Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Of Mangers and Materialism: What Ross Douthat Doesn't Get

NY Times Neolib-cum-Christianoid mouthpiece Ross Douthat in his latest clarion call ('Ideas from a Manger', Dec. 22,  Sunday Review) bids us to "pause for a moment" on our holiday shopping to "glance at one of the manger scenes". Therein, Douthat informs us, we ought to "see the scene not just as a pious set piece but as a complete world picture- intimate and comprehensive".

What, pray tell, is this complete world picture the manger scene offers? Douthat again:

"It's an entire world view in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It's about the vertical link between God and man- the angels, the stars, the creator stooping to enter his creation. It's also about the horizontal relationships in our society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low."

After presenting this, Douthat bemoans that this view is "increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture-   the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God's sight- but doesn't sweat the details."

He describes this view as:

 "Christian-ish but syncretistic, adaptable, easy going and egalitarian. It doesn't care whether the angel really appeared to Mary- the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation can happen to anyone - including you."

This "spiritual syncretism"  would, of course, also comport with the worldview of my sister-in-law, Krimhilde, see e.g.


How would Krimhilde respond to Douthat's take on her, and not being invested in literalist biblical traditions? I quote her from the above link:

"Reading those ancient books or bibles is like a college student groveling around in a nursery and still talking baby talk. Worse, the degraded level of the book writers, especially where they depict this “god” killing humans out of vengeance, is a reflection of their own base nature and desire for vengeance. Their degraded, low vibration souls hate so they write to make their god hate, like them. This bible god is no god of love.

The obsession with the 'good book' is based  on the anxiety to be right…..right, right, right….This impulse and need penetrates and suffuses everything. That’s why they clutch their bibles so closely, as if to worship the book itself

Wow! Quite an eye-opener! But Krimhilde is much more correct in her take than Douthat is on his. Indeed, there is no evidence that any of the narrative reported in the New Testament gospels concerning the nativity is "true" or in any way historical.   Exegetical and historical document researchers have, in fact, confirmed that:  present day Nazareth couldn’t be the biblical city referred to say, in the fourth chapter of Luke. 

One way to verify that is to go back and examine the Old Testament, the Talmud and related documents that precede the NT and determine if an extant Nazareth existed. One will find that  “Nazareth” is not mentioned once in the entire Old Testament, nor do any ancient historians or geographers mention it before the beginning of the 4th century.  The Talmud though it names 63 Galilean towns, names Nazareth not one time.  Not once. More telling, though Josephus does cite Japha - a town about a mile from present day Nazareth, he doesn't mention Nazareth. So much for Douthat's manger scene, because if Nazareth didn't exist then we can conclude none of the other aspects did either, including the manger, the guiding star, the Magi and even that Yeshua was born an actual "God-Man", i.e. God incarnated as human. It is all an elaborate myth intended to communicate a spiritual message - but not to be taken literally.

So, here we have an answer for Douthat on why spiritualist folk like Krimhilde aren't inclined to pay too much attention to "details" that only exist in a mythical sense.

But Douthat isn't content to merely take the spiritual people and groups (like Eckanckar) to task. He goes after secularists as well. He bloviates (ibid.):

"The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture."

Actually, no "intellectual incoherence" is suffered because cosmology in the specific definition of the term does not entail any moral "picture". Cosmology refers to the study of the large scale universe or cosmos, its dynamics, behavior and composition - including dark matter, dark energy.  Thus, cosmology is a physical discipline that attends to and investigates physical factors of our cosmos. It does not treat morality so that secularists cannot be said to uphold a "cosmology that does not harmonize with its moral picture."

But, this is not to say that secularists embrace NO moral view. Indeed, in an article published in The Barbados Sunday Advocate in 1991, ('Materialism and Moral Values') I took pains to show how and why the philosophy of scientific materialism is compatible with moral values at their most fundamental level without having to interject mythic entities or gods. I noted:

"It isn’t necessary to wave a bible or the ten commandments at a Materialist, nor quote the "golden rule". The true Materialist, by definition, respects his fellow men and reveres all life, since he recognizes (through his philosophy) that they share a planet that may be unique in the cosmos. Thus, the true Materialist treasures and conserves the Earth's finite store of resources, since he comprehends that Earth also has one life to live - and there is no more after the existing resources are consumed.

With these things in mind, the true Materialist does not give his offspring any and every thing that grabs attention. He certainly does not wish to encourage the sort of wanton greed and over-consumption that has brought our world to its present sorry state. The Materialist knows well enough that the planet can ill-afford more such uncaring people.

Embodied within the above examples is a practical ethics, which has been forged out of the Materialist's reason and his priorities. This has one overriding aim: to cherish the Earth and all life upon it. Consequently, the true Materialist disdains all forms of violence, since ultimately these are inimical to the community and to species' survival. Since violent acts undermine a community's cohesion and threaten its very existence, the true Materialist must regard them as irrational. The Materialist is compelled to co-operate with his fellows and promote a common good, not out of fear for the wrath of a deity, but to held insure a thriving, harmonious community with high survival value.

As William Provine notes in his article Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics [1], young people should be encouraged to think rationally and critically concerning ethics, not out of fear of some divine force's wrath, but to protect their own long-term self-interest.

Any persistent observer of human social interaction will note that the vast majority of people are law-abiding and decent folk who naturally practice a common-sense, utilitarian ethics similar to what has been described. For proof, one need only look as far as the upstanding Atheist or agnostic who inhabits every community and who - though he disdains a deity, nevertheless treats his fellows with compassion and respect. No supernatural law or commandment ordains this behavior. Instead it is the conscious and deliberate recognition that the promotion of the welfare of others is directly linked to the one's own welfare.

Unfortunately, what the religionists have done is to take the natural code of ethics most people follow and embellish it with a blizzard of superstitious precepts and injunctions. These are superstitious since, inevitably, they are linked to the supposed dictates of a supernatural "being" who will not hesitate to "punish" those who disobey "him". This includes injunctions to participate in - or attend, primitive rituals which celebrate a de facto cannibalism.

Christians, for their part, profess a ‘God of love’, but never hesitate to invoke fear (of eternal torment) to have their ethics adhered to. Logically, this suggests that the ethics is insupportable without the additional imposition of some type of "divine" retribution. A punitive ethics, then, is at the very core of the Christian religion, as it is many others. Sir Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not A Christian, precisely identifies ‘religion’s source of terror’ to account for the hold it has on so many.


The article received many kudos from letter writers, who said it was the first time they'd ever seen a coherent and logical discourse on a Materialist-based  ethics. Hitherto, they'd never realized that scientific Materialism and ethics could be compatible.

Douthat makes the same error, as when he writes (op. cit.):

"In essence (scientific Materialism) proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm - the scientific sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinish justifications for altruism- tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.."

Which is total nonsense.  As any sensible person can see, on reading my articulation of ethical values based on scientific Materialism, though they are practical - and hence might be said to be "utilitarian" - that doesn't disqualify them from being more useful than Christian morality - which is based on what? Something a god did or didn't do in the Bible?   Or more relevant in Douthat's case: What the Catholic Church rules is moral or not based on its "Canon Law"?

To fix ideas, consider the nun excommunicated by the Catholic Church in Arizona 3  years ago for saving a 27 year old mother’s life at the expense of her fetus. Her moral choice was either to let the birth occur and see both mother and infant die, or prevent the birth (because of the mother’s blood pressure complications) and save the mother.

The nun made the utilitarian ethical choice over Catholic dogma. In this case, the greater relative good is always chosen over the lesser one. Hence, by practical Materialist ethics,  two deaths with two life saving efforts represents the lesser good, while one death with one life saving effort represents the greater one.  The error of the Bishop that excommunicated the nun was in upholding an absolute right to life ethic for both when in practical terms (that exercise of practical intelligence again) both could not survive. But this is the very danger of moral absolutism.

So in fact, contrary to Douthat's take, it is not within utilitarian ethics that absolutism resides, but rather in the goofy supernaturalism pushed by Christians.  If one can believe in the supernatural then, one can believe in an absolute standard which overrides practical reason and practical ethics. We call this "skyhook" thinking.

As Daniel Dennett once noted ('Darwin's Dangerous Idea')  - the hyper-religious like Douthat want to build their world and universe on "skyhooks" not cranes. Cranes, after all, have to hoist from the ground up to effect their constructions. They're prosaic, dirty material-mechanical flotsam and jetsam like cells, electric signals and chemicals. But oh those skyhooks! To toss them upwards and hook on to the ethereal, immaterial realm in the hyper yonder beyond the clouds and gross matter!

"BWAAAAAA....We don't want that! We wanna be GRANDIOSE beings! Made of sky and spirit not filthy matter! "

These delusional seekers fail to comprehend that for humanity to be one in harmony - no single subset can elevate itself as "more special" or more worthy" or more "grandiose" than any other. Irrespective of who or what they believe. And while it might be nice or appealing to believe ALL humanity is skyhook-engendered, in practice it never works! Because once the skyhook meme is admitted, one segment yearns to claim its supreme grandiosity and specialness for itself, and exclude the others! Much better to look at basic evolution out of the mire by natural selection, and how we all came to have the same basic DNA in our cells. "Brothers in DNA".

And once we get off our skyhook  addiction and concede a brotherly, material unity in biology and DNA, then the embrace of a practical ethics isn't far away.  In this world, we need more practical ethics or moral provisionalism, and less absolutism.

Douthat would do well to process that before he next bids us to stop and stare at manger scenes. True, to quote Douthat, "though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star." But maybe that's because no skyhook-based,  guiding star exists. We have to forge, as Materialists, our own "star"!

[1] William Provine, ‘Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics’ (MLB Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1988, p. 25)

No comments: