“An Idiot’s Guide to Evolution”

Over at the First Things website, Stephen H. Webb reviews David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone. Here are his concluding paragraphs:

A thoughtful response to Wilson might be that he has strayed from his intellectual niche, but there is another way of looking at his discussion of religion. Perhaps Wilson’s ambition, which lies at the heart of Darwinism, has inadvertently demonstrated how empty evolution is. If it is this trivial when applied outside biology, why would we non-biologists imagine that it is deeper when it is restricted to biology? One cannot help but suspect that if evolutionary theory looks absurd, simplistic, and circular when applied to something as complex as religion, then it might look the same way when applied to biological organisms.

We can put this point in a syllogistic form for the sake of convenience and handy usage. If evolution is true about everything, then we are doomed to live in a world without truth, beauty, and goodness. If we are not doomed, then evolution is not true about everything. And if evolution is not true about everything, then there is good reason to think that it is not true about anything.

Read the whole thing.


Are American Christians Fascists?

In a new book, American Fascists, Chris Hedges argues that conservative Christians are. The fascist charge is both cliched and easily refuted. How easily? Read Ryan T. Anderson’s post about Hedges at First Thing‘s blog. Here are the money paragraphs:

What really animates Hedges’ anger at religious conservatives, however, is their recent political power and success on the state level at banning same-sex marriage—an issue that has been central to Hedges since his father made him start a gay-rights group at college. According to Hedges, the religious right demonizes homosexuals: “Gays and lesbians, like other enemies of Christ, are not fully human.”

The truth, of course, is that Hedges is the one who is in the business of demonizing. How open is Hedges’ “open society” if it excludes evangelicals, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and faithful Catholics from political debate? He protests, at one point, that “democracy keeps religious faith in the private sphere.” Yet, a mere seven pages, later he praises the “acts of faith” of Cardinal Mahoney, the archbishop of Los Angeles, for his stand on immigration, Al Gore on global warming, and select “clergy and rabbis” on gay rights.

In fact, Hedges isn’t opposed to the presence of faith in politics. Faith and politics can meet—if they’re Chris Hedges’ faith and Chris Hedges’ politics. This isn’t surprising, given Hedges’ admission of his own intolerance toward his opponents. As he sees it, “there arise moments when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated.” That moment is now, and those people are the religious right—who for Hedges “have no religious legitimacy.” His contempt is clear: “Debate with the radical Religious Right is useless. . . . It cares nothing for rational thought and discussion.”

American Fascists? Hardly!

AmericanFascists.jpgI am a denizen of bookstores. One of the first things I did when I moved to my new church was to figure out where Barnes & Noble and Borders were. I go there as often as possible, usually just to browse. (I like to look at the book in a store, then order it online, where it’s much cheaper.)

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a spike in books about the impending threat of theocracy in America. Many writers loathe–abominate, even–the influence of conservative Christians in American politics, especially the Republican party. I’ve skimmed a few of these books at the bookstore, and from what I’ve read in them, they’re not that convincing. I know many conservative Christians, including a few influential ones, but I don’t know a single one who advocates theocracy. Perhaps they’re out there somewhere, but they’re hardly an impending threat to the American way of life. In my opinion, there’s a greater chance of our government becoming a communist dictatorship than a theocracy, and there’s zero chance of the former happening, so you do the math on the latter.

Anyway, while in the bookstore the other day, I came across Chris Hedges’ new book, ridiculously titled, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I almost bought the book, but when I started reading it, I found its first chapter so arrogant in tone and overwrought in sentiment, that I put it down and walked away. Anthony Dick read the whole thing, however, and posted a review online here. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

But of course, this is nothing new. All this dire talk about the ascendancy of theocracy and fascism in America is not Hedges’s invention. It’s an echoing old banality that has grown dull and tired with age, but has nonetheless been getting louder lately. Surely there is some explanation for this odd feature of the Left, so mindless and angry and eager to smear religious conservatives as aspirant theocrats.

Part of the obsession can be understood in terms of intellectual reassurance. Either because they legitimately can’t understand how any clear-headed person could disagree with them, or because they hunger to feel more secure about their own political beliefs, many on the left are anxious to dismiss their ideological opponents as irrational fanatics who have been seduced by superstition and power-lust. It has long been standard practice for liberals to say that their politics merely reflect objective rationality, so that only an ideologue could disagree with them.

This is evident in Hedges’s book when, in his typically measured tone, he says that traditional evangelicals are fighting “to crush and silence the reality-based world.” As it turns out, of course, “the reality-based world” is exactly that which conforms to the progressive social and political arrangements that Hedges favors. Because fundamentalist Christians focus so much on the afterlife, he says, their worldly politics are hopelessly irresponsible: “These believers can ignore their own social responsibility for inadequate inner-city schools, for the 18 percent of American children who don’t get enough to eat each day, for the homeless, for the mentally ill. They accept the curtailing of federal assistance programs and turn inward, assisting only within their exclusive Christian community and damning the world outside.”

In the first place, this claim about “damning the world outside” is flatly false. In fact, conservative Christians are among the most generous people in America today: Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks just released a book reporting that conservatives give 30 percent more than liberals to charity, and religious believers are 57 percent more likely than secularists to help the homeless.

Putting that inaccuracy aside, it is revealing that Hedges here characterizes opposition to “federal assistance programs” as being motivated primarily by fundamentalist religious impulses. Indeed, throughout his book, he consistently caricatures conservative ideas as the loopy offshoots of a fanatical religious movement, and thus avoids engaging them seriously. He utterly ignores the fact that there are compelling secular arguments for conservative positions on practically every major political issue today — gay marriage, stem-cell research, abortion, foreign policy, education, Social Security, etc. Rather than deal with these arguments, he chooses to stamp his foot and yell “Fascists!”

Perhaps this is why Hedges misses the obvious truth that no significant part of the conservative movement, much less the Republican party, has any active political interest in establishing a fascist state that would overturn American democracy or curtail basic individual freedoms. Maybe he, like so many other liberals, just does not want to confront the prospect that some people could be intelligent, well-intentioned, rational, and even non-religious, and still fundamentally disagree with progressive political views. The problem of conservatism becomes much less tractable for liberals if they admit that it is not a type of crypto-Nazism, or a disease resulting from some intellectual or emotional deficiency. And so we have these absurd little books being published that tell vicious lies about entire swaths of the American public, and, in the process, make fools of their authors.


Review of Books on Evangelical Youth

Check out Naomi Schaeffer Riley's review of two books on the evangelical youth movement in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The books are Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement by Lauren Sandler and Body Piercing Saved My Life by Andrew Beaujon. She pans the former but praises the latter.

The Forgotten Founder

Although nearly forgotten today, John Witherspoon was a force to be reckoned with in America’s revolutionary period. He was a Presbyterian theologian, president of Princeton College, and the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. For a brief refresher course on the life and thought of Witherspoon, read “The Forgotten Founder” by Roger Kimball.

Here’s the closing paragraph:

For us looking back on the generation of the Founders, it is easy to deprecate the religious inheritance that, for many of them, formed the ground of their commitment to political liberty. Theological skeptics and even atheists there were aplenty in late eighteenth-century America. But for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible. Witherspoon believed that religion was “absolutely essential to the existence and welfare of every political combination of men in society.” Madison agreed. As did even the more skeptical Washington, who in his Farewell Address observed that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.” For many, perhaps most, of the Founders, Morrison observes, the chain of reasoning ran thus: “no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion.” John Witherspoon did as much as anyone to nurture that understanding. Which is perhaps yet another reason he is less known today than other figures from the period. Whether that is a sign of our maturity and sophistication or only, as Witherspoon might put it, our pride and natural depravity is a question we might do well ponder.

“Explaining Hitler” by Ron Rosenbaum

explaininghitler.jpgI just finished re-reading Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. Originally published in 1998, the book is a meditation on “the search for the origins of [Hitler’s] evil,” as the subtitle puts it. As the book unfolds, Rosenbaum interviews in person or interacts with the writings of nearly every prominent Hitler explainer of the post-war period, from Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock to Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. As he does so, he critically interacts with the major explanations of Hitler’s evil: that it was the byproduct of genital malformation, sexual perversion, psychological projection, abstract historical forces, or Hitler’s own intention and agency. The last five chapters, in this regard, have revealing titles. Too many Hitler explainers, it seems, are apt to blame God, the Jews themselves, Christians, or Germans for Hitler’s evil–rather than Hitler himself. Here are Rosenbaum’s concluding paragraphs:

[Milton] Himmelfarb almost seems to be saying that it is, in fact, the culmination of a truer sophistication to be able to hate Hitler, a sophistication that doesn’t fall prey to the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation as exculpation, of explanation as abstraction away from Hitler’s personal agency. Hatred as not that which one starts with, rather as something one ends up with: the product of a deeper understanding. A less inflammatory word than “hatred” might be “resistance.” It’s the world Emil Fackenheim used when he described the “double move” one must make in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also to resist explanation.

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist the misleading exculpatory corollaries of explanation. To resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate, by shifting responsibility from him to faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistible compulsions that gave him no choice or made his choice irrelevant. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of a last laugh.

Alexander Chase said, “To understand is to forgive.” Perhaps this is sometimes true. (Chase added “even oneself” to his apercus.) But not in the case of Hitler. Not in the face of such evil.