The Struggle to Stay Human Amid the Fight

World War I and the adversarial mentality.

It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.

Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.

Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.

As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.

The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.

.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.

Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.

The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.

George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.

.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.

Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.

The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction

For those of us who pay close attention in Sunday school, a troubling dissimilarity may begin to appear between what we are told of God’s personality and what we learn of it from His actions. For example, we are told that God is merciful, just, compassionate, and the very definition of love and forgiveness. However, the Bible lays out God’s primary qualities very differently: he is jealous, petty, unforgiving, bloodthirsty, vindictive, and worse! Originally conceived as a joint presentation between influential thinker and bestselling author Richard Dawkins and former evangelical preacher Dan Barker, the book we will be talking about today, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling, 2016) provides an investigation into this rather serious discrepancy. Barker combs through both the Old and New Testament (as well as thirteen different Bible editions), presenting powerful evidence for why the Scripture shouldn’t govern our everyday lives.

Dan Barker is a former evangelical minister and current atheist. He is the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cohost of Freethought Radio, and cofounder and board member of the Clergy Project. A widely sought-after lecturer, debater, and performer, he regularly discusses atheism and lifes meaning and purpose in the national media, with past appearances on OprahThe Daily ShowThe O’Reilly FactorGood Morning America, and many others. He is here with me today to talk about this witty, well-researched book and explain to us how the evidence in it suggests that we should move past the Bible and clear a path to a kinder and more thoughtful world.

Weak Men are SuperWeapons

Alice said something along the lines of “I hate people who frivolously diagnose themselves with autism without knowing anything about the disorder. They should stop thinking they’re ‘so speshul’ and go see a competent doctor.”

Beth answered something along the lines of “I diagnosed myself with autism, but only after a lot of careful research. I don’t have the opportunity to go see a doctor. I think what you’re saying is overly strict and hurtful to many people with autism.”

.. First, why did Beth take the bait? Alice said she hated people who frivolously self-diagnosed without knowing anything about the disorder. Beth clearly was not such a person. Why didn’t she just say “Yes, please continue hating these hypothetical bad people who are not me”?

.. Second, why did Alice take the bait? Why didn’t she just say “I think you’ll find I wasn’t talking about you?”

.. One of the cutting-edge advances in fallacy-ology has been the weak man, a terribly-named cousin of the straw man. The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.

.. For example, “I am a proud atheist and I don’t like religion. Think of the terrible things done by religion, like the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. They try to disturb the funerals of heroes because they think God hates everybody. But this is horrible. Religious people can’t justify why they do things like this. That’s why I’m proud to be an atheist.”

It’s not a straw man. There really is a Westboro Baptist Church, for some reason. But one still feels like the atheist is making things just a little too easy on himself.

Maybe the problem is that the atheist is indirectly suggesting that Westboro Baptist Church is typical of religion? An implied falsehood?

.. On the other side of the world, a religious person is writing “I hate atheists who think morality is relative, and that this gives them the right to murder however many people stand between them and a world where no one is allowed to believe in God”.

Again, not a straw man. The Soviet Union contained several million of these people. But if you’re an atheist, would you just let this pass?

How about “I hate black thugs who rob people”?

What are the chances a black guy reads that and says “Well, good thing I’m not a thug who robs people, he’ll probably love me”?

.. What is the problem with statements like this?

First, they are meant to re-center a category. Remember, people think in terms of categories with central and noncentral members – a sparrow is a central bird, an ostrich a noncentral one. But if you live on the Ostrich World, which is inhabited only by ostriches, emus, and cassowaries, then probably an ostrich seems like a pretty central example of ‘bird’ and the first sparrow you see will be fantastically strange.

.. Right now most people’s central examples of religion are probably things like your local neighborhood church. If you’re American, it’s probably a bland Protestant denomination like the Episcopalians or something.

.. The guy whose central examples of religion are Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama is probably going to have a different perception of religion than the guy whose central examples are Torquemada and Fred Phelps.

.. if you convert a culture from thinking in the first type of way to thinking in the second type of way, then religious people will be unpopular and anyone trying to make a religious argument will have to spend the first five minutes of their speech explaining how they’re not Fred Phelps, honest, and no, they don’t picket any funerals. After all that time spent apologizing and defending themselves and distancing themselves from other religious people, they’re not likely to be able to make a very rousing argument for religion.

.. In Cowpox of Doubt, I mention the inoculation effect. When people see a terrible argument for an idea get defeated, they are more likely to doubt the idea later on, even if much better arguments show up.

Put this in the context of people attacking the Westboro Baptist Church. You see the attacker win a big victory over “religion”, broadly defined. Now you are less likely to believe in religion when a much more convincing one comes along.

I see the same thing in atheists’ odd fascination with creationism. Most of the religious people one encounters are not young-earth creationists. But these people have a dramatic hold on the atheist imagination.

And I think: well, maybe if people see atheists defeating a terrible argument for religion enough, atheists don’t have to defeat any of the others. People have already been inoculated against religion. “Oh, yeah, that was the thing with the creationism. Doesn’t seem very smart.”

If this is true, it means that all religious people, like it or not, are in the same boat. An atheist attacking creationism becomes a deadly threat for the average Christian, even if that Christian does not herself believe in creationism.

Likewise, when a religious person attacks atheists who are moral relativists, or communists, or murderers, then all atheists have to band together to stop it somehow or they will have successfully poisoned people against atheism.

.. I suggested imagining yourself in the shoes of a Jew in czarist Russia. The big news story is about a Jewish man who killed a Christian child. As far as you can tell the story is true. It’s just disappointing that everyone who tells it is describing it as “A Jew killed a Christian kid today”. You don’t want to make a big deal over this, because no one is saying anything objectionable like “And so all Jews are evil”. Besides you’d hate to inject identity politics into this obvious tragedy. It just sort of makes you uncomfortable.

The next day you hear that the local priest is giving a sermon on how the Jews killed Christ. This statement seems historically plausible, and it’s part of the Christian religion, and no one is implying it says anything about the Jews today. You’d hate to be the guy who barges in and tries to tell the Christians what Biblical facts they can and can’t include in their sermons just because they offend you. It would make you an annoying busybody. So again you just get uncomfortable.

.. The next day you hear people complain about the greedy Jewish bankers who are ruining the world economy. And really a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish, and bankers really do seem to be the source of a lot of economic problems. It seems kind of pedantic to interrupt every conversation with “But also some bankers are Christian, or Muslim, and even though a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish that doesn’t mean the Jewish bankers are disproportionately active in ruining the world economy compared to their numbers.” So again you stay uncomfortable.

.. Then the next day you get in a business dispute with your neighbor. Maybe you loaned him some money and he doesn’t feel like paying you back. He tells you you’d better just give up, admit he is in the right, and apologize to him – because if the conflict escalated everyone would take his side because he is a Christian and you are a Jew. And everyone knows that Jews victimize Christians and are basically child-murdering Christ-killing economy-ruining atrocity-committing scum.

You have been boxed in by a serious of individually harmless but collectively dangerous statements. None of them individually referred to you – you weren’t murdering children or killing Christ or owning a bank. But they ended up getting you in the end anyway.

.. I wrote the superweapon post to address some of my worries about feminism, so it would not be surprising at all if we found this dynamic there.

.. Thus, a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro and religious people who don’t support them.

.. Instead of identifying as a liberal and getting upset when someone insulted liberals or happy when someone praised liberals, I should say “These are my beliefs. There are other people who believe approximately the same thing, but the differences are sufficient that I just want to be judged on my own individual beliefs alone.”

.. It’s not my decision whether or not I get to identify with other liberals or not. If other people think of me as a liberal, then anything other liberals do is going to reflect, positively or negatively, on me. And I’m going to have to join in the fight to keep liberals from being completely discredited, or else the fact that I didn’t share any of the opinions they were discredited for isn’t going to save me. I will be Worst Argument In The World-ed and swiftly dispatched.

.. In the example we started with, Beth chose to stand up for the people who self-diagnosed autism without careful research. This wasn’t because she considered herself a member of that category. It was because she decided that self-diagnosed autistics were going to stand or fall as a group, and if Alice succeeded in pushing her “We should dislike careless self-diagnosees” angle, then the fact that she wasn’t careless wouldn’t save her.

 

Christians, Take The Alt-Right Seriously

the alt-right appealed to the young men — all of whom are white, conservative, and Evangelical — because it’s daring, and because the spirituality of megachurch Evangelicalism (in the kid’s view) is insipid. There was nothing much to inspire or to hold them. The alt-right fake “gospel” offered them an easy explanation of why they felt alienated and powerless, provided them with an enemy, and stoked their rage.

..It is anti-Christian, and it has strong arguments to make — not “strong” in the sense of “persuasive” (Rose is very much against the alt-right), but not arguments that can be easily dismissed with cries of “bigotbigotbigot!”

.. The alt-right is not stupid. It is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous. They are serious. To appreciate this fact, one needs to inquire beyond its presence on social media, where its obnoxious use of insult, obscenity, and racism has earned it a reputation for moral idiocy. The reputation is deserved, but do not be deceived. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of genuine power and expanding appeal. As political scientist George Hawley conceded in a recent study, “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”

.. The alt-right is anti-Christian. Not by implication or insinuation, but by confession. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.”

..“Like acid, Christianity burns through ties of kinship and blood,” writes Gregory Hood, one of the website’s most talented essayists. It is “the essential religious step in paving the way for decadent modernity and its toxic creeds.”

.. Alt-right thinkers are overwhelmingly atheists, but their worldview is not rooted in the secular Enlightenment, nor is it irreligious. Far from it. Read deeply in their sources—and make no mistake, the alt-right has an intellectual tradition—and you will discover a movement that takes Christian thought and culture seriously. It is a conflicted tribute paid to their chief adversary. Against Christianity it makes two related charges.

Beginning with the claim that Europe effectively created Christianity—not the other way around—it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West. A major work of alt-right history opens with a widely echoed claim: “The introduction of Christianity has to count as the single greatest ideological catastrophe to ever strike Europe.”

.. Nietzsche got there first, of course — and he was not wrong about Christianity being a religion that exalts the meek.

.. Oswald Spengler’s Decline Of The West as a foundational text of the alt-right:

If Spengler’s theology is tendentious, his portrait of Western identity is deceptively powerful. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”

.. The juxtaposition was comic, just as it is comic to think about an obese, slovenly white guy vaping in front of his TV wearing a t-shirt sporting an image of, I dunno, Charlemagne, and a slogan claiming to be part of his lineage.

.. someone who is poor and at the bottom of the social hierarchy would find it consoling to identify with a hero — specifically, a racialized hero

.. There is no better introduction to alt-right theory than [Alain de Benoist’s] 1981 work On Being a Pagan. Its tone is serene, but its message is militant. Benoist argues that the West must choose between two warring visions of human life:

  1. biblical monotheism and
  2. paganism.

Benoist is a modern-day Celsus. Like his second-century predecessor, he writes to reawaken Europeans to their ancient faith. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.” Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal. “Man shares in the divine every time he surpasses himself,” Benoist writes, “every time he attains the boundaries of his best and strongest aspects.”

.. Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient.

..  He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead. 

Paganism does not reproach Christianity for defending the weak,” he explains. “It reproaches [Christianity] for exalting them in their weakness and viewing it as a sign of their election and their title to glory.”

.. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures. Under Christianity, the West lives under a kind of double imprisonment. It exists under the power of a foreign religion and an alien deity. Christianity is not our religion. It thereby foments “nihilism.”

.. its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.”

.. Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.

.. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.” Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own.

.. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains. “It’s not like other religions that come out of a folk spirit.

.. invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging.

.. The alt-right is anti-Christian. But you cannot effectively fight the alt-right with progressive pieties and outrage. Nor can you effectively resist it with conventional conservative pieties, ones that do not address the crises that the alt-right is responding to

.. Richard Spencer is evil, but he is not stupid.

.. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large.

.. Conventional conservatism is doing nothing, or nothing effective, to resist this tyranny. Do you know who does stand up to it, unapologetically? The alt-right. Andrew Sullivan’s piece is not about the alt-right, but I see both him and Matthew Rose sounding a very similar alarm. Pay attention; this is serious.

.. You too, conventional liberals: your own acceptance and promotion of illiberal, racialist ideology under the guise of “social justice” is calling up these demons on the Right. The best way you can fight the alt-right is to fight the SJWs, whose militancy, and whose effective militancy, can only make the alt-right stronger.