Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dennis Says: Secularism Causes Cultural Oblivion

Every so often, an idea comes along, so brilliant in its simple stupidity, so magnificently bone-headed, and so condescendingly snide that it must stand and be recognized. Around here, I like to think of these moments as "WTHAYTADs", or "What the Hell are you talking about, Dennis?" moments. A few weeks ago, Dennis regaled us by comparing wanting to right America's flaws (and these days, I can't think of a single person, from any party, that doesn't think there are at least a few we could stand to look at) to making your wife feel like crap, you insensitive jerk. Previously he's topped himself by excreting such sage wisdom as, "Everyone in Congress should swear on the King James Bible, because that's what America (who? which? when?) decided should be the book of choice. Yes, even Jews."

Last week, thankfully, Dennis did not disappoint. While his title purports to address how socialism and secularism are equally responsible for ruining society, most of his column actually focuses on secularism, so we'll stick with that.

To start, the "investigative premise" is hilarious. Let us begin with the first sentence:

Outside of politics, sports and popular entertainment, how many living Germans, or French, or Austrians, or even Brits can you name?

First of all, I don't know that I can name any Austrians, period. But the phrasing here is already making me suspicious. I can name a lot of Israelis that most people ever heard of. That's because I have a personal emotional connection with the culture and people in Israel and stay abreast of developments there (mostly political). Presumably most people with a cultural connection to Germany, France, Austria or England could do the same. Also, most of the Israelis I could list are political or military. Is this going to come back to bite the People of the Book in the butt later on in your argument?

Even well-informed people who love art and literature and who follow developments in science and medicine would be hard pressed to come up with many, more often any, names. In terms of greatness in literature, art, music, the sciences, philosophy and medical breakthroughs, Europe has virtually fallen off the radar screen.

So, the argument is that after decades of Americans giving Europe the cold shoulder (particularly over the past eight years), the fact that we are ignorant of noteworthy personalities in Europe is supposed to be proof that there's no one doing anything important there?

This is particularly meaningful given how different the answer would have been had you asked anyone the same question between just 80 and 120 years ago – and certainly before that. A plethora of world-renowned names would have flowed.

Obvious examples would include (in alphabetical order): Brecht, Buber, Cezanne, Chekhov, Curie, Debussy, Eiffel, Einstein, Freud, Hesse, Kafka, Mahler, Mann, Marconi, Pasteur, Porsche, Proust, Somerset Maugham, Strauss, Stravinsky, Tolstoy, Zeppelin, Zola.

Not to mention the European immortals who lived within the century before them: Mozart, Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Darwin, Kierkegaard, Manet, Monet, Hugo and Van Gogh, to name only a few.

What has happened?

The Industrial revolution? Several World Wars? The Internet? The decline of the publishing industry, print media, and the replacement of the culture of intellectual literature and art with Wii and Twitter?

What has happened is that Europe, with a few exceptions, has lost its creativity, intellectual excitement, industrial innovation and risk taking. Europe's creative energy has been sapped. There are many lovely Europeans; but there aren't many creative, dynamic, or entrepreneurial ones.

Oh. Ohhhhhhh. It's going to be one of THOSE columns.

Question, Dennis. I can accept that there are measurable ways of determining thinks like business or entrepreneurial accomplishment or decline, but exactly how are you going to prove whether a country has lost or gained intangible qualities like creativity or intellectual excitement? You know, particularly given your generally dry and dour perspective.

The issues that preoccupy most Europeans are overwhelmingly material ones: How many hours per week will I have to work? How much annual vacation time will I have? How many social benefits can I preserve (or increase)? How can my country avoid fighting against anyone or for anyone?

A, how can you prove this?

B, how is this substantially different from people in the US? I'm betting that most people lucky enough to still be employed are far from unconcerned with material issues these days, and before the economic downturn we were far from an unmaterialistic society.

Why has this happened?

There are two reasons: secularism and socialism (aka the welfare state).

Either one alone sucks much of the life out of society. Together they are likely to be lethal.

Hey, I guess that does explain why I can't rattle off a list of famous Israeli scientists at random will! Curse those godless Labor Zionists!

Even if one holds that religion is false, only a dogmatic and irrational secularist can deny that it was religion in the Western world that provided the impetus or backdrop for nearly all the uniquely great art, literature, economic and even scientific advances of the West. Even the irreligious were forced to deal with religious themes – if only in expressing rebellion against them.

Um, Dennis, if religion saturated all elements of public life in the West (and most of the East, for that matter), then the fact that it was an immutable part of the backdrop for thousands of years is, necessarily, a truism. However that does not actually PROVE a causal connection between religion and creativity, only that religion was omnipresent. This is like arguing that humanity owes all of its accomplishments to oxygen.

This argument is particularly moronic dicey given that there are plenty of examples where religious dogma in the West actually hampered the growth of art, literature, economics and science- just look at the Church's history of banning and persecuting people that dared to loan at interest (hint, hint, Jews), the countless book-- and people-- burnings that took place across Europe under both Catholics and Protestants, to say nothing of the legendary feuds with Galilleo and Copernicus. Anyone that wants to argue for Christendom being the primary mover and shaker of scientific advancement in the last thousand years need only look at how Christian science (the non-ironic kind) was viewed by Muslim healers, often light-years ahead of them:

They brought before me a knight in whose leg an abscess had grown; and a woman afflicted with imbecility. To the knight I applied a small poultice until the abscess opened and became well; and the woman I put on diet and made her humor wet. Then a Frankish physician came to them and said, "This man knows nothing about treating them." He then said to the knight, "Which wouldst thou prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?" The latter replied, "Living with one leg." The physician said, "Bring me a strong knight and a sharp ax." A knight came with the ax. And I was standing by. Then the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike his leg with the ax and chop it off at one blow. Accordingly he struck it-while I was looking on-one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow, upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot. He then examined the woman and said, "This is a woman in whose head there is a devil which has possessed her. Shave off her hair." Accordingly they shaved it off and the woman began once more to cat their ordinary diet-garlic and mustard. Her imbecility took a turn for the worse. The physician then said, "The devil has penetrated through her head." He therefore took a razor, made a deep cruciform incision on it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the incision until the bone of the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman also expired instantly. Thereupon I asked them whether my services were needed any longer, and when they replied in the negative I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I knew not before.

Or, you know, you could also take a look at the whole witch trials thing.

Religion in the West raised all the great questions of life: Why are we here? Is there purpose to existence? Were we deliberately made? Is there something after death? Are morals objective or only a matter of personal preference? Do rights come from the state or from the Creator?

Yes, without religion, no one ever asks these questions. That's why the only philosophers to ever exist were all religious, right?

And religion gave positive responses: We are here because a benevolent God made us. There is, therefore, ultimate purpose to life. Good and evil are real. Death is not the end. Human rights are inherent since they come from God. And so on.

Notice how there's no question of whether these questions were true or even testable. Apparently for Dennis having an answer is better than having the right answer, or, worst of all, no answer. I think I've seen the same logic applied in his columns- better to make a moral judgment or take some kind of stand on something, no matter how half-baked or poorly thought through, than to be seen as showing ambivalence. Someone might confuse him for a moral relativist or something.

Secularism drains all this out of life. No one made us. Death is the end. We are no more significant than any other creatures. We are all the results of mere coincidence. Make up your own meaning (existentialism) because life has none. Good and evil are merely euphemisms for "I like" and "I dislike."

Dennis has been peddling this superficially devastating argument since the late 80s. Essentially, it comes down to, "Well there must be a god because otherwise Hitler didn't really do anything wrong, you just personally disagree with him." (This is an actual paraphrase from Dennis' book.)

Dennis must have thought this was a slam dunk when he first dreamed it up. After all, no one wants to be told they like Hitler. Only problem is that one does not need religion to recognize that humans, even if only animals, are highly evolved, sentient creatures with amazing potential and therefore, ethical obligations to themselves and others. Good and evil do not have to be universally ineffable and provable (how?) concepts in order to be important.

Furthermore, creating individual meaning for one's life and existence (which, IMO, many people do on an ongoing basis) does not have to be a choice between vapidity or empty loneliness in the universe. Yes, Dennis, perceptions of good and evil are, at least partially, created by social and cultural factors. This doesn't mean they aren't important or have no weight, but it does mean that people that believe in them need to be vigilant and thoughtful when determining what is and isn't moral and what practical consequences derive from that. For thousands of years slavery was considered to be moral, or at least non-objectionable, by oodles of world cultures, including, at one point, the Jews. Eventually, for a number of reasons, this acceptability waned. But part of the reason for slavery's decline in Western eyes was the willingness of people to take a hard look at some concepts that they had been raised to believe were rock-solid in their moral compasses.

Rather than honestly examine how questioning stock answers or wisdom has helped revolutionize thought and society throughout history, Dennis would rather pretend that the battle is between those of bedrock faith (and static "progress") and those who practice a vapid, valueless, existential twisting in the wind. As always, he overstates his case to the point of absurdity: the entire reason that we have modern nation-states, constitutions, or any notion of civil rights, comes from people being willing to challenge the status-quo. The answer is not to abandon all values, but to apply important ones to new and ever-changing situations.

Through his name calling of various secular countries of the present, Dennis shows that what he really believes in is a totally idealized past, ignoring or sanitizing the fact that Europe in particular suffered countless tragedies motivated, in part, by religious and superstitious reasoning. Perhaps by studying their history (and ours) the Europeans have come to appreciate the value that comes with keeping religion a private matter, rather than a public one that permeates all matter of government, science, and cultural life. Dennis, sitting in the relatively benign shadow of America's short (and, officially at least, secular) history, can afford to romanticize the Europe of yesteryear, religion and all. For my part, I think it's noteworthy that the Europeans of today, in full knowledge of their past, have no interest in repeating it.

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