Denys Turner: how to be an atheist

Denys Turner, writing from what I think is a somewhat theologically liberal Catholic perspective, challenged atheists to truly ask the bigger questions in his lecture (published as a short book) How to Be an Atheist:

So, “how to be an atheist?” it is not easy; you need to work at it. Be intellectually adult, get an education, get yourself a discipline; resist all temptation to ask such questions as you do not know in principle can be answered, being careful to suppress any which might seem to push thought off civilised limits; be reasonable, lest you find yourself being committed to an excessive rationality; and have the good manners to scratch no itches which occur in intellectually embarrassing places — at least in public. Then I shall argue with you on behalf of the child, not in the name of God but in the name of a question which remains about the world, not yet in the name of theology, but in the name, merely,  of an intellectual possibility that you have excluded, not on account of how the world is, which seems a relatively sensible and obvious state of affairs to me, but out of amazement of intellect, and a sort of primal gratitude of spirit, that there is anything at all, rather than nothing, and that there is anyone at all, rather than no one, for whom it exists. For, of the two possibilities there are, that there is anything at all must be by far the more unlikely outcome. If you want to be an atheist, then, it is necessary only to find that the world is to be a platitudinously dull fact (39).

The state vs. civil society

The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and FreedomThe Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nisbet, writing in 1953, provides a powerful framework for understanding the power of the state and its relation to civil society since the French Revolution: as the state has grown, it has reduced and often tried to replace the smaller, often local associations (churches, local communities, families, etc.). He tells the story well, though his chapter on totalitarianism needed more evidence and explanation.

The ISI edition also has a good introduction by Ross Douthat and the response of three other authors at the end. Two of them, by David Bosworth and Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, point out some important weaknesses as well. Bosworth notes that not enough attention is paid to economic and technological change because of the focus on the role of the state, and Schindler presses for a more solid definition of human beings, marriage, and the church based in Catholic teaching.

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Robert Nisbet’s critique of John Stuart Mill

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet argues that the modern state and modern political and economic thought have consistently assaulted smaller-scale social groups and institutions — the family, religious groups, local communities, labor associations — that can mediate between the state and the individual, often in the name of freeing the individual from the limits imposed by these groups. Yet these assaults have resulted in the increasing power of the modern state, which itself tries to fulfill the sense of belonging that these smaller associations provided.

Nisbet also writes that while modern liberal thought treats individuals as autonomous, modern liberals did not realize that much of what they took for granted about individual motivation and behavior was taught by the groups that people belonged to, rather simply existing in the individual. Here is his commentary on John Stuart Mill:

By almost all of the English liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.

Thus in what is perhaps the noblest of individualistic testaments of freedom in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, there is the clear implication that membership in any kind of association or community represents an unfortunate limitation upon the creative powers of the individual. It is not Mill’s definition of individuality that is at fault. This is matchless. The fault lies rather in his psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.

Mill is generous in his praise of localism, association, and the “smaller patriotisms” when he is discussing administrative problems of centralization. But in matters pertaining to the nature of man and motivations he is too much the child of his father. For him as for the elder Mill, individuality is something derived from innate qualities alone and nourished solely by processes of separation and release. (page 211 in the 2010 ISI edition)

Assyrian Christians and genocide

Philip Jenkins also wrote at Aleteia that the slaughter of Assyrian Christians (I posted about them earlier today here) by Iraqi soldiers and civilian raiders in 1933 (see here and here for more detail) played a secondary role in the thought of Raphael Lemkin about genocide (the Armenian genocide played the primary role). Lemkin invented this word and called for the crime to be punishable by international authorities:

That paradox continued to trouble him until, in 1933, new massacres of Assyrian Christians in Iraq forced him to define his ideas still further. Using the case of the Assyrians, and of the Armenians before them, he argued for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc).” Such crimes, he argued, should be an offense against international law that demanded to be punished by a special court or tribunal.

In 1943, Lemkin coined a new word for this atrocious behavior—namely, “genocide.” For many years, he was the most vigorous and visible campaigner to secure global recognition for the new concept, and finally, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However familiar the notion of genocide might be today, it originated at a specific (and quite recent) historical moment, and was largely formulated by one man, who must be remembered as one of the greatest humanitarian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Assyrian Christians and the Sayfo

Philip Jenkins wrote about the Assyrian Christians recently in The Christian Century:

The Assyrian Chris­tians of northern Iraq are among the people who have been massacred and kidnapped by ISIS militants in recent months. Such accounts are depressingly familiar to anyone who knows the region’s history. In fact, this year marks a grim centennial. Besides be­ing the centennial of the Ar­menian Genocide, it’s the centennial of the year that the Ottoman Turkish regime struck at other Christian minorities whom it suspected of being sympathetic to Russia. The Assyrians call 1915 Sayfo, the Year of the Sword.

Assyrian Christians had very deep roots in the region, and their churches use a Semitic language related to Jesus’ own Aramaic. In late antiquity, believers divided over the Person of Christ. The Monophysite branch evolved to become the modern-day Syrian Orthodox Church. Their Nestorian rivals formed the Church of the East, which remained a flourishing trans­continental institution through the Middle Ages.

See the rest of the article here.

UPDATE (5/26/15): Jenkins also wrote at Aleteia that the slaughter of Assyrian Christians by Iraqi soldiers and civilian raiders in 1933 (see here and here for more detail) played a secondary role in the thought of Raphael Lemkin about genocide (the Armenian genocide played the primary role). Lemkin invented this word and called for the crime to be punishable by international authorities:

That paradox continued to trouble him until, in 1933, new massacres of Assyrian Christians in Iraq forced him to define his ideas still further. Using the case of the Assyrians, and of the Armenians before them, he argued for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc).” Such crimes, he argued, should be an offense against international law that demanded to be punished by a special court or tribunal.

In 1943, Lemkin coined a new word for this atrocious behavior—namely, “genocide.” For many years, he was the most vigorous and visible campaigner to secure global recognition for the new concept, and finally, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However familiar the notion of genocide might be today, it originated at a specific (and quite recent) historical moment, and was largely formulated by one man, who must be remembered as one of the greatest humanitarian thinkers of the twentieth century.

A detailed history of the modern Middle East

A History of the Middle East: Fourth EditionA History of the Middle East: Fourth Edition by Peter Mansfield

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was definitely the most comprehensive survey of modern Middle Eastern history that I have seen, making it a good reference. At the same time, there was so much detail that it made it hard for my students to read and obscured some big-picture themes that are important for understanding the region’s history.

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Compelling but not convincing

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think that Murray is basically right, but the book is more a compelling essay than a convincing diagnosis. The amount of evidence is not enough to support the ambitions of the book. One of the weaknesses is taking 1960 as a starting point, 27 years after the beginning of the New Deal, making it difficult to argue that changes since 1960 have propelled us toward a more European model of society. Mostly ignoring the positive and/or negative effects of the New Deal leaves, in my opinion, a significant hole in his argument.

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