels immoral to them. And, we might look at their past behavior or expressions of belief to determine if they are sincere in their moral concern. They seem to be.

Hypocrisy?

Now, surely Adams and Springsteen have performed in states or in nations which have laws with which they did not agree. Our cynical observer might therefore accuse them of hypocrisy. Again, I don’t think this is warranted. We all pick the battles we think worth fighting. No one might have assumed that Springsteen (for example) agrees with New Jersey’s tax code simply because he agrees to perform there. But, if Springsteen were to decide that the tax code in New Jersey was egregious enough to warrant speaking out, if only through a refusal to participate in his profession under those conditions, we cannot and should not claim that his moral scruples deserve no respect.

It would be wrong to compel Adams and Springsteen to perform in venues or circumstances which they believe would morally compromise them, even by implication. As Springsteen put it, “some things are more important than a rock show.”

Indeed, few things are more important than the free exercise of conscience.

Fines or jail-time?

Therefore, I wholeheartedly reject any calls to fine them or penalize them with jail-time if they don’t comply and won’t pay up–after all, they have already taken a financial hit for their stance, and there are very possibly other concert-goers who don’t live in the affected states who will choose not to attend a concert because they in their turn disagree with the rockers’ boycott or the moral code which drives it.

So, there will always be costs and risks to such a stance, but those are clearly Adams’ and Springsteen’s to run. The government has no business penalizing them for a sincere expression of conscience. If anything, government exists to prevent anyone from hampering their rights of conscience.

The slippery slope is unlikely

I think worries about a slippery slope (“if we let them do this, soon there will be no music in those states at all”) are farcical. There are other bands and orchestras. Worse case scenario, people can perform their own music locally. Sure, it’s not Springsteen, but it proves that they’re hardly going to have to go without any music at all, even in an implausible worst case scenario.

No one, after all, has any inherent “right” to attend a rock concert. There might well be industries where the bar might be considerably higher: people need food, fuel, housing, lodging, transport, clothes, and the like. If, say, Exxon-Mobile was to stop shipping gasoline to Alabama based upon a moral stance, we might be more troubled. (Boycotts by large companies feel inherently less defensible–Adams and Springsteen are individuals, inseparably connected to their ‘brand’–they are the brand.)

But, even if a large conglomerate like Exxon-Mobile tried something similar, other providers would likely step in and fill the gap. It’s actually much easier for someone to replace Exxon-Mobile than Springsteen or Adams. (Music purists might well debate as to whether this is a compliment, but let’s assume that it is.)

All of this surely means some inconvenience for those in the states embargoed by the Boss and the Canadian Boss. But, despite what some seem to think, none of us has a right to be free from inconvenience–especially at the cost of making someone do something to which they have sincere moral objections.

Historical precedent

In the early days of the American experiment, there was great debate about those who were conscientious objectors–they considered military service to be a grave evil, even in self-defense. Many were also loathe to take “oaths” of truthfulness–this made it difficult for some to trust them in official capacities, such as in positions of public trust or as witnesses in a court case.

It is to the early Americans’ credit that they found a way to handle even these (fairly significant!) inconveniences.

Rather than oaths, objectors were allowed to “solemnly affirm.” That’s an easy fix–a distinction, we might think, without a difference. But, morally, it was significantly different for those affected.

More tricky is the issue of military service. But, even there, those who objected due to sincere religious or moral conviction were exempted from the draft. That’s potentially a major inconvenience to others–I might end up in the army if my conscientious objector neighbor doesn’t serve. And, if everyone is a conscientious objector, the nation might not last long. But, that theoretical problem didn’t materialize in reality, and so the compromise held. If clear disaster is in the offing, we can always reevaluate how much moral objection the society can accommodate without being destroyed.

I think it a great and noble thing to value conscience that highly. The bar for forcing someone to violate their conscience must be high indeed, or freedom and liberty have no meaning. Even–or especially–when we disagree with a moral stance, we must still bow our heads with a bit of reverence to someone willing to cling to it. If nothing else, we’d want the same respect to our own scruples. (And, if we don’t have any such scruples, then we’ve no business lecturing others about theirs, any more than the deaf should explain why Springsteen’s or Adam’s music is junk.)

Conclusion

So, I say “Bravo!” to Springsteen and Adams for declining to participate in a commercial exchange that they sincerely believe implicates them in something deeply immoral. I hope I’d have at least as much courage in similar circumstances.

It’s a great idea, in the spirit of that which is best in the American and liberal (in the traditional sense) tradition.

So great, in fact, that maybe conservative Christian florists, Orthodox Jewish cake bakers, and devout Muslim wedding photographers ought to take notice.

Maybe this is an approach they should look into?

I’m surprised they haven’t thought of it.

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On bracketing the truth

It is common, in some circles, to hear people talking about “bracketing” truth claims—to lay aside any consideration of whether certain ideas (often with religious implication) are true, and simply talk about the ideas in an entirely secular context. For example, one might discuss the resurrection of Jesus without trying to address the idea of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. Instead, one might focus on what early Christians understood by the claim “Jesus is risen.”

Such an approach can be appropriate, at times.

Unfortunately, those who adopt it have a depressing tendency to declare that their approach is the only legitimate way to do valid scholarship on the topic. Thus, anyone who does not bracket the truth claims or implications of the resurrection is said to obviously be engaged only in polemics, or apologetics, or narrow sectarian discourse unworthy of attention or respect. To challenge such notions in print is seen as boorish and unbecoming. Curiously, this perspective is generally just asserted—not argued with evidence and logic—and generally comes heavily larded with a large dollop of disdain. (I speak, on that front, from some personal experience.)

But, leaving aside the obvious intellectual problems which such a stance raises, there are substantial risks for the Christian disciple, for the covenant Latter-day Saint.

Check your religion at the academy door?

All too often, this type of approach is essentially “checking your religion at the door.” But, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was pretty scathing toward anyone who’d consider that, in any context:

We check our religion at the door”? Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never “check your religion at the door.” Not ever.

My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead.

“Check your religion at the door”! I was furious (emphasis in original).[1]

It is true that the “at all times” and “in all places” and “in all things” would seem to leave relatively little wiggle room—especially when the subject of one’s work bears directly on that witness of God. I don’t see how a Christian could approach the resurrection neutrally, and I think it would be spiritually dangerous to try, and intellectually self-deceptive to believe one could.

Let Your Faith Show

Elder Russell M. Nelson seems to be of the same mind as Elder Holland, and applied the ideas specifically to political, academic, and intellectual work:

Clinicians, academicians, and politicians are often put to a test of faith. In pursuit of their goals, will their religion show or will it be hidden? Are they tied back to God or to man?

I had such a test decades ago when one of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside.

Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I was being asked to hide my faith. I did not comply with my colleague’s request. I let my faith show!

In all professional endeavors, rigorous standards of accuracy are required. Scholars cherish their freedom of expression. But full freedom cannot be experienced if part of one’s knowledge is ruled “out-of-bounds” by edicts of men.[2]

If that’s what he thinks about medicine—a subject relatively untouched by most LDS doctrines—what of fields that touch LDS truth claims more intimately?

Every essay a testimony?

Does this mean, then, that every written work need include a bearing of testimony? Hardly—the audience and venue may or may not make that appropriate. But, C.S. Lewis’ intellectual mentor, George MacDonald, gave a wise caution:

Is every Christian expected to bear witness? One who believes must bear witness. One who sees the truth must live witnessing to it. Is our life then a witnessing to the truth? When contempt is cast on the truth, do we smile? [When the truth is] wronged in our presence do we make no sign that we hold by it?… I do not say we are called upon to dispute and defend [against falsehood] with logic and argument, but we are called upon to show that we are on the other side… The soul that loves the truth and tries to be true will know when to speak and when to be silent. But the true man will never look as if he did not care. We are not bound to say all that we think, but we are bound not even to look [like] what we do not think.[3]

Sadly, too many are so worried that their faith might show, that they end up looking like that which they do not really believe, and do not really think.

This impression is only strengthened when they attack, ridicule, or with a sneer dismiss others who do let their faith show more overtly in their academic work. One wonders if this is to avoid feeling guilty for their own lapses, or if it is part and parcel of assuring others that they really are on the academic, secularized “team.”

“Satan need not get everyone to be like Cain or Judas….He needs only to get able men … to see themselves as sophisticated neutrals.”[4]

Such decisions cannot but have spiritual consequences—what one starts doing merely to avoid making academic waves soon shapes one’s views. That which we defend and advocate—or which we refuse to defend or advocate—affects what we end up believing. This should not surprise us, if we consistently exclude (or actively avoid) spiritual evidence, since such evidence cannot but bear on many questions of ultimate importance:

In our own time, Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon constitute stumbling blocks for many—around or over which they cannot get—unless they are meek enough to examine all the evidence at hand, not being exclusionary as a result of accumulated attitudes in a secular society. Humbleness of mind is the initiator of expansiveness of mind (emphasis added).[5]

Compartmentalization and citizenship

Thus, compartmentalization or bracketing has real risks:

The mind can become “hardened in pride” (Daniel 5:20; Habakkuk 1:11). And it can also engage in self-deception, as Korihor finally acknowledged (Alma 30:48–50). The mind can let itself become defensively compartmentalized, a fortress astride the path to faith (emphasis added).[6]

And, some of that risk derives from the “incessant requirements” of an academy jealous of our mental and procedural allegiance:

For the academician in his search for truth and in his efforts for its preservation or dissemination, the admiration and esteem of his peers is both useful and desirable. But these too can be easily corrupted into an inordinate desire for “the praise of men.” Sophistry can come to be preferred to simplicity. The language of scholarship, necessary in its realm, can come to be preferred to the language of faith. Once again, even for the person of faith, the incessant requirements of such associations can come to cloud one’s perspective.[7]

But, if we were to follow the apostles on this point, doesn’t that risk putting one’s academic career or reputation in potential jeopardy? Yes, indeed it may. But, we were warned about such risks:

For one reason, it is unfashionable to be spiritual. A genius possessed of religious faith is sometimes tolerated among colleagues in the business, academic, or political world. His bilingual ability to converse in the language of his professional realm and in the realm of faith is noted but not often applauded.[8]

Still, as Elder Maxwell cautioned years ago:

The orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar should remember that his citizenship is in the Kingdom and that his professional passport takes him abroad into his specialty. It is not the other way around.[9]

Ultimately, if my citizenship is not obvious, do I perhaps have a problem?


 

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling,” devotional address, January 2012.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Let Your Faith Show,” general conference, April 2014.

[3] George MacDonald, Creation in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1976), 142. Elder Holland quoted a portion of this, and replaced “think” with “believe”—I think either or both apply.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 88.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, Meek and Lowly (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 76.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth: The Journey of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012), kindle location 813.

[7] Neal A. Maxwell, Sermons Not Spoken (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 10–11.

[8] Sermons Not Spoken, 12.

[9] Deposition of a Disciple, 18.

Shame versus shame

John Gee found a great quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:

We live in an age of compromise and acquiescence. In situations with which we are daily confronted, we know what is right, but under pressure from our peers and the beguiling voices on those who would persuade us, we capitulate. We compromise. We acquiesce. We give in, and we are ashamed of ourselves. . . . We must cultivate the strength to follow our convictions. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 135, ellipses in source.)

The interesting thing is that if we succumb to such urgings, we are ashamed of ourselves–or ought to be.

But, one could add that if one will not succumb, those who have tried to persuade us–often with protestations of good will and friendship (for it is difficult to beguile with a severe tone)–will typically turn quickly, and resort to shaming of their own.

It is, in fact, precisely this tactic that Nephi sees in vision: “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed….And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Nephi 8:25, 28).

Being scoffed at is never pleasant, but I regard it as a sign of success. Scoffing is an admission of intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy–it is not an argument, it is a tantrum (compare Moses 1:19).

This should not be surprising, though it often seems so. The adversary–like those who endorse his tactics–“is permissive on most things, but not on granting passports for citizens to leave his realm.” [Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 11–12.]

Indeed, a key article of un-faith is that Satan’s realm is both preeminent, and all that matters. Only a fool would ignore it or not want to be a part of it….right?

Fellow thralls can expect bonhomie and courtesy; aliens passing by, never. Which is strange for a realm in which “tolerance” is a watchword, but it is tolerance or permissiveness within rigidly circumscribed boundaries.

Don’t believe me? Just try transgressing one.

Humanities, the counter-culture, and scientism–thoughts on Leon Wieseltier

I recently read the New Republic’s literary editor’s commencement address to Brandeis. Leon Wieseltier bemoans the current state of the humanities in American life and education:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?

He complains that as a society we have inclined to a narrow, instrumentalist reason and intellectual effort—the reason of mere technology or cost/benefit analyses:

The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life.

Who’s to blame?

He is quite right, of course. On the other hand, I think he ignores that the humanities themselves (or at least some prominent voices within them) deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the current state of affairs.

For example, Wieseltier is displeased that reason and philosophy don’t care about larger questions of morality, good and evil, truth or falseness. Fair enough. And yet, the post-modernism that has gripped so much of the academy has declared such questions to be pointless, unanswerable, meaningless, and amusingly naïve.

Instead, we’re treated to the lit-crit theories of various French post-modernist philosophers. No text has any meaning save that which we impose upon it. In that kind of environment, figuring out whether something is true and good becomes a senseless enterprise. All discourse devolves into mere political maneuvering for power. And so, for example, if dead white men wrote the texts and thus controlled the discourse, now it is time to impose a feminist reading of the texts, or an anti-neo-colonialist reading, or a gay rights reading, even if such concerns were completely foreign to the time, place, and authorship of the texts. And, woe betide you if you suggest that such alternative readings might be every bit as much grabs for power as the ones they are attacking.

Even things as clear-cut as physics are declared by some to be nothing but a type of cultural hegemony, a socially-constructed narrative that privileges the western, white, male view of the world. (Science is affected by social factors, of course, but if you’re arguing that things like Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations are no more true in an absolute sense than anything else, is it any wonder that the humanities are not generally competent to address matters of Truth and the Good life?)

A pleasant counter-example

To be sure, there are beacons of hope. I took one class from Patricia Demers of University of Alberta, then chair of the English department—short poetry in the Renaissance. Here was a class where you actually had to support your views from the text and historical period of the poem, where “what this means to me” did decidedly not fly, and where a casual Freudian interpretation would get shot down as absurd nonsense.

That it happened was refreshing—but, you could tell from the expression on my humanities-major classmates’ faces that they were not used to this level of discourse. We were all expected (along with the professor) to nod sagely at such “reader response” or Freudian impositions.

That they were surprised and a bit disgruntled when called on such stuff was telling.

I was, ironically, better at it than they were because my background was in science, where the rejection or acceptance of hypotheses was (at least in principle) conditioned only upon the evidence, and a rigorous attempt to disprove an idea was a key part of the process.

Scientism

Weseltier’s jeremiad against scientism—a philosophical stance that reifies scientific thinking as the be-all and end-all, without the epistemological humility that characterizes true science—is also well-placed. (Scientism is characteristic of the philosophically inept New Atheists, for example.)

But again, what did he expect to happen? Physics and medicine and Google and technology simply work—and yet, the severe cultural relativists that have gripped much of the humanities seem oblivious to the implications. Unsurprisingly the culture (and even their students) have by and large rolled their eyes and texted, “Whatever.”

I would love to see a revival and increased respect accorded the humanities. But, to accomplish that, I think they need to go backward a bit to go forward—in the same sense (as CS Lewis was wont to put it) that going backward to start over on a mathematical sum that you’ve gotten wrong is the best way of making progress (rather than beavering onward with the mistake unacknowledged or uncorrected).

The humanities need, in a sense, to go back to Socrates—back to a serious, intellectually rigorous, fearless reflection on what makes the Good Life. They need a conviction that that is a question that reason can, if not definitively answer, at least cast reliable light upon. Some things can be clearly ruled out as part of the Good life—some things are, to be blunt, Evil.

Not just Evil “from a certain point of view,” not just Evil in cultural context, but honest-to-goodness, clear-cut, Evil. Yet that kind of conclusion is the sort that has been made exceedingly difficult to come to. Even to suggest that there is some type of constant, universal “human nature,” as opposed to a malleable social animal, is to court disaster.

And, for any such declarations or tentative conclusions about Evil to be convincing, such Evils need to be found not just (or even primarily) in the standard whipping boys of the contemporary academy—the well-worn targets of the patriarchy, or colonialism, or racism, or homophobia, and all the rest.

Such attitudes and cultural currents no doubt have their share of evil. But, those are easy evils to call out in the academy these days. Any bravery involved in raising such issues has long faded–rather like me patting myself on the back for making it to the top of Vimy Ridge.

The dangerous evils are the ones that cannot be named, or that you get shouted down for naming—the treason that none dare call treason. And, the humanities specifically and the academy in general is rife with those. Such a discussion would inevitably call personal choices and behavior into question, which is never popular.

A personal example

When I was in university, I was sitting in a humanities class on the literature of science fiction, taught by a scholar of eastern European literature. One day, he was ill, and so we had a substitute. This woman was an incisive teacher, and in the context of a discussion about one particular work, pointed out in passing that children raised by single parents had higher rates of social dysfunction, poverty, etc.

Now, it would be hard to find a more robustly-supported claim from sociology than that. She made it in an off-hand way, and not in a polemical one, but simply as an invitation to consider the implications for the dystopian view of family with which a certain work presented us (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel Wea book with the distinction of being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board).

Well, you’d have thought that she had defended rape or something. One woman stormed angrily out of the classroom. Others protested her claim—the instructor noted she wasn’t making the claim in a judgmental sense of single parents or divorced families, but simply as a factual observation that might have relevance.

As it turned out, this did no good. Letters of protest were written to the department. The regular professor returned and had to apologize for his substitute saying something so “insensitive.” (It was so far from insensitive that I confess I didn’t even realize what all the stomping out in high dudgeon was about until later.)

So much for the quest for the Truth—and, thus, for Good or Evil. So much for “academic freedom”—such an idea couldn’t even be entertained without students having a melt-down, and the academic department caving in. If this can happen in something as robustly supported as the fact that children do better, on average, with a married set of biologic parents, then one must abandon hope all ye who enter here if anything even slightly open to debate should be raised.

Now, I suppose that that kind of experience could be an aberration. But, from what I have heard from others, and read, and given what I see in the media and now on-line, I suspect that it is not. I was ultimately destined for the science departments, and so my exposure to such matters was limited—but, given that I encountered it as I did, I cannot think that it was or is uncommon.

In fact, it was this dynamic that redirected me, after one term, from aspirations in the academic humanities into the sciences, because so much of it seemed to be an intellectual game that never went anywhere. And, I wasn’t interested in playing.

I do not think that it always is that way—I have many friends who are academics in the humanities, and they don’t partake of that approach. But, I think they often must swim against the tide. And, you need tenure before you can be really daring, if you want a job.

Down with bad things….

Down with scientism and its arrogant, unwarranted certainties. Agreed!

But, down too with the pervasive relativism and the shibboleths of the academic Left. (You know there’s a problem when a phrase like ‘shibboleth of the academic Left’ has become cliché.) At least science can, with some justification, point to triumphs like the moon landing, integrated circuits, and AIDS medication as an excuse for its philosophic hubris. New Age dilithium crystals did not land us on the Sea of Tranquility.

What, one might ask, has the extreme post-modernism of much of the humanities brought us in the last century in the quest for Truth that is even remotely comparable? If anything, its leading lights have squandered the moral and intellectual inheritance of the West, and now play games among the ruins, sneering at any who don’t automatically acknowledge the value of what they’re doing.

Small wonder that many walk away and fire up their iPad.

Philosophical complexity vs. gospel simplicity

Still others prefer philosophical complexity to the simple gospel declarations. Each time Jesus or His prophets say “This is my gospel,” the brief declaration implies a loving Heavenly Father who has sent His Only Begotten Son to rescue and redeem mankind. “And now, behold, I say unto you: This is the plan of salvation unto all men, through the blood of mine Only Begotten, who shall come in the meridian of time” (Moses 6:62; see also 3 Nephi 27:13; 27:20-21; D&C 76:40-42, 50). Yet some people reject this simple truth, seeking instead things they cannot understand. Theirs is a mistake of reckoning involving more than a few degrees on life’s compass. It is an enormous error resulting from “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14)—the mark of Christ, who is at the center of it all.

– Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine

Appreciating nuance is a useful skill–but some people come to love nuance so much that they lose the firm declaratives and principles which admit of no nuance or compromise.

Those who seek the complexities usually, in my experience, fancy that they can understand the deep, complicated things they seek, and have at least a little secret joy that others cannot.

These others may be treated with a quiet, amused condescension. Or, the sophisticate can be more loud, shrill and insistent that the dunderheads need to see and accept what their betters have already perceived.

Tertullian’s great question still rings loudly, however: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Sam Harris (and the New Atheists), Part 2

I wrote yesterday about Sam Harris, one of the so-called “New Atheist” authors. For those interested, here’s a few more views from a variety of people with expertise in the relevant fields, some of whom are not Christians or even believers in God.

Thomas Dalrymple, whom I quoted yesterday, reported on the reaction which his reviews provoked. It was not, shall we say, particularly reasoned:

I haven’t written much about religion, but I have been surprised by the vehemence, not to say the violence, of the response to what little that I have written. This vehemence has been provoked by the fact that, though not religious myself, I am no longer anti-religious as I was when it occurred to me as a child and then a teenager that God might not or did not exist. Indeed, I can see many advantages, both personal and social, to a religious outlook. The usefulness of religious claims is not evidence of their truth, of course, though that usefulness probably depends upon a belief in their truth.

…some of the responses I received to an article I wrote recently for The City Journal, in which I suggested that the best-selling books by militant atheists, that have appeared with the suddenness of a change of hemlines in the fashion world, did not advance any new arguments against the existence of God (indeed, you would have by now to be a very great philosopher to advance a new argument either for or against), and that used a historiography of religion that was fundamentally flawed and dishonest, were so vehement that you might have supposed that I was Torquemada or Khomenei rather than a mere scribbler expressing an opinion that was, in effect, a plea for greater subtlety of understanding. I do not want to repeat my arguments here. Instead, I ask the question why these books – of Michel Onfray, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett – have appeared all of a sudden, and sold so well, when (with the exception, perhaps, of Daniel Dennett’s book, which advances an evolutionary explanation of religion that put me in mind of Marx’s explanation of it, except that it refers to biology where Marx refers to economics), they say little that is new….

To suggest, however, that all forms of religion are equal, that they are all murderous and dangerous, is not to serve the cause of freedom and tolerance. It is to play into the hands of the very people we should most detest; it is to hand them the rhetorical tools with which they can tell the gullible that our freedoms are not genuine and that our tolerance is a masquerade. It is to do what I should previously have thought was impossible, namely in this respect to put them in the right.

– Theodore Dalrymple, Anything Goes.

Proof, I suppose, that people get touchy when you challenge their (a)religious views, which is understandable. Atheists like to pretend they’re too rational and calm for that, but many aren’t.

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse opined that “Dawkins et al bring us [atheists] into disrepute,” criticizing their grasp of the relevant material:

unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.[1]

Elsewhere, Ruse reiterated: “Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.”[2]

Another interesting reaction is from Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist of both modern and ancient religion and an agnostic, and Chris Hedges:

Rodney Stark describes them as “angry and remarkably nasty atheists.”…Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges is the author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists and certainly no friend of conservative Christians. He chastises Sam Harris for his “facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate” and “his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs.” The Christian can rightly join Hedges and the New Atheists’ disgust at “the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists” without buying into their arguments. Rodney Stark puts it this way: “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood.”[3]

As Hedges (who does not believe that believing or not believing in God is intrinsically moral)[4] was to note:

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists….

Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn’t know anything about religion or the Middle East….

We had over 1,500 people at the debate at UCLA, and I think that the people who came liking Sam Harris left liking Sam Harris. I don’t think that they heard a word I said, and it’s just insulting … I’ve debated Christian fundamentalists, and it’s the same. I can get up and say, look, I grew up in the church, I went to seminary. No, I’m part of the forces of godless secular humanism that are trying to destroy Christians, and they just repeat it like a mantra — half of their audience which came to hear them hears it, and the same is true of the New Atheists.[5]

There is, in short, a species of fundamentalism that grips these authors. They ironically have more in common with the fundamentalist Christians or Muslims they oppose, rather than the vast majority of religious believers.

And, people (especially fundamentalists) are rarely if ever argued into or out of religious or a-religious faith. After all, noted Chesterton

…men are moved most by their religion; especially when it is irreligion.[6]


[1] Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute,” The Guardian (2 November 2009).

[2] Michael Ruse, “Why I Think the New Atheists Are A Bloody Disaster,” blog post (September 2009).

[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker Book Group, 2011), 16–17.

[4] “I certainly understand that there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever, that many people of great moral probity and courage define themselves outside of religious structures, do not engage in religious ritual or use religious language, in the same way that many people who advocate intolerance, bigotry and even violence cloak themselves in the garb of religion and oftentimes have prominent positions within religious institutions. Unlike the religious fundamentalists or the New Atheists, I’m not willing to draw these kind of clean, institutional lines.” – From footnote below.

[5] Charly Wilder, “I don’t believe in atheists,” salon.com interview with Chris Hedges (13 March 2008), emphasis added.

[6] Gilbert K. Chesterton, “III. The Antiquity of Civilisation,” The Everlasting Man (1925).

Atheist Sam Harris…

The first book review I ever wrote was about Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. I thought it was dreadful (the book, not my review, which was brilliant).

You might think that I disliked Harris’ book because I’m a theist–I believe in God. But, I actually hated it because it was intellectually juvenile, philosophically ignorant, and laced with a hint of fascism.

So, it’s always nice when someone else confirms my reaction.

Thomas Dalrymple is the pen-name of a retired English physician. He’s a skeptic, something of a misanthrope, and does not believe in God. (He also has a wonderful wit, some deep wisdom, and writes prose to make grown men weep.)

Yet, his reaction to Harris’ book matched mine:

This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate….

It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly. In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly.- Theodore Dalrymple, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline

This is not to say that a cogent case for atheism and anti-religion cannot be made. But, Harris didn’t make it. And even some of those who agree with him about the non-existence of God can see that. Dalrymple notes how very tedious, how recycled are the current crop of atheist writing:

The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think they are saying something new and brave….The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist hooks have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of fourteen….

– Theodore Dalrymple, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline

Harris and the rest are so disengaged from the intellectual history of the west that they cannot seem to see why their efforts would be seen by those who know some intellectual history as almost laughable, and a poor shadow of far more robust efforts offered centuries ago.

And, the most amazing thing is that Harris has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Yet, it is hard to think of any argument he makes that a first year philosophy student wouldn’t be competent to destroy. And, I say that as someone who took only one philosophy class.

It was called “Problems of Philosophy”. I thought then, as I do now, that the title was redundant. But The End of Faith doesn’t even rise to the stature of problem.

Was Jesus ‘unchristian’?

I hope they, our children, will not be eccentric. Please, my beloved brethren, teach our children and youth to be humble even in their righteousness. May they never become “holier than thou” or speak their own goodness or outstanding qualities. We remember the two who went up into the temple to pray.

–      Spencer W. Kimball, “What I Hope You Will Teach My Grandchildren and All Others of the Youth of Zion,” (July 1966).

Beware the person who tells you how humble they are, how Christian, or how virtuous.

And, watch out for those who tell people with whom they disagree that they aren’t “doing what Jesus would do.” To be sure, this may well be true, after all.

Then again, who can ever be said to wholly do what Jesus would do? Everyone fails that test and standard. And, to reply by arguing that one really is doing what Jesus would do—even if true—is a losing proposition from the start, since Jesus never felt the need to insist upon his own righteousness.

This is something of a rhetorical nuclear option—when faced with it, one either:

a)      Becomes angry at the charge one is not behaving as a Christian—clearly an unchristian act, and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy; or

b)      Becomes side-tracked in an effort to calmly demonstrate that the charge is false—again, almost certainly an unchristian response, always a losing battle because of our perpetual inadequacy in the face of Jesus’ perfection, and certainly a distraction from the real issue; or

c)       Refuses to be baited, and presses on with the important truth at issue.

Such a charge is, at any rate, hypocritical. If the one making it is a Christian (or has pretensions to be so) he or she ought to be exceedingly cautious, lest this blade cut him as he wields it.

If he or she is not a Christian, then this makes the critic particularly ill-suited to judge precisely what Jesus would do or require in the situation. Most people—especially most moderns, and particularly most modern non-Christians—have a gentled, somewhat anemic view of Jesus.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft put it this way:

Why have we reduced him to “meek and gentle Jesus”? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals. But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.[1]

And, more often than not, the charge of being “unchristian” will turn around making someone uncomfortable—declaring an act to be wrong, declaring an opinion to be literal and absolute truth (rather than “one perspective among many”), or insisting that someone is mistaken. Such things are just not done in polite company.

Still, rather than this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” Jesus the Messiah in the Bible and Book of Mormon is both a rebuke and a terror to the complacent and self-satisfied—and so ought to be to us, most of the time. Jesus and his way of life—The Way, as the early old world Christians called it—can really only be understood in the living of it, or trying to do so.

To put the matter more personally: on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.[2]

Jesus’ is not a system of philosophy or a set of axioms that we can somehow simply assent to, and therefore grasp in the abstract. “The sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of 19th century skepticism,” noted C.S. Lewis, “produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could.”[3] Instead,

…only discipleship—”follow me”—connects beliefs and behavior, focusing on what we are becoming as well as what we are thinking and doing. Thus, discipleship cannot be merely intellectual. Did not Jesus prescribe and describe this convergence by saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me?” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, the deepest development of discipleship occurs only in this particular manner, small though our yokes may be compared to His.[4]

No one, then, who has not sought and borne that yoke can truly speak of what Jesus requires—because, quite frankly, he often requires things we would much rather not, and have hardly dared think. Small wonder we don’t always measure up fully.

And, none who have borne that yoke for even a few paces would then presume to use someone’s inadequacy as a verbal killing stroke.

Besides, Jesus himself was rarely appreciated for what he said. Just because someone does not violently disagree with us does not make us right or Christian—but, if no one is violently disagreeing, we are almost certainly failing to measure up. And, those who disagree are always most likely to be those most concerned with publicly demonstrating and publicly broadcasting their own rectitude, while quick to marginalize those who do not toe “the party line” to their satisfaction. They care what others think, especially those the world regards as important, impressive, or necessary to placate.

As a crowing irony in a life filled with ironies, I suspect that if Jesus were here today, many people would label him as “unchristian.”


[1] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (Ignatius Press, 1992), 32.

[2] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), kindle location 799-804.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan, 26 March 1940; cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 67; also in Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1991), 35; citing Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966), 181.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), preamble.

Secularism and the spirit

Secularism, too, has its own “priests” and is jealous over its own “orthodoxy.” Those who choose not to follow Him are sometimes quick to say “Follow me.” They enjoy being a light, and the accompanying recognition and reward are not unpleasant.

–          Neal A. Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things (Deseret Book, 1983), 87.

To mix religion with secularism is an especial treat. The recognition and rewards will be loud and effusive–in some quarters.

The risk is that secularism is a jealous god, and soon pushes out anything living in revealed religion. One is left with a shell or outline: the skeleton of systemic theologies or the specter of the god of the philosophers.

Such things are welcomed, in some quarters, because they are safe and forever tentative. One can control this god and his/her/its doctrines, such as they are. One needn’t be embarrassed by them.

Who wouldn’t rejoice about that?