The Maine Stuff

There was that recent revolt in Maine – the Tea Party crowd rose up and took over the Republican Party there – scrapping the usual moderate kind of Rockefeller-Republican platform and replacing it with something more to their liking:

The document calls for the elimination of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, demands an investigation of “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth,” suggests the adoption of “Austrian Economics,” declares that “‘Freedom of Religion’ does not mean ‘freedom from religion’” (which I guess makes atheism illegal), insists that “healthcare is not a right,” calls for the abrogation of the “UN Treaty on Rights of the Child” and the “Law Of The Sea Treaty” and declares that we must resist “efforts to create a one world government.”

Yep, take a look – and although a former attorney for the Maine GOP called the new platform “nutcase stuff” the Maine Republican Party Chair, Charlie Webster, insisted to the AP that every bit of it was what real Republicans support and reflects the values of working-class Mainers, if that’s the term. And this is the state that hasn’t gone for the Republican presidential candidate for maybe two decades, and one of the few states, like California, where both senators are women, in this case Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – neither of them fire-breathing ideologues. So this was odd. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have not commented on this yet.

And there’s not much to say about it. Austrian Economics is kind of Adam Smith wholly-unregulated laissez-faire the-market-always-knows-best stuff on steroids – the hero is Ludwig von Mises and it’s rather arcane. It’s a bit of an insider thing. The same goes for the Law of the Sea Treaty stuff – the international agreement on what are territorial waters and what are international waters and who gets to claim what. The Ludwig von Mises Institute (“Proceeding Evermore More Boldly against Evil”) sees this UN agreement as an attempt at One World Government and the beginning of the end of America’s right to claim sovereignty over anything at all. They hated that Bush liked having rules like this.

The same goes for that UN Treaty on Rights of the Child – that bans the involvement of children in military conflicts in any way and it prohibits the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. What’s so offensive about banning that? More than a hundred twenty countries have ratified it and only two haven’t – Somalia and the United States.

It seems for some this is a hot-button issue. We signed on in 1995 but the Senate refused to ratify the thing – there were those potential conflicts with the Constitution. No one tells us what not to do, even if we would not do those things anyway, and the Heritage Foundation saw it as an issue of international control over national domestic policy. We’ll deal with the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in our own way, and no collection of piss-ant little countries get to say what our rules should be. Obama has called the failure to ratify the thing “embarrassing” and has promised to review the complaints from the conservatives, but now the Home School Legal Defense Association has said that the treaty threatens homeschooling – the government could tell you to stop homeschooling your child if they deemed it against the best interest of the child.

And of course that wraps back around to evolution, as homeschooling is the only way to keep your kid from learning about evolution, and from learning the science and math and all the rest that supports it – and from disturbing literature and music and art that somehow might get kids thinking and feeling odd things, which might, somehow, lead them to question God and the literal truth of every word in the Bible. The UN isn’t going to get to tell us what we can teach our kids. And thus we’re back at the looming threat of One World Government and the black helicopters and all that – or just another day on the Glenn Beck Show. Or, now, another day in Maine – it is kind of Beck’s platform.

As for the elimination of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, and a government investigation into just who is pushing that global warming myth, and why – yeah, yeah, that’s standard stuff now, even if not at all anything any elected Republican is suggesting. But that was the point of the whole exercise. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins had better buy into all of this, every plank in this platform, or they won’t get any Republican votes, or any vote from these particular Republicans. It’s an attempt to put them on the spot.

But it may not, as Steve Benen explains:

As a practical matter, this may not matter. Most voters, in Maine and elsewhere, spend exactly zero time evaluating the parties’ platforms, and probably don’t know that the platforms exist. For that matter, Republican candidates in Maine are not bound to run on their party platform.

So the official party platform is, really, just a place to vent. Collins and Snowe can say they sure do understand how angry people can get these days, and offer sympathy, and even offer solidarity – and then, after they’ve been reelected by other Republicans not particularly interested in obscure Austrian economists or the relation of treaty obligations to the homeschooling of Susie in the suburbs of Augusta, Collins and Snowe can return to this planet and continue the necessary work of determining what is actually possible to keep the country reasonably safe and prosperous, with the other forty-eight senators, each with their own idiosyncratic constituencies.

But there is that odd thing in that Maine Republican platform – that idea that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. That’s the new catchphrase, or slogan, or something. You hear it more and more, but what does that mean?

Well, for starters, it starts with a misunderstanding. Those who say this seem to misunderstand the secularists, and the rare atheists, as no one is proposing anything like freedom from religion. No one is saying I have the right to be free from religion, so tear down your church, or your synagogue or mosque or whatever. Those are fine, so knock yourself out – build big ones. It’s not like a smoking ban, where I have the right to be free from your second-hand smoke everywhere. And some of the buildings are way cool. It’s nice to have them around – even folks who don’t play golf find golf courses kind of pretty. And if you find both comfort and meaning in your religion, good for you. Comfort and meaning are in short supply these days.

But here’s the thing – when you say your religion should determine public policy there are bound to be problems, and back in the eighteenth century we agreed we’d avoid those problems. Jesus speaking for God or Mohammed speaking for Allah, or the Pope speaking for Mary who is speaking for God, may inform your views on public policy, but those are your views. Someone else may have views informed by listening to Confucius or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or George Carlin, and we’re all in this together. You may have The Way – Jesus told you – but others say the same sort of thing about what the Prophet Mohamed told them, and let’s not even get started on the Scientologists. When the job is national security and stuff for the common welfare – schools and roads and some basic rules so folks don’t hurt each other or everyone else – fussing and fighting over God’s will gums up the works. Long ago we agreed we’d leave Him out of it, or her, or it – as that had led to no end of trouble.

So you’re free to practice your religion and worship what you will – that’s fine. And if what you believe informs your views on public policy, well say so. That’s fine too – more power to you. That’s good. It’s good that you can explain what led you to a particular policy position. But realize other people, who don’t believe what you believe, will say the same sort of thing – they will explain how they came to have this or that view on public policy. Will you respect that? The job at hand is the messy business of self-government. Can we just deal with that mundane stuff?

This is pretty simple stuff, although it doesn’t account for the other implication of saying that there should be no freedom from religion. Should someone be free to say they have no religion and just don’t see any point pretending there is a god, just because much of life is awesome and complicated and unknown? If what you believe is fine, shouldn’t what you don’t believe be fine too? A deeply religious person might be appalled at someone who just doesn’t believe in talking snakes and burning bushes, wondering why they don’t. What’s wrong with them? But those on the other side, who find talking snakes and burning bushes a rather odd idea, may be appalled too. But it’s best not to mention it. There’s work to do, after all.

But people do mention it. The appalled point to the appalled and say they’re appalled by those guys over there, and it’s probably no wonder we now have the New Atheism, best shown in the recent anthology, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. This has been getting a lot of attention, like this from David Bentley Hart:

I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad – not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. This is not because I necessarily think the current “marketplace of ideas” particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.

That is just venting. The core is this:

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

Kevin Drum comments:

You can almost hear Hart sighing, “Please Lord, deliver me from cretins.” But his pretensions are, if anything, even more insipid than anything coming from the New Atheists: they are, like Jesus, at least trying to reach ordinary people in language that’s meaningful to them. Hart wants nothing to do with that. …

Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn’t spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn’t worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America – or the world – and you’ll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That’s the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers. To call a foul on those who want to engage with this experience – with the world as it is, rather than with Hart’s abstract graduate seminar version of the world – is to insist that nonbelievers forfeit the game without even taking the field.

So: do the New Atheists recycle old arguments? Of course they do. But that’s not because they’re illiterate, it’s because those arguments have never been convincingly answered. All the recondite language in the world doesn’t change that, either, because the paradoxes are inherent in the ideas themselves. In the end, the English language probably just isn’t up to the task of answering them, no matter how hard you try to twist it. To say that God is best understood as an absolute plenitude of actuality doesn’t really advance the ball so much as it merely tries to hide it.

And Drum adds this:

Later in the essay, perhaps recognizing that he’s exhausted the semantic possibilities here, Hart redirects his focus to the cultural impact of Christianity, suggesting that the New Atheists haven’t truly grappled with what a world without religion would be like. And perhaps they haven’t. But interior passions and social mores work both ways. Did Isaac Newton feel a deeper aesthetic connection with the infinite when he was inventing calculus or when he was absorbed in Christian mysticism? Who can say? Not me, surely, and not Hart either. Likewise, the question of whether Christianity has, on balance, been a force for moral good is only slightly more tractable. Does keeping the servants from stealing the silver really outweigh the depredations of the Crusades and the Inquisition?

Can we just be free from religion in government work and let this rest? But Damon Linker responds to Drum:

What’s most disappointing is Drum’s failure to grasp the culminating point of Hart’s essay, which, as I take it, is this: the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably conflate them. But a different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is … the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Yet the new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world. Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively.

What is this about the only true atheism being catastrophic atheism? You have to be a deep believer who loses his belief, otherwise you’re a shallow dilettante? Drum will have none of that:

I have never in my life felt the need to believe in God, and that lack simply doesn’t inspire any emotional resonance in me. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I don’t feel empty inside, I’m perfectly capable of feeling wonder and awe, and there’s no sense of loss or anything else involved in any of this. Linker might regard that as unfathomable, finding the tortured brooding of the catastrophic atheist more to his liking, but it’s so. And I have no idea how you discuss this. Linker feels the pull of the supernatural and I don’t, and all the conversation in the world won’t change that or make it any more explicable.

That’s why you don’t even discuss the God stuff. There is no way to resolve things.

But of course Andrew Sullivan then jumps in:

If I may intrude, and ask a question I do not mean to be loaded, just curious: I wonder what Kevin thinks happens to him when he dies? And how does he feel about that – not just emotionally but existentially? These questions can be addressed without talking of God. And yet they reveal something about what it is to be human.

And Drum’s answer:

To answer the first question: I don’t think anything happens when I die. My best guess is that my consciousness/ego/soul simply ceases to exist.

And how do I feel about this? Well, obviously in some sense I fear death. We all do. I’d have a pretty strong reaction if my doctor told me I had a month to live. But aside from that purely primal response, does it bother me that my consciousness will eventually cease to exist forever? Not really.

I understand that this is a pretty unsatisfying answer. But it’s not glib. It’s just a plain description of what my interior life is like. I don’t go through life like Woody Allen, thinking that human existence is an implacable existential horror. But neither does it bother me that my own existence won’t last forever. It never has, not in childhood and not now. And I’m not sure why. It just doesn’t.

How can that be? What’s wrong with him? Nothing actually:

For what it’s worth, my instinct tells me that this is primarily an aspect of temperament you’re born with. Either you have a strong emotional reaction to the idea of eventual nonexistence or you don’t. If you do, religion is the most common way of dealing with it. The particular religion you choose is obviously mostly cultural, passed down from your parents and peers the same way you learn a particular language as a child, but the motivating fear itself probably isn’t.

But either way, does this really reveal something essential about what it means to be human? In one sense, yes: a knowledge that someday we’ll die is unique to humans (though fear of death plainly isn’t), and our response to that knowledge has been a defining feature of human cultures for millennia. Still, there are hundreds of other things that are unique to humans too, and I don’t think there’s any special reason to give this one pride of place.

Ah, tell that to the folks in Maine. They said there should no freedom from religion. It’s got to be there, and it should be given a place of pride, damn it – or bless it, actually. How would life work otherwise?

Drum has the answer:

Since Nietzsche keeps coming up in these discussions, keep this in mind: he may have had a healthy trepidation about what the world might be like if, indeed, God were truly dead, but a lot of time has passed since then and we pretty much know the answer now. In the land of Nietzsche’s birth, less than half the population believes in God and less than a quarter can be called Christian in any but the most anthropological sense. Over the past half century Europe has become essentially a secular society, and it seems to be working out fine. I suppose you might argue that this is a fool’s paradise – that they’re subsisting off the dwindling religious capital of the past two thousand years, but that case gets harder and harder to make with every passing year.

They’ve basically given up religion and nothing has happened. They still produce plenty of art and science, they live happy lives, their moral sense is intact, they haven’t become nihilists, and they appear to love and cherish their families and friends just as much as they ever have.

What can we make of that? Keep your religion, for comfort or meaning or what you’d like, but in the day to day stuff, give it a rest. There’s work to do.

And didn’t we settle all this a long time ago?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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