Wednesday, January 25, 2012

American Religious Exceptionalism

Americans, as anyone can fairly readily see, are more religious, more interested in and committed to religion, than Europeans. Why?

I just heard an interesting theory.

A podcast interviewee suggested that, in comparison to Europe, America has had a freer market in religion. Its many denominations and indeed congregations compete to fill their churches each Sunday. If they fail, their church must close its doors. 

As a result, they have become and remained responsive to their congregations. But in Europe, there has been less religious diversity, and often, as in Britain and Germany, a state-supported church.  Religion as government bureaucracy drifts out of touch.

This never occurred to me, but it sounds right as soon as I hear it.

 The best argument for 

1. separation of church and state, and 
2. religious tolerance.

Friday, January 20, 2012

More on the Current Crisis

... But there is a broader point. It is self-evidently wrong to apply “science” to man himself. What we call science is fundamentally based on observation—in other words, what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The human soul, by definition, if it exists, cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, and neither, by definition, can God. The application of scientific method to the human realm or to the divine, therefore, is just as foolish as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Nor does the fact that science can tell us nothing useful about the human soul or the meaning of life mean that there is no human soul and no meaning to life—any more than trying to hammer in a nail with a knitting needle, and failing, proves there is no nail. Yet that is the silly Scylla and Charybdis we have caught ourselves between.

Now let's look at that another way: if science is fundamentally based on observation, as it is, it necessarily must also assume there really is an objective observer, apart from the thing observed and capable of interpreting sensations from the sense organs meaningfully. A human mind, a human soul, in other words. The various strands of Modernism and of “social science” all hold one dogma in common: that there is no objective observer, no human soul free of the observed world. Darwin held our perceptions and consciousness to be developed, not to perceive the real, but to aid in the struggle for survival. If Darwin is right, there is therefore no way of knowing, for example, whether Darwin's own theories, or those of any other thinker, have anything to do with reality, or have simply been developed by his mechanical consciousness as a way to aid him in reproduction and survival. In other words, Darwin is self-contradictory.

Marx, similarly, held our perceptions and consciousness were radically determined by “ideology,” which is to say, the beliefs and opinions that were most to the benefit of the ruling class: “a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society” (Wikipedia entry on “Ideology”). There is therefore no way of knowing, similarly, whether Marx's own theories pertain to reality, or have simply been developed by his consciousness to reinforce the interests of the economic system and class into which he was born. He contradicts himself.

Freud held, like Darwin, that “All subjective reality was based … on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived.” If so, were Freuds' theories, and those of all other scientists and thinkers of all kinds, based on any objective truth, or only the effusions of his subconscious trying to get laid by his Mum?

Just the three most obvious examples; but I submit that any form of “social science,” any attempt to apply the techniques of science to mankind himself necessarily has this logical contradition at its foundation: if the mind is the object, it cannot also be the detached observer.

So you see, besides leading to mass murder and unimaginable human suffering, to wars and massacres, and besides not producing any useful knowledge in its century or more of trying, Modernism or social science is also immediately self-contradictory. It is also detrimental to true science. If social science is true, science cannot be. The Na'vi that Modernists so admire, you will notice, are not especially hi-tech.

We are not machines, but free agents.

In practice, of course, the social scientist is necessarily assuming that, while ordinary people, or perhaps everyone else, is an automaton following natural laws, he or his class or professional cadre, for some unexplained reason, is not. They are the enlightened ones. This necessarily sees mankind as radically unequal, and can justify practically any level of inhumanity, practically any level of compulsion imposed on the human subjects.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Statement of the Problem

There is a Crisis

“One gets the feeling some spiritual catastrophe has taken place…” – Leonard Cohen.

In some ways, life is getting better and better. In one important way it seems to be getting worse: in the experience of what is called “mental illness.” Current National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) data state that 46.4% of Americans have or will have some form of “mental illness” ( One in four, one quarter of us, is mentally ill in any given year.

Very little is really known by the science called psychology about this thing called “mental illness.” I’ve been watching the field long enough to realize that the things we know one year turn out to be untrue by ten or twenty years later. We seem to be running around in circles on this. What causes mental illness? Do the pills work? Do the new pills work better than the old pills? What is the most common form of mental illness? Is mental illness A really distinct from mental illness B, or are they two symptoms for the same malady? And is the incidence of such things growing?

We don’t know. We don't know. We don't know. The entire field seems permanently behind a shroud, uncanny and mysterious.

All we are really sure about is that a lot of people claim to be suffering a lot.

My own sense is that the incidence really has been growing, rapidly, at least in the developed world. I find it hard to believe that, a hundred or two hundred years ago, nearly half the population was suffering from what we now call mental illness, and nobody noticed anything in particular. Albeit it does not seem to attract the attention it deserves today either.

Perhaps the true experts on all this are the artists. Artists, I expect, detect the zeitgeist well before the rest of us do, because they are more sensitive to such things; like the proverbial canary in the mine. And Leonard Cohen is far from the only artist to proclaim some sort of broad social or cultural breakdown—a “spiritual catastrophe.”

Duchamp's "Fountain"

Artists have been saying this with remarkable persistence at least since Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919), and TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), the three great original landmarks of “modernism”: things have fallen apart, everything has died, the culture is in broken shards. Some artists have celebrated this fact, and some have lamented it, but all seem to have been saying the same thing ever since: “I saw the best minds of my generation ruined by madness.”

So what has happened over the last hundred years?

What is the Cause of this Crisis?

The obvious immediate cause of the crisis reflected in Eliot’s and Yeats’s great poems was the First Word War and the revolutions that followed it—most notably the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Yet this is not sufficient explanation, since this spiritual crisis clearly is still with us now. It has long ago gotten downright tedious: what is “Piss Christ” saying that Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain” was not already saying a century ago? Yet the Great War is now several wars ago, and the Bolshevik regime has faded into history. There must be a deeper cause behind this proximate cause.

Piss Christ

Nor is this deeper cause, I think, hidden. It is the philosophical tendency called “Modernism”—the label commonly applied to these three artistic works.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the term “Modernism” as it is modernly understood was coined by a professor M. Perin at the University of Louvain, in 1881. He defines the term, primarily, as “the ambition to eliminate God from all social life” (

That is a Catholic viewpoint, and a negative definition. Perhaps it is clearer if we invert it: Modernism was and is the ambition to inject science into all social life. The Modernists of philosophy, seeing the success of science and technology in the Industrial Revolution, wanted to set society, too, on a proper scientific foundation.

Wikipedia elucidates, in its entry on Modernism: “Two of the most significant thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin, and in political science, Karl Marx” ( Darwin was publicly an agnostic. “Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined the religious certainty of the general public.” “The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as ‘lower animals’ proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality.” Marx’s atheism was open and strident: “religion is the opiate of the people,” and all our thoughts are entirely conditioned by the economic system. Both doctrines proposed, essentially for the first time, that “science” and “religion” were opposed systems.

Planet of the Apes?

Both theories were promptly applied to society, indeed were designed to be applied to society, on the notion that society and culture could now be run on an efficient, “scientific” basis. Bad idea. People are not cogs. Marx gave us the Bolsheviks; Darwin gave us the Fascists.

The tendency to view society and humans as machines was then exacerbated by the influence of Einstein and Freud. Mussolini, for example, appealed directly to Einstein. If, as Einstein said, the foundations of the physical world were uncertain, “relative,” then the doctrines that guide our thoughts and deeds were also “relative,” and everything was up for grabs. All norms were expendable as proved convenient—in practice, especially moral norms. The very same argument is, of course, still made by the postmodernists.

Freud, in turn, claimed that “All subjective reality was based … on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived” ( We could not perceive objective reality, if any existed; we were animals driven entirely by instincts.

I think one can see the appeal of this doctrine. If God does not exist, there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, I can do as I please. Whoopie! Cue the Jazz Age!

More or less literally, all hell broke loose.

Now of course, it looks rather reactionary, rather hindwards-looking, to suggest that we have been on the wrong course for the past century. Heck, that makes me a Victorian. I am, for example, quite explicitly, calling for the abandonment of all “social science.” Sorry about that. I do not think the Victorian times were a golden age. Their overconfidence in the perfectability of man and society largely led to this. But I submit that some such backtracking is necessary and progressive in the true sense: there is nothing discreditable in pulling your finger out of an electrical socket. Since we went off on this Modernist path, we have actually lost all confidence of social or cultural progress. We now imagine that all of civilization has been a mistake, the past ten thousand years or so, and the feral Na'vi and their real-life hunter-gatherer counterparts are the folks who had it right.

Damned inconvenient that they so often have such unfortunate habits as slavery, infanticide, cannibalism, and constant war.

Is this only a problem of “Western civilization”? It appears not. Eastern Europe and Japan seem at least as subject to suicides and “mental illness”; one suspects China is too. Africa, the Muslim world, and perhaps India may have held out somewhat better so far, but they also seem to be undergoing a major trauma on this point. The fight against modernism is a useful prism through which to understand the rise of “Islamism,” for example.

The objection to modernism is not, note, an objection to science. Quite the reverse. The scientific claims of Marx and Freud have long ago been exploded; nobody who believes in science should have anything more to do with their ideas. Einstein, in turn, right or wrong, was simply misinterpreted by the social and cultural relativists. Darwin alone seems problematic—that debate is too complex to dive into here.

But there is a broader point. What we call science is fundamentally based on observation—in other words, what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The human soul, by definition, cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, and neither can God. The application of scientific method to the human realm or to the divine, therefore, is exactly as nonsensical as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Nor does the fact that science can tell us nothing useful about the human soul or the meaning of life mean that there is no human soul and no meaning to life—any more than trying to hammer in a nail with a knitting needle, and failing, proves there is no way to hammer in a nail. Yet that is the silly Scylla and Charybdis we have caught ourselves in.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How Gingrich Could Still Win...

Mitt Romney's achievement in winning the first two primary season contests is historic. But, as noted previouosly in this space, the rules this year have changed: few states are now winner-take-all. That means a strong early showing is not prohibitive to others any longer.

As others drop out, the anybody-but-Mitt faction--which seems to be about 75% of the Republican Party electorate--will inevitably coalesce around one candidate, and there may well still be enough delegates in play at that point to keep it interesting. In addition, oddly, Romney has not yet really faced the scrutiny and attacks others have. Now that he is beginning to, he may see the same drop in the polls as they. Takes about two weeks for this to have an effect. That two week lag takes us to about the time of the South Carolina primary.

Now, who is best placed to last long enough to benefit from this possibility? Santorum has the benefit of his strong showing in Iowa, but he did not do nearly as well in NH; so the momentum may be lost. One of today's headlines has him "crashing to earth in New Hampshire." And his campaign has always looked short of money. Perry reputedly has money, but his showing in both Iowa and NH has been dismal. Texas must be beckoning. Paul has a natural ceiling on his support; he cannot be an ABRomney champion. The same could be said of Huntsman--he can do rather well in an open primary like NH, where Democrats can vote for their favourite Republican, but he has been running to Romney's left, and that has turned out--to my own surprise--to be a very shallow pool in the Republican party this time around. In SC polls, he currently runs somewhere behind Steve Colbert. That leaves Gingrich. He at least seems to be picking up steam now instead of losing it--beat everyone else on the solid right in the NH vote, edging out Santorum. He will have the same advantage in South Carolina, of coming from the next state, that Romney had in NH.And he has just had a major new infusion of cash from a wealthy backer, apparently.

Imagine a win for Newt in South Carolina that surprises the pundits enough to become a big news item, like Hilary's win in NH last time, or McCain's. Things could then change. And the latest polling shows him only four points behind.

Imagine further that a relatively poor showing there forces Perry and Huntsman out of the race.

As they say, a week is a long time in politics.

Full disclosure: I personally want Newt Gingrich to win. Why? Because he is such an interesting character. I would love to hear what he has to say over the next four years.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


Conventional wisdom about Iowa's caucuses is that they winnow the field: "Two tickets out of Iowa." But there is no reason why this should any longer be so. The rules have changed--primaries and caucuses are no longer "winner take all." This reduces a considerable advantage held by front-runners. Those in the back of the pack can now hang in longer before the mathematics eliminates them, hoping for a stumble or a surge. And the rapidity with which messages now get out makes late surges and stumbles that much more likely. A brokered convention also becomes more of a possibility, meaning it might pay to stay in the race in order to wield influence.

The only question is whether the candidates understand this. If they do, they will probably hang in there.