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March 21, 2017

Plato, St. Ambrose, Marcuse: heralds for our age

Filed under: Culture,philosophy,Tolerance — Razib Khan @ 9:23 pm

It galls me to agree with the proposition that Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, but it is at least fair to admit that Western intellectual thought exists in dialogue with him and his thinking. But the spare and arrogant idealism which Plato and his followers promoted is not entirely alien to the landscape of human cognition. It is not purely invention, but has a basis in intuition. A tendency to abstract, and confuse the abstract with reality, seems hard-wired into our mental architecture. As Paul Bloom would say, we are natural born essentialists (and dualists).

One implication of Platonic idealism seems to be that striving for the perfect form of truth bleeds over into a conceited belief that one’s understanding of the truth is Truth itself. I do not believe that Christianity is necessarily understood only in the light of the mental universe which Plato and his detractors created, but it is hard to deny the Platonic tincture of much of early Christian thought as it diffused throughout the ancient world and began to make converts among the elites. Christian thinking may hinge upon divine revelation, but its theistic illuminations gained rigor and steel via philosophical certitudes.

St. Ambrose was a man of such steel. A scion of the West Roman elite he matured in an era when the heights of society were still religiously pluralistic, with the most eminent and ancient families and men of renown, such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, exhibiting clear pagan sympathies. Or perhaps they might characterize it as a fondness for the customary gods of Rome.

In 382 there was a dispute in Rome over the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. Symmachus entered into the record an apologia for the restoration of the statue. He makes a plea:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for persons at ease, we offer now prayers, not conflict.

St. Ambrose, whose faith was on the march, and the future, did not mince words:

But if you deny Christ to be God, because you believe not that He died (for you are ignorant that death was of the body not of the Godhead, which has brought it to pass that now no one of those who believe dies), what is more thoughtless than you who honour with insult, and disparage with honour, for you consider a piece of wood to be your god. O worship full of insult! You believe not that Christ could die, O perversity founded on respect!

Symmachus asked for tolerance, because that was all his kind could ask for. St. Ambrose and the other militants saw no gain to such tolerance, because they had truth before them, and denying the truth was an insult to all. Tolerance of idolatry and superstition was no tolerance.

In 1965 Herbert Marcuse wrote Repressive Tolerance. He begins:

THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

These ideas find relevance today, where one descendent of Critical Theory has transformed dissent and offense into violence, and so justifies suppression of disagreeable thought. St. Ambrose would have used different logic because of a differing metaphysical basis, but I believe the psychological impulses are not so different. Tolerance of error is problematic when that error leads to injustice, impiety, and diminishes the “good society,” however it is imagined.

There are those who believe that they know the Truth. Plato and his acolytes had their conceit as philosopher kings. St. Ambrose and his fellow believers had divine revelation, and were seeking to bring all those in the darkness who disagreed with their views to the light. Following St. Augustine the pre-modern Catholic Church asserted that “error has no rights”.

The latest flare up of this sentiment among particular cultural elites, sometimes termed the “regressive Left” (somewhat of a contradiction clearly), is but latest incarnation of this viewpoint. They believe that the time for tolerance is over, as tolerance gives sanction and space to error and impiety (these are called “oppression” now). The liberal “end of history” seems to be evading us, the old battles reoccur with a regularity that hints at an eternal recurrence.  Every few generations the battle with Tiamat must be joined, as monsters issue from the darkness of our cultural Id.

As a descriptive matter it strikes me that some have now denied that words as a tool of discussion, dialogue, and dispute, have utility to discover truth. Those who object with words are engaged in a likely futile exercise, just as pleas for the tolerance of the old religion were futile. A new world was upon them, they simply lacked our hindsight to see the dawning of the age of the One True God. Perhaps in a different universe history took a different course. In those universes I doubt the old gods survived through persuading the believers of the new Lord with words.

The age of words is over. If words become violence, then violence becomes the tool of ultimate persuasion, compulsion. If truth is all about power, then power is all there is. In a Whiggish telling we as a species came out of the blood and darkness, the struggle for power and zero-sum contests for collective domination. But perhaps we are destined to become what we were, creatures forged in blood and power, unable to resist the temptations of coercion and compulsion.

September 28, 2010

Obnoxious speech and trusting the Other

Filed under: Culture,Data Analysis,GSS,Religion,Tolerance,WVS — Razib Khan @ 9:09 am

Update: After watching the videos of what went down at the cultural festival I seem to have unwittingly slandered the Act 17 missionaries. They behaved well and were obviously unjustly arrested. Their YouTube site is testimony to the reality though that they’re pretty shallow and obnoxious in some contexts, but that’s frankly not atypical for this sort of evangelical Christian from where I stand. I apologize for engaging in stereotyping in this case, because my expectations were out of line with what I saw on the tapes (though their attempt at apologia is stereotypically laughable, and the goonish response of some of the Muslim youth to Act 17’s antics unfortunately predictable).

Ed Brayton points to a resolution of a case of aggressive and seemingly obnoxious Christian missionaries being arrested for “public disturbance”. Ed observes:

Those four Christian missionaries I wrote about who were arrested for disorderly conduct and breach of the peace while preaching at the Dearborn International Arab Festival in June were acquitted by a jury on Friday. That’s the right result, but frankly the charges should have been dismissed by the judge in the first place.

Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California and Paul Rezkalla and David Wood, both of New York, were acquitted of breach of peace, 19th District Court officials in Dearborn said after the verdict. Mayel was found guilty of failure to obey a police officer’s order.

[my emphasis - R]

That last result is still a bit disturbing because the order she was given was an unlawful one. The officer had no legitimate reason to give her the order to stop videotaping what was going on and therefore she should not be held liable for violating that order.

Unfortunately, the mayor of the town continues to be confused about the legal realities….

I’ve only followed the case casually. From what I can gather it seems that these preachers were sort you find around college campuses, or sometimes in downtown areas of big cities. Going by stereotypes of how objectionable Middle Eastern Muslims tend to find proselytization by Christians in their own countries I assume that this sort of behavior would result in a public disturbance, because this sort of preaching tends to be “in your face” and confrontational. The politician is behaving in the craven manner politicians are wont to behave. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights. And I say we in particular to the readers of this weblog, we tend to be irreligious and unloved by the public. If for example I simply stood on a street corner in some small American towns and kept shouting “there is no God” in a monotone voice I suspect I’d attract attention, hostility, and perhaps threaten public disturbance. But all I’d be doing was stating my simple belief.

In any case, enough commentary. How about if the shoe was on the other foot? In the last iteration of the GSS, in 2008, they had a question: SPKMSLM: Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not? Here are the results by demographic:

Demographic Ban preaching by Anti-American Muslim in community
Male 51
Female 65
Northeast 57
Midwest 56
South 63
West 56
White 56
Black 70
Hispanic 74
Protestant 62
Catholic 65
Jewish 68
No religion 42
No High School Diploma 82
High School 62
Junior College 57
Bachelor 45
Graduate 30
Dumb (Wordsum 0-4) 75
Average (Wordsum 5-8) 61
Smart (Wordsum 8-10) 34
Atheist and agnostic 30
Know god exists 68
Bible Word of God 76
Bible Inspired Word 55
Bible Book of Fables 38
Liberal 45
Moderate 62
Conservative 61
Democrat 56
Independent 66
Republican 59

Can I get some hallelujahs for the Bill of Rights and elites who will defend them? If you’re curious why “moderates” and “Independents” are as intolerant, or more so, than conservatives and Republicans, I think it’s because they’re generally stupid, and stupid people in particular are suspicious of deviations in speech and thought. Ideologues tend to be brighter. There is more than a dimes worth of difference.

Now that we’ve established that Americans are probably hypocrites, I recall that The Future of Religion reported that excepting Seventh Day Adventists the more fundamentalist a person was the more likely they were to support banning missionaries from non-Christian religions in the USA. In other words, preaching for me but not for thee. How does trust of other religious correlate with religiosity? Let’s look at it internationally. The WVS has a question about how important religion is in your life, very important, rather important, not very important, and not at all important. I constructed an index of religiosity by recoding these responses into numbers and multiplying by weights. So, 50%*3 + 25%*2 + 10%*1 + 15%* 0 = 2.1. 3 would be 100% who say that religion is very important, 0 would 100% not important at all. There is also a question about trusting people of “another religion.” The answers were trust completely, trust a little, not trust very much, and not trust at all. I constructed an index of trust of other religions in the same manner. On the X axis I placed religiosity, and on the Y axis trust of other religions. Here’s the scatterplot with r-squared:


There’s really no relation here. Only 10% of Y can be explained by variation in X. But, rescaling a bit we can generate quadrants of values. I now label the nations as well:


As you can see Muslim nations can be trusting or not trusting of other religions. One of the main issues with international perceptions of Islam is that we take Middle Eastern Islam as the normative Islam, and Middle Eastern Muslims tend to be among the most religiously intolerant people in the world, along with Chinese, and well as assorted group from the Orthodox Christian world. In contrast, as you can see with Mali and Burkina Faso, African Muslims are more tolerant of pluralism. As I have noted before, Senegal is more than 90% Muslim, but the “father of the nation” was a Roman Catholic. In contrast, Boutros (the equivalent of Peter) Boutros-Ghali’s political career always had an implicit glass-ceiling because he was a Coptic Christian, even though Christians are about the same percentage of the population in Egypt. Now, if Egyptian religious liberals would have the same heft and authority when they said “but in Senegal Muslims do….” or “in Indonesia they practice Islam….” as when Pakistani or Indonesian religious conservatives did when they stated “in Arabia….”, we’d be in a better place. But as it is, I do think it is a little misleading to state that “only 20% of the world’s Muslims are Arab.” That 20% “counts” more than the 30% which is South Asian.

Here’s the raw data….

Trust of other religions
Country Trust completely Trust a little Not trust very much Not trust at all Weighted index
Sweden 16.40% 72.40% 8.70% 2.60% 2.03
New Zealand 23.60% 59.90% 10.80% 5.70% 2.01
France 29.00% 48.70% 14.70% 7.60% 1.99
Norway 14.70% 64.80% 16.40% 4.00% 1.90
Great Britain 11.50% 69.40% 13.60% 5.50% 1.87
Mali 23.60% 44.50% 25.20% 6.70% 1.85
Finland 12.20% 64.60% 19.00% 4.20% 1.85
United States 6.10% 73.40% 16.00% 4.50% 1.81
Canada 5.10% 74.70% 14.90% 5.20% 1.80
Australia 6.00% 67.00% 22.20% 4.70% 1.74
Switzerland 5.30% 65.60% 24.60% 4.60% 1.72
Andorra 3.20% 72.80% 15.40% 8.60% 1.71
South Africa 14.80% 48.60% 27.90% 8.70% 1.70
Rwanda 5.30% 61.90% 27.40% 5.40% 1.67
Argentina 11.80% 51.00% 25.40% 11.80% 1.63
Trinidad 6.40% 56.90% 26.80% 9.90% 1.60
Burkina Faso 13.50% 41.90% 30.20% 14.40% 1.55
Uruguay 12.70% 44.60% 24.30% 18.40% 1.52
Ghana 12.20% 40.60% 32.00% 15.20% 1.50
Taiwan 1.80% 44.90% 46.50% 6.80% 1.42
Serbia 4.30% 42.20% 43.30% 10.10% 1.41
Poland 1.70% 47.60% 39.90% 10.90% 1.40
Brazil 5.70% 44.60% 33.60% 16.10% 1.40
Netherlands 2.70% 43.00% 44.20% 10.10% 1.38
Spain 7.50% 39.70% 35.20% 17.60% 1.37
India 12.60% 32.70% 32.80% 22.00% 1.36
Ethiopia 12.00% 27.70% 44.50% 15.90% 1.36
South Korea 3.90% 37.80% 48.10% 10.20% 1.35
Bulgaria 4.50% 40.30% 41.30% 14.00% 1.35
Indonesia 1.60% 38.30% 50.80% 9.20% 1.32
Georgia 3.00% 36.10% 49.60% 11.20% 1.31
Germany 1.50% 41.30% 42.70% 14.50% 1.30
Ukraine 5.70% 33.10% 43.50% 17.70% 1.27
Zambia 8.70% 30.80% 38.30% 22.20% 1.26
Italy 0.70% 40.40% 43.00% 16.00% 1.26
Malaysia 2.20% 33.30% 50.20% 14.20% 1.23
Chile 4.10% 32.90% 43.30% 19.70% 1.21
Egypt 3.50% 35.70% 38.70% 22.10% 1.21
Thailand 5.00% 23.70% 53.40% 17.90% 1.16
Russia 2.30% 33.90% 40.40% 23.40% 1.15
Vietnam 1.00% 26.90% 58.20% 13.90% 1.15
Slovenia 4.60% 23.60% 49.90% 21.90% 1.11
Romania 2.40% 28.20% 46.00% 23.50% 1.10
Jordan 4.90% 27.40% 35.40% 32.30% 1.05
Mexico 4.50% 27.80% 32.50% 35.30% 1.02
Turkey 2.40% 26.00% 42.00% 29.60% 1.01
Cyprus 1.90% 25.80% 42.90% 29.40% 1.00
Moldova 1.20% 25.00% 44.10% 29.60% 0.98
Morocco 1.20% 21.30% 45.00% 32.40% 0.91
Peru 2.30% 23.20% 35.60% 38.90% 0.89
China 1.90% 15.60% 51.90% 30.60% 0.89

Importance of religion in life

Very important Rather important Not very important Not important at all Weighted index
Egypt 95.40% 4.20% 0.20% 0.20% 2.95
Jordan 94.50% 5.20% 0.20% 0.20% 2.94
Indonesia 94.70% 4.10% 0.90% 0.30% 2.93
Morocco 90.60% 7.90% 1.30% 0.30% 2.89
Mali 90.20% 8.60% 0.90% 0.30% 2.89
Ghana 90.40% 7.50% 1.70% 0.40% 2.88
Burkina Faso 84.30% 12.20% 2.70% 0.70% 2.80
Georgia 80.20% 17.00% 1.90% 0.90% 2.77
Malaysia 80.50% 15.50% 3.30% 0.70% 2.76
Ethiopia 81.00% 13.20% 3.80% 2.00% 2.73
Zambia 77.50% 16.70% 4.60% 1.20% 2.71
Trinidad 76.80% 13.00% 7.90% 2.30% 2.64
Turkey 74.70% 16.60% 6.20% 2.50% 2.64
South Africa 70.30% 20.20% 6.50% 3.00% 2.58
Thailand 56.30% 37.90% 5.40% 0.40% 2.50
Romania 58.00% 32.50% 7.20% 2.40% 2.46
Mexico 59.00% 26.10% 11.50% 3.40% 2.41
Brazil 50.60% 40.40% 6.20% 2.70% 2.39
Rwanda 38.90% 56.90% 4.10% 0.10% 2.35
Poland 47.80% 39.00% 10.40% 2.80% 2.32
Cyprus 54.10% 27.20% 12.10% 6.60% 2.29
India 51.40% 29.30% 13.90% 5.50% 2.27
Peru 49.60% 26.70% 18.90% 4.80% 2.21
United States 47.40% 24.20% 19.70% 8.70% 2.10
Chile 39.90% 33.50% 18.40% 8.20% 2.05
Italy 34.40% 41.70% 17.00% 6.80% 2.04
Moldova 31.80% 41.20% 20.40% 6.60% 1.98
Argentina 33.40% 32.00% 24.00% 10.60% 1.88
Serbia 25.70% 40.90% 26.80% 6.60% 1.86
Canada 32.00% 27.10% 25.30% 15.60% 1.76
Ukraine 18.30% 38.80% 27.70% 15.20% 1.60
Bulgaria 18.90% 31.90% 32.20% 17.00% 1.53
Taiwan 12.40% 39.30% 35.80% 12.50% 1.52
South Korea 21.20% 25.80% 34.50% 18.60% 1.50
Finland 17.60% 27.50% 40.60% 14.30% 1.48
Russia 13.70% 35.10% 32.50% 18.70% 1.44
Uruguay 22.80% 23.20% 27.80% 26.20% 1.43
Switzerland 17.20% 28.30% 31.70% 22.80% 1.40
Great Britain 21.00% 19.70% 33.90% 25.40% 1.36
Slovenia 15.30% 27.60% 31.00% 26.10% 1.32
Australia 19.50% 19.70% 31.40% 29.30% 1.29
France 13.00% 27.90% 30.70% 28.40% 1.26
Spain 14.90% 24.20% 31.10% 29.80% 1.24
Vietnam 7.20% 25.60% 47.60% 19.60% 1.20
New Zealand 17.30% 18.50% 30.70% 33.60% 1.20
Norway 10.50% 22.20% 41.30% 26.00% 1.17
Sweden 9.30% 20.10% 40.90% 29.80% 1.09
Germany 11.20% 22.70% 29.00% 37.00% 1.08
Netherlands 12.50% 19.00% 28.40% 40.20% 1.04
Andorra 8.00% 21.20% 31.30% 39.50% 0.98
China 6.70% 15.20% 31.00% 47.10% 0.82

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