Bigotry is not confined to the religious or the right wing

13 Sep

AV has made a kind and much appreciated allusion to this blog’s recent travails. However, when he attributes the event to right-wing authoritarianism he is not entirely correct; certainly an authoritarian cast of mind and an antidemocratic spirit are involved. However, the source of the attack was not necessarily motivated by conventional right-wing politics, and certainly not by religion. On the other hand, excessive certainty and intolerance of criticism or difference were part of the picture. In those respects, the spirit of the attack was indeed, as AV notes, antidemocratic.

I can say that it is fairly certain where the attack came from, and what motivated it — the attacker’s problem, that, not mine. The attacker as good as left DNA all over the scene of the crime. In attacking me he also attacked, and I am sure they are not taking it kindly. They are also far more expert in these matters than either the attacker or I. It did amuse me to witness a log file from the time of these events which included a suggestion, obviously emanating from WordPress, that the hacker apply for a job with AutoMattic — the company behind WordPress. I take it that was ironic…

That brings me to two articles and a book which, it seems to me, are the antithesis of bigotry, whether that is religious or antireligious bigotry. I am not saying I agree with them, but I do say they are worth reading. The book is one of my Best Reads of 2008.

My theism is of the most modest kind and would deeply offend fundamentalists. I am thus a great admirer of the former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, “a man who, for many conservative Christians, has stretched the definition of liberal theology past breaking point, while remaining for many non-believers the most humane and persuasive apologist for faith.” That comes from a review just published in New Statesman: Doubting Dawkins. Rather than quoting it further, I will simply commend it to your consideration. Holloway’s emphasis on the primacy of compassion does appeal to me.

The second article is from the USA and does raise some interesting questions: Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican? from Again, while not necessarily endorsing all that Haidt says, I do commend it as worth consideration.

…This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like “it’s wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick” or “it’s wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet.” These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. (“Your dog is family, and you just don’t eat family.”) From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder’s ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?…

The book is John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now (Harper San Francisco 2007). You may read the Preface on that second link.

For a very long time I have been pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire. Initially, I did so as a biblical scholar doing research for books I was writing on the historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity from The Historical Jesus in 1991, through The Birth of Christianity in 1998, to In Search of Paul, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of LaVerne, in 2004. I presume those three books as prelude and preparation for this book on God and Empire.

I have always thought of the historical Jesus as a homeland Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. I have always thought of the historical Paul as a diaspora Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. For me, then, within Judaism within the Roman Empire has always been the absolutely necessary matrix rather than the annoyingly unnecessary background for any discussion of earliest Christianity. You can see that three-layer matrix, for example, in the sub-titles to the first and last books above. For the historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, emphasizes Rome,  Judaism, and Jew.   For the historical Paul, How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, emphasizes Jew, Rome, and Judaism. Whether you start or end with the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire is always there.

But there is now a further reason for studying the textual and archaeological history of the Roman Empire. Here is that newer but now accompanying reason. I have been hearing recently two rather insistent claims from across the spectrum of our religio-political life. The first one claims that America is now and/or was always an empire. That, in fact, the virus of imperialism came—like so many other ones—on those first ships from Europe. The second and subsidiary one claims that we are in fact Nova Roma, the New Roman Empire, Rome on the Potomac…

— from the Preface

Certainly the opening chapter is a brilliant exposition of the nature of Rome under the Julio-Claudians, a subject I have studied both at University, and as a sometime Ancient History teacher. Many of the remarks about contemporary America are also apposite. It is also good to find a very learned man who writes like a human!

That said, I am not entirely convinced by all that Crossan says. Yes, he does get up the noses of fundamentalists — and as far as I am concerned that is a big plus. (A Muslim Crossan — and I am sure this is possible and may even exist — would be highly desirable.) I also have to say that the agnostic side of my humble theism is offended by the unspoken assumption that the Mediterranean really is the centre of the world, as the Roman conceit of Medi + Terranean implies. A similar conceit made China, about which Europe and Palestine in the first century knew little and cared less, call itself Zhong Guo or Middle Kingdom. In all our historical and religious considerations, we need above all in the 21st century to take that fact on board. It is an uncomfortable consideration. It does not impact one way or another on our ideas about the existence of God, whatever that word actually means; but it does impact on our views about what God is alleged to have said or done. Inevitably, I would have thought.


My traditional “Saturday Stats” will appear on Blogspot.


7 responses to “Bigotry is not confined to the religious or the right wing

  1. AV

    September 13, 2008 at 9:01 am

    However, when he attributes the event to right-wing authoritarianism he is not entirely correct; certainly an authoritarian cast of mind and an antidemocratic spirit are involved.

    Neil, have a look at this post. I’m using the term right wing authoritarianism in the sense in which it is used by Bob Altemeyer, who argues that being psychologically high RWA does not automatically mean that one will have right-wing political views.

  2. Neil

    September 13, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Fair enough, AV. However, it was easy to misinterpret what you said without that context. You will gather that I did appreciate your recent post, and you will have also understood the point I am making about the authoritarian mindset, on which I believe we agree entirely.

  3. AV

    September 13, 2008 at 11:16 am

    You will gather that I did appreciate your recent post, and you will have also understood the point I am making about the authoritarian mindset, on which I believe we agree entirely.

    Indeed we do.

  4. Bruce

    September 14, 2008 at 3:00 am

    Indeed we do.

    I’ll add my voice to that choir as well.

    All the same, I’m a little concerned from the review of Richard Holloway’s book though. The whole “neo-atheist” thing, with attributions in general to “neo-atheists” through caricatures of Dawkins and Hitchens, smacks of scaremongering.

    While I don’t think Dawkins a bigot (rather a bit naive about matters of language and a few other things) and that Hitchens is (and I don’t think much of Sam Harris while we are on the topic), one can’t use them as representative of atheists. Indeed, there is enough disagreement amongst those popularly identified as “neo-atheists” for Dawkins and Hitchens to be unrepresentative in that small and supposedly similar-minded group.

    If SJ Gould were still alive, he’d be one of those New Atheists, yet I gather their differences (there were many) wouldn’t be focused on in order not to challenge the “neo-atheist” myth. Daniel Dennett, who has been identified commonly as one of the “neo-atheists”, certainly has his differences.

    Hitchens on the other hand. Hitchens represents Hitchens. Like the way Dawkins represents Dawkins, only really bloody obviously. I point out Hitchens’ less than stellar performance at a Freedom from Religion Foundation gathering last year, and the strong criticism he received from those in attendance (mostly from atheists outraged by his uber-bigotry).

    PZ Myers (who’s post I’ve just linked to) is known for being a tad cheeky with the criticisms of religion he makes, but if they saw his outrage at Hitchens, I think they would (or should) feel that they have been treated even-handedly.

    I do wish the acrimony of these things died down. Some times it is deserved, but all too often there seems to be a competition for the most creative insult and a reluctance to recognise legitimate criticisms.

    I don’t condemn Holloway. Indeed, I assert nothing at this point as I’ve only read a review. But if it is accurate, I question his seriousness and his ability to play it down the middle.

    This “neo-atheist” thing is just a caricature of atheists that presents a fictional homogeneity, attributes opinions to either a vague atheist population, or to specific atheists where they can be demonstrably be proven false. It serves as a subject of the two-minute hate.

    Take Tina Beattie, who supposedly is a moderate and a part of the Christian Studies crowd at Roehampton University. Her book “The New Atheists”, supposedly “entails a constant plea for mutual understanding and for an end to cheap point-scoring.

    Yet the central thrust of her book is that the New Atheism is just a smokescreen for attempts to erode democracy! It’s like the frigging “Great Global Warming Swindle” conspiracy theory or the Frankfurt School PC-Conspiracy Theory.

    It’s no too far off of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion! Evil Jewish atheist elites come to take your rights away!

    Just because it can be voices in a gentle manner, doesn’t make it any less bigoted or indeed, insane.

    I know that the religious aren’t universally bigoted nor do they have a monopoly on bigotry. I wouldn’t however, use thinly veiled crypto-bigots like Beattie (or Madeleine Bunting for that matter) as examples of the best in religion (if only because my religious friends deserve far better representation.)

    I really hope that the review is wrong and that the “new atheists” was a part of the reviewers vocab, as well as the blatant mis-attributions. Even if not, I suspect (based on my lack of evidence to the contrary) that Holloway is playing the role of patsy.

    Like some gullible, but good-intentioned bumpkin from rural WWII England who has been passed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by a friendly face. Even so, I wouldn’t leave things as precious as peace and compassion in the hands of such a bumpkin, no more than I’d leave responsibility for a nuclear reactor in the hands of an earwig.

    If Holloway really does care about compassion and getting along, and if he really has gone down this “new atheist” road, he can best serve the aims by making himself the (public) subject of rehabilitation (which he seems candid enough to do), rather than a leader of the tolerant.

    Damn. Didn’t intend it to be so long. Should have posted this as a blog article! Probably will get eaten up by Akismet as well!

    ~ Bruce

  5. Neil

    September 14, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Probably will get eaten up by Akismet as well!

    Not quite, but all the links did cause it to be sent to wait for approval.

    As for Holloway, he really is the least querulous of writers. One way of looking at some of the communication issues, which is I think what they are, that you raise is to realise that what tends to happen is that we all get locked into discourse structures or constellations of language from our field of discourse; this sometimes causes misunderstanding. Holloway’s metier is somewhat poetic rather than scientific, by which I know I no doubt simplify; I am past writing proper linguistics these days. 😉

    You can sample him at greater length — rather than reviews of him — on the Radical Faith site.

    As a matter of interest, it was Robin, a gay scientist in Cambridge, who put me onto Holloway in the first place. The first book of Holloway’s that I read was Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics (Canongate 1999).

    But I do tend to agree on the word neo-atheist; I don’t think they are all that neo; loud, perhaps, in the case of Dawkins and Hitchens. But they really are in a long line going back centuries.

  6. Bruce

    September 14, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics

    Oddly enough, a book I’ve been looking for, for a while. Saw it in Borders, then didn’t, then forgot about it and now I remember!

    Thanks. 😀

%d bloggers like this: