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The deep Crisis of the West
Presents his heathen manifesto
31.03.2012. Atheists are too often portrayed as bishop-bashing extremists and any meaningful debate with the religious becomes impossible. How can this be remedied? At the Guardian Open Weekend, philosopher Julian Baggini presented his 12 rules for heathens. Here are some excerpts:
1 Why we are heathens
It has long been recognised that the term "atheist" has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. "Humanist" is one alternative, but humanists are a subset of atheists who have a formal organisation and set of beliefs many atheists do not share. Whatever the intentions of those who adopt the labels, "rationalist" and "bright" both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrationalists or dim.
If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. "Heathen" fulfils this ambition. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.
2 Heathens are naturalists
Heathens are not merely unbelievers: we believe many things too. Most importantly, we believe in naturalism: the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it. This natural world may contain many mysteries and even unseen dimensions, but we have no reason to believe that they are anything like the heavens, spirit worlds and deities that have characterised supernatural religious beliefs over history. Many religious believers deny the "supernatural" label, but unless they are willing to disavow such beliefs as in the reality of a divine person, miracles, resurrections or life after death, they are not naturalists.
3 Our first commitment is to the truth
Although we believe many things about what does and does not exist, these are the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our worldview. That basis is a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, not the conclusions we reach. Hence we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong. It also means that we respect and have much in common with people who come to very different conclusions but have an equal respect for truth, reason and evidence. A heathen has more in common with a sincere, rational, religious truth-seeker than an atheist whose lack of belief is unquestioned, or has become unquestionable.
4 We respect science, not scientism
Heathens place science in high regard, being the most successful means humans have devised to come to a true understanding of the real nature of the world on the basis of reason and evidence. If a belief conflicts with science, then no matter how much we cherish it, science should prevail. That is why the religious beliefs we most oppose are those that defy scientific knowledge, such as young earth creationism.
Nonetheless, this does not make us scientistic. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all. There are scientistic atheists but heathens are not among them. Science is limited in what it can contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we should live because many of the most important facts of human life only emerge at a level of description on which science remains silent. History, for example, may ultimately depend on nothing more than the movements of atoms, but you cannot understand the battle of Hastings by examining interactions of fermions and bosons. Love may depend on nothing more than the physical firing of neurons, but anyone who tries to understand it solely in those terms just does not know what love means.
Science may also make life uncomfortable for us. For example, it may undermine certain beliefs about free will that many atheists have relied on to give dignity and autonomy to our species.
Heathens are therefore properly respectful of science but also mindful of its limits. Science is not our Bible: the last word on everything.
5 We value reason as precious but fragile
Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges the limits of reason. Reason is itself a multi-faceted thing that cannot be reduced to pure logic. We use reason whenever we try to form true beliefs on the basis of the clearest thinking, using the best evidence. But reason almost always leaves us short of certain knowledge and very often leaves us with a need to make a judgment in order to come to a conclusion. We also need to accept that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree.
6 We are convinced, not dogmatic
The heathen's modesty about the power of reason and the certainty of her conclusions should not be mistaken for a shoulder-shrugging agnosticism. We have a very high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview. But we do not dogmatically assert it. Being open to being wrong and to changing our minds does not mean we lack conviction that we are right. Strength of belief is not the same as rigidity of dogma.
Read Julian Baggini's manifesto in its entirety in The Guardian.
HonestThinking comments: This is refreshing and thought-provoking. We need more of this kind of attitude, whether we religious or non-religious.
«Lather, rinse, and repeat»
29.03.2012. The killer of French schoolchildren and soldiers turns out to be a man called Mohammed Merah. The story can now proceed according to time-honored tradition, writes Mark Steyn in National Review (links in original):
Stage One: The strange compulsion to assure us that the killer is a “right wing conservative extremist,” [...]
So on to Stage Two: Okay, he may be called Mohammed but he’s a “lone wolf.” [...]
On to Stage Three: Okay, even if there are enough lone wolves around to form their own Radio City Rockette line, it’s still nothing to do with Islam. [...]
And then, of course, Stage Four: The backlash that never happens. Because apparently the really bad thing about actual dead Jews is that it might lead to dead non-Jews: “French Muslims Fear Backlash After Shooting.” [...]
Read the entire commentary in National Review.
Western culture could benefit from some alternative perspectives on gender-related issues.
Runs anti-Catholic ad but refuses to run anti-Islam ad
19.03.2012. Executives at The New York Times have rejected a full-page anti-Islam advertisement that mimicked a controversial anti-Catholic advertisement they published on March 9. According to a Mar. 13 letter sent by the Times to the ad’s sponsor, anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, the $39,000 anti-Islam ad was rejected because “the fallout from running this ad now could put U.S. troops and/or civilians in the [Afghan] region in danger”, reports The Daily Caller:
Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, accused the Times of having a double standard and told The Daily Caller that The Time’s was based on “either [anti-Catholic] bigotry or fear [of Islamic violence], and they’ve painted themselves into that corner.”
Donohue said the frequent claims of intellectual honesty by Times employees would compel them to address the double standard if they weren’t “shameless.”
TheDC asked Robert Christie, the Times’ senior vice-president for corporate communications, if the Times’ decision is a surrender to violence and also an incentive for additional threats of violence.
However, Christie declined to discuss the paper’s decision, and referred TheDC to the letter sent by the Times to Geller and her organization, Stop the Islamization of Nations.
The Times’ letter included a commitment to “consider the ad … for publication in a few months,” and the claim that “we publish this type of advertising, even those we disagree with, because we believe in the First Amendment.”
Geller scoffed at the Times’ conditional commitment. She told TheDC she believes the Times will never publish a criticism of Sharia, or Islamic law, because “when is it ever a good time to blaspheme under the Sharia?”
Continue reading in The Daily Caller.
Harsh criticism from executive leaving the company
15.03.2012. Yesterday Greg Smith resigned as a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Writes he in The New York Times:
Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,
To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.
But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.
When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave.
How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.
Continue reading in The New York Times.
It's all in the genes claim scientists
12.03.2012. Reports The Daily Mail (emphasis added):
Cultural stereotypes may be deep rooted in our genetic makeup, say scientists.
Common traits like British individualism and Chinese conformity could be attributed to genetic differences between races according to a new study.
The study, by thedepartment of psychology at Northwestern Universityin Illinois, suggests that the individualism seen in western nations, and the higher levels of collectivism and family loyalty found in Asian cultures, are caused by differences in the prevalence of particular genes.
'We demonstrate for the first time a robust association between cultural values of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene,' said Joan Chiao, from the department of psychology at Northwestern University.
If they are confirmed, the findings made by Chiao and her colleagues would suggest that races may have a number of inherent psychological differences — just as they differ in physical appearances.
Chiao suggests that the version of the gene predominating in Asian populations is associated with heightened anxiety levels and increased risk of depression.
She adds that such populations respond by structuring their society to ward off those negative effects.
The success of such social structures would then ensure that the gene would spread.
She added the findings showed how culture could exert a powerful influence on human genetics and evolution.
Read the entire article in The Daily Mail.
Make the monster famous
12.03.2012. KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.
See also Discovery News and Yahoo News, highlighting various aspects of this campaign to bring this warlord, rapist, and child abductor to justice.
Greeks aren’t Germans
04.03.2012. A Belgian journalist who interviewed me recently about the European debt crisis asked me whether I believed in the European Project. I replied that I would answer her question—if she would tell me what the European Project actually was. By revealing my doubts, I proved to her that I suffered from the strange kind of mental debility known as Euroskepticism, a condition supposedly compounded of low intelligence and aggressive xenophobia. The low intelligence manifests itself in the patient’s view of European institutions as a gravy train for a transnational nomenklatura, rather than as the beginning of a new, generous, and free-spirited type of postnational identity. The xenophobia manifests itself as a secret desire for conflict and war, the European Union and its predecessors supposedly having been responsible for the avoidance of war on the Continent over the last 65 years. Thus begins Theodore Dalrymple his City Journal article The European Crack-Up. Here are some further excerpts:
The reason that Belgium has lacked a government for so long is that the country is divided into two populations (actually three, but the third is too small to count) with incompatible politics: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. Belgium is officially bilingual, yet you see not a word of Dutch in Wallonia and not a word of French in Flanders. The division could not be starker if barbed wire separated the two provinces. Only in the capital, Brussels, does one find any concession to bilingualism. Historical and economic factors deepen the division between the two regions.
It happens that the central offices of the E.U. are located in Brussels. Yet the political difficulties of Belgium do not give the European unionists pause for thought—or, if they do pause, they reach a peculiar conclusion: that what has not worked in two centuries in a small area with only two populations will work in a few years in a much larger area with a multitude of populations. It does not occur to the unionists that different countries really are different: not a little bit, but radically, in culture, language, history, traditions, and economies. The term “European” is not meaningless, but whatever content the term may have, it is not sufficient for the formation of a viable polity.
In short, the incontinent spending of many European governments, which awarded whole populations unearned benefits at the expense of generations to come, has—along with a megalomaniacal currency union—produced a crisis not merely economic but social, political, and even civilizational. The European Union that was supposed to put an end to war on the continent has resuscitated antagonisms that might end in bellicosity, if not in outright war. And the European Project stands revealed as what any sensible person could have seen it always was: something akin to the construction of a massive, post-Tito Yugoslavia.
Read the entire article in City Journal.
U.K. Muslim Minister: Protect Christianity!
04.03.2012. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is the co-chairman of the British Conservative Party and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in a UK cabinet. This week she gave a controversial speech about the role of faith in public life at a conference in the Vatican to mark 30 years of full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See. Reports Catholic Exchange:
Today I want to make one simple argument. That in order to ensure faith has a proper space in the public sphere, in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faith and nations not denying their religious heritage.
If you take this thought to its conclusion then the idea you’re left with is this: Europe needs to become more confident in its Christianity. Let us be honest. Too often there is a suspicion of faith in our continent: where signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; where states won’t fund faith schools; and where faith is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded.
It all hinges on a basic misconception: that somehow to create equality and space for minority faiths and cultures we need to erase our majority religious heritage. But it is my belief that the societies we are, the cultures we’ve created, the values we hold and the things we fight for stem from something we’ve argued over, dissented from, discussed and built up: centuries of Christianity.
Continue reading in Catholic Exchange.
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