October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2011 § 16 Comments
‘Why talk of morality?’ It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially as I am writing a book on the history of moral thought. Many on the left are uncomfortable with, indeed hostile to, moral arguments. Morality, they insist, is the province of the right. Politics is the true terrain of the left. Engaging in moral debate is, in their eyes, a means of constraining, not of promoting, social change.
It is true that the right often exploit morality as a means of individualizing social issues, a way of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure. But as I have argued before, for instance with respect to the riots earlier this year, ‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’
In his book On Evil Terry Eagleton neatly skewers the anti-moral arguments on the left:
The American Marxist Frederic Jameson writes of ‘the archaic categories of good and evil’. One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are relevant to individual conduct only – in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good… Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues… tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic. In this, ironically, they are at one with the likes of the US Moral Majority. Moralism means regarding moral judgments as existing in a sealed domain of their own, quite distinct from more material matters. This is why some Marxists are uneasy with the whole idea of ethics. It sounds to them like a distraction from history and politics. But this is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, moral inquiry weighs all these factors together. This is as true of Aristotle’s ethics as it is of Hegel’s or Marx’s. Moral thought is not an alternative to political thought. Ethics considers questions of value, virtue, qualities, the nature of human conduct and the like, while politics attends to the institutions which allow such conducts to flourish or be suppressed.
I agree with all of that. And yet the predicament lies deeper than simply the left misunderstanding the relationship between morality and politics. At the root of the problem is the ambiguous place that morality occupies in the modern world, and the way that political and social changes of the past few decades have exacerbated that ambiguity. « Read the rest of this entry »