Monday, March 11, 2013

A Hitchens and Harris Worth Keeping

The other day, in the religion dept. computer lab, I had a powerpoint slide open that asked “Is there a Hitchens and a Harris worth keeping?”  (This is a nice rhetorical device used by academics to say “many people believe that this reading is, by and large, full of excrement, but I’m assigning it anyway and here’s why.”)  A colleague looked at my computer screen, shook his head and answered “No.”   This is a response similar to others that I have gotten from other students when I tell them that I have my undergraduates read portions of God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The End of Faith by Sam Harris in the “Religion and Morality” section of religious ethics (alongside John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, among other authors).  There are many folks who believe that the question I posed warrants a no, a pithy dismissal, or simply to be ignored altogether.  I, however, think that – in addition to being accessible, popular, and good conversation starters – these two authors provide some key  points that should be made over and over again in a religious studies classroom (despite some major shortcomings in the works as well).

The section of the course wherein these readings fall is titled “Must one be religious to be moral?” examining the link between religious belief and ethical conduct.  Alongside this question,  I pose several others for the students to be asking as they read the variety of responses: first: What differentiates a “religious ethic” from an “ethic”? (carrying on a conversation from the beginning of the semester regarding what exactly constitutes religion)  Second: “if not ‘religious’, what must one be to be ethical?”  The second question draws the students’ attention to the naturalization of certain modes of ordering the world as prerequisites for establishing an ethical system as well as who is doing the ordering and, possibly, why?  In answering the primary question with an emphatic “No! One must not be religious if one wishes to be ethical,” both Hitchens and Harris helpfully point towards my additional two questions.  Further, their calls to abandon religion can be rephrased as rather poignant critiques (or, at least, point towards helpful areas of inquiry).

For Hitchens, the religious monopoly on explanation has been broken and religious notions are no longer needed to make sense of how the world works.  They should, therefore, fall by the wayside in favor of science and rationality.  Harris, likewise, argues for the triumph of science and rationality but in a different manner – critically engaging peaceful religious folk/what he terms “religious moderates.”  For Harris, those religious folks who are non-violent are simply ignoring part of their texts (he seems to equate religion with scriptural literalism – I tweeted him about this, but he has yet to get back to me).  His point is that the act of privileging a text enables violent appeals to that texts authority: even appeals to the peaceful portions of sacred texts are problematic because parts of them are not so peaceful.  For Harris, non-violent religious people can’t have their cake and eat it too – if the text is deemed “holy” and authoritative, get ready to see some people to use all of it as such.

By saying that one must never be religious to be moral, these two authors appeal to science and rationality, however, their appeals to ground morality in science and/or rationality sound quite similar to the dalai lama’s appeal to common spirituality as the grounding of morality or the pope’s stating that all of humanity asks the same question (“what must I do to inherit human life?”).  Once I draw the rhetorical parallels, between these arguments, I’m able to talk about how in all of them, some contingent mode of thinking is naturalized and modes of ethical conduct are then introduced to those who accept the naturalization.  Herein lies the Hitchens and Harris worth keeping.

Both note that philosophical views, widespread opinions of the day, and one’s upbringing (among many other factors) impact what makes a person label certain behavior as morally good or bad – religion can’t be seen as the sole factor in determining one’s outlook on what constitutes acceptable behavior.  However, if, to borrow Hitchens’ language, religion’s monopoly on explanation has been broken, why should that monopoly be re-applied to science and reason?  Or for that matter politics and economics (topics for the second portion of the course).  By refusing to accept grand, universal narratives – religious or otherwise – one becomes free to ask “who is speaking here?”  “what systems are in place that are allowing them to speak?” “what authority do they have and where does it come from?” Hitchens cautions readers to be wary of monopolies on thought and Harris cautions readers to be careful with and skeptical of modes of thought they take as authoritative.  By drawing attention to the many factors that shape an ethic alongside unwavering skepticism of naturalization, both Hitchens and Harris provide the grounds for a critique of their own work.  They do so, however, in a manner accessible and understandable in the college classroom and provocatively enough to to start discussion – something truly worth keeping, at least on my syllabus.

Thanks for reading

Monday, March 4, 2013

Politics of history: A brief example

While providing background information on the course readings, my students and I ended up getting a tad sidetracked (people getting sidetracked?  in MY classroom?  shenanigans!) with a discussion of the politics of telling history.  We then added history to a list of value-laden areas of inquiry that are often portrayed as neutral or objective (so far we have knowledge, truth, science, and, now, history).  I used these three excerpts re:Tibet/China to illustrate the idea the politics of recording/transmitting historical "fact."

"The global expansion of Tibetan Buddhism that we are witnessing today did not begin in earnestness until 1959. As is by now well known, after a decade of Chinese military expansion into Tibet, Chinese troops had reached Lha sa. In 1959, a Tibetan uprising against the Chinese authorities led to the flight of the Dalai Lama, who, together with approximately 100,000 Tibetans, sought political asylum in India. The Chinese, with their overwhelming military superiority, established control over the entire country in short order, and began to implement a colonialist policy that has had devastating consequences for Tibetan religion and culture in Tibet" 
Oxford Dictionary of Global Religions, “Tibetan Buddhist Society” by Jose Ignacio Cabezon

“At sixteen, I lost my freedom when Tibet was occupied.  At twenty-four, I lost my country itself when I came into exile.  For forty years now I have lived as a refugee in a foreign country, albeit the one that is my spiritual home.  Throughout this time I have been trying to serve my fellow refugees and, to the extent possible, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet.  Meanwhile, our homeland has known immeasurable destruction and suffering…those eighty-thousand Tibetans who, during the months following my escape into exile left Tibet for the sanctuary offered them by the Indian government.  The conditions they faced were hard in the extreme.  There was little food available and even less medicine.  The refugee camps could offer no better accommodation than canvas tents.  Most people had few possessions beyond the clothes they had left home in.  They wore heavy chubas (the traditional Tibetan dress) appropriate to our harsh winters, when what they really needed in India was the lightest cotton.  And there was terrible sickness from diseases unknown in Tibet.”
14th Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium pages 54-55

"The Dalai Lama was the overall leader of the Tibetan serf system in 1959 and, when the Chinese government abolished that system, it marked a tremendous step forward for the cause of human rights," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Sunday.
"In the same way, president Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States."

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 1, 2013

I disagreed with Stephen A. Smith today.

Last night UVA beat Duke.  Wahoo fans then stormed the court waving their ascots and bowties in the air in a scene straight out of a Land’s End catalogue.  Apparently someone said something mean to Mike Krzrzrrzskie (though it was likely something so classy that Jefferson himself would be proud) and the weasel-faced coaching guru used his postgame interview to lament the danger facing the away team when the home fans rush onto the court after a game, all hopped up on mountain dew, to celebrate their team’s win.   He demanded that the unpaid breadwinners of his university’s athletic program…I mean the Duke student-athletes…should have been protected and escorted off of the court before the unruly Wahoos thrust their pointer fingers in the air to let the world/cameras know that on this night, this team was number one...out of two.

This story was picked up on ESPN’s “First Take” this morning (the show that made famous the phrase “cornball brother” or “faux-frere” as it was translated in French media).  Host Skip Bayless suggested that the tradition of storming the court should be banned.  Host Stephen A. Smith took exception to this suggestion.  He stated “this is what makes it [college basketball] special.  leave it alone.”  He then went on to discuss this phenomenon as an overflow from the purity of the sport – stating that this was sports “at its purest” since these athletes aren’t “professionals making exorbitant amounts of money,” but are rather college kids playing for love of the game.  What is needed, on Stephen A. Smith’s account, is more security or, perhaps, better armed guards.

Damn it, Stephen.

Those who read this blog during the NBA Finals last year know that I thoroughly enjoy sports but, from time to time, sort of hate myself for it.  That’s because I want to throw a puppy every time someone mentions the purity of the game, the fact that it’s special, or the fact that its rituals and customs should be not only “left alone” but enforced AND that this enforcing should just be seen as part of the maintenance of a pure, pristine, dare I say holy competition. 

Damn it, Stephen.

This type of naturalization – of declaring something SO pure that it should just be left alone – is, in my humblest opinion, a load of crap.  This purity/sanctity of the sport and its watching is something produced and maintained by people with interests and is produced AS pure in order to secure and maintain those interests.  Don’t feel bad about the exploitative practices of the NCAA, don’t worry about the safety of players and fans (when more security personnel can take care of that!), and don’t worry about the hierarchies being built and reinforced on campus (along with all the benefits that come along with being at the top of the totem pole!).  Why bother even noticing your complicity in such systems when you can sit back and enjoy the purity of sport?!

Thanks for reading.