Voyou Désœuvré

There's something horribly trivializing about the phrase "baby Jesus." I rather like Taylor Swift’s version of “Last Christmas,” though the rest of her Christmas album is less good, particularly “Christmas Must Be Something More,” which is very Christian in a way I find kind of unappealing. This isn’t just because of my general bias in favor of a secular Christmas; there’s something unpalatable about Swift’s attempt to advance a Christian theme in a modern idiom that lacks any kind of theological weight, and so is forced to rely on mere earnestness. This is actually an instance of a more general problem I have with Christianity, which is, as historically fascinating as I find it to be, on some level, I just don’t believe in it. I don’t mean that I don’t accept the religious tenets of Christianity (although I don’t); rather, I doubt Christianity’s empirical existence: I find it much easier to imagine that all those people who today say they are Christians are just somehow confused, than to imagine that they really believe what they say they do.

Of course, this limitation of my imagination has little bearing on the actual state of the world, but I was reminded of my emphasis on the historicity of Christianity by a post condemning Reverend Tim Jones’s recent sermon justifying shoplifting in cases of extreme necessity (via). Read more↴

I think I may have been living in California too long, partly because I found myself saying “thank-you so much” to somebody the other day, and also because I was surprised yesterday when, on landing in London, the pilot wished everyone on the plane “Merry Christmas,” rather than some more generic holiday greeting. But of course this was a British pilot, who thus adopted the British form of secularism, which consists in removing the Christian content from nominally religious institutions while maintaining the form. People sometimes remark that it’s paradoxical that the officially secular US is a more religious country than the officially religious UK, but it’s not a paradox at all. As Marx pointed out in On the Jewish Question, when the state defines itself as secular, it does so by presuming a religious civil society against which to contrast itself; the secular state depends on and promotes religion in the private sphere. A better approach for unbelievers is to, well, simply not believe, an approach exemplified by the Christmas of Noddy Holder, mince pies, and public holidays; the nominal origin of these events in religion is irrelevant to their actual content.

All of which is to say, I hope you all have a good communist christmas.

Merry communist christmas

More on Michael Reiss and creationism. Some of the comments at Crooked Timber are interesting in their unargued assumption that the point of science lessons is to get students to believe certain things. I know it’s annoying when people use the “aah, the scientists are the real religionists” line, but it’s tempting in this case. But obviously one ought to figure out what is similar and what is different between science and religion. Reiss took some heat for calling creationism a “world-view,” but it is, in that it’s connected with a general method of making sense of the world, as science is, and it’s not at all obvious how these different methods could connect with one another. However, while modern science and certain religious positions might both be world-views, there’s still a difference of kind between the two. Read more↴

There’s been an absolutely absurd response to Michael Reiss’s eminently sensible suggestion that science teachers could use discussions of creationism to talk about the difference between science and non-science. Reiss said:

If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

In response to which the New Scientist compared him to Sarah Palin, and a couple of Nobel laureates are calling for him to be sacked from his position as education director of the Royal Society. And of course Dawkins got involved.

I initially posted this just because I thought it was amusingly stupid. But now I think there may be something a bit more pernicious going on. A number of people objecting to Reiss have said things like “teach creation in religious studies,” or “keep it in philosophy class” (see e.g. the comments on that New Scientist blog post). What’s wrong about this is the suggestion that philosophy of science, or the question of the nature and bounds of science, is irrelevant to science itself. This is a problem because it implies a belief that a scientific worldview is somehow obvious, rather than a particular way of thinking that took a long time and a lot of trouble to develop.

A couple of quotes I happened to stumble across:

The attitude of the General Council in regard to the “Religious Idea” is clearly shown by the following incident: — One of the Swiss branches of the Alliance, founded by Michael Bakunin, and calling itself Section des athées Socialistes, requested its admission to the International from the General Council, but got the reply: “Already in the case of the Young Men’s Christian Association the Council has declared that it recognizes no theological sections” (Mr. George Howell’s History of the International Working-Men’s Association).

Which is interesting a) because I never realized the YMCA tried to join the First International (presumably we can now claim the Village People song as a communist anthem) and b) because the First International rejected a group for being explicitly atheist, which sheds some interesting light on debates about whether Marx was a secularist. Also:

We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror. But the royal terrorists, the terrorists by the grace of God and the law, are in practice brutal, disdainful, and mean, in theory cowardly, secretive, and deceitful, and in both respects disreputable (“Suppression of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung).

Which is presumably the source of Negri’s celebrated line “No pity for our enemies.”

Dinosaur in church John Gray in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago joined the trend of writing kind of stupidly about religion and secularism. Gray rather wants to have his cake and eat it, arguing that secularism is based on religion and, anyway, secularism is worse than religion. Now, the first  half of this argument is true; contemporary western secularism really does draw a lot on early Christian arguments against paganism, reformation arguments against Catholicism, and enlightenment arguments against a personal God, which is a tradition of ideas central to Christianity. But true as this is, it doesn’t constitute the knockdown argument against secularism that Gray seems to think it does. On the contrary, secularism’s relationship to religion is no argument against secularism at all. Read more↴